Improvisation transcription – fragment.
About 4 seconds. 58 x 102mm.
I have no idea what it is like to be a musician. I don’t know how they think, what decisions they make when they are playing. And particularly I don’t know how they interact with one another when they are playing. This sense of the distance between listening as a member of the audience and playing as a member of a group has occurred twice this week, on Tuesday at the PJ Harvey fish tank recording session and last night at the Vortex at one of Evan Parker’s regular Thursday night slots. Accompanied by Steve Noble on drums and Marcio Mattos on double bass this, from a listener’s point of hearing, was exemplary improvised trio playing. The two sets were beautifully balanced with each player responding to subtle inflections in the music while making their own distinctive sounds. It seemed that two players could stop at any moment and the third would carry on without taking breath, following the track upon which they had already set out. And when they all played it was as a unity. This notion of the individual within the group was emphasised by the body language of the performers. Parker remained fairly motionless, his eyes closed while he played. Noble hardly glanced up from the drum kit, his concentration at odds with the apparent ease of his playing. Mattos, in contrast, allowed his gaze to roam around the room or at least around middle distance, occasionally bowing his head over his instrument and closing his eyes. From time to time he raised his hand from the strings up to shoulder level and brought it back down in something like a theatrical flourish. But in all of this, and like his fellow performers, he made no eye contact, neither with the other musicians, nor with the audience.
So the closeness or proximity between performers and audience was brought about by listening. (At the end Parker thanked the audience for ‘listening so hard’). But, on the other hand, a distance or separation was brought about by looking. For me (but not, I suspect, for all the audience) this separation was compounded by my not knowing how the musicians interact…how they communicated. They were clearly doing another kind of listening which was not just a matter of degree (from ‘easy’ to ‘hard’ say) but was some parallel to how I was listening.
Does this performance listening separate the sounds being made by the others and allow (create?) a space into which the players insert sounds of their own? Or is it that individual players can anticipate a synthesis of sounds a few seconds into the future….the actual noise of the instruments always running slightly behind their knowledge? I noticed I slipped into saying ‘space’…is this why trying to work out what happens here is so difficult for me? Is improvisation between musicians not a spatial practice at all? When I experience this music it is very much within particular environments…both musician and sound are sited. The performance takes place within a room, a zone within the room, a stage. When I draw the performers, though sometimes no element of the room appears, they tend to be located…even if it is only a location defined by them and the spatial relationship to their instrument.
Maybe my listening practice, unlike that of the musicians, needs to be spatial as this takes the place of their intuitive experiential communications.
The set up is in the basement of Somerset House…in the building recently abandoned by the Inland Revenue. Visitors are guided through the former rifle range after decompression and mobile drop-off on the ground floor. In a one-way mirrored cubicle in the old gymnasium, the musicians, producer and technicians are already at work…we can see and hear them but they are isolated from us. No one within the recording studio looks up to the glass, the barrier remains intact. I find it hard to concentrate at first….this audio/visual voyeurism is unfamiliar territory. The space is full of instruments some of which look like props – though a beautiful old snare rum is later pressed into service. Listen out for a hurdy-gurdy on the new PJ Harvey album. The talk inside the box is technical but then the assembled musicians run through a fairly short section of a song…or maybe it is a fairly short song…and it is possible to discern the beginnings of a ‘track’. It all looks like hard work and everyone is very well-behaved and patient. They do know they are being watched and this is bound to affect the ‘performance’. John Parish as producer sits on a white sofa (the whole interior is very white) and nods and suggests different approaches to the instrumentation. Snare drums, flute, saxophone, guitar and melodica are put to use with a good deal of experimentation with percussion on a marching-style rhythm. He asks PJ Harvey – ‘How’s your song doing in the middle of this?’ – she laughs in response. It seems quite tentative from everyone’s point of view…I have no idea if this is normal. At one point Parish says to Kendrick Rowe on drums something along the lines of ‘…you get into the groove at that point and there’s nothing wrong with that but maybe it should be a kind of standing up groove rather than a sitting back groove…’. The ‘audience’ are very attentive and quiet though we have been told that we don’t have to be. The session is about 50 minutes long and there is the feeling that people don’t want to miss anything.
