Insalata Statica – Giovanni Di Domenico Interview

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Autoportraits by Giovanni Di Domenico (2017) – used with permission

Born in Rome in 1977, pianist Giovanni Di Domenico spent much of his youth in Africa as well as Italy, absorbing a multitude of musical styles – with folk traditions, opera, prayer calls, classical repertoire, jazz and punk all shaping his expansive approach to sound. In his twenties Di Domenico enrolled in the prestigious Santa Cecilia music conservatory in Rome and later the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, undertaking piano studies with a free-spirited, rebellious ethic. Now resident in Brussels, he has garnered much respect for his energetic, inventive musicality – in recent years he has honed his talents in solo and group playing contexts with Akira Sakata, Jim O’Rourke, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto, John Edwards, Alexandra Grimal, Keiji Haino, Manuel Mota and Chris Corsano among others. Through his label Silent Water, he has showcased the work of frequent collaborators including Norberto Lobo, Pak Yan Lau and João Lobo as well as the Japan based trio Delivery Health – comprising Domenico, O’Rourke and Yamamoto.

A new LP, Insalata Statica, pushes Di Domenico’s capabilities as a composer into the foreground. It also reflects a hitherto under-acknowledged pop sensibility. Written and performed almost in its entirety by Di Domenico, the album takes listeners from passages of melancholic introspection through to fuzz-laden melodic exuberance. Those who have witnessed Di Domenico in a live performance setting recognise the expansive variety of tonalities and voices he is able to express across a range of keyboard based instruments, including Rhodes, Hammond and grand piano – all of which feature on the album. But Insalata Statica also sees Di Domenico returning to his first instrument, the guitar, as well as calling on guests to lend extra elements to the kaleidoscopic sound – with Niels Van Heertum on euphonium, João Lobo on drums, Jordi Grognard on clarinets, harpist Vera Cavallin and Ananta Roosens on trumpet.

Insalata Statica’s flowing, shifting harmonies, rhythms and textures are deftly arranged – often blurring lines between a wide variety of acoustic and electronic instrumentation. While largely recorded in the studio in his current city of residence, it seems only fitting that for a peripatetic musician such as Di Domenico the album should suggest the experience of travel throughout its ever shifting movements. Listening to Insalata Statica, one can imagine the character of different landscapes – and their effect on mood and energy. The music seems to convey the haze of early departure; the romance of new climates; sleepy intervals and the hectic rush of transit; the feeling of sudden inspiration and the lasting traces of memory.

Moving through delicate motifs for horns, woodwind, percussion, harp, guitar and electronics into more stately piano-led choruses and even hectic, Hammond-led jazz sections, there are evocations of Franco Battiato’s 70s albums, Brazilian folk flourishes, the spacious, harmonically rich jazz of ECM recordings and oddball pop. Ushering such influences into a vibrant whole, revealing a skilful ear and an ability to blend instrumental timbres and melodic lines in surprising ways, Insalata Statica has a charm all its own.

I spoke with Di Domenico about his musical activities over the years and the process of writing and recording Insalata Statica.

Insalata Statica was five years in the making. Was there a specific compositional idea behind it from the beginning that you were interested in exploring?

I did not have a specific idea before writing the music for it. I was actually writing for another band at that point, and was planning on using that material for them. Then things changed and it made sense to me to use that material as a whole, for a single piece. The actual music, six different ‘tunes’, were written in a couple of days, then it took me five years, to arrange, record and edit everything and to turn it into an album. Insalata Statica means ‘static salad’ in Italian. It’s like I prepared the musical salad in no time and then took a long time to dress it.

Was the length of time it took a matter of figuring the transitions ­– were there different versions with those original tunes ordered differently? Or was it a more linear process that other demands and travelling simply took you away from for extended periods?

I guess it was a bit of both: a lack of time, that without my wanting it to, ended up lengthening the process of arranging and recording – but also way too many ideas during the same process. In the end I had to stop, or else I felt it could have gone on forever.

Basically, when I wrote the material and then decided what to do with it, I knew it could work but did not know quite how – making the songs separate entities or else try to make it into a whole. I think the order of the different passages came pretty easily and quickly. Then I thought about calling it Insalata Statica. The name comes from a joke made by an old friend: he was always saying that I was preparing ‘static’ salads. I thought that was a brilliant name and I had to use it! I thought it was ideal to have a more static beginning that slowly unfolds, taking different twists and turns, to reach a much less static ending. In reality the record isn’t static at all, it moves a lot and has a lot of rhythmical and harmonic layers. I was, and still am really, a lot into Jim O’Rourke’s The Visitor during that period, which certainly helped shape my approach.

