Better Know A Weisslich: G Douglas Barrett

The ideas of a “cannon” and a “canon of works” have one thing in common: to use either seems pretty outdated. However, it would seem churlish to ignore the popularity of a particular work and its prevalence in concerts, even if we baulk from referring to it as a “classic” – a word which, whether referring to a musical work or a car, seems designed for middle-aged white men. One work which has become a frequent feature of concerts of experimental music is G Douglas Barrett’s A Few Silence (Location, Date, Time of Performance), a work which would classify as being over-played, if it wasn’t for the paucity of experimental music concerts and, more importantly, the way in which its construction is so contingent upon environment, performer, and instrument that each iteration reveals a new type of richness. A Few Silence engages with several recurrent aspects of Barrett’s work – transcription and the grid.

A Few Silence asks the performers to textually transcribe the environmental sounds over a five minute period and then to play their transcriptions using a pre-selected set of musical instruments or objects. The work forces the performers to articulate the nature of their listening, transcription and playing in a way which necessitates the insertion of multiple perceptual, imaginative and material grids between the original sound and its re-creation, resulting in an abstracted version of the original which foregrounds the traces of its cognitive and physiological journey. In the same way that a No-Input Mixer tells us how a particular mixer hears and “speaks” through the articulation of silence, Barrett’s piece uses the “silence” of environmental sound to show how a performer hears, how they describe that hearing, and how they interpret that description.

The idea of the grid comes back in his Derivation series of works, in which this abstraction is fed back into itself in a way that spirals each consecutive iteration further and further from its origination. Each work in the Derivation collection of works is a transcription of the previous one in the series, like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, each foregrounding its mode of listening and mode of transcription. a quantization of a quantization of a quantization…

Much like David Kant’s Happy Valley Band ( series of works, in which the disparity between human and machine listening is highlighted through performances of computerized transcriptions of popular song, here the aim seems to be to crowbar the act of transcription from any pretence of a faithful replication of “reality” and instead use the resulting void as a space for creativity.

Which brings us to the work being performed at Weisslich 6 and 7 A Few Marlenes (Where Have All The Flowers Gone), here, once again, the grid re-asserts its presence; Marlene Dietrich quantized and filtered through the physiology of three different performers. Film asks us to fill in and interpolate the movement between the 41.67 milliseconds that lie between each frame of a movie run at 24 frames per second. Here that grid is increased and orchestrated, and somewhere in that gap something else occurs.


Better Know A Weisslich: Cathy van Eck’s Music Stands

Music stands evoke, well, music. To evoke music is to evoke a wide and connotative range of social, cultural, political, and aesthetic associations. Music stands complicate, they: conceal, render actions opaque and subservient, trigger imagination (and make the mind’s eye anxious to glimpse beyond the veil), assert status, are practical, signify practice and rehearsal (and if your experience with practicing was anything like mine, music stands can also signify immense frustration!), suggest reenactment and repeatability even when challenged, focus the gaze of those who chose to stare at them, imply reading or review, separate, distance, and otherise, can (but do not necessarily) turn performers into musicians (or performers into actors playing musician), indicate something like duration (especially when placed in a row of ten!), induce ways of listening and codes of conduct, populate a scenography… the list could go on.

[an exaggerated representation of Andy Ingamells’ Long Piece. Photo credit: 840 concert series]

From conception, the WEISSLICH series has worked to extend and blend experimental music practices into and alongside performance art practices. And while, on the one hand, music stands are a familiar object within experimental music contexts, on the other hand, in more purely performance-focused work, music stands are less common. Music stands have the ability to instate barriers between performer and audience, creating a division that runs contrary to what I regard as a commonly held (if not misguided and/or illusory) tenant of performance art, namely, its experiential immediacy. As curators, this tension leaves the music stand in an uncomfortable position; it is something that we often discuss when thinking about the work we programme, and thus far we have maintained an equally ambivalent (at best), and, quite candidly, uneasy relationship with music stands.

Regulars at our events will note that we have used music stands in the past, and because of the blurry space that our concerts occupy, we do not take a dogmatic position with regards to inclusion or dismissal of this object. Continue reading “Better Know A Weisslich: Cathy van Eck’s Music Stands”

Better Know A Weisslich: Solomiya Moroz

Recently I have started telling people that there is a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre about a virus which lives in the vocal chords of humans and is transmitted to others via the host speaking a specific language. This is not a Jean-Paul Sartre story, in fact, it is the plot to the video game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. All this is to say that you don’t need a dead French philosopher to present a good idea, and that, much like this piece of writing attempts to do, sometimes approaching big ideas from oblique angles can illuminate facets that would otherwise be unseen. In her bigger, collaborative music-theatre works, Solomiya Moroz frequently does this – tackling big concepts with surreality, absurdity and a studied childishness (like being told about linguistic parasites by a man named “Skull Face”). In Short Wave Apocalypse or the Box, a collaboration with Eva Aukes, Marko Ivic and Margherita Bergamo, concepts of digitization and militarization in the work of Paul Virilio are combined with the caped adventures of superheroes and phone sex. The result marries recurrent aspects of Solomiya’s work – gestural controllers, theatre and multimedia – in a parade of increasingly bizarre theatrical, choreographic and musical episodes that points to the material from a distance, through a mist of dada-ed abstraction.

