Chris Cutler Symposium
Sugawa:Now, we have just watched two video tapes of p53 and Cassiber, which are very interesting and exciting. I would like to ask you about the difference between the two projects which have two similarities: both use group improvisation to build up structures, both do not hesitate to use quotations and technology - I mean both use computers and samplers on stage, and performances just played are quite swiftly put to use as an element of stage performance. Of course, the main difference between the two is that p53 is a one-time project and Cassiber is a band, but I assume that there must be a difference of the concepts.
Cassiber was started as an improvising group with the central idea of improvising organised pieces and songs. At that time - 1982 - when one thought about improvisation, one generally thought about noise, abstraction and Darmstadt School type rules - I mean, no rhythm, no harmony, no melody. The Cassiber idea was to go exactly in the opposite direction and try to improvise 'finished compositions' that consisted, in the main, precisely of rhythm, melody, harmony, recognisable structure and apparent 'arrangements' - and yet still embodied the spontaneity and unrepeatability of improvisations. So, for us, noise and abstraction became extra options to be employed as elements in a (spontaneously) organised structure. Only the texts were prepared in advance. You could say that it was improvisation that was not meant to sound 'improvised'. The first two records were made this way and then we began to work more with material that was pre-prepared and to use the studio as a working tool to manipulate and transform performances. By the time we made the CD documented here -six years later - we were building songs part by part, using samples, computer, interpretative performances and 'found material' as equal elements in a compositional process.
p53 was very different, though still concerned with making improvisation a compositional endeavour. The group was formed after Hessischer Rundfunk asked me to propose a project for their 25th annual jazz festival. For me, the most important thing about this project was the choice of the people who would participate in it since, in a critical sense the people are the composition. From the beginning, I had a kind of metaphorical narrative concept of how the piece should work. I wanted it to raise questions about the nature of music and the nature of listening as it has unfolded through our century, to pit acoustic sounds and the classical music tradition against... well, not against, but in a tense and developing relationship with.... electronic timbres and the contemporary sound world; to pit different genres of music against each other and to contrast the relation of gesture to sound, by which I mean, if you play the piano like this (softly) you hear a soft pianissimo tone, and if you hammer it forte, it sounds loud and strong. You see the sound you hear, the gesture matches the effect. However, when Otomo draws a tiny piece of metal across the bridge of his guitar, that small gesture makes a huge sound bearing no obvious relation to the action that produced it. So, two worlds, (one formed from acoustic sounds - two grand pianos - cross-century piano repertoire, visible emotion and the other from highly amplified turntables, electric guitar, computer generated sound and realtime processing) had to find some accommodation with one another, some conversational ground as the piece unfolded. That was the essential content. And, since I was using both acoustic and electronically modified drums (and other acoustic and amplified objects) I put myself in a kind of mediating position between these two worlds. Beyond this configuration, the piece is a kind of negotiation: by turns the musicians ignore or respond to one another, come to agreement or impose their own will, search for a common language or shout in their own. At the same time they are attempting to produce coherent music. So there is a permanent conflict - which makes for drama. So, for me, it's a drama piece. Harmony may sometimes be achieved between the old and the new, but it never lasts - except perhaps as it emerges in the overall dramaturgy of the entire concert. In addition,I wanted to say something about the contrast between early 20th century concert listening and the channel-hopping aesthetic of the fin de siecle '90's. In rehearsal, all of these issues were discussed and different approaches tried, but the concert itself was completely improvised. Order had to emerge from the performance itself, which took great discipline from all the players. Especially Marie Goyette, the woman who played the main piano. Her constraints were particularly onerous since I had asked her to select a few small sections from the classical repertoire and, like a human sampler, play these and nothing else. She could play in any way or at any tempo she wanted, but only these few fragments. Imagine how hard it must be to work under such a restriction and still make coherent music. Each of the others similarly had a role that they alone could have played, which is why I say that, in a way, the composition was the people..
-- That's a difference. You could say that Cassiber worked to produce a finished product, a piece of art, while p53 worked to exemplify a process...
