Friday 3rd JulyJuly 3, 2009
Today was a hot, uncomfortable, infuriating and depressing day in equal parts. I got little done that I really needed to be doing and ended up having unnecessary online arguments instead. Yes I really need to restrain myself. There is no one to blame but myself. I will do from now on. Honest!
Anyway yesterday was a much better day, spent in good company from start to finish. I didn’t necessarily enjoy everything I saw or heard throughout the day, but certainly I came away mentally stimulated and challenged, which can only be good. I got to London mid morning for the From Scratch forum, a series of talks and discussions linked (according to the flyer) be related to Cornelius Cardew and The Scratch Orchestra held at The Drawing Room gallery. When I arrived John Tilbury had already begun talking for a few minutes, but I caught the majority of his hour long talk on Cardew. Rather than just read from his monumental biography on the man he had written a new talk, an overview of the principles and interests of Cardew that I found inspiring and thoroughly engaging. It was highlighted throughout with photos of Cardew’s original version of Treatise, complete with blue-pencil rough workings. The original copy will appear later in the Drawing Room as part of a Cardew exhibition. Although having read the bio (and being in the process of re-reading it right now) there was little new to me in the talk, but listening to John talk so fervently on such a fantastic character was a real joy. He left us with an amusing but poignant few words on Cardew:
“People say there is a time and place for everything – For Cornelius the time was now and the place was everywhere”
There then followed straight away a performance by Horace and Walter Cardew, sons of Cornelius, playing clarinet and electric guitar respectively, who were joined by a female vocalist whose name I forget, and sadly I left the sheet of details behind at the gallery. They played a small graphic score written by one of the Scratch Orchestra and found in the corner of one of the old Scratch books. If they announced who wrote the score I didn’t hear, and sadly I can’t now find a picture of it online, but neither of these things matter really. The trio seemed to have transferred the score to a more traditionally notated response, and the music they played did not seem to be improvised in any way. It had a kind of New York School feel to it, with the vocalist voicing wordless tones alongside lines of tone and simple chords, but it wasn’t all that inspiring to be honest. They then, slightly perversely played a three minute pop song, a piece from a Walter and Sabrina album, which is (was?) Walter Cardew’s pop-ish group. Maybe there was something Scratch-like about its inclusion here, but otherwise, apart from the obvious family link I didn’t really understand how this connected to Cardew. I didn’t really like the song much, maybe because I couldn’t quite make out any of the words (I sound like my Dad here!) but it didn’t last long.
We then went into a brief talk from Eddie Prevost, who spoke about improvisation and very quickly opened up the forum into a discussion. Although I have spent quite a lot of time talking with people that have been influenced a great deal by Eddie I haven’t ever really spoken to him at length or heard him talk like this on this kind of subject. He was great though, and talked in a manner that even as a non-musician I found myself constantly nodding my head towards. Something that struck me deeply halfway through was just how similar his thoughts are to those of Keith Rowe, who I have spoken to a great deal. Eddie talked of the necessity to always try and approach the instrument as if you had never played it before, to keep starting again with it, to build a relationship with it, but not to try and master it, the idea of mastering an instrument being a repulsive thought to him. This relationship then should be nurtured, developed, challenged continually.
He talked about improvisation some more, and then opened things up to questions. John Tilbury amusingly made the first comment, stating that as a pianist he could never master his instrument, as each time he attended a concert the piano was new, and he was forced to start a new relationship, whereas most other musicians would bring their familiar instrument along with them to play. This was a lovely thought that had never occurred to me before. Things then got a bit silly. There were questions about improvisation and structure asked, with one young musician, seemingly a little confused asking; “but there must be some kind of structure to improv, otherwise well, it could just go anywhere!” When Eddie replied that yes it could, she cited Earle Brown as an example of an improviser that believed in using structure.
Proceedings were subtly broken off at this point for a break, and out in the courtyard of the gallery I had a conversation with Paul Abbott and Sebastian Lexer that continued on from the discussion in the room, and was actually far more inspirational and thoughtful for me than anything else that was to follow back in the gallery. When we returned we were treated to a solo performance by Laurie Scott Baker, that I was really looking forward to, but it turned out to be one of the most musically impotent things I have heard in a long time. While he was introduce he had begun to play dreadfully new-agey warbles on some kind of horizontal string instrument that was fed through a number of effects boxes. After a while he turned on a drum machine, which introduced a beat and bassline that maybe might have worked on a Tortoise b-side, over which he continued with the mystic sounds. After a while Cornelius Cardew’s voice appeared, I think addressing a march at the height of his involvement in the political left. I feel really bad speaking so disappointedly about Baker’s piece but I really found it awful, underlining everything that can go wrong with this kind of retrospective overview of another time. I have been enjoying Gracility recently, and have read Tilbury’s words on Baker, so I have every respect for his importance at one point, but I can honestly say I found it very difficult to sit through his music yesterday.
Things continued with Carol Finer trying to get the room involved in a Scratch-like piece she had written, with people throwing things about the room in a surreal manner, but it all seemed so contrived, Scratch music by numbers maybe. There was a speech from a member of Ultra Red, who are an art / music ensemble that work in galleries as well as producing techno-ish indie music. It seemed the only reason that this part was included was because Ultra Red have a strong political element to their work. Beyond this similarity, which could be found in any number of groups I have no idea how they could be connected to Cardew or the Scratch movement. Later there were discussion, mainly about the role of politics in the art world that felt like very simplistic subjects wrapped up in gallery-friendly terminology. If I had a fiver for every time someone used the phrase “manifestation of the work” I’d have been a rich man. At another point a female ex-member of the Scratch Orchestra took the opportunity to take issue with something John Tilbury had written about her in his book, old arguments still coming to the fore from forty years earlier. This just felt a bit sad to me.
