Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Live at Project 1988

Live At Project, August/September 1988 - scanned from my original copy of US High Performance magazine, in a piece by magazine founder/editor Steven Durland, that covered this unique performance festival that I worked on, curated by Danny McCarthy for SSI's international sculpture conference, featuring Andre Stitt, Danny McCarthy, Alastair McLennan, Mick Shanahan, Jaki Aherne and Anne Tallentire, amongst others.

Great fun sourcing some of the materials for these shows: filling a cabbie's boot full of bloodied pig's ears outside a butcher's in Meath Street for Alastair's piece. A pig's ear, for those unaware, is a whole half of a pig's head, cut right down the middle. Out to the cash and carry on Richmond Road for catering size vats of ketchup and mayo for Andre's piece, plus bags of sand and cement from a builder's providers. Alastair's performance took place in what used be the burnt-out space (it had no roof), which is now the gallery. Andre had to be taken to the Eye & Ear after his gig after getting sand and cement in his eye. The flare that Andre used at the end was obtained from a ship's chandlers, if I remember rightly. Pre-internet, the quickest preferred document transfer was the fax ('member those ?). SSI's fax broke down at one point, necessitating Andre dictating his lengthy artist's statement to me over the phone. I remember the last two words - 'Eternally bombed', and how I had to ask Andre to repeat the words as I was having trouble with his Belfast accent. "Sorry Andre, 'eternally what ?' "BOMBED !" "Ah, bombed.. OK, cheers !"

For a long time this didn't feel so long ago, but it looks bloody ancient now ! B&W helps the effect I suppose. Also in that issue of HP was coverage of the UK performance festival, EDGE 88. The profile afforded us was invaluable. Interesting none of the Project Arts Centre staff at the time had experience with live work. A different guard to those working in 79, when Darkspace took place. Although they were student organised events, things like Paint It Red at the SFX, and Friday The 13th at NCAD, circa 84 were an important part of the general climate for this kind of work. Fights broke out and cars were set on fire outside the SFX. Quite a heavy time.

"Shouting at the ground won't enable it to hear any better."

Listening to this for the first time in quite some time, I'm struck afresh by how masterful it is – a very complete and focused body of work which has more than stood the test of time since its original creation in 1987. A friend lent me the LP sometime around 88/90 – hard to remember precisely at this remove – which I made a tape copy of. I wonder where he got it ? No Dublin record shops at the time would have had anything like this. I would normally pick up this kind of stuff whilst working summer jobs in London, between years in artschool in the 1980s. Perhaps he got it second hand in Freebird, back when it used to be in a cramped basement on Eden quay – the only arena for the occasional glimpses of the outer reaches of exploratory music, along with Base X (Basement Record & Tape Exchange), further along the quays, on Bachelors Walk (LPs were slipped into a plain brown bag with the BASE X stamp) . With a lot of trawling, I had gotten a few things like this over the years, and generally it would be priced lower, as they would've thought there was less chance of selling it, I guess. I remember my surprise coming across a copy of a Lovens/Lytton LP (“Was It Me ?”) circa 1985, a little bit ahead of the time I seriously got into improv, so it remained an oddity for a while (I still have it). I think I paid about 3 quid for it.

Anyway, this tape copy of Shouting At The Ground became a much treasured item until I got my own CD copy in Staalplaat in Amsterdam in the early 90s. These chronological reference points are important because all music is not only located within it's own time of production, but also within our own initial time of exposure, with all the attendant social, cultural and emotional reference points that gradually bleed into it. These aspects imprint themselves into and are threaded through the music like DNA, such that the experience of music is the closest we come to time travel. Our brain is temporarily reconfigured to those co-ordinates set down years ago. Though it's not like we go back in time to the exclusion of the present, because we experience the music in the present too, so the two times interweave, along with our two senses of self, in a somewhat out-of-register overlay.