I should add that Cassiber was exploring composition with performances - formal composition but not composition on paper; composition on tape. We felt that we were building objects that would outlast us. Working on a CD is like working on a book or a painting; it's a way to keep changing an arrangement of sounds until it's finished and then to fix it like that. A score only fixes composition and structure; a recording renders a unique performance permanent. So, it's not the notes that Christoph sings that are remembered on tape, but a specific performance of those notes. I am not talking about documentation here, but about using performances, or improvisations as compositional material. This is a new medium. Musicians have only had the possibility of doing this for the last 80 years -theoretically - practically more like 40. So, it has opened a whole new musical world which is still very exiting to explore.
Sakamoto: Music scene is vastly changing its quality in 1990s. Everything is weathering into styles only to be consumed, experiencing some aftershocks and making the whole things nonsense. Even here, is an argument on "popular" still effective? Though experiments came easier with various musical borders removed from inside and outside but I fear that the meaning of experimental music as a struggle is becoming ineffective. Please let us know your stance and vision as a musician at present.
There were special conditions in the '60s, because a lot of the technology that had to do with the electrification of instruments and the ability to make multi-track recordings was very new then, and advances were being made very quickly. It was an exiting time to be a musician - there was so much new territory, so many new sounds and new ways of putting sounds together to discover. It seemed there was some ear-opening innovation every month! In this way electrification revolutionised music and revolutionised some of us too. Today we are living through the transfer to digitalisation, which is probably no less revolutionary. Music machines have evolved out of all recognition and we need to find out what they can do. So yes, I think there are plenty of possibilities to explore new means to create, control and organise sound in radical and surprising ways today.
However, perhaps it is also true that the situation seemed clearer in the '60's, when it was possible still to entertain the idea of a mainstream; to go into one record shop and find jazz, pop, classical, folk, comedy and ethnic music not only side by side and in manageable quantities but also presented as a diverse range of recorded sounds rather than a series of specialised market categories. You could conceivably have listened to more or less all of them if you'd had a mind to, and certainly a reasonable cross section. But, by the late '70's there'd been a massive fragmentation and specialisation, not only of products but also of producers and markets. Now there are thousands of individual categories and genres, each with its own dedicated public and outlets. Go to Tower or Virgin - there is so much of everything that the mere idea of an overview is manifestly absurd - and they don't even cater for really specialised publics. Multiplication and fragmentation has meant that there is less cross-pollination, less communication between different genres and far less visibility for new work today. In the '60's anything new was pretty much bound to come into the public arena, if only because it was all under the aegis of a few major labels who consolidated their marketing. Today it is unlikely ever to escape from it's own specialised domain. Moreover, in time, the novelty of recorded sound, as such, has worn off. It seems a commonplace now. It's taken for granted - other things, like computers, are more exiting.
Sakamoto: So, experiments and innovation are still coming, but they are much harder to find.
In the '90's Ground Zero is no less experimental or innovative than Henry Cow was in the 70's. Both bring new elements into the musical language and both suggest new fields of exploration.
Finally, I hope I can say that I haven't noticed myself being taken over yet. Certainly no major label has tried to absorb what I do - and I'm sure that's true of most of us who were experimenting in the '70's as well as those who are experimenting now. The music that did not move, however, the music of the '70's that stayed the same, that music has become absorbed and digested. But that is true of all innovation - in time it becomes commonplace and loses its exiting edge. Or is forgotten. But I am sure that so long as there are creative people, there will be misfits and renegades - and there will always be both new voices and new publics who listen and continue to care about music. So, the political effect of nonconformist individuality, innovation, critical thought and creative expression - of eschewing the orthodox path and defying authority and tradition - will never diminish, nor will it's effect be blunted. After all, an intelligent world needs intelligent music and a changing reality needs new forms through which to express itself..
Sakamoto: You played with (EC) nudes for a short period, but, after that, you seem to have not joined any permanent band which you write words and play drums for. How comes it? Do you think that permanent band is ineffective now?
Henry Cow was a full time band. We were together for 8 years, and if we were not doing concerts, we were rehearsing. From 9:00 to 18:00 every day, 6 days a week. Well, you can do that when you are young. What Henry Cow taught us, apart from our responsive musical skills, was to feel free in many different areas of music. We were able to play songs, rock music, something a bit like free jazz, something that was a bit like electronic music.. and to bring a lot of contemporary classical music into very complicated rock compositions - all at once without compartmentalising the different vocabularies.
