Saturday, 17 April 2010

Merce Cunningham on Film

"The use of camera has extended the sense of what dance can be ... The two media do not compete, each abides in its own territory."

In a way, a piece such as 'Changing Steps' (choreographed 1978, filmed 1989) is ideally suited to film, it has a proto-cinematic quality to it. The indeterminacy of the piece - its various solo and group dances can be performed in any order, separately or overlapping as space allows - suggests the process of editing, offering up all sorts of possibilities for montage and juxtaposition. In the filmed version (of which an extract is embedded above), dances cut and dissolve into each other, sometimes hanging suspended in superposition. In the fragment above, the great wooden frame, separating the foreground dance from the background, suggests a cinema screen. Similarly, in 'Beach Birds for Camera', a sequence of the dance takes place on a soundstage, before a vast blue screen, suggesting the future presence of some fantastical imagery that is yet to be filled in. The film of 'Changing Steps', as presented in Amsterdam-based Total Film's 2003 DVD, The Merce Cunningham Collection, presents a collage of film and video, the latter is often severely degraded, blurring the dancers' features, and giving the whole an eerie, spectral feel. At one point we dissolve from the flickering lines of TV static to ripples on a pond, almost perfectly matched (but not quite).

'Deli Commedia' (1985) is Cunningham's tribute to the physical comedies of the silent era. While Pat Richter's Carmen-quoting music evokes the piano accompanist in a pre-war picture palace, the dancers movements frequently evoke, not just Chaplin, but also the not-quite-silent films of Jacques Tati. It is a curious feature of Cunningham's work for camera that, despite the presence of a non-diegetic musical score, a sound recorder is employed to record the footfalls of the dancers. In his introduction to 'Deli Commedia', Cunningham says, "One of the first things I saw through the camera was that you saw things faster ... That is, you caught the image quicker ... You did not have to dwell on it as long ... " For Cunningham, as for Paul Virilio, the emergence and mastering of new technologies is a question of speed. It is through speed that the twentieth century's artworks relate to its wars.
'Beach Birds for Camera' (1993) presents the human as but a brief mediating force between two non-human technologies: the Lifeforms software Cunningham used to choreograph the dance and the camera for which the staged version (entitled simply 'Beach Birds') was later adapted. But long before he began engaging with cinema and software, Cunningham had set out, in the words of Dee Reynolds, "to discover new parameters of the ‘human’ ... These assaults were frequently seen by contemporaries as attacks on the ‘human’ itself." The notion of the expressive human subject has always been extremely fragile in his work from the very beginning. As Reynolds continues, "Many critical comments on Cunningham in fact focus on the ‘undecidability’ of movements involving interactions between the ‘human’ the ‘natural’, and the ‘automated’." Perhaps nowhere is this slippage more uncertain than in the (1999) work 'Biped', for which motion capture software is used to allow the movements of the dancers to animate computer graphic lines and shapes projected on a scrim between the stage and the audience. Watching videos of 'Biped' (a piece not designed for camera), the scrim appears scarcely noticeable and the graphic lines and figures seem to take on an astonishing 3D quality, not just leaping out at the audience, but also effectively conveying depth, and drawing the audience further in to the performance.

Friday, 16 April 2010

"Will history blame me or the bees?"

At the start of former Golden Turkey Award winner, The Swarm (1978), Richard Widmark's General Slater at first assumes the attack to be a pre-emptive communist strike - and who can blame him? The killer bees descending on Texas do seem to behave just as one might expect a Dirty Red to behave. First, they attack a military institution - a nuclear missile base no less - and then a picnicking family. Of course, a picnicking family may not sound like an obvious military target, but this perfect blond-blue-eyed nuclear family, setting off into the countryside in their denim and their gingham and their cowboy hats, are not just any American family. They are the American family, the very archetype of the American family, poster children for white America's idealised self-image. The bees are attacking the American Way of Life.

As Mikel Koven points out, in the late seventies, when The Swarm (along with other killer bee movies, such as The Bees, The Savage Bees, and Terror Out of the Sky) was made, America was reeling from defeat in Vietnam and required a fantasy military victory to compensate for the loss 'in reality' (Koven even relates a bee's characteristic black and yellow stripes to the black uniforms and 'yellow' skin of the Viet Cong). In The Swarm, the bees are repeatedly referred to as an "invading force" and the humans identify their struggle against the bees as "war", by both the hawkish General Slade, and Michael Caine's more peaceful, scientifically minded, Brad Crane. When Crane, says "the war that I've always talked about has finally begun" he implies the necessity for a constant state of military preparedness, even for events considered highly unlikely by most experts.

