Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Stay on It: On the Music of Julius Eastman

What is that distinguishes this piece by Julius Eastman from the similar pop-minimalism of the Philip Glass Ensemble and on to the music of an even-more watered-down populist-assimilator like Michael Torke, which its anticipates but far surmounts? That distinguishes it from those generations’ softening of the stringencies of the first generation minimalists, from their softening of that first generation's stringent asceticism -- infinity in a grain of sand, the biggest canvas from the smallest materials or a deliberate poverty, austerity of means as against romantic swoll excesses of cod- or post-romanticism? Unlike Glass and unlike Torke, Eastman’s music is not content to be aural wallpaper but to actually swell itself, in ambiguous bursting or reduction, in massed small ensemble as orchestra (Eastman’s pieces - the 'nigger series', say - are often open in terms of instrumentation, so that 18 stringed instruments would do; 4 pianos would do; the perversity of combinations and the ear for texture, bright and clean in some pieces but also capable of a thick murk building up and out of and into rhythmic insistence). #Stay On It#, the absolute fresh happiness, as it seems, of the recurring pop-py chordal figure reduced or amplified, reiterated or swelled, down to solo piano near the end, or stuttered, broken into rhythmical suspension as bars are left out for silence as emphasis or interruption, burst out of somewhere mid-way as saxophones and clarinets mesh improvisationally into moaning, wailing modes of joy that, like much of Eastman’s music, have a latent melancholy and desparation in their triumph: the strength of the damned and oppressed, up against the wall, staying on it, smart but not rich, evil and crazy guerilla nigger outcasts: the melancholy that finally trickles on its own as the piano part winds down and we are finally left with only the continuing shake of percussion as the bereft yet determinedly still present ghost of that rhythmic obsession-insistence Eastman so loves.

Eastman’s pieces focus on process, organic form, the latent content of each piece in at its beginning and evolving out like the big bang: or, in the certainly minimal, but not conventionally ‘minimalist’ 'If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich', a deliberately bull-headed slow upward scalar ascent, forcing the trumpet to ‘stay on’ high figures of a Maynard Ferguson quality, brass ensemble like the smashed remains or sketches for some film score stretched beyond latent melodrama to the point of absurdity and then back. Tubular bells ringing into the silent hollow. Scratchy twisting bending amplified violin over nightmare chattered ensemble iterations. Edge of the fucking seat in tense and tensile boredom. Bull-headed, in your face. Shattering the Glass enclosure.

Eastman’s pieces are about ensemble, co-ordination, non-privileging of individual voice, complex interlocking of parts, moving almost into chaos and even staying there for a bit, but then back: “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR”, shouting in time for the unison re-entry of addictive riff in 'Evil Nigger'. Ba-DUm, Ba-DUm, ba-Dum, as Kyle Gann says of the rhythmic figures in 'Gay Guerilla'. The pre-climactic use of Martin Luther's hymn 'A Mighty Fortress is Our Lord', in anthemic reclamation. You want to be a solider, a martyr, a gay guerilla, in subverted Lutheran hymn, that granite flow. Stay the fuck on it.

Joan d’Arc’s presence is holy because it is defiant. “Speak BOLDLY,” the climactic line of Eastman’s solo recitation-prelude to his multi-cello ‘The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc’, in which the massed hordes of speaking saints say over and over, insist that Joan stay on it, excluded but defiant. Speak Boldly. Say it, over and over again. Joan of Arc is holy AGAINST the church – “a reminder to those who think they can destroy liberators by acts of treachery, malice, and murder….[L]ike all organizations, especially governments and religious organizations, they oppress in order to perpetuate themselves” – the holiness of her presence a raggedy collective, a whole made up of parts only just staying on it, speaking off the same page, from pop, pop-classical, jazz, the singular. Here’s the dissonance which Kyle Gann sees “dissolving into transcendence”, outside the comforting trance of Glass, reflections shone blinding your eyes in coolest shade, spooks; but no transcendence as mere escape, in material returning transformed to stay here on it, to show you process not bamboozled, not spiritual-droned to ecstatic guru surrender, New York incense chamber, but bold-face fucked up.

From Anna Kisselgoff’s New York Times review of his 1986 dance collaboration with Molissa Fenley, ‘Geological Moments’ (the music for which was actually shared with Glass, and which, as the review notes, forced itself on the dancers in a way that Glass’s, eminently ignorable, did not): “[Eastman] performed as a soloist with both dissonant resonance and a strangely muted evangelical fervor.” Both taking the implicit piss out of, by contextual oddness of placing, and fully participating in and channelling that Church rigour, that church fever, that bull-headed staying on; you might say, too simply, it was a Protestant retort against some decadent un-focussed transcendence, were you to miss, whatever, the moral imperative against the kind of moral condemnation that would be turned against Eastman’s own ‘kind’ (kinds) by precisely that kind of model. Or, he makes use of both, Joan’s ecstatic shattering of roles into that different raggedy-ass but completely precise collective, out of Cage, indeterminacy, improvisation, militarized minimalism-discipline, sacred and profane, mighty fortresses whose walls might come crumbling down any second only to rise again, building the city in momentary negotiation, “majestic rising modal scale”, as someone put of the conclusion to ‘Gay Guerilla’, “Right thought, right speech, right action, right music,” as Eastman himself put it in 1981, “always making new inversions”, adjustment to justice, to a judgement not imposed from above but in ethical drive right ON.

Because also, as Andrew Hansen-Dvoracek notes in an invaluable MA dissertation on the three pieces (Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger and Gay Guerilla) performed at the 1981 Northwestern University concert from which are taken many of the recordings on ‘Unjust Malaise’, the three CD set of Eastman’s music released on New World records, the use of Luther’s hymn is re-appropriation: as Debussy’s 'En Blanc Et Noir', which uses a similar alternation between the white and black keys of the piano, uses that hymn as an intrusion into the lush impressionistic tonality of his own language, as (crudely) German armed forces invading the French countryside, Eastman appropriates it as counter-weapon, not valourizing despoiled weakness but fighting back, ten years after Stonewall, a new militancy in reference to Afghani or PLO guerrillas, that invoked spirit; as he re-appropriates ‘nigger’ as equivalent Holy Name to the ‘99 names of Allah’ – “either I glorify them or they glorify me”; Martin Luther become a nigger faggot minimalist warrior.

This appropriation as re-arrangement, transposition, subversive playing of roles, which is always connected, to whatever greater or lesser extent, to that element of parody to Eastman’s persona that we hear or read about from reports on performances and appearances and in the music too. This is that which so dismayed John Cage: Eastman’s performance of one of Cage’s Songbook pieces (“give a lecture”) as ‘Professor Paga of La Jolla, California’, with his boyfriend and sister as his ‘assistants’, discoursing on a new sensuality of love, which managed to dismay Cage, to offend Cage, by being both too frank in its homosexuality (his boyfriend nude by the end of the piece) and too sarcastic, too much a caricature, in its satirization of the academic world to which Cage was now at least partially indebted too or reliant on for artistic capital, in its flamboyant display of a sexuality Cage had concealed form his music and which it at once seemed to question and to too-securely or solely inhabit. Or hear Eastman’s rock-solid baritone on Arthur Russell’s Dinosaur L tracks, as he swoops up through octaves to emphasize the mutant panic at the heart of the disco collective Russell so loved: “Go-o-o Ba-ANG!” Eastman’s high note at the end almost becomes a police whistle, the invasion of a safe space, fluidity rigidly funked into rhythm and surrounded by the hostility of homophobes and cops.

And yet and against that which disco might sound too smoothly like to us today, an earthiness, a dirtiness, reclaimed: “and what I mean by niggers is that thing which is fundamental, that person or thing that obtains to a basicness, a fundamentalness, and eschews that which is superficial or, what can we say, elegant”; the “great and grand” American economic system, based on the “first and great nigger, the field nigger.” The underclass in the hall of the mountain king, bashing across the entire harmonic series on four concert grands, swooping in and moving on up from below. So it’s entirely appropriate to hear him booming out “in the corn belt, corn corn” on that other Dinosaur L track ‘In the Corn Belt’, alongside guitars, muted trombones, his own organ, bouncing percussion; a jam that at once flits away into what David Toop or Simon Reynolds might call the ‘oceanic’ and that Stays On It, stripping away whatever veneers or masks it wears. As Russell puts it on ‘Go Bang’ – “I wanna see all of my friends at once": but this isn’t some hippy-dippy imagined family as false internationalism, pot-pourri soft-imperialism to provide a soft wash on the speakers of bougie flats done up in aromatic cleanliness, in their best feng-shui; it is messy entanglement hard and bright and dark and sad and strong.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013


This is music with a pose aware of its own status as pose, but one posed for an audience different to that working-class or lumpen-proletarian audience one which hip-hop might, in the past and even in some cases in the present, at least pretend to speak for and to. This is music for hipsters, the Pitchfork crowd, posing as music for the people, but which everyone knows is music for hipsters; to be listened to by trendy white kids ‘slumming’ it through their headphones, but with the requisite amount of ‘artiness’ to prevent them from feeling that they’re actually accessing a true lumpen-proletarian vision. Thus, the mix of lyrics with pretensions to the hard-edge macho-misogynistic boasting of a gangsta lienage with ‘cloud rap’ quasi-melancholy, the woozily doomy ambience of post DJ-Screw aesthetics. A$AP Rocky doesn’t rap much, compared to, say, MF Doom’s hyper-virtuosity: the words merge into the background, the track standing on its production rather than by its words (a trend perhaps initiated by the Lil B/ Clams Casino collaborations). Indeed, this is what characterizes the increasing blurring of the lines between style and content, where the emptiness of the gangsta boasts is indeed treated as empty, as almost a secondary texture to the production, dextrousness of flow more than content. Lil B is the extreme example of this, perhaps, veering wildly between the most banal of self-help positivity mantras and aggressive rape-threats to the more interesting parodies of the ideas of persona whereby Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” becomes ‘I’m Bill Clinton’, ‘I’m God’, ‘I’m Gay’, etc, all reduced to the same incompetently slurred and slow, seemingly semi-improvised quasi-rapping.

Still, I think the first song ‘Long.Live.A$AP’, which shares the name of the album, is doing something more interesting, structurally, something which both underlines and goes against the suggestions of its title, with its suggestions of royalty, the urgent non-spaced full-stop between the words breaking up the length or eternity it claims to claim, the urgency of the ASAP acronym turned into ‘get money’, as if that eternity could be accomplished by the money that accumulates the exploitations of an obscured history as its never-ending transcendental legacy for getting everything you want right now, forever. What, for example, to make of the poignancy of its high-pitched sung chorus, asserting that, “Of course, I’m living forever I’ll / Forever, I’ll live long”, with its odd rhythmic landing on the first word (‘I’ll’) of the next sentence, here included as the concluding cadence of the previous line; the grammatical weirdness whereby a verb is elided in order to allow that rhythmic extension of the “I’ll”, so that Rocky claims he’ll “forever”, in which ‘forever’ becomes a verb one could perform, even as the future-projection in the claim to be able to live forever is insistently reduced to a present tense “I’m living forever,” ending with an insistent “I’ll LIVE” that nonetheless never connects up with the “I’ll / forever” which precedes it and which it should complete, so that the futurity of living forever can never be said directly. Not only because of this grammatical weirdness, but because of the odd ethereality of the voice itself – which one might even depict as having the vague associations a kind of soul-ascended-from-the-body spectrality, particularly after Rocky, his “soul […] feel[ing] empty” challenges “the reaper [to] come get me” at the end of the first verse – or the fact that Rocky, despite his claims to invincibility and immortality, to being “on the road to riches” and “tot[ing] that 9,” equally depicts himself as running scared, somewhere between Malcolm X (perhaps via Krs-One), holding his gun in readiness at the window, and a middle-class weakling (“Strangers make me nervous, who’s that peekin’ in my window with a pistol to the curtains?”).

