Thursday, September 18, 2008

Here today, gone tomorrow

I've moved!!

This blog, and all of its contents, can now be found here:

The Watchful Ear

Thank you for your patience!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Pier today, gone tomorrow

I heard a sad piece of news driving to work today. the Grand Pier at Weston Super Mare, one of mine and Julie's favourite haunts burnt down early this morning, leaving only the base of the Grade II listed Victorian structure intact. What is it about piers and fires? Something to do with water and electronics not mixing too well? Since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been no fewer than 24 major fires recorded on UK piers.

This isn't the first time Weston's pier has been ablaze, the first time back in 1930 completely destroyed it. Brighton's piers seem to spend more time alight than not, with the West pier remaining a burnt out wreck to this day, its sad image providing the sleeve to Martin Brandlmayer and Marin Siewert's2003 album Too beautiful to burn. In 2005 Southend pier burnt fown for the fourth (yes thats fourth time) in fifty years, whilst the pier at Colwyn Bay has burnt down twice, as has Great Yarmouth Pier. Hunstanton pier in Norfolk is barely a beginner having only burnt down the once, though the damage on that occasion is thought to have topped the £2M mark.

Amazing figures, but this is such sad news today. I visited the pier earlier this year as my ongoing love of the nostalgic decadence of slowly dying English seaside resorts leads me back there at least once every twelve months or so. Some of my earliest memories are of running up and down that pier, trying not to step on the cracks in the wooden floor for fear of falling (impossibly) through them to the sand below. (Not the sea mind, noone has seen the sea that close to the seafront at Weston for a century or so) the English pier is nothing great to see, not something I would ever recommend to a tourist, but if you are English, older than 25, and you ever went on a family holiday to the English coast as a child you will feel the same pain as me when you see the mess left of Weston pier.

So I was very sad to hear this news. Here are some of the many hundreds of photos I've taken around the building over recent years...
















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As for music, I spent the duration of the train journey home from London after presenting audition last night listening to Toshimaru Nakamura and Annette Krebs' excellent album Siyu, recently released on the SoS Editions label. I'd already played something from it earlier on the show, and listened right the way through twice on the train, with the rush of wind into the open windows adding to the music and cooling me slowly against the heat of the late evening humidity. As I sit here now nearing midnight its still far too warm here, and as thunder rumbles around the hills outside the second track is softly playing on the stereo behind me. So good.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

An epiphany a day keeps the stress levels at bay

All this last week my drive into work every day has been a nightmare. Something called the CLA Game Fair has been taking place at Blenheim Palace. I have no idea what this event may actually be, but it has made my usual 40 minute drive take at least twice as long every day, and on Friday it took almost three hours. So why am I telling you this? Well this morning I was heading into work for the late shift and set out at around 9AM, a good hour earlier than usual for this shift, anticipating the chaos. As expected I ran into a jam in the usual place and, resigned to the same wait I'd had all week I opened a window and flicked on the radio, which was tuned to BBC Radio 3. (The main BBC Classical music channel for anyone reading that may be unfamiliar) I was immediately hit by a deep, resounding and jawdroppingly beautiful solo cello note that caused me to instantly forget the stress of the journey and turn the car stereo up.

My relationship with classical music is an unusual one. Whilst I would like to think I know the works of more "contemporary" composers such as Feldman, Cage, Nono, Lachenmann etc pretty well, my understanding and knowledge of older composers is very much in its infancy, having spent maybe 18 months now slowly investigating this area at a leisurely pace. As such, I am not confident or knowledgeable enough to be able to identify particular composers when I hear their work. I perhaps only know Mahler's symphonies and Shostakovich's later string quartets well enough to be able to instantly identify them.
Anyway I have been picking my way through the world of classical music essentially by ear. By that I mean I know what I like and then go and investigate more in that area when I hear something good. Much of my exposure to this music has been through Radio3 on my drives to and from work.

So this morning when I heard that cello I was immediately captivated. I immediately fell in love with the music, alive, powerful, vibrant. The piece blossomed out into a full orchestral piece, the cello solo at its heart. I knew I liked this music, I knew I had to hear it again in different surroundings, but what was it? I sat captivated until it ended to find that it was in fact a new recording of Shostakovich's First Cello Sonata, a piece that I have a couple of recordings of but have yet to actually play, as my classical listening time is sadly in shorter supply than classical CDs I have waiting to be to listened to. However, I felt a huge amount of satisfaction and a strange personal pride that I could respond like this to a piece of music I had not heard before by a composer I like a great deal. this probably sounds odd to seasoned classical listeners out there, but to be able to identify a piece in this way, respond to it emotionally and then find I have a version sat waiting to be played was rather a special moment to me. The journey to work, which had been a big stress all week turned out to be highly pleasurable today.

By the way the new version of the piece that was played by Radio3 was on the Orfeo label, played by daniel-Muller-Schott with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Yakov Kreiberg. I've just ordered a copy, naturally.

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A little birdie told me this week that Annette Krebs will return to Dublin this October to play a trio with Messrs Lacey and Vogel. You have plenty of warning dear readers, book your flights now!!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Listening in the dark

I’ve been meaning to write this post since a moment at a concert early this year made me think about how I listen to music, particularly in a live situation. As I wrote here a few months back I attended a gig in London at the Chisenhale Dance Space that opened with a set by the trombonist Matthias Forge, playing acoustically in a very large room. The music was very good indeed, but what struck me about the set was how much easier it was for me to concentrate on the music when my eyes were closed.

Now I’ve often been known to close my eyes at concerts, partly because I have very sensitive eyes and the glare of certain stage lighting or even the strain of trying to see in the dark can be a pain, and partly because I find it easier to concentrate that way. (It used to be the case that the smoke from people’s cigarettes in the hall would irritate my eyes a lot as well but thankfully the one decent law this government has ever passed corrected that problem) Many a time people I have sat beside have nudged me, thinking I may have drifted off to sleep when in truth I have merely remained very still, eyes closed. But let’s go back a few lines there, I have often closed my eyes at gigs “because I find it easier to concentrate.” I wonder why this is? Does shutting down one of the senses make it easier to respond to one of the others? I’m no biologist, but I suspect not.

At that gig back in March, I found myself sat in the front row of the audience when Matthias placed his chair right in front of me, literally a few feet away, and sat down to play. He came so close to the assembled crowd because his music was played quietly without amplification in a big room. If he was further back some of the audience may not have heard much at all. Forge set about extracting all kinds of beautiful yet alien sounds from his instrument, using a series of plastic and cardboard tubes pushed into the bell, and blowing and scraping just about every inch of the trombone. The effect this had on me was basically to create a series of “that’s a nice sound, ahhh that’s how he makes it” moments. I found myself as much interested in the visual spectacle as the aural.

Now such attention to what was happening and how it happened might make good material for the live music reviewer, but there was a point about ten minutes into Forge’s set when I suddenly realised I had paid very little attention to the overall structure and progression of the music. I knew how the sounds were individually made and the skill required to generate them, but I didn’t really know what the sum of the parts totalled up to. At this point I closed my eyes, sat back and let the shape and form of the music come together in my mind and the impact on me was something of a mini revelation.

I kept my eyes closed for the rest of that night’s performances and have done so for the majority of concerts I have attended since. Therefore when later that same evening Mark Wastell surprised the audience by introducing a blast of digitally produced chatter into an otherwise quite austere saxophone / tam tam duo with John Butcher I was as shocked as anyone. I didn’t see him reach down to turn a dial on a mixer or press a button on a CD player, I just heard this new characteristic enter into the soundworld in my head. I can’t help but think this was a better way to experience the music.

At first this seems a bit strange to me. I am very much a visual person. I trained in school as a visual artist and a day doe snot pass without something catching my eye or the camera lens on my iPhone. I have a love of the packaging CDs come in and really dislike imageless Mp3 downloads. When I think about though it I am very comfortable listening to music on CD, and perhaps my listening methods are best suited to situations where all there is is sound to distract me. Its not that I don't like what I see on stage, its just that it distracts me from the art of listening. I have always struggled to connect with concerts that include visuals projected onto a screen, or dancers moving about the room. Equally the influx over recent years of DVDs featuring collaborations between musicians and visual artists hasn’t really been that welcome with me, as I just struggle to be able to focus on the audio and imagery in tandem. (I say this guardedly as a DVD by Olivia Block with Luis Recorder and Sandra Gibson sits by the side of my computer awaiting its first play, who knows this could be the first I really enjoy…) Perhaps I just don’t have the mental capacity to concentrate on the inputs to two senses at once, or perhaps my ability to listen has evolved to such a state that it requires supreme concentration. I don’t know.

