Tuesday 31 January 2012


Stand by for a nerdy rant about nomenclature...

‘Audiences flock to 'difficult' contemporary classical music’, by Alex Needham in today’s Guardian, is a rare case of good news - about how audiences are finally waking up to the “sonic adventure” of modern music.

He quotes Gillian Moore of the Southbank Centre on this welcome development. “Moore says the increased audience for these works is the result of a campaign to reach people interested in the cutting edge of other contemporary art forms, rather than those who prefer to hear Beethoven.”

One way this happened was through the borders between this and the fringes of popular music becoming more porous, if no eroding entirely. She cites a festival she put on: “we wanted to make the connections between Aphex Twin and John Cage, Squarepusher and Stockhausen.” (That was in 2003. By this point you’d need to remind me where the gaps were.) which I’d add the growth in interest in contemporary visual art, with the Tate gallery turning into two and the Tate Modern itself now growing an extension. Why would you want to spend the day looking at the art of the Twentieth and Twenty First centuries, only to go home and plonk on a CD so rooted in the Nineteenth it might as well wear a top hat and tails? When we open our eyes, what we see is our times. Why not have a soundtrack to it?

And I should know! For a fairly good example of someone who got into modern music by the congruence of these routes would be me.

So, having established what excites people about modern music is the modern bit, why oh why call it by the oxymoronic term ‘contemporary classical’? Or even, at one point, ‘avant garde classical’? Classical music, by any real definition, should have died sometime early in the Nineteenth century. Would you call Jackson Pollock a contemporary classical painter? Yet he used the same tools as classical painters (oils, brushes, canvas) so is closer to them than Berio or Varese (above) are to classical music. It suggests that everything that isn’t ‘frivolous’ pop music, all the ‘serious’ stuff, should get shoehorned in together.

Admittedly, I can’t think of much of an alternative! ‘Modern’ (which I used above as a catch-all) smacks of Modernism, which covers a briefer period of history than we need. ‘Avant garde’ is too associated with Modernism, not to mention dodgy political notions of vanguards and linear history. Some people use ‘new music’ (most often in connection with minimalism), which seems too vague and unspecific. Jessie J could be called new music, at least when she has a new single out.

Perhaps the span of this sort of music is so broad that it will stretch any umbrella term thin. As a stop-gap, I’d suggest dropping the ‘classical’ and keeping the ‘contemporary.’ If follows fuzzy logic, but it gets there. And I doubt Jessie J gets called that so often.

...okay, it matters less what it’s called than how it sounds. The afore-mentioned Gillian Moore suggests five starter pieces at the end of the Guardian piece. (Though frankly she’s on her own when it comes to Conlan Nancarrow!) But, as I suspect the third main way people get into contemporary music is by film soundtracks, here’s Ligeti’s ’Requiem’ as used in ’2001’. (Just stills, but hopefully enough to jog the memory.)

...and if that didn’t give you the shivers try Pendercki’s ’Polymorphia.’ (Sharing partly because of the fantastic visuals, perhaps a little horror-filmish but which still work well with the music.)

Pleasant dreams!

Sunday 29 January 2012


Barbican Hall, Thurs 26th Jan
(Part of the ‘Awakenings’ residency)

"I've always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive... But it has to be expressive of life. To tell the story with grace and humor and depth. And to tell the whole story, if possible."   — Kronos founder David Harrington

Disinterring the Ghosts

What do we want? Political art that’s not sloganising! When do we want it? Now! But what happens when abstract art points at real-world events? Such as when Miro titles a painting ‘Paris 1968’ or the Kronos Quartet call a programme of music “a musical meditation on 9/11”?

Is it just the power of suggestion at work? Is there another sample group, sitting in some other concert hall, clutching guides explaining that the whole thing is about the invention of the refrigerator? And are they sagely noting the section that’s clearly dedicated to the vegetable tray?

I don’t know, because I wasn’t in the refrigerator room. But the one I was in, that kind of worked for me.

The venerable quartet take to the stage surrounded by debris, clearly designed to evoke Ground Zero. (That kind of neatly arranged stagy shorthand for debris that always has chicken wire and a bicycle wheel in it, but never mind that.) They start to play slowly and tentatively, notes at first just floating away, only gradually joining up into lines. It’s like the way improvised music normally starts, only without the improvisation.

Finally things turn into ’Awakening’, a piece in traditional Uzbeki style. In a patented Kronos method, used intermittently throughout the programme, a recording of an Uzbeki singer appears among them. The language is unfamiliar, the voice sounds distant, it’s almost a drone.

In his comic strip reaction to 9/11,‘This is Information’, Alan Moore comments “complex information is reduced to dull simplicity. Rubble, for example, contains little information. It all looks the same.”

In a similar way, we’re watching a cross between a re-enactment and a seance, where the ghosts of the dead are gradually disinterred from among the debris. In contrast to the live players, the recorded voices feel like a spectral presence.

But what’s equally important is what isn’t there. Though at points there’s projections, the debris is the nearest thing to a direct visual indicator of the attack. Those iconic newsclips of planes hitting buildings, of stunned onlookers, all are eschewed. In a piece first performed on the fifth anniversary of the attacks, such images were clearly seen as overly familiar - obstacles to coming to terms with the event. The task now is to get back to the immediacy.

