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Saturday, 13 January 2018

‘IMAGINE MOSCOW: ARCHITECTURE, PROPAGANDA, REVOLUTION’

Design Museum, London

In the world of my mind this post would have gone up straight after the Academy’s ‘Revolution: Russian Art’ show, rather than four months later. My planning it seems is scarcely any better than Stalin’s. But on the upside it does mark my starting to catch up on my art exhibition reviews. As an added inducement to the reader, this time each section… yes, really, each section… has it’s own opening quote, and not all of them are by Mayakovsky.


“The streets shall be our brushes, and the squares our palettes.”
- Vladimir Mayakovsky

On The Up
“Hey, you! Heaven! Off with your hat! I am coming!”
-Mayakovsky

Let’s cheat completely by starting with a work from another show – a film-clip from Friedrich Ermler’s ‘Fragment of an Empire’ (1921), shown in the Academy’s ’Revolution: Russian Art’. A solider is shown returning from the front to Petrograd. Almost like Rip Van Winkle, the long-bearded man arrives in a futuristic scenario which bewilders him.

To borrow from the show’s title, propaganda this film surely was. But was it not revolution but simply a lie, a mask for brute realities? In fact the truth... the actual truth of these times is more complicated. And so, inevitably, was the art.

This show is based around six unrealised architectural projects, all intended for Moscow. (Which had become the Russian capital shortly after the revolution.) This takes it somewhere different to the Academy’s ‘Building the Revolution’ exhibition, which was concerned with the history of buildings which had survived.

In exhibition book Jean-Louis Cohen’s essay ‘Lissitzky’s “Amerikanizm”’ describes El Lissitzky’s role as a “travelling salesman” between East and West. It also reprints an essay of Lissitzky’s own, titled ‘”Amerikianism” in European Architecture’ (1925). 

America was a New World country which had largely pioneered the use of skyscrapers, greatly influencing Russian architects. But it was also an avowedly capitalist nation which refused to recognise the Soviet Union, which through the White Armies had actively tried to destroy it. Arguably, Lissitzky tries to square this circle when he insists “Europe today is more American than America itself”.

And being more American than America of course largely meant being bigger than America, bigger being simply another word for better. The pissing contest of the Cold War is already here in earnest. The Palace of the Soviets, for example, was not only designed to be the tallest building in the world (stealing the crown from the Empire State Building), but to be topped by a hundred metre statue of Lenin – despite the fact that the Moscow climate would mostly obscure it with clouds. A full-size reproduction of one of the fingers, four metres tall, is somewhat surreally on show. One section of the show is appropriately titled ’Colonizing the Sky’.

Yet if this show merely recorded the to’s and fro’s between two super-powers, which didn’t even divide in aesthetics much let alone ideology, it would be of academic interest only. Happily, that’s not the case…


We’re told skyscrapers were then often called “cloud pressers”. (Though not whether this was local to Russia or not.) And even that minor variant of the term is enough to revitalise the metaphor in your mind. For example Lissitzky’s ‘cloud iron’ buildings (above) have a distinct, megalith shape distinct from the geometric block or tapering tower we’re so used to. But that just leads us into the most significant thing about them...

He conceived of a ring of these around Moscow, people living up above while the street level was reserved for transit and communications. The city was to be not an accumulation of places which happened to be clustered together, but as a set of connecting nodes.

Meanwhile, ’The Problem of the Scientific Organisation of Life’ by Nikolay Kuzmin not only designed a model miners’ apartment house but broke down their day into blocks, some as short as two minutes. Or at least from rising at 6am to 5.25pm after which he indulgently decreed “from here life dictates it’s own timetable”. Worker’s lodgings are no longer a refuge from, but an adjunct to the workplace. They helpfully wake you up in the morning and switch your lights out at night. They regulate your non-working hours almost as thoroughly as your working ones.

Two conceptions seem at work, which are surely rivals. One is based around not just the workers taking over the existing Moscow, but building an entirely new Moscow better adapted to their needs. The city becomes almost a kind of steel exoskeleton built at their arms and legs. With the other, the new architecture is more a mould in which the worker is poured to shape him. Contemporary Architecture magazine called for new buildings “that creates new social types” (1928).

The human body is itself likened to a machine, the USSR Conference on Workers’ Vacations stating “like a machine a person needs repair and recuperation: socialist leisure restores the proletarian machine-body.” Recuperative Health Factories were to be built, such as the one Sokalov designed for tired Muscovites by the Black Sea. It’s scarcely uncoincidental that infographic reductions of the human form, not previously widely seen, become common. If the world was to be transformed man must be too, and in art at least transformed physically, made by tools into a tool.


And this is perhaps at it’s clearest in Valentina Kulagina’s poster ‘To The Defence of the USSR’ (1931, above), in which robotised figures march dynamically out of the frame. They could even be produced in that factory on the lower left, along with their planes and guns. These are salutary reminders that true dystopias are all failed utopias.

Perhaps armed with our knowledge of what came next, we cannot help but notice the distinction which we perceive as a clash. For example Rowan Moore’s Guardian review commented on how 
“designs of wild ambition combine with homages to science and pedantic prescriptions for dividing up a worker’s day.” But it’s a distinction which, largely speaking, we make that they didn’t. And we make it precisely because for us it’s happened, because we can look back on it. (This of course cycles back to what was said about the Revolution in the Academy show write-up.)

Architecture as Fantasy, Science As Fiction

By setting itself in Moscow the show bypasses the era's most famous example of unrealised architecture, the Tatlin Tower (which was intended for Petrograd). And this lays the ground for Tatlin’s influence over the show to be exceeded by that of his arch-rival, Malevich. Yet that happens in a surprising way…

One day I was confidently explaining that Malevich was unable to realise his Suprematist visions in three dimensional space, that threshold tableware wasn’t really a thing. Then pretty much the next show I see, and El Lissitzky is doing it like he doesn’t even see the problem. And in so doing he came to influence both the Bauhaus and De Stijl. This is perhaps at it’s most pronounced in his children’s book ’Of Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale’ (1922) where he anthropomorphises those two squares (after Malevich, one black, one red) into a narrative. It’s an indication of how little we need images to contain for us to ‘read’ them.



But more significant here are his diagrammatic, geometric Prouns (Project for the Affirmation of the New, the acronym works in Russian). These demonstrate how artworks and architectural diagrams overlap to the point where it’s impossible to see the joins. Compare his lithograph ‘Proun 1E (The City)’ (1919) to Gustav Klutski’s ‘Architectural Study’ (1921/2, both above). (A 3D version of the Proun is also on show, though made by Henry Milner in 2009.)

But then Suprematism, even in its ‘pure’ rarified form suggested motion and often pictorial depth, even when it lacked an actual Z axis. In the guidebook, Eszther Steierhoffer describes Malevich’s art as “implying a sensation of levitation”. The disciples were merely going where the master couldn’t follow, taking up his dynamic forms more than the heraldic black square he used in place of a signature. Take for example Ilya Chashnik’s ‘Vertical Axes in Motion’ (1922/3, below).


Chashnik also demonstrates how recurrent verticality is here, the indicia remarking on “aviation motifs featuring prominently.” The show is so stuffed with audaciously imaginative but unsurprisingly unrealised projects it would be hard to sort them, but a favourite of mine was Seregy Gruzenberg’s proposal for a ‘Columbus Flying Monument’ (1923) an aerial sculpture which, while huge in size, would have drifted around the Earth like a stray balloon.


The notion this verticality can become literally gravity defying, already incipient in the flat iron buildings, can be seen in spades in two photo-collages. In Rodchenko’s ’Circus Acrobats’ (1938, above) two trapeze artists appear in the heavens, past a rocket ship. While in Piotr Gladzhev’s photocollage ’Female Tennis Players’ (1924), the players look as though they’ve leapt up into the sky. Though I could only find an image for Rodchenko, Gladzhev may be the more radical. If one figure stands on the wing of a plane, the image still feels as though they have hurled themselves up to this height. It’s as if the more more involved they grew in their game, they less connected they became to the ground. It’s an image of dizzying exhilaration.

(Like the cloud-pressing skyscrapers, these images may belong to their era as much as their place. In America, Phoebe Jane Fairgrave – among others - would wow audiences not just by wing-walking but dancing the Charleston while up there. But the notable thing is how readily they do fit into their place.)

