Monday, 31 May 2010


It seems that A.AAAARG.ORG has finally bitten the dust: the site’s main page now bears the legend, ‘A.AAAARG.ORG DOES NOT EXIST’, a delightful comment on the transient and virtual nature of an ‘organisation’ that was always virtual, never ‘actual’, but which offers us some intriguing glimpses, even, one might say, utopian possibilities, for the future of study and intellectual exchange. Given this, I thought that now might be an appropriate to set out some of my thoughts on the AAAARG phenomenon (yes, something can be a ‘phenomenon’ even if it isn’t all over myspace, Facebook, Twitter, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post) and what it might mean.

Some time last summer, at the internet point in a small Spanish albergue on the Camino de Santiago, I came across a link to a resource with an astounding amount of book-length, PDF-format academic material, from the likes of Derrida, Barthes, Adorno, Deleuze and Zizek, apparently available for free download. I'd just graduated from university, and had thus lost my access to university library facilities and to websites, such as JSTOR, which contain back-issues of journals and academic e-books. Furthermore, my graduation had necessitated a move from Cambridge back to Swindon, where the availability of academic books (particularly in the realms of literary and critical theory, aesthetics, and 'avant-garde' music) leaves something to be desired. Thus, though I didn’t realize it fully until I got back home from Spain, AAAARG.ORG (later updated to A.AAAARG.ORG.), was to become a particularly useful resource. Having subscribed to the website’s mailing list, I found a daily e-mail popping into my inbox, containing a list of at least twenty uploaded books per day, on topics as diverse as anarchist and Marxist thought, aesthetics, literary theory, continental philosophy, geography, feminism, poetry, orientalism: you name it, it was there. My hard drive was soon filling up with neatly-compressed PDFs of all kinds, most of which I still have not read.

The problem with this sort of thing is that such this vast availability of information, easily clickable and downloadable, means that a lifetime of thought becomes translated into a few megabytes of hard disk space. I’m not saying that such information should become the privilege of an elite, moneyed few – those with the inclination and the cash to splash out fifteen pounds on a two-hundred page slab of Derridean wisdom – but the worry is that it becomes just another bit of data, just another part of the spectacle, just another collection of dots on a screen to which we pay only the vaguest attention. It’s the same with music downloads: there’s no doubt that fans of ‘left-field’ music (particularly those who missed out on original releases the first time round, because they hadn’t yet been born!) have received something akin to an education through file-sharing blogs like Inconstant Sol, Church Number Nine, and all the others (see my article in the second issue of ‘eartrip’). We owe much to this massive up-surge in the availability of MP3 versions of long out-of-print LPs containing free jazz, free improvisation, musique concrete, Indian classical music, Afrobeat, and all other kinds of cross- and sub-generic offerings. And yet, I find myself – and I know I’m not alone in this – with piles of CDs, each containing about twenty hours’ worth of music – CDs of material I’ve downloaded and burned myself, CDs I’ve been given by friends – that, in all likelihood, I may not listen to for months or even years; and, if I do listen to them, I may not listen to them with the full and careful attention they deserve, and which might be accorded to them if they sat in front of me as separate and unique objects, gate-fold LPs or jewel-case CDs, rather than megabytes on a computer screen. The tendency is to see something that looks interesting, and to download, because it’s free – and then to forget about it, to put it on the back-burner, to download something else, and then something else, and something else again…

There’s a further problem with the academic book file-sharing: most of these books are still in print, unlike the LPs. In the end, though, I don’t find this too hard a claim to react to: few of us have the money to splash out on these books; most of us rely on borrowing other people’s copies, using university libraries, and the like. And I’m intrigued and encouraged by the anti-copyright rhetoric of free improviser/theorist Mattin and others, and by the idea of some new kind of digital university, a virtual space where the exchange of ideas is free and open, where information is shared for its own sake, rather than traded and bartered for and guarded with the jealousness with which ‘property’ is guarded – a radical system, anarchy in the best sense, with exciting political implications. Even if such a system doesn’t exist in the ‘real world’, sites like A.AAAARG, just like musical free improvisations, offer a glimpse of what such utopias might be like, provide templates which might be applied to the worlds of politics and social organization on a much larger scale. This becomes all the more pertinent as I’ve become increasingly jaded by the monetization and corruption inherent in the structures of universities as they exist, in the main, today; by the way that people with ‘good intentions’ and exciting minds are forced into systems in which they are forced to fight for their right to think, provoke, challenge, inquire, forced to tick boxes and assess the financial and economic benefits their work will bring. The ‘virtual university’ offers an alternative where money and physical space is not an issue, a truly global collaborative network, where ideas are shared for their own importance, and not for their financial benefit.

Having said all this, I’m afraid I will have to deflate this rousing conclusion by admitting that it is far easier on the eyes to read a book made of paper and ink, rather than one made of pixels and brightly-glowing lights. Anyway, further reading at the following links:

Paris Ionescu on aaaarg and agonism (

Newsflash on the aaaarg closure (

Discussion with AAAARG architect Sean Dockray ( "I don’t think it’s sustainable, but file sharing is resilient. That part is sustainable if what’s meant is something that will weather bad economies, legal threats, changes in technology, etc. AAAARG probably won’t. But I don’t think it matters; it’s not trying to be the new library. That said, I don’t think it will disappear, I don’t think anything ever does. The word promiscuity for the digital object I think is a really good one."

Very comprehensive overview/history of online text-sharing sites ( “As mentioned before, the harm to producers (scholars) and their publishers (in Humanities and Social Sciences mainly Not-For-Profit University Presses) is less clear. First of all, their main customers are libraries (compare this to the software business model: free for the consumer, companies pay), who are still buying the legal content and mostly follow the policy of buying either print or both print and ebook, so there are no lost sales there for the publishers. Next to that it is not certain that the piracy is harming sales. Unlike in literary publishing, the authors (academics) are already paid and do not loose money (very little maybe in royalties) from the online availability.. [….] Still, it is not only the lack of fear of possible retaliations that is feeding the upsurge of text sharing communities. There is a strong ideological commitment to the inherent good of these developments, and a moral and political strive towards institutional and societal change when it comes to knowledge production and dissemination.”

Brief article on piracy ( "It is not only because there can be potentially infinite owners of property that the internet redefines our notion of it. It is also that people who participate in the exchange of immaterial works do not treat them as property. When they exchange music, books or movies, they are not merely transferring ownership from themselves to others; they simply do not recognise themselves as owners in the first place."

