Saturday 25 April 2015


Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, Fri 16th April

I loved the music of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop before I knew their name, or even particularly conceived that music had to be made by somebody in order to exist. There is, I would suspect, a whole subset of my generation for whom that statement speaks, and which has led to the boys coming out of retirement for gigs such as this.

Back then, my limited knowledge of music led my young brain to divide it into two distinct types. There was chart music, advert jingles and TV themes, and I didn't differentiate much between them. (And still don't, now I come to think of it.) Then there was the 'space music', unearthly and scarce, primarily to be found on the few science fiction shows of the few channels we had then. Of which, of course, 'Doctor Who' was spaciest of all.

But I wasn't sure how all this would work in the modern world, or in a live setting. It wasn't just that this was music made to go with something. 'Workshop' was the right name for the enterprise, boffins who lucked into a day job which let them make and tinker with equipment, leaving them to their own devices provided they fulfilled their production quotas. They did it, you could imagine, just to see what was out there. An important feature was the wide-ranging nature of their remit, where they were asked to provide sound effects as often as anything resembling music. Their products were more akin to music concrete, electro-acoustic sound collage and tape manipulation, left-field stuff normally associated with formal experimentation inexplicably grafted onto the popular media of radio and television. (Another example, as if we needed one, of how commerce is a dampener not a driver of innovation. Imagine something like that getting past the sponsors and focus groups of today.)

And, once in a concert hall, the workshop does indeed transform into something of a band. Things revert to more conventional instrumentation, incorporating a live drummer who tends to have a standardising - even (if there is such a word) normalising effect. They largely play themes recognisable to their audience, and they play them in a recognisable form. All the strangeness, the unpredictability was smoothed out. This was more musicians making more music. I was reminded of something Mark Fisher wrote after JG Ballard's death, on the base banality of most of his press obits:

“So here they come again — all the familiar profiles, all the old routines. All that over-rehearsed musing about the supposed contrast between Ballard’s writing and his lifestyle and persona. All that central London cognoscenti condescension: he lived in Shepperton, he wore a tie and drank gin and yet he could come up with this — imagine that. As if it isn’t obvious that English suburbs are seething with surrealism. As if you could think for a minute that 'The Drowned World' or 'The Atrocity Exhibition' were written by anyone wearing jeans.”

For too often this gig felt like the pressed flares of the Workshop crammed into straightleg jeans.

Granted, most people are here to rekindle a few youthful memories. But ironically our view of the Workshop is probably a limited one. The workshop was created back in 1958, and was not particularly confined to 'Doctor Who' or even science fiction. Expected to be productive and earn their keep, they worked on many a production we'd not automatically associate with them. (The gig opens with a sound effect of Colonel Bloodnok's stomach from 'The Goon Show'.) It's not that they did a few totemic things, which the rest of the world has now caught up with. That's not even close. There are reservoirs of strangeness here as yet not dived into.

Alas, the opposite seems to have happened. Originally they may well have popularised some out-there music production techniques, inspiring the Beatles, Pink Floyd and others. But their history was effective rewritten in the Nineties, where they came to be seen as a prototype of a kind of dance music – the quasi-mystic New Agey type. And what they are doing now is confining their sound to conform to this conforming stereotype. (The drummer, I later discover, is Kieron Pepper who has played with the Prodigy.) Perhaps that's the fate of everything in our modern soundbite culture. Stars that rise precisely because they're something different can't be kept that way, gravitational fields come to pull on them and their distinct shapes reworked until they fit more easily into the neat constellations of our minds. In the words of that other great BBC institution 'Blue Peter', everything from the past just equates to something we have now, its just one that was made earlier.

Perhaps attending such an event is a little like watching one of those 'I Love the Seventies' chat/clip shows and expecting insight into what made the Seventies so unique. The actuality just gets in the way of the flow of nostalgia. Perhaps we should just make do with when the remaining strangeness still shone through. Generally their reworking of incidental music worked better than their rehashing of TV themes, less readily transformable into tracks. There were highlights, such as 'Electricity, Language and Me' where a spoken poem and music interbred, rather than one being set to the other. And despite my qualms about the drumming, introducing a second drummer seemed to tip things over into defamiliarity.

And what might seem the most predictable, most crowdpleasing moment of all – the 'Doctor Who' theme, inevitably saved for the finale – worked surprisingly well. The Delia Derbyshire version has a crystalline simplicity which belies its strangeness. Its effectively unimprovable, to add anything to it merely takes stuff away from it. (Check out, for example, the version currently being used by the show.) Yet if they just perform the original it's already familiar, and besides quite brief.

