Thursday 30 December 2010

Michael Pisaro/ Taku Sugimoto - 2 Seconds / B Minor / Wave

Label: Erstwhile
Release Date: November 2010
Tracklist: 2 Seconds/ B Minor / Wave
Musicians: Michael Pisaro: composition, guitar, field recordings; Taku Sugimoto: composition, guitar, misc.

I’m torn about this one, for reasons I’ll go into later: but to start off with, I’ll admit that, certainly, it’s interesting and valid and an important contribution to the ongoing debate about and evolution of the music. It’s simpler (as in, less full of musical events) than the two recent Toshimaru Nakamura duos with acoustic guitarists (‘Crepuscular Rays’ with Havard Volden and ‘Semi-Impressionism’ with Tetuzi Akiyama), and more obviously transparent; indeed, it lays its materials out so clearly that it could almost be accused of being an entirely conceptual work – Pisaro’s and Sugimoto’s contributions were recorded separately, after all. That said, the separate recording technique has become common enough recently to justify it being called a legitimate technical resource, rather than a case of one-off experimentation: the MIMEO album ‘sight’ from a few years back is perhaps the most famous example (though it’s actually a slightly different case, as the larger ensemble gives it more of an aleatoric element – the probability of there being concurrences and agreements between the separate recordings becomes lower once the number of participants starts to spread). With duo recordings, however– ones as sparse as this one, anyway – it’s much easier to get some sort of concurrence, if not active ‘dialogue’ in the EFI sense: indeed, if one was played Sachiko M/ Ami Yoshida’s collaboration as Cosmos (recorded live, with both musicians in the same room) and the Nakamura/ Yoshida collaboration ‘Soba to Bara’ (in which both musicians’ contributions were recorded separately), one would be hard pressed to say which one featured the performers in the same space. The new approach to duo playing fostered by the influential ‘lowercase’ scenes in Japan, Berlin, London is one in which sonic proximity means sharing the same space, rather than direct imitation or facile ‘conversational’ interplay; each player pursues their own particular direction, following the consequences of one idea or texture or type of sound in a way that overlaps with, rather than directly parallels, the activity of their partner. (A fine recent example would be Angharad Davies and Axel Dorner’s ‘AD’). Given this, the separate recording technique fits perfectly; and, given also the way that recent developments of post-Cageian theory and practice have blurred the lines between composition and improvisation (as documented on the new ‘Silence and After’ series on Another Timbre), one can argue that the music is as much conceptual as it is musical, that theory and practice, sound and pre-planned framework/manner of execution are too closely tied to be usefully or easily disentangled.

This does not mean, though, that one cannot judge it by musical standards: indeed, they are the primary means of measurement, the yardstick by which to make one’s mind up. The criticism which has developed (mainly on blogs and online fora ) alongside the new methods (well, OK, by now they’re not that new, as Mattin would no doubt argue) does, in fact, stress personal subjective judgement just as much as any theoretical or systematic analytical system: one is more likely to get a story about the circumstances in which the record was listened to, minute details of the sounds of passing cars, neighbours’ noises, etc, than one is to get a treatise of aesthetic jargon. It’s an interesting intersection indeed, where pursuing theoretical goals with great rigour, embracing deliberate limitation and an almost monastic intensity of focus, leads to the creation of a music in which such simple and ‘old-fashioned’ criteria as ‘I like this sound’ and ‘that is a beautiful chord’ become surprisingly important. That’s not to say that there is no critical rigour involved, and most committed listeners to and writers about this music would be able to have a long and considered debate about whether something works artistically or not – it’s not just a simple ‘I’m partial to this’. Still, all this builds up to the statement with which I began the review: I find myself in two minds about the merits of the disc because both my personal sense of enjoyment (probably not the right word) and my critical, evaluative sense raise problems for me when listening to it.

Firstly, let’s consider the conceptual (compositional) framework which has been used to construct the three pieces. All three last twenty minutes exactly; all bring together two separate compositions/performers based on a particular idea. ‘2 Seconds’ is a unit of pulse; ‘B Minor’ a key; ‘Wave’ was left more open, with each musician free to make their own interpretation of that word. The opening track finds Pisaro using layers of sine waves, looped to create beats which fit in with rhythmically with Sugimoto’s own short, electronic beeps (a guitar tuner?) and striking of what sounds like two wooden objects (claves?). The sine tones build up to create rich chords that are sometimes Sachiko-M-stark (though not quite as tinnitus-inducingly high-pitched – there’s a significant low-end rumble which occasionally caused my headphones to vibrate), sometimes gorgeously, spacily rich (this ‘beautiful’ aspect to sine tones is one that’s not been explored that much – the only example that springs to mind is the work of the clarinet/electronics duo Los Glissandinos). Some of the tones are held to create the chord, but the more abrupt, dial-tone like elements ensure a kind of clipped-feel round the edges; the piece is at once comforting in its rhythmical regularity, and somewhat forbiddingly robotic (like a kind of soft industrial music). Occasionally, we hear sounds from (I presume) Sugimoto’s recording which allow ‘real-world’, non-electronic sounds into proceedings: occasionally we hear the squeak of someone shifting their weight on a leather chair, and at one point what sounds like an electric drill is briefly switched on. Given these fragmented glimpses, one supposes that Sugimoto’s contribution had a visual, theatrical/ritualistic quality to it which is lost on the recording, suggesting other dimensions to the piece that belie its apparently fixed and rigid quality, opening out beyond the recording to different spaces, times, contexts. Ultimately, though I do admire the restraint of the concept, I can’t quite fully enjoy the track as a whole: at times I admire the bloody-mindedness of the clockwork electronic beep and the sections of layered sine-tones, at others I feel unable to fully pull myself into the soundworld, stepping out of that immersion into which I had briefly been drawn.

My fault? Perhaps. ‘B Minor’ is next, and evinces the same sort of rigour in terms of the gestures each musician allows himself; this time, though, what is played is deliberately pretty, imparting things with a Loren Connors-style minimalism. Of course, we remember this from the classic Sugimoto of ‘Opposite’, and we think too of his recent recordings of simple, haiku-like melodies, rendered with a sparse and often beguiling, hesitant delicacy in tandem with vocalist Moe Kamura. You can have too much of a good thing, though, and, while this might have been absolutely gorgeous if restricted to three or five minutes (as were the pieces on ‘Opposite’, and as are the pieces on ‘Saritote II’), it does pall somewhat over the full twenty. Both men are on electric guitars: Sugimoto plays the harmony (in B Minor, of course) – slowly-paced, equally-placed chord sequences – Pisaro, the melody– sustained handfuls of notes that mesh with and accentuate the chords, rather than back-grounding them. It is lovely, yes, but…And then I think: to what absurd, acerbic levels of ‘beauty’ have I become accustomed which would lead me to think that this music, perhaps palpably ugly or just plain boring to some people who have no idea of onkyo or taomud or wandelweiser, is overly pretty? But we enter a difficult area when we consider beauty as the generation of prettiness, delicacy, sweet tinkling textures: and, while Marion Brown’s contribution to Harold Budd’s ‘Bismali 'Rrahman 'Rrahim’ ensures that that track remains one of my all-time favourites, the rest of that Budd record, sans Brown, goes too far into gloop and sickliness. Or once again, I know people whose musical views I totally respect, and whom one would hardly call un-critical New Agers, and yet I just cannot share their enthusiasm for Laraaji’s ‘Day of Radiance,’ the third in Brian Eno’s ambient series. It’s the same here – I’m not sure what the optimum number of minutes for the track would have been, but somewhere, things step over an invisible (l)edge and that kind of simple beauty is not quite enough.

Onto the final track, anyway, in which Sugimoto interprets ‘waves’ to mean ‘(sound)wave’ – a sustained (e-bowed?) drone – while Pisaro chooses a field recording of ocean waves breaking (or it may be an electronically-generated sound), which enters and drops out of the texture at regular intervals. For me, this is somewhat spoiled by Pisaro’s contribution, which doesn’t seem as integrated as were the elements that made up the other two pieces. It sits on top of the overall musical flow, rather than being fully integrated – it feels like an add-on, rather than an interesting juxtaposition. And it also works against the rigour of the drone, rendering it almost New-Agey, like an avant-garde version of one of those ‘Sounds of the Sea’ easy-listening albums you find in British garden centres. Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of the aleatoric way in which the music was put together, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily true: as the other tracks, and other separately recorded improv collaborations attest, it’s perfectly possible to create something cohesive and symbiotic using this method. Maybe it’s a kind of reminder, a jolt that prevents us getting too comfortable, that lets us know the element of risk and failure we had forgotten about in our easy immersion into beauty and prettiness. Here one thinks of Boulez distinguishing between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ chance operations (in the 1957 essay ‘Alea’ ), and wonders ‘have I become as tetchy as that’? On the other hand, I just don’t feel that the piece works, whatever the methods behind its construction.

Overall, then, there are elements about each piece I like, both conceptually and musically. Of the three, I think ‘2 Seconds’ probably works best over the entire twenty minutes; ‘B Minor’ is more immediately pretty/ beautiful, but somewhat outstays its welcome; and ‘Waves’ is (perhaps deliberately) less cohesive (or at least, more slight), which, for me, makes it less successful musically. Summarising in this way, I’m aware of how subjective, in an almost petty manner, these judgements sound; and I’m grateful to this recording for making me want to examine my own critical approach as much as I examine the album itself. Whether it ‘works’ or not, it is, as I argued at the beginning, an important document, a springboard for debate, and a musical experience with some genuinely lovely moments; very much worth investigation if you haven’t heard it already.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Captain Beefheart as Poet

From an old essay:
Van Vliet has an almost Wordsworthian sense of the whole condition of everything as infused with meaning and living. Take the poem ‘Hey Garland I Dig Your Tweed Coat’ (Garland being the name of the poet’s cat), where, in a ripe moment, a tomato (in the process of being eaten) forms into an “O” and “bleeds red” – a mouth (vagina), sexualised, wounded. This can even apply to taking a shit, as in ‘81 Poop Hatch’ (recited on Beefheart’s last album, ‘Ice Cream for Crow’), in which hearing “some jumbled rock ‘n’ roll tune” on the radio leads to the line, “a typical musician’s nest of thoughts filter through dust speakers,” uniting the ‘natural’ and the ‘mechanical’ in a manner similar to the way the short poem ‘One Nest Rolls After Another’ links the animal and the human, comparing falling nests to lashing tongues. It’s hardly a ‘mystical moment’, the “naturally magically” fantasies of ‘Trout Mask Replica,’ but it is a kind of ‘coming together’, of moments and activities and objects, perceptions and faculties. And, indeed, that might not be too dissimilar to ‘Replica’ after all: take lines such as “wild life, wild life,/ I’m going up on the mountain for the rest of my life,” where the insistence of rhyme leads to a kind of Bob Dylan-esque associative lyrical flow, a sense that the materiality of words is suffused with meaning as much as their surface ‘meaningful content.’

Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart.
January 15, 1941 – December 17, 2010

Monday 13 December 2010

December 9th 2010

I was away for a few days after 'attending' (is that the right word?) last Thursday's protests in London, and thus missed the majority of the news coverage (though I did catch a little snippet on the BBC where Nick Robinson complained about vandalism, the disrespect shown to Mr Churchill's statue (Churchill being, let’s remember, the man who advocated using gas against the Kurds in the 1920s: as he put it, "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes"), and the terrifying ordeal suffered by Prince Charles and his wife when their car was attacked by a group of 'yobos'). Now that I'm back, I've been able to check a broader spectrum of reporting and, though I shouldn't be surprised, still can't fucking believe the extent to which the protestors have been demonized and the cops get off virtually scot-free.

There was some speculation among protestors on the day (though not in the media) about what motivates riot police: one cop apparently agreed with those opposing the cuts as he let them out of a kettle (he had three children who would probably now not get to university), but the majority remained stony-faced, advancing behind shields and body-armour or on horses, and brushing aside injured protestors in search of medical treatment (let the fuckers bleed, serve them right, seems to be the reasoning behind this). It comes across as sheer brute force against rational argument, against intelligence, intellect, expression - captured neatly in the photos of cops attacking students who were carrying sandwich boards painted with the titles of books such as Brave New World, Spectres of Marx, The Waste Land, and Society of the Spectacle.

The police, whatever the true motivations of the individuals that make up their ranks, are functioning at the moment as the strong arm of the government – the necessary violent enforcers without which the Con-Dem’s policies could not be sustained. Perhaps some of them fear they’ll lose their jobs if they show too much ‘leniency’ or sympathy towards protestors (which in the current context would probably just mean not charging them and not hitting them over the head), despite the fact that they stand to lose out in the wake of the cuts, just like everyone else. There is also, in all likelihood, a strong thug culture, as there is in the army, that other bastion of legalized criminality – in other words, some policemen get off on clashes with ‘rioters’, with wading in armed and ready to kick the shit out of people.

But speculating about police motives isn’t really that much use to people on the ground, in the midst of the ‘action’ – you don’t care about the internal moral struggle that may be going on behind the riot helmets when you’re in a crowd of people running away from a line of charging horses or anxiously looking around to make sure you’re not being cordoned off into a fresh kettle. It’s as if the entire march has been orchestrated by the cops lining the streets, trying to siphon protestors off down particular routes; and even the spontaneous, guerilla-style breakaways down alternative routes (those breakaways which allow people not to get kettled) are done with an eye over one’s shoulder at all times. On the one hand, this produces an adrenaline buzz, turning the city into a kind of assault course, but on the other, this same adrenaline also leads to the mounting frustration that the cops use as an excuse to wade in. And after the hours of kettling, the shouted slogans and chants and songs gradually start to die down, and a weird kind of hush descends, broken by occasional upsurges of shouting as there’s a fresh cavalry charge or stand-off. When the vote passed, one might have expected a fresh wave of anger, but the crescendo of noise and anger (an energy), seemed to have been reached earlier on, on the way to Parliament Square, before everyone was blocked in. So you head to the pub and then head back and the kettle is still in operation, and ‘sub-kettles’ are opened up as some people break through the first line only for another to form around them; and you think about tactics, how this could become a real live street war, a quasi-military operation (how should we go about organizing and mobilizing against the police when we can’t rely on the media to scare them off?), and you talk about the best way to tip over a car and set it on fire (though you don’t, of course, then go out and actually do it), and talk about the English radical tradition (Abiezer Coppe Ranters Levellers Diggers Luddites) and how it can be resurrected, and talk about Burroughs and Genet, out-of-place perhaps, but still there at the Chicago Democratic Convention riots in 1968.

And so, “back now to our studies,” to that radical re(in)surrection (Raise Race Rays Raze), against the e-rasure of our voices that the government and their flunkies, the Metropolitan police and the Right-leaning media, are trying to effect. Obviously the case of Alfie Meadows and the other protestors who were injured and physically intimidated is not enough to cause a propaganda backlash (which is perhaps no surprise given the craven Tory bias of such hacks as the aforementioned BBC correspondent Nick Robinson); instead, the British public are judged to be so attached to Charles and Camilla...

...that they will willingly countenance a 'stronger police presence' – to do what? Protect the Royals if they happen to choose to come to London again in the middle of a protest? Perhaps some of the proles will attempt to invade Buckingham Palace, or Balmoral, or Windsor. Damn, we can't let the Civil War happen all over again! Even though that incident was a minor one, and the overwhelming media focus on it (the increasingly right-leaning The Guardian made it front page news too) is pretty disgusting, it does capture some truth about what's going on at the moment: an unleashing of forces of desire, of a momentum which I described in relation to the Millbank attack, a momentum which "cannot be made simply to dissipate and disappear, to tail and trail off back down the road into ‘normality’; we – you – want something more and cannot suppress that longing any longer." Sure it’s amusing when Theresa May says the Duchess of Cornwall was “poked with a stick” by a protestor (nudge nudge wink wink), but it also signals something of symbolic value – the desiccation the stiffness the traditionalism of the Royals coming up against the real facts of the real lives of their ‘subjects’, the real facts of discontent and history (history as moving thing rather than static conserve or ‘jam tomorrow’). Dominic Fox has said what I’m trying to say, better: “What I think's uncanny in the above image, and therefore most difficult to "spin" coherently, is that it breaches the boundary between two distinct times: a past that is defunct, over-with, de-libidinalised, and a present that is massively energised and "happening". Look at their faces again: pure car-crash orgasm, like corpses being jolted back to life. No amount of regal "calmness" and "dignity" can erase the memory of that look, its spooked intensity. It's as if they're saying: what the fuck is this? History? Dear God - make it go away!”

But of course while it’s easy to get exhilarated about this – I’d just about given up hope on any widespread anti-Royalist sentiment appearing through the cracks of Will and Kate’s wedding and the dear old Queen soldiering on – it’s important to remember the flip-side, that the Right have seized on this story (or, really, on just that one photo, which to be honest, doesn’t look much different to your common-or-garden paparazzi-shot) and will use it to justify an increase in police presence and in the force that that presence is allowed or encouraged to use. No, charging horses and bone-breaking batons are not enough – we want cannons! But, hey, they’re only water cannons – just like water pistols really, only bigger, fun toys that we can use to teach the young whippersnappers a lesson. Look at that picture of a happy black man getting sprayed with water! He looks hot and it's cooling him down. Protestors actually enjoy having the cannons turned on them, so it's all alright. Of course, what they forgot to mention was this. And, as just another example of how brazen those in power now are: "Sir Paul said one reason water cannon had not been used is that the Met did not own any. It was reported last year that the Met had considered buying six at a cost of £5million." At this time of 'austerity', five million pounds can suddenly materialize to buy weapons to turn on those who protest - some of whom, let's note, feel that their democratic rights have been taken from them, given that Clegg got into power on the back of student support, only to blatantly and quite unapologetically go back on his word. (As Richard Seymour reminds us , “Democracy is not law and order. Democracy is the mob; the mob is democracy. Democracy is supposed to mean popular sovereignty, not the unimpeded rule of a no-mandate government.”) The message: we don't want to hear what the people think or do or say, we want to turn the propaganda machine and the police brutality machine onto them to quell them into submission. Once again, "there is no alternative." And one wonders, how long before we see police holding guns, as in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, and how long before another Blair Peach, another Ian Tomlinson, another Jean Charles de Menezes?

Finally, after all the anger and adrenaline and exhilaration and upset and rage and potential, a reminder of what's at stake, what the government voted in on Thursday:

The vote may have passed, but opposition to the new education measures is not going to go away, and now it’s time to add on top of it a wider campaign against ‘austerity’, against back-slapping for the rich and a boot in the face for everyone else – time to build a bonfire, fight back, raise the dead.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Running Scared

Today saw the third wave in as many weeks of student action in protest at the coalition government's education cuts. Once more, universities are going into (or are continuing with) occupations, and marchers have taken to the streets across the country, despite the snow. This has obviously got someone rattled, as the police have been kettling before the fact: i.e. forcibly surrounding and detaining people as a method of intimidation, rather than as a 'defensive' measure to protect property. The tactic is, in effect, a temporary mass arrest, a temporary forced detention as a means of punishment and intimidation for daring to protest. (And if the word 'temporary' suggests a certain softness, bear in mind that being kettled at this time of year means being forced to stand in the middle of the street for as long as six hours, forced to stand in freezing winter weather and to piss on the road because there is nowhere else to go.) Of course, this is no different to what the cops were doing before, but last week in London, the sacrificial police van was strategically placed so as to give an excuse for the kettle: blur the chronology, ensure lots of photos get taken of the poor innocent van, and you've got the licence to scare, bully and physically tangle with schoolkids. This week, though, the cops (or their superiors) don't seem to have been as bothered about how they were perceived: or, perhaps, the protestors out-witted them, denying them the propaganda upper hand by running away when they saw the vast police presence and spreading throughout the city in a kind of psychogeographic protest dérive. After all, it's hard to present people as violent protestors when they're running away from hordes of uniformed policemen in riot gear...

