Off The Page: the word on music

Robert Wyatt

Whitstable, 11–13 February 2011

Much as I have enjoyed music festivals over the years, I have always felt something was missing. Some context to the performances on offer, some consideration from the musicians about their music and its place in the wider world would have been good. When such talks did take place, they were squashed into the schedule as an afterthought. I wanted more, so was delighted when Off The Page, a weekend-long festival staged at the Playhouse Theatre in Whitstable, was curated by The Wire magazine and Sound and Music.

Billed as ‘the UK’s first literary festival devoted to music criticism’, Off The Page brought together a disparate group of musicians, artists, critics, theorists and authors to reflect on and discuss the current state of underground and experimental music. That might sound overly theoretical, and indeed the programme notes did talk of discourses and mediated and commodified spectacles, while multiple historically significant philosophies and practices abounded. New questions were posed, and a cacophony of emerging voices discussed and dissected. Some of the 13 events were thus daunting in both concept and language, but much of the rest was a complete delight.

Journalist Dave Tomkins took us entertainingly through the history of the vocoder, from its invention in 1928 as a voice security system that saw active service during the war as a phone scrambler used by Churchill and Roosevelt up to its appropriation by musicians as varied as Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Kraftwerk and legions of hip-hop artists. Steve Beresford examined the work of Jon Stevens and the imperatives of improvisation, while Matthew Herbert discussed his music in terms of music concrète. Endearingly, Robert Wyatt took the stage to choose his five favourite pieces: a Brahms piano work played next to a 1947 New Orleans-style number from jazz trumpeter Mutt Carey and a vocalese version of Coltrane’s Naima by French chanteuse Mimi Peron. But who else could honestly claim that as a teenager they listened to both the doo-wop smooch of the Platters’ Only You and Cecil Taylor’s 1961 album Air?

Best of all, from a critic’s point of view, was the round-table discussion on Sunday morning by The Wire’s editorial team about the changing nature of music criticism as it migrates from print to the blogosphere. Whereas in the past, us critics were privileged to get pre-released copies of LPs and CDs often weeks before they were on general release, now we hear our music at the same time as everyone else as artists release their music directly through downloads and their own websites. Numerous blogs have sprung up to comment on new music, levelling the critical playing field but also prompting questions about the role of a print critic. At what point of knowledge can a music critic make a contribution? How many records need to be heard or back knowledge of an artist obtained before a critic can make a judgement. And what sort of voice should be used – that of an expert, an enthusiast, a devotee or, and worst of all, an authorial omnipotence writing with Olympian neutrality? It’s not an accusation often levelled at critics on this magazine, but much recent music criticism has been guilty of macho posturing and sheer bravado. Think Lester Bangs and you’ll know what I mean.

So there was much to consider, and much to enjoy at this weekend. The numbers attending were small but well informed, and it was a measure of both the novelty and impact of the festival that attendees came from as far afield as Berlin and San Francisco. A few organisational glitches aside – never share a weekend with Valentine’s Day celebrations, when every restaurant doubles it prices and sets all its tables for two – this was great event that I hope becomes a regular on the festival calendar.

- Report by Simon Adams

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