Instead of naming a book that was released this year, how about we name a book that was our ‘one’ of the year, regardless of when it was published. Perhaps you might have read something that was particularly pertinent, perhaps you finally got around to reading something that really stood out from the bedside pile. Perhaps you read nothing of note.
I haven’t written nearly as much about books this year as I wanted to, so here’s my chance to make it up a little.
Book of the year:
For me, this was William Gaddis
‘ The Recognitions
, a novel whose 950 pages I finally read after finding an ex-library copy in Melbourne’s Grub Street Bookshop years ago (thanks, Macrobertson Girls’ High
!) Taking up from where Wyndham Lewis
left off, it’s one of those books which has just grown more and more relevant to our world with each year since its first publication 50-odd years ago. Its double-edged dissection of the dearly-held belief that art reveals truth is set in a society whose slippery duplicity is probably more familiar to us than to Gaddis
‘ contemporaries. The book’s unique written style was later echoed by Pynchon, De Lillo
, and others, but I’ve never read anything so uncompromising or sinister in its relationship with the reader.
Runner up: As is all too typical, I became interested in Gilbert Sorrentino just after his death. I’d lazily pigeonholed his novel Mulligan Stew as one of those faddish, would-be cult novels from the 70s, based solely on its dogged recurrence in those little bookseller’s ads at the backs of yellowing paperbacks, with the inevitable trite comparisons to Joyce, Vonnegut, and Moorcock which publishers used interchangeably back then. In fact, it’s one of the funniest literary satires written, especially for people who sometimes grumble to themselves that they’ve read too much to really enjoy books any more. Best of all, it never lets up on the gags to explain the philosophical and emotional core that its facade attempts to conceal. A book that’s worth it for the first page alone.
Literary discovery of the year:
. From dilettante
also-ran, to cultish
outsider, to the inventor of modernism
. It’s those jokers you have to watch out for.
Apart from The Recognitions
, I finally knocked Jealousy
and Life: A User’s Manual
off my to-read list.
Music gig of the year:
Even before his death, my thoughts about music kept coming back to the February performance of Stockhausen’s Trans
. A student orchestra, some dramatic lighting, and not just Stockhausen’s imagination, but his boldness and self-assuredness
when making something new; all came together to create an uncanny experience which leaves people bandying around expressions like “otherworldly” and “life-changing”. There’s no other piece of music quite like this; nor, in all likelihood, will there be.
Music recording of the year (any type):
Special thanks are due to Different Waters
, for uploading a complete version of La Monte Young’s long-deleted masterpiece The Well-Tuned Piano
CD of the year: It was a year in which I avoided CDs and vinyl in favour of foraging for downloadable music, so you might blame my limited range of discs for my choice; but honestly, I don’t think I could have possibly heard anything more surprising than Paul McCartney’s Memory Almost Full album. An elderly ex-Beatle makes a CD for Starbucks, and instead of cobbling together a lazy cash cow he finally makes his first album in, well, forever, that embraces all of his strengths (brilliantly crafted songwriting and arrangements, brought off with a disarming informality) and almost entirely rejects all his weaknesses (complacency, bombast, second-guessing, ill-judged whimsy).
Music discovery of the year: Zygmunt Krauze
, whose piece Folk Music
I heard thanks to The Rambler’s fascinating description
of Polish “Unism
“, a home-grown movement of minimalist art and music that emerged in the 1960s.
Art event of the year: Too much new art that I saw in London looked like high-falutin‘ tchotchkes created for investors with at least one eye on the auctions. My personal highlight was a visit to the Groeninge Museum in Brugge and seeing renaissance Flemish masterworks by the likes of Memling, Van Der Goes, and Van Eyck, the same artists I’d just been reading about in The Recognitions. Looking at this art you can understand what Ezra Pound meant when he said that Western culture went wrong somewhere in the 17th century.
Public art event of the year:
After a mysterious extension to its intended stay, Mark Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant finally came down
from the fourth pedestal in Trafalgar Square. Honestly, it looked like the sort of thing Coldplay
would turn out if they were paid to make a sculpture
(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)
Because it’s that time of year, I’m working up a short list of best-ofs for 2007. It’s the fashion. Last December Georgina Hibberd posted at Sarsaparilla
her list of books for the year, with the twist that the books did not necessarily have to be published in the past 12 months. In fact, it was preferable for them to be older. It’s such a good idea I’m going to
revive it for a follow-up article posted on Sarsaparilla
in the next day or two. Gilbert Sorrentino
will be mentioned.
