Sound Thinking: Stuart Marshall’s Idiophonics

heterophonicsWood striking wood, quick, hard, BOK! Impact sound sprays out, an omni-directional striking of all reflective surfaces and returning through time to the distributed centres of listening, the BOK-space of audition. This is the basis of Stuart Marshall’s composition known as Idiophonics or Heterophonics, a piece performed only occasionally in the 1970s and now about to be revived.

I was present at a 1976 performance that began in 2B, Butlers Wharf, then spread out along the Thames and over Tower Bridge. Memories of the event are foggy (that may also have been true for the winter weather) but I wrote a contemporaneous account in Readings magazine (edited by Annabel Nicolson and Paul Burwell, 1977). In that essay I described Stuart’s work with sound as being “fairly unique in this country”. Of course he could be unique or not unique, not “fairly unique”; what I was trying to convey was an emergence of sound work, an engagement parallel to contemporary art practices such as structural film and video with their intellectual preoccupations (notably Lacan) that rejected the rituals of music. As an approach it was rare though not unknown.

The piece began with three people – Stuart Marshall, Jane Harrison and Nicolas Collins – striking closely-pitched woodblocks, moving away from each other every time their strikes coincided. In a second phase they took up aerosol klaxons (“used in America for scaring off intruders and bears”, as I wrote in the Readings essay) and moved out into the freezing night: “One of the players stayed close to the building, one moved along the river to the right and the third walked out over Tower Bridge. The sounds bounced back and forth in a most spectacular way for quite some time – after a little while most of the audience left the rather precarious platforms which jut from the doors and huddled around an electric fire. Conversations started up and the piece took on the dimensions of a social gathering punctuated by alternately mournful and strident honking from outside.”

David Cunningham was present – his photograph of a murky Tower Bridge was used to illustrate my writing. Nearly 40 years later he recalls as little as me. “I remember talking to Gavin Bryars,” he tells me in an email, “as the ship approached Tower Bridge which remained closed until the last possible minute. There was a possibility that the klaxons were confusing whatever signalling system the bridge uses and some speculation about another maritime disaster for Gavin to turn into a score. I have a feeling the ship sounded a klaxon too.”

Within these accounts there are indications of a new way to be within the experience of a sound work. Nothing of the event could be conveyed through secondary media – you had to be there – but to behave as a conventional ‘audience’ was clearly silly. At the time, Nic Collins recounted the unfolding of a Connecticut concert hall performance, the klaxons growing fainter in the distance until inaudible, the audience sitting patiently in silence and then applauding when the players returned.

There are things that could be said here about the development of sound art, about the influence of Alvin Lucier, about echolocation, about bats and blindness, ships and sirens, temples and time, and those 18th century travellers in the Lake District who used cannon fire to enjoy the romantic sublime of echoes bouncing around the lakes. I think always of Giovanni di Paulo’s 15th century tempera panel, Saint John retiring to the Desert, Saint John emerging from a city gate, a small bag of possessions slung from a stick; in the centre of the painting he can be seen again at the mouth of a mountain pass, an echo of himself dwarfing the tiny buildings depicted on the plain below. This technique is known as ‘continuous narrative’. “The artist’s intention in showing the same figure more than once was clearly to indicate the passing of time,” wrote Alexander Sturgis in Telling Time.

paolo88Each medium is limited by comparison with the body’s versatility. For Aby Warburg, the inherent interest in Italian Early Renaissance painting lay in its attempts to represent movement, an evocation of Antiquity in which the body was caught up, as Philippe-Alain Michaud described it (in Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion), “. . . in the play of overwhelming forces, limbs twisting in struggle or in the grip of pain, hair flowing, and garments blown back through exertion or the wind . . . He replaced the model of sculpture with that of dance, accentuating the dramatic, temporal aspects of the works.”

Music has fewer problems with time but its innate desire is to rigorously control space, to bring sounds together in coherence and spatial focus, as a kind of illusory object. Idiophonics, by contrast, pulls the elements apart to distribute them in space, leaving the more inert variety of audience stranded in time with only an empty object to contemplate. David Cunningham has recently noted my confusion of idio- with ideo- in the 1977 text. As he points out, the prefix idio- denotes uniqueness, privacy, a personal quality, as in idiosyncratic or idiomatic, but it also describes that which is distinct, unique or separate. Perhaps this latter meaning is what Stuart had in mind, a separating out of sounds, or like me, could he have been mixing up idio- with ideo-?

