Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Kruk / Scozzaro / Chalmers

The poets Frances Kruk, Connie Scozzaro and Christina Chalmers have poems in the recent trans-atlantic virtual poetry mag The Claudius App (V). Having seen all three read the work printed here, relatively recently –different readings, in different cities, of these different texts – differently prickly and differently energizing in all sorts of different ways – it’s nice to see them in the same place, though I have a feeling they’ll be overlooked in the wake of lengthier E-mail Theory Spectaculars or the work of ‘bigger’ names. Would only, also, that the App were printable, not entirely enmeshed in its on-screen graphix scene…But anyway, here’s some sort of canned capsule synopsis stuff.

[1] Kruk’s work, sections of an untitled poem, is crabbed and cramped and dense with implication and suggestion and a biting humour, a humour that is never safe, whose bite renders it not really humour at all, exactly; it’s not ‘light’, or mocking in contempt; it might bite your leg off, like the “dog” “you” are, but never as a polemicized aggression; it’s more sly, harder to read than that, tho’ not out of any moral evasion – its ethical commitment doesn’t waver. Who is the target of address, who is being put down by whom? Who are You? “You’re a dog. / And the mangy kind [...] / busy dreaming you’re no dog / gob you slave into the plague.” The jammed-impacted lines crab out on a carefully wrought, sharp assonance, a dog becoming a mouth and a ragged carrier of disease; this dog that could be the dog you say your enemy is, capitalist pig, god of war, or the dog that these masters make you, the “slave” who is part of a plague-ridden and -carrying mass of workers made animal, a “killed” “fool” damp with spittle, reduced to a drooling “nil” who dreams of a “no place” and whose self is eaten by inculcated linguistic values, the words for ‘you’ you don’t control - “those words you / Thought were yours but now they eat you / now they eat you now they / Bring you and they x you” - eaten as and by pie charts, as “data-packed / False triangles,” bleeding jam blood, “Jam / at the gates. / Red in black at every entrance”, “super-nerved- & data-wired,” one of those ghosts of the dead whose rest (as per Walter Benjamin and as per voodoo) can or has never be settled in justice, can never be safe, recycled into cycles of consumption and quasi-cannibalism of labour murder and exploitation, the administration and organisation of death: “dotted lines every time / & no not even the dead are safe.”

[2] OK: Scozzaro’s humour comes from a different frame of reference, to Kruk’s, or take on that frame, a consideration of the impact of labour on daily living and on sex and on gender relations: it undermines or complicates or ironizes or makes bathetic a statement that somehow nonetheless remains sincere – goes for the same kind of register or affect as the Shaggs song its title, ‘What is Parents’, half-references, but without turning that into a knowing naïvete or scorn for the real stuff that gets expressed badly, or ‘well’, within the formal frameworks the Shaggs inhabit. Perhaps the comparison doesn’t go much further than that; it doesn’t; but e.g. what I mean is that the poem can say that the Incredible String Band “play their instruments / well” as a joke or a near-joke, and really mean it at the same time; ‘well’ here isn’t just a put-down indicating some practiced corporate ‘success’, just as “we fuck really well because I love you so much” needn’t be a sneer. The voice that speaks these poems, not quite a single or singular self, is one that works with/in the daily frustrations that make the “heart” an object in a game, a domino – “the heart is a domino, stacked in a line of many,” queuing in a line for a handout, for money or food, ‘stacked’ like some object on a supermarket shelf, as part of a collective of equally rent individuals living within the real drudge of a despairing bathos in which “your rented flat” and “this table” become substitutes for the “paradise” of the settled bourgeois home You Should Have; the heart, itself a metaphor for some feeling felt as bodily and mental but not acceptable or accepted, not happy as a normal or comfortable happiness, happy within structures of normative or ground-down feeling: “What is / working when you have no end for it […] most people ask me why aren’t you happy / like they’re happy, their spirits bent in the shape of a / smile.”

[3] Chalmers’ ‘Hell, Realism’, full-on political-personal mash/mesh. In form the run-on, or off, to the end of the prose-enclosed line, internal rhyme, a block of text unpunctuated, would seem almost the opposite to Kruk’s shorn bursts, though often there’s a similar sonic patterning. “this is not pre-political is not post-political” - wants to shout out against that which would close it down, “that which co-opts collective resistance, “collaps[ing] into the bourgeois public sphere.” Here the language of, say, Marxist political activism or a more academy-enclosed, tho’ still political ‘theory’ bursts out into, again, daily lives lived under and within and through labour, communication breakdown: “there is no expectation in love / and conversation.” Labouring or laboured bodies become actors, like the actors in Blanqui’s ‘Eternite par les Astres’, that vision of the cosmos as a theatre in which is enacted the eternal return of a nineteenth-(say now twentieth- or twenty-first century) bourgeois hell, in Chalmers’ version as actors who can’t even remember their lines, who are not “saying the right lines at all”; imprisoned bodies as prisons themselves, “phoning myself on skype”, protest-energy depleted, (w)rung out, “for my hands are tied to / our exhaustion”, where “grief” becomes mere “decadence”, where life does or can not live. This is the realism of hell, its communications networks as “uncomprehending telephone line[s]” and “listrooms” and skype, economics as a game played by incompetents, world budgets treated like Las Vegas sprees, “gambling machines which return no money,” the whole thing captured for a fleeting posterity on a live feed, “video ingestion”; the deferral of hope disguising itself as hope itself, as a kind of freezing to apathy, “refrigeration by hopefulness”; “cry[ing]” out not to be that, to be more than that, debris of a Blanquis-esque cosmic drama or “cosmic metaphor”, theological remnants of a fetishized and arcane-religious secular system, its numbers, its diagrams, “swaddling / the use value of militancy”, causing to fall into “the sink-holes of the depoliticised.” But “you” are, still, “the breakings of restraint.”

