Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Gevorts Box: Music for the head ballet

There's still a lot of serious proper full-on capital-W writing to catch up on hereabouts, and I hope this week will provide at least the beginnings of an opportunity: but it's been a tough few days here at the Control Desk, and it's unfeasibly hot in here, so... I don't think I'm going to have it in me today, more's the pity. (*ringtone*... Sorry, let me just answer that... Hello? Yes? What's that? You say Dick Emery wants his innuendo back? etc.)

Instead, it being a little while since I made you a music post, please enjoy the subjoined Summer 2011 issuance of Gevorts Box.

This one is sort of a bit more coherent, tonally or thematically or someotherhow, than previous episodes. The story so far is this:

It having been a bit of a capital-W week of writing (and concomitant writhing), a great deal of displacement activity has gone on; while some tiny sector of my brain plugs away at whatever discombobulous impasse has overtaken the real work, the greater part of my conscious mind is up to other mischiefs entirely: this week, as so often, it's been about chasing down a whole series of recherche musical delicacies.

It began with re-enjoying a gem of library music, Joel Vandroogenbroeck's gorgeous Computer Blossoms album from 1981. Now, I'm at most a super-casual dabbler in the wide and largely hidden world of library music, the pursuit of which seems to claim many lives (or at least intelligences). It is almost absurd to be a bit interested in library music, like I am: it's the kind of thing that only makes any sense if you're going to become properly unhinged. (Perhaps I will, before long: I certainly seem to be running out of things to get really excited about in more mainstream arenas, other than trying to keep up with whatever's new.)

At any rate, I thought I would see if I could find any other of Vandroogenbroeck's recordings kicking about. First to fall into my clutches were a brace of albums, Meditations vol. 1 and vol. 2, from 1979 or 1980. Now, if I list the titles of the four tracks on vol. 2, I think you'll probably have a clue about what generic area we're in: they are, respectively: "Contemplation", "Gongs", "Meditative Contemplation" and "Meditation". So, no, these are not the fruits of Vandroogenbroeck's controversial psychobilly phase. (Which, to be honest, he has yet to have, at the time of writing.)

Now if there's a zone of popular music that holds little appeal for me, it's this neck of the woods. Nothing (much) against meditation per se, or against the idea that music might be a useful component of a meditative practice, but most music made specifically for meditative ends has always defeated me -- or perhaps I should say I've failed it: it's so inert, and its many cliches are so risible (and inevitably so underexamined by its blissed-out proponents), that the whole enterprise generally reduces me to a seething lava of appalled fury, which is by any standards contrary to the spirit of the exercise.

These two Vandroogenbroeck albums, however, are not at all bad, as it goes. Crucially, he still sounds like an accomplished musician with a reliable compositional sense, rather than someone who just happens to have drifted off to sleep with a flute stuck up his nose. (Wow, that must surely be the squarest sentence I've ever written in these pages. Jeez, chill those hostility beans, Gran'pa Thompson!) And so the two volumes of Meditations were my brow-cooling soundtrack as I continued to rummage through the Inconceivably Enormous Virtual Charity Shop record bin for further Vandroogenbroeck nuggets. Before long I'd got my feverish e-mitts on Cottonwoodhill, the seminal (if you ask the right people) debut album by Brainticket, the psychedelic rock outfit with whom Vandroogenbroeck first came to (those same) people's attention at the beginning of the 70s.

Now, OK, so, if there's a zone of popular music that holds even less appeal for me than meditational wibble-outs, it's psychedelic blah-fests. I mean I'm not uninterested in the whole topic of altered states of consciousness, in terms of brain chemistry and so on, but only in a teddibly teddibly Christopher Mayhew sort of way (not that I've ever tried mescaline). But a chorus line of semolina pilchards cavorting in front of a melting paisley backdrop, et cetera, has always seemed to me a much less interesting cabaret act to sit and be entranced by than, say, an actual person actually doing almost anything (except juggling). I don't mean to say I have any moral objection to drug use, but I do object on more-or-less moral grounds to people being boring or self-regarding, and most manifestations of psychonautic culture seem to me to rank with being told people's dreams or shown their holiday snaps, incredibly slowly and with too much reverb; as advertisements for ego death go, in all the excitement these self-obsessed chumps seem to have forgotten to switch on their irony sensors. ...Oh boy, don't I sound like a big slab of condensed laughs. I'm going to stop talking about this now. Perhaps my perspective is too coloured by my own experience of paranoid delusions in my 20's, before being put on lithium for a while; some of that stuff was pretty wacky, but, ultimately, in the most painful and frightening and energy-sapping way. It's great when you're straight, yeah.

Anyway, Cottonwoodhill turns out, despite all that (and Lord knows it's hardly blameless in respect of the above objections), to be rather an exciting record, and these four Vandroogenbroeck albums taken together started to remind me of other music that I like -- or liked as a teenager and hadn't heard since, but have consequently tracked down over the past few days -- that rather complicates the story I've got used to telling myself about how little I'm at home to acid bores and space cadets.

