Tuesday, 24 August 2010

GLASS ON THE BEACH 2: KOYAANISQATSI


For Part One click here.

...and indeed the next night Philip Glass did return, this time to perform live his score to Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 “non-narrative, non-linear audio-visual tone poem” film ’Koyaanisqatsi’.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this time around the night was a sell-out, for this shortly became the equivalent of a ‘hit’ in Glass’ circles.

It’s the popular face of minimalism precisely because it isn’t really minimalist at all. From the off, a deep baritone voice appears and indicates that things are now going to be different. If ’Music in 12 Parts’ had an accompanying film it would home in, magnify to a microcosmic view, perhaps show cells dividing and multiplying. ’Koyaanisqatsi’,  significantly, starts with a commanding view over a landscape. It owes just as much to the conventions of symphonic movements, containing not just dynamics but even bombast and swoop. The music is divided into sections where themes even develop - all anathema to any pure-of-heart minimalist!

I must confess I used to hold a beef about all that. I once considered Glass the Neil Gaiman of minimalism, parading its unique features whilst simultaneously watering them down for public consumption. Nowadays, even if I still prefer Reich or Bryars, I prefer to appreciate what I’m getting rather than worry about it not being something else. And sometimes the hit is simply the thing everyone likes because it works so well.

Glass sums this up himself by describing the piece as ‘post-minimalist’. An eternally minimalist Glass would have laboured forever under Reich’s shadow. As things stand, he decided to go beyond minimalism – and created something characterful in its own right. Famously the film’s title is a Hopi Indian word meaning “life out of balance.” Yet the work itself is very in balance!

It’s interesting to note the parallel move away from pure minimalism and into film scores, soon followed by plays and operas. (Though from his early days, Glass was inspired by film and visual art as much as by music. There’s an anecdote of him visiting Paris but taking more to Godard’s movies than Boulez’s music.) So perhaps the extent of the collaborative nature of the production is unsurprising, with the film not put to the music or vice versa, but emerging through cross-fertilisation between the two creators. With film soundtracks, or even pop videos, you always feel one element is dominant. The music is being put to the visuals or (more rarely) the other way around. Not here.

Instead we’re shown a different perspective in quite a literal sense. The film shows things from every perspective apart from the ones we’re used to, great distances or extreme close ups, fast or slow motion. One shot, lasting more than three minutes, shows nothing but planes taxi-ing on a runway. (It’s an interesting effect that we don’t separate these different perspectives much in our minds, but accept them for what they're not - our normal perspective on the world.)

Reggio has said “"it is up [to] the viewer to take for himself/herself what it is that [the film] means." But this is a rather disingenuous description of a work clearly quite polemical in intent. A less-cited translation of the title word, though one the film itself spells out, is “a state of life which calls for another way of being.”

Early sections show life on Earth pre-existing us. We’re then shown technology before we are any people, as if we have become in some way ancillary to it. The first human figure we see is dwarfed by a giant mining truck. The later city scenes show us crowds as if we are rats in a maze of our own making. One scene shows revolving doors, seen from above and placed at the top of the screen, disgorging human figures like the production lines we’ve witnessed earlier. The film has a semi-pallendromic structure, finishing where it begins, as if advocating a return to nature.

There’s perhaps two key images. In one, a voluminous full moon falls behind a skyscraper. In another, as one of the semi-pallendromic scenes, a space rocket takes off – but burns up, and falls back to earth. We attempt to ignore the nature we live off, but do so at our peril.  In fact I have sometimes wondered if it’s only the absence of words which stops the film tipping into hippy techno-fear.

However, an interesting aspect of the work is the way technology is presented not as evil or destructive so much as bewitching. This is especially noticeable with Glass’ score, which does not reflect the usual militaristic clich├ęs of ‘environmental destruction’ or the sugary laments of ‘urban decay’ - but is as compelling for the nature scenes as the cityscapes. Perhaps a more generous reading could be made; where what’s being argued is that our relationship with technology cannot be one of simple utility, that the technology we create must reflect us and be emblematic of our relations with the world we live in.

You can see the whole film on Google Video (below), avoiding the stop-start irritation of YouTube clips. Though of course a fullsize cinema screen with a live ensemble is  not just the optimal but the intended way to see this. I’ll leave the choice to you...