Again, thinking as I type here I have always felt a little uneasy with musicians that present a big visual spectacle on stage. This dates back years, and I remember feeling so much at home with the late eighties Shoegazer indie pop movement that involved miserable looking guitarists standing motionless staring at their feet as they played. When I first took an interest in acid house music around the same time it was from listening to the music on the radio rather than from leaping about in a club. My few brushes with raves back then were soulless experiences, but when John Peel played the music on his late night show as I listened laying on my bed it worked so much better.

Even recently a lot of on-stage theatre merely distracts me from listening properly to the music at hand. Jason Lescalleet is one musician I find enthralling to watch, but inevitably leave the concert hall feeling like I missed the music completely. Joe Colley is another. My written responses to the occasions I have seen Colley perform live have always been more about what I’ve seen than heard. Perhaps this is all just a weakness of mine that others cannot share, perhaps it’s a common thing and I just haven’t noticed. One thing is for sure I’m either watching the stage or my eyes are closed and I’m watching nothing. I never pay any attention to the rest of the audience around me. Very often I’m asked how many people were at a show and find myself unable to answer. So maybe the rest of the room are sat there eyes with closed as well and I just haven’t noticed…

Anyway for now I’ll be sat in my own personal darkness for the majority of the live shows I attend. I’ll be able to report back on the music in detail, just don’t ask me to tell you what haircut Mark Wastell is sporting this week ;)

Friday, July 18, 2008

A cure for the summertime blues

Bleeurgh its been a rotten summer. A rotten year so far if I'm honest. Cue yet another meta-introduction to a much delayed post... The last six weeks or so have been tough going, working hard, plus taking some time off from this kind of thing to focus on helping my much beleaguered other half Julie through endless hospital visits and finally a much needed operation. Add to that being involved in a car accident that wrote off my car (at 70mph) but left me physically unscratched and all the nonsense that comes along with that kind of thing and there's not much time left for anything else. I've had to ditch planned visits to Dublin last weekend and Portugal (for the fantastic looking Dinamo festival) in a week or two, and its been just about all I can do to keep listening to enough music to put together a weekly radio show.

audition has been a lot of fun over recent weeks however, about the only thing that's kept me close to sane. The most recent four shows should all have made it up online pretty soon after this post goes public, so we should be up to date in the archives again. Thanks to anyone that has been, or will be listening.

A ton of great CDs have come my way, even without me making any attempt to find any for a couple of months. I won't go into details here as a whole slew of reviews are planned for the Bagatellen and Paris Transatlantic sites as they both relaunch this Autumn. For now though I can thoroughly recommend a few not-to-be-missed releases; David Lacey and Paul Vogel's The British Isles is a wonderful CD, everything I had hoped it would be. David Papapostolou and Daniel Jones' debut release Leaving Room on the Adjacent label is a fine hidden gem, and I have Brian Olewnick's reliably excellent taste for pointing me towards Seymour Wright's brilliant CDr release (and thanks to Seymour for being kind enough to send me a copy when I couldn't find one!) Plenty more great music has fallen my way this year, but its particularly nice to be able to pick out a couple of releases made in the British Isles to recommend, plus a third named after them...!

I've made it along to a couple of concerts over recent weeks, though I've also missed far more than I'm used to missing. One that simply couldn't be allowed to pass without my attendance though was John Tilbury's masterful performance of Feldman's Triadic Memories at St John's Hall in Westminster, London. I was particularly interested with this one to see if, (like virtually every other recent Feldman performance by Tilbury) this realisation went slower, and took longer than previous CD released versions of the work. Suffice to say it was a lot slower, and all the more enjoyable for it on this occasion. I don't remember the exact timings. Alastair was given the task of keeping an eye on his watch for me (one way of keeping him from dozing off...) so perhaps he will chime in here and remind me.

Amongst the sizeable audience that evening was the composer Howard Skempton, who also wrote a special short piece for Tilbury to open the show. Notti steallate a vagli was written as a companion piece to Triadic Memories and as a homage to Feldman. I mention it here because it was truly very beautiful, the perfect way to prepare for such an evening listening to late Feldman, capturing the mood and presence of the great man's work in a short space of time. The concert was recorded for a potential CD release and I do hope if that happens the Skempton work will be added as a companion piece.

Then a couple of days ago, once Julie was home and recovering nicely I made it back into the big smoke to catch the last night of this year's Music we'd like to hear series of concerts at St Anne and Agnes' Church hidden away in a truly revolting part of London's financial district. The evening was a showcase for the music of Michael Parsons, who performed some of his own work at the piano, plus selected the other music of the evening.

Of the pieces Parsons played the best by far was the ironically titled Krapp Music, originally written in 1999 (for Tilbury again as chance will have it) as part of a programme of pieces based on Beckett's play Krapp's Last Tape. In the play Krapp listens to and comments upon a spoken recording he made thirty years earlier. For Parsons' piece the pianist plays in response to two recordings made earlier in the same space, one at a medium distance from the piano, the other more remote.
The music itself was slow and softly melodic, but when Parson's live playing was joined by the distant recording of the same piano a strange sense of passing time came over me. The recorded sounded like it was being played live, but in an imaginary room somewhere off down an imaginary corridor, with the sounds taking their time wandering into the space. This was a really interesting piece to witness live. A CD recording just wouldn't have the same impact, as the sense of space created by the excellent quality recordings (made and then "projected" back into the hall by John Lely) couldn't be recreated on a stereo system at home.

The other real joy of this evening's music was the opportunity to witness a string quartet up (very) close in an intimate space. The Post Quartet are made up of young, very talented musicians, and watching and hearing them play together in such a relaxed, pleasant environment was fantastic. they played an assortment of pieces including Parsons' reworkings of traditional Scottish Highland music, Webern's String Quartet op.28 and Cardew's Second string trio. They also played two short works by 16th century composer Orlando di Lasso, but the real highlight for me was Parsons' transcription for string quartet of Henry Purcell's Four Part Fantazia (sic) No.9 written originally in 1680. This brief but powerfully uplifiting tapestry of echoing chords tumbling over each other just a couple of yards in front of me made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A string quartet in full flight is as near as I think you can get to musical perfection, and coming to this music with very little expectations made for a really enjoyable experience.

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On the way to the concert on Wednesday I took in the Cy Twombly : Cycles and Seasons exhibition at the Tate Modern. I am reasonably new to Twombly's work. After having been intrigued by one or two paintings at the New York MoMA back in 2006 I have only been able to see the four of the paintings that have made up the Four Seasons series over recent years as they have been on continual display at the Tate. For this show however a couple more paintings from this great series have been added, massive works that depict the changing moods and sensations throughout the four seasons of life. For me a great combination of the outpourings of human passion and a chaotic sense of disorder these paintings are worth the (actually quite extortionate) entrance fee alone.

Even these paintings were overshadowed for me however by the two versions of the massive works Treatise on the Veil. A sudden step towards minimalism in the late sixties brought about these works, which are based upon Twombly's responses to an Edweard Muybridge photo of a bride in motion. A series of studies accompany the display of these huge paintings (probably about fifteen metres wide by maybe three metres high?) and spending time with these in conjunction with the paintings themselves was a great pleasure. Twombly was most certainly not inspired by Cornelius Cardew's Treatise, that he would have been writing around the same time, but I found it hard to not see a similarity between Twombly's paintings and some of the more sparse pages in Cardew's masterwork. I spent a lot of time with these two works, and would definitely recommend a visit if you can get to the Tate before the exhibition closes.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The long (not very) winding road

Yesterday, just for a change I went into London and attended the Tate Modern. Getting there early I took my usual stroll around my favourite haunts (For anyone that has visited in recent weeks and wondered where two of the Rotho Seagram paintings had gone to, I don't know either, but rest assured they are back now!) I also had a potter around the Duchamp / Picabia / Man Ray show, which left me a little cold if the truth is known.

