Accompanied by bird song, traffic, the conversation of roofers two doors away and a piece of heavy duty garden equipment from beyond the fence I sat in the shade at the end of our garden yesterday afternoon and finished reading ‘Into the Maelstrom; Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom’, David Toop’s new book. The book sets out an incredible network of associations and connections and has alerted me to a good deal of music that I will explore in the weeks and months to come. This is the first volume of two and covers the evolution of a set of ideas ‘before 1970’. But it is not a linear history and the narrative swoops and dives in time (up to the present day) and genre. Amongst its many strands the one that preoccupies me on finishing is ‘listening’. The importance of listening and the balance between listening and playing to the improvising musician is central to Toop’s exploration.
As a determined audience member I have been trying to sort out the relationship and/or the differences between the way musicians listen and the way that an audience listens. In these (mostly) small spaces the symmetry of performers and audience can suggest a yin and yang of activity and passivity. But this is simplistic and I am always brought back to Duchamp’s statement: ‘The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.’ In the case of the Large Glass this happened most obviously through reflection on the material of the work itself…with the viewer’s image literally transposed onto the surface of the glass. Something similar happens in that communal space of listening in relation to improvised music.
Then last night, five minutes walk away down that road that generates so much traffic noise, was the launch of ‘Into the Maelstrom’ at Cafe Oto. Some months ago David Toop asked if he could use one of my drawings next to a section he was writing about a performance by Angharad Davies and Lina Lapelyte. I realise that I have come to insert myself into the space of the performance (and the performance itself?) through making these quick, ‘blind’ drawings…last night Toop talked about my drawing (and those of the others in the book by Geoff Winston and Ross Lambert) as a parallel act of improvisation. The performances that formed the central part of the launch at Oto exemplified three distinct approaches to improvisation: long exploratory group work with five musicians, short concise duets with Toop reading and each musician playing in turn and then an unplanned hybrid of reading and four musicians playing. The juxtaposition of the structured (the text) and the wholly improvised (the music) highlighted the dichotomy that lies between control and freedom that is at the heart of ‘Into the Maelstrom’ and its rich netherworld.
Performing with David Toop at Cafe Oto were (from left to right) Steve Beresford, Sylvia Hallett, Evan Parker and Elaine Mitchener.
David Toop organised and orchestrated this conversation/collaboration/improvisation featuring Shelley Hirsch, Sofia Jernberg & Elaine Mitchener. Normal (eloquent) speaking voices drifting into and out of song as if shifting with unseen currents. Elaine Mitchener suddenly and unexpectedly demonstrating how she had spent the day looking for the structure in Kurt Weill’s ‘My Ship’ – singing fragments of the first line. Almost heart stopping in its brilliant, broken complexity.
An invitation to the audience to join the discussion made me feel protective towards us listeners…there was a lot of talk about control and the performer but I think that listening demands that control is relinquished or, at least, suspended. In this, listening is not passive but it could be seen as a form of surrender. Us listeners are not mere consumers just because we are ‘silent’…the act of listening can form the space of the sound as much as the production of that sound.
Gulbenkian Theatre, University of Kent, Canterbury. 8th May 2014. Presented as part of the Sounds New Festival.
The strange made stranger. I had forgotten just how oblique Cuckooland is…full of musical elisions, sliding voices, uncertain territory. Last night there was no one to play that melancholy cornet that comes up all over the place on the original album but it appeared anyway…almost behind us. Drifting out from speakers. Who is the ‘author’ of this piece? Robert Wyatt who composed and recorded Cuckooland? Matt Wright who is credited with ‘Concept and electronics’? Tony Hymas who made the string arrangements? Maybe it doesn’t matter…an oblique collaboration…sometimes it seemed that Elaine Mitchener was using her voice to rebuild the music from scratch in front of our eyes, in front of our ears. Then the Brodsky Quartet would take over in full chamber music mode. So the foreground kept switching from word to sound and the music floated around – at one moment eccentric café song (Mitchener channeling Les Double Six) then political poems full of quiet rage and next meandering, even tentative, jazz noises. This reminded me of how singular Wyatt’s practice is. Whenever it is performed live it is by other voices, other musicians. The records are just that…records of one version while the songs and in this case the multitracks leave their source behind. There is a generosity at work here that pays off in the richness of the life of this music. This is just one of a series of re-workings of Wyatt’s tunes…is this only made possible by his refusal to perform live? I am now listening to Cuckooland for the second time since the gig as if it were an album I had just bought. So ‘Cuckooland Revisited’ is two things at once….both a new piece of music and a bearer of the original, presented as a gift.