And this new architecture of verticality might remind us of the ‘future city’ of science fiction. Given that one of Russia’s main proto-revolutionary art movements was called Futurism, we might expect to see some of the futuristic side of science fiction here. But alongside such techno-fetishism its cosmic dimension is also present, whose concerns are almost – and sometimes literally become – eschatological.


For example Ivan Ledinov’s ’City of the Sun’ series, with their clusters of elegantly slender towers which may or may not be mirages, seem to exist in the interchange between Suprematism and science fiction. (See ’City of the Sun, Distant View’, 1943/59, above.) Some are painted simply on plain board, as if a form of science fiction folk art. Yet for all his spaciness, Ledinov still contributed designs for buildings -including the Lenin Institute and even the United Nations Building.



While in 1933 Yakov Chernikhov produced a book self-styled as ’101 Architectural Fantasies’. Some might have been vaguely realisable, at least to the degree that they vaguely resembled buildings. With others, such as No 57 (above), ‘architectural’ might seem merely a synonym for geometric. Certainly it looks as influenced by Kandinsky as by Malevich. Yet while Chernikhov made no architectural designs he produced a book on design theory. There’s also a slideshow of entries for the design of the 1924 Lenin Mausoleum, which show a huge variety not only in styles and approaches but in attitudes to viability. Not a few we’d regard as outsider art.

Why should this be? Why, when the period finally granted so many opportunities to build did people stick with paper fantasies? Why, when it threw up so many immediate problems, when bellies so often rumbled, did people seem so unconcerned with even making a division between the practical and the fantastical?

Of course this question takes us back to Malevich. As said of his Tate retrospective “he was tapping into some heightened realm of pure geometry, something which could only exist through being painted – but was no less 'real' for all that. His term Suprematism does not relate to 'superb' but 'above' or 'beyond'.”

Take that titular term ‘imagine’. It may conjure up images of John Lennon at his grand piano, of the innocently well-meaning, as hopeless as they were hopeful. Yet the crucial thing was that the chains that tied us to the old world were finally broken. Now we were living in the future, today was already tomorrow. What wasn’t possible immediately was sure to be so soon. 

We had brought an end to capitalism in order to stop merely imagining and start building, but it was more than that – we meant to unfetter our imaginations. This wasn’t an end to dreaming, it was the start of dreaming. “Demand the impossible” and “let imagination rise to power” were not Russian revolutionary slogans, they arose later. But their sentiment is widespread here regardless.

Making New Men + Women
“The proletariat must destroy the family as a prime device of oppression and exploitation”
-Nikolay Kuzmin, 1928

One of the most recognised icons of post-revolutionary Russia, perhaps second only to the Hammer and Sickle, is the muscled man in a cap brandishing a lump hammer. And the veneration of that strapping male worker can be quite unguardedly homoerotic. Mayakovsky, always able to sum things up in a choice quote, insisted in ‘27 “there is no more beautiful clothing in the world than the bronze of muscles and freshness of skin.” Which normally goes only one way. Traditionally in art the more man is associated with the machine, which was at least in part about making him appear ‘manly’, the more women are with nature.


Yet here we see the very opposite. My guess would be that, is out of any Modernist movement, Russian Futurism had the highest number of women artists. And their work was often explicitly liberational. Maria Bri-Bein’s ‘Woman Proletarian’ poster (1931, above), has as it’s full text “women proletarian, seize aircraft, go to schools and colleges of civil aviation”. But neither do we see the muscled-up women, the girls-can-be-boys, the ‘women can make it work’ of Rosie the Riveter. The woman pilot in this image holds not a hammer but a map. The main instruments she needs to fly that giant plane are that map and her brain. She doesn’t need to be as strong as machines because these days we have machines for that.

Equality between men and women had been declared as early as 1918. Yet as the show sagely states “the emancipation of women was ultimately aimed at adding women to the workplace”. A poster for “nurseries, playgrounds, kitchen factories, canteens and mechanical laundries” openly boasts that this way “we will get 1,600,00 new working women” (unknown artist, 1930). The Bolsheviks’ embracing of women’s emancipation from ‘women’s work’ was ultimately merely tactical.

In Britain, during both World Wars, labour shortages meant women were encouraged out of their traditional roles. The fact that this lasted for a more extended period in Russia just shows how much of a war footing society was on.

And even within the art world, as Futurism became Constructivism, as art became chiefly interested in its practical application, women artists started to separate off into more traditional ‘female’ media, such as textile design. As said of the Tate’s earlier ‘Rodchenko and Popova’ show: “It would be a simplification to suggest that Rodchenko designed buildings and Popova cups and saucers – but not that much of a simplification!... As you walk through their exhibition, you don’t entirely shake the feeling that women’s art was a variant of women’s work.” Women’s gains were not illusory, but at best limited and conditional.

The New Idolatry
”We say Lenin, but we mean the Party”
-Mayakovsky


Nikolay Kogout’s poster ’From Darkness To Light’, 1921, above), was designed as part of the official Liquidation of Illiteracy campaign. It’s full text reads “From Darkness to Light, From Battle to Book, From Misery to Happiness.” A gargantuan book stands open before some workers, pointed to by an orator in a red starred hat. Yet behind both is a cityscape, while greenery is pushed to the lower left of the composition.

And why? Illiteracy affected both workers and peasants, as emphasised in the text of another poster “Peasants and Workers! You Mastered the Rifle, Now Master the Quill” (1920, artist unknown). But as said over the Academy’s more recent ‘Revolution: Russian Art’ show: 
“to them, nature was now out, mysticism was now out”. 

If nature was made up of curves and inclines, then we wanted straight lines and sharp angled edges. There is more of a visual connection between the bold geometric letters, and the straight sides or pure curves of those buildings than there would be with a nature scene. Note how some of the buildings are themselves shown sporting text.

And this visual similarity reflected ideology. Urbanisation and literacy are both seen as other terms for modernisation. The book, the plan, the diagram, the cityscape – all are being equivocated.

And, from a Western perspective, there seems something going on akin to Protestantism. Protestantism used the printed word to quite literally overwrite the image, in a bid to obliterate Catholic iconography. It wanted to strip Churches of their finery and instead fill them with Bibles. And this opposition to the fetishisation of images often became a fetishisation of the printed word.

In another quote from the Academy review: “The plan itself seemed interchangeable with communism, an ordering of things in opposition to the free-for-all ‘anarchy’ of the market... Like the Bible to an orthodox Christian, the Plan became the book of answers which could not be questioned, the book so important as to require guarding by the clergy.”

So for all the denunciation of icons, the era became exceptionally adept at producing them. It’s true that while the population remained largely illiterate, it had to be reached visually. As said over the Academy show, “only the image was going to spread the word”. Yet the dictionary gives two definitions of the term ‘icon’, which essentially reduce to “devotional image” and “representative symbol” - Jesus on the cross and those figures on toilet doors.

Yet these definitions are in practice mingled. You might, for example, expect to see frequent images of Lenin. But within these he strikes the same few stock poses, like the red version of classic Christs. For example he’s often shown with one raised arm, the pose used on the exhibition poster up top. (An appalling poster to advertise a museum devoted to design, but never mind that now.) Sometimes he’s pointing up, sometimes with fingers outstretched as if reaching to shake hands with a giant. Whichever, the iconography is of an elevated figure gesturing still higher. All of which is accentuated by the way that his death merely multiplied the images made of him. Mayakovsky pronounced him “even now, more alive than the living”.


Mikhail Balyasny’s ‘We Will Make the USSR the Country of Socialist Industry and Electrification’ 
(1930, above) centralises this figure, but makes of it a bold red silhouette, like it should be so familiar as to not require filling in. While John Heartfield’s ‘Montage of Lenin Over Moscow’ (1931) projects that silhouette half across the city. In Alexander Medvedekin’s film ’New Moscow’ (1938) Lenin’s statue is shown from below, as banks of airplanes fly above him. It’s like with that upraised arm he’s conducting the whole affair from that lofty perch.


