head peelers

Extracts from a collaborative text written by David Toop and Marie Roux, published in Marie Roux’s photobook, The Head Peelers, published in an edition of 40, 2021.

A wandering adventure was my starting point. This is what I find exciting. I looked down at the earth between my feet, studied the transparent tea in my cup and found the furthest island off the coast of France. Its name was Ushant, written on my chart by an invisible pen. When I checked the paper map, only an Ile d’Ouessant was visible, though some faint blemish of the paper’s surface suggested that my island had once existed or perhaps existed to those who believed it could be found, perhaps by a swimmer who had lost all hope and prepared themselves for drowning, only to find sand under their feet.

There is nothing there except tourism in the summer, nothing except grasses, tangled fibres, a sweeping line in the sand as if a giant had leaned down with a stick, in one fluid move drawing a line to curb the incoming sea. There is nothing there except for dry, bleached leaves and stalks, twigs whose music in the wind is like the sighing of animals too thin to be seen by a human eye. There is a seaweed culture, tractors blocking the roads, carrying their slimy cargo towards a vast complex where the slippery fronds will be burned in open stone coffins, its brittle pungency later to be pressed into chocolate or made into a tea in which islands that escape the cartographers can be seen by those whose sight is conditioned by solitude and an affinity with the sea. The goémoniers who collect the seaweed sleep in hollows they carve out from the sand. From generations of this work they are black, they glisten; shy of observers, their monkish forms were only visible at those moments when they sensed the water retreating from the land. Because I was alone I saw them many times, though never approached.

There is nothing there except for black bees, makers of honey so pure that when I was cut, falling on rocks that were piled haphazardly, the way a child throws wooden bricks in a tantrum, the honey sealed the wound as I watched. A beekeeper on the island collects this honey and sells it to those who would live to be ancient while remaining young, though I never saw her or her customers during my walks. Maybe they had become so crystalline as to be invisible. Once I heard music on the beach. A piano was sinking into the sand as high tide approached, its sound thrown around by high winds.

Winter was raw. I smoothed black bee honey on my skin, wrapped myself in seaweed to keep warm. The wind and light shifted so much that if I noticed something I knew it was going to be different again very quickly. Intent on studying these constant transformations I would stumble into sheep. They seemed to belong to nobody, were constrained by no fences. Often they walked into my path deliberately as if to slow my progress, forcing me to study my feet, to notice that dry land and its plants were no different to the plants I saw under the sea. Sheep are not stupid. They wanted me to stop, to gaze at spiders whose webs were stretched across the paths. In their quiet, stubborn way they demanded I ask of myself, what was I seeing in these tangled remnants of green life; was it a script that I could read?

I fell into a rhythm on Ushant and the silence grew in me. On frosty mornings there were no longer footsteps to mark where I had walked. I no longer spoke, so the clouds of mist that formed around my mouth as I sang to myself were now part of the sky. They no longer belonged to me. Whatever could grow on the land was blurred in my sight, disappearing the way the trees had disappeared when they realised the wind was too strong. I could no longer see the whole of the land and the sea, or even myself, only slices, flashes of perception that came and went, like the beam of the deserted lighthouse. The smell of seaweed lingered in my nostrils for that final night and into the next morning. I could sense its fading potency as a reversal of what I see in the red dark as an image forms gradually on paper to become a fixed thing. This transience, I understood, lay at the heart of my reasons for being there, its brevity was what I sought.

Photographs: Marie Roux

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on&on&on&on: Daniel Blumberg

Daniel Blumberg drawing 1

“And now he was playing, alas, the piano,” the first sentence of Robert Walser’s short prose text written in 1925, “making it sound like a deep and intimate promise, which isn’t at all the way to start a novel.” An absence of pianos throughout Daniel Blumberg’s On&On&Onetc, the title of which has the potential to be as long or longer than the famous word invented by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake to sound out the catastrophic fall of a once wallstrait oldparr, makes it easier to enter its world of cords and fibres. Songs, it could be said, were invented to exclude the sound of rooms. They formulate an enclosed world. In the same way that a line of a drawing immediately proposes a hierarchy between mark and ground, the scrape of a string announces itself as the most compelling of airs within a room. At that moment, it hovers between room and song.

I hear a room, its air and the disturbances that ricochet between its surfaces, then I hear a song, as if a ship has slowly emerged out of sea mist, its form coalescing into coherent shape for the sake of memory. Doors open and close. At a given moment of life, songs may come to seem silly, Daniel muses, but then a song comes along, a country song perhaps, to articulate that cluster of emotions indelible within loss, fatigue of the spirit, a faltering of life. The song sounds a deep and intimate promise, to be fulfilled or honoured. If we go back in history, then air, or ayre, or aria, was a term through which a certain kind of musical style or accompanied song was known. To go back to Dowland, for example, or Purcell, and hear the febrile physicality of plucked and bowed strings in close wood-lined rooms. In the absence of pianos, On&On is characterised by a similar stringy physicality, reminiscent of chicken feet, a spider’s web, loosely woven fabric or grasses moving in a breeze, fibrous ligaments, claws and sand, insect stridulation, Violin, cello, bass, guitar. Then there are drums, like rats running over an unbrushed floor, disturbing matchboxes and loose quantities of steel shot in the haste of their purpose to avoid a snare. Behind the snare drum’s head there are strings, steel now, once fibrous.