Friday, 16 August 2013


The relative engagement of Brötzmann performances tends to vary on the particular set of instrumental collaborators he’s playing with, & this quartet was certainly an unusual take on things. (By ‘engagement’, I don’t mean Brötzmann’s own - he does his thing, and consistently - more the contextual framing of that thing, its relative predictability or consistent hitting of the area known in sports parlance as the ‘zone’.) The vibes setup inevitably set ‘Out to Lunch’ connections in orbit (particularly as I’d be running through Dolphy tunes in my head on the cycle ride over), but Adasiewicz is a very different, much busier vibes player than Hutcherson, just as Brötzmann is a very different player to Dolphy, far less angular, with an approach far less obviously accommodating to a pairing with vibes. Whereas Hutcherson on OTL will strike a note with a clang, followed by an unexpected, jagged, slightly extended pause, in tandem with the crisply off-kilter rhythm section of Richard Davis and Tony Williams, Adasiewicz favours (or did in this setting) strategies such as the repeating of a particular phrase with ever increasing dramatic emphasis, and virtuoso jazz runs up and down the vibes, notes a-flying in all sorts of directions. This latter, especially when combined with a predilection for setting up a pedall’d cushion around his sound, tends to fill up the space rather than leaving it, as Hutcherson does: none of that understated approach from OTL in which tension is amped up through contrast and a patient spacing and varying of approach; or, indeed, that of Archie Shepp’s ‘New Thing at Newport’, cocktail jazz put through the wringer and turned into sensuous, barfing disquiet, quiet love and rage, controlled yet unexpected eruption, elongation and foreshortening. Live, Adasiewicz is nothing if not demonstrative, to almost comic effect. One particular physical move sees him shift on his feet to strike some notes, then lift one foot off the ground and move to the sound, as if the physical after-effect of the power of striking that note is about to topple him to the floor like an out-of-control child, one who’s temporarily lost control of their limbs. In another, he lifts the keys up on their string and furiously rattles them about as additional un-tuned percussion to Noble’s drumming. Periodically, he wipes his dripping face and beard down with a towel like a tennis player between points.

So, the presence of vibes and of their particular deployment took some getting used to, particularly given that I was in the far left corner of the room, where the combined force of Noble’s extremely loud drumming, Adasiewicz’s also loud vibes and physically demonstrative performance, and the hyper-amplified sound of John Edward’s double-bass, at times threatened to drown out Brötzmann himself. This was especially evident in the passages of most extreme intensity, where the group became a churning morass of sound, an effect rather like listening to one of the bootleg or semi-legit recordings of 1960s free jazz, in which drumkits, cymbals in particular, create a near white-noise wash, bleeding into the near-undifferentiated cloud of volume and density formed by the rest of the group; from that cloud will emerge the most piercing and burred blasts and blarts of reed-bitten saxophone squall, blasts sounded because they are the only thing that will rise above the storm they also encourage and propel. Such a description might suggest typical Brötzmann fare, the ecstatic group effect that draws in free jazz fans again and again, but, in truth, his own playing tended as much towards the melancholy ‘ballad’ approach he’s favoured over the last couple of decades, a vibrato-heavy pathos-shading which one might best describe as an improvised impersonation or filtration of a tradition of tough-tender jazz saxophonists, from Ayler to Shepp to Coleman Hawkins. Often, he would enter with phrases that slowed the music down, that saw a sudden drop or transition in energy levels, sticking fairly closely to that phrase-area as the other musicians began to dip and rise, to boil away underneath, never letting the music actually enter straight jazz ballad territory, now a few blurts from the upper register, a deliberate shift, and then into ‘full blast’ territory.

