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From the Archive: John Cale

Nothing Concrete text
11 Nov 2020

This week we're delving into our archive looking back to August 2014 to John Cale and Liam Young's project 'Loop 60 hz: Transmissions from the Drone Orchestra'.

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmeade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we're delving into our archive looking back to August 2014 to John Cale and Liam Young's project 'Loop 60 hz: Transmissions from the Drone Orchestra'.

John Cale: Yeah, it's actually putting yourself in unfamiliar places, places where you don't know quite what the result of your actions will be. That's a really good place to be because things happen.

BE:  'Digital Revolution' was launched in 2014 at the Barbican, an exhibition bringing together artists, filmmakers, architects, designers, musicians, and games developers. Alongside and to complement this exhibition, on September the 12th and 13th, the theatre welcomed musical pioneer John Cale, and his collaborator, architect and technological storyteller Liam Young. Arguably one of the most weird, wonderful and surreal evenings I've had. Cale's music was projected into the auditorium by a choir of moving drones, who flew and danced around the theatre. There were nets suspended above the audience's head to make sure they didn't fall on us. None of them did. It definitely redefined my idea of surround sound forever.

To begin the podcast, I found myself on a hot summer's day outside the brutalist Barbican, talking to Liam Young, trying to grasp what everyone was going to experience. Where did this fascination with drones come from?

Liam Young: I mean, I'm trained as an architect, but I'm really just interested in the way that technology shapes and affects the city. So drone technology is, whether we like it or not, something which is going to be an increasingly pervasive part of our experience of urban spaces. So we started thinking about drones as new and emergent forms of nomadic infrastructure and what they could start to do in the city. And that conversation is very much the moment predicated around issues of surveillance, militarised applications. We're trying to think about just how you might relate to these drones in other ways, if they're going to be everywhere, how can we start to relate to them in new ways?

BE: We're kind of coming into this project that you're doing with John Cale about two years in, so this conversation's been going on for a while.

LY: Yeah, I mean, I was out in Burning Man and we were flying drones around as you do. We had speakers on board and we were broadcasting 'Flight of the Valkyries' and strange and bizarre stuff. It was very appropriate in that context. And I got back to civilization and I had an email waiting for me from John Cale's record label and we just started the conversation. And we've been looking for a couple of years for the right venue, the right space, the right set of circumstances that meant we could actually do this. It's actually quite challenging to fly drones indoors over people's heads, buzzing them, blowing their hair back with downward thrust, it really has never been achieved before. It's never gotten past the health and safety guys.

BE: I was gonna ask you about the name. Could you explain where the 'Loop 60 Hertz' comes from?

LY: It's John's title. It's actually in reference to a very early piece that he did thinking about certain frequencies of technologies. I mean, I really love this idea that he began in the early 60s, which was the idea of tuning your instruments to the frequency of refrigerator motors, you know that because these domestic appliances were the sound of modernisation; domestic appliance was changing the way we were living, so that was the sound of modernisation. And what I think now is the drone of the drone is actually the sound of an emerging generation. So I think the title starts to refer to those ideas of you know, the frequencies of technology and the cycles of technology.

BE: It's incredible though and I mean, this must have gone through your head, this musician that helped revolutionise music with the Velvet Underground with you know, again, going back to the drones and his viola, it's incredible that he's willing to take a risk at this point in his career and do something which is you know, it's all new territory.

LY: But that's a true artist is someone that keeps pushing and he's never stopped. And he's always just looking for new things. And we did a walkthrough of the Digital Revolution show here at the Barbican, and he was like a kid in a candy store. He was so excited about every little moment he saw. We walked through together I was just trying to describe who the artists were what the project was, and he was endlessly fascinated. But he's always he's always searching, you know. And that's what defines a real creative is someone that's always running.

BE: Without giving too much away. I just wanted to maybe get a little bit more information about the performance. Is there the idea of the drones dancing, and I also believe you're going to be dressing the drones up somehow?

