Sunday, 31 March 2013
Friday, 29 March 2013
Pallant House Gallery, Chichester
(Yes, another art exhibition that's come and gone. Would you expect anything else around here?)
”Our culture is like a garment... that no longer fits us. This culture is like a dead language that no longer has anything in common with the language of the street. It is increasingly alien to our lives.”
Art in the Raw
Jean Dubuffet is a smart choice on the Pallant House gallery's part. Like Edward Burra who graced these walls before him he's an important figure who's been neglected by British galleries in recent times. (By their reckoning, for nearly fifty years!) But more importantly he was arguably the rock that started the rolling, outsider art's Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McClaren rolled into one. He coined the term Art Brut (“raw art”) in 1945, as he sought an antidote to classicist orthodoxies outside the art world. He waxed lyrical over art which was “completely pure, raw... invented in all it's phases by the artist, from his impulses alone.”
All of which, needless to say, is a hopeless romanticism. Dubuffet was using the mentally ill in the way Gauguin used Tahitian islanders or Picasso African art – fetishistically, expecting somebody else to busy themselves with building your escape capsule, envisaging a group of noble savages who had somehow escaped all of society's conditioning. It's labelling the other according to your needs.
Except worse. The wish to reframe insanity as some kind of super-lucidity, a kind of contemporary sequel to shamanism, seems a lot to load on people who weren't coping that well with life in the first place. It's like when a rich person comments the homeless are free of ties. The correct rejoinder is “how the hell would you know?”
Yet let's not be too hasty. Unlike Gauguin or Picasso Dubuffet was no mere plunderer, he was as interested in collecting and displaying examples of Art Brut as he was in it influencing his own art. And he was as interested in art by children or the otherwise untrained as he was by the insane - it was merely the last group that won all the notoriety.
Plus, more widely, Modernism had a history of being right for all the wrong reasons. Art Brut did prove a handy method of slipping the seemingly pervasive rules of Classicism, which at that point seemed so naturalised, of getting back to making marks on paper. Though Dubuffet was influenced by and associated with the Surrealists, in this sense Art Brut was as much a proto-punk movement.
The show starts with a quote from the man describing his two tendencies - “to exaggerate the marks of invention, and the other, the opposite, which leads me to eliminate all human presence... and drink from the source of absence.”
The Source of Absence
...which is followed, naturally enough by an example of each tendency. “The source of absence” is represented by one of his Texturologie paintings 'Texturologie IX (Jain)' (1957). (The illo above is actually of 'Texturologie VIII (Dec)', but is probably enough to give you an idea.) Dubuffet painted this series flat on the floor, often scattering sand on the canvas, attacking the surface with sandpaper and other abrasive substances, or scoring it with a fork. The results look as though they could have almost been made by some random process, even by being left out in the elements. The question they ask us is – why bother to paint things, when you can make suggestive marks which work just as well, if not better?
They're like Ernst's frottage and grattage works pushed along a step, with the apparent absence of an image creating a mystery in the mind of the viewer. The point isn't so much that eventually you do decipher some hidden image, like in a join-the-dots game. What makes the viewing compelling isn't the image you make out, so much as the prevailing sense you're just on the cusp of descerning it. In today's bid for Pseud's Corner I'm going to suggest these paintings work more like meditational aids; your eye lingers, just as when you watch clouds pass in the sky.
They remind me of all the times I've blithely quoted Norbert Lynton's line about Picasso being close to the roots of art. You look at this work and start to feel that Picasso was really reclining in the penthouse of art while Dubuffet laboured in the basement, scratching obsessively on the walls with a compass end. This is art at it's most hands-on, most inky-fingered.
Mapping the Ghost Society
The following works belong to a loose series dubbed the Paris Circle, made as Dubuffet returned to live in the French capital. These couldn't be more unlike the celebration of the 'gay' Paris in Impressionism, a parade of peacocks, it's streets teeming but possessed of some underlying order.
'Affluence (Attendance)' (March 1961, above) seems deliberately poised to leave you unsure whether this is a crowd scene or just a page of doodles, a jumble of faces. Each face is (as the indicia puts it) “lit in streaky whites and pinks”, while the torsos are filled in with darker hues, their separating black outlines left barely visible. This throws the faces into the foreground, as if they float on some murky sea. Each is seen either straight on or as a perfect profile. And even when the figures face each other, such as in the upper left, it's hard to figure out whether they are actually engaging one another or just happen to be lined up together on a canvas.
It's so reminiscent of the drawing exercise where you fill a sheet of paper with cartoon heads, each one a separate character caught in as few lines as possible, that this cannot be accidental. Dubuffet said himself: “I do not see in what way the face of a man should be a less interesting landscape than any other. A man, the physical person of a man, is a little world, like any other country, with its towns, and suburbs.”
The sense of that ambiguity being deliberate, as if the faces themselves are not sure whether they are linked or not, is taken up by a subsequent painting – 'Vire-Volte (Spinning Around)' (May 1961, above), which hits you like the onset of a fever. This time the figures are in a definite street scene, but it doesn't appear to be doing them much good. They're split into two by a central barrier that seems more undulating river than neat, straight road. Yet even within their own sides they line up awkwardly, stuck together and yet simultaneously isolated. (I would semi-seriously link this painting to the celebrated French distaste for queueing!)
Their bold white outlines at first make the background appear flat, yet rather than reassuringly solid it's a morphing surface of shades and hues - like a bruised skin. The signs in the background are parodies of shop names, saying things like 'Knick-Knacks' or 'Ghost Society.'
Notably in the introductory quote Dubuffet contrasted the dead language of culture with the streets, and here he is clearly putting forward Art Brut as a more contemporary method of expressing the alienating urban experience. The naïve, child-like style of the work reacts potently with the grotesque subject matter. It induces a reaction similar to when you see art by children who have been in a war zone; shootings and bombings depicted in the deadpan, innocent style usually reserved for picnics and birthdays. Yet here it is not the friction of style against content that causes that reaction - rather, it is how spookily easily the two fit together. The division of the painting into zones, the isolated, heavily outlined figures... it's like the direct eye of children's art saw the harsh truth all along, which the soothing classical conventions of our culture tried to shelter us from.
'The Irish Jig (Le Gigue Irlandaise' (Sept 1961, above) is another sequel to 'Affluence', albeit one that takes things in quite a different direction. It's almost like a time-lapse photo taken after the earlier painting, with the faces reduced to morphing, cellular forms – form fading away before your eyes. The faces are still semi-visible through cartoon motifs, dots within circles as eyes, stretched sausages as mouths. But what most jumps at you is the change in palette, the murky browns, bruised purples and off-whites left behind for a riot of bold primary colours. (That these three pictures could have been created within a matter of months seems extraordinary.)