Coming Soon! Something...honest injun!.. a little more recent.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

GLASS ON THE BEACH 1: MUSIC IN 12 PARTS


This one has to start with a double apology! This performance happened at Brighton Dome, actually several streets away from the beach. But the title allows me to pun on Glass’s later ’Einstein on the Beach’. And this is being published even later than the previous Eno post! For it was during the Brighton Festival, way back in May, that the man himself appeared in Brighton to perform his ‘classic’ minimalist work.

Though I love the music, I’ve often thought minimalism to be a misleading term. While it is reductive, it doesn’t follow that it is sparse or austere – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. As Festival curator Brian Eno has said of Glass, “this was actually the most detailed music I’d ever heard. It was all intricately exotic harmonies.”

Okay, four hours of music making only minute and at times imperceptible changes isn’t everybody’s idea of a great night out – at least judging by the number of empty seats. However the duration isn’t there for any self-important or bombastic reasons, like it might be in a symphony. Listening to symphonies is like watching epic films, they rely upon us accessing our memories to discern an overall structure behind the immediate notes. When a musical phrase recurs it’s like a subplot reappearing in a film, it would be meaningless if we did not slot it into place.

Minimalism uses duration in precisely the opposite way, creating an arch so vast you end up failing to notice it it, instead living in the moment. We might recognise a recurring phrase, but we don’t pin it to a previous point and note that is now coming back in fifteen minutes later. Instead phases recur with a peculiar familiarity, like in a half-remembered dream. Eno’s concept of surrender is vital here!

It’s a bit like finding strangely shaped pebbles washed up on the beach. (I told you we’d get to the beach!) In theory you know of the huge and slow geological processes that shaped and formed them. But you don’t really process this vast knowledge. Instead your eye darts from one enticing pebble to the next. Or, in another analogy, minimalism is like the ‘swept bag’ scene in ’American Beauty.’ At first it seems that there is nothing to see. But focus in and the scene becomes compelling.


It’s precisely this lack of variation, and the necessary focusing in on smaller and smaller details, that makes it mesmerising. You lose all perception of the passage of time, and the music instead takes place in an eternal present. (Perhaps for this reason the performance was no ‘challenge’ or endurance test at all. Listening to all four hours of it was like going to one of those enchanted places in fairy tales, which moved at a different time to the real world.)

Consequently, the ordering doesn’t matter very much at all. In this way it’s almost like an instillation piece. You could imagine twelve rooms where twelve separate ensembles played and replayed their own piece, with the audience wandering between them at will.

It’s perhaps significant that I’ve chiefly written here about this piece as an example of minimalism. It’s quite a formal piece, which demonstrates what minimalism does superbly well but does little else. Reich’s ’Different Trains’ or Bryars’ ’Sinking of the Titanic’ are equally emblematic of minimalism, but also have their own character – they’d lend themselves much more to be written about in particular. It’s a bit like the difference between a great punk song, like Black Flag’s ‘Rise Above’, and a great song that’s of the punk genre, like the Dead Kennedy’s ‘Holiday in Cambodia.’ (I am saying this partly to be the first person to compare ‘Music in 12 Parts’ to ‘Rise Above.’)

The programme quoted K. Robert Schwertz’s description of “a summation of all [Glass’s] minimalist techniques to date.” Glass himself has described this piece as “the end of minimalism" for him; "I had worked for eight or nine years inventing a system, and now I'd written through it and come out the other end.” In short, the piece is simultaneously an epitome of something and something the composer had to go beyond.

...and in fact Glass reappeared the next night with a later, ‘post-minimalist’ piece. No promises, but I shall try to match his timescale...





Friday, 6 August 2010

BRIAN ENO – RESTORING THE BALANCE


Grevious and prostrate apologies for the untimeliness of this posting. Going back to events in May is a new level of lateness, even for me. Whenever I had time to work on this blog, there always seemed something more time-specific just about to slip over the horizon, so this piece kept getting shunted back and back. But it’s not every day that Brian Eno guest-curates the Brighton Festival. (It can only happen once a year, for one thing.) So just go with it, okay?

