FLAT TIME/sounding: the absent desire object

FLAT TIME page 1A question to be asked: why compose for improvisers? Questions are directed at time: what are the possibilities for articulating time? Improvisations splinter time. Hit a sheet of glass with a hammer and if the tap achieves the right velocity then the glass will splinter in many directions without smashing to pieces. To look at the glass is to see a maze of multidirectional lines but the evanescent surface of the glass adds a further dimension: each line may extend into depth or project into invisibility.

This is the temporal nature of many improvisations, a close engagement with the suggestibility of materials, the crazed lines of interconnectivity, the openings of air and the potentiality of bodies. A more global view is barely possible. How many improvisations last for two minutes, or stretch unexpectedly to seven hours? There are practicalities at work, of course, but also a feeling of too much expediency. An interesting current trend in London is to present many short performances in a single evening; sets may be 15 or 20 minutes long. Is this for the sake of variety, a recognition of strength in depth that echoes faintly the principle of ‘something for everybody’ typical of the Victorian Music Hall? Or is it symptomatic of a deeper current of contemporary life, the kind of syndrome churned into zeitgeist anxiety by newspaper columnists in 750 words or less, an inability to concentrate, perhaps, or the need for constant change?

Flat Time page 2FLAT TIME/sounding began as a composition commission but its possibilities reflected an idea that has been with me since 1971. In that year I began to imagine a looping continuum of what we now call research and practice: to study the echolocating clicks of bats and to improvise with clicks, for example. In that year I was playing in a duo with Paul Burwell and ‘writing’ compositions that might be just a title, a mood, a minimal percussion figure or guitar line. Both of us were taking part in the first John Stevens workshops for improvisation, in which John isolated tendencies and stimulated listening skills with short verbal scores. “Click Piece” was one of them: play the shortest sound you can find on your instrument. Simple (or not).

Recently I listened to Angharad Davies and Rie Nakajima playing a duo at Café Oto. The event seemed more a consideration than a performance, a weighing of durations whereby autonomic percussive objects came to life as temporary sound events, their shifting placement in the room (decreasing and increasing the time taken for sound to reach a listener’s ears) bisected by Angharad’s penetrating sliver sounds or soft legato, delivered as if from hiding as she moved behind clusters of listeners or into near or distant view. You couldn’t say this was improvisation, not in the common usage of the term, but nor was it composition. Like a lot of music right now (Wandelweiser, for example), it seemed to be in search of terminology, or not in search of anything like that so much as working out the practice of how music comes together when all the old ideological divisions have gone soft.

Flat Time page 3The duo with Paul Burwell was sometimes criticised for its adherence to ‘compositions’ (slight as they were); there was a pressure to ‘just play’, to work with nothing but sounds. Now I am older I can appreciate the violence of this break with the past, but was it all so simple: just a click answered by another click and you had music? Unable to help myself I resist improvisation’s resistance (while asking myself if improvisation is a thing, or improvising individuals, or dominant groups, or a tradition, or a habit) to any kind of footnoting, any explicit reference to external ideas. In my late teens I came across a recording of duetting by tropical bou-bou shrikes. Maybe this was the most basic model for improvisation: one bird signals, the other replies. They seesaw back and forth, moving exquisitely in and out of phase as they do so. One very striking aspect of duetting behaviour is the tendency for one partner to complete the pattern if the other is absent, as if sounding the romantic tragedy of Abelard and Heloise. “When one bird died, the survivor sang the complete melody which it had never before been heard to sing alone,” wrote T. Hooker and Barbara L. Hooker in a 1969 essay on the subject. ‘Empty’ time is filled with the vocalisations of the absent desire object, just like a solitary player competing at chess with the shadow self of the self.

Flat Time page 4Another inspirational discovery came from reading Samuel Akpabot’s essay – Random Music of the Birom, published in African Arts in 1975. Akpabot compares the music of northern Nigerian one-note flute ensembles of the Birom people to the innovations of European composition after 1918: “the tone clusters and the harmony created by the individual melodic lines of Bartok, the random approach of Cage, the special effects of Dallapiccola, the polyrhythms of Stravinsky, the distorted tones of Boulez.” The important distinction for him was what he described as a freedom of expression. Of greater interest for me was the nature of this freedom – not a freedom solely confined to instrumental pitches but at a level of social engagement, through which each player articulated his relation to the group, to his instrument, to his own body and to the environmental setting of the musical event. So Akpabot’s notation of the piece includes, in parentheses, extra-musical events: “(does a little dance), (blows his nose), (urinates), (spits), (bickering between fl. 3 & 4), (laughs at fl. 3), (chats with crowd), (tunes drum).”

