The Mystery of Steve Reich

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Why can’t I get excited about tomorrow’s Steve Reich Prom? It’s not his Boring New Stuff, it’s his Cool Old Stuff, and yet I’m not excited. The Man Himself will be there, playing, and yet I’m not excited. I’ve never heard this stuff played live before, and yet I’m not excited. I enjoy listening to his records, and yet I’m not excited. I’ve missed earlier opportunities to hear him live, and yet…

It’s not that I’ve become jaded with his Cool Old Stuff. Over 20 years I’ve had chances to hear his early masterpieces live, and every time I’ve decided not to bother. I’ll jump at the chance to hear – oh, random example – Philip Glass’ old stuff in concert, but for some reason Steve Reich’s music seems to me perfectly adequate as a recording, with nothing additional to be gained from hearing it played live. I have heard live performances of his music, ranging from ordinary to thrilling, yet none of these experiences have changed my opinion in all this time. Why is this?

This is the New Music: Mock Tudor III (for real)

Thursday 4 August 2011

Mock Tudor III (variant)

I’ve taken down the old test recording of Mock Tudor III (variant) and replaced it with a much better recording. This gives you a pretty good idea of what my gig in July at ABJECT BLOC sounded like. Everything you hear is live sound from the output of feedback loops, created by connecting signal processors and mixers into circuits, and which can in turn be fed into each other. There are no edits or overdubs, and the only post-production is a bit of crude mastering.

Because my YouTube account was getting lonely, I even made a video of the performance. Rejoice in the sedentary stage life of the electronic composer!

Not Wanting To Say Anything About John Cage

Monday 1 August 2011

The Collected Collaborations show opens this Thursday, featuring artist books by OSW (Open Spatial Workshop) and the Redrawing Collective. The latter is the group I’ve been involved with since the first Redrawing show back in 2008.

For this new show, I was asked to contribute something related to that first show in the form of a book, emphasising the form over the work over its content. After a little thought I found a good way to represent one significant aspect of my piece, String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta) in visual form, and in a way that recaptured the original impetus of Redrawing.

This latest iteration of String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta), rendered as a 10-minute spectrogram, is being published in a way which simultaneously refers to several aspects of graphic art made by John Cage, another composer who was repeatedly enticed into the visual realm of art. One of these aspects is shown above.

The Redrawing Collective book is being published in a very small edition. In fact, I’m not exactly sure how many are getting printed now.

Are analogue electronics really a Good Thing for music?

Thursday 28 July 2011

So, the Mock Tudor gig at Limehouse Town Hall went pretty well. I’d been practicing and tweaking the setup every day right up to the morning of the gig, trying to clear up some of the more obvious deficiencies in the system. Right in the middle of my piece I realised something horrible: I was noodling. I don’t remember ever making that particular mistake before. Luckily, things picked up again pretty quickly and I was able to end the piece well, which is probably the most important thing when entertaining a room full of punters tooled up with smokes and tinnies.

This was the first time in years I’d played with analogue electronic feedback, and my reacquaintance with the technique produced some surprises. When I started making feedback circuits I’d been preoccupied with just getting the thing to work, to produce variable, unstable patterns that would display a life of their own over time. In short, I wanted my setup to “do stuff”. Later I worked toward producing interactive feedback paths that would create changes in timbre, either subtle or not so subtle. In short, to “make new sounds”.

Having more recently used this approach to music making only in the virtual realm (constructing feedback loops in digital audio processing software on my laptop) I’d become aware of the potential and the limitations to using computers in this way. When performing with the computer I’m conscious of the lack of spontaneity and changeability in the pieces I’ve created. However, when I returned to the table of analogue gear I was struck by how difficult it was to push it beyond a limited range of sounds. I had less equipment to work with than on previous occasions, but this reinforced my belief of the computer’s potential to produce timbres of a great variety and complexity, without being attached to lugging around several cases of analogue equipment. There is also the appeal of showing that the music’s quality is not dependent on owning one particular piece of unique or esoteric “gear” unobtainable by others.

