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11 December 2014

Listening to music in 2014 #1: Instruments - Unstruments

Peter Blamey Image: Peter Blamey  
© Lyndal Irons

In 2014, several performances and recordings challenged Jim Denley's ideas about music and sent him thinking. The resulting article is published in two parts - read part 2 'Bodies - Nobody'. See also the newly released program of the 2015 NOW now festival (14-18 January), featuring some of the artists discussed here, plus numerous others.

This essay is an attempt to re-evaluate ideas relevant to listening to the new, and to dreamtime songs.

Is it even possible to make sense of current practice involving conventional and unconventional instruments, virtuosity and anti-virtuosity, inscription and the post-literate, improvisation and negative improvisation, and the digital realm of synthesisers, computers and their detritus? Or does our multi-music-verse resist grand-unified theories? If music is, in part, a playground for our relationship with technologies, how do we make sense of the multiplicity of tools involved? Before 1788, Indigenous Australia was largely free of musical instruments - can this tell us anything?

Skyneedle during the 2011 NOW now festival
at Sydney's Red Rattler theatre.

'Without any reference, without any discipline'

In the Brisbane band Sky Needle, when Joel Stern's feet pump his 'leghorn', campers recognise the plastic pumps as air-bed inflaters, unintentioned for wind instruments. Sky Needle call their instruments 'unstruments', their music 'primitive'.

As playful as their unstruments are, they're recycled templates - their strings home-made guitars, harmoniums use foot bellows, singer Sarah Byrne bangs sticks on a plastic chair - apart from amplification, they do nothing conceptually out of place in preceding millennia.

Sky Needle's appeal is in replacing pretensions of contemporary band performance with childlike playfulness - phrasing employed is basic to the point of ineptitude within what appears to be a tonal antisystem. Joel has said in an interview,

'I think we asked ourselves what the most basic, bare necessity is for being able to make a band; like, what is the minimal instrumentation, what is the threshold of not being able to play music and what is just beyond that? ...the reason we've made our own instruments is so we can operate outside of the forms of music and the forms of playing that are somewhat predetermined in other situations. If you play your own instruments nobody can tell you you're bad at them.'

We'd then expect degrees of 'outside' to prevail but, despite unusual surface, the banding is strangely familiar - what amazes is vocals sound 'in-tune' (is that scatting)? And then you realise that the antisystem settles into a rough-around-the-edges equal temperament.

Naive phraseology and a roughly standard tonal system are a part of what Sky Needle mean by 'primitive', and it's a shock because in a self-aware C21st music project it's so damn corporeal! Maybe 'primitive' means no automation, or the banding of their gesture is collectively naive. Either way, it's delightfully democratic - you too can make an unstrument and, hey presto, start jamming.

Great insights have been gained through anti-virtuosity - Don Van Vliet's (Captain Beefheart) transgressive sax from the late 1960s is, to my ears, the most cogent contribution on that instrument in rock. Jean Dubuffet's (who coined the term art brut) musical experiments in the early 1960s aimed to put him, '...in the position of a man fifty-thousand years ago, a man who ignored everything about western music and invents a music for himself without any reference, without any discipline'.

Experimental music is awash with tonal systems other than well-tempered - if anything, 'tones' these days are generated by the physics of feedback, which is entirely site-specific - here I'm thinking of Matt Earle's relationship between body, guitar, amp and time/space which generates a flood of vertical frequencies. He also drums, playing at the 2014 Now now festival with Love Chants, his drumming a loose wash in a sort-of-feel. His fluidity feels authentic and it's the exact opposite of the precise dexterity we expect from percussionists.

Matt Earle.

Matt embodies anti-virtuosity - no hint of conventional technique, his dance all looseness and approximation, but his loops and washes bring me closer to Dubuffet's utopian re-wilding than Sky Needle (or Dubuffet's music for that matter). In contradiction to Dubuffet he's achieved it through hours of playing and listening over many years. Discipline isn't the right word but certainly commitment feels appropriate - no easy way out of clichés?

Sky Needle's gestures are one-to-one, they embrace well-understood limitations, worn instrumental roles and groove into the closure of songform. Their unstruments could have generated the non-standard - have they worked hard enough to be anything else than delightfully clumsy? I'm not sure. It's a useful alternative in our digi-tech age to have raw one-to-one gesture centre stage, although, ultimately, Matt's commitment to open, fluid complexities, gives deeper hope.


Do we see instruments as bodily extensions (prosthetic enhancements), or so integral to our being-in-the-world as to be incorporated into the musician's body?

