New Show! Redrawing

Wednesday 30 April 2008

Next month I’m presenting my piece String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta) in a new version, as an installation in the group exhibition Redrawing, at RMIT’s Project Space in Melbourne. With works by Bronwyn Clark-Coolee, Fiona Macdonald, Thérèse Mastroiacovo, and Spiros Panigirakis. Curated by Fiona Macdonald.
The show runs from Friday 6 June to Friday 27 June 2008; opening night is Thursday 5 June, 5 – 7 pm. Hope you can make it. There will also be a floor talk by me and some (all?) of the other artists on Thursday 12 June 12 – 1 pm, followed by a thrilling live performance of the String Quartet.
As you might have guessed from the above blurb, my piece will fit in very nicely with the show’s premise of redrawing, of imitation as a creative practice. More to come about the show over the next few weeks.
Also also, while I’m in Melbourne it looks like I’ll be playing another live gig, at Horse Bazaar on Wednesday 11 June. More about that one soon, too.

Tristram Cary

Monday 28 April 2008

More bad news: Tristram Cary has died at home in Adelaide, aged 82. One of the first generation of electronic composers, Cary was a co-developer of the legendary VCS3 synthesiser but, as these things so often go, he’s best remembered as one of the first composers on early episodes of Doctor Who.
Music Thing has a great video about Cary and his cohort, including archival footage of the man strolling round his studio filled with arcane electronic equipment while contentedly puffing on his pipe. There’s also a geeky-cool photo of a VCS3-shaped birthday cake.
I’ve just realised I don’t have any recordings of Cary’s music. Warren Burt has written a substantial review of a number of his pieces on the 2CD retrospective Soundings, giving some idea of the breadth and depth of Cary’s musical thinking.

Henry Brant

Sunday 27 April 2008

Just found out via ANABlog that radical composer Henry Brant has just died, aged 94. Brant was one of the pioneers of spatialised music, using ecelctic instrumentation playing in diverse genres. Kyle Gann has posted a brief appreciation of Brant:

He was a phenomenally creative figure, though one hard to wrap one’s ears around, because his specialty was spatial music; his works, often involving multiple ensembles separated by distance, were too enormous to stage often, and recordings hardly do them justice.

My one CD of Brant’s music includes his 1970 work Kingdom Come, for two orchestras. The sleeve notes suggest that the disc be played with the left speaker in front of you, the right speaker placed behind and above you, to simulate the experience of sitting in the stalls, with one orchestra playing on stage, the other in the balcony. I still haven’t heard Orbits, for 80 trombones, organ, and sopranino.
ANABlog has an mp3 of “Battles of Gods”, the opening movement of his 1985 epic Northern Lights Over the Twin Cities. The Other Minds Archive has a bunch of performances and interviews, including the massive Meteor Farm for two sopranos, three South Indian performers, two choruses, West African chorus, jazz band, gamelan, and two percussion ensembles – each group plays from a different physical location, playing music in their respective idiomatic style. A transcript and audio of a 2002 interview is on the American Mavericks site.

If you listen to engineers, they talk about surround sound and all this kind of stuff, but the space doesn’t record. The way I started out to attempt to do this in the early ’50s was I’d have four tape recorders. In those days the play back and the tape recorder were in one box all together. So I’d record separate tapes without trying to mix them. I’d feed one through each tape recorder, separate them in the room, and start one and the next one. It had to be lined up so that it can start 15 seconds later; rush from one to the other. I got a truer kind of spatial recording than the fancy stuff they do now with mixing and a 140 tracks all mixing the same thing. I don’t know how many speakers, but all the stuff was coming out of all of them. Well, that’s the most that recordings have been able to do.
Recordings are clearer now, but the recording of space is no further than it ever was.

Countdown to Eurovision: Dogs and Cats Living Together, Mass Hysteria

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Entering a singing turkey puppet into the Eurovision Song Contest may have seemed pretty wacky but that’s just peanuts compared to the French this year: for the first time ever, their Eurovision song will be sung partly in English.
The French have a history of complaining loud and long about other countries singing in English, and of demanding new rules that each country should sing only in “its native language” (yay for monoculture!), so this abrupt volte-face is surprising, to say the least; the most surprising part being the implication that the French actually want to win this year.
Chauvinistic Frenchmen are, naturally, outraged:

François-Michel Gonnot, an MP in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party, said he was shocked by the choice. “Our fellow citizens don’t understand why France is giving up defending its language in front of hundreds of millions of television viewers around the world,” he said.

