Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Bristol Harbourside Festival and Adventureland Golf at the Arnolfini

Car free festival

The annual Bristol Harbourside Festival attracts hordes of people from near and far (some 250,000 this year, it’s estimated) to the wharves and waterfront cobbles around the dock basin which was once the city’s commercial heart. Stages are set up in naturally suitable nooks, squares and amphitheatres, and stalls line the paths, offering all manner of foods whose scents combine as you wander by, reflecting the historically diverse mix of people which this port town has always harboured. Numerous community and green organisations also have tents or sheds from which they promote their ideals and practical local schemes, all of which demonstrates what a centre for alternative ideas Bristol has become. One of the incidental pleasures of the festival comes from the closing down of surrounding roads, allowing the city to breathe, and creating a more relaxed atmosphere, free from the niggling tensions the constant, jostling presence of traffic creates. In fact, the blocking off of roads has become a regular occurrence in Bristol, once a semi-legal gesture towards reclaiming the streets from the choking tyranny of the car, and now given the official imprimatur of the mayor. No wonder Sustrans chose to set up their headquarters in the city.

Swindon Dance Urban Youth Dance Academy
There was a sense of urgency about proceedings this year. On Saturday, the weather forecast confidently predicted that the skies would open sometime in mid-afternoon, so the onus was on enjoying as much as possible outdoors before having to seek shelter or find indoor entertainment. The dance stage is always a highlight for me, with some fine local groups performing in a wide range of styles. There were some amazing young dancers, whose commitment, control and sheer energy was a joy to behold. The Bristol-based Hype Dance company spanned the age range (and comparative sizes) of the teens and their street dance (please excuse an old fogie his imprecise categorisation) was vital and full of sass. CVS, resplendent in electric blue, spun and kicked high with swinging jazz styles. The teenagers of the Swindon Dance Urban Youth Dance Academy had great fun with some Hindi pop routines, all crouched postures and angularly raised arms. The pleasure which all these groups evinced, their enjoyment of their first moments in the spotlight, was hugely infectious.

Alejandra Velasco making flamenco shapes
There was also some fine flamenco from Alejandra Velasco, the Madrid-born dancer who now lives in Cardiff, where she also teaches dance (as she does in the Tobacco Factory and Cotham School Dance Studios in Bristol, as well). She was accompanied by guitar, violin and wooden tea-chest beat box, along with the odd outburst of polyrhythmic handclapping. Dressed in pure white, she threw some exquisitely sensual shapes, arms raised elegantly above the head before being flung down to the sides with angry passion. Her stamping feet provided their own rhythmic counterpoint, thundering out imperiously commanding rolls on the wooden boards.

Plague in a more restrained moment
Providing a total contrast, the Plague street dance company brought their hip-hop styles to the stage for an explosive 15 minutes. Twice winners of the HHI (Hip Hop International) World Hip Hop Dance Championships, they displayed their effortless command of various forms in what amounted to a condensed history of modern street dancing, from breakdancing and robotic popping and locking through to contemporary styles. Some of their moves were astonishingly athletic, a kind of stunt dance which left you half wincing for fear of the damage which might be done, and then applauding when they pulled it off, cockily gesturing for due recognition. Other moves relied more on small and nuanced gestures, with co-ordinated group choreography rather than individual display. The whole was a breathless experience, and received a rapturous response.

The Thekla today
There was music outside the Thekla, the massive German-built ship which used to haul loads of timber around the Baltic. It now operates as a music venue, and I was particularly keen to look around due to its association with Vivian Stanshall, ex-Bonzo Dog Band member and wild eccentric in the classically affected English style. Indeed, it’s entirely down to Viv that it’s here at all. A friend found it laid up in Sunderland in 1983, and discovered that it the owner was looking to sell it for £21,000. With the support of Stanshall’s wife Ki, the boat was converted into what was intended to be a floating theatre, christened the Old Profanity Showboat. Viv was in the midst of one of his troubled periods at the time, living on his own boathouse, the Searchlight (an old Irish Navy patrol boat), which was moored near Shepperton. He didn’t have much to do with the initial arrangements, even though they were being made with the ultimate idea of providing a space for his work to be rehearsed and staged.

The Thekla as Old Profanity Showboat, circa 85 - Vivian Stanshall, family and friends
The ship set sail from Sunderland on 30th July 1983 and arrived in Bristol a few days later on 4th August. So this year marks its 30th anniversary as a fixture of the Bristol harbourside. Stanshall joined his wife and son on board in July 1984, having made something of a recovery, and also having lost his boat, which sank to the bottom of the Thames with most of his possessions (but thankfully not Viv) still on board. He set about writing a musical, Stinkfoot, which would launch the Showboat as a theatrical venture, and which was loosely based around children’s stories which Ki had written. Written specifically for the Thekla’s stage, and containing plenty of new songs, it was put on around Christmas 1985. Stanshall described it as ‘contemporary Gilbert and Sullivan; popular, optimistic, enormously visual’ (visuals which included giant prop lobsters, which were apt to break out into song). In the usual Stanshall manner, it was also gaudily surreal, cheerfully vulgar, nostalgic, occasionally revealingly personal, and delighted in wordplay and shameless punning. It ran from the 7th to the 21st of December 1985, and was a success with audiences and critics.

Forgetmeknot outside the Thekla, shortly before the rains came
Unfortunately, after that chaos descended, along with numerous hangers on who did nothing to help realise the Old Profanity Showboat as an ongoing venture. David Rappaport, the Time Bandits actor, came to stay as an uninvited co-inhabitant for a time. It was also during his time in Bristol that Stanshall first met Stephen Fry, who had come to see Stinkfoot, and would later become a great champion of his work. However, it soon became apparent that no-one was really in charge of the theatrical project or had any firm idea as to the direction it should take. The money ran out, and only a few months after Stinkfoot had brought in the first audiences, it lay abandoned once more. Happily, it’s now a thriving musical venue, and the old hold provides a natural place to house a stage, with a balcony to provide a more general overview. An upstairs bar includes a more intimate, acoustic stage, where local singer Aaron Douglas was playing his heartfelt and soulfully sung songs with dextrous guitar accompaniment and resounding foot stomp percussion. This leads out to the foredeck, where you can sit and sip your drink looking out over the harbour beyond. The ironclad sides give it a solid bulk which underlines its status as a permanent dockside resident. For the festival, a stage had been set up outside, where I heard Forgetmeknot playing. A largely female group (only the bass player and the drummer were men), they featured four part harmony vocals which harked back to the girl groups of the 60s, and had a similar feel of tunes tested and worked through on street corners or in successive living rooms.

Once the rains did come, it was time to head indoors to the Arnolfini Gallery to put around (or through) some ‘pieces’ on a crazy art golf course. Promoted as Adventureland Golf, this was the idea of Doug Fishbone, who invited a number of artists to create indoor crazy golf holes, using whatever theme they fancied. After all, there’s little sense of cohesion to be found in the typical crazy golf course, where you can find yourself facing Big Ben on one hole, a giant gorilla on the next. The emphasis here is on fun, but this being art, I feel compelled to wring some kind of symbolic meaning out of each of the six holes, and out of the experience as a whole.

Social decline in the model village
You begin in the standard way by getting your clubs, balls and scorecards from the kiosk. Some people have been taking this very seriously, we were told, and there had been some fierce competition, presumably involving competitive dads. You start off at Jonathan Allen’s hole, which is like a rundown corner on the edgelands of a model village. A post-war prefab building is boarded up, and graffiti tags have already started to patch its walls. Tiny skips on either side are filled with its ripped out guts. I had assumed that this was some small scale factory building, but the accompanying notes informed me that it was supposed to be a library. The name of the contractor hired to tear it apart and dispose of its contents is stencilled on the side: Camborne, a conflation which fixes the blame in no uncertain terms. There’s no way through this building, no means of access. It’s set in the corner of an l-shaped run to the hole, so you have to ricochet your ball against its barred doors, as if battering against them with impotent frustration. Once you’ve turned the corner and left the abandoned library behind, there’s really no turning back.

The impossible dream - going for the fluke shot
Brian Griffiths’ hole provides a seemingly sunny contrast to this scene of dereliction and spiritual decay, with a bright yellow, carpeted hump of a desert island, staked with a palm tree in the traditional manner. Around this, you put your ball around the calm, level surface of the deep blue sea, whose serenity is punctured by the ominous black sails of shark fins, which you occasionally bounce against. This paradise seems so close, so easy to attain, presented in such bright and enticing colours. But damn it if it’s not almost impossible to get that ball up on the golden mound. It just keeps rolling back down into the uncertain, shark-infested waters which surround it. The shorts hanging to dry on the palm tree mockingly attest to the fact that someone has already made it, and is revelling in the good life. But it’s going to take pure luck rather than skill or judgement to join them up there. The alluring images of an instantly attainable paradise, whether material, spiritual or a fusion of the two, are chimerae, shimmering mirages which recede the more desperately we reach out to grab them. The grass will always seem greener, or in this case, the sand a brighter yellow.

Circumventing tyranny - edging round the monument
Doug Fishbone’s hole is placed in the centre of the course, erecting a statue on a plinth as if in the central square of a town or city. The gesticulating, militaristic figure is continually taking a bowing fall, pulled down to earth from its elevated position like the statue of Saddam Hussein in the wake of the second Gulf War. It’s in the centre of the room in which the crazy golf course is housed, and also in the centre of this particular hole, the fake grass fairway parting around the plinth in a neat circle. You have to negotiate your way around this monumental embodiment of the dominant, tyrannous ideology, sneaking past and trying not to attract the attention of its enforcers. It’s a metaphor for the way people have always had to negotiate the tides of history in order to achieve the simple human goals of life (knocking the ball in the hole in this reductively symbolic version).

A forest of signs
David Shrigley litters his hole with an excess of signage, placards written with a deliberately amateurish, childlike scrawl, as if these were instant thoughts, just this moment occurring and immediately scribbled down. They are singularly unhelpful, confusing, misdirecting and generally distracting. Some are also philosophical playful, such as the Shanklyesque ‘This is not a game’; some are banal, aphoristic nuggets of cod-new age wisdom (‘the ball is your friend’); and some simple emotional directives (‘be nice’). In a light satire on the all-pervasive maze of notices and announcements we have to negotiate and do our best to ignore every day, these signs are the physical obstacles we have to get the ball around on this hole. The temptation is to simply pick them up and chuck them to one side with a triumphant ‘HAH!’

