Street Art, Hackney

Thursday 25 June 2009

Bird And Person Dyning

Wednesday 24 June 2009

An old man is walking slowly through the room. At one end of the room a bird is twittering. Not a real bird; it’s an electronic bird call. The man walks slowly towards where the sound seems to be coming from. We can hear the bird, but we can also hear what the man hears: he’s wearing microphones over his ears. The sounds he can hear are played through loudspeakers in the room, so that we can hear the bird from our position, and the bird from his position, as projected from a third position. You realise that everybody in the room is hearing something different, depending on their position. The man can also hear what he hears relayed from those loudspeakers. Inevitably, feedback occurs.

The feedback produced is a high, whistling sound which complements the bird nicely. The man tilts his head a little to one side, or hunches down a fraction. The feedback shifts to a new note, the tone becomes reedier. The slightest adjustment to how the man listens can completely change the sound we hear. With each step, the feedback hum swells or fades, depending on how close he is to a node or antinode in the resonant frequency created by the room’s shape and size. Even the bird’s repeated call changes: its chirping amongst the feedback causes heterodyning, creating the illusion of other, differently voiced birds chirping in chorus.

On the weekend I got to see and hear Alvin Lucier perform his 1975 piece Bird and Person Dyning, as part of the Cut and Splice festival at Wilton’s Hall. The above description gives some idea of how a simple setup can create a complex sonic environment. In a single, unified action it reveals how the subtleties of sound depend on how we listen, our position in space, the size and shape of the room. There were some good pieces on the weekend, and more poor pieces, but Lucier’s music still stood out for having both a depth and a transparency that the others lacked.

(Video and audio of Bird and Person Dyning is on UbuWeb.)

The traditional summer solstice ritual of hiding in my bedroom all day with the curtains drawn

Saturday 20 June 2009

This blog doesn’t get much mail, except for some crazy oboe-playing guy who writes in every six months or so to complain about a passing comment I made about a music critic several years ago. So I was quietly excited to discover that a lonely missive had dropped into my inbox today.

That thrill turned to disappointment when it turned out to be be from Web Sheriff, an apparently legitimate company that perversely tries to make their emails look like spam by putting “EXTREMELY URGENT” in the subject line and using an embarrassing, fakey old-west style sheriff’s badge as their logo. Best of all, despite the company name and logo, they’re British; and there’s nothing funnier than the British pretending to be cowboys (except for Germans pretending to be American Indians.) I guess the old company logo of Robin Hood being persecuted by Lily Allen’s dad didn’t inspire as much confidence.

Anyway, this EXTREMELY URGENT email from Deborah Sykes was a “DMCA REQUEST” to “remove Infringed Title(s) from Infringing File Location(s)” I thought the DMCA was an American law, so I’m not sure why a British company is so keen on enforcing it. I haven’t bothered to look this up because the file in question had already been taken down, so I guess their urgency wasn’t extreme enough.

You’re probably wondering what file on my website the sheriff (head office in Wiltshire, not Nottingham) was so exercised about. It was because I had briefly included a copy of that massive Van Morrison hit, “Thirty Two” – all sixty-one seconds of it – in Please Mister Please. Van’s time here has come and gone, but you can recreate the magic of the song in your own homes by strumming any old chord on an acoustic guitar and reciting over the top these deathless lyrics:

I see, you see, we’ll get a guitar,
yeah, we’ll get a guitar
and, oh, we’ll get, we’ll get three guitars,
No!, No!!, we’ll get four guitars
and we’ll get Herbie Lovelle to play drums,
and we’ll do, the
“Sha-la”, sha…
We’ll do the sha-, sha-la bit.
“Sha-la, sha-, sha-la, sha-la”, we’ll do it,
we’ll get together, uunghh, we’ll get
uunghh, ttcchh, uugnhh-uunghh-uunghh, like that,
and we’ll do the sha-la bit and then,
then, then, and we’ll get, we’ll get sixteen guitars,
and then, then we’ll play it,
and then we’ll do that one, yeah.
Let me hear ya’ do that again.
Over and over, Bert Berns song, over…
[clack, clack-clack, clack]

Update In C

Thursday 18 June 2009

As promised, video of the busked performance of Terry Riley’s In C on the weekend.

