A fragment of ‘Hell’ by Hieronymus Bosch at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.
A wonderful earful at Cafe Oto…
Drawings on a 1939 copy of the British Red Cross Society Nursing Manual no. 2, 1939, 5th edition. Good semi-gloss paper surface.
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.
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:
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.
Some years ago, in the first days of mobile phones with cameras, I shot some moving image from a train window. I was just messing about…seeing what the camera could do in movie mode. I guess that because of some ‘primitive’ processing technology, the camera couldn’t keep up with the speed of the movement. Almost everything was blurred, the vague green skyline of trees shooting past, lots of rail-side detritus going by out of focus. But what I really liked was the effect of passing telephone poles. In my ‘film’ these appeared as diagonals rather than verticals. The digital image processed from the top to the bottom and it couldn’t cope with the passage of the poles. This lost movie came back into my mind as I listened to the Necks at Cafe Oto a few weeks back. There is often something in their music that seems to refer to landscape and movement but as part of the process of synthesis it comes out twisted and distorted. On the second night of the two gigs that I attended I wrote in my notebook: ‘weather, landscape, machinery’. An atmosphere, a place, musical instruments.
On the morning of 5th November (between the two Necks gigs) I woke up earlier than usual and listened to the radio. At 05:58 on BBC Radio 4 there was ‘Tweet of the Day; the Redshank’. All of the programmes are available to listen to here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/totd/all…scroll down and you will find the redshank broadcast.
In my slightly drowsy state I imagined the redshank joining the Necks in a long improvisation. Three machines (piano, bass and drums) plus voice.
The next day The Necks were in the BBC’s Maida Vale studios recording with Evan Parker (the saxophone as voice). You can read about this session at Richard Williams’ blog here:
And if you are fast you can download the session here:
Of course, unlike The Necks, Parker has previous in avian collaboration. If you can find it, listen to his album ‘Evan Parker with Birds’ (trd001).
The Delirium of Beginning/The Anxiety of Ending
I remember in 1990 as Caroline and I set off for an unseasonal trip to Skye we dropped in to see her father, Philip. He was ill and didn’t get out much then and said to us just before we left: ‘It’s wonderful setting out on the road…’ He was probably a little jealous of the trip were about to undertake but he said it with genuine enthusiasm. This music always has that sense of setting out on a journey…one step, one foot down on the pedal, one deep breath and away. And then as the sound develops and the musicians and listeners find themselves all in the same vehicle, treading the same path, traveling the same road, (for me at least) a tension creeps in. I think: ‘how did we get here from there? I remember where we were but the journey so far is a bit hazy…right now it is in sharp focus but what’s been going on?’ And then I think: ‘how does this end?’ And I wonder if there is some of this anxiety built into the performance for the players too. And is it the same for all improvising musicians? I’ve heard musicians fluffing the end of improvisations, faltering when they should be decisive, not quite knowing how to stop. (See Miles Davis’s advice to Coltrane on this point) Has that got to do with being too relaxed about the shape of the journey – somehow believing that it goes on forever? The Necks have been playing together for many years now and they have a sense of time and space that has milestones, landmarks, triangulation points…they know how to stop but also know that they need to keep listening to each other and keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel. They know when to brake in a way that their listeners maybe don’t…it keeps us guessing. Each Necks session is a familiar journey made strange.