Hitler holed - promenade dictators
Jake and Dinos Chapman offer more comic dictator capers, with an oversized seaside bust of Hitler which you have to knock your ball under (altogether now, ‘Hitler has only got one ball…’). The oversized führer has a uniformed and swastika banded arm hanging limply by his side which loosely jointed at the shoulder, allowing you to swing it up in a swift salute if you so desire. When your ball does pass under his bisected torso, he emits a cry of ‘nein, nein’. It’s either a frustrated outburst at his inability to prevent your passage (through France? To Berlin?) or a mocking comment on the number of bungling attempts its taken you to make it through (nine! Nine!). All amusing enough, unless you happen to be a German tourist, or someone who remembers the genuine suffering of the war. It maintains the fundamentally adolescent tenor of the Chapmans’ work, which doesn’t really get much beyond the level of heavy metal album cover art. You can almost hear them sniggering and snorting in the corner.

This is the end - the final fairway
The final hole by Zatorski and Zatorski (sorry, Zatorski + Zatorski) strips away all the extraneous props and confronts us with the void. A smooth, speckled black surface provides a frictionless fairway which speeds the ball towards its final plummet into darkness. There are no obstacles to negotiate – the passage to the hole is all too easy. The polished basalt slab along which the ball glides could be the material for a gravestone. Or it could be some cosmic fairway, dark matter dimly scattered with weakly burning stars leading inescapably to the gravity well of a black hole. And once the bright white ball, which we have guided around so many of the obstacles on this crazy golf course we call life, goes down that hole, it disappears completely. Where does it go from here? Well, it makes its rolling Bardo journey through subterranean wormholes back to the booth, where you also go to return you clubs and pencils. And there they sit and wait, ready for the next time round.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Trembling Bells and Mike Heron at the Exeter Phoenix

Trembling Bells and Mike Heron stopped off at Exeter last Sunday night to play at the Phoenix during the lengthy wanderings of their 'Circle is Unbroken' tour. This was an exciting meeting of adventurous folk past and present, as well as a coming together of music which meant much to me as a teenager (the Incredible String Band) and a band which is one of my current favourites. I had anticipated a standard evening of two halves, with Mike Heron playing a solo set followed by the Trembling Bells in all their lyrical, electric glory. But this was a much more special occasion which amounted to a celebration of the Incredible String Band’s music, and an acknowledgement by the members of the band of the influence it had exerted on them. It was enjoyable to see the looks of sheer pleasure and enjoyment on Alex Neilson and Lavinia Blackwall’s faces as they sang these songs which had evidently become part of their bloodstream with one of their authors.

It was actually a Robin Williamson song which began proceedings. Maya sees him in full mystical flow, the lyrics embracing the full spectrum of mythic and religious imagery whilst the music marries east and west with a blend of Western folk and Indian vocal traditions. Trembling Bells lead singer Lavinia Blackwall took Williamson’s sinuous vocal lines and made them her own, her early music background (with its inherent Moorish elements) proving an ideal grounding for the Eastern influenced melismas which twist the ends of several lines into baroque swirling smoke trails. Williamson’s vocal style proved surprisingly suitable for translation into a female soprano register, in fact, as other of his songs which Lavinia sang during the evening proved. Waltz of the New Moon from the Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter album was particularly effective, with Lavinia and Georgia Seddon emulating the harp and harpsichord sway of the original via analogous keyboard sounds. The Cold Winds of February, a standout track from Hard Rope and Silken Twine, the last ISB album (made in 1974) was a real showcase for her soaring voice, Williamson’s writing displaying a significant shift towards traditional Celtic styles. The simple organ accompaniment, overlaid with Nick Pynn’s fluttering penny whistle, created a hushed and mesmerising mood.

Trembling Bells - Carbeth
Mike Heron wandered on towards the end of the song, in time to add his voice to the spirited group rendition of the final chorus, appropriately introducing the evening with the refrain ‘all the world is but a play, be thou the joyful player’. He had broken his arm, which hung strapped and immobile at his side, so his participation was limited to the use of his voice, with its distinctive phrasing and seemingly inbuilt optimism. It’s a voice which contains an implied smile, which was indeed present for much of the time. There was no guitar, nor yet any sitar, although I suspect he has long since put that unwieldy instrument to one side. Heron was reasonably adept on the sitar, but his guitar never transcended the functional role of accompaniment to his songs. It was a singer-songwriter’s tool, effectively, with none of the virtuosity of a John Renbourne or Bert Jansch. Heron modestly admitted as much, introducing Mike Hastings with the self-deprecating observation that his replacement was ‘almost as good as me’. Hastings, the more than accomplished Trembling Bells guitarist (who has also played with Heron in other contexts) took up the acoustic instrument, leaving his quicksilver West Coast electric lines for other occasions. This made for interesting variants on the handful of Trembling Bells songs which were played, heard here in what amounted to ‘unplugged’ arrangements. This served to further illustrate the lineage running from the Incredible String Band (whose own attempts to move towards a heavier rock sound tended to be tentative and unconvincing) to the Trembling Bells. The songs which they chose, Willows of Carbeth and I Took to You Like Christ to Wood, certainly have much of Williamson’s richness of imagery and language, although Alex Neilson’s writing tends more towards a wounded Romanticism blurred with booze, and a celebration of the particularity of place (triangulating the personal sacred territory between Yorkshire, Carbeth and Oxford).

Heron introduced the band as soon as he had the chance. His daughter Georgia Seddon sang accompanying vocals and played the keyboard, occasionally also adding a touch of percussion. Nick Prynn played the fiddle, and various other ‘little’ instruments. Whereas the ragbag jumble of folk and world instruments which coloured the Incredible String Band sound was largely replicated this evening by keyboard patches, Prynn brought some of the old spirit to bear on A Very Cellular Song. Its seamless evolutionary transformations between the different song ‘cells’ required him to drop kazoos, whistles and mandolins in order to pick up the violin which provided the interconnecting cell walls. The original sound of the bowed gimbri, which seemed to emulate the erratic buzzing flightpath of a bumble bee drunk on nectar, was replicated on the fiddle through technique alone. Simon Shaw’s bass anchored and wove its counterpoint throughout, slackened tuning providing what sounded like low brass accompaniment for one song.

A lot of Heron’s material was drawn from the Wee Tam and the Big Huge double LP from 1968. This was always the Incredible String Band record which most ably demonstrated the sheer range of their stylistic influences, and the wide diversity of their writing. Maya showed Williamson and Heron’s interest in both eastern music and spirituality. From Heron’s contributions, we also heard the Donovanesque folk-pop of You Get Brighter; the down home campfire country of Log Cabin Home in the Sky; the non-conformist hymnal in Air, a beautiful duet between Heron and Seddon; the American spiritual in Greatest Friend; and the mystical ballad Douglas Traherne Harding, in which Heron takes a few steps into Williamson’s territory of esoteric spirituality. Heron’s self-deprecating humour came to the fore once more in his dismissal of the Be Glad For the Song Has No Ending film the ISB made in 1971 as typical incomprehensible hippy whimsy. But the instrumental passage from the credit outro, complete with the opportunity for a joyful group chant-along, sounded great, and was combined with a song from Heron’s first solo LP Smiling Men With Bad Reputations (which Neilson has written about in the special Shindig magazine volume on the Incredible String Band and psychedelic folk).

Lavinia Blackwall and Alex Neilson finished the first half with a beautifully harmonised acappella rendition of 7 Years a Teardrop, which originally concluded their debut LP Carbeth. There was more a capella singing, featuring Heron, Seddon and the whole band, on the hymn-like Sleepers Awake (originally on the 1969 LP Changing Horses), which was always a favourite of mine and sounded great on this evening. Little was heard from the ISB’s later years, which was a shame in a way, since Heron wrote some fine songs in this under-appreciated period, particularly on the Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air LP. Worlds They Rise and Fall, Red Hair or Painted Chariot from that album would all have been good to hear – ones for future collaborations, perhaps. We did hear Heron’s paean to the sanctity of the instant, This Moment, from the 1970 LP I Looked Up. And they all harked back to their first collaboration together in 2010 on Feast of Stephen, originally on Heron’s 1971 solo LP Smiling Men With Bad Reputations. A welcome reminder of winter’s chill on a humid, sultry night, it ended with one of Heron’s irresistible poppy choruses, fa-la-la-ing to fade.

A Very Cellular Song ended the evening on another hymnlike, singalong finale, its repetitive chorus the perfect send-off, blessing us with the lines ‘may the long time sun shine upon you/All love surround you/And the pure light within you/Guide you all the way on. Of course, standard gig form dictated that, appropriate as these would have been as parting sentiments, there was an encore to follow. Heron and Seddon sang an intimate and spellbinding a cappella number, after which the group returned for a cheerful rendition of the one song of the evening drawn from the 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion LP. This was the Hedgehog’s Song, one of Heron’s childlike song’s which look at the world through the eyes of small, anthropomorphised creatures (as in the Amoeba Song section of A Very Cellular Song, and Cousin Caterpillar). It was a good one on which to finish. No one can possibly be unhappy after hearing it, and we all left with a smile on our lips and another of Heron’s infectious choruses circling our minds.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Ways With Words: Stuart Maconie, David Kynaston, Carol Ann Duffy and Others

The Dartington Ways With Words festival basked in sunshine for the entirety of its two weeks this year, where last it had remained soggy throughout. The beautiful gardens surrounding the medieval hall and its grey stone wings were scattered with lounging folk, recumbent in Penguin book cover deck chairs (a his and hers choice of The Garden Party and The Big Sleep) or sitting in the shade of the diverse trees bordering the greensward (we found the cool of a spreading mulberry tree). Dartington was never more idyllic.

