Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Ernesto Neto/the 'New Decor' (Hayward Gallery)

Lee Bul's chandelier Sternbau no. 3. Pretty, but perhaps a little inconsequential.

I hoped that after its hiatus the Hayward would open with a new exhibition that would be interesting. Brazilian installation sculptor Ernesto Neto was not someone who I was particularly familiar with - this was his first solo exhibition in the UK so I can probably be forgiven for this - though I had seen images and so forth. I didn't really know anything about the other exhibition.

I'd like to think it would take quite a lot for me to leave an art gallery (voluntarily) without at least attempting to look at everything. This time, however, I simply had to go - Ernesto Neto's exhibition made me feel like pieces of my brain were being systematically removed and replaced with squishy multi-coloured slime.

But first, the 'New Decor'. This was, to me, a fairly inconsequential arrangement of objects - connected by the rather obvious theme of artists' responses to the everyday objects that surround us (furniture mostly). I didn't really get the sense that the curator (Ralph Rugoff, the gallery's director) saw this theme as a subject for critique. Though individual artists did offer 'takes' on furniture through re-interpretation or re-contextualisation, there seemed to be no overarching 'point' to the exhibition; not at least in the sense that I was expecting - a critical rethinking of the objects that we surround ourselves with. Nevertheless, there were some nice pieces. Elmgreen and Dragset's mirrored bunk beds (Boy Scout) had a anxious and nervous tranquility, and were a little worrying for it. It was also nice to see some work by Doris Salcedo, which often has great expressive poignancy. Roman Signer's fantastic Floating Table (one of those 'does what it says on the tin' pieces) had a bizarre innocence but (like other works in the show) was worrying.

The standout work for me was Jin Shi's haunting installation 1/2 Life, a portrait of Chinese migrant workers seen through their possessions. Here, their life was depicted by showing a 1/2 size mock-up of a typical hovel - so that we 'look down' on these people's lives as the Chinese population does. The piece lacked the worker her/himself - and this conspicuous lacking contributed to a haunting state of instability, as we waited for the worker to (never) return.

Many of the pieces, however, had not much to say (at least as far as I could see), and some reminded me of exhibits in the Millenium Dome - a kind of semi-ironic celebration of western bourgeois banality.

Up the stairs, I moved into Neto's big work The Edges of the World. A touchy-feely, childlike environment, one is immediately confronted with squashy fabricy textures one is encouraged to 'be gentle with'. Sacks of stones hang in loose, ladies' tights-like stalagmites, dripping and oozing with 'playful' organicism. Bright colours are everywhere. One is invited to hit a drum and watch plastic grains bounce all over its surface and onto the floor; to turn (with an oversize mitten) the pages cardboard 'children's' books contained in a see-through stretch-fabric globule; and to take one's shoes off and wander through what feels like a play pen that should be attached to a Heston Blumenthal gastropub. There was also a swimming pool.

I didn't get that far, I was tiring of it all. Neto's uncompromisingly joyful aesthetic combined smell of Southbank saturday afternoons, children's feet and socks, and the noise and clatter of said children's intensive running around of the exhibit was too much for me. Maybe I'm a miserable bastard, but it was all too much fucking fun for me. I mean, there's nothing worse than being forced to smile and be happy and be content with the world. Neto's art is not only shallow, it's positively malicious - invading and pervasively joyous to such an extent as to destroy whatever curiosity I might have had.

If you do go to this exhibition, and if you come away happy and smiling and pleased with the multicoloured vibrancy of the Southbank and all of its minions and minstrels, I assure you, you have been hoodwinked.

Monday, 5 July 2010

John Cage: Indeterminacy at Shoreditch Church

A third concert review, and I hope to do a couple more next week if I get the chance. This concert was a nice one, and picked up on strands of musical thinking exhibited in the previous two in an interesting and slightly unexpected way.