And so gradually this nearly-themed giant mixtape (were it actually a mixtape it would have to be a C140, so be warned!) came together like a slowly emerging mind-map, where one thing would remind me of the next, but the collection as a whole has ended up covering quite a multitude of sins, and I really like how it's turned out.

The only constraint I gave myself was to avoid coming too close to the present day -- hence, for instance, no Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and definitely no Black Moth Super Rainbow, both of whom I might otherwise have included. The period covered is therefore, essentially, 1967-1985 (skewed towards the very late 60s / early 70s), with a single anomaly at either end: a Structures Sonores Lasry-Baschet piece which surprised me by dating back to 1962, and a Morphogenesis track from 1989. I should clarify that though there's much here that you might loosely call trippy, or which sounds to some degree redolent of pharmaceutical shenanigans, this is not about identifying a strain or lineage that necessarily has anything to do with drugs -- or, for that matter, meditation, contemplation, gongs, spiritual adventure, or any other route to getting poked in the third eye. It's just a bunch of fun stuff -- proggy pop, psych folk, library fancy-goods, free jazz (and expensive jazz too for that matter), nostalgia trips, Anglo-Dadaist irruptions, eccentrica (wasn't that the new name for the Post Office for a while?), neglected B-sides and general bric-a-brac, familiar and less-so, which, if I've done what I think I've done, will hopefully contain very slightly more that you really like than stuff you really hate.

Tracklist follows with little commentary notes: I'll try not to ramble, I promise.

Btw, the Bonzo Dog Band track "Music for the Head Ballet", from which I borrow the title of this post, is not included, but just in case you've never made its acquaintance:

* * *

Track listing:

1 Golden Avatar: 'You're Not That Body' from A Change of Heart (1976)
I picked up my copy of A Change of Heart (which looks like this) at a school jumble sale in about 1986, when, I'm now gobsmacked to realise, the album would have been just ten years old -- in other words, as recent as, say, Radiohead's Amnesiac is to us in 2011. Its groovy Krishna-conscious wig-outs sounded like something from an entirely vanished era. On the other hand, it hardly seems to have dated since I first played it, and I still find the restlessness of this track quite exciting.

2 The New Regency Players: 'High Life' (1978?)
A fun bit of library music, cribbing a bit I suppose from Thijs van Leer, flautist with Focus. (You'll know this tune of theirs, but, man, have you ever seen the video?) Persons in their late 30s or so may recognize 'High Life' from the Schools programme Stop, Look & Listen. Others (not me) may instead know it from the popular 1981, ahem, arthouse movie Ta' mej doktorn (a.k.a. Swedish Sex Clinic), in which, according to IMDb, Marie Laffont played "Crazy Gilda" and Chris Regan portrayed the debonair "Xavier de Bergerac". (I guessed about the 'debonair' part.)

3 Gong: 'I Never Glid Before' from Angel's Egg (1973)
Angel's Egg is pretty much the only Gong album I can really stomach, mostly because the playing is so tight and it has a nice irrepressible good-natured burbling quality. Also, the hooks are terrific, as on this track written and propelled by good (if not angelic) egg Steve Hillage.

4 Donovan: 'There Is A Mountain' from Donovan's Greatest Hits (1969)
My favourite Donovan song, with the possible exception of the utterly unsupportable "The Intergalactic Laxative".

5 Brainticket: 'Places of Light' from Cottonwoodhill (1971)
Probably the most vanilla track from a pretty out-there album: but, as ever with the estimable Joel Vandroogenbroeck in the room, even the loosest and most mind-garblingly freeky tracks feel like they stay somewhat anchored in a place of thoughtful musicianship.

6 Univeria Zekt: 'Something's Cast A Spell' from The Unnamables (1972)
So here's an album with a (fairly boring) story attached, of which I had no idea when I picked my copy up for about a fiver in the bookshop at the Arnolfini, back in the day (1990 or so) when they still sold vinyl in there. It took me several years -- in fact, essentially, it took me until the point when the world wide web started getting busy -- to discover its provenance. It turns out Univeria Zekt are basically the French prog scamps Magma in disguise. I suppose I must have happened upon the 1986 reissue of The Unnamables (it didn't help my research that I'd always assumed The Unnamables was the name of the band) -- I guess I must still have it in a box somewhere but please don't make me go looking for it -- but even so, at the time that I picked it up, my copy was probably worth £40 at least, until I went and spoiled it all by doing somethin' stupid like playing it. I'm glad I played it though, all the same: it has a kind of reckless blustering energy in its high points which I rather admire.

