Tuesday, 30 September 2008

IT ALL STARTS WITH A DRONE



If I’m being slow to respond here, that quite possibly suits the subject matter. Pete Ashton wrote Loving The Drone back (yes, really) on Dec 17th. This response has since been slowly maturing all that time, like a fine wine, and not at all because it got stuck under something else and forgotten about.

Peter wrote how he was listening to Sunn O))) (pictured) and “like a blast of dark light, I suddenly got it.” Though there wasn’t such a single cinematic moment where I got drone, I’m delighted to hear this. However, Pete then goes on to quote Paul Morley as an articulation of his experience. To which I ask, what is “the drone of meaning and no meaning” supposed to mean? WTF has “life on Mars” got to do with any of this? But the worst thing about Morley’s nonsense is Morley’s sense, that he manages to mix so much meaning up with his blather. Reading this, some might come to dismiss all drone music as emperor’s new clothes stuff. (Disclaimer: If you say my comments are no more substantiable than Morley’s I will not argue. If you claim they’re equally pretentious I will sulk terribly but not actually respond.)

In writing this rejoinder I find I’ve stumbled into writing a trilogy on musical forms. I asked here ‘Is Impro the Primal Musical Mode?’, then here the related question of whether folk music constitutes our identity? The fact that I answered ‘no’ in both cases may be considered a clue as to what I will say about drone.

However, while I might deny that folk is the music to we’re biologically programmed to respond, a fuller response might be that folk is itself born in the drone. This might have largely been quite accidental - folk instruments tended to produce drone effects only as a byproduct, like the tape hum or disc crackle of its day. But I can’t see why this should change anything. Accident is always the mother of discovery. To me this just adds weight to my contention that drone is not a genre of music. To me drone is music, with all the other forms the offshoots and sidelines.

Drone is the music we first played to ourselves. It was a ritualised use, where the music itself wasn’t the focus but a means towards the effect it had upon the participants. It’s widely believed so many ancient rituals were held in caves, stone circles or similar places in order to echo and maintain the sustained tones. Its likely mantras are more individualised attempts to simulate the same effects.

Of course you can’t listen to drone the way you can other music. You tend to listen to music at a meta level, not to the instruments so much as the interplay between them. In popular music, this comes out like a conversation between a ‘group’. In classical music, it’s like words or phrases strung together by the composer. Listening can become almost like watching a film, as you start to sense things like the climax coming in. Popular music in particular seems keen to approximate a sense of forward momentum; how many songs contain words like “let’s go”, “here we go” or similar?

Drone dispels all that by immediately pulping all the separate instruments down into a kind of primordial soup. All our conventional descriptive terms, such as ‘allegro’ or ‘fortissimo’, are designed to explain how fast or slow music is progressing. But drone music doesn’t progress, it’s just maintained. Notes don’t get replaced by other notes in a string, sounds just merge with sounds that arrive after them. This often leads to the complaint that drone music is monotonous and (inevitably) boring. However if is endless that doesn’t mean it is static. It merely means people are listening to the music in the wrong way.

Though drone is not precisely analogous with minimalism, it does exhibit why the term ‘mininmalist’ can be such a misnomer. Through extended duration, apparently simple textures reveal greater and greater levels of complexity. It’s like looking into the grain of wood, or following the falling of a waterfall; the more you look, the more there is to see. It’s like looking into a cave. First your daylight-tuned eyes make out only murk, but the longer they look the more emerges. In many ways I can’t think of a more maximalist music than the immersive world of drone.



Of course it’s quite possible that the sub-tones and variations to be found in drone appear quite accidentally. To me that’s even part of the point, the essence of drone’s ‘sameyness’ is that nothing is ever the same. Indeed, much drone music tries to minimise the player’s role by enabling rather than playing the sustained tones. (‘Drone’ is after all also used as a term for unwilled or unmanned.) This is different to impro music, where the musician tries to let his consciousness surrender to his subconscious. In drone the musician must surrender altogether, like a medium becoming a mere conduit of communication. In Sound Projector 8, Ed Pinsent enthused of drone-merchant Jilat that he “has done his level best to efface the traces of playing.”

