The Rambler :: blog

Friday, January 30, 2004

Great stuff. More details here.

February new music 

Quick run-down of highlights in the London new music scene for February

Tuesday 3rd Feb

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies turns 70 this year (not until the 8th September, though), and to celebrate there are two all-Max concerts at the Barbican:

6pm BBC Singers, cond. Nicholas Kok: Westerlings, Angelus (world première), Corpus Christi with Cat and Mouse

7.30pm BBC SO, cond. Rumon Gamba: St Thomas Wake, 8 Songs for a Mad King, Worldes Blis.

8 Songs is figurative and literal musical lunacy - well worth seeing if you can get there.

Thursday 12th Feb

Music of Today: French Spectral Music, 6pm, Royal Festival Hall, South Bank

Tristan Murail: C'est un jardin secret ...
Hugues Dufourt: Hommage à Charles Nègre
Gérard Grisey: Talea

If The Wire's primer a few months ago got you interested, then this is your chance to see music by three of the leading spectral composers, for free. Can't say fairer than that. And the Dufourt is a UK première. You mght even catch me at this one. I love the spectralists - the whole 'school' just seems to find the right balance for me between modernist ultra-theory, experimental just-because noise, and sheer joy in sound. Grisey especially takes that oh so French glittering post-serial modernist sound that Boulez patented, and welds it (sometimes incongruously) to a sense of theatre and obstinate Dadaist drama that Boulez never thought about. I think he's wonderful, and this is music that has to be seen live: so much of Grisey's music (that I've seen anyway, but I can't include Talea among this number) incorporates theatre: the sequence of huge suspended sheets of paper, say, that the percussionist has to rustle, one after another (a sort of 'damn you, I'm going to see this spectral thing through to its logical conclusion' - bit like Macbeth, really); or the 'keyboard' of gongs stretching across the back of the stage in Quatre chants ... . You almost have to be a ballet dancer to play what Grisey asks here, as the sheer number of gongs means some of them are about 15 feet apart, and he wants them played pianissimo.

Saturday 14th Feb

In what has to be a tongue-in-cheek gesture, the South Bank Centre, the Society for the Promotion of New Music and the London Sinfonietta have devoted the whole of St Valentine's day to that most un-Romantic of composers, Brian Ferneyhough. Ferneyhough is another of my favourite end-of-the-road composers, one of those heroic modernists still scraping away at the coalface. And again, despite all the theory, and the famously complex notation (this is where the 'new complexity' label comes from), this is brittle, often attractive music.

There's a lot going on all day, so probably best just to click here for more details.

Saturday 28th Feb

7.54pm, Purcell Room, South Bank

Final tip for this month is this appearance by the Mondriaan Quartet, playing quartets by John Zorn (Dead Man and Cat O Nine Tails), and new works by Toek Numan, John de Simone and Richard Ayres. Also on show is the UK's first sight of Robert Pravda's octachord, which, I gather, is a giant electronic harp with 8 resonating strings to create dense washes of sound. Intriguing.

Steve Reich interview 

An archived interview with Steve Reich has just been put up at Disquiet. The interview dates from '99, and centres around the release of the Reich Remixed CD. Reich reiterates the now-famous anecdote about hearing 'Little Fluffy Clouds' for the first time. The way the story's told these days, you're given the impression that although Reich didn't realise his work was being sampled like this, he was more than happy to hear the results and pretty much rubber-stamped what people like the Orb were doing. But does anyone else detect a little resentment in his words here? He's a decent man, and not naive enough to believe it was worth pursuing any kind of case, but I can hear the sound of gritted teeth here:

"Steve Reich: I must admit, before we go too much further, I basically knew very little about this [the Reich Remixed project]. I knew very little about remix[ing] in general. I had heard the word - I had heard a few things. What happened, I guess, five or six or seven years ago in London, somebody was interviewing me for a pop magazine, and said, "You know the Orb," and I said, "No, what's the Orb?" and he said, "You know 'Fluffy Little Clouds,'" and I said, "No, I don't know 'Fluffy Clouds,'" and so he said he had to get me the CD. So he got me the CD and I thought, Oh, so this is what's going on.