Stuart is not here to be asked – he died of an Aids-related illness in 1993. A strange thing: we were born within two days of each other in 1949 and found ourselves assigned to the same work table, same teaching group, at Hornsey College of Art in 1967, our first year of art school. Within that year we were the only students with a developed interest in experimental music so the coincidence, from this perspective of passed time, seems marked. Our conversations about La Monte Young, AMM and Ornette Coleman helped to make the prospect of this new venture, what we now call sound art or audio culture, more tangible than it might have been had we been alone in our enthusiasms. Stuart went on to study with Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan University, became a pioneer of video art, then an HIV/Aids activist and filmmaker until his death at the age of 44.

Read the online biographies or obituaries and they emphasise the latter stages of his career. This seems as it should be yet because of my personal contact with him and my predilections I consider him to be one of the unsung pioneers of sound art in the UK. In Musics 9 (1976) I reviewed a video screening of Stuart’s work at the London Filmmakers Coop; even from my brief descriptions it is apparent that video offered the technical means for him to explore interdependence of hearing and seeing: a bottle smashing in silence, the interior of a mouth and its ambient roar. In 1979, during the Music/Context Festival of Environmental Music at the London Musicians Collective, Stuart performed a solo version of Idiophonics from within a canoe paddled by Paul Burwell. I photographed the event as they glided off over the water, Stuart with an aerosol klaxon in hand. That photograph is not available to me at the moment but the memory is fresh enough, sound blasts ricocheting off the high walls lining Camden Canal. By that time, music was out of its box, sound thinking no longer “fairly unique”.

Idiophonics will be performed in Sculpture 2, David Toop and Rie Nakajima invite Angharad Davies, Lina Lapelyte, Daniela Cascella with a performance of Stuart Marshall’s Idiophonics.

Cafe Oto Project Space, 1-7 Ashwin Street, London, E8 3DL.

Thursday 11th July.

Performance begins 8.15 sharp.

http://www.cafeoto.co.uk/sculpture-2-rie-nakajima-david-toop.shtm

http://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery/event-detail.asp?ID=15043

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A falling fourth or fifth

woodpeckerBitterly cold this morning in Queens Wood but not too cold to hear the woman calling her dogs with a fluting falling call – ooh oooh – that reminded me of the similar calls my mother would sound out over garden fences when she wanted to speak to a neighbour, often using it in lieu of the doorbell as she stood on their front path. When I was a child I thought of this ‘attention’ melody as a normal and unremarkable mode of female vocalisation (and clearly it remains so for women of a certain age); now I hear it as an ethnomusicologist might once have heard whistle language in Gomera, weeping in death ceremonies or the kind of tumbling shouts used in Papua New Guinea to communicate from one hillside to another. Vernacular improvised language; mostly overlooked and forgotten.

Woodpeckers were drumming in the distance, their time of year. I thought of something Daniela Cascella wrote recently in her blog, En Abime (enabime.wordpress.com) . . . “a problematic tendency, in field recording, toward the dissolution of the recording subject into the field.” I hear the woodpeckers as distance event, spatial, a communicative calling, a temporal marking of season and life cycle, but the energy of the event is extra-human in its sudden bursting and equally sudden cutting. Not a human aesthetic. A drummer’s imitation would tend to force emphasis to the front of the event (maybe a press roll comes closest to the mechanics of the woodpecker and the tree). As I walked my attention was caught by a small piece of card fixed to a tree with rusted safety pins. A few lines were typed on the card, a Buddhist idea of life being in the mind. Who is the recording subject, I wonder? Fixed by a recording device none of these sounds carry with them the associative thoughts, emotions and memories of the primary listener, the experience of improvising a hearing event; a proportion of their interest disappears in the sharing of sound, replaced by whatever is stimulated or not in new listeners.

As I write this I am listening to a recording, “Flowing Water” (Liu Shui), performed by Kuan P’ing-hu on Guqin, released in 1969 by the Anthology Record and Tape Corporation (in 1977, this same piece was sent into outer space by NASA on the Voyager spacecraft). The music uses many technical devices to convey the complexity of flow – too many devices for Chinese scholars at its publication in 1876, who disdained its “lack of constraint and premeditated showiness”, according to Fredric Lieberman’s LP notes. Yet it communicates the way in which humans construct events by translating impossible complexity into something comprehensible, rich in associative feelings and ideas. Of all these methods of recording – inner reflection, text, recording device or instrument – which one conveys an experience or memory while leaving the least burdensome trace?

