CD Reviews

Saturday 12th June

June 13, 2010

idiomsandidiotsI’ve really been struggling of late to fully get my head around the thirty-six pages of text entitled Idioms and Idiots and its accompanying CD released on Mattin’s w.m.o/r label by the quartet of Ray Brassier, Jean-Luc Guionnet, Seijiro Murayama and Mattin himself. Ignoring the actual music for a moment, the text, which apparently took two years to develop, its a complex, often rather high-brow evaluation of an entire musical event, which took place as part of the NPAI Festival in Niort, France in 2008. The text details the challenges presenting the group before performing, their intentions for the music, and then a set of thoughts about how it went, and some detailed analysis of the music as a piece of non-idiomatic improvisation. A whole host of references are made, from Lacan, Levi-Strauss, the non-philosopher Francois Laruelle and on several occasions Derek Bailey. This is a serious piece of writing, not a throw-away gimmick. Whether it holds any weight beyond the impressive nature of the effort behind it will depend on the individual reader of course.

The leaning of the text towards quite heavy philosophical analysis clearly stems in part from the inclusion of Ray Brassier as part of the quartet. Brassier is a philosopher, a thinker and writer, and not a musician. Yet he has been brought into the quartet to play the guitar here, despite having had only a very distant past relationship with the instrument and having never improvised in front of an audience before. In doing this the group challenge the notion of the improvising musician, but also they were determined to separate him during the concert from what an audience might expect from a philosopher placed in this position – no speech, no reading, just trying to improvise alongside the others. The group sought to remove notions of success and failure and instead just attempt to achieve a state of improvisation that would seek to avoid standardised idioms or the expected aesthetic decisions and just exist within the moment of the improvisation, approaching the performance with the concept of “uncrafting” very much in mind.

So all four musicians have contributed to the text, but I suspect the bulk has come from Brassier. I found the booklet easy to read in places, tough to penetrate in others, but at the heart of everything sits the notion of creating music that avoids the idiomatic, strives for something that the musicians hope to be as close to really improvised in the moment as possible, and avoids listener expectations. The end product of this process, the music recorded and released on CD (and also available for free here) does not seem to matter to the musicians as much as the process and thought that has gone into creating it. Mattin has long strived to make work that strives to alter the usual balance of the performer / audience relationship. With this project he and his companions seek to evaluate it, consider its impact on the music, and so seek to alter that balance. They decided to set a structure for the music that would impose restraints on the musicians’ interaction. The music was divided into three fifteen minute parts, with any one musician only allowed to play in a maximum of two of the sections. They also then set themselves a goal of achieving some kind of “cold or clinical violence”  and in fact set about trying to make the audience cry. They apparently achieved this when one member of the audience did indeed shed tears. These restraints and slightly absurd goal were designed not to dictate where the music went, but to try and keep it from falling into traditional or comfortable patterns.

Before describing the music I should say that I am generally speaking very much in favour of this form of more conceptual musical experimentation as a way of pushing the envelope, keeping the music alive and indeed stopping it from always fitting our preconceived pigeonholes.  I should add that I also enjoy listening a great deal to thoroughly idiomatic music, and can enjoy the emotional or purely aesthetic pleasures of improvisation just as easily as I can enjoy the challenge of music by Mattin and his contemporaries. For some reason there seems to be a feeling that we should fall on one side of the fence or the other, that if you allow yourself the time and space to consider a Mattin or Taku Unami or Loic Blairon or whoever’s performance then you can’t possibly also enjoy other music that perhaps complies with our ideas of  what we expect it to sound like, but thrill us in the moment.  For me personally these opposing approaches to listening to music can sit side by side, with each informing and perhaps validating the other. Sometimes it is great to be made to feel uncomfortable, or in the case of the Idioms and Idiots essays made to think about the music we are presented with,  but then sometimes its just great to shut your eyes and listen and wallow in the sheer beauty.

In some ways the texts here render the actual music presented on the CD here irrelevant. If we are to forget the idea of  creating an aesthetically pleasing product and just consider the thought processes, concepts and rules that lead to the creation of the Niort concert and its subsequent release as a CD then does the music matter anyway? Once we are listening in the knowledge that an “uncrafting” approach has been taken, and an attempt to move away from generally accepted aesthetic beauty is the goal, then beyond the novelty factor of the music the actual sounds presented become just a small part of the whole exercise. Considering the merits of the music alone sits in opposition to the way the text asks us to respond.

So the recorded concert is, as you might expect, a fractured, often thoroughly ugly but strangely energised forty-five minutes of amplified simple percussion (Murayama) blasts, cracks and clouds of rough electronics (Mattin and Guionnet) and disjointed twangs and smashes of electric guitar (Brassier) Mattin and Murayama also scream and wail often, Murayama acoustically, Mattin directly into a laptop microphone, the heavily amplified and distorted screech often appearing from nowhere to sit very uncomfortably in the music. It all sounds chaotic, but perhaps it just sounds like an improv gig that isn’t flowing properly. There are many of the usual accepted standards of improvised music happening here even after every attempt has been made to avoid them. The gig still ends with applause. So does the music inspire? Does it even sound different? To some degree this CD is a bit of shock, the screamed voice in particular, along with the most aggressive approach to percussion I have heard from Murayama yet lead you to think that way. Does the music avoid standard improv expectations? Well yes to some degree it succeeds here, though still I can hear traces of call-and-response improvising here and there, it is impossible to get completely away it seems.

