Sunday, December 18, 2005

Head of Steam

A short "tribute" to Geoff Jones. Head of Steam.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Piece of the Week - Boating for Beginners

Boating for Beginners was an off-shore audio guide. Anyone hiring a boat on the lake in Battersea Park during the summer of 2002 could take a Walkman with them with the specially prepared 15 minutes tape. The recording is very much a spoof on those guides one gets in historic and cultural buildings. The narration read by the Rev Alan Dupuy mixes some fact with much fancy, and treated sound recordings made in and around the park. This was the second of three pieces with a rowing theme. The first was called If O became E which was part of the group show Gym at the Conductors Hallway, the third piece  a video entitled Row Row made this year and is a 'workout' of a picture of the Rev Dupuy out on the lake during 2002.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Name Game

When I started this blog it was on an impulsive whim. I had long been thinking about it but the action came all in one heady moment. So I picked the first name that came into my head Stormbug, after that DIY legend of noise production (or should that be industrial footnote). Lately I kind of wish I had spent a little more time on the title, fortunately the on line anagram maker proposed several variations on the existing letters. So voila from now on the blog shall be called BRUT SMOG which ties in nicely with the main psouper site and well if I tire of that there will always be GOB STRUM to fall back on.

Acres of Peel

Normally I give up on telly at about 11pm and listen to the radio for an hour so in bed. This pattern may well date back to the 70’s when along with a significant percentage of the nation’s youth I would listen to John Peel at roughly this same time. Yesterday however in a reversal of this pattern I eschewed the wirelesses charms to watch a programme on John Peel’s record box, the one he apparently kept under the desk in his study, which contained those extra special 7-inch discs.

Since the DJ’s death just over a year ago something of a post Peel industry has grown up. There have been books and tributes aplenty, special concerts, people claiming to listen exclusively to records that Peel played and so on. The tributes in particular are becoming quite formulaic; usually we are regaled with tales of what a good egg Peel was by various luminaries, the opening bars to Teenage kicks are played and that’s about it. Last night’s programme looked from the listings as if might reach further and actually talk about the music in some depth but no, instead yet again we had nothing but the briefest of snippets from tracks interspersed with you guessed it luminaries waxing on in Oscar speech style about how great John was. Somewhat bizarrely the list of those providing the quotes extended beyond the usual Morley & Co to include Sir Elton John, Roger Daltry, Ronnie Wood and the lads from Quo. Now we know that Peel had a soft spot for the Faces and there was a copy of Down Down in the box but Elton John?

In effect it was talk and more talk with occasional music which ironically is the exact reverse of what John Peel was about; he was one of the few if not the only mainstream broadcast DJ to recognise that its the records and not the DJ patter that matter. For your average Radio 1 or commercial station DJ, records are just something to pad out the show’s core content of inane ramblings, phone in quiz shows, traffic reports, guest speakers, factoids and so on. That Peel was the almost the only one to get the balance the right way round was a blessing but reflects perhaps less on his saintly qualities than the dire nature of the rest of radio land.

As was noted on this blog sometime ago outside of London the FM radio dial is all but empty and it was in this context of BBC dominance that Peel could be so influential. There was no one else, no college or genuinely independent radio stations no other broadcast outlets for music that was outside the mainstream play list. But though Peel was passionate about music and not patter or overt self-promotion he was just one man with a series of eclectic but ultimately personal tastes. Peel wasn’t keen on industrial music, or Momus for example or even records that faded in quietly. You were not likely to hear any soundtrack or genuinely avant-garde or electronic music on Peel. 

Peel’s instincts were ultimately “pop”; it was just that he could hear the pop in say the Undertones and the Smiths where others couldn’t (at least at first). On the whole though Peel liked music that was short snappy and relied on tried and trusted, often blues based chord progressions. Rather than say listen to the same Beatles records over and over as some might though Peel was always keen to hear a new take on the old formula. As such he was the ultimate Radio 1 DJ and a godsend to a music industry that needs a constants supply of novelty. However put Peel’s broadcast output up against that of say Resonance Fm and it starts to look a little wanting.

This all sounds perhaps a little harsh but Peel would have been the first to acknowledge that Radio 1 would have benefited from having a bunch of presenters who in their own way were as passionate about music as Peel. Rather than piling on further tributes to the “exceptional” John Peel the BBC should be turning our attention to changing the face of the unexceptional mainstream broadcast waves.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Full English Breakfast

Sometime circa 1972 before they were very famous Roxy Music were out on tour in a transit van; feeling the need for sustenance they pulled up at a greasy spoon causing some consternation among the regular clientele when Eno and the boys marched in resplendent in their stage gear of platform boots, fake leopard skin tops and eye liner. History doesn’t record what they ordered, but one can almost guarantee that at least one of the band had a full English breakfast.

A full English breakfast is one of those of things that make life just that little bit better. Comprising: sausages, bacon, eggs, baked beans and fried tomato, there is something comforting about a full English and a mug of British Rail strength tea. It is even a folk remedy for hangovers. Personally I get a craving for a full English breakfast on an almost weekly basis but normally manage to hold out, and just have one a month.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The War on Television

In the beginning was television. Television stood not just for the box in the sitting room but for the whole medium; a closed conduit from studio to transmitter, from transmitter to receiver. “What’s on telly tonight” people would say, seeing no separation between broadcast and reception. In the UK till the mid fifties there was only one television channel the BBC. Though ITV started in 1955 and was followed in the early 60’s by BBC2 the overall impression of a single broadcast remained. At times such as Christmas or on national occasions such as a Royal Wedding the TV audiences for a single programme could reach 24 million: over a third of the population. At such moments, nation, television and set are all united in one. When in 1976 the Sex Pistols appeared on the tea time Bill Grundy show and outraged the nation with some rather tame swear words, one irate viewer short circuited the complaints process and kicked in his TV set.

The first artist to tackle Television was Nam June Paik. In Paik’s solo exhibition in 1963, Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, twelve TV sets were scattered around the rooms of the gallery; some on their sides, some upside down, all had been circuit bent to distort their reception of live broadcast transmissions. The exhibition was an extension of the fluxus and Cage inspired work Paik had been doing and it is often forgotten that alongside the TV’s were prepared pianos, off beat sound generators, and an ox’s head. Nonetheless Paik’s sets can be seen as prepared TV’s, or as assisted ready-mades that willfully disrupted the normally seamless broadcast and reception model of viewing.

Paik was gradually to abandon the purely musical elements of his art and concentrate on exploring the TV set as artform. Pieces like Magnet TV in which a horseshoe magnet twisted the image or Distorted TV in which the sync pulse is altered led finally to the construction of a series of robots built from vintage TV sets. The focus on the iconography of the set and later, after the advent of the portapak on video as a medium tended to shift Paik’s attention away from the disruption of TV as a broadcast medium. The robot series in particular is more about the TV set as sculptural form than TV transmission; they even had new circuitry to allow modern day video to be replayed.

Arguably then Paik’s most significant intervention in, and on TV was perhaps his first. Towards the end of the 60’s other artist started attempting to disrupt the continuity of viewing. In 1969 the German station WDR 3 television showed Self Burial consisting of nine photographs of the artist Keith Arnatt slowly entombing himself. The photos were shown one at a time over the course of a week; at first Arnatt is clearly visible but with each new shot he sinks further into the soil. The Photos were broadcast without explanation, one each evening after the news and a second at 9.15. The series continued until the end of the week when an interview with Arnatt revealed all. In a not dissimilar vein David Hall was commissioned in 1971 to make ten TV Interruptions for Scottish Television. These short interventions were broadcast during the time of the Edinburgh Festival. As with Arnatt the pieces were unannounced and uncredited as if some alien signal had broken into and temporarily occupied the channel.

