Go outside and take a walk in the sunshine for once

Sunday 18 June 2006

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.

Further down the path are two large stone alcoves, grandiose shelters for benches. These are the two surviving fragments of old London Bridge, relocated to the park in 1860: another item in Sinclair’s catalogue of misalignments of London monuments.
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.

About Bloody Time

Saturday 17 June 2006

The name and subject indices have been updated to the present. Yeah, I know…

György Ligeti, RIP

Tuesday 13 June 2006

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.

Looking at Looking at Art

Tuesday 13 June 2006

I forgot to mention that the main reason I was in Berlin (apart from the cheap hotels in the longueur before the World Cup) was to visit a friend showing at the Sonambiente festival. As it turned out, the Berlin Biennial had been extended for a week, so we took in some of that, too. A brief writeup of my, uh, issues with the show will appear tomorrow, but in the meantime I’ve posted a few photos from the exhibition in the Flickr group, Looking at Looking at Art. You can also see some other pictures of people gawping at Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment.

Germany is like Australia: Exhibit A

Monday 12 June 2006

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”.

‘Highway 61, revisited’ revisited

Sunday 11 June 2006

Suck it, play it, put it in pocket.

Sunday 11 June 2006

I’ve previously mentioned musicians being tempted by the music-like writing of Samuel Beckett’s plays: not the musicality of the language, but the organisation of his scripting resembling musical scores. Now it turns out that the Analog Arts Ensemble and percussion ensemble Loop 2.4.3 have been working up their interpretations of Breath, “the original microscore”.
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?

Highway 61, revisited

Saturday 10 June 2006

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.

Brand New You’re Retro: Elysian Quartet at Cargo

Friday 9 June 2006

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’?

Masons in Distress!

Wednesday 31 May 2006

Firstly, I apologise for the dodgy links in the Centre Pompidou post. Apparently the French think it costs them bandwidth for you to keep looking at a page after it’s been downloaded into your cache, so the links to artworks in their online catalogue have all expired. You’ll have to go to the front page and find them yourselves. I bet they didn’t have these problems with Minitel.
Illness and travel are keeping updates sparse this week. In the meantime, here’s a recap of the past month’s reviews:
Tune in again next week to hear me complain about feeling my age.

Google search result #667 for “Dan Brown sucks”.

Saturday 27 May 2006

Lordi knows I don’t go off about Dan Brown nearly often enough, so what with The Da Vinci Code movie being out now so that people who don’t read can now see The Book Read By People Who Don’t Read without having to read it god I’m drunk.
Wait, I didn’t finish that last sentence. If you’re wondering what the fuss is about, Cassette Boy has thoughtfully abridged the audiobook of the novel for your enlightenment (MP3, 1 minute, 1.25 MB download). I think someone lifted it from the album Dead Horse, but that doesn’t explain why this track was on my hard drive.
Hosted by The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade! Exclamation Mark!

The ever-expanding six-monthly list, May 2006.

Saturday 27 May 2006

Yet another six months have passed, so it’s time to update the list of People Or Things I Have Been Mistaken For, Or Allegedly Physically Resemble, In Increasing Order Of Ridiculousness. Two more entries.

Filler by Proxy XXXIII: The World According to Google (Da Vinci Code Version)