Weidenbaum: That was the song on which the Orb sampled your work.

Reich: That was the Orb track that put them on the map, and it had a 30-second chunk of [my composition] Electric Counterpoint in it.

Weidenbaum: Have you seen the commercials?

Reich: No.

Weidenbaum: Now it's the background music for a Volkswagen Beetle commercial.

Reich: Well, I'll inform Nonesuch of that ..."

And here's the original 1999 article that the interview was for.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Oh, well done.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004


"I can see the pub from here!"

You thought the Guardian's Grime article was bad? Try this. Not a fan.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Two nations ... 

... separated by a common language. Not the 'old school hardcore' I hoped it might be. Pity.

Last of the RSS naggery, promise! 

Just done a quick sweep of the blogs I read: three cheers for Die Acid House Die, DJ Martian, Emerald Daze, Peking O, Worlds of Possibility, Michaelangelo Matos, Crumbling Loaf and DeMeDo, who all have new Blogger/Atom feeds (just drop /atom.xml onto the end of the URL to get to it), and are guaranteed a regular read from me, at least.

Everyone else: hint, hint ...

[Update: Just noticed that Blissblog has a feed too, just not an Atom one. It's here for those that want.]

And everyone's already read this and this, haven't they? Thought so. Hmmm.

Saturday, January 24, 2004


Friday, January 23, 2004

Important news for RSS/XML users 

Blogger have got round to providing xml site feeds for all their sites now - woohoo! - so those of you who subscribe through bloglines or whatever need to change your subscription over the coming days to this:

http://johnsons-rambler.blogspot.com/atom.xml. Which is good news for me, since I don't have to keep writing my own XML feed any more. Hurrah!

For everyone that doesn't subscribe yet, do - it's a really handy way of keeping up to speed with news and blogs. I have a Bloglines account, and it's brilliant. Trust me.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Lovely post at Die Acid House Die on the new Wiley single. I can't pretend to know anything about garage, but posts like this - and obviously bits of heronbone - really help. Plus, Acid House's line "Even the Guardian would have trouble comparing this to Keats" on Wiley's lyrics is very funny.

Now this is pretty cool-looking. Managed to get me from Sonic Youth to Alvin and the Chipmunks surprisingly quickly.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Cage Uncaged: Reviews 

A collection of online comments and reviews from the last few days.

Stephen Pritchard, The Observer

Andrew Clements, The Guardian

Tim Ashley, The Guardian

Keith Potter, The Independent

Geoff Brown, The Times

John Allison, The Times

Update: Paul Driver, Sunday Times [you may need to register, or move to London ...]

Also, in the same paper, Michael Wright tells of his part in the weekend's Vexations performance.

Update II: Allen Buchler, Electric Review

Further comment:

Readers' comments at the BBC

GuardianUnlimited talk thread

A.C. Douglas comments

Steve Hicken of Symphony X responds [Update: the debate rolls on in the comments] ...

as does George Hunka at Superfluities.

Update III: even I'm bored of linking to this stuff now, so I'm going to stop.

Blog I've newly discovered: creativity/machine. Good stuff.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

John Cage Uncaged: Barbican Centre, London, 16th-18th January 2004 

Here it is, then.

This isn't going to be a review of the whole weekend for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because there was so damned much of it that I just don't have the time, energy, will or tendons to write about all of it. Suffice it to say that a good time was had. Secondly, given the pre-event coverage, there'll be a pretty heavy press review fallout during the coming days, a rundown of which I'll post later in the week. And anyway this is my blog, so I'll write about what I like.

And what I liked most was, natch, the Musicircus event, and another 'musicircus'-type work, Apartment House 1776 for orchestra, which was given its UK premiere on Sunday afternoon.

