The Real London Underground:
Experimental Music at the End of the 90s

By Kenneth Goldsmith
© 1999 New York Press

There's a 50-year-old composer named John Wall who lives out in Zone 4, almost at the end of the Northern tube line in London. He works in relative obscurity and isolation in a typically drab neighborhood of gray row houses the outskirts of town. You've probably never heard of him, and unless you do some real digging, you probably never will. He doesn't see many people; instead, he just holes up in his bedroom with his computer making some of the most sophisticated experimental music I've ever heard. His CDs are hard to come by, mainly because he designs, packages and distributes them himself. In many ways, John Wall embodies what I saw of the London experimental musical scene when I was there recently; the scene is as thin and as spread out as a coat of oil upon the huge landmass that is London. Everyone lives way the fuck out of town, resources are slim, interaction is scarce and interest seems, at best, localized. Sounds pretty much like experimental music scenes everywhere, but the difference, say, in New York is sheer density; because of the geography of Manhattan, there's at least an illusion of a cohesive scene. In addition, there's enough media coverage, self-promotion, clubs and record stores carrying the stuff here to make most musician's efforts (no matter how obscure) rewarded in some way. Between scene-makers like DJ Spooky, Thurston Moore and John Zorn, and collectives such as Soundlab or Bang on a Can, there's always something happening here. In London, in spite of the 30-year-old jazz improv scene that's still going strong, the glue and the rub that's required to make a scene is missing. Even with all the recent heat coming off the hip London art world, there is surprisingly little crossover (many of the visual artists I spoke with had never heard of either the musicians or labels that I had been visiting). However, in spite of all odds, there's a shitload of incredible music being made, often times by people like John Wall in their bedrooms, far from the centers of anything. And because local interest seems so scarce, they look to a global scene for support. Many of the musicians I spoke with had much more interest from Japan, the US or Eastern Europe than in their own backyard.

Wall functions as a touchstone for many of the musical concerns current on the London scene. There's an infatuation with digital technology, sampling, and an askew glance toward improvisation (everywhere I went, the London saxophonist Evan Parker and the Romanian composer Iancu Dumitrescu were the names on the tips of everybody's tongues). Since most musicians don't have the resources to tour extensively or play live too often, there's an awful lot of work happening on computer. Wall has a tiny studio in what looks like a child's bedroom; it's completely empty except for a computer and a stack of CDs from which he creates gorgeous symphonies by means of sampling other composer's works. He's only made two CDs, but with certain compositions comprised of over 200 samples, a 20-minute piece can take up to two years to create. His first disc, Alterstill, is a tour-de-force of sampling and plunderphonics. Twelve-tone strings ripped out of Schoenberg are abruptly interrupted by a pounding heavy-metal guitar riff stolen from Slayer; out of nowhere, a crashing Takemitsu orchestral tympani joins in the chaos. Although it sounds easy, it ain't--Wall's a craftsman who meticulously stitches everything together so seamlessly that it's impossible to tell what came from where. It's convincing enough that it makes you think that the stuff was actually scored and composed, instead of sampled. For his next disc, Fractuur, Wall brought live musicians into his bedroom (including Evan Parker), recorded them and began mingling bits and pieces of their playing with the sampled material. The result is a stunningly complex mix that begs the question: is it live or is it Memorex? However, there's no way that this work could ever be scored for live performance; instead, it's a culmination of all the performances he's incorporated--call it an Ur performance. Assuming Wall is using what might be considered the definitive recording of any given performance, each musician is at the peak of their playing. And with his great ear, Wall is able to swipe the best parts of the performances that happen live in his bedroom. It's a win-win situation: the listener gets the best of the best, all woven together into a new composition.

The implications of Wall's practice are nothing short of paradigmatic. It brings a punk DIY ethos into classical music and in doing so, demolishes centuries-old notions of concert hall skill and performance in one fell swoop. What arises from the rubble is a complex new structure made from shards of the old, thereby redefining the roles of player, conductor and composer.

Wall's buddy Clive Graham lives a stop or two closer to town in a tiny apartment that doubles as a recording studio. He's a composer who's been with the improvisational electronic group Morphogenesis since 1991. Morphogenesis makes their own instruments, many of which were laying around when I visited. They were rough-hewn things--one instrument was nothing more than a 2 x 4 with a few nails banged into it and a couple of strings attached to it. Scattered about the room were also a number of house plants, whose biorhythms are used as sound sources. In addition, several jars of water are connected to electronics as sound generators. Morphogenesis's discs are noisy affairs. When I asked Graham how the neighbors reacted to the group's recording sessions there, he told me that he'd never gotten a complaint because the sessions are silent; all the instruments are gently scratched or rubbed, with contact mics picking up the humanly inaudible sounds. In fact, all the members of the group wear headphones during recording sessions in order to hear the sounds that they're making.

