Part 1: https://synthsofeden.com/2019/04/05/rewire-2019-looking-for-live-inspiration-in-a-world-over-saturated-with-records-part-1/
In the previous part of ‘Looking for live inspiration in a world over saturated with records’, I reflected about the contemporary state of the music industry, when producing and releasing records has been more accessible than ever before. Besides, it was important to distinguish what is concrete and flexible music before discussing music performance itself. The former leads to a performance in which the artist aims to reproduce the song as close as what it was when recorded, while the latter opens up for the possibility of both interpretation and improvisation of a song previously recorded. Part 1 also reflected on the experience of attending the 9th of edition of the Rewire festival in Hague, Netherlands, that was marked by the presence of Adam Harper, author of Infinity Music and live performances, including John Bence, Iona Fortune & NYX, and Nicolas Jaar, artist and founder of music label Other People, who performed with a band.
This second part keeps reflecting upon live performance, the re-signification of public spaces for art performances, such as cathedrals, which are “natural” environments for music performances and how they should serve purposes far beyond those religious ones. In essence, this reflection will be extended to contemporary music performance and composition, continuing to distinguish alternative types of music performances. For that, we will adopt the 2019 edition of the Rewire festival and Playing in the Cathedral that counted with the participation Nicolas Jaar too, plus Philip Glass, on the 11th/12th of May, in Oud Kerk, Amsterdam.
“Most importantly is to understand that it is not by becoming viral in social media platforms, having easy access to digital instruments, cheap digital music distribution (Spotify, Soundcloud, iTunes, Bandcamp…), having reliable digital audio workstations, summed by goodwill, a touch of entrepreneurial spirit and new means of communication that will help an artists succeed on his career. “
From modern football to neo-liberalism, the precariat as a social class, public spaces and gentrification
Before discussing music performance, it is important to contextualise concepts like precariat, gentrification, and neo-liberalism with the need to re-signify and create new forms of interactions in the public space.
The main criticism against modern football lies on how a sport traditionally known in the 20th century as being popular, democratic and accessible to anyone who possessed nothing more than a ball, became nowadays known for being a business more than anything else. Where once prevailed the love for a sport, a city, a nation, a football club; in its modern facet became a commodity market, where the players are constantly being exchanged among different clubs, merely as assets, tools of speculation, worth of millions and millions of dollars.
Neoliberalism as an ideology has destroyed much more than the welfare-state and state-ruled companies, but a passion to a popular sport. Watching a football match in the stadiums became increasingly something accessible only to those willing to pay a high price for that, such as month or season passes for “sponsoring fans”, who often need to pay additional fares for each match they attend to. Prices that are usually way higher than what a contemporary precariat worker can afford. The solution for most of the fans ends up being watching the matches in pubs or at home, in case they pay for cable TV. It seems that modern football has become more than just a sport taking into consideration the interests of big corporations, but a whole business in itself. It is not by coincidence that the main sponsor for Ajax in Amsterdam is Ziggo, the largest cable operator in Netherlands, which also owns Ziggo Dome, Amsterdam’s music Arena, leaving Johan Cruyff Arena, owned by Amsterdam’s municipality, only for football matches.
So, you might ask, what is the connection between music live performances and modern football. The answer is: the ground, the arena, the stadium, the stage, the architecture (Like the famous “Live at Wembley” or “Madison Square Garden”). You could even go further and mention neo-liberalism and the interests of big corporations, but let’s leave that for later. As David Byrne explains in How Music Works, music is all about architecture (I’d extend it placing political economy and urbanism as well), the place where the performance is happening. Something which is also endorsed by Adam Harper in Inifity Music, what he calls “the stage”. The stage is a central element in music performance. So, when we talk about a concert of Elton John in Ziggo Dome that costs from 300 to 410 euros (which is around the minimum wage for many families to survive inside and outside emerging economies), then we are definitely discussing some serious economical values here that puts this discussion to comparison with modern football.
Though many like to qualify the generation born in the late 80s and early 90s as millennials. Sociology of labour explains the contemporary phenomenon of the precariat as a new social class (check Guy Standing for more on precariat theory). The precariat is mainly formed by low waged worker of the tertiary (service) sector, which are highly outsourced; freelancers, who are constantly shifting from job to job without working rights or benefits; students, who deal with volunteer work and low paid internships; or immigrants; in general, humans without stability or working rights of today’s economy. The old fashioned Fordist model of labour, where workers were organised on unions, working in factories has been weakened together with the welfare-state, by the hegemony of neo-liberalism as the contemporary ruling ideology. There’s a third post-fordist expression of labour that I’m not going to discuss on this article. The precariat faces another obstacle when it comes to having access to culture. Which is the controversial process of gentrification, when renovating deteriorated neighbourhoods and re-placing it with expensive shops and real estate business, changing drastically the socioeconomic condition of residents. Gentrification has a direct impact on the stages of music performance all around as much as it impacts local practices such as playing football on an open field that can be sold to a new enterprise for stores, bars and expensive gourmet restaurants that will host some artists and DJs.
