If seeing is believing, what, then, is hearing?
Are those sounds which cut through the air, either of their own volition, or else manipulated and fine-tuned into a shape that some might call music, figments of the imagination? Are perceptions of what we watch or listen to identical or not?
On a train that no longer chugs or click-clacks as of old, but propels itself with a low rumble, I remember a trip to North Berwick made with David Attenburgh’s favourite sound recordist and former member of Cabaret Voltaire, Chris Watson.
Watson was in residency at Edinburgh University, and taking a group of would-be sound recordists on a field-trip to North Berwick. I was writing a piece to tie in with this and the accompanying performance set to take place at the end of the residency. Rather than write up a formal interview, I decided to make it more observational, watching and listening, waiting for something to happen.
On the beach later, Watson would tell anecdotes from his Cabaret Voltaire days in-between demonstrating how the best microphone works when immersed in rock pools, and the sea, as the tide laps against it.
Watson tells these stories in his bluff-but-never-gruff Yorkshire accent which, after 30-odd years working in sound, still rings with a sense of wonderment at the sonic possibilities of the natural world.
On the train home, Watson listens hard to the sounds of the train in motion, the little tics and creaks of the carriages, the almost indiscernible squeaks of the wheels, the squeals of the brakes. This inspires Watson’s students to stick their microphones on the walls and doors of the railway carriage to see what can be heard.
In a silver, not black, Glasgow taxi just after Friday night rush-hour. The weekend starts here, and the taxi’s rear window windscreen wipers click and whirr into action in an attempt to fend off the November drizzle. It’s the first weekend of sonica, a new festival of ‘sonic art for the visually minded’ as the programme puts it in wilfully inscrutable lower-case.
sonica is the brainchild of Cathie Boyd, artistic director of Cryptic, formerly Theatre Cryptic, the Glasgow-based international music theatre (but not musical theatre) production company. Also on board are Patrick Dickie, a leading contemporary music producer at the Almeida, English National Opera and elsewhere, and Graham McKenzie, artistic director of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.
When did Glasgow’s relationship to the sonic landscape change?
Was it when the late writer and musician Tom McGrath brought Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and others to the city when he was director of the Third Eye Centre, on the Sauchiehall Street site of what is now the CCA?
Or was it when Alex Harvey appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test singing Jacques Brel’s ‘Next’, looking demonic in white face and clown stripes? Or when Maggie Bell sang ‘No Mean City’ over the opening credits of Taggart?
Was it when Alan Horne started Postcard Records in 1980, introducing the world to Orange Juice, Josef K, Aztec Camera and the Sound of Young Scotland, plus, from Australia, fellow travellers The Go-Betweens? That Horne did all this with the wit and the cheek of what the late John Peel described him as ‘a truculent youth’ is one thing. The fact that he did it from the wardrobe of his West Princes Street flat, which became scene central to post-punk Glasgow, is even better.
Into this music mix, a decade ago, arrived the experimental music festival Instal .
Instal was—or so it seemed—new. Over ten years, its organisers, who at some point branded themselves as Arika Industries, introduced Glasgow to major figures from the world of left-field music and sound.
Phill Niblock, Henri Chopin, Philip Jeck, Fennesz, Icebreaker International and a myriad of others played Instal during its early years at the Arches, opening the ears and minds of seekers in search of something other than whatever music had become. Instal too looked at sound and vision connections, in a festival called Kill Your Timid Notion, which took place at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Over the next few years, it appeared that the art crowd too was making noises.
At Tramway, the first sonica event I see is Sandglasses, and not Soundglasses, as I originally misread/heard. Sandglasses is composed by Lithuanian composer Juste Janulyte, in collaboration with video artist Luca Scarzella, and four cellists from the Gaida Ensemble.The cellists play in a series of cooling tower hourglass cocoons that is sublime and hypnotic, as if played by ghosts.
In the bar, between shows, the talk is of who the audience is for this sort of thing. I came alone, but bump into my classical music critic colleague, Kate, and her actor friend, Carrie. We talk about two shows I’d seen in Edinburgh earlier in the week.
The first was ‘One Pig’, a composition by Matthew Herbert taken from sounds recorded during the life and death of a pig. These sounds were then cut up, mashed up and turned into a performance piece by Herbert and three other performers dressed in white coats inside a boxing ring-cum-pigpen. Herbert has done something similar with recording cooking live, turning an intricately layered affair into a form of novelty cabaret, which at times resembles the breakfast time choreography of Morecambe and Wise’s kitchen sketch.