I give fifty-fifty odds on the autoroutes being blockaded by angry truck drivers dumping their loads of Sebastién Tellier CDs.
Of course the French won’t win, whether they sing in English or not, because they’re hated by the rest of Europe almost as much as the British. Perhaps if Carla Bruni were persuaded to enter Eurovision…

Filler By Proxy LXIII: Twelve Going On Sixty

Monday 14 April 2008

Have you noticed I’m busy with Other Things lately? Soon, some of these things will be revealed, but in the meantime you’ll have to put up with me linking to stuff like The Guardian, which is publishing daily extracts from The Fall frontman Mark E. Smith‘s autobiography Renegade. The opening sentence suggests Smith has a pretty good handle on himself:

Twelve going on 60 – that’s what people used to say about me: a 12-year-old wanting to be a 60-year-old man. I couldn’t stand music when I was that age. I hated it, thought it was vaguely effeminate. Music to me was something your sisters did. And I couldn’t stand my sisters.

The links at the end of the page are worth a bit of a look too. Hey up! Second extract’s online now; although in this one he’s reverting more to a standard grumpy old bloke. With fashion advice.

Filler By Proxy LXI: New directions in music appreciation

Sunday 30 March 2008

The curious and the adventurous are surprised by the pleasures that await them in Penetrating Wagner’s Ring.

(Found via Why, That’s Delightful!)

Three tunes I have heard coworkers unconsciously humming to themselves over the years

Thursday 27 March 2008

Sweding Stockhausen

Sunday 23 March 2008

A.O. Scott’s review of Be Kind Rewind in The New York Times (found via Greg Sandow’s blog) praises the movie’s understanding of how people relate to popular culture:

It treats movies as found objects, as material to be messed around with, explored and reimagined.

Sandow cites this review to show that people are not passive recipients of corporate cultural artifacts, but have an active relationship with them. “Classical music lives in a bubble” he writes, meaning that the cultural elite often lives in ignorance of how popular culture works in society, but also raising the question of whether capital-A Art enjoys the same lively, engaged response from its audience as popular movies and songs.
Having just seen some DIY Stockhausen last week, it’s great to see a perfect example of Sweded Stockhausen. Sequenza21 has posted a link to the Digital Music Ensemble, University of Michigan’s wondrous small-stage interpretation of the composer’s most notorious work, Helicopter String Quartet. (An excerpt of the Stockhausen original is on YouTube.)

Helikopter-Streichquartett has been performed only three times in its original form. A full-scale production requires four large helicopters, each with a pilot, a live musician, and a sound technician inside, as well as an elaborate communications and audio-visual transmission apparatus.
Faced with the daunting task of mounting a performance of even one scene of this huge work, the Digital Music Ensemble decided to stage its own interpretation of the piece. Thus we are using model helicopters instead of full-scale ones, a quartet of electric guitarists in place of a string quartet, and we’re adding a live video processing dimension.
Two Quicktime movies (hi-fi and lo-fi) show the reimagined composition in all its glory.

DIY Stockhausen

Monday 17 March 2008

I’ve been back to The Luminaire and can confirm that the signs I mentioned are indeed stencilled on the walls, reading,

QUIET If you’re talking when a band is playing we’ll tell you to shut up.

and

SHUT UP No-one paid to listen to you talking to your pals. If you want to talk to your pals when the bands are on, please leave the venue.

Last time the crowd ignored the signs; this time they didn’t need them. People were much quieter, more attentive. This was not just because the audience was smaller, but because the music was so different. Last time this was a “noisy gig” room with loud, free-form improvisation by Elliott Sharp and Christian Marclay; this time the punters were quietly focused on pianist Daan Vandewalle as he played the first four of Stockhausen‘s Klavierstücke – brief, meticulous, distilled works that require full attention to be appreciated. The type of music played will change the nature of the audience’s response to the performers, even in the same room with largely the same type of audience.

