Monday, March 31, 2008

Instal Festival 08: Part 2

Friday 15th February

Exhaustion is not allowed. There is no rest but death. The work will never be finished. You must keep writing, forever.

Deep, dreamless sleep invites phantoms, to fill up the gaps. I’m pretty sure I didn’t dream anything, but this may well have been floating through my head. I think, in retrospect, that I may have dreaming about Sun Ra as well, but that’s only because I have Space Is The Place playing in the background as I write this. Memory is no store-house of treasure, but a vile, heretical text, waiting to be over-written, scored-out, and the sooner the better.

It’s no lie, mind you, that I woke up in Glasgow wondering where the hell I was, and how I’d got there. I looked out the window onto the relatively sedate suburban area of Westercraigs, thinking how much nicer the streets looked in the daylight. After a leisurely breakfast I headed out, walking north through the dewy morning air towards the cathedral district. Glasgow isn’t really as big as people like to think – where London spills out endlessly, multiplying its inner territorial divisions like an out-of-control reproducing virus, the interesting stuff in Glasgow is all within a bus-ride’s distance of each other: the cathedral is within spitting distance of Strathclyde University, which in turn is within spitting distance of Drygate, one of Glasgow’s most notorious estates. I was almost glad I didn’t end up going to Blood Stereo (at Great Easterhouse) or Vialka (at 13th Note) the night before: instead of being utterly exhausted, I was actually partially alive, drinking in the almost preternaturally bright light and cold morning air. The position of the cathedral and necropolis (linked by the ‘Bridge Of Souls’, so named to represent the passage from this life to the next), on top of two cliffs bisected by what’s now a road shrouded in cold, early morning shadow.

The cathedral itself was excellent – suitably dark and weathered, every surface green or grey; I would hazard a guess, based on the square tower, and relatively squat design, that it’s pre-Gothic, but not by much. I wandered round the grounds, slipping between dew-covered graves, inspecting heavily weathered monuments – many almost stripped of their writing, some, dating back to the eighteenth century, still standing strong. The old trope, the memento mori: Glasgow’s civic pride was literally built on the people beneath my feet, as strange to the place now as I was. Perhaps it’s only in graveyards I feel really calm and safe: I’ve more in common with their occupants than the majority of the living. Inside (after trying to open the door the wrong way), it was exactly as I’d hoped: massively spacious, light flooding in through surprisingly large windows (one of the reasons I believe it to be very late Romanesque), every surface stone or wood – cold to the touch, and rather too large or too small (as in the entrance to Blackadder’s Chapel – a white cube of a room, its ceiling covered in curious, unique bosses, its function as a place of worship surely superfluous in something this size). The Crypt and Lower Church felt almost primitive, its carved stone surfaces almost crude in comparison to the Upper Church; the absence of the former bishop (departed in 1690) and St. Mungo (Glasgow’s patron saint, allegedly buried in the Crypt, although I couldn’t find his tomb) seemed to haunt the place, almost stripped of its function – a ruin in becoming. The main section of the church, beyond the Quire curtain, was absolutely magnificent: every surface was gracefully carved, but solid, its ornamentation fulfilling its double function – as support, and as the manifested limits of a sacred space. In the Church of Scotland, the religious function of the clergy is closely tied to the social function of hieratic nobility – thus, bosses and carved ornaments (seraphim, animals) displaying coats of arms were dotted over every surface (the quire balcony, the ceiling, the backs and sides of the pews, in the rich stained glass of the windows). Mind-blowingly intricate and gaudy stained-glass windows, each dedicated to a different saint, displayed the coats of arms of the patrons who paid for them, the names of the craftsmen who refashioned them after the Second World War. As I say, civic life and ecclesiastical are joined at the hip, for the good of each other: the pews feature dedications to various veterans’ organisations, the Glasgow coastguard, the Scottish Union Of Dock Labourers (now part of the TGWU); on one side, each stained glass window is dedicated to a particular guild (I was delighted to see that the Guild Of Bakers features the All-Seeing Eye as their symbol.)

I left the Cathedral behind and crossed over into the main body of the Necropolis; the raised-letter sign at the entrance was there to remind that the living and the dead were never free of each other: the living to build the houses of the dead, the dead who had founded the city for the living. (Which reminds me of the Gravediggers’ joke in Hamlet: ‘What’s the strongest kind of house? – A grave, as it will last till Doomsday!’) As I walked up the hill, a lady in a jeep helpfully handed me a free map/guidebook, perhaps taking pity. Nonetheless, I hadn’t taken more than a few steps before I was lost, having no idea where I was on the map. I’m not sure I cared: this place was, as the name implied, a real City Of The Dead, where one could spend a whole lifetime living. Its cold calm and weathered stone seemed to extend to the city below, smoke emerging from what I fancied were extinct chimneys, empty tower blocks.

