Dave Allen’s Silence

Improvisations / Collaborations, The Serralves Foundation, Porto 2011

by Rui Eduardo Paes (music critic, essayist)

‘The truth is, there is no room for a score when an improvised piece is at stake – my intervention here is merely conceptual…’, claims Dave Allen, one of today’s most idiosyncratic artists, whose creations always include a musical element. For the series Improvisations / Collaborations, he was invited to create a graphic structure working as a platform for improvisation by Zeena Parkins (harp, electric harp) and Chris Corsano (drums), two improvisors whose aesthetic range has led them to a wide variety of musical situations, including a group by so-called ‘intelligent pop’ singer Bjork, and to thereby establish a very special complicity. The broad spectrum covered by the two musicians corresponds ideally to the scope of Allen’s action, which feeds off rock, as well as on contemporary music and ‘new music’. Allen’s approach, in this specific case of improvisation, ‘was just to establish a set of sketches that will only gain cohesion during rehearsals’.

Those sketches consist of ‘small descriptive texts or drawings – some adapted from former works – suggesting a method or a structure’. These parameters, which he considers ‘very simple’, usually ensue from remixes ‘of the emotive timings and dynamics’ of well known pop and rock songs in which each note is repeated for a second time. Somme of the images result from the same processual duplicity, having been obtained by using photocopier sand mirrors: ‘I used reflection as a technique in other works and it also seemed appropriate for this occasion, as I think that in a concert we are constantly listening to a mirroring or a correlation between the musicians and some meaning should be derived from that circumstance. Some f the images in this “score-in-progress” were made using mirror balls and Andy Warhol’s double Elvis. Some guitar tablature from the album “Daydream Nation” by Sonic Youth are also included’.

Improvisation with rehearsals? – Precisely, because there is a concept that must be converted into a praxis… For Corsano, although he considers that there is no reason to separate conceptualism and creative spontaneity (‘I even think they can influence one another in interesting ways’), this is unfamiliar terrain: ‘In fact, this situation is different from what I usually do since there is a score that was previously prepared. Which is to say, improvisation will not be total, although the structure is open to new variables, which ensure unforeseeable results in the global mix. As far as my personal contribution is concerned, I will interpret Dave’s graphic notation while reacting to whatever Zeena will do. On the one hand, I will deal with data that was established to a certain extent and, on the the other, with elements that are constantly emerging. The final product of the concert will be a relationship between these two frameworks’.

Similarly to what usually takes place with the installations, the videos, the CDs, the performances and the paintings of Dave Allen, this trio project also fonds reference in a musical concert piece: Alvin Lucier’s ‘Carbon Copies’, which premiered in 1989 by a trip formed by Anthony Braxton, David Rosenblum and the same William Winant who will participate in this cycle in Serralves. ‘I came across “Carbon Copies” while researching this project and was immediately interested by its structure and by the processes that Lucier implements when introducing recordings in a live situation. The composition requires the performers to pay attention to the recordings made indoors and outdoors and to play with them. I like this formula and suggested Zeena and Chris to perform with one another’s records or with the recordings they would bring to Porto,in a sort of pre-collaborative collaboration. This is yet to be tested, to see how it works. In practical terms my notation is very abstract, I am trying that it does not become a very fixed score but a performative description of possible intentions’, Allen clarifies.

An enthusiastic consumer of recorded music, Dave Allen thinks that a record works as ‘our first introduction to a musician’, and being a guitarist himself he likes the idea of a ‘communal listening of records’ involving the audience and the musicians. ‘I am interested in investigating the way in which that influences a performance, namely, in how it affects what the participants play and how the spectators listen’, explains the Stockholm based Scotsman. At any rate, a distance is sought vis-à-vis Alvin Lucier’s piece: ‘In this context it would not make any sense to merely interpret it; there are many interesting aspects in it regarding writing for improvisation. Actually much like Frederic Rzewski’s “Composition For Two Players”, which is another model of what we try to do. What will come out of this I do not know; I do not know at all what to expect’. His only certainty is knowing the abilities of Zeena Parkins and Chris Corsano: ‘They are very connected ideologically and are both flexible’.

The harpist sees her instrument as ‘a sound machine with unlimited possibilities’, translated either through the application of extended techniques, many of which are created by her, and mobile preparations (with clips, nails, rubber, velvet bows, metal objects, glass, hair-clips, disposable strings, etc) or through electronic processing that include guitar effect pedals and a range of hard and software. With a trajectory on the fringes of rock and jazz, as well as ‘new music’ straddling the erudite and the experimental – as her reconstructions of Claude Debussy’s ‘La Mer’ illustrate – her name has been associated to major figures, such as John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Fred Frith, Butch Morris, Nels Cline, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, Don Byron, Jim O’Rourke, Pauline Oliveros and Ikue Mori. As for Corsano, he became renowned as one of the most imaginative and irreverent drummers on the planet, both for his construction of textures and for his well-defined metrics and beats, in the areas of post-free jazz and free-improvisation (with Paul Flaherty, Wally Shoup, Evan Parker, Greg Kelly, Steve Swell and C. Spencer Yeah, among others), and of neo-psychedelic jam-rock (with Sunburned Hand of the Man, Six Organs of Admittance, Vibracathedral Orchestra, Cold Bleak Heat, Rangda and Dimension X).