With the fire of Notre Dame of Paris in April 2019, the world focused its attention on a centenary gothic Cathedral that is certainly a human heritage. Thus, when we talk about secular initiatives that promote concerts in cathedrals and churches around Europe for free or for accessible prices, we are discussing important initiatives that are swimming against the tides.
The public space is constantly being threatened by the interests of real estate speculation, where every possible land is a potentially profitable business, worth of millions, billions, a new enterprise to revitalise that old abandoned region with shopping malls, concert arenas, buildings, everything should be close, accessible, luxurious and fashion, all for a price. This only contributes to weaken the few spaces left for popular music performances, it doesn’t matter what style of music. A few are the cases who survive gentrification without creating a more inaccessible urban area, which only creates new challenges to police makers and managers.
With the fire of Notre Dame of Paris in April 2019, the world focused its attention on a centenary gothic Cathedral that is certainly a human heritage. Thus, when we talk about secular initiatives that promote concerts in cathedrals and churches around Europe for free or for accessible prices, we are discussing important initiatives that are swimming against the tides. Cathedrals were created to show how big and imponent were the reigns of heaven, how everything in medieval life would be surrounded by Christianity and its sacred Roman wisdom. Liturgic music and its performance would be central to medieval cathedrals, the appropriate place for certain types of music instruments, such as the famous organs of Bach composed to be performed in German churches, or the Gregorian Chants and its powerful monophony. Apart from that, there were the music of the people. The traditional folk music performed in public places by independent artists, in rituals, parties, ceremonials, mostly for free, as culture and entertainment, such as the Roman de Fauvel, mentioned by Adam Harper. Cathedrals provide a natural reverberation that even the best contemporary reverb effects cannot reproduce with perfection. There is something unique and inherent to those cold rocky columns, wooden ceilings and mosaic glass windows. In cathedrals, the sound is a result of a unique natural reverberation. Cathedrals deserve and need to expand their importance as a public heritage to not only religious performances, but to a more secular, cross-cultural purposes.
Between Grote Kerk (Hague) and Oud Kerk (Amsterdam). Nicolas Jaar, Iona Fortune & NYX, re-signifying public spaces and music performance
On part 1 I’ve narrated how Bristol-based John Bence, composer and producer signed by Other People, performed his concrete style music in Hague’s old catholic church, on a Sunday afternoon. Which dialogues with what I explained above about re-signification of public spaces such as churches and how can they be applied to nowadays cultural and artistic performances (the stage). In that same day, after John’s performance, people strolled around Hague’s central streets in direction to Grote Kerk, where was supposed to happen Rewire’s closing concerts, Iona Fortune & NYX plus two performances of Nicolas Jaar with a group.
The cathedral looked immense, marked by the sound of beer bottles rolling around the floor. The audience could buy Dutch and Belgian beers inside the cathedral, which can sound weird if you think about churches outside of Netherlands. The sound caused by each one of those beer bottles rolling and colliding somewhere in the floor would resonate and reverberate throughout the whole cathedral, as if they were part of a special effect caused by unusual drums during the two subsequent performances. Something which endorses the natural power of a Cathedral’s reverberation effect. The colliding bottles would continue from beginning till the end, being even noisier than the audience itself, strolling back and forth to the side toilets.
The first performance, by Glasgow-based Iona Fortune & NYX, showed the power of a collective of women using their voice and electronic music instruments as their main gear. The lightening effects would contribute to that sunset atmosphere inside Grote Kerk, where once the natural sunlight would shift to darkness, being replaced by some shades and a foggy red light. Iona Fortune plays experimental ambient music, her 2017 album Tao Of I represents very well how she composes organic percussion with synthesized sounds. The title re-enforces how she’s influenced by eastern culture, such as Taoism and I Ching. At certain moments during the concert I reminded the album 2015 album Sexwitch and its Persian influences, especially when considering the vocals provided by the drone choir NYX. The whole atmosphere could not be more meditative and ritualistic, especially considering that it’s ambient-drone music being played on a sunset inside a cathedral. Some of the instruments in Iona’s pallet are: Guzheng, Gamelan and a portable synthesizer known as EMS Synthi AKS, recently released as a VST by Arturia on its V Collection 7. In general, this concert served as an open ceremony to an even more subtle ambient and drone experience provided by Nicolas Jaar.
The whole atmosphere could not be more meditative and ritualistic, especially considering that it’s ambient-drone music being played on a sunset inside a cathedral.
