DAVID POCKNEE - 30.05.2019
(SD) Hi David - thanks for taking the time to chat with me today - I’ve been really looking forward
to this, and we can’t wait to have you in Manchester soon for ‘Economics’. Let’s start more broadly.
Your practice is so diverse - composing, curating, writing, performing, coding etc. You’ve studied at
The University of Huddersfield and The Hague and your work has been performed throughout the
UK, Europe and USA. You’re a founding member of the The New Fordist Organisation, you’ve
worked in all kinds of experimental music situations as composer performer (guitarist and
experimental performer) and curator (e.g. Weisslich), and you’ve written extensively about
contemporary art and the attached culture - immediately your Twitter pages ‘@textscoreaday’ and
‘@composeradvice’ come to mind. A connection between the social functions of art and comedy is
at the core of your practice - you ‘grade’ your compositions on your website, you thoroughly take
the piss out of historically informed performance practice (with some hilarious voice impressions!)
and attack the culture of contemporary music/art, in particular intellectualism, without fear and
with so much playfulness. There’s a lot to potentially discuss… where are you at right now and how
did we get here?
(DP) Hi Shaun, it’s great to be talking and it is weird that we’ve been around in the same city for such a long time without meeting! I’m excited about the performance next week.
As to where I'm at right now: I’ve arrived at a strange place in my life. About a month ago, I moved to Berlin to start a job as a researcher at the music technology company Ableton, so where I’m at right now is experiencing this disorienting feeling of sudden change!
(SD) Yeah, very! I suppose I've only been around in this 'scene' for a couple of years though...
(DP) Artistically - I'm as usual - trying to do some more things that I haven't done before: Having done a lot of work which engages in social/cultural aspects of music, I'm interested in trying to write some music which is abstract. One of the things I found interested in doing the @composeradvice twitter feed was that, despite the fact that a lot of days I would say something that people would disagree with, the largest amount of kick-back I got were tweets when I talked about the idea of music having syntax! So that's something I'm trying to explore in a new piece I'm starting to write in June - and I'm going to be live-streaming the entire composition process for educational purposes - so that should be fun!
SD) And what kind of things were people saying about syntax? Now is probably a good time to introduce readers to @composeradvice also. And it hardly seems like something that people would have the biggest issue with, compared to the subject matters in some of the other tweets!
(DP) @composeradvice was a twitter feed I was running from May 2016 until about November 2018 where I would offer "advice" to experimental composers - often little aphorisms that took on conventional musical wisdom.
Yes, I thought it was really surprising the type of gut reactions that composers have to the idea of music having "meaning" or "syntax" - I think partly as a result of there being some terrible literature that promoted these ideas in the past, often as an excuse for forwarding a conservative aesthetic agenda.
One of the things I'm most pleased with about the feed is that a lot of the tweets were later published in Tempo, which I think makes me the only author in the world to have an article solely consisting of tweets published in an academic journal!
(SD) Haha nice... not many can claim to be the only one in the world at something!
On the point of meaning and syntax - I was so guilty of this to the point of basically making up meanings to attach to compositions, because institutionally I was led to believe that was the way. It was only when I started to consider the social implications of this music that any sincerity came into place, and it now seems so bizarre that such an obvious connection was not previously there, and is totally unconsidered or ignored by so many.
(DP) I also think that if music can't have meaning or syntax then listening to any piece would be indistinguishable from listening to white noise!
The social is very important - which I think is why I keep coming back to it
in my work, and also why I end up doing straight comedy youtube videos, like
the "A Long and Complicated Joke" video I did last year where I tell a 20
minute long meta-joke based on the film Inception - laughter really makes
you feel like you're communicating with people.
(SD) The comedy certainly does help with accessibility when seriously
questioning aspects of a culture. I watched that today actually - it was a lot of
fun! I did not expect the ending - it was really moving actually.
Would it be a fair assessment to say that an element of your practice is to
"put yourself in others' shoes"?
(DP) I don't think it's something I've done very much, actually; I think in
general my ability to guess what other people are thinking/feeling is not
something I'm very good at - what aspects of my work made you think
(SD) Just thinking about the current focus on abstraction really.
(DP) I think all of my work has been interested in communicating with people but it's normally done through a process where I presume I am pretty similar to other people and that if I create something that I like, a small sub-set of other people will like it too. Although, now I think about it, if I'm dealing with controversial subject matter (which I've done less and less over the years) or extreme performative actions you do owe it to the audience to think about people's reactions to what you're presenting them.
As I like to say "an audience is a mob waiting to happen" - a conclusion I came to after performing at a really extreme group improv set in The Hague which culminated in a member of the audience throwing a jar of human faeces at us.
(SD) This is golden - I mean, what the hell drives people?
(DP) Full disclosure - it was my faeces.
(DP) Let's just say that if you distribute a jar of your own waste amongst the audience and you keep on provoking them, they might become provoked ...
It felt like a real lesson in social responsibility. And a bit like trying out a spell for summoning satan that you downloaded from the internet and it actually working.
(SD) Wow. Brilliant. I feel pretty confident that readers might want to know more, but yeah... feel free to leave it to imagination!