Henry Cow was a great experience, but a very hard one - like a marriage - and when it finished none of us ever formed a permanent group again. Of course, there was the Art Bears for a while, Tim had The Work, Lindsay was in the Feminist Improvising Group and Fred had Skeleton Crew. But they were all projects, not permanent ensembles. Part of the reason for this was perhaps that it seemed no longer possible to express in one group all of the different musical personalities that we'd learned. So Fred made a solo career playing his unique style of guitar and at the same time formed Massacre, Skeleton Crew, Keep The Dog to continue to play some kind of rock music. My life too consists of moving from playing kinds of Rock music - in Pere Ubu, or Hail or with Peter Blegvad - noise improvisation - in duos with Fred Frith, Zeena Parkins, Keith Rowe, - strange mixtures of styles - as with p53 - in classical configurations - like the Hyperion Ensemble - or working through my long fascination with songs - in Art Bears, News From Babel, Cassiber, The EC Nudes, Domestic Stories or the Science Group. I can't do all these things in one group anymore.
This new way of working - putting projects together and mixing old friends with new collaborators - is very stimulating. There exists now, in effect, a pool of like-minded people who intermittently work together in continually changing combinations. New people are constantly added to this pool; new combinations constantly emerge. It's a very productive situation.
Henry Cow was an old-style geographically centred group. We all lived in one area and rehearsed every day. Since then I have never been in a group where everybody came from the same country, never mind the same town. So when the Frankfurt Jazz Festival asked me to propose something for their anniversary, although I live in London, I didn't have to think twice about choosing Marie Goyette from Canada, Otomo Yoshihide from Tokyo, Zygmunt Krauze from Warsaw and Lutz Glandien from Berlin. Such a band can't be permanent, but it's great to have the freedom to do such projects, to have such a pool of great musicians to draw from.
I first worked with Marie Goyette in a project of John Rose's. That's how I found out what she did, who she was. When I put p53 together, I knew I needed Marie for it. Heiner Goebbels came to see p53 at Frankfurt saw Marie there. Soon after that, he invited her to be in his next theatre production. So it goes. I think this is a very healthy and positive situation. And while it's true that one loses something by not having a permanent group, one also gains a great deal.
The young generation will continue to form permanent bands, they have the time and the energy - and they need to hone their skills: a long term collective is a great university for musicians. We old ones just do it another way.
As it happens, I am just finishing a new song project with a (virtual) band - seven people from five countries. It could be a performing group if anybody asked for it, but then it would inevitably be expensive - because of travel and rehearsal costs. That's a decision now - whether to make such projects or to limit oneself to things that are economically practical. Nowadays I would rather do the special projects, and work with people I really want to work with. It's a habit. I don't really think geographically any more.
Sakamoto: Are your members a secret?
No no, Bob Drake, Stephan Tickmayer, Amy Denio, Fred Frith and Claudio Puntin.
Sakamoto: Do you have a band name?
Not yet. The songs are all on science topics, mostly particle physics. It'll probably be called something like the Science Group.
Ogura: You often play something that sounds apart from the standard musical instruments, and of course samplers which can treat non-musical sounds. Does it mean that the category of music is breaking up? Do you think that "music" should be just an expression with sounds, which does not need musical rules?
A sampler is just a tape recorder, a clever, fast tape recorder. What the tape recorder did for music, exactly as you say, was to make any sound that you can hear a sound that it is possible to reproduce. Therefore, any sound that you can hear is now proper matter from which music can be made. It seems to me then that the problem you have raised is whether the category of music can survive the infinite expansion of sound into its domain? If we look back to the 16th or 17th centuries, music was determined by the structural organisation of instrumental and vocal sounds. And the range of sounds that was admitted to be musical was very narrow and consisted pretty much exclusively of notes. Therefore, structure took the form primarily of harmonic development and melodic transformation. Today you can have a car crash and a thunderstorm in your music, which are certainly not admissible under the old rules. To accommodate them, nothing less than new concepts of music and musical organisation are called for.