Because it’s that time of year, It’s A Wonderful Life
has probably been on a telly somewhere near you. It’s the tradition. While it’s fresh in your head, you might enjoy Sorrentino’s brief, but thorough, demolition
of the illusion that movie strives to portray.
Capra’s greatest film, It’s a Wonderful Life, is a curious example of a work that means precisely the opposite of what it seems to say. Its true message is, in the context of Capra’s oeuvre, a surprising one: Money is everything. Although the film is usually read as the pinnacle of the Capraesque ideal of grassroots optimism, I would argue that its subtext calls this optimism into serious question. In effect, the film encapsulates a disgust and anger with modern American life that are barely hidden, and often glaringly foregrounded.
The final scene of the film is ambiguously eerie, and its strangeness is emblematized in George Bailey’s near-maniacal grin, one that is equally composed of shame, fear, gratitude, and self-loathing. It is a grin that, once seen, can never be forgotten. Money is everything is what that grin says, what the scene says, and what the film says. In this final moment, the truth of the film strikes at us with metonymic power through the stilted images of celebration and victory and joy….
I’ve finally gotten around to uploading the recordings from the two live gigs I played in Australia (Melbourne
). For the sake of comparison and contrast, they are both available from the one page
, along with a description of the piece, laden with tantalising sentences such as:
The three loops are nested, so that the output of the two outer loops may be fed back into the first. The output of the first loop is always heard mixed with and modulated by at least one of the other two loops, the subsequent loops may either be modulated by the others or heard plain.
There are also thumbnail portraits of the experience of playing in a Fitzroy bar late on a Tuesday night:
I began to imagine people checking their watches and, one by one, slinking away in the dark to catch the last tram home.
and of playing in the living room of someone’s house in Brisbane:
It felt very civilised to be able to play a gig while sitting on a couch with my girlfriend…. The amp was a small, battery operated unit which gave the music a slightly muzzy, mellow sound.
The recording quality is OK, but the performances may not be ideally suited to home listening; unless you play it through a small amp while drinking beer and chatting with your mates. Enjoy?
In 1990, three years after the death of Morton Feldman
, I heard on the radio a live broadcast of Roger Woodward playing Feldman’s
90-minute piano piece, Triadic Memories
. The performance was preceded by a half-hour discussion between two music critics about whether or not the music to follow was even worth playing.
It seemed that Feldman’s fate had been cast since the 1960s: a footnote, however indelible, to the history of postwar music. He had been the first composer to write in non-conventional, graphic notation, back in the early fifties, and then faded away into apparent neglect, unheard. Towards the end of his life he wrote only pieces of unmanageable length, unbroken spans of music lasting at least an hour, anything up to five hours. It looked like a rejection of the audience, of musical society. (“Unforgivably indulgent” was the main thrust of the critic for the negative on radio that night.)
We all know how foolish it is to try to second-guess posterity: the obituaries for Herman Melville describing him as “a formerly well-known author” who will be best remembered as the writer of Typee is just one of the more famous examples. Today, at least ten different performances of Triadic Memories have been issued on CD. Seven of these are listed on Amazon, among the 120-odd Feldman titles in stock. The available discs are overwhelmingly biased towards those long, long pieces from the last eight years of his life, overshadowing his previous work.
* * *
of Stockhausen’s life
have invariably treated his 29-hour, seven-opera cycle Licht
, a work he concentrated on exclusively from 1978 until its completion in 2002, as little more than a postscript to a long, productive career. Descriptions of the opera cycle range from cursory to derisive (“egomaniacal
“, “grandiose”). Given that two of the operas have not yet been fully performed, that live performances even of excerpts have been rare, and that the CDs
of it are expensive and tricky to order
, it would be interesting to learn just how much, if any, of Licht
‘s 29 hours has been heard by each of its critics.
I haven’t heard anything from Licht either, so the last thing I need is a load of hot air about it from a bunch of hacks arguing from ignorance. This situation is starting to look less like a case of critics attacking the work despite not having heard it, and more like a case of attacking the work because they haven’t heard it.