The interventions included piece such as Burning TV and Tap. In the latter, possibly the most successful of the works, the screen of the set appears to fill up with water as if it nothing more than an empty glass tank.

Also in 1971 Valie Export made Facing a Family. This time shown on Austria's ORF station Valie turned the set on its audience by transmitting footage of a family watching the TV at dinner time. The family talks or occasionally moves about but all the time gaze into the middle distance at the unseen set. Valie Export does not so much break the continuity of television but by inserting a mirror creates a potential feedback loop.

Again on Austrian television Peter Weibel’s T V-News (TV Death 2) 1972 showed a newsreader calmly reading the news, as he does so he takes puffs on a cigarette. Unknown to the audience the hapless reader is in a glass case so as he reads and smokes, the case gradually fills up obscuring him and causing him to cough. The broadcast in this instance chokes itself to daeth.

The newsreader as ultimate symbol of TV authority was further questioned five years later in David Hall’s This is a Television Receiver. A commission this time for BBC 2, This is a Television Receiver was the opening sequence for a special Arena programme on Video Art. As with the Scottish intervention the piece is unannounced and features Richard Baker who at the time was perhaps the best-known newsreader on British TV. Baker describes in typically dry tones the functioning of the TV set on which he appears. As the piece proceeds Baker’s image becomes increasingly distorted until it is nothing more than a brown blur filling the screen. Commenting on This is a Television Receiver in an interview with Chris Meigh Andrews in 2000 Hall says “….For example my mother- forget the art elite- was absolutely distraught when she saw that piece, because she believed in Richard Baker. He was, and had been, the principal news reader. The one person for whom you could suspend all disbelief was the person reading the news. Someone well-loved and seen for so long. Then when his image began to disintegrate and he started to be critical in a sense, of television indirectly, through what he was saying, that whole deconstruction, floored her whole belief. She wasn't involved in the intellectual argument behind it, but it was very disturbing to her that her belief in what was coming out of that box had been fragmented and destroyed”

Hall here may be overstating the impact of the work, the programme was after all on BBC2; a channel renowned for its more eclectic programming not on prime time BBC 1. One wonders if she hadn’t been told about it whether Hall's mother would normally have been watching Arena at all that evening. As with David Hall’s earlier interventions there was something of the science lab aesthetic about the piece. I recall seeing the programme at the time, and aged 16 and with no video art reference points saw Television Receiver as rather akin to something that might have been shown on the science programme Tomorrow’s World rather than an interruption to broadcast dominance.

Still This is a Television Receiver was the first major artistic intervention on British national TV and despite being on BBC2 was broadcast at a time when the medium’s singularity was still undiluted. In comparison, interventions by the Vasulkas who in 1977 were commissioned to make six half-hour programs for broadcast on WNED in New York lacked the access to mainstream TV that would have given them the same resonance as Television Receiver. Indeed America has always had more channels and given its size a more localised output than European countries and so, a major assault on TV as a unit would always be more problematic, thus for example Chris Burden’s TV Hijack (1972) and Promo (1976) were seen by relatively few people.

During the 1980’s artist interventions on UK TV were to become almost commonplace and it began to be apparent that far from subverting the mainstream, artist video programmes were just another slot often, tucked safely away at night when few were watching. Other artists continued the struggle against TV but often from the safety of the gallery. Rather than disrupt the flow of the broadcast medium the approach taken relied more on a re-appropriation of the already broadcast.

Dara Birnbaum’s Wonder Woman re-edited the transformation sequence from the hit TV series in an effort to subvert and disrupt the narrative flow. In many ways Wonder Woman was a precursor to scratch TV. In the UK Scratch TV was championed by the Duvet Brothers. Interestingly claims about the impact of their intervention were similar to those made for the earlier Hall interventions. In 1986 Benjamin Woolley in The Listener wrote, “Scratch video establishes a radical new approach to television itself. It abandons the idea that TV images are mere representations of what’s real. It starts to disassemble the images themselves by indulging in orgies of editing. In a sense scratch is the epitome of what professional broadcasters would call irresponsible television.” However TV had long been getting irresponsible and had begun to quote heavily from itself, any danger that Scratch TV might have posed was soon absorbed back into the medium particularly by the Pop Video.

Pop video makers hungry for all and any image manipulation techniques to counterpoint the music quickly nullified Scratch Video’s potential threat. Big TV’s video for Soul 2 Soul’s Back to Life in 1989 is a classic example opening with a repeated scratch cut that was inspired if not directly by Dara Birnbaum then certainly by the Duvet Brothers. The end result backed as it is by a shuffle beat is not a rupture but a sense of continuity. In such ways scratch lost any power it might have had.

And what of today, in the digital multi channel TV on demand environment, with its knowing audience is there still room and scope for an assault on television? If the title to a recent Steven Ball piece is anything to go by then the struggle continues. The War on Television is made from images taken from 24 hour rolling news television broadcasts made during the Iraq War. Using the simple technique of connecting and disconnecting the aerial, Steven Ball was able to fragment and stutter the images. A process, which was further, accentuated by employing time line scratch techniques in Final Cut thereby exaggerating the stuttering fragmentation. Describing the piece Ball says “ The pristine digital veneer, the authority and reliability of the always-on 24 hour news channel fucked-up, becoming abstracted into a flow of jarring noise and stammering incoherence. A celebration of digital anti-aesthetics, excess and entropic fallibility.” A description, which of course find many an echo in the works described above. Forty years on from Paik’s intervention it seems the war goes on.

A live version of the War on Television can be seen tomorrow night (Friday) at the Whitechapel Gallery.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

All Aboard - For the last time.

Many of us will never vote for Ken again after he needlessly destroyed that key London icon and, excellent all round means of transport the Routemaster. The one remaining route with Routemasters, is the 159 running from Marble Arch to Streatham Garage this too will “changeover” on December 9th 2005.

Update 2012: Well Ken lost the Mayoral election and Boris promises to introduce a new hybrid Routemaster. The old red ones did not disappear completely but can be seen on a couple of heritage routes in central London.

Monday, November 07, 2005


I have something of a love hate relationship with generative processes particularly those using fractals. Fractals are complex geometric patterns that can resemble natural objects. Polish mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot invented the term fractal and argued that many natural processes that had previously been too complex for the formulae of traditional mathematics could be described by using fractals. Given the computers propensity for computation it is a relatively straightforward process on a Mac to create images that resemble natural phenomena by using fractal algorithms. So far so good, except that the aesthetic barometer often seems to have been left at home by many artists using fractal software. Twirling swirling organic shapes suspended above lunar landscape are often the order of the day. Its all rather like some Arthur C Clarke Sci-Fi novel come to life. Add some cascading synths a la Tangerine dream and you have one cosy tripped out bit of nonsense. Here for example is a typical bit of fractal art (artist unknown). However what if one could take hold of the process and in a push pull sort of set up ride the fractal wave without letting it go all gooey on you? What if you could use fractal technology to look into the underside of organic mutation? What if rather than using fractals to create organic looking shapes, you took photographs of organic shapes and used fractals to disassemble them? Such thinking was behind woodgreen. A simple picture of some foliage is turned in a self-propagating algorithmic undergrowth that grows and simultaneously self dissects. The soundtrack is composed by the variations in shape and colour.