Sometimes this was achieved by preparing instruments to be permanently held down, sometimes by exploiting and amplifying imperfections in equipment. The guitars on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music were ‘played’ only by force from their own amps, in a complete feedback loop without human involvement. Disinformation boiled things down further by creating performances from nothing other than the mains electricity used to power them, sometimes for up to six weeks at a time.

There’s also a strong overlap with electro-acoustic music and field recordings, for example Chris Watson recording wind blowing or ice cracking. Drone is about the elemental – it’s not so much composed and then performed but captured and set up to run. (In this way, and however name-defying it may sound, drone isn’t even reliant on sound. After his tenure in Eternal Music, Tony Conrad made films via, for example, hitting the film-stock with a hammer so fault and fracture-lines appear.)

In one of the best comments I’ve heard about music, David Byrne said a function of it was to give us a sense of time outside clock time. In our linear, deadline-driven, time-poor culture, I’m sure he’s right. But drone doesn’t just contend clock-time, it suspends it. The Theatre of Eternal Music would always start their performances before the audience were allowed in the venue then make them leave again before it was finished, to give them a sense of a music not bound and formed by duration but (you guessed it) eternal. We only experience a segment of the music, just like our lifespans permit us only a segment of time. Head honcho La Monte Young went on to construct a ‘dream house’, where the drones were perpetual and visitors could stay as long as they chose.

Over Metal Machine Music (long dismissed as a mere wind-up), Lou Reed dismissed accusations it was unchanging by insisting it was ever changing, and was in fact the sound of the universe. Similarly there’s a (quite possibly apocryphal) story that La Monte Young discovered drone from the sounds his fridge made when it went on the blink! While the Slits recorded ‘In the Beginning there Was Rhythm’, I would counter it all starts with a drone. One of the Jilat pieces mentioned earlier is titled “a long drone-like pieces of muisc which attempts in its minimalism to be a thing in itself without external reference, having an analogue in certain states of consciousness where being is experienced also as a thing in itself and not contingent upon meaning or purpose.” (Though of course I’m kidding about that being the title of the piece. The full title is longer.)

While drone is sometimes dismissed as bliss-out and escapist, it doesn’t have to refer out to anything else in the universe because it already encompasses the universe. It doesn’t merely encompass the sound of the big and the small, it denies the distinction between those sounds. “As above, so below” is an important concept in drone. Blake’s conception of “infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour” is just up drone’s street. Once the sounds are isolated, can we tell the grand scheme of the universe from electricity passing in a wire?

Typically of drone, it sounds at once like the universe and at the same time like the womb. Morley is surely right to say it’s “the sound inside the womb, the sound of your thoughts before words became your thoughts”. Charlemagne Palestine has insisted “I was born in the drone!” Experiments have suggested that maybe everything did sound like that then, but I’d go further and suggest that everything felt like that then too. Ed Pinsent has commented “loud intensive drone music [lets me] retrieve some deeply personal memories I thought were long buried.” Drone music draws it’s effect from enveloping you in sound, like a womb state. (Conversely, when I first heard the cacophonous rush of Tomorrow Never Knows the first it made me think of was the rupture of being born.)


However, drone reaches back further than the deepest personal memories. Morley is also right to describe drone as strangely comforting. But I’ve often felt a paradox within drone, its sheer eeriness can at the same time be unsettling. Some ‘dark’ or ‘doom’ drone leans more to one and some ‘ambient drone’ to the other, but it’s an important factor that it contains both. Drone ultimately reaches back to ancient conception of the Wyrd:

“Our tribal ancestors and mystics of ancient Europe lived out a view of life called Wyrd: a way of being which transcends our conventional notions of free will and determinism. All aspects of the world were seen as being in constant flux and motion…Following on from the concept of Wyrd was a vision of the cosmos as being connected by an enormous, all-reaching system of fibres rather like a three-dimensional spider’s web. Everything was connected by strands of fire to the all-encompassing web. Any event, anywhere, resulted in reverberations and repercussions throughout the web.”
Brian Bates, the Wisdom of the Wyrd, Rider Books, 1996

