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(Affirmative Music in Negative Times)


Is it easier to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’? I don’t know anymore, I really don’t. What I do know is that during the guest editorship of Parallax 56 on my chosen theme of YES! I said ‘no’ a lot more than I said ‘yes’. And I was not the only one…oh no! Weirdly, I’m still not sure what the opposite of affirmation is (not negation, that’s far too obvious), but through a series of de-affirmations let us say the music premiered here never found its way into the journal as intended. However, not to be out-‘no’d’, ways were found to affirm this affirmative music: a collective ‘no’ to ‘no’, a classic double negation that, I believe, captures the affirmative spirit of all art, even (or perhaps especially) the most beleaguered.

As with the Parallax ‘call for papers’, a group of composers/musicians were invited to submit one or more pieces of work as a response to the affirmative brief, one intent on enunciating a ‘big YES!’

So, what might this big ‘yes’ look like? Well admittedly it could look very bad, a ghastly regime of agreement, where a quagmire of consensus sucks all and sundry into an undifferentiated community of care and enabling; where the warm glow of an assumed oneness replaces the searing heat of endless strife. But surely there are more interesting ways of saying ‘yes’, neither contradictory nor consensual but contestational, interruptive rather than responsive, the affirmation rather than the negation of difference.

Happily, as the music here presented emphatically confirms, this big (OK, not so big) ‘yes’ is far from consensual and even further from being undifferentiated. There is no banal cheeriness here or any evangelical promotion of ‘causes’ or ‘positions’ that effectively deflect affirmation away from itself into the breathless positivity demanded by the market place. As the written contributions to Parallax 56 demonstrate, affirmation takes many forms, and so it is with this music where saying ‘yes’ opens out on to infinite difference, while the big ‘no’ tirelessly attempts to close everything down again. Terry O’Connor et al., in their piece for the journal, say this much better than I ever could:

‘Shall I tell you what yes means? Yes, means no resistance. Yes means going with the current. Yes means lying down when it rains, and standing up when it’s sunny. I lived with a man whose ‘no’ was in the middle of his heart, whose ‘no’ kept him thin as a bone. ‘No’ is pain, and ‘Yes’ is pleasure. ‘No’ is man, and ‘Yes’ is nature. ‘Yes’ is laughter, and ‘No’ is torture. ‘Yes’ is old age, and ‘No’ is early death. I hate ‘No’. ‘No’ is misery and lonely nights. Do you follow, or shall I say it again?’

YES CD booklet

Images taken from the YES cd booklet, designed by Fred Swist, 2010


The Music

Track 1: Tesselations II for Nine Singers (exerpt). Veryan Weston

Veryan writes: There is here a continuous notated composition that runs parallel with any improvising. This functions as a 'thread' whose lengths are also determined by the length of the improvisation/s, so the thread is designed to create an affirmative background or foundation which also helps to form the character of the improvisation/s which are solos or duets most often. But singers of the thread can also be affected by the improvisations (e.g. volume, articulation, variation of the lines). The singers have cultural connections with various places (Northern Iraq, Armenia, Serbia, Italy, Canada, the Tyrol and Hertfordshire) and traces of this can be heard in their improvisations. Real proof of affirmation comes when an artistic project is initiated and/or funded by the artists themselves. Arnold Schoenberg once said that 'art comes from necessity', and when there are situations where the artists make the work themselves, for themselves, then this is an affirmation based on a primal impulse and real need to do the work. The reasons can be many: self-affirmation, sanity, self-expression, projection, reflection, the therapy of labour, and pure, adulterous Dionysian celebration.


Track 2: Af-firm-attion: Forever. Gary Peters and Veryan Weston

Affirmation has many aspects, but at its root is the concept of the root itself. A ‘yes’, not to this or that, but to the ground beneath all secondary affirmations: af-firm-ation. In this sense self-affirmation, far from being the performative venting of private passions, is the affirmation the self itself receives from the ground that holds it in place. Far too literally, this piece uses the drone provided by Veryan’s piano (you guessed, the root!) to launch a series of personalised guitaristic clichés that are always there and available and which, once entered into, want to go on forever and ever and ever… Cliché’s are self-affirming to the extent that we are willing to become other than we are, again and again.


