Gig Action! Placard Festival

Sunday 22 July 2007

I’ve had my arm twisted into doing my first public gig in over two years, at the Placard Festival in Paris. So far, I have only a hazy idea of what the festival is about: apparently it involves people sitting round a room listening to headphones or something. I can do that.
Anyway, it runs non-stop for 72 hours starting from Friday 27 July. I’m in the coveted Sunday 2.30 pm slot. There’s probably some streaming of the gigs over the web, but I need someone to explain it to me before I post about it here.
The piece I’m most likely going to play is an extended, live-performance version of String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta): this version will be closer to the earlier incarnations of the piece mentioned in the blog post, than the version available for download. In the next day or two I’ll post some more about what’s really going on in this music.

What’s on top of the pile?

Friday 20 July 2007

The Triffids, In The Pines
I’ve just played this for the first time in years and it’s not as worthless as I remember it. Superfluous, yes, but music needs superfluousness. Maybe I’m just homesick.
Pierre Boulez: Répons, Dialogue de l’Ombre Double (Ensemble InterContemporain, Pierre Boulez, Alain Damiens)
Musical institutions are like the military, inasmuch as their use of technology is obsolete by the time it is implemented. Imagine trying to get excited about Herbie Hancock using synths if he released Rockit in 1998, and you pretty much have a shorthand experience of listening to Répons’ interactive electronics. At least its gaucherie makes Boulez seem almost charmingly human for once.
There’s a coupon attached to the cover you could send off for a free CD containing a special headphone mix of the same disc. Any of those left?

(More from the pile)

Disposable Guitar Play Once Throw Away

Wednesday 18 July 2007

I found a digitised copy of that old cassette recording of the plank guitar I previously mentioned. The cassette Disposable Guitar Play Once Throw Away was made in a limited edition of half a dozen or so, as part of a fund-raising group exhibition for a small art space in Melbourne, back in 1999. Each copy was made on a very cheap cassette, with a unique handmade letraset cover (at the time I had a theory that, as it faded into obsolescence, the cassette would replace vinyl as the romanticised fetish medium of choice).
Each side was 30 minutes long. An improvisation on the plank guitar filled up the A side, recorded directly onto cassette through a pair of cheap plastic microphones awkwardly placed on the floor (one mike lead was very short) of a living room in a terrace house in Carlton. The two excerpts given below beautifully capture the sonic limitations of both the recording means and the battery-powered 0.2 watt speaker built into the hollowed-out end of the plank.
I couldn’t find any photos of the guitar, so instead I’ve put up part of a flyer for an in-store gig which featured the guitar, shortly before this recording was made. The B side of the cassette was another half-hour improvisation, but on a different instrument: this was a guitar performance that didn’t use a guitar at all.

Filler By Proxy LIII: New Noise Makers (and more goddamn nostalgia)

Monday 16 July 2007

Of Sound Mind has been making musical instruments: customising toy music boxes, jacking old ferrite bars from radios, and building “self-prepared” electric guitars from a plank of wood. There are audio samples of each instrument.

Why should a guitar be anything but a couple of pickups and some resonating metal, if it is to be used in this form of abstract improvisation? These questions began to form in my mind a “guitar” whose only purpose was to suspend metal “string objects” and amplify them.

Combined, the plank guitar and ferrite bar reminded me of an instrument I played many years ago. The sculptor Andrew Gangoiti also built electric guitars. Once, as an exercise in speed and simplicity, he made a four-string guitar from a plank, no real way of tuning the strings, pickups made from some found magnets wound with however much copper wire he had lying around, connected to a 0.5 watt speaker built into the hollowed-out end of the plank, powered by a 9 volt battery. The moment you turned it on it started to feed back. Pressing your finger against the circuit board for the speaker would short out connections and alter the pitch and tone of the feedback. It was impossible. It was magnificent.

Thanks to a mutual friend, I had a loan of this guitar for several months and gave a few performances with it. There’s a cassette lying around somewhere of this guitar recorded on a cheap plastic mike. At the end of the tape you can hear the circuit board finally go on the fritz. Andrew took the guitar away for repair and I never saw it again.