Mattin’s essay on Free Improvisation and the Anti-Copyright ethos ( "Notions of intellectual property are going to be the issue of the future, and if we do not find ways of challenging the structures that are being developed we are going to be pretty fucked."

aaaarg itself (

'Co-Temporary' and 'Contemporary'

In the seventeenth century, and so for the next one hundred years, a particular English formation changed “contemporary” to “co-temporary.” This subtle change fascinates, and holds meaning for the kind of inquiry we’re trying to make. Suddenly, rather than a word that recognizes a temporal togetherness, we have a word that directly implies time in a more complex manner. We are “co-temporary.” [...] Like Plato’s ideal dialectic, like his ideal love, to be co-temporary recognizes that the work of poetry is of the moment in the most radically present way possible. Poetry’s oral tradition keeps this notion from being lost — the magic of a poetry reading is not the force of the author’s personality, but the unique insight gained in hearing mortal words in a mortal mouth. The reading emphasizes this point: Right now I am alive, you are alive, and these words are alive between us. This unity, this being contemporary, is my concern here.
Dan Beach-Quick, 'Co-Temporary/ Contemporary: on Martin Corless-Smith' (Jacket 25, February 2004)

(Read the whole thing at Jacket Magazine by clicking the title of this post)

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Tom Noonan, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Music: Jon Brion
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Director of Photgraphy: Frederick Elmes

To begin, a kind of disclaimer. This review may seem overly negative, for ‘Synecdoche, New York’, the directorial debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, is a very ambitious and well crafted-film. However, as Peter Bradshaw notes in a piece for The Guardian, it also a film that will polarize people – and, I would add, that may create a polarity of conflicting opinions within one person (thus rather complicating the traditional reviewer’s task of evaluations and evidence leading to a conclusion summing up a work’s overall merits). Something of this sense of uncertainty comes through when Bradshaw writes: “The film is either a masterpiece or a massively dysfunctional act of self-indulgence and self-laceration,”; he chooses the former, as does Roger Ebert, and as did many other critics; I edge towards the latter, though perhaps I might not have felt this way, if half-an-hour had been trimmed and some attempt had been made to draw all the threads together (as in ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’) rather than letting those threads dangle looser and looser, petering out into a host of non-sequiturs. Oh, and if the film had avoided the usual white male movie-maker’s questionable treatment of women (but I’ll come to that later).

Anyway, I’ll begin the review proper at what seems to be an odd tangent, for comparative purposes that will hopefully become clear later on in the piece. That said, maybe it’s not such an odd tangent when you consider it further: both Kaufman and the man I’m about to discuss, Quentin Tarantino, have been described as ‘postmodern’ film people, Tarantino in a movies-as-entertainment way, Kaufman in an intellectually-dextrous-and-trickily-mind-bending way. So, QT first. Tarantino's moral compass seems to come from the B-movies he so loves. These are the films that have shaped his own sense of morality – at least, as it applies in his films (though I’m not suggesting that we should read this too far into the man’s own life; Tarantino very much makes ‘film films’, spaces in which we can participate in/enjoy socially-unacceptable behaviours and moral ideas, and doesn’t pretend to do anything different. ‘Inglourius Basterds’, with its explicitly historical subject-matter, might have been a problem in this regards – but the fantasy way in which it unfolds (epitomized by the fact that Hitler actually does get assassinated) soon puts paid to that.) So, B-movie ethos in Tarantino: Tim Roth telling Harvey Keitel he's a cop rather than keeping his mouth shut and not getting shot, just because he's "a man of honour"; the revenge theme of 'Inglourius Basterds'; the revenge theme of ‘Kill Bill’. He clearly enjoys those moments of frisson when something occurs that feels right in the context of the film – by which I mean, satisfactory, providing a sense of ‘closure’ – but which might lead one to think twice outside that context. For instance, the satisfaction we feel when ‘Inglourius Basterds’ ends with the mutilation of Hans Landa, the SS murderer. This seems like a rather more self-aware version of Sam Peckinpah’s cathartic climaxes, particularly that of ‘Straw Dogs’, where the timid intellectual’s transformation into a man of brutal action and savage violence is more exhilarating than horrifying: those rapist yokels asked for it! (In the case of Peckinpah, this exhilaration is also the product of a classic tension-and-release strategy; the strategy which causes one to wait expectantly for the climactic shoot-out in a western (Peckinpah’s own ‘The Wild Bunch’ being of course one of the most overblown examples of all)).

Given all this, 'Synecdoche, New York’, feels like a completely different kind of film. It’s set in the present day, has no desire to align itself with American genre film (Robbe-Grillet, Fellini; OK, we can deal with those kind of people…), and prides itself on its muted emotional tone and rambling puzzle-structure (as opposed to the incident-driven approach which Tarantino’s films, despite their narrative jiggery-pokery and focus on apparently inconsequential chat, do tend to go for (‘Kill Bill’ especially)). Yet I would argue that, just as Tarantino takes a B-movie version of reality and runs with it, ‘Synecdoche’ takes an art-film version of reality and runs with it, to create a kind of fantasy that substitutes surface for any genuine moral engagement with the real world - except judgments filtered through the fantasy film-world. (That fantasy film world where depressed, middle-aged men undergoing mid-life crises are inexplicably sexually and emotionally attractive to virtually every pretty young woman they meet). At least Tarantino is honest about just wanting to make entertaining movies with lots of film references, witty dialogue, and fine performances; films with the intrigue and bizarre nature of well-told anecdotes. Charlie Kaufman, on the other hand, wants to be profound; we get some sense of this in the first scene of the film, which has Philip Seymour Hoffman getting out of bed while a poem by Rilke about life's disappointments is read over the radio. In a sense, the film could have just ended there. But wait, you cry: we would have missed all the jokes, non-sequiturs, and 'realistically'-presented absurdities. And I will agree that we would, and that some of these are imaginatively captivating as images or ideas per se – for instance, the always-burning house, the flower tattoo that sheds its leaves on its bearer's death. OK then, this is a film bursting with ideas, but it doesn't know when to stop, and along the labyrinthine maze it constructs for itself, it loses its moral bearings.

