Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Saturday, 18 March 2017


More pics this week. With another Brighton Festival impending, some shots of an old one a few years back. Plus the wide open esplanades of Hove seafront. As ever, full set on Flickr.

Saturday, 11 March 2017


(Yet another art exhibition reviewed after it's closed)

”My love of the monstrous and the magical led me beyond the confines of material appearances into unreal worlds.”
- Paul Nash

A Sense of Place

The Futurist Marinetti was usually to be found raging over something, but English art particularly got his goat. He'd jeer at “the soft, sweet and mediocre, the sickly renewals of Medievalism”, opprobrium he'd doubtless have poured all over Paul Nash. 

In fact when you look at the early works of the artist best-known for becoming the one British Surrealist people have heard of, it's remarkable how in thrall to Romanticism he then was. Pre-war, it was Blake and Rossetti who were his touchstones. And iff there's anything to persuade you he wasn't going to become a painter of country gardens, it's the elements of fantasy illustration. Nash even trained as an illustrator and, like Blake, often illustrated his own poems.

Marinetti's spittle traces a broad arc, but there may be places where it sticks. Some of Nash's early work was blandly pastoral, the coloured chalk works in particular could have adorned drawing rooms. Nevertheless, the first room of this exhibition gives us not just the seeds of the mature Nash but some strong artworks in their own right – even among the most fantasy-oriented pieces.

Take 'The Combat', (1910, above), one of several works to portray human figures not in but above a landscape. If the noble profile set against a beaky visage suggests stock notions of good versus evil, try looking some more at those combating figures. You'll notice how alike they become. The 'bird', despite it’s beak and unfurled wings, is followed by some decidedly human legs. It’s not terribly clear what it holds in that beak, but it seems to mirror the sword held against it. And if we look back to the seemingly human figure he too has wings, if currently folded. Though he has his feet planted firmly on the ground, he dwarfs the trees in a way which recalls the folk art custom of assigning size by symbolic importance.

In his accompanying (admittedly not very good) poem Nash writes “there is no history but this”. And it is this Manichean sense of ceaseless conflict between eternal forces that lifts the work from generic fantasy art into something genuinely post-Blakean. For this reason I favour the title given here over ’Angel and Devil’, though it seems unclear which Nash came up with first.

If this could also be interpreted as a comparison between earth and air, the theme is taken up a few pictures down, this time with both human figures and moralism removed from it. Though the setting is fantastical, there is something deadpan and naturalising about 'Pyramids in the Sea' (1912, above). There doesn’t seem anywhere on Earth Nash could actually have seen this sight, yet he depicts it as though he has. Ostensibly we're seeing a borderline, with palm trees visible behind the pyramids. Yet the waves seem to be not crashing against but morphing into them, with the dune beneath the palms like a fore-echo of their arrival.

It's often read as proto-Surrealist, portraying dream and wakefulness as shifting states in a way similar to Rivera's 'Communicating Vessels'. But it could also be seen as portraying nature and culture similarly amorphously.

So perhaps it was the fantastical elements in his art which, when purged of their pastoral cliches, took Nash to Surrealism? Nothing so simple. For one thing, from hereon in the fantastical tends to wane. And more importantly, there's a direct link from his nature scenes to his Surrealist work. Which is largely because 'nature scenes' is something of a mis-label. Along with the fantastical human figures leave his work (you can sometimes see the traces from where they were erased), and he instead takes to portraits of trees. (His aim, he said, was “to paint trees as though they were human beings”.) Take for example, 'The Three In the Night' (1913, below.)

These three trees marked the boundary between Nash's garden (in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire), and the wider country – hence they are threshold guardians of sorts. He wrote of his fascination with “something which the ancients spoke of as genius loci – the spirit of a place, but something which did not suggest that the place was haunted or inhabited by a genie in a psychic sense ... Its magic lay within itself, implicated in its own design and its relationship to its surroundings.” Archaic people don't tend to “worship nature” in a generalised sense, as is sometimes imagined. They more commonly find specific spirits and meanings in particular places. And these animist notions recur throughout Nash's work.

The Negative Sublime

One day they'll make a biopic of Nash. It will start with an English gentleman capturing his country walks with bright and innocent watercolours. Which will then segue into a shell going off above the First World War, then slightly later him painting how dashed cross he is about it all. Hopefully we've already shown how the first part of that equation is off the mark, so the second can't fare much better. It was the Vorticists and Futurists, the ones who believed in the gleaming machine age, who has their world most torn apart by the War. And Nash was of a different breed.

Nevertheless as David McKean has said “he found his voice during the war”. It was war which turned him from a good artist into an important one, something which might not have happened any other way. Certainly Nash himself saw things as transformative, painting in oil for the first time and writing home:

“I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.”

There's now a debate over how anti-war these works were taken to be at the time. It questions whether his focus on nature was a euphemistic consequence of censorship, indulging the peculiarly British sentimentality of lamenting a shattered tree above a dead solider. Certainly his images aren't as visceral or grotesque as, for example, Otto Dix's. Though he first saw war as a combatant, by the time of these works he was an official war artist. And it is true that ’The Menin Road’ (1918), specifically commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee, is more ostentatious, more smooth and refined and thereby less effective than some of the other works.

