What’s New? Remixes, Fluxus, Drones, Industry, Potatoes.

Saturday 30 July 2022

What do we mean when we talk about ‘new music’? The term carries multiple meaninings: for starters, there’s what strikes us as outside our previous experience, or there’s what signifies to us as looking towards the future. I’m listening to Flash Crash + Remixes, credited to Jascha Narveson & Ashley Bathgate + Guests. The cover art and the cello-plus-remixes concept symbolises newness and the futuristic, but is the music truly new? The modern understanding of the term ‘remix’ has been around for over forty years now, so the music presented here should be a fairly comfortable accommodation of folk art turned commercial practice. There’s no obligation for the music to beat us over the head with novelty, and Narveson himself says the project is inspired by his “love of community, collaboration, and techno”, all nice comfy ideas. But still, we register the package as consciously modern.

Flash Crash itself is a 2016 work composed by Narveson for cellist Ashley Bathgate with computer-controlled electronics, apparently derived from stock market data. Everything co-exists pretty harmoniously, actually, so it all works out in the end. The remixes, and the original appeals to techno, risk becoming excessively derivative of a more vital culture, the relative vitality being a matter of one imitating the other. Some, like the Lorna Dune mix, start promisingly before turning to pastiche. Matthew D. Gantt’s version substitutes MIDI instrumental patches to create a work reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s Synclavier compositions as a nod to retro-futurism. Things get more interesting later, with Lainie Fefferman’s Repairbot Q sent to Engine Room 3, working through the loneliness and Angélica Negrón’s Choque Súbito transforming the original beyond all recognition into disturbing, atmospheric works. Vladislav Delay’s remix finally delivers on the expectation of a disruptive, desconstructed (sorry) transformation of the original, pulling its elements apart to create something new.

The Wire has been celebrating its 40th anniversary with various events, including the gig Apartment House Play And Music at Cafe Oto. This was a loose grab-bag of old pieces, made new by the fact that but nobody has ever heard them. A Tony Conrad quartet (two violins, two cellos) was revived, agreeably sawing and grinding through off-kilter rhythms; a Clark Coolidge text piece rendered in voice and instruments; a fragmented ensemble piece, composed by Derek Bailey. The most familiar face in this lineup was Anthony Braxton, represented by a lively rendition of one of his Ghost Trance pieces, mixing bass clarinet, strings and prepared piano. All these old works remain new not just by being unheard, but by pointing towards future practices in music, typically in ways that suggest other approaches that remain unexplored today.

Michael von Biel, a composer usually known only by name, if at all, was represented by his Quartett mit Begleitung, where the string quartet’s Darmstadt-worthy precision is adulterated by graphic abstraction and the presence of an extra cellist left to improvise with objects. Yoko Ono, the world’s most famous unknown artist, wrote Overtone Piece in 1964; Apartment House’s realisation made it into a surprisingly deep piece of rigid, early drone. I said the setlist was loose because the promised pieces by Terry Jennings and Ben Patterson were forgotten as the evening progressed. Things got looser still when the gig finished with Henning Christiansen’s Kartoffelopera​, a 1969 composition receiving its UK premiere. The premise is simple: potatoes are scattered across five straight lines on the floor, forming a score for the musicians to play. The audience is invited to bring their own potato or move the potatoes, from time to time. Things, perhaps inevitably, get unruly. As the opera’s dramaturgy is determined by the audience, this was a distinctly British staging, with irritating playfulness that never escalated to physical injuries.

While almost all of our musical experience is now electronically mediated, we still think of it as a primarily acoustic, organic event: the presence of electronics in music still extends to us the expectation that something will be done to make things new. Where electronics predominate, it implies something outside of the human experience – possibly transcendental (new age), ecstatic (techno), cathartic (noise) or a kind of negative dialectic of entertainment (industrial). As a genre, industrial music has typically become more post-industrial, revelling in entropy and decay in a sort of romantic or nihilistic (same diff) reverie. Deison’s Magnetic Debris vol. 1 & 2 isn’t industrial, but it does make that common use of decayed tech, a romance of ruins. The fourteen tracks are composed mostly from old media and found sounds: aged cassettes, broken records and elettromagnetic interference. At first, the resulting pieces seemed inert, smoothing away the interesting details that may be found in the material. On repeated listening, however, each piece revealed a compositional depth and character that showed Magnetic Debris was not an exercise in documentation, but a restrictive means to an end in producing music that rewards subjective consideration.

One of the things with New Stuff is you don’t know at first if it’s really worth your time. Thetford, a release from the duo UNIONBLOCK, is described by the musicians “epic subterranean dirge” and so it comes with heavy associations of drone and industrial noise that already suggests a love-it-or-hate it affair. The sounds are prolonged by an abrasive buzzing, which turns out to be down to both the material and the means. Recorded in an 18th century church in Vermont, Jack Langdon plays a tracker organ (i.e. mechanical linkages) and Weston Olencki ekes drones from electromagnetic devices placed on banjos. As a grotesque reimagining of 19th century American vernacular it has its strengths, particularly in playing up the instruments’ mechanical noises and stop/start of technology. The grim conformity of the drone is broken by an interlude of more playful (in both senses of the word) improvisation before resuming. It reminded me of Pancrace’s The Fluid Hammer, but with Pancrace the music was more varied and the historical and social context was expressed with greater clarity and detail. After half an hour of Thetford‘s drones, the remaining twenty minutes becomes more muted and in this diminished state seems to have run out of things to say.

It also reminded me of Ian Power’s piece BUOY (after Laurence Crane) from his album Maintenance Hums, but this post is already too long and I’ll get around to that later.