Review: Off the Page Literary Festival

Christian Marclay

‘Off The Page’
(Literary festival for music at The Playhouse Theatre, Whitstable: Friday-Sunday 11-13 February, 2011. Review and drawings by Geoff Winston*.)

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‘Off The Page’, the joint brainchild of The Wire Magazine and Sound & Music, was a much-needed chance for the champions and practitioners of the significant, innovative and groundbreaking music, with links to jazz, to have a voice outside the confines of the performance space.

I attended the Saturday events. The atmosphere was congenial, the programming was well-balanced in its breadth of subject matter and speakers, and the presentations were marked by lucidity, commitment and enthusiasm. There was no jargon, no bull, I gather to Robert Wyatt’s pleasant relief, too – he and his wife, Alfie, were generous and gregarious presences throughout the weekend. The venue was well suited to the task – comfortable, good sightlines and a great sound system – essential for all the sound clips.

The day’s events kicked off with Rob Young making a persuasive case for re-evaluating the role of Pierre Shaeffer, architect of Musique Concrète, whose contribution to the avante-garde has been somewhat sidelined. Young mapped out Schaeffer’s musical life, with soundclips illustrating the flavour of his pieces. A producer for Radio France from the 40s, Schaeffer saw the radio studio as ‘a miracle machine’, where in 1943 he produced an 8-part sci-fi series with full electronic sound effects. Determined to break away from serialism and the 12-tone techniques of the Viennese School, he was energised by the potential of using electronic and recorded sound in a musical context, scavenging for sound-making detritus, such as discarded organ pipes and pioneering the use of magnetic tape. 1948 was an important year for Schaeffer – he accidentally discovered the locked groove, enabling continuous repetition of selected sounds. He coined the term ‘Musique Concrète’ – a music of “sound fragments which exist concretely”, as Young explained, and created his ‘Étude au Chemin de Fer’, based on his recordings of locomotives at his local station, including the Futurist-tinged title for one movement, ‘Cadence of Buffer Strikes’. A musical alliance with Pierre Henri gave rise to his only opera, ‘Orphée’, which caused riots at an avante-garde festival performance over references to conventional instrumentation. His continual pressure to be the advocate for the avante-garde at Radio France took its toll, yet he managed to maintain a pivotal role in important groups and movements. Later in life he planned a massive library of sounds based on his own recordings, sadly doomed. Young’s survey was sharp and fascinating.

Matthew Herbert then joined Rob Young, and explained that about 20 years ago he, too, started his own Museum of Sound, which he is struggling to progress on his own (he’s looking for assistance). He took us through the political aspects of his compositional stance – from recording falling Vietnamese coffee beans for ‘Plat du Jour’ to the extraordinary amplified sounds of the tools used during plastic surgery. ‘One Pig’ followed the life of a single pig from birth to grave, but Herbert was prohibited from recording the pig’s final moments – giving rise to his campaign, ‘See Your Food’. When he asked Palestinians to send him their favourite sounds, the clip from the final mix sounded uncannily like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.

The organisers must have felt that their efforts had been justified when Herbert said that what was ‘good about this event [was] the chance to talk about it [this very important time in music].’ And this is a theme that bound together the proceedings throughout the day. Nice, too, was that there was no double programming; unavoidable was the absence due to illness of Teal Triggs, and there was bit of rescheduling due to a late arrival of one speaker.

Ken Hollings used Varèse’s overworked, programmed ‘Poème Électronique’ as a foil to John Cage’s revolutionary approach to composition which hinged on duration, indeterminacy and human activity. Varèse’s piece, asserted Hollings was a ‘museum piece before it was played to the public’ at the 1958 Brussels World Fair and, to emphasise the point, dry ice accompanied the soundclip. Hollings told how Cage’s lecture at Brussels, “Indeterminacy”, comprising 30 stories stretched or compressed to a minute’s duration each was, “something so simple, so elegant …” that it elicited a frosty telegram from Varèse, concerning the nature of “organised sound”. He explained how Cage’s looped tapes synchronised with the presence of audience members changed the dynamics of the concert premise. It was curious that Hollings used an extract from ‘Atlas Eclipticalis’ as background music while quoting Cage who maintained that “Beethoven was in error” in using harmony as the basis of composition, in contrast to Satie’s time-based approach. Hollings also focused on Cage’s personality – “vibrant, alive, hairy, naked” – countering the populist conception of the composer as the oddball introvert. Another highly illuminating presentation.

Steve Beresford and John Kieffer

Steve Beresford and John Kieffer were a very comfortable in conversation, as they primarily tracked drummer John Stevens’ significant contribution to British jazz, both improvised and orchestral. Covering the influences of Ornette Coleman and Phil Seamen, they gave a real insight in to his multi-faceted career, Steve interpreting Stevens’ larger ensembles as an extension of the drum kit and describing Stevens whispering to the players onstage to bring out the best from them in interesting and “strange” performances. The thread included AMM and Company and also paid special attention to one of the Trevor Watts/John Steven ‘Open Flower’ duets. “I love that piece. Amazing feeling. Completely gripping … feels like a game,” Steve observed. And there were nice vignettes – Stevens loved clothes, sometimes starting recording sessions with a discussion on the subject and hated playing solos.

Robert Wyatt

From the floor, Robert Wyatt recalled Stevens as a welcoming and liberating presence, and David Toop described his pioneering attitude – he didn’t have to worry about filling in the spaces (a Cagean theme?).

