Saturday, 4 April 2015


Barbican Hall, London, Tues 31st March

This live soundtrack with a difference was part of 'Compass and Magnet', a retrospective on the independent American filmmaker Jem Cohen, best known (and in my case at least, mostly known) for the well-received 'Instrument' documentary on the hardcore punk band Fugazi. And where to go from hardcore punk but a verite-style documentary on Cape Breton, a peninsula so thinly attached to Nova Scotia as to normally be thought of as an island? The musical accompaniment was provided by Gui Picciotto from Fugazi, Jim White from the Dirty Three no less than three members of Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchesra - and more!

The music mostly resembled Mount Zion's parent band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, ambient string openings tugged by expansive guitar riffs into more anthemic sections. Yet Godspeed tracks tend to be whole pieces, however much they may morph along the way. Here they'd often play minatures, more akin to your actual film composition. And the ambient element was much stronger, often playing along to the incidental sounds of the film clip. (Cohen commented in the programme “I wanted them to make weather out of sound”.) They sit in just about enough light to find their instruments, chiefly with their backs to us the better to see the film themselves.

And the film itself... Mostly the material is just presented, with no maps or scene-setting, interviewees un-named. The lens seems unselective - we see the rugged wildness of the province, but also the fast food signs. A verbal, largely anecdotal description of Cape Breton's recent history appears briefly, and some way into the film. But in one rare moment of on-screen contextualisation, an already-dilapidated backwoods shack is shown in successive years, succumbing more and more to nature. There's still places left where the wilderness stays in charge.

Some images are held shots, perfectly framed, almost sublime in nature. (Check out the one above.) While others are incidental and almost ephemeral – roadsides, litter rolling around parking lots, a spider climbing a blind – often shot in grainy super 8. The screen often splits into multiple frames, sometimes merely giving us different views of the same thing. In the self-same programme Cohen states “I often build work from a loose archive, gathering without ever knowing it there is a project at hand or what shape it might someday take”. Seeing such ephemeral images in so large an audience, set to music and thrown up on a large screen, cannot help but transform them. In the same day's Guardian Cohen was interviewed and described his style as 'essay film', citing Chris Marker as an influence. But this is more of a tone poem. In fact, three of what could be described as 'your actual poems' are quoted.

Tourist trips can start to follow the structure of adventure games, getting through the task list of finding and snapping each of the photo-ops listed in your guidebook, before moving onto the next. Get through them all before your holiday expires and you're the winner. But its in passing through a place that it rubs off on you, sinking into your pores without your noticing. Yet at the same time, at one point an interviewee says “most things here aren't apparent to outsiders”, and a great strength of the film is that it doesn't pretend otherwise. Instead we have to stay content with the outsider's view. Cohen comments in the programme how little of the native folk music makes it into the soundtrack, just enough to give us a flavour of it. We see just enough of a snaphot of the place to know there's a whole lot we're not seeing. Its like meeting not just a stranger, but someone whose whole way of life is unaligned to yours.

Cohen mentions the cultural, and even geographic, similarities between Cape Breton and the wilder parts of Scotland. And indeed the film reminded me in many ways of my recent trip to Mull. And very much of what you notice is what's been taken out. We're so used to our sight being compressed by walls, to feeling the presence of other people around us, that all we notice is the sudden space. Sometimes you travel less for what you might find than what you can leave behind. And big open spaces seem perfect for this, expanses of snow like unwritten white pages. The title, from the hymn 'Will Your Anchor Hold' ironically emphasises the sense that the film is in a state of perpetual drift. The 'rolling road' shot somehow always feels compelling, even when its become so ubiquitous as to show up in bogstandard Hollywood flicks. Here it comes into its own.

This feeling is evoked verbally by one of the poems Cohen incorporates, 'Cape Breton' by Elizabeth Bishop:

“The road appears to have been abandoned.
Whatever the landscape had of meaning appears to have been abandoned,
Unless the road is holding it back,
In the interior, 
where we cannot see...
And these regions now have little to say for themselves”
(You can read the whole thing here.)
It also reminded me of a quote from the cartoonist Kevin Huzunga:
“The work becomes meaningful insofar as its form allows people to invest it with meaning, like a sign in a field that says 'space available'.”
And perhaps the event works so well because concerts are in themselves a smaller way of clearing a space, of upping anchor and of placing everyday life on hold. Perhaps Cohen needed the strange taste of a real place just to show us what a film or concert can do.
For much of the running time, this is nothing less than enthralling. I did feel at times it might be a little over-long, though ninety minutes is only the average gig length. On reflection this may be more a problem with the vox-pops, which can be jarring in two ways. First, they seem to require a different part of the brain to process. (A little like the mental gear-switching required for Laurie Anderson's recent performance in this venue, but perhaps even more so.) But also the interviews with the locals seemed part of a more conventional film and vied with the spirit of the travelogue.
Alas this is the only event in the programme I'm likely to make, though I'm most likely greatly missing out. Cohen has even made a concert film of those great Lucid Frenzy favourites The Ex.
Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, Sat 28th March

After getting all excited over the first part of the London Sinfonietta's Spectral music programme, I'm back for the second instalment - with a fresh analogy.