Beyond the specifics of what happened today, what's crucial at this stage is that the momentum is kept up - and so far, there are still thousands of people turning up to vent their frustation and outrage, which the police intimidation and the almost universal equivocation and condemnation of the protests from the mainstream media seems only to have fuelled. A related danger is the hijacking of the movement by bureaucracy and by parties who will negotiate only token compromises, sucking the real life and energy of the movement (i.e. down on the streets with the slogans and placards); because, in fact, seeing so many people who just will not take the shit they are being forced to swallow really has got the government intimidated, caused sweat patches to emerge on 'Dave' Cameron's fashionably tie-less shirt. There's thus no reason that we have to assume they have the 'upper hand'. Finally, some sort of connection with broader concerns about the government's policies must be established - otherwise, it will easy to dismiss the protestors as just a load of selfish/ priviliged/ naive students moaning away, unlike 'real people' who have to hold down jobs and take care of families, etc etc. There's a wave of public outrage just waiting to be tapped into - from those forced onto the dole and made to feel like shit for not beeing able to find a job in a climate which makes that task harder than ever day by day; from those at risk from cuts to public services; from those who don't actually belive in the neo-liberal agenda and still have some sense of social justice. That wave is what the student protest movement can and must recognise, stir up and engage with. After the initial surge of excitement about what happened at Millbank and elsewhere, the next few weeks will be crucial.

Thursday 25 November 2010

The Idea of an Alternative: Further Student Protests, 24.11.10

Richard Seymour calls it the “biggest student rebellion since ’68,” and, whether or not one thinks of that as an exaggeration, something does seem to be in the air at the moment. Yesterday saw students across the UK stage a wave of occupations, walkouts, and marches in protest at the proposed increased in tuition fees, the scrapping of the EMA (Educational Maintenance Allowance), the marketisation of education, the decimation of Arts and Humanities…

Unlike the recent NUS-organised march, of which the attack on Tory HQ at 30 Millbank was a (large) off-shoot, rather than an intended consequence, this seems to have arisen from a spontaneous, only loosely organised, desire on the part of a crowd of mostly young people – again, many on their first protest, buoyed by the fact that so many of their fellow students had walked out with them from classes, lectures and seminars at 11AM, and further enraged/ encouraged, rather than cowed, by heavy-handed police tactics (charging protestors with horses, establishing a kettle in which thousands of people were trapped for hours on end with little access to water and sanitation, in the freezing cold of the British winter, and, reportedly, physically assaulting teenaged protestors).

Why did the police act as they did? Their actions indicate that they (or their leaders) were severely rattled by what happened at Millbank; after the flak they received for their handling of the G20 protests, they had to appear a little ‘kinder’, perhaps, but they also had some licence to ‘crack down’ given the way the media had painted the Millbank protestors as dangerous anarchist troublemakers. (Intriguing how the word ‘violence’ is so often bandied about in connection to the protests, when the only significant violence against people is perpetrated by armed hooligans (sorry, police) – violence against property is hardly on the same level, and, anyway, might be said to reveal the latent violence hidden behind the smooth glass facades and official spin-talk (lies) of the power structure.) In coverage of both occasions, news coverage has crystallised around violence against, or involving, a specific object : the fire extinguisher thrown from the Millbank roof, and the police van which was abandoned inside the kettle and subsequently trashed. Not sure what to make of this – I don’t think most people are that devoted to vans, that bothered if they get trashed – so why the building up of such spluttering outrage? And why would anyone care? Surely no one really takes seriously the idea that, unless the kettle had been established, there would have been a horde of rampant teenagers running through the centre of London like the zombies in ‘28 Weeks Later’, trashing everything in their wake, a danger to the public and to private property…And surely most people would be more worried about their 15-year old son or daughter being forcibly detained for hours on end by armed and volatile police than by the thought that their offspring might smash a window?

The fact that so many of the protestors were young (mid-teens), does provide an opportunity for those in authority, and their media flunkies, to dismiss the protests as youthful idiocy, the violent action of confused teenagers (who are always angry at mum and dad, even though they know what’s best for them). (The Daily Mail, bizarrely, provides a sexist angle on the whole thing, as does The Telegraph.) But, at the same time, their youth, and the fact they many of them were obviously not experienced leftist organisers, is very exciting – it indicates the potential radicalisation of an entire generation who might otherwise have ignored, or swallowed, the coalition government’s heinous policies.

Finally, to focus solely on the events in London would be to distort the overall picture; whereas the NUS march of November 10th saw students from around the country descend on the capital, yesterday’s walkout, organised mainly by word of mouth and through the new social media (facebook, twitter, etc), saw events happening all over the country – clashes with police in Brighton and Bristol, occupations at many, many universities, peaceful marches elsewhere. Another walkout is planned for next week (November 30th), and hopefully the youthful exuberance and belief of the students can kick some life into the trade unions as well; while these actions may not immediately cause the government to crumble, they will be rattled, and, most importantly, their may be a gradual change in the general mindset, an alternative to the ‘there is no alternative’ fatalism that has been so prevalent recently – or, as Badiou argues in ‘The Communist Hypothesis’ the idea of an alternative.
“As in the 19th century, it is not the victory of the hypothesis which is at stake today, but the conditions of its existence. This is our task, during the reactionary interlude that now prevails: through the combination of thought processes—always global, or universal, in character—and political experience, always local or singular, yet transmissible, to renew the existence of the communist hypothesis, in our consciousness and on the ground.”
And perhaps something more as well...

More details on the protests:
A further post from Richard Seymour
Rolling updates from Libcom
The Guardian's Live Feed
Laurie Penny
Openned H.E. Protests Posting Page

Tuesday 16 November 2010

28 Weeks Later (2007)

Starring: Robert Carlyle, Rose Byrne, Jeremy Renner
Music: John Murphy
Director: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Screenplay: Rowan Joffe, J.C. Fresnadillo, E.L. Lavigne, Jésus Olmo
Director of Photography: Enrique Chediak

By its fast pace and (for a modern movie) short running time, the film avoids the usual horror-movie structural clichés of exposition and false shocks followed by quiet moments and real shocks; or rather, it amps and speeds them up so that they regain their full, adrenaline-pumping combined impact. Deployment of the over-used False Shock technique tends to be minimised in favour of real threat, apart from one early, self-conscious parody of the device, which nonetheless manages to provoke a jump: shadows fall across the face of a soldier who’s fallen asleep in his helicopter on sentry duty, and he’s awakened with a jump as something jumps up beside him with hideous growlings, poised to rip out his throat…Turns out that it’s his fellow soldier, come to relieve him and to take the next watch, and he relaxes into banter and camaraderie – only for the same trick to be repeated, moments later. In a sense, it’s a false false shock – the character in the film pokes fun at the device not once, but twice, satirising both the initial shock (the one which is ‘really nothing’) and the ‘real’ one which succeeds it (the actual threat, for which one has been caught off-guard by one’s relief after the false alarm). At the same time, this comic sequence does not dispel the notion that false shocks bring with them – the dread of deferred brutality to come. When it does come, that brutality, that outpouring of blood and guts and action, can come as something of a relief in itself – at last! now we get to the meat of the film – but here, it’s sickening and frightening rather than exhilarating. ‘28 Weeks Later’ specialises in real violence (rather than withholding it through suspense sequences) – panic, panting, sweat, sprinting – a sensory overload that, crucially, is bolstered by an underlying and more lingering sense of dread and terror in details, in ideas as much as in outright gore. Apart from the aforementioned ‘false shock’ send up, there is little in the way of humour here; the aim is to present a realistic contemporary context (modern day London) and a set of people (rather than characters with lengthily developed back-stories and relations), who find themselves in situations where they face impossible choices and where life is so fragile that it does not even bend to the rules of movie narrative (one feels that anyone could die at any point, that the film will not respect story arcs, will not respect the need to keep certain characters alive longer than others, the need for a ‘star’ to guide one through the carnage). To say, as some critics have, that the lack of ‘character development’ renders the film’s protagonists ‘faceless’, and that we consequently don’t care about their fate, is to ignore the film’s sense of in-the-moment terror, that basic human instinct. It also skates over the way that this amped-up, scarifying sensibility is mixed with snatches of bleak, quasi-sociopolitical allusion (not so much commentary as atmosphere, echo – visually reminiscent of ‘Children of Men’ in its contemporary-dystopian concentration on the consequences of catastrophe in recognisable British locations, both city and countryside, though without that film’s more drawn-out and thought-through critique). Thus, we might consider the truly unnerving scene where a crowd of frightened, fleeing civilians are trapped in a darkened, windowless, underground-car-park-type space – locked in by the US military after a fresh outbreak of the ‘Rage’ virus, which it had been thought was fully contained – and set on by the new carrier of that virus. Here we have the visceral suggestion of anxieties about detention centres, asylum seekers, the treatment of displaced victims of political conflict, without engaging in overly schematic or obvious allegorical parallels; the scene is as much about the absolute primal terror of being trapped, not only in a crowded place, carried along by the mass with little control of one’s own desired, individual direction, but also in the dark, with monsters leaping out at one from the shadows – or worse, maiming, damaging, killing one before they can be seen.

Since ‘Night of the Living Dead’, zombie films often seem to revolve around such use of confined, forbidding spaces, though here the tension is in wanting to escape from that space, rather than trying to keep the threat out (see also the French film La Horde). The climactic (though not final) sequence of ‘28 Weeks Later’ also takes place in a dark, confined space – this time, an abandoned tube station, were the film’s surviving protagonists (two siblings and a female US army officer who has been attempting to protect them) are menaced by the children’s infected father. Here, we have the suggestion of a near-Freudian take on the family unit, with the father’s abandonment of his wife in the opening sequence (he jumps out of a window and flees across a field, leaving his wife trapped in a house with hordes of zombies) and the sense of an older generation’s guilt; the virus break loose through his kiss with his newly rescued wife (who, it turns out, survived the attack due to a genetic immunity, but still acts as a carrier through her saliva), followed by a savage, cannibalistic destruction/rape. In the tube sequence, then, the wheel comes full circle, as the daughter ends up shooting her father while he menaces his young son in similar fashion. This doesn’t quite fit a psychoanalytic scheme (really, it should be the son, rather than the daughter, who does the killing); instead, it is a queasy and hysterical derangement of familial ties that fits well with the film’s numerous other set-pieces and situations, in which the comfort of established personal and social ties is torn to shreds in much the same way that ‘the infected’ rip out the throats of victims with their teeth. Here, one thinks too of the US military who try and fail to contain the fresh outbreak, having successfully defused the first through establishing martial law in Britain. Though the choices they face lead them to impossible decisions (this is not simple ‘anti-Americanism’), the scenes in which orders to fire at specific targets (anyone who shows signs of infection) change to orders to shoot indiscriminately into the crowd are particularly hard to watch, as soldiers mow down hordes of civilians; the computer-game body-count of indiscriminate, mindless violence translated back into horrifying reality. (And, one might note, so effective for a white, western audience due to the way in which the victims are white and western too; for, as we – yes, even we ‘liberal’ white westerners know, those two attributes endow a person with a humanity that ‘ragheads’ or Africans or anyone who does not have the right skin colour or cultural background do not possess.) The influence of computer-games/movies on the ‘generation kill’ mindset thus slimes its way into proceedings, but the film’s true appeal (if that is the right word) is the way it avoids hammering home the obvious, the obviously symbolic; specific situational details cannot help but evoke wider social, political, theoretical concerns, but these remain in the background as a kind of aura, or haunting, that unsettles much more than if it had been stated explicitly.

