Off The Page Festival Round-up

Robin Rimbaud and Laura Bennett
Off The Page, 25th February 2012
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. All Rights Reserved

Off The Page literary festival for music and audio culture
(Playhouse Theatre, Whitstable, Friday-Sunday 24-26 February 2012; review of Saturday’s events and drawings by Geoffrey Winston)

Off The Page is a model of imaginative programming focussing on the breadth of jazz and experimental music practice. This, its second year, saw the co-curators consolidating the literary festival’s presence at the appealingly retro Playhouse in Whitstable on the north Kent coast.

The Playhouse began to feel like home as a lively collection of practitioners, writers, critics and authorities on the offbeat and arcane aspects of music culture congregated in its basement. DJ sets by Jonny Trunk, digging in to his formidable collection of library and vintage tracks, set the scene perfectly in the intervals before everybody trooped back to the proscenium arch theatre for the presentations and discussions.

Sustained Decay: the Ecology of Miami Bass

Running from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, the offerings were rich. I attended on Saturday, which kicked off with the disarmingly enthusiastic Dave Tompkins, who launched in to the murky and explosive world of Miami Bass, in his mildly stream-of-consciousness talk, Sustained Decay: the Ecology of Miami Bass. A hit of last year’s Festival, Tompkins had the audience well-prepared for his ramble through this Florida phenomenon, beginning with an oblique introduction to its vocabulary. “Bottom of the morning to you …”, a reference to its booming low frequencies, associated with the TR-808 drum machine, an integral part of the genre’s development in the 80s and early 90s. He skated from the wartime sinking of US vessels off Florida and the accretion of underwater fossils which form Florida’s geological substrata, to the ‘mixers’, a term shared by submarine navigation and hip-hop, and threw in a recording of a German U boat crew crashing on pots and pans which he linked to the music’s home-made origins in the Liberty City projects. He firmly nailed his colours to the mast stating that his Bass car licence plate was “melted from the heat of the best music ever”.

Tompkins checked out sustained decay, sampled sound, the playing of Kraftwerk at the wrong speed, X-rated lyrics and loose pants, Real Raw and Zombie Pussy, and played sound bites of the Too Live Crew, Luke Skywalker, Maggotron and Jam Pony Express for a whistlestop immersion in the culture and feel of Miami Bass. He covered its shift from neighborhood blocks to massive arenas such as Superstar Rollertheque, the conflicts between the Miami Bass purists and the rappers, the internal strife which eventually led to its demise, and tied this all in with South Florida’s troubled history – leaving us wanting to hear much more. Luckily, the book is in the pipeline.

Evan Parker
Off The Page, Whitstable February 2012
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. All Rights Reserved

Evan Parker in conversation with John Kieffer

This set it up nicely for Evan Parker’s journey through music which impacted on his outlook, in a conversation gently steered by John Kieffer. Fresh as ever and illuminating in his insights, Evan’s first port of call was the electronic soundtrack for the 1956 sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet which made an impression as much through the Barron’s electronic soundtrack as its startling visual wizardry; the culture of its extinct Krell race remained in music – they were, observed Evan, “just like us – people who like weird music”. Charlie Parker’s 1953 track, Cool Blues, recorded in Montreal, featuring Paul ‘Buzzy’ Bley, brought out smiles from Evan as he followed the phrasing. Thanks to his father, employed by BOAC, Evan visited Brussels for the 1958 Expo – where he heard Xenakis’ electronic soundtrack at Le Corbusier’s Philips pavilion and Sidney Bechet live – and two weeks in New York in 1962 spent in the museums in the daytime and the jazz clubs at night. Derek Bailey, listening to Webern “over and over again” introduced him to music “more modern sounding than Charlie Parker’s music”, with the inherent contradictions between notated and improvised music continuing to throw up challenges for Evan in new commissions.

Evan listened to Bartolozzi’s Collage for Clarinet with a look of thoughtful concentration, before Kieffer guided the discussion to the influences of Coltrane who is “the core of the reason I play”, and Steve Lacy, whose bright, live interpretation of Monk’s Bye-Ya was aired. Evan had seen Lacy and Roswell Rudd in a New York coffee shop where, having memorised the whole Monk repertoire, they asked for any Monk requests, and he came up with 4-in-1 – “they nailed it!” “Someone opens a door and lets you in,” and in the mid-60s his introduction to John Stevens led to that rich seam of free improvisation with which Evan has been associated ever since. Crucially, that meeting also had a liberating effect; “suddenly it didn’t seem to be important to play like Coltrane.” Evan’s choice of Pharaoh Sanders’ wild solo in Mantler’s pulsating Jazz Composers Orchestra was breathtaking, even now a revelation. “I think it sounds physical” was a knowing understatement. Evan’s final observation that unfamiliarity often casts sounds as modern – hence the recent appeal of authentic baroque – showed how his quest for the edges of the precipice remains unblinkered. It was such an engaging session that it could happily have gone on for a whole afternoon.

After the break we had two round table discussions and Simon Reynolds’ focus on David Toop.

Tony Herrington, Kiran Sande, Chris Cutler
Off The Page, Whitstable, February 2012
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. All Rights Reserved

Collateral Damage: Music in a Digital Economy

The first round-table, chaired by The Wire’s Editor-in-Chief, Tony Herrington, brought together Vicki Reynolds, Chris Cutler, Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner) and Kiran Sande to debate the pros and cons of the digital era’s impact on music practice and its implications for a range of issues from intellectual property to income generation. Bennett was in favour of the ‘gift economy’, where digital artifacts and information are released, and the outcomes are unknown and not necessarily disadvantageous – the connections made often lead to interesting opportunities, and the point was made, more than once, that people still like to buy physical artifacts, such as CDs – and increasingly, vinyl, too. Not only was the internet seen as a means to quickly make connections that a few years ago would have taken weeks, but music itself was described by Rimbaud as “a very social act … a very social creation”, and the internet has facilitated the establishment of tiny niche communities with a global spread which linked artists with like-minded people, a bit like the penpals of yore.