The other was ‘Entartet’. Devised by theatre designer Kai Fischer, ‘Entatet’ was part installation, part performance, based on the text of the brochure for the Nazis famous exhibition of degenerate art. The texts are read by recorded voices in a series of plinths activated by the listener walking close to the speaker. If timed correctly, the overlapping voices form a terrifyingly banal cacophony of ignorance.
Both ‘One Pig’ and ‘Entartet’ deal with reconstituting sound in very different but equally provocative fashions. Yet no one, apart from myself, as far as I could see, attended both. Neither audience is in evidence at sonica .
This is something that has always puzzled me. Of course, it’s the nature of my job as a critic to have as wide a palette of artistic experience as possible, be it theatre, art or music. In music, I’ll happily attend jazz, contemporary classical, noise, sound art or out and out pop events.
But the only time I’ve ever seen all of the audiences that make up ‘experimental’ music scenes together in the same room, was in summer 2012 at an event hosted by Dialogues, the University of Edinburgh-based initiative led by composer Martin Parker.
Led by veteran saxophonist, improviser and long-term collaborator of the late Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, the idea was to put a group of improvisers from different disciplines on the same stage and see what happened. It had already been tried in Dublin, and the Edinburgh show drafted in jazz, noise, electronic and contemporary classical musicians for a gig at Edinburgh College of Art’s Wee Red Bar, which, for such a rarefied show, was uncharacteristically packed.
Trouble was, for all Parker’s open-minded gravitas and sense of enablement to the younger musicians, it didn’t work. Everyone onstage did their thing, be it free jazz blowing, cello scraping or knob twiddling, and that was that. Nothing—to my ears, at least—connected.
A while later, I ended up having an argument with someone about all this at a house party/gig. I’d never met the person before, and was introduced to him on account of the fact that he’d gone to gigs put on by the House of Dubois in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which I’d also turned up at. The House of Dubois produced left-field gigs in Edinburgh before anyone else, but were largely hopeless at getting anyone to go along to them. Kid Loco, Matmos, Labradford, the Durutti Column, Pole, Genesis P Orridge, Royal Trux, John Fahey, Fridge, Kid 606 were just some. I’d stumbled on them when they put on Godspeed You! Black Emperor in Stills Gallery on Cockburn Street. The tiny speakers blew before Godspeed could accelerate to full apocalyptic pelt on what was their second UK gig ever.
The guy who shared the House of Dubois experience was a musician or composer, which led me on to how different audiences go to some things but not others, then onto the Evan Parker Wee Red Bar show where they all seemed to be in the same room.
He seemed to think I was saying that it was the audience who dictated what was played. I said no…
And he said, there were elaborate constructions in place for what Evan Parker did, and wasn’t it the audience who…
And I said, no, that’s not what I’m saying, what I’m actually saying is…
And on it went, the two of us both so desperate for our points to be made that we weren’t listening to each other, we just heard something to disagree with, so ended up at cross-purposes, not communicating in any way. It was stupid…
But… as much as it was infuriating drunken rubbish, as a verbal illustration of why the Evan Parker multi-disciplinary improv show failed, it was spot on.
Imagine a club where nobody came. Or one where the revellers become spectators, watching the spectacle from the edge of the deserted dance-floor, restrained by the formality of their seats but their hearts skipping a beat with every new pulse-beat and piece of choreographed machinery.
Robbie Thomson seems to have done with Ecstatic Arc his brand new sound and motion installation for sonica, which necessitates earplugs being handed out at the door of Tramway 4’s smaller space as they would be at a My Bloody Valentine or Merzbow gig.
Unless you were standing right up close to the speakers at both those shows, however, as I did when I went to see Joy Division at a Saturday matinee show at Eric’s in Liverpool in 1979, and didn’t know any better because it was the first gig I went to, you didn’t really need them. Especially as my left ear’s never been right since that Saturday afternoon in 1979, anyway.
Even so, the club-land aesthetic being conjured up by a Prospero-like Thomson from his place before a laptop at the front of the seating bank is spot-on, from the slivers of dry ice being pumped in to the full-on techno mash-up that his industrial collage morphs into later.
Using Tesla coils and electro-magnetic fields as his source, Thomson manipulates space and time in the form of kinetic sculptures and light-fields that zap about the room as if mapping the trail of invisible pinballs.
As the lights flick on and off, there are tantalising glimpses of a cage seemingly frozen in mid-air, which, as with Samuel Beckett’s ‘Breath’, is both theatrical and sculptural at the same time.
With Thomson’s hands guiding his box of tricks, it’s also a playful paradise of science-fiction style hi-tech wizardry in an adventure playground where big-time sensuality is accelerated to the max.
Resembling a miniature diorama of the sort of light-shows 1980s fun palaces used to stop the music for, some of what’s on offer is also a very knowing tease. How can there be poles, for instance, without pole-dancers?
