Last week at East London’s Cafe Oto the new season of The Wire Salon got off to a futurological start with a talk by Adam Harper based on his book Infinte Music: Imagining The Next Millennium Of Human Music-making. In the talk, Adam repeated the book's citing of the music of the nomadic Aka Pygmies of the Central African rainforest as one example of an 'alien genre’ that can point the way towards an infinity of musical possibilities.
(Of course, referring to any indigenous non-Western music as an 'alien genre' is somewhat problematic, as Adam readily admitted, but in this case he seems to be using it to identify highly complex musical forms that arise out of normative social activity – an actually existing practice in many parts of the world, but in post-industrial societies, one which has been annexed from the public sphere by the deleterious forces of the culture industry and therefore rendered alien. Or, as Richard Henderson put it in his Field Recordings Primer in The Wire 168: "What Steve Reich accomplished with elliptical tape loops in concurrent motion on "It's Gonna Rain", the Aka manage to do while walking to work in the morning.")
Towards the end of the subsequent panel discussion, which brought Mira Calix and Nightwave into the debate, Adam took issue with one famous attempt to use this primordial polyphonic sound as a launch pad to the outer limits, dissing Herbie Hancock’s appropriation of it on the remake of "Watermelon Man" on the 1973 Headhunters album.
I was moderating the panel, and over the years have also happened to have spent God knows how many hours traveling the spaceways signposted by Herbie's 70s music. So while such a public diss would usually have had me banging the offending speaker upside the head with my chairman's gavel, on the night I let it pass, as it was an aside at most, and to take issue with it would have carried us way off message. But in the cold light of day such an assessment demands some kind of analysis or response, so...
Where Adam experiences "Watermelon Man" as an inert distillation of an ancient and complex and living communal music, I hear an integrated musical performance riven with tension and currents that run fast and deep. (And if Adam really wanted to make a point about how such an alien genre can be killed stone dead by careless sampling, then citing Deep Forest would have rammed the point home more thoroughly, not to say conclusively.)
Adam wasn't impressed with that album title either (“It's called Headhunters for God's sake!"), but I've always read it as a sly deployment of the kind of militant semiotics that would be mobilised to fuller effect by P-funk and the Hiphop Nation – as in: Headhunters as proselytizers for a new tribal aesthetix, mind expansion for headz, etc.
Like the music on Herbie's previous Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant albums, Headhunters and "Watermelon Man" were the results of a fusion experiment that was itself the product of a unifying Afrocentricism that on the cusp of the 70s was an imperative for many black American musicians emerging from a decade marked by an integrationist civil rights movement on the one side, and the separatist Black Nationalist and Black Arts movements on the other.
Still, Adam's ethnomusicological disgust hits a nerve in one respect, because Headhunters and "Watermelon Man" were also a stark indication of how Africa was an alien zone even for conscious jazzers like Herbie and his group (an indication of how thoroughly slavery had worked its nihilistic designs on the folk memory of an entire people). Admittedly, Headhunters was a step back from the advances of its predecessor Sextant, which, pace Infinite Music, contains a multiverse of sonic variables and alien timbres which has yet to be fully explored and colonised. But the quantum funk was still going on, and the whole thang was just one component in a wider programme to cauterize some of the psychic vandalism inflicted during the Middle Passage, one which asserted an ancient-to-the-future black identity by getting explicit about the African component of a sound that was mapping the pathways to new worlds.
Maybe it's a generational thing. Adam is half my age, and from the perspective of a twentysomething 21st century musicologist it might all sound a bit lumpen and prosaic. But to dismiss it as crass, or even exploitative, is to ignore the music's own temporal-spatial reality and its position within a complex sociopolitical process, one which was further complicated by the fact it was taking place in the context of the mass culture industry. Herbie was signed to Columbia, one of the largest entertainment conglomerates on the planet, with ambitions to follow his labelmate and former employer Miles Davis in breaking out of the jazz ghetto. But following the commercial failure of Sextant, he was under pressure to deliver product that would recoup his label’s investment - which he did: Headhunters shifted more than a million units, which means it landed an alien genre deep inside the collective consciousness of mainstream America with genuine force.
