Sunday 16 February 2020

Joris Van de Moortel's 'A Dubious Pilgrimage', The Wire magazine as a raw material, and a Victorian chemist

Joris Van de Moortel is a Belgian artist whose work is defined by deconstructing the definitions of music and musical instruments.  This deconstruction frequently involves literal wreckage - electric guitars and amps receive special attention.  In the hands of Van de Moortel, these despoliations not mere acts of gratuitousness, a la The Who, Hendrix, et al, but they are ritualised processes to create something afresh from the chaotic debris.  He once stated that after an event, he'd sometimes "bulldoze over the work to then recycle the rubble into new works" - the name Van de Moortel, incidentally, translates as 'cement'.  Whether bulldozers are available or not, physical and conceptual chunks of aggregate from old works often appear in the mortar and masonry of new installations, montage-like.  With his love of sonic frenzy, he was drawn to a recent issue of The Wire magazine themed around musical excess to which I'd contributed a short history of explosives in music.  Van de Moortel made contact with me in August 2019, and engaged me to write a special essay for him, which is now published: "Van de Moortel's Goception in the Mess: Byways in the History of Noise's Ongoing Transmutation into Music" appears in his new artists book 'A Dubious Pilgrimage', published by Hopper and Fuchs in association with Galerie Nathalie Obadia.  More on that shortly (particularly the word 'goception' - which is a made-up word)...

Close-up detail
Joris Van de Moortel's 'Bomb Culture' (2019)
Interestingly, The Wire - a monthly experimental music-focused magazine - is utilised by Van de Moortel as "a note-gathering source, which also becomes a personal jotting pad to pool ideas together".  The Wire's issue #427 on 'excess' inspired Van de Moortel to produce a series of works based on its various essays.  With a nod to the seven sacraments in Catholicism, seven essays were selected from the issue (including my piece, 'Bomb Culture', Tim Rutherford-Johnson's 'High Emission Zone', Alexander Hawkins' 'Written in the Stars', Simon Reynolds' 'Flash of the Axe', Spenser Thomson's 'Crude Awakenings', Greg Tate's 'Clones of Dr. Funkenstein', and David Toop's 'The Sweet Science'), and large scale mixed-media artworks were produced, retaining the essays' original titles.  Closer inspection of these pieces reveals small distressed snippets from the Wire texts pasted within!  Writers, especially in music journalism, seldom consider what their copy might ultimately catalyse when in print form. This thought-provoking transformation of the magazine's texts made me wonder about any precedents where The Wire might've been creatively reworked and personalised in a similar way... Do you know of any, reader?  Rare as it seems, there's one other instance I'm aware of...

Collage featuring The Wire text from Allen Fisher's 'SPUTTOR' (2014)

In 2014, the poet Allen Fisher published an art-poetry book titled 'SPUTTOR', containing pasted-in and cut-up texts.  It began as a modified copy of a 1986 book called 'Space Shuttle Story' (all letters other than SP-UTT-OR excised from the cover) by Andrew Wilson (no relation to me).  Allen Fisher had included some lines from my Wire magazine feature on Daphne Oram - 'The Woman from New Atlantis' - from the August 2011 issue.  It's fascinating to find two texts I've supplied for the same magazine ending up as raw material in distinctly different works: Van de Moortel's and Fisher's.  I don't actually write for The Wire very often, so maybe The Wire is funnelled into artwork more often than we might expect?  This also summoned thoughts on whether this is indicative of a specific sensibility that The Wire attracts or fosters.

I've also cut-up a Wire issue or two.  Back in 2001 I was anonymously leaving cassettes of homemade, challenging music in public for random people to find.  MC Schmidt from the duo Matmos was interviewed in The Wire's April 2001 issue, and I'd cut out a quote that'd taken my juvenile mind's fancy: "We couldn't have been more pleased than to have gotten a job making music for gay fisting videos and then talking about it".  I cut out this memorable quote for a palimpsest of juxtaposed matter, photocopied for the cassette's paper sleeve.  In more recent years, the cassette diarist and improviser Adam Bohman sent me one of his personalised diary tapes bearing a collaged cover, and although he'd used a Biro-overlaid baked bean tin label(?) on that occasion, it wouldn't surprise me if Bohman used The Wire as collage material too.  I vaguely remember Bohman's Secluded Bronte bandmate, Richard Thomas (who now contributes to the magazine, on-off) once had some unidentified origami folded from Wire pages prettifying his desk at Resonance FM's old Denmark Street HQ... but it was difficult to tell whether it was a significant objet d'art or not - those were messier times.  I also suspect musical anarchist Xentos 'Fray' Bentos aka Jim Whelton has done something queasily irreverent with The Wire at some point (an artist fond of dressing up as Kaffe Matthews to confusing effect).

