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visualacousmatique | MLA | Press | words by Brian Morton
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Words by Brian Morton
author, broadcaster, critic and journalist



Joe Gallivan / Paz Caplin.


It was John Cage who finally pinned down the ‘impossibility’ of contemporary music, suggesting that we no longer listen to it, merely listen to a lecture about it. The ascendancy of the liner note, the biographical profile, and most treacherously the review has made us deaf, and wilfully so. We reach for preformed meaning, a shape of words that somehow seems to approximate the experience we have had in the concert hall or in front of our hi-fi system. This shouldn’t be read as the masochistic self-denial of someone who has spent more than a fair proportion of his working life trying to find words that make sense of music. There is already an unhealthily large literature of disdain for critics. Most of the major composers have at some point expressed suspicion, hatred, contempt for the newspaper men who form quick opinions on opening night and the scholars, who have the score in their hands, but not in their heads. And yet, musicians and critics are straightforwardly connected by a love of music and by a desire to communicate that love. The honest critic knows he will never be able to express, whether in densely technical language or high-flown metaphor, the essence of a piece of music. But then every honest musician – and there are more than a few who are not – recognises that he will never be able to create or express the transcendence he is seeking with mere instrumental sounds. An exquisitely scored phrase is no less approximate a reach for the eternal as a paragraph of analysis or praise is to that same phrase. Sometimes the words complete what the composer has not.

There are musicians who decline meaning almost entirely. We often guiltily refer to them as ‘neglected’ or ‘underappreciated’, not so much because their work doesn’t reliably deliver a quick stab of joy but because we have little information about who they are and how they do it, no biographical or technical footholds to make safe an ascent on the mystery of creation. Such musicians (and similar figures exist in other art forms, though they struggle harder to maintain an ego-less reserve) simply don’t take part in public discourse about the work, or they remove themselves physically from the metropolitan centres where opinion tends to be formed, or they develop a practice in which the means and method of creation remains enigmatic and unstated.

It is difficult to find anything in print about percussionist and synthesizer pioneer Joe Gallivan that does not describe him as less celebrated than he ought to be. Many profiles point out – with just a hint of self-justifying reproach - that by removing himself to Hawaii for most of the 1990s he somehow denied himself recognition on the contemporary scene. Gallivan tends to be observed in glimpses, testing Robert Moog’s new electronic drum, taking part with Larry Young in the rapturous post-Lifetime jazz-rock of Love Cry Want, or splintering rock, electro-acoustic music, and jazz to indistinguishable fragments on Electronic Percussion/Electric Stereo Guitar with the no less ‘neglected’ and ‘under-appreciated’ Gary Smith. There is even a tendency to describe Gallivan’s in ‘almost’ or ‘might have been’ terms, putting undue emphasis on the fact that he was once asked to replace Robert Wyatt in Soft Machine. Frank Sinatra almost played the lead in Dirty Harry. Harrison Ford and Gene Hackman almost played Hannibal Lector . . .  Gallivan’s career has been no less full and varied for having taken place off the editorial pages. Among musicians, his reputation is secure. Audiences instinctively recognise his passionate authority, even if they don’t have a ready label for where he fits into the current hierarchies.

The same is true, and almost transcendently so, for Pazel Yacob Caplin, whose recent work has taken the idea of a synaesthetic unity between the aural and visual to new lengths, and who has then even more boldly attached that rare but not unheard of quality to the ‘acousmatique’ ideal of separating the aural experience of music from any external clue as to its production. At its simplest, this can involve unorthodox articulation on a regular instrument behind a curtain or screen, or an amplified realisation at some distance from the point of creation, or in Caplin’s case a bold use of the radically democratised internet to make available a series of works, or actions, or bids on the transcendent.

If Caplin’s name is initially unfamiliar, he may be better known as the bassist and cellist Tony Moore, a visionary solo performer on Matchless Recordings and a uncategorisable collaborator with Catalan artist Josep Vallribera, metal sculptor Steve Hubback, performance artist Chris Sacker, Pietro Fortuna and others. There is no greater handicap to realistic reputation than childhood virtuosity – ask Herbie Hancock, who now more or less dismisses questions about his youthful precocity as a classical performer – but Caplin comes from that awkward place. As a classical performer, he attended the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall, studying cello and clarinet, but declined to follow the orthodox classical route and worked professionally as a bassist and cellist for many years, playing commercial music, jazz and improvisation. Much as Gallivan has often been reduced to a list of celebrity associations – Donald Byrd! Eric Dolphy! Gil Evans!! – so Caplin has sometimes been cast as a bit-player on the contemporary improvising scene, cropping up alongside more critically resonant names, like Keith Tippett’s, Evan Parker’s, Rutherford’s  . . . This is another part of the game that critical rhetoric plays, a vast nervous group hug that assigns importance according to who you’ve known rather than what you’ve done.

Gallivan’s contact book and credits are equally impressive, though his studentship with electronic composer Vladimir Ussachevsky, to whom he turned after a rapturous first experience of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s music, may perhaps impress the classical critics more than the jazz/improve/rock claque. The unifying characteristic of these men, and perhaps the reason why they make such compelling and indivisible music is that both Gallivan and Caplin seem entirely self-dependent. Neither belongs to an identifiable ‘school’ or movement. Gallivan’s drumming can recall anyone from Zutty Singleton and Dave Tough to Carl Palmer or Robert Wyatt, which is to say that it resembles no one but himself. Caplin’s cello playing sometimes has the low urgent throb of Wilbur Ware or Charles Mingus, but it is so identifiably string instruments he plays, and with such an instinct for their higher overtones that one also immediately thinks of Tortelier or Rostropovich. Since both men began to embrace electronic processes, the usual limits of instrumentality were breached and even these notionally flattering but largely meaningless associations were left far behind.

I would like to be able to say that what further unites them is a common root in jazz improvisation, that sense of music as a sequence of actions taken in the moment and driven by the tension between individual and ensemble values. It makes absolutely no sense to speak of their music as a dialogue, still less as a conversation. As any civilised person knows, and these are both essentially civilised men (a very different quality to merely ‘cultured’), conversation depends on alternation and on respectful silence while the other is speaking. Gallivan and Caplin are engaged in something more profound than that, an interaction that is meant at some level to provide a platform for significance without necessarily yielding it or reifying it. There’s no coincidence in that their main instruments usually and pragmatically demarcate the ‘rhythm section’ of a jazz group, the utilitarian core that provides the takeoff point for horns or a voice. Gallivan and Caplin have almost redefined that function and shown – Gallivan through his imaginative deployment of electronics, Caplin similarly but with the added focus of his ‘visualacousmatique’ experiments – that such a function also contains the possibility of its own transcendence. This is also a historically specific endeavour. The implied hierarchy of the jazz group is not at all what casual listeners – and that includes many of the critics – have assumed it to be. All the great evolutions in jazz have taken place in the ‘rhythm section’. Trumpeters and saxophonists generally carry out the message to the world, but even they and their fellow leaders recognise that in the choice and nature of bassist and drummer the music is (re-) defined: Coltrane signs up Jimmy Garrison, and replaces Elvin Jones with Rashied Ali; Miles Davis mystifyingly signs up Michael Henderson or Foley. Joe Gallivan and P. Y. Caplin understand the primacy of what they do and in working together, as on the "MLA" recordings without other voices, they show how the aural foundations of jazz contain the possibility of a transcendence every bit as radical as that proposed by the most elevated of wind or keyboard innovators. There is no key to listening to this music. It has no message to offer other than the immanence of the spiritual in the creative moment.


Brian Morton (2010)

second column