New Vocabulary, New Dimensions, New Music
by Mark S. Tucker
Consider the production of a genius for a moment: King Crimson up to Red; Gentle Giant to The Missing Piece; Phil Glass from Glassworks forward (with a few hideous exceptions 1,000 Airplanes, for instance); Butch Morris' conduction work; Morton Subotnick's early electronic and later neoclassical catalogues (pointedly ignoring his wretched New Age period); Sun Ra's intermittent chaotic-isms, etc.
What marked them all was a daring approach to art music, an attempt to stretch the canvas, painting larger possibilities, subtler perceptions, often through heretofore hidden or newly invented techniques. But each run was marked by intangible qualities unquantifiable, no matter how feverishly one attempted to encode them which existed for a certain period of time, then subsided. It appears that, no matter how titanic the imagination, artistic genius extends only just so far and for just so long, then senesces, behooving us to pay attention when it arises, preserving indicted work for Art's future and society's evolution.
Too much hyperbole? I beg to differ. And I think the constant recurrence and frequent obscurity of some of the most revolutionary art-making proves there are hidden perceptual dimensions involved that people must be exposed to, so that evolution can be ignited at all.
Discovering Morphogenesis in the '80s was akin to running into electro-pioneers in the '60s: abrupt and overwhelming cognitive dissonance, followed by unadorned schizophrenic delight and fascination, as if a long-expected envoy from Mars had finally landed, bearing strange gifts. So completely fresh was the group's style that words failed, even though the sounds were electro-acoustic, immediate, and locatable. Their music was precisely what free jazz-ers, noise mongers, neo-classicalists, avant-gardies and experimentalists had been doggedly pursuing for decades, and so damnably infrequently arriving at. Morphogenesis pulled out the beating unifying heart of multiplex hidden realities every time they sat down and improvised.
The group arose in the era that birthed PBK, Mike Chocholak, Vidna Obmana, Jeff Greinke, and a small double-handful of markedly superior practitioners of way outside music. Only upon finding their initial cassette did I understand that what could be stumbled upon might possibly exceed expectations and hopes indeed, it might gift us with documents as important as Cage's, Carlos', Penderecki's, Xenakis', and the rest of the polymaths and multi-morphs of modern music.
The ensemble breathed its first in England, in 1985, a collective of hyper-astute brainiacs with impressive backgrounds, and has continued to include unusual and serious players. For instance, Ron Briefel (vox, electronics) teaches music tech at Morley College; Roger Sutherland (percussion, piano now, sadly, deceased) is also an abstract painter and the scribe of the group, writing books and articles on new music (he was previously involved with Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra); Clive Graham (springboard, tapes and electronics) had conducted studio work with Nurse With Wound, has his own label (Paradigm), and hosts a radio show; Michael Prime (bio-feedback, water machine, electronics) engaged in live and recorded works with Organum and also owns his own label (Mycophile). Not exactly a bunch of lay-a-bouts, wot?
Morphogenesis never really intended to release music, but rather to produce it for their private enjoyment and contemplation. Had it not been for the feedback of Jim O'Rourke (formerly of the hideously inept Brise Glace, now, inexplicably, an undercurrent avant-garde darling perhaps Andy Warhol's limp reincarnation), they might never have continued after a genius initialization, but O'Rourke's blessing proved somewhat providential and the ensemble began a much-too-imperiodic schedule. The instruments they employ are acoustic and electric, orthodox and non-. Each cut is an entire environment, a micro-scope or a macro-scope (whichever one prefers) of an alien milieu, or, if you rotate 180 degrees, an exposition on the operant principals of the world we inhabit, veiled through dimensional masquings.
Morphogenesis (the 1987 debut), a landmark work, is a perpetual swamp of tintinnabulation: tings, tangs, and creaks; chafes and groans; quark level broadcasting and statorrhea; unendingly mystery. No true or standard musical vocabulary is used; every sound is absolutely non-clichι and perfectly placed. It's completely in tune with Eno's ideas of how truly ambient how environmental music can be, to the point that it sheds all traditional identities, yet still is clearly music.
