The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Sunday, May 11, 2003

I live in one of those slightly forlorn, tube-free outposts of South London which only manages to be part of London as a result of its postcode, an area which began life as a coaching stop between London proper and Croydon, and which today is making valiant attempts not to be swallowed up by, and become part of, the Croydon tentacles. As a result, journeys to Proper London can sometimes be as long and insufferable as commuting from Oxford to London used to be, but unlike Oxford, this part of South London isn’t the sort of place where one feels comfortable staying. It of course remains a coaching stop for me, halfway between my former life and whatever form my future life may take. When it’s a Bank Holiday, however, I can get from my front door to Holborn in about 40 minutes, as I did last Monday; a rather bleakly sunny and windy afternoon found me at the Conway Hall for the afternoon concert of the final day of the Freedom Of The City 2003 improvised music series. I was glad to meet some of the other attendees and musicians there, but musically the afternoon, with one dramatic exception, went by without anything much happening, much like this article thus far. Does that make the music worse than useless? Does it amplify my long-held belief that improvised music performances are the equivalent of multidisciplinary team meetings held in hospitals, wherein a procession of consultants stand before their peers, with notes, films and OHP, to elaborate on and discuss a series of “interesting cases”? The value of this work is inarguable, but it is clearly work in progress, a series of mechanics designed with an aim which is not within the remit of the meeting itself. Treating and perhaps saving lives does not occur in the meeting, but would be considerably more difficult without it.

It’s much the same with improv performances; by their nature, a procession of musical gestures and relationships – some well established, others comparatively new – are reworked, refined and developed with each succeeding event of interaction, until some kind of an aesthetic plateau is reached. And what happens to improvising groups after that happens? Do their discoveries go on to nourish the treatment and development of music in general? Or does the punter, having paid his £10, lament doing so for what is in essence a series of staged experiments; or does he swallow his prejudice and realise that his reaction has to become an indispensable part of whatever is improvised before him? Much of the most striking sounds of the afternoon came – not entirely inadvertently – from a baby and from two dogs, who were part of the audience and who contributed seemingly randomly; but were these reactions generated by what they were listening to, and if so, which party influenced the other – improviser or audience? It certainly isn’t a question of Any Old Noise Will Do.

This is where Nick Hornby falls down. By dismissing “noise” (and by doing so, therefore fails to understand its definition, which certainly existed pre-Attali) as a transient, puerile pseudo-stimulant to middle-class foppish young boys – who by extension clearly don’t Have A Real Job, i.e. Bloody Students – he is merely trying to impose his own life history as a model for all other music listeners to follow. It may well be that, having been divorced and bringing up an adopted autistic child – though it is typical of Hornby that the former seems to trouble him to a far greater extent than the latter - he doesn’t have any time or patience for “Frankie Teardrop” or equivalent in his life; but there is an arrogance in his outlook which is not confined to 31 Songs; consider of course the final three pages of High Fidelity, where, in the attempt to impose a happy ending on the not especially cheerful or reassuring story, Barry, the hardcore, out-there, Noise Is Everything record shop assistant, comes onstage with “Sonic Death Monkey” (that name!) and immediately launches into a note-perfect “Twist And Shout,” thereafter signing the pledge and swearing off these childish things, i.e. sex, death, noise and adventure, even though significantly at the novel’s end he is the only main character not romantically spoken for. The casual message to all those 35-year-old lapsed Clash fans reading the book is of course “Don’t bother with all that horrid new music which is so difficult to listen to.” Imagine Hornby saying that in 1976 – though, come to think of it, it’s easily imaginable.

David Toop’s approach is much more realistic and embracing. He doesn’t particularly want to listen to much music at home any more, would much rather listen to and watch it being performed, doesn’t trust the increasing corporate 24/7 imposition of music as a necessary part of a Proper and Balanced Life. This is not the same thing as dismissing all new music as noisy rubbish. He crucially acknowledges that new music continues to be new, minute by minute, but has arrived at his own reaction to it independently of any supposed societal concept of What Real People Listen To. So it’s a compromise, but a carefully measured one. The near concurrent deaths of his wife and father in 1994 colour virtually every page of Ocean Of Sound - even though they are mentioned only fleetingly throughout, the book resonates with the same kind of semi-inadvertent emotion which the Oxford A-Z can inspire in me (the huge blank spaces which surround the area in which we lived. They were of course anything but blank spaces, but I only know that because of what they were when we lived there. For all I know, they might well have reverted to blank spaces, as neither of us is now there).

