Thursday, April 16, 2015



I was recently invited to take part in a performance of the British composer Cornelius Cardew's 'Treatise', along with roughly thirty other musicians, at University of Greenwich on guitar. For those not initiated, 'Treatise' is a mammoth piece, some two-hours long, of fiercely abstract improvised music (here's a live extract of one group of improvisers' take on it), guided not by conventional musical notation, but rather by a visual representation known as 'graphic notation'.
Coming from a conventional classically-trained background prior to turning to rock music, I had no real idea until the Cardew concert about graphic notation. Viewing the nearly 200-page score for the first time (an excerpt is shown above), I was as baffled as anyone by the mixture of circles, arrows, and diverging lines. I'd heard of Cardew, of course, along with his tutor Karlheinz Stockhausen; he was a composer, a member of free improvisation group AMM, and a strident Marxist in the 70s (as many were want to do in that decade), repudiating his previous output in the process. But I had no idea that an alternative system to conventional notation existed – that is until the gig, in which I turned up to the soundcheck sweating from having lugged a guitar and amp (about 100 watts) down from North London to Greenwich via bus and then the Docklands Light Railway.
It turns out that graphical notation was used by a number of contemporary modern composers and the avant-garde, including John Cage, György Ligeti, Xenakis, Krzystof Pendericki, and Stockhausen himself. If you can understand what on earth Cage was getting at with the score below, you've probably got a better grasp of graphic notation than I have: 



 

For the concert, I dispensed with any notions of playing 'ordinary' guitar riffs and chords; for such an abstract piece, there didn't really seem any point. Instead, I employed an E-bow; a kind of mini-synthesiser without any notes which achieves its affect by the user placing it close to guitar strings. The magnets within the E-bow, powered by a battery, produce a thundering sustained drone which, combined with effects like reverb, have been used frequently in popular music lore, from Jimmy Page's coaxing of guitar smoke in Led Zeppelin's 'Dazed & Confused' onwards. In addition, I used the handle part of a beater on the strings of the guitar.
There's something liberating about 'this' side of guitar playing; by that, I mean the improvisatory side of guitar playing instead of straightforward chord/solo conventions. Cardew undoubtedly was trained in conventional composition and notation, but with 'Treatise' he was trying to break out of this completely. Indeed, improvisation is built into the lifeblood of popular music. It's a liberating force that has been since in modern jazz and much left-field rock.
Conventional five-staff notation has become so ubiquitous that it has ingrained certain ideas in us: that if a note is higher up in a bar in a score than another note, then that must translate automatically to a higher up tone on the instrument. However, it wasn't always this way. In the non-Western world, prior to the conventional Western musical notation which has been adopted around the world, notation took on all kinds of different forms in the great ancient civilisations. These different systems of notation have been around for thousands of years, in contrast to Western notation, which we tend to think of as 'eternal', but in reality began only at some point in the middle-ages in comparison.


For example, India produced Swarilipi and the Bhatkhande System of notation among 

others, used in raga and other melodic modes in Indian classical music:


China, meanwhile, had the Qin tablature, which showed finger positions and stroke technique rather than notes:


But it was in Korea, with the Jeongganbo notation, that durations of notes was first indicated in all of the Far Eastern musical notation systems. It's possible that this could have partially been adopted and led to the conventional five-staff Western notation system which we use today.
Each square in the notation below indicates one beat:



Of course, we're so used to reading from left to right in the majority of the Indo-European languages (which you're doing right now reading this blog post) that it's easy to forget that many languages elsewhere are the opposite, going from right to left and from bottom to top on a page. This is evident from Hebrew and Arabic to Chinese Mandarin and Japanese. So it would have been with many of the scores above. By contrast, the musical notation produced in the Byzantine Empire (the largely Greek-speaking empire covering parts of modern-day Greece, Turkey, Italy, and others), is slightly more familiar, even if obviously still incomprehensible to most viewers, in that it ran left to right, and was separated into measures:



In a way, graphic notation is almost a kind of reminder, or return, to these pre-Western notations of music, in which interpretation was slightly more open to the listener, and the performances of the pieces were less rigid as in conventional notation.

