Friday, 31 July 2015

DESTINED FOR GREATNESS (MY HISTORY OF MUSIC-MAKING (SORT OF))

This is still the silly season, right?


You know what they always said about the Sixties? That if you could remember them you weren't there? Whereas with Eighties, it's those who want to remember them who weren't there. There was not a whole lot to do back then, except to wait for dole cheques to arrive or the internet to be invented. Plus there were only four TV channels, so instead we used to form bands. Some people said they did this as a means of protest against the Thatcherite tyranny which pedagogically imposed itself upon our lives. But I think the real reason was that it was something to do with your hands. For example, I myself had two hands and I was in two bands. It all went something like this...

The best way to describe my first combo might be via the famous Buzzcocks lyric: “We came from nowhere/ And we're heading straight back there.” Fair enough in itself. But we figured we could cut out that whole middle man.

'Liverpool Explodes', a chronicle of punk history in that fair city, had just come out and been read enthusiastically by myself and my pub drinking mates. It recounted a scene built around a central notion, that music was only of any real use as a jumping-off point for daft art projects and Dadaist provocations. So practitioners would endlessly configure and reconfigure into outfits with an absurd and ludicrous name, some absurd and ludicrous stage attire and perform under some over-arching absurd and ludicrous concept. This was to be performed for one night only, then everyone involved was expected to start from scratch again. Any variance from this was, in the parlance of the day, “rockist”. Bands that tried to go on to do a second gig would be met by punk picket lines.

We considered this and decided it was a bit extreme. But only a bit, and that was where we came in. The weak link was clearly that first gig business. Cut that out and you remove even the possibility of a band performing a second. Problem over. So we formed a band with the concept that the less we actually did the truer to the purity of our vision we were. We'd sit around and discuss what sort of band we might be, in the most abstract and conceptual terms we could muster. We'd ponder, for example, the prospect of our having a name. Not, I hope you understand, consider names for possible use. Most certainly not! Instead we'd consider whether considering the possibility of a name was a violation of our most vital principle or not. Then not decide anything. Then buy more drinks.

We weren't, you see, part of the system like bands who had names and instruments assigned to individual members, or for that matter agreement on who those individual members might be. Instead our philosophy was, if you're not doing something you could be doing anything – inactivity sets you free. It was only much later I discovered that, thinking along similar lines, the Residents had figured the way their new album would sound the best would be to give it a release date of never. Everyone was then at liberty to just imagine the way they wanted it to sound. They based this on the Theory of Obscurity devised by N Senada, a Bavarian music theorist who they had made up.

Besides most bands never rise above the level of pub talk anyway, never get as far as all the sweaty business of lugging amps to rehearsals or the writing stuff down involved in booking gigs. So we already had those music-making bands outnumbered. If we kept up the not doing anything, we might be bringing the whole music industry to a grinding halt. Our way was clearly better. Mostly through being easier.

We kept this up on successive Saturday nights for many months. When I think back, it was our earlier work which was the best. In the beginning it was all about the not making any music, and later that just seemed to change somehow…


My second band were formed after I'd moved to Brighton, out of the inhabitants of my student house. You could still get grants in those days, and perhaps reflecting such enhanced purchasing power this time we had instruments. I suppose what I should have done is invite my original bandmates to come down to Brighton and picket one of our sessions. But alas I didn't think of that until just now.

Some of these were even musical instruments - an acoustic guitar, an electric bass, a harmonica and drums. Though by strict definiton the drums were really the pots and pans from the kitchen. And this distinction came to light when the poor soul who had to share the house with us came in to say he was in full support of our musical endeavours, but could he at least have a couple of pans to make his tea with. We complied and left that bit on the session tape. To cut it out would have been commercial.

In fact so far had I come on my musical journey that we even had a name – The Search for Gravity Waves, the title of a Physics textbook which sat on the shelf. We were supposed to take a different name from a different textbook for each different session, but somehow the Search for Gravity Waves stuck. Perhaps it was just too good a name to pass over. Or perhaps we were just too damn lazy to look a bit further down the shelf.

I was chief vocalist and songwriter. I expect we decided that to not be commercial. If it was that, it bloody worked. My material ranged from surrealist imagery to social realism to stuff I'd just made up. We were particularly proud of 'Everybody Does the Washing Up in Hollingdean Terrace', a salute to the excess cleanliness of our humble abode.

Our tracks were played on the local radio. But only because we played them. We talked ourselves into a slot on the student radio station, where we'd play the work of our musical heroes then our own stuff, and defy people to tell the difference. Nobody could. Probably because they weren't listening in the first place. But the point still stood.