Daniel Blumberg drawing 2

There are wet cords of voice and dry cords of string; then a harmonica, filleted air bent out of shape by thin brass tongues not unlike the tongues of geese or swans. All of these instruments share an ancestry in their parts. Robert Walser argued that horses are unduly put to work, having no voice with which to express dissent. Similarly, fragments of cat, tree, goat, calf, elephant, bamboo and other entities were once unduly put to work in the service of music, unable, as Walser put it, to negotiate. Some of this unbalanced relationship, its intensity and violence, persists in the music as an echo, a dry echo, a whistle of friction that might be a ghost in the dark. Then there are other strings, collectively played in concert, as if a window has opened and the song also rises on thermals and cloud shapes.

There is no speaking about where a song begins or ends, says Ute Kanngiesser. It’s not important. A song may move around, expand, come apart in its limbs and joints and skin to sink back into the room space, where strings are vibrating, snares rattling. A string is a line drawn taut. Ute speaks about the sessions in Wales during which this record was produced: “A strong memory is of me spending what remained of the night on the porch and watching the lunar eclipse. January 2019. It was the wolf moon and the super moon and the blood moon and it was eclipsing. I watched the moon getting darker, a sepia colour, and the moment it disappeared completely, the owls started a choir from the forest. It was incredible.”

Daniel Blumberg drawing 3

A string is a kind of line, and just as a string may become a song so a line may become a curious figure, displaced head, limbs, face and brightly coloured clothes, all bent, scattered and tumbling in air space. Like the ghost notes of a country shuffle, they fall in and out of worlds. “If I sit at the piano or I’m on the motorbike, I hum songs,” says Daniel. Between improvisation that comes into being in a room and songs that have come into being on a motorbike, there is another music, waiting for its cue in the forest. A song may come and go, on and on and on and on.

Written for the release of Daniel Blumberg’s LP: On & On (released July 31st, 2020)

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emanation, as if by a charm: Ami Yamasaki

Ami Yamasaki mouth and nose Surprise is a dubious pleasure, cultivated in the search for musical forms that take the listener into realms of impossible/imaginary. Then suddenly, after decades of searching, the surprises diminish in quantity, often in quality, leaving an unavoidable sense of melancholy, mixed with the treacherous air of nostalgia.

The antidote is to recognise that ‘new and unfamiliar’ has become stale; the truly new and unfamiliar has opened up regions that feel somehow incomprehensible or distasteful. Aesthetic proclivities become old, just like the bodies that shape them.

I was surprised to be surprised, then, hearing Ami Yamasaki perform with Charlie Collins at Iklectik. Charlie plays a low-lying drum kit and his contributions to this duo were correspondingly low, as in subtle. As interventions they added a halo, a subterranean murmur, a transient glow. At times they gave Ami occasion to smile, in itself an unusual event in improvisation, given the more familiar seriousness of facial expressions.

What was the cause of this experience, through which at times I questioned what I was hearing, or my interpretation of it? Her voice is high and powerful, nothing surprising about that, but its relation to her body is strangely ambiguous. At times, this unearthly voice seems to emanate from somewhere around her body, close to but detached, sometimes corresponding to lip movements and mouth opening but at the end of phrases drifting out of sync. It reminded me of sections in the Béla Tarr/Agnes Hranitzky film, The Man From London, in which dubbing goes adrift in such a way that questions about production difficulties or deliberate dislocation battle each other with a clamour that threatens to overwhelm the course of the film.

She also uses, or seems to use, the ventriloquist technique of projecting her voice, creating the illusion of a voice closer to walls or surrounding air than its original source. All of this is a form of echo-location, commonly used by people who are sight-impaired yet hearing enhanced. Human potential, in other words. She becomes a wolf-woman, then holds a conversation with invisible others in which the words escape into themselves, as if holding their contours within the world of sound without symbolic function. You could say she sounds like a bird but birds exist in their own universe. A video on YouTube – Signs of Voices – shows her stroking the fur (made from paper) of an improbably long animal, singing in a whisper as if speaking directly to its unknown consciousness. There’s a relationship to ASMR, reflected in the YouTube comments, but unlike ASMR, which hovers in an intensely private/public space, her voice addresses itself to space itself, and whatever inhabits space (as if a bat locating otherwise invisible moths by the energy of directional sound).

As the set at Iklectik progresses her vocal techniques become more familiar – some ultra-low vocal fry, Mongolian and Tuvan style chord singing, whistling with added melody – but the way she uses them is otherwordly, as if she is experimenting with non-human identities. She strikes her chest, as if shaking loose a sound from its resonating cavity. Of course I’m reminded of other great improvising singers – Elaine Mitchener, Ami Yoshida, Sidsel Endresen, Sharon Gal, Phil Minton, Shelley Hirsch, Sofia Jernberg, Yifeat Ziv and more – but her demeanour is so calm. No visible wrestling with the emotional/physical effort of extreme voice production; just emanation, as if by a charm.

Ami Yamasaki and Charlie Collins performed at Iklectik creative space, London, SE1 7LG, 17.11.2019, alongside O Yama O, Beatrix Ward-Fernandez, Derek Saw and Lauren Sarah Hayes.

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Nine people sitting on the basement floor folding paper into origami birds, four microphones hanging from the ceiling, a loudspeaker pair at each end of the room. A sound going on, unmistakeably but ambiguously emanating from this activity, suggestive of the palpitations of a locust swarm, the feeding of insect eaters biting their way through a bounty of desiccated wings and bleached bones. The white cranes accumulate, piling up in earthbound flocks next to their makers. I am conscious of furniture in the room, the chair on which I sit, the movement of hands, a thin garment hanging loosely on the wall, a vivid red teapot.