Please Mister Please

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Edgar Varèse, “Hyperprism” (1923). Ensemble Intercontemporain /Pierre Boulez.
(4’15”, 3.52 MB, mp3)

Better Than Joshua Bell

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Sorry for the last few days’ silence. I spent a long weeked catching up on some drinking with an old friend who was in town. This means I missed the chance to see some quality busking on Southbank, where The Ramshackle Orchestra for Musequality gave a kerbside performance of Terry Riley’s In C. To quote Petemaskreplica:

It’s immensely satisfying to play. It’s something to do with the autonomy. What you play, and how, and when, is up to you, and it’s thrilling to find all sorts of unexpected combinations emerging as a result of your decisions. You get into the groove, and play around, reacting to what the other musicians are doing, they reacting to you in turn…. The whole 45 minutes or so was filmed, so I hope to add YouTube links soon!

Other Minds has the complete score of In C available online, in PDF format.

Why I’m glad I don’t play piano

Friday 12 June 2009

I was warned before moving into my new house that I would be sharing my room; and so I am:

It’s a Kemble spinet piano: a compact piano design developed during the Great Depression, and which pretty much died out by the end of last century as digital pianos became omnipresent. The landlady warned me that it’s never been tuned, as if you couldn’t tell from striking a few keys at random. I doubt that having one end up against the radiator (see left) has been helping it.

It’s times like this I’m glad I don’t play the piano. Never mind how out of tune it is; if I were any good at the piano this thing would also frustrate me with its short, clunky hammer action and other foibles peculiar to this design. They’re also supposed to be real buggers to maintain and repair, because of the cramped and convoluted hammer mechanism packed inside. I’d resent it for taking up valuable space which could be used by a better piano.

Instead, I’m just happy to have a an acoustic instrument to mess around with. I’ve wedged down the damper pedal and am trying it out as a resonant sound chamber (note microphone lead). I’ll have to have another dig around inside to find the serial number and see how old this thing is.

Incidentally, Kemble is the last piano manufacturer remaining in Britain, but not for much longer. They’ve just announced that their factory will close in October.

Joan La Barbara (In the Presence of Greatness? part 4)

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Like most things in life, it seems, I first came across Joan La Barbara‘s music unwittingly when watching Sesame Street as a kid. Apart from that, although I knew she was a composer I’d never (consciously) heard any of her own music. I suspect I wasn’t the only one in that situation who went to hear her free recital at the ICA the other weekend.

In the introduction to one of her pieces, La Barbara herself made a passing reference to her fame lying elsewhere, as a singer and interpreter of other people’s music (cue the rollcall: John Cage Morton Feldman Morton Subotnick Philip Glass…). Presumably it was a mixture of admiration for her vocal talent and curiosity about her compositional talent that resulted in the little room being filled to capacity on a rare sunny Sunday afternoon, with a bunch of us having to stand. (Including myself: the last available seat was nabbed by my ex-girlfriend.)

Afterwards, I asked the ex what she thought of her comfy concert experience. At first she said it was “a bit hippyish” but then revised her opinion: it’s not La Barbara’s fault that her pioneering work in experimental vocal music has helped spawn a couple of generations of inferior imitators.

There’s also the methodical approach to much of La Barbara’s music that saves it from self-indulgence. She performed two of her earliest works, from the early 1970s, beginning with Circular Song. This piece requires her to sing sliding scales using circular breathing – a technique never really intended for singing – embodies two distinct approaches in her music, exploring new techniques while following a clearly defined process.

