Saturday, December 06, 2008

Heard No Longer


“Privatise to the dead
her memory:
***************let her wounds weep
into the lens of oblivion.”

--Geoffrey Hill

I’ve recently been reading Philip Hoare’s Spike Island. I’m not sure whether it’s simply to remind me of home – though it strikes me as odd that I had to come to Coventry to find it in a library; in any case, I can hardly lay claim to Southampton as ‘home’ territory, though I do have relatives there who certainly know enough of the local lore to know of Netley, the site of the military hospital Hoare chronicles, once the longest single building in the world, a vast monument to imperial majesty (and brutality.) Its history, and the fact of its dissolution, constitutes one of the strangest episodes in Southampton’s history, and a vast hole in its collective memory; Hoare writes of how the hospital took on the Gothic lure of the ruined Netley abbey, of how it cast something of a shadow across his own life, how that darkness remained rooted in the enormous empty site where the hospital once stood. Jonathan Meades, in his 2007 programme Father to the Man, a tour of the sites he associates with his late father, speaks of fishing in the Hampshire Avon as a young boy, and habitually seeing Netley hospital on business trips to Southampton with his father, an agent for McVities’; he calls Netley hospital “the building whose loss I most rue”. I read this kind of thing, perhaps, because I want to feel that there are some strata of history to what I know than merely my own; I want to look under a rock and find ghosts.

It is, of course, far from healthy. The knowledge that everything passes is, in spite of the awfulness of human life, ultimately comfortless; obsessing over decay, poring over foggy shapes of memory are strange and morbid things to do. But I like to think that this kind of remembering is, in some sense, necessary for life: like the current ideological ban on discontent and suffering in late capitalist society (not, it should be noted, that it stems actual suffering), memory and history other than that deemed necessary by capital – the work of nostalgia programs, the West’s ‘triumphs’ over Nazism and Soviet Communism, etc. – is seemingly outlawed. So, we – by which I mean, of course, I – pick over memory, treasure fugitive histories, and draw lines between the two; we try to restore to history, as we end up receiving it, the appropriate grain of memory, its faded and accentuated textures, feeling things in history like the hairline fractures in a record – the points where the past might erupt into the present.

Jon Wozencroft’s cover for the last Philip Jeck album I bought – 2002’s Stoke – showed daylight leaking reluctantly through chintzy curtains, into a suburban room, the kind of place you can imagine with a record player, and a set of mouldering LPs in one of the hidey-hole cabinets. The back of his new album, Sand, is a detail from the kind of sub-William Morris floral sofa cover found all over Britain; I can remember growing up with a similarly-decorated one. Open the sleeve, and, in seemingly deliberately-bad typed print, is a short dedication: “In memory of Phyllis May Jeck (1920-2008).” Another fading of the light. Whenever I read that dedication, I think of the lady’s voice which appears midway through the new version of Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic – a memorial to Southampton’s other great casualty – which features Jeck alongside the Italian ensemble Alter Ego (a post on which should have been done in February, but might be finished eventually), singing the doomed vessel’s last song as its distorted memory, rendered in strings, curls around her. The thick fog of static that Jeck opened …Titanic with seems partially reprised in ‘Unveiled’, an ebbing, drunken drone increasingly obscured by a miasma of clicks and hiss, counter-melodies – but they’re not melodies, are they? They might once have been so, but now are flattened, abstracted, severed and looped to the point of merely being sound sources – springing up like arguing currents, joined by the amplified skip of a turntable needle, suddenly joined by what might be, in the distance, guitars from some African pop record, marimbas looped from a Les Baxter confection, or a malfunctioning, processed music box. The original drone filters back in, gradually topped by a flock of chirruping flutes, the cut-off scraping of a needle joined by what stretches out to metamorphose into a sample of plainchant, dying out into nothingness.