Friday, November 04, 2005


Quotes from acosutic eveidence in the Kennedy affair

On the day of the assassination the Dallas Police Department (DPD) operated two radio channels. Channel I was for normal police radio traffic and channel II was assigned for the use of the presidential motorcade. Each channel was recorded by a different device. Channel I was recorded on a Dictabelt and channel II on a Gray Audograph. Both machines worked by engraving a track into a plastic medium. The Dictabelt used a rotating cylinder and the Audograph used a flat disk, similar to a phonograph record. Both machines were transmission actuated.

An unknown motorcycle tuned to channel I had a defective microphone button that caused it to continuously transmit over a five minute period during which the assassination took place.. If this motorcycle had been part of the motorcade it might have picked up sounds of the gunshots. If true, those sounds could be used to determine how many shots were fired, their timing, and using echo location methods, where the shots came from.

The original recordings were made on machines which utilized a stylus which etched an acoustic groove into a soft polyvinyl surface. The recording instruments were useworn and had developed idiosynchracies. Jim Bowles, head of police communications unit at the time, writes that the needles would sometimes not "groove" properly, that parts of messages would not be recorded, or a "ghost" signal would be recorded. He also states that it was a common experience to observe noticable changes in speeds between units [Bowles 1979].

Secondly, the original recordings had become scratched and worn from multiple playbacks during the transcription process that was applied during the Warren Commission's investigation. As a result, the tendency for the stylus head to skip was exacerbated.

Thirdly, both recorders had a sound-actuation feature which was designed to save space on the recordings by pausing whenever there were periods of dead-air. To the extent that this happened during the critical sequence of events there would be disagreement between tape time and actual time.

Fourthly, the electronic recordings which have entered into evidence involved the use of separate playback and/or recording instruments, sometimes both, which inevitably results in a time warp because playback speed and original recording speed are unlikely to match precisely.

On playback the needle would sometimes get stuck in a groove and repeat that groove, sometimes twice. Table C-1 of the NRC report subtracted the time that these repeats took from the elapsed time. This seems to make sense, but due to the mechanical construction of the Audograph machine it was the wrong thing to do.

The needle assembly on the Audograph doesn't move at all. The disc is mounted on a spindle and moves horizontally under the needle as recording progresses. The horizontal motion of the spindle is a result of being mechanically geared to a worm gear, such that, as the spindle rotates, the center of the disc moves away from the needle assembly. There is no freedom of motion in this mechanical system, except for the tip of the needle. The repeats happen because the needle tip has some flexibility and may get stuck for an additional rotation or two, but the horizontal movement of the disc never stops and the needle must eventually catch up to where it should be. When the needle does catch up it will skip over sections of the recording. In the long run any repeats will be roughly matched by forward skips where the needle jumps over grooves.

Another copy of channel II was made by the FBI on a high-quality phonograph, instead of using the Audograph machine. The tape of channel II made by the FBI for the NRC panel appears to be a complete recording without skips or repeats in the period in question. The NRC report states, "[the original Gray Audograph was] transcribed, as described in Appendix C, onto tape, with care taken to minimize the 60 Hz hum that was added to the signal and to ensure that no skips or repeats were introduced in the tape recording of either channel. No break interrupted the Channel II recordings as was the case for the Bowles tapes."

Careful examination of the recording during the six minutes after the shooting confirms that there are no obvious repeats in it. A side by side comparison revealed the forward skips in the Bowles version that the NRC didn't account for, and also would have revealed skips in the FBI version had they been there, and had such skips not been precisely mirrored on the Bowles tape.

The FBI tape is a perfect candidate for performing timing studies, except for one problem. As the NRC report says, "The Gray Audograph disk (Channel II) could not be played on an original Gray playback unit without introducing skips and repeats. It was possible to play it successfully without either of these artifacts being introduced by using a phonograph turntable and phonograph arm, cartridge, and stylus. However, phonograph turntables operate at a constant rpm, whereas the Gray equipment's rpm reduced as recording progressed. Moreover, the Gray Audograph records from the inside out, whereas normal records begin at the outside. Thus, when the tapes are played back, there is a speed distortion that causes material at the beginning of the tape (the inside of the record) to be slowed down (time intervals between events are longer and the frequencies are lower than those originally recorded) and material at the end of the tape (end of the record) to be speeded up relative to true speed."


Thursday, November 03, 2005

Clinging to the Wreckage

Last night I had a dream in which I was in the upper floor of an empty record shop; empty that is of records, just row after row of dusty racks and that look one gets after the removal men have gone but one or two items are left scattered haphazardly around.

Now my dreams often involve wandering around empty or abandoned buildings so it would be wrong to read too much into this but it does dovetail nicely with the ongoing speculation about the death of the record. As posited a few times on this blog recently CD’s and LP’ s in the digital age make little or no sense. All the mastering and pressing and cling filming and logistics (planes and boats and trains) required to get the artefact to the shop, so you can go down there take it off the shelf and then have it put in a little plastic bag by some record hop bozo to then carry it home on the bus (no doubt studying the sleeve on the way) and then finally get it into a CD player to hear it when, with a click or two you can download it makes no sense – or does it?

Yesterday there was a report that despite predicted sales of 37 million iPods by the end of 2005 download sales from the iTunes store seem to have plateaued and still represent a small percentage of overall music sales. We it seems are still in love with the artefact. It could of course be something to do with pricing; even in the Uk it can actually be cheaper to sometimes buy the CD than to download it. You can then mp3 it and hey you are quids in. But it’s probably not pricing, it’s more to do with habits, and our tendency to put value on things.

For example if I put out a CD it will probably be a run of 500. The first 200 will sell pretty quickly and the next 300 may take a couple of years to go but eventually they will sell. Somewhat bizarrely if I were to make the same material available as a free download perhaps 20 or so people might download it. It certainly won’t get reviewed and will have all the impact of a squashed lemon. Downloads it seems just don’t seem that special “thing” appeal. You don’t feel like you own a download in the same way that you think of owning a record, which is of course why people are happy to download tracks illegally and not to pinch CD’s from HMV.

So for the artist at the moment it makes perfect sense to carry on with architecture of physical distribution. But for how long will we cling to the wreckage of these outdated forms? Arguably one way to make the download more tangible, more special is to increase the visual content; to attach the cover art. But cover to what exactly when there is no object? What is that little square all about is it to stop us feeling adrift, why do we feel so lost without the pictures?

But the ineffectual nature of a tiny rectangle as visual accompaniment only serves to highlight the lopsided nature of music without pictures. We will probably continue clinging to the wreckage just as long as the message suits the old format.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Covering up the Head

One technique used by many a DIY dabbler back in the glory days of Cassette Culture was the blind overdub. This involved covering the erase head with a piece of paper or card. This allowed new layers to be added on top of the original recording until thick walls of sound were created. Each new recording partially obscured the old until, if enough blind dubs were done the initial track would be totally obliterated. However I do recall that curiously if one carried on long enough sometimes ghost-like the original track would re-emerge from the soup.

An overdub delight entitled "Nein Nein Nein" recorded by Steven Ball and myself back in 1980 used a similar technique but with a 5 minute answering machine cassette. These tapes are cassette loop and so one gets looped blind dubs. The output of the loop was then fed into a ring modulator. "Nein Nein Nein" can be heard below.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Last week I was finally able to get over to the newly reopened De La Warr Pavilion to see the Variety show. Variety was partly curated by (the late) Ian Breakwell and the exhibition is interesting in having a mix of artists that one doesn’t tend to see so often these days. Aside from work by Breakwell himself there are pieces by the likes of David Hall, Boyd Webb, Bruce McLean, and Brian Catling, all well established but somewhat out of fashion artists. Alongside these were the more bankable Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman and Mark Wallinger.