David Tompkins – a one-off obsessive – gave an extraordinary history of the Vocoder, with – given his interests – a slant to its use in hip-hop and funk. “The vacuum cleaner is on the tarmac” was how he introduced himself (it’s a track title, btw )- whether it was about to take off or had just landed, we’ll never know. It was entertaining, as well as niche-informative, as Dave has his own curious argot, mixing native North Carolina, Brooklyn and stage Hip-hop, which occasionally baffled even the youngest in our party – “bizarre” was his verdict. But, man, he knew his stuff, he’d met all the super-dudes and he had the samples. No way do you get the freaking Talk Box confused with the Vocoder (the Sonovox was its precursor in the 30s) – and by the way, just, just look at the saliva traps on talk boxes (he showed the diagram). Vocoder technology derives from espionage applications (where it’s all about dismantling speech to send over special frequencies and reconstituting it).

He showed a shot of the bombed Selfridges, but “fortunately” the wartime Vocoder was situated 30 feet from the bomb target! He’d tracked down and interviewed Ralph Miller, now 103, inventor of crucial Vocoder technology; he took us on a whirlwind tour of the utilisation of the Vocoder by Remmellzee, recounting how he was there with Remmellzee firing missiles from the shoulder pads of his outer space costume (we saw the costume, and Tompkins lived to tell the tale!), Grandmaster Flash, Roger Troutman, all sorts of pop and novelty music applications, noted its film debut in Clockwork Orange, detoured to Meyer Eppler’s significant work on the Electrolarynx to assist the speech impaired, and then to … Sparky’s Magic Piano; readers to this site may be more familiar with users like Herbie Hancock and Bill Laswell, but the sound knows no boundaries! Tompkins is such an unashamed fan – “I could play songs all night” – he’ll be back!

Then followed two films of John Cage made for Manhattan Cable in 1978 – a whispered interview by Richard Kostenaletz as Cage was in the process of de- and reconstructing ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ using his system of mesostics; the other showed Cage calmly reading from his ‘36 Acrostics re and not re Duchamp’ – a random quote: “creme fraiche followed by 3 kinds of potatoes”.

Christian Marclay was lightly prompted by Anne Hilde Neset, Deputy Editor of ‘The Wire’ to discuss his fine art/music oeuvre and the techniques which are essential to his artworks and performances. I think Marclay was bit battle-weary after his massive autumn Whitney Museum show and his highly publicised 24 hour video, ‘The Clock’, with the inevitable media focus, but he became more animated and outward-facing part-way in to the interview. He kicked off with a challenge – his piece ‘Mixed Reviews’ (premiered at the Whitney) is assembled from phrases culled from music and concert reviews and these are strung together as a wall text, can be read aloud, and have been translated into Japanese, and sign-language, amongst others. He contextualised this: “For me, words are different. I’m always curious about what writers were thinking about when writing reviews. How do you describe …. ?” Well, without going in to it too much – does Marclay want reviews and dialogue about music or not? Is trying to being articulate about music to be discouraged? It seemed to be a bit of an easy target. Surely, that is part of why ‘Off The Page’ was convened. He then steered in to a consideration of Conduction, as practiced by Bush Morris who had performed ‘Mixed Reviews’ as part of the Whitney’s Marclay Festival, and was shown in a clip on-screen. Morris often works with poets and other performers to create a composition in performance, and Marclay was able to “play with that energy that he gives me … very fast and crazy!” When asked about his musical works, Marclay doesn’t think of himself as a DJ. On his business card, he told us, it read ‘Record Player’! Asked about his vinyl records used as raw material, he realised that for the forthcoming concert at Café Oto with Phil Minton he was going to have to find some more vocal records, rather than dip in to his collection.

Working with DJs and hip-hop artists in the 90s he was surprised at how difficult they found it to get away from their egos and perform collaboratively. I was pleased to hear him say that he didn’t wear i-pod earpieces (he hardly listens to music) and preferred to hear what was going on around him – I share that sentiment. He did briefly discuss his student days at Cooper Union where he was chucked out of Sculpture and accommodated in the Studio for Interrelated Media, which figures, and he named some artists he admired, including Arturo Lindsay (“a genius”), Josef Beuys, Laurie Anderson, Fluxus, Nam June Paik (seen by Marclay in performance at CBGBs) and Dan Graham. And when asked about the internet and instant access to information, he responded by saying “easy is not a bad thing; you can read about John Cage …”. A nicely circular route!

And I’m grateful to Chris Maloney and Calum Storrie for a few observations on the Friday and Sunday sessions. On Friday evening, Robert Wyatt played four and performed one of his favourite tracks, taking in Cecil Taylor, The Platters, Brahms, some New Orleans jazz and a version of ‘Naima’ by Mimi Perrin of Les Double Six which Wyatt sang instead, to everybody’s delight! And Johnny Trunk distributed liquorice pipes (more like ‘chillums’ as the confectioner had run out of Magritte pipe look-alikes) in honour of Tristam Cary, featured in an early COI film about electronic music. On the Sunday there was a round-table discussion between Wire staff, reviewers and bloggers which could have gone on for hours, and David Toop and co discussed and demanded careful listening and concentration, which was deemed highly rewarding.

All in all, it was hugely worthwhile and gave us much to think about. Here’s to ‘Off The Page 2012’ – maybe we could have some complementary musical Olympics, too?

Sound and Music

The Wire Magazine

(*)Images copyright Geoffrey Winston 2011, All Rights Reserved)

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