Thursday 25 May 2006

Man is the measure of all things miserable: a visit to the Pompidou

Thursday 25 May 2006

Update: Most of the links below to artists in the Pompidou’s online catalogue no longer work, thanks to their website’s excessively paranoid cookies. You’ll have to go to the front page and find them yourselves.
The Centre Pompidou will kill you. There are two vast floors of exhibition space: one for the permanent collection and one for the visiting shows. Ten Euros gets you one admission to each floor, there are no passouts and the overpriced cafeteria is three floors below. The place will kill you.
Tate Modern has just completely reopened the rehanging of its permanent collection but I don’t expect to see the top floor this weekend, what with it being a bank holiday and the place jammed with punters last time I visited. It’s almost too popular for its own good. When I visited the Pompidou on my Paris trip the permanent collection was also about to be closed and re-hung. I hope the new layout is better than the one I saw.
Like the Tate Modern’s previous incarnation, the Pomp had its art arranged into themed rooms, only with an even more pedagogical and condescending atmosphere. The low points came early; right in the entrance rooms, in fact, with a mini-exhibition dealing with “the face and the human body”. Sticking someone in a room full of Francis Bacon and Bruce Nauman at the start of a long slog through a museum is just plain cruel.
To add insult, the rest of the rooms were filled with juxtapotions of breathtaking crassness, such as plonking a Giacometti sculpture in front of a set of Warhol silkscreens of Jackie Kennedy to show that – wow! – different artists depict people in different ways. (Beaubourg, you’re blowing my mind here!) The entire installation seemed to have been geared towards a class excursion of dimwitted high school kids. I’ve never experienced a more dispiriting or unwelcoming entry to an art museum.
Things didn’t get any better in the next room, despite it containing some prime examples of Pollock (Number 26A, Black and White) and Johns (Figure 5). I love these paintings, but the Pomp did them a disservice by labelling the room they were in “Chaos and Collapse” or something. It suggested the room had been curated by a particularly regressive tabloid editor, until you remembered that entrance room stuffed with bodies in various degrees of distortion and decay and you realised this whole show has been put together by one of those po-faced Germanic intellectuals who write weighty monographs on the existential terror inherent in the cinematic oeuvre of Fred Astaire.
After this unpromising start the subsequent rooms settled into dull and obvious arrangements by style and genre, which was an improvement. A room full of De Stijl – OK; a room full of white things – maybe; one room each for transparent and reflective artworks – what the hell? I can’t believe the Pompidou’s vaults didn’t contain artworks less deserving of exhibition than some of the clear or shiny gewgaws making up the numbers in their respective rooms.
One aspect of the hanging worked: without additional explanation, Picasso kept turning up in room after room throughout the gallery, fitting into whatever context was provided. A wordless demonstration of why Picasso is such a big deal.
There was a pitiless absence of benches throughout the museum. There was no gallery seating whatsoever in the permanent collection until about halfway through, when some stools and tables with catalogues attached appeared (oh boy, a study break!) Several benches are scattered through the latter stages of the exhibition, so this initial absence may have been contrived to stop punters pegging out too early, little realising how much floor space they still had to traverse. At any rate, it was designed to move bodies through the museum rather than allow the (ahem) more seasoned afficionados seek out and fully appreicate the particular artworks they had come to see. If you wanted to properly contemplate a big or difficult painting, or even watch a 15-minute Gordon Matta-Clark film, you had to do it standing up. Ouch.
The first proper bench appears about two thirds of the way into the collection, and it’s parked in front of an Ugly German Painting. At least they were gracious enough to allow benches for us to admire Matisse’s late, great decoupage La Tristesse du Roi. Even these curators couldn’t resist its charms.
* * *
First apparently perennial aspect of Pomp installations: side galleries stuffed with mounted books and magazines relevant to the artistic movements nearby. These exhibits trigger an initial rush of depression (the show comes with a reading list!), quickly followed by a certain perverse satisfaction, because two randomly-opened pages of Les Mots et Les Choses isn’t going to make any more sense to Francophones than to all the visitors who can’t read it.
Second apparently perennial aspect of Pomp installations: the museum still has a pervasive interest in architecture and urban planning – the old French dream of organising everybody (else’s) lives. A lot of architects’ work was on display, from a Louis Kahn maquette, to Constant’s wacky proto-situationist models, to a zillion or so megalomaniacal plans to Pave the Earth.
I tick another Gaudier-Brzeska off my list: Bird Swallowing a Fish.

That Donald Judd stack is really biffed about: did someone drop it, or did the Pomp get it cheap off the back of a truck?
Heh, a curator’s in-joke about an artist’s in-joke. The room of conceptual artists included works by Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, Art and Language, and Martin Creed. Creed was represented by a recording of his rock band Owada playing softly in the corner. If you waited around long enough you’ll hear the song in which Weiner, Kosuth, and AaL accuse each other of ripping off their ideas. WFMU used to have the whole album available for download, but it’s gone! Here are the lyrics for your limited edification.

Political music. No wait, come back!

