review by Nick Cain
JohnWall and Alex Rodgers interviewed by
Richard Pinnell for the WIRE 2011
May 2006: John Wall is standing at the side of the stage at London’s ICA. He's hunched behind a mixing desk that sends a recording of his electronic composition to an impressive, specially configured sound system. He has been here before, almost a decade earlier, in similar circumstances, but the task now is no less daunting. The sizeable audience is impressed by what they hear: carefully constructed, precisely crafted assemblages made up of hundreds of tiny samples. But Wall leaves that night frustrated and disenchanted, certain only of the conviction that something has to change about the way he works.
For more than a decade previouly, Wall had built a name for himself as one of the most exciting experimental composers working with the new digital technology. Over seven albums, from 1993’s Fear Of Gravity to 2005’s Cphon, he worked alone in his home studio welding together increasingly smaller and more complex samples and sound fragments to build compositions that became steadily shorter as they took increasingly longer to create. Beginning with his early albums with samples culled from his CD collection, through to the later works that used sounds specifically recorded for him by improvising musician friends, Wall’s compositions were received with acclaim, drawing critical parallels with the likes of Lachenmann, Parmegiani and even Xenakis. His approach to composition became increasingly detailed, and it took him more than two years to complete the 20 minute Cphon. The journey towards concluding that CD had been long, arduous and all-encompassing. At one point, when he thought he had finished the piece, he played it to a friend, who after listening attentively, told him that while most of it sounded incredible, one small section felt weaker than the rest. This set him back again as he returned to his computer and closed the studio door behind him for a further six months. Wall’s reputation as an uncompromising perfectionist impressed some and frustrated others, but after Cphon’s release and his experience on stage at the ICA the following year later, he was desperate to find a new, less torturous way to work. Talking with him recently at his North London home studio, he still sounds annoyed about the position he found himself in: “It stems from that concert at the ICA, which of course wasn’t really a concert, I was just playing something back in a sterile situation. I had the realisation there and then that I was just so utterly bored listening to my own material in that environment. I knew I had to change something, I knew that for sure. At that point I just knew it couldn’t go on that way.”
A chance meeting with laptop musician Lee Gamble at a backroom gig at London’s Red Rose Club set Wall thinking that maybe improvisation could be the way to go: a possible means of loosening the shackles that had bound him creatively for so long. Several years later, after a string of live concerts in his new role, Wall has reappeared with a new CD on the Entr’acte label, Work 2006–2011, a collaborative composition born out of work with one of his regular improvising partners, the poet and artist Alex Rodgers. Typically for Wall, though, the journey to this point hasn’t been an easy one, and the new album isn’t a straight recording of improvisation. “I didn’t have any real ideas at the start,” he says, “I just floundered around for a while, trying to find new ways of coming up with stuff. It wasn’t that I immediately thought about going into improvisation, I just knew I had to come up with some way of working that wasn’t the same selfconscious hard grind. So when I met Lee, and we got on, and began working together, initially not with any great sense of organisation, it felt great. But it wasn’t just the music; it got me out of my studio, which was important. The social element made a real difference. I needed that extra something outside of me, meeting people, getting out there, doing something different. Eventually we thought, ‘Well, we might as well organise a concert, an improvised concert’, and things just went from there. My original idea was to use this scenario to create ‘material’ that I could then go on to use in a potential composition. This hasn’t fully realised itself yet the way I intended it to, but this new improvisation experience has lead to how I have worked on the new CD with Alex.”
Wall has been selective over his improvising collaborators, but one significant meeting was with bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders, two of the musicians Wall had asked to generate sounds for his earlier compositions, raw material he would shape and sculpt into something completely new. They played a couple of trio concerts in 2009. “I was so surprised that it worked as easy as it did. It really seemed natural. I could keep up with them, and didn’t overwhelm them, two things that I had been worried about. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, though, having known them so long, and having sampled the fuck out of them for so many years!”
