Thursday, 1 July 2010


Sine waves are ‘pure’ pitches (the sound of a single frequency, with no harmonics), which are not subject to the imperfections of an instrumentalist trying to sustain a note. The title above is a fairly crass pun: I’m interested, with regards to this particular ‘project’, in exploring sine-tones, or sine-like tones, generated from a laptop, and this might be said to comprise some sort of ‘language’, or effort at ‘communication’. On the other hand, the music’s possible ‘blankness’ and lack of event might be said to indicate an unwillingness to be ‘emotional’ or ‘communicative’, by some. In any case, there are paradoxes and questions that unfold themselves on the prompting of the title.

This ‘project’ so far doesn’t really ‘exist’ as such: the ‘idea’ for it comes from some solo, improvised electronic pieces that I have made over the past few years. I suppose one could call these a ‘series’, or see them as in some way connected, though they weren’t created with that sort of connection in mind, necessarily. These pieces, as I say, were exclusively solo, and were all created in private: I’ve never ‘performed’ anything like them in public (partly because I don’t really like performing solo), though certain aspects may have emerged in group performances. Recently, however, I’ve come to think that some interesting developments could emerge from treating this kind of material in collaborative fashion: with other musicians, and with artists from other disciplines, in small, intense groups (duos perhaps being the ideal setting, though things could conceivably broaden into larger configurations).

The kind of material ‘developed’ (or left in stasis) in the aforementioned solo electronic pieces is characterised by the fact that the music doesn't change that much over time. In that sense it's quite different to the perhaps more frequently-found model of 'reactive', 'responsive' group improv - quick-fire, always changing, never resting, never predictable. This, on the other hand, is more like 'drone music' - there may be very little *actual* difference between the sounds you are hearing ten minutes in and those you are hearing one minute in. But difference is a factor, nonetheless, in a *perceptual* sense: the psychological/ physiological effect of being in a particular space and hearing particular sounds; the creation of a total, immersive experience, of a particular (head?)space. My ‘version’ of this kind of ‘drone music’ is perhaps more informed by an 'improv sensibility' (whatever that is), in that there are a few more changes and 'events' than in the most extreme kinds of drone. (As opposed to a piece like Sachiko M's 'Bar Sachiko.' [1]) Nonetheless, it could still be counted as fairly ‘minimal’ in terms of the frequency of changes and events.

As 'influences' in this regard, count composers La Monte Young and Eliane Radigue [2]: their dedication to exploring a particular, seemingly very narrow area of sound with almost fanatical, obsessional devotion and detail, proves inspirational. About this, the cellist Charles Curtis, who has worked with both Young and Radigue, has some interesting things to say in a recent interview with Paris Transatlantic Magazine [3]. On La Monte Young first of all:

He himself says that all of his works constitute one composition, one single work. He sees his body of work as one work of art. And that work of art, needless to say, if it encompasses all of these individual pieces from 50-some years of activity, is a work in process. It's open-ended, and still evolving, not only in the sense that new works are being added all the time, but the whole thing exists in the present. The whole body of work exists as a singular moment. Even earlier pieces are moving forward into this work, through a sort of reflection back on those works, via the later works. It's almost an example of this spiritual idea of "now-time", the eternal moment that's always present. It's a view of time that's not linear or successive, but rather a kind of a prophetic notion. In the church, the term is nunc stans, or the standing now. It's a monastic idea, and obviously it's very closely bound up with him and I think his music exemplifies that in a very concrete way.

And on Eliane Radigue:

"The first time we met, she made a little drawing, which was meant to graph the overall shape of the piece [4]. But it was nothing like a score. Later she said to me, in fact, all of my pieces are the same piece. Now doesn't that sound familiar? (laughs) Not in the way that each piece is part of one work, but essentially, she said, with each piece I follow the same shape, the same trajectory. I just use the sounds that I'm working with at the time, and follow them, but the overall shape of the piece is always the same. She was totally upfront about that.

Q: Would you describe that as a uniquely modern approach to composition?

I mean, it sounds not modern, because one of the basic tenets of the avant garde is that it has to be new every time. It has to be different, you have to surprise and shock people. And here she is, saying, no, I do the same things every time, just maybe with different sounds. So sure enough, here comes the cello piece and she has this little drawing and she says, essentially, all of my pieces are like this. Also that acknowledgement that she's not interested in variety or staking out new territory, I think that's very contrary to a certain modernist viewpoint. It has more to do with repetition and observation and studying something rather than asserting something. Eliane seems to have no concerns whatsoever about what anybody expects her to create. In a way, her career has almost been free of ambition."

