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

Monday, July 28, 2003

1. Rooms
Well I had to listen to Lucier again. In the same way that I Am Sitting In A Room has become someone else’s story by the mere fact of its transporting existence, so it is that The Church of Me has taken on a secondary life by having become part of someone else’s story – a story precipitated, at least in part, by Lucier’s room. It’s now out in the world, with what is by my count its third, but by far most prominent, citation in print. Does that mean that CoM no longer “belongs to me”? Not quite…to the greatest extent, it does depend on the room in which you are reading/absorbing it. I similarly wondered: how would Lucier’s Room alter in character and structure, depending on how you listened to it? Does playing it through speakers lend it additional, or different, resonances than listening to it via headphones? Or via a hi-fi rather than on a Discman? Or heard in your own room as opposed to being listened to two rooms away? Indoors or outdoors?

To the best of my knowledge, the only record shop in London which stocks the “definitive” 45.23 recording of Lucier’s Room is These Records. This is a shop situated about halfway down Brook Drive, SE11, a curious time capsule of a street which runs parallel to, and behind, the Imperial War Museum; a street which seems to have been frozen in 1953 with its Salford terraces – or perhaps the way large parts of suburban Lanarkshire still were in, say, 1973 – and what are not quite reproduction antiques of shops (“H WELLS – CONFECTIONER”). At one end, the genteel squalor of midriff Lambeth; at the other, the honest wreckage of Newington Butts and the outskirts of the Elephant and Castle (Dante Road; how apposite – “BEWARE OF THE DOG” scrawled in white chalk across four high brown corrugated fences protecting sub-Barratt homes). And it is uncuriously appropriate that the only shop in London in which Lucier’s Room can be purchased is a shop which you have to strive to find, which you in several senses have to know about before you can find it – because otherwise it is nearly invisible and impossible to nail down. The sort of shop you feel you might have dreamt, even when you’ve gained entry into it. A shop which only advertises itself in the subtlest of senses. Before you can find These Records you have to know about the anonymous red door (so that no “X” can be painted on it by any passing Thomas More wannabes?), recognise what the vintage 78s lining the bottom of the otherwise shuttered shop window signify, be aware that you have to ring a doorbell to get in. In other words, you can only find this shop if you are genuinely determined to do so. A record, then, you can only find in a shop which you can only find if you want to find it. Who said anything about Willy Wonka? (i.e. someone needs to…) In one extremely decisive way, These Records acts as an alternative V-Shop (if only for Wire readers); once you enter its incense-scented interior you are faced reproachfully with an alternative history of pop as it could have been (or could still be), where Cornelius Cardew counts for more than the Beatles, where the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry are superseded by This Heat and Musica Elettronica Viva, where Die Trip Computer, Die! is still a palpably possible pop music.

Thus it was that I made my Discman Lucier’s room for Saturday morning and took it for a walk round the dark regions of SE11. The area is strangely paradisical if your definition of paradise is a world devoid of other people. West Square and its attendant Garden were an irresistible room. Squint your eyes closely enough and you, as I imagine most of its inhabitants do, imagine that you’re in Onslow Square, that you are somehow detached from the poverty and blood which silently surround you. West Square Garden was ideally deserted; apart from a few idle strollers, the place was uninhabited. No one chose to stop and sit. If you really wanted to find me, you would have found me in West Square Garden, London SE11, between 11:00 am-12:00 noon on the Saturday just passed. Listening to Lucier. Quietly – so that even more unimagined harmonics and resonances could make themselves known. The subtle structure which means you never entirely lose your grip on its origins – even in Lucier’s introductory instructions you can hear him pacing it musically; and how significant these stutters are – the “rhythm,” the second “script,” the “not.” How the meaning is not necessarily transferable, but can still be vaguely discerned even as the original voice which produced it may already have died, may already be beyond your reception, may still be fighting it out in soundwave space with old “Dastardly and Muttley” cartoon soundtracks, or Woolf (either V or L) on the Third Programme or Home Service. Listening to it on the same day at the same time in, say, Soho Square, would have provoked a piece of music which would be the polar opposite of what I had just experienced (you can discern, or at least comparatively approximate, this by the extreme differences in Caroline Kraabel’s “Taking A Life For A Walk” programme/recital, depending on whether she’s wheeling her pram down the Old Kent Road or up Denmark Street).