Having said all that, analogue performance is a lot more fun and in the right circumstances is probably always worth the trouble of doing it. The adjustments in to moving back to an older mindset and a reduced amount of gear are probably what caused that moment of noodling, caught between the complulsions to “do stuff” and to “make new sounds”. The piece recovered when I regressed to the old way of thinking. Philosophically it was a cheap move, but it sounded good and we can’t all be David Tudor.

My next problem is how to record this music. The life of this music is in the speakers that produce (not reproduce) the sound, and the resonant space it occupies. This is another aspect which could be faked digitally, as opposed to be completely absent in a line-out recording, but it would never sound as good as the excellent PA in that cavernous hall in Limehouse.

The return of Mock Tudor

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Mock Tudor III (variant) test

Preparations for this Saturday’s gig are going well. The above sound clip is pretty rough but (a) I just recorded it now to test the equipment and feedback system, (b) at least it’s making sounds and (c) it’s more or less behaving itself after sounding about as together as it looks (see below).

Yes, this will be the first live performance I’ve done with analogue feedback oscillators in, oh, six years?

I have problems with drones (part 2)

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Early on, I was suspicious of drones in general: it seemed to easy. That probably wasn’t helped by hearing a lot of inferior drone pieces. If you had a couple of sounds you thought were kind of interesting but didn’t know what to do with them, make a drone.

The first drone pieces I made were sort of an aesthetic exercise. I didn’t expect I’d end up making a number of pieces, each for a different reason, which were in fact heavily reliant upon the drone. I knew that minimalism had become a pervasive influence (you don’t need to do much with whatever material you have) but it seems that the drone – non-timeline music, as Robert Ashley defines it – is equally important.

There’s another thing I disagree with about Ashley’s categorisation of composers who are and are not beholden to the timeline. He says that John Cage and Morton Feldman were “trapped in the timeline way of thinking”; I’m not so sure about that. I think that both of them embraced the timeline in the way they embraced harmony, doing so in a way that neutralised its functional purpose.

Feldman’s late music is the obvious example here – its vast scale rendering any form or structure imperceptible (and on the micro level, the complex manipulations of metre, which again the listener cannot hear). Cage’s music-making in the 1960s actually does seem to largely outside the timeline, but repeatedly throughout his career from his first percussion pieces to the final ‘number pieces’ his compositions were built within a defined time structure. He quickly found that defining the temporal construction – beginning, middle and end – before a note was written made any question of teleology or continuity a moot point.

I’m looking back over my “drone” and “non-drone” pieces to find out what similarities or differences they may have beneath the surface. It appears that the non-drone pieces involve a process or set of processes working themselves out, producing musical events independently of the timeline in which they occur. This would explain a good part of the anxiety I felt when composing for the Music For The Bionic Ear project. That piece was required, for the sake of clarity, to have a linear time structure and a maximum duration. I did feel a bit lost trying to use this as an organising principle.

I have problems with drones (part 1)

Monday 18 July 2011

As an aside, I mentioned before that I have problems with drones. One thing that nagged at me during the Eliane Radigue gigs was the sense of time: this came back to me when I re-read Robert Ashley’s understanding of what a ‘drone’ might be.

It’s true, of course, that “time” passes while music is being played and while it is being listened to. But in non-timeline music (the drone) the time passing is not “attached to” the playing or the hearing. Time passes in the consciousness of the listener according to internal or external markers.

I have called this new idea the “drone,” because there is no better term that is not a neologism – like non-timeline music. I have said that I use the term “drone” to mean any music that seems not to change over time.

Listening to Radigue’s Jetsun Mila at St Stephen Wallbrook, and especially to the acoustic pieces like Occam I and Naldjorlak, I did not have this feeling of timelessness. As a new sound entered, or a persisting one changed, I wondered: why that sound now? Why was that last sound held so long? If the music is timeless, why did this sound have to give way to another? If it is not timeless, why was the sound held for that particular duration? Each change felt like a tiny admission of defeat, a futile attempt to delay the inevitable end. I suspect Radigue’s music, or at least a significant amount of it, doesn’t really fit Ashley’s definition of the drone, despite his inclusion of her in his brief list of drone composers.

