Bead have produced two records: Bead 1 is Milk Teeth by “A Touch of the Sun” – Peter Cusack (guitar) and Simon Mayo (clarinets). It was produced early in 1975 in an edition of only 100. Bead 2 appeared recently, and is a record of the group Chamberpot: Richard Beswick (oboe, cor anglais), Simon Mayo (clarinets), Phillip Wachsmann (violin), and Tony Wren (double bass), recorded February 1976 in London. These musicians belong to what is generally referred to as the “second generation” of English improvisers, though the term refers to the timing of their appearance on the scene rather than their ages.
A lot that might be said about one of these records applies to the other. The overall impression of both is speed and tense restraint. There’s an awareness of the finer points of European composed music, meaning principally Webern, and one could even speak of a kind of speeded-up improvised pointillism. Historically, you could see this work as the integration of European modernist sound-areas and performance techniques of improvisation recovered via jazz from America. But really the effect of the music is not like that – even if “historically” it is true. The improvisation makes all the difference between some contrived union of musical “styles” and an actual new music; the integration is internal to the music, not a question of sources at all. So that really it doesn’t matter in the least where it comes from or what it owes to this or that past achievement. The European sound is there because it must be – because the music has to be the music of the place and time in which it is made, otherwise you might as well play English jazz-club Dixieland.
The prevalent danger of improvised music which shows some awareness of Western (white) composed music is of course that you end up with the kind of sterile class-structured mannerisms of MJQ (and Charlie Parker with strings, even if it was a mistake, is infinitely preferable to that because the aspiration was honest – it’s a question of emotional integrity – it’s better if the cultures do clash quite grotesquely rather than have them meticulously cellotaped together by processes of selection resulting in third-stream cheesecake respectability.) I’ve already mentioned the element of restraint on these records, and if all modern improvised music is to be related to one succession, from jazz through free-jazz and onwards, then that could be a worrying factor.
Perhaps these records prove that you can’t view it that way any more. If it is restraint (& expressions like “brittle tension” might be closer to what happens) then it’s restraint not maintained as an emotional distancing from the act of playing the instrument, but as a means of establishing the music’s perceptive speed and flexibility. For really this is very emotional music, but not in the sense of “grooviness” (i.e. some kind of pelvic thrust) – that kind of emotional appeal is alien to the European musician because it would represent a weakness and lapse – over here it’s the property of the rock star and he’s welcome to it. Instead of that, the emotion is set at a high pitch, and it is held like that (that’s the “restraint,” that holding of emotion so that it is maintained over greatly changing sketches of playing; it’s done then in the interests of extent, and is quite different from the withholding of emotion which is real European sterility, whether it’s Edward Heath at the organ or pop-star parades of faked-up lust). So it’s emotion of the nerve rather than the gut, meaning nerve in the fullest sense too, including courage. There are no chauvinistic advantages to be had from this kind of free-playing in Europe, in terms of class, culture, money, self-respect or anything. It is in a way a quite desperate bid for there to be, once again, a real European music, and so of course it has to operate at the opposite pole from public/publicity versions of national culture. It is completely alienated, and its own reward.
As to description – the Cusack-Mayo duo (Bead 1) interweave these two very different instruments in constantly shifting spectra. The guitar is electric but played very delicately, avoiding all mass sound effects, and the reverberatory depth of the instrument is mostly kept shallow. A musical texture is created out of melodic fragments and instrumental noise properties. On this record Mayo’s clarinet playing has just the odd whiff of classical phraseology (trills, and slight tonal phrases), but this has disappeared by the time of Chamberpot (Bead 2). Chamberpot is a group with immense resources of variation and virtuosity – mostly fast, [Tony Wren] always tense, improvising and consorting well together because the improvisational vocabulary of each musician tends to coincide with the others’. So, for instance, although there’s no percussion the record is full of percussive noises from all over the place. There are times, too, of calm meditation, and furious or even violent flurries of energy. Although I keep talking about the “speed” of the music, it seems to me that the music quite often moves beyond speed, beyond fast and slow (beyond, that is, these pre-endorsed selective classifications of musical effect which we inherit from the 19th Century). I’m particularly impressed, finally, by the playing of Tony Wren on the bass. He very rarely produces anything you could call a note, but in his hands the bass becomes a vibrant source of all kinds of sounds, from percussive slaps bangs ticks knockings, etc. to hoarse groans, coughs, hisses and so on.
