David Coulter | InterviewSonic Meditation | Dee sounding out David Coulter
We promoted the Fringecore event "Pain and Bias" as `an evening of experimental voice and noise, featuring some of the world's most progressive avant-garde performers in an extreme, sonotronic evolution of musical expression, played with full-hearted passion, unearthly beauty and the chill of mind stabbing improvisation'. (To see if the audience agreed, see page 32 in this Issue).
Centrestage at Pain and Bias was David Coulter, British master-instrumentalist (playing guitar, violin, mandolin, theremin, ukulele, bass, didjeridu, jew's harp, musical saw, accordion, harmonium etc.) and sound artist.
David spent six years with the Pogues, was a member of Test Department and has worked and recorded with Marc Ribot, Talvin Singh, Peter Hammill, The Kronos Quartet, Nitin Sawney, Roger Eno, Joe Strummer and many more.
I hadn't had the chance to really talk to David since we chatted backstage at the Diamanda Galas show in London earlier in the year, so this was the opportunity to catch up with what he's up to.
Dee: How did you get to play so many instruments and which area do you consider to be your speciality?
David Coulter: Before I could walk or talk my father had forced me to learn the jew's harp and harmonica. An enormous gift as it turned out. At age eight I played violin and harmonium in a little English family circus. At age eleven my aunt returned from Polynesia with an anklung (bamboo bell tree) and a long hollow branch of wood called a yidaki (or didjeridu). Three years later I moved to Alice Springs where an old Aboriginal elder taught me two things - circular breathing and the control of dreams. Since those early formative years I have sought to acquire new instruments wherever I have travelled.
We are all born with a drum in our chest. Whether we hear it or not, it's there. We feel it all the time. We all have a constant rhythmic beat within our bodies. When music is faster than our heartbeat, it excites. When it's slower, it calms us down. I hear noises inside. I follow them and seek the new. I love it when those journeys take me to places in music where things change identity. Where through something I can manipulate a new identity is created. I try to do things just with the essential elements. I have to approach each instrument in a new way. If it's designed to be plucked, I'll try every other way of strangling sounds from it, bar that pluck! I love the sensation I get when I perform and I take an instrument with a `predictable' sound and what I manage to create sonically defies peoples' expectations. I seek the unusual sound sources.
I have dedicated myself to acquiring a universal language which I try to express through sound. We need to learn to listen before we can hear anything. Before we can play anything.
If pressed to declare my speciality it would be the didjeridu. I have been studying it seriously for a long time, fifteen years or so. No-one really knew what it was then. I used it to open doors. The curiosity factor became apparent and I knew I had the potential to use it very creatively. It is a sacred instrument. I use it with caution. There are taboos surrounding it. That is why I have created my own vocabulary for it. I don't play traditional didjeridu music. My teacher, Bart Willoughby, an amazing Aboriginal musician, gave me an insight into its depths as an instrument. Both sonic and spiritual. It has brought me into contact with some of the most incredible musicians and allowed me to explore musical dialogues that have been monumentally important to my own development. My music is ritualistic. Everything is permitted. A lo-tech noise ritual. Basic.
Who are your musical influences and whom do you like that is pushing the boundaries today?
DC: Tom Waits, Fred Frith, Marc Ribot, Nick Cave, John Zorn, Polly Harvey, Diamanda Galas, Phil Minton, Lol Coxhill, Sarah-Jane.
There are also some really interesting people doing things as little isolated events which resonate with more intensity than any multi-national corporate major signing.
Palix and Couturier, who I've worked with for over 10 years, have a back catalogue of `important' music which is relatively unknown to the public outside of the contexts for which it was created.
Graeme Miller, another collaborator with whom I have a long standing relationship, has had a huge influence on my music. He and I share a theatre and performance background and this fact has pushed us both into unexplored territory with our own musics. His latest project with Mary Lemley, Reconnaissance, is a perfect example of what I love about his boundary-pushing. Initially, individuals were asked to contribute a short phrase of music, sung or played, relating to a specific place in Norbury Park, a place of great beauty an hour or so from London. He then used an Ordnance Survey map of the park to create a score. The music was then cut up, composed and used to create a CD work for the park. The piece evokes a shared sense of place in the listener (who listens to specific `tracks' on headphones whilst walking around the park. (The park is 1,286 acres!)
