The Age of Virtual Communities of Taste
Dr. Bela Máriás interviewed with Chris Cutler
Jump Magazine Hungarian
Jump: What do you find interesting general tendency at the moment in music?
Chris Cutler: Well, I can't identify any generally interesting tendency in the last three or four years, at least nothing since middle period techno. But there are a lot of interesting individual projects, many by younger people. For instance, Otomo Yoshihide emerged a few years back with a unique approach both to his instruments (turntables, home-made guitar) and to structuring music (viz Ground Zero, whose music was organised in a truly original and stimulating way) at the same time remaining intensely committed to the value of performance. He then reinvented himself through his work with Sachiko M - exploring pure tones, extremes of high and low frequencies, microtonal pitching, difference tones, heterodyning and so forth. I could name others. But then, there is the question of what's new and what's general, and then there's the separate question of what exhibits quality. General, at present, seems to be: more-of-the-same-jazz, late minimalism, rewarmed romanticism, the worst kind of overproduced fomula MOR pop, tired badass rap and, at home, the horrible phenomenon of the-1960's-reinvented-as-farce Britpop.
So; new people but no new tendency (it's probably there, but I haven't seen it yet). Certainly something is due. Meantime, the people we all know -the ones who have been working creatively for years, are still progressing and making new quality projects; as all artists do who follow their own path and continue to evolve. But that's life and far from fashion and popularity. And it's not a tendency.
That said, this is such a bad time; there is plenty to listen to and a lot of it is coming from younger musicians.
You spent two months in Japan not so long ago. What did you do and see?
I did some concerts, I met a lot of people. Nothing remarkable. I went there initially to play with Daevid Allen and Hugh Hopper (in a trio, we played a lot of old Soft Machine material and some new pieces) - it was a project that really came out of nowhere, but it was a lot of fun to play with old friends again. Then I made a number of concerts in Western Japan with Uchihashi Kasuhisa, a great guitar player, and some guests, including Haco. Duos and trios. Plus a solo concert at a saki factory, which was -extremely relaxed! I saw - well, although other countries have, of course, very different histories and cultures, the people I tend initially to meet when I go to play there are those with whom I already have some kind of (usually virtual) connection. I mean, they come to see the concert because they already know what I do. There's a selection mechanism in operation that collects a rather narrow and internationalised group of people together, not in any way typical of the country as a whole. It's hard, then, to make intelligent remarks about other cultures because any single 'community of taste' - meaning any of those many 'communities' brought into being through recording technology, gramophone records and the universal circulation of music as an object - voluntarily creates itself as more or less the same everywhere. In the musical field this is a fairly new phenomenon - well no more than 100 years old and in reality not more than 40 (dating from the point where the universal circulation of records reached critical mass). Before recorded music, you were either there - where and when an event happened - or you were not. There was no way for sound to travel from one place to another without real people travelling. And, while books and paintings naturally exhist in space, music happens in space but exists in time. I mean, books and paintings survive the moment of their genesis. Sounds do not; every sound is unique and dies at the moment of it's birth. What Homer wrote we know, how Beethoven sounded, we have no idea. So, at the moment music could be stored, this simple fact ushered in a root and branch revolution in musical thinking. Sound would no longer have to know itself as a thing fated immediately to oblivion. Music would not be governed by forgetting any longer, but by unable to forget. You make a record; it goes around and around and on and on and even when you're dead, it is still being put on record players and people are complaining about how out-of-date it is. There is too much memory in music now. This a new problem with which we have not yest really come to terms. Anyway, now that music travels freely - mostly through the postal service - it is able to find it's public everywhere. And it is this public musicians are most likely to meet when they finally get to other places around the world: the public who collect because they have already listened to the records or at least heard the rumours, the public, who in fact, already belong to the virtual community to which those musicians also belong, even if none of them knows it.
Has this change had an influence on music itself?
Absolutely. It has made music less geographically centered. Of course there are still people who relate to their own folk traditions. But, rock'n'roll is a kind of non-local folk tradition; there are far more people today whose musical community is accessed through the record shop and the radio than it is through their contingent environment. Such a community is no longer contiguous, but virtual. Many of us, for instance, learned to play music by listening to gramophone records and copying them. Once we'd have gone to sit at the knee of some master and that master would have shown us what to do, or we'd have entered a guild school or an academy, but now we can just as easily learn by listening to records and imitating them. It's an invisible college and it's nowhere, since and it no longer matters where you are - that small flat silver thing (it used be a big flat black thing) is the same whatever CD player it is played upon. This is revolutionary fact. And it creates a supranational, extraterritorial community in which people have more in common with people they've never met than they do with their next-door neighbours.
Have your engagements in different projects changed in the last 15-20 years?
I think they change all the time, in a small way. I am somebody who is interested in playing formal, organized, written music, and also likes to improvise without any rules at all. These are two polar personalities. But hey - we live in the century of schizophrenia. Or perhaps they are necessarily connected expressions of a single aesthetic impulse? I have certainly never wanted to specialise, to dedicate myself to one thing or another. I think, somehow, this relates to what I was saying about records - before, if you wanted to listen to opera you had to buy an expensive ticket and own formal evening wear; if it was rock you wanted you had go and find a club somewhere; if it was the kind of music they were making in the rain forests of the Amazon, you had to rent a boat and paddle up there and die of snakebite. Now you can get all it all - and more - down at the local record store. As a teenager I didn't want to stop at making music like the Shadows or the Beatles or some local dance band, I was also interested in Stockhausen, Bartok, Mingus, Coltrane, aboriginal music, pop, mississippi blues, electronic music and who knows what else. I listened to everything - it all went in, got processed, digested and most of it came out again all mixed together. Because, not being in a real community, not being limited to what was local, no-one is any longer obliged to obey any one particular set of rules.The Master may say this is the way of music, but the record tells you only what it knows. For the record there is no master, no way of music; there are hundreds of ways of music, and you can choose between them. Or mix bits of them together. This is one of the more interesting aspects of the virtual community, 'it' doesn't exist - an 'it' is impossible to pin down, since everybody's record collection is different, and therefore every personal 'community' is unique.
