‘Beneath and Beyond’

seismicI went to the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester for work and while I was there I saw the installation ‘Beneath and Beyond’ by Stephen Hurrel.  This consists of 6 speakers arranged in a semi-circle sitting on the floor on the top storey of the 1830 warehouse building. Behind the speakers is a projection of a world map. The sound and the map are linked to a live feed from 50 seismic monitoring stations around the world. As far as I understand it, these record the constant shifting of the ground beneath our feet, below the concrete and the clay and they process the shifting of tectonic plates, earth tremors and volcanic action.

These sub-sonic traces are made audible by speeding up the recordings 100 – 200 times. This creates a drone and something like a series of beats. There is the low rumble of the earth’s long, imperceptible shuffling and then there are ‘events’ -quakes, tremors, eruptions – accelerated into the audible range then repeated for the real time duration of their occurrence. On the screen, text appears with the name of the recording station and the length of the event. The position of the station comes up on the map then a graph representing the sound/movement is superimposed on the map. Sometimes there are 2 or 3 of these events at once, so while the deep background rumble continues there can be 3 overlaid beats. The fairly constant appearance of the beats is startling. I visited on the day that a 3.8 earthquake had struck the Llyn peninsula in Wales and one of the stations up on the projection was Stoke. I wondered if this was a related earth movement; an echo, an aftershock.

This was a compelling installation, something with the potential to change your view of the planet but also just really interesting to be in a room with. There was a certain reassurance in that low bass and, simultaneously, there was an acknowledgement of the destructive potential of violent earthquakes. While I was there I overheard a family discussing how much longer they could stay, obviously reluctant to leave. Footsteps, conversation, the whistle of the steam train outside all overlaid a kind of melody to this sonic/tectonic/chthonic architecture of drones and beats.

Till 30th June 2013 at MOSI, Manchester. Software developed by Robert Farrell.

Stephen Hurrel


‘Unexpected music….hateful…’

L'Inhumaine Jazz Band

L’Inhumaine Jazz Band

It is undoubtedly unfair to use this line from L’Inhumaine to headline this piece but, somehow, unavoidable. I spent much of last week in the company of the deceased film-maker Marcel L’Herbier and the very live accompaniment to his silent films. I saw L’Argent (1928) and Claude Autant-Lara’s Fait-divers (1924) at the BFI with beautiful, fluent improvised piano by John Sweeney. Also at the BFI I saw Le Vertige (1926) with accompaniment by Stephen Horne on piano, accordion and flute. The films were featured in the 4th Fashion in Film Festival entitled Marcel L’Herbier; Fabricating Dreams. This was new territory for me as I did not know these films…my knowledge of L’Herbier was limited to a fast forward search for a staged riot rumored (erroneously) to have been shot at the first performance of George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique. (see my post on 12th February). At each of these performances I was struck by the singular technique of improvisation used by the musicians…responding to a particular character or visual cue or to the implied sound of the action. These were long films and I imagined the players’ relief when they could pick-up on the fairly straightforward appearance of their fellow musicians on screen and play a bit of more or less straightforward jazz. One sequence in Le Vertige featured a ball with two bands, one black, one white, at opposite ends of the hall, giving an opportunity for mixing styles and pace in a single, protracted scene.  These are the kinds of performance that invite, even demand, virtuosity and both musicians I heard rose to the occasion.

discStephen Horne’s music for L’Inhumaine (1924) at the Barbican took the possibilities of live accompaniment to a new level. Expanding his one-man orchestra to include a xylophone, an electronic keyboard and a theremin he also made full use of the inside of the piano in the best improvisation ‘tradition’. There was no incongruity to this contemporary (mis)use of the piano – like all the films I saw L’Inhumaine was pushing at the limits of technique in their moment. Indeed the theremin was patented in 1928, only 4 years after this film was made. These films represent a moment just before the advent of sound on film where narrative and expression were being expanded and re-envisioned in a kind of false dawn of the avant-garde. Many of the experiments that L’Herbier and others undertook were discarded in the closure that came with continuous, explanatory dialogue. There is so much fertile territory here that could be explored…from the purely cinematic to both real and imagined sonic effect. When the inter-title came up (an inter-title designed by Fernand Léger at that) ’…unexpected music…hateful…’ the film shows a needle spinning on a shellac record and at this point Horne brought the ghostly wail of the theremin to the fore.  In the finale, set in the Léger designed laboratory of the hero where there was once a Darius Milhaud percussion soundtrack…now lost, he could follow through with a glorious chaos of effects and flashes of sound while the laboratory on the screen exploded into life…

The Laboratory

The Laboratory

The 4th Fashion  in Film Festival ran from 10 – 19 May in London, curated by Marketa Uhlirova, Caroline Evans and Dionne Griffith.

Go to www.fashioninfilm.com for a short interview with Stephen Horne.


At the controls

At the controls


Quote(s) of the day.

sleeve‘…and the only sound that’s left, after the ambulances go, is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row.’