At first perform the original is what they do, and fairly faithfully, before launching into what's effective a live remix of their own work, taking up elements and playing with them, before dropping back to the original. And yet it's not the original original they come back to, but the later theme of the Tom Baker era, like the music itself had induced some kind of time travel. In short it stayed faithful to the original, while finding a way to rework it into a live number.

This isn't, I don't think, precisely the remix I saw but follows a similar trajectory. (I'd still prefer it without the drumming, mind.)

Brighton Dome, Tues 21st April

After not being overly impressed by the Tyburn Tree despite his contribution, I was keen to see Marc Almond performing in his own right. He's a classic example of a singer whose personality far outshines technical ability. He has a voice which is simultaneously histrionic and heartfelt, campishly theatrical and yet impassioned. When he sings, to quote Johnny Rotten, he “means it, man”.

Despite coming to everyone's attention via the synthpop era, which might seem one of the more transient moments even in the ephemeral world of pop music, even then it was already obvious he was part of a broader tradition. As a child he’d listen to his parents’ Eartha Kitt records, while since those days he’s recorded an album of Jacques Brel songs. The only other time I saw him, back in the late Eighties in the cabaret environment of the old Zap club, he was perched on a barstool as part of a duo. And tonight he appears on a behind-stage video in crooner garb, while a lyric name-checks Sinatra.

Not uncoincidentally he's described his new record, ‘The Velvet Trail’, as “one journey, one record you put on from beginning to end, linking tracks with musical interludes... I always see my records as a show running from beginning to end that takes you on a ride.” And he audaciously pushes the Eighties hits to crowd singalongs at the end, the better to concentrate on that ride.

Which would be all to the good... Except what little I'd heard of the new album I'd found uninspired so had been secretly hoping for something more oldies-centric. (Not necessarily synthpop, for there's a lot of material between then and now I've never really caught up with.) As it turns out, the album – and by extension the gig – isn’t weak so much as maddeningly uneven. True, the title track does sound a placeholder for grandiosity. But 'Minotaur', the gig opener, is as mighty as its monicker might suggest.

I suspect if I were to catch up properly with Almond’s oeuvre, I’d most take to the Marc and the Mambas era. One of the great things about the Eighties was the continual cross-traffic between the popular and the left-field. And indeed, simultaneously to his clocking up hits with Soft Cell, Almond was getting together with more experimental musicians to combine cabaret songs with sheer sonic strangeness. (He later disbanded the outfit when he feared they were becoming a regular band.) Perhaps unsurprisingly one of my favourite songs from the set, ‘Black Heart’, turns out to stem from that era.

And as for those Eighties hits, they've actually aged well. What then seemed contemporary has by now become evocative. A lyric like “standing in the doorway of the Pink Flamingo/ crying in the rain” brings the whole thing back - the cheesy cocktail bar with the neon palm tree in the window, the night's drizzle smearing itself across it...

'Live My Own Life', not from Brighton but the same tour. Shaky camera but not too bad sound...

Sunday 19 April 2015


Prince Albert, Brighton, Sun 12th April

Post-punk stalwarts Wire are, with the exception of new-boy guitarist, now all in their Sixties - yet still show no sign of slowing down or letting up. Less than six months after curating and playing at the Drill festival here they're back - in a crammed-to-capacity room above a pub for the first of two “intimate warm up” gigs. Before a tour which includes two further Drill festivals, one in London andone in Chicago.

After an admittedly faltering start, they hit their stride. Wire are like a precision instrument, two guitars interlocking, tracks building to a head then stopping on a dime. Though at one point second guitarist Matt Simons (the new boy mentioned earlier) coined a new genre, blistering away on noise bottleneck guitar.

The final (pre-encore) number was based around a rumbling, dirgy riff, building in force like a sonic avalanche until you came to fear the world might come to an end. Such stuff does for your self what being put in a boiling cauldron would do for your body, pulps you back down to that originating undifferentiated gloop. As once said by me (well nobody else ever quotes me!) “music comes from the drone, the single held note, the way all the land masses we live on know came from the original super-continent Pangea.”  As such its music particularly suited to the live environment, when you’re semi-subliminally aware its having the same all-is-one effect upon the whole crowd.

Stepping back on stage for the encore they announced they only had seven minutes before the curfew. At which point someone from the audience pointed out that, in the old days, that would have done them for seven numbers. And then, for the first time that night, they served up pretty much that – propulsive bass lines, spiky guitars, starts and stops.

