Two things I forgot to mention about Riga

Wednesday 12 April 2006

I’m not good at list-based stuff, so here’s two things that got left off the “Signs that Latvia isn’t quite fully touristified yet” list.
You can get a cheap double room at a hotel for 17 Lats a night. “Double” as in two planky single beds, with a bathroom down the hall. And next to the bathroom, a toilet with a sign above it asking you not to put toilet paper in the toilet; instead, please use the little plastic rubbish bin sitting on the floor. Eww. When booking a hotel room, ask for a non-smoking room, and ask about their toilets.
Riga has the world’s slowest, clumsiest pickpockets. My travelling companion was walking past the train station when she lazily reached back and grabbed the wrist of an indeterminately-sexed teenager, whose hand was halfway into her bag and was awkwardly fumbling with the catch to get his/her pudgy mitt further inside. She/he stood gawping like a bunny in the headlights while my dear, sweet confidante pinned him/her/it to the wall and went through its pockets until satisfied that nothing had been taken. A friend/sibling/parent/guardian/other of the teen-thing stood by and watched without objection.

Advanced East London infiltration techniques, part 2: the Hard Sell

Wednesday 12 April 2006

This one only works if you’re a healthy-looking, unaccompanied male. Wait until nightfall, then stand in the middle of a street about 25 metres away from a busy shopping precinct. Whenever a female walking alone comes nearby, shout at them, “Please, I need help!” Try to sound really desperate. Don’t do this too often, or soon you’ll have more women than you can handle!

Whoops!

Sunday 2 April 2006

I got back from Paris OK, only to return home to find that someone* had changed the locks to The Bunker. Luckily, the laundrette down the road is open 24 hours. Posting will resume sometime, once I’m safely indoors again and my ISP finally admits I’m not online like they say I am.

* “That would be the landlord.” Thanks. Stop reading over my shoulder.

Goodbye again

Thursday 23 March 2006

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 Citro├źns 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 go to Riga

Thursday 23 March 2006

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.

London Field Guide

Wednesday 22 March 2006

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.

More about Guston

Wednesday 22 March 2006

Having gone off about Philip Guston the other day, here’s some more amusement: Guston Interactive! Put together by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for their Guston retrospective a couple of years ago.
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.

The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade

Tuesday 21 March 2006

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.
The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade!
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!
The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade!
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.
The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade!
Sorry, no music by Jeremy Bentham.

Looking at Philip Guston

Saturday 18 March 2006

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.

Problems again

Thursday 16 March 2006

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.”

Liveblogging the BBC radio coverage of the Melbourne Commonwealth Games opening ceremony

Wednesday 15 March 2006

  • 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.

UPDATE: Intersecting Lines gives a first-hand account of the festivities – more details, more accurate.

Have my ears gone insane?

Monday 13 March 2006

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‘s review 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.

Filler by Proxy XXXII: She Holds the Allen Key to My Heart

Sunday 12 March 2006

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.

“What did you do at Oxford?” “I bought a tie.”

Saturday 11 March 2006

By a strange coincidence, “Opium Den/RAF Whores” is my favourite Fall B-side.

Name your ironic, Pavement-type indie band

Saturday 11 March 2006

  • The Licensed Heroes
  • Sex Yacht Wiki