Unlike the crass sideshow of Highgate Cemetery, with its 2-hour tours and camera fees (I had tried to visit a couple of years earlier, whilst in London to see one of the Beckett Centenary events at the Barbican, just to quickly see Marx’s grave; couldn’t even do that, as I wasn’t aligned to their schedules), Glasgow seems to content to let its monuments weather the ages, as they should, reminding that even writing lives in stone won’t save them. There are broken-limbed and decapitated angels, abandoned crypts stuffed with debris, patches of sheltered ground littered with old Buckfast bottles, the occasional smell of piss. Then, not 100 yards away, something like the magnificent Duncan Macfarlan monument – a neat Victorian touch, an imitation church spire rising from the ground.

Eventually, after about an hour and a half wandering among the stone urns and the fearless magpies, I walked back South, past the ornate clock of Glasgow Cross (also known as Tolbooth Steeple, one of the many delightful pieces of architecture unplaceable to English eyes), to Glasgow Green and the People’s Palace. A beautiful remnant of Victoriana, a mini-Crystal Palace or a very big colonial greenhouse, its knockabout style of museum-ing – displays on the war effort, Glasgow’s infamous booze problem, the Barrowland ballroom – attract the hordes of primary school kids who swarmed the first floor; the second floor, however, housed some lovely exhibits, including a big room devoted to Glasgow’s industrial past and union activity – displaying Ken Currie’s 1987 cycle of paintings on the history of workers’ dissent in the city, and presentations on the leading figures in Glaswegian Socialism – and displays on everyday life, including that in the city’s slums. Counteractive forces have always operated from within Glasgow: the ‘second city of the Empire’ may have practised colonial tactics on its own people, sweeping them beyond the Merchant City, to the banks of the Clyde; but it was on those same banks that Robert Owen found the inspiration for New Lanark, that dock workers refused to unload ships transporting armaments to British troops during the Russian Civil War, that workers overturned buses during the 1926 General Strike. Outside the museum lies a porcelain fountain, allegedly the world’s largest, dedicated to the outposts of empire: South Africa (which displays Britannia (in visiting native dress) posing with a burly Afrikaans settler, and an ostrich), Canada (a fur trapper and dead moose), Australia and India. After having a lovely lunch in the Museum café (located in the glass-roofed Winter Gardens portion of the building) I had a look: the way Victoria stuck preposterously into the bright, cool air reminded me of the heritage zone around the Royal Albert Hall (I forget what it’s called now), with its fenced-off, (imitation?) gold(-plated?) statues of Prince Albert and his Queen. I had a last look at the beautiful former Templeton Carpet Factory – a bizarre red-brick semi-Gothic fantasia pressed into the cuboid shapes of 30s Modernist architecture, now unfortunately a ‘business park’ and wandered West towards the city centre.

Public transport in Glasgow, whilst plentiful, is only helpful to those in the know, and it didn’t help that I hadn’t done much research into bus routes and prices (well, I’m not a cunting encyclopaedia after all). Glasgow First buses require exact change, and by the time I’d wandered far enough to find a decent charity shop that would let be break into a ten-pound note, and get some books (well, a copy of Palahniuk’s Haunted), I was at the end of Argyll Street, where the Arches is located. After picking up my tickets, I was at something of a loose end. Perhaps embarrassingly, I spent a massive amount of time exploring the city centre, prowling around Buchanan St., Argyll St. and Sauciehall St., guidebook out, looking like something approaching the world’s biggest berk. I paid a visit to the Forbidden Planet (and drooled over the complete set of Doom Patrol trade paperbacks, knowing full well I hadn’t the money for them) and Borders on Buchanan St., stopping for a cup of coffee. I was quite astonished how well-organised their books were, in comparison to the sometimes abysmal chaos of our own store; I wondered whether Glaswegians were simply more courteous, more prepared to actually, uh, put books back where they came from. As I eventually decided it was time to prevent myself from starving, I headed up to the Tempus restaurant at the lovely CCA, possibly the nicest pretentious art pile I’ve ever been to. There were mini-installation galleries branching off from the restaurant, one of which was being set up as I came in; and, among the usual pathetic touches one find with bourgeois restaurants (uncomfortable, ‘minimal’ furniture, displayed coat racks, a stash of magazines) it was nice to find that they had a load of Wire back-issues (many more than my local library, even!) I ate a lovely spicy prawn spaghetti, and had some minimal conversation with a Glaswegian redhead named Rachel, and an Italian university researcher named Helena. Rachel pointed out a friend of hers, Daniel Padden from Volcano The Bear, standing not seven meters away; I would have stayed and nattered, but I had to hurry away to the Arches.

