Blogging Prone

Getting out of bed in the morning has suddenly become a lot more difficult.  Nine o’clock has been and gone and I’m still prone. Many years ago, as a trainee social worker studying counseling,  I was introduced to bioenergetics or ‘body psychotherapy’ and lying here on this new mattress reminds me of the hours I spent back then laid in the ‘grounding position’,  arms by my sides,  feet lightly crossed.

I’m listening to an album by the improvised music trio Iskra 1903. It doesn’t exactly induce a state of mindfulness, it’s too frenetic a lot of the time  for that. It does,  however,  take me to a safe,  playful,  sometimes serene place.  Derek Bailey,  one of the original members of the group described improvised music (I paraphrase, I  think)  as ‘music without memory’ and I’m sure this has a lot to do with the effect I describe.  There is no ‘epic narrative’. By and large,  the musicians are focussed on the present moment and the immediate future. The overall shape of the music, it seems, is simply determined by what happens.

Be that as it may,  I  find I’m beginning to feel less serene and more thirsty and hungry. It’s probably time to get up.

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Rantin’ Richie

We went to a poetry gig this afternoon at the Sip Coffee bar in Richmond.  Top of the bill was a local poet (and Sip regular) Rantin’ Richie. Home-grown culture with a bit of an edge to it is not an everyday occurrence round here. This afternoon was quite treat (and, as usual, the coffee was good, too!).

Local musician Tim Crawshaw came along as a support act, singing several songs he wrote a few years ago,  revived in an act of ” musical archaeology”, although they sounded new,  fresh and relevant.  Three of us stepped up from the floor – I  read three of my poems,  Barbara Hughes sang a poignant feminist song she’s written (sadly, although it was a real highlight, it doesn’t seem to have found it’s way onto the internet, so no link!) and Psy Harrison (singer with the Ceiling Demons)  borrowed Tim’s guitar and sang the first song, The Roses,  from the band’s album,  Nil.

The rest of the afternoon was given over to Richie’s poetry,  most of it taken from his new book,  From Wandsworth to Wordsworth. The foreword to the book was written by Attila the Stockbroker, which gives readers unfamiliar with Rantin’ Richie some idea of what to expect but Richie’s voice is his own and his range is greater than the recommendation might suggest. He name-checks Bob Cobbing and Gabby Tyrrell. While he was reading one poem (I think it might have been The Child of the Forest) I was reminded of Lawrence Ferlinghetti – and an interview I  heard on the radio with him a few years ago in which he said how the world still needed Beat poets. It was good to see they’re still around.

 

 

 

Rantin’ Richie on Facebook

Taking it Easy

Actually sitting down here with a bottle of beer.  It’s not something I do very often,  sit doing nothing.  Hang on.. . I’m blogging. The beer, incidentally, is non-alcoholic. There’s quite a lot of half decent alcohol-free beer and wine around these days,  which is good for me.  I’ve never been a great drinker.  I do like the taste of wine and beer but perhaps fortunately for me,  I like it more than the alcohol in the stuff likes me. It doesn’t make me merry, it just makes me feel ill.

I’m sure I’m not the only one: I’d go so far as to say that the alcohol-free option is so good now I  can see it catching on and becoming the norm. People might turn to it from the hard stuff the way smokers have turned to vaping. An interesting future: smokeless cigarettes,  driverless cars, alcohol free booze.. ..

Anyone who knows me offline will have heard me go on about Marc Ribot. I’ve been listening to a lot of his music recently. No-one I mention his name to seems to have heard of him. He does have British fans – it just seems to be the case that I don’t know any of them.  I assume, too, that he’s better known in the States. Perhaps part of the problem is that he gets involved in such diverse projects – jazz,  post-punk,  Latin American, free improv- that you never know quite what to expect next. He’s both a professional and an enthusiast: it’s one of the things I really like about him.  Is this the same guitarist I embedded two posts back,  playing jazz at the Village Vanguard?

Polar Bear

I would describe myself most of the time as reasonably computer savvy. I’ve even been known to delve into the registries of old PCs, tinkering with lines of digital gobbledygook to keep the old things going. However, what catches me out again and again is when technology takes a step forward and I’m left behind thinking I have to do something which actually does itself. Bluetooth is a case in point. I’ve had very little to do with it even though it’s been around for a long while. I hate to admit that I spent a few minutes looking round my car in the dark for a jack socket last night so I could plug the audio from my tablet into the sound system. After a few minutes, the penny dropped. Bluetooth, you fool! I turned on the ignition, woke up the tablet and hey presto, sound!

