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Saturday, 26 May 2018

KRONOS QUARTET/ LES AMAZONES D'AFRIQUE (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

KRONOS QUARTET (WITH SAM GREEN + TRIO DA KALI)
The Barbican, London, Fri 18th May



This double serving of the contemporary string quartet Kronos kicked off with ‘A Thousand Thoughts’, a “live documentary” film with co-director Sam Green narrating in person as they played live. It looked back over the ensemble’s history, dating back to 1973.

This was at points gimmicky, prone to some Californian philosophising and the live presentation made Green more central a figure than he needed to be. But it did possess a good-humoured style, and the good sense to locate their origins in Seventies New York through verite footage of streets and subways rather than the usual cliched images. (Reagan, check… punk rock kids, check… Studio 54, check… they come up like clip art on a bad business presentation.)

The biggest takeaway… Though the ensemble are not themselves composers they have an active working relationship with their composers, many of whom have written especially for them and many of whom (including Philip Glass and Terry Riley) are interviewed herein. Which was probably just the way music worked until comparatively recently, when ‘classical’ became a heritage industry.

The biggest highlight… the quartet playing along to a film of a throat singer becoming more and more unhinged, until she finally broke off laughing to a spontaneous round of applause.

The greatest surprise… such passing reference to their reworking of Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’, which always seemed their crossover ‘hit’ at the time. Certainly it was the first I heard of them, and at the time I’d no idea they’d already been going for well over a decade. Perhaps they now see it the way Hawkwind do ‘Silver Machine’, as something of an albatross.

The second half was a collaboration with the Malian group Trio Da Kali. Not having heard the album, and perhaps still half in mind of the contemporary-meets-traditional soundworld of Xylouris White, I was surprised to the degree that the quartet merely sat in with the trio - more companions than collaborators. They often played in unison, a highly unusual thing for a string quartet to do, underlining Hawa Diabete’s vocals. Not, you understand, that was any kind of a drawback...

The Trio perform Griot, which is some combination of history, storytelling and praise singing. Though the programme spoke of their sound being “as wild as possible”, in fact they were measured and calming, with some elegant yet understated melodies. The nearest Western equivalent would be Gospel, albeit not the Gospel that led to Soul. The programme also mentioned Mahalia Jackson.

Though the programme also spoke of the Quartet having the words translated to aid their playing, I always enjoy not knowing. It’s the glossolalia effect of words sung in a language you can’t comprehend, which always feels like they’re singing of things otherwise beyond expression.

The only downside was too many solos on the Balafon (a kind of marimba), which seemed to jar with the otherwise collective spirit. But then I am a curmudgeon when it comes to solos.




LES AMAZONES D’AFRIQUE
Brighton Done, Thurs 24th May


Then, completely by luck and not in any way by clever planning, I was hearing more Malian music less than a week later. Only this time it couldn’t have been any more upbeat.

Les Amazones ranged between desert blues, with a trio of women singers delivering some mesmerising choral vocals, and energetic, uplifting Afro Beat, where they’d more take turns to sing lead.

Music always feels more involving when it seems spontaneous, not in the sense of improvised but of happening in the moment. It comes across as organic rather than mechanical, and minimises any sense of separation between performer and audience. You’re hypnotised into thinking you could just step up and join in. (Fortunately for all, I didn’t act on this impulse.)

And this was underlined by the way the singers casually swapped hand-held percussion, seemingly as the moment took them. The finale ran through a bunch of staggered endings, like they didn’t want to leave the stage any more than we wanted to see them go - the equivalent of when a friend gets up to leave but falls into a cycle of saying “I’ll be off then”.

I can sometimes be a little cynical over seeing African music in a setting like this. Too many middle class white folks convinced they’re doing something terribly, terribly multicultural. Too much generic approval for anyone who looks like they fit the ‘African’ part. But then there’s times when the thing just works.

