INTERVIEW WITH SIMON H. FELL

first published in The Sound Projector no. 5
questions by Ed Pinsent

 

A. Composition No. 30, and other large ensemble pieces

What are the methods you use to realise a project like the above? You seem to use composition, 'conduction', and improvisation in almost equal measures; is that a fair assessment? How has this interest in combining elements developed? Have you experienced a personal disillusionment with the limits of any single style of music, or playing?

Well, the methods used for this kind of work are usually a fairly even balance of composition and improvisation, but with very little 'conduction'. ('Conduction' is something I've literally only just started experimenting with. I did my first 'conduction' piece just under 3 weeks ago!) In this context 'composition' really means the traditional thing of dots on paper; the main difference is the way I ask the musicians to approach interpreting notated materials. (With respect to this point it’s worth remembering that Western European music notation has developed from a simple aide-memoire for spontaneous elaboration and flexible realisation into the all-pervasive restraining straightjacket we are familiar with.) When I use notation with improvising musicians, I try and encourage them to return to this original 'aide-memoire' state; I often ask them to play the notation "as if it's a jazz standard that you already know". This is sometimes difficult when the notation is extremely complex, but only as long as the player tries to play it 'right'; as soon as someone grasps that there are several 'rights' (and I'll let them know if they spill over into the 'wrongs') the process becomes relatively straightforward. At some stage one starts to see the return of energy and personality into the musician's playing; and it can be possible to reinject spontaneity and commitment into apparently sterile notated materials. I think that's it's probably this preparedness to allow the specifics of the composition to mutate several times during the preparation for performance or recording that is the essential element if a composer is to work successfully with jazz or improvising musicians.

As for combining elements, I wouldn't like readers to get the impression that my work only explores this area; indeed one of the most problematic areas for my critics is why I want to try and investigate so many different ideologies so frantically. However, I suppose my interest in combining elements stems from my love of both ambiguity and complexity; the ambiguous complexity created when several simple elements are combined is both only apparent and simultaneously very real. Listeners educated in the subtleties of improvised music actually complete the composition by their own perception of it, creating the possible relationships; this is a prospect which I find fascinating, and can produce a music of unparalleled richness whilst remaining ostensibly straightforward. There are several 'constructs' on Compilation III which explore this thinking extensively. Of course there are several musicians who have inspired me to investigate this area; Ives (of course), Braxton, Mahler, Stockhausen, Cage and Mingus have all worked with the recombination of disparate elements, as have many others.

I don't think that I've really experienced disillusionment with any single style of music as such, but of course there's a lot of disappointing (and bad) music out there in all styles. Sometimes it can be hard to remember why you love playing a certain type of music, and this happens to me a lot. But that just means it's being played badly. Of course my polymath stance (or should that be 'dilletantism' - as described by my Headmaster in 1976?) is possibly a bad idea. Certainly from a career point of view, but also from a musical one. Possibly I would make 'better' music if I just did one thing. But when I can hear things in my head which no one else seems to be doing quite the way I would like to hear them, then I do feel that I have to try and realise those ideas. Often I may not succeed in creating what I wanted to hear, but I must keep trying.

Do you prefer performing and playing to composing; or perhaps everything is part of the same parcel? You seem to play bass with an almost frightening attack, and I feel this energy transfers to the players you work with.

I don't think I could relate these two activities with a view to preference; I seem to need to do both to realise my aspirations. This is partly just practical; both activities have so many aspects which are disheartening that it's useful to be able to balance the two. But on a more aesthetic level, I guess my real interest is in complex intellectual systems being realised by fallible but creative human beings; I wouldn't be able to bring my work to life in the way I want if I didn't have the connections and experiences which are so much a part of being a player. And although playing improvised music is a hugely important part of my life, I would never be happy just doing that; marvellous as improvisation can be, my perversity means I'm always interested in stretching both it and other structural idioms by recklessly combining the two. I've never had any interest in recreating music that already exists, and this extends even to my own work, so once a particular experiment has been tried I want to move on. I'm not necessarily interested in perfecting and refining it.....

