LCMF 2018: A Sound Map of the Hudson River

I wasn’t prepared, when I walked in to the installation of Annea Lockwood’s A Sound Map of the Hudson River (1982) at LCMF, for how familiar it would be. After all, this is a giant field recording of the most ambient, neutral of all sounds, running water; as ordinary and as ignorable as traffic noise. Yet as I stepped into the vast concrete cavern that is Ambika P3, I had a visceral hit of familiarity, of knowing, of orientation. This was, I realised, a real object, with a weight and form and identity of its own.

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A Sound Map of the Hudson River is the first of three such portraits (others are of the Danube and the Housatonic), and is related to Lockwood’s larger River Archive project, begun in the 1960s. To create the work Lockwood recorded the river in stages, moving downstream. She took recordings from the bank, at points that she deemed sonically interesting and that fit an overall sequence of contrasts and movements. The piece was thus recorded compositionally, with a final sound and structure in mind, rather than objectively; Lockwood rejected locations, for example, if they were too close to roads or presented too little of sonic interest. Once the recordings were completed, Lockwood compiled them into a montage sequence, stitched together with slow fade-ins and fade-outs. The completed work is presented with a map of the river annotated with the location, date, and time of each recording and at what point in the work they can be heard. A set of headsets also play interviews with people who live and work on the river: a fisherman, a judge, a park ranger, a farmer, an activist and a river pilot.

Its materials are so slight, so neutral, so ambient and unadorned, as to be almost not there at all. In this sense, it is a masterpiece of presence: it is so utterly present as a work in spite of that neutrality. And that goes even more as what is here and what is there is folded over and over the longer one listens. The Hudson is here; we are here on the Hudson; we are there on the map (in time now, measured by a clock on the wall; a slice of time then, Lockwood in 1982 standing by the  water’s edge); we are here in this tiny locale, the river zoomed in to a few inches around a single microphone, projected around us across a 40-foot circle of speakers.

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Almost until the end, the recordings are taken from the water’s edge: border spaces, the ribbon between this and that. The work’s focus is on touching and close sensation, not the generalised power of the river. Intimate. More interesting sonically as a result. But also more unexpected.

Rarely, even in the piece’s later stages, is the Hudson recorded as a source of power or mass. Recordings always made at the river’s edge, lapping, bubbling, the elemental mix of earth and water and air. The river is conceived less as a thing in itself than as a space around which things happen: the map is not of the river so much; the map is the river. This perspective is heightened by the addition of interviews with some of those who live and work on the river. I listened to a river pilot describe the challenges of bringing tankers, 100,000 tonnes in weight, onto the piers in New York: yet despite the huge forces involved even this was a tale of precise movements made under almost no engine at all, trusting to the silent pull of the river’s tides and currents.

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Chris Mann, 1949–2018

Mann

Very sad to learn this morning (via Michael Schell @cribbageforum) of the death of the Australian-American composer, poet and performer Chris Mann.

I first came across Mann’s compositional performance poetry, and his unique voice, through the old NMA tapes, back when they were available via Rainer Linz’s website. (They can now be accessed as free downloads or paid-for CD-Rs via Shame File music.) Those tapes also included music by Amanda Stewart, and both are/were extraordinarily dexterous vocalists – and not singers, but speakers. Mann’s voice in particular had this quality that made you feel as though you had been unwillingly sucked into a conversation with a slightly mad neighbour: amongst the Beckett and the Pinter streams of stuttering consciousness was the gabble of gossip. I loved the soprano swoops he would introduce, for example: injections of an alter ego, an alternative possibility. He was influenced by Fluxus, Cage and, especially, the ‘compositional linguistics’ of Kenneth Gaburo; but it’s hard not to hear him also as one of new music’s few stand-ups – his work was genuinely funny, and utilised comedy’s forms and timing as much as music’s.

There are too few videos of his work to share; searching for Machine for Making Sense, the group he formed with Stewart and others in the 1990s, yields a little more. Here are two I particularly enjoy. Watching them back this morning, I’m struck once again what an extraordinary virtuoso he was, in thought and articulation. RIP.

Another (Musical) Minimalism

In Edinburgh recently to catch my annual dose of the Fringe, I stopped in at the Book Festival bookshop, where I picked up a copy of Another Minimalism: Art after California Light and Space by Melissa E. Feldman. Essentially an extended catalogue essay written to accompany the 2015–16 exhibition of the same name at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, I found this an intriguing and provocative introduction to a strand of art I was aware of, but didn’t have the language to describe or contextualise.

Intriguing because it pointed to a division between strands of minimalism recognised as quite distinct within the visual arts that are often conflated (and with all sorts of attendant problems of categorisation and taxonomy) in music. Another Minimalism‘s subject is art produced under the influence of the Light and Space, and Finish Fetish movements, both of which originated in California in the 1960s.

Feldman begins her essay thus:

California Light and Space and New York Minimalism emerged at the same time in the mid-1960s under the rubric of minimalism. Yet soon after the appearance of Barbara Rose’s article ‘ABC Art’ in Art in America in 1965, and the exhibition Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966 – both early attempts to define this radical new art – the East Coast school eclipsed that of the West. Apart from a handful of its constituents who gained international attention, Light and Space came to be understood as a minor regional movement while Minimalists Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Richard Serra and their peers went on to enter the art historical canon, slotted into a lineage bracketed by Russian Constructivism at one end of the century and Conceptual art at the other.

