Sunday, 10 November 2019

Thwarted and Unthwarted Histories: Sound archaeology, and a digression on a Neoist curator

This blog has a recurring theme of 'failed histories', i.e., forgotten stories that hang by the tiniest of threads discoverable only by meticulous scrounging.  Last week I gave a talk covering some of these - 'Thwarted Histories of Electronic Music' - at a salon in Copenhagen organised by The Institute for Danish Sound Archaeology / Institut for Dansk Lydarkaeologi as part of the Gong Tomorrow festival.  'Thwarted histories' was chosen as a title instead of 'failed histories' to provide increased melodrama; 'thwarted' suggests an antagonist...  some sort of external force that acts to condemn things to obscurity.  Maybe this force is traditionalism?  Or prejudice?  Or apathy?

Whatever the thwarting agency may be, the Institut for Dansk Lydarkaeologi (aka IDL) situate themselves in opposition to it.  IDL are dedicated to reviving the legacies of early sonic experimenters whose activities have been neglected (they'll be presenting their researches at Cafe Oto on the 28th November).  IDL's Copenhagen salon was held at the uppermost floor of Huset-KBH, a large old venue with the forthrightly-named 'Bastard Cafe' on the ground floor - the entire place exudes a cyberpunky warmth, or 'hygge'.  Tantalising Danish-language talks included composer Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen on his work with the Gruppen for Alternativ Musik, singer-songwriter Marie Eline Hansen performing fully-conceived reconstructions of obscure pieces originally by Lene Adler Petersen and Henning Christiansen.  Also, IDL's Jonas Olesen presented his intensive researches into acoustical engineer/therapist Christian A. Volf's electronic sound activities stretching back to the 1930s.  Chatting afterwards, Olesen described his excavations into uncharted archaeological strata - it reminded me that the most tenacious historians are often the ones working independently of academia.  Other IDL members Rasmus, Magnus, and Mikkel spoke on the current culture of reissuing rare, out-of-print material (IDL are also a label).

IDL also diffused the 1978 four-channel Bent Lorentzen work Visions (IDL are about to reissue his electronic works).  Bent Lorentzen is a Danish composer who would perhaps be better-known to the English-speaking musical world if only his promised book 'The New Music Theory' had appeared.  Until this salon, my only knowledge of Bent Lorentzen was of this unobtainable unicorn.  Lorentzen's nonexistent 'New Music Theory' is cited by British electronic composer Daphne Oram in her idiosyncratic 1972 work 'An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics' as dealing with "acoustics, electronics and the psychology of music" and, according to Oram, will "soon appear in English" published by J. & W. Chester Ltd.  Lorentzen's publication seems to have been 'thwarted' for unclear reasons.

Two other English-language talks at the IDL salon were illuminating regarding the dynamics of research/sound-archaeology and information dissemination: Felix Kubin gave a poignant, entertaining presentation on the perverseness of the cassette medium and Germany's cassette culture, developed under the spectre of cold war nuclear annihilation (as also detailed in Kubin's Chromdioxidgedächtnis CD+tape artefact on Gagarin Records), and earlier in the evening, following on from IDL's discussion on reissue culture, sound archivist Andrea Zarza Canova was interviewed by IDL's Jan Høgh Stricker about her Mana Records label she co-founded in 2017 (releasing both old and new works: Benedict Drew's abstract electronic protest music Crawling Through Tory Slime is a modern favourite).

Andrea Zarza Canova's descriptions of her early navigations in experimental music were refreshingly evocative.  She explained that several years ago, she'd regularly visit the online repository for avant-garde music, UbuWeb, where one user named 'Continuo' showcased offbeat and rare materials that resonated with her interests.  Over time, Zarza Canova struck up a correspondence with this uploader, who turned out to be a French collector, which led to the first Mana Records release: a reissue of Pierre Mariétan's rare 1987 urban soundscape composition Rose des vents.  The French collector assisted in establishing contact with the original composer, and so a vanished artefact was able to re-materialise as an artefact once again.