The Arches itself is, far and away, the lovliest ‘art music’ venue I think I’ve ever seen, considerably more homely and welcoming than the likes of The Lighthouse. Outside, a tiny entrance beneath the magnificent cast iron bridge connecting the two halves of Glasgow Central Station; inside, like a Tardis, it opens out into a multi-layered space, done up in warm brick and well-lit. I passed through the gig entrance, feeling almost audibly relieved when they passed my ticket and gave me a wristband; I’d made it, I was there properly. Nothing could stop it now. The name of the venue comes from the disused railway tunnels, running in parallel, that host the music; thus it was, I found myself milling around with a host of other people in the half-darkness, looking at the unused equipment sitting at bricked-off ends of tunnels that once acted as the ground zero of acid house in Scotland. A load of the crowd around me had cans of Red Stripe; I felt somewhat left out, even though I don’t drink beer (stouts and real ale excepted.) They were a mixture of hipsters – a much more sophisticated variety than your average Williamsburger, more fashionable (if that can be believed), even more respectable, kind-looking – twee kids, metallers and underground freaks, academic-looking guys in jumpers or suits, and, stepping out of the crowd, bearded and garrulous Barry Essen, who directed us towards a young woman dressed in overalls, stood over a table with a small black box.

Tonight’s event, titled Self-Cancellation, was, so Essen had said, designed to present us with an investigation into art that negates itself or its own means of creation. Sarah Washington, for so she was, explained politely what she was about to do: begin to generate sound without being able to hear herself. The lights dropped as she pulled on a huge pair of ear defenders. As her hands worked the box’s knobs (hohoho) she conjured up a fizzy, shifting insect buzz and scratchy harmonics – the chatter of strained machines – to not a lot of effect. Oh well.

Lee Patterson, standing at the end of the next arch, was stood behind a table covered with glass vessels of varying sizes, contact-miked and filled with water, like a giant version of the jam jar orchestra I played as a kid. Completely impassive, he slipped effervescent salt into each vessel at varying intervals, stood back, and watched, as statue-like as a scientist watching culture growths. A dense, interwoven carpet of bottom-out drones, piping chimes, rude squeaks and subterranean rumbles rolled out of the speakers. He stood, completely still, as the salt fizzed out, and sound ended. I think it was just after this that I turned and bumped into Allan Upton, the estimable gent behind Textured Bird Transmission and Weymouth’s Dead Sea Liner micro-label. Whilst a wholly pleasant guy, we unfortunately have generally little to talk about; every time I would run into him over the next couple of days, long patches of uncomfortable silence would follow. Never mind.

Just around the corner, in the next arch, we crowded round a particularly low stage. Stood in front of an odd conjunction of acoustic guitar and snare drum, seemingly joined by wires, was John Butcher, a taciturn 50-year old, thinning on top, in a leather jacket; he explained, with a touch of sarcasm, the principle behind the piece: “I’d always wanted to have a sax/guitar/drums trio of my own”, and by attaching an e-bow to the guitar bridge he would create a negative feedback system between the guitar and drums; he would, in turn, manipulate this with the feedback of a saxophone mike. He turned on the e-bow, unleashing an irritating buzzing noise. And… fuck, how did he do it? All I can remember is him standing in front of the mike, pressing the keys on his sax, the sound moulding and morphing to his every movement. Was it merely the resonant properties of the sax? The sound of air moving, unforced, through the open instrument? (He has been known, in the past, to do exactly this, working in exposed places, allowing the wind to play the instrument for him.) Was the clacking of keys on metal, the micro-movements in the sax parts as he shifted the whole, enough to force these changes? He shook and shifted the sax, doing free-jazz key arpeggios without the breath, hold chords with no sound, other than the storm of clawing, sucking noise he summoned up, channelled, shaped. Noise without source, the banshee of the ghost-soundworld. As he stopped, I was sure I could still hear something, the resonances dying even as he switched off the e-bow. No, something was wrong.

We turned around: a guy, in black t-shirt and cap, was throwing a piece of wire down on a table in front of him; as it landed, on two pieces of wire leading away from either side, the entire table jumped with an enormous hollow crash. We crowded to get around as he threw another down on the two or three wires already scattered in sparse patterns across the table; another juddering shock followed, shaking the wires around, a loud analogue crunch leaving residual vibrations in the table. As Benedict Drew (for so he was) tweaked knobs and dropped another wire, he finally set the table off so it wouldn’t stop shaking, a sick rumble physical both to ear and sight topped with the most subtle of curdling squeals rolling on and on, shaking the table ever harder as he adjusted the amplifier knobs, jumping like a maddened version the furniture in Marx’s comment on the power of commodities, before turning off the power.

Essen directed us into the next arch, where tubist Robin Hayward was sat, almost awkwardly, on a black platform, almost entirely in black himself, looking as if swamped by the vastness of his instrument. He explained carefully what he was to do: play whilst a bell of sand placed on the end of the tuba trickled into the bowels of the instrument, warping and flattening the tone until it wouldn’t play any more. And, uh, he did exactly that. It took about 20 minutes, his exhalations very infrequent, between enormous bouts of filling the chamber with air; he worked, in his usual manner, through frighteningly minimal variations, sustaining a chord, manipulating it, and then, after a while, moving onto the next. The tone wound down in a rather erratic fashion: Hayward’s habit of playing chords as flattened out skronks, wheezes and farts gave the impression the instrument was dying anyway, and it was only when, despite blowing and blowing, he couldn’t summon any sound, that we knew it was over. Odd.