My contention is that we respond to drone music not simply because we genetically recognise something ancient, but because we respond to this non-linear anti-causal conception of reality which it embodies. It is quite simply humans playing not only in harmony with each other but with everything else. And it’s unsettling quality is partly because of its unfamiliarity to our modern sensibilities but more because it is unsettling – it presents a view of the universe which is never settled. True drone music is a world away from the soothing soundscapes that accompany New Age utopias. Drone was, is and will forever be something savage.

See also:
Lucid Frenzy on Tony Conrad’s Tate performance this summer
Wikipedia’s entry on drone music
A reasonable starter’s guide to drone musicians

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

THE UPSIDES AND DOWNSIDES OF COLOUR OUT OF SPACE

September 2008, Sallis Benney Theatre, Brighton



“Welcome to the third Colour Out of Space. Three days of unstructured, cross platform sound experimentation featuring concrete poetry, re-wired electronics, avant-noise, out-jazz, home-built instrumentation, Kabuki free-vocalists and more.”

...”and more” there was! After the first Colour Out of Space inexplicably passing me by, I can now only hope that this event becomes an annual fixture. Not only is the sort of music you never expect to hear now on for a reasonable price at a venue practically down the road from me, the event has a nice organic feel to it. There’s nothing reserved or stuffy about proceedings, nor is there much sense of avant-guarder-than-thou. In fact, intimate and dripping with camaraderie, it partly reminds me of the small press comics events I attend such as Caption. (As one example, all the acts seem to hang around the whole weekend to catch their fellow performers at flow. And I was particularly enamoured of the way acts were announced by the ringing of a school bell, whereupon we’d troop in from the garden for our next instalment of droning Berlinners.) I’m sure if I were to suggest that this festival rocks I would be immediately put to the torch by a posse of Finnish noisemongers. But...you know what I’m trying to say.

Of course with over thirty (count ‘em!) performances to blurt, screech and drone, the odds are you won’t like everything. In fact, with almost every act incorporating some degree of improvisation, this is almost inevitable. Improvising is something like mining, you strike out hoping to hit a seam of something rich. But one night can be a lot of labour for little gain, then the next you strike lucky straight away. That’s all to be expected, and even adds to the excitement of the moment. Want the handsome prince and you have to be prepared to kiss some frogs.

A classic example of the bounty of serendipity working would be In Camera’s set. As they launched into their delicate electronics and ethereal bowed strings, the marquee tent creaked in a sudden summer storm, the rain pattering accompanying percussion on its sides. Have you ever been tucked up in bed on a winter night, reading a tingling ghost story by candlelight? Well multiply that feeling by a factor of ten! It was perhaps the ultimate moment in an ambient set meeting and perfectly merging with the room ambience.

As a consequence of this essential unpredictability, there seems little point in making a nerdy little list of each troupe next to a mark out of ten. See the exact same acts another night, and the whole order might be re-thrown. (Unless of course In Camera have hired that storm to tour with them.) Instead let’s look for patterns, stuff which worked and which didn’t, upsides and downsides of this sort of music.

Despite my enthusiasm for all things bleep, I had spent some of last year hoping for a few more words. Of course there’d been lots of vocals, culminating in Phil Minton’s glorious feral choir. But only post-Dada prankster Jaap Blanc and a few others had incorporated discernablewords. Do some see improvisation as the opposite of storytelling? Surely we can make up a story as easily as we can a feedback guitar drone! David Thomas was to make a latter-day career out of it. But that’s not what I’m on about here...

There’s the scene in Donnie Darko where the ousted teacher writes ‘Cellar Door’ on the blackboard as a goodbye to her charges. She explains “an expert linguist” (actually Tolkien) claimed the phrase to be the most beautiful in the English language. Of course this has nothing to do with doors to cellars, it’s turning the sound of the phrase into a musical miniature in your mind. The fact it’s now removed from it’s meaning is precisely the point. It’s like the exercise of looking at a page of text (say this one), until all the letters turn back into shapes. The way the word is seen as such an epitome of cultured thought makes it fair game for such undoing.

