Saturday 25 November 2017


Barbican Centre, London, Mon 20th Nov

Unlike the electronica or expanded (or even multiplied) orchestras for which Stockhausen is most known, ’Stimmung’ is small in scale, featuring six voices accompanied only be each other. But in it’s own way, it’s as legendary as ’Gruppen’. The programme calls it “the first major Western composition to be based entirely on the production of vocal harmonies”.

In the Guardian, Andrew Clements complained 
“Despite its sophistication and influence, [it] now seems a bit of a period piece… as much a product of the 60s as Afghan coats and flares.”

Perhaps there are things which are both influential and period pieces, but it’s still somewhat odd to concede a work is “one of the starting points for the spectralism movement” before tying it so inexorably to joss sticks and lava lamps. Particularly when spectralist composers such as Haas or Dumitrescu are not only still composing, but remain at the top of their game.

But more to the point, while we think more of popular music as epitomising it’s era there’s no reason why contemporary music can’t be as zeitgeisty. And ’Stimmung’ now seems inseparable from the Silicon Chip Spiritualism found in Seventies science fiction, when computers were forever being called Zen. (Or at least the extended Seventies, which allows us to include the piece’s first performance in 1968.) And any resemblance, at least in my lowbrow mind to the conjuration by chanting scene in Planet of the Spiders’ was enhanced by the singers sitting around and being lit by a glowing orb, like some futuristic scrying glass. (Well, a touch of soft stage lights too.)

Each section starts with a singer in turn intoning a single word, which can be a divinity but also a day of the week. Similarly to Steve Reich’s ’Different Trains’, the cadences of the word then determine the section, as the other singers harmonise around it. When the initial singer figures they’re done, they pass on to the next in line.

The sense what we’re hearing is glossolalia for the space age is enhanced when some spoken word sections are in German. (Which seems to be becoming a habit of mine.) I figured at the time that actually enhanced the piece, and you should really be listening to the sound of the words rather than the words themselves. And later, coming across Stockhausen’s Sixth Form ‘erotic’ poetry in the programme, I realised I had figured right.

It’s enthralling to find so much mileage in the human voice, whole sonic spaces thrown up when the six voices all pitch in. There’s the feeling it’s doing something new and strange while simultaneously returning to the roots of music. It’s as if strangeness isn’t foreign and distant but all about us, waiting for us to open up and notice it.

Yet, even though I’ve been known to sing the praises of duration in music, eighty minutes was admittedly too long, particularly for what was essentially a series of miniatures with no underlying structure. As the voices orbited one another I did get lost in it, but before those eighty minutes were up I wanted my way out.

’Cosmic Pulses’ is from Stockhausen’s later period, where everything was organised around two meta-works. This dates from 2006/7 and forms part of the second of them, ’Klang’.

It turns out to be, in a crafty piece of programming, to be ’Stimmung’s polar opposite, a hugely expansive all-electronic piece. If ’Stimmung’ was like Blake’s “infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour ’Cosmic Pulses’ was… well, the name says it all.

Twenty-four electronic loops rotate between eight sensurround speakers set around the auditorium, introduced and phased out one at a time but progressing at different speeds. The programme includes Stockhausen’s score for the piece, a neat and ordered mathematical grid. The piece is anything but.

It starts out like some cross between aliens landing and sets of peeling bells on brown acid, mighty sounds still skittering around the space. As the loops build up it becomes harder and then impossible to discern individual sounds, and the work achieves absolute delirium. As Robert Henke puts it in the programme “when you encounter the work, it’s a vibrant and colourful composition, in no way a mathematical exercise. It is one of electronic music’s great experiences: an overwhelming, visceral, sonic maelstrom in the total immersion of surround sound.”

And speaking of Henke, he provided the accompanying ‘laser art’, projected across the auditorium’s ceiling. Henke concedes in the same programme the risks of “superimpos[ing] any sonic of colour qualities onto the piece.”