‘Moral bearings’? Well yes, let's not pretend that the film doesn't want to present moral ‘messages’, because, deep down, it does want to say something 'profound'. Digression: anyone see the Jennifer Lopez movie ‘The Cell’, where, through some sci-fi gizmo, she enters the subconscious of a serial killer, an environment rendered through all kinds of gothicky décor and costumes? The more I think of it, the more ‘Synecdoche’ makes me think of that film: whipping up a load of appealing trickery (admittedly in a much more complex and interesting fashion) with a very flimsy excuse for doing so. In ‘The Cell’, the killer is a killer because of his childhood trauma, and that forms the basis of the action inside his mind; and in ‘Synecdoche’? Well, we ‘learn’ that ‘life is slow dying’ (didn’t Philip Larkin say that?), that the body decays and that relationships don’t always work out; that there may be increasing regrets and ‘issues’ to work through, and that art is no substitute for life – one cannot live through one’s problems through grand-scale artifice. In that sense, we might see the protagonist’s grand theatrical project as a condemnation of artistic folly, monstrous egotism masquerading as a ‘great and truthful work’. In attempting to create something ‘great’, all the ‘director’ does is to multiply his own rather uninteresting follies and weaknesses on an absurd scale. To support this claim, we might consider the sly digs at actorly pretentiousness: the talk about ‘knowing that you don’t know’, the suggestion (in the scene where the protagonist tells his therapist he’s got a MacArthur grant) that this ‘great project’ is simply an attempt to work through some emotional issues (a kind of giant, disguised therapy session where the patient is in charge and there is not therapist). And yet, and yet…this film is not a satire. Sure, it has jokes, the best ones packed into the first hour of the film; but it’s not a ‘comedy’ by any means, as ‘Being John Malkovich’ was, and it lacks the moral outrage that lies behind truly great satire – the sense that what one’s attacking is being attacked for a reason, rather than gently mocked or quietly half-criticized. So, no satire, no comedy; indeed, Kaufman himself has described ‘Synecdoche’ as his version of a horror film. What we get is a drabber and more ‘intellectual’ version of the hang-dog whimsy of Wes Anderson, with all the joy squeezed out. The protagonist has health problems (or thinks he does), has psychological issues, and feels that he’s disappointed his wife, who takes off with their daughter and leaves him on his lonesome. He’s also highly ‘conscious of his own mortality’, and occasionally bangs on about how death comes to us all. Now isn’t that just heartbreakingly profound…

And that’s not all. Several beautiful women are inexplicably attracted to this self-absorbed, depressed, drably-attired man. Yet still he manages to remain self-absorbed, depressed and drably-attired, unable to offer reciprocal love. And here, in fact, we stumble on another problematic aspect of the film: its attitude towards women. Kaufman has defended himself against charges of ‘misogyny’ in an interview where he claims to have written non-stereotypical roles for the women in the film, but I’m not entirely convinced. The bedroom scene where Emily Watson and Hoffman strikes me as particularly ill-advised: the nude shot and casual talk about ‘fucking’ (to which our ‘hero’ responds with his usual depressed indifference) don’t get us anywhere, and put Watson in a vulnerable position for no obvious reason. Note that we see no naked men; a man’s vulnerability (or ‘frankness’) is limited to looking at the blood in his stool and moping around an empty house. And then we have our protagonist’s wife: her dedication to her work (which means she can’t go to the opening night of his dreary production of ‘Death of a Salesman’, though she does manage to make it on the second night) is implicitly criticized, but his own crazed scheme to create a ‘work of genius’ sees him playing with the feelings of others (although they seem perfectly happy to go along with all this, even if one of them does end up committing suicide) in a way that her self-contained basement painting-sessions, her daughter happily alongside her, never do. We see a magazine headline, in which she claims she wishes to spend her time only with joyous and healthy people. How crass, we cry! An independent female artist moving to bohemian, decadent Berlin (abroad! where they speak another language!), shirking her responsibilities to her needy, sick, depressed husband! This is made worse by the insinuations of lesbianism. Our first inklings of this come in the scene where Hoffman returns from opening night, having shaken off Morton’s advances (the promise of horny weed-smoking in her car), only to find his wife and her friend Maria still up and – surprise, surprise – stoned. The next night, when they all go to see the play, this friend stumbles along drunkenly and rudely disparages the production, leading the wife on a bad path where they just don’t care about the man’s hard work. Later in the film, this becomes a full-blown ‘sub-plot’: Hoffman is concerned about the negative influence that Maria is having on his daughter. He tries to see his family in Berlin, acting the part of the ‘innocent abroad’, sheepishly explaining to a museum guide that he has no German; in the end, the only person he gets to see is Maria, now speaking with a German accent, who callously dismisses his concerns about his daughter getting an intricate flower tattoo at the age of four, and tells him that she gave her the tattoo! As time passes, his daughter grows up and, covered in even more tattoos, dances naked in a glass cage where she’s watched by seedy old men. Then, on her deathbed (she’s dying because the flower tattoos have become infected), she forces her father to beg her forgiveness and to tell lies about abusing her and having a homosexual relationship that caused his family to leave him; after all that, she refuses to forgive him. To rub salt into the wound, Maria now shows up, unrepentant at having had a lesbian relationship with her (they had ‘passionate, aching sex’). What we have here seems to be a man’s inability to accept the fact that his daughter will grow up, will no longer be the little girl worried about pipes running under the floor and blood running in her body, and will become an independent, sexually active being; this is mixed in with jealousy of his wife’s best friend (a woman) and extrapolatory paranoia about lesbianism. (Although we might also note that there might be some connection with Jungian themes – male and female ‘versions’ of characters appear at various points, and the apparently non-existent homosexual lover named ‘Eric’ also seems to show up (though probably only as part of the ‘play’ constructed from Hoffman’s life)). This sounds like part of a satire on the central character – an exposée of the self-delusion and self-importance of the white western artist. Yet we actually seem to be encouraged to sympathize with Hoffman’s character, to mourn the loss that has been wreaked on him (if young women become independent, they will end up speaking only German, performing in peep shows, and dying in their thirties due to the machinations of predatory lesbians – much to their fathers’ understandable grief). The scene where Hoffman has to squirt artificial tears into his eyes might seem to suggest the falsity of his angst, but the film’s general aura of sadness and depression far counterweights that, particularly when paired with the (rather beautiful) piano music that plays through a number of scenes in the film, commencing when it’s performed in a bar where Hoffmann is meeting his leading lady (and beginning to lose his chance with Morton’s character). The Independent’s Jonathan Romney writes about “the (unheard) violins of pathos that follow Caden through life,” but the piano does the trick just as well, and is very much heard. The music’s glow is pleasantly melancholy, but the film itself leaves a far sourer taste – particularly when one considers its moral implications.