Koichi Makigami took up Blanc’s ‘sound poet’ role this year, an excellent performance perhaps enhanced by our lack of understanding of Japanese. (The nonsense comes easier that way.) Byron Coley ran a workshop on the word I didn’t manage to make, but I didn’t enjoy his performance so perhaps I didn’t miss much. Overall, I’d say there were no more words than last time, but then there’s always next year...

One frequent critique of this sort of thing is that there’s nothing to look at, bar some spotty herbert doing some diffident tinkering. The Sound Projector’s Ed Pinsent has written before that this shouldn’t be seen as a failure of electronic music so much as its incompatibility with old-fashioned spectator-style venues, and he’s at least part right. Things often felt more natural in the outdoor marquee, where acts tended to play in the round, than the school assembly room that is the main hall. (While a recent Brighton Expo night of laptop music pretty much failed in the Concorde rock venue.)

However, in our modern multi-media world, you have to ask – why choose to stimulate only one sense at a time? It seems pointlessly restrictive, particularly in a venue which doubles as a cinema, which even separately shows films as part of this very festival! When, early on, some quite spectacular visuals erupted around Core of the Coal Man, hopes raised – only to be, for the main part, dashed. (It was even some effort to find an illo for this blog-piece, even with the assistance of Google Image!)

Of course other acts tried to overcome this problem in their own way. Leslie Keffer attempted to finish her set by stepping from behind the laptop to reveal an party skirt then dragging everybody up to boogie - a plan sadly scuppered by technical failures and English reserve. Dave Phillips and G*Park dimmed the house lights almost entirely, and performed a piece with such redolent sound design that your ears followed it around the room and you felt inside those cavernous sounds. The whole question of what to do with the room was thereby extinguished. Equally, groups such as Skullflower (see above) look and act more like regular bands (in every way except their sound) so that particular problem doesn’t arise.

Let’s emphasise what we need is some visuals or performance element which synaesthesiastically merges with the music. Coal Man’s great visuals wouldn’t have saved things if the music had been bad (which it wasn’t). It was notable that the two acts which most stressed the performance angle (HRT and Weirding Vessel) pushed the ritual element of performance but scrimped upon musical substance. Both came on with a huge splash. Less than five minutes later, you were bored. Closer to the mark would be Bruce McClure’s ‘projector performances’. From what I gathered, the musical element was pre-recorded to which McClure manually adjusted celluloid loops. But very soon in, you were no longer looking and listening, you’d lost your category distinction between the two things. You were just taking it in.

Another recurrent weakness... far too many acts seemed content as mere demonstrations of their instruments. The scene’s ceaseless faddishness for new gadgets and devices may be partly down to this. It sometimes felt like a new toy had arrived on Christmas Day, and the recipient was running through the menu to check out what it could do. New and unusual sound sources are, of course, all to the good. But this misses the essential point that all instruments are merely... guys... instrumental. This argument has nothing to do with proficiency, it’s of no importance whatsoever who is proficient in their instrument and who isn’t. You don’t get any sense of the personality of the performer coming through, just a tourist trip through some settings.

Step forward, Gastric Female Reflex, for your wooden spoon award in this regard. But perhaps a more interesting example was Limpe Fuchs, whose set was emblematic precisely because it danced upon this very dividing line. Fuchs came complete with some mouth-wateringly inventive home-made instruments (including a ten-foot glockenspiel made of slate) plus some equally inventive ways of approaching them (including dragging stones down those slate keys). But she’d flit restlessly from one instrument to another, abandoning it as soon as things seemed to be getting going. It was like watching a child in a playpen, jumping hyperactively between all the toys. But instant composition isn’t the same thing as non-composition. Fuchs needed to either make something with the toys or release them into a workshop situation where we all got a go. She should either have come out the pen, or invited us into it.

