As part of Splendid's ongoing efforts to (a) cover more experimental music, (b) be more informative and (c) seem smart, this week's Feature addresses the life and work of Dirk (,) Rodney. Never heard of him? Well, why the hell else would we have brought you this article? Quit asking stupid questions and read on.
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The recent unearthing of Dirk (,) Rodney's music has been surprising to many of us who thought we knew the terrain of avant-garde music in the 1950s and 1960s. To find a composer of his stature, invention and pedigree whose work was completely unknown may cause us to doubt our fundamental sense of the historical process. How did Rodney's work remain in obscurity for so long (in an obscure Liverpudlian archive of all places), and more importantly, I suppose, what more is there to uncover? We may take some comfort in realizing that to know Rodney's work, astounding in its vision and complexity as it may be, would also, by Dirk's terms, be its denial.
Dirk's compositional thought engages us not only because of its pervasive mystery (early electronic music, first name (?), relationships with the Beatles (?), fascination with early electric guitar experimentalism, still alive (??)) but also because of the seemingly endless variety of Rodney the person. Front-end Liverpudlian tram mechanic by day, electronics, compositional and guitar genius by night, Rodney also explored the outer reaches of religious experience (one of a very few practitioners of the now defunct and extraordinarily hermetic (Fah) Win Gum meditation/life practices). He spent a life in Liverpool writing great quantities of music (and poetry) while toiling in relative obscurity (though at least some part of his life was lived in London, probably in the Arsenal). He made a few strange trips to the U.S, which fascinated him in many ways (even though, while searching for the Gibson guitar factory, despite the fact that he was almost obsessively devoted to his Fender Jaguar, he ended up, mistakenly, in Wisconsin, without seeming to notice). He also seems, although little is known about this, to have had a strong, perhaps erotic-romantic connection to Scandinavia (see his poems, a few of which appear on the Dirk (,) Rodney homepage).
Rodney, on one of his visits (1959?) to the United States, trying to work with the RCA electronic music synthesizer at the famed Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio. He believed (see Memoirs of New York City, 1965, handwritten journals) that it could be pedal operated, and it is not known whether or not he ever successfully completed a piece on this instrument.
Recently, a number of composers (surprisingly, mostly American) have taken an interest in Rodney's work, and though there are still rigid and seemingly unexplainable strictures placed on the performance and viewing of the scores (by the estate), several performances have taken place (see the website for more information). In addition, a community-oriented project has been undertaken to release, in archival CD editions, some of his early electronic music. To date, two such pieces (La Noche Que Durissima, a 22 minute tape work, and HumB., an hour-plus mediation on the difference between alternating current in England and the U.S, which also exploits Dirk's own version of the decibel scale) have been remastered (by composers Larry Polansky and Tom Erbe, respectively) and are available through crypto-private channels (Dirk (,) Rodney Archive, Box 1052, Lebanon, New Hampshire, 03766). These surprisingly current-sounding works, discovered in obscure academic tape music archives, give us, along with the tremendously varietal instrumental work, the breadth (and perhaps the bent) of Rodney's compositional intelligence. La Noche... in particular shows Rodney's mastery of the tape machine (the Duotrack format, which is still poorly understood, but seems to have made pitch-shifting an earlier analog feasibility).
AUDIO: Brief excerpts from Quasi-Paraludes #7, #11, performed by Larry Polansky, Moorhead State University, Minnesota. Solo electric guitar and electronics. These are modular, yet highly specific scores.
The Win Gum (or, misnomically Fah Win Gum as it has later been called) influence on Rodney's work is only beginning to be understood. Rodney seems to have been such a fierce adherent of this elliptical, perhaps even dangerous religious doctrine, that the "practice" (Win Gum adherents often referred to it as that "nasty, foul toiling") found its way into all his pieces in a kind of nonsensical palimpsest (for instance, the fascination with extremely high voltages in the electronic works). Win Gum's emphasis on light hand touching, eating of foods that are considered to be "sileage" (thus: mangelw�rzel, a melon-sized beet, that, ironically, the American Shaker sect later cultivated for livestock), and the "deification of the ambiguity" manifests itself periodically in odd ways in the Rodney canon. For example, handwritten notes (inscribed, apparently in some animal by-product liquid substance which has turned almost 3-dimensional over the years) which appear on the final manuscript page of Rodney's Octet-Truss for nine trumpets and bh�dran claim:
"This piece combines intermittent clusters of isotropic vector matrices, or octet-truss subdivisions of inclusive tetrahedral perspectival referents. The structure of its space is embedded in its Win Gum spirit-trope: it must be interpreted as an omni-cymatic embodiment, whose void-matrix nodal density in holonomic four-dimensional space is almost completely refractive when it ass-ends (sic) to the next level." (April, 1963)
Yet within a month (May, 1964), Rodney published, in the Arsenal mimeographed broadside Squire ("The Magazine of Folk Music and Pain," Issue #17), a stupidly infantile folksong (music not included here) containing the verse:
"The everlasting candy bar of life!