Since this is such a venue-specific work (for convenience I'm going to keep calling it a work, but in actual fact, Cage only left a set of conceptual instructions to be realised: on this occasion, composer Stephen Montague took on the role of 'Musicircus Master' in realising the whole thing.), a brief impression of the space is needed. The Barbican Centre's foyers are a sequence of balconies and spaces none of which have stairs quite where you'd expect them to be. It can be an infuriating place, and it's always difficult to remember which level you're on, and how to get to the level you want to be on; but for all that, it's still a classic building, and a microcosm of the larger Barbican itself, a city within a city that is one of those postwar architectural masterpieces/disasters that London is singularly blessed with, and one notorious for how easy it is to get lost in.

Given the labyrinthine design of the Barbican foyer space, throughout which Musicircus was arranged, with ensembles and musicians placed around corners, overhead in balconies, or below in stairwells, the initial impression is like walking around a large formal garden, with surprises and new vistas at every turn. Continuing the analogy, in the same way that good garden composition is about the correct balance of filler shrubs and trees and decorative flowers, so the arrangement of musicians was orchestrated to provide effects of contrast and consonance. The overall impression is of a simultaneity of general effect and extraordinary detail. Many of the groups were of the avant-garde-improv axis, playing either music of their own, or performing scores by Cage himself and his New York contemporaries LaMonte Young and Earle Brown. But a significant number were playing music from perhaps the opposite end of the scale of comprehension - Irish fiddle music, hymn tunes, spirituals and so on. One is your sturdy shrubbery, the other your flower highlights, but here my tired analogy breaks down, since it rapidly becomes impossible to tell what is providing contrast, or relief to what. [Although, to finish off the botanical theme, special mention is due to Dr Stefan Buczacki, who excelled himself as a Cage performer par excellence with his lecture on mushrooms throughout the performance. In spite of being completely drowned out most of the time, he kept to his cues exactly, stopping mid-sentence when the stopwatches called him to, and was generally brilliant. Better than one or two more acclaimed Cage interpreters on show during the weekend ...] Sometimes the background effect might indeed be the overlayering free improvisation and aleatoric compositions. In this case, naturally, the sound of an Irish folk tune or a chorus of 'Nearer my God to Me' might rise above the sound mass, its recognisable motifs and tunes glinting like waves on the sea. At other times, the layers of tonal melody become too much and indecipherable, and it is the noise-improv of the Electroacoustic Cabaret, say, that provides a musical focus. And there is everything in between. What is the real magic of Musicircus, and, possibly, one of the reasons Cage dreamt it up in the first place, is this continuity, in every imaginable dimension, between poles considered opposites. Up, down, left, right, avant-garde, folk, high, low, sight, sound, speech, melody ... you get the drift. Cage's grandest proposition was that everything was music, and in Musicircus there is no finer demonstration of this.

This is most obvious in the interplay of ensembles. If you stood in one place, the acoustic experience changed, as ensembles dropped in and out of the mix according to the instructions on their timesheets (see below for an outline of how the piece is put together). With this shifting of sound (and emphasis from one ensemble to another, one music to another), Musicircus acquires form and definition as a musical work. Sounds are located in time, and thus a structure is articulated. That, at base level, is music.

So, standing still but moving in time you get a sense of musical form unfolding itself, but the same effect is achieved when walking around too, since space and distance mean that some ensembles fade out while others fade in. Movement in space also generates musical form. Space and time are made equivalent, just as hymn tunes and graphic scores are.

This sense of space as a musical function remains with you as, after the performance ends, you nose around looking for a quiet corner to sit and write. You still feel the building articulated as regions of greater or lesser sound, as areas of contrast, the rhythm of stairways and lobbies. The musical memory of the place has become painted on its walls.

