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?


Listening to Haydn (3)

Like Symphony No 6, Haydn’s Symphony No 31 (“The Hornsignal”) often uses instruments in a soloistic way. It is a very warm piece, written soon after the recruitment of two new horn players to the Esterharzy orchestra. It may be fanciful, but it has an almost conversational feel, I think, as if the new players are being welcomed by the orchestra. Of the works of Haydn I know, this symphony is really one of my favourites.

In the last Haydn post, I wrote about the different movements in a symphony. In The Hornsignal the fourth movement is very like a conventional second movement. Towards the end Haydn, as if aware of the problem he is creating for himself, stops composing more lyrical music, turns up the volume and speeds things up a bit (Beethoven, later,  did something similar if on a bigger scale at the end of his 9th Symphony). He also brings back the “horn signals” that began the work, which begs the question, why does repeating music from the start of a work make us think we’re approaching the end?

Music of Changes

I’m listening to Music of Changes by John Cage. I once traveled to Sheffield  to hear it played, along with Cage’s more famous 4’33”.

Cage composed it using the coin-tossing procedure usually used for the consultation of the I Ching, or Book of Changes. In other words, what happens next is randomly selected by the composer.

The idea of randomly generated music is intriguing. I am intrigued by the fact that although Cage stepped aside and applied an impersonal procedure to the process of composition, Music of Changes still sounds like a piece of mid-20th century avant-garde music – one might even say it “sounds like John Cage”.

I’m listening to Music of Changes by John Cage. I’m thinking too much. I’m reminded that Mozart wrote a minuet which one has to assemble with the help of a dice. Mozart allows you to choose sounds from the musical style he was familiar with and however the dice lands, the result sounds like a minuet. Cage allowed himself to choose from the musical building-blocks of his own era : individual notes on a piano, considered as sounds existing independently of their relationship to other notes.*

In randomizing aspects of the process of composition Cage, to use an over-used cliché, was trying to “think outside the box”. However, the box is like a set of Russian dolls. You start in the smallest box. When you think you’re thinking outside of it all you’ve done is step into the next biggest box. Think outside of that, and you find yourself in the next biggest and so on. Cage knew this better than  most: a year after he composed Music of Changes, he composed the silent piece, 4’33”. There are no notes to play. One merely has to listen. It can be played on any instrument and last any length of time. Hang on though. Have we burned the boxes or has the box just got even bigger? Do we perform it “on” an instrument? In a concert hall? To an audience? Perhaps I should perform it to myself, wherever I am, on anything. However, the box has just got bigger again. If I take anything and decide to make a sound with it, I’ve made a musical decision. Music, though, is as much about not making sound as it is about making sound (musicians have to “count rests” as well as “play notes”) so if I take something and decide not to make a sound with it that, too, is a musical decision. 4’33” puts me in a musical relationship with whatever I contemplate, be it a conventional musical instrument or not. Even if I attempt to contemplate nothing I have, in so doing, decided not to use my voice to make sounds. I am a musical instrument and cannot escape the decision not to use myself. I am in a musical relationship with myself at all times.

I’m listening to Music of Changes by John Cage. I’m not paying much attention to it as I’m writing this, wondering what to type next. I’m sure this is what he would have wanted.




*I’ve deliberately kept this description brief and straightforward: there is a more detailed description of how Cage composed the piece on Wikipedia.






There are Other Worlds…

I’m currently reading Cain’s Book by the Scottish Beat writer, Alexander Trocchi. I bought it second-hand a while ago and it’s been transgressively staring down at me ever since from where I wedged it in an untidy bookcase, daring me to read it. I’ve not got very far but I’m already finding it hard to put down. I thought I’d stop long enough to share this quote, though. It seemed to resonate uncannily with the present:

‘I had often said to Fay and Tom that there was no way out but that the acceptance of this could itself be a beginning. I talked of plague, of earthquake, of being no longer contemporary, of the death of tragedy which made the diarist more than ever necessary. I exhorted them to accept, to endure, to record. As a last act of blasphemy I exhorted them to be ready to pee on the flames.’




I watched  a TV programme the other day about life in Britain a century ago. It was entirely made of old black and white footage. Young men and women were enjoying themselves at the seaside, the year before the young men went off to fight in the First World War. It struck me that if I could step into the screen and join those young people with cheerful faces who were looking me in the eye through the camera, I’d meet a group of people whose ideas about foreigners might strike me as quaint. They would probably have read or known some of Kipling’s poetry (though some may have read  The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and much in between). That Europe was full of foreigners with proud, separate identities and divided into isolated nation states would seem to most of them to be the way things should be.

As we all know and as the young people in the film were about to discover, ways were being developed of killing on an industrial scale. I needn’t list the technological developments -good and bad- since. Suffice to say, one hundred years on, the internet has shrunk the world to the size of a hand-held device.

My grandfather fought at the Somme. He lived to see my father grow up. My father lived to see me grow up. My children are adults now, too. When you realise you’ve lived half a century, you realise what a short period of time it is, in human terms. In other words, not a lot of human lifetime separates me from those young people at the seaside.

We have barely had time, then, to think about the connected, high-tech world we’ve invented, never mind come to understand the different ways we might live in it. I voted to remain in the EU but, just over a week ago, people in the UK voted to leave it. Lots of them were wary of immigration but it is surely the case, in the long run, that people will  increasingly move freely in a world where information, investment, ideas and commodities can also be moved easily. It’s already happening. If you ask me, it’s good, it’s enriching, it’s something to celebrate. I hope there will come a time -okay, it’s still a long way off- when the word ‘foreigner’ will be meaningless. In the unlikely event of some extra-terrestrial being stepping out of a flying saucer some time in the future, our descendants will have to re-invent it.



Flute Recital

The flautist Katherine Birtles and the pianist Emily Smith gave a recital yesterday in a church not far from here. They were playing, among other things, the Sonatine by the French composer Henri Dutilleux. They were also playing works by Bach, Debussy and Prokofiev. I went along, as  I liked the sound of the programme and a chance to hear some real, live Henri Dutilleux  so close  to home was too good to miss. Full marks to the Swaledale Festival who organised the concert for seeking out performers keen to play his music. There’s no need for me to review the concert here as Katherine Birtles can be seen playing the piece on Youtube. Her performance speaks for itself.