A Mad Desire To Impose Order
It's this work which provides the link to the Hourloupe series, which Dubuffet worked on through the rest of the Sixties and dominates the rest of the exhibition. The word, though invented, seems rooted in “hourler” (to shout), “hurler“ (to howl), “loup” (wolf) and last but not least “l'entourloupe” (to make a fool of).
These sprang from doodles Dubuffet absently made while on the phone. After the cellular jigsaw puzzle of 'Irish Jig', the individual elements become larger, more amorphous and more complex, just as the colour scheme reduces to red, blue and black, often in the form of stripes. These are them fitted into the outline of an overall shape, such as in 'Solario' (1961, up top) or 'Site Inhabited By Objects' (1961, above).
Dubuffet’s intention seems to have been to challenge the apparent solidity of objects; what appears to be a teacup sitting stoutly on the shelf, or even the head of another human being, is actually only a morphing swirl of atoms on which we impose our prejudices and associations. He commented how he “intended to challenge the objective nature of being. The notion of being is presented here as relative rather than irrefutable: it is merely a projection of our minds, a whim of our thinking.”
Though I like not one single thing about any of these works, which look to me like nothing other than crazy paving on bad drugs, it's those regular, stick-of-rock stripes that really rankle. The volatility of the earlier works is held in thrall by those bold outlines, imprisoned by those stripes as evenly spaced as the bars of a dungeon. After the savage figures and suggestive forms of earlier, it's like swapping the wild woods for an English country garden.
In a reversal of the standard dictum of Modernism, the works look wrong in all the wrong ways - not shamanic and visionary but obsessive-compulsive, a mad desire to impose order. (With their questioning of objects they seemingly resemble Cubism. But this is superficial, for they're just one-faced likenesses.)
Yet at the same time with their bright colours they seem fashionably Sixties, almost 'pop' in effect. (At this time Dubuffet also took to using contemporary disposable materials such as polystyrene for sculpture.) Given the changes in art around that time, principally the growth of pop, there's the taint of opportunism about this new direction. The result is a strange, queasy mixture of the calculated and the disturbing – they're psychotically jolly.
The Hourloupes probably work best used as elements of design, such as in the twin posters Dubuffet made for his Tate and ICA shows in 1966 (above). Though the text is hand-drawn and lent a charming wonkiness, the straight letter forms still give the morphing cells something to rebel against. (Dubuffet would seem to have excelled in design. The show includes other posters, catalogues and even invitation cards he designed – all simple yet striking.)
The exhibition, in short, suckered me in with a few fantastic introductory works then proved a let-down with almost every subsequent room. In one way I feel like I'd finally got to hear the Stones, but heard a compilation chiefly devoted to the Eighties and Nineties. But perhaps there's an upside to that. I came out of the Burra show feeling I'd had my knowledge and appreciation of him expanded, but as a consequence wouldn't need to see another Burra show for a while. I came out of this feeling I'd had my interest in Dubuffet piqued rather than sated. Like his Texturologie paintings, not only is his mystery, his allure, still out there but I feel it more keenly than before. Dubuffet is still raw to me.
This Dubuffet exhibition was part of a group of shows at the Pallant House Under the umbrella title 'Outside In', all dedicated to various forms of Outsider Art. To hear about the others go here...
Sunday, 24 March 2013
...this time Mount Tauro (above Taormina) and Mazzaro (the beach below it). More here. (And more still to come...)
Friday, 15 March 2013
An adventure comprising the following; your humble narrator, being stout of heart and eager-eyed, ventured midst Winter's harm to London, heart of Empire, to attend that great institute Tate Britannia, for a viewing of pictures composed by the gentlemen comprising the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Though moved to speak of this, alas your narrator did not exhibit the industrious vigour of his ostensible subject and was remiss in inflaming his Babbage engine, with the result that he elucidates over an exhibition no longer available for public viewing.
Image Clashes With Symbol
What lurks behind that apparently oxymoronic subhead, 'Victorian avant-garde?' The suggestion that these late Victorian artists were proto-modern may simply be a handy means to incorporate them into the Tate's set-list. (The venue's clock normally starts at 1900.) But it does have some traction. Like so many Modernist movements the Pre-Raphaelites were a distinct reaction to what had gone before, to the point where they even formed a Brotherhood and wrote up a ringing (if somewhat vaguely worded) manifesto. As the Tate website has it, “rather then emulate the early masters, they espoused a rule-breaking originality.” They also strove for a unity of the arts, embracing painting, music, architecture and sculpture and became directly involved in the Arts and Crafts movement. (An involvement which gets a room devoted to it, but will sadly go under-noted here.)
Yet at the same time their striving to move painting forward involved looking further back. In their case this was an attempt to re-aquaint themselves with the earlier masters, the world before Classicism and in particular (in a name-defining statement) before Renaissance artist Raphael. Which of course is itself very much a feature of Modernism, for example in Gauguin's fixation with folk art.
But shouldn't we be suspcious of the whole term 'avant-garde', with it's linear assumptions about history? Shouldn't our focus be not so much on the group as harbingers of Modernism, but more on their historical context? Of course the answer there is yes, but even that is not enough - and would lead to us bypassing most of what is unique and significant about them. Merely finding their point in a lineage suggests art is made up of neat steps, ordered in a clear-cut ascent. But art history works more like history, the story of combustible chemicals thrown into an ever-more volatile mix.
The artistic context of the Pre-Raphaelites is of course Romanticism. In many ways it is hard to get a handle on this, which was less a defined art movement than a meta-movement (akin to Modernism) and perhaps by consequence was volatile and inchoate. Moreover, as a reaction against the Enlightenment it prized feeling over intellect, and was thereby virtually opposed to coherence on a point of principle.
But if there's scant use in asking Romanticism to define itself, we can come up with some ideas of our own. While Romanticism sought solace from and inspiration in nature, it's degree of fidelity to nature varied greatly. It was at root concerned with accessing the human imagination – the hay wain of the mind. It's not that it failed to distinguish between the natural world and the human mind – it's that it is precisely predicated upon refusing to make that distinction. To Wordsworth the daffodils of the field were just triggers for the daffodils in his head.
