Friday, 29 April 2016
Saturday, 23 April 2016
Scala, London, Mon 18th April
Boredoms are not an easy band to peg to a soundbite description. People normally reach for the term Japanoise, and certainly when they choose to they can raise a right ruckus. But they present something of a moving target to description. Thrilljockey comments that “across nearly 30 years, founder and leader Eye... has taken the band on a cosmic road trip... through times of tribal frenzy, oceanic tranquility, and massive sonic constructions.... Boredoms expanded their ideal of ecstatic, thunderous, repetitive music, steeped in power rock, electronic rhythms, and psychedelic incantations.” Alas I missed last year's gig performed with eighty-eight cymbalists, and this was the first time I've seen the band in more than a decade.
The set starts with a long section where the four players stroke and tap long metal rods, conjuring sounds somewhere between chimes and temple bells which simmer in from the edge of hearing. It gives proceedings a ritual sense, like they're not concerned with playing or performing so much as getting us all in the right mental state. Think of those spacey sounds in old sci-fi films as the flying saucers land. Only this was designed around calling the flying saucers down.
Last time three drummers had pounded out Krautrock beats with compelling and almost intimidating discipline, while Eye provided keyboards, cries and wails over the top. He was effectively riding the wave powered by the other players, a centre-forward propelled by his team, a general raised above his army. Tonight he takes up the classic back-of-the-stage drummer position, even though two of the other players commonly take to drums themselves. Rhythms aren't smooth, regular and Neu!-like, but pounding and tribal, at times approaching Tom Waits troglodyte level. To add to the chaos he drops crockery and cutlery onto his bass drum, sometimes attacking them with a fish slice. (Handily projected onto a screen behind him.) The centre-forward's become the tribal shaman, guiding the ceremony.
Which makes the electronics player the devil clown. In the opening, as the sound of the struck poles mounts, you figure it will be brought to a crescendo. Instead, at an arbitrary point he wilfully disrupting everything with sudden ear-piercing screeches and slurps. And he continues to play the same role throughout, somehow participating in and disrupting proceedings simultaneously. (From my original vantage point he was obscured, making his interruptions appear out of apparent nowhere.)
As events unveil beats rise, crest and fall, often going back to the ethereal sounds of the beginning. I find I'm unable to intuit how composed or improvised it is, only that it's somewhere in the spectrum between the two. It's a study in contrasts, one of those ying/yang, frost/fire, compose/decompose things, the music in some volatile primal state where it's constantly making up to break up.
Things pull together for the finale, Eye's wails and cries becoming a steady chant over a thumping tribal beat, sounding like they're punching a hole straight through to the spirit world. You're told, when structuring novels or films, to find the end in the beginning. And this gig was remarkably similar, it's finale both the return of and the opposite bookend to the ethereal opening. A point proven when the struck rods return for a brief coda.
The balance may have swung too far to the freeform at times, like they were upending themselves almost as soon as they'd re-righted. But then Boredoms gigs aren't supposed to be tidy in that way. There's something irrepressible about them, some restless creative energy. And that force which propels and envigours them leaves little time for quality control. Besides, like the English weather, even if you don't take to what they're doing right now they'll be onto something else in a minute. Yamataka Eye is the Miles Davis of noise.
From London! But an old gig from six years ago which alas muggins here missed...
JAH WOBBLE + THE INVADERS OF THE HEART
The Haunt, Fri 15th April
It would probably seem remarkable, if we weren't so used to it, that when Jah Wobble's played bass in the legendary original line-up of Public Image Limited that was how his musical career began. That surely should be the high point, rather than the starting point. However as the Eighties and Nineties wore on his love of dub, Krautrock and world music became less marginal and more prophetic. You could play a good game of 'Where's Wobble?' in the history of that era, his trilby ever-present if rarely centre stage. This was, by reckoning, the first time I've seen him since the Nineties, after – in an already somewhat elliptical career - he effectively took a gap decade.
Things start of with... well, there's no getting round it being a lengthy jazz fusion section. Slightly perturbingly, for those of us who don't take to that sort of thing. Then just when I was starting to figure I must have imagined this guy ever having been into reggae, those bass lines begin. However it's quite roots and ska oriented, almost as if he'd assembled a set to convey the music that influenced him more than the music he makes. More contemporary sounds creep in only slowly.
