Posts Tagged ‘live recordings’

Cold Spring Records – 16th April 2021

Edward S. Robinson

William Burroughs maintained a prolific output over the course of his lengthy career, and not only in the written form, committing many hours of recordings to tape. Yet even now, Brion Gysin’s contribution remains largely overlooked, despite being not only the man who ‘discovered’ the cut-ups and introduced the idea to Burroughs, but as a long-term collaborator and an outstanding polyartist in his own right. This album devotes a significant portion of the second side to Gysin’s recordings, and goes some way to redress the balance, although one suspects the immense Burroughs mythos will mean Gysin will eternally exist as a (lengthy) sidenote.

A great many of those recordings made by Burroughs – with Gysin – have been released, and a number are almost legendary in Burroughs circles in their own right, notably the 1965 introductory collection Call Me Burroughs (re-released recently), and the collection of audio experiments released in 1981 on Throbbing Gristle’s Industrial Records as Nothing Here Now But the Recordings.

Now, the last time I reviewed a Burroughs release, Let Me Hang You, back in 2016, I copped some flak from certain quarters of the online community of Burroughs fans and experts for having failed to spot that what was pitched as a ‘new’ recording excavated from the archive was in fact a previously-released recording of Burroughs with new music. My bad, as they say: I’d failed to fully research all aspects of my 1,400-word critique. Like The Who, I won’t get fooled again.

The liner notes for this vinyl-only release contextualise as follows: ‘Rare recordings of beat/cut-up writers and artists William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Comprises the complete recording of Burroughs reading live in Liverpool in 1982, plus performances by Gysin of a selection of his permutated poems, as well as home recordings made by the pair in Paris in 1970. All recordings are taken from original tapes in the British Library collection.’ If ‘rare’ suggests unreleased or otherwise incredibly difficult to find, it’s worth noting that this exact track listing was released on CD, with a running time of sixty-six minutes, in 2012 by the British Library on its own label under the title The Spoken Word, credited to William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin and is available via Discogs for a tenner. The cover image is also the same as the British Library release. That said, of all the Burroughs CDs I own, this isn’t among them, and I’ve never seen a copy or heard the majority of the material, and in many ways, this is as much about the artefact as it is about the material, and if the title seems a little lacking, at least it’s descriptive of the contents.

The Live in Liverpool recording is an interesting one, recorded as it was the night after Burroughs’ reading in Manchester as part of The Final Academy tour, where Burroughs featured alongside Cabaret Voltaire, Psychic TV, and 23 Skidoo, as well as screenings of the experimental movies Burroughs made with Gyson and Anthony Balch. The Manchester Hacienda performance was filmed, but only edited highlights made it to the ‘Final Academy Document’ released in 1983 on Factory subsidiary IKON, and re-released on DVD by Cherry Red in 2002.

However familiar you may be with Burroughs’ voice, the first few minutes of playback on a recording has an impact. No-one else sounds like Burroughs: that perfectly-enunciated drone – well-spoken, slow, deliberate – not a drawl as such, just a flat, paced rhythm with unique intonation and timbre just hits you somehow. And so it does again as that voice echoes across the decades from c.1963 on the first piece, ‘The Beginning Is Also The End (Excerpt)’, also credited elsewhere by its opening line, ‘I am not an addict, I am the addict’. Cracked, as dry as parchment, the voice summarises one of the leading themes of his work, particularly his most famous novel, Naked Lunch.

The Liverpool set opens with a reading from the foreword from his recently-completed but as-then-unpublished novel The Place of Dead Roads, where he outlines the world view that divides the population into Johnsons and shits. Obviously, back in 1982 he could not have predicted the rise to power of a shit called Johnson. The performance finds Burroughs – then aged sixty-eight in fine form – sprightly, energetic, and engaging, and demonstrating precisely why he was in demand as a spoken-word performer during his later career. He’s not only a great performer – clearly well-rehearsed, he doesn’t fluff a line, and his timing is impeccable – and entertaining, but he’s also funny, the tongue-in-cheek humour perhaps translating better via the medium of spoken word than on the page. The lively characterisations are delivered with gusto, and the audience response speaks for itself. You didn’t have to be there to appreciate this, but is certainly makes you wish you had been. Touching on smallpox and ‘anti-vaccination cults’, we’re once again reminded of Burroughs’ prescience.

