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  • Forced Exposure

    David Toop, “Forced Exposure”, The Wire Magazine,
    London, n.º 175, September, pp. 44-47 (article on Acqua Matrix)

    At the Paris Exposition of 1889, Debussy, Ravel and Gauguin all experienced personal epiphanies when confronted by the arts and music of Asia. Separately, they visited the Exposition’s bamboo and thatch Javanese Ka mpong, a chief’s stilt house, a restaurant and a collection of huts. Javanese gamelan music and dance were performed within the enclosure, a spectacle that fascinated them all. Biographer David Sweetmen speculates that Paul Gauguin may have enjoyed the dances of pubescent girls for reasons that were “no doubt as much corporeal as spiritual”. As for Debussy, he went on to compose Jardins Sous La Pluie and Pagodes, both clearly influenced by the melodies and rhythms of gamelan. Orientalism and the colonial economy were inextricably linked, since the Kampong’s music, dance and Javanese food were sponsored by Dutch businessmen as a way of promoting Van Houten Cocoa and Lucas Bols Spirits.

    In November 1996, I was visited at home in London by a Portuguese guitarist, songwriter and Sonic Youth fan named João Paulo Feliciano. Paulo passed an impressive blue plastic folder across the table. Within were photographs of South-East Asian dancers performing beneath the surface of a Photoshop ocean, along with Coca-Cola and Shell logos, statements such as “together, everyone may now evoke dreams about the unknown sea”, and computer generated drawings of a utopian scene in Lisbon. This future vision of Expo ’98, the last Exposition of the millennium, depicted the area of the site where a huge dock full of toxic water would be transformed into Expo’s night spectacular. Ghostly in their trim perfection, the computer drawings suggested a distant offworld city, freshly constructed yet still awaiting the arrival of its first inhabitants; a J.G. Ballard industrial estate where the workers are zoned out in pathological reverie.

    Opening out onto the River Tagus, the Olivais dock was once used as a landing strip for seaplanes. As empty as the lifeless virtual lake of the computer simulations, in less than two years this desolate space would be cluttered with the specialist technology of exhibition spectaculars, with the largest, most advanced oceanarium in Europe squatting at one end like a giant interplanetary spacecraft carrier.

    As the artistic coordinator of this show in the making, João Paulo was offering me a serious job. Would I compose the soundtrack for an outdoor show that would climax every night of Expo 98, May to September, seen and heard by upwards of 20,000, maybe 40,000, even 80,000 people a night? Immediately, I thought of Jean Michel-Jarre. No, I thought. Impossible. Fortunately, 30 years of financial insecurity imposed silence on that thought.

    A week later I was in Lisbon, peering into the murky waters of the dock in the company of the Portuguese team, led by Alberto Lopes, and their chosen artistic partners, among them the English show designer Mark Fisher (architect of extravagance for Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, U2, Janet Jackson and the Millennium Dome), Portuguese sound engineer Tó Pinheiro and an urbane American in Paris, Benetton’s Colors magazine editor Charles Thompson.

    The show, it transpired during an interminable meeting, was to be a sci-fi epic, a cautionary environmental fable about transmitting vital resource data to other planets in preparation for Planet Earth’s evacuation. Scenes from When Worlds Collide flitted through my mind. Using the Italian spelling of Aqua, for reasons I never discovered, the title would be Acqua Matrix.

    If I wasn’t a vegetarian, I would describe the process of fleshing out and reconstituting this story as a ritual of gristle mastication. There was pragmatism from Mark Fisher, an ex-architect acclimatised to the wishes of rock stars who demand maximum impact, maximum scale and maximum returns. Countering Fisher’s solve-it-and-move-on approach was some flighty talk about water. Since the theme of Expo 98 was Oceans, how did acqua, aqua or água figure in the matrix? What if water became so scarce that it became a commodity like cocaine? How about a bank where you could deposit and withdraw water? Ideas about destroying water, writing on water, cutting water and walking on water were tossed around. I made notes for myself about information density, steam jets, cracking ice, hot metal in water, loudspeakers mounted in boats, sound sculptures on boats.

    Since the pioneering sea voyages of Portuguese navigators such as Magellan were being honoured within the Expo theme, I imagined a procession of boats transmitting some kind of ceremonial future music: something like the galley slave scenes in Ben Hur transposed to Akira. The prospect of working on such a huge site led me to thinking about sound moving in space. With fatal consequences for the survival of this idea, however, I had no concrete experience of shifting sounds across an outdoor area the size of nine football pitches. I thought of Edgard Varí¨se, working with Xenakis and Le Corbusier in the Philips Pavilion at Brussels Expo 58, creating sonic movement through space with Le Poí¨me í‰lectronique. I should have paid more attention to the difficulties Varí¨se experienced.