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The Woman Seen Sweeping the Sea: Annabel Nicolson escaping notice.

If a piano becomes silenced through dereliction, keys detached like so much loose kindling, is it still a piano? I asked that question, silently to myself, watching Annabel Nicolson’s Piano Film (Camden Arts Centre, Film in Space, group show selected by Guy Sherwin) and asked another, more troubling question, of whether Annabel’s work is still her work when she is not present? “It is what happens to things when they are not being looked at that puzzles me,” she once wrote.

I had not become unconscious of her work, not turned away from it. Last summer, after lengthy deliberation and equivocation I wrote an extended essay on the subject of Circadian Rhythm. This concert was devised by Evan Parker as a continuous 24-hour performance for eight players – himself, myself, Paul Lytton, Paul Lovens, Max Eastley, Annabel Nicolson, Paul Burwell and Hugh Davies – for Music/Context, the festival of environmental music that I organised for the LMC in 1978. Edited sections had been released on an Incus LP in 1980 but now Evan was proposing a release of the complete 13 hours of playing achieved on that July night 35 years ago. Paul Burwell and Hugh Davies had since died; in preparing my essay I spoke to the remaining players but Annabel’s communications dwelled only on the difficulty of beginning to speak about it, then on the impossibility of the task. She was living in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, “with gales to listen to often.” Perhaps in the spring, she said. I am ashamed to say I could not wait any longer.

Escaping Notice was the title of a book she published in 1977. Prophetic, maybe? I spent time with the fragments on display at Camden – all silent amid whirring clamour – trying to find within them my own memory of Annabel, finding only tantalising wisps of her presence stuffed into that most abject means of archival display: the PVC display book. Escaping Notice also possesses that fugitive quality: its thin translucent papers through which texts and photographs are faintly visible; the events which are as nondescript as the flatness of Norfolk she describes with such cunning wit; the modesty of her anecdotes undermined by their doubtful veracity, and a detached third person self-anthropology which  documents the artist, Miss Nicolson, as log rolling down a hill, or film star in the company of Mike Leggett, or sweeping the sea. As far back as 1974, she was engaged in low-key pursuit of the now earnestly fashionable practice of ‘walking’ (or should that be ‘practice of walking’?), though we may surmise that these walks were not strenuous, encompassing as they did visits to jumble sales, buying postcards in the Garrigil post office or the observation of stick insects flying in strict formation, noted while Miss Nicolson lay in a cornfield above Corton Denham. In many of these works she calls upon the humble medium of local newspapers to recount the exotic life of a stranger, passing through rural communities as a woman of mystery, searching for the ineffable, the minor incident barely worthy of comment, or the more serious business of vanishing footpaths. Her observations of the woman sweeping the sea in July 1975 form a brief document worthy of the disinterested observer, perhaps a man detained for a few moments while walking his dog: “Her lack of direction was plain and she seemed to have plenty of time. After a while one realised that she was less distinct, though not actually further away. Perhaps it was deliberate this trick of making herself part of the background of being just slightly out of focus.”

Now she is more than slightly out of focus, a subtle commingling of dry wit, ephemerality and modesty conspiring with her physical absence to render her almost invisible. Of course I am happy to see her represented in a London exhibition, in a context to which she belongs, yet I remember her differently, as somebody who thought deeply about convergent strategies in the 1970s and created opportunities as an organiser, publisher, writer, curator and artist to open up spaces to those strategies.

Much of her thinking seemed to embrace that which is not there or cannot be objectified, and so she was drawn to sound, to smoke, to light and dark, to silence. In a recorded conversation between Annabel, Steve Beresford and Paul Burwell (MUSICS, no. 8, July 1976), conducted at the old Piano Factory in Camden Town, north London, she spoke of finding a piano in the yard of the factory: “It was deteriorating and when it rained the keys started to float. It played by itself and the keys moved around quietly.” Magic is always present as a possibility, quiet magic in the background, and the possibility of the artist slipping away quietly, to become anonymous as the work becomes autonomous. Phenomena are left to take care of their own work of entrancement.

For a later issue of MUSICS magazine (no. 20, December 1978) published after the Music/Context Festival, she contributed a page that collected together the sources of her participation in Circadian Rhythm but also captured the non-dimension field of its unfolding, as an event within time and darkness. So there are marks, evidence of charring, fibrous plant materials, and references to the song of women pearl divers of Taiwan, sparks thrown into water, a hidden fire, lights in trees, the room filled with smoke, and from Mark Twain perhaps, two stories: the frogs of New Orleans whose song would rise in volume when the steamboats passed, and then thick fog on the river, people in small vessels banging tins pans so the steamboats wouldn’t run over them. Hidden drumming, she wrote.