Our model this time wasn't Liverpool punk but the Velvet Underground. They hadn't been popular in their day, but their music had later become highly influential. So if we were even more unpopular – and in our case even we didn't think we were any good – then it followed logically we'd go on to have an even more legendary status. We were destined for greatness, that much was obvious.

Now it may be objected at this point that Search for Gravity Waves are yet to achieve greatness. As you might have noticed, we seem strangely absent from Eighties nostalgia shows. But I reckon we still might make it. In fact, now I come to think of it, the pension plan is pretty much dependent on that...

Friday, 24 July 2015

CANNIBAL OX/ TERRY RILEY (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

CANNIBAL OX
The Haunt, Brighton, Tues 14th July



What happened to hip-hop... sometimes I feel it could break my heart. Pioneering bands like Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan audaciously tore music apart and reassembled it in a different order, to the point where it felt there was no real putting it back together again. They unleashed rule-breaking sonic assemblages which should by any rights have sounded insanely cacophonous but for some inexplicable reason always pulled together.

But all that innovation just led to the likes of Puff Daddy (or whatever he's called this week), rhyming badly about how many consumer durables he either owns or has for sale over some randomly chosen cheesy disco track. It went from the sonic equivalent of graffiti art, colourful unexpected and transformative, to the plain tagging of a wall.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Nothing is more conservative than a failed revolution. And perhaps it's no different to the Beatles and the Stones “influencing” Oasis. But the result is that I tend to treat hip-hop the same way I do black metal. I love the idea of it, but so rarely do I take to any actual examples I figure I'm better off sticking with the idea.

Cannibal Ox, for example, get labelled 'underground hip-hop' when they are surely the truer inheritors of the great Wu-Tang tradition. Yet as Christopher Dare said in Pitchfork they're in many ways “like a musical negative, an inverse reflection of hip-hop history, full of everything DJ's cast aside, from Sega sound effects to electro-industrialism, gear-work grooves malfunctioning, synthesizers belching, a menagerie of digitalia.”

Like both Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan, they hail from New York and make urban music. Not in the marketing sense of 'made by black people and therefore most likely edgy', but reflecting the urban environment. Their classic, and until very recently only, album 'The Cold Vein' is dedicated to “New York City, the Mecca of Hip-hop” and seems inspired less by music history than by a walk around the city block.

Marshalling the insistent force of repetitive beats may inherently evoke the urban environment, as in the otherwise quite different Godflesh. Pere Ubu named an album 'Dub Housing' after seeing a street on repeat, repetitive beats evoke repetitive landscapes. But as William Burroughs said the city is itself like a real-world collage, things thrown together randomly and ever-shiftingly, and the lyrical logorrhea and sonic assemblage of Cannibal Ox's music takes in both.

'Cold Vein' slips from one line to the next between the social realism of streetwise ghetto tales, grandiosely science fiction images and Marvel comics references, never giving you the chance to catch up. (It's bizarre but not all that unusual for New York natives use both the real and the media image of city equally for inspiration, like one accentuates rather than dispels the other.) Its New York is a “rotten apple... evil at its core” and an Iron Galaxy, described by the somewhat excellently named Sumo Kaplunk as "like a wildlife documentary on the concrete jungle seen from an alien perspective”. The lyrics seem at once stream-of-consciousness surrealism (Vast Aire getting mid-way through one track, commenting he “used a word twice”, and going back to the start with a substitute term) and some fully fledged Burroughsian mythology, released in cut-up and piecemeal fashion.

“Now the environment's a product of me” they rap audaciously on 'Ox Out the Cage' (not alas, a track they perform live), which may be the key to the whole thing. It's like they've got a rhyme to counter every brick and body in the city, and figure they might as well set the lot off at once. A while ago we looked at the way George Bellows’ turn-of-the-century paintings of New York celebrated “the strenuous life”, and however different in style Can Ox’s turn-of-the-millennium music has same spirit to it – the individual in constant conflict between being crushed down by the mighty city and rising up to meet it. They become critics and embodiments of the city simultaneously, and like the city they're describing they're abrasive, overpoweringly forceful and strangely compelling all at once. Picking it as one of his favourite albums, the Guardian's Dan Hancox called it “the true soundtrack for the end times”. And its one of those releases that somehow doesn't stop, you can't imagine listening to and not hearing something new in it.


The alert reader may notice at this point in the gig review that I have not said much about the actual live performance. And its perhaps an irony of hip-hop that it started as a live affair, as a DJ and a rapper performing in a park, but soon became a studio sound. It passed quickly from its 'Hard Days Night' era to its 'Sergeant Pepper'. Part of its collage quality is to present sounds arranged at different levels, your ears assaulted from every angle. While a live PA can have a flattening and blurring effect, like watching a 3D movie without the special glasses. Indeed when their one-time collaborator, and 'Cold Vein' producer, El-P was in town I hummed and hawed over this, and ended up not going.