The following track ‘Chime Again’ seemingly takes its lead, only to build into one of the most affecting pieces on the record: out-of-synch loops of distant chiming and guitars, blurred almost into unrecognisability, suddenly dovetail into a slowed, pitch-shifted string theme which rises, joined by the strangest of tiny chimes, as if someone were playing a triangle down a far tunnel. A vaguely familiar theme from an orchestral record is dropped in – imagine the split-second snippets of a Steinski mix – and out, fuzz and heavily decayed strings massing into a thickening river; the waters swirling over the Titanic’s deck. It’s almost impossible for me to emphasise too strongly how un-astringent it is, how easy on the ear: when people hear the words “avant-garde turntablist” they usually think either of some Christian Marclay vinyl-butchery, some wannabe Otomo Yoshihide finding himself terribly amusing, or someone playing it platterless (which can be good, but often is decidedly not.) Jeck’s work, by contrast, could hardly be more sensual, its slow-moving layers of texture enswathing the listener, morphing and intertwining like river currents. And no, since you ask, it isn’t, in any sense, cosy gaseous ambient (not that there’s an enormous amount wrong with that) – there are, all the time, sudden explosions of noise, like those suburban curtains being thrown back to flood light into the room. In ‘Fanfares’, at 1.56 there is a faint rumbling amid the fanfare loops, shaft after small shaft of over-bright melody breaking in until it is almost quivering with illumination; the loops slow, cycle back on themselves, cut themselves short, fade. These sounds can never be simply abstract, peeling wallpaper music: though mutilated, re-arranged, water-sodden and begrimed, the samples nonetheless refer back to something else; smeared and decayed to an outline of their former selves, they make us nonetheless guess at the countenance they once bore: it’s precisely the impossibility of its recovery that makes it so poignant. A fanfare, reedy and grainy, slowed by what sounds like a bobbing catch in the record, unfurls, vaguely familiar, catches at us, dissolves in ebbs, multiplying over on itself to create an inadvertent version of ‘Come Out’; crawling along, awash in tidal echoes of itself, a constant bed of vinyl hiss underlying it, it takes nearly five minutes to resolve and fade out, in what sounds almost like an outro from an early hip-hop record, taking one word or sound and trip-looping it.

That the fanfare – blooming repeatedly throughout the record – might strike the listener as familiar is itself odd: ELP’s take on Copland’s Republican anthem ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’ is one of that strange category of records that reached the upper echelons of the charts, but which no-one really remembers (except Tom Ewing, of course.) Jeck, a teenager in the North (a poverty zone within what was, at the time, effectively a Third World nation), would leapfrog away from stuff like this, into disco and early hip-hop: his models as a DJ were not John Cage or Pierre Schaeffer, but Walter Gibbons and Larry Levan; he became an avant-gardist through a deep and abiding love for popular music. And after all, why should it be any different? In retrospect, this record makes me think somewhat of Susanna Wallumrod’s version of Abba’s ‘Lay All Of Your Love On Me’ (on her new album, which I reviewed for next month’s Plan B), its stark, harrowing piano-ballad reimagining drawing all of its poison into the light: the most astonishing of emotional gut-punches emerging in the light of – whodathunkit? – the mainstream pop industry (or, for that matter, John Cage
performing ‘Water Walk’ on Italian prime-time TV). And what, after all, is at the centre of any record but a hole, an absence?

By the time we reach ‘Fanfares Forward’, following the drifting ghost-song of ‘Shining’, the fanfare has receded into the background, subjected to a shower of horses’ hooves (although they might, equally, be catches in the record). Pale, wobbly, shimmering, it cycles alone, in a pool of its own reverberations, before amplifying, surging out of the speakers, billowing like a shining cloud filling every nook and cranny, every nick and inch of grain in the record’s surface audible, mutated into cracks and glitches of sound. As ‘Fanfares Over’ springs into unlife, it has disintegrated so far that the overtones, crackle and the sound of turntable slip as the disk sloshes around – an acoustic mirror of the torrent of horses’ hooves – overtakes it, accruing into a vast channeling wash of sound, then slowly dying away. That fanfare, now so thin and bright as to be almost a particularly reedy synth melody, picks up the thread, a bobbing sea-line of almost-melody, an ebb-tide of crackle, almost subsuming it until it the groove, finally is locked forever, the fanfare now a growing, swirling howl of eye-screwingly luminous noise. It carries on until, perhaps 3, 4 minutes later – who’s counting? – it ceases. Those couple of silent seconds before the disk cuts out are as bewildering and powerful as the silent bar at the heart of Bach’s ‘Actus Tragicus’ – the funeral cantata.