7 White Noise: 'Love Without Sound' from An Electric Storm (1968)
A record that was once a well-kept secret among Radiophonic cultists but is now routinely acknowledged as a really significant album, An Electric Storm is a collaboration between Delia Darbyshire and Brian Hodgson of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and American musician and engineer David Vorhaus, who continues to record and tour under the White Noise name. The two extended high-drama tracks on (what would have been) Side Two tend to be hailed as the highlights, but being a girly lightweight I'm rather fonder of the cheerful concrete pop on Side One, of which this song is a particularly likeable example.

8 Gestalt et Jive: 'Wieviele Engel' from Nouvelle Cuisine (1985)
Gestalt et Jive was an experimental jazz-rock project initiated by the brilliant, (shall we say) mercurial reedist Alfred 23 Harth (yup, that's his name -- paging Jim Carrey) alongside such luminaries as Steve Beresford (see below) and Anton Fier. Nouvelle Cuisine, much of which sounds like a standard jazz chamber group trying to soundtrack its own dismemberment by hatchet-wielding psychopathic clowns, is one of my out-and-out favourite records of all time; if on the strength of this track you can remotely see why -- well, look, do you want to get married?

9 Peter Blegvad: 'Alcohol' (1974)
This queasy lickle ditty was recorded in '74 for the Slapp Happy / Henry Cow collaboration Desperate Straights, but not released until 1981 when it came out as a one-sided 7". Those local pals o' mine who blithely dismiss Blegvad on the strength of his more recent, admittedly relatively easy-listening singer-songwriter material, might care to shove this song up their, frankly, arses.

10 The Keith Tippett Group: 'This Is What Happens' from Dedicated To You But You Weren't Listening (1971)
The first experimental jazz I ever heard live, at Bristol Old Vic in about 1988, was pianist Keith Tippett, and ever since, I have been a little bit scared of sideburns. He's a remarkable musician though and not acknowledged widely or energetically enough as a pioneer of genuinely worthwhile crossover projects in the interzones between rock, jazz and free improvised music. This album is from the more "accessible" jazz-rock end of the axis, with a stonking (and heavily Soft Machine-inflected) band line-up including Robert Wyatt on drums and Elton Dean on saxes.

11 The Scaffold: 'Buttons Of Your Mind' (1968)
A curious supergroup, The Scaffold: poet Roger McGough, comedian John Gorman (later of Tiswas), and Paul McCartney's brother Mike McGear. This delicately melancholic track was the B-side of their #1 smash (etc.) 'Lily the Pink' (though if we're going to talk about their chart hits I always rather preferred this one).

12 Michael Mantler: 'Sometimes I See People' from Silence (1977)
If you've never heard this album, boy you're in for a treat. This is Harold Pinter's play Silence reimagined as a prog-jazz odyssey -- I mean literally that's what it is. In their review, Melody Maker called it "possibly the least listenable record I have ever heard", which may initially seem harsh. But guitarist Chris Spedding acquits himself well and the singers are top drawer: Kevin Coyne, Robert Wyatt and Carla Bley. Don't give up on it until you've heard the deathless final exchange of this section: Bley: "Does it get darker the higher you get?" Coyne: "No." Bathos you could eat your dinner off. I have a feeling that having known this record since sixth-form days may be the reason that Silence is possibly the only Pinter play that I really don't like at all.

13 Shirley & Dolly Collins: 'God Dog' from Anthems in Eden (1969)
Sometimes it's the tooth-and-claw tradition that sounds strangest: not least, in this instance, because 'God Dog' is written by the great Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band.

14 Rufus Harley: 'Sufur' from Scotch And Soul (1967)
A Thompson's favourite (of mine, at least; possibly not of yours), Harley was, if not the only, then certainly the most prominent exponent of Scottish bagpipes in a jazz context. I like him partly because you can always see what he's getting at, even if he's not always able to transcend the modal and tonal constraints of his chosen horn (though that usually ends up being a problem for his backing bands rather than Harley himself). You can hear him on Laurie Anderson's Big Science album, too, and, to his great credit and as a mark of his distinction, he doesn't really seem to fit in there either.

15 Steve Beresford: 'The Bath of Surprise' from The Bath of Surprise (1977)
Here's the great Steve Beresford, coming to you live from the bath in his flat. Beresford is one of the British experimental scene's most enduring and controversial figures, whose playfulness has always irked the hairier-shirted factions of that demi-monde. But those who don't care for such territories have probably heard Beresford's work nonetheless -- he ended up as Vic Reeves's musical director in the 90s, for example, and... -- so, you know the little bit of music that pops into your head when you think about Derren Brown's Channel 4 shows, that espionagey little riff? That's Steve too. Last seen (through these eyeholes, at any rate) in Bexhill-on-Sea, studiously dicking about in the company of Stewart Lee and Tania Chen on one of their recent performances of John Cage's Indeterminacy.