Their new album 'Blade of The Ronin' seems to have got the thumbsdown from critics, rather witheringly compared by Pitchfork to a new 'Paranormal Activity' sequel. Yet live I sometimes found myself favouring the new tracks, not having a recorded version in my head to hold them against.

On the other hand, rapping is about personality and the interplay of characters, possibly even more than punk. And its surprising how much being able to put a face to a voice has transformed the way I listen to 'Cold Vein'. Vast Aire is like the Chuck D of the band, an unstoppable force, gesticulatingly working the crowd as he spins lyrics. Yet Vordul Mega is less Flavour Flav than hip-hop's Brian Jones, a semi-spectral presence drifting across the stage with half-closed eyes.

I have already squirrelled away my ticket to GZA this Autumn, so expect further reports of live Hip-hop shortly...

Not from Brighton, but the classic album opener 'Iron Galaxy' from a Dutch festival on the same tour...


...and for the sake of comparison the studio version...



TERRY RILEY
Barbican Centre, London, Sat 18th July


With a better claim than most to be the father of Minimalism, any appearance of the legendary Terry Riley is not something to be passed up. You would of course be disappointed if he was promising a programme of his best-loved tracks in note perfect order. But then of course his freeform methods of creating pretty much make that an impossibility from the get-go. Instead he's showing up for Station to Station, a self-styled post-Sixties Happening, where he'll compose a new piece while in situ (titled 'Bell Station III') while on view to visitors. And he'll perform it... well, this very evening. With Riley the unexpected is unsurprising.

And as he walks on he certainly looks the part, an almost perfect double for Robert Crumb's Mister Natural, even pressing his hands together when taking applause. Yet surprise arrives along with the other players. Minimalism normally operated through small ensembles, agile guerilla units against the regimented rows of symphony orchestras. Yet not only do countless players march on stage, they even bring with them a children's choir.

As the baton is passed back and forth between a solo Riley and these amassed ranks, the point of the exercise would seem to be a creative juxtaposition between the two. Yet the two were so different it was hard to even contrast them, it felt like two separate programmes spliced together. Worse, the ensemble's interruptions served to cut against the all-important mesmerising quality induced by Riley's performances.

The ensemble's pieces were palatable enough, the clear children's voices made them feel almost Christmasy (bizarrely enough for a hot July day), but in the twinkly rather than the schmaltzy sense. The best piece matched those freshwater voices against woozy jazz brass, finding a creative juxtaposition within a piece rather than between them. Yet overall they weren't especially memorable. If asked blind to guess their composer I would have suggested Sid Vicious or the guy who wrote the music for the R Whites lemonade ad before ever coming up with Riley.

Riley's solo performances took advantage of their un-ensembled nature to become more free-form, and were most likely semi-improvised. They also meshed well with Austin Meredith's film backdrop which, with its held semi-abstract images, was involving without being attention-grabbing. He swapped instruments for each piece, and for his best number took to what I assumed was an electric organ but discovered later was a synth... well he was playing it like an electric organ. The notes naturally swirled and clustered around the instrument, as if making patterns in the air. It bore a similarity to the classic 'Persian Surgery Dervishes'.

But his raga singing and prepared piano were listenable yet not exceptional. Anyone blind-dating the gig, hoping to catch up with what made Riley so important... well, in all honesty I don't think they would.

It might be overtly romantic to expect the man to still be making music as innovative and captivating as in the days of yore. It might be verging on contradictory to demand something brand new that also holds up against past triumphs. At the age of eighty, the remarkable thing might be he's still producing work at all. And ultimately it doesn't really matter. Riley's longevity was assured a long time ago, and proven more fittingly two years ago in this very venue when two separate ensembles performed two wildly different versions of his classic 'In C'. Musicians often face a dilemma between enabling new work to happen or keeping alive the great compositions of the past. With Riley's indeterminate, unprescriptive scores there's no need for such concerns. Every time someone plays one of his works it will sound new.

Events conspired against my seeing any other Station to Station events. I would have been curious to see Suicide's Punk Mass, keen for Beck and would have loved to see the Boredoms with eighty-eight cymbal players – but alas events intervened. Whether the whole event truly was a Happening or merely a festival trading under a more attention-grabbing name, I'm not really the one to ask. I retain, however, my natural skepticism. Getting to see rehearsals live seems a bit of a thing currently (PJ Harvey was also at it earlier in the year), but feels more like the logical next step from the way everything – including rehearsal tapes – now gets released. But witnessed rehearsals doesn't seem very much to do with the 'no audience' spirit of happenings. I took in two art instillations while at the complex which were notably not just bad but bad in identical ways – gimmickry stuffed with New Age platitudes.