Collectors and archivists provide lifelines to imperilled musics on the brink of oblivion.  Zarza Canova's story gave me flashbacks of my pre-YouTube mp3-trading adventures in online IRC chatrooms, or file-sharing service Napster in the mid-2000s... and negotiating with certain users in possession of untold rarities.  This was a rite of passage for a certain generation.  I had often wondered who these esteemed users were - what were their stories?  How did they obtain these rare recordings?  I had the impression that they must've been associated with the artists, or possibly were the artists themselves.  They were loath to chat.  I remember one whose upload speed was only ~10kB per minute: a cause for much distress, since the user had the apparent entirety of cassette releases from It's War Boys - post-punk label I coveted.  "Patience" he urged me.

This blogpost is getting nostalgic.  To counteract this, I should present a present-day wonder: a digression on a collector/uploader operating today...  There is a YouTube user who curates one of the most extraordinary experimental audio collections available online: 'celestialrailroad', who began uploading in 2012.  Much of this channel's content makes the It's War Boys label look like Parlophone.  In 2017, celestialrailroad was almost derailed by the Arts Council-funded Lux organisation making heavy-handed copyright strikes against the channel, temporarily disabling all its content.  I intuited that after this near-calamity celestialrailroad reached even deeper underground towards more wayward things still.  The channel's breadth is extensive - there are It's War Boys relics of course, along with big name experimentalists such as Walter Marchetti, Bob Cobbing, Ian Breakwell, etc., but there are gobsmacking obscurities too; one-off slices of life such as found audio cassette journals, or recordings of aeroplane shows.  Whoever is behind celestialrailroad has a finely-tuned sense of what's what...  A sense of the 'pre-internet perverse' - a sort of authentic, jolting waywardness: off-grid activities somewhere between the definition of 'art' and 'a cause for concern', like something coming through your letterbox in the dead of night wrapped in tinfoil.  Sumptuous grit... (if this makes any sense).

As with the online IRC and Napster archivists of yore, I began to wonder about the character behind the collection.  In February 2018 celestialrailroad uploaded one of the taped phone calls of Captain Maurice Seddon (Royal Signals, retired) from The Seddon Tapes Volume I (on Paradigm Discs).  I'd worked on the audio segues on this LP with William English, the custodian of the Seddon archives (Seddon was the inventor of heated clothing).  English and I vaguely theorised that the head of Paradigm Discs, Clive Graham, could be celestialrailroad.  After talking to Graham at The Wire magazine's Xmas party in 2018, he denied this, but the plot thickened: he too was curious about the channel's mastermind and had been able to discover that it was run by somebody called Wirb Neug, who also had another YouTube channel of the same name, and a Facebook page.

This new information simply raised more questions.  Wirb Neug's Facebook revealed interests in spoken word and rare poetry ephemera, particularly Bob Cobbing's Writers Forum and its milieu, and also the work of provocative playwright Edward Bond.  Among this were status updates on things such as smells emitted by co-workers, photos of a clothes hanger, a re-posting of an old memory about being woken by the sound of a neighbour vomiting.  It was all fascinating.  Many references went over my head.  Further investigations seemed futile - Wirb Neug/celestialrailroad seems to be ensconced in the traditions of Neoism: exactnesses evaporate.  Mirages abound.  Poetry is everywhere.  The following oblique bundle of facts may illustrate the potential complexity: The Celestial Railroad is a modernist piano piece by Charles Ives, based on a short work of fiction by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which is itself presented as a dream, which constitutes a parody of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, which is, in turn, an allegory.  The channel takes its name from this.

I had pondered whether celestialrailroad could be more than one person, especially as there's one exchange on Wirb Neug's Instagram where a user assuming Wirb to be the creator of a post's content (a Graf Haufen/Karsten Rodemann nugget) receives a reply where Wirb claims to be "a young Croatian woman" living in Berlin.  This is plausible.  But one day, in May 2019, a live video was uploaded (quite uncharacteristic of celestialrailroad)...  It was a Cafe Oto gig with Akio Suzuki, Aki Onda and David Toop, where I just happened to be present.  I remember noticing the person filming, sitting directly opposite me at the other end of the room - and it was neither Graf Haufen nor a young woman, but a youngish man with glasses, probably in his 30s, which jarred with my imagined vision of celestialrailroad as being of an older generation (I believe there are generational boundaries inhibiting acquisition of certain rare materials for specific age-groups - this is observable somewhat in the antiquarian book world, but I digress).  Was this Wirb Neug?  The obsession was nearing an answer...

