David Toop, October/November 2006
How to describe and analyse a process from within, without self-aggrandisement, without exaggeration, yet engage a dispassionate listener? How to remember each small incident that influenced the outcome, and how to recall significant moments of revelation or realisation from the past, recent and distant, the pressure they may have exerted on the making of a single work.
These are discursive notes, perhaps addressing the subject.
The work may have begun in a room, though this seems unlikely. If it did begin in a room then the room may have been quiet, and if that were the case, which I’m inclined to accept for the sake of argument, then that quiet room was not just one room, because quiet rooms build up in your life, rooms within rooms within rooms, rooms in dreams, now virtual myspace rooms and chat rooms, all enfolded within unfamiliar rooms age barely remembers or chooses to forget: those rooms of dread and pleasure, action and boredom, safety and danger. Their atmosphere accumulates, standing in relation to the feeling of being in rooms when something big was at stake: classroom, exam room, bedroom. Clocks spring to mind, and this is what I began to write until realising that springing insinuates itself into the text as a pun, and puns are not my style, but clocks once defined the feeling of rooms: clocks ticking, measuring time, slowly, quietly, a presence, an interior atmosphere, dividing time with their chimes, then resuming their steady plod through, what exactly? Each tick and tock seemed to freeze time, and if the clock stopped then the feeling of a room would change, dramatically. “The worn voices of clocks repeated the fact of the hour all night long,” wrote Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room.
Indoor silence once was occupied, regulated and even articulated by a clock; not silence at all of course, but the tick and the tock were paroxysms around which silence seemed to gather, like vultures round a corpse, waiting for the ungiven signal when decomposition becomes possible. Now we have digital clocks, small battery operated clocks with a tick so fugitive that only paranoid listening in the middle of the night can search it out, and the visual noise but apparent audio silence of numerical displays on TVs, ovens, microwaves, computers and phones, so quiet rooms and the people within them now float within a more continuous and subliminal form of air. All of these devices radiate electromagnetic emissions, so their silence is illusory. With the right equipment, they materialise, just like the things of the air, thronging H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction.
There are other small sounds; maybe they form wisps into solids, glue pieces into forms, keep people sane, or shield them from loneliness and the void. Georges Perec wrote about the man who stared at nothing, his radio playing at such low volume that no one really knew if he could hear it, yet when Madame Nochère went to switch it off, he stopped her. He listened to the hit parade every night. That was his claim.
When I was a teenager, I listened to the hit parade at low volume, night, bedclothes, sleeping parents … also indulging in melancholy, as is standard, and that being the 1960s, there was plenty of material to feed both needs. Poignant in its description of fragility, vulnerability, isolation bordering on chronic withdrawal, one of Brian Wilson’s most revealing ballads, “In My Room”, described the bedroom as a world, a friend, a confidant, a refuge, an ear, a place of listening in which other people were absent. The lyrics, written by Gary Usher, were prophetic, since they anticipated Brian’s notorious withdrawal into pyjamas, a bed-bound descent into the maelstrom of high calorie food, TV and cocaine that began in summer 1973 and ended in late 1975.
Mark Rothko, also famously troubled, wrote interesting things about air. “Tactile space, or for the sake of simplicity, let us call it air, which exists between objects or shapes in the picture, is painted so that it gives the impression of a solid,” he wrote. “That is, air in a tactile painting is represented as an actual substance rather than as an emptiness. We might more readily conceive it if we picture a plate of jelly or, perhaps, soft putty, into which a series of objects are impressed at various depths.”
This has relevance for the digital sound artist or musician working within, if it is within, a computer. For soft putty or jelly we might substitute the sound of central heating, a recently boiled kettle, a steam iron not being used, a sleeping dog, strip lighting in the kitchen, distant traffic heard through double glazing, a radio switched on but with the volume on zero. Logically speaking, recorded air would seem to be inaudible, just a nothingness, but without its presence the scene becomes implausible. In the realm of cinema, one of the most famous demonstrations of this happens in Jean Luc Godard’s Bande à Part, in which a character says “a minute of silence can last a long time”. Then Godard cuts all sound for one minute of what Michel Chion has called a technical break. He proves the case. When watching a film, a minute of silence within the film is indeed a long time because the audience becomes very conscious of the medium of film during this minute of audio vacuum and very conscious of itself, thrown back into the room within which the film is experienced and thrown temporarily out of the space of the film. This is an old story, but relevant to what I am trying to say.