Bart Hopkin, a designer builder and longtime student of acoustic musical instruments publishes and edits the journal Experimental Musical Instruments. His work has had a huge influence on me. The boundaries he pushes are more to do with instrument design. He has created a forum for some of the world's most outrageously inventive designers and builders of new unusual musical instruments. Catch EMI while you can as it ceases publication next June.
I adore Diamanda and would love to work on something new with her. I'd love to hear her voice against didjeridu and musical saws. Test Dept worked with her years ago. I met her again at the Concert for the Damned earlier on this Summer and was utterly blown away. Now there's someone who really does push boundaries. Total commitment. Total control. To control some kind of public personal exorcism as Diamanda is able to do is a rare thing. Never once does she let it slip. There is no pretence. It is for real.
Nick Cave is the same. I think Cave is very sharp. I have played on the same bill as the Bad Seeds at festivals over the years and have watched on in awe. He's another one. Pure Performer. Blixa, too. Blixa has singularly managed to integrate extreme styles of playing into their recordings and their live work.
The performance side of music is so overlooked. The Oasis school of performance, the arrogant strutting, is so transparent. It epitomises everything I hate about the music scene in Britain today. I lecture in music and performance at a college in Stratford-upon-Avon. I try to show my students other possibilities. I play them Artaud. I make them listen to Frith. They are 17-18 most of them. They aspire to supernova heights. I try to allow them the possibility to experiment. I encourage them to explore new techniques. They understand that to conform doesn't guarantee anything. No matter what it says in the small print. I question things. So do they. It's a healthy experience for all of us. We are performing an Evening of Experimental Music at MOMA Oxford on 10 December as part of the current Gustav Metzger exhibition. We are creating our own very personal Cage-ean Music Circus - lots of musical events in collision. The setting is Metzger's Liquid Crystal Environment. Variations in temperature cause constantly shifting changes of colour and patterns in the projection of liquid crystal slides. It was last used as a performance environment in 1966 at The Roundhouse in London for concerts given by Cream, The Who and The Move.
Jean-Jacques Palix is probably the most influential in a very tangible way. I've lived in Paris on and off over the last fifteen years which is where his studio is - Belleville. We met working with a choreographer, Brigitte Farges. Since then I have played more real and personal music with him than with anyone else. We each know what is required from the other. I can't imagine who could take over that role for me. He has introduced me to sound and music in a very real way. He has a collection of vinyl that is unbelievable!
You have collaborated with everyone from Marc Ribot, The Kronos Quartet, Talvin Singh, Roger Eno. What is generally the nature of your work and what makes them want to work with you?
DC: When you play such an eclectic mix of instruments, I guess the word gets around. I have for years been trying to introduce my palette of sounds to a wider audience. The idea of having a colourist coming in and listening for the missing colours. My musical experiences are so varied that some people genuinely just want an opinion or a suggestion. I listen for spaces. I wait for the feeling. Sometimes it's just a straight "We want didjeridu on the middle 8". If that's what is wanted, that's what I'll do. Those sessions are less rewarding for me. The times when I am summoned to sprinkle my little bit of extra on the top are when I come alive. I relish the experience of being free to enter into a situation where the person wants me to do what I think is needed. That is a rare thing. I love the interaction. The intervention. I have a collection of albums where I have `left my mark'. I suppose it's a bit like a dog pissing out its territory. I enjoy changing contexts. That's why I have gravitated away from sessions for `bands' and have put most of my attention into my educational work lately.
I hate compromise. I am becoming increasingly disillusioned with the music business.
Ten years ago when we did the Push Pull album nobody was interested. Too avant garde! Chris Cutler heard it and liked it and it sold. Not many, but it sold. Eight years after we recorded it.
Tell me about your six years with The Pogues. How did you get into that and out of it? What made your music evolve the way it has?
I had always been a fan since my college days. My brother Mark and I would get falling down drunk on Guinness and Jameson's and enter into the fray. He'd dance. I'd hold on to the wall and listen to this raw, hard, frantic pure energy. McGowan was good then. Before he lost the muse. I then met them in a hotel in Turin. Jem (Finer) and I really hit it off and traded knowledge. He was fascinated by the didjeridu and the breathing techniques, etc. I was riveted by the unexplored sound field that is the hurdy-gurdy. We became friends and after a while it just kind of happened. If they were doing a gig and I was around, I'd pitch up with the didjeridu and a bag of tricks and just piss out my territory, so to speak. Eventually, Terry Woods left the band and I filled the mandolin shoes. I also continued the odd bit of didjeridu live with them and added the fiddle, bits of percussion, the odd accordion tune. I played on two albums, Waiting for Herb & Pogue Mahone and toured all over the place. It was an ambition fulfilled. Rough and smooth. Lots of good bits. Some bad bits, too. I don't drink any more!