My Oscillatorial Binnage bandmate Toby Clarkson was in attendance at that Oto gig too, seated beside me.  I asked him to scrutinise all the photos he'd taken that evening, but alas, as an experimental photographer, his leftfield sensibilities compelled him to document only the floor of the venue.  The best photo he obtained merely shows Akio Suzuki's legs as he reaches into his box of soundmaking tools.  The photo is a few hundred pixels shy of capturing celestialrailroad's shoes at the upper right-hand corner.  See below:


Additional contemplation at this time leads to the conclusion that further evidence remains unknown and may remain so.

Appreciate the sonic rescuings of celestialrailroad and Wirb Neug on YouTube.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Excess all Areas - Explosives in Music (The Wire #427)

September's The Wire magazine is packed with essays on audio excess.  The issue is the thematic inverse of last year's Minimalism special (to which I contributed a short text on silence broadcast over the radio).  The opposite noisy extreme is explored this month, where I supply a piece looking at the history of explosives in music - titled 'Bomb Culture' - among many other eye/ear-opening contemplations on overwhelmingness.

This explosives+music history is compressed to bursting-point onto a single page.  One enjoyable example that didn't make the cut (deemed more fire-based than explosive-based) was Michel Moglia's 'L'Orgue a Feu'.  A whole book could be written on the subject...  Aside from everything mentioned in The Wire text, there were of course unintentional explosions in musical contexts too: dangerous blasts from mishandled limelight in Victorian music-halls, exploding magic lantern projectors, etc.  Also, of particular relevance to this Miraculous Agitations blog (where post-electronic soundmaking is the order of the day) are early 20th century pre-electronic endeavours to harness the power of explosive potential as an amplifying agent; pneumatic amplifier technologies (such as compressed air gramophones) powered by compressed air cylinders.

Very fleetingly, the rise of outdoor military quadrille bands in the mid-19th century is cited in The Wire piece (exploring the reasons for such bands' popularity at this time is another story).  It may appear that this aesthetic dogged all explosive+music alliances, most visibly in 1980s industrial music's camo-sporting, goose-stepping, theatrical edgelording (where explosives were often detonated indoors).  All this twitchy militarism may give the misleading impression that musical explosivity is an unhinged, particularly masculine quirk, but assumptions are always crying out to be unpicked...  Readers are advised to seek The Wire #427 to learn more...

Suffice to say, regular visitors to this blog know that I regularly excavate pre-electronic electro-musical culture.  Many of the late 19th century 'electrical music' performers happened to be fond of detonating small bombs via their electrical instruments - the effect was epitomised by Dot D'Alcorn's and Maud Irving's variety acts.  The bulk of my research on this, drawn from archives of rare materials, was self-published as 'The Magnetic Music of the Spiritual World' (bankrupting me in the process).  That 2015 paperback was intended as a sort of draft to hawk around publishers, and I had hoped - and still hope - that a publisher will take the opportunity engage me to get my original researches on their roster.  I trust it's not excessively vulgar to remind prospective publishers of this work, which is busting for wider aeration... otherwise I may explode from the pressure.

Read more in this month's The Wire #427 - 'Excess All Areas'

Sunday, 28 July 2019

A Postmodern Cut-Up Text from 1860: 'A Strange Composition' in The Brighton Examiner

Old volumes of The Brighton Examiner are held only by the British Library.  Most are 'restricted access' - their bindings are too fragile for readers to handle.  None are yet digitised.  Through persevering applications, I was recently able to view some 1860s volumes in person.  The newspaper of January 3rd 1860 happens to contain a startlingly postmodern emission, constituting a deliberately mangled text-palimpsest that seemed interesting enough to present here (see below).  But first, I should explain why I was leafing through this restricted newspaper in the first place...