Ultimately, I’d like to claim (perhaps too sweepingly) that ‘Synecdoche, New York’ is a product of the kind of western (quasi-)intellectual culture that promotes the 'inner feelings' (and neuroses) of the 'individual' as the centre of the universe, and ruminating on them as a worthy occupation; one can extend one's own observations about one's depressed state, failed marriage, dull job, physical decline, etc, to the world at large, and use these to make sweeping statements about the futility of life, the inevitable progress towards death and the way we try to compartmentalize our lives in order to cover up this fact of death and to make some meaning of our existence. (This is all filtered through half-digested, superficial interpretations of existentialism, Bergman, Beckett, Kafka, Calvino and the like (these people stand in for 'great secular art'), and it’s a kind of ‘intellectual chic’ pose – even Lady Gaga has a Rilke tattoo on her arm. I’m not saying that Charlie Kaufman doesn’t have a certain amount of knowledge and a fine imagination, but ethically, I’m not sure that we’re not all much better off than we are with Gaga). One practices this solipsistic schtick to stand in for 'philosophy'; and one does this to stand in for any kind of criticism that takes into account other people, AS other people, as people who may have different cultural, sexual, moral compasses to our own (like lesbian Germans!), who may have different needs and desires, and who cannot be addressed from a position of total solipsism masquerading as universal existential angst. Therefore, one misconstrues the realm of the social as simply a way of covering up life's essential meaninglessness, whereas a properly social perspective might see the hero’s frustrations as the results of social dynamics: the power relations embedded in and frustrated by the templates for male-female and family relationships, and the dullness of job-focused, middle-class American life (although actually, if you think about it, the characters in this film are pretty damn lucky…). Andrew Seal brilliantly suggests that ‘The Lives of Others’ is a ‘capitalist realist’ film which promotes self-sacrifice in the service of the ‘job’ as a means of redemption (it’s well worth checking out the review in question at Seal’s ‘Biographia Literaria’ blog - Kaufman’s movie certainly doesn’t promote a capitalist work ethic in this way; however, it doesn’t attempt to propose any sort of alternative (and isn’t interested in doing so).

Well fair enough, you might say: you don’t go to a Charlie Kaufman movie to be presented with a utopian Leftist tract. And that’s not what I’m asking for; I just feel that the film’s social stance is very problematic. I see this as exemplified by the vague intimations of some wider societal collapse, of a dystopian future, towards the end of the film: the large alien ship/zeppelin-type aircraft which hovers over the city; muffled bangs which could be explosions or gunshots; the appearance of graffiti on the facades of previously ‘respectable’ buildings; the eventual death/disappearance of most of the members of the vast ‘theatre piece’. This is made all the more plausible by the film’s contemporary setting; 20 years into the future, there may very well be crises of this nature. Yet this element is just casually tossed into the film as a kind of mirror of its protagonist’s sense of ageing, regret and decay: corpses litter the place and the aftermath of explosions leaves buildings charred and smoke floating over deserted streets – but only as a way of reflecting his loneliness. OK, this may all be occurring in some kind of elaborate meta-reality, and it may all be schizophrenic or senile delusion; but apocalypse is not a backdrop to or reflection of the depression of an individual ageing white male, and social clashes are not pathetic fallacy for the individual ‘crises’ of such a person. In the film itself, this is a relatively minor issue – the vague suggestions of social crisis are just one toss-off from the huge pile of ideas that Kaufman threw into his script and ended up filming. But I still think it’s problematic to use societal collapse as a metaphor for the loneliness caused by impending death; and that this problem typifies the tendency towards solipsism and self-pity of what is, at times, an engrossing film.


Peter Bradshaw, Review in The Guardian ( “Of course, the action of the film can't be taken literally: no "genius grant foundation" would have enough money to sustain such [Caden’s] crazy scheme. Yet neither is it supposed to be a fantasy: this is not merely what Caden is imagining he might do. It is Kaufman-reality, unreality, irreality, and the film won't have the same impact if you are not prepared to grant it some kind of "reality" status.”

Jonathan Romney, Review in The Independent ( “ ‘Synecdoche, New York’ finally feels bitter, hollow and adolescent: like a gargantuan music video conceived for an emo band with a penchant for Pirandello.”

John Ott, ‘Synecdoche, New York’ Explained ( “The emperor may have no clothes, but his nudity is, nonetheless, profound.” Symbolic interpretation of various elements within the film – e.g. the burning house and Caden’s double.

Aaron Bady, ‘First Response’ to the film at his Zunguzungu blog ( “[This film is] an argument for why white people should not be allowed to use magic realism. It uses a monstrous caricature of homosexuality and an unselfconscious misogyny as tropes for life’s unfairness. It thinks selfishness is noble and its consequences, tragedy.” As the writer admits, this is a hastily tossed-off first response, and one might even call it a hatchet job; but I do find myself agreeing with the general sentiment. In any case, it makes a nice contrast to all those reviewers praising a film to the heavens just because they need to watch it a second time to ‘work it out.’

Adam Arseneau, Review at Cinema Verdict ( “ ‘Synecdoche, New York’ is…often barely recognizable as a film in the traditional sense of the word. It more resembles the inner workings of a mentally ill person; a place where puzzle pieces are assembled in random order, where time leaps in unexpected directions and distances, where memories and dreams coalesce into unrecognizable messes.”

David Moats, Review at The Quietus ( “Making a morbidly pretentious film about the perils of making morbidly pretentious art doesn't blunt the message, it just makes you resent the messenger.”

Blogposts at the ‘Wisdom of the West’ blog ( “ ‘Though complex, ‘Synecdoche, New York’ is essentially a love story, […] told with a lot of technical bells and whistles that bring in all sorts of let’s call them avant themes of identity, reality, representation, etc. Though colorful, the meta-fictional effects are peripheral to the essence.” These posts form part of a series of four entries on ‘Ur-Realism’ (which in turn form part of a much, much larger series of entries on ‘Ur-Story’). Scroll down to the bottom of the page to read the posts in chronological order.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Atmospheres + Red Square In Oxford

Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford, Tuesday 11th May 2010

[Atmospheres: Paul Dunmall (saxophones), Trevor Taylor (percussion), Phil Gibbs (guitar), & Nick Stephens (bass) /// Red Square: Jon Seagroatt (reeds), Ian Staples (guitar) & Roger Telford (drums) ]

'Atmospheres', a four-piece, made some compelling music during their continuous one-hour set; unburdened by the presence of a drummer, what they played had a looseness and flowing quality to it quite different from the stop-start interjections of much free improv. Trevor Taylor's credit as 'percussionist' didn't capture the harmonic spectrum of his contribution: using drumsticks on the pads of a MalletKat, a “MIDI percussion mallet controller” which sounds like a cross between a vibraphone, a marimba, and a xylophone, he added a metallic and bright edge to proceedings, giving the music something of a rhythmic punch, as well as suddenly leaping out with electronic whooshes which merged with the phaser effects and repeated note sequences of Phil Gibb's guitar. Nick Stephens got a twangy, percussive sound of his own by using brushes and mallets to strike or stick under the strings of his bass; would switch to bowed drones or harmonics when he sensed a change in the mood of the music; and even fell into standard jazz accompaniment patterns – but in ways that rendered them more than clichés, playing them arco or slightly out of time to create a lop-sided effect. Paul Dunmall, on soprano for this performance, sat on top of things, taking short pauses between phrases and entries, rather than 'soloing' continuously, even if the sound quality of his instrument tended to carry over the rest of the group in the manner of a 'lead voice'. As befitted the band-name, things were often a little pensive, but Dunmall's playing had some bite to it too, his streams of notes never quite reaching free jazz ferocity, but with an edginess to them that prevented the music from wandering into ECM territory.