After that – the dying voice – the Imperial War Museum proved equally irresistible. I had not been there for more than two years, prior to which time Laura and I visited it (and studied in it) on numerous occasions. So up Brook Drive (through the soup of Brook Drive?), through the discerning desolation of Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, and up the steps to the green-domed IWM.

Not very busy, as it tends not to be, even with the £10 entrance fee now abolished; quarter-full, as it has always tended to be, with eager(ish) young boys, their considerably more eager fathers and the occasional, bored-out-of-her-tree partner/wife/mother, always standing aside, letting the boys get on with groping the tanks and trenches. It was by any standards bizarre that Laura was the only woman I ever knew who was actively excited by and interested in the subject of war and combat, and the First World War in particular.

I of course did not linger. After a quick and poignant tour of the 1940s House exhibition (in several ways, My House Circa 1965), I went up the lift to the second floor, and the WWI art gallery. Almost entirely free of people, I sat, already tired, on a director’s chair and gazed intently yet blankly at Nevinson’s A Taube (1915). A child lies dead on a cobbled street, blood seeping out from its head; beside it (the gender is not immediately identifiable) a bombed shop-front testifies to what has happened, but the culprit is nowhere to be seen. The “Taube” was a German two-seater reconnaissance ‘plane – the word “taube” is German for dove, while the word “taub” is German for dead. Eyes still fixed straight at the painting, my mind drifted indirectly away from it and I thought of my last visit, when we were both here, and the importance of the fact that one of us had to go on living, to provide even the most scant of testimonies that “both of us” were once upon a time alive.

Finding an obscure fire exit door I knew of old, I disappeared from the main gallery and slipped through another fire exit door to come face to face with John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed 1918.” I sat down to meditate some more. Such an emotional painting in its declared avoidance of obvious emotion; the setting sun, growing ever paler, the imperceptible vomiting by one blinded gas victim over sundry other bodies; above all the football game incongruously proceeding at the rear.

“As if to drive home their plight, Sargent ensures that the raised limb of the man kicking the ball is echoed in the leg lifted up by the third soldier in the line.”
(Richard Cork, The Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art And The Great War, Yale University Press, New Haven/London, 1994)

And that football game kicked off unconnected memories; of Sunday Mail comic strips circa 1969, of Sunday morning Barrowland murals – those 5 Boys colours, as if my extreme youth had been transposed with the grief and pain portrayed by Sargent almost half a century prior to my existence. I rapidly remembered the painting’s original inspiration, Bruegel’s The Parable of the Blind. Then things became strange. The Lucier piece started to re-echo in my head. This was yet another room, but this time a completely soundless one apart from what I could recall within my own mind. I suddenly felt detached. I felt as though I were nowhere and yet everywhere. I could live in this “room” for the remainder of my life. I could walk through that painting and back into my old life, my former world. I had no orientation consciously tying me to the Imperial War Museum, or to London, or to Earth.

Then I glanced to my left and caught sight of Travoys arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, painted by Stanley Spencer in 1919. The surgeons at the extreme top of the centre of the painting, bathed in a halo of welcoming and life-restoring light. If only.

“All I see: flying bits. I begin to count them.”
(Nina Nastasia, “While We Talk”)

Later that afternoon Radio 2 played Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.” Lucier’s room becomes, briefly, the mainstream. How apposite that the creator of “O Superman” should be wed to the creator of Metal Machine Music. You couldn’t have one without the other.

2. Pain
There is more overt activity, and far more overt emotion, in Duos For Doris, the new 2CD set by two-thirds of the current AMM, Keith Rowe and John Tilbury; but this remains a room, a room, moreover, of grieving. Two days before recording, in January of this year, Tilbury’s mother died aged 96. We mourn as we can.

