John Cayley – ‘sleeve notes’

John Cayley’s ‘sleeve notes’ for the the first performance of ‘The Exchange’ in 2001

When Giles Perring was asked for a solo performance his initial reaction was not positive. Playing and performing music is something that he thinks of doing ‘in a band’ or together with other musicians.

Typically his solution to this dilemma was both innovative and paradoxical. In this recording you have the published manifestation of a Giles Perring solo work which involves the live, real-time performances of twenty musicians and artists. At the moment of delivery the majority of the performances, including Perring’s, are improvised, but the overall structure of the piece and certain kernels of its content are carefully composed. There are arbitrary factors – chiefly whether or not a particular phone line was open – influencing the order in which the performances occur and how they overlay, but these are constrained by a scheduled program of calls and callers. Some of the performers do, in the event, play with one another, and Perring responds to all the performances, but players are remote, and the vast majority, with the exception of Perring, cannot hear or hear clearly what is going on. It would be more accurate to say that Perring is, himself, playing these remote performances themselves, solo.

Does this sound like an unpromising conceptual experiment? Judge for yourself. The result is moving and affective. In certain sections the piece does indeed partake, unashamedly, of a resistant, improvisational aesthetic. But it is also, to my ear, consistently engaging in way which is relatively undemanding in terms of a particular musical expertise or artistic investment. Perring confesses that one of his ‘holy grails’ might be to produce a full-on, no-compromise experimental work which any- and everyone can love. This comes close, very close.

Another paradox: the piece is listenable and engaging without any need to know how it was made, yet much of its effectiveness derives from its live and collaborative procedures, from understanding and appreciating the relationships involved. There is the real magic of modern mobile telecommunications; of a piece made live by people phoning in from all around the world – a trumpeter on Cephalonia jamming with a singer in Australia. There is aesthetic magic in knowing that this is what is happening. It is moving to think of the friendships, obligations and responsibilities which are implied in the production of the work: Perring’s choice of participant; his invitation to contribute; the jocular/technical/aesthetic negotiations over what each performer might or might not do (with many of those involved being themselves innovators and likely to impose some of their more intractable and experimental art on Perring’s); the actual real-life circumstances which each performer faced with getting into position on time to make the call and render their performance. On the stage, we can see that Perring is available to us, his audience. Strangely, we are more aware of the remote performers’ lives, since we must imagine them phoning in from the midst of personal, sometimes very personal circumstance. (I was walking on the Heath in London; the bagpiper was in a circle with his family mourning his mother buried the day before)

Yet this moving conviviality, better represented by Perring in this form than by any other I have experienced, disguises real and necessary distances, and a distancing which, for me at least, is more important to the meaning and aesthetics of the piece. Perring gets at this by describing something of what he felt and thought when playing against the anticipated tin-whistle performance of his daughter, called in from Greece and forming the closing section of the Exchange in this recording. His daughter was playing live but could not hear Perring, who felt that he was improvising with a recording. What he actually said was, with a ‘video clip’ of his daughter, as if dubbing an instrumental track onto her movie. Sharing this perspective changes the way we hear. It reveals more strongly the paradox of apparently ‘playing with’ when in fact there is both more of a ‘playing for’ and even more of simply ‘playing’ others in a responsive but unambiguously solo performance. Here is a work where personal involvement and, indeed, intimacy are both directly addressed and also mediated in a way which makes them distributable, poignantly shared, common to their audiences.

Perring’s remarks also, perhaps unconsciously, reveal the imaginary effectiveness of the Exchange. He insisted on ‘video clip’ as a metaphor of the remote performance, although the material of the work is sound, music and words – that is, aural not visual. But somehow this same distancing releases the imaginary from the music, allowing you to visualise the other players whom Perring is playing, and relate this fantasy to what you hear.

This is certainly a performance which engages modern telecommunications, and at first it might seem to be an aspect of digital culture or net art. Perring is certainly aware of the potential linkages, but when it was suggested that the Web might be a good way to broadcast the work (multiple remote audio sources on the phone network, played (with) and mixed live, with the mix simultaneous rebroadcast to the Web), he was resistant. It sounds like a good idea, but somehow it signals a very different set of relationships when you compare the active performances of Perring’s collective, generating real sound in real contexts with the passive terminal consumption of millions of ‘end users,’ however synchronous and otherwise unobtainable the experience. The Exchange is not a work which creates or augments a virtual reality, it is technological and musical tour de force which enhances and enriches the real.

John Cayley, London, 24 July 2001