And yet this seems to vie with the frequently-used form of the photo-collage. Perhaps this partly comes from our inevitable tendency to contrast them with the smoothness of modern Photoshop images, but they look rough-hewn, manipulated into existence. And the result is that they assert boldly, not insinuate, they seem innately disruptive, unafraid of their propagandist role. In Valentina Kulagina’s cover to ’Krasnaya Niva No. 12’ (1930, above) the black and white figures are not only shoehorned into those gridded streets, and juxtaposed against their boldly colourful surroundings, thee’s no attempt to find aerial views of them. They look like a demo of people of vastly different sizes, all lying on their backs.

Plans Unrealised
”There is no final one; revolutions are infinite”
-Zamyatin

Of the six unrealised buildings, the Palace of the Soviets (the one Lenin’s huge statue was supposed to top) might serve best as a summary of its times. It was to be built on the site of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which Stalin had dynamited in 1931. The destruction was filmed, with lingering close-ups of its iconography as if parading its guilt. To complete the site’s trajectory, it’s fairly close to the spot where one of El Lissitzky’s cloud irons would have been.

The winning design was submitted by Boris Iofan, who had studied under Armando Brasini – a fascist architect favoured by Mussolini. Kaganovich, Stalin’s appointee to the Moscow Soviet, had effectively decreed that by virtue of the Revolution Russia was already Socialist, so any suggestion of further change was suspect if not actually counter-revolutionary. And this palace looks… well, like a palace. It’s described in the guidebook by curator Dejan Sudjac as “the Socialist Vatican”.

War put a halt to construction, though Sudjic suggests it’s grandiosity was unachievable anyway. Khrushchev later made the site into an open-air swimming pool. Then, from 1995, the original Orthodox Cathedral was rebuilt, and was where Pussy Riot performed their “punk prayer” protest. The swimming pool looks by far the best option. And I’m not even kidding. A brief film-clip suggests it was heated for year-round use, and shows bathers climbing out from the steam amid icicle-dripping rails.

But we already know Stalinism was despotic. A more interesting question might be – what does any of this mean for today? The show’s video comments how “the contemporary landscape is populated by their dreams and ideas”. We can find examples of this aplenty, such as ‘paper architects’, who don’t necessarily design to be built, now being much more common. 

But of course this merely betrays their weaknesses, rather than addressing their strengths. It portrays them as literally an avant garde, planning for a future who was only realisable later. Which is to suggest they were never really that radical, that disruptive, that all existing society needed to assimilate their innovations was a little time. And yet our world is only their future in a linear sense. It’s a world they would neither want nor even recognise.

It’s like a window had cleared, and it was briefly possible to peer through into a future different from the present, before it occluded again. Looking at those city plans arranged around a bending river inevitably makes you try and project how it would have been had all this been happening in London. As the show amply demonstrates, there’s no neat transposing from then to now, no merely taking up of old blueprints. But hopefully one day we shall find out.

Coming soon! From Moscow to Washington…

Friday, 5 January 2018

‘THE COMPANY OF WOLVES’

The deep midwinter seemed the right time to post this. Beware, those who keep to this path, of eyebrows that meet and YE OLDE PLOT SPOILERS


Us aesthetes have all become somewhat used to leaving cinemas sagely proclaiming “of course it wasn’t as good as the book”. Because of course a book springs from a single brain, while by necessity a film reaches us through many cooks. But like any rule exceptions apply…

‘The Company of Wolves’ (1984) originated in three short stories written by Angela Carter, and published in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979). And, despite lacking her strong prose style, rich without being flamboyant, it’s the film version which should be seen as definitive. For one thing Carter co-wrote the screenplay. (With director Neil Jordan, in his second ever feature.) Plus, rather than condensing down, it was able to extend and open up the original stories.

A 1980 radio version has already devised the nested structure; a reworking of Red Riding Hood (from which the film takes it’s title) becomes the main narrative, while the others are told diegitically by characters within it. The film then expanded the stories and built a framing device around this main narrative, where an adolescent girl in ‘our’ world is witnessed dreaming all this.

There’d been a spate of werewolf films at the start of the Eighties, mostly sparked by ‘American Werewolf in London’ (1981). But ‘Company of Wolves’ came later and was quite distinct from them. As the two titles suggest, one juxapositionally brought supernatural horrors into a recognisably modern world. While the other takes place within a fantastical world of forest-dwelling peasants. It’s unabashed symbolism and disinterest in realism is perhaps closer to films such as ‘Masque of the Red Death’ (1964). As Jordan put it: 
“The visual design was an integral part of the script. It was written and imagined with a heightened sense of reality in mind.”


But it doesn’t stop at such comparisons and often resembles fully fledged Surrealist films, such as Svankmajer’s ‘Alice’ (1988). And this is most obvious by the way the border between dream and waking worlds is not the neat airlock of the Narnian wardrobe but a porous and shifting hinterland. This is the very essence of what makes Carter’s work surreal, in fact it’s the very essence of Surrealism. Those floppy clocks and lobster telephones are merely its furniture.

As a primer of the film the FAQs on IMDB are surprisingly good, and can even be read through as an essay. But they also epitomise a common weakness. People rush to analyse the tales, as if the main story was merely somewhere to embed them.

Yet even the original stories are told with an active narrative voice, emulating folk tales, which already borders on metafiction. While this rush throws away the greater part of the film, which seems somewhat wasteful. Worse, it neglects a key question, in fact a key question whenever a story is being told – who is telling it and in what context. To quote Jordan again: 
“It's a film about storytelling, the central character being the grandmother [below]. It's about the use of stories.”


And who is this central character, and how does she use stories? She tells them to grand-daughter Rosaleen, dreamer Alice appearing in her own dream. Old she may be, but she’s no conservative. She’s frank speaking and distrustful of priests. Her wedding story, as with all her stories, is gender based - the wronged peasant woman made pregnant then ditched by the toff. But it’s also about class. The wedding party contains women beyond the obligatory bride. And, once they’re all transformed into beasts (below), the all-male servants bow courteously to the witchy peasant woman then open a bottle of bubbly for themselves. Here the predatory, animalistic wolves are the upper classes, their manners and fine ways a thin disguise for the most ravenous canines.


While the marriage story (above) might initially seem Freudian. We all know how horror films work, surely this writes itself. In his wedding bed, at the height of his ardour the amorous husband transforms into a savage beast. But not only is that not what happens, it’s strangely ambiguous when his transformation takes place. Ostensibly, he’s taken by wolves on the eve of his nuptials, when he nips out for a piss. Yet he’s played as a shady character from the get-go, skulking in the shadows rather than eager to get conjugal, pointedly described from the outset as “a travelling man”. His line about a “call of nature”, made after he spies the full moon, suggests he leaves the hut in order to become a wolf rather than have it happen to him. He is, in short, suspect from the start.


But perhaps most interesting is the story of the lad who meets the Devil (above). Here puberty isn’t a change which comes from within but is imposed from without. And, like any gift from the Devil, promises power but soon turns into something agonising. And of course puberty can feel like that to someone undergoing it; changes are sprung on you without you asking for them or even necessarily understanding what they are.

The through line is that Grandma’s stories, like her life, follow custom. She tells Rosaleen “never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle.” The peasant woman should have avoided getting pregnant, the husband stayed indoors and pissed in a pot, the lad not gone out and met the Devil.

While held in opposition to the Grandmother is the Mother. They’re in precisely two scenes together, the funeral and the church, and they interact in neither. Rosaleen comments to her Mother “she may not have a kind word for you, but she's always been good to me.” The oroginal script (published in ’The Curious Room’, 1997) spells out “she’s Daddy’s Mummy, and you took her beloved boy away from her.”

And, rather than tell any stories of her own, her Mother flatly warns Rosaleen not to believe in the things. “You pay too much attention to your Granny. She knows a lot, but she doesn't know everything…. If there is a beast inside every man, he meets his match in the beast inside of every woman."

It’s not a film which reduces to one reading. And one of those readings would be that it sums up the paradox of parenting by splitting it into two characters. The Grandma is protective, the Mother enabling. When at Grandma’s Rosaleen sleeps in her bed. When at home, she watches from her own bed as her parents make out. Grandma tempers the child’s natural curiosity with cautionary tales, the Mother literally demonstrates to her the facts of life. Carter has described the stories as “Granny’s strategy to keep the child to herself.”