LY: Yeah, the the drones in their naked form are skeletal pieces of technology, they're frames, props, motors and circuit boards. Part of the project is to think about the drones in a new light; to think about the drones as characters or a strange kind of species or natural specimens. So how might we start to see them? How are they dressed? What are they wearing? What sort of references do we take to deal with these technologies? Are they humanoid like, are they animal like, are they like birds of prey drifting through the air? Are they colourful and garish? Or are they refined and restrained or militaristic? You know, I think that's a significant part of the project is trying to think about how we might connect to the drones visually.

BE: I think at the end of the day, though, to you know, to sum it up, anyone who sits down in the theatre is gonna get a concert like none other.

LY: It's blow your hair back creatively aside, it's going to be quite extraordinary, utterly unique, audio visual, immersive experience. Thanks.

BE: Liam headed back inside to carry on the exhaustive testing for drones with his team. And I was lucky enough then to have an audience with the one and only John Cale. Has experimentation has been saying that's what you feel is very important?

JC: Yeah. It's actually putting yourself in unfamiliar places, places where you don't know quite what the result of your actions will be. I mean, it could mean anything. So it's really in composition or in performance, that's a really good place to be, because things happen. And we didn't know what was going to happen when we got together here. And it seemed like a lot. It seemed like getting a grip on all of it was really something you better give up at the beginning and just see what happens. And sure enough, it happened. That was a great moment.

BE: It's kind of a leap of faith, isn't it? You'd be putting your music and yourself in the hands of these mechanical flying objects and hoping something maybe not what you originally thought will come out of it.

JC: I don't think I'm putting my my career in the hands of mechanical helicopters, but I think it's really creating new relationships with things and that's what happens, no matter how hard you try to discipline what the what the copters do, they have a way of developing a personality. I think people generally you know bestow personality on objects anyway, they do it with dogs, they do it with cats. That kind of personalization is, seems to be automatic sometimes.

BE: I think one of Liam's things is the idea of taking something which has got, you know, evil or bad connotations, you know, this this idea of the drones having military use and then turning it into something positive. Is that something that attracted you?

JC: Well, I think I think Liam's view was based on pretty much every else's view of war. I think war is useful, and it always has been, that's what people use it as. So the ego is not in war itself, it's in the people that use it.

BE: Obviously, it's early days, and I think you're testing out at the moment. What's starting to go through your head? I mean, are you starting to think of what songs would work best, what instrumentation?

JC: Yes, all of that. I think that's already happened. It's a question of how we fill 70 minutes, and how we employ the strands that we've developed here in these past two days and see how you can best put them to use when we get back together. And when we get back together there will be already a map of what the evening will look like musically. It's then what you do with the visuals and how you use the music with the drones. I think the most efficient way to do it is for me to go back to LA and sit down and work out some interesting arrangements that lean on drones. And so you change the song to the circumstance. And I think there's something very hypnotic about this whole situation. That's, that's really something I'm comfortable with.

BE: I think people will have this kind of intense level of concentration won't they, because they'll be listening to the music and also sort of trying to take in the experience on lots of different levels.

JC:  Yeah, it's really how I think you've got to be sceptical, or I've got to be sceptical because I've got to find the delight in it. Yeah, I found some of it, I've got to find some more.

BE: I mean, will you be ignoring the drones?

JC: No, you don't ignore them, you don't pay attention to them, but you certainly don't ignore them, you just, you know that they are doing what they're supposed to be doing and they have the space in which to do it and you try and have them fill a space You know, you don't use 8 drones all at once, you use a mixture of them and some of them do one thing, some of them do another. And that's the kind of choreography that takes precedence over trying to make your music protrude in this situation, it's really got to be part of it. And really, that's another aspect of marrying the two that's really interesting when you don't know what you're doing, because you end up with something that you never expected would happen.

BE: It is a collaboration, isn't it? It's you and Liam presenting something together.