The uninitiated wouldn’t have really noticed the difference between the more or less fashionable artists as the whole experience was evened out by the display technique. As with many contemporary shows one wanders from one small blacked out screening space to another. In between the projections are the wall based, static or non-projected works.

The combination of the projected and the non-projected leads to a curious effect. Coming out of a screening space accustomed to motion one tends to oneself flitting over the static; it is hard to make the effort to stand still particularly as people brush past on their way to the next projection. However having then got used to the static there is then a tendency to just pop one’s head around the corner of the next darkened space and just glance at the projected. It is as if each requires some different way of looking.

None of this is unique to Variety it is the contemporary gallery norm. The problems are different to those of the single consecutive screening a la 291 (Where one piece is shown after the other on the same wall) but both are in the end unsatisfactory ways of showing projected work. Is there an alternative between the just passing (gallery) and the trapped in situ (screening)?

Perhaps, just perhaps the future lies (as with most current broadcast media) with digital delivery. A delivery that puts the viewer to an extent in control of the reception process. Currently 1MB broadband only allows for low res streaming but within five years, 8MB and then 24 MB will be common and this will mean the viewer will be able to watch full motion hi res, at home or streamed to a screening space anywhere. We are not talking interactivity here but of allowing the audience space to view a work; the freedom to linger or to wander but not hurried or harassed into either.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Winner...

In  the post "Complicity" I spoke about how an essential part of the relationship between conjuror and audience was the latter's willingness to suspend disbelief, becoming a complicit part of the deception.

Yesterday I received one of the many 419-emails offering Lottery millions. Like the emails promising a half share in fortunes locked in a vault in an African bank, and just needing someone from the West to claim them, this email smelt of scam from the start.  “This program was largely promoted and sponsored by a group of philanthropist, industrialists from the internet ware industry and some other big multinational firms who wish to be anonymous. “ rather gives the game away…and yet I was struck by the complicity urge; you know it’s a con, but some part of you wants to engage, wants to believe.

A few years ago I went on an art college trip to Barcelona. Up and down the main drag, local wide boys were doing the cup and ball routine on upturned suitcases. You know the thing, the three cups move around at lightning speed, and you bet on the final destination of the ball. As we walked past on the way to the Hotel a couple of the lads on the course laughed at the foolishness of tourists who bet and lost on such nonsense. But you guessed it, a couple of days later the same lads shamefacedly returned to the hotel, with one of them having lost best part of £100 on the very same game.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Cassette Fetish

Last week I received an email asking if I would like to join a forum on cassette culture. Perhaps after years of neglect has the day of the humble cassette finally come?

The great thing about the cassette was that in the period 1978-81 it broke the censorship which vinyl had imposed on music making and distribution. Even after punk and the rise of the independent label the costs of making and the difficulties of distributing records were still insurmountable hurdles for most bedroom artists. Vinyl and its successor the CD don’t really make sense as a way of producing small numbers of copies. Any print based medium (records, books, films etc) that necessitates the making of a master form which copies are then made will always load cost at the front end, the mastering stage. These costs not only provide a barrier to entry (a fixed sum has to be found), but also are weighed against anyone wanting to make a small number of copies. The more copies you make, the more those cost are diluted, but at the 200 to 500 stage which is where most DIY artists are working, it's all cost and you are hard pressed (pardon the pun) to just pay for the mastering. This would be different of course were people willing to pay more for small runs, but bizarrely its often been small labels who have been the first to try and reduce the price of the finished item. Mass produced records should; always have been dirt-cheap; £1 would be about the right price for a million sellers, whereas your small run should be £25.

The humble tape exhibits the reverse of the print phenomena; it makes more sense the less copies you make. The one-to-one copying system has no mastering costs, nor does the photocopied cover. There was also no need to make any more copies than you needed. However this is even truer of the MP3 where you do away with the physical format altogether. Aside form bandwidth it makes no financial difference if 2 people download a file or 2 million. One could argue that the MP3 finishes off what the cassette started it takes the censorship out of the equation. But we are fickle consumers and like our things, we like to have and to hold, we love to finger the sleeves and collect and display. We even like getting things through the post. There may be a danger here of getting hung up on media specificity; of fetishising the cassette when it was the culture that mattered.

Update 2012. Amusing to read this entry form 2005 back as this year I had an LP released in an edition of 100 which indeed does cost £25 + to purchase. Seven years on the MP3 is the mainstream way of distributing music but LPs, and yes even cassettes are proving popular ways of releasing anything left of centre. An MP3 release will also struggle to get reviewed and still seems in some ways virtual.   

Monday, October 24, 2005

In Praise of Pastiche

Often during the piece of the week entries to this blog the phrase tongue in cheek pops up. For example Engine Trouble was “a short one minute piece celebrating (if somewhat tongue in cheek) the pleasures of motorbikin.”

But tongue in cheek suggests what; a lack of seriousness, a gentle bit of fun, a certain irony or perhaps a pastiche? All of these descriptions sound somewhat dismissive as if to be ‘tongue in cheek” was amusing but perhaps little more. However such dismissiveness is far from what is intended, indeed I would argue that tongue in cheek thinking is central to a reflexive post modernist art practice.

Key to this is pastiche. Pastiche has rather a bad press recently; it is often used in a derogatory sense. Thus much of the architecture championed by Prince Charles is described by architecture journals as “merely a pastiche of Victorian/ classical architecture”. In other words it’s a fake, a phoney lacking integrity and substance. I wouldn’t disagree with this assessment but I would disagree with the use of the word pastiche.

The word pastiche originally implied a certain transvestisism; it was a knowing imitation of another, imitating, but respectful to the original. In the Late 19th century it began to acquire a second meaning, which implies less of a careful studied understanding and more of a mannered copying. A pastiche then became a msih mash of styles, a hodge podge. As such pastiche became in certain quarters a term of abuse. The original meaning remained but was increasingly threatened by the second.

High Modernism of course disliked the whole idea of pastiche; the Greenbergian emphasis on the integrity of material saw pastiche as too lightweight, fey and threatening. Post modernism arguably embraced pastiche as a key way of displacing the integrity of authorship and of undermining the original in favour of the metatext full of quotes and nods and winks to this and that. However the plunderphonic approach has become somewhat stale of late and artistically and philosophically there has been something of a yearning for a return to the certainties of value if not to the actual establishment values of yesteryear.

This manifests itself in a number of ways. For example on the Momus blog recently there was a heated debate about a new Resonance radio show by Rhodri. The crux of Momus’s gripe with Rhodri seemed to be that he was proposing a show that embraced mainstream music such as Toto and that under the guise of irony the show was acting as a Trojan horse for the dilution of the core avant garde values of Resonance. Rhodri for his part argued that his liking of Toto was not ironic, this was not a case he said of its so bad its good. Rhodri said he genuinely liked Toto and the Doobie Brothers just as he liked more left field music such as Momus.