After a slightly blustered journey from Old Street (had to break out the A-Z as my knowledge of this area is shamefully poor), arrived at the truly beautiful church and greeted with a nice glass of red. The concert began a little late (seems in the hot weather, people rock up late for concerts, something I don't really ever do); nevertheless it began with some bravura. Richard Thomas's startling and inspired performance of 57:30 for a String Player (1953) was a real treat. You can see his cello accompanied by the heavily branded edition peters landscape part (I always think it's rather stupid to have landscape parts; though it did allow for some theatrical page turns). There was a certain intense hilarity inherent in this opening string music, something that became a theme for the rest of the concert.

The music from Suite for Toy Piano (1948) that followed felt very much like filler to me, though it had its charm. I do understand Cage's motion towards chance as a determinant for his compositional output - some of his earlier, semi-improvised compositions (as I feel sure this one was) are quite weak. These pieces also had some of the elements of structured silliness or charm shown in the earlier work, though the music for toy pianos is (of course) more evocative of innocence.

Next came the well-known Solo for Sliding Trombone (1957-8). This is performed quite a bit and there isn't much I need say about it save for the interesting 'functionality' this particular performance had. Alan Tomlinson's meticulous setting up of the table for his mutes, the music stand, the part, and his chair spilled over into the musical performance (despite his spoken disclaimer that the preceding activities were not written in the score; they probably are implied on some level). Cage's music seemed to have the same 'functional' quality that his setting up of his apparatus had - but a mysterious functionality understandable only to some higher authority. I got the feeling that if he didn't parp his mouthpiece into the harmon mute at the particular point that he did, something else might have been adversely affected, and (like an employee) the play would have to 'compensate' somehow. Again, the silliness invoked by this piece had a distinctly structural feel to it - like someone being instructed to play. This was in marked contrast to the A band's performance the previous night - it seemed that no one was instructing them to play, not even the concert organisers.

After a protracted period of (perhaps improvised) silence, Richard Thomas played a further cello piece. Though maybe a little weaker this time, it was nevertheless fascinating to hear this music in combination with the sounds from outside - notably the usual friday-night spats between men and women on the street. This was followed by a performance of 0'0" (1962), realised by the iPhone ensemble (I wonder whether they do other performances, and what they perform). This, again, picked up on the structured silliness of earlier pieces. This time, I felt it was a bit forced and perhaps a little embarrassing. Tania Chen's lunatic tap dancing combined with snippets of radio and the sounds of the world cup (I think), as well as another ensemble member's brushing and straightening of her hair, seemed a bit much for me. It looked to me rather like undergraduate performance art, somewhat unconvincing.

After the interval, we returned to a ten-minute realisation of Music for Amplified Toy Pianos (1960), a very beautiful work, and a little short (I felt) at the length that it was. An extra 5 or 6 minutes would have been perfect to fully articulate the atmospheres generated, but in a long programme like this it might have been unsuitable. This performance also lacked some of the silliness present in previous works - instead it was purely tranquil, articulating well Cage's mantra that music should 'sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences'.

But lastly we came to the moment most audience members had probably been waiting for. Comedian Stewart Lee has been a supporter of experimental music over the years, and his sense of comic timing and understanding of the domain was a obviously an advantage in tackling Cage's Indeterminacy (1959). Lee's somewhat clinical approach - sitting at a desk, with each story on a card - had a poignancy to it. There was something of the archivist about Lee's performance (and a tangible absence of Cage himself); but Lee was not cold, he had great warmth and humility. Though often Tania Chen and Steve Beresford's interruptions didn't perhaps interrupt as much as they might have done (and occasionally one got a sense of the awkwardness apparent, with Lee waiting for interruptions that didn't materialise), the performance had a charm and polish to it. I especially liked the Richard Buhlig story (including Cage waiting for 12 hours outside his house), one of the particularly wordy stories taking quite an effort to read in one minute. Thirty minutes was also a good length of time for the work, as enough variety was introduced without lapsing into indulgence.

A good evening overall, though the concert did have its low points. The humour inherent in Cage's work was emphasised - which seems to make sense, seeing as Indeterminacy is one of Cage's most humorous and accessible works. It's interesting to me that because Cage himself was such a warm person (and that his writings and interviews became so widely disseminated), his more austere works often found difficulty amongst even learned auditors - it's easy to understand why. Maybe Stockhausen and Boulez understood that, if one desires to work as a serious modernist, one probably ought to be a bit humourless. Though the public persona might suffer, people might be inclined to take as read the seriousness of the work without any dissonance in understanding.