In the mid-90s I interviewed Herbie, when he was staying in the surreal opulence of the Park Lane Hotel overlooking Hyde Park in central London. I'd requested the meeting to talk specifically about that amazing sequence of records he'd produced in the lead up to Headhunters. I was eager to find out what had been going on in his head when he and his group of furthermuckers (© Greg Tate) had retrofitted their instruments with cyborg prosthetix and devised that technologised jazz-not-jazz-almost-funk that felt so harmonically expansive and rhythmically advanced, not to mention mythpoetically charged and quantum physically mysterious. Naturally he was affable and charming and fielded my questions with good grace, but it was ultimately a dispiriting experience. Basically, he wasn't interested, seemingly regarding the music as at best misguided exhuberance, at worst hubristic folly. (The transcript and that of a second interview conducted by phone a few months later were eventually folded into an article, all 7000 words of it, on what became known as the Mwandishi group that appeared in The Wire 174.)
As a musician, Herbie was living a weird dual existence by this point, pushing an airless heritage industry version of the kind of acoustic jazz which characterised his mid-60s breakthrough albums for the Blue Note label, as well as a form of hi-tech industry fuzak so sinisterly corporate that even now it makes James Ferarro's Far Side Virtual sound like Dock Boggs plucking a banjo in a sharecropper's shack (but I suppose that's all part of the conceptual smarts of Ferraro's guerilla hack of a record).
Appropriately for someone who could command such lofty accommodation, he was dressed like the CEO of a Dow Jones listed company just over for a weekend shopping trip to Harrods – his sports jacket, slacks and loafers combo probably cost more than I made in a month (but did he still have all those dashikis and kaftans he used to wear in the 70s, maybe hanging neglected at the back of a closet somewhere in his LA condo? I don't know, I neglected to ask). A friend of Sting, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, recipient of various Grammys and MTV Awards, his position in the upper echelons of Entertainment USA Inc was secure, and he wasn’t about to rise to the bait of an offay journo from some obscure UK music zine who wanted to know if he'd ever felt like an extraterrestrial (seriously). In the article, it was left to other members of Herbie’s group, trumpeter Eddie Henderson in particular, to articulate the music’s affective power, its alien heat and infinite potentiality.
All of this only encouraged a creeping and somewhat perplexing notion that Herbie had always been the most conservative member of every group he fronted, but had still somehow found himself at the controls of some of the most significant departures in post-war black music, and not just with regard to those early 70s records either
If you know Sunlight's boogie down productions, or the future shock electro of "Rockit", but are hazy on the backstory, check the playlist below.
And wonder what it must be like to be a musician who has this kind of history, but whose reality over the last two decades or more seems to necessitate the denial of a past in which any of it actually happened.
Daphne Oram (1925-2003) was a pioneering British composer and electronic musician. She was the creator of Oramics, a synthesis technique which used visual images to create electronic sounds. She is credited with creating the very first piece of commissioned electronic music for the BBC in 1957 (the score for Amphitryon 38) and was instrumental in the formation of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, becoming its first director in 1958.
Leaving the BBC less than a year later, Oram founded her own electronic music studio where she produced the electronic soundtrack to the 1961 horror film The Innocents, as well as various concert works and compositions. After her death in 2003, the British improvisor and instrument builder Hugh Davies inherited her archive of papers and tapes. Following Davies's death in 2005 the collection was accessioned by Goldsmiths, University of London.
The Sounds Of New Atlantis: Daphne Oram, Radiophonics And The Drawn Sound Technique will include a presentation by Dan Wilson tracing the evolution of the philosophies behind Oramics, and Daphne Oram's progress in reconciling the physical and metaphysical aspects of sound; a biographical sketch in the form of a presentation by Jo Hutton, looking at Daphne Oram's role at the BBC in developing electroacoustic music and radiophonic art in Britain; a joint presentation by Mick Grierson and Chris Weaver on the evolution of the Oramics machine, its potential significance as one of the first British computer music systems, and the plans for its future conservation, plus a video presentation by Graham Wrench, the former RAF radar engineer responsible for building the first prototype of the Oramics machine. London Cafe Oto, 7 April, 8pm, £4.
