Wednesday, August 09, 2006

"there is very little call for it"

Specks of addenda (yeuch that sounds gross actually) to the Mighty Woebot's fascinating and scan-tabulous post on the prehistory of British electronic music

* Trevor Wishart. The guy who co-founded the Manchester Musicians Collective, along with Dick Witts, also of avant-classical background, who led his own band The Passage, which had an electronic element.

* A month or so ago I got an email from Bob Dickinson, the original keyboard player (and violinist!) in Magazine, before Dave Formula replaced him. Dickinson was from an avant-garde classical background: when he saw the famous notice in the Manchester Virgin store from Devoto looking to recruit members, he had "just finished doing a 6-hour version of Gavin Bryar's 'Sinking of the Titanic' at the Peterloo Gallery (with Dick Witts)". But his avant-electronic informed approach didn't gel with Devoto's vision and he left shortly after the band signed to Virgin. He wrote: "The main problem, as I sensed it, was my extra-curricular work whilst with the band-- I was still studying electronic music at Keele and playing in a duo, 'Bob and his Dick' (with Dick Witts, later of 'The Passage') and, unlike the other members, perhaps not a 100% committed band-member (I was commuting daily for rehearsals and not living in Manchester). There was also a definite preoccupation with 'image' which just did not interest me. "

Bizarrely Dickinson had intersected with postpunk even earlier:

"I studied music at Sheffield Uni from 1973 - 76. Was very much an 'avant-garde outsider' in a music department predominantly populated by classical musicians. However, whilst there, I teamed up with a fellow student, Chris Thornton. In 1975 we started the Sheffield Musicians Co-Operative and with the help of the Uni and Yorkshire Arts deviously arranged a regular series of experimental music gigs. One of these was a gig by a piano duo - Dave Smith (who now directs the Gavin Bryars ensemble) and John Lewis - who played 'Music in Similar Motion' and 'Music in Fifths' by Phillip Glass plus 'Piano Phase' by Steve Reich. Chris Watson and the other Cabs (Richard Kirk and Stephen Mallender) turned up and that's really how we met....The Cabs had visited the music department at Sheffield Uni previously to play around with the gear in the small electronic music studio in the attic of the department building on Taptonville road (the gear included VCS3 synths and a synthi AKS). Following this initial meet I invited them to do a gig in the Arts Tower of Sheffield University (Lecture Theatre 7, if I recall). This took place in May 1976. The programme included a number of pieces by the French composer, Jean-Yves Bosseur, whose work I had been introduced to by Dick Witts... but who at the time was promoting performances of new music at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. The whole programme ran something like this:

"'Completely Sweet': Bosseur - a newly realised version by myself played by a student ensemble
'Read Schubert': Bosseur - a solo piano piece 'deconstructing' a Schubert piece and played by Peter Hill (who is now one of the foremost exponents of the piano music of Messiaen)'

"'1898' - Mauricio Kagel

" 'Trance-formations' : by me (an ensemble piece using the fibonacci sequence as a structural basis for repetitive motives)

" 'Exhaust': Bosseur - realised by Cabaret Voltaire. The original piece is a short text piece from a collection of other text pieces called 'Time to take it

" ''Viet-song': Cabaret Voltaire/Me - the Cabs provided a backing tape of synth sounds plus a projected film loop. I remember being onstage standing infront of a flickering TV screen and then moving over to play improvised atonal music at the upright piano - very angular and dissonant

"Re. the audience response [in Rip It Up, Richard H. Kirk says the audience was horrified and "we weren't invited to the after party"] : nothing special really, probably were stunned into an apathetic silence by what they heard (the audience was mainly classical music types of the 1975 variety!).

"Following this first gig by the Cabs at Sheffield Uni, they then joined me and my experimental music group (called 'E-Music') to travel over the Pennines to do a very strange gig at my old school, The Derby School, Radcliffe road, Bury. This must have been May/June 1976. It took place in the main hall of the school to a full house of a couple of hundred kids ranging in age from 11 to 18. My group did a piece called 'Marsyas Musique' which consisted of a free improvisation to a projected film made by another French composer called Pierre Marietan (who worked with the same performance group as Bosseur). The Cabs did a performance using tapes and synths. During this someone pulled the plug but things were soon re-connected, power restored and the gig continued. A complaint was made as exams were taking place in the adjacent gym !!! On the day I also arranged for other things to occur at the school which included an artist from Rochdale who had created this automaton with an electric saw who was cutting up books !!! I think the Cabs signed the visitors book.The final collab with The Cabs was a set of tapes and films they prepared which I took to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 1976 with other members of the Sheffield Musicians Co-Operative. We were performing at Leith Town Hall and sharing the space with a student theatre group presenting some quite traditional theatre.They didn't attend in person. The theme of their piece was Donald Nielsen, the 'Black Panther' who kidnapped and subsequently murdered a teenage girl. Very disturbing to say the least. They also produced some handouts. The intention was to present them in a programme which included the 'Marsyas Musique' piece by Marietan, a vocal ensemble piece by Bosseur based on texts from 'Finnegans Wake' by James Joyce using the 'mesostics' technique of John Cage, called 'Anna Livia's awake'. I think the tapes were played once and someone objected - Lol Coxhill and Gerry Fitzgerald turned up for the Marietan piece along with an American new music journalist called John Schneider. Lol and Gerry ended up improvising along with the film. Bosseur also came along for the trip from Paris but did'nt take too kindly to the tent accomodation provided. On return the tapes were supposed to have been sent back to The Cabs but they got lost in transit...... "

