Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Criticism By Other Means

I have two short pieces (on George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral and Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format) in this new collection from Review 31, coming out soon from Zero Books

The book, which will be published in June, also features writing by Nina Power, Benjamin Noys, Ian Birchall, Gee Williams, Dan Barrow, Hugh Foley, and many other fine people. It is available to pre-order now from The Book Depository or Amazon (10% cheaper at the former).

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Blue Goo Cometh: Patrick Furness at Food Face, Peckham

Via Facebook

Patrick Furness’s live intervention at the Food Face artspace presents itself like a freeze frame from a science fiction film which the viewer is invited to step into and wander about. A trail of viscous blue goo leads from the loosely-curtained entrance into the gallery space. Following this stream of azure slime through Food Face’s angular confines, we discover the artist himself, lying on his back in a full-body puffa suit, covered from neck to toe in this same sludgy substance. 

From his feet, the goo extends further, ending in a puddle beneath a vertical bank of five TV monitors – like those used by a film director on set. Bar the occasional flicker, each monitor displays a static frame of the same blue monochrome. 

It’s almost as if our protagonist was surprised, while watching Derek Jarman’s Blue, to find the colour leaking out of the screen, overcoming and engulfing him, pinning him down to the floor. But absent are the voices of Jarman and his co-narrators; instead we hear waves of electronic sound flowing from concealed speakers. Resonant synth pads cycle through a loop of a dozen-odd unequally-lengthed chords (a twelve-bar blues?), alternately bright with subdued technological optimism and seething with barely suppressed foreboding. 

It was as a sound artist – albeit of a peculiarly playful sort – that I first encountered Furness. At the Royal Festival Hall in 2010, Furness covered the Clore Ballroom in boards of MDF and laminated them with 7.9km of magnetic audio tape. Visitors were invited to drive remote controlled cars with playback heads under their chassis over the tape race tracks, picking up the electronic sounds recorded thereon as they went. Around the same time, his band Nine Owls in a Baguette performed with extravagant costumes and homemade synthesizers at a little cabaret evening I used to put on at a jazz club in Greenwich.

Several years later, and Furness is now focusing (so Food Face’s press release tells me) on “humour, conspiracy, and his place in the universe.” The present show, R- - -Retrograde reflects his “ongoing research around cosmology” with an oblique look at retrograde motions and inverse evolutions.

There is a pervading sense of excess about the piece – why five screens? Why so much goop? Like the old biotech spook story of grey goo overtaking the planet, we seem to be witnessing someone literally flattened and surrendered by a massive superfluity of information, of mucilaginous media flow, or of aesthetics, even. Think of modern art’s long love affair with the cerulean, from Picasso to Barnett Newman.  He could have been bludgeoned to the floor by art itself, like an Yves Klein happening gone horribly wrong.

But there has been another, rather more practical use of ultramarine gunk recently. Over the last few years hazardous materials crews in Japan have been liberally applying a gelatinous blue goo in and around the exclusion zone surrounding the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Apparently this stuff, called DeconGel, can clean up anything – dirt, toxic contaminants, radiation, you name it – and then just peels off like a latex skin. 

In true comic-book-super-hero-origin-story style, the stuff was only discovered after an accident in a chemistry lab, but with 72 new nuclear reactors currently under construction (according to the IAEA), and weird weather on the rise globally raising the spectre of more uncontrollable and unforeseeable accidents, perhaps this strange blue goo will become an increasingly common sight in cities and rural areas around the world. Patrick Furness’s Retrograde, then, becomes less a step back, more a look ahead.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Enjoy The Silence: Bill Drummond interview from Plan B magazine on The 17, No Music Day, and the end of music

While Bill Drummond punts daffodils beneath Spaghetti Junction, I thought I’d post this interview I conducted with the man for Plan B magazine, November 2006. The photo (above) is from the original copy, taken by Eva Edsjö.

Bill Drummond, formerly one half of arch-pop provocateurs The KLF, has been having fantasies again. Throughout his teenage years, he would dream up fantasy bands. He didn’t need to write the music but he knew what it would sound like; he knew what they would say in interviews; he knew the stage act and where they would perform it. Years later, as a record producer in the Eighties, he would rip off his own fantasies to inform the real bands he was working with.

Over the last few years Bill’s fantasies have taken a darker turn – but also, perhaps, a more profound one. Inspired by Oxford University’s early music Choir Of The Sixteen (“If I’m being flippant I’ll say that I want to go one better”) and a childhood spent singing in Presbyterian church choirs, Bill Drummond has started dreaming of a fantasy choir, led by text-based scores, called The17. And that’s just the beginning. A literal beginning in fact: a Year Zero, a return to first principles. Rip it up and start again.

Imagine if all music had disappeared...

Bill Drummond: “Wouldn’t it be great if we knew music had existed, but the CDs were blank. You’d go to the piano and you can’t do anything, drum kits don’t work, it’s all gone. We’ve still got the emotional need to make music but it cannot be done on any instrument.

“So that’s kind of where thinking about the voice came from. I wrote this score and, the way it’s written, any 17 people could get together and do it. But as soon as I did it as a performance in front of an audience I realised that isn’t the way it works. Having an audience, it suddenly becomes show business. What had worked really well was just the group of 17 people doing it together. So it’s evolved from that, this thing in my head: not just wanting it to be any 17 people that would do it, but – this is the ideal – it should be done with non-musical people.”

So why The17?

“I always knew this fantasy choir was going to be called The17. I remember hearing that Beatles song with the line, “She was just 17/You know what I mean” on the radio when I was about 11, and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what you mean’ – well, years later, obviously I knew what it meant! From that point something clicked in my head whenever I’d hear ‘17’ in the lyric of a song. And the age of 17 is quite a strange age, this dark era – well, it was for me – when you’re into dark music, whether that’s Shostakovich or Nirvana.

“I remember, five years ago, being on Oxford Street, and I thought I’d pop into HMV. I remember just walking through the door and I felt such a dread. There’s aisle upon aisle of CDs, in every genre possible, and I just thought, I know whatever I get here, it’s not going to open another door in my head. That night, I got home, I did some email, and – it was about the time Napster was at its full fame – I remember feeling incredibly depressed. It was as if every piece of recorded music from the whole history of recorded music was behind that computer screen laughing at me. It was saying, ‘Go on, download us!’ I could have it all now, just download it and listen to it, and this, for some reason, really depressed me.

“So I tried an idea the next day, whereby I’d only listen to new music – music made by people this year and who had never made music before. That’s what I did for nearly a year, and I did it religiously.

“Every weekend I’d look at the music pages of the Sunday paper and pick something new – whatever genre – it didn’t matter, it just had to be new. And my thinking was: if you can’t say it in the first album then you can’t say it.