Even then she was rather hidden herself, one of the only women in a cluster of male dominated scenes. Again, her anthropology came into play, particularly in the improvised music setting of the London Musicians Collective. “One of the things that puzzled me,” she wrote in Resonance magazine (vol. 8, no. 2/vol. 9, no. 1, 2000) was just how little the musicians, all men at that time, seemed to talk to each other. Often they would meet and with barely a word prepare to play together. There appeared to be very little communication in any recognisable sense. Then somehow out of this apparent absence of communication would come the most wonderful sounds.” At the same time, she was acutely conscious of her own voice. Her essay – Transcript from indistinct recording of a talk performed in the reading room of Slade School of Art 13/3/79 (MUSICS, no 22, June 1979) is an object lesson in what we now call reflexivity, or performativity, the question of the voice (particularly the female voice) as social medium, performance tool, expressive and reflective marker of the self, along with the necessity of listening with a willingness to understand. “I’ve been thinking recently,” she wrote in 1978, “that performances are almost like lectures, focussing thought as a means of sounding out what is most urgent in one’s mind.” Reading that again took my breath away, since it is almost exactly what I have been thinking about my own work in recent years. Sometimes we internalise a borrowed thought, unconsciously make it our own, and there it lies sleeping for years, until shaken awake by the right circumstances.

What her talk at the Slade made clear is that there was no such thing as a definable ‘practice’ or ‘intact’ work, as she put it; rather an evolving form of performance which might take many forms. For this there is no validation, no archive, only the ghostly trace of somebody fishing in darkest night in search of a quarry barely distinguishable from its environs. When sound art is discussed, or improvised music, or performance art, or the voice, or writing about sound, ‘Miss Nicolson’ has somehow slipped the net, despite her centrality to the evolution of these interrelated arts. This seems to me to be a profound injustice, but also the way of things. Monuments are constructed and under cover of darkness small chisels chip away at their presumption and perfection.

MUSICS magazine (spanning the years 1975-1979) is a treasure trove of ideas and information but one of the pieces I treasure most is a conversation between Annabel and Max Eastley. They are two of my favourite artists and much-loved friends, that’s one reason why, but they have a sensibility in common which is strengthened by their exchange of ideas, and the ideas are as intoxicating as they are fragile: the night-blooming sirius that opens only one night of each year; a tree shadow frozen in ice; the blazing tar barrels of Shetland Island rites; Gaelic song not as folk music but as reverence for the phenomena of its subject; a raft of straws; fireflies in cages and oily birds, threaded through with wicks, flame spouting from their mouths; the effect of Galloway dykes on frightened sheep; the projected image of a bird that was, in fact, a crack in a glass roof; the shock of twigs cracking very loudly as she walked on them. Coming and going. The presence of materials. Scattered images but potent, they exemplify the open work. In the sound of the voice they find cohesion. “Nothing else is needed, just the means you have, like your voice,” she wrote. “Performance is a struggle and in a sense things are coming from far away because they are coming from something silent and making a huge leap towards being audible. Something very ancient about it.”

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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.

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Why do we have to be quiet tonight: Christian Marclay’s Everyday

Everyday, a struggle with language, with time. Just to say something simple: on Saturday night I went to a concert, but to see it, to hear it? What we have learned from gender and language is that these problems are not easily resolved. Writing on demand, which is more or less all writing, since demand comes from somewhere, from the need to speak, from the noisy imprecations of a digital platform or from a paid commission, also raises many problems. How to articulate ideas that are too fresh or growing stale? I want to write when I want to write but when is that?

Something about the hall – the Queen Elizabeth Hall – and the nature of Christian Marclay’s Everyday exacerbated these problems. I felt the smallest degree of distance from the work, close to the stage but swallowed up in comfort and darkness at the outer edge of a cave. My responses rose torpidly out of some state of intellectual hibernation, untrustworthy and out of focus. Everyday is a provocation of moving images and sound, so whether you see the concert or hear it is impossible to parse, but it also bounces around in a cloudy zone between registers, history, document, myth, the real and the hyperreal. Cinema is the score but of course more than that. Drawing from the archive of cinema, what it presents via a screen to the audience and musicians – Marclay himself, Steve Beresford, John Butcher, Mark Sanders and Alan Tomlinson – is a series of everyday gestures whose sounding is central to their impact as image and narrative: a knock on the door, footsteps in high heels, ships’ whistles, gunshots, dancers, a jukebox, a stylus placed into the groove of a record. They are everyday and yet they are not.