Red Square have been going since the 1970s, and though their reputation suggested a much noisier, more 'in-yer-face' approach than Atmospheres, there were more similarities than might have been imagined. In particular, both bands featured soprano players with strong jazz capabilities, neither of whom went for the 'exotic', Oriental sound popularized by Coltrane; nor for the kind of hyper-active squawking that resulted when the instrument became popular with fusion players; nor for the syrup of Jan Garbarek and smooth jazz. Both Dunmall and Jon Seagroatt played with a well-defined tone, a real clarity of ideas, and consistently strong melodic invention. Similarly, the rock elements in Red Square don't involve the tendency to straight-forward time-keeping that characterized even Last Exit, at least in part. Roger Telford's approach to his kit is resolutely free, while Ian Staples takes his cue from the volume and timbral qualities of the electric guitar, rather than from any set of punk chords or grandstanding 'guitar hero' clichés; his playing is grungily distorted, sometimes sliding into metal-style riffs (which he was playing even before metal had become part of the musical landscape), and very rarely simply settling into mere slabs of noise. Seagroatt's sax spins through riff-like and looping figures, but he doesn't repeat himself to the extent that one could identify recurring licks, and his style never feels like artificial excitement building, as its affinities with prog-rock and jazz fusion might have suggested. On occasion, the instrument is treated with electronic effects, so that it becomes oddly mechanical in sound, adding a whole new, eerie texture to the music; as does the Kaoss pad, which combines with Telford's bowing of each cymbal in his kit, in turn, and with pedal-treated guitar, for relatively brief sections that are less about the articulation of individual notes, more about the general texture and quality of sound. Seagroatt's bass clarinet really cuts deep, smoothly swooping from low-end droning vibrations to upper register figures with none of the shrill squawks emitted by free jazzers – the instrument sounds particularly ominous, turning the tone of the music to a kind of volatile melancholy. What's nice about Red Square is their resolute freshness: they don't sacrifice rock grunginess for tricksy fusion- or jazz-isms, and they don't sacrifice jazz clarity and skill for simple, obvious beats or noise aggression (though they are certainly loud!). The music feels very open, setting out a particular kind of sound, but with plenty of scope within that sound – of course, jazz and rock make an appearance, but there are also hints of folk (Seagroatt is a member of the re-formed Comus, and is married to Bobbie Watson, one of the band's vocalists). I'm reminded, if anything, of those vital '60s and '70s English cross-overs between ancient traditions and modern innovations, folk materials and new musical technologies, involving Soft Machine, Comus, John Stevens, and The Third Ear Band, to name a few. It's certainly encouraging to know that that spirit lives on: not overly indebted to jazz or rock, but free to use both genres' freshest and most interesting elements within a freely improvised context, in a manner that is both organic and engaging.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Freedom of the City Festival 2010

Conway Hall, London, 2nd-3rd May 2010

My previous visits to the annual Freedom of the City festival have been limited to just the one, back in 2007. Back then, it was a smaller affair, held in the back room of the Red Rose pub, with a relatively modest number of artists performing. After a year’s absence, due to the termination of the Red Rose as an improv venue, it came back all the stronger in 2009, relocating to the more centrally-placed Conway Hall – a far roomier space – and attracting a number of improvisers from abroad to join the mainly British-based line-up. Organizers Evan Parker, Eddie Prévost and Trevor Brent had achieved even more of a coup this year, persuading trumpeter Leo Smith to headline both days of the festival. This was not, of course, the first time that Smith had joined with European improvisers, or, indeed, with those specifically based in England – he played in Bristol back in the 70s, and has recently teamed up with the small ‘stable’ of musicians associated with Treader, the improv label run by John Coxon and Ashley Wales (a.k.a. dance music duo Spring Heel Jack). It was in something approaching this latter configuration that he closed the festival, holding his own in a noisy quintet featuring Coxon on guitar and the priceless Pat Thomas on piano and electronics; but perhaps the finest moments of the whole weekend occurred during his performances on the first day, playing an electrifying improvised concerto with the London Improvisers Orchestra, then engaging with the double-drum duo of Steve Noble and Louis Moholo-Moholo in an ecstatically-received set that, at its best, was perhaps as fine as improvised music gets.

But this was by no means all that the festival had to offer. I’ve opted, on the whole, for a blow-by-blow account of the various different set-ups, though it would probably be unfair to set down detailed analysis of performances which I did not find wholly satisfying, for one reason or another. Consequently, I’m not going to review every act. During such a packed schedule (well over ten hours in total), attention can wander, and dissatisfactions which may have very little or nothing to do with the music as such can intrude on critical facilities. I might perhaps make the criticism that the presentation was uniform: one group set up and play, people clap, there’s an announcement and a short break, then another group set up and play, people clap, etc. This may be due to my ongoing dissatisfactions with the concert presentation of free improvisation, which I feel could be (needs to be) shaken up in some way – otherwise we approach the deadened sterility of the classical concert hall, against which the vitality of both jazz and free improvisation can set themselves in their finest moments. Perhaps there’s no way round the sense of déjà-vu, the almost by-rote effect of so many performers coming up on stage in succession; festival fatigue is the inevitable drawback of bringing so many musicians into the same space, on the same occasion. And of course I’d rather hear eight groups in a respectful atmosphere and a conducive setting, than two groups in a dingy pub. In any case, FOTC remains pretty much a unique event in the British improv scene, and needs all the support it can get, given well-documented difficulties in securing funding and cultural acceptance in the UK (surely, as Evan Parker opined in one of his microphone ‘rants’ between acts, something like this deserves a mention in Time Out).


Before getting onto the music, it might be worthwhile offering some preliminary notes on the venue. The Conway Hall is a fairly large space, and attendance must have reached 100 or so on the Sunday, the better-attended of the two days; it never dwindled down to less than 50. The décor is a little quaint (my eyes kept flicking to the motto inscribed over the stage: “to thine own self be true”), exhibiting a kind of early twentieth-century liberal ethos (one of the rooms in the building is named after Bertrand Russell, and, on further research, it turns out that the Hall was built as headquarters for the South Place Ethical Society, the oldest free-thought association in the world). The acoustic isn’t that resonant, but this probably suited players like Peter Evans and, in particular, Leo Smith, whose sound is so massive that it might become deafening elsewhere! Upper galleries and plenty of space for seats meant that there was capacity for the audience to move around, rather than having to stick to the same seat for hours at a time, while corridors outside the main stage space gave plenty of space for mingling in between acts. All a far cry from the Red Rose…