16 David Bedford: 'Some Bright Stars for Queens College' from Nurses Song With Elephants (1972)
Gotta love David Bedford, especially this album from early in his career. Nurses Song... was released on John Peel's label, Dandelion, and if you listen carefully you can hear Peel himself twirling one of the twirly things that make the twirly sound on this track. (You can't, probably, tell it's Peel, to be honest.) Things David Bedford has done: collaborate with Mike Oldfield and Roy Harper; write a big fun recorder concerto; compose a choral piece requiring the performers to inhale helium in order to hit the high notes. Things he has not done: hold the world record for the 10,000m; get cross about the 118 118 adverts. (That was a different David Bedford.)

17 Vernon Elliott / Oliver Postgate: 'Dialogue from Episode 1' from The Clangers (1969)
No actual Clangers to be heard on this recording, but Elliott's incidental music for this and some of Postgate's other classic children's series such as Ivor the Engine and Pogle's Wood is a treat to hear in its own right.

18 The Free Design: 'Bubbles' from ...Sing For Very Important People (1970)
To be filed somewhere between Harpers Bizarre and Singers Unlimited (whom they slightly predate), the Free Design could hardly sound more of their time. You might recognize their song "Love You", which was used for a TV car ad a couple of years ago (it's here if you're feeling the lack of the words OH FUCK OFF emblazoned in block caps across the inside of your brain).

19 Kipper Kids: 'The Sheik of Araby' (1983)
The Kipper Kids were a performance art duo who broke through to a surprising degree of mainstream media visibility in the 70s and early 80s with their oddly British music hall take on Actionism slash Paul McCarthy slash Punch and Judy slash Jeux Sans Frontieres. (Evidences here, here and here.) Actually the weirdest thing about them probably is that one of them, Martin von Haselberg, ended up married to Bette Midler.

20 Structures Sonores Lasry-Baschet: 'Toccata Toccarde' from Mister Blues (1962)
Weirdly enough, given the two very different sound-worlds, there's a Univeria Zekt link here: among the Lasry family, performing here on glass and metal sound sculptures designed and built by the Baschet brothers, is a young Teddy Lasry, who a decade later would be one of the key members of Magma. If you recognise the tonal quality of the sound of the Structures Sonores but can't place where you've heard it before, this might help...

21 John Barry: 'Florida Fantasy' from Midnight Cowboy OST (1969)
You remember this bit of Midnight Cowboy, right? Ah, what a film. In my last year at university my next door neighbour, on whom I had a little bit of a crush, used to sing persistently, to this tune, a set of lyrics that are still seared on my memory: "At least you've got your bum-bag / At least you've got your bum-bag / At least you've got your bum-bag / ...To put your stuff in." Ah, long-lost carefree days of sexual disorientation and self-harm! How I miss you! Well, at least it stops me associating the tune principally with Su Ingle and Wildtrack.

22 Sebastian: 'Forglem Mig Ej' from the soundtrack to Du Er Ikke Alene (1978)
Oh good -- at last I have something properly obscure to bring to the party. In a way this late 70s piece feels more removed in time and space than anything else in the mix, in that it's part of the soundtrack to an utterly lovely film from Denmark, Du Er Ikke Alene (You Are Not Alone), which narrates a story, set against a suggestive backdrop of social and political upheaval at a progressive boarding school for boys, of a young pupil falling in love with the headmaster's (even younger) son -- a relationship that, astonishingly, is allowed to play out mostly positively and end on a blissfully happy note. It's a film that it's almost impossible to imagine being made now, not least because it has such profound things to say, or to suggest, about education and pedagogy. See it if you can. (You too, Michael Gove, you wretched, hateful, cowardly fraction of a man.) I can't quite tell if the soundtrack stands up on its own, but for me this track is wonderfully reverberant.

23 Sun Ra Arkestra: 'Disco 3000' (1979)
Impossible to imagine a playlist like this without a bit of Sun Ra. This is from the terrific collection of singles that Evidence brought out in the mid 90s: every home should have one.

24 Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra: 'Cushion Foot Stomp' from Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra Presents... (1970)
Bought, weirdly, I now realise, at the same school jumble sale at which I picked up the Golden Avatar album. PHLO were a local outfit who turn up in the footnotes of historic accounts of British folk-rock (which they manifestly aren't, quite) by being the first group to record for the label Village Thing, who went on to release important albums by figures such as Wizz Jones and the great Steve Tilston. For about a month of my teenage life, all I wanted to do was be in a band like Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra.

25 Ron Geesin: 'Twisted Pair' (1982)
If you don't know Ron Geesin's work -- and if all you know is his Music from 'The Body' collaboration with Roger Waters then you haven't even really scratched the surface -- then great joys await. 'Twisted Pair', included on the helpful 1994 Cherry Red compilation Hystery, arises out of one of Geesin's most interesting areas of activity in the 70s and 80s: title music for educational programmes. If you ever watched an animation-heavy schools maths programme on ITV during those years -- fronted probably by Fred Harris or Max Mason (where are you now, Max?) -- chances are it had music by Ron Geesin: you can tell his signature sense of harmony and wonky rhythm in a matter of seconds, which is the mark of a great composer when he only has seconds to work with.