JC: Yeah. And and Liam has a language of doing things, which is kind of amusing in a way and I know what it is and if I've seen it before, it's not something that I generally move towards in the way I speak, but it's very interesting because he says something totally different from what I would say but he means the same thing. And it's, yeah, it's fun to watch and fun to, you know, because all the people on the stage that are working with these are not choreographers, they're hard headed scientists.

BE: Has this been similar at all to anything else that you've done previously, does this kind of ring echoes with anything else?

JC: No, there's a lot of innocence in this. I mean, I haven't been in an innocent relationship for quite a while. And it's because nobody really knows what anybody's really doing. I mean, I've done my bit, I've brought a tapestry to which they can relate, but above that, it's, you know, we're learning the language of collaboration here. We gotta work with that. So I'm looking forward to it.

BE: As a bonus on this podcast, we once again spoke to John Cale on the approach to his 'Futurespective' performance in March 2018. On the 9th and 10th Of March 2018, Cale was joined by the London Contemporary Orchestra to help explore the enormous technicolour scope of his musical outputs, playing selections from the Velvet Underground, the proto minimalist songs of The Dream Syndicate, his collaboration with Lamonte Young, and his richly enigmatic solo music with strings, brass, percussion, bringing extra undiscovered colours to the surface. Very late one evening, I was connected through to Cale on the phone from his base in LA. Last time you were at the Barbican you were working with Liam Young and a set of robotic drones. I'm just interested to know how that went, what did you take from that experience?

JC: Well, actually, the hall itself was part of it, too. You know, we put speakers in the drones and they were flying around and some of my vocals when I was singing, some of the vocals would come out of the drones, and that particular theatre at the Barbican has surround sound. So it was great, I mean, we could move things around the room and fly voices coming in and move them going up and down in the theatre itself. But we're not using that theatre this time.

BE: Yeah, we're in the Hall. So Moving to March the 'Futurespective', is it an attempt to capture your entire career? I mean that's quite ambitious.

JC: It's just really preparing people for a free for all. There's a lot of different ways of doing some of the songs. And I love doing them, I love throwing ideas around. And we've got the LCO and we can do a lot of those songs in ways that people have never heard them before.

BE: I mean, how do you approach arrangements? Is it that sense of a new set of clothes?

JC: Pretty much, I mean it, you know, I get bored very easily and it's, you know, every time we sit down to do a song, something goes wrong or somebody you know, plays something from someone else, and it works and I usually like try and grab any new ideas that come along and see if we can fit them into the pot. Some of the songs that we've done solo before now, would sound fine with just a big orchestra and I'm gonna try and spread it around.

BE: Are you collaborating with the LCO in regards to the arrangements?

JC: I want to, I really want to. We've never worked together before. I know, what they're looking at. What's great about it is that they're all interested in the same thing as composers. You know, the composer want a new approach to a thing making different noises, using being very rude to the instruments. So that really gives you a very different approach to the songs and the music and the way orchestras generally sound. I haven't figured it out yet, I've got to look at the orchestra and talk to some of the people there and see what what they have and what they're interested in, and I'm sure we'll have a great time. I mean, having an orchestra in the first place is a real luxury. I just want individual players as hairs to see what you know how we can, how we can shade certain things, have different textures moving around in the room. I'm looking forward to it really.

BE: I wondered in general sort of whether you feel you've been influenced by some of the amazing composers you worked with in the 60s?

JC: Yeah, I mean those, those Lamonte and John Cage, they created kind of a rubric from music. That is that whatever you do with the music, you come out at the other end with a different perspective of what it is. And John was, was always, I mean, apart from silence and all of that, he had a very unorthodox approach to what sound was. Lamonte also an unorthodox approach, his idea of long duration was really, he had a very Chinese attitude towards long pieces and compositions that lasted a long time. There was no real beginning and no end with Lamonte's stuff. With John, he didn't talk about it very much. He placed people in situations with other performers, and with very little conversation, something developed. That's an interesting way of working with composers. I mean, the people that he worked with didn't generally call themselves composers. A lot of them are technicians. But with Lamonte it was really he was thinking in terms of Aeons, how sound changed over time.