Graham releases Morphogenesis's recordings on his own label, Paradigm. Paradigm's discs are amongst the most gorgeously packaged I've ever come across. It's a labor of love as Graham (like Wall) does all the design, packaging and business dealings himself. Although he's only released a handful of discs, all of them are noteworthy. Last year, in a community-building gesture, he put out a two volume series featuring relatively unknown or neglected experimental London composers called London Variations. Graham explained to me that he was coming across a ton of artists holed up in their flats across the city doing amazing work that just wasn't finding its way out into the world. The discs are packed with wonderfully eccentric works by artists such as the sound poet Bob Cobbing (who rarely records) and Hugh Davies, one of Stockhausen's early assistants who's been working for over forty years, but has all but disappeared from the public eye.

Many of Paradigm's releases come directly from Graham's own record collection. He simply re-releases what he loves, often without permission. The early 70s Japanese prog-rock bands Karuna Khyal and Brast Burn made a couple of albums that were among the most striking that Graham had ever heard. They were sitting on his shelves, when one day he decided to re-release them on Paradigm. He searched everywhere for information on them and came up empty-handed. Finally, after months of trying, he just decided to go ahead and release the discs (he'll include a disclaimer on the disc asking the rightful owners of the music to step forth so he can give them their deserved royalties). Graham feels he's doing these neglected artists a favor by getting their work back into circulation--one day they'll thank him. And they should--it's wonderful stuff that mixes grumbling Tuvan vocals with Krautrock-influenced Japanese guitars; it ends up sounding like a Beefheart-influenced Magical Power Mako.

Other future releases include a record by the Kansas City based Reverend Dwight Frizzell, originally recorded in 1976 in an edition of 200 copies. Graham found out about Frizzell through Nurse With Wound's Steven Stapleton, who claims that Frizzell was a huge influence on NWW. It's handmade electronic music, incorporating what sounds like a wedding band on acid sliding in and out of consciousness. Graham also plans to release a solo disc of Morphogenesis's "surface" player Adam Bohman, who walked around Brixton with a hand-held tape recorder describing what he was seeing at the moment. As the disc unravels, we hear Bohman doing dramatic readings from recipe books and listening to avant garde music. In the background, his mother begs him to "turn that noise off"--it's hysterical stuff. The whole affair reminds me of the offbeat British rocker Ron Geesin or, in his more coherent moments, of the elfin Scottish storyteller Ivor Cutler.

* * *

While it seems that almost every musician in London has their own record label, there are two labels I visited which seem to define the avant experience: ReR Records--an old standard from which a whole school of British experimental activity seems to have sprung--and Touch (with its affiliate label Ash), which is mining the future of digital noise. Both stand at opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum with ReR placing a seemingly traditional premium on playing instruments, where as almost all of Touch's work consists of found, sampled or manipulated noise. Although on the surface they might appear to have little to do with one another, just about every experimental musician in London is, in some way, functioning within the parameters defined by their two monumental aesthetics.

ReR grew out Chris Cutler's stint as the drummer for the seminal rock band Henry Cow. In 1978, after the band broke up and was subsequently dropped by Virgin Records, Cutler decided to take matters into his own hands. He started self-releasing discs by his new band, The Art Bears, which grew out of the ashes of Henry Cow. Around the same time, he began a record distribution service of music that he thought was noteworthy, which he called Recommended Records. Since Cutler seemed to know more about strange music than just about anyone on the planet, Recommended Records was literally the records which Cutler personally recommended for friends. What started out as a humble "you've got to check this stuff out" sort of a passion, quickly grew into a reliable source where you could get your hands on cool music at a time when cool music was hard to find. Starting in the early 80s, the ReR Quarterlies began appearing--a magazine and LP which brought together provocative essays along with some of the most interesting music being made during that time. For his new label, he began soliciting like-minded musicians from all over the world for experimental material. Before long, ReR was putting out full length releases of phenomenally intelligent music by the likes of Faust, Christian Marclay, AMM, John Oswald and ZNR.

The program today continues pretty much unchanged by time. The offices are located in a dreary little town called Thornton Heath, about forty-five minutes outside the city by suburban train. It's a small enterprise, with only one other full-time employee besides Cutler. Stacks of old vinyl and new CDs cram the floor-to-ceiling metal shelves as part of Recommended's distribution system. These days, ReR releases about ten discs a year, mostly focusing on new works by old peers of Cutler's. He operates it like a gallery, almost maintaining a stable of musicians to whom he'll give an outlet every few years in the form of a disc. Some of the regulars include the wonderful violinist Jon Rose, ex-Henry Cow guitarist Fred Frith (who just released a classical record on ReR replicating the styles of the New York School from the 1950s), Cutler's ongoing band Cassiber and the ubiquitous Iancu Dumitrescu. Dumitrescu could be termed Eastern Europe's electrified Morton Feldman and his single-stringed drone compositions seem to hit everyone right in England these days; his simple mircotonally-amplified approach embraces both the improvisational and the electronic.