26 Billy Bang: 'Ebony Minstrel Man' from Rainbow Gladiator (1981)
Oh how I loved Billy Bang, the great jazz violinst, who died in April this year. To those for whom jazz violin means the sweetly decorative flights of Stephane Grappelli, Bang can be a bit of a shock: much more in the lineage of the altogether more robust Stuff Smith, and influenced somewhat by his early experiences playing with Sun Ra, Bang's tone can be sour, pedantic, sharp and sometimes downright fugly, particularly if your ear is allergic to microtonality: but also robust, exuberant and capable of great lyricism. Rainbow Gladiator was my first brush with Bang and I can recommend it as an entry point for the curious.

27 Konkrete Canticle: 'Ga(il s)o(ng)' from Experiments in Disintegrating Language / Konkrete Canticle (1971)
Konkrete Canticle were basically the Peter, Paul and Mary of British sound poetry: Bob Cobbing, Michael Chant and Paula Claire (who recently became unexpectedly visible in "the media" last year when she briefly put herself forward as a candidate to be Oxford professor of poetry, before withdrawing in protest at the favouritism that she felt -- surely correctly -- was being extended to Geoffrey Hill, who of course was eventually awarded the post). How about this: Experiments in Disintegrating Language / Konkrete Canticle was issued by the (then) Arts Council of Great Britain on its own record label -- though I've never come across anything else it released -- does anyone know anything about this? Please get in touch if you do.

28 BBC Radiophonic Workshop: 'June' from The Seasons (1969)
Essentially, the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop falls into two distinct periods: (a) 1958-1972: Scary shit that sounds like John Wyndham's worst dreams; (b) 1972 onwards: "Oh fuck it's Roger Limb". (Actually I heretically quite like Roger Limb's stuff, but there's no doubt the complexion of the Workshop's output changed considerably once the likes of Limb, Peter Howell and the excellent Paddy Kingsland were doing their hummable doo.) This, as you will hear, is very much from the former period. What's particularly chilling is that this material was aimed at classroom use for drama lessons in primary schools. Yes, imagine: this went inside kids. Rebekah Brooks thou should'st have been living at that hour. (Not really.)

29 Richard Digance: 'Dear River Thames' (1974)
Those who know Digance mostly from his pretty rotten TV "specials" (hm) in the 80s and his frequent appearances in Countdown's Dictionary Corner may be unaware of his pedigree as a singer-songwriter in the 70s; this, the B-side to an early single on Transatlantic Records (a fascinating label at the time, home to artists such as Billy Connolly and Ralph McTell but also The Fugs and the Portsmouth Sinfonia), captures (what I think is) his appeal at this time -- a plangent, nostalgic (but not conservative) lyricism, a pleasingly unvarnished vocal style that lends an edge of vulnerability, and some respectable guitar chops.

30 Robert Ashley: 'She Was A Visitor' (1968)
A seminal early work by Ashley, perhaps the most consistently interesting of the radical American composers to start emerging in the early 60s (see also Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma...). While a lone speaker repeats the title of the piece, selected chorus leaders pick up individual phonemes from the spoken phrase, isolate and sound these, and these are then transmitted (as if by "rumour", according to Ashley's own notes) to different groups within the chorus. It remains a hauntingly effective miniature.

31 Vivian Stanshall & the Sean Head Showband: 'Paper Round' (1970)
Stanshall should hardly need any introduction; the Sean Head Showband was I think his first group post-Bonzo's, and this marvellous track, if I remember correctly, is the B-side to "Labio-Dental Fricative", which turns up on the Bonzo Cornology set. Somewhere in the madding crowd is Eric Clapton on guitar -- but not, sadly, the Count Basie Orchestra on triangle.

32 Raymond Scott: 'Bufferin "Memories"' (1967)
Given the disclaimers in my intro, it seems apt that the most overt drugs reference in this playlist is to over-the-counter analgesics. Raymond Scott was the extraordinary presiding genius of Manhattan Research Inc., a sort of (nearly) one-man radiophonic workshop where electronic and invented instruments were deployed mostly in the service of ear-catching commercial exploitations. After a couple of early collaborations with Jim Henson (god of the Muppets & plenty more) on experimental short films such as "Ripples" and "Limbo: the Organized Mind", Scott and Henson recorded, in similar vein, this tv advert for Bufferin painkillers.

33 Maggie Henderson: 'Butterflies' from Ragtime (1974)
Any excuse to throw in a song from Ragtime. Those who saw Maggie as Beth in my production of Landscape earlier this year will particularly cherish this track, I'm thinking.

