A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance

Sunday 15 March 2020

I listened to this new tape by Jennifer Walshe and had a whole bunch of ideas about what to write about it. Then I listened to it again and immediately forgot everything I was going to say. To collect my thoughts, I listened to some of Bach’s lute suites, played on guitar. They weren’t really written for lute either, but they were almost certainly written by Bach. All cultural transmission is distortion. On A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance, Walshe sings a selection of compositions dating from the 2nd Century to the 16th. They are arranged in chronological order. She has worked on these recordings in collaboration with CJ Carr and Zack Zukowkski, a duo collectively known as Dadabots. They work with neural network machine learning technology and produced multiple iterations of Walshe’s voice reinterpreted by artificial intelligence. In an imitation of the chronological approach, each piece is presented in a progressively more advance iteration.

As Walshe observes in her sleeve notes, this progressive approach parodies the meliorist, evolutionary narrative so commonly given in the history of Western music (as she herself had taught for years). It’s a false narrative, of course: art never improves – only the material of art changes. In this parody, chants and motets alike are rendered as a garbled melange of whispers, croaks and whistles. Over time, melody starts to emerge, a voice begins to be heard. At one point a trumpet suddenly appears out of the blue. As each piece becomes more recent to our time, a more recognisable identity can be heard; or perhaps we’ve been listening to it long enough for things to start making sense to us. It may seem crude now but it is, we are assured, the future.

Heard without any knowledge of the backstory, this is fascinatingly detailed electronic music, with an erratic logic of its own, with complex sounds moving both towards and away from acoustic sound, even dipping into an uncanny valley representation of the human voice. Would it sound more coherent with each successive piece, were we not informed of the process? Perhaps the parody is taking place on a deeper level. The premise is the same as the “we trained an AI bot to write fan fiction” jokes that have made the rounds in recent years. Are we kidding ourselves when we hear an improvement in the music’s faithfulness to the model? We’ve been leading generations of students to believe that music develops over time.

It’s easy to imagine such a project would eventually succeed, producing a replica of a singing human voice. It would be perfectly accurate, and as recognisably authentic to us as Bach’s music would be to him, were he to hear it played today.

LCMF 2019 Highlights, Part 3

Tuesday 31 December 2019

(Continued from Part 2, here.)

It’s the last day of the year. On my desk is a small ammonite fossil; it is 140 million years old. It was handed to me as I entered the premiere of Jennifer Walshe’s new piece TIME TIME TIME, an ambitious commission by LCMF and the Serpentine Gallery. It’s a collaborative work, with contributions by Áine O’Dwyer, Lee Patterson and M.C. Schmidt, with a quartet of musicians distributed around the audience. The text, by Walshe and Timothy Morton, deals with the title subject in a similarly emphatic yet inarticulate way. Any honest subjective approach to the concept of time and its consequences must be one of incomprehension, of struggling to understand how time truly relates to subjective experience. Each audience member was holding a fossil of an age we can barely even conceive of in the abstract.

I’ve previously discussed Walshe’s recent work ALL THE MANY PEOPLS and the way it observes the new conditions of subjectivity in the present age. TIME TIME TIME shows how people must invent their own understandings of the passage of time, from the deep geological time of the earth’s development, of the dinosaurs, how it is measured and apportioned, to how it passes.

Compared to other performances by the same composer, it unfolds at a less frenetic pace, including a song from O’Dwyer, dance from Walshe, resplendent in a green sequined dress on a catwalk in the middle of the room, and theatre as performers crawled through the space imitating extinct species. In between all this was antiphonal patter from Walshe and Schmidt, accompanied by videos depicting fictional dinosaurs, geothermal simulations of the earth’s interior, smartphones, atomic clocks and observations of insitutions at nearby Greenwich on the Prime Meridian. Amidst the urgency, the frustrations, the urgency, through it all came a mood of reverie, yearning to grasp something that can never be possessed, as one might long for the past.

It all sounded as good as it looked, with humour and pathos balanced nicely throughout in a way that carried the capacity audience along. Most memorable still is the period where vocalists, musicians and electronic artists combined to surround audiences with sounds resembling primeval swampland, with the innocence and charm of an aural Rousseau painting. Throughout the evening, motionless above the stage, a lone figure sat cross-legged in meditation.

