Sunday, 11 November 2012


Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London, Sat 13th October

Christian Marclay is a Swiss American prankster, cut-up and plunderphonics artist, chiefly famous for the video work 'The Clock.' His concept for this performance was a 'video score'. He provided a video collage, culled from a thousand films, for both us the audience and the musicians – who found in the screen images a set of instructions.

Which is of course a great concept. Why have music based on notation in a post-literate age, when music was always about going beyond what could be written down? But great concepts can sometimes turn out to be too great, and end up lacking in realisation. The actuality becomes simply illustrational, mere demonstrative busywork. The concept sometimes just works better as a concept, a suggestion implanted in your mind - leaving you free to think up your own score. (Which of course is the basis of conceptual art.) Overall, I've noticed a growing tendency to stop seeing conceptual pieces, because I'd rather read of them and imagine them.

Furthermore, I wonder if we now fixate upon mixing media to the point where we blithely expect it to come true of its own volition. Different media have different properties, and getting them to blend together can be like getting Pandas to mate in a zoo – don't expect it to just happen, even if it's going to work at all. Anyone who read my thoughts on Bang On a Can's similar field recordings night might recall my doubts over such things. (“Concept-driven nights can... become like art projects, casting rigid parameters across everything while music is surely somewhere you want to traverse with instinct as your guide.”)

As is common with Marclay the clips are banded into thematic group, such as doors being knocked. And, as is equally common with Marclay, one such sequence is based around the iconography of playing records. As Julia Wolfe did over the bagpipes in an earlier night, Marclay celebrates their imperfection - homing in on the snap, crackle and pop. The clips also play with the retro nature of vinyl fetishism, taking us back to an era when putting on an LP was this as a swish and sophisticated thing to do, as filmable as driving a car or making a phone call had been to an earlier generation.

But perhaps there's a more philosophical point. We tend to assume we are artistically freer than previous eras, able to play pick'n'mix with the past in a way not possible before. But that hand-placed stylus made records manipulable and editable, whereas the files we listen to nowadays (whether CDs or MP3s) have to be taken as sealed units, black boxes we purchase and resort, but without prising them open.

The film clips seemed to work best when at their most anonymous. As soon as you think 'Point Blank' or 'Barton Fink' you're taken out of the moment, and find yourself accessing a memory of the film itself. In fact this may be true of any image too visually striking, whether we've previously seen it or not. The film clips are an ingredient here, not a meal in themselves. The more mundane and (to coin a phrase) everyday they are, the more open they are – the more scope there is for the musicians to respond to them, the easier it is to transform them into something new.

(Interestingly, samples don't seem to have the same problem. This may be because they don't involve marrying one medium to another in the same way, or just that we have a sight-based culture in which images naturally dominate.)

Despite Marclay's promises of no-score-but-film and the presence of arch-improvisers such as Steve Beresford and John Butcher, I couldn't help but suspect some structure - or at least the musicians having some prior knowledge of the film. At one point one player strikes up just as the screen throws a light over him, like a celluloid spotlight. But that's a minor quibble at most.

Mostly the musicians were confident enough to let film be dominant. Instruments drop out, at points all lapse into silence, like natural pauses in a conversation. The film clips sometimes came with their own sound, or provided obvious sound cues, but unlike with Bang on a Can the musicians didn't duplicate or replicate those sounds but responded to them.

Even irregular readers will be familiar with my resorting to the cliché of scored music being like reciting a speech, and improvised music more a conversation. But, in response to those staccato clips, this music was more like pre-speech, embryonic lines and proto-phrases. These were described by Aqnb as “a run of splenetic, stuttering outbursts.”

My enduring image of the night will be the brass band, who marched without cue or warning through one audience door then out the next, playing the whole while, as if en route to some other gig. Though a complete band, they can't have been there for as long as five minutes, an absurdly over-the-top gesture. That spirit of deranged invention summed up the piece as a whole. Rather than attempting to bring a grand concept home to earth, the free improvisation was like free association, a garment woven from stray thoughts. Wikipedia quotes Thom Jurek on Marclay “these sound collages of his are charming, very human, and quite often intentionally hilarious.”

Overall, in what is perhaps the best compliment you can play such a piece, one element would simply not have worked so well without the other. It's like asking how well a work for string quartet would function without the viola. If it would, then what is the viola doing there? You stop seeing it as music to a film, or as illustrated music, and just go with what's happening.

On the other hand, the night's biggest weakness was running a single piece at most fifty minutes in length. However good it was in itself, at today's ticket prices it definitely needed a support act!

I couldn't find any of this gig on YouTube so instead here's something else to show the spirit of Marclay. An excerpt from 'Video Quartet', in which a soundtrack is produced by running four video screens simultaneously.

Coming soon! The last word on the Ether festival. (Well for this year, anyway.)

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