The New Anxiety
The 300+ year technologies built to capture, understand and connect the world - from maps through geostationary satellites to contemporary algorithms and big data collection - have been exposed as weapons-grade systems that pluralise reality and destabilise the present. How does living in this new anxious world feel, and how deep do these systems take root?
Michael Brailey spoke to Vitalija Glovackytė and Michael Cutting who deconstruct, re-assemble and supercharge their way through scavenged instruments and hardware forgotten by time as Kinder Meccano.
Before they embark on their first North American tour, they took some time to speak to Michael about their music as solo artists and as a duo, about their group Almost Credible Music, the physicality of performance and their views on 'the orchestra'.
Kinder Meccano perform at VIRTUALLYREALITY001 @ the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on the 15th March 2017.
[MB] I understand that you’re both heading off to New York soon.
[VG] Two weeks…
[MB] How is the planning going for that?
[MC] Logistically it’s a bit of a thing, because we’ve got a lot of gear and it’s heavy. We’ve got to dismantle a desk for Vitalija’s piece and put it back together in New York so we need to find a hardware place where we can get a saw, preferably a circular saw, and some heavy machinery…
[VG] …to cut it to precise measurements. Well, you’ve seen the table haven’t you, in the performance [of my piece ‘We are for a while’].
[MB] I didn’t know you made a table! That’s crazy! Of all the things you make for your music, it’s the table that’s really got me stunned!
[MC] Yeah, we designed and made it. It has two levels and has its own in-built light system which is controlled by four separate DMX channels.
[MB] And this visit to New York / North America is to tour this piece specifically?
[VG] Yeah. I think the trickiest thing is that all three shows are quite large-scale. The Kinder Meccano set is quite large-scale, quite full on. We’re trying to call it pocket music, but…
[MB] You’ll need big pockets!
[VG] [laughs] Yeah, something like that!
[MC] But the problem is we’ve billed it as a North American tour, but we’re actually doing three separate programmes and all of them require a lot of work, and a lot of equipment. In a way, it’s kind of the most impractical way of doing it.
[MB] So what else are you guys performing on this tour?
[VG] So there’s Joe [Snape]’s piece for live typist and electronics and instruments, which is fifty minutes, and there’s a lot of logistical things there for us to consider, too. All the sets are pretty complex in their own right.
[MC] Also, we’re there primarily as Almost Credible Music, as the group, because we were invited by the Waverley Project to do a residency. Ideally, we were going to take that programme out of the city to do more shows, but now we’re going to do completely different programmes, including Joe’s piece. So we’re Almost Credible Music, but for the second half we’re Kinder Meccano, and when we go to Canada, we’re just Kinder Meccano. It’s pretty difficult to figure out how to bill these shows to people because of this constant shifting. But this way of putting on shows definitely ties into the way we’re working as musicians and artists, me and Vitalija. Everything’s merging, but it’s all very independent as well. We’re quite keen to separate Kinder Meccano from Almost Credible Music and make it its own thing.
[MB] Well, that brings me on to the fact that you’re both well established and distinguished composers in your own right, so a part of this interview should definitely be spent on you as individuals as well as looking at what you do collectively. I was fortunate to see Vitalija’s ‘We are for a while’ at The International Anthony Burgess Foundation at the end of last year. Vitalija, could you give us an overview of that piece?
[VG] When was the last time I was called a composer?!
[MB] Well, you make music! And theatre shows… how about sound-creator?
[VG] Yes, I like that! So ‘We are for a while’ is a work about recycling. For a year, I collected old technology from recycling centres and beaches and streets; anywhere I could find something that slightly resembled an instrument, or viable tech. We found a bashed-up violin which was completely battered; we didn’t use it in the piece, but it’s pretty cool. Throughout the year, I had been restoring them so I could make music with them.
[MC] You were totally like a magpie, collecting everything.
