I’ve been in London this week, and as ever it has provided a wealth of variegated experience. The Knife’s opera Tomorrow, in a year, an ‘electronic opera’, to use the seemingly designated rubric, clamoured a lot, sometimes impressively, but it never really knew what it was trying to say, nor how it could possibly go about saying it. A New Music Prom provided the familiar sensation of musical dazzlement (mostly) met by (mostly) blank stares, and creaking of chairs.
Alan Moore, narrating his own telling of Steve Moore’s life with always restrained, always apposite soundscape and guitar/piano musical backing from Crook and Fail (the Fog), leaned a little too much on his familiar, routinised world-view, but at its best his oration had me not only believing in magick, but aching for its total enchantment of the everyday. He made a bold case for an institution of language that strives for the uncanny and the occult, and that is antipathetic to the ‘disinfectant’ rhetoric of Tolkien, Rowling, and other faux-Fantasticians. Nothing, Moore said, would be hypothetical anymore. Couldn’t this be the true extinction event, the way to swamp the capitalist horizon with an erotic, trans-spiritual real founded on the deferment of the reality principle?
Chris Watson’s Whispering in the Leaves slightly underwhelmed. Consisting (the Dusk section anyway; I can’t comment on the Dawn as it is only being played in the morning) of a roughly twenty-minute recreation of nightfall in a tropical rainforest channeled through 80 speakers in Kew Gardens’ famous Palm House, the piece is a testament to the sound recordist’s ample sensitivity and skill. Choruses of cicadas turned to hear the stentorian cries of exotic birds, before rumbling, gurgling storm clouds gave way to sheets of rain. An insistent woodpecker towards the close actually suggested the dawn of Mahler’s First Symphony, though the calming gesture of night eventually enveloped all.
The problems I had mainly concerned dissimulation. The things I enjoy most about Watson’s Sound Art is its insistence on the radical insincerity of the listening experience; his albums are filled with faithfully recorded and denoted sound environments, but the affective charge actually comes, for me at least, from tension between that reality, and the reality of the listening experience itself. Surrounded as we were in Palm House by a simulated environment of palm trees and bamboo shoots, the striving towards simulation felt a little hollow. I can’t say the chattering visitors (though, in fairness, it would be a little rich to expect them to be quiet; this was hardly a concert) helped (phonocentrism my bum); indeed, once I had ascended the staircase to the heights of the conservatory, I felt a strange vestigial quickening, and Watson’s immersive and shape-shifting arrangement began to impress all the more.