mardi 19 mars 2013

Outrage to freedom of expression in a British university

Life as supportive spouse and father takes up most of my time on campus, so I haven't really paid too much attention to the Sussex University occupation protesting the privatisation of campus services, now in its fifth week. I broadly support their aims though, and the other day a gap in my schedule between talk and pre-school pickup coincided with a loudhailer call from on-high to come up and look at their art show. How could I resist?
The upshot of the conversations I had at the show was that news of the occupation of the ZAD in Nantes would be of interest to the Sussex occupiers, so we agreed I'd put together a talk about this for the following Tuesday.
That Tuesday has now arrived, but my talk has not! I spent the afternoon scrabbling images off the net with complete abandon for copyright (so I won't post the slides), and toddled up to the 3rd floor conference room to check in with the collective about 18h, check the projection facilities and so on. This was no problem, but when I returned just before the invited hour of 20h to actually give my talk, two very large black-clad men with sinister armbands physically barred my entry to the room, and demanded my student ID.
This is something I don't have. Nor, in my view, should I need to. If the students wish to invite a speaker of an evening, that is their absolute right to freedom of association and expression, and I took a very dim view of them obstructing me in this. I was forced to retreat to the ground floor and find a likely looking student to assist me in contacting the occupiers, who were then able to emerge and negotiate. Eventually the hired temporary security, who, of course, "were only following orders," yielded to the permanent university security guard who arrived, and I was admitted. But the stairs are now blocked, there have been shouts and argy-bargy, and any student arriving to hear what I have to say cannot do so.
It appears this policy reflects a hardening of management attitudes, frustrated at the slow pace of the partial siege. Somewhat stressed at this unexpectedly difficult accueil, I calmed down by suggesting the students research the Greek laws on freedom of entry and egress to universities, laws passed following the oppression of the Universities from 1967-1974 under the military junta.
The university seem to be shooting themselves in the foot here: my right to give my talk is a lot more interesting that its actual content. I am genuinely outraged. I bet that Will Self didn't get all this hassle!
This evening's cultural reference: The Clash.

Update: 0258h, 20/03/13: After all the fuss, I was eventually able to give my talk, starting at 2225h. There was a good discussion after, and I left at 0015h, having sung Happy Birthday to one of the lovely occupiers, and admired an exposition of excellent hula hoop technique. I found them a pleasant and thoughtful group, and morale seems high.
Back at the flat, I find my head out of the frame much of the time in my attempt to video myself, but the audio is good, so I might get round to transcribing it. Note to self: in future, offer the audience a small cash prize for each utterance of the words "you know," or "the fact of the matter is." Verbal ticcing aside, I think I did succeed in conveying something of what it might mean to be in a successful occupation, though circumstances are very different, if the signals observed by Élysée-watchers are to be believed.

jeudi 7 mars 2013

Steve Reich in the afternoon

from the somewhat-testy-new-york-composers dept.

Composer Steve Reich passed through this afternoon, to give the Eighth Tony Dummett memorial lecture. In fact, it was more of chatshow appearance than a lecture. After an encomium from a member of the University of Sussex's music department, the 75 year old Reich—very chipper in a jaunty peaked cap—reminisced down the front, prompted by some bod from the London Sinfonietta.
We learned that Reich was born and bred in New York, and his family home was four blocks from the World Trade Centre, so the events of the 11 September 2001 affected him personally. He and his wife were in his country place in Vermont at the time, but his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild were trapped in the chaos. An army line outside his place meant that the family couldn't return home for a month afterwards. It would nevertheless be eight years before he began work on a reaction to these events, entitled 9/11 WTC, following a commission from the Kronos Quartet. A recording of the piece was played. It was not my cup of tea. I am none the wiser as to his political reaction to the event, and am left with the suspicion one does not remain "America's greatest living composer" by emitting anything other than the anodyne and obvious. Ho hum!
But he was an interesting raconteur, and generous in sharing his compositional methods (MacBook Pro, Sibelius, Reason, Granular Synthesis). Then he took questions from the assembled audience. These he answered fairly, though it was perhaps an irony that the founder of minimalism gave very short shrift to questioners whom he felt were trying to get him to repeat himself. He positively beamed at a drummer who had tried to reconstruct his phasing technique and found it impossible. Reich agreed it was very difficult—when he first devised the technique he always played against a tape and didn't know if it would be possible with another human being. Then he and fellow Juillard student Arthur, both having practised against tape, managed to find a pair of pianos and a method. (One musician must remain absolutely steady, one move).

Abby's* question:

Q. As a composer who also leads a live ensemble to play your work, what is your attitude to mistakes?
A. [a kind smile] Mistakes happen, always have happened, and always will happen. What I will say is that recording is a crash course on the piece. We record something, then we go into the box and all the musicians listen to it, some wincing, and then we do it again, and they do it better. And that improvement stays with you into future performances. Also, Glenn Gould is mocked for playing music just as it was written, but I think he's a genius, and I think it's very interesting to produce a version that the composer would have been very happy with.
[Related quotes: "I'm not a great improviser. I greatly admire those who are, but it is important to understand that improvisers are always improvising from some underlying structure—in be-bop, it's a chord progression, in Indian music, a raga, in African music, a rhythmic pattern laid down by the master drummer and so on..."]
*Abby's childcare fell through so she couldn't go, so she primed me to ask this question on her behalf. It's probably a good thing I was steered away from Palestine...
§This blogpost's title is shamelessly lifted from Mike Powell's chiste on Abby's Facebook page.