I'm not sure about the frightening attack. That depends on context, perhaps. But I do consciously try and inject everything I do with focus and intensity. This may not mean that the music's loud, or fast (although sometimes it is), but musicians who work with me need to be electified and intense if they're to get the effect I need. When they're reading music, or following other directions, people often focus on the task they're undertaking, rather than the sound they're producing. My main task is to get them to get back to the sound they produce, and force them to mean it! If people have something to say, I want to hear it; if not they should let someone else speak. Far too many musicians fill space because they're supposed to, without really engaging with the activity. If my energy transfers to them, it's because I work hard to try and make this happen. I'm not always successful, of course, and it's particularly difficult with large groups.

There seems to be a real craftsmanship at the heart of your work, a very considered process as methodical (but not, thankfully, as over-elaborate) as Stockhausen's large-scale works such as INORI / FORMEL. - I personally prefer what you do to the throw-everything-together-and-see-what-sticks approach of our eclectic American friends John Zorn, Henry Kaiser or Eugene Chadbourne.

I'm not sure that's a question, but I'll respond anyway. Everything I have artistic control over is considered (that's a very good word). I'm not saying this is automatically a good thing, but it's the way I work. Every possible implication, permutation and manifestation of a particular idea has been explored and assessed before a final version is realised; this is partly why everything takes me so long to do! And perhaps working with improvisers is my way of keeping this tendency in check.......

Although I frequently find Zorn's work interesting, listening to him certainly taught me that constant change can result in incredible stasis. While I've always been interested in cut-and-paste collaging, the time-scale has to be right if you're going to perceive the juxtapositions. Sometimes Zorn moves too quickly; this isn't incipient fogeyism, it's just that he defeats his own object by reducing his cells to dots in a grey pointillism. But he has also produced some fine work, and has been an influence on the way I think about the term 'composer'. I have a lot of time for Eugene Chadbourne; not sure about Henry Kaiser though!

Speaking of Stockhausen, he seemed to like including complex printed booklets with his records that tried to explain all the trouble he'd taken getting this thing together. How about you - is it at all important for you that the audience understands what's going on, or is it enough for us just to listen?

I'm happy for the audience to listen on any level from completely analytical intellectual understanding to "I don't know what this is, but I kinda like it". What does piss me off is when people who are not interested in technical information, theoretical background or aesthetic aspiration decide that no-one else should have access to this information because they themselves don't want it. I've learnt everything I know about music and composition from reading books and record sleeves and listening to Radio 3 (in the old days); I want as much information as I can get about the music I'm listening to, at least in the case of 'composed music'. Giving people information isn't elitism; it's elitism to decide on behalf of other people that they are too ignorant or shallow to have any interest in aesthetics or technical matters. Therefore I would always want to make this information available, but it's not necessary to an appreciation of the music. However, more understanding might lead to a different, deeper understanding of what's going on. The people who don't want this kind of information don't have to read it.......

Is the relationship with the musicians and players as people - as friends, even - important to you personally, or to the process? Are they simply 'hired hands' reading the sheet music, or are they chosen specially for explosive combinations, to realise particular effects? Is it a 'nurturing process'?

The relationship is crucial. I need people who understand my aspirations, who trust me musically (and financially), and who are flexible about putting themselves in awkward situations. I cannot work with people who are worried about 'failure' or have a fixed view of what constitutes good music. I'm an experimental musician, and this involves risk; everyone who works with me needs to be prepared to undertake that risk. They also need to have a good sense of humour, and be reliable. I've no time for posers, stuff-strutters and precious artistes; there can be rough and tumble in my music!

Very occasionally musicians will come in as 'hired hands'; this has happened most particularly on the Compilation projects, mainly due to the size of the ensembles, or needing a specific instrument that wasn't available from among my usual coterie. Almost always a bad idea, though. 'Hired hands' produce music that sounds like it was played by 'hired hands', and it's pretty hard to motivate 15 or 20 strangers in the course of a 3 or 4 hour recording session. With regular collaborators there is an element of nurturing, but I'd describe it more as musicians 'getting used to' my slightly skewed intentions in music-making. Some people are already on my wavelength, some settle down to it after one or two projects; others just can't get it at all, even though they may be fantastic musicians!

