There’s a jazz act I like, Portico Quartet. Last time I saw them, a year ago, their set was a masterclass in interplay based on musicians listening and responding to one another to take a shared experience further than it would otherwise have gone. Which is the distinction between live and recorded music, fundamentally. However much you like whatever your favourite song is, in its studio form it will never become any better than that. Even a really good remix that you prefer to the original is locked and sealed. And Portico Quartet went way beyond anything they’d recorded in that concert a year back.
Then I saw them again this week. And they sucked, a lot of the time. The difference? Where there was interaction and nuance, much of it had been replaced by a new commitment to exploring the form and technology of dance music. It’s a genre I have a lot of time for – but right now, they haven’t reached the point of union that can be achieved when conventional instruments are put aside electronic, sampled, and sequenced sounds in a live setting. What had been a band has become a drummer with lots of new kit, and some backing musicians. Rather than get absorbed in the music, which just wasn’t happening for me much of the time, I noted the dynamics on stage. There was virtually no eye contact between sax player and drummer, and a furious duet they did at the end could be interpreted as the sax player angrily yelling ‘listen to me!’ to a musician who’d once been an equal partner but now dominates the quartet. With his electronics, he was doing parts that the keyboard player could have handled better, and much of the time they were playing to his bionic rhythms rather than interacting with a shared pulse.
As in music, so in other settings where people do what people do. One of the ways that new managers define themselves within organisations such as the BBC or at film studios is scrapping work that their predecessors commissioned. Never mind how good it might be, how long has been spent on it, what investment might be wrapped up – there’s a new kid on the block, and s/he wants you to know who’s boss. At which point it’s no surprise that factions form, with some people turning against the newcomer and others seeking to win their favour.
That’s one way to do things anyway. Thankfully, there are others. At which point, I once again call on Ken Campbell, the extraordinary writer, performer and director. Two particular stories come to mind. One concerns Ken’s part in a Shakespeare play when he was an actor. The director asked all the cast members to write an essay about their character. Ken’s role was minor, but in his essay he managed to make his character the core of the play. Everyone loved it – probably because Ken was playing in the spirit of what they were doing. He didn’t outright dominate the proceedings, but his invitation was so appealing to the director and cast that the play was staged in accordance with Ken’s concept.
That same capacity to act as an attractor (the term has the same meaning in chaos mathematics as it does behaviourally, interestingly) fuelled Ken’s adaptation of the Illuminatus novels for the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool. He conjured it out of thin air, since the Arts Council had the attitude that Ken would make things happen regardless of their input, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy and allowed them to spend money on ‘proper’ theatre. And that conjuring happened because Ken and his concepts were irresistible. How else can you account for a team including Bill Drummond (later of KLF) doing stage designs that were acclaimed as the most inventive of the time, Ian Broudie (later of The Lightning Seeds) in charge of music, and a cast including rising stars Bill Nighy and Prunella Gee? All working together on dole money and dope, on a spectacle celebrated as one of the highlights of modern theatre?
Ken’s capacity to act as lightning rod gathered people round him who were more than willing to contribute their talents. And he was happy to embrace the uniqueness of what they had to offer rather than impose his own stamp on them. That capacity to set an intent, and accept fluid boundaries as part of the conditions of its realisation, is a more fluid and organic approach to getting on than performing to the tyranny of someone else’s beat, however skilfully executed it may be.
In Ken’s case, he left himself open to happenstance. In photocopying the scripts, one page was duplicated. Rather than discard it, Ken realised that where it fell made fro an interesting counterpoint with the preceding scene, and incorporated the repetition so that the scene was played first one way, then another. The effect was captivating. Robert Anton Wilson, co-author of the books the play was based on, wept when he saw the performance. For him – and his take is one I’d want to know about – that scene captured the heart of what he was writing and why he was writing it. And a photocopier mishap had allowed it to happen.
There’s a wider principle at stake here. Being regulated by someone else’s beat is one way to do things, for sure. It’s called obedience. There is another path, a more chaotic one in every sense of the word. And the dance created by the two is integral to everything in Wilson’s work. The forces of order are already abundantly clear in a world where financial institutions call the shots and seek to define us by what we consume. There is an alternative. Pledge allegiance to Eris, Greek Goddess of Chaos, known to the Romans as Discordia. She might ‘just’ be a metaphor…but most things are…most things are…