34 Terry Riley: 'Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band' (extract; 1968)
Just an eight-minute excerpt from Riley's seminal improvised work for saxophone, organ and tape delay (or Time Lag Accumulator to give it its proper sci-fi name). A bit like staring at a complicated rug. Forever.

35 Ric Sanders: 'Improvisation on Constant Billy' from Whenever (1984)
To be honest I'm not absolutely sure what this is doing here, except that it came to mind and I like it a lot. This is (as far as I can tell) the only digitally available track from Whenever, which deserves a reissue in its entirety: in the meantime this multitracked improvisation pops up on the recent compilation Still Waters. Sanders is probably best known as violinist by appointment to Fairport Convention (oops, just had to correct that, nearly lent him to Fairground Attraction by mistake; think fatigue is starting to set in...)

36 Big Star: 'The Ballad of El Goodo' from #1 Record (1972)
The original version of a song that I imagine a fair few Thompson's readers will know better from the wonderful Evan Dando cover version on the soundtrack to Empire Records, the Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives of American teen comedy ensemble movies.

37 Gyorgy Ligeti: 'Hungarian Rock' (1978)
I only came across this wonktastic bit of Ligeti last year when I needed to throw something complicated into the mix for my nano-gesamtkunstwerk 'Kenilworth Castle, £7.60'. In that instance I used Elisabeth Chojnacka's excellent recording for cembalo, but here's Pierre Charial on barrel organ and let that be a lesson to you.

38 Morphogenesis: 'Lamination no. 9' from Prochronisms (1989)
To say that Morphogenesis are underrated is not to say that they're not highly esteemed, which they are; but actually I think they're about as good as it gets, at least in the field of materialist electroacoustic improvisation. They started out in the mid-80s and I'm pleased to see they persist, though personally I haven't run in to them live since the tragic death of Roger Sutherland in 2004. Here's a track from their first LP; later recorded works are stronger, certainly, but their speculative group intelligence is already coming through amply by this point. One of the Morphs is Adam Bohman, who may be familiar to some Thompson's readers from his duo with performer Patrizia Paolini (for which I was matchmaker, actually -- long story), or his curatorial endeavours at BAC over the years. Oh and over here you can read something nice by Stewart Lee about seeing Morphogenesis for the first time.

39 Joel Vandroogenbroeck: 'Cycle' from Computer Blossoms (1981)
Here's where this whole little expedition began. Listening to it again I've just remembered that I meant to include among these tracks Alvin Curran's 'On My Satin Harp' from Songs And Views of the Magnetic Garden. But I have to be careful not to allow this to become some Borgesian mixtape that increases its size exponentially and paradoxically and ultimately includes every possible permutation and iteration of itself. Why? Because sometimes, worse luck, they make me leave the house.

40 Paul Giovanni & Magnet: 'Willow's Song' from The Wicker Man OST (1973)
Well so in the context this is a bit like finishing with "Land of Hope and Glory". Not terribly surprising for anyone that it's here, but we can all join in, and if it wasn't here you'd feel cheated. The movie sequence is here if you want to watch along, in which case you may also need one of these. And here's the Sneaker Pimps' version for the sheer life-ventilating heck of it.

And now, at unimaginably long last, you're free to go. Call people, let them know you're OK. Lots of love xx

The usual gentlemanly Thompson's disclaimer is cordially invoked: if you own the copyright in any of the above tracks, and you'd prefer it wasn't included in this collation, please don't hesitate to contact the Controlling Thompson, who will undertake to vanish it with all alacrity, probably in the middle of the night while the world is sleeping, and replace it with his own a cappella rendering of the entirety of Metal Machine Music. I'm just saying.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

I'll try to write about Open House in the next few days: I may as well say now, briefly, that it felt like one of the most important and deeply suggestive projects I've been involved in (and one of the most nourishingly pleasurable, too, for the most part, tending frequently towards joyous): but I'm also feeling really exhausted today after such an intense week, and found myself wanting to create a space of silence and invisibility to inhabit as an individual this evening as a reaction to the gregariousness and the emotional exposure of the past few days -- which is why, taking myself rather by surprise, I've ended up not going to the 'Paths Through Utopias' screening at the close of Two Degrees this evening. Apologies to everyone who I'd promised to see and say hello to there. I really wanted to be there but, at the crucial time, I wanted to be here, or to not be anywhere, slightly more. I'll look forward to hearing about it.

In the meantime, two things to draw your attention to quickly:

One, a really lovely blog post from Maddy Costa, sort of pendant to but also separate from last week's Guardian featurette, on the time she's spent with CG&Co over the past few weeks.