Are you at all inspired / interested by similar large-ish combos, or composer-leader events - eg the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, the Arkestra, London Jazz Composers Orchestra, Butch Morris, Frank Zappa bands?

Well yes, although not particularly the ones you've listed. My interest in large and medium groups springs partly from orchestral music – Ives, Stockhausen, Varèse – partly from the big band tradition – Ellington, Kenton, Mingus, Braxton - and partly from jazz-fusion experiments by people like Zappa, Westbrook and Don Ellis. I've never really been that influenced by groups like SME/O, the Arkestra, LJCO and Butch Morris' work, mainly because when I was developing the interests which still form the bedrock of my aspirations most of this music was unknown to me. One of the things about experimental music is that exposure to it is extremely haphazard, particularly if one's youth is spent in the Provinces, as mine was. I suppose the crucial things have been that I like big forces and I love dissonance, so anything that combines the two is off to a flying start with me.

Is Simon Fell's artistic presence somewhere at the centre of large projects like this? The final result seems very free and open - a Parliament of voices - so are you more in the way of an enabler for this desirable state of affairs? How much of an authorial voice should we be listening for?

I'm not sure to what extent you should listen for an authorial voice, but it's certainly there in most of these projects. Any recording released on or through the auspices of Bruce's Fingers will always have my fingerprints on it, for better or worse. Even if it only extends to selecting the order of improvised pieces, or selecting musicians to improvise, or even just selecting a recording for release, all of these processes involve me ensuring that the recording has the focus, consideredness or experimentalness which I need in music. Sometimes this might simply extend as far as giving someone a chance to speak who has been previously ignored...... Even though my work extends through many varied areas, I consider it all very much of a piece.

Further on the audience. Sleevenote to BF 27 implies that the music might simultaneously disappoint [purist] fans of classical music, improvisation, and jazz. Have you any thoughts on the way music is categorised and packaged for audiences today? Are the terms used too restrictive?

I'm afraid I find the way music is categorised and packaged within the wider marketplace offensive and demeaning to the free-thinking listener. Even within the non-commercial field musicians and labels are far too ready to pander to listeners' predeterminations and prejudices; of course it can be nice and cosy in your own particular ghetto, but I'm more interested in enabling anyone to hear the music who might just conceivably be interested. This relentless and obsessive pigeon-holing is not necessarily universal; it seems especially part of our British arts infrastructure. Part of the blame for this must be laid at the door of funding organisations like the Arts Council, who insist on identifying, categorising and labelling any new music put before them. And woe betide you if you try and mix it up a bit!

Have your projects fared better overseas than in the UK?

Another difficult one to answer; things always seem better when you're viewing them from afar. Of course it's easy to be supportive when you only have very sporadic contact with someone, but I'd have to say that enthusiasts and distributors in both mainland Europe and North America seem to offer very much more unreserved support. Although I have a marvellous collection of UK mail order customers who are tremendously committed, the UK music establishment (promoters, critics, magazines) all seem to be very wary of expressing overt enthusiasm for anything (although there are notable exceptions!), preferring to look and act cool. I find the sometimes incestuous back-scratching of UK gig-getting particularly difficult to participate in, but am determined to try and do more live playing over the coming years; possibly not much in this country though.

Composition No. 30 struck me immediately as being an extremely dense CD, I mean not a single musical moment gone to waste over the entire 2 CD set (which, thinking about it, in the old days of vinyl would have been at least a four-LP box set, something which used to signal 'self-indulgence' to the shrewd paying public). Has this density been achieved through discipline, meticulous planning, editing...?

Yes, yes and yes. Phil Darke and I spent absolutely months in the studio ensuring that (at least in my opinion) the wasn't one wasted second during the 125 minutes. And I mean that literally; there isn't one second's music which hasn't earned it's place against some tough opposition. Often you're hearing three, four or five ideas being simultaneously explored; the contrast with passages of quiet empty intensity is also all planned. Every bit of this record has been gone over with a fine-tooth comb. One of my greatest disappointments is how some so-called reviewers have praised the album without ever really getting to grips with it. There's so much to say about this music. It's not so much a matter of whether a review's positive or not, but I've yet to read one where the reviewer seems to have listened closely.....