Merleau-Ponty describes a blind person's cane as an extended sense organ:

'To get used to a hat, a car or a stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely, to incorporate them into the bulk of our own body. Habit expresses our power of dilating our being-in-the-world…' (Maurice Merleau-Ponty 1945/1962: Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge, p. 166)

Beethoven's wooden biting device attached to his keyboard (about his hearing aids and devices, see for instance this NY Times article) is a direct analogy, but musicians develop practice where sounding and listening are indivisible, to borrow Raymond Murray Schafer's term, 'touching-at-a-distance'. Are, then, Matt Earle's feedback loops, or Joel Stern's Leghorn, hearing aids?

In the early1990s I wrote this about solo improvising,

'...the physicality of producing sound (the hardware) is not a separate activity from the thoughts, emotions and ideas in music (the software). In the act of creation, there is a constant loop between the hierarchy of factors involved in the process. My lungs, lips, fingers, voice box and their working together with the potentials of sound are dialoguing with other levels which I might call mind and perception. The thoughts and decisions are sustained and modified by my physical potentials and visa versa, but as soon as I try to define these separately I run into problems. ...it's a meaningless enterprise, for it's the very entanglement of levels of perception, awareness and physicality that makes improvisation, improvisation.' (Derek Bailey: Improvisation, the British Library, p. 108)

Matt Earle's fluidity seems to be a perfect example of this entanglement - it would be meaningless to make distinctions between Matt's mind and body. Despite complicating our physicality with tools, some bodies are still very much involved.

Each little strum and the motherboards

Sky Needle and Matt Earle links, in my mind, with another return-to-basic gesture heard lately (with no hint of primitivism): Kim Myhr on his new solo disc All Your Limbs Singing (SOFA). Previously a tabletop guitarist often using mechanical devices to produce chunks and sequences of varying durations, he's now a strummer akin to the muscular folk of Richie Havens - and his body takes centre stage.

The resulting music is transformed from laconic limitlessness to embracing limitation. The relentless pulses can't be analysed in terms of time signatures or dance-feels, there are few predictable patterns, and just when you think it's settled into 6/8 or 4/4, it slips. Throughout, the attacks are too subtly nuanced for the listener to generalise - the basic unit is the strum, each little strum unique.

Of course, he wants you to listen to clouds of harmonics above the relentless twang - the meta-music - a sound so transubstantiated as to be organ-like. There's a duality, the strumming draws attention to the body, the cloud seems to float above corporeality. In this sense his playing is reminiscent of aspects of Chris Abrahams's piano solos. But despite precedents, it's revelatory that solo acoustic guitar can produce these sonic structures.

Mike Majkowski.

Memes reproduce swiftly - Mike Majkowski on his LP Why is there something instead of nothing (Boccian) uses a similar approach on double bass. On side 1, 'Belt of Sand's' relentless bow tremolo grips (you can sense the sticky rosin), producing gritty bass fundaments below harmonic auras - consequently the music is still yet has forward momentum. 'A Shadow of Silver Dipped in Gold' on side 2 is different: he repeats a simple slowed-down gesture. Listen to every attack, every tone and every decay - look for variation, there is very little. To get anything out of this music you have to listen as closely as Mike.

Mike's and Kim Myhr's albums share a relentless focus on one-to-one gesture, contrasting markedly with the limitless structures that were common to early C21st music - these guys put their bodies on the line, their physical commitment to gesture is sports-like - both generate change while sticking doggedly to repetitive action, both remarkable new approaches to solo instrumentalism and, I'd argue, fresh re-evaluations of the entangled loop of the cognitive and the physical. Their gestures resemble Sky Needle's primitivism, applied with microscopic attention to detail.

But I'm shocked. I thought we were going somewhere else and it was away from athleticism. One of the prophets of the sedentary is Peter Blamey whose recent performances are ostensibly computer music, but not as we knew it.

Peter Blamey.
© Lyndal Irons

Peter perches behind gleaned junk motherboards, seemingly arbitrarily arranged on a table in front of him, randomly connected by masses of hair-like copper. His Forage (Avantwhatever), my favourite release of 2013, is a complex unfolding mesh. But what is his body doing in performance? Apart from listening - and he is quite theatrical in showing us his awareness - not a lot.

He's clearly done a bit of work beforehand but once powered-up he's as alert as a scavenging dingo, occasionally blowing on, and rarely adjusting wires manually. (Although the proximity of his observance seems to affect the flow of electrons, or am I imagining that?)

This was for me, the essential C21st statement. Why? It seemed to model the humility that is required for our species survival - let's not put ourselves at the centre, let's not claim authorship, lets just listen to an 'ecosystem' and occasionally tweak. Peter is only an expert. Extrapolated to other pursuits it presents a model that is powerfully non-anthropocentric, but one that embraces new technology and paradoxically, it's detritus.

