I Want To Believe (in the Richter Code)

Tuesday 29 May 2012

The back of the loyalty card for my friendly local coffee chain is plugging Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition at the Tate, as if London isn’t sufficiently riddled with Hirsts for the well-caffeinated. Earlier this year Hirst’s dealer held simultaneous exhibitions around the world of his spot paintings, with Hirst goosing the punter’s interest in the mundane canvases by dropping suggestions of a hidden message encoded in the grids of coloured spots. Because Damien Hirst totally has a lot to say.

Amateur. A real artist lets the mysteries and conspiracy theories accumulate around him or her, like an inverted pearl. I saw this in all the bookshops in Cologne:

Could someone have actually published a crime novel called The Richter Code, enthusiastically ripping of the title, perhaps even the premise, of The Da Vinci Code, basing their murder plot upon the premise of a secret message hidden in the supposedly-random coloured panes of Gerhard Richter’s window for Cologne Cathedral?

Yes, yes, yes!

George Rubin, Cologne’s most ambitious journalist, learns in the investigation into a murder case of an encrypted message hidden in Richter’s window of Cologne Cathedral. Will the Cathedral really be destroyed on election day? Rubin does everything possible to decipher the “Richter-code” and prevent the disaster.

I love the idea that an artwork barely five years old is already being put to work in mythmaking. Even more, I love the idea that an author has decided that Gerhard Richter is somehow involved in both a murder and a plot to destroy the cathedral containing one of his most famous artworks. It neatly combines Richter’s 4900 Colours and related works with his habit of destroying paintings as part of his ongoing artistic practise.

Not mention that the book is part of a publisher’s series called “Köln Krimi”. You know your city’s made it when you can boast an entire literary sub-genre about your home town being a hotbed for ingenious serial killers.

John Cage meets Regieoper (part 2)

Thursday 24 May 2012

Really sloppy notes here, sorry. Part 1 is here.

I remember when I first heard Frank Zappa’s songs. The singing felt forced and goofy, with straining falsettos and dopey bass vocals. Then I heard the original doo-wop records which inspired him and realised that his comedy mugging is absolutely faithful to the earnest material it imitates. “No no, we do it straight,” he enjoins his singers shortly into a cover version on one of his live albums. In the next breath, he admits, “It’s hard, I know.”

This was the same feeling I got watching Europera 3 performed. At first it all feels like a colossal joke, and the punter is left wondering at whose expense the supposed fun is made: at us for our pretensions, the singers for their dedication to the ridiculous enterprise, or Cage himself for his impertinence for devising such an absurd collage and expecting it to be taken seriously as an operatic experience. True, each opera is a comedy, although in each a different kind of comedy is in play.

The singers in Europera 3 seemed at first too eager to please, and too pleased with themselves for being in on the wheeze; but then, as with Zappa’s doo-wop homages, I began to realise that this playing to the audience is an essential part of traditional opera. Despite whatever pretensions opera may have to the highest of high culture, it sure ain’t subtle. If anything, Cage’s score seemed to constrain the singers too much.

I’m assuming it’s Cage’s score for Europera 3 that assigns a fixed location for each singer’s aria, as I assume that it was the director’s decision to assign these locations to the front of the stage, which tended to give the production the feel of a procession of entrances, presentations and exits. How ever it is produced, I can’t help feel that Cage fundamentally misread a crucial aspect of opera in Europera 3, in that there is no allowance for interaction between the performers. Europera 3 is one of those occasions when Cage’s idealism gets in the way of his aspirations. In seeking to distil opera to its basic elements of music and theatre, he forgot that opera is an impure, messy, pandering, superficial, gossipy, star-struck and fashion-obsessed artform, and what Cage perceived as flaws are essential to its survival.

Having said all that, what has Cage given us other than music, singing, costumes, theatre – is that not opera? The silliness of the incongruous costumes seen plain, the gesticulations stripped of dramatic context, are subsumed in the richness of talented singers presenting great arias against a backdrop of opera on LP and piano reduction (cultural legacy in portable, domestic form). It sort of resembled an opera, but more an opera rehearsal, or an opera school, with multiple distinct and disciplined activities each directed to an immediate aim, taken as a glorious whole.