The band are quite impressively tight, though at times the musoish tendencies of the opening do creep back in. Yet, and despite his description of the bass as “the king of the jungle”, his playing doesn't dominate. He's as often at the side of the stage serving up extra percussion. Expectations are often confounded. One track is based around a house beat. But rather than treat that as a substitute for a live rhythm track, the guitars play around it – adding pitch-shifting near-drones.
Famously Wobble rejected Lydon's offer to join the reformed Public Image, instead mischievously taking up with Keith Levene and the singer from a Pistols tributeband. And while, as I can attest, Lydon's set-list had focused on the better-celebrated 'Metal Box', Wobble draws more from the first album. Overall, the PiL tracks were inventively reworked but suffered from Wobble's strange insistence on reciting the vocals, particularly on 'Public Image' itself. (Perhaps he was not keen to imitate Lydon's vocal tics.)
He even revives the infamous 'Fodderstompf'. The track from that album most built around his bassline but using it as aural polyfilla, ever-repeating while in their Derek and Clive moment the band improvised words over the top. (“In order to finish the album with the minimum amount of effort”, as they gleefully admitted on the track itself.) Here that same bass line is turned from workhorse into workout. The one 'Metal Box' number is, inevitably enough, the classic 'Poptones', transformed into something glacial, as if Joy Division had ended up releasing it instead.
Wobble's 'cosmic geezer' persona is now well cemented. He is, after all, the guy who called an album 'Full Moon Over the Shopping Mall.' While other bands, concerned about keeping their cool, barely mention their merch stall Wobble waxes as lyrical as any East End trader over the “luvverly qualtertee” of his T-shirts.
My personal favourite Wobble era, at least post-PiL, is the Deep Space stuff. Because... well, it's deep and it's spacey. (Imagine Krautrock blended with dub, seasoned with some Miles Davis.) Little of which gets a look-in here. But he has too much and too varied a history to cram into one set-list, and you should probably look to what a gig is doing rather than what it isn't. Caveats aside, and ignoring the distraction of the opening, what Wobble gave us was qualertee.
And speaking of 'Poptones', from Manchester...
The Hope & Ruin, Brighton, Wed 13th April
The Ex are always awesome, of course. But having previously written about them not once but twice, I wasn't thinking of doing so again. Only to find that this is the one gig which actually has YouTube footage. So let's let that do the talking. This is the classic 'Double Order', done as the encore.
Saturday, 16 April 2016
THE SECRET LIFE OF ORGANS (WITH THE NECKS AND JAMES MCVINNIE)
Meeting House, University of Sussex, Falmer, Fri 8th April
This tour, put on by the good folks at No-Nation, was specially arranged around venues with playable church organs. (All those pipes not easily fitting in the back of a transit van.) Though as things turn out the Meeting House makes for a good concert venue in its own right.
James McVinnie's set was dominated by a new piece emanating from Tom Jenkinson. As previously raved about here when performing under his stage monicker Squarepusher. Jenkinson himself showed up but, without his trademark fencing mask, I didn't recognise him until pointed out. (When he didn't return for the second part, I sat in his seat.)
However this new work, helpfully titled 'New Work', seemed more demonstrative than compositional, more concerned with figuring out the parameters of what an organ can do than doing anything with them. It exhibited a vast tonal range, but was only fitfully involving. More happily however, this was bookended by two classic Philip Glass pieces, including the legendary 'Mad Rush'. Which always sounds like it could go on until the end of time, and hopefully one day it will.
Wikipedia's favoured terms for Aussie improvisers the Necks are “experimental jazz” or “trance jazz”. If I was to counter with “anti-jazz”, that might seem facetious. But truth is they're from jazz backgrounds and play jazz instruments – but have swapped the in-yer-face freneticism for serenity. Rather than play as many chords as they can in a minute, they take a handful and eke them out into an hour. That being a standard time for one of their improvisations to last. If, say, John Coltrane's squarking sax (sorry but that's the way it sounds to me) is the soundtrack to teeming New York streets, the Necks evoke wide open spaces. (Despite the band stemming from Sydney, that's an image often employed on their album covers or website's home page.)
