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Adventures Close to Home

 

The Hall is Full of Noises

Over at Disquiet, since the beginning of the year, Marc Weidenbaum has been issuing a challenge each week. Every Thursday night he invites anyone who feels so inclined to record a short composition in accordance with a set of simple instructions, which they must upload to SoundCloud by the following Monday.

The Disquiet Junto is a remarkable project which has so far prompted over 1200 contributions from over 200 individuals, involving the manipulation of live performance, field recordings, computer-generated sounds and pre-existing sound-clips. The results are often astonishing, beautiful, strange or amusing, and always unpredictable, no doubt surprising the creators themselves as much as their listeners. It has given rise to an amazing community of sonic enthusiasts, enterprising, friendly and curious.

I've been inspired to throw together a few submissions of my own. And recently, the challenge entitled Sounds from Silence (issued on 26 July) got me thinking of another. Here was the brief:
This week’s project deals with the concept of silence — specifically recorded silence. We will take a segment of audio that is intended to signify silence, and then from it make an original piece of music.

Step 1: Select a segment of recorded sound that would generally be perceived as silent. Examples include: the gap between tracks on a tape cassette or vinyl record, the noise your laptop’s headphone jack emits when nothing is playing, the quietest moment in an MP3, a radio signal when nothing is supposed to be heard.

Step 2: Amplify or otherwise magnify that supposed absence of sound until it makes a perceivable noise.

Step 3: Compose, perform, and record a new original piece of music that takes this sound as its sole source material. You can manipulate the original audio as you see fit, but you can’t add other pre-existing audio elements to it.
As it happened, on the Saturday, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was also celebrating John Cage's 100th birthday with a concert at City Halls, Glasgow Had I been more prepared I might have entertained the idea of recording the performance with the intention of reworking some of the 'silences' together along the lines suggested.

But I arrived straight from a party in honour of another birthday - that of my younger niece and nephew - and didn't have time to go home and pick up any equipment. In any case, the custodians of the hall might not have appreciated the finer points of my plan had they caught me in flagrant delicto and I didn't want to be escorted shamefully from the premises.

Still, it affected the way I listened to the concert, which presented a wide range of works including the Concerto for Prepared Piano (1951) (soloist: John Tilbury), ear for EAR (Antiphonies) (1983), Atlas Eclipticalis (1962), and the (somewhat notorious) Child of Tree (1975) in which conductor Ilan Volkov, alone on stage, plucked and prodded a selection of amplifed cacti with what looked like a cocktail stick.

Although they were composed at very different stages of his career, all the pieces struck me as written sparingly. They were dense in places, but never very loud or busy. The music - like a diaphonous fabric - allowed the ear, as it were, to breathe. It reminded me of the frustrations I felt as a teenage listener of Radio Three's Music in Our Time in the mid 1970s that seemed to settle into an orthodoxy of delicate, precious, shimmering clusters of notes, harmonics and gilssandi that never really got going, never quite managed to set the body a-tingle. It was all so damned cerebral.

You can imagine, perhaps, my glorious sense of relief when I first heard the jerky cacophony of free improvisers Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Paul Lytton when they played to an audience of less than a dozen in a small room above the Art Shop in Blackburn, Lancashire. A door opened on other worlds and I thought I would never look back.

This time, there was no frustration. I became fascinated by the way the relatively low volume afforded no cover for the audience's compelling need to make noises. In the absence of loud passages in which to bury coughs and sneezes or substantial changes of posture, these semi-voluntary spasms and twitches were forced into the open, requiring inventive - but still quite audible - modes of suppression, modulation and camouflage.

A woman behind me couldn't resist the temptation to zip and unzip her boots - producing an intermittent rasp of metal and squeak of leather. I detected the occasional scratch of nail on fabric and flesh, an intriguing showcase of murmurs, sighs and snorts, air vibrating in nostrils, the inadvertent contact of feet with bags or clothes on the floor. I began to make out the ticking of a watch or two. Now and again, a door behind me winced apologetically. From somewhere high up came the distant squawks of Glasgow's seagulls.