But human figures can appear, in both 'Wounded, Passchendale' and 'After the Battle' (both 1918). What is more accurate to say is that it's the more successful works which leave them out, suggesting questions about them are the wrong questions.

'We Are Making a New World' (1918), deservedly Nash's best known war painting... perhaps even his best-known work of all, depicts his subject the most clearly. It's not the frenzy of battle, nor even it's cost in human life, but the existential hell of No Man's Land. 

Compare it to CRW Nevinson's 'After a Push' (1917). (Shown as part of the Imperial War Museum's recent 'Truth and Memory' exhibition.) Both not only depopulate No Man's Land but remove some of the more obvious features, such as the barbed wire. But Nevinson depicts the scale of the thing, an uninhabited plane stretching off to the distant horizon. It could have stretched to envelop the world, for all that we see here. Whereas Nash paints more claustrophobic, less realist images which capture it’s alien-ness.

'We Are Making' is in fact a reworking of the more realist ‘Sunrise Inverness Copse’ from the previous year. (Not part of the show but this Wikipedia page compares them.) And that sense of a sunrise is important. Nash wrote in a letter home a year earlier “sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man”. And here he paints the chorusless dawn, a deathly stillness, trees blasted and blackened husks, the very ground no longer solid but a shapeless corrugated pulp.

We use nature as a symbol of renewal. Here we see the ultimate in barren-ness, winter without spring. Not the end of battle but the end of life. With Nash’s talk of blasphemousness, there is a sense the War is being compared to the final tribulation. A Romantic artist paints the sublime, nature as an overwhelming force. Here Nash paints it's inverse, invoking the scale of the sublime only to portray it's absence. And seeing these works in the context of his career makes them more powerful. The artist most keen to show us the land has a spirit is now exhibiting it’s slain corpse.

We may be better off assessing the works' effect on us today than trying to reconstruct a past response. In the same letter home he comments “I may give you some idea of its horror, but only being in it and of it can ever make you sensible of its dreadful nature”. Art is not reportage, it always works on it's subject from some angle and sometimes the oblique works the best. And in our era, when we can have highly graphic photographic evidence of the horrors of war, sometimes even broadcast by their perpetrators, perhaps Nash's approach can get under our skin better.

And if 'We Are Making' is the Tribulation then 'The Ypres Salient At Night' (1918), with it’s Tommies huddled below a glaring flare, seems a semi-blasphemous reworking of the Wise Men and the star. But, more importantly still, it presents the trenches as a jagged zig-zag. (Echoing the pre-war work 'The Cliff to the North', 1912.) As the show says many of the war compositions work like mazes, stuffed with the obstruction of detritus, no way out of them for the eye. 

While the sublime tends to be presented via vast vistas, as with Nevinson, these works are so fragmentary to almost be collages. (An effect emphasised by Nash's iconic painting style, which makes each object look slightly discrete.) It's reminiscent of TS Eliot's well-known post-War poem 'The Wasteland', which suggested that all that was left to poetry was broken fragments of earlier works.

Disembodied in Dymchurch

After a breakdown brought on by the War, Nash recuperated on the Dymchurch coast of Kent. It's in fact the works from this time which are devoid of human figures. 'The Shore' (1923, above) somehow seems neither natural nor man-made. Rather than the genius loci of earlier we have an absolute anonymity of place, worn smooth of distinguishing features. ’Pyramids By the Sea’ had shown the land and sea effectively merging into one another, here the only thing there seems to be is the space between. It’s a No Man’s Land, if of another kind. If the war paintings presented no escape for the eye, these are such smooth sweeping planes they seem to have no purchase for the eye. It's the standard landscape ratio but seems to have an overwhelming horizontality, a world in which no human figure could ever stand up.

With 'Winter Sea' (1925/37, above) the sea is not just morphing into sheets of metal, it's hard to tell it from the land. You feel you should be looking out to sea, your feet planted on the beach, but it doesn't feel that way. And what makes a metal sea a striking image is also what makes it hard to write about. It's an immediately striking image with no way to parse it, no Freudian theory to neatly wrap it up in.

In 'Dymchurch Steps' (1924, above) the block of a featureless building is just placed on the landscape, with no obvious way in. The image is less solitary than desolate, as if Nash had slipped out of society, perhaps for an afternoon stroll alone, and now finds himself unable to return – an exile at home, all apertures closed.

David Mckean's graphic novel of Nash's life, 'Black Dog' (in part performed at the Tate Britain on 13th Nov), bases itself around the week in 1921 where he fell unconscious. It speculates on what he might have dreamt during that time. But we might want to imagine a greater conceit, that he somehow painted these works whilst in that other state. If that sounds less than likely, we'd also have to contend with the fact he moved to Dymchurch only after he re-woke. But as Alice Channer comments, he painted “from strange perspectives, from above the landscape, as if he's levitating, disembodied”. ('Tate Etc.' magazine 38) They seem the work of some bodiless spirit, at an inevitable distance from all things.

The pre-war Nash painted body and soul as indivisible, united in place. But now the same elements are irreconcilable, divided even in himself. They're less angsty expressionist howl than the sense of dislocation that more commonly comes with depression.