Momentum gives them a structure of sorts. Their long improvised pieces proceed like a river, starting out as trickles of sound which become more and more sustained. Even when they pick up pace they won't corner but take elegant curves along the way, always branching out into new territory but not never invasively. In the best possible sense of the world, they meander. (Why do we attach a negative concept to that when we even have such a beautiful word for it?) You'll get so much movement along the course of a piece, but without anyone actually driving it.
This was actually the second time I'd seen them swap their standard pianofor organ, and despite it working well previously it still gave me the same worries. Their disdain for preparation is such that they won't even decide who starts a piece. Which can give the opening part of their sets an almost Quaker meeting feel, as they calmly stand still waiting to be spirited into playing something. Giving the keyboardist a mighty organ risks augmenting him and disrupting the trio's vital equilibrium.
And indeed it did start with the organ; Chris Abrahams playing the sort of basic phrases musicians fill in with for sound-checks, while the others slowly started to work around him. For a long section the organ remained the dominant instrument, Lloyd Swanton picking individual strings and Tony Buck dragging a drumstick across a skin.
But despite my purist instincts, it doesn't really matter if things start from a slightly different place. At times Abrahams would stick to Bach-like chords (or at least what a know-nothing like me imagines Bach-like chords to be). But at others he'd play loops or musical fragments, giving space to the other players. The longer they play, the more involving it becomes. The more small-scale the changes, the more focused on them you become. This was the fourth time I've managed to see the Necks, and they've never been less than enthralling.
The notion they've now been doing what they do for nearly thirty years seems so befitting you'd almost have to make it up – long duration pieces performed over a grand timescale. Chris Abramans once said “people wonder how you can keep going for so long, But there is an ecstatic state you can reach. If things start happening that are really interesting, its suddenly no effort to play”. ('The Wire' 293, July '08) There's something time-defying about their calmly unhurried instant compositions, so at odds with the quick-click instrant gratification world we live in, while at the same time not at all challenging but immersive and hugely pleasurable. It put me in mind of the old Sandy Denny line, “I have no fear of time”.
Nothing to do with organs or this tour at all, but a full performance of classic Necks...
MARTINS TAYLOR + SIMPSON
The Ropetackle, Shoreham, Tues 12th April
As the record shows, we in Lucid Frenzy Towers were very much taken by Martin Simpson's previous co-headliner with Dom Flemons the year before last. So back we went to see him in another double act at the Ropetackle, this time with Martin Simpson. A name previously unknown to us, but then neither had been Flemons'.
Taylor back-announces one track with the explanation “and if you didn't recognise it, I'm a jazz musician”, and refers to Stefan Grapelli as his old boss. Not, needless to say, good signs. It's the stuff of musician's music, which has about as much use as plumber's plumbing.
However... They joke at one point about an American interviewer being unable to tell them apart, despite Simpson having a pronounced Northern accent and Taylor a Southern. And at times their playing could combine like their accents, Taylor's smoothness complementing Simpson's comparative roughness. (Comparative, please note. Simpson isn't Tom Waits.) They provide a compelling version of the old spiritual 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot', Simpson twanging while Taylor plucks. We call that sort of thing “a lucid frenzy” around here.
Yet alas such peaks were not maintained. As the night yinged and yanged back and forth between the two styles it fell out of and back into interest, never quite gaining any momentum. Perhaps next time Flemons will be back in town, or Simpson will just take it solo.
Normally with the vid-clip bit I have to say “not from Brighton”. This time, in a major break with tradition, it's not from Shoreham...
Coming soon! More gig-going adventures...
Saturday, 9 April 2016
MICHAEL GIRA + THURSTON MOORE/ MUGSTAR/ PHYSICS HOUSE BAND/ MICHAEL FAIRFAX + YORGIS SAKELLARIOU (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)
MICHAEL GIRA + THURSTON MOORE
Barbican, London, Wed 30th March
In an earlier review of Michael Gira's main band, Swans, I compared them to Sonic Youth. Or rather contrasted them, as two bands who burst from the same New York noise scene but from there travelled in two different directions. So what could be both stranger and more opportune to see guys from both bands on the same bill? And, for people most associated with noisy punk music, both playing solo guitar.
