Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Universal Spirit: A Repeatedly Mistranslated Prolegomenon

The eavesdropper relays sounds of joy. "They seem like good friends", thinks Schoner Gotterfunken, the hermaphrodite surveillance engineer, the happy wiretapper of Elysium as he/she is known in the trade. "Unlikely to be an argile or the tones of a lump of Ostclay struck with an ancilla."

"Yes! An excess of alcohol! White spirit perhaps. Listen to their rough calls as they puke their mass to earth. What an abundance." He/she begins filing the report, ear still inclined to the loudspeaker.

It wasn't like this in the East. Molasses was the favoured fruit. Everyone would cry while toasting Bursten and the Federation. No one failed to find Schoner fascinating, her charms suggesting one rigourous in the divided way. It was only natural. He/she misses the bondage parlours, especially Bosen's. He/she can still taste the increased kisses of Bosen's sister, the tracery of roses, the tangle of vines, the interiors, the ineffective company of inoperative women, a friend, her dead signature, a lifetime commitment. And in the Wollust Quarter, a timeless screw worms deep within, the one eared cherub plunging his handspike a foot into the almighty's ass. Oh brother! What would Schoner now give to tighten, pressurise and purge Father Uber's weight, unloading, draining, firmly drawing stars. Sturzt! Sturzt! Millions had kissed his discharge.

Happily, the GENE program supported this heavenly luxury and its millions of kisses in the extreme kingdom. The Company too turned a blind eye. Schoner was too useful to let go. Her delicate persistance had helped detain a woman in the East, much to the rejoicing of Flugel's father.

The eavesdropper pulls Schoner's ear back to work. Over the bug, different voices, clearly: "What do you think of Schopfer? Do you suspect him? The whole world mistrusts Schopfer!"

Surveillance engineer Gotterfunken reexamines the cross-correlated test results and draws the terrible inference. "Of course! Uber's stars must still be alive!"

The dial spins wildly.

For Vanessa Yaremchuk on the occasion of her birthday.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007


Blue-black scorpion shell
      Helen of Troy
            And no word of farewell.

Faded seaside hotel
      Dead drummer boy
            Blue-black scorpion shell

Packs of silica gel
      Numb hoi polloi
            And no word of farewell.

Noiseless telephone bell
      Devil's employ
            Blue-black scorpion shell

Empty galvanic cell
      Irreal McCoy
            And no word of farewell.

Où est ma Tourterelle?
      I jump but for no joy.
            Blue-black scorpion shell
            And no word of farewell.

For Susan Brown.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Ramases in Felixstowe

Ramesses II, commonly known as Ramesses The Great, lived probably beyond his ninetieth year and ruled Egypt probably for over sixty years. Many of the most famous monumental sites in Egypt were constructed by slaves under his orders and to his glory: the rock temples of Abu Simbel, the temple to his consort Nefertari, and the complex between Qurna and the desert now known as the Ramesseum. Ramesses died in about 1213 BC, a twentieth century postmortem revealing many battle wounds and healed fractures, crippling arthritis, and a mouth abscess severe enough to have killed him.

Over three thousand years after his death, it is said that Ramesses II appeared to Martin Raphael, a Sheffield-born ex-Army PT instructor, who, like the pharaoh, had also achieved success in the construction industry, most notably through a central heating business in Scotland. Ramesses announced that Raphael was his reincarnation and was to tell the world, no matter how resistant it might be, of the truth of the universe. This, Raphael, duly renaming himself Ramases (an adjustment of spelling which, I note, retains the first two letters of Raphael, Martin), did through, principally, two albums of music released in the 1970s which have attracted considerable interest as we rescue and reexamine psychedelic and progressive rock.

The first of these, Space Hymns, was recorded with the collaboration of the four musicians who would go on to be 10CC, along with extensive vocals from Ramases’ wife, now known as Selket after the scorpion god of Egyptian mythology. The liner notes embedded within the spectacular fold out Roger Dean designed sleeve dedicated the work to the earth people who have the ability to reflect on and shape their destiny. The earth is a vantage point from which both macrocosm and microcosm seem the same: as so many particles in empty space. The album is, in many way, a hymnal to this empty space and the kinds of reunifications required if we, the earth people, are to save ourselves and the universe.

