Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Gone With The Wind at the Raven Row Gallery

The rather flippantly titled Gone With The Wind exhibition at the Raven Row Gallery in London showcases the sound art of three veterans of the form: Takehisa Kosugi, Max Eastley and Walter Marchetti. The gallery itself is situated in an 18th century house in a warren of narrow streets near Spitalfields which have yet to fall victim to the shiny promises of redevelopment or to the glacial, eastbound flow of the City’s steel and glass mass. From one of the upstairs rooms you get a truly bizarre rear view of the facade of an 18th century terraced house propped up like a movie flat in front of a modern office development of typically bland functionality. As a token gesture towards preservation, it takes the biscuit. The gallery keeps this house at least from suffering such an inbetween non-life. The three artists essentially get one floor each of its four storeys (and what’s to be found lurking in the attic we shall discover later).

Max Eastley’s graphic scores are exhibited beneath glass in the entrance and exit lobbies, partly in order to preserve the mystery of his first floor installations, which are very much integrated into the period feel of the rooms, and need to be free of extraneous distractions. The scores exemplify the balance which sound art strikes between its visual and musical elements. They are beautiful illustrative works in themselves, water-coloured, stippled or densely inked, and would appear to be abstract in form did they not have the functional purpose of suggesting the organisation of musical pitch and tone-colour. The score’s aesthetic beauty perhaps guides the mood of the performer, who draws ideas from studying them and is encouraged to provide a similarly pleasing palette and outline of sound. A sketch of a butterfly’s wing presented as a score is partly a conceptual work, but also points to the affinity of Eastley’s music with the natural world, and the very hushed quality of the sounds his unobtrusive self-made instruments generally produce. The score invites a musical interpretation of the coloured patterning of the butterfly’s wing, and the shape of its outline, but also the sound of its beating in flight. The butterfly motif is one which Walter Marchetti takes up later on, and butterflies also adorn the picture used to advertise the exhibition. In the adjacent room, which a circulation of the building will tend to bring the visitor to last, you can find sketches of Eastley’s musical automata, the likes of which you will by then have come across. They are tentative plans, half works of art, half engineering plans and cross-sections. Some of these may have been constructed, some may have worked to Eastley’s satisfaction, and some may have remained in ideal form. The sketches allow us to imagine the sounds they might make, to hear the music in our heads.

Kosugi with enhanced violin
The ground floor galleries are taken up with works by Takehisa Kosugi, alongside documentation of his artistic life. In the main room, a doubled row of photographs trails around three walls. Here he is in the late 50s, very neatly and conservatively dressed in sober suit and tie, conducting a cellist in front of a pipe organ which dominates the wall behind like the fireplace in a medieval hall. He is seen performing John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra during the composer’s influential 1964 visit to Japan. Cage is an invisible presence throughout the exhibition, his multivalent influence felt in the work of all three of the artists. In another photo, Kosugi holds his conventional instrument of choice, the violin, but is surrounded by tape reels, dials and wires, indicating that he intends to play it in a far from conventional manner. This is during a rehearsal for a performance of his landmark minimalist drone piece Catch Wave, which is eulogised in Julian Cope’s survey of Japanese rock and experimental (and experimental rock) music Japrocksampler. He places the 1974 LP recording at number 9 in his top 50 of Japanese albums.

The Taj Mahal Travellers with unusually conventional instrumentation
By the 1970s, the neat conservatoire look has been completely abandoned in favour of the wilder, long-haired freakiness he shared with his younger collaborators in the Taj Mahal Travellers. They were an improvising band who played lengthy pieces which layered microscopic sound elements produced by a wide variety of unusual percussion and string instruments and found objects as well as more familiar (but frequently distorted) tones from the likes of electric guitar, trumpet and harmonica over a droning base provided by Kosugi’s amplified violin, oscillators and short wave receivers. The organic was blended with the electronic. There were also vocal interjections into the general ebb and flow of sound, ranging from meditative chanting to vaguely unhinged babble. The Travellers are caught in performance in concert halls and more unusual settings, and also at various locations along the way during their extensive worldwide wanderings. There they are in a geodesic dome in Sweden with Don Cherry joining them for a group shot (did he also join them on stage, I wonder); they are bathing in the golden glow of the dawn rise (or sunset) during their daylong 1970 performance on Oiso Beach in Japan; walking through a street in Esfahan, Iran; standing by their VW minibus on a rocky plain spreading out towards splintered mountains, the middle of nowhere (or Afghanistan, to be more geographically precise); and finally, fulfilling the self-defining goal given by their name, posing before the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. You can follow some of their travels in the film about them made in 1973 and available over at Ubuweb here.