But there’s another reading… Carter’s interest in folk tales later extended to compiling two collections for Virago. In her introduction to the first (1991) she points out “a European convention of an archetypal female storyteller, ‘Mother Goose’ in English, ‘Ma Mere L’Oie’ in French, an old woman sitting by the fireside, spinning...”

And Grandma, described in the script as “an anachronistic old lady”, is that archetype - the voice of folk tradition. The parents, the sister... all are dream counterpoints to real world characters. Even the wolf relates to the family dog. Whereas Grandma reduces to a doll in the child’s room, which smashes and reveals itself to be an empty vessel.

In Marina Warner’s introduction to the second collection (published the following year to the first and, sadly, after Carter’s death) she says of their compiler “she turns topsy-turvy some cautionary folk tales and shakes out the fear and dislike of women they once expressed to create a new set of values, about strong, outspoken, zestful, sexual women who can’t be kept down.” And indeed many of the tales do spell out the dire consequences of not following custom. The African ’Tale of An Old Woman’, for example, ends “she dwelt in poverty till she died, because she did not heed the instruction given to her by the tree.”

The film takes on the conceit of a modern adolescent girl encountering the old folk tales, and trying to make sense of them. (We’re to assume, I think, this is a fresh encounter. So she’s somehow skipped the emaciated Disney versions.) Naturally she does this by, through her imagination, entering their world. But she enters it not as a passive witness but with her own mind. Told early in the film that her sister had no-one to save her from the ravanous wolves she replies “why couldn’t she save herself?”


So she starts to tell her own stories. Which correlates to her going off the path. She’s already intuited a part of her lies out there in the forest. The first time she strays, we naturally expect a horror film scenario to ensue, akin to her sister’s earlier demise. Instead the film switches on us, from Freudian to Jungian, as she finds the nest of eggs (above). When they crack open to reveal mini-statues of human babies, she calmly takes one home to show her mother, unconcerned by the threat of wolves which has everyone else so exercised.


Then the next time, she does meet the wolf - disguised as a huntsman (above). While others follow the customary routes, he makes his own paths and boasts of the compass which allows him to do so. The film associates horror with modernity, the Devil is shown chauffeur-driven in a Rolls Royce. And the compass is presented, quite literally presented, as a novel object.

She doesn’t defeat the wolf by virtue, in fact she willingly burns the protective red shawl her Granny has knitted her. Nor doe she defeat him by ingenuity. (Or rather she does, then decides not to press her advantage.) But neither does the wolf corrupt her. Instead she tells it a story. 

There’s been a kind of transitional point where she tells a story to her mother, but repeats one of Grandmas. This one is hers. It both articulates her dilemma and accentuates the nature of a thing between. It’s about a she-wolf who attempts to return to “the world above”. But of course she can’t. Unrecognised, she’s shot at. Ironically only the Priest gets it. “Are you God's work, or the Devil's? Oh, what do I care whose work you are?”

In this, a fantasy scenario to explain her situation, inside a fantasy scenario to explain her situation, lies the central paradox of the film. Finding him a better option than the “clowns” of her village, she willingly corrupts herself. Rosaleen has hit on that ‘horror’ is really maturity. But she also knows the one aspect of it that is genuinely horrific, that it’s a one-way street. If she runs off with the wolf, there’s no coming back.

And adolescence is like this. Her bedroom (in the real world) mixes up make-up and dresses with teddy bears. Described in the script as “adolescent turbulence”, it’s itself a thing between. In the earlier radio version she describes herself: “I’m twelve going on thirteen, thirteen going on fourteen… the hinge of your life, when you’re neither one thing nor the other, not child nor woman, some magic inbetween thing, an egg that holds its own future.”

And the setting is like this. The original stories are all set in winter and frequently at the solstice, with provides the same metaphor. The radio version describes it as “the hinge of the year, the time when things don’t fit well together, when the door of the year is sufficiently ajar to let all kinds of beings that have no proper place in the world slip through”. And the film is like this, a mash-up of surrealist art movie with cheap horror flick. Carter had described it as “perpetually in flux”.

And werewolves are the epitome of this. Earlier the father chops a forepaw from a wolf, which becomes a human hand. Seeing more curious than afraid, Rosaleen asks him if it should be buried or thrown on the fire - and he responds by doing the latter. But this is clearly a get-out, a way of ridding yourself of the thing and thereby denying its uncategorisable nature. Later she asks the Huntsman essentially the same question:

“Are you our kind, or their kind?” 
“Not one kind or the other. Both.” 
“Then where do you live? In our world, or in theirs?” 
“I come and go between them. My home is nowhere.”

If Grandma’s cautionary tales always portray men in a negative light, the problem isn’t that this unfairly disparages the male sex. In this female-centred film, it’s that this world of custom becomes limiting to Rosaleen – and so she decides to leave. Normally, you need to qualify the distinction between female-centred and feminist. It may be refreshing and appealing that Katniss is the protagonist of ’The Hunger Games’ or Rey of ’The Force Awakens’, but that alone doesn’t make them feminist films. Here, quite happily, is one time you don’t.

The difference is that Rosaleen doesn’t just act heroically. In fact as she rejects the whole system of morality around her, arguably she doesn’t act heroically at all. But in a sense that’s the point. She takes herself as her subject, and refuses to accept a narrative which assigns her the role of innocent victim. In short, she liberates herself.

Yet at the same time there’s a sense of inevitability to it all. How could things have ended up any other way? It’s no hippyish celebration of ‘natural’ unbridled sexuality. In perhaps another echo of Surrealism sexuality is a form of power, which makes it transformative, but also a combination of dangerous and irrepressible. Rosaleen and the wolf take up a new life, which is not the same thing as living happy ever after.

Rosaleen comments sympathetically on the wolves howling because they’re out there in the cold, before she willingly goes to join them. And this seems to echo a passage in the original story:

“That long-drawn, wavering howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never cease to mourn their own condition. There is a vast melancholy in the canticles of the wolves, melancholy infinite as the forest, endless as these long nights of winter and yet that ghastly sadness, that mourning for their own, irremediable appetites, can never move the heart for not one phrase in it hints at the possibility of redemption.”

Carter also says in her her Virago introduction “if many stories end with a wedding, don’t forget how many start with a death.” And this film starts with a death, then ends with a (sort of) wedding that also is a kind of death. As the Magnetic Fields sang on ’I Was Born’ “growing older is killing a child.”

And the closing sequence, with the avaricious wolves bursting into Alice’s bedroom in the real world, perhaps illustrates the inherent danger of sexuality while literalising the idea maturity kills the child. And giving Alice and Rosaleen different names does suggest Rosaleen is not Alice transposed into a dream world, but a projection, the person Alice would like to be. 

Alas, however, it also seems a retreat into more conventional horror film fare. Asked about this in an interview, Carter smiled and replied “you’ll have to talk to Neil about that”. For her original script had Alice diving from her bed, the floor turning to water as she hits it. Which, as well as echoing the well of the Wolf Alice story, sounds a much more nuanced and ambiguous ending. In that ending the ‘real’ world is not invaded but distorts, becomes dream. 

Yet this had to be abandoned through cost concerns, and perhaps what we got was a workaround inserted simply because it was workable. Certainly, when you first watch the film it doesn’t seem to jar. The problems arise more as you reflect on it after the credits have run.

Otherwise unattributed quotes from 
this vidclip.

Friday, 29 December 2017

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY FINDS MORE GRAFFITI IN BRIGHTON'S NORTH LAINES...






...the North Laines being Brighton's token alternative zone. (As much as Yuppie Central has an alternative zone these days.) More... in fact more from the North Laines... will follow some other day. As before, full set on 500px.

This being my third go at posting to 500px. And frankly, it's a pile of crud. Despite marketing itself as the place for the aspiring pro (and constantly trying to flog you photo lessons) it can't get the basics right. As mentioned last time, it arbitrarily sets photos into it's own order. You can rearrange them back into your original order, albeit cumbersomely, but then it sometimes just decides to rearrange them back again anyway.

Plus, when you upload it arbitrarily decides you want certain photos to be 'private'. Why you'd want to upload a private photo onto a photo-sharing site on the internet, I'm not sure. But as it won't even tell you which individual photos it's done it to, you have to go through all of them making them public.