I forgot to mention, throughout, these musicians’ capacities for humour, satire, parody etc – not in the coarse clowning mode of German/Dutch improvised music, but very delicately, so that you’d hardly notice it, and integrally to the flux of the music so that it’s never just simply a joke.
Peter Riley, 1976
Peter Cusack biography:
Peter Cusack is an artist and musician who is a member of CRiSAP (Creative Research in Sound Art & Performance), and is a research staff member and founding member of the London College of Communication in the University of the Arts London. He was a founding member and director of the London Musicians’ Collective. He is best-known as a member of the avant guard musical quartet, “Alterations” (1978-1986; with Steve Beresford, David Toop, and Terry Day), and the creator of field and wildlife recording-based albums including: Where Is the Green Parrot? (1999) with tracks like “Toy Shop (Two Small Boys Go Shopping)” and “Siren“, which are just as advertised. Day for Night (2000), with Max Eastley. This features “duets” between Eastley’s kinetic sculpture and Cusack’s field recordings. Baikal Ice (2003), featuring tracks like “Banging Holes In Ice” and “Floating Icicles Rocked By Waves” and “Falling In”. Cusack has been involved in a wide range of projects throughout his career. Several of his pieces have been reviewed in Leonardo Music Journal, the annual music Journal published by MIT Press. He has also curated an album for Leonardo Music Journal.
He is currently research fellow on the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s multidisciplinary ‘Positive Soundscapes Project’.Cusack is particularly interested in environmental sound and acoustic ecology. He has examined the sound properties of areas such as Lake Baikal, Siberia, and the Azerbaijan oil fields, and is interested in how sounds change as people migrate and as technology changes.
In 1998, Cusack started the “Your Favorite London Sound” project. The goal is to find out what London noises are found appealing by people who live in London. This was so popular that it has been repeated in Chicago, Beijing, and other cities. He is involved in the “Sound & The City” art project using sounds from Beijing in October, 2005.
Cusack’s Sounds From Dangerous Places is a project to collect sounds from sites which have sustained major environmental damage. Sites that Cusack is working on include Chernobyl, the Azerbaijan oil fields, and areas around controversial dams on the Tigris and Euphrates river systems in south east Turkey.
Cusack’s performances are a central part of the book Haunted Weather: Music, Silence, and Memory (Toop, 2004) by his old collaborator and respected music critic and author, David Toop. Toop investigates the use of environmental sound and electronic instruments in experimental music in his book. With clarinetist Simon Mayo, he formed the duo known as “A Touch of the Sun“. His first “major” recording was part of Fred Frith’s 1974 record, “Guitar Solos“. He was one of the first to play the bouzouki in England, which gained him the respect of London’s musical avant garde. As a musician, he has collaborated with artists such as Clive Bell, Nic Collins, Alterations, Chris Cutler, Max Eastley, Evan Parker, Hugh Davies, Annette Krebs and Eastern Mediterranean singer Viv Corringham. A live performance with Nicolas Collins was released as “A Host, of Golden Daffodils” in 1999.
He co-founded an artist-owned record label called “Bead Records” which has released many previously unavailable pieces in 1972. It had released more than 30 albums, as of 2007.
In 1975 Derek Bailey, Steve Beresford, Max Boucher, Paul Burwell, Jack Cooke, Peter Cusack, Hugh Davies, Madelaine and Martin Davidson, Richard Leigh, Evan Parker, John Russell, David Toop, Philipp Wachsmann and Colin Wood formed the journal MUSICS, later described as “an impromental experivisation arts magazine”.
Cusack produces the monthly radio program “Vermilion Sounds” with Isobel Clouter. Vermilion Sounds explores environmental sounds and is broadcast by Resonance FM in London.