The Wire

In Writing

Richard Thomas: At the all you can eat buffet of nothing

May 2014

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?

Comments

Q - What does a series of concerts in a car park in Peckham have in common with the Global Financial Crisis?
A - Bloomberg. The financial crisis would have been completely impossible without Bloomberg's hardware

It seems that after The Arts Council, Bloomberg was the largest sponsor of this feast of experimental music. And what was the name of this delightful event? "We can elude control". Perfect irony. Perhaps "We can collude with Control" would have been more appropriate

I don't think the curators of Supersonic Festival consider themselves artists in their own right. They're out to throw a good party, and that they do. Most artists are incapable of running an event like that year after year after year, that's why it doesn't happen. Sorry, but it's true.

While I'm totally with the main thrust of this piece, I take issue somewhat with the idea that there is a lack of political engagement in the avant-garde/"experimental" "scene".

When putting together the two Noise In Opposition compilations, I was overwhelmed with the volume of responses - people were clamouring to be involved and throwing the names of friends and colleagues at me as well.
We may be coming from the "electronic sub-underground" (as Kek-W of Hacker Farm jokingly called it), but we are far from disengaged from politics.
Artists such as myself, Hacker Farm, elizabeth Veldon and Libbe Matz Gang are regulary producing work which is politically motivated and organising outside of state/corporate-funded structures.
We'd be more than happy for more people to join us.

i don't think the problem is lack of ideas but lack of support and space for ideas to grow. artists haven't spontaneously retreated into apathy and creative torpor out of sheer indolence - there is a clear link between increasing precarity of existence in major cultural centres and the decline of the interesting and provocative. the inevitable result of risk aversion on the one hand from would-be sponsors and (let's be frank here) investors, instability and depression in the everyday lives of the people who might actually have something to say in their work.

"Intelligently programmed events can and should exist in other spaces outside of standard venue or gallery environments...But ideas strong enough to underpin such ventures are elusive."

you can't run an event on the strength of ideas alone. it requires labour, and if we are to remunerate that labour, it requires capital. this is the impasse we find ourselves at. the kind of work it demands must be collective, political and antagonistic.

If a festival is attempting to curate a programme around a certain theme, as with the author's LCMF experience, I understand the criticism and think its deserved. But in the case of Supersonic and Primavera this is an unfair criticism. There's no suggestion (in their marketing anyway) that the programmed artists are supposed to be operating in the same sphere, or bear much relation to one another beyond 'it would be nice to hear these bands play live on the same bill'. Which, as an audience member, i think is just fine.

So to follow this thinking through the wire is NCP as there's no themic link in each issue? Or like Supersonic it's a cross section of interesting things happen at that moment? Is there anything wrong with that?

ncp as you describe it is not a phenomenon exclusive to musical events - but music is better suited to it than film/visual art. that music doesn't always ram it's context down my throat with tenuous overarching concepts is a blessing

This article managed the great feat of becoming so pretentious that it turned into its own episode of Brass Eye.

It's a shame that festivals don't do what you want. It's also a shame that bands sometimes have to play big corporate events so that the fans they care about get a chance to see them. But I'm not sure anyone else is worried about it and the fact that I could see Matmos and Sleaford Mods in one night was pretty good news for me. And I ATP can be dismissed on the anecdotal evidence of probably another I'm-anti-hipster-i'm-hipster individual then I despair at modern journalism. I've been to several and they've been the best festival experience I could hope for. Maybe you just don't like festivals.

I think the comments demonstrate that the article made some fundamental errors in its sweeping criticisms, but I'd be interested to read Richard Thomas' response...

To pick up on one very interesting point here.

I think it's actually hard to compare magazines and festivals – they're fundamentally different things with very different aims. With a festival, you're talking about a single, relatively unified experience in the same general place and time. You'd expect the content to dovetail to a degree, though hopefully with some variety as well. But for me it'd be an odd festival that programmed Immortal and Wandelweiser on the same bill, even though I dig both, because the function of each and how they engage the audience is so radically different. There would be no way to make a weekend where one complemented the other.

A magazine on the other hand is there to inform, not to directly involve. Reading about radically different musics and musicians is not a difficult experience – indeed contrasts between one article and another help inject tension and questions into a magazine.

Contemplating music is very different to experiencing it.

I've always enjoyed festivals with wildly different artists on the bill over events with conceptual themes (that you tend to forget about as soon as you put down the festival brochure and start watching stuff!).