Track 3: Zurich One (exerpt). Simon Picard and Christian Wolfarth

Simon and Christian declined my invitation to provide a text to accompany their music. It is an act of violence to speak for the other when they have made the decision not to (the violence of the critic), so I will not do so. What I will say is that this is one of six live radio broadcasts they sent me for consideration. Each piece (of which I chose two) appear to be completely, or almost completely improvised. The importance of this from my point of view is that the affirmative nature of music does not only concern its end—what it is trying to affirm and who receives this affirmation—but it beginning. When speaking above of affirmation as ground or root, I would also want to consider this in terms of the source or origin of the work of art. For me, improvisation (particularly ‘free-improvisation’) is the purest enactment of the beginning of art and the affirmation of the leap from nothing to something. That’s why I love the beginning of this piece and, in particular, the suggestion of infinite circularity that the rotary-breathed opening section affirms.


Track 4: Fallen. David Lancaster

David writes: ‘Fallen’ was composed in January 2010 to a text which combines words from the Sufi mystic poet Rumi with an ancient Persian proverb, both of which seem to exude a quietly persuasive optimism.  Two soprano soloists stand either side of the SATB chorus.  ‘Fallen’ was first performed in Canterbury Cathedral by York St John University Chamber Choir in February 2010.


Track 5: K’un. Ralph Bateman

Ralph writes: This is one of a set of 8 TRIGRAMS AND A FINALE for Piano and Chinese Percussion, composed for the Chinese percussionist Peng-Yu and the Austrian-Czech pianist Wolfgang Mastnak. The whole work will receive its première in Shanghai in September 2010. K’un is the female principle, the nature and the earth, and represents “yes” in the sense of acceptance rather than assertion, but that acceptance is to be positively asserted; there is no sense of resignation.


Track 6: Ear to Earth: 14-4C_SW7mph_47%_1015mb. Markus Jones

Markus writes:  The acknowledgement of working with environmental data as a non speech communication tool, then to convert biospheric statistics into frequencies of sound.

Sounds pretty affirmative to me! (I think).


Track 7: Affirming Solitude, Gary Peters

Just in case anyone thought that affirmative music had to be positive (a common misconception), this piece explores the deeply negative consequences that can result from persistent and irrepressible affirmation. This music is not about solitude, that would have resulted in the affected loneliness all too common in the psycho-dramatic world of ‘the artist’. No, this music (without any hope of success) is intent on capturing the solitude that is produced by affirmation. Crucial to an understanding of this—the predicament of the affirmer—is the recognition that saying ‘yes’ does not lead to agreement or commitment but to sophism, and the tragedy of sophism is that the self is estranged not only from every other, but from itself: the ‘essential solitude’. Such are the hazards of affirmation. And the music is pretty ugly too.


Track 8: Threshold: Fleshfold. Rob Wilsmore

Rob writes: This extract of a work for choreographer Vida Midgelow is constructed from a recording session of Note-abiltiy, all material used is from the moments directly preceding the ‘performance’ (whispers, hummed starting notes, the removal of shoes, the occasional collapse into hysterics). To accompany Intermezzo 2 [see Parallax 56] these moments of non-performance are here made to perform as the artwork; each selected sound does nothing more than repeat right then left on the stereo perspective building up antiphonal polyrhythms with other sounds undergoing the same treatment. (Best listened to with headphones – better still with earplugs).


Track 9: Zurich Two (excerpt). Simon Picard and Christian Wolfarth

Nothing to add except to draw attention to the wonderful bugle-call opening and the extraordinarily floating percussion of Christian Wolfarth…so refreshing not to have the ubiquitous bass drum pedal bringing all of this flight to earth. Nietzsche would have been so proud of them, as would Deleuze: a veritable ‘line of flight’.


Track 10: Finchcocks. Veryan Weston and Jon Rose

Veryan writes: a recording made at Finchcocks near Goudhurst in Kent, the piece explores free improvisations involving 'period' instruments which were more than just antique. Ways of working together were very much determined by the limitations of space, acoustic, time and the idiosyncratic nature of each keyboard. However, far from being restrictive, the situation provided a very affirmative series of parameters to work inside. So, as with many creative situations, new boundaries provided the artists with the very structures in which free improvisation was stimulated. If anything the boundaries were expanded, as each keyboard possessed many unusual timbres, colours and different 'touches' compared to the modern standard grand piano, which has become homogenised.