Performance Piece played most dramatically with these two tendencies. Essentially it’s a improvisation, with one caveat: whenever La Barbara realised she was thinking consciously of the sounds she was making, she had to verbalise those thoughts. The performance then became a balancing act between sound and speech, one half of the brain holding the other at bay.

Only one piece required anything more than La Barbara’s voice and a microphone. The more recent 73 Poems was a multitracked vocalisation of Kenneth Goldsmith’s poetry, mimicking the overlaying of Goldsmith’s texts. You can see and supposedly hear the collaboration here, but the sound doesn’t seem to be working. Some functional sound examples are here.

Please Mister Please

Tuesday 9 June 2009

The Al Wood Orchestra, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” (1979?).
(3’56”, 3.60 MB, mp3)

Filler By Proxy LXX: Apology Accepted

Sunday 7 June 2009

Kyle Gann has been reading the latest collection of Morton Feldman interviews, and discovers that Feldman is a gift to the musical world that keeps on giving. Now, I can listen to Feldman’s music and opinions for hours on end (in the case of the music, it’s kind of mandatory), but then Gann quotes the following passage where Feldman compares the composers Stefan Wolpe and Ernst Krenek:

Wolpe was in the midst of a musical revolution in New York. He was in the midst of the rising young, fabulously talented people coming up in Europe, and he knew it. Krenek never knew it. There’s not an ounce in Krenek’s music, in things that I’ve heard of his late style… But nothing existed, nothing happened. It’s music where nothing happened. It’s the kind of music somebody might write some place in Adelaide, Australia.

Speaking as a native I’d object to that comparison, except I left Adelaide many years ago and so my criticism might look a teensy bit hollow. I wonder why Feldman’s mind alighted on my home town in particular?

Gann comments, “Fascinating and endearing stuff (apologies, though, to any composers in Adelaide).” Mr Gann, you have nothing to apologise for. Mr Feldman, on the other hand…

Filler By Proxy LXIX: This post has made me hungry

Saturday 6 June 2009

It’s been a bastard of a week, so no time for lovefun online. I’m firmly relocated back in East London, the world capital for dodgy chicken shops. It’s good to see I’m not the only one with a fascination for these establishments. Now here’s a musical tribute we can all sing along with! (Found via Floccinaucinihilipilification.)

The Labour Party vs the BFG9000

Tuesday 2 June 2009

The election for members of the European parliament is on this weekend, so I’ve been getting a motley assortment of pamphlets shoved into my letterbox. I’ve had one from the racist loonies in the BNP, the not-so-racist-but-still-pretty-loony Ukip (apparently that’s how you spell their name), Christian loonies, and the authoritarian control-freak loonies in the Labour Party, who tried to disguise their pamphlet as a community newsletter.

Headlined “Action on Crime”, the blurb boasts about Labour MEPs voting to “ban the import of replica weapons which can all too easily be converted into working firearms”. The accompanying photo shows police posed next to one of the frighteningly realistic weapons which hoodlums have been concealing on their persons while terrorising London’s streets.

Phill Niblock again (In the Presence of Greatness? part 3)

Monday 1 June 2009

Last weekend I went for the second time to see a Phill Niblock performance. The main reason this time was to have a clear hearing of his work performed live, without the chattering of the punters.

People who know anything about Niblock know that he does two things. First, he writes music which requires a solo musician to hold one note for as long as possible, over and over again, and then overdub that with more of the same, over and over again. A loud, dense drone, rich with shifting overtones, is produced.

Secondly, and this comes as a surprise to some more musically-oriented people when going to see a performance, he makes films of people around the world doing rigorous manual labour, and these are typically screened during his musical performances. A large projection screen was centre stage at Cafe Oto for the launch of Niblock’s new CD, Touch Strings, showing work in East Asia related to the fishing industry, before switching to agricultural and building labour.