Sounds and structures in Forage are complex, multifaceted and ambiguous, having little to do with the human body, more the natural phenomena of electricity. And it's nonsense to think of the articulations, rhythms and periodicy of the music as being 'phrased'. Peter is entangled in the process through listening. For performances to work, an ending has to be judged - is that Peter's main job?

Can junk motherboards and a mass of wire be seen as being incorporated into a body? It certainly appears to be Peter's preferred hearing aid of late.

Compared to this, are Sky Needle, Mike Majkowski and Kim Myhr neo-corporealist luddites putting humanity's vanity once more at centre stage? Or are they using instruments as probes, pushing gesture so far to reveal new insights about the world through sounding/listening? If their instruments are hearing aids, what are they listening to? Do we sound to elucidate the world or to confirm our place in it?

Limitless phrasing, drumkits and concerti

I said, just then, of Forage, 'it's nonsense to think of the articulations, rhythms and periodicy of the music as being phrased'. Peter blows on his wires to jump-start a change, and ironically, the thing Peter ain't guilty of, phrasing, in a vast amount of the world's music, most evident in singing, is stamped by breath.

Carolyn Connors.

Transgressions can be amusing - when two Inuit women hocket into each others mouths, joining their looped vocalisations into a jigsawed block, they end with laughter. When Carolyn Connors sings on the inhale and exhale of air, creating continuity for up to 20 minutes, it's disconcertingly funny.

The amusement is the tension of impending doom, physical limitation will end the event. It's just a matter of time - it's a game, who's gonna crack first. This unconventionally phrased singing focuses on the body just as surely as taking a breath, shaping a line, taking a breath.

(Peter Blamey's foraging has an analogous vulnerability - there exists quantum uncertainty - if a sound-complex appears stable it's only a matter of time before it jumps into another state.)

The Inuit women elegantly show that choirs needn't create structures dependent on one's limitations. Something obscurely similar happens in Laura Altman and Monica Brooks's duo release as is (It'll be awesome). Clarinet and accordion become fused, not with lines, but with pools of sound, coexisting in an ecology that has no clear beginnings or endings - a calmly focussed infinite field. Phrasing is released from the limitations of one - a new collective body of the duo is formed.

Throughout the 1980s and '90s wind players achieved limitless phrasing by circular breathing. Laura doesn't employ this with her clarinet, yet through dynamic subterfuge - you often don't notice her entries and exits because they're so embedded in the whole - the duo's trajectory appears unbroken. It's an important lesson - collectivism creates surprising new structures.

Unlike the Inuit women this duo isn't amusing, but traditional one-man bands are. It must have been amusing, too, when one person simultaneously played instruments previously played by four - a bass drum, a side drum, cymbals and toms.

Experimentation with foot pedals began circa 1890, and the resulting drum-kit was compelling because it saved money on drummer fees, (was there a campaign at the time, 'keep drumming collective'?), it moved music from the street or parade ground where it had been inherently spatialised, and it extended our notions of what's possible within a technological paradigm. 100 years later, drum-kits, within our digi-tech paradigm, are humdrum. The ingeniously designed foot pedals and the drummers independently intentioned limbs no longer surprise, until you hear a master.

I remember being at a music festival where the vibraphonist (and foot bellowing trumpeter) Dale Gorfinkel, just returned from Mali where ensembles of percussionists still operate, argued that the drummers onstage sucked, that the feel created by one multitasking could never have the vitality and 'feel' of a team. I had to agree - till Tony Buck played.

There is something compelling about one body hitting all those instruments - three limbs all involved in separate streams, and then his other foot caresses the bass drum at precisely the right time and dynamic. (Something similar happens when a performance of a Bach fugue extends our understanding of multiplicity within one consciousness. We all recognise the difficulty of doing this from a neuro/muscular sense - it will always be amazing).

A powerful example of this multiplicity in the electronic realm was Marco Fusinato performing TEMA at Techtonics, Adelaide Festival this year. This text is from Marco's website:

'A few crudely played strings provide the impetus for a long chain of electronics which obliterate the original signal and leaves us with a hyper-kinetic wall of full frequency spectrum noise. ... the guitar is the object of a dialectic of simultaneous adulation and annihilation. [...] ...new ambiguities between indeterminacy and intention, new relations between instrumental performance and its effacement.'

What is created is a complex verticality - a vast number of events sparking and dying in any moment, from the lowest subs to the high limit - there's interest in frequency, but not tonality, (or atonality for that matter).

