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.