But perhaps these comments lead into one wider criticism. David Toop once complained the electro-acoustic scene was a genre without an audience, and thereby hermetically trapped.
The electro-acoustic influence was not rife here, but perhaps his words carried a warning. Indeed at its worst, you did feel that afore-mentioned spotty herbert was just doing on stage what he normally does in his bedroom. This might lead to a scene, but only a backslapping society where each and every new set is treated as a masterwork appreciable only to the elect few. (Impro music isn’t auto-innocculated against cliché, despite what some of its adherents like to claim.) Art needs some kind of outreach, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as showbiz.

Taking the same point the other way up, it has always amazed me how ‘outsiders’ assume all this is some cerebral affair where we applaud the clever innovations of the performer. Well me, I wouldn’t know Pro Tools from an effects pedal! As I have often argued, it’s abstract nature means music can have a more direct effect upon your emotions than other styles of art. Sad music doesn’t have to spin you yarns about dying dogs or orphan boys, it can just be sad. But, by cutting itself off from the more obviously man-made elements such as melody, this music has the opportunity to instill a more immediate and direct effect upon your emotions. It’s rawer than rock, and richer than symphonies. In the right hands, its power to affect you is immense - and absolutely not dependant upon specialised or rarified knowledge. It should not be consigned to the bedroom or kept in the conservatoire!

You may observe that even the organisers’ own attempt to label all this (quoted up top) ends up not as a term to pin all this to so much as a semi-tongue-in-cheek list. While non-afficonadoes lump all this stuff together, there is far more variety available here than at the most eclectic regular music festival. You could pick any two acts at random, and there’d be more space between them than, say, a speed metal and a roots reggae band.

Speed metal and roots reggae are, at least to some degree, still based in blues. It’s like all the other music you ever heard was some shade of blue or other, then suddenly the rest of the spectrum is supplied and you get to hear orange, green, scarlet and black. (There was definitely no shortage of black.) Extra colours, courtesy of outer space.

http://www.colouroutofspace.org/
I expect most of these acts have websites of their own, in some capacity.The Colour site doesn’t list them either...

Thursday, 4 September 2008

EVERYBODY’S GOATEED NOWADAYS (A HARANGUE ON HIP, A CRITIQUE OF GEEK)


As proof I don’t just use the internet to read Andrew Rilstone’s comments on Doctor Who, I was recently perusing K-Punk’s critique of hipsterdom. Despite the fact that neither article he’s reacting to is worth reading of itself, I’m a fan of K-Punk - even at the points where I disagree with him. For example, when he condemns hipsters as “pathologically well-adjusted” he is surely bang on the money.

However, when he calls the hipster “a vague irritation at the periphery of awareness” of “the general population”, I would claim quite the opposite. Of course, the self-conscious hipster has always cared more about his hipness quotient than anybody else has done, or indeed even could. But in many ways the culture-surfing hipster has come to determine our post-modern era. For one thing, culture has largely abandoned segmentation for a grey homogenisation – we are all brand-wearers now, everybody’s goateed nowadays. Listening to “keep-it-real grime” or “rad hip-hop” no longer places you outside the mainstream, for it will all win a Mercury Prize eventually. So the only distinguishing marker left is to be ahead of the curve. And “I used to be into them last year” is precisely where the hipster plants his pad.

More pertinently, the hipster has come to epitomise our relationship to culture. The hipster hangs out inside a hermetic, rarified world where there is only room for appearances. Music and art become interchangeable with the brand-name clothing as signifiers for the self. The objects are merely there as something to hang the labels from, which stand so easily for a projected ‘self’ with no greater depth to it than they do. Devoid of substance, everything can safely be jettisoned as soon as it’s classed “last year”. Thereby insulated against attachment, the hipster can feel neither pain nor pleasure – save a temporary salve of peer approval. With the world so shrunk, everything appears effortless to the hipster. His life is one of perpetual torpor.

