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Showing posts by Tony Herrington about Sotto Voce

Lords of the new church

Tony Herrington

The Church of the Holy Rude, Stirling, site for some of the performances at this year's Le Weekend festival

Why do so many so-called experimental music festivals insist on programming events in goddamn churches? (For recent evidence from the UK, see Sotto Voce, Le Weekend, and the slightly too prosaically named London International Festival of Exploratory Music.) No doubt the acoustics are mind-blowingly reverberant, but then the same could be said of an empty factory or warehouse, and let's face it, in the current era of drastic capitalism there is no shortage of such structures, all ripe for creative, even provocative, repurposing.

By implication if nothing else, the notion of experimental music has always been bound up with radical and ongoing critiques of prevailing and oppressive value systems, and concurrent attempts to erect new humanistic paradigms in their place.

From Luis Buñuel to Lydia Lunch, there is a long and noble history of artists staging performances in churches as acts of subversion, taking the good fight deep inside enemy territory, calling down the walls of the establishment by blaspheming the fuck out of its most sacred strongholds.

But what we are dealing with here is something else again, a minor cultural phenomenon that arrives as a particularly dispiriting consequence of current trends in which postmodern irony conspires with the hubris of curatorial culture and the requirements of public and private funding bodies for ever more 'novel' initiatives, to render meaningless the stuff these events are supposed to be providing new platforms for.

In such a context, moving contemporary experimental music into a church setting is tantamount to an admittance of failure, a betrayal of its original revolutionary stance, an acknowledgment that the old order is still standing so we might as well give up and move right on in alongside it.

In effect it is the latest example of a bourgeois art class nullifying vernacular modes of expression by once again giving priority to aesthetics over politics.

Plus, like all sites dedicated to supernatural idolatry, churches give me the creeps.

I can appreciate why the curators and producers of experimental music events might want to escape the conventions of the proscenium arch, and find new contexts in which to present music whose practice, among other things, is predicated on proposing new social relations (which is one reason for the rise of the gallery environment as an alternative if somewhat compromised space in which to present new sound works). But replacing an arch with an altar is no way to go, frankly.

More radical, empathetic and imaginative thinking on the part of the curators, and less collusion on the part of musicians, is required if we are to find sympatico spaces in which to present music that exists in revolutionary opposition to the forces that look to crush our very souls with ever more mediated and policed spectacles, from The X Factor to the kind of middlebrow entertainment packages masquerading as genuine culture that are programmed by major art spaces in just about every city in the Northern hemisphere.

In the aftermath of the UK coalition government’s systematic dismantling of the structures that were erected to democratise this country's post-war society, raising such a seemingly minor issue might seem like decadent pissing in the wind. But as the good Lord knows, the devil resides in the detail.

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Because the acoustics were designed for music?

I think the main reason is that they're generally quite cheap to hire.

The church itself (as an institution, not a building) has also been the site of radical subversion, ideological agitation and unfettered thinking which resulted in the upheaval of certain constants and the deaths of orthodoxies. In fact, I can think of no place better than a church to symbolize "radical and ongoing critiques of prevailing and oppressive value systems, and concurrent attempts to erect new humanistic paradigms in their place". The preceding language could have described the ecumenical atmosphere in which Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Ludwig Feuerbach and a long list of other Christian thinkers presented, and stood behind, their critiques of the church. To say that staging experimental performances inside a church is anathema to the purposes of both is a statement of vast intellectual shortsightedness.

For a critique against the dogmatism of the church, this sounds quite dogmatic. Thou shalt not use a church for musical concerts.

Look at the picture above: it's an incredible space, to re-contextualise it as a venue for experimental music seems to be an inspiring way to use underused but impressive buildings, and in that sense I don't see how it is prioritising aesthetics over politics.

i agree with that above comments and can we please get past the idea that contemporary music is somehow revolutionary? come on, 90% of that stuff is made by middle-class westerners. -absolutely nothing wrong with that, they're just not causing any revolutions in our society what so ever.

Western Christians and artists are more similar than you'd imagine.

Both congregate in largely empty buildings and discuss obtuse ideas in arcane languages most people find either bizarre or offensive.

The general public visit art galleries once or twice a year. Same for churches: Christmas, weddings and funerals.

They also like it when they go. Its fun. Or, in the case of funerals or those seeds in the Turbine Hall, strangely profound .

The rest of the time they moan about bloody modern art and its stupidity. Then there's Catholicism.