A different performance inside a video instillation in France three years ago. Only excerpts but sounding distinctly better than the night I went to...


...plus some classic back-in-the-day footage, just because it would be foolish not to...

Friday, 17 July 2015

'THE GREAT LEARNING' (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

Union Chapel, London, Sat 11th July


'The Great Learning' was composed at the end of the Sixties by Cornelius Cardew, then the enfant terrible of contemporary music. Inevitably, an infamous performance of an early version in 1968 (in, of all places, Cheltenham) led to audience uproar. In violation of the sanctity of the concert hall there were those who yelled their disaffection at the stage, only for Cardew to happily defend their right to protest.

He was on something of a mission at the time, and it wasn't – at least not entirely – about causing upset. Stephen Miles has said he “viewed contemporary music increasingly as the occupation of a highly trained elite, completely removed from the experience of the general public. Dissatisfied with this situation for both musical and political reasons... [he] became interested in music that could bridge the gap between amateurs and professionals…. sought to create music that not only was accessible to amateurs, but that could be performed by large groups of people.”

It was created, as described in the programme “for a large number of trained and untrained musicians which includes singing, speaking, drumming, playing stones and whistles, performing actions and gestures, improvising, using conventional and unconventional instruments and other sound sources.” It was less written for the legendary experimental ensemble the Scratch Orchestra than the outcome of his work with them – the teacher was himself learning as he wrote. And indeed, Scratch Orchestra veterans Dave Smith and Michael Parsons are among the ranks in this performance.

Its division into seven “paragraphs” ostensibly comes from its basis in a Confucian text, but as the above might suggest was also a clear attempt at deromanticisation, a rejection of poetic 'verses' or musical 'movements'. Let's take those paragraphs non-chronoligally here, as they seem to fall into two broad groups.

Cardew had already fallen under the sway of American minimalism, and Paragraphs Two and Three are clearly influenced by Terry Riley – indeterminate scores whose aletaory rules grant the performers a great deal of freedom in interpretation. Three is even based around a single note, though A flat rather than Riley's C. In P2 the singers are based in four groups around a single drummer, all passing through the same notation but at their own pace. Echoes, unintended harmonies and resonances thereby pass across the space. The four groups were (as throughout the night) unamplified, using the natural acoustics of the venue rather than the wizardry of the mixing desk. The group nearest me thereby seemed to 'lead', while the effect on others would have been different. (Other performances have encouraged the audience to move about the space as a way of varying the sounds. Alas not practical for a Chapel bedecked with heavy pews.)

I once mentioned how, when I first saw Riley's 'In C' performed, “it seemed not just musically but even politically liberating. People don't have to get with the programme, they're given space to do their own thing - but within loose structures which allow them to play in accordance... The theme tune to a free world, sounding different each and every time it's played.” And that idea, implicit in Riley, is much more out in the open here. The processes which produce the piece are far more foregrounded, far more in your face – its a musical and social manifesto. Plus, P2 in particular is quite savage in tone, quite different to Riley's quiet transcendentalism. John Tilbury comments in the programme on “Cardew's commitment to social music-making”.

It suggests the way collective human activity can mimic the intricate chaotic patterns of nature. Watch the passage of people across a crowded station concourse from a high balcony, or the pattern of dancers at a free party, and its as mesmerising as watching the babbling of a brook.


Paragraph One, the source of the outrage at Cheltenham described earlier, is probably best seen as a cleanser of the palette before the Great Learning proper can begin. Truth to tell it is overlong and repetitive, and I could understand someone finding it muesli for the ears. (Plus, its hard to hear swanee whistles without thinking of 'The Clangers'.) The evening had an early start, and the multiple latecomers may have had the best of it.

Paragraph Four, however, was a game of compare and contrast against One. It was the most Sixties of all the pieces, with its ensemble sat on cushions under mood lighting. (Though some less limber veterans had to be supplied with chairs. The Sixties were a long time ago, after all.) But the particular form of Sixties it took was anti-Sixties. It was the most ritualised Paragraph of all, starting with a single player whacking a cushion, a second joining in on the second beat and so on, passing down the line then repeatedly returning to that origin point. And with its repeated iterations of the word “discipline”, the musical strokes became almost a sonic underlining of this word. With it's keep-to-the-beat rigidity, almost echoing the work songs which spawned blues, it didn't just venerate discipline but seemed an exercise in instilling it.

