Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Nut Cracker

Wandelweiser/ Fluxus : Concept As Score
Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 17.02.2011

Angharad Davies (violin) Rhodri Davies (electronic harp, nutcracker, paper) Tim Parkinson (piano) / The SET Ensemble: Dominic Lash (bass, nutcracker, paper), David Stent (electric guitar, paper), Bruno Guastalla (cello, nutcracker, paper), Paul Whitty (accordion, nutcracker, paper), Patrick Farmer (drum, acoustic guitar, nutcracker), Sarah Hughes (autoharp, nutcracker)

After attending this gig, I was away for a few days, and thus haven’t had get a chance to write it up until now; perhaps that's a good thing, as it's allowed my thoughts to settle, even if I might have lost some of the more specific details of my immediate impressions. The slight time lag has also enabled to research some of the conceptual pieces that were performed on the night, tracking down the instructions/scores (although, in the end, most of the 'information' needed came across in the performances – it's not as if there was some magical 'key' that allows one to unlock the puzzling 'mystery' of the pieces, and they seem fairly transparent/accessible in any case). And finally, those extra few days have allowed me to read Richard Pinnell's review of the gig (posted at 'The Watchful Ear'). As with his review of the Michael Pisaro 'Mind is Moving' event, we both appear to have noticed similar details and moments in the music, so it might seem rather pointless for me to post my take as well. In fact, though, I'd like to draw out elements of Richard’s analysis into some broader argumentative threads which will, hopefully, prove useful ground for debate.

That will take us down some side-tracks, however, so I’ll begin by examining the concert itself. Part of a three-day festival organized by the Sonic Art Research Unit at Oxford Brookes University, it paired Fluxus scores from the 60s with modern-day conceptual pieces by composers associated with the Wandelweiser group. This marked only the second time that the full version of the SET Ensemble had performed in a public location, having previously concentrated on private house concerts; on this occasion their ranks were further swelled by the addition of Rhodri and Angharad Davies and Tim Parkinson. Consequently, there was a fairly sizeable ensemble on stage (as well as the smaller configurations within this); nonetheless, things remained quiet throughout, and the ‘loudest’ part of the evening – a composition for violin and piano by Tim Parkinson – occupied nothing more than the decibel levels of an average classical concert.

There’s a particular kind of tension about enforcing restraint within larger groups, and, at times, one senses that a kind of competition is taking place, to see not who can play hardest, fastest, longest, loudest, but who can play least, quietest, last. This became particularly apparent in the more conceptual pieces; the first item on the programme, a new composition by Radu Malfatti, focused more on a collective ensemble sound, taking full advantage of the range of instrumental textures available. Strings merged with e-bowed guitar and electronic harp, Tim Parkinson’s strummed strings down at the lower end of the piano adding an undulating, palpable background shimmer that was almost as much sensed at the edge of perception as heard outright. Given the title (‘Heikou’), I thought we might have some arrangement that reflected the structure of haiku poetry; as it was, the relation of title to composition remained more cryptic, drones alternating with silences in four barely movements differentiated by little other than the musicians turning the pages in their scores. It was a nice-sounding piece, if conceptually rather too well-worn to make much of an impression; nonetheless, it functioned well as an introduction, establishing a particular atmosphere and necessitating a particular mode of listening.