And it was all because I wanted to listen to Polar Bear. I went to one of their gigs at the Sage with my daughter (her idea) a few years ago and I’ve been listening to them quite a lot recently. Life-affirming, cheerfully witty and serious all at the same time.

 

 

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.

 

 

Henry Cow

Everyone of my age must have memories of gigs they wanted to go to but couldn’t, for one reason or another. My parents wouldn’t let me go to a Genesis gig, I seem to remember. I just wasn’t old enough, they thought, to go  on the train to Birmingham at night without them. I can’t say I’m bothered, looking back. I think I tried to like the popular end of “prog rock” because my classmates liked it.

What I do regret, however, was missing a Henry Cow gig in Manchester a few years later. I’ve  forgotten why I couldn’t go. Some chaotic detail or other in my life as a student meant I didn’t make it. I did get to see Segovia, Nico, Ian Dury, Caravan and Frank Zappa back then so I can’t complain too much.

But Henry Cow. I’ve been listening to them a lot recently.  Possibly the greatest underrated band of all time, I think. I shouldn’t worry too much about having missed them: I don’t think I would have appreciated them then as I do now. They created a kind of rock music (if that’s the right word for it – even ‘jazz rock’ doesn’t do justice to it) which was Bartok, Sun Ra, Kurt Weill, Schoenberg and Stravinsky rolled into one, with a dash of free improvisation thrown in. Much of their music was purely instrumental, although the German vocalist Dagmar Krause did join them for a while.

However, despite the brilliance of Krause’s contribution,  my favourite Henry Cow tracks are  still the instrumental ones. One of their strengths was the power they injected into their music without recourse to words. What the vocalist and film-maker Sally Potter said about the band’s bassoonist (yes, bassoonist) Lindsay Cooper could be said of the whole band:  “Her life was threaded through with political commitment and idealism – but her work was never didactic. She believed in the transcendental power of pure sound.” When the band were putting together the album Western Culture, they decided they wanted it to be an instrumental work. A number of them put together a second album, featuring the songs they were working on a the time. Good though it is, the music of Western Culture is deeper and darker, in my opinion. At times, listening to it, I found myself imagining I was watching a mime artist playing an apocalyptic game of charades.

Recently, someone shared on my Facebook page the phrase What a time to be alive: it’s like the collapse of Rome but with wifi. Forty years ago, Henry Cow wrote the soundtrack. What they had to say is as relevant now as it was then. The trouble is, I don’t think enough people want to listen to it. Personally, I don’t see the point of the arts if they ask me to believe the world to be other than it is. (That’s not an attack on fantasy and scifi, by the way: they can be great at drawing our attention to the way things are). The trick is to be honest and uplifting at the same time. Henry Cow were masters at performing it.

Listening to Haydn (5)

There is an argument to be had as to how many symphonies Josef Haydn wrote. There are 104 numbered symphonies but Anthony von Hoboken, who catalogued Haydn’s works and broke them down into categories, included a few other works in the “symphony” category, notably two works known as Symphony A and Symphony B and a Sinfonia Concertante in Bb, for violin, cello, oboe, bassoon and orchestra. It was composed in England in 1792, during the period when Haydn was working on the late symphonies known as the London Symphonies.

A sinfonia concertante is essentially a cross between a concerto (usually for one soloist and orchestra) and a symphony (usually for orchestra alone). It employs two or more soloists and resembles the Baroque form, the concerto grosso. Several of my favourite Haydn symphonies include strong concertante elements (for example, No. 6 and No. 31, which I included in earlier posts). I was not at all surprised to find myself drawn to this work and to find myself listening to it again and again. Hoboken had the right idea, I think. As for how many symphonies Haydn wrote, does it matter? Do you include the single movement often used as an overture to The Fisherwomen? Lists of symphonies by Schubert and Borodin include incomplete,  two-movement works. It’s a bit like counting the planets. Should Pluto have been demoted? How many rocks of a similar size are out there?