I’m interested in how the piece transformed and how your thinking may have changed throughout that long a period.

I usually worked for several days on it, then let some days pass, then listened to it again to see what could be changed, added, or thrown away. I was hearing too many different things and at times I could not make up my mind. I knew, with the way I was approaching the whole thing, that a very simple idea could take me very far, if I could just give the right weight to that idea.

Sometimes other records I was into at that moment, or other stuff I was doing would give me other ideas and I had to hold them till the moment I was sure what to do with them. Other times I would just start to ‘jam’ with the tracks that were already there and something just right came up that had to be used no matter what. But I had to stick at this. At times I got fed up with it and wanted to throw everything in the garbage. I then left it for a couple of months unattended and went straight back to it. I could not leave it, it had to be finished.

As with much of your work, you are exploring an array of approaches to keyboard instruments – electronic textures, Rhodes, organ drones, Hammond, reflective interludes, all weaved together without a jarring effect. Not an easy feat. But there’s a whole orchestra here. I can also hear guitar. At first I thought some technique applied to the inside of the piano might have been behind some of the pizzicato sounds because some of the instrumentation blurs wonderfully in timbre and colour. Did you play most of the instruments on the record?

I played almost everything, except euphonium, clarinet, harp and some drum parts. Yes it’s a guitar! I am actually glad that you thought it was plucked piano, that’s a great idea you have given me – albeit quite difficult to make it sound like a guitar should sound, I guess.

Me and the guitar have a long history, actually. That’s the first instrument I learned to play, and I left it behind as I was discovering the piano, the drums and everything else I could put my hands on. But it stayed a very important instrument for me, although I never dared to play it again, until the point when I was in Japan playing with Jim [O’Rourke] and Tatsu [Yamamoto] and all. Jim asked me ‘Do you play guitar? You should!’ This was a kind of revelation, in the sense that it gave me the guts to do it, and although I am not a very good guitar player I regained the thrill of playing it and I liked it a lot. This happiness led me to want to do this record, that’s why I think it sounds like it does. I was really having fun!

The tactile aspects of the instrumentation seem very important to you – I can’t picture you using midi controls with computer software. When I’ve seen you play live, you are often moving between piano and Rhodes, between the outside and the inside of the piano.

In the beginning, while I was writing the music, I just had piano, Rhodes, Hammond, other keyboards and also electric guitar and electric bass – all within reaching distance. I would just pass from one to the other in a very simple but deep way, sometimes not caring too much about the precision and cleanness of things. That is why at times it sounds ‘loose’. You are right, I have never used any midi or software based computer thing. I am not able to do so. I need this tactility, which you mention. I need to put my hands on the instruments and try to do everything that I ‘hear’ through actual manipulation.

But another part of the process that excites me more than words can say is the editing and mixing side of things. I really like to sit down and listen to things while just imagining sounds changing their colour, contrast and weight – a bit like Photoshopping a picture. And through that a lot of the qualities of a single instrument can change. For me it is important that this production process is a vital part of the compositional development of the music.

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You have said that the album encompasses most of your strongest influences. Rather than simply ask what those are, I’m interested in how easily or otherwise you found that you could weave them together into something distinctly your own. Do you think there is a common denominator among those, apparently various, influences that allows them to combine? Or connections between things that only occurred to you after some time?

There’s a fundamental thing that connects those ‘influences’  – not the specific influences but the act of thinking about them – and the fact that this is my first solo LP: I passed beyond any sense of pressure I might have felt before, of having to stick to one style, to put it crudely. I said to myself that I had to do what I like most – that is, to put all that I hear into organised sounds. Although, if I had to enumerate all those influences and styles I’d still find that there are some very significant ones that are missing from this record. For example, the most radical and fierce ways of playing, like I do with Akira Sakata – and the more extreme sounding ones. That stuff I like to listen to and make my own as well.

I did what I had to do and it came so easily that soon I forgot about all the doubts and insecurities that have been lingering since, basically, always.

Where do you think those particular doubts come from?

I’ve taken kind of a strange path in music. I haven’t done anything else since I was 12 but I’ve moved along, taking many different roads, constantly immersing myself of course but not quite finding my own voice, or voices. Now if I go backwards I am happy with all of this but some time ago I found myself getting frustrated for not having discovered something before – that same something, which at that precise moment was freaking me out because of its beauty!