How did I get out of it? The same way as most people... The Pogues threw in the towel on 26 July 1996. RIP. There'll probably be a reunion when McGowan croaks!
My music has evolved as a direct result of my listening habits, my meeting and playing with other musicians, my travelling. So many things contribute to its evolution. I still evolve daily, so I have no real formulaic response to the question.
When you worked with Test Dept it was a hot bed of 80's experimental. What was it trying to bring to the scene?
DC: I suppose it was doing what it continues to do today. Test Dept always told it like it was. No pussying around with niceties. We were a co-operative of socially conscious noisemakers who staged multi-media events accompanied by the whirr and clang of machinery. This is why I still have the desire to perform my own music.
What new dynamics and spirit are you trying to bring to your music today? How would you explain what your music is about?
DC: My music is a form of sonic meditation. It is a musical exploration of resonance. It is a creation of space. I use instruments and non-instruments to manipulate sounds, explore emotions and create vivid mental images. I am trying to offer an alternative perspective, away from the Brit-Poppy sounds of the 90's. I'm not hugely interested in developing songwriting skills. Artaud proposed `an inner theatre of dreams, fantasies and obsessions'. This is what I try to achieve with my music. I play with Time. Hopefully, after one of my performances people question things. That's all I want. I don't care if people enjoy what I do. If it prompts questions about what Music is, then I fell I have done my proselytising best!
You have reinvolved yourself with the Fluxus movement. What was the reason?
DC: I have continued to work as a musician/sound artist with the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. I work in close contact with Emma Thomas and Ian Cole who together run the Education Department. My work there with them entails performances and a variety of workshops exploring Sound Art. More recently I have been working with Gustav Metzger, the current exhibition at MOMA (on until 10 January 1999). I restaged, at Metzger's invitation, a Fluxus performance originated by Tomas Schmit in 1962. "Zyklus" is an endurance piece for one performer and ten galvanised steel buckets. The performer empties water from one bucket into another ad infinitum, or at least until a mutually agreed stop point. I did this whilst Gustav gave his lecture Art in Time: Happening and Fluxus. It is one of the most demanding pieces I have ever performed. At Metzger's next lecture, Time in our Time: To the Stars, I performed Cage's 4'33''. If this constitutes reinvolvement with Fluxus, then yes.
I also created a sound performance Expanding the Horizon for Yoko Ono's installations Cleaning Piece and Morning Beams as part of the exhibition Have you seen the horizon lately? earlier on this year.
In his last interview, given in 1978, Maciunas replied to the question of whether he saw Fluxus as art after all by saying: "No. I think it's good, inventive gags."
There is another description of Fluxus as "a fusion of Spike Jones, gags, games, vaudeville, Cage and Duchamp."
The interest for me in Fluxus is definitely contained in another quote from Maciunas. "There's a lot too much high art, in fact, that's why we're doing Fluxus."
The total disregard for the nature of copyrighting ideas I find very appealing. The Fluxus Art-Amuser must demonstrate that anything can be art and anyone can do it. Fluxus art-amusement is the rear-guard without any pretention or urge to participate in the competition of "one-upmanship" with the avant-garde.
Tell me about your collaborations with Phil Minton and Paul Buck. Both are vocalists with extreme styles. How do you approach your work with such performers?
DC: I love what both of these artists do. They push the boundaries. That is why I will actively seek out these kind of collaborations. There exists a recording of a performance I did with Phil Minton. Another gallery gig. I have known Phil's partner, Judith Knight, for many years and just assumed that he was so busy with Bley, Westbrook, Frith, et al. that I'd never even considered the possibility of him wanting to do a gig with me. (The insecurities of the artist are cancerous!). This recording was the first time we'd ever even met so to prepare yourself for such an event... Improvisers have a vocabulary. It is implicit. We chatted. He followed me around my performance and then at a given moment he just came forward from out of the audience, took of his jacket and we started. No planning at all. Spontaneity and a mutual love of space, time and sound.