Yet the Pre-Raphaelites had come rather late to this party. As a reaction to the the growing Industrial Revolution, the peak of Romanticism is normally considered to be 1800-1840 when Turner and Constable were at work.
What else was afoot at this time? A reliable source of gossip states that by “the second half of the 19th century, Realism was offered as a polarized opposite to Romanticism” and goes on to give it exactly the same starting point as this show does the Pre-Raphaelites – the 1848 revolution. Across the water in France, Realist painters such as Manet, Courbet and Corot no longer set their star by Classical or Biblical scenes but by fidelity to daily life.
If this band took a different tack, perhaps we should look at that “pre-Raphael” business by which they tagged themselves? Their backwards looks were chiefly to Florentine religious art, represented here by Lorenzo Monaco's altar piece 'Adoring Saints' (1407/9). This influence chiefly manifested in the brighter, more sumptuous use of colour which is such a signature of a Pre-Raphaelite work. As Franny Moyle says “The revolutionary use of colour at the very least justifies Tate Britain's claim.” (Royal Academy magazine, Autumn 2012).
A sound-bite description of the group might be the attempt to make a painting as vivid as a stained-glass window. The works almost radiate with colour! (Though as any fule kno, the 'masters' then venerated by the Academy had never actually painted the drab works thought of them, their colours had literally faded before Victorian eyes were set upon them.)
But the Florentines made votive works, not for a gallery but a Church. This different purpose gives them a different nature. The haloed heads of the Saints are arranged in a constellation more than a scene, a diagram which transmits a spiritual meaning to the believer. And that's an influence you can see at work in this exhibition.
So with the Pre-Raphaelites Romanticism, Realism and a kind of heightened symbolism collided head-on. Like particles being bashed together in a super-collider, image crashes against symbol. This sometimes created something unexpected – a kind of dazzling hyper-realism. Objects don't look removed or otherly as they would in later Symbolism, they look rooted in this world. But at the same time they can branch off into quite a different one.
However, it seems less likely that any of this collision course was a deliberate plan, and more likely that the Pre-Raphaelities were unaware of any of those contradictions until they arose on their canvases. With rather haphazard results - some Pre-Raphaelite works can look intoxicating blends and others more like car crashes.
Take for example William Holman Hunt's 'The Scapegoat' (1854/6, above). Jesus' sacrifice had became associated with the Hebrew tradition of making a goat the repository of human sins, then driving it out into the wilderness. In this sense the painting is a pointer, a religious allegory, we should see the goat but think of Jesus. Yet at the same time Hunt went to the effort of taking a real goat to a real location.
The painting consequently has a kind of double existence. There's something too vivid, too laboured, too intense for it to seem a straightforward nature painting. Yet some of that same laboured intensity, the weighing down of the image with detail, holds you to the work itself rather than giving your mind leave to wander off into considering the symbolism. The Scapegoat, in short, is a kind of push-me-pull you.
Yet it works in a similar way to that seen earlier with Gauguin, what makes the work wrong is simultaneously what makes it right. When it doesn't resolve quickly into some easy reading, there comes to be something strange and compelling about it. And that kind of ambiguity, isn't that what makes art alive? In this way they win out over their contemporaries the Realists. A painting that simply delineates something, even a thing you approve of being painted, is simply done with too easily. It's the art which evades easy resolution which lingers.
Scenes Against Tableaus
When talking about the Pre-Raphaelites' influence on Modernism, commentators are tempted to play up their realist side and talk about the similarities between them and the Impressionists. True enough, there are links there to be made. But for me that feels like chopping off toes to make the foot fit the slipper. Yes, you can make the story neater by cutting out the contradictions. But you then lose the point of the story.
In fact for years I have held on to the theory that their lurid hyper-realism was more a precursor to the dream landscapes of Surrealism, then it seems everybody else got in before me! Jonathan Jones for example, commented in the Guardian that in their “supercharged, luminous and sometimes genuinely dream-like images... there is a direct line to... surrealism.” Dali apparantly declared himself “dazzled by the flagrant surrealism of the English Pre-Raphaelites.”
For example compare Ernst's landscapes to Daniel Alexander Williamson's 'Spring, Arnside Knot and Coniston Range of Hills From Warton Crag' (1863), where the desire to throw colours and textures about is barely held in place by fidelity to the view.
But anyway, what of that comparison to the Impressionists? Pre-Romanticism, artists tended to make their compositions like grand tableaus. They're not that different in effect to looking at dioramas or even altar pieces. They appear in our space, arrangements of symbols which we are intended to decode into moral instructions. But with Romantic works there's a discovery of pictorial space as a way to represent a scene, a desire to pull the viewer inside the picture. They tend to be not poses but moments, snippets of time and space. Art is no longer about what is public, and we're less an audience and more visual eavesdroppers.
Take for example John Everett Millais' first Pre-Raphaelite work - 'Isabella' (1849, above). The emphasis on the two lovers comes not from the traditional means of centering and arranging the other figures around them, but from their tender interplay. The surrounding figures simply ignore them, as if unaware of who's the subject of the painting.
While the composition arranges the figures to the right of the table on a neat diagonal, those to the left jut across one another. The one partial exception is the figure in the left foreground who louchely stretches out his leg, his chair tipped, yet his face intent on what he's doing. It's not a pose struck, but a gesture caught. You can see a kind of sequel to that leg in Millais' later 'Mariana' (1850/1), which depicts a woman stretching as she stands after working at her embroidery.
Yet the Florentines linger and this new approach was not applied consistently. Dante Gabriel Rossetti's first Pre-Raphaelite work, 'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin' (1848/9, above), conversely is an uneasy blend of scene and tableau; halos on the figures, an angel standing by, ostentateously displayed symbols including books with their spines obligingly turned to us.
And now we have touched on religion, why not stay there awhile?
A Whole New Jesus For Our Age
In one of the Gnostic traditions, Jesus never really took on human form. He was actually a beam of light which merely looked like a man – saviour as hologram. Of course that was a heresy, opposed by all the major Churches. But there were traditions in religious art which depicted him almost as though that might be believed. He shines beatifically out of works, dominating the image like a beaming sun with all else held in his orbit.
The Pre-Raphaelites took this to almost the other extreme, with a historical and even humanised Jesus - stones in his sandals, stubble on his chin. In an unparalleled quest for authenticity they researched artefacts and even went location-scouting to the Holy Land.