Two New Shows Coming Up

Thursday 14 July 2011

Not much blogging lately, because I’ve been preparing for two shows coming up in the next few weeks: a live music gig and an art exhibition.

Live gig! ABJECT BLOC. My first analogue electronic gig in… six years? With John Wall, ”              “[sic]™, Anthony Iles, Allon, Lee Gamble (DJs).
Saturday 23 July 2011. 8pm start. £5 donation. Limehouse Town Hall, 646 Commercial Road, London E14 7HA.

Sorry about the short notice but the date had to be juggled a bit. I’m dusting off the old analogue gear to get some live feedback oscillation happening again, with sets from the very fine John Wall, ”              “[sic]™, Lee Gamble and others.

 

Art show! Collected Collaborations. An exhibition initiated by the Artists’ Book Research Group, featuring propositional projects from the Redrawing Collective (Ben Harper, Fiona Macdonald, Alex Martinis Roe, Thérèse Mastroiacovo and Spiros Panigirakis) and OSW (Terri Bird, Bianca Hester and Scott Mitchell). Guest Curator: Brad Haylock.
Monash University Museum of Art, Caulfield Campus, Melbourne. 4 August – 1 October 2011.

This is the exhibition of art books, including brand new contributions the Redrawing Collective. This project is a further extension of the project that included my sound installation Redrawing: String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta). We have created a two-part book that is both a performative object and a platform for critical engagement.

It Is Two Weeks Since I Saw Eliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak Trilogy

Thursday 7 July 2011

Still thinking about it.

I’m pretty sure that everyone who’s familiar with Eliane Radigue and heard her recent music has remarked on the surprising change so late in her career. Unlike most late career changes, Radigue’s isn’t marked by a radically different sound. Her method of making music has undergone a radical transformation, abandoning her ARP 2500 synthesiser to write music for live performers on acoustic instruments. Incredibly, the sound-world of these new works is all of a piece with her earlier, purely electronic drones.

When I heard the premiere of Occam I a week earlier, I hoped I wouldn’t relegate it in my mind as warm-up for Naldjorlak. No such luck. The trilogy is going to remain one of the highlights of my year. This time, I was careful to sit in closer, the better to focus both on the performer(s) and the music they made. The intense, sustained quality of the music and the performance helped to shut out Spitalfields.

How much of this 3-hour trilogy is spectacle? The performance is so fraught, with its long, steady drones, that the slightest faltering by the musicians would mar the music’s immaculate surface. As far as I can remember, Charles Curtis on cello, then Carol Robinson and Bruno Martinez on basset horns, finally all three in the third, were flawless. There is also the audacity of the piece’s conception, particularly in the cello part, which ends with Curtis progressively bowing the instrument’s tailpiece, then its endpin, and finally the tailcord. The idea seems like an obvious gimmick from the grab-bag of “extended techniques” and free improvisation, and yet it all sounds perfectly consistent with the remainder of the piece.

The second part, with just two woodwinds, creates subtle but striking aural illusions. Are the two players needed simply to provide an hour’s worth of breath between them, in one unbroken tone? At first the natural overtones of the basset horns provide a direct harmonic contrast with those of the cello, but then things get more complex. New pitches slip into the sound as each player overlaps, either directly or through overtones – or perhaps because the listener’s mind is playing tricks.

At interval, I was a little concerned that the final part would be a let-down, by simply conflating the previous two. I was quickly relieved to find that, instead of being an indulgent melange of all that had gone before, Radigue alternated, combined and contrasted the tones produced by the three instruments. If you have any doubts about drones (I do) then Naldjorlak III is Radigue’s comprehensive refutation, displaying her skill not just in finding sounds, but in combining and sequencing them. This is real composition, to use Morton Feldman’s distinction, not just wallowing in timbre.

Also, it was good to hear basset horns play something besides Stockhausen for once.