[VG] Yeah. There were a load of tape machines that we found as well, which we dismantled. We got some old phones, too, and dismantled those, and used the phones’ vibration motors in the performance. The way it works is there are two stations on stage; one represents the instrumental side, the classical instruments, and the other represents the more technical side, with all the gadgets, the recycled stuff, tape machines and speakers. Throughout the piece, they merge, and at the end, the piece becomes one massive, self-run sound sculpture.
[MC] You blur the boundary between what is considered a musical instrument and what is considered rubbish.
[VG] Totally. And throughout the performance, the performers dismantle bits of the technology and pass it on to other performers to be re-used for another purpose, so it’s all about this cyclical motion, re-using and re-contextualising. It’s basically about trash at the end of the day, treasuring things and not throwing things away. I also used pieces of of existing music that were given to me by sound artists and musicians and composers that I have admired for years now, and that all got reshaped and re-melded and integrated into the piece.
[MB] What made you consider recycling as a starting point in the first place?
[VG] I just love collecting things!
[MC] From my perspective, you had a moral objection to the amount of stuff that people throw away.
[VG] Yeah, but I never wanted to send that message - no political agenda. It was more just about preserving, and enjoying what an abandoned object could provide. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure!
[MB] And you wrote that for the music group Apartment House in a whopping eighteen-month residency. Considering that is a very long time for an ensemble to spend on a piece of contemporary music, I wondered how your extensive relationship with the group shaped the piece?
[VG] This piece was very much written for Apartment House. From the start, I was in close communication with Anton Lukoszevieze who runs the group, and we spoke a lot about what Apartment House is and how flexible they are. I was told “do whatever you want to do” and “don’t feel any limits”, which was so liberating. I also needed to make sure that my performers were up for unscrewing tape machines and dismantling circuitry on stage as well as playing their instruments, so Anton told me who he thought would be the most appropriate for that aesthetic. It was very closely written. Even the promotion was a close artistic exchange between me and the ensemble. Anton does analogue photography, and he sent over images of blurred people mid-walking…
[MB] ... I guess that connects to the transience suggested in the title?
[VG] Yeah, tying in with ‘We are for a while’. But concentrating on these details made the project even more tied to me. They were perfect for this project.
[MB] I believe there’s an EP on the way?
[VG] Yes, it’s coming out in a few weeks! It’s being released on Ono, a Manchester-based label run by the lovely Michael Holland. He’s making the artwork as well. His work is primarily focused on recycling, so he gave me this massive envelope of recycled paper he’s collected over the years at Islington Mill, and the artwork will be made from this. Each EP will be a unique physical unit made from unique pieces of Michael’s found paper.
[MB] Awesome. And in New York, this piece will be performed by ACM [Almost Credible Music] which you both set up back in 2012. How, when and why did you set that up?
[VG] When I was studying at the Royal Northern College of Music [RNCM], I felt like there wasn’t enough music being presented from outside the UK, from Europe, the US, or from far eastern countries.
[MC] Yeah, in general, the UK is a bit dead of music that isn’t UK-based. But at that time, it seemed like there was a lull in interesting things going on in Manchester. There was a strong generation before me doing really great things, the likes of Matthew Sergeant and Larry Goves, but when they disappeared, there was a period of just student stuff in institutions, some stuff in the RNCM, some things in the Manchester universities. There was so much great music that wasn’t being put on, and there weren’t many gigs that we felt were organised or curated as well as they could be.
[VG] It all felt quite stuffy, too. We wanted to experiment with the structure of how music could be presented, the structure of a concert.
[MC] We were having art and music concurrently, and were more concerned with it being an event, rather than simply a piece happens, people clap and repeat, which is the default scenario in classical music. It was the same time that Video Jam set up, and Distractfold too I believe, totally coincidentally.
"I had to play up my scratchy violin, and that’s very different to the controlled virtuosity that we’d concerned ourselves with. Suddenly, it definitely wasn’t contemporary classical music anymore"
- Michael Cutting
[MB] I was having a scroll through your website...
[VG] It really needs updating! Michael! [VG gestures towards MC as if it's his job, and we all laugh]
[MB] You’ve worked with some big names in new music including Hans Abrahamsen & Simon Steen-Andersen, and have performed twice at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. For both of you, what are your favourite moments working with ACM?