Now, let me listen to Space Hymns for you. This is how I hear it. The sun is fading, wreckage strewn, the earth is losing life and light. The Life Child who came to free our spirits, we left hanging on a hill. The singer is visiting from a forgotten place, is lost here on earth, a place where people sing too but only the very last song, their very last chance. Ramases plaintively wonders how he will be able to communicate with the people of the earth when he has travelled so far across the universe for so long. While uncovering molecular delusions, amidst the plainchant, sitars and the lost cries of a prayer caller, he robustly oaths fuck. He’s touched the sun. He’s dedicated his many journeys to Quasar One. He’s seen a balloon off the surface of the moon and advises it to take it easy but the balloon, the earth people’s planet, explodes at the end of the song. Ramases’ fear for the earth and its hard to reason with inhabitants ultimately leads him to implore Jesus to return. With the right kind of acceptance of time, the seasons, the rotation of the earth and our humble place, we might just be able, face-to-face, take our place with the giver.

Ramases is a weary cosmic traveler. While he has hopes, it is his fears which are most articulated and worked through. He seems as a melancholic angel, witnessing and lamenting the desolate scene before him, hardly able to intervene beyond a call to faith.

A little after the release of Space Hymns, Ramases and Selket moved to Felixstowe in Suffolk, some twenty miles from where I live now. Felixstowe in the early 1970s had the recognisable mix of Victorian grandeur and lively vulgarity typical of an English seaside town. In 1891 the Empress of Germany, Queen Victoria’s daughter, visited and took the spa water. In 1970 you could still believe that she might return to the neat cliff side gardens and perhaps, as the spa itself no longer existed, take in a show at the Spa Pavilion, where the most polite of British music hall veterans were in summer variety. At Cordy’s Alexandra Restaurant, austere ladies in lace pinafores would bring you an assortment of cakes and neat sandwiches on gilded trolleys. To the other side of the pier, out of genteel sight, were Charles Mannings' amusements: a waltzer, dodgems, slot machines, a crazy house with a cakewalk exit where I was humiliated as a self-conscious child, and a precarious wooden big dipper. Still further, around Languard Point by the confluence of the Rivers Orwell and Stour, were, sheltered, the small docks and various military and otherwise secure establishments on the dunes and marshes.

I would visit my friend Adrian with my bass guitar, hit the root note of a chord, gaze in wonder as Adrian arpeggiated lightspeed up and down the neck of his Gibson SG copy, wait for my next opportunity to pluck hard, while dreaming of the indulgent low frequency promised land of jazz rock. On one visit, Adrian took me to see a recent acquaintance, a musician living in Stanley Road. We walked past the Bartlett convalescent home onto the promenade, up Bent Hill past the Grand Hotel, then a little along the cliff top to Stanley Road. Ramases, extremely tall and dressed in extravagant purple robes, played us a number of songs he was working on for an album which, he told us, would feature members of the Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras. He sang to simple strumming on an acoustic guitar.

Although we did not believe him, the album Glass Top Coffin was released in 1975. Let me now try to listen to it for you. A desert island set in a warm blue sea turns out to be a refuge in the mind, the mind of the singer alone. In fear, of darkness, loneliness, cowardice, in fear, of both thought and intuition, we seek the tangential intimacy of a kiss. A majestic hymn implores sweet reason to come to the singer who otherwise is dogged by open questions of identity, knowledge, sexuality. Whispering over lazy, lush melodies, Ramases urges us to step into the river of life even though it is so cold. There are stepping stones to help us. A sailor’s golden galleon is anticipated to rescue the singer’s solitary soul, a soul who has lost judgment through distance: a dove flying high to whom all seas seem the same.

Ramases cannot solve the soul’s dilemmas of attachment and separation, even at the point of death and beyond. As a corpse, he wishes to still see his friends through a glass top coffin. He wants to still be there as best he can. He wants to linger. Even heaven has a glass roof, a beyond where his loved ones can be seen fleetingly, still, even in death, parted. Although the melody is gently rocking, this seems unutterably bleak to me. It is easy to miss this if you seek to assimilate Ramases to some conventional idea of the hippy-trippy. Most of his space imagery is about solitariness, separation, loss, vast expanses of very little, people who will not listen, whole planets that will burst like balloons. He calls for reason, humility, momentary intimacy, and for god’s return. I am sure not every listener hears Ramases this way but he seems to me to offer the thinnest of hopes through faith and through faith alone. Both albums end with an anticipation of god’s return. In the reprise of Golden Landing we hear: Beautiful light, you come to me.

