L’homme a deux oreilles, l’oreille animale et l’oreille idéale (Victor Hugo).
This afternoon I went to see the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. They were playing live to a series of short films by Hans Richter, one of the lesser-known artists associated with the Dada movement, though arguably one of its best chroniclers. I have owned a hardback copy of his Dada: Art and Anti-Art since I was seventeen. With Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music, which I must have acquired around the same time, it became a kind of bible on which I swore an oath of fidelity to the avant-garde. We have had our ups and downs over the years, but we’re still together, which must count for something.
They introduced me to a whole continent of strangeness whose existence I had until then only suspected, although the authorial voice in both books was perhaps a little too mild-mannered for their subject matter. And this came back to me when talking to someone after the screening. She said she expected something a bit more risky and unconstrained from the ensemble. At least that’s what the word ‘improvised’ suggested to her.
And I can see her point. At the end, the band took questions from the floor, and most of them were about how they rehearsed and planned and organized their improvisations. One film, they decided, would be accompanied by mainly long notes; the next by short. For another they chose to use ‘conduction’ in which one member of the group used various signals to convey rhythm and pitch to the others.
Maybe by lifting the veil on their working methods, they gave the audience too much information, making the performance sound more constrained in retrospect than it actually was. From where I was sitting, that collective discipline of listening and responding to others was almost infectious, but it didn’t stop the music feeling unpredictable.
In any case, while you might be able to legislate the shape of a performance, you don’t have control over the audience. The man sitting two seats away from me snored throughout, though with such a pleasing range of timbre and such comic timing, I began to wonder if he wasn’t a member of the ensemble after all.
And for the first half hour or so, the orchestra was joined, unofficially (of this I was sure), by a small infant, who did his or her best to imitate the staccato woodwind or tremolo strings. His mother – with a courage that I doubt I could have matched – remained in the auditorium long enough for the annoyance of some listeners to become audible, adding a ostinato of faint sighs, snorts and sucking of teeth. After disappearing through the exit doors close by, she bravely returned twice, though the child was not silent for long. The second time, I heard someone behind me whisper – just a little too loudly perhaps – ‘For fuck’s sake!’ But once they were gone for good, there were moments in some of the quieter passages, when you could hear an abbreviated cry echoing in a corridor far away.