Another thing I like about this record is how it achieves so many astonishing effects, almost exclusively through acoustic instruments...well not exclusively obviously (electric guitar), but my guess is you refuse easily-obtained atmospheric effects beloved of modern ambient musicians.

Yes. Quite early on in this process I decided to eschew the use of electronics. Thus only the electric guitars and bass guitar use electricity in this work, and even they avoid the use of particularly elaborate electronic effects. (I think a slight fuzz/distortion on Colin's guitar is about as far as it goes.) My interest in electronics hasn't abated really, but this is very much an acoustic album. However, I don't think this makes it a conservative recording; the way the acoustic instruments are used and combined is extremely exploratory. Also, several recordings have appeared recently which explore my ideas about the use of samplers (I'm thinking of This Music Is Silent Until You Listen, Frankenstein & Pure Water Construction), but I don't often get chance to work with so many live instrumentalists. As a result it seemed sensible to follow the acoustic tendency that the music was developing.

You're certainly right about the 'easily-obtained atmospheric effects'; nothing else makes my heart sink quite the way it does when a musician switches on a delay pedal! There is definitely some law of physics that dictates that the more electronic effects you have to twiddle with, the less interesting the resulting music. Many a potentially interesting record has been ruined for me by simplistic and banal use of delay and other effects, and the same goes for gigs.

Of course these things can be used in a creative way ( and I even used delay myself quite a lot in the early days of Persuasion), but generally I prefer disruptive rather than palliative electronics.

 

B. DESCENSION

Is this still a going concern? When did you hook up with Stefan Jaworzyn? Do you share with Stefan a passion for 'marathon' endurance playing sessions, along the lines of the Cecil Taylor Unit? Whose idea was it to play together? How does this project rate in your personal scheme of achievements? Do you like any modern extreme noise music, like Merzbow?

Descension's still a going concern, except that nobody ever offers us any gigs, or invites into studios to record albums. We're not (and never have been) the kind of band who just play together for fun, but if anyone's going to give us work, we'll be there. I suppose I 'hooked up' with Stefan (not sure what that means) in late 1994/early 1995; he'd written a review of foom! foom! for Grim Humour in which he'd said that he'd like to hear more. So I sent him more, and apparently he meant it! I would perhaps say I have a passion for 'marathon' sessions when it's appropriate; I think rather than in terms of time/duration, we should be talking about intensity. I think what I definitely share with Stefan is a requirement that the music is real and committed, rather than affected or flippant. Sometimes it requires time to achieve this state, particularly for a lot of players from the 'jazz' tradition; you just have to keep pushing and pushing and pushing until something bursts and you're in a different space. But others can achieve this instantly; Webern, for example.

As for playing together, I don't remember the details but I know Stefan and I cooked it up together. Tony and Charlie were willing volunteers, but Stefan and I made it happen. I rate this project very highly in my scrapbook. I think the music we made on our 1995 tour (and at subsequent sporadic gigs) is among the most intense I've ever heard in my life. The Live, March 1995 CD is still astonishing, even though the recording quality is so appalling. In one sense I don't see how I could ever be involved in playing music as loud, as intense, as reckless and as transcendent as that ever again. My only real regret is that (at least so far) there's never been a good recording of Descension; I wish somebody would arrange a studio date (or even better a good multi-track live recording) for that band, before I'm too old to survive the experience!

'Modern extreme noise music': actually, a lot of it doesn't seem that modern or extreme to me. Some of it is very very loud, and stays the same for a very long time, but it don't really consider that a big deal. Once you've heard a recording of this music you can often say "right, I know what that does" and you don't need to listen to it again. It's a one-trick whatsit, whatever the saying is. If I want 'modern extreme noise music' I'll listen to Broadcast by Ascension. That's as modern and extreme as you'll ever hear, and you'll hear a new harmonic twist every time you listen. Once you've heard the gory complexity of Stefan's guitar (let alone played with him), how can you have any time for a lot of the one-dimensional tripe that seems so fashionable?