We were motioned into the second arch, which had been darkened, the only light source a projection on the opposite wall, and one spotlight on Rhodri Davies, sat behind his harp on our right. Next to him stood John Butcher, and sat beside were two gentlemen on laptops, one of whom I could make out as Benedict Drew. Across from them were a number of other musicians, including Sarah Washington and another performer on analogue electronics, two more on laptops and Robin Hayward, who settled himself down with his tuba. We crowded round like children at the cinema, a couple sitting on the floor, as Davies explained the theory behind the piece. The projection on the wall was of a typical sudoku grid; as the piece began, a highlight moved from square to square, and each time it touched a number, the corresponding musician (9 musicians, 9 numbers) responded (however they liked, presumably.) Sparse, drifting between sonic events at first, the musicians’ responses began to coalesce – Butcher’s low-level, steely breath noises meshed with glistening digital twinkles and spectral string scrapings. Gradually, slowly, as each sudoku grid was completed, and another was projected on top, the numbers began to cancel each other out: the players wouldn’t play when their numbers were palimpsested. Having built up, it collapsed, slowly, all over again.

During the intermission, I, paranoid as ever, avoided the bar (figuring I wouldn’t find my way back to the guesthouse if under the influence) so wandered into the merch area. The table in the corner was rather crowded, others standing in sparse groups in the low lighting, comfortable atmosphere. Understandably so, as the table was laid with records from Volcanic Tongue, the legendary underground emporium on Argyll Street – as I mulled over several boxes of CDs, searching in vain for Jandek’s Glasgow Sunday, I realised that David Keenan and Heather Leigh Murray were literally just in front of me. Eventually choosing a couple of CDs (Richard Youngs/Alex Neilson’s Ourselves and Hototogisu’s Chimärendämmerung) I had a tiny and embarrassing fanboyish chat with them, before slipping away.

I wandered or sat or stood around the arch, at the loosest of loose ends (no conversation, I knew no-one except silent Allen) until the lights dropped and something began to rumble… I looked down the arch, found Mark and John Bain crouched behind the venue’s mixing desk, working away under the only light source in the entire place. I’d glanced at the programme notes earlier, had heard something about someone shaking the entire Resonance FM building through its own vibrations. The rumbling grew and grew, more physical than simply sonic, the pitch-black engulfing bass so powerful it shook every exposed inch of skin and then some; twisting and modulating, taking almost no notice of the crowd gathered around them, they cranked the sound up to greater and greater heights and depths. Processing data gathered through seismic sensors scattered through the building, fed through electronics and distributed oscillators, feeding it back. They were playing the building, filling the space so full of its own sub-hearing acoustic phenomena that it threatened to combust everyone within it. The sound began to develop into rhythms, of all fucking things; I wondered how it must sound to someone down the other end of the arch, outside in the restaurant, outside of the building. Down there it was like being trapped inside a planet tearing itself apart. The air ducts began to rattle, adding a treble chorus; they dropped the volume, bass turning to baritone to alto squeals, the sound dropping through my body, rattling my knees before ceasing. The clapping could probably be heard in the restaurant, if they weren’t all deaf by now.

Essen motioned us back towards Arch 2, where Patterson was stood behind the same table, now displaying a neat line of burners, like Primus stoves, each one apparently contact-miked. Lighting the stoves, apparently with seeds on them that proceeded to burn, he stood back in the same Chemistry master position, watching as they produced a high ringing, like a wet finger moving round the rim of a glass, turning into crunching, cracks and crinklings of sound. From behind came a sudden crash and clawing sounds of feedback; all turned around, tried to run to the other end of the arch, craning to see what the fuck was going on; I could just barely make out someone – Rhodri Davies? (Yes, it turned out) – doing something to… what the fuck was that? It looked like two halves of a harp falling apart, suspended in the air. (Bingo.) They were, according to the statement Davies made on the back of the programme, the remnants of a performance art project conducted last year, involving setting a harp alight, and building another harp to be played by the wind. He stood, as if counting the seconds, wondering how long he should let the sounds drift and reside, before blowtorching another string and setting off another explosion of feedback, noises following like waves as the two suspended halves banged against each other. A few seconds. He let go of another string, and one half of the harp came crashing to the ground. Sound derived from the destruction of its own media. He turned off the blowtorch. That was it.

Turning, we could see Michael Colligan stood over a metal table with a lump of ice, a boilerplate, microphones. He began to slowly work the (dry, as it turns out) ice with little lumps of heated metal, bringing forth hissing and squeals; he teased out fine scrapes using the narrow edge of small bell-like pieces of metal; he jammed and burrowed little metal disks into the block, leaving them to rattle in their slots, hissing and squealing as they went. Eventually, as they slowed, settled and finally stopped, drained of heat, we walked into the next arch, gathered before another projection. Essen had told us that this last piece would be using concentrated hydrochloric acid, and that we should get out as quickly as possible afterwards. Whilst wondering how the hell Health & Safety let them get away with something like this, the projection began – an extreme close-up of fabric being quickly eaten from the inside out towards the edges; accompanying this was an unstoppable torrent of white-hot feedback, like God’s fingernail scraping down the chalkboard of eternity, supplied by the light-to-audio sensors attached to the screen. As each slide is replaced by another of swiftly-decaying fabric, the density and texture of noise changes. Theoretically, they could work through these permutations forever: the process of annihilation leading straight to infinity. But they stopped. No time for applause, though applaud we did, as Essen attempted to usher us out.

