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Saturday, 26 November 2022

‘OBJECTS OF DESIRE: SURREALISM + DESIGN 1924 - TODAY’

Design Museum, London


“There already are enough useful objects designed to perfectly fulfil their function, what I am looking for is to communicate and interact with the object.”
- Cinzia Rugger

Lobster Telephones That Ring

“Although Surrealism is often seen as escapist”, this show points out, “its founders were more interested in changing perceptions of reality.” Well of course! It’s a shame it still needs to be said, but as it does it’s better to say it. And there seems little doubt that the movement’s popular association with painting and drawing is because they’re associated with escaping into another world.

Design, though? It also says “Surrealism liberates design from the rational and utilitarian.” I hate to be a killjoy. But don’t we want design to be a bit utilitarian, or at least useable?

Dali’s famous Lobster Telephone isn’t just here but adorning the poster. We’re told that Edward James commissioned eleven of them for his various residences, which do seem to have been working models. But even if we still had cradle phones, let’s face it you wouldn’t want one of the cumbersome things yourself, wrapping it round your head only to hear from some dodgy call centre calling themselves “your bank”.

The show quotes Isamu Noguchi, “everything is sculpture”. Which sounds more a Bauhaus statement than Surrealist. The Bauhaus credo was of course ‘form follows function’, which the show counters with ‘form follows fantasy’. But this ignores the degree to which Surrealism was intended as sabotage.


Take Many Ray’s famous ’Gift’ (1921, above). It clearly wasn’t designed to ever be used as an iron, but to be disruptive. Just like an actual iron like that would tear through shirts, Surrealism intends to tear through art and society. Strictly its Dada rather than Surreal, but the slippage between one and the other is considerable. And as Dada was anti-art, wouldn’t Surrealist design need to be anti-design?

Similarly, some of Duchamp’s readymades show up. But the whole point was to tear them from their function, sometimes quite literally, and put them somewhere where they didn’t fit. People have used his urinal for its original purpose, but only as a prank. It’s similar to the way that words, when taken in isolation, seem to descend into prattle. Duchamp wasn’t interested in them as works of design, nor of designing with them.

Furthermore, we use design as a synonym for plan, in phrases such as “by design”. Whereas Surrealist artists frequently worked by automatist (chance and/or unconscious) processes. You could claim that to come from the authentic Surreal region of art it needs to involve, as said of the recent ‘British Surrealism’ show, “artists surprised by what springs from their own hands.”


And further furthermore, early on the show gives us Dali’s ’Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ (1937, above). Even if we were to somehow miss it in the work, the focus on transformation’s there in the title. Things are not still or separate, but ever-changing, to the point where things aren’t really even things any more. The show refers to these as “ungoverned shapes”. How can you convey this with real world objects? 




As it turns out, you can. Dali’s ’Cats Cradle Hands’ chair (c. 1936) transforms its back into arms and hands. Or Meret Oppenheim’s ’Traccia’ (1939, both above) gives a table bird’s feet.


Ray and Charles Eames’ ’Moulded Plywood Sculpture’ (1943) has the sinuous curves often found in Surrealism, but almost works better for being ‘real’. They seem to flow so, the eye can’t really get a purchase on them and hopeless follows them round and round. It’s not a ceaseless Moebius strip, ever-twisty and ever-turny, but it still looks like one. Sculpture is surely, by definition, about solid and fixed objects. Well, not here.


In fact Surrealist artists had pretty much a penchant for realising in real life things they’d originally painted. Dali’s sofa of Mae West’s lips is on show here, but us Brighton folk are familiar with another version in our local Museum. So more interesting to me was Victor Brauner’s ’Psychological Space’ (1939, above). The show displays the original painting, from which he made that wolf table for a 1947 exhibition. Why do such a thing? A quote from Shiro Kuramata might come closer: “Enchantment should also be considered a function.”

As seen before, over the Tate’s recent ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders’ show, a large part of Surrealism was about having an almost animist relationship with charged objects. “Its perspective comes from recognising objects as entities; to be recognised, to enter into accordances with, the most humble modern objects seen as possessing spirits.”

It’s true that, to intensify this feeling, they tended to prefer objects whose origin was somehow mysterious, stumbled upon in flea markets and the like. But there’s nothing essential about this. It’s similar to the way couples can relish the tale of the unusual way they met, but that’s not essential to being in a couple.

However, you don’t have to think about this for very long before you realise you’re being asked to treat functional things as though they were some combination of art object and magical force. The problem then becomes that the designer can’t pre-determine this relationship, which is all between the object and the user.

And speaking of exhibitions, they seem important here in themselves. Or at least the ones the movement itself staged. As the show points out “Surrealists approached [them] as collective artworks”. Just as with Dada, they were part of Surrealist practice, not just a means by which to display already finished works. In fact the works just became materials for the overall show, with obligations such as displaying them clearly being discarded. There’s photos of various exhibitions here which are effectively installations, the opposite of neatly ordered and carefully labelled rooms like the one we’re in. A particular favourite of mine is is Duchamp’s ’Sixteen Miles Of String’ for a New York show in 1942. (Photo below by John D Schiff.)




And there seems a similarity with Dali’s home designs for Edward James’ Monkton House, where everything seems incorporated, integral to the Surrealist concept, nothing left to be ‘normal’. Or his film or theatre sets, or window displays for Bonwitt Teller, (1939, above). And these do look different, and more effective, than when individual elements are ripped from the room and shown as isolated artworks. It’s a kind of fishbowl design, where part of the point is we know we’re looking at real objects. But they’re there for us to look at rather than engage with. As much as it is design its design as display, not use.

Design Into Dollars?


The skeptical reader may note how much Dali has dominated things so far. And its unsurprising that the man soon anigrammatically nicknamed Avida Dollars led the way in this direction. (It’s a bit of a tangent but the show includes 'Destino’, the animation he made for Disney. In 1945/6, but not realised until 2003. And it’s notable how easily his slick later style blends with the smooth Disney look.)

After all… shop windows, objects made to be talking pieces for toffs, don’t these consumer items seem a world away from an art movement that declared itself revolutionary? How does this fit with the Tate show which largely focused on colonial subjects? And couldn’t that be said to be inherent in this direction? Enchantment, like most desirable things, turns out to be a luxury product. The rich, after all, live their lives on show, consume conspicuously, while the rest of us make do with frill-less functionality.


Or take ’Horse Lamp’ by Front Design (2006, above). It looks a surreal triumph, a full-size model of a horse made to do no more than hold up a lamp. Most of us would literally not have room for such a thing. Except you can buy it, given the will and a spare five grand. Which kind of transforms it from absurd object to click and collect. (Well, okay, you’d probably ask for it to be delivered.) 

Or, perhaps more strongly still, Carlo Mollino’s 1938 designs for Casa Miller, which included a torso-shaped hole in a wall. Is there a left-field charm to this? Yes. But that charm all belongs to Magritte, a Surrealist artist I’m not even especially keen on. In such moments it’s hard not to think of those who crowbar Banksys off public walls for private clients. One leaves a hole behind, the other makes off with it, but same difference.