The Sunday afternoon session (lasting from 2pm until around 6) opened with a solo set from Peter Evans, who is a very fine jazz left-field jazz musician (‘The Peter Evans Quartet’, from 2007, contains a happy blend of old-fashioned melodies and chord sequences with noise-rock guitar eruptions); he is also, as this performance indicated, an exceptional free improviser. Though based in New York, he has released a solo record on Martin Davidson’s Emanem and worked with that label’s stalwart, Evan Parker. Nonetheless, it seemed that not everyone in attendance was familiar with his work, and they were pleasantly surprised by what transpired. The performance split into roughly two halves, though it was a continuous forty-minute set: the first half found the trumpeter concentrating on circular breathing, amplifying breath noises through a volume pedal, extending the possibilities of the instrument with the use of subtle electronics as John Butcher has done with the saxophone. The second half, in which Evans switched to cornet, was mostly acoustic, with more ‘notes’ in play: jazzy inflections combined with repeated, almost brash minimalist phrases (like tougher versions of John Adams’ fanfares). The latter were perhaps rather over-done (there could have been more of the textural investigations with which Evans began), but they were certainly impressive in a technical sense.

Peter Evans: Photo by C. Neil Scott

Cellist Okkyung Lee, like Evans, had travelled over from New York to play here; on this evidence, she struck me as a somewhat limited player, especially having seen Hannah Marshall’s superb duo with Mick Beck at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival the preceding Friday. I don’t doubt her technical skill, and it’s clearly unfair to definitively label any musician on the result of one performance; however, the duo with Lytton didn’t really come off. Lee tended to bow with one hand while sliding the other up and down the strings, without pressing down onto the fingerboard. The cello can do more than this: use of the instrument’s body, plucking, and even melodic phrases. Lee’s approach worked as generalized atmosphere in the later trio with Evans and Evan Parker, but she seemed crowded out by Lytton, unable to fully respond to his energetic twitching round Dalek drums, and an encore, which might have provided the chance to find another angle on things, never really took off either.

By contrast, Lol Coxhill, Tania Chen and Dominic Lash demonstrated a clear mutual understanding from the git-go. Coxhill, as ever, was tartly melodic, spinning out flowing lines or thinning out his sound to almost nothing in breathy textural complement to Lash’s multi-hued bass and Chen’s rumbling on the lower reaches of the Bosendorfer. The music had a kind of jazz aura to it, but never through overt referentiality, and Chen’s sound could be said to owe as much to contemporary classical as to jazz. She left plenty of gaps so that her phrases acquired a certain weight around them, but the music wasn’t heavy or sluggish – rather, it had a substantial delicacy to it that, in a way, harkened back to Jimmy Giuffre’s groups of the early 60s.

The afternoon seemed to have been constructed, whether by design or accident, in a kind of ascending approach: from solo to duo to trio, and then to a full-blown big band, as the London Improvisers Orchestra took to the stage and beyond, sprawling out onto the floor below. Two hours might have seemed like overkill, given the usual chaotic nature of such large groupings, and the tendency to resort to conduction clichés in order to tame the unruly beast. In fact, though, the performance remained at a high standard throughout, the various conductors picking out particular players and groups of instruments and letting them do their thing for extended periods, rather than cutting them short before they’d had a chance to develop something. Choice combinations included the two-piano interplay of Steve Beresford and Veryan Weston, placed on either side of the stage, and the raucous trombones of Alan Tomlinson and Robin Jarvis. It all built up to the big climax, a short concerto for the festival’s ‘star performer’ Wadada Leo Smith, Dave Tucker stepping out of the orchestra ranks, where he’d been grinding out fierce swirls of sound from his guitar, to conduct. Any doubts as to whether Smith would be audible over the orchestra were soon dispelled; the question was more, would one be able hear the orchestra over his trumpet! His sound bounced off the space with a clarion force, but this wasn’t a tasteless, Maynard Ferguson display, for he played with an abundance of considered space between phrases, ending with a gorgeous muted passage over sombre, full ensemble chords. Great too to hear him sing and soar out over orchestral sections – strings, winds, horns – in passages reminiscent of the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra’s fantastic 2LP-set ‘Communications’. Louis Moholo-Moholo, in a corner with Javier Carmona (third drummer Tony Marsh was on the other side of the room) could be heard thumping with huge vigour, even when he hadn’t been cued in, as if anticipating his small-group set with Smith later on that day.

By now it was early evening, and there was, it seemed, hardly time to catch breath before proceedings resumed again. One of John Russell’s QuaQua groups – on this occasion, a septet – played mostly textural music, Chris Burn controlling his inside-piano rustlings with a volume pedal, saxophonist Stefan Keune concentrating on held, altissimo notes, and Satoko Fukada scratching away on violin (in contrast to her more classically-inflected work with Veryan Weston and Steve Beresford), though Henry Lowther plotted a more exclusively melodic course through things. The following trio was an enticing prospect: Leo Smith in an unusual pairing with two drummers, Louis Moholo and Steve Noble. There was potential here for a more overtly rhythmic approach than that we’d been hearing so far. Noble, is, of course, adaptable to pretty much any style, his undoubted improv pedigree mixed with the ability to play highly attractive rhythmic music that may or may not reference particular genres, while Moholo always brings an exuberance and enthusiasm to his playing, in whatever context. It may have taken a while for things to settle – this was, after all, a first-time musical meeting for the three men – but, by the time they’d all locked-in to each-other’s playing, they were able to create something very special indeed. Noble likes gongs and crashes and colour with bursts of on-the-beat playing; Moholo is content to stick to one aspect of his kit, or to click claves and whisper out loud to Smith, “no baby, no.” Smith puts his hand in his mouth and makes clicking, clucking noises, else crouches like the electric Miles, silhouetted black against the red back-light, surely deafening the front row with that sound...The first piece finishes on a note of perfect satisfaction, there has to be more: Smith announces music “to make the stars go to sleep,” then unfurls the most beautiful muted melodies. And it’s a melodicism that’s totally free of clichés, jazz or otherwise – a rare gift.

After such a superb set, what followed was bound to seem something of a let-down, but things went downhill quicker than expected. It has said that, in science, only the experiment that proves the hypothesis is ‘valid’, whereas in music, all experiments are valid. There are, though, occasions when things clearly just do not work, and the performance by SUM was one of these. Eddie Prévost on freebop drums, Ross Lambert on bull-headed guitar, and Seymour Wright actually producing recognisable notes from his saxophone, attempted a sort of skewed, improv look at jazz (they describe the group as a ‘total jazz trio’), but, this time at least, their playing ended up lacking the best qualities of both jazz and improv. Wright stubbornly stuck to a very small selection of notes, obsessively honking the simplest of motifs or shrieking in the extreme upper register of his instrument – free jazz with no sense of momentum, energy or intensity – while Lambert seemed unable to commit to any particular approach, sometimes throwing in jazz chords, sometimes throwing in a few Bailey-like harmonics, but, most crucially, leaving very little space in the music. Prévost came off best, manfully negotiating round the edges of bebop rhythms, but the music as a whole came across as ugly, static, stagnant – a real disappointment, given Wright’s superb, and very different, solo work, and the undoubted philosophical effort that all three players put into what they are doing. Perhaps that was the problem here: a kind of thought experiment with regards to the jazz tradition that didn’t translate into compelling music.