If you have an interest in Duchamp then you probably know everything that this exhibition could tell you. Unless you had no knowledge at all of his urinal, and you walked into the gallery and were suprised by it, then you probably don't need to go and see it. In my opinion Duchamp was a genius, but at the end of the day its still just a urinal. Once you know its there and why its there then there's nothing more to be gained by going to look at it. At first I didn't fully understand the connection with Picabia and Man Ray either, beyond the fact they were friends at an early age, though their mutual links to the formative Dada movement did begin to show through in the work of all three as I wandered through. However the works on display were spread over such a wide range of styles and ideas that making sense of it all was very difficult. But then maybe thats the point.

I had another reason for attending the Tate yesterday however. As part of the somewhat bizarre Long Weekend series of events Luke Fowler and Lee Patterson performed their response to the La Monte Young score Draw a straight line and follow it. In typically Pattersonesque style the duo set off a few weeks back to the remote Hebridian Isle of Islay. Fowler is a film maker, best known to me as the creator of the excellent Pilgrimmage from scattered points documentary on Cornelius Cardew. Patterson is arguably the UK's best exponent of the art of field recording right now. Together they chose the B8016 road that joins Islay's two biggest towns Bowmore and Port Ellen. the road is very straight, and they walked its ten mile length, Patterson making field recordings along the way, capturing the natural environment as well as the hum of wire fences, insect chatter beneath the surface of stagnant streams and the occasional passing car. Fowler filmed the journey, and later he spliced the footage together into a 25 minute long impressionistic film that captured the essence of the walk, the place and Patterson at work.

Lee then made the soundtrack to the film from the assorted recordings he had made along the walk. Yesterday at the Tate the film was shown, and Lee added extra sounds into the room using items he and Luke had picked up from along the route as sound sources. Pine cones with contact mics attached were blown onto through a straw, and discarded plastic drinks bottles were used as simple feedback chambers held in front of tiny microphones to create sustained tones that could be tuned carefully by adjusting the position and size of the bottles.

B8016 2008 was a nice little event to experience. Its easy to sense that its creators took an enormous amount of pleasure from its creation. Remarkable simply because it was all brought together in about two weeks, and perfect as a vehicle for these two talented artists to do what they do best, this simple but effective response to La Monte Young's score made for a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

The photo above by the way isn't actually of the B8016. I couldn't find a photo of it online. It is however another straight road on Islay, just a few miles North, and well, who would know?

Edit: Here's a pic of the road in question, kindly supplied by Armin. (see comments)

The undeniable pleasure, and unavoidable guilt of voyeurism

Last year The Guardian ran a weekly series called Writers' Rooms. The idea behind the series was to print a single photo of the room in which a writer did their work and accompany it with a paragraph about the room written by the writer themselves. This year the series has evolved into a similar series of Artists' Studios, though I cannot see an online archive for these yet.

This strangely voyeuristic series has fascinated me. I'm really not sure why, but there is something very interesting about the rooms within which creative people work. I don't think this is a Big Brother thing, I don't have any interest in seeing pictures of any old lived-in room. Perhaps I feel some common link to the people whose homes/studios we are intruding into, as many of the rooms don't look that unlike the one I am sat in right now. Perhaps there is a dark side to me that feels pleased that Salman Rushdie leaves old coffee cups and half eaten Marmite sandwiches lying about as much as I do, or perhaps its just a sense of envy at those able to make their living in such rooms.

This interest in artist voyeurism goes back quite some way with me. I have long adored the small town of St Ives deep on the Cornish coast, managing to get down there quite often in recent years. Barbara Hepworth, the sculptress and one of my favourite artists of all time lived the last few decades of her life in St Ives, sadly perishing in a fire at her studio. Before her death Hepworth had opened the garden to her home up to visitors, as it holds a vast number of works hidden amongst the incredible range of obscure plants that she collected in her life. You can still visit the Trewyn Studio to this day, and it is possible to look in through the windows onto Hepworth's working area, half finished scupltures eerily left as they were at the time of her death.

I find the Hepworth garden an incredibly calm, relaxing place simply because of the mixture of fauna and artworks in a quiet place within one of the most beautiful parts of the UK. Knowing that the studio sits to one side however brings a further, darker energy to the place, a sense of being close to the driving force behind the work. It somehow never feels quite right to be looking through those windows on to the chair in which Hepworth died, but at the same time there is an intensity to the place that makes it the feel like the correct site to be viewing Hepworth's work. Another, similar gallery has been opened in the small house that Stanley Spencer lived in, not far from here at all. I keep meaning to get around to visiting it and I will strive to do so this summer.

So when the opportunity arose this March to go and see Francis Bacon's final studio when I went visited Dublin I went hoping to feel similar feelings to the above. As it turned out though, the experience was far from enjoyable. The studio, famous for its chaotically untidy internal appearance was situated in London, where Bacon lived most of his life, and spent his last working years. Famously, ten years ago when the local authorities in London wanted something done with the studio, and with no arts organisation in the UK coming forward the Hugh Lane gallery in Dublin, backed by an extraordinary amount of Irish Arts Council money literally relocated the studio piece by piece and reassembled it back in Ireland. The studio then now stands as the centre piece of the gallery, encased in what is effectively a large perspex box.

It took about ten minutes to fly around the rest of the Hugh Lane gallery. A very tiresome exhibition of mainly uninteresting contemporary abstraction. I could possibly have spent longer with a room full of Sean Scully's paintings, but probably not that much longer, having seen the same (all very similar) collection before back in Oxford. As my two companions (Msrs Küchen and Carlsson) were both looking severely unimpressed we moved on fast to find the Bacon exhibition. Almost forgotten about in a small room to one side of the room containing the "studio" there is a collection of five or six of Bacon's final works, some of which remain unfinished. Bacon's painting is some of the most unnerving, grotesque, and yet strangely compelling work I am familiar with. Whilst a big space was given over in the gallery to the recreation of the artist's working space, the art itself was relegated to this small overcrowded room.

The studio itself just felt completely out of place, which perhaps isn't a surprise. Whilst peeking in on artist's homes is enjoyable to me, this felt like something else, a perverse fetishisation of Bacon's studio, brought miles, piece by piece at great expense and placed on view as effectively a work of art in itself. Which it quite clearly isn't. Its a messy room covered in paint that had a historical value if left where it was, but moved here all of that is lost. What's even more galling is the fact that Bacon wasn't really even Irish. Although born in Dublin this was to English parents, and he spent the vast majority of his life in London. Scooping up the studio and planting it down again in Dublin seems a desperate attempt to reclaim Bacon as Irish. All a bit silly if you ask me. Focussing completely on the studio at the expense of the paintings themselves then seems even more perverse.

We didn't stay long looking at the studio. All the trip really made me want to do was go and find the building it all came from to see whatever became of it. I also felt the need to go and find a decent collection of Bacon's paintings. Thinking back now I just wonder how many current artist and musician's grants may have been turned down so that funding could be given to this whole ridiculous enterprise... Well at least its better than using the money to build an Olympics stadium I suppose.

Torn apart by a Tragedy of Listening

Well what can I say?

I've only really known Luigi Nono's Prometeo for about eighteen months, having discovered and immediately fallen in love with first the original 1985 release of the composer's final, triumphantly wonderful work and then late last year the new version recorded for the Col Legno label. Both of these remarkable recordings were overseen by André Richard, who worked closely with Nono on the music's original performance, and who also took the roles of artistic director and sound arranger for the UK premiere of Prometeo at the Royal Festival Hall two weekends ago.

I'd had tickets for this concert for nearly a year, such was my determination to not miss out on the event. As it was a few tickets remained on sale on the evening, though a considerable crowd of knowledgeable listeners still descended on the South Bank for this one. So again, what can I say? This concert completely blew me away. As it came to an end and a very long ovation rang out around from the audience I felt in a daze, as if coming out of a very beautiful, two-hour long trance. So yes, plenty of hyperbole, but what was so good about it?

Well for me Prometeo is far more than a collection of beautiful noises. It takes a small number of culturally loaded elements and brings them together into one perfectly constructed whole. At its heart are the remnants of assorted historic texts based on the Greek tragedy of Prometheus, but Nono pulls them apart, breaking up sentences into individual syllables, retaining the anguish of human despair through the overall crushing intensity of what remains. The structure of the work is everything for me though. Sounds come and go, sometimes electronically manipulated in the most subtle of ways, different elements of the piece, instrumental, vocal, electronic and the spaces in between them all are built up into a monolith of flowing sound, broken up frequently by sudden chasms in the music.

