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.