Track 11: Oh Yeah! Gary Peters

Although its C&W heritage is not much in evidence here, this piece is built around the signature riff of the greatest country guitarist James Burton (Elvis, Gram Parsons, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris…). Not the opening phrase, by the way, but the repeating figure that emerges beneath it and then persists throughout. This incessance is intended to affirm something very different to the dubious self-affirmation that dominates western rock guitar, and which is ironically overlaid here from the third repeat on. Over-indulging the ‘expressive’ potential of the wammy-bar counter-posed to the mechanical repetition of a collective aural tradition was all part of this irreducible affirmative dualism.


Track 12: Sanctus (live). Rob Wilsmore

Rob writes: From Techno-Mass (2002-ongoing). A Live performance given at the University of Chester (c.2004) performed by Note-ability and conducted by Caroline Palmer. I stumbled upon this recording whilst searching my files for the Intermezzo 2 example, I had thought it erased at birth due to its mild earthing buzz but it survived and is here sold as if a porcelain second (the pattern misaligned, the glaze uneven). This is a document of a performance, a remnant, but should you be inclined to sing along, dance even, then maybe its status might shift to become the artwork itself?


Track 13: She Won’t Say No. Gary Peters

Written, recorded, overdubbed and mixed in two hours from beginning to end, with my daughter Isabelle singing along (she didn’t want me to use that take, pity). Sometimes being affirmative is sooooo easy. But oh so rarely!


The Musicians

Ralph Bateman: currently Senior Lecturer and University Director of Music at York St John University. He studied music, specialising in composition, at the University of Nottingham and at Kings College, London (with Nicola Lefanu). He also studied singing with Pamela Cooke and Derek Hammond-Stroud, gaining an LRAM in the teaching of singing. As well as singing, he also plays piano, harpsichord, organ, violin, viola and ukulele. His compositions include works commissioned for the Nottingham Festival and the Academy of St Olaves Orchestra (among others) and performances of recent works have been in York, London, Munich and Ludwigsburg. 8 TRIGRAMS AND A FINALE for Chinese Percussion and Piano is currently in rehearsal in Shanghai. He has worked as a conductor with several choirs and contemporary music groups, and recently conducted 400 singers in a performance of Tallis’s 40-part motet in York Minster at the climax of the 2009 Church Universities and Colleges Choir Festival.

David Lancaster: is head of the Music Programme at York St John University. His music has been played at most of the major venues and festivals in the UK, by such ensembles as the Kronos String Quartet, Electric Phoenix and Black Dyke Band. His music has been used for theatre and television but in recent years he has written extensively for voices, brass and composing for dance.  He draws upon many sources for his work, including popular styles from around the world but counts Harrison Birtwistle and Stravinsky amongst his strongest influences. David has won many awards for his work, including the Michael Tippett prize and the LCM Centenery Award for ‘Insula Dulcamara’. He is currently composer in residence with Laudamus.

Markus Jones: Designer of sound and phonographer, educated at the RNCM and the University of York, in both composition and electroacoustics. Largely focusing on site-specific and installation work by simply offsetting our normal perceptions.

Given that the aim is to replicate a subjective experience of the surrounding sonic environment, collecting sound based on its original origin before twisting it into an interpretation of the original source. Projects include spending two weeks within the Amazon Rainforest, collecting sounds ranging from insects, birds and giant frogs, working alongside the Emergency Fire Service, creating an audio piece based around the use of a number of hoax telephone calls made from around the Manchester area throughout 2008, and spending a year as an Artist-in-Residence at York St John University, creating an audio acoustic interpretation of life on the campus, using a mixture of lo-tech means and digital plugins. His work has been presented in Canada the United States and across Europe including Belgium, Holland, Italy, Croatia, Germany, and Austria. Appearing at Sightsonic, Toronto Electroacousic Symposium, International Conference of Electronic Art and Lab. Buridda.

Gary Peters: Is a musician and Professor of Critical and Cultural Theory at York St John University. His most recent book was The Philosophy of Improvisation published by Chicago University Press (2009). He is currently working on a book entitled: Yes. No, Don’t Know also to be published by Chicago University Press.