Apartment House 1776 is another 'musicircus'-style work, in that it involves small groups of musicians playing independently against one another, within the confines of a larger scheme. This time it is to be performed within the confines of a single stage, and there is a fully composed score, rather than loose instructions. About a dozen groups of 1-4 instruments (all members of the London Sinfonietta) were dotted around, and in addition various recorded folksongs were played over the concert hall's PA.

As its title suggests, Apartment House 1776 was composed to mark the bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence in 1976. It's actually one of several works Cage was commissioned to write for the occasion, and at least one other has an overtly political aspect. Lecture on the Weather features 12 American men who had become Canadian citizens (and as a result avoided the draft) to read extracts from the work of transcendentalist poet Henry David Thoreau. In the case of Apartment House 1776, the political edge comes through the choice of music materials Cage employs, and the nature of musicircus itself. In the mix of music played amongst the musicians on stage are 44 early American choral pieces, which Cage has distorted through chance operations, removing some notes and extending others. In doing this, Cage says, he retained something of their 18th-century flavour, but without the sacred reference. These are incorporated within a gumbo of 18th-century melodies, civil war drumming and Moravian church music. Over the PA system were played recordings of Protestant, Sephardic, Native American and African American songs. It doesn't take much thought to realise that you are being presented with a musical cross-section of American history and society.

In his treatment of this music, however, Cage achieves something quite remarkable. As the different musical elements are layered on top and alongside one another, in the fashion of the big Musicircus, each element in its turn is both elevated and equalised. Since each element (aside from the important exception of the distorted hymns) is played straight, and given dignity and presence within the sound, at one time or another (times selected, naturally, through chance operations and not the taste of the individual), there is a curious effect of privileging everything at once. The piece becomes a joyous, eloquent celebration of the American ideal put to paper in 1776.

Cage's method does have an equalising effect - this was at the core of much of his philosophy - but it is a mistake that the individual elements are brought down to the same level. Cage's genius - and why, in fact, the ego of the composer (wherever that might be) is still crucial to his music - is to elevate these elements above everything else. All sounds may be created equal, but the ones Cage asks you to play are more equal than others. Thus 4'33" isn't constantly playing as ambient background Muzak to our lives: the opposite is true, and it is only playing when we (or another performer) decides when it is to begin and end. It is actually the least ambient work in history, since it only begins when someone starts to listen to it.

Because Cage, in all his works, has selected sounds, or arranged them in a form, or given them a frame, they become something they weren't otherwise. Anything might be music, but only at the point at which someone decides that it should be, and then only until they stop. The whole compositional principle behind Musicircus might be boiled down to this pair of decisions: when to start, and when to stop. Everything in between takes care of itself.

Maybe, in the end, this all just pedagogy, lessons in aesthetics, philosophy in action, politics and history as musical metaphor. I'm not sure if my reading here helped this, who can say. But even if this is all Cage's efforts, the efforts of Stephen Montague and a Barbican full of musicians come down to, it seems to me that the lessons are still as important as they have ever been (the American sat next to me sniggered throughout Apartment House 1776), and their execution here was as exuberant, compelling and committed as you could possibly wish.

Musicircus: list of performers

This list is taken from that handed out on the day: I've added hyperlinks where I can find them and reordered it to give some idea of where everybody was in relation to one another; for each level of the Barbican centre, I've listed the performers in rough order of position from the Silk Street corner to the Curve Gallery. (Sorry, can't find a decent plan of the Barbican for those who don't know it.) This was all done from memory, and there are a handful of performers who I didn't see - apologies to them, and to any groups I've mistakenly put in the wrong place. Corrections - in the comments box or by e-mail - are all welcome!