Gysin’s voice – also well-spoken, but distinctly English and sounding for all the world like a 1950s newscaster as he advocates trying cut-ups for yourself to see the words ‘gush into action’ – contrasts with Burroughs’, and the audio quality of ‘Cut-Ups Self-Explained’, recorded between 1960 and 1962 but which would not see the light of day as a text until 1978 on the publication of The Third Mind, is somewhat muffled. But as an archival recording, it’s absolute gold. It’s hard to really know what’s going on during ‘I Am This Painter Brion Gysin’, and it sounds like the scraping of a marker against a wall-mounted pad. You feel as if you’re only getting half the story.

But then the sequence of ‘pistol poems’ is something else: bewildering, baffling at times they are best appreciated as sound, and works rather than poems hearing Gysin work through the permutations of ‘I’ve Come To Free The Words’, ‘No Poets Don’t Own Words’, ‘Kick That Habit Man’ and ‘I Am that I Am’ is revelatory (the latter featuring some wild pitch-shifting and delay / echo effects), although his delivery of ‘Junk is No Good Baby’ is simply hilarious. The layered cut-up experiment of ‘Calling All Reactive Agents’, which featured on the Break Through in Grey Room album on Sub Rosa in 1986, is also a remarkable example of rudimentary sampling and looping a fill two decades before the start of the real electronic revolution which saw the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and Foetus advance the principles in a musical context.

The four short Burroughs tracks that close off the album are scratchy experiments in multi-tracking that might not sound like much now, but in context, they provide essential insights into recording history.

As such, while this release provides no material which hasn’t been circulated before, it does bring a remarkable collection of material back into focus, and perhaps to a new audience – and of course, on a format that previously wasn’t available. For that experience of sitting down and concentrating, vinyl is hard to beat, and this is a release worth digesting at leisure.

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Panurus Productions – 2nd April 2021

Sometimes, an understanding of process helps in shaping the appreciation of a musical work. Sometimes, it doesn’t. When presented with Only Then by Left Hand Cuts Off The Right, I can’t decide either way. The album contains two longform tracks – the twenty-five minute ‘2 – 6 – 17’ and the thirty-five minute ’23 – 6 -19’. Both were recorded live, and showcase a blend of improvisation and composition. The track titles do, unsurprisingly, mark the dates of the performances, both f which took place at the legendary Café Oto in 2017 and 2019.

On the former piece, a scraping drone hovers somewhere in the distance, relentless, nagging, always in the background but always within the reals of awareness: you simply cannot tune it out. Atop of this, there are crackles, scrapes, flickers, scratches and microcosmic, microtonal glitches, and gently tinkling picked notes casting sparse scales and oriental motifs, with the zither providing a unique, and, to western ears, exotic flavour. Over time, the details dissolve and blur into a metallic scrape that gnaws at the senses as allow, slow, undulation persists long after any trace of melody had dissipated, swallowed by currents of dissonant sound.

Slow-hammered xylophone notes emerge and steer toward the end of the first piece, and then stop: cue a cascade of applause which reminds us that this isn’t a studio work and that this happened. Not just that live performances used to be a thing, but, quite simply, that the audio contained here is not a studio-controlled contrivance, but an event that happened in real-time. Something about that realisation is strangely affecting.

Coughs and splutters and a general clamour of voices preface the fall to silence and the first echoing sounds on side two. Audience behaviour is so telling: the respect (or lack of) given to a artists whose performances are on the quiet aside can make or decimate the enjoyment for may of those present. Here, Left Hand Cuts Off The Right command over half an hour of hush. From clattering drips and clangs, the track builds from sparse sound echoing into emptiness, slow-dropping notes decaying into a soft ambience.