Superheroes and the Apocalypse teaser from Solomiya Moroz on Vimeo.

As well as her work as a composer, Solomiya works as an improvisor, flautist and electronic musician, frequently performing her own work and that of others. Continue reading “Better Know A Weisslich: Solomiya Moroz”

Better Know A Weisslich: Neil Luck

A man stands on stage and struggles to get a word out of his mouth, impeded, it seems, by his own need to burp. Every time he does manage the odd garbled sentence, a series of clown-like vocal and instrumental bursts forcefully prevent him from delivering what we have been promised is a punchline. This goes on for five minutes, a frustrated, stuttering routine of stifled exertion, maintaining our full attention right up until that final punchline neither disappoints or satisfies us, but rather keeps us guessing as to what exactly it is we have just witnessed. It can only be Neil Luck, whose music could probably be described with equal success as absurd stand-up comedy, conceptual game show poetry, free jazz circus entertainment, or post-ironic commercial radio art.

His recent piece Via Gut was one of my absolute highlights of the London Contemporary Music Festival in December 2015.

According to the website, Via Gut is “a monologue-cum-variety act about the future. Based on a rigorously pataphysical premise, Via Gut poses a hypothesis about the future of human evolution and the nature of communication, told through an allegory of the human digestive system”. The sonification – and choreography – of bodily functions is a constant theme throughout, and the piece’s handling of it stoops as much to the utterly banal as it reaches up to the loftily existential, reminding us that we mortal humans all have to eat and shit, after all. The potential tactlessness one can imagine arising from such a piece is embraced so wholeheartedly that the audience is forced through and beyond it, having to accept its guttural playfulness as an aesthetic truth. It’s a piece about a gut as much as it is a piece happening in a gut.

Members of the artist collective squib-box and experimental group of musicians ARCO (in this case, Tom Jackson on clarinet, Benedict Taylor on viola, Federico Reuben on electronics, and Adam de la Cour as tap dancer, sock puppeteer, balloon modeller, jazz guitarist and scat vocalist), who are long-term collaborators with Neil, often provide the squealing messy textures that accompany his protagonist, narrator, or game show host. The close relationships such a collaboration fosters is evident in the way the group performs together – everyone is on board for throwing themselves in head first into whatever the piece requires, no matter how extreme (I heard of a piece in which one of the members’ colonoscopies was projected onto a screen whilst another made themselves physically sick through overeating, all of this, wonderfully, taking place in a restaurant). The kinds of things asked of the performers – such as de la Cour’s balloon modelling, squirming, and general ridiculousness (writing for the Quietus, Leo Chadburn described him as a ‘tap dancing arsehole’, admittedly making reference to the fact that he represented a literal part of the human digestive system) – are only possible with the kind of trust that builds up over time. As a result, the group has a coherence to them, a ‘tightness’, which gives their performances a crucially unapologetic quality, no matter how deranged or silly the material.

Looking at squib-box’s roster of affiliated artists you’ll find everything from Michael Finnissy to Kindenfarten, “an ensemble concerned with exploring the liminal space between new complexity, noise music, and children’s entertainment”, via acclaimed singer-songwriter Fiona Bevan and Benny C, a “traditionally made up whiteface (grotesque) clown”. This kind of breadth (of influence and output) is evident in Neil’s individual work too, perhaps the most valuable characteristics of which is his eternal willingness to take risks (aesthetically, or just with his own body). You never know what will happen at one of Neil’s (or squib-box’s or ARCO’s) gigs, and indeed we have no idea what to expect for WEISSLICH on 23rd. Based on what we’ve seen though, we can’t wait to find out.

Better Know A Weisslich: Carolyn Chen’s Adagio

…perhaps I am looking at living maps that outline a way of emotionally and
facially navigating any listening experience…

On the face of it, Carolyn Chen’s Adagio is a deceptively simple piece. A performance of the piece presents three or four performers wearing headphones and making slow-motion facial expressions over the course of seven minutes. Seemingly absurd, Chen’s piece is perplexing and has challenged me to think anew the dynamic relationships between facial expressions, slow-motion movement, copying, and private/public activities of listening.

To be more specific about what is going on during a performance of Adagio:

  • A group of performers listen
  • They listen while wearing headphones
  • They listen to sounds being sent through headphones
  • For each performance those sounds take the reliable and reproducible form of an excerpted recording of Sergiu Celibidache’s remarkably slow expansion of Anton Bruckner’s adagio from his 7th Symphony
  • While listening, the performers slowly move their faces (each an assemblage and territory of emotional expressions) in tandem with the recording
  • Their facial movements translate, project, and give body to a simultaneously private and communal experience, amongst the performers anyways, of listing to Celibidache’s recording wherein “phrase [is stretched] into environment”
  • Their facial expressions wander through a Romantic environment

Because the headphones conceal the sound of the recording and Carolyn’s facial guide is memorized/embodied, during the performance an audience is confronted with an ‘incomplete’ picture of the work. The diagram above [click to expand] is designed to illustrate not only the intricacies of the work that underlie the construction and performance of Adagio, but also serves to represent terminology I have adopted in constructing a response to what I think is a fascinating question that this piece poses: What might it mean to an audience to be presented with powerfully evocative expressive and emotive facial expressions that are unexplained, where headphones privatize listening experiences and paradoxically tether facial expressions to the implication of sound (an idea of listening) and the external reality of silence?