For myself, musically speaking, I try to indulge all my interests, at least so far as circumstances allow. I still play more or less straightforward rock music, with Peter Blegvad and David Thomas, for instance, and I still pursue my song projects which are more concerned with attempting to bring 'art music' compositional values and the pop song format together. Incompatibles whose proximity always produces interesting results, for me anyway. (As it happens, the last two CD's in this series were both collaborations with East European contemporary composers: Lutz Glandien and Stevan Tickmayer)ÉÉOn the other hand, I have been working with Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana Maria Avram in Romania with their Hyperion ensemble. Scored and unambiguously contemporary music. This is particularly interesting for me, not only because Iancu and Ana Maria are great composers, but also because I get to work with classical percussion which I can mess up with electronics. Otherwise, I continue to work on my personal instrument - electrified drums - and to apply it in various improvisational and compositional contexts. Each teaches something new. And s the instrument extends. However, it must be said that, although I try to follow all my interests equally, economic forces oblige me to do more improvising work than big composed piecework or large ensemble work, simply because with two people you can earn enough money to eat for the next two weeks and with a six-piece band, you can't. And, since my large projects ineviatably involve people from different countries and continents (it's a global community, as I said: and that's easy travel for CD's but hard travel for people) and since, for me, the project is the people, I can't compromis: if I need Otomo and Zeena, that's a plane from New York and a plane from Tokyo and there's no way around it. And, even with small projects, I can tell you, it's still hard to earn enough to earn a living. That's just a sad truth. I am absolutely certain that if there were money around, we would be hearing a lot more interesting music than we are. A good half of the people you see doing small projects would love to do larger projects too.They have the projects, you bet, and the imagination, there's just no one willing or able to pay for them.
Could you be more specific about your present engagements?
I am going into a studio now to finish off some recordings with Peter Blegvad. Then I am off to Portugal to work with Vitor Rua and Jorge Lima, exceptional people I have worked with on and off for many years. After that, a concert in London with Peter Cusack and Alqumia - improvised - and, early in 2000, a music-theatre piece with Stephen Tickamayer, Marie Goyette and two actors, after which I go back to America for various projects with Zeena Parkins, Tom Dimuzio, Kato Hideki, Jack Vees, some solo concerts and a couple of lectures. Followed by work in Canada with David Thomas' Mirror Man', a duo with Fred Frith and a tour with the new Palinckx project. I have to finish a chapter for a book too, and of course there's ReR to look after. In between are a few one-off concerts I needn't list (see my website!). That's my immediate itinerary.
How did your joint work with Fred Frith develop through the years?
With Fred? Well it starts, of course, with Henry Cow. Henry Cow was a big school really, a hands-on academy, a very intense workshop that lasted ten years. The policy in Henry Cow was to write music we couldn't play and play music that couldn't be written. I mean, on the one hand compositions were written without worrying about the technical difficulty of playing them - the band would work out how to play them afterwards. So pieces became increasingly compositionally complex and technically challenging. On the other hand, our improvising was as rule-less and free as possible. So, we took a fairly extreme position toward both disciplines: compositional and improvisational - with the result that all of the musicians who came out of that group can still sit down on a stage today and communicate immediately, irrespective of what any of us have been doing in the meantime (the group broke up in 1978) since so much of our basic vocabulary was developed in those ten short years. Immediately after Henry Cow, Fred and I continued to work together in both areas - exploring songs and studio techniques in 'Art Bears' (3 LP's, a tour) and working as an improvising duo, which still goes on today (the third live CD is due out soon). We also played together as a rhythm section, in the large 'Duck and Cover' ensemble, in Heiner Goebbels 'Man in the elevator' and in 'Aqsak Maboul'. Apart from performances, Fred played on my 'Domestic Stories' CD and more recently in the 'Science Group' project while I worked in his 'Graphic Scores' orchestra and at present am playing in his 'Tense Serenity', a new project which is a serious attempt to put composition and improvisation together in a natural way. This is actually a harder job than you might imagine, in fact it's a kind of musical "Holy Grail". Imagine - you are improvising, but you know you have to arrive at the beginning of a written piece, and after that piece you have to continue to improvise until the next written piece. How can you improvise freely? You're seriously constrained by the fact that you always have a destination and you always have to start a new improvisation from a fixed point. In fact you can't be very free.You can't follow an idea where it leads, because you always have to get back on track. On the other hand, if you want to perform a written piece, it's best to be prepared and concentrated. In focus. So, to improvise up to it and out of it splits the mind. By mixing media, both the improvisation and the composition are inevitably somewhat compromised. Fred's solution in TS is elegant. It involves having no fixed destinations and working with compositions that are fluid and arise more or less organically, or don't arise. It's too complex to explain now, but - it is a very interesting group. I like to work with Fred, it's always productive. And, to speak personally at the end, I like him a lot. He's a gent.
Budapest, 2nd October, 1999. MU Theatre
text and images chris cutler; site squidco 3743