The gig, planned before Stockhausen’s unexpected death but now turned into a memorial, was intended to place the composer in a living, continuing tradition of radical music. The evening concluded with Robin Rimbaud‘s Opus 2128, an imitation of Stockhausen’s Opus 1970, in which the musicians mimicked a recorded collage of Beethoven’s music, much of it heard only by the performers themselves. Rimbaud’s piece was a reconstructed realisation of Stockhausen’s concept, with Stockhausen’s music now worked into the mix alongside his predecessor, assimilated into history.
The main event of the night was a performance of Kontakte, Stockhausen’s famed 1960 electronic composition, to which he added parts for a live pianist and percussionist. Interestingly, the programme notes claimed that Stockhausen originally tried working with musicians improvising to the prerecorded tape, but was dissatisfied with the results and wrote a fully composed score. Vandewalle and percussionist Chris Cutler attempted to recapture Stockhausen’s original intention with their own improvisation.
I doubt he would have been very happy with the result. There were two main problems. The first was that Cutler played too much. This is the perennial curse of musicians left to their own devices: once they’ve started, they never see any reason to stop. (Vandewalle didn’t have this problem so badly: as a pianist, his instrument was harmonically and timbrally restricted to complementing only some of Stockhausen’s tape. His playing was much closer in style to the written score than Cutler’s.)
Cutler used a wide array of instruments and techniques – interestingly, he used electronic processing on many of his sounds, adding another electronic layer to the vintage electronics on tape. This expansion of the understanding of the sonic diversity found in percussion music was intriguing, but too often it drowned out the original tape part. When it could be heard, the tape was remarkable for how contemporary its vocabulary of pitch shifts, phasing, and modulation sounded.
This was the other problem: the tape – a stereo mixdown of the 4-track original – was too quiet in the mix. Stockhausen always saw himself as at least an equal peformer when controlling the sound projection of his tapes, and would constantly monitor and adjust the mix and balance to allow for the vagaries of the performers and the acoustics of the space. At this gig, the tape was rarely allowed to emerge into the foreground, and so was relegated to a passive backdrop over which the musicians could improvise. They came to bury Stockhausen, not praise him.
To balance these two negatives, two positive things were learned from the experiment. One was that, as romantic era musicians who deviated from a literal interpretation of a written score could move closer to the music rather than abandon the composer’s single intention, so there are now musicians with a live, mutable sense of how to perform music of the 20th century avant-garde. This unique sound-world has a life of its own, not frozen on the page, forever hypothetical. Even knowing nothing about that first, unsatisfactory improvised performance of Kontakte, I would bet that Cutler and Vandewalle were much closer to what Stockhausen had in mind (this is of course in large part due to the example of the composer’s own score).
The other positive is that it is possible for Stockhausen’s music to continue outside of the museum. As much as any conventional orchestral composer, if not moreso, Stockhausen depended upon large, established infrastructures to present his work. In his discussion of performing Kontakte, he describes the technology needed to properly present the 4-channel tape to his requirements, in addition to needing 10 microphones onstage to properly capture the sound of the two performers, to fully realise his artistic intentions. This is music which needs curators, institutions – much the same way that many postwar visual artists are dependent upon controlled, neutral gallery space, constant maintenance, and supervision, to present and preserve their works.
Cutler and Vandewalle showed the way to take a Low Road approach to Stockhausen, presenting one of his most essential pieces in a way which needed relatively little money, logistical support, or bureaucratic cooperation. Is it authentic? I’d like to think it shows there are multiple avenues to Stockhausen’s continued appreciation as a force to be reckoned with. Gigs like these build the demand for larger musical institutions to continue to provide resources to present Stockhausen’s more elaborate works into the future.
Related: Robin Maconie, Morton Subotnick, Björk remember Stockhausen.
ANABlog on Stockhausen’s later years and legacy.

This is probably as good a time as any to lay off the Magic 693 posts for a while

Tuesday 11 March 2008

At last, Magic 6931278 has posted its final tally of the 500 Best Songs of All Time, as voted for by Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2006, You. The complete list can be downloaded in a convenient Microsoft Excel workbook.
Before doing so, take a little test and see if you can correctly rank the following ten songs on the list, from highest to lowest:
  • Bob Lind, “Elusive Butterfly”
  • Sue Thompson, “Norman”
  • Gene Pitney, “Half Heaven – Half Heartache”
  • Pussycat, “Mississippi”
  • Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, “Young Girl”
  • Franciose [sic] Hardy, “Only You Can Do It”
  • Crash Craddock, “Boom Boom Baby”
  • Vicki Lawrence, “He Did With Me”
  • Ferrante & Teicher, “Exodus”
  • Elvis Presley, “Old Shep”

Visualising Music

Sunday 9 March 2008

This was going to be a simple post with a couple of fun links to cool music with groovy visuals to help pass some time, but then I remembered an unanswered question by Jodru on that post about new music concerts I mentioned before:

Okay, picture this:
You are performing “Pictures at an Exhibition” and you project Hartmann’s original drawings while you perform.
You are performing some of Virgil Thomson’s musical portraits and you project an image of the subject above the stage.
You are performing Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Treatise’ and you project the score above the stage.
Are you guys certain that these are not sure-fire ways to increase your audience’s comfort level?

Those first two examples: still pictures, as backdrop? Maybe. Projecting the score to Treatise while it’s played? No. It may increase the audience’s comfort level, but it undermines the purpose of playing the music in the first place.
If you exhibit the score to Treatise while it’s played, why not do this for every piece played? A conventionally-notated score is equally illegible to non-musicians; Treatise‘s score is just cunningly designed to be illegible to musicians as well. Is it because Treatise‘s score is a beautiful object in its own right? Then the score is made to justify the music, when it should be the other way around. George Crumb’s music is equally beautiful on the page, but exhibiting the manuscripts during the concert would distract the audience from the music – surely Cardew’s music should be treated with the same respect.
An audience might feel more comfortable listening to Satie if the funny instructions were read out over the music, but they’ll be reacting more to the witticisms than the music.