We went on three days, beginning with the first Sunday, the 7th. In the morning, Emma Carter the Arts Programme Manager for High Cross House, now owned by the National Trust, and the photographer Carol Ballenger, who has taken a series of pictures there for the Design for Living exhibition, talked in the Dukes Room. This is a small hall in the west wing of the Hall quadrangle, which gave me the chance to briefly explore this part of the buildings for the first time. Pictures from the Dartington collection line the cool and shady corridors, and there was a large Indian painting hanging above the stairwell. High Cross House is the modernist residence above the gardens and just over the slope leading down to the village of Dartington and the Cider Press complex of increasingly tourist-oriented shops. High Cross was built in 1932 by the Swiss-born American architect William Lescaze for William Curry, the headmaster of the Dartington Hall school. Carter told us about its history, and about what she and others were doing to keep alive the old Dartington traditions of nurturing modern art within a local community, ideals which the Dartington Trust seems now to have abandoned. There have been residencies and events involving the visual arts, film, poetry, music and dance, and activities which aim to involve schools and the local community. Sadly, visitor numbers have been low, modernist houses losing out to Devon’s stately homes on a list of National Trust members’ priorities, I imagine. The partnership between the Dartington Hall Trust and the National Trust will be dissolved at the end of this year, and the house will be closed to the public once more, which is a crying shame.

Carol Ballenger is a photographer closely associated with Devon. She’s produced projects based around Dartmoor, black and white panoramas and studies of tors against wide-open skies which draw on the work of FJ Widgery (whose work is currently on display in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter); a series taken around Dartington Gardens, capturing the play of seasonal light over its many and varied lawns, glades and groves; and a survey of twelve Japanese gardens in Britain, including the Zen garden at Dartington (whose raked gravel had a guilty trail of footsteps ending in a two footed declivity marking the point at which a parental voice presumably brought this incursion to a sudden skidding halt). Ballenger cited three artists who have been a particular influence on her work. The photographer William Eggleston showed how colour could be used as part of a composition, black and white having been the default option for art photography up until that time. He also demonstrated that nothing was too insignificant to be used as subject matter, and that photography could take on some of the qualities of abstract art. Dan Flavin’s neon sculptures showed the play of coloured light within an interior space. And the land art and sculptural architecture of James Turrell, with its empty rooms acting as viewing spaces from which to gaze up at skies framed in open rectilinear roof windows, showed how interior and exterior spaces could be balanced in harmonious contrast.

My photo of Henry Moore's sculpture in Dartington Gardens
Ballenger’s work captures the quality of light playing within the various spaces within High Cross House, and in doing so illustrates how the house was designed to harness those very qualities. Both interior and exterior also interact with the surrounding landscape, the trees and the sky. The white surfaces of the curving walls are contrasted with one façade painted blue, and Ballenger shows how this is optimistically designed to be congruent with the cerulean of summer skies. Shots which combine interior detail with window vistas combine cool white spaces with the greens or browns (depending on the season) of the chestnut trees bordering the garden. Reflections are caught on the polished surface of Dorothy Elmhirst’s old piano, bringing the exterior inside, framed within its curved wooden lobe. A photograph taken upstairs views the green exterior through one of the porthole windows, which is set to one side of the composition, a circle at the edge of a blank white space. It’s reminiscent of one of Ben Nicholson’s abstract Construction reliefs from the 30s and 40s, which also seemed to draw on the play of light within white-walled modernist interiors. Ballenger also veers towards abstraction in a number of photographs which take a close-up view of wall spaces, the dividing lines of cornices, or wall and ceiling angles creating light-softened linear patterns which frame areas of glowing luminosity and blurred shadow. Elements of colour enter, with the yellow of in which some of the walls are painted forming patches of primary brightness which seem to distil the sunshine.

Later in the afternoon, we went to hear Stuart Maconie in the grand medieval hall. He was ostensibly there to talk about his new book The People’s Songs, whose subtitle, The Story of Britain in 50 Records, sums up its intent. This is post-war social history seen through the lens of popular music and culture. As he pointed out, it was very much not a top 50 hit singles selection. The songs included in the book are intended to reflect the changes in post-war culture, and people’s personal experience of the zeitgeist. These are songs which were popular because they spoke to that experience. Someone wrote to Maconie complaining about the lack of any Joy Division, which he politely pointed out was massively missing the point. Moody coolness is not an issue here. Some of the songs may indeed by excruciating, but they were genuinely popular beyond narrowly prescriptive tastes of a hip coterie, and the reason for that popularity provides the perfect opportunity for the construction of a patchwork social history.

Maconie used his PC tablet (or somesuch) to play extracts from some of the songs in the book as a preface to talking about the aspects of British life which they voiced, with whatever degree of sophisitication, emotiveness or simple singalong catchiness. This was probably the only time I’ll be likely to hear the opening strains of Y Viva Espania or Wannabe rising to the oak beamed ceiling, more accustomed to absorbing the esoteric or high cultural sounds of classical music and the likes of Ravi Shankar, Keith Tippet and the Dufay Collective. Those songs relate to the increased access to foreign travel and package holidays which the wider populace enjoyed in the 70s and the rise of a generation of young women in the 90s who wanted to have as much fun as the lads. Other songs we heard little snippets of spoke of other things. Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill, which felt a bit more at home in these environs, was a paean to getting together in the country which expressed the enduring British sense of the rural or wild landscape as a place in which to escape the pressures of the city and the daily grind and gain a greater sense of perspective on life. The Smiths’ How Soon Is Now was a rallying call to the outsiders on the other side of the divide of the affluent, acquisitive 80s, and marked a period in which indie music stood for a literate, witty, ironic and defiantly non-macho response to the times. Black Sabbath’s Paranoid was a manifestation of a different sort of rebellious subculture, the heavy metal of industrial cities like Birmingham and Sheffield which has remained resistant and indifferent to the tides of fashion and cool. It gave Maconie the opportunity to come out with some very funny Ozzy Osbourne stories (his innocent contretemps with outraged authorities at the Alamo and his crossdressing in the name of booze), which were well known but always worth the retelling. Other songs were more directly related to particular historical moments. The Beatles’ She Loves You symbolised the whole unfolding of a youthful, optimistic spirit full of the sense of new, expansive possibilities. Maconie saw this in the sheer happiness of Ringo Starr’s countenance as he sat behind his drumkit, which seemed to encapsulate the exhilaration of what seemed like a new dawn, some momentous generational shift.

Mention of the Beatles was the perfect excuse for Maconie to relate a passage from his first semi-autobiographical book Cider With Roadies in which he tries to glean information from his mother about the Beatles concert she took him to when he was a little boy, and which he can therefore proudly boast as his first gig. Her wandering divagations, taking in the state of health of various relatives and a precise itemisation of everything young Stuart ate before or after the show, and at which cafés (whose geographical locations are triangulated with pinpoint accuracy), are related in a hilarious, breathless rush. According to Maconie, this conversational orbiting around the point in question is a peculiarly Northern trait. He is still none the wiser about what The Beatles concert was like. Y Viva Espana leads to another such transcription (presumably printed with parental authorisation) of a comprehensively vague telephone description of everything but the requested memories of Blackpool holidays taken from Pies and Prejudice, his cultural travelogue of the North. These were perfect examples of the way in which author readings can really being written passages to life.

Rather less edifying than She Loves You, D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better served as an anthem marking what appeared at the time to be another moment at which the boundaries dividing epochs were crossed, as new Labour swept into power after 18 years of new Conservative rule. Nobody in the hall was able to identify the intro to the song, since the chorus is everything here, the mantra which was endlessly repeated like an irritating advertising slogan which gets stuck in your head. Maconie had a delicious anecdote about an encounter with Peter Mandelson in which a telephone call aside, dealt with swift and commanding efficiency, served to affirm the dark lord of total media control he had just been assiduously refuting. You can find out what Mandelson said in the Things Can Only Get Better section of The People’s Songs, as well as in his previous book Hope and Glory (well, a good anecdote’s worth repeating). Hope and Glory is another excellent survey of British culture, this time spanning the twentieth century and focussing on significant events and the places in which they took place, or which best embody their spirit.

Maconie’s experience as a broadcaster was evident throughout in his effortless and relaxed command of his audience. It must have been enjoyable for him to have a direct and enthusiastic response from people who were immediately present, as opposed to the invisible and geographically scattered listenership of his radio shows, whether alone or with Mark Radcliffe (whose name he affected to forget at the start and finish of his talk).

On Wednesday evening, David Kynaston and Rupert Davenport-Hines shared the stage to discuss British society, politics and history in the late 50s and early 60s. Kynaston’s grand, ongoing post-war history which will span the period from 1945-1979 has now reached the last years of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s (the MacMillan era, essentially) in the latest volume, Modernity Britain. He told us that this was intended as a people’s history (to use that devalued possessive noun), told from the bottom up using diaries and mass observation records to give an impression of historical events and aspects of society as experienced by ordinary citizens. Kynaston used the dispiriting language of market economics, describing it as a history seen from the perspective of the ‘consumers’ rather than the ‘producers’. There was a sense of connection between his project and Maconie’s cultural history told through the lens (or speaker) of the people’s songs. This comes through to an even greater extent in the People’s Songs radio series on Radio 4, which he narrates from a discrete distance, allowing those for whom the music had particular meaning to tell their own stories.

I know Rupert Davenport-Hines through his book on Gothic, whose subtitle, Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin displays a relish for the sensational and scandalous, and suggests he is writing for a popular readership beyond the sober walls of the academy. His latest book, An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo, looks at the archetypal scandal of the 60s, and the social milieu from which it emerged and grew in emblematic significance. Like She Loves You, the Profumo affair seemed to embody the changing values which would categorise the ensuing decade – the greater openness about sex and the breaking down of old class divisions. The convergence of politics and pop culture is cleverly captured in the refrain from the Pet Shop Boys’ song Scandal, which pinpoints the spirit of the times by reminding us ‘Please Please Me’s number 1’. The Profumo affair brought all levels of society into contact, either directly or indirectly. Political and diplomatic classes found themselves linked (or sought that link) with working class women, aristocrats, West Indian immigrants, doctors and performers, all under the watchful scrutiny of the secret services and the press. Davenport-Hines emphasised the key role of the police and the newly emergent tabloid press in stoking up controversy and inventing crimes where none really existed. He was particularly insistent upon the fact that Christine Keeler never had an affair with the Russian naval attaché and Soviet spy Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, an inconvenient fact which would reduce the entire affair to complete redundancy. He exhibits particular sympathy for Christine Keeler, whom he sees as being a victim of social and sexual hypocrisy. Indeed, the view of society which is refracted through the growth and nurture of the scandal is a bleak one, with individuals such as Keeler, Stephen Ward, John Profumo and even Harold Macmillan at the mercy of venal, puritanical and corrupt forces.