Following this Dickinson lost contact with the Cabs when he went to study at Keele. Today he is involved in numerous musical endeavours, lectures in music, and also published a book in 2001 via Capall Bann called Music and the Earth Spirit

* seems like there's some prog and psych intersections with avant-c electronic/concrete worth noting... Matt notes the Goonsy Anglo-Surrealist/absurdist aspect to some of this britronica, and you get that in spades from Ron Geesin, mucker of Pink Floyd (who had their electronic moments: "On the Run" on Dark Side of the Moon, albeit more pulsetronic proto-trance than avant) .... George Harrison's Electronic Music is basically him messing about on a then state-of-art synt, ... and we know all about Paul MaCartney's dabblings in this area .... David Vorhaus the guy behind White Noise went on to do a second record in 1975 (sans Delia Darbyshire, and on Virgin) called White Noise 2 , a "Concerto For Synthesizer" if you will--cool systems-y electronica, if not quite grab-you-by-the-throat avant. Egg did a reputedly concrete-y tour de force of tape collage called "Boilk" on their The Polite Force album of 1970... Peter Hammill's In Camera if i recall right has a well-weird track at the end that's quite concrete-y, and there's elements of that creeping into Van Der Graaf Generator things like “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers’ and the 15 minute triptych “Squid 1/Squid 2/Octopus” that's bonus material on one of the recent reissues.... Those VDGG pieces are quite in the vein and vibe of the schizo-collagey sounds-effects-y track "The Bob (Medley)" on Roxy's first album, and one thing I stumbled on recently was this:

Electronic Music: The Instruments, the Music & The Musicians
by Andy Mackay (Harrow House, 1981)

Yes it's the same Andy Mackay -- I didn't know that in addition to Eno there was a second Roxy member deeply involved in avantgarde classical music. How he went from that to doing the Rock Follies music is fairly boggling.

It's actually a rather fine book, a straightforward and accessible introduction to this area, covering the machines, the composers, the history of both in classical and how it filters into popular music, with plenty of good pictures. Well worth the $10 it cost me.. There's a section at the end of potted biographies of major players in the history of electronic music and, confirming Matt's contention, there's precious few Brits in there. But there is one on Tristam Cary:

TRISTAM CARY (1925...)
English composer. After studying science and philosophy at Oxford, Cary embarked on a musical career, having experimented in the application of electronics to music following his Navy experiences as a radar technician. During the fifties and early sixties he was one of a select few pioneers of electronic music in Britain. To finance his own research, he composed incidental music for radio, films and television. In 1968 he founded a studio at the Royal College of Music in London, and the following year, in partnership with the brilliant systems designer Peter Zinovieff, founded Electronic Music Studios Ltd. manufacturers of the famous Synthi series. He now teaches at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

* finally: In weird synchronicity/serependity, the day after reading Matt's post i'm wading through this fabulous box set of avant-electronic music from the 1950s/1960s Netherlands, Popular Electronics (courtesy of a benefactor from down under). The final track is a "spoken letter" from Englishman Fred Judd to Tom Dissevelt, one of the Dutch composers on the box set, and it's taped reply, made probably in 1963 or thereabouts, to Dissevelt's enquiry about the prospects for this kind of thing in the UK. And (chiming with Matt's argument) Judd says in this hesitant sadsack garden-shed/allotment/shove-h'appenny all-too-English voice:

"I think what I'm going to have to say, you may find somewhat disappointing. Now I think I should explain to you, that first of all, in England, that as far as electronic music is concerned, there is very little call for it. I don't think anyone in this country has had an electronic music recording produced, and unfortunately, the sort of return one would get for doing this kind of work is very very small indeed.... Rather like Holland I should imagine, very few people over here listen to any new kinds of music--the pop music, so-called pop music--the Beatles and so on--the teenagers' music, they have precedence here. And the only demand these days is for this teenage music. "

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