I might have bought this just for the cover but I forgot to look at the record condition before I handed over 59p at my favourite local charity shop. Just about any version of ‘I Can’t Get Started’ is worth a listen but when I slipped this disc out of the sleeve I found that someone had made a fairly determined effort to render the A-side unplayable.
I tried some mild solvent but this adhesive tape glue was ancient and immovable. I had just changed the stylus on my deck so still had the old one…it seemed like too good an opportunity to waste…
Here is a track from an album made in New York in 1958. The record is a piece of anti-Soviet propaganda called, as you see, ‘Dreams of Golden Prague’ and its sleevenotes bemoan the influence of communism on Bohemia and suggest that the terror imposed there is merely a preliminary to a take over of the ‘Free World’. The rant on the back cover occupies the space where one would normally expect to find performer credits so I don’t know who is playing. The front cover meanwhile shows Golden Prague through a rose-tinted glass. I took the liberty of ‘improving’ this track which I believe is called ‘Vērím-tango’. (Those accents are wrong). I’m interested in how a simple shift of the sound can change the nature of a song….in this case adding echo has, I think, brought a much needed sense of melancholy to bear on the tune and its delivery.
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…’