On Exactitude

For a while now I’ve been recording free improvised music and posting it online. I’ve been going through the recordings recently and putting them into some sort of order. I’ve reposted the result on Bandcamp, in the form of an album. It is, I realise, a minority taste but that doesn’t really matter: I feel as if it comes from somewhere and has to get out.

My interest in improvising goes right back to my teens. I and two friends, all three of us following quite traditional paths through musical education, used to get together to indulge in spontaneous, avant-garde music-making sessions. We discovered the thrill for ourselves: we didn’t read any Modernist manifestos or theoretical writings on the subject (that came later). And the thrill was more than the thrill of transgression: we knew from experience that what we did worked as music.

Unfortunately, these days I’m a one-man band. It occurred to me that there was nothing stopping me multi-tracking improvised music. I could record myself improvising on the double bass, say, then record myself improvising on the guitar while listening to the first recording and so on. Digital technology makes this much less expensive and cumbersome than it used to be. In addition to the bass and the guitars (classical and acoustic, sometimes “prepared”) I worked with synthesizer software and a Korg Monotron synthesizer, sometimes making purely electronic music, other times modifying the sounds made by the other instruments. Occasionally I threw in a rebec and various toy instruments.

After much thought, I decided to call the album On Exactitude, after the Jorge Louis Borges short story, On Exactitude in Science. It’s the story of how map makers made bigger and  bigger maps of an Empire, finally coming up with a 1:1 map the size of the Empire itself: once unfolded, it covered the land it represented. It occurred to the people in the story that the map was useless and so they left it to the elements to rot away – although, as the story says, in the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map…

It seemed apt. Firstly, I had been trying to think of a title but kept coming back to the fact that the music described itself and so was itself its own title. Then, the paper map of the story put me in mind of the tradition of written down, composed music that, in this case at least, had become unnecessary to the job in hand.

 

 

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The House by the Sea

A short story

Peter tells me it’s a foolish thing to do but there’s nothing I like more than to walk as far as I can across the sands at low tide. I tell him I don’t have a death wish so I don’t do it lightly. On the contrary, I do it because it makes me feel intensely alive and l pay obsessive attention to the tide tables. What I don’t tell him (he gets impatient when I talk in what he thinks is a fanciful way) is that it satisfies my inner astronaut: the part of me that dreams of stepping out of a spacecraft onto the surface of another planet. Out on the sands it can feel like that: all the Earth’s surface coverings that are familiar to me -tarmac, concrete, grass, vegetation and so on- are stripped away, exposing an older, alien place. The world as I know it is reduced to a thin, dark strip on the horizon. It might as well not exist. As I said, I don’t tell him any of this. Peter mistrusts that kind of thinking. He thinks with his hands.

He always was like that. As a child he made few friends, if any. He preferred, at first, to play with his bricks. If anyone ever asked him if he wanted anything, the answer was always more bricks. Later, he made things: he pored over construction sets and built model aeroplanes. He grew into a young man of few words and rigid routines. Then he began making things out of wood. Since then, everything he makes is made out of wood.

Part of me is pleased to have him around still. A large part of me: when you are as old as I am it feels good to have young people around. At least it does to me. Another feels he should have moved on, gone off to find his own way in the world. The trouble is, the world’s ways are not his ways. He makes anything he thinks we need: chairs, spoons, chessmen, even, once, a staircase. We’ve talked about starting a business – finding ways to sell the things he makes. He’s talking of building a rowing boat. After all, we do live by the sea, he said. We have an arrangement, for now: he makes what we need, I buy the raw materials. We are in the process of growing our own but this takes time.

And time is what I haven’t got. I’ve lived a long time. True, I’m fit and able. I can still run a mile and have no more aches and pains than a man half my age but one day I’ll wake up an old man. Peter will have to hold my spoon and change my trousers. Either that, or he’ll have to bury me. And what will he do once he’s filled in the hole? Sit back and wait for the trees to grow? (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these thoughts never crossed his mind. His concern with regard to my escapades on the sands not withstanding, he seems to live in the present and take life very much as it comes. I put it down to his youth).

When you’re out there, there’s nothing else to see except sand, water and sky. As it ebbs and flows the sea creates an undulating landscape in which nothing stays the same for long. What little water is left behind as the tide goes out trickles between the low, rounded peaks and settles in the troughs, forming clear, still pools.

The sun rises quite early at this time of year and the tables told me that, this morning, the tide would be out by 8am. Peter was already up, making coffee. I drank a cup with him and said goodbye. Outside, the tinted glass wall of the house reflected trails of pink cloud and the young, leafless trees of the spinney. I took my usual path through the trees to the dunes. From the top of the dunes I could see the sands already stretching away for a kilometre or more to the distant edge of the sea. The tide was already well out. A man I see often but don’t know by name was out walking his spaniel, which ran around him in wide circles as he strode along the edge of the dunes. He looked up, smiled and waved as he passed me. I smiled and waved back, then jogged down the slope through the clumps of marram-grass to the edge of the beach.

All sorts of things get thrown up here. You never know what you’re going to find after a storm. Pieces of broken beer bottles worn down by the sea to smooth, brown jewels. Plastic containers of all shapes and sizes, their labels so bleached as to be illegible. Once, I even found an artificial leg. On the way back to the house I usually collect up anything I think might come in useful and put it on the pile of collected flotsam and jetsam I’ve accumulated under the trees.

All that happens on the way back. On the way out I just keep going.

I’d been walking for fifteen minutes or more, keeping the sun on my left, before I saw it: something dark and crescent-shaped lying on the sand. It was perhaps three feet long, although it’s hard to judge size and distance out there. As I got closer, things became clearer. My first thought was that it was a dead dolphin but no, dolphins were bigger than that and this wasn’t quite the right shape. It was a porpoise. It’s body was perfectly intact except for a short, red gash in its side. Either some predator had attacked it or, more likely, I thought, it had been caught in a boat’s propeller. I could not help but try to imagine the shock, the pain, the profuse bleeding, the final sight of the sea turning red as everything it needed to know how to be a porpoise faded away in seconds. All that was left was this, a physical memory if you like, of what a porpoise is. It too would be dismantled but more slowly. I was struck by how tenuous are the connections that hold each of us together. It was time to go back.

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2018