Thursday 23 September 2010

Way Down South

A response to
Bill Orcutt's
Way Down South
'Track 4'

Way Down South 4 by brokenloop

Bill Orcutt's playing has got me tremendously pleased to be alive the past few months, I thought I'd devote some time to talking about him and his work. I'm keen to adopt some aspects of his approach to poetic practice - this might be a first stab at thinking about which particular elements interest me.

As former guitarist for hardcore band Harry Pussy, Bill Orcutt's career has been one largely outside of any mainstream concern. However, his resurgence as a solo performer has been an exciting development in the past few years. Now devoting himself exclusively to playing acoustic guitar, his debut record A New Way to Pay Old Debts was a highlight of 2009. The music was largely based around a series of improvised vignettes, and Orcutt's unique style of playing defies easy categorisation. Within the errant shreds of recognisable notation and tonal arrangements there is something thoroughly modernist -- something that implies a desire to de-construct, to refine and, ultimately, destroy. There are numerous parallels drawn by reviewers to early blues music, modern guitar improvisation, and hardcore noise; Orcutt's style is one of suggestion, but in doing so it still remains distinct from its source.

Way Down South
is a live recording released this month by Orcutt's own record company Palilalia. Track 4 is the penultimate improvisation on the record, and in my mind it forms one of the best examples of Orcutt's playing. It also represents a new route in the aesthetic of “unbecoming” -- with its recalling of blues riffs and erratic tempo the improvisation achieves an interplay between violent expression and ethereal realisation. At its inception the piece's scale runs are suggestive of Far Eastern music, with Orcutt's voice forming a droning counter-point. The playing is far from fluent, instead a range of spasmodic modes and modules that fail to develop any form of pacing. The tempo is akin to the epileptic flicker of a bird wing, and on several occasions the structure delineates into complete chaos. This all takes place in the first twelve seconds of the piece, serving to set out a blueprint to Orcutt's technique. It repeats for fifty-three seconds before it offers the first respite of quiet. On resumption it can only sustain itself for a few seconds; Orcutt punches a resounding exclamation as the structure fails to hold, he allows it to collapse.

This process of construction and deconstruction forms a constant that Orcutt returns to throughout the improvisation. He veers between recognisable motifs and an urgent obscurity of noise, discord brought to abrupt halts, as one practising technical exercises that fail to gain momentum. This is Orcutt's deception. The whole piece is about momentum – a momentum quantified by its refusal to cohere. The most significant moment is approximately two minutes in, when the guitar suddenly sounds out a bluesy descending progression of notes. This listener is thrown into a position of nostalgia, a moment of recall that encapsulates folk traditions. It stands in contrast to all the current talk of hauntology's presence in music by Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds; this tiny incident of recognition is not just a remembrance, it's a primal formation of Orcutt's methodology, an aural equivalent to Eliot's shored fragments.

What happens next is an invigoratingly discordant repetition, with Orcutt moving between two or three notes, bending them to create a compact and claustrophobic figure. A bass note is struck again and again in exclamation, highlighting the repetition as it does. The listener prepares themselves for the inevitable collapse that has governed the past few minutes, but in fact something else occurs -- Orcutt repeats the motif until it becomes a staccato fugue state, a drawing in of boundaries. Where most improvisation moves towards transcendence as a conclusive terminus, Orcutt seems to be bringing his listeners to a null point, an implication that nothing lies beyond those few arrayed notes. The tempo increases and as it does Orcutt emits a high snarl or whine. It's his first vocal interjection since the beginning of the track, and it is in distinct contrast to the devotional moan of earlier. What is Orcutt suggesting? Frustration? Violence? Perhaps a plea for relief? The ambiguity of his eruption hangs there as the piece falls apart into a few expansive runs across the fret board. It feels like legs stretched in response to sudden release, but in comparison to moments earlier it is spectral, barely a whisper. Orcutt has arrived at his null state and the end point of his exercise.

Monday 13 September 2010

Spitting 'Cop-out! Cop-out!' as if from heaven...