From this disinterring, the programme falls into three distinct sections. The guide divides these up musically, into ‘traditional’, ‘musically dramatic’ and ‘contemporary classical.’ (Though I dislike the oxymoronic term ‘contemporary classical’, I concede I know what they mean.) In a video interview, David Harrington gives them more evocative (if extemporised) names, “the world outside“, “the event” and “the dressing on a wound.” (Though, in a highly eclectic evening, there are also huge varieties at play within these sections.)

The three sections equal to two approaches going on at once, superimposed over each other. There’s a ground-level chronology of events, plus the sonic equivalent of a commemorative wall – the place where people pin photos of the disappeared. The three sections roughly correspond to ‘human voices’, ‘disaster striking’ and ‘remembrance.’

The varieties of ethnic styles in the first section come to represent the multiplicity of people felled by the attack. The sonic violence of the mid-section, with pieces by Einsturzende Neubauten and John Oswold (described by Harrington as “fiendish”) equates to the attack itself. (It’s bizarre in a fun way to see the Kronos Quartet playing a Neubauten piece, striking sheet metal and wielding power tools while still studying their scores!)

This leads into selections from Michael Gordon’s ’The Sad Park’, which uses recorded reminiscences of the day, but only from children. Children, needless to say, do not contextualise or comment on what they experienced. They just describe it, in simple language. (“And all the persons that were in the airplane died.”)

Later, in the finale, on Sallinen’s ’Winter Was Hard’, an actual choir of children come onto stage. Not only do they contrast with the disembodied voices, they stand and sing as a group. (In the YouTube clip linked to above, Harrington comments he wanted to show them listening as much as he wanted them to sing.) The ending is not rousing but delicate, elegiac, almost a palindrome of the opening. It’s like visiting the grave of a loved one. You arrive, memories of them stir and then settle, you leave again.

Though some pieces were written specifically to commemorate 9/11, none were originally planned to be played in this sequence. That seems important, the programme is stitched from pre-existing pieces. Like the debris, they’re picked up and put together into a meaningful shape. A mix of tracks, rather than a dedicated piece, in many ways seems the best means to remember 9/11.

Reclaiming the Grief

...but anyway, if you’ve read any of my live music reviews before, you’ll know I always end up flying off at some tangent or other. And this time what interests me is the way that 9/11 so quickly became the property of the right. It was like the only way it was possible to express any sorrow over the dead was to take their side, to the point where even to mention the event seems to play into their agenda. (While of course, to quote Alan Moore from the same comic strip as before, “We all wept. I’m weeping now.”)

Take for example Paul Greengrass’ 2006 film ’United 93.’ Greengrass had previously been seen as something of a radical, for example with his 2002 film ’Bloody Sunday’which challenged the orthodoxy (read ‘cover-up’) surrounding the massacre in Northern Ireland. Though make in a similar verite style, and rivalling the other film in quality, ’United 93’ is of a very different political stripe.

Perhaps the most infamous event is the portrayal of the German plane passenger Christian Adams as a stereotypical ‘old Europe surrender monkey’, despite the quasi-documentary’s inability to source this in fact. (I’m told Oliver Stone’s ’World Trace Center’ of the same year pulls a similar volte-face for a previous political radical, but then who cares what Oliver Stone has to say about anything?)

But, with the performance happening a mere forty eight hours before Holocaust Memorial Day, I wondered whether this would continue to be the case. Of course Zionists and other reactionary groups try to make the Holocaust a tool of their agenda. (The trump-card atrocity of history, which supposedly allows them to commit their own with impunity.) But this agenda does not dominate media images of the Holocaust, which we normally think of as a human tragedy. (Disclaimer: yes, the comparison between the two events is not what you would call exact. Just go with it, okay?)

Of course, straight after 9/11 Bush’s political machine enlisted it in their drive to war; supposedly, we were with them or with the perpetrators. But that war was disastrous and the Neo Con project was derailed. (If “invade everyone, steal their stuff, then expect them to be grateful” qualified as a ‘project’ in the first place.) This piece was written for the five-year anniversary, is that significant? Does it mark a turning point? Bush remained in power to 2009, but by 2006 his star was already waning. (The two films cited above were released the same year, but film has a longer lead-time.)

Of course I should not attempt to enslave the Kronos Quartet to my mental scheme. They’re not an agitprop outfit, and their aim is clearly to rehumanise the tragedy, not quote Chomsky over Cheney. Nor would I suggest anything is calculated, in the way a spin doctor writes buzz words for focus groups into politicians’ speeches.

Nevertheless, they have a history of performing pieces with a political dimension, including a soundtrack to a gay riot. The guide comments “the Kronos Quartet have long sought to amplify contemporary music’s conversation with the real world”, and in this YouTube interview Harrington expresses anti-war, pro-peace sentiments.  Notably, the programme includes Terry Riley’s ‘One World, One People, One Love’, using a titular mantra recited by Alice Walker, hardly the sort of thing Bush would be likely to utter.

The right tended to homogenise the victims, strip their identifying differences to make them generic ‘Americans’. (While of course a fair proportion of those murdered would have been Muslims.) Wheras here, as mentioned, the multi-ethnic numbers which open the show are clearly intended to remind us of the multiplicity of the people who worked in the Towers. (In the centre of the highly diverse New York City.)