The positions adopted by Momus and Rhodri can be seen as very similar manifestations of late postmodernism. In Momus’s case we have a desire for a return to the integrity of avant garde, complete with a dislike for the perceived Trojan horse of irony and pastiche in Rhodri’s case there is a similar dismissal of irony but on the grounds that there is no division between the values of the mainstream and the avant garde, no high or low brow, its all just music. Both approaches of are in their way misguided and misunderstand the importance of pastiche.

Pastiche if used correctly can be a reflexive tool; it allows the wearing of the clothes of the other whilst retaining a distance. Pastiche admits an attraction for the form and nuances of what is being “covered” but without succumbing to it.It’s a tricky balance; get too close and you slip from pastiche into mimicry and then from mimicry into actually adopting the style of the other.

Pastiche is not kitsch, it can be applied to both to the popular and to the materialist. It is not an excuse for anything goes mix and match. Duchamp the arch practitioner of pastiche is often accused of ushering in a phase of simple reconctextualisation in fine art but Duchamp always kept his distance; carefully limiting the numbers of ready-mades aware of how seductive they could be.

It is perhaps only by accepting that romantic seduction is part of the creative process that it can be held in check. To deny it as modernism and materialism so often does it be left will almost nothing but process, to give in it to is also a dead-end of sentimental abandon.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Fingers no Thumbs

Every now and then I do a software search to see what new max/msp audio and video patches have been developed recently. Mostly its a series of dead end downloads but occasionally one hits on something useful and/or unexpected. Today’s search for video scratching for example produced a link to the following animation, nothing to do with video scratching as such but highly enjoyable all the same.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Death's Door

A fortnight ago I was in B &Q looking at kitchen units, sadly this week I was at the funeral directors helping organise a funeral. One might have thought these two activities would have little in common, but in a modern menu driven world there were a number of similarities. In both cases you sit down with a sympathetic employee, respectively a “director” and a “designer” who guide you through the various options "at this difficult and stressfull time". There is option A, involving x number of cupboards with 3 drawer units, built in appliances and a recessed sink, or option B with full hearse and limo procession and floral tributes. Price is referred to, but discreetly you understand.

Once you have decided on the overall framework, you are shown catalogues with the various styles of “unit” on offer. The “units” have name such as Windsor or Beckford. The most expensive are made of solid wood but most are MDF with a thin wood veneer, or wood effect veneer (in other words plastic). So yes coffins and kitchen units are manufactured in just the same way and of course in the same place, China.

When my time comes I wish to short circuit the whole process and be buried in my old kitchen units.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Gustav Metzger is my Dad

In the Inbox yesterday came the press release for a new exhibition at the Centre of Attention: The Centre of Attention is delighted to present a new piece: Fodder (shredded proposals). The Centre of Attention commissioned a selection of artists unrepresented by a commercial dealer to put forward a proposal on paper for a show, a work or an idea etc. 15 artists took part. All the proposals from these artists were then collected by us and shredded. This shredded material was gathered up and placed on a plinth in the gallery space. And finally it was given a name... Fodder

This reminded me a little of an exhibition we did at Camerawork. Entitled Gustav Metzger is my Dad, AKA The Shredding Show, it involved the shredding of the organisation’s paperwork in “celebration” of London Arts Board decision to cut the core funding (this despite Camerawork having just been awarded a lottery grant to buy the building).

Gustav himself turned up and put a few documents through the machine, and by the close of the weekend the gallery was knee deep in shredded paper. London Arts were themselves shredded a few years later by the new Arts Council but by then it was too late for Camerawork who were “merged” with Four Corners.

Gustav Metzger is my Dad was the product of group curation: the idea of doing the shredding was mine, John Roberts came up with the title, and Geoff Cox commissioned the software to do an online version (he also took the pics on this page).

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Submerging Artist

The De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill reopens this weekend after a major lottery funded revamp. The theme for the first exhibition in the new gallery space is Variety and, promises a mix of "established and emerging artists".

Established is a pretty straightforward term but what exactly is an emerging artist? Neither well known nor, God forbid unknown, emerging suggests some long slow exit from out the cocoon of obscurity into the limelight. The term is a fairly recent invention; originally cooked up by gallery PR departments keen to assure their potential audiences that though they may not have heard of the artists on show, one can rest assured that they will be famous really soon.

Funding bodies latched on to emerging, as a useful term to describe programmes aimed at encouraging career development. Such schemes often involve one to one mentoring and, the teaching of some basic management skills and are based on the assumption that with the correct application any art school graduate can make a career for themselves as an artist.

That those leaving college should be offered some guidance rather than thrown on to the mercies of an inhospitable artworld makes good sense however the supposed professionalisation of artistic life often favours those who are good form fillers. You know the sort, they methodically apply for everything, attend all the right conferences and openings, network (in itself a loathsome term that tries to make a business proposition out of friendship) furiously with curators and other movers and shakers, and gradually make a place and a name for themselves.

These then are the emerging artists, and they are not ashamed to say so indeed on Friday I happened across a webs site for one soul who opened their personal statement (every emerging artist must have a concise statement where they succinctly describe their practice and the passions that drive them) with the phrase "I am an emerging artist".

For how long though can one be emergent? If after many years no one has still hared of you, what then, do you perhaps become a submerging artist? This should not be read, as an advocacy of the romantic notions of the solitary artist toiling unknown in their garret but, the problem with emerging is that it places the emphasis in the wrong place. When occasionally asked into art colleges to talk to students I always emphasis that what is important after college is establishing ways in which you can keep your practice going in the face of almost inevitable indifference. Some form filling might help but making the work is what matters and no amount of mentoring and professional development can really help with that.

We would all like our work seen or heard by, as many people as possible but numbers are less important than a critical context both internal and external. With the yba movement, Tate Modern and the Frieze art fair many in the UK have, convinced themselves  that London is at the heart of a thriving art scene. In practice though discourse and dialogue has often been replaced by the fripperies of fashion. Artists may emerge, but it is from out from the fog of obscurity (a veritable psouper?) into a critical vacuum.

Friday, October 14, 2005

A rocco Din

A Rocco Din is an anagram of accordion, and the piece started out life in 2001 when I first began experimenting with software that can synchronise sound and image. Many of the installations I made throughout the 1990’s also linked audio and the visual, often through analogue triggering devices reworked from circuits originally designed for discothèque lighting. In the same way the first apps that became available for synchronised sound and image manipulation were intended for those somewhat unloved practitioners the VJ.

The VJ has yet to attain the dance floor status of the DJ, and many VJs seem happy providing a visual backdrop to the records being played. Taking the music as a given, something to be added to, makes what could be a potentially interesting form of expression into something that is arguably compromised. However as with the disco lighting circuitry once one takes charge of both audio and visual elements, something far more interesting can be squeezed out of VJ software.
Videodelic is just such a programme. From U and I software. Designed with the VJ and simple thumping beats in mind, if left to its own devices it can have you producing some nice, but fairly meaningless eye candy in no time. With a lot of patience one can get the programme to do more interesting audio-visual combinations.
With A Rooco Din what started as a simple idea in 2001 to get the accordion to visually play itself, took some three years to get right. The music and picture movements were written simultaneously. The pitch of the notes corresponds to the digital manipulation of the image. So for example if one wanted the image to rotate one would write an ascending sequence; the greater the span of notes the greater the rotation. The faster the notes the quicker the speed of the spin and son. This principle can be extended to image stretching, overlaying, colouring, feedback and so on.
The results to some extent echo those of experimental animators such as Norman Mclaren except in McLaren’s case he either wrote to completed scores or music was added afterwards. By “composing” music and image movement at the same time it is possible to extend the paradigm. In the case of A Rocco Din the accordion music is playing the image of itself (a single photo of the instrument). This seemed a nice twist on actual accordion playing where the variations in melody and tempo are accompanied by quite physical movement on the part of the accordionist and accordion.
So rather than the rude and artificial separation that occurs in reproduced music and video the two senses are reunited but in an unpredictable way; the accordion moves as the music rises and falls but not in the usual way.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Great Unheard

Along with the alchemists desire to distort, morph and generally turn a sound inside out to reveal its hidden audio self, comes a yearning for the great unheard. The great unheard is that obscure LP languishing in some dusty corner of the second hand record shop, hidden in a pile at a jumble sale or even down some rarely visited byway of hyperspace. The unheard, sounds like nothing else, a collision of form and structure, tonal palette, chord progression and all the rest to produce a unique, almost impossible record.

