Speed Beyond that Limit

Last heard from Langham Research Centre with their excellent Tape Works Vol. 2 – a very considered sound-essay on modernism in 20th century culture. Today’s item Live at IAF Shop (DETERRA 021) is a shade less formal, and captures three of the Langhams – Felix Carey, Iain Chambers, and Robert Worby – performing live in Japan in 2018.

The IAF Shop is a tiny art gallery and performance space in Fukuoka, where a maximum of 20 people can squeeze into the room, hence a perfectly intimate spot to enjoy the music from these fine English players. Worby points out in his enclosed letter that the tape “presents the spontaneity, rigour and even humour that might be experienced at a performance.” They did it with a combination of tapes (hopefully played right there in the room on cumbersome open-reel machines), radio sets, a Monotron synth, plus various “amplified small sounds”. A short and snappy set (the whole cassette barely plays for 30 mins) includes two Worby pieces, one by Chambers, and notably a piece by John Cage (about which more shortly). The first Worby piece ‘Perpetual Motion’ is a delight of retro-future explorations, with quite startling effects and unusual sounds, reined in by a sense of discipline and a strict rigour in the timing. At just over four mins, it reminds us that LRC can be reckoned as exceptionally good miniaturists, with no nonsensical meandering in their tight well-ordered compositions. Conversely ‘Accarezzo’ by Chambers strikes quite a different mood, full of ambiguity and uncertainty as it depicts an abstract zone; in 2019, Chambers released his Eccentric Press LP themed on the sounds of machinery, and informed by a very wry look at the mechanized world. This piece is informed by the same sceptical outlook.

The set closes with another Worby work ‘Nachholbedurfnis’, preceded by a moment where he shares a brief John Cage aphorism with the audience and is obliged to ask his host to translate it into Japanese. There’s a precious second or two of humourous tension as the patient Japanese fellow thinks how best to render the rather simple concept of “music is just one thing after another”, but there’s also a certain gravity in the way that Worby (or whoever it is) states his claim with conviction. There follows 7:30 minutes of short and bitty sound events, assembled into a chain of circumstance where we are indeed invited to see the connections between these somewhat disconnected and jumbled fragments, including sound effects, tape murk, and synthesized bleakness. Again, the deliberation with which the Langham team execute this challenging piece with its multiple forms is really something to behold; it emerges as a very truthful portrait of something, and there’s some continuity with the seriousness of the preceding Chambers piece. Evidently, LRC have managed to crack the code on John Cage in a way which still eludes me personally, and not only that they’ve turned Cage’s utterances into a very productive means of working.

Which brings us to their version of ‘Variations I’ on the A side. I think they picked this one deliberately for the Japan connection, since it was performed in that country in 1962. Originally scored in 1958 and dedicated to David Tudor, this work apparently manifests itself as a bunch of transparent squares printed with points and lines; you arrange them any which way and build up a system of axes and grids, which can be interpreted as sounds and as characteristics of sounds. I myself can’t think of anything less promising, but as played by Langham Research Centre, it turns into an exciting melange of disconnected episodes, short sounds, sound effects, and other snippets, some of them captured on radio sets, held together with grinding tape gears and swooping synth darts. The radio samples, presumably captured there and then from the Japanese airwaves, are among the most engaging elements of this puzzling swirl-a-thon, creating a simple but very effective collage effect, a glimpse of real-world actions and events leaking into the art-music as if glimpsed through tiny windows. This is one aspect of Cage that I do dig, and I believe he repeated the experiment on a grand scale with multiple radios or TV sets, proving that “music” was all around us and that unique performance could be created by simply tuning in the correct device, and framing it as a work of art. For some reason I continue to mistrust the American composer, but these English players (who did a whole set of Cage music for the Sub Rosa label) somehow make it more palatable, and succeed admirably in this instance.

While this cassette may be a modest and brief footnote in their career, it has a warmth and humour you might not find on their highly accomplished studio recordings. Very welcome release; also you gotta love the white shirts and ties they’re wearing on the cover, a nod to Kraftwerk, but done in a slightly unkempt fashion which is somehow very endearing. From 9th September 2021.