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In Writing

Gustav Metzger 1926–2017: Rhodri Davies recalls undergoing acts of self-cancellation with the artist

March 2017

“We would hear about the marching soldiers in Belgium, in France, in Italy, wherever, marching, marching, marching to Russia and of course it was a self-cancelling march.” In the wake of Metzger's death, the composer and harpist remembers their collaborations

In 2007, Barry Esson and Bryony McIntyre from Arika and Benedict Drew of London Musicians’ Collective approached me about collaborating with Gustav Metzger on a large scale event in Glasgow and London. With the help of the artists Bruce Gilchrist and Jo Joelson (London Fieldworks) we contacted him to see if he might be interested in our proposal. I was so happy and honoured that Metzger accepted and came up with the title Self-Cancellation. He suggested that I draw up some principles of self-cancellation in sound as a basis for our investigation.

In February 2008, we staged two events, in Beaconsfield, London and Instal Festival at The Arches in Glasgow as well as the Glasgow School of Art. We invited musicians, writers, artists, theorists and poets to examine ideas of self-cancellation in the sonic arts and experimental music and ask: What might cancellation sound like? What might it look like? Can sound auto-destruct? Can sound cancel itself out in the process of its own creation? How might a focus on the concept of cancellation encourage a different way of understanding who we are and our place in the world?

I was inspired in particular by a line that Metzger had handwritten on his first (typewritten) manifesto Auto-Destructive Art (1959): “The amplified sound of the auto-destructive process can be an integral part of the total conception.”

This is a list of the pieces that explored self-cancellation through sound in performance: Lee Patterson’s “Vessels” and “Seed Burn”; Sarah Washington’s “Removal Service” and “Transition Hide And Seek”; Benedict Drew’s “Feedback Wire Drawing”; Robin Hayward’s “Sand”; John Butcher’s “Asymptotic Freedom”; Mark and John Bain’s “Archisonic”; Michael Colligan’s “Dry Ice With Metal”; an expanded version of Metzger’s Acid/Nylon; and my “adh” and “Palimpsest” piece for ensemble.

The events also included: “SpeedDataRadio 2” which was a multiple round-table live-to-air mixdown on Resonance FM with contributions from Ed Baxter, Emma Hart, Aura Satz, Esther Leslie and Corinna Till among others; a lecture by Gustav Metzger, organised by Naomi Siderfin and David Crawforth from Beaconsfield in collaboration with the City & Guilds of London Art School, for their Art & Compromise lecture series; a symposium exploring the wider context of self-cancellation in collaboration with Ross Birrell and in partnership with the Glasgow School of Art, which included a round table discussion and lectures by Stewart Home, Mark Bain, Louise K Wilson and Michael Hampton; and acting on a last minute suggestion of Metzger’s we performed a self-cancelling discussion called “Self-Cancellation – A Project For Voices”, which included Kenneth Goldsmith, Sarah Washington, Brian Morton, Simon Morris and artists and audiences from the Instal Festival.

There is so much to remember from that time, but some of the most memorable moments were:

– Driving across London on a freezing February day with a box of dry ice in the boot of my car with all the windows open as a safety precaution.

– Working out the health and safety issues for the performances including: adequate ventilation for the use of hydrochloric acid in a public space; different fire extinguishers for the performances using fire and water; special protective gear for the safe handling of acid and dry ice.

– Trying to find the vintage projectors that Metzger requested for his piece, one of which Arika still has in their office.

– Desperately running around London trying to source nylon that had not been coated with flame retardant so that we could research the effects of acid on nylon at the Chemistry laboratories at Imperial College. As we watched the acid eating away at the nylon on the projected slides one of the scientists observed that it resembled cellular destruction.

– Reading in the newspaper on the first day of the event that the London Musicians’ Collective had lost their Arts Council funding, bringing an end to activities that had been going, off and on, since 1975.

– The whole building rattling and vibrating during Mark and John Bain’s Beaconsfield performance where they used oscillators and feedback to resonate the building and pick up the harmonics of those vibrations using seismic sensors. Their Glasgow performance was so loud that they unwittingly cancelled out the ultra quiet durational Wandelweiser performance that was happening in the cellar below.

– Stewart Home threatening to pour petrol over a pile of his new books and burn them during his talk at the Glasgow School of Art. Instead, at the end of the talk, he swigged on the bottle and threw the books into the audience.

Around the time we were preparing for the event, Gustav Metzger and I sometimes met at the Quakers Friends’ House, Euston Road. One time, along with Lee Patterson, we went across the road to the British Library exhibition, Breaking The Rules: The Printed Face Of The European Avant Garde 1900–1937. The exhibition displayed some key text from, among others, futurist, dada, suprematist and constructivist movements. Gustav paused in front of Walter Serner’s “Letzte Lockerung” dadaist manifesto of 1920 and said, “We are part of the tradition, aren’t we, of pushing the boundaries.”

Metzger could sometimes seem contradictory, beginning a meeting with one firm stance before finishing the meeting with an opposing, equally resolved position. He worked in a thoughtful and gentle manner, often enthusing about the project, wanting to invite and include as many friends, colleagues and past collaborators. He had a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, especially when he made me wait for him to answer the door or for him to read all the front pages of all the newspapers at the newsagents. Metzger was a prophetic artist and thinker and has always been relevant to our times, even more so today. These were his final words at the round table discussion at the Glasgow School of Art where he discussed his childhood in Nazi Germany:

“I’d like to come in with another memory of the 1930s and my childhood and talking of migrating butterflies losing momentum and losing substance, it occurs to me that as a child I would watch tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Nazis in variegated uniforms, either the SR, the SS, or the Army, or the Landworkers marching every year in Nuremberg, the town where I was born and where I lived until the age of 12, nearly the age of 13 at the beginning of 1939 when I left and came to this country. And so year after year there would be the annual Nuremberg Rallies, the most important meetings of National Socialism, year by year from 1933 I would watch these armies, these endless columns of marching people for one or two weeks and we lived just off the main road, the biggest road in Nuremberg, leading from Nuremberg to Fürth which is miles and miles and miles, marching, marching. And then I came across with my brother, who sadly died in a car accident, he was killed by a car a few years ago in Strasbourg, and we would hear about the marching soldiers in Belgium, in France, in Italy, wherever, marching, marching, marching to Russia and of course it was a self-cancelling march, as I said we can use it for everything. I can now for the first time in my life use this concept, this area, to relate to my childhood of the German army marching to what, to the point where they were literally rubbed out, snuffed out, yes, through marching. If they hadn’t marched, Europe could have been saved and millions and millions of Germans could have been saved but for this march to self-cancellation. I’m sorry to say that but it is relevant, I do believe it, things moving apart, falling apart, marching apart.”

Self-Cancellation was made possible with the help of an an award from the Scottish Arts Council, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and PRS Foundation

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