I’m trying to publish a bunch of half-finished reviews before summer begins in earnest, so here’s a long-delayed report from a really excellent evening of experimental music back in April at Manchester’s Soup Kitchen: the first VIRTUALLYREALITY event of 2019. Headliner Joe Snape presented his new audio-visual set Joyrobix, as part of a UK tour with the Slip imprint whose co-founders Laurie Tompkins and Suze Whaites provided support. The evening began with a solo set from VIRTUALLYREALITY artistic director Michael Brailey. While there were certain threads that ran through all three performances (the use of video, and the denaturing of the voice and of pop music), what I found particularly compelling about the programme was its progression from one, to two, to three performers, and the ways in which each item reflected the unique qualities of its distribution of forces — solo, duo, trio — as a musical and dramaturgical dynamic.
There could hardly be a more absolute representation of musical ‘solo-ness’ than Michael Brailey’s contribution, presenting a suite of compositions for his own voice, electronic track and projections. Brailey’s electronic constructions provided an environment for his amplified voice to inhabit. His voice is fragile and potentially vulnerable — moving from falsetto to creaking vocalisations and back — but the tracks provide cover, camouflage, a flock of bodiless voices to float alongside, a sonic landscape that is as chaotic and as unpredictable as his vocal phrases.
I found the performance gesturing towards two familiar aesthetic strategies of contemporary musical queerness: 1) the performative vulnerability of the exposed (falsetto) voice — its poignant fallibility, especially in starkly sincere professions of tenderness or sadomasochistic desire — and 2) the post-human or trans-human as queer horizon (often via the digital or virtual realm). Both strategies can be interesting on their own or fed through each other in various ways, but I was particularly struck by their combination in Brailey’s presentation.
This is because, unlike potentially comparable artists like Arca or ANOHNI or Jamie Stewart who present their audiences with the live fetishised spectacle of their vulnerability, Brailey’s performative ‘exposure’ (promised by the intimacy of his lyrics and vocal texture) was interrupted by the staging of his performance. He stood on the floor with his back against the stage — not up on the stage but on the same level as the audience — as if they’d backed him into a corner. To me, this stance came across as a defensive and certainly not ‘opened up’ in the manner of the above artists. He wore a long black tunic and was lit only by a projector screen depicting grids and diagram. The effect was one of hiding in plain sight, the composer-performer blinding himself (by staring into a screen) to avoid seeing us, obscuring his face and body just as the track obscured his voice. In short, it felt like he had contrived a way to physically escape the live situation, to be transported somewhere else (into the electronic track?), and that the audience weren’t to be included in this.
As frustrating as these staging decisions were to someone who loves the interpersonal frisson of the live encounter, they had the effect of opening up another set of associations that intensified certain aspects of Brailey’s ‘solo-ness’: the escape of the queer body into the digital realm, the safety provided by digital mediation, webcams, Instagram filters, Grindr and its typologies and anonymities, chatroom identities and tailored avatars, pornotopias, etc. The desire, perhaps, to leave the body behind: to distill oneself into pure vocals, and embed those vocals into a perfectly queer landscape designed specially to accommodate them.
As it so happened this ‘interrupted vulnerability’ was itself interrupted by two further developments, one negative and one positive. Firstly, as well as performing, Brailey acted as compere: a role that clashed strongly with his performance persona, and could probably have been undertaken by someone else, allowing the dramaturgical integrity of his set to be maintained. Secondly, and more positively, his set ended with a particularly striking piece in which the composer — sat in a chair with his face illuminated — sang long notes that were rhythmically modulated along with the lighting, in an integration of live action and mediated effect, sound and vision, whose synchronicity set it qualitatively apart from the previous suite. It felt hopeful to me because, in comparison to what felt like a retreat into an unreal zone of bodiless queer consolation, here at least was a gesture towards agency: the possibility of withholding voice/sound, and on the flip side, the affirmative decision to bestow it.
Inherent in Brailey’s music was its assumed identity with the artist himself — his voice, his body, his desires, his affective states — and thus its inseparability from him as an individual composer-performer. The music is particular to him and thus cannot truly be opened up or co-owned by other performers. This ‘identity’ between artist and work appears typical of a widespread trend across various genres of music (and other art forms) at the moment, not least in the work of queer artists, for whom it can be used to claim a kind of sovereign self-knowledge, self-understanding and self-representation (which is clearly of value to these artists). Nevertheless, beautiful as Brailey’s opening set frequently was, the subsequent performance — Laurie Tompkins’s and Suze Whaites’s Coop— came as a significant relief to me. Moreover, it was a relief in that it actually pointed to what is (for me) a more hopeful modality of queerness, moving from the queer desires of the individual body, to the ‘queerness’ of children (as discussed in Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure) and modes of togetherness that are pre-sexual.