A long – probably one-sided – conversation about the merits of tubular steel-framed furniture.

Wednesday 11 July 2007

Now I know how the Fonz feels, because I got me a library card; specifically, a reader’s pass to the British Library. I wanted to find out more about John Cage and Ernő Goldfinger, but couldn’t find a copy of Nigel Warburton’s biography of Goldfinger anywhere else.
Warburton takes time to mention Cage’s brief association with the architect, but has nothing more to add than what Cage has already written about the experience, other than the intriguing detail that Goldfinger made his remark about the need for an architects to devote their lives solely to architecture while “preaching to some girlfriends”.
There’s nothing about why Cage’s former professor chose Goldfinger as the man to mentor Cage, but it can be inferred from the rest of the chapter. Goldfinger had quickly established a reputation as something of an enfant terrible since arriving in Paris, making a lot of noise and getting himself introduced to the best and brightest in town. Except for Picasso: Goldfinger refused to meet an artist he suspected would not treat him as an equal.
In fact, the younger Goldfinger could easily be a character out of a Wyndham Lewis novel, judging from Warburton’s book. As well as the harem kept in his offices, “Ernő’s wild spirits even resulted in a challenge to a duel. The source of the insult was his shimmying at a nightclub.” The duel (with sabres) was averted after both parties had their lawyers prepare and exchange “elaborate official apologies”. On another occasion he had “gone on the rampage after one Bal des Quat’z Arts, where there was open hostility between the ateliers, storming off into the night intent on beating up homosexuals.” Just as well Cage didn’t stay around for long.

One last thing I learned at the Venn Festival

Tuesday 10 July 2007

I’m reluctant to discuss the work of people I know personally, but this is a point that goes back to my rant about electroacoustic music. In Bristol I saw a gig by Robin Fox and Anthony Pateras for the first time in over two years. Their standard performance setup is: Fox sits immobile behind his laptop while immediately to his left Pateras thrashes around with a small table full of crap. Regardless how I’m feeling, being at one of their gigs always makes me feel a lot better, but that’s not the point here. In the intervening time since I last saw them, Pateras has added his own laptop to the small table of crap. Their sound has not so much changed as expanded, the new computer acting as a box of hyper-crap. They are pursuing an idea, adding facilitating technology as needed.
Working solo, Fox has spent several years combining electronically generated images and music. At first he patched into his sound system a clapped-out old oscilliscope with a rotary display, showing the frequency of the waveform circling round a still, central point as its zero baseline. The visuals do not accompany the music, nor vice versa: the two are mutually dependent manifestations of the same signal. The image is generated by the sound’s waveform, which is in turn restricted to a range of sounds which produce visually interesting patterns.
These days Fox works with a laser projection system, a more purposefuly-designed piece of equipment operating on much the same principles. His shows with the laser are impressive, even spectacular – it’s not often you get to use that description for a one-man new music gig. However, Fox self-deprecatingly refers to his laser as a gimmick. When he talks about it more, it’s clear he regards it at best as a stopgap piece of technology in a transitional phase of his work. The range of sounds which produce interesting visual patterns is too small for him. He wants to be able to expand his musical vocabulary again, and not be dictated to by the limits of his available technology. The equipment will have to change into something not yet built, or be set aside.

What’s on top of the pile? (blind item)*

Wednesday 27 June 2007

Older readers – you know, Gen X’ers and stuff – will remember experiencing their first David Bowie Moment, endlessly arguing over whether this is a misunderstood masterpiece or a lazy load of bollocks, when it’s really just Not Bad. Wait, I get it now! She’s channelling Patti Smith so it’s supposed to be cringingly bad, but we’re supposed to admire it because of that. Reckon in ten years’ time this will sound atrocious, and then gradually get better again?

(More from the pile)

* I hit ‘post’ before it was finished.