Though his Illustrated Talk took place last, it was the event I was looking forward to the most – so shall give it first place here. Much of Eno’s art is conceptual, which is to say the most important aspect of it is the idea within it. (Or, in a more poetic analogy, the crucial part of the fruit is the seed.) Some people seem to see this as a criticism, for reasons I’ve never fully understood. If the man was a bongo player, the event I’d look forward to the most would be his evening of bongo playing. As things stand, it was his talk.

He made for a great communicator and a witty raconteur, which made it enjoyable to hear him break free of the sound-bite constraints of TV. He would probably make the world’s finest drinking buddy! (He even managed to sound affable to the berk who thought it appropriate to ask a question about his own marital difficulties, surely no easy task!) Without merely repeating what he said (much of which I agreed with), here’s a few random observations... (Direct quotes come from this contemporaneous Guardian interview.)


His definition of art as “anything you don’t have to do” was reminiscent of Scott McCloud’s infamous passage in ’Understanding Comics’ (above). He gave the example of a screwdriver, where the ‘useful’ screw head is married to an ‘aesthetic’ handle. This suggests aesthetics and function are linked but only at the hip - two separate entities conjoined. I’m not sure this easy separation exists, I regard function and aesthetics more as things intertwined. (This is probably even true in the case of a screwdriver, where the handle has to fit the human hand.)

Marc Bolan regarded pop songs as like little spells, Alan Moore has seen writing as an act of magic... I don’t think its necessary to take these comparisons literally to see art as something which has a social impact. (It’s perhaps notable that Eno was dismisssive of didactic art, seeing it as merely propagandist.)

I was more in accord with his view of the arts as an ecology rather than a hierarchy. Pop songs do not exist beneath operas or symphonies, but in some overall symbiosis with them. Some might regard them as ticks beside mighty elephants, but the elephant needs those tiny ticks. This strikes me as unarguable, but also rather redundant - reminiscent of a General fighting the last war instead of the current one.

Art is no longer trapped in a hierarchy but reduced to a commodity, something which is measured by units shipped or bums placed on seats. Even visual art, one of the last reserves of high art, became part of celebrity culture with the arrival of Brit Art. To get to grips with where art stands today, we need a critique of contemporary capitalism - not Victorian classification systems.

But pretty soon he had moved onto the core of his talk – his valuation of surrender. He claimed we currently had the balance struck wrong between control and surrender, something he was keen to rectify. “I set up situations that involve abandoning control and finding out what happens... I want to rethink surrender as an active verb.” He illustrated this with an anecdote about being the only atheist in a gospel choir, and the others expecting him to “come out”. His point was, of course, that in one sense the others were right. The choir did allow him to access something bigger than himself, even if that ‘something’ was just the choir itself. He also said of an a cappella group he’d set up, “when it’s going really well, we don’t know what we’re singing or who’s singing what.” Though often presented as the preserve of individual genius, art is at root a collectivising force – a way of getting you out of yourself.

This not only drew together most of Eno’s other concepts, but to my mind made his concerns more contemporary. The push to control is clearly a feature of propertarian societies; when we buy into a piece of art we require a return on our investment, rather than having to embark upon a process. This is perhaps underlined by our two key uses for the verb ‘get’, as in “only when I got all their CDs did I get what they were singing about.”

Many react against such notions, with hostility so vehement that it becomes interesting in itself. Some claim to find the whole idea de-individualising, as if the individual could ever have any meaning without reference to the collective. Generally, however, I find this reaction comes from wanna-be creators; people who are clasping their one or two (normally quite average) ideas, hoarding them like a lottery ticket which they hope will one day win.

However, its not just that those with more ideas are more happy to surrender them. The process of surrender, by offering up ideas like dishes at a potlatch dinner, creates new combinations which generates more ideas – sharing makes more.

Of course as soon as art becomes unpredetermined it becomes ‘unbottleable’, and some start to worry about audience tolerance. (Both the Guardian interview and an audience question broached this subject.) But Eno clearly intends the concept to apply to the audience as well as the artists – the audience needs to surrender too.

