Sunday 27 February 2011

The Bell Labs ‘Secrecy System’ Vocoder Bible

The above pictures were snapped onstage at the Palace Theatre in Whitstable, just prior to Dave Tompkins presentation at ‘Off The Page’ on the history of the Vocoder, as detailed in his book How to Wreck A Nice Beach. The ‘Vocoder Bible’, as Dave calls it, is a thickly bound collection of ‘secrecy system’ documents devoted to the development of the device at Bell Labs prior to WWII with redactions done by razor blade. The book contains memos typed onto tracing paper and actual blueprint schematics. Hastily photographing its pages under the strong glare of the stage lights made me feel a little like a spy from some Cold War intelligence agency – although the overall effect was probably more Maxwell Smart than Napoleon Solo in pop culture terms. Later Dave and I recorded a long conversation on the Vocoder, its history and its all-round strangeness, which is being edited at the moment and will be featured in the upcoming second series of ‘Hollingsville’, due to start on April 6. More on the show and the new series as and when it comes up: for reasons of security, you are now required to eat this blog post.

Monday 21 February 2011

Backstage with Dave Tompkins at ‘Off The Page’

A much happier moment from last weekend was captured by Anne Hilde Neset backstage at the Playhouse Theatre on her i-Phone. While Dave Tompkins and I were in the dressing room, continuing our conversation from the night before, centring mostly around favourite moments from old horror movies, we were suddenly set upon by Mathilde Neset Young. Infant offspring of Rob Young and Anne Hilde Neset, Mathilde represents the ultra-new wave in music writing, combining the ability to discuss critical theory in both English and Norwegian with an overwhelming capacity for consuming lychees. All further discussion of Blood on Satan’s Claw, Frogs and Quatermass and the Pit ceased immediately: one has to respect youth in all its forms. About an hour later I was talking to a packed theatre about John Cage, and a couple hours after that Dave dominated the stage with his account of how his amazing book on the history of the Vocoder, How to Wreck A Nice Beach, came into being.

Pictured above from top to bottom: KH and DT with Mathilde; KH and DT without – Hello magazine should just give up now.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Catching Up With The Balcony Below Room 16

It is hard to write a site report on ‘Off the Page’, which took place at Whistable, a small picturesque town on the Kent coast, over the weekend without mentioning one incident that was not related in any way to the festival but which has ended up overshadowing any recollection I may now have of it. And if that opening sentence sounds a little too much like the introduction to an M R James tale in which a guest at a hotel is troubled during the night by strange sounds coming from the room next door and then finds himself the next morning alone at breakfast, his nerves badly jangled, contemplating what actually happened, then I apologise; but that’s pretty much how it was. This series of posts has always been about the architecture of buildings I have recently visited: in it I try to treat them as if they were films or books or magazines that I have only just managed to catch up on. This post seems a little more immediate than that, however.

At around midnight of the first day of the festival, I left Jonny Trunk, Steve Beresford and Dave Tompkins chatting in the bar and went up to my room: I would have loved to stay in their company but was scheduled to give my talk on John Cage at 10.00 am the following morning so wanted to be rested for an early start. I cannot have been asleep for more than forty minutes before I heard a banging and scratching on my door. The following are the notes I wrote up immediately after what happened:

The guy woke me up about 1.00 am trying to force his way into my room - he’d mistaken the number – I was in 18 – turned out he was in 16 - like an idiot I actually opened the door and saw him off. He then started yelling at a woman who was already in his room: it was evident he was really drunk – he quietened down quickly though, kept up a steady stream of talk, rambling and very aggressive but as if his engine was about to run down. Then just before 2.00 he started getting very loud again and abusive towards the woman – by then she was crying and screaming and pleading. I couldn’t stand to hear that and do nothing so called down to the night manager – told him that things in the room next door were getting nasty. He came up, told the couple in room 16 that he’d called the police but I think it was a bluff at that stage – I heard him enter the room - the drunken man claimed he’d ‘just been asleep’ - things became extremely violent and heated after that - night manger badly beaten, out on the landing, making the most inhuman cries – sounded like the woman locked herself in bathroom, then came out again – the man throwing stuff around the room and swearing loudly – heavy violent banging against the wall – then a lot of very loud yelling and a window suddenly shattering - I thought it sounded as if he had thrown himself through it in a shower of broken glass – but later heard that he was pushed. I dialled emergency services on my mobile - it was about 2.20 am by then - said they should bring an ambulance and police - she said there was already a call logged in, but could I give them the correct address for the hotel, which I was able to do because I had the festival information pack on the bed next to me – even so, no one arrived before 3.00 - all that time the drunk is screaming ‘Ella! Ella! My leg’s hanging off I’m bleeding to death - call a fucking ambulance - anything’ – over and over again for a half hour – no choice but to sit in silence and listen, fingernails through the palms of my hands - then there were the voices of the ambulance crew on the balcony trying to lower him down to the street – they had to cut his trousers off his injured leg in order to reposition it – more screams and groans – the sound of broken glass being swept up – meanwhile a policewoman took Ella away – then a police patrol stopped by the room around 4.00 to check it over - and maybe I slept then for a little while or maybe I didn’t. I’m not sure.