This is all, it seems to me, a making-fragile of the usual gangsta boasting (a boast, to live forever through one’s music or one’s poetry, that of course has existed well before hip-hop) as it appears in the verses, whose juxtaposition with this dreamy chorus is highlighted with almost clunky transitional tenacity in the production, highlighting the status of that chorus as both dream interlude before the reality of life sets back in and as that aspired to by the rest of the song, but only ever briefly reached. The notion of eternal life is here abstracted from the very material subject matter of the rapping – money, women and drugs – so that the material ‘keeping it real’ boasts of hip-hop (which have been, to varying degrees, of course a dramatic facade, a wish fulfilment fantasy, in large or in part) are given a kind of metaphysical tinge (which is, one might argue, entirely apposite given the sacralization of money and/or its gains that hip-hop capitalism has fully, though perhaps parodically and from a complex class position, embraced). As such, this is perhaps the opposite of that process Theodor Adorno believed to be traced in the music of Gustav Mahler, in which “the underworld of music is mobilized against the disappearing world of the starry heavens in order for the latter to be moved and to be a corporeal presence among humankind”; here, corporeal presences and ambitions (which might lead, indeed, to becoming a corpse, through drug addiction, gun crime, and the like, as the lyrics acknowledge) re-ascend into a set of starry heavens which are no longer believed, mystified in the here and now. The stars have already been moved down to earth, and have taken up residence, as hip-hop celebrity replacing the class solidarity that the genre had, and still does, at least in part promise, as the vague intimations of metaphysical belief that circle around Christianity and Islam in hip-hop’s mythic universe.

We might compare here Kanye West’s figure of Yeezus; West still with enough belief invested in some vaguely-theorized ‘Most High’ to take precautionary measures to defend himself against accusations of blasphemy, yet elevating material ambitions, getting, enjoying and maintaining the trappings of wealth as an almost divine goal in itself. But whereas Kanye’s Yeezus is relentlessly harsh, even in its self-pity, the ugliness of the Nina Simone sampling on ‘Blood on the Leaves’ only the most egregious example of this, A$AP’s far less skilful and interesting play with persona – as much a factor of the (multi-personed) production as of the actual rap – nonetheless haunts in its manipulative poignancy in a manner that might also indicate where hip-hop might think it’s come in 2013; or where the afore-mentioned Pitchfork-esque white hipster audience that seems to me to increasingly be shaping this kind of work, thinks it’s come. The wistful whimsicality of the ‘live forever’ chorus is not equivalent to that gesture by which, for Adorno, Mahler’s ironic undercutting of the utopian urge is precisely where he is at his most utopian; instead, it denies that very possibility, and would even seem happy with that state of denial, fetishizing that sense of melancholia and loss in order to amp up its boasts, while dressing them all up in a gauze of a simply aestheticized beauty.

Of course, that sentimentality – think UGK’s “One day you’re here, baby, the next day you’re gone,” as turned into epic vocalized sorrow on the elongated, stretched-out DJ Screw remix – is a hip-hop staple that allows the tough-guy to think himself a feeling man at heart (or, at the least, the production, the use of a jazz or a soul sample, might allow that). A$AP’s female / child-like alter-ego (note the child’s voice that comes in in the final reprise of that chorus), his dreaming high voice – whether or not it is his, treated, or a guest appearance – is thus both separated from and fused with his more ‘gangsta’ image, having it both ways, removing the dreams of ‘living forever’ which might be a call for a collective justice and redemption rather than merely the individual desire for invincibility they would more easily, obviously or even accurately seem to be, while also suggesting that they are central to the verses they surround or interrupt.

Or again, the trope of a boast which undermines itself is hardly a new one – and it’s also present on Kanye’s ‘I am a God’, however much this kind of 1950’s movie-psychologising response is anticipated and satirized within the form of the song itself, a relentless refusal of a particular kind of confessionalism, even as much of the album also falls into an ugly and self-regarding self-pity. On ‘God’, the production, rather than suggesting an ethereal other register as it does in ‘Long.Live.A$AP’, only serves to heighten the relentless crudity of the lyrics, the way they constantly put their foot in their mouth and celebrate the fact of doing just that. So that (to repeat myself), the melodrama Kanye makes of the song’s relentless self-inflation (the repeated sampled screams and the stutters in the music, placed just so as to unsettle the flow at the ‘wrong’ moment) is not so much a cutting-down, a staged vulnerability, but part of the whole performative mask which anticipates an imagined defeat or fear or hubris as, maybe, just another boast. (As well as being part of the whole persecution complex that goes with that exaggerated vanity). But to say that there’s, oh, I don’t know, some ‘real despair’ behind it all is exactly the move that the music anticipates and disallows by occasionally staging moments of apparent self-doubt (which are anyway often ‘resolved’: the singing of “ain’t no way I’m giving up. I am a God” after the final four screams).

Yet, by contrast, I can’t help feeling that there is something more to Rocky’s eeriness than either this anticipatory denial of a separate ‘true inner core’ – jarringly enacted by the high-pitched male screams which ‘punctuate’, or, more accurately, interrupt the lyrics – or a kind of evasively sentimental quasi-metaphysical gesture, hinting at the true material core, the potential collective demand behind the relentless individualized drive of its gangsta-materialisation of the spiritual and spiritualisation of the gangsta-material. This, if only for the way it’s insistently been embedded in my head now all day and all night, despite itself, despite its own anticipations or manipulations of this for indie-cred.

But perhaps I am simply wrong.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Mingus / Wieners

There is a piece by Charles Mingus recorded variously as ‘Inspiration’, in a very early 1949 performance with members of the Stan Kenton orchestra (as well as future members of his own groups such as trombonist Jimmy Knepper), and ‘Portrait’, in the 1962 Town Hall rehearsal-concert often described as a fiasco, but whose rough-edged playing through of some prime Mingus material forming part of his gigantic catch-all ‘symphony’, whatever you might call, ‘Epitaph’ (the title belying its grandeur, or perhaps amplifying it, as monument rather than after-thought) appeals to me in the way that the smoother (tho’ very weird) arrangements by Sy Johnson on ‘Let My Children Hear Music’, to pick a (perhaps particularly bad) example, don’t, quite. On this piece, whether ‘Inspiration’ or ‘Portrait’, or a more amorphously-identified component, a fragment, for use and re-use, for shuffling and re-shuffling, for titling and re-titling, in Mingus’ floating set-list or compositional oeuvre, there is a melting second melody which I have been living through and with for a week. This isn’t just the notion of the ‘earworm’, burrowing into an ear as some annoyance spoiling the apple’s juice, corrupting the already corrupt symbol of temptation, the invisible worm flying in the night and eating away at the heart of the rose of the world, corruption of desire or its suppression; rather it is that rose, as desire longed for and not had, or had, in recollection tho’ not tranquillity, always implying that which moves on from it and that which is lost in that move, as Mingus’ multi-part compositions do, elongating then breaking away.

So what catches is the catch, the break, the pause, the transition; in Mingus, the break is central; break as theorized by Fred Moten in his theorisation of the centrality of rupture in African-American culture, politics, cultural politics; or as Scott Saul discusses in his essay on Mingus’ Jazz Workshop, its accelerandos and decelerandos, sudden switches of tempo and instrumentation, the “the rhythmic foundation [which] seemed to rest on a San Andreas-sized fault”. Here, with the somewhat stiff Kenton musicians, the arrangement with a distinctly-third stream flavour, even a little reminiscent of Gil Evans’ arrangements for Claude Thornhill’s orchestra from around this time – mainly to do with the use of clarinet as a lead voice over a sort of soft-edged bed of brass, I think – the transition from the melodrama of the opening material (re-used in a movement from ‘Epitaph’, possibly ‘Children’s Hour of Dream’, and perhaps also in the material on ‘Pre-Bird’) to that secondary theme, is really emphasized; that theme, one of Mingus’ melting, romantic ones, which I’m sure is re-versioned elsewhere (as ‘Song with Orange’? my identification of tune with title tends to be slippery at best in Mingus’ case), on the Town Hall recording, played by Charlie Mariano (or is it Charles MacPherson? I think it’s Mariano) in that melting, declarative manner with which Mariano plays the themes in ‘The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady’ (and I also always think, when the Black Saint comes to mind, of Byard Lancaster’s to me at times very similar playing on Bill Dixon’s ‘Intents and Purposes’); but in 1949 the stiffness of that performance is the very thing that makes the twist that makes it, emphasizes the awkwardness of that pause; that transition, as if an intake of breath, moving to that new start. I’ve been reading John Wieners’ poem ‘Cocaine’; this transition is like that of the line-break before the ‘start’ that starts the final stanza, that fucks up the syntax, that breathes desire and despair in its space, beginning again with reduction of desire to reduce hurt, having been hurt, or, with Mingus, to desire more, out of storm, so here, reading them together, Wieners’ desire to reduce the significance of love and Mingus’ desire to increase it to its highest pitch, at the risk of melodrama, the overblown, whatever, meet and explode in and over that space of transition and break, and as I replay and restart that melody over and over again in my head or out loud in what must sound like a particularly egregious tuneless and toneless approximation of singing, messing up the ending, recircling, recycling, the melody becomes for me something like an absolute index of desire, starting MORE close to the source of desire, as Mingus too would want it, I think, to reach and hold onto it (or would Mingus impulsively move and throw that away, only to obsessively and declaratively reclaim it; more likely he would), that pitch of contentment. It’s the particular lilt given the melody here which simultaneously pogo-sticks the heart up with a stupidly fluttering happiness and makes it catch in the throat with the sadness that is that happiness’ underside; this pitch which will not be liveable, that pitch reached for which perhaps even you might try to live for and towards, ‘contentment’ too small a word for it and entirely the wrong one, implying satisfaction, possession, gain for myself, when what this is I think the move OUT for another and others in whom and with whom I find myself. This happened to me, too, with a piece by Sunny Murray, recorded only once, as far as I can tell, by a group called the ‘Spiritual Ensemble’ of whom there exists a single recording, as far as I can tell, a live one, in which this piece, a ballad called ‘Volaseta’, is played: Arthur Jones, the saxophonist whose albums for BYG/Actuel are beautiful and fiery and lyrical and true, but who, like so many, recorded little outside this brief late 60s/early 70s period, delivers the melody, which melts, in a very different way, into that same pitch, the rumbling of Murray’s malleted drums and Joseph Dejean’s guitar leading to a strange troubled, dissonant solo from Dejean, from which the lead back into the melody is glorious return; the many times I’ve heard this the solo itself most perfectly in place, everything, too, here not so much break as flow, oceanic wave, Murray’s cymbal work, the ferocious crashes at the end, the ballad amped up. These are personal indexes of some kind, taken for my use. What does this mean to anyone else, as I am sitting here furiously banging out keys with my headphones on and being absurdly overblown because I have stayed in from the rain outside and I am tired but at that stage of tiredness where a tendency to a kind of self-dramatization and investment in great emotional claims about what I have been listening to seems like a good idea. In both cases, I will say, or this is some sort of feeling I might have been charting without words or even very fixed-thoughts over a period of time, the utopian index of this music is not undercut, or in the Mingus that destabilizing move between moods is a kind of undercutting but with utter sincerity, irony and satire and pastiche and parody too, as in Mahler that balance of utter sincerity and a ferociously critical self-parody or refusal to simply inhabit the romanticized nostalgias he appears to idealize and idolize is crucial; in Murray there is a more basic trajectory, perhaps, between desire and the troubling of or assault on desire, that free jazz move in which a ballad moves from serenity to agitation and back, in that move leading either to dialectical resolution or to some perfunctory return which is actually equally an index of the desire for that resolution in its clichéd or failed or attempted version of it; I’ve written about this in relation, in particular, to Coltrane’s version of ‘Lush Life’ in Seattle in 1965, but I think also of his ‘Peace on Earth’ from Japan in ’67, or ‘Naima’ from the Village Vanguard in ’66, or the late recordings collected on ‘Expression’ and ‘Stellar Regions’. For starlight is almost flesh, the flesh that fires the night, with dreams and infinite longing, that extension forwards and back from that source presumed or fetishized as lost but each time heard revoked or re-vocalized, called, re-enacted, and, did you not know, the underworld of music is mobilized against the disappearing world of the starry heavens in order for the latter to be moved and to be a corporeal presence among humankind.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Charles Gayle Trio, Café Oto, 29.10.2013