Recently, when I was back in Bournemouth for the Unsafe Festival – over the weekend of Halloween and All Saints’ Day – I bought a copy of Keith Rowe and John Tilbury’s Duos For Doris (oddly enough, from Mark Wastell’s Sound 323-stocked stall at the second night of the festival –
another unfortunate disappearance). I found it, for a variety of reasons, impossible to listen to until some weeks afterwards, partially because I couldn’t find a spare 70 minutes in which to take in ‘Cathnor’, partially because I had planned to write a poem about it (a scheme that didn’t end up working out.) It was recorded in 2003, two days after the death of Tilbury’s mother, and with the invasion of Iraq looming. The vast length and seemingly minimal musical activity – Rowe layering hums, drones and scratching noises from his electronics and guitar-guts, Tilbury scraping and beating the body of the piano – make it seem as if we were hearing a life dwindle, endlessly, to nothing. When, around 40 minutes in, Rowe’s attacks rise to a helpless, raging scream, Tilbury pounding chords so furiously the recording begins to distort, it comes as an absolute shock. What perturbs more, though, is the half-hour return to quietude that follows it: an EKG monitor slowly ceasing functioning. The dialectic knots, defying our demands for music, as life, to be one thing or the other. The Emily Dickinson quote, from the final stanza of ‘The Chariot’, on the cover of Sand gives us to gives another meaning to the constantly cycling loop of horses’ hooves; it’s interesting to see what Jeck cuts out: “Since then ‘tis centuries; but each/Feels shorter than the day/I first surmised the horses’ heads/Were toward eternity.” The question, of course, is: An eternity of what? Death and the song of his steeds’ steps will carry on forever; but where and what is the “unknown country” that he brings them to? We look after their trail, think on their progress, wonder.

3 Comments:

Blogger Murphy said...

good post.

I must admit though, that 'Sand' is not Jeck's best work. Jeck insists upon producing his own records, and he usually just culls them from live performances (speaking of which, I remember going to a concert and seeing Fennesz and Jeck for the first time. Before that evening I had Jeck down as a bit of a one-trick-pony, whereas Fennesz could do no wrong, but after being bored by the guitarist -just an off day, really- and truly mesmerised by Jeck I had to re-evaluate that one...).

As a result, 'Sand' relies too much on a rather irritating swooshing phaser sound that is applied all over the mix, but it's still invigoratingly noisy at times, and 'Fanfares Forward' is brilliant. My vote for best Jeck recording is his set from the first Spire live album, which captures perfectly the mix of haunted delicacy, grinding dissonance and slow thematic progression (with a gloriously out of context AC/DC guitar riff exploding in at inopportune moments).

In fact, around the time 'Sand' was released I spoke to Jon, who was musing over the notion of whether Jeck should be forced into working with a producer in future. My solution would be to get him to work with a singer, but that would be a whole other sound-world entirely...

December 7, 2008 at 3:39 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Well, I must admit, embarrassingly, I've never heard any of Jeck's pre-'Stoke' work (or 'Seven', for that matter) so I can't really comment; I'll definitely have to hunt down that Spire album ('Live in Geneva Cathedral', I presume?)

A singer? Now that sounds promising. My vote for either Trish Keenan or Diamanda Galas...

December 8, 2008 at 4:34 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

Nice piece, cheers. The Hoare book is excellent isn't it? Sebald was a fan, apparently.

December 15, 2008 at 9:23 AM  

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