Inspired by these successes, Wall pushed on, performing at a string of concerts that saw him gradually find his voice in an improvised setting. He discovered the open source software lloopp and its various derivations, using it to bend and shape prepared samples in live situations. Keen for more honesty about his role as a computer based musician, he began to work more with purely digital sounds. The treated instruments of his earlier compositional works were still there somewhere, but twisted and mangled to the degree that all their original acoustic presence was lost. Lacking the technological knowhow with software like SuperCollider, though, and unwilling to learn now that he had entered his sixties, Wall has taken to giving sounds to more savvy friends to “mess up a bit”, in a way reflecting his earlier use of sounds created by friends, and also conjuring images of the master painter having colours mixed for him, canvases stretched, brushes prepared.
Despite the focus on improvisation, Wall still found himself spending hours in his studio, pulling these raw materials into minutely constructed sections ready for use in the live context. “I’ve never actually abandoned all sense of composition,” he explains. “I would make these little sections, mini-compositions if you like, samples, or rather composites of many samples, maybe up to a couple of minutes long, quite complex, but put together under the condition that they would be used in an improvisational environment, changed in certain ways, manipulated in the live situation.” While the live improvisations have not yet produced complete compositions that Wall feels able to share with the wider world, the task of preparing sounds has generated material, and a lot of it, with some of it finding its way in some form onto Work 2006–2011.
For Wall, the move into improvisation has been vital. It has blown away the cobwebs formed from years of lonely studio frustrations and reawakened his creative energies. Ever the contrarian, Wall has turned to improvisation just as so many improvisors are increasingly adopting compositional strategies, but it is clear that his heart will always remain in the studio, where he can retain complete control. “The next thing for me will probably see me returning to composition again, maybe alongside the improvisation. This new CD with Alex is basically a composition that I have put together, and it has made me realise that this is what I do best. In many respects I’ve also discovered that I don’t want to listen again to what I’ve done in an improvisation. It’s just something that exists in one time and space, and has a certain validity in that context, but outside of that space I’d rather just let it lie there and move on.
“I guess with the improvisation I am trying to create something that has a compositional value, but on the hoof, if you like. I’m not just throwing sounds around. It is certainly different, though. For instance, I did some gigs at the Foundry and I really enjoyed doing them, but they were all about there and then. There’s this sense of the social context, how the night was, how I enjoyed being with the people there. Then there’s the volume – you just don’t get it like that back at home. So everything that really made that occasion, everything that existed in that space, is lost when you try and listen back later. It’s a weird situation, because I enjoy improvising a lot, but when I hear what I did later, all I hear are the flaws, the bad decisions, the naff sounds here and there. I hear just the failures, and while failure is fine it needs to stay in that room. This whole situation is quite against the nature of my personality, which naturally tries to impose some sort of control over everything I’m working on, but with the improvisation I can arrive at a point where I don’t know what the hell is happening. But I’ve found I quite like being in that position.”
The loss of control, and the need to accept failure as a possibility, are elements that would not have been found in John Wall’s music of a decade ago. His tolerance of these necessities has not been as difficult as might be imagined, though, and Wall just shrugs his shoulders at the changes he has gone through. “Part of it this lies with the fact that I just care less these days. Now, I don’t mean this to be misunderstood, but it’s about losing the ‘preciousness’ of it all. To be very clear: I still approach the sounds, the samples, and how I make them the same, I still want them to be just right, but when we look at the world, all the things that are going on out there right now… You know, I’m known for being a bit of a pessimist, but you’ve got to ask yourself where the world is going, and then you have to ask where do you place yourself in all of this mess? This is something that Alex and I constantly talk about – what is a valid form of cultural activity in this situation? So this sense of not caring as much when you consider the work against the bigger picture is something that has grown in me over recent years, and yet at the same time I constantly contradict myself in that I’ve spent a lot of time on this new CD. I’ve considered it in minute detail, and parts that others wouldn’t think important I’ve spent hours and hours on. So maybe we are back to the old John Wall really.”
