Dark Rococo

silver002Yesterday, I found myself looking at some Rococo silverware in a showcase I had designed. This is not the kind of thing that usually interests me but the spectacle of all that glittering detail was dazzling; the drawn lines of natural form pushed to extremes.

Later in the day at Cafe Oto after a virtuoso display of extended saxophone playing by John Butcher and Seymour Wright, I found myself immersed in the shock and awe of a duet by Russell Haswell and Kevin Drumm. Last week I spent another hot night in Cafe Oto being assaulted by high volume sound played by men dressed from head to toe in black…the weather making the uniform particularly incongruous. Last week’s version was the Franco-Japanese pairing of Makoto Kawabata and J. Francois Pauvros…a barrage of relentless and exhilarating effect-laden guitar work. For the Drumm/Haswell duo an additional 4 speakers had been set-up enclosing a square space and from the start the possibilities of this surround sound were exploited with noise crossing diagonally across the space, circling and switching from back to front. As the music continued the layering became denser and picking out individual cadences among the squalls and sliding shrieks became more difficult…and I was reminded of the Rococo silverware I had looked at in the afternoon. The sound was creating a peculiarly 2-dimensional field in which no one theme or line could be picked out. So my mind drifted from thinking about the sound of warfare to thinking about this as the aural equivalent of dense, overlaid, endless pattern. And this suggested to me that this packed sound-environment was actually ‘content-less’ and, even, ‘decorative’. I have never considered this immersive and often brutal music in these terms before and I suspect that it is not the way the musicians think about it (?) but I do not think it takes away from the pleasure of loosing oneself within the endless labyrinth of this music. I even began to consider the chosen black dress code and the performers’ passivity as part of this ‘field’. Instead of being a negation of persona in the visual presentation of the work, these attitudes become at one with a swirling, Rococo surface.

Russell Haswell & Kevin Drumm

Russell Haswell & Kevin Drumm

Radio 201.4 [JN]

Since the beginning of this year I have been making one compilation CD each month. The tracks on each mix come from CDs from charity shops (mostly from my local one) and I exclude music bought elsewhere…that is the only constraint. The mixes tend to be combinations of the popular and the obscure so include jazz, pop, noise and anything else that I like. Many of the charity shop CDs are bought on spec so I am never sure if they will make the cut…sometimes only one track will work in the context of the mix, sometimes none. I send the CDs to various friends who I think might enjoy them. Think of this particular compilation as being in the spirit of a mixtape…specifically a C60. It almost works as two 30 minute sides with ‘run out’ as the last track on Side 1. All the cuts here come from recent (as in this year) 7”s…not all singles or 45s…there are some tracks from EPs and some play at 33 1/3 rpm. The same constraint applies…all are from charity shops but on this occasion a good few come from an Oxfam in Slough.


Track 1. From about 1967…the summer of love.

Track 2. I didn’t know that The Red Flag shared its tune not just with Oh Tannenbaum but also with the State song of Maryland. How far was Ken Colyer’s tongue in his cheek when he said this was an arrangement of Maryland, My Maryland? Just what were Colyer’s political affiliations and/or sympathies?

Track 3. More tongue in cheek?

Track 4. This is from one of those Melody Maker EPs that came free with the paper. Also on the side with the Fall is a track by Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction. The other side, which features the Cocteau Twins and Hollywood Beyond has been given a coat of white emulsion by its previous owner. Why would you do that?



Track 5. The B-side of Shipbuilding.

Track 6. Never heard of ‘Big Toe’…slightly awkward…especially that slurping/breathing sound that runs throughout.



Track 7. The B-side of Superstition. The single version fades out with about a minute to go and before the redemptive line…’you’ll have it good girl…’ Sad.



Tracks 8 and 10. Six separate tracks over two sides of a ‘single’.

Track 9. The run-out groove from Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry’s But I Do.

Track 11. From a flexidisc issued by the RSPB. 1976.

Track 12. See Track 3

Track 13. Thank you Steve Winwood.



Track 14. This came in a sleeve for The Dave Brubeck Quartet in Europe –No 1. So it is neither Wonderful Copenhagen nor Like Someone in Love.



Track 15. From an EP The Art of Lotte Lenya, Vol 2. With Orchestra conducted by Roger Bean.

Track 16. Dundee’s answer to Scott Walker.

Track 17. Didgeridoos!

Track 18. From a record on the Stagesound label…so scratched that it has been a long time since it convinced anyone.

Track 19. A short mix based on the record that was inside the sleeve of the RSPB flexidisc. Open University catalogue number P912, The Pre-School Child, Disc 2 Making Music.







Mouvement Perpetuel


This is one of two private recordings I bought recently in a St Andrews charity shop. The other was recorded at Levy’s Sound Studios, Bond Street, London W1 sometime in 1956. This one has no date though maybe the code S.V.12/37. is an indication. I suppose the date of 1937 would fit with the design of the label but I don’t know anything about the history of this kind of recording and I can’t find out anything about Sona-Vox Studios. The piece of music, as you see from the label, is Poulenc’s Mouvement Perpetuel (actually the first of three movements) performed by Miss M. McKendrick.This is the recording of Miss McKendrick playing the piano in a room that no longer exists at 186 St Vincents Street, Glasgow.

The two tracks on this side are separated by a silent locked groove.IMG_5679


This music was used by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1948 film ‘Rope’. In this section of the film Farley Granger plays fragments of the piece (in a room that never really existed) while he is being quizzed by James Stewart.rope




Cuckooland Revisited

Gulbenkian Theatre, University of Kent, Canterbury. 8th May 2014. Presented as part of the Sounds New Festival.

