Gradually, patterns emerge in the sound, lulls falling mysteriously, overtaken by industrious surges. A Max patch is at work. Now the sound piece thins, leaving a sparse acoustic crackle that exactly matches the quick, concentrated effort of the folders. Their number has grown to fourteen. This is a durational piece – four hours at this point – so some of them have returned from a break. The atmosphere of dedication is the focal point that holds it all within its shape and volition, no obvious breakage points other than the sight of doing and making, the growth of birds.

Upstairs we speak in low voices, respectful of the crackling quiet below.

For a moment I think of Chim-­Pom’s installation pieces – Non-Burnable, Real Thousand Cranes and The History of Human – all of which refer to the vast quantities of paper cranes sent from all over the world to the city of Hiroshima each year and to the practice of Senbazuru, folding one thousand paper cranes connected together by strings. According to Japanese legend, a person who folds one thousand paper cranes – one for every year of the mystical crane’s life – will be granted whatever they wish for.

But then I think of the sounds of labour: the physical impact of an axe cutting into a tree, the making of objects by hand, a typing pool (as seen only in old films) or the agricultural workers in Suffolk who would ease the monotony of threshing by mimicking the patterns of bell-ringing, their flails beating the same rhythm on the elm floor as the bells in a church steeple.

There are those records in my collection devoted only to songs and sounds of working: a Folkways 10-inch LP, The World of Man: His Work, which, notwithstanding the title, includes examples of women working: a Norwegian woman calling cattle to the barn to be milked, a Japanese woman spinning thread, women waulking, pounding and pulling tweed in the Hebrides, singing to make the work go with joy and pace. Then more grim than that, Alan Lomax’s recordings of prison songs made at Parchman State Penitentiary, Mississippi, in 1947, and Bruce Jackson’s Wake Up Dead Man: Black Convict Work Songs from Texas Prisons, made in 1965-6, the percussive thud of axes and hammers resounding in hot air as they rise and fall in unison, beating the rhythm of songs like “Rosie”, “Grizzly Bear” and “Early In the Morning.”

Lucie Stepankova’s idea for Fold was to bring together a spatial composition with this physicality, the working of paper and legend, “[exploring] the sonority of the ancient tradition of paper folding (origami), its ritual aspects and meditative potential. It values collectivity, simplicity and the transcendental quality of repetition over a long duration.”

At the beginning of Yasunari Kawabata’s post-war novel, Thousand Cranes, a young woman serves tea to the male protagonist. She becomes known as the girl of the thousand cranes, simply because she “carried a bundle wrapped in a kerchief, the thousand-crane pattern in white on a pink crape background.” The image of a thousand cranes haunts the text. Starting up in flight or flying across the evening sun, their flashes of brilliance momentarily cut across guilt and suffering. “The sound of her broom became the sound of a broom sweeping the contents from his skull, and her cloth polishing the veranda a cloth rubbing at his skull.” Happiness is a wish.

Fold, a listening environment, was performed at Hundred Years Gallery, E2 8JD, during the afternoon of Saturday March 24th, 2018.

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gone to earth

Dan arc-en-terreMaybe a coincidence but during our Sharpen Your Needles event last night (28.09.17) Evan Parker played “Music for Mbale (Ndokpa)”, from The Photographs of Charles Duvelle: Disques Ocora and Collection Prophet, a sumptuous book and two CDs published by Sublime Frequencies. Recorded by Duvelle in Ngouli, Central African Republic, in 1962, the instrument played by two men for the Mbale village festival was a lingassio, a four key xylophone mounted over a pit.

Coincidence because of a social media discussion about the Ocora record called Musiques Dan, recorded in Côte d’Ivoire by Hugo Zemp in 1965 and 1967. Was there an example of an instrument using a hole in the ground for resonance? There are many extraordinary sounds and sound-making devices on that record – whirled slit aerophone, bullroarer, mirlitons, metal basin, the ground struck by big sticks, sieves filled with bronze jewellery, enamel basins filled with gravel, water drum, stone whistles – but maybe the strangest is Mask-that-eats-water, a pit dug into the earth and covered by bark. Fixed into the bark are vegetable fibres that are rubbed by two players. For reasons not entirely clear to me though perhaps explained by the ‘slip and stick’ theory whereby water affects dynamic and static friction at a very fast rate, water is poured onto the fibres by a third player, hence the name of the mask.

A photograph of a different earth instrument appears in Zemp’s book: Musique Dan: La musique dans la pensée et la vie sociale d’une societé africaine (1971). This one is equally ingenious but more elaborate, more conventional. In a chapter entitled Mythes d’origine des instruments de musique, Zemp gives what his informant tells him is the origin of the Arc-en-terre (my translation): “The bow in the ground belonged to an unfortunate, a little unfortunate. This boy had nothing with which to amuse himself; he could neither play the harp-lute, nor beat the drum, nor blow into the trumpet. Then he dug a hole in the ground, covered it with leaves, fixed a vegetal fibre there, and attached the other end to a branch which he buried in the ground. When he struck the rope, it spoke grrrrr grrrr. He says, It’s enough for me to amuse myself. This boy was an unhappy person. It is for this reason that the earthen bow remains with the children. It is not a thing to distract important people, it is for the unhappy.”