The two sets performed were continuous and quite lengthy pieces, the first in particular lasting as much as an hour; after spending some time at one of those noise-peaks, Brötzmann would take a breather and come back in with another horn, during which time Adasiewicz would do his vibes thing, including one very sympathique, more lyrical linking up with the ecstatically-focused Edwards at some point during the second set. Noble seemed permanently restless in his refusal to let the music dip substantially, often hitting a pronounced thwack as if to rudely interrupt or prevent the opening up of too much space, to insist that the music stay on the high road, the speed-freakery of the autobahn. As with his recent performance with Anthony Pateras at the LCMF, it was an extremely solid and seasoned display, the reflexes of an improviser who’s played long enough and at a high enough level to be able to think automatically, without going through the motions. Yet somehow it felt like the sort of improv performance a rock drummer might get behind, over-emphatic in its effects and affect: sustained and fairly steady or ‘straight’ rhythms would be set up which forced the music into particular areas, such as the mallets passage at the start of the second set, and the consistent loudness felt like a particular mode of attaining intensity that is not necessarily always the best or must effective way of building a dynamic group sound - it’s almost a short-cut, one might say. Indeed, Noble’s playing, as much as the presence of Adasiewicz’s vibes, probably accounts for the rather more unusually and heavily jazz-flavoured passages that surprisingly proliferated: at times, Edwards would even play walking bass. There were moments when I found this a little uncertain, wasn’t sure how to engage with it, felt that it somehow made Brötzmann’s playing sound somewhat limited (as if throwing out some free-bop choruses might have better fitted the setting, though no-one would have wanted that). But there were also points at which I really liked the effect, the contrast between Brötzmann’s playing, which stuck to his usual two general areas (loud/full-blast and wounded balladry), and that backdrop, into which he would also fit his phrases rhythmically. A case in point, the final section, a kind of mutant blues swagger, Brötzmann on tenor, which moved out of the melancholy / despair tinges of the first half into something more assertively, if ambiguously joyous, even, though somehow devastating in its effect - or perhaps that was simply the cumulative effect of something like two hours of music. The Oto crowd, which had fairly packed out the space, filtered out quickly, off into the night, space to digest, exhaustion, the slow come-down.

Thursday, 8 August 2013


Mopomoso - Scatter etc.
The Vortex, Sunday 21st July 2013.

Just over the road from the more hip Café Oto, the Vortex tends to focus its gig schedules on jazz and, for want of a better-word, ‘EFI’-based improv, though of course the same musicians can be found in different combinations at both venues. On this occasion, the group I was particularly interested in seeing was Scatter, a quartet of Phil Minton (vocals), Pat Thomas (piano), Dave Tucker (guitar) and Roger Turner (drums), and they set out a fine sound, Tucker’s guitar sometimes jerky and spasmodic (and using e-bow without ever-resorting to the easy drones that accessory so often rather predictably entails), Thomas alternating between inside-piano shards of his own and more rolling chordal and melodic passages, Minton’s face doing its usual panoply of expressive character-impressions as he switched from bird-like whistles to old-man croaks and eerie high tones, Turner with that combination of ramshackle clattering and complete rhythmic and group focus that makes his playing simultaneously reliable and unpredictable. Maggie Nicols and Minton exchanging yodels between stage and audience at the end of the closing set, that of Nicols, violinist Mia Zabelka and Russell.

AMM#7: Alan Wilkinson and THF Drenching on Vimeo.

Full Moon Launch of Ben Watson, Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation (paperback edition)
Cafe Oto, Monday 22nd July 2013

I only traipsed in for the tail end of this, on what was apparently the hottest day of the year, catching Watson’s sound-poetry with Oscillatorial Binnage, various sets with his children improvising along on vocal-gobbledeygook and harmonicas, ending with the reason I’d turned up at all, Stuart Calton, a.k.a. TFH Drenching and Alan Wilkinson engaged in a loud and piercing alto / dictaphone duet, blasting off Oto’s candle-drenched sweat like a cool shower; or, indeed, an acid bath. The feel of the evening, as far as I was able to catch it, was of a kind of community catch-up, no doubt in the style of Bailey’s Company Weeks: as if Oto had been temporarily taken over, booked out for a private function, though I don’t mean that in a negative sense. This wasn’t the kind of evening for hangers-on, for people who’d popped in with little idea of the actual music because Oto is a ‘happening venue’, and then spent the entire set playing a game on their phone (as, unbelievably enough, I saw one audience member do during a ten-minute Roscoe Mitchell circular-breathing workout) or whispering away during the relatively quiet and restrained final section of a Wastell / Allbee / Beins set, and so, even if most of the audience had some sort of personal association with Watson and his work (to judge from the bulky cigarette crowd outside the door when I arrived), it felt far less of an in-crowd set-up. If the music itself tended to be a little forgettable, then, that feeling of warmth and dedication from the situation per se was nonetheless welcomed.

Wagner, Tristan Und Isolde
Robert Dean Smith, Violeta Urmana, BBC SO / Semyon Bychkov
BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 27th July 2013

Sitting in the choir meant a focus on orchestral textures, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and moments when singers or instrumentalists would position themselves above the stage came out bright and clear, the cor anglais solo at the start of act III in particular. If Dean Smith’s vocal projection, as Tristan, left something to be desired, an impression corroborated by reports from other parts of the hall, the other performances were generally of a fine standard; and perhaps the semi-staged approach solves some problems in Wagner interpretation, even, or perhaps because it (semi-)stages its own absurdity (in the final act, a singer sitting down meant that they’d died), of a piece with the perfunctory manner in which Wagner deals with that kind of dramatic narrative action; the music itself can outweigh the datedness or the historical problematics that saturate every aspect of staging decisions in full productions.