What ‘28 Weeks Later’ presents best of all is a growing sense of things slipping out of control, both for the individual people caught up in the chaos, and in terms of the general situation: for instance, the film’s final shot has a crowd of ‘the infected’ racing across to the Eiffel Tower like deranged tourists, silhouetted against a picture-perfect Paris sunset. (If it weren’t for the way this final twist adds a kind of final, nihilistic sucker-punch to all the film’s previous deaths and disasters, this might qualify as a moment of near-comedy.) There is no standard ‘loss of innocence’ – in contrast to ‘Children of Men’, the kids here, possible biological saviours from the virus, are not treated as Christ-like embodiments of hope, but as vulnerable and scared people; even if they survive, they are just as likely to fall victim to a panicky US army who would rather slaughter them to avoid the virus spreading, than try to work with their genetic condition in order to find a cure. (There are, of course, echoes in this scenario of the conflicts between the military and scientists in George Romero’s ‘Day of the Dead’.) The solidarity of the family or group has little chance to flourish in such situations, moments of conscience and morally-motivated action becoming seemingly impossible in the panic-stricken battle for survival. Robert Humanick, writing at the 'Projection Booth' blog, mentions “the film's ruthless morality plays; what remains to define love when even giving your life amounts to an act of futility?” Truth be told, however, there’s little time for much exposition of such a theme – death and mayhem are always just over the horizon, just over the grassy rise in that idyllic English park, just round the corner of that high rise flat or down the end of that dark alley. And, even if the question were to be asked more explicitly, it’s unlikely that the filmmakers would come up with much hope in their answer – or give an answer at all. Romero’s desert island paradise coda to the savage conflicts of ‘Day of the Dead’ may be partly parodic (and illusory – compare it to the nightmare which opens the film, and one senses that it could be just another dream, a fantasy of escape from which one will fall back into the waking nightmare of what is actually happening (as in the ending of Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’)), but it does at least offer us some ray of hope, of light, however tentative. Here, there’s no respite, only fresh horror; after the two children have been airlifted to safety in the helicopter of an army officer, we flash-forward some months to a shot of the helicopter, abandoned, a desperate voice begging for help over the helicopter’s radio headset going unanswered, the zombies having crossed the channel from Britain’s isolated island and onto the European mainland.

That’s the horror of the general situation, but ‘28 Weeks Later’ works on more than just (high-)conceptual grounds. One feels, rather, that horror has penetrated into the very fabric of the film, infecting it as the virus infects humans. On the level of sound, it penetrates the musical score, dominated by the crashing strains of John Murphy’s In the House, In a Heartbeat’. This cue, used only at the climax of '28 Days Later', recurs through the sequel like a leitmotif, underscoring many of the action sequences, with no peaceful or romantic counter-theme to offer contrast or hope – just the electric chug of ominous, unstoppable chord progressions and sudden, dread-filled silence. On the level of sight also, we find yet more horror; indeed, Sight is an important thread throughout the film – as in the aforementioned scene where a crowd are trapped underground, unable to see in the dark (though, here, the horror movie contrast between ‘dark night of the soul’ and the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ (the dawn after the vampires or werewolves or zombies have been vanquished and there is safety in the sunlight) does not exist – there is as much danger in the daytime as the night). Indeed, in the film’s opening sequence, that trajectory is reversed, so that danger is actually signalled by the move from darkness (a house boarded-up as protection against the infected hordes) into bright sunlight (the surrounding fields into which a character flees after the infected break in) that signals danger.) Most notably, though, sight becomes apparent in the focus on Eyes. The first we see of a virus-carrier in that opening scene is their bloodshot stare through a gap in the window-boarding; in the father’s murder of his wife, possibly the film’s most gory sequence, thumbs are pressed into eye-sockets with much spurting of blood and screaming. (Indeed, the role of the Eye in horror films is something which could well form a topic for future examination in itself – think ‘The Eyes of Laura Mars’, or the camera/eye in ‘Peeping Tom’, or the notorious eye-slicing scene in Fulci’s ‘Zombi’.) In the case of ‘28 Days Later’, it is with the treatment of eyes that the film’s near-nihilism once more rears its head. Though eyes have been supposed by some to be ‘the mirrors of the soul’, here, one cannot trust what one sees; the connection between appearance and what we might call soul, or empathy, or emotion – any of those intangibles usually signalled by facial expression or tone of voice or by raising or lowering or widening the eyes – is gone. Though the infected still retain their human, bodily frame, this becomes, as in the zombie films, little more than a walking corpse (even if, here, the infected are not actually ‘undead’, but live carriers of a terrible disease); and it is in the eyes that the first signs of infection appear, with the development of a blood clot that soon swells to fill the whole eye, an eye which becomes totally bloodshot, monochromatic, an unreadable void, gazing out but offering nothing in return, the human as sheer violence, sheer brutality, as the animal in the midst of the hunt: transformed, unreadable, savage, Other. We might recall how, in ‘Day of the Dead’, the scientists discover that the zombies do not actually need to eat to survive – they exist on pure extinct. The terrifying thing about them is that their action is unmotivated (and here it might have been a mistake to turn the infected father into something of a main antagonist, akin to the disappointing slide towards conventional bogey-man scare tactics in the otherwise marvellous ‘Sunshine’; in both cases, what is suggested is some sort of motivation or planning on the part of a previously instinctive or inhuman force). Of course, this lack of motivation, and the tendency of zombies (or, as they’re called here, ‘the infected’) to move in crowds, enables them to ‘stand in’ for something else, to fit into whatever allegorical and metaphorical framework the film-makers wish to load their film with; but, whereas the parallels between shopping-mall consumers and zombies in ‘Dawn of the Dead’ allowed Romero to indulge in the near-cartoonish destruction of faceless hordes for purposes of comic relief, here, in one particularly harrowing scene, the consequences of such full-scale massacre are moved back into the human realm, back into the realm of – perhaps – ethics.

‘28 Weeks Later’ is very much a big-budget, ‘A-List’ picture (though it does borrow some of the grimy, shadowy, hand-held and shaky griminess of its predecessor). Thus, we have swooping helicopter shots of shiny London skyscrapers, big explosions, multiple-zombie-massacre-by-helicopter-blades, and the booming sound of John Murphy’s climactic cue for ’28 Days Later’ used several times throughout the film during big action scenes. (Thankfully, we don’t have A-list actors, and one of the film’s virtues is that it doesn’t feel the need to preserve any of its characters for the sake of an obvious narrative arc or the presence of a recognisable face. As Robert Ring notes in his review: “I have seen few films so true to the [situation] that it progresses with total disregard for its characters. This is a good thing. No one is kept alive just because the plot needs them or because the story has invested too much in them. It's as if the writers aren't even sure themselves if the film is going to make it to a satisfactory end. Of course, this is how a horror film should be. It creates a world where anything truly can happen to anyone at anytime, and survival is not at all guaranteed.”) One might argue that the film’s texture is often not slick enough for ‘A-List’ status – and here we come to a realization of what has happened to ‘mainstream’ pictures in recent years: they have drawn on and cannibalized the techniques of exploitation films, of low budgets, of the ‘grindhouse’ aesthetic, and used them as an element of surface sheen (or its opposite, of apparent rust and grime) in a self-consciously manipulative way. Think ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (which would be treated with as much scorn as ‘Hostel’ were it not for the religious ‘justification’ offered by its scant narrative); think the near avant-garde metallic clunk, the techno assault of ‘Terminator: Salvation’ or ‘Transformers’; think Tarantino’s ‘movie-geek’ aesthetic. Perhaps the most obvious signal of this shift – whereby one can no longer separate the ‘big’ films from their seedy and sordid low-budget cousins (giallo, Euro-shlock, spaghetti western, etc) – was ‘The Bourne Supremacy’, which drew the techniques of ‘guerrilla’ film-making (primarily, the use of the hand-held camera to place the viewer physically ‘in’ the scene) into the mainstream action film, initiating them as just another part of mainstream cinema’s loud, metallic, crunching assault on the senses. True, ‘Blair Witch’ might have had something to do with it, though there at least, the aesthetic was preserved as an integral part of the film, almost its raison d’etre. But Paul Greengrass’ selective jigging of the camera in what was hardly an ‘underground’ movie (in contrast to his more persuasive neo-realist use of the technique in the TV movie ‘Bloody Sunday’) arguably neutralises the effectiveness to which the technique can be put in the future, for the sake of a few ‘punchy’ fight scenes.