As we move into the 80s, Kosugi has begun to settle into sober elder statesmanship, the hippie garb discarded, and his equipment, fx boxes, turntables and wire-trailing devices now all confined to one desk. He has crossed the Pacific and is found in the company of the New York and West Coast new music aristocracy. This partly reflects his position at the time as composer in residence for the Merce Cunningham dance company. He is seen alongside Cunningham, and also David Tudor, both of whom were frequent collaborators with John Cage, and interpreters of his music. Such partnerships emphasise the importance of Cage to Kosugi. The composer’s visit to Japan in 1962 had been one of mutual recognition and validation, and proved a lasting inspiration to both Cage and the Japanese musicians whom he met. Japanese music, with its particular philosophical and cultural underpinnings, seemed to be naturally open to Cage’s theories of chance and incorporation of unconventional sound. Indeed, many of his discoveries and innovations were rooted in his fascination for Japanese culture. Different generations of experimental musicians with whom Kosugi has played are represented by David Behrman, who, with his tufts of mad scientist hair and loud paisley-patterned shirt (memorialising his roots in the 60s) seems to conform to Frank Zappa’s ideal of what the modern composer should look like; and Jim O’Rourke, the arch-collaborator and contemporary experimental and left-field rock music’s busiest man. Finally in the photographic section, there are pictures of three installations in which the sound is sourced from differently shaped objects which sprout from various parts of the galleries in which they were placed – a bulb in Spacings (1984), a ‘tree’ in Interspersions (1987), and horizontally hung tubes suspended from the walls in Streams (2001).

A similar work, Interspection (1989) can found on the wall opposite. Oscillators, piezo speakers and a powering battery are corralled within a wooden frame, splayed out like a pressed flower. The whole requires the close, craning attention you might give to a famous oil painting, but in this case in order for the ear to pick out the detail of the faint frog chirp which the circuitry emits. Two graphic scores are also framed on this wall: one in which the stave is drawn as lines of colour , encouraging a synaesthetic translation into the tonal palette and a free, intuitive interpretation of time; the other in which stave lines are punningly scored onto heavy paper, the wavy, uneven results of freeform drawing suggesting the undulant oscillations of held tones. On a table in the centre of the room you can listen to the CD Music of Group Ongaku, containing pieces made in 1960 (a recording of their debut performance in Tokyo), 1961 and 1970. This was the group centred around Kosugi and Yasunao Tone, and the record (number 40 in Cope’s Japrocksampler chart) demonstrates that many of the elements familiar from later improv music were already in place years before - Tooting toy instruments; the clatter of pans and clink of bowls; snatches of radio speech and recorded sound; jabbering and muttering voices; lurking cello pouncing into sudden scrawling motion; squiggles of saxophone skronk; floating piano chords and cat on the keys outbursts; tape manipulations and reverb auras; and the wheezing drone of a vacuum cleaner. The presence of the latter in the similar composition presented by the young composer Hermann in Edgar Reitz’s late-60s set Die Zweite Heimat suggests that the director may have been aware of this work or one of its many descendants. The debut recording, Automatism, is certainly extraordinarily confident, its unusual sounds created with an unhesitating certainty and strident confidence. You can find the album over at Ubuweb, here.

A TV shows videos of previous gallery performances. Wireless (1996) has Kosugi making amplified sound echo round the entry hall of a museum via a contact mic. This as much performance art as music, and betrays the influence of his time with the Merce Cunningham dance company. He drags a cluster of metal balls attached to the end of a belt along the floor, producing a grating, scraping rasp with occasional rhythmic bounce, and at one point twirls around in a noisy dervish dance. He plays his violin, playing on the resonance of the cavernous space and producing Bernard Herrmannesque shrieks of bird attack sound which fly into its furthest corners. He does a Nosferatu creep up the stairs and then suddenly dashes up with nimble steps, echo delayed notes forming an aural wake behind him. It is essentially a dance piece with his own music simultaneously produced as accompaniment. Elsewhere, he produces and antediluvian growl, sends the microphone his of a scouring wind blowing through the halls and corridors, and whispers into a fan, its rotation segmenting the sound and sending its tatters spiralling away.

The room at the back of the ground floor is filled with wavering blue and grey light as the surface of an ocean close to the shore is projected upon the wall. The sandy coloured floor boards on which we walk effectively becomes the sea strand. Visitors wandering in cast sharp shadows onto the shifting projection, becoming Caspar David Friedrich-like figure of Romantic contemplation, gazing out onto the endless blue. In front of his oceanic wall, several small transistor radios are hung adjacent to small transparent boxes of circuitry, each attached to long lengths of thread. They swing gently to and fro, their motion partly caused by people who have picked them up and toyed with them before letting them loose once more. They hang at just the level to tempt you to tamper, and this is presumably the intention. You discover that you can manipulate the sound which they produce by moving radio and circuit board closer together and further apart, causing the bodies to orbit each other in swooping ellipses. The radios are tuned in between stations, and the interference between the signal and the adjacent circuitry stirs up a spectral wind, whose aetheric howl adds to the feeling of Romantic isolation. This eerie sound provides the notional momentum can be thought to set the objects into swaying motion, which in its turn creates the eerie sound, which provides the momentum to set….etc. etc. etc. The pendant radios thus become an odd sort of radiophonic windchime.