I piled out into the night, feeling the way you should feel when you know SOMETHING’S JUST HAPPENED. Having been told that Stereo, where Incapacitants, Blood Stereo and koto player Michio Yagi were playing was “just a block away”, I stumbled around the surrounding streets, only then finding out that I had neglected to get the right address, and gave up. I walked the long road back to the guesthouse, listening to the ear-healing psychedelic calm of Fursaxa. It was going to be a long night.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Infamy, Infamy (They've All Got It In For Me...)

Oh no: The Wire have just put up the second of their Instal 08 galleries, and a little bit of me (no, not that little bit) is poking into the frame of one of their photos - namely, of the estimable Mr. Allen Upton of Dead Sea Liner fame being interviewed by sound artist Jarrod Fowler at the Translation event on the Saturday. I will, no doubt, get round to recounting this occurence if I ever finish writing my bloody reviews and continue with my Instal travelogue...

Anyway, here are some videos I chanced upon from the Marginal Consort event, definitely my highlight of the weekend, a full review of which by Mr. Euan Andrews will be in next month's Plan B. I would tell you to stay away from the videos from Nackt Insecten's tube gig on the Sunday, featuring my ugly presence as that gig did, but the quality of them is so atrocious I can only assume my secret identity will remain safe.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


It's monstrously short-notice, and almost no-one who reads this thing will not know about it already, or, alternately, give a damn, but I'm still proud to shill for Club Anemone, which returns to The Central this Friday night:

Having heard neither Directorsound nor Diamond Family Archive I can't give descriptions (although I'm assured by Paul that they are fine as hell), but I can say that anyone with the ability to should get down for Powdered Cows And The Toy Throat Alarm Clock, a.k.a. Martin Roberts, whose no-budget shamanism puts the likes of Richard Youngs and their fancy technology to shame.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Broken Record That Keeps On Spinning

I'd like to direct any unaware readers to Tom May's masterly and thorough analysis of the UK Top 40 (and a bit more) (no satisfactory perma-link, but it probably hasn't moved from the top of the page) - it shows, perhaps, that one can no longer think of the mediocrity that fills the charts as a kind of systemic corruption, but as a structural problem, so deeply rooted that almost nothing can get into the charts that isn't hopelessly dull, naff or rote. This is an area fraught with problems for me, as an experimental music fan: the standard line for avant-music enthusiasts is that popular music, as such, will always be crap, because of its being engineered to suit 'popular tastes' (this latter term left conveniently vague, but with the implication that, in order to appeal to the widest possible audience, music must be as aesthetically watered-down and unadventurous as possible); but this, as far as I'm concerned, caricatures the notion of 'public taste' in a distinctly unlikeable way. The notion that people essentially can't be trusted to pick their own music is the kind of misanthropic cultural scare-mongering I gave up quite a while ago. In either case, it's contradicted by a vast swathe of evidence: the fact that many of Timbaland's best productions - possibly the most conceptually and musically exciting and experimental the Nineties produced - got into the top echelons of the chart (Aaliyah's 'More Than A Woman' hitting No. 1, Missy Elliott's 'Get Ur Freak On' reaching No. 4), and that considerably more people bought those records than buy the emissions of whichever identikit balladeer has come to the top this week, gives the lie to the entire notion.

Neither does cultural theorist and jazz hater Ted Adorno's notion of the 'culture industry' wherein, to quote wikipedia, "society was controlled though a top-down creation of standardized culture that intensified the commodification of artistic expression", entirely help - it denies agency to cultural creators in a way that seems both incorrect and almost dangerous: even within the major label system (to say nothing of international independent labels), there are people working to make music their way, and often coming out with very good, not to mention popular, results. There isn't any apparent 'standardisation' of culture in this chart; looking at it, it's a desperately mixed grab bag full of nothing: a bit of R&B-peppered trance, some overenthusiastic pub-rock, dumb (and dull) as dirt synthy rap, a lot of earnest balladry with OTT inflections and soft-rock guitars, apparent 'soul' (Lord knows that's what Winehouse and Ronson pretend to), ghastly white-as-the-pure-snow 'indie' - the only standardised factor is the level of dullness and mediocrity involved. The obvious parallel would be with the 'traditional' image of music in the early '70s - the 'salad mix' albums produced by the likes of Mud and 10CC: some cod-reggae here, a bit of flat country, a saxophone solo, all over the same plodding beat, with the same ghastly vocals; casting about desperately for novelty, drowning in a drought. (An aside: this 'traditional' image of the early 70s is of course, a minor fiction - there was a lot of exciting stuff happening (roots reggae, dub, the gender- and genre-bending power of glam, the avant-fringe that followed in the wake of Captain Beefheart and the Canterbury scene, the continued explorations of free improvisation); the parallel to now would be the continuing flow of exciting stuff produced by the international experimental underground.) It seems, as I've said, to be not so much any kind of mass stupidity or hesitancy on the part of the public, but a structural problem: the economic and artistic structure of the industry is such that it produces a universal mindset pathologically incapable of producing or accepting anything new or exciting.