As to the technique and the technical aspects, the press release informs that ‘both sets were created with zither, melodica, synthesizer, bent electronics, field recordings, mbira, tape loops, percussion and effects. Side A comprises of 6 improvised sections each with specific performance, composition and sonic parameters. Side B is centred on 2 pre-recorded compositions which are mixed and performed live and interspersed with improvised sections for set sound sources.’

It’s actually quite difficult to unravel precisely what this means, beyond the fact that often the composing, improvising and performing processes overlap – informing one another as new works are created. And while the live performance of prerecorded pieces interspersed with improvisation and improvisation within predetermined parameters are clearly different disciplines, ultimately both methods combine a certain element of random with planning. Moreover, while delivered as works in the ,ids of an eternal evolution due to the nature of their form, these pieces as performed and as recorded are not works in progress, but works in their own right.

Only Then captures a moment – one I suspect many of us wish we could return to right now.

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Misanthropic Agenda – MAR056 – 4th December 2020

Christopher Nosnibor

It’s been a few years since I last engaged with Simon Whetham’s work, which at least up to a certain point had a certain preoccupation with geography, or least location. In a sense – albeit somewhat tenuous, that relationship to place remains as a backdrop of sorts to Forced to Repeat Myself, which documents a tour (remember those?) in 2018.

Perhaps the absence of touring has driven many artists to review their archival recordings, and on Forced to Repeat Myself, Whetham contemplates the way in which touring drives a tendency toward homogeneity in terms of the way each night’s performance is assembled. For rock bands and acts performing compositions of a fixed nature, this is part and parcel; the repetition of set lists and even, over time, between-piece patter and introductions. But for artists whose work is based on improvisation, repetition is undesirable – after all, at what point does repetition become something rehearsed and preplanned?

As the accompanying text observes, ‘One characteristic aspect of the touring experience that is not discussed often enough is the dilemma of repetition. Not repetition as a mechanism of the work itself, but as a tedious consequence of being obligated to perform night after night in quick succession. Generating a completely unique performance for each stop, even with the assistance of improvisation, is a laborious undertaking that consumes too much time and sanity, while adhering to a rigid set of rules leaves one open to both burnout and diminishing returns. Is there a way to split the difference so that both performer and audience are always engaged to the highest standard?’

And so this is the context for Forced to Repeat Myself. As a document, it’s a curious one, and it may or may not be ironic that the cover art for Whetham’s ‘live’ album is a photograph of a venue with rows of empty seats. If it was indeed shot at one of the shows where Whetham performed on said tour or any other (and the presence of a flipchart suggests otherwise), it was surely during soundcheck. But then, history can be subject to so many manipulations, and the time and space begins to flake over the passage of the latter… the relevance of the track titles is unclear: they’re not dates, and this is not some kind of aural tour diary. Nor are the tracks really the same. Yes, Whetham does revert to certain tones and textures as one would expect from the same equipment operated within a more or less predetermined set length.

Random is only so random, and external factors invariably influence and direct the shape of things. That said, the same performance is never the same performance: different venues of different shapes and sizes, the kit run through a different PA, different audience responses… Life in lockdown may feel like perpetual groundhog day, but the reality is that we never live the same moment twice. No-one is more acutely aware of this than Whetham himself when he comments, “In each situation objects and materials unique to the space were incorporated into the performance setup and structure, generating sounds or resonating with them. And yet I could hear similar scenes, movements, even spaces. This repetition determined the dynamic of the composition, working with it and against it.”

And so we return to geography, location, in the most immediate of contexts. And over the course of the album’s eight pieces, the identifiable repetitions are few, as the same sounds are reworked, remixed, reimagined, and with each manipulation, however subtle, they’re a step or phase away from their previous version.

But over the course of the album we’re reminded just how strong Whetham’s ear is for texture and tone, and there is a spectacular abundance of crackling overdoing distortion, groaning drones humming clicking, bangs and scrapes and minimal electronic sounds colliding and vibrating against one another – hard and violently. The absence of audience sound and the up-close fixing of circuits mean that this doesn’t feel or sound like a live album, but it is, every inch, a hard sonic challenge.

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