“And most of the time I’d just say to myself, ‘This is shit, this was done before, 10, 15, 20 or even 40 years ago.’ The music wasn’t opening any new doors in my head. It just wasn’t new enough.”

So tell me about No Music Day – it’s presented on the website as a score like those for The17... 

“I wanted to see if I could go a week without hearing music. At all. And I never even attempted it, because the idea was that if you start on Monday, and then late Tuesday you hear a piece of music, even unintentionally, you had to start the seven days all over again. I realised it was just impossible. I mean, I live with a family. This cannot be done unless I go away and block myself off in the mountains. Then I brought it down to one day and I thought, OK, there’ll be one day and it’s No Music Day.”

One of the things I found interesting about the website were the little personal testimonies by people saying that once they’d stopped listening to records and CDs, they started to find all sorts of other things musical and started to wonder to themselves, ‘Am I breaking the rules by paying attention to the music in the sound of the rain?’ 

Was that ever part of the idea from the beginning, to raise this question of the nature of music and how to define it, where its borders are?

“No. I’m not saying, listen to the sound of the rain. That’s not the score. Mine is: give yourself a day off. See if you can go a day without actually hearing anything musically and actually think for yourself what it is you want from music, instead of just accepting it.”

Something that struck me about The17 is that each piece is in a sense both a score and a manifesto. The Manual that you wrote many years ago [with Jimmy Cauty], How To Have a Number One The Easy Way, is also both a score and a manifesto. They’re both: anyone can do it, go out and get a bunch of people together... 

“Basically, I’ve had one idea, and I’m aware of that now. Christ, I’m 30 years older and I’m still doing the same thing. But the main thing for me, the main message that I’ve wanted to put out, is: don’t wait to be asked. If you want to do something, go and do it. Whatever it is.”

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Voices of the Unborn: Opening Night of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera House

To begin a performance of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten with an eye-catching shadowplay cast by the body of the very woman whose lack of a shadow gives the work its title is an act either of extraordinary bravery or extreme folly. Either way, it is characteristic of Claus Guth’s production as a whole: exquisite to look at, but seldom operating in service to the clear elucidation of Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s already somewhat convoluted story. 

Flush from the success of Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss and Hofmannstahl had sought to create a modern fairytale. What they came up with was something far more dark and mysterious than anything that spring from the pen of the Brothers Grimm. An Empress who lacks a shadow has three days in which to find one or her husband, the Emperor, will be turned to stone. 

With her Nurse, she descends to the world of humans in order to persuade the young wife of a poor tanner to forswear childbirth and, in so doing, sell them her shadow in exchange for worldly luxury and sensual pleasure. Though haunted by the voices of her unborn children, the tanner’s wife at first agrees, but the Empress is increasingly gripped by remorse for the husband…

Guth decks the stage in curved mahogany and peoples it with a supporting cast of animal-headed extras. It is as though the archetypes of Jung’s collective unconscious had broken free and invaded the doctor’s own study. As this image of a secessionist drawing room is at first invaded by the world of fairytales only to withdraw back into itself, we are inclined to treat the whole tale as the dream of a Freudian hysteric from the comfort of her psychiatrist’s couch.

With its vast, densely packed orchestra, conductor Semyon Bychkov had to carefully squeeze his way through to the podium at the start of each act (to increasingly rapturous applause on each occasion). With such resources available, the score produces a tremendous dynamic range and a whole swathe of novel timbral combinations, all deftly handled by the Soviet-born conductor (a former student of Ilya Musin). 

As melodic as Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau ohne Schatten is also, in its own way, as modern as Elektra, and its hard to imagine such a work being composed by anyone who hadn’t previously written both. And if the richly textured orchestration bears its debt to Wagner, there are many more who are indebted in turn. Every scene threw out so many musical ideas, each one the seed of many a Hollywood film score. 

A flop on its first performance, Strauss and Hofmannstahl’s fifth collaboration was for a long time rarely performed for it places enormous demands – particularly on its three female leads. Emily Magee (as the Empress), in particular, sung superbly, handling the role’s many high notes and coloratura passages with seeming ease. At times, however, despite their different tessituras, it was difficult to distinguish one voice from the other. An opera singer’s voice is like an actor’s face, bearer of their emotion, their unique character and identifying signature, and from the upper amphitheatre it wasn’t always clear quite who was singing what. 

There was a tremendous lushness, a kind of aesthetic opulence to every aspect of this production, but it finally did little to reassure the confused voices in the crowd who worried over the plot as they hurried off for ice creams each interval. Still certain moments continue to haunt: the ghostly voices of the unborn children, the Empress’s snarled renunciation: I will not.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

A Huge Growth on the Face of a Beautiful Child: Michael Gira on the New Swans Album

Playing a live solo acoustic set at St. John Church-at-Hackney, last night, Swans mainman, Michael Gira announced plans for a new Swans album to be released this coming May. "Imagine a huge growth on the face of a beautiful child," he said, "and it’s kind of glowing. Then cut that growth off and flush it down the toilet. Well, that’s what it sounds like…"

When I spoke on the phone to Gira last week for this Quietus Essay, we spoke about the rehearsal space he had in Alphabet City, Manhattan in the early ’80s. A windowless shopfront where machine gunfire could be heard at night, I couldn’t help but ask what effect such an environment would have on the music he was making at the time. "Well, I think that exterior kind of describes my insides as well, anyway. So I'm not sure what came first," he replied, laughing down the line. "They’re both equally cataclysmic." 

When pushed, he would finally admit that what he called the "siege mentality" of the place "in retrospect it might have" had some effect on his music. "I would have vehemently denied it at the time. You know, it's not like a painter looking at a landscape and they try to depict what they see. Music is a different thing. It is an experience in itself. I kind of shy away from something that’s trying to depict an emotional state. Rather, I’m more interested in what emotional state the music makes happen by experiencing it."

Friday, 28 February 2014

A Weird Way To Make A Record: George Clinton on Atomic Dog


When I spoke to George Clinton the other week for this Fact piece, I also asked him which, of all the records he’s been involved, he was most proud of, and it was this one, Atomic Dog, that he pointed to, "just because it was that weird."
"It was just a weird situation how it happened. It couldn’t ever happen again because I was fucked up when I did it. They had the tape on backwards and I came in and tried to sing and I’m fucked, I don't notice that it’s backwards. They got the shit on the other side. They got to turn the tape back over to hear the music. But I had it on backwards, all I can hear is shh-sh-shh-shh. That’s why I'm talking: This is the story of a famous dog… Cos I’m trying to wait to see what key it’s in. But there’s nothing but beats so I did my whole part ad-libbing Why must I feel like that. Gary came back and instead of doing it right, he put the harmony on around what I did and I’m basically talking. Why must I feel like that / Why must I chase the cat / Nothing but the dog in me. And it sounds like a brand new style of shit. So now it sounds like its own arrangement. It was a weird way to make a record. They were gonna turn it back over but by this time they had put the bass on there while it was backwards. So now you got a brand new type of thing. I wouldn't even try to do that again. Don't even think about that. It just happened like that."