Flat Time page 5If John Latham’s theories of time and language, in particular his roller blind paintings and one-second drawings, are at the heart of FLAT TIME/sounding as a score, my own researches have shaped its form, its ‘footnotes’, its texture and at least some of the influence it exerts on its performers. That is not to say that they are condemned to confinement within my eccentricities and obsessions; simply that they make themselves open to its duration, its markers, its ritual and its intimations of other worlds that lie close to sound escaping from a mouth, expelled through a tube, ingested within the body and returned transformed, as if to the absent desire object whose place is filled by strangers.

FLAT TIME/sounding will be performed at Raven Row, London, E1 (http://www.ravenrow.org/events/flat_time_sounding/), by Elaine Mitchener, John Butcher, Aleks Kolkowski, David Toop, at exactly 7.00pm, Thursday 13 December, 2012, for one hour exactly.

About davidtoop

David Toop is a composer/musician, author and curator based in London who has worked in many fields of sound art and music, including improvisation, sound installations, field recordings, pop music production, music for television, theatre and dance. He has published five books, including Ocean of Sound, Haunted Weather, and Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener, released eight solo albums, including Screen Ceremonies, Black Chamber and Sound Body, and as a critic has written for many publications, including The Wire, The Face, Leonardo Music Journal and Bookforum. Exhibitions he has curated include Sonic Boom at the Hayward Gallery, London, Playing John Cage at Arnolfini, Bristol, and Blow Up at Flat-Time House, London. Currently writing Into the Maelstrom: Improvisation, Music and the Dream of Freedom, to be published by Bloomsbury in 2015. His opera – Star-shaped Biscuit – was performed as an Aldeburgh Faster Than Sound project in September 2012. He is Chair of Audio Culture and Improvisation at University of the Arts London.
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9 Responses to FLAT TIME/sounding: the absent desire object

  1. Ian Brighton says:

    David I have read your article with great interest and am impressed how you analyse improvisation and make comparisons with other actions and activities. The interllectualisation of processes that some of us instinctively perform is quite fascinating . If you can recall we first met at the LTC in the early seventies and was introduced by John Stevens. You were getting ready to play and were placing crocodile clips at certain points along the strings while Paul was setting up a small drum kit. My approach to improvisation on the guitar was from a combination of thoughts advice and experimentation from suggestions by Derek to explore the whole guitar in a different light and the influence of klangfarben sounds first heard on Oliver Messians compositions. Unlike many others who were trying to avoid consonance and rhythm I refused to reject them because they were components of jazz. That was my background not contemporary composition. Sometimes when I played with Lol Coxhill for example he would in a single solo traverse the entire spectrum of improvisation and you just had to play with and off of him in conversational improvisation. It was there and instantaneous there was no time for analytical thought. Listening to the recordings thirty years later there were some horrible sounds generated amongst those of majestic beauty and those that just fitted in the right place along the improvisational timeline. As you said in your article some tend to last for short periods while others go on for a long time. The lengthy ones are usually performed by musicians who don’t know each others music that well or where a new person had been added to the environment. The uncertainty comes from knowing and feeling the natural time to play the last sound . If you are playing with your normal friends you will over time have built an empathy as you tend to play as one whole improvisational sound and not a series of instruments. Therefore the natural end is a decay or avalanche of sound that finishes at one point where you know that either yourself or your colleague has played the last note. From a time perspective it seems to be between 15 and 30 minutes. As a soloist I have found that the duration is about 15 minutes and in an ensemble anything between 20 and 30 minutes. There is also the aspect of personality and influence in the way that people improvise. I have found that extroverted personalities tend to play in that same style whereas those who are less so tend to play in a reflective and thoughtful manner. There is no single answer or analogy into how and why individuals improvise in certain ways and what elements they use in their performance. What is disappointing to this day is that some factions think that they should still restrict their improvisations to atonal structures . The late Lol Coxhill certainly didn’t : I believe that we need more to follow his tradition so that improvisation is not just cerebral but joyful .