J. Carrington Sellars' 'Chemistianity' (1873)
To bring this digression to a close, I should return to the made-up word 'goception'.  The word is a clumsy hybrid of the old English "go" and the Latin 'praecipio' ('to command') and signifies a form of chemical reaction, much like the moment when, say, Van de Moortel scrutinises, annotates and cuts-up a physical copy of The Wire - something is catalysed - something is 'gocepted'.  Goception is a word used by an eccentric chemist named John Carrington Sellars in 1873.  Sellars invented it because he was apparently desperate to achieve poetic flow in his oratorial poem 'Chemistianity' published that year.  I found the obscure book in 2013 during my (ongoing) research into electro-musical performer Johann Baptist Schalkenbach, whom Sellars mentions in a key passage on chemistry's role in producing new sounds.  In 'A Dubious Pilgrimage', I examine Sellars' ideas in relation to Joris Van de Moortel's work at the boundary of music and noise, since Sellars, I believe, thoughtfully illustrates the music/noise relationship long before musical modernism.  This is even hinted at too in Sellars' poetic technique: in the preface, Sellars revealed that after contacting a language professor to enquire about the rules of verse, he received the reply: "it is more a matter of ear than of law", and thus Sellars wrote his verses "from sound", with "lines measured according to sound", leading to new words like "goception", and so utterances once dismissible as noise thereby become formalised (in theory).  More on this can be read in the new publication...  To give one final nugget of curiosity, Sellars was best-known at the time for his Patent Cement, synchronicitously tallying up with Van de Moortel's cementitious namesake.

"Van de Moortel's Goception in the Mess: Byways in the History of Noise's Ongoing Transmutation into Music", appears as a chapter in his new fully-illustrated artist's book 'A Dubious Pilgrimage', published by Hopper and Fuchs / Galerie Nathalie Obadia.

Monday 10 February 2020

'Is anyone out there?' - Making stuff in the 21st century, and getting people to notice

Worms Making Music, YouTube, 2007
Is it me, or is everything becoming impossible?  Is anyone out there?  My previous blogpost was a dumped rejected article I'd been touting around without avail for ages.  There are countless other laboured-upon projects similarly languishing for want of outlets.  In contrast, 13 years ago I dropped a garden worm onto sensitised soundmaking circuit-board, and the throwaway 90-second clip I'd filmed somehow attained a viral moment on YouTube (albeit to mixed reception).  It all seemed so easy in those days.  Since then, algorithms have come into play, along with the downplaying of free blogging sites like the one I'm using here (e.g. Wiki forbids blogs as sources), and the jaws of obscurity loom larger.  Now I am that worm, writhing for contact-points.  The dynamics behind these struggles fascinate me, hence the long-running studies into thwarted and failed histories I've written about extensively.  But how do you deal with such asphyxia first-hand?  A new Meadow House LP was on the cards this year, but this is now abandoned owing to the label's vanished appetite following atrocious sales of the previous Meadow House LPs of 2016.  To try to publicise those 2016 LPs I'd naively tried to reignite the interest of television's Jason Bradbury (ex-The Gadget Show) who'd once taken notice of my "divergent presentational style" as he flatteringly termed it, but who, in my moment of desperation, dodged even a sniff of the LPs.  I always thought they were quite commercial undertakings, but apparently not.  The 2016 releases remain available to purchase.

Rejected Meadow House LP
Admittedly, the latest rejected Meadow House LP is uncommercial: it's an unpleasant record thanks to the rejection feedback loop...  Successive discouragements and impoverishments eventually disoblige all concessions to 'entertain'.  Incidentally, the writer Colin Wilson theorised that criminality eventually arises from scuppered and gnarled creative impulses.  This seems plausible: if nobody listens, you have to shout, or, in worse cases, bite.  The abandoned 2020 album was given the upsetting title 'Incel Uproariousness', and some criminally disagreeable tracks have leaked out on Johnny Seven's Pull The Plug show on Resonance FM, 16th January 2020.

Anyway... To stave off Colin Wilson's potentially criminous endgames, we would do well to take an active interest in the work of others.  Web algorithms can imprison us in ever-individuating bubbles - to escape, we must broaden.  This would seem the primary solution to the increasing "impossibleness" cited above.  I recently appeared in the background on two instalments of William English's weekly Wavelength show on Resonance FM, showcasing the talents of two very different guests: on the 24th January, the instrument-builder and audiovisual artist Ian Helliwell guested, and the following week, on the 31st, the sound artist and songwriter Samuel Shelton Robinson aka Kalou dropped by.  Despite their contrasting styles, both guests touched upon the dilemmas arising from dwindling oxygen.  Is exposure becoming harder to obtain?  Even Wavelength's host, film-maker William English, took a moment to lament his own omission from a supposedly academic new book entitled 'Artists' Moving Image in Britain Since 1989', whilst also playfully provoking Helliwell that even he too is absented from it - an especially startling oversight given Helliwell's prolific and original output.  Maybe this is evidence of the extent that self-enclosed feedback bubbles have compromised academia.

