Postcards from a PhD
I spent much of the weekend at Recon Festival, a celebration of pioneering music and arts, experiencing a bewildering array of electronica and an equally expansive selection of craft ale. With this in mind, by Sunday afternoon I was in the mood for something a little more sedate, ideally involving daylight, sitting down and coffee, so I headed over to Leeds University School of Music to catch the last Sounds Heard concert. Sounds Heard was a weekend of events inspired by the work of electronic musician and musicologist Hugh Davies, incorporating workshops, talks and performances. For a background to the event, please see my previous post on Hugh Davies. Though completely independent to Recon Fest, their manifesto of celebrating “artists who work playfully, creatively and sometimes naughtily with technology” couldn’t be more appropriate to Hugh Davies and the works performed at the concert, all of which utilised invented musical devices and repurposed technology.
I have, in a slightly tongue in cheek manner, used to illustrate this post a picture of Reeves and Mortimer as Mulligan and O’Hare in their pastiche of avant-garde performance. It was the first thing that came into my mind when in the pre-concert talk we were shown the plans for Davies’ acoustic mixer, essentially three funnels on a length of rubber piping that, via a set of taps, feed into an acoustic amplification device. I would like to think Davies wouldn’t have been offended by this; from James Mooney’s talk one very much got the impression humour was inherent in his work. Indeed, the acoustic mixer was created for the piece ‘The Birth of Electronic Music’ (1971), a wry title for a work which includes no electronic instruments. An interesting theatrical piece, it involves four performers (Phil Minton, Steve Beresford, Sean Williams and Aleks Kolkowski) imitating the sound of an old ’78 being played on a gramophone, complete with pops and crackles, hisses and scratches.
The other non-improvised works on the programme were also thematically linked by records and turntables. The instructions for ‘Voice’ (1969) were intended to utilise a disc cutting booth to produce a physical recording of a vocal performance which could then be used in further performances. Providing the vocals for this piece was celebrated voice artist Phil Minton who performed the prescribed “growling, murmuring, whistling, intoning etc” quite remarkably. Never having seen anything like this before, my only frame of reference was the scene from Berberian Sound Studio where Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg plays ‘the goblin’. It was completely mesmerising and in no small part unnerving. In the absence of a cutting booth, a disc-cutting lathe was used to create the record.
The final Davies work was ‘Not to be Loaded with Fish’ (1968-9) which utilised the recording created in the previous performance, a turntable modified to play backwards and forwards, and a custom built unit used to interrupt the audio output based on the revertive pulsing system used in 20th century telephone exchanges. The resultant work was a kind of semi-chronological remix where the record was played both backwards and forwards with strategic interruptions and level changes that completely altered the emphasis of the original vocal recording and was a fascinating process to observe.
For three pieces conceived between 1968-71, I was quite taken aback by their relevance to practice in contemporary electronic music. By pure coincidence, before leaving the house I had been reading Kim Cascones’ seminal article on the emergence of glitch, ‘The Aesthetics of Failure’ in which he writes of a post-digital preoccupation with technological failure in its many forms. Davies’ interest in obsolete technology, repurposing equipment and his celebration of the ‘failures’ of reproductive sound – as in the emulation of the noise produced when playing an old record in ‘The Birth of Electronic Music’ – astoundingly predates this movement by 30 years. They really don’t call him an electronic music pioneer for nothing.