The set's only weakness was a tendency to get indie, which I suppose another way of saying going soft on you. In Alexis Petridis' review of their new album in the Guardian, he commented: “Wire’s sound has always rested on the intriguing tension between, on the one hand, a desire to experiment and conceptualise and, on the other, Newman’s pop sensibility, his urge for simplicity and his enduring love of late-60s British psychedelia, the balance between the two constantly shifting... It’s tempting to say that on [the new album], the latter aspect of the band has the upper hand.” And indeed it has. And for some of us, the tension is the very thing that keeps it live.

Not great nostalgists, Wire have on occasion hired their own tribute band to support them, thereby giving the crowd the classic tracks without having to bother themselves. Tonight, though, we have better luck

Support band Tomaga in their own words “channels various forms of multi-instrumentalism into music that moves by turns through industrial, jazz, psychedelia and minimalism, on it’s way to somewhere wholly other.” A decent description, but one which perhaps skips over their biggest influence. For if their name sounds like a word salad made from the classic Can album 'Tago Mago', that doesn't seem entirely a coincidence.

The duo sit squeezed among so much kit, switches, leads and pedals there scarcely seems space left for the people intended to play them. But soon they're off, hands darting between hittable things, strummable things, switches to switch and keys to hold down in quicker time than it takes to tell. If they don't quite bring in the kitchen sink, a wok is brought into play. (Woks turn out to be surpisingly musical.) They're simultaneously ceaselessly inventive and astonishingly tight.

They slip between trance grooves and spacey impro (with perhaps a little too much of the latter for us trance groove fans). Rather than sound like something retro, krautrock almost works better when plugged into modern music technology in this way. Loops are sampled and then played over, like building up a totem pole of sound before your ears, adding level atop level. Perhaps at heart krautrock was always futuristic, always about the benign synthesis of man and machine.

Couldn't seem to find any recent vidclips of Wire, despite them being on tour, so here's some Tomaga (not from Brighton)...

The Haunt, Brighton, Thurs 9th April

Moon Duo's self-described mission statement is to “fuse the futuristic pylon hum and transistor reverb of Suicide or Silver Apples with the heat-haze fuzz of American rock ‘n’ roll to create tracks of blistering, 12-cylinder space rock”.

After Wooden Shjips I've now seen Ripley Johnson in both of his guises, and am mostly reminded of the old Pere Ubu lyric - “buy me a ticket to a sonic reduction”. For paring down and stripping back is clearly his musical watchword. In both bands his vocals are so de-forwarded I found myself trying to recall whether Wooden Shjips were instrumental or not. While here if you were to listen to each instrument separately, on its own channel, you would most likely run through them all concluding each was a backing to something else. The Quietus describe them as a band that “settles on a chord (or two) for each track and runs it into the ground”.

Johnson's guitar is often so laconically simple he's effectively playing bass parts (there being no bassist), even his solos only passing for such in the company they keep. Sanae Yamana's keyboards probably pick up most of the work, though even they're chiefly confined to washes, surges and near-drones. She'll repeatedly slam down on the same keys, like someone trying to give themself RSI.

And John Jeffrey's drums (for Moon Duo recently picked up a live drummer to become a trio), by doing least of all, perhaps sum up best of all how well this reductive business works. A great musician isn't someone who can do a lot but can take a little a long way. Its because they play this simply that they have to play this good. It also throws things into such a focus that relatively small changes, such as a slight slowing-down of the drum pattern, take on a magnified significance. The less there is of what you do, the more that what's left matters.

And their name is well-chosen. (Well that non-counting part of their name anyway.) Like many bands of this stripe, their sound is like being bathed in pure white light. But Moon Duo sound like… well, moonlight, silver-cold and slightly spectral. Hairy West Coast hippies they may be, but the ideal gig for them wouldn’t be on some sun-baked beach, but in some forest clearing with the glowing white orb at its fullest.

It seems Moon Duo where originally the side project, but of late its Wooden Shjips who have waned while they have waxed. (Do you see what I did there?) And I reckon I prefer them of the two. It's like they've set their stall on the right crossroads, the perfect interchange between fuzzy garage and space rock, allowing them to sound rooted and astral at the same time.

More, please, of this less business.

Not much to see in this crowd vid, admittedly, but the sound quality is good enough...

Saturday 11 April 2015


Royal Academy, London

The latest in a long series of behind-time art exhibition reviews, in both senses of that word. It is, if any recompense, part of a short series on Modernist art and the city

”Here is a slice of New York... It is not pretty... When you paint a crab-apple don't paint us a luscious peach”
- New York Sun review of Bellows, 1909

George Bellows was part of the Ashcan School, a loose association of early Twentieth century American artists, who chose to paint contemporary subjects in an immediate style. Robert Hughes has said of them that they “wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter”. Indeed, his career essentially began with his move to New York City in 1904.

