How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at.
My technology has not evolved. It remains in the 19th century. And I continue to grapple with it. I have very little experience of 20th/21st century technology.
I can answer the phone and send an e-mail. And that’s it.
How is preparing music, playing it live and recording it for an album connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?
There has been a tendency in more recent years to record live concerts. In the sixties, and I’m thinking in particular about the Scratch Orchestra, our performances were never recorded. For performers and audience alike it was about being there, and if you weren’t, so much the worse for you.
Certainly that is the case with AMM and my more recent recordings of Feldman. In the performances of Feldman’s longer works (e.g. For Philip Guston) the duration (in the latter case, almost 5 hours) and the stress involved is palpable (perhaps that is why Feldman tended to sleep through performances of his later works!). In our performance in Austria of for Philip Guston our flautist was suffering from a severe head cold. During the final hour every so often she would turn away from the microphone to issue a subdued cough. (One could imagine a marathon race where the ‘winner’ crawls over the finishing line on hand and knees – metaphorically, that is what she did.) The authenticity of this recorded experience, with all its ‘imperfections’ was irresistible.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
In the Scratch Orchestra Psi Ellison would bring his motorbike into the venue to occupy the performance space. He would rev up. What happened? Some, if few, were piqued. Others, most, embraced it. Seeing and smelling the bike. A smell you could taste. The Scratch Orchestra thrived on such connections. It all depends on your cast of mind.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach?
In what follows some of my answers require more/different questions.
I recall an occasion in Graz, Austria when, performing Feldman’s Triadic Memories, I glimpsed a sense of a Zen-like Samadhi, an altogether rare occurrence.
The concert began in a natural light which was beginning to fade, and accompanied, enhanced by the changing light, it ended, after one hour and three quarters, in near darkness. (The only artificial light was a lamp by the piano) Towards the end of the performance bells from a distant church provided a miraculous counterpoint – a merging of Art with everyday reality; and at a stroke, what the English writer Anita Brookner calls the ‘monstrous egotism’ of the artist – in this case composer and performer – is punctured, undermined, and the music could no longer say simply ‘listen to me’; nor could the performer demand of his audience ‘look at me’.
Listening to Triadic Memories on that day two women, one young, one elderly, were weeping. I mention it, not least because I think it is a rare occurrence at concerts, and I can only speculate on the reasons. But I believe they have something to do with meanings in Art and in Feldman’s Art in particular: human vulnerability and fragility. Human imperfection. In the late works the enveloping hugeness of Feldman’s canvas reminds one of the great Rothko black paintings. There, too, in the Rothko chapel, people sit and quietly weep.
I recall the Times critic a few years ago advising the AMM, in a patronizing manner, to carry on with the business of making fresh sounds and sound relationships but not to worry our musical heads about moral and social matters. In a BBC radio broadcast introducing a recording of the first performance of Paragraph 1 of The Great Learning at the Cheltenham Festival Cornelius Cardew again hit the nail on the head: "If music were a purely aesthetic experience, it wouldn't occupy the central place it does in our affairs. It must make waves in the environment and have repercussions beyond the concert hall."
Like the human beings who create it, music is fragile and vulnerable. Perhaps this is why, apparently, more people weep when they listen to music than with any other artistic manifestation: painting, sculpture, poetry, etc. We musicians can experience that revelatory experience, when the music breaks free and we simply follow it, track it. I think most musicians have experienced this. but there are no criteria with which to measure and assess. Unlike religion, there are no commandments to honour or to break.
When Cardew was once asked, after a particularly radical and uncompromising performance, ‘but Mr. Cardew, is this music.’ Cardew replied: ‘I am a musician; I make music.’ In other words, it is all about ‘being a musician’.
But what is, being a musician? Is it, in my particular case, my history? My beloved teacher, Dorothy Symes, who taught me what it costs, intellectually and emotionally, to play a phrase. The music of Mozart, which I have always so loved. My father, who, when he came home from the war, played hymns on the piano, which made me, a child of 9, weep. My late mother, who is a constant presence. My wife. And writers and artists and philosophers, close friends, who have profoundly influenced my Weltanschauung and who have fine-tuned and sometimes ruffled my sensibilities. I am them.
Relationships which have sometimes inspired and sometimes shamed me. And, from the perspective of old age, frustration, disappontment, anxiety (children), intolerance, insecurity, failure, incompleteness, valediction, all of which in some way must necessarily impinge upon my music-making, for better or for worse.
And yet now I seem to be more in tune with what I play. Gone are the days of picking my way through the repertoire of the professional pianist. Feldman fulfills a deep-seated need, So do my posthumous collaborations with Beckett (and Derek Bailey), music-making with friends and colleagues from AMM and others, who enrich and inspire my music-making: John White, Michael Parsons, Dave Smith, Howard Skempton, and younger generation: John Lely, Sebastan Lexer, Bertrand Gauguet, et al. (too many to mention) Posthumously, Cardew also provides a moral dimension.
Speaking personally, it is the present that occupies me more and more. By 'the present' I mean now; in my music-making, in particular, 'nowness' has assumed a quality of preciousness and I strive, sometimes unsuccessfully, to protect it from violation. In improvised music this sense of 'nowness' is cherished and intensified. Of course, it becomes increasingly apparent that this preoccupation with nowness is also associated with age, with ever-increasing consciousness of one’s mortality. Unlike my grandchildren, at the other end of life’s spectrum, who think they live for ever.
‘Hygiene’, the Russian pianist, Sviatoslav Richter retorted when asked his opinion of the music of Bach. I assume he meant something which cleanses, which Blake makes explicit: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is –‘ Infinite’. From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The opening chorus of the St. John Passion springs to mind, the opening phrase of the second movement of Mozart’s K.488.
So, the question repeats itself: what is it like to be a musician, an artist? In respect of improvisation, and from my own perspective, it is the emphasis on the physical and sensual qualities of the art of performance which creates an intimacy, an indivisibility of musician and music which at its best engages an audience. And in this endeavour let us not forget the imperative of conviction. (But perhaps ‘conviction’ is misleading because in improvising, as we have seen, uncertainty, hesitancy, lack of conviction, may be aestheticised and can find elegant and moving expression.)
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music and performance still intact. Do you have a vision of music and performance, an idea of what they could be beyond their current form?
No. But as we enter a period of World Fascism there will have to be new strategies. Maybe, ‘Art as we know it’ will have to be abandoned. At 83 I am unlikely to be involved, but I hope I will retain that iota of energy at the end to say NO.
I still cannot banish Philip Guston’s anguished cry from his studio in New York. ‘So when the 1960s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything- and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue. I thought there must be some way I could do something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was laying. A very crude, inchoate road, I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid ….Wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt.”
So how does it behove me, the humble piano-player, to pronounce on this subject? Perhaps the key to this is my maternal grandfather, whom I never met. He and his wife and two daughters lived in dire poverty in Latimer Road, West London. He was a building worker and died from tuberculosis in 1914 at the age of 39 when my mother was 7. He was also a pub pianist who had an affair with the barmaid, which produced my mother. I have missed him and continue to miss him more than I can say. Well, perhaps the combination of music, alcohol and illicit love, which my mother somehow bequeathed to me, bestows on me more than a smidgin of ‘authority’ in the issue at hand. After all, all three seemed to offer much and yet promised nothing.