In my search for an answer to this question, I started thinking through an idea I had that a presentation of this piece is an invitation to participate in voyeuristic listening, a following of someone’s private and intimately emotional and facial relationship with some assumed sonic referent. Relatedly, I contemplated the idea that the piece excavates bodily listening practices and reflects them back onto the audience. However, my readings of Chen’s piece subordinated the foregrounded facial expressions to an assumed and precise sonic referent, ignoring the fact that an ontologically discernible aural reality has been deliberately obfuscated by the use of headphones. Instead of assuming that the headphones signify some specific sonic referent, I became interested in the idea the headphones could more generally signify a type of personal listening experience detached from any particular sounds. To me, this shift in emphasis from facial expressions being beholden to some particular listening experience restores primacy to the facial expressions and imbues their movements with a sense of agency.

It seems appropriate to focus on the facial aspect of Adagio given the fact that a performance of the piece is essentially a retracing of Chen’s facial wandering through her listening of Bruckner’s music. In conversation with Chen, she describes her attraction to Celibidache’s interpretation of Bruckner for the way that phrases are stretched into environments. In making Adagio I imagine Chen facially wandering through the Romantic landscape of Bruckner, retrospectively making notes from her journeys, and mapping those journeys onto Bruckner’s score to form a guided dérive for other people. By withholding the exact musical terrain trekked during a performance of Adagio and presenting only the performers’ facial movements, I have the sense that the piece presents an audience with of a living map for grafting, through emotional and facial steps, leaps, pauses, distractions and fascinations, the terrain of Celibidache’s environment onto the general experience of listening. The performers of Adagio become scores for future listening experiences. This is a model of listening where faces hear and modulate their environment.

To illustrate the full ramifications of this idea, I offer an anecdote recounted by Guy Debord about “a friend [who] had just wandered through the Harz region of Germany while blindly following the directions of a map of London.” To be clear, what I am suggesting is that a performance of Adagio could be détourned, read, and utilized as a psychogeographic map for listening to any other musical or sonic landscape in resonance with another human’s facial wandering through one of Bruckner’s sonic cathedrals. For me at least, this reading makes sense of the seemingly absurd situation of a ‘loud silence’ in Adagio. It expands what the piece means to me; it expands my appreciation of the facial facets of performance in general; and, perhaps most importantly, makes me excited to present this work for an audience of other thinkers, movers, and feelers who will undoubtedly respond to the piece in their own unique way.

Come and pour over Chen’s map at performances on 23rd April in London and 30th April in Manchester and let me know what you think afterwards. In the meantime, you can watch Chen alongside Clint McCallum and Ian Power as they perform Adagio in the video embedded above. And if you’re interested in giving my proposition of the piece a test, you may find it interesting to mute the video (to remove background hiss) and listen to some other music or sounds of your choosing while copying one (or all) of the performers’ facial expressions…

Or perhaps you’d like to try my proposition with this equally intriguing video made by Ensemble DieOrdnungDerDinge in preparation for performances of Chen’s Adagio in which they wander through an excerpt of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra:

-Michael Baldwin

Better Know A Weisslich: Ben Jameson

The first time I saw Ben Jameson perform was at the new music series Kammer Klang, at Dalston’s Cafe Oto, in 2014. He performed Jacob TV’s Grab It, a piece in which a soloist (originally written for tenor sax, this version was for electric guitar) battles with an almost violently loud soundtrack made of emotionally charged vocal samples from life-sentenced prisoners. The text is blurted out thick and fast, making a forceful and frenetic duet that thrusts itself into the ears and onto the eyes.

Until recently, little did I know how significant Ben’s identity as a guitarist was to his compositional practice. He frequently draws upon the pop, rock, metal and folk traditions in which that instrument has come to play such an important role; some of the titles of his pieces include “Power Chord Study (after Black Sabbath)”, “Two Captain Beefheart Arrangements” and “Song for Pete Seeger”.

The intersection of genres, with all of their attendant social and cultural layers, is also a subject of Ben’s academic writing. In a recent article he wrote for the journal Tempo, he tackles issues surrounding the electric guitar’s social and cultural status in Tristan Murail’s Vampyr (1984), which, he suggests, has more in common with contemporary virtuosic rock of 80’s than the composer is perhaps aware. Whether we like it or not, playing something on an electric guitar which resembles a rock or metal riff has cultural weight, and engages with issues germane to rock and metal, whether they be radical freedom, masculinity, or power. Rather than shy away from these issues, Ben tackles them head on. Continue reading “Better Know A Weisslich: Ben Jameson”