The stranglehold of the major record labels, going back to the 60s, had been eroded, and with it, the purely linear relationships that these engendered. On the downside, the unregulated download culture literally devalued the artist’s input and their means of earning a living through their output, a critical point on which Sande focused, and to which there was no satisfactory conclusion. On the plus side, Herrington stated that live music is very vibrant, and, by implication, for some musicians this can be an income generator, whereas Cutler was not so encouraging, feeling that the digital economy had forced the creative music community in to a corner, and had hastened a diminution of the perception of the artist’s role, whilst the ubiquity of the media elevated the bizarre and artistically worthless to mass-popularity status. As Cutler put it, “… the question is, how is it being used? Like the gun.” He used his own experience of releasing the Henry Cow box set, at considerable effort and expense, only to find that it was available online as illegal downloads within 2 days. A good point on which to close was made by Rimbaud, who was excited to be able to connect with parts of the world to which he had never had access previously!

David Toop
Off The Page, 25th February 2012
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. All Rights Reserved

Toopological Space

Simon Reynold’s presentation on David Toop, his “tribute to a revered elder”, respectfully covered Toop’s wide-ranging career and interests, which have seen him travel far and wide in pursuit of the exotic and the “ethno-extreme” – to the jungles of New Guinea and Venezuela to make recordings for his Quartz label in the 70s – and in search of ultra-obscure recordings. His contributions as composer, performer, recording artist, author, publisher, commentator and critic mark out a rare, 360 degree experience. Reynolds covered Toop’s involvement with the LMC, where he gathered together a diverse range of instruments and implements to develop his vocabulary of sound, and the related Musics magazine (“a squabblezone”, as Toop described it, apparently). Reynolds saw in Toop’s book, Ocean of Sound, elements of a proto-blog, and described the brief moment of liberated madness at Virgin in the 90s when they supported Toop’s mix tapes and experimental eccentricity as practiced by the likes of Lol Coxhill, Faust and Henry Cow. Toop then suffered some disillusionment with music for a number of years, perhaps as a result of the “informational delerium” of the digital onslaught, Reynolds suggested – an interesting link to the previous discussion.

Toop, refreshingly articulate, joined Reynolds for a ten minute onstage dialogue, admitting that it was difficult being both musician and critic. Increased online availability had both expanded the possibilities and reconnected him to music that he’d lost touch with – “crossthreads, not crossroads”, as he put it – but at one time the information overload – the number of CDs, for example – that bore down on him as a reviewer had a negative impact. He made a point of expressing concern that the political right had hijacked the concept of freedom, and had turned it in to an excuse to have freedom to do what they liked, rather than carry the connotations of the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, or improvisers in the radical music world. Nowadays, he’s back in the loop, enjoying writing and performing and sees himself as a “fake academic”, but on that count he’s being too hard on himself!

Jonny Trunk and Anne Hilde Neset
Off The Page, Whitstable
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. All Rights Reserved

The Attack of the Radiophonic Women

Anne Hilde Neset chaired the round table on women pioneers of electronic music with Aura Satz, Felicity Ford and Jonny Trunk. After dissing the Pleasure Machine in Barbarella, and the attitudes bound up with early office culture, the conversation moved on to the myth of female naturalness, and steered to Ford’s audio projects on washing up, bikers and knitting.

The focus was the work of Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire at The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, whose output was contrasted: Oram’s included strong traces of the material world, whereas Derbyshire created abstract, electronic soundscapes. Satz’s short film, Oramics, featuring Oram’s voice on the soundtrack, gave a unique insight in to her concept of graphic sound and the technology that she developed based on hand drawn marks on film, not that far from Len Lye’s pioneering film work, I felt. Trunk brought in another BBC composer, Maddalena Fagandini, whose sound signals were once reworked by Ray Cathode, a George Martin pseudonym, and his view was that the women’s work often veered to the “dark and menacing”, unlike that of their male colleagues. It was interesting to hear Ford describe the Radiophonic Workshop as “a craft space … no massive egos”. Finally there was brief reference to the pioneering Lithuanian, Ursula Bogner, who turned out to be an elaborate male-perpetrated hoax!

Eliane Radigue: Virtuoso Listening

Anaïs Prosaïc introduced her sensitive film about Eliane Radigue, receiving its premiere at Off The Page. Based around various performances given at Spitalfields Festival in 2011, it précised her musical life and followed her dialogues with the performers, including harpist Rhodri Davies, bassist Kaspar Toeplitz, The Lappetites female laptop group and Carol Robinson, basset horn player. It is a fascinating and engaging film, and conveys the charm and intelligence of this impressive octagenarian composer whose declaration “I live for the moment” is intergral to the way she conceives her music for its individual performers.

I couldn’t attend it, but have it on good authority that film director Andrei Smirnov‘s talk “The Electrification of the Soviet Soundscape” on early Russian sound experiments, which rounded off the day, was suitably electrifying.

There were no question and answer sessions this year, so that the timetable could be maintained, but I have one question for the organisers: noting that Evan Parker took part in an interactive installation down the road at Margate Contemporary on the Friday evening, might there be room to build such an event in to the programme next year, to become part of the Festival schedule?

*Off The Page was co-curated by Sound and Music and The Wire

Categories: miscellaneous

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