When making this record, it was not difficult to combine everything. It all made a lot of sense to me finally. Of course, it might be that I’m saying all this because I just turned 40, and perhaps I finally feel mature! These things took time to find their shape, but once they did all the rest came pretty quickly and easily.

This is your first solo album under your own name, made largely in isolation. Despite the obvious pleasure that editing and mixing has given you, do you still prefer to be playing amongst other musicians?

I don’t really treat it all that differently – playing alone, composing, recording and staying in the studio as much as I can by myself, and playing with others. I mean Bonjintan [jazz quartet with Akira Sakata, O’Rourke and Yamamoto] is great. Playing is always great when it’s with great people, it gives me a lot and I would never drop it. But I’ve gotten more and more picky in choosing my musical pals and I don’t have a problem with saying no to something that I just don’t ‘hear’.

I have done other solo albums, but I always used a pseudonym. I wanted them to be only electroacoustic and in keeping with a certain niche, or style, or whatever. I don’t hate them but I clearly feel that they were part of this research and I can hear that they are very naïve in a way. Now I probably would not release them.

Tell me a bit about your experiences of going to school to study piano and what your feelings were/are about the value of that – as opposed to the learning you continue to do in the context of relentless live performance and collaboration. I know some musicians are not keen on studying music in an academic sense.

I didn’t go to music school until I was 24. I went to the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where I studied jazz piano. That conservatory is famous for its adherence to jazz tradition, especially bebop. Before that I spent one year at the Santa Cecilia conservatory in Rome where I studied composition. That was 1998, but I only lasted a year, as I was not really keen on doing solfège. I was always very rebellious when it came to academia. I don’t even have a high school degree. And so they kicked me out, I was expelled. But during this time I was playing in all sorts of punk, surf and hardcore bands in Rome. There was quite a scene back then, a lot of groups that didn’t go anywhere really but that shaped me a great deal – although I didn’t realise that until much later.

As I was telling you before, for a long time I felt frustrated for having taken what I see as a somewhat tortuous path through music. When I arrived at the conservatory in Holland, I remember being so angry at myself because I was hearing very young musicians of 18 or so playing their asses off. I thought I’d lost so much time. And in The Hague there is the amazing Sonology department, but at that time I was not really aware of what it is. If I were there now, I would spend more time in that facility than practising scales and chords!

But I got over all that as I continued, discovering that all the things I had in me came from that same path. I accepted it and started to like it and make it my strength. Of course I feel it’s still in progress, it will never end. The most important thing I gained from those academic years was some of my very best ‘musical’ friends  – and overall just friends – having grown up together, having tried so many different things and learned things about producing/recording etc.

The resources in that place were really amazing. But I also remember having an instant allergy to courses dealing with the business side of the profession. I just thought that was total crap, that I should not get even close to that sort of thing, I still think so! I have the feeling that my aversion to ‘business’ comes from my aversion to ‘being there’, to exposing myself to the infinite tentacles of the culture of promotion. I mean I am already doing a job that exposes me: I create something that people are supposed to consume and enjoy, but I’d rather be known and, if fortunate enough, appreciated for my music, not for how much it sells or anything like that. I know there’s a contradiction in all this, but I just can’t get too much into the social media culture, even for promoting my work. I would certainly not put anything of my private life out there. I feel my music would be affected if I did so. I absolutely cannot compromise on that.

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Yet you do run your own label, Silent Water, which is putting out releases fairly regularly. What was the impetus for doing that and what are some of the difficulties and benefits you have experienced?

The idea of having a label has always been there. But the timing to set up Silent Water was a bit of a coincidence. I always had the idea that I would set up ‘my label’ with my first ‘solo’ record, then in 2012 I had a disagreement with another label owner about the release of one of my LPs. So I decided, ‘Fuck it, I am going to do it myself’. I was not prepared for that, though, so that LP had the SW002 catalogue number!

It just makes everything easier for me to have my own label to put out my own music. For a period I was thinking that it would have been the worst idea to put out things on my own label – it seems too ‘simple’. Then I would think of all the great musicians since the ’70s who have started their own record companies, and also see the freedom that being your own boss brings you. I think it’s a great way to push yourself, to always go further and feed your ideas and projects. Of course I was lucky enough to have some money to put into it, and to have folks around me who agreed to paying something when it was needed – and understood that the profitability of all this was going to be almost non-existent. Neither I nor we will get rich from Silent Water, but that’s exactly what I like about it. I just want to be able to pay for the next record. Now, with 15 releases in five years, I have to say it has gone much further then I could ever expect.

