The Droste Effect: McGann’s Double Dutch?

Double Dutch? – McGann
Rufus RF103

Review / essay by Arjun von Caemmerer

My first introduction to McGann occurred many years ago: I read a short review of Ugly Beauty in the Sydney Morning Herald. I have still to hear this album but, despite this, I developed an enduring affection for the album based solely on its name (and even wrote, many years later, a concrete poem Spectacles which used this album’s title as the basis for its content). What most deeply impressed and what I responded to then was not just the cleverness of the verbal juxtaposition, but also how this epigrammatic twinning had managed to reflect an aesthetic truth: there is, at least to me, an irreducible beauty in the deliberately abrasive and bereft ugliness of Kate Bush’s voice in The Dreaming; so too, in Captain Beefheart’s abandoned guttural strangle on Ashtray Heart; and likewise in the scarifying tone of Zappa’s appositely named Too Ugly For Show Business. Transcending superficial presentations of precious cuteness, each says: what is beautiful is not necessarily pretty; what is ugly is not necessarily unbeautiful.

I was impressed similarly by the title of another recent offering from McGann, the intriguing and beguilingly named album Double Dutch? Double Dutch as a colloquialism is synonymous, of course, with gobbledygook, the slightly pejorative term for jargon-laden nonsense. That McGann then adds a question mark to this formulation has other implications, not least in maintaining a conceptual continuity with Ugly Beauty, another album title that provokes a double take. Of course, it could be argued that the album is simply called Double Dutch? because it is a double CD of a recording of the live concert of 16th October 2004 at The Bimhaus in Amsterdam. But a question mark still lingers over the question mark …

A chain of association began when I first encountered the album’s title, which was some months before I found a copy of this album. For some years now I have had a poster laminated and placed on the filing cabinet in my consulting room prominently visible both to me and to my patients. This poster exemplifies whatever that elusive quality is that might most appropriately be termed Double Dutch? The poster is an enlarged copy of the picture that fronts the boxes of Droste, a brand of Dutch cacao powder. I continue to buy this stuff, not because I especially like the taste of the product (though it is good enough to drink) but for other reasons, the most compelling being that I find the packet image both thought provoking and endearing: an inscrutable (but clearly somewhat mischievous, and slightly amused) habit-clad nurse levelly offers a health-restoring cup of this bitter and habit-forming beverage on a tray. And on the tray, adjacent to the proffered cup, stands another packet of this product, which displays the whole imagery again in miniature, and so on ad infinitum. I discovered only recently that I was not at all alone in my appreciation of the cleverness of this particular image: the whole phenomenon of such infinitely recursive visual imagery has now in fact formally been named The Droste Effect.


The visual fractal element of The Droste Effect, which looks — and makes us look — at the same time both inwards, into infinite depth, and outwards, to its perpetually present surface, has a loose aural counterpoint with the material on Double Dutch? Each of the 6 compositions on this album is the latest incarnation of a previous one, and so, whilst unfolding in the present, holds also, in its glancing backward, its manifold & transmutable pasts.

Now a confession: in regard to these previous versions I had (and still have) an impressive level of unfamiliarity: I had never heard the tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s composition Fried Bananas, nor of the 1944 popular standard It Could Happen To You by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen upon which it is apparently based; nor have I heard any of the many other recordings available of McGann’s Spirit Song, nor either any of his several Brownsville; from the liner notes to the album we discover that D. Dayis a McGann original based on Doris Day’s 1954 hit Secret Love” [several secrets and Double D’s in this!]; likewise, at this point in time, I remain unexposed to the Livingston/ Neiburg/ Symes composition It’s the Talk of the Town, as well as to The Jeep is Jumpin’ by Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges.

Encountering Double Dutch? raises, then, another question: how necessary is it to have prior familiarity with the “originals” to appreciate fully these excursions? Whilst this question remains open, I did resolve to listen to this album whilst maintaining the existing bloom of ignorance and so, via the magic of technology, turned an ear, uneducated and extra, to this intimate venue and appreciative audience.

Supplementing and complementing McGann’s alto saxophone on all these pieces are Warwick Alder on trumpet, Lloyd Swanton on acoustic bass, and John Pochée on drums. Throughout the form of these compositions, echoing perhaps a further and internal variation of The Droste Effect, there is a consonance of structure: typically, a double-horned introduction precedes long solos from McGann, and Alder; then, a shorter solo from Swanton; Pochée’s ebullient flurries then separate a rapid-fire exchange of shorter phrases between McGann and Alder; and there is, finally, a variant reprisal of the introductory material as a coda.

The practice traditions both of Zen and Yoga agree that true freedom and true flexibility are to be found within the seemingly rigid confines of repeated form, and it is a testament to the skill of these four musicians that the skeletal form of each composition can be reduplicated without the material result becoming in the least formulaic. Collectively as a quartet, and individually, each player seems to embody that comprehension from Zen of understanding the other three corners when one is brought up.


Much of McGann’s power and poetry lies in his elegant (and seeming) effortlessness, heard in a kind of understatement and restraint, where less effectively says more. Alder proves a worthy foil to McGann: in his supple brightness one can clearly hear the effects of his responsive listening. Swanton is engaged, fleet, inventive, and, in his solos, very lyrical, and the great advantage of having such a clear record of this performance is that one can go back and enjoyably confirm this, time and again. Pochée, at times exuberantly cymballistic, at others allowing space in the interstices, wields the flexible glue that melds this ensemble elastic; that allows them to stretch fully without breaking apart. The tables turn sometimes however, and the other players, it seems, rein him in, prevent him from bursting through his skin.

Why The Droste Effect, with all its resonances, seems especially to apply to McGann & Co.’s cacaophony, is that Droste, this dark and complex powder, is also, perversely, a little insoluble — that is, some lumps remain irreducibly undispersed at the bottom of the cup, and no amount of spoon-crushing or vigorous stirring will resolve these to bland homogeneity.

Time now for Ugly Beauty

© Arjun von Caemmerer