Whichever John Wall was at work on the new album with Alex Rodgers, it certainly sounds like a significant departure from his previous releases. Wall’s sounds are more fluid, and thoroughly digital, still full of tiny detail and leaping contrasts between loud and quiet, but now they have a real menace to them, a snarling, barbed wire edge that leaves the listener feeling assaulted. For those that heard the earlier albums but have not been able to keep up with Wall’s more recent improvisational explorations, it will come as a bit of a shock. My suggestion that improvising has directly influenced his sound is one he acknowledges, but guardedly, since things didn’t go quite the way he planned. “In theory, going into improvisation was a means to generate, in a more fluid and unrestricted way, sound material for future compositions. I had wanted to achieve something like the way I had seen and heard good improvisors arrive at certain sonic spaces which I couldn’t do in the studio, but it doesn’t seemed to have worked out that way. Most of my live improvisations, when and if they worked, worked because of the time and place they were created in, the volume and quality of the sound system and the immediate environment, all coupled with my personal head space at the time…
“This new CD must be considered as a complete composition that has obviously has been influenced by my last five years of improvising, but my original intention was turned on its head and I ended up composing short, complex sound files, generated entirely in the studio, specifically to play in live situations, intended to be heavily manipulated, layered, etcetera… These sound files are the ones that have found their way on to the CD. They have then been edited and composed and woven around and onto Alex's solo recordings and some of our studio improvisations together. Working at the improvisations just generated sound material. Ultimately that thing called composition rears its ugly head when you try to corral all of this material together. Sequences of sounds have to make sense together, otherwise you just get a ‘sound sample library CD’, disconnected bits that carry no emotional, aesthetic, structural or conceptual weight. Just more shit filling up time and space.”
I pushing Wall further, trying to pinpoint what drives his decision making processes, how he decides which sounds make the cut, where he draws the cursor across the screen. His response is predictably difficult. “How long is a piece of string? Intuition plays a big part, combined with many hours spent working with the material.” Clearly he knows his material very well. Many of the sounds that appear on the new album have been with him for many years, but have followed him on his journey, often becoming completely altered along the way, but he has a clear idea of their provenance. Sitting with him in his studio, he will repeatedly reach for the mouse and illustrate his thoughts by picking out a particular part of a composition on the screen, showing how it came to be, how it was manipulated.
Even as the music has become a little looser and free flowing, he can still pin down its origins. The one compositional decision making process he seems to be able to articulate clearly is knowing when it is time to stop. “When two contradictory emotions hit equilibrium. When I’m sick to death of hearing it and I’m unable to find any fault in it. As for what it is that make me choose that particular moment to stop working on the piece? Well, again, how long is that piece of string?”
Wall has also made it clear that he has no interest in disguising the sound of his computer, and the departure from any recognisable instrumental sounds for this new project is another marked change in his working methods. “Well, if I am going to deal with this machine, this computer, then I want to get to the essence of what this thing is all about. I am producing data sounds with a computer: they may have begun life as something else, but that is what they are now, and I don’t want to pretend otherwise. Regardless of whether it is successful or not, that is not the issue; it’s to do with the honesty of the engagement. I’m convinced that there are possibilities within computer music to make meaningful work.”
However, while assured of the possibilities of the computer as a music making instrument, Wall is wary of the idea that new technology automatically generates interesting music: “New digital sounds generated by new software or a computer programming language does not automatically imply, just because they may be new to our ears, for a few days at least, that they might be good or relevant or lasting or whatever. All sounds will inevitably become ‘old’ sounds. So what other qualities would these sounds need to have to be able to say something to us now and in the future? If we assume that the post-oil, medieval future that faces us will feature some sort of digital playback system – sarcasm intended – and also assuming that most people who listen to or create this type of music do give a fuck about whether their efforts last, well, then we are back with that old chestnut: structure and composition, how one sound follows another with its its own structural logic. If that isn’t there then, as I said before, it’s just a sound sample library CD useful for giving your dance tracks a bit of edge.”
Now in his sixties, John Wall is increasingly and angrily pessimistic about the world around him, and his frustration and contempt for so much of the human race’s condition can be heard in Work 2006–2011. But he has also found a perfect working companion in Alex Rodgers. The poet’s contributions are acerbic, partly surreal spoken word parts that are delivered in a gruff, raw voice tinged with a sense of Beckettian hopelessness wrapped in an Essex accent. A self-confessed bitter and angry commentator, Rodgers isn’t really at home making CDs. “I’ve never really wanted to have much to do with that fucking nonsense,” he says.