The room off to the side of this installation is a sort of back entrance lobby through which the street outside can be seen, natural light entering once more after the projected flicker of the artificial, enclosed seascape. Here, in pieces entitled Pulses, we come across wires rising discretely from the ground, branching out in multi-coloured strands beneath a Perspex frame and producing small, square green circuit board ‘leaves’. These emit low, sputtering, fizzing and buzzing sounds, which become more audible if you zero in on them with an attentive ear. It is an insistent tropical rainforest chatter, a background surround sound of insect stridulation, bird cries and frictional frog rasp. This ambience forms an effective contrast to the previous room, a shift from one element to another, air and water to the canopied green light of the rainforest.

Following an arrow up the staircase to the first floor, we proceed to pass through a series of discreet, enclosed rooms which contain the sonic sculptures of Max Eastley. These appear to stir into self-activated motion, possessed of some animating spirit. Their low, half-heard scratches and sussurations create a hushed, haunted atmosphere in these empty 18th century rooms. In the first room, a loosely rolled tube of copper containing a fan motor periodically whirs into rotation, creating a percussive rattle which sounds like a sudden shower of rain pattering on the rooftop. Two pieces of blank parchment on the wall have tiny, filament-thin lengths of wire attached to a needle, which springs into action as you watch, moving minutely with insectile scrabble, according to some hidden imperative. If you listen very closely, you hear a faint scratching against the paper. It’s as if we are witnessing an act of automatic writing channelled by an invisible hand, producing no visible words. Eastley’s work can be intensely delicate and fragile, often seemingly designed for a short, mayfly lifespan. I got to the Sonic Boom sound art exhibition organised by David Toop in 2000 fairly late on in its run, by which time Eastley’s sculptures had ceased to function, remaining as a series of husks whose animating life had left them.

In the next room, a mirror hangs over a fireplace beneath which a needle hangs horizontally suspended over a small pile of iron filings, turning this way and that. This perhaps gives a hint as to the magnetic force which guides wire and needle in the previous room. This room is filled with the waveform sound of whistling, coiled spring overtones, which have no apparent origin (an example of the Sinister Resonance which David Toop explores in his recent book, perhaps). Two further doors in the room are locked, but pressing an ear against their panels, you can hear something emanating from beyond. There is stertorous breathing, a low moaning wind occasionally rising to a juddering bluster, and agitated windchimes and cowbells. It feels as if something is pacing outside, trying to force its way in. A small, discretely placed plaque towards the bottom of one of the walls reveals the origins of all of these sounds, without dampening the mysterious atmosphere. It indicates that the installation (which I suppose means the room itself) is a ‘mixed media composition with life amplification of Aeolian devices on the roof’. As David Toop, a long time friend and collaborator of Eastley’s, points out in his book Haunted Weather, he has long been fascinated by Aeolian harps, which sound the shifting currents of the wind without the intervention of any human agency. He wrote a brief history of them in 1976 in Music magazine issue 5. His sound sculptures are frequently triggered by the natural elements or by self-generated power and the noises which they produce often blend in symphony with the natural sound environment. This can be heard even without the visual element of watching the sculptures themselves in motion on the 1975 LP he shared with David Toop, New and Rediscovered Instruments (number 4 on Brian Eno’s Obscure label), the back cover of which provided diagrammatic outlines of Eastley’s instruments heard within. You can listen to the hydrophone sounding over the running water which powers it, as well as the metallaphone, the centriphone and the elastic aerophone. It can be found at Ubuweb over here. To see some actually in action, both on a windswept beach and in a studio space, take a look at episode three of Derek Bailey’s series on Improvisation, again on Ubuweb. Eastley appears after about 26 minutes.

The back cover of New and Rediscovered Instruments
Ascending the staircase once more to the second floor, we come to a series of open ended rooms dedicated to the work of Italian artist and composer Walter Marchetti. These rooms were silent (apart from the enthusiastic party of school children who piled through at one juncture). The only sound element to his works displayed here came via a pair of headphones in the first room. These played a piece with the title per la sete dell’orechio (no, haven’t a clue) which seems to be a recording of large objects being heaved into some subterranean lake (or perhaps, more prosaically, an indoor swimming pool). Watery explosions are followed by the ripples of echoing aftershocks. By a happy piece of synchronicity, you can listen to this aqueous bombardment whilst looking down into Artillery Lane below. At a stretch (of the headphone cable) you could also possibly look at the graphic score titled De Musicorum Infelicitate (2001) whilst still listening. This score consists of sheets of paper with a single-track stave running narrowly down the centre. It is almost entirely engulfed in a blizzard of dots until the final sheet, when there is nothing save a single dot (a G). From maximal chaotic complexity to minimal singular simplicity, this almost seems to represent a distracted mind calming itself down and achieving equilibrium.