One or two things I learned at the Venn Festival in Bristol

Monday 18 June 2007

I just remembered to write more about the Venn Festival. A couple of things stick in my mind from the weekend, beside the hangovers.
I got up particularly early on Saturday afternoon to go see Goodiepal without fully understanding who he was or what he did, just that the night before a friend had been very insistent I see him. A Faroese man with a fine beard, he was whistling a slow, meandering tune while setting up two large tables covered with small model planets, tiny paintings, music boxes, small vinyl records etched with various patterns. His hour-long set took the form of a lecture, as he explained planetary signals sent back and forth between New York and remote parts of the world, playing his very small records (of whistling, grunting and howling, or other lectures he has given), usually two at a time and talking or singing along with them.
Every now and then he would demonstrate how musical ideas changed in different cultures by giving a quick, vocal demonstrations in gibberish of New York rock bands, Norweigans pretending to be New York rock bands, French rappers, Björk, and offering evidence that every Scandanavian band now sings slow, keening melodies redolent of vast empty spaces.
He produced a small case containing a bird-like theremin under a glass bell, and I remembered where I had heard of him before: Music Thing blogged about this guy in March, linking to video of his appearance on a Danish TV program, under the heading “This Video Will Blow Your Mind“. Later they provided a transcript in English of the interview, where he talks about planetary movements and the interaction of electronics and mechanical music.
In Bristol, he talked for some time about prehistoric sounds being recorded in naturally-occurring magnetic rocks before he ran out of time and had to break it off, allowing audience members to look at the tiny paintings (which had been placed on the table face down) and buy records from him (for which purchasers would a name a price he could not refuse).
It felt like, regardless of whether he was talking, singing, miming or whistling, we had heard the latest instalment in a discussion he had been having with the world for some years now, about what music is, and what it could be.
Much later that night, a Finnish duo were playing a gig in another part of town. They began singing a slow, keening melody redolent of vast empty spaces and I had to leave the room, giggling. Several other people left at the same time. We had all been to see Goodiepal that afternoon.

What’s on top of the pile?

Wednesday 13 June 2007

Luc Ferrari, Collection de petites pièces ou 36 enfilades, Jeu du hasard et de la détermination (Michel Maurer, Françoise Rivalland)
While I was in Waterloo I also finally visited Gramex, in Lower Marsh, and found it pretty much as everyone describes it: a group of old men scrabbling through piles of CDs randomly stacked on a couple of large coffee tables. The main difference was that the two leather armchairs in the shop were unoccupied. They were being used as impromptu shelving for several more boxes of unsorted CDs, and so their usual occupants had had to find somewhere else to continue their day-long discussion of cricket.
One gent informed me he was searching for a Czech recording of Joplin’s rags played on a harpsichord, which had eluded him for the past eighteen months. I stopped myself from mentioning searching for it on the internet, figuring that he had probably heard and ignored that advice from younger people several times before. Besides, all my books and CDs have been found by hunting and gathering, so I’m not going to tell anyone else to be more systematic.
I didn’t expect to find much of interest. Over half the shelf-space was taken up with opera, and in most record shops opera is inversely proportional to 20th century stuff. I picked up a couple of discounted Naxos discs (yeah, that’s how cheap I am) and found this Luc Ferrari disc, which I hadn’t heard of before. Gramex also has a basement full of vinyl, which I didn’t dare look at because I haven’t replaced my turntable yet.
It’s another set of his disconcertingly jaunty and menacing piano pieces, with various taped and electronic sounds inexplicably popping up every now and then. I almost forgot to include that description of the music itself before posting this thing.

(What used to be on top of the pile?)

Another day, another musical institution turning against its fans.