    At the Greater Britain Exhibition of 1899, held at London’s Earl’s Court, showman Imre Kiralfy built Orientalist palaces, a Cairo street and a ‘Kaffir Krall’, organised in Natal by a circus entrepreneur named Frank Fillis and populated by 174 Zulus, Basuto, Matabele and Swazi. Cranes and giant tortoises gave a final touch of authenticity to this African simulation. “Once in London,” wrote Ben Shepard in Showbiz Imperialism, “Fillis solved the sensitive question of accomodation for his troupe by putting them on display, at sixpence a look, in an expensive replica of a ‘Kaffir Krall’, thus continuing what was by 1899 a long tradition of putting ”savages’ on display in England.”

    In November 1997, one year later we met again in Troia, a Portuguese beach resort that could be 30 minutes drive from Lisbon or 2 hours, depending on the number of gridlocked cars that snake over the city skyline like an illuminated python woken by sunset. Deserted off-season, its far shoreline a scar tissue of industry, the hotel booming with resonances of a future that never came, Troia conjured a different set of Ballardian tropes.

    In January, Acqua Matrix was selected from six competing show proposals. Considering the efforts we had made to avoid the clichées of mass audience spectaculars, this was remarkable. Given a green light, the Acqua Matrix team had expanded to include guitarist and analogue filter enthusiast Rafael Toral; another (now ex) Colors magazine editor, Alex Marashian; clothes designer and surfer Xana Barata and an artist of fire and explosions, the engagingly and appropriately volatile Christophe Berthonneau.

    The real business of late-20th century trans-Europe spectaculars had begun: thick budget forecast documents striped by columns of six digit sums covering every financial eventuality of the next ten months. The word ‘global’ (ie, the whole picture) was ubiquitous. In charge of technical production was a French company, the administration and creative direction was Portuguese, the creative team was Portuguese, English, French and American; language slithered in a Euro-morass of partial understanding, universal profanity and strategic national withdrawal.

    As for the plot, this was as embattled as anything else. The central feature of the show was now a giant inflatable egg, a 30 metre high creation symbol that would swell each night on cue to dominate the Expo skyline from its platform in the centre of the dock. The entire surface would be covered, or inhabited, by projected images selected by Thompson and Marashian. After the egg deflated into the ashes of apocalypse (my golden opportunity to record nasty breakbeat heavy metal), an escape machine, propelled by the only human in the show, would travel from the water surface near the egg up to the top of the oceanarium.

    What would happen at that climactic moment of arrival and dramatic release? Nobody could say, since Peter Chermayeff, the architect of the oceanarium, was adament that nothing could be fixed to his ‘cathedral’. To add to this complication, oceanarium biologists were concerned about the effects of a nightly bombardment – my soundtrack, Rafael Toral’s pre-show Blast Matrix symphony for horns and sirens and Christophe’s fireworks, explosions and flames – on the resident fish and birds.

    Regrettably, the sound system was not going to frighten anybody, let alone penguins accustomed to the high velocity sound cannons of underwater seals. Armed with a calculator and blackboard, Tó Pinheiro delivered an withering lecture on acoustic physics, explaining why my score for moving sound and sub-bass stomach massage could not possibly work with a sound system of such limited capacity. Bowing to his erudition, the room shuffled this awkward intervention into a file labelled ‘later, perhaps’. Mark Fisher, tending to the Rolling Stones tour in America, was not available for comment.

    A celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition sparked America’s infatuation with Hawaiian music. The Exposition opened in San Francisco in 1915. One of its most popular attractions was the Hawaii Pavilion, where the Royal Hawaiian Quartette played songs such as “Waikiki Mermaid” and “On the Beach At Waikiki”. The featured artists who performed with the Quartette included Joseph Kekuku, the inventor of steel guitar technique. Following up the success of the Hawaii Pavilion, US record companies released huge quantities of Tin Pan Alley Hawaiian music. In 1916 Hawaiian records outsold any other form of music in America: playing the ukelele became a national obsession and Joseph Kekuku’s innovative use of a knife blade to slide along the strings led, directly or indirectly, to blues and country slide guitar and the invention of the electric guitar itself.

    In February, we were back at the beach. This time, Sesimbra, with the team swollen to more than 20 people. As before, meetings would ramble from morning until lunch, the Atlantic Ocean glittering tantalisingly beyond the windows, then from brandy and coffee until late evening, concluding with headlong flight to restaurants where huge quantities of food, wine and brandy would be consumed until the small hours. The next morning’s meeting would begin later, the hangovers more pronounced, the will to solve intractible problems less vigorous.

    Tensions were palpable. Speeches were made. Despite a certain pressure to produce demonstration tapes, simulations, charts, progress reports and similar proofs of what our social security system describes as ‘a willingness to work’, I felt no burning desire to add to these speeches. Spectacular shows are juggernauts of funding, administration and political finagling. They have the strength to grind ideas into powder long before showtime. Best then, in my opinion, to shelter treasured ideas for as long as possible, then spring them out when their moment arrives.