The unheard is the Holy Grail for all collectors; its sheer elusive unobtaianability keeps them searching, keeps them hungry. For myself, as a teen and well into my twenties and thirties I spent time and money (student grants, wages, giros, whatever) hunting down that elusive albimn. After so many false promises and dashed hopes and just simple disappointment I began to think that the unheard was indeed just that, the “other”, a negative whose inverse existence was hypothetically possible but ultimately must remain theoretical and intangible.

So when late in the day, when I wasn’t even really looking anymore I stumbled across it, perhaps unsurprising at first I didn’t recognise it, didn’t see it for what is was, but I can now report I have found the great unheard. Its title is Wicked Ivory by Hot Thumbs O'Riley.

That the unheard should have been found by absent mindedly and randomly clicking next blog in the blogger tool bar is all the more unlikely. Usually this brings you nothing more than someone else’s open-air laundry basket; those kiss and tell diarists who hide behind pseudonyms so transparent they might as well be proclaiming in person at speakers corner. On this occasion though the click took me to Boot Sale Sounds run by artist Michael Leigh. Michael is into mail art and seems to run a number of blogs connected to the world of ephemera. Boot Sale is described as a “music blog, mainly featuring records and tapes found at boot sales, charity shops and flea markets. Mainly comedy, novelty and odd items that are hard to catagorise. “ This is a fairly accurate description for most of Michael’s finds are familiar to anyone who has spent time in pursuit of the great unheard. There is the usual collection of quirky, cheesy easy listening with off beat cover art. The sort of stuff you drag home play to an understanding friend and then turf out a few years later.

At the bottom of the page however was Hot Thumbs O'Riley. Given the context and the cover I just assumed this was another wacky keyboard LP, perhaps in the vein of Klaus Wunderlich’s Sound 200 series. I downloaded Warm Rumours, one of the tracks on offer and pretty much left it at that. A few days later when looking for some source material to try out a granular synthesis programme I gave Hot Thumbs a go. Initially it seemed as if the granular programme was capable of some very nice syncopated manipulations but quickly I realised it was the track and not the programme. I returned to Boot Sale and downloaded the other track entitled Currently Cheesing. This has some of the peculiar changes of tempo of Warm Rumours but features a vocal that wouldn’t seem out of place on Hunky Dory. However Hot Thumbs is not one of the many second rate Bowie influenced singers as Wicked Ivory was recorded at roughly the same time. Other tracks on the album have a similar sense of dislocation as if Hot Thumbs O'Riley was the product of some slight genetic mutation producing a warped parallel musical universe in which everything was familiar but different.

A little digging revealed Wicked ivory to be the work of Jim Pembroke an Englishman who followed his girlfriend to Finland and stayed there for most of the 70’s. Pembroke became a member of the finish prog group Wigwam. Wigwam were that oddity a prog group who could keep things short and necessary. Most of the giants of prog kept things long and unnecessary both musically and folically. Pembroke’s pop sensibility and penchant for off the wall lyrics also confused the mix creating a tension between the more muso elements in the band and his inclination towards brevity and sometimes bluseyness. Within the context of Wigwam this could produce some interesting results but on Wicked Ivory when Pembroke was backed by Wigwam members everything seems to have gelled just perfectly.

Oh and by the way it’s a concept album. The concept is that the recording was made at a live “battle of the bands” with tracks by different artist interspersed by crowd noise and announcements. As unlikely as anything Ray Davis might have dreamed up this technique does work to link up the disparate styles.

So there it is then the great unheard, a work of effortless genius, released originally on Charisma and reissued this year on Love Records. The easiest way to track down the CD is on eBay where it can be obtained directly from Finland. You can satisfy your audio curiosity now by listening to two tracks from the LP at Boot Sale Sounds.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Fair Trade

It’s that time of year again, time for the Frieze Art Fair and the adverts in the broadsheets are promising queue jumping tickets if you book now.

Art Fairs are where the commercial underbelly of the gallery system normally glossed over by artist and critics alike is on full display. Most contemporary galleries when on their home turf act almost as if they were philanthropic organisations simply displaying art for the public good; there is usually little to indicate that the work is on sale.

At Art Fairs that all changes; instead of the studied neutrality of the white cube we get a few knocked up white boards looking for a all the world like an end of term degree show. From their stands the gallery owners look out keenly for potential buyers. To tempt the punters prints and other more 'affordable' merchandise are on offer. Any notion of curation goes out the window as the stallholders all but cry “roll up roll up, top quality Emin and Quinn, four Lucas prints for 10 grand”.

That the thread of silver that ties the whole of the commercial gallery system together is so nakedly on show, could arguably be said to be a good thing, after all you can’t accuse someone of being a money making hypocrite when they are standing keen eyed beside a cash register. It is perhaps the passivity of the punters that is so annoying at such events. They queue long and hard to get in and then meekly hand over £15 fro the pleasure of subsidising a trade fair. Most will not be able to afford even the 'affordable' prints and yet trot from stand to stand as if they were privileged to be allowed in, as if in some sad way by attending they were part of the inner sanctum of the art world. Instead of overturning the tables or at least asking for their money back the Art Fair visitor contents themselves with a few purchases from the bookshop. You can’t buy the art but you can have a coffee table book about it.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Contemporary sound making is obsessed with manipulation. Sounds are variously: distorted, fuzzed, flanged, phased, pitch shifted, EQ’d, echoed, reverbed, ring modulated, filtered, panned split into grains and reassembled, glitched, stretched, morphed, and so on. One wonders what sound did to deserve such treatment(s). All of this has an the air of alchemy about it; as if put through enough processes the base metal of everyday noise will give up its acoustic secrets and be transformed into something new and unexpected.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Go Now

Last week’s announcement that the London congestion charge is to be extended westwards despite two public consultations indicating public opposition to such a move came as little surprise. The mayor Ken Livingstone apparently commented that the consultations, which his office had organised were in some way not representative and, that they had conducted other surveys which showed far less opposition to the increase in the zone.

As a non car owning public transport using Londoner I am generally sympathetic to the congestion charge but this lack of public accountability, indeed outright refusal to take into account the public’s wishes is very much indicative of the way Labour (new or in Ken’s case old) operates. In Hastings last year the council backed regeneration quango came up with a proposal to build a hotel on the seafront completely blocking the view of one of Hastings’ most prestigious Georgian crescents. There was wide spread opposition to the plan to ruin Pelham crescent but the council went ahead and commissioned a number of major architectural firms to produce proposals fro the hotel. These were then exhibited as part of a public consultation process.

