Andrew Blick talks to Felix L. Petty

Tank _vol 7issue 2105

Portrait by Matt Ritson & Alexander McLuckie

John Peel jokingly banned Dr. Andrew Blick from the BBC’s Maida Vale studios, where he worked with artists from Damo Suzuki to Grooverider, for having appeared on too many sessions there. In his own band Gyratory System, Blick can be found conjuring up music that combines the utopian euphoria of rave with the stranger edges of jazz and the pulsating tonal loops of krautrock. In his day job, meanwhile, Blick is a constitutional historian. Tank’s Felix L. Petty finds him tucked away in a pub in Holborn, where they talk about Blake, Milton and “the Process”.

Felix L. Petty So what did you get your PhD in?
Andrew Blick I’m currently working on a project about the constitutional history of the UK, but my PhD was about the history of special advisors and their constitutional role in politics. What I’m interested in is why the UK is so unusual – it doesn’t actually have a written constitution so everything is done by understandings, precedents and vague agreements. No one’s quite sure what any of it really is or how you go about changing it.

FP Has anyone ever tried to introduce a written constitution? Did Cromwell have one during the Republic?
AB Cromwell did, in 1663, and that’s the only one you can say that has been introduced. Up to a point, the Magna Carta sort of functions as a constitution, and actually it’s coming up to the 800th anniversary of King John signing it! Who played him in the movie version?

FP John Wayne?
AB I hope somewhere there is a movie about the Magna Carta with King John played by John Wayne. It was only later, though, that it gained the status that it has now, which is sort of down to the way it’s been interpreted by judges over the years. It bears little relation to how it was originally intended.

FP How does the current Conservative-Liberal coalition sit constitutionally?
AB Well, coalition governments and hung parliaments used to be a lot more common, up until the Second World War really, but since 1945 we’ve only had one hung parliament, in the 1970s, and there wasn’t a coalition, just a Labour minority government. So this is the first coalition we’ve had in quite a while and no one knows quite how it will work it practice. There is the Salisbury convention, and this says that the House of Lords won’t vote against a piece of legislation if it is in the manifesto of the party that won the election, but it’s not clear as no single party won the election. The problem with having unwritten rules is that no one is quite sure how they really work.

FP How do you see the protests against the coalition government and its budgetary cuts that are occurring across Britain right now?
AB The real issue here, I think, is new technology. The mass media don’t really understand how it works, or they’ve ascribed an idea to it that doesn’t really exist. It makes it easier to organise protests and harder to police them, certainly. I’d imagine that the methods of the police haven’t changed too much. Their basic strategy is to infiltrate the groups, and technology it makes it easier for protestors to avoid detection and organise resistance.

FP It seems like they are operating without a fixed structure. It is more of a mob than, say, the old trade union protests.
AB It is less clear what they are actually for, what their objectives are, because the whole movement is “against”. Each individual section of the protests, whether it’s anarchists, trade unions, students or public service workers, is very diffuse and has different aims, but roughly they are all demanding that something doesn’t happen.

FP What if you compare it to resistance to Thatcher in the 1980s, and poll tax riots in the early 1990s?
AB The demonstrations themselves in the 1980s were often called by the trade unions. They were more radical then; they had more members and could rely on more public support. In some ways they are a lot more sensible now – they’ve realised that you can’t go for a big, all-out battle with the government, because you’ll get beaten, like the miners did in 1984-85. But there are other anarchist groups too. I think the closest parallel is to the type of activity Crass were involved in; there was a whole music industry of anti-Thatcher songs; but whether we’ll see that now…

FP A lot of your music flirts with politics: you make references to Milton, Blake, the French Revolution.
AB Milton is interesting, because in Paradise Lost he talks about the conflict between predetermination and free will, and that’s something we’re interested in with our music – it’s central to it, really, as we combine improvisation and pre-programming. Our first album was called The Sound Board Breathes, which is a quote from Milton. It sounds so futuristic, coming out of the 17th century, but I think Milton used it to describe a church organ, actually. Milton was very interested in sound as well, and the music and melody of poetry, which I think might be something to do with his blindness.

FP What about William Blake?
AB The quote we used was, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s,” and we are called Gyratory System, so it seemed quite apt. But, you see, we don’t have lyrics or vocals, so we’re always on the lookout for good quotes, as they can really help to illustrate some of the ideas that lie behind the music. It can be just as interesting as well to take those snippets out of context and see what new meanings you can give them. We’re not claiming to make the work of Blake and Milton into music, but I like that people can begin to make those kinds of references and join the dots themselves, and read something more into it if they want.

FP Your latest album is called New Harmony. Where does that come from?
AB Robert Owen was a Welsh socialist, and in the early 19th century he experimented with setting up communes, and he ended up creating a colony called New Harmony in Indiana. They abolished money and private property and it didn’t work out – it’s the conflict that results when someone tries to create a perfect system using something as imperfect as human society.

FP Let’s talk about “the Process” that Gyratory System uses to create music.
AB For “the Process”, we start by identifying a formula or algorithm which we then use to create the base of the music on a computer. We take that and improvise over the top of it, and then we take that improvised track and reapply “the Process” to it using the piece of software we’ve created, and that creates the final track. It’s about finding the ideal mix between structure and chaos.

FP Does your academic work have an influence on the music you make?
AB We have our own views, but with Gyratory System we’ve never tried to push those on people. It would be a very difficult thing to do to make ideological music without lyrical content, so to an extent there isn’t any specific political/ideological content to our work.

But then, Shostakovich’s composition Leningrad, which was written after the end of the siege of that city, was about the conflict between the Nazis and the Soviet Union, and has been interpreted more generally as a piece about totalitarianism. And then Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony is about Napoleon. He had originally dedicated it to “a great man”, but when Napoleon declared himself emperor, he changed it to “a once-great man”, as Beethoven had become disillusioned by Napoleon’s political movements. So it is possible. We’re more interested in that, in those types of conflicts. §

New Harmony is out now on Angular.

  • Andrew Blick