There doesn’t seem much point debating whether Dali was a dollar-clutching scumbag. But life isn’t obliged to hand us easy answers, and he was also (at times) a superlative artist. While James was a longstanding supporter of Surrealism and an interesting figure in his own right, not just a standard toff looking for the latest thing. And Meret Oppenheim, Surrealist par excellence, made limited-edition luxury gloves. (If not until 1985.) Besides, in those days most painters got by either via patrons or by being wealthy themselves. We don’t live in this world and get to be untainted.

Besides, what’s often appealing about these themed shows isn’t the through line but the by-ways. Things which don’t necessarily belong here but, now they are in front of you, you’re glad of it. And the chance encounter seems the more Surreal way of going about things, better than rigidly inspecting the guest list. The show quotes Ingo Maurer: “Chance rules our lives, much more than intention.”


Case in point… When the architect Le Corbusier was claimed as Surrealist-influenced, first I felt they were clutching at straws early. But they went on to convince me. The painting by him, while good, was more post-Picasso than Surreal. (Albeit from the era where Picasso was saying he was Surreal.) But the sculpture ’Ozon III’ (1962, above) could have had Andre Breton pinning a medal to it for services to strangeness. It seems to simultaneously reduce the human body to a mechanism and turn it into a charming cartoon, with parity found between an arm and an ear. With its bizarre anthropomorphism there’s a strong sense of humour to it, and I didn’t know Le Corbusier even had one of those.

Should We Still Be Surreal?

“Surrealism”, the show says, “is still evolving. The torch has now been passed to contemporary artists and designers who dare to shake up the creative process.”

Well, we could argue about whether art is still evolving. But Surrealism didn’t re-use century-old devices, it sought out new methods to deal with the world they found themselves in, revelling in any upset this caused. Current-day artists shouldn’t be in thrall to it, they should be using it in the way it used primitive art, ruthlessly plundering it of anything that looked useful, discarding the rest.

As said over the ‘Dreamers Awake’ show at the White Cube, “contemporary artists are forever claiming they’re its inheritors, often on the basis of a hazy notion that once it was ‘edgy’ and now so are they. Does for example Sarah Lucas belong here? (Inasmuch as her tedious efforts belong anywhere.)” And you’d have to say much the same here, to the extent that Sarah Lucas does indeed show up again. But let’s do what we did then, and talk about the stuff that’s worth talking about.


Gae Aulenti’s ’Tour’ (1993, above) is a coffee table on wheels. It may initially seem akin to ’Horse Lamp.’ Except it’s anti-functionality doesn’t come about through lack of space, it’s inherent to the thing. You could take it home if you wanted, but it couldn’t do other than create chance processes in your lounge.



From 1950 on, Piero Fornasetti was taking one face (the opera singer Line Cavalieri) and placing it on an endless succession of plates, each with some Surreal twist to the image. Though the twists are often ingenious, it’s the combination of form and content which makes it. We associate plates with mass production, with repetition, with conformity.

Anyway, the twin highlights of this more modern section of the show are chairs. Make of that what you will…


Danny Lane’s ’Etruscan Chair’ (1984, above) is made from the most industrial of materials, glass and steel tubing. Yet just by making them geometrically irregular he anthropomorphises it. Those are definitely eyes in its back, and I stood there waiting for it to scuttle off.


Alberto de Braud’s ’An Uncomfortable Place’ (1992, above) features what would be a regular chair frame, except that it’s erupting strange tendrils and knotty protuberances. Chairs we assume to be made from dead wood, but this seems to somehow have not just retained life but still be growing. (It’s actually bronze, it just looks like wood.)

And, in a sense, carpenters do to wood what society does to people, drain its essence, chop it into regulation size, make it into a usable commodity. Except the title leads us not to side with this rebellious chair but take on the perspective of the sitter. If you thought someone was about to sit on you, you’d automatically assume a more awkward shape, and this is the chair’s way of doing that. It’s reminiscent of the rebellious furniture of Svankmajer’s short film ‘The Apartment’.

That which you thought tamed and made orthodox may still surprise you, it may be a good point to end on. Except of course precisely what makes this a great art objects makes it literally impossible to use as a chair. It’s merely disguised as a functional work of design to make its point. This show’s full of things which are functionally useless. Some of which are just useless. While others enchant.

Saturday, 19 November 2022

OZRIC TENTACLES/ GONG (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES GO ALL COSMIC)

Concorde 2, Brighton, Thurs 18th Nov


Shortly after the sad death of Nik Turner seemed just the right time to attend an Old Hippies Reunited party, and as luck would have it a double-barrelled one came along…

I’m not sure how many time I’ve seen Ozric Tentacles now. There was a fifteen to twenty year period where it seemed almost impossible not to see them. Attend anything remotely resembling a festival or gathering and there they’d be. And I’m equally unsure when I last saw them, except it was some while ago. They would play regular venues too, but it what when that festival environment was clamped down on that they went out of my sight, like an animal losing its habitat.

Looking back, their sound was based on a kind of false memory. There wasn’t really a time when Psychedelic music overlapped with Prog, it was more than one waned as the other waxed. The bands who performed that transition, like Pink Floyd, tended to have a ‘mellow’ phase in-between. But that sound was why their best-known number came to be ’Kick Muck’, the guitar sounding less like a guitar and more like someone cranking furiously at a funnel which emits a ceaseless torrent of notes, so many and so fast they go by in a blur.

Guitarist Ed Wynne is the only survivor from back then. And the band’s become something of a family affair, featuring his ex-wife Brandi on bass, his son Silas Neptune on keyboards and a flautist and drummer whose names I failed to catch.

The standard thing to say about a longstanding band is what they’ve gained in ability they’ve lost in edge. Which sounds remarkably close to what music did when it morphed from Psychedelia to Prog. The greatest thing about Psychedelia being its abandon and derangement, and the worst thing about Prog being that it abandoned that abandon.

And for a band whose first-ever gig was a six-hour spontaneous jam at Stonehenge Free Festival in ’83, who often seemed to be jamming on stage, there seems little jam tonight. Wynne even introduced the tracks, something never done back in the day. The absence of ‘Jumping’ John Egan, who combined flute-plyaing with on-stage antics like a cosmic Bez, also changes the dynamic.

Nevertheless, if there’s now more smooth than rough, there was always some smooth. Unlike most festival circuit bands, they had (and have) the musical chops to work for those who stood to listen as well as those who waved their arms. There were points this set seemed to meander and my attention drifted, but overall it kept enough punch and was musically adventurous enough to take you with it.

The highlight, version of ’Kick Muck’ notwithstanding was the finale, also their most Dance-influenced number, where the abandanometer most definitely went into the red.

This was very much a double-headliner, with the auditorium packed and ready for Gong even at the un-rock & roll time of 8pm. In case there’s anyone left who doesn’t know who Gong are these days… Daevid Allen assembled a younger band around him (this time with no relatives) back in 2014, who released one album. After getting his no-hope diagnosis (the album was called ’Rejoice I’m Dead’), he suggested they carry on after he was gone, which they have.

But any debate about whether that makes them Proper Gong or a tribute band with validation is sidelined, when they play precisely one classic Gong track the whole set, even then segueing into it from somewhere else. Which was ’Master Builder’, my absolute favourite Gong track ever, so they made one Old Hippy happy.