At this point there’s no way to be sure, but I think that this sensing of air has a relationship to what Antonio Damasio called ‘background feelings’. This is what he wrote in Descartes’ Error: “The background feeling is our image of the body landscape when it is not shaken by emotion … I submit that without them the very core of your representation of self would be broken … background feeling is mostly about body states. Our individual identity is anchored on this island of illusory living sameness against which we can be aware of myriad other things that manifestly change around the organism.”
Which reminds me: I never did find a copy of that CD released in Germany a few years ago. The title was Alone No More, which in itself could be a song composed by Arthur Lee or Nick Drake. Aimed at the new European demographic of single adults living alone, tracks such as A Shirt Ironed Hastily and Finally the Fridge Is Full Again were designed to simulate the presence of a companion, conceived with the intention of agitating that static, introspective air that coagulates in places of loneliness.
In A Matter of Life and Death, Powell and Pressburger’s film from 1946, the messenger from the other side stops time and with stasis comes absolute silence. David Niven, in limbo between life and death yet functioning in the living world, rings a bell and viewers of the film realise that sound is absent, the air itself is held in limbo.
Describing, with some distaste, the reptilian character of the Galapagos Islands, Herman Melville wrote - “No Voice, no low, no howl is heard – the chief sound of life here is a hiss” – though the bereft image could also serve as an evocation of the suburban sitting room. Playback of a recorded empty room projects us into the domain of the serpent.
Air can be too much, of course. Often, this triggers the idea of silence, which is a useful concept without much meaning, or with an excess of meaning. Chapter 34 of Moby Dick, The Cabin-Table, revives childhood memories of what Melville calls “awful silence”. At meal times on the Pequod, Captain Ahab eats silently, speaking not at all, and though not forbidden conversation, all the officers defer to his mute solemnity. Starbuck starts when a knife grazes against a plate, and Stubb, choking in the stilted hush, is relieved to hear a rat clattering in the hold below. This unhappy ritual contrasts with the physicality and gusto of gastronomic pleasures indulged elsewhere on board. “While their masters, the mates, seemed afraid of the sound of the hinges of their own jaws,” wrote Melville, “the harpooners chewed their food with such a relish that there was a report to it.” Melville begins to penetrate the unconscious, silence and the mutinous body reporting back, ravaged emissaries, from the lower depths.
I like to watch the sport of snooker on television, and this is partly for the air, which hums gently, peppered with the swish of a shirt, measured footfall, the knock of the balls, the calling of numbers, occasional applause. Unlike classical music audiences, snooker viewers can sit for long periods without coughing. The experience is productively boring, so restful, languid, yet unbearably tense in spasms, released in spasms, sounding more and more like a protracted sexual encounter.
“. . . night is nothing but a long-drawn sigh between hammer-strokes,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “a deep breath – you can hear it from an open window even in the heart of London.” This is Woolf’s idea of an organic continuity that survives the inventions of modernity.
In my first year of study at Hornsey College of Art, in 1967, I made a few interesting friends. One of them, Penelope, dressed in Pre-Raphaelite style, talked to me about her private ambition, which was to sit very still in her room for long periods of time, the almost imperceptible twitch of a facial muscle distinguishing her behaviour as a form of art. She was inspired by Virginia Woolf she said; indeed could have been a member of the Bloomsbury set had some cosmic accident shifted her birth date further backwards by six decades or so.
I had no interest in Woolf at the time, not because she was a snob, or like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, anti-Semitic, all unpleasant realities I encountered later, but because I was reading William Burroughs and listening to free jazz and Chicago blues, so Bloomsbury seemed a distant isle even though just a bus ride away. The title of this text I am reading, and the piece of music it attempts to dissect, comes from Woolf, from Jacob’s Room, which is an indication of how my tastes have shifted to incorporate those who express values I detest.
This is the full passage: “Listless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift. One fibre in the wicker armchair creaks, though no one sits there …”
I keep returning to air and rooms, and speaking about the blues reminds me of hearing two specific tracks, probably a year or two before meeting Penelope and her minimal facial tics. These were “Walkin’ the Boogie” by John Lee Hooker and “The Natchez Burning” by Howlin’ Wolf. Of course, memory of a first hearing from 40 years ago may have a slender relationship to a fresh audition in the present. These tracks stick in my mind because I think of them being recorded not in measurable occupied space, but within vast, mirrored steel meat lockers, or perhaps in a UFO, quivering with electrical energy as it hovers over the Mojave desert. This is a side-effect of slapback echo, an effect which increases as the Hooker track progresses. His voice is double-tracked, his characteristic foot stomping seems to multiply into an army of stompers, the lead lines overdubbed at a later date by an unknown musician on electric guitar are recorded at half-speed, borrowing a transformative technique invented by multitrack innovator and guitar inventor Les Paul, so heard in final playback at freakishly high pitch, improbably quick and strained.