Two kinds of craft: Max Eastley v Eliane Radigue

Wednesday 15 June 2011

I’m getting fed up with this persistent fad of holding concerts in churches. Even when the acoustics don’t suck, there’s zilch soundproofing between the “hall” and the outside world. In the first in a series of concerts dedicated to Eliane Radigue at Christ Church Spitalfields last night, any pretentions to the sacred nature of the music were punctured each time a police car went up Commercial Street, and the end of Elemental II was accompanied by a car alarm in the side street.

Before attending church I was at Raven Row, a couple of blocks away, to see Max Eastley perform. It was pretty much what I expected: a new music veteran playing with his amplified monochord and a semi-autonomous sound sculpture. A casual observer would call it ‘tinkering’: small adjustments to the sculpture, waiting to hear the effect, another small adjustment. Similarly with the monochord, small gestures, slightly varied. It’s intriguing to watch the type of craft that goes into making this music, its contemplative and reflective nature. It shows a deep understanding of the instrument and its sound, of the rich variety of sound that the slightest change in gesture can produce.

On the other hand, I worry about the self-conscious quality of this type of music-making. Surely there are improvisers all over the world, in every culture, who feel and know the capabilities of their instrument without the need to pause and consider every twist and turn their music takes.

Later that evening I watched Kasper T. Toeplitz perform Radigue’s Elemental II and saw a similarly careful approach to making music. Rhodri Davies had just premiered Occam I, slowly bowing overtones on his harp, a study in stasis and concentration. The focus on a single string of a harp hinted at the sort of problem both Eastley and Radigue share in harnessing the potential of a new, relatively untested medium. Radigue’s earlier career in electronic music was devoted to the capturing of delicate feedback effects, an activity fraught with the risk of being plunged suddenly into undifferentiated noise. Radigue herself described her work with analog synthesisers as “caressing the potentiometers”. In such static music, a tiny mis-step can destroy the work.

Thus Toeplitz spent the best part of an hour making the smallest gestures possible on his fearsome-looking double-necked electric bass: gently tapping the back of the neck, pressing his finger to the head stock, trembling a metal bar against the strings. His laptop processed the guitar into an unbroken wash of sound that slowly evolved as each new guitar gesture crept into its software. Was the guitar necessary at all? Yes. The same piece had been performed at the start of the concert by a laptop trio, less successfully. It wasn’t just the visual or conceptual experience of watching a musician ‘work’, it was the lack of ease in gliding from one sound to the next. The guitarist may be just a little too loud, a little too soft, a little too rushed, a little too hesitant in introducing each new sound, and so each sound takes on a new life of its own, subject to a host of infinitessimal adjustments. The difference may be barely perceptible, but these are the slight differences on which music, like all art, depends.

The Horror of Irrelevant Music

Friday 3 June 2011

This morning I procrastinated by downloading the Berkshire Record Outlet catalogue in search of cheap CDs I might have wanted to buy if I had any money. After winnowing the list of 18,000 items down to just 20th century composers, I had a T.S.-Eliot-on-London-Bridge moment of revelation. It hit home just how many goddamn composers in the last hundred years I have never heard of, never will hear of, never want to hear of, and wished I’d never heard of.

I’m ashamed of how readily I’ll dismiss so much music out of hand without knowing anything about it or the people who composed it, but just scanning some of the names and titles makes me reflexively recoil. When you realise that there were composers who could still unironically title a piece “Capriccio” after 1945, suddenly the young Pierre Boulez’s posing seems less ridiculous.

The plurality of it seemed to be Christian religious music, conjuring up memories of the 20th-century abominations that lurk in the shadows of the roped-off corridors in the Vatican Museum. Not coincidentally, there’s also a lot of theatrical pieces aimed at children – a similarly captive audience presumed indifferent to quality control. Then there are the memorials: so many tributes, already forgotten, to the Holocaust, 9/11, Bosnia, MLK, JFK, the Pakistan earthquake, that stack up until one cynically assumes a horde of musical McGonagalls latching on to any chance to repeat the triumph of Penderecki’s 8’37”.