Davenport-Hines gives the impression of being an old-fashioned aristocratic conservative, who has great sympathy with outsiders and those who are different, but regrets the dismantling of the old order, with its ties of ancestry and tradition. Clearly someone who relishes blue-blooded eccentricity, he expressed sadness over the democratisation of the Conservative selection process for parliamentary candidates in the 50s, claiming that it ushered in a new generation who were unremarkable and ‘dull’. Kynaston also seemed to share something of an anti-modernist stance, particularly as regarded the architecture and planning of the time, which sought to build the new modernity Britain. He singled out Basil Spence’s Hutchestown C tower blocks in Glasgow, which were commissioned by the Glasgow Corporation in 1959 and completed in 1965, when the first residents moved in. They weren’t adequately maintained, however, and swiftly deteriorated. In 1993, the entire development was razed to the ground, meaning that this symbol of a new rationally planned age lasted a mere 28 years. Presented in such stark terms, modernist mass housing does appear to have been an unmitigated disaster, rejected by public and governing bodies alike. But the reality is, as ever, more complex, and with blocks of ‘luxury’ flats rising from every empty space alongside city railways, rivers and old industrial sites, it’s clear that the old solutions have not entirely been discredited (although the architecture is now determinedly and unthreateningly nondescript). They’re just better marketed now. And for the big money buildings, high-rise modernism never went away, as the Gherkin and the Shard amply demonstrate.

Both Kynaston and Davenport-Hines were wary of an uncritically nostalgic view of the late 50s and early 60s as being a time of greater community. Whilst there was an element of truth to this commonly outlined picture, they conceded, they pointed to a less idyllic undercurrent of violence and coercive conformity, a suspicion of conspicuous difference, which also existed in such closeknit neighbourhoods. They both had memories from their respective public schools (thus not necessarily directly relevant to the matter at hand) of regular floggings, which Davenport-Hines claimed to have not really minded, possibly giving an insight into his reasons for writing a book called Vice. They also both suggested that the gulf between sexes was as significant a social division as that between the classes. Davenport-Hines recalled that the women he knew at that time were all really interesting, whilst the men were generally ‘pigs’. For all Kynaston’s dedication to a democratic historical perspective, and Davenport-Hines’ interest in the marginalized and non-conformist elements of society, the discussion kept getting drawn back within the reassuringly familiar walls of Westminster village (this partly due to the direction of the host’s questioning). It seems that historians are naturally more comfortable within this standard framework of history – the story of the ‘producers’.

The gothic strain continued on the following Sunday at 2.45 in the Dukes Roon, where Nick Groon, professor of English literature at Exeter University, gave an overview of the movement in all its intertwining historical, political and cultural aspects. On a dazzlingly bright day, the curtains were drawn to create as much gloom as possible within the old medieval room (powerpoint slides were involved), which had taken some finding via a labyrinth of stone corridors. Indeed, at one point I almost strode through the artist’s entrance into a full and anticipatory Great Hall. On the wall beside us was John Piper painting of a ruined abbey, which set the mood perfectly. Davenport-Hines’ book on the subject is cited in Groom’s book on the Gothic, part of the compact ‘A Very Short Introduction to…’ series. Groom strained at the limits of his short given time-span, trying to race through a fascinating history which took us from the Visigoths and the sack of Rome through to the Fields of Nephilim. He placed the term within a tradition of opposition and outsider status, changing in emphasis over the years, often introduced by others in a derogatory sense. It was used in this regard to retrospectively dismiss medieval architectural styles in an age when ordered classicism, allied with a rationalist worldview, was in vogue. In Britain, this also raised Catholic spectres in the post-Reformation and Civil War periods.

Gothic literature went hand in hand with the revival in and picturesque reinvention of gothic architecture, the ruination and disorder of time and history now incorporated to give an impression of a re-emergent past. Horace Walpole built his Strawberry Hill mansion in the style, complete with hidden grottoes, and wrote The Castle of Otranto using its spaces as an imaginary locus for fevered, violent and supernatural happenings. This established the classic template for the gothic novel, the elements of which Groom clearly itemised (disorder and ruin, excess in style and plotting, the incursion of the supernatural, a concern with blood and ancestry and so on). Dracula was the apotheosis of 19th century British gothic (although it was, of course, written by an Irishman) and became the ur-text for further revivals in the twentieth century. We rushed through the re-emergence of gothic in the twentieth century in the cinema, fostered to a great extent by German film-makers and technicians fleeing the rise of Nazism. There was a perfect illustrative still of Murnau’s Nosferatu framed within the pointed arch of a gothic doorway which indicated the continuity of the form. Groom finished with a picture of Sophie Lancaster, the young goth girl who was kicked to death by a brutish mob of morlocks whilst trying to protect her boyfriend from their blows. The gothic was still an outlook and style associated with outsiders and those who self-consciously opposed the accepted norm, he suggested, and thus challenged us to choose where our sympathies lay.

The festival reached its climax on Sunday night with Carol Ann Duffy and John Sampson reading and playing to a packed Great Hall. Sampson began proceedings, playing the first of a number of early music instruments which ranged from tiny sopranino recorders, through crumhorns and baroque fanfare trumpets to a Chinese wind instrument which produced delicate and sinuous lines echoing the intonations of the language. An amiable, bearded Scotsman, he imbued everything with an affable humour, making light of his offhand virtuosity. Elizabethan songs were followed by baroque outbursts, which led on to Scottish folk tunes and comically absurd compressions of Mozart symphonies. For the latter, he donned an appropriate period wig, the more fully to channel the spirit of Wolfgang Amadeus. At one point, he played harmonised lines on two recorders at once, a little like a Renaissance version of Roland Kirk’s similar feats on his saxophones. Sampson’s delightfully playful selections acted as interludes between Duffy’s readings. ‘The Queen gave him to me’, she remarked after his opening salvo. ‘She didn’t want him any more’.

Carol Ann Duffy read poems from her three most recent collections, progressing through them in chronological order. Each was neatly bookended by Sampson’s musical interventions. The poems of The World’s Wife present the imaginary perspectives of the spouses of the ‘great men’ whose deeds and philosophies fill the pages of history and literature. These are female (and often feminist) recastings of familiar stories and myths, many drawing on or influenced by the knowing manipulation of old mythic material in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. By adopting the silent viewpoints of the unnoticed, unremarked and unwritten (and still unnamed) other halves, Duffy also gains an ironic and reflective distance from the subject in question and all that he stands for. Duffy is a poet who has always made efforts to reach out to a broad audience, dispelling the form’s image as an esoteric and elitist pursuit by engaging in many and various educational endeavours (in addition to the children’s books which she writes). She didn’t assume familiarity with the myths these poems invert and cast in a newly refracted light. She set the scene for each by giving us a brief précis of the relevant parts of the story, the key elements of the plot. These are in fact twice told tales in verse form, and thus benefit immensely from a dramatic reading. The poems all have a first person perspective, allowing Duffy to inhabit the roles in the old bardic fashion.

In Mrs Faust, the alchemist becomes a latterday embodiment of the relentless pursuit of wealth, status and power – a scholar become yuppy. It’s a story with a sting in the tail, Faust’s wife providing an arch punchline which allows him a last laugh, albeit a hollow one, as he is dragged through the expensively tiled floor. Darwin’s Wife is little but a set up and punchline, as Duffy admitted, but it’s a good one, and won a big laugh. Mrs Tiresias is based around the Greek myth of the man who accidentally came across Athena bathing in the woods, and was subsequently ‘cursed’ to live for seven years as a woman. It’s a complex reflection on the experience of being a woman in the world, perspectives folding in upon each other as a we hear the voice of a woman who observes a man she knows intimately discovering his new female form whilst retaining his male mindset. His loud complaints about his first period, and insistence on having ‘full-paid menstrual leave’, raised an uproariously affirmative roll of laughter from the women in the audience – a more diluted, chagrined one from the men. The ambiguous ending, with its lack of definite resolution, left everybody in suspense, and was greeted with a murmur of puzzlement rather than applause. It was as if they were all waiting for the story to be continued. The poem’s full title is in fact ‘from Mrs Tiresias’, suggesting that it is intended to be seen as a fragment. The ambiguity is that of the unanswered and unanswerable question. Mrs Midas is forced to assiduously avoid her husbands touch once his golden wish has been granted. She rebuffs his advances and keeps him at a distance, remaining ever warily vigilant in his presence. The story could be read as a metaphor for domestic abuse. Mrs Midas tries to avoid becoming a literal trophy wife, the gilded sculptural possession of a wealthy man, drained of spirit and identity.

Duffy’s next collection, Rapture, was much more concise in form, a concision extending to the (mostly) one word titles. If the poems of The World’s Wife carried a mythic charge and were filled with storytelling verve, those from Rapture try to convey a direct emotional expression of particular moments in the course of a deep and all-consuming love affair. After imagining the feelings of remote characters, this is the personal, heartstone stuff. Duffy read her selections in the chronological order in which they were published, this chronology charting the progression from initial intoxication through settled devotion to final disillusionment. The poem Text conveys both the intimacy and inadequacy of communicating real feeling via mobiles, whilst Row lends a lovers’ rift the subjective sense of universe shattering catastrophe. Tea evokes the simple contentment found in comforting domestic ritual, and Syntax summons up the classical language of love, the rounded diction of thees and thous seen as better suited to the sound of the heart’s desires.

The most recent collection, The Bees, is a more diverse selection, with no obvious unifying theme. Bees act as a central metaphor, and there is an underlying sense of political and ecological urgency. Politics becomes a soul-shrivelling curse word in one poem, although that wasn’t read out tonight (it would have been good to have heard spat out with the required bitterness and contempt). Shakespeare is an abiding presence, with allusions to his work scattered throughout, his poetic language providing the foundations on which to build. Duffy referred to him on several occasions, underlining what an inspiration he remains for her. ‘Mrs Schofield’s GCSE’ names the exam invigilator whose wandering gaze fell on one of Duffy’s poems included on the paper. With too much time to let alarmist thoughts propagate and grow in her idle mind, she came to the conclusion that it amounted to an incentive to knife crime. I’m guessing that the offending poem was Education for Leisure from Duffy’s debut 1985 collection Standing Female Nude. Shakespeare’s unassailable (particularly at GCSE level) authority is summoned, creating a fast cut edit of scenes involving blades or stabbings, all posed in the form of exam questions. It’s a spirited riposte which demands that poetry (even, and in particular, that read in schools) should be allowed to make humanity, in all its guises, its subject; even if that subject is not always pretty or easy to understand.