The final night was combined poetry by CA Conrad with short films, including Marianna Simnett’s new film The Bird Game which combined the very British traditions of nursery rhymes and public information films. The two new musical commissions presented were for orchestra, again conducted by Jack Sheen. Burrows & Fargion’s Let us stop this mad rush towards the end was beautifully executed but suffered from a fatally close resemblance to Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in conception and method. Angharad Davies’ I ble’r aeth y gwrachod i gyd…? on the other hand was a powerful experience. Compositions by musicians with a greater reputation for improvisation can often come across as flawed or lacking (whether fairly or not) but this was thrillingly stark and complex in equal measures. Davies’ presence as a soloist was shadowy, confimed to recordings of her playing violin inside a church: isolated slashes of sound, amplified and left to resonate. The orchstra echoed and augmented the violin with dark harmonies and dense coloration. The initial impression of call and response broadened out into an orchestration of and counterpart to the tape, in a way that remained clear and controlled without ever becoming simplistic. It would be good to hear this again.

LCMF 2019 Highlights, Part 1

Sunday 22 December 2019

Flubbed last year but saw all of the latest London Contemporary Music Festival. Curators Igor Toronyi-Lalic and Jack Sheen put together the most ambitious programme yet – six gigs over nine days, with bold, eclectic programming and newly-commissioned large-scale works. The theme of “Witchy Methodologies” implied that it might demand the punter to buy into a ragbag of mismatched and demotic metaphysical woo. This was thankfully avoided, although each of the first two nights did feature performers who expected the audience to join in. The blurb that promised “rituals and reenchantment, doubling and transformation, gossip and eavesdropping, hauntologies and orreries, mysticism and technomancy” etc. was interpreted broadmindedly enough to make a varied, compelling programme, setting very different works into a new context. Questions over the nature of transformation and meaning ran through each evening in music that ranged from musical table-rapping to Fluxus.

It all began this year with a performance of Ligeti’s Poème symphonique, repurposed here as a kind of initiation rite. As a bold but seemingly empty gesture, it served as a threshold to the unknown. Its soundworld was echoed later in the evening by Fritz Hauser’s Schraffur, which began with Hauser alone in the middle of the vast space of Ambika P3 scraping a notched drumstick and then multiplied throughout the audience, with performers using different resonant surfaces at hand to create an enveloping cicada-like din.

The rest of the gig was all voices, with the group Musarc giving beautifully realised performances, unexpectedly matching Poulenc’s Un soir de Neige against new commissions by Joseph Kohlmaier and Lina Lapelytė. The two premieres made simple use out of call-and-responde and convergence in a way that felt tentative and underdeveloped, making both somewhat disappointing in their lack of adventurousness. By contrast, Jennifer Walshe’s The White Noisery was a powerfully sustained celebration cum laceration of pop culture, tradition and social movements. A slightly older work (2013), it received its first UK performance here and gave a rare occasion to hear Walshe’s music without the commanding presence of the composer herself. Musarc was fully up meeting the same level of manic intensity and sudden mood swings, in a piece where the usual ironic postmodern collage of cultural references is turned in upon itself, depicting a world where all experience is mediated. It was a sign of things to come, later in the festival.

The first Sunday was a quieter night: “On Hauntology” was appropriately given over to the past. Susan Hiller’s video Belshazzar’s Feast feels quaint now, while Rosemary Brown’s little piano pieces have taken on a new currency. Brown gained notoriety in the Sixties for her musical medium schtick, channelling the spirits of Chopin and Liszt to transcribe new compositions they dictated to her. As observed by Nicolas Slonimsky, the old masters’ talents had been “fatally affected by their protracted states of death”, but he also saw that she was a musically gifted woman who had been denied the opportunities to develop her talent. Strangely, her use of stable tonality, gentle arpeggiation and modest scale means that her music fits right in with what would now be classified as “modern composition”. The Brown was interleaved with short improvisations by veteran vocalist Maggie Nicols, who continued the theme of confused groping for the past.

High point of the evening was a new commission by Eva-Maria Houben. A peaceful, silent place is a lengthy work for positive organ and piano. Houben played organ, sat across the hall from pianist Siwan Rhys, who had previously played Rosemary Brown. Houben’s organ pieces can range from subdued to almost imperceptible, and here she blended this restrained gamut of dynamics into a subtle, ever-changing palette of tones and textures. The tone of the organ became particularly mysterious, sounding muted, half-stopped and breathless. The cavernous space became part of the instrument, as Houben’s playing sought out different resonances and overtones, creating new harmonics out of the air. At times it was hard to tell if she was just very soft or completely silent, letting the ambience reverberate. Rhys played piano with infinite patience, an occasional high chord in close harmony that rippled through the sustained organ tones, stirring up new emergent sounds, gently pushing the air a little more.

Jennifer Walshe: ALL THE MANY PEOPLS

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Jennifer Walshe makes computer music. Her voice remains at the centre of things, free of electronic modification but shaped and conditioned by present-day information technology. The most essentially human and direct of instruments is transformed into something our ancestors may not have recognised but our contemporaries know all too well: something about being human has changed. ALL THE MANY PEOPLS is an intensely focused study on attention deficit.