Dan Cithare d'ecorceOne lesson to be learned from this is not to jump to easy conclusions about earth instruments and primitivism. The Dan had other ways of amplifying sound, as the above photograph shows, but terra-technology floated somewhere out on the edges of society, either marginal, in the sense of being a diversion for the melancholy and immature, or spectral, as sound masks emitting the voice of a supernatural being. When I was beginning to research non-western music in the early 1970s unilinear cultural evolutionism was still prevalent. To find any subtlety in the literature you had to read ethnomusicologists like Klaus P. Wachsmann (father of improvising violinist Philipp Wachsmann). In my early twenties I was excited to read his chapter – The Primitive Musical Instruments – in Musical Instruments Through the Ages (edited by Anthony Baines, 1961). “While considering them,” he wrote, “it must be borne in mind that the effectiveness of a musical instrument can only be measured by the degree of satisfaction its sound gives to the people who use it.” He devotes a short section to what he called Ground Instruments: ground zithers, percussion beams, stamping pits, ground bows and, most fascinating of all: “In Abyssinia a narrow, tapering hole is made in the ground and howled into; the vernacular name of this instrument means ‘lion’s call’.”

The reference almost certainly came from French musicologist André Schaeffner’s Origine des Instruments de Musique (1936). In Art, ethnography and the life of objects (2007) Julia Kelly situates such ethnographic objects within the operations of circumstantial magic, as she puts it, “. . . at the boundary between the animate and the inanimate . . .” traversed by French surrealists in the late 1920s and early 1930s. She quotes Schaeffner’s argument, that ethnographers should study musical instruments falling outside recognised categories, for example “the most humble wooden box used to produce sound.” An extreme example from many points of view, not least museology, was a pit dug in the ground. “Schaeffner was also concerned with the least conservable of musical instruments,” Kelly writes, referring to an article on musical instruments from the Trocadéro’s ethnographic collections, “an Abyssinian ‘earth drum’ consisting of two holes in the ground of differing heights. This instrument could only be captured photographically, and indeed was virtually illegible in the dark photograph by [Marcel] Griaule published alongside the article, where only the player’s hands and arms gave any indication of its existence.”

Christian Wolff Pit Music cropThe allure of such an instrument, hole within a hole, absence within absence, Is out of all proportion to its simplicity. One contribution to the above mentioned social media thread came from Ilan Volkov, who drew my attention to Christian Wolff’s Pit Music (1971), published in Prose Collection. The piece could easily be a description of how to make your own version of the Dan earth bow, though that seems unlikely as both Zemp’s book and Wolff’s composition emerged in the same year. As Ilan pointed out, Wolff never intended his Pit to be actually made. Like a lot of things, post-Fluxus, it was an indication of potential (political as much as anything) rather than an imperative. I wrote similarly provisional pieces a few years later, the Wasp Flute that was never put into practice even though the instrument was built, and hypothetical events in which I performed with seals and fish, all of them suggestions of how life might be lived in a world less traumatised by what Timothy Morton has called The Severing (in his new book, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People).

Wasp Flute

from New/Rediscovered Musical Instruments (1974)

As Morton makes clear, discussions such as the one I am having now and have been having for nearly fifty years, became taboo, either because they were damned for cultural appropriation, primitivism and exoticism or dismissed for being hippyish, lacking in the detachment and rigour proper to a person who was considered to be permanantly Severed. But ultimately these holes in the ground address a basic problem – how to make a small thing bigger – and by applying the principle of resonance they fashion an elegant solution whose imprint will gradually soften and crumble into an impression rather than a scar. We could learn something from that.



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listening is intimacy

 Within listening is intimacy. The path to intimacy – with phenomena, other beings, objects, time, sensuality, the aliveness of things – lies through listening. A passing through. Seiji Morimoto, holding a rectangular metal box, slight movement, angled towards and away from light, chiaroscuro (as Caravaggio, as Georges de La Tour, as Robert Motherwell), tweaking controls; a small noise emerging, like pond weed in sunlight. Small moths flutter into the light of a table lamp, orbit fitfully, vanish. I thought of the tactical evasions used by moths when they detect the ultrasonic clicks of hunting bats: to emit their own high frquency clicks as a jamming mechanism, to fly erratically, to plummet to the ground as if dead. This is the most intense form of mutual listening, reciprocated clicks bouncing off bodies, clicks fired out into vacated space as one half of the partnership plays dead. Two heads, both strikingly classical in their own way, are in relation to each other; one dips close to the ground, the other is immobile, coaxing signals from a box. Later I remember Victor I. Stoichita’s account of a photograph taken by Gianfranco Gorgoni in 1974, of Andy Warhol and Giorgio De Chirico: “Though probably a snapshot, it nevertheless has the force of an oracle. It is the lighting that makes the photograph so dramatic, so much so that it is difficult to believe the snapshot has not been touched up. In any case, due to the unusual lighting, what could have remained a simple social record becomes an image of a transfer of power: through the freak pose, De Chirico passes his shadow world over to Warhol, together with an entreaty that he be its master (from A Short History of the Shadow, 1997). Trains scream, the hard exhaust of a motorbike passing through, distantly a cover version of Jorge Ben Jor’s “Mas Que Nada” and (again later) I think of Takuma Nakahira’s photographs, street scenes of sooty black, lamp black, blasted by flares and abysses of light. So there are snapshots, nothing else. (Cafe Oto Project Space, evening, 19 September 2017).
listening, the listener      listening and listening    stillness listening/movement listening   listening to listening to listening
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a distributed conglomerate instrument