The 70-minute “Cathnor” which takes up the whole of CD1 is the main event here, where the majority of the grieving and catharsis occurs. Rarely have we heard a more overt structure in AMM-related music than we do here. No instrumental credits are included on the sleeve; you have to know that Tilbury plays piano, and that Rowe plays something which may or may not once have constituted a guitar. It doesn’t really matter – here are two men, both in the region of 60, communicating and crying. The build-up is so cautious, yet so determined; Rowe’s electronics cautiously build an arch through which Tilbury’s never more solemn piano chords can proceed. And these piano chords are circulatory; they ascend and descend regretfully but rigorously. With patience and passion. Then at 43 minutes the calm finally bursts and we hear two minutes or so of complete unfettered rage. Noise enough to drown any crocodile tears. It’s as if the ghosts engineered by the overtones in Lucier’s room have suddenly fed back on themselves, and a phantom has emerged, raging and screaming. Thrashing and pounding as though stabbing their own hearts – but all there is left to do is return to the piece’s symmetry, as Tilbury’s cyclical chords descend and Rowe’s “guitar” decomposes. It is as profoundly static and moving as Gorecki’s Third.

3. Quantum
My copy of The Book of British Dance Bands From The Twenties To The Fifties doesn’t have an awful lot to say about Basil Kirchin. Born in 1929, the son of noted bandleader Ivor Kirchin, he eventually formed a band in conjunction with his father, the tagline for which was “The Biggest Little Big Band In The World.” On my record shelves, neither Kirchin figures prominently; Basil appears as a drummer on some sides by Teddy Foster’s Kings Of Swing, as well as on occasional sessions by the bands of Roy Fox and Ted Heath (he briefly replaced Jack Parnell in the latter), and Kirchin Senior not at all.

On the same shelves are two albums credited to Basil Kirchin, dating from 1971 and 1974 respectively, both entitled Worlds Within Worlds - one on Island, the other on EMI. Nestled incongruously (or not) between the John Kirby Sextet and Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds Of Joy, these releases present a rather different Basil Kirchin than the one of an established dance band drummer. There are names on each such as Evan Parker and Derek Bailey, for example, and the albums themselves experiment with “found sounds” of nature in a parallel-with-Holger-Czukay kind of a way, except that these sounds were recorded and assembled on location by Kirchin and his wife Esther during what he describes as a ten-year period of travelling.

Now comes a third album from Mr Kirchin, recorded in 1974 but unreleased until now - Quantum is a record of two distinct parts, but one common intent; and to this writer it sounds like the most fully realised record of the trilogy. Essentially, Part One is based upon recordings of various animals (hornbills, geese, etc.) while Part Two takes its lead from recordings of the voices of the autistic children who inhabit the community of Schurmatt in Switzerland. Both parts were painstakingly assembled (to a click track, even) by Kirchin in conjunction with what he describes as his “Praetorian Guard of musicians.” He says that six musicians participated but only mentions four by name – Evan Parker (on soprano sax), Kenny Wheeler (on flugelhorn), bassoonist Graham Lyons and bassist Daryl Runswick.

The initial astonishing thing about this record is that the KLF must have heard it somehow, for it starts with a sample of birds crowing “God Save The Queen,” almost identical in nature to that which climaxes “The Queen And I” on the first JAMMs album. Quickly, however, the music progresses to a regretful, restrained organ refrain, giving the impression of a Robert Wyatt backing track. A female voice (Esther Kirchin, one presumes) sings “Something special will come from me.” After this, however, controlled mayhem breaks loose, as Parker’s soprano enters, duetting with the dawn chorus (very Steve Lacy) before an uncredited guitarist makes his entrance – unmistakably Derek Bailey, but given the current state of relations between Parker and Bailey, one can perhaps understand why Bailey was reluctant to be especially credited here. The heat is slowly turned up and Parker’s soprano erupts into characteristic but always relevant tumult – as with the recently reissued and expanded Live At The Unity Theatre duet album with Paul Lytton, one is again reminded just how startlingly raw and passionate Parker’s playing was at this stage. The surprise, though, is how Runswick keeps up with him all the way, at some stages more so than Bailey. I’ve never paid especial heed to Runswick’s bass playing previously – his work on various Ray Russell and Harry Beckett albums was, shall we politely say, functional – but as with Jeff Clyne on Oxley’s Four Compositions For Sextet, it’s astonishing how easily he cuts free here; easily a match for the Guys and Millers of the time (as well as a pointer to his own subsequent experimental works such as I Sing The Body Electric). The drummer (again, I presume, Kirchin) is coolly propulsive and the interaction with the animals does rise to such a pitch that it’s hard to distinguish one set of “voices” from the other (which was kind of the idea). It’s Lucier’s room with added haemoglobin injected; again, that howling out at the world.