(Starting outside the Bistro)
COMA [Contemporary Music for Amateurs] Northwest Duo, voice, flute
Iain Morrison and Karen Larkin, voice, toy glockenspiel
Royal Academy of Music Composers' Ensemble, radios
Feathers of Lead (Jr. Guildhall), strings, Tessa Montague, leader
Crazybaby, 'cell phone symphony ensemble', dir. Ned Bigham
Odile de Caires and Polly Edgington, pat-a-cake
Fortytwo::, toy instruments
Cardboard Citizens New Music Ensemble, dir. Reynaldo Young
BBC Symphony Chorus (40 voices), dir. Deborah Miles-Johnson
Pete Cooper's Irish Band

Ground Floor

(Starting from the Silk Street Entrance)
Sophie Cox [I think], front of house, voice [from COMA Voices London]
Ian Mitchell and Friends, mixed ensemble
Harrow Symphony New Music Ensemble, dir. Bashar Lulua (I'm really not sure this is in the right place)
Three Strange Angels, percussion ensemble
Buruk Ensemble
Cat and Fiddle Band, fiddles and accordion
John Tilbury, prepared piano
John Paul Jones, 6-string bass guitar and Kyma
Trinity College of Music Composers' Ensemble, dir. Dominic Murcott
Michele Fuirer, sound sculpture
Gavin Bryars, double bass
Yoko Ono [and unnamed singer], upright piano
Youth Orchestra of Hammersmith and Fulham with Artists from Lady Margaret School, ensemble, blackboards, magnetic letters, balloons etc., dirs. Tim Steiner and Alexandra Julyan
London College of Music and Media Interactive Performance Group, dir. Philip Mead (not sure I've got this one right either)
Kingston University Écooter, music theatre ensemble, dir. Howard Frederics
Professor Stefan Buczacki, mycological lecture and mushroom display
Hugh Davies, amplified plant materials
Tzy-Tau Wey, Chinese erhu [didn't appear, as far as I know]
BBC Symphony Chamber Choir, 10 singers, dinner party


Piano Circus, 6 electric pianos
Judith Kogan, harp and scarecrow with labels
Hard Sell, mixed ensemble, dir. Dave Smith
Toby Montague and Katy Cummings, chess game

Stalls floor

(Starting from by the Theatre Box Office)
Oren Marshall, 5 antiphonal tubas
BBC Symphony Chorus, 60 voices, cond. Stephen Jackson
Electroacoustic Cabaret, Boghorn, Treadle Fret Saw, monoharps, toilet plunger, trombone, electronics, loud shirt
COMA London, mixed ensemble, dir. Gregory Rose
Nick Skinner, Hammond organ
Ruth Young, flute and shakuhachi
Julie Yount Morgan, voice
Monica Acosta, Sara Cluderay, Tom Shorter, cloakroom attendants, voices [from COMA voices London]
BBC Symphony Chamber Choir, 10 voices, dinner party (wedding reception)
The Oxford Improvising Orchestra, mixed ensemble

Toilet steps

Fourplay (Jr. Guildhall string quartet)

Gents toilets

Tom Fox, tuba

Lower stalls floor

Guildhall Percussion Ensemble, dir. Richard Benjafield

Wandering/spread throughout

Emma Diamond and the London Contemporary Dance School, choreog. Emma Diamond
Gregory Rose, voice
John Cage, in interview with Stephen Montague, 1982, PA system
Kathy Hinde, videos and projections

Didn't see, so not sure where they were

Nancy Ruffer and Nicholas Holland, flutes and cello
Joe Harrop, folk fiddle

[Mouseover texts are taken from the programme notes to the festival. Where I couldn't find a relevant link, I let Google decide for me.]

We like difficult music! 

Worth a read. Whilst I see Sandow's point, that calling this stuff 'contemporary' is misplaced, and damaging, I agree with his correspondent more - I've been to plenty of concerts of Stockhausen, Boulez, Ligeti, etc. etc. that were absolutely packed. And the observation that their audiences are yonger, more enthusiastic, and basically enjoy the music much more than the stuffed shirts do is absolutely spot on.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Hey, now that's handy. [Spotted via westmp at del.icio.us.]

And they're back. Comments up and running once more thanks to the lovely Haloscan.