[VG] For me, the biggest highlight was our 'Fleck' tour with Joe Snape, because we were playing music that we loved and we got to take it much further than we anticipated, taking the tour to Europe. That collaboration has kept going as Joe is a very good friend of ours.
[MC] Yeah, we started out by doing things like Ligeti, and then moved into programming Steen-Andersen and Abrahamsen, things on the border of sound-art and theatre, and then we did ‘Fleck’. Joe’s music is totally different to what we did before - it’s basically warped pop music. Also, that tour was the first time we were involved in the performance, and Joe wrote for our ability (or inability) as performers as well as the rest of the group. I had to play up my scratchy violin, and that’s very different to the controlled virtuosity that we’d concerned ourselves with. Suddenly, it definitely wasn’t contemporary classical music anymore. Additionally, the time surrounding the ‘Fleck’ tour was a difficult time for us, as we didn’t really know what we were anymore as an ensemble. We were originally known as ‘Another Contemporary Music Ensemble’, and that didn’t really fit us. Vitalija is the most extreme in having a big problem with this. When someone calls her a composer, she shuns away from that, or shuns away from the idea that she writes ‘classical’ music…
[VG] I’m just a musician.
[MC] She finds terminology more allergic. We shouldn’t be paranoid about how other people categorise us.
[VG] Oh no, of course not!
[MC] But we were. At that point, we were looking inward a bit too much and didn’t know what we were doing, hence the name change to Almost Credible Music. It’s a bit more tongue-in-cheek and doesn’t have the word ensemble in it. Fleck was definitely the moment where we changed as a group, so much so that since 2013 we haven’t had the full ensemble on stage. ‘HELLO’ by Alexander Schubert is the closest we have got to the full line-up since.
[MB] As composer-performers in the group, does that shape the way you write?
[VG] It makes me feel a lot more free with what I can write.
[MC] Vitalija is the only one who has written a piece exclusively for the group, and we were quite conscious that we were running the group not just to play our music. I’m now writing my first piece for the group this year, also my first big piece, so I can tell you then!
[MB] What is the big piece?
[MC] It’s a theatre piece. It’s a piece with a big machine on stage operated by two operators, which looks like an amalgamation of the inside of a clock and an old radio station. The piece is about time, I guess. The operators are fed this information from somewhere unknown on a big roll of paper that runs along their desk, and they have to act out what it tells them to do. The machine is making the music when they operate it, and then it gets to a point where it feels like it’s reached a moment, and the lights go off and this little radio comes on with a radio forecast. It describes a really surreal scene from another universe where time has been altered, and then the machine happens again, so it’s quite a repetitive thing. Gradually, the operators begin to think that their role is to give information to the radio broadcaster to inform the future, and they’re getting really fed up with this because it’s so monotonous and boring. Then, one of the operators believes his actions are directly linked to his own fate, because each broadcast is like a premonition for what he does next. He decides that if he doesn’t let the next broadcast happen, he could change his fate, so it follows this operator as he destroys this mechanism. To contextualise it, it’s a culmination of all the work I’ve been doing.
[MB] Time is a really important thing for you in your music as a process, as an active thing that decays something.
[MC] Especially cyclical time, and the relationship between things that seem to endlessly repeat but actually have a teleological, linear development. Something like the day cycle; a day repeats but it’s slightly different. I quite like that idea of things being absolutely the same, but somehow not.
[MB] That connects well to your recent piece ‘I AM A STRANGE LOOP V’ for Fender Rhodes piano and reel-to-reel tape decks, which I saw you perform at the Wonder Inn in Manchester quite recently. I know that the pianist Richard Uttley performed the piece at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Could you talk about the piece, and the collaboration between you and Richard? Was the collaborative process similar to Vitalija’s work with Apartment House, or was it more like you wrote a piece which you could perform yourself, which you then gave to Richard to perform?