“One night I was laying down,” Hooker speak-sings. “I heared Mama and Poppa talking. I heared Poppa say to Mama, ‘Let that boy boogie-woogie, it’s in and it’s got to come out.”
Listening to that section of the song, itself a contract-busting version from 1952 of a more famous song called “Boogie Chillun”, I am the voyeur, able to picture the bedroom from which he overheard this conversation, and the moment of release as whispers from an adjacent room penetrated the hum of the urban night. As for Howlin’ Wolf, he howls oral history, a news flash about a famous fire, a Mississippi dance hall called the Rhythm Night Club that burned down in 1940, killing more than 200 people . As Wolf tells it, his girlfriend was killed, along with four other female friends and as the song ends, the building tumbles down. The backing band sounds conventional enough, but Wolf’s voice, bursting through the ionosphere and shuddering within clouded particles of echo, could be beamed from outer space. As thunder and lightning, an avenging angel, he seems to look down on the scene and simultaneously we can feel terrified confinement within the burning room and the horror of the global observer.
In their magnificent isolation, both singers glide through worlds both exotic and palpable. This displacement through tricks of the studio seems commonplace now, but there was a drama, maybe like the drama of the small child hearing sounds from beyond its own region of affectivity, beyond the limited boundaries of its own body space, that projected me, the unknown listener, from the mundane out into zones unknown, mysterious, sensuous and fluid. This ambiguous, fabulous depiction of new spatial perspectives and multiple points of audition, through the illusion of devices such as echo, reverb and delay has been studied in Peter Doyle’s book, Echo & Reverb, in which he describes the musical instrument as a prosthesis, a literal disembodiment of function which “enriches and animates inert matter with human will.”
The complicated need for prosthesis may result from sound being so easy to imagine, so ubiquitous in the human sensorium, yet so difficult to externalise ay any level of complexity. Difficult, that is, unless negotiation takes place with the voice and its alliance with thought and verbalisation, or difficult unless the neglected potential of the body, this humming, whistling, cracking, snorting, sniffing, dripping, shedding, dropping and spurting, percussive, gnathosonic, auscultated, aerophonically explosive orchestral conglomerate, not at all inert matter, is revisited. A life dealing in sound is like the Shirt Of Noise described by Ben Marcus in The Age of Wire and String: “Garment, fabric, or residue that absorbs and holds sound, storing messages for journeys. Its loudness cannot be soothed. It can destroy the member which inhabits it.”
Phnuurrr, the sound emiited by Felix in The Odd Couple, a nocturnal sinus clearance so emphatically self-absorbed to be utterly insensitive to the anti-social dimension of the extra-territorial audio-body.
Frankenstein lurches through open doorway, reminding me that ghosts and horror are a part of this. In the early 1960s I started to buy whatever copies I could find of an American magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland. Images reproduced from stills taken from the films of Roger Corman led me to the writing of Edgar Allan Poe. The compulsion that has returned me to Poe’s stories over and over again since that discovery is a recognition of the fear generated by claustrophobic and unrevealed spaces, confinement and absolute silence, and by hyperacusis, a collapsed tolerance to normal environmental sounds, or what I would call paranoid listening. The Tell-Tale Heart, The Black Cat, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket: their feeling of lonely enclosure in webs of malignant, oppressive sound within spaces that have lives of their own. The beating heart that betrays its own murderer, the hollow knocking and shrieking of the prematurely or unjustly incarcerated.
“… there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror,” says the narrator of The Fall of the House of Usher in his description of Roderick Usher.
This seems to be about hearing as others see. Literally, this may be the case. In The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the false narrator constructed by Poe tells of his incarceration in the hold of a ship, isolated and near to death from poisoning, starvation and dehydration, and moving through dangerous spaces in pitch darkness. “As I fell,” he says, “the carving knife was shaken out from the waistband of my pantaloons, and dropped with a rattling sound to the floor. Never did the strain of the richest melody come so sweetly to my ears.” Poe’s air, a toxic anti-air, is not so much jelly or soft putty, let alone transparent nothingness, as compacted charcoal, pitch, coal dust, soot, liquorice, ash, ink wash, pencil shading, sump oil, volcanic sand, all mixed with ditch water and black bile then poured to capacity into restrictive volumes.