How much the set drew on the one album made with Allen I don’t know, I’ve not heard it. Though at one point new new songs are announced. Pretty soon it became obvious that this was really only Gong in the sense of inheriting the family name, and you should look on them as a new band.

To which the verdict would be mixed. Some tracks did sound close to hippy music as described by its detractors, meanderingly pleasant music with ‘positive energy’-type lyrics. But, not just on ’Master Builder’, also elsewhere in their set, they proved that when they want to wig out they absolutely can.

Not from our fine shores, but more or less the right Ozrics line-up…


Saturday, 12 November 2022

"SOMEBODY CALLIN'" HOWLIN’ WOLF’S ‘MOANIN’ IN THE MOONLIGHT’

(Top 50 Albums)


When I was first getting into music, what histories there were faithfully followed a script. Rhythm & Blues’ role had been important but brief, to be the midwife of Rock & Roll. (And it normally was R&B, more than Gospel or Country.) It was portrayed as original but basic. It had taken black people to come up with it, all simple-minded yet pure of heart like they were. But it had taken white people to pick up on that and turn it into something.

Even R&B artists would at times go along with this, perhaps figuring it not best to bite the hand attached to the deepest pockets. None less than Muddy Waters sang ’The Blues Had A Baby And They Named It Rock and Roll’ (1977), which at least moved midwife along to mother.

But if anything, it was the other way up. Rock & Roll finally formally broke something which had in actuality been undermined in American music decades back, the colour bar. And that was a significant cultural event. But to do it, it had to dilute the material down for a mass audience, make it more palatable. (And the right term is mass, not white, audience. You could tell a similar story with Country.)

Big Joe Turner’s version of ’Shake, Rattle and Roll’ is not just better than Bill Haley’s, it’s better at all the things Rock & Roll is supposed to be good for. The same is true for Big Mama Thornton’s ’Hound Dog’ over Elvis’, and you could keep going.

But it’s more than that. The problem with constantly searching for the roots of Rock & Roll is that everything else just gets thrown away as a weed. When, if you just look at what’s in your hand, it can be the finest flower. We should stop seeing Blues as a staging-post to somewhere else, and start seeing it as a place in itself.

The two big stars of the classic post-war era of R&B were Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Their creative rivalry was only accentuated by their being on the same label (Chess) and using the same main songwriter. (Willie Dixon, who would deliberately tell Wolf a song was already promised to Waters, knowing he’d then insist it had to be his.)

And they sound very little like someone trying to come up with Rock & Roll. True, there’s times they rock it, and as well as anyone. Wolf’s ’Rock It Boogie’ comes self-described. But, as a general rule, in straightening itself out in order to be made into Rock & Roll, Blues became a more rigid, more regularised form of music. In picking up the fixed-voltage power of electricity, it lost the free-form force of unpredictability.

Not so with our guys! Giles Oakley wrote “they can continue the use of country-style unpredictability in bar lengths, giving free range to the blues feeling surging through the whole band as if it were one man.” (‘The Devil’s Music’, 1976). He was talking of Waters’ band, but it applies to both. Rather than upbeat and animated, their music was measured and spacious, even laconic. (Perhaps best summed up by the Wolf lyric “Oh the church bell tollin’/ Oh the hearse come driving slow”. Not something you could sing over a Gene Vincent beat.) Harmonica was often then used to thread, bend and stretch between the placed-out guitar notes, like barbed wire curling round fenceposts.

And Waters was great. Truly great. But ultimately, Wolf was even better.

I’d first heard Blues early, as a child, as my Dad had some old records. And my young ears could barely take in music that sounded so unearthly, so totally removed from the Pop music and advertising jingles which I’d taken to be music.

He had no Howling Wolf. (Due, I’d suspect, to the lack of any ‘authentic’ acoustic era.) In fact I wasn’t to hear him until an adult. Whereupon, despite having had years to acclimate myself to music, when I finally got there he still sounded as unearthly as the Blues I’d first heard.

It is true that lyrically, particularly by the time of R&B, Blues did tend to prefigure Rock & Roll. And Wolf sang as much about the familiar themes as anyone else, women not being able to resist him, and his baby doing him wrong. (However those two were supposed to fit together.)

But his lyrics could also hinted at something sinister going on, at lurking, indeterminate menace. (Something people associate with Robert Johnston, but don’t imagine in electric Blues.) In the later track ’Ain’t Superstitious’ from 1961, the title phrase is continually countered by lots of good reasons to be superstitious. Yet, importantly, Wolf knew to never make it any more explicit than that. It was like that anxiety dream where you’re not sure quite what’s causing the anxiety, making you all the more anxious.

(And Blues was ever thus. All the things that books earnestly list as creating the genre, which basically come down to racism, are almost never referred to explictly in the music.)

And this perfectly matched his voice, gravelly but also given to unearthly, name-defining howls, wails and moans. (He liked to say he’d originally tried to yodel like Country star Jimmie Rodgers, but howls were simply what had come out of his throat and so he’d gone with them.) Suffice to say, if you take to Wolf’s voice, you’ll most likely take to everything else about him.

And voice and lyrics were then married to the spectral music, sounding like it could pass through walls. The opening track ’Moanin’ At Midnight’ (1951) sums this up well. It starts with Wolf literally setting the tone with a low moan, as if retuning you into his frequency. Surely one of the greatest track openings of all. It’s the equivalent of saying “who-hoo” in a ghost story, except in a way that actually works.
It’s a classic example of the combination effect in music, the whole being more than its parts. Lyrics like “Somebody calling me/ Calling on my telephone” scarcely sound like Pulitzer prize stuff. But add it to the voice and the music and the result is spine-tingling.


But going back to that idea R&B was a basic genre, does any of it get repetitive? The short answer is yes. Even that low moan intro gets straight-out duplicated on another track on the same album, ’Moanin’ For My Baby.’ But there’s two things to consider here…

First, this was never planned as an album. The currency of R&B was the single, at most the EP. The Billboard R&B chart, which began in ’49, even included jukebox plays alongside record sales. This album, though put together back in the day, was complied from already released singles. (In ’59, from material dating back to ’51.) And that was what albums were to Chess, at least back them. (Fun fact! ‘Album’ originally referred to a clutch of 78s packaged together. It meant ‘separate things collected together’, like a stamp or photo album.)

And more broadly… the notion that Blues was, formally speaking, an authentic Folk art is nothing but a hopeless romanticism. It was a commercial genre, with labels as much hit factories as Motown would later be, which gave many a living and got some rich (Wolf included). However, it still retained many elements from folk culture. Including a lack of interest in originality. If someone had a new idea, whether a lyric or rhythm, that was simply taken as added to the buffet table. Everyone else just helped themselves, and were unabashed about doing it.

And if that person who had the new idea was you, then what else would you do but copy yourself? Stars would commonly cover their own songs under different aliases. Sometimes this was to slip through contractual obligation. But it was more than that, songs didn’t have some definitive ‘finished’ version, like novels or paintings. They were fluid things, changing with each iteration.

So the line between one song and another naturally became thin and porous. Recording essentially the same track with a few elements shifted around was par for the course. R&B was only interested in what worked. And Wolf himself did all three of these - borrowed from others, got borrowed from by others, and recycled his own best ideas.