The elasticity of Parkin’s and Corsano’s approaches is the greatest advantage to Dave Allen’s visionary dissolution of boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture. In ‘Live Version’ (1993), the then called ‘rock artist’ worked on Led Zeppelin’s hit ‘Stairway to Heaven’; ‘Song Drawings’ (1996-2005) consisted of a diagrammatic transposition of veritable hymns of several generations, such as ‘Search and Destroy’ by the Stooges, ‘Blank Generation’ by Richard Hell and the Voidoids, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana and ‘Highway to Hell’ by AC / DC; ‘This is the Score’ (2005) was a revisiting of the punk universe and ‘Canon to the Hammer of the Gods’ was inspired by ‘Dance with the Devil’, by Cozy Powell. Also, a good portion of his ‘concepts’ has intersected both the ingredients and the iconography of rock and roll and so-called ‘serious’ music. ‘Divine Intervention / New Wave of New Wave’ (2003) portrayed an audition for an imaginary indie band in the Velvet Underground – Sex Pistols – Sonic Youth lineage but with the dodecaphonic arrangement and a citation of ‘Kammer Symphonie’, by Hans Eisler. In ‘One Way, Another Way, Then Any Other Way’ (2006) we come across the Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ and a sequence of notes from Frederic Rzewski’s ‘Les Moutons du Panurge’. ‘Untitled’ (2007) mixed the themes ‘Cowboy Song’ and ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’, by Thin Lizzy with Terry Riley’s ‘In C’, and Robert Ashley’s ‘Landscape with Terry Riley’.

In cases similar to ‘Carbon Copies’, Allen plunged headlong into the ‘erudite’ universe, apparent already in ‘The Mirrored Catalogue d’Oiseaux’ (2002-2006), in which Olivier Messiaen’s piano pieces inspired by birdsong were played to canaries so that they would reproduce them in their own way, first in the space of an art galley and later outside as they were released back to nature ‘with the intention of enriching the sound landscape’. In any case, these procedures are not the most fundamental in Dave Allen’s oeuvre. What seems to justify his games of translation of the musical into the visual and vice-versa is the phenomenon of perception, especially the perception of silence, namely ‘silence as the voice of listening’, in the words of Stan Link, or as a crack in which perception is confronted with itself’, in Harald Fricke’s view.

Allen’s silence is not absence of sound or the reflection of inactivity, but something that was produced and intended. His installations with recordings of empty concert halls and studios (such as ‘Hansa by the Wall Studios’, in which he recorded the ambient of the studio where David Bowie recorded the two albums of his Berlin period) were only apparently silent – in fact, what was heard was the ‘magic nothingness’ of air particles colliding with one another; a spatial sound object rather than acoustic void. In one of his experiments in this area (‘For the Dogs’, 2002), Dave Allen recorded the graphic transcription of a composition by Erik Satie, ‘Véritables Préludes Flasques (pour un Chien)’, distributing the sounds of frequencies between 18 000 and 36 000 hertz. Since sounds over 17 000 hertz cannot be perceived by the human ear, unlike the animal in the title of the composition we hear nothing. In another case (‘Inverted Oh-Ton, 2004), he called upon a DJ to use two vinyl records of the Oh-Ton Ensemble interpreting Rzewski, Eckart Beinke and Kirsten Reese, with one of the decks playing the LP at regular speed while the other inverted the sound waves. By synchronizing the musical tracks and neutralizing the waves, the outcome was silence. The sounds were there, but had become phantoms.

For Harald Fricke, this approach parallels Roland Barthes’ ‘absolute zero’ since ‘the symbols of music and art practically collapse into one another to form an almost entropic unit’. This ‘quasi-entropy’ is the key to understand the particular world of Dave Allen – his art is not simply musical in theme, but focusses on the disjunctive factors between the aural and the visual, which at a time of artistic syncretism, reinstates the consideration of the differences between the disciplines that deal with time and space. Relationship is insistently sought, but only to expose the elements of disorder and dysfunction that such encounters provide. In that regard, his proposals are unquestionably more radical than Christian Marclay’s. Allen seems to question himself as to what remains of music in a visual creation that has it as its reference. And while the answer is left open, this does not only mean it is left to the spectator’s judgement, as that would be a dubious conclusion. In the context of this partnership with Zeena Parkins and Chris Corsano, the ambiguity that is sought is more finely delimited: where does musical improvisation begin and end when there is an imagery score, to be necessarily read subjectively, and a sound recording that also articulates as a score.

Other questions (cracks) could be raised (exposed): one accompanies the evolution of non-conventional notations and has to do with its effective character of determination or orientation of what is played; another concerns the very nature of improvisational practice, always circumstantially confronted with its negation. It is therefore to be expected that the fissures that so interest Allen will appear in the zone of confluence of the coordinates present in this collaboration, silence emanating from them even as mere interstice. A Cagean silence, pregnant with content, a speculative foundation of the art of this manipulator of the senses, and at least as decisive as what will be actually heard. The ideologist of this proposal will not be on stage, but his presence will be felt. As we may deafeningly guess…

Transl: Rui Cascais Parada