Here is the text that Steve Donald (who was there with me) sent me afterwards: ‘Just thinking about the PJH gig…Spatially and temporally I though it seemed an ‘immersive’ experience but simultaneously I was acutely aware of being outside of ‘the vitrine’ and, consequently, excluded from the process…Nevertheless, in this instance, I sensed the contrived exclusion ‘set up’ somehow provided a privileged vantage point…(view is somehow too inexact). In retrospect, the vitrine set up made me think of the recording, documentary process more as an experimental, anthropological science project…More than a formal art installation…’
Kendrick Rowe and PJ Harvey
PJ Harvey on saxophone.
PJ Harvey, voice, saxophone.
Kendrick Rowe, percussion.
Terry Edwards (?), flute, melodica.
Alessandro Stefana (?), guitar and percussion
John Parish – producer.
Stars from the gods.
Maybe 40 years ago I would have left the Scala ecstatic but last night the melancholy behind the surface got to me. I thought I was immune to this performance – especially leaning against the balcony rail up there in the gods, higher than the lighting rig, looking down at the real audience with all those back-lit smart phones blinking up at me. Up there was alienation territory…like I was asking permission of myself never to come along to this kind of gig again. I was thinking about live performances, about how the music I hear at Cafe Oto works best live with the recorded ‘version’ acting as a stand-in for the actual event. And I was thinking that music that I listen to first as produced, song-based work almost always disappoints live. The band look slightly too old to be singing these youthful anthems of elation and doubt. They run through a set of moves and poses that come from the book of rock cliché – the pigeon toed, legs apart guitar stance, punk hops, raised fists.
But about half an hour into their set the singer Torquil Campbell theatrically halts the intro to ‘Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It’ to tell a story about the ritual he performs every time he comes to London…something about taking the Northern Line to a particular café then standing outside his father’s former house…and instead of feeling distant listening to this sentimental tale I began to dissolve into the present and as the music started I thought about my father and about my life in London and I could feel tears welling up. From there on in I was prey to every naïve or sophisticated nuance of the songs. I was even moved by the audience taking over the chorus of the song ‘Your Ex-Lover is Dead’ (‘Live through this and you won’t look back…’) and I fell for the repeated line ‘put your hands up ‘cause everybody dies…until then, nothing ends’ in the disco thump of ‘No One is Lost’. I have had the feeling of being the oldest person in the Scale before and it could be that I am too old to be at a gig like this…but only because I am at the other end of the experience from the rest of the audience. But as I am entirely invisible there is no reason they should notice…
Here is a link to the ‘official video’ of ‘Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It’…hard to relate this to my reaction above, except that this film has a certain sentimentality and/or melancholy too.
The banalities of a rock show (is it a rock show? Pop really….a saving grace) . Obligatory dry ice….I’ve been in this venue when they pumped the stuff out at 1 o’clock in the afternoon…going to the Scala is to enter a liminal space outside of time. Those swooping coloured lights are another banality but I guess it’s all part of the show…..
I can’t quite forget the Scala in its desperate cinema days in the 80s when it still bore the marks of its previous incarnation as the Primatarium…it was always cold and down at heel and it still is. Right now though, I am appreciating it’s other good points….the strange, largely forgotten, balcony that I guess was the gods. Here is another pleasure:
So it is still some kind of reminder of the faded glamour that was Kings Cross as opposed to the current hyper-gentrifying version.
I’ve seen Stars before (at/in Heaven 3 years ago) and it was a pretty lousy experience. I put my disappointment down to the space and the sound. I know that Stars are one of my weaknesses (unadulterated/unashamed pop with undertones of melancholy seeping up through the optimism). You never know….tonight may be different.
A Resonance Radio night at Cafe Oto…
Their debut gig…they seem to have been formed as a splinter from the Resonance Radio Orchestra as a ‘concept art rock band’ and this gig was billed as drawing from Fluxus and Warhol’s Factory….Mo Tucker style relentless drumming + drones over a 30 minute stretch….what’s not to like? I also liked the way they played (unlit) from the very start of the evening as the first of the audience drifted in…so it was not initially clear if they were still doing their sound check.
Part 2 was a manifestation of this project by Daniel Wilson:
which ‘allows you to become your own radionics diagnostician and intuit your own thought frequencies.’ A couple of days earlier I had uploaded my own thought and the corresponding frequencies…my thought was ‘why can’t I just stop’ (with, for some reason, no question mark)…when my thought/text appeared on the screen behind the performers it was paired with another; ‘Global peace and harmony’…so the two together read as ‘why can’t I just stop global peace and harmony’…chance would be a fine thing (or not).
Last up was Nicolas Collins, first in a subtle duo with Peter Cusack on guitar then with stunning solo pieces using damaged circuit boards…
Peter Cusack and Nicolas Collins