March 21st, 2011 | Published in Articles
William Bennett is one of the most intriguing figures operating in music today. As the only constant member of the UK’s seminal Whitehouse, he has been instrumental in influencing many subsequent subgenres of Noise and applied himself to exploring the extremities of sound, thematic material and performance for over thirty years. Bang the Bore caught up with him as he finalised the mixing of the long-gestating first album by his Cut Hands project to talk about (and around) issues of how musicians strategise their engagement with their art and audience.
BtB: Your work has always kicked against the boundaries that people erect around themselves: the self-imposed dividing line between what we feel we can safely define as ourselves and what we might react against as alien, ‘other’, taboo or threatening. What interests you about that?
Bennett: I find it indescribably exciting, to enter unfamiliar domains – they don’t necessarily have to be taboo or threatening, but often are; accepting that, the question then becomes one of discovering the most effective ways of achieving that, something which is not as straightforward as it sounds due to the powerful environmental and physiological pulls that comfort, safety, and thus familiarity have on us all.
BtB: What would you say are the ‘most effective ways’ you’ve come across? For example, some commentators used to point out that Whitehouse reference a lot of challenging material without comment. Would providing comment have provided too much guidance or context for how people might choose to react, thus reducing the impact?
Bennett: Certainly that’s true; speaking personally as a consumer, I hate having those kinds of limitations imposed, the modern-day habit of serial rationalisation drives me crazy – as far as finding effective ways, this is no simple list, nor one that can be universally applied, and very often involves transparent concessions that cannot, by their very nature, be made explicit.
Whitehouse – Live in Paris (16 minutes of… by zoaxiama>
BtB: I’m interested in the term ‘transparent concessions.’ Would you see your art as that whole framework of ideas, techniques and practices that might lie outside of your audience’ immediate perception, with the part of your work that they can directly comprehend being a smaller subset?
While I can understand not wanting to reveal those methods, there might be related topics that we could discuss. There are phenomena that have the desired effect even when the audience knows how they work. In Steve Reich’s phasing piece, It’s Gonna Rain, even knowing that there are two identical recordings moving out of phase your brain still tries to make sense of the patterns that emerge. The linguistic illusion still occurs. Or there’s your blog post in which you wrote about your preference for ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ in a sentence. It still sounds more agreeable, even when you know that one has been deliberately replaced with the other.
There are also ways of operating that are barely within or totally outside of the user’s capacity to explain, i.e. Tim Hallbom’s streamlining of NLP technique known as Foreground/Background, or Austin Spare’s sigil technique. I could theorise about how they work, but I’d be lying if I said I knew for sure.
Is there anything you employ that fits those categories that you’d be willing to discuss?
Bennett: The notion of the ‘transparent concession’ is something I’ve talked about extensively at my blog, and are essentially act of applying the building blocks of magic (magic being that which one previously thought was impossible, rather than in the Paul Daniels sense of the word).
I don’t see the Steve Reich phasing piece as an example of transparent concessions, rather being a sensory illusion.
Nor the example of effective usage of ‘but’ and ‘and’ (in that case it functions outside one’s conscious awareness yet is neither entirely transparent, nor indeed a concession).
The example I use (from Stanislavski) of what a stage actor chooses to do during the intermission is the nicest example – I’m, as you can appreciate, reluctant to give illustrations from my own work because it would spoil the mystique.
BtB: I don’t see those as examples of what I understand to be transparent concessions either… I’m trying to broaden the frame of reference from something that can’t be discussed to something that can.
So you’ve got what the performer sets up in private that informs their performance, which might be diminished if the audience had full access (that’s what I understand by your term ‘transparent concession,’ although I might have misinterpreted). Then you’ve what’s mutually understood by both performer and audience but is still effective. Then there’s the stuff that’s not really understood by either party, but is still pretty showstopping, which might include ecstatic phenomena. Finally there’s everything the audience brings that’s outside of the performer’s awareness… after all, there’s usually more of them than there are of you and they’re only ever a split second away from invading the stage, trashing your equipment and stealing your clothes, right?
So while we can’t talk about that one category of performer/audience dynamic, what are your thoughts on the others?
BennettThe invisible barrier between audience and performer (whether music act, preacher, public speaker, comedian, or otherwise) is pretty strong and offers a pretty powerful protection, at least where there’s a stage involved, even when the demarcation is only imagined – contrast the deference to this divide with outside contexts; things might get thrown but stage invasions are surprisingly rare and often only occur when the performers themselves actively invite someone onto the stage.
We had to contend with missiles being regularly thrown at us in the 90s, and when it became part of audience expectations (something you have to take responsibility for eliciting, whether implicitly or explicitly), it was a big challenge to change what was in danger of getting completely out of hand; and this is also a case where transparent concessions had to be applied with the goal of achieving that, which for the most part were very successful.