Friday, 2 July 2010

The A Band / Sogabe Hidekazu @ Cafe Oto

Another day, another gig. This one promised to be a fascinating trip, the newly reformed improvisation troupe do not perform all that often.

Dalston on a sunny afternoon is perhaps not a place to sit indoors, and Oto's slightly muggy interior (and abundance of tea lights) was maybe anti-seasonal. Still, all this hot weather makes my skin itch, and I was happy to retreat into some darkness.

The concert started at 9 with an opening set by Sogabe Hidekazu, a young Japanese improviser who (as far as I can tell from his website) is primarily a visual artist (there are some works of his on the Saatchi gallery webpage). Playing an electric bass and a effects pedal, Hidekazu's opening ocean waves of no-input feedback noise - and the baseball cap - seemed like a nod to Toshi Nakamura; the ringing tones generated by the body of the bass suggested something more melodious however. On the whole, however, his playing did not sit easily with me - portions of the performance were spent tediously repeating cells of material (generated by the 'infinite delay' of the effects pedal) while Hidekazu toyed with his controls. This, plus the fizzing buzz of the Cafe Oto PA as it rattled on its assembly, the bedroomy feeling of the musical structure and the sonic content, and the enforced recapitulation at the end to the opening waves of noise, reinforced Hidekazu's admirable, but ultimately crude set.

It seemed at this point (when there was a short interval) many audience members decided they couldn't stand the heat (or, indeed, the noise), and made a break for it. A shame, because when the A band came on - tonight performing as " 'Allo Aloe" - we that remained witnessed a truly remarkable set of improvised music. I say this without exaggeration - I watched the whole of the Freedom of the City festival, and while much of the music played at the Conway Hall was well thought out and nuanced, nothing was intoxicating as this performance of the A band's.

The group was constituted of around 9 members, who all (as far as I could tell) played together at the opening - a blaze of 4/4 toms, cymbals, and wailing, call-to-prayer-like vocal layering. The opening had something of conventional 'indie' about it - but after maybe a minute and a half, the anarchic tendency the A band are known for came into the foreground. Members began to leave, jettison their roles as musicians and adopt honorary positions as audience members. The music disintegrated from its metered opening to an expanse of beautiful and evolving textures. The musicians let each other 'solo' - almost like jazz - but also conversed with each other and the sound technician, moved around the space, contributed when they felt it was necessary, and added absurdism to the situation by (for example) laying out duplo bricks on a table in front of the performers, and subsequently throwing them everywhere.

What was intriguing to me was that as a unified performance, so much of the music had such stability and expressive integrity - ideas were allowed to last for enough time to become established, but not too long as to become boring. Transitions were usually seamless, and without the moments of awkwardness present in the support set, and yet all the musicians seemed to perform 'haphazardly'. Even one player's failing instrument - a toy piano made on a roll of cloth, producing a beautifully mundane MIDI piano sound - contributed in an absurdist way by failing to work.

The A band's fluidity when it came to performing also helped solidify for me the usually edifying nature of performance; of an 'us and them' relationship between performers and audience. This was dismantled, casually, by the A band - instead, as an audience member, one felt a combination of involvement, inclusion, and voyeurism. One was watching a group at play (gaming, scheming, forming nexuses of activity and falling away again) - but a group at play with itself. The performance lacked the bourgeois ritual that made it necessary to clap at the end - so that the final applause (of the few audience members that remained after their hour or so of playing) seemed inappropriate and tokenistic.