Meanwhile, there's a big fat post on the John Cage weekend in prep., so get those comments ready... [So all you John Cage Musicircus Barbican Googlers, be sure to come back soon - you won't be disappointed!]

Friday, January 16, 2004

Comments knackered 

Sorry that comments have temporarily vanished, and that the page takes so darn long to load. This is the reason - not my fault, or Blogspeak's fault. Just hosting companies mucking about. Anyway, I understand that all will be back to normal soon enough.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Wow. Cool.

Kick off those December blues 

God, I love January. Not wanting to be too bah humbug, but I'm not the only one who finds December too busy, too stressful, too expensive. January though is optimistic. You don't have any money left anyway, but you have time instead to look around you for the first time in weeks. The ground starts to get green again as plants start to stir into life. You can feel the days getting shorter too, like a giant snare rush into British Summer Time.

Fun and games. Oh!

Gavin Bryars on rehabilitating the digital bleep.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Yeah - I forgot about Slowdive. There's a better list up there now by Baaderist if you're really that interested.

While you're there, give him one from me. Just because.

The [Very] Rough Guide to Shoegaze 

Got bored waiting and did one myself.

The [Very] Rough Guide to Shoegaze

The Velvet Underground: Waiting for the Man
Ride: Seagull
Bivouac: Good Day Song
Lush: Nothing Natural
Curve: Fait accompli
Blur: Repetition
Spiritualized: I Want You
Verve: Slide Away
My Bloody Valentine: Soon
Boo Radleys: Firesky
Ride: Leave them All Behind
Coldplay: Clocks

A few tracks off the top of my head, plus one at each end to give it that essential Rough Guide context.

There should probably be some House of Love on there too, only I thought they were mostly awful.

OK, having dissed ILM yesterday, this thread is worth a read. Consider me humbled - and waiting to see if the Rough Guide to Shoegaze materialises...

Tuesday, January 13, 2004


Wow. Luke on amazing form. Gonna have to sit down and read this one properly. I've always liked the idea of artworks as contributions to an encyclopaedia, but I've never really thought much beyond that - for me it's just been a conveniently postmodern, non-committal excuse for justifying the presence of whatever I want to justify. But Luke does do some of that thinking-through for me. Cheers!

I hadn't seen the ILM thread referred to (must admit that I find reading ILM a bit like searching through the proverbial haystack), but I did recently get questioned by a colleague because I advocated 'relevance' as an essential part of music criticism and promotion. If, as I argued at the time, people no longer find contemporary classical music 'relevant', then it will slowly disappear from the cultural radar. But the reason it has become irrelevant to people is less because the music is of inferior quality to that written previously - which it clearly isn't - but because of a dislocation between what composers are working on, and what listeners consider relevant to their lives. Luke writes the following:

"Another reason for rejection [from the encyclopaedia] is insufficient contemporaneity. If the contributor has failed to take into account those changes in public morality and conduct, beliefs, ambitions, fears and so on and so forth, which impact directly on the subject under discussion, then his contribution may well be deemed inadequate. Additionally if the contribution seems dramatically out of step with the conditions of the lives of its audience it may well be deemed an irrelevance. So Motown does its thing all through the 60s but then 1971 comes round and Marvin and Stevie know it's time to switch things up. Same way it became obvious that the 2step bubble was about to burst, too many people's lives had gotten too frightening for the music not to reflect that. Same thing with Modernism."