I've always imagine Thurston Moore as someone working within a band structure, someone to whom music was a sum of its parts. (Sonic Youth weren't someone's band, in the way Swans are Gira's.) And yet he works surprisingly well as a solo guiatrist, rather than reducing his tracks into songs he's happy to drift off into long instrumental sections. (In fact clocking up only three numbers in a half-hour set.) I didn't know the album the tracks are from (2013's 'The Best Day' apaprantently) but I could believe they don't sound vastly different played as a band. Perhaps that's not altogether surprising, though known for detuned noise guitar there's always been something serene, something transcendent about him waiting to be let loose.
If Moore had become a one-man band, by way of complete contrasts Michael Gira stripped all his usual accoutrements away until he was only left with himself. Then, as if not having his usual gang around to back him up was audacious enough, he then elected to perform with the house lights up. I don't know well his Nineties/Noughties anti-rock-band outfit Angels of Light, but had expected the set to naturally gravitate towards then. As things turned out it was dominated by Swans songs, old and new. He insistently strummed his guitar, hand moving only minimally on the fretboard, letting his voice and the songs themselves do the work.
It's not a move to everyone's taste, it seems, and a small but noticeable section of the audience grumbled their way towards the door. Maybe it was a Marmite manouvere, because those of us who remained seemed to take to it. At times Gira's music has seemed built to invoke the complaint of parents everywhere, “it's just a noise”. Well now we've heard it without the noise and it just exposes how well written the songs are. Stripping the band away, throwing the emphasis on the songs, makes the thing less forceful but more intense. If Swans were a raging fire this was a white-hot coal. It may not be the way I'd introduce a newbie to Gira. But it's an effective way to hear him.
As the reformed Swans have departed further and further from song structure, perhaps he'd circumnavigated music and was coming back to it from the other direction. If so, then oddly it was the newer – as yet unreleased – songs which worked the least well. One was an account of a sexual assault based on a real incident. (Which I think you'd have guessed even if he hadn't announced it as such.) Gira's songs not normally straying to the sunny side of the street, that might seem standard subject matter. But Swans have always operated in a less literal way, their style taking the metaphysical and rendering it visceral. (Perhaps that could be their strap line, “Rendering the metaphysical visceral since 1982”.) And some of that is lost.
The songs are so back he even closes with 'God Damn the Sun', from an album he's long-repudiated - 'Burning World'. It's an album I love, even if its own author often disagrees, so was to hear a track from it live was a rare bonus.
Not from London...
Green Door Store, Brighton, Fri 1st April
Having already given Acid Mothers Temple the soundbite description “the Japanese Hawkwind”, I suppose I now need to tag Liverpool space rockers Mugstar as “the Scouse Hawkwind”. Whether there's a Flemish Hawkwind or a Geordie Gong is not as yet a matter of record.
Of course it gets bit catch-all to lazily label a genre after one of its best-known proponents, and can override important differences between the bands. (Though Mugstar were fans enough to release a record of Hawkwind covers, split with Mudhoney.)
Acid Mothers Temple, who are perhaps best seen as a collective, do a whole lot of floating in space. Whereas Mugstar are much more a band, a power trio pressed into the role of sonic cosmonauts. Which kind of makes sense. In those days of yore, when they were sailing off for shores unknown, what's the first thing they did? Get a tight working crew, of course. And the drummer and bassist, bonding over their facial hair, maintain an incredibly tight rhythm section. As Krautrocky as they are Hawkwindy, they'll shift between tribal pounding and laconic riffs with ease, but rarely go in for free form.
The guitarist, sometimes doubling as keyboard player and space chanter, supplies more of the transcendent stuff. Which does at times make him something like the gaffer, delivering the presentation while others are doing the hard work. But the guitar solos never last too long, and for the most part the players pull together.
Though there's CDs for sale, this is at heart live music. It's three guys taking off and then taking it in again. The only drawback is the same one as with Acid Mothers Temple, that modern venues aren't kitted out for this kind of sonic cosmonautery. It just takes time to reach the stratosphere! Blake wrote of seeing infinity in the palm of his hand and eternity in an hour. But he didn't have an hour to write a poem before the club night started.