Street-Level Views

The immediacy begins pretty much immediately. For the first room is given over to his ink and charcoal drawings, and its notable how when his oils show up how little they depart from these. Its not just that they display the same roughness and vibrancy, they even retain the limited and quite sombre palettes.

For example, 'Forty-two Kids' (1907, above) is made up of shades of brown and blue-green, the frame divided in diagonal halves between these two dominant colours. The children's flesh is neither healthily tanned nor cleanly white, but somewhat sickly shades of orangey brown. The nudity, the array of both lolling and frolicking figures, these suggest at some bucolic nature scene. But this palette and the broken-up jetty on which they hang out quite deliberately vie with this, and make it clear this is not just an urban but a downtown scene. While the word “kids” in the title might seem innocuous to us, the vernacular term would have told a contemporary audience these were the poor children of newly arrived immigrants. Children swim in the public pool because they have a nickel. Kids made do with this.
At five feet across, 'New York' (1911, up top) is undertaken with a truly American sense of scale. Even today, to those of us who passed through the bustle of central London to get to the gallery, it's strikingly metropolitan. There's a quite rigid dividing line across the middle of the picture, skyscrapers above separated from the teeming figures below. The upper section is almost vertiginous, the sweeping buildings not just ascending but the street receding into the distance. While the lower section is almost claustrophobic, a cacophony of horizontal motion, with not one of the many figures looking up to the sights above them. That should be a street interchange in the middle distance, but instead of a neat switching mechanism its a convulsive jumble. We thereby see uptown and downtown in one cross section, just as horse-pulled carts coexist with buses.
”...a kettle forever on the boil... almost everything is aggressively man-made, a great interlocking of forces at war with each other... it is hard to look at any part of this painting because you see it all at once in all its razzmatazz, splashily impressionistic vigour, a cityscape that presses back at you, the rush and the clamour of it all, the seethe of humanity, that sense of being trapped, pent on a small and relatively narrow island where the only direction the buildings can go is up, and then up.”
This time it's not just an image of Lower East Side residents, top-hatted toffs co-exist with broom-pushing workmen on the street. But it's from the perspective of the poor blocks. The towering buildings seem canyons to the lowly footsore immigrants, as much as Monument Valley did to the pioneers of John Ford films. Though he didn't come from this bottom-rung background, it's probably important that Bellows wasn't a native New Yorker. He had to see those soaring skyscrapers and teeming streets with an outsider's eye, the better to convey them to the rest of us.
And the style and execution is as important as the imagery. The Ashcan School tended to progressive politics (Bellows himself largely moving in anarchist and libertarian-left circles). And in many ways we see the almost journalistic style we most associate with politically committed art – this is like reportage, someone setting down what they see. But the roughness of execution and impassioned thickness of the paint draws attention to its existence as a painting, leading to a creative tension.
It's not a perspective from any real place, it's an assemblage Bellows has put together to convey his point. As with 'Forty-two Kids' there's no intra-picture explanation for the vantage point. We're too high to be on the street among those hurried figures, in fact we feel slightly removed from them. Yet there's no suggestion of a window, or any location which would allow us to look down. In the language of art, that's often shorthand for seeing things from the perspective of the artist.

Though Bellows painted New York in different seasons he perhaps most excelled at winter scenes, to the point where he could have been crowned King of Cold. 'Men of the Docks' (1912, above) powerfully evokes the sense of air that bites - its skyscrapers blurring into the sky by the frozen equivalent of a heat haze, the slash of an icy blue river before them. It somehow looks vivid and muted at the same time, as if the cold has leeched the colour from it. The huddled figures are just distant enough that their features start to emerge but never quite resolve, pitched between ciphered representations of the working man and actual subjects. One steps away from the others to take a slash out in the open.
Why the fixation with weather? Of course, as an island, New York's weather does tend to extremes so Bellows was simply painting what was there. But there's more. Take this quote from Upton Sinclair's 1906 Chicago-set novel 'The Jungle':
”...each season had its trials, as they found. In the spring there were cold rains, that turned the streets into canals and bogs; the mud would be so deep that wagons would sink up to the hubs, so that half a dozen horses could not move them. Then, of course, it was impossible for any one to get to work with dry feet; and this was bad for men that were poorly clad and shod, and still worse for women and children. Later came midsummer, with the stifling heat... a very purgatory; one time, in a single day, three men fell dead from sunstroke... with the sun beating down, and the air motionless, the stench was enough to knock a man over...”
Both share the conceit that so harsh is city life that the very weather becomes exacerbated.