In the late 1970s, my friend and collaborator in Tonesucker, Terry Burrows, bought a 1960s Epiphone acoustic guitar from East End Bargains in Ipswich. The guitar played very nicely but someone had scrawled Ramases on the lower bout below the sound hole. On the basis of this blemish, Terry negotiated a good price and has played the instrument for nearly 30 years since. Terry tells me that, even though he foolishly tried to remove the inscription and refinish the wood, a well known admirer of Ramases has offered him anything, but anything, in a swap deal. But not even the Ferrari he could have tempts Terry. As a wise second hand shopper at East End Bargains, Terry asked for the story of the instrument. The salesman knew nothing save that it was a woman who sold the guitar, her husband’s guitar, as she could not keep it after his suicide.

Last weekend, I went to Felixstowe to take some photos for this piece. These days, the natural heirs of musical hall, the Chuckle Brothers, play at the Spa Pavilion, but to the under tens. The Alex is now a café-bar. The Grand, now Cork, Hotel offers a regular karaoke night. The Bartlett convalescent home has just been closed in an attempt to ease the region’s health care debt. Felixstowe pier, once one of the longest in the country with a train running its length is now unsafe with only a tiny portion beyond the sea edge being used as a pedal car track. The larger toys at Charles Mannings are all dismantled. The cliff gardens are still splendid. The Peters ice cream still delicious. What is more, the docks, following dramatic expansion in the 1980s, are now comparable in traffic to those at Hamburg, Rotterdam and Antwerp.

The walk up Stanley Road is not how I remembered and number eight seems like a too modern house. I am now suspicious of my memories. Perhaps I never visited Ramases. Perhaps I never heard him play early versions of songs from Glass Top Coffin. Whatever made me think his robes were, specifically, purple? But the otherworldy conviction, the story of the two orchestras, the strum, did I make all that up?

No matter. Some things end up much better if we allow ourselves an initial gullibility. I treat Ramases as a fan would. I do not doubt that he was the reincarnation of Ramesses the Great (and not, rather, Ramesses X who oversaw the slow corrupt break-up of the kingdom of Egypt through ineffective rule). For the moment, I take this builder from Yorkshire to be a substantial theologian who poses questions of faith in, perhaps unwitting, stark terms. I regard the melody the choir sing in Golden Landing to be one of the most beautiful. I must not doubt that I once met him.

If we permit ourselves to be taken in, then we can see Ramases, usefully, as a model suborderly citizen. He is betwixt and between: identities, historical epochs, world locations, faiths, musics, planets, incarnations. To me he is as local as a tall man in Stanley Road Felixstowe, as a guitar I have held, as the sound in my ears right now, yet as distant as a pharaoh, an Army PT instructor, as Abu Simbel or the sun. Ramases’ music is culturally pliable. Ten years ago, I would have said it was twenty years out of date. Now it seems contemporary. Ramases offers us an exemplary suborderly life. I do not believe that suborderly lives have to tragic but with Ramases I cannot yet convince you.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Sid Vicious

Had Sid lived, today would have been his 50th birthday. I believe that after a successful career as a children's television presenter, he would now be hosting programmes which reveal just how much undiscovered treasure we have hidden away in our houses. "Look at all that laaahvley dosh!" he would shout as figurines of weeping shepherdesses are retrieved from the dust in the attic. Dame Nancy, for her part, has become famous for her charity work. In my imagination, it is her and not Princess Diana who has the monopoly on those sentiments of ours which involve children and landmines. Sid and Nancy still use drugs and engage in knife-play but they are much more careful these days. Maybe you have different ideas. But that is most assuredly how I see it.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

The Suborderly Suicide of Professor B.

