Date / Friday, 10 May 2013
Time / 22:00 - 04:00
Venue / The Waiting Room/ 175 Stoke Newington High Street; Stoke Newington; London N16 0LH; United Kingdom
Cost / £6/7
The first official showcase for Powell's Diagonal imprint...
DIAGONAL | is a small but, so far, fairly well formed entity that has drawn praise from far and wide thanks to label-founder Powell’s two EPs,
both of which mashed a host of peculiar influences into new modes of dancefloor expression. This year, new artists enter the fold, and Powell will use the Waiting Room’s infamous basement as a chance to air their wares.
BLOOD MUSIC | a violent outfit that exploits pummelling drum machines, noise guitar, harsh electronics and voice, will take to the stage in advance of their hugely anticipated Blood Music EP. Led by Simon Pomery, the band haven’t appeared in London for nearly a year, since they supported My Disco at the much-talked-about Quietus night at the Lexington. Expect to have your head rearranged.
RUSSELL HASWELL | also new to Diagonal, will be reaching for similar ends, albeit by different means. Armed with a modular system and God knows what else, Russell will be exploring new rhythm-based material that’s been prepared for the label and is due out later in the year.
The rest of the night will be led by POWELL and special guest DJ, RAIME, both of whom will use turntables and wax to explore the outer reaches of the label’s influences — and entice whatever manoeuvres they can from anyone who cares to listen. Party time."
Multicellular life is complicated, as is multicellular death. What is known as the death of an individual and defined as the stoppage of the heart - or, more accurately, as the loss of brain functions - is not, however, the death of the system that guards and assures its individuality. Because of this system's cells - phagocytes and lymphocytes - the muskrat was still, in a sense, running around the pool in search of itself.
Miroslav Holub, poet and immunologist, from 'Shedding Life'. Faber Book of Science, p.490.
JONAH LEHRER - THE DECISIVE MOMENT: HOW THE BRAIN MAKES UP ITS MIND
“[...] the human brain is a model of efficiency: even when it’s deep in thought, the cortex consumes less energy than a light bulb”.
You may have read the stories on Lehrer plagiarising himself, attributing false quotes to Bob Dylan, generally being denounced for work in both the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. But I am more interested in the anterior cingulate cortex and will seek more research on the subject. His own account of brain activity is (though I now regard it with caution) based on the work of others: it was for the science that I read this book. I hope the discoveries still stand. Welcome to the age of uncertainty. The freshly updated one.
With ongoing discoveries in neuroscience we have a new vocabulary for our experience of the world, and one which rescues us from much that is debilitating and limiting in our comprehension of things. I might have preferred if those American Football stories, so carefully chosen to illustrate complex cognitive patterns of thought and action, were translated into tales from good English Rugby, but there are also stories about preventing plane crashes, monkeys who have empathy for other monkeys outside their social circle, and the man who stopped, thought, and invented a way to survive a forest fire in the face of certain death (his spontaneous genius is now part of fire-prevention practice across the American prairies, and beyond).
Lehrer's popular neuroscience clarifies many aspects of this subject, one which I have had my eye on for ages, but haven't properly pounced upon until now. There is a sense of generosity to his writing and the way he addresses his audience. Fans of Stephen Pinker apply here. Now for some nuggets:
On our prefrontal cortices and information technology:
“The fragility of the prefrontal cortex means that we all have to be extremely vigilant about not paying attention to unnecessary information. The anchoring effect demonstrates how a single fact can simultaneously distort the reasoning process [...] This cortical flaw has been exacerbated by modernity. We live in a culture that’s awash with information; it’s the age of Google, cable news and free online encyclopaedias. We get anxious whenever we are cut off from all this knowledge, as if it’s impossible to make a decision without a search engine. But this abundance comes with some hidden costs. The main problem is that the human brain wasn’t designed to deal with such a surfeit of data. As a result we are constantly exceeding the capacity of our prefrontal cortices, feeding them more facts and figures than they can handle. It’s like trying to run a new computer program on an old machine; the antique microchips try to keep up, but eventually they fizzle out.”