Just a few days ago I was describing to someone Stockhausen’s strange decision to devote 25 years of his life to a single, all-encompassing work, a work misunderstood by its audience (or at least not received in the way expected by the composer), when an earlier example of an artist who took a similar turn in his career path came to mind. No, not Wagner. Ezra Pound
After 1920, Pound’s poetic output, as far as the literary public were concerned, came to a halt. For a while he gave up poetry to compose, but soon returned to writing. However, in doing so he rededicated himself to his long poem The Cantos, falteringly started some years earlier, deciding to apply himself solely to this one magnum opus, to the exclusion of all other original poetry. Besides translations and a handful of occasional poems, The Cantos was Pound’s only poetry until he abandoned it, unfinished, in the 1960s. With it, he abandoned writing.
Licht and The Cantos are both immensely ambitious works, epic both in both scale and subject matter. In fact, the wide scope of both works allowed their creators to accommodate any of their creative impulses into the structure of their ongoing, all-encompassing projects. Similarly, subsections of each large work may be presented individually (although this is less true for the published instalments of Pound’s Cantos, which are frequently dependent on context, than for the free-standing compositions spun off from Licht).
It is fatuous to compare too closely the material and biographical circumstances of both works, but a general parallel can be drawn. Stockhausen’s dogged commitment to Licht came to be seen by many as yet another manifestation of his increasing eccentricity, of a piece with his Messianic self-image, his polygamy, his claims to interstellar heritage. By the time the wider reading public became aware of The Cantos (more about this later), its subject and style was impossible to separate from Pound’s notoriety as a fascist, an anti-Semite, an incarcerated mental patient with an unanswered treason charge hanging over his head. Pound’s later poetry was analysed less for its literary merit than for signs of his descent into madness. As with Stockhausen, the large, late work was treated as an unfortunate aberration, the anticlimax to a career whose successes all came relatively early.
* * *
Over the past 40 years most Pound scholars have come to accept The Cantos
as his masterwork, the centrepiece of his artistic achievement, and treat the earlier poetry as though it were a prelude to his most important writing. Most advocates for Pound’s poetry admit The Cantos
is a deeply flawed piece, with many dull passages, inconsistencies, gratuitous obscurantism, and lapses in judgement that are risible or offensive. (The same criticisms
have been made
.) Even so, generations of writers and scholars have argued that The Cantos
is essential not only to the understanding of Pound, but to 20th
The same fate may or may not be true of Licht, but if it is in fact a work of genius, flawed or not, then its future recognition as such will have been greatly hampered, largely by Stockhausen himself – and this is the most important comparison I want to make with Pound. As said before, even interested listeners have found it impossible to hear more than a few, isolated fragments of the whole cycle. Stockhausen withdrew from the conventional musical institutions that had supported him, pursuing his goal of ultimate autonomy, which he achieved at the expense of his accessibility. Pound (who also withdrew from literary society, relocating to the small Italian town of Rapallo) ensured that readers could not easily access his work-in-progress until 16 years after its commencement, preferring to publish instalments in small editions of expensive, hand-printed volumes.
Serious critical attention was not given to The Cantos until the early 1950s, and only then because of the intense controversy that surrounded its author. Since that time, readers and critics have been playing catch-up, forced to argue first for the poem’s importance before its complexities can even be discussed. Debate still simmers over to what extent the poet must be excused or denounced before his poem can be appreciated. Obscurities that may have been explained away by contemporary familiarity have been allowed to languish.
There is no substitute for critical tradition: a continuum of understanding, early commenced. … Precisely because William Blake’s contemporaries did not know what to make of him, we do not know either, though critic after critic appeases our sense of obligation to his genius by reinventing him. … [O]n the other hand, something was immediately made of Ulysses and The Waste Land, and our comfort with both works after 50 years, including our ease at allowing for their age, seems derivable from the fact that they have never been ignored. …
Hence the paradox that an intensely topical poem has become archaic without ever having been contemporary.
– Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, p.415
now faces the same predicament, compounded by the logistical demands of its staging. Thirty years after it was started and five years after its completion, we are still none the wiser as to what it actually is. Without its creator around, we may find ourselves reinventing
what the operas actually mean. Perhaps the complete staging of the cycle planned for 2010 will be the true moment that Licht
makes it debut in our consciousness.
One final comparison with Pound. Regardless of whatever appreciation, enthusiasm, and goodwill with which Licht may be received in the future, it is unlikely to ever be understood in the way Stockhausen intended.
I know I missed at least one survey
while I was in Australia, so this
was the last update.