Perhaps Jesus is at his most humanised in William Dyce's 'The Man of Sorrows' (1860, above). He is not preaching or performing miracles, and there's not a disciple in sight. But it's not just that he's alone in the wilderness, he's not even centred in the frame - it's vastness expands behind him. Particularly with that de-devinitising title, the viewer might be forgiven for thinking it was the decidedly mortal John the Baptist being depicted. (Incidentally, if that landscape doesn't look very Middle Eastern, it's actually the Scottish highlands. Perhaps Dyce couldn't afford the boat passage with the others.)
Standard devotional images are alluded to at the same time as they are avoided. In 'Christ in the House of His Parents' aka 'The Carpenter's Shop' (1849/50) Millais portrays the boy Jesus at home in his father's shop, having cut his hand on a nail. Similarly, Hunt's 'The Shadow of Death' (1870/3, below) has Jesus stretching, an innocent act which creates the crucifixion pose on the wall behind him.
It was probably felt the standard images had been drained of their meaning by over-use, and needed re-contextualising. Which seems less Modernist than... well... modern. You could imagine a contemporary retelling of the Gospel stories taking much the same approach, taking the icons from oblique angles, trying to find fresh perspectives on the over-familiar.
In a sense this went quite neatly with English Protestantism, whose Church services were deliberately less ostentatious and ceremonial than in Catholicism or Orthodoxy. This is well illustrated by Ford Madox Brown's 'First Translation of the Bible into English,' (1871/93), bookended by two figures above the arch – one a cowelled monk holding a locked Bible to himself, the other holding an opened book to the viewer.
And yet Protestantism was associated with the dour liberalism that Romanticism opposed, and besides by this point had morphed into the Church of England which sought accord rather than challenge. The Pre-Raphaelites were pushing at Protestantism from a more radical side, playing up the conflicts of history in works such as Hunt's (typically pithily titled) 'A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from thePersecution of the Druids' (1850).
Yet... and there almost always seems a yet with the Pre-Raphaelites... their art is bright and striking, not at all dourly Protestant in the way we'd imagine. In fact the Florentines had given them a profoundly Catholic flavour to their art.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it was their religious works which tended to be the most controversial. No less a figure than Charles Dickens railed against Millais' 'Christ in the House of His Parents', calling Mary “so hideous in her ugliness”, while another critic railed against “portraying the youthful Saviour as a red-headed Jew boy, and the sublime personage of the virgin a sore-heeled, ugly, every-day sempstress.”
Apart from this surprise at seeing a semitic face show up in the Middle East, as the vid-link below points out “what caused controversy was that Millais dared show the Holy Family as poor, working class people.” Yet to a believer the Gnostics were wrong, and Jesus truly took human form. In which case the double-value of the Pre-Raphaelite image, both image and symbol, could be argued the perfect means to capture such a duality.
Born In Revolution?
The show makes much of the Brotherhood being formed in 1848, “a year of revolution across Europe.” Yet Romanticism has had a conflicting relationship with politics, often drawn to the thrill of radical ideas yet with its emphasis on the subjective self wary of fully-fledged political commitment. Though most of the Pre-Raphaelites seem to have held progressive views for their times, and worked directly with socialist artists such as William Morris, there's less of the radical ideas held by earlier Romantic poets such as Blake or Shelley, or by their continental contemporaries the Realists.
The most political was probably the oldest, who was never formally a Brotherhood member. Brown certainly tended to contemporary themes and settings more than the others. The programme explains how his 'Work' (1852/62) “celebrates the 'nobleness and even sacredness' of labour, suggesting salvation for the heroic manual workers rather than the idle rich.” Highly unusually for a Pre-Raphaelite work, it's a straight-ahead celebration of Victorian engineering and development. The aristos are pushed to be back of the composition by ditch-digging navvies who (bathed in light) are almost literally building a new world, the road stretching away to the right representing progress.
However, it's Hogarthian rather than radical, for all the focus on the navvies it's colours bourgeois rather than proletarian. Notably, this celebration of the sacredness of labour extends to contrasting the stout-of-heart navvies against the flower sellers to the left, whose torn dresses suggest the more feckless poor. (The ripped brim of the front woman's hat, revealing the woman's peering eyes is a peculiar touch.)
Moreover the piling-up of figures sits awkwardly with the apparent naturalism. The tableau-like composition suggests an aesthetic conservatism closer to the standard Victorian concept of art as a moral guide. Ultimately, it's composition is as indigestible as it's message. (Personally I incline more to Joe Strummer's view, when he sang “never loved a shovel”.)
Telling Us A Story From the Old Days
In rejecting Classicism the Pre-Raphaelites embraced Medievalism, normally depicted as a golden age made up of noble hearts beating in wooded glades - essentially Middle Earth before Sauron showed up to despoil it.
But the real point of Medievalism is of course to hearken. The era appealed precisely because it had already been lost. Millais has a recurring motif of leaves or flower petals on the ground. No matter the time of year, these Medieval forests are always in a kind of Autumn.
William Shakespeare Burton's 'Wounded Cavalier' (1855/6, above), immediately belies it's title by showing a Cavalier who is almost probably dying. The slaying Puritan, rather than standing triumphantly over his body, hangs his arms flatly and in his dark clothes is pushed almost into the background. An intrusively placed tree all but cancels him out in the composition, while his own maiden ignores him to comfort the cavalier.
It looks so unlikely that this drab and undynamic a figure could have killed such a dashingly-dressed fellow that popular opinion assumes we're seeing the result of an ambush. It's rather reminiscent of the summation in '1066 and All That,' of the Cavaliers as “Wrong but Wromantic” and the Roundheads “Right but Repulsive.” In short, here the figure clutching the Bible is essentially the bad guy.
The English Revolution did not mark the end of the Medieval era of course, not even in the Victorians' narrowed perspective of history. But the picture suggests a worldview literally regressive as opposed to progressive. The “pre” in their name never loomed larger than here.
Their numerous Shakespeare adaptations stem from this fixation, for he was forever setting his plays in a faux-medieval garden of England - which somehow stretched across the whole of a chivalric Europe. Despite the afore-mentioned emphasis on scenes over tableaus, it's this regurgitation of received images of Medievalism which so often keeps the group in the hold of narrative painting. In this, in another skewing to the notion of linear progression in art, they notably look more Victorian than their predecessor Turner.