Izusen 1While eating shojin ryori cuisine outdoors at Izusen, Daitokuji temple, Kyoto, in spring sunshine, April past, I reflected on François Jullien’s In Praise of Blandness, the appreciation of blandness or insipidity in ancient Chinese aesthetics and ritual practices. Commenting on a text describing the use of muted music during ritual offerings to the ancestors he says this: “For the most beautiful music – the music that affects us most profoundly – does not . . . consist of the fullest possible exploitation of all the different tones. The most intensive sound is not the most intense: by overwhelming our senses, by manifesting itself exclusively and fully as a sensual phenomenon, sound delivered to its fullest extent leaves us nothing to look forward to. Our very being thus finds itself filled to the brim. In contrast, the least fully rendered sounds are the most promising, in that they have not been fully expressed, externalized, by the instrument in question, whether zither string or voice.

Izusen 2

The seemingly endless succession of small dishes that form the experience of shojin ryori are not bland in the sense of being indistinguishable or boring. Each one has a particular character and subtlety of taste and texture but the cumulative effect is to balance rather than overwhelm the others. The look of them as diminutive sculpture is so striking and their taste so delicate that they leave what Jullien calls “the leftover tone, the ‘lingering’ or ‘leftover flavour’ (yiwei) [evoking] a potential, inexhaustible value . . .”

Izusen 3

But another important aspect of shojin ryori is its relationship to time. Green tea mochi, yuba, fried plum, cherry blossom rice cake, sesame tofu, tofu skin, bamboo shoot, tempura, soup with kombu, edible flowers and ferns, bamboo and perilla leaf all follow each other at a steady pace without overlapping. They are specific to a moment yet they constitute a meal. This is consistent with many of the gardens of Kyoto temples – Zuiho-in, Kohrin-in, Oubai-in, Daisen-in, Tofukuji temple, Ryogen-in and Taizo-in. Many of them reveal themselves gradually. A corner is turned; a path is taken; a threshold is crossed. At Ryōgen-in, a small enclosed stone garden called Kodatei lies under the eaves of the study. It has another name – A-un – which represents the inhalation and exhalation of breath, indivisible pairs, positive and negative current. The dimensions of the garden are tiny, its stones visibly linked yet separated (symbolically, at least, and within deep understanding the longer it is contemplated) by a vast body of water.

A-un lengthwise

In my early twenties I was drawn to a book called Animals Without Backbones, thinking that by studying invertebrates I could gain a greater understanding of the so-called formlessness of free improvisation. I was reminded of it, reading an account of “an unprecedented number of Atlantic portuguese man o’war” washing up on the Cornish coastline. Customarily thought of as jellyfish, portuguese men o’war are a species of siphonophore, a multitudinous colony of clone individuals with four specialised parts, all working together as a single organism. They go where the wind and ocean currents take them, often travelling in vast flotillas, which is why such sudden, mysterious ‘invasions’ become news.

A-un overhead view

At the Meakusma festival, Eupen, last weekend (8-10 September 2017), speaking and playing solo, I spent some hours on Sunday afternoon with Rie Nakajima and Pierre Berthet, chatting, watching them set up, then immersing myself in their installation performance. Elsewhere they have called these performances Dead Plants and Living Objects. Maybe that title was less applicable here. They set up on a hillside, objects dispersed in long grass and running down to the stream. Gusts of wind startled stretched wires and resonators into humming life. For a while I watched a large white balloon slowly deflate as it rocked gently in the breeze. Attached aerophones made no discernable sound but the scene was enlivened by flies landing on the balloon surface as if docking on a barren planet. They sought warmth but if the wind wobbled their puffy globe they would quickly vacate, then return a few seconds later.

Given their modest size, some sounding devices transmitted strongly from distance, a small part of their frequency range carrying up the hill. To walk close to them triggered curiosity, the pick-apart desire to know how they worked, but further away, where they were barely visible, a more open listening displaced this kind of focussed, analytical thinking.

The objects were scattered, half-hidden in the grass, in some cases barely visible (stretched string and wire); they could have come from a shed, a barn, the kitchen or a workshop for the manufacture of indeterminate projects. Without walls and with a cloudy sky as infinite ceiling, the dispersal and linkage of these elements felt more emphatically what I would call a distributed conglomerate instrument, close in its way to the shojin ryori aesthetic of eating, the sculpture of discrete but connected stone gardens or a drifting colony of intra-dependent entities. Muted would be a way to describe its effect; to become a part of it demanded unbeing, shedding all the blocking aspects of a fully operational human, letting go of faculties and ideas of boundedness, to enter into the world of flies as they alight on and take off from soft moving planets.


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and so it was the blues falling upon us

Paul Oliver books

and so it was the blues falling upon us . . . like a lot of other people, my head was burning and turning from the reality of an American president in 2017 unwilling after Charlottesville to fully distance himself from neo-Nazis, white supremacists, the KKK and other racists and so it was that I learned of Paul Oliver’s death. My copy of The Meaning of the Blues was close to hand and so it was I came to read Richard Wright’s forward, the conclusion of which said this: “The American environment which produced the blues is still with us, though we all labour to render it progressively smaller. The total elimination of that area might take longer than we now suspect, hence it is well that we examine the meaning of the blues while they are still falling upon us.” This was written in 1959, in Paris, for a soon-to-be architectural historian, English and art school trained, who had fallen in love with the blues and produced a book that was to contribute greatly to the scholarship and spread of a subject almost entirely outside his direct personal experience.