B., the Professor of, it might be, Biology from a university in, it might be, the north of England once told me that he wished, much earlier in life, to kill himself. However, none of the familiar methods appealed to him. Some were too violent and he did not wish his terminal act to involve any more personal aggression than he was normally capable of. Some were too elaborate or required access to remote locations. Some required the, perhaps unwitting, collaboration of a pharmacist or physician and the Professor had no wish to lie. Yet others would leave an unsightly mess behind or present his corpse inelegantly. The Professor, vain, courteous, honest, a little lazy, peaceable and profoundly depressed, had no wish for trouble, reasonably, in his darkest hour.

At the restaurant in Soho

He hit upon a solution. He would do away with himself by doing away with a conventional trajectory for his death. Rather than a momentary act of sudden release, he would gradually slip away into self-made terminal illness. He would not induce sickness through drug misuse or cigarette smoking as, conceivably, his money would run out before his life. So, in a brilliant concept, he resolved on every visit to a public lavatory to wipe his finger around the dirtiest bowl and then lick clean.

On the train to London

He became very sick. Profoundly and frequently sick. Persistently feverous, profusely vomiting. His skin became a tapestry of ever changing rashes and sores. His preferred finger and his mouth were always infected along their crevices. But he would not die. He persevered, next visiting toilets in bars on the most disreputable side of an otherwise respectable university town. These toilets were, naturally, the worst in the world. Faeces, piss, vomit, pus, and more were all ingested from the length of his index finger. But still he would not die.

On the train returning to Ipswich

In fact, he was getting better, vomiting less often, rarely feverous. Winter came and he, alone among colleagues in the lab, suffered no seasonal colds, no influenza suspending data gathering at a critical time. Indeed, while rigorously maintaining his thanatic toilet ritual in the now dimmest hope of death, his research career flourished. As it continues to.

In the house in Isleworth

He seems now immune. No virus will go anywhere near him. No bacterium fancies its chances against his antibodies. The Professor’s mood is no better, of course, save for the ironic humour he too can appreciate in his lot. After drinking most of a bottle of brandy, he tells me that he has given up his dirtiest of habits as he fears further ingestion might well secure immortality. And that would never do.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Suborderly Music: The Victorian Synthesizer, Ohm-My-God and Infra-Instruments

What might suborderly music be? And what could it be good for?

Let us consider suborderly music’s instrumentarium. With Phil Archer, I wrote a paper
suggesting the notion of an infra-instrument as something less than an instrument, something constrained in its gestural repertoire, something which would engender simple musics of limited expressivity and virtuosity. We considered five strategies for making infra-instruments.

Toilet Lyre by Alice and John Bowers

Take an instrument and make it less. Break an existing instrument or restrict its operation or how one interacts with it. The Fluxus artists’ instrument destructions can be reconceived as acts of creation: of infra-instruments. Take materials partway to instrumenthood. Instruments are typically assemblies of multiple components and different materials. Do not go all the way in making a complete integrated, rigid construction. Investigate temporary assemblies of stuff. Build an instrument but include obvious mistakes. Like selecting fresh vegetables as the material for construction (see The Vegetable Orchestra), encouraging fret-buzz or loosely winding pickups to enhance microphony. Take something non-instrumental and find the instrument within. A DTMF phone dialer can be regarded as an infra-synthesizer, a Geiger counter as infra-percussion, and so forth. The percept here is that the instrument you find within something conventionally non-instrumental is likely to be an infra-instrument. Find infra-instruments readymade. Here Phil and I had in mind instruments which already are infra in status because of their low aesthetic or marginal cultural standing. This would include many musical toys or musical boxes and other ‘amusements’. Perhaps historical ‘rejects’ fit here, the antecedent forms of modern instruments which have fallen by the wayside. Bits and pieces of stuff which sound nice just as they are might be readymade infra-instruments awaiting recognition as such.

Perhaps, suborderly music is the music that infra-instruments would naturally play.

The Victorian Synthesizer

The Victorian Synthesizer is an ongoing project of mine to build a musical instrument boasting the kinds of parts and capabilities traditional synthesizers have (oscillators, filters, amplitude envelopes, modulation) but using techniques known to the Victorians. It is this collision of contemporary concepts with outmoded means that creates the Victorian infra-synthesizer as an imagined historical reject. Generally, the Victorian Synthesizer needs to be electro-mechanical rather than electronic, manual rather than voltage control is typically required, and some synthesis units will present especial challenges. Oscillators constructed through feeding back the output from amplifiers are, for example, post-Victorian inventions (c.1920 by Barkhausen and Kurz). Accordingly, I make the most of electro-magnetism (an 18th century discovery much celebrated by the Victorians) and the minimum of circuitry.