So if the measure of R&B is its effect on R&R, Howlin’ Wolf’s was probably nil. But that’s because it took rock music over a decade to catch up with him. Sam Phillips claimed he was the greatest artist he ever worked with, despite going on to record the Sun Records roster. Dylan named him as the best live act he’d seen. The Stones, though named after a Waters song, called him “one of our greatest idols” and covered ’Little Red Rooster’. The Doors did ’Back Door Man’, while Marc Bolan stole ’You’ll Be Mine’ and Led Zeppelin ’Killing Floor’… the list goes on. And you hear his howl all the way through Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart. Hail the wolf!

Saturday, 5 November 2022

MICHAEL ROTHER/ TEST DEPT (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

MICHAEL ROTHER + FRIENDS CELEBRATE 50 YEARS OF NEU!
Clapham Grand, London, Thurs 3rd Nov


As I may have given away by now I’m something of a Krautrock obsessive - particularly over what we might call the Holy Trinity of Can, Faust and… well, expect you’ve guessed the third one. And, after the unfortunate demise of Klaus Dinger back in 2008, seeing the remaining half of the duo is the closest we can ever to come to Neu! Rother’s joined by drummer Hans Lampe, who played on their third and final album, and guitarist Franz Bargman from Camera. 

Having seen anniversary sets of, in order, Can, Faust and now Neu!, I’d concede this was the most straightforward of the three - playing the classic tracks more or less as they were recorded back then. (Sometimes dipping into his other band of the era, Harmonia.)

But then again, these are classic tracks. It’s no exaggeration to call it some of the greatest music ever made. And it feels awesome to be in a room of fellow aficionados, enthusiastically clapping a few beats into each new number. Which is why I preferred this to the other time I saw Rother, where he concentrated more only his later solo output. Maybe Rother without Dinger is a little like a sweet ’n’ sour with just the sweet. But seriously, if you can’t celebrate fifty years of Neu!, I really don’t know what you can.

And also, as a duo, Neu! back then were really confined to be a studio project, only playing live with their expanded line-up of the final album. Leading to the sense that all this isn’t retrospective so much as overdue. And it’s not just great music, it’s great music to hear live, serene and ecstatic at the same time. So irresistibly dancey were they, codgers even older than myself were to be witnessed abandoning themselves to the moment. (There may have been a few aching joints the next day.)

And also also, people picture Krautrock as science fictiony. Which may be partly true of Kraftwerk, but doesn’t apply to the Holy Trinity. Neu! may lend themseles to machine metaphors, but there’s nothing to suggest anything futuristic. And nature analogies apply equally well. So if, in the well-know adage, nothing dates faster than science fiction, there’s nothing here to date. In fact you could easily believe it sounds as fresh today as it did fifty years ago. In Neu!s case the absence of lyrics also helps, nothing which might pin it to an era. (Fans of ’Hero’ look away, but they skip the few numbers Dinger sang on. Only one track had vocals all night.)

Speaking of machines, I’ve waxed lyrical before how their sound ”glides as if … so pure a thing as to be untroubled by the lumpen world of gravity. Its pulsing drive, repetitive yet so propulsive, always seems to be stretching ahead of you. It's like the car that always seems to stay in front of you on the motorway, seemingly sailing ahead without burning up any energy.”

And indeed part of the backdrop film show was of the camera drifting freely down the motorway. A coincidence? Probably. But I’m going with it anyway.

Neu! may have exceeded even Faust and Can in the disparity of lack of immediate units shipped and long-term influence felt. Post-Punk, Dance and Electronica all owe them an unpayable debt. And as a sign of that esteem those promised “friends” turned out to be Stephen Morris of New Order and Paul Weller, joining them for the encore. I’m not sure that musically they contributed all that much, but perhaps being there’s the thing.

Actually a Harmonia number, but it’s all good…


TEST DEPT/ BLURT
The Albany, London, Sat 29th Oct


“Test Dept's formation in 1981” it says here “in the decaying docklands of South London, was an urgent reaction to the materialistic drift and reactionary conservatism of the prevailing musical and political culture. TD rejected the conventional and developed a style that reflected the decay of their surroundings scavenging the unregenerated wastelands for raw materials, and transforming found industrial items into designed, sculptural instruments…. It was the antithesis of commercial record industry values.”

I have to admit I never quite caught up with them back in the day, even missing the famous Brighton show where they used police riot shields for percussion. But I liked the sound of them when I heard them. And, well, I liked the sound of them. Industrial outfits, to varying degrees, tended towards dodgy ‘provocations’ which seem even worse looking back from our era of hipster racism. While Test Dept were unapologetically Leftist, all Constructivist typefaces and collaborations with a striking Miner’s choir. More in the spirit of Mayakovsky than Charlie Sodding Manson. And more Mayakovsky means more me.

When this gig was announced, they commented they’d be glad to be back in New Cross, the place it had all started out for them. And, walking round the area beforehand, I discovered how Old London New Cross still is - graffiti, political flyposting and (perhaps most remarkably of all) cafes that give change from a tenner. Made all the more bizarre by the way you can constantly see Canary Wharf on the skyline.

While Blurt went through their set (more of which anon), visible behind them was a metal scaffold sporting sheets of metal, dangling chains and various extemporised devices which might have been musical or torturous in intent. If there was such a thing as Chekov’s Percussive Supply, that would have been it. It was then placed literally centre stage. And yes, they did all go off.

The set started with high-register electronics, pounding drums and everyone else pitching in on percussion. And bar occasional outbreaks of wind, usually on strange and ethnic-looking devices with names unknown to me, that was the musical set-up. One member showed a remarkable ability not just attach a bass drum to him but to march around with it.

Beats are martial, unrelenting, providing no release. And that era had a penchant for musing the master’s tools against him, calls-to-arms enlisted against the arms trade.

The drummer… you know the actual drummer looked young enough to be a recent recruit. And I wasn’t quite sure how the splendid drumming was down to him or the drum sound. But it was surely something of both. They rattled and resounded like an Ironmonger’s shelves all being upended at once.

Not knowing their output well, I couldn’t tell you from when the set was pulled. Some lyrics sounded quite contemporary, so I deduced not an entirely historic set. I further guessed several tracks were from the Nineties, when they took on more of a Dance influence. (Before they came on the canned music notably switched from the Stooges to House.) Though it seems it was dominated by the new album, ’Disturbance’, and sounding pretty good for it.

The Dance direction is now often ridiculed, like it was all old Punks desperately reaching for relevance. But in fact they’d spotted something in the music which they could work with, its insistency, its powerful production-line beats. And jettisoned the parts which didn’t work for them, such as the blissed-out hedonism. Besides, it all sounds pretty dancey, whenever from.

The only weakness… okay, you can’t bash and shout the whole gig long. And some of the more ambient passages were actually pretty good. But they got a little too ambient at points for a gig setting, and you felt the audience’s attention starting to wonder.

But overall, you know the way T-shirt manufacturers kept busting the ceiling of their scales. (L, XL, XXL and so on.) You may need something similar to convey the intensity of this performance.