Of course, despite the Wu Tang Clan's affectionate (or ironic?) tribute, with the constant verbal slippages in The Swarm between "Africanised killer bees" and "African bees" or sometimes even just "Africans" (as in Widmark's reference to "war against the Africans") and the almost complete absence of black faces in the film (Koven spots one black extra somewhere in the back of a crowd scene), it is not hard to discern another, more domestic fear permeating the script's ideology. "They have been here some time," says Crane, "Breeding, increasing." The stated route of these "more aggressive" bees who tend to strike "without provocation" mirrors that of the old slave routes from Africa to the USA via the Caribbean. Koven frames it as an opposition between bees and WASPs, and for America's WASPs in the seventies, the perceived defeat just dealt to the American Way of Life, was just as much the victory of the civil rights movement as the failure in south Asia. "This is really a dress rehearsal," says Slater, "to set procedure for any future African challenges."

There is at least one more possible interpretation of The Swarm's narrative, and that is as a story about Hollywood itself. As we watch the film's all-star cast of great old timers, Henry Fonda, Fred MacMurray, Olivia De Havilland, getting picked off and killed by the bees, one can't help but see the film as emblematic of the final full stop on the classical Hollywood era. From this point on, only guest star slots on Murder, She Wrote would be available to these former titans of the movie business. And what, from the eighties to the present day, has chiefly replaces the familiarity of such faces and the classic Hollywood genre system of westerns (represented by Henry Fonda), crime films (by Fred MacMurray) and swashbucklers and historical epics (Olivia de Havilland), is increasingly, the big production number effects movies, films like The Swarm itself. Except of course, that one of the most curious things about the 'effects' in The Swarm is that they are (pretty well) all real. They really did use twenty million odd bees flying around the set. You simply cannot imagine today, someone making a killer bees movie and not using CGI.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

"To play this motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities."

"Well, you get the idea, right ladies and gentlemen?" demanded the "major proselytising force" Charles Hazlewood, conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra, after pianist Tim Carey had completed just one round of the single page score of Erik Satie's Vexations. Well, no, quite frankly, I'm not sure if that quick once over was entirely sufficient to convey the extraordinary perversity of Satie's performance instructions which at least imply that a correct performance would involve a total of 840 repetitions.

Peter Evans, a pianist who attempted, in 1970, a solo performance, gave up after fifteen hours, complaining the piece was wearing away at his mind away, and that "things" had started peering out at him from the score. He warned that anyone who might consider attempting to play the piece in the future, would do so "at their own great peril" rather in the style of a wise old man at the beginning of a horror film. A year later, Gavin Bryars and Christopher Hobbs got through the whole thing at Leicester Polytechnic. They compared the piece to 'the end of the world', "like falling asleep while you're driving along the motorway," claimed Bryars.

Vexations was a piece of music largely unknown, from its creation sometime around 1892 until Henri Sauguet, the composer friend of Satie's, introduced the piece to John Cage. Cage would come to be closely associated with the piece and its rehabilitation through a series of group performances, the first of which was in 1963 and involved the participation of John Cale, Christian Wolff, Philip Corner and James Tenney. But even Cage initially considered the piece unendurable, asking, "Why give it a thought?" in a 1958 article for the Art News Annual.

Since Cage's inaugural performance, some seventy years after the piece's composition, the piece has been the subject of vast swathes of serious critical reflection, despite the frequently made conjecture that the whole thing was just a characteristically mischievous gag. Steven Moore Whiting cites the unusual and confusing spelling of each note (there are an awful lot of double flats, b sharps, and so on), as evidence that Satie's piece is a quatrain holorime, in the manner of Jean Goudezki. For Robert Orledge it presents an early example of Webernian serial hexachords, whereas for Robert Maycock, writing in the free brochure given out at the BBC Concert Orchestra's event last week, Vexations is the augur of minimalism.

I have a copy of Vexations on vinyl, released by Philips and performed by Reinbert de Leeuw. As a record, it makes a curious artefact, featuring the same phrase, repeated over and over again on both sides. Ideally, I suppose, you would need two copies and a set of decks in order to get the full effect. Nonetheless, I occasionally put the needle into its grooves, thinking its dissipated, plangent tones might just make pleasing background sound whilst I write on my laptop or read a book. It rarely takes long before I have to either turn it off or simply forget about whatever else I was trying to do and focus all my attention on the music. It is a piece strangely resistant to reduced listening. Like an itch, it demands your attention, or crawls through your skin unbearably.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Reflections on 'In C' following yesterday's performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

It is tempting to wonder if Pierre Schaeffer, Luc Ferrari and the other members of the Groupe Reserches Musicales were aware of the presence in 1963 of an American named Terry Riley at one of the studios owned and operated by the French national broadcaster, Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française. Riley apparently described the engineer from the RTF who helped him to record Chet Baker, Luis Fuentes, Luigi Trussardi, and George Solano jamming around the theme from Miles Davis's 'So What', as "a very straight guy in a white coat." Riley recorded the group, first altogether, and then individually on separate tracks. Allowing these tapes to go out of phase with each other, looping parts, and creating recurring delays, Riley created the music for The Gift, a play by the influential 'maker' of 'Happenings' Ken Dewey, with members of the Living Theatre and Anna Halprin's dance company.