Prometeo is often described as an opera, but clearly it isn't. There is no story, no characters, no real narrative. It is possible to read a printed copy of the texts involved , but it is impossible to follow this through the work, even if you speak ancient Greek. Rather, Prometeo is the culmination of a career of Nono studying and understanding the human response to tragedy and injustice, and distilling all of this down into this one final work, that he himself gave the subtitle "A Tragedy of Listening"

Although obviously I had been anticipating this live performance of Prometeo for some time, I was totally unprepared for how different, how much greater the experience of the music was when witnessed in a concert hall compared to CD listening. This music has always felt like fine architecture to me, bringing together elements of the baroque, modernism, etc into something quite new. If then we consider Nono to be the architect then André Richard was very much the master-builder for these performances. Months of work went into the planning for Prometeo's UK debuts, (there were two performances at the RFH, one on the Friday, one on the Saturday) Every part of the massive hall was used to place musicians, singers, narrators or loudspeakers, so as to create a completely 360 degree surround sound environment, with the audience, plus Richard and his assistants sat behind a bank of computer screens at its centre.

Hearing sounds come from everywhere, above, below, behind etc... often from places out of view truly gave the work a third dimension, bringing the fine structure of the work even more to life, truly filling the enormous space. In this situation I found detail in the music that I just could never hear on the CDs. Spaces I considered to be silent before were filled with whispers and murmurs, instruments died away slower, sounds collided where they had merely sat adjacent to each other in my past experience. On CD you just hear voices and instruments. In the RFH this was confused as a chorus seemingly coming from one part of the hall would suddenly change as its sound would switch and appear from a loudspeaker elsewhere. All of this brought an incredible sense of being immersed in the middle of this music, caught in the centre of this tragedy of listening.

I rarely go to see fully composed music. This is a situation I would like to change in the near future, but as I am used to watching improvisation I guess I am rarely shocked to hear an arrangement of musicians sound quite different to how they appear on a CD. With this performance of Prometeo however, the added detail and depth within the room made this a completely different experience of what is essentially a fully composed piece of music. Even little things like hearing the work right the way through (rather than the forced break that happens on both CD versions as Prometeo will not fit onto a single disc) was a strange experience. The nine parts of the work felt like they belonged together here, as opposed to different tracks on album as I have subconsciously considered them in the past. There could be no getting up to make a cup of tea halfway through, there were no intervals, no coming up for air. An overwhelming experience that has made me stop and rethink my opinion of what is possible in a live music performance.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Soundtrack to a pleasant day

Just a brief post whilst I mull over what to write here next...

Yesterday I had a rare day to myself. A day off from work following a very tough, exhausting week, and with Julie away for a few days I spent the day catching up on things at home, finishing that long post for this blog, clearing up a load of Cathnor business and sorting out the piles of CDs that every so often threaten to take over the town of Didcot.

Anyway, with the exception of a wander around the corner to the post office I spent the entire day alone indoors, and of course the day had a soundtrack... here it is for you, for no real reason really, other than to remind people that this is a blog, and blogs are supposed to be about the pointless events of the day aren't they?!


7.30AM Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring My internal body clock always wakes me early. On days like today I just reach out for the hi-fi remote and press play. Whatever I was playing the night before then plays, and if its something suitable to begin the day with it stays on, if not then I flick on Radio 4. Either way I invariably fall back to sleep for a couple of hours.

9AM - Luigi Nono - Fragmente-Still a diotima Breakfast of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon... (when you work for the company I do, meals are always good!) This Arditti recording of the Nono proved the perfect opener for a relaxing day.

10AM-11.30AM Asher - Ubeboet - Cell Memory (windsmeasure)
Helmut Lachenmann -- String Quartets (Kairos)


11.30AM At this point I went for the walk to the post office. I listened to the podcast of Friday night's edition of the hilarious Radio 4 programme News Quiz. Old ladies looking at me strange as I giggled to myself in the inevitable queue.

MiddayWhen I got home the first post of the day had arrived. (remember when this used to happen in the morning?) Lo and behold there's a copy of David Lacey and Paul Vogel's new album amongst the junk mail. I sat quietly and played it, taking the opportunity to spend time with it in a quiet house. I ended up playing it four times back to back. More about it soon, but its everything I knew it would be...

3.30PM- 7PM - Vanessa Rossetto - Misafridal (Music Appreciation)
Julien Skrobek - a rather nice demo he kindly sent me
Johannes Brahms - Klavierquintett (Maurizio Pollini on DG)
Phil Durrant - Sowari
(spotted this while putting CDs away and couldn't resist giving it a spin)
Olivia Block - Live set on 23Five CDR
Steve Roden - Live set on 23Five CDR


I stopped to make dinner at 7PM. (Roast pork with all the veg trimmings if you're interested!) This took over an hour, during which I had on Radio 4, mainly a pretty bad arts review programme. Opened a bottle of Pinot Grigio... had a bath with my plastic duck while it cooked...

8.30PM Gustav Mahler - 6th Symphony (Claudio Abbado with Mahler Youth Orchestra on DVD) On quiet days like this I've taken to sitting down to dinner with one of my collection of Mahler DVDs playing. A lovely evening meant the back door was open so flies buzzed around a bit, but a nice meal with a good wine (actually that bit is debatable) is often accompanied well by Mahler.

9.30-Midnight Discs 1 and 2 of the Sugimoto/Okura/Unami - Chamber Music Concerts Vol.1 box set I worked through these again before bed in preparation for this week's audition programme. As the wine level in the bottle went down so the music on this discs sounded better and better. I must say though that when I reached out for the hi-fi remote this morning with a bit of a thick head Sugimoto's somewhat austere Tom and Jerry didn't stay playing for long. There's a time and place for everything..!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A well-placed trousercough in the void of silence

You know the score, busy, stressed, no time etc...

OK I need to do some catching up again. Since that post from the internet café in Dublin I've begun five different posts here, all of which were sat unfinished on the server until I deleted them all just a moment ago as none of them are really relevant any longer. I'll try and summarise them in this and subsequent posts over the next few days however.

The end of March saw me attend a nice gig at the Chisenhale Dance Space beside the canal in Bethnal Green. The concert was great, four solid sets, the first an acoustic solo trombone piece by Matthias Forge that took place right in front of me, causing me to close my eyes as the visual distractions made close listening strangely difficult. More on that subject in a future post. Forge was followed by the electroacoustic trio of Daniel Jones, Paul Morgan and David Papapostolou, who played a richly detailed but restrained set that affirmed my faith in these three rapidly emerging musicians.

After an interval came another solo set from the inimitable John Wall, which followed his recent pattern of impressing me twice as much as the last time I saw him, much more spacious and with some changes in pace this time rather than the hell for leather avalanches of the last few shows. Slowly, and very publicly John is finding out how to really work well with his music in a live setting, and that really pleases me. The final set, a debut duo from Mark Wastell and John Butcher was as confusing as it was rather good. What at first glance seemed to be a sax / amplified tam tam performance was thrown off at a right angle when Wastell introduced pre-recorded passages of what I can only describe as post-Mego laptoppery into the fray. This completely threw me. At first I genuinely thought that Wall's laptop, still plugged in at the back of the hall had started up again somehow, but when I finally closed my eyes and concentrated on listening rather than trying to solve mysteries it all worked very well together. I think.

The Chisenhale Dance Space is a large room that occupies the top floor of an otherwise derelict old brewery building. Its a place I really like, as from the outside, and on all other floors apart from the top it remains deserted and derelict, all broken windows and large rubble filled rooms. The above photo of the rear of the building comes from the website Derelict London that has also spawned a neat little book of photos of derelict sites in the capital. There's something very beautiful and equally very sad about this kind of building, but in the case of the Chisenhale its wonderful to see this charming old place being put to good use at the same time as retaining its individual decadent beauty.