But more, similarly to the way the Zionists used the Holocaust, 9/11 was to become the defining tragedy of our time. If atrocities had been committed against Arabs, Asians or Muslims, either before or after 9/11, it didn’t matter – the Twin Towers overruled them. Our dead were deader than your dead.

Perhaps significantly, while another night in this visit was titled ’Made in America’, the remit here was decidedly wider. American corporations have the hideous buzzphrase ‘ROW’ or ‘Rest of World’, for the bit that’s left after a product has been launched in the Americas and Europe. This night was very rest of world...

Of the four pieces in the opening section, not one is white or European. I didn’t even realise until afterwards that the Uzbek opener featured the Muslim call to prayer. They notably included Iraqi and Iranian numbers. Overall, the twelve pieces hail from eleven different countries

Moreover, the programme was replete with references to other atrocities around the world; for example, the Neubauten piece, ’ Armenia’, itself sampling Armenian folk, recalled the Armenian genocide. The traditional Iraqi piece was titled the blackly humourous ’Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me.’

When a significant event happens, it’s like all the art created before suddenly becomes recalibrated around it. (PJ Harvey’s ’Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea’, for example always seems to me to have 9/11 references, even though I’m fully aware it was released a year before.) But through this method 9/11 becomes contextualised, connected to other tragedies, rather than merely absorbing them.

Of course Riley’s mantra, ’One Earth, One People, One Love’, is unifying and so perhaps suggests at a unifying point. And, with its myriad of voices and tongues, the event does suggest at a Tower of Babel analogy, where (if not God himself) religious fanatics felled the tower that signalled human achievement.

But the tower that’s being rebuilt isn’t the original tower to commerce (or ‘world trade’) so much as, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s phrase, the tower of song. If Uzbeki music is unfamiliar to me (which it pretty much is), I am not as lost as I would be to hear Uzbek spoken. Musicians consider it natural to play together, in a way novelists don’t. Music can act as our common tongue.

It was an event which had to be more than the sum of its parts to work, in fact it couldn’t have more explicitly given itself that task. And of course, at the same time we don’t want everything spelt out for us. It’s not a jigsaw but an act of origami; we’re better leaving the venue with the parts still arranging and rearranging in our heads. Overall I’d say it was good, it was very very good and at points it was actually great.

...which may be partly why it left me thinking about other musical depictions of 9/11 which broke with Bush’s jingoism. In fact Kronos seem almost at the centre of an industry for these. I would now very much like to hear the whole of Michael Gordon’s ’The Sad Park’. In addition another Kronos commission was Steve Reich’s ’WTC 9/11’, performed at the Barbican last year, but I was unable to attend. (It’s YouTubed here.) Perhaps that right wing domination will be broken yet...

Alas a life of moneyed leisure still seems to be eluding me, so I was unable to visit London for the other two Kronos Quartet events. Though I would certainly have seen the ‘Early Music’ night if able, I was most aggrieved to have missed George Crumb’s ’Black Angels’, headlining ‘Made In America’.

A showreel for the residency:

’Oh Mother, The Handsome Man Tortures Me’ in full (albeit from elsewhere):

Coming soon! Yes I know, last time I promised ballet! Apologies to all tutu lovers I have in fact been practising my pirouettes and pas-de-deuxs all week and the ballet is coming, honest...

Wednesday 25 January 2012


For the first part to this retrospective of the recent Royal Academy exhibition click here.

Thin Borders, Porous Walls

There’s a post-hoc tendency to ringfence the Russian revolution, to make it appear an isolated outbreak of madness. While of course all these buildings went up with post-revolutionary optimism, that spirit was far from unique to Russia – the ideas were as porous as their walls. Russian Constructivism was actually but one example of a global tendency, a spirit which flowered as widely as it did briefly. For just one example, the De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, which I visited last year, employs the same effect of making the staircase central.

Counter to most assumptions, prior to the Cold War there was plentiful cross-fertilisation. The famous Swiss architect Corbusier designed the Tsentrosoyuz building (1929/36, above), for the central union of consumer cooperatives, while the Red Banner Textile Factory (1925/37) came from the German Erich Mendelsohn. Even Corbusier’s celebrated nautical metaphors are frequently taken up by others, in Moscow and other towns not noted for their seaside status.

Peering From Inside the Closet

However, even re-examined enough to be stripped of any connection to totalitarianism, there remains an aspect of all this which is hard for us to relate to. Can we understand that people might embrace life in those open-plan buildings? Not just communal living but constantly working and socialising with the same people, eating together in vast halls, only separating to sleep? (Perhaps some radicals thought even that last part too much of a concession, and set about designing a vast bed the size of a small town, ready for us all to share. With a duvet turned by hydraulics.)

We can read here how the communal kitchens and crèches were largely designed to enhance the liberation of women, or the worker’s clubs to provide information and entertainment. But it still seems an infinity away from our closeted and segregated lives, spending evenings alone watching property porn on the TV.

We are walled off from all this not just because of the Cold War years, for ‘public space agoraphobia’ is reflected in more recent aesthetic styles. The ‘industrial gothic’ look pioneered by films like ‘Alien’ (1979), relocated ghosts and monsters from Gothic castles to imposing and intimidating institutions. We see such places and immediately feel lost in a maze, we imagine a minotaur. Notably, many of Pere’s photos have an empty corridor stretching to vanishing point (example above), an image familiar from many such a film.