My window seat view for Carol Ann Duffy
Virgil’s Bees introduced the theme of the bee as a symbolic embodiment of a lost Arcadia, and of humanity’s disconnection from the natural world of which it’s a part. Cast in the form of a blessing, St Francis style, this fulfils Duffy’s oft-posited equation of poetry with prayer. She ended with the firmly stated admonition ‘guard them’, an amen as commandment. The Human Bee extended the metaphor to the human drones of the global marketplace, labouring from dawn to dusk until their lives are spent. She told us that this poem was inspired by stories of Chinese workers pollinating fruit trees by hand, the population of bees no longer being sufficient to accomplish this by natural means. The Counties was a nostalgic ‘list’ poem, whose antecedents, such as Edward Thomas’ Adlestrop and WH Auden’s Night Mail, Duffy acknowledged in her introduction. The poem was a response to the post office’s ‘rationalising’ intent to dispense with counties from the standardised address, making do with little more than a name, street and postcode. Her litany of Essex girls, Shropshire lads, Lancashire lasses and Bedfordshire aunts underlined the importance of place and the distinctive, associative character of locality to the national psyche. Like Night Mail, it has irresistible, incantatory rhythm which demands to be read out.

Two poems reflecting on the death of her mother were almost unbearably personal, but also distilled universal truths of great emotional power from painful experience. Water recalls her mother’s last word and turns its simple, thirsty request into a symbol of sacred maternity, making a connection with her own bearing of a glass of water to her daughter in the depths of the night. Premonitions reverses the arrow of time so that the final impression of a hollowed out stranger left by the decline into death is erased, life and vitality is returned, and a portrait of a loving, vivacious mother restored. During this final poem of the evening, which would have been difficult to follow on from, John Sampson introduced a discrete and restrained counterpoint on tenor recorder, words and music gently converging in the end. A poem about death might seem like a gloomy choice with which to end a performance, and indeed a festival. But it is really an affirmation of life, and of a mother’s love, and left us with a feeling of exhilaration. The diverse age range of the audience in the hall testified to the broad appeal of Duffy’s verse, and the direct connection with the heart that this poem makes, its communication of universal experience through resonant, powerful and particular images, symbols and metaphors makes it clear why she is so popular with so many.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Electronic and Experimental Music at Oxfam, Exeter

The Oxfam Music and Arts shop in Exeter recently received a huge donation of records from the University Music Department, who were moving to smaller premises (a sign of the times, alas). I immediately set to trawling through and soon dug out some real treasures of electronic and avant-garde music. The collection would seem to have been put together during the 70s, at the high point of musical modernism and experiment. The thick and undisturbed patina of dust which covered the plastic sleeves protecting these LPs spoke eloquently of the extent to which this exploratory spirit has faded; or at least found other, more fertile ground beyond the academy. We shall be putting these records out in the shop this weekend, and there’ll be some striking covers on display, from the reflective silver sheen of the Philips 21eme Siecle series (no sign of the Electronic Panorama box set, unfortunately) to some eye-dazzling op-art patterns and psychedelically oversaturated colours. This actually says quite a lot about the way that this music reached beyond a classical or academic audience and connected with listeners who had explored the wilder shores of rock, whether in the form of the Grateful Dead, Zappa, the Soft Machine, Can or The Beatles (after all, Stockhausen was one of the faces peering out of the Sergeant Pepper sleeve – Paul’s choice, of course). It also shows how these records were marketed with such an audience in mind. It’s interesting to discover that the sleeve notes to one of the John Cage records we’ve got, Variations IV (released in 1965), has sleeve notes by Joseph Byrd. He would go on to form The United States of America, a group which pioneered the blending of electronic and concrète sounds into a rock context. Little appreciated at the time, they were later to be a huge influence on bands like Broadcast and Stereolab. Indeed, this kind of music is still most highly valued by those operating on the margins, blending popular and experimental forms. A wide selection of electronic music from the 60s and 70s (including Pierre Henry’s Cortical Art III, which we’ll come to later) has been released on the Creel Pone reissue label (which may or may not be curated by the modern electronic musician Keith Fullerton Whitman) with these kinds of listeners in mind.

Modern electronic music could really be said to have started in Paris in the Studio d’Essai (the experimental studio) of the ORTF, the Office of National Radio-Television. It was here, that Pierre Schaeffer, a studio engineer, began to experiment with making music from discrete blocks of recorded sound, which were contrasted with each other and manipulated in various ways to create what he thought of as ‘a symphony of noises’. He called this new music of sounds musique concrete, and set about creating a theoretical system which would codify its various elements. The first piece he created in this style was the Etudes des Bruits (Study in Sounds), produced in 1948. It consisted of five sections, each centring on its own signature recorded elements. The best known of these is Etude des Chemins de Fer (Railway Study), which blends the noises of steam engine whistles, screeching brakes, carriage doors slamming, wheels clattering over rails and other train sounds recorded at the nearby Batignolles Station or dug out of the radio library. This hugely significant piece was made using records cut on the studio’s own lathes. Locked grooves served to create repeating cycles over which further sounds could be layered. A year later Schaeffer composed Symphonie Pour Un Homme Seul (Symphony For A Man Alone, or A Lonely Man?) with his new assistant and musical collaborator Pierre Henry. Henry brought an imaginative musical mind to their work together, Schaeffer always being more of the analytical engineering type. This symphony of sounds was the first piece of musique concrète to be performed in a concert hall when it was unveiled (or unspooled) on 18th March 1950. In some ways a landmark to place alongside the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, although electronic musicians would later try to find more appropriate and stimulating environments than the traditional concert venues in which to air their work.

Pierre Schaeffer in the studio
By now, the two Pierre’s were using the newly developed recording medium of magnetic tape, which offered greatly expanded possibilities for editing and sound manipulation, and was considerably more easy to work with than the records used for Etudes des Bruits. Presumably, these were also transferred to tape for subsequent performances and recordings. Tape became the defining medium for creating concrete music, its splicing, joining and looping giving the process a physical, craftsmanlike aspect, involving much peering and fiddly work at close quarters. Schaeffer attracted a group of followers, young composers who were excited by the creative potential of this new musical form and the expanded soundworld it brought with it. At first known as the Club D’Essai, after the studio they met and worked in, they morphed into the more soberly titled Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète in 1952, which was soon streamlined into Groupe de Recherche Musicales (GRM). It was a change in name which suggested an analytical, scientific approach rather than the enthusiastic amateurism suggested by a ‘club’ – the classic image of the lab coated musical technician wrestling with crackling capacitors, twisting serpents of tape and oversized recording reels. Actually, a good deal of fine and innovative electronic music would be made by amateur enthusiasts over the years. They had less concern for theoretical compositional rigour and more for the bewitching quality of the sounds made on the equipment they cobbled up at home. But at this stage, most of the electronic music ‘laboratories’ were funded by state radio, universities or technological companies such as Philips (who set up a studio in Eindhoven in Holland) or Sony (whose studio was located in Tokyo).

With funding from the RTF, Schaeffer and his cohorts set up the first studio expressly designed to produce electronic music and further develop the technologies which made it possible. The GRM was officially incorporated into the RTF in 1958, coincidentally the same year that the BBC established its own electronic music and effects studio, the Radiophonic Workshop. The studio heads there, in naming it thus, evidently felt there was a certain artisanal quality inherent in the production of electronic music, although it took them a while to fully realise that the art which was also there. BBC producer Donald McWhinnie had visited the GRM studio in 1956, and his enthusiasm for its work, particularly as it related to radio drama effects. This enthusiasm was conveyed in a report written by several hands (including Daphne Oram) later that year which looked at the viability of establishing a similar set up in London.

We have a musique concrète LP released on the Vox label in 1969 which gathers together a selection of music recorded at GRM, mostly during the 60s. It begins, naturally enough, with a piece by Schaeffer himself. His oeuvre is actually quite sparse, since he devoted more time to putting together a theoretical framework for his initial discoveries than he did to composition. Objets Liés (bound objects) is the second part of his 1959 suite Etude Aux Objets, an he recorded a new version of it for this LP. François-Bernard Mâche’s Terre de Feu (1963) constrasts glacial creaking, icy tinkling and watery trickles to create a primal, frozen soundscape which seems at odds with the title (fiery ground). Michel Philippot’s Etude III (1962) juxtaposes stacatto pinging sounds with clock chimes twisted and warped out of shape – the sound of a grandfather clock going cuckoo. François Bayle’s L’Oiseau Chanteur is the third part of his Portraits de L’Oiseau-Qui-N’Existe-Pas (portraits of the bird which doesn’t exist) from 1963. Oboe, horn and clavichord are seamlessly blended with electronic sounds which often approach the condition of birdsong. Electronic music is particularly good at imitating the complex sonorities of birdsong. The songs of certain birds, in turn (I’m thinking of the bird of paradise in particular here), sound as if they are being produced by electronic rather than natural means. There is humour in Bayle’s music, too, with the occasional goofy chuckle bubbling through like an anthropomorphised woodpecker. The sprightly clavichord and rapid melodic and harmonic leaps and turns, combined with this humour, give it something of a Zappaesque flavour at times. Luc Ferrari’s Tête et Queue du Dragon (head and tail of a dragon) mixes hissing, dry rattling and wet slithering sounds with heat-hazed drones to create a sinister portrait of the beast in question. It’s a monster movie for the ears. Serbian-born Ivo Malec’s Dahovi (which means breathing in Serbo-Croat) from 1961 is dark and ominous, with low rumbling tones and distorted vocal sounds suggesting sinister goings on in some dank, torchlit crypt. Bernard Parmegiani’s Danse (1962) sprinkles tinkling showers of glassy sound droplets over a white noise waterfall before conjuring a swarm of tropical bird and insect sounds. It then quietens into more pointillistic dots of discrete sound before launching into a scurrying frenzy reminiscent of Ligeti’s manic harpsichord exercise in perpetual motion Continuum.

