How to get ahead in London

Thursday 23 February 2006

There’s a shallow dent the size of a pound coin on the front left fender of my girlfriend’s new car. She’s just come inside from another session of squatting in front of the parking bay and glaring at the indentation with furrowed brows, scrutinising the bodywork for any other damage. She swears the dent wasn’t there when she bought it.
(Regular readers may have gathered the accurate impression that she is a woman who takes cars seriously. Personally I am agnostic, fitting the definition of a poet as someone who cannot drive.)
Of course, it is not really a new car – she did not track down the late and mysterious Mucho Maas of the home counties for a shiny new Kia. A friend of hers was leaving the country and needed to dispose of his slightly thrashed Fiat Brava in a hurry. He was doing a postdoctorate in Plymouth, and so had done his fair share of driving at high speed around blind corners on those hedge-lined, one-lane backroads that zigzag across Devon and Cornwall. He was more than happy to demonstrate his skills to us when we went to visit.
Plymouth’s claim to fame rests on the number of illustrious former inhabitants who made a point of leaving it. Apart from Drake sailing out to take on the Armada, and the pilgrims leaving to settle America, much of the civic bric-a-brac erected for public enlightenment proudly reminds you that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle briefly lived there. He hated the place, and moved away as soon as possible, but it seems Plymouth has to take what little celebrity it can get and be grateful.
More recent history has done nothing to increase Plymouth’s allure. The place was bombed flat in World War II by German planes returning from raids on Bristol jettisoning what remained of their payloads. Postwar rebuilding was done with all the style and quality for which modern Britain is famous around the world. Plymouth today is a small, ugly city of bad 1960s architecture, littered with unemployed men with bad haircuts and eating pasties, so for me it was just like coming home to Adelaide and taking a bus out to Elizabeth.
There are two big things in Plymouth’s favour: the excellent gin, and everyone there talks like a pirate. In Cornwall, every day is 19 September. We went around asking older guys for directions all day.
It was in Plymouth that I first experienced that venerable British culinary stalwart, the inedible meal. A harmless-looking Italian-type bistro served me a carbonara consisting of a pile of overcooked spaghetti half-submerged in a milky broth, disrupted by clumps of bright pink spam. I should have been warned off the place by the fact that they had one of those collections of signed and framed celebrity photographs on the wall, except in their case there was only one “celebrity”: Gus Honeybun.
We agreed our friend would drive the car up to London en route to the airport in a few weeks’ time, and drop it off at our place. This was harder to achieve than it seemed at the time we planned it. Everything went fine until he reached the outskirts of London, and then attempted to navigate his way from Slough to Hackney without a map. His success can be gauged from the diagrams below, accompanied by his text messages reporting his progress towards the Bunker. For your convenience, Jeremy Bentham’s location in Bloomsbury is marked as a reference point.


6.30 pm: in hamersmith cu in 1 hr


7.30 pm: wo6ps at heathrow xrong turn c u so6nish

9.00 pm: ic wembley stadiun am i close??
We thought it best to take a tube to meet him at Wembley. The drive back to the bunker started out simply enough along the North Circular Road, but ran into trouble when we made the turn south toward the bunker. One of the amazing things about London is how you can follow the streets, diligently alternating left turns with right turns to keep on some sort of tacking course toward your presumed destination, only to find yourself driving in the opposite direction past the landmark you left behind half an hour earlier.
“This is hopeless!” I yelled. I’m constructive like that.
Our driving friend sighed. “Looks like I’ll have to get the street directory out after all.”

The bastard had a street directory, but preferred to drive in circles around London for five hours rather than admit defeat and reach under the passenger seat for the A-Z. We had no choice to kill him once he got us back to the bunker at last.

Mind you, he could have achieved this without our help. At midnight, about an hour into the journey home, he exclaimed, “Aha! That’s why everybody’s been pointing and waving at me! I just thought all the drivers round here were really aggro.” He pressed a button on the dashboard and switched the headlights on.

Heavy Metal + Curling = HEARTS ON FIRE

Wednesday 22 February 2006

Curling r0XX0r d00d!!!!!! Hammerfall and the Swedish Women’s Curling Team rock the rinks. Genius.

Filler By Proxy XXXI: The Infamous London Records Chat Archive

Tuesday 21 February 2006

The masons have learned that different browsers treat alt tags and title tags differently when displaying images.