In reality, as audience members, the most powerful gesture we have at our disposal is to simply walk out – and even that is quite difficult; I don’t know how many terrible shows at the Edinburgh Festival I’ve sat through for little reason other than for it to end.
BtB: I wonder whether actors fear what the audience gets up to in the intermission (standing at the bar with their mates, deconstructing what they’ve just seen) and whether they sometimes notice a sea-change in atmosphere in the second half of their performance.
The opposite effect is also true, those times when the audience contribute to the success of the show just as much as (if not more than) the performers. I caught the Pogues’ Brixton Academy Christmas concerts a few years ago, and you could see the effect of a couple of decades of audience investment in their music (and being cynical, the economic effect of wanting to get your money’s worth because of the extortionate ticket price). The weeks of anticipation, the pre-going out drinks, getting dressed up, meeting your friends beforehand… sometimes, as a punter, you really need a pay-off to that investment.
Do you think the audience has a comparable level of mystique to a performer? Do you sometimes look out at a crowd and think, “Blimey, who are this lot?” You’re working in a lot of different contexts these days… have you noticed different expectations in different contexts?
Bennett: I’d say that the relationship between audience/performer expectations and performance context on any discrete occasion involves more subtle (and not so subtle!) variables than can be usefully expressed in a paragraph or two; that said, there do seem to be a few universal principles worth considering, which have most impact on both audience AND performer:
– the physiology of the space (e.g. type, location, seating arrangement, spacial capacity, fullness/emptiness, smells, acoustics, and so forth)
– the time (day of the week or special occasion, day/night, what goes before/after performance)
– the unspoken rules of the ritual
– and added to all of the above, and it sounds glib, but isn’t: everythiing else that each person present brings to the event thus becomes the event
It thus becomes clear how, perhaps surprisingly, minor is the performer’s affect (in the philosophical sense, at that time), despite perceptions often very much to the contrary.
BtB: The phrase ‘unspoken rules of the ritual’ is interesting. I know you’ve got some interest in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and I wondered whether there might be some tangential relationship between the flexibly improvised rituals of NLP and the blending of African and Haitian rhythmic elements (which often originate from devotional or ceremonial contexts) in your more recent music, both as Whitehouse and under the Cut Hands moniker. Do you see part of your music and wider work as being about designing rituals?
Bennett: Despite its evolution with incorporated ritual and theory, I don’t personally see NLP as anything beyond a strategic system for modeling behaviour and communication; if we accept that, then we could also say that part of the music and wider work involves design as you describe it – but at the same time, further comparison between African/Haitian music and ritual and Whitehouse would be problematic, which, incidentally, is essentially why I baulk at what I would see as the arrogance of my describing Cut Hands as ‘African’ music, it clearly isn’t.
BtB: Are you defining problematic there in terms of issues of cultural appropriation?
Bennett: Problematic here in the sense of being retrospectively applied, but in fact not part of any original conscious intent.
BtB: Do you resist using any specific rhythms that might have any wider resonance outside of the music itself (ritual, devotional or otherwise)?
Bennett: There probably is some (unconscious) resistance, yes – I noticed that the other day, funnily enough, after working on some thing.
BtB: Am I right in saying that you’ve taken lessons in African drumming, and if so can you tell me a bit more about that?
Bennett: Yes, it was a lot of fun! there was a small group of us in a big echoey gymnasium and I’ve never known pure acoustic music feel so loud and physical; I felt it was important to get to know the instruments better, to understand them on a deeper level than just something you whale away on; of course, we learned lots of technique, styles, and rhythms, but that wasn’t the primary intent.
BtB: There’s a sense in which the construction and materials of the drum dictate the optimum technique for playing it, which then effects the kinds of rhythms that work best. It makes it easy to empathise with animist beliefs that refer to the instrument’s spirit, or to it as an ally. It sometimes seems to have a will of its own.
I hear you’re a good guitarist, but that you decided not to use that in Whitehouse. How did it feel to integrate hand drums into your music after resisting conventional instrumentation and technique for such a long time?
Bennett: It felt somewhat mischievous upon being incorporated into the recording of ‘Wriggle’, and I confess to having had huge self-doubt about so doing just before the 12” single’s release – however, afterwards it just felt right and served as encouragement to continue along that path.
BtB: What do you think triggered the self doubt?
Bennett: It’s probably just a natural response to making what was a rather counter-intuitive shift in musical approach, I’m also used to anxiety before releasing new stuff; it’s that critical moment after gestation when it no longer belongs entirely to you and will take on a life of its own, it’s a little hard to let go even though it’s exciting and what you’ve been planning all along.
BtB: I notice that you’re in the final stages of mixing the Cut Hands record. How’s that been going?
Bennett: Challenging but very rewarding, can’t wait to finish it though. ;-)