Monday, March 23, 2015




Apologies again for the delay in writing on here; it been a while since I posted on here due to other commitments.
I’m back in the heart of East London, wondering around the area, witnessing the changes that have unfurled over the last twenty-five years. The pace of change can be dizzying. That includes Brick Lane, where there’s been a large amount of focus on symbols of gentrification in a traditionally poor borough (Tower Hamlets), seemingly encapsulated in a shop called the Cereal Killer Cafe, which sells cereal packets from around the world at slightly inflated prices, run by two bearded twins (pictured above). Over here in the UK, there was a huge media focus on the place as a harbinger of rising rates, backed up with a focus on other individual shops selling coffee and food at inflated prices, whether Look Mum No Hands or any of the new cafes/coffee bars setting up shop. If you’ve been in the kind of areas in East London where this stuff is happening - Hackney, Shoreditch, Brick Lane, Bethnal Green, etc. - you’ll know what I’m talking about. This stuff has been paraded around the media again and again. Hipsters. Cycle cafes. Beards and tattoos. One-gear bikes. Flat white coffee. Etc.
I passed the Cereal Killer Cafe recently, only to witness a huge long queue, thus seemingly validating the media’s obsession with the place. There was a huge amount of tourists from around Europe, who may have picked up on it with their own media.
My personal belief is that the obsession with these places as some kind of harbinger of doom to an area is something of a red herring. What’s missing is the focus on the other symbol of gentrification in an area - the presence of identikit food and coffee chain outlets such as Pret a Manger, Eat, and Starbucks. One of the things that’s always struck me about visiting certain other cities - such as Berlin, Montreal, and even Los Angeles among others, as well as a trip around Norway last summer - is the lack, comparatively speaking, of endless chain shops, compared to the UK. Britain seems to have a pathological obsession with identikit chain shops, as witnessed when you walk down the high streets of many towns around the UK. Every street will have the same coffee places, the same WH Smiths, and the same Sports Direct (though admittedly Cambridge seemed to be a refreshing alternative when I visited last December). The result is a kind of rising conformity.
So it is in East London, where there’s a Costa Coffee or similar on every corner. These places are symbols of gentrification too, yet the media has little interest on them. It’s a lot easier to focus on individual, independent outlets, because they stand out. Chain shops have little interest to the media. Yet it is the likes of Starbucks that, until recently, have managed to get away not with paying tax rather than individual shops such as the Cereal Killer Cafe, who are most likely having to charge the prices they do to deal as an individual business with rapidly rising rents in the area and employees to pay. It's some of these high street brands that have been the ones avoiding tax through creative accounting more than the small businesses in the area.
A debate on issues of gentrification is a complicated one, and outside the scope of this post. What is more arresting to this writer is the general acceptance of chain shops, to the detriment of everything else. We’ve stopped even thinking about what these chain shops are doing to neighbourhoods, and have instead gone for obvious but misguided targets.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Greetings and New Year's wishes as we reach the middle of the decade. It feels like only recently that the '10's' (or whatever we're going to call this decade) started. Time flies, I guess.
I'm very conscious that I haven't posted anything for a while, and plan to do so shortly. The delay was due to the usual busy run up to Christmas, including studying web design at the same time as working. But I will have more time after the 9th January, on which day this event will take place (see flyer below). As usual, I'm putting it on on behalf of Pennyblackmusic. This time, it'll take place at The Macbeth pub in east London. Should be a corker.



Friday 9th January 2015
Doors 8pm / First act 8:15pm
Tickets £6 adv from WeGotTickets here
£7 on door
8pm entry
The Macbeth, 70 Hoxton Street, London, N1 6LP [map]

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


The United Kingdom might be a very different place tomorrow if Scotland votes yes in their referendum, from which I've been so absorbed in following that I've delayed in putting up stuff on here. But there is another kind of event in the next few days, this one taking place in London: Open House London, where people get to see the nooks and crannies of buildings in London which they'd not otherwise get to view.
Last year, we tried to get into Battersea Power Station, only to see the place turn away any more visitors to turn people away after enormous queues (40,000 people passed through the building over that weekend). So instead, that weekend exactly nearly a year ago, I went to a more local place: The Castle Climbing Centre, that strange-looking mini-Battersea Power Station near Clissold Park.
I remember The CCC (oh dear, acronyms always sound terrible) from when I was a kid. Before it got converted into a climbing centre, it was a pumping station for the local East and West Reservoirs, and by extension the Metropolitan Water Board. Designed by British engineer and architect William Chadwell Mylne to look like an aristocratic Scottish castle, I always pictured in my wild youthful imagination that it was a kind of Dracula-esque place, full of mysterious and weird going-ons. I finally got to see it as a teenager back in the mid-90s, when – as I recall – it was a museum displaying all the pumping gear, aided by lots of descriptions of their function. But only a tiny part then was open to the public, and I wasn't in there for long.
Taking advantage of its cavernous vault-like chambers, It was then converted into a climbing centre, which is what it remains today.