Each side contains three "Improvisations" and absolutely no human elements or personalities. This is what makes it so strikingly singular. In free and avant-garde musics, personality is too frequently shoved to the fore, precisely what such enterprises were (at least initially) supposed to get away from. They were supposed to be free of non-musical content and antiquated, hard-line, status quo conventional theory alongside a welter of accompanying manifesto-ed proclamations: free jazz-ers had unfortunately read Breton and other surrealists' blatherous prolixities as sacrament (perhaps they even imagined themselves Marxists).
In essence, the cassette sounds like an intelligent, self-running xeno-factory infested with thoughtful, insidious, perplexing, and unsettling activity, a multi-angled overview through various portals, windows, and tunnels. Sadly, one of the great works of modern music, it has never seen re-release and is nearly absent from even the most erudite critics' vocabularies.
Prochronisms followed in 1989, and was awaited with the suspense usual to any follow-up effort. "Would it match their baptism?" Well, it did and it didn't. It was a great noise-music affair but biocentrism had intruded. Life-forms became evident, aliens manning that earlier factory, querulous in their mannerisms, contentious, contemplative, baffling, and sometimes even humorous. All titles were "Improvisations" as before, and commenced in random manner until building to a marvelous center section in "Improvisation 11.11.88," halfway through side one, where the group breaks back into its initial genius with an indefinable twist.
But the redirection from metallically encapsulated consciousness to blooded plasmic beings that dominate in buzz-rasps, drop-hammers, laser widgets, and chrono-synplastic infedibulums (as well as a Total Perspective Vortex or two) compromised the sterling pre-picture. Distance had been lost. Rather than staring bemused at the tableau, you were instead now working in it, positioned elbow to jowl with the creatures, setting up dies and templates as they reconfigured bizarre blanks to rough blueprinted tolerances. Everyone was in bad temper, trying to meet quota before the Borg bosses showed up and heads started rolling. It's a droll and bizarre experience brilliantly executed if not quite up to Morphogenesis but still a must.
Solarisation (1995) took five years and marked another change: there was a far rougher, more violent edge to the improvisations (which were no longer so-titled). The factory had reasserted its metallic existence, gorged on the erstwhile workers, and assumed a twilight mode, more aggressively pursuing its own ends once again, imbued with a grim modification of strange...feelings the residue of past years. It had become the Neo-Conservative fascist's dream of efficiency, but was simultaneously undergoing a rebellion of consciousness, disliking something.
Whether they were rejecting to the induction of emotion or the constraints of being subordinated is open to argument, but there was nastiness to the release that slapped you in the face...and you couldn't have been happier. Still standing on the floor, the listener doesn't have the comfort of biology, only sadistically intent machinery. Sections ghost out for brief respites but soon develop their own wicked intentions and before long, you're out of your element; this isn't a Day the Earth Stood Still scenario, it's malevolent and you are in the way. The release returned more closely to the debut's pristinities, with a few flaws (imported radio transmissions, etc.).
Next came Charivari Music, yet another shift, a declension. What's known in the UK as a "charivari" was corrupted in the States into "shivaree," an antique prairie term for "noisy celebration" (c'mon, y'all: moonshine!). The title's an irony, as this is neither celebratory nor as noisy as Solarisation, and it's significantly less threatening.
The factory had been bought out and taken over by an agency at least amusedly ambivalent about humanity. You could stay and continue your work, but the reprobates had been canned and the machines returned to their pre-conscious states: get cracking and make a profit. The workspace was cartoonish, unexpected, peripatetic, and outlandish, but pronouncedly more benevolent. You could screw off a bit, take a leak, munch a sandwich, and watch the madness as you bent to your duties. The instrumentation was as unorthodox as ever (springs, water machines), as was the playing, but the group appeared on something of an intellectual hiatus. Still as good as anything in the plunder/improv field, one nonetheless envisioned them conducting the affair in Bermuda shorts and flowered shirts, sipping on Mai Tai's.