Saturday, 8 February 2014

All these different worlds… Holly Herndon and the Future of Music


The brilliant new single from Holly Herndon, available from RVNG Intl.

Late last year I interviewed Holly Herndon for this Quietus Essay and as we were chatting, she shared with me her predictions for the future of music over the coming year…
"I see 2014 being full of a lot of hard abrupt edges, a lot of fast changes. It’s less about how, back in the day, you would try to put one reverb on everything so it would sound like it’s in the same space. Fuck that! It’s more interesting to have a snare that’s played in outer space with a vocal that’s happening in a tiny wooden cabin. That’s fine. That’s almost like a return to music concrète but with aural architecture. It’s like a collaging of spaces. And that really is in direct reference to browsers and online experience. All these different worlds jammed up right next to each other…"

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Heavyweight History: Christian Jankowski at the Lisson Gallery

What is the weight of history? Can we measure it, raise it up, overcome it? Might some history weigh heavier on us than other? Thanks to Christian Jankowski and the Polish weightlifting team, we may be a little closer to answering some of these questions. In producing his film Heavy Weight History (2013), the German artist enlisted the help of a group of eleven professional strongmen to attempt to lift a series of historical monuments in and around Warsaw, from statues of the nineteenth century socialist activist Ludwik Waryński to Ronald Reagan.

Poland and, indeed, much of the former eastern bloc, may well be feeling the weight of history bearing down rather heavier than most upon its shoulders at the moment. The violent return of the repressed spectres of the far right and far left alike on the streets of the Ukraine and elsewhere has done little to halt the ongoing erasure of historical monuments from the cities of the ex-USSR and where they are not erased altogether they tend to be shunted into out-of-town theme parks (as in Budapest’s Memorial Park and Grutas Park in Lithuania). As Agata Pyzik remarks in her new book Poor But Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West, the more countries aestheticise their past, the greater their political passivity. In Poland, in particular, the idols of communism were quickly replaced by Western icons like McDonalds.

And so it is with Jankowski’s experiment. Narrated breathlessly and relentlessly in the manner of a televised sporting event by a commentator who details the history of each monument like a
team’s track record, “eleven brave men” in shorts and tank tops hunker down together in order to “face history”. But while the team are able to shift the mid-nineteenth century bronze mermaid from the Old Town Market Square, and even lift up the sleeping soldier who lies amongst the Monument of Polish-Soviet Comradeship, nonetheless one statue in particular proved peculiarly resistant. “Ronald Reagan is like a rock,” announces the commentator triumphantly. “This is the heaviest weight history!”

Around the screen upon which this film plays hang seven photographs, each one 140 by 186.8 cm, capturing for posterity these heroic attempts at shouldering the weight of history. In high contrast black and white and printed on baryt paper, the images transform the efforts to shift these old monuments into monuments themselves. But one thing especially highlighted in the photographs is the way a sheet of off-white fabric is hung behind each monument before lifting, in order to create a blank, context-free background for the action. It’s this final detail that suggests perhaps that the way historical events are framed in public discourse has some bearing on how easy their burden is to shift.

Monday, 23 December 2013

End Of Year Top Ten

Like most freelance writers at this time of year, I've spent much of the last few weeks filing lists of end of year reflections and personal favourites. But I have a confession to make: I lied. On all of them. 

It’s not that I don’t like the things I said I like. I do. But they weren’t really the records or the films or the whatever that meant the most to me this year. My real cultural highlights from the year would all have been completely inadmissible in any of the end of year round-ups I was invited to take part in – because none of them, not one of them, were new this year. 

The songs and films that stayed with me this year were not new releases plugged to me by PRs or eagerly awaited before their gala release. They were old songs that someone linked to the YouTube clip of on Facebook or things I got out of the library or just stuff that I happened to stumble across over the last twelve months for whatever mundane reason now mostly forgotten. 

Before this year, I had never seen Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, for instance. So obviously that’s about a hundred times better than anything that was actually released for the first time this year. 

Similarly, I eventually managed to come up with enough new releases to fill up the top tens The Wire asked of me. But a far more accurate picture of my listening habits this year would look like this…

Thursday, 28 November 2013

I have a thing about music and ‘the post-human’ called ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Violins’ in this here volume. You can buy it. Do let me know what the rest is like…

Saturday, 16 November 2013

“Something to hum while thinking about the end of the world”: Hatsune Miku’s Vocaloid Opera

Last night I saw a pop star, an international celebrity with adoring fans who imitate her style and travel miles to see her. A true global phenomenon. Hatsune Miku took the stage of Paris’s 150 year-old Théâtre du Châtelet dressed in a series of outfits drawn exclusively from Marc Jacobs’s forthcoming spring collection for Louis Vuitton. Her voice soared above a torrent of cascading string arpeggios, white noise bursts, and digital glitches, all emanating from one man with a wild hairdo hunched over in a booth towards the back of the stage, albeit dispersed about the room through a 10.2 channel surround sound system. The stage was decked with vast screen walls receiving over 10,000 lumens from seven different projectors. 

So far, par for the course in an age when spectacular concerts are increasingly a major source of revenue for singers worldwide. Except for one thing: Hatsune Miku never stopped off those video screens. Because Hatsune Miku does not exist.

In 1996, William Gibson wrote a novel called Idoru about a rock star named Rez who falls in love with a synthetically generated Japanese Idol singer named Rei Toei. As her handler Kuwayama explains, Rei Toei is “the result of an array of elaborate constructs that we refer to as ‘desiring machines.’ … aggregates of subjective desire … an architecture of articulated longing …” Her only reality, Rez elaborates “is the realm of ongoing serial creation … Entirely process; infinitely more than the combined sum of her various selves. The platforms sink beneath her, one after another, as she grows denser and more complex…” 

By the time Hatsune Miku started playing ‘live’ arena concerts and opening major rock festivals, she was being described in just these terms: as a virtual Idol singer, the endlessly splintered product of a series of ongoing negotiations and collective fantasies on the part of numerous artists, corporate backers, and fans. But she was not designed as an Idoru like Rei Toei. The creation of Hatsune Miku was much closer to the programming of a new guitar plug-in on Garageband than the grooming of a new pop star.