The Oram Collection website, run by this month’s salon guests. Includes scanned archived press cuttings.
Daphne Oram An Individual Note Of Sound Music And Electronics, introduced by Oram as a “sniffing the air in all directions to see whether we can catch a scent or two of intriguing interrelationships between electronics and music”. Out of print, but PDF available here.
The Story Of The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, 2008 article from Sound On Sound, complete with photos and diagrams of how the Oramic system worked, plus Graham Wrech: The Story Of Daphne Oram’s Optical Synthesiser.
BBC tribute to Daphne Oram, notable for the embedded audio interview with Oram from 1972.
Oramics, a short film by Nick Street, which gives a glimpse of the original Oramics synthesizer from 1957.
The Alchemists Of Sound, BBC4 documentary about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Available on Maldoror42 YouTube channel in six parts.
Daphne Oram obituary from 2003.
Regular contributor to The Wire Ken Hollings’s essay on the broader topic of “The British Space Programme As Musical Exploration – The Untold Story” from 2010, which takes a sideways look at the history of British electronic music, including Daphne Oram.
The Wire’s monthly series of salon events returns after an extended Christmas and New Year break with an illustrated talk by the magazine’s former hiphop columnist Dave Tompkins on the history of the vocoder. The talk will be based on Dave's acclaimed recent book on synthetic voice phenomena, How To Wreck A Nice Beach (available from Stop Smiling Books)
In anticipation of the salon Dave and Monk One have made an exclusive edit of their How To Wreck A Nice Beach mix for The Wire. You can download it here. Also, click here to read Dave's extensive annotated track list for the mix in all its unexpurgated glory.
The Wire Salon: How To Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War Two To Hiphop takes place at London's Cafe Oto, 15 February, 8pm, £4.
In addition to his appearance at the salon, Dave will also be talking on (as opposed to through) the vocoder at the Off The Page festival in Whitstable this weekend...
At the turn of the century sound art reached a new level of visibility with a cluster of high-profile shows and countless below-the-radar initiatives. Meanwhile, new thinking about sound has led to an extraordinary proliferation of practices, and in recent years a phalanx of sound recordists and sonic artists has emerged to stage a revolutionary coup on behalf of sound, demanding its right to exist both in and of itself, free of the competing agendas of music or the visual arts.
The emergence of this new world of audio was accelerated by the dual technologies of microphony and digital processing, and can be heard in the examples of acoustic ecology and anthropology; desktop synthesis; the form-destroying praxes of Noise makers; Reductionism's amplification of previously occult sound events; frequency experiments with waveforms and pure tones; and more.
A cluster of recent books on this area has showcased the range of thinking behind the new sound art. For some, this work calls for a renewed focus on the perceiving body; for others, sound art offers new perspectives on the circulation of cultural meanings; for others still, sound has removed itself from the realm of the human to occupy a world where we simply don't figure.
For this edition of The Wire Salon, artist/writer Salomé Voegelin, author of Listening To Noise And Silence (Continuum), Helen Frosi, curator of the Soundfjord gallery, and critic/sound artist Will Montgomery discuss the new philosophies and practices that have emerged in recent years to map and calibrate the new world that has been revealed by 21st century sound art.
The Wire Salon: We Hear A New World: Microphony, Technology & The Rise Of Sound Art takes place at London's Café Oto, 2 September, 8pm, £4 Ticket on the door only.
Plus: take part in an audience-participation sound art quiz and have your perception of the audio world around you reshaped!
In anticipation of the night, we've put together the following reading list with links to online MP3s, videos and texts:
• Anne Hilde Neset hosts an edition of The Wire's Adventures In Modern Music on Resonance FM. Anne was joined by Dont Rhine and Robert Sember, members of the international activist/art/music collective Ultra-red.