Glam Piano - Marchetti's Musica da Camera no.182 (photo by Fabrizio Garghetti)
Entering the next room, you are immediately dazzled by the glare of dozens of small light bulbs which twine like a bioluminescent liana around a grand piano, and give off a sultry heat. It immediately brought to mind the extravagant glam showmanship of the likes of Liberace and Elton John, and perhaps also the showy, florid Romanticism of Liszt and Rachmaninov. The piano produces no direct sound, and indeed it couldn’t the lid being entangled in wires. But it gives off a synaesthetic sense, with its intense emanation of light and heat, that it might easily start to sing. Another unplayable piano is to be found in the next room, this one sculpted from a significant quantity of bog rolls (for those not conversant Southern English slang which is redundant anyway, that’s rolls of toilet paper). It shows the influence of the Fluxus movement on Marchetti, who produced his own variants on their happenings and provocations in 60s Spain (the Spain of Franco, in other words) with his ZAJ group. There are several photos and artefacts on display from this era. As which much of the Fluxus group work, it’s difficult to see the point of it beyond the creation of momentary startlement or the prompting of a couple of snorts of laughter. If you care about what it’s presumably making a gesture towards ‘subverting’ then perhaps it makes a greater impact, just as the pranksterish antics of the happenings might have had some shock value for those expecting their dose of high culture. Otherwise, it’s a lot of effort for such a one note joke.

Prepared piano - more keyboard art
On the wall is a rather more diverting work, Le Secche dell Tempo (the dryness of time? Don’t take my word for it). This echoes Max Eastley’s use of butterflies in a graphic score. Here there are many of them hovering incongruously over a map of an Antarctic peninsula, an environment in which they would immediately perish. They are connected by geometrically patterned networks of lines which create a grid spanning the white spaces of the map. The implied music was probably only ever meant to be played out in the head. Randomly fluttering and rigorously ordered, warmly coloured and monotonously cold at the same time, I suppose. Full of the same contradictions as the artist and his work, in other words.

There’s one more flight of stairs to climb, taking us to a small attic room on the top floor. Here chaos reigns, and the confined space throbs with a teeming cacophony. This is a room full of everything all the time at once. It is the Resonance Open, organised by Resonance FM, the experimental radio station which is broadcasting from the exhibition throughout its run. Younger and more established artists all contribute to the mad jumble, creating an attic full of the forgotten flotsam of life which has fused and spliced itself together into strange new forms. An old tape machine has melted in some intense heat, the plastic flowing into an amorphous, fluid form which looks like it belongs in a David Cronenberg film, and invites you to imagine what deformed, gelatinous sounds it might produce. Similarly, a fused cluster of old mobile phones hangs on the opposite wall, a techno-echinoderm hybrid from some nightmarish Lovecraftian rock pool. Johnny Trunk’s LP release The MMs Bar Recordings, made by Sandra Cross, consisting of announcements broadcasting the enticements of the buffet car on the London to Leicester train, revolves soundlessly on an old Dansette style turntable. Filament light tubes tumble out of the fireplace as if they have just wormed their way down the chimney. Another turntable is presided over by a small tutelary statue of the Buddha, who looks on as a blade, replacing the needle, incises a groove into a Perspex disc. The whole sits on an old cabinet, whose panels have been replaced by opaque Perspex onto which coloured patterns are projected from within. It’s a practical combination of DIY jukebox, disco and instant Buddhist prayer wheel.

Back down the stairs, you exit via the soundproofed booth from which Resonance is broadcasting. In the room facing it, three musicians were producing a playful racket from the varied detritus of discarded technology which cluttered their desks, bringing the everything all the time spirit of the Resonance Open attic into a live collision. Grubby Furbies who’d clearly seen it all looked on, heavy lidded eyes occasionally drooping shut with worldweary resignation. One chap felt compelled to climb onto his desk, the better to wrestle with the chunky sampler from which he was attempting to wrangle squeal and thumps of electronic noise. For an exhibition which had offered soundless works of sound art, and other sounds which only revealed themselves at close range, it was a bracing contrast to leave with such a squall of distressed blare ringing in the ears. Further broadcasts from Raven Row can be heard from Wednesday to Saturday on Resonance, between 12-5 in the afternoon. The exhibition runs until 17th July, and is well worth seeing – and hearing.

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