A few days later as my previous post revealed I headed off to Ireland again for the 2008 i and e Festival in Dublin. Again, it feels like an eternity now since the trip, so I'll keep my comments brief, but once again I had a really great time. Musically three performances really stood out for me. The best of them all was the set by Chipshop Music, the quartet I seem to write about an awful lot here consisting of David Lacey and Paul Vogel from Dublin and Eric Carlsson and Martin Küchen from Sweden. The performance was quite different from the group's CDR on the Homefront label, Carlsson most notably switched from the electronics of that release to an acoustic percussion set-up that featured tuned wood and metal. He used these to pull out oddly irregular yet superbly timed rhythms that provided a strong structure to the performance. Overall what struck me most about the set was the sense of timing, which was absolutely spot on, with just enough music happening at any one time and each musician taking time out from the fray, only to return at precisely the right moment. I think this was only the third time the group had got together to play, following successful shows in Ireland and a brief tour of Spain in 2007. Certainly a group right in their prime.

The Swedes also formed two thirds of a trio that shone for me on the second night of the festival. Axel Dorner's trumpet provided the other 33% of a slow, contemplative performance that began again revolving around a rhythmic pulse picked out by Carlsson, with Küchen and Dorner's breathy lines slipping and sliding over the top. The rhythm broke away after a short while here, and as the performance continued the two wind instruments became more boisterous, so Carlsson brought a series of piercing shrieks from his bowed metal, interspersed with a strange rattling sound that I assume came from the percussion, but with my eyes closed at this point its hard to be sure. There was a slight sense of nervous uncertainty at the beginning of the set, I think this was the first time the three had played together as a trio. As the music progressed however things coalesced much easier into a more assured, if always slightly fragile performance of thoughtful acoustic improv.

Dorner had played the night before as part of the No Furniture trio with laptopper Boris Baltschun and the clarinet of Kai Fagaschinski. For that set Dorner had attached a strange oversized box of electronics to the side of his instrument, with cables leading away to a computer. It was really hard to tell what this limpet-like construction was doing to his sound, particularly as the trio played a set drenched with thick converging tones within which it was often hard to distinguish the three instruments apart. This was the first performance of the trio for nearly five years, with their only CD release dating back to 2003. For this concert their music was much fuller than it appeared back then, opening with a techo-esque throb from Baltschun that set the scene for the rest of the set, a dark and brooding affair quite different to what I had been expecting. From one perspective though, once it got going there was a certain predictability about the performance that was counterbalanced by the musicians undoubted skill in its execution. Although perhaps there was little original here the chance to hear these three musicians together in full flight was highly enjoyable.

In general all of the sets at this year's i and e Festival were of interest, even if not all my cup of tea. The Quiet Club, an electronics / live scraping and bowing duo made up of Cork's Danny McCarthy and Mick O'Shea created a nice, if not particularly quiet soundworld that held my interest throughout. Paul Vogel's duet with Roy Carroll saw his clarinet matched by laptop processed clarinet, and it provided a great centre-stage for the enigmatic excellence of his playing even if the collaboration itself didn't always work well. Kai Fagaschinski had earlier opened the festival with a short solo clarinet set that was very beautiful while it lasted, his original and highly skillful techniques were a joy to behold again, but thinking back now his performance left no lasting impression beyond this.

Fred Van Hove's hour long work out sat at the organ in the Peppercanister Church was a dramatic spectacle to close the festival, and it was well received but if I'm honest it left me completely cold. I actually struggled to stay awake during the performance, mainly because the long alcohol-fuelled walk around a rain-soaked Dublin with the two Swedish guys that had preceeded the show wasn't the best preparation for respectful listening. I've since been sent a DVD of the performance that I have yet to watch, so maybe that will change my opinion when I get around to it.

The two performances that disappointed me most were the solos from Boris Baltschun and Jason Lescalleet. Baltschun sat in the dark, his lowered face and a vase of daffodils placed on his table lit by the glow of his computer screen. At first he placed isolated bleeps and glitches into the echoing silence of the Unitarian Church, but after a short while the sounds multiplied and merged into a somewhat impenetrable series of cold electronic constructions that unfortunately I found neither conceptually interesting or emotionally engaging.

Lescalleet's solo was as much of a theatrical event as the last time I saw him perform, a couple of years back in New York.I've watched many musicians set up their tables of equipment in the past, but not normally after their performance had begun! Clearly the whole process of building the machine that makes his music is an important part of the whole live process for Lescalleet. He began with a 7" single (I think it was Indian Reservation by Paul Revere and The Raiders) playing alone on a small record deck. It was allowed to play undisturbed in full as Lescalleet captured parts of it on worn old tape loops he had set up between two small recorders on the floor. These decaying loops were then used as the basis of the noise piece that he then built up, bringing in soundfiles from a laptop as well as material captured from contact mikes placed around the stage. Whilst a refreshingly enjoyable visual spectacle (at one point Lescalleet even went to the back of the hall to fetch something he needed from his bag) I sadly found the actual music it all generated to be of little interest, sonically powerful but only in a somewhat predictable way.

Besides the music the 2008 i and e Festival was yet another opportunity to catch up with some good friends and spend yet more time in a city that increasingly feels like my future home. Despite now being in its fourth year the festival retains its intimate, welcoming feel with no barriers at all between the musicians and their audience. The organisers work consciously hard to keep it this way, very much to their credit. I thoroughly recommend that anyone interested attends next year.

A couple of Sundays back audition staged its second in-studio live performance, this time a showcase of the Mask Mirror project by Alessandro Bosetti. Most commonly known (by me at least) for his saxophone playing, Mask Mirror utilises spoken word elements, both live and as samples together with snippets of instrumental sound. Having not heard the material before I was slightly concerned at how it might all sound, as spoken word is not the first section I head for when entering a record shop... but I really enjoyed how it all worked. Bosetti plays with language and conversation in an improvised context. He uses randomly generated samples of his own voice to effectively hold conversations with himself in a manner that sounds cheesy on paper, but was in fact equally amusing and thought-provoking. The show in question can be heard here.

The day before, I saw Bosetti improvise with his Mask Mirror arrangements at a shop gig for Sound323. Anyone that knows the shop will be well aware that there isn't very much room on the shopfloor at the best of times, and in the summer Sound323 is simply the hottest shop on the planet as the south facing windows turn the place into one big greenhouse. Well that Sunday was the warmest that London has seen in many a month, and so the heat coupled with the small crowd of people squeezed into the tight space with a closed door made for a very uncomfortable experience. I barely remember Alessandro's music as for most of the set I was actually struggling to stay conscious and stood upright! I am really pleased that Mark Wastell is finding a way to continue to put on these little concerts however and long may they continue.

Photos here by the good and great Fergus Kelly

A dreadful meal on the South Bank of the Thames with David Reid later I headed to the Royal Festival Hall to witness the long awaited London Sinfonietta performance of Luigi Nono's final masterpiece Prometeo. More about this wonderful experience in a forthcoming post however.

So I think that catches up everything from a live music perspective. I've listened to no end of excellent CDs of late, perhaps a round-up of all of those is needed soon too. Tomorrow I will attend a performance of a film made by Luke Fowler and Lee Patterson, with Patterson performing a live soundtrack at the Tate Modern. The film is a response to a La Monte Young score (Draw a straight line and follow it...) and will be performed again on Bank Holiday Monday should anyone be interested.

Monday, April 28, 2008

If a word is worth a coin, silence is worth two...

Hebrew proverb

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Irish Post

I'm in Ireland right now, posting from a little internet cafe that would be a really nice place if they didn't insist on playing Chris Rea records at you. I'm here for the i and e festival again, my third year in succession here. I nearly didn't make it over this time, with other stuff in life getting in the way, but I'm really pleased I made the effort again. The journey here was hell however, a two hour car journey was followed by the severe annoyance of having my debit card stolen by a faulty ATM machine at Stansted airport. Fortunately I had withdrawn plenty of cash earlier or I wouldn't be sat typing this here now. This was followed by a three hour wait at Stansted, the first two hours in the airport waiting lounge, which has apparently won various awards, presumably for services to soulless plastic places for people to look depressed in.

Anyway the music last night was fantastic, as is so often the case at this great little festival. More detail later when I have had the time to wrap my head around it all without "A road to hell" blaring in my ears, but the final two sets last night were great. The closing performance by No Furniture (Axel Dorner, Kai Fagaschinski and Boris Blatschun) was a subtle, assured set from three fantastic musicians. The real gem for me was the set by the Chip Shop Music quartet of Erik Carlsson, Martin Kuchen, David Lacey and Paul Vogel, really great and highly engaging music that had me right on the edge of my rather uncomfortable church pew seat. Later we enjoyed a game of count how many bowls of rice can be delivered to one table in a pretty bad Chinese restaurant, followed by a round of hunt the German musicians in ridiculously overcrowded Dublin pubs, but a great time was had all around.

