Nocturnes comes packaged with three prescribed listening events. They are activities you are advised to execute while listening to the record. You may read them as irresponsible liner notes, tasking you with fanciful and sometimes outrageously dangerous chores, and choose instead to enjoy the music alone. That is your decision as a passive or active listener.
At first the activities packaged with Nocturnes seem easy, but always there are steps among the simple instructions that are too elaborate to immediately pursue. It is easy to finger some bubble wrap and rub your forehead, but it is not easy to “craft an amulet from pencils, patch leads and dust”, and nor is it easy or advisable to “ingest elixir made from cicadas, sirens and strepsils”. Nestled among the simple commands, these are cultish, outlandish requirements. They are strange rules.
Matthew Hopkins, better known for his work with Naked on the Vague, Vincent Over The Sink and Half High, has long had an interest in setting down rules of engagement. His 2009 CD-R as Bad Tables, released through Spanish Magic, was composed under strict conditions. Entitled Lid Domestic Dome Bin, the record’s liner notes described the rules under which it was (presumably) recorded. A brief example:
“Only record when the following things occur:
You hear the big skip bin in the garage being emptied by the garbage.
When the bin in the kitchen is full and needs to be taken out to the big skip in the garage.
Whenever a mess is identified around the house.”
It’s tempting to assume that these processes are borne of a desire to show the inherent strangeness of rules themselves. When rules are decontextualised – shorn of their footing in the systems we abide by, unthinkingly, as humans – they often seem stupid. This is data we can never untangle, and untangling these is the pursuit of philosophy. At the root of Nocturnes’ ‘Listening Events’, which are packaged with the LP, are cryptic and cultish recipes that can only feasibly result in a speculation: a spark of the imagination. But to get there you must penetrate first through the mundane and the achievable. First you must fiddle around with what’s in front of you, or as Nocturnes prescribes, “shuffle cassettes strewn about [the] desk,” or “roll batteries, spin coins.”
You always begin “at a desk”.
Nocturnes always begins “at a desk”. Bad Tables begins when the garbage truck sounds, and then a series of events – tie the bin bag up, wrest it out of the bin, take it outside, put it in the skip, go back inside – happen. It’s a ritual.
Hopkins’ solo work seems fixated on the distanced absurdity of our systems and processes, but it is not admonishing. It is not cynical, it is not blithely critical. It is curious about the birth of these intelligences. It wonders at their foundations. Hopkins presents processes which seem mundane – droll as your plainest soup recipes – in a parallel dimension, and offers them in as blandly a matter-of-fact way as possible. We can never fathom their meaning.
Hopkins’ ‘Listening Events’ are torn straight from a world where these strange activities, executed at the desk, are as unfeasibly magical as pouring water into a glass and the glass managing to contain that water. They are just as logical as all of the other real world phenomenon we do not understand, and yet what percentage of real world phenomenon do we actually understand?
Musically, Nocturnes is a more ruminative, elongated and generous version of Hopkins’ earlier work as Bad Tables and Lamp Puffer. It is not as sharp edged and demonstrative. It is calm, but haunted. It is music that you wonder at, or wonder with. A slow, two note undulation marks ‘Nocturne #1’, frayed by electric pops and breakages. It’s a serious piece of music that beckons you to imagine seriously ridiculous settings, poised sharply at the brink of reality.
It is not, at the same time, unfunny. It is not without an element of comical severity. Comical severity is one of Hopkins’ hallmarks.
The three Nocturnes are presumably meant to align with the three ‘Listening Events’ described in the liner notes. Strictly speaking – and to Hopkins’ credit – it doesn’t really matter whether you’re invested in the rules or not. You don’t need to enact them.
Significantly, Hopkins’ work as a painter (an example you can see above) seems to run parallel with his solo musical output. His latest exhibition, now running in Sydney, is entitled Passages. It evokes a similarly ultra-receptive, incantatory power that Nocturnes does. The lines in Hopkins paintings appear permanently to be melting into another, liminal world. They’re pouring towards a pole we cannot reach. They’re seeping towards a set of rules obscenely different to our own. They’re moving towards a state where these obscenely different rules are natural.
That, at least, is what this music and these rules evoke for me. Rules are what make us, and rules are still what make everything we do not know, because we rule them out. Rules also exist for things we do not know. Rules and prescriptions are the stuff of us. We impose them, and we fear them. We rarely understand them, and we daily take them for granted. But what if rules had imaginations of their own.
Matthew Hopkins’ Nocturnes is available through Vittelli.