On how the emotional parts of the brain decipher when something feels wrong, before we even think of the 10 Commandments:
“These folds of grey matter – the superior temporal sulcus, posterior cingulate and medial frontal gyrus – are responsible for interpreting the thoughts and feelings of other people. As a result, the subject automatically imagined how the poor man would feel as he plunged to his death on the tracks below. He vividly simulated his mind and concluded that pushing him was a capital crime, even if it saved the lives of 5 other men. The person couldn’t explain the moral decision – the inner lawyer was confused by the inconsistency – but his certainty never wavered. Pushing a man off a bridge just felt wrong.”
Every time we do something good, we get a shot of dopamine. If we are learning something (be this a new language or Krav Maga) the failure/success of our action is recorded in our anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and if we're good we get that shot of dopamine. The thing is, it will only keep going if we keep our language acquisition (or our fighting skills) consistently topped up
"Dopamine neurons need to be continually trained and retrained, or else their productive accuracy declines. Trusting one’s emotions requires constant vigilance; intelligent intuition is the result of deliberate practice. What Cervantes said about proverbs – ‘They are short sentences drawn from long experience’ – also applies to brain cells, but only if we use them properly.”
World Premiere of Radio Rewrite by Steve Reich
Royal Festival Hall, London Clapping Music
2 X 5 Radio Rewrite
People ask me: ‘am I going to hear Radiohead, or am I not going to hear Radiohead?’ And the answer is ‘sometimes you’re going to hear them, usually not’. So, I went my own way.
This is Steve Reich in the post-concert Q and A: although you’re not going to hear Radiohead they are extremely lucky to have any music by this composer dedicated to them. Reich spoke of how Thom Yorke’s vocal line for ‘Everything/ In its right place’ is musically identical to the end of every Beethoven symphony: “on piano it would be G going down to C”. This is part of Reich’s own belief in the underlying genius of more popular folk music (Radiohead) having melodic links to the concert hall (Beethoven). He went on to suggest that from the renaissance until Schoenberg “The window was open between the concert hall and the street”: there is no reason why Reich can’t become influenced by an English pop band.
Radio Rewrite is written for a set-up similar to the Double Sextet and some other more recent Reich works: two pianos at the back, two vibes to the sides, and in front of the conductor flute and clarinet, and a string quartet. Some late-Reich motifs are there, but in newly configured ways: discernible sounds include the elegant mid-range string drones of Variations for Vibes, Pianos, and Strings (2005), or the earlier strings of Different Trains (hence the sadness), but the Reich-pulse, syncopations, and rhythm variations that connect so many pieces back to Clapping Music (1972), always re-imagined from piece to piece, are less present in Radio Rewrite. It was beautiful just to hear things slower, with less pulsing. However, the moments between movements, and the gradual or sudden changes in tempo and mood, were so excellently conducted by Brad Lubman that the second half of the evening had a full-on vibrancy to it, full of emotion, celebration, vigour - joy, really, a word that often comes up with the effect of Reich on listener and performer alike.
There is little resolution between movement, unlike the Variations for Vibes (actually recording in London, at Air Studios), where the final variation resolves into D major. It felt moody, as if the heaviness of a difficult mood, or the mind’s reaction to difficulty, were not necessarily being resolved, but stoically taken on, accepted, as part of the whole process. In terms of mood Radio Rewrite is therefore more similar to Double Sextet, but with the vibes used less for pulsing than for occasional flourishes.
Maybe ‘Everything in its Right Place’ - the anti-anthem, a beautiful and strange and disturbing song - struck the first chords of this sadness, maybe it triggered something else: who knows. I cannot wait to hear a studio recording of Radio Rewrite, but not in order to ‘look for Radiohead’ (no one actually looked around the hall when Reich said that we were “blessed with a member of the Radiohead family in the audience”: our eyes were on the composer). I didn’t think of Radiohead once the whole time I listened to the piece, but I know I will when I listen again. But once more this is an example of the inexhaustible ways of listening to Reich: his music is multiple, it generates varieties of thought-processes. The innovation of his orchestral design means that the listener can tune in to a particular instrument and concentrate on the whole at the very same time. Or you can just zone out: work, go running, meditate, cook.