And yet, in purely musical terms, the A band's performance was familiar - the music was 'sectional', it contained references (echoes) of other musics (a suitably postmodern stance), the delay pedals of the violin/theremin players created commonplace repetitive figures, there was a piano and a drum kit (both conspicuously 'non-unusual'). Perhaps these commonplace instruments were necessary - for if a music is to be truly democratic (as the A band's performance surely was), it cannot be formed on a principle of exclusion. A good thing indeed; for me, the A band's performance is certain proof that a nuanced and subtle music can exist without being rarified or exclusive.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Music We'd Like to Hear I

If I am honest, I can’t say I am particularly enamoured of the violin as a musical instrument. High, shrill, usually played with such ego, it’s not an instrument that I find enjoyable to behold. Still, the first concert of Music We’d Like To Hear, a full concert of music for solo violin, was not something I was going to turn down. It turned out to be a sublime evening which (to an extent) renewed my faith in the instrument and in string instruments in general.

Clemens Merkel (of Montreal’s Bozzini Quartet) played four pieces, beginning with Christian Wolff, and continuing with three works by the concerts organisers: Marcus Trunk, Tim Parkinson and John Lely. Trunk appeared before the concert began and tried to persuade us that this was not an egotistical affair, that Clemens had chosen the pieces of his own bat, and that, besides, it was a 5-year anniversary for the concert series. The music’s quality, however, dispelled any qualms I may have had.

Beginning with Christian Wolff’s piece, The Death of Mother Jones (1977), it became clear that Merkel’s violin tone and the ambience of the Church of St Anne and St Agnes were perfect partners. The violin was warm, resonant, clear, but also evocative and not particularly ‘pretty’. Merkel’s idiosyncratic playing style also came to the fore, and from the very start, this seemed (to me) as everything solo violin music should be. Contemplative, microtonally rich, variously gestured, with excellent weight of expressive idea, willingness to crumble, with some degree of innocence (and a thankful absence of decadent vibrato). Wolff's piece had a conceptual edge linked to folk music; its harmonies showed this directionality, but much of the music was angular and not ‘homely’ at all. Merkel’s playing breathed with absolute integrity, relaxation and concentration.

Next came Markus Trunk’s austere Four Stills (2002/10). Dominated by dwellings on singular tones, this form of composition was suggestive of Scelsi. But beyond that, Merkel’s playing added a distinctly contemplative or reflective element that, while present in Scelsi’s music, is often clothed in mysticism. I was beginning to think that the expression that lay behind this material was humanistic (perhaps the Lutheran church principles were infecting my senses); but nevertheless, I was struck by the wisdom and humility present in Merkel’s playing. The final section of Trunk’s piece was a particular highlight – the bow drawn across the strings half col legno, in tiny, almost inaudible motions. The sound of the violin seemed to melt into the soundscape of St Paul’s – the distant coloured noise of traffic, the occasional ‘crack’ of a sat on pew, the drop of a pencil. The musical sounds contained, and were contained by, the environmental surroundings.

Tim Parkinson’s piece that followed was just as gorgeous, if not more so. Small melodic ideas are given to us, passing us (as Parkinson notes) ‘like slabs on a pavement’. The perfect weight given to these ideas allowed the piece to be contemplative and not drag, yet not speed and ignore the integrity of each idea. Again, Merkel’s beautiful playing carried the musical model to heights.

Finally, John Lely’s piece. Up until this moment, Merkel had played from music stands, organised first on the right, then left, then back. For this piece, he came to the forward and played from memory. This was easy enough, as the piece - The Harmonics of Real Strings (2002) – was made up of a very slow glissando up the A string. A beautifully elegant idea, executed almost perfectly; Merkel allowed the natural fluctuations of the violin to speak, and ignored the Classical mantra of ‘evenness’ (which would have destroyed the work). Using the bridge, Merkel brought out the higher harmonies present in the string (as Lely no doubt indicated to do). At times the shift in pitch was almost imperceptible, but towards the bridge, the pitch had to shift pretty quickly (the distance of the same interval reduces in real terms as one moves up the string). Particularly spectacular was the extremely high tone at the end, and its seamless transition into noise, and that noise’s subsequent fading into environmental sound, the perfect end to a concert of great contemplation, elegance and force. I look forward to the next two!

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Field recordings

Went to a talk today between LCC sonic art lecturer Salomé Voegelin and artists Jennie Savage and Peter Cusack. Cusack showed his Favourite London Sound project (which has now expanded to many other cities around the world), and got me pondering field recording practice and how it can be understood to correlate with other forms of sonic art.