The current craze for electronica has given a second wind to the label. With hordes of kids rediscovering Faust (ReR released the 1996 You Know Faust--their strongest record in years), they're gradually being drawn into ReR's huge back catalog of Faust and, in turn, to the label's related but more obscure artists. And as the mainstream media have picked up on the importance of early electronic bands, both Recommended's distribution and the record label's sales are on the rise. Even the conservative London Sunday Times recently called attention to the historical importance of ReR. The label seems to be responding to the new interest by spiffing up its package design and by broadening its scope to include both established artists like Sun Ra as well as younger experimentalists like Otomo Yoshihide and his band Ground Zero. While the label may be getting more attention these days Cutler, on principle, refuses to sacrifice the idealism on which it was founded; Recommended remains "more personal than democratic, more a service than a business."

Touch, on the other hand, has the brashness and attitude that is nothing if not 90s. It's a savvy enterprise, which seems to make it the envy of everyone on the London scene. And in spite of its cool, oblique tone, the label is doing a phenomenal worldwide business selling insanely difficult music. Mike Harding, the co-mastermind behind Touch, lives in Balham, a gray little town deep in the south end of London. Compared to the other folks I visited, Harding lives in relative comfort and style; he's at the top of his game and has all the confidence in the world that goes with it.

He started Touch back in '82 with his partner Jon Wozzencroft, a graphic designer who is responsible for Touch's stunningly austere look. Early on, a conceptual game plan was devised: Touch would not be called Touch Records--it didn't want to identify itself so narrowly--it would simply be called Touch. That way, it could release a variety of media without having the pressure of specialization (one of Touch's earliest projects was publishing Jean Baudrillard's Xerox & Infinity, a gorgeous little chapbook). I first became aware of Touch through their samplers--CDs crammed with goodies ranging from Indonesian music to the dark meanderings of the Hafler Trio. Early on, the Egyptian musician Soliman Gamil was featured on a Touch sampler; he would later prove to be one of Touch's biggest sellers. Gamil creates otherworldly sounds by transcribing music directly off the walls of the pyramids, then builds his own instruments to play it, bringing new life to some of the world's oldest music.

Out of the samplers, Touch found more than enough great material for a number of solo releases. One notable instance is the work of Chris Watson, a sound collector who goes out into nature and records sounds we otherwise would never get to hear. Recent recordings feature the sounds of elephants sleeping and spotted hyenas whooping. The creepy thing about the recordings is that they are about as far from Mutual of Omaha as you can get. Instead, Watson's technique makes them sound electronic, mechanical and even digital; it's work that turns the time-honored tradition of field recording on its ear.

Although Touch constantly thumbs his nose at the British avant mainstream, the label did pay homage to the London improv scene by releasing a disc of Evan Parker's sax playing. The catch was that it run through the machinery of electronic musician Lawrence Casserley, mangling Parker's technique almost beyond recognition. It's wild sounding stuff that appeals to both fans of the acoustic and the electronic. Purists on the improv scene, however, were horrified by Parker's sacrilegious gesture--a sentiment which delighted Touch. The disc stands as a testament to the open-mindedness of the ever-curious Parker and confirms Harding's theory that "the world is made up of two camps--the curious and the non-curious." Touch likes to think that its listeners fall into the former category.

In 1993, Harding founded another label, Ash International, with partner Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner, to deal specifically with media overload, the various forms it takes and the new spectrum of sounds that emanate from it. The Ash aesthetic can be summed up in one record, Runaway Train, which is a found recording of the conversations that took place between the Canadian driver of a runaway train and his dispatcher from March of 1984. It's an incredibly suspenseful document to listen to as the train goes hurtling out of control while the driver decides to stay on board and go down with the ship. However, the interest for the contemporary listener lies not in the narrative, but in the incredible array of noises that are part of this old tape. Long stretches of the piece are incomprehensible and translate to most ears as sheer "noise," but upon closer listening, the accidental confluence of speech and analogue screeches make for a completely new listening experience; it's the sounds between the sounds--the negative space of sound--that count here. Ash also took open submissions from the public for odd spoken word pieces and came up with some amazing finds. One of the oddest was a tape smuggled out of a death row prison cell which contained a prisoner's private stream-of-consciousness confessions moments before execution, which they appropriately released only on cassette.