Horror films are one of the main battlegrounds here, with the idolisation of 70s cinemas as a kind of benchmark, the rise of Hollywood remakes of cult classics (‘The Hills Have Eyes’, ‘Last House on the Left’, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’) in a manner that doesn’t attempt to sanitise or tone down the gore (indeed, revels in it), the rise of films and film-makers whose entire aesthetic seems to derive from Tobe Hooper et al. (For a negative take on said movement, see this article at Reverse Shot.) This is, one might argue, a kind of zombie-like, parasitical feeding on the dead, the past, a weird kind of retro-nostalgia, not for the wholesome days of Clear-Cut Morality, Cowboys and Indians, Black Hats and White Hats, and a belief in Progress and the Future, but for moral uncertainty, grunginess, unspeakable violence and taboo-breaking, rape, murder, mutilation, torture, unhappy endings, nihilism, and belief that Progress and the Future are illusions and lies used to justify and excuse hideous violence, a belief that we’re fucked because we (or they – those in authority, the bigots, the hypocrites, the moral high-grounders) have fucked everything up. “No future for you/ no future for me.” If, as is argued in the persuasive and thoroughly watchable documentary ‘The American Nightmare’, a whole species of horror films arose as a reaction to the loss of 60s hippy ‘innocence’ and the failure of the ’68 generation’s radical hopes as the bad 70s drew in, what is the status of the new breed of horror film that seeks to revive this species? Does it represent a welcome return to seriousness after the meta-fictional, post-modern jokiness of ‘Scream’ et al, a necessary re-assertion of the horror film’s dark heart after a generation of slasher movies and self-conscious parody, or is its supposed ‘bleakness’, ‘braveness’ and ‘uncompromising’ attitude really an excuse for lazy film-making? Is it a genuine attempt to engage with contemporary socio-political realities (or shall we just say, the Iraq war and the Bush regime), using similarly engaged past films as a template and example, or is it merely empty generic posturing, using the political resonances of, say, Romero and Cronenberg to score cheap credibility points, and, essentially, to cover up the core trashiness and nasty exploitation which is its real obsession? Perhaps this is such a key issue because horror has always been a somewhat uncomfortable presence in the world of film, despite being one of its staples across countries and cultures. It’s a genre which retains certain associations with a kind of filthiness and nastiness, a near-pornographic exploitation streak, not only occupying moral grey areas but taking pleasure in doing so; a genre where some of the classics are, essentially, B-movies that form a kind of apotheosis of a crude and shlocky form: ‘Psycho’, ‘Halloween’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’. (Which is perhaps why those the two most famous mainstream horror films of the 70s, ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The Omen’, used a religious framework as a kind of safety net for their set-pieces of blasphemy, sexual transgression, the disruption of the safe family situation by evil children run amok.) Herschell Gordon Lewis, Lucio Fulci, Tobe Hooper, George Romero, and now, Eli Roth, Alejandro Aja, Greg McLean, Rob Zombie: these are the true ‘auteurs’ of the horror world. Even if film noirs and westerns, beloved of the French New Wave and their quasi-academic ‘legitimisation’ of genre cinema, were just as opportunistic and ‘tacky’ as horrors, there’s still a certain griminess that just can’t be shaken from the horror pic, as it can with noirs (now viewed as nostalgic evocations of a certain stylised period, time and place) and westerns (which, if they are made at all nowadays, can engage with issues of history, myth and nation-building as much as with purely generic signifiers).

‘28 Weeks Later’, then, is surprising in that it manages to remain an ‘A-Picture’, despite drawing on the B-picture, exploitation lineage of gore movies (dating back to ‘2000 Maniacs!’) and that more general horror-film-feeling of moral and emotional bleakness, resulting from irreversible, or near-irreversible, societal breakdown. I’m not sure that I’d quite call this dishonest – though I do, as I’ve been arguing in the previous paragraphs, harbour certain suspicions about the mainstream embrace of shlock-techniques. Does the fact that a film like this can be received with little fuss or moral panic serve to neuter its impact? In the end, the answer must be no, because ‘28 Weeks Later’, despite its gory nature, aligns itself as much with the non-horror (though certainly horrific) dystopia of ‘Children of Men’ as with the ‘torture porn’ of ‘Hostel’ or ‘Wolf Creek’. What emerges from the film’s potent mix of a furiously-paced, balls-to-the-wall action/suspense/gore quotient (panic and terror) with a more creeping, invidious, nightmarish sense of horror is a truly grim and despairing contemporary take on a well-worn genre, one which avoids the pitfalls of much recent ’70s nihilist-chic for something more truly and lastingly unsettling.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Spitting Words and Rocks: The London Education Protests, 10.11.10

Oh hello, there was a march through the centre of London yesterday, it went past the House of Parliament and along by the river. It was organised by the NUS and UCU and was protesting education cuts and said things like: “NO to scrapping the EMA / NO to the privatisation of Arts, Humanities and Social Science teaching / NO to cutting ESOL provision / NO to higher fees / NO to fees in FE for ‘adult learning’ / NO to soaring levels of debt / And YES to fairness, equity, and a properly funded state education system.” And this march was supposed to go along its route and then there would be a rally at the end and we would watch some videos and speeches projected on a big screen and then everyone would go home or to the ‘afterparty’ at LSE; and there would be around 15,000 people there, in the middle of the week, in the early afternoon. But then there were 50,000 people from Wales and Scotland and England and some 5,000 of them went to the nearby Millbank Tower and caused damage to private property, which is a mortal sin, and they were not orderly and glass was smashed and there were figures on the roof with an anarchist flag and with fists and they stood out against the blue sky.

So, the media coverage of the demo was predictable, given the way that any of the past few years’ protests and riots in Greece or France have been routinely denounced as dangerous, irresponsible, ‘against common sense’ – the work of thugs, hooligans, ‘yobbos’. In article after article we see the 5,000 protestors who gathered and merged and jostled in the courtyard of 30 Millbank, Conservative Party HQ, similarly denounced as a small ‘extremist’ element (“a minority of idiots” as the NUS president described them). These ‘evil, or at best misguided’ [by whom?!] idiot-thugs (never mind the fact that a number of people there looked delicate and fragile and might be trounced by football hooligans) ‘damage the cause’; these thugs make all reasonable people hate them because they smash a few windows and enter the hallowed sanctum of those who are pushing the low of competition and profit and the law of the market down our throats and telling us to like it and stop choking; because they threw a few eggs and rocks and because there were flares and a small fire was lit with small and delicate wisps of charred paper floating over the crowd and down on them like some sort of confetti; because someone brought out a ghetto-blaster and the crowd started nodding their heads to muffled Drum ‘N Bass and suddenly everything felt like a cross between a rave a riot and a soundtracked piece of film or theatre (a surreal revealing of the real unreality of life under the present system); because the atmosphere was that of a carnival or a party, albeit one driven by frustration and anger – and yet the overall feeling was one of exhilaration – as someone said to me afterwards, ‘I realized when I was standing in that crowd that this was the happiest I’d felt for a long tine’; because this was a piece of fucking street theatre, a performance, an action, a happening; because this was where the avant-garde and performance art met and merged with ‘popular’ culture and the mass euphoria of the crowd in a club or a music festival or a football match or a demo; and where the impulse to destruction stemmed from the same spirit as the impulse to creation and enabled it and fostered it and fuelled it; because this is where theory becomes, became feeling. ‘My education is a fist.’

The point of an action like this is that it cannot be restricted, cannot be shepherded and moved on by the march stewards or the cops, cannot be made to move on rather than sitting down in front of the Houses of Parliament, cannot be reduced to the end-point of a big-screen and speeches made on a bus parked in front of Tate Britain and videos like movie trailers with pounding orchestral music and bogey-man Nick Clegg so that the march becomes the multiplex; all the momentum of whistles and drums and chants and people standing on the roofs of bus-stops and builders on scaffolding being cheered by crowds of students and grinning back could not be made simply to dissipate and disappear, to tail and trail off back down the road into ‘normality’; that we – you – want something more and cannot suppress that longing any longer.

The chants and songs, the rhyming couplets and swearwords and plosive voice explosions that you hear on marches such as this respond to the sloganeering and slick phraseology of advertising/ political-spin-culture, where a catchphrase cons us into acceptance and lulls our thinking minds to sleep; “Ready for Change" comes up against “Tory scum, Here We Come”. We might even say that this is poetry, poetry as antagonism and response and counter-thrust. It may not be ‘good poetry’, the slogans might even ‘embarrass’ you or seem trite and child-like. Yet they are there; this is change we can believe in, or at least it is a glimpse of the change that might happen were the momentum of yesterday afternoon to continue, to build up, to be followed up.

“When we mourn violence done against buildings more than violence done against people, we have totally internalised capitalist rationality. Perhaps attacking buildings is the only way to reassert the importance of being human.”(The Third Estate)

"The argument of the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics. There is something that Governments care for far more than human life, and that is the security of property, and so it is through property that we shall strike the enemy." (Emmeline Pankhurst)

“He was in the street, not a professional context but an open framework, a social and public space where all types of different people pass by, and there he was, taking risks without being afraid of looking utterly ridiculous! It reminds me of something that happened during the recent riots in Athens, where journalists came across a gang attacking places that represented neoliberalism to make noise, using breaking glass and burglar alarms as instruments. Improvising in the city. That's so inspiring, like the Futurists, the Scratch Orchestra and Black Block joining forces in an extreme form of sonic dérive! Imagine using police sirens as your instrument! Imagine what a beautiful drone twenty of them would make! The urban space offers so many possibilities for noise production, let's use the city as our venue – we'll always have an audience!”(Mattin)

"Love is not the unswerving bias of police dogs; it has to be made from scratch at the first indication of its possibility.”

“The wall of glass smashed in, looks like what Wordsworth saw; in the flint windbreaker, lying on the empty floor; to be a shard of broken glass, shining like life; psychosis as the mirror of your dreams, or justice.”(Jow Lindsay)

Tuesday 19 October 2010

R.I.P. Marion Brown

Sad news: Marion Brown passed away on October 10th. Absolutely one of my favourite 'New Thing' saxophonists (well, New Thing and beyond, into early ambient (with Harold Budd), AACM-style 'little instruments' avant-gardism ('Afternoon of a Georgia Faun') and straight-ahead jazz, later in his career); he was also an ethnomusicologist and composer. He hadn't been playing for a number of years due to illness, though his 'profile' might have been raised somewhat in the rock world by the fact that His Name Is Alive released a (very lovely) tribute album a few years back.

Below, a track from the 1967 album 'Porto Novo' - perhaps one of the very finest recordings from the free jazz era, and yet somehow still out-of-print (though I posted a full rip from the LP on this blog, some time ago); from the same year, some gripping concert footage of Brown in free-jazz mode; by way of contrast, his meltingly beautiful interpretation of Harold Budd's composition 'Bismalli Rrahman Rrahim' (not the lengthy original performance, but a reworking from the album 'Vista'); and finally, Brown as composer - his Jean Toomer inspired piano music, as played by Amina Claudine Myers.

I presented a two hour radio show on Brown back in 2008 - unfortunately there wasn't time to play anything from beyond 1974, but there's still a decent range of stuff on there, I think.