So purely as a piece of music the CD isn’t something I will listen to often. there is little sensual pleasure to be taken from the music, little in there that suggests human emotion at work, but taken as a companion to the essays it throws light onto the writing and completes the circle. I didn’t cry when listening, but I often shuddered when a scream appeared, felt frustrated when two sounds that might have fitted together nicely were not joined by a third, or fourth… This just underlines the entrenched ways we listen normally, the expectations we have of what should be issued on a compact disc, or how a musician should behave in a live concert situation. Idioms and Idiots is really great for those that like to be able to think about the conception of music, and are concerned by the way we currently seem to try and fit things into easy, usually subconscious boxes. If reading about improvisation and its underlying inspirations is your kind of thing then you might really enjoy this disc. If you prefer your music fluid and beautiful then maybe not. If like me though you can appreciate both sides of the coin, and you accept that to create a coin in the first place both sides are needed then you will probably find this an interesting and inspiring project. Its free to read and hear as well, so go get it.

Comments (10)

  • RFKorp

    June 13, 2010 at 4:16 am

    I had not really been so eager to read/listen to this piece until I read your review. I might have to move it higher in the queue now.

    But there are things I would first like to propose here.

    If Mattin’s objective was ever so simply to “alter the usual balance of the performer / audience relationship” with his work, I do believe that changed some time ago. I have gleaned that, as this release quite well demonstrates, he is more broadly striving to alter the way we perceive what it means to be a participant in improvised music. Before, during, and after the act of “performance” as not only performer and live audience but also audience to the recorded document and audience by word of mouth.

    That is, the concert ended but the music-related work did not. The discussion both in advance of and after the concert and the process of generating this analytic text are all just as important components of the whole work. In fact, one could say your analysis of it and my comment here on the blog post are part of the overall process of the work.

    So, to that end, commenting that “in some ways the texts here render the actual music presented on the CD here irrelevant” seems to miss the point. Though, I should say, having not yet read the text or listened to the music, I cannot actually say I would not feel the same! And is not that personal impulsive feeling in a moment of experience a key feature of Improvisation?

    But really, a statement like that makes me want to ask: how is it any different from a detailed, thoughtful review of a concert or cd? Or, from an inside-the-music perspective, how is it any different from Keith Rowe’s blow-by-blow writing about his own erstlive006 solo that was published on erstwords? Once you’ve read such precise descriptions of both sound and conceptual intent, does it make that music as irrelevant as this text makes this music?

    With my tongue gently planted in my cheek, I’d say the difference lies in one’s enjoyment of the music. If you found the recording more “sensual” or “human” or “fluid” or “beautiful” or whatever would you still consider it a necessary component after reading the text rather than saying it becomes (in some ways at least) beside the point?

    I don’t mean to imply I even have answers to these questions. But I do think they are important ones to consider in ones interaction with a release such as this.

  • RFKorp

    June 13, 2010 at 4:19 am

    I wish I could edit comments here. Hit submit and then caught a typo. Keith’s solo set in Tokyo was released as EL007, not 006! Though the point obviously remains the same.

  • Wombatz

    June 13, 2010 at 10:36 am

    I wish the text would stick to the proceedings more closely, I quite enjoy the beginning. Though I don’t believe in this whole rhetoric of challenging patterns of perception or hierarchies of rooms, pushing towards the borders, going beyond limitations, that’s all drivel in my ears (but that’s because I work on the fine arts beat, and whenever an author can’t think of something to say, then the artist is made to challenge his medium of choice). Usually the challenger will be part of a long tradition of similar artistic standpoints, and most of those who go to a Mattin concert will expect a healthy dose of challenge, I suppose, and they will aesthetically rate it as such. The whole thing is a sort of staged psychological situation, and here it becomes interesting for me, because this is also a big difference to earlier stuff like Fluxus, which reads similar if you just look at the actions: with Mattin, everybody is watching themselves, that makes it contemporary. Also it is common for musicians to impose sometimes rather random limitations on themselves, but I like how they think about creating a dense atmosphere and clinical violence, I like how they offer the philosopher a way out without playing a guitar…and here they drift off into theory. Which for me is a cop-out on two levels: first because we don’t get to know what the artists think actually happened after the table was set (preferably, each artist), but mostly because the text is talking down on us. Instead of trying to incorporate the actual listener, it seems to work off very easy assumptions about the collective mindframe of conventional culture (but here they are in good company, that’s the way of all avant-gardes). 3 ½ cents already…

  • Richard Pinnell

    June 13, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Hi Richard, thanks so much for your thoughts and sorry about the lack of editing facilities here. I don’t know how to fix that.

