Richard Thomas is left hungry for ideas by the consumer feeding frenzies unleashed by music festival programmers out to fill every seat at the table
I recently attended one of the London Contemporary Music Festival's homages to Bernard Parmegiani. The strand curated by the film researcher Daniel Bird explored a smattering of the late Parmegiani's works as a film and animation composer/sound designer working with Polish/Hungarian artists like Peter Foldes, Piotr Kamler, Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica.
The animations, rarely screened in the UK, were astonishing in their wit, imagination, febrility and technical realisation. Parmegiani's compositions were a perfect acoustic rendering of the ideas, actions and sensations conveyed by the films yet also an elegantly juxtaposed counterpoint to the kinetic activity on screen.
Looking at the programme I noticed that the rest of the three day festival's bill was a surround sound diffusion of Parmegiani's classic acousmatic/musique concréte works propped up by live performances from the likes of Rashad Becker and Florian Hecker. I could only see tenuous links between Parmegiani's work and that of Messrs Hecker and Becker, and speculated that the presence of these formidable artists alongside Parmegiani was an insurance scheme to offset any loss made on the LCMF's investment in a project centred around a great yet seldom heard composer who died in 2013.
I'm sure the LCMF's motivations were in earnest. However, the gesture reminded me of the cynical casualness one encounters in curatorial programming that aspires to transgress genre restrictions at the same time as trying to be all encompassing – yet too often is bereft of concept and historical context. I have decided to call this approach NCP: No Concept Programming.
In the same manner that the classic cut of musique concrète – cloche coupe – abstracts sound from its source, NCP abstracts artists from any meaningful context, allowing weak or even false continuities to be established. A listener new to Parmegiani may have assumed that the event was a triptych constructed from a logical continuity that existed between Parmegiani, Hecker and Becker. In truth, beyond superficialities, there is no real link at all between the three of them in terms of motivation, technique or compositional approach.
NCP is a cultural open prison where a false sense of unencumbered liberty is cultivated merely by dissolving the immediate signifiers of incarceration. Recently, a friend quipped that All Tomorrow's Parties reminded him of an internment camp with chalets and bands. That stretches the ATP experience into an undeservedly dark realm but one gets the idea: art and participation in art is contained and constrained by curators and organisations who profess the very opposite. To me it is clear these culture managers have swallowed the capitalist logic that true freedom can only be found in consumerism, and that one finds oneself by losing oneself in an abundance of false choices. The eclecticism and freedom that NCP attempts to evoke is a mirage that obscures the barren reality that it is homogenising, sanitised, commodified and all about profit maximisation.
Many festivals might radiate the idea that they are somehow alternative but they're actually highly conventional in terms of programming. They are predicated upon the concept of the cornucopia: an eclectic assortment of artists all in one place over one weekend. On the surface festivals present these artists as operating within similar spheres, but are there really any links between Bill Drummond, Sleaford Mods, Matmos or Wolf Eyes, other than that they are all playing at this year’s Supersonic festival? This is not an unholy transgression – miscegenation is a good thing – but there is no intellectual depth to the programming, no provocation, no meaning. There is no concept other than a supermarket-like offering: lots of popular products in one space, gambling on some of them having enough pulling power to suck the punters in to offset the ones that don't.
This is lazy and risk averse. These festivals succeed because they dominate markets that are expensive to compete in. They also act as trusted cultural aggregators for fans happy to be treated as herd-like consumers getting everything on a plate in an all you can eat buffet of nothing.
Barcelona's Primavera Sound is an interesting example of a vortex of brands and bands. Over a week 45 acts perform on the main stage areas, a further 15 play in the Ray-Ban Unplugged auditorium and there's also a Hot Chip DJ set. Other attractions include a record fair and a touring exhibition of posters. The Ray-Ban Stage is not the only thing about the festival that is shady, I have seen shopping malls with less branding. Primavera Sound has numerous sponsors, and to spice things up a bit the Catalan equivalent of The Daily Mail is one of their media partners (like The Mail, La Vanguardia had a soft spot for fascists, supporting Franco in the 1930s). While reading all this I realised that music is evidently just an alibi to suck people into a temporary hypertrophied corporate zone for a week.
Both Shellac and The Ex are on the bill. How they align their autonomous and critical positions towards the music industry with this level of corporate sponsorship is beyond me. Either way, it is hypocrisy of the highest (or lowest) order.
Primevera Sound is NCP to the point of being sublime.
One tactic used to give meaning to NCP-style festivals and events is celebrity endorsement. This year's Meltdown festival in London will be ‘curated’ by James Lavelle. Here's a quote from Lavelle's Meltdown collaborator Josh Homme:
“James Lavelle is an art general. He gathers troops from different backgrounds and areas of expertise and finds a way to bring them into harmony. He helms their differences into a unique amalgam that could not have existed without him. He somehow conducts this strange orchestra into a delicate and bizarre beauty.”
What's delicate and bizarre about it, let alone beautiful, is beyond me. What's with the military analogy? Do Homme and his peers have no agency as individuals? Are they simply marionettes waiting for Lavelle to tug their strings? I think it's safe to conclude that Lavelle has no concept at all, just a reputation, a budget, an address book and pliant chums like Josh Homme.
This crisis of abundance and absence of substance is also mirrored by the wider cultural industry and its seeming indifference to the idea that music is a mode of artistic expression on a par with other art forms. From personal experience I have come to suspect that many curators and the cultural behemoths they work for perceive music as an add on. Music is seen as a parallel art form that, unlike the plastic arts, is devoid of any conceptual orientation or historical roots – a purely sensory, physical phenomenon that's popular enough to generate footfall and dosh, filling sterile art spaces with bodies to generate social capital for corporate sponsored galleries. I have yet to encounter a large, state funded gallery that has a dedicated curator of music and sound art. Perhaps I'm a mug for even expecting that.
Both of the discussed dimensions have some common traits: an intellectual void, an absence of any cogent, playful, or provocative ideas and the operational logic that the punter is an undiscerning glutton. That this is normal is a matter of concern. Given the expense of putting together festivals and other large scale events in a dire funding climate, I can't see this changing.
I'd like to see the oppositional development of more activity at grassroots level. Intelligently programmed events can and should exist in other spaces outside of standard venue or gallery environments, and they should also happen on a more frequent basis. But ideas strong enough to underpin such ventures are elusive.
I want events, festivals, gigs in a variety of spaces that explicitly engage audiences with the reality of life in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. But in terms of ideas the avant garde/experimental scene in this country (and I suspect elsewhere) is utterly lamentable in terms of political engagement. I was attracted to experimental music and art because I thought those forms were asking very direct questions about the nature of culture under capitalism and therefore questioning capitalism itself. Here we are, facing a gargantuan catastrophe of perpetual socio-economic inequality and environmental disaster, with Britain and much of Europe lurching towards fascism, and it would seem only Sleaford Mods have anything to say about it. Is it not the case that the disengaged silence of contemporary experimental/avantgarde artists is nothing less than complicity in the politics of austerity?