It was Nicola Jaar’s second performance in Rewiere festival, this time, he would be joined by a band consisted of: Valetina Magaletti, playing a custom built metallic and wooden plate developed by Turin-based Marzio Zorio and Anna Ippolito, saxophonist Mette Henriette, pianist Johan Lindvall, and Hamlet Nazaretyan and Ivane Mkirtichyan on Duduk, an ancient Armenian woodwind instrument. The whole concert had a jam session feeling, as if everything happened on improvisation, however this same performance happened twice in the same night, one after the other, which means it was not that improvised in the end.
According to Rewire’s organization, both performances would be the same. Nicolas Jaar was performing with a laptop, an Ableton live session filled with MIDI files that allow him to improvise as much as play audios previously recorded. Concurrently, he had a piano available for himself, in which he occasionally played while performing with his laptop. His piano performance is not unusual for those who listened to his records Nymphs and Pomegranates (2015). The percussion by Valentina Magaletti gave the whole performance a sound of innovation, in which the wooden tables would contrast with the metallic. The brass instruments also had different tunes to be explored, specially the contrast between Mette’s saxophone with the occasionally explored wooden sound of Duduk. Nicolas’s piano was summed by Johan’s keys, ultimately there was a high presence of keys, that contrasted with purely ambient or drone sounds. In general, it was a humble and rich performance that left the public astonished in all the senses. For those who were already expecting an adventurous and experimental concert, they could leave with a feeling of satisfaction. Nevertheless, not without leaving their comfort zone, as Nicolas didn’t play any of his recorded songs or anything similar to that, it was a purely flexible performance. The audience had the opportunity to appreciate a completely fresh sound, never before recorded and distributed to a larger audience. Something that only artists on a band can do, blessed by the aura of here and now.
For those who were expecting a Boiler Room kind of music performance, relating it to Nicolas Jaar’s micro house production, they surely felt astonished, even if it was negative astonishment, a feeling of aversion towards drone, ambient or experimental music. It could be classified as an anthropological estrangement, an astonishment towards “discovering the new”, the fresh and all the aura provided by the music performance itself.
A similar feeling that has probably been shared by another audience, this time on a different Cathedral of Netherlands, on a different city, two months later. On the 11th and 12th of May, 2019, happened in Amsterdam an event called Playing in the Cathedral, that counted with the participation of not only Nicolas Jaar, but also Philip Glass performing in Amsterdam’s Oud Kerk. The event started with a Gala dinner, for those willing to pay from 600 euros up to 20000 euros, being the next day open for accessible prices of around 10 euros a person. This time Nicolas would perform alone, improvising for three hours, three times during the day, starting from the early morning, 6am until 9am, which repeated twice later in the afternoon and evening of the same day. A totally different feeling from Grote Kerk and Rewire festival.
You may go to a techno club during the night, either not sleeping or sleeping during the day, but rarely you wake up 5am to attend a concert on a cathedral if you are not a religious person. At 6am Amsterdam looks like a ghost city, drunk and tired people coming back from clubs, a few others cycling bikes, with a few trams and ferry boats going back and forth. On the streets, you may find garbage thrown everywhere around the streets of the famous tourist district known as red light district, full of closed pubs, night and coffee shops (known for selling more cannabis flowers than coffee). A few drunk Nigerians still finish their beers, while photographing themselves and laughing over an unfinished night. Some workers start to collect and clean the mess left from the night before, with the aid of hungry pigeons.
Outside of Oud Kerk you could find all types of Amsterdam hipsters, from those dressed entirely with Vintage Shop costumes to those more refined fashionistas of expensive brands. This time, instead of rolling beers bottles, you could feel the widespread smell of roasted coffee beans held on paper cups. It was a cold morning for a spring. The whole Oud Kerk was freezing in its whole immensity, as if it would be a big fridge made of stone. On its humble entrance, you could pick up a chair to sit anywhere you would feel like and grab a free blanket to warm yourself. You could not find Nicolas Jaar sitting on the top of a stage like last time, the whole Cathedral had enough space for everybody to sit comfortably and enjoy the performance for three hours long. The reason you could not see Nicolas Jaar performing is that he was sitting on a table amidst the crowd, as if he’s part of the public enjoying that morning in the church.
I confess I’ve sat asleep on a side wing of the cathedral where I could not watch him performing for a long time, I could only hear drone sounds coming from somewhere I could not distinguish where, somewhere from the walls, from the organ pipes. The natural reverberation and resonance of sounds was doing all the work, as if you did not need to care about that regular dude rolled on a blanket, drinking tea, playing an Ableton set on his laptop. With the time passing, more people started to enter, while others would leave. It seemed that during three hours the whole church would become an artistic installation with a drone meditative performance happening. Some people would stroll around, admiring the architecture, the windows, the mosaic glass windows, some would photograph everything while other would prefer only to lay down somewhere rolled in blankets. What would usually be a religious mass became a mass for modern music inspiration. The Amsterdam youth could finally have a psychedelic breakfast with Nicolas Jaar.