In one corner you have a minimalism that is focused on materials and concrete objects; that is objective (what you see is what you see); and that is self-referential. In the other, is an art that is immaterial, using light and smoke as its media; that is unpredictable and experiential; and whose meaning is based in the individual’s sensory perceptions. Among this latter group are the artists Larry Bell, Mary Corse, Robert Irwin, James Turrell and Doug Wheeler; among recent artists influenced by Light and Space, Feldman names Uta Barth, Olafúr Eliasson, Spencer Finch, Ann Veronica Janssens and James Welling.

You can see where I am going. The Light and Space/Finish Fetish vs Minimalism divide in art echoes the main divide within so-called musical minimalism: that between the East Coast’s pulses and the West Coast’s drones. Reich’s repeating units recall Judd’s boxes; Young’s drones evoke Turrell. Other musical ‘Light and Space-ists’ (Pitch and Volume composers? Ugh, no; we can do better than that) might include, alongside Young, Phill Niblock, Charlemagne Palestine, Catherine Christer Hennix, R.I.P. Hayman, Pauline Oliveros and James Tenney.

Even if we could give this musical phenomenon a name, is it of any use? I suggest yes. It groups together composers for whom a certain type of musical phenomenology – one not found in pulse-driven minimalism, and certainly not in its later, less experimental incarnations – is key. It gets around that tricky problem of description that I referred to. And it may offer insights into how we think of other composers who are sometimes tangentially linked to ‘minimalism’, but only on the basis of intuition, rather than anything concrete in their musical technique or aesthetic. I am thinking here of a range of composers, among them John Luther Adams, Morton Feldman, Henryk Górecki, Peter Ablinger and Ryoji Ikeda. The music of all of these might be constructively considered in relation to a Light and Space-style minimalism of experience and perception, rather than one of objecthood and materiality. And where might that take us?

David Burge: Timeless Relevance

c1bb38_b8ed7a1d6946402685ac88e6e9f567f0_mv2 A little more than two years ago, I drew attentionto a crowd-funding campaign in aid of publication of the collected Keyboard Magazine columns of pianist David Burge. Well, with my own handsome copy now in hand, I am pleased to note that this project – organized by Burge’s widow and granddaughter – has reached its summation.

If you are interested in finding out more about the book, including how to get hold of your own copy, I urge you to visit the book’s dedicated website for more information.

Octandre to give Frank Denyer portrait

Frank Denyer is a composer whose music I admire very deeply. There’s a reason the first main feature I published with Sounds Like Now was a profile of Denyer, written by Sam Richards.

So it’s wonderful to learn that the Octandre Ensemble are devoting a whole concert to Denyer’s music next month. On Sunday 17 June at the Coronet in Notting Hill they will perform six pieces by Denyer, from the early Unison 1 (1972) and Hanged Fiddler (1973) through to the intriguing Screens for violin, viola, female voice, percussion and dressing screens, completed this year and receiving its first full performance.

Appearing alongside Octandre will be the violinist Sarah Saviet and the soprano Juliet Fraser.

Full details of the concert are here. Tickets, at £15 each, may be purchased here.

Recently published

I’ve been in hospital most of this month, squeezing pints of antibiotics and corticosteroids into my veins. It’s not as much fun as it sounds, but it has coincided with a productive spell of writing. Here are some recent fruits, in case you missed them.

A little interview with Patricia Alessandrini for the Riot Ensemble blog.

Notes on two pieces by Christian Mason for the Philharmonia Orchestra.

An interview with Niels Rønsholdt for VAN magazine.

A reminiscence about Alwynne Pritchard’s Craw for the British Music Collection.

Is Cafe Oto really only 10 years old? It seems to have been around for much longer, but maybe that’s just me back-projecting London’s need for somewhere like it. Yes, there are lots of other venues where one can hear experimental, improvised and avant-garde music, but they are mostly arranged on an ad hoc basis. Transient spaces, or buildings made for other things, temporarily repurposed for the night. Oto has provided a solid centre, created an audience, stirred the stew of all these things, become a place where one can hear on equal terms – the same space, the same crowd, the same drinks – the likes of Sun Ra or Keiji Haino one night, and Jennifer Walshe or Mark Knoop another. Or, as next month’s programme allows, Moor Mother at the weekend and a Michael Pisaro residency midweek.

Oto’s rise overlapped with the BMIC’s demise, and the loss of its regular Cutting Edge concert series at the Warehouse in Waterloo. No coincidence that, surely, and I remember a sense of personal relief when some of my favourite musicians began appearing at Oto. Here’s the earliest mention I can find on the blog, from September 2008: a plug for a concert by the Parkinson Saunders duo, whom I had first encountered as performers 23 months before at the Warehouse. I reviewed the first but not the second, yet both concerts live strong in my memory. Of the second I recall in particular Paul Whitty’s turntable experiments and the choreographed semaphore-like movements of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Postcard Pieces. The gig also featured a beautifully introspective improv set by Sebastian Lexer and David Ryan that I hope wasn’t ruined when my phone bleeped instead of switching off at the start. My lowest moment as an audience member and a lesson for life. Apologies.

Anyway, it was the sort of exploratory concert at which Oto has continued to excel; and that visible excellence is, I am sure, an important reason why London’s new music scene is enjoying a period of particular vibrancy today. Series and collectives like Kammer Klang, 840, Bastard Assignments, WEISSLICH, An assembly, even LCMF – members of each have all been nurtured or had their ideas test-bedded at Oto: it is possible to put this stuff on; people will come. Here’s to ten more years.

Photo by Andrej on Flickr; CC license here.