Surrealism’s Coming Home

'Plage (Tower)' (1928, above), is perhaps a transitional work. The architectural features placed on the coast make it something of a successor to 'Dymchurch Steps'. But unusually it was painted in France, and shortly after Nash had seen de Chirico's work, which (as with many Surrealists) had inspired him. In both artists the human presence is rendered significant by it’s absence. Denied it we seek to find significance in objects and environments, even to the point of anthropomorphising them.

Nash is sometimes criticised for lacking the visceral impact of continental Surrealists. Almost inevitably, it’s Dali who’s dragged up. But to reduce it all to shit-stained trousers not only misunderstands Nash but Surrealism in general. Unlike Dada or Vorticism it was not principally based around the shock but the haunting image, the sight you can’t quite forget after you’ve seen it. 

Similarly, we have become steeped in the notion that Surrealism is something foreign, that the continent was the place for dreaming, with it’s exotic place names and strange Mediterranean architecture. Yet the idea that the numinous can be found in the everyday, even everyday England, is central. So Nash defamiliarises the English country just as De Chirico did the Mediterranean town. The fact that his work often looked like the product of the English gentleman, with a slightly tweedy parochialism, becomes not a weakness but a strength.

Nash was always something of a gentleman painter, never truly becoming expert with a brush. Here for example his sea is just a kind of slightly askew patterning, his white clouds blobs. But that slight amateurishness somehow makes his work look more visionary. The artist so interest in nature was never that keen on naturalising nature, so his imperfect realisations of objects and scenes just encourage you to look through them. They don't look like folk art exactly, but there's the same disinterest in objects except as symbols.

A room is given to Nash's still lives which are, if we're honest, for the most part the sort of dull and provincial fare that would send Marinetti off into another rant. But it is worth their inclusion just to see where he takes things. He doesn't just progress through them but almost superimposes each successive work upon the others. Each already has collage elements, incorporating reflections, intersecting planes and multiple perspectives. And this takes us to 'Lares' (1929/30, below) – not so much a still life as a semi-abstract work on the theme of openings.

The Surrealists always had a penchant for apertures and here it's like Nash is trying to morph all openings into one. There's more a sense of repeating recesses than actual spatial depth. It's reminiscent of the way it can be enticing to peer through a crack, while an open window view is uninvolving. Some paintings act as portals, like Alice's mirror, into the subconscious. And this definitely seems to deny the flatness of the wall behind it. Rather gloriously, it was exhibited in a frame within a frame.

But even after coming across de Chirico and continental Surrealism, the English landscape continued to exert a huge influence on Nash. 1933 was to prove a significant date, marking when he visited Silbury Hill and Avebury for the first time. This led to works such as 'Druid Landscape' (1934, below). (Okay, druids had nothing to do with megaliths. That may have been less known then.)

Buried in the land, pointing to the sky, megaliths suggest at the same connection between supposed opposites as 'The Pyramids and The Sea'. But there's more to them, in fact more to them than any symbolic system seems capable of holding. When you come across a megalith or longbarrow on the landscape it just calmly sits there, seeing no reason to explain itself. It can even seem as though it's you who is the interloper. And it's mystery seems magnified by it's misshapenness. Classical columns seem to manifest the universal rules of geometry, just as they're connected to a language we can decipher.

And so their strangeness becomes in itself strange to us. This should be our home turf, the most recognisable thing, and yet it’s impervious to our understanding. Inevitably we come to see these things as outside ourselves, a puzzle to be solved with measuring tape and aerial photographs. Yet there's the nagging sense the answer is within us, one of those things we seem to know but cannot quite recall. In short, it's not the megaliths themselves which are Surreal, it's our relationship to them.

Nash accentuates all this, in fact painting an object which seems to be morphing before our eyes between stone megalith and abstract metal sculpture. Notably in the same year he painted 'Stone Tree', after finding an actual fossilised tree.

He wrote an article in 1936 called, rather brilliantly, ‘Seaside Surrealism in Swanage’. Nash himself said “the landscapes I have in mind are not part of the unseen world... They belong to the world that lies, visibly, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.”

Georgina Coburnarts writes “One of the best rooms in the show 'The Life of the Inanimate Object' is also one of the most unexpected.” And she's right, though perhaps it's surprising that we’re so surprised. All Nash has really done is shift from a focus on the spirit-inhabited place to the objects found within it. While found objects (or “object personnage”) were an established Surrealist device. And yet it does seen unexpected when we see Nash do it.

It’s the photographs and photo-collages which work the best, for example 'Swanage' (c. 1936, above), which seems reminiscent of Ernst. Or perhaps the assemblages Nash made from his findings. (Which often now exist only as photographs, making it harder to distinguish between the two.) If these objects do have a spirit, they’re best of exhibited directly and straightforwardly, the best to transmit it. He essentially takes their portrait, as he earlier did with trees. And the next-best thing is the pencil drawings, which delineate the objects dryly and faithfully. However he'd often then go on to paint them, which can seem distancing, getting away from their spirit.