It seems to me that field recording is much like photography - some of it is artistic, and some isn't (journalistic). The line between the two is often blurred severely. Similarly, field recordings are used functionally, as well as being archival material. What I find particularly interesting is the new(ish) kind of artistic field recording exemplified by labels like and/OAR. This kind of practice seemed worlds away from the documentary style of Cusack; figuring out why this is is a bit of an issue.

The first reason seems to me to be to do with the recording's position relative to its source location. Artistic field recording on CD is necessarily removed from its source; Cusacks sounds were directly linked to their sources by the means of a map. Voegelin suggested this added a temporal element to what was essentially a static visual image; and beyond that the location is 'evoked' through a combination of the sound and the view from above.

The second reason seems to be the motivation lying behind the work. I assume that most of the work on and/OAR exists because it sounds interesting (or at least, the sound is judged on an aesthetic plane somewhat removed from its source context) - the idea being here that when the sounds of an environment are appropriated into an aesthetic structure they obtain a further reality, separate from the 'actual' reality they depict. This 'imaginary' structural reality of the work may or may not incorporate aspects of the 'actual' context; needless to say, aesthetic judgement usually operates on a different plane to socio-political assessment of a situation (the latter occasionally being incorporated into the former). Cusack, on the other hand, is not particularly interested in the aesthetic worth (from his point of view) of the recordings - at least, not as long as this aesthetic worth can be considered any different from the information present in the recordings of the source they depict. Cusack's aesthetic then is, literally, documentary - the 'beauty' of 'beautiful' information given to the listener through sound about a surrounding. This beautiful information is also conveyed through interview on several occasions - with participants describing unrealised sounds in their memory.

Though Cusack showed a devotion to sound (and has done his entire career), what was evident from this project was its larger social implications. It is rather inappropriate to call the Favourite London Sound project an 'artwork' - at least, it seems to me to be so. Cusack would say that this probably was unimportant to him - indeed, he seemed indifferent to whether he was actually an artist at all.

I do sympathise with Cusack's position (particularly when it aligns with my own sonic taste, as in his recording of a Nightingale by a electricity substation, or recordings of Old Jerusalem), but I came away from the talk wondering whether my own, largely removed aesthetic sense (which I use to measure and judge sounds I hear, things I look at, or for that matter any sensory experience) was inadequate because of its isolationism. My tendency to divide experience into aesthetic and non-aesthetic was artificial... (but I mean, let's face it, you can't judge everything all of the time, there's too much experienced by the human brain, you have to take a break!).

Sunday, 6 June 2010


Have made a slightly more elegant page for some recent improvisations:

Hope it's interesting. Maybe will continue updating this blog but who knows. I've not been particularly good at doing it anyway!

Monday, 29 March 2010


Haven't written in a while; thought I didn't really have much to say, as well as my computer dying recently. Fortunately a new mac is at hand. But, did get a chance to hear some CDs, of which I will write a bit about.

Peter Ablinger - Voices and Piano
Kairos 0013082KAI

From when I came across him last year or so, I've always liked Ablinger. There is something about his approach - a conceptual approach - which is unusual among Composers (with a C). Despite what Composers have done to musical form, the concert form itself remains particularly rigid; even after fifty years of post-Cagean Experimental music, even after Punk, Merzbow, East German Concert Installations of the eighties. I sort of hope that Sound Art, as well as the recent trends in relational art (Carsten Hoeller, Rirkrit Tiravanija) will help to break down those barriers. They may be exactly the barriers that alienate New (classically oriented) Music from those outside the inner circle. (Alex Ross has various gripes about concert ritual, some of which are related to these ideas.)