Tuesday 23 May 2006

Percussionists have a rough time of it: they get lumped with all the musical odd jobs nobody else wants, or is allowed, to do. This can include appearing before a small audience wearing nothing but a pair of briefs and banging your head against a table. You can’t fake it: each thump on the table, or slap or scratch to your thighs and stomach, has to be sufficiently loud to carry through the hall at the loudness specified by the composer. It can’t help matters if you can hear someone in the third row nervously stifling giggles.
This was the task for percussionist Chris Brannick playing Frederic Rzewski’s Lost and Found at a concert in Rzewski’s honour at Blackheath Halls last Friday. Rzewski has often set spoken texts to music, but in Lost and Found the music has been stripped away, the performer stripped down, sitting alone at a table, tentatively recounting a story from military service in Vietnam. (The text is from a letter by Lieutenant Marion Kempner: I couldn’t find the letter online, but this one gives you a good idea of his scathing, cynical tone.)
The deliberate pacing, awkward pauses, his physical isolation at the far end the table, and his often violent movements created a sense of alienation matched by the bitter irony of the text. The music produced – voice, skin, table, chair – arose from the theatricality of the performance; and the theatre focused attention on the sounds produced by the performer.
This technique is analagous to Rzewski’s ability to unify the expression of his political beliefs with his musical talents, without one occluding the other. The term “political art” is usually applied as a derogatory term by all cultured people, and I avoided a performance of John Cage’s Song Books the following Monday precisely because the program promised the inclusion of “political compositions by students” (brrrrr!)
Cornelius Cardew is often held up as the example of the composer led astray by politics: radicalised in the 1960s, became a Maoist in the 1970s, renounced his bourgeois “avant-garde” compositions and dedicated himself to writing ersatz folk settings of Marxist-Leninist diatribes until his tragic death in 1981.
Cardew’s Mountains for bass clarinet was played before Lost and Found, a late work from 1977. It does have a poem by Mao appended to the score, but thankfully it is not read out for our edification. What politics may be found is worked into the music itself, the aspirational difficulties in the leaps and bounds of the melody, and its basis in Bach.
At the time, Cardew was working on studies of classical music with the People’s Cultural Association, and believed the best way to reach the working classes was through the more familiar forms of classicism, rather than “decadent” innovation and experiment. (On the other hand, Rzewski has said he unrepentantly aims much of his music at the concert-going middle and upper classes, who are in more need of radicalisation.) Mountains is an enjoyable and technically satisfying piece but, politically and musically, it falls far short of Cardew’s most ambitious work, The Great Learning, which involved large numbers of non-musicians performing in self-organising groups.
Cardew’s ideas about music in the 1960s grew to some extent out of Christian Wolff’s. Wolff understood that musicians playing together constitutes a form of social activity, and began writing pieces that took the social and political implications of this situation into account, allowing musicians a great deal of autonomy in deciding what to play and when to play it. Wolff’s music still tends to be discussed more than it is played, so it was good to hear one of his early works, Serenade for flute, clarinet and violin.
This is one of the pieces that first established Wolff’s reputation, before his more indeterminate works, being fully notated but restricting itself to just three notes*. The clever use of this restricted harmonic range showed how music can be beautiful and expressive by relying on the qualities of sounds for their own sakes, rather than in the context of grand melodies, dramatic key changes, etc. These days such ideas are taken for granted (except in music schools) and it sounds inoffensive enough, but it’s still a good effort considering he wrote it when he was 16. Smartarse.
On the up side for percussionists, they also get to do some of the most fun things in music, like hitting stuff (other than themselves). Black n’ Blues by Stephen Montague – who was in the audience along with Rzewski – was a shameless show-stealer, being that rarest of concert pieces, a “fun” piece that actually was fun. A pianist and Brannick alternated playing a fast, spasmodic blues riff with rhythmic assaults on several percussion instruments, various parts of the piano itself, and a large pillow filled with chalk dust.
When it was all over Rzewski leaned over to Montague and stage-whispered, “You should run for Congress, at least.”
Theatrical highlights: Chris Bannick braining himself, duh! Also, the members of the Continuum Ensemble playing Rzewski’s Pocket Symphony (a jolly nice piece of what Frank Zappa called “music music”) peering at each other through a thick cloud of dust created during the prior performance of Black ‘n Blues.
Overheard gossip in the foyer: Apparently Rzewski had never encountered a bass recorder before, and needed an explanation from the recorder player talking to him. Don’t get recorder players started on the lesser-known aspects of their noble but underappreciated profession!
Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: £2.80 for a plastic pint of Becks – yes, you could take it into the auditorium. Watch out for the bar staff, who sometimes had trouble keeping a grip on those cups when serving.

A writeup of the whole Rzewskifest is here.

* E, B, and F# if you’re curious.