Parker doesn’t feature particularly prominently on Part Two (and Wheeler only really surfaces about six-and-a-half minutes into this section) but Part Two is even more astonishing. Bookended by a childlike nursery rhyme organ/Moog refrain (and some taped applause), the children of Schurmatt treat us to their concept of speech and song, venturing even further than the Langley Schools Music Project. The music at times becomes just as feral as Oxley or Brötzmann’s bands at their most uncompromising, but the at times anguished, at other times splenetic, voices are not only integrated perfectly into the flow of the music but actually dictate the flow. About halfway through Part Two, Kirchin comments on a “rock guitarist” who sounds as though he is trying to strangle the child whose voice we are hearing at the time. This particular guitarist is not named, and from his brief appearance certainly isn’t Bailey, and may not even be a guitar at all (Ray Russell, perhaps?) – for the thrash is then taken up by Runswick’s furious arco bass and Lyons’ rampaging bassoon, Kirchin’s drums (and keyboards?) never letting up in their drive. Eventually some kind of catharsis is achieved, pain and blood are acknowledged – and we return to the fairground melody which opened Part Two, now bolstered by a child’s voice, as if to say, we have accomplished something. Or have we? “Fol-de-rol/Hiding in my little place/No one can find me or see my face/Something special will come from me.” It’s an exceptionally terrifying moment, as fearful in its own way as the soundtrack from Bagpuss. The fear makes itself most manifest when the music is at its quietest and most tonal.

So what happened exactly to Kirchin? Already in his mid-40s at the time of this music; what, or who, converted him? And what has he been doing since? Now 74, his sleevenotes are meticulous in not really giving anything away. And yet, here we have another possible route opened up down which pop, or any, music could travel. Did someone say Boards Of Canada? More probably one should say that it’s a 1974 equivalent of the KLF’s Chill Out with some foreknowledge of Metal Machine Music.

4. Irresolution
Logically enough, the child song at the end of Quantum segues very nicely indeed into “We Never Talked,” the opening track of Nina Nastasia’s Albini-recorded debut album Run To Ruin. Her plea to herself to “stay sane.” The way in which Jim White’s remarkable drumming systematically destabilises the “rock” of “I Say That I Will Go.” The quiet revolution of “Superstar.” Above all, the lament of the corpse in “The Body” – Nastasia’s beyond-plaintive cry of “Why did you do it?” might be the most affecting three seconds of singing I have heard this year. The record doesn’t last long – just over half an hour – but there’s an incandescent passion existing within it which stays with you for years, if you’ll let it.

There really isn’t that much which needs to be said about Run To Ruin except that (a) you should buy it; and (b) I would, were my situation the same as it was four or five years ago, have added this to my Discman playlist utilised when travelling on the Oxford Tube on dark winter mornings, where in the right conditions nothing seemed quite of this planet. The warmth of ultimate isolation – strangely comforting to me at the time, seeing as I didn’t know what was going to happen. Should you find yourself compelled to commute on the A40 between Gloucester Green and Victoria of a particularly numbing early morning in winter, you might wish to try out some of the following:

Marion Brown, Sweet Earth Flying
Sandy Dillon, Electric Chair
East River Pipe, The Gasoline Age
Four Seasons, Genuine Imitation Life Gazette
Horslips, The Tain
John Mayall, Bare Wires
Piano Magic, Low Birth Weight
Leo Smith, Divine Love
Throbbing Gristle, Heathen Earth
Peter Wyngarde, When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head

oh, and:
Alvin Lucier, I Am Sitting In A Room, but you already knew that.

They worked for me, anyway. Can the same be said for life as it is now? I’ll answer that one once I come to terms with the extraordinary fact that, with Lumidee’s “Never Leave You” about to go to number one, people seem finally to have got the point of ESG. In the meantime…

“So we discuss suicide, and the ghosts, as I say, change so oddly in my mind; like people who live, & are changed by what one hears of them.”
(The Diary of Virginia Woolf Vol 4, Hogarth Press, London: 1977-84)

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