This business of time, thinking slowly: the next day, a Sunday, I read two reviews of new books, The Big Screen by David Thomson, and Country Girl by Edna O’Brien. Thomson was quoted on cinema: “It’s a pattern of dream and desire”; O’Brien was quoted on James Joyce: “. . . the lush descriptions of corpses and steers and pigs and kine, and sea and sea stones, and then the extraordinary ascensions in which worlds within worlds unfolded.”

A knock on the door in a film; think about it. There is dread, maybe for one party or both, or there is desire, maybe for one party or both. Maybe dread and desire are the same. The knocking may be reversed invitation, the prelude to an opening, or death knell, a hammering from hell like the phantom or interior knocking that shakes the house (but only for some) in Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s story, The Haunting of Hill House. A knuckle strikes wood and on the other side of that resonant wood surface another story is set in motion by the unknown part of a sound, the drum and its interior. Simple. But this everyday sound has been heightened by cinema to become, as Thomson argues, indivisible from our dreams. Last night I was woken from a dream, not a nightmare, by three thunderous bangs. They forced me to get up, prowl the house yet they came out of sleep  and a beating heart, not the house, and who is to say that their origin was not a convergence of my currently troubled mind and the rapid sequence of rat-a-tat door knocking that opens Marclay’s Everyday?

In this way cinema ran parallel with literature, the two growing (unlike now) together. Writers like Joyce, Kafka or Woolf heightened the everyday, disrupted and overlaid time, revealed interiority and the life of the torrential mind, unfolded worlds within worlds, both in imitation of cinema’s montage and cutting, and as an inspiration to its progress. Think of Faulkner (a screenwriter) and his opening chapter of The Sound and the Fury, the plunging in and out of place, time, character, class, race, accent, language, noise and repeated calls for silence, as if sudden death is preferable to the torment of social relations, family, children, the innocent impossible demands of the autistic Benjy. What are we to make of it except to read it as cuts, flashbacks, a polyphony of voices (uncontrolled and controlling), thoughts, crackling emotion, a cast of strangers teeming like fish in a pond: “Please hush . . . rattling in the leaves . . . making all this racket . . . that damn loony to bawling . . . time he start bellering . . . hush now . . . so I hushed . . . tried to say Whooey . . . why do we have to be quiet tonight . . . but I didn’t hush . . . shut up that crying . . . make them be quiet . . . hush . . . shhhhhhhh.”

Sound in cinema can silence both music and text. A gap in the script. Voices fall silent; the empty orchestra offstage is given a well-deserved rest. Theatre dies (finally) to make way for the everyday. Jacques Tati was the master of this. Complex surfaces, Michel Chion says, writing of Tati, describing scenes as if they were Duchamp’s nude, descending the stair in planes and fragments of time. “CLANG goes the now famous swinging door in Les Vacances.” A thousand other noises of the everyday besides, all noises quiet deafening short extended and silent raised to the brief intensity of fireworks. The founding myth of contemporary art, Duchamp’s readymade, is caught up in this everyday. A door swing, CLANG, nothing. But Tati makes it swing again, then again, then again. Now we hear it, not as a special door that would compel us to book our own holiday just to be able to hear it, but as all doors: CLANG.

There is an orchestra of noises on the screen, so suddenly we are more aware of this relationship of the vertical flatness and all of that bright saturated colour of dread and desire emanating in a blast force outwards, and then the musicians in shadow on their horizontal surface, working in three dimensions, disturbingly close to the reality we voluntarily vacate as our eyes drift from screen to stage and back. The tension is evident: sounds on film act as a score for improvisation yet they caution against unsubtle mimesis. A finger covers the lips: shhhhh. Time and again I watched Mark Sanders choose to play what was not obvious. A typewriter clatters; he waits, plays a tangential pattern on ringing metal. The balance is delicate. Focus and poise: to follow the rapid succession of sounds and images closely, sliding almost imperceptibly in and out of diegetic sound, yet loose enough in the realm of listening and intuition to allow another kind of form to emerge, a symphony of noise that lives in its own space just beyond the everyday yet one foot in, one foot out of the dream. The point is underlined when a brass band marches through the auditorium from one entrance to the opposite exit. Many people in the front row missed this moment, perhaps hearing it as a sudden thickening of the sound, some diffusion trick, rather than an irruption of the real in uniform, full colour and pomp. So real, in fact, that it seemed the closest of all to a dream.