BE: Did you take some of those techniques to the Velvet Underground?

JC: Oh, yeah, we did that. Yeah. Yeah, we did. I mean, it was very interesting because, from that point of view, from the rock'n'roll point of view, the drones that we used there turned out to be a drapery for the songs. You know, there was a background that expanded the idea of what the songs were about. So there's this tapestry, they're working there all the time. But it all came from the same idea that long duration was was the rule. 

BE: Maybe also with that, is a sense of tension, which has obviously been universal in a lot of your music.

JC: Well, you can use that word in all sorts of different ways, you can use it in terms of intonation you can use in terms of how fast you play and it's really who you choose to do that with. So that's one of those things, that's one of the extrapolations that will come out from the LCO.

BE: Do you have any reference or template points that you're starting to think about in regards to orchestration, any albums that have had, you know, deep significance for you, if not your own work?

JC: No, I try to do it in such a way that whatever you're about to hear you haven't heard before. So if you have, you know, you have certain familiar things, they may sound as if you've heard them before, but when you play them with different combinations of music, you really, you're tearing apart the fabric of the song, of the music. I like the way that happens, naturally. I mean, I like that way that happens with with a lot of different composers and even with one individual composer it's how things fall apart when you try and really concentrate on making them sound like something new.

BE: Will you be bringing your band as well? Would they be integrated into the sound?

JC: Yeah, the band is definitely there. Yeah, I mean, we've worked together for long enough we kind of know each other very well. Whenever you put something together, the best part of it is being able to have it all fall apart. Because it all falls apart in a very beautiful way. It's very useful to have it sound like it's never sounded before. I mean, it's very nice to have a viola section, and have them play very, very high, and do the same thing with double basses and cellos - to have them really play extremely high. You're really creating another space, is what you're trying to do, depending on where we are in the song. I mean, it develops in its own way.

BE: For you a song, how do you define it? Is it about storytelling? Is it maybe more in this case about an emotion?

JC: Well, both of those things are really important. I mean, storytelling and the emotion. I mean, I think I start always from the emotion, and I tag on to an idea that's a word or a phrase. And if you're using a song as a starting point, you really want to not give the game away early on, you want to have it be something else first, and then let it become what it's going to be. I'm trying to try to describe the process of taking any ideas and really putting an orchestra around them and wrapping it around. And generally, what happens is that everybody has an idea of what they think you want, and you don't need to correct them every time.

BE: And how do you find performing live? I mean, it's obviously been there throughout your career. Is it something that you've grown into something that's always a challenge? 

JC: Well, it's a better challenge now that I have bigger forces to work with. You're talking about an orchestra, you can do so many different things there, and it really opens up another world for me.

BE: You've worked with some incredible artists whose resonance over the years has grown such as Nico, The Stooges, Nick Drake, Patti Smith, I mean, how did those experiences, those artists leave a mark on you?

JC: Oh, generally because they're, you know, they're unquestionably artists in their own right. I mean when I first saw Iggy on stage it was obvious that he was something that was not going to go away, it was a phenomenon. And when Patti was up on stage it was the same thing, the use of language. So I've been very lucky I mean that those people are really unique people.

BE: You've had an OBE from the queen, but I mean, what for you is your greatest achievement? What would you like to be remembered for?

JC: I'm not there yet. I'm not sure that there is one thing that's really, that I want to hold up and say this is it. I'm still working with so many different ways of doing things that I'm still, you know, I'm spinning the roulette. Okay, take care.

BE: For me, a challenge to interview, answering the questions not always straight on, but he revealed enough to allow us a brief glimpse into his head, which I hope you enjoyed.
I'm Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast, here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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