As Oliver Lodge (1898, Victorian) had patented moving coil methods usable for sound transmission in our epoch of interest, hacking loudspeakers seems an appropriate strategy for The Victorian Synthesizer. First, connect a battery (no more than 9v) direct to its terminals and enjoy the pops and thunks as the diaphragm moves in and out. The photograph above shows my current ‘concert’ set-up (known as VS-1). Two loudspeakers (for stereo of course) are wired in series with a battery and a conductive plate. I choose loudspeakers of contrasting histories and physical capabilities (I played a lot of prog-rock out of the one on the right, perhaps you can tell). A probe of the sort used in test gear is attached to the battery and when drawn across the plate causes the loudspeakers to jump. Grooves and other markings on the plate give a sonic texture to the probe gestures. Another (parallel) circuit involving a battery and a vibration or tilt switch is connected across the two loudspeakers. If the switch is rested on top of one of the speakers and the cone tapped, the switch will make and unmake its circuit yielding a kind of mechanical-electrical oscillation as it bounces around. The plate and the tilt switch circuits can be manipulated at the same time leading to a variety of modulations. The presence of washers and screws in the left hand speaker makes for percussive rattling. A final addition is a lead connecting the plate with the exposed metal band on the right hand speaker. If the probe touches this band a circuit is completed through the band leading to a squealing feedback sound.

In the service of suborderly music: raw components and random circuitry

Perhaps we can go further and get even closer to manipulating raw components in the service of suborderly music. Ohm-My-God investigates ad hoc assemblies where chance wiring and promiscuous mixtures of basic components create circuitry before our very eyes and ears. Place two electrode plates into, say, a kitchen bowl with each plate connected to a low voltage battery terminal. Pour in arbitrary components: resistors, capacitors, transistors, diodes, lengths of bare wire. Sample the current at selected spots of the mixture with a conductive probe. To keep with the domestic theme, I use a knife or fork or spoon or egg-whisk. Stir the mixture (or maybe agitate it with a Victorian Synthesizer beneath). Run the circuit from probe to whatever you wish to intervene upon with random circuitry: as a control voltage for synthesis or to be amplified so that the electricity through the circuit can be heard direct (electrically buffer through, say, a guitar effects pedal to avoid shocks). Try more than one probe to sample from more than one spot. Five probes for home theatre applications, perhaps.


Consider the suborderly music of infra-instruments as a kind of ideological therapy. A spectre that has haunted our thinking for nearly 200 years is that of autonomous technology. The fear (and sometimes a desire) that technology has its own life, its own history, and little can be done about it. We cannot, or so we are told, uninvent The Bomb and, what is more, we need extended warranties on our domestic appliances as there are no user serviceable parts within. But what if we just wilfully ignored warranties, serviced our parts ourselves, and simply forgot how to make The Bomb, just as how to haul prehistoric stones thousands of miles seems to have slipped our minds. Hacking up infra-instruments is literally a matter of taking technologies into our own hands with the little tunes that emerge being, perhaps, minor celebrations of autonomous technology’s local rebuff. Let these sounds anthemically accompany our anticipation of The End of Technocracy as the whole world is hacked afresh by lawless New Victorians.


Bowers, J. and Archer, P. (2005). Not Hyper, not meta, not cyber but infra-instruments. In Proceedings of New Instruments for Musical Expression 2005 (NIME 05), Vancouver, Canada.

Bowers, J. and Villar, N. (2006). Creating Ad Hoc Instruments with Pin&Play&Perform. In Proceedings of New Instruments for Musical Expression 2006 (NIME 06), Paris, France.