Monday, 25 December 2017

THE SEASON OF GOODWILL


“The painting depicts a stable.

“The stable is a grotto with curiously shaped stalactites. The light that breaks – or fractures – through the cave is Chib’s red. It penetrates every object, doubles its strength, and then rays out jaggedly. The viewer, moving from side to side to get a complete look, can actually see the many levels of light as he moves, and thus he catches glimpses of the figures under the exterior figures.

“The cows, sheep and horses are in stalls at the end of the cave. Some are looking with horror at Mary and the infant. Others have their mouths open, evidently trying to warn Mary. Chib has used the legend that the animals in the manger were able to talk to each other the night Christ was born.

“Joseph, a tired old man, so slumped he seems backboneless, is in a corner. He wears two horns, but each has a halo, so it’s all right.

“Mary’s back is to the bed of straw on which the infant is supposed to be. From a trapdoor in the floor of the cave, a man is reaching to place a huge egg on the straw bed. He is in a cave beneath the cave and is dressed in modern clothes, has a boozy expression, and, like Joseph, slumps as if invertebrate. Behind him a grossly fat woman, looking remarkably like Chib’s mother, has the baby, which the man passed on to her before putting the foundling egg on the straw bed.

“The baby has an exquisitely beautiful face and is suffused with a white glow from his halo. The woman has removed the halo from his head and is using the sharp edge to butcher the baby…

“The onlookers are struck in their viscera as if this was not a painting but a real infant, slashed and disemboweled, found on their doorsteps as they left home.

“The egg has a semitransparent shell. In it’s murky yoke floats a hideous little devil, horns, hooves, tail. Its blurred features resemble a combination of Henry Ford’s and Uncle Sam’s. When the viewers shift to one side or the other, the faces of others appear: prominents in the development of modern society.

“The window is crowded with wild animals that have come to adore but have stayed to scream soundlessly in horror. The beats in the foreground are those that have been exterminated by man or survive only in zoos and natural preserves. The dodo, the blue whale, the passenger pigeon, the quagga, the gorilla, orangutan, polar bear, cougar, lion, tiger, grizzly bear, Californian condor, kangaroo, wombat, rhinoceros, bald eagle.

“Behind them are other animals and, on a hill, the dark crouching shapes of the Tasmanian aborigine and Haitian Indian…

“Ruskinson’s red face and scream of fury are transmitted over the fido...

“INSULT! SPITTLE! PLASTIC DUNG! A BLOW IN THE FACE OF ART AND A KICK IN THE BUTT FOR HUMANITY! INSULT! INSULT!”

“Why is it such an insult, Doctor Ruskinson?” the fido man says. “Because it mocks the Christian faith and also the Panamorite faith? It doesn’t seem to me it does that. It seems to me that Winnegan is trying to say that men have perverted Christianity, maybe all religions, all ideals, for their own greedy self-destructive purposes, that man is basically a killer and a perverter. At least that’s what I get out of it, although of course I’m only a simple layman, and...”

“Let the critics make the analysis, young man!” Ruskinson snaps. “Do you have a double Ph.D., one in psychiatry and one in art? Have you been certified as a critic by the government?”

From ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’ by Philip Jose Farmer

Saturday, 23 December 2017

‘THE LAST JEDI’

(aka ‘Should We Screw With Star Wars Lore, That Is the Question’. Another Not A Proper Review At All, which includes PLOT SPOILERS, not just for this film but dragging in some from ‘Rogue One’.)


First the confession – I was never that big a Star Wars fan. True, when the original, recently rechristened ‘A New Hope’, came out I lapped it up. But I was ten at the time. Such a long time ago it might as well have happened in a galaxy far away. I later came to put away ten-year-old things. Truth be told, every time I see it top a film poll I cringe.

So, before seeing ‘Force Awakens’ I was convinced it would be terrible. Bizarrely, the film that pioneered today’s deluge of marketing campaigns and multi-media tie-ins did have an innocence at it’s heart, which would not be easy to recapture. Star Wars might have been simple, but it wasn’t as easy as it looked. It soon had a welter of copycats, and I’m guessing only the most obsessive fan could now name even a couple of them. Years down the road? Of course it’s going to end up a mere re-enactment, something which looked like Star Wars but felt nothing like it.

Star Wars isn’t just an adventure story, it’s like it’s made up of adventure story concentrate. If I call the series the Coca-Cola of cinema I’m not actually being snarky. Well, not entirely snarky anyway. Like Coca-Cola it’s about being bright and iconic, about being instantly classic, about the experience rather than the taste. And like Coca-Cola the actual taste doesn’t vary much from serving to serving. The very problem with ‘Phantom Menace’ was that it attempted to rebrand Coca-Cola as a drink for sophisticates. Which it wasn’t, and bringing up the notion just spoilt what taste it had.

So the chief criticism of ‘Force Awakens’, that it was just more Star Wars, is actually not it’s weakness but its success. Yes it does deliver the beats of the first trilogy with slight variants, but that’s the thing that makes it Star Wars. After the prequels it was was like bringing back the old Coke. And the result is probably my personal favourite Star Wars film.

Then, before seeing ‘Rogue One’, I was convinced it would be terrible. It ticked all those boxes which were better left unticked. It’s ostensible purpose seemed to be to solve a continuity glitch. How did the rebels get the plans to the Death Star? A question which no-one has ever asked, so it seemed unclear why we needed a whole movie devoted to answering it.

Plus it was clearly applying the Snyder formulation – more grimdark = more mature = better. Well, Snyder formulation, everything you just said was wrong. We have the news for grimdark. Try to make a more mature ten year old and you just lose the ten year old. How to tell if it’s a Star Wars film... Ask yourself the question “can you feel the Force?” In ‘Rogue One’ only one, quite minor, character uses the stuff despite it supposedly being in and around everything.

And truly, it was strange watching a film tesselate so neatly against ‘New Hope’, as if continuity links had been elaborately yet pointlessly made between ‘The Never Ending Story’ and ‘Game of Thrones’.

But what it really was, was a war movie in Star Wars clothing. In the way you could re-use the sets from a sitcom for a brooding Ibsenesque psychological drama. Characters see themselves as parts of a larger struggle, and are not only willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good but actually die as a result. Rather than leaping from the jaws of defeat at the last moment, because the physical laws of their universe reward good deeds. (Jedi don’t count, as they “go to the Force” or some such, and show back up for cameos.) And as a war movie in space it was highly successful.

Whereas Star Wars draws quite a deep line between starring and supporting characters. Ultimately it’s about family not society, even if its stories are galaxy sized. Its leading characters are treated like royalty, even the once who aren’t actually given titles. Like a cosmic version of the pathetic fallacy, the outer world just exists to externalise their thoughts and conflicts.

Hence when Luke opens a Jedi “school”, for all we see Ren is his only pupil. (Though maybe that was just for the funding applications.) Hence when Poe says to Finn “you must have a thousand questions” he simply replies “where’s Rey?” Hence why, when Rey tells Luke she’s bringing him a message from the Rebellion, he responds “why are you here?” Personal motivation is all that counts. Rebellions are just pegs to hang it on.

When Finn tries a dose of ‘Rogue One’ style noble self-sacrifice, he’s derailed by Rose and told in no uncertain terms “I saved you, dummy. That’s how we’re going to win — not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” It’s true she doesn’t specifically use the Force, but it’s so consistent with a Force-centred universe. Finn has simply forgotten the place he’s in, and has to be reminded.

So far, so Star Wars. Yet, bizarrely, it comes shortly after Admiral Holdo has sacrificed herself for the greater good! While it’s a direct sequel to ‘Force Awakens’, ‘Last Jedi’, also comes after ‘Rogue One’. And, like a student of two masters, it struggles to find the balance. Tonally it shifts, caught between a levitating rock and a hard place.

Take the introduction of the arms dealers, one per centers who’ve grown rich by supplying both sides. Before this, weapons were either highly significant heirlooms or stuff which just happens to be lying around at opportune moments. Money is just there so we can have a visual symbol of greed; it’s use is accumulating into riches, no-one needs it for living expenses. Now, suddenly, it’s revealed guns and spaceships have to be manufactured and sold.

