Tuesday, June 12, 2007
The first time I ever met Keith, in Boston at an AMM performance in 2000 (? I think that was the year), he talked about his appreciation of failure and of the impossibility of actually communicating with other musicians (via music, I would think, but maybe in general given subsequent developments?). On the other hand, it's not something you particularly want to believe so maybe you test it a bit.
MIMEO did something along these lines, as I understand it, with the performance at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2003 where members were grouped in various small configurations around the space at enough of a remove from each other that no individual could hear what the ensemble in its entirety was doing. People who were at this event can comment as to how they thought it worked; the CD issue necessarily provides a false picture though it may or may not have merits on its own terms as an "independent" artifact.
Rowe extends this communicative trust one level further, eliminating any possibility of the ensemble members knowing for a fact what each other is doing, but asking them to create work as though they do. He certainly shapes the outcome by requesting that each only contributes 4-5 minutes worth spread over an hour, thus pretty much insuring a relatively sparse sound field. One could imagine each member impishly figuring on doing five concentrated minutes of squall, sequenced over the hour by going alphabetically, perhaps, believing that the others would be thinking similarly. Could've happened, but didn't. Even if this occurred to someone (oh, say, Pita :-)) the risk of being the only one to act on it might be too intimidating.
This is one of the places where Prisoner's Dilemma issues arise, the whole notion of Cooperate or Defect. There's a difference though, and a salient one. In PD situations, the individual is looking to maximize gains for himself; the paradox arises when it's clear that everyone will do better if all cooperate, but it's risky to choose to do so because a single defector can screw things up for everyone else. In the MIMEO situation, the desired outcome is a "good" piece of music, something that almost necessitates cooperation so the temptation to defect should be minimal. What would constitute defection, though, in this case?
I didn't know the back history when I saw AMM with Formanex and John White at Vand'oeuvre about five years ago. They were performing a few pages of Treatise and (to make it brief) whereas the two ensembles were creating pretty restrained sounds, White sat there creating the most godawful racket, replete with recordings of babies bawling, sheep baaing, lord knows what else. It was pretty jarring and uncomfortable. In fact, it was so blatantly bad that I half-figured something must be up. Cornering Keith afterwards, he acknowledged that he had indeed asked White to "make noises that one simply doesn't do in this context, normally", ie, in extremely poor taste as opposed to restrained tact (poor taste versus tact, however, could easily be another discussion). Made me substantially reconsider what I'd just heard, "rehearing" it in this new light. (Jon disagreed with me on this, incidentally, presumably still does). It was only in recent years when I researched early performances of Treatise (1964-65) in which White was involved that I discovered that this practice of his has a long pedigree. Early on, he understood that works like Treatise were too often approached with a seriousness that verged on the religious and, moreover (I'm guessing), any ostensibly free system that said, implicitly or otherwise, "These things shall not be done" is suspect and ripe for deflating.
But how would one distinguish between considered actions like White's and simple grandiose posturing, someone in MIMEO playing guitar god for a few minutes or belting out a Celine Dion song? Good question, I have no idea. Except that I think it would come through somehow that, for lack of a much, much better word, you'd feel it.
Anyway, just some further thoughts on this release which, in fact, I've yet to listen to a second time, rather preferring to think about issues raised on first listen.
As far as the sounds go, the imposition of pattern recognition where there is none (?) on the part of the listener strikes me as one of its more fascinating aspects. Like seeing faces in clouds, you just can't help yourself.