Graphic MusicRoman Haubenstock-Ramati, Therwill, Switzerland: Hat[now]ART 101
UndarkRussell Mills, Nottingham, UK: em:t3396
Monsters from the DeepNed Sublette and Lawrence Weiner
London: Triple Earth TRECD 117
The graphic scores of Roman Haubenstock-Ramati (1919-1994) date from the extravagant and exuberant period of the late 1950s and 1960s that found its apotheosis in the music of Cage, Stockhausen and Cardew (see ‘Sound, Code, Image’, Eye no. 26 vol. 7). Until now, Haubenstock-Ramati’s name has been one of the footnotes of this era: nobody I know recalls ever hearing a performance of his work, though his intricate, game-like scores turn up in a few books, including Cage’s influential Notations. Jan Williams, a sensitive and resourceful percussionist, has set out to change this, and is the driving force behind the Graphic Music CD, along with occasional collaborators Eberhard Blum and Iven Hausmann.
Williams is an articulate and passionate proselytiser for all kinds of new music, and his realisation of Batterie is a beautifully recorded tour de force of quasi-improvised percussion. He describes in the sleeve note how he divided the circular Batterie score into quadrants, to each of which he assigned a primary instrument, and then moved through them in a clockwise direction, associating the instruments ‘with certain graphics’.
But a glance at the graphic score to Batterie, which Haubenstock-Ramati ‘scored’ in 1969, shows a jumble of inky doodles that include circles, squares, triangles, hexagons, letters and quasi-atomic shapes that could have come from a graphic sourcebook of the previous decade. There is some sense of rotational movement in the packed circle, but it seems significant that Williams had to add his own graphic elements – the quadrants – in order to find a structure. On this evidence, Williams and his cohorts could make something interesting by playing a diagram from Fortune magazine, but the jury is still out on Haubenstock-Ramati’s compositional credentials.
The artist Russell Mills (see Eye no. 5 vol. 2) has demonstrated his sensitivity to soundscape from the beginning of his career with his interpretations of work by Brian Eno. He has cultivated strong relationships with musicians, resulting in a portfolio of graphic design for David Toop, the Smith Quartet, David Sylvian and many others. The CD Undark, credited as being ‘sculpted and produced’ by Mills, is a consistent and satisfying listening experience, comprising mainly synthesised and electronically treated sounds by friends and clients of Mills. This cast of collaborators includes Robin Guthrie, The Edge, Bill Laswell and Virgin A&R svengali Declan Colgan. The compositions are by Mills, in collaboration with Eno, Sylvian and Michael Brook.
The relationship to the visual world is neatly encapsulated by Mills’s use of the word ‘sculpt’. Recording studio technology gives the non- or not-quite-musician access to a vast array of sounds and treatments that are closer to the aesthetic and working methods of the visual artist than the trained performing musician. By calling upon gifted players with distinctive sounds, and integrating them into a personal collage, Mills creates in Undark a closer analogy to his own mixed-media visual work than does Graphic Music to its graphic scores. Yet it is difficult for such music to become an expression of self in the almost automatic manner of an artwork. Undark remains a collaborative work, in which the musical and engineering contributions of Tom Smyth and Will Joss of Miasma, in addition to the more starry names listed above, are audible and significant. The final mixing stage is often one of gradual removal – just like sculpture.
Ned Sublette, despite his early association with the avant-garde sonic barrage of Glen Branca’s guitar orchestras, is a musician who is comfortable with the roots of American music – doo-wop, Country & Western and blues. He is an expert on Cuban music, and occassionally collaborates with David Byrne. His portfolio of compositional gifts makes him a wonderful complement to the deadpan statements of Lawrence Weiner (see ‘The work must be read’ Eye no. 29 vol. 8). Turning the collaboration around, you could say that Weiner is selecting Sublette and his cohorts (the Persuasions, Lenny Pickett, Kim Weston) the way he selects a surface and a font, but music doesn’t quite work like that.
Where Mills is genuinely able to sculpt with sound, Weiner and Sublette are working with reggae and country rock, genres that cannot be bent easily to express new sounds and forms. Yet it is sometimes the small changes, perhaps like the small modifications that Weiner makes to typefaces, that excite the listener’s attention. In a piece like ‘As it stands’, you take the easy groove and piano stylings of Junior Mance for granted – likewise the faultless harmonies of the Persuasions. But Weiner’s words, which are more like display copy or pre-recorded messages than lyrics, dig into your consciousness with a mad logic. These statements have a kind of lineage in egghead rock’n’roll, back to Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’ (‘This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife’) or ‘Out Come the Freaks’ by Was (Not Was).
Though Weiner’s statements, including the famous 1969 one (‘The artist may construct the work. The work may be fabricated, etc.’) give a certain amount of structure to the finished music, there are musical forms and processes at work that pay little heed to what some may hear as a few wacky words. Yet this is the strength of the collaboration, and one which results in some of the most refreshing, baffling music I have heard for ages.
Monsters from the Deep the second album of this collaboration, lacks some of the bonkers perfection of their debut Ships at Sea, Sailors & Shoes but has many gems: Weiner’s ‘statement’ is crooned, Mose Allison style, by Kim Weston over a cool trio featuring jazz pianist Junior Mance. The fade-out is the repeated phrase ‘The work need not be built’. Weiner's trademark statement also turns up as part of the minimal, drum-machine powered ‘Steel Pennies’. Ned Sublette sings the lead vocal while rapped interjections come from Red Fox, who rattles off
in the opening eleven seconds of the track. Though some of the backing tracks are low-budget, programmed grooves or loops, there is plenty of musicianship as well, including a guest appearance by Cuban flutist Joaquin Oliveros, who is particularly outstanding on ‘Where is the Sundown’ and ‘Spiritus et Materia’.
In the functional, workaday music context that Sublette constructs for Weiner (his drinking buddy), the latter’s use of dry, non-poetic phrases such as ‘Show and Tell’, ‘Oil and Water’ and ‘What’s a girl to do’ have a forceful resonance … nothing to do with the ‘craft of songwriting’ but somehow articulating thoughts that are real and vivid.
And if a song like ‘Flatlands’ came on the car radio, I’d just turn it up – I wouldn’t necessarily connect to the painted surfaces of galleries and visual arts institutions, to the strategies of curators and art historians. It is another Weiner-Sublette collaboration with a naggingly memorable hook. (Yesterday I walked around with ‘Captain of a ship, like a yoyo’ from Ships at Sea etched in my brain.) ‘Flatlands’ is a feel-good track that deserves maximum rotation on the most philistine of AOR stations. There is a filmic, graphic resonance to the verses:
A hand upon her breast
As she gazed through the double glass
She didn't ever want to have to …
Only a performer, a musician like Ned Sublette can give flesh and blood to words like this. Nothing to do with scores or images or sonic sculpture. It’s not cleverness, it’s an art.
First published in Eye no. 29 vol. 8 1998
John L. Walters, composer and writer, editor of Unknown Public, London
Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.