 

C. SOME PRACTICALITIES

What are the logistical difficulties in realising a work like Composition No. 30, from start to finish? - in terms of co-ordinating so many players, rehearsing, booking studio time etc.

Just plain horrendous. I'm afraid that the major part of any work of this nature is just administration; the number of 'phone calls required to get even 10 busy musicians and a mobile recording setup in the same heavily-booked room at the same time is sometimes almost beyond belief. And then they don't all turn up! Even thinking about this aspect of Compilation III still makes me shudder. Someone once said to me "there are lots of people who'd like to do music like this, if they were given the chance"; well, nobody gave me the chance, I had to make it happen for myself, working from a blank page upwards. This is part of the skill/art of doing these projects, and without it I'm afraid large-scale musical ideas don't go very far... Only being an auteur film director could be any worse!

Do you have to do all your own groundwork in securing grants, financing etc? Do you agree with Conrad Schnitzler's view that 'the artist shouldn't have to do everything himself?'

Yes, I do everything myself. All the musicians I know do. Who else is going to do it for them? There's not enough money in this music for consultants, agents, administrators etc. Of course the artist shouldn't have to do this; every second spent on stupid pointless forms for clueless arts administrators is one second that should have been spent on making art. So much great work has presumably been lost in this country as a result of the hysterical tendency to try and force artists to jump through hoops to prove their worth, rather than just allowing those persons who actually know about the artform to use their discretion. Do you realise that 'value for money' now actually appears on monitoring forms for Arts Council Improvised Music tours? How much does that tell you about arts funding in this country?

 

D. YOUR LABEL

What prompted you to start your own label - perhaps to release certain music that nobody else would? Are there any limits or definitions to what makes it onto Bruce's Fingers? Do you perceive a gap in what is currently available, that needed to be filled?

I suppose the answer would have to be the foolhardy ignorance of youth. Like many young musicians starting out on their careers, in 1983 I sincerely believed that all I had to do was make the music I could hear in my head, and the musical world would fall over itself offering me money, recording contracts, fame, etc. Or at least I thought there would be some kind of career progression where things would get easier and projects become successively more significant. Of course I was completely wrong, but the realisation of that comes later. So, since the first two or three labels I sent tapes to didn't reply, I simply thought I should put this stuff out myself. I had also realised early on that making one's way in the 'business' had as much (or more) to do with your ability to 'hang out' and be part of a 'scene' as it did to do your music. Since I've never been very good at any of music's social skills I decided I would start my own 'scene'. I was short-sighted enough to think that once a tape was made or an LP pressed, the world would fall over itself trying to buy it; I had no ideas about distribution, advertising or anything. Of course I'm now a grizzled pessimist (but still socially challenged).

The only two criteria as to what makes it onto BF are (i) I personally must like it/feel it's important/want to support it, at least at the time I make the decision, and (ii) somebody somewhere has to find the money to make it happen; sometimes that's me, sometimes not. This may mean that the catalogue is a reflection of my own personal tastes and interests, but what the hell else would you want it to be. It's hard enough to keep the will to survive putting out records you believe in; I'm not sure what other method I could use.

The only gap I perceived in the market when I started BF was the non-availability of my own music. I was convinced that there was a small number of people who would be interested in what I was doing, if only they had the chance to hear it. I was right in that at least. I just never thought that the number would be that small.....

What does the name Bruce's Fingers mean, anyhow?

Nothing. It was picked at random from a video tape cover in (I think) 1980, because a band I'd set up needed a name. I never dreamed you'd be asking me this question nearly 20 years later! (It was a Bruce Lee video, if you're interested.)

Was it a good time for independent labels when you started? Has it got any better since? Do you sell items in respectable numbers? What has been the best-selling item?