(Yes, the Masons are in distress again.) This is an old one and not pleasant reading, but it isn’t well represented on the web any more. Back in 1997 when corporations were pretty much clueless about the web, London Records (the American counterpart to Decca) launched their spiffy new classical music website, complete with a chat page:
We’ve included this area in the new site in response to the many requests for an on-line discussion forum. We hope that you will submit your comments and thoughts through the miracle of technology for others to absorb. Check back frequently as we’ll be refreshing this area with new topics.

Things started slowly in July and August, when most of the readers’ comments were about how lousy the London Records website was:

I have always held Decca/London in the highest regards for their recording quality, but the utter nonsense of this website greatly diminishes that reputation. This was truly a waste of my time.

By the end of August visitors were losing patience with the lack of updates and responses from anyone connected to the record label:

SO LONDON RECORDS THIS SITE IS SHIT AND MEANINGLESS. WAKE UP YOU BORING OLD FART OF A RECORD COMPANY… DO YOU HEAR ME!!!!!!!!@#@#$@#$$#@%

This message stayed up on the webpage for everyone to see. Finally, in September, Sir Georg Solti, one of the label’s greatest recording stars, died. Not a word from the London Records website, who contendly continued to list his forthcoming tour dates. And the floodgates opened. A message signed by Albert Imperato, head of London’s parent company Polygram, appeared on the chat page:

Hi there, this is Al, head of Polygram USA. Do you losers really think we care about your complaints? Shit, all of the money you chuckleheads spend on this classical crap would hardly buy me a noseful of decent blow. We’ll update this site if and when we fucking well feel like it, and I can tell you right now that it won’t be soon enough for you little crybabies. Why don’t you just stroke your little cocks if that’s all you want. As for Sholti, big fucking deal! I met him once and he blew me off, the arrogant bastard. Who cares about him now that he’s dead? Nobody at the New York office, that’s who!

For the next two months the page became a gratuitously offensive haven where, as Al himself put it, “potential customers have been asking their innocent questions for weeks, while persons sporting the names of top Polygram USA officers have been answering them with foul language, racial and sexual abuse, bad spelling and bad grammar! And that this has been happening on a server owned by Polygram itself.”

Eventually, the entire London Records website was taken down… except for the chat page.
Of COURSE it’s for real, you drop of piss from an old queen’s underpants. Look at the fucking URL if you don’t believe me. This is actually the server owned by Polygram Records, and this is all that’s left of the official London Records page. I am Albert Imperato, and while my title is Vice President of Deutsche Grammophon in the U.S. I am the guy in charge of marketing. I was given this job by my godfather (don’t laugh or I’ll have your eyes in a shotglass) after my cousin Cenzo screwed me out of some of the more lucrative family business out west… If I don’t start getting some RESPETTO I’m going to wipe some Clifford Curzon master tapes, and I mean wipe them on my ass after a prolonged shit. So enough of the stupid questions, and if you don’t like it you can fuck a donkey for all I care!

The almost-complete page has been archived, which, as I said, is not pretty reading but a good way to kill time if you like your trainwrecks long, slow, and laden with filth and invective.

London Records’ classical branch was closed down soon afterward. Polygram’s old web addresses now point to Universal Music Group; their classical site, iClassics, has a link to Sir Georg Solti on its front page.

But when barrel-scraping stage musicals became known to more and more people, the demands to do something about Ben Elton became louder and louder…

Sunday 19 February 2006

So it’s come to this. Lord knows there’s enough crappy musicals plaguing the surfeit of fleapit theatres that infest London’s west end. Not content with Abba tribute shows, Queen tribute shows, Billy Joel tribute shows, and Joe Dolce tribute shows, the West End is racing to the bottom in a desperate bid to take more money from dazed tourists still punchdrunk from the currency exchange rate. I spotted this down the pub:

At first I thought, “Wow, two hours of Eagle Rock played over and over”, but then I noticed the tiny print below the big title and my heart sank. Apparently it tells the story of a young man who hangs out with Rasputin, Ma Ba(r)ker, Ross Wilson and baby Jesus. Please note that it says “love and music”, not “love of music.”
Previews start on 26 April, so hurry! Australians will eat this shit up too. Americans are less likely to get it (in more than one sense).
Worse still, it’s not just Boney M but other bands created by musical genius Frank Farian – this includes Milli Vanilli. Yes, the little blue flyer promises that punters will get to “Girl You Know It’s True”, but doesn’t mention that for the first time ever, you will actually see someone really sing it. Although this is true of all the blokey bits in Boney M’s oeuvre as well.
It’s worth reading the interview with Farian about the show, if only for the choice quote, “I can’t make a comedy, it doesn’t go with our songs.” More importantly, it reveals the Boney M no-one remembers, such as their mid-80s attempt at prog-rock, and the long lost TV special…

which Farian says was called Boney M Lost the M. “What was the plot of that?” He shakes his head. “The story was Boney M lost the M. It was a very low-budget film.”

Think about it: it failed to meet Frank Farian’s standards. I need to see this.

Come round to my place for a look through my holiday slides

Wednesday 15 February 2006

I didn’t get very far in telling about my trip to Spain; about as far as the car rental office, in fact. Now that conditions at home have settled into a sub-Melburnian level of greyness, I guess it’s time to get back to remembering warmer weather abroad.
As I was saying, we were up in the Cerdanya, straddling the French/Spanish border, staying in cabins in a camping ground in Estavar – a tiny village on the French side – along with a gaggle of other Australians who had congregated for the wedding. The bride was from Melbourne and had done her best to ensure her side of the church would be well populated. The greatest effort made to attend was by Trevor, who was acting as father of the bride. He came to Estavar by train, which was a good test of character considering that the train didn’t stop at Estavar, the station having been closed and converted into someone’s house ten years ago, and that Trevor didn’t speak French. He was duly found waiting outside the former station, on time.
After several months confined to central London it was good to be out in the countryside again, listening to the peaceful sounds of country life: the wind in the trees, the nearby creek, the bleeping of everyone’s mobile phones as they switched back and forth between the French and Spanish services whenever they were moved more than 10 metres in any direction.
The groom’s family is Catalonian, so the wedding took place over on the Spanish side of the border, the next village down the road. Actually it was two villages down the road: the family didn’t like the priest in the first village. So we ended up in the church of Santa Maria de Talló, a 12th century landmark perched above a village called Bellver, despite the efforts of the group in the bus who were supposed to be leading us. They decided they couldn’t wait an extra thirty seconds for us to fasten our seatbelts and took off without us, leaving our car to find its own way there via a lengthy detour following a very similar looking bus that was contentedly trundling to Andorra.
The church was one of those very Spanish-looking buildings, an unadorned vault of bare stones, with only the altarpiece as ornamentation.
The service was conducted in Catalan, except for a couple of English readings in Australian accents. Various musicians from round the area were stationed in the church alcoves, accompanying the groom’s dad who led the small choir through enthusiastic versions of some hymns, Catalonian folk songs, and a Bob Marley number that careened into chaos after the local singers ran into disagreements over the scansion of Jamaican English along the way. A didgeridu popped up without explanation in one song.
It didn’t occur to me that this was the first time I’d been at a Catholic religious ceremony until I wondered why some people in the congregation were walking up to the altar to take communion, something I’d never seen for myself. Apart from the bride and groom, only the locals joined in, although I suspect this was because the Anglophones didn’t realise what was happening until too late.
(In fact, I’d been to the start of a Catholic ceremony once before, by accident. A few years ago I went to Venice and, because Ezra Pound wrote about it, was inspecting the Romanesque church of Santa Fosca on Torcello when a christening suddenly broke out. They all started singing the only hymn I know the tune to, so I found a pew up the back and joined in for a bit before quietly slipping outside without anyone noticing.)
I have many photographs of red-faced, smiling women in elaborate frocks, huddled in small groups outside the church, wearing sunglasses and looking weepy.
The reception was in Llívia, the Spanish enclave halfway between Bellver and Estavar, and celebrated in a traditional Spanish orgy of alcohol, tobacco and meat. Sometime after coffee the choir, still seated round the table, were led by the groom’s dad into a second crack at the Bob Marley. This second rendition was much improved by rehearsal and cava, and followed by an impressive attempt at “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. There’s nothing like an African-American spiritual sung by a bunch of Catalonians who learned it from Scouse football fans.
The bride graciously mingled with the guests, hobbling around on her dud leg from a moped accident some months earlier, the groom handed out the time-honoured gifts of cigars (Partagas) for the guys, and packs of Camels for the girls. My table companion, who had flown over from Melbourne with her complete extended family, had lied to her parents about quitting smoking and was thus in need of many “toilet breaks” throughout the day. She dragged me along for company, standing outside the smoke-filled building, away from any inquisitive relatives, where we’d smoke and look across at France, over in the next paddock.
My girlfriend, meanwhile, had fallen in with the bride’s ex-girlfriend and some of her mates. The ex had given a lovely reading from The Song of Solomon earlier in the church, and it turned out that Trevor was her dad.
“I turned the bride!” She raised her glass in a toast to her own prowess.
“How come she just got married then?” her new girlfriend scoffed.
“She kept turning. Bitch pulled a 360 on me.”
My own girlfriend, not exactly drunk, offered them a lift back to the camp; which they accepted enthusiastically until they got inside the car. “What is that smell?” they asked, sensing the presence of the half-eaten goat’s cheese and xorico we had stashed in the glovebox since yesterday morning. We rolled down the windows and set off home.
Unfortunately, even in a small town like Llívia we managed to make a wrong turn and get lost. When we saw a sign pointing to the “town centre”, Australians that we were, we dashed towards it, forgetting that it would be a medieval maze of twisting, narrow, cobbled laneways. Our driver, emboldened by having clipped someone’s rearview mirror in a backstreet in Barcelona without marking the rentacar’s duco, refused to slow down and I can only compliment her agility in avoiding scraping walls, bottoming out or killing two or three very surprised-looking families discovered on their Saturday evening promenades around blind corners in the street.
“Why aren’t you all in bed yet?” she yelled out the window as we hurtled past. We finally found the main road out of town again, but not before dissuading her from taking a short cut across the village placa and down a small flight of steps.