I finally left my room around 8.00 am – saw the blood streaked down the door to room 16 and trailed across the landing carpet. Suddenly realized I had actually seen nothing but heard it all unfolding through the thin hotel walls. Went down to reception and asked after the night manager – the woman at reception had only arrived that morning so had no real idea of what had happened – she said he was badly beaten and still in hospital and that she had known him well and was very upset to hear what had happened to him. I mentioned the blood on the door and she said that it was still a crime scene - the forensic investigation van had just arrived - ash blonde woman with camera and sample cases. ‘Watch it or I’ll push you through the window,’ I heard one hotel staff member say to another. Saw Mark Fisher and his lovely wife Zoe in the corridor with their new baby ‘What? I didn’t hear anything,’ he said when I told him a little about what had happened. They were booked into a room on the other side of the building. ‘We were just worried about the baby crying and keeping everyone awake.’

Steve Beresford and Jonny Trunk were wandering around outside the hotel. What the hell happened? They’d both heard parts of the night’s events from their respective rooms. Most of the ‘Off the Page’ artists had been put up in the same hotel, so an account of the incident was slowly beginning to take shape. Green Gartside had seen the night manager after the assault, sitting downstairs, his face badly swollen. David Toop had been awoken by the breaking glass and the drunken fall.

‘He landed on the balcony next to mine,’ he exclaimed.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘but he started out from the window next to mine.’

Pictured above: two views from my window of the balcony below Room 16 shortly after the police forensics officer had photographed it – note in the upper one the spare change that must have fallen from the drunken guy’s pockets when they cut his trousers off him.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

‘Cage Post Cage’ Lecture at ‘Off the Page’ Festival

In 1978, John Cage began an interview on the subject of music and its relationship to revolutionary action by expressing his shock and confusion at the mass suicide committed in Guyana by over 900 members of the People’s Temple, followers of the Reverend Jimmy Jones. Drained of his usual cheerful confidence in the future of humanity by this event, Cage stated that people seemed to be living their lives increasingly as if they existed within a work of fiction. This comment reflects more than simple disbelief or even perhaps the notion that such an event could be only the product of some monstrous triumph of the imagination. For Cage, the relationship between a self-destructive act committed on such a scale and the laws and forms through which language operates was an extremely close one. That so many people could, in a single night and at the command of one man, voluntarily swallow cyanide revealed not only that language does not communicate but that such communication is a myth and that ultimately language – in its present state – has the power to discipline and regiment human action and consciousness. Cage had already encapsulated this view some four years previously in his essay, ‘The Future of Music’: ‘Implicit in the use of words (when messages are put across) are training, government, enforcement and finally the military. Thoreau said that hearing a sentence he heard marching feet. Syntax, N. O. Brown told me, is the arrangement of the army.’ In social terms, this manifests itself most evidently in paternal authoritarianism; in order for us to remind ourselves just how the destructive the consequences of paternalism can be, it is perhaps enough to remark in this context that followers of Reverend Jimmy Jones constantly referred to him as ‘Dad’.
I am appearing this Saturday, February 11, at ‘Off The Page’, the first literary festival in the UK dedicated exclusively to music criticism. Taking place at the Playhouse Theatre, Whitstable, and hosted by Sound and Music  in association with The Wire, this weekend-long event will feature a host of internationally-renowned critics, authors, musicians and artists discussing the current state of underground and experimental music in a programme of talks, presentations, panel discussions and workshops. My talk, which is scheduled for the ungodly hour of 10.00 in the morning, is titled ‘The Realization That We Possess Nothing’; and in it I will be looking at the shifting and still largely unexplored relationship between language, silence and music in the life and work of John Cage. Some the ideas and themes I will be addressing are also part of The Bright Labyrinth, the book I am currently working on. I can’t absolutely guarantee that it will be worth getting out of your bed at that time in the morning to hear it, but I shall at least try and keep things as quiet as possible. For a complete festival timetable and more details on other participants, ticket prices, travel and accommodation, check the Sound and Music site by clicking here; for a broader elucidation of the thinking behind ‘Off The Page’ from The Wire, please click here. Hope to see you there. Bring your own Flavor Aid.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Dead Fingers Talking

The above are extracts taken from a short action sequence of pictures taken from the audience during my talk on Wednesday February 2 at the Corps/Machine seminary organized by ERG in Brussels. I had no idea that my hands were capable of thinking so much faster than the rest of me – which is perhaps why they also appear to have dissolved into some fleshly form of ectoplasm. My thanks to the organizers of this great event and to Sonny, my translator, who is shown sitting next to me onstage, for all her hard work during our long afternoon séance together.