I'm not sure what would be a good time for independent labels. I think most musicians view setting up an independent label as a last resort; either because the existing infrastructure is too uninterested, too unreliable, too untrustworthy, too commercial etc. I know I did. Of course, artistic control and financial independence are marvellous liberties which it's easy to take for granted, but running a label does take up a lot of time and energy which would otherwise be spent on music. It's hard to say whether things are getting better; as you get more established things seem to get a little easier, probably as a matter of course. Certainly new technologies like e-mail, the internet and DTP can make life a lot easier for small organisations on a budget. And the Euro could make life easier, since currently it's practically impossible for an overseas customer to order just one item because the banks charge an arm and a leg for changing even tiny amounts of currency. But I'm sure there'll be new downers to counteract any improvement; I'm afraid I'm a pessimist.

No, items don't sell in respectable numbers! If I could sell 1 CD for every five people who have a reason for asking for a freebie (they're a critic, they have a radio show, they're writing an article, they're doing a dissertation, they've got no money, etc – sorry Ed!) then I'd be a happy record label magnate. For CDs sales are generally between 100-500 copies. Most are at the bottom end of that scale. In addition there are an awful lot of copies floating around the world on 'sale or return', which seems to be some weird black hole just past Alpha Centauri. Essentially, this music gets talked about a hell of a lot, written about a lot, played on the radio a lot, but hardly anyone seems to put their hand in their pocket and actually buy it! I'm sorry this is turning into a rant. The situation's not helped by a world (almost) full of flaky distributors, either. Or by too many CDs (we'll come to that later). OK, I'll calm down.

The best selling item is the foom! foom! CD, by a long chalk. But even that's not yet hit 500 copies. (My heartfelt thanks to those people who do buy things, by the way!)

My only sour note - your sleeve designs seem a bit nondescript and awkward to me sometimes, and I know you did some of them...sorry. Is a strong visual image important for you, not just to sell records, but can it make some form of additional statement about your music?

OK. Well here's an answer with several strands. Firstly, a lot of this artwork has been incorrectly realised/printed etc. One of the things about working on a tiny scale with a minute budget is that you don't have much weight to throw around with designers, typesetters, printers etc. So some of the designs aren't as they should be, and disappoint me too. Sometimes this is due to my own inexperience, particularly in the early days.

Secondly, and most importantly, this is inevitably a matter of taste anyway. More recent efforts have been achieved in the way I'd hoped, so if you feel this way about the design of Playing With Tunes, Frankenstein or Ghost Notes, then I guess we'll just have to agree to differ. I'm quite proud of these ones.

Thirdly, I don't think it matters. The music is what's important. I know this seems obvious, even simplistic, but I do think it's worth restating. The number of sumptuously and ingeniously packaged CDs I've seen over the past few years where the actual music is as dull as ditchwater doesn't bear thinking about. Of course, when people are swamped by CDs that they can't possible have heard, they might make choices on the basis of the design or packaging. Well, don't; buy a print or small sculpture instead.

Although I'm very interested in graphic design, and would like to make BF releases as interesting as possible (to my own particular taste), I would hope that one of the benefits of keeping at this business is that you establish a reputation for the music, not the boxes.

If in 1998 it's now become as easy to release a CD as it was to issue a cassette in the 1980s - how does this in your view, 'devalue the currency of music'?

Of course, what I'm going to say will be completely undermined by my own previous actions, and a good thing too. The fact that everyone and anyone is now releasing almost all the recordings they make on recordable CDs on their own labels (in minute quantities) means that it's now very hard for the listener (and prospective purchaser) to attribute any particular standing to a recording because it's been released on CD. Of course this standing has always been mythical, since for most commercial record labels the quality of the music has been pretty low down the list anyway, and there's much superb music which has been ignored by labels large and small. But although it's an artificial distinction, the prestige of a CD release has both given musicians an objective to aim for and listeners and purchasers a theoretical guarantee of 'significance'.

Needless to say, (and BF was a prime example), there was a time when people put out cassettes like there was no tomorrow. The reason the current situation is different, however, is that for the first time in the history of commercially recorded music the pre-eminent consumer artefact and the lingua franca of domestic recordists is becoming one and the same thing: the CD. This could present a remarkable crisis, since the linguistic consumer infrastructure does not differentiate between pressed CDs and recordable CDs; at the very least it will prove interesting. Suffice to say, BF's cassette selection will slowly be supplanted by recordable CDs.

