Live noise: Nøught & Dead Days Beyond Help

Nøught and Dead Days Beyond Help with Alan Wilkinson, at Café Oto, London, 13 March 2016

I have mixed feelings about Café Oto. The venue cultivates a squat-party vibe with an artisan-loaf aesthetic. It is simultaneously hip and square. It hosts late night noise rock on a Sunday night so that people with 9-5 jobs, childcare, or homes outside Hackney will struggle to negotiate the restricted public transport services, while charging £3.60 for two-thirds of a pint of their cheapest beer (i.e. £5.40 per pint). The constituency which is able both to attend regular events and afford the drinks must be infinitesimally small, unless the cliché of the Hackney-incomer living off a limitless trust fund is more true than I have hoped. But where else could we go to hear music like this, while browsing a small book stall hosting, for example, the recent book on Bob Cobbing? What’s more, as signifiers of cool go, the crowd tonight includes former members of Sonic Youth and This Heat. But this righteous cachet may soon be jeopardized by the same new money that has contributed to Hackney’s modishness over the past decade or so. The new development of flats that is being built within earshot is an ominous portent of the likely struggles that Oto’s proprietors may soon face given the total lack of noise protection.

Dead Days Beyond Help (Alex Ward on electric guitar and voice, and Jem Doulton on drums) are augmented tonight by saxophonist Alan Wilkinson (playing baritone, then alto), and they forego singing to play a raucous set of improvised noise. This was just what I needed: thoroughly refreshing. The rockist temptation to compare the sound to The Stooges’ ‘L. A. Blues’ should be restrained by the clarification that, if so, it is ‘L. A. Blues’ as played by uptight Englanders. (I don’t know if all the players are English, but they play with the repressed tension of the English.) The physical efforts of these three musicians is a pleasure to watch, but equally satisfying is to shut your eyes and ignore the smell of craft beer. I did this, and forgot that the music was being played by technological Europeans. The ideological debates around freedom and idiom in improvised music evaporated. Instead I heard music from the dawn of time: the archaic spirit of humanity was given full voice in the uproarious blending of the three instruments. Yet still that archaic voice was mediated by a specific English anxiety – a tension without release – which kept the music controlled and separated from any claims of transcendence. We are grounded by the interplay between three humans. In a wonderful moment of unified playing, Ward’s guitar and Wilkinson’s saxophone each emitted answering growls while Doulton trapped a drumstick between the cymbals of his hi-hat, tugging at it as if pulling his arm from the percussive bronze jaws of a metamorphosed dog. The drummer won this battle. Of course he did: the musicians played in total command of their noise.

I had to go outside to protect my ears from the horrible simulation of tinnitus offered by the second group. I’m old enough and square enough to know when my ears have suffered enough, and I hate listening through earplugs. I returned for Nought, or, for fans of 1980s computer displays, Nøught (led by guitarist James Sedwards, with Luke Barlow on keys, Santiago Horro on bass, and new drummer Bo Mapper). Nought have a reputation for punishingly heavy sets of thrillingly intricate noise, but the new set this evening was less brutal, more playfully sinister. The first of two tunes lasted about half an hour (true punk rockers are not remotely frightened by this). Unfolding through interconnected movements, the music continually opened up new spaces for the mind to move around in. The syncopated drop-outs in the first minutes were reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s psychedelic soundtracks (as handily collected on Ipecac’s Crime and Dissonance). In short, Nought sound less English, more continental. Both fiery and relaxed, and with a sense of sprezzatura. Their new piece intelligently avoided the potential trap of a predictable escalation towards a crescendo by deploying a lot of dynamic space throughout. The effect was of being carried through a prismatic and protean structure that exists beyond time and space. The vision persists until clock time re-imposes the gentrified realities of the London Overground bus replacement service.

Organizing emotions in time

Deep in my hard drive was a podcast featuring an interview with the pianist Krystian Zimerman, in which he makes some thoughtful remarks on the nature of music and modern techniques of recording. It springs from his apparently counter-intuitive claim:

I’m realizing more and more that music is not an audio experience […] It’s something more than audio, and the digital [recording] technique actually showed me this. […] It so clearly transmits the sounds that you can’t hear the music anymore.

Asked to explain the paradox, he continues,

From the very beginning of the digital technique I had a problem in the studio because I had too many informations concerning the sound; and music is not sound. We are using the sound for creating music, but music is actually more organizing people’s emotions in time. And it’s more the time-flow, it’s more the story you’re telling using the sound. Going by more and more perfect sound you’re not necessarily achieving a better story or are able better to tell the story because there will be a lot of factors which will start to disturb the listener – the perfection of sound, which is kind of over-exposing itself. And, on top of this, I would say there is a very interesting function of the distortion in all this. We always have some kind of distortion – in the concert hall there is a tremendous distortion. There is never a total silence in the concert hall, so there is a kind of basic hum, basic level of distortion which is something we can lean at, we can play with. And if you look at old recordings – for example, I had a beautiful recording of Chopin’s Preludes by [Alfred] Cortot. The man is really playing with these distortions, he’s really diving under it: sometimes doesn’t play half of the notes, and that I only realized after someone gave me a cleaned version of this recording. It’s awful, absolutely awful, and this man gave it with a great satisfaction, saying “look how he’s cheating in the left hand: he doesn’t play most of the notes.” I said, “well, this is terrible because for this media he recorded it for, it didn’t matter, so this man had an intelligence of playing that what was important, and hitting exactly that region in which he could transmit his art to the listener. Not bothering about all the other things with were unimportant. And now cleaning this recording is like you would go to the Louvre and undress the Mona Lisa and realise she doesn’t have very clean pants this day. This is unfair because the picture is about her smile and not about her underwear. And that’s exactly what digital technique did to us.

Krystian Zimerman, interviewed by Tom Service, Music Matters, Radio 3, 10 May 2008, 6’57”-9’47”

Two points interest me: (♮) that music is not to do with sounds or ears, but rather emotions and time; (♭) that digital recording works against music. The former claim is one I hope to explore implicitly over the next few months on this blog; the latter claim is a familiar one. I expect that I’ll keep coming back to these two oppositions of music as either audio vibrations or temporal emotions, and recording as working with distortion or seeking perfection. I’m interested in testing the objectivity of the numerous claims against the musicality of digital recording. Digital recording is encased in silence: the smallest distortion may be isolated and removed. The minute level of artifice allowed by the digital technique – where notes and beats can easily be moved, repeated, deleted, replaced – means that the end-result is not a record of an event that occurred in the studio, but a computer simulation of it. This is of little import to many: artifice is part of art, and I certainly can’t distinguish confidently between analogue and digital recordings. But the implication is that digital recording relies less on the intelligence of the player, and instead conforms to a measurable standard of apparent mathematical perfection.



Image: Three-dimensional visualization of sounds electronically recovered from ice-age rock unearthed in the River Lea by the London Archaeoacoustic Project in 1972.

This blog collects various notes on myth or on music, and occasionally on both or neither.

Posts from 2003 to 2010 are imported from assorted, now-defunct, personal websites and blogs. I set this up as a private collection around 2011, and decided to make it public in 2016. At the moment, most entries fall into three broad categories: (α) gruffly promoting music I made between 1996 and 2009; (β) reviewing my friends’ music; (γ) reviewing productions of Greek tragedies. The tone varies between these entries, but I imagine it will settle down in future. What they share is a concern with the ineffable or time-altering properties common to myth and music.

I aim to update this most Wednesdays, but the odd week or two might go by with nothing.