In the theatre and the concert hall we are constrained in ways that we no longer know except as the way we were and always have been. Why do we have to be quiet tonight? Can the body be twisted around to investigate? It feels funny to do so, to meet the gaze of the person behind who is facing forward. Also funny, in the sense of a creeping feeling of how we have been remade, our dream state blown up to the size of giants and monsters in leaping flat colour and explosions of noise, is this dwelling in the presence of the sounding everyday.

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harp on fire: Rhodri Davies

Recently I’ve been watching YouTube clips of Max Wall performing in his role as Professor Wallofski – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEU8Hr4nqV8. The weirdness of antiquity hangs over this kind of comedy but unlike other entertainers of the Music Hall era, Wall’s influence (on John Cleese and Les Dawson, for example) is clear and his abject yet distasteful persona, tattered creature of the night who has fallen into the wrong world, is compulsively creepy. Part of his professorial status is earned through a piano whose presence requires not only music but a configuration of the body. Wall’s arachnid body malfunctions under the pressure of this demand (not uncommon among virtuosi); his wrists go floppy or one arm becomes shorter than the other, must be extended and then compared in a routine that addresses the piano as a near-silent phantom of cultural rectitude, patient and implacable in its search for the perfect human specimen.

All musical instruments come with baggage. In fact they are baggage – objects of surrealist furniture that speak. Smash them, burn them, build them in funny shapes or digital simulacra and yet they grin back: “still here”. Seeing Rhodri Davies set himself up to play amplified harp at Café Oto last night reminded me of Max Wall, not because Rhodri gurns, suffers limb rubberisation or wears black tights but because the instrument is the ventriloquist doll that has the last word. Whatever you do to me tonight, I am the harp of your childhood and all childhoods, it says. Now do your worst.

The enactment of that drama is gripping. He picks up a wooden harp, a sharp triangle small enough to be cradled on the lap like a miniature dog, and before a note is sounded I’m reminded of something else, a little book once published by the British Museum: Ancient Musical Instruments of Western Asia. The cover showed a photograph of a reconstructed silver lyre from the Royal Graves of Ur, found in what is called the ‘Great Death Pit’ and dated c. 2600-2400 BC. Lyres and harps, flutes, rattles, bells and scrapers were ritual instruments in ancient Mesopotamian civilisation. Something similar was true for Japan, Korea and China. We can read about this in Arthur Waley’s translations of The Nine Songs, Chinese wu (shaman) songs from before the fourth or third century BC: “The zithern-strings are tightened; drum answers drum. The bells are beaten till the bell-stand rocks. Sound of flute, blowing of the reed organ; a clever and beautiful spirit-guardian.” In Nara, Japan, housed in Todaji Temple’s Shosoin collection, is an eighth century triangular harp called a kugo. According to Toshi Ichiyanagi, who reconstructed the instrument for his Ancient Resonance project, there is an image of an angel holding a kugo in Buddhist murals within the cave temples of Dunhuang in Western China (also the site where the Diamond Sutra of 868, the world’s oldest surviving dated printed book, had been hidden for centuries until discovered by a late 19th century Taoist monk called Wang Yuanlu).

Like the wood inside the silver casing of the Ur lyre, all of this venerable history and ritual significance decomposed to dust during the ruthless 20th century prettification and trivialisation of harps, flutes and bells. Is it too far fetched to imagine some bonus-swollen investment banker keeping a harpist chained to a radiator below stairs on permanent call for dinner parties? Probably not, but it’s one job that Rhodri won’t be offered any time soon. Just switching on the amp set fire to that particular model of civilisation – the unleashed hum was enough to trigger anxiety attacks in any sound engineers and audiophiles present. Maybe it comes as shock, hearing a musician more closely associated with quietism and minimalism playing in this way. He strikes the strings hard, repeating arpeggios over and over, restricting himself to one area of the harp; stopping, then resuming with a close variant in another area. The playing is expert but rough, as if he is pushing himself to play at the edge of error, rather than training himself (as he must have done in the past) to play cleanly and precisely. After a while he wipes sweat from his head. This is effort, though not for me as a listener.