Formative Causation was recorded in 1986, but released in 1997, with a piece culled from 1991; as you'd expect, it's closely aligned with the debut, but adds later, more compositional elements. It incorporates controlled anarchy with snatches of what Tangerine Dream was attempting in its earliest, most hardcore phases.
Causation's a deja vu providentially documented, standing well until the next release, in no way dated, inconsequential, or intemperate. It returns to the most alien aspects of their mindset, at times almost unnervingly so. It reminds the listener that the group was as deeply into the phenomenology of sound as the art's most radical practitioner, PBK (Philip Klingler), especially in "Koan." An overwhelming spookiness informs this disc and exchanges the Bermudas for leashes and studded collars. It lacks the riveting incisiveness of its time-brother but is fascinating withal.
The group changed their approach for Stromatolites. Previously indulging in on-the-spot work, they now took recorded, spontaneous pieces, and began piling them atop one another what they termed "laminating," "until optimum density had been achieved."
It worked beautifully. Dedicating the CD to obscure electro-pioneers, they revivified the era when unknown mavericks were plying their minds in obtuse nonconformities. Though it wasn't really intended, lamination gave the three long compositions the most compositional aspects Morphogenesis' music would ever demonstrate. Despite that obliquely formalist approach, with this disc, the group returned most titanically to their debut. Whatever shortcomings Causation had, Stromatolites cured them all. Markedly dissimilar to Morphogenesis, it's nearly as brilliant, only a couple inches removed. Stunningly good.
The last two, In Streams, Vol. 1, 1996-1999 and In Streams, Vol. 2, 1997-2000, are collections of studio and concert pieces within the bracketed years, mixed live, with no editing. The lads operate quite similarly to laptop-ers now, though there's a world of difference: laptop-ers rely almost entirely on canned tracks, mixed and composed extemporaneously, while these guys play their instruments, their paraphernalia, and their prerecorded splices, improvising on the fly.
Of all their releases, however, these two are the tamest, but they still beat most of the competition brainless. Mediocre Morphogenesis is as good as the best that Groundfault, RRRecords, Cuneiform, Accretions, and similarly evolutionary labels purvey (except for certain outstanding examples like Sickness or Randy Yau), and those houses are not slouches by any means.
Getting hold of these guys was no easy task, and my thanks to Zan Hoffman for finally patching me through. It should also be noted that Morphogenesis tapes, despite their brilliance, are difficult to locate. To that end, Clive Graham maintains their availability from his home base (and at better prices than elsewhere)
Once contacted, he also proved very helpful in grounding me to elements of their press (chiefly British), otherwise equally hard to locate. He then contacted Mike Prime and the two sat down to separately answer a few interrogatives:
PSF: In literature, what Morphogenesis does would be called "stream of consciousness"; in psychology, it's "free association"; amongst neoclassicists, I call it "incidentalist." What categorical term granting most musicians' disdain for pigeonholing do you have for your work?
Prime: If we had to choose a phrase to describe the modus operandi of the group, it would be "morphic resonance." I think that what separates us from a lot of improvised music is that we've always been interested in creating a group sound, where the range produced by each player can overlap, to some extent. We've always tried to create spontaneous group compositions, rather than collections of "stream of consciousness" solos. Like AMM, the feeling was that our "group mind" had already been in existence before we actually played together, so we began to "tune in" from our very first improvisations. In 1987, I attempted to describe that experience as follows:
"When considering the spontaneous structures which arise in truly improvised music, questions of the immanence or transcendence of mind-in-body become irrelevant. Awareness comes that the mind of the player is to be found everywhere in an information-carrying circuit, such as: Differences in vibration of instrument ---> differences in vibration of eardrum ---> differences in central nervous system ---> differences in muscular action ---> differences in tool of excitation ---> differences in vibration of instrument, [so that] each of these circuits interlinks with many others to form larger systems of mind. This concept of mind is equally applicable to other complex information-carrying circuits, such as oakwood or a coral reef."