London Contemporary Music Festival
Bold Tendencies, Peckham
Thursday 25th-Sunday 28th July / Thursday 1st-Sunday 4th August

This packed double-weekender of (mainly) composed music from the second half of the twentieth century took place at Bold Tendencies, the Peckham arts / bar project (Franks’ bar is on the roof) located in a multi-story car-park conveniently located opposite the overground station. A huge range of music, with the result that even with a single gig it often felt as if there was barely any time to process things: one might, say, transition in under a minute from the ferocious and exhilarating complexity of a Michael Finnissy piano piece to an intense Anthony Pateras improvised solo on the same instrument, and that’s before the Ferneyhough had started. That the programme was full enough to require this level of unremitting intensity – the concerts still tended to last for at least two hours, even without intervals – is dizzying (and was perhaps a strategy decision as well, to prevent the inevitable loss of concentration and bar-wards drift that an interval in this setting would have provoked) and exciting, which perhaps explains the relative lack of critical response thus far, despite the high levels of attendance and the presence, no doubt, of various ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ critics in the audience. Anyhow, I ended up attending most of the concerts and this is the first attempt, ‘official’ or ‘unofficial’, at setting down any of the things that have been simmering through my head since then.

I’ll start off by saying that is most certainly the first time I’ve ever queued for nearly an hour to see a performance the music of Helmut Lachenmann (pieces for piano coupled with some of the more obscure avant-garde works of Ennio Morriconne), and whether hearing those Lachenmann pieces in this particular location, as opposed to, say, the Aldeburgh recital hall where I heard them last year, serves the music particular well or not, it’s certainly an impressive feat of publicity, networking, and all the rest, to achieve that level of popularity. That said, I do think we need to examine the notion of ‘popularity’ that too easily gets bandied about in talking of the undoubted successes of this festival, and to examine the way events like this serve or do not serve the political connotations to which Lachenmann’s music strenuously addresses and commits itself, commitments which may be equally compromised within the usual bourgeois concert settings, but which it wouldn’t necessarily be right to argue are better or more fully heard outside them either. This isn’t to say that we should turn to Luigi Nono’s ’70s mode of playing his electronic compositions to factory workers, though that practice does at least grant those not privileged with a particular level of education a capacity to ‘understand’ difficult art that would never in a million years be granted by patronizing culture industrial discourse machine of today. I’m hardly the son of factory workers myself, and my educational history began (somewhat eccentrically) and has continued on a level of relative privilege; but I discovered Messiaen, Schoenberg and the whole world that opened up (alongside John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, et al) not through some ‘High Culture Programme’ but at the local library of a not-exactly ‘culturally-minded’ M4-corridor town and through tuning in and taping broadcasts on the radio, and I suspect a lot of people committed to this music (perhaps more as listeners than as performers, though that might be a spurious distinction) followed similar paths. (A friend discovered this world through playing the lone Stockhausen LP that had somehow found its way into his state school library, for instance.) In some ways, that might be a more far-reaching and long-lasting mode of ‘access’ than an event which ultimately attends to a very particular social bracket of young, hip, 20-or 30-somethings from London – not that this negates the value of such events, simply that we must be careful, in talking about these things, not to ignore other, less spectacular means by which ‘high culture’ escapes particular exclusionary brackets.

Moving classical music into locations outside the concert hall, then, does not necessarily entail a broadening of the class (and race) base of its audience; perhaps even the contrary, because in a spirit of ‘cool’ or ‘radical’ disguise, it actually participates in the process of gentrification which, in its pretended solidarity with the working class neighbourhoods it first inhabits, then displaces, in the upward-spiral of rent set in motion by the cultural cachet with which it has now imbued those neighbourhoods. The audience becomes younger, but it relative wealth bracket, albeit one slightly more precarious in terms of its financial security, less fixed in its job positioning, than that of the more comfortable members of a typical Aldeburgh or Glyndebourne festival programme, is still hardly that of the working class: this audience is the bourgeoisie in its hipster guise, or, as Keston Sutherland put it when he read at Bold Tendencies a few weeks previously, in an insult that was masochistically lapped up, or simply unnoticed, by the very crowd he was addressing, “the rich of peckham”. ‘Hipster’ is, of course, an over-used and under-defined term, less economically specific than the sharp ‘rich’, which cuts through all the lifestyle dress-up to the naked financial truth, or half-truth, underneath; but if you’re going to find hipsters, it’ll be at Bold Tendencies, with its £4.50 lagers, its 30-minute queue for the roof-top bar (with a queue that long, you just know it’s achingly hip), its rolling tobacco and its Derek Jarman garden (as the bouncers inform you, you can sit on the pieces of railroad timber designated as benches, but not on the ones immediately next to them which are part of the garden itself). Indeed, the Proms, with their attracted audiences of eccentric and cranks and music-lovers of all ages (still, of course, predominantly white) somehow feel to me more inclusive than this free festival in a Peckham car park. And a man in a sleeveless suit who approaches multiple members of the queue while mumbling something nigh-on inaudible about having composed the initial, more fulsome orchestral version of ‘Tristan Und Isolde’, is far more deeply and fundamentally an outsider than the immaculately-turned ‘personal twists’ of fashion and hairstyle modeled by the hipsters from and attracted to Peckham.