The bit I've highlighted in italics seems to me the most important - and clearly true - statement here. Very often, time works to correct occasions when questions have relevancy get in the way of questions of musical value - Luke uses Coltrane as an example, and I'd say that here is a time when the balance has been more-or-less adjusted. But more often that balance is never corrected, and the initial terms of the critical debate - which were founded on in-the-heat-of-the-moment judgements of relevancy etc. - become the definitive statement on an artist or body of work. In a subject close to my heart, this has, I believe been the case with the so-called 'Polish school' of composition that emerged in the late 1950s - people like Penderecki, Górecki, Lutoslawski, Szalonek, Baird and so on. Very quickly, generalised critical judgements were made about a nation's new music - most of these judgements were enveloped in an aura of Cold War Euro-orientalism, suspicon, and condescension - and more than forty years later these opinions still stick, by and large. For a few years at the turn of the '60s this music was tauted as the future. Now almost no one listens to it. It seems to me impossible to look at a phenomenon such as this without introducing the issue of relevance (relevance as perhaps hoped for by the composers, relevance as certainly sought by the critics).

Luke's post has still more of interest (and controversy) in it, but I think this will do me for now...!

Yet more Cage... 

Oh, and if I've not turned you off the whole business altogether, here's some more Cage preamble.

As another temptation, fans of Sunday lunchtime Radio 4 will be keen to note that Dr Stefan Buczacki, sometime denizon of Gardeners' Question Time, will also be present, growing mushrooms.

Brit bafflement 

I know it shouldn't annoy me because no one actually cares about the Brit awards, but every year I get annoyed all the same. This year's nominations have been announced, and I'm utterly baffled. While no one is in any doubt that there is an agenda to the Brit nominations, as there is for any award cermony, it's the fact that even with this in mind, the nominations palpably don't make sense. I mean, you can argue all you want about the flood of Oscars that, say, Titanic received, but at least you knew why it had got them: it was the grandest film vision of the year, in scale if nothing else, and the Academy decided that this is what should count. You'll see similar agendas in place this year, and already critics are predicting how the nominations will fall - and no doubt accurately.

But how do the Brit Academy explain their set of nominations? Leaving aside the bizarre presence of Annie Lennox and Duran Duran (part of the Brits' regular theme of regarding pop music as something for reverent middle age), look at the other nominations. 'Best British Group', for example. Here we have Busted, The Coral, The Darkness, Radiohead and Sugababes. All, according to different tastes, plausible nominations, you might say (even if you have your own preferences). But, if the Brits Academy regard (rightly, IMHO, I should add) Radiohead as one of the best British groups of the year, on what basis have they made this decision? Because according to the same nominations, they haven't made one of the best albums or singles of the year, and aren't even one of the best British Rock Acts. So how did they get there? And the same might be asked about the Sugababes, for whom the pop tokenism rule presumably applies.

I don't care that Will Young is mentioned in the same breath as Dizzee, or that the Stereophonics are thought worthy of a gong, or that a novelty Comic Relief record is one of the best singles: at least there's some kind of sense at work here. If only the Brits made more of this sort of sense, then I might be able to ignore the damn thing.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

John Cage: Musicircus 

If I ever got asked to do an Epiphanies page for The Wire, then I suppose hearing this work for the first (and second) times at the Barbican, London, back in 1998 would be my subject of choice.

Scott somedisco makes the comment to a post below that Cage is possibly better as theory than music. This is a common complaint, and one I myself had up until hearing Musicircus. The theory is, at times, thrilling simple and at others infuriatingly, er, simple. I've eulogised about Silence before, but it really is one of the best music-philosophy-shaggy dog stories you will ever read.

And because the theory is so self-sustaining, so divorced from traditional notions of creative endeavour (Cage's author didn't die - he went out mushroom picking), it is too easily assumed that this is all that's needed. No diss to Scott - I see it in music students all the time (and pro academics even). Everyone knows how 4'33" works, so it's easy to assume that you don't actually need to hear it. By the same token, we can all draw charts and toss coins, so we should all have Music of Changes in us. But it's a dangerous mistake to think like this. I've seen plenty of post-Cageian composers who take up the aleatory baton where he left it. There were a couple at the Barbican in '98. But you got the sense from their music that for all their rigorous attention to detail in recreating and developing Cage's methods, they'd missed something somewhere. There is a real magic within Cage's music, and a dedicated seriousness (despite popular myth, almost all his scores where written with an authoritarian control even Ferneyhough would admire. There are plenty of stories of Cage walking out of rehearsals and performances because of players not playing what he'd actually written, and taking license with his scores.), and a child's joy in sound. I'm sure anyone who grew up with a piano in the house dropped things onto the strings to hear what they sounded like - only Cage remembered this as an adult and did something with it.