• Recordings of Futurist composer Luigi Russolo's compositions using his noise making Intonarumori instruments (page also contains a downloadable PDF of Russolo's The Art Of Noises manifesto from 1913)
• A selection of video work by Brandon LaBelle: Concert #2: working with participants to stage the tension between sight and sound; Perspectives: writing and listening action in public space; Z: writing action utilizing motion-tracking to generate sound in real-time.
sound art links (via Seth Cluett)
The Wire Salon is a monthly series of salon events, hosted by The Wire magazine, and dedicated to the fine art and practice of thinking and talking about music. The evenings, which take place on the first Thursday of each month, will consist of readings, talks, panel discussions, film screenings, DJ sets and even the occasional live performance.
Our monthly salon series continues with a talk by The Wire’s Editor-at-Large Rob Young based on his history of folk, folk rock, psychedelia and the British imagination, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (published by Faber And Faber, 5 August 2010.). The talk will be illustrated with film and audio clips and will be followed by a discussion of the book’s central themes; plus DJ Jonny Trunk will be in attendance spinning the sounds of wyrd and wired Britain. London Café Oto, 5 August, 8pm, £4.
• Read: The Incredible String Band and The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. Extract from Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music by Rob Young
• Read: Into The Woods. "Across folk, classical, pop and exploratory music, the sense of exile from Eden is key to the progress of British music in the twentieth century, writes Rob Young." Article for The Journal Of Music.
• Listen: Exotic Pylon podcast. Featuring conversation between Rob Young and host Jonny Mugwump. The show lasts 90 minutes and includes a selection of music from Talk Talk, Peter Bellamy, Steeleye Span, John Ireland, Dave Cousins, Archie Fisher, Mandy Morton & Spriguns, Robin Williamson and Alasdair Roberts.
The Wire’s monthly series of salon events continues with an evening dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of graphic scores and other revolutionary approaches to musical notation. A panel made up of The Wire’s Philip Clark, composer Claudia Molitor and pianist Ian Pace will discuss how graphic scores can be used to access entire new dimensions in sound. The night will also feature screenings of Claudia Molitor’s 3D graphic scores (3D glasses will be provided), and a special audience participation graphic scores Invisible Jukebox session. London Cafe Oto, 3 June, 8pm, £4.
Check out some online content in anticipation of the evening:
• A DIY flicker book of a moving score for cello, "It Suddenly Descends", part of Claudia Molitor's work in progress Flicker Book Magnum Opus (for all cellists out there to download, print off, put together and perform themselves).
Below is a 3D video by Brian McClave and Gavin Peacock for Claudia Molitor's work "It's Not Quite How I Remember It" (to see it in 3D you'll need the proper red/green glasses). It's a lo-res YouTube version but people who are able to make it the salon will get to see it in full resolution with 3D glasses provided.
Tags: Barry Guy | cafe oto | Claudia Molitor | Earle Brown | Frank Perry | Graphic Scores | Heinz-Klaus Metzger | Ian Pace | Karl Peter Röhl | Morton Feldman | Music discussion | Notations 21 | philip clark | The Wire | the wire salon | Theresa Sauer
The Wire’s monthly series of salon-type evenings continues with author and The Wire contributor Ken Hollings (author of Welcome To Mars and Destroy All Monsters and presenter of the Hollingsville series on Resonance FM) and Steve Goodman (Kode9, author of Sonic Warfare), discussing the uses and abuses of sound and noise from sonic bombs to soundclashes.
Below is a short online reading and listening list in anticipation of the event (mostly via Ken Hollings)
•Stream Hollings's Radio 3 programme From Gameboy to Armageddon on the Military Entertainment Complex
•PDF download of Theatres Of War: The Military-Entertainment Complex, an essay by Tim Lenoir and Henry Lowood.
•Projects page of the Institute For Creative Technologies - an institute set up to bring military planners, games designers, Hollywood SFX people and experts in interactive technology together.
•Give yourself an adrenalin buzz (or scare yourself silly) with Bohemia Interactive's Virtual Battlespace 2 promotional film.
The salon takes place at London's Cafe Oto, 6 May, 8pm, £4.