Thursday, February 15, 2007

Recent ruminations

Posts have not been very frequent recently, I know, but I'm loath to put them up purely for the sake of it. I seem to be posting about once a month, though, which is at least a digestible frequency!

I'm reading Tony Cliff's 'State Capitalism in Russia' at the moment, in a great 70s paperback edition with the pages falling out. Though he sometimes becomes entangled in dogmatic minutiae, generally the clarity of his analysis of the economic and political nature of the Stalinist state is commendable. Given that this book was first published in 1948, long before the crisis year of 1956, it concerns and puzzles me how many communists of good intellectual standing and integrity (such as Eric Hobsbawm, whose autobiograpy Interesting Times I have also recently read) could have remained in denial about the nature of Stalinism for such a long time. More broadly, I suppose, it comes back to the old argument between Marx and Bakunin, which I have been idly worrying over. Where to the priorities lie? Does the Marxist insistence on economic realism always risk paying only lip service to democracy, and hence have totalitarianism clandestinely built into it, or is the anarchist denial of the state destined to be nothing more than a fantasy, and hence of no use to revolutionary praxis? I know this is far from a new question, and I have nothing new to say on it at this point, but it is something that is concerning me - I would like at least to be able to position myself more securely on this particular spectrum.

Last night Marcio Mattos played the monthly Oxford Improvisers concert. The opening set was, for me, the highlight of the night. It was a duo between Mattos (on cello and electronics) and Pete McPhail (on flute and alto sax). The speed of response and accuity of accent and pitch was fantastic. The music was dense and quick but also (particularly when McPhail played flute) light and transparent. The rest of the evening was also gripping and often genuinely risk taking improvisation (particularly in a quartet between Miles Doubleday on samples and electronics, Roger Telford on drums, Alexander Hawkins on percussion and Nick Benda on oboe, where the players really had to work to carve out a piece of music from very disparate individual materials), but had the gig been recorded - what a shame it wasn't - the opening duo contained the music I would have liked to return to.

On tour last week it was a real pleasure to spend time with field recordist and improviser extraordinaire Lee Patterson. His recordings of pondweed are truly extraordinary - like analogue synthesisers battling with mixer feedback. Thinking about this returned me to Chris Watson's wildlife recordings on the CD Outside the Circle of Fire, which also often sound 'electronic' to people unaware of their origin. Of course, when recorded via microphones and played back through speakers or headphones, such sounds actually are electronic. I have read much comment about how the work of John Cage (in particular 4'33'') has made it possible to consider any sound in the same way we consider music, but I have not read anything about how field recordings are not really a return to directly listening to the sounds around us. Rather they surely evidence a dialectic between naturally occurring sound and the technology which allows them to be captured and replayed in the living room. The technology must be affecting our reception and interpretation of the sounds (as well as, in certain ways, the very sounds themselves). There seems much to consider here, and if anyone has written on this subject I'd be very keen to find out about it.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

In looking for a reliable alternative to Stalinism I wouldn’t personally go to Tony Cliff! I remember Robert Wyatt being asked why he’d joined the Communist Party in the 1970’s rather than one of the Trotskyite factions. He said the Trotskyists seemed to be all young men shouting and he’d had enough of that with Rock & Roll. A far more visionary and sage-like guide would be the Trinidadian marxist CLR James. Whether in 1930’s England agitating for the end to colonialism (and writing the epic history ‘Black Jacobins’), in 1940’s America elaborating a detailed critique of state socialism and Trotskyism, or back in London in the 1980’s delivering an inspiring series of 80th birthday lectures, CLR James’s life and work illuminated a way that was internationalist, marxist and democratic and had no truck whatsoever with self appointed political vanguards.

Towards the end of CLR James life EP Thompson wrote (in utter seriousness and no doubt with a smile on his face) that “I’m afraid that American theorists will not understand this, but the clue to everything lies in his proper appreciation of the game of Cricket”. If you haven’t had the joy of reading CLR James book on cricket (‘Beyond A Boundary’) I’d urge you to get hold of a copy. It’s a gem.