Charles Gayle - tenor saxophone, piano
Ksawery Wójciński - bass
Klaus Kugel - drums

The write-up on the Cafe Oto website suggested – or perhaps this was just my impression on an over-hasty glance that morning – that Charles Gayle might have ‘mellowed’, become more interested into forays into different traditions than the Aylersque intensity for which he’s known; almost an apology in advance, for those who might be disappointed by this direction. Presumably the reference was primarily to his piano playing – which, however, anyone with a more than passing acquaintance with his career will be aware has been present for a while, operating in quite a different area to his saxophone work – but the set as a whole was full of bark and bite, the thickness and grit which gives his playing its, shall we say, ‘purer’, more stripped-down, more difficult dynamics, in comparison, say, to someone like the late David S.Ware, buoyed on and up by Matthew Shipp’s riffs and by a luxuriant ‘godspelized’ balladry; this in large part due to the fact that Gayle prefers working in trio settings, the only piano playing his own, decidedly chunky, resolutely un-flowing.

Gayle’s upper-register playing is like nothing else; or, it’s like plenty else in that post-Ayler repertoire, but the moments when he goes there for thirty seconds at a time, pauses, goes back, pauses, goes back, the sudden release and clamp down and release of a flock of screaming birds, their placement, are his own, decidedly material, for all the controversial, whatever, Christian rhetoric and framing. (Spirit is material, of course, in the conception of any number of African-American musical traditions; is the material working through and on tradition within the physical body of the performer who performs in and as that music’s history, with its back-up and with its challenge and weight.) Listen to that upper register neither as the clichés of yawps of glory of cries of pain by which the whole biographical focus on homelessness glorified as martyr-suffering revelation would force the critical terminology, but as a concentrated area of concern. Technique, whatever. Carved out of and carving a space; thinking, spatially. To be taken up, you take yourself there, force the flight. For any heaven that he wants to reach, Gayle will be climbing up Jacob’s ladder, stepping or slipping on each rung.

Seymour Wright, who was in the audience, sometimes plays sets in which he almost exclusively focuses on this kind of area – I’m thinking in particular of one absolutely ferocious in its intensity and focus, played by his trio with Paul Abbott and Daichi Yoshikawa, lln, in a freezing warehouse in Cambridge back in January. But whereas an improviser such as Wright might take that element from someone like Gayle and move it away from obvious idiomatic references to jazz, with Gayle, it’s part of a vocabulary that comes from a different place, with a different idiomatic tinge. For instance: a moment with notes tugged and wailed as a melody heaves itself out; a foot insistently tapping over walking bass, tone still rough and shouting. There was a similar section in Peter Brötzmann’s performance here earlier in the summer; but whereas Brötzmann’s occasional turn to that kind of frame is perhaps part of a conscious decision to reference various forms of jazz history – certainly in spoken interviews, also partly in the playing – Gayle’s always been more overtly and referentially of various traditions, doesn’t need to ‘turn’ to them. There are bits of late Coltrane in the steeliness of the lower register, though the rhythmic approach is often quite different; with Ayler is shared an emphasis on blocks (rather than sheets) of sound; the rhythmic focus or interplay comes out of the pauses that are left between these blocks, in interaction with the rhythm section, which might lift or drop, sustain or undercut or emphasize them; you get a real sense of this from watching Gayle’s body language, making, for instance, two attempts, two lunges, spitting out into the mouthpiece, mouth pursed forward, until finally the sound blasts forth on the third attack; ducking his knees, bending down and bouncing up as a kind of visual or physical anticipation of the sound whose appearance is in a kind of rhythmic dialogue with that precursor, a different kind of movement. This of course isn’t visible on record, but no doubt it inflects the rhythmic emphasis that can be heard there; somewhere between Gayle catching himself off guard, deliberately, keeping himself on his toes, in both the literal and figurative sense, and a more unconscious state of being in the music – or both at once, an element of technique that wouldn’t necessarily be theorized as ‘technique’ as such, but is a vital part of the music’s physical, material process of making.

So Gayle’s body language is a part of his style in itself, knees bending lower and lower while the top half of his body remains straight; all the more striking for his gaunt frame, perhaps not as stick-thin as Roscoe Mitchell but with a slight frailty that manifests itself when he finally takes a breather, switches instruments, allows the other players to solo. Early on a burred blast is followed by a brief burst of coughing; Gayle later apologizes, he has asthma. He seems almost taken aback by the warmth of applause, willing him on and back, wiping his brow, announcing his co-players and almost embarrassed when they mention him in turn.

As for the piano playing, it’s shot through with Monk, with, say, a characteristic TSM trinkle-tinkle flourish turned into the key-rolling cluster-run of the avante-garde; Gayle favours a left hand motif strongly reminiscent of the opening phrase of Misterioso; elbow or open-palm slams granite reiteration will alternate with a kind of deliberate awkwardness with chord changes or, at one point, a semi-quotation from Body and Soul, the avant-garde flourishes (or not so much flourishes, there for crushing heft and weight rather than virtuosic note-excess) interrupting the shadings of standard voicings and melodies which are in turn interrupted by a hefty thwack or thump.

The bass player is a virtuoso, no question; his bowing technique in particular is stunning, bow lifted off strings, glancing off them, wisps of sound as if overhead and caught in passing on some wind, Aeolian. The drumming is less impressive, or at least draws less admiring attention to itself; certainly noisy, at times rather distractingly so (particularly during a lengthy second set section in which bass and drums are still locked in a kind of high-energy free jazz mode which gives Gayle’s more balladic piano no room to breathe); but with pleasant colouristic additions from a small set of mini-gongs and bells to the side of the kit and some nice feathery brush playing, glancing off cymbals and surfaces under the impressive first bass solo. These moments occurred in the first set, which overall had more focus (though moments in the second, such as Gayle’s sudden decision to switch instruments and insistent following two-handed thump on the piano keys, or his insistent tenor re-entry on the final tune, were as fine as any of the evening). I didn’t really snap out of the impression of that first set for five minutes, even as the interval music came on over speakers to force people into bar mode and mood, that interlude ritual; perhaps what I’ll remember most of all is Gayle’s first piano excursion, top half of his body this time bent almost double, bending out of or into the piano’s shade, letting out occasional exhaled groans or grunts, slowed to a crawl; that almost ponderous exactness, pedalled emphasis, reminiscent not only of Monk but of Mal Waldron – or maybe it’s just that I’ve been listening to Waldron on and off quite a bit recently – though the effect is far less that of the inexorable build-up or following of the contours of a tune in which Waldron specializes, more of a kind of deliberate non-smoothness, a succession of grinding, halting blocks, squeezed out. I didn’t even know if I liked it at the time, which is the resistance that tells ‘us’ or me or whoever that something is being done that is real and challenging work; work that is not easy, not easily taking off into wished energy music catharsis, not the vital scintillation and buoyancy of (in particular) the first track on Touchin’ on Trane, its fleet dance, but something more characteristic, perhaps, of ‘late work’. Or maybe by bringing up the spectre of late work I’m doing that very biographical inflection I criticized earlier, basing this on the hesitancy, the physical vulnerability of Gayle’s stage persona, itself not seeming a ‘persona’ as such as the real reactions to live events and the particular community of music venues of someone who’s not worked on a ‘persona’, or who, when he does, makes the kind of mis-step that brings down almost universal approbation or confusion or scorn, as the mute ‘Streets the Clown’. Still, that idea of ‘late work’; late at night, late in life, whatever; slower, more stumbling, not so much honed and perfected as the achieved end of a process; perhaps, even, more or differently compelling because less sure of itself and thus harder won; dragging on, wrenching; forced out of and into the moment with attention, with the possibility of failure, present and real.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Forced Entertainment – Tomorrow’s Parties / Cambridge Junction, 23.10.2013

Two actors stand on stage and for nearly an hour describe ‘their’ visions of the future. One of the actors is male, and one of them is female. The stage is almost bare, apart from a pretty but minimal assemblage of coloured light bulbs, like, say, the partial twinkling background to tomorrow's fairly elaborate party in a middle-class garden. This set-up gestures, in a decorative, but neither decorous nor decadent way, towards a sober reduction of theatrical illusionism, while reminding us that we are witnessing a piece of theatre. It is ‘sober’ but ‘playful’, a cod-moral reductionism, with suitable austerity.

The actors stand on a wooden box. Or, not a box exactly; more, what looks like a refurbished packing crate. This refurbishment, with its suggestion of a kind of daily functionality, renders their ‘elevation’ from the flat stage down-to-earth, so to speak. Like people wearing jeans. The actors do not wear jeans, but their dress is smart-casual. Their attitude is of a somewhat stiff, calculated, nonchalant cool; or, not quite cool, more a relaxed ease that will put the audience at its ease, able to identify with its spokesman-pals. His attitude is more blokey, like one of the ‘intelligent everymen’ that populate the slightly more ‘highbrow’ TV or radio general-knowledge panel shows; hers with just the requisite amount of quasi-feminist responsive wit, similarly at home in and familiar to us from that kind of scenario.

The actors we see are every person, where every person is the comfortable middle-class human being interested in attending and keeping up with developments in contemporary quasi-experimental theatre, with issues of thought and aesthetics that may prove troubling, but also diverting and absorbing, in the part of their life that they parcel out to the consideration of such issues; for example, over a glass of wine at home or in a public space outside the home, or at a local book-signing, or the local theatre.

The actors we see are every person, or so the feeling of this evening would seem to suggest, reliant on a cosy performer-audience relationship discoursing on topics of interest, whose framing nonetheless challenges some ‘boundaries’ of what ‘you’ might expect from ‘theatre’. The discourse of these actors is, essentially, an endless series of extended twitter summaries of the future imaginings one might find in sci-fi movies or novels, without the graphics and the detailed ethical shadings; or, polite conversation down your local wine-bar when you are being philosophical, profound, and generally liberal in all the correct, non-racist, anti-corporate ways. This is the formulation used: Actor 1: “In the future, [description of future scenario]”; [pause]; Actor 2: “Or, [description of future scenario which riffs off or competes with the previous scenario].” Repeat this until the lights dim on succeeding scenarios of great pathos, in which we wonder whether the future will retain any memory of our present; oh! we are all so transient despite our secure and happy lives, what will we leave behind us, our chins sink into our thoughtful hands for a moment’s silence before the whooping applause breaks out of our rapturous mouths.