Following this came the first of the evening’s Fluxus performances, Bengt af Klintberg’s ‘Orange Event Number 24’. Less reverential, more consciously absurd than the Malfatti, it nonetheless took place within the same aesthetic, perhaps due to the score’s focus on silence: “Stay for a long time in a room in which there is silence. Breathe silently, move silently if you choose. At a time that you choose yourself, crack a nut.” In this realization, the performers moved off the stage to come and sit amongst and near the audience. Having taken up various individual positions (Whitty standing in the passage between main floor and doorway; Lash and Hughes on opposite sides of the stage; Davies higher up in the hall; etc), they then remained in poses of concentration and stillness, each eventually taking up the nutcracker they had placed beside them and fulfilling the score’s instructions. Here we saw the competitive aspect for the first time: who would be the last to ‘crack’, who could remain the longest time without making a sound? One sensed also that this was a kind of social experiment, testing the politeness of the audience (a prominent cough at the start of the Malfatti had been loudly shhh’d), as well as the tendency for serious contemplation to descend into giggles and absurdity. It’s that fine line, between the respectful and the ridiculous, that perhaps differentiates Wandelweiser from Fluxus, which has room for the former, but tends towards the latter (and towards the one-liner) – thus, it felt more appropriate to sneak a smile and a side-ways glance during this, and the following George Brecht piece, than it did during the Wandelweiser works. Nonetheless, the room did not descend into giggles, and the silence was maintained, as it turned out, for a further ten minutes, as Rhodri Davies and Lash took to the stage to perform Sarah Hughes’ ‘for Rilke’. Lash’s impressive ability to stand stock-still while holding his bass has been refined through the several SET Ensemble performances of the last year or so; Davies was similarly immobile for the most part, although he did occasionally glance across at his duo partner, as if questioning who should make the first sonic move. Eventually, he let slip a single e-bowed tone, sustained and rising in volume (but not too much) for several minutes; Lash, meanwhile, plucked a smaller sound from his bass that echoed in the naturally reverberant, high-ceiling’d acoustic of the Holywell before vanishing again, as if enveloped by the higher-pitched drone. I guess there’s a certain fragility to these kind of conceptual pieces that depends very much on the particular circumstances of the performance; nonetheless, and though I’m not sure for precisely what reasons, this one came off well.

One other segment before the interval; this being in some ways, and despite appearances, the most conventionally ‘musical’ item of the night, as well as one of the most visually arresting and jokily amusing. George Brecht’s ‘for a drummer (fluxusversion 2’) reads: “Drum with sticks over a leaking feather pillow, making the feathers escape the pillow.” Patrick Farmer placed a small table in the middle of the floor; on the table was the pillow, and in the pillow were two vertical rips, out of which peaked handfuls of feathers. The setup was completed by the pair of drumsticks in Farmer’s hands, with which he proceeded to unleash a virtuoso drumming display, keeping up fast rhythms while also striving to strike the pillow at points which would cause the maximum possible number of feathers to escape onto the floor. The sonic qualities of a pillow are, as one might expect, rather muffled and dead, but the feathers billowed out nicely, and one got enough of a sense of the kind of patterns that were being played for satisfactory listening. This was a piece that didn’t outstay its welcome; soon the pillow was emptied, falling upended on the floor to reveal the copy of The Guardian newspaper which had been protecting the wooden table underneath. Upon reflection, it had been a well-balanced first half, offsetting the seriousness of the Malfatti and Hughes with the more playful elements of the 60s Fluxus scores – and the Brecht was a nicely ‘upbeat’ way to finish it.

In total, this was a fairly lengthy concert – a good 90 minutes, at least; not too much of a surprise, then, to see the auditorium empty by more than half during the intermission. Tim Parkinson’s piece for violin and piano, played by the composer and his wife, Angharad Davies, seemed less broadly conceptual, more thoroughly through-composed, than anything else we’d heard on the evening; presumably, however, it was based on some kind of specific (mathematical?) system. Figures that sounded something like scales and exercises were played in unison and alternation by both instruments, with lengthier solo episodes for violin taking on a slightly more expansive melodic edge. On the whole, the music was played with a rather dry quality that seemed to amount to a deliberate avoidance of emotional connotations, even if its tonality was more conventional than the post-12-tone language of much modern classical music. A few minutes of this were attractive enough, but as similar patterns and figures kept recurring, it felt as if space was being filled without much new being said; for me, the piece could have done with being half the length, and it lacked the improvisational edge of the more open conceptual pieces with which it shared the programme. During Ben Patterson’s ‘Paper Piece’, I benefited from being able to peek at the score as it was being performed; thus, a random spectacle of grave-looking men tearing up strips of paper one by one was transformed into an interplay between system and interpretation, and a study of group dynamics. Each of the five performers is given a specific number of pieces of newspaper, tissue paper, card, etc; they then select items from a list of different ways of tearing and manipulating the paper, mark these on their sheets, and then go through the list at their individual chosen pace. The consequence of this freedom was that, while four of the musicians finished at roughly the same time, Bruno Guastalla suddenly found himself alone, with half his pile to complete. He continued, however, at the same pace, apparently unworried by suddenly being the centre of attention, which made for a rather dignified ending. Hard to judge the piece in terms of its sonic quality, though this was probably as wide a variety of sounds as is possible to get from sheets of paper; nonetheless, if one took it on terms of spectacle and ‘performance’ as a general category, it was, again, a nicely-done piece.