Yet shouldn’t art do just that? Not flatter your core assumptions but challenge them, take you out of yourself? Should we not take this strange perspective as an opportunity to question the way we live? More than any other time in history we live apart, yet more than any other time of history we are watched. We are set aback when we see see such wanton disregard for ‘privacy’, yet what we have really done is swapped the communal for the panopticon. Tony Hancock’s words in ’The Radio Ham’, “I don’t know anyone down this street, but I’ve got friends all over the world”, seem all too prophetic, as Facebook friends replace real friends and neighbours.

And at times even own media seems aware of our alienation. Though they never say it, their ceaseless fixation with social networks is clearly compensatory. A typical example was their risible response to the Arab Spring as a “Facebook revolution.” Yet of course the defining factor was that people went beyond getting together virtually, and started getting together on the street. Dictators can withstand a few ‘dislike’ tags on their home page.

It All Ends in Mausoleums

Alternately perhaps the problems of our own existence, coupled with these architects’ skill and prowess, can make this aesthetic too seductive. The Marsakov Bakery in Moscow (1931, above) is at least in part a dressing-up of the Fordist production line. And a Fordist production line in sleek Modernist surroundings, with gleaming surfaces and light pouring through the windows, is still a Fordist production line. Slavery isn’t ended by giving slaves finer chains.

The Lensovet Communal House in St. Petersberg, built for the Party elite, both looked much more imposing and was considerably roomier than regular fare. Narkomfin Communal House, built for the Finance Ministry in Moscow (1930), was topped by a double-height penthouse for the minister. And this when all too often regular workers endured “cramped communal living conditions and long working hours.” Even by the Twenties, some animals were already more equal than others.

In fact, seeing the Twenties through the prism of its art and architecture can be terribly misleading. Lenin was artistically tolerant (though scarcely indulgent), but that did not cross over into the political. The show states that the Revolution “brought the Bolsheviks to absolute power by 1921 under the undisputed leadership of Lenin.” Is that the sort of reactionary comment well-off gallery curators are likely to make, unwilling or afraid to admit that workers could run their own lives? Possibly, but that doesn’t stop it being true.

The regrettable facts are that the collapse of the revolution into bureaucratic authoritarianism was not a chance result of Lenin’s death, but a slow process of encroaching Bolshevik control. This was mainly achieved not by guns or threats but something more sordid - subtle and incremental subversion, drawing actual power away from worker’s soviets.

The buildings, often now empty, were almost from the beginning drained of anything but formal power. Their spirit was debased almost as soon as they went up, in some cases sooner. Even Stalin did not pull them down, though he forbad anything else going up in their style. (And, perhaps significantly, the synechdoche for the Eastern block during the Cold War was the Kremlin – the very antithesis of a modern building.)

The last room is given over to Shchusev’s mausoleums for Lenin. Starting straight after his death in January ‘24, there came to be three of these in increasingly elaborate succession, the last (1929, above) in marble, red granite, “porphry and labradorite.” (The last two perhaps carried by three wise men as they sound like alternatives to frankincense and myrrh.) It was a cross between a Pharoah’s pyramid, a fortress and a corporate HQ, with the great leader’s body houses in a glass sarcophagus.

Of course these stages of the Mausoleum are a barometer; simply put, the more ostentatiously Lenin’s corpse was put on show, the more buried was the revolution. Neither was this cult of personality any bar to Stalin, if anything it was a spur to creating his own cult. When he died he was first added to the same mausoleum. (Though removed in ’61, on Khrushchev’s orders.)

Nor should we fall into some romantic but imaginary opposition between creative architects and sinister bureaucrats. Melnikov abandoned architecture rather than submit to Stalin’s anti-modernist directives. Merzhanov’s work got him sent to a gulag in ’42 (from where he continued to work on architecture in secret.)  Yet others (including Kliun, Levinson, Fomin and Iofan) succumbed. Shchusev, as we’ve seen, never had to turn his coat for it was put on wrong to start with.

Suppose you were an architecture buff, with no particular interest in the history or politics of this time and place, should you still see this show? The answer to that is most probably ‘no’, which is of course a great tribute to the work here. The task may be like trying to take an interest in Dada but without the anti-art, or in windows while ignoring glass.

Other recent Constructivist exhibitions, with their wider remit, may have served newbies better. (For example ’Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism', which I would link to if Blogger's moodies allowed. Look for 'Shows of Future Past' in the sidebar.) If this show were an evening class it would most likely be an advanced course, for all that it covers the same period as others have. In fact it works best when at it’s most advanced, when the Constructivist crew had travelled furthest from painting upon canvas.

It may well be one of those things greatly liked by those who like that sort of thing. A camp I most likely fall into. But consider Edwin Heathcote’s words from, I kid you not, the Financial Times: “there’s plenty here to stimulate and inspire, even if we know it all ended badly.”

Coming soon! It’s about time we went to the ballet...

Sunday 22 January 2012


At  the Royal Academy until... well, today actually. But the ’Recreating Tatlin’s Tower’ section remains open for another week, until 29th Jan, and is free!

“Engineers and bridge-builders, do your calculations and invent a new form!” - Vladimir Tatlin

Okay, I know what you’re thinking.