Euro Standardised Surrealism

When the International Surrealist Exhibition was held in London in 1936, Nash didn't just exhibit but was on the hanging committee. As far as the European art scene was concerned, he had arrived. But the truth is that he was better before he left. As the Thirties went on, he slowly lost what had made him 'provincial' and with it what had made him distinctive. It turns out, what we really wanted was English Surrealism for English people. Who knew?

Later works such as 'Landscape For a Dream' (1936/8) are too blatantly juxtapositional, too resonant of the trickery of his earlier still lives, too made up to have any genuine sense of strangeness. They look like Surrealism by numbers for the awaiting Athena poster generation. The point about Blake seeing angels in trees is his implicit assumption there was no reason why he shouldn’t, that he didn’t accept the same demarcation between worlds as the rest of us. These works look like Nash has just cut and pasted the equivalent of angels into trees, then congratulated himself. One of the better examples is 'Nocturnal Landscape' (1938, below).

A Dream of Flying

Then, as the Forties hit, history was to repeat itself. War thrust it's way back into his life, to both upset and reinvigorate his work. Nash was by then too old to go to the front, but he became an official war artist working at home.

This coincided with his turning back to watercolour and 'Bomber in the Corn' (1940, below) looks such a conventional English pastoral scene it takes a while for the strangeness to work on you – even though that wrecked plane is right in the foreground. It's a surrealist juxtaposition, but rather than being merely manipulated like the works from a few years before, it's drawn entirely from life.

Nash said at the time “a statue on a street or some place where it will normally be found is just a statue, as it were in it's right mind; but a statue in a ditch or in the middle of a ploughed field is then an object in a state of surrealism.” JG Ballard probably expressed this sentiment more succinctly when he said “war is surreal”.

'Totes Meer' (1940/1, above) seems to refer back to the metal sheets of 'Winter Sea'; the 'sea' now in a less calm state emphasising the idea they could be companion pieces. (Even the name, German for 'Dead Sea', invites the comparison.) Yet this scene is also drawn from life. Nash visited a dump for shot-down planes at Cowley, the show even includes photographs he took there. (The gouged ground in the lower right is presumably where the metal carcasses were dragged to their resting place.) 

Unlike any of the First World War works, both show visible Nazi insignia on the planes. While British planes, present at the actual Cowley dump, are excluded. A contemporary film, shown at the gallery, claims them as propaganda images. Yet it's their matter-of-fact surrealism which lingers.

If both works featured planes, that was scarcely surprising. With Nash in England, the war had to find him. Nevertheless, he continued with themes of flight after hostilities. Not just the sky but celestial images, the sun and moon, recur in highly symbolist works. In 'Eclipse of the Sunflower' (1945, below), the images of the sun, a sunflower and a flaming wheel seem fused. In some ways these bypass the Surrealist works and go back to the beginning, eschewing solidity for immateriality. Lines of force seem to radiate from the objects, as if spirit forms.

And the fixation on the sun is significant. We all have notions of the magic, transforming moon. It blooms when the workday world is put to bed, and can encourage strange ceremonies or turn men into animals. But with this comes the notion of the sun as normative, it's rising restorative, causing spirits to scatter. But Nash paints both moon and sun as occult forces, just as he did the pyramids and sea, with no normality on offer.

Nash said he had always dreamt of flying, and only realised late in life that this was only achievable through death. It's an image that goes right back to 'The Combat' but is perhaps at it's strongest with the disembodied spirits of Dymchurch. He died a year after 'Eclipse of the Sunflower'.

Perhaps the big question about Nash, one to which I wouldn't have an answer, is whether the unevenness of his work was inevitable. He was remarkably adept in reworking his deficiencies to his advantage. Poor at drawing the human figure, he went on to make an ostentatious statement of it's absence. But his modus operandi, to find the numinous in the parochial, possibly wasn't going to emerge every time clutching a pearl. Nash never tells, he creates general moods, hints, suggests at things. And perhaps hinting is harder.

Coming soon! More art exhibition reviews, probably after they've closed. (Well I'd rather write something good than quick. Yes I know that's not the regular internet way...)

Sunday, 5 March 2017


Barbican, London, Sat 4th March

This Heat were a legendary post-punk band, operating under the mission statement “all possible processes, all channels open”. Legendary in the sense that they had an influence in inverse proportion to record sales, and consequently I know the band almost entirely by reputation only. In fact their only track I could claim to know well, 'Not Waving But Drowning', is over and done with by the second number. (Though I was lucky enough to see drummer Charles Hayward play with the superb Uneven Eleven.)

They're This is not This Heat here because original member Gareth Williams unfortunately died back in 2001. But also due to a stated insistence they won't just play the old songs the old way. Instead of substituting Williams, they bring on a large ensemble – with at times fourteen people on stage. (Including Thurston Moore and, though almost entirely obscured from my view, Chris Cutler.)

There was always something poker faced about the post-punk sound, a refusal of flamboyance for a quiet insistence there's no point doing the same thing over and over. Which seems to give them a remarkable ability to make whatever they play sound like This Heat. With quite a few numbers it would only strike me mid-way how compositionally difference they were from the piece before.