Millais' 'A Huguenot on St. Bartholomews' Day, Refusing to Shield Himself From Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge' (1852, above) is of a French protestant defying a decree to wear a symbol of Catholicism. Yet the lovers look to each other as they embrace, not out at us, and you could easily take the white ribbon as a token of love. It looks Romantic in the more colloquial sense we use today. The picture becomes illustrational, it needs that title (long and unwieldily enough to require punctuation). It's not a work in and of itself but heavily reliant for it's meaning on a wider context.
Similarly Hunt's 'Valentina Rescuing Sylvia From Proteus' (1850/1) cheerily assumes it's audience is one of educated gentlemen who will be familiar with Shakespeare's 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' and so will have some clue who these funny-looking people are. (Personally, I was lost!) At such points, Impressionism's direct experience of the everyday world seems an age away.
Back to Nature
John Ruskin, one of the group's few contemporary supporters, enthused: “every Pre-Raphaelite landscape background is painted to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself. Every Pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person.” (Actually, and unlike the later Impressionists, they often only drew only the landscapes from nature, and added the foreground figures later from models in the studio.)
Nevertheless, this raises the question – did depicting nature en plein air take them beyond the trap of narrative? The answer, as you're probably already guessed, is yes and no.
William Dyce's 'Pegwell Bay, Kent - A Recollection of October 5th 1858' (1858/60, below) notably captures a moment in time, not even the passing of a single afternoon but the onset of sunset. The comet in the sky (top centre) pins it to the single day given in the title, like a date-stamp on a digital camera.
The show smartly places this next to Hunt's verdant 'Our English Coasts' (aka 'Strayed Sheep' (1852, above), keeping us wary of generalising about the Pre-Raphaelites too much. This look English pastoralism gone psychedelic! Yet the pictures don't just vary in season or in colour scheme – for, as the second version of it's name makes more explicit, here symbolism is back. Though Hunt's work contains not a single human figure, that is actually the very thing which pushes it from a literal reading. The sheep are being tended by the absent shepherd just as the invisible, omnipresent God looks after his flock. What places him nowhere makes him everywhere. This is underlined by the red marks of ownership on their backs, as red was often used as a symbolic colour for Jesus. (Look again at 'The Scapegoat.') In short, what makes it a pure nature scene simultaneously makes it a religious work.
A recurrent feature is the dwarfed and isolated human figure, as in John Brett's 'Val D'Aosta' (1851, below), a stretching panoply of the Swiss alps. We see the goat in the lower foreground before we see the peasant girl huddled beneath a rock.
But as ever there's contrasts. Millais' 'John Ruskin' (1853/4, above), again hung near the Brett, portraying the great Romantic as a Victorian hero, masterfully standing astride a landscape. (A veneration which didn't stop Millais' running off with Ruskin's wife, but that's another story...)
Beauty is Back!
...which sets us up for the most bizarre paradox of the whole movement. Rossetti, feeling bound by the contradictions outlined above, saw he had to choose - and chose. He abandoned both narrative and fidelity to nature to instead ramp up the symbolism. The programme claims “beauty came to be valued more highly than truth” while Carl Jacobi comments these “expressed an idea that colour, pattern and texture were as important as subject matter” ('Art Quarterly', Autumn 2012).
Varying from the earlier insistence on the unity of the arts, Rossetti now saw music as the medium to emulate. Music is non-mimetic, it doesn't have to be about anything yet it can still move the listener. Notably, musical instruments appeared frequently even in earlier works while Rossetti's watercolour 'The Blue Closet' (1856/7) uses it's composition to evoke the sound of music.
Ironically this new turn taken by Rossetti should strictly be called Aestheticism, yet these are the works most popularly associated with Pre-Raphaelites! Notably the poster image for the show is a later Rossetti - 'Astarte Syriuaca' (1877, up top). Perhaps they represent the Victorians as we like to think of them – doomed romantics, consumptive poets – with all that cumbersome baggage about weighty literature, religion and muesli moralism removed.
You see it as soon as you enter this exhibition. Images of the artists include a self-portrait of a long-haired bohemian Rossetti among others looking as upright and stiff-collared as only Victorians can. Italian lineage even gave him that dashing, romance-novel name. Yet taking Rossetti to represent the Pre-Raphaelites is like taking Dali to represent Surrealism, it's taking the poster boy at face value, it's taking the exception for the rule. At the same time, if these pieces easily transfer to the wall of a teenage bedroom, that doesn't make them bad works in themselves.
There was a biographical motivation as well as an aesthetic one, which needless to say involved doomed romance. Rossetti's wife and model Elizabeth Siddall had died young of a laudanum overdose, and is presented in 'Beata Beatrix' (1864/70, above) as tortured and as ecstatic as a martyred saint. (As in so much Victorian fiction, there's a close relationship between female virtue and being dead.) This composition doesn't place her in pictoral space but surrounded by an arrangement of symbols – a red dove, a white poppy, a sundial. In other works, backgrounds fade almost to vanishing point.
It's in the manner of the devotional Florentine works we saw earlier. Yet it has the same relationship to them as Gospel to Soul; the religious content is removed, while the religious fervour is retained and reassigned to love. As Jonathan Jones said in the Guardian, “for Rossetti, painting and desire were pretty much the same thing.”
This inscrutable otherness of women was all but inevitable in a man's world. As soon as they manage to shut the women up they start to wonder what they're thinking. And the natural answer to that is not to ask them but to try and paint them.
Moreover, Victorian society tended to assume women were closer to the world of nature than the more civilized menfolk, and perhaps by consequence it would most likely be impossible to separate the Pre-Raphaelites' view of nature from their view of women. And one way to prove that would be to look at the room in this exhibition that's ostensibly given over to nature. Millais' 'Opehlia' (1851/2, below), shows Shakespeare's heroine effectively melting back into the nature from where she came.
Meanwhile in 'Lady Lilith' (1865/8, below) Rossetti provides the inevitable counterpoint to the doomed good girl Beatrix – the femme fatale. While Beatrix's eyes are devotedly closed, Lilith's vainly go to a mirror, highlit in the wickedest black. Lilith's evil is underlined by this unnatural act, she is no innocent natural beauty but has calculatedly made herself this way. Another mirror to the top left reflects a nature scene, which she ignores in favour of beautifying herself.
The Brotherhood Break
Was Rossetti really alone in turning to Aestheticism? The show tends to present Edward Burne-Jones as his obliging henchman, following wherever he leads. Who was something of a latecomer to the movement, and possibly did idolise Rossetti somewhat in his early days. But the evidence on show here suggests more that this divergence stretched Burne-Jones, as he tried to straddle both new paths like the offspring of divorcing parents.