I was a teenager, maybe fifteen, when I read The Meaning of the Blues (in other editions titled Blues Fell This Morning). Oliver’s manuscript was finished in 1958, finally published in 1960 by which time he was on the road in America, recording interviews with an extraordinary range of blues singers, Speckled Red to Little Walter (recovering from a bullet wound), Mary Johnson to Sweet Emma Barrett. Oliver’s writing taught me how to think about music, make connections through to history, context and politics, particularly race politics; how to make some sense of an obscure lyric. In 1967, when I read Conversation With the Blues, the fruits of that field trip to a black America still enduring Jim Crow laws in the south, I began to develop an understanding of how to transcribe the cadence of vivid speech patterns, how to write about the relationship of music to its practitioners, their circumstances and the society of which they are a part.

Lightnin' Hopkins by Paul Oliver

Lightnin’ Hopkins at the Sputnik Bar, Houston (photo by Paul Oliver)

What I didn’t learn from him was how to write about the sound of the music. That seemed outside his purview, except for some isolated examples in Savannah Syncopators where intense encounters – “[in Ghana] . . . a chorus of women sings in chanting fashion, with one woman leading with vocal lines to which they respond, seemingly without relationship to the compelling rhythms of the adowa band . . .” – demanded description as evidence in a search for answers to questions about African retentions in the blues. How well his answers hold up after 37 years is for somebody else to decide but this approach inspired me when I wrote Rap Attack.

The exoticism of blues to a person like me, growing up in the suburban periphery of London in the 1950s and 60s, was one of the subjects I addressed in Exotica in 1999. After a trip to New York where I’d met Charles Keil, a fascinatingly perplexing track by J.B. Lenoir – “I Sing Um the Way I Feel” – had been on my mind. “Paul Oliver, one of the most eloquent of blues scholars,” I wrote, “had visited Lenoir in 1960, recording their conversation on a heavy EMI tape recorder that disintegrated when he journeyed south into the humid summer heat. Lenoir talked to him about dreams: the dreams of an old devil. ‘somethin’ with a bukka tail and the shape of a bull but he could talk’, that made his father quit singing the blues; a dream his mother had sent him, giving him numbers for the lottery; the musical inspiration that came to him, ‘like through a dream, as I be sittin’ down, or while I be sleepin’’.”

In 1984, Oliver prefaced the collected essays of Blues Off the Record with some cautious autobiographical notes that shed light on his obsession with the blues. As a teenager in 1942 he did ‘harvest camp’ in Suffolk, farm work taken on by teenagers to replace agricultural labourers called up for military service in World War II. Americans were building a base in Stoke-by-Clare, and Oliver’s friend Stan persuaded him to eavesdrop on a gang of black soldiers digging a trench. After a while most of the GIs were marched away, leaving two alone to finish the job. “We stayed behind the hedge,” Oliver wrote, “getting cold. I was getting impatient too, when suddenly the air seemed split by the most eerie sounds. The two men were singing, swooping, undulating, unintelligible words, and the back of my neck tingled. ‘They’re singing a blues,’ Stan hissed at me. It was the strangest, most compelling singing I’d ever heard . . .”

Oliver’s influence, though not his acuity and depth of knowledge, is plainly evident in the first review I ever wrote, 600 or so words about a Realm LP – Dirty House Blues by Lightnin’ Hopkins – published in a self-produced school magazine called ONE, circa 1965 or 66. Much of it was cribbed from the LP sleevenotes and where my own opinions surface they are embarrassingly naïve. I was searching for something, comparing “Everything Happens To Me” to James Brown’s version of “Why Does Everything Happen To Me” without knowing anything about the convoluted origins of that song (and I still don’t know much), also finding “affinities, strangely enough” between a Hopkins solo on “Long Way From Texas” to the “fast clusters of bent, cascading notes” played by Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Buddy Guy. Strangely enough I don’t hear those affinities quite so clearly now. What we hear is determined by what we search for.

Dogon ancestral shrine

Dogon ancestral shrine (photo Corrie Bevington)

Oliver’s main job lay in architecture, specifically vernacular architecture and the symbolic significance of shelter. In other words he was interested in structure and those symbols, rituals and beliefs that “identify, seek or invest meaning” (as he wrote in his introduction to Shelter, Sign & Symbol, published in 1975). This may be why (excepting the example above) he kept himself and his subjective responses to the sound of blues out of his music writing. But he was acutely conscious of the problematic aspects of a white man from Britain writing so extensively about African-American culture and was prescient in 1966, if somewhat mistaken, to think that the music’s future was bleak.

The circumstances of his death are unknown to me but presumably he was unaware of the weekend’s violence in Charlottesville and its continuing repercussions. If he had been able to follow these events, I imagine he would have felt profound sympathy with Black Lives Matter, since that was the motivational force that led him to write about African American life through its music, back in 1951 when he was exasperated by the attention given to jazz at the expense of gospel and blues. And knowing of a US president recklessly tweeting threats of fire and fury he might have dreamed himself back at the beginning of his book publishing career, to the violence unleashed upon Freedom Rides, and to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which threatened to kill us all. As Richard Wright said, this may take longer than we think, and so it was the blues falling upon us.

