Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Comparing National Arts Budgets

An article on Turbulence compared arts funding in the USA and UK in order to point out how pathetic the situation is in the land of the free. This got me thinking... what if you include two countries I have personal experience with: Canada and Ireland?

So I quickly looked up these annual budgets, converted all four to euros, and divided by the population. The results are quite an eye-opener.
Sunday, October 28, 2007

Best Ever USB Audio Interface

I was recently looking for a decent USB 2 audio interface that my partner could use with her laptop for recording vocals and piano. She needed it to be bus-powered for portability, but to offer proper phantom power for a condenser microphone. MIDI I/O to interface with our digital piano was a must, and a second input to record an instrument was also required. On top of this, I was thinking that if it had two independent stereo outputs I could use it for DJ gigs as well, instead of hauling around my FireFace 400 with power supply.

Extensive research led me back to this very website. Yes, it turns out that I had already found the perfect device back in August of last year. There's nothing quite like Googling for your own web page to get your head spinning!
Thursday, October 25, 2007

Framemakers Tonight

I've been too busy working on Framemakers activities with Steve Valk of RICE to actually tell you that the next presentation is tonight, 8pm in Daghdha Space, John's Square, Limerick. Entitled Quantum Physics And New Theories Of Social Relations, this lecture-performance incorporates a seminar by Alexis Clancy, dance by Angie Smalis and Knot, a multimedia meditation on Clancy's radical new ideas.

Since graduating from the National University of Galway with a BA in Mathematics and Mathematical Physics, Alexis Clancy has been exploring correlations between Fermat's Last Theorem and Möbius topologies. His insights dig deep into human creativity and other profound areas.

As Michael Klien's major choreographic work of 2007 "Field Studies: Excavations of Mind and Nature" takes the form of twenty-two interrelated choreographic studies dispersed throughout the year. As an exercise in "intimate world building" Field Studies is a subtle and creative enquiry into the field of mental patterns and their lived and interconnected relationship with the fabric of irreducible, unfathomable complexity in nature.

Knot is a self-initiated project that explores the potential of collaboration and experimentation in a creative context. The project is made up of four individuals, Alexis Clancy (theory), Mark Carberry (dance), Natalie Coleman (costume) and Tom Foley (animation), who have come together through concept, theory and dialogue to investigate the nature of experience within the Möbius structure of time and space.

Framemakers –- Choreography as an Aesthetics of Change is an ongoing series of projects inquiring into a world understood in terms of relations, order and ecologies. Framemakers poses the question of how we can move things in an ever-changing and deeply interconnected world, how we can imaginatively order and re-order aspects of our personal, social, cultural and political lives.
Sunday, October 21, 2007

Musings On "The Happening"

In a few weeks I'll be taking part in a lecture-performance organised by dramaturge Steve Valk. This is part of his RICE initiative, which sometimes stands for Radical Institute of Cybernetic Epistemology and sometimes maybe Reality-Informed Catalytic Events. One of the starting points for this particular event is the idea of "the happening". Here I'd like to explore that concept in a personal way that also touches on important historical facts and winds through various areas of passionate interest.

For many years in Canada I contributed to a loose collective known as the Bum Band. The reference was to a hobo and not a part of the anatomy, though the confusion was deliberate. And "band" meant not just a musical grouping but also a "band of brothers" -- sisters too! The Bum Band engaged in music, comedy, theatre, performance art, radio... whatever. I think only once were we hassled by the police, but that too came with the territory.

(I am in part reminded of this because one of the "leading lights" of the bum band, Jeff Culbert, is visiting in Ireland. He is a director, actor, and musician, besides being a sometime politician, teacher, writer, radio producer and playwrite. He hopes to perform at least some of these roles while in this country. I hope he won't mind me mentioning this in public.)

At the time I was "inspired" by the Fluxus movement, a word we must remember means "to flow". The most famous proponent of this in the popular imagination would be Yoko Ono. An antecedent would be Marcel Duchamp (a touchstone for me). I participated in a major exhibition honouring Duchamp, the only time in London, Ontario that the university gallery, city art gallery and parallel (eg: independent) gallery worked together. Integration!

Fluxus (born 1962, named by architect and designer George Maciunas) was all about making art with whatever was at hand, that is, Do It Yourself. It incorporated humour, simplicity and new combinations of media ("intermedia"). Joseph Beuys was one member of this loose group, but it was notable for having a high number of female participants. However, the origins of Fluxus lie with John Cage's experimentations with simple recipes as scores, which began in the 1950s. This is particularly relevant to my own practice as a sound artist.