It's possible the fourth bigtime Pre-Raphaelite was like the Fifth Beatle upside-down; there actually was one, but people always forget about him. Certainly he often seems reconciled to his future as fodder for for jobbing artists hired to provide covers for cheap fantasy novels. Noble, shiny-armoured knights rescue fair maidens from phallic beasts, who have already obligingly got their kit off in anticipation of expressing their gratitude. (However, let's concede some of his other works here are better than this, such as 'The Golden Stairs,' 1876/80).
Besides, Rossetti's new-found Aestheticism may have influenced the others more than is made out. Compare Hunt's 'Isabella and the Pot of Basil' (1860/8, below) to Millais' earlier take on the same legend and Keats poem. The crowds are gone, the focus on a single female figure. Though you might wonder quite why she's cuddling a plant pot, you could put that down to her ovulating mysteriousness. Narrative may not have been eliminated so drastically as with Rossetti, but it's been quite seriously curtailed.
Yet, if they didn't follow in Rossetti's footsteps, the remaining Brotherhood didn't always come up with much by way of competition. Contradictions which were previously held in check or even pressed into service finally blow up in their faces. Remember the earlier warning about some works being car crashes? Hunt's 'The Massacre of the Innocents' (1863/4, below) is enough of a multi-pile-up on the M4 to get its own news item.
The concept is that Jesus' parents escape with him from Herod, as the spirits of the massacred infants accompany them. But with their kitsch, cherubic chubbiness they jar with the realism of the rest of the picture, without it being clear they're intended to inhabit a different realm. It's a grand folly, a sorry mess.
Yet Millais' 'Chill October' (1870, above) rids itself of narrative perhaps even more effectively than Rossetti. Millais has perhaps proven himself more refined than Hunt throughout and this is perhaps the purest and most effective of the 'pure nature' pictures – effectively putting you in a time and place, with little of the standard day-glo colours. However much I can appreciate 'Our English Coasts' it looks like a painting of England, a received image of a storybook countryside, a cold country wishing it was a warm one. 'Chill October' is the place I live, the misty semi-opaque landscape that seeped into my heart at some early age. We're told it's one of a series of twenty-one, and I would like to see more.
Notably, the Pre-Raphaelites provoke a kind of love/hate reaction. Unusually for the quieter Tate Britain, there didn't seem much way of getting into this show without booking in advance. Yet others can be quite derisory about them. Apart from the standard snobbish distancing from the popular, the chief red rag to their critics may be their bright colour schemes, so easily dismissed as kitsch in technicolour. (Matthew Sweet wrote of their “nougat-pink sk[ies] and Soylent Green foliage”, and speculated we have a psychological need to picture the Victorians in crisp black and white, “a world from which we can maintain our distance”, 'Art Quarterly', Winter, 2012.)
Meanwhile, perhaps their contradictions enable their fans to pick their response – they can be a steam-punk avant-garde or proto-hippy pastorialists, just as you choose. The irony couldn't be greater, you strain your whole life for accuracy to your subject matter and others see what they want in you regardless.
...which makes the whole business rather hard to sum up. Whenever people don't think of the totemic image of Pre-Raphaelism as Rossetti's mysterious-but-demure poster girls, it tends to be the lovers. Of course it's a universal theme, but as those lovers embrace they're caught up in the moment. Which is kind of like Symbolism and Realism giving each other a hug. If they put conflicting conceptions of art in a super-collider, perhaps the image of the lovers is their Higgs-Boson. Perhaps the afore-mentioned ambiguity of emphasis in Millais' 'A Huguenot on St. Bartholomews' Day' was not a mistake but a hidden intention honoured.
This theme doesn't necessarily mean the Pre-Raphaelites were subconsciously aware that their art had conflicting tendencies which required reconciliation. But then again, it just might. And if the lovers tiffed ended up squabbling over who owned the cutlery... well, let's focus on the glory days. For unfashionable as it is to concede, when the boys were good, they were really good.
Saturday, 9 March 2013
In which the South Bank Centre treated us Minimalist music devotees to two events within a week of each other, each with it's own focus...
Subtitled 'The Start of Minimalism in the US', this London Sinfonietta performance aimed to give us “an introduction to the world of minimalism, tracing it's origins in 1960s New York loft apartments and art galleries.” A self-description which however enticing might even sell the show short, for while it stars veteran New Yorkers Steve Reich and Philip Glass, it concludes where the whole thing started - with 'In C' by Californian Terry Riley. If Riley is the least-known here, this piece more than any other could be described as the stem cell of Minimalism, the breakthrough that made all subsequent developments possible. (Reich even pitched in with it's first performance, back in '64.)
They're right about the lofts, though. Back then these guys extemporised with small groups of friends in whatever impromptu spaces they could find, to audiences who occasionally made it into double figures. In a recorded interview, Glass wryly commented on how in the early days the New York critics simply wrote off not just them but anything from Downtown New York. (He was told “you have to draw the line somewhere. And we draw it at 34th street.”) Nowadays Glass had composed operas and won Academy Awards for his film scores, while Reich has a Pulitzer Prize for Music sitting on his shelf.
Yet while it's cool these guys finally overcame those cloth-eared critics and hit the concert halls, it's sometimes overlooked this shift in setting co-incided with a shift in the music. Performances grew to larger ensembles, notation became tighter and non-instruments or unorthodox sound sources were phased out. Were we nomenclature-fixated folk, we could call this a shift from Early into High Minimalism.
It's as if the price of fame was to overlook the scene's lowly origins, with these earlier pieces far less often performed. (Something perhaps truer for Glass than for Reich. But notably the programme from Reich's subsequent night spoke of him emerging “from the early tape and phasing pieces to masterworks.”) It's as if we're supposed to see them as experiments or try-outs, mere warm-ups for the main act. So, while we're in the smallest venue the South Bank Centre offers with an audience not a fraction of the size of the one who showed up to see Reich himself the following week, it's worthwhile to remember and celebrate this stuff.
Part of the reason why it's sidelined is that, even more than High Minimalism, it's music you have to see live – with every other option a second-hand experience. That's partly because the performance can have a ritual aspect, something we'll get onto later. But there's also a more directly musical reason. Take Reich's 'It's Gonna Rain'; made from two phase-shifting voice recordings, it may not seem a likely contender for the live experience. Surely it will sound much the same as if you put the CD on at home. Yet heard on the venue's vast PA instead of my reasonably priced stereo, it became one of the highlights of the night. People were nodding along to it as much as during any of the more obviously musical pieces.