But it’s not as if I’m outside this bracket; the slight tinge of guilt I felt every time I stepped out from the station and turned into the car-park, following the hordes of other jean-wearing twenty year olds in an escape from halal shops, African hairdressers, and the likes, to White Cultural Heaven (where sometimes the only black person in the entire venue, it seemed, was the bouncer), is perhaps simply an exacerbated version of that which I’m insulated from in organizing and attending events within educational institutions that are much more fundamentally dedicated the exclusion of non-white, non-public-school-educated students, and are pervaded by an undercurrent of sometimes barely disguised sexism. Furthermore, I should also point out at this point that I’m extremely glad the festival took place, for which the organizers Sam Mackay, Lucy Railton, Aisha Orazbayeva and Igor Toronyi-Lalic, and all the musicians and volunteers should be praised (Mark Knoop’s performances in particular were frequently astonishing, and I can imagine getting big-name musicians like Tony Conrad and Charlemagne Palestine over to play on the same bill, or, indeed, bringing in Glenn Branca, was quite an organisational task). Along with the various contemporary Kings Place concerts (my review of Orazbayeva’s Nono performance can be found a year or so ago back in these blog archives), the LCMF’s existence is evidence of a younger generation’s interest in, and active promotion of a contemporary music that’s too often relegated to bit-parts alongside old warhorses in regular classical programmes, and of a thinking about that music’s role within the wider climate of contemporary culture. These organizers and musicians are clearly deeply serious and organizationally sound, whatever the slight hiccups of, say, the persistent feedback caused by pedalled passages down the lower end of the piano, or unavoidable conflicts between the fairly noisy, semi-open environment and some of the quieter pieces that were scheduled (say, the battle between the regular passing train and the finger-key clickings of Lachenmann’s ‘Guero’; which actually turned to entirely appropriate and rivetting effect as the train passed again during a much more thunderous part of Lachenmann’s ‘Serynade’.) Perhaps this latter indicates some of the reasons that car-parks aren’t more often used as venues, the actual virtues of having an enclosed space in which people are more restrained by spatial etiquette in terms of wandering in and out of the performance space and to the bar and conversing through parts of the music they don’t like, the enforcing of particular qualities of attention and listening that are not in themselves bourgeois or stuffy values but of a serious engagement with music that refuses to reduce it to social occasion or aural wallpaper. Not that the LCMF wasn’t characterised by intense close-listening on the part of its core audience (the culprits being more those who passed by the concerts on their way to and from Frank’s bar upstairs, passing comment as they went). Lots of these things, of course, couldn’t have been anticipated at the planning stage, or even mitigated against if they were, but I think it’s important to raise them, not so much as a specific criticism of or dig at the LCMF, but as part of the problems that will have to be seriously thought about if a sustained movement towards alternative venues for the performance of contemporary music is to be considered.

Setting this aside for the moment, let’s consider the concerts presented. The first Friday: Lachenmann’s piano pieces generally came through well – ‘SeryNade’ in particular struck my as extremely strong, this being the second time I’d seen it performed in concert; it makes much use of pedal-work for complex resonance-effects, and includes one particularly gripping section in which chordal repetition creates a kind of paralyzed, frozen or stuttering quality of obsession, weirdly resonant with the way John Coltrane might approach and worry at a phrase from every angle, trying to exhaust and work through its every harmonic implication. The piece, despite its title, seems to work through the residue and sediment left by the history of the classical piano repertoire, and particularly that of Romanticism, absorbing its gestures and re-fashioning them in critical fashion: a music of deep historical engagement, with a very particular way of working through such issues. The Morricone pieces, which I was quite stoked about before-hand, proved disappointing, by contrast; I understand the programming was inspired by Lachenmann’s comments about Morriconne being his favourite composer, but I suspect he means the better-known film music (mitigating his reputation as a high-modernist hermit who scorns all forms of popular culture) rather than the rather structurally-inane ‘avant-garde’ pieces we heard on the night. ‘Proibito’, for eight trumpets, saw those trumpets moving through particular sets of extended techniques in somewhat disconnected fashion, and felt as much as anything like a student composition: a composer trying out ideas without much sense of how to formally string them together. The piece for solo viola and tape (‘Suoni per Dino’) was more structurally coherent, and had obvious similarities to particular sequences Morriconne will write in tension-filled scenes from his Western film scores, in which a sparse but repetitive figure on timpani or some other form of percussion will underlie a series of more abstract sounds. But whereas that rhythmic quality contributes directly to the tension in those scores, here it felt like an unnecessary sop to the slowly-overlapping looped harmonies above it, which might even have taken on a Feldman-lite quality if they hadn’t been thus bolstered. That said, I’d imagine these pieces are rarely performed, and it’s certainly good that the opportunity was given for them to be heard.