You are now planning to do live shows around Insalata Statica with an eight-piece band. How do you think you might approach it in this different context?

After all the time I spent on Insalata Statica, I thought it would be a shame not to tour it around, and the first thing that was clear to me was that it had to be with a band. For technical reasons: the fact that some parts of the record have over 100 layers makes it impossible to play it live by myself, at least without using samples and pre-recorded tracks. But I can’t do that! Insalata Statica is a very ‘lived’ piece. I simply can’t think about having it be played by a software. So I decided I was going to put together a band for it, with the same people that helped me do the record – and the addition of a bass player and a guitar player. That prospect excites me a lot, as I have to rewrite or at least rethink many of the parts, to be able to make it sound like it should. In any case it will sound somewhat different. I’ve realised I will have to change certain parts of the orchestration but I’m curious and looking forward to hearing it. After having been ‘inside’ this music for so long, I want to get ‘outside’ of it, and to share it with others. There is the social reason too: I want to give something back to the great musicians that helped me so much. Although it’s going to be a financial disaster, travelling with eight people with instruments in Europe, I don’t care and I want to do it no matter what.

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Insalata Statica is released by Silent Water (https://silentwaterlabel.com/).

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Opening Remarks: A Conversation with Tyler Hubby about Tony Conrad and Documentary Filmmaking

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For The Notebook at Mubi, I spoke to Tyler Hubby about his documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present.

“…I wanted it really approachable. And then there’s the humor in Tony’s life and in his work that I felt needed to be there. There’s a way you could make something that’s really opaque and stand-offish but that’s not who he was. I mean, you could read the work that way but that’s not who he was. So there was that too, bringing forward the experience and my experience of being around him, capturing the essence of his persona. I didn’t want to make a visual resume or, you know, a tombstone. I wanted it to feel like you’re on this wild ride with this crazy guy for 96 minutes.”

To read the edited conversation, visit https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/opening-remarks-a-conversation-with-tyler-hubby-about-tony-conrad-and-documentary-filmmaking

Phill Niblock – Sight & Sound interview

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For the May issue of Sight & Sound I spoke with the composer, filmmaker and photographer Phill Niblock.

“Niblock’s concentrated visual approach was defined by the early 1970s, as the Environments series progressed. He began to favour shooting in extreme close-up and restricting camera placement and movement in specific ways. The parallels are close between his musical compositions, building out from a single musical note into drones, and the long durations and detailed focus of the films.”

To read the full article, visit http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/may-2017-issue

In Media Resistant: Tony Conrad (1940-2016)

Conrad in his Greenwich Village apartment, 1966. Photo: Fredrick Eberstadt

For LOLA, I wrote about Tony Conrad, specifically the late artist’s interest in control, autonomy and resistance:

“A throughline which runs adjacent to Conrad’s interest in authority is his attention to psychological manipulation, and the interior experience of shifting one’s perspective. Whether by way of linguistic content, sonic or graphic animation, Conrad was fascinated by the phenomenological and psychological effects of sociocultural structures, and the media technologies that might operate within these structures.”

To read the full essay, visit http://lolajournal.com/7/conrad.html

My thanks to the co-editors, Adrian Martin and Girish Shambu.

Of Mourning and Evening

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For the Notebook at Mubi, I wrote about William Basinski’s Disintegration Loop 1.1.

“As evening descends, the cityscape below is bathed in shadow first, giving a Magritte-like surrealness to this most surreal of American days: September 11, 2001. The title of the painter’s ‘Empire of Light’ might be applied here, with an additional descriptive: fading. Not only will the natural light ebb from the picture, shifting first through red hues and darker blues; the musical motif on the soundtrack, too, will slowly wear away to little more than a resonant drone.”

To read the full essay, visit https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/of-mourning-and-evening-william-basinski-s-disintegration-loop-1-1

Remainders – Everything Must Go

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For Clash I wrote about Everything Must Go by Manic Street Preachers. The full text is reproduced below.

After the nihilistic fury of 1994’s The Holy Bible, the follow-up album by Manic Street Preachers might have proved to be the ultimate endgame. The title, ‘Everything Must Go’, suggested as much. Evoking the window-length posters that announce a product clearance before a shop closure, there is a sense of an ending, of the commercial failure that was perhaps to be expected from the previous album, which included frantic diatribes on capital punishment, the Holocaust and political correctness alongside first-person explorations of prostitution and anorexia.