It would seem that we are being set up. But the set-up, though it suggests this, doesn’t actually go through with its implied challenge, at least to the extent that anyone would realize. By which I mean, the entertainment is precisely unforced, within the boundaries of repetitive framing boredom it sets up. So that the shtick of the whole performance isn’t, 'let’s explore boredom and imposition and alienation as a mode of self-questioning and of questioning the respective roles of performers and audience, their collaboration in comfort'; rather, it’s, 'let’s make alienation as fun and entertaining as possible'. It’s the delivery that gets this across, that calculated ‘naturalness’ cliché by which an actor inserts strategically-placed pauses to indicate that they haven’t memorized a script which they are now reciting; oh no, they are in fact pausing in order to find, to improvise, the words they are going to speak next, as in conversation! Or, the quasi stand-up delivery which dutifully forces forth fairly regular bursts of laughter from the audience. Even this, which is forced entertainment, isn’t used as questioning, though, really: in a later section one of the actors describes a future scenario involving systematized discrimination against the ‘less intelligent’ and less-educated, but the disturbing implications of this are smoothed away as she indicates the other actor when describing the ‘less intelligent’, turning it into a kind of sly joke that plays on the repartee-edge of their alternating future-visions: a man and a woman, bickering a little, their relationship not overtly sexual or even particular flirtatious in even a mild sense, but still endearingly like enough to that of a couple, or a husband and wife, talking about things ‘we’ ‘all’ care about, like work and family and even ‘fucking’ (the word repeated to describe public sex in ‘naughty’ ‘daring’, ‘daring’ us to approve it in order to prove our liberal credentials), in a manner almost overwhelmingly characterised by a kind of bland Radio 4 or BBC TV heterosexuality. The man will say something vaguely sexist; the woman will respond with a banterous response. They both deplore war. There’s some suggestion that the frequent recurrence of ‘work’ within often dystopian scenarios is being used as a reflection on present conditions of labour; as when it’s suggested that a future society might re-instate slavery, under certain ‘moral’ conditions and restraints, by which one would sign a contract in which one became a slave for a strictly limited period of time. But the formal standard by which each scenario is treated as equal, a level playing field, smoothed out, serves as a deflation of utopian hopes for a kind of generally pessimistic liberal world-weariness, which nonetheless has at its heart the requisite comfortable humanism and reliance on the stable values of family and morality, and so on and so on. We all agree on the rightness of these things; we have read it in the Guardian newspaper, which is no doubt the newspaper title written down by the majority of the audience when asked which newspaper they regularly read, on the feedback form that they are encouraged to fill out and hand in. Let us reason together. Serious issues treated with a light touch. The bourgeois subject takes their views to be universal ones. All topics are equally covered. This is presented as a kind of universalism, though it would never go so far as to call itself that. Utopianism is a joke for dummies, which we will nonetheless obscure with a modicum of framing attentive sympathy and interest. At one point one of the actors suggested, with a trace of wistfulness, that, in the future, trade unions might once again become important. The moment passed without a trace. The impossibility of talking about the future, illustrated by talking, at great length, about the future. But you are also really talking about the present. You can see where this might be going. It never goes far enough.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Pisaro / Nishikaze in Hackney: A Subjective Report

Programme: Michael Pisaro – Ricefall / July Mountain; Nishikaze – Piano in Person I
Performers: Daniel Bennett, Seth Cooke, Lawrence Dunn, Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, Jane Dickson, Dominic Lash, David Stent, Sarah Hughes, Stephen Cornford, Patrick Farmer, Angharad Davies; Tim Parkinson: piano (Nishikaze)
Location: The Round Chapel, Hackney, London, 19.10.2013

This was a kind of second showing for a concert originally put on in Oxford last year as part of the ‘Significant Landscapes’ conference / festival / event series curated by Patrick Farmer; re-located to a bigger venue (the Round Chapel in Hackney); minus some original participants (Pisaro himself absent; ditto Stefan Thut) and plus others; and with a slightly-changed programme. (I’m going to write up my notes on that original event soon, most likely; I have them in front of me, on this desk, to which they’ve been transferred from the various cupboards they’ve been in for nearly a year now.) I was a little ill when I went to see this; I was a little tired; this isn’t interesting to anyone. But this is a blog entry, personal detail within reportage will be endearing and help you to place yourself in the position of a listener in the audience, if you weren’t a listener in the audience, or you will be able to compare your experiences and violently agree or disagree if you were, etc. As I write this, the rain outside is beautiful and calming, it accompanies the thud of fingers on keys like a nice ornamentation, the world outside dancing on the edge of cultural description, thus framed but acting or perceived as ‘framing.’ Enough! I think there is even a rumbling of thunder. And now a flash of lightning. And a man is walking down the road, grim-faced, soaked with the rain. I wrote this two days ago.

Back in the chapel, the field recordings in Michael Pisaro’s ‘July Mountain’ were played LOUD. These are the final lines of the Wallace Stevens poem from which it draws its title: “The way, when we climb a mountain // Vermont throws itself together.” Vermont here is thrown together, arranged, rather than ‘throwing itself’ together, arranging itself; constructed, or re-constructed at least, rather than transparently presented or ‘accessed’, an important distinction to make. In the field recordings – which might as well be from anywhere, and perhaps were, rather than from Vermont itself, playing with that specificity of a real or imagined access to place through sound, sources mixed and re-located across the ocean and through speakers and musical layering – this world is the human world – aeroplanes, and, as far as I remember, occasional children’s voices; or, the noise of the human world and of the ‘natural world’ bleed into each other so that distinctions between them don’t matter. The first entry of the piano, those four-handed chords, is what I remember from the performance in Oxford last year. The placing, its perfect weighting, and waiting. The sine tones, vibraphone bowed drones, the slowly swirling white noise of two rows of musicians rubbing snare drums, the way that latter set of noises in particular builds during the first few minutes, from one musician to many, preparing the way for the piano, mirroring the way the piece as a whole builds, not so much to climax, but with a real sense of incremental growth and swell, hewn solid and inexorable.

Indeed, in relation to that characterisation, one of my fellow audience members afterwards described the piece as having a certain ‘monumentality’ to it, which didn’t endear it to that particular audience member. What they were getting at, I think, though this might in fact seem like quite a different or even opposed characterisation, is that Pisaro’s pieces can seem almost too ‘easy’; he’s so good at what he does and structurally these pieces work so well, the image – by which I mean the ‘sound picture’, to mix the visual metaphors –they build so accessible and right (Stevens’ “things said well”), that distrust might be a natural and perhaps useful reaction to that kind of skill: what am I being drawn into, what vision or version of the world or of perception? (I’m thinking also, in particular, of some of the pieces in the ‘Fields Have Ears’ series). They are so easily ‘beautiful’, full, patient, calm, and hardly ‘austere.’ But then, ‘Ricefall’ was far from this, in its performance set-up much more obviously in the Fluxus-area of Wandelweiser which, in my experience, generally tends to characterise let’s say half of the bills at these concerts. It’s a nice spectacle, twenty minutes or so of rice being dropped on pretty collections of leaves and slates and metallic pieces of percussion, plates and twigs, plastic bags, &c. Bruno Guastalla catches my eye with the lovely impish delicacy of his ‘playing’ (the score stipulates releasing certain amounts of rice each minute, I believe, but the exact mode of release is left unspecified, which of course adds in that performative dimension, which is and is not related to the actual quality of sound. Angharad Davies’ way of ‘playing’ rice could be likened, in its use of periodicity, to her violin improvisations, according to one eagle-eared listener). Guastalla releases his rice with such careful and yet capricious attention that I don’t think you can actually hear it land, though there’s a large pile at his feet fairly quickly. There’s something at once completely controlled about it – he’s decided how to interpret the piece, even if only a few seconds before, and does that interpretation with intense single-mindedness – and almost puzzled, which is the right way, or at least the most interesting way, of interpreting something like this, for me. Me, I tend to be too literal-minded, which is exactly not what these pieces demand, though neither are they excuses for a kind of epater les bourgeois self-conscious wackiness within some spurious frameworks: they’re something like artistic problems or provocations which have to be negotiated with some skill, much as a musician will face various challenges in interpreting any piece of composed music. What’s important about them, or what I find characteristically interesting in watching performances of them, is the collective dimension to such interpretation, which isn’t so much a working together as a working alongside, if that makes sense. So, for instance, Guastalla approaches these things aslant, like the way, in other contexts, he plays his cello, as if his physical relation to that instrument was one of difficulty and fracture rather than an easy manipulation. Patrick Farmer enjoys dropping his rice from a great height. Dominic Lash is the spirit of calmness, a complete calm efficiency of interpretation. All these approaches are equally ‘valid’, and the delight of a piece like this is watching that aspect of interpretation so obviously and yet unobtrusively provided for and foregrounded. I mean, in that sense, it’s not that different to the pleasures and struggles of Richter or Glenn Gould.

The moments when a particular percussion instrument, a singing bowl or what have you, would starts its metallic tinkle, that sound from an object actually designed to produce musically-appealing sound, were very pleasant. I didn’t close my eyes and thus follow the ebbs and swells and flows and slows of the sounds as I could have, though it was possible to notice that fluctuating kind of territory, both suggested and left open by the score, but very much of a piece with Pisaro’s methods. Too, his deployment of group elements, numerous different ‘lines’ or parts (lines isn’t really the right metaphor, I don’t think, though recall his use of an Oswald Eggers drawing of entwining lined / paths, perhaps) to create a gently fluctuating whole within a fairly strictly defined and unchanging general area. This is what gives his pieces their sense of inexorability, monumentality, what have you, but also their playfulness, openness, &c. The arrangement of twigs, slates, etc, was ‘sculptural’. I enjoyed the tidying up and hoovering afterwards, in the space, afterwards, almost as much. I mean, I enjoyed, and was perhaps also slightly puzzled and confused by, the whole set-up, watching from the upper-floor seating in the gallery, the musicians on ‘stage’, separate below; as if the musicians were the in-group we peaked in on, or we were the group judging as the gods or critics that high, or neither of these things. It was cold in the church, particularly in the piano piece in the middle, which was Makiko Nishikaze’s ‘Piano in Person I’, played by Tim Parkinson. The piano may have been the original piano from when the church was built. It had wooden pedals. The piece didn’t offer the conceptual framework that the Pisaro pieces did, so it was harder, demanded a more intensive listening, perhaps. Or for whatever reason, I couldn’t get ‘into’ it so much, it felt long or too long, without the pauses or space I craved from it. Not that there were pauses in the Pisaro, but a greater patience. Or perhaps the patience that was lacking was mine. Dominic Lash had his eyes closed, so did a lot of people, but there were was also some seat-shifting and shuffling, none of which manifested itself in the Pisaro. Nishikaze’s piece felt as if it had come from a different tradition, one less comfortable with the ease and skill of an, I don’t know, post avant-garde framework – which as a formulation is something I don’t really like or doesn’t quite get at what I mean to suggest, which is something like that afore-mentioned ease I find in Pisaro’s music, not an ease which substitutes for musical thought and engagement with history and tradition, its following or its breaking, but which is not fraught in its relation to them, whose statement doesn’t feel the need for that kind of quasi-didactic break. But then, equally, I’ve been romanticizing Darmstadt in my head, and out loud, a little, recently. So perhaps in that sense Nishikaze offered a more useful resistance to listening, a sense of stringency.