Miku’s developer, the Crypton Future Media corporation, is a joint stock company (Kabushiki gaisha) founded in Sapporo in 1995. Up until just over five years ago, their business revolved around the production and sale of CDs and DVDs of sound effects, production music and background music, as well as software synthesizer applications for music hardware manufacturers like Roland and Yamaha. When Yamaha released its Vocaloid speech synthesis program in 2004, they contracted Crypton to design two of the virtual singers-in-a-box that came with the package, Meiko and Kaito. Users could buy either of these singers, and simply by entering their desired lyrics and melody, have them sing whatever they wanted.

But three years later, Crypton decided to try something different. When Yamaha released their updated Vocaloid 3 engine, once again they asked Crypton to develop a voice library to sell alongside the software editor. Crypton sampled the Japanese actress Saki Fujita uttering the full range of phonemes, just as they had (using different actors) for their previous Vocaloid products. Then they opted to take this one a step further. So Crypton invited manga artist Kei Garou to design an “android” singer in the distinctive turquoise-blue colour of a Yamaha synthesizer. 

With the image complete, Crypton posted online a personal ‘data sheet’ for their creation, listing her age (16 years old), star sign (virgo), height (5 foot 2), weight (42 kg), birthday (31st August), and best vocal range. They named her Hatsune Miku after the Japanese words for “first” (hatsu), “sound” (ne), and “future” (miku). She was to be “the first sound of the future,” according to her creators, “an android diva in the near-future where songs are lost.” 

To begin with, Miku was marketed, like her predecessors, towards professional music producers. But within four days of her release, fan-made videos of her started to appear on the Japanese video-sharing site Nico Nico Douga. Within twelve days, the Hatsune Miku Vocaloid library had sold un unprecedented 3,000 copies – a figure that has since risen to over 70,000. Canadian fan, Scott Fairbairn claims she is not only “the most illustrated character” of all time, but also “the most prolific singer in history”. Today, lists over 2,000 songs for sale attributed to Miku, many of them by amateur producers, and there are many, many more on YouTube and Nico Nico Douga. Crypton claim there exist over 30,000.

This element of collective, user-generated creation has been the key to Miku’s success. As Fairbairn explains, “One fan might generate an idea for a song and post the partially-finished product on the web, only to have another fan carry on with the project, adding to the original composition and perhaps coming up with a finished song. Then an illustrator might create an image to go with the song, leading to another producer creating a video based on the illustration. Others might create a cover of the same song using the voice of a different Vocaloid.” The process then repeats ad infinitum.

“She’s a wiki-celebrity,” claims MIT professor Ian Condry. “Enough people act on her that she takes on a life, but not of her own – everybody else’s.” While for William Gibson, “Miku is more about the fundamentally virtual nature of all celebrity, the way in which celebrity has always existed apart from the individual possessing it. One’s celebrity actually lives in others.” 

If Crypton were initially taken aback by the scale of Miku’s success, they were quick to catch up and eager to capitalise. They now have their own web community, Piapro, for fans to upload their own Miku-based art and music to, as well as their own record company, KarenT (named after Alvin Toffler’s daughter) to release the best of the fan-made songs. Lucrative corporate sponsorship has come in the form of endorsements for Toyota cars, Google Chrome, the Family Mart supermarket, and Sega video games, who have their own line of Miku games called Project DIVA (an extensive range of projects, nonetheless outnumbered by the huge array of fan-made software applications that bear her image).

In 2009, Hatsune Miku played her first ‘live’ concert. A holographic singer with a full live band. The illusion was created by a technique known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ – a 3D-seeming image projected on a forty-five degree-angled glass plane (the same technique was later used to resurrect the dead rapper Tupac Shakur at the Coachella Festival in 2012). And while her first gigs were at Anime Expos, she has since played vast arenas in front of tens of thousands of people and taken the stage at prestigious rock festivals like Summer Sonic. In November 2012 she even sung with the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra.

And now, this performance at the Théâtre du Châtelet, her first show in Europe. Billed as ‘The End: A Vocaloid Opera’, the piece consisted of a series of distinct numbers united by the running theme of Miku’s reflections upon her own mortality. It makes for a very peculiar experience. Crypton have never specified anything of Miku’s personality and Fairbairn insists this has always been a crucial part of her appeal. She exists as a pure tabula rasa, which according to Fairbain “makes it very easy for each fan to perceive in Miku those qualities which they personally hold in high regard. Each fan’s experience of Hatsune Miku is unique.” 

This poses obvious problems for the development of a music drama with a continuous storyline. As a result, much of the dialogue, written by award-winning playwright Toshiki Okada, sounds like the listless spiel of a Turing Test-failing chatterbot in the midst of an existential crisis. It’s remarkable, in fact, quite how little happens for an hour and a half, beyond Miku’s eventual acceptance that she may die “like humans do” but that’s ok, just so long as she has “something to hum while thinking about the end of the world.”

But beyond the obvious urge to legitimise, through the high cultural cachet of a nineteenth century theatre and the mystical aura of ‘opera’, what is essentially an expensively-branded software instrument; what are we to take from The End?  Principally, perhaps, the experience of an increasingly tenuous line between the real world and its virtual twin. Such doubling is one of the opera’s themes. Right from the beginning, Miku finds herself confronted with someone with the same length and colour hair as her. “What are you doing here?” she asks, “What have you come to say?” A fairly confrontational pair of questions considering the number of audience members who had arrived in full Miku cosplay. 

At the show’s end, Hatsune Miku walks onto the stage and takes a bow next to her composer. In doing so, she steps momentarily into a world in which ‘real’ pop singers are almost universally augmented by digital autotune and plastic surgery, and Tumblr blogs are maintained by ‘otherkin’ who may ‘present’ as human but self-identify as any number of imaginary beasts from comics and computer games. In such a world, it becomes increasingly difficult to think of that line between the actual and fictional as anything else but a highly mobile continuum.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Making Me Blue All The Time: Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine

It’s 1978. The scene is a discotheque in a shopping mall. Flashing lights, bippety-boppety basslines, guys with big sideburns and even bigger shirt collars. Everybody’s dancing and having a good time. Except for one man. Huge, bald, and very angry, the music seems to have sent him into a psychotic rage. He clutches his ears and screams before thrashing out wildly at anyone near him. 

Outside, on the mall’s main concourse, a political rally is in progress. People start streaming out of the disco, past the prospective voters. “There’s a bald man in there and he’s going bat shit!” screams one man as he rushes past. “Disco blue,” goes the vocal refrain in a song by The Humane Society for the Preservation of Good Music, “You're making me blue all the time”.

With its low production values and its rampaging jock, this could almost be a stand-alone short made by DJs Steve Dahl and Gerry Meier as part of their “Disco Sucks” campaign. But in fact it’s a scene from a very odd late 70s horror film called Blue Sunshine, directed by Jeff Lieberman. The story concerns a series of violent murders, each one committed by a different person who, up until that point, had seemed like a perfectly normal, upstanding member of the community – except for their occasional shortness of temper, their inexplicable headaches, and a strange tendency for their hair to fall out. 