I say 'new' in addition, because accompanying this tendency towards total bland-out is an endemic reliance both on the music of the past, and from the work of other bands. The Ronson-Winehouse cover of 'Valerie' and the new Duffy album (both of which are in constant rotation at work) are cases in point: Jools Hootenanny knees-up atmosphere, cloying reverence (to objects which, actually, were rather crap in the first place - and this is me, speaking as a Phil Spector fan), disgusting petit-bourgeois self-satisfaction. Acknowledgement of the past is unavoidable in the production of music, to the extent that the constituent language of any art-form is determined by its historical development, but it doesn't necessarily mean producing music that is simply derivative: free improv, experimental noise, hip-hop, experimental folk (such as that put out by the Bo'Weavil and Language Of Stone labels) and the profusion of electronic musics show that it's possible to create and sustain living traditions that can still produce original, exciting music. There's certainly no dearth of interesting ideas floating around, and no lack of interesting ideas from the past to build on (and I use that phrase deliberately). Perhaps then, what we are seeing is a collective and individual failure of will to do so, the music being, as May puts it, "fundamentally handicapped in that those behind it or performing it impose limits on themselves and what they will give to their audience": they are not prepared to try new things in the hope that it will attract more listeners. Maybe what we're seeing at the moment is not so much the very bottom of music history's innovational barrel, but an ultimately transitional phase between the major-label era and one in which DIY labels, enabled by the Internet, music production software, and the easy accessibility of CD manufacturing equipment, will essentially rule the music landscape; one drained and battered by compromise.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

A Hard-Workin' Man

Theoretically, I should perhaps apologise for my prolonged absence from here, but after all I'm not beholden to anyone with regards to all of this writing. Occasionally, I feel this space as more of a metaphorical millstone around my neck (an obligation to write something, anything) than a possible place to fill with writing. Partly because my obligatory writing has been filling up my time so much recently - live reviews and small record reviews for Plan B, live reviews for BhOne, and lingering possibilities, half-finished posts that might eventually go up here; the fact that I'm working almost twice the number of hours I'm contracted to isn't especially helpful; I also happen to be basically bone idle. Spending my evenings relentlessly tapping away on a keyboard might be more noble - and practically better, keeping the writing brain in shape - but in reality I prefer spending my evenings reading other blogs, messageboards, books (currently on Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum), drinking red wine, and going to gigs (on the few occasions I do so.)
There's also the small matter of my actual interest in any possible writing subjects. I generally have absolutely no energy to listen to the news, let alone get worked up about it - every night brings the same result, the country going even further to the dogs. My reading and listening (and that includes downloading) habits are such that I can barely give each new album much thought before moving onto the next - enough time to listen, not enough time to forge words. So, many posts continue to hang around on my hard-drive, perpetually unfinished - often because their premises were, on second thought, absolutely ridiculous and hole-ridden, sometimes because I simply don't know how to write them well, usually because I've moved on.
Most of the friends who I see regularly - more often than not, at gigs (the only occasions for which I seem able to leave the house, bracing walks and work excepted) are artists or musicians - both, in some celebrated cases - but I don't know a single other writer (excepting, of course, Frances, although I've never read her work). Not to pretend it's a valid excuse, but there's an immediacy to making music or drawings that writing lacks, completely and utterly. Writing is, more than anything, a process of construction, making something artificial, the creation of something separate from the writer. The self-alienating quality of writing is at its very core, and constitutes the most unpleasant part of the composing process: it struggles against its very existence, refuses to completely settle into the meanings with which it is identified. I feel almost completely disgusted with any piece of writing I do, as soon as I'm finished - I'm already pretty fed up with this one, and I'm not even finished yet. Writing a piece of poetry recently for an online interview with Warwick University was a process of torture: every line I came up with, I hated, but seeing as it fitted into the poem, and conveyed what I wanted, it had to do. I'm just about able to separate the end product from the unpleasant business of the process when writing reviews for publication, but even then the business is painful: working and reworking, starting again and honing further. By the time I send them off I'm usually sick of the damn things; it's only when I clap eyes on them in the magazine a month later that I can separate the two. It becomes another voice amid the clamour.
And that is, probably, the main difficulty I have doing any kind of writing whatsoever: the sheer superfluity of the act itself. There are so many voices out there doing this thing considerably better than myself, and doing it first. Open yr average magazine, and (if you're reading Plan B or The Wire) you'll immediately find someone writing much better than me, or (if you're reading Vice, Dazed And Confused, etc.) someone no doubt writing far worse, but with the ineffable confidence that bored affluence and status as 'media spokespeople' inspires. If I want to write something about an album I'm listening to, the likes of Dusted's Doug Mosurock, Jon Dale, or (to pick a name out of thin air) Ben from Stereo Sanctity, or K-Punk, make it essentially unnecessary for me to write anything. With any given release, my work will simply be following the opinions of others, usually the ones I first heard about the album from. Lord knows you don't have to read anything I might have to say about Gowns, because there has already been three good-to-astonishing reviews (inc. a live review by the inimitable Petra Davis - it's unlikely I'll ever even get the chance to see them, so what I might have to say on the matter is absolutely negligible) in Plan B. Anything I might have to say about the more-or-less ancient albums I'm still discovering - for example, John Coltrane's Ascension, which I got for Xmas - is buried beneath a avalanche of text from the last fourty years. I'm pretty much at the bottom of the pile when it comes to the writing talent at Plan B; my live reviews, compared to their average fare, is melodramatic, self-indulgent, relentlessly dull. This is what it means to have a life devoted to text, to words: a minor kind of suffocation, burial.
This isn't something I should really worry about at all - there's a lifetime of writing to be done. It's just an explanation. Expect more writing, though - I can't bloody afford not to do it.