    • davidtoop says:

      Thank you for this, Ian. I do remember we met at the Little Theatre Club but don’t recall the exact occasion. Interesting that you came through Messiaen. I was listening to his organ works and trying for the seem feel using a fuzz box! It used to puzzle me, why you could admit to certain influences and not others, or why certain types of structure were legitimate and others were not. It was a rejection or reaction, of course, and quite arbitrary at times. Lol could play the way he did because he was funny, a big personality, a brilliant player and clearly very sensitive but he was also extremely open minded. What you say about time feels right to me. There was a time when I was getting booked a lot to play solo sets and they expected one hour. That’s way too long but it was an expectation, the economics I suppose.

      • Ian Brighton says:

        The first time I met you was a special occasion because it was the first time that I had been invited to play at the LTC. At the time you had long fair hair, I think , while mine was longish with a monks tonsure . I think I was playing with Colin Wood and John Stevens and Derek came to the bar sometime during the evening. In 1973 I was playing with Frank Perry, Colin Wood, Radu Malfatti and Philipp Wachamann at a week long gig in the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology with a dancer called Shelly Lee. The first half of the programme was poetry and contemporary dance followed by our improvisations in the second half. The afternoon matinees were attended by elderly ladies who thought that the improvisation was quite interesting and refreshing . With so many assertive personalities on stage it was difficult to find a balance as well as interacting with the dancer . At the end of the week Frank was due to play at Ronnie’s as part the Keith Tippet trio but at the last moment Keith was unwell and Derek asked if we could take our group instead. We arrived just in time to set up and play the gig . Colin Wood had gone to Leeds and when he got there changed his mind and returned to London walking through the club with his shock of red hair under a full length black army greatcoat with a cello under his arm. Everyone else was getting more tense as he was taking an age to find his space on the stage set up and settle down. By the time we played the music flowed reflecting the situation with a lot of tension and release . Afterward Derek who was standing at the back of the club told me that he wanted to record the group and capture the music because he thought we would not last. By the time ‘ Balance’ , Incus 11, was released the group had disbanded as some of the relationships between individuals could not be sustained : Derek was right , the music was more important to be captured as an example of what was being created at the time than the individuals creating it. Improvisation it’s nature and practise is a series of personality driven processes interacting in their respective forms and structures only confined by the length of the individuals instrumental capability

  2. Thomas Gardner says:

    Might I propose that your FlatTime is not only a question directed towards time, but is also a question directed towards love – what the formative act of love consists of, its quality, density, persistence, ? Perhaps the very difficulty of giving form to love is something that your structure explores, but the desire to give it form is, I think, absolutely right.

    • davidtoop says:

      This opens up so many possibilities, Thomas, many of them unexplored because the idea of motivation, what it might be or why it even exists, is so covert. I was listening yesterday to the conversation I recorded with John Latham in 2004. He was talking about infinite heat (and I know nothing about physics), comparing it to the energy out of which a musical performance can take place. Perhaps this is similar to what you propose here? Humans have a constant need to respond to this formative act but the beginnings are inchoate, hard to observe, let alone describe or analyse. I certainly feel with this piece that I’m floundering in search of that formative moments and all its textural richness and stubborn will to survive.

  3. Thomas Gardner says:

    That sounds true. Infinite heat – contained or alluded to in the formative acts of finite beings

  4. Thomas Gardner says:

    actually, on reflection, infinite heat sounds too cold and mechanical – infinite love seems somewhat warmer!

  5. davidtoop says:

    Well John did have a way of describing human actions and motivations as if from a distant star. It was not so much cold and mechanical as rather alien. That was one of his characteristics that I found so alluring – like Thomas Nagel’s question – “What is it like to be a bat?” . . . John posed two questions: “What is it like to be John Latham?” and “What is it like to be a human being?” He thought of himself as a classicist so avoided terms like ‘love’, but now I see him as a romantic, inventing a poetic language (just like Joyce) that opened up real possibilities for living.

  6. Thomas Gardner says:

    Very interesting. I can imagine that even John’s ability to explore the position of an alien on the coldest rock on the furthest planet is still not far enough, and your understanding of his worldview as having a romantic form is bound to be right.
    For me, at the moment, I know that the words ‘infinite love’ do not in any way correspond with their intended target, – and that the implications of this disequilibrium tends more to psychosis, rather than coldness or distance – however an attempt to rectify this imbalance may also result in a neo-romantic structure (or a new kind of minuet), at any rate, the desire to act in a way that does better than the failure of those mere words.

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