It was a thrill at Tusk (Newcastle) last year to watch a really heavy line up of grindcore, psych rock, noise, all to be interrupted by a beautifully hushed set by Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang. This is a mix way beyond loud/quiet, heavy/gentle, these are artists with radically different "functions" (not sure that i like that term though) and the festival was all the better for it.

There's a big difference between a sound art exhibition (where a display of unrelated sound pieces would be boring and pointless) and a music festival where you might want to enjoy different sorts of music performance at different points of the weekend.

And if we're discussing functions of music, let's not forget those one of (shock, horror) fun and enjoyment.

Hey Holly, I was at that fest too.

But the differences between those acts aren't as great as they might first appear. Kang & Kenney come out of and work within rock, very very broadly speaking, noise fits into a rock-ish line-up (which Tusk is) quite easily.

Imagine a fest with a grime MC clash where people which is standing room only in a dark basement, a Wandelweiser recital in a purpose built classical recital room, a black metal group surrounded by Marshall amps, Indian classical music, and a room of interactive sound installations. It might sound fun, but I can't see how it would work, or how one would benefit from the presence of the others. Let alone finding a venue for this stuff. Whereas reading about them all in the pages of a magazine would be easy.

The Wire is broad in its remit for a reason – we're interested in and find all of what we cover important. But there is more onus on festival to present something that might work together – which is the way it should be.

More broadly, it's hard to say what unites everything that's covered by The Wire, but there are a set of priorities, aesthetics, modes of operation and areas of enquiry that frequently overlap, often in more than one category. Everything in The Wire shares something with something else. No single characteristic is present in everything we cover. And that's the way it should be – it's much more a system of family resemblances and relationships than one category. And that's the way it should be I think. To try and impose one category on what we do would be to exclude other stuff that seems vital to us (Morton Feldman versus Miami Bass).

" a set of priorities, aesthetics, modes of operation and areas of enquiry that frequently overlap, often in more than one category. Everything in The Wire shares something with something else. No single characteristic is present in everything we cover."

I'm still not convinced that a festival can't share this approach. The classical/grime/black metal example is pretty extreme, the article refers to festivals that do largely operate in a rock sphere, with some crossover into dance and jazz. These line ups can be put together well (Tusk being a great example) or put together badly, but not because there was, or wasn't a theme.

I broadly agree with much in this column but how glib to conclude;

"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?"

The most potent political music-based movement was the first wave of house and techno. Its power was drawn precisely because it did not succumb to the tantrum-like surface rage of punk. It was the only movement that actually stirred fear and the resulting legislation from Westminster.

The assertion that we need some idiot telling us that times are shit and we should rise up or take action is patronizing to the extreme. To do so is to be immediately categorizable: Punk was the most impotent of movements precisely because it was so crass in its message.

To tar La Vanguardia as the equivalent of the Daily Mail suggests that Mr. Thomas does not understand much about the Spanish media landscape or, indeed, Catalan culture. But what an impressive rhetorical move. "Primavera Sound is full of fascists!"

This is a shocking hamfisted screed to a level I haven't seen from the Wire thus far. Questions:

- how can Derek consider European festival curation generally clumsy and ill-fitting yet consider Wire's smorgasbord as interconnected eclecticism?

- who other than Richard actually mandated that 'experimental' music' (isn't that term a complicit subservience to the capitalist logic of hegemony?) should be or is aligned with politics of economic opposition? What happened to bourgeois art, or art for art's sake, or even art as the enigma (of course following in the great leftist refusal of Adorno that art should serve as fodder for social opposition)?

- who is actually able these days, given the atrophying of music criticism as a vocation (as evidenced in Columns such as this), to effectively convey critical authority amidst the great morass of contemporary global sound production?

Hm, let's have a look at The Wire's event at The Empty Bottle in Chicago in 2012 (cut and pasted from the Wire website):

"Wednesday 3 October hosts Nguzunguzu, R Stevie Moore, São Paulo Underground and Christina Vantzou. Thursday features Demdike Stare, Vattnet Viskar, Andy Stott and Joshua Abrams’s Natural Information Society, followed on the Friday by Supreme Cuts, Shit & Shine, Duane Pitre and Tatsuya Nakatani & Vanessa Skantze. Saturday hosts Traxman, Sylvain Chauveau, Biosphere and Hallock Hill, and Sunday plays out with Micachu & The Shapes, Holy Other, Lee Noble and Jozef Van Wissem."