For the first sixteen songs it looked like this was shaping up into a perfect list, with no duds at all. It starts masterfully with an unexpected opener in “The Three Bells” (a song, bizarrely, once covered by Tina Arena) before building up to a thrilling climax with the unforgettable Liv Maesson.
Then everything just goes to hell. Hell being an unwelcome appearance on the Magic surveys by the unspeakable B—- J—
, followed by the playlist
from a British pub on karaoke night. In desperation the surveymakers
try to save the ending by raunching
things up with “The Stripper” and some Elvis, which is fine with everybody.
So this month’s low point is that hideous Joel/Stewart/Richard/Blues clusterfuck, and thus the high point must be the whiplash transition to “The Stripper”, with honourable mentions to Ms Maesson, The Browns, and the repeat appearance by Burl Ives, caught in the provided audio sample at his most demented.
The Three Bells – The Browns*
Pipeline – The Chantays
My Friend The Sea – Petula Clark*
Stayin‘ In – Bobby Vee*
Cast Your Fate To The Wind – Mel Torme*
Kisses Sweeter Than Wine – Jimmie Rodgers
Softly As I Leave You – Matt Monro*
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight – Burl Ives*
Walkin‘ In The Sunshine – Roger Miller*
Hold Me Tight – Johnny Nash*
Woman – Peter & Gordon*
Baby I Need Your Lovin‘ – Johnny Rivers*
I’m Not In Love – 10cc
Ben – Michael Jackson
If You Could Read My Mind – Gordon Lightfoot
Knock Knock Who’s There – Liv Maesson*
I Still Call Australia Home – Peter Allen
Leave A Tender Moment Alone – Billy Joel
Begin The Beguine – Limelighters
Have I Told You Lately That I Love You – Rod Stewart
Some People – Cliff Richard
Nights In White Satin – Moody Blues
The Stripper – David Rose*
Little Egypt – Elvis Presley
Put Your Head On My Shoulder – Paul Anka
Where was I? Yeah, genre confusion. Some of the film-makers (what the hell, I’m going to call them that) were happily working in ways totally removed from the idea that cinema must be in some way dependent on theatre and narrative. Their art worked in a more purely compositional sense.
Nigel Bunn showed off his inventions, including a newly-built painting machine he had brought over from Dunedin. It was a sweet little device, consisting of a large box covered with various buttons and flip switches. When activated, it would semi-autonomously add abstract splotches of colour to a reel of blank film that was threaded through it. The abstractions were projected onto a screen covered with an array of photosensitive electronic cells, which controlled a simple sound synthesiser. In this way the painting machine manipulated both the image and the music.
Intriguingly, Bunn described his work as ‘cine-sculpture’, playing at the edges of both cinema and sculpture. The latter definition can be understood to contain a description of the entire work – objects, image, and sound, activated in a space. There’s always a pleasure in seeing a new, homemade invention working in ways that you’ve never seen before. On a deeper level than content or a message, it functions in the primary way of art, telling you things you didn’t already know, opening up new possibilities for the imagination.
A much more fiercely reductionist example of this type of work was shown by Bruce McClure, who showed a 45-minute “film” which didn’t actually use film at all. His three movie projectors were set up to screen flashes of white light at regular intervals, each at a slightly different speed, focused on the same spot to produce a flashing, pulsing white circle, first on a black screen, then on a white. He gave us a small warning that the piece is “difficult to look at”, and he wasn’t wrong. The starkness of the image, undifferentiated white light in the darkness, made the image produce optical effects, halos, patterns, and headaches. The soundtrack was a similarly minimal cross-rhythm of clicks that mimicked the pulsing of the three light sources.
In fact, flashing and flickering seems to be the style du jour among a lot of experimental film makers: both Bunn’s and Kerry Laitala’s films often flickered like an early home movie, as did a number of other films shown. After two nights straight of watching one set of flickery images after another in the dark, it all got a bit much and I had to leave before the audience participation all-together audiovisual jam session that ended the Festival.
Brisbane is a place where the arts have traditionally been treated with such suspicion that the lines between “high” and “low” art have blurred, with tenured academic finding themselves as much of a societal outcast as the underground guerrilla artist. This gives a refreshing informality to events such as the Other Film Festival. OFF is three years old now, is supported by government and institutional funding, has guests and visitors from overseas, and was this year presented in the old Brisbane Museum building. Despite all that, the atmosphere was little different from a “secret location” rock gig, with people happily drifting around in the dark, chatting or looking for the stations of free finger-food set up around the lobby.