You’re about to ask, “an art exhibition in a gallery space, but all about architecture, can that be satisfactorily achieved?”

But that isn’t what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking “okay, it’s been a while coming but this time Four Eyes has finally lost it. Now he’s banging on about some show about Soviet-era tower blocks, doubtless to tell us how they’re more aesthetic than ‘bourgeois’ painting or something. We have been patient with his funny fixations up until now. You distract him with a question while I call Social Services.”

Let’s take both of those in turn.

First, the architecture isn’t always in a gallery space, for this exhibition starts before you’re even in the building. The courtyard holds a replica of Tatlin’s Monument to Third International, known universally as the less mouthfulsome Tatlin Tower (above). Unsurprisingly, it’s nowhere near to Tatlin’s intended gargantuan scale, but it remains impressive. (“I thought they were doing building work” I heard one punter exclaim, taken aback that this metalwork was actually part of the art.) But of course this can’t be kept up once we are inside the exhibition space. You can’t pluck buildings from the Moscow skyline, subject them to a shrinking ray and stuff them inside another one, like shrunken heads put on show by a victorious tribe.

The general format is to display large-scale modern-day photos (by Richard Pare), with adjacent smaller photos from the era, often still attached to handwritten index cards. (Videos, which usefully show the buildings inside and interacting with, their environment, were sometimes added but for some reason on absurdly tiny screens.) It’s like seeing photos of someone at the different stages of their life, and works pretty well.

The space is designed unassumingly but modernistically, with a heavy use of bold whites, and displays not in cabinets but sleek floating shelves jutting from the wall. (Not for the first time the Academy has proven itself more adventurous and more inventive than supposedly cooler galleries.)

And the second question? The last thing we have here is some fanatical ‘formalism’, sour-faced committees purging any ‘bourgeois’ aesthetics in their obsessive rush towards an unliveably austere utopia. Instead we have creative and innovative architects who, in the show’s words, “sought a radical new language with which to construct the world of Soviet Socialism.” In fact its nearest thematic cousin is last years ‘Pioneers of the Downtown Scene’, in Seventies New York, in its attempt to reclaim the city for the human imagination - a plastic arena we could shape to suit our desires.
True, there’s one major difference. A totemic word for the Downtown scene was ‘play’, as an antidote to a city quite literally built about commerce. The Soviet architects (and Constructivism in general), hated anything that suggested of “bourgeois-bohemianism”, proudly donned blue collars and became as equally fixated upon work. Nevertheless, the similarities are there for those with eyes to see.

Relative Dimensions

The exhibition promises to show “new developments in art, poetry, theatre and architecture.” Though its heart is clearly in the last item, let’s start as it does with the earlier ones.

Whether the artworks should be called ‘bourgeois’ or not is a question I’ll leave to others. Notably, however, several of their own creators went on to think so. Nikritin’s large (and very good) Russian Futurist work ‘The Connection of Painting to Architecture’ (1919/21) sums up a tendency, to move from painting into three directions. Tatlin himself started with sculptures and ‘counter reliefs’.

Many of the paintings are abstract but with perspective, making them feel already ‘proto-architectural.’ Popova’s geometric ‘Spatial Force Construction’ (1921, above) is described as  “a transitional stage from painting to architecture.”

From there the show threads the art in parallel with architecture. Handouts suggest these are “set in dialogue”, with direct comparisons left implicit, but it basically means spotting recurring geometric forms (“circles, truncated cones and fractured planes”). In practise this was more like trying to carry on a conversation with two different people at once. Yes, those forms recur, but only like words repeated across two quite different sentences.

Things would have run more smoothly if it had followed chronology of the times; first the paintings put up and done with, then moving on. Building the revolution isn’t a pun or a slogan, it’s doing just what it says on the lid. These guys weren’t marking or responding to anything, they thought themselves part of a movement which was remaking Russia, if not the world.

The art is often at its most interesting when its creators do not quite take this path into architecture. Malevich for example stopped painting but for ‘architectons’, architectural-style models never designed to be buildings. The students of Unovis produced abstract drawings styled after rooms, unsigned and produced collectively. Popova produced sets and designs for Meyerhold’s theatre.

However these divergencies do tend to get crushed by the show’s over-arching theme. We’re told, for example, “Malevich and Rodchenko explored the potential for two-dimensional art to be translated into three-dimensional constructs.” This not only conflates the two (which might have confused both of them), but misses the central point. To Constructivism the move beyond painting wasn’t to up the number of dimensions but function. Works had to do something or fulfill some role, not  merely decorate, and aesthetics’ role was to be based around that.

A Tale of Two Towers

Architecture has a reputation as ‘power art’, and it can’t be denied that it’s the one art form habitually loved by dictators. In a scene in the film ’Downfall’, Hitler looks over models of a re-transfigured Berlin and confesses to Speer this is his favourite part. Whether based on a real conversation or not, it has the sting of truth; those grand architects drawings vying with the real world so obstinately difficult to shape into them.

Yet at the same time Stalin ordered production of a lot of musicals, and that doesn’t make the musical as a form inherently totalitarian. We need to decouple such notions from the work here, which is rarely grandiosley self-important in the same way.