By which I mean, there’s nothing more ‘avant-garde’, in the clichéd sense of that term, if you were to describe to someone in the kitchen the next morning, than saying, ‘I went to a cold church and watched musicians drop rice on objects and on the floor, the piece was called Rice Fall’; or, that piece where the field recordings were almost as loud as the fifteen or however many instrumentalists performing alongside them. But somehow ‘July Mountain’ in particular seemed to me the most accessible piece on earth, hence, perhaps, the sense of suspicion noted above. Is the monumental accessible? Not really, or not in the traditional sense, which is where all these terms are getting mixed up, as am I, to try to get at what exactly this kind of subjective gut-reaction is. There was a good audience, the most I’ve seen for any Wandelweiser event. Richard Pinnell’s announcements from the balcony were not those of a preacher, the event didn’t feel institutionalized in that sense. I was pleased, really, that people came, the Cafe Oto marketing and all that, however much I’ve enjoyed being one of two or however many audience members at other events in the past. I don’t think it changed the atmosphere that much. Everyone was concentrated and respectful, better than in some of the previous events I’ve seen, in fact, and the environmental sounds were the swooshing of buses and so on. Someone outside let out a yell after the first of one particular set of alternating chords in the Nishikaze, placed well. Some people looked alarmed. Some people were drinking cans of Red Stripe, but this made them, if anything, even more devout.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Miles Davis / Minnie Riperton

Minnie Riperton’s ‘Loving You’, as much of her output, is easy to take and thus to dismiss as an example of high kitsch. This is, of course, a conscious presentational choice – whether on the part of Riperton herself, that of her producers and arrangers, or a collaboration between the two – its roots lying in the hippie-folk-psychedelic extravaganzas of the Rotary Connection from which her voice first emerged. (The obvious visual equivalent is that album cover where Riperton sits in a throne-chair, stroking a lion, posing as possessing, but never convincingly inhabiting a Cleopatra Jones or Foxy Brown-tough identity. Though, on checking, this isn't an entirely accurate analysis, in my mind; I'd mixed up that image (the front of 'Adventures in Paradise') with the carefree, self-consciously tickled grin of 'Perfect Angel', taking that combination as representative of a self-aware participation in the absurdity of that photo-staged spectacle, the contrast and conjunction between a winning openness and an exaggerated performative play a fine equivalent to the tender heart of her lushly-orchestrated, baroque versions and visions of tenderness.) Of course, the downside of such choices, principally influenced by and highlighting the famous, or infamous, octave-spanning range of her voice (Robert Christgau christens her “Our Lady of the Five Octaves”), is that this range – in ‘Loving You’ reaching a whistle-register – come to seem a gimmick, standing in, not so much for a pitch of emotionalism that forcibly and thrillingly moves outside the usual comforts of a conventional pitch-range, but for a reduction of a moment of (frequently sexualised) climax to a near-joke stand-in, the deferral of its own personal intimacy and ecstasy, or representation of that intimacy and ecstasy, through a formal technique that acts as a kind of virtuosic parody of it.

The various takes of Miles Davis’ cover of ‘Loving You’, titled simply ‘Minnie’ and until a couple of years ago only available through the muffled sound-prism of bootlegs of ‘Unissued’ and ‘Lost’ Sessions (they're from his final recording date proper before his mid-70s retirement), tone down that baroque pitch and instead grant the song a winsome intimacy more of a piece with that brand of melancholy vulnerability with which Davis had been associated since the harmon-muted ballads of the 1950s and to which, despite the jabbing rhythmical bursts of wah-wah-pedalled aggression by which his playing had increasingly come to be characterised at this point in his career, he still occasionally returned. Davis’ direction for the melodic line of the song -- as a few years earlier on, say, his extended version of Joe Zawinul’s ‘Orange Lady’ -- finds him in general sticking to the (re-vamped) melody more than improvising away from it; melody as a site of return and echo, of a safety and a comfort that is destabilised by the very aura of familiarity that the seemingly excessive repetition would seem or seek to grant it. Yet over the course of the takes, some kind of dissonance might be said to be revealed between this delicate repetition and the rhythmic over-insistence of an often harsh, or perhaps simply harshly-recorded and mixed rhythm section, which transforms the languid groove of Riperton’s original into the more driving mode of Davis’ own brand of jazz-fusion – all biting wah-wah’d guitars, the micro-variations of Michael Henderson’s basslines, rock-solid yet constantly morphing, constantly adjusting, and Al Foster’s endless splashing, crashing drums. The almost desperate affirmation which forms the second half of the piece, in which Davis is joined by Sam Morrison's melody-doubling saxophone, only serves to emphasize the way that earlier, despite the relative, poppy smoothness of the groove, one guitar riff in particular bites under and into Davis’ line; and yet this is conceivably an effect that Davis could have been after, given his various destabilising strategies during live and studio performances from this period, in the latter case, in conjunction with, or at the instation of, his producer Teo Macero. Take, for example, the moments when a signal from the leader will count the entire band apart from the suddenly completely isolated individual line of a solo musician; the overlayering of an extremely harsh organ part made up, to a large part, of elbowed chord clusters, with a proto drum and bass rhythm line on ‘Rated X’; the construction of the first ten-minutes of the proto-ambient Ellington ode ‘He Loved Him Madly’ from a series of one-minute rehearsal fragments, a kind of un- or mis-directed extended introduction, the illusion of continuity through a fragmentation that is de-emphasized and smoothed over yet still half-registered in its studio-splicing. This latter case might be the most similar of the three to the aforementioned disjunct in ‘Minnie’; an opposition or a dissonance which cannot quite be pinned down as intentional or unintentional, that both celebrates and challenges the sentimental core of Riperton’s affecting, affected soar, Davis’ perhaps problematically-gendered oscillation or simultaneous presentation of the aggressive and the vulnerable, the wounded and the wounding, the tender balladry of a wife-beater whose playing could, seemingly without conscious irony, impersonate the plaint of an abused woman in ‘Porgy and Bess’, could (in the liner notes to ‘Quiet Nights’) be described as like that of a little boy who’s been let out and wants to be let back in, could reach depths of child-like delicacy which, from a very different plane to Riperton’s baroque sincerity, still break the heart. The poles of Riperton’s music, its representation and inhabitation of a sensuality that, for Christgau (again, in problematically gendered terms) can be seen to veer between an ‘insincere’ (“pseudopsychedelic”), “mannered abruptness” and a ‘sincere’ “over-domesticated” approach (which “at least seems real-life”), might thus be seen to be reproduced, to less exaggerated effect, in the dissonance between melody line and rhythm section on the Davis versions: the delicate reticence of Davis' playing, in a live recording of the tune almost disintegrating, completely falling apart (he was clearly sick at this stage), might be said to be the opposite of Ripperton’s melismatic-melodramatic foregrounding, but speaking its same intimate centre.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Kruk / Scozzaro / Chalmers

The poets Frances Kruk, Connie Scozzaro and Christina Chalmers have poems in the recent trans-atlantic virtual poetry mag The Claudius App (V). Having seen all three read the work printed here, relatively recently –different readings, in different cities, of these different texts – differently prickly and differently energizing in all sorts of different ways – it’s nice to see them in the same place, though I have a feeling they’ll be overlooked in the wake of lengthier E-mail Theory Spectaculars or the work of ‘bigger’ names. Would only, also, that the App were printable, not entirely enmeshed in its on-screen graphix scene…But anyway, here’s some sort of canned capsule synopsis stuff.

[1] Kruk’s work, sections of an untitled poem, is crabbed and cramped and dense with implication and suggestion and a biting humour, a humour that is never safe, whose bite renders it not really humour at all, exactly; it’s not ‘light’, or mocking in contempt; it might bite your leg off, like the “dog” “you” are, but never as a polemicized aggression; it’s more sly, harder to read than that, tho’ not out of any moral evasion – its ethical commitment doesn’t waver. Who is the target of address, who is being put down by whom? Who are You? “You’re a dog. / And the mangy kind [...] / busy dreaming you’re no dog / gob you slave into the plague.” The jammed-impacted lines crab out on a carefully wrought, sharp assonance, a dog becoming a mouth and a ragged carrier of disease; this dog that could be the dog you say your enemy is, capitalist pig, god of war, or the dog that these masters make you, the “slave” who is part of a plague-ridden and -carrying mass of workers made animal, a “killed” “fool” damp with spittle, reduced to a drooling “nil” who dreams of a “no place” and whose self is eaten by inculcated linguistic values, the words for ‘you’ you don’t control - “those words you / Thought were yours but now they eat you / now they eat you now they / Bring you and they x you” - eaten as and by pie charts, as “data-packed / False triangles,” bleeding jam blood, “Jam / at the gates. / Red in black at every entrance”, “super-nerved- & data-wired,” one of those ghosts of the dead whose rest (as per Walter Benjamin and as per voodoo) can or has never be settled in justice, can never be safe, recycled into cycles of consumption and quasi-cannibalism of labour murder and exploitation, the administration and organisation of death: “dotted lines every time / & no not even the dead are safe.”

[2] OK: Scozzaro’s humour comes from a different frame of reference, to Kruk’s, or take on that frame, a consideration of the impact of labour on daily living and on sex and on gender relations: it undermines or complicates or ironizes or makes bathetic a statement that somehow nonetheless remains sincere – goes for the same kind of register or affect as the Shaggs song its title, ‘What is Parents’, half-references, but without turning that into a knowing naïvete or scorn for the real stuff that gets expressed badly, or ‘well’, within the formal frameworks the Shaggs inhabit. Perhaps the comparison doesn’t go much further than that; it doesn’t; but e.g. what I mean is that the poem can say that the Incredible String Band “play their instruments / well” as a joke or a near-joke, and really mean it at the same time; ‘well’ here isn’t just a put-down indicating some practiced corporate ‘success’, just as “we fuck really well because I love you so much” needn’t be a sneer. The voice that speaks these poems, not quite a single or singular self, is one that works with/in the daily frustrations that make the “heart” an object in a game, a domino – “the heart is a domino, stacked in a line of many,” queuing in a line for a handout, for money or food, ‘stacked’ like some object on a supermarket shelf, as part of a collective of equally rent individuals living within the real drudge of a despairing bathos in which “your rented flat” and “this table” become substitutes for the “paradise” of the settled bourgeois home You Should Have; the heart, itself a metaphor for some feeling felt as bodily and mental but not acceptable or accepted, not happy as a normal or comfortable happiness, happy within structures of normative or ground-down feeling: “What is / working when you have no end for it […] most people ask me why aren’t you happy / like they’re happy, their spirits bent in the shape of a / smile.”

[3] Chalmers’ ‘Hell, Realism’, full-on political-personal mash/mesh. In form the run-on, or off, to the end of the prose-enclosed line, internal rhyme, a block of text unpunctuated, would seem almost the opposite to Kruk’s shorn bursts, though often there’s a similar sonic patterning. “this is not pre-political is not post-political” - wants to shout out against that which would close it down, “that which co-opts collective resistance, “collaps[ing] into the bourgeois public sphere.” Here the language of, say, Marxist political activism or a more academy-enclosed, tho’ still political ‘theory’ bursts out into, again, daily lives lived under and within and through labour, communication breakdown: “there is no expectation in love / and conversation.” Labouring or laboured bodies become actors, like the actors in Blanqui’s ‘Eternite par les Astres’, that vision of the cosmos as a theatre in which is enacted the eternal return of a nineteenth-(say now twentieth- or twenty-first century) bourgeois hell, in Chalmers’ version as actors who can’t even remember their lines, who are not “saying the right lines at all”; imprisoned bodies as prisons themselves, “phoning myself on skype”, protest-energy depleted, (w)rung out, “for my hands are tied to / our exhaustion”, where “grief” becomes mere “decadence”, where life does or can not live. This is the realism of hell, its communications networks as “uncomprehending telephone line[s]” and “listrooms” and skype, economics as a game played by incompetents, world budgets treated like Las Vegas sprees, “gambling machines which return no money,” the whole thing captured for a fleeting posterity on a live feed, “video ingestion”; the deferral of hope disguising itself as hope itself, as a kind of freezing to apathy, “refrigeration by hopefulness”; “cry[ing]” out not to be that, to be more than that, debris of a Blanquis-esque cosmic drama or “cosmic metaphor”, theological remnants of a fetishized and arcane-religious secular system, its numbers, its diagrams, “swaddling / the use value of militancy”, causing to fall into “the sink-holes of the depoliticised.” But “you” are, still, “the breakings of restraint.”