Schizoid? Too holistic to be fully understood without knowing him personally (as almost no one did)? What can the uninitiated (and who, today, could possibly be a Win Gum initiate, or "sileat"?) make of this kind of writing? Or of Dirk's Swedish poems, cryptic score titles combined with modular but often psuedo-fascistic performance forms (the solo guitar work Iron Head, Clear Rock, and Track Horse stipulates -- in fact, demands -- that the performer eat rattle-snake meat before playing the piece!). While critics have often been kind to recent performances -- the Boston Globe called trombonist Tom Plsek's recent Mobius Gallery performance of Water Music (for "private" trombonist) "brilliant, an organic fusion of form, content and spiritual yearning" -- other reviewers have simply been baffled, or even horrified. The reviewer Frank Titterton, writing for the popular Web-journal E-Ration (http://www.e-ration.gov), said, with regards to a California performance of the Cryptomusicon by composer douglas repetto:
The ultimate devour of strife!
May I insert this dildo in your wife?"
Performance: douglas repetto, computer, playing: RODNEY (,) DIRK: Cryptomusicon, Galleria Apocrypha, Joshua Tree, California
It doesn't help that the rumor of a hoax has circulated, and which, linked to the ridiculous story (completely false) that Rodney himself was a figment of a Beatles' imagination -- even more, a kind of Forbidden Planet-like manifestation of the group's "collective id" -- has been damaging to serious and dedicated Dirk work. The BBC, which has had its own problems with contemporary music chicanery, has studiously avoided broadcasting any of Rodney's work (even the well known Apartment House performances of the Quasi-Paraludes a few years ago in London).
Lamentations! This is terrible! Gone is the musical language, the chiming harmonies and the sunbaked artistic qualities that made repetto's recent performances at Apocrypha so wonderful. Perhaps this is due to the fact that repetto has now turned his attention to the distressingly tormented Dirk (,) (sic) Rodney, legendary English composer (who probably never existed!). Rodney's assemblage (even if it is his) has moments that made us cringe and wonder if they, like, were completely insane, and more so, hostile -- specifically the one with all the scary monster sounds and the unfunny, unentertaining, simply bad but painfully loud Beatles-ish rendition of one of W.S Gilbert's "Bab" ballads. A great disappointment. Avoid. Really. At all costs.
Rodney, in a digitally reconstructed damaged black and white photo, lying down with his beloved Fender Jaguar (note that, as in this picture, he often played the instrument with the strings toward him). This picture is believed to have been taken backstage at a club in the Arsenal, circa 1965.
In Ultra-Modern Music and the BBC: The Challenge to Challenge (Jane Proctor, Oxford University Press, 1987), a BBC programmer is quoted as saying that Rodney:
"... occupies a somewhat peculiar position. An ultra-modernist, true, but of a decidedly flagrant variety. His work, always extreme, makes no concessions to reasonableness. His insignificant reputation is deserved, and although one cannot see "mind to mind" with him [a reference to Win Gum's presupposition of the "fundamental species telepathy" and, by consequence, "telepathophobia"], one can occasionally be impressed by the richness of his gifts, even, if they are, as it were, highly suspect as to provenance." (p. 204).
These words are perhaps understandable in light of the fact that so much of Rodney's work is incomprehensible, enigmatic, poorly documented and almost deliberately hidden. Like one of his professed mentors, Giordano Bruno (but unlike his other, Sabbatai Sevi), Rodney thought:
"The well-known are the unknown, the famous are the obscure. Let me be a flame extinguished before it is lit. Let me be the dust underneath the beatle [sic] squashed beneath the tyre. When I rise, when my work ass-ends, there will be no notice, no discourse, no retribution. There is power in ephemera, grandiosity in the miniscule. Win Gum shows us that music and soil are the same, and like the ambi-pheme [Win Gum-mian term for the smallest unit of ambiguity] my work will be dirt, scattered, unnoticed, clinging to the bottom of your shoes" (Rodney, Win Gum daily affirmation, 12/26/61).
AUDIO: Excerpt, La Noche Que Durissima, 196(?), tape work, available from the Dirk (,) Rodney Archives.
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Tyler "Speedboy" Kingdom is a Dirk (,) Rodney scholar and pastry chef from Modesto, California.
[ graphics credits :: header - george zahora | photos - provided by the dirk (,) rodney estate :: credits graphics ]