Reactionary critic, 1956: “Jackson Pollock’s paintings are the crude, formless scrawlings of a drunken lout.”
Progressive critic, 1956: “Pollock is a master of the classically conceived composition and quattrocento line.”
Reactionary critic, 2006: “Today’s artists sorely lack the skill and rigor of Jackson Pollock.”
Progressive critic, 2006: “Jackson Pollock’s paintings are the crude, formless scrawlings of a drunken lout.”
To appear especially insightful, use the above dismissive judgement of Pollock when comparing him unfavourably to a 23 year old, female video artist.
What is more important is that the Mona Lisa is a dull, slimy picture, with more mystery than merit.
What makes this sentence truly brilliant is that it appears in the middle of a passage about the identity of Rembrandt’s portrait sitters, in an article of thundering obviousness otherwise irrelevant to Leonardo. Greer is a worthy disciple of the Lifemanship school of criticism:
The critic must always be on top of, or better than, the person criticized. The subject may be a man of genius, yet he must get on top. How? the layman asks. By the old process – of going one better. Hope-Tipping of Buttermere had never really read a book since his schooldays, much less formed an original judgement. But he specialized in his own variations on the formula.
H.-T. first made a name for himself in 1930 by saying that ‘the one thing that was lacking, of course, from D.H. Lawrence’s novels, was the consciousness of sexual relationship, the male and female element in life.’
‘The deep superficiality of Catullus’ is Hope-Tipping’s, too. Never, by any shadow of a chance, was there a hint of a cliché in the judgement of Hope-Tipping.
Of course, Greer is famously incapable of maintaining a coherent line of thought over two consecutive sentences, so she somewhat spoils the above gem by attempting to follow it up with a tired gambit:
Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione would put it in the shade, if only the smug boneless face of the Mona Lisa had not been reproduced unimaginable squillions of times in every known medium.
Foolishly, I was going to point out that this begs the question of why, then, this crummy painting was reproduced so often, until I realised how she had cleverly disguised the bigger question going begging: has she actually seen the Mona Lisa? In fact, how many people alive today have managed to get one good look at that painting?
In one of the later, more indulgent passages of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker” novels, he describes an out-of-it band’s music (from dim memory) as one muso playing in 3/4, another in 5/8, while a third played in πr
². It seemed like a far-out joke to your callow, nerdy self, right up until you heard the music of Conlon Nancarrow
Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No. 40
is written entirely in the rhythmic relationship of e
/π. How do you play something like that? You can’t, so you get a machine to do it for you. If you’re living in 1948, in an earthquake-proof bunker in Mexico City, in exile from your native United States without a passport because of your socialist beliefs, the machine in question is a battered 1920s player piano, and you punch the notes for its piano rolls by hand, one at a time.
Nancarrow was obsessed with hearing polyrhythms of a complexity the mind could perceive, but not imagine. He resorted to the player piano when musicians couldn’t, or wouldn’t (“they’ll think I’m playing wrong notes!”) play his music, and so expanded the realm of rhythmic and temporal possibilities beyond anyone’s previous expectations.
Wait: more Nancarrow links.
- In addition to the Other Minds page linked above, Kyle Gann has written the book about Nancarrow (literally), and annotates his list of works with the increasingly wild tempo ratios used in his music.
- The Other Minds Archive has a recording of the long-lost Three 2-Part Studies, written back when Nancarrow was still writing for live pianists and was conventially jazzier, only this version has been arranged for two toy pianos (why yes, it is Margaret Leng Tan, how did you guess?)
- More from Other Minds: Study for Player Piano No. 40b (i.e. the second and final movement of Study No. 40).
- I get cranky about live musicians playing Nancarrow’s player piano music.
Now you could stroll through Victoria Park, down the Bow Heritage trail, without fear…. Or so I thought – until I penetrated the north-east corner, beyond the obelisk, the rarely visited war memorial, which is sited at the point where an invisible barrier is crossed, and you move out of Tower Hamlets (Old Ford) into South Hackney.
So speaks Iain Sinclair in Lights Out For the Territory
, my psychogeographic Baedeker to London
. I, however, born and raised in Adelaide
, am used to viewing the world from the prospect of a backwater at the arse-end of the Earth, and so habitually enter Victoria Park via this supposedly remote corner, being the gate closest to home, and walk the other way. If you replaced the squirrels with possums fossicking through the rubbish, Victoria Park resembles any other large park in Adelaide.
The memorial to the Great War casualties from Hackney Wick is small and somewhat neglected: the names carved on its base are starting to fade
. The obelisk itself is set adrift in the middle of a lawn, far away from any footpath; reflecting the ambivalence of the community’s working-class population to the Great War.
Instead of writing about art or music today I decided to go for another walk through the park. Down at the south gate of the park, beside the Dogs of Alcibiades
, I was stopped by an elderly Indian gentleman who was standing around looking somewhat lost. I thought he was going to ask me for directions, but he held a letter in his hand, and asked if I could read the first paragraph for him:
Dear Sir, This is to notify you that your petition for divorce was filed with the court on 22nd May 2006, and that a copy of the papers were delivered to your wife on 6th June 2006.
He smiled, “Thank you, sir,” and walked away. It’s always a heartwarming feeling when you’ve helped a stranger.
indices have been updated to the present. Yeah, I know…
He was that rarest of treasures, a brilliant European composer who wasn’t a megalomaniacal arsehole. A composer whose music is as sensually rewarding as it is intellectually appealing. A composer who became part of Fluxus
to annoy the modernist orthdoxy, only to leave it again when he realised Fluxus wanted to be taken seriously. A man who wrote a symphonic poem for 100 metronomes.