Part of this response may be that the music bases itself on such... um... basic sources. The opening piece, Glass' '1+1' takes as it's instrumentation a guy thumping a wooden desk. While in Reich's 'Pendulum Music' microphones dangle over amps lying flat on the floor. The 'players' simply give them a push, so they feed back as they pass over the amps, then calmly walk off stage and let it happen.
Yet, while the after-show talk described these pieces as Fluxus-influenced, they're not really provocations or anti-art stunts. (In the manner of, for example, Christian Marclay's 'Guitar Drag' in which an electric guitar was dragged behind a lorry.) In Glass' piece, for example, as the player's hands slip in and out of sync with one another, the surprising thing is how quickly it becomes musical. It becomes almost like a magic trick. As the sparse equipment comes on stage you note there's nothing up their left sleeve, nothing up their right - then the show begins.
For Reich's 'Violin Phase,' in which a violinist plays against a tape recording, they'd gone to the lengths of hiring an old-style back-in-the-day reel-to-reel recorder - when they probably could have done the whole thing just by plugging in a laptop. But it's such a striking image it makes it worth the effort. Minimalism tended to use the standard instruments of classical music, not the synthesized hums of Stockhausen or the pumped-up electrification of rock.
I've argued before the effects of Minimalism aren't simplistic, even if the component lines can be. It's perhaps important to describe just how the lines combine. They might seem another example of counterpoint, of course a longstanding staple in music. But there your ears pick up two distinct lines, two sets of information which get compared in your brain. Instruments with opposite and complementary timbres are often used, such as bass and treble sounds, to enhance the separation.
In Minimalism the sounds are so similar they superimpose on one another before they even reach you and your ears are no longer quite sure what they're picking up. During 'Violin Phase', for example, my ears kept telling my brain there couldn't possible be two simple repeating patterns producing all those rich intricacies of sound, and asking my eyes to check again. This was underlaid by the repeated use of montage effects in the filmshow, with images not placed alongside but overlaid one another.
But there's more! While rock gigs can fetishise electrification, with totemic walls of amps and guitars held aloft, classical recitals tended to treat that stuff the way you treat the wiring in your house – best kept out of sight. A modern music, Minimalism didn't hide the means of amplifying and disseminating itself in the same way.
Originally, tape recordings of players were in part a pragmatic way to keep the numbers involved more manageable – a machine saving a human having to do it. But there's also something inherently optimistic about Minimalism, and one example would be it's finding a humanity even inside machines. It's almost the opposite of Kraftwerk's “we are robot” schtick; instead of allowing for perfect playing each time and allowing the performers to effectively become robots, it finds imperfections in the analogue machine sound (never-quite-aligned timing, tape hiss and so on) and enhances them. (In the manner of Dali's “mistakes are sacred”, Reich stumbled upon phasing when trying to align two tape recordings in composing 'It's Gonna Rain'.)
Which is of course not so far from to the parallel attitude to the City seen in the recent 'Pioneers of the Downtown Scene' exhibition of Seventies New York; “the City becomes a kind of exoskeleton, augmenting and enhancing us, freeing us from the limitations imposed by nature.”
Others saw machines as quite a different symptom. Music snobs would jeer the repeating patterns involved in this music were “too easy to play”, as if that somehow invalidated it. (Whereas in the after-show talk, players commented how challenging and counter-intuitive phase-shifting can actually be.) The accompanying filmshow and stage direction (by Netia Jones aka Lightmap) was generally exemplary, fitting without being dominant or gimmicky, coming up with neat visual metaphors for the music. One recurrent image it used was of a typist, which may have been intended to take on the accusation that the players were no more than temps in a typing pool. But like Patty Hearst, the more repeatedly she's invoked the more that typist comes over to our side. When projected over such involving, immersive music all that typing gets transformed and starts to look like some kind of Zen exercise.
However, for all that was achieved there was a downside to leaving downtown. It's not so much these pieces weren't intended to be performed in concert halls, for that notion may simply have seemed an impossibility at the time. But they would have worked better where they were born - in the lofts and art galleries. In 'Pendulum Music', had we been sitting on the floor around the dangling mikes, with them swooping over our heads, it would have been more direct and involving than seeing the same thing raised and separated from us on a stage.
Though the show pressed a narrative of Minimalism advancing uptown and breaking into the concert halls, it's truer to say the scene bifurcated at that point. True, Glass and Reich moved away from process-based pieces such as 'It's Gonna Rain,' straightened their ties and became (at least in formal terms) composers bearing scores. But others, such as La Monte Young, instead came to emphasise the ritualistic aspect of the music – performance not so much recital as event. You wouldn't count listening to the CD as any more than documentation, in the way you wouldn't count watching a video of a sermon as going to church. Significantly, his work has blurred the line between musical performance and installation work. (Young refused permission for any of his pieces to be performed here, though they didn't go into the details why.)
An example of a performance more in Young's spirit would be Tony Conrad at Tate's Turbine Hall a few years ago, a cross between gallery event and Modernist warehouse party. (Though notably evenin Reich's recent birthday celebrations at the Barbican, the early pieces were performed in the echoey main hall of the complex, not the concert chamber.)
It's strange how important setting can be when hearing music. It feels almost frivolous to suggest it matters at all - but it clearly does! As I commented after seeing Acid Mothers Temple, the spacey, free-form jamming of Sixties-style space rock was made to be played at festivals or for happenings, and never fits in the box of straight venues that well.
Similarly, I first saw Riley's 'In C' played in a stageless community hall in Brighton sometime in the Nineties, played by a gang of amateurs to a Saturday night crowd. (Who responded rapturously.) After all, the score allows individual players great latitude while still keeping them playing together in the key of... oh, you guessed... and so is more an invitation to become involved than set of instructions. Getting carried away as I am wont to, I responded by imagining it as a manifesto for a harmonious, free society - as much as any autonomous political pamphlet I've ever read.
Performed here 'In C' felt more like one of those revivalist folk clubs, so desperate to preserve something that they forget about the more important task of keeping it alive. There wasn't the same sense of the musicians seizing the chance to take off, with the result that the evening's finale was not a particular highpoint.
Having complained about the space, I'll go on to feel the width. Bluntly, pieces could run to the short side. If not length, then indefinite duration was a frequent feature of Early Minimalism. One participant joked in the after-show talk about how in those early days this was taken to such an extreme it became something of an endurance test, as hours would pass in venues ill-endowed with comfy seating or adequate heating.
