Monday, October 16, 2006

This is a first--the only time that Woebot’s done one of his scan-tastic genre guides where I’ve got more than a couple of the records. (Rather often I have precisely zero). But with this Nonesuch avant-classical survey, I’ve got every single one he’s listed EXCEPT the Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music, which I saw recently and passed on cos it was heh heh slightly expensive.

I even concur with his grades, except maybe the Crumb Makrokosmos one is slightly more enjoyable than a C. But yeah, totally: the Charles Dodge Earth’s Magnetic Field record, it seems like it should be so exciting, but really it's a bit of a yawn.

I've got a few things that Matt hasn't chased down. The Kenneth Gaburo Music for voices, instruments and electronic sounds and Andrew
Rudin Tragedoia--which are certainly worth having (if the price is right heh). And the other significant Nonesuch avant-electronic album is John Cage and Lejaren Hiller's HPSCHD. Now this I found a spectacularly grating listen, harsh on the ears in a way that's really a whole other level than your power electronics/noise/etc guys, and differently unpleasant. It's a piece written "for harpsichords and computer-generated sound tapes" and involves a thing called the KNOBS computer printout for playback control. David Tudor is one of the three harpsichordists but, well, let's say the results don't summon any bewigged 17th Century imagery, although the sources are distantly some Mozart. There's something like 51 electronic sound tapes and 7 solo compositions for harpsichord in the "score", but as you'd expect, innumerable variations available to the performer; all kinds of numerical and aleatoric malarkey is inflicted (the I Ching is involved), while the KNOBS thingy affects which parts of the composite of tapes come out in left, right or both channels of the speakers, thereby allowing you the listener to alter the composition by messing about with the balance on your stereo. I can't remember if I got into that, but it's hard to imagine it mitigating the horrid jerky noise issuing from the record.

A couple of other Nonesuch-released slightly less pure electronic efforts: Subotnik's A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur/After the Butterfly (a late period thing, quite fluttery and pingy and restless) and also his Axototl /The Wild Beasts (one of his bit too much acoustic in the electro-acoustic equation jobs) . Heading out of the electronic zone there's avant-soprano Joan LaBarbara and her The Art of Joan LaBarbara (including a composition by Subotnik "The last dream of the Beasts" ), and you could argue that the human voice is the ultimate sound-synthesising machine, plus there's some studio malarkey on here if I recall. Others on the avant-classical tip I've got on Nonesuch are John Cage's Concerto for prepared piano and orchestra; Stockhausen, Momente; Varese's
Offrandes/Integrals/Octandre/Ecuatorial; Xenakis's Akrata and Pithoprakta (with
Krzysztof Penderecki's Capriccio for violin and orchestra and de natura sonoris on the flip), and the Contemporary Contrabass which has some pieces by Cage and Pauline Oliveros but is kinda dull.

Passed on, or not encountered in the racks: Samuel Baron's Music for Flute and Tape (actually quite enticing on a store listen), the Spectrum: New American Music Vol 1, II, III series; and something called The New Trumpet: Music for Trumpet with Tape and Piano; a Percussion Music album with works by Varese and others; two more by George Crumb, Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) and Ancient Voices of Children. There's something called the Nonesuch Silver Series, don't know what the significance of 'silver' is' niy in it there's an album by Milton Babbitt and also The New Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music, I wonder how it differs from the previous Beaver & Krause one--all digital?

Now about the making a virtue of cheapness thing*, Woebot's got it twisted here: I'm
actually in awe of record-collector f(r)iends of mine (Paul K's another one) who are so driven that money is no object between them and the object of their desire. That ruthless capacity to pursue and capture one's vinyl grails, I couldn't say I admire it exactly but I definitely envy it.
I'm simply I'm too much of a cheapskate to go that far beyond my comfort zone.

Mind you, I do think the collector game is a bit of a racket, a sort of auto-confidence trick. If a collector's coughed up a small fortune for a record, there's naturally going to be some reluctance to admit that it wasn't really worth it, that the record's reputation is overblown. In that situation, one is more inclined to convince oneself, and once convinced, you're capable of convincing others. And so it goes, a self-perpetuating inflationary syndrome. This is particularly the case with the private press stuff. Back in the late sixties and early seventies the record industry was so insanely open to stuff, all kind of freak music and leftfield shit; I tend to believe that if a record didn't come out a major or some kind of substantial independent in those days, how likely is it really to be a lost gem?

Along with its relative affordability, one of the things I like about the second-division electronic avant-classical is its generic-ness. I mean that most sincerely folks. There's two facets to this 1/ if it’s a genre you love (say, ardkore, or freakbeat/garage punk, or dub, or whatever) then the genre-icity is no problemo, in fact the more fiercely it is itself, rather than dabbling outside its own parameters, than the better really; plus you have such an appetite for the stuff in question that you crave the second or even third-division material. But also 2/ there's this extra element of pathos and even a tiny hint of comedy too. See, here’s these guys who thought they were opening up infinite vistas and spectra of sound, boldly going where no composer's gone, building the future, etc. Yet a lot of it does tend to sound a bit samey. Partly because they only had a few different instruments at this point to grapple with: the Buchla, the Moog, a few other machines. But also became a certain lexicon of sounds and FX got established that people tended to go for. In fact if I have some time at some point I’d like to do a taxonomy of those 12 or 16 or 23 noises/devices/effects, 'cos they do tend to crop up rather frequently. The other reason the avant-electronic stuff can sound generic is that the composers tended to use the machines as tools for extending their pre-electronic ideas, rather than search for the absolute idiomatic thing the machine could do. So there’s a lot of post-serialist approaches being transposed to synthesiser, I reckon. Which is why you get that feeling of clutter and twitter, flurries of note-runs and clusters, a fidgety fraughness. There's also that atmosphere of disquiet that's very post-War existensialist-modernist-neurotic, kinda highly-strung and almost hands-wringingly anguished at times. But I suppose this makes perfect sense, was inevitable: composers who studied theory and went through conservatory training and all that, who have followed the grand narrative of western musical thought all the way through to the present juncture, or their own personal version of that arc/dialectic/whatever--they're not going to suddenly junk all their ideas and concepts and nous and technique, and just lay themselves open to the potentialities of the machinery, in a state of mind-voided open-ness and zero preconceptions. They’re going to dictate to the technology rather than the other way round. But that explains why a lot of the avant-electronic music sounds like 20th Century classical, as opposed to utterly alien and foreign, which you get more with your rock people perhaps, who lack the composerly grounding and also have more of a cheap thrills/gimmicky slanted approach to new tech.

But the genre-icity of the second-division stuff I think may prevent it becoming a hot commodity for future collectors as per Stockhausen/Henry/Ferrari/Parmegiani, it'll probably go up thanks to the passage of time and a certain aura surrounding anything from that era, the artwork on the covers, the grave formality of the sleevenotes, etc. But I don't think it'll be such a dramatic increase in value as with that Pierre Henry record I picked up at a church jumble sale in the early 80s.

(Which was a pound, even in 1983 a bargain price --i guess that shows how inflation slowed down in the 80s/90s compared to when I were a lad in the 70s and a Mars Bar seemed to double in price every couple of years. Adjusting for inflation that must be equivalent to going for 2 quid today. The real stunner bargain though was a Harry Partch album for 75 p i found in Oxfam, the one on CRI with castor + pollux/the letter/windsong/cloud-chamber music/the betwitched. I only got it cos I'd seen the name referred to viz Tom Waits's Swordfishtrombones. I've seen the record at 150 quid in M&VE, I expect higher priced on the kind of international dealer set-sales lists that Matt checks out, the nutter that he is!)

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