But the display is effective through it’s fidelity to the structure of the music. Three laser beams shot from each speaker, varying only in colour and thickness. At the height of the maelstrom they started to splay concentric circles on the opposite wall. The conceptual purity of it reminded me of Lis Rhodes’ ‘Light Music’ installation at the Tate.

And the display underlined what an installation piece this was, irreducible to YouTube clips or home stereo systems. The Barbican were not sales pitching when they said “this is music that demands to be heard – and felt – live.” After the effective but elongated ’Stimmung’ this half-hour composition was like the cake after the sandwiches.

Unlike ’Stimmung, ‘Cosmic Pulses’ is not only devoid of words or human hands, but untethered to any era. Whether it’s a peer into the strangeness of Stockhausen’s head or a genuine glimpse of the immensity of it all I could tell you not.

The Haunt, Brighton, Sun 19th Nov

Before the gig I joke with a friend that I’m seeing the only punk band less musical than Crass. If the Fugs had only performed their exorcism of the Pentagon, never bothering releasing albums or playing regular gigs, they’d be something like Pussy Riot.

And some go on from there to see Pussy Riot as political activists only, which seems to me to drive past the point without even looking out of the window. Much like the Fugs, they were great devisers of memorable images. Their uniform, the colourful home-made balaclava and strap dress combo, combines the assertive, the playful, the DIY and anti-star anonymity all into one. While also riffing on the classic punk tactic of taking images of femininity and twisting them, as used by bands like the Slits and Huggy Bear. Really, sometimes the whole being in a band part of being in a band is the irrelevant bit.

And this matters because images matter, because they can have political effects beyond politics. Party political broadcasts spend little time on the niceties of policy, in the same war car adverts don’t focus on fuel efficiency. Talk to any regular person about politics and you soon see why, it quickly becomes obvious their opinions aren’t based on graphs and statistics at all. 

But while their images seek to establish brands, ours need to stimulate. Pretty much from the off, I felt at odds with the rote sloganising of Trot groups. They were moribund, while the politics I wanted to engage with were about seizing the imagination.

This performance, not really a gig, features Punk Prayer performer Maria Alyokhina, and has been described as “fevered monologues underpinned by real footage and frenetic noise-punk.” She and her fellow performers spit out the story in punchy, slogan-sized chunks, phrases often repeated for effect, against pumping sax and keyboards and a filmshow. (They speak-sing in Russian, with the film translating.)

That’s a description which might strike fear into those who survived the Eighties, when agit-prop made for so much bad art and worse politics. But actually a story we all know well becomes powerful and involving. By accident or design she humanises the story just enough to make it engaging, while presenting it not as a re-enactment but a call to arms. At points their methods are made into a bulleted DIY guide, while the T-shirts state “you could be Pussy Riot”. It has the punkish mixture of antagonising and galvanising.

The polemicisation does mean the performance rattles past questions you might like to ask. What domestic effect did they hope to have, and how do they see that now? Was the collective member who initially commented they’d be “hated” prophetic, or just missing the point? Does any of it translate to what needs doing here in the West? Or is the Punk Prayer inspiration rather than example?

But it’s the performance equivalent of a single, not an album track. (Alyokhina has also written a book, which may go into more detail.) And punk was all about single-like immediacy, coming on as a shock to the system, assuming it was pressing down on a society whose heart had stopped beating.

The Con Club, Lewes, Sat 18th Nov

It’s been five years since I last saw The Men They Couldn’t Hang, though a full thirty-three years since their formation. (Not counting the part of the Nineties where they were out of action.) By now they really should be called The Men They Still Couldn’t Hang. And it may be true they’ve not changed their tune much over the years, remaining in the folk/roots/rock/punk vortice. There’s new songs, but they stick to the style of the old ones.

But here that becomes positive thing. They’ve kept their rough-edged choral singing, added a sawing violin and so retained their ragged singalong unity. Their best-known track, the reflective ‘The Green Fields of France’, isn’t particularly representative. Their sound’s more the opposite of the marching fascist boots they sing of in ’Ghosts of Cable Street’. They’re similar to the Mekons but are less poetic, more immediate and streel-level. They sound, in the best possible way, like an unruly mob. And whose better at rabble-rousing than a rabble?

