A brief history of time

Saturday 9 September 2006

As alluded to previously, I went to see one of Keiji Haino’s gigs this week. I don’t mind a bit of Japanese noise from time to time: besides the visceral fun of the extremes of pitch and loudness it possesses a keen awareness of the subtle intricacies of sound and its effects on the listener. But this performance ended up being extremely tiresome, although not because of the monotony of the sound. The gig began with Haino duetting on drums with Chris Corsano, who kept up his frenetic drumming all through the set while Haino switched to electronic noisemakers, then to electric guitar, then voice, then back to those electronics, then guitar again…
At one point he turned his back to audience and checked his watch, like Micky Dolenz on stage at a shopping mall. He wanted to fill up to the maximum the amount of time he was allotted. The extended guitar and drums duo sputtered through three or four false endings, any of which would have been a perfect conclusion – the shattering climax, the relfective coda – but there was always just one more thing that Haino wanted to add. Twenty more minutes and he was like a teenage boy alone in his garage imagining he’s a guitar hero. It was too much of a… thing.
A friend of mine went to a free improv night a few weeks ago and saw a saxophone guy play a great solo, which went for about fifteen minutes. When he’d finished, the bloke organising the night told him to keep playing, because he had another ten minutes or so in his set. Sax guy relented and played a second solo, which was weaker and anticlimactic. If money was at stake, it would have been an amount too trivial to worry about.
It’s amazing how many musicians have no sense of time, who can make great sounds, put them together beautifully, but have no idea how to construct a framework in which those sounds can best be heard. It’s easy to get lost in the moment while performing, either caught up in the uncanny beauty of your own sounds, or just concentrating on keeping things together from one minute to the next. A lot of people, given an amount of time to play, obsessively fill up every available second.
This is not to say that most musicians play for too long, although this is usually the case. It is to say that not enough musicians question the timeframe in which they play, and demand of themselves or others to play in an appropriate duration outside the expected commercial quantity.
My favourite noise gig was hearing Masonna play, about ten years ago. It was intense, brutal, anarchic and yet completely focussed, and totally disorientating. I knew it was short, but the immersion in sound (John Cage would call it the “now-moment”) was sufficient for me not to know if it was 30 minutes or 30 seconds. Someone told me later he played for eight minutes, I think, which seemed substantial given his material, and that if he played much longer someone would likely get hurt.