But the musicians themselves also became part of this army of incidentalists. There is an attractive arbitrariness in the performance of works that rely so much on non-standard sources of sound (the pouring of water, the tearing of paper, the interference of piano strings with metal and rubber) when musicians try hard - as they are trained to do - to make their un-scored movements (replacing drum-sticks on a table, turning pages of music, repositioning chairs) as quietly as possible.

Improvisation III (1980) required the performers to occupy seats in the auditorium and operate portable cassette players. One of them (I recognized him as Nick Fells) was just ahead of me, depressing the play, stop and eject buttons and removing and inserting tapes as unobtrusively as he could, but - my attention focused the way it was - these machine sounds preoccupied me more than the recordings projected by the speakers.

In another context, this kind of listening would have been wilfully perverse. But at a Cage concert it is almost obligatory. I came away rejuvenated but with no clear idea how I might tackle the Junto, and the deadline passed before I could think any more about it.

Then, a week later I found myself with half an hour to spare one evening and decided to try and recreate the 'silences' at home, using what materials I had to hand. I set up my digital recorder and stereo microphone and gently placed plastic salad servers on the sideboard, opened doors, moved chairs, tried different kinds of muffled coughs, played with zips, crossed my legs, walked carefully up and down the bare floorboards (but not in knee-length boots), tinkered with my old cassette deck and - last but not at all least - breathed in and out.

Editing the file, I created a dozen samples, and mixed them together crudely, looping some of them, bringing them all one by one into the melting pot and then out again. And here it is. The sonic residue from the concert - its smoke and ash, if you will - not preserved, exactly, but reinterpreted. A cover version of what will almost certainly be carefully excised from the recording of the performance when it is broadcast by the BBC later this year. Headphones essential.


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created by Alasdair Pettinger Wed 15 Aug 2012 10:39 GMT+0100
 
 
 
 
 
 

Unwaving the Flag

I have never been greatly interested in the Olympics. It is partly because most of the sports I enjoy watching are either not represented (cricket, at least not since 1900) or peak elsewhere (football, cycling); and partly because of the ways in which the games have been increasingly suffocated by political corruption, commercial sponsorship and militarised security. So I made no special effort to watch the opening ceremony of London 2012 the other week.



But I didn't miss it completely. On Twitter it was hard to avoid, as several dozen of those accounts I follow commented on the unfolding spectacle on their TV screens. Many of them I expected to be cynical of what was surely going to be a state-sponsored festival of Britishness: monocultural, jingoistic, Conservative. But this was not the case, and no one was more surprised than the tweeters themselves who (rather grudgingly) admitted that the performance delighted them.

That the ceremony found fans as different as Richard Williams in the Guardian and Tim Stanley in the Telegraph suggests that Danny Boyle managed to achieve what many progressive cultural critics have been dreaming of for years: that the Left reclaim Britishness from the Right. Even the notorious tweet by Aidan Burley MP ('Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multi-cultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!') might have been scripted by Boyle, given the crucial role it played in reinforcing this new consensus. Of course the Daily Mail disagreed - but even they were forced to tone down some of their fanatical remarks.

I'm still not sure, though. I've never felt particularly at home with the idea of Britishness. The soundtrack of my childhood was not television but the Third Programme, now Radio Three, BBC's flagship classical music station. As I absorbed the standard repertoire (all those B's - Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz, Bartok, Britten...), it soon became obvious that the British contribution to that canon was modest, to say the least. And maybe that nurtured a cosmopolitan spirit that deepened as I got older.

Of course, there was always the Home Service - later renamed Radio Four - which remains tied to a certain notion (a very English notion much of the time) of Britishness, even while its borders are becoming more elastic. And when I began to buy books and records of my own, there was a pattern that suggests that I was caught in its gravitational pull. I was an avid reader of World War II classics such as Reach for the Sky and enjoyed fiction like Lord of the Rings and Watership Down. The first album I bought was Tubular Bells and Pink Floyd's Live at Pompeii shaped my adolescence even more than 'Carry On' films. (These titles are - like God Save the Queen - all choriambs. I wonder if there is something in that).