As a strategy it sounds unusual in the context of music which follows a long symphonic arc (true for a lot of so-called experimental music that I hear out and about). There’s no attempt to resolve anything, to ease in like a cat or conclude with a chocolate or a firework. Each piece is a cell, a version of what came before and what will come after; they begin, they stop. Mostly he plays with distortion, sometimes extreme, and when the strings seem to tumble over each other like church bells in a Bosch nightmare then I think of the green-cowled harpist creature mounted on a screeching primeval monster in The Temptations of Saint Anthony.

Listening to his new vinyl, Wound Response (www.altvinyl.com) a few days before this gig made me think of a tradition that has nothing to do with the sort of music you might hear at that other Boschian nightmare, the Classical Brit Awards. Immediately I heard echoes of Konono No 1 or the Kasai Allstars from Kinshasa, the donso ngoni hunter’s harp from Mali and Guinea, the Ethiopian begena recorded by Ragnar Johnson, the harps and lyres recorded by Hugh Tracey in southern and eastern Africa, the nyatiti harp recorded by David Fanshawe in Kenya, the inanga trough zither recorded in Burundi by Michel Vuylsteke. The latter is famous for its whispered vocal, to our ears sinister but apparently pitched to cut through the frequency range of the strings. There were no whispered vocals forthcoming at Café Oto though Ragnar Johnson’s recording of a song of the Monophysite Church of Ethiopia, accompanied by the deep buzzing of the begena, the harp of David, might have been appropriate since the words dwell on the transitory nature of life on earth: “It will eat you, and even the earth will eat you, like an ignorant man, like a man easily deceived.”

I also thought of another record that arrived in the same week as Wound Response, the freshly remastered CD issue of King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. Jamie Muir’s involvement in this version of the band was big news in 1972 and although the extreme physicality of Jamie’s performances are absent on the recording, there are glimmers of what might have been. Most exciting to me was the opening of the title track, a very African influenced introduction that suggested a new approach to the interaction of instruments and rhythms in rock music. Whatever the potential, there was always a song or a crunching onslaught of power riffs to blow it aside. I can imagine that Rhodri might have been asked to join the band on the strength of his new direction, were this 1972, and probably lasting as short a time as Jamie Muir.

But in the end this is not just about the hegemony of the harp of politeness or about formal directions in music. It’s about a prevailing mood. “The Theatre of Cruelty will choose themes and subjects corresponding to the agitation and unrest of our times,” wrote Antonin Artaud in 1933. Rhodri quotes Kazimir Malevich on the cover of his record: “and may the freed bear bathe his body amid the flow of the frozen north and not languish in the aquarium of distilled water in the academic garden.”

On my way home from Café Oto I was forced to walk for the last part of the journey. A car was on fire in a side street, smoke pouring from its already blackened body. Somehow it seemed a fitting end to the evening.

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Star-shaped Biscuit: haunting, spells, a drowning world

“The winter is the time of transformation and haunting, not necessarily hostile revenance, but the cold dusk offers access to a past that is almost overwhelming.” The Idea of North, Peter Davidson

In the mid-1930s, photographer and painter Dora Maar (also Picasso’s lover and model, seen in the portraits he called The Weeping Woman) bought a small star-shaped casket in a Parisian flea market. Inside was the fragment of a star-shaped biscuit. This fetish object was once the property of the eccentric French writer Raymond Roussel who had attached a label to the box: ‘A star originating from a lunch I attended on Sunday, 29 July 1923, at the Observatory at Juvisy with [astronomer and spiritist] Camille Flammarion presiding.’ The star-shaped biscuit passed into the hands of French surrealist Georges Bataille (Dora Maar’s lover between 1933-34), who spoke of being troubled by the object. ‘[Roussel] obviously wanted to appropriate to himself this edible star in a manner more important and actual than simply by eating it,’ he wrote. ‘This strange object signified for me the way in which Roussel had achieved his dream of eating a heavenly star.’ For Bataille, the biscuit was not unlike Proust’s madeleine, an unlocking of buried dreams and memories, a mythical object that can release ideas, images and myths for past, present and future. Others might think of it as the Roman Catholic sacrament (encased and ‘shown’ in its solar, or star-shaped monstrance), the various shape-changing foods eaten by Alice in her Wonderland, or the plant hallucinogens used in shamanic séance to effect travel between the worlds of the living and the dead.