So, after all that harrumphing, why am I now linking to these two neat little animations? Because they exist as works of analysis after the fact, not of aesthetic interpretation. Rainer Wehinger drew a “listening score” of György Ligeti’s electronic composition Artikulation nearly 20 years after it was made, using symbols to represent the recorded sounds. The snappily-named d21d34c55 has posted an animation on YouTube that syncs up the tape to the score, to show how music and image correspond.

The Rambler has posted a link to the pianist John Mark Harris’ website, which includes a fantastic page that combines a graphic representation of Iannis Xenakis’ punishing composition Evryali with Harris’ performance of the piece. The graph gives a clear demonstration of how Xenakis used aborescences to compose the piece.
Finally, just to complete the circle, d21d34c55 has another page on YouTube showing Xenakis’ 1978 work Mycenae Alpha, an electronic piece written on UPIC, a computer interface that translates images into sound. This time, the images came first, but were expressly created to produce music.

A bit of shush

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Before I was interrupted, I was going to say something about the Elliott Sharp/Christian Marclay gig at the Luminaire a few weeks back. (Condensed review: it taught me that I don’t like Elliott Sharp.) Also a few weeks back, Jodru at ANABlog offered some sure-fire ways to build a healthy, regular audience for your new music gigs. A brief discussion ensued in the comments until I started thinking about VJs and the Red Mist descended; then the real world intervened and by the time I got back into the argument the thread had gone cold:

Really, what’s needed is a range of different experiences on offer, as you suggest. Noisy gigs where you can chat with your mates at the same time, “rigorous” listening-intense concerts, six-hour meditative events…

I hadn’t been to the Luminaire before, so when I came in I saw your typical “noisy gig” venue, complete with a packed bar along the back wall of the band room serving strong drink in plastic cups. Yet dotted around the walls were signs telling the punters to shut up and pay attention to the music. I don’t know if these are permanent fixtures, or if they were put up at the talent’s behest just for the night. Either way it was an incongruous sight; or rather it would have been if anybody paid any attention to the signs at all.

Personally, I neither minded that the crowd carried on, nor did I expect them to behave otherwise. This was simply the wrong sort of room for a “rigorous” gig, and the printed signs trying to impose a concert-hall atmosphere seemed like a misbegotten, foolhardy gesture.

At least two reasons why Jane Siberry has been frolicking in the surf of the oceans of madness all these years

Sunday 2 March 2008

I’d heard about Carl Wilson’s book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, the latest in the “33 1/3” series of monographs about rock albums, in which he explores his “guilty displeasure” in loathing Céline Dion; but I must thank Dial “M” for Musicology for posting a brief meditation on the power of schmaltz, which pointed me to these quotes from Wilson’s book:

Early in the book, after a concise history of schmaltz (which he defines elegantly as “an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived”), Wilson turns the notion back on its critics. “You could say that punk rock,” he writes, “is anger’s schmaltz.”

Countdown to Eurovision: the first battle is won

Saturday 1 March 2008

Dustin the Turkey has won the vote to become Ireland’s entry for the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest. Thus ensuring that they won’t, at least, come behind the United Kingdom this year.

By “next week” I meant of course “next next week”

Wednesday 27 February 2008

I’ve finally moved properly into the new house, found my computer, found the computer’s power cable, gotten back online, gotten cut off, remembered to pay the broadband bill, and gotten back online again. Mind you, I also slipped out of town for a long weekend in Barcelona, so it’s not like I’ve been working. Barcelona’s a great city, but it has a dark side. Most particularly, every now and then I would come across a poster advertising an upcoming masterclass. By Craig David.
If life were an early ’70s sci-fi movie, you could destroy the evil supercomputer that had taken over the world by going up to it, showing this poster and saying “Craig David Masterclass”, then running for cover while it shouted “Er-ror! Er-ror! Does Not Com-Pute!” and self-destructed in an enormous, sparkly explosion. I figured this must be some mistake in translation, so I just googled for it:

The main purpose of the Masterclass in Space Movistar is getting artist and audience closer than ever, not only for fitness but also spiritually, as Craig David will answer questions from fans and explain what have been the sources of inspiration his best-known songs as “Walking Away” or his new single “Hot Stuff.”

I expect the source of inspiration for that first song was something to do with him walking away, yeah oh, to find a better day. Here’s hoping he does a masterclass in a country where the audience speaks English as its first language.