Perhaps there's something here about the music and the performer becoming entwined, in a loss of ego, that relates to the solo electronic ‘sine language’ project - the music is 'yours' because you play, but on the other hand it's achieved (in the case of solo electronic work) by pressing a key and holding a drone which the machine does for you (rather than having to circular breathe, hold a breath). Is that a dangerous loss of the human, the physical element in music? I would argue that it is not, for the music still has an impact that is above all else physical - loud electronic sounds have a particular impact on the ear and on the body that is even greater than acoustic sounds. For example, at concerts by the experimental metal/noise band Sunn O))), people's teeth have been caused to rattle and the vibrations of the music can be felt in their whole body [5].

This is perhaps the ultimate example of music as *vibration*, bringing to mind the work of free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, one of whose albums was entitled 'Vibrations'. Thus, even if the kind of contemplation or 'atmosphere' evoked by this kind of 'minimalistic' electronic drone music might seem very different to the ecstasy generated from free jazz's frenzy of simultaneous activity, both reach for the same place. Intriguingly, this could be posited as both a transcendent moment and one that is profoundly rooted in an awareness of one's physical situation, of one's body, of the space one is in.

In the interview quoted above, Charles Curtis argues that La Monte Young's apparently very simple, 'minimal' music is an exploration of fantastically complex minute details, probably inaudible to the casual listener. It thus calls for a certain kind of virtuosity – but this is a virtuosity very different from the flashy, show-off sense that word has accrued. I don't mean to disparage the usual notion of 'virtuoso' (though the dangers of all flash and no substance are evident) - far from it, it is uniquely thrilling. The Paganini/ Jimi Hendrix/ Marc-Andre Hamelin/Cecil Taylor school of virtuosity achieves its ecstasy through near-total connection between brain and fingers, the body as almost machine-like in its accuracy and capacity to translate intention into action (indeed, intention and action become simultaneous). However, the virtuosity involved in performing a piece by La Monte Young or Eliane Radigue is no less impressive. It might better be called 'dedication', a desire to become so involved with the minutiae of every sound that you make that you almost seem to *become* the sound. Writing about this has pitfalls of seeming vaguely mystical, but, as argued above, this type of music is something profoundly physical, and, if words don't suffice, the evidence of your own ears, your own mental and physical concentration, should prove sufficient.

I'm not claiming to possess this second type of virtuosity myself. I have certainly not spent the years of dedicated, intense, lengthy artistic immersion that Young and Radigue have. Nonetheless, though I might not be as musically clued up as them, there are issues surrounding variations in space, presentation, audience, dynamics (and resultant emotional impact) which offer a lot of potential for future, in-depth exploration within this ‘sine language’ project.

I suppose the 'problem' – or the potential problem, which perhaps rears its head in all improvised music contexts – is of falling back on the clichés, the safety nets. There may in fact be little perceivable difference between a performance which pushes things out, which takes risks, which is imparted with a real sense of urgency and importance, and one which takes the superficial aspects of a particular mode of enquiry and plays it safe with them – satisfactory, even apparently 'adequate', but in some crucial way dishonest. As J.H. Prynne puts it, “nearly too much is, well, nowhere near enough” (Down Where Changed (1979). This can have anything to do with any number of factors – which of course I can’t predict here (we’re talking about *improvised* music, after all). Hypothetically, though, there might be an unresponsive audience, mental tiredness on the part of the performer, or some intangible combination of factors that means the performance just doesn't work. But then failure, and its risk, is that which makes the work *matter* more than polish or 'success' could. Some have argued (particularly in relation to theatre) that failure is a necessary condition of the work - that it is bound to fail. Beckett is the usual citation here – “fail again, fail better” – but I might also quote a blog post from crow: instigated, the home page of some important young theatre-makers working in Cambridge and Berlin and involved with, among other things, the antigone project: "theatre communicates the failure to communicate. which is theatre and what theater necessarily fails at in the same instance." [6] Here, in theory, some intriguing connections spring up between experimental music of the kind I have been discussing, and experimental theatre, of the kind made by the ‘bloggers’ I have just quoted. And perhaps in practice too, a *live,* collaborative exploration of these issues, more could be discovered, created, explored.


[1] A review and discussion of 'Bar Sachiko' can be found at Bagatellen.
[2] Information on La Monte Young; Eliane Radigue.
[3] Full Interview available at Paris Transatlantic.
[4] The piece under discussion is ‘Naldjorlak’, Radigue’s first acoustic instrumental piece (all her previous work was for synthesizer). Further information can be found here.
[5] See here for a further discussion of Sunn 0))). The physical effect of their music is something that can only be experienced by seeing the band live.
[6] ‘theater (noun): the failure to not express oneself’ (blog post by Lisa Jeshke & Lucy Benyon at 'crow: instigated').

No comments:

Post a Comment