The final item on the programme: Stephan Thut’s ‘many 1-4’. I believe this is a variation on an earlier text score, entitled ‘some’: the musicians can choose any two combinations of ‘x’ and ‘y’, where x=sound and y=noise, playing these at ‘some’ point over an unspecified period. The SET ensemble took this to mean very long silences, pin-pricked with tiny sounds (although there were some more sustained moments, such as Paul Whitty’s held accordion note and Angharad Davies’ slow sliding of her violin bow along the wooden surface of her instrument).

I’m not going to comment on the work as such, which was, as it turns out, rather overshadowed by the environmental sounds that took place behind/within/alongside it; instead, it’s here that I’d like to take up a point made by Richard Pinnell in relation to this particular realization of the piece. In particular, I’d like to address the contrast he draws between beautiful, minimal sounds and silence, and the crass, noisy, brutal world outside.

“It wasn’t that external sounds were present as much as precisely which external sounds. It seemed as if this little group of musicians, and the few of us watching were a little bubble of calm and consideration in a world full of ugly, vociferous crudeness. It wasn’t too difficult to bring myself to bear on the contributions of the musicians and try and zone out the intrusions, but for a while at least this fifteen minute or so experience seemed to sum up so much of what I feel about modern life.”

This notion of art as cocoon or contrast to the nasty outside world is one I have some problems with, for I believe that art is more implicated and caught within the webs and structures of that world than is often acknowledged; indeed, one might ask what, precisely, it is that this world is ‘outside’ (outside us in our little nooks and crannies and cubby-holes?), and argue that there is no world ‘outside’ that world in which music, and art, is created, in which we have our social being – art does not have access to ‘eternal’ truths in some supernatural, a-social sense (though of course it does have changing meanings over time).

After the student protests of late 2010, I mulled over some ideas about how art might tie in with the spirit of resistance and excitement that briefly flared during those months (and which is currently flaring, far more brightly, in Egypt and across the Arab world), concluding that one might view the separate studio and performance spaces in which 'avant-garde art' happens as laboratories, sites for experiment in which new modes and ways of being and relating and creating and making and sharing can be explored, can be tested out, away from the strictures and routines of the world of work and routine and the triumph of neo-liberalism. In that sense, my view would seem to tie in with Richard's; at the same time (and I think this ties in with some of the points I was beginning to articulate in my previous post on the Pisaro gig), I'm a little worried by the way in which critics and fans of the Wandelweiser group, and related tendencies in free improvisation/composition, seem at times to espouse something approaching dangerously close to an ivory-tower aesthetic in some of their statements. I half-wonder if this is because much of the impetus behind Wandelweiser et al comes from the classical world, rather than the jazz lineage of, for want of a better term, European Free Improvisation. Of course, the historical lineage is not that simple, as I've argued before; furthermore, Wandelweiser is still quite a small movement, relatively speaking, both in terms of widespread critical attention and in terms of size of venues, audiences, numbers of record-buyers, etc. Nonetheless, free improv, with its background in the back-rooms of pubs, its working-class, entertainment-industry-schooled pioneers (Derek Bailey), and its connections to African-American musical traditions and all the political and racial connotations that brings, seems to me to have a 'grit' to it that the newer, post-Cageian, silence-focused musics do not. At times they can seem almost prissy, which is certainly not the case with Cage's own work: think of the uproarious Musicircus, or the connections to Fluxus and its anarchic political visions, or the babble and chatter of the radio music. (For that reason, bringing together Wandelweiser and Fluxus and showing what they have in common, as the concert under consideration did, was a particularly valuable manoeuvre. And yet, and yet…)

