Cartography, exoticism and imaginary places in “Oceans of Milk and Treacle” by Mike Cooper on #neuguitars #blog #MikeCooper #conceptualguitar
I met Mike Cooper in January 2007, on the Italian Blowup Magazine, in an article written by Daniela Cascella. A long article-interview where his music and his artistic visions were illustrated in an interesting and complex narrative. I’ve been following him ever since, buying his records in no particular order. My interest in him stems from the guitar, the National Steel resophonic acoustic guitar that has accompanied Cooper since 1958, the protagonist and essential starting point of his vast, heterogeneous musical production. A guitar played not only in an orthodox way, but above all, as an object to be played in less traditional ways. A perfect example of this poetic and a way of understanding the instrument is his latest, excellent CD “Oceans of Milk and Treacle”, released at the very beginning of 2022. An album that represents a perfect moment both to explore his music and to think in terms of narration, cartography and … collage.
Cooper’s music always expresses a gap, a sort of sliding away from rigid gender schemes, which manages to create a perceptive enchantment from which it is difficult to turn away precisely because of his erratic wandering, for the unexpected yet always effective solutions that he manages to create. . After all, today, but I believe it has always been the case, the most interesting things in the experimental field come precisely from those characters capable of marking their music with non-aligned languages, giving primary importance to their background of visions, stories and suggestions. Away from prepackaged formulas. In “Oceans of Milk and Treacle” we can see how much Hawaiian and oceanic area music and culture play a primary role in the oblique composition of Cooper’s music.
“It was the study of the guitar that brought me into contact with the Hawaiian culture. I had always believed that the slide guitar was an African American invention but I discovered that it is not so: it was the Hawaiians who invented that way of playing. Twentieth century many Hawaiian musicians were in America, and it was from them that African American musicians got their inspiration. Incredible as it may seem, that’s how it went. I have never found any documentation of African slide instruments, it was the Hawaiians who invented one. . After this discovery I began to wonder what the typical sound of Hawaiian music was: the only one I knew was a kind of cheesy lounge jazz that I didn’t really care about. Going back into history, I discovered that in the 1920s and 1930s a type of virtuosic jazz was spread, played like swing, very complex music: for example Sol Hoopie, a great Hawaiian star of the 30s, sold many records in which he copied, no on note, Bix Beiderbecke’s solos – every time the latter released a new record, after a week Sol Hoopie released the ‘Hawaiian’ version of it. From there I went back to discover all the musical tradition of that culture. I discovered for example that, before the slide guitar, there was a wonderful style of fingerpicking – we are around 1850-60 – which was exactly what we did in the 60s with the acoustic guitar: exactly the same way to tune the guitar, Moreover. I later realized that people like Stephen Stills or Graham Nash had lived in Hawaii in the 1960s, discovering this particular style of fingerpicking and appropriating it: a clearly traceable influence if you listen to their music well. “
Daniela Cascella, Blowup Magazine, January 2007.
Cooper himself, on his Bandcamp page, defines this album as the soundtrack of an otherwise silent movie. The title of the album is borrowed from Fred Hardy’s book “The Religious Culture of India – Power, Love and Wisdom”, considered one of the most important books written on the subject. The Encyclopedia Britannica talks about the Ocean of Milk as follows: “churning of the ocean of milk, in Hinduism, one of the central events in the ever-continuing struggle between the devas (gods) and the asuras (demons, or titans).The gods, who had become weakened as a result of a curse by the irascible sage Durvasas, invited the asuras to help them recover the elixir of immortality, the amrita, from the depths of the cosmic ocean. Mount Mandara—a spur of Mount Meru, the world axis—was torn out to use as a churning stick and was steadied at the bottom of the ocean by Vishnu in his avatar (incarnation) as the tortoise Kurma. The asuras held the head of the naga (half-human, half-cobra) Vasuki, who was procured for a churning rope, and the gods held his tail. When Vasuki’s head vomited forth poison that threatened to fall into the ocean and contaminate the amrita, the god Shiva took it and held it in his throat, a feat that turned his throat blue.”