Instal Festival 2008: Part 1

Thursday 14th February

So it is, of course, the usual method: up too early, too much to eat for breakfast, packed and ready on the station platform by 7.45. City types, travelling from their gated Bournemouth communities to London pigpens, create a line of briefcases along the platform. I settle myself down in a daze, almost thoughtless; the train pulls away, moving through the culverts of Boscombe, Pokesdown, speeding through the thinner suburbs that connect with Christchurch, and it’s only then I can partly relax: I’m finally doing what I’d planned, it’s happening how it should. Like being stuck inside a film, future memories. The train carries on over the flat, hedged country that connects us with the New Forest; trees multiply either side of the line, gazes disappear down into the deep woodland I always thought of exploring. Visiting my aunt and uncle at their farm, near Beaulieu, we would take walks with the dogs through the relatively tame woods around them; more than once, I got stuck in mud, and had to be pulled from my Wellington boots, followed, with an almighty efforts, by the boots themselves. The woods set off mental triggers, phantom memories: the sleeping forest around Kurt – oops, sorry, ‘Blake’s – mansion in Van Sant’s Last Days; the hours I spent in the tiny copse in Littledown, reading Camus’ The Rebel; the Walden-like communes of occultists and ‘free-thinkers’ who lived, isolated, in the New Forest during the Victorian era. We stop a few times, gliding sleepily to the tiny platforms of these backwoods stations; some schlep in a business suit sits next to me, asks whether I like Japan’s Tin Drum (the title of which came from my eponymous reading material), reads his BMW manual. I sit, listen to Oren Ambarchi, Charalambides, watch the stasis of deep leaf litter. My downloading activities, more frequent in recent days, whilst despicable, serve their purpose.

The words popping up become a litany of obscure names, sleepy villages, trees hanging over lanes distant from the stations. Emerging out into the desolation surrounding Southampton – old industrial parks, what I think are artificial swamps, the carcasses of abandoned boats – prepares us for the run up to London. The historic character of these spots – the rural spaces interspersed with railway villages, cathedral-infected Winchester, the sprawling non-place of Basingstoke – seems almost erased, their psychogeographic character standardised, unreadable from a train window. Connection brings homogenisation, but not in a good way: the ‘existential’ writers who railed against the ‘machine society’ in the 1950s were still dealing with an efficiently brutal Fordism – beneath the banally shiny surface lurked violence. Nowadays, homogeneity is just that; one wonders how long before buildings and landscapes are reduced to pure surface, their functional insides removed to leave simply a façade. By the time you head towards Reading, you’re already in London satellite country – an endless suburbia, a Britain sponsored by Barratt Homes and numerous American multinationals. Everywhere looks rather like the upmarket parts of Boscombe – ill-built sandy brick boxes, tarmac, bridges and underpasses thrusting their geometry across the traveller’s vision. It’s no wonder Iain Sinclair, in London Orbital, twinned Metroland with the asylum colonies that were swept out to the capital’s edges: here, on its Western periphery, there are still cracks in the façade of Capital, a boredom not yet elevated (or alleviated) by mall non-entertainments; an older, nastier violence still just pokes through. The transition into ‘London proper’ is slow, odd: there is no violent change once inside the orbital motorway, just that the streets are a bit wider, the trees slightly more plentiful. But where you might expect the smallest intervals of country or pseudo-country between satellite towns, here it just goes on, and on, endlessly. The architecture becomes weirder, older – compacted buildings that look as if they’ve been sawn-off, grey stone pubs smaller than your average NHS surgery. The topography, the micro-regional separations that make sense when on the ground simply become alienating when glimpsed from afar like this. Eventually, there’s no room even for the train above ground, and we’re forced into culverts between buildings that open up into the long, desolate approach to Waterloo.