As I wrote on this blog a few years ago:
Despite his neglect, [Brown] was certainly as good an improviser as the better-known 'New Thing' musicians [Archie] Shepp and [Pharoah] Sanders. All along though, he wasn't so much 'New Thing' as into his own thing - a good dose of classical influence, an interest in ethnic musics (which, admittedly, Sanders and Shepp shared), and, above all, a sparer approach than the other two musicians. Whereas Shepp and Sanders were well capable of emoting to great effect (the prelude section to 'Creator has a Master Plan', or Shepp's gorgeous, impressionistic reading of 'In a Sentimental Mood' (from 'On this Night', 1965)), Brown was more understated, relying on the carefully chosen phrase, on clear motivic development rather than the pure sound/smear/scream tactic. Listen to the phrase he plays in 'Improvisation', from 'Porto Novo' (a phrase which also crops up in his solo on one of the other tracks). Just perfect.

There's a general quality to a lot of his music which is hard to define, to pin down, but can nonetheless be found on some very different recordings. Listen: it's there when he takes elements of the keyboard-rich sound found on early Miles Davis fusion - all those twinkling electric piano melodies and chordal textues - to build something that's soothingly lovely, static and hovering ('Sweet Earth Flying'); it's there when, with different instrumentation, he conjures up the wonderful, hazy, later-summer, small-town feel of a piece like 'Karintha' from 'Geechee Reccollections'; and it's there when he presents a challengily indeterminate avant-garde soundscape on 'Afternoon of a Georgia Faun' - music which seems to be half-asleep, yet is crafted with subtly shifting, delicate improvisational care.

Marion Brown: a masterful musician. Born, September 8, 1931 in Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Died, October 18th, 2010, in Hollywood, Florida, USA.

Friday 24 September 2010

The John Tchicai Trio in Oxford

(John Tchicai: tenor saxophone, flute; John Edwards: bass; Tony Marsh: drums, percussion)

Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford
Thursday 23rd September 2010

One might not think of the still yawning gulf between the quality of the music and the size of the audience in the world of improvised music as particularly advantageous, and, broadly speaking, one would be entirely correct. Nonetheless, there is a more fortunate side effect resulting from this state of affairs: because of the music’s low profile, one can get to see such superlative practitioners of the art as John Tchicai in settings such as that in which he performed on this night – unamplified and close, not barking down at the audience from a stage on-high, his instrumental voice (mis-)translated through the electronic boom of a PA system, but at the same level as the audience, on the same floor, just a few feet away from the front-row chairs – where a movement from one side of the room to the other can create a perceptible shift in dynamics, in the weight of sound, where the ‘accidentals’ (the thwack and thud of feet on floor, the sound of breath, of the exertion evinced by total mental/physical commitment to the music) are not drowned out, but can take their place as a vital part of the music’s continuing argument, a kind of sub-plot to the main drama taking place in the world of notes, tones and harmonies.

I say ‘exertion’, and I have in mind Tchicai’s two accompaniments on this occasion, the English drum and bass pairing of John Edwards and Tony Marsh. Both Edwards, who at times let out a mumbling vocal murmur in accompaniment to his bass playing, Jimmy-Garrison style, and Marsh, who, like Tchicai, spent most of the performance with his eyes closed (so well does he know his way round his kit), dropped musical implements (Edwards his bow, Marsh a drumstick), during moments where their physical involvement with the music had reached its most fevered pitch. Tchicai himself, a striking figure with an elegant six-foot-plus frame, showed his involvement for the most part simply by playing beautiful, engaging and engaged music, though there were occasions where his knees bent in the kind of calisthenics for which John Coltrane became known in his later performances. His main instrument of choice since the 1980s has been the tenor saxophone, rather than the alto for which he became known in the 1960s: nonetheless, the particular quality of tone he extracts from both members of the saxophone family is remarkably similar, piquant and individual, like an extension of, or a musical complement and alternative to his speaking and singing voice (which he may also deploy in the course of an improvisation). Whereas many free jazz players emphasize the growling, honking lower register potential of the tenor, Tchicai mostly avoids such sounds, and even the multiphonics and altissimo that mark the opposite, high-register extreme. Instead, he plays inventively melodic and captivatingly open improvisations: lots of phrases are repeated, sometimes with shades of the ecstatic driving-to-abandon of the blues ‘gut-bucket’ honkers, though more often as if to tease out the full implications of the repeated phrase until it springs into a new phrase, a new area of investigation. He is no hurry, willing to let the music evolve and do its work at a speed which will do it justice, with no shortage of ideas but no need or wish to rush headlong through them all at lightning-speed.

There were a couple of sheet-music stands on ‘stage’, but the music was never governed by a simple theme/solos/theme structural template – Ornette Coleman’s great innovation in the 50s, playing on the ‘mood’ of the song rather than its chord-change structure bears fruit still, half-a-century later, in such contexts as these: melodic yet open, rehearsed yet elastic. ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ made a brief appearance in the first piece; the second was a calypso, Tchicai emphasizing with relish and almost humorous exaggeration the long, deliciously extended downwards smear that ended the melody. Edwards was –once again! – outstanding, his playing displaying, perhaps more than usual, overt jazz touches that meshed well with Tchicai’s vocabulary, but also plenty of ‘out’ techniques, all adapted to and from the emotional, colouristic and textural needs of the moment. Thus, we had strummed double-stops, punchy thwacks, and buzzing, vibrating strings, walking bass patterns, careening figures produced by sliding both hands in succession over the neck of the bass, and muted accompaniment, produced through variation in finger pressure on the strings, to Tchicai’s flute playing. Some of this was displayed in group work, some in solo spots, and Marsh was also afforded some solo time, his playing radiating a joyous sense of possibility and a sense of melodic invention, as he developed engrossing solo patterns on the kit and traded playful fours (or near-fours) with Tchicai. There was no supporting act on the evening, which seemed just right: wonderful that a band like this should be able to expand and develop their interplay over the course of a whole gig, rather than being squeezed into a single slot where everything has to coalesce instantly and at speed.

After an interval, the second set found Tchicai playing flute as well as saxophone (he brought things to a quiet close on this instrument, his repeated incantation shadowed by bowed bass), and reciting some lines of poetry. “Truth is found/ in between / the mother of all recipes” – these were lines intoned, almost song-like, which seemed to spur on a particular vigorous section of saxophone playing; later, some words about geography and direction (movements north, south, east, west), with a Coltrane reference (Giant Steps – though this was fleeting, and the poem was, thankfully, not another ‘Coltrane’ poem bulked up by quotations of song and album titles), and then a speculation on what it would be like if all those humans and animals whose feet and claws made marks on a beach were brought together at the same time, in that same place. Like Cecil Taylor, Tchicai has not had books or even pamphlets of his work published, though a poem does appear in the recent anthology ‘Silent Solos: Improvisers Speak’: like that recited in Oxford, it concerns itself with speculative and only-half rhetorical questions, dreams, imaginings – in this latter case, a visit to “that/ strange looking star in the lower Milky Way.” “On arriving,” continues Tchicai, “I put my ear to the rubbery surface of the star/ and I heard a sound as if a great crowd of people came toward me.” [1] The poetic concern in both cases seems to be with the imprints left by people in physical space, on physical surfaces, the history embedded in sand or soil or star, the sense that, in some way, the earth itself is voiced, in exchange with the multitude of speaking and singing humans who inhabit it: that travel is not simply a matter of temporal and geographic progress (though the lines about geography do indicate this as a thematic concern), but something that can be accomplished in the present moment, as a means of communication with the past, with ‘other worlds’ (other spheres of experience, modes of being and apprehension). The ‘here and now’ is thus revealed as more than just a banal present-ness in which we are trapped by routine and the force of circumstance: rather, it is a world of possibilities, echoes, prophecies, borrowings, sharings. Which transfers appropriately to this trio’s performance: it was all about communication with the audience, with each other, with the history, present and future of the music. “The mother of all recipes,” in/deed.

[1] John Tchicai, ‘untitled’ (pp.145-6), in ‘silent solos: improvisers speak’ (ed. Renate de Rin) (buddy’s knife jazzeditions, 2010)

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Going Genre-less

[Note - I'm using the term 'genre' here as a means of defining a certain restriction/ unspoken delineation of what is and is not 'permitted' in works of art. I'm not arguing for the radical overhaul/overthrow of genre itself - working within a set of established conventions/ways of making meaning, and then transcending/ modifying them, perhaps to establish another set of meanings (etc) is a means of engaging with historical & cultural imperatives beyond the individual's imperfect tunnel-vision. Nonetheless, as in the essay which sparked these thoughts, I wanted to mount an attack on/ conduct a sceptical consideration of how artists might relate to genre at present - hence, I did not wish to adopt a reverent tone. In any case, what follows is not 'the finished article', but off-the-cuff/ a provocation/ provisional/ a thinking through. I should also note that this piece of writing, for me, is coloured by various things I've been thinking about in relation to musical free improvisation, & to questions of performance/theatre. It might do to bear this in mind, to realize that the piece is primarily concerned with fairly specific areas of contemporary practice, & probably does not apply very well to, say, the nineteenth century novel.]

A: Excerpts from 'Genre's for Fascists' by Sarah Fox - Blogpost at

Norman O. Brown famously concludes Love’s Body: “Everything is metaphor; there is only poetry.

Poetic does seem a lot more accommodating than prosaic, or dramatic, or fictive, or _______. Poetry is elastic, not even remotely confined to literature. Because just about anything can be poetic: a tree’s shape, the texture of a placenta, quantum physics, justice, monsters, dreams, death. Might we entertain the proposition that poetry transcends genre and/or engulfs it? (Baudrillard: “theory could even be poetry.”) Is there, on the one hand, poetry-as-genre, and on the other a more Orphic, or gnostic, or even primordial poetic function originating in Cro-Magnon’s first metaphoric projections on cave walls—”oceanic feeling,” e.g.—that is, terminologically, a kind of universal principle?

Does silence have genre? Chance?
Yoko [Ono]’s ecstatic and vertiginous scream?

Genre is a product and problem of patriarchal economy. Genre = the DNA of the book, its certain paternity, distinction, the disavowal of chaos, “the author.” It’s where the money is (or isn’t). The vessel for both genre and authorship is the book. Which, among other things, is, in a very important sense, a “waste product.” The jouissance and potential “insignificance” for one traveling in the rectal cauldron meet a grave with a trapdoor—just a “little death,” and afterward no toxic trace on the planet (a planet tumored and asphyxiating from all our death drive hyper-reproductivity.) The book—embalmed by genre and the petrified death cries of the forest, metonymous for (reproducing) the person of the author herself—is a burial vault.