Pierre Henry went his own way, leaving the confines of the GRM in 1958. He wearied of Schaeffer’s doctrinaire approach, and wanted to explore his own musical directions, whether they be concrète or electronic. He was also keen to reach out to audiences, and to collaborate with like-minded artists in other fields. One such was the dancer and choreographer Maurice Béjart, whom he met at the RTF studios in 1955. Henry created many electronic ballet scores for him over the years, some of which are collected on the LP Mass For the Present Time. The best known of the pieces here is the titular suite, which comprises the electronic components of a ‘ceremony in nine episodes to the memory of Patrick Belda’, a dancer in Béjart’s troupe who had died in a car crash. A more full title of this suite, which acknowledged that it was only a part of the whole, was included on the original French release: Les Jerks Électronique de la Messe Pour le Temps Présent. Michel Colombier arranged a driving garage rock backing, ornamented with the odd woodwind flourish or emphatic tubular bell clangour, and Henry sprayed colourful splurges of electronic sound over the top. If Pysché Rock sounds familiar, it’s because it was loosely adapted to form the theme music for Futurama (Matt Groening being a huge enthusiast for esoteric music). This was certainly a long way from the academy or Schaeffer’s austere lab. It moves electronic music towards the realm of popular music, where it would find a welcoming and fertile home. Henry would collaborate on another electronic ‘mass’ in 1969, this time with the rock group Spooky Tooth. Other pieces on the album conform more to type. The extract from The Voyage comes from a longer piece which evokes the afterlife journey towards rebirth as depicted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It’s a subject matter which it shares with an even longer electronic work by a French composer, Eliane Radigue’s superb Trilogie de la Mort. The sounds are built up from feedback, and are appropriately dark and ominous, conjuring up an unsettling, spectral interzone. The Green Queen was another ‘spectacle’ thought up with Béjart, with death and transfiguration a central theme once more (the psychedelic cover begins to make more sense in this context). The rock instrumentation was absent this time, however, the music being a purer distillation of Henry’s concrete and electronic sounds. Variations for a Door and a Sigh (1963) is essentially just that. A concrete piece which uses a sigh and the creaking of a door recorded in a granary as its source material. Henry is using sounds which are almost not there, creating a piece on the threshold of audibility. As such, it seems to open a door into some other place. It was given its premier in the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre in Paris on 27th June 1963, the setting adding to the sense of tuning into the beyond.

Cortical Art III couldn’t be more different. It was recorded in public during the inaugural concert of the 8th International Congress of Electro-Encephalography and Clinical Neuropsychology at Marseille on 5th September 1973. A tough crowd, very analytical. Henry collaborated here with Roger Lafosse, who had devised a machine which translated brain activity into electrical impulses, which Henry could then transpose into electronic sound. This was live electronics, then, in effect a duet between brain and musical interpreter and mixer. The result is ferocious, a squall of electronic sound which makes no concessions to the professional crowd, unleashing a veritable brainstorm. It’s exciting stuff, particularly given its in the moment creation. You can imagine Henry wrestling with those encephalographic waves etching their patterns across his oscilloscope, trying to mould them into some coherent form. If this is the sound of a mind, then it would seem to be a rather turbulent and troubled one. Marvellously, the assembled neuropsychologists break into polite applause when the electronic storm finally subsides.

Other national radio stations followed the RTF’s example in setting up electronic music studios. The Westdeutscher Rundfunk (West German Broadcasting, or WDR) established theirs in 1951 in Cologne under the directorship of Herbert Eimert. The Cologne studio adopted a very different approach to the RTF, placing emphasis on sounds generated through electronic means rather than on recorded sounds. Under Eimert’s watchful eye, these were to be organised along the lines of the total serialist music then considered the way forward for the Western classical tradition. This involved the arrangement of all musical elements (pitch, timbre, duration, rhythm etc) according to rigorously worked out formulae, creating an intensely ordered music. A new kind of distanced classicism, in effect, taking the reaction to the lush late Romanticism of the early 20th century to its ultimate conclusion. There was a fair amount of hostility between the French and German studios, or at least between some of their more doctrinaire inhabitants. Schaeffer and Eimert were certainly very fierce and a little dictatorial in promoting their particular manifestos for the new technologies and the way they felt they should be used. The belief in artistic freedom and the possibility that a multiplicity of approaches was permissible and even desirable seemed ideas which were alien to them. With time and the spread of electronic music beyond these national fiefdoms, such divisions became irrelevant and seemed a little foolish in retrospect.

The best known composer to have worked at the Cologne studios was Karlheinz Stockhausen, although his first electronic Etude was created at GRM in 1952. Stockhausen ended up taking over the directorship of the WDR studio from Eimert in 1963, and held the post up until 1977, at which point he devoted all his energies to his monumental Licht cycle of music theatre pieces. We have several of the electronic pieces which he made at the Cologne studios during the 60s. Stockhausen definitely began in the serialist camp, and was always keen to point out the theoretical structure of his music – offputtingly to listeners who subsequently felt they lacked the expertise to hear the work ‘properly’. He soon moved beyond serialist strictures into more freely expressive territories, however, whilst never losing the musicological verbosity. Kontakte (1958-60) was an electronic piece which could stand on its own or be combined with a part for piano and percussion. We have the Vox release from 1969, with its use of that signature material of the period, Perspex, on the cover. The contacts of the title refer to the points at which the tape and the musicians collide or graze against each other, the sounds contrasting or converging. Sometimes the electronics seem to be a reverberant shadow of the instruments, and sometimes the instrumental performers seem to be reacting to or recoiling from the electronic sounds. These are two worlds which come into close proximity and occasionally make contact, but remain fundamentally divergent. At the centre of the tape piece is a long descending note which slows down in frequency whilst maintaining a steady pitch, stretching out to reveal its constituent beat cycles. The effect is rather like watching a slow lightning flash descent until it is finally grounded. Stockhausen used his electronic sounds to create a sense of space, and of movement within that space, building an artificial environment which the listener could inhabit and explore. To help mould this sense of sonic topography, he recorded the sounds he produced on four microphones place at cardinal points around a rotating table on top of which the speaker was placed. In live performances, he could mix the sounds around a hall which has speakers placed in all four corners, sending them spinning around the audience’s heads. I saw him doing just that in 2005 at the old Billingsgate Fish Market in London. After his customary technical introduction to the musicological mechanics of the piece, he advised us to close our eyes, hold on to a sound and follow it around. ‘Enjoy your trip’, he said with an informality, bolstered by the comfy orange cardy he wore, which belied his reputation for forbidding intellectualism.

Mixtur (1964-7) followed on from Kontakte’s combination of electronic and instrumental forces, this time transforming the sounds of sections of an orchestra with the use of sine wave generators and ring modulators. Ring modulators were used again in Mantra (1970), a piece for two pianists who each had one of the devices to hand to splinter the notes they were playing on the keyboard. The ring modulator essentially splits a tone apart into its upper and lower frequencies, eliminating the mid-ranges. It creates a jagged, harshly metallic sound (Stockhausen would use it with metallic percussion in his Microphonie I). This was put to perfect use by Dick Mills and Brian Hodgson at the Radiophonic Workshop, who distorted the human voice to produce the monotone, mechanical shouting of the Daleks in Doctor Who. Mantra was based on a 13 note ‘formula’, reiterated across 13 sections, with each note the centre of its own particular part. The ring modulators emphasised those focal notes, surrounding them with their own wavering aura.

Telemusik (1966) is on the same Deutsche Grammophon LP as Mixtur. It’s worth pointing out that Stockhausen bought up his entire back catalogue of Deutsche Grammaphon recordings, which he proceeded to release on his mail-order only Stockhausen Verlag label. This gave him complete control of his work, from the cover design and sleevenotes to the mix. The old LPs are thus the only way to hear these works as they were originally recorded and mixed. Telemusik takes the form of short wave radio signals, tuning into the world and catching half-heard echoes of its global musics. These range from the ancient Japanese Gagaku court music (the piece was written while Stockhausen was staying in Osaka), to gamelan and Saharan singing. Stockhausen paid attention to his dreams, and this was his first attempt to realise his dream vision of a ‘music of the whole world’ which united all cultures and dissolved national boundaries. The swooping, fluttering and spiralling high-pitched tones which sound like short wave signals are generated electronically here. Stockhausen clearly liked their timbre and dreamlike drift, however, and would go on to use short wave radio tuning in his 1968 pieces Kurzwellen and Spiral.

Telemusik’s implied panglobalism reached its apogee in Hymnen (1967), a vast work which, at almost 2 hours in length, demonstrated that electronic music could be used for longform compositions as well as for shorter studies and instrumental contrast. It also definitively broke down the divide between electronic and concrete sounds, freely using both without any resultant explosion. Hymnen unfolds gradually across four ‘regions’, giving the feel of a journey across a mapped out space, one both geographical and interior. The concrète element comes principally in the form of vaguely perceived national anthems, which are subject to tape transformations and absorption by electronic sound (including more shortwave drift). Stockhausen himself presides over the seamless sonic voyage around the world, acting as some kind of cosmic croupier. He blandly but authoritatively announces various colours, as if to cue a shift in the predominant palette of our imaginative backdrop. A brief section in which the tape is sped up to a cartoon canter has a (presumably unintentionally) comic feel, and again brings to mind the Zappa of Lumpy Gravy. The final region in this landmark piece is a noplace, the invented utopian state of Hymnunion in Harmondie under Pluramon, which has its own imagination anthem. Stockhausen seemed to be pointing to the potential for this new music to affect a transformation of the world, or at least a change in the consciousness of those who experienced it. Unfortunately, like so many utopian dreamers, he ended up disappearing into his own ideal worlds, replacing the real and tangible with ever more elaborate self-created or semi-appropriated mythologies. These became largely impenetrable and were frequently foolish, but by now no one could criticise Stockhausen, who believed utterly in his own unassailable genius. He became his own self-igniting star – bright Sirius, burning a very long way from Earth and its mundane human concerns.