My first time back in London for an age, and I’m almost shaking as I leave the train: London seems to exist almost as a parallel universe with its own logic, one motivated by cold mania. I practically rush to get off the platform, run straight for the Underground station. At this point, I feel like I’m running purely on adrenaline, instinct: the possibilities of fucking up, of things going wrong, that I had contemplated so many times before, didn’t even occur to me; the tunnels, which I had always thought of as a labyrinth, seemed only to lead towards the destination. Once at King’s Cross, with almost 40 minutes to spare, I wander outside – getting funny looks for taking a photograph of the bizarrely-constructed (Victorian white brick, but looking as if it should be the corner of a much larger building) Scala, pay a visit to the famous Housman’s bookshop (making a mental note to return with more money), popping into Soho Books (only, I may add, browsing the ground floor, not the rather more rum section upstairs). Once on the train – the carriages are helpfully indicated this time, as opposed to those of the accursed Southwest Trains – I struggle to get to my seat, and remain determined not to move from it. Pulling away from the capital, I feel almost a sense of relief – the trip was finally properly underway, all I had to do was sit, carried away from the distorting, deathly gravity of the bloated South.

There’s no getting away from it, even if we have the excuse of being born here – England is a strange country. This is especially apparent when glimpsed from train windows (apparently one of Alex Neilson’s favourite hobbies on train journeys is making sketches based on these fleeting visual impressions): the flat, undifferentiated land-mass of Herefordshire blends into the Midlands, operating with the same aesthetic logic: namely, that there is none. Supposedly one of the most affluent and (previously) industrially successful nations on earth, we still have, just outside the population centres, vast swathes of land apparently doing nothing; divided by the same criss-crossing patterns of hedges and stone fences for hundreds of years, apparently left without any design other than the annual trimming and reaping. The Kipling England of bowling greens, small chapels and hay-making screens something much darker, much more interesting – the world accessed in English folk song, the blackened drift of Mick Harris/Martyn Bates’ Murder Ballads.
After Peterborough, the country begins to get rougher – the further North we travel, the more this atmosphere seems to emanate from the land itself. By the time we approach York, the landscape consists of endless rocky hills covered in short grass, scattered sheep. The washed-out, drifting tones of Steven R. Smith’s Owl (a pirated MP3 edition, sorry) proves apposite. The Pennines seem almost part of a far-away dream as we head towards Darlington, Newcastle, and the east coast. Entering Newcastle, I’m overjoyed to spy the Sage Gateshead, where Jandek played in 2005, his second ever show, and 5 months before the London concert at which I caught him – a freakish, bulbous structure, like a Dune sandworm had lain down on the land, died, and been conveniently coated with disco-ball mirrors; the graceful span of the Gateshead bridge shows up the pitiful efforts of London architects, the wobbling ‘Millennium’ bridge. Hissing on through the countryside towards the eminence of Durham – the Gothic beauty of the cathedral surrounded by reams and reams of red-brick terraces, distant wooded hills encircling the city – we hit the east coast. There’s almost no room between us and the North Sea – a grassy embankment, bare cliff, then endless white and green expanse. The sun shines, for the first time in what feels like an age. From there, the view is almost unchangingly beautiful: up through the bleak beaches and rich (and decidedly provincial) town of Berwick-Upon-Tweed, up and around Britain’s hump towards Motherwell, the medieval greyness of Edinburgh. Om’s Conference Of The Birds is playing loudly as we split the country in two, pull in past the black expanses of industrial parks and tenements south of the Clyde.
The less said of the evening, the better, perhaps. I feel vaguely overwhelmed by the scale of Glasgow – having found no information whatsoever at the Tourist Information office, and having no change, I end up walking to my hotel; in fact, overshooting it, having to go back by quite some distance before I get to the slightly better suburb of Craigpark, and scour the hill. By the time I arrive, I’m famished, exhausted, running on adrenaline and bile. The guest house itself is absolutely lovely – incredibly cosy, lacking only a stag’s head or stuffed owl. The proprietress is very friendly, and seemingly indulgent of my eccentricities (the main thing, when it comes to me.) After a short recuperation, I stumble out into the night; among the Chinese takeaways, tattoo parlours, pawn shops and boarded-up relics of the East End, sitting in a collection of tacky bridal shops and nail parlours, is Mono, where I have a somewhat embarrassed meal. No, I’ve never ordered at a restaurant before, discounting your average Ballardian Chinese – the staff seem distinctly bemused by my directness, and the fact that I’m eating alone on Valentine’s night, but ask no questions. The food, it should be mentioned, is the best of its kind I’ve ever had (and vegan as well!) – a beautiful salad with toasted pine-nuts, and a gorgeous (and big) vegetarian lasagne. I walk back, and sit listening to Om on my enormous and deep bed. Sleep (as innocent as I can manage) is slept.