I’ve been short-sighted, chronically so, for most of my life, and sometimes speculate on the significance of this inability to see distant objects in focus. Surely this accentuates the other senses, heightens feelings of interpersonal distance, or reconfigures an imbalance in the socially constructed hierarchy of the senses, or over time, has sharpened my sonic focus.
As a child I recall many occasions, lying in bed at night in complete darkness, suddenly hearing sounds, tiny sounds, and by concentrating hard, going deeper and deeper into these sounds, they seemed to me like a kind of sonar reading that tracked the slow, infinitely careful progress of an intruder working his way around the edges of my bed. I would lie completely still, thinking that my absolute silence would cancel the malevolent presence in the bedroom. Edgar Allan Poe spoke directly to these already existent terrors, as well as feeding them.
This memory, long buried, came back to me earlier this year. Our cat was dying of leukaemia, so restive in the night. Her familiar sounds, normally so familiar that we wouldn’t wake, were becoming a litmus of her condition. One night I was woken by the thinnest clicking sounds, then a kind of suction sound. Painfully thin, the cat’s movement across wooden floors was like the tapping of a spider too huge to contemplate; the suction sound was her drinking, now so impeded by the tumour in her jaw that to fight dehydration she had to dip her face completely into the water in order to absorb even the smallest amount. In the darkness, without seeing, these sounds become monstrous.
Penetrating to the smallest details of hearing, whether as a listening practice or methodology of sound making, may seem to be an entrancement with silence, peace, meditation, Zen and all that stuff, but really, it’s an engagement with the noise that exists at all levels of the dynamic spectrum. In the springtime at night, I sit outside in my garden sometimes, waiting quietly in the dark until I can hear the tiny chewing sounds of slugs and snails eating the leaves of my plants. This is more disturbing than peaceful.
Active listening, is how it might be described, sensual tremors experienced as the shadows around solid experience, found in the language of poets though mostly overlooked:
the white world of Samuel Beckett –
“Embers. (Pause.) Shifting, lapsing, furtive like, dreadful sound …"
and Yasunari Kawabata –
“The night scene was severe, as if the sound of the expanse of snow freezing were echoing deep within the earth …”
and Craig Raine – “In bed we listen to the cinders
shift their weight and softly kiss,
burning with their happiness …“
and Michael Hartnett:
“I hear the lights hum
and a cigarette erupts
Soft light strokes my head.”
And Fernando Pessoa:
“Silence emerges from the sound of the rain and spreads in a crescendo of grey monotony over the narrow street I contemplate.”
And Tom Raworth:
“hearing the paper hearing the sound of the pen
like a séance : i will dictate these words”
Is the listening active or is sound not so much an enveloping field through which we pass but an aggressive, colonising force? Proust thought the latter, writing of the sick man with plugged ears who reads in a silence so profound that the pages of his book seem to be turned by the fingers of a god, and for the child, sensitive to all changes in consciousness and the possibility of supernatural meddling, sickness and fevers can exacerbate this suspicion that sound and its absence is subject to the powers of an extra-human world.
My morbid preoccupations with the undead were echoed by a growing fascination with processes of rotting, erosion, burning and destruction evident in the plastic arts, certainly from the 1950s onwards. I’m thinking of Latham, Tapies, Metzger, Klein, Fontana, Burri, Tinguely, and others, layering bandages, flinging acid, slashing canvases, destroying machines, blowing up books, chewing up books and spitting them out as if assaulting the skin and surface of the arts.
For me, there was a formative moment. My first experience of John Latham’s work was in 1968 (a calculated guess, since no reliable documentation seems to exist). I was in the audience for a performance evening called Float, held at Middle Earth, a psychedelic club in London’s Covent Garden. Float also featured performances by such artists as Stuart Brisley, Bruce Lacey and Carlyle Reedy, but it was Latham’s contribution that had me transfixed. He was cutting up books with the kind of floor-mounted electric saw used by timber merchants. As if the noise from this activity were not brutal enough, the body of the saw was amplified through a contact microphone. I enjoyed the noise attack so much that I picked up one of the book fragments from the floor and took it home. Reading through this sundered volume in a conventional manner generated fantastic imagery automatically. The book was a romantic novel, an abundantly florid hothouse of exotic nonsense poetry. Broken texts became songs in some cases, and I read long passages from them into a cassette tape recorder, using a flat voice that gave no acknowledgment to the consistent ruptures of syntax and meaning, as in this salvaged extract:
“. . . and so they came to the playa and his hands could touch golden sands whose quiet ripples lap his body into the heart and looking back from the streaming hand pressed to hat brim over pale a dream ship, across the room grew shadowy . . . alone, in just such another room of murmuring traffic.”