And the puns; oh god, the puns. No-one except Milton Babbitt could get away with such dreadful titles. The hatefully naff pun has friends on both sides of the Atlantic: the American professors on one, and on the other the legions of British who swell the ranks of the cut-out pile. The obscure British composer will always be with us – titled, lettered, forgotten, each waiting Buggins’s turn to be “re-evaluated”. Their chief artistic aim was to be clubbable, and all seem sworn to a pact to write something called “Spot Me A Tenor”.

The self-consciously “modern” are hardly any better, like Australian surrealists, dropping the word “fractal” on their sonata for clarinet and tape, racking their brains for another word that ends in “-tion”. All of it, conservative or avant-garde, perfectly acceptable to its intended audience, technically competent, fully compliant, honest, dull, unlistenable.

Once again, I stress that I haven’t heard a note of of the music I condemn. Just the thought of it, out there, depresses me.

Isn’t that terrific?

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Alvin Lucier, who I had the privilege of seeing a couple of years ago, just turned 80. Daniel Wolf at Renewable Music gives a summary of the many reasons why the world would be a lot worse without him. Lucier’s way of thinking will become even more important as we struggle to understand what music may be, in a world of ever-increasing technological mediation of experience, and of convergence between media.

Nicolas Collins, author of the essential Handmade Electronic Music – The Art of Hardware Hacking, has generously uploaded scans of his notes from taking Lucier’s class, “Introduction to Electronic Music”, along with his reflections on Lucier’s teaching and the musical culture of the early 1970s.

Eurovision 2011: Meet The Losers

Tuesday 10 May 2011

I somehow forgot to do this last year, so with the first semi-final due to start tonight it’s more than time to look at the Eurovision entrants with the longest odds of winning. (Please note that I have never watched a semi-final, preferring instead to watch the finals with no forewarning of what atrocities may be unleashed. This also adds to the fun of the Drinking Game.)

The bookies this year obviously think they’ve got the contest and voting patterns sussed, as they’re offering frankly ridiculous odds from 200:1 to 500:1 for a swathe of countries. The received wisdom, however, is that the entrant with the least hope of succeeding is San Marino, presumably because it’s barely even a real country.

The Sammarinese contestant, a lady called Senit, is (surprise) not actually from San Marino. Her notable achievements include appearing in the German cast of The Lion King, recording with producers who have also worked with luminaries such as “Christina Alguilera” and “Busta Rhimes”, and…

In May 2006 Senit made her debut in the world of Italian discography with the album that took her name SENIT, produced by Panini, historic editing house of footballers stickers, that chose her as the testimonial of their new discographic activity.

Senit’s Eurovision song has the rather hesitant title “Stand By”, with a similarly less-than-forceful refrain of:

So tonight, if you don’t mind, I will stand by!

In the likely event that San Marino will be eliminated in the semi-finals, the longest odds for any country appearing in the final itself are for Spain. Almost as hopeless as San Marino, Spain’s entry will be sung by the lovely Lucía Pérez. She’s big in Galicia, and is “presently finishing her degree in pedagogics”. Her song, “Que Me Quiten Lo Bailao”, translates as “They Can’t Take The Fun Away From Me” and suggests that Spain are still in their not-giving-a-shit mood.

This is backed up by the song lyrics, which seem to me to be about the joys of getting totally fucking hammered on Rioja, complete with a musical parking of the tiger at the end.

I’m feeling so good,
I’m feeling so good
that I will never ever ever think
in a negative way

Although I know well
that storms may come
and I will fall down
after all
I have enjoyed all this so much
and nobody can take the fun I had away from me

Ouo uo uo ouo uo uo
who can take the fun I’ve had away from me?

The Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game, 2011 Edition

Sunday 8 May 2011

Less than a week to go until this year’s Eurovision, and I haven’t even mentioned it yet! Stupid me, didn’t even realise that this year’s event is taking place in Düsseldorf, just up the road from where I went to see SONNTAG aus LICHT. It will be interesting to see which proves to be the more surreal experience.