The films are open to political, social and economic interpretations, but these considerations are subsumed within the prosaic documentation of people performing practiced, necessary actions, devoid of aesthetic artifice. If the juxtaposition of sound and image comment on each other, it is through the musician’s playing, stripped of expressive subjectivity, performing a disciplined series of tasks. The necessity of the work shown on film, however, is missing from the music. Largely, it appears that both appear together because they’re the two things Niblock does. The incompatibly impersonal approaches to the two media make film and music oddly neutral accompaniments to each other.

The musicians sat to one side, in semi-darkness: Susan Stenger and Guy De Bievre on electric guitars for the first piece, Stosspeng, and Arne Deforce on cello for Poure. The final piece, One Large Rose, was for multitracked string ensemble and performed without live musicians. Stosspeng was an hour long and a bit different to other Niblock pieces I’ve heard. The two live guitars seemed to float above a mass of lower-piched drones, and showed a greater variety of timbres and textures instead of receding into the background. The scale of the piece allowed the audience’s attention to drift from the video to the music and back again, and although it’s a common experience to lose the sense of time in this type of music and just become caught in the moment, I found myself losing focus on the video as well, even though there was nothing abstract about it. In the latter half of the piece I realised I’d been watching the screen but couldn’t remember what I had just seen.

Please Mister Please

Thursday 28 May 2009

Charles Dodge, “He Destroyed Her Image” (1973).
(1’57”, 4.47 MB, mp3)

In the Presence of Greatness? (Part 2 – Robert Ashley)

Thursday 28 May 2009

I found out at the last minute that Robert Ashley was appearing at the ICA (a friend saw an article about him in the trashy free newspaper they hand out at train stations) and so I rushed out to see for myself a live performance of one of his operas. This time, my reason for going was clear to me: I needed to understand.

For years I’d been interested in Robert Ashley’s work, heard recordings of some of his operas, and generally tried to avoid listening to his music until I had the ideal conditions for doing so, because I always felt that it was beyond me. What I’d heard was an unremitting treadmill of ideas – musical, linguistic, philosophical – presented in such an undifferentiated fashion that there was no way for the mind to latch on to any particular reference point to gain an overall perspective. It was an immersive experience, but in a way that made me feel like I didn’t pay enough attention.

So a live performance of his 1994 opera Foreign Experiences (part of a tetralogy called Now Eleanor’s Idea, itself part of a larger trilogy) seemed a perfect opportunity. This was a “chamber” adaptation, for two voices instead of seven against a backdrop of electronics, staging non-existent instead of minimal. Sam Ashley and Jacqueline Humbert performed outstandingly, creating a seamless patter of speak-singing, virtuosically incanting their texts in lock-step unison or call-and-response, casually slipping from one accent or speech pattern to another as they shifted between characters.

The texts of Ashely’s operas have always felt like novels. In this case, the setting is a modern American suburbia like that of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, or more particularly the Vineland of Thomas Pynchon’s southern California. The opera’s story revolves around similar themes of rootlessness, ignorance, paranoia, remoteness, mediated experiences, thwarted radicalism and spiritual quests – all trapped in the paradox of living a life of modern materialism within a legacy of religious fervour. The narrative approach often feels similar as well, switching from closely reasoned metaphysical arguments to the banal and the vulgar, revelling in the lucid inarticulateness of American vernacular (“Naw shit no.”)

Why present all this as opera? There’s the music, the voices, the thrill of the performances, of course; but so many details fly past without allowing the mind to linger over their portent. (Earlier pieces like 1968’s Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon forced listeners to dwell upon the disturbing implications of what they were hearing – that same piece gets a fast-forward reprise in the middle of Foreign Experiences.) Then I remembered Perfect Lives, the instigating work in this opera cycle: it was conceived as an opera for television. This must not be confused with televised opera.

It seems that all of Ashley’s operas are best approached as television: a constant barrage of information, presented indiscriminately and dispassionately. There are people, voices, background music, all telling different stories and exposing different anxieties to which one may tune in or tune out, but can never fully grasp. Not in one sitting, anyway.