    Regarding Mattin’s interest (or not) in subverting the audience / performer relationship- yes certainly there is a great deal in this book about extending the process of the performance out from the musicians’ perspective. There is much discussion about what it means to be an improviser and how this can be changed, extended etc… there is a lovely line in there- “plinky-plonking is not enough.”

    That said, there is also plenty written (I suspect by Brassier) about expectations of this kind of performance and how these can be confounded. Maybe he is particularly conscious of this from his perspective as a philosopher, who might be expected to read, or talk, but instead plays guitar. There is discussion in the text about twisting the conventions of the concert situation into something else, so giving the audience a more responsible or active role.

    One of the difficulties of this little book is that it is written by four separate people. It does look like there are four distinct sections, one each written by each of the quartet, but the parts are not credited to any one in particular. This is undoubtably deliberate and is a reflection of the music itself, wherein its hard to know exactly who is doing what. Although the four sections never really contradict each other, they do seem to view the same experiences from differing viewpoints and with individual focus placed on slightly different concerns. So there is an awful lot in the thirty-six pages and maybe what Mattin took from the process is markedly different from one of the others.

    As for my comment about the music possibly being irrelevant… perhaps what I should have said was that maybe the whole process here renders evaluation of the music irrelevant. the musicians themselves state that judging the performance as “good” or “bad” is absurd. The entire process, from the initial ideas, the constraints deliberately placed upon the performance and then the later analysis of all of this is about setting up a situation within which things can happen, an environment as far from idiomatic music structures as possible. The important aspect of this project to me is the systems and non-systems used to create the performance. Maybe they created interesting music, maybe they didn’t, but to judge the music through one set of personal criteria would probably be missing the point.

    The significant difference between this project and the Rowe album is the focus (or lack of focus) on an end result. As I see it, the quartet introduced systems and rules that allowed something to happen, but not a specific something. The writing analyses far more than the actual music or how it was created, in fact it barely discusses the actual sounds used at all. Keith’s piece about his solo performance has always struck me as virtually a retrospective score. While the quartet here are merely opening up the potential for something more unusual to happen, Rowe just describes his reasons for making certain decisions, explains why he chose to bring certain sounds to the performance. The important work of the quartet could be argued to have been undertaken before and after the actual performance. Certainly for me the most interesting aspect of Idioms and Idiots is the description and later analysis of the situation that the musicians placed themselves in. How the performance then panned out almost didn’t matter, for me at least. The Rowe piece is more of an artistic statement in itself, the significance and construction of which is then later broken down in the ErstWords text. Rowe evaluates a finished piece of work and its individual parts, many of which were pre-determined and brought to the music with a particular intention of how they would be used in place. For this reason the two pieces of writing are considerably different to me, and serve different purposes.

  • Richard Pinnell

    June 13, 2010 at 11:18 am

    I should add here that I have always found Keith Rowe’s explanations of his work thoroughly captivating simply because they break down the various layers of his thinking, revealing his music to be so much more than just a set of random sounds. The value I take from this though is completely different from what I took from Idioms and Idiots. They are just very different pieces of work.

  • Fister

    June 14, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Evaluating music as good or bad is ALWAYS absurd. Absurdity is the starting point, not a peeling away of the curtain. We are absurd. Our lives are absurd. My purple pants are absurd, as are the raisins and walnuts I’m eating.

    Realizing that these things are true can result in more interesting (and, optimistically, useful) ways of behaving and thinking than the triumphalist “now that’s no longer possible” or “we’ve circumvented that.”

  • Fister

    June 14, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    And to add: the desire to short-circuit, escape, or circumvent judgment is deep and strong, and I haven’t the slightest problem with it.

  • Fister

    June 14, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    And once more, before my better judgment kicks in (ha!): There is no coin. What we have before us has more than two sides, more sides than a man, than a world, and none of them is necessary for the well-being of any of the others.

  • Richard Pinnell

    June 14, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    Agreed that evaluating music by some kind of definitive “good” or “bad” measurement is a ridiculous task, as is ordering music into some kind of ranking, which is why I gave up doing Top 10 lists a couple of years back. Certainly we can evaluate music via our own parameters of taste and interests however, which of course is entirely subjective. My point was that even trying to do that with this particular piece of music seemed a bit irrelevant. The absurd line was quoted form the I&I text.

    I wouldn’t say that purple pants were particularly absurd, I wear them all the time… Purple trousers though, now that would be silly…

    If your raisins are absurd though I’d suggest getting them from a different shop next time, and isn’t there just one side to the world? 😉

  • The Watchful Ear » Blog Archive » Thursday 22nd July – Guest post by Simon Reynell

    July 22, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    […] release by Mattin, Jean-Luc Guionnet, Raymond Brassier and Seijiro Murayama which Richard reviewed here.  For me the argument about instrumental excellence has been fundamentally transformed in the […]

Leave a Reply