From Jools Holland (but really, don't let that put you off)…

Saturday, 19 May 2018

XYLOURIS WHITE/ XFRMR (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

XYLOURIS WHITE + DANIEL BLUMBERG
St. George’s Church, Brighton, Thursday 17thMay
Part of the Brighton Festival




As the above image might suggest, Xylouris White are an odd-couple duo. Jim White’s the drummer from the Dirty Three, who now looks like Steve Pemberton playing the part of a rock drummer. George Xylouris looks like an old Greek guy with a beard and a Cretan lute, which is exactly what he is.

But perhaps the magic of the thing is that it’s not self-conscious fusion food. ‘All music is music’ seems like one of those platitudinous statements like ‘all religions are one’, it might sound fine but doesn’t get you very far in practise. Except, every now and again, it does.

Xylouris, originally taught traditional-style by his uncle, doesn’t seem to modify much what he’s going for the rock duo format - but it all fits anyway. White doesn’t play beneath but alongside him, fully occupying the place he sits on stage. His free-flowing, exuberant drumming seems to mostly be called “avant-rock”. In fact, having played together for five years they’ve become like old-style travelling troubadours, seemingly only deciding what to play from one track to the next, sometimes by playing snatches at each other.

The music doesn’t just have a sonic range, but seems able to operate on different scales, from close and intimate up to rising flights which grow more expansive and ever-higher, like a bird catching an updraft. They’ll go into extended wig-outs, with no muso egoism.

Support act Daniel Blumberg had one of the most “have they started yet” starts I’ve encountered in recent years. And it wasn’t long after I realised they had started, then over the tapping and scraping of instruments and harmonica wails the guitarist started to sing. At that point, had he hurled himself through a hoop of fire, I’d scarcely have been any more surprised.

As things went on it swapped between some Neil Young style ‘country blues’ and free-form instrumentals, but rather than switching it ebbed and flowed between them. Plus the instrumental sections were quite unpredictable, from stray lines it was left to you to join together, to a great sonic wallop. The Festival says he “weds an improvisational, free-music ethos to raw emotional songwriting”.

Not from Brighton (like that’s something unusual)…



XFRMR
The Spire, St. Mark’s Chapel, Brighton, Wed 16th May
Part of the Brighton Festival



Dubbed by the Festival as “a show as lively as electricity itself,” Robbie Thompson’s electro compositions were synched to a Tesla coil which would “audio-reactively” emit flashes of electricity in time to the music.

From this description, I’d expected some full-on affair, designed to stir that coil into greater and greater action, an electronic version of bear baiting. Yet the music was quite varied, seemingly requiring two laptops and a synth. It included swooshes, stabs, blasts, beats and even a ‘space lounge’ mid-section. At its most effective, it would manage to lay one of these elements on top of another.

And this proved both to be its success and its weakness. At points it scattershot, particularly in the opening section, feeling it’s way rather that striding ahead. And, with some smart sound design at points, it was a shame not to have had quadrophonic sound.

The event was billed as an audio-visual “spectacle”, with the coil placed centre stage. And, placed just before the Chapel’s altar, it did make for a perfect setting, like something out of Seventies science fiction. It was even miked up, so as well as reacting to the sound it contributed to it. 

But it seemed a somewhat reluctant leading act, and even when stirred sparingly you soon got used to the electrical shots. It may not be an entirely fair comparison, as the scale of the events were so different, but Stockhausen’s ‘Cosmic Pulses’ at the Barbican was a more effective inducement of synaesthesia.

I did wonder if, rather than inspiring the piece, the coil was hit on to overcome the standard “nothing to look at complaint” made of electronic music. And, assuming that’s something which needs a fix, it’s true the coil’s taking things in the right direction. Narrative visuals, anything that smacks of a rock video, always seem to re-familiarise this music, take away its unique energy. 

And different lighting effects were used on the Faraday cage it was placed in, to some good effect. Though this was taken further by Conrad Shawcross’’Slow Art Inside a Cube’ work at the Hayward’s ’Light’ exhibition, which moved a light source around a cage to play with shadow effects.

