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) Ausf├╝hrende(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.

The post formerly known as placeholder

Hmm now I just need to think of something to put here that will make the following comments look even stranger than they already do! ;)

Monday, February 04, 2008

A black day for free music

Tonight I heard the news that the Arts Council of England had rejected the appeal by the London Musicians Collective against the removal of all funding. This deeply depressing news effectively means that the LMC cannot operate in 2008. Whether other streams of funding can be found, or if free events organised under the LMC umbrella can take place remains to be seen, but either way this new effectively cripples all LMC operations as we currently know them. This is sad sad news.

The impact that the LMC has had, and has continued to have on experimental music in the UK is massive. Its impact on me personally is something I find hard to equate. Quite frankly I have no idea what I would be listening to now (if anything) were it not for the LMC. For instance, the first three times I saw AMM play live was at LMC organised events. These events alone changed my life. The first times I saw Taku Sugimoto, Otomo Yoshihide, Polwechsel, Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Derek Bailey, Toshimaru Nakamura, John Wall, Sachiko M and many many many others was at LMC organised events, that simply would not have happened without the work of Ed Baxter, Ben Drew and the many other people that have worked hard to keep the organisation running through mainly hard times. No other organisation has been capable of introducing this level of quality creative music from around the world to me, and looking at what is waiting in the wings to receive the money that should have been going to the LMC, its utterly laughable to think that any other organisation is capable of anything close to what the LMC had achieved in the near future.

The LMC also launched Resonance FM. Clearly the station has had a massive impact on me. The radio station is entirely the brainchild of the people at the LMC. The Arts Council will be continuing to fund Resonance FM separately, so for this reason I doubt that Ed, Ben or anyone close to the running of the LMC will be able to criticise the ACE as they would really like to, but hey I can...

The Arts Council are simply clueless morons that just have no idea at all about the one thing they are asked to look after; the arts. They throw money hand over fist at anything that presses the correct trendy buttons, that fits in nicely with the washed out impotent ideas of art and music that they support. Resonance continues to get support as it happens by chance to fall into a neat little category created by the ACE. It ticks the right boxes, although they probably think they are funding something completely different. Unfortunately the LMC is a little too left of centre, a little too unlikely to draw the big government pleasing crowds, a little too unlikely to give "value for money" to warrant the continued support of an organisation that is supposedly in charge of keeping our arts vibrant and important.

There are no possible reasons that could be given by the Arts Council that can justify the removal of funding to the most important music organisation this country has ever seen. Whatever reason they give, be it low audience numbers, poor "value for money" or anything else cannot warrant these actions. I now await whatever media friendly watered down rubbish we are presented with instead.


Really I feel like emigrating.