It transpires that all the killers were at Stanford together ten years earlier. And all of them had bought some ‘experimental’ strain of LSD called ‘Blue Sunshine’ from a guy called Edward Flemming (played by Mark Goddard) who is now running for congress. One man, a Cornell graduate named Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King), falsely accused of one of the crimes, is out to uncover the whole sordid affair.

Throughout the 70s, another Cornell graduate and former U.S. State Department employee called John D. Marks had been publishing a series of books highly critical of the CIA and its ‘cult of intelligence’. While Lieberman’s film was in production, Marks was turning reams of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act into a best-selling book called The Search for the Manchurian Candidate about the CIA’s experiments using LSD.

Amongst the laboratories Marks exposed as complicit in the CIA’s top secret MKULTRA project, was the psychology lab at Stanford. There it was that a young Ken Kesey, a student at the time, would volunteer and get his first taste of the drug he would later spread across the USA in a multi-coloured bus marked FURTHUR. “No one could enter the world of psychedelics without first passing, unawares,  through doors opened by the Agency," wrote Marks. "It would become a supreme irony that the CIA’s enormous search for weapons among drugs … would wind up helping to create the wandering uncontrollable minds of the counterculture.”

Shooting before the book came out, it’s unlikely that Lieberman was aware of Marks’s revelations and he doesn’t push his story quite that far. In the end, the aspiring congressman Flemming is just another ex-hippie ex-dealer now gone straight and heading for the upper echelons of American society, like so many other baby boomers around that time. Still the film packs the eerie paranoid punch of early Cronenberg and mid-70s Pakula. With its odd mix of political thriller and psychedelic horror, it’s hard for contemporary viewers not to think of MK ULTRA.

And it remains a curious cinematic monument to the death of the hippie dream. All the principal characters are of an age to have left college around ’68. The protagonist, Zipkin, is an outsider precisely because he’s the only one who hasn’t gone straight, cut his hair, and got a respectable job. But it’s hard to know whether, in Lieberman’s eyes, that makes him a hero or anti-hero. As Kim Newman puts it in his Nightmare Movies, “Lieberman sums up the spirit of 1968 when he has one potential freak out confess that the break-up of the Beatles affected her more than the break-up of her marriage. The flower children have become the Living Dead.”

The scene in the disco was apparently frequently used as a projected backdrop when bands like The Ramones played at CBGBs. Steve Severin and Robert Smith named their one-off duo record after the film (Severin, apparently was a fan). But the film has plenty to recommend it to music lovers on its own merits, with a very interesting score – full of Xenakis-y string glissandi and creepy pitched percussion – by Charles Gross.

Gross would later work on some pretty big films (Turner & Hooch, Air America, etc.), but this was one of his first features. Back in the 50s, he had studied under Darius Milhaud at Mills College, at around the same time that Milhaud’s other pupils, Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, were starting their (pre-San Francisco Tape Music Center) ‘Sonics’ concerts series at Mills which would give works by Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros their first performances. Milhaud had also taught Xenakis himself, a few years earlier in France.

Finally, Blue Sunshine can be seen as part of a trilogy of great mall films of the late 1970s. At the beginning of the decade, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock had regarded the rise of shopping centres with wide-eyed optimism for all the ‘choice’ they offered consumers. But by 1978, certain cracks were beginning to appear in the veneer of this utopian gaze. Dawn of the Dead had made literal the trop of zombified mindless consumers. Two years earlier, the dystopian Logan’s Run had suggested that, in the future, everything will look like the Mall of America.

Blue Sunshine spends its final act showdown in a mall. It’s the place where all the film’s themes come together. A shopping mall, the film seems to be saying, is a place uniquely inhospitable to someone in the throes of a really bad acid flashback.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Chess-Playing Alien

“Boards are rarely set up around his home, he adds, because he doesn't need them to train. Nor does he rely on computers as much as other leading players. "I use them to analyse my openings, but in tournaments my assumption is that I am the best player there. That is why I seek positions where computer analysis can't play that much of a role, or where I can analyse it better than a computer."” 
Nigel Farndale, ‘Magnus Carlsen: Grandmaster Flash’ 

“Carlsen has already been invited to take the role of a chess-playing alien from the future in the forthcoming new edition of the Star Trek movie franchise – an offer he turned down.” 
Nigel Short, ‘Magnus Carlsen and the Renaissance of Chess’

Between these two statements there is something like the beginning of a syllogism. From Charles Babbage to Alan Turing, chess has long been the paradigm of machine intelligence. When the hottest player on the planet talks about plotting moves that are beyond the understanding of a computer, he is thought of as an alien. We have been thinking of human intelligence through the lens of computers for so long now that to think unlike a machine is to be immediately suspected of inhumanity.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Helipkopter-Streichquartett on Pont-Neuf

What, I found myself wondering more than once this evening, would Henri IV have thought about all this? There he stood, le roi galant, enbronzed mid-trot upon his horse, rather ostentatiously looking askance as four loud speakers whirred and a giant LCD screen flickered. How would this famous homme politique, le vert gallant as they called him for his knack with the ladies, what would he have made of Stockhausen's grand conceptual fillip? 

A string quartet, you say? (Henri wouldn't have known what a string quartet was, of course. Or if he did he would have imagined something containing a viol da gamba and a lute). And each member of the quartet is sat in a different helicopter, just hammering away as it takes off and flies away? (Nor, unless perhaps if he happened to have stumbled somehow upon the notebooks of the Doctor Mirabilis Roger Bacon, would he have know what a helicopter is but we'll let that slide for now) Well, Henri might have said scratching his chin, I've got to admit it's something. But does it compare to the canal I put right in the middle of a park in Fontainebleu?

My mind would drift leisurely to such matters during gaps in the transmission, of which there were a few. For a long time, the cameraman seemed content just to point his camera up at the sky and film the clouds. It was as if this was the only way to represent the purity of Stockhausen's idea. Wow wow wow, as Pierre Arditti is famously quoted upon first being told about it by Stockhausen. 

His dream. That's how it came to him. Le fameur rêve, they said over the tannoy while the players were still strapping in and tuning up. No afternoon reverie, no wistful idea chanced upon in the free gambol of idle thought. A real dream dreamt knee deep in the sand dunes of sleep. I see a string quartet, and each player is sat in a different helicopter. They play, they take-off, they fly around. Wow wow wow. 