[MC] Richard commissioned me when he discovered that I bought myself a Fender Rhodes, and he loved the idea of performing on one as he loves that instrument. That was really cool - a commission because I own a specific instrument. I wrote a preliminary piece for the previous HCMF specifically for him for Fender Rhodes and delay pedal, based around my own technique although I was aware that he was going to be playing it, not me. I was also concerned with the fact that he’s not technically knowledgeable; he plays the piano brilliantly and that’s his skill set. ‘I AM A STRANGE LOOP V’ was an extended version of that preliminary piece. However, during that time, I became more concerned with performing myself so I wanted to make sure that I could perform it as well as Richard. So I wrote it for myself, but in a way that I could write it down on a score for someone else to perform.
[VG] That’s really tricky, actually. How do you transcribe something like that on a piece of paper? That’s why I made this comment in the beginning before we were recording, which I’ve forgotten now…
[MB] You talked about writing performance notes on the tape recorders in Kinder Meccano to remind you to swap jack plugs at the start of section 2, or to remember to turn off certain gizmos…
[VG] Yeah, that’s why I was so glad I had almost two years for ‘We are for a while’, because it was so hard to try and figure out how to transcribe technical actions onto a piece of paper whilst having in your mind that it needs to be musical, and how to connect it all together to make it cohesive and clear.
[MC] This is why I find composers like Steen-Andersen really useful because they are in that realm of definitely composing contemporary music, and working with specialists who are used to playing highly complex music with deeply fastidious scores by the likes of Ferneyhough. He’s writing scores, but asking people to blow through holes in a piece of paper, and he’s writing it as meticulously as anyone else. It’s a very fascinating thing, how to write extremely facile or simplistic actions in a musical way, or use the idea of notation not to replicate a sound, but as a set of instructions in detailed time.
[VG] Sixty percent of my scores are doodles of little things.
[MB] Well I’ve seen the score for ‘Sunday’, your piece for violin and eleven recycled telephone vibration motors, and that’s pretty much all doodles.
[VG] The drawings of the goats and cans [laughs]. That’s actually heavily technical, all instructions and actions for the performer to carry out, whereas ‘We are for a while’ was as much about the instruments as it was about the tech.
"Someone should establish an orchestra with eBay instruments! I totally appreciate that the orchestral players’ instruments cost millions of pounds, but what inspires me about an orchestra is the amount of people, and the textures you can create"
- Vitalija Glovackyte
[MB] In both of your music, there’s always this tactility to the live performance which is so engaging on a visual level. It’s always so makeshift and DIY, and all those qualities seem to condense, to nebulise, really strongly into a clear and cohesive aesthetic vision. How do you think you arrived at that? I guess the better question to ask is what were you like when you were studying as students, as how did you musically or personally develop into what you are now?
[VG] For me, I just got fed up… You know in concerts where you sit in a room, people turn off the lights and you have an electroacoustic piece. You get the sounds of wet rocks being rubbed together in someone’s hands, or the sound of water… these sorts of clichés. I just got fed up with how un-engaging that is. It tied in later on with this idea of in performance, and the live-ness of performance. We both gradually became interested in process as part of the performance.
[MC] We were running ACM long before we started thinking about physicality in performance. I guess then, as curators thinking about how to put a concert on as an engaging night, we were thinking about how can we visually make it interesting; how we can make something of performers getting onto the stage rather than the audience clapping as the performers bow and sit down, and what we can do with the full spectacle of an event. That gradually seeped into our music-making, as well. We were performing the music of Steen-Andersen and [Alexander] Schubert and that definitely influenced us. This ties into how I’ve steered clear of electronics in my music, partly because of the things that Vitalija has mentioned. I’ve found digital electronics problematic in a live setting, even if things are done live. When you have someone behind a laptop, I know that laptop can do anything; it could be making sound live or it could be totally prerecorded.
[VG] For all we know, they could be playing Solitaire!