How is this any more coherent than any other festival's line up?
Or should we ponder some "Office Ambience" lists from the Wire and see how much musical sense they make in the terms outlined in the piece written above?

"I think it's actually hard to compare magazines and festivals – they're fundamentally different things with very different aims."

"A magazine on the other hand is there to inform, not to directly involve."

oh how convenient... says the magazine that actively participates in, sponsors, associates with and directly PROFITS from said NCP.

what a load of unadulterated contradictory, hypocritical horse shit. You guys really have completely disappeared up your own ass.

Fucking Sleaford Mods are not the answer

Hm, let's have a look at The Wire's event at The Empty Bottle in Chicago in 2012 (cut and pasted from the Wire website):

"Wednesday 3 October hosts Nguzunguzu, R Stevie Moore, São Paulo Underground and Christina Vantzou. Thursday features Demdike Stare, Vattnet Viskar, Andy Stott and Joshua Abrams’s Natural Information Society, followed on the Friday by Supreme Cuts, Shit & Shine, Duane Pitre and Tatsuya Nakatani & Vanessa Skantze. Saturday hosts Traxman, Sylvain Chauveau, Biosphere and Hallock Hill, and Sunday plays out with Micachu & The Shapes, Holy Other, Lee Noble and Jozef Van Wissem."

How is this any more coherent than any other festival's line up?
Or should we ponder some "Office Ambience" lists from the Wire and see how much musical sense they make in the terms outlined in the piece written above?

very on point piece.

If it's grassroots events intelligently programmed in 'off-site'spaces you're looking for, Richard..

Come visit us at Liquid Amber (http://tinyurl.com/LiquidAmberEvents) or

re:sound (https://www.facebook.com/resoundcollective/events).

db

Sleaford mods most definitely are the answer, but not to this question ;)
(I predict the use of a smiley will prevent this passing the wire's moderation)

I personally love the idea that you think a bill of Sleaford Mods, Matmos or Wolf Eyes is 'a supermarket-like offering: lots of popular products in one space,' - it's still a very difficult 'sell' to 600 fans of experimental music - hardly a corporate sell out - a totally misinformed, naive and ridiculous article.

For the record our approach to the programme has always been that of presenting an eclectic bill to represent a snapshot of interesting artists working at that time, a 'wunderkammer' approach. We always programmed from the perspective of being'fans'. The line up is presented in such a way that allows each stage to build from one performance to the next. It's as much about building an atmosphere and creating the best conditions for relatively niche work to be presented to a 'wider' audience. In addition you fail to mention the work presented off stage like the talks, installations and films. A lot of time and effort goes into making a festival happen and is anything but 'lazy and risk adverse.'

Peter – it's Richard's article, not mine. I don't agree with everything in it. Hey, I was just picking up on one point. (As for eclectic.... hmmm, whether eclectic is a good thing or a bad thing is very much a moot point)

Michael – yeah, that's perhaps a fair point, that our own festivals when they were running were pretty broad and jammed pretty disparate things together. However, I'd argue that Richard's main target is more the multi-stage mega fests like Primavera etc, though. The Empty Bottle fest we used to put together is more like a weirdly stocked corner store than a supermarket. But I'd argue it's more coherent than, say, Primavera or Field Day. I can imagine all the artists we put on on those fests having something to say to each other, which I can't with numerous mega fests.

Duncan – we're involved with all sorts of festivals, directly and indirectly. One of the points of articles on like this is not to get people to try and think smarter. Not to cut ourselves off from every festival out there. (But as I say, I was just picking up on one point. I really think mags and fests are different kettles of fish.)

For me, Sleaford Mods are more of a question than an answer.

"I could only see tenuous links between Parmegiani's work and that of Messrs Hecker and Becker"
really??

I believe this is the ultimate "you're using the word curate wrong" article on the Internet. While I do get a good laugh at big blues and jazz festivals that program big heavy metal, rock, and pop acts for their headline shows, I'm really not going to despair at the thought that philosophical links between Bill Evens, Ufomammut, and Meredith Monk are tenuous. On the other hand there something to behold when you attend a series of concerts that have a particular narrative. I have been to those and I've noticed that I'm one of the very few audience members that isn't directly connected to the festival.

None of the above mentioned artists played (or are likely to play) even 3000 kms (or 10000miles)away from where I live.I can't grasp what these festivals are like. I'm happy for you to have the choice and the will to make it better.

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