Billie Holiday - 'The Last Interview and Other Conversations'
An interview book from the 'last interview' series.
It’s never easy to be part of the establishment when you’re driven by self-preservation to push against it.
I enjoyed reading Cosey Fanni Tutti’s first autobiographical book, ‘Art Sex Music’. The book not only told the story of her growing up, making music and art, but also about her abuse by the hands of a madperson.
She overcame, she grew, and has continued to make music and art, along with writing. This is her second autobiographical book; this is only partly true because the book is about three women:
Recently, a film about Delia Derbyshire was released. Cosey composed the stunningly beautiful soundtrack for the film. As Cosey explored Derbyshire’s work, she was also reading Kempe’s book. The lives of these three women would intertwine also in book form, Cosey decided.
Delia Derbyshire started making electronic music in the 1950s. She actually started studying mathematics at college in 1956, and in 1959 experienced something that affected her deeply.
They went specifically to see Le poème électronique at the Philips Pavilion, a symbol of post-war progress in technology, designed by Le Corbusier and Swiss–French architect Iannis Xenakis, with its light show and music by the French composer Edgard Varèse. It was so much more than a building. It was an experiential space that was itself the embodiment of the ‘poem’, as Le Corbusier was eager to point out: ‘I will not make a pavilion for you but an Electronic Poem and a vessel containing the poem; light, color image, rhythm and sound joined together in an organic synthesis.’ The building was dynamic and impressive, in the way people in the 1950s imagined the future would look – what we now refer to as retro-futurism. The structure was composed of nine hyperbolic paraboloids, resembling the shape of a 3D waveform similar to one generated by an oscilloscope. Delia and Jonathan entered the pavilion to be greeted by an eight-minute, seven-part audiovisual show of projections and electronic music on the theme of the history of humankind. They sat on the floor of a stomach-shaped space, surrounded by walls and surfaces designed with mathematical precision relatable to the theme itself, and with a control tape that routed sound to 350 speakers. The whole audiovisual and physical effect of sitting on the floor and feeling the sound vibrating was an immersive experience and undoubtedly a huge influence on Delia. The meeting of geometry and sound must have been music to her ears. After the war people could once again afford to look to the future, and there in the Philips Pavilion was the future of visual art, music and mathematics in all its blazing glory, awaiting Delia’s ‘call’. By the time she’d left Cambridge the Philips Pavilion, which had likely helped to light the spark of her lifelong love of the alternative approach to music and visuals, had been demolished, just a memory of the possibilities of what sound, light and space can evoke.
Derbyshire went through aeons of misogyny to make her own music, due to the likes of the BBC, where women weren’t supposed to make music, relegated to the sidelines.
She was finally acknowledged in 2013, fifty years too late, her name given its rightful place in the Doctor Who credits – not as composer but as arranger. Maybe there were worries about the cost of any possible claim for back payment, which, considering Delia’s substantial contribution to the theme tune, could have earned her a small fortune in addition to due credit. But it wasn’t about the money; it was the lack of full recognition for many of her works that really hurt her. And she died without ever receiving it for Doctor Who in particular.
Since then, Derbyshire’s apparent acclaim is evident. Today, she’s universally acclaimed as a pioneering electronic musician, most well known for having written and performed the theme song for TV series ‘Doctor Who’.
In 1972, Derbyshire released ‘Dance from Noah’:
It recently came to light again and was lauded as the forerunner of the rhythmic rave tracks that people danced to decades later, tranced out for hours on end. It gained her another accolade as the Godmother of Techno.
Margery Kempe lived six-hundred years before Derbyshire and suffered. She had visions that led her on vast religious inner journeys and extensive international pilgrimages all extremely dangerous. She was led by visions and appears to have been persuasive.
Cosey returns to her first book by recanting episodes of abuse from her ex, Genesis P-Orridge (GPO). She writes about how they (meaning GPO) offered her body to one of their friends while controlling the act. The paragraph makes me drip with disgust.
This is very well-contrasted with Margery Kemp’s description of having sex with her husband:
Margery had pledged herself to Christ, to live a life of chastity. There had been a time when she really enjoyed sex with her husband, but things had changed. Becoming chaste was required for her to be accepted as Christ’s bride, not her husband’s, so the sexual violation and pain inflicted by John was physical and spiritual – she felt disloyal to Christ. The power God had over her was her reality, even if it didn’t always feel right. She didn’t want to do some of the things God expected of her – no more than I did with Genesis. The difficult demands he made of me and God made of Margery were presented as ‘tests’ of our love and loyalty. When God ‘told’ Margery to wear white, she knew she’d be vilified and mocked, and she voiced her resistance, like I had with Genesis. All she got in ‘reply’ was, ‘The more mockery you get for my love, the more you please me.’ That has echoes of how Genesis justified what he imposed on me – ‘Do it because you love me’ – no matter how awful the personal effect and price of repercussions. I should have read more into him naming himself Genesis. Maybe he thought he was a modern-day Godhead. Margery’s reaction to her lot probably had much to do with the hypocrisy she witnessed among the clergy, who could take the moral high ground but bend the word of God to suit their carnal or political needs. God’s word was supposed to remain inviolable, not be open to convenient reinterpretation. Margery, Delia and I share the same intolerance of inaccuracy, especially the rewriting of truth, replacing it with falsehoods. A different kind of creativity, malevolent and manipulative – the bending of rules to secure conformity for dubious, cruel purposes.
Margery’s account of sex with her husband is a description of rape within marriage, of non-consensual sex.
I really enjoyed reading Cosey’s cross-personal insights into why the main characters of this book stayed in environments that they could not leave; well, a self-answering comment from me, but still:
Rather than questioning the source of our problems, people ask why Delia stayed so long at the BBC with all its stresses and why I stayed so long in an abusive relationship. The personal issues and character traits of other people that manifested in their shameful behaviour towards us were secondary, a downside that was at times depressing, heartbreaking and shockingly unacceptable, but we dealt with it pragmatically, always ensuring we protected our self. The negatives were outweighed by the advantages, until the drawbacks became too detrimental in terms of having to expend too much precious energy on undeserving people and concerns. We had something far greater and more powerful – self-will. There’s a moment when the survival instinct kicks in. The bottom line for me, as it was for Delia, was self-preservation.
The many description’s of hardship on the parts of these sisters are brilliantly told at times. My main criticism against this book is that I think Cosey toots her own horn a bit too much; this didn’t happen in ‘Art Sex Music’, which, to be fair, is a very different book. Still, I often felt that Cosey’s own way of describing how she is also a trailblazing icon is kind of self-serving in a dirty way. The book is also somewhat lacking in rhythm; it comes and goes.
This doesn’t stop the book from being deeply inspirational, a beacon of hope against oppression, a much-needed reminder of these women’s lives, all of which point to the beauty of art, music, and how we men need to kill off misogyny.