[MC] Even if a true physical sound is coming out the speakers, he’s controlling it with digital programming. Of course there’s a knob, and he’s turning it and sound is coming out, it’s just not quite the same as having an actual, analogue valve that is literally opening out the sound. It’s so much more direct. When I bought my first tape machine, everything suddenly fitted together so well with my PhD research which has been focused on cyclical and highly repetitive things; it’s an object about looping but it’s as real-world as a violin or a normal instrument. My first piece to really explore this was ’Tape Talk, Flutter and Warp’ which was a collaboration with the visual artist Sarah Hill. I wanted to try and write a piece where the sound and visuals are so intertwined that you can’t tell which is generating or affecting which…
[VG] …or when both elements are dependent on each other.
[MC] All of the sound was derived from the sound of the tape machine and the sound of the slide projector, and all that’s on the film is the workings of these machines in the moment.
[MB] I remember when I saw you both perform your collaborative piece ‘Mario Goes Frippertronics’ for reel-to-reel tape decks in Salford's MediaCity as part of New Music North West Festival 2016. In that piece, we’re watching you assemble, dis-assemble and re-assemble pieces of magnetic tape, so do you think process as a compositional device and as a physical entity are totally interlinked in both of your outputs?
[VG] Yes. For sure.
[MC] It’s definitely a focus for both of our music, but clearly, when it becomes such a thing, it will be interesting to do the opposite; something which has no physicality to it at all. These acousmatic gigs, those pieces that are totally disembodied experiences can be really interesting if they’re set in relief to something that is not.
[MB] Why do you think that music as performance is so crucial to the current experimental music climate. Collectives like London’s Bastard Assignments are definitely pushing performance into new and exciting territories.
[MC] When CDs came out, people were saying that they were going to be the death of live music, so since then I think people have been asking ‘why go to a show when you can sit at home and listen to it?’. By emphasising that live presence, you’re celebrating how different it is from the recording, embracing it’s real-ness. Also, working with visual elements like lighting and slide projectors focuses on that live-ness even more.
[MB] To throw a curveball, how do you feel about the orchestra? I think that fits in nicely with this issue of live-ness and performance, as it has this monumental visual spectacle with the amount of musicians on-stage, but it’s never really addressed; it’s always about the sound. Following both of your experiences as part of the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Scheme, how do you feel about the orchestra? Did you find it hard?
[VG] I see where you’re coming from. I find it very traditional; people tell you what you can’t do with an orchestra more than they tell you what you can do. It’s riddled with limitations.
[MC] The conventions that orchestral members stick to are so hard to remove. It’s so hard to get orchestral members to help you with your piece if something in their part doesn’t work. There’s little sense of wanting to explore issues or wanting to help.
[VG] I mean, they did play crumpled paper…
[MC] They were definitely convinced by Vitalija’s piece. They didn’t do anything conventional at all; they were hissing, rubbing things together…
[VG] …putting blu tac on strings…
[MC] … and they heard it as they were playing and were responding to it. The problem with the orchestra is that it is the most historically valued thing in classical music, and the masses don’t want it to change. Additionally, an instrumentalist must have a particular attitude and mentality to play in an orchestra, one that is not often concerned with experimentation or pushing the boundaries because that is not essential to the survival of the orchestra. It’s got its place, but it’s hard to do anything properly different.
[VG] Someone should establish an orchestra with eBay instruments! I totally appreciate that the orchestral players’ instruments cost millions of pounds, but what inspires me about an orchestra is the amount of people, and the textures you can create, not the individual instruments themselves.
[MB] What do you think the fate of the orchestra is? What is your prediction for the future of the orchestra?
[VG] I think it’s going to stay. There are interesting noise orchestras, and the London Contemporary Orchestra that are doing interesting things, but it’s all still in the same conventional framework. I can’t see it changing in thirty years, but it will definitely evolve.
[MC] I don’t even know if it will. Where it is right now, it’s quite happy. The orchestra does a lot of educational work, it collaborates with pop and rock musicians, and that’s enough for it to survive financially.
[VG] I think alternatives will arise, alternative groups to orchestras. You have circuit-bending orchestras that focus on the amount of people. When it comes to the classical orchestra, I think it’s found its place. But, at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with a Mahler Symphony. It’s still grand and powerful. It just doesn’t interest me at the moment.
