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The Presence of Performance
in the Age of Electronic Transmission

by Andrew Poppy

paper read at Bridgewater Hall Manchester 20 April 1997
for Cosmopolis part of Video Positive "escaping gravity"

Music extract 1 from Cadenza from the CD The Beating Of Wings (ZTT)

I am a composer. I am a composer in the traditional sense in that I use notation. I make marks on manuscript paper and musicians read the score to realise the music in performance. The score, the manuscript, is in some ways a primary text but it is not the music. Maybe the score is similar to architectural drawing: certain measurements, shapes and required materials are precise. Pitches and rhythms are measurements in some senses. Pitches and rhythms arenít the music but an approach to organising them places the work in a certain tradition.

I write dots on pieces of paper but I am also interested in the nature and construction of recording and in this sense there is something in common with pop music production. I grew up trying to play Beethoven sonatas on the piano and listening in wonder to middle period Beatles.

The Beatles exploited the early multitrack tape recorder in a particular way. They were aware of avant garde composers John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and they collaged random bits of radio broadcast with George Martin string arrangements and their own rock and roll. Listening to John Lennonís I am the Walrus you are aware that it is a record production. A musical experience that could not happen outside the frame of the loud speakers. The space it presents is a shameless construction.

So, as a teenager in the 60s, along with my desire to play the piano was also a fascination with the studio. I was not aware that the Canadian pianist Glen Gould had applied this same fascination to the recording of the classical piano repertoire.

The two strands of my approach are: firstly a classical approach of manipulating pitches and rhythm through the medium of the written score and then a pop production approach that constructs the surface of recordings.

The piece we began with is called Cadenza. Itís a work for piano and electric piano. A cadenza is the part in a concerto where the orchestra stops playing and the soloist goes it alone. But my Cadenza is attached to no concerto and there is no orchestra. The piano part is woven with an identical strand of music played by an electric piano. This electric piano sounds something like a piano but, in being similar, somehow disturbs the character of the acoustic piano. Both sounds converge. The second piano is not electronic but electric. There is still a hammer mechanism but instead of strings and a sound board there are metal bars and an electro magnetic pick up. There is a logic behind excluding the orchestra. Itís the first stage of a journey. The acoustic piano desolves into a version of itself with electro magnetic pick ups. The next stage is to exclude both pianists and I am doing just that by playing you this piece on CD.

Music extract 2 from Listening In from The Beating of Wings CD (ZTT)

Youíve just heard two fragments of a piece called Listening in. The sound of it is made up of samples. Samples are fragments of digitally recorded sound that are instantly played back via a computer trigger. Most of the metal sounds come from the hulls of ships in the Clyde ship yard. Listening In is a kind of percussion piece made from about 38 different samples mostly of non musical sounds. The sounds are controlled and balanced and presented in a way that could only exist via the loud speaker.

Digital sampling technology is the perfection of the collage technique. Any recordable moment can be stored and juxtaposed and modulated with any other moment. I record a small skin drum in a studio in north London and place it beside the sound of someone hitting an oil tanker on the Clyde.

I do not believe these particular origins mean anything musically. I work with the sounds texturally and rhythmically, balancing them with the same sensibility as I would two orchestral instruments.

What is the nature of the cultural and social transition from post industrial to digital city? That is the question that has been asked.

Of course the digital revolution is a change but it is the last stage of a revolution that started with recording. Recording and its allied radio transmission technologies have produced the most profound changes in the making and consumption of music. The transition from post industrial to digital would seem to be about a perfection of recording and its modes of reproduction.

What is recording? What has been recorded? The implication is that something to do with memory is going on. Memory is selective like the act of writing history, its not a simple thing.

The word Recording is itself problematic. It hides the level of construction and aesthetic decision making that has taken place even in the simplest of recordings. But it has to be acknowledged that there is something that is being recorded. There is some original moment and that moment is in performance.

What is performance? If I sit and play the piano in your presence - is that performance? If I push the fader up at some point while mixing a recording of the piano playing, - is that performance? If I package the recording and send it out into the world - is that performance? A CD is a product of mechanical reproduction. Recordings atomise and fragment musical performance so as to transform its sound materials into a storable form. The sound of a pianist playing, is to all intents and purposes retrieved and projected in the space that exists between two speakers.

Recording changes our attitude towards time and space and it has radically changed the meaning and experience of the concert hall, the opera house and theatre. Glen Gould and The Beatles decision to retire from live performance are not clear until you have been involved in record production.

The focused and controlled moment of spontaneity that can live for ever in the object of recorded music casts a shadow over the live event. The live event becomes, the acoustically compromised, one chance to get it right. The audienceís expectation is palpable yet indistinct and various. The live event begins to appear untenable.