But what if, Arditti supposedly continued, what if they were to play on a stage, with a sound recording of helicopter noise playing over the PA? Maybe there could be a video… No. Stockhausen wasn't having it. He had a dream. And if it wouldn't be sullied then by some cheap effects, why sully it now with all the messy business of reality with its harnesses and seat belts and wires and headset mics? Film the clouds! Perhaps he was right…

I didn't know where they were taking off from. The programme said go to Pont Neuf, so there I was. I had entertained images of the helicopters taking off from right under the bridge, swooping up over Henri's statue, over the spot where Denis Lavant breathed fire in Les amants du Pont-Neuf and where Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of the Templars, was burnt at the stake. They didn't do that. They took off from some park somewhere else, pretty far away. 

We followed them on our LCD screen as it coughed and spluttered in split-screen. The coarse tremolo of the violins would crackle and fade, the roar of the cello wavered, blipping in and out a bad phoneline. Finally the image fell apart, finally it reconstituted itself. Never quite sure if we were hearing quite or all what we were supposed to, still we stood, or we sat. Were we listening to a concert or were we simply waiting for the racers to zoom past?

But stand or sit we did, and in our hundreds. Maybe thousands. The bridge looked full, packed with this sudden new audience for modern music. Why, David Stubbs once bemoaned, do people get Rothko but don't get Stockhausen? Well, here they all were, the missing crowds. Getting it. Stockhausen. Or at least, there

Until they all flew past, the four helicopters. Just a few minutes off their appointed time. Really high up. Far too far away for the ambient noise of the rotors to compete with the broadcast sound. Four little black dots on the sky, all in a line. And we whooped, and we pointed, and we aimed our cameras, and on the screen the second violin whined away at the top of its neck and the viola ground down upon the earthy roots of its C string, and on they went, minding their way. 

Almost immediately, so did the audience. The strings played on, chewing furiously on each slurred note, and everyone shuffled off. As if all these however many hundreds of people, all they'd come to see, all they'd really wanted, was to see four little black dots in a line upon the sky, disappearing into the distance.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Don DeLillo: The Syntax of the Present

“She spent hours at the computer screen looking at a live-streaming video feed from the edge of a two-lane road in a city in Finland. It was in the middle of the night in Kotka, in Finland, and she watched the screen. It was interesting to her because it was happening now, as she sat here, and because it happened twenty-four hours a day, facelessly, cars entering and leaving Kotka, or just the empty road in the dead times. The dead times were best.” — The Body Artist, Don DeLillo

I've been growing increasingly attached to the syntax – not the characters or the stories, so much, but the syntax, the grammar, the way it affects the rhythms of your reading – in the recent stories of Don DeLillo. Just those ones from the last twelve years, since he started writing very short novels of little more than a hundred pages.

I have always liked short books. I read The Crying of Lot 49 a long time before I read anything else by Thomas Pynchon. And these stories seem to capture everything that I have always liked about short books: the precision, the economy, the sense of a snapshot, a brief window into a story, but one that is marred by gaps, blank spots. Questions are left unanswered, like in a good film.

If I were to make a film, I think I would like it be quite a lot like The Body Artist or Point Omega. The style of the shooting and the editing and the acting should try to capture the syntax of DeLillo's writing.

“She sat and looked at the screen. It was compelling to her, real enough to withstand the circumstance of nothing going on. It thrived on the circumstance. It was three in the morning and she waited for a car to come along—not that she wondered who was in it. It was simply the fact of Kotka. It was the sense of organization, a place contained in an unyielding frame, as it is and as you watch, with a reading of local time in the digital display in a corner of the screen. Kotka was another world but she could see it in its realness, in its hours, minutes and seconds.” — The Body Artist, Don DeLillo

James Bridle somewhere talks about the recent books of William Gibson as a kind of ‘network realism’, writing “that is of and about the network … This writing exists on a timeline, but it’s not a simple line back-to-the-past and forward-to-the-future. It’s a gathering-together of many currently possible worldlines, seen from the near-omniscient superposition of the network.”

I once interviewed Bridle for Wired and via Skype he spoke about the way these hovering penguin drones that turn up in Zero History seem to have slipped straight out of a YouTube clip that Gibson may have been watching as he wrote, from one window on his computer desktop into another, entering the fiction from the (quasi-)real world of the network.

I have included these extracts from The Body Artist, about the traffic feed from Kotka, to illustrate the way I think this is equally true of DeLillo.

But one could also point to the strange boy the main character meets in her home in this book, whom she calls Mr. Tuttle. The way he speaks – chopping up fragments of what he has heard, processing it, decontextualising it, stripping it of meaning – so closely resembles the modus operandi of spambots on Twitter. A human language generated spontaneously by Markov operations. The syntax again.

“She set aside time every day for the webcam at Kotka. She didn't know the meaning of this feed but took it as an act of floating poetry. It was best in the dead times. It emptied her mind and made her feel the deep silence of other places, the mystery of seeing over the world to a place stripped of everything but a road that approaches and recedes, both realities occurring at once, and the numbers changed in the digital display with an odd and hollow urgency, the seconds advancing toward the minute, the minutes climbing hourward, and she sat and watched, waiting for a car to take fleeting shape on the roadway.” —  The Body Artist, Don DeLillo

I think arguably DeLillo comes closer than Gibson to capturing what is so peculiar about the present, its strange sense of dislocation, its atemporality. “Life is too contemporary,” as Didi Fancher says in Cosmopolis. While, at the same time, the “present is harder to find.” This is why, I think, Cosmopolis the film is one of the best science fiction films of the last ten years. It is not set in the future. There are no aliens or extraordinary technologies. But it has the feel of science fiction.

This is what William Gibson says about the present. That he no longer writes novels set in the future because the present already feels like science fiction, it already has the strangeness that people once looked to the future for. 

But where Gibson still writes about computers and surveillance and branding, DeLillo is picking up on something else. Often – as in The Body Artist or Point Omega's long rumination about Douglas Gordon's Twenty-Four Hour Psycho – contemporary art. In Cosmopolis, however, this has been subsumed – bought up, if you like – by something else, “What is it Michael? The interaction between technology and capital. The inseparability.”

More than that, though, it is something about the way things unfold. The rhythm and the feel of their unfolding. The syntax of the present.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

That Sound Gave Me The Creeps: Virtual Obsession

In 1998, Hallmark Entertainment, purveyors of life-affirming greeting cards and myriad made-for-TV movies about wild hearts, newlyweds and strawberry summers, decided to make a film about a small group of research scientists on the brink of a full-on Ray Kurzweil singularity. Peter Gallagher and Pete Sampras's wife, Brigitte Wilson-Sampras, succeed in uploading the brain of a rat onto a computer with access to all human knowledge and experience. The real rat immediately dies and the digital rat "hides" somewhere in the system… "What if the stripping the consciousness from the body is agony?" asks Gallagher (as Dr. Joe Messenger), speculating that the digital copy of the rat "sensed competition with the living rat" and murdered its own organic original.