Blurt are a Post-Punk band dating back even further, to 1979. They once played Brighton semi-regularly, but it must have been over fifteen years ago, as I don’t seem to have blogged about them before.

They’ve the peculiarity of being a beat-driven band not incorporating a bass player. Which they often manage via the guitar and drums trading places. Guitar lines can me the most metronomically simple, or even tones, while the drums power the number.

Frontman Ted Minton’s sense-defying lyrics, sometimes declaimed poetry and occasional sax blasts don’t just make the connections between Post-Punk, Dada and Beat recitals, they more defy any distinction between them. It’s all sound and fury signifying nothing, and that’s the very point of the thing. (The titles given to their discography gives some of this away.)

If memory serves, they were better fifteen years back, to be truthful. But they’re still worth catching, and provided the vital role of a support band to provide something unlike yet complementary to the main act.

Friday, 28 October 2022

GILLA BAND/ ORCHESTRE TOUT PUISSANT MARCEL DUCHAMP (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

GILLA BAND
Chalk, Brighton, Sun 23rd Oct


I last wrote about Dublin-based noise rock outfit Gilla Band after they appeared in this very venue six years ago, back in the days when things still went by the old names. They were then Girl Band, it The Haunt and my blog was… okay, some things never change. That was for their debut release and they’re now up to their third (‘Most Normal’). But its quality not quantity, innit?

Two Gillamen swap between guitars and electronics, though you’d be hard pressed to tell one from the other by sound alone. They can play audaciously stripped-back lines, sometimes just tones, colour fields not as serene Rothkos but shrieking hues.

Perhaps unusually for a noise-based band there’s a string dance music element, further evidence it shouldn’t all be seen as happy-clappy hedonism but willing to engage in sonic abrasion of its own volition. They’re professed fans of the Contortions, where No Wave cross-bred with disco. And the finale’s their storming cover of the Industrial Techno track ’Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?’. Last time they opened with it, and it’s effectively become their identifying song.

Which leaves the singer Dara Kiely often contributing the most melodic element. True, his penchant for frenzied Malcom Mooney-style madness mantras isn’t going to get him calls from Coldplay any time soon. (One lyric lists the various manufacturers of “shit clothes”.) But you could imagine more Death Grips-style vocals going with that music. He’s enough to keep them attached to something like regular rock music.

Famously they started out while still in secondary school, as an Indie band modelled on the Strokes. That’s never really quite gone away, and it serves them like a gift. Rather than flying off into free noise or falling back into white boy blues, they’re able to go further into what they were already doing, with greater and greater intensity.

None less than the Guardian called this new release a “turbulent masterpiece”. And it’s true that Kiely has been open about facing mental health problems, which he does seem to have used for musical inspiration. But at the same time it’s a common error to see music just as displaced autobiography, one which can steer you away from actual listening. And there’s a definite sense of humour to it all. Even if you missed it in Kiely’s lyrics it’s there in his voice.

Let’s compare them briefly to two other noise rock outfits who have showed up here. Show Me the Body had a much more angsty vibe, a sense that down these mean streets a power noise trio must strike up. While Lightning Bolt conveyed the sheer exhilarating thrill of throwing up a racket.

It would be temptingly easy to say Gilla Band exist in some midpoint between these two, like the Change UK of noise. But I don’t think they’re anything so fixed, they’re more able to straddle both spaces at once. Like the proverbial glass of water which can be half full and also half empty, all depending how you look at it.

Kiely was meet ‘n’ greeting the merch queue after the gig, demonstrating a highly Irish ability to treat a long line of strangers like long-lost friends. I made some quip to him about the meaning-defying lyrics. “I don’t know what they mean,” he replied, “but I believe in them.” And I think I probably do too.

From Leeds…


ORCHESTRE TOUT PUISSANT MARCEL DUCHAMP
The Con Club, Lewes, Sun 16th Oct



The brainchild of double bassist Vincent Bertholet, Orchestre Tout Puissant (“All Powerful”) Marcel Duchamp “mix free jazz, post punk, high life, brass band, symphonic elements and kraut rock, [and] make a transcendental, almost ritualistic music.” They’re named part in tribute to great African ensembles, and in other part (of course) to the arch-Dadaist.

Not kidding about that Orchestre tag, quite remarkably they have more members than words in their name. The most recent release and publicity photos features twelve members, but I counted thirteen on stage, including double drummers, twin marimba players, electric guitar, strings and brass.

Though to my mind they’re more an ensemble than orchestra. There are times when they play with counter-rhythms. But mostly they use their amassed numbers to all leap upon a groove. Their credo being “the more the merrier”. There’s a few points where they allow a second’s pause before the full outfit kick in, perhaps not a new trick but an effective one. The result is a set which feels pretty much all highlights.

The vibe they give off is some Arkestra-like collective, who practice eleven hours every day at the commune and then take turns to stir a big pot of mung beans. But, for a Swiss-based band they seemed to have a fair few English members, including the two main singers. Most vocals were choral and harmonious, floating over the music. Their unshowy ‘unrocky’ nature gives it much of its engaging quality.

But also… one of those singers turned out to be Jo Burke, last seem singing a cappella folk songs in a Sussex field. Her declamatory open-tuned cry made perhaps a strange fit the the syncopated beats. I couldn’t say why it worked, but it sure seemed to.

There’s a virtuous combination between their constant inventiveness, where you have little to no notion what might be coming next, and the infectiously uplifting quality of it. Perhaps the ‘Marcel Duchamp’ and ‘Tout Puissant’ parts of their name represent those two elements. Probably not, but I like to think so. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that even I might have been smiling.

A slightly different (and don’t tell Rees-Mogg but less English) line-up to the UK tour, but still very much worth a watch…



Saturday, 22 October 2022

AN ASTRAL ISLE (ANOTHER SPOTIFY PLAYLIST)



A Spotify playlist that soars! The notion here is for tracks that are mightIly mysterious, the musical equivalent of that celestial city you see floating in the sky, strange towers semi-hidden by clouds. Or something like that anyway. The image is a Frank R Paul illo from an old 'Amazing Stories' pulp. Don't be put off by the title of the opening track, which is awesome and not at all happy-clappy.

Popol Vuh: The Christ Is Near
John Cale & Terry Riley: The Hall of Mirrors In the Palace of Versailles
Sleep: Giza Butler
Cluster: Im Süden
Tangerine Dream: Nebulous Dawn
Föllakzoid: Pulsar

Saturday, 15 October 2022

“THE MOST NEGATIVE LANDSCAPE”: CAMUS’ ‘THE FALL’

“Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object.”


After ’The Plague’ and ‘The Outsider’, ’The Fall’ (1956) marks my third Camus novel. And the first not to be set in his native Algeria, but… well, is that Paris or Amsterdam?

Though it’s the backstory in Paris that forms the spine of the narrative, this is not like those films that are one long flashback bookended by a brief framing device. Instead Camus repeatedly throws us back into the present. Just as soon as we might be getting used to Parisian life back we are in Amsterdam. And there seems to be two reasons for this.