There’s an interesting series of posts on Jon Stone’s blog this month about poetry and the mainstream. He expresses a frustration about a certain bias in the media towards covering performance/populist poetry, as opposed to a more…well how shall we put it? ‘Serious’ poetry I suppose.

While I agree in part with what Jon is expressing, and can also claim that I’ve found it to be am opinion common amongst younger ‘serious’ poets, I do feel it takes a rather strong line against something while missing a much larger point. The majority of the media is a crass, wheezing monstrosity that tries to construct something resembling a narrative in a largely fragmented and confusing world. Poetry, for its most part, is fragmentary and confusing, and very occasionally it will try to pull together some semblance of a narrative. It is a multi-form and beautiful thing that expresses a rich variety of things; it’s that variety which makes it so special, and if media outlets such as the Guardian website choose only to dip their toe into the edges of that, where the water’s warmest, then it’s their loss.

Several things come to mind reading Jon’s blog posts and the various responses he received:

1) In May I had a conversation with Brian Catling before a reading - I was lamenting the onslaught of cuts coming to the arts within the coming months and he caught me with a glint, proclaiming,
“Of course, it’s our time. Poets have been doing it for free for years.”
Now, Catling is either some kind of criminal or a genius. After a couple of hours in his company I’m still uncertain. I do know that he is a man who genuinely loves the work he does, and is happy to do it for whoever is willing to engage with it. It’s a sensibility I do my best to share, because I tend to think it’s the best way forward - any man willing to strap rape alarms in his head at the age of 60 in the name of his creative practice is alright by me.

2) Poetry is a stupid way to make a living. At best it will give you a few years financial support and practically no peace of mind. It is a lamentable profession and you will be largely despised by the public. People will cross the road and curse your name. Relatives will disown you and sexual partners will do their best to forget you. The quicker we all come to terms with that the more pleasantly surprising the future will be.

3) Alan Moore sums something up quite neatly to that effect here.

4) Stewart Lee has made some interesting assertions in his recent book – one about the uniquely boring and safe line that universal art tends to take ( and by ‘universal art’ I’m taking this to mean the majority of the mainstream media’s focus), and a further one about farming one’s audiences. I would quote passages extensively from the book here, but I suspect it would be more beneficial to advise those interested to buy the book, therefore increasing the chance that Stewart Lee’s keen wit will move increasingly closer to the universal platform it deserves.

5) I like the exclusivity of the poetry I write. I don’t think elitism is necessarily a bad thing in art. This constant assumption that we have to play to the lowest common denominator (or rather the anxiety surrounding whether it ought to or not) is precisely what mars the whole progressive nature of poetry and literature in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with poetry as an entertainment, equally there’s nothing wrong with obscure, dense, ‘serious’ poetry either. I can understand Jon Stone’s frustration at media coverage and funding being thrown at the populists, but then it does seem similar to complaining that Charlie Kaufman’s latest film didn’t do as commercially well as ‘The Expendables’. Exclusivity is what makes it exciting when you meet another person who reads the Wire, or knows who Matthew Barney is, or can enthuse about their own peculiar niche of creative endeavour. In a world of such rich variety, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to have some areas of art that exist in little dark corners and cracks. Finding and getting to grips with them is half the pleasure.

6) Joe Kennedy wrote a good review of Tom Raworth’s latest collection here. There are some pretty solid assertions being made about ‘difficult’ poetry there.

7) “Authenticity” is bunk anyway.

Poor Jon, looking at the various responses he’s had to his posts he’s stirred up quite a storm. I hope he won’t object to me hijacking his points to make my own badly formed arguments. Like I said, I can understand his frustration – I too have voiced similar complaints – but ultimately it gets you nowhere; far better to build the compound in the mountain and await the second coming. Or write because you enjoy it. Whatever.

I'll finish with a final word with Mark E Smith, or rather an approximation of something he said on a BBC documentary about his band last night:
"It was when Elton John said he liked the Fall that I realised we were doing something wrong."