Tuesday, 30 October 2007
Tuesday, 21 August 2007
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
Blue-black scorpion shell
Empty galvanic cell
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.
Posted by John Bowers at 19:15
Wednesday, 11 July 2007
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.
Posted by John Bowers at 02:55
Thursday, 10 May 2007
Posted by John Bowers at 17:02
Saturday, 7 April 2007
Posted by John Bowers at 10:07
Saturday, 24 March 2007
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.
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.
Posted by John Bowers at 16:06
Thursday, 15 March 2007
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.
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.
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.
Posted by John Bowers at 00:03