But ultimately that fix has to be about getting away from the staticperformer/audience face-off, creating an environment for people to pass through as they feel like. Last year’s 'Siren’ 
isn’t really a direct comparison, as that was more installation than live performance, but it might still serve as a guide.

Skip past the irrelevant support band in this (not from Brighton) clip...



NB I have no idea how I ended up reviewing two X bands in one go, but as Yo La Tengo were last time presumably we're working backwards through the alphabet so expect a profusion of W's next week....

Saturday, 12 May 2018

'THE FLYING LOVERS OF VITEBSK'/ DEERHOOF + STARGAZE/ YO LA TENGO (GIG-AND-THEATRE-ATTENDING ADVENTURES)

‘THE FLYING LOVERS OF VITEBSK’
Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Falmer, Brighton, 9th to 12th May
(...so, for the fleet of foot, still on tonight!)



The Brighton Festival programme describes this play as “trac[ing] the lives of” Marc Chagall “the 20th century’s most influential Jewish artist and his wife as they navigate the Pogroms, the Russian Revolution, and each other.”

Kneehigh’s production is perhaps faultless. The dialogue’s sharp and memorable without being showy. The two leads, particularly Audrey Brisson as the wife Bella Rosenfeld, are strong. The active physical-theatre style conveys the feeling of Chagall’s artwork, where everything feels free-floating, as if in some grand dance, without resorting to mere mimicry. Different lighting styles and some minimal props cross a simple set, aided by two on-stage musicians, propelling the drama along.

Under the hood, however, there’s some problems...

Chagall is characterised as an idealist innocent, too unworldly to kiss his future bride on their first date, yet also possessed of a child’s innate selfishness. He’s given the look of a silent film star, a Harold Lloyd hat above a hapless white face. I know almost nothing of his personality, and it’s quite possible he was something like this – a naive man whose medium was naive art. But in dramatic terms it seems a somewhat cliched way to portray an artist.

Moreover, the elliptical structure might have been necessary to span the story but serves to make his frequent acts of selfishness towards Bella seem consequenceless, a character quirk, a fact of life to be accepted.

The play starts with a critic on the phone, feeding Marc vast chunks of verbiage in the earnest hope he’ll simply agree. Nonplussed and unengaged he lets the phone dangle to show the audience a photo of his home town of Vitebsk. A town, he explains, largely destroyed by Nazis in the War. Later he expresses frustration at the notion there’s a “mystery” to his art.

The inference of course is that his art is rooted where he was rooted, in Vitebsk, and so the phone is not just asking him the wrong questions but the wrong sort of questions. But this doesn’t lead into perhaps the central question about Chagall. To create his folk image of Vitebsk did he need distance from the physical Vitebsk, that his heart might grow so fond? He once said “my homeland exists only in my soul”. And ironically given his evocations of home his art was always most appreciated outside of Russia, where his cows and fiddlers seemed exotic.

After all, pre-warVitebskmayhave been historic and picturesque but it was not the rustic village hiswork sometimes made it seem. He describes it as having two cathedrals and numerous synagogues, and even today it’s Belarus’ fourth largest city.

The question’s not a simple one. His style first developed when he went to Paris. Yet he was back in Vitebsk between 1914 and 1920, and painting prolifically. Though he only stayed home so long because the outbreak of war prevented his return to Paris.

Bella, it’s revealed, was a writer and actor in her own right. (I’d previously seen her only as a figure who showed up in his paintings, so I suppose I’m no better than the Incels.) But the play seems divided over how to treat her. In the Festival quote above, it’s clear that “each other” is saved for last because it’s the most important, that the Pogroms and Revolutions are like sudden gusts of wind which blow their relationship this way and that. At it’s heart, this is a love story.

When Marc was first developing his art in Paris Bella remained home. Later, in a cruelirony, just like Vitebsk the war killed her. (She got an infection, which would have been curable had medicine not been in short supply.) All of which suggests she was a metonym of Vitebsk for him, personalising all it meant.