Those attending the exhibition were guided round the display by representatives of the quango, eager to answer questions on the various schemes. Before leaving the exhibition punters were given a card on which they were asked to indicate which of the schemes they preferred. When I asked why there was a “none of the above” box I was told that this was not an option. The former architect in charge of the regeneration team (seconded of course from the council) said that they would be building one of the projects whatever the opposition. This before of course any of the schemes had been granted planning permission.

The full charm of Hastings council’s consultative process was shown when a peaceful protestor who had the temerity to hand out leaflets against the project outside the exhibition was arrested and charged with a number of offences. Only after the incident was reported in private eye and the national press where the charges dropped.

Back in London at the Elephant, Southwark council is no better. Some five years ago they announced in a blaze of publicity that the Elephant & Castle regeneration would adopt a unique tri-partite approach involving the council the developer, and a community forum. This was to be one step on from consultation, the community actively involved in every stage of the process.

However its soon became clear that the council were not really expecting that the community would have any real say in what went on but just be kept” in the loop”. Within a short space of time community forum and council were at loggerheads. The council continually starved the forum of funds and vital information. At the last moment without consulting anyone the council got cold feet and dumped the developer and closed down the forum. A new regeneration scheme is now on the way with of course no mention of the tri-partite arrangement.

As with all things these local lags get their lead from the top, and Tony Blair has established himself as the master of the lip service consultancy process. Time and time again Blair asks the public what they think and then does what he was planning to do all along. No one but Blair could have failed to notice that the public were deeply hostile to war in/on Iraq but several marches and a bruising round of TV studio appearances later he could only say that well whilst he respected that people might not agree with him someone (I.E. him) had to take the tough decisions.

In many ways it is as if Thatcher was still in power but without an opposition. In most key areas Blair’s politics are unashamedly Thatcherite, often going even further than the Iron Lady. But whereas Thatcher at least had the then Labour party to call her to account Blair has no one. The Tory party who have been sans culottes since Tony took theirs have little to say on most issues and just waste time electing a new fall guy, meanwhile the Liberals are so ineffective as to be all but invisible. Brown bites his tongue, ever more bitter but still not wishing to publicly upsetting the apple cart. Cherie Blair’s letterbox smile at last week’s party conference said it all, we are untouchable.

So it is time for a new charity single. Not a further extension of the gobshite Geldof’self aggrandisement project but a coming together of singers of a all persuasions in a rousing rendition of the Moody Blues sixties song Go Now. For those to young to recall the lyrics…

said you gotta go, oh you had better
Go now go now, go now
(Go now) Before you see me cry

This should be chanted everywhere from terraces to supermarket aisles, school assemblies to choral evensong. Whistled by milkmen and streamed over the Internet, till Tony himself finds he is picking out the notes out on his ukulele. Go Now!

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Fishing Line

In the late 90's I used to do an occassional Faxzine. One page of vaguely topical/cryptic what have you faxd to the great and the not so good odf the artworld. Here are a few examples.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Overheard Overhead

Overheard Overhead was the final show at the Vestry staged the bleak mid winter of February 1997. Having turned my back on all things Film CO-OP some six years before I was nonetheless working with a form of what might be called expanded cinema. In Overheard Overhead however the whole apparatus of lens-based projection is abandoned in favour of a “lens free” moving image practice with all the surfaces of the exhibition space becoming a continual screen.

The idea behind the piece was partly inspired by walking through Leicester Square in the early evening when one could hear a mass of birdsong coming from the branches above but not actually see any of the feathered singers. In a continual quest to make the audio visible and vice versa I experimented with a circuit that produced changes in light intensity between four bulbs synchronised to the rising and falling birdsong. Using the lights to cast shadows on branches produced a network of overlaid filigree patterns that in some way seemed to visualise and plot the intricacies of melody and communication.

These patterns were projected onto walls floor and ceiling, creating a sensation of walking inside the sound. The birdsong’s volume inside rather than out also worked a reversed non-diegetic effect with off stage (in the wings so to speak) becoming centre stage. 


There were the usual mishaps in setting up the installation not helped by the budget of £200. Firstly there was the question of where to get the branches from. I contacted Lambeth’s park authority and was told that some tree felling was taking place in Brockwell Park that week and that I was welcome to any number of branches, they would even deliver them. I was told to arrive at 8.30 sharp on a Monday morning to pick out the branches I wanted. I turned up at the designated point only to find a few logs and a large pile of sawdust. After much walkie-talkie work, one of the park rangers told me that unfortunately some volunteer workers had over the weekend been rather zealous, and had pulped all of the branches. The pile of sawdust I was standing by was indeed the branches in question. This setback was probably a blessing in disguise as despite the high Vestry ceiling I had probably overestimated the size of branch needed. Chopping a few branches down from the overgrown church garden I soon found that what outside looked like quite modestly sized pieces easily filled the space and accomplished the effect I was after.

The branches were suspended from the high ceiling, the windows blacked out and the lights and speakers installed. The card for Overheard Overhead was printed for £35 by the dubious Alpha printers. Dubious because they were clearly a front for something, as no printing ever seemed to be taking place at the works and the door was always opened with great reluctance. The private view aided as ever by copious amount of gin supplied free by Gilby’s was a success and more importantly the piece seemed to accomplish the mix of menace and romantic sublime I was seeking. As ever attendance at the sub zero Vestry throughout the course of the exhibition was small but appreciative, boosted when Time Out printed a review.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Record Test

Stereo test records appeared regularly in the 1960’s and 1970’s. One side of the LP usually showed off examples of the wonders of stereo recording, often classical music or sound effects that passed magically from one speaker to another, whilst on the other side of the album were detailed instructions on how best to set up your stereo for full enjoyment of those micro groove frequencies. These instructions were often combined with a series of electronic bleeps and bloops that that supposedly allowed for proper adjustment of tracking and frequency response of your Hi-FI.

What is appealing about stereo test records is that the discs break the usual continuity of the recorded medium. As was suggested in turning the Picture Down a couple of weeks back contemporary music recordings are highly artificial. Stripped of the natural visual counterpart the music attempts to fill the space with a continuity of sound. This can literally mean a filling of the sound space using compression to create an impression of absolute volume or it can mean a more subtle continuity that of an uninterrupted signal. This can apply from everything from easy listening music to the most leftfield noise work.

With their direct instructions to the listener to get up and start moving speakers about and even reconnect wires and adjust the height of the needle Stereo test records break this continuity. The apparatus of reproduction is foregrounded and the listener becomes an active performer. Playback becomes not just a seamless process but open to change, variation and even chaos.

Instructional LP’s on everything from dance to cookery shared many of the same characteristics of the Stereo test record. Diagrams and fold out sheets would often accompany the records thereby restoring a visual element to the audio, as intrepid couples would try to master the intricacies of the Latin Hustle, or the soufflĂ©.

Test records were either budget releases or given away free with audiophile publications. With a little rummaging examples can be readily found in flea markets or in the exotic sections of second hand record shops.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Piece of the week – Under Press of Sail

In the spirit of 7 Up (the TV programme not the fizzy drink) I thought we should turn the clock back to 1978, yes that’s right some 27 years ago when I was a mere 18 for perhaps the first piece I recorded worth talking about, Under Press of Sail.

In a burst of career planning not shown since I had based my university choices on which colleges had electronic music studios. One couldn’t actually study electronic music at BA level at the time ; there was no sound art or sonic coursers as there are now, but a number of Universities such as East Anglia (which had a Synthi 100) and City University had electronic set ups. These were used either for research or evening classes. Being keen to be in London I picked Goldsmiths College whose electronic music studio had been set up by Hugh Davis.