There was, however, a notable tendency for the guitars not to lead but make up the body of the song, essentially strumming tones, while the drums and percussion do the legwork. Vocals tend to be intonatory, not upfront but part of the musical mix. Tapes are played underneath them as they perform, which may well add to the 'below the waterline' feeling of their sound.

If it's music with an edgy, unsettling effect, that may be because it's not rock songs laced with some more unusual element - the sound's strange to the marrow. Numbers seem to be in some nebulous state, never quite coalescing into song structures but neither out-there freeformness.

Though surprising (to me at least) was the long instrumental sections, including the opening and closing numbers. In fact the closer was one of the most metronomic pieces of music I've heard lately, if it had gone on any longer I fear my brain might have melted. I'd guess, as a trio, the original outfit didn't so much try such things, that they're more suited to the large ensemble. (And the programme notably talks about a “fuller orchestration”.)

“Rock and roll at the Barbican!” comments Hayward, though not as we know it. A stellar reputation can sometimes saddle a band, leave them unable to compete with themselves. This Heat, it seems, deserve theirs.

A snatch of an earlier reformation gig at Cafe Oto...

Prince Albert, Brighton, Tues 28th Feb

When singer GW Sok first left legendary post-punk band the Ex, the initial announcement was that he'd concentrate on his writing and design work. But happily, the music bug must have rebitten, and here he is back. Which means we can legitimately use the “ex of the Ex” line.

This band initially came together for a one-off show, supporting Mike Watt in Amsterdam, but pleased with the results they were inspired to continue. Sock smilingly announces their origins as “from the Netherlands and Middlesbrough”.

Their sound's bass-driven, twin guitars not playing atop but effectively around it, creating a composite sound which isn’t just deep but wide. Claiming “a rhythm section that Mark E. Smith would be proud of” might sound a rash boast, but the band are as good as their word. Riffs are rumbling and propulsive. Interviewed here, band founder Ajay Sagger confirms that after Sok it was the bass player and drummer he respectively recruited.

Two brass players then don’t just front but rise above the amassed guitars. It's at once alike and totally different to the Ex's own gig playing alongside a brass section.

One track effectively derailed itself, for a long section staggering as if lurching along by forward momentum only, Sok intoning repeated phrases about the world going to crap (no argument there), before bursting back into life.

It may be as a live force the band most excel. Certainly while I listened to some music on-line before heading out, their live sound was more effective that I was expecting.

The only weakness to the whol enetrprise may be the band name, which is not only less than memorable but makes them sound like a reggae sound system. (Nothing wrong with such a thing of course, except that they’re not one.) When their effective predecessor were trading as the Bent Moustaches, you wish they’d just stuck with that.

Not from Brighton...

Performed by the Britten Sinfonia
Barbican, London, Sat 25th February

After seeing in Steve Reich's Seventieth at the Barbican, I couldn't really not do the same for John Adams. Of course this means it's not just the Minimalist but Post-Minimalist generation of composers who are starting to weather, but birthdays are a time for celebration.

As the title of Philip Glass' 'Music In Similar Motion' might suggest, this was from the great era of high Minimalism. What at first appears a calm, placid surface sets off sonic ripples between instruments until nothing is as it first sounded, without ever seeming to move much.

Originally written in 1969 for Glass' own ensemble, he later orchestrated the piece and it's that version performed tonight. (By the secondary school pupils of the Britten Sinfonia Academy.) Which might sound counter-intuitive. Though much of Minimalism’s penchant for small ensembles was doubtless a financial necessity, it still had an effect. Minimalism isn’t much like rock music, but their focus on small units is similar - it suggests an agile guerrilla force operating in places where the lumbering army of the symphony orchestra couldn't go. However Glass doesn’t transpose the piece so much as simply scale it up, like a photograph blown up to cinema screen size, and your ear becomes more attuned to the variations between units.

'Grand Pianola Music' (1982) seems to be more one of the more post of Adams' post-minimalist works, and with that has a reputation. It's premiere was apparently met by boos, and Adams has declared it '“not for those burdened by good taste”.

The piece actually starts out quite standarly Minimalist, with it's patented de-de-de-de rhythms, before going all Romantic. There's not just dynamics but even euphoric outbursts. (Adams cites the “warm bath” of Beethoven and Rachmaninov in the programme.) Typically Minimalist, the first part goes un-named. Whereas the second is dubbed 'On the Dominant Divide'. Though you only really know how far you've traversed that divide until the ending. With Minimalist pieces, you normally don't know they're about to stop until they've done it. Here Adams goes for the classic crescendo, with bombastic brass fanfares filled in by piano flurries and a soaring chorus.

And what do you get when you blend the serene cool of Minimalism with the rhapsodies of Romanticism? The clue might come via Adams' dream which inspired the piece. Driving down the interstate, he was overtaken by two stretch limos who as they passed turned into extended Steinway pianos. And indeed two grand pianos dominate the stage, playing a fraction out from each other to cause a sonic “shimmer”.

But the music's not just a hybrid creature like a Steinway limo. It's exuberant, stepping boldly forward, simultaneously sprightly and elegant. It suggests glidingly traversing the avenues of some glimmering city, though I think I imagine a classic limo rather than some blinging stretch-mobile. If there's European Romanticism in the mix, there's also American music from earlier in the century. 