In a rapidly changing city, Bellows often painted scenes of construction, such as 'The Lone Tenement' (1909) or 'Pennsylvania Station Excavation' (1909, above). These tend to evoke the same sense of the industrial sublime as Turner before him, the built environment seen with the same sense of stupefied awe as nature. Unlike Turner there is an element of critique of the industrial in Bellows' work. With it's monumental gothic towers, it's plumes of fire and smoke and its dwarfed figures this scene has been described as “infernal”. And yet if its not fully celebrated its presented as an unstoppable transforming force.
The historian Henry Adams said of this time:“Power seemed to have outgrown its servitude and to have asserted its freedom. The cylinder has exploded, and thrown great masses of stone and steel against the sky.”(Quoted in Jackson Lears' 'New York Knock Out', Royal Academy magazine 118, alas not currently available on-line.)
Pugilistic Painting

And this mention of power takes us to 'Stag At Sharkeys' (1908), perhaps the most famous of Bellow's work. It can be best understood by comparing it to the earlier and more conventional 'Club Night' (1907, both above). In 'Stag' the figures are more grotesquely distorted in what the show describes as “vigorous and slashing brushwork”, faces anonymised and only partly visible. They look to be morphing together even as they fight against one another. We're placed as if within the audience, semi-silhouetted heads bobbing up before us. The fighters are then lit as though they are the light source, an explosion of action at the centre of the frame. There's pre-echoes of Francis Bacon's morphing, fractious forms.
Boxing was then officially banned in New York, permitted only in private clubs. Like prohibition later, part of the attraction became the illicit, and toffs would thrill to rub shoulders with the common folk. The ruddy face at the right fighter's foot looks noticeably urbane rather than urban. (Doubtless at least some of Bellow's fans would have gained a similar frisson from seeing this work.) Unlike all the previous examples this is an interior. And yet it still seems to stand for the city, the war of each against all, a perpetual struggle with no possible victor.
The cartoonist Art Speigelman coined the tongue-in-cheek expression “two-fisted painters” and, with pun intended, this seems an ideal description of Bellows. There's something insistently masculine in his art, evident in every picture cited already, which is merely brought further to the fore by this bruising image. While nature can be gendered as female, even when its not being 'soft' or nurturing, the rough edges of the city are always made male. But Bellows is not just depicting the man-made, his art looks man-made - not just like it has come from a man but from someone who stridently (if mot necessarily consciously) identifies as male. There's an exulting in roughness, which may make this the perfect subject matter.
The result is an almost archetypically American paradox at the heart of Bellows' art - he is exposing the harshness of New York life for the poor, while simultaneously revelling in the strength of those who can withstand that harshness. Bellows and New York are the boxers, forever caught in that mix of struggle and embrace. As Peter Conrad said, writing in the Guardian:
”...he painted the city as a site where, as his mentor Robert Henri said, 'the battle of human evolution is going on'. The weather does its best to massacre his New Yorkers, tormenting them with frigid winters and suffocating summers; their response to the vital challenge is to show off the mettlesome resilience of the human animal.”
(See also Jackson Leers' use of Roosevelt's reference to “the strenuous life”.) If this is a bold and somewhat daunting new world, it has bold and somewhat daunting people in it.

Nature Tamed And Wild

Given that the sublimity of the natural and of the urban environment aren't just analogous but interdependent, it's not entirely surprising that Bellows also made 'wild nature' paintings - particularly through trips he made to Monegan island off Maine. In 'An Island in the Sea' (1911) the frighteningly stark sea barely separates from the sky, with the island a dominant and menacing block of blackness. Cottage and boats in the lower foreground are as dwarfed as the working men in 'Pennsylvania Station Excavation'. 'Forth & Back' (1913, both above) is almost an action shot, a close-up of the sea striking the shore. Had Sharkey's been like this, he'd have just painted the blow.

Perhaps more surprising to come across are what were dubbed the 'leisure views' – less the ravages of wild nature and more society scenes relocated outdoors. 'Love of Winter' (1914, above) has a title you'd find hard to imagine shifted to 'Men of the Docks'. Though its very similar in composition to 'New York', the skating figures move as consolidated mass. The pure white snow forms a clean background to frame the bright reds and mustard yellows of the smart coats of the foreground figures. Working men stopping to take a leak seem absent. There's something almost Bruegel about the quiet celebration of it all. Winter becomes a social activity, not a chill to your bones.