Visiting as a 'tourist' for the Open House London weekend was a strange experience, as I finally got to see in thorough detail the castle that I had always observed through my life, but never much been in. The climbers had stern looks as they ascended walls interspersed with grooves and niches, enabling the placing of a foot, while all the time accompanied by a safety lead hook.



The main space in the centre has been partially divided by an upper floor area which accommodates a cafe, but which overlooks both parts to make an enormous whole one. 
It's the nooks and crannies of this fascinating building, though, that really made the visit worldwide. Bringing back the Dracula theme, Herzog could have filed his version of Nosferatu here. We got to see a whole new floor being developed, which few others would see. Littered with debris on the floor, the area-in-progress had already constructed the multi-coloured climbing walls, and by now are probably already in use:



Then there was the tour of those prominent minarets, so integral to the artistic and aesthetic design of the building. Looking up, you can see them stretching upwards into the distance, ending in a view of a wooden floor of sorts, but will part of it left tantalisingly ajar. Like the hidden chamber in the main Egyptian pyramid, who knows what lies beyond it?



Then there's the immediate exterior of the building, a kind of utopia garden area with all kinds of conservation, planting, and green-related projects going on. It's here that you can really admire the scale of the building (and realise for comparison just how massive Battersea Power Station must be in comparison), right down to its distinctive Art Deco-esque engravings.





Indeed, just taking it in makes you realise what an enormous tragedy it is that its 'Big Brother', Battersea Power Station (well OK, the two are not related in any function, but I always think of them as being similar in design) has been left to fester for the last few decades. It would be an absolute tragedy if the building was allowed to collapse completely in deference to vast cash from foreign investors. An architectural landmark with its own distinctive place in London's history of iconic buildings would have been allowed to be raised to the ground.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Apologies for lack of posts lately; I've been trekking around Norway for the last few weeks. My visit included six plane flights with a constant backdrop of 24 hour sun (I saw no darkness for the entire two weeks).

It started with the town of Bjørke, where I attended the indiepop fest IndieFjord (run by a friend of mine) without about 200 other people (forget Reading or Glastonbury, this is where the real festivals are at these days).
Bjørke is one of those postcard-perfect Norwegian towns, with a fjord running through at exactly the perfect temperature to swim in. 


  

Surrounded by mountains and waterfalls, Bjørke feels pretty heavenly, backed up by some perfect weather.


Church in Bjørke
The festival itself, meanwhile, was in what looked a community hall, as well as at impromptu concerts on someones lawn.

The festival hall
Dennis & The Pony's playing outside someone's house as part of IndieFjord
Bjørke's nearest big metropolis is Ålesund, a sea port with some distinctive architecture which was partially obscured by the fog and rain when we were there (the usual story abroad).


At the top of the hill (where this was taken), there was one of those strange museums that you get in cities like this, charting the history of Ålesund. It includes a boat that you can go in, which was once manned by Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, as he chartered (along with others) the waters of the Arctic Circle for months on end. It must have got cramped in there.

Inside the boat
 
What we were all apprehensive and excited about at this point was our destination next: venturing right near the North Pole while checking out the wind-swept archipelago of Svalbard, one of the most remote places in Europe and the most northernly extreme of the continent. Not only that, but its principal town, Longyearbyen - located on the main island, Spitsbergen - in which we stayed (on the outskirts), is the most northernly-located town on the planet, according to most measures.
Getting your head around Svalbard takes a while. Flying over the archipelago feels like flying over the Moon or Mars; not a single tree on the entire archipelago, a place equal to the size of Iceland or Denmark. Instead, the viewer sees a bleak landscape of mountains, ice, and rivers. Longyearbyen itself, meanwhile, is an industrial-looking town in the middle of a valley surrounded by mountains, with jagged architecture and a port surrounded by rows and rows of jumbled scrap metal, which resemble something from The Terminator.