In autumn 78 I went to Goldsmiths technically to study Psychology but with my focus on getting into the studio. I found that the studio was often free during the day. Within a couple of weeks or so I had convinced the friendly technician Richard to let me come in and use the facilities. He would often go off for a long lunch or some other business and so I would have the place to myself.

The electronic music studio was based in the downstairs of a small terrace house and was mostly stocked with EMS gear. There were two VCS3’s, a Synthi, the EMS pitch to voltage converter, a sequencer made by some of the participants on one of the advanced evening courses , a graphic equaliser and 4 or 5 Revoxes and that was about it.

In comparison with what I had been using previously this was a galaxy of riches. My bedroom at home had been full of rewired radios and cassette decks and I had built a tape delay system a couple of years before using two reel to reels running at 1 and 7/8 inches per second, an interesting but limited set up.

The VCS3 (whose praises I sang in a blog a few weeks back) were in many ways a natural extension of the home DIY circuit bent set up but with more possibilities. The way one could use the pin matrix to feed everything back into itself offered endless opportunities for sound mangling. I soon found however that if you found a particular bruit you liked you should get it down on tape as soon as possible as even if you meticulously noted down all the pin positions and knob settings, a patch would never sound the same twice. This also posed a problem of how to record pieces. If say you ran the sequencer and recorded a bass line onto one track of a Revox there was no way you could hope to sync up a second part.

I did find though that patches could be altered in real-time on the fly by a combination of swift dial action and pin pushing in and out. One could set up a main patch and leave the pins for modifications to the patch half in/half out. At the crucial moment one would push them smartly in and simultaneously turn any dials that needed adjusting. By running all three VCS3S simultaneously and whipping pins in and out one could then record a whole track in one take without any overdubs. This then was the nerve racking method used for Under Press of Sail recorded in that first flush of Autumn 78/early 79.

I musty have been fond of it as the piece appeared on at least three Snatch Tapes at the time and was reissued a couple of years ago as part of the Reprint CD on Anomalous. You can hear the track below.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Well Hung?

Tate Britain has just completed another rehang of its collection. One of Serota’s innovations, the rehangs provide a good opportunity to see more of the collection and avoid the gathering dust phenomenon that used to occur before. This particular exercise though seems less successful; part chronological, part thematic it as if the curators were caught between chairs when the music stopped.

When Tate Modern opened there was concern that Tate Britain would become the forgotten museum. The logic behind having a contemporary modern collection on one site and a specifically UK collection which covered 1500 to the present day was never compelling. Gilbert & George where not the only British artists to complain that they wanted their work at Modern and not tucked away at Britain. Locating the turner Prize at MillBank and a series of changing exhibitions have helped to mask the inherently weak thinking behind the two-site approach.

Not only is there no clear logic as to why a British artist is shown at either Britain or Modern there is curatorial fudge between the two sites. When Modern opened it famously abandoned display by movement and chronology (the norm in most museums around the world and seen in full effect at MoMA). At the time in Fishing Line (a sort of faxed precursor to this blog) I commented that this thematic hanging was less to do with radical curatorial thinking and more to do with covering up the gaps in the Tate’s collection. Five years on the Tate seem to have acknowledged this but carries on with it nonetheless at Modern. But at Britain confusion reigns, on the left hand, or historical side of the gallery where we have Victorian Narrative, Pre Raphaelite and so on, a vaguely chronological approach is employed, then on the right of the gallery where things get more contemporary we get a mix of movements (Pop), quasi-themes (On England) and individual artists (John Latham). It’s more pick and mix than post modern (no pun intended).

One solution would be to merge the pre Second World War part of Tate Britain’s collection with the National Gallery’s collection to make a truly European gallery. The post war British art from Britain could then then be properly assimilated into Modern’s collection. Of course the chances of the directors of either institution agreeing to this or paying any attention to this obscure blogger are negligible.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Bjork V Bush

That’s Kate not George of course. Why should these two chanteuses be up against one another? Well whilst a significant portion of the female pop scene seem keen to out sex one another, Bjork and Bush are secretly living out roles from Richard Crompton’s Just William

Bjork is of course Violet Elizabeth Bott, the ever so spoilt daughter from the “Big House” who in her lisping voice announces regularly "I'll squeam and squeam 'till I'm thick - I can, you know". This threat is made whenever William’s gang the Outlaws refuses to allow Violet Elizabeth to join in on one of their secret missions. Knowing the terrifying consequences of not complying, the boys inevitably let Violet not only join in but take centre stage. Swap the Outlaws for the Sugar Cubes and, the comparison becomes all too obvious.

Whether Violet ever grew up and lost the lisp we shall never know but Bjork seems content with her perpetual role as pigtailed cutie muscling in on the boys’ big plans. Just recently seeing that there was a deal of Outlaw fun to be had in Matthew Barney's cremester cycle Bjork, squemaed her way into both picture and soundtrack.

Kate, ah dear Kate is of course Joan the girl from next door who William has a soft (or should that be hard) spot for. The daughter of a doctor from Dartford, Kate, I mean Joan is far more circumspect about hanging about with the Outlaws preferring instead to attend ballet and tap with mademoiselle Bonchance (ex Royal Ballet you know). Of course with her interest in ballet, theatre and the piano Joan is quite the little performer as well, and was the star of the end of year school production. She even sent a tape to that nice David Gilmour from Pink Floyd who said he liked the tunes very much but that Joan should finish school first.

And the difference between the two? Whereas Violet never grows up Joan catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror one day and realises all that make up and hammy acting is actually quite embarrassing, she then goes into her house and won’t come out for a very long time.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Gone are the days…

Tate Britain has just completed another rehang of its collection. One of Serota’s innovations, the rehangs provide a good opportunity to see more of the collection and avoid the gathering dust phenomenon that used to occur before. This particular exercise though seems less successful; part chronological, part thematic it as if the curators were caught between chairs when the music stopped.

When Tate Modern opened there was concern that Tate Britain would become the forgotten museum. The logic behind having a contemporary modern collection on one site and a specifically UK collection which covered 1500 to the present day was never compelling. Gilbert & George where not the only British artists to complain that they wanted their work at Modern and not tucked away at Britain. Locating the turner Prize at MillBank and a series of changing exhibitions have helped to mask the inherently weak thinking behind the two-site approach.

Not only is there no clear logic as to why a British artist is shown at either Britain or Modern there is curatorial fudge between the two sites. When Modern opened it famously abandoned display by movement and chronology (the norm in most museums around the world and seen in full effect at MOMA). At the time in Fishing Line (a sort of faxed precursor to this blog) I commented that this thematic hanging was less to do with radical curatorial thinking and more to do with covering up the gaps in the Tate’s collection. Five years on the Tate seem to have acknowledged this but carries on with it nonetheless at Modern. But at Britain confusion reigns, on the left hand, or historical side of the gallery where we have Victorian Narrative, Pre Raphaelite and so on, a vaguely chronological approach is employed, then on the right of the gallery where things get more contemporary we get a mix of movements (Pop), quasi-themes (On England) and individual artists (John Latham). It’s more pick and mix than post modern (no pun intended).

One solution would be to merge the pre Second World War part of Tate Britain’s collection with the National Gallery’s collection to make a truly European gallery. The post war British art from Britain could then then be properly assimilated into Modern’s collection. Of course the chances of the directors of either institution agreeing to this or paying any attention to this obscure blogger are negligible.