The Ash Canners typically identified themselves against the Impressionists, who seemed too aestheticised, too European. Yet 'Snow-Capped River' (1911) uses their bright colours, even down to the patented purple-tinged snow. It doesn't just show their influence, it reproduces them at their prettiest. Perhaps significantly, you'd search in vain for a female face among the workingmen of 'Men of the Docks' or the nude urchins of 'Forty-two Kids', while women and girls are foregrounded here. Yet, for all the oddness of their co-existence with Stag At Sharky's' and 'New York' and for all their comparative unoriginality, it should be said these are in themselves strong works. All of which, alas, was to change...
Atrocious Wars
Though opposition to the First World War was virtually a default position among American Leftists, Bellows soon abandoned his former comrades to produce a series of anti-German paintings. The most likely explanation for this would be that he fell for something of a dodgy dossier. The Bryce Report aka the 'Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages', released in 1915, did much to marshall American public opinion for intervention. While the Report should not be seen as mere black propaganda, it seems to have instilled a feedback loop to lucidless frenzy in Bellows' mind. It's not that they're propaganda images hitched to an enlistment drive. You could as well say that Grosz and Heartfield dealt in propaganda images, and lack of nuance didn't stop them being two of the greatest artists of this era. It's not that they take a xenophobic and pro-war position. However disappointing that might be it wouldn't necessarily mar their aesthetic quality. Its simpler. Bellows' war atrocity pictures... frankly, they're atrocious.

For example, 'The Barricade' (1918, above) takes the allegation the German army used Belgian human shields and goes from there to depict the civilians as naked. The preposterous and histrionic image falls into a kind of uncanny valley - not realistic enough to be real, too cliched to be symbolic. The outstretched poses of the nudes might suggest Bellows is groping towards some kind of Classicism, echoed by the foliage in the background. Perhaps he thought appropriating such tropes might grant his pro-war message authority. If so, it didn't work very well.
Washed Up In Woodstock
Wikipedia gives the Ashcan school a short lifespan, dating it's end to the arrival of Modernism on America shores with the 1913 Armoury show exhibition. (“Their rebellion was over not long after it had begun. It was the fate of the Ashcan realists to be seen by many art lovers as too radical in 1910 and, by many more, as old-fashioned by 1920.”) Which may seem unduly neat, but stings of the truth. Bellows compounds this by choosing 1920 to move to smalltown Woodstock. And you can't help feeling this resolves an age-old question – when you take the boy out of New York, you do take New York out of the boy. As with Duncan Grant repairing to Charleston, rural relocation blew out the spark.

In this period he continually produces works reminiscent of earlier achievements, which are just inferior echoes – as if he'd become his own copyist. For example, 'Dempsey And Firpo' (1924, above) is another boxing picture. Theoretically it should look more dynamic than 'Stag at Sharky's' - one figure is knocking the other clean out the ring, straight at us. But it feels the opposite. The figures are stiffer, less plasticated and expressive, the victorious puncher sports a strangely dispassionate expression, the front of the crowd reacting more as you would to a summer shower than a hundred and eighty pounds of flesh descending upon you. Above all, the theme of two figures locked in ceaseless battle is lost. It's not a bad work as such, just a more conventional one. You're unsurprised to read in the indicia that by this time boxing had become legalised, and hence a society event. (The earlier lithograph 'Demspey Through the Ropes', 1923, is more effective.)

'The Picnic' (1924) has that slightly lurid quality of painting pressed into service as illustrational art. The skipping girl at the rather refined-looking picnic looks like something from the twee world of 'Alice in Wonderland'. While the hills in the background look ominous less from the edging darkness but from weather which seems unable to make its mind up.
Peter Conrad comments: “The later works in the show are dire: portraits of rich crones, fluffy socialites and their obnoxious lapdogs, plus some magic-realist landscapes that are too fancifully magical to be realistic. When Bellows died in 1925, aged only 42, Edmund Wilson praised his appetite for ugliness; but by then he had acquired a taste for beauty.”
Harsh, Peter Conrad, but fair. Yet if Bellows' truly productive career was brief and chiefly confined to the New York streets, when he was hitting he hit with an impact. He was the right artist for the right time, the right place. His works from the Nineteen Hundred and Tens still strike us, a century or more later.

Coming soon! Most likely something else before the second of these...