But by the time I was doing my 'O' Levels in 1975, I was clearly venturing further afield. I had begun working my way through Dante, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in my dad's collection of black-spined Penguin Classics (by definition, not originally written in English). I pestered my local bookshop for Ginsberg and Kerouac, and was amazed to find some introductions to Buddhism, and hardback volume of Whitman on the shelves at home. From a lyrical passage in Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn I followed a trail to the early twentieth-century modernisms, especially Dada, which - soon to be revived in the ethos and aesthetics of punk - framed what passed for my intellectual horizons in my last year at school.

This isn't in itself an argument against the Opening Ceremony. It's not even saying that embracing Britishness prevents you from appreciating 'other cultures'. I found my own discomfort liberating: it opened doors, made me more curious to seek out things that teachers and television presenters ignored. But if I'd been more patriotic, would I never have discovered the pleasures of U-Roy or Francis Picabia as a teenager?

I felt Jenny Diski struck a chord when she confessed her lack of enthusiasm for 'collective joy'. And I shared something of her scepticism towards the Ceremony's alleged achievement. But despite the criticism of the nostalgic, backward-looking character of the pageant, I got the feeling that she still believed in the possibility of a radical Britishness that really would make a difference. If only it had been a bit more confrontational, visionary, utopian...

And for this she was rebuked by Norman Geras who thought she burdened the event with unrealistic expectations:
It is hard to imagine how an opening ceremony for the London Olympics could, just in itself, have transformed the politics of this country, so that the morning after, all the objectives that Jenny Diski favours would have been hugely assisted or brought forward. This wasn't, mainly, a political event - a campaign, a set of reforms, a new party programme or movement.
And he detected
a subtext here according to which for people simply to enjoy themselves is somehow not enough if there's no political payoff. Shall we watch 'Singin' in the Rain' tonight? Ooh, I'm not sure - what would it do for the struggle? Hey, why are you singing a love song? There's surely still stuff we need to protest about, and songs can do that too, you know. And so on.
But for me the problem is not that the ceremony did too little, but that it did too much. It seems a little disingenuous to compare it to a Hollywood musical. After all, when almost all the commentators felt obliged to read the event as the latest contribution to the century-and-a-half series on 'the condition of England', its political implications can hardly be trivial.

The thing about Britishness, though, is that however multicultural, it is still a notion tied to a nation state that goes to great lengths to keep people out. The United Kingdom is not alone in being defended by stringent and discriminatory immigration controls, and excessive powers to detain or expel those defined as outsiders or monitor and restrict the movement and activity of those who even look like outsiders. But 'Britishness' must take some responsibility for the way in which the right to belong here and make full use of the opportunities on offer is predicated on a sense of national identity, an allegiance to a required - if heterogenous - set of affective or ideological ties shared with everyone else in the country.

Would radicalising Britishness undermine the racial discriminations on which the kingdom seems to thrive? Would it do anything to stop the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society from bearing the brunt of what - in a triumph of spin that masks its fundamental difference from, say, wartime rationing - is blandly called 'austerity'? Would it even have helped the 182 cyclists who were arrested on the monthly 'Critical Mass' ride as they passed close by the Stadium during this apparently ground-breaking ceremony? I doubt it. Whatever its content, 'Britishness' is a fungal infection that we ought to stop feeding.

Local and regional identities don't have anything like the same power to exclude others. They certainly don't have the same purchase on social policy or the criminal justice system. Being Scouse or Geordie is not about common values or ancestry but something that emerges from the shared experience of inhabiting the same space and perhaps a way of speaking. And even nation-states don't need their citizens to identify with it in order to function. Look at Scotland. The SNP's case for independence (such as it is) is being made not on cultural grounds (appealing to those who feel Scottish, think of themselves as Scottish more than anything else) but because an independent scotland would be fairer, more democractic, more accountable, dare I say more modern place to live.