By abandoning preconceived structures and surrendering one's playing to the unfolding moment, we sometimes found that musical events took place which were far more complex and surprising than what we could have conceived of individually.
PSF: Much of your music could be used to score and augment science-fiction and horror movies to extraordinary effect. Have you been approached or have you approached anyone?
Prime: Roger, Adam, and myself all read a lot of horror and S-F, from H.P. Lovecraft to J.G. Ballard. We certainly wouldn't object to our music being used in this way, but we've never been approached. Anyone have Brian Yazna's address?
PSF: Have you ever conducted pieces that were purely amplified acoustic work? It seems that your rather unusual approaches to generating sound from non-electronic sources, and perceiving its uses, might well create a whole new subtle wrinkle in music.
Prime: We have, on rare occasions. There was a piece on "Formative Causation" that was recorded outdoors, with no amplification. But, yes, it's an approach we should return to more often.
PSF: Up to a certain point, your music was absolutely clean of clichι. Then you began to import plundered materials: voice, ambient sounds, radio, etc. This, to me, started sliding Morphogenesis over towards a less completely idiosyncratic base. Why was this done?
Prime: The group has always intercepted sounds from the environment in order to interact with them. Short-wave radios were used from the earliest days, to intercept some of the electromagnetic soup that permeates our environment. I often used radio microphones to bring in live sounds from the vicinity of the performance space. I also used to filter the sound of the traffic outside the venue. These usages are readily apparent on the group's earliest recordings (Formative Causation and the Sound of Pig label-tape). The important thing to stress is that these are sounds encountered at random, not prepared samples. This has never changed throughout the group's history.
PSF: I've found that many outside musicians have unusual tastes in non-outside artists, Anthony Braxton, for instance, idolizes Paul Desmond. Who do you listen to when you're not deeply into the bizarre?
Prime: I'm a big Burt Bacharach fan myself.
PSF: Would you link intellectualism with an appreciation of your music?
Prime: On the contrary, I don't think any conceptualization is necessary to appreciate our music. The listener can easily relate to it on a basic level of feeling and emotion, an appreciation of interesting sonic textures and sound-scapes. Cats and small children especially seem to like it a lot!
PSF: Why are Roger's paintings not used more extensively? When I saw the cover for Stromatolites, I was instantly reminded of how well abstract paintings complemented old jazz releases, especially Getz & Gilberto and the like.
Prime: Maybe you could reproduce some of his paintings with this article, to bring them to a wider audience?
PSF: Have the visual arts surrealism, futurism, fauvism, etc. influenced your music?
Prime: Meeting Roger, back in 1984, was a revelation for me. He introduced the work of so many great abstract painters that I'd previously been unaware of: Zao Wou-ki, Lucio Munoz, Manuel Rivera, Luis Feito, Cesar Manrique and Bernard Saby, to name a few. He was brilliant at drawing parallels between developments in abstract painting and contemporary music. I think all this influenced our music at least on a subliminal level. You could certainly see what we do as "painting with sound," juxtapositions of abstract textures interspersed with surreal views of the worlds around us.
PSF: Now that Roger has, sadly, passed, how is the basic character of Morphogenesis changing?
Prime: Roger hadn't been very physically active in the group for a number of years, but he will always be present in the group through morphic resonance!
PSF: As ever more leviathan consolidations of markets monopolize into fewer and fewer outlets, this has an effect not only on product but on the musicians' and society's personas. As the ability to put one's music before people dwindles, what happens to the society?