A faint light in the distance pointed to hypertext; collapsing, decomposed. The linear narrative, liquid as it was, might have been asking the reader in paraphrase of W.J.T. Mitchell, what do stories want?
Of course, there were precedents for this excoriation, pyromania and dismemberment, notably the decalcomanic, frottaged, automatist Exquisite Corpse of the Surrealists, echoed by works such as Hans Bellmer’s The Worm-Eaten and the Creased, body and building seemingly dissolving, melting, breaking down into constituent parts and so anticipating the melted communities and blasted, burned landscapes of the 1940s documented by W.G. Sebald in his remarkable, if barely readable book, On the Natural History of Destruction.
“The body, Hans Bellmer wrote, “can be compared to a sentence that invites you to dismantle it, so that, in the course of an endless series of anagrams, its true contents may take shape.”
For a certain generation in the period following World War II, memories of burned flesh and blackened cities were overwhelmingly pungent, with a future promising not just surface damage but total eradication. Bomb Culture, Jeff Nuttall called it.
As William Burroughs wrote in Nova Express, “The Venusian Gook Rot flashed round the world.” In a passage that describes the Silence Virus being released around the world to blanket areas infected by supersonic word form imitations and playback used as an entry gimmick by the Death Dwarfs, Burroughs talked about a technical operation through which machines could create the Juxtaposition Formulae: “Any object, feeling, odor, word, image in juxtaposition with any other object feeling, odor, word or image will be associated with it.”
Always with Burroughs, a conjoining of experimental, half-bogus technologies as might have been devised by a merger of Scientologists, alchemists, the CIA, and the KGB, anticipating carcinogenic ecstasies of present conditions.
Elvis Presley burst out of Toru Takemitsu’s score for Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film, The Ruined Map, and as in many other cases, the nature of audio recording as a spiritualist encounter became clear. Presley was still alive, even in a state of comeback, in 1968 when Takemitsu sampled his song, “I Need Your Love Tonight”, but the form of the piece, an intercutting of an electronically distorted and dismembered Elvis with Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in C Minor, is a contemporary spell whereby symbolic elements are combined to forcibly precipitate a consequence in the tangible world. Vivaldi and Presley enfold each other, their places in history, the map, cultural import, the many springs and streams that led in each case to the respective rivers of their music.
And what about the composer, the mage, fooling around with these volatile entities?
The dead converse with the living, zombies roaming the earth, a process now only too obvious from the sampling mash-ups of living and dead exemplified in 2004 by DJ Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album. This record, mostly available as a download, fabricated a space in which the cappella voices from Jay-Z’s Black Album rap over backing tracks assembled from fragments of The Beatles White Album.
We get used to these impossible encounters. On myspace.com, it is possible to make friends with dead people. I have dead friends on myspace, corpses with whom I collaborated in life yet who never expressed any of the conventional signs of being a friend. The fake friends are rather less difficult, of course.
One of the strangest jobs I ever had, brief but memorable, was during a period of studying graphic design at Watford School of Art in 1968-69. I worked for a man who sold very bad oil paintings to customers in search of some cheap but generic art to give a highbrow touch to their décor. One of my tasks was to correct paintings that included unpopular features, such as a landscape crossed by telegraph poles. These flashes of realism were unlikely to sell so had to be painted out, the landscape restored to a primordial state. Another job was to sign paintings, carefully copying the names from a book of fake signatures, all of them invented with the same attention to fantasy, if less flair, as the glitteringly savage nomenclature that in the 1950s transmuted stolid young working class English men from Smith, Wycherly, Hicks and Powell into glittering pop creatures named Steele, Fury, Wilde, Power, Pride, Eager, and Fame. I was given instructions as to which work fitted which signature and so transformed pictures produced at speed by anonymous and elderly locals into the oeuvre of fictitious bohemian artists.
“Impossible encounters?” asks Zygmunt Baumann. “In a world of moribund life and undead dead the improbable has turned inevitable, the extraordinary is routine. Everything is possible, indeed unavoidable, once life and death have both become similarly revocable and until-further-notice. It was after all that very distinction which endowed time with linearity, which set apart transience from duration and injected sense into the idea of progress, degeneration and points of no return.”
