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ENGLISH JOURNEY: RE-IMAGINED
Barbican, London, 22nd Oct
... in which Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore and assorted folks attempted to evoke the spirit of the English landscape in a multi-media extravaganza involving readings, music and visuals.
As which many of these things, I suspect we English came to be reacquainted with ourselves via an imported idea. It was some time after American writer Greil Marcus coined the phrase “old weird America” that we finally noticed we sat atop an England still older and still weirder. Perhaps we’re finally catching up. Recent genres such as folktronica feel almost explicably about coming to terms with it.
But coming face-to-face with it still feel strange and unsettling. This is exemplified when, during an instrumental piece, a black-faced Mummers takes to the stage. He dances, but in an oddly automated way, as if zombified, a disinterred corpse. Coming to a halt well before the music he stands stock still, facing out at the audience, his very existence almost a confrontation. The relative you wanted locked away.
Of course the point of multi-media events is to create a synergy of all their elements, where they all gang up on your senses to the point where you can no longer tell them apart.
In all honesty, I am not sure how well that worked here.
This is partly because the music dominated. Perhaps inevitably for, in an evening designed to evoke, music has something of a headstart. As Tolstoy said, “music is a short-cut to emotion”, working it’s way upon you while words are still assembling their argument. But also, perhaps the music just worked better. Folk instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy were rendered unfamiliar. But most dominant was the percussion. Not least because it was too loud to miss, but it also fittingly employed actual objects such as pebbles. I’ve often wondered if something animist lay in the heart of music concrete, as if all objects have a spirit and music’s purpose is to release it. The music here felt part-predicated on that idea.
(Perhaps ironically that I realised afterwards that my ear had made the key evoker of Englishness someone German!, FM Enheit, aka Mufty, late of notorious metal-bashers Einsturzende Neubaten. Still, I suppose we both inherit the Romantic tradition!)
Meanwhile, as the musicians were bringing pieces from the landscape into the auditorium, the wordsmiths were casting their nets nationwide. Many of Moore’s solo performances have been site-specific, often not in regular venues and designed around conjuring up a sense of place. This virtual tour took in Aldburgh and Newcastle as well as London, and the compacting of all these journeys into one point felt very modern - less pilgrim journey, more Google Maps.
But perhaps more to the point, the dense and allusive style of Sinclair and Moore was an odd fit for a live event. It’s like taking a document with lots of hyper-links, then having it read it out loud in the town square. You kept wanting to pause it to follow up some of those links.
The reading which worked best was Moore’s, from the journal of Victorian poet John Clare (see vidclip below). Though beset by madness, Clare had left his asylum to walk to his home village, his intent to see Mary, his first wife and childhood sweetheart. So he was distraught, not only to find merely his new wife but to be told such a marriage had never been, and that anyway Mary was now dead. Although you tended to presumed the marriage was a figment of his illness (as confirmed by subsequent research), I was at the time ignorant of this – an ambiguity which probably enhanced the experience.
A recurrent theme of the night was the concept of multiple Englands, of cultural memory growing in a sedimentary fashion, each layer inscribing itself upon the one beneath. I took the marriage to Mary to be in itself a ‘folk memory’, a buried layer, a Merry England which may never have been but still cannot be dispelled.
Whether this is an insightful idea or not is in a way beside the point. The point is that it is an idea, that my mind took Clare’s simple, direct words and sparked them against themes laid down elsewhere. At other times, it was too busy playing catch-up.
You may if you wish put this down to a prejudice of mine. I tend to prefer art which is a kind of collage, which takes simple elements and spins them into more resonant combinations. Moore was for many years the apple of my comic-reading eye, but the dense prose he can go in for, and the increasingly citational basis of his writing... that’s not really for me.
Coalition, Brighton, 28th Oct
A trendy young clubber joined the post-show toilet queue, grinning ear to ear. “And what are most 71 year olds doing tonight?” he asked, addressing no-one and everyone simultaneously. “Having a fish supper and watching some telly?” Indeed it seems worth remarking on, when music so out-there has come from someone looking every inch a retired financial advisor. (When told from the audience “you’re beautiful” our star turn quickly corrects the notion – “no I ain’t!” “I look in the mirror”, he explained, smile exacerbating the wrinkles.)
I’ll confess upfront to previously only knowing Silver Apples by reputation. That reputation is pretty much as the Stooges of electronica, pioneering a sound which all about them thought folly - then splitting before it all took off. Main man Simeon built his own kit out of oscillators, junk and the spirit of discovery, alienating even his own band who (all bar the drummer) walked out on him. He just built more switches. The first album came out in 1968, ahead even of anything in the German electronic scene.
He has a weak singing voice, true, but that just throws the focus onto the music. It’s not so much like looking at a template or prototype, it’s more akin to a stem cell dividing. Simeon didn’t pioneer a sound so much as an approach, different tracks point in very different directions indeed. You hear the roots of electro-pop, minimalist proto-techno and quite abstract instrumentals, all jumbled together.
In fact those differences are paraded almost willfully. The gig seems sequenced by i-pod shuffle, jumping from metronomic beats to abstract blurts to semi-songs and back again. I couldn’t quite decide whether that aided or abetted proceedings. Certainly it made everything seem alive with possibility. (Simeon cheerily explained his un-upgraded kit was “still a mystery to me”.) But some transitions were quite jarring. (To see what I mean try following the links from the YouTube clip, several tracks from the night have been uploaded.)
You get this strange displacement activity in venues nowadays, now the lucre has moved from live music to clubs. Gigs now start strangely early, so a club night can be slotted in after they finish. I’ve no idea what kind of a night went on at Coalition after we left, but it’s hard to believe it’s not indebted to Simeon in some way. Yet (lads in toilet queues notwithstanding) I expect the two audiences overlapped scarcely at all.
Mostly however the seafront venue started to remind me of the original Zap Club, which I’d attend on first arriving in Brighton in the mid-Eighties. ‘Alternative’ then was a more nebulous term, less a marketing tag and more a territory to explore. (Though thankfully Coalitions’ ceiling is less likely to drip into your beer.)
Certainly what appeals is the way the sound remains unupdated, like it’s emitting from musical Babbage Engines. Vintage cars are always more appealing than contemporary ones, precisely because they’re less smooth running, more likely to crank and belch gas. Like a lot of music, for it to feel like its working it has to feel like it’s barely working, for only then do you sense you’re in on something special.
And yet don’t we have quite a contradictory reaction to electronica? We tend to hail the pioneering days of backroom boffins armed with soldering irons, before rich kids could just buy some kit off the shelf and elbow in. Yet we also praise it for democratising music, rescuing people from having to devote months to mastering archaic instruments. (There’s the famous quote from Alvin Lucier, that electronics should liberate music the way the instant camera liberated photography.)
But perhaps those seemingly contradictory arguments can actually combine. Perhaps the point of Silver Apples isn’t that it happened at the beginning but that it hit a kind of goldilocks ‘just right’ point, where you needed neither a pedigree in music nor degree in electronic engineering – when, given enough attitude, the gifted amateur could take the stage. In fact it worked so well that, over forty years later, he can still be there...