Simon Picard: Tenor, Soprano and Alto Sax, founding member in 1976 of the award-winning band ‘Stinky Winkles’, he has gone on to become one of the leading figures in the British and European improvised jazz scene. Having recorded many CDs, his cv includes performances and recordings with a multitude of internationally renowned musicians including: Charlie Watts, Paul Dunmall, Paul Rutherford, Keith Tippett, Paul Rogers, Elton Dean, Tony Levin…and many others.

Jon Rose: is an Australian violinist born in the UK in 1951. Rose began playing violin at age 7 after winning a music scholarship to King's School in Rochester. For over 35 years, Rose has been at the sharp end of new, improvised, and experimental music and media. A polymath, he is at much at home creating large environmental multi-media works as he is playing the violin on a concert stage. Central to this practice has been 'The Relative Violin' project, a unique output, rich in content, realising almost everything on, with, and about the violin and string music in general. Most celebrated is the worldwide ‘Fence project’; least known are the relative violins created specifically for and in Australia. He has appeared on over 60 albums, and worked with artists such as the Kronos Quartet, Derek Bailey, Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, Otomo Yoshihide, Evan Parker, Phil Minton, John Cage, Tony Oxley, George Lewis, Christian Marclay, Toshinori Kondo, Joelle Leandre, Frances-Marie Uitti, Barre Phillips, Veryan Weston and John Zorn.

Veryan Weston: began working as a jazz pianist in London (1972) as well as playing at the Little Theatre Club. In 1975, he received a fellowship and residency for Digswell Arts Trust in Hertfordshire. In the '80s and '90s, he worked with the Eddie Prévost Quartet and Trevor Watts' Moiré Music. Later, collaborations with Phil Minton have included the Ways duos, two choral projects, a quartet performing extracts from Joyce’s Finnegans wake, and 4Walls. Ongoing projects are: with Jon Rose (EMANEM 4207), Caroline Kraabel (EMANEM 4048), Sol6 – an eclectic song project, and the Trio of Uncertainty (EMANEM 4141), with violinist Satoko Fukuda and Hannah Marshall (Cello). ‘Tessellations I’ for solo piano (EMANEM 4095), was initially supported by Peter Whittingham Foundation,  a published paper on pentatonic scales was given at International Conference of Bridges: Granada and continuing research on pentatonic scales has also yielded Tessellations II for 9 Singers commissioned from 'GamsBart – JAZZ 2010’ (in Graz), and performed by ‘Vociferous’. [excerpt premiered on this CD] Most recent CD release called ‘Stops’ (PSI 10.07) is a series of duets for church organ with drummer/percussionist - Tony Marsh.

Rob Wilsmore: Is subject manager for the Creative Practice hub in the Faculty of Arts at York St John University which includes Dance, Fine Arts, Music and Theatre. His Doctoral studies were in music composition (with Nick Sackman at the University of Nottingham graduating in 1994). Since then his practice has been a mix of composition and interdisciplinary collaboration. He has recently completed a chapter on Kraftwerk with long term collaborator Simon Piasecki as well as contributing three pieces to Parallax 56. Performance works include 'The Knowledge of Whitby Steps' with Simon Piasecki and 'The Music is Hiding' a composition for performance at electroacoustic concerts that is a description of itself.

Christian Wolfarth: 1960 born in Zürich/Switzerland. 1982 -1986 studied with Billy Brooks at the Swiss Jazz School in Bern. 1992 -1995 studied with Pierre Favre at the Conservatory of Luzern.1995 studied in contemporary composition with Siegfried Kutterer in Basel. He is a percussionist who has performed solo and in groups, typically in avant garde or experimental settings and typically defying what most people would consider the role of a drummer. Sounding like a child let loose in a factory full of potential snares and cymbals, Wolfarth unleashes a fury of finger tapping rolls and unusual percussive sounds. His approach to his craft is exactly the opposite of most drumming in its most popular form. Instead of bombast and intense, nearly super-human fills, time signatures, and polyrhythms, Wolfarth makes simplicity and timbre his weapons of choice.





I would like to express my gratitude to all of those who contributed to the YES! project whether it be in written, aural or visual form—thanks to you all!

I would also like to thank Russ Hepworth-Sawyer for mastering the CD; Frédérique Swist for all of her design work in addition to the ‘visual essay’ in the Journal; Steve Purcell for his encouragement and support for this venture and York St John University for funding the initiative.

Gary Peters 2010