The other: a new and last-minute addition to the roster of events at the right of the page. cris cheek's doing a talk at Birkbeck on Monday evening, with the toothsome title: "Before I am Anything Else: provisional transatlantic communities in polyvocal poetic performance"; that talk is then being followed by a programme of performances of polyvocal poems, scores etc., at which I'll be performing along with cris, Lawrence Upton, Holly Pester and others. I think it could be really interesting and I'm sorry about the short notice (regrettably the academic world customarily operates on the basis of an entirely different -- and, to some outsiders including myself, baffling -- calibration when it comes to lead times). Excitingly, I'm also interviewing cris for this blog tomorrow afternoon, so watch this space, I'll get it all written up as fast as I can.

Poetry-wise you might also like to note that I'm reading with Jonny Liron and Tamarin Norwood at the Other Room in Manchester next month; and I think I can also now tentatively announce a London launch reading for Better Than Language, a new anthology of work by younger poets, which I've edited and am about to publish through my Ganzfeld imprint, on the evening of Thursday 28th July. There'll be a Brighton launch too, early in August.

More soon; enough for now. xx

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Opening the house

Clive Mendus (top), Jamie Wood (bottom) in rehearsal at CPT last month.
Photo: Malcolm Phillips

The best work I do is in rehearsal rooms.

Here we are, two-thirds of the way through the inadvertent but hugely satisfying trilogy of back-to-back ensemble processes that are making this spring such a pleasure. Tomorrow I get on a train to Leeds to spend the week in Open House at WYP. I don't think I've ever known so little about a project that's about to loom pretty large: we'll be immersed in it twelve hours a day (at least) and I feel like I might just about be able to predict, though with not much certainty, how it goes for the first half hour. Maybe 45 minutes. After that: there's just no way of knowing.

I explained Open House in my previous post (and of course you can read about it on the WYP web site) so I won't talk you through the ins and outs again, but for a bit more context you might want to have a look at this lovely piece by Maddy Costa, whom I invited a few weeks ago to come along for the ride through these three wildly different landscapes. (Though for my part I might not want you to have a look at the accompanying photograph -- I mean good grief I know I'm not an oil painting at the best of times but, wow, nothing prepared me for the bracing thwack of humiliation that went along with that little doozy.) Apparently the Radio 4 Today programme might come and sit with us at some point in the week: which is, er, a peculiar thought, but not a completely unappealing one.

Is Open House really newsworthy? We're so accustomed to thinking of what we do as something that carries so little weight in the broader culture (let alone in the ADHD cacophony of broadcast media) that it's almost impossible to conceive of it registering at all, let alone conveying any of the force and impetus that, at its best, it has for us on the inside. But thinking about the proposition that Open House makes -- to its audiences, to WYP, to other artists, to those who hear about it at whatever remove -- there's something very interesting in allowing oneself to reimagine it, albeit in an obviously ludicrous and self-indulgent daydream, as news.

The trouble is, the headline doesn't sound like it's earning its keep. "The best work I do is in rehearsal rooms." Why should that matter to anybody? -- So here is the news, in case anyone puts a mic in front of my face at some point in the next week and asks me what we're up to.

The best work I do is in rehearsal rooms. I'm very proud of the shows and pieces I make but I wish more and more that audiences could see inside the rehearsal room. That's where theatre is most like itself: a liquid thing, restless, full of spontaneities and unexpected shifts. The room I like being in is calm and careful but alive with attentiveness, with smart people trying to speak each other's languages, tune in to each other's invitations, respond to each other's desires. Negotiating in a spirit of curious enquiry and the delight that comes from being kind together. At its best it's a room where everybody falls a little bit in love, impelled by the knowledge that in a matter of weeks, days, hours, the time in which that love is immediately possible will end, its space will close down.

I loved the room we made together on the Cendrars project. Talking together, reading, dancing, pottering. Lots of pottering. Sketching each other, taking photos, making notes. Watching, watching. Someone taking a little nap after lunch one day while the rest of us watched an old episode of Buck Rogers. That was my favourite. It made me think back to the times I've slept in a rehearsal room. Times I've laid on the floor and laughed till I cried. Times I just cried. Times we all cried together. Times things fell into place after a long period of confusion and doubt. Times of sitting quietly on a window-ledge and looking out over the city. Times of hearing written texts spoken aloud for the first time. Times I've been touched, held, embraced, coaxed, tickled; times I've been able to do those things for other people. Times I've seen shyness: people singing songs without confidence, struggling to express themselves, standing up and trying something that was never going to work and then trying it again. Times of great gifts: seeing old friends in new ways; hearing a piece of music that changes everything; watching people I hardly know taking off their clothes and letting themselves be seen. Times I've been seen myself. Really, really seen. The relief of being really seen, and really heard.

Being in a rehearsal room -- as I have the past four weeks, and am about to for another week -- still feels like a treat, though if you laid those special periods of my life end to end they'd stretch for years now I suppose. A rehearsal room that's really working, where the things I've just described are possible, and easily possible, nearly inevitable: that's my favourite place to live. Maybe it's the only place I really live. And sometimes I must admit, though the pieces we make together in those rooms are always suffused with the atmosphere in which they've been made, sometimes I'm aware that when I'm talking about what important and transformative things theatre can do, I'm often not talking about the bit that most people only have access to, the bit that happens for an hour and a half in the evenings. I'm talking about the hopeful and loving way in which we did our best to get there.