Announcements of upcoming events were made by people wandering around wielding a small, portable amplifier, often with the reverb turned up so far that the voices were rendered unintelligble. There was no fixed, formal seating in either of the two large rooms used for most of the shows, and punters were free to come and go as they pleased. The artists used whatever wall or part of each room was most suitable for their work. Most striking of all, there was no backstage (let alone a VIP area), so that organisers and artists milled about amongst the audience, happily conversing and answering questions from anyone who happened to approach them.
Theatrical highlights: Kerry Laitala dressing up for the part when manning the projectors for her occult films.
Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange:
Stubbies of Coopers Pale
Firstly, I got to see Helmet-Head at last: the collaborative project by Rod Cooper and Anthony Magen (remember when reading my comments that I’ve worked with these guys on different projects). Magen is the only VJ on the world I can stand. The usual animations and video samples are there, but only a supplement to the main action. Magen uses the bed of an overhead projector as his workspace, building up, manipulating, and then tearing down again a series of tableaux constructed from an ecelectic array of objects. The effect is simultaneously painterly and theatrical. All of this was projected onto a screen attached to a helmet worn by Rod Cooper, who stood some five metres away.
Cooper held a nifty little device in his hands, which he clutched and poked at in different ways to produce a soundtrack of sufficiently bewildering variety to match the visuals, combining electronic noises, music, quotation, field recordings. The overall effect was a type of omnium gatherum collage that revelled in the richness of its materials.
Upon later examination and questioning, Cooper’s mysterious device turned out to be a handheld cassette player: a low-tech apporach to producing a more complex and sophisticated soundscape than most laptop artists can achieve. The technical limitations of Cooper and Magen’s methods gave a clear, but undectable, structure to their performance, holding their diverse materials together.
As you’ve figured out from the above description, OFF is not your standard evening of sitting around watching movies. There were live performances – theatrical, musical, or both – incorporating film, in addition to light shows, installations, and other less easily categorisable phenomena. Most of these works involved film projectors, old-school film projectors (but hoepfully not old, school projectors), 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm – but not always in the standard ways.
Dirk de Bruyn
presented his 1982 piece Experiments
, ostensibly a film for two screens, but in fact a live multimedia performance in which he added his own noises and vocalisations to the soundtracks, and frequently adjusted the positions of his two projectors to differently mix and overlap the images from his collage of homemade movies against a large, blank wall. Again, this performance used film as a means to present an amalgam of the plastic and dramatic arts, reversing the old cinematic dictum, making all arts meet beyond the camera frame.
In a similar manner, Kerry Laitala
concluded a retrospective of her films with a live performance, Hocus Pocus… Abracadabra…!!!
, projecting slideshow images that moved back and forth over a series of superimposed film loops. Laitala’s material typically drew upon images and paraphernalia from the turn of the last century, sharing in that era’s particular fascination with the occult, manifesting itself in seances, theosophy, mesmerism, ectoplasm, table-tapping. It’s no coincidence these images are melded with glimpses from the earliest days of cinema, that time’s other great conflation of art and science, summoning visions from the beyond, bringing inert matter to life.
Tomorrow in part 2: more genre confusion, and the general atmosphere at the Other Film Festival, especially on that fateful election night.
We weren’t expecting this: Stockhausen
died on Wednesday. Having completed his brobdingnagian opera cycle Licht
(but not having heard the last two of the seven operas performed in entirety), he had commenced Klang
, a cycle of 24 works, one for each hour of the day. He figured he had another five years of work in him at least, and time to finish it. A friend of mine has either just finished another study course with him, or else was booked in for one next year.
Pierre Boulez and Stockhausen were the two most prominent figures in Europe’s post-war musical avant-garde, but while Boulez
and others settled into the musical establishment, Stockhausen
passed through with his sights set on a bigger, cosmic prize. He built up his own private empire to realise goals that seemed impossibly ambitious, intimidatingly grandiose, childishly impractical. Since he started work on Licht
, we probably can’t yet fully assess the achievement of the last 30 years of his career.
Update: Greg Sandow
expands on the idea I touched on above, that for such a central figure, Stockhausen was strangely isolated from the music world he had so strongly influenced. ANABlog
has full audio of Gesang der Jünglinge
, with a brief discussion of the piece.