Saturday 12th JuneJune 13, 2010
I’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” Â 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. Â 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 Â what we expect it to sound like, but thrill us in the moment. Â 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, Â 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 Â 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.