An ongoing project of mine involves close-reading anonymous autobiographies to uncover authors' identities using search macros within digital archives.  Systematically inputting details - dates and places - into databases can triangulate identities in ways scarcely imaginable to those anonymous writers of old.  Sometimes however, progress is scuppered by brick walls: authors may deliberately fabricate biographical details, or, more problematically, the resources that may contain the necessary data might not even be digitised yet.

Roundabout Gossip (1862)
One difficult book beset by both these issues is 'Roundabout Gossip' (1862) published by J. F. Eyles in Brighton.  It contains 158 pages of barbed gossip, featuring thinly veiled references to literary figures, such as travel writer Lady Sydney Morgan, and proto-sociologist Harriet Martineau.  Its narrator calls himself/herself "Timothy Fitzwiggins" of the fictitious "Blackberry Park" in Gloucestershire.  Much like if Frederick Marryat decided to remain anonymous after publishing his fictitious 1829 first-person story 'Frank Mildmay', the red herrings amidst the rich detail leave future researchers lost at sea.  Searching with doubtful data yields only noise and confusion.

A more sensible person would give up at this point, but the book roused curiosity, so I continued digging around.  One possible way of shedding light upon the author of 'Roundabout Gossip' might be through investigating its curious publisher, John Frederick Eyles of 77 North Street, Brighton.  J. F. Eyles was a printer who also published The Brighton Examiner newspaper.  It appears to be the only newspaper in the world to have mentioned 'Roundabout Gossip', appraising it as "a most amusing and agreeable contribution to the light literature of the day".  In business since 1844, J. F. Eyles was suddenly declared bankrupt in July 1860.  'Roundabout Gossip' appeared in the summer of 1862, and though it's unlikely that Eyles wrote the book himself, it's plausible that one of his creditors devised it as a vanity project in lieu of payment (particularly as it was reported that Eyles had secured an amicable arrangement with his creditors in September 1860).

Cheap-paper Literature... (1861)
Throughout this troubled period, Eyles continued to publish The Brighton Examiner, but the only other recorded publication with Eyles' imprint from around this time is a 12-page pamphlet titled 'Cheap-paper Literature at the Hammer' (1861): an auction-room dialogue satirising modern literary trends.  I believe the 'Roundabout Gossip' author also wrote this anonymous pamphlet - some phrases are identical.  Both this pamphlet and 'Roundabout Gossip' are characterised by a grappling with modernity: the elderly author is cynical of mass-market literature, the rise of public lecturing, evolutionary theory, progressive religious "Neology", etc.  Both publications actually hover in a satirisation feedback loop, not least because they are both themselves products of modern media (for the 1860s).  'Cheap-paper Literature...' is published on cheap paper.

No libraries hold 'Roundabout Gossip'.  The British Library is the only institution holding both 'Cheap-paper Literature at the Hammer' and copies of The Brighton Examiner (which began circulation in 1853).  For the past year, I've been pestering the library and the British Newspaper Archive to digitise the 1860s issues of The Brighton Examiner.  A special request to view the physical volumes was generously granted by the library a few months ago.  I had hoped that by looking at them, familiar Gossipy phrases might leap out the page, or recurring names might provide a lead, but the mystery of 'Roundabout Gossip' was not solved.

Physically searching newspapers reveals unexpected things.  With modernity in mind, and by way of stressing the interestingness of The Brighton Examiner, I present this highly unusual column that caught the eye: the first issue of 1860 contains a text described tongue-in-cheekly as a tipsy New Year's Eve reveller's "wild bit of writing" found on the pavement "in a wet and dirty condition" on the morning of New Years Day.  It is actually a string of garbled adverts and news items from previous issues - it prefigures the 'cheap paper literature' cut-ups of the next century.