When, on November 8th of the following year, the audience filed into the San Francisco Tape Music Center, its door held open to conceal a notice from the fire department declaring the building off limits, it was this music from The Gift that was playing on as background music. It is important to locate Terry Riley's 'In C' - the very piece said audience were attending the first performance of - within the history of electronic music, because in a way it is the first piece of music whose performance relies on human instrumentalists imitating the behaviour of tape recorders, as opposed to the serial music of Stockhausen and Boulez which essentially used machines as a kind of perfection of human fallibility, its basic concepts nonetheless derived from instrumental music. Playing the same thing, in the same way, over and over again, gradually phasing and going out of time with the other players around you is actually something very difficult for a human musician to do. For a tape machine, it is just what comes naturally.

This was the curious thing about the performance of 'In C' yesterday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Recorded for Radio 3's Discovering Music series, the performance featured seventeen members of the BBC Concert Orchestra playing glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, piano, and harp plus two flutes, two clarinets, two trumpets, and a string quintet. They just couldn't quite leave it alone. The pulse kept rotating between the different pitched percussionists, losing its gnawing insistence, players would show off by playing some of the piece's fifty-three reiterative motifs in octaves or in double time, flautists were flutter-tonguing, trumpeters fanning their mutes suggestively. The beat was considerably slower than usual, and much more sparse. Instruments would drop in and out an awful lot, playing a phrase just once or twice very delicately and then keeping quiet for a bit, not at all like the kind of frenetic hammering away one hears on early recordings. This was very much an 'In C' to contemplate and appreciate, rather than an ecstatic, trancelike 'In C', and as such it stood as a marker of the piece's newfound acceptance as the 'Rite of Spring' of the late twentieth century, a fully integrated part of the canon of great western classical works.

Warner Jepson was one of the performers playing 'In C' that night in November 1964. A few years later he would leave the Tape Music Center for the National Centre for Experiments in Television (NCET), but not before creating an extraordinary electronic score for Carlos Carvajal's dance-drama, Totentanz, based, like Franz Lizst's Totentanz, on the 'Dies Irae'. The piece was created using a combination of concrete sounds and sounds from a Buchla Box, the first ever electronic sequencer, designed by Donald Buchla at the Tape Music Center while Terry Riley was in France. The period in the early to mid-seventies, with Jepson as composer-in-residence was one of the most productive in the history of NCET. Jepson was interested in the full integration of sound and vision, creating images in much the same way that he had created music, by feeding into a variety of processors a combination of found images and raw electronic signal. It was around this time that Stephen Beck invented the Direct Video Synthesizer.

Jepson was far from the only member of Riley's group that night to go on to interesting things. Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick had started the Tape Music Center in 1962, and Subotnick's (1967) piece, Silver Apples on the Moon was the first piece of electronic music commissioned by a record label (Nonesuch), and thus, in a way, the first piece of music conceived specifically for a record and not a performance. In the seventies, Subotnick began composing pieces for live instruments processed through what he called a 'ghost score'. The ghost score is a series of predetermined control voltages that effectively patch the live instrument through the audio processing modules of an analogue synthesizer, creating an entirely new means for the performance of electronic music. The instrumentalist plays, and their performance is haunted by, and filtered through, this variable virtual mesh.

The composers Pauline Oliveros and Steve Reich were also present, and it was apparently Reich's idea to include the eighth note pulse to keep everyone together. As was the multi-wind instrumentalist, Jon Gibson, who has since gone on to play in the first performance of practically every major minimalist work by LaMonte Young, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Gibson also played on the recordings of Arthur Russell's Instrumentals. Phil Winsor, a composer whose graphic scores were part of the groundbreaking (1986/87) Eye Music touring exhibition, has more recently been composing using fractal and stochastic algorithms in order to create music based on the universe's "own rhythms" for the sake of its possible healing powers. Tony Martin, also part of the group, went from designing light shows to accompany concerts by Oliveros and Subotnick to creating lighting effects for the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo '70 in Osaka. Stan Schaap, on the other hand, teaches a "practical spirituality" promoted through his Power to Share website, and Mel Weitzman has become the abbot of Berkeley Zen Centre.

I think in some way the sensibility of that first performance of 'In C' might be summed up by a sort of imagined triangulation point between the varied interests of its players, many of which seem to circle around the idea of the concert as a profoundly immersive and encompassing event, and around ideas of multi-media experimentation and interactivity. Terry Riley has described his initial conception of the piece as "a kind of cosmic vision of patterns that were gradually transforming and changing." This oh-so-Californian 'cosmic vision' was notable for its absence from the QEH on Thursday afternoon.