Having crossed “walking across a frozen river”
off my list of things to do before I die (do not
try this after you are dead), I realise I still haven’t fulfilled my lifelong ambition to overturn a parked car and set it on fire. Therefore, I am off to Paris for a few days, where violent, anarchic dreams may still come true. Hopefully there will still be a few untorched Citroëns left by the time I get there. Postings will resume in a week.Next week:
Having namedropped Morton Feldman
a few times this week, I plan to go to tomorrow night’s concert and book launch
of Feldman’s interviews and lectures. So you can expect a writeup, plus photos from Riga on Flickr.
If you can’t stand to tear yourself away from this site to check a few links over there –>, here’s a small selection of recent reviews:
Oh, and sorry about the blog’s front page disappearing for a few hours back there. I’m pretty sure that was my fault.
I went to Riga for a long weekend (a) because I could, and (b) having spent a mild, dry winter in England I wanted to see some serious snow and ice at last. The latter was not a disappointment. Also, I had to get across the channel because I was desperate for a decent cup of coffee. Anywhere in Europe will do for that, and in Riga coffee is good, cheap, and plentiful; as is beer, vodka, cognac, and smallgoods.
The old town is picture-postcardy, the sort of European town you see in old movies about vampires. Steeples abound.
Further out is a large Art Nouveau precinct, which was how Riga started out the modern era until the 20th century intervened. Much of the historic part of the city is remarkably intact, given that Latvia was unfortunate enough to be caught between Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, who took turns invading and occupying the country before the Soviet Union took over, apparently for good. It’s worth visiting the Occupation Museum to find out what has happened to this place since 1940. No wonder so many of the older couples around town were enjoying cream cakes and cognac whenever the opportunity arose.
The other must-visit place is the huge produce market behind the train station, a series of former zeppelin hangars overshadowed by a huge, somewhat crumbling, Stalinist edifice (think Moscow University
), stuffed with every possible type of food. No cameras allowed – a hangover from black market days? – so sadly no picture of the bloody great fish that made a break for it when I walked past.
Despite all the culture, for me the high point of the trip was walking across the surface of the Daugava, the main river that leads out to the ports. It’s March, and it’s still frozen over.
As you can see, it’s pretty wide. This is the sort of thing you don’t get to do on the Thames. Or the Yarra, for that matter.
Signs that Latvia isn’t quite fully touristified yet
- It only costs 20p to catch a bus to the airport from the centre of Riga. However, there is no obvious signage at the bus stop to point out which bus goes to the airport.
- Riga International Airport is small. There were four flights out of town the night I left. Apart from some merry Germans, all the other travelers seemed to be on a first-name basis with the airport staff. Out on the tarmac, two baggage handlers were pulling donuts in the snow with their motorised baggage carts.
- The tourist information office gives away a weekly english-language newpaper listing events, restaurants etc. The two main stories at the front of the paper: taxi drivers in Riga smell bad and try to rip you off, and building standards in the Latvian construction industry can be pretty dodgy.
On the bus through Shoreditch on Saturday, waiting for a cordon of police motorbikes escorting a bus with drawn curtains across the windows, a brace of Elvises walking down the street waving to passersby, the group of Mancunians in the seats behind me cooing over the dirty great Banksy
that recently appeared in a vacant lot.
Then, later on in Trafalgar Square, communists!
Honestly, this is probably the first time I’ve seen real life communists in the wild since I left university the first time. They were out protesting about either Iraq or Iran. There were 15,000 or so people there, so whatever demands they were making got pretty diffuse among the calls to liberate Palestine, something about Venezuela, something else called the Women’s Strike, and urgent pleas to reinstate Serbia and Montenegro
in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Hopefully there were also a few placards insisting that anodyne Mark Quinn sculpture on the fourth plinth be replaced.
Also, having mentioned Morton Feldman
, here’s Guston’s Friend – to M.F.
, painted in 1978, after their estrangement in 1970.
Feldman also dedicated a piece to Guston – in 1984, four years after Guston’s death. I’d post an MP3 of For Philip Guston
: it’s a great piece, but it’s four hours long so I suspect I may not have quite enough space for it.