What amazes me is that such a simple collage of available elements from the repertory can provoke so many contradictory reactions to Cage’s art and to opera itself. Whatever weaknesses it may have, Europera 3 certainly succeeds in demonstrating Cage’s strength for showing, not telling, when raising questions about music, aesthetics and the nature of art.

After the interval, Europera 4 raised different issues again. Europera 4 was conceived as a pair with Europera 3, and I was surprised by how much it differed. I had thought the resources for both operas were largely the same, but that in Europera 4 Cage had skewed the odds in his chance operations to favour less rather than more. It was actually closer to Europera 5 in scale. Two singers, soprano and baritone, instead of six; one pianist instead of two (sometimes shadow-playing); and the one Victrola instead of the six turntables and crates of LPs.

Some, but not all, of the productions differences were down to direction. No costume changes, and the lighting changed only in intensity. (No sudden dusk eclipsing the Queen of the Night this time around.) Unlike Europera 3, Europera 4 began in quite an affective and haunting way, with the soprano singing a vocalise while the baritone, as yet unseen, sang far away backstage. As with Europera 5, a dramatic interpretation was imposed upon Cage’s score, and maintained a coherent conceit throughout from this initial, accidental duet.

The singers appeared as perpetually doomed lovers, fated never to meet and yet to die in wonderfully operatic fashion after each and every aria, only to rise, sing, and die again. I suppose it could be called a perverse re-imagining of Cage’s opera as it played out like a consciously constructed absurdist drama. I do enjoy it when someone turns Cage against himself and makes it work in is own right, and it doesn’t happen nearly often enough. I don’t know what all those balloons were about, though.

Please Mister Please CXLIV

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Boris Blacher, “Sonata für Klavier” (1951). Gerty Herzog, piano.
(7’55″, 18.1 MB, mp3)

John Cage meets Regieoper (part 1)

Monday 21 May 2012

One other effect Einstein on the Beach had on my life was that it made me a sucker for wacky opera. After Einstein, John Cage’s Europeras may be the most notorious wacky operas around, so I had to go to Cologne to see the final three (of five) performed in one night.

First obvious question answered: is it a real opera? Of course it is. Someone in the foyer smelled faintly of wee. QED.

What I found most immediately interesting about the performances on the night was the liberties that had been taken by the director, sometimes to the point of disregarding Cage’s score. From Berg to Glass, any opera composer specifying more than the words and the notes is asking for trouble sooner or later, and Cage’s use of chance-determined collage in the Europeras extends to stage movements, scenery, costumes and lighting.

The “free” interpretation by Oper Köln was most blatantly different in Europera 5. One of Cage’s last compositions, it pares the constituent elements of its predecessors to the barest minimum. In the space of an hour, two singers sing five arias each, unaccompanied. Half a dozen operatic 78s are played on a wind-up gramophone. A pianist occasionally mimics playing transcriptions of scenes from romantic operas, hitting keys only by accident. From time to time, a radio plays, a television (silent) is switched on. A rumbling passes by in the far distance.

In Cage’s score much of the action, such as it is, consists of changes in lighting, with specific instructions for multiple (unspecified) lighting sources to be turned on or off at chance-determined intervals. In Cologne, the lighting was an even mid-grey throughout. The scenario may very well have been drawn from Samuel Beckett; but I’m not convinced that Cage and Beckett are the most agreeable of stage companions.

The production drew a definite interpretation from Cage’s indeterminate collage, depicting a scene of great age, infirmity and decay. This conceit was evidently used to account for the extremely slow movements Cage’s score prescribes for his singers, from one part of the stage to another. The Victrola only added to the air of age and obsolescence. The feeling of openness and quiescence that Cage so often aspired to in his music was here supplanted by a bitter, ironic humour.

Soprano and mezzo-soprano, both entirely grey, walked with stiff, pained movements, finishing each aria with bows and blown kisses to imaginary fans like opera diva Norma Desmonds. The old gent in the bathrobe also stands and bows after each phonograph has finished. Cage instructs each singer to wear an animal mask at a given point, but the mezzo insists on donning her bear’s head each time she acknowledges the invisible audience.