Redefinition of borders--musical, noise, psychological, or geographical--are high on Ash's agenda. To that end, the label has released a 63 minute national anthem of a conceptual country called Elgaland-Vargaland. The borders of the county encompass every international body of water and all the borders of all the nations in the world. Elgaland-Vargaland exists on the web (http://www.it.kth.se/KREV/menu.html) and materializes in various galleries from time to time. The anthem, composed by Leif Elggren and CM von Hausswolff, is a fantastic piece of work that manages to synthesize every national anthem into one generic national anthem; it's at once optimistic and militaristic and reads as a perfect update to Stockhausen's 1960s opus Hymnen. Included in the disc is an application for citizenship (anyone can join) and a couple of stickers with the E-V flag on it (Ash's headquarters--Harding's house--serves as E-V's British embassy).

A third label, Or, was founded in 1998 with Harding's partner Russell Haswell. Or has gathered an impressive group of artists that traffic in digital and electronic noises that share an affinity with Runaway Train. While working closely with the Austrian Mego label, Or turned up a group of kids in their early 20s who call themselves Farmers Manual. Earlier this year they released a stunning record called Explorers We that was composed entirely of digital scraps and samples derived from computers that they built themselves. They're the ultimate technological noisemakers, creating work so radical that it redefines what we normally think of as computer music. In a slightly more analogue vein, the British group Disinformation uses sources such as arc welders and alternating current electricity to create fantastic drones; the result is the sound of electricity so pure and powerful, that it makes you feel as though you've just jammed a bobby pin into a socket.

Employing the latest technology is part of Touch / Ash / Or's agenda and the most recent release by Gescom takes the form of a MiniDisc. The next Farmers Manual release is going to be an MPEG3 disc that will contain eleven hours of music culled from live performances on it. The label is also planning a number of future projects that span from Philip Jeck violently abusing vinyl to a spoken word record by a professor, Dr. Coghill, explaining why cell phone radio waves are hazardous to your health. And, as always, they're looking for weird spoken word recordings that will probably find their way to disc sometime in the future (he encourages your submissions: ash@touch.demon.co.uk).

* * *

With all this activity going on in London, it's shocking to learn that there's only one place in town to buy the stuff. These Records is located in a papered-over storefront on a quiet residential street near the Elephant and Castle tube stop (they are so hell-bent on obscurity that I had to ask the grocery store on the corner where the record shop was). Anti-commercial doesn't begin to describe the attitude--the shop is only open two and a half hours a week; by comparison, they make New York's Other Music look like Tower Records. It's not that they don't have any customers--3 people stopped by without purchasing anything on the rainy Saturday that I visited--it's just that they prefer the privacy that mail order provides (they're not interested in getting email). These is run by two brothers, Howard and Andrew Jacques who, for many years, ran the business end of Recommended Records distribution. After a falling out with Recommended in the late 80s, the brothers turned the distribution into a co-op (which ultimately fell apart) leading them to open These records in the early 90s. It's a well-stocked store, containing nothing but experimental music. The brothers are happy to spin a disc for your or suggest something that's recently caught their ear. Occasionally, they have live performances in the store, many of which have been caught on a wonderful compilation that they released, At Close Quarters. The disc features many heavies from several avant British disciplines; Steve Beresford, David Toop, Morphogenesis and Charles Hayward all make top-notch appearances.

While These has released about a dozen discs on their own label, the brother's real interest is in the legendary London band This Heat. This Heat, an experimental rock band, who melded trance-like rhythms and tape loops into politically-charged compositions, existed for a few short years in the late 70s / early 80s. They made only two LPs and a few EPs but their influence (and subsequent cult following), has been enormous. The Jacques brothers see their role as the keepers of the This Heat flame and keep in print many valuable documents that otherwise would have fallen into obscurity. They've been spending their time remastering much of This Heat's discography and a few years ago released an invaluable disc that collected all of the band's Peel sessions from 1977. In between remastering projects, they keep busy promoting the career of This Heat drummer Charles Hayward, who's recently been collaborating with Japanese musicians such as Keiji Haino and Otomo Yoshihide.

The fact that there is only one record store in London servicing this community underlies the sad fact that this stuff will never have much of a broad-based appeal. Marginality provides both a certain type of freedom and an insular protection. On the downside, it has all the glamour of an ingrown hair, with petty arguments further dividing the already winnowed ranks. On the upside, there's a wide berth for creativity to develop in its own time, far from the pressures of sales and charts. And because the financial stakes are generally null, these musicians feel that there ain't much to lose. Anything goes, which helps the musical to advance in its radicality, particularly in the case of sampling and plunderphonics, when the musicians can be pretty much be sure that no one will bother to sue them for copyright infringement. As evidenced by ReR and Faust, this sort of stuff does eventually find its way into the mainstream; it's just a shame that it generally takes a quarter of a century for it to happen.

 

Contact:

John Wall (Utterpsalm Records): utterpsalm@1way.co.uk

Clive Graham (Paradigm Discs): paradigm@gn.apc.org

ReR / Recommended Records: megacorp@dial.pipex.com

Touch / Ash / Or: http://www.touch.demon.co.uk

These Records: 112 Brook Drive, London, SE11 4TQ, England

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