In his concert works (i.e. those other than his installations) Ablinger seems to do something elusive; to provide an objectified aesthetic sense that's like a conceptual art installation. It's a bit like the pieces are surrounded by the white space that permeates art galleries. Voices and Piano is no exception, though I think the nature of Kairos' CD may contribute (maybe negatively) to this effect. Nevertheless, I think it's unclear whether Ablinger's work is music or sound art, or whether there is a difference. I think what most people would be happy to say is that 'someone talking - just talking - isn't really music'. For all practical purposes, when you listen to the news on radio 4, it's not music. But it's all a question of contextualisation as far as I can see - presumably the news could be presented as music (in a concert environment with a programme note), or conceptualised as music in an individual way (listening for pitch/rhythmic/timbric quality as opposed to meaning). Similarly, through the addition of piano accompaniments, which are 'expansions' of the voices, Ablinger is 'recontextualising' voices by juxtaposition. Maybe its this that contributes to my perceived gallery-like 'white space'.

The CD is by no means aesthetically perfect to my ear - portions drag - but I think there are enough moments to satisfy (more than most new composition I hear, incidentally). These moments are, for example, where some important word is obscured by the piano, and the sense of a sentence lost (or even refuted); or when there is a nice juxtaposition of one texture leading into another; or the organisation of speakers themselves. There are some gorgeous compositions in there, Apollinaire for example, or Mother Theresa. Sartre is also particularly great.

Although, the other thing that is questioned is the presence of 'composition' in the pieces. As with his works Quadraturen ('Squarings'), there is the presence of quantisation in these pieces, as well as music as a form of analysis of sound. There is an algorithmic element which also suggests a 'hands off' compositional approach - as in truly Experimental music. Quadraturen were often composed with assistants, who programmed the Max/MSP patch(es) or realised the mechanical display, and in some cases produced the score. Ablinger says of Quadraturen V: 'Music': 'I have not written a single note (- and I am proud of that)' (this piece happens to be, in my opinion, terribly beautiful; and a cogent argument for algorithmic composition). Hence the presence of conceptual art/sound art - the Quadraturen pieces, even the ensemble/orchestral ones, are processes, not texts (or processes as texts if the traditional work-concept is retained). They turn the human beings into machines for reproduction of a process. They are part of the 'little factory'. One gets the sense that Hodges (piano on the Kairos recording) is in a similar position - and yet all of these pieces seem 'composed'. I suspect that Ablinger set up machines which would produce notes for him, but still decided which he thought 'worked', and which didn't. Or, at least, he was participant (or overseer) of a process.

Though I don't think it is Ablinger's most exciting work, I think this disc is great, and raises a ton of interesting questions, and provides some great moments.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Bach fugue in F#min

How about this for an elegant visualisation of pitch sets - a tetrahelix of trichords!

From here:

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Summary: First term at Cambridge

Seeing as, bizarrely, anyone who Googles my name can get at this blog, I thought I should summarize my doings up until this point. Also it's 2010, and (supposedly) this could mark a juncture in things. Additionally, I rarely post anything here; so here goes.

Oxbridge can be an intimidating place to anyone outside of it. I know this because I live in Oxford and now go to Cambridge university. This ever-so-slightly awkward situation allows me to see Oxbridge (as the differences between the universities are really negligible) are from both the point of view of both a Townie and a Student.

Both universities are increasingly interested in 'outreach', as can be seen from their prospectuses which emphasise the 'cosmopolitan' and apparently multicultural nature of their constituent colleges. Actually, most students at both places are white and middle/upper-class. In my year at Corpus there is one black student. Additionally there are people from abroad (who have to pay a lot of money to come here, so some of them are on exchange which can ease the monetary load); lots of people (at Corpus) from Northern Ireland, but conspicuously only one student from Scotland.

As far as I can tell, in my year at Corpus very few people come from true comprehensives (I did). Most come from independent, grammar or public schools. One intriguing thing I noticed when asking people was that some students who came from a big public school (like Eton) would pause very slightly before saying this, suggesting there is a certain amount of guilt (either real or unconscious) associated with attending such a school. Who could blame them, with the amount of goading public schools get in the mainstream media. Considering our next government will be most likely made up of old Etonians (pretending not to be, of course) the state of affairs will soon become much stranger.

I try not to judge people on what kind of upbringing they have, but in reality it's very difficult not to. There is good reason to believe that there is less social mobility in this country than there was in the years just after the war.