I think I first came across :zoviet*france: in the Rough Trade shop in Talbot Road in Notting Hill, summer of 1984. I was immediately drawn to the inventive design and packaging. Their LPs came in roofing felt, aluminium foil and string-bound hardboard sheets. This highly individual approach mirrored their sonic modus operandi. Their music was like nothing I had previously heard. There were no reference points. They created their own world with a very hands-on lo-fi methodology involving simple stringed instruments, percussion and FX pedals. The punk spirit of DIY and experimentation was very much in evidence. By the time Shouting At The Ground came out, they were several years down the road, and had reached a new level of sophistication and musical intelligence, still with the simplest of means.

Part of the :z*f: world, something that lent another layer of intrigue (they worked anonymously for years), was the titling, some of which looked like an invented language, or parts of another language cross-hatched with nonsense. It was a complete package – you entered their world, and it was like a road movie for the ears. Far from conventional narrative of any sort of course, it was a drift through strange lands. Each time I hear the opening track of this LP, Smocking Erde, there is a sense of excitement, of anticipation, as looped over-blown flute-like sounds usher us into a slowly unfolding landscape underscored with a subtly shifting, dusty, low hum. It occupies the space as a kind of gauzy, foggy, wintery presence.

The winter associations are probably not unconnected with the fact that was where my strongest listening memories are – late '89, in a flat on my own in Mountjoy Square, in a poorly heated, sparsely furnished Georgian room, with a second room as a studio space. The trade-off for this was that it was cheap – really cheap. Brace yourselves, but I paid the princely sum of 6 pounds a week for those two sizeable ground floor rooms (well, for one room, but I was given the second room at no extra cost). It was more of a caretaking rent really, at that rate, but who's complaining ? Life on the dole, you're not going to pass it up, are you ? This was thanks to the landlord, the late Uinseann MacEoin, an old school republican who liked to see himself as a benefactor of the arts, with properties in Mountjoy Square and Henrietta Street (two of the top addresses in Dublin before they became tenements) occupied by artists for low rents since the early 70s.

This track has another connection for me, and, though slight, is very specific to Dublin. Toward the end of the track, there is a part of the fading drone that sounds just like the engine sound of Dublin Bus at the time, those Van Hool engines that were ever present in my time in Mountjoy Square, as one of the depots was in the south east corner of the square, so I'd hear them returning there late at night. It's uncanny. It's an absolute sonic doppelganger. Listening to it today transported me back there (with a shiver). This short track prepares the ground for Palace Of Ignitions, using hammered dulcimer sounds, punctuated by a percussive tatoo, with gated reverb used to great effect, creates a kind of skewed orientalism. This then makes way for a longer exploration in Come To The Edge, a slowly cascading series of looped melodic fragments, animated like wind-blown banners. It creates an otherwordly vortex which really draws you in. It's underscored by a billowing hum that rises and falls, with a wind-like dynamic.

The next brace of tracks – Revenue Of Fire, Dybbuk, Camino Real, Stocc Blawers, Fickle Whistle, Hand Over Your Ears – work through a series of textures and themes they return to over the course of the LP: sounds like dying fireworks, plucking, skittering sounds, soft wind instruments and whistles, looped and treated. Then there's the dynamic shifts and sudden harsh melodic loops that hover, floating, encircling, motifs reworked in multiple variations. Carole The Breebate throws down a tangled clutch of melodic scraps, only to be interrupted by sudden insistent, speed-up looped alien voices, which dissappear just as suddenly.