The strange made stranger. I had forgotten just how oblique Cuckooland is…full of musical elisions, sliding voices, uncertain territory. Last night there was no one to play that melancholy cornet that comes up all over the place on the original album but it appeared anyway…almost behind us. Drifting out from speakers. Who is the ‘author’ of this piece? Robert Wyatt who composed and recorded Cuckooland? Matt Wright who is credited with ‘Concept and electronics’? Tony Hymas who made the string arrangements? Maybe it doesn’t matter…an oblique collaboration…sometimes it seemed that Elaine Mitchener was using her voice to rebuild the music from scratch in front of our eyes, in front of our ears. Then the Brodsky Quartet would take over in full chamber music mode. So the foreground kept switching from word to sound and the music floated around – at one moment eccentric café song (Mitchener channeling Les Double Six) then political poems full of quiet rage and next meandering, even tentative, jazz noises. This reminded me of how singular Wyatt’s practice is. Whenever it is performed live it is by other voices, other musicians. The records are just that…records of one version while the songs and in this case the multitracks leave their source behind. There is a generosity at work here that pays off in the richness of the life of this music. This is just one of a series of re-workings of Wyatt’s tunes…is this only made possible by his refusal to perform live? I am now listening to Cuckooland for the second time since the gig as if it were an album I had just bought. So ‘Cuckooland Revisited’ is two things at once….both a new piece of music and a bearer of the original, presented as a gift.

Brodsky Quartet, Mitchener, Wright.

Brodsky Quartet, Mitchener, Wright.

Elaine Mtchener

Elaine Mtchener

Daniel Rowland (?) Brodsky Quartet

Daniel Rowland (?) Brodsky Quartet

Brodsky Quartet

Elaine Mitchener – voice

Tony Hymas – string arrangements

Matt Wright – concept and electronics

Robert Wyatt – original recording

Jamie Johnson – engineer for original recordings



Eric Coates

Musically this record has a certain Home Service charm (Coates composed the theme to the Dam Busters and ‘By a Sleepy Lagoon’ which became the music for Desert Island Discs). It is also steeped in the melancholy of a world lost in time. This LP from, I think, 1950 has a wonderful sleeve though…designer and illustrator unknown. Anyone out there got any ideas?






I have been thinking about this entry for months…at least since visiting Taiwan in 2013. I have been putting it off for two reasons…

  1. It deals with religion…particularly Buddhism. I know next to nothing about Buddhism.
  2. It is also ‘about’ my friend Tom who died some years ago. This blog doesn’t quite seem like the place to talk about him…the blog doesn’t usually stray into personal territory. Tom was a Buddhist and he knew I was sceptical and an atheist. I didn’t want to write something about him that was slight. Maybe what follows doesn’t add up to much but now I think it is better to write something than say nothing.

I was going to start with a postcard that I bought in Dens Road Market in Dundee in the mid-1970s. Tom might have been with me at the time, I don’t know. My memory of the postcard was that it was in black and white and showed a group of traveling musicians in Nepal or Tibet. I have just found the postcard after a long search and this memory is only partially accurate. It is in black and white, there are two musicians, two acrobats and a large family group with horses in the background…so they are probably nomadic performers. But the location of the picture is ‘Kirgisen’ which is now Kyrgyzstan. The people in the picture are probably Muslims and not Buddhists. So this opening paragraph, instead of making a direct link to Tom, opens up questions of memory.

I didn’t see Tom between him telling me he had cancer and his death. He thought there was more time than there turned out to be – I wanted to believe him and did. The last time I saw him he left me this card:


‘Nam-myho-renge-kyo’ is a phrase to be chanted. ‘Kyo’ is ‘the sound or vibration that connects everything to the universe’. At Tom’s funeral outside Glasgow there were beautiful unaccompanied Buddhist chants sung by his friends from the temple of which he was a member…suddenly it seemed to me that I had underestimated his beliefs. I regretted not seeing him before he died. I was sad that we often did not see eye-to-eye though I also knew that our friendship had been robust and we never fell out. We grew up quite close to one another before we met and there were, I think, many complicated bonds between us…bonds of difference and bonds of similarity. If Tom had been asked to depict the chanting he might have drawn this:






I might draw this:







In Taiwan, I found myself in a culture where Buddhism and its manifestations were never far away…even though it was probably not the kind that Tom adhered to. One afternoon, as part of the work I was doing there, I visited the University Hospital and there were street stalls selling little ‘Buddha boxes’.











Our guide advised me against buying one of these because she said that they were just for people who were dying. I didn’t believe this (it turned out I was correct…they were being sold at the hospital to give comfort, not to accompany the dying into the next world).

Then that evening we went to one of Taipei’s oldest temples. Compared to any Christian church this place was really lively but there was no music (I am not entirely sure of this…maybe there were prayers).  I picked up one of the free cassettes:





Then we walked around the Night Market…if the temple had been an intensive visual and olfactory overload, this was multiplied in the market and had an added layer of cacophonous sound. At a corner near the temple I stopped and recorded a woman sitting on a bicycle chanting the name of Buddha.


Compared to the sound at Tom’s funeral, the cassette tape and even the little Buddha box, this chant is harsh and discordant and it is the flip side of the calm that these other sounds generate.

I think about Tom most days.