THE PHYSICS HOUSE BAND
Patterns, Brighton, Mon 28th March
Remember the Convertacar Professor Pat Pending used to drive in 'Wacky Races'? The Physics House Band are a musical version of that. They're able to segue swiftly within one track, say from a cruisin' saloon car to a turbo-charged racer. But very often they'll sound like the Convertacar while it's... well, converting. When it was a bewildering blur of motion lines, where it seemed it could transmogrify into anything.
And if I seem to be clutching at old Sixties cartoons as a means to describe them, then their approach to music does seem more contemporary than me. They are, I suspect, another bunch of young shavers who sound the way they do through their music history being YouTubeable. It's like a kind of anti-modernism, where rather than the past being past you have it all on speed dial. And that manifests most strongly not when they change the chassis but swap what's under the hood. As two of the trio handle both guitars and keyboards simultanbeously, tracks can be driven either by riffs or by repetitive beats. There was always a Berlin wall-like divide between those in my day.
And there's an upside to this. The set never settles, becomes a sitting target, leaving your mind free to tune out and check back in later. It's always breaking into something new. Then, when you've near forgotten about the first thing, going back to that.
Yet for all the times they segue neatly from one thing to the next, there's others where something just crashes in on what's gone before, and it seems less like eclecticism than channel-hopping. Looking back at what I wrote over when I last saw them, it seems I said “Smart people, sometimes they're allowed to be smart... Just don't go making a habit of it.” When they don't, they're exhilerating. Yet when they do, they're merely clever.
Not from Brighton either...
MICHAEL FAIRFAX + YORGIS SAKELLARIOU
Upper Salon, Caroline of Brunswick, Brighton, Fri 18th March
Despite previously having found some gems amid Aural Detritus, this was the first night in their new concert series I've made. I suppose I really should get out more.
Yorgis Sakellariou took the front of the room only to announce that he wouldn't be taking to the front of the room and would be playing with the lights down. He encouraged us to keep our eyes closed. People sometimes complain about laptop sound artists being nothing to look at, so giving nothing to look at neatly circumvates the problem. No singing, no dancing – okay? The result was like some sonic version of 'Tron', as if we'd been pulled inside the sound.
He describes his practise as “founded on the digital manipulation of environmental recordings”, and notably one of his releases is titled 'Mecha Orga'. There's a recognisability to human sounds that gives them a warmth, a kind of aura, like when your eyes light on a human face. By treating and mixing those sounds Sakellariou takes you to some uncanny valley where everything is defamiliarised. It's similar to that dream where you go back to somewhere you used to know well, and yet it seems strangely different. It even became hard to tell the street noise and pub chatter beneath us from the piece, and I overheard him confessing afterwards he'd decided early to incorporate them.
Michael Fairfax, as a day job, makes sound sculptures out of trees. (Me, I process paperwork.) But he also makes his own strung-wood instruments, on which he improvises. These acoustic sounds (albeit amped up) made for a fine contrast with Sakellariou's electronics. Rather than blending the strange with the familiar, his sounds were strangely familiar – almost but not quite like sounds you're used to.
As he swapped instruments and twiddled knobs his set had a vast sonic range, from 'small' sounds blown up to some mighty thrumming. It's much like the way a film can close in on something like a paper clip, but also show a wide-angle shot of a mountain range. However he confined himself to his guitar-like instruments, leaving some still-stranger devices untouched, which restricted the range in timbre more than he might. (He said afterwards he wasn't sure why he'd done that.)
Avuncular in nature, he finished the gig by offering us all the chance to try out the instruments for ourselves. And after a little English reserve, we took him up on it. You don't get that at the Albert Hall!
Still not from Brighton, Fairfax providing a live soundtrack to the classic 'Colour of Pomegranates'...
Coming soon! More gig-going adventures...
Friday, 1 April 2016
(Another art exhibition reviewed just as it ends)
”He defined figures with delicate lines in space, not as a solid mass”
- From the gallery guide
”Drawing in space”
In 1923, Alexander Calder started sculpting not by carving into stone or casting metal, but bending wire. Modernism's most basic precept is clearly at work here. We don't live in the Stone or the Bronze age any more, so why still make sculpture like we do? But there's more, much more...
