Saturday, December 18, 2010

Don Van Vliet 1941-2010

When I was a teenager, I heard two albums that baffled me, took all my preconceptions and threw them away and took me the best part of a decade to absorb properly. One was Bitches Brew by Miles Davis and the other was Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.

There was something curiously old-fashioned about that "his"; it seemed to evoke old-time acts like Mantovani and his Orchestra. This is strangely appropriate. For all his avant-garde reputation, Beefheart was a showman, and there's a playful theatricality in his music that in another life might have made him a housewives' favourite. You'd have a shock if you put the record on expecting some smooth strings though. I knew the album's reputation, of course - I was an obstreperous child and got that one because it had the most forbidding reputation - but the extraordinary noise that awaited me was something I wasn't prepared for. It took years (and I mean, around 10) for it to click that for all the complexities of time and tone, it was at heart a blues album. That moment of realisation brought everything into focus, and thereafter it seemed incomprehensible that I'd ever found this music forbidding. It never became comfortably familiar though. Like all great music, it remains unpredictable, startling, new.

It's nearly 30 years since Beefheart fell silent. He was advised that he'd never be taken seriously as a painter if he continued to record, so the Captain was put to rest and Don Van Vliet the painter took his place. There's a strong continuity between the painter and the musician. The paintings have that same playful experimentation as his music, and the music comes to seem painterly in the way he spreads sound across his canvas. So it's not really true to say that he'd been inactive in music since 1982; he'd just made music in pigment instead, where before he'd painted in sound. But beyond that, it seems an immediate loss just because he was so far ahead that we haven't really caught up yet.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cage Against the Machine

I suspect the the attempt by Cage Against the Machine to take John Cage's notorious 4'33" to the Christmas No.1 spot is doomed to failure. There doesn't seem to be quite the focussed support for a single anti-X Factor purchase this year as there was with Rage Against the Machine last year. Anyway, Cowell's a canny enough operator to know that even such projects ultimately fuel his own machine, keeping the brand in the public eye. All publicity is good publicity, and the high-trousered one wins (and the rest of us lose) whatever happens, as long as we're not ignoring him.

Having said that, it's bound to be a noble failure, that gives a wider circulation to some of Cage's ideas. Some people seem concerned that the CATM project is "overexposing" Cage's notorious work (although I wonder if there isn't an element of hating it when our friends become successful). Meanwhile over at the Quietus, David Stubbs worries that people aren't taking the piece seriously enough. (There's an interesting discussion about about the question of humour in the comments.) He's partly right of course: 4' 33" isn't a joke. Cage insisted to the end of his life that it was his most important achievement, and that he thought about it before beginning work on every other piece he wrote. But at the same time Cage was certainly alive to the absurdity of the situation that performing 4'33" puts an audience in, and would have considered laughter as valid a response as any. The idea is important and robust enough to survive those who mock it.

Will CATM spark an interest in Cage's other work, so over-shadowed by his most notorious piece? Well, it's unlikely. But it equally seems wrong-headed to complain that it risks making Cage a cult. For one thing, he is already. For another, Cage knew the power of popular culture, and was happy to appear on a TV gameshow for instance. 4'33" was originally conceived as a protest against Muzak, so it seems fitting to employ it as a protest against the souless sausage machine Cowell operates. I suspect he'd have been delighted by the project.

Sceptics like to question how Cage can be said to have "composed" this piece at all, but its form is one of the most intriguing things about it. In its original form, it appropriates all the trappings of a conventional piece. It's divided into three movements, and that's not a joke: Cage's intention was that it should observe exactly all the conventions of classical performance, except of course for the production of any deliberate sound. The boundary between performance and the spaces between and around performance become blurred and uncertain. it's tempting to see this as a deliberate satire on the anxiety that modern concert etiquette inspires in people: the questions of how you know when the piece is finished and when you're "supposed" to clap. The CATM version, with its celebs getting together for charity and its remixes, actually seems to me to be a rather more faithful approach in this respect than the smirking of the BBC Symphony Orchestra that Stubbs mentions in his article.

A lot of those conventions - including the diktat that the audience should be silent - are essentially a product of the recorded music era. It would be silly to applaud a solo on a record in your own home after all. 4'33" reflects a fundamental shift: the audience has become divorced from the performer, and 4'33" formalises this by making the listener rather than the musician the focus, while also opposing it: as the work consists of ambient noise, the audience is as much a performer as anyone on stage.

CATM seems to understand and enage with Cage's idea in a way that "serious" musicians often seem incapable of doing. And four an a half minutes of "dead air"* turning up on the Radio 1 chart show would represent a genuine challenge to all contemporary convention, perhaps more so than David Tudor's premiere. After all, we now live in a world where silence* is becoming almost impossible to find. Background music has invaded music, and every shop, restaurant, pub and public space (even tube stations, increasingly) is overlaid with a patina of sound, there to protect us from our fear of being forced to be aware of ourselves. It's there not to be listened to, but to be ignored. The opposite of music.

This is the most elegant and important point 4'33" has to make. What is music? It's what happens when you pay attention.

Now go buy! Oh, and listen to some of Cage's other music too, because it's great.

(By the way, if you want a good starting point to explore 4'33" and how it fits into Cage's career I highly recommend Kyle Gann's excellent book No Such Thing As Silence.)

*Yes, yes, I know.

** The Classical Music World has few questions as burning as this, and it wonders why it's seen as irrelevant and detached from real life.