Upon arrival at the airport, you're given a map of the town, with distinct colours indicating where its safe to walk without the fear of being attacked by polar bears. Anywhere outside the town, and you need to be accompanied by an official guide with a gun (though a bunch of guys in a local bar insisted that they went out camping in the countryside on their own anyway) - including hiking in the hills above the town (and over a small glacier), from which I took the picture above.

Svalbard has a complicated legal history as a kind of no-man's land, a demilitarised zone over which Norway has ultimate sovereignty, but from which Svalbard has an agreement of autonomy exacerbated by being outside the EEA and free from VAT. I had to show my passport at Oslo Airport, even though it was an internal flight (a good three hours long, such is its remoteness), whereas you could just go ahead and fly elsewhere inside the country. It feels less Norwegian and more like a genuinely stateless territory. 

Used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries, Svalbard attracted a coal mining industry in the early 20th century. Norway's sovereignty was established in 1920, despite the continued presence of Russian mining towns such as Barentsburg (see below) and Ny Alesund (now deserted). During that time, Longyearbyen expanded, and the place became the location of the Global Seed Vault - a vault so secure, and with walls so thick, that when the next nuclear apocalypse happens, the only thing left will be Keith Richards (still playing guitar with a cigarette in his mouth), cockroaches, and the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard.

What Svalbard must be like in the winter, with a 24-hour darkness and constant exposure to the Northern Lights, must be a sight to behold. The Rough Guide to Norway labelled winter in Svalbard as "unconsionably dark". Yet our tour guide on the boat trip demurred, opining that he enjoyed the "beautiful lights" of the winter.

Longyearbyen itself is a strange, bizarrely cosmopolitan place, due to the fact that anyone can live there, as long as they can work (the third most populous nationality after Norwegians and Russians is...wait for it...Thai people). Svalbard's unique history involves the presence of the still-populated Russian mining town Barentsburg, which I managed to visit on a boat trip. Populated by 600 Russian souls, and in tandem with the Russian mining company Arktikugol (Arctic Coal), Barentsburg feels like the town at the end of the world that time forgot, what with its images of statues of Lenin, Marx and Engles facing the mountains behind the lake, and a lack of advertising anywhere (instead replaced by Soviet Union-style propaganda).







There's also the most Northernly-located brewery in the world here, where I downed some vodka next to a giant polar bear and a Soviet-style telephone. What an amazing place.


But it's the majesty of the glaciers which are really impressive in Svalbard, as you can see from the pictures below. Watching them from the boat was an awe-inspiring experience, especially as large chunks of ice fell from them to the sea.





Listening to the epic symphonies of early Sigur Ros, and the modern classical compositions of Richard Skelton on the boat as soundtrack, I was especially drawn to tracks such as the below by the latter, whose melancholic, slow-burning drift summed up the widescreen, awe-inspiring visions of nature in front of me.

There's something about Skelton's music that is so evocative of nature and the countryside. His music gets more and more under your skin with every listen. With 'Noon Hill Wood' (on Landings), he's conjured up visions of the mountains in Lake District, where I go in August. The below is 'Of The Sea', from the album Verse of Birds.



Finally, we got the plane to Tromsø, the largest city in Artic Circle Norway. Arriving back in a big city felt odd after the extraordinary, isolated experience of Svalbard. But it's a beautiful city at night, with a lively seaport centre, and bars such as the magnificently-named Bastard Bar. Walking around the city at "night" (the 24-hour sun made such concepts feel redundant) felt relaxing after the austere visual nature of Svalbard; it was nice to see trees again.

Tromso from the bay

I was particularly drawn to Tromsø's distinctive architecture, with its beautiful looking old wooden houses dating from as far back as the 17th century.





Tromsø also has some great museums, including the Polar Museum, and this strange place (the Polaria Museum), full of interactive exhibits, on the waterfront. It looks from the outside like a pack of cards collapsing.

Polaria Museum
A walk through the mountains outside Tromso gave us a panoramic view of the city, spread out like a shining jewel in the distance over both sides of the river:


Longyearbyen airport
As the mist rolled in from the surrounding mountains, we reflected on what an amazing journey it had been. One day I'll return.