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.