Saturday 4 April 2015


Barbican Hall, London, Tues 31st March

This live soundtrack with a difference was part of 'Compass and Magnet', a retrospective on the independent American filmmaker Jem Cohen, best known (and in my case at least, mostly known) for the well-received 'Instrument' documentary on the hardcore punk band Fugazi. And where to go from hardcore punk but a verite-style documentary on Cape Breton, a peninsula so thinly attached to Nova Scotia as to normally be thought of as an island? The musical accompaniment was provided by Gui Picciotto from Fugazi, Jim White from the Dirty Three no less than three members of Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchesra - and more!

The music mostly resembled Mount Zion's parent band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, ambient string openings tugged by expansive guitar riffs into more anthemic sections. Yet Godspeed tracks tend to be whole pieces, however much they may morph along the way. Here they'd often play minatures, more akin to your actual film composition. And the ambient element was much stronger, often playing along to the incidental sounds of the film clip. (Cohen commented in the programme “I wanted them to make weather out of sound”.) They sit in just about enough light to find their instruments, chiefly with their backs to us the better to see the film themselves.

And the film itself... Mostly the material is just presented, with no maps or scene-setting, interviewees un-named. The lens seems unselective - we see the rugged wildness of the province, but also the fast food signs. A verbal, largely anecdotal description of Cape Breton's recent history appears briefly, and some way into the film. But in one rare moment of on-screen contextualisation, an already-dilapidated backwoods shack is shown in successive years, succumbing more and more to nature. There's still places left where the wilderness stays in charge.

Some images are held shots, perfectly framed, almost sublime in nature. (Check out the one above.) While others are incidental and almost ephemeral – roadsides, litter rolling around parking lots, a spider climbing a blind – often shot in grainy super 8. The screen often splits into multiple frames, sometimes merely giving us different views of the same thing. In the self-same programme Cohen states “I often build work from a loose archive, gathering without ever knowing it there is a project at hand or what shape it might someday take”. Seeing such ephemeral images in so large an audience, set to music and thrown up on a large screen, cannot help but transform them. In the same day's Guardian Cohen was interviewed and described his style as 'essay film', citing Chris Marker as an influence. But this is more of a tone poem. In fact, three of what could be described as 'your actual poems' are quoted.

Tourist trips can start to follow the structure of adventure games, getting through the task list of finding and snapping each of the photo-ops listed in your guidebook, before moving onto the next. Get through them all before your holiday expires and you're the winner. But its in passing through a place that it rubs off on you, sinking into your pores without your noticing. Yet at the same time, at one point an interviewee says “most things here aren't apparent to outsiders”, and a great strength of the film is that it doesn't pretend otherwise. Instead we have to stay content with the outsider's view. Cohen comments in the programme how little of the native folk music makes it into the soundtrack, just enough to give us a flavour of it. We see just enough of a snaphot of the place to know there's a whole lot we're not seeing. Its like meeting not just a stranger, but someone whose whole way of life is unaligned to yours.

Cohen mentions the cultural, and even geographic, similarities between Cape Breton and the wilder parts of Scotland. And indeed the film reminded me in many ways of my recent trip to Mull. And very much of what you notice is what's been taken out. We're so used to our sight being compressed by walls, to feeling the presence of other people around us, that all we notice is the sudden space. Sometimes you travel less for what you might find than what you can leave behind. And big open spaces seem perfect for this, expanses of snow like unwritten white pages. The title, from the hymn 'Will Your Anchor Hold' ironically emphasises the sense that the film is in a state of perpetual drift. The 'rolling road' shot somehow always feels compelling, even when its become so ubiquitous as to show up in bogstandard Hollywood flicks. Here it comes into its own.

This feeling is evoked verbally by one of the poems Cohen incorporates, 'Cape Breton' by Elizabeth Bishop:

“The road appears to have been abandoned.
Whatever the landscape had of meaning appears to have been abandoned,
Unless the road is holding it back,
In the interior, 
where we cannot see...
And these regions now have little to say for themselves”
(You can read the whole thing here.)
It also reminded me of a quote from the cartoonist Kevin Huzunga:
“The work becomes meaningful insofar as its form allows people to invest it with meaning, like a sign in a field that says 'space available'.”
And perhaps the event works so well because concerts are in themselves a smaller way of clearing a space, of upping anchor and of placing everyday life on hold. Perhaps Cohen needed the strange taste of a real place just to show us what a film or concert can do.
For much of the running time, this is nothing less than enthralling. I did feel at times it might be a little over-long, though ninety minutes is only the average gig length. On reflection this may be more a problem with the vox-pops, which can be jarring in two ways. First, they seem to require a different part of the brain to process. (A little like the mental gear-switching required for Laurie Anderson's recent performance in this venue, but perhaps even more so.) But also the interviews with the locals seemed part of a more conventional film and vied with the spirit of the travelogue.
Alas this is the only event in the programme I'm likely to make, though I'm most likely greatly missing out. Cohen has even made a concert film of those great Lucid Frenzy favourites The Ex.
Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, Sat 28th March

After getting all excited over the first part of the London Sinfonietta's Spectral music programme, I'm back for the second instalment - with a fresh analogy.