Thursday 7 June 2007

Remember the Roberto Alagna scandal at La Scala in December? La Scala, possibly after having run out of other people to sue, has now sent a cease and desist letter to Opera Chic, fearless blogger of all things La Scala and dogged chronicler of the troubled Aïda production. Opera Chic has had no option but to comply, removing all the photos taken inside the theatre from her blog, and changing her logo.
Supposedly, La Scala were worried that people would confuse OC’s blog with the official La Scala site. La Scala must also like to pepper its site with pictures of Riccardo Chailly with MS Paint speech balloons calling Alagna TEH SUXXOR, and feature guest appearances by the Drama Llama.
On the other hand, maybe people wouldn’t be so confused if La Scala’s site didn’t crash in a smouldering heap the day it should have announced its 2007/08 season, leaving Opera Chic to do all the work for them. Ingrates!

Everybody’s Got One

Thursday 7 June 2007

The story of the lost Morton Feldman recording, hidden in plain sight with a name tag and everything, reminded me of Kurt Schwitters’ recording of his Ursonate. Back when I was first trying to find out more about Schwitters, every book (yes, pre-internet) I read mentioned that Schwitters never made a complete recording of his major sound poem. Then one day I find a CD in the shops of Schwitters reciting the piece. All of it. How did this happen? It went a little something like this….

Cologne, 1987
Jack Ox: Gee, wouldn’t it be great if we could hear how Schwitters performed his Ursonate?
Michael Waisvisz: Oh, you can borrow my copy.
Ox: No, I mean a performance by Schwitters himself.
Waisvisz: Yeah, I taped a copy of it from some guy at STEIM back in the 60s. It was a dub of some shellac discs Schwitters had recorded.
Ox: !!!!!
Waisvisz: What, is it rare or something?

UbuWeb has a page of different versions of the Ursonate, including the Schwitters recording, and the 1986 recording by Jaap Blonk that Ernst Schwitters doesn’t want you to hear!
Also, just because I found them while (ahem) researching this post, here are some ridiculously cool photos of Leon Theremin jamming with Michael Waisvisz.

Lost Feldman piece recovered!

Wednesday 6 June 2007

There are artworks that are lost, and then there are artworks that are stolen from the backs of cars: such was the fate of the master tapes for Robert Ashley’s In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women before the proper mixdown could be made.
Perhaps more notoriously, because no trace of its existence remained, was Morton Feldman’s composition The Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar, the manuscript of which was stolen from colleague Christian Wolff’s car in 1966 (it was kept inside his guitar case, which was lifted along with the instrument).
I subscribe to the Morton Feldman mailing list Why Patterns? (doesn’t everyone?), so in my inbox today came the news that after going missing for 41 years, a recording of the piece has been found.
The piece had only been played three times, once at a radio station. Feldman scholar Chris Villars and Steve Dickison of San Francisco State University did some inspired guesswork as to what station that might be and got in touch with Charles Shere, a former Music Director at KPFA Berkeley from 1964-67.

Amazingly, Charles Shere recalled seeing a tape in the archive labelled with the title of Feldman’s piece, which he had thought was a piece by Christian Wolff. No-one had realised the importance of this tape as probably the only recording of a piece whose score was subsequently lost!

Soon after, Other Minds unearthed a tape of the complete concert, including the lost Feldman work. A digital copy has now been made – no news yet of how or when it will be published.

This is a perfect opportunity to plug the new, improved RadiOM, Other Minds’ free archive of recordings of landmark concerts, readings, interviews and lectures.

Back, by request

Tuesday 5 June 2007

I’ve just come back from a highly enjoyable long weekend at the Venn Festival in Bristol, which I might write up a bit, even though I’m reluctant to rant on about the work of people I know personally. All week I’m in and out of the house attending to various bits of business, so in the meantime please enjoy this photograph, taken at a friend’s instigation during a pleasant summer evening’s drinking by the old Bristol docks.

I am assured it is one of the vans the historic krautrock band Faust turned up in for their gig on Friday night. It certainly looks like the type of vehicle that might have been released by Brain records circa 1972. Also, if a picture paints a thousand words, then please accept this photo as an in-depth review of what a Faust gig sounds like in 2007.