Marrch Dynamic offers a slight, quiet echo of the second track with a different dynamic. Wind Thief is a last short report, using whistles and gated reverb like a second instrument before the development of the last two long-form tracks, which total about 35 minutes. Shamanay Enfluence rolls out a back-masked loop with heavier use of delay and reverb which has a particularly landscape-like feel with a strong sense of distance. There is the ever present drone, which is more like wind than some rancid new-age trope – capricious, unstable. Occassional watery textures issue through the landscape, along with warped, slowed vocal fragments. There is a sense of drift and of slowing down, like a breathing exercise. The final track, The Death Of Trees, layers a thicket of loops with echoes of previous motifs, with drawn-out etiolated sounds, stretched to exhaustion, decaying, ending, dissappearing. Gradual unfolding of rhythms and counter-rhythms generated by multiple delays – all reels out increasingly slowly, degenerating into a river of rhythms uncoiling and disarticulating to be subsumed in a sonic swell, a tide pull to oblivion.

The album title comes from a quote by Lamargi: “Shouting at the ground won't enable it to hear any better” The only other piec of text serves to further skew the pitch: elsewhere on the artwork are the words WE ARE GREEN. Dispensing with the more unusual stock for covers, this one has a regular printed cover, with an image which, again, adds to the intrigue of the :z*f: world – a field of cut straw against a cloudy grey sky, with a curious pair of dark grey half disc-like shapes overlaid in the foreground. They might originally have been monoprints, who knows, but it's figuration and abstraction in the same frame. Rural surrealism. Which seems to tie in with the description of their music as 'Industrial Folk'. What's interesting about this album for me is the move away from a previous approach involving the use of media clips and news fragments that located it in a strongly cold war hunted/haunted landscape. Shouting At The Ground moved into a purer sense of landscape, which was continued in the excellent 1991 release, Shadow, Thief Of The Sun. In between the two releases was Look Into Me (1990), which took an interesting swerve into a more cut-up musique concrete territory. Shouting.. and Shadow.. represent the pinnacle of the :z*f: achievement in my book, the heights of which they failed to scale since. But that's just my opinion, to be taken lightly. So, well done guys, you created something of lasting value which continues to resonate with me.

Monday, November 30, 2015

"In spite of myself, I'm a meticulous man."

Two old favourites, both released in 1982, that are very related for me, almost like two sides of the same coin, as related as night and day. Both exploring imaginary terrain, each in their own uniquely particular way; Eno, in the studio, with instruments, detritus and field recording, between 1978 and 1982, creating soundscape compositions, Gilbert/Lewis/Mills, exploring a particular location and its contents over a one month period to create similar narratives. Eno, in his liner notes, speaks specifically about the idea of landscape, memory, and a sense of place. He also mentions the notion of psychoacoustic space—the idea of using recording technology to create imaginary spaces and atmospheres: the suggestive power of sound. Where Eno creates exterior, rural, and perhaps more lyrical spaces, the world of Mzui is a wonderfully forlorn, and distinctly urban interior. On Land is like a daytime hike, Mzui an after dark d√©rive.

Strange to imagine Eno's starting points of Fellini and Miles Davis until he explains it further:
“In using the term landscape I am thinking of places, times, climates and the moods they evoke. And of expanded moments of memory too... One of the inspirations for this record was Fellini's 'Amarcord' (“I Remember”), a presumably unfaithful reconstruction of childhood memories. Watching that film, I imagined an aural counterpart to it, and that became one of the threads woven into the fabric of this music.

“The choice of sonic elements arose less from listening to music than from listening to the world in a musical way. When I was in Ghana, for instance, I took with me a stereo microphone and a cassette recorder, ostensibly to record indigenous music and speech patterns. What I sometimes found myself doing instead was sitting out on the patio in the evenings with the microphone placed to pick up the widest possible catchment of ambient sounds from all directions, and listening to the result on my headphones. The effect of this simple technological system was to cluster all the disparate sounds into one aural frame: they became music. 

