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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
indices to include January 2006.
(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
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
(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
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
Don’t a-you cry, Lordy little darlin’, I say girl
No-po’ child, I said a-right now
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!
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
Little darling do not let a little tear fall-a from your eye-hi-hi-hi-eye.
Wednesday 1 February 2006
“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.”
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.
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.
“Are you going to be long in there?” Dude, she’s in an instant photo booth – I think you can wait.
Over there –> on the sidebar. It’s a bit lo-fi for now but it’s a start. The index of names is also there.
The man seated next to me my first time at Tomsed was composing a message by the hunt and peck method. He pressed one letter on the keyboard, searched for the next, pressed that one, and so on. It was his one-fingered technique that attracted my attention, but when my eye alighted – not entirely accidentally – on his text, I caught my breath. The man was composing a 419 letter. A real-live scam artist sitting next to me. The words were as expected: “transfer”, “dear friend”, “deposited into your account forthwith.” So this was the origin of all that flotsam.
They don’t use your banking details, by the way. The idea behind the scam is to nickel-and-dime you on “unexpected” banking and legal fees to allegedly grease the wheels of Nigerian finance. You can find out more about the 419 scam, and some creative ways of dealing with it, here and especially here. Meet the person who actually got some money out of a Nigerian conman!