Sometimes I want noise; more often than not I want a disturbed quiet. Too much of last Monday afternoon’s improvising was quietude without any disturbance – lots of tiptoeing when a bit more trespassing was called for. The 35-year-old lapsed Clash fan may relish the irony of a group containing two former auxiliary members of the Damned being overly polite, but that was certainly the case with Lol Coxhill, Lu Edmonds and Knut Aufemann. Edmonds played something called an “electric bass banjo” which served both as bass and as sub-Bailey “guitar.” Aufemann contributed little with his electronics beyond a few tentative crackles. Coxhill’s soprano became increasingly more crabby as the performance went on; always a sign that the music’s in trouble. The only memorable moment was when Edmonds retreated into simple “Dark Is The Night”/Paris, Texas bluesy lamentation, over which Coxhill played very plaintively. However, instead of ending there, the performance staggered on for a further few minutes. It was significant, though, that the language of signpost familiarity had to be deployed.

A group with Milo Fine (piano/clarinet/drums), Hugh Davies (sundry homemade gizmos), Tony Wren (bass) and Paul Shearsmith (pocket cornet) followed, and it was very much a case of Fine trying to kickstart everyone else. The Moby of improv is a naturally hyperactive player (though what I heard of his piano seemed to be inversely proportional in harmonic/rhythmic adventure to the effort he was putting into it) but the other three were playing very much for themselves and towards themselves. Davies’ contributions looked interesting, as they usually do, but were largely inaudible, and I ended up wishing for a duo performance.

Some fire was desperately required by, and on, this stage, and thankfully Free Base – a trio of Alan Wilkinson (alto and baritone saxes), Marcio Mattos (bass) and Steve Noble (drums) – strode on, intent on lighting the fuse. One of the two reasons for my attending – the other of course being Lunge, giving their first performance for some considerable time – they more or less obliterated all other music made that afternoon from the moment when Noble’s waves of cymbals splashed across the speakers, like a darkened Blackpool suddenly dynamited into colour, and Wilkinson’s baritone declaimed memories of John Surman circa ’69; fearless, overblowing, rhythmically acute as fuck. Meanwhile Mattos held it all together with his effortlessly overlapping bass harmonics. It’s always a delight to see Mattos back behind the bass – for a while it looked as though it was definitely playing second fiddle (yes, crap pun intended) to his ‘cello playing, but few bassists can drive this music as well as he can. No chance of Coxhill-style snarls to get the music going again with him around. Free Bass were brave and emotional, and when Wilkinson swapped the baritone for the alto, the music incredibly climbed even higher in intensity. Wilkinson remains sorely undervalued as an altoist, but he seems to me to summarise and encapsulate every atom of that extraordinarily luminous intensity which seems peculiar to British jazz/improv – the rhythmic attack of Mike Osborne, the naked emotion of Trevor Watts, the acidity of Elton Dean and the sour sweetness of Dudu Pukwana all seem to converge in his playing. Admittedly one could do without his spells of sub-Minton vocalese in between blowing (at one point his “Never never!” put me in mind of an avant-garde Sting) but as the music built to the point of emotional overspill, it was impossible not to be subsumed by the music’s spell. It ended with several fortissimo power chords – the exact antithesis of the repeated pointillistic chords which conclude the SME’s quartet version of “Oliv.” The audience rightly went berserk. The performance was recorded for the BBC’s Jazz On 3, and if given a proper issue I suspect will be fit to stand beside masterpieces like Amalgam’s Prayer For Peace and Osborne’s Border Crossing. Noble told me later that “I didn’t have a clue what Marcio was doing – I just went with it!” It was an exhilarating punctum of a performance.