Listening this way, I realised I had been moving towards a music that had this feeling: as the listener, I wanted to be situated inside a large field of loosely-knit sound, rather than placed before a tightly organised monolith (or stereolith for that matter). I wanted to open out the aural field, to put much of the sound a considerable distance from the listener (even locating some of it 'out of earshot'), and to allow the sounds to live their lives separately from one another, clustering occasionally, but not 'musically' bound together. This gave rise to an interesting technical difficulty. Because recording studio technology and practice developed in relation to performed music, the trend of that development has been toward greater proximity, tighter and more coherent meshing of sounds with one another. Shortly after I returned from Ghana, Robert Quine gave me a copy of Miles Davis' 'He Loved Him Madly'. Teo Macero's revolutionary production on that piece seemed to me to have the 'spacious' quality I was after, and like Amarcord, it too became a touchstone to which I returned frequently.”

Mzui's inauspicious beginings belie the alchemy of the process and the rare, flinty beauty of the outcome. A large factory space, in Elephant & Castle, commandeered as the artist-run Waterloo Gallery, was the physical terrain to hand that Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis, and Russell Mills took on, with various discarded items they encountered and put to great use. They worked 6 days a week for the month of August 1981, developing a series of sculptures and audio-visual environments for their own and the public's interaction. All recorded, with many tapes given to those members of the public who played in the space themselves. Apparently many of these willing participants went on to explore similar territory in their own work. It would be extremely interesting to try and track down these people and hear their Mzui tapes: it would lend a whole other aspect to the existing recorded document. Next to impossible probably, and, leaving aside quality control issues, the chances of any of these tapes having survived is most likely slim, but sometimes it's quite curious what Facebook can turn up in terms of connecting with parts of the past. 

Like Eno, the imaginative terrain they created on the album of edited recordings had a very strong narrative focus and sense of place, in which an entire environment becomes a sounding board. They played the space. Glass was smashed and things were set on fire. The floor was ritually polished. It became a living, breathing environment. A backlog of exhibition opening bottles created the stock for the pile of broken glass, which was coralled into a roped-off area after a visit from health and safety. A former Stevie Wonder stage set of astro turf was cut up to make blackouts. Quite surreal, and quite Dada, in its own way. The Dada connection given voice by the inclusion of a loop of Duchamp saying, "In spite of myself, I'm a meticulous man", toward the end of the LP. This quote was most likely sourced from the Duchamp interview published on an Audio Arts tape in 1975 (original interview in 1959), which is now available, (along with the entire Audio Arts output, thanks to the Tate) as a podcast:

The lo-fi nature of the Mzui recordings added rather than detracted from the record – giving it the urgency of reportage. This, aligned to the resourcefulness and intelligence in the approach to creating sonic environments, and further drawing out these elements in the editing process, is what gives the record its power for me – a power which hasn't dimmed since. It connects with me like electricity. I wrote a review some years ago:

A recent search on Google maps for Gray Street appears to show no trace of the former warehouse. Long gone of course, swallowed up in 80s gentrification no doubt. I used to walk near there quite a bit on trips to London in the early 2000s (to see Wire, co-incidentally enough), on my way down to that wonderful emporium of out-there music, These Records, whose delightful proprieters were always so patient with my slow trawls through their earthly delights. I never realised the Mzui location was so near.

Praise be to Cherry Red for having the bravery to put this out, as it must've been as near to commercial suicide as any label would want to go. The only other record I can think of in a similar vein would be 23 Skidoo's 'The Cullling Is Coming', itself largely a document of live work. Though that was on a smaller sub-label if I remember rightly – Operation Twilight. One thing that intrigued me for a long time about Mzui was its title. So opaque and inscrutable. Apparently it was provided by The Brothers Quay. Though an explanation was never sought.

New duo album with David Lacey

Room Temperature is very pleased to announce the release of a new duo album by Fergus Kelly & David Lacey, Quiet Forage, in a limited edition of 100. This is their second album since Bevel (2006), and is the result of various duo sessions recorded between 2011 and 2014 which have been edited into five tracks totalling 50 minutes. Fergus Kelly plays invented instruments, electronics and percussion, and David Lacey plays percussion/electronics. Orders can be made using the Paypal button on this blog, as I am currently experiencing difficulties with updating my Room Temperature site.