I admire the way that much recent criticism (Richard's in particular) exhibits a determination to be honest about the role played by one's personal preferences in making critical judgments. This does not mean a simple 'I like record X because it like sine tones, and I don't like record Y because I don't like free jazz'; instead, an attempt is made to grasp and understand one's preferences, even as one does not simply pretend they do not exist and play some role in one's listening. Neither does one pretend to a standard of objectivity which is actually just personal preference smuggled in under an ideological or taste-making guise (I'm thinking here of the sort of borderline racist jazz criticism analyzed by LeRoi Jones in 'Jazz and the White Critic'). At the same time, there is a danger that such honesty can at times shade over into ideological judgments which might do with some further examination. While the inclusion of silence would seem to follow from Cage's 4'33", along with the attendant focus on environmental, 'accidental' and found sounds as a valid and valuable part of the musical experience (which renders 4'33" as much a piece of 'noise music' as a 'silent piece'), it seems that a grammar, or vocabulary has developed in the past fifteen years or so, as to precisely which extraneous sounds are allowed in silences. Permitted human sounds, or sounds associated with human activity are sirens, the muffled rumble of urban traffic, creaking chairs, the occasional sounds of movement to let us know that the audience is still alive and breathing; permitted natural sounds are things like rain or hail or wind. This is a space oddly poised between being a separated, sealed-off, isolation chamber in which beautiful sounds and silences can unfold in peace, and being somewhere in which the door is left half open to let certain 'ambient' sounds trickle in, something of the 'outside world' to emerge (though nothing to frighten the horses).

Silence, as much as it exists at all (remember Cage’s visit to the anechoic chamber? (“until I die there will be sounds”)), and as it is used in music, contains a dialectic. It at once forces a focus on specific, physical details of being human - breathing, bodily rhythm - and demands a reduction, or exclusion, of the more social and noisier elements of living. It is a shared experience for the devoted few, creating, to some extent, a communal space in which relations that are social as much as musical can be explored and created, but also excluding those people who lack the ‘sophistication’ to appreciate the virtues of quiet, sustained drones and ten-minute motionless pauses. There is always a danger point in artistic, cultural, political movements, in which the initial rush of creation and discovery and innovation risks stalling, going no further, becoming just as entrenched as that which it sought to replace; and thus, though I enjoyed Thursday's concert, finding it valuable, and inspiring, and exciting in many respects, I also find myself wary of certain aspects of Wandelweiser that I feel may be too easily overlooked in the almost overwhelmingly positive coverage that this music has been receiving. Returning to Richard’s point, I would have to admit that I, too, would have preferred the final piece if it had not been accompanied throughout by drunken pub sing-alongs. But at the same time I find myself thinking of music as a valuably social, communal thing in which collective singing, familiar melody, the sense of camaraderie and shared experience, are an essential and vital part of folk traditions; yes, of course, that feeling can be co-opted by undesirable elements, and yes, manufactured pop songs might not be quite the same thing as the oral inheritance of anonymous ballads and tales, but I’m pretty sure we weren’t listening to an EDL or BNP rally next-door – it was just a pub sing-along. In any case, how were the ‘singers’ to know that a roomful of 30 people or so were busily trying to listen to long silences, just across the road? Such a question may seem trivial; yet it forces us to ask one that's far more difficult: namely, 'just where exactly is it that this music is situated?', and that’s a hard nut to crack.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

“Get Thee to a Nunnery”: Michael Pisaro's ‘Mind is Moving’ at The Nunnery (Bow Arts Centre), London, 12/02/11

Jennifer Allum (violin), Rebecca Dixon (cello), Dominic Lash (double bass), Henri Växby (guitar), Jamie Coleman (trumpet), Tim Parkinson (voice).

Michael Pisaro’s star has been rising recently – at least, his work has become a frequent subject of discussion within improv circles, and there’s been an increase in the frequency with which his works are performed (albeit in small and sparsely-attended venues). What this means in relation to the usual connotations of ‘rising stars’ is harder to judge; and, indeed, one of the main points of interest with Pisaro, and other composers and performers associated with the Wandelweiser group, is the fact that they are hard to place within pre-determined narratives and positions. Thus, Radu Malfatti comes from a background playing ‘high-energy’ free jazz, while Pisaro assumes the role of ‘academic composer’ (he teaches at CalArts); but it doesn’t seem strange to discuss their works in the same sentence. Of course, this closeness has always existed (AMM, Musica Elettronica Viva and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza come to mind), contra the journalistic method of building up and stratifying divisions which are not nearly as important to the practitioners of the music themselves as to critics and ‘taste-makers’. Nonetheless, there is a definite sense that something new is afoot, given the way that Malfatti, Pisaro et al straddle clear-cut lines between ‘modern classical composition’ and ‘free improvisation’, finding common aesthetic ground within both camps.

