There was an element of personal experimentation involved when I agreed to review both the performance that marked the launch of the LP (and download) Sonic Vigil 6 and the LP itself. To witness a collective creation by a large number of the performers on the LP in the setting of the Glucksman Gallery in Cork was attractive in itself. I was also curious as to how, after a lapse of two years or so, the experience of reviewing a performance would feel.
My intense curiosity about music of many different kinds long preceded any impulse to write about it. There was a fifteen-year gap between the exhilarating demolition of my early musical boundaries by a chance encounter with an Anthony Braxton quartet and my first venture into writing about music, an interview with Gerald Barry not long after the premiere of his opera The Intelligence Park. Two further interviews and a rather aggressive review of a study in Irish music history followed a few years later. In these two domains, I felt on relatively safe ground: in one, my ignorance and curiosity could lay a path towards explanation or disclosure on the part of the artists; in the other, I was merely transferring analytical practices to new subject-matter.
Not so long after, and somewhat to my surprise, I found myself stirring the congealing pot of debate in the Journal of Music in Ireland and also reviewing a wide range of music, from sean nós to the kind of improv that featured in the i-and-e festival. However, an unease about reviewing performances never left me. So many factors might affect the appreciation of a particular performance and there was sometimes a disconcerting gap between an event as lived and remembered and the recording that emerged afterwards. The only way to proceed was, first, to try to remain as open-eared and open-minded as possible; second, to be as accurate, or accurately suggestive, as possible in conveying one listener’s experience; and third, to try not to allow habit to erode a sense of provisionality. (A chastening fourth might be added: to keep in mind that, as few people are so truly cynical as to deliberately produce poor work, some dreadful work may well be produced in a genuine effort to live up to points 1-3.)
But if this is a kind of ethics of criticism, can it not very easily be adapted to an ethics of performance? Musicians must remain open to the task or score in hand, provide as full an experience as possible within the conditions of the moment and the musical language in question, and (even when personally satisfied or acclaimed by peers or public) retain a sense of other possible and perhaps better performances. Was this asking too much of the Vigilantes?
When you come up the wooden stairs to the top floor of the Glucksman, you arrive at one end of a long room that widens to take in a large light-inviting floor-to-ceiling glass wall (can we call it a window?); thereafter, the room takes a 90-degree left-turn into a shorter space. The organisers (The Quiet Club: Mick O’Shea and Danny McCarthy) had chosen not to more or less replicate the format of the work that was being launched: this would have meant listening to very short performances by all the individuals and groups present in turn. This makes sense as the LP is composed of extracts from an earlier and much longer set of public performances. Instead, matters were organised with an awareness of the space itself, of the possibilities inherent in having so many sound artists/musicians present and of the necessity for some basic ground-rules (if memory serves, individual interventions could not go beyond four minutes; after any intervention, of whatever length, a pause of at least a minute was required). The audience was free to wander through the space.
As a result, this was a visual/spatial as well as an auditory event. The space was marked out by the individual or grouped performers at their tables (with their instruments, percussion, laptops, electronic equipment, bowls, plastic balls, pieces of string and miscellaneous constructions) but its configuration was also changing as audience members clustered and separated, sat, stood up, disappeared, whispered, sipped coffee, took photographs, stared or shut their eyes… Shifting configurations also characterised the sounds – burblings, scrapings, skitterings; rattles, groans and pings; bursts of feedback, drones or rhythmic patterns; isolated or overlapping – that filled or tentatively probed the space.
Given the acoustic conditions and the distances that separated some performers, the level of mutual respect and responsiveness among the musicians was quite impressive (though one in particular might usefully have spent a little more time exploring the enriching possibilities of silence and listening). There were sustained passages where a single spirit seemed to animate the many contributing voices or where collective restraint allowed that focus on a very limited palette of sounds that tends to characterise this field (the word genre would probably be frowned on by those involved). In a sense, therefore, this was a variation and an expansion of the concept underlying the more modest Strange Attractor series, if the performance with Rhodri Davies (and, for a while, by chance, a large secondary-school art class on a guided tour) that I witnessed in the Crawford Gallery a few years ago was representative. It did not seem appropriate to treat the LP launch, a co-creation, as a series of individually reviewable performances. The conditions of the day and the choices of particular performers probably meant matters had been played out a little before the performance finally came to a halt but, as a once-off, on-site experience this was on the whole an effective and even a happy event.
In theory, this kind of music can go on forever. There can be a sense of tuning in to an on-going process – not unlike standing near flowering borage and listening to the varying hum of bees (or, in other cases, like being forced to listen too long to a whining fridge). In a photograph in an old book about the early years of the Soviet Union, a man atop a building is using flags to conduct a performance for factory hooters and sirens. There was something expansive in the ambition. A few years ago, in a small church in Paris, tears ran down my face as the forty voices of Tallis’s Spem in Alium criss-crossed the space in which I sat. I have also, I should add, experienced something approaching perfection from performers who would have strong affinities with the contributors to Sonic Vigil 6. Nonetheless, I find myself wondering if this music is not somehow too content within its own confines. I have been at concerts where, in a kind of wilful puritanism, the sax-player would never blow a full note or the accordion-player never let the instrument sound… I could never devote myself as wholly to this world as Richard Pinnell does in his meticulous blog, The Watchful Ear.
Perhaps that is why I don’t fully trust my own ear in this particular area. In any case, where the Sonic Vigil 6 recording is concerned, it is to those tracks where there is grit or resistance in the machine, where a surface is abraded, where jips and jitters play themselves out against deeper or larger sounds, where the layering and shaping of sounds suggests a traversable, multi-dimensional space and even a hint of narrative, that I tend to respond. I am thinking, for example, of intervention #1 to #6 by Berkus, Speculative Narrative Part 1 by The Quiet Club & Katie O’Looney, Untitled Memory # 5 by Anthony Kelly & David Stalling, Chronostasis by Andreas Bick or render by Francis Heery.
My mention of bees above could indirectly evoke the sound recordings of Tom Lawrence.
The last track is his and it is to him that this finely produced and startlingly blue LP is dedicated.
The LP recording of Sonic Vigil 6 was launched at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery on 19 May 2013. It is a limited edition (250 copies) vinyl, pressed and distributed by Farpoint Recordings (see http://farpointrecordings.com for more details).