Collins, N. (2006). The Celebrated Jumping Speaker of Bowers County: Twitching Loudspeakers with Batteries. Chapter 5 of Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking. New York: Routledge.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Andrew Riley

Andrew Riley was my closest friend when I was eleven years old, and I think I was his. We then went to different schools, my parents and I moved to another part of Ipswich and, although Andrew cycled to see me and I visited him at home, we had parted company within a year. I remember little about him: his dark hair, his intelligence, playing Mousetrap with him and Waddington’s Table Soccer, a game which adapted the tiddlywinks technique and for which Andrew had developed a tactic I could not defeat, only emulate, leading to many 0-0 draws. A chance meeting ten years on revealed that we were both doing doctoral research, Andrew in chemistry, but we had no desire to pick up a lost childhood friendship.

On 2nd January 1992, Andrew was killed in an explosion at SRI International, the Californian research institute. The group Andrew was part of was studying cold fusion, the controversial possibility that energy-releasing nuclear fusion can take place at room temperature. In common with other cold fusion researchers, they were passing electricity through deuterium oxide, heavy water, using a palladium cathode. This simple apparatus was enclosed within a calorimeter so that measurements of heat exchange could be made. The SRI group had pioneered techniques which enabled measurement to great precision through innovative uses of digital technology. On this basis, they hoped to elucidate the arguments which had been surrounding cold fusion, with its promise of a safe non-polluting energy source, since the late 1980s.

What happened on the 2nd January has been the subject of a number of investigations and a variety of different accounts exist. Usenet group rumours rapidly spread that Andrew had died when he manually tried to release a malfunctioning automatic pressure valve. More conspiratorial versions exist with suspicions still lingering over why other electrolysis cells were buried at SRI in the aftermath and why investigators were prevented from accessing equipment and had sections of reports suppressed. Formal forensic investigations have been uncertain about what set things off but agree that the explosion itself was the result of products released from the electrolysis cell reacting with the atmosphere. An article in the journal Forensic Science in 1995 grimly reported that some of Andrew’s tissue could be found on the shattered steel of the exploded cell, indicating the instantaneous nature of the disaster.

Five years ago, on a wet winter day, I decided to walk back into the centre of Ipswich from an appointment at an out of town opticians rather than take the bus. I diverted to some childhood locations including the Brunswick Road Recreation Ground where Andrew and I had played. Much had changed. There were no see-saws, witches hats or long slides depositing children roughly onto tarmacadam surfaces. The rec was surrounded on all sides by housing. The farm whose workers we used to taunt through the boundary fence was gone. The deep hole, fully 30 metres across, into which all manner of exciting waste was dumped, just adjacent to where we played and accessible through a gap in the fence, was filled and a day care centre for the elderly built on these foundations. The tall trees, which are noted on two hundred year old maps, had been felled and a number of new ones planted. One of these had a small plate at its base with lettering affixed. A memorial dedication to Andrew. In the heavy cold rain, I wept.

A few weeks ago I returned to take photographs and to think about writing a little about Andrew to launch this blog. The face of the rusting plate no longer carried the dedication. Andrew’s tree stood marked but anonymous. I took some photographs and walked away wondering what to do. I considered taking a sheet from my notepad and writing on it Andrew Riley, Electrochemist, 1958-1992, perhaps attaching it with chewing gum, but I had none.

I had long been interested in cold fusion as exemplary suborderly science. It drifts anomalously between other orders of thought, between the everyday homeliness of room temperature to deathly explosiveness if badly contained, between messiah and deceiver. As I drafted this account drinking stout in The Dove, with Andrew’s desolate tree much in mind, further thoughts occupied me. How carefully we have to maintain our acts of commemoration. We have to remember to remember. People. Places. Events. No history without diligence.

And from this it is a small move to recognise how tenuous the world of science can also be. Cold fusion is now an area populated by ageing senior scientists who can pursue its research off the back of other monies. Funding bodies are loath to support the field. Young scientists cannot establish reputations in it. In a recent interview, Andrew’s colleague Michael McKubre notes how cold fusion’s scientists and their once vociferous debunkers are now equally dying out. Soon, perhaps, no one will be able to do the experiments with the necessary exactness of technique and, if anyone cares, there may be other fatalities as the know-how is reconstructed.

In an image which haunts and terrifies me from an otherwise dispassionate forensic report, science itself can be as fleeting as Andrew’s grip on the exploding cell and as legible afterwards as his handprint still attached to the steel.