The final trio of Okkyung Lee, Peter Evans and Evan Parker was as expected: one felt that Evans was rather constricted by the kind of phrases Parker played, never really able to propel himself into the bold timbral investigations that had made his solo set so fascinating, while Lee was undermiked and, as in her duo with Lytton, rather pushed into the background of the music. Perhaps a circular-breathing duo, with Parker on soprano and Evans on trumpet, might have offered wider textural possibilities; on the other hand, it would have risked being even more predictable than the trio that did play. Perhaps I’m judging things by the wrong criteria, and as a technical exercise the set was impressive – but it never felt edge-of-the-seat enough for my liking. The musicians were listening to each other, but not pushing each other, not leaving the safe middle-ground which had been established from the outset.


I made my way back to the Conway Hall for the second day, having marked out as potential highlights sets by John Butcher, fURT with Adam Bohman and Ute Wassermann, and the return of Wadada Leo Smith. There were noticeably less audience members than on Sunday (though one might bear in mind that the massed ranks of the London Improvisers Orchestra probably bumped up the numbers significantly when they weren’t playing); nonetheless, the turnout was respectable.

Butcher was up first, paired with Mark Sanders. Anytime he plays, something absorbing is bound to happen, such is his control of his instrument and sense of the minute detail of the unfolding soundscape, and this performance did not disappoint. Given the history of saxophone/drum duos, it was refreshing that the music here never felt like free jazz, achieving its gripping pull on the listener through clarity of ideas rather than speed of execution or the laying down of virtuosic mountains of notes. Butcher opened on tenor, multiphonics imbuing the saxophone with an almost glowing sound, the upper reaches tempered by the lower notes’ burnished undertones. At first he played what was not quite a full melody, but a definite motif nonetheless, carefully structuring things by twice alternating this motif with another figure, before proceeding: a kind of opening invocation, a preliminary statement, a preparation. The performance then unfolded at a pace which one could almost describe as unhurried; but that turn of phrase suggests a kind of lazy relaxation very far from the close-listening, focussed intensity displayed by both musicians. Sanders used bells, bowls, mallets, displaying an often non-linear sense of rhythm that, given the context, was entirely appropriate, working in tandem with Butcher’s smearing, hovering, overlapping frequencies and textures.

After a ten-minute tenor section containing a sustained, crescendoing trill which played with space in a similar manner to Peter Evans the day before, Butcher switched to soprano, an instrument on which he adopted a number of sonic approaches: tongued, finger-slapped, almost percussive sounds that turned the notes away from their harmonic implications, while leaving tonal possibilities within reach; supple strings of notes, which might even have had some connection to conventional soprano sax jazz-isms, but which were peppered with harmonics; and, most strikingly, whistle-frequency sounds that called out with the force of wind, full of shrill urgency and near-physical presence.

The changeable weather outside came peeping through the partially-covered glass roof, the sun’s appearances and disappearances behind clouds seeming at times to mirror Butchers’ and Sanders’ alternations, entrances, and exits – as if in some subliminal or more overtly conscious way environmental conditions outside the building had influenced the performance (or maybe, thinking mystically, the improvisations influenced the weather!). That doesn’t mean that the performance was reduced to the merely imitative or illustrative modes of Romantic classical music, for improvisation’s concentration is on sound as sound, and on human interaction with instruments and with other humans playing them (rather than the translation into music of a lone composers’ inner feelings on seeing a landscape). Yet Butcher and Sanders did create a kind of tone poem, if we take that phrase up on its poetic implications, rather than as musical terminology: obliquely echoing, returning, departing, unfolding within a structure that seemed almost to create itself, participating in its own making rather than forcing more mobile elements into a restrictive, pre-existent mould. Their dialogue was respectful but not ‘polite’ : ‘solos’ , individual statements, were not look-at-me virtuoso displays arising from a false structural obligation, but appropriate opportunities for particular sonorities to be explored, new directions to emerge. One of the best performances of the festival.

A group who’d assembled at Eddie Prévost’s workshop were next to take the stage. These were not, in fact, some of its better-known participants – Prévost was the only musician on stage that I’d seen or heard of previously – but they appeared to share a dogged determination to avoid the timbral clichés associated with their respective instruments. Whereas Prévost was in ‘out jazz’ mode the previous day, here he was functioning as percussionist rather than drummer. Indeed, he could barely be called a percussionist as such, spending almost the entire set bowing a gong to produce ringing, sonorously eerie tones; his snare, the sole survivor of his drum kit, remained unused except when he unfastened it, turned it upside down and used the faint wash of its sympathetic vibrations to feather another bowed metal surface he’d placed atop it. The group’s performance refused the sort of structure that was clearly in play even in Butcher’s radical re-examination of the possibilities of his instrument (though baritone saxophonist Dave O’Connor was surely influenced by Butcher at least in part; in fact, his playing was even more stripped down to the essentials of breath and tongue and flesh on metal, in and through air). Instead, there was very little linear movement through and towards narrative or signposted ‘event’, even if there was an almost continuous succession of sounds, with little actual silence. Though overt ‘interaction’ was avoided (in the sort of call and response, mimicking-of-each-other’s lines approach that comes more out of jazz), the music was still about exchange: Jennifer Allum seemed to play her violin more as tapped, scratched percussion than as a stringed instrument, while Prévost played his ‘percussion’ like a droning string. Grundik Kasyansky’s electronics were the loudest element in the mix, but sudden bursts of noise, indicative of the approach he could have taken, were held back for the most part, emerging as sporadic spasms and muffled radio string music. A pebble dropped off the edge of the stage after an age during which he held it poised in the air imparted a rather desultory moment of ‘drama’; the players’ stillness and tight-lipped expressions have become de rigueur for such music-making, it seems, and there is at times a slight feeling of stasis, the lack of a certain momentum. By this I don’t mean momentum in the overt free jazz sense, which is irrelevant here, but I do feel that the music can become poised rather uneasily between quietude and something more wrenchingly physical. Perhaps such music is not best suited to the concert environment, more to a small, private (workshop) space, where there’s less pressure for something to ‘happen’. And the aim of such art is not to create a ‘work’ but to be part of a continuing dialogue, the continuing exploration of sound for which Prévost’s workshop has become such an essential part.