First, the setting is established so a mood can be pinned to it. Which isn’t weekend break by the canals. In fact this so differs from our modern view of Amsterdam you need to imagine we’re in some fictional town which just shares the same name. Perhaps in France in those far-off days, it was seen as some rough-edged port you didn’t venture to unless bulk-buying Tulips. But it’s still remarkable how foreign it is here, somewhere where “life becomes denser, darker.” A stolen painting, searched for throughout the world, can be hung prominently in a harbourside bar, as if we’re somewhere in Patagonia.

And the Dutch play no greater role than the Arabs in the Algeria-set works, the book’s very structure denying them speaking roles. A grunting brute of a barman, devoid of any French, is the closest we come to a native character.

And this sense of being in an un-place, off the map is carried through into the sights. Or, more accurately, lack of them. The sheer absence of topography, the featureless flat landscape bordering the flat sea, is repeatedly evoked, the way a character can be brought back onstage to again pointedly say nothing. The limbo of Amsterdam represents the modern condition; we’re adrift in it, sailors without ports, bereft of landmarks by we could navigate.

“Isn’t it the most beautiful negative landscape?… A flabby hell, indeed! Everything horizontal, no relief: space is colourless and life dead. Is it not universal obliteration, everything nothingness made visible? No human beings, above all, no human beings!”

Second, this keeps alive the notion that the narrator, Clamence, is not writing but talking. Ostensibly, he’s talking to another character. But in effect his words pass right through the space they only formally occupy, with the result he is talking directly to us.

With dialogue that keeps incidentally describing the surroundings, it’s very similar to reading the transcript of a radio play. In fact, that medium might have even worked better. Camus’ sometime compatriot Sartre wrote about this aspect of radio in ‘The Reprieve’, where a young woman listens mortified to a Hitler speech…

”The great plain of Germany, the mountains of France, had dissolved, he confronted her as an absolute enemy, outside space, he was threshing about in that box of his – he’s looking at me, he sees me. She turned to her mother, to Ivy: but they had suddenly receded. She could still see them but not touch them. Paris had drifted out of reach, the light from the windows fell dead upon the carpet. Contacts between people and things were imperceptibly disintegrating, she was alone in the world with that voice… He was addressing her as though they two were alone, his eyes glaring into hers.”

A monologue on the radio feels like it’s been spoken straight at you. Even if others are in the room with you they become somehow marginal, for that voice is speaking to you. It can even feel like it’s already in your head.


And the novel needs this because of an essential difference to ’The Outsider’. There, Meursault made no attempt to persuade you of his way of thinking, he just asserted it and that was all. This time, Clamence is a devilish tempter. The novel becomes his book-length attempt to drawn you in, lure you over to his side, a tirade couched in soft words. (“So you know the Scriptures? Decidedly, you interest me.”) Amsterdam and its environs are the wilderness where the tempter always lurked.

The titular Fall he recounts is his own, from a successful and highly regarded defence barrister specialising in “widows and orphans” to someone who haunts seedy bars in Amsterdam. But as anyone who knows the story of Faustus will tell you, devils are nothing but fallen angels. The novel’s therefore full of inverted imagery; in a book titled ’The Fall’ he has a ceaseless desire to scale physical heights, he is a “judge-penitent”, declared a (kind of) Pope by compatriots because he is the most debased, and so on.

And the easiest route for fallen angels to take you is the one they have marked out themselves. His clever-sounding words, and his recounts of his actions, are like a breadcrumb trail leading to an abyss.

So he paints all virtuous acts as performative, helping a blind man cross the street only to bask in the gaze of onlookers and so on. And it tends to build from this banal-sounding example. Virtue really only exists in the eyes of others, therefore is ultimately self-serving.

Then, with no meaning to things, without the possibility of any genuine attachment between people, what is there left to hold off the ennui than turn life into a sport? Realisation of this is made to seem a form of sophistication. You, sir, unlike those others you are smart enough to get this.

I was surprised how many reviews portrayed Clamence as an abject character, his narrative one long confession to a non-existent Priest. They clearly read quite a different book to me! Why then, for example, would he be declared Pope? The relations are entirely the other way round, he is Mephistopheles to our Faustus. Try the following quote:

“After prolonged research on myself, I brought out the basic duplicity of the human being. Then I realised, as a result of delving in my memory, that modesty helped me to shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppose.”

Jimmy Maher calls this “a work absolutely drenched in Christian symbolism.” Which is the perfect phrase, as “drenched in” differs from “composed of”. Unsurprisingly for Camus, if the book borrows heavily from religion it is merely borrowing. Clamence is neither intended to be a Devil nor there to represent one, simply devilish in nature. We are used to talking about moral questions in religious terms, so Camus appropriates those terms. Just as questions of debts and obligations would translate more easily into Francs and Cents than Guilders.


As with the notion that ’The Plague’ was some kind of analogy for the rise of fascism, people are keen to see something of the post-War world at work in all this. You could indeed pen a tale about someone’s life of success and plenty being upended by Nazi invasion, causing their worldview to be rent in twain. Most likely, people already have. But that has nothing to do with this book.

True enough, there is one reference to Jewish people been taken from Amsterdam to the camps. But the claim soon reaches rather desperate levels. A bar named Mexico City is enlisted and turned into a reminder of the genocide against the Aztecs. As a bar of that name really existed, it seems more likely Camus went for some local colour than any such flight of fancy.

In fact the events which precipitate Clamence’s Fall precede, and are not at all associated with, the War. So instead of bombing raids and death camps, this Fall is strung along events such as a road rage incident, one so minor he acknowledges himself that those who witnessed it would soon forgot it happened.

To do otherwise would tie the novel to a specific era, when it wants to make its concerns more about the modern condition in general. Were it the War we’d soon be telling ourselves that people were driven to terrible things in those terrible times only to survive, and reassuring ourselves that we are lucky to be living now. There would be a barrier between us and the text.

Of course Camus is not Clamence, and his purpose isn’t to stop us helping the blind cross the road. In fact, the sequence where Clamence refuses to aid the Resistance, when Camus was widely known for taking the contrary course, seems to consciously oppose the two. The precis on GoodReads says:

“His… discomforting monologue gradually saps, then undermines, the reader's own complacency.”

And this seems pretty good description of authorial intent. I suspect you’re intended to go through a process, first considering shutting your ears, but finally decide to engage head-on with his anti-moralist tirade. His purpose is to expose and then burn away that complacency, all the false and performative actions until hopefully some core is left at the end which will hopefully be true meaningful action.

I found, however, I wasn’t reading things that way. I had a tendency to think “ah, the Devil, there he goes again”, like getting a repeat tele-sales call. True, he does a better job of setting out this stall than some alt.right nut baying about “virtue signalling”. But that’s just to talk about style. It can feel a little like getting a poet to pen a tele-sales script, it’s comes to be worded so much more evocatively but is ultimately still about flogging you wares.

Evil - at least to me - is not richly seductive, mellifluous in its malevolence. The effects of evil may be terrible. But evil itself is fundamentally banal. Donald Trump, for example, is someone rich and powerful who would like to become more rich and powerful than he already is. Less Mephistopheles spouting infernal wisdom, more a simple-minded boorish braggart. Falsehoods are not beautiful, as in the opening quote, but easy and cosy. Had Clamence approached me in a bar with his patter, I’d have just made my excuses. There’s better things to do in Amsterdam…

Saturday, 8 October 2022

“A MEANINGLESS QUESTION”: CAMUS’ ‘THE OUTSIDER’





When I came to read Sartre’s post-War Road To Freedom trilogy (starting here), I devoured it like a meal prepared specially for me. Then when I came to his pre-War ’Nausea’, I was constantly chewing, and sometimes re-chewing, without ever successfully digesting anything. And I seem to now be having a similar reactor to Camus’ ’The Outsider’. (Though it was written during the war, 1942 to be precise.)