Paul Oliver MM 1970

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Acetylene snares


“Raygun gothic,” William Gibson called it in The Gernsback Continuum, his term for the ‘tomorrow that never was’ and still the most vivid description of a certain style of retro-futurist, space age classicism exemplified by Frank R. Paul’s 1920s artwork for futuristic magazines like Amazing Stories. In 1911 Paul illustrated Hugo Gernsback’s novel – Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 – a book whose enticing title is belied by its contents. “Ralph then attached the Telautograph to his Telephot while the girl did the same,” is a typical sentence, making it fair game for the stigma of being “surely the worst SF novel ever published” (according to writer Martin Gardner) though since most of us now spend a considerable slice of our time attaching Telautographs to our Telephots, this seems a little unfair.

Yesterday I was attaching bone conduction speakers to snare drum wire – twenty strands of quivering silver steel, like curling hair – resonating the whole set up with a drum bought in Chiang Mai and a bell bought in a Japanese shrine, the reason for the latter being its iron clapper, useful for magnetically attaching the tiny speaker within the bell’s inner cavity.boneconduction + snare

I tried playing old cassettes through this instrument-without-a-body: spirit medium séances of Malay indigenous people, a herd of wildebeests, trance dances of Laos hill tribes imitating the sounds of dog, monkey, goat, sheep and cat, and finally an interview I recorded with my grandfather and uncle in 1979. That gravitation toward a kind of spectral oral history of distorted voices – human/animal/spirit – makes sense to me; the bone conduction elements of this configuration was developed for me last year by David Bloor for an installation, The Body Event II, that played back my conversation with John Latham through objects (books and their pages, representations of books, a howler monkey skull, my late father’s oil can, as in a Vanitas painting), into the space where I recorded it shortly before his death.

BE overhead skull

Syd Senior, my mother’s stepfather, was short and feisty, given to playing the jew’s harp and telling risqué stories after a beer. A talented Sunday painter in watercolours, he worked in the print; when I was a child he walked me around the City of London, took me to see paintings, Hawksmoor churches, the inner sanctums of print works and courts, a Dickensian world. By 1979 the stuffing was knocked out of him. His ruminative, gravel tones reveal a way of speaking now almost extinct, the way a working class north Londoner would say “gorn”, “old whasname” and “most interesting”. “I remember when old Queen Victoria died,” he told me, voice dropping to a whisper. “By god, you daredn’t say anything. They were very patriotic in those days, you know, 1914, all that lark . . . it was a very high class kind of thing. If you was common you wasn’t wanted, know what I mean?”

Recently returned from Venezuela where I’d recorded Yanomami shamans, I needed work. There was a chance to do some paid research for Artist Placement Group, for what was known as the Reminiscence Aid Project, placed with the Department of Health and Social Security. Initiated by DHSS architect Mick Kemp, it was developed by an APG team that included Ian Breakwell, Bill Furlong and Hugh Davies; for their input alone it should occupy a significant place in any credible history of sound arts. Shut down in 1979 by the election of Thatcher’s government, which put an end to long-term research in the DHSS, the Reminiscence Aid project was an early practical experiment in what is now called ‘reminiscence work’, a therapeutic tool with internationally proven efficacy in the care of elderly people suffering from dementia, memory loss and other effects of old age. Among other things I tested the Reminiscence Aid Project slide show in care homes and researched smog, the killer pea-souper fogs that blanketed London until the Clean Air Act of 1956 enforced smokeless zones.

So we talked about smog, Grandad Syd, Uncle Bob and myself, Bob returning again and again to acetylene lighting, the way its gaseous glow from his bike lamp lit a path through smog as he cycled to work at the Belling-Lee factory every weekday, or the acetylene flares burning holes of visibility from within the toxic murk. Through a now irritating oversight I neglected to ask about listening in smog, how a person might use sound to find their way or how sound was affected by all those soot particulates and was the dirty air of smog different to fog in its acoustic aspect? Nineteenth century physicist John Tyndall investigated the behaviour of sound in fog and found counter-intuitive results. The Duke of Argyll lived close to shipyards in Greenock, on the Firth of Clyde. “Shipbuilding goes on there to a great extent,” he told Tyndall, “and the hammering of the caulkers and builders is a sound which I have been in the habit of hearing with every variety of distinctness, or of not hearing at all, according to the state of the atmosphere; and I have always observed on the days when the air was very clear, and every mast and spar was distinctly seen, hardly any sound was heard; whereas on thick and foggy days, sometimes so thick that nothing could be seen, every clink of every hammer was audible, and appeared sometimes close at hand.”

To hear the dead speak through objects, living on borrowed resonance, their voices thinned, abraded and hazed by host materials and the lack of a tangible body is uncanny. The radio of things, it might be called by a raygun gothic enthusiast. Bone conduction was pioneered by Hugo Gernsback, publisher of Modern Electrics, The Electrical Experimenter and Amazing Stories. Nicknamed Hugo the Rat for the way he cheated the science fiction writers published in his innovative magazines, Gernsback filed a patent in 1923 on what he called the Osophone, a hearing aid that transmitted sound vibrations to the osseous tissue of the body. Clearly he had a thing about sound, also inventing a helmet device called The Isolator in 1925, a self-contained, oxygen-fed, deep air diver equivalent of the soundproof rooms constructed by Victorian writers such as the anti-democratic, pro-slavery historian Thomas Carlyle. As an aspirational state, the definition of silence to men like Carlyle was misanthropic: world, shut up!