The opening ceremony did not have to be a celebration of 'Britishness'. It could have simply celebrated sport (perhaps allowing itself a little dig at the Olympic grandees by dwelling on some activities - like rugby or karate or women's canoeing - it does not yet recognize). (Maybe even a bit of Indian Dancing). Or it could have created a series of tableaux that represented all the previous games - with its controversies (the black power salute in Mexico 1968) and tragedies (the massacre at Munich in 1972) as well as triumphs (Jesse Owens in Berlin 1936). Criticizing that would have been puritanical.

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Fri 10 Aug 2012 11:08 GMT+0100
 
 
 
 
 
 

History

One of the final touches to the flat before flinging it open to the unsuspecting property-vultures was to replace the floor covering in the kitchen closet. This is what was underneath the old linoleum.

 
These are pages from a newspaper from September 1915, not long after this tenement was built. I don't suppose whoever put them there intended to let them fester until they resembled a Kurt Schwitters collage, and if they did they left them too long to be able to claim to have invented Dada a year before Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara got together at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.

Given the date I was expecting details of a military campaign but instead the news is dominated by the recall of Konstantin Dumba, the last Austro-Hungarian ambassador to the United States, following accusations of espionage.

I was not familiar with this episode of the First World War and had to look it up. I couldn't find any link between Dumba and Glasgow, but when I told someone the story at work, I was surprised to learn that before the war the Austro-Hungarian empire was represented here by the famous shipping magnate and art collector William Burrell who held the post of consul until 1906, according to the Dictionary of National Biography.

It seems unlikely the two ever met (Dumba was serving as Minister to Serbia at the time) and Burrell's acquaintance with Central Europe may not have been extensive, if the recollections of an encounter in 1932 are to be believed. This was on the occasion of the first visit to Glasgow by Béla Bartók who was a guest of the Scottish composer Erik Chisholm (himself sometimes compared to Bartók as a modernist who drew extensively on the idioms of his country's folk and traditional music).

Chisholm's wife, Diana, recalled:
When we knew Bartók was coming to Glasgow to stay with us, the first thing, which worried us, was - language difficulty. None of us, of course, could speak one word of Hungarian. Would our famous guest be any better with English? I immediately bought an 'English-cum-Hungarian' dictionary, (by the time I left Scotland I had entertained so many continental composers, musicians, and singers, that I had a very comprehensive collection of 'English-cums'). I pictured myself standing on the station platform anxiously scanning the face of every male, who, in my opinion, looked 'foreign', and gesticulating wildly with the dictionary. However, I was rescued (or thought I was) from this predicament by the Hungarian Consul in Glasgow, Sir William Burrell, who telephoned me the day before Bartók's arrival to say that he also would like to come to the station to receive this distinguished visitor from Hungary.

'Luck', I thought, 'this lets me out'. So you can imagine my disappointment, when, on meeting Sir William a few minutes before the train was due to arrive (8.35 p.m. on February 28 1932), he said he hoped that either my husband or I could speak Hungarian because he could not.

'Well', I said laughingly, 'you're the official representative so you can get on with it.' But we need not have worried. When the Flying Scotsman arrived and the passengers alighted from the train it was quite simple to recognise him. There was only one Béla Bartók! A small white-haired man, wearing a black Homburg hat, thick black coat with a heavy Astrakhan collar and armed with a music case in one hand and an umbrella in the other. Who I wondered had forewarned him about Glasgow' s weather?

Sir William went forward at once to greet him, and I swear I saw a look of relief flit across the consul's face when Bartók said in a softly spoken, broken English accent, 'Bartók is my name'. After that all went smoothly. Later in the day, my husband and I admitted to each other that we had both felt ashamed that not one of the party who came to receive him could reply to him in his language, least of all the Consul.1
Whether Sir William was still the Consul at that time I have been unable to confirm. I don't know a word of Hungarian either, although I did find something else when I was clearing out the flat. I had not opened my copy of Bartók's 44 Duos for two violins in more than thirty years.



In a fit of insanity I disturbed my violin out of hibernation. The downstairs neighbours must have been grateful the episode was very brief.