So far, so obvious. But my experience of the first Michealmas term has been generally speaking very positive. I don't think I've humiliated myself too much, I have a nice room, and there always seems to be something to do. Food is generally okay. I've started acting in plays (the Cambridge drama scene is vibrant and littered with productions of big, difficult, canonical classics of the twentieth century, and Shakespeare), and recently landed the part of Macbeth. Extraordinary, I know, and I can't quite come to grips with it myself. Still. There is also good comedy, and the Footlights' pantomime sold out all of its dates within hours.

I also have come right in the middle of the apparent reform of the Music Faculty, which is facing difficulties like many of the institutions that make up the conglomerate university. The course, redesigned in the 70s by Sandy Goehr, is showing it's age. The somewhat tentative links between the lectures and their supervisions is sometimes fraught, and often we are asked to write essays about things we haven't yet been lectured about. Consequently I don't go to many lectures, even though (unlike other humanities subjects) they are apparently compulsory. Even more annoying, this year there are so many undergrads that if they do all turn up to a lecture, lecture room 2 isn't big enough to fit them all in. The inevitable latecomers have to find a spare chair, and, if they're lucky, a music stand to write on.

My fellow corpus student, Maria Helmling, has been campaigning for some time for change in the Music Faculty and has achieved a great deal. The first is the opening of a coffee bar used by students and staff before and in between lectures, a very welcome sight. The other, and sadder tale, is the newly opened Music Faculty common room, which never has anybody in it. It replaces the 'Ethnomusicology Room', which was apparently so useless the management seemed happy to replace it with a room with nothing in it apart from squashy bean bags and unread copies of Varsity. I hope it does get used, as often after lectures I find myself lonely in my room in College (as I suspect other music students do also).

2009 also saw the establishment of the AHRC Research Centre for Music Performance as Creative Practice, and the installation of 'New Musicology' mainstays Nicholas Cook and John Rink at the faculty. The programme has a couple of million to plow its way through nothing less than our current understanding of music performance. Quite what the results will be (other than written up observations and interpretations of how musicians work and perform) I don't know. I think part of the object might be to try and resolve the rather embarrassing situation that everybody in day-to-day life knows what music looks and sounds like, but Academia still hasn't quite decided what it is. Not unsurprisingly, the wider your remit becomes, the weaker the definition of what music is. (I was tempted, rather shamefully, to put inverted commas around the last word in that sentence.)

Perhaps in a Faculty so dedicated to funding new research into performance, one might assume the teaching would lean so too. Not so, as so far, genuinely enlightening lecturing has been hard to come by. Martin Ennis' entertaining teaching of Counterpoint (yes, you did read that right) is probably the best highlight. Nicholas Marston's well-intentioned yet misguided attempts at providing the 'friendly face of analysis' don't do too well. His non-Shenkerian motivic voice-leading analyses (conspicuously featuring Mr. Schoenberg at the centre) are pretty confusing, which showed up prominently in my essays. Analysis is presented as a series of 'coulds' and 'maybes'; very little appears falsifiable, and I am under a suspicion that when I get to it, Shenkerism will smell of circularity. But since nobody will actually teach it to me I guess I'll have to remain ignorant.

Like many of the other university bodies and faculties, the Music Faculty is in debt. It has taken to hiring out the concert hall to an evangelical church, much to the horror of music students and members of CUMS; but the fact is the Faculty has to look for spare cash wherever it can. The University Library recently announced that it might take a sponsor for extra cash. Similar outbursts of horror: 'The Tesco Cambridge University Library' etc. The best one I read was the foot-in-mouth 'Oxford University Press Cambridge University Library'.

But so much for this grumbling (one term is not justification for the level of grumbling I seem to have reached). I think there definitely are good things about the faculty - one of them being a collection of stellar musicologists. It's conservative collection, but bizarrely, revisionist at the same time. Many of them are approachable and cheerfully engaging people who, while they obviously have more important things to do, don't seem too put out by the prospect of delivering a lecture to a roomfull of undergrads.