Emerging British groups at the time were singing increasingly of hedonistic leisure pursuits and decadent lifestyles in catchy singalongs. Manic Street Preachers garnered a record number of complaints for their paramilitary appearance on Top of the Pops as they promoted their single ‘Faster’, on which they sung “So damn easy to cave in, man kills everything.” Few could have anticipated that the same band would become one of the most popular rock acts in the UK within a couple of years, and in a markedly different guise that would gain them the mass audience they had envisioned for their music ever since their bedroom days in Blackwood, South Wales in the late 1980s.

What’s more, Everything Must Go was recorded following the disappearance of band member Richey Edwards, whose provocative media appearances had been central to Manic Street Preachers’ entry onto the music scene in the early 1990s and whose increasingly allusive, journalistic, and surreal lyric writing had been key to re-energising the group after a tepid second album. Once it became clear that Edwards would not soon return, it seemed likely that Manic Street Preachers would call an end to their ambitions altogether. Everything Must Go, however, turned out to be a radiant testament to the band’s commitment, which saw them forging another vital sound, both rousing and plangent.

But if the music takes a somewhat different tone to its predecessors, everywhere on Everything Must Go there are remainders of the band’s past; characteristics which continue to define their poetic, visual and musical style. The title ‘Everything Must Go’ is in another respect a sign that business would continue as usual. The group’s use of an exploitative or ailing economy as a metaphor provides a throughline to their work history. Recall the entrance of The Holy Bible: an audio sample in which a pimp coolly explains: “Everything’s for sale”.

The cover of The Holy Bible confronted the listener with a triptych of an obese woman; the new album’s front also showed three framed portraits, this time of the band themselves, but without any of the makeup of their glam beginnings, and none of the Holy Bible-era warpaint. The same acceptance of reality, only this time more introspective than voyeuristic.

With the orchestral splendour of the lead single A Design For Life the band quickly reached a new fanbase. The song reached number two in the UK charts following its release in 1996 and it is this anthem of working class determination that, among the band’s numerous chart singles, has continued to resonate most strongly with listeners. Although the band’s songs had been unashamedly political from the start, the sentiment and spirit of the lead single seemed more attuned to a wider grassroots feeling than their earlier anti-monarchical, anarchistic complaints.

Not long before, they had sung “I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing.” Now the band regained a stoicism and re-engagement with moral principles, following the misanthropic dead end of The Holy Bible. There was an unquestionable change in the band, however: they would more and more foreground their interest in the community and history of their native country – in contrast to their youthful boredom and disparagement towards the mining village in which they grew up. This was signalled on Everything Must Go in the small dedication to the Tower Colliery in South Wales in the liner notes, and then in bassist Nicky Wire’s appearance onstage at the 1996 Brit Awards where, along with his bandmates James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore, he collected the Best Album trophy draped in a Welsh flag.

But despite the stirring string arrangements, their highest singles chart success to date and the reconsideration of their home as a source of inspiration, the group’s outlook did not sound to have lifted all that much once the album could be heard in full. On the opener ‘Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier’ Bradfield sings “The future’s dead, fundamentally. It’s so fucking funny it’s absurd,” a reminder of the Sex Pistols’s “There is no future,” with a similar sardonic wit – this was not altogether a new Manics.

Acoustic guitar and harp begin the album, the two instruments heard against the sound of gentle lapping waves. But the drums, bass and electric guitar soon crash in on a humorous satire on the Americanisation of England. There is more space and a richer texture to the sound than before; a more captivating, less aggressive rock style. Across the record, Bradfield strums molten, melodious chords but also strips back to let acoustic passages reveal other colours; his voice no longer excoriating but rising and falling against the changing shades of the songs. Sean Moore’s tight unshowy drumming as ever belies complexities, with elements of Brazilian rhythm on ‘Kevin Carter’ while the frantic middle eight of ‘Australia’ perfectly captures the restless urge to escape, propelling the listener forward to new Antipodean horizons.

Though Wire and Edwards’s words were, for the first time, given a widescreen, technicolour musical presentation on many of the tracks, the little-heard ‘Removables’ is closer to MTV Unplugged Nirvana, whose ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ the band played live during the last months with Edwards. And in one of Edwards’s final, haunting contributions, ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky’, plucked and sweeping harp melodies are used to counterpoint sung descriptions of caged animals on show, torn from their natural surroundings. “All I want to do is live, no matter how miserable it is,” cries Bradfield on ‘Enola/Alone’.