One example of the leakage of hipsterdom into the general culture is the rise of ‘smart casual’ workplaces. You’re no longer required to wear a stock uniform to work. But you’re also aware that to wear the same clothes you lounge about in at home is not an option. You are as judged for what you wear to work as ever, making it your de facto task to generate some pseudo-individuality within conformism. This is the hipster’s challenge in a nutshell.

But the point where I really disagree with K-Punk is where he negatively contrasts the hipster against the geeko-outsider, the “sense of abandonment and maladjustment” found in “Metal, Goth and even, Gold help us, Emo.” It’s not just that the geek is any less a stereotype than the hipster, it’s that they are the two sides of the same tarnished coin.

At the level of general appropriation, the charismatic, smart-casual Blair was (by politican’s terms) a hipster. (Bono was exultant at finding a tuned guitar in his office, pronouncing there “hope.”) While of course the crumpled, number-crunching Brown couldn’t be more of a geek. And of course the media encourages us to focus on this difference, and of course it’s the last thing we should actually do. It merely serves to obscure the fact that their policies are interchangeable. The same is true of the wider culture.

K-Punk’s comments are particularly bizarre, for geek culture has penetrated the mainstream almost as surely as has hip. With both defined by consumption, what differentiates them is their method of consumption. The collectivist geek is the addict of consumption, wanting the set of everything irrespective of whether he even likes it or not. The dilettante hipster passes his faddishness off as connoisseurship. In general, everyone else now consumes as addicts whilst carrying the belief this makes them connoisseurs. In the past, only geeky genres such as Science Fiction made it onto video collection releases. Nowadays everything’s available on DVD, from nature shows to sitcoms to cheesy cop shows.

But the real exemplifier of geek culture penetrating the mainstream must be comics. Back in the early Eighties comic fandom almost reflected gay culture, with its mix of ‘out’ fans and ‘closets’ who kept their sorry hobby a secret from friends and workmates. Nowadays... well, just read those reviews of Dark Knight.



K-Punk is however, much closer to the nub of it than the above might make out: “When youth culture was interesting it was because of alienation... the sense both that the young were not adequate to the world and also that the world was not adequate to them. I am nothing and should be everything.

Of course in a fucked-up world, the only non-fucked-up response is to be is fucked-up. But what makes those moments of youth culture special isn’t when they abandon cool for alienation, or when the two are held in separate-but-equal contrast – it’s when the two were dialectically synthesized. You need to be grub and butterfly simultaneously. Think of Ziggy-era Bowie or Stooges-era Iggy, it’s impossible to separate them into examples of alienated outsiderhood and of cool-as-fuck-ness. (As John Lennon once said “part of me thinks I’m a loser. The other that I’m Christ Almighty.”) What makes it alienated is also what makes it cool. Even the more credible ‘cool’ icons such as Jim Morrison seem to suffer from the lack of something to me. There’s no tang to the taste, no sense of internal conflict, merely a sugar rush.

The chief drive to alienation in youth culture is, after all, not social or political but merely hormonal. Of course this can sharpen a youth’s antennae to wider concerns, but it can as easily narrow into sheer self-pity. Merely insisting on your right to feel fucked-up leads nowhere except wallowing. Once you’ve made your alienation your identity, you’ve become a hopeless case. Youth culture must carry feelings of alienation, but to avoid the sulky bedroom it must also suggest an antidote. At the same time this antidote must feel volatile and tenuous, something precariously grasped. It’s not a formula, where the two can be combined in the correct amounts – the key is the reaction which then results.

You probably won’t be too surprised to hear me say this, but at root it’s all to do with shamanism. The shaman is the sickly kid who has the task thrust upon him to heal himself, and through this stumbles upon some strange new form of transformative power. The shaman is no master of his trade, like a blacksmith or carpenter. He doesn’t truly understand this power itself, but can only explore it and offer it to the rest of the tribe through performance. The shaman remains an outsider to the rest of the tribe, even at the same time they join in his rituals.

Okay, here’s a question for the reader. What about the ‘geek chic’ image, first put forward by Talking Heads and Devo – which side is that on? No conferring. Your time starts now...