Classic Rock

Philip Corner
Rocks Can Fall At Any Time

Corner, amongst many other things, is noted for the performance in the 1960s of his Flux event in Germany that ended in the dismantling and dismembering of a piano. Something that caused a minor scandal at the time, supposedly due to the sacrosanct significance of the piano as cultural symbol, but which in fact was not specified in the instructions for the piece. This twist evidenced a spirit of physicality and utility – apparently the artists would have had to pay someone to remove the piano otherwise. A similar physicality and a thriftiness of sound, expression and presentation is something that Corner retains to this day, selecting and minimally burnishing to reveal delicate expansive impulses latent in simple materials and open structures.

Over the years he has shown a particular affinity for gamelan and metal percussion, a major strand of his work being his Gamelan Son of Lion associated pieces, which explore in a Western context the musical languages and approaches of Indonesian gamelan musics, and his ongoing explorations of resonant metals, which are flavoured very much by those Indonesian influences.

The influence of a heady hash of eastern derived thought systems is also evident throughout his work, be it the ‘Om Duet’ here or a randomly picked title out of many such in the back catalogue such as ‘Uhhm (After a Deep and Tibetan Image)’. Considering this, I have no doubt that the readymade koan of the album title, featured on the road sign photographed in the booklet accompanying this LP, appealed to both Corner’s Fluxus roots and his Eastern mystical leanings. This mix of ingredients hints of a certain time and space, a little American, a little far-out Far-East [1. Father Yod once told us ‘East will meet West and that will be that’. Composers like Corner have been working on a similarly syncretic mission since the sixities.]. A smattering of musicians this mix has manifested to some degree in would include John Cage, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Henry Flynt…no doubt you can also provide your own examples. This mix bubbled up with the Beats as well, and can also be discerned in the counter-culture of Ed Sanders, The Fugs, ESP-Disk, etc. A time and space, like I said. But as is the way with time and space, not limited to one of either.

In Corner’s case from Fluxus he derives a directness of approach, from Indonesia a sense of movement and rhythm, alongside a Japanese Zen-like mindfulness and simplicity. The music here is danced and performed. Rather than the long form, the eternal drone, Corner is interested in discrete, physically derived sounds in the here and now that in their transitory and ephemeral nature – like Blake’s winged joy or the compressed meaning conveyed with a few select symbols (cymbals, in this case) in Japanese poetry – become possible drops of satori.

Sound quality is various degrees of verité – in the case of the earliest recording, a pretty gnarly tape. Wrapped-up and encapsulated succinctly this collection is not (rather like this review, then) – consider it more of an open-ended proposition, comprising historical document, off the cuff performance, sketches, marginalia, off-cuts from an on-going exploration. The four pieces presented represent four disparate points in time and space on our peripatetic composer/performer’s journey, all threaded together loosely through a unity of focus and open approach.

Resonating in physical space, the spinning of the record edge round like a cymbal, we first hear on the A-side ‘Gong (Ceng Ceng)/Ear’, recorded in 1989, in Bali. The piece combines Corner’s solo cymbal work with an exploratory, ritualised, performative edge hinted at as well by photographs and notes

For ‘Two in Thailand’ (performed New York, 1997) the score is reproduced in the notebook. It is a poem in space for cyclical movement, instruments, and sound. Rubbing of cymbals, procession by one performer around another, slow hits on the nipple of a gong. ‘Time is a Man Space is a Woman’ as Blake tells us, which may come to mind as we see in the evocative back cover photograph and hear this personified on record, Corner defining the pulse, circled by the travelling cymbals of Phoebe Neville, his partner in the performance. Many fine filaments of poetic connection can be hung on these choice but earthy elements. The booklet provides more hints for imagination.

Both these percussion and dance pieces have something of a beautiful shimmer of Indonesia about them, a subliminal bloodstream of rhythms of the Gamelan and graceful, stately movements of court dances.

On the B-side we flip back in time to New York, 1972, towards the tape and Fluxus era documented on various excellent Alga Marghen releases. ‘Om: Duet for Jug and Bottle’ (also featuring James Fulkerson) is a primitive, primal piece, a stoned age Jug band mantra. Breath as the beginning. The first letter of the first word of the first paragraph of the first chapter in a monograph on pre-Columbian pottery vessels aspirating and aspiring with burgeoning self-awareness. The cooing of pigeons hidden beyond cool plaster walls, linoleum on the floor of a midnight apartment, for some reason I think of an allegorical figure out of Ginsberg melding with the nocturnal all-vibes, simply the roundness of a bottle and jar in a kitchen at some still hour, emptiness containing the idea of the animating breath.

The final piece, ‘Satie’s Chords of the Rose + Croix … As a Revelation’ presents another aspect of Corner. The side that also has incorporated Baroque keyboard influences from Lully and Couperin. A room recording, cut from the frayed corner of bellows cloth, glow off-stage, creaks of a wooden body and room front and centre with the occasional passing car in the distance or sighed breath, or exhaling instrument. The piece, recorded in 1999 in Vermont, gently teases various Satie related implications viz. entr’acte (a pun almost on the musical interval of the two chords that Corner chooses to explore), rickety furniture music, unadorned as in the ancient Greek gymnos. A wealth of allusion in the lightest, simplest sounds from a room with a squeaky piano stool.

Throughout there is an air of unforced concentration, attuned listening. The rotating of the cymbals against each other or the pumping of the harmonium bellows like quietly observed personal rituals, the dull thump on the gong the tap of a Zen masters stick on his zazen-seated student. Of course, Corner wears this as lightly as baggy pair of unbleached cotton trousers; impression, allusion, wisp of suggestion that can enter and pass like clouds in frame of view. Music of material, of pleasure in, contemplation of. Not overly-determined moments.

Package-wise, whilst the cover isn’t the best ever – the geometric shapes seem a little clumsy when compared to Corner’s fluid calligraphy which has been showcased on other recordings – the documentary material included is excellent. The booklet contains writings, descriptions and notes on each piece, graphic score, notation, sketches etc – all intriguing and thought-provoking – and helps to shed light on what we hear on the record.

Taken as a whole, the collection of material is somewhat fragmentary, by nature, although the concept of the definitive piece would not, I imagine, be an over-riding concern of Corner’s. We only have fragments of Heraclitus, after all [2. Speaking of flow, some of my favourite pieces by Corner are those involving his kitchen sink.]. What we hear through each recording is interplay of intuitive movements and simple ideas executed with a magnanimity and lightness of touch which pay attention to the extra-musical harmonies and happy accidents of time, place and material. A scrapbook of thoughts and actions, attuned to dance, movement, sonority and rhythm, modest, quietly assured and engaging, which can indicate plenitude found in the partial and hint at intimations of the infinite OM in the momentary and ephemeral.

Not pinned down too much by the stylus these four documents, although quiet and sometimes unassuming, retain a sense possibility. The possibility of lightbulbs flashing on, of illumination stemming from connection with the basic and physical considered mindfully – of rocks falling at any time.