(DP) Probably best that most of what happened stays in that room!
“I wonder if making more of this information available outside of the university setting in an accessible
way will help bridge that gap through a medium that isn't as class-riven as the Concert Hall?”
(SD) Haha sure! On the topic of The Hague, what did you get up to during your time there, and what did you learn about any differences between attitudes towards new experimental music there and here (UK)?
(DP) I was in The Hague for 5 years - four at the The Royal Conservatoire and one outside. There's definitely a DIY ethos that is more baked into the culture. Following the Notenkrakersactie in 1969 when Dutch composers disrupted a performance of the Nutcracker as a protest against a lack of contemporary programming (there's a paper about it here) there's a tradition of not relying on the institutions and making your own stuff - something which is happening more and more in the UK now, but definitely didn't seem to be the case when I left in 2008.
There's also much more of what would now be called a "new discipline"-style of performance that has been around for much longer than it has in the UK and, when I was there, I took part in and watched so many weird and wonderful performances in squats, old embassies and abandoned schools several years before people over here thought it was cool because people were doing it in Shoreditch!
Also, when I was there the Conservatoire had very cheap fees and very late entrance deadlines which meant that the department was filled with the most wonderful type of eccentrics and weirdos that created a community that you just can't get if you have high fees and early deadlines, as that just draws in well-off people who have their shit together - and I don't think anyone there had their shit together...
Acid Police Noise Ensemble and The New Fordist Organization were two groups I helped found whilst in The Hague - in fact Acid Police gave the first performance of 'Economics' as part of the "Kick The Can" protest concert that was put on to register our displeasure at the normally student-oriented Spring Festival at the Conservatoire being hijacked by the visiting group Bang on a Can.
(SD) So all in all, it sounds likes the UK is a bit behind / more conservative than The Netherlands, and from I hear, Germany too. I'm yet to experience operating overseas... looking forward! This brings us nicely onto one of the focuses of your practice - using spaces outside of the concert hall and more ‘traditional’ spaces, for new experimental music to be shared, something that is at the heart of Kinetic’s ideals. Why, and what have you learned over the years about taking this approach?
Also... lol on the Shoreditch joke... I experienced that place for the first time last Wednesday... yeah...
(DP) I think over the last couple of years there is so much interesting
independent stuff happening in the UK and one of the reasons the
Netherlands was ahead when I moved there was because squatting was
still legal, and so there was a whole set of spaces that were squats or
"anti-kraak" (places occupied for cheap to prevent squatting) which
provided the life-blood of the scenes there. Now a lot of great squats in
The Hague have been closed down and unless you have a network of cheap
venues, experimental art can't function.
I think the best thing about using spaces outside of the concert hall is that
you are able to create the environment that is needed for a piece to work
optimally. Concert halls are acoustically and visually designed for a specific
set of instruments to convey a specific aesthetic, and they aren't always
ideal for every musical work.
I think even modern works that are mostly seen in concert halls often don't
work there because the techniques used upon the instrument produce
unconventional acoustic results which don't work well with the hall.
It felt like a real lesson in social responsibility. And a bit like trying out a spell for
summoning satan that you downloaded from the internet and it actually working.”
Or, even that the density and speed of a piece is not suited to larger spaces - the best performance of Brian Ferneyhough's 'Unity Capsule' I've seen was by Kathryn Williams in the upstairs of a coffee shop in Huddersfield as part of an off/fringe concert I'd co-organised during the Huddersfield Festival - that much detail and energy just dissipates in resonant spaces. I once saw a presentation by Peter Ablinger in which he showed a graph he made plotting "size of venue" against "speed of piece" - the bigger the venue, the longer the echo, the slower the piece...
The beauty of choosing your own space and not taking the concert hall for granted can be that you just choose a venue that acoustically suits the work. Another is that it gives you the opportunity to help the audience move into a psychological space where they will be able to experience the piece in the way you intended. If you've come to a concert straight from work, and you're slightly out of breath because you had to run for the tram, and you're thinking about how you forgot to phone your bank at lunch, a carefully curated space can help someone to leave that at the door to focus on what they are about to experience.
(SD) Would you also say that the formal and perhaps distant nature of the concert hall can be off-putting for some potential audience members? I mean, an orchestral concert feels like an upper class dinner party to me!
(DP) I'm always wary about making blanket statements about the concert hall being off-putting to people because that is often the thing people say when they're about to say something condescending about what would make it less off-putting (which often involves some type of banal use of mobile phones or letting people clap between movements, rather than addressing structural concerns like ticket or drinks pricing). Also, I'm a firm believer in people's curiosity and ability to learn.
I think those spaces can be off-putting because of familiarity but I'm sure a major component of it has a lot to do with the really prominent class divisions we have in the UK. I think that plays into your concept about orchestral concerts being like upper class dinner parties. I went to an opera house for the first time last week (I am 33 years old and a composer) and it felt so unfamiliar that the immediate thing that I thought when walking in was not "this is an Opera House" it was "this reminds me of that level in the video game Hitman: Blood Money" ...