In passing, a memory of my sister’s record collection, circa 1959 to ’62: novelty songs, comedy monologues, songs from film and theatrical musicals, film theme tunes, rock ‘n’ roll songs, pop crooners, guitar instrumentals, a jazz singer performing a German music-theatre song, easy listening instrumentals, country & western songs, and so on. This diversity of genre would be auditioned through a single loudspeaker built into the Dansette record player, a device that allowed 10 or so 7-inch vinyl singles, playing at 45 rpm, to be stacked on a spindle, the edge of the lowest record knocked quite forcefully by the playing head, operating under the command of an automatic motion, and so dropping onto the turntable like a guillotined head into a basket to be penetrated, scratched, inscribed by a needle attached underneath the playing head until the run-out groove was reached, the hiccup of the spiral scratch, at which point this process would begin again until the sequence was complete.
Admittedly sequential, linear, this automated shuffle mechanism (anticipating the iPod shuffle though not yet the randomised permutations of an audio data base) suggested democracy of genre, a place not unlike Florida’s Disneyland in which the cultures of the world would drift in each other’s orbit, all wearing near identical costumes, black, plastic, centrally perforated and curved.
As a description of an environment, this automatic knocking of outwardly uniform yet diverse cultural products into ecstatic moments of realisation has some similarity to the airport, with its strictly regulated routines of check in, take-off and flight, the kind of space articulated with such clarity, beauty and humour by Jacques Tati in Playtime, a film made 40 years ago. Michel Chion writes about air in Tati’s films: the air drafts and electricity; the diaphanous air that cleanses fogs, fumes, chiaroscuros; up in the clouds, sky and music; and the way in which his attention to sounds “contributes to the impression of working with weightless and hollow objects.”
In a passage that feels like a description of composing in the digital domain, Chion writes this: “One could say that for Tati airports, hotels, restaurants and not normal public places where people meet. No, people run into one another, but they never really meet. No, no, these spaces are rooms where people come into contact without anything ever emerging from such encounters.”
Tati anticipates the notion of supermodernity and the non-place. Marc Augé writes: “Frequentation of non-places today provides an experience – without real historical precedent - of solitary individuality combined with non-human mediation (all it takes is a notice or a screen) between the individual and the public authority . . . the community of human destinies is experienced in the anonymity of non-place and in solitude.”
Increasingly, the wired world provokes confrontations between seemingly incompatible versions of connectivity, each freighted with its own impossible contradictions of communality achieved through solitude and distance.
In 1970, after bouts of attempting to imitate the virtuoso guitar technique of middle-aged African-American bluesmen from implausibly remote, exotic places – Chicago, Rolling Fork and McComb Mississippi, Detroit and so on – and these were places that might as well have been cities on Mars, I gravitated towards the emerging scene known in Britain as free improvisation, sometimes just free music. In 2006 still very much an active and evolving part of contemporary music, improvisation at that time seemed a response to the need to rediscover musical communality and spontaneity in a specifically European form, to reject the notion of a single authority in the determination of musical process, to equalise roles within any grouping of players, to develop a music that could unfold from moment to moment, and could trace its own form almost as an invisible inscription on time, air and memory. The music emerged in counterpoint to African-American free jazz and the Civil Rights Movement, and for some participants at least, considered itself part of an upsurge in Western Europe of socialism, communism, collective action, and libertarianism, which may be difficult to appreciate at this point in history.
Was this a last gasp of Modernism, a final desire to change the world through the form and process of music making, a conviction that this was the ultimate true and fundamental music
Though deeply involved in this improvisation scene, to the extent of attending the first workshops in improvisation given by jazz drummer John Stevens, now late of this world but at the time one of the inventors of this method, my personal preference was to think in terms of decomposition, as in bodily decay, a vivid growth of yeast colonies, fungi, bacteria, rot and corrosion.
Thirty six years later, to be moving around in the digital domain, assembling fragments of performance from musicians, sound artists, phonographers, writers, artists, collected from various rooms, maybe not even rooms, then constructed to form a single ensemble in a room. This relationship is liquid, may be changed for any given circumstance, decomposed, have no finite form. The chair creaks, we can hear it, but no one is sitting there. Imagine this room, not quite a room that can be written, as in fiction, since this room is animate, has spatial dimension, and not quite the rooms of theatre, television, cinema, CCTV, or even the most immersive computer games, since this room doesn’t fix the gaze, nor does it possess the detail that words or images can convey. The sound within the room remains liquid, rather than solid. The feeling is of building a silent room devoid of physical presence, then filling the room with the sound of an ensemble of willing ghosts, the sound of many rooms within rooms, the sound of isolation.