Tonight there are four more sets, a solo from Boris Baltschun, a clarinet duo from Paul Vogel and Roy Carroll (having met him last night I can assure everyone that Mr Carroll has never played in goal for Manchester United), a solo from Jason Lescalleet and the much anticipated trio of Kuchen, Carlsson and Dorner. This great city feels like a second home these days. Right now after wandering around in the rain again today I'm off to bed for a few hours.

Oh yes and thanks Al for looking after audition alone again this weekend, much appreciated.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Extra large briefs

Right, there's so much good music and stuff here right now. I wish I had time to write in detail about everything that's moved me in recent weeks, but as I haven't, I figured that (not for the first time) I'd take a page out of Brian's book and take the lazyarse route of mentioning things briefly here...

First up, a big thank you to everyone that has sent me CDs recently for one reason or another, every one of you is a warm fuzzy wonderful person. Without you, well there would be less CDs in my life and that can never be a good thing can it? Particular thanks are due to the incredibly generous, kind hearted Antoine Beuger who just about completed my Wandelweiser collection with one package of discs. I am very grateful, and hope to restart my all too brief series of Wandelweiser musings here soon.

So what have I been listening to? Well just recently I've been on something of a Martin Küchen pilgrimage. I was left a little cold by his solo release on Confront a few years back, but have always been a fan of his contributions to the group Looper. It was his involvement alongside fellow Swede Erik Carlsson and the Irish duo of Advice Lady and A Love Plug in the group Chip Shop Music that sent me back to listen to that earlier disc though, and also to pick up a stream of recent releases, the last two of which only arrived here yesterday. The best of the recent four may well be Küchen's solo Homo Sacer on the Sofa offshoot label Silion, a rare solo sax disc that really captivates me, partly because it doesn't sound much like saxophone for much of the CD. Its varies quite a bit, from the kind of extended sax techniques we have become familiar with through to strange percussive patterns and almost electronic sounding passages. Homo Sacer hits the spot for me ahead of the old Confront disc partly because it contains longer pieces that are allowed to develop and evolve rather than the short catalogue style of the pieces on that earlier disc.

Two of the other Küchen releases have been duos with the guitarist David Stackenas. The first, named Agape from a year or two back on the Creative Sources label is really good. These two musicians compliment each other well, all gritty textural conversations with a great sense of space and balance. Its clear they had played together quite a lot prior to that release as the understanding between the two is very evident. Far too many good discs seem to avoid my attention when they first come out simply because they get buried in the usual deluge of CS releases (can you believe the catalogue is now 120 releases strong?) and this is another one in that category, but I got there in the end. Yesterday I received a copy of Guardaropa Open/Closed, the duo's new release on the beautifully packaged Kning Disk label. For this release they named the duo Agape, taking up the longstanding (but slighty perplexing, why do musicians always do that?) tradition of applying the title of the first album as the group name. I played it once through early this morning and although it has yet to have the impact of the first album I enjoyed it. Stackenas plays the guitar in a traditional manner more often on this release, which gives the album a quite different dynamic here and there but hey, only one spin so far, more listens required. The final Küchen related release also came through the door yesterday, a duo with Carlsson's percussion entitled Beirut. This one seemed to be a quieter, brooding affair at first blush, I have a feeling this one will grow to be a favourite.

Other interesting items include a gorgeously packaged little 3" CDR by Matthieu Saladin that sounds one hell of a lot less cute than it looks. It is essentially a recording of the first ever released performance of John Cage's 4"33", but with the "silence" amplified up to maximum levels and resulting in a deafening roar of fascinating detail. proof indeed that there is no such thing as silence...

Kostis Kilymis has launched a new label entitled Organized Music from Thessaloniki. He's waiting for me to pass comment on the name of the label, so I won't do that and will keep him waiting, but the first three releases are all well worth hearing. Brian mentions them all in his post here, and I agree with what he has to say so I won't repeat his words. I'd like to write more on these discs if I get a chance soon however.

Two new releases from Simon Reynell's fine Another Timbre label arrived this week too. (I somehow forgot to order the third of his new releases, I'll catch up with it soon) I have a few problems with the first of the discs I bought, the quartet of Max Eastley, Graham Halliwell, Evan Parker and Mark Wastell. Well, to be honest only one problem, namely Evan Parker, whose playing I just can't abide. I was so hoping that this would be the group to move him towards something I could come to enjoy, but alas not. Well not after a single listen anyway. I need to hear it some more and stop being such a judgmental old sod. The other new Another Timbre release I picked up has just finished its first spin as I type this. Clive Bell and Bechir Saade's An account of my hut sounded lovely on that first outing, naked, unadorned traditional wind instruments, (shakuhachi and ney to be precise) played and recorded in a manner that nicely captures the human spirit behind these simple yet beautiful pieces.

A nice little curio came from the Crouton label in as delightful packaging as ever. Node and anti-nodes is a DVD put together by the percussionists (seems such a limiting term for these two) Jon Meuller and Jeph Jerman. It features a series of short films very tastefully made that capture the detail of the making of the musi of the duo, close-ups of vibrating metal, sticks and stones bouncing around etc... The disc also contains an Mp3 soundfile of the music to the films as well. A clip can be viewed here,


A couple of new blogs to mention that try and do a little more than waffle on endlessly like I do here: Compost and Height is a nice venture put together by Patrick Farmer and his girlfriend Sarah (alas I don't know Sarah's surname, sorry) The blog contains links to exclusive tracks of a field recording nature, so far by Patrick and by Jez riley French, who would kill me if I forgot to also mention his new blog here. Jez also includes links to soundfiles alongside writing in his own inimitable, passionate fashion.

On the reading front I finally finished Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered some seven months after I started it... Why so long? Well apart from the fact its some 600 pages long and I don't manage to find very much time to sit and read these days, I tend to have several books on the go at the same time. It would be good not to do this, and concentrate on just one at a time, but it never seems to happen. I buy books faster than I read them and so as soon as I finished this one I began Alex Ross's equally long The Rest is Noise a somewhat ambitious attempt to capture the spirit of the music of the 20th Century in one volume. Thirty-odd pages in its an enjoyable if whirlwind read so far, though I'm not sure that The Guardian's front page description of Ross as "the man that transformed classical music" is not just a tad over the top.

In other news the broadcasting behemoth that is the audition radio show trundles along, some 67 shows strong now. We achieved a first for the show a couple of weeks back when we got the trio of Phil Durrant, Lee Patterson and Paul Vogel into the studio to perform live for us. We are proud of how that one turned out. An Mp3 of the show can be heard here.

A new Cathnor release should also be in my hands this time next week, the first for far too long a time. More details on that one very soon and all being well a new Cathnor website to coincide. All being well I am off to Dublin again next weekend for the 2008 incarnation of the i and e Festival. Really looking forward to making that trip again.

Finally a new review of mine went up at Bagatellen this week, and one I am quite proud of too. It can be found here.

Oh and whatever you do, don't buy the limited edition Marmite with Champagne in it.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Bumbling apologies

Its not been much fun around here of late. My long suffering other half Julie has been back and forth to hospital getting prodded about by any number of doctors and consultants. Despite early fears of cervical cancer we found out for sure today that she has nothing immediately life threatening. A significant and somewhat life changing operation now needs to follow, but we now know where we stand, and some of the stress and worry has been lifted.

Anyway, for once this isn't a post begging for pity, but a brief apology to the countless people I have let down one way or the other over the past few weeks. Delayed reviews, slow to appear Mp3s, a lack of posts here, CDs mailed out taking forever, emails not replied to, forthcoming Cathnor releases not being focussed upon etc...

Sorry guys, I'm catching up and normal (still very slow) service will be resumed soon.

Today though, out of the blue someone I'd never heard from before sent me a kind email about this blog and attached the above photo, which cheered me up no end. Thanks for that.