To return to the Wavelength broadcasts...  It's uncertain whether there would be much overlap between Helliwell's and Robinson's audiences, such are their sonic differences.  But in an ideal world, there would be overlap.  To hasten the emergence of this ideal world I was in attendance at both Kalou's and Ian Helliwell's interviews, as I'd contributed tracks to both their releases.  In a songy frame-of-mind, I remixed the track 'Floundering' on Kalou's cassette-orientated album 'The Sculpture Garden'.  And in abstracter pastures, on Helliwell's 'Project Symbiosis' I contributed one of ten realisations of an obscure electronic graphic score.

Ian Helliwell's 'Project Symbiosis' (2020)
Helliwell authored the landmark 2016 book 'Tape Leaders: A Compendium of Early British Electronic Music Composers'.  During his research, he uncovered instructive articles in the popular magazine Practical Electronics encouraging readers to follow a how-to guide to build an analog synthesiser (i.e. the Minisonic) and realise an abstract electronic score on the instrument.  The score was Malcolm Pointon's 'Symbiosis' (1975).  This discovery led Helliwell to formulate 'Project Symbiosis'.  The story of project can be read in the richly illustrated supplementary booklet accompanying the physical release.  'Project Symbiosis' features ten tracks by different contributors, including Helliwell, all realising the same graphic score (republished on the inside cover) - Pointon's original recording is included too.  Each version reveals the contributor's own interpretive idiosyncrasies and studio quirks.

The 'Lynne Maddy' 1970 instrument
Some years ago, at a car boot sale, I found a peculiar homemade electronic instrument which I later showed to Helliwell.  An engraved plaque on it read "Lynne Maddy 1970".  A drawer at the front contained a paper note: "for bubbly sounds use spoon".  I've never been able to trace Lynne Maddy, despite the unusual name.  Helliwell suggested that my own Symbiosis interpretation should feature Maddy's instrument, but I originally wanted to create a 'post-electronic' version using my electromagnetic resonating devices.  It was reasoned that this would've detracted too far from the electronic basis of the project, and besides, the Maddy instrument boasted a Stylophone-like stylus-contact interface similar to the Minisonic (which was the instrument conceived by 'Practical Electronics' magazine to realise the score) - it was ideal.  Because the Maddy instrument behaved erratically (and its interior caked in crystallised old Exide batteries), I'd given it to my friend Moshi Honen to service.  Post-servicing, it revealed itself to be microtonal, and no amount of tinkering with the trim-pots seemed to spread a standard scale.  Its microtonality doesn't really come across in the 'Symbiosis' recording, but in conjunction with other homemade and customised gubbins, I produced an electronic microtonal version of 'Symbiosis', nominally in 7-limit just intonation during the middle melodic passage.  I suspect the Maddy instrument was a circuit design published by a magazine just like 'Practical Electronics', à la Minisonic (albeit simpler), but further research is needed... maybe for another blogpost (if anyone cares?).

Recording 'Symbiosis' for Helliwell's project
Kalou's The Sculpture Garden
The following week on Wavelength, after Helliwell's 'Project Symbiosis' show, there was a surprisingly different offering: the new album by Samuel Shelton Robinson, aka Kalou, was featured.  Under discussion was the scenario Robinson termed "making music when seemingly no one's really listening".  Curiously, the latest Kalou emission - 'The Sculpture Garden' - is his most consistently commercial to date; its accessibly musical eclectic pop songcraft could feasibly please vast numbers of ears (and hearts - emotional cathartics are at play here).  It's available as a download, but its tiny cassette run of 50 hints at a residual experimentalism.  The idea of the 'song' as a conflict between commercial product and personal emotional uprush is one furtive theme semi-visible on the artistic pedestal (a booklet of lyrics is included).

One of Kalou's philosophies is presented within the album's centrepiece 'Reverence is Dead (Good Riddance)', forming an almost programmatic depiction of the "ego", represented by a decidedly imperious riff undergoing an unsustainable rush, which soon crashes in a grand "death of reverence".  From the postmodern wreckage emerges, as Robinson puts it, "an honour system based on merit".  This is surely the answer to everything?!  (Its message of abolishing all deference to revered 'influencers' makes my aforementioned overtures to The Gadget Show presenter look terribly old-fashioned, nay, wrong-headed.)

Out now: Kalou's 'The Sculpture Garden' is available on the Kalou Bandcamp...
... and Ian Helliwell's 'Project Symbiosis' is available via Public Information's Bandcamp...
Wavelength is a weekly radio show on Resonance 104.4FM hosted by William English, Fridays, 14:30-15:30.