Think of the ritual of clapping live performances, and its unstated but different rules for different people. Some see it as a reflex response, like returning a greeting. Others, such as myself, will only clap when moved to do so. (Sometimes causing irritation among the first type, who see only illmanneredness in unresponsiveness.) In the second, of course, the audience is actually surrendering. This difference is underlined by looking at the apparantly similar words ‘audience’ and ‘crowd’. While both can be used as verbs, ‘audience’ is passive and permissive (‘to give audience’) while ‘crowd’ is active (‘to gather together’).


This concept was chiefly in action for Pure Scenius, a neologism coined as the plural form of genius. Eno was joined by Karl Hyde of Underworld, all three of the Necks, plus Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins for a six-hour improvisation. (Split into three sittings of which, alas, I could only afford to attend the last of.) Eno cheerily parodied his own egghead persona, presenting the gig as a lecture and even attempting to set homework!

The conceit was that all the recent years of music had been forgotten, swept away in some great meta hard disc crash which had left nothing but doo-wop to work with. (Of course a metaphor for the necessity for artists to picture a blank slate.) As you might imagine from such a line-up, the gig was actually a storming one - far too varied and inventive to attempt to capture in a short description... try this short snippet instead.



It could of course be argued that ‘scenius’ is just a more polysllabic term for the more regular ‘group’. Indeed, the weaker numbers tended to be those most connected to one of Eno’s concepts, and the stronger ones where the esemble just let rip beyond any conceptualisation. Perhaps we shouldn’t get too hung up on the concept of surrender, lest it get in the way of actually doing it!


I probably wouldn’t have gone to Tales of the Afterlives if not for the Eno connection, fearing New Ageyness. Thankfully, such fears were groundless. The best science fiction doesn’t concern itself with trying to second-guess the future, but acts as a prism to shine a different light on the present. This series of vignettes by David Eagleman did a similar thing for the afterlives. Please note the plural form there.The more scenarios we get, the more they combine into a stimulant for speculation. You don’t respond by wondering which one might be the closest to the truth, but trying to think up something so clever and novel. (The inverse of when fundamentalists label the Bible as ’the book’ or it’s message as ’the word.’)

This was underlined by the simple but effective staging, in which all the readers were on stage at once, picked out in turn by a spotlight. Though their workings may have been mutually exclusive, this arrangement encouraged you to keep all their hypotheses in your head at one time. The readers entered and left by a backlit door, as if the stage was some ante-chamber to the afterlife, from which they’d emerged to tell us about it.

The one New Agey element was, ironically, Eno’s own musical accompaniment. While of course this was only intended as backing music, it did feel generically ‘spiritual,’ with all the connotations of the afterlife the piece was unconcerned with. (It also seemed to klunk on and off at various points. Perhaps conceptual artists don’t make for great DJs!)


Eno spoke often and proudly of his Seventy Seven Million Paintings art instillation, put on in the Fabrica gallery. Yet for me it fitted far too readily the venue’s previous life as a Church, it was quite reminiscent of watching the play of light over strained glass windows. With all the shape-shifting confined inside neat geometrical shapes, it seemed rather tame and ordered. Perhaps I was spoilt by recently seeing Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment, which felt much more like a systematic derangement of the senses. (See my ravings about it here.)


The Speaker Flower Sound Instillation, not featured in the Festival guide, did come across as a somewhat impromptu addition – and was all the better for it. It worked largely from the space, which actually was mostly space – a large, empty and rather ramshackle building.

This setting probably enhanced the acoustics. (Just as well, with the sound provided by somewhat lo-fi ghetto blasters.) Certainly, the echoey voices in the video clip below sound almost as aesthetic as the music! But more importantly, the empty space made for a contemplative setting. This was not a parcel, pre-packed for delivery, but more a space to think. You felt minded to linger, soaking it all in, rather than walk round and leave once you’d ‘done’ it all – a feeling a ‘proper’ gallery would inevitably inhibit. Conceptual art should perhaps always look unfinished, like a rough sketch rather than a blueprint poised for mass production, an invite not a schedule.

Best of all were the mono guitars, which allowed for audience interaction. You could add or remove pebbles from baskets, altering the pitch of the fret-boards. Though there were three guitars, alas attendees didn’t try to create something in synch. Clearly, we all needed to surrender that little bit more...

(Photos I took of this installation here.)




Coming Soon! (if somewhat shamelessly...) more completely out-of-date stuff!