I missed Glenn Branca on the Saturday for Wagner at the Proms (see above), but stayed for the full nine-hour-or-so whack on the Sunday, a ‘drone day’ culminating in the Palestine / Conrad double-bill. Jem Finer’s opening ‘Slowplayer’ struck me as the worst kind of satisfied, funding-sated dross, perhaps acceptable in a gallery or installation-type setting, but completely unsuited to a concert context: working through a stack of records which appeared to include Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and the stooges, he proceeded to play them on the specially-modified record-player which gave the ‘piece’ its title, a player which didn’t give above 7RPM. So we got the elongated groans and drawn out gasps of barely-distinguishable records, sometimes with somewhat desultory mixer-manipulation from Finer, who wandered around the space taking photographs of the audience or picking through the record-stack. Somehow paralyzed in my seat, I stayed for the full two-hours, but the suffering involved was somewhat mitigated by the follow-up of Eliane Radigue’s ‘Chry-ptus’, transitioning into James Tenney’s ‘Having Never Written a Note for Percussion’, that crescendo-diminuendo piece for tam-tam which fully exploits the resonant possibilities of that instrument in a way that requires complete physical and mental focus on the part of the musician and, if they’re willing, the audience. If I felt lethargic and fed-up at the end of the Finer, by the end of the Tenney, I felt some combination of blissed-out, exhausted and emotionally eviscerated (perhaps simply a result of tiredness and temporary fragility, and thus not the best indicator of ‘objective’ reviewing standards). Rounding the afternoon off, Brian Eno’s ‘Music for Airports’, as arranged for a polite electric-guitar-vibes-keyboards-reeds-and-strings ensemble, was hardly in the same league, though I have a soft spot for an album I haven’t heard for years, and it was nice, if nothing more, to encounter it again in live form. Barely an hour’s break saw the main event. First half, Tony Conrad and Jennifer Walshe’s duo Ma la Pert with an hour-long improvisational piece: Walshe stuck mainly to vocals, though she’d occasionally join Conrad’s amplified violin and table-based bass string droning with bits of cello - a big range of extended techniques and a tendency towards a kind of vaguely ‘ethnic’ emotionalism grew a little wearying over the full time, as if she was unwilling to allow the drone full space to develop – perhaps the piece would have benefited from being a little shorter (but perhaps I’m also being churlish). Charlemagne Palestine’s stuffed-toy-tumbler-and-talking routine doesn’t really do much for me, but the ‘Strumming Music’-style exploration of piano resonance was at times mesmerising, even if I have perhaps less time for it than I did on initially hearing the original album: it felt a little too obvious and over-dramatic in its emotional effects and affect (rather like elements of Walshe’s singing), verging, even, on the sentimental (and not in a good way). But the final encore, a short trio featuring all three performers, was, to paraphrase the title of a particularly beautiful archive recording of Palestine and saxophonist Terry Jennings, ‘Short and Sweet’, if at times a little hesitant (but live first-time collaborations can be forgiven for this).

So that was the first weekend. In any case, despite the tinges of unease that prompted the vicious introductory splurge above, it wasn’t until the penultimate day of attendance at the LCMF’s second weekend that I noticed the wall-scrawl ‘Triumph of the Bourgeoisie (Upstairs)’. Weirdly, or not so weirdly, that little descriptor came back towards the end of the festival’s final scheduled piece, a performance of Philip Corner’s ‘Piano Activities’ - or rather, the performance of the performance of Corner’s work by Wolf Vostell, Charlotte Moorman, George Macunias, etc, in 1962, in which the piano was destroyed. But whereas Macunias at least partially justifies this violence by claiming that the piano had cost $5 and it would have cost more to hire removals to take it away than to destroy it, the Bold Tendencies realisation was clearly geared towards a kind of mild-shock, the actual impact of the shock softened by the fact of its hipster-event cushioning (putting a couple of pianos in a car-park anyway is something of a shock, perhaps). This isn’t to say that some of the sounds coaxed out weren’t compelling - they were, particularly mic’d-up - but the thing is that these sounds could equally well have been-produced through close-micing of non-destructive piano activity: rubbing the strings needn’t be done with a giant chain, only a small one (or, as per Cage’s 14, with horsehair), tapping the resonant underside of the instrument could equally well be done with fingers or first than with a hammer, and so on. Corner’s initial score was designed precisely towards this end, as an extension of Cage’s extension of the piano through preparations, and in that light, it would have fitted perfectly into a programme which had seen Anthony Pateras, the day before, switch between piano, prepared piano (the same model, indeed, that was destroyed as the festival’s final event) and analogue synth, and in which Mark Knoop’s astounding recital had approached the issue of piano-writing (albeit mostly keyboard-and-note based, unlike, say, Lachenann’s previously-performed Guero) from many different angles. As Knoop impeccably segued into the Corner, assistants emerging from various points and audience converging around the piano like vultures; Knoop and co. handing out smashed piano keys and various other bits of piano gut to the audience like saints’ reliquaries. If, here, I seem to be falling into exactly the position of the Guardian article by Ben Beaumont-Thomas which has generated a mini-stream of twitter debate where the organizers, perhaps understandably, take BB-T to task for making this one event characterise the festival as a whole (and see also this response with regard to the availability of pianos), I think that, regardless of economic issues or of the issue of allowed bourgeois destruction, as an interpretation (or translation) of an interpretation of Corner’s score, the piece is partial and based on a particular, spectacular incident in its performance history which does not encompass or fully and accurately represent the piece itself. And yes, Fluxus did happen forty years ago, and more. And yes, the entire history of the incorporation of various forms of performance art into recuperative institutional frameworks and the co-option for the potentially political radical for high-bourgeois ends needs to be taken into consideration. One might argue that the same could be said of any piece of western classical piece performed or written on a fairly expensive piano, but I think that would be to dodge the issue. Food for thought, anyhow.