Sport, drinking: two things you grow to wish you weren’t so good at

Monday 13 February 2006

England is a relatively cold country which gets snowed on regularly. Australia is relatively hot and 99% of the population must travel if they are to see snow at all.
England (although reluctant to admit it) is part of Europe, birthplace of all Olympic winter sports. Australia is about as far away from Europe as you can get without leaving orbit, and has no representation in most Olympic winter sports.
British TV has started showing winter Olympics events from Turin without much fanfare on the BBC digital channels. I have heard no speculation in the media about any British medal prospects. Australian network TV has been, based on past experience, heavily promoting its round-the-clock Olympics coverage for weeks in advance. There will be detailed evaluation of Australia’s slim hopes of fluking another gold medal, which is regarded as a genuine achievement rather than a humorous anomaly.
The returning Australian atheletes will get a parade. The returning British atheletes will not, but anyone winning a gold medal will get an MBE. Even with an MBE, the British will have lower expectations of being taken seriously than the Australians.
The BBC is runing ads explaining to people what a luge is. Australians have known what a luge is for years and spent the past week debating Zoeggeler’s chances of winning.
However, Scottish TV will still skip episodes of The Sopranos to show the local curling playoffs instead.
I hope I’m starting to sound more like an expatriate but really, I’m only in it for the babes.

And then I’ll take the Million Little Pieces and I’ll jump on them until, until you’ve had enough!

Thursday 9 February 2006

It’s getting late, but having first stumbled across that wonderful review all those months ago, it seems fair to give some room for John Dolan at The Exile to gloat over finally being vindicated about A Million Pieces of Shit, and to taunt the senders of hate-mail one more time:
These readers actually consider themselves noble savages, whose responses are all the purer because they haven’t sullied themselves with books. That fraud is a perfect complement to Frey’s: he pretends to be a scarred veteran and they pretend to be cultural virgins, rather than thrashed sluts who’ve been fucked a million times by every after-school special, every Brian’s Song death-porn tearjerker, and can’t imagine anything better.

And so he continues in his customary fashion. The whole affair has reminded me of the antics of those phony psychics, who trot out the same hokey old magic tricks (table-tapping, spoon-bending) but can’t pull them off well enough to entertain an audience. So they lie; they pretend it’s real, attracting an eager audience who needs something to believe in. It never ends well for the deceived.

How Bad is British Coffee? Part 2.

Thursday 9 February 2006

There is a new girl working at the cafe where I get my morning coffee. She keeps asking if I want any ice in it.
P.S. The site feeds are fixed. I don’t know what they do but people seem to like them.