The other major European electronic music studio was the Studio di Fonologia in Milan, attached to the Italian National Radio station (Radio Audizioni Italiane, or RAI). Italian composers Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono were central figures here. Nono was a committed Communist, and often contrasted electronic elements with sung texts through which he could voice his political views. La Fabbrica Illuminata (1964) has a chorus and a soloist singing or speaking over a musique concrete tape which uses recorded factory noises as its source material (much as Edgard Varèse had done in the electronic interludes of his 1954 piece Déserts). Y Entonces Comprendio (and then he understood) from 1969-70 sets six female voices and a chorus against a tape part, and its revolutionary intent is made clear by its dedication to Che Guevara. Como Una Ola de Feurza y Luz (like a wave of strength and light) from 1971-2 is on the same Deutsche Grammaphon LP as the previous piece. It contrasts soprano and piano with their distorted mirror images, wrenched into strange shapes through tape manipulation. These electronic sections are interspersed with stormy orchestral passages, again in a fashion similar to Edgard Varèse’s Déserts.

Luciano Berio didn’t share Nono’s abiding political commitment, but he was no less radical in using electronic musical materials and extended technique to crack apart the old received notions of what instruments and ensembles should sound like, and what they should do. The principle instrument he was interested in was the most flexible and wide-ranging of them all – the human voice. He was married to the soprano Cathy Berberian between 1950 and 1964, and she was a great inspiration for him. She interpreted the dramatic and expressionistic vocal works he wrote for her (both during and after the marriage) with fearless dedication. Many of these used elements of electronic manipulation to stretch the vocal sounds even further, imbuing them with spectral and special qualities which wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. They often create the impression of travelling inwards, into some interior, psychological state. The alteration of the human voice always has an initially disorienting and potent effect, making the intimate and the familiar alien and strange. The 21 minute tour de force Visage (1961) puts Berberian’s voice through any number of variations, but her remarkable performance remains central, as it does in the shorter Sequenza III for Woman’s Voice (1965). I’ve written more about these pieces before, in the context of Peter Strickland’s film Berberian Sound Studio, whose backdrop draws on the Studio di Fonologia set up. We have Visage on tow LPs: one on CBS coupled with the more conventional (and thus more frequently performed) orchestral work Sinfonia; the other a Turnabout LP of electronic music which also includes the electronic elements from John Cage’s chance piece Fontana Mix (1958), recorded at the Studio di Fonologia; and Turkish-born Ilhan Mimaroglu’s 1965 piece Agony. This was recorded at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre, the major locale for electronic music production in the US at the time. It had been established in 1958, emerging from the Columbia Tape Music Centre set up at Columbia University in New York in 1951. Mimaroglu’s piece used electronic means to create a sound analogue for the fiery reds, blazing yellows and burnt browns of the Armenian painter Arshile Gorky’s violently expressionist 1947 work Agony, which is owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Berio also wrote pieces which combined and contrasted instrumental, orchestral and electronic elements. In Différences (1958), a motley chamber group consisting of flute, harp, viola and cello play over a tape which manipulates the sounds they make and throws them back at them. Laborintus II (1965) is a work of musical synthesis composed for the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth which incorporates electronic sounds alongside jazz, operatic, choral and spoken word elements, all coming together to form a theatrical whole. The recording is inevitably a poor substitute for a staged performance, but is a never less than interesting melange, anyway.

The Greek composer Iannis Xenakis wrote, or constructed, a good deal of electronic music, and was also an early user of computer technology for musical ends. He set this technology to calculating the parameters of his ‘stochastic’ pieces. The word stochastic refers to a pattern or group whose behaviour or movement is calculable within certain limits of probability, but is never precisely predictable. It all sounds dryly mathematical, a matter of plotting points on graphs and working through calculus with little thought of musical form, an impression deepened by the use of formulaic titles: ST (for stochastic) followed by numbers which indicate instrumental forces, the number of times these forces have been used, and sometimes even the date of composition. Hence ST-10-1,080262, which we have on an EMI disc, coupled with Polla Ta Dhina. Or, rather more concisely, ST.4, coupled with Atrées. These pieces actually have a very organic feel, which is not at all difficult to absorb and comprehend. The talk of rigorous mathematical order which Xenakis’ music tended to trail in the 60s and 70s was rather offputting, but the music needn’t be heard as a cerebral exercise. Its impact is visceral and instinctively felt, and cumulatively very powerful. The stochastic processes create a sense of semi-chaotic motion with a deeper order evident below the turbulent surface. These are the shifting patterns of swarming or flowing, flocking or flickering found in the natural world and in the play of the elements. The long, gliding notes and clusters (glissandi) which are characteristic of Xenakis add to this organic impression. Xenakis himself expressed the primacy of the aesthetic aspects of his music over their technical methodologies in an interview which he gave to Brian Morton for the Wire magazine in 1988. ‘If I see a beautiful sunset’, he said, ‘I might afterwards go on to ask and explore why it has happened – planetary movement, orbit, the diffraction of light – but to begin with I simply say, how beautiful’.

Xenakis composed a number of electronic works at Pierre Schaeffer’s GRM studios, which he first visited in 1954. Four of these are included on the Erato Xenakis box set we have. Diamorphoses (1957) uses clashing and cranking industrial sounds given a cavernous reverberation and set at a spatial remove. It sounds like some immense subterranean factory, or the hub of a busy lunar space port, all viewed from a safe distance. The slowly rising background noise is like a launch being prepared, whilst the quicksilver ascending and descending glissandi trace arcing flight paths in and out. Messiaen, who had taught and encouraged Xenakis, commented on Diamorphoses in terms which once more voice the idea that the music transcended any formulaic mathematical bases it might employ: ‘The preliminary calculations of these huge spider-webs are transformed into a musical delight of the utmost poetical nature’.

The Philips Pavilion, Brussels Expo 58
Concret PH was produced for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels Expo of 1958. Xenakis was a trained architect and worked for the arch-modernist Le Corbusier. He worked on the preliminary plans for the Pavilion with him, at which point Le Corbusier left to supervise another project in India, leaving Xenakis in charge of the actual construction. There is little doubt that the building was a collaborative effort, but Xenakis didn’t receive the acknowledgment which was his due. This contributed to his decision to leave Le Corbusier’s employment and concentrate on his music. The PH in the title refers to the hyperbolic parabaloid, the mathematical shape which gave the pavilion its remarkable form. The sweeping curves rising to twin peaks are like Xenakis’ gliding glissandi given concrete form. Xenakis’ piece was placed between repeat playbacks of Edgard Varèse’s Poème Electronique, the sound distributed across 325 speakers arrayed around the interior of the pavilion, a further 25 setting the floor rumbling with low bass frequencies. Xenakis built his piece up from cut up recordings of burning charcoal – tiny flickering sparks of sound. These are gradually built up until we get the impression of a glinting crystalline mass, expanding and shearing off shattering shards. It must have been quite something to have been immersed in this ever-growing cloud of thousands of tiny sounds whilst gazing around the interior curvature of a hyperbolic parabaloid.

Orient-Occident (1960) begins with sonorous bell tones which give way to a blasted ground of harsh feedback screeches, sounding like bowed metal percussion. Later, there are more wooden percussion sounds, discrete and spaced apart, as in Japanese Noh theatre accompaniments – the Orient of the title perhaps. A tropical jungle chorus emerges, as it did in Bernard Parmegiani’s Danse, Xenakis creating an abundant and noisome natural soundscape. Bohor (1962) was dedicated to Pierre Schaeffer, an acknowledgment of how much his time at the GRM studios had meant to Xenakis. Unfortunately, Schaeffer was none too keen on the results, and was never one to hold back from voicing his opinion, so the gift was effectively rejected. The piece opens with echoing percussive pattering on what sounds like saucepan lids. A ratcheting, descending slash of sound cuts through at regular intervals, sounding like a stick being run along the loose, reverberant railings of a metal fence, or the strings inside a piano. These elements grow more dense, creating another expanding sound mass. The semi-random, stochastic order gives the impression of drops of water falling onto the surface of a pool in a large subterranean cave, with something larger occasionally plunging in, skimming across or leaping out. It’s a little like Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening Band’s field recording of their percussive interaction with cave water run-off on the record Troglodyte’s Delight, only more loud and intense.

Perhaps the pinnacle of Xenakis’ electronic music, and certainly its most epic and lengthy expression at just under an hour in duration, is the 1971 piece Persepolis. This was commissioned by the Shah of Iran and was first played in the ruins of the Palace of King Darius I at Persepolis, the heart of the old Persian Empire in the pre-Christian era. The audience invited to the performance on August 26th 1971 wandered through the columns, doorways and along the paths of the old corridors, moving between one of six listening zones, each with eight loudspeakers distributing the eight channels on which the piece was recorded. The music itself is massive - ritualistic, dense and overwhelming. You simply have to allow yourself to be engulfed in its roiling maelstrom of sound. A high-pitched field of sparkling sound is constant throughout, an unobtrusive and unchanging continuum above the everchanging forces below. It seems to represent the stars glinting above the ruins on the Persian Plain, which are open to the night skies. If the shifting surface of the music embodies the forces of geological and historical time, this glittering patina points to a more eternal plane, or at least one which exists on a more cosmological timescale. The climax feels like the Earth tearing itself apart, Xenakis’ glissandi like thick gobbets of magma thrown into the sky before plunging back to score the ground. It’s immense, stunning, the precursor to all subsequent noise music. The performance also incorporated the choreographed use of light: lasers, arc-lights, moving stage lights, bonfires, flaming torches and pin-point spotlights played across the mountain rising in the background. It must have been an extraordinary spectacle.

Xenakis wrote a number of pieces which incorporated light effects of one kind or another into the performance, their placement and movement designed to be synchronised with the music. Polytope de Montreal for example, composed in 1967, was written for four recorded orchestras and ‘electronic flashes’. Xenakis was concerned with presenting music as a spectacle rather than just something to sit and respectfully listen to in a concert hall. He wanted the audience to feel like they were participating in the performance. This extended to the spatial as well as the visual elements. Electronic music could be distributed around space through multiple speakers, but Xenakis tried to do something similar with instrumental and orchestral pieces as well. Thus, in Persephassa (a variation on the name Persephone) from 1969, also first performed in Persepolis, the six percussionists who perform the piece stand in a ring around the audience, surrounding them with multi-directional sound. In the orchestral piece Terretektorh (1966), the members of the orchestra leave the stage and position themselves at various points around the hall. These spatial reorganisations, along with the light effects, produced what Xenakis called ‘space-sound kinematics’.