It’s part of a general problem of this era. Seeing an exhibition set after the Russian Revolution is a bit like seeing a film when you’ve been tipped off the ending. You have to somehow hold that apart in your mind, or you won’t understand why the characters are behaving the way they do.

Let’s start with that model tower in the courtyard. In a pre-echo of the corporate dickwaving contest that mars the modern London skyline, Tatlin’s designs planned for something taller than the Eiffel Tower (both above). But even if you only saw a model of the Eiffel you would most likely guess it was designed to stand tall; dominating its surroundings, its symmetry enhancing the way it points proudly up at the sky. Its shape is designed to enhance its scale, it is made to look big.

Though it’s similarly iconic you wouldn’t necessarily think the same thing of Tatlin’s tower; it snakes and slopes, rather than jutting straight up. It’s more open design is built around a spiral, it’s apex not even coming to a point. In a detail almost forgotten it was designed to move, so it “would have appeared like a figure in motion, striding forwards towards Communist utopia.”

In fact the exhibition gave me a new favourite image of the Tower model, Tatlin and his assistants scaling it in order to complete it. (The model itself was over five metres tall.) It makes the climbers look giant against the mountain, and the work look enticingly incomplete. Its not a power figure but a congruence for movement, monument both to things done and yet to do.

It could perhaps be argued that the Eiffel Tower, raised to mark the centenary of the French Revolution, marks a bourgeois revolution while Tatlin’s was designed for a proletarian. Of course that’s something of a simplification, but that doesn’t stop it being argued.

Powerplants Not Palaces

Tatlin said of his tower “I believe that it can be done if we really want it.” This proved prophetic, albeit in an ironic sense, for it is of course one of those projects which is chiefly famous for remaining a model and a plan. It may even be the best-know unbuilt building in history. A shortage of steel meant that even the celebrated model, the only way we know it, had to resort to wood. And that non-existence, the fact that it never truly made it off the drawing board, means we should see it less as monument than as tombstone – an unerected tribute to a people’s revolution that never was.

And yet shouldn’t we challenge that assumption, or at the very least look into what underpins it? If Tatlin’s Tower was never built this show features many other buildings, admittedly less grand and audacious, which still stand today. At their enlarged size, Richard Pare’s blown-up photos show up their cracks and blemishes, yet they are still recognisable from their younger days. They’re rather like old men, no longer tall and proud on the street, somewhat beaten and faded, yet still standing and with their stories to tell.

Shukhov’s Shabalovka Radio Tower (1922), one of the first post-revolutionary constructions, was built not according to flighty idealism but new architectural principles, sound enough to ensure it remains in use today. It is this which becomes the poster image of the show (up top). Perhaps we read what we choose into these things, and others will see that lattice as a spider’s web. Yet to me the converging concentric circles, with the giddyingly enticing ladder pointing through them to the sky, make for an image which almost pulls you upwards. It couldn’t be more suggestive of liberation.

But the whole picture changes again when you’re shown images of the tower from without (above). Seen this way, it doesn’t dominate its environment, in fact its barely a trace in the sky. It’s like it’s survived so long the way reeds can weather storms which fell oaks.

If Shukhov’s tower is important for being pioneering, the (of all things) water tower at Ekaterinburg, central Russia, (1929, above) was designed to be “a focal point” at the end of a boulevard. Sacking the palaces was not enough. Technology, the workplace, everyday life, were all now to be at the centre of things. Consequently, factories and services needed their own aesthetic. Nowadays we hide such things away like the electric cabling behind the walls of our houses.  Their function is only to be venerated when put in the past, like the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern or gasworks of Tate St. Ives. But why not celebrate the power plant that lights your home?

Space Breaks Open

Exhibitions divide their subject matter into manageable sections. Here this becomes purpose, (so we have ‘Communication’, ‘Industry’, ‘Housing’, etc.), but frankly you wouldn’t know any of that without the signs to tell you. This was a movement about putting things together, founding a common aesthetic. The show says itself “ architects applied the new formal language as enthusiastically to industrial plants as to office buildings.” For example, the afore-mentioned Water tower seems of a kind with Melnikov’s “highly individual” round house (1927, above), even if one was for housing water and the other... actually, it was just Melnikov himself!

However the show does have the smarts or the luck to start things off with the theme of Communication. It means the word in the narrow sense, of the communicative industries. Yet things work out a different way.

As we’ve already seen, power and domination are not the key concepts here. Creating a break with the past, putting the productive forces at the centre of life, they are at least present - but neither is key. The primary purpose of this new urban environment was to enhance the flow of communication.

Rather than the grim fortresses of Cold War imaginings, the buildings are virtually porous - bursting with openings, held together with criss-crossing gangways or connecting skyways. The show speaks of “wide corridors intended to promote social interaction.” Like a microcosm of the whole spirit, Golosov’s Zuev Worker’s Club (Moscow, 1926) or the Palace of Culture in  Baku (Azerbajan, 1929) are both built around a central cylinder housing the staircase. Again and again the emphasis is on buildings which are light, open and airy.

Once profits circulated while workers stayed where they were told. Now for the reverse. To go back to the poster image, a still-transmitting radio tower - what better symbol for this show?

...for the rest click here!