Notes

1. Erik Chisholm, 'Béla Bartók: The Shy Genius', available for download from the Erik Chisholm website.

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Sat 16 Jun 2012 14:37 GMT+0100
 
 
 
 
 
 

Malcolm X as Photographer

One of the surprises for me reading Manning Marable's recent biography of Malcolm X is the number of references to him as a photographer.

In the summer of 1963, for instance, to a civil rights demonstration in New York, he 'brought along a 35-millimeter camera and busied himself taking photographs. "If there were no captions for these pictures, you'd think this was Mississippi or Nazi Germany," he informed one New York Times reporter' (p253).

This is not the first mention of Malcolm filming demonstrations. It seems he made a habit of it, possibly because the mainstream media could not be relied on to report objectively, but also, perhaps, to help the Nation of Islam identity (or at least provoke) FBI observers and infiltrators.

On holiday in Miami with his wife, children, and Cassius Clay in January 1964, he kept a notebook in which
he drafted several paragraphs about his family's visit to Clay's training camp that were designed to be the basis for a feature news story, 'Malcolm X, the Family Man.' Most of his notes were captions designed to accompany photographs he had taken (p280).
During his second trip to Africa and the Middle East, he toured Algiers 'by taxi, leaning out of the car window to take photographs', apparently catching the attention of the police who detained him on departure at the airport, believing the photos to be a security risk (p319).

An evening program at the Audubon Ballroom organized by the Organization for Afro-American Unity in January 1965 'featured color films taken by Malcolm during his travels' (p404).

This suggests his interest in photography extended to cinematography too, and indeed, several images of Malcolm show him holding an 8mm movie camera, like this one published in Life magazine, taken at London Airport in July 1964.



Here's another picture of Malcolm holding a camera: And there is actually a similar shot (possibly taken on the same occasion) on the home page of the Malcolm X Project, a collection of resources compiled in association with Marable's biography.

But most intriguing of all is the claim that de Laurot's remarkable film Black Liberation (1967) features Malcolm X not only on screen but 'behind the camera'. You can - if you're lucky to get a good connection - stream a video here, but it is impossible to guess which bits of footage he may have been responsible for.

Surely there is enough here to merit further investigation. Malcolm was not the first political leader to try to control his photographic image. But a leader who wields a camera in public is certainly unusual and cannot be attributed solely to a concern over how he was represented. After all, most of the film he shot would have been of people and places he encountered, not of himself.

Perhaps it is time to return to the vast on- and off-line Malcolm X archive and ask it questions about photography that it may not have been asked before. How skilled a photographer was he? Do his photographs and movie footage evince a particular sensibility, even the hints of a radical aesthetic practice, or are they indistinguishable from conventional holiday snaps? At any rate, the special interest in photography on the part of someone who was almost exclusively identified with a - very distinctive - verbal (largely oral) delivery might cause us to wonder about the co-existence of these very different rhetorical forms in his repertoire.

There are five boxes of photographs in the Malcolm X Collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The collection description record is fairly general, but does indicate that it includes 'portraits of African-American expatriates and visitors, and views of crowds, possibly photographed by Malcolm X during his visits to various African countries, particularly Nigeria and Ghana (ca. 1964).'

Looks like a good place to start.

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Tue 11 Oct 2011 1:02 GMT+0100
 
 
 
 
 
 

An Outline of a Critique of Political Economy

I am old enough to remember decimalisation, which finally took place in Britain forty years ago this week. As an eleven-year-old in his first year at secondary school, who had never been abroad, it was my first taste of that slightly queasy feeling you get when you have to think in two different currencies at once. I recall the frisson as p’s and d’s mingled promiscuously in my pocket, the conversion tables on the walls of post offices and newsagents, the impending obsolescence of the eleven and twelve times tables.

 
But above all I am reminded of an event some ten years later: now a student at Birmingham University whose routes across the city often took in one of the alternative bookshops that nurtured the subculture. These institutions, defined negatively in that they offered what mainstream bookshops did not - a good coverage of left-wing politics, imported fiction and poetry, alternative health and non-western religion - nevertheless came to feel as if they obeyed a single organic principle.