Beckett admitted that he had no real fondness for opera, so he may have enjoyed the bleak comedy in the presentation of these denuded fragments. I’m not sure that Cage had anything so confrontational in mind when he talked of giving opera back to the Europeans, but then Verdi and Rossini couldn’t have anticipated the reconceptualisation of their works in Regieoper, either.

Cage’s music deserves to be played at least as well as Verdi’s – as it was here, although none of the notes were actually written by Cage. I suppose if people are going to accept him as the great composer that he was, it’s only fair that he be interpreted as wilfully as Verdi, too.

Europeras 3 and 4 raised different concerns, about whether or not Cage had succeeded in making a good opera, but that can wait until next time as it’s late and time for my Ovaltine.

Mystery Package

Sunday 20 May 2012

I’ve been writing up my notes from the intense weekend in Cologne for Acht Brücken, but I just got home to find this had arrived:

What could it be?

Hooray! It’s the Redrawing newspapers from the Collected Collaborations show. I wonder if the one I wrote and designed is there?

Yep. Okay, I’ll write about Acht Brücken next, then give an exact rundown of what the deal is with the newspapers.

The Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game, 2012 Edition

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Less than two weeks to go until the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final, so it’s time to wheel this post out again. I’ve missed the last couple of years on the telly but I might make an effort to catch this one, as it’s in Azerbaijan (suck on it, Portugal!) and it’s always fun to watch a little country no-one’s heard of make the most of their fifteen minutes of fame. Besides, I need to see how the Italians are taking to it now they’re back in the game.

Having been honed to something approaching a science over the years, the rules of the Drinking Game now change only when the rules of the Contest change. Only one, topical rule has been added to spice up interest this year (no, it isn’t I.B.6).

Yes these things have all happened, in case you’re wondering.

PHASE I: THE SONGS

A. Every instance within a song:

I.A.1 The Dramatic Key Change. Whenever the singers dramatically shift up a key for the final chorus(es).

I.A.2 The Bucks Fizz. Whenever performer(s) sheds a piece of clothing – once only on every instance, whether executed by an individual or as a group. Finish your drink if the clothing loss is obviously unintentional.

B. Once per song only:

I.B.1 Is That English? Whenever someone notices that the singers have switched from their native language into English in an attempt to win more votes. Two drinks if they try to dodge the language issue by intentionally singing gibberish.

I.B.2 The Fine Cotton. Any appearance of mercenary talent flown in to represent a foreign country. Two drinks if they’re Irish.

I.B.3 Las Ketchup and the Waves. A country drags a legitimate, real-life, one-hit wonder out of obscurity in the hope that name recognition can buy them some points. This is additional to I.B.2.

I.B.4 The Cultural Rainbow. Every time an entrant blatantly rips off last year’s winning performance. Finish your drink if last year’s winning country rips itself off.

I.B.5 The Wand’ring Minstrel. Unless it’s a solo guitar or piano, Eurovision insists on backing tapes. It’s in the rules, so don’t accuse some entrants of cheating; but take a drink if performers pretend to play a musical instrument (or simulacrum thereof) in a blatantly fake way, as part of the choreography. A second drink is permitted if a subsequent, different wave of faux-minstrely rises after the first has subsided.

I.B.6 The Greeks (formerly The TaTu). Finish your drink if the audience boos (on the telly, not in your living room.)

I.B.7 Don’t Mention The War. The German entrant sings something about everyone being happy. This is a legacy rule, as in recent years it has largely been supplanted by…

I.B.7a Don’t Mention The Wall. The Israeli entrant sings something about everyone being happy.

I.B.8 My Lovely Horse. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical/political problems of hosting the event next year.

PHASE I ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:

I.B.5a The Wand’ring Minstrel (supplemental). Two drinks if the instrument is an accordion.

I.B.9 The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing at nothing in particular. Two drinks for a hairy armpit.

I.B.10 The White Suit. You’ll know it when you see it; and you’ll know it again when you see it again, and again…

PHASE II: THE VOTES

II.1 The Wardrobe Change. Each time the female host changes frocks. Two drinks if the male host changes suits.