The DIY attitude was taken up by the punk and post-punk musicians of England, Germany and elsewhere following on 1976. Though punk was a standard reversioning of rock, what it allowed to break free created the most fertile period popular music has yet seen. Post-punk music eschewed musicianship, broke genre conventions, challenged patriarchal assumptions, and so on. But most importantly, post-punk shattered the commercial structures which bound pop to society. Independent production and distribution of records began, a praxis that has culminated in the free distribution of music via the internet. Capitalism shudders.

The Sex Pistols and those that followed were extremely disruptive to English society, in a way that is perhaps difficult to comprehend today (30 years on). Major outcries in the media and public called for their death, figuratively and literally. On television a London councilor said "The Sex Pistols would be vastly improved by sudden death. I would like to see someone dig a huge hole and bury the lot of them in it".

Greil Marcus has written on this movement with poetry and astute vision. His book Lipstick Traces locates punk on a direct historic line from the situationists, who explicitly influenced Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and record sleeve designer Jamie Reid, an anarchist who ran a radical political magazine.

The Situationist International (SI), started in 1957, was a grouping of several different, small, extreme arts groups throughout Europe, but has been most closely associated with the writings of Guy Debord. It was the spiritual successor to Dada and some of the surrealist ideals.

The original definitions that underpinned the movement are important for their emphasis on action and disregard for schools of thought. Thankfully the active web presence of the SI makes referencing these easy. The following are from "Internationale Situationniste" #1 (June 1958).

"Situationist: Relating to the theory or practical activity of constructing situations. One who engages in the construction of situations."

"Situationism: A meaningless term improperly derived from the above. There is no such thing as situationism, which would mean a doctrine for interpreting existing conditions."

"Constructed situation: A moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events."

"Psychogeography: The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment (whether consciously organized or not) on the emotions and behavior of individuals."

It should be emphasised that the SI was revolutionary, and in that respect perhaps too encumbered with the trappings of politics.

The pivotal moment at which the SI broke out into the "real world" was the series of events now grouped under the rubric "May '68". Starting as a student protest some time before that famous month, it is dated from the time the university of Nanterre was shut down by authorities, triggering further reaction and the occupation of the Sorbonne. This remarkable social catalyst ended with the general strike of 10 million workers (the majority of the French workforce at the time).

Some of the famous May '68 graffiti:

"Live without dead time."

"Be young and shut up!"

"Be realistic - demand the impossible!"

"Beneath the paving stones - the beach!"

"Read less, live more."

"Poetry is in the street."

The term "happening" was coined by Allan Kaprow, a painter by trade, in 1957. He created over 200 of these events before moving towards "Activities", more intimate pieces nearly indistinguishable from ordinary life. These illustrated his philosophy: "The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible."

But once again we find Kaprow's teacher, John Cage, at the genesis of this movement. His "Theater Piece No. 1" (1952) involved simultaneous activities of the participants throughout the audience: Charles Olsen and M. C. Richards reading poetry, Robert Rauschenberg hanging white paintings and playing old wax cylinders, David Tudor on prepared piano, Merce Cunningham dancing (followed by a dog) and Cage lecturing on Zen.

I'll end this contemplation with a quote from Yoko Ono, whom I wrote about recently in my appreciation of the album Life with the Lions.

"All of my work in fields other than music have an Event bent... event, to me, is not an assimilation of all the other arts as Happening seems to be, but an extrication from various sensory perceptions. It is not a get togetherness as most Happenings are, but a dealing with oneself. Also it has no script as Happenings do, though it has something that starts it moving -- the closest word for it may be a wish or hope. After unblocking one's mind, by dispensing with visual, auditory and kinetic perception, what will come out of us? Would there be anything? I wonder. And my events are mostly spent in wonderment."

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Cuisle Poetry Slam

Today The Cuisle International Poetry Festival began its final day with a lovely presentation of awards to young people who had taken the time and found the heart to write some amazing verse. Then followed throughout the day readings by fine poets, a spirited debate and the launch of Knute Skinner's Fifty Years: Poems 1957-2007.

After all this was the annual poetry slam. I came well prepared with pen and a blank sheet of paper, and two minutes before I was to read set one to the other and wrote my entry. Yes, there is something of the firebrand in me yet!

Here it is with only slight changes.

Poetry Reading
I know why you are here.

I know you have a rat in your head,
a rodent with teeth sharpened on bone
that eats out the marrow of your skull.

This rat's naked tail
tickles at the root of sensation,
creating that itch you cannot scratch
unless you were to escavate your own nerves
from pink flesh,
white spaghettis of feeling
lying limp in fluorescent light.

I know why you are here.

I know the rat will not sleep.

This rat named silence.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cuisle Poetry Festival Continues

The Cuisle International Poetry Festival is well under way in Limerick, with the usual (or should I say "unusual") combination of local-grown talent and phenomenal wordsmiths from around the world. Last night Roman Simic and Ivica Prtenjaca, both award-winning young Croatian poets, discussed the state of the art in their country. Prtenjaca read five poems in his own language, with translation read by local heavy-weight Ciaran O'Driscoll.