With that out of the way, onto the rest of the festival. If I didn’t necessarily buy the equivalence drawn between ‘New Complexity and Noise’ (the Friday gig’s title) – Michael Finnissy’s hyper-complex piano music is very different structurally to the apparently equally-virtuosic but formally rather slick piano improvisation by Anthon Pateras that followed it, and Russell Haswell’s noise set concealed its rhythmically rather square machinations behind sheer PA’d volume – turn it down and it’d sound rather uncomfortably caught between IDM and noise music proper, as if, I don’t know, Cremaster had met Autechre but they hadn’t quite clicked. Finnissy’s ‘English Country Tunes’, ferociously played by Mark Knoop, were what stood out the most of anything on the evening. Seeing them live really reinforces their value: I periodically watch Finnissy videos on youtube and am never quite sure how to engage with the work or what to think of it, though in some rather un-delineated sense I get the sense of admiring them or the very fact of their existence, but here, an extended, two-to-three minute passage featuring simultaneous writing in the extreme high and low ends of the piano achieved a concentrated ferocity comparable to the improvisations of Cecil Taylor; rather than just being the timbral shock effect it could have been, the material was rhythmically and harmonically compelling, and the juxtaposition with a more overtly folk-influenced or –haunted register felt entirely appropriate and not in the least like a disjoint or a cop-out. Pateras and Steve Noble did a series of improvisations in various solo and duo combinations; their playing was flashy but somehow almost always entirely safe, with none of the risk that good improvisation, in this particular, more ‘interactive’ mode at least, to me tends to entail. Perhaps the best piece was the one for prepared piano and drums, in which Pateras hammered out a percussion all of his own, using the full range of the instrument and making it seem like a resourceful instrument in and of itself; nonetheless, here, as in the other pieces, it felt as if both musicians were somehow afraid of being bored and of boring the audience – rather than sticking with, locking into any particularly compelling area that opened up, they would discard it and move onto something else, almost as if to show that they could, so that the logic was smooth but disjointed, an endless flow of ideas all given equal weight and thus in their totality giving the feeling of a kind of insubstantiality, impressive moment to moment and even in terms of a kind of general effect which would get the audience talking afterwards, but, in their actual totality, almost rather bland. Of the remaining pieces, Ferneyhough’s ‘Cassandra’s Dream Song’, the solo flute piece, doesn’t strike me on nearly the same level as the Finnissy; Aaron Cassidy’s solo pieces, for trumpet and trombone are clearly doing interesting things in terms of notation and timbral exploration, though they perhaps haven’t quite worked out what to do with these areas in the ways that Finnissy’s have (Cassidy is, after all, a much younger composer than either of the two F’s). That said, it was the earlier piece, ‘songs only as sad as their listener’, which struck me most, with its tremulous and sparse repeated note, muted but amplified so as to emphasize maximal fragility within the human-instrument interaction, emphasizing the externals of breath and mouth-positioning so that the brass sometimes seemed to be an extension of a human wheezing and crying, a half-choked plaint: as if the trumpet part to Ives’ ‘The Unanswered Question’ had been cut down to its bare minimum and left to stand without the accompanying orchestra, perhaps.

Saturday I skipped, out of concert-/ cultural-overload exhaustion. Sunday afternoon, mainly consisting of new pieces selected from competition entries for the festival, was mostly desultory: the opening piece, for wandering trombones, might have suggested a Scratch Orchestra-style performance strategy, but it was material of the worst sub-minimalist kind, utterly banal and with no redeeming features that I could see or hear; somehow, the perfect existential accompaniment to a five-minute failure to light a half-smoked cigarette on a windy car-park rooftop. Michael Haleta’s piece for forty musicians moving in delineated squares while dragging or banging various junk-instruments (a giant plastic flower-pot (which pretty much drowned out everything else as it was enthusiastically dragged and scraped against the car-park’s concrete floor), a cymbal-round-the-neck, various shakers, a set of clothes pegs tied together with wire, a rock on a string) superficially seemed close to the performance strategies of James Saunders’ pieces, but with apparently none of the close thinking and attention to structure that goes into them: the division into four movements seemingly entirely arbitrary, and the various possible permutations of a fairly simple idea with regard to partially-improvised group dynamics and negotiations, even in such basics as speed and area covered, left unexplored. The pairing of vocal works by Mark Applebaum-Pauline Oliveros was at least intriguing, if sometimes a little too self-consciously wacky in its performative shenanigans (though Richard Bullens’ piece for perambulating clarinets was perhaps the more gimmicky, given the apparently complete lack of relation between a potentially interesting exploration of spatial dynamics and the actual substance of its conservative-modernist musical material). A series of works for acoustic guitar and electronics were dire. I would suggest a diet of early Taku Sugimoto, Derek Bailey, and sackcloth and ashes. The concluding piece, Rzewski’s ‘Coming Together’, is a reminder of the existence of a political minimalism, though I doubt many of the audience had much idea about the Attica Riots that form its text: the indeterminacy of its notation also suggests a connection between early minimalism and more avant-garde performance strategies that second, or third-generation minimalists (and the, probably fourth-generation, by now near-total recuperation of minimalism into the de-rigueur TV-and-movie soundtrack and advertising ambient-background score go-to style) almost completely ignore. The piece itself perhaps tends towards sentimentality in its second movement, but its patient extension of sparse text fragments is actually handled without histrionics and with a sense of implacable conviction that is quite moving, and certainly a million times less gimmicky or formally glib than almost all of the commissioned pieces that had preceded it.