In another taxi, black this time, back across the city, which is full of late-night neon-lit life now—the driver spends the entire journey on the phone. With the intercom switched off, his Glasgow burr drifts in and out of hearing, his in-line patter by turns throwaway and intense as he flits between chit-chat and conspiracy.
‘Bluebeard’ is an audio-visual creation by Dutch trio, the 331/3 collective, based on Bartok’s ‘Bluebeard Castle’. The castle here is a revolving cube bathed in animations, which play out nightmarish dystopian visions of war-spattered cities as a woman tries to navigate her way through the maze.
At times all this is unengagingly flat, at others over-whelming, something which I find out later probably has to do with music publishers Boosey and Hawks, who hold the copyright for Bartok, at the very last minute refusing permission for Bluebeard’s Castle to be used, let alone messed about with by new-fangled concepts.
In the interval, prior to the post-show discussion, I’m chatting with theatre producer, Susie Armitage, when we’re interrupted by an explosion of amplified noise that sounds like WWIII has begun. After some initial alarm, I realise my new iPhone has somehow been jolted into game mode, and, as I can see onscreen, is actually imaging something on a par with such an event. I switch it off.
Even so, after ‘Bluebeard’, it is all an oddly perfect display of sturm und drang in miniature.
To the CCA, running late and racing along Sauchiehall Street in full Friday night melée. A black busker with a guitar poses for pictures.
On the next block, a bearded, long-haired guy plays sax. In their own way, both buskers are re-wiring the notion of popular entertainment, and connecting on their own terms.
In the upstairs auditorium of CCA, which looks like a wood-lined padded cell, the seats are set out in a kind of oval wrapped around a large table full of analogue kit; wires, knobs, pedals.
Luke Fowler and Jean-Luc Guionnet, who previously collaborated on Fowler’s Turner nominated show at Inverleith House in Edinburgh, is a reappropriation of BBC Radiophonic Workshop style deconstruction, that strips down electronic dance music to its component parts.
It’s a beguiling line of inquiry that makers it easy to spot certain codas in their skeletal state. Knowing how it can be put back together is an even more thrilling prospect, albeit one here that’s left tantalisingly to the imagination.
I go to the CCA, to see Janek Schaefer’s ‘Extended Play’ installation, Found and Aidan Moffat’s ‘Unravel’, and Luke Fowler’s extended cut-up of ‘Cornelius Cardew’ archive footage, ‘Pilgrimage From Scattered Points’. I’ve seen and heard all of these before, though encountering them in the same building, they join together as if in a little sonic fun palace. ‘Unravel’ is a series of recorded narratives by Moffat of 1980s encounters played out in a jukebox type construction that attaches all his warts and all love stories with a patina of nostalgia.
‘Extended Play’ finds a trio of Dansette record players on the floor of a red-lit room playing out mournful melodies on 78” vinyl records on cello, piano and violin respectively. With each played intermittently, they create a series of new scores based on the Polish folk song used by the BBC World Service to send secret messages to the Polish Underground. It’s a moving experience, and carries more gravitas than anything else in sonica .
As for Cardew and his highly politicised Scratch Orchestra, well, chance moves in mysterious ways, as is proven later when I’m riding the Glasgow underground a lazy two stops, Buchanan Street to Bridge Street, to avoid the rain. I flick through that day’s copy of the Guardian, and my eye catches something about a democratic orchestra. Like an old 78”, things do come around.
Meanwhile, I’m reading a review of the new Godspeed You Black Emperor! album in the new Wire magazine. I most recently saw them at All Tomorrow’s Parties in Minehead at the end of a very snowy 2010.
Aside from the blown speakers and/or plug-pulling, the aesthetic, and the evocation of impending doom in a collapsing urban hellhole of our own design, awash with sub Arvo Part weeping strings and explosions was pretty much intact.
The review talks of how the aesthetics and iconography of revolution and apocalypse have become entertainment, as sentimental and predictable in some ways as a pop song (I’m paraphrasing here). I’m reminded of being taught Brecht at college, and the whole idea of his so-called alienation effect. Along with Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler, Brecht wrote ugly-sounding songs to illustrate his plays. Much of his aesthetic has been taken on by junkyard auteurs à la Tom Waits and co, but with some back-room strip-lit razzle-dazzle instead of political didacticism.
Our lecturer contrasted what Brecht was trying to do with Suzanne Vega’s hit single, ‘Luka’.
‘Luka’ was the lead single on Vega’s second album, Solitude Standing, which, released in the mid-1980s, was a glossily produced take on the sort of coffee-house boho chic Vega had defined with her first hit, ‘Marlene on the Wall’. ‘Luka’ was a first-person narrative told from the point of view of a small child beaten by his/her parents.