John Cage made an important contribution to this problematic by recognising and theorising the new status of sound in its relation to the listening public and their responsibility toward producing rather than merely consuming what they heard. Cage's method was to develop systems that would prevent him and his interpreting musicians from making conscious decisions about content and structure and by insisting that "all sound is music." Since he - as the composer - imposes no deliberate, considered order on the material, it now has to be for the listener to find the order in the sound she hears. Thus, music becomes a dynamic rather than a passive activity because the listener has to do a great deal of structural work: in fact, to hear-as music. However, I don't think that even this radical position threatens music as a category, since I consider the Cage of the aleatoric period to be a teacher rather than a composer. I say this in all humility because I respect him a great deal. Nevertheless, in his later years, he was not composing music in any sense that I would understand or employ the term, since for me, music must be an essentially communicative activity. To the extent that this true, one can consider music as a species of language, meaning that both parties have to work on any effective conversation. Whoever is producing and presenting the music has to be making a deliberate effort to produce something that those who are listening can take something coherent from. But, if I begin speaking to you now in an invented or aleatoric language, that would be the end of any communication between us, so I don't think we could call such speech language. If I apply the same argument to music - if I start to make random noises - then it makes no sense to me to call what I am doing music anymore. It may be interesting, it may be productive or evocative or surprising, but it's not music: there is no communication intended between the participants in any recognised tongue. I am not stating a rule here I am defining my meaning of word. For me, music has to be the deliberate and conscious organisation of material to produce some kind of mutual affect in the human environment in which it's produced.
So. I don't think that the category of music is inevitably compromised or undergoing collapse. Which is not to say that, as a result of the massive proliferation of new material and new sound technology, performers and composers don't have serious communicative and structural problems to solve. From my point of view though, answering the question 'is it music' is far less difficult than discovering how to make coherent music with all the new materials at our disposal and all the dialects of music that currently exist.
Hosokawa: You are one of very few who has been working as musician and theoretical writer. But you said music has its own language and you cannot translate it. Then, who did you consider to be the audience for your book File Under Popular? And what was that purpose?
I suppose the audience I wrote for was people like me who aren't satisfied unless they have some sort of understanding about the things they are interested in One can look at a picture and say, "that's a nice picture, I like it" and stop there. Or one can think, why do I like it, what is it about the red mass here, the paint scraped away there? Why do I think this is a "well--balanced" picture? Is "well-balanced" the right way to describe the way I feel about it? If one thinks this way, then one starts a kind of internal dialogue, trying to find the right questions and some kind of answers. I suppose then that my book is for people who have the same questions that I have, and are interested in how somebody else has tried to answer them. I don't think it's for musicologists. It doesn't obey the rules of academic discourse and it doesn't use the accepted academic language. It doesn't even really ask the kind of questions that musicologists want answers to, though I think in some cases it answers questions they ask in other ways. So I would say my book is written for interested amateurs.
Hosokawa: Going back to the former discussion, you said that they did important experiences in the mainstream in the 60s, but now, that does not apply. Why could they be in the mainstream in the 60s and why can't they be in the 90s? Also, another question is if there is other musicians whom you like to write tributes.
I wrote about Sun Ra because it allowed me to examine the way that the folk mode of music was transformed under conditions of new social relations and new technology and also to address questions concerning the ontogenesis of the blues and jazz and rock and their relation to recording. I wrote about The Residents because of their extraordinary relationship to recording technology and the way in which they transformed pop music into something bizarre and avant-garde. Into a branch of 'Art' in fact. I wrote about Phil Ochs and his relation to Elvis Presley to tell a very complicated story about American popular music, politics, culture, engagement and authenticity. But all the articles revolve around the impact of recording technology on the nature and practice of music. So they were tributes in one way, but more importantly for me they were case histories.
When I said they were all mainstream, I only meant it in the sense that in the early '60's there was, in my opinion, only a mainstream. Music hadn't really fragmented yet; The Residents, Sun Ra, Phil Ochs were working from and extending well-known musical genres. Sun Ra connected closely to big band jazz, Phil Ochs was one of many folk singers, The Residents quoted and deconstructed American pop and indigenous musics. These were all recognisable shifts and revisitations of accepted and familiar forms. And, however radical, they had a place in what was still a singular conversation between musics - as comprehensible variations from familiar mainstream forms.