Minimalism was music which got you to focus on where you were and listen, really listen. By the second part this has become music with momentum, music which takes you for a whirling ride. Notably, in the programme, among his somewhat eccentric list of influences, Adams cites “the soundscape of contemporary city life”.

There's a Guardian guide to Adams' music here.

Radio 3 broadcast this concert so, depending on where and when you are, you may be able to listen to it here.

Friday, 24 February 2017


No time for a full post again this week. And, while there's more Brighton town photos to come, let's mix things up a little with some photos of the Brighton street artist Minty. As ever, full set on Flickr.

Coming soon! A proper post next week, okay?

Saturday, 18 February 2017


Oh, alright then, stays at home in Brighton! It can be good to remind yourself your home town is photogenic too, even if some of these sights I see pretty much every day. As ever, full set over on Flickr.

Coming soon! At some point, more Brighton photos. But probably something else first...

Sunday, 12 February 2017


Kings Place, London, Fri 10th Feb

Cellist Maya Beiser was a founder member of New York based contemporary music ensemble Bang On a Can All-Stars, here playing solo. (The parent outfit still exist, and played London five years back.) As the programme looked interesting and I am known to like a good cello, I thought to happen by.

The folk singer June Tabor once stated that her talent was singing, so when it came to songwriting “I just ring up Richard Thompson, it's easier”. Beiser would seem to do a similar thing with composers. Three of the other All-Stars founders – Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang – were composers in their own right, and in the programme notes Beiser wrote of the interplay which occurs when compositions are written for specific players. I didn't know, until she mentioned seconds before launching into it, that Steve Reich's 'Cello Counterpoint' was also written for her. (In fact the programme featured only one non-New York based composer, the Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov.)

'Classical' music is often assumed to spring fully formed from the mind of the genius savant, with the musicians merely assigned parts. But can't composers and musicians work within scenes, like rock music can? Isn't hearing a piece by the intended player the thing to do? Like hearing the Mothers of Invention play Frank Zappa? Certainly Beiser's spirited work-through of 'Cello Counterpoint' was stirring stuff.

If the gig was solo only for one piece was it unaccompanied, with the rest using at various points vocals, electronics, loops, multi-track recordings and film projections. One feature was how the projections worked so seamlessly with the music. 'Cello Counterpoint' for example is one of the Reich works where the musician plays over pre-recordings of themselves, here handily demonstrated by seven pieces of video evidence, lined up (according to the programme) “Warholian style”.

While Gordon's 'Light is Calling' was essentially a collaboration with Bill Morrison's visuals, effectively a sequel to the eerie and enthralling 'Decasia'. Warped electronics played alongside sonorous cello strokes, just as Morrison played warped and distressed footage from an old film – images appearing through the psychedelic corrosion, then dissolving again. At first it seemed that the sound and sight were perfect metaphors for one another, the electronics fuzzing the clear cello lines, but as the piece went on they seemed to overcome separation and morph together.

Wolfe's 'Emunah' featured etherial chanting, provided life by Beiser. I can find this sort of thing New Agey, so it perhaps wasn't my favourite Wolfe work. (That may be this.) Yet as with Gordon's electronics they made an effective counterpoint to the deeper, earthier cello sounds. I especially liked the ending, after the vocals faded out for a low bowed hum, verging on a drone.

'All Vows', the second Gordon composition, though not the longest piece was the album track of the evening. It not only featured solo cello but kept to a low range, taking a simple musical line and giving it quite subtle variations. Yet if it demanded close listening it certainly repaid it.

Lang's 'World To Come' was written shortly after the Twin Towers attack, but rather than a political response felt more existential. (Perhaps an understandable response to something like that hitting your home town.) The programme described it as “a kind of prayer”, and it was accompanied by a video by Irit Batsry focusing on water, a kind of matter without form. Creation, as the saying goes, is not a noun but a verb – an ongoing process.

Formally it was almost the opposite of 'Cello Counterpoint', cello and vocal phrases were looped as rich and resonant textures over which the 'live' cello part played the lead. The movements were ably matched by the video. Strongly rhythmic bowing was accompanied by fast pans across glistening waterways, a slower and more ethereal section by close-ups of rippling surfaces, and finally churning and frothing.

If stepping back for an encore seems more a rock music tradition, then Beiser surprised at least me with versions of 'Kashmir' and 'Back In Black' - surely any sensible person's favourite Zeppelin and AC/DC numbers. A constant guiding principle of Bang On A Can has been that rock music can be a source of inspiration, not just through taking elements from it but it's spirit. And what worked was they way these were not re-transcriptions for a more classical idiom but proper rock outs, with bow strings fraying. (Essentially the cello took over the function of lead guitar and vocals.)

Oddly, however, Bach's 'Air On a G String' was sandwiched between them. Which was not only a rupture of mood, but came to feel a little self-consciously eclectic. And I don't see how you can say, as Beiser rightly has, “all these boundaries we're created [are] so unnecessary” and then slap yourself on the back for audaciously mixing it all up. (To be clear, I enjoyed all three pieces, the problem was the programming.)