Is Marco controlling all the myriad events? Like a kangaroo bounding through a landscape, trees, saplings, fences, spinifex, bushes, rocks, ditches are all negotiated - the roo can't be 'aware' of the calculations involved - there's implicit cognition in muscle memory. (When have you ever seen a roo crash into a tree? I guess their system breaks down with cars and trucks.) Anyway, in this performance Marco wasn't road kill, he bounded across a complex topography of sound. TEMA has cogency, because it extends our notion of what's possible within an electro-technic paradigm.

Because we are no longer impressed by the mechanical, to excite us a drummer has to be in complete control, like Tony, or make us reassess our notion of control, like Nick Dan. Nick somehow allows his limbs to slide into dysfunctional grooves reminiscent of the Shaggs, (a different dance to Matt Earle's drumming but equally transgressive). And just as one wonders how the Shaggs could have arrived at their notion of 'playing together', I have to ask, how can Nick sustain the dysfunction? It would seem to be easier to play 'in time' - it's just as revelatory as the master - and amusing.

The Shaggs.

But back to phrasing. The Launados, from Sardinia, the Bounkam from Burkina Faso or the Yidarki from North Australia, by employing circular breathing, had the potential to break the tyranny of breath length. Bagpipe traditions superficially did, but the music was still made up of chunks that fitted with our bodies - it's not surprising when you consider a lot of it was dance music.

For that matter, string and keyboard instruments have always had the potential to change our notion of the phrase but look around the world and time in music is marked out by our body's capacity. Even an experimenter as adventurous as Jon Rose accepts this structural imprint.

In the Tectonics festival Adelaide in April Jon played a Concerto, Elastic Band, co-authored by Elena Kats-Chernin. His imaginative playing was imbued with phrasing that highlighted violinistic gesture - he foregrounded a line against the orchestra and was sometimes overwhelmed by its superior volume. It was an event more C19th than C21st, Jon a heroic latter-day Paganini: phrase lengths were breath-length concerto-and-froing between soloist and the orchestra.

On the same day another 'concerto' was played by Oren Ambarchi, co-authored with Ilan Volkov. Ilan and Oren part-improvised together, Ilan using conduction - waggle-dancing like a bee to send the orchestra on the right path, Oren his guitar/amp. Material tended to be long, slow and low, the guitar abstracted - Oren's gestures never obviously corresponded to the subtones coming from the Marshall stack - it was hard to tell what was orchestra and what was 'soloist' - there was no line to follow and they collectively lumbered through time as one cohesive organism. I'd argue Elastic Band accepted conventions of phrasing that have shaped music for a long time, the guitar concerto was not in our image - phrasing had become incarnate.

Early electronic instruments - just like bagpipes, keyboards or strings - could have reshaped our notion of phrasing but largely didn't. This changed in the mid C20th. Composers, like Giacinto Scelsci, Morton Feldman, La Monte Young, Alvin Lucier, Ernie Althoff and Evan Parker expanded our notion of time in a radical way, 'phrases', or layers, could be limitless. Gradually we've had generations determined to make structures 'not in our image'.

A major inspiration for this has been detailed in Douglas Kahn's book, Earth Sound, Earth Signal. He reveals a complex history, starting with Thomas Watson's tests on the developing telephone. Watson found in 1876, that, at night, if he listened in, he could hear natural radio - the telephone lines were acting as an antenna. No-one knew what the signal was at the time, but it was the first instance of listening to electronic sounds.

Listening to the world, (rather than vanity-publishing-for-our-species) clearly informs Peter Blamey's 'foraging', he seems to delight in not getting muscles sore, preferring to let electrons run around. In another digital realm Thembi Soddell's dreamscapes have few clues to music's corporeal origins (more of this later). They use distinction, change, periodicy and rhythm in their work, but unlike Sky Needle, Jon Rose, Kim Myhr and Mike Majkowski, their events are not determined by phrasing in any obvious corporeal sense.
But being there, listening and tweaking, still seems critical.

What happens if you're not?

> Read also: part 2 of Jim Denley's article 'Bodies - Nobody', published on 12 December.

Further links

Jim Denley - AMC profile
The NOW now (thenownow.net)
Skyneedle (www.skyneedle.org)
Chris Abrahams (wikipedia - see also www.thenecks.com)
Kim Myhr (www.kimmyhr.com)
Mike Majkowski
Peter Blamey (http://peterblamey.net)
Carolyn Connors (http://carolyn-connors.com)
Laura Altman (http://lauraaltman.net/)
Jon Rose - AMC profile; www.jonroseweb.com
Oren Ambarchi (www.orenambarchi.com/)

Jim Denley is instrumentalist, improviser and composer. More information.


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