A friend of Wall’s for more than 20 years, Rodgers is something of the archetypal outsider artist. At art college in the post-punk years of the early 1980s, he has remained active ever since as a visual artist and poet, but has remained vehemently antagonistic to the mainstream art world ever since, a trait he shares with Wall and a key driving force behind both their personal and creative relationship. In his twenties he messed about in groups around the vibrant Essex scene, but his love of words, inherited from his parents, always led him to return to writing his anarchic, fractured form of poetry alongside any musical or visual art. He tells me that while he has little to show for his efforts – no books, no exhibition catalogues, no CD releases prior to this one – he has never stopped working hard. “I used to spend hours carving something into the tiniest of stones, I’d do that a lot, but then just throw it away straight after. I also spent years writing an infinite number of ‘wraths’ on the walls of toilets, so maybe only men could ever see them, but I put a lot of work into it. They were just lines of stuff I’d written, maybe poetry then, and I named them wraths after a line from a brilliant AR Ammons poem that went something like, ‘The townsfolk returned to their small wraths of ease’. I really like that hard working creative sensibility, but I just can’t stand all the fucking fannying about with the morons that run all of the art world. I’ve done a lot of stuff, but I’ve avoided all of that. I’ve been working hard for many years, but few people knew it. John knows it, so maybe that’s why we can work together.”
Now a resident of Cornwall, where he lives with his partner, Rodgers splits his time between bringing up his daughter and working by day building stage sets for business conferences and (if he’s lucky) theatre groups. His outward persona of the middle aged labourer with a chip on his shoulder hides a sharp, intelligent mind. On Work 2006–2011, Rodgers’s words come across as disjointed and sometimes unconnected, like some kind of aural automatic writing, but he is at pains to make it clear he is not just burbling random words in a stream of consciousness manner. “I could claim to be really high-minded about it, and on one level the meaning of my words is really important. The words you hear on the CD are all carefully written and selected from a lot of work. It’s like that Paul Klee quote, ‘taking a line for a walk’: I start off early in the morning, after a lot of coffee, and there’s an idea, a particular seed if you like, and I just take it with me during the day to see where it goes. There are usually two things in my head, that initial seed and then the urge to play about with it, see what happens. I like the idea of being illusory, which is something John also does very well in a kind of abstract way, that idea of playing the fool with something actually really important. Much of what you hear on the CD was recorded on a really cheap MP3 recorder in hotel rooms while away with work and often pretty ill, coughing and spluttering and stuff, but the words aren’t just randomly thrown out there.”
As the title suggests, Work 2006–2011 was pulled together from elements collected over a five-year period, but the duo had never set out to make a CD. Somewhere along the line, their experiments together suggested something to Wall, but it was the interest, attitude and encouragement of Entr’acte label boss Allon Kaye that provided the inspiration to put the disc together. Rodgers took some convincing, but Wall has always thrived on the input of others, and the injection of both Rodgers’s recorded voice and his contribution to the way Wall works in the studio were very welcome. “I’ve always asked people to listen to the music for me as I compose it,” Wall acknowledges. “One reason for asking someone’s opinion is for them to expose the weaknesses in the work and to reinforce your own criticism of it. This validation of your doubts is all that is needed to get on with the removing, reworking of the offending parts and finish the work. Alex played an even greater role but his input worked in a similar way.”
Perhaps only the trust he felt in an old friend made Rodgers’s first venture into published work possible, but while Wall undertook all of the compositional work, Rodgers didn’t just sit back. “John does whatever he feels he needs to do with the stuff, but he knows how far he can go, and I do say no at times. The ‘sense’ of things is what matters, and if he changes the sense of my words then I stop him.” Rodgers didn’t veto very much, though, and his presence and influence has in fact helped unstick the glue that has held John Wall’s output in abeyance for so long. The likelihood of the floodgates now opening is somewhat slight, but this one might keep us going for the next three or four years.