They flourished in university towns, but not exclusively. As a teenager, I regularly visited a tiny one in Blackburn, Lancashire on my way home from school, spending money from a paper round on treats like How to Grow Your Own Marijuana, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn and the latest issues of Peace News.

Nowadays, that rapprochement is almost over, the trade fragmented between Buddhist Centres, herbalist emporia, welfare rights offices, with gentrified boutiques like the London Review Bookshop virtually the only places left for readers who think of themselves of independent mind. Where now can you walk in off the street and pick up a copy of Amilcar Cabral, Alexandra Kollontai or Ernest Mandel?

The nearest to my first flat in Birmingham was in Moseley, its volumes of Gramsci and Jung always faintly perfumed with jasmine and patchouli, although, with its squeaky wooden floors and gloomy mezzanine to the rear, retaining a studious air missing from its more activist-oriented twin situated on the curve of St Martins Circus Queensway in the city centre, filled with natural light that nurtured house plants and made hand-written cards curl around drawing pins on the noticeboard.

A mile away was the Communist Party bookshop, tucked away a block or two back from the busy A38, which pretty much stuck to printed material and felt a little more intimidating and austere in comparison, although it was already livened up with the snazzy covers of Martin Jacques' Marxism Today and Robert Natkin's colourful abstract paintings that adorned the cover of the first generation of Verso's translations of French, German and Italian socialist intellectuals (most of whom are hardly spoken of today).

Not that these developments left much mark on Progressive Books and Asian Arts in Selly Oak. There were fans, incense, some fabrics and posters, but I was drawn to the shelves lined with the cream paperbacks of Peking’s Foreign Languages Press editions of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and of course Mao himself, alongside the darker hues of the rather more durable hardbacks that offered their Selected or Collected Works. A ramble on the web just now tells me that the bookshop was run in the 1970s by Jagmothan Joshi, General Secretary of the Indian Workers Association, a fact of which I was completely unaware at the time. When I used to visit, the proprietor was a taciturn and somewhat intense man in his late twenties or early thirties, perhaps an eternal postgraduate, whose longish hair, cardigan and brown suede shoes made me think of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Not long after I discovered it, the shop was holding a closing-down sale, offering two-thirds off all stock. I chose The Poverty of Philosophy (60p, still pencilled on the now rather faded cover), Selected Letters of Marx and Engels (also 60p), Anti-Dühring (which seems to have disappeared from my collection) and a volume of Mao's Selected Writings that included the Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan and On Contradiction (£2). Even at marked prices they represented excellent value for money at a time when - as a glance at the back covers of other books I bought around the same time reveals - a copy of Discipline and Punish would have set me back £2.95 and Althusser's For Marx a stomach-clenching £4.25.

And for each one, Stockhausen diligently calculated the promised discount. And what I liked about this ritual was, when he took up the Penguin edition of Engels' Selected Works and noticed that the price printed on the back cover - for it must have been on the shelf for more than a decade - was an uncorrected 7 shillings and sixpence, without missing a beat he rapidly executed the mental arithmetic and informed me, with a hint of a smile, that I owed him 12˝p.

I don't know if this sale made the slightest difference to his fortunes as he made his way in the world following the shop's demise. But in honouring the agreement to reduce his prices to the point at which they became almost meaningless I think he made a tiny difference to mine.

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Thu 17 Feb 2011 4:08 GMT+0000
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Contents

Rasping the Silence
Discovered in 2012
The Problem with 'Screen Time'
First Things
Language Games
The Hall is Full of Noises
Unwaving the Flag
History
Malcolm X as Photographer
An Outline of a Critique of Political Economy
Our Future
Playing with Chekhov
Not Biking but Hiking
House Music
Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema
Shall I Compare Thee to a Hampshire Town?
Listening to Britain
Improv
Keynotes, Signals and Soundmarks
See Emily Play
Things to do on a rainy afternoon
Retweeting Retrouvé