Back in 1998, the Barbican were running a series on 'American Originals'. Everyone from Adams to Zorn. And in the midst of one Saturday afternoon, they'd filled the lobbies and balconies of the Barbican Centre without about 20 different groups. Most of them were free improv sorts, or were playing other pieces by Cage; there were also a couple of acrobats, a singer on a swing, another on foot walking around, an Irish fiddle band, and a whole load more besides. The piece itself is really a set of instructions for putting together a performance score that can then be distributed around. Every group had the piece of music that they were going to play, and a timeline that lasted exactly an hour, and was punctuated by a series of start and stop points, with timings. These had been determined by coin tosses, as according to Cage's instructions, and every group had a different line.

And they all had synchronised stopwatches.

At an agreed time (3pm if memory serves) they all started playing (or not, according to their timeline), and proceeded, following their timing instructions to the second. So it didn't matter where they were in a piece, or who was listening to them, or whether they were bored, or tired, or wanted to bend the rules a little: they started and stopped according to the demands of the stopwatch and the coin toss. Precise randomness: the essence of Cage. And after exactly an hour, they all stopped, in unison.

People reeled, before they dared applaud.

For the next hour, after the piece had finished, there was a round table discussion about Cage's music held in the main central foyer of the Barbican, and at 5pm precisely a second performance of Musicircus (this time with different timelines for everyone) was scheduled. And sure enough, as one chap was standing to address his question to the panel of Cageites, the clock hit 5, and the whole piece was encored. The questioner looked nonplussed - the panellists shrugged at him. I grinned. The egotistic composer who really sat deep in the heart of Cage would have loved that. "Shut up and listen!"

Do what you like, but whatever you do, listen.

Contemporary music is rarely this much fun, this exuberant, and it's easy for people to forget that it ever is at all. When I was there, mothers were pushing prams around, introducing their children to new music. Why don't we see that all the time? I thought. This is the craziest cacophony in the world, yet kids are enjoying it. Why not Ligeti, then? Or Stockhausen, or Boulez?

Why do we take all this stuff so damn seriously? I've thought this many, many times ever since. And it took an extravagant whim by the arch avant-gardist to answer that question. So trust me; if you can, get to the Barbican later this month - the Musicircus bits are free - and I almost guarantee you will fall in love.

This month, there is only one thing you really need see. This.

More on which anon.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

More me, elsewhere 

Hey, pop-pickers! All new waffle by me here. This was a paper I originally gave at the Biennial Conference on Twentieth-Century Music in summer 2003, which was in Nottingham that year. And a friend of mine was kind enough to put it to the editorial board of BPM online, who have just published it. Very nice - and it saves me having to do all the dull HTMLing, heheh.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Inevitable, I suppose.

Friday, January 02, 2004


Being a big fan of a life lived according to pulse and cycle, I'm also a big one for making New Year's resolutions. This year's a big year for me, since it's the one in which I get married, and miraculously become grown up and sensible.


So, my five resolutions this year are:

1. Call home more
2. Get fit for the wedding
3. Get some of this bloody thesis written
4. As ever, see more live music
5. And, inspired by cnwb, spend more time in charity shops hunting for tunes. So far this has begun relatively inauspiciously, with a haul of one Sleeper single ('What do I do now?', a tune that used to break my heart as a teenager), and Kingmaker's Eat Yourself Whole, which is actually a pretty decent greasy-spoon, grebo jangle of a record, spoiled by some dire lyrics (but then most of my record collection is, John Dowland aside).

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