Calder hung around both New York and Paris, the twin centres of Modernism in this period, and his wire portraits reveal him as a figure on the scene. Many of Modernism's totems adorn the walls, such as Miro or Leger. But his works were famously dubbed 'mobiles' by no less than Duchamp, and he has Duchamp's insistence on using not just non-art but transparent and apparently transient materials. As the show says, “he felt that it was a mark of modernity that his wire figures possessed a kind of transparency”. (And as we've seen before, Duchamp himself had a predilection for glass.)
His method was soon dubbed “drawing in space” - an apt tag, for the images are by necessity 'doodly'. Look at thumbnail images of them and they're almost like pen sketches. (Even down to the variance in line thickness, see illo below.) And in fact his preparatory sketches, where displayed, look almost identical to the realised work. Which is again similar to Duchamp, who considered the purpose of a work to put across the idea behind it in the most economical, least distracting way. We could call that 'proto-conceptual' if we were those sorts of people.
Which creates something of a puzzle. As argued previously, the key to Duchamp is that he dealt in anti-art. Attempts by artists to paper over that inconvenient fact usually result in ruin, in short-term gimmickry which leads only to hopeless dead ends. (Brit Art being only the most calamitous case of a sorry trend.) It's like trying to build where someone had already staked out quicksand. And yet Calder wasn't an anti-artist in the slightest, as we'll come to see his works were celebratorily creative. As Adrian Searle wrote in the Guardian, his “mobiles are made to give pleasure. They don't... baffle us in the way Duchamp did”. But he still went on to have an inter-relationship not only with Duchamp but his disciples. I am really not sure how he managed that. It's like he took just enough Duchamp to catalyse his art without destroying it, like a poison being used as a homeopathic remedy.
But if these first room works are not dismissable juvenilia, neither are they even embryonic – rather, they're preparatory. Notably works of this period can have the classical titles and subject matter of old-time sculpture, such as 'Medusa' (c. 1930) or 'Hercules and the Lion' (1928, below). Calder might have meant this as something of a taunt to the old school, but it rebounds – suggesting he hasn't yet fully left it all behind. Wire was to prove only one element of the mature Calder's DNA. We see the rest of him assemble over the successive rooms.
The Circus Comes To Town...
Animal and circus themes appeared in his work around the same time, but showed more of a way forward. Notably, with them creep in new materials. There's a great playfulness at work, with for example 'Dog' (1926/31, also below) using a clothes peg for a dog's head. Sometimes he signs the works by writing his name in bent wire. And those themes and this playfulness coincide, in a positive feedback loop. There's a certain way we're conditioned to look at a sculpture titled 'Hercules'; no matter how its made. But now think of a sculpture titled 'Circus Strongman' or 'Acrobat'. And with the new materials comes colour, for example 'Red Horse and Green Sulky' (1926, below), further adding to the sense of sculpture designed to entice and enthrall rather than display gravitas.
The works have a poise, a gravity-defying elegance and a suggestion of movement stone or wood could never convey. See for example 'The Brass Family' (1929, below). Sculpture had been about artists diligently carving mighty subjects out of solid, timeless material. Now it's like all that weight and solidity have been thrown off, as if someone had walked over to art and asked it to dance.
The show tells us “embodying the vitality of dancers or acrobats, Calder's sculptures were performers in their own right”. And that's no metaphor. Calder would stage performances of the self-styled Cirque Calder where he'd put those objects to work. The show includes invites to these made from lino cuts, like traditional circus posters, and a video of Calder performing it in 1927.
Thinking of their later use as baby mobiles, some comment on the irony that Calder's art “became toys”. As this video makes clear, they're entirely wrong – they were toys from the start. As Craig Raine writes in the New Statesman, “his talent isn’t injured by the snobbery of seriousness”. The video's like the coolest children's show you ever saw, with attendees laughing out loud while watching. (And make me reflect once more how the hand-made, hands-on nature of the kids' shows I saw, such as 'Blue Peter' or 'Vision On', has lamentably succumbed to virtual reality. We've become like the child in 'Room' who imagines the TV is a whole other word, unconnected to ours.)
...the Music Strikes Up...
But suggesting movement, almost from the start, wasn't enough for Calder. He wanted his mobiles to be... well, mobile. The very first room contains 'Goldfish Bowl' (1929), where the fish moved once you turned a handle. How to make them mobile became a process of trial and error, as we'll see. But, and again almost from the start, movement brought with it another element. Calder summed up sculpture as “weight, form, size, colour, motion and then you have noise”. If a sculpture can move, why not use that movement to make sound? His work can even have an equivalence to musical notation, the coloured shapes approximating notes while the wires make a warped approximation of bars.