Any triumphalism conveyed by ‘A Design For Life’ was everywhere underwritten with the same deep melancholy that the band had expressed on one of their earliest singles, “Adrift in cheap dreams don’t stop the rain, numbed out in piss towns, just wanna dig their graves.” Lyrically the Manics still stood out for the idiosyncrasy of their inspirations, their pessimism and the almost paradoxical longing for escape and solitude that runs through such crowdpulling tunes. Edwards’s contributions provide stark, imagistic contrasts to those of Wire, but both foreground this idea of escape. Escape from the present, escape from here, “Escape from our history”.

Before the band struck their first number one in 1998 with a song about the Spanish Civil War, they entered the Top Ten with a song about a Pulitzer Prize-winning, South African war photographer who committed suicide in 1993. ‘Kevin Carter’ is based around an impressionistic portrait of Carter’s troubled life, as captured in Edwards’s concise and unconventional lines. It is driven by Bradfield’s clean, chopping guitar and features a sublime trumpet solo by drummer Moore. Bradfield’s main riff seems to mimic both the repeated click-clicks of a camera shutter and the hacking of a machete – both referenced in the song – its repeated punch creating a tight bossa nova rhythm along with Moore’s percussion.

‘Interiors (Song for Willem de Kooning)’ was inspired by a television arts documentary on the abstract expressionist painter and remains the unheralded gem on the album. The song is a companion of sorts to ‘Kevin Carter’ in sound and subject matter. Bradfield’s voice reaches its characteristic soaring heights, and his bright electric guitar lines blaze, carrying Wire’s resigned lyrics.

For many of these songs, art and other media serve as an inspiration for the writing, as it has so often done for the band. Though the record is lighter on audio excerpts and author quotes than previous releases, there remain links to the writing of poet Sylvia Plath on ‘The Girl Who Wanted to Be God’ and painter Jackson Pollock quoted within the sleeve – all in keeping with the band’s interests from the very start. Little has changed today, with the band’s recent krautrock-influenced twelfth album Futurology carrying references to Mayakovsky, Malevich and a disillusionment with social media.

Still, it is hard to think that Manic Street Preachers prior to Everything Must Go would have composed a song quite so simple in its lyrical intent as a wish to escape to ‘Australia’, as on the album’s fourth hit single, of the same name. Though the band from the beginning isolated themselves from their peers, their lyrics had typically been used as opportunities to express a litany of grievances and politically informed observations on the modern world and popular culture in common with Situationist and other left-wing movements. Wire, taking over as sole lyric writer was beginning to find inspiration in new metrical forms and images as a result of his domestic married life and the departure of his friend Edwards, drawing the writing style away from the cut-ups and stream-of-consciousness surrealism of Burroughs and the other Beats.

As close to Larkin as Lydon at times, Wire would increasingly refer to home and landscapes, inner and outer. This was already signalled, however, in one of Wire’s main contributions to The Holy Bible, the nostalgic ‘This is Yesterday’. It finds its epitome in ‘Enola/Alone’ in which Wire writes: “I walk in the grass and I feel some peace at last/I walk on the beach and for once I feel some ease.” Edwards had written a similar line, “I wanna walk in the snow and not leave a footprint,” on the song ‘4st 7lb’ but the mental state he evoked in so doing was altogether more troubled.

The orchestral splendour and the melancholia of Everything Must Go has a character all its own. Without the fierce light of Richey Edwards, the Manics would now carry on in a new aspect, “a beautiful triangle of distortion”, reflective of the past, embodying Samuel Beckett’s stoicism: “…I can’t go on, I must go on” and despite everything, managed to find the popular audience that they had always truly intended to.

Tony Conrad – Critical Audiovisions

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For the Notebook at Mubi I wrote about Tony Conrad, who died 9th April, 2016.

“In creating endgame works—such as the ever-playing Yellow Movies—that resist subsequent extension and modification by other artists, as well as launching open-ended interventions into social and artistic history using different media, Conrad was continually alert to the ways in which cultural values and styles become entrenched. His work provokes further critical rethinking about accepted modes of film and music practice…”

To read the full article, visit the Notebook at Mubi.

Eiko Ishibashi Interview

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For the December 2014 issue of The Wire (#370) I spoke to Eiko Ishibashi about songwriting, language, improvisation and the inspirations she finds in cinema. Ishibashi’s recent album Car and Freezer is available from Felicity (Japan) and Drag City (US).