Attempts to get a website happening have come to naught. Because there’s some server space lying around it seemed like a good idea to set up a permanent home for some of the music that has been featured here. If you missed them last time, here’s your chance to download at your leisure the lovely and multitalented Julie Dawn’s Austrian Flame
(the BLAD corporate anthem), Buddy Greco’s
superlative take on Like a Rolling Stone
, and (ahem) my own modest contribution
Also includes a FREE bonus track, i.e. a fusty old piano piece I wrote several years ago and can’t be bothered talking about right now. It’s nice, really!
There are also links to music hosted elsewhere which has benefitted from my free publicity, by such disparate talents as Morton Feldman, Steve Bent, and the Evolutionary Control Committee.
Sorry, no music by Jeremy Bentham.
About a year ago, I managed to screw up my application for Right of Abode in the U.K. and had to travel to Canberra to sort it out. The side benefit of the trip was getting to see four Philip Guston paintings, from different periods, in pretty much the same room at the National Gallery of Australia
. Yes, I looked at Blue Poles
again but it was the Gustons (and a honking great Clyfford Still) that floated my boat that day.
The first Guston I saw was one of his big, abstract expressionist canvases from the 1950s, back when I was an impressionable nipper. I didn’t realise how dramatically his style changed in the late 1960s until I found a book of his drawings, where over the years his abstractions
became more and more reduced, sometimes to single lines. Then, out of this void, odd, bemused little hooded heads started peering out of a clumsily drawn, cartoonish world.
Were his arty mates cool with him going all impure, cartoony and representational on them? No, they were not.
But today, it’s hard to resist the appeal of someone who turned his back on the artistic orthodoxy of his time and began to paint in a personal style so alien to convention, mainstream or alternative.
Guston was part of a postwar cohort of big, lumbering American men cack-handedly pulling off works of subtle beauty despite themselves, along with Charles Olson in poetry and Morton Feldman
in music. Feldman and Guston were friends, but fell out
when Guston resumed figurative painting. I love Feldman’s music, so my interest in Guston developed largely out of his relationship with Feldman, who often talked about how painters influenced his music.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m very happy that a gallery in London
has been exhibiting 20-odd of G’s paintings and drawings, from the early 50s to the late 70s. First, I get to see a lot of Guston; second, I get a good chance to figure out just how good he is.
I found a useful article online
about Guston’s development, although there’s some things in it I’m not sure about. G is hardly unusual among artists in have some early, derivative phases in his life’s work before finding a true, individual style; nor are late bloomers as uncommon as art writers often like to pretend. As for the deficiencies in his abstract painting, I find it particularly appealing how, in the best of them, he does reach transcendent effects through his short, heavy strokes. Like his other klutzy contemporaries, harping on his weaknesses until they become his strengths.
In the Timothy Taylor Gallery show, you can see that the weakest works were those where Guston tried to employ the long, confident lines which are the standard technique of ‘good’ artists. They feel sktchy, or straining for a striking effect. The awkward, lumpen heaviness in his lines and brushstrokes come into their own when creating his weird, cartoonish world. They start off hovering uneasily between whimsical and menacing, but by the latter half of the 70s the imagery has agglomerated into some of the most sinister, cryptic ‘last works’ of any artist.
He comes across as someone who had to keep painting until he struck upon something that worked. Some canvases are formulaic, or show more effort and fixing-up than other painters of his age usually liked to let on: the abstract works are much less forgiving of these failings. There are also some small, minor paintings, which are useful for showing G working up his vocabulary of shoes, books, heads. Often these works are overpainted, but this seems to be more about resuing the surface than second thoughts.
In one of the best, a large, late canvas called Calm Sea, his short, heavy strokes filled with reds and pinks transforms the flat planes of sea and sky into a roiling surface of red, flickering beneath a shimmering blue void.
I wonder now if you can build some sort of analogy between Guston’s return to representational painting to more definitely articulate the conflicted mood of anger and melancholy, and Feldman’s subsequent retreat from experimental graphic scores for his music, to increasingly conventional notation which more clearly presented his own, ambiguous sound world. Maybe not.
(As for where the cartoon influence came from, people keep namedropping Robert Crumb, although Guston’s world looks much more like George Herriman’s Coconino County to me.)