“Gert Northrup was kind of a weird looking specimen, the other girls thought.”*

Wednesday 8 February 2006

Some months ago, can’t remember where, I was reading a discussion about opening sentences of novels. Just recently, the American Review of Books, as periodicals highbrow and lowbrow alike are wont to do, published a list: “100 Best First Lines from Novels“. An entertaining rumination on said list can be found at Jenny Davidson’s blog Light Reading.
As she and her commenters have observed, a lot of it reads like someone mistook “great first lines” for “first sentences from great books” – Pynchon is dandy and all, but the two examples on the list don’t show it. She also wonders about “the weird attempt to represent a handful of foreign-language titles.. It just draws attention to the English-language-ness of the list as a whole.” Not just English, but the list is heavily over-represented by OK American writers of the past 50 years or so. As I suppose one should expect: given the place of publication, it was kind of the editors to shunt aside Booth Tarkington to make room for an Orwell or a Greene (but not a Green).
Whoever decided on the list is obviously still beholden to their teenage sensibilities: I can understand that sentence from Catcher in the Rye getting the nod, but The Bell Jar? Light Reading accurately summarises it as “an interesting & a historically important rather than actually a great novel”, but even though we’re talking first lines here Plath doesn’t cut it. I can’t get excited about that opener for Catch 22 either.
There’s a lot of box-ticking (Morrison, Hurston, Walker: the only three black, female novelists ever in the history of the universe). I haven’t read a line of Zadie Smith but I know she would be a dead cert to score an entry on a British-made list. Unfortunately, so would Nick Hornby. Someone at the ARB obviously calculated how many of their subscriptions would be cancelled if they didn’t pretend there was a single line of Margaret Atwood that persists in the memory (except maybe that one about it being the same as someone sticking their finger in your ear, in… uh, Life Before Man?)
If you want to make an impression, it helps to drop death into your opening gambit: I made a conservative count of ten deaths, not counting boars, TV channels and annihilated ants.
The pleasant surprises are the acknowledgement of the existences of Walter Abish and David Markson, and that the US Congress has apparently repealed the legislation that once stipulated the American literary establishment must blow Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe at every available opportunity, appropriate or otherwise.
I’m still missing my library, which has yet to arrive in England, so I can’t unearth any neglected gems right now. The great opening sentence that has lodged most firmly in my head comes from Ann Quin’s first novel, Berg:
A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father.

The book proceeds to twist every Freudian implication of this sentence into a perverse Gordian knot. Quin lived and died the wrong side of the Atlantic to make the list.

Oh, and they included Bulwer-Lytton**? Someone’s taking the piss.

* I’m quoting from memory, so this is probably wrong. Besides, it’s the first line from a short story, not a novel: from Robert McAlmon’s A Hasty Bunch. That David Foster Wallace thing the ARB includes reads like a pale imitation.

** Even though he unwittingly inspired the first line of The Name of the Rose, via Snoopy.

It’s all too beautiful! Another post about toilets.

Monday 6 February 2006

Last week the bunker’s toilet developed an endearing quirk which is apparently here to stay. When it flushes, the pipes make this ultra-60s swirly psychedelic flanging noise. Groovy! I have the Itchycoo Park of toilets!
I was going to make an MP3 of my toilet for you to download and enjoy, but there was a technical problem during the recording session. Does anyone have advice on the best way to dry out a microphone?

Guess who installed Firefox this week?

Friday 3 February 2006

Like fashionable bars and bistros in Melbourne, this site has just been completely renovated in ways that you probably won’t notice. Unless you use a certain type of browser, in which case the layout is no longer hopelessly broken. I guess that’s what happens when you design a website by nailing together half each from two Blogger templates. Minor tweaks will doubtlessly ensue over the next week or so.
Also, I remembered to update the name and subject indices to include January 2006.