Prime: This is a very depressing subject. As you rightly suggest, this principle of market consolidation has affected not just the marketing of music but also the musicians themselves. The decrease in the number of independent outlets has been matched by a proliferation of "experimental" music, most of which seems to me very calculated and derivative. True experimentation is seen as too risky a strategy; instead, a "successful" model is chosen by the new musician, who attempts to come up with a similar product. This kind of thinking permeates every aspect of life today. In a climate of fear and survival-ism, people want instant consumer gratification, not the long and challenging road of independent thought.
PSF: The criticism element in the music world is a mostly-ludicrous affair, with a few shining graces here and there. With so little non-mainstream radio devoted to outside musics, including public radio's pathetic programming, how influential does the music press remain on consumption and where are the outlets for intelligent art now?
Prime: Please tell me! I suppose some sort of internet distribution/radio has to be the answer, but I don't think enough people have broadband yet for this to be practical.
PSF: In interviews, I note references to the mavericks Young, Cage, Xenakis, Sockhausen, Penderecki, but haven't yet seen mention of Harry Partch, a gent whose work is slowly languishing to death. Do you consider his oeuvre too composed?
Graham: The sound-world of Partch doesn't relate to our own in any direct way, whereas the other composers you mention were pioneers of either live electronics or the creation of dense sound structures, both of which directly relate.
I might say that, thanks to the efforts of the Harry Partch Society and the work of labels like Innova, Partch's work is more available now than ever. Of course, the theatrical live event that Partch was so committed to is going to become less frequent and more small-scale certainly here in London. With such unique instruments, it's inevitable that both their maintenance and the training of musicians is going to be costly; without the determined genius of Partch to drive it along, it will reduce to a mere historical archive.
PSF: Roger, at one point, made this comment about a Cage piece: "Then we did a free version for radios that was complete chaos, and that demonstrated to us the importance of discipline," which I find unusually refreshing for an ensemble producing this kind of music. Could you address the subject of artistic discipline? Its present lack is the absolute ruination of most modern musics.
Graham: Sun Ra made great play of the word "discipline"; as for Roger, well, he was a long-time school teacher. Personally, I feel that there were at least as many of our performances that demonstrated the importance of chaos it's certainly a large part of our day-to-day reality.
PSF: Is it me, or are electronics continuously claiming more ground in your work?
Graham: I don't think so, but we're using more diverse electronic devices, which may give the impression that we use a lot of electronics. Both Adam and Roger never process their sounds, and Clive H. only occassionally. The other half of the band are more or less totally using live electronics.
PSF: How large a crowd do you attract, on average? The audience shown on In Stream, Vol. 2 seems quite sizeable. Have you played major fests?
Graham: We've played a few small festivals in Europe. The audiences on the In Streams CDs were ten times larger than anything else we've known. Sonic Youth asked us to support them in London, a photo opportunity that could not be missed.
The photo looking out from behind the drum kit, by the way, was supposed to allude to the front cover of Can's Tago Mago. I wanted to make it clear with the two In Streams CDs, that we much prefer the variables that occur within live contexts. In the past, we often worked without an audience, but now we almost always play in front of people.
Having said that, we rarely play live anymore. Within the gig circuit, groups are very unfashionable these days unless they're amalgams of successful soloists flown in from all continents for super sessions. Additionally, the "experimental" music circuit has been steadily commodified and commercialized due to its popularity: lots of first-generation artists have come back to play their "greatest hits." Now that experimental music is something you study at college, like plumbing, it has become a competitive career move that works in exactly the same way as pop music; that is, you need to have the right personality. Both as a group and as individuals, we seem to have failed to adapt to that situation.
PSF: Over here in the States, you're virtually unknown; how has Europe treated you? It seems Japan, at least, would be highly receptive...
Graham: Well, if we're virtually unknown in the US after eighteen years of existence, then there's no hope really. Actually there are people who care, but maybe, like us, they also keep their heads down.
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