Paul is different. He's a writer first and foremost, and his performances are very rare and infrequent. We have been working together for several years and aim to confront issues of expectations and confrontations with the extreme stuff we do. Again, all improvised. With Paul it's always a journey into the unknown. The man becomes possessed! The words take over. I've known Paul take five full minutes to deliver one syllable. He does with words what someone like Derek Bailey does with a guitar. Push. Twist. Mutate.
A lot of people write pieces especially for you, or alternatively for you to arrange. What types of challenge do you receive?
DC: I'm working on an album of new compositions for musical saw. Interesting people have expressed curiosity. I enjoy challenges. If Ribot comes up with something written, great. If it doesn't materialise because he's so busy, I'll create a piece with his ansaphone messages!
Dave Smith, Howard Skempton, Roger Eno. All composers whose work I hugely admire. They love the challenge, too. I worked with a brilliant composer earlier on this year.
Luke Stoneham. He scored a dance performance piece I toured with (Bock & Vincenzi's Being Barely There...) He is fascinated by my palette of sounds and wants to write me something.
Chris Long, who contributed specially written compositions for the Kaaiman gig is another. He is a huge influence on my playing. He has written several things which I adore playing. That collaboration will continue.
I suppose the greatest `honour' was being asked by the Kronos Quartet to perform a world premiere of a piece by Peter Sculthorpe with them. A piece for didjeridu and string quartet.
Taking the didjeridu into such a popular contemporary classical arena meant huge amounts to me. A public not familiar with my sounds were introduced to them in the comfort of the Barbican. That was a particularly weird set of circumstances. We also discussed the possibilities of them doing the strings on the last Pogues album... What a concept. The Kronos were very keen. I put it to the band. Sadly, it didn't happen.
I'm eager to have new challenges put my way. That's why it's interesting for me to meet people like DJ Low. I don't have those DJ references. I learn constantly. Talvin has moved into new areas. When we started working together we explored the weirdest collisions. Didjeridu and tablas. Brixton-Bombay fusion. Jew's harps and harmoniums? Why not. We'd play places like the Wag club in Soho. People just didn't know what to make of it all! Siouxsie and Bjork were among the first to glimpse the potential. Anokha, Talvin's club-baby was spawned and the rest, as they say, will become musical history!
The biggest musical challenges for me at present occur within my lecturing as well as within my performance work. To constantly stimulate and catalyse budding rock gods into areas of music where they fear to venture without demeaning them. Hard work, but someone's got to do it!
Where do you see the new avant-garde going and what do you see as the key influences, personalities, musical forms and structures?
DC: What happened to the old one? People like Richard James (Aphex Twin) will clear out a NY record store of all its `avant-garde' vinyl, pushing prices of, for example, Stockhausen's Hymnen from 1966 up to $100+. The DJ culture is the new avant-garde. Marketing creates what we tell it to create. Zappa always endorsed Varese and Boulez, although his labels never actually released or promoted anything by them. Similarly, the Beatles included Stockhausen on the cover of Sgt. Pepper but apart from a 1970 deal to release John Tavener's The Whale they pretty much stopped supporting experimental music altogether.
There is a label, Asphodel, who has released Xenakis' Kraanerg, featuring DJ Spooky. Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace! label has put out a vintage 1978 performance of Stockhausen's Kontakte. It seems as if the avant garde has sexed-up its image. Packaging is all. It obviously works - Asphodel's Kraanerg even showed up on the North American college charts!
Duchamp was once asked who his audience was. This was back in the earlier part of this century. He replied that his work was for a generation 50 years off. He was right.
Key movers for me are people like John Zorn, David Jones (from Serious), Michael Dorf and his NY Knitting Factory. Any individual or group of individuals who enable artists whose work does not fit into the mainstream to access the general public. These are the caretakers of the new avant garde. I think that the new avant garde is created and mutated by all the artists that do `the work'.
IWhat did the Antwerp show include and in which way was it unique?
I saw the Kaaiman performance as the first in a series of performances of intervention. It was an exploration of space and time. It was an act of flux. A copious flow of sound. A rare fusion. Therefore any substance or mixture used to promote this harmonious fusion was permissible. Several composers created new works for me to perform in a live context - intervention. These new pieces are the live voice of the composer. It enabled me to cover a wider spectrum of musical possibilities as a solo performer. It also provided me with an opportunity of working with long-term collaborators in a new and fresh context. Live improvisation driven through time by an absent force. The overall aim was to bring together an eclectic mix of sounds, both live and prepared, acoustic and electric. The performance was designed to incorporate elements of chance and risk.