Sometimes the film seems to be setting up this tonal clash to exploit it. The key line in ‘Force Awakens’, trailered in the trailer, was Han’s “it’s true, all of it”. The key line this time, trailered in the trailer, is Luke’s “this is not going to go the way you think.”

Poe first thinks Admiral Holdo is a gutless coward who’d rather run than fight, whereas in fact she’s brave when brave is called for but also smart when that’s required. Hence his adventurous but uncomprehending plot to go to the place to get the thing with the symbol on it then bring it all the way over there to throw it into the fiery pit at the heart of evil Mordor or whatever it was this time… anyway, that plan… that’s why it goes awry. They get the wrong thing with the wrong symbol, don’t carry it out and make the whole thing worse. A bit like a crazy, half-cocked plan like that would actually work.

Similarly, Rey’s brave plan to bank everything on the good in Ren goes awry. Rey’s parents are just who she thought they were all along. Ren’s claim here might seem suspect, it’s a convenient argument for him to make at the time. But the underground scene, where instead of answers she sees only reflections of herself, suggests he’s telling the truth. 

Contrary to Star Wars, contrary to every fairy story ever, the poor orphan girl isn’t a secret Princess at all. As everything up to now has been to suggest being a Jedi was a hereditary position, this above all things seems deliberately intended to screw with Star Wars lore. (At times it feels like the parallel storylines are channelling ’Force Awakens’ and ’Rogue One’ respectively, allowing us to have both. Yet this structure is set up only to be scuppered.)

But at others the film seems to be being made up from moment to moment. Overall, it feels like, with rival hands from two rival predecessors tugging at the wheel, the car’s going to be careering hopelessly, so they might as well capitalise on that and tell us to hang on for the ride. Necessity becomes innovation, bug becomes feature. As Rey says, you can sense the conflict in it.

I suppose I could finish this non-review by saying I expected ‘Last Jedi’ to be a worthy successor to ‘Force Awakens’ but actually found it terrible. Just, you know, to be neat. But that’s not really the case. I didn’t bother writing about ’Force Awakens’ and did about this film, which says something in itself.

And in fact those arguing the drawback of ‘Force Awakens’ was that it was too neat, too safe, and that this sequel is more compelling…. well, they have a point. Some elements work well, such as the ‘connection’ between Ren and Rey, both assuming they can bring the other over to their side. But ultimately if ’Force Awakens’ worked better ’Last Jedi’ is more interesting. Star Wars may be less classic but livelier for ’Rogue One’ chucking a live grenade in its midst.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

‘THE SCENE HAS BEEN’: ANOTHER SPOTIFY PLAYLIST


This Spotify playlist is guaranteed festive free. Sinister Dada punks the Cravats give us both our title and the accompanying Surrealist sightseeing tour illo. Sights along aforesaid tour include an archetypically melancholic Leonard Cohen strumming a lullaby to an avalanche, Thee Silver Mt Zion predicting Trumpageddon (and, slightly more cheerily, renewal), an unusually reflective Thurston Moore, old-time country pioneers the Carter Family blowing some chewing gum, the Magentic Fields discovering the Book of Love and finding it “long and boring”, and Patti Smith taking on the other wall which divides us. We speak of course of Wall Street. Vive L'anarchie! All culminating in what Can called a "Godzilla", a mighty piledriver riff that just won't quit. In tribute to the sad deaths this year of two Can founders, Jaki Liebezeit and Holger Czukay.

Leonard Cohen: Avalanche
Low: Embrace
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: What We Loved Was Not Enough
Thurston Moore: Smoke Of Dreams
Martin & Eliza Carthy: The Elephant
The Carter Family: Chewing Gum
Nick Drake: Know
The Last Poets: Black Wish
The Magnetic Fields: The Book Of Love
Wire: A Mutual Friend
The Cravats: Whooping Sirens
Pink Floyd: Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk
Patti Smith: Glitter In Their Eyes
CAN: Bubble Rap

”...but when I get there the scene has been...”



Saturday, 9 December 2017

ELIZA CARTHY & THE WAYWARD BAND/ STOCKHAUSEN: ‘TRANS’ (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

ELIZA CARTHY + THE WAYWARD BAND
St. George’s Church, Brighton, Fri 8th Dec



After a slightly mixed response to last seeing Eliza Carthy, I was in two minds over seeing this show. Then more recently, when seeing her in a duo with her father Martin, she thrust a flyer into my hand. While saying “I do hope you can come. My father and I never miss an update of your most splendid blog.” I have, I suspect, made some of that up. But it was still enough to make me go.

It was as different to the duo as grand is to intimate. With Martin, the times the two played together you were abundantly aware the sound was doubling up. While the Wayward Band number twelve, with two … count ‘em!, two accordion players. They line up on the back photo of the CD like the amassed servants of some old country house.

They pile into reels, jigs and shanties, lurching and careering to the point you expect the stage to start tipping. But alongside folk they draw on that other pre-rock music tradition. They can sound like a big band pounding out show tunes, even sporting that most un-folk possession a horn section. Their version of ’The Fitter’s Song’ must be the most big band an Ewan McCall song’s ever sounded. Though they wring musical variety from the multi-lineup, and ’Hug You Like A Mountain’ is as plaintive as any folk song you’ve heard.

It becomes a virtuous combination. You get the oomph and pizazz of the big band, but it never evens out the unruly raggedness of folk. Perhaps partly because the big band stuff veers to the more raucous, less refined end of the spectrum. In perhaps my most lowbrow comparison of all time, I was more than once reminded of ’The Stripper’.

It doesn’t sound much like Tom Waits, but has the same ability to punch out thumping beats or serve up killer tines while still coming from left field. The Wayward Band, I suppose I am trying to say, are wayward and band-like.

Official BBC sessions! (No shonky i-phone footage)...



STOCKHAUSEN: ‘TRANS’
Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London, Wed 6th Dec


Stockhausen seems to have had something of a penchant for formal structures, with opening piece ’Zodiac’ divided into a series of mini-compositions representing each star sign. This unfortunately gave it a bittiness, and overall it became something of a B feature. The programme explained it was originally written for music boxes, back in ‘74, and only much later reworked for orchestra. (So much later that there’s only ten movements, him dying before he could complete them.) And perhaps it worked better in that original format.

Anyone foolish enough to follow my infrequent forays into contemporary music will be aware I’m a know-nothing on music theory I just jump straight to the more subjective question of how hearing it makes me feel. Happily, then, that would seem about the best approach to ’Trans’ (1971).

A central conceit is that many of the musicians are hidden. You see the amassed string players, holding a tone not much more than a drone, while the brass are invisible to you. The rock music equivalent would be spotlighting the bass player while the singer and lead guitarist still do their stuff. Like a twist on a film, ideally you wouldn’t know that in advance. But even when you do, you cannot help but keep trying to reconcile what you see with what you hear. And that, somewhere between an interchange and a mismatch, seems where the work is set. The brass would rise above the strings but never quite break away from them, as if unable to finish what it built.

In a piece inspired by a dream, the string tone is reminiscent of the high-pitched whine films often employ to signify dream states. But also, with the many players repeating the same single movement like automata, it became like one of those fairy stories where the people of a land are placed in a bewitched stupor.

To which is added the regularly repeating thud of a loom. In a neat piece of sound design, while all the music comes from the stage this seems to break in from outside. To me it became the voice of the spell they were under, not any commanding individual but the crack of the whip made animate.

Individual players would break away at intervals, like a child playing up in class. They’d be looked upon uncomprehendingly by the blank-faced others, before resignedly falling back in line. It was suggested in the programme this was in part a parody of the workaday world of professional orchestras. Indeed, one player brought sheet music suddenly burst into a flurry of expressive playing, only to stop suddenly as the music stand was snatched away from him again.

In a piece set in a world between, it seems significant and appealing there’s no way to label the piece. The visual elements and sound design are significant enough that merely listening would not give you the full picture. The programme calls it “as much a piece of theatre as… a musical composition”, which doesn’t sound quite right. Instead imagine an installation work which is fixed in duration.

...which makes four Stockhausen pieces in recent weeks, of which three were not only extremely inventive but highly distinct, almost entirely different to one another. What little Stockhausen I’ve heard has suggested to me it runs the full gamut, from sublime to unlistenable. But there’s treasures in there, it seems.