The CD has a world wide contituancy. It has access to human attention divorced from space and time. It is possible to see the convoluted activity of making CDs and releasing them as some kind of performance, in which making musical sound is only a small part. The complete CD package is a place for many different activities, involving the language of the liner note and the cover image. Through the CD I have an audience in Russia, in America and in Europe.

Yet at some point the shadow cast by recording over performance is so dark that recording starts to believe that performance is dead. Or insignificant or forgotten.

Again in some ways we are in the last phase of a process. What was once a theatre became a cinema. The screen still remembers its theatrical origin with the drawing of the curtain. In the 1970s the multiplexes divided the space. We have progress, we have choice, and TV channels have begun to splinter in a similar fashion. The point is that the site of performance has been undergoing dramatic change for decades.

I feel that I am always charting some kind of magnetic pull away from ritual. Classical performance, like the theatre of plays, extorts a solemnity from its audience that is not possible at home. Pop performance is attended by an ecstatic bacchanalian hysteria The CD and the radio broadcast do not position the listener in the same ritualistic space, what ever the music.

Music extract 3 Where is the Beauteous from the CD Ophelia/Ophelia (Impetus)

This extract is from an Opera for one voice called Ophelia/Ophelia. It is based on the character of Ophelia from Shakespeareís play Hamlet. The premise of the work is to see the whole of this classic text from Opheliaís point of view. The technique for doing this is to make all the other characters mute. The Opera is made from all of Opheliaís speeches. They are all responses: to her brother, her father, her loverís mother and to her lover, who is Hamlet.

Ophelia is a character whose voice, her projection of herself, does not resonate with any other character. She has no witness. So her dialogue becomes a duet with herself. Her self and her echo become her companion. This idea is expressed by the single singer being written for as a duet with herself. This second self is indistinguishable from the first.

The clone denies authenticity, individuality and uniqueness.

The clone denies the unique time and place of performance.

In a staged version Ophelia sings with a recorded version of herself. In performance the live voice will always be balanced and supported and ultimately dissolved into a projected memory of that voice, a mechanical reproduction of itself.

Unfortunately this image has become more polemical than poetic. I wrote the work in 1995. The score was selected by the ISCM for performance at the Cultural Capital of Europe Festival in Copenhagen in 1996. The music director of the festival invited me to present a production. But cash for this kind of project is very hard to come by. I made a CD - partly because that is what I do - but also to help fund raise. The touring and production costs to put a show on for one night in Copenhagen cost at least three times the total cost of producing the CD. Iíll spare you the details of the fund raising energy expended. The performance was denied.

The city would seem to be an amalgam of public and private spaces. The High Street is one public space and the concert hall another. The writing is on the wall if we look at the high street since the 1970s. The shopping mall replaces and recreates the high street in a more controlled environment, complete with music and surveillance. Itís protected from the elements by day and locked up at night.

Television is the culture of the private space but it cannot escape the presentation or representation of public spaces and performance. In television there is an endless resynthesis of the public event: game shows, music programmes all have artificial audiences - even newsnight sometimes!

Perhaps TV sport is one of the few areas where the audience is not a controlled and constructed presentation. Although there is the commentary and the studio panel of experts framing and containing the game. But it would be wrong to believe that the site of performance endures here. Because, for the viewer, it is the image of the site of performance that is consumed. Luckily this comes cheap for the programme makers. People at televised football matches pay for their own tickets while their image is being recorded for world wide distribution.

The Indians who believed that photographs captured their souls understood something about copyright law and about the author and the performers moral rights.

I am going to end with an extract from a piece called The Object is a Hungry Wolf. and with 3 different versions of the same extract. The first is from 1982 played by The Lost Jockey an ensemble I wrote for and performed with at that time. Itís a rough one take studio recording made by John Leckie at Abbey Road Studios. It is effectively a live performance and is unmixed.

The second version was made in 1985 for ZTT Records. It was recorded as a series of overdubs onto mullitrack tape. In other words, the singers did not meet the strings. Different parts were recorded at different sessions on different days. This version was eventually released on my first CD The Beating of Wings

The final version made in 1987 has no one playing on it and was made as the title music for Tyne Tess TV programme The Tube. It was made using a combination of the Fairlight and Synclavier music computers.

Music extracts 4 three versions of the last section of The Object is a Hungry Wolf

The process of recording moves us away from ritual acts in public space. But there must always be a swing back to them. It is important that there is a literal space for performance. Cultural planners and those wielding the instruments of digital technology need to acknowledge this and make a commitment at whatever cost to the diversity of rituals that animate public space.


© Andrew Poppy 1997

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Created by Keesjan van Bunningen. Last modified on December 15, 1998