Before the rat dies, however, it does one thing: it emits a sound. A strange electronic squeal, like the film-makers had recorded the sound of an actual rat and treated it with digital filters and effects. "The sound first, then the discharge," confirms the computer (‘Alfred’). The sound and the ‘discharge’, we are told, were "contiguous, sequential events." That is, "the end of the sound marked the beginning of the discharge." Where did the sound come from? "Sound came from rat's brain."

"That sound, that sound…"Messenger obsesses over that sound the rat emitted from the computer before it died. The sound gives him "the creeps". The sound was the rat's "response" to its new digital consciousness, he concludes. "It was not the sound of joy. It was pure agony." Albert also starts to feel "ill at ease" with a little bit of rat consciousness running around inside of him muddling up his literary quotations.

Finally, we are afforded a glimpse of the virtual "Eden" of infinite knowledge into which the new post-biological men (and women) are uploaded. According to a venerable sci-fi tradition, everything is white as far as the eye can see. But there is a strange sound and it is not the sound of joy. We hear a deep rumble, like a bass-heavy band pass filter's been applied to one of Ligeti's choirs. At once sound effect, sound design, and music; the sound is distinctly ill at ease.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Steve Martin Does Socrates

Personally I have always favoured Peter Falk for the role of Socrates ("I'm sure you're right Euthydemus, but before I go there's just one little thing that's bothering me…" etc) but I did enjoy this clip of philosophy graduate, Steve Martin (hat tip to Nina Power).

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Helpless: Pierre Ardouvin at the Centre Régional d'Art Contemporain, Sète, France

Of his small town childhood in the north of France, Pierre Ardouvin recalls a family circus. No lions or elephants; its animal performers numbered just a cat, a dog, and a pony. The Ardouvin family would go every year, and something of this sense of small town festivity has made its way into the works on display at CRAC in Sète. But Ardouvin's work is no mere autobiography; his memories are filtered through sedimented layers of popular culture and the collective imagery of myth. 

This play of memory and fiction, of melancholy and celebration, is perhaps best summed up in one of the last works in the exhibition, La roue de la fortune (2013). This room-sized installation hosts a spinning bandstand cloaked in carnival colours, circled by the classic white plastic armchairs of countless school sports days. Two small gaps in the file of chairs, roughly corresponding to the room's entrances, seem to invite you to join in. Completing the mood of tragic surrealism, a tape plays a haunting refrain for musical saw, faintly audible throughout the exhibition and lending an eerie disquiet to all the works on show. 

Music pervades many of the works in this exhibition, and it is from a song – by Neil Young – that the whole show takes its name. So as we enter the very first room to find the eponymous Helpless (2013) – a vast curtain flecked with stars, a stuffed fox poking its nose inquisitively through the curtains into a spotlight – it is Young's voice that we hear as a silent refrain in our mind's ear, singing of “dream comfort memory to spare”. It's poignant (if a little kitsch); still it welcomes us into a world both strange and familiar. A provincial uncanny.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

A Museum of Impossible Music

We can all remember the famous advertising slogan from Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, “If you've done six impossible things this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at Milliways, the restaurant at the end of the universe?” But what of the house band at Milliways? What melodies might spring from their impossible instruments? And how could such music be housed in a museum – an institution that has always found it notoriously difficult to exhibit even the most common or garden variety of music?

The question seems to impinge on the 'pataphysics of Alfred Jarry – a problem in search of an “imaginary solution” – or the erotics of Georges Bataille, the symbolic economy – or its “speculative disorder” – in the late work of Jean Baudrillard. “Imaginary media,” wrote Eric Kluitenberg, “when understood as machines that mediate impossible desires, should be regarded as impossible machines.” The very notion of a museum of impossible music pushes us to the limits of both music and museum and, simultaneously, back to their originating impulses – in the ritual conjuration of impossible forces, and the simple act of collecting as a kind of anamnesis close to time travel.

So we might look to ideas from the literature of fantasy and science fiction to fill the first room of our imaginary museum: Richard Kongrosian, the psychokinetic pianist who plays Brahms and Schumann without touching the keyboard in Philip K. Dick's (1971) novel, The Simulacrum; the 'feely' encountered in the imagined 2039 of Stanislaw Lem's (1971) The Futurological Congress, with its “obscene compositions”. Going back further, we might think of the musical languages of the inhabitants of the moon encountered by Francis Godwin and Cyrano de Bergerac in their cosmic voyages from the seventeenth century – indeed, any music that has been conceived of existing in the vacuums of space must be, strictly speaking, impossible.

Kepler's harmony of the spheres

Johannes Kepler once assigned diverse polyphonies to the heavenly bodies and Charles Fourier thought to re-arrange the planets of the solar system for the sake of their harmonic consonance. Between these two, and extending beyond in either direction, lies a centuries-long theorising of the mystical correspondences inherent in the music of the spheres that sought not just a figurative value but, as Joscelyn Godwin says of Fourier, “the pretension to objective accuracy and mathematical precision.” The richly elaborate illustrations that adorn many of these mystical texts might adorn the walls of another room in our museum with schizoid diagrams of arcane numerology and stellar conjecture. In his own brief rumination on the theme of impossible music, composer and University of Sussex lecturer on music informatics, Nick Collins, mentions his own text composition: ”Clash two stars together”.

The nineteenth century was a boom time for impossible music. The rise of virtuosi such as Niccolo Paganini and Franz Liszt saw repeated accusations that their caprices and études were unplayable, beyond the range of human capacity. Their supposedly freakish abilities became the object of a curiously medical discourse. Paganini's abilities were explained by physicians as the result of his unique physiognomy, and his corpse was even disinterred, half a century after his death, to be viewed reverently by the Czech violinist František Ondříček, as though the body itself was some sort of magic relic. 

A cast from Franz Liszt's hand, from the Liszt museum, Budapest
We might regard the various casts and models made of Liszt's hands in a similar light, and display them side by side with Paganini's medical reports. When not regarded as a freak of nature, the virtuoso was often lambasted as an unfeeling machine, and numerous mechanical contrivances were developed as pedagogical aids to further the creation of more virtuousi – Logier's chiroplast, Kalkbrenner's guide des mains, Herz's dactylion: all were summoned to the aid of pianists who wished to play the impossible, and they all deserve a place in our museum.
In a paper published in the journal Popular Music, in 1983, H. Stith Bennett defined impossible music as a kind of gap between a communicable potentiality and its ultimate realisation, opened up by new forms of notation,
Whenever new notation systems are invented, musicians feel the pressure to stretch their performances to incorporate new notational potentials. In fact any notation can be set out in such a way that it gives directions that are impossible for even the best musicians to follow. During this experimental period, those who are producing notation feel the pressure to accommodate their activities to the performers at the same time that the performers are stretching their abilities in response to the notational challenges. Inevitably, musicians move away from performance conventions which are taken for granted by their audiences, and instead perform in a way that is unexpected, unsettling and filled with mystery. For audiences, hearing what has never before been heard creates an ironic atmosphere; some resistance too, perhaps, but also the magical actualisation of the impossible.