Nothing could really have followed it, much as I yearned for Brötzmann, Bailey, Jah Wobble and Charles Hayward to come onstage straight afterwards. A contrast was required, and one was duly supplied by the not-very-mysteriously acronymised IST (Improvising String Trio). The aim here was to locate the other extreme of noise while trying to stay and play as quiet as possible; bassist Simon H Fell, ‘cellist Mark Wastell and harpist Rhodri Davies seemed determined to be indeterminable. In the early stages of their performance the studied nothingness of their carefully selected tones did convey something of the immensity of Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening Band (especially when the aforementioned baby joined in) but lacked the life which is evident in AMM even at their most inaudible. Then polntillistic pizzicato kicked in, Hungarian cartoon soundtrack-style, and they lost me. Davies in particular is a problematic player. Seemingly determined to be the anti-Alice Coltrane, his harp sounds are abrupt and harsh, almost as if he were trying to do Derek Bailey on the harp. But he thus far lacks the genuine involvement which Anne Le Baron displayed behind Bailey in Company Week ’82 (for evidence of how good the latter was, see Company’s Epiphany, now reissued as a 2CD set on Incus).

Lunge were last on, top of the bill (if we can de-democratise free music to that extent). Regular Churchgoers already know my feelings about their shatteringly brilliant Strong Language album – and check also their 1999 Acta debut Braced & Framed, more lo-fi but equally as sharp; “One Good Solid Punch” would have been a hit single in a world truer to 1982 – but last week their performance seemed a little subdued and, though well received, didn’t quite manage to land a solid punch. Interesting, however, to witness how they present themselves on stage – they virtually came across as a central duo, Gail Brand and Mark Sanders, flanked by two seated electro-operatives, Pat Thomas very hyperactive at stage left, Phil Durrant immobile and studious at his laptop, looking more and more like Tom Baker every day, at stage right, although his sounds appeared to be the more disruptive of the two. One great moment came when Brand stood up, turned to Sanders and did a little dance to the latter’s rhythm before returning to blowing. But it didn’t quite reach Free Base’s level of assured intensity. It did not transcend the laboratory.

But it did provoke me to think, on the way home: why should I need noise, and can noise still be noise if it’s quietly sounded? A world which seems daily to exclude forcibly even greater numbers of people who do not meet the precise geometrical requirements for “society,” where fun and happy endings become mandatory, punishable by ignoble death in a health service which now exists for the sole purpose of legalising euthanasia.

Sometimes you need to draw further into yourself before you can reach outwards. At home I’ve been listening exclusively to Leonard Cohen’s records for the last couple of weeks; partly because I’ve been listening to the new M Ward record, Transfiguration Of Vincent (about which, and whom, I will be writing more on CoM shortly; suffice it to say that you should go out and buy it, together with its predecessor End Of Amnesia, forthwith), which has reminded me of other, more subtle uses to which noise(s) can be deployed. Or, to be less precise, what would it bring Cohen to sound musically like Trent Reznor? Indeed, Cohen could superficially be thought the antithesis of everything interesting and irrational in music; the words, the voice, are in the foreground; the music as quiet and unobtrusive as is possible for the words not to be obscured. Drums drum quietly; if he uses Michael Sembello’s old keyboards, there’s a reason; it cannot get in the way of the subversive grain of the voice. If you’re having trouble getting into Dylan, think of that voice, as alien as Ayler in 1965. Unlike Dylan, however, there is no good-ole-boys backing in Cohen’s songs. It is purposely minimal and still – lurking yet immaculate. Ready for death but not giving a fuck.

“The question of the missing figure has been raised in relation to the metaphor of the nineteenth-century sublime landscape. Sartre’s writings on Giacometti show that it was also being formulated within Rothko’s generation in reference to a spatial ‘infinity’ that occupies no more room than an artist’s studio.”
(Jeffrey Weiss, “Rothko’s Unknown Space,” from the monograph/exhibition catalogue Mark Rothko, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998)

And yet there is infinite compassion in Cohen’s cruelty. This is neither the time nor the place for a full-scale piece on Cohen (as a poet first and a musician second, he requires either a more complex, fully-annotated approach, or a list of pornographic graffiti derived from bus shelters in Lewisham and New Cross), but, if nothing else, consider this: how can a figure be absent when he’s all you can see or hear? And why does Cohen put such emphasis on the importance of his female backing singers? They are all over his later work, singing behind him, singing for him – or is he singing for them? The Greek chorus of muses – Cohen’s own Hilda Carline and Patricia Preece (Jennifer Warnes and Sharon Robinson)? The keyboards could come from an abandoned ECM studio (except from when it comes from the Pet Shop Boys – that bloodied glee of his voice on “First We Take Manhattan”). The rudimentary Casiotone soloing on “Tower Of Song” as if he’s just discovered how to love music again (never for the first time, of course – “Remember me, I used to live for music?” from “Manhattan” again). Ultimately it’s that prematurely exhausted and exultant voice which has to cut through every time.