[MC] It also has its own context. What’s brought us to the technologies and the instruments we’re using right now is our generation and how we’ve been brought up. We’ve had GameBoys and mobile phones and to write solely for instruments that were invented 200 years ago doesn’t wholly interest me.
[MB] Do you think our generation is influencing the way you work in any other ways?
[MC] I think one thing that hasn’t been mentioned is how we influence each other and collaborate. That’s the other weird thing about being composers, who have this decided path by peers and institutions alike that you are a person who writes things alone on paper or on your computer. No-one really collaborates. Two composers writing a piece - that doesn’t really happen. When I got the tape deck for my solo work, we made ‘Mario Goes Frippertronics’. When one of us is writing, the other one has always quietly been in the background.
[MB] Because obviously in the electronic music sphere, collaboration is a thing that happens so frequently. I guess that’s because the interface that you use to write is maybe more user-friendly to a non-musician than standard notation is. It’s also a totally cultural thing within the classical music world, as you say.
[MC] Yeah, it’s a really interesting thing. We just embraced it. We’re actually really different in how we work, our personalities are different as well. I think we compliment each other well.
[MB] So as Kinder Meccano, what do you both bring to the duo as separate artists?
[MC] The way Vitalija works is that she puts in so many hours and starts from the detail, whereas I’m much more about the big brush strokes. So when we start a new piece, we kind of work simultaneously from opposite ends and work inwards, trying to knit it all together into something coherent. It’s great to collaborate with Vitalija, to push me to create bigger and better things, and she introduces me to different ways of thinking about things.
[MB] I know Kinder Meccano hasn’t been going for long, but are there any plans for a release in the future?
[VG] Probably by the end of 2017, we’ll have something ready to release, but I’m turning down solo gigs in order to push Kinder Meccano. After New York and Canada, we’re gonna give a year solely to Kinder Meccano to make some progress. We have plans of moving for a couple of months to Lithuania to this country house with all our equipment and to concentrate solely on the music.
[MB] This is something I really wanted to ask, about the recording or documenting of your music. Because it is so visually engaging, just an audio recording doesn’t capture the whole thing. I imagine ‘We are for a while’ is a good project to talk about for this as you have the EP finished. Did you have to adjust the piece in any way when you flattened it from a 3D experience to just the audio?
[VG] Yeah, I had to re-tweak it a bit, making certain bits shorter which would otherwise be more focused on the visuals. We are getting it filmed in New York as part of our residency as well, so I will have some visual documentation as well. I had dreamed to release this like a DVD, but I didn’t.
[MC] The way I see it is it’s a teaser of something you need to go and see.
[VG] It’s gonna be an interesting thing to document Kinder Meccano.
[MC] I keep saying that we want to make hit pop songs, music for people to enjoy in the car.
[MB] That’s obviously a totally different mindset. Have you worked in that mindset already?
[MC] I think we’re gonna start this week! We’ve yet to write a full pop song, but I think it’s coming. We’re going to do the same set on the 15th, so if there’s some pop song we come up with, you’ll see it there.
[MB] To follow on from that, what can we expect from your Kinder Meccano set on the 15th March?
[MC] It’s hard to say at the moment, we don’t want to spoil anything! There are some pieces we want to write, or want to take to New York, but haven’t been able to. We were going to take a slide projector and write a set that was a duet for slide projector and hairdryer. It hasn’t turned out like that, but that may give you an idea as to what kind of thing we’re after. We’re still grappling with how fragile and unpredictable it is. We’re both quite awkward on stage because we’re not used to it, and when you know that any moment it could just fall apart, it has you thinking ‘why are we doing this?!’, but we just get such a buzz out of it.
[VG] It feels like we’re having a group of naughty kids on stage running about, and you can’t do anything about it!
[MC] It’s that tension that really makes the performance come alive.
Catch Kinder Meccano perform at
VIRTUALLYREALITY001 at the International
Anthony Burgess Foundation on the 15th March 2017.