Just recently there's been a number of really great CDs landed here. Three in particular have really stood out over the last month, Toshimaru Nakamura and Jean-Luc Guionnet's MAP on the consistently strong Potlatch label is a really fine bundle of tension. I'm a bit late discovering Joe Foster and Kevin Parks' Ipsi sibi somnia fingunt but again a really great release, markedly different from much else out there right now and a really vibrant, exciting piece of music. Lastly Eric Cordier's disc of field recordings called Osorezan is also quite wonderful. Made up of brightly detailed recordings of a Japanese volcano letting off steam, the first three tracks on the album are really quite stunning. Reviews of all three of these are in the works and will appear at Bagatellen or here soon(ish)

A lick of virtual paint

Well if you are reading this post for the first time, and of course if you have been to this page before you will quite possibly note that the page looks a bit different. If you are a worried mother that landed here after googling for websites about how to get your children to pay more attention to you, then you can ignore this post.

Anyway yes, they say when you need cheering up a spot of spring cleaning and redecoration does the trick, and as things have been pretty depressing around PInnell Towers of late I thought I would amuse myself by giving this blog a bit of an overhaul. I sat up until silly o'clock in the morning the other night challenging my somewhat limited html skills to the very limit reworking the code of a standard Blogger template into what you see now, and so far I'm pretty pleased with the result. The image behind the title will probably change from time to time as I get bored with that one, and there's still some tweaking needs to be done here and there, but it all seems to work. I'm interested to hear people's opinions on the new look; do you like it? (if not, tough its staying anyway after all that effort!) does it work in your browser? So far I've only viewed it in Safari and Firefox so I'm eager to hear how things look in IE.

Now all I need is some content.....!

Monday, February 18, 2008

I am sitting in a room...


For three days in mid February, Antoine Beuger, Radu Malfatti and Manfred Werder, three members of the Wandelweiser collective of composers took up a residency in a room deep in the basement of the Arches music venue in Glasgow. They played music for approximately twenty-one hours across the three days. With the exception of a couple of hour-long food breaks I remained in the room throughout. On Saturday, the middle day, I made some notes throughout the performance with the intention of using them as preparation for this piece. Reading back over them now though they capture the feeling of that room quite nicely as they are, so they follow here (in italics) untouched:

Its around 12:30PM on Saturday lunchtime. I am sat on an old but very comfortable leather sofa. One of its three small red cushions supports my head. My eye seems drawn to the small constellation of five shapes formed by areas of peeled paint on the otherwise dark grey wall opposite. There are two upright pianos in the room. Both look to have seen better days and yet somehow they seem to belong here. There are three other people in the room, two of them are playing music. The third, Antoine Beuger writes quietly on a notepad for a while before setting it aside and sitting quietly to listen, just as I am doing.

Upstairs a group of musicians soundcheck for the concert they will play this evening. Its hard to make out much detail but they are lead by a somewhat frantic trumpeter who seems to be playing little or no regard to the others around him/her. They play so loud that the ceiling in this room below rumbles. Way above trains pass at intervals over the top of the building, which is built into the arches of a railway bridge. The slow thunder of the trains subsumes all other sounds. They seem to pass at different speeds, some closer than others, and often so slowly that each wheel turning over each loose sleeper can be made out.

People talk and laugh in distant coridoors, air conditioning and heating pipes rattle and purr. All of the sounds you might expect to hear in a place like this are present. Radu Malfatti is sat close to me. He plays a series of very low muted notes exceptionally quietly on his trombone, with long silences between them. Manfred Werder plays a single high note every so often for brief two second spells on a simple mouth organ.

It must be about 12:45PM now. Antoine Beuger's footsteps on the hard wooden floor as he walks across the room are slow but purposeful. He selects a CD from a small brown cardboard box and puts it into the cheap mini hi-fi system that sits atop of one of the pianos. The click of the Play button and the whirr of the CD starting up in the player are clearly audible, such is the hush in the room. As he returns to his seat a thick electronic tone creeps from the speakers out into the room. I recognise it as a version of his composition Silent Harmonies in Discrete Continuity. Malfatti turns the page of his score. He continues his soft trombone notes, the new sounds in the room seem to have no effect on his playing. The cup of tea I recently finished had been left to brew for too long. The acrid taste still lingers on the roof of my mouth.

At just after 1PM the band upstairs break into some kind of freeform blowout lead now by an electric guitar. The intrusions are clearly disturbing the players in the room, challenging their concentration. Five people enter the room in quick succession, but they are not all together. Four take seats and sit quietly. the fifth hangs around the door eyeing the proceedings in a suspicious manner before turning and leaving again. This has happened quite a lot.

At 1:20PM in a flurry of activity four more people enter, taking seats near to me. The noise from upstairs has intensified further, making it hard for anyone to focus on anything else. Manfred Werder, looking frustrated, gets up and leaves the room. A few moments later Beuger too rises, crosses to the CD player and sets the same disc playing again. he then turns and leaves. Malfatti continues to play his piece, seeming to get quieter as the incoming noise gets louder.

At 1:30PM Malfatti stops playing. It isn't clear if he has given in to the assault from upstairs or if he reached the end of the score. Outwardly he seems calm as he rearranges the items beside his chair, a book he has been reading, a small chess set, but as he gets up and follows his fellow musicians out of the room to eat lunch his frustration is apparent on his face.

The four people other than myself that remain in the room begin to look at each other as the CD player continues to leak Beuger's soft tones into the space. Two of them start to talk loudly to each other. Why they choose now to talk rather than whilst the musicians are present I'm not sure. After a few minutes they all get up and leave, the door slamming hard behind the last of them. I take out my book, Natsume Soseki's Kokoro to read.

3PM. Malfatti and Werder are playing again, simultaneously but independently. Werder slowly repeats a single high pitched note very quietly. Malfatti's trombone sounds are as distant as they were earlier, so quiet they are barely discernible at times. His playing is much more active now though, the notes change pitch this time. He plays from a score that was left on his music stand by Beuger whilst Malfatti was at lunch. The music consists of little melodic segments slowed right down, with each segment spaced apart by considerable silences.

I think I slept for a while. I was still alone in the room when Beuger returned from lunch to find the soundcheck upstairs had ceased to bombard us. The music from the CD seemed to sense his return and ended right on cue. Antoine sat down not far from me and began to quietly whistle, without any instrument, just soft, dry little whispers that seem to be directed at me. I remember wondering if he would be doing this if I was not in the room, but I don't remember him stopping this gentle, lulling whistle. I guess I dozed off.


[Note: I did go to sleep, I'm told for about 40 minutes. Antoine also told me later that his whistling was indeed part intended as a lullaby for me and he felt very happy that it had its desired effect.]

Now in the room it seems to be Beuger's turn to rest. The music played is very quiet right now. Werder sits staring silently ahead, Malfatti is making the quietest of occasional sounds. the air conditioning hums away and things are being pushed about across the floor upstairs. The trains continue to pass. My back really aches after what is now about seven hours in this seat over the last two days. A young guy is sat beside me wearing a blue coat, he looks utterly enthralled, perched on the edge of his seat. Nick Cain wanders quietly about the room, I wonder what he's making of all this? Perhaps my snoring will make his Wire review.

Its 3:45PM and what I assume to be the Incapacitants soundcheck has begun with a bang in the room above. This time the musicians continue to play. Something very beautiful is taking place in the room right now. A while back Malfatti put on a disc of his Hoffinger Nonet composition at very low volume. Its grey lines of sound separated by long silences merge nicely into the similar piece being played live by Radu now. (I think its one of his recent Kid Ailack compositions but I may be wrong here) The two sets of notes hang in the air, crossing each other. At the same time a young Japanese guy lays curled up on the sofa opposite me. He is fast asleep and snoring softly. Trains pass. Werder is playing his single note again at intervals for fractionally longer periods of time now. All of this together creates a gentle swaying effect in the room, a supple rhythm is there, some intended, some a complete accident, but the sounds all work wonderfully together. Sitting on the sofa I feel like I'm on a boat gently rocking on a calm sea. Instead of the call of seagulls overhead I have to contend with Junko's wails however.

4:21PM and as the Japanese guy has just woken and clearly embarrassed has fled the room (a real shame) the previous spell has been broken. Beuger rises from the chair he has been sat quietly in. He blows his nose into a handkerchief. He has been suffering from a cold this weekend and does not look too well. He lifts the lid on the piano beside him and slowly plays the same note seven times over a period of about sixty seconds. As if answering a signal the noise coming from upstairs begins to dissipate gradually. The young guy in the blue coat got up and left just moments before this first introduction of the piano. He had been sat quietly for over three hours. Beuger at least seems to be responding to the people in the room, or at least it feels that way. Maybe I'm wrong.