Filler by Proxy XXX: Billy Stewart sings ‘Summertime’

Friday 3 February 2006

B-rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!
Up-jump-jump
Chuka-chuka-jump-jump
H’uh! Jump!
(horns & instrumental begin)
A-summertime an the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumping
Don’t ya know my darlin’?
I-I said, a-right now
An a-cotton is high
Laka-laka-laka yo old daddy is rich, so damn rich, girl-a
An a-yo mommy’s good looking, yeah-ay
So, a-hush pretty little, baby
Don’t a, a-you cry
One-a-these, a-one-a-these a-one-a-these mornin’s come up, early
Ya gonna rise, ya gonna rise up, singin’
Then you spread yo little wings
Yo little wings
An-a take to the sky-la-la-la-lie
B-rrrrrrrrrrrrrr
Until a-that mornin’, you’re a free maid
There’s a-nothin’ a-gon’ harm you, girl
With a ‘dombie’, an a-daddy standin’ by
Yeah, blues!
(sax & instrumental)
Come a little la-a-a-ate
Payin’ up the dues
Give you the blues
I know my little darlin’ I love you, so
An a-never gonna let you go
Lord!
La, la-la-lie
Tell-a lie, tell-a-lie, another lie, another lie, another lie, another lie
Say, pretty baby
Cannot save the day yet, girl
Hush, pretty little bab, don’t wanna have you cry
Hush! Shush!
Don’t a-you cry, Lordy little darlin’, I say girl
No-po’ child, I said a-right now
A-listen, baby
I don’t, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t want you to die
Don’t-a, pretty baby child
A-don’t let-a tear, don’t let a tear
Fall from yo eyes!
Hey!
All that mama do to please you-ooo’
Cause she paid her dues with blues
Baby child, I said a-right now
Don’t let a tear, don’t let a tear, don’t let a tear
Baby doll, I said fall down a-from yo eyes
So hush, pretty baby
D’oh-whoa, oh-whoa oh-whoa, oh-whoa oh-whoa, oh-whoa, oh-whoa-ooooooh-n’t
You-ooo-ooo!
Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!
Up-jump-jump
Chuka-jump-jump
Little darling do not let a little tear fall-a from your eye-hi-hi-hi-eye.
(‘Whoa!’)

Great moments in museum curation, part 2

Wednesday 1 February 2006

It can’t be much fun running a museum these days. One day, you lose a 38-ton sculpture. The next, overambitious junkies are lifting your Henry Moores for scrap. And the day after that, just when you wonder what else could possibly go wrong, a visitor trips over his shoelaces.
“It was a most unfortunate and regrettable accident but we are glad that the visitor involved was able to leave the museum unharmed.”

Conservators are now evaluating how much of the ensuing destruction can be repaired.
“They are in very, very small pieces, but we are determined to put them back together.”

Hurry! Only 33,113 weeks remaining.

Monday 30 January 2006

Having some years ago decided that the best way to cope with existence is to embrace my flaws as though they were endearing character traits, it follows that it is a point of pride for this blog to be always behind the times to a greater or lesser extent. I don’t think it matters being a few weeks late getting the news in this case, that the a new chord in the performance of John Cage’s Organ²/ASLSP in St Buchardi church in Halberstadt began on 5 January.
The piece began on 5 September 2001, but the first note wasn’t heard until 18 months later – the piece begins with a pause. The chord now playing now will end on 5 July 2012. Book tickets now.
Typically, a performance of Organ²/ASLSP as Cage wrote it would last only 20 minutes or so, but someone’s gotten the idea of taking the performance instruction “as slowly and softly as possible” very literally and come up with a rendition that will take 639 years. It beats me why this amount of time represents the ultimate in slowness and that someone couldn’t milk an extra fortnight or so out of the ending shows up the fatuousness of the enterprise.
At least they’ve beaten the Long Now people into actually starting a project designed to make people consider extra-human dimensions of time. The most tanglible products of their Millennium Clock project so far have been $100 pine cones and commemorative bottles of wine – presumably good for cellaring, but not quite enough to lift minds above everyday, material concerns.
What I don’t like is that they’ve attached John Cage’s name to it, enforcing Cage’s undeserved reputation as a conceptual artist whose ideas are more interesting than his music. Specifically, it is highly unlikely that Cage (who died in 1992) wrote the piece for anything other than a human performer, with an audience throughout. Generally, contrary to the claims of his detractors and some of his supporters, he was the least conceptual of composers, whose compositional ideas were always subservient to, and philosophically detached from, the resulting music. His later music was carefully written to avoid the need to be “understood”. More than any composer he wrote music to be heard without recourse to external ideas, whether cultural, literary, or theoretical. No “idea of America” here. His aim was always to make you hear, not make you think. Unlike many artists, he’d trust you to think for yourself.
An 600 year piece, which in practice cannot be heard, is at odds with everything Cage wrote. Worse still, it devalues the true beauty and importance to be found in Cage’s music, instead promoting Cage-the-personality as some blue-sky empty vessel that can hold any wacky idea that happens along. They may as well use that church organ for the next 600 years to perform a piece of Bach, who was pretty loose himself with tempo markings on his manuscripts. It would be a travesty of Bach’s music, but no less than this performance of Cage’s. But then, these supposed followers of Cage are OK with turning out a poor, wrong-headed misrepresentation of his music for the sake of their own clever thoughts.
In case you were wondering, the keys are held down with weights; they don’t have a relay team of organists pressing the things round the clock, which is a pity. I would have preferred a guy (possibly Rolf Hind) in a Keith Emerson cape storm into the church every few years and jam a knife into the keyboard, but I guess that’s why I don’t get grant money for this sort of thing.