(SD) Sure - it is pretty severe here. I feel that the attached academia and focus on intelligence could well make potential new audiences feel a bit intimidated and uncomfortable. I don't know - maybe it's something I haven't considered thoroughly enough yet, but I know people who are into 'weird' corners of other things (e.g. very experimental rock/metal music) but don't engage in what we call 'contemporary music'. Maybe it's a very loose or even non-existent connection - maybe they just think it's shit!
(DP) I think that this is also to with the fact that 'contemporary music' pedagogy is very difficult to access outside of the university - it's one of the reasons I'm going to be live-streaming the process of composing my next piece. Actually learning about contemporary music is difficult because the educational resources aren't really there, although things are getting better. I'll be really interested to see what impact the contemporary music educators on youtube will have on people's engagement - for instance, Samuel Andreyev has 21,000 subscribers and all he does is analyses of contemporary music works. His latest video on Schoenberg has only been up 10 days but has been watched over 10,000 times! So I wonder if making more of this information available outside of the university setting in an accessible way will help bridge that gap through a medium that isn't as class-riven as the Concert Hall?
The ironic thing is that contemporary music flaunts its intellect but is created in pretty banal ways which anyone could imitate if they knew about them. If you ask a composer and a mathematician about the sophistication of Milton Babbit's use of set theory you will get very different answers...
(SD) Seems like a really worthwhile movement and I'm certainly interested to see the reaction / how it influences things. And surely the art form ought to be more inclusive anyway!
Let's shift direction back to 'Economics'. You mentioned the inception (no pun intended!) of the piece a bit earlier... I think it’s actually the oldest (2010) and most previously performed piece we’ve ever had - from what I can see it’s been performed at least 5 times… has the 2017 version been performed yet? Please tell us about how experiences of the first few performances influenced the revisions made 7 years later.
(DP) I love the fact that 2010 is old for your series!
(SD) *love heart emoji*
(DP) The 2017 version has not been performed so far as I know. I think the first
version is definitely the most performed out of my works. I had the idea of making
some revisions for years but there's always a fear of going back and ruining something
that's working well. A lot of the corrections came about after seeing a performance
that I wasn't happy with, in that I didn't feel the performers got the spirit of the work
and turned it into a bit of a wrote "new music" performance. I later realized the reason
for this was an oversight on my part: although the first few performances had a chaos
and energy that I really loved, that came from specific performers in a specific setting.
For people who weren’t around at that time, the performance practice might not be so
obvious, so I tried to put some indications of the type of performance I was looking
for into the score. I also made a few changes to the rules to mitigate some behaviours
I'd seen in some other performances. My main aim was to try and make it as difficult as
possible to perform the piece badly.
(DP) I think it's popularity comes partly down to the fact that it is a simple set of easily memorizable rules and that it needs very few props or extra equipment. Also, from those small set of rules you get a large and unpredictable chaotic system. The whole idea is very much inspired by the visual artist Hans Haacke's 1960s systems works, like "Condensation Cube" as well as his works like " Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971" in which the idea of the system spills out of the gallery into the real world.
I think the piece plays with a lot of symbols and ideas which people find interesting as well - culture vs. capital / individual vs. collective / agency vs. determinism
(SD) Yeah, for sure it's socially mobile, and accessible/relatable in the way it touches upon very normal aspects of human life. And I'll be sure to check out those works. I'm really excited to see what the Vonnegut Collective do with it - they're seeking out all sorts of toys I believe... what do you think the extreme tightness of the space we're using (it's so tiny for a gig!) could do for the relationship between players and audience members? Especially considering that audience participation is encouraged...
(DP) You know, I really don't know! That's one of the things I find exciting about seeing these types of pieces being performed - they are chaotic systems, in that small changes in the input result in large changes in the output, and those changes then feedback into the system - it's like if you pick up an electric guitar and hold it next to the amplifier it's plugged into until it feedbacks, you can't predict what pitch will come out.
(SD) I absolutely share that excitement of unpredictability. I'm kind of expecting chaos - it's going to be really interesting to see how the audience responds and how that develops over the duration of a performance.
This feels like a nice note to end on. Is there anything you'd like to plug before we wrap things up?
(DP) I haven't got anything to plug at the moment but there is some exciting stuff coming up on the horizon in the next month including starting my composition livestream, a new interactive website about Brion Gysin's permutation poems I've been working on, and a new Huddersfield-based thing that I'm trying to get off the ground. Oh, and I should probably plug my publishing house Much Too Much Noise (http://mtmn.ricercata.org/) - if you like text scores, check out Robert Blatt's "Beach Bums" book!
(SD) All sounds great - best of luck with everything!
(DP) You too! Anyway, really nice to talk to you, Shaun, and it will be great to finally meet next week!
(SD) Yes and you - it's been great. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this, and I look forward to next week!
For more, check out David's website.
The Vonnegut Collective will give the first performances (we think...) of the 2017 version of 'Economics' for Kinetic: SPACE / SENSE at TAKK (HATCH, Oxford Road) on June 9th. Tickets available at www.ticketsource.co.uk/kinetic-manchester.