A more extensive definition of this myth can be found on wikipedia. Wittgenstein wrote about Frazer’s “Golden Branch” how the human fantasy could not be considered as a painted image or a plastic model, but as a complex figuration made up of heterogeneous parts: words and images. In the case of Mike Cooper I would speak more of sounds and music articulated in cognitive maps, superimposed on each other as in a sound collage that refers to forms of progressive subtraction and addition. In “Oceans of Milk and Treacle” Mike Cooper (Electric Lap Steel Guitar. Acoustic Brazilian Viola Ciapira and Virtual Pedal Steel Guitar, Double Bass, Koto, Strings, Percussion and Drums) and his companions (Viv Corringham – Voice, Tim Hill – Baritone Saxophone, Aaron Hawkins – Tenor Saxophone, Geoff Hawkins – Tenor Saxophone, Lol Coxhill – Soprano Saxophone and Roger Turner – Percussion) draw the sound map of a myth by combining the voice of their instruments with environmental recordings from Bali, Cambodia, Vietnam, Martinique , Crete, Sri Lanka, Australia. It is a layered cartography, which works as a collage (Cooper mentions the designer David Carson in the nice booklet accompanying the CD and which houses images of his graphic collages), “Contemporary pop music, electronic, hiphop, rap and other forms predominantly utilize a cut and paste digital rechnique of aural college. ” he says. “Oceans of Milk and Treacle” is a sort of amplified musical collage where several Mike Cooper add up and multiply. Music and sounds are constantly stirred and mixed, in a motion that shows no signs of effort or fatigue. A refined work of musical cartography emerges, which directs me to this long quote from David Toop’s beautiful book “Exotica”:
“Then I remembered the story of the cartographers’ nightmare. For years a new world map had been in preparation. All major floodings, earthquakes, erosions and volcanic eruptions were monitored. Every new state, devolved territory and fissured country had been accounted for. Every dictator’s ruling on name changes and boundary claims had been evaluated. Where possible, the outcome of guerrilla wars had been determined by secret organisations in order to comply with the shape of the map. The map was published to huge acclaim, its detail and accu-racy outstanding, its beauty breathtaking. Less than one year after publication, a new island appeared in the Indian Ocean. Roughly the size of Madagascar, the island lay to the south of Sumatra. There were people living on the island; culturally, they seemed uninteresting to the world. There was little chance of Steven Spiel-berg rushing to film them. Anthropologists who specialised in South-East Asian studies were excited, however, since the kinship system they discovered was minutely yet significantly different from anything previously encountered. The same was true of flora and fauna: no lost-world dinosaurs or man-eating plants but a fabulous range of growing and creeping things that were just different enough to attract armies of ecstatic specialists in botany, lepidoptery, mycology, ornithology and other interests too obscure to name. In the battle for rights to name the island, the governments of Indonesia and Australia reached a dangerous level of hostility. Proposals for names such as Sambir, Typee or Tsalal were rejected for their vestigial allusions to colonial history, albeit the sector of that history belonging to the imagin-ation. Even before a decision could be reached, news editors tired of the story. Public interest waned. Speculation ceased. Beyond the infrequently consulted pages of academic journals, the island became just another remote plot of land where there were no film stars, no computer networks and, for the time being, no tourist hotels. Then, suddenly, the island vanished. No earthquake tremors were reported, no UFOs had been sighted. Satellite photography proved its disappearance without giving any clue to the cause. The media treatment of the event was structured according to the response apparatus activated by a sudden, catastrophic and totally inexplicable plane crash — the type of crash when a jumbo jet full of children, pregnant women, honeymooners and at least one sports star plummets into the sea, leaving only a black box that records the final words of the captain as he screams, `Aah, shit, we’re gonna die . . .’ Rolling news reports were illustrated by pic-tures of nothing in particular, followed sharply by analysis, blame, exoneration, the hard news rounded off by human interest stories questioning the value of counselling, the wisdom of foreign travel, the madness of science. Inevitably, the island’s retreat back into its oceanic source led to eventual indifference. Perhaps the entire incident had been a fantasy, a media fabrication, an elaborate diversion from some-thing malign taking place on the other side of the world. Only conspiracy theorists, grieving academics, Atlanteans and pro-fessional treasure hunters from Florida maintained an interest. Of course, the cartographers could hardly forget. In a collective death pact reminiscent of posthuman Webcults they committed suicide.” Mike Cooper’s Oceans of Milk and Treacle also disappear from the maps, when the music ends.