'Light Is Calling', albeit not from London...

The Hope & Ruin, Brighton, Sun 5th Feb

It's often said that noise music is the punk of today. And true enough it's one of the few music scenes to remain underground, not to be heard flogging designer jeans for middle-aged waists. But more to the point, it exhibits both the pros and cons of punk of old. There's no more learning two chords to form you own band, you can do it just by plugging in a laptop. But, as those of us who recall the hardcore scene of old can attest, anyone can do it is both boon and curse. There's a whole lot of bad electronic noise out there, pressbutton rage in a quite literal sense. But then the rest just makes it all the more important to track down the best...

Dilloway is formerly of noisemonger troupe Wolf Eyes. I would gather he was in the UK touring with Genesis P Orrdige, but was tonight solo. His set comprised a contact mike he placed in his mouth and, at one point, a long horn of what variety I do not know. But (from what I could tell) all the rest consisted of tape loops, treated, manipulated and overlapped.

And yet though that means the sounds were mostly pre-prepared there was something quite genuinely out of control about the set. Dilloway was like a Prospero who'd unleashed the storm on himself, elemental forces he was barely able to marshall. Unlike most electronica artists who barely move, he'd twist and convulse as though possessed by the music he himself was making.

And yet again, despite being for this sort of music a lengthy set (the best part of an hour) there were no longeurs, or klunky switches between sections. If it was like watching a man trying to conduct the weather, which it pretty much was, the success rate was surprisingly high. Several times it would build and build in intensity, breaching every barrier you had imagined existed, then suddenly breaking off into a new tangent.

I don't think there's much of a philosophy behind or real-world analogy to be applied to Dilloway. You're not supposed to think about urban alienation, commodity fetishism or Trump or whatever. (And in fact a night off having to think about the orange abhorrence is to be welcomed.) Which I suppose is the point, that he's found a way to say something which couldn't be said any other way. Which makes him a true original.

Here's a completely different set. It's all good...

Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, University of Sussex, Falmer, Fri 1st Feb

I knew almost nothing about this sound installation event from ”award-winning sound artist and composer” Ray Lee, except it was attached to a Stockhausen festival. (Which it turned out to have almost nothing to do with. But sometimes you need to go with your instincts, and sometimes they even work.

A series of sirens attached to revolving poles are switched on one by one, emittting pitches matching the height of their stands. As the sound starts to build up it first resembles the venue's description of “pulsing electronic drones” but transforms as it builds up into the electronic equivalent of pealing bells. The only other variant employed was occasional adjsutments to the spin speed, and yet the combination was richly resonant and quite mesermising. Who ever knew sirens could sound so serene? Certainly it brought up the alternate meaning of the term, a captivating sound source which draws you in.

Cool things about the event included the way it built up from a simple premise into a rich tapestry; the 'wires out' presentation, all processes on open display: (relatedly) the way the guys working the sirens seemed more workers or road crew than musicians or performers; your being encouraged to wander the space, effectively remixing the sound in your ears as you moved; and the way it didn't rely on the audience being smart or sophisticated, but merely open to what was going on. But perhaps best of all they way it was experiential, in our YouTubeable world it was something you had to be there for.

Con Club, Lewes, Thurs 26th Jan

Last time I saw Jah Wobble, as you might recall, I was much taken by much of it but found it at times straying too far into muso/fusion territory. This time he has a new album, 'Everything Is Nothing', which is essentially jazz fusion. (Improbably featuring Youth from Killing Joke and Nik Turner from Hawkwind. I bought a copy, played it once and probably will never again.) The trumpeter of that album (Sean Corby) has joined the line-up, improbably sporting a folded hankie in a smart jacket pocket, and at times they now even go in for relay soloing.

And yet, contrary soul that I am, I may have enjoyed this gig more than the last one. And I think that's down to having less of an emphasis on your actual songs, with the ones which survive counter-intuitively relegated to the second half of the set. The only Public Image song remaining is 'Public Image' itself. (Unless you count 'Fodderstompf', of which only the hook and one-line chorus are kept.) The songs that stay are mostly from the original Nineties Invaders of the Heart.

Which is really the band playing to it's strengths. As a singer Wobble is a great bass player, and the outfit simply work best not boxing themselves into song structures but spreading out. Besides, Wobble's patented patter between songs keeps the audience interaction flowing. (After one interjection the drummer bashed a cymbal.)

And the trumpeter's role proved positive. Rather than a wild card he became a calm card, pouring like cooling water over the more active bass and drums, and preventing everything getting too frenetic. I'm not sure many will have previously asked themselves what 'Socialist' would sound like with a cool jazz trumpet break in the middle of it, but the answer is surprisingly positive. Perhaps it worked through sparing use, Corby stepping to the back of the stage when not at work. You don't play all your cards at once.

Saturday, 4 February 2017


(aka This Just in! Trump Still a Dickhead!)

“You're a child. You have the mind and ego of an angry, spoiled, uneducated child. And that's what makes you so fucking scary.”
- As said to Idi Amin in ’The Last King of Scotland’

Yes, more about Trump. Believe me, I'm sick of hearing about the orange abhorrence too, and whatever childish insult that smug face has spewed at someone lately. But alas he's not going to go away by himself, we're going to have to do that for him.