Ubuweb, bless ’em, keeps a stash of Guston’s drawings
and poem-drawing collaborations with writers, including the complete series of “Poor Richard” drawings.
Blogger seems reluctant to let me post anything bigger than this right now, so I’ll have to wait until tomorrow (or the day after) to post about how much I like the artist of whom Modern Art Notes has said
“Has there ever been a more overrated painter? The figurative works are among the ugliest, most visually unpleasant canvases you’ll ever see in a major museum.”
- Melbourne is so up for this.
- It’s very famous, I haven’t seen it.
- This is the precursor to what is going to happen next.
- It’s a tremdous opportunity to soak up the experience.
- They are what they are.
- Melburnians will come to watch any event.
Then, the broadcast suddenly stopped after half an hour and they switched to a phone-in about hosepipe bans.
Fun fact: the Australian national anthem was written by a Scotsman, who was paid 100 pounds by the government. I didn’t know that.
No, apparently. I found a review in the paper
about that Icebreaker gig last week – remember, the one that screwed up
Philip Glass’ Music with Changing Parts
in just about every possible way? The Guardian
is more succinct than mine
, but neglects to call Icebreaker an incestuous clique. Apart from that, we say pretty much exactly the same things.
One thing about the amplification used at the performance: Glass’ early music is meant to be LOUD, louder than it was at the Icebreaker gig. The problem wasn’t that Icebreaker were amplifying their instruments, but that the amplification was muddy, compounded by sloppy playing and a poor sound mix.
Zappa’s piece, pace Andrew Clements, sounded fine; possibly because Zappa was writing for a rock group and Icebreaker had hired a sound guy used to rock gigs? Just because it’s loud and you think it’s cool, doesn’t mean that a rock dude is the right choice for every type of music.
Some time ago I fessed up to my perfectly understandable obsession with Anna
the Ikea chatbot, especially the brunette incarnation. Even then I knew I was not the only one vying for Anna’s affections, but still I felt a pang of jealousy to see that Minor Tweaks
has made repeated advances to her for the past year. Luckily, he doesn’t seem to have made much progress
Anna: I am opening a page now which you can use if you wish to contact Customer Services. Thank you very much!
Me: Trying to get rid of me, eh?
Anna: I will. Thank you for the encouragement.
Still the sweetest cold-hearted bitch on the planet; no wonder we just can’t keep away. Just don’t let her talk you into buying a cheap futon base.
is a new music ensemble that lacks one of the most basic skills required by musicans in any genre: they can’t count. They listed seven pieces before the interval on their program at the Queen Elizabeth Hall
last night, but played only six of them. For some reason the first piece got dropped from the concert.
We don’t know why the piece was dropped because noone, in either of the two awkward announcements to the audience, bothered to even acknowledge there was a change in the program. So, if you don’t usually go to concert halls gigs because you suspect that they’re a private party for incestuous cliques where you don’t belong, Icebreaker are here to prove you right.
The first piece they actually played was an ensemble arrangement of Conlon Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No.2b
. Not many people applauded it, probably because they’d read the program and were expecting a piece 11 minutes long, and so wondered what had gone wrong when the musicians suddenly broke off after a couple of minutes. Of course, something had gone wrong: it was a bad arrangement, played badly.
I have never understood why people would want to arrange Nancarrow’s
player piano music for ensemble, other than to allow musicians to show off at the expense of the music they purport to serve. The result is usually the aural equivalent of a watercolourist attempting to ‘enhance’ an Escher drawing. Nancarrow hand-punched music rolls for the player piano to play dazzlingly quick, complex rhythms with pinpoint accuracy. This wheezy arrangement for clumsily amplified winds and strings reduced all the detail and shape to a flat, muddy mess.
The remaining selection was a forgettable collection of condescending gestures toward accessibility, with all the ambition, depth, and canny grasp of cultural zeitgeist of an advertising jingle. There were two student pieces that sounded studenty: shapeless, limpdick prog-rock academically divested of any vitality.