In ’The Plague’, a game is played over who is writing the novel. Ostensibly, it’s one of the characters. But stylistically we’re aware that it can only have come from an accomplished writer. Here, like a character actor putting on an accent, Camus takes the tone of his first-person narrator, Meursault.

Which means that from the first, ’The Outsider’ is written in the most flat and direct prose. It’s more the tone of a police report than a novel. While at the same time his unreliability as a narrator is never forgotten; he often fails to hear things, or makes assumptions which he later concedes must have been mistaken. And there’s no more clear-cut way to get this over than starting the novel with the blunt announcement “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.”

And this implies the central paradox. We see Meursault only through his reactions to other characters and events, to which he has precious little reaction. This leads to the most famous passage of the novel, possibly of Camus’ writing:

“She asked me, a moment later, if I loved her. I answered that it didn’t mean anything, but that I probably didn’t love her. She seemed sad. But while preparing lunch, for no reason at all she suddenly laughed in such a way that I kissed her.”

Camus giving up his prose is like a talented artist reverting to stick figures. It seems such a sacrifice to make, there must surely be a very good reason for doing it. And so inevitably we set to work with what we have, and try to parse Meursault’s lack of reaction. So those limitations are inevitably passed onto the reader.

Though it’s clearly intended as a shocking twist, we’re now no more able to read this novel not knowing of the murder than we are watch ’Citizen Kane’ and wonder who Rosebud is. A friend has got into a feud with an Arab, leading to Meursault taking the guys’s gun from him. But then later, Meursault returns to the spot and shoots the Arab himself.

We saw how some were keen to find an anti-fascist message into ’The Plague’. Unsurprisingly they do the same here. Meursault’s non-explaining is to be associated with the occupation of France. At a time when more active resistance was impossible, silence became a form of non-collaboration. Which at times it did. But, even if we could take murdering an Arab as an anti-fascist gesture, it’s simply untrue to say that Meursault stays silent or is wilfully uncompliant. As we’ll see, he explains things as well as he’s able.

A character in ’The Plague’ rails against capital punishment, clearly ventriloquising Camus’ own view. Yet in this book where capital punishment plays so central a role there’s no innocent party under injustice, nor even (as they’d commonly be understood) any mitigating circumstances. Meursault is guilty. He shoots someone. He tells us so himself. The trial has a different purpose.

First, let’s note that the moment is literally pivotal. We jump straight from the shooting to preparations for the trial, a consequence made to seem inevitable. And at this point the narrative effectively flips over, from Meursault talking about others without making any real effort to understand them, to a trial in which the officials talk about him the same way.

Guilt being established, they jump straight to talking about whether the crime was premeditated. But, with no real means to establish this, they jump to an assessment of his character. And so they spend more time discussing his response to his Mother’s death than the shooting.

Small details, such as his accepting a cup of coffee while sitting up with the body, are seized on. Which is strangely extra-diegetic, like the second half of a book is handed over to critics of the first half. It’s decided that he displayed insufficient mourning at the funeral, so should be guillotined. Hence Camus’ oft-repeated gag "in our society any man who does not weep at his mother's funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death."


What are we to make of all this? In 1947, Sartre provided an Explication. (Which can be read here.) Camus himself wrote an afterword in 1955. Both suggesting the short novel was unfinished business.

Camus himself said “the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” And, ostensibly at least, this is easy enough. He has simply failed to provide the outward signs of mourning which society requires. We are dealing with a free thinker, scorning such performative rituals, who follows his own maps, who loved his Mother in his own way and will mourn her similarly.

And certainly the alternate translation of the title, ’The Stranger’, works better. Meursault is shown to be living in a large town, holding down a regular job, eating in restaurants and going to the beach. He’s not outside of society, but estranged from it.

And this misreading is made more dangerous by being so neat and thereby so appealing. Let’s take the quote above in full. Asked straight out if he’d “felt any grief on that day” he replies “I’d rather got out of the habit of analysing myself and that I found it difficult to answer his question. I probably loved mother quite a lot, but that didn’t mean anything”. It isn’t always noticed that the first part is reversed from his comment about his mistress. But what’s salient is what stays the same, “that didn’t mean anything”.

It’s not the conventions around it but the human connection itself which is being questioned, seen as absurd. Ultimately it’s impossible to truly know whether he loved his Mother, for him as much as for us. We take on habits, perform rituals, diarise to send a card on Mother’s Day, with which we try to paper over this space. While Meursault lives with the space.

Unsurprisingly more fulsome, Sartre found significance in the writing style, pointing out how it differed from regular Camus. He saw it’s aim as: 

“…to insert a glass partition between the reader and his characters. Is there really anything sillier than a man behind a glass window? Glass seems to let everything through. It stops only one thing: the meaning of his gestures. The glass remains to be chosen. It will be the Stranger’s mind, which is really transparent, since we see everything it sees. However, it is so constructed as to be transparent to things and opaque to meanings.”

And he relates this to Camus’ predilection for reported speech:

”Camus irons out the dialogue, summarises it, renders it frequently as indirect discourse. He denies it any typographic privileges, so that a spoken phrase seems like any other happening.”

He uses the above-quoted famous passage as an example of this. We’re not told “my saying I didn’t love her made her sad”. We’re told “I answered that… I probably didn’t love her. She seemed sad” - this then that, as if the two events might have happened co-incidentally, with no causal link. Which he describes as “the discontinuity between the clipped phrases that imitate the discontinuity of time.” We use novels, perhaps texts in general, as tools to make things more explicable to us. This does the reverse.

In the Court both Prosecution and Defence create their own Meursaults. In opposition to one another but both explicable within their system. To do this they must exclude the real Meursault. Hence his comment that the process seems to have nothing to do with him. They combine to form what he describes as a mechanism, one from which he must escape but cannot.

With Rieux in ’The Plague’ we are guided to imagine he has ‘hidden depths’, there are things about him which we only glimpse as he focuses on recounting external events. The challenge is to find Rieux the man inside Rieux the narrator, stitching him out of hints and clues.

Meursault conversely, is the subject of his own story. And the challenge is to accept that these few bald statements are all there is of him, though they seem so inadequate. When asked whether he loved his Mother, for example, there is no more to him than the answer he gives.

And, as had Sartre’s own ’Age of Reason’, the novel ends on a point of realisation. He recognises his situation is absurd and accepts “the benign indifference of the universe.”

This is, insofar as I can tell, the intended reading. But there’s a problem with it. It does precisely what the Court did, jumps back to the funeral by leapfrogging over the murder. In a long essay Sartre uses ‘murder’ once and ‘kill’ twice. It comes to be treated as a merely precipitating event, we need a crime in order to get to the trial.