Bob Dylan, Desolation Row.

‘In the greatness and pride of this city lies a certain unmistakable stillness; and all its sounds are crowned with a soundlessness so powerful that when a person has spent some time in rural silence and retirement, he longs to hear it once more to refresh his soul.’

Robert Walser. The Metropolitan Street (1910) in Berlin Stories.

‘Alone he watched the sky go out, dark deepen to its full. He kept his eyes on the engulfed horizon, for he knew from experience what last throes it was capable of. And in the dark he could hear better too, he could hear the sounds the long day had kept from him, human murmurs for example, and the rain on the water.’

Samuel Beckett.  Mercier and Camier.

My Record of the Week.



BAchim Monhé – ‘Seite B’ (or ‘Seite A’ depending on your point of view). WHO#05


7” single and WAV file download from Tapeworm via TouchMusic.


This is one of those projects that almost needs a diagram like Christian Marclay’s ‘Footsteps’ (the rationale for which I can never quite remember) or Alvin Lucier’s ‘I am Sitting in a Room’ (which I can). The recordings are based on a live performance though it is not clear to what extent the sounds have been manipulated after the fact. As it is stated on the record’s micro-site that the beginning of ‘Seite B’ is the end of ‘Seite A’ and vice versa I think there must have been some work done in the studio later.


It is in the process of listening…or more properly it is in the process of reading the description of the work prior to listening…that the ‘record’ becomes complex. The work is sold as ‘Seite B’ – a single sided 7” 45. But before you get to listen to side B (which, by now, is in the post) you can download side A – that’s only right – who buys a record for side B anyway. ‘Seite B’ allows access to ‘Seite A’. With one you get instant gratification and with the other you get product. So theoretically the two tracks could loop endlessly…if only you had your record player in the same room as your computer…I know these things are really easy but I have to go between floors. Side A is the sound of various records sticking in the run-out groove. It is interesting to listen to in itself – there are hints of conventionally musical sound and there are certainly rhythms. Of course, it turns out, that ‘Seite B’ is a country and western song more of the same – but this time you are listening to it on your record player…a bit more effort than just playing it through your computer while you get on with some work. It is circular (that’s records for you) and that is conceptually gratifying…maybe you (I?) should listen to it all night, switching between rooms every 5 minutes.


The product (‘Seite B’) is beautiful though it invites criticism on logical grounds. Sleeve and label are screen-printed together…it says on the website that it is white on white but don’t believe it…the background of the sleeve is definitely grey and that of the label is cream. Very tasteful but not quite as nothingy as ‘they’ would have us believe. And the screen-printed text is actually on the blank side of the record and that strikes me as possibly perverse and certainly contrary. As an added bonus a small bag of swarf (the detritus of the cutting process) has been included in the package. It is not mentioned if the swarf is from the particular record you have purchased or if it represents all the waste from the production of a single 7”. (I’ve just thought – they could be passing off any old swarf!). It completes the set though; you get the digital and analogue versions as well as the  negative of the latter in the form of tiny threads of black vinyl. It all suggests something hard to get hold of – not slippery – but certainly elusive. And never quite void. But elusive is good.


A bag of swarf.

A bag of swarf.



Keith Tippett, Cafe Oto. 30. iv. 13



kt 2This is another not-review.


I wanted to post something quickly because Keith Tippett’s solo performance at Café Oto last night was so startling. I last saw him play in the Bloomsbury Theatre one weekday lunchtime some time in the Nineties…one of 3 memorable gigs in that venue, Cathy Berberian and Ivor Cutler being the other two. But maybe I remember more about the treat of hearing him in my lunch hour than I do about the actual performance.


I am often suspicious of musical virtuosity…there are so many other things that act on the experience of listening that effect how (and what) we hear. I have felt unmoved recently (as in the last few days) by technically expert playing that seemed complacent in its level of engagement…relying on the good will of an appreciative audience in a large hall. Oto is clearly not a large hall and it is possible to sit within 6 feet of the musicians and observe their actions closely. This intimacy suited Tippett’s performance perfectly…the immediacy of what he was doing with and to the inside and the outside of piano, was clearly visible…and that visibility is really important because part of the performance was not just about ‘knowing’ and hearing but also about looking in a concentrated way. He probably did not need to look at the piano keys but he had to see where he positioned the various objects inside the piano. And in this there was the feeling that Tippett was constantly testing the possibilities of the sound at once controlling those sounds and surrendering to the aleatory. This was generous music, inclusive in its approachability and in its sources. There was driving minimalism, baroque, swing, blues and folk (there was a particularly poignant fragment of pibroch it seemed to me) all framed within Tippett’s jazz background. This made for an intense and moving experience. Speaking in response to the standing ovation he received Tippett acknowledged the complexity of the relationship between playing and listening saying ‘without people like you there would be no people like me’. A humble sentiment to add to an amazing and generous performance.