Friday, 16 August 2013


The relative engagement of Brötzmann performances tends to vary on the particular set of instrumental collaborators he’s playing with, & this quartet was certainly an unusual take on things. (By ‘engagement’, I don’t mean Brötzmann’s own - he does his thing, and consistently - more the contextual framing of that thing, its relative predictability or consistent hitting of the area known in sports parlance as the ‘zone’.) The vibes setup inevitably set ‘Out to Lunch’ connections in orbit (particularly as I’d be running through Dolphy tunes in my head on the cycle ride over), but Adasiewicz is a very different, much busier vibes player than Hutcherson, just as Brötzmann is a very different player to Dolphy, far less angular, with an approach far less obviously accommodating to a pairing with vibes. Whereas Hutcherson on OTL will strike a note with a clang, followed by an unexpected, jagged, slightly extended pause, in tandem with the crisply off-kilter rhythm section of Richard Davis and Tony Williams, Adasiewicz favours (or did in this setting) strategies such as the repeating of a particular phrase with ever increasing dramatic emphasis, and virtuoso jazz runs up and down the vibes, notes a-flying in all sorts of directions. This latter, especially when combined with a predilection for setting up a pedall’d cushion around his sound, tends to fill up the space rather than leaving it, as Hutcherson does: none of that understated approach from OTL in which tension is amped up through contrast and a patient spacing and varying of approach; or, indeed, that of Archie Shepp’s ‘New Thing at Newport’, cocktail jazz put through the wringer and turned into sensuous, barfing disquiet, quiet love and rage, controlled yet unexpected eruption, elongation and foreshortening. Live, Adasiewicz is nothing if not demonstrative, to almost comic effect. One particular physical move sees him shift on his feet to strike some notes, then lift one foot off the ground and move to the sound, as if the physical after-effect of the power of striking that note is about to topple him to the floor like an out-of-control child, one who’s temporarily lost control of their limbs. In another, he lifts the keys up on their string and furiously rattles them about as additional un-tuned percussion to Noble’s drumming. Periodically, he wipes his dripping face and beard down with a towel like a tennis player between points.

So, the presence of vibes and of their particular deployment took some getting used to, particularly given that I was in the far left corner of the room, where the combined force of Noble’s extremely loud drumming, Adasiewicz’s also loud vibes and physically demonstrative performance, and the hyper-amplified sound of John Edward’s double-bass, at times threatened to drown out Brötzmann himself. This was especially evident in the passages of most extreme intensity, where the group became a churning morass of sound, an effect rather like listening to one of the bootleg or semi-legit recordings of 1960s free jazz, in which drumkits, cymbals in particular, create a near white-noise wash, bleeding into the near-undifferentiated cloud of volume and density formed by the rest of the group; from that cloud will emerge the most piercing and burred blasts and blarts of reed-bitten saxophone squall, blasts sounded because they are the only thing that will rise above the storm they also encourage and propel. Such a description might suggest typical Brötzmann fare, the ecstatic group effect that draws in free jazz fans again and again, but, in truth, his own playing tended as much towards the melancholy ‘ballad’ approach he’s favoured over the last couple of decades, a vibrato-heavy pathos-shading which one might best describe as an improvised impersonation or filtration of a tradition of tough-tender jazz saxophonists, from Ayler to Shepp to Coleman Hawkins. Often, he would enter with phrases that slowed the music down, that saw a sudden drop or transition in energy levels, sticking fairly closely to that phrase-area as the other musicians began to dip and rise, to boil away underneath, never letting the music actually enter straight jazz ballad territory, now a few blurts from the upper register, a deliberate shift, and then into ‘full blast’ territory.

The two sets performed were continuous and quite lengthy pieces, the first in particular lasting as much as an hour; after spending some time at one of those noise-peaks, Brötzmann would take a breather and come back in with another horn, during which time Adasiewicz would do his vibes thing, including one very sympathique, more lyrical linking up with the ecstatically-focused Edwards at some point during the second set. Noble seemed permanently restless in his refusal to let the music dip substantially, often hitting a pronounced thwack as if to rudely interrupt or prevent the opening up of too much space, to insist that the music stay on the high road, the speed-freakery of the autobahn. As with his recent performance with Anthony Pateras at the LCMF, it was an extremely solid and seasoned display, the reflexes of an improviser who’s played long enough and at a high enough level to be able to think automatically, without going through the motions. Yet somehow it felt like the sort of improv performance a rock drummer might get behind, over-emphatic in its effects and affect: sustained and fairly steady or ‘straight’ rhythms would be set up which forced the music into particular areas, such as the mallets passage at the start of the second set, and the consistent loudness felt like a particular mode of attaining intensity that is not necessarily always the best or must effective way of building a dynamic group sound - it’s almost a short-cut, one might say. Indeed, Noble’s playing, as much as the presence of Adasiewicz’s vibes, probably accounts for the rather more unusually and heavily jazz-flavoured passages that surprisingly proliferated: at times, Edwards would even play walking bass. There were moments when I found this a little uncertain, wasn’t sure how to engage with it, felt that it somehow made Brötzmann’s playing sound somewhat limited (as if throwing out some free-bop choruses might have better fitted the setting, though no-one would have wanted that). But there were also points at which I really liked the effect, the contrast between Brötzmann’s playing, which stuck to his usual two general areas (loud/full-blast and wounded balladry), and that backdrop, into which he would also fit his phrases rhythmically. A case in point, the final section, a kind of mutant blues swagger, Brötzmann on tenor, which moved out of the melancholy / despair tinges of the first half into something more assertively, if ambiguously joyous, even, though somehow devastating in its effect - or perhaps that was simply the cumulative effect of something like two hours of music. The Oto crowd, which had fairly packed out the space, filtered out quickly, off into the night, space to digest, exhaustion, the slow come-down.

Thursday, 8 August 2013


Mopomoso - Scatter etc.
The Vortex, Sunday 21st July 2013.

Just over the road from the more hip Café Oto, the Vortex tends to focus its gig schedules on jazz and, for want of a better-word, ‘EFI’-based improv, though of course the same musicians can be found in different combinations at both venues. On this occasion, the group I was particularly interested in seeing was Scatter, a quartet of Phil Minton (vocals), Pat Thomas (piano), Dave Tucker (guitar) and Roger Turner (drums), and they set out a fine sound, Tucker’s guitar sometimes jerky and spasmodic (and using e-bow without ever-resorting to the easy drones that accessory so often rather predictably entails), Thomas alternating between inside-piano shards of his own and more rolling chordal and melodic passages, Minton’s face doing its usual panoply of expressive character-impressions as he switched from bird-like whistles to old-man croaks and eerie high tones, Turner with that combination of ramshackle clattering and complete rhythmic and group focus that makes his playing simultaneously reliable and unpredictable. Maggie Nicols and Minton exchanging yodels between stage and audience at the end of the closing set, that of Nicols, violinist Mia Zabelka and Russell.

AMM#7: Alan Wilkinson and THF Drenching on Vimeo.

Full Moon Launch of Ben Watson, Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation (paperback edition)
Cafe Oto, Monday 22nd July 2013

I only traipsed in for the tail end of this, on what was apparently the hottest day of the year, catching Watson’s sound-poetry with Oscillatorial Binnage, various sets with his children improvising along on vocal-gobbledeygook and harmonicas, ending with the reason I’d turned up at all, Stuart Calton, a.k.a. TFH Drenching and Alan Wilkinson engaged in a loud and piercing alto / dictaphone duet, blasting off Oto’s candle-drenched sweat like a cool shower; or, indeed, an acid bath. The feel of the evening, as far as I was able to catch it, was of a kind of community catch-up, no doubt in the style of Bailey’s Company Weeks: as if Oto had been temporarily taken over, booked out for a private function, though I don’t mean that in a negative sense. This wasn’t the kind of evening for hangers-on, for people who’d popped in with little idea of the actual music because Oto is a ‘happening venue’, and then spent the entire set playing a game on their phone (as, unbelievably enough, I saw one audience member do during a ten-minute Roscoe Mitchell circular-breathing workout) or whispering away during the relatively quiet and restrained final section of a Wastell / Allbee / Beins set, and so, even if most of the audience had some sort of personal association with Watson and his work (to judge from the bulky cigarette crowd outside the door when I arrived), it felt far less of an in-crowd set-up. If the music itself tended to be a little forgettable, then, that feeling of warmth and dedication from the situation per se was nonetheless welcomed.

Wagner, Tristan Und Isolde
Robert Dean Smith, Violeta Urmana, BBC SO / Semyon Bychkov
BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 27th July 2013

Sitting in the choir meant a focus on orchestral textures, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and moments when singers or instrumentalists would position themselves above the stage came out bright and clear, the cor anglais solo at the start of act III in particular. If Dean Smith’s vocal projection, as Tristan, left something to be desired, an impression corroborated by reports from other parts of the hall, the other performances were generally of a fine standard; and perhaps the semi-staged approach solves some problems in Wagner interpretation, even, or perhaps because it (semi-)stages its own absurdity (in the final act, a singer sitting down meant that they’d died), of a piece with the perfunctory manner in which Wagner deals with that kind of dramatic narrative action; the music itself can outweigh the datedness or the historical problematics that saturate every aspect of staging decisions in full productions.

London Contemporary Music Festival
Bold Tendencies, Peckham
Thursday 25th-Sunday 28th July / Thursday 1st-Sunday 4th August

This packed double-weekender of (mainly) composed music from the second half of the twentieth century took place at Bold Tendencies, the Peckham arts / bar project (Franks’ bar is on the roof) located in a multi-story car-park conveniently located opposite the overground station. A huge range of music, with the result that even with a single gig it often felt as if there was barely any time to process things: one might, say, transition in under a minute from the ferocious and exhilarating complexity of a Michael Finnissy piano piece to an intense Anthony Pateras improvised solo on the same instrument, and that’s before the Ferneyhough had started. That the programme was full enough to require this level of unremitting intensity – the concerts still tended to last for at least two hours, even without intervals – is dizzying (and was perhaps a strategy decision as well, to prevent the inevitable loss of concentration and bar-wards drift that an interval in this setting would have provoked) and exciting, which perhaps explains the relative lack of critical response thus far, despite the high levels of attendance and the presence, no doubt, of various ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ critics in the audience. Anyhow, I ended up attending most of the concerts and this is the first attempt, ‘official’ or ‘unofficial’, at setting down any of the things that have been simmering through my head since then.

I’ll start off by saying that is most certainly the first time I’ve ever queued for nearly an hour to see a performance the music of Helmut Lachenmann (pieces for piano coupled with some of the more obscure avant-garde works of Ennio Morriconne), and whether hearing those Lachenmann pieces in this particular location, as opposed to, say, the Aldeburgh recital hall where I heard them last year, serves the music particular well or not, it’s certainly an impressive feat of publicity, networking, and all the rest, to achieve that level of popularity. That said, I do think we need to examine the notion of ‘popularity’ that too easily gets bandied about in talking of the undoubted successes of this festival, and to examine the way events like this serve or do not serve the political connotations to which Lachenmann’s music strenuously addresses and commits itself, commitments which may be equally compromised within the usual bourgeois concert settings, but which it wouldn’t necessarily be right to argue are better or more fully heard outside them either. This isn’t to say that we should turn to Luigi Nono’s ’70s mode of playing his electronic compositions to factory workers, though that practice does at least grant those not privileged with a particular level of education a capacity to ‘understand’ difficult art that would never in a million years be granted by patronizing culture industrial discourse machine of today. I’m hardly the son of factory workers myself, and my educational history began (somewhat eccentrically) and has continued on a level of relative privilege; but I discovered Messiaen, Schoenberg and the whole world that opened up (alongside John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, et al) not through some ‘High Culture Programme’ but at the local library of a not-exactly ‘culturally-minded’ M4-corridor town and through tuning in and taping broadcasts on the radio, and I suspect a lot of people committed to this music (perhaps more as listeners than as performers, though that might be a spurious distinction) followed similar paths. (A friend discovered this world through playing the lone Stockhausen LP that had somehow found its way into his state school library, for instance.) In some ways, that might be a more far-reaching and long-lasting mode of ‘access’ than an event which ultimately attends to a very particular social bracket of young, hip, 20-or 30-somethings from London – not that this negates the value of such events, simply that we must be careful, in talking about these things, not to ignore other, less spectacular means by which ‘high culture’ escapes particular exclusionary brackets.