A ghost story, perhaps? In a draughty room, on an island in a remote place (somewhere like Iceland, or a small island off the coast of Ireland or Japan), Dora waits implacably for apocalypse, the end of everything, a great silence. She waits for water to cover her island as the great melting returns us to the sea. Her external environment shrinks, submerges, just as her inner life moves toward a central core of silence, and in this state of suspension she travels through a land of death and memory, searching for ways to write and rewrite her story, particularly that part of her story written by others. The image of her as the Weeping Woman is broken down and reassembled like a puzzle that resists completion.

The setting: a space that seems ghostly and shadowed, the ground covered with burned tree branches, dry leaves, ashes, old machines, the ruins of the past, a consequence of some catastrophe. Dora has very little: a low table which serves also as a bed; a great book – disintegrating, worm-eaten, exuding red and brown powders – of her journals and diaries; water in a bowl, and a fetish object, a memento – the star-shaped biscuit. There are outbursts of anger, re-enactments of a breakdown, the inflicting of electric shock treatment. In her loneliness, she sings and speaks aloud to activate the still air of her solitude, ‘to set the darkness echoing’. Her memories are interwoven with spells recited to conjure the past. The air is alive with whispers, strange sounds, haunting echoes, as if the voice that she projects into space echoes back to her as stranger, usurper, saboteur.

The room is occupied also by two presences, or spirits. Their names are Euphrosine and Seabrook. Euphrosine seems to come from the 18th century, a character from a Fragonard painting or a story by the Marquis De Sade. Seabrook is an adventurer from the 1920s. They could be described simply as ghosts or revenants representing the errors of history but they can also be read as traces of Dora’s memories, as elements of her unconscious, or as manifestations of spirit guides who have been raised by her spells, her involuntary actions, her dreaming and the effects of isolation on her interior self. Like the puppeteers of Japanese bunraku, they are ‘invisible’ to her. Signs of their existence are only partially and slowly evident to Dora, as ghosts, apparitions, or auditory hallucinations, or as ambiguous, fleeting moments of feeling in which differences between outer reality and the inner life of the mind are uncertain. Without quite knowing what she is doing, she casts spells. Somehow, the presences are conjured, though she is only partially aware of this consequence.

When she rests, they slip into other times and places to enact their own past confrontations with voices of bewitchment and entrancement. Dragged back into the light, Seabrook examines his delirious fascination with exoticism. Euphrosine follows his example, exploring the myth of an operatic voice so powerful it could kill. Dora is drawn by these two liminal presences, conjuring them up, yet resisting their persuasive imprecations to pass over those faint boundaries that delineate the worlds of life and death. The star-shaped biscuit, the heavenly star, also pulls her back into nostalgia, history, the repeated mistakes of the past whose consequence is the catastrophe that has left her isolated in a drowning world. Should she eat the magical biscuit and fade back into the past or confront the unknown void ahead?

The text:

Voices are everywhere: the sotto voce comments and responses of singers to the main voice, along with recorded whispers, low voices and murmurs are heard all through the piece as an undertow that interweaves with sung voices, a confusion of stories, invisible presences, angels and devils, interior monologues and passages quoting either directly or obliquely from Dora Maar, and from other stories of island exile and haunting such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Shakespeare’s The Tempest; from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket; Zeami’s 15th century Noh play Tsunemasa; writings by those associated with Dora Maar, including Jacques Lacan, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Andre Breton and Georges Bataille; by anthropologists and artist-explorers such as William Seabrook, Maya Deren, Henri Michaux and Antonin Artaud, by authors such as Vernon Lee, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, from Hans Anderson’s The Snow Queen and Peter Davidson’s book, The Idea of North, and from Benjamin Britten’s Parable for Church performance, Curlew River. These fragmented texts set up polyphonies, interruptions, implications, interrogations and choruses out of which the live voices emerge.

  • Star-shaped Biscuit is composed by David Toop for electronics and a select group of vocal improvisers and multi- instrumentalists.
  • Cast: Lore Lixenberg (Dora), Elaine Mitchener (Euphrosine), Jamie McDermott (Seabrook), with Sylvia Hallett (viola, sarangi, saw, hurdy gurdy, etc), Hélène Breschand (electric and concert harps), Jan Hendrickse (bass flute, ney, bansuri, noh flute), Martin Allen (percussion, vibraphone), Simon Allen (percussion, strings, saw, glass).
  • Star-Shaped Biscuit, Saturday September 15th, 7.30pm,Derelict Building 9, Snape Maltings
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