Journalistic Jumbles (1884)
This is not the earliest pre-postmodern anachronism - E.T.A Hoffmann's 1820 satirical novel 'The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr' is often cited in this respect (in which two autobiographies are supposedly merged by accident) - but this Brighton Examiner editorial nugget is a curio, and certainly of a more artistic, laboured origin than examples in the typo-celebrating 'Journalistic Jumbles, or Trippings in Type' of 1884 (which it reminded me of).  The Brighton Examiner's 'Strange Composition' column reads thus:


A STRANGE COMPOSITION

The following wild bit of writing is said to have formed part of the contents of a bundle of papers picked up on the pave, on Tuesday last, in a wet and dirty condition, by an early matutinal stroller.  The writer, whoever he may be, had rather evidently been "dining out," which, as Monday was a holiday, may to a certain extent be excusable, and hence apparently the general obscurity as to meaning or intention which pervades the composition.  The intelligent reader is invited to make what he can out of it, and so no more of preface.

- Good dinner - Nice wine - read Brighton Examiner - write to the Editor - second bottle - on Monday the powder mills at Hounslow blew up - being St. Patrick's day - Lord Palmerston enquired - if you really want pure gin - aged 76, married to a young girl of 18 - Holloway's pills - gratis to sufferers - Benson's watches - pains in the back - deposit and discount bank - a quantity of new sovereigns were issued at - five shillings a bushel to the poor - selling off at cost price - a railway truck accident - was convicted for keeping a disorderly house - mayor and principal resident gentry took - Kaye's Worsdell's pills - Thorley's food for cattle - committed for trial - Abraham's 16s 6d trousers - a saving of 7d to 1s per pound - to the great joy of the noble family - extra Christmas Holiday - now lying at the London Docks, copper-bottomed - Soup for the Poor - the Borough Improvement Bill - last seen in company with - Mary, alias Moll Hacket, alias Black Moll - Mr Nye Chart played the part to perfection, in fact - Reuben Cherriman, the Dentist - J. F. Eyles, General Printer - Allano, the Clown - Canterbury Hall - Absalom Dell - Maynard's Cough Lozenges - will keep good for 10 years, even in the Indies - try a box of - Garlick's best Wall's End - Can produce a good character from his last place - Dr. King's Liver Pills - Rents! Rents!! Rents!!! - Mr L. Christian - An Act of Deep Gratitude, given away, 2,000 - no use to any one but the owner - The Brighton Sauce - N.B. be careful to have the right sort - Brighton Rifle Corps - Sudden Death - Lewes Cattle Show - Two Grand Concerts - taken up for defrauding a Countryman at hussel-cap - A. Bigge - the Mayor - J. Allfree - Assault and Robbery - Drunken Attempt at Suicide - Parish of Brighton - removed to Bath for the benefit of the air - afterwards tossed and gored several persons - A Bull in a China Shop - made a Freemason at the Grand Lodge - Mr Saunders (Blacksmith's Alms), Mr R. Cherriman - Mr Burn, jun., Mr Measor - Mr Willard - and several other highly respectable inhabitants - Remember the Poor at Christmas - A fine turtle, weighing the - creditors of Mary Jones - to be sold to the highest bidder - warranted sound wind and limb - Mr Nye Chart's Christmas Pantomime - An agreeable Young Lady with a fortune of £10,000 - fell down in St. Gile's - a total wreck, but her crew saved - The Pope's Bull - Mr Dewar - Mr R. Marston - Mr Wilson - Mr English - Mr Wheeler - universally respected - roast goose - pork chops - potatoes and greens - mild ale - gin and cloves - Dublin stout - rum and milk - cod liver oil, - Tamplin's mild - Catt's old - Parsons' good chap - out and out Cavendish - none are genuine but such as have - Brighton Examiner - evening concluded with the utmost festivity - jolly companions - won't go home till morning - now number 999 - move on - George Wight - all right - not tight - not a bit - no - no - - report - you - in - the - morn - ing - - bed quite wet - candle top of the gas light - I - sa - y - - - -.

[The remaining portion, occupying 20 sheets of large-sized letter paper, quite unintelligible at present, but when dry, we may be enabled to make out some more.]

Adverts in The Brighton Examiner, 1860, published by J. F. Eyles