This was fascinating stuff, full of surprise allusive twists. I definitely want to be hearing / reading more, and hope we can get some English translations of Prtenjaca's four books.

Tonight the Belltable will see the launch of the Stony Thursday annual anthology, founded back in 1975 and edited by John Liddy. Yours truly has a poem in the volume and will read from the book if so called. See you there at seven!
Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day: The Environment

This will be a personal ramble for Blog Action Day.

Writing about environment on the web... there is something deeply contradictory about that. Silicon made from melted sand and circuit boards etched with noxious chemicals -- computers have a long way to go before they are "friendly" in that sense. Large-scale manufacturing. Displaced labour. Global capitol. None of these exactly screams "sustainability".

Maybe that's why I worked with the Green Party for a few years, back when I lived in Canada. I gave politics a shot but found I wasn't suited to the rigours of dealing head-on with systems of oppression. So I decided to work a different way and, yes, this blog has an important part to play in that praxis.

Of course there is an up-side to this internet thing. I've been around long enough to see it grow from the idealism of Ted Nelson into a reality for grass-roots organisations, governments, and even mega-corporations. Along the way an awful lot of good has been preserved and even extended. Open Source software, vast communities of citizens working, playing and politicking. There's massive media consumption (games industry outgrew the movie industry some years ago) but also the opportunity to create and be part of something -- options like never before.

It's fifteen years since I helped write The Electronic Labyrinth, one of the first places on the web that you could read about Nelson and other pioneers (Douglas Engelbart, Vannevar Bush). Though dated, I'm proud of the work the three of us did on this document, originally available on disk because the web didn't exist yet!

But now there are people alive who have never known a world without its wide web. I live with one. Their environment is very different from mine growing up, and there is no way we can foresee what their future will be.

That's boring anyway. I stopped being interested in futurism (in that sense) a long time ago. I think J.G. Ballard put the nail in that coffin with his stories of the skeletons of astronauts circling the earth until their orbits decay, plummeting them back to a Cape Canaveral overgrown with vines and swept with sand. Stamped on the side of the disused gantry: "Abandon In Place".

Some still think we'll get to other planets; Star Trek embodied Utopian dreams for so many. Alan N. Shapiro has written on this with perceptive intelligence, as I have mentioned elsewhere. But my take is that we don't deserve to spoil another planet. I am aware of the traps of teleology but am also interested in preserving myself, my family, my community. I think that comes from being moral.

From the perspective of my own practice as a sound artist, environment means something quite different: a physical space, a sculptural volume, an architectonic constraint. This is the environment we can deal with corporally. When I create sound it goes in your ear, rattles your bones, vibrates your skin. Sound is immediate; it's strangely unmediated for a media.

Last Friday Jürgen Simpson and myself curated another Soundings event... a live sound art night for Limerick. Even with little promotion we had sixty people show up. That was about as many as we could easily accommodate, so -- success! It's great to be in the twenty-first century, a time when people actually care about things like sound art, especially when all around is a super-abundance of visual media fighting for attention.

We listened to "La Légende d'Eer" by Iannis Xenakis, which is decades old but sounds like it comes from the future of another planet. Actually, in a sense it does, since it comes from the imagined future of this planet, circa 1977.

I think that's what sound can do... bring those Utopian futures home and ground them in a present-day reality, provide an alternative to daydreams, let people play with ideas, and help free them from the constraints of corporate media culture (which is predominantly visual).

Ironic then, that the last thing I want to mention is a little slideshow I put together from some realtime audio programming code and a photo of a rock formation on the Irish coast an hour south of here. I am not sure why I did this or what it has to do with anything.

Maybe you should download some of the free tracks I have available at the escalation746 site. Listen to them as you watch.
Friday, October 12, 2007

The Most Important Record You've Never Heard: Life with the Lions

In the year between November 1968 and October 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released three albums of avant-garde sound art onto an unsuspecting world. It is not difficult to imagine the shocked reactions of Beatles fans looking for something along the lines of "Glass Onion"; all one has to do is go to Amazon and see the same open-mouthed dismay forty years on. But in all this reactionary fervor few have decided to actually listen to the albums, an oversight I will partially remedy in this article.

On 11 November 1968 Ono and Lennon released Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, famous for its full-frontal nude photo of the couple. On 20 October 1969 they book-ended the trilogy with Wedding Album, which came with a slice of wedding cake (or at least a photo facsimile) and a copy of their marriage certificate.

It is for these artifacts rather than the content that the records are best known. Certainly it's easier to argue about a cover photo than it is to apprehend the experiments in musique concrète, recitation and atonal music that fill these vinyl sides.