It is true that, with least three of the four pieces perfomed, sounds were sometimes used that might seem at the margins of music – the scraping of bows, the ambient blowing of wind instruments without forming notes, and so on. But overall, any metaphors along the lines of 'edge' or 'margin' point the wrong way for any understanding. The right term for spectral music... well, actually it's spectrum – in the sense of full spectrum dominance.

Standard notation music can be like climbing a climbing wall. After a while your hands know to go to the regularly placed handholds. At which point you might expect me to compare spectral music to a mountain, but really I don't think it resembles the impregnable face of anything. Its more like plunging into the sea. Music engulfs and cascades over you, no longer reducible back to individual notes or instruments. Tom Service has described Ligeti's compositions as “a 'micro-polyphony' of incredibly dense pile-ups of musical lines so that you're more aware of an ever-changing amorphous cloud of sound than the movement of individual instruments or voices”. But the description could apply throughout.

If Georg Friedrich Haas again came away with the gold, I've gushed on about him so much lately I'll try not to do it all over again. Performed in this company, 'Ich Suchte, Aber Ich Fand Ihn Night' (in another UK premiere) threw into sharper relief how much Haas can combine cutting-edge modern with a hearkening back to Romanticism. The title, roughly translatable as 'I Searched, But I Found Him Not', even comes from 'The Song of Solomon' - the only book of the Bible devoted to romantic love.

Except, however much Romanticism broke contemporary bounds in its mission to evoke mood, it kept to music's dramatic structure in a way Haas simply doesn't. Bjorn Gottstein, writing in the programme, comments how he builds “up a tension from moment to moment which then fades away to nothing... musical processes are resolved not redeemed”. As he points out, the searching woman of 'Song of Solomon' is eventually reunited with her lover. Whereas Haas offers no such closure, just the searching.

In his introductory talk, Professor Jonathan Cross mentioned that the Spectralists could consider themselves in opposition to the contemproaries the Minimalists as much as their predecessors the Serialists – and went on to play compare and contrast between them. No small part of this may have been down to transatlantic rivalries, Minimalism was an American phenomenon while Spectralism largely haunted Europe. And perhaps, as an avowed fan of Minimalism, I'm more primed to notice the similarities. Buts Hass's wave after wave of undulating, mesmerising sound pass over you, they give Spectralism a sense of always being 'in the moment' which would seem a main point of comparison.

Giacinto Scelsi's Kya' proved a rare exception to Service's rule of no individual player dominating. A solo clarinet is set against seven other instruments, the cello and brass players often providing little more than drones, a horizon line above which the clarinet flutters and rolls. The trumpet sometimes catches it in a dance.

Scelsi was perhaps the most spectral of the Spectralists, in the sense of spirit-like or other worldly. If the Spectralists do in some way parallel the Minimalists, then Scelsi may be their Terry Riley. His music often feels pitched at the edge of both hearing and audability, (just listen to some of those pitches the clarinet reaches) as if it has the ability to pass between realms and is seeking to draw you across the threshold. At times he'd create compositions from single notes, honing in on them and finding the microtones locked within.

Gyorgy Ligeti may the the most known Spectralist, thanks to the use of his music in Stanley Kubrick films. (Though apparantly strictly he's a 'proto-Spectralist'.) His piece was simply called 'Chamber Concerto', the standard nomenclature a case of hiding under sheeps' clothing if ever there was. It perhaps packed in more musical ideas than most composers manage in a career. String players would pluck at their instruments, strum them like banjos before coming back to something more recognisably harmonic, then flying off again.

It's main strength almost became a weakness, there was just so much compressed into it that not all the sections had time to shine and it became hard to assimiliate – like watching a film on fast-forward. It was simultaneously exilerating and befuddling.

Like Claude Vivier before, Tristran Murail was the wild card of the night. (Though in his case I'd heard at least a little by him.) And like Vivier, I greatly enjoyed his piece. But I seem to have used up my repositiory of superlatives for now, so that might have to wait for another time.
Not from the South Bank, the first movement of Scelsi's 'Kya'...