Whitstable might not seem an obvious location for a summit on the musical avant-garde, but then, before 1946, neither did Darmstadt. This February and last, the Wire magazine and promoters Sound and Music have put on a weekend series of testing lectures – on electronic, improvised and marginalised music – at the Whitstable Playhouse.
There was less theory at Off the Page this year, and less polemic. One of the weekend’s few concessions to debate was a panel discussion, ‘Collateral Damage: Music in a Digital Economy’. Artists and label bosses wrangled over the question of whether web distribution would rescue the industry or condemn it. Chris Cutler, the former drummer of Henry Cow and now head of the label ReR, dished the dirt on Spotify’s measly distribution deals. At the going rate, one of his records would have to be downloaded 12,000 times before he’d be able to cover the cost of making a new one. From the opposite corner, the sound artist Vicki Bennett said that, thanks to the web, she could at least ensure that her music is available to the public and not rotting in a warehouse, and she’d never believed she could make money from selling records anyway: records are calling cards, a way of maintaining a public profile and getting gigs, which is how real money can still be made. Should we acquiesce in the disappearance of small labels and allow artists to take control of the distribution of their material? Would the recording of Giacinto Scelsi’s Viola Works released last year by Mode Records ever have appeared without a label prepared to stump up for production costs? Probably not.
But mostly there was history. Gavin Bryars gave a fascinating talk about his best-known work, The Sinking of the Titanic, due to be endlessly revived this year, which began as a conceptual art piece – instructions on how to imagine the music the ship’s band played as the liner went down – but grew richer when Bryars began to realise it in performance. According to one of the Titanic’s radio operators, the ship’s band struck up with the episcopal hymn ‘Autumn’ once they realised the boat was sinking, so this tune forms the backbone to Bryars’s piece – though because the Titanic was up-ended by this point, Bryars removed the pianist from his ensemble, assuming that the angle of the ship would have made it impossible for him to keep playing. The hymn ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ was played at a memorial service for the drowned, so Bryars included fragments of it in his score; and one survivor worried that the New York Times journalist who spoke to the radio operator had misheard him, and that the hymn the band played was in fact ‘Aughton’, so fragments of ‘Aughton’ crept into the composition too. The Titanic voyage was, according to Bryars, the first time SOS was transmitted in Morse code, so he included it in the piece, tapped out on woodblocks.
The music journalist Dave Tompkins gave a talk on Miami Bass, a kind of randy electro popular in Florida in the late 1980s, the genesis of which he traced back to the sinking of a ship by a German U-Boat off the coast of Jacksonville. The wreck formed an artificial reef covered in coral that could amplify bass frequencies: underwater subwoofers. Tompkins strengthened the connection between military history and Miami Bass with the news that the first person to bring a drum machine to Miami was a member of the US Airforce who saw Afrika Bambaataa in London, asked him how he made his music, bought an 808 on the spot and used it to rock his barracks back home.
Mark Pilkington, who runs Strange Attractor Press, told the story of British magic with musical bolt-ons. Aleister Crowley apparently recorded a song called ‘Vive La France’ in a booth in HMV in 1942 and sent it to De Gaulle. De Gaulle’s secretary wrote back to tell him that the general had been ‘touched by its fine sentiment’.
Andrei Smirnov has spent years digging through archives to excavate the sound art and Noise music scene of Soviet Russia in the 1920s and 1930s. The undersung hero of his talk – one of the scene’s archetypal artist-inventors – was Arseny Avraamov, a pioneer of microtonal music and the author of a tract on sound synthesis that pre-empted the technology of modern analogue synthesisers. Avraamov built a steam-powered organ with 50 pipes and deployed it in his masterpiece, The Symphony of Sirens, which took over the whole of Baku when it premiered in 1922: factories rang their sirens, drivers hooted carhorns, the Caspian fleet, lined up in the bay, blasted foghorns. Avraamov conducted from the top of a purpose-built tower, waving flags. Other pioneers included Eisenstein and Vertov, whose experiments with film soundtracking are relatively well known, and Leon Theremin, who, as well as the aerial synthesiser to which he gave his name, produced the first ever drum machine, the Ritmikon, and the Terpsiton, a synthesiser you could play with your body by dancing on a small platform like a music box ballerina.
Off the Page shows how much there is to be said about music before you even get to the music. The talks, for the most part, used sound as a way into understanding a culture. Even Gavin Bryars’s talk, the one most ostensibly about music qua music, also threw light not only on the Titanic’s world, but on a scene at the end of the 1960s in which adventurous young musicians, bored of university music faculties, took up hanging out in art schools and engaging more with the critical discourse of the artworld than with music theory.
On the final day of the festival, the British performance artists Adam and Jonathan Bohman, with the actress Patrizia Paolini, playfully sent up Off the Page’s whole approach with a deadpan semiotic analysis of a Bruce Springsteen video. The brothers stood at the front of the stage earnestly discussing whether Springsteen’s tank top was typical of the kinds of tank tops worn by car mechanics in Trenton, New Jersey in the mid-1980s, while Paolini, mute, threw air guitar shapes behind them.