With 'Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere' (1932/3, below), viewers could originally not only set the spheres in motion, bashing irregularly against the objects, but arrange the objects as suited them. Except, due to the disparity of sizes between the spheres, the result could never be arranged. The combinations were infinite and unforeseeable. Notably Calder associated with Cage (of course himself a Duchamp disciple), and his chance compositions.
Except 'Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere' leads us to a... in fact the drawback of this exhibition. And it's almost exactly the same one that we had with the recent Jospeh Cornell show at the Academy. As this description might suggest, the visual elements of this work aren't all that important. It's like an instrument, the point is to pick up and play it.
Except of course you're not allowed to. Instead a thick white line and a sensor alarm keep you from getting near it. (As artists, the two were quite different. Calder doesn't share Cornell's interest in the allure of mystery, in fact he seems more disposed to pare art back to its constituent elements. But in this way the shows are similar.)
Yes, as with Cornell, there's a video of it in motion. But videos aren't just passive, they attach a significance to an event; inevitably, you end up watching like you would a film. You may not expect a plot but you assume there'll be developments. What they need to do is just move, in the naturalised way the hands of a wall clock just turn or the leaves of a tree flutter in the breeze.
And it's worse than the object not being displayed as it's creator intended. We're in an art exhibition, where we're keyed to see things symbolically. And so we're effectively told that we've arrived after the event. It's like Modernism once had a life, it was something which worked for people. While all we can do is gawp at the detritus of that. It leaves a “party's over” feeling hanging over the piece. Look back at that illo of 'Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere' - it's made up of bottles, balls and other easily obtainable objects. It could have been recreated through a quick trip to the shop.
Making the Abstract Move
Calder's next component fell into place with surprising neatness – he visited Mondrian's studio and was won over to abstraction. (He called it “the shock that converted me”.) He even managed to do it in an easy-to-remember year, 1930.
This story appeals to me, for I've long thought that Mondrian's studio was the real work of art, his paintings just constituent elements which people kept foolishly removing from it. Mondrian himself thought differently, of course, but I don't really see what that's got to do with it. (It was recreated by the Tate a few years ago, but at Tate Liverpool - too far for a Brighton boy to visit.)
Mondrian's art by this point, with its regulated blocks and lines, could hardly have become more static. And when he disagreed with the suggestion of setting abstraction into motion, Calder resolved to do the thing himself.
One of his original ideas to realise this was to fit a motor, making his works into a set of turning parts. And in his slow but steady development, these motorised works are a rare (perhaps the only) mis-step. As with everything else, we don't see them actually turn as intended. But the problem is deeper. As they follow their prescribed paths then do it again they look too ordered, too regular. And as the show tells us, this is something he soon came to realise himself, as he turned more towards what he called “free movement”.
And yet oddly, around this era other works have the same clockwork spirit. After having said earlier there isn't much comparison between Calder and Cornell, we may have stumbled upon one. As with Cornell, he made numerous works in the form of Orreries, defined (at least by me) as “clockwork models of the solar system popular among the Victorians”. Check out, for example, the mapped trajectories of 'Object With Red Ball' (1931, below).Yet unlike Cornell there's none of the sense of the ghost in the machine. They just look like diagrams of mechanisms, motorised works without the motor. Cage's chance is nowhere in sight.
Mapping the Constellations
Motion and sound were the final two items in Calder's shopping list for sculpture. However, there's one more element that needs to be introduced before his work's complete. Though the show tells us he owes his abstraction all to Mondrian, I have always fancied a connection between Calder and Miro. Though another contemporary and compatriot, Miro gets little mention in this show. (Even if he features in one of the wire portraits.) Compare Calder to Micro's masterful 'Constellations' series of 1939/41; such as 'Constellation the Morning Star' (1939, below). There's the same 'lines-and-nodes' almost diagrammatic approach to composition, with shapes of pure colour connected by sharp black lines. (Though I have no notion of who influenced who, or even if anyone did. The fancy might simply come from my being such a fan of Miro while caring less for Mondrian.)