While Bennett's language recalls the wording of Arthur C. Clarke's famous “Third Law”, that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, it also provides an apt rubric within which to conceptualise both the reaction to the virtuosi of the nineteenth century and, since Bennett regards recording technology as itself a “synthetic phenomenal” form of notation, certain further developments in the musicology of the impossible over the last century.
Albert Bernal Impossible Music (2006+)

With the twentieth century, recording technology proliferated mechanical musicians. George Antheil and Conlon Nancarrow took up the challenge of composing works for one of the earliest, the player piano, which would be physically impossible for human hands – a project to be echoed many decades later by tracks on the Aphex Twin's album, Drukqs, programmed for the Yamaha Diskclavier MIDI-controlled grand piano.

Modern technology has made possible simulations of many otherwise impossible musics. In developing the tones to chime the ages for Stewart Brand's Clock of the Long Now project, Brian Eno began investigating the physics of bells and soon found himself experimenting with digitally created “hypobells” whose real world realisation would require the suspension of several physical laws: bells impossibly large or impossibly small, entirely made of glass, or possessing bizarre acoustical properties which might make certain harmonic partials ring indefinitely long. 

In a similar vein, American composer, David A. Jaffe, created a piece of computer music, ‘Silicon ValleyBreakdown’ involving such impossible string instruments as a mandolin to small to pluck, or a monochord the length of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Alongside these virtual experiments, we might exhibit sculptures from 2001 by Christian Marclay which he referred to as “impossible musical instruments”. These included a bass guitar made of rubber, drum sticks made of glass, a tuba and a trumpet conjoined at the mouthpiece like siamese twins.

Christian Marclay Virtuoso (2000)

On a more macabre level, recording technology configures the possibility of jamming with the dead. The early twenty-first century genre of the ‘mash-up’ allows for duets between musicians who could never possibly have met in reality: the voice of Caruso over a backing track by Jimi Hendrix, Britney Spears singing over a Gene Krupa beat.

I like to imagine that one room of this imaginary expo could be dedicated to those composers who have been so outstretched and outgunned by their ambitions that their proposals have leapt forward into the never never. Here we might find Edgard Varèse, who for some twenty years in the first half of the twentieth century laboured over a great operatic work called variously The One-All-Alone, L'Astronome, and L'Espace

Though it was never completed, we find adorning the walls of our museum the various drafts of libretti written by some of the century's literary titans: Alejo Carpentier, George Ribemont-Dessaignes, Robert Desnos, Andre Malraux, and most extraordinary of all, Antonin Artaud, who described, “Depressurized soundings. The music will give the impression of a distant cataclysm and will fill the room, falling as from vertiginous heights. Chords will originate in the sky and then deteriorate, going from one extreme to the other. Sounds will fall as if from very high, then suddenly stop and spread out in bursts, forming vaults and parasols. Tiers of sounds...”

Scattered amongst them are torn fragments of score, sketches of grand totalising realisations for which such classic modernist musical tropes as sound spatialisation, the work for percussion, even for electronic music, were practically willed into existence by Varèse in the service of his proposed music drama.

Edgard Varèse, Poème électronique (1958)

On the wall facing these fragments of Varèse's we might find a portrait of the great Russian synaesthetist, Alexander Scriabin, who once proposed a sonata of pain with solo for toothache. Even earlier in the century, Scriabin spent almost as long as Varèse, planning his “Prefatory Action” known as The Mysterium. To be performed in the foothills of the Himalayas, it was to last a week, and for a finale, bring about the destruction of the entire universe followed by the birth of a new world and a new man from its ashes. Scriabin's biographer, Faubion Bowers, describes the climax of The Mysterium:

On the seventh day, after the assault on the senses of all the arts battering at man's psyche, and with the music incarnating ectoplasmic visions, all men and all nature would combine to bring the world to its closest possible point of being on “the plane of unity.” Mass joy would be like the ocean endlessly shifting and unchanging. Soul and matter would be released from their corporeal bondage one to the other. Male and female polarization would vanish. The divine androgyny of two sexes in one (as Plato once envisaged them) would first return and then become a nullity. Everything – man and his world – would plummet into the “ecstatic abyss of sunshine.” The time lag between the event and the impact of the event would telescope.
Scriabin, Sketch from Mysterium

Beyond the ecstatic visions of Scriabin, we might ask what remains impossible in the high-technology world of the twenty-first century where every new bit of off-the-shelf kit promises to create “any sound imaginable”.

The impossible is made of more than mere technics. If “politics is the art of the impossible” (Vaclav Havel), then an exhibition of the impossible in art must needs be political. The final room in our museum, then, would be handed over to guest curators from the Impossible Music Sessions of New York City. 

Conlon Nancarrow Study No. 49c

Founded by author, accordion player and human rights activist, Austin Dacey, the Impossible Music Sessions stage the non-appearance of banned musicians from all over the world. Whether underground rock groups from Iran, refused visas for performance over seas, or imprisoned Cameroonian singers, an empty stage in downtown Brooklyn becomes the scene of an international musical meeting via the telepresence of live feeds and mobile phones. Conceived by its founder as a “world-wide underground railroad for musicians”, the Impossible Music Sessions stand as a tribute to what can be achieved in the face of impossible situations.

A recent book by Adam Harper promises infinite possibilities for future music-making, but in a footnote he proposes an interactive musical situation which goes beyond the possibilities even in his expanded musical vision: a work for two performers who must respond quickly and in real time to each other's playing, while one is situated on Earth the other on Mars.

Harper's somewhat flippant examples shows that no matter how broad one's imagination, how open to the possibilities of the future, something will still remain out of reach. It also shows how thinking about the impossible and stretching the limits of the possible often go hand in hand. Curating a history of impossible musics can not only show how yesterday's impossibles can become today's realities (many of those “unplayable” works of Paganini and Liszt, for instance, are now standard practice for a professional soloist), but also provide provocative food for thought for future formal experiment.


But a museum of the impossible is inevitably also a museum of failure. Like Paul Virilio's proposed ‘museum of accidents’, it can provide a counter-narrative to that Whig history of music as a smooth progress towards greater and greater heights of beauty and expressiveness (perhaps coming to an end somewhere round the late works of Brahms or Puccini). The museum of impossible music would be an antidote – or a grotesque supplement – to that canonisation of the great works critiqued in Lydia Goehr's Imaginary Museum of Musical Works.