To the second question, I did write a very long article about John Oswald and "Plunderphonics." And I wouldn't mind paying tribute to Brian Wilson, for instance, or Van Dyke Parks. I'm interested in people who cross boundaries, who put things together in a highly idiosyncratic way.
Audience (outline, an English-spoken girl): What do you think the difference between composition and improvisation? You said you play absolutely free when you improvise, but as I have seen and listened to your video, there is a common language or rule among the musicians.
If I said "free," I hereby unreservedly withdraw that description. And I agree of course that it's impossible. If I'd been writing I would have crossed it out..........
In the 60's, innovation was still mostly driven from the point of production, by which I mean, musicians would sit round in a room and experiment with techniques and ways of putting music together, or of writing and playing together. These were manual skills, musical skills, based on physically producing sounds. What is much more common today is putting things together based on consumption, by which I mean, configuring various sorts of machines, switching them on and seeing what happens. Today, increasingly one makes decisions not by producing sounds oneself but by listening to mechanically produced sounds and choosing between them. This inevitably produces a dramatic change in the kind of music that gets made, since it becomes less production-directed and more consumption-directed. It's to escape this dichotomy that I am attracted to the kind of cyborg activity of electrifying something acoustic, mixing mechanical and acoustic processes with electronic ones. You still have to work with your hands, but now you have the extra power and extra control -- or lack of control -- that technology offers. I don't use samplers because I can't control them - they control me: I press a button and get whatever was stored in there at some earlier date. I prefer to use instruments where I really don't know what I'm going to get. Where there's an interference between the electronic equipment I use and the act of trying to control it. It's that interaction which interests me. So now - and this is interesting I think - the new area of activity and experiment is instrument design. That's what you do. For instance Fred (Frith) puts pick-ups on the other end of his guitar, puts some selected objects on the strings and runs it all through a string of pedals. In the end, he's got an instrument that is definitely not a guitar, but makes certain kinds of sounds that he wants it to make. In effect, he's designed himself an instrument. Like mine, his are made for maximum flexibility. Of course there are people who work successfully with samples too, Bob Ostertag for instace; who have found ways to programme for maximum flexibility, to make a sampler a responsive instrument. The sampler itself, however, is an empty space. It sits silent until you put sounds into it. And then you only get out what you put in.
As a last word I'll say that, another reason one is never "free," is that one can only ever do what one's instrument will let one do, and even as one design one's instrument, one designs it's limitations with it. But at least now one can design them, one doesn't have just to adopt them.
Audience: (inaudible, an English-spoken girl)
Absolutely, yes..it won't stink as much as a bad improvisation, that's the thing - because with composed music you've always got the score to fall back on. The structure of the music is still there, even if it's a bit dim and you can't quite see it through the mistakes and the bad acoustics. But it's there. A bad improvisation is just a disaster, there's nothing to save it, no base to rest on. So improvisers find their own: those who like to play it safe play with other improvisers who like to play it safe; those who like to play dangerous, play with others who like to play dangerously. That's how it works.
Audience (young Japanese girl): I am greatly impressed with your p53 video and your drumming. You mentioned about the gesture just now, and your gesture in the video also struck me. What are you trying to express by the gesture?
No, these gestures are epiphenominal - I mean, in order for it to sound that way, it has to look that way. I can't help moving the way I do. I work from the centre out. I don't assemble parts into a whole, I have to internalise all the music and produce the parts from a central engagement with the entire music. In order to make a certain sound I have to move in a certain way. It's not deliberate. I can't help it, I have to do it.
I try to think fast and move slowly.
Audience: Osato, musicologist: You last mentioned about the sampler that it is possible to take all the sound that you hear and produce many sounds like the tape-recording machine. And on the other hand, you talk about instrument designing, where you put additional things on the instrument, and you create your own instrument. But I wonder if there's any inconsistency between these two statements.
I hope not! A sampler doesn't make any sound at all...well, it might go click click click. So by choosing what sound to put in your sampler, you are immediately designing an instrument, which makes just those sounds and no other sounds. So I don't think there's an inconsistency. You can put any sound into a sampler, but you can't put every sound in, you have to select, to choose, before you have any sound there at all. But if you see an inconsistency, tell me what it is.