Carter, gotten. Note the sense of ambivalence throughout.

Saturday 28 January 2006

Elliott Carter is one of the few composers to have reached the exalted status of being widely and generally respected amongst a cognoscenti who nonetheless have few qualms about ripping into him whenever the opportunity arises.

Contrary to his forbidding reputation, his success can be attributed to the ease with which anyone can summarise his life and work: he is very old, and his music is very complex. Fortunately for his career, his long life has not resulted in an unmanageably large oeuvre, thanks to a slow work rate and to being a relatively late bloomer – all his music written before he turned 40 being largely, and deservedly, forgotten. Still working at a steady pace despite being in his 98th year, he has the rare privilege of attending his own funeral obsequies. You too may be apprieciated in your lifetime if you stick it out for a century or so.

Every American article I’ve read about about Carter observes that he is much more popular in Europe than at home, an idea reinforced by the festival thrown for his benefit at the Barbican, featuring a series of concerts the promoters titled Get Carter (ha! English humour.) Sadly, Michael Caine (or even Sylvester Stallone) was not on hand to punch on with the nonagerian composer in the car park afterward. I can’t wait until they stage a series dedicated to Luciano Berio called The Italian Job (“Sinfonia: It’ll blow the bloody doors off!”)

The complexity of Carter’s music (assigning each instrument unique musical characteristics, so that you hear a collection of individuals each with their own, distinct melodies, rhythms and harmonic traits) has earned him a reputation for weighty intellectualism; a reputation assisted by the music’s obscurantism. You can be complex and lucid, but in Carter you won’t hear any readily definable cross-rhythms or harmonic interplay – his string quartets come closest to achieving this. It’s hard to come away from any Carter performance remembering anything about the music in particular, other than the sense of an overwhelming rush of details.

Many of his fans (like me, to a certain extent) doubtless keep coming back to his music to get lost in its intricacy, but many critics and academics have seized upon the obvious difficulty of the music – writing, playing, and listening to it – as grounds to build him up into a Beethoven-like hero to whom all must defer. It’s a very old-fashioned, romantic idea that has paralysed the art-music establishment for decades, that there must always be a central authority figure to which musicians of all persuasions must aspire, or else be cast into darkness. Carter fits the role far too well, logistically and aesthetically dependent upon the classical music infrastructure to produce work that in turn supports stolid careers in academia. To many in music circles less obsessed with dead white men, Carter is a figure to be ignored or scorned.

For all the profundity attributed to this complexity, I can’t think of a magnum opus of sufficient depth to satisfy the reputation his supporters have saddled him with. Most of Carter’s major compositions seek equal status, to a greater or lesser degree, as works of entertainment, of compositional and musical virtuosity: qualities traditionally found as ends in themselves in the form of the concerto. Carter has shown a clear preference for writing concertos (I can think of 9 off the top of my head) but has avoided the charge of superficiality that critics habitually ascribe to the form. Claims of greater philosophical import in Carter’s work are invariably external to the music itself, and tend to age badly: their awkward appeals to intellectual concerns of the day come across in retrospect as calculated assertions of seriousness. The program notes to the Double Concerto for Piano, Harpsichord and Two Chamber Orchestras (1961) burdened the piece with ponderous musings on quantum physics and nuclear proliferation. One review described the piece as “a tempestuous, multifaceted dialogue” – an expression which applies equally to everything Carter has written. It’s an exemplary display of his style, a constantly shifting scene of roiling activity between the soloists and their orchestral counterparts, complete with several BBC Symphony Orchestra musicians almost losing their way at several critical points to add interest.

