John Cale is one of those mercurial talents that can shift between different media, genres, landscapes and cultures, always taking a unique approach to how he interacts with them.
Musically he has traversed avant-garde classicism, the hyper-influential garage rock of Velvet Underground and a perpetually morphing solo career that has encompassed punk, pop and electronica. Not content with making just his own music, he has produced albums by Patti Smith, Nico, The Stooges and Happy Mondays.
Cale can also add the title – “artist’ to his portfolio with his installation Dyddiau Du / Dark Days that debuted at the recent Venice Biennale. The local significance of the video/music piece is that it will be shown as part of Hobart’s MONA/FOMA Festival, of which Cale is the artist in residence later this month. Cale is also a highlight of the Sydney Festival, both as a performer and keynote speaker at the Circa 1979: Signal To Noise event.
As 2009 concludes, Cale is ringing in the new year in California and still figuring out what the content of his keynote speech will be. “I’ve done this once before and they gave me a doctorate at Antwerp. To a large extent I was talking to professors – they were nuclear physicists, astrophysicists – it was a heavy duty body and I felt like the Scarlet Pimpernel a bit. I wanted to do a tour de raison that really spoke about everything and hopped all over the place,” he explains.
“This Russian professor came out and shook my hand and said – “I’ve got one word for you – cadenza!’ He put his finger on what the speech should become and that was a sort of improv. A cadenza is what you do in a concerto where the soloist is allowed space in the piece itself where he can show off all his technique and just do variations on the themes in the concerto. I did have fun doing that.
“I don’t want it to be too didactic or too – “sharpen your pencils’. I can tell some stories which I love to do. There are a couple of characters from my time in London in the – “70s, a couple of managers, impresarios that created extravaganzas around their artists who had no idea what was going on. There was one in particular that came and waved his magic wand in Australia so I might talk about him.”
Cale has constantly challenged traditional musical ideas and the structure of composition, and though much of this has come from traveling the world, he believes a stronger influence in his work comes from intellectual exploration and discovery. “I use my work as a travelogue, as a means of visiting bits of my own mind,” he states.
“A life of imagination is how I have approached moving around the world. I went to New York because that seemed to be the centre of avant-garde music at the time. It was a place where you could explore different intellectual ideas and habits and break them up and do something else. The avant-garde scene in Europe when I was there was fragmented, it had already gone through Stockhausen and it seemed to be a burnt out place. Most of the music in Europe was a hangover from the 2nd World War and performing music for Hitler and all that.
“There was a moral clause written into the intellectual mind frame of a composer or an artist. Before you created anything you had to prove the social worth of what you were going to do. It was almost like they wanted you to sign a Hippocratic oath so you wouldn’t do anything that would harm anybody. You just wanted to figure out how to write something different and come across new intellectual traditions but I discovered [John] Cage had already done it. He just came along and swatted it with a world view and by the time I got to New York Cage had handed over the baton to La Monte [Young] and I was very interested in La Monte because he had kind of single-handedly created performance art. His pieces were really instructions for performance – draw a straight line and follow it,” Cale explains.
Cale emerged from the avant-garde in the late – “60s and married his experimental leanings with the traditional song forms of Lou Reed. Looking back to the – “60s and – “70s, there is a tendency to summarise New York as merely Velvet Underground, Warhol and the CBGB punk scene, so I’m curious to find out from Cale if there were other as important musicians and artists that have been left out of the history books.
“Probably,” he says. “About five years ago this is something people would have got their teeth into but nowadays I think that with all the social networking facilities around for people it is exhausting. Twitter is up there for gossip but they are important networks if they’re used properly, they can be very powerful. I think those things would enable people find details about young musicians not lauded yet. For my mind I’m feeling comfortable with that.”
Cale has always had strong connections with the visual arts, most famously with his friend and collaborator Andy Warhol. His inclusion at the Venice Biennale was therefore no surprise and its success means it will be expanded internationally. The project also had a large personal impact on the artist. “I learnt a lot from doing this. It really contains about five vignettes about me and my life and how I related to Wales,” he explains.
“To a number of people those reflections of Wales drew out the worst in them, they just saw it as a Welsh travelogue. I can understand someone seeing it like that. All the things like Welsh Choirs, mountains, chapels – there is a whole roster of things you identify with and they were part of my upbringing so it was quite natural. I also dealt with things that were quite unnatural for me and still are. I was a product of a divided society. My father was English, my mother was Welsh, I grew up in a Welsh household and it drove me away.
“Why did I end up in New York using English as my private language? In the past year it’s really changed that attitude in me. When I had that opening on Giudecca at the Capannone in Venice and all these Welsh Arts Council personalities showed up – through all that I still got this warmth and communal feeling that is unique to Wales and I really missed that and didn’t realise it till I ran into it that night in Venice,” Cale recalls.
In the wake of the success of the exhibition, Cale has also been hard at work on the follow-up to his 2005 album blackAcetate. “Yeah, we’re up to 27 songs so far,” says Cale. “Some are more completed stories than others and some of the stories I’m not really sure are worth more investigation, I’ll just start again. It’s a good position to be in because I like what we have there and they’re all different – different feelings and mood.”
With a discography spanning more than forty years, one wonders if Cale’s motivation for making music has changed over time. “It has become more focussed. I have the same problems and run into blank walls every once in a while but I get more done nowadays. I think I work more efficiently, I’m happy when I get a blockage once in a while because I’m not starting from a position of ignorance anymore.
“I kind of know what these loops and these samples I’m working with are. Finding the one that’s wrong to start from is proving to be a bigger problem than before because I’ve gone through a lot of them. You really want to have a sample that’s irrational, or that you don’t understand, to start working with because your brain will always impose some kind of order on it. It’s about finding that stone for your shoe,” chuckles Cale.
John Cale is in Australia this month as a guest of the Sydney Festival and as Artist In Residence at Tasmania’s MonaFoma Festival.
Friday 15 January – – “Circa 1979: Signal to Noise’ keynote speaker, The Seymour Centre, Sydney
Saturday 16 January – Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Saturday 23 January – Full Band Show at PW1, Tasmania