Coming soon! Something other than gig-going adventures...

Saturday, 2 December 2017

FAUST/ METZ (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

FAUST
Con Club, Lewes, Fri 24th Nov



This was my third sight of Faust, legendary Krautrock outfit and (in my humble opinion) credible contender for the most important band in the history of everything, ever. 

Hans Joachim Irmler, as seen with the late great Jaki Liebezeit a couple of years ago, is unfortunately absent from the current line-up. But main men Zappi Diermaier and Jean-Herve Peron remain, with Amaury Cambuzat of Ulan Bator, who’s now played with them since 2005. Between three and five additional figures also appear, depending on the track. (One of whom turns out to be Peron’s daughter.)

A typical track – if there was such a thing – sets sail on a mind-melting, metronomic riff, which finds total intensity while still finding the space within itself to move around. Though there’s also a klanking number with… well, numbers intoned over the top in various languages, which reminds you Faust were doing industrial music before there was industrial music. Another starts with caveman chanting and develops with both guitar and bass bowed, creating an unearthly drone. Plus there’s one – though only one – trademark free-noise freakout, with power tools enlisted as instruments.

They play few classic numbers, with the ones they do pick up often radically reworked. A version of ’Mamie Is Blue’ really takes only the chorus chant. While J’ai Mal Aux Dents’, handed to keyboardist Geraldine Swayne to sing, is less agitated and more stripped-down, hyper-compressed funk. Peron claims afterwards they only decided to do it while backstage. My knowledge of post-reformation Faust is woeful, but they would seem to treat more recent numbers the same way. ’C’est… C’est… Complique’ for example is quite a different beast from the CD I bought from the merch stall.

Which seems essential to Faust, who were the arch-antagonists of the formulaic. ’J’ai Mal Au Dents’ simply has to sound stream-of-consciousness, a flurry of nonsense words, just to sound like itself. The band always insisted even the recorded versions which made it to their LPs weren’t definitive, but just snapshots of a work perpetually in progress. Try to put Faust in a box, and they’d shred the thing from inside while simultaneously making music out of it.


As the night goes on, I start to see the double act of Zappi and Peron as a two-faced coin. The upbeat Peron stands upstage, smiling, engaing with the audience, while the silent hulk of Zappi hunches over his drumkit, samples and electronics. Sometimes the elements he introduces seem to take the rest of the band by surprise as much as anyone, as if he’s a disruptive devil clown, the diabolic figure on the other shoulder. Faust were one of the most Dadaist of bands, and like the Dadists it was ever ambiguous whether they wanted to make music or destroy it. In the sleevenotes to ’C’est… C’est… Complique’ Peron writes of their method as “to make intention and hazard match”.

But tonight at least it seems to be Peron’s face flipping upwards. (I’d say the Peronist tendency, but that might be prone to misinterpretation.) It’s more creative than destructive, in fact the experience is ultimately joyous and exhilerating. In a year which took from us all but one of the founder memebrs of Can, it’s heartening to see Faust still firing on all cylinders.

Part of the legendary freak-out ’Krautrock’



METZ
The Haunt, Brighton, Sat 25th Nov


If there’s less for me to say about Metz than Faust, that’s partly because I’ve already blogged about the first time I saw them, five years ago. It may be true they also do less than Faust. But then they do what they do so effectively, repeatedly whacking nails straight on the head. Metz are good old-fashioned, no-nonsense noisy punk rock. They make noise, it’s their choice, it’s what they wanna do.

A few extra thoughts since last time…

Their sound is definitely powered by the furious drumming. It’s not in Lightning Bolt territory where they become the lead instrument. But that no-quit drumming heat things up so relentlessly the guitars can’t do much else other than dance on the hot coals.

They rarely go in for instrumental breaks, most songs are short and punchy. But when they do they work so well, with the guitars coming into their own, you wish they’d go into them more often. And this isn’t a bad example, not from Brighton (unusual though that is) but their home turf of Toronto...


Coming soon! Yes, really... more gig-going adventures...

Saturday, 25 November 2017

STOCKHAUSEN: ‘STIMMUNG’ + ‘COSMIC PULSES’/ PUSSY RIOT: 'RIOT DAYS'/ THE MEN THE COULDN’T HANG/ THE TELESCOPES/ ONE UNIQUE SIGNAL (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

STOCKHAUSEN: ‘STIMMUNG’ + ‘COSMIC PULSES’
Barbican Centre, London, Mon 20th Nov



Unlike the electronica or expanded (or even multiplied) orchestras for which Stockhausen is most known, ’Stimmung’ is small in scale, featuring six voices accompanied only be each other. But in it’s own way, it’s as legendary as ’Gruppen’. The programme calls it “the first major Western composition to be based entirely on the production of vocal harmonies”.

In the Guardian, Andrew Clements complained 
“Despite its sophistication and influence, [it] now seems a bit of a period piece… as much a product of the 60s as Afghan coats and flares.”

Perhaps there are things which are both influential and period pieces, but it’s still somewhat odd to concede a work is “one of the starting points for the spectralism movement” before tying it so inexorably to joss sticks and lava lamps. Particularly when spectralist composers such as Haas or Dumitrescu are not only still composing, but remain at the top of their game.

But more to the point, while we think more of popular music as epitomising it’s era there’s no reason why contemporary music can’t be as zeitgeisty. And ’Stimmung’ now seems inseparable from the Silicon Chip Spiritualism found in Seventies science fiction, when computers were forever being called Zen. (Or at least the extended Seventies, which allows us to include the piece’s first performance in 1968.) And any resemblance, at least in my lowbrow mind to the conjuration by chanting scene in Planet of the Spiders’ was enhanced by the singers sitting around and being lit by a glowing orb, like some futuristic scrying glass. (Well, a touch of soft stage lights too.)

Each section starts with a singer in turn intoning a single word, which can be a divinity but also a day of the week. Similarly to Steve Reich’s ’Different Trains’, the cadences of the word then determine the section, as the other singers harmonise around it. When the initial singer figures they’re done, they pass on to the next in line.

The sense what we’re hearing is glossolalia for the space age is enhanced when some spoken word sections are in German. (Which seems to be becoming a habit of mine.) I figured at the time that actually enhanced the piece, and you should really be listening to the sound of the words rather than the words themselves. And later, coming across Stockhausen’s Sixth Form ‘erotic’ poetry in the programme, I realised I had figured right.

It’s enthralling to find so much mileage in the human voice, whole sonic spaces thrown up when the six voices all pitch in. There’s the feeling it’s doing something new and strange while simultaneously returning to the roots of music. It’s as if strangeness isn’t foreign and distant but all about us, waiting for us to open up and notice it.

Yet, even though I’ve been known to sing the praises of duration in music, eighty minutes was admittedly too long, particularly for what was essentially a series of miniatures with no underlying structure. As the voices orbited one another I did get lost in it, but before those eighty minutes were up I wanted my way out.

’Cosmic Pulses’ is from Stockhausen’s later period, where everything was organised around two meta-works. This dates from 2006/7 and forms part of the second of them, ’Klang’.

It turns out to be, in a crafty piece of programming, to be ’Stimmung’s polar opposite, a hugely expansive all-electronic piece. If ’Stimmung’ was like Blake’s “infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour ’Cosmic Pulses’ was… well, the name says it all.

Twenty-four electronic loops rotate between eight sensurround speakers set around the auditorium, introduced and phased out one at a time but progressing at different speeds. The programme includes Stockhausen’s score for the piece, a neat and ordered mathematical grid. The piece is anything but.

It starts out like some cross between aliens landing and sets of peeling bells on brown acid, mighty sounds still skittering around the space. As the loops build up it becomes harder and then impossible to discern individual sounds, and the work achieves absolute delirium. As Robert Henke puts it in the programme “when you encounter the work, it’s a vibrant and colourful composition, in no way a mathematical exercise. It is one of electronic music’s great experiences: an overwhelming, visceral, sonic maelstrom in the total immersion of surround sound.”

And speaking of Henke, he provided the accompanying ‘laser art’, projected across the auditorium’s ceiling. Henke concedes in the same programme the risks of “superimpos[ing] any sonic of colour qualities onto the piece.”