Stripped of its pseudopolitical baggage it’s a heavy slab of neo-baroque, in its steady flow of dense ornamentation and the curiously static way in which it spins its wheels for 20-odd minutes to no greater effect. The inclusion of a harpsichord telegraphs this intention all too well; even though, for the sake of the idea against musical realities, the discreet instrument has to be amplified to be heard above the piano and orchestra. It was miked up in a way that made it sound flat and ugly, but I’d rather hear this concerto than A L’Île de Gorée.

The Symphony for Three Orchestras (1976) again relies on a putatively philosophical theme, portraying “the idea of America” – note the year of composition and envision how artists must ingratiate themselves to their patrons. It also claims inspiration from another literary figure safely considered OK for the time, Hart Crane (try announcing your creative debt to William Burroughs and see how far you get with an orchestra).

It’s an enjoyably teeming and expansive work , evidently drawing from Charles Ives’ visions of America as a boundless horizon of rough-hewn wildness, right down to the searching trumpet solo at the opening. However, in Carter’s hands this style becomes most more restrained, particularly in this performance, flattening everything with a modesty and self-conscious tastefulness many Australian composers seek to emulate. The same review I quoted before reckons the brass sections in this piece “suggested discomfort and anxiety“, which is an achievement for modernist art music on a par with alt-rockers making teenagers depressed. Again, staging considerations kept the multiplicty of orchestras conceptual more than spatial.

The later works, 1989′s Oboe Concerto and 1996′s Clarinet Concerto, presented Carter at a point in his career where he no longer has to justify himself and can write music without burying it under a welter of complications and portentous earnestness, knowing that critics will handle the intellectual content for him. In both pieces Carter allows his more natural showbiz tendencies to the foreground, with the music more yielding and persuasive to the listener. Both works sounded better in these performances than I’d previously heard them, possibly because the BBCSO was happy to let the percussionists go crazy and dominate procedings, making Carter sound more out-there than his defenders normally allow.

The Clarinet Conerto in particular, with the soloist wandering around the stage to ally himself with one instrumental group, was much more fun than both Carter’s apologists and detractors would admit. The Oboe Concerto, which in recordings sounded a typically worthy, brow-furrowing piece, came across as a much more endearing work in this performance, sustaining a plaintive mood throughout its restive changes. It’s interesting how the punters for both works knew immeidately when each piece had finished and confidently burst into applause as soon as the final note was sounded.

One thing that’s sunk in about audience behaviour in London: the Brits love their musicians. No matter how strong or weak their applause for a piece, they’ll always give a bit extra for the soloists who play them. I suppose it’s the same rule pavement artists live by, knowing that their reward comes from graft seen to be done, rather than the result of their efforts.

Carter himself, in attendance at the concerts, got a standing ovation as you would hope, having dragged his 97-year old frame across the Atlantic for the event. The applause was prolonged, warm, appreciative, and notably lacking in the excitement and enthusiasm generated by the best performances at the Xenakis concerts last year. This may have been due in part to the audience being older on average, and more sedate, with the younger people seeming mostly to be music students – the foyer had a very academic air. It may have also been due to Xenakis being the type of composer who, unlike Carter, will never make you think twice about staying home after all to watch darts on the telly.

Theatrical highlights: Enter Carter, stage right, a factotum for support. During the Double Concerto: Oliver Knussen simultaneously conducting a different metre with each hand for the two orchestras, with as much delicacy and decorum as possible. Ian Brown* getting visibly lost in his piano part during the same concerto, briefly flicking the pages back and forth before figuring out where the hell the orchestra were.

Overheard gossip in the foyer: Sitting by the toilets after the concert, a Chinese-American composition graduate lining up a commission from a London orchestra. The orchestra guy asks him what he thought of the concert. “Uh… exhilarating,” he answers carefully. This is why so many composers resent Carter: he’s such a blue-chip authority figure in academia that if you let slip to the wrong person that you’re not so keen on his work, you can wave your career bye-bye. It’s almost as certain a kiss of death as admitting to liking John Cage.

Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: Stubbies only. Kronenbourg, San Miguel or Stella (“the wife beater’s beer” – take note, Australians with pretensions) Artois – £3.10 a pop.

 

* No, not that bloke from The Stone Roses, I mean someone you wouldn’t expect to get lost.