A century ago, Joyce (and Flaubert before him) made it their duty to inform us that the Enlightenment had been a failure, creating people who know a little about everything and understand nothing. People’s minds have been full of eclectic information ever since; the extent of knowledge defined itself by its incompleteness. Attempts made to synthesise this eclecticism into a coherent whole invariably fail. Since the invention of the printing press, things have only gotten worse. Any rando could publish a book of tall tales, presented with as much authority as the Bible itself. Tabloids, pamphlets, penny dreadfuls, advertising, a cacophony of information and misinformation.

As for now: “You really think someone would do that? Just go on the internet and tell lies?” The proliferation of useless data has become a neverending explosion. With all information reduced to a common undifferentiated state, nothing matters. Jokes are taken seriously (4Chan); seriousness is taken as a joke (Francis E. Dec). It’s a hothouse for conspiracies, ignorance ennobled.

A scholar may describe ALL THE MANY PEOPLS as a collage, but it’s a moot point. Everything these days is a collage. Walshe violently yokes together field recordings, video games, steam engines and public-domain soundbites with her own one-person babel: memes, screeds, bad jokes, second-hand anecdotes and passable imitations of nature sounds. Nothing lasts for long and nothing is finished, although it may be repeated. Switches in voice, tone and subject matter are made at breakneck speed. It’s as carefully paced as a Hollywood blockbuster, to leave the impression of relentless action. The frenetic whirl of verbiage paints a portrait of despairing ignorance: questions not only unanswered but unasked, save by Google’s autocomplete function.

Half a century ago, it was prophecied that information would be the medium we swim through, immersed. The dire consequence of this has become that, in the welter of information we share on a daily basis with friends and strangers alike, the information shared has become irrelevant. It has become a medium for sharing attention.

In 1966, John Cage wrote that “Nowadays everything happens at once and our souls are conveniently electronic (omniattentive).” Some fifteen years earlier, his Black Mountain colleague Charles Olson wrote “when the attentions change / the jungle leaps in”; Olson is the first person known to describe his era as “post-modern”. As joint prophets of postmodernism, Olson became the pessimist counterweight to Cage’s optimism. For Olson, Fuller’s Global Village held no more people than before, they were simply atomised, scattered to the four corners of the Earth. Guy Davenport, in his 1976 essay on Olson, lamented that:

What has happened to American culture (Melville observed that we are more a world than a nation) is a new disintegration that comes hard upon our integration. A new daimon has got into the world, a daimon that cancels place (American cities all look like each other), depletes the world’s supply of fossil fuel (if anybody’s around to make the statement, our time can be put into a sentence: the Late Pleistocene ate the Eocene), transforms the mind into a vacuum (“Do they grow there?” a New Yorker asked of the offshore rocks at Gloucester) which must then be filled with evaporating distractions called entertainment. Olson… was of De Gaulle’s opinion that we are the first civilization to have bred our own barbarians…. a hunnish horde of young who have been taught nothing, can do nothing, and exhibit a lemming restlessness. Their elders are scarcely more settled or more purposeful to themselves or their neighbors.

Forty years on, for ‘America’ read ‘the world’. Walshe’s music, like Robert Ashley’s operas, taps into current states of thinking and relating to the world that have not yet been fully assimilated by art: it’s hard to consider them as ‘real music’. It can seem simultaneously amusing, disturbing and baffling.

The old ways of making your art work are no good anymore. Imagery? Image is everything, from selfies to flag-burning. The signifier itself has become significant. Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle updated Marxist analysis of economics, observing that images had replaced objects as items of exchange value. Whether sharing pictures of grandkids on Facebook, holidays on Instagram or protests on Twitter, the illusion of happiness, success or action are one and the same as the thing itself. Walshe plunders this world of images to reveal a new, disturbing successor to the Spectacle: the “attention economy”. If we are truly modern creatures who swim through social media, we no longer interpret it but exist as part of it. (As with television, it’s not for watching, it’s for being on.) As image detached from material success, attention is detaching itself from fame. Billions of people are clamouring for your attention, for proof that they exist. It has become a new definition of what it is to be human in this culture.

Walshe over-emotes, she puts on accents. They’re stoopid. They’re not meant to be good, or accurate. She wants to tell you something. There are funny lines, obnoxious noises, verbal pratfalls, false bravado. Who is speaking? The internet: everyone and no-one. Humanity, taken as a random sample of survey respondents. Like it or hate it, you can’t help but notice some of it. Like Instagram, this music is desperate for your approval but disdainful of your incomprehension. It doesn’t need you.

ALL THE MANY PEOPLS falls into two parts, each the right size to fill the side of an LP. It’s available as a download or “a limited edition gatefold colour-drop vinyl”. There’s still a place for commodities in the economy. Artists shouldn’t work just for exposure.