Moving classical music into locations outside the concert hall, then, does not necessarily entail a broadening of the class (and race) base of its audience; perhaps even the contrary, because in a spirit of ‘cool’ or ‘radical’ disguise, it actually participates in the process of gentrification which, in its pretended solidarity with the working class neighbourhoods it first inhabits, then displaces, in the upward-spiral of rent set in motion by the cultural cachet with which it has now imbued those neighbourhoods. The audience becomes younger, but it relative wealth bracket, albeit one slightly more precarious in terms of its financial security, less fixed in its job positioning, than that of the more comfortable members of a typical Aldeburgh or Glyndebourne festival programme, is still hardly that of the working class: this audience is the bourgeoisie in its hipster guise, or, as Keston Sutherland put it when he read at Bold Tendencies a few weeks previously, in an insult that was masochistically lapped up, or simply unnoticed, by the very crowd he was addressing, “the rich of peckham”. ‘Hipster’ is, of course, an over-used and under-defined term, less economically specific than the sharp ‘rich’, which cuts through all the lifestyle dress-up to the naked financial truth, or half-truth, underneath; but if you’re going to find hipsters, it’ll be at Bold Tendencies, with its £4.50 lagers, its 30-minute queue for the roof-top bar (with a queue that long, you just know it’s achingly hip), its rolling tobacco and its Derek Jarman garden (as the bouncers inform you, you can sit on the pieces of railroad timber designated as benches, but not on the ones immediately next to them which are part of the garden itself). Indeed, the Proms, with their attracted audiences of eccentric and cranks and music-lovers of all ages (still, of course, predominantly white) somehow feel to me more inclusive than this free festival in a Peckham car park. And a man in a sleeveless suit who approaches multiple members of the queue while mumbling something nigh-on inaudible about having composed the initial, more fulsome orchestral version of ‘Tristan Und Isolde’, is far more deeply and fundamentally an outsider than the immaculately-turned ‘personal twists’ of fashion and hairstyle modeled by the hipsters from and attracted to Peckham.

But it’s not as if I’m outside this bracket; the slight tinge of guilt I felt every time I stepped out from the station and turned into the car-park, following the hordes of other jean-wearing twenty year olds in an escape from halal shops, African hairdressers, and the likes, to White Cultural Heaven (where sometimes the only black person in the entire venue, it seemed, was the bouncer), is perhaps simply an exacerbated version of that which I’m insulated from in organizing and attending events within educational institutions that are much more fundamentally dedicated the exclusion of non-white, non-public-school-educated students, and are pervaded by an undercurrent of sometimes barely disguised sexism. Furthermore, I should also point out at this point that I’m extremely glad the festival took place, for which the organizers Sam Mackay, Lucy Railton, Aisha Orazbayeva and Igor Toronyi-Lalic, and all the musicians and volunteers should be praised (Mark Knoop’s performances in particular were frequently astonishing, and I can imagine getting big-name musicians like Tony Conrad and Charlemagne Palestine over to play on the same bill, or, indeed, bringing in Glenn Branca, was quite an organisational task). Along with the various contemporary Kings Place concerts (my review of Orazbayeva’s Nono performance can be found a year or so ago back in these blog archives), the LCMF’s existence is evidence of a younger generation’s interest in, and active promotion of a contemporary music that’s too often relegated to bit-parts alongside old warhorses in regular classical programmes, and of a thinking about that music’s role within the wider climate of contemporary culture. These organizers and musicians are clearly deeply serious and organizationally sound, whatever the slight hiccups of, say, the persistent feedback caused by pedalled passages down the lower end of the piano, or unavoidable conflicts between the fairly noisy, semi-open environment and some of the quieter pieces that were scheduled (say, the battle between the regular passing train and the finger-key clickings of Lachenmann’s ‘Guero’; which actually turned to entirely appropriate and rivetting effect as the train passed again during a much more thunderous part of Lachenmann’s ‘Serynade’.) Perhaps this latter indicates some of the reasons that car-parks aren’t more often used as venues, the actual virtues of having an enclosed space in which people are more restrained by spatial etiquette in terms of wandering in and out of the performance space and to the bar and conversing through parts of the music they don’t like, the enforcing of particular qualities of attention and listening that are not in themselves bourgeois or stuffy values but of a serious engagement with music that refuses to reduce it to social occasion or aural wallpaper. Not that the LCMF wasn’t characterised by intense close-listening on the part of its core audience (the culprits being more those who passed by the concerts on their way to and from Frank’s bar upstairs, passing comment as they went). Lots of these things, of course, couldn’t have been anticipated at the planning stage, or even mitigated against if they were, but I think it’s important to raise them, not so much as a specific criticism of or dig at the LCMF, but as part of the problems that will have to be seriously thought about if a sustained movement towards alternative venues for the performance of contemporary music is to be considered.

Setting this aside for the moment, let’s consider the concerts presented. The first Friday: Lachenmann’s piano pieces generally came through well – ‘SeryNade’ in particular struck my as extremely strong, this being the second time I’d seen it performed in concert; it makes much use of pedal-work for complex resonance-effects, and includes one particularly gripping section in which chordal repetition creates a kind of paralyzed, frozen or stuttering quality of obsession, weirdly resonant with the way John Coltrane might approach and worry at a phrase from every angle, trying to exhaust and work through its every harmonic implication. The piece, despite its title, seems to work through the residue and sediment left by the history of the classical piano repertoire, and particularly that of Romanticism, absorbing its gestures and re-fashioning them in critical fashion: a music of deep historical engagement, with a very particular way of working through such issues. The Morricone pieces, which I was quite stoked about before-hand, proved disappointing, by contrast; I understand the programming was inspired by Lachenmann’s comments about Morriconne being his favourite composer, but I suspect he means the better-known film music (mitigating his reputation as a high-modernist hermit who scorns all forms of popular culture) rather than the rather structurally-inane ‘avant-garde’ pieces we heard on the night. ‘Proibito’, for eight trumpets, saw those trumpets moving through particular sets of extended techniques in somewhat disconnected fashion, and felt as much as anything like a student composition: a composer trying out ideas without much sense of how to formally string them together. The piece for solo viola and tape (‘Suoni per Dino’) was more structurally coherent, and had obvious similarities to particular sequences Morriconne will write in tension-filled scenes from his Western film scores, in which a sparse but repetitive figure on timpani or some other form of percussion will underlie a series of more abstract sounds. But whereas that rhythmic quality contributes directly to the tension in those scores, here it felt like an unnecessary sop to the slowly-overlapping looped harmonies above it, which might even have taken on a Feldman-lite quality if they hadn’t been thus bolstered. That said, I’d imagine these pieces are rarely performed, and it’s certainly good that the opportunity was given for them to be heard.

I missed Glenn Branca on the Saturday for Wagner at the Proms (see above), but stayed for the full nine-hour-or-so whack on the Sunday, a ‘drone day’ culminating in the Palestine / Conrad double-bill. Jem Finer’s opening ‘Slowplayer’ struck me as the worst kind of satisfied, funding-sated dross, perhaps acceptable in a gallery or installation-type setting, but completely unsuited to a concert context: working through a stack of records which appeared to include Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and the stooges, he proceeded to play them on the specially-modified record-player which gave the ‘piece’ its title, a player which didn’t give above 7RPM. So we got the elongated groans and drawn out gasps of barely-distinguishable records, sometimes with somewhat desultory mixer-manipulation from Finer, who wandered around the space taking photographs of the audience or picking through the record-stack. Somehow paralyzed in my seat, I stayed for the full two-hours, but the suffering involved was somewhat mitigated by the follow-up of Eliane Radigue’s ‘Chry-ptus’, transitioning into James Tenney’s ‘Having Never Written a Note for Percussion’, that crescendo-diminuendo piece for tam-tam which fully exploits the resonant possibilities of that instrument in a way that requires complete physical and mental focus on the part of the musician and, if they’re willing, the audience. If I felt lethargic and fed-up at the end of the Finer, by the end of the Tenney, I felt some combination of blissed-out, exhausted and emotionally eviscerated (perhaps simply a result of tiredness and temporary fragility, and thus not the best indicator of ‘objective’ reviewing standards). Rounding the afternoon off, Brian Eno’s ‘Music for Airports’, as arranged for a polite electric-guitar-vibes-keyboards-reeds-and-strings ensemble, was hardly in the same league, though I have a soft spot for an album I haven’t heard for years, and it was nice, if nothing more, to encounter it again in live form. Barely an hour’s break saw the main event. First half, Tony Conrad and Jennifer Walshe’s duo Ma la Pert with an hour-long improvisational piece: Walshe stuck mainly to vocals, though she’d occasionally join Conrad’s amplified violin and table-based bass string droning with bits of cello - a big range of extended techniques and a tendency towards a kind of vaguely ‘ethnic’ emotionalism grew a little wearying over the full time, as if she was unwilling to allow the drone full space to develop – perhaps the piece would have benefited from being a little shorter (but perhaps I’m also being churlish). Charlemagne Palestine’s stuffed-toy-tumbler-and-talking routine doesn’t really do much for me, but the ‘Strumming Music’-style exploration of piano resonance was at times mesmerising, even if I have perhaps less time for it than I did on initially hearing the original album: it felt a little too obvious and over-dramatic in its emotional effects and affect (rather like elements of Walshe’s singing), verging, even, on the sentimental (and not in a good way). But the final encore, a short trio featuring all three performers, was, to paraphrase the title of a particularly beautiful archive recording of Palestine and saxophonist Terry Jennings, ‘Short and Sweet’, if at times a little hesitant (but live first-time collaborations can be forgiven for this).

So that was the first weekend. In any case, despite the tinges of unease that prompted the vicious introductory splurge above, it wasn’t until the penultimate day of attendance at the LCMF’s second weekend that I noticed the wall-scrawl ‘Triumph of the Bourgeoisie (Upstairs)’. Weirdly, or not so weirdly, that little descriptor came back towards the end of the festival’s final scheduled piece, a performance of Philip Corner’s ‘Piano Activities’ - or rather, the performance of the performance of Corner’s work by Wolf Vostell, Charlotte Moorman, George Macunias, etc, in 1962, in which the piano was destroyed. But whereas Macunias at least partially justifies this violence by claiming that the piano had cost $5 and it would have cost more to hire removals to take it away than to destroy it, the Bold Tendencies realisation was clearly geared towards a kind of mild-shock, the actual impact of the shock softened by the fact of its hipster-event cushioning (putting a couple of pianos in a car-park anyway is something of a shock, perhaps). This isn’t to say that some of the sounds coaxed out weren’t compelling - they were, particularly mic’d-up - but the thing is that these sounds could equally well have been-produced through close-micing of non-destructive piano activity: rubbing the strings needn’t be done with a giant chain, only a small one (or, as per Cage’s 14, with horsehair), tapping the resonant underside of the instrument could equally well be done with fingers or first than with a hammer, and so on. Corner’s initial score was designed precisely towards this end, as an extension of Cage’s extension of the piano through preparations, and in that light, it would have fitted perfectly into a programme which had seen Anthony Pateras, the day before, switch between piano, prepared piano (the same model, indeed, that was destroyed as the festival’s final event) and analogue synth, and in which Mark Knoop’s astounding recital had approached the issue of piano-writing (albeit mostly keyboard-and-note based, unlike, say, Lachenann’s previously-performed Guero) from many different angles. As Knoop impeccably segued into the Corner, assistants emerging from various points and audience converging around the piano like vultures; Knoop and co. handing out smashed piano keys and various other bits of piano gut to the audience like saints’ reliquaries. If, here, I seem to be falling into exactly the position of the Guardian article by Ben Beaumont-Thomas which has generated a mini-stream of twitter debate where the organizers, perhaps understandably, take BB-T to task for making this one event characterise the festival as a whole (and see also this response with regard to the availability of pianos), I think that, regardless of economic issues or of the issue of allowed bourgeois destruction, as an interpretation (or translation) of an interpretation of Corner’s score, the piece is partial and based on a particular, spectacular incident in its performance history which does not encompass or fully and accurately represent the piece itself. And yes, Fluxus did happen forty years ago, and more. And yes, the entire history of the incorporation of various forms of performance art into recuperative institutional frameworks and the co-option for the potentially political radical for high-bourgeois ends needs to be taken into consideration. One might argue that the same could be said of any piece of western classical piece performed or written on a fairly expensive piano, but I think that would be to dodge the issue. Food for thought, anyhow.