Rather than 'devalue the currency of music', perhaps this simply serves to subvert and undermine received prejudices about which music is 'significant', based simply on the format which carries it. People may start making their own minds up about what's good and what isn't; or they may decide there's too much stuff and not listen to any of it......

 

E. PHILOSOPHY!

"This Music is Silent Until You Listen"...considering here a woolly abstract question about the nature of how art communicates, but let's try it: recently I've been rereading 1970s film theory nonsense, they speak of 'the production of meaning' in avant-garde cinema. I think this means that only at the point of viewing does the artistic communication process begin to work. There are no 'fixed meanings' inherent in the film waiting to be discovered by the passive viewer - rather the viewer must become active (while watching) in producing their own meanings. The Constructivists took the view that the artist is more like a social scientist conducting experiments, rather than a lofty outsider dispensing great wisdom. Does this apply to any of your work?

One of the main features of the work I was undertaking in Compilation III, and subsequently continued in Pure Water Construction, was exploring the degree to which musical form, interaction and structure can be retrospectively created by the ear of the listener. If someone is used to listening to improvised music or any music which requires a bit of work to perceive what’s going on in terms of structure or expression, I do think it’s possible to develop much more highly developed listening faculties. Many structures in Compilation III are the result of chance combinations of separate events, and yet I find as a listener that they are related. I don’t think that this is just fanciful. I’ve spoken to many musicians about this and some of them get quite mystical about it, some talk about scientific explanations. But the depth of the relationship between the events depends upon a capacity to listen - as I listen to some of the tracks, I can hear people reacting to things which they can’t actually hear. The correlation of that interaction may be pure chance, and it may be that subconsciously I thought that it might work; but I also feel that when a listener hears the first thing he/she interprets the second as being a response to that. That’s something which improvised music listeners tend to be very good at, because they’re used to discerning subtle relationships. Certainly if the listener restricts themselves to the 'fixed meanings' they will miss the main point of the experience; Compilation III is a work which requires a Berkleyan God-like listener to bring it into existence! Martin Archer, in fact, has gone so far as to assert that there's no such thing as interaction, only chance combinations perceived as relationships. Whilst he's not completely right, he's not as wrong as many people would immediately assert.

...Connected to this I would bring in Music for 10(0) which I enjoyed very much, finding the Ben Watson / Out To Lunch poetry-rants adding a 'narrative' component which wasn't really confirmed by the rest of the music. I mean the themes of the music seemed to have arrived first and the themes in the poetry - attacking record shops - were almost 'bolted on' afterwards. I seem to be arriving at a statement rather than asking a question, which is that your music is exciting to me because it communicates several very different elements simultaneously. The Compilation II record, for example, even at its simplest sounds like Albert Ayler free jazz and Stockhausen electronic music playing at the same time - causing sparks to fly. This is kaleidoscopic music for listeners with eight-track minds. Can listeners cope? Are people willing to listen in four dimensions? Do you want to make the listener work hard? This, I think, is what I'm getting at with 'the production of meaning'.

'Kaleidoscopic music for listeners with eight-track minds' is a great phrase; I hope it makes it into the magazine. If it does I'll quote it everywhere.... I'm not sure that I want listeners to work hard as an objective, but I do want them to (in Ives's somewhat sexist phrase) "use their ears like a man". Listen to the music with an open, flexible mind; if you're interested in the intellectual background it's there if you want it, but you can just listen if you wish. But don't shrink away from things other people have told you are 'ugly', 'vulgar', 'difficult' or 'obscure'. Just make your own mind up. I'm not sure all listeners can cope with having to make their own minds up, but some will. My music is for questioning, independently-minded people who are interested in quirky flexibility, complex simplicity, tireless reinvention and unpredictable results. Even if I say so myself (you can tell I write my own press releases). Thanks.

© Simon H. Fell/Ed Pinsent 1999

Reprinted courtesy of The Sound Projector
© The Sound Projector 1999


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