Xenakis’ life before becoming a composer was quite remarkable. He fought for the Greek resistance against Nazi occupation during the Second World War. After the Nazis had been driven out, he then joined a resistance cell which opposed British and American efforts to stave off a Communist takeover and impose an authoritarian rule which would better serve their interests. It was a fragment of a British shell which tore through one side of Xenakis’ face towards the end of 1944, very nearly killing him, destroying an eye and leaving him permanently scarred. He recovered, and persisted in his active opposition to the new regime. He was finally forced to flee the country a few years later, a death penalty hanging over his head. The political instability in Greece culminated in the military coup which installed the fascist rule of the ‘colonels’ in 1967. When their hubris led to their downfall in 1974, Xenakis’ death sentence was finally lifted. So many of the pieces discussed here were composed over a period during which, had he returned to his native country, he would have been executed. This was not something he talked about, however. Nor was there any overt political content in his music, as there was with Nono (although Nuits was dedicated to political prisoners). These startling facts only became public knowledge in 1980, when Nouritza Matossian published her biography of Xenakis, for which he gave her an honest and revealing interview.

The Swedish composer Bengt Hambraeus also composed pieces which amassed great blocks of sound. This was fairly easily achieved on his favoured instrument, the organ. Interferences (1961-2) shows the influence of Messiaen’s organ pieces. It’s incredibly loud in parts (quite regular parts at that), with some foundation-shaking bass chords and flashing clusters in the upper regions. But Hambraeus also creates unusual sonorities which approximate to the sounds more usually associated with electronic music. Gyorgy Ligeti does something similar with his extraordinary organ piece Volumina, which we have on Candide and Wergo Heliodor LPs. This gives credence to the oft-made observation that the organ is the synthesiser of the pre-electronic age, driven by complex mechanics and controlled air pressure rather than variable currents and circuitry. Hambraeus was the first Swedish composer to explore the possibilities of electronic music. He studied at the Darmstadt summer school from 1951-5 before working at the WDR electronic music studios in 1955. It was here that he completed his electronic piece Doppelruhr II, which used organ sounds as a source material.

Constellations II was put together at the Studio di Fonologia in Milan in 1959, and organ sounds were once more the base material. It took the elements of a previous piece for organ called Constellations and subjected them to electronic transformations. He would go on to write two further Constellations pieces. Constellations III overlaid more organ parts above the tape of part II, and IV combined that tape with percussion. The electronic transformation of the organ sounds turns them into something alternately glinting, crystalline, unearthly and impossibly massive. It also allowed Hambraeus to realise ‘an old dream of mine of a fantastic space organ beyond all limitations’. The organ sounds and their altered shapes and warped, expressionist shadows could be projected throughout a particular space, with no evident point of origin. In his manipulation of the higher fluting and shimmering sounds of the organ, Hambraeus also came to realise that he was unconsciously recreating the sounds of nature which he artistic mentor Olivier Messiaen had more consciously incorporated into so much of his music. Once more, electronic sounds approximated the condition of birdsong. Hambraeus talked of ‘the inexpressibly gripping choir of birds on an early spring morning. That rapturous constellation of untamed natural force, space (the cosmos, the universe, the heavens) and an all-encompassing playfulness. It’s this cosmic tonal experience, then, that became (at least for me personally) the unforeseen result’.

More organ sounds, of the directly electronic variety this time, come in the form of Terry Riley’s Persian Surgery Dervishes. This is a glimpse into one of his all-night flights, lengthy improvisations on the organ which use loops and tape delay effects to allow him to play over fading shadows of previous phrases or set up grounds over which he can continue to play. It’s a further example of the incorporation of electronic effects into live performance which we previously encountered through Stockhausen’s Mixtur and Mantra. Riley’s music for Joel Santoni’s 1972 film Les Yeux Fermés is a more studio bound affair, using multi-tracking to build up polyphonic layers of improvisation. This allows for a greater range of sound textures, with different keyboards used for each new layer. It closely resembles his 1969 LP A Rainbow in Curved Air in that one side comprises of keyboard improvisations, whilst the second has him playing on a delay-echoed saxophone, unwinding Indian-inflected lines over his own ‘phantom band’.

The Italian Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza also improvised using electronic instruments on Credo, the final track of their 1968 Deutsche Grammaphon LP Improvisationen. The group were founded in Rome in 1964 by Franco Evangelisti, inspired by the example of the New Music Ensemble in California, who created improvised pieces with no prior preconceptions or structures. All the players were composers, and they aimed for a certain compositional form to emerge from their improvisations, based on a knowledge of each other’s styles and musical temperaments. No one player was supposed to overshadow any other, the ensemble partaking of a wider ideal of egalitarian democracy. Jazz and Indian influences were evident, the former in the trumpet playing of Ennio Morricone, here enjoying a freeform experimental breather from his prolific film scoring. For the electronic track, portable instrumentation was used, including self-built models in the Hugh Davies mould such as the ‘phonisint’ and the ‘sintek’. This atypical electronic piece (they generally stuck to conventional instruments, unconventionally played) was recorded at the Laboratorio Ellettronico di Musica Sperimentale in Rome, a place which sounds like it was tremendously exciting. Incidentally, ignore that man reflected in the laminated cover.

John Cage was also employing elements of chance in the 60s, partly drawing on his interest in Zen Buddhism. His Music of the Changes (1951) used the coin-tossing divination method employed by some to read the I-Ching, the ancient Chinese book of cryptic wisdom. In line with the book, this was a way for composer and performer to find release from conscious choice and create a pattern of sound which is entirely of the moment, and thus somehow connected to the universe as it is unfolding in that moment. The Variations pieces meanwhile used graphic scores drawn on transparencies which are laid on top of each other in a randomly chosen fashion to create variable patterns, which are then interpreted by the performer on whichever instrument they choose. In the recording of Variations IV (1964), this is Cage’s regular collaborator David Tudor, playing the piano. According to Michael Nyman in his book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, this process of semi-random selection extended to the performance space as well. Lines were drawn out from a plan of the hall, and the sounds created from beyond the usual orchestral stage.

Composers didn’t always turn to electronics to find new sonorities and crack open the old systems of equal temperament and harmonic transposition. Harry Partch abandoned tempered scales as far back as 1923, and began to build up new scales which allowed for greater variation within the octave. He eventually came up with a 43 tone scale, and began building his own instruments in order to play it. Sometimes, these used the new sounds produced by new synthetic materials, such as the strengthened glass of pyrex from which he fashioned his cloud bowls. These instruments were musical sculptures of great beauty, and took their place on the stage in the musical theatre pieces which he created as a synthesis of visual art, music, drama and the spoken word. On the short pieces included on the New World LP he shares with John Cage you can hear such unique instruments as; adapted guitar, diamond and bass marimbas, adapted viola, gourd tree, new harmonic canon, quadrangularis reversum, eucal blossom (a large marimba), ektara, boo II, cloud chamber bowls and chromelodeon. The latter is an organ which Partch retuned to his own scale, rather as Terry Riley retuned his electronic organs to just intonation. Both rejected the rigid order of the equal temperament in order to pursue more natural harmonies.

Finally, Basil Kirchin’s Worlds Within Worlds is a truly individual work by a maverick composer who worked outside the protective walls of any supportive institutions. He produced library music and wrote film scores, including The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971), for which he provided the mannered jazz of Vincent Price’s tragic doctor’s mechanical dance band. The two Worlds Within Worlds records (of which we have the second, released in 1974) were intensely personal projects. The first mixed free improvisation from Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, Derek Bailey and others with Kirchin’s musique concrète, with the second concentrating on the latter element (Bailey makes a brief contribution), thus arguably making it a more pure distillation of his work. The second volume of Worlds Within Worlds takes us from ‘Emergence’ and through ‘Evolution’, the first having begun with ‘Integration (non-racial)’ before branching out into ‘The Human Element’. There’s definitely some sort of progression going on here. For Worlds Within Worlds parts three and four, Kirchin blended solo and chamber drone passages using low instruments (flugel horn, alphorn, woodwind, arco bass and organ) with concrete sounds drawn from the natural, human and industrial worlds. He recorded animals at London zoo, including a gorilla and some flamingos, and the spirited play of the autistic children his wife Esther was teaching at a school in Switzerland. These unfolded into further contrasting sounds such as jet engines passing overhead and the industrial clamour of the docks at Hull (the whole record was recorded and mixed at a studio in Hull) – worlds opening into other worlds. Few paid much attention to these records at the time of their release, although Brian Eno, ever the attentive listener, wrote a sleevenote endorsement on the second volume. ‘Within the first couple of minutes’, he wrote, ‘it became obvious to me that Basil had not only discovered a whole new area of sound, but had exploited it with extreme skill and sensitivity, producing beautiful and evocative music as well’. It no doubt had a great influence on Eno’s subsequent development of the idea of ambient music, particularly on the On Land record. It was also influential on future experimental musicians, and was a big favourite of Broadcast. Jonny Trunk championed Kirchin, re-releasing many of his recording on Trunk Records (although not, thus far, Worlds Within Worlds) and allowing him to realise new ideas before he passed away in 2005.

Finally, I include this record, split between British composers David Bedford and Thea Musgrave, largely because of its great cover, whose images are very much reminiscent of Julian House’s work for the Ghost Box label. Bedford was another modern composer who, like Pierre Henry, was happy to make connections with the world of pop and rock music. He worked with Mike Oldfield and other Virgin Records stalwarts on several records which blended modernist orchestration with rock instrumentation, and he also provided arrangements for some of Roy Harper’s 70s LPs (including his epic song suite Stormcock). Never a dryly academic or analytical in musical outlook, he gave his work colourfully poetic titles, such as the Blakean Albion Moonlight here, and on another record we have, the very proggy Tentacles of the Dark Nebula. Elisabeth Lutyens was a major, if rather neglected, British composer of the 20th century, although I know her best for her film scores. Surprisingly for a composer known for her modernist music, she produced scores for Amicus horror films like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and The Skull, and Hammer psycho thrillers like Paranoiac and Never Take Sweets from Strangers, as well as frankly b-grade fare such as the entertaining The Earth Dies Screaming and the slightly grubby Circus of Death. You wouldn’t catch Pierre Boulez doing that.