Linked settlements: “Waiting For The Miracle” (1992) dwells on the implausiblity of Perfect Love ever transmuting into reality, and the wasted life which is the inevitable consequence of setting your expectations too high. “I know you really loved me (if it is the past tense)…but you see, my hands were tied.” Thus I build my own prison and remain there forever, despite the Other having to “stand beneath my window, with your bugle and your drum” (shades of the “Arabian drums” on Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”?). And of course the Other is caught in the same trap. Cohen eventually suggests marriage as a not-too-desirable alternative to death (“Let’s do something crazy/Something absolutely wrong…while we’re waiting for the miracle to come”). Hear how his voice almost sobs in its modulation from the implied potential major of “absolutely” to the decided minor of “wrong.”

(But then again he is never bereft of passion: consider his 1979 song “The Guests” whose descriptions of a stolid dinner party are punctuated by ever more desperate cries of “I need you, I need you, I need you now” – the yuppie equivalent to “Wichita Lineman”?)

(And was he ever unadventurous musically? That odd accelerated upstroke, as if the guitar’s spontaneously playing backwards, which we hear on “The Partisans” or “Avalanche” – a technique which VERY significantly only the supposedly untutored Blixa Bargeld was able to reproduce on Nick Cave’s 1984 cover of the latter)

And then its sequel – linked by that two-note police siren keyboard line – “A Thousand Kisses Deep” (2001). The album from which the latter comes, Ten New Songs, is an extremely moving record; only “peaceful” or “musically conservative” because its creator has earned the right to be. A life has been lived, the artist comes to an uneasy but slightly laconic peace. There’s none of the Rick Rubin-imposed let’s make decline and death hip schtick which impairs Johnny Cash’s “American” series of records. But Cohen has no intention of dying, not just yet; he’s hushed but still at work, daring you to anticipate the reshaping of stock lovesong clichés on “In My Secret Life”; and yet he can still look back at a life which now has no one Other than himself. regret ever so slightly the lack of control and the obligation to reality necessary for any survivable life. Were he 40 years younger he would perhaps combust in rage as Aidan Moffat does on Arab Strap’s astonishing “Fucking Little Bastards”; but “A Thousand Kisses Deep” has an authentic sadness about it, a resignation from one’s “invincible defeat,” a sharper “It Was A Very Good Year.” Consider the nod to Robert Frost in the lyric: “And maybe I had miles to drive, and promises to keep…you’d ditch it all to stay alive, a thousand kisses deep.” Chris Rea’s “On The Beach” with everyone drowned, the garden wall unshadowed. It has reduced this writer to tears every time he has listened to it.

“The ponies run, the girls are young,
The odds are there to beat.
You win awhile
And then it’s done –
Your little winning streak.
And, summoned to deal with
Your invincible defeat,
You live your life as if it’s real,
A thousand kisses deep.”

“In the top left corner of the picture [Christ Preaching At Cookham Regatta], drawn but not yet painted, is a replica of one of the earlier paintings. The original is called Listening from Punts. In it a young woman wearing a white dress and holding a bouquet of flowers is being gripped by those around her on her punt. Stanley told his daughters that she is so overwhelmed at Christ’s preaching that she needs to be supported or she would faint with joy. Look at her closely. Surely she is being presented to the message of Christ. She is a metaphorical bride of Christ on the day of her coming into understanding. Stanley has given her the tricorned hat his Hilda wore at their wedding, shaped now into a heart. At her feet, discarded, lies the coat she wore that day. She is opening herself to her Stanley-Christ. Her white dress is her baptismal gown, her bouquet of flowers the gift of love. Stanley’s Hilda-God-image has at last become his Hilda-Cookham-image. All are one in that message which has so long possessed him, and still holds him.

“In these closing paintings the fugal themes of Stanley’s personified feelings once more rise and fall, harmonise and counterpoint. The details are personal but in their transmutation through his understanding of the Holy Spirit they become universal and exalt his meaning. Only through true comprehension of the transcendence of love – redemption – can we know, as joy, that compassion in the discord of experience for which all humanity searches and in the existence of which we must believe or else we perish.”
(Kenneth Pople, Stanley Spencer, William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, London, 1991: chapter 47 “Christ Preaching At Cookham Regatta”)

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