Sonically, it was broad. It was possible to listen organ riffs that seemed to have been taken from an Alice Coltrane album or during Nicolas’s time with Darkside. During some other moments, we could listen helicopters or airplanes flying inside a cathedral. For some seconds or two I could feel as if someone had dropped lysergic acid on my coffee, but not, it was purely my imagination under powerful sounds on reverberation, sitting on a wooden chair in an old cathedral in Amsterdam. Sounds ranging from field recording to synthesizers, drones and noises of all kind. It was loud, loud enough to feel the sound coming from everywhere at the same time, a heavy loud of sound over our heads. During those three hours I tried to distinguish where were the speakers, but I could not find them. The sound was coming from everywhere, the ideal acoustics. Overall, the best was to meditate, three hours of meditation on a cathedral, while that day Nicolas Jaar was my bishop who could make me feel close to whatever reign of god that existed in my imagination, driven by the aura of here and now of a music performance.
Part 1 and 2 of “Looking for live inspiration in a world over saturated with records” meant to discuss the different possibilities for music performance considering the contemporary state of what has been considered “the music industry”. The typical music performance of the second half of 20th Century in Arenas/Stadiums, big festivals and massive concerts is still popular; however, with new ways of home recording, composing and producing music, comes the demand for new alternative ways of performing music. New instruments, ways of distributing and recording demand new ideas, ways of turning what is concrete to something flexible, adaptatively. The aura of works of art, as theorized by Walter Benjamin is still an important concept to understand music performance nowadays as it is to other types of artistic manifestation.
Furthermore, it is of great importance that the citizens and police makers to discuss music and its performance as popular cultural manifestations and not merely as business, commercial commodities centred on the world of consumption. Music, arts and culture (such as football or sports) should be treated as what they are and have been throughout history. Music records and performances are not toilet paper, fresh food, clean water or other basic means of consumption we need to survive, neither they are means of capital, that allow us to build new cars or computers, but they are an essential part of what constitutes humanity. They are the content inside voyager’s golden vinyl. Humans have been making music for thousands and thousands of years, beating sticks, bones, singing or playing whatever instruments they could create, it’s part of our human nature and its accessibility should be for everyone. It is necessary that the police makers create ways of funding new artists, concerts and stages. Performances should be constantly free or accessible to all audiences, regardless the music genre. Music performances should be encouraged and supported, regardless if they are massive festivals, a few musicians playing on the corner of a street, public square, park or in a tiny stinky pub.
Public policies should regulate the music industry, creating equal possibilities to all artists, allowing them to live of their music, not relegating them to be part of a precariat, who compose, perform and record music at home during the day to work as cheap labour in the evening. The music industry as we know, what has been mentioned above, is like an iceberg, in which we mainly know and listen the top, while the rest is usually “marginalized”.
Creating and developing new fomentation rules, stages or public places favourable to the proliferation of culture and music performances cannot happen without taking into account urbanism, gentrification and speculation by real estate business. Moreover, this debate is not complete without taking into consideration important economic aspects, such as neo-liberalism as the industry’s ruling ideology, major labels, social classes, immigration and precariat. All of this, in an unfavourable political context, where the progressive forces are being daily threaten by the establishment and status quo. With the absence of real public policies that help fund and promote independent artists, solidarity should prevail as the alternative, the so-called collectives of artists, therefore it’s necessary to establish independent regional unions of artists and indie labels with the objective to fill in the gabs abandoned by the public sector. Something that has been very well appropriated by techno music and hip hop.
Most importantly is to understand that it is not by becoming viral in social media platforms, having easy access to digital instruments, cheap digital music distribution (Spotify, Soundcloud, iTunes, Bandcamp…), having reliable digital audio workstations, summed by goodwill, a touch of entrepreneurial spirit and new ways of communication that will help artists succeed. But a fair and critical understanding of the contemporary music industry, which means incorporating other social economic agenda points, including what has been music as culture throughout the whole history, as opposed to music after the recording era. Artists should be a main force of criticism, question the contemporary status quo and with their creational capacity help build a better world to come for everybody, not only those artists in the top of Abbey Road’s iceberg, where everyone is able to perform and contribute with their creation, where every day an old cathedral and ruin is re-signified, where new stages are created for new upcoming artistic creations. Just like how football fans wish they could play and watch local football matches on neighbourhood clubs just like it once was in the past, where football would be for everyone, for love and appreciation, where you could go with your family on a Sunday afternoon as part of your local joy. After all, reaffirming the World Social Forum’s moto, a new better world is always possible.