So when Joyelle asks us to think about what it really means to go genreless, to essentially speculate about the future of our enterprise, I find myself pondering questions like these: If forced to describe “what you write” without naming genre or any terminology related to the notion of genre, how would you do it? Is genre democratic? Manipulative? Are the constraints of genre part of your process? Are you addicted to genre? In what ways is your identity, your image, significant to the readers of your work? How come nobody but us gives a shit about our genre? Is permanence, and/or “legacy,” crucial to your creative investments? Do you know who you are without genre? Can there be books, or even authors, in a genreless culture?

Paradigm is our enemy. Everything is malleable. There’s only poetry."

B – Genre Violence

Spurred by the piece from which i've quoted at length above, i've been wondering how far the consideration of genre is the condition of possibility for much 'critical' thought about art – does placing artists within a community (real or constructed, canon-formation style, by critics, after the fact) becomes placing them in pigeon-holes, in boxes? The title i’ve chosen is maybe a stupid flippant pun – but in a real sense i think genre does do violence to the work of art, bending/ twisting/ distorting/ modifying it to fit some pre-conceived pattern, shaving off the edges so it will fit neatly & nicely within the designated area in which it is allowed to exist…

Yes it *is* important to consider *community* & the social context of the art in question- where how why it was produced - but doing this thru the trope of genre ends up being always so fucking taxonomic - the 'post-punk shoegaze free-bop avant-nu-metal-speed-thrash-core of the artist's style'... - the work never considered except in constant rel(eg)ation to what has gone before & is judged as the starting point, the eternal point of comparison, the gold standard. We're constantly referred back to a few cultural 'signposts', 'great works', 'top albums' fixed in aspic, often ignoring where they came from (see rock & roll and the white commodification of black music) or that they occurred in the flux and flow and warp and wave of a *continuing* culture (continuing, not necessarily via a process of 'development', but nonetheless thru reciprocal hauntings sharings borrowings etc)). These 'great works' are then judged as the 'starting point' for all future consideration (sometimes the critic tries to predict that the album (or book, or painting, or whatever) will become established as a future 'great work' - actively trying to 'assist' in the process of canon formation). Such reliance on/obsession with 'great works' takes place, it seems to me, mainly because critics cannot be bothered to actually talk about the work itself and its particular aesthetic/sensuous/intellectual qualities - cannot allow the pleasure it might give them (or cannot separate that from the spectacle/economic machine that attempts to shape and subsume it) – must always filter it through canons and genres and critical categories. (Not that 'art' should not be *critical* in a very real sense - but ‘critical’ as connoting a kind of active engagement and passionate concern with the world and the circumstances in which 'we' find ourselves & how we change them and work with and in them and (work our way) out of them - *not* ‘critical’ as connoting the formation of taxonomic categorical cross-referencing genre canons (which always purposely exclude the 'undesirable'/unsayable/unwanted/threatening - or include them only to neutralize them, mute them, strip them of their screaming core))…

This all conditions what is ‘allowed’ or not - what is permissible - 'extreme' things/actions/ways of being are in the end restrained because they too are placed within certain generic contexts - e.g. 'performance art', 'noise music', 'electro-acoustic free improvisation'. & the same with the constant live documentation of every gig/ performance/ reading/ happening on youtube or bootleg mp3s circulating the internet - everything is processed and squeezed through the electronic wires/ circuits/ thru the machine (which replaces/stands in for/merges with the body?). There is no single, important, *present* live act(ion) - everything is connected/ globalised/ simultaneous/ disposable.

& even in live action, when we are in the room performing or watching others (usually men, displaying all the macho qualities of 'radical' political sympathies/imagery (poster boys Che Guevara, Peter Brotzmann, Jesus Christ with their beards / Malcolm X with his machine gun ('By Any Means Necessary')/ Archie Shepp with his saxophone) - even then, even when we convince ourselves that this is the necessary 'underground', the 'resistance', the space which might allow some glimpse of utopia (tho' probably we don't think that slinking down the stairs to buy another pint of beer at the bar), we are held in check. But just what are we afraid of? Of offending people? Offending social norms? But does anyone every really think why those norms are in place to begin with anyway? Is there some sense of guilt in making art? That it must be done 'the right way', the established way (with reference to some previous canonical hero/ martyr), otherwise we're not taking it seriously? Is anyone really worried about failure? Doesn't failure provide the conditions of possibility for new forms, glimpses of possibilities/ utopias/ visions flecked thru dreams ravings starkness? Which only exist as the tiniest flashes in our own body circuits? Which exist only because they cannot be constrained / because they spurt out almost accidentally, tho' willed / like breath or howling

What then is (in) this flash, this glimpse, these flashes & glimpses - what is *not* genre? What is not marketed/marketable - what is itself only itself in that moment nothing else other than itself there present at that one place at that one time in that one room or one place with that one person or that particular combination of persons occupying that space - what is *singular*, irreducible - singular in being itself & no other (& not pretending (simu/lation, di/lution)), yet *plural* too in its sharing/ confrontation/ occupation of multiple possibilities/ impossibilities. I guess this is a way of asking, or answering the question sarah fox poses: “Do you know how you are without your genre?” Do you know how (who/why) you are – without that protection, stripping it away. Which is also the point mattin makes in his essay, ‘going fragile’:

“This is an unreliable moment, to which no stable definition can be applied. It is subject to all the particularities brought to this moment. The more sensitive you are to them, the more you can work with (or against) them. You are breaking away from previous restrictions that you have become attached to, creating a unique social space, a space that cannot be transported elsewhere. Now you are building different forms of collaboration, scrapping previous modes of generating relations.”

In other words...this is the moment/ before we find out / the remit and discover / what's possible

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Space Dimension: A Tribute to Noah Howard

Photo by Juma Sultan

September 3rd 2010 saw the passing of yet another free jazz great: the alto saxophonist Noah Howard. Howard’s music has always been some of the most straightforwardly enjoyable of the ‘New Thing’, and I thought it would be fitting to put together some sort of tribute. The track descriptions below relate to an MP3 playlist I’ve put together: you can download the whole thing via this link.

Howard was born in 1943 in New Orleans, and it’s not hard to hear the joyous, declamatory nature of his style as having roots in that city. As a young man, he played in his local church, and with Louis Armstrong; his first instrument was, in fact, the trumpet, and it was not until the 1960s that he switched to alto sax. As with so many other ‘New Jazz’ saxophonists, he moved to New York and came under the influence of John Coltrane, paying tribute to him on his second album as a leader (which had been preceded by a piano-less Quartet date for ESP-Disk). That said, ‘At Judson Hall’, the sophomore album, is quite different from Coltrane’s dense, un-stoppable performances of the time, though both tracks clock in at just under twenty minutes each. The quartet from the first ESP date is expanded to include Dave Burrell’s piano and Catherine Norris’ cello, the addition of another stringed instrument providing greater timbral richness and perhaps mitigating against the dense, high-volume assault of the free jazz ‘blowout.’ Thus, there are moments with a Spanish tinge, as well as a sombre, pensive quality, that actually sound closer to some of the more long-form and abstract explorations of Charles Mingus than to what one might associate with much ‘New Thing’ music of this period. ‘This Place Called Earth’ opens with arco strings (Norris and the great Sirone), Howard sounding a little like John Handy on the latter’s ‘Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival’; after five minutes or so, the rest of the band come in, stating the theme, and there are solos by Colbeck and Dave Burrell. Burell’s lengthy improvisation gradually becomes louder and more intense, pedalled clusters mashing up with flickering cymbals – and Howard (soon followed by Colbeck) takes the opportunity to ride the wave, the horns throwing out chattering, shivering sounds that coalesce and resolve themselves into the returning main theme.

1/ ‘This Place Called Earth’
from ‘At Judson Hall’ (1966)

Probably Howard’s best known work is that undertaken in the late 60s and early 70s on three albums recorded in collaboration with a couple of fiery tenor saxophonists, Frank Wright and Arthur Doyle, whose often abrasive approach was balanced out by Howard’s soaring sweet-and-sour alto. The first of these, ‘The Black Ark’, recently re-issued by Bo’ Weavil, marked Doyle’s recording debut, and he powers his way through these tracks like a force of nature, smearing, shrilling, keening, testifying. As with much free jazz, the actual compositional material (before the solos begin) is accessible and appealing – catchy, melodic, swinging, and gorgeously lyrical. Here’s a (slightly revised) extract from a review of the 2007 re-issue which I wrote for the online magazine ‘eartrip’:

There’s a somewhat cosmopolitan feel to the album: from the Latin/film noir-flavoured ‘Ole Negro’, with Few’s jazzy solo, to the Oriental mood of ‘Mount Fuji’, whose charming melody just about manages to stave off tweeness. In any case the focus is not really on the melody itself- it serves more as a springboard for some righteous blowing and sparkling, ferocious interplay. Also note the way that, as with Coltrane, the melody seems to have become transformed once returned to –struggle and exploration making the starting-point the more precious for having been ‘attained’ the hard way.

On ‘Fuji’, Cross constructs his solo out of yelps and growls, buzzing repeated fingers and tension-building long, held notes. Doyle goes straight for the jugular, like Pharoah Sanders, concentrating on sound and emotion rather than melodic line and careful construction: wailing and screaming, he’s liable to stay in the extreme upper register of his horn for minutes at a time, unleashing barrages of stratospheric trills and supplications. Richard Williams had this to say about Doyle in his 1972 review of the album for Melody Maker, thus: “this man is dangerous – he never plays anything you could recognize, just furious blasts of rage. His solo on “Domiabra” couldn’t be written down, or even sorted out. It sounds more like raw energy than anything I’ve ever heard. He’s nasty, man.” Another review, with reference to that same solo, puts it more dramatically: “he sounds as if he’s trying to blow his whole body through the saxophone.”