But it is the centrepiece of this trilogy, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions, released 9 May 1969, that I wish to examine. Because it's a fantastic overlooked treasure that transcends its kin.

Side two starts with "No Bed For Beatle John" in which Yoko sings "EMI, the world's biggest recording company..." to hilarious effect. This Gregorian chanting of news items about the couple is funny, but also chilling (when one considers the panopticon in which they lived) and touching. John's voice is quiet throughout, but becomes foregrounded at the end of the piece, as he recites a clip regarding his divorce proceedings with Cynthia Lennon. The musical reference to liturgical procedures is thus doubly appropriate.

I do not know if Yoko and John planned on releasing these recordings before she miscarried. But a five-minute section of "Baby's Heartbeat" is not morbid, but rather a warm and fuzzy reminder of life, as is the "Two Minutes Silence" which follows. I think it a misinterpretation to see this as simply a memorial. Cage's famous piece on which it is partially based is a celebration of the life that exists without a score to keep it going. Though this counterpart loses substantial meaning played from CD, on vinyl the clicks and scratches it accumulates from repeat listens brings it to life. Much like the bumps and bruises a child gains as it grows up shapes who it will be.

"Radio Play" is a radiophonic play on words, for it is both a rhythmic playing with the radio and a snapshot of their domestic drama: discussions in the background, John making prosaic phone calls. And though they think they are in a play, they are anyway, as the constant press attention referenced in "No Bed For Beatle John" attests.

For an ex-Beatle the importance of the radio cannot be over-estimated, and the fact that snippets of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" make their way into the proceedings is not a self-referential twinge of the artists, but a solipsistic gesture on the part of the world itself. No wonder John wanted to turn the radio off. And then on again. And then off. It was one way of controlling the super-saturated media world in which he lived. Now that we have all become the centre of our own media spectacle (I am publishing this on a blog, right?) his gesture has become ever-more relevant, one possible way to contend with the third order of simulacra.

It should not pass unmentioned that these tracks were recorded, not in a studio, but on cassette tape over a three-week period at Queen Charlotte Hospital, London. The cover pictures John on the floor beside Yoko in bed. The presentation and content are entirely consistent: this is a documentary.

I have purposefully addressed the flip-side first. Given that the first side is more overtly "musical" (there are instruments) some might see the experiments relegated to the b-side as filler. Listening to them first makes clear that they are rather the foundation for "Cambridge 1969". (Besides, they came first chronologically.)

This live performance at Lady Mitchell Hall, Cambridge is astounding. Yoko starts first with an undulating microtonal meander, very intense and thin in the recording (as a sound engineer I feel sympathy for the microphone!). Lennon's guitar feedback manages to create it's own pulse out of disparate drone notes, and also plays in and out of the tones Yoko is singing. Before the twenty-six minutes is over they are joined by saxophonist John Tchicai (who played on John Coltrane's Ascension) and percussionist John Stevens (who recently had played with Evan Parker).

This is riveting stuff, the template for any number of sonic experimenters since. In fact this piece exists on an axis from free jazz through the krautrock brigade to Can, post-punk, Sonic Youth and right back to Japanese noise artists. The following year the Plastic Ono Band would distill this into a more palatable rhythm-driven template. That's alright too, but this is the raw uncontained essence.

For a record that has been slagged thoughtlessly for four decades, I find "Life with the Lions" to be a complete success, save perhaps a few minutes of the over-long "Radio Play". Partly this is because it lacks the naive calls for "peace", the baggage of "bagism", that the other records get stuck to. This album avoids an overtly political reading by focusing mercilessly on the personal, and the relationships of body to media.

The overt exhibitionism and documentary nature of the trilogy make it obvious that Ono and Lennon's agenda was not at all musical. By exposing their private lives for all to see, the couple replaced musical expectations -- "the next Beatles record" -- with unexpected gifts of love (much of Ono's art follows this trajectory). But, as we know from Marcel Mauss, it is free gifts that have the potential to cause the most upset. A gift establishes a debt and hence a power relationship with the recipient.

It for this reason, and not simply because listeners were expecting "music" and got "sound", that "Life with the Lions" upsets so many. This is the "record" of loss through miscarriage and alienation through media, driven by pure emotion (Ono's voice) and suffused in the power of "being-in-the-moment". The home recordings, lack of editing and near absence of conventional musicianship signals an ethnographic, even psychogeographic approach, not a phonographic one as it has been understood since the time of... well, since The Beatles invented modern pop recording.

This intimate sharing calls for a re-evaluation of one's relationship with the record album and hence with consumer society at large. That's a sentiment that attracts many adherents today, but almost forty years ago it was new and challenging.

Actually, it's still challenging. Give a listen to this Life with the Lions and see if you agree.