Open House is an attempt to invite people in to the work so they can see what it's like, because I think there's such misunderstanding about how we make what we make, and why we make it. I think the thought and the care that go into the making, and not least the making of the room where the making will happen, might surprise some of those people who fulminate below the line on the theatre blogs -- and several of those who get paid to fulminate above the line too. Perhaps they might find their cynicism a little bit dispelled. Their fear, too. Their uninformed trigger-happy assumptions about pretentiousness and self-indulgence.

This might be a useful end in itself but it's also a more significant beginning. I want a theatre that behaves more like the best, the most inclusive, the most supportive, rehearsal room, precisely because of what happens there, the things I've described here. Because those instances of very special, very heightened, or very calm but deeply engaged action, happen in a zone with no fictional frame around it. A little slippery liminality, perhaps: but you see people, not characters, you see actors and creative teams, you see real lives being lived, but also being crafted as they are lived, in the moment of their living.

I've often described theatre as a place where we figure out how to live together better; I realise for most people, even when they're watching pedagogic political plays or participating in supposedly interactive immersive walkabouts, that would be an almost inexplicable statement, because actually I'm talking about the processes that happen in the best rehearsal, the lives we lead there, where all our commitments are held and honoured but every detail of their activation is open to question and negotiation. Theatre performances that have somehow retained some sense of that promise are pretty rare and they almost never take place in the larger established buildings.

I think more and more about theatre as a place to know. We're quite attracted to the opposite: saying that there's something interesting -- and so there is -- in theatre practices and encounters that are about not-knowing, about doubt, about sitting with uncertainty and wondering. Certainly most rehearsal processes have a lot of that going on in them. But sometimes the doubt is so present in our minds that we don't see the knowing. We don't see what an act of knowing it is to come to this space in the first place. Not just for us makers but for an audience too. It's an act of knowing, and of wanting, maybe even of needing. Just as we've become so seduced by the rhetoric of unfocused 'risk' and the well-intended idea of "a safe space to fail" that we've become distracted from the exhilarating prospect of coming together in order to succeed, to succeed brilliantly in getting something done: so likewise we've overemphasized the permission to not know, when actually, sometimes, we know. Audiences too. Sometimes, it's true, we know things that audiences don't know, we have insights to impart, we have skills we can use to make beautiful things happen; but our insights as artists arise not because we're cleverer, smarter, than our audiences, but because we practise giving ourselves space in which those insights can live -- and not only live, but live an examined life.

Everybody should have the space to know what they know, to feel what it's like to know it. To feel the fear and the distress that comes with knowing what they know, given the space to really feel it. And everybody should have the space to begin to do something with that knowledge. To begin to move, to change. Everybody needs a place of liquidity, of restlessness and shifting, of speculation and slipperiness; a place in which it's possible -- encouraged! -- to be thoughtful and kind and attentive. A place to do shy singing, to take off your clothes, to have a little nap in the company of strangers who'll make sure you're safe. A place in which we can start to negotiate the next place. Not a secluded, insulated, escapist place, but a temporary shelter. A room without walls. An open house.

It's funny: almost everybody, right?, at some point or another in their lives, has written a poem. A teenage 'nobody understands me' poem or a funny little 'roses are red' poem in a Valentine's card or whatever. Almost everybody does a bit of making, whether it's cooking or gardening or knitting or DIY or whatever -- and it's not just target-driven activity, it's not just about needing a cake or a scarf, it's about having something to do that makes you feel like a participant in a wider project of being a civilised and creative individual in a society that overwhelmingly wants you to see yourself only as a consumer. But how many people will ever make a bit of theatre? Lord knows I've done enough gigs in people's kitchens and living rooms to know how possible it is to have a few friends round and tell them a story or show them something familiar that they've never really seen before. I believe more and more resolutely in the civic value of designated theatre buildings but I don't think they should have the monopoly on theatre any more than all the world's fish are in aquariums.

I was thinking in a sleepless spell last night about that cliché of carpe diem egging-on: life isn't a rehearsal, you know! Well, no, it isn't, and so we might all plausibly want to make the most of whatever time we have at our disposal. We might want to live in a way that's rich and expansive and detailed and careful and joyous and tender and hopeful and attentive. We might want to live in a way that feels so multitudinous, so teeming with possibility, that it begins to seem almost equal to the enormity and complexity of Life with a capital L. Were that so, we could hardly make a better start than to imagine a life that is, at least, like a rehearsal. Because it's too important to think of it merely as a show with a limited run.

In other words, the real problem with Open House is that we only get to be there twelve hours a day.

And now back to you in the studio, John.