Monday 16 January 2012


Last autumn, when REM finally called it a day, the most common gag was to say you hadn’t known they were still together. And, okay, maybe they hung on longer than they should have. (Though ask yourself how many jobs you quit, how many relationships you ended, how many flats you left just when you should have?)

But in their eighties heyday they were little short of a vital band, and they were hardly slouches even when the nineties rolled by. Watching their episode-length appearance on ’Later With Jools Holland’, repeated on the BBC last Friday, I was set back by how much they were still kicking in ’98 – a full year after Bill Berry had left the band.

I had even completely forgotten about this track, ’Country Feedback’, despite having the album it’s on (’Out of Time.’) When you can write a song as powerful and self-assured as that and it just vanishes into your set-list... that suggests a band who were doing something right. Heard now, it inevitably starts to sound like it’s about the breakup of the group - despite being written twenty years too early for that.

PS: Sorry about that aggravating bloody logo which seems almost tatooed on Stipe’s forehead, it’s the best YouTube can offer. (When will they learn that such practises make us loathe and despite Aimersoft, whatever that bloody is, rather than rush out and buy it?) If you have access to the I-Player, you may be able to watch the whole thing without it intruding. (Because of course we all disapprove of things like this.)

Saturday 7 January 2012


For catch-ups on last year’s visual arts go here and films here. (...and if anyone’s wondering, theatre and gigs go together because they’re both fundamentally live experiences, and not because they were the last two left!)

Though I’m normally not quite as bad at attending the theatre as I am writing about it, I’d concede that I’m not exactly good at it. However, I did manage to see more things this year – principally because of an arrangement where National Theatre plays are transmitted live in Brighton’s Duke of Yorks cinema. (And in many other places round the world, check their website to see if anything’s going on near you.)

Through this, I saw and enjoyed ’The Cherry Orchard’, Danny Boyle’s quite splendid version of ’Frankenstein’ and ’Collaborators’ - a new play by John Hodge riffing on Stalin’s encounters with Bulgakov. Hodge’s play was a good example of how an artwork can be good in itself, yet also be entirely politically reactionary.

Of course, the last thing we would want is a pro-Stalinist play, but at the same time we’re used to Stalinism as a stick. It’s like we’re supposed to believe in some binary choice between the world exactly as it is now or dying in some gulag. Hodge went out of his way to contrast RP-speaking aristos against proley revolutionaries. (Stalin himself was given a South-Western accent, and everyone had a similar variant.) The ‘problem’ of the revolution was therefore not that a gangster group seized their chance to usurp power, but that the toffs-on-top natural order was reversed.

The most absurd moment must surely be when we hear the peasants had their entire harvest stolen by Stalin’s troops. All true of course, yet we’re told this by a tearful landed gent, as if they had all been treated indulgently under feudalism. Admittedly, the theme of the play is a narrower one of man-meets-devil (in itself done very well) rather than a general comment about the Russian revolution, yet even so this ludicrous toss shouldn’t go by uncommented. Simultaneously a great play and risible.

Speaking of Stalinist Russia, I also saw ’Dying For It’, a new translation of Nikolai Erdman’s celebrated ’The Suicide.’ The play’s both famous for its quality and notorious for being banned. (Erdman had the bad luck of attempting to stage it in ’28, just as Stalin took power.)

Watching it today it seems less anti-Soviet than anti-ideological, you could almost call it post-structuralist if that term had existed when it was written. When a young, unemployed man contemplates suicide every social group (from the workers to the intelligensia) attempts to claim his act for their own dogma, despite his motives clearly being tawdrily personal. Perhaps that defence would have cut little ice with Stalin!

It was only let down by the semi-professional production. The acting ranged from the very good to the plain old wooden, which unfortunately can make for the worst of both worlds. If all the acting is poor you tend to adjust to it, like listening to a singer who can’t really sing. Unfortunately, some good acting will only draw attention to the bad.

Perhaps out of some subconscious perversity, I managed to go to Shakespeare’s Globe twice without seeing a single Shakespeare play! Instead I took in Marlowe’s ’Doctor Faustus’, followed by ’The Globe Mysteries.’ (A new version of the Bible stories staged in Medieval times by different groups of workmen, the “mystery” in the title coming from an alternate name for guilds.) Alone of the above, these two I did intend writing about...

Much of the appeal of the Mystery Plays is in their reductiveness, in their telling cosmogenic stories in ways which fits the conventions and limitations of the stage at the time. God, for example, is presented as the Guv’nor. Of course all but the dimmest contemporary audience member knew that God didn’t really have human form, any more than a shed is really Noah’s Ark or a blue sheet the flood. A dramatic device is simply being used to represent him. Nevertheless, the play recreates creation time when the Bible stories were thought of as historical events.

It seems significant that characters not only address the audience, but interact with it and even climb down into it. (When Judas introduces himself we boo, like we’re at the panto.) The actors are there to demonstrate something to us, not convey some illusion of depth. Lucifer, for example, rebels against God simply because that is what he does in the story.

By Shakespeare, we have a stage full of metaphor and ambiguity – all of which rests upon the development of character psychology. To take the (upcoming) example of Macbeth, when he sees a dagger before him the whole scene is predicated on our understanding the dagger is not there, it’s merely a projection of his guilt.