Yet she describes them as opera glasses, looking at the same things in parallel. When they are forced to leave Vitebsk, she says they should pack their memories like suitcases. In this way she’s not his muse or subject, but they are companion eyes.

It is of course entirely possible that this division isn’t the plays – that Marc saw their relationship one way and Bella the other. But then that would make for something to explore. There are some stabs at this. When Bella briefly resumes acting she fills with life, while he essentially sulks in a chair. Yet these aren’t quite sufficient. As Marc and Bella navigate each other, the view turns most towards his opera glass.



DEERHOOF + STARGAZE
Brighton Dome, Wed 9th May


This double-headliner was due to Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier having been commissioned by contemporary ensemble Stargaze to score a reworking of Fugazi’s classic ’In On the Kill Taker’. Introducing the night in his customary angsty outsider artist persona, Saunier was keen to stress that the whole notion was preposterous – he’d no idea how to transpose from hardcore punk to classical instruments, he’d never even heard the album before and besides that he’d be scoring each number for a solo instrument.

The last one might have been a chess move too far. It’s true that a single instrument score isn’t the same thing as a rock solo. And even when, for the most part, you couldn’t work out which track was being cited, the point of the exercise was to change things not reproduce them. But while Fugazi might have contained great songwriters, what really made them stellar was how well they worked as a unit – they gelled, like few others.

And in fact it was the few, brief ensemble sections which worked the best. The solo pieces sounded fragmentary. It was as if we were hundreds of years hence, where only snippets of the original had survived, perhaps from some almost unplayable LP, so we were effectively trying to reconstruct an ancient culture from some broken bits of pot.

I can go for this sort of thing, whether it’s Steve Reich reworking Radiohead or Phillip Glass channelling Bowie. But this was perhaps an example of the problem of postmodern art, where all things are supposed to be of equal value, and exchanging them seems the best way of conveying that. Whereas all that happens is that everything is made to seem equally valueless.

I wondered how Deerhoof’s lo-fi aesthetic would fare at the far-from-intimate Dome venue. And their characteristic on-stage line-up, screwing with the heraldic rock formation by actually lining everyone up, including the drummer, looked stranger still on the large stage. But the illfittingness actually fitted. There were several technical hitches, including Satomi Matzusaki’s vocal mike cutting out at an inopportune moment, causing her to break into an impromptu dance routine while Saunier sang into his miked-up snare. 

But it all just added to the ramshackle exuberance of the thing. It felt almost like going back to the early Sixties, before dedicated music venues, where bands just played wherever they could.

There’s little more to say about their sound, which is going further in the same direction as their last appearance three years ago. For both better and worse, they’re becoming more of a band. Real rock licks break in at times!

For the encore, they were joined by four of Stargaze’s wind players. Which worked so well you only wished they’d done it for more of the set. For the first, slower number their contribution enriched the melody, like fizzy sparkly pop has been transubstantiated into fine wine.

As ever, not from Brighton…



YO LA TENGO
Royal Festival Hall, London, Fri 4th May


“37 record store clerks feared dead in Yo La Tengo concert disaster”, ran the Onion headline. 
And the band are seen by some as the eptiome of suburban indie, music for the self-styled sensitive souls who read Nick Hornby books. There may not be an entire absence of truth to this description, they even crack a joke about playing for themselves while in the interval a few trainspotters rushed to the front to check out the equipment.

Yet it’s more to do with having a handy example to attach to a phenomenon. And it’s probably made easier by the band’s music being much less pindownable. Since 1984 they’ve been producing, in Wikipedia’s words, an “eclectic combination of folk, punk rock,shoe-gazing, long instrumental noise-jams, and electronic music.”

This night kicks off with a spacy drone which builds into a motorik trance-out, with double drumming despite the band only being a trio. Always a good way of getting my attention. And the first half’s set was mostly devoted to unadorned melodies, the percussion on one track being no more than the odd tap on the bass.