The ‘Mind is Moving’ series is actually a fairly early work, dating from 1996, and it’s interesting to come to it, in a new ensemble ‘arrangement’, on the back of the ‘hype’ of the past couple of years. At the same time, it’s hard to disentangle serious critical consideration from what might seem almost petty concerns relating to the physical circumstances of attending a continuous three-hour concert performance on a British winter’s evening.

Performances like these come to seem like endurance tests, not just because of the extreme length, but because of the details of the music itself, which, rather than ‘moving forward’, alternates between non-developmental drones, staccato plucks and bursts, and lengthy silences, or near-silences. Furthermore, the fact that what we were actually witnessing was the simultaneous performance of several separate solo works added to the ‘severity’ of the aesthetic: just as a particularly gorgeous swelling concord between several different instruments was reached, one voice would suddenly drop out, introducing an abrupt change in texture. This was not music that one could easily relax into, as can be the case with more ‘blissed-out’ drone material, but neither was it an exuberant, chaotic Fluxus happening. Despite the softness and the quietness, the simultaneity was something jagged and uncompromising, to which the listener had to adjust themselves –to move their minds to the movement of the music. Once this happens, once that shift occurs and everything clicks into place, it’s amazing – but it may take a slightly uncomfortable half-hour or more for that to happen.

Yesterday’s performance, as I experienced it, fell into something like three sections, one for each hour. The first contained more ‘ensemble’ playing – overlapping drones in concord and gentle discord, the preponderance of stringed instruments giving something of the feel of La Monte Young’s early Trio for Strings. The second saw the piece start to unravel, to spread and splay out, to become more sparse – and at the same time, the audience began to grow more fidgety, people moving about and leaving or arriving, the ritual of creaking wooden floorboards and the shuffling retrieval of bags from under seats coming to take on the feel, almost, of a kind of slow-motion dance, an integral part of the piece. Ross Lambert’s uncorking of the lid of his thermos flask, and subsequent pouring of small portions of steaming coffee, seemed deliberate, even staged, as if the music was there to accompany a kind of updated, low-key tea ceremony. In some ways this was welcome, imbuing the audience with a sense of participation, heightening the sense of occasion and the social/ ritualistic function of the music; but it was also the section I enjoyed the least, finding it hard to get into the lengthening silences, irritation at the way these silences were filled with the distant echo of voices and various other creaks and thuds, visual disjunct between the sounds I was hearing and the garish, Pop-Arty exhibition pieces on the walls and floor (a pink canvas with silver lettering that read ‘my subconscious drove me’; a giant free-standing cut-out decorated with the Stars and Stripes), and, most importantly (perhaps leading to all of the above), physical discomfort from sitting for hours in a hard plastic chair as the room got steadily colder. This stage is probably inevitable when one is faced with a concert ‘marathon’ (I’ve no idea how audience and performers coped with the 12-hour Wandelweiser show up in Glasgow last month) – and it was, arguably, the necessary preamble to the final section on the night, filled with long, long silences in which the audience finally breathed in unison with the performers, even the traffic outside dying away to just a murmur. Eyes closed; bass plucks giving a body to various drones, only to echo out again, leaving the initial sound modified, yet the same; guitar strings maintaining and sustaining their sounds as they were struck with a vibrating HB pencil; a cello tone held for a beautiful age, harmonics ringing and singing and mourning and keening; Jamie Coleman’s trumpet now muted, lending a plaintive jazz inflection (through single notes and timbre rather than through any specifically jazz phrases); rougher violin bow scrape; spoken words, sounded single and separate, sometimes coalescing into a story or poem, or a suggestion of such – names – hints at phrases – ‘historicism’, ‘angel’, ‘Louis’ – often audible only as acoustic presence, as a half-heard signifier without the signified; vocality as only semi-linguistic expression, semantic in a musical sense.