It is true that, with least three of the four pieces perfomed, sounds were sometimes used that might seem at the margins of music – the scraping of bows, the ambient blowing of wind instruments without forming notes, and so on. But overall, any metaphors along the lines of 'edge' or 'margin' point the wrong way for any understanding. The right term for spectral music... well, actually it's spectrum – in the sense of full spectrum dominance.

Standard notation music can be like climbing a climbing wall. After a while your hands know to go to the regularly placed handholds. At which point you might expect me to compare spectral music to a mountain, but really I don't think it resembles the impregnable face of anything. Its more like plunging into the sea. Music engulfs and cascades over you, no longer reducible back to individual notes or instruments. Tom Service has described Ligeti's compositions as “a 'micro-polyphony' of incredibly dense pile-ups of musical lines so that you're more aware of an ever-changing amorphous cloud of sound than the movement of individual instruments or voices”. But the description could apply throughout.

If Georg Friedrich Haas again came away with the gold, I've gushed on about him so much lately I'll try not to do it all over again. Performed in this company, 'Ich Suchte, Aber Ich Fand Ihn Night' (in another UK premiere) threw into sharper relief how much Haas can combine cutting-edge modern with a hearkening back to Romanticism. The title, roughly translatable as 'I Searched, But I Found Him Not', even comes from 'The Song of Solomon' - the only book of the Bible devoted to romantic love.

Except, however much Romanticism broke contemporary bounds in its mission to evoke mood, it kept to music's dramatic structure in a way Haas simply doesn't. Bjorn Gottstein, writing in the programme, comments how he builds “up a tension from moment to moment which then fades away to nothing... musical processes are resolved not redeemed”. As he points out, the searching woman of 'Song of Solomon' is eventually reunited with her lover. Whereas Haas offers no such closure, just the searching.

In his introductory talk, Professor Jonathan Cross mentioned that the Spectralists could consider themselves in opposition to the contemproaries the Minimalists as much as their predecessors the Serialists – and went on to play compare and contrast between them. No small part of this may have been down to transatlantic rivalries, Minimalism was an American phenomenon while Spectralism largely haunted Europe. And perhaps, as an avowed fan of Minimalism, I'm more primed to notice the similarities. Buts Hass's wave after wave of undulating, mesmerising sound pass over you, they give Spectralism a sense of always being 'in the moment' which would seem a main point of comparison.

Giacinto Scelsi's Kya' proved a rare exception to Service's rule of no individual player dominating. A solo clarinet is set against seven other instruments, the cello and brass players often providing little more than drones, a horizon line above which the clarinet flutters and rolls. The trumpet sometimes catches it in a dance.

Scelsi was perhaps the most spectral of the Spectralists, in the sense of spirit-like or other worldly. If the Spectralists do in some way parallel the Minimalists, then Scelsi may be their Terry Riley. His music often feels pitched at the edge of both hearing and audability, (just listen to some of those pitches the clarinet reaches) as if it has the ability to pass between realms and is seeking to draw you across the threshold. At times he'd create compositions from single notes, honing in on them and finding the microtones locked within.

Gyorgy Ligeti may the the most known Spectralist, thanks to the use of his music in Stanley Kubrick films. (Though apparantly strictly he's a 'proto-Spectralist'.) His piece was simply called 'Chamber Concerto', the standard nomenclature a case of hiding under sheeps' clothing if ever there was. It perhaps packed in more musical ideas than most composers manage in a career. String players would pluck at their instruments, strum them like banjos before coming back to something more recognisably harmonic, then flying off again.

It's main strength almost became a weakness, there was just so much compressed into it that not all the sections had time to shine and it became hard to assimiliate – like watching a film on fast-forward. It was simultaneously exilerating and befuddling.

Like Claude Vivier before, Tristran Murail was the wild card of the night. (Though in his case I'd heard at least a little by him.) And like Vivier, I greatly enjoyed his piece. But I seem to have used up my repositiory of superlatives for now, so that might have to wait for another time.
Not from the South Bank, the first movement of Scelsi's 'Kya'...

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