The evening’s lengthy keyboard ‘recital’ (or more accurately, set of recitals) opened with Jane Chapman’s harpsichord programme. The miking of the instrument rendered its relative clunkiness and stringy, twittering-machine-like quality nakedly apparent; perhaps a disadvantage in more traditional repertoire, but of a piece with the programme, in which Ligeti’s hyper-virtuosic moto-perpetuos and Louis Andriessen’s rather uncomfortably extended melodic permutations sat alongside to me rather glib electronically-aided explorations (or illustrations) of the instrument’s inner workings by Paul Whitty, and some wonderfully exaggerated cliché parodies or near-parodies from a few centuries earlier by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer, perhaps my favourite of all the set’s constituent parts. Leon Michener’s recreation of Terry Riley’s ‘Persian Surgery Dervishes’ was advertised as taking place on an electric organ, but in the event, occurred through a combination of an apple laptop, a midi keyboard, and a baby grand; undoubtedly a labour-intensive reconstruction (Riley’s piece was at least semi-improvised and was never turned into a score), though the techno elements were a little baffling (one half-wished he’d go the whole hog and turn the whole thing into a techno-remix; or that we’d actually hear some Riley-influenced techno; or that the approach was more purist). But Mark Knoop’s piano recital on that same baby ground was nothing short of astonishing: playing entirely from an ipad, he transitioned between quite widely diverse pieces without missing a beat, leaving no space for applause between individual compositions and thus building up an extremely focused set of associations and networks between the items on the programme. The effect was sometimes comic, as when Mozart would be followed by a crashing modernist chord, sometimes seamless, as when early Feldman turned into early La Monte Young, so that the Young initially sounded like the final phrase of the Feldman repeated and extended. If the two recent pieces, by Adam de la Cour (conceptually neat and simple, featuring a loud boxing-ring bell sound which transitioned between (from what I can recall) vaguely Joplinesque parody-passages and ferocious, Finnissy-like keyboard-scampering) and Lauren Redhead couldn’t hope to ‘compete’ with Mozart, or Schoenberg, or even Leo Ornstein, they nonetheless fitted well and didn’t seem overtly out of place: certainly, they were far superior to any of the new pieces played earlier on in the day. The other Piano Activities that rounded things, and the piano itself, off, we’ve touched on before, so no need to re-tread that controversial ground. But, really, I haven’t seen this much varied contemporary music jostled together in such a short and packed space of time ever, I don’t think, at least outside of Aimard-era Aldeburgh or some of the South Bank’s Total Immersion weekends, and I’m still somewhat buzzing and exhausted from it – in the best possible way, I’m sure…

Mark Wastell / Mensch Mensch Mensch.
Cafe Oto, Tuesday 6th August 2013

Much more low-key, this: a modest crowd, as perhaps expected. Wastell’s tam-tam work couldn’t help but force me into a compare-and-contrast exercise with the performance of James Tenney’s ‘On Having Never Written a Note for Percussion’ at the LCMF a week or so before; whereas that piece has a clear crescendo-diminuendo structure, moving from the barely-perceptible to a roaring rush of resonance in which one might fancy oneself hearing disintegrated choirs of spectral human voices (no, really) - a piece which, unexpectedly enough at the time, felt curiously moving to me – Wastell’s investigations are less linear and thus, tougher to follow: not because of an excess of activity, but rather because of their extended concentration on particular areas of the tam-tam’s surface and register that transition into similar areas with a minimum of fuss, aided by electronic amplification. Café Oto is, as always, incredibly hot, and I was already tired, so my attention wandered at times, but it was a thoughtful set, certainly. Mensch Mesnch Mesnch (Liz Allbee and Burkhard Beins’ mainly electronic duo), by contrast, engaged in various explicitly ‘theatrical’ structures in a set that was curiously balanced between the tightly organized, a mode of performance that was explicit in the effect and affect it was going after at a particular time or in a particular section, and the improvised space for meandering or for sudden and disorientating shift. Looking at Beins’ set up afterwards, I discovered a number-list which delineated the various areas to be explored: trumpet, synth, sine-waves and tuning forks, sampled piano note, etc - and this of course made perfect sense afterwards, the semi-composed sectionality of that approach, the way that transitions between sections would be clearly and almost violently demarcated by the apparently sudden decision to stop or start a particular action in which one was engaged - Allbee putting down her trumpet, Beins cutting out a sustained rumbling bass sound, and so on. I’m perhaps more interested in the moment in more explicit compositional strictures as spur for improvisation – and perhaps that general delineation of areas restricted the music in a way that lessened risk, rather than forcing a great concentration and focus – but it was a nice set, overall, starting with great fanfare-like blasts of trumpet from Allbee, who pointed her instrument, which had a bike-light inserted into its bell, at various spots in the darkened room as she played, and ending in completely different territory with an exploration of tuning-fork and sine wave resonance into which Wastell’s guest tam-tam blended seamlessly. Peter Brötzmann will be something else again.