Perhaps I'm just a sucker for punishment but, in music which largely eschews dynamics, duration would seem to become a core component. There's something about duration which becomes mesmeric, which pulls you deeper and deeper into the music. In Voodoo, the rituals have to take a while, to give time for the spirits to journey down to our world. Minimalism, though kinder to chickens, feels kind of similar. (Which is of course what I emerged saying after having seen Glass' four-hour 'Music in Twelve Parts'.)
In the end I emerged feeling rather half full/ half empty. While I'd first been lulled by the bravura simplicity of the pieces and the elegant stage design, my doubts and disenchantments had seemed to grow as the night progressed. The thought was a good one, there's something precious and unique about Early Minimalism which means it shouldn't simply be overwritten by what follows. But as a means to celebrate all that, the night was mixed.
The first part of Terry Riley's original 'In C':
But of course that didn't stop me going back for more...
STEVE REICH RADIO REWRITE
Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre, London, Tues 6th March
Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre, London, Tues 6th March
If many Minimalist pieces serve you two similar lines until you notice how much they actually diverge, these two nights were no exception. This programme of Reich's music was clustered around a new piece, 'Radio Rewrite,' receiving it's world premiere. After seeing Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood perform a version of his 'Electric Counterpoint' in Poland, an impressed Reich had composed the work around two Radiohead tracks. Notably, the title plays on the popular term 'radio music' as well as the band's name.
The Guardian recently cited Reich as the antithesis of Schoenberg's elitist notions of contemporary music (“if it is art, it is not for all”). Minimalism can have a Marmite reaction among listeners; some find it enthralling, others unbearable. But those reactions are direct, almost innate. You won't come to like Minimalism any more or less by reading up on music theory, you don't need to prepare for concerts like they're exams.
Reich himself has often spoken eloquently of the barriers between high and popular music impeding creative flow, and in the programme speaks of a “dialogue” between them as music's historical “natural state.” Which he's clearly right about. But we need a note of caution – a dialogue is an interchange between two separate people, taking from each other whatever they find that makes sense to them. It's not the same thing as the prevalent notion that all music is in need of being funnelled into something 'popular', like it needs bringing to “the people” and that's the accepted route. The result of which is normally some neither-nor hodgepodge.
It's like when 'radical' theatre companies come up with a hip-hop version of 'Hamlet' or something; so much of what made the original is lost in translation, alienating existing fans, while it's intended audience would rather listen to Wu Tang Clan. (Reader, please imagine I used a more contemporary hip-hop name there.) People don't necessarily know much music theory, but they can tell when they're being patronised.
Plus, these oft-stated overlaps between Reich and popular music often seem overstated. In the accompanying programme, Tim Rutherford makes one of the better comparisons of Reich's Minimalism to dance music. But he's really talking about a formal similarity more than links, and the fact remains no dance DJ could get away with playing a Reich piece. There's little I could find to disagree with in this Guardian piece on Reich's influence, but it noticeably falls short on naming names. Reich's influence has been pervasive but indirect, permeated rather than transmitted.
Moreover, on a more narky point, while I have liked Jonny Greenwood's film soundtracks and solo compositions I confess I have never seen the appeal of Radiohead. (Mostly I vote with my feet as soon as I hear Thom Yorke's whinging voice... but I digress.)
So soon after my boldly stating Minimalism retained classical instrumentation, the first half of this show is pretty much devoted to compositions Reich made not just for electric instruments but guitars and basses – the staples of rock. Happily however, he shows general disregard for rockist cliches. Generally people latch onto the power of rock music, like befriending the big kid in class, something in which he shows no interest. Reich has called these “not rock'n'roll [but] chamber music for rock instruments.”
If 'Electric Counterpoint' sounds like anything from guitar music it's the softer, lilting rhythms of Afrobeat. (I later read in the programme Reich was influenced by Central African horn music.) '2x5' contained sequences of multiple guitars supplying a kind of morse code note-picking, the nearest rock equivalent for which I could imagine being the intro to Pink Floyd's 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond.'
Devotees of Reich's music, however, may have noticed concessions. One was even heralded in an already-given piece's title – counterpoint. 'Electric Counterpoint' was based not on the blurring of similar lines, such as in 'Violin Phase', but overlaid lines. It was mildly reminiscent of the live looping used by performers like Bela Emerson. (Though in this case all but the top line were pre-recorded.)
There was also something of a hierarchy between the instruments; in '2x5' twin pianos provided a strumming not unlike a drum beat, while the guitars moved around over the top. It was a fairly shallow-sided pyramid compared to orchestral music or the full-frontal guitars often found in rock bands, but was noticeable all the same. (None of which necessarily matters. Just saying is all.)
The second half then eschewed the electrics. Though 'Radio Rewrite' was the night's sell, I probably enjoyed it less than the other pieces. How close the piece is to the originals I wouldn't be the one to tell you. If anything, from the jagged staccato the pianos sometimes employed, I'd have guessed it's origins lay with Kurt Weill. Reich has stated he merely took two Radiohead melodies as a starting point, the way Stravinsky and Bartok borrowed from folk music.
The night was bookended by older pieces, the perennial warm-up 'Clapping Music' and 'Double Sextet.' Neither of which have a whole lot to do with popular music influences, and I'd previously heard 'Double Sextet' during Reich's afore-mentioned birthday celebrations. But then they who say they've heard 'Double Sextet' enough are truly tired of life – and it made the evening's highlight for me even on it's second serving.
So why 'Double Sextet' over 'Radio Rewrite?' As long-term fellow travellers, we naturally think of Reich and Glass together. But while Glass moved towards the world of post-minimalism, drawing on a wider sonic palette, Reich has stuck more to his Minimal roots. Which seems to me each man doing what works for him. Some artists thrive on collaboration and cross-fertilisation, others are best being left alone. 'Double Sextet' works better because Reich being Reich is best, and conscious efforts to engage with wider traditions merely dilute him. And I say that as someone who mostly listens to popular music. (Well, the more unpopular ends of it...)
By co-incidence, both nights took a tack slightly off-centre, focusing respectively on Minimalism's early years and on Reich's relationship with electric instrumentation and popular music. I was drawn to the first idea more than the second, but on the night enjoyed the second programme the best. There is probably some kind of moral there...
The audio only of 'Radio Rewrite'...
Jonny Greenwood's actual performance of 'Electric Counterpoint,' to which Reich responded with 'Radio Rewrite'. Alas, an incomplete recording...