Both worlds are couched in the reified glow of somehow just being 'good/right/righteous'.

Both rely on a questionable and resolutely patriarchal history to justify their ubiquity.

Both rely on very cosy support networks. There's nothing nicer than moving to a new area and meeting the arty people. You get invited for tea and cupcakes. You all just 'get' each other. Lovely.

i agree with jason weaver. this statement:

"No doubt the acoustics are

mind-blowingly reverberant, but then the same could be said of an empty factory or warehouse"

is kind of incredibly ignorant.

ever heard chamber music in a church or concert hall?

ever heard chamber music in a train station, aircraft hangar or giant cistern?

you think these are even remotely comparable? that right-angled sheet metal, brick and concrete reflect with the clarity of curved plaster, stone floor, glass, hardwood dampening? not to mention an architectural layout (chancel and nave) that has been optimized over 1000 years of iterations for the purpose of clearly transmitting the speech of a single person to multitudes.

this article is all soapboxes and strawmen; insulting to acousticians, "curators" (if you mean people who organize concerts), musicians and architects. why are you writing about architecture in music if you lack even a passing acquaintance with the subject of architectural acoustics? and by passing i mean 30 minutes of internet research, or a smidge of critical listening in the real spaces.

anyways, why shouldn't churches be used for music (experimental or whatever)? this seems like an entirely personal hangup. i live in the US, where the local unitarian church might not exactly be the "enemy," and may indeed be the most radical place on the block. warehouses are cool and all, but they don't always exactly encourage the most thoughtful environment.

in short, i don't know if i buy your "notion of experimental music" either.

as a musician, i would jump at the chance to play in a beautiful sounding room over a boomy dumb warehouse. i'm not too worried about the vibe; that's my job- though i don't mind places that encourage people to sit down and pay attention.

this reminds me why i haven't been buying the wire for last last 5 years: childish academic rants, dead-for-50-years modernist shoehorn philosophy, and no love of sound.

If anything 'The Wire' itself is a 'church' to 'supernatural idolatory' - the myth that this music 'speaks' to anyone outside its increasingly gentrified social circle. Claims that avant-garde music can still be 'revolutionary' are ridiculous. Its availability in a given area usually means high house prices, genteel cafes, vanity tat shops, and a majority of privately educated patrons working in the 'knowledge economy'. (I'm not sure about London, but that's a chaotic anomoly anyway - itself a result of the housing market).

Churches host this kind of music not only because of the acoustics, but because the audiences for this music increasingly demand genteel, enclosed spaces to celebrate their own sense of purity and worthiness, to maintain a bubble away from the more 'troubling' aspects of the society the vast majority of us live in. Which may be why they're one of the few public spaces that don't hire security guards.

The music and its venues target the kind of people who wouldn't be caught dead in a nightclub (too much 'life' there, in all its unruly interaction), who wouldn't say a cross word to a stranger but sit at the far end of the bench if they hear a strong regional accent. Pretty much the same smug but timid mentality that has rendered British 'art' lifeless, exclusive but safe and clean. Not unlike the mentality that voted for the coalition!

"By implication if nothing else, the notion of experimental music has always been bound up with radical and ongoing critiques of prevailing and oppressive value systems, and concurrent attempts to erect new humanistic paradigms in their place."

I think you're discounting the works of early modernists of the Right, either through ignorance, or because your ideology demands it; You are also conflating the conditions ( economic, social, etc.,) surrounding "experimental music" with the music itself, as though they're essentially the same thing.

In other words, experimental music is largely associated with a radical Left only because those forces have found a particular use for it. There is nothing essentially irreligious or even anti-orthodox about the innate desire to explore sound ( something that global capitalism and technology have made much easier to do.).

If European Rightism hadn't been destroyed by National Socialism, I see no reason why we wouldn't see much more experimental music that is associated with rightist ideologies.

In summation, modernism isn't leftism, and the post-modern appreciation of "experimental music" as an agent of ideology is available to us via global capitalism.

Also, churches are often beautiful spaces. Secularists often seek to recreate church-like environs that are suitable for meditation, or that inspire meaningful reflection..They are first and foremost human spaces...


A bit late, but just wanted to mention a awesome work that took also place in geneva's cathedral from the main organ to the crypt. Ha, looking at the website it's continnuing in the UK :-) !

sounds like the author might have 3 sixes tattooed on his head......

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