    The sound system was a different matter. For most people, musicians included, the logistics of dunking 40,000 outdoor spectators into a tangible soup of sound are remote abstractions. Mark Fisher, who has spent more than 20 years observing the science of audio-blasting massed humanity, suggested that their general rhubarb would be louder than the quietest parts of my music. The potential for humiliation (mine) seemed to be growing larger than the egg itself.

    By this critical moment, Tó Pinheiro had abandoned ship, convinced that the sound battle was lost. My sound engineer of choice in London, Dave Hunt, had clambered aboard but regrettably for our wallowing craft, happened to be committed to a four week job in Marrakesh. I listened to esoteric decibel debates with mounting gloom. The question of timings became distressingly fluid. A suggestion was put forward: music was the best medium for determining the rhythmic shape of the show, so the soundtrack should be recorded and used as a template for visuals, lights, action, explosions, mechanical movement, whatever. Suddenly, my sheltered ideas were about to be exposed.

    In March we convened in Lisbon. Diggers and trucks raced furiously in all directions. Expo opened on May 22nd. Our beachcombing days were over. I had spent the previous two weeks in London with Dave Hunt recording a first draft of the 17 minute score. An evening demonstration was set up: two loudspeakers, a small lake (the size of a goal plus penalty area, rather than nine football pitches), a tiny group of spectators with nervous expectations. To compound my anxiety, the late afternoon had been devoted to a particularly brittle argument about the sound system. Not for the first time, Mark Fisher suggested that money should be diverted from elsewhere in the show to boost the sound levels. Having heard so much authoritative reasoning on the subject of sound moving through space, most of it negative, I decided to pitch in by abandoning this Varí¨sian folly. I’ll do stereo, I said, and the money saved on programming sound movement can buy a little loudspeaker.

    In April, I was back in the studio, remixing and remaking, spotting in more sound effects, creating as much density as possible within an already hectic narrative, adding Paul Burwell’s metal percussion to tracks laid in the previous session by Max Eastley and percussionist Pete Lockett. The soundtrack preview had gone well at the mini-lake. I suspected that this was partly due to the level of crisis in other parts of the show, though Acqua Matrix seemed more certain of completion than Expo itself. A joke was going around: since Germany’s Expo 2000 was nearly ready, why not swap Expos?

    At the beginning of May, Dave Hunt and I were in Lisbon for sound testing. Mud on the site had been hard-baked by the rising temperature; dust rose in choking clouds as the diggers and trucks sped along half-finished roads. Despite the level of concern for their physiological welfare, the penguins had filed no complaints after listening to my first draft. The sound system had been enhanced and enlarged. Though it wasn’t like being beaten to death with heavy gloves, the music sounded loud and clear enough to dominate the sprawling Expo site. Suddenly, this elusive and fragile show began to seem like a reality.

    It is 21 May, and the final trip to Lisbon, for this project at least. Tonight, José Carreras and Michael Nyman will perform for assembled VIPs who will then gather at the edge of the dock to watch Acqua Matrix. I gather the Emperor of Japan is here. As midnight approaches, I feel the first subsonic rumbling of my soundtrack beginning. This is the first time I have seen the show. People oohh and ahhh in front of me, intrigued by Rafael’s Blast Matrix horns, rivetted by the egg and its weirdly disembodied, vivid images, held by the narrative, finally exhilarated by Christophe’s pyro climax as it hurtles round the dock to end in a jet of flame and the loudest explosion in Dave Hunt’s compendious effects library of shattering booms.

    Standing by the Olivais Dock, Michael Nyman and I chatted together after the reverberation of the final explosion had died away. Twenty five years ago we both took part in Eddie Prévost’s large scale composition, Spirals. English experimental composition and improvisation were on a high. Avant garde music, I assume we assumed, would continue to prosper at the margins. Yet here we were, a quarter century later, doing the very different things we both did in the presence of Euro-moguls and an anachronistic Emperor. We agreed that this was not a predictable outcome.

    The following day, a miracle: Expo opens to the public. Admittedly, the station is still being built and the choice of restaurants open on site – Uruguayan, German and Venezuelan cuisine or fast food – is not yet enticing. The architecture is breathtaking, particularly the unfinished station, but as a ‘global’ experience, Expo feels not so far from those computer drawings I had seen when João Paulo Feliciano first visited me in London; the sense of wandering through a beautiful wonderland of emptiness, a shopping mall of the world. Eastern European bagpipe bands drone and drum in the shade of gleaming white buildings, a Pizza Hut behind them, a McDonald’s before them. Bijou shops sell African carvings that hold less novelty value than the ice cream flavours sold a few metres away in Baskin & Robbins.

    Gazing in a state of blank nothingness at the Brazilian Pavilion’s touch screen display, weighing the difference between its sterility and the complex reality of Brazil, I feel that the revelation of hearing Hawaiian music for the first time, let alone Debussy’s Javanese epiphany, has moved beyond our grasp. Though the Exposition tradition of transplanting exotic life will be upheld by Bedouin nomads later in the summer, it seems unlikely to make a stir. Us televisual nomads; we have seen it all.