The following set was billed as fURT with Ute Wassermann and Adam Bohman – an enticing prospect, given fURT’s wrenching, sped-up electronics, Bohman’s maverick table-top assemblage of crunchy junk and resonant bowed glass, and Wassermann’s ‘birdtalking’ (neither quite like speech nor quite like traditional ‘singing’, the latter is a truly expressive use of the voice, retaining its ‘otherness’ from man-made instruments, but with a versatility more generally associated with instruments than with the pure power of the lungs). In the event, Richard Barrett wasn’t able to make the gig, and was replaced by Paul Obemayer’s band-mate from Bark!, the drummer Phil Marks. Ironically, the drum-set didn’t have quite the same percussiveness the extra electronics would have provided – the sounds are more conventional, less abrasive – though Marks did have an infectious kid-on-a-candy-rush energy which fitted well with the music’s jagged sound-worlds and scampering, flittering, manic intensity.

On this second day, much of the afternoon session (and indeed the evening as well) was dominated by inside-piano players: we had three or four pianists all ‘working to extend the parameters of the instrument’ (Sebastian Lexer is always billed as ‘piano+’), in a manner documented by a recent series on the Another Timbre record label. Yet what resulted seemed to be that they all used the same bag of tricks, seduced by the growling, very lowest notes of the Bosendorfer (so low they have a kind of electronic, clanging sound to them, which must surely have been attractive to players interested in the interplay between acoustic and electric sounds), and by the harmonious, high-pitched hum of e-bows held over piano strings (which tend to create a rather deadening ambient cloud that sets the direction for several minutes at least, rendering interaction and change less easy to facilitate, and the texture as a whole more predictable, if superficially quite attractive). To play notes or even phrases on the keyboard itself would have seemed moreunconventional in such a context. Lexer probably had the best of it, his bell-like tones and occasional, vaguely Feldmanesque chords, modulated with a faint touch of lingering electronic echo, slotting quite nicely with Jamie Coleman’s inward trumpet, which, though always on the verge of melancholy, never wallowed in it or meandered through a generalised ‘blueness’. Meanwhile, electronics man Pascal Battus both functioned as percussionist (banging his hands on a mic’d-up table to create a propulsive crescendo, and amplifying his own neck pulse via contact mic, for example) and filled the more expected role of noise-maker/scrabbling texturalist. I do have some reservations about the (over)use of contact mics by electronic practitioners – it gives an edge to its amplified sounds which can become rather wearing – but Battus mostly steered clear of cliché.

The Stellari String Quartet (Philipp Waschmann/ Charlotte Hug/ Marcio Mattios/ John Edwards) were very fine, as expected. Interesting to note this group alongside another all-string ensemble featuring Waschmann, the Oxford-based quintet Squint, who I also heard at a recent gig; both set-ups obviously have a strong textural similarity with contemporary classical music, with the Stellaris perhaps less inclined to linger over melodic sections, more inclined to spark simultaneous firing-on-all-cylinders from each musician. Edwards forsook his more usual snapping, roaring hardman free jazz role (at which he excels) for sympathetic bowing alongside Mattos (whose approach I found much more nuanced and varied than that of Okkyung Lee); Hug, the group’s founder, seemed to favour sustained playing of all the viola’s strings at once, using a specially-developed bow that curves over and round the instrument’s body. Waschmann, meanwhile, came out with half-melodic suggestions, reminiscent of 12-tone contours, that did not preclude insistent scrapes and glissandi; at one point, he moved the violin away from his neck and held it slightly forward from his body, furiously bowing with greater and greater ferocity as he leaned towards the other members of the group, as if attempting to force – indeed, insisting on - a collective change of direction. Textural meshes and overall cohesion did not preclude individuals suddenly launching off into new directions, even bullish ones, such as this, and the Quartet held one’s interest throughout their performance.

It was Leo Smith’s return that rounded out the evening, and once more he proceeded to play some of the best music of the night. The quintet in which he was involved mixed players from several different generations and traditions, and it wasn’t at all clear beforehand what strategies they might try and find to negotiate these: the programme notes, in their attempt to predict what might happen, tried to place Alex Ward and John Coxon as ‘post-modern’ improvisers, liable to reference any number of genres in their playing, with Smith and Pat Thomas as more connected to a tonal, American jazz tradition. (I’m not sure that description doesn’t fall victim to some kind of unconscious racial-musical stereotyping, dividing up the younger, white players from the older, black ones. In any case, attempts to draw lines between the musicians in this way will inevitably be inaccurate, race or not: for example, Thomas’ electronics are more in line with Coxon’s noisy guitar than with jazz, and his piano playing has a good deal of ‘contemporary classical’ to it.) None of these players (the fifth member of the group was Paul Lytton) are known as anything other than confident, individualistic musicians, and the results were consequently loud and raucous, as every one went for it at once, forcing each-other to a potentially dangerous level of noise from the off and barely letting up. Particularly by the rousing climax of the second piece, Ward had joined up with Smith’s trumpet to form a kind of crazy New Orleans combo, though more as part of the overall texture than as any kind of frontline (Ward’s playing also had a touch of klezmer to it, while Smith seemed intent on bringing down the walls of Jericho). Coxon’s guitar was used in all manner of different ways: turned on its back and tapped as an impromptu drum, scratched and scraped, noise-rock style, wrapped in carefully-controlled feedback, treated to ringing harmonic chords from the Bailey school, and unexpectedly, sounding out strongly melodic propositions that were quickly joined by Thomas’ piano: a fine use of neo-idiomatic texture in a way that felt genuine, arising from the music and the moment rather than from any kind of superficial ‘post-modernity’. And Lytton, of course, was right there with them all. On being informed that everyone had to be out of the building by 11, Smith fulfilled the audience’s requests for an encore by playing what may be the shortest piece ever heard at a free improv concert: “1/2 a second” in his words. One brief stab from the full ensemble and – BOOM – Freedom of the City was over for 2010. And worthwhile it was too. Bring on 2011!

Note on Youtube Footage of performances from Freedom of the City Festival 2010

Several individuals were filming and taking photographs of the event; it was also recorded for the BBC (presumably to be broadcast on the show’s more left-field jazz show, Jazz on 3, probably in excerpt form), and, we may hope that some of the performances might also make their way onto CD releases by Emanem, Matchless or Treader. The footage that’s made its way onto youtube generally has fairly decent sound quality, though the picture quality does leave something to be desired. With several different people uploading the videos they’ve taken, there’s inevitably going to be some overlap: for example, at least ten different videos of the Leo Smith sets are available. Probably the easiest way to go about things is to click on the user accounts of those who’ve uploaded the videos (for which see links below), and to work one’s way through what’s available.

* ‘shuffleboil’ –
* Helen Petts –
* ‘dzgast’ –