Their schtick was always about presenting history as something ongoing, not something which had happened but something you made and remade. (A powerful idea in the Eighties, when all was supposed to be so shinily new.) So they’d sing about the First World War one number and the Miners’ Strike the next. Which makes it slightly strange to think that both of those events are now part of history.

But, less than a month after seeing Godspeed and commenting how political music mustn’t get stuck in a timewarp, there’s something appealing about this motley lot’s sheer resilient obstinancy. It’s like that scene in kung fu films where the hero, beset and waylaid by events, has to go back to his master and reorient himself. While everyone else is talking about demographics and chasing trends, let’s me and you stick to something...

’Iron Masters’, not from Lewes...

Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, Brighton, Thurs 26th Oct

The original Telescopes were a Nineties outfit, associated with shoegaze, signed (inevitably enough) to Creation records, whose output in all honestly I know not. But since 2010 frontman Stephen Lawrie has revived the name. A reformation gig with One Unique Signal was mentioned briefly… very briefly by me at the time.

Lawrie’s mid-gig claim “this is rock ‘n’ roll” was perhaps one of those post-ironic statements. For he’s pioneered a style of ‘shoegaze singing’ where he hunches over the mike, his moving around less dominating the stage and more finding a spot in the melee. The vocals aren’t high in the mix, and are sometimes merely screams. For his part the bassist often sat crosslegged on the floor. The band in general seem uninterested in the subject of the audience, like the event’s more outlet than performance, which is about as anti-rock ‘n’ roll as you can be.

Combined with the thumping noise rock, twin guitarists and bassist locked into metronomic riffs, their individual sounds indistinguishable. It’s like listening to an introverted explosion, full of power yet not pressing outwards. One number is a freeform wail of feedback guitar and effects pedals, like something from the midsts of ‘Tago Mago’.

On individual tracks they ratchet up the intensity to the max, then find that elusive eleven on the dial. But, alas, equipment problems distract from the start of the gigt and they then don’t play for long enough. And this is music which needs to draw on you. First you spy it from far away, as if through a telescope, then it’s gravity takes a slow inexorable hold of you. (See what I did there?) As it was it felt like a taster, leaving you with a feeling of a nail there to be struck but not quite nailed.

The garage psych of support band Has A Shadow should also be mentioned in dispatches. Rather than provide swirls and flourishes, the keyboards punch out the beat. The lines are so insistently repetitive the player could keep her eyes closed throughout, and mostly does so. While squalls of effects-driven guitars swell around her. They use the slow lurching tempos of the Fall, like a lumbering giant staggering drunk, leaving you feeling mesmerically trapped in the headlights of the advancing track.

From Liverpool, with cool freak-out op-art lightshow absent from Brighton...

...and speaking of One Unique Signal...

Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, Brighton, Sat 4th Nov

Described by Wikipedia as noise rock, and though a mere four-piece (guitar, bass, drums and a Throbbing Gristle-like cornet), with heavy utilisation of multiple effects pedals and justgeneral heaviness this band throws up a big sound.

But the noise tag’s not quite right, for they specialise in those catchy riffs which while bass-driven almost double as melodies. Imagine if New Order had early on decided to abandon songs for stretched-out tracks, free-form at the same time as metronomic. The (very) brief occasions they go in for vocals, they are in that intonatory early New Order style.

Stage presence seems less a concern than it did for the Telescopes. At times they get so busy with effects pedals feet become inadequate for the purpose and they hunch over them heads bowed and hands raised. Individual tracks are long and slowbuilding. All of which adds to the time it takes for the music to draw you in. But draw you in it does…

There’s a spaciousness and a remorselessness to it which reminds me of when films drift slowly around dilapidated buildings. It’s often a feature of good bands that they can drag you into their own timezone, so when the gig’s over the return to the regularly paced world is jolting.

Another light show us Brightonians didn’t get…

Coming soon! Yes, really... more gig-going adventures!

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