We don’t just look out. In a sense our minds detach from us and we look at ourselves as an outside thing, in order to make sense of ourselves to ourselves. Whereas Meursault seems as much a stranger to himself as anyone else is. In Sartre’s terminology, he is to himself a fact he perceives without being able to grasp its meaning. A situation he calmly accepts.

The Court questions whether it was premeditated or impulsive. Go back to the murder scene, and it’s one of the few passages which seems to have been written by Camus in his own voice. The main word for which would be ‘feverish’. When asked why he shot the Arab, he can only talk about the sun being hot. Which provokes laughter, but seems his best effort to explain it. (And the sun’s fever-inducing powers on the human mind also appears in his story story ’The Renegade’.)

Which is neither of the Court’s options. The nearest to them would be compulsive. Circumstances drove him to it, even if they were chance circumstances. He speaks of being “pushed” by the sun, (“the whole beach was reverberating against me and pushing against me from behind”) and wanting to seek shelter. But he can’t get to the rocks while the Arab, his antagonist, is there. One way of reading the scene would be that his craving was for solitude, the only way of achieving which was by removing other people.

Sartre comments “If there were a grace of absurdity, we would have to say that he has grace.” And there are times you can see what he means…

“He then asked me if I wasn’t interested in changing my life. I replied that you can never change your life, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t at all dissatisfied with mine here.”

And perhaps my ultimate inability to parse the book is this combination of murder with any form of grace. Meursault seems to me to be exhibiting less grace than a deficiency, or at most a passive acceptance of the problems existence throws at us.

Readers will need to ask themselves if they can manage this. My answer would be “it’s a meaningless question, but probably not”. To me, human relations are les external forces we encounter, like hills and valleys, but things we create between us, like roads and bridges. And there’s no reason to see the things we create as any less real, any less solid in our lives, than the things we encounter.

Further, the tale unavoidably rests on the notion that the victim is “only” an Arab, that the game hands Meursault cards to play that could spare him the guillotine, cards that would not be awarded were the roles reversed, in order for us to watch him indifferently decline to play those cards.

Two of Camus’ three novels and several of his short stories are set in Algeria, and its sense of place is often evoked. But out of his Arab characters this is quite possibly the main one, and soon after appearing he’s dispatched in order to precipitate the plot. The emphasis is all on that Meursault killed, the who deemed unimportant.

So, much like ’The Plague’ later, exploitation of the colonised Algerians isn’t shied away from. But it is simply assumed, taken as a fact of life. We’ve all heard a lot lately about there supposedly being no need to say Black Lives Matter. Here there is a need to say Arab Lives Matter, but at the same time there would be no point. The Arab character isn’t even granted a name.

From the little I could glean from ’Nausea’, it’s about a first-person narrator who comes to accept the essentially arbitrary nature of reality, where the only meanings are the ones we impose upon it. Perhaps Sartre was disposed to speak up for ’The Outsider’ because he sensed a similar intent. ’The Stranger’ gets closer to that, but is pretty much the definition of problematic.

Saturday, 1 October 2022

15 YEARS OF LUCID FRENZY!

 Yes, 'twould seem Lucid Frenzy has hit its fifteenth anniversary. I thought about how to celebrate this momentous moment. Then thought that I'd write a post saying that Lucid Frenzy has hit its fifteenth anniversary. This is it, in fact.

Saturday, 24 September 2022

‘THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH’

By Flabbergast Theatre
The Old Market, Hove, Thurs 15th Sept


I’d found my seat and sat in it before I realised the performers were already on stage. Acting out, it would seem, a scene from Bedlam. Everyone having some psychotic episode of their own, oblivious to those around them, switching arbitrarily from one extreme mental state to another. This was doubtless intended to establish the dark mood, and did.

They performed in identical non-costumes with minimal props, and no staging save for the drums and gongs the company played themselves. ‘Performers’ works better than ‘actors’ here. They’d cavort, leap and gesture wildly, like something from an Expressionist painting. And strike tableau poses, for which I’m not sure if there’s a name. They’d not just make up a pattern but combine together to form a single shape, like a gestalt creature. The poster image came from one of these (the witches at work, as you may have guessed), and was what first piqued my interest.

We’re now used to naturalistic versions of Shakespeare. Which probably started as a righteous reaction to the stiff-backed, tights-clad RP recitals of luvvieland, but has long since become as ritualised in its own way. So reacting against this, with a very physical, very ritualised approach may well be wise. Rather than be desperate to ‘contemporise’ a Jamesian play it almost looked back. While part of the company went through with their lines, the rest acted as a kind of Greek chorus.

At times it seemed to be riffing on popular notions of “the Scottish play’”, that the whole thing is an extension of the witches scene, some sort of dark, malevolent spell. And if the whole play is the witches while we’re the fearful yet forever curious Macbeth, drawn in by that poster. (And remember, while ’Hamlet’ opens with characters talking about the ghost, ’Macbeth’ goes straight to the witches. Even though plot demands means it then has to go elsewhere, then come straight back to them.) And it was often nothing less than striking to watch.

But what Shakespeare is is psychological. Whether he was the first dramatist to get us interested in the interior life of his characters, or whether he was the one who got known for it, is probably moot at this point. We accept devices such as the heightened language because it aids his mission, gives us more of an insight into those character’s minds. Which means…

When Macbeth first encounters the three witches, in all their otherworldliness, the grand gestures of physical theatre work well. But when he hesitates to commit the crime, and has to be talked into it by his Missis, that’s quite a different kind of scene. The witches are, in some way or other, a personification of his ambition. While Lady Macbeth is a character in the play. We need to believe two people are standing on stage, debating, each with their own thought processes. Inevitably, the staging for this scene differs.

The programme states that Flabbergast “takes a rigorous and respectful approach to text, combining it with exhilarating aspects of live music and event performance.” Which seems a little like wanting it both ways, to be both an Expressionist painting and a faithfully realist sketch.

For one thing, the acrobatics of physical theatre often made it hard to hear the words, which were sometimes gabbled or delivered sing-song. I overheard one guy, who was reliant on lip-reading, saying he’d picked up not one line.

Is this circle unsquareable? I don’t think it is. But you need to go round it one way or the other.

For one way, we might argue that Shakespeare is now part of our folk culture. In the old Radio Four phrase, his works are already on the island. Not many of us now go to see ’Macbeth’ to see how ’Macbeth’ ends, after all. So he can be taken the way you would a folk tale. It’s not enough to say he’s open to re-interpretation, he’s become embedded, source material, so we can create works which only refer obliquely to him.

In a week when we’re all remembering Jean-Luc Godard, one of his maxims was “texts are death”. Meaning, I think, they constrain and stifle. DreamThinkSpeak’s version of ‘Hamlet’, ’The Rest Is Silence’ would be an example of this approach. (Note how it’s not named after the original play, but a quote from it.)

Or you can play up a problem until it becomes its own solution. In a ‘schizo style’ performance, where the two styles are deliberately set against one another, perhaps conveyed by something like lighting changes. The banquet scene, when Macbeth spies daggers and then not, is the closest to this. This is more or less how Cheek By Jowl managed ‘Ubu Roi’. 

As it was, Flabbergast gave a bold effort which didn’t entirely come off, something you wanted to like more than you actually did.