Applause followed quickly on the end of the piece, and everyone had to hurry out of the building (some people probably wanted to get away as soon as they could in any case); one almost felt that it would have been more appropriate simply to end in silence and drift away more quietly, rather than snapping out of that mood which the room had shared during that final hour or so. I’ve no idea how the event would come out on a recording (I noticed a Zoom tucked away behind a chair, so presumably some sort of permanent document does exist); to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have much patience listening back on a home stereo, but it felt important to make the step up from the hour-long live Wandelweiser performances I’d heard previously, to one of three times the length.

That’s the main body of the report out of the way, I suppose, but there are still a few more questions, raised by the concert, which I’d like to consider before concluding. In his liner notes to the CD release of ‘Mind is Moving I’ (as played by Pisaro himself on guitar), Jürg Frey notes that, apart from the ‘regular’ guitar notes themselves, "in this music other things quite simply turn up: like the occasional whistling or soft scraping of the strings; not effects, but pure matters of course. Perhaps there is here the faintest reminiscence of the image of a folk singer, who whistles along with his guitar playing, and uses the noises to clarify the rhythm." For me, that kind of idiomatic register wasn’t really present in the realisation of the work that I heard yesterday, and what struck me about the whistling was the fact that it was part of the written score: the notation of accident, or, if not precisely of accident, of material that might normally be considered ‘incidental’ to the ‘proper musical substance’, the ‘meat’ of a piece. One might say that there are two levels to the score: first, the notated material, which, though it will vary according to the musicians’ control in playing – for example, how well they can sustain a held forty-second tone on trumpet – remains broadly the same, set up, as it is, within certain, fairly strict parameters; and secondly, the material that arises from the physical circumstances of the performance location. This latter element may only emerge at certain, relatively brief moments (and can be edited out entirely during studio recordings); nonetheless, it can prove important. During yesterday’s performance, for example, there were plenty of low volume sections in which the score actually took a back seat to the environment accidentals around it. Some of the very quiet sounds that peppered the near-silent portions of the collective realisation (short, pp or ppp single notes) were barely louder than the ‘incidental’ sounds which invariably fill such silences in live performances of Wandelweiser material (muffled traffic roar, people’s chairs and clothes creaking and rustling, their stomachs rumbling, their throats clearing), and one might argue that the (notated) whistling had, at times, less of a presence than audience member Eddie Prévost’s rhythmic rubbing-together of his hands to keep them warm. Prévost is, of course, a musician, and perhaps this hand-rubbing (which occurred several times throughout the concert) was a kind of cheeky musical contribution, smuggled into the space on the sly. After all, the lesson we’ve learned from Cage’s 4’33” is that all the material, sonic and otherwise, that is present within the performing space, is part of that particular interpretation of the piece. Of course, there are ‘undesirables’ which one might want to filter out (the excessive coughing that marks concerts of classical music during any moment of quiet, for example) – and yet, perhaps, the attitude towards this has remained somewhat uncritical. For every moment of coincidental magic (rain on a resonant roof, a strategically-placed police siren) there are numerous other longueurs, in which the typical sounds of an urban environment come to seem clichés of the music, despite the fact that they all come from ‘outside’ the control of the performers.

Frey, once more, seems to disagree: "Many pieces created today are written for specific places or opportunities (whether for the concert hall or a special performance), and then fulfill the function intended for them in that place. However, in a piece like mind is moving (I) the prevailing impression is that the piece itself must first create the site where it can sound[…]The piece[…]creates, all by itself, over the course of its long resounding, its own site: a place where it can Jive." Maybe this is true when referring to a recording, but it hardly seems realistic when one considers the typical circumstances of a live performance – and, indeed, even the circumstances of listening back to a recording (where does one listen? in a comfortable arm-chair with noise-reducing headphones? on a walkman in a crowded street? in the background while surfing the internet?). There is no such thing as the ‘pure’ work, only something that exists in the world, which it modifies and is modified by. Perhaps, then, it would make more sense to come to a synthesis of the two positions: what occurs is not exactly the creation of a new site (a bloody-minded imposition on a previously-existing space), nor is it a situation in which the music is placed helplessly at the whims of environmental accident. Instead, it is a play, a dialogue, an argument or collaboration between the space and the music that takes place within it. And while I’m a little uncomfortable with the way in which experimental work like this gets sequestered away into the pristine, cloistered space of the white-walled art-gallery and arts venue, I must admit that the Nunnery proved very much conducive to such spatial exploration.