Saturday, 6 November 2010

Devils Music: Nicolas Collins, Keith Rowe and Tetsuo Kogawa at Cut & Splice

One of my professional clients whose area of influence crosses over into my extra-curricular, music addicted existence is a brilliant organisation called Sound and Music. They were formed around 2 years ago from a group of other organisations that included the Sonic Arts Network and the Contemporary Music Network to promote, support and spread the love for sound art and experimental new music in the UK.

Through working with them over the last year, I've had a whole new worlds of aural exploration opened up to me by sonic legends such as Bill Fontana, Chris Watson, Nicholas Collins and Keith Rowe, all of whom I've had the privilege to meet in person. Thurdsay night it was Nic Collins and Keith Rowe at BBC Radio 3's annual Cut & Splice festival, which this year takes the poignant theme of transmission - the use of analogue radio in avant-garde performance.

The setting for Cut & Splice is Wilton's Music Hall near Tower Hill - the oldest surviving building of it's kind in the world. If you've not been there before it's worth it just for a trip to the bar (built around 1725), so that you can see the original wooden trims, peeling paint and crumbling masonry. It really is like stepping back in time. With the distorted, warped sounds of crackling radio signals pervading the air for Cut & Splice it takes on a truly magical feel.

First up was hand built electronic instrument pioneer Nic Collins, whose 1985 performance work Devil's Music used a intricate web of analogue pedals and effects to capture and loop live radio signals, effectively allowing Nic to DJ between radio broadcasts, with FX provided by looped static and white noise.

Due to his location and the time specific nature of broadcast radio, each performance is entirely unique and reflective of the time and culture it is performed in (a common feature of many of the works in the festival). You can get hold of vinyl reprint of recordings Nic made in 1987, including a piece performed in New York sampling dance and hip-hop stations that is credited as prefiguring glitch hop by about 15 years!

Since I missed his workshops earlier in the week, I managed to collar Nic for a quick chat after his performance at Wilton's. He told me that he now uses a MacBook to run a programme that performs the same function as his original setup, which he has available for a free download from his website! I'm looking forward to testing it out. I'm also very intrigued by Nic's book on how to make your own handmade electronic instruments.

Another act that highlighted very similar themes to Nic's was a group conducted by Keith Rowe, of pioneering 60s experimental group AMM, performing a version of 4 Systems by open form, NY composer Earle Brown . The score, made up of a four series of black lines, looks like it way originally written for keyboard and "may be played in any sequence, either side up, at any tempo."

Keith Rowe's group had adapted this to involve four people tuning in and out of static and broadcasts. I presume that they took the 'width of the keyboard' indicated by each set of long parallel lines to be the width of their tuner bands (I should really have asked Keith about this, but instead ended up talking about beer when I met him). The effect of doing this in East London was a beautiful amount of urban beats and bashment pirate station type adverts creeping into the mix, giving it a great uptempo feel most of the way through.

If you're still wondering who Keith is by the way, in the 1960s he was credited by Syd Barret as being an influence on his guitar playing. Unlike poor Syd though, who lost the plot quite early on, Keith went on to do far more radical things with his guitar.

The final act of the night was Tetsuo Kogawa, a cultural activist who helped lead a movement for free radio (rather than the one state controlled channel in each city) in Japan in the 1980s. Using small, handmade transistor units this helped feed an explosion of alternative youth culture in the country. 

Tetsuo's radio art takes on a shamanistic performance aspect, as he builds transistors in from of you using electromagnets and the proceeds to conjure beautiful noises from them through the use of his hands, a pippet of water and further magnets. It's truly mesmerising.

I'm heading back to Wilton's tonight for the last day of the festival, where we'll see classic works written for radio's as instruments by John Cage (of recent 4'33" notoriety) and Karlheinz Stockhausen performed by Apartment House, as well as live performance by Ma Le Pert (Tony Condrad). All weekend there's also an installation by John Wynne (of Saatchi exhibition fame) and a beautiful film by Esther Johnson about Gerry Wells, curator of the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum.

Of course this is all very poignantly timed with the impending digital switch-over in the UK and it's only £12 on the door.

(Yes I am getting paid by them, but not to write this!)

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