Laurie and Suze’s performance was as perfect a disquisition on ‘duo-ness’ as Brailey’s was on ‘solo-ness’ (I can only assume that the title is an intentional play on ‘co-op’). We are presented with two performers facing each other over a table on which there is a selection of objects, keyboards and scores/scripts, all largely obscured by darkness. The performance resembled what might be described as a shared mania, shifting primarily between shouting and yelling, and vigorous percussive striking of the objects. The vocal work was really extraordinary: both performers tracing the contours of spoken phrases bent entirely out of shape, hammering them with violently absurd accentuation and intonation. While the rawness and roughness of the musical materials available meant that all attempts at unison were ultimately imperfect, the two performers shared a powerful unity of intent, with each closely following the other on flights of the utmost unpredictability, responding to each new direction or decision with an immediate renewed impetus, an absolute commitment to join, to mimic, to mirror, to travel alongside.
The dynamic resembled two children at play — siblings perhaps, with Whaites the younger sister in awe of and totally dedicated to Tompkins her older brother — seizing new ideas rather than testing or negotiating as we might read in more ‘adult’ improvisation scenarios. From their performance, the duo emerges as a deeply touching format for experimental music. The experimental solo is often a spectacle of absolute Otherness, of madness: a suggestion of how far we would have to travel to cross the gulf of difference between subjective universes. Yet the duo is a testament to the possibility of crossing that gulf, however bizarre and seemingly unstable a shared musical world is created as a result. It is a demonstration of joining, of being together with or acting in tandem with, and in the case of Laurie and Suze, this enacted togetherness ultimately cultivates a physical closeness/contact.
As with the previous set, Coop was ostensibly an audio-visual piece, with a projected video displayed throughout; however, I can’t say the video played much of a role in my experience of the performance. I was too attracted by the activities of the live duo, and found myself frustrated by their consignment to a dark corner of the stage. Whaites’s video did have the effect of breaking up the performance into boldly coloured sections, each associated with a long shot in which some arrangement of objects or materials was slowly transformed. I suppose it functioned in a similar way to some of the instrumental elements of the piece (resembling the inbuilt demos and click tracks that a child might use to make music from an old keyboard) in that it afforded a kind of material base for the performers to rub against or splash around in. Nevertheless, there was something perverse about foregrounding such slowly developing images, with the riot of activity going on a few metres to their left kept in near darkness. I wanted the duo to be fully lit and centre stage, taking ownership of the fact that their performance was already an audio-visual extravaganza.
I should emphasise that the deployment of video in live musical performance is a particular bugbear of mine. I find the introduction of video into a concert setting — and, indeed, the decision to perform a film score live — very rarely justified and I think it often assumes some kind of automatic surplus of ‘cross-media’ or ‘inter-media’ interaction, when in reality the two presentational modalities usually just cancel each other out. Having said this though, Joe Snape’s Joyrobix— the final set of the evening — is without doubt one of the best examples of an audio-visual musical performance I’ve ever seen.
Joyrobix was performed by the composer (on keyboards, vocals, and various knobs and dials), Louise Snape (on trumpet, vocals and glockenspiel), and Jethro Cooke (on guitar): a trio whose ‘trio-ness’ was as distinct from Laurie and Suze’s ‘duo-ness’ as the latter were from Brailey’s ‘solo-ness’. Positioned in a line, facing out into the room, behind music stands and an arsenal of sound-making devices, they were most definitely a band, presenting a united front. The desk of instruments arrayed in front of them (with a focus on mechanical, tactile approaches to both electronic and acoustic sound production), in combination with the large scores, exuded precision and purpose, which was all the more significant given the absolute deliquescence of the music, its swilling and spilling through stylistic moulds, evading any real tonal, metrical or stylistic crystallisation.
Tucked to the right of the central screen but thankfully still illuminated, the trio also presented themselves as a pit band: the piece was most definitely an exercise in live scoring. However, rather than attempting to efface themselves as ‘faithful servants’ of the film’s soundtrack, the performance seemed to acknowledge the complex relationship between live performance and recorded images, the live and the mediated, the ‘now’ and the ‘then’. Indeed, for me, it was a piece about live scoring (among other things).
