I always hoped that my debut on BBC Radio 3 would be rather different. The plan was that one day, during one of my routine stakings out of the Alpine Symphony, the designated conductor would find him- or herself struck down by a malevolantly fluid form of colitis on the way to the podium and I would leap into the breach to save the day, heroically and coincidentally on national radio.
In the event, it was a hope that turned out to be forlorn.
I eventually turned up on Radio 3 as part of a late-night airing of German experimentalist Hans-Joachim Hespos‘s HOPSzweisätzig recorded at the Belfast Sonorities Festival in 1996. Playing basketball. Alongside me was my long-time new music co-conspirator, the highly-regarded contemporary pianist Ian Pace. On medicine ball. The nation’s first aural glimpse of me was the sound of catastrophic ball control loss among a forest of music stands and of Charles Hazlewood failing to stifle a guffaw in the front row.
At the end of the piece, the composer enjoins the performer to launch his or her basketball high over the heads of the audience and I did just that, my ball describing a beautiful and parabolic arc whose trajectory crossed the x-axis at a point precisely occupied by the bonce of the music critic of the Belfast Telegraph.
My point being: when it comes to contemporary music, I have form and so when 2001 Turner Prize winner Martin Creed contacted me recently to ask if I’d be interested in recording some of his orchestral music with the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, I thought this was a very good idea indeed.
Our first meeting took place at Martin’s studio in East London. There were no chairs (I suspect they were all here) so we stood up and discussed recording strategy. Much of Martin’s music, like his visual art, comprises single blocks of sound, simple gestures or processes and his pieces are often made up of a series of these elements put together consecutively to form larger structures. Others, like Mindtrap (the first piece heard in the film at the top of this page), rely on simply repeating a single such gesture ad libitum. Like the art world which can struggle to cope if cryptically encoded messages aren’t being tweezered out of urinals all the time, it became apparent that some performers of Martin’s music had been reluctant to accept the simple and direct nature of the scores and this was what Martin wanted to address before the recording sessions.
“This bit”, said Martin pointing to a passage for tutti orchestra in his Work No 955, “is basically a trill which gradually gets slower and slower until it grinds to a complete halt.”
It’s a simple enough concept but successive layers of performers and editors had inserted a series of metronome marks prescribing precise tempi along the way so that the instinct for performers was now to slow down the trill in a series of sharply graded steps. Playing the music simply was what everyone seemed to be finding most difficult. When we got to the recording session, we solved this by saying to the orchestra “This bit is basically a trill which gradually gets slower and slower until it grinds to a complete halt” and they all said “OK” and then played that.
While Martin studied classical music as a child, he approaches his music work as much from the worlds of visual art and rock as anywhere else. Here he is with his band performing the limpidly titled Fuck Off:
As a “spare pair of ears”, Martin brought with him Andy Knowles of the band Franz Ferdinand who himself is a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art. This approach, coupled with the fact that he sees no clear distinction between his visual work and his musical work, means that his orchestral writing is not only free of classical convention (violins aren’t divided into firsts and seconds and we had to import a ukulele player – a totally alien concept in the Czech Republic) but that the orchestra is viewed as an artistic material in the same way that chairs, stairs or athletes are viewed in other works of his.
One label that is invariably flung at the Turner Prize and its winners is “pretentious” and certainly Martin can have been no stranger to that description. Of all works that have won the Turner Prize, surely none can have attracted more controversy than his Work No. 227: The lights going on and off. Working with him on this project, though, I was left feeling that the reality was rather different. Martin’s work is direct and often very simple and simplicity is something that the art world and the music industry often struggle to deal with far more than they do with multi-layered, multi-dimensional complexity.
What struck me after we had finished the recordings was that, if anything, this is what experimental music can look like when the layers of pretension are stripped away.
(I wonder if he’d like my basketball.)
Martin Creed’s new album will be released later this year. Watch this space for details.