But the display is effective through it’s fidelity to the structure of the music. Three laser beams shot from each speaker, varying only in colour and thickness. At the height of the maelstrom they started to splay concentric circles on the opposite wall. The conceptual purity of it reminded me of Lis Rhodes’ ‘Light Music’ installation at the Tate.

And the display underlined what an installation piece this was, irreducible to YouTube clips or home stereo systems. The Barbican were not sales pitching when they said “this is music that demands to be heard – and felt – live.” After the effective but elongated ’Stimmung’ this half-hour composition was like the cake after the sandwiches.

Unlike ’Stimmung, ‘Cosmic Pulses’ is not only devoid of words or human hands, but untethered to any era. Whether it’s a peer into the strangeness of Stockhausen’s head or a genuine glimpse of the immensity of it all I could tell you not.

PUSSY RIOT: 'RIOT DAYS'
The Haunt, Brighton, Sun 19th Nov



Before the gig I joke with a friend that I’m seeing the only punk band less musical than Crass. If the Fugs had only performed their exorcism of the Pentagon, never bothering releasing albums or playing regular gigs, they’d be something like Pussy Riot.

And some go on from there to see Pussy Riot as political activists only, which seems to me to drive past the point without even looking out of the window. Much like the Fugs, they were great devisers of memorable images. Their uniform, the colourful home-made balaclava and strap dress combo, combines the assertive, the playful, the DIY and anti-star anonymity all into one. While also riffing on the classic punk tactic of taking images of femininity and twisting them, as used by bands like the Slits and Huggy Bear. Really, sometimes the whole being in a band part of being in a band is the irrelevant bit.

And this matters because images matter, because they can have political effects beyond politics. Party political broadcasts spend little time on the niceties of policy, in the same war car adverts don’t focus on fuel efficiency. Talk to any regular person about politics and you soon see why, it quickly becomes obvious their opinions aren’t based on graphs and statistics at all. 

But while their images seek to establish brands, ours need to stimulate. Pretty much from the off, I felt at odds with the rote sloganising of Trot groups. They were moribund, while the politics I wanted to engage with were about seizing the imagination.

This performance, not really a gig, features Punk Prayer performer Maria Alyokhina, and has been described as “fevered monologues underpinned by real footage and frenetic noise-punk.” She and her fellow performers spit out the story in punchy, slogan-sized chunks, phrases often repeated for effect, against pumping sax and keyboards and a filmshow. (They speak-sing in Russian, with the film translating.)

That’s a description which might strike fear into those who survived the Eighties, when agit-prop made for so much bad art and worse politics. But actually a story we all know well becomes powerful and involving. By accident or design she humanises the story just enough to make it engaging, while presenting it not as a re-enactment but a call to arms. At points their methods are made into a bulleted DIY guide, while the T-shirts state “you could be Pussy Riot”. It has the punkish mixture of antagonising and galvanising.

The polemicisation does mean the performance rattles past questions you might like to ask. What domestic effect did they hope to have, and how do they see that now? Was the collective member who initially commented they’d be “hated” prophetic, or just missing the point? Does any of it translate to what needs doing here in the West? Or is the Punk Prayer inspiration rather than example?

But it’s the performance equivalent of a single, not an album track. (Alyokhina has also written a book, which may go into more detail.) And punk was all about single-like immediacy, coming on as a shock to the system, assuming it was pressing down on a society whose heart had stopped beating.



THE MEN THE COULDN’T HANG
The Con Club, Lewes, Sat 18th Nov



It’s been five years since I last saw The Men They Couldn’t Hang, though a full thirty-three years since their formation. (Not counting the part of the Nineties where they were out of action.) By now they really should be called The Men They Still Couldn’t Hang. And it may be true they’ve not changed their tune much over the years, remaining in the folk/roots/rock/punk vortice. There’s new songs, but they stick to the style of the old ones.

But here that becomes positive thing. They’ve kept their rough-edged choral singing, added a sawing violin and so retained their ragged singalong unity. Their best-known track, the reflective ‘The Green Fields of France’, isn’t particularly representative. Their sound’s more the opposite of the marching fascist boots they sing of in ’Ghosts of Cable Street’. They’re similar to the Mekons but are less poetic, more immediate and streel-level. They sound, in the best possible way, like an unruly mob. And whose better at rabble-rousing than a rabble?

Their schtick was always about presenting history as something ongoing, not something which had happened but something you made and remade. (A powerful idea in the Eighties, when all was supposed to be so shinily new.) So they’d sing about the First World War one number and the Miners’ Strike the next. Which makes it slightly strange to think that both of those events are now part of history.

But, less than a month after seeing Godspeed and commenting how political music mustn’t get stuck in a timewarp, there’s something appealing about this motley lot’s sheer resilient obstinancy. It’s like that scene in kung fu films where the hero, beset and waylaid by events, has to go back to his master and reorient himself. While everyone else is talking about demographics and chasing trends, let’s me and you stick to something...

’Iron Masters’, not from Lewes...



THE TELESCOPES + HAS A SHADOW
Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, Brighton, Thurs 26th Oct



The original Telescopes were a Nineties outfit, associated with shoegaze, signed (inevitably enough) to Creation records, whose output in all honestly I know not. But since 2010 frontman Stephen Lawrie has revived the name. A reformation gig with One Unique Signal was mentioned briefly… very briefly by me at the time.

Lawrie’s mid-gig claim “this is rock ‘n’ roll” was perhaps one of those post-ironic statements. For he’s pioneered a style of ‘shoegaze singing’ where he hunches over the mike, his moving around less dominating the stage and more finding a spot in the melee. The vocals aren’t high in the mix, and are sometimes merely screams. For his part the bassist often sat crosslegged on the floor. The band in general seem uninterested in the subject of the audience, like the event’s more outlet than performance, which is about as anti-rock ‘n’ roll as you can be.

Combined with the thumping noise rock, twin guitarists and bassist locked into metronomic riffs, their individual sounds indistinguishable. It’s like listening to an introverted explosion, full of power yet not pressing outwards. One number is a freeform wail of feedback guitar and effects pedals, like something from the midsts of ‘Tago Mago’.

On individual tracks they ratchet up the intensity to the max, then find that elusive eleven on the dial. But, alas, equipment problems distract from the start of the gigt and they then don’t play for long enough. And this is music which needs to draw on you. First you spy it from far away, as if through a telescope, then it’s gravity takes a slow inexorable hold of you. (See what I did there?) As it was it felt like a taster, leaving you with a feeling of a nail there to be struck but not quite nailed.

The garage psych of support band Has A Shadow should also be mentioned in dispatches. Rather than provide swirls and flourishes, the keyboards punch out the beat. The lines are so insistently repetitive the player could keep her eyes closed throughout, and mostly does so. While squalls of effects-driven guitars swell around her. They use the slow lurching tempos of the Fall, like a lumbering giant staggering drunk, leaving you feeling mesmerically trapped in the headlights of the advancing track.

From Liverpool, with cool freak-out op-art lightshow absent from Brighton...



...and speaking of One Unique Signal...

ONE UNIQUE SIGNAL
Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, Brighton, Sat 4th Nov



Described by Wikipedia as noise rock, and though a mere four-piece (guitar, bass, drums and a Throbbing Gristle-like cornet), with heavy utilisation of multiple effects pedals and justgeneral heaviness this band throws up a big sound.

But the noise tag’s not quite right, for they specialise in those catchy riffs which while bass-driven almost double as melodies. Imagine if New Order had early on decided to abandon songs for stretched-out tracks, free-form at the same time as metronomic. The (very) brief occasions they go in for vocals, they are in that intonatory early New Order style.

Stage presence seems less a concern than it did for the Telescopes. At times they get so busy with effects pedals feet become inadequate for the purpose and they hunch over them heads bowed and hands raised. Individual tracks are long and slowbuilding. All of which adds to the time it takes for the music to draw you in. But draw you in it does…

There’s a spaciousness and a remorselessness to it which reminds me of when films drift slowly around dilapidated buildings. It’s often a feature of good bands that they can drag you into their own timezone, so when the gig’s over the return to the regularly paced world is jolting.

Another light show us Brightonians didn’t get…



Coming soon! Yes, really... more gig-going adventures!