The Invisible Academy

Wednesday 30 May 2007

It looks like I’ve been on a John Cage kick lately, but that’s like saying a physicist is on an Einstein kick. My interest in him hasn’t changed; it just happens that I’ve been posting about him more often than usual.
I’ve just been reading an interview of Cage with Peter Gena. This comment made by Gena makes, in a more concise and lucid way, the point I was getting at in my intemperate rant about most electroacoustic music:

There is a difference between receiving an idea, and evolving through one. The attitude in, “That’s a good idea; I think I’ll write a piece with that,” is usually less productive and rarely experimental. The best examples of this are often connected with technology. A technician introduces a new “chip” and can do forty voices at once, and costs only five dollars; so ten of those can produce 400 voices. Then because of the new chip, a composer who rarely writes music gets an idea for a piece, outside of any active aesthetic continuum.

This was said back in 1982. So many musicians (I’m thinking particularly of composers) have not learned to accommodate technology into their musical practice; for all this time they have been distracted by the continuous developments in technology and dashing from one latest thing to the next, allowing their music to be dictated by them. Furthermore, like academicism at its worst, the music so produced is directed toward justifying the idea behind it (the old “it’s better than it sounds” phenomenon) than as a product of genuine creativity.

Gena, naturally, then goes on to contrast this approach to Cage’s:

What strikes me about your music and ideas is that the ideas come at a point when you need them, as opposed to this other approach.

“Why? You ask but it beats me. I feel it done to me, and ache.”

Thursday 24 May 2007

Something has been bugging me since Christmas. As is usual at that time of year, the radio, particularly the type of stations I listen to, was full of the usual christmassy songs, most of them customarily horrible. Like Dante’s circles of Hell, there are graded degrees of quality of Christmas song. “Adeste Fidelis”, say, might enjoy the company of Aristotle and Ovid, while “Jingle Bell Rock” rots amidst the betrayers.
I had always thought that there was a place reserved in one of the lower circles for “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, a song, on casual listening, I had always found exasperatingly smarmy and condescending. Over time I’d guessed that there was a greater meaning behind the song that I wasn’t getting, but didn’t care because the tune, its arrangement, and the way it was sung, inevitably crushed its suppressed sentiments down to the complacently glib.
It may have been one I hadn’t heard before, it may be that for once I paid close enough attention, but last Christmas I heard several times a version of the song that was sincere, touching, and achingly sad. Usually, a revelation like this is an experience of unalloyed pleasure, the thrill of discovery coupled with the minor relief of there being one less odious thing in the world to despise; but I cannot shake off a sense of regret for my newfound admiration of this song.
It can be hard to pin down the exact circumstances that force you to reconsider your tastes. Sometimes a shift in understanding can come from a forced change in perspective. I’d always disliked The Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride” until one day in my early twenties when, immobilised by flu on a couch, I heard it played on a small AM transistor radio hidden beneath a cushion and realised it was a little masterpiece.
More usually such changes in taste can be attributed to a natural, healthy expansion of one’s palate over time, or that comes naturally with the attainment of maturity. In this case, I can see how an older, more experienced mind can recognise depths in the little Christmas song to which a younger person would remain oblivious. Why does part of me resent finding this depth? Is it better to learn to sympathise with other people’s hopes and sorrows expressed in simple songs, or is it better to reject with a youthful sneer the foolish sentimentality, emotional manipulation, the con artist’s pitch?
Having shown so much love and understanding for so long, should I be less tolerant of other people’s tastes? Some years ago I drew a line in the sand at Frankie Valli; should I be doing more to defend myself?
There is so much good music I will never get to hear. Why should I be pleased to discover that “Me and Mrs Jones”, a song I’ve always found hateful, has a rather fine-sounding guitar break? Am I listening to too much mediocre music, and starting to prefer technical accomplishment to creativity and imagination?
Should I stop finding beauty everywhere, lest I open my mind so far that I let in the forces that will close it down, trapping myself in a popular critic’s world of stunted sentimentality and highbrow kitsch?
Is it virtuous to find reasons to accept the bad with the good, or does it ultimately lower one into relativism – a passive, complacent mindset that accommodates any mediocrity it encounters, never stirring to reject it and instead seek out the good?

(Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.)