Even Miro's habit of placing his forms before a flat background can find an echo in Calder. Though in his case he'd place coloured shapes in relief before a painted panel, in essence placing a sculpture before a painted backdrop. This can give the sculptural elements a 'push', as though the panel is their spring-board into the room. 'Form Against Yellow' (1936, below) even has the suggestion of a figure dynamically diving towards you, arm upraised like a swimmer. But abstract forms are more common, in works such as 'White Panel' (1936, also below) even if the effect is the same.
But perhaps what Calder most has in common with Miro is his rejection of Mondrian's perfect geometry. While he always hung onto circles, the final element of his make-up is the evolution of the misshapen leaf form. And the whole shape of his mobiles shifts with it. His compositional genius was to make imbalance appealing and inviting, giving it an irresolvable dynamism. Look again at 'White Panel' with that long streak of black bent along one side of it. Look at the bends and turns in 'Morning Star' (1943, below), like an antenna tuned into Radio Askew.
Notably, like Miro, Calder often gave his mature work cosmic titles such as this. They even included Miro's chosen term, such as 'Constellation' (1943, below) and 'Black Constellation' in the same year. (Though the show tells us the term was something else which came from Duchamp.) Calder said himself, in 1951:
“The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe. The idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities... some at rest while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form.”
While, writing in the Standard, Matthew Collings spies “a hint of the Atomic Age, of molecular structures and orbiting planets at a time when science didn’t yet cause anyone to be fearful or cynical”. (While the earlier motorised works would seem more in spirit with the old, ordered Newtonian physics.)
Back to Nature
The cosmic of course exists at such a scale and remove from us it might as well be abstract. Yet like many of its great practitioners, Calder's abstraction is not pure. It keeps open a relationship to its environment, just a suggestive rather than a slavishly imitative one. Laura Cumming writes in the Guardian of “the enchanted forest at the heart of this show where mobiles shiver like silver honesty leaves, and black forms dangle like the last petals on wintry bushes.” And the waxing lyrical is warranted.
Again this is frequently reflected in the names. 'Vertical Foliage' (1941, below) suggests the twisted branch of nature, leaf forms emerging in a manner somehow systematic and unpredictable. While in 'Snow Flurry' (1948)... well, the dominant colour is white. The show speculates that this revisiting of nature might have been precipitated by his shifting his studio to an old Connecticut farm in 1933.
And it seems in parallel with this revisiting that Calder finally solves the problem of motion - in the simplest and most elegant way, the way nature does it. The delicate mobiles are able to catch the breeze even from the ambient draughts drifting across the room. Exhilaratingly, you can watch them spin slowly, seemingly of their own accord.
And Calder's love of Cagean chance processes and indeterminate composition finds it's expression.Calder's work is sometimes dismissed as simple variations on a theme. But the connection between his work and Cage really answers that. There's a richness in those perpetual variations. They achieve for the eye what Cage does for the ear, they look completely simple and straightforward while soon becoming compelling.
Like any great sculpture show, only possibly even more so, you can't just work the room systematically taking in each piece. You keep looking behind and around you, re-seeing what you only just saw, only from some new angle or set alongside something else. The pieces really are pieces, part of something bigger. (Something similar was to be found in the recent Barbara Hepworth sculpture show.)
In the show's second-biggest weakness, we don't see his larger-scale works or monumental outdoor stabiles. Though there's one big exception to this rule - the 'Black Widow' (1948), normally hung in the lobby of the Sao Paolo Institute of Architects and out on loan for the first time. Notably, and again like Hepworth, its flexible enough that it works as well against the white wall of the gallery or when placed in situ (see photo below). We do see photos of Thirties Worlds Fairs he participated in (including exhibiting alongside Picasso's 'Guernica' in the Republican Spanish pavilion in '37), but the show really needed some large-scale photos of his stabiles.
Its true we may only see the mature, realised Calder for the final third of the show. But there's an appeal in seeing that maturation happen, in Calder bending open a wire frame and then assembling himself around it. Calder is one of those artists who looks like anyone should be able to copy him, yet no-one really can. He's another reason, as if we needed one, to reject the notion that abstract art has to be something austere and remote. His work virtually radiates childlike joy!