Over the next half an hour Beuger moves between the piano and his flute. Malfatti and Werder both continue to play their own compositions. There seems to be a new hum in the room now that I cannot identify. The trains seem to be less frequent, or maybe it just feels that way as their sound just feels like part of the music in this room now.

Just after 5PM as individual compositions are completed Beuger and Malfatti rise and leave the room. Werder continues to play his single notes. The room empties and I decide to take a break for food myself. Walking from the performance space out into the restaurant area of the venue is a strange feeling after five hours of concentrated listening. The rush of sound hits me not unlike stepping into a shower not long after waking. I join Richard Rothar, who also spent much of the afternoon in the room for dinner.

Its 6PM. Back in the room Robin Hayward has just joined the other three musicians. He improvises along with the collection of sounds drifting around the room. His contributions are very quiet indeed, tiny gurgles and hisses from deep inside his instrument. The tuba itself has an impressive presence in here. Its polished golden surfaces catch the dim lights in the room and from where I am sat it glows softly. Hayward leaves the room after about thirty minutes.

By 6:40PM only myself and Radu remain in the room. The concert upstairs has begun and its crashing sounds are coming down through the ceiling again. Malfatti has stopped playing. With a smile he goes over to the CD player and puts on a disc he knows well I enjoy a great deal, his composition Rain Speak Soft Tree Listens. We sit quietly for a while, enjoying the sounds, but the noise from above is too much. Its impossible to ignore it and Radu gets up and leaves again.

Just before seven as Rain Speak... plays Richard Rothar returns to the room with a pint of something cold and wet in his hand for me. We sit and relax. I feel completely and utterly free of stress here today, despite having more than enough to worry about in my life right now. Since the performance began at 7PM last night I have been in this room for about eleven hours and yet it doesn't feel a long time. My back hurts, but this physical problem is the only issue I have with sitting here for this long duration. Beuger and Werder return just after seven. Antoine goes back to the piano, picking out occasional notes as Manfred goes about his business, the same note repeated every so often. Malfatti comes back into the room, but as the noise from upstairs continues unabated he instead takes a seat and sits and reads his book, something by Peter Sloterdijk. Something vaguely resembling a dentist's drill comes down from upstairs. I swear the trains move slower as the evening moves on.

At around 7.45PM the roar of the noise gig upstairs intensifies. The strain on the musician's faces as they try and continue under these circumstances is really showing. Werder in particular looks very upset. Just after eight he gets up abruptly and leaves the room. Beuger, who has ceased playing follows. hortly after they return to the room and announce that they cannot continue tonight. After some discussion Malfatti agrees. We sit and talk for a while over a cup of tea before heading for the bar.


---

Reading back over these notes, they have a very matter-of-fact simplicity about them, yet I do not remember intending to write in any particular style on the day. Sitting in that room for four hours on the Friday evening and then eight and nine hours on Saturday and Sunday respectively had a strong effect on me. Over most of the three days the musicians played with a sense of calm precision that somehow had an effect on the way I sat, breathed, spoke, ate dinner, and wrote the above notes. With the exception of two remarkable hours late on Sunday when Malfatti was joined by Robin Hayward and Rhodri Davies for an impromptu improv session, the three musicians performed from a small number of scores they had brought with them. There had been very little discussion between the three in advance about the music they would play, only about the type of environment they wanted to create. Malfatti and Beuger played each other's compositions but never simultaneously, and assorted pieces overlapped with one another, existing in the same room at the same time yet going about their way completely independently. Somehow all of this music coalesced into one continual feeling of calm, slowness and uncomplicated beauty.

Other than when watching a clock to be able to write the notes on Saturday I lost all sense of time. Indeed the small pattern of peeled paint on the wall opposite took on a strange importance as it existed opposite me for eight hours, and the trundle of individual trains each had their own characteristics, subtle detail found in apparent repetition. Despite the music changing very slowly I didn't feel bored at any point. The brief lapse into sleep came as more of a natural response to the nature of the music at that point than any waning of interest. (That and a hellish night of very little sleep in an atrocious hotel, but thats a separate story) Rather, I found much of interest in the tiniest of details, the slightest fluctuations in the sounds of the room and the building above. This really didn't feel like a concert. There were no formal starts or finishes, no separation of the musicians from the audience, no intervals, no announcements, just a calm quiet broken only by the intrusions from upstairs.

Manfred Werder in fact played a single score throughout the entire weekend that requires immense focus and concentration. Ein(e) Ausführende(r) is a 4000 (yes, that's three zeroes) page work he has written that consists of simple time frames within which he plays a single sound. He began performing the work two or three years ago, picking up where he left off at each consecutive performance. By the time he reached Glasgow he had made it to page 295...

The patient, focussed clarity that drives Werder to perform in this manner sums up perfectly the music made in the Wandelweiser room over the weekend. Late on sunday afternoon this atmosphere was changed however when Robin Hayward made a second visit to the room, and sitting close to him slowly coaxed Malfatti away from the composition he was playing into a spacious, intense improvisation the like of which I haven't witnessed since the heyday of London reductionism. A very quiet, dramatically slowed down conversation took place over the best part of an hour, pulling a veil of tension over the room. Mercifully the noise from upstairs ceased for the duration, and Haywards tiny hisses and burbles brought more than dry tones from Malfatti for the first time all weekend, clicks, pops and the occasional brittle stabs sitting mostly in the spaces between Hayward's input.

After about an hour of this magical collaboration Rhodri Davies entered the room, wheeling a very large concert harp with him as quietly as such a feat can be achieved. Over the next hour he added maybe six or seven short bursts of ebowed sound into the proceedings, a small, yet highly impactful contribution, his face a picture of intense concentration between each note, collapsing on the sofa behind in sheer exhaustion at the end. Late on Sunday Davies returned to play a subtle ebow solo around Werder's occasional notes, and for a short while Hayward and Malfatti rejoined them to try and pick up where the intensity of the afternoon left off. However under pressure again from the noise coming from above, and with Beuger suffering from a rapidly worsening headcold Malfatti cut the performance off.

The weekend raised some interesting if old questions about which intruding sounds are "acceptable" in a performance of this type, and which are not. Why were the loud, randomly passing trains considered to be perfectly OK, perhaps an even welcome contribution to the room, yet the musicians upstairs were anything but? Why did the snoring of the Japanese guy add something quite charming to the music, yet the occasional chatter of bemused audience members was just annoying?

Over a medicinal drink later Antoine Beuger (possibly paraphrasing Cage) told me that the difference is usually centred around whether the intruding sound was intentionally made or not. The noise bands upstairs set out to make, well a noise, whilst the train driver's intention was merely to move a train full of people from a to b, the noise it made was secondary. So one set of sounds seems unnecessary, the other just part of the background. Following this through then the snoring was fine, but the deliberate chatter a nuisance. This lead me to wonder though, when an "unacceptable" sound found its way into the Wandelweiser room my immediate response was to be irritated, disturbed by its presence. Yet the trains, air-con, and heavy items being dragged across the floor upstairs sounded fine straight away, without any kind of consideration needed. If the question of intentionality is really the deciding factor here did my brain, along with the musician's brains really process that equation at that speed for each individual sound? I guess they did, but it certainly wasn't a conscious decision. That said I was asleep for some of the time....

These three days had quite an impact on me. I've never experienced such an elongated live listening experience before, the previous longest single sitting being around four hours. Being able to spend so much time, largely uninterrupted with the music of these composers was a really rewarding experience. This music requires time, space and quiet to be fully absorbed, something I just don't have at home every day. In Glasgow it certainly received time and space, and many thanks are due to the vision and good taste of Barry Esson and his Arika organisation for making this happen. Apparently the festival was originally intended as a multi-site event, which from one perspective might have been a better scenario for the Wandelweiser room, keeping the unwanted disturbances at a safe distance. However the ability for people to just drop by the room inbetween performances elsewhere in the building provided the room with much of its charm and the vast majority of its audience. Certainly I was very happy with the performance as it was, and I'd like to extend a big thanks to the composers/musicians involved.