II.2 The Gimme. When Greece gives twelve points to Cyprus.

II.2a The Gastarbeiter. If Germany still gives twelve points to Turkey.

II.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets nul points from France.

II.4 The Sympathy Vote. When anything sung in French first gets a point, and/or the last country without any points finally gets off the mark. A special toast at the end to any country which did not receive so much as a single vote.

II.5 The “Viktor, You Very Unattractive Fellow.” Two drinks if the hosts speak in rhyme and/or pretend to flirt with each other. Finish your drink if the flirting is serious.

PHASE II INTERMEDIATE: You and your friends probably will be too unruly by this stage to register every occurrence of these, so just try to catch what you can.

II.6 The Hurry-Up. Every time the announcer from each voting country is politely asked by the hosts to shut the fuck up (i.e. “Can we have your votes please?”). Two drinks if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a friend or relative watching at home.

II.7 The Sandra Sully. Each time an announcer reads the voting results wrong. Two drinks if they get so confused they have to start over.

II.8 The Sally Field. Each time they show contestants backstage during the voting looking genuinely surprised and pleased with themselves when they get the same politically-motivated votes they get every year.

II.9 The Master of Suspense. It looks like everyone’s figured it out now, so this hasn’t happened for a few years, but just in case: each time an announcer fails to understand that the pause for suspense only works if they announce the twelve points first, then the country that has won them – not the other way around.

PHASE II ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:

II.10 The New Europe. When the Baltic or Balkan states all give each other twelve points, or a former Soviet republic gives Russia twelve points. Do not attempt without medical supervision.

THE WILDCARDS

W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it;
W1.b why Italy isn’t in it; or
W1.c where the hell is Moldova?

W2 Drink to any display of national resentment or self-pity related to the current Eurozone crisis. Pay close attention to Greece.

W3 A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.

W4 A toast to Bosnia and Herzegovina if they change the spelling of their country again from last year (last year’s spelling: ‘Bosnia & Herzegovina’).

W5 A toast to the person who gets so drunk you have to secretly call a cab and persuade them they ordered it when it arrives.

Is Philip Glass worth repeating?

Monday 14 May 2012

Einstein on the Beach had its British premiere this month, and I missed it. I did, however, see the staging of it in Melbourne, with Lucinda Childs and everything. That was in 1992. 20 years ago.

At the time, I thought I’d never have the opportunity to see this opera for myself, at least in this form. Seeing it was a dream come true, and one of the best nights of my life. I knew all the music from the LP box set, knew everything that was to happen on stage, hyped it up in my head for months in advance… and it still exceeded my expectations.

Nothing could have torn me from my seat for that four hours and forty-five minutes. The woman next to me was equally transfixed. After it was all over, we enthused to each other about how great it was. “I was at the premiere in Avignon in 1976,” she said, “and tonight was just as wonderful as I remembered it!” Wow, I thought, she was at the premiere. 16 years ago.

Would I have been just as blown away if I’d gone back for another look, after all this time? I would like to think so, but I just couldn’t believe that things would be the same. My first experience of it is still so vivid in my mind, and I was afraid that a second time around would have diluted the memory. Too much time has now passed, for both the work itself and for me personally, for a repeat to carry the same significance.

More half-arsed thoughts about music, art and technique

Sunday 13 May 2012

I forgot, the thing that set me off the other day about music, art and craft was seeing Marco Fusinato play at Cafe Oto. It was impossible to hear his music and watch him play, and not think of it in terms of his painting practice. As he worked with distorted loops of heavily processed electric guitar, it inevitably conjured up images of layers, surfaces being stripped back and laid over with new material.

This in turn reminded me of what was probably going to be my original point: my previous visit to Oto to see Lionel Marchetti & Jérôme Noetinger. Noetinger was not with his usual tape deck setup, instead working with different types of live electronic signals, such as from feedback, RF or D/A interference. The two of them had a beautiful control of their material, guiding and blending stray bits of electronic sound the way that Jackson Pollock controlled the flow of paint across his canvas. We could see and hear the skilful use of craft, in this case to produce an artistically and aesthetically satisfying mix of musical technique and artistic experience.