The band pretty much admitted they were playing this stuff because it flattered them, so I hope at least they had fun playing it while boring the pants off anyone who had to listen to it. Honestly, there were more cheap thrills and a better rapport between musicians and punters at the supposedly egghead Elliott Carter gigs in January
The second part of the concert was the main reason I went: Icebreaker were playing Philip Glass’
big 1970 opus, Music With Changing Parts
. The concert hall was noticeably emptier after the interval: most of the absentees likely students who had dutifully turned out to see their colleagues/teachers in the first half, and felt no need stay a moment longer once their obligation was fulfilled.
Quite possibly, they were also superstitious types and wanted to avoid the curse of exposure to a piece by the ridiculously successful Glass written at a stage of his career when he still had to unblock toilets and drive a cab to make a living.
The derivative bombast which has fuelled the more financially rewarding phase of Glass’ career now obscures the fact that his music from the 1970s remains some of the most exciting and challenging music around. The early stuff doesn’t get played much: Glass restricts circulation of his scores, particularly ensemble pieces like this, written for his own group of dedicated musicians.
Unfortunately, it seemed like Icebreaker didn’t want to play this piece tonight. In the first place, fatigue was visibly setting in amongst the musos during the latter stages of the gig. In the second place, their interpretation of Glass’ piece was trying its damndest to make it sound as much like Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians
Thirteen musicians (Glass typically made do with 6 to 8), some of them doubling on different instruments, were needed for this performance. Perhaps Glass would have liked to work with a broader instrumental palette when playing this piece in the 1970s, but I doubt he would have done it at the expense of keeping his ensemble tight, or together.
These days, maybe, he might simply hire a couple more mbira players to cover the bald spots, but he would not say to himself, “I’m sure the audience won’t notice when that really loud bass part drops out for two bars every now and then because the keyboard player has to turn pages.” (Pssst, Icebreaker. Rehearsals. Page turners.)
The unvarying pulse essential to Glass’ music was marred by sloppy changes from one figure to the next, poor and irregular intonation of some figures, and just plain disagreement between musicians about what the basic speed should be. Too often, when some kind of momentum was building up, another muso would take over after sitting out for a while and kill the pace. No more than three of the four keyboard players were active at any one time, but this relay-team approach failed to maintain any consistency across the piece.
The sound mixer spent much of his time working on damage control, trying to sort out the imbalance of instrumental sounds that the performers were incapable of resolving. Based on the first half of the concert, I’d say this particular Glass piece appealed to Icebreaker as one of the very few that allows some form of limited improvisation, but their excessive indulgence in these opportunities led to the musical material occasionally being swamped, and frequently chopped and changed so rapidly that the point of the piece was lost.
Pretty much everything Glass has written over the last 20 years has left me cold, so here’s one positive thing I took away from this gig. Given the crummy work he’s turned out over the last decade or so, I often start to doubt that he was ever any good. I still like this piece a lot despite the tone-deaf mangling it got from Icebreaker that night, so he must have been some kind of genius once upon a time.
I almost forgot: the one thing the band got right on the night was their early run-through of Frank Zappa’s brief Möggio, which I attribute to Zappa knowing his instruments and, more importantly, knowing his musicians: “Yes, you are all individuals – now do exactly what I tell you.”
Theatrical highlights: Electronic recorder guy almost getting garrotted when he went for a walk and forgot the lead on his instrument was only so long. One of the excessive number of keyboard dudes manically pattering out Glass’ repeating figures on his thighs when he wasn’t playing. Pity it didn’t help when he was actually touching the keyboard.
Overheard gossip in the foyer:
The usual “music student going to see their lecturer get a performance” glad-handing
Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: See the Xenakis reviews.
I still haven’t fully recovered from my trip to Riga over the weekend, so the review of the gig I went to last night
isn’t finished yet. When it’s posted tomorrow, it will hold this blog’s record for the shortest turnaround from an event actually happening to me getting around to writing about it.
If you can’t wait that long, here’s the summary: it sucked. But how badly did it suck? The juicy details tomorrow.
Scene: The Bunker.
Front door intercom: BLEEEEEEP!!!!!!
Me: GAHH! What the hell was that?
Me: Christ! That door-thingy works after all. Who could be calling at this time of night, I wonder?
(Fumbles with intercom buttons)
Master Criminal (on intercom): Uhhh… can I come in?
Me: Who’s this?
Master Criminal (on intercom): Oh, ah… it’s, ahh….