Where the Osophone was a legitimate ancestor to technologies like Google Glass, The Isolator seems more like a bizarre antecedent to John Lilly’s 1960s deprogramming experiments with flotation tanks and LSD. Implicit in all of this is a deeper theme: the tension between humans as isolated or social beings, connected or disconnected, cut off by atmospheric or neurological conditions, deafness or personal experimentation, in the dark or lit by flares, lost to history and death or given revenant vibration by attachment to matter.

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raw materials

ear ectoplasm

The late-19th century spiritualist and campaigner Louisa Lowe was unjustly, if legally, incarcerated because her husband claimed she was mad. Giving evidence against her, the proprietor of Brislington asylum – Dr Charles Henry Fox – had this to say: “She writes these revelations on leaves of trees, or any dirty scraps of paper she may casually find, and she liberally distributes them.” There is something immediately familiar about this image of visions and so-called ‘passive writing’ (automatic writing, we might say) inscribed on leaves; maybe we should all be imprisoned for similar madness. As in the cases of spiritually inspired artworks by Hilma af Klint, Georgiana Houghton and Emma Kunz, it raises serious questions about the gender bias of art history and the progenitive nature of a canon that disallows rule breaking anomalies, because they are of the wrong type, have the wrong motivations, come from the wrong place or simply lack a particular style of self-awareness deemed indispensible to modernism.

All this is easier (if not straightforward) to dispute when there are extraordinary artworks to contemplate. Louisa Lowe’s leaves and scraps are lost to an ineffable history of fragile and impermanent materials, along with those auditory manifestations of spiritualism that were so important to its efficacy as a spectacle of loss and empowerment. As scholars such as Alex Owen and Anne Braude have argued, spiritualism was a vital channel through which women, their voices otherwise suppressed, could ‘speak’ and establish agency, yet we have no documentation of what a séance sounded like, with its sonorous theatre of knockings and tappings, bells ringing and tambourines rustling in the dark, instruments played with no apparent human intervention and disembodied voices. According to Alex Owen in The Darkened Room, spirit writing would appear spontaneously on blank sheets of paper, “nobody actually witnessing its production but all able to hear the movement of pen on paper.”

Georgiana Houghton Glory Be To God

Georgiana Houghton, Glory Be To God, 5th July 1864

Spiritualism – hearing and transmitting messages from an invisible, largely unknowable spirit world – was a listening practice with a radical proposal: that the field of listening extends beyond what Karen Barad calls (in Meeting the Universe Halfway) “. . . a container model of space and a Euclidean geometric imaginary.” In my experience this sensation of moving through extended listening fields is fairly common during improvised music performance. At Hundred Years Gallery last September, a Sunday afternoon quartet of Douglas Benford, Sylvia Hallett, Billy Steiger and myself, I was experimenting with bone conduction speakers, attaching them to small objects – a rusty cowbell, a small metal container for gramophone needles bought in Porto Alegre, books that have some significance in my long struggle to better understand listening and resonance – in order to amplify voices and archival musics to a level of ghostliness that matched their place in memory.

set up Iklectik 2016

During a duo with Sylvia Hallett in the first half, she and I became aware of unidentifiable sounds, like another music, that was growing from within our soundfield but appearing to come from elsewhere. Neither of us found this surprising. Sylvia often uses a microphone and looping to sample and reconfigure real time playing; I was playing field recordings, interviews with subjects like Ornette Coleman and a cassette tape of Chinese religious processional music that I had copied in the early 1970s from BBC Sound Archive recordings, through my osophonic set-up. The potential for ambiguity was considerable, made more so when I learned that Sylvia’s microphone wasn’t in use. This was mystifying, though not particularly abnormal.

In the break, Douglas picked up a phone message to say that his father had been taken ill, though things were not so bad that he should leave immediately. In the second half I played a duo with Billy Steiger. At one point Billy went upstairs into the café. In the basement we could hear his footsteps crossing the ceiling, stomping around, hear his violin faintly, as if from another world. Back downstairs his violin was picked up and distorted by one of my vibration speakers, placed on a small tambourine on the floor to amplify the sound but suddenly acting as a receiver. All of these crossings between instruments, sources, materials, histories and places made it somehow irrelevant to maintain any identification with a sound or its point of origin. In the final quartet I felt the impulse to hold a bone conduction speaker to my skull. The music playing through the speaker came through clearly to me, like an inner voice, though I was aware that nobody else in the room could hear it. Differences between inside/outside, here/there, then/now seemed, not exactly to melt away, but to open up tiny glimpses into a radically changed sense of the world.

100 Years Gallery Calum Storrie

Calum Storrie, Hundred Years Gallery, 18 September 2016

Later that evening, Douglas sent an email. “Sounds like we were playing when my dad passed away at home,” he wrote. “It was very sudden and painless they think . . . to be honest he went the way he would have wanted.” The following day he sent links to a recording of the music, along with drawings of our various groupings by Calum Storrie, each one made in a continuous line, the drawing instrument not leaving the page until the end of the line. I felt a compulsion to write about this event; so many thoughts and emotions rising out of it. As I wrote to Douglas at the time, seeking his permission: “It’s a gig we will all remember because of the circumstances . . . It’s a question of what recordings can’t absorb or retain, in this case a major life event that escapes the microphone entirely and yet the music sounds more dramatic, less ghostly than it did in the room, so perhaps our memory of the event is somehow imprinted despite the technical impossibility.”

As it transpired I was unable to write, maybe because so many other implications were crowding out this more prosaic theme of recording and its limitations. Even now, the raw materials refuse to coalesce, swirling around each other like one of Georgiana Houghton’s spirit drawings.


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