While the lyrics were a sentimentalised form of social-realism, the music it was wrapped up in was bland in its catchy inoffensiveness, so you could sing along or tap a tow without ever realising what it was about.
The Godspeed review also reminded me of ‘Psykick Dancehall’, a song by The Fall that opened this most bloody-minded of bands second album, Dragnet, in 1979. Dragnet was recorded in a day, and it shows.
Like the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, its production revels in its muffled, no-fi splendour.
While ‘Psykick Dancehall’ suggests some kind of other-worldly disco where ‘they have no records’, other words in the song go some way to sum up the entire antagonistic raison d’etre of vocalist and writer Mark E Smith, who, after 35 years, still leads his ever-changing version of The Fall to places other bands fear to tread.
‘They say music should be like a story of love,’ Smith sneers, ‘but I wanna read a horror story.’ As with Brecht, it sounds like a manifesto, albeit one that Suzanne Vega never read. ‘Remember Me’ is a portable rewiring of the Dido and Eurydice myths by way of Gluck and Purcell.
Then to the Mackintosh-designed Scotland Street School for ‘Remember Me’, a miniature opera by Claudia Molitor that takes place in a school desk. Molitor looks like Cinderella en route to the ball as she operates her Michael Bentine’s potty-time type construction. Cut-out shapes, pop-up books and assorted pieces of stationary play out the epic inside the desk as manipulated by Molitor’s goddess-like presence. At the end, she whispers in each of the audience’s ear as they vacate the class-room one by one.
‘Remember me when you leave,’ she says. And we do.
I’m sitting astride a Penny Farthing, pedalling steadily as instructed by the voice in my head as I peer into some imaginary middle distance, which my pedal power is keeping lit. A couple of hours ago I was on a speeding train, then a taxi, racing against time, against traffic, but being caught by every rush hour red light, in town, or at least that’s how it felt.
Was all that imaginary too?
If so, how did I get here?
And why did it take so long?
Was it all down to that lost raffle ticket?
Or were they deliberately trying to keep me out?
These are the questions raised in ‘Tales of Magical Realism: Part 2’, artist, film-maker and orchestrator of other-worldly events, Sven Werner, whose ensemble may look like an old-time steam-punk outfit from the impression given by the publicity shots, but whose collected intentions are far deadlier.
Fifteen of us are led into a dark room that looks like a stable at the back of Tramway. We’re handed a raffle ticket by a woman at the door, who checks our respective heights as we enter.
My ticket is 131.
At the centre of the room, a ballerina dances, her centre of gravity kept in place by the weight on the wall she’s attached to. In the far corner, a formally-dressed but dishevelled-looking band eke out a low-slung soundtrack to the ballerina’s seemingly free-form stretches. In the corner opposite the band, a row of implements designed to measure out heads is laid out on tables.
After several minutes, the double doors at the far end of the room open, and a man and two women, again dressed formally, appear. While the women sing some European anthem, the man calls out three numbers, and those of us with corresponding numbers move forward, are measured, and are led out of the room. The sequence begins again, as the ballerina dances in her own world while the band strike up in a different style.
After a few minutes the door opens, the man and two women enter, and the process is repeated. After more than half an hour of this, there are only three of us left, until another 15 people enter, are measured, given raffle tickets, and stand about. The final two numbers of my group are called, and they go off. I am the last remaining member of my group. I have a train to catch shortly, and need to get away. Three more numbers are called, all from the next group.
What is going on?
I approach the tall man who welcomed us who’s now sitting on the ground, and explain that my number has been missed. For a moment I suspect it’s deliberate, but he goes off to presumably deal with the situation. The ballerina and the band appear to have finished their circuit too as well, and the band are now playing the same tune that they were when my group of 15 arrived.
At last, 131 is called, and myself and two others from the next group are led through the double doors, along a corridor and into a big room that seems to whirr with industrial motion. Each of us are handed headphones, from which we receive instructions from a voice that guides us through the adventure that follows which just might be of our own making.
This, then, is the start of the show, and the last hour an elaborate scene-setting, planting seeds and associations both visual and aural which, in the a free-flowing hard-boiled noir-styled dream-scape that’s forever in a motion I’m propelling, makes as much sense as it ever will.
As the after-hours yarn morphs from one stopping off point to the next, there are as many shades of Freud as there are of David Lynch in an elaborate immersive experience that draws you further and further in.
Until, for me at least, I end up on the Penny Farthing. At the end of all this, if it really is the end, I step down unsteadily, and out into the real night air. With only my own internal soundtrack to call my own, I hail a taxi, pray for green lights and a late train, and I’m gone.
Neil Cooper is a writer and critic