“Car And Freezer continues on from the densely melodic piano based orchestrations of Ishibashi’s previous album Imitation Of Life and is again produced by [Jim] O’Rourke. There is a characteristic lightness in the way Ishibashi delivers a verse but the emotional colour of Car And Freezer’s songs bursts through in the group playing: the simmering strings and scratchy harmonized guitar break on “Boring Stories”; the piercing trumpet and unsettled organ swirl on “Mr Cloud”; and the extended crescendo of “Lap Top Blues” powered along by guitar and piano trills and Yamamoto’s fierce thump and clatter behind the kit.”

To read the full interview, visit http://www.thewire.co.uk/issues/370

Six Days

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Jim O’Rourke at Super Deluxe, Tokyo 17-22 June 2013.

Originally published online at Audiovisual Salvage, December 2013.

As shifting arrangements of dots are moved across four sets of magnified staff lines projected onto the back wall of the music venue, and the unconventional notations slowly reveal themselves to be isolated fragments of a blown-up, halftone, TV guide cut-out of the face of Aunt Esther, the complex and comical sensibility of Jim O’Rourke comes into focus.

The transposition of an old weekly listings clipping into the arrangement for a composition; the creative displacement of an icon from a popular ‘70s US sitcom into the rigours and free play of experimental music in a club in Tokyo, where memories of Sanford and Son are as good as non-existent; and the realisation that there is still so much to learn about and from the work of O’Rourke were characteristic of a surprising and wide-ranging showcase in June of this musician’s formidable talents.

Playing six consecutive nights in his current city of residence, and offering a rare opportunity to witness him revisiting material from the past, both solo and accompanied by a variety of groups, O’Rourke’s tireless approach to music was plain to see, and hear. Avoiding the commonplace ritual exhumation initiated by ATP’s Don’t Look Back series, the work history that O’Rourke presented stretched back to certain periods in which it is unlikely anyone in attendance would have seen him perform, and happily looked to the future too.

Appearing uneasy about returning to ground covered more than twenty years ago, O’Rourke’s replication of the style of his earlier interactions with a six-string launched the Six Days event. The opportunity to see the handiwork behind the type of prepared guitar playing that appears on Remove the Need revealed an array of interventions by O’Rourke that went beyond a checklist of tricks that has given even this non-normative use of the instrument a predictable traditionalism. Remote control interference and curious extra-circuitry adaptations sent screeches through the speakers, tempered by hand to muted emanations and, at times, a gorgeous ambient drift – the unstable discordances and the gentle melody of extended technique.

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The shadow of O’Rourke’s younger self was literally cast during the second set of Day One, onto the side of a tent. Camped out indoors with only tape machines for company, the crowd were left out in the wild, immersed in throbbing, babbling, brutal analog tones tearing through the monitors. Recent archival LP releases have provided a wider picture of O’Rourke’s explorations of electro-acoustics, which have been ongoing for many years, but the unexpected performance setup was a reminder of the non-academic trajectory of his research.

Day Two began with a version of the 1990 composition Mizu No Nai Umi, the original drone work played back and accompanied by several performers who moved around the floor space sounding various percussive, resonant objects. The clink of beer bottles and chime of crotales thickened the cloud of overtones. Screened at the same time, a looped and processed video clip of a commercial plane landing at sunset – a notoriously painstaking and expensive shot excerpted from Brian De Palma’s widely reviled film, The Bonfire of the Vanities – provided a visual complement to the music. The shifting colours and contrast of the golden image, already blurred by the warm air currents of the JFK runway, the pools of light and the deepening shadows, mirroring the nuance and microtonal movement in the shimmering sound. A ten-second shot extended to last thirty minutes, a cinematic drone of equal density.

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Aunt Esther dates back to O’Rourke’s college days, and is emblematic of his challenges to the strictures of the Academy, the piece’s untypical notation interpreted by an ensemble of improvisers playfully switching classical snippets into free jazz fits and starts. No doubt a failure in the eyes of his tutor, the composition reflects both the discipline and humour which together defined much American and English experimental music after John Cage, a tendency seemingly forgotten by many dour contemporary experimentalists. As with much of O’Rourke’s strongest work, assumptions were gladly upended.

The young performers of String Quartet and Oscillators – Atsuko Hatano, Hiroki Chiba, Eriko Teshima and Masabumi Sekiguchi – might not often be tasked with sustaining tones for long durations, but their combined, concentrated bowing built a moving wall of pitches. Swapping the classical, romantic melodies usually associated with a string quartet for stacked harmonic rapture these players too showed themselves happy to dismantle expectations. Waves of acoustic frequencies swept over the buzzing of oscillators, stripped of extra-musical referents down to thick tone colours and textures. Like the work of American minimalists Phill Niblock and Tony Conrad, the result was physically captivating.