If you’ve seen 2001 you’ve heard his music. Oh alright, and Eyes Wide Shut. No, not that piece!
- Alex Ross gives a beautiful summary of Ligeti’s life and achievements, written in 2001.
- The score of Poème Symphonique: note the solicitude with which he addresses the problem of how on earth you can get hold of a hundred metronomes. Unfortunately I can’t find his vivid description of his preparations for the premiere: sweating backstage in an ill-fitting, rented tuxedo, fingers aching after several hours winding up fifty metronomes, and realising he still had another fifty to go.
- The Rambler has collected some obituaries.
- Some small downloadable audio samples (and scores) from his list of works. The piano etudes play like Thelonius Monk orchestrating M.C. Escher.
- YouTube has a film of the Poème Symphonique.
I really like Berlin; so much so that when I came back to Australia from visiting there six years ago and people asked me what it was like, I said “It’s a lot like Melbourne.” This did not go down well with my German or otherwise-Europeanny friends.
“How!?” they demanded to know. I give you photographic proof.
In Germany, as in Australia, Sport = Ideas.
Honestly, Australians: can’t you just imagine a sign saying “Victoria*: Land of Ideas” in front of a giant, non-functional footy boot? Really though, this should belong in Queensland, spiritual centre for Big Things
. “Don’t miss THE BIG SHOE, 2km west of Beaudesert.”
This was outside the new central train station in Berlin, a week before (duh!) the World Cup.
* Or one of the other states. But never “Australia”.
The Analog Arts Ensemble has the complete score, er, play, on their blog
, complete with another piece of repurposed Beckett: three MP3s of them playing a musical adapttation of the sucking stones game from Molloy
. Beckett’s love of permutations also makes him particularly appealing to musicians. Has anyone attempted an entire musical version of Watt
We all have unfortunate periods in our lives. For a short while once, I lived in Brisbane. The houses there are made of wood and open in design, so that sounds can travel easily from one house to the next. Across the street from me lived a young man who played trumpet
. More specifically, he played “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
on the trumpet. Day after day, without discernible improvement.
One afternoon, while he was playing, a car pulled up to the kerb out front. A woman got out, stomped up the front steps and marched straight into the house. The trumpet stopped, and there was the sound of a newspaper being thrown down onto a table. “There you are, Mr Arsehole,” she yelled, “in black and white – and if you don’t understand now you never fucking will!” The front door slammed again; she stamped back down the stairs to the car and drove away.
One distinctive tic in my psyche is that scenes from the movie Highway 61
keep appearing, unbidden, in my consciousness. At one point the hero (for want of a better word), a rock’n’roll-loving hairdresser, is challenged on his choice of instrument to follow his musical dreams: the trumpet.
“I know,” he says bitterly, “it always ends up sounding like jazz.”
I am now working on a similar theory, that any attempt by a string quartet to play rock ends up sounding like Bartók. Before going offline for a week I went to the premiere of Gabriel Prokofiev’s String Quartet No.2, at Cargo
in Shoreditch. It was a pleasant-enough piece, with the regular, propelling rhythms and static harmonies that have become commonplace in much of the music written over the last 20-odd years, since the commercial success of Philip Glass’
earlier musical innovations became too conspicuous for struggling composers to ignore.
Like much so-called ‘post-minimalist’ music written in the wake of Glass and his sometime mates, Prokofiev’s quartet wants to be identified with Glass at his most populist while simultaneously disassociating itself from its stridency – thus the simple, steady beat and harmonies were muddied with variations in mood and sour inflections which came across as, well, Bartók (188-1945).
It was only when I read the press release after the gig that I learned it was supposed to have been inspired by electronic dance music. If so, it was looking for its inspiration in the wrong places; adopting only the most superficial ornaments of techno instead of engaging with its unique substance, focussing instead on its classical foundation of traditional western harmony that, stripped of attitude, renders grime, metal, and pop indistinguishable. Any kid who’s tried playing rock on their school recorder knows this.
The Rambler has given a description
of the kind of nights Cargo has been hosting: informal club performances of new music otherwise confined to the concert hall. As he suggests, the crucial element that makes these gigs engaging and enjoyable is the setting, which forces performers to interact with the audience. It is this, more than any slick visuals or appeals to hipness, that hooks in the smart and arts-savvy (or even arts-curious) punters.
“It seems like a simple formula, but it surely can’t be otherwise everyone would have been doing it for years already, right?” he asks. Well, the execution still needs some tweaking before it becomes as second-nature as laying on a rock gig. In particular, musicians and sound technicians are still learning how to properly amplify this type of gig to suit both the music and the audience. GéNIA’s set of electronically-enhanced piano music was diminished by the piano sounding muffled and dull. And the Elysian Quartet’s performance of Max DeWardener’s new work was spoiled by an electrical glitch making line noise and the players’ click tracks audible through the PA.
Despite these problems I hope this type of presentation of new “classical” music is a trend that will continue, as a way of bringing this music to an audience more likely to embrace it than the usual concert-hall subscribers. I can’t help but wonder how a performance of Rzewski’s Coming Together
would come across in this context!
I took two musically-literate Rzewski neophytes to the performance at Trinity College the week before, in a carpeted, overlit rehearsal room hidden deep in the College campus. The piece came out strident and threadbare, and afterwards both my friends agreed: “That was so 70s!” Would the change of setting have changed their attitude? Would it have changed the performers’?