With that out of the way, onto the rest of the festival. If I didn’t necessarily buy the equivalence drawn between ‘New Complexity and Noise’ (the Friday gig’s title) – Michael Finnissy’s hyper-complex piano music is very different structurally to the apparently equally-virtuosic but formally rather slick piano improvisation by Anthon Pateras that followed it, and Russell Haswell’s noise set concealed its rhythmically rather square machinations behind sheer PA’d volume – turn it down and it’d sound rather uncomfortably caught between IDM and noise music proper, as if, I don’t know, Cremaster had met Autechre but they hadn’t quite clicked. Finnissy’s ‘English Country Tunes’, ferociously played by Mark Knoop, were what stood out the most of anything on the evening. Seeing them live really reinforces their value: I periodically watch Finnissy videos on youtube and am never quite sure how to engage with the work or what to think of it, though in some rather un-delineated sense I get the sense of admiring them or the very fact of their existence, but here, an extended, two-to-three minute passage featuring simultaneous writing in the extreme high and low ends of the piano achieved a concentrated ferocity comparable to the improvisations of Cecil Taylor; rather than just being the timbral shock effect it could have been, the material was rhythmically and harmonically compelling, and the juxtaposition with a more overtly folk-influenced or –haunted register felt entirely appropriate and not in the least like a disjoint or a cop-out. Pateras and Steve Noble did a series of improvisations in various solo and duo combinations; their playing was flashy but somehow almost always entirely safe, with none of the risk that good improvisation, in this particular, more ‘interactive’ mode at least, to me tends to entail. Perhaps the best piece was the one for prepared piano and drums, in which Pateras hammered out a percussion all of his own, using the full range of the instrument and making it seem like a resourceful instrument in and of itself; nonetheless, here, as in the other pieces, it felt as if both musicians were somehow afraid of being bored and of boring the audience – rather than sticking with, locking into any particularly compelling area that opened up, they would discard it and move onto something else, almost as if to show that they could, so that the logic was smooth but disjointed, an endless flow of ideas all given equal weight and thus in their totality giving the feeling of a kind of insubstantiality, impressive moment to moment and even in terms of a kind of general effect which would get the audience talking afterwards, but, in their actual totality, almost rather bland. Of the remaining pieces, Ferneyhough’s ‘Cassandra’s Dream Song’, the solo flute piece, doesn’t strike me on nearly the same level as the Finnissy; Aaron Cassidy’s solo pieces, for trumpet and trombone are clearly doing interesting things in terms of notation and timbral exploration, though they perhaps haven’t quite worked out what to do with these areas in the ways that Finnissy’s have (Cassidy is, after all, a much younger composer than either of the two F’s). That said, it was the earlier piece, ‘songs only as sad as their listener’, which struck me most, with its tremulous and sparse repeated note, muted but amplified so as to emphasize maximal fragility within the human-instrument interaction, emphasizing the externals of breath and mouth-positioning so that the brass sometimes seemed to be an extension of a human wheezing and crying, a half-choked plaint: as if the trumpet part to Ives’ ‘The Unanswered Question’ had been cut down to its bare minimum and left to stand without the accompanying orchestra, perhaps.

Saturday I skipped, out of concert-/ cultural-overload exhaustion. Sunday afternoon, mainly consisting of new pieces selected from competition entries for the festival, was mostly desultory: the opening piece, for wandering trombones, might have suggested a Scratch Orchestra-style performance strategy, but it was material of the worst sub-minimalist kind, utterly banal and with no redeeming features that I could see or hear; somehow, the perfect existential accompaniment to a five-minute failure to light a half-smoked cigarette on a windy car-park rooftop. Michael Haleta’s piece for forty musicians moving in delineated squares while dragging or banging various junk-instruments (a giant plastic flower-pot (which pretty much drowned out everything else as it was enthusiastically dragged and scraped against the car-park’s concrete floor), a cymbal-round-the-neck, various shakers, a set of clothes pegs tied together with wire, a rock on a string) superficially seemed close to the performance strategies of James Saunders’ pieces, but with apparently none of the close thinking and attention to structure that goes into them: the division into four movements seemingly entirely arbitrary, and the various possible permutations of a fairly simple idea with regard to partially-improvised group dynamics and negotiations, even in such basics as speed and area covered, left unexplored. The pairing of vocal works by Mark Applebaum-Pauline Oliveros was at least intriguing, if sometimes a little too self-consciously wacky in its performative shenanigans (though Richard Bullens’ piece for perambulating clarinets was perhaps the more gimmicky, given the apparently complete lack of relation between a potentially interesting exploration of spatial dynamics and the actual substance of its conservative-modernist musical material). A series of works for acoustic guitar and electronics were dire. I would suggest a diet of early Taku Sugimoto, Derek Bailey, and sackcloth and ashes. The concluding piece, Rzewski’s ‘Coming Together’, is a reminder of the existence of a political minimalism, though I doubt many of the audience had much idea about the Attica Riots that form its text: the indeterminacy of its notation also suggests a connection between early minimalism and more avant-garde performance strategies that second, or third-generation minimalists (and the, probably fourth-generation, by now near-total recuperation of minimalism into the de-rigueur TV-and-movie soundtrack and advertising ambient-background score go-to style) almost completely ignore. The piece itself perhaps tends towards sentimentality in its second movement, but its patient extension of sparse text fragments is actually handled without histrionics and with a sense of implacable conviction that is quite moving, and certainly a million times less gimmicky or formally glib than almost all of the commissioned pieces that had preceded it.

The evening’s lengthy keyboard ‘recital’ (or more accurately, set of recitals) opened with Jane Chapman’s harpsichord programme. The miking of the instrument rendered its relative clunkiness and stringy, twittering-machine-like quality nakedly apparent; perhaps a disadvantage in more traditional repertoire, but of a piece with the programme, in which Ligeti’s hyper-virtuosic moto-perpetuos and Louis Andriessen’s rather uncomfortably extended melodic permutations sat alongside to me rather glib electronically-aided explorations (or illustrations) of the instrument’s inner workings by Paul Whitty, and some wonderfully exaggerated cliché parodies or near-parodies from a few centuries earlier by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer, perhaps my favourite of all the set’s constituent parts. Leon Michener’s recreation of Terry Riley’s ‘Persian Surgery Dervishes’ was advertised as taking place on an electric organ, but in the event, occurred through a combination of an apple laptop, a midi keyboard, and a baby grand; undoubtedly a labour-intensive reconstruction (Riley’s piece was at least semi-improvised and was never turned into a score), though the techno elements were a little baffling (one half-wished he’d go the whole hog and turn the whole thing into a techno-remix; or that we’d actually hear some Riley-influenced techno; or that the approach was more purist). But Mark Knoop’s piano recital on that same baby ground was nothing short of astonishing: playing entirely from an ipad, he transitioned between quite widely diverse pieces without missing a beat, leaving no space for applause between individual compositions and thus building up an extremely focused set of associations and networks between the items on the programme. The effect was sometimes comic, as when Mozart would be followed by a crashing modernist chord, sometimes seamless, as when early Feldman turned into early La Monte Young, so that the Young initially sounded like the final phrase of the Feldman repeated and extended. If the two recent pieces, by Adam de la Cour (conceptually neat and simple, featuring a loud boxing-ring bell sound which transitioned between (from what I can recall) vaguely Joplinesque parody-passages and ferocious, Finnissy-like keyboard-scampering) and Lauren Redhead couldn’t hope to ‘compete’ with Mozart, or Schoenberg, or even Leo Ornstein, they nonetheless fitted well and didn’t seem overtly out of place: certainly, they were far superior to any of the new pieces played earlier on in the day. The other Piano Activities that rounded things, and the piano itself, off, we’ve touched on before, so no need to re-tread that controversial ground. But, really, I haven’t seen this much varied contemporary music jostled together in such a short and packed space of time ever, I don’t think, at least outside of Aimard-era Aldeburgh or some of the South Bank’s Total Immersion weekends, and I’m still somewhat buzzing and exhausted from it – in the best possible way, I’m sure…

Mark Wastell / Mensch Mensch Mensch.
Cafe Oto, Tuesday 6th August 2013

Much more low-key, this: a modest crowd, as perhaps expected. Wastell’s tam-tam work couldn’t help but force me into a compare-and-contrast exercise with the performance of James Tenney’s ‘On Having Never Written a Note for Percussion’ at the LCMF a week or so before; whereas that piece has a clear crescendo-diminuendo structure, moving from the barely-perceptible to a roaring rush of resonance in which one might fancy oneself hearing disintegrated choirs of spectral human voices (no, really) - a piece which, unexpectedly enough at the time, felt curiously moving to me – Wastell’s investigations are less linear and thus, tougher to follow: not because of an excess of activity, but rather because of their extended concentration on particular areas of the tam-tam’s surface and register that transition into similar areas with a minimum of fuss, aided by electronic amplification. Café Oto is, as always, incredibly hot, and I was already tired, so my attention wandered at times, but it was a thoughtful set, certainly. Mensch Mesnch Mesnch (Liz Allbee and Burkhard Beins’ mainly electronic duo), by contrast, engaged in various explicitly ‘theatrical’ structures in a set that was curiously balanced between the tightly organized, a mode of performance that was explicit in the effect and affect it was going after at a particular time or in a particular section, and the improvised space for meandering or for sudden and disorientating shift. Looking at Beins’ set up afterwards, I discovered a number-list which delineated the various areas to be explored: trumpet, synth, sine-waves and tuning forks, sampled piano note, etc - and this of course made perfect sense afterwards, the semi-composed sectionality of that approach, the way that transitions between sections would be clearly and almost violently demarcated by the apparently sudden decision to stop or start a particular action in which one was engaged - Allbee putting down her trumpet, Beins cutting out a sustained rumbling bass sound, and so on. I’m perhaps more interested in the moment in more explicit compositional strictures as spur for improvisation – and perhaps that general delineation of areas restricted the music in a way that lessened risk, rather than forcing a great concentration and focus – but it was a nice set, overall, starting with great fanfare-like blasts of trumpet from Allbee, who pointed her instrument, which had a bike-light inserted into its bell, at various spots in the darkened room as she played, and ending in completely different territory with an exploration of tuning-fork and sine wave resonance into which Wastell’s guest tam-tam blended seamlessly. Peter Brötzmann will be something else again.