Though Marlowe’s life was roughly contemporary with Shakespeare, his ’Doctor Faustus’ struck me as transitional between these two. You could call it Marlowe’s ’Hamlet’ as it’s based around the indecision of the central character. Like Hamlet, Faustus doesn’t address the audience but soliloquises - thinking aloud that we might hear. He could easily be seen as a sympathetic figure, not hungry for worldly things but for knowledge, Renaissance man bumping frustratedly into the confines of his world.

Yet the spirits and demons conjured up by his cursed bargain inhabit some transitional space between physical beings and projections of his psychology. The “good and evil angel”, frequently rushing on stage to dramatise his conflict, are presumably no more than embodiments of his mind. However Mephistophilis can, when it suits him, be seen by other characters, and even confesses to slyly manipulating events before he first appears. This makes him a character in his own right, not a creation of Faustus’ mind but a demon who was standing waiting somewhere before he was summoned.

And yet at the same time, he insists Hell is not a place at all but instead a state:

“Hell has no limits, nor is circumscrib’d
In one self place; for where we are is hell,
And where hell is there must we ever be.”

Perhaps more crucially, Hamlet’s conflict is over his course of action. Yet Faustus signs away his soul early in the play. After that, his endless pontificating is rather after the fact, like a man wondering whether he should have jumped from the twelfth floor as he passes the seventh. Nor does he seem corrupted by his worldly knowledge, he just carries his conflict with him as the play crawls to its fated conclusion. Instead of development it is structured around set-pieces, such as the dramatic appearance of the Seven Deadly Sins, many involving acrobatics and visual pyrotechnics.

Yet what, on the page, makes the play sound stuck at some mid-point, may be precisely what makes it enjoyable to actually watch. It has the vibrancy of the stilt-walking demons, dramatically parading the stage in their animal-skull masks. Yet it is more than a mere show, or demonstration of a moral, for we sense a character (however sketchily) at the centre of it all. The two traditions, show and play, may not logically fit together, but like plugging together two incompatible devices they create a lot of sparks.

After not seeing any Shakespeare at the theatre specifically dedicated to him, I did take in Platform 4’s version of ‘Macbeth’. Taking advantage of the intimate confines of Brighton Pavilion Theatre, they employed minimal props and a dark ambient soundtrack to play up the crucial claustrophobia of the play. It was only marred by a weak performance in the (somewhat central) role of Lady Macbeth.

Somehow the one thing I do seem to have managed to write about is gigs. (Even managing to fit in things I didn't go tonot quite sure what the logic is there!) Let’s get started on the few exceptions...

As a kind of very early Colour Out of Space warm-up (seeing as it was in January, and the main event November), Primate Arena was staged in Coachwerks. Israeli artists Eran Sachs and Alex Drool performed with local boys from Blood Stereo and Bolide Awkwestra. This was about as enjoyable as it was indescribable, but fortunately there’s a YouTube clip...

(Incidentally I am still intending to write something about Colour Out of Space itself, hopelessly out-of-date as it may be.)

I took in one night of the Soundwaves festival, at the never-before-used venue of Brighton Town Hall. (Imposingly grand and Victorian, if you’ve never seen it.) This was full of good ideas which frankly didn’t come off very often, but I suppose it’s better to have fought and lost...

I saw both Acid Mothers Temple and Wire again, both of which I’ve written about before. (AMT here, Wire not since Ye Olde Print Days.) Here’s something from the AMT gig, complete with craaaaazy light show...

...and, in what couldn’t be more of a contrast if I was trying, Wire going through their paces...

Despite seeing the O’Neill brothers many times as (the massively under-rated) That Petrol Emotion, this year was the first time I ever saw the Undertones. It was very much a back-to-basics set, playing the first album in entirety. New singer Paul McLoone is a great frontman, my only possible quibble would be that he (and the band) are perhaps a little too polished and accomplished for songs about the fumbling awkwardness of adolescence. I did like the way they didn’t save this number for the closer, but audaciously dropped it in the middle of the set...

I even had a ticket to see Death in Vegas the next night, but alas was beset by the lurgee by then and unable to attend. They sounded something like this, I would imagine.

Late addition! For some reason, mostly likely connected to foolishness, I forgot to include any mention of 'Faster Than Sound: Brainwaves'  an evening of music inspired by MRI scans featuring Mira Calix and Anna Meredith. Not sure absolutely everything worked but the highlights were high and, with it's instillation pieces in the audience and such, it felt very much like a special event.

Still later addition! For some reason, my aged noggin skipped over one of my favourite gigs of the year - Chumbawamba at the Ropetackle Centre in Shoreham. This was not only the first time I'd seen the stripped down/ acoustic version of the band, but the first time I'd seen them since the Nineties! Once one of my favourite bands, I kind of went off them after 'Anarchy' (for reasons unconnected to the infamous-for-some EMI signing), but this new version were kind of quietly resplendent! It's cool the way they can ceaselessly morph without ever conforming.

It made for a Chumbawamba-themed couple of days, as the night before the Cowley Club had shown their docu (the splendidly titled 'Well Done, Now Sod Off!' and Boff (no longer an active member) had given a talk.

Couldn't find anything from the gig YouTube-wise, but this (from Cologne) was a number they performed. Joe Strummer's 'Bank Robber', from those quaint old days where we still imagined it was people who robbed banks...

Coming soon! Let’s hear it for the out-of-date stuff...