Osato: A sampler can generate any sound that there is, by which I mean, logically, the sounds which a sampler can generate is larger than natural sounds because it's possible to take any sound and also you can change it with a sampler. I mean that the sampler can cover the instrument you can design.
Anything you can do, the sampler can do better? I don't know, because I don't agree, actually. A sampler, although you can put any sound into it, will only produce - when you hit the key - exactly the sound you fed in. If you hit another key it'll use the same sound one tone up, or an octave up, or 10 octaves up. If you run it through an effects processor you can change that same sound a little more. Whereas, if I put a contact microphone onto a drum, I don't know what the hell it's going to do. I will always get tiny subtle variations of sound that no sampler could ever reproduce. You'd have to program the whole keyboard, just to get a fraction of what one contact microphone can do on one snare drum. So there are major differences - with piezo-electrification you have less control over the electronic part of the sound and more response to actions and gestures. You can never predict what you will get. There's a frightening feedback between ears, action and result: a small movement can have an enormous effect and the interplay and chaos between several live piezos is never predictable. What you get from a sampler is - pretty much - press the button, get the sound stored in it, never anything more. No slight variations. If you're working with a sampler and want subtle differences you have to design a set of parameters that give you a lot of flexibility over a few sounds. But then you have to accept a narrow range of sounds. Or you can have a lot of different sounds, but can't make many subtle changes. It's almost impossible to programme a chaotic response to small physical movements and to different pressures, materials and interferences. It can be done (I think of Jon Rose) but it imposes it's own problems and limitations. So I don't think, in general, that the sampler can do anywhere near everything that a contact microphone can do, it can do different kinds of things. And vice versa: a contact microphone is limited to extrapolating from the few acoustic sounds accessible to the performer and to various internal feedback loops. So in the end, it's a question of performer choice and instrument design. But not of comparability.
Osato: What I wanted to say is that the connection of body and technology should be important. Where technology advance and you can easily play complicated parts, I am sure that we should consider about the existence and role of body.
Most Techno music, for instance, has nothing to do with the body does it? It's all programming. Some is great. It works! I am sure there are many ways to get good results. And it's the result rather than the means that is important.
Additional questions: 1): Henry Cow was a band which girls joined as equal partners as boys in an early stage of rock history, as you mentioned in 'Skill', and I heard that Art Bears started after a serious debate inside Henry Cow on a lyric of 'Joan' whether it was sexist or not. Please explain your opinion on feminism.
Yes, for the major part of Henry Cow's working life there were three women and three men on stage, and always women in our road crew (driving, mixing the sound, carrying equipment). So, at this level we were very positively integrated. In fact I sometimes think that for people we met on tour this was more surprising than the music we played ! It was certainly unusual - groups at this time were always mostly male (except for singers) and sound crews and drivers were always male - and why was that? Certainly not because of ability or skill. I have to say also, that in all of my own projects I have always worked with women, not only for the good reason that it is always good to work with people who are talented, original, virtuosos (gender has nothing to do with this, men have no special access to ability) but also because I positively like to have women as working partners; I like their company and I like what they bring to the social as well as to the musical conversation. I will not say there is no difference; of course there is a difference, but the difference is usually positive and productive. It is a difference forged in the heat of tempering prejudice, and that is something valuable from which to learn. Indeed, often women have stronger personalities than men for this very - unreasonable - reason. That aside, too many men together can make a group dynamically one-dimensional and destructively competitive. Which is not to say that women are saints and men monsters - problems arise in all creative environments - but only that a balance of personalities and perspectives can be of great benefit, not only to the people in a project, but also to the work itself. I unreservedly recommend it!
Feminism, as such, is something slightly different, of course, because it has to make positive discrimination in favour of women, and this can itself become an inverted form of sexism. At particular times perhaps this is unavoidable. There was, for instance, a period in the life of Henry Cow when there was a separate women's group inside the group which had regular meetings to discuss their particular problems as women - including their problems with the men in the group. It is hard to say now if this had a positive or a negative effect overall, but it was part of our collective learning and it certainly raised and exercised problems that needed airing. In the end, it is not enough to speak about equality, one really has to live it, and that is inevitable messy - but absolutely vital, absolutely.
text and images chris cutler; site squidco 2941