The visual dimension of Joyrobix — a sequence of ten films by video artist Leonie Brandner — constituted a set of variations on a strong cinematographic theme. I would attempt to sum up this theme as evoking ‘behind-the-scenes’ or ‘the making of…’ films (perhaps for music videos or lo-fi stop motion), set in loft apartments and post-industrial warehouse spaces in which makeshift sets have been constructed from a limited, DIY range of materials and props. The films conjured up green-screen footage before post-production, stand-ins, placeholders taped to the floor, demonstrations of practical effects, but with no discernible ‘final product’. The recurring motif of an actual television screen onscreen further emphasised this ‘deferment’ of the hypothetical project’s ‘realisation’. But this footage is soundtracked all the same.
As it is, we get the impression of a live soundtrack being produced not for a final film but for the rushes, the offcuts, the backstage snippets, and this ‘prematureness’ characterises Snape’s music as well as Brandner’s video. It is a kind of amniotic alphabet soup of elements, gesturing towards some future functionality or form that will never now be achieved. Snape’s vocalisations — a key element of the piece’s soundworld — provide a good illustration of this, suggesting no particular emotion or even expression beyond vocalising for its own sake, like the singing of a baby. And yet the score is, in its own way, so perfectly synchronised with the video — each cut, each edit, each shift in perspective — that it serves as its own form of post-production, preserving the film in a perpetual state of process, putting a glossy sheen on what could be a schematic diagram or screen test.
The result is a celebration of making qua making, of craft, DIY and pure poiesis, which recalls children’s art TV shows but also a whole plethora of Youtube genres, from tutorials and ‘life hacks’ to viral OK Go videos. These are the sorts of videos that went on to define platforms like Vine and TikTok, and Snape’s occasionally cartoony flourishes of synchronisation speak as much to the contemporary absurdism of Bad Lip Reading and shred videos as they do to silent film comedy and Dadaist exercises in mistranslation. What’s more, the images and objects that recur through these films — and extend onto the live stage as set decorations — function as totems of the kind of self-celebrating artificiality or theatricality that these platforms represent: sparklers, confetti canons, fairy lights, balloons (filled with fruit juice), silver foil, a disco ball, fake parrots, a goldfish in a tank. Little closed circuits of joy.
Returning to the evening’s progression from solo to duo to trio, Brandner’s films take us further, beyond the trio (or the ‘band’) to a larger order of group: the collective, the commune, the corpus of young artists engaged in the activity of these videos, making and doing and performing together. Perhaps it is a glimpse of unalienated time, of unalienated labour, of a product that is always already a process and vice versa, of true creative communitas. And while the piece’s marketing copy mentions ‘a musical America that doesn’t quite exist’, for me the geographical reference can only be to the city of its creation: Berlin, or a fantasy Berlin. The contemporary dream of Berlin as creative utopia.
Following an exuberant all-dancing finale, the final scene of Joyrobix brought the whole performance together for me in a rather devastating gesture of lingering melancholy. We are left watching a duet between two sets of fairy lights: the same set of fairy lights onstage and in the video. They are cycling through the same pre-set flashing sequence, but not quite in sync — at a canon of five seconds or so — and we are suddenly made to feel the distance between the trio, present onstage in Manchester, and the group in their collective space onscreen. The relationship between live musicians and onscreen performers comes to reflect that of the onscreen performers and the hypothetical ‘finished’ or ‘post-production’ version of their creations, which can never be fully accessed. Perhaps the distance between live and recorded performance is merely geographical — Manchester and Berlin — or perhaps it is chronological: present and past, or present and future. Or perhaps, like so many music videos, the spaces represented onscreen and the activities within them represent some kind of ideal space that the musicians are trying to access (like Brailey in his digital queertopia), to participate in, through the synchronisation of their actions to those of the onscreen performers.
What we’re left with (and this is very much in keeping with Snape’s previous work, which offers what I think is a fascinating musical correlate to the tendency that Raoul Eshelman has called ‘performatism’ in film and literature) is musical performance as the profession of an absolute (childlike) sincerity in the face of doubt, deconstruction and dissolution. The videos appear to be a demonstration of a set of practices (the ‘Joyrobix’ of the title?) structured around a space and a community, almost cult-like. These are practices without clear results or outcomes, and yet what we are being shown is an affective commitment, a total participation, a shared belief in these practices: the opening up of a shared world (like that of Laurie and Suze) to include an entire community.
And the onstage trio act as the Evangelists, reaffirming this belief onstage, transporting the recorded scenes from past to present through the magic ritual of synchronisation and asking us to bear witness to it: to a meaning or logic that is utterly impenetrable, wordless, affectless, primordial, and yet demonstrably efficacious. In this sense, it could be seen as an affirmation of affirmation itself.