More instruments would lose the detail, which is minimal in design only: the music is much more complex than what the term ‘minimalism’ can suggest. This fact was entirely missed by Paul Morley in his embarrassing post-concert interview in 2010. Morley’s failure was that of the worst journalists, the bottom-pile hack writers: his mind was already closed on an opinion formed before the questioning of his subject. The questions were along the lines of “so how important do you see yourself in the history of minimalism” – and such a line of inquiry is a failure on many accounts (in positive light, minimal in the sense of reducing the orchestra for clarity, minimal in a return to pulse, minimal away from the avant garde, minimal in artifact but complex in design, minimal in the way the body is minimal in its functionality, as complex as the body is once we study it - absolutely, but Morley had no interest in any of this). A serious artist would be loathe to view themselves in merely ‘historical’ terms, as though their career was over. Reich was polite, but spoke with characteristic New Yorker bluntness, while also trying to avoid repeating to Morley (who was clearly not listening) that although minimalism can be useful to describe a loose group of composers, it can also be a loaded, fixed, debilitating term, and a limiting exercise to impose the limits of that term onto the music. All this, and no question about anything to do with the actual music!
And so tonight, in 2013, with a member of the London Sinfonietta who is interested in Reich and in music, and coming up with questions (some difficult, some challenging) it allowed Reich to think and speak, and for the audience to learn something: it was educational, funny, and illuminating. We re-learned that Reich is practical, "extremely self-critical", and he admitted that he can't write for brass. He also admitted that the trash folder on his Mac is often "runneth over": he deletes whole works that are not working, so what we do eventually hear is only the very best work he has made, subject to the highest intensity of process and self-critique. Baseball-capped, dressed in utilitarian-functional (yes, minimal even) black, he is a master in the midst of continual process.
A sense of joy abounded throughout the whole evening. Electric Counterpoint was flawless. It often takes a mature guitarist to nail the arpeggios, for perfect, almost digital lines of notes getting louder, peaking, and getting quieter. The guitarist was beaming, and he should be since he dad-rocked it. 2 X 5 was the quietest piece of the night: interesting, considering this is the piece written ‘for a rock band’. When a band play to tape, and with headphones on, the result is usually to play rock instruments in a more mechanical way: more precisely, with no reverb, but with heightened technical accuracy. With headphones off the feeling for dynamics changes – it would be louder for one thing, which is the effect of musicians hearing each other and also trying to hear themselves (hence turning up to eleven). 2 X 5 also restricts the players physically as everyone is reading sheet music, unlike the grinning dad-rocker who paced the stage for Electric Counterpoint. Reading sheet music and playing from memory will naturally alter the sound and feel of the piece, and so it was beneficial to compare these two pieces in a guitar-heavy first half.
I was glad that the Double Sextet was left until the second half, and after Radio Rewrite, because I feel the recording of it (having listened to it approximately one thousand times) is too dry and a little too flat, lacking some stereo imaging: I don’t think there is as much space to the instruments on the record as in the Daniel Variations, or the Variations for Vibes. The benefit of Reich behind the mixing desk and Lubman conducting (who was enthralling to watch: passionate, confident, and sensitive to every player – he gestures to them early, he wakes them up, he demands they play their hearts out) is that I felt I was hearing Reich the way he’s supposed to be heard: amplified, with the correct balance between the acoustics of the instrument and its amplification, and the sonic image given to the listener in the mix. I have never heard such beautiful strings in my life. It was shocking really. The recording equivalent would be Ensemble Modern's version of Eight Lines - Octet (1979).
It was exciting to hear that he is currently working on a piece called Quartet, but for Reich, characteristically redesigning sonic space to be in tune with his own imagination, this particular quartet will consist of two pianists and two percussionists. I'll try and book tickets for the premiere 14 months early, whenever it's ready, like I did for Radio Rewrite. Let's hope it doesn't end up in Reich's trash folder.