This insistency felt almost like the antithesis of the Sixties fixation with freedom, perhaps indicative of that point where many attempted to transcend bohemian lifestylism by trading it in for sloganistic militancy. Such a thing was to become as common as sideburns. Cardew himself adopted self-criticising Maoism, disowning the piece and instead taking up self-parodic Socialist Realist music for the masses. (It sounded like this. No, really. It really did.) Of course in retrospect its obvious enough not just that both the blissed-out hippie and the order-spewing cadre fail us, but that they're two sides of one coin that needs throwing out.

However, things are not so simple. For one, that would leave out the sheer sense of delight the piece exudes, the keen awareness of its own absurdity. At the same time as a devotion to discipline is insisted upon, the text is bent and twisted with each iteration, to an almost Dadaistic degree.

And perhaps more importantly, Cardew's later exception to the piece mainly lay in the Confucian text. True enough, in many ways he was doing something classically Sixties, assuming a foreign culture merely reflected his own needs and desires as a Western malcontent. The text could certainly be called reactionary, for reasons which needn't concern us here. (And it probably didn't help the translation came from notorious fascist sympathiser Ezra Pound.) But at the time the key line for Cardew was “they disciplined themselves”. As he said “I see such self-discipline as the essential pre-requisite of improvisation. Discipline is not to be seen as the ability to conform to a rigid rule structure, but the ability to work collectively with other people in a harmonious and fruitful way.” The piece (and 'The Great Learning' in general) transmits a collectivising energy, which creatively counters the let-it-all-hang-out individualism which plagued so much of the Sixties counter-culture. The truth is, Cardew was simply a better communist before formally deciding he was a Communist.

Not entirely by coincidence, the performers throughout adopted a particular stance – somewhere between the demonstrative impassiveness of a Brechtian drama and the trance-state of ritual initiates. It was a long way both from the performative emoting of rock musicians and the professionalised sweatless prowess of classical players.

The programme talks of Cardew's emerging “belief in the power of music not as an abstract and specialised pursuit but as a vital and essential social activity”. And if that's what's coming out of 'The Great Learning', then P4 may well be the most learned paragraphs of all. Certainly the ritualistic element was strongest, perhaps ultimately winning out over the music. With all the Paragraphs a recording wouldn't give you half the picture, they're something you really need to take in live. With P4 I'm not sure it would capture any of it at all.

And yet all this democratising music, all this foregrounding the ritual element, can it really be happening when the audience stands apart? With a ritual, shouldn't everyone present become involved? Wouldn't the swiftest way for us in the aisles to discipline ourselves be to abandon our pews and surrender to the discipline of the performance? Stephen Miles raises the question that it might seem “intended entirely for the performers’ enjoyment, that an audience is superfluous”, only to dismiss it. I'm not quite so aligned. It reminded me of something contemporary but from the more popular music realm – the Soft Machine track

”I still can’t see why people listen instead of doing it themselves
But I'm grateful all the same
You're very kind and I don't blame you
I don't mind if you just watch

When describing this sort of music, people seem to automatically take to the term ‘avant garde’. But really, I couldn’t imagine something less accurate. There's a reliance on drones and held tones, but little of the dissonance so commonly associated with contemporary music. P2 and 3 are really quite harmonious. True the indeterminate nature of the scores make for long durations, which some find challenging. But that's a matter of finding the right way of listening to it, which is less to do with listening – in the sense of mentally minute-taking - than surrendering. It's not like running a marathon, its like basking in the sun.

Above all, it’s not like gazing up at a lofty peak, which you imagine one day you might be able to ascend. It's quite the opposite, as Michael Nyman commented “it seems to recreate music from its very roots”. 'The Great Learning' is really a programme of unlearning, a deconditioning process through which we declog ourselves of all the constraining notions a proprietary society has instilled in us about music-making. Muesli for the ears? No, its tasty and its good for you!

The programme was spread over two evenings. Understandably so, for it runs to nine hours in all. But alas as I had only the time and means to attend one, Paragraphs Five to Seven remain unread for me and so I remain only half-deconditioned. Maybe next time...

P2, though not from the Union Chapel...

Saturday, 4 July 2015

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY FINDS MORE BRIGHTON GRAFFITI...

…this time in the London Road/ Lewes Road area of town. Some of these snaps have been in the can for a while, so the work's most likely not up any more. This stuff doesn't seem to stick around very long. As ever, full set over on Flickr.







Coming soon! Probably more of this sort of thing. (Well it's finally got warm outside. You don't really expect me to sit indoors writing more nerdy blog posts, do you?)