Through all of this, the pure, smooth directness of Howard’s alto cuts through like a knife, and it is the moments when all three horns are going for it that are the most compelling on the album. Try resisting the sound of Doyle roaring, Cross blasting, Howard obsessively repeating melodic phrases or playing with yearning, lyrical fervour, undercut by Few’s splashy piano, the insistent bass strum and hum, Ali’s cymbal-work and Juma Sultan’s congas, with the use of a spacey delay sound giving them a Sun-Ra vibe (though it’s easy to lose the detail of their accompaniment in the general exaltation).

It might be helpful to note here that, while the record just drowns in passion, it’s all the more effective for introducing variety in texture and mood, for mixing the bitter with the sweet and the rough with the smooth. As Howard notes in an interview, “if you’ve ever been in a black Baptist gospel church, and the choirs cut loose, you have this incredible harmony, and then you have the soloists, and the soloists go all the way out. And most of the preachers can sing too, and they’ll go all the way out. But always within the context of gospel harmony.” The balance between freedom and restriction, dissonance and harmony, noise and melody, is a difficult one to maintain, but the musicians manage it just about perfectly here.

I personally have a soft spot for another Howard album, the (still out of print) ‘Space Dimension’, which was cut a year later with a slightly smaller group that featured Frank Wright instead of Doyle, and be-bop drummer Art Taylor pitching right into the free fold to replace Mohamed Ali (on all but one of the tracks). It features some of the same tunes, but takes them even further out, and the contrast between Howard’s smoother, more patient and lyrical approach and Wright’s straight-for-the-gut, throaty passion, is perhaps even more pronounced. The way they build from a simple, catchy groove to massive, noisy free jazz is a shining example of how powerful this stuff can be when done right, and has perhaps never been bettered.

‘Uhuru Na Umoja’, released under Wright’s name, features the same group and a similar set of tunes to that covered on ‘Space Dimension’, though the compositions are re-titled (e.g. ‘Queen Anne’ from ‘The Black Ark’ becomes ‘Aurora Borealis’, ‘Viva Black’ is ‘Ole Negro’). The longest track is just under eight minutes, the shortest just three – quite compressed running time for a free jazz record, but this succinctness doesn’t mean that anything is lost in emotional fervour; the musicians give it their all, and the result is one of the most attractive albums in both the Wright and Howard catalogues.

2/ ‘Mount Fuji’ from ‘The Black Ark’ (1969)
3/ ‘Church Number Nine’ from ‘Space Dimension’ (1970)
4/ ‘Aurora Borealis’ from Frank Wright, ‘Uhuru Na Umoja’ (1970)

Howard’s career trajectory was the usual one for free jazz musicians at the time: early recordings with ESP-Disk, under-appreciation and financial difficulty in America, and a subsequent move to Europe to find greater playing opportunities. His relocation occurred in 1972, when he decided to base himself in Paris. A year earlier, he’d recorded for Dutch radio with Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink, leading lights in the emergent European free jazz/improvisation scene, who’d earlier collaborated with visiting American jazz musician Eric Dolphy. The sextet date, released as ‘Patterns’ on Howard’s own label (and later re-issued on Eremite Records), pairs three Dutchmen (Mengelberg, Bennink, and guitarist Jaap Schoonhoven) with three Americans (Howard, bassist Earl Freeman and conga player Steve Boston) in a free improvisation with a raw, anarchic edge that could be found elsewhere in Howard’s work with Frank Wright and in Mengelberg/Bennink’s Dadaistic improvisations: ululating vocals and African percussion abound. The record cuts in, seemingly mid-way through the improvisation, with a spacey section featuring thick, Sharrockian electric guitar and prominent congas, and it builds from there; a whirlwind of percussion, thunderous grooves, and uneasy romanticism rendered eerie by the studio reverb on Howard’s sax and the unpredictable backing of Mengelberg’s pan-idiomatic, often dissonant piano. There’s some sense that it’s not always an easy fit between the Dutch improvisers, with their desire to play freer and freer, and the groove-focussed Americans – and perhaps it’s that slight mismatch that makes this near-forty-minute session so fascinating. Given the way the piece unfolds, it’s hard to excerpt from it, so I’ve decided not to include the MP3 in this playlist; however, the album (which also includes the collaboration with Chris McGregor included below) should be fairly easily available to buy.

During the 70s, Howard recorded and toured in Europe, often (like Frank Wright) returning to the same themes as anchors for the freer improvisations. He also began to play in a style that was closer to modal jazz than to the ‘New Thing’, as demonstrated on a live 1975 recording of Coltrane’s ‘Olé’. This was also covered by Pharoah Sanders a few years later, and both musicians use the tune’s repetitive chordal structure to build expansive solos, repeating motifs over and over until they seem to crumble under the strain, coalescing into new figures or smooth, held tones and pinched, piercing cries, the drums’ propulsive rhythms constantly threatening to surge and sway over into free playing while always keeping things surging ahead within the framework of the tune. Neither Sanders nor Howard try to emulate the ‘exotic’ quality of Coltrane’s original, which featured Eric Dolphy’s and the wondrous combination of two basses, strumming and bowing to provide a textural element largely lacking from the be-bop of the preceding years. They also focus more on the celebratory, joyous nature of the piece than on the darker, ‘duende’ elements that peaked through in Coltrane’s version; one might also describe the approach as more ‘crowd-pleasing’, though there’s certainly no skimping on length (Howard’s version lasts 12 minutes, Sanders’, 20). It was during this period that some free players began to move back ‘inside’, structuring their playing within more familiar harmonic and rhythmic territory, a kind of middle-ground in which they could meet players associated in most critic’s minds with a slightly more ‘mainstream’ approach – the sort of artists recording for the Strata-East Record label. Whether or not this apparent ‘softening’ of approach gained more than it lost is a matter of debate; personally, I find it a tad predictable, bypassing as it does the transitional, perhaps more episodic and ‘abstract’ approach evinced on the Judson Hall recordings for a more schematic theme-solo-climax-theme layout that, while it does not negate much attractive and inspiring playing, does feel somewhat restrictive. One knows roughly where things are going to go before they happen, in contrast to earlier recordings, where there was a sense of near-chaos, of danger, a sense that the music was being driven by the emotional logic of the moment as much as by pre-determined structural considerations. Nonetheless, if my favourite items from the Howard discography are those from the late 60s and early 70s, particularly the collaborations with Frank Wright, I still find much to enjoy in the later 70s work, and ‘Olé’ in particular is a fine listen.

5/ ‘Olé’
from ‘Live in Europe, Vol.1’ (1975)

1977’s ‘Red Star’ has the bonus of being available (not the case with many of the Howard recordings that still languish out-of-print); it’s a studio date on which he once more collaborates with the great pianist Bobby Few, as well as with legendary be-bop drummer Kenny Clarke. The track I’ve chosen from this album is ‘Creole Girl’, one of Howard’s signature tunes from this period until, it seems, the last few years of his life. A simple boogaloo, it’s treated here in a fairly straightforward manner. Bass and drums are recorded with that slightly artificial splashiness and lack of depth that seemed to characterise some recordings from this decade (perhaps from engineers who weren’t familiar with the importance of the jazz rhythm section as an interacting part of the whole ensemble, rather than simply background noise). But this is actually one of my favourite Howard tracks from the get-go – listen to the way it opens, with a little tinkle down the piano, popping bass establishing the groove before the entry of the horns; listen to the theme, which comes across in this rendering as at once blissfully relaxed and slightly melancholy, stated in velvet unison by Howard’s alto and Richard Williams’ trumpet. Each band member gets a short and sweet solo – all that is, apart from Kenny Clarke, who, of all the players on this date, would actually be the most familiar to your average jazz fan. First up is Bobby Few, who elaborates on the chord changes with jabbing repeated notes and gospelly fervour. Richard Williams’ trumpet is mellow but ecstatic; Howard develops simple melodic ideas with disarming unfussiness and plenty of feeling; Guy Pederson begins with twangy variations on the theme before the tempo slows for him to ruminate at greater length; then the theme comes back in and we’re done. For me, the charm of this piece comes precisely from the fact that it’s quite low-key – neither a super-fast scorcher, nor an all-out emotional free jazz piece. It’s smooth and ‘professional’, but the musicians don’t sound uninterested – rather, they have their say in compressed, sweet statements that stick close to the tune’s harmonic outline without every sounding overly constricted. The eight minutes just fly by.

6/ ‘Creole Girl’
from ‘Red Star’ (1977)

In 1979, Howard connected with the great South African musicians Chris McGregor and Johnny Dyani to record a session originally designed for release by the Mercury Record label. In the event, what they played was judged too politically inflammatory to release, due to McGregor’s interpolation of the ANC Anthem (this before it became trendy for pop musicians to oppose apartheid). The track in question is a kind of free-ranging suite, sometimes centring around melodic figures, elsewhere flowing into sections loosened up by the ecstatic singing of Kali Z Fasteau, and Dyani’s Zulu vocal interjections and incantations. Howard sounds right at home, striking just the right balance between topical, righteous anger (his playing makes much more use of the ‘honks’ and ‘shrieks’ vocabulary than on the previous two tracks) and celebratory melodicism.

7/ ‘Message to South Africa’
from ‘Message to South Africa’ (1979)

During the 80s, Howard turned to funk, though there seems to be no documentation of this period in terms of recordings. I’m also not familiar with his most recent work, often released through his own label, in which he seems to have been experimenting with world music and lounge-jazz fusions, as well as introducing his singing voice. But there’s some fine material among the music that I’ve heard of his from the late 90s and early 2000s, which is, broadly speaking, in the free jazz mould. ‘Live at the Unity Temple’, a 1997 release on Ayler Records, finds him playing once more Bobby Few, covering some of the staple tunes that have travelled with him throughout his career. A measured solo introduction focuses on the repeated main theme of ‘Lovers’, space filled up by Few’s chunky piano, the drums setting up a cracking pace, full of boiling cymbal crashes – the music feels volatile, dramatic, exciting. Over the next ten minutes, this full band rush alternates with bass and drum solos, before Howard introduces the perky theme of ‘Schizophrenic Blues’ which provides, not an anchoring groove, but the spur to more storming, squalling, rousing improvisation, with Howard frequently, obsessively returning to that melodic figure. It’s a suitably joyous way to end this tribute - like the best of Howard’s work, full of impassioned vigour and melodic zest. The man, and his music, will be missed.

8/ ‘Lovers/Schizophrenic Blues’
from ‘Live at Unity Temple’ (1997)