The funniest moment of the day for me came when, after having to announce to the room what our “role” was (musician, artist curator, there were a lot of curators) I just said that I listen a lot. Ten minutes later, during a break a woman came up to me asking what I meant by that? She seemed really disappointed when I said I just listen to music quite a bit.
It is hard for me to not sound really pompous and trite here but this forum was really split into two halves. The first sessions showed how simply, and brilliantly this kind of thing could be done, intelligent but not pretentious, thoughtful and relevant to modern practice, but not welded to whatever is trendy right now in the grant-guzzling art world. The afternoon just felt forced, unrelated to the supposed subject matter and too often just illustrations of bad art. Rather than follow everyone else down to the banks of the nearby canal to see a performance by Kaffe Matthews and a class of schoolchildren, Sebastian Lexer and myself (Paul had long disappeared) slipped out and went for a much needed couple of pints at CafÃ© Oto followed by Turkish chicken and chips around the corner before wandering back to catch the performance of Alan Wilkinson, Seymour Wright and Eddie Prevost, a concert that was not in any way related to the forum, but just happened to be taking place the same day.
I have written before about the recent moves throughout London to try and break down the barriers between different types of improvisation that used to plague the city. Concert bills now almost uniformally include musicians from different styles and generations. This one may have been the most interesting yet though. Alan Wilkinson is a very loud, busy saxophonist that has been playing in an aggressive jazz style for many years. he has played with Prevost often and the pair have a CD out on Matchless Recordings. Although he has been known to play in free-jazz related groups alongside Prevost before Seymour Wright generally plays quieter, less aggressively, and slower than Wilkinson. He also has an album on Matchless with Prevost, which is a quite different affair. Wilkinson and Wright had never played together before. The concert then, consisted of the three possible three duos.
Eddie set up both a full drum kit, and his more minimal tam tam and metal percussion arrangement. Before he went and sat down his stool was placed neatly between the two set-ups. The first duo was the Prevost / Wilkinson pairing, and so naturally Eddie then went and sat behind the minimal, quieter tam tam… So as Wilkinson blew his head off, throwing loud repeated patterns of sax in circles around the room Prevost worked with more sustained textural sounds, tam tam throbs and bowed metals. I must confess I have never been the biggest fan of Alan Wilkinson’s playing, but here when placed up against this seemingly ill-fitting music from Prevost I was at the very least really interested in the paths he took, trying to find a way to communicate musically with the sounds Eddie gave him, weaving in and out of the continuous notes rather than stomping through them. Sadly the one thing he didn’t ever do, which could have made all the difference, was reduce the volume. Even when he played slowly and sensually he did it very loudly, which didn’t work for me.
There then followed the Prevost / Wright duo, and yes you guessed it, Eddie switched over to the full kit for this and began by spraying out delicate but persistent little rhythms that Wright matched with little squeaks and shrill whistles using just the mouthpiece of his sax. Over time things grew and Wright eventually stood with his instrument fully put together and matched Prevost’s jazzy drumming full on with a extremely sensual, semi-melodic sax lines, and with only the sound of a radio pushed into the bell of his instrument as a reminder of their other musical personalities (Seymour will hate me for that line!) they played through a nice, well balanced, jazz influenced free improv set. Yes, part of me would of course have liked them to have played differently, but then one thing I learnt from Eddie’s talk earlier in the day was not to expect the expected.
There then followed the most curious of meetings between Wright and Wilkinson. Seymour’s answer to the dilemma of what to do was to do something quite different again, this time working with a pair of contact mics buried in his sax and linked back to a small mixer. He actually began playing while Wilkinson was still in the toilet and the audience were all still talking, many of them outside avoiding the heat indoors. He made quiet, purring sounds using just the mouthpiece again, until Wilkinson’s pops and sprays of sound exploded all over. Wright switched to producing feedback tones via the mics, which he adjusted and changed by altering the position of his instrument. Only later in the performance did he spent much more time blowing into the sax in a traditional manner. By then he had brought Wilkinson down from any truly raucous music, and though again the two soundworlds did seem to collide more than they combined it was really interesting to watch these two experienced and skilled musicians tussle with the situation to find a way to produce music that both respected their colleague and still retained their individual voices.
This concert was fascinating for all the right reasons. No I wouldn’t want to hear a CD recording of any of the performances but that was not the point, the interesting and inspiring elements of this concert were all to be found in the processes the musicians went through to find answers to the puzzles. In the case of Eddie Prevost he chose to deliberately make the puzzles harder, to shift everyone out of their comfort zones, to make people find other solutions, including those of us in the audience.
Sorry for the long picture-less post. Its near midnight here now and very humid, the mother of all storms seems to be brewing. On the CD player for the third time tonight is Greg Stuart’s renderings of Michael Pisaro’s Hearing Metal 1 compositions, just released on Wandelweiser. More on that one tomorrow maybe, but its a beautiful record and just the right music for this weather…