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It was instructive to programme the performances of Bad Timing and Happy Days back to back on Day Three, since they illustrate two ways of exploring a single musical connection, that between the folk and blues influenced concert guitar style of John Fahey and the massive drones of Conrad and Niblock. The brass fanfare of Bad Timing was sadly absent – the album performed by O’Rourke and his regular band, with Toshiaki Sudoh on bass, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto on drums and Eiko Ishibashi on piano – but shorn of its joyous tooting horns, the signature melodies of the album were driven home with more percussive punch.

Repeatedly plucking two acoustic guitar strings against a rising storm of hurdy gurdy, whose blasting tones lent a pleasurably oppressive weight to the air, O’Rourke’s performance of Happy Days was almost scuppered by a broken string at the very end of the piece. Though evidently unintended, the hiccup seemed to be a necessary structuring element of the performance, as if O’Rourke was meant to go on unceasingly, aching and exhausted until the string could bear the tension no longer.

The blisters were allowed a chance to heal on Day Four, as O’Rourke conducted Big Band and Tapes, for a group which included firebrand saxophonists Akira Sakata and Kazutoki Umezu, flanking the composer on either side and bolstered by Yuji Katsui on violin, Daisuke Takaoka on tuba, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto on drums, Todd Nicholson on double bass, Shinpei Ruike on trumpet and Yasuyuki Takahashi on trombone. The uncertainty was clear on the faces of some of the musicians, a little perturbed by the idiosyncrasies of O’Rourke’s score. Nevertheless the exertion and musical prowess of all the performers was compelling. The intermittent blare and solo flights into the edges were riveting and unpredictable, though the overall conceptual framework of the music remained somewhat obscure. Still, with this much raging force the audience knew what a real Salvation Army band could sound like.

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A new Jazz Trio kicked off Day Five with a monstrous version of ‘Back Woods Song’ by Gateway, the effortless saunter of the original being ignited by O’Rourke’s guitar shredding, the electronic manipulations of Hiroki Chiba’s double bass and the exploratory thump and clatter of Tatsuhisa Yamamoto’s percussion. All of O’Rourke’s stylistic predecessors may be readily acknowledged but there are few guitarists who could marry the modes of John Abercrombie, Ray Russell and Tisziji Munoz in one sitting with baffling ease.

Another trio, Kafka’s Snore played a thirty-five-minute set unfurling a single improvised piece. Beautifully paced, emerging from Eiko Ishibashi’s sparse piano motif, allowing quietude much duration within an elegiac melody, and elaborated by Yamamoto’s intelligent reassessments behind the kit, and the steadily amassed tones, chords and timbres of O’Rourke’s electric guitar and synth, the dynamic steadily moved on into a fiery rock spree to close out the evening.

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A packed house on Day Six eagerly awaited renditions of O’Rourke’s pop songs. Tracks from each of the ‘Roeg’ albums that feature singing were played, as well as selections from the Halfway to a Threeway EP and the second Loose Fur record. Having performed with a regular band in Japan for some time – for song performances; in improvisational contexts; in various combinations with other musicians – O’Rourke’s music benefited from the familiarity, elasticity and invention that such extensive group playing across these contexts can encourage. With the addition of pedal steel player Ren Takada, unfortunately not involved in the earlier Bad Timing performance, it sounded powerful and assured in the club space; O’Rourke’s rarely heard vocals much fuller and louder than on record, and the sight of his fretboard navigations a further confirmation of the unassuming complexity of his Drag City albums.

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From the looped, harmonised solo guitar and feedback which opened the show, to the final, urgent, bellowed refrains of ‘The Workplace’ the thrill of hearing this increasingly influential music played by a band so alert to its possibilities is only matched by the thrill of anticipation as to where O’Rourke will take his music next. Good times.

Thirty albums of music by Jim O’Rourke, including the String Quartet and Oscillators performance from the Six Days event are available at Steamroom.

Working Title

Niblock book

My review of Working Title, a collection of essays about Phill Niblock published by Les presses du réel appears in the May 2013 issue of The Wire (#351).

“Throughout the book, evocations of the physiological impact of the performances Niblock would stage in his New York loft – the intensely loud volume of which rarely go unremarked when describing his past shows – and perceived connections with Zen philosophy are balanced by discussions of the technical aspects of Niblock’s music, as well as Bernard Gendron’s splendid history of Experimental Intermedia and the Downtown music scene in New York in the 1970s and 80s.”

To read the full review, visit http://www.thewire.co.uk/issues/351