Let's get the obvious out the way. Some are saying “well Obama did bad stuff too”. And so he did. Those drone strikes didn't deliver cup cakes. He deported people in record numbers, effectively licensed extrajudicial killings and all the rest of it. But the strange thing is, I don't remember most of those people saying any of this at the time, which might have been a good moment to mention it. The fact that this argument can be used unamended by both ends – by trumpers for Trump and more-radical-than-thou ultra-leftists - suggests it's not really much of an argument at all. Okay, Obama was bad. But Trump is worse. And the thing about worse is, it's worse.

(See also “despots have had State visits before”. This is a paraphrase of “but we've hung out with so many mass murderers already, it's too late to change now”. Which is itself a variant of the “we've always practiced slavery” argument.)

And as for “protesting after an election is anti-democratic”... Seriously? The guy who said he'd only accept the result if he won suddenly discovers the joys of being process-bound? A process which quickly narrowed people's effective choice down to two elite insiders as widely loathed as Clinton and Trump, waited for one to gain a three million majority then handed the result to the other – that's going a bit past flawed, really.

And “give him a chance, you don't know what he'll be like yet”? Guys, you know this stuff isn't decided by lottery, don't you? That candidates put forward their programmes beforehand and stuff? Besides, how does that measure against Trump's repeated boast to be getting through the changes so quickly? He's doing dumb shit now. Let's have some smart opposition at the same pace.

But if we're to win we need to look out for his weaknesses, and our potential weaknesses too.

This much is obvious – from any angle, that travel ban is bollocks. The Department for Homeland Security has stated right-wing extremists area greater danger than Islamic jihadists, a conclusion borne out if you look at those pesky fact things. But then again, 
the average American is under greater threat still from being shot by a toddler. Just as much as that stupid wall, the travel ban is designed to work only as a distraction.

And was it ever thus. The Situationist publication the Spectacular Times said of power “it's only real security lies in the construction and maintenance of myths and illusions. First and last, it is a show”. And the former reality TV star presents the Presidency as a form of theatre. He literally signs his ordinances for the cameras. That the travel ban couldn't even succeed on it's own terms is effectively beside the point. A big media event has occurred which has had that label attached to it. It's not policy, it's self-advertising.

We've been told so repeatedly that demonstrating against Trump is “pointless”, that seems a pretty good indication we need to keep going. But beware. We need to be wary of doing the same as him, of creating a rival show programmed against his, of demonstrating just to give the papers a photo-op. That feeds the narrative. It doesn't disrupt it.

In particular we should avoid focusing too much on celebrity endorsements. We should of course be grateful for the support and participation. Even from Madonna. Even from Meryl Streep. (Though one of the few things I agree with Trump about is her acting.) But that stuff plays too neatly into Trump's supposed 'anti-elite' stance.

So how do you oppose something? Through providing it's opposite, right? And the opposite of Trumps' sound-bite knee-jerk gesture politics is substance.

People, brought up in a hierarchical society such as this, tend to assume there's some trade-off to be found between authority and liberty. Too much of one we're shoved into labour camps, too much of the other and the bins don't get collected. Hence even those who don't wear white hoods or shout “heil Trump” blithely assume that authoritarian states are a model of efficiency, that Hitler sorted out the German economy, that Mussolini made the trains run on time. It seems so self-evident, they don't think to check those facts.

And to Trump's supporters, that trade-off is supposed to have gone too far one way. Those checks and balances are like traffic calming measures in the way of an angry driver, pointless encumbrances put there by busybodies, best just ridden straight over. His not following due process, even defying the courts, is taken as a measure of his strength.

While we need, not to push the trade-off the other way, but to question it's existence, to stop framing the thing as a security vs. liberty dilemma. For those 'facts' above are wholly wrong. And will only ever be wrong. Authoritarian societies are not run by genius masterminds, surging ahead of lesser bulbs, but by caprice and whim. The makers of those 'tough decisions' are removed from the effects, and keen to surround themselves with sycophants who'll tell them all went swimmingly.

We should focus on the travel ban's manifest malevolence. But we should also focus on it's bumbling ineptitude, where even Trump's own spokesman was unable to explain how it would work and ended up contradicting himself, where the British Government was advising travellers one thing and the State Department another. People might be willing to follow a tough if reckless figure, but a bumbling amateur? When he loses his appearance of strength he loses his selling point. It'll be like pricking an orange balloon with an ugly face on it.

And underlying that point, we should remember not all the grievances of Trump's supporters are reactionary. The situation is more complicated than Trump simply selling them a line. Their grievances are more often a mixture of reactionary and progressive, allowing Trump to deliver on one half and perpetually rain-check on the other. But then American history is a longstanding process of the rulers dividing the ruled by race, so it's scarcely a surprise to see it internalised by this point. But even if that's internalised, it doesn't mean it can't be unpicked. We just need to pick on, from Trump's many weaknesses, the weaknesses that others will see as weaknesses. “Heil Trump” must become “fail Trump”.

Coming soon! Back to the standard gig-going and behind-time art exhibition reviews...