The potential for Eurovision insanity this year is greatly boosted by the big news that both Italy and Austria are back in the game – after a 14-year absence, in Italy’s case. This means that Drinking Game rule W1.b will not apply this year.

Despite the changing the voting to a 50/50 split between viewers’ votes and national panels of judges, last year’s voting shows no reason to make any change to rules II.3, II.10, and especially not II.2. Therefore the 2011 rules for the refined but deadly art of drinkmanship that is the Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game are as follows.

Yes these have all happened, in case you’re wondering.

PHASE I: THE SONGS

A. Every instance within a song:

I.A.1 The Dramatic Key Change. Whenever the singers dramatically shift up a key for the final chorus(es).

I.A.2 The Bucks Fizz. Whenever performer(s) sheds a piece of clothing – once only on every instance, whether executed by an individual or as a group. Finish your drink if the clothing loss is obviously unintentional.

B. Once per song only:

I.B.1 Is That English? Whenever someone notices that the singers have switched from their native language into English in an attempt to win more votes. Two drinks if they try to dodge the language issue by intentionally singing gibberish.

I.B.2 The Fine Cotton. Any appearance of mercenary talent flown in to represent a foreign country. Two drinks if they’re Irish.

I.B.3 Las Ketchup and the Waves. A country drags a legitimate, real-life, one-hit wonder out of obscurity in the hope that name recognition can buy them some points. This is additional to I.B.2.

I.B.4 The Cultural Rainbow. Every time an entrant blatantly rips off last year’s winning performance. Finish your drink if last year’s winning country rips itself off.

I.B.5 The Wand’ring Minstrel. Unless it’s a solo guitar or piano, Eurovision insists on backing tapes. It’s in the rules, so don’t accuse some entrants of cheating; but take a drink if performers pretend to play a musical instrument (or simulacrum thereof) in a blatantly fake way, as part of the choreography. A second drink is permitted if a subsequent, different wave of faux-minstrely rises after the first has subsided.

I.B.6 The Greeks (formerly The TaTu). Finish your drink if the audience boos (on the telly, not in your living room.)

I.B.7 Don’t Mention The War. The German entrant sings something about everyone being happy. This is a legacy rule, as in recent years it has largely been supplanted by…

I.B.7a Don’t Mention The Wall. The Israeli entrant sings something about everyone being happy.

I.B.8 My Lovely Horse. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical/political problems of hosting the event next year.

PHASE I ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:

I.B.5a The Wand’ring Minstrel (supplemental). Two drinks if the instrument is an accordion.

I.B.9 The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing at nothing in particular. Two drinks for a hairy armpit.

I.B.10 The White Suit. You’ll know it when you see it; and you’ll know it again when you see it again, and again…

PHASE II: THE VOTES

II.1 The Wardrobe Change. Each time the female host changes frocks. Two drinks if the male host changes suits.

II.2 The Gimme. When Greece gives twelve points to Cyprus.

II.2a The Gastarbeiter. If Germany still gives twelve points to Turkey.

II.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets nul points from France.

II.4 The Sympathy Vote. When anything sung in French first gets a point, and/or the last country without any points finally gets off the mark. A special toast at the end to any country which did not receive so much as a single vote.

II.5 The “Viktor, You Very Unattractive Fellow.” Two drinks if the hosts speak in rhyme and/or pretend to flirt with each other. Finish your drink if the flirting is serious.

PHASE II INTERMEDIATE: You and your friends probably will be too unruly by this stage to register every occurrence of these, so just try to catch what you can.

II.6 The Hurry-Up. Every time the announcer from each voting country is politely asked by the hosts to shut the fuck up (i.e. “Can we have your votes please?”). Two drinks if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a friend or relative watching at home.

II.7 The Sandra Sully. Each time an announcer reads the voting results wrong. Two drinks if they get so confused they have to start over.

II.8 The Sally Field. Each time they show contestants backstage during the voting looking genuinely surprised and pleased with themselves when they get the same politically-motivated votes they get every year.

II.9 The Master of Suspense. It looks like everyone’s figured it out now, so this hasn’t happened for a few years, but just in case: each time an announcer fails to understand that the pause for suspense only works if they announce the twelve points first, then the country that has won them – not the other way around.

PHASE II ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:

II.10 The New Europe. When the Baltic or Balkan states all give each other twelve points, or a former Soviet republic gives Russia twelve points. Do not attempt without medical supervision.

THE WILDCARDS

W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it*;
W1.b [deleted]; or
W1.c where the hell is Moldova?

W2 A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.

W3 A toast to Bosnia and Herzegovina if they change the spelling of their country again from last year (last year’s spelling: ‘Bosnia & Herzegovina’).

W4 A toast to the person who gets so drunk you have to secretly call a cab and persuade them they ordered it when it arrives.

* This is why.

The Day Before SONNTAG

Tuesday 3 May 2011

The evening before Easter Sunday I was sitting in a bar, quite unwittingly thinking over what I’d been wanting to write for some time about the various concerts I’d been to lately. Besides getting a little bit drunk I was jotting down notes about gigs I’d been seeing, and thinking over what Robert Ashley meant when he said, “Recitals are a curse.

At first, Ashley’s critique has some superficial similarity to Glenn Gould’s “Let’s Ban Applause!“. So much of Gould’s opinions on live versus recording are rubbish, I thought, scribbling down a few points about what I’d experienced at the Xenakis gig at Southbank a few weeks ago, or at Exaudi’s performance of Cage’s Song Books a week before that. Yes, I have some caveats about live performance; but I’ll get to these points another time.

Ashley, inevitably, pursues the point further, out of my comfort zone.

As a member of the audience you are a consumer and a consumer only…. Whatever it is, you are not part of it. You have been a watcher. The recitalist hopes that you have been entertained. But you have not been included….

The composer does not have the idea of including the people who come while the music is being enacted. We have lost the idea of the rituals that remind the people who come that what is happening is only a small part, a “surfacing” of the continuing musicality of everyday life.

At the time I was considering these problems, it didn’t occur to me that the next day I would witness Stockhausen’s earnest attempts to include the audience in SONNTAG aus LICHT. His approaches were characteristically unsubtle. The opening scene, Lichter-Wasser, specifies that the musicians proceed through and are stationed amongst the audience, with the singers given circuits to follow around and between audience members. The final scene, Hoch-Zeiten, as staged by La Fura dels Baus, threw punters in amidst five groups of dancers and, surrounded by rotating projections of video and music, left everyone to fend for themselves.

In between, at the composer’s behest, we were surrounded by processions of choirs, censers of various fragrances, and illustrative projections (three-dimensional, in this case). As we left the theatre and walked out into the park or loitered around the entrance, Stockhausen’s farewell music played on through loudspeakers outside the building. Walking along the Rhine afterwards, I could still hear occasional faint snatches of it when the breeze blew the right way. Even in his conception of the work, Stockhausen intended SONNTAG to be performed over three nights, compelling audiences to return to a common place of communion.

The LICHT cycle is intended as a ritual of worship, and consistently strives to impress upon the audience the spiritual essence of all creation and the interconnectedness of music and spirituality. Towards the end we even saw Stockhausen’s list of “issues and challenges for Humanity”. There are ten of them: the comparison to commandments is irresistable. “1. Humanity must pray.” “3. Humanity must support cosmic art music.” “7. Humanity must use sleep for contacting the angels.” Stockhausen’s music is dedicated to the task of creating a spiritual context for itself, to validate the meaning it carries.

Beneath all this effort lurks Ashley’s issue and challenge for the audience. If the music is foreign to you, there is no emotional connection for you to recognise it as part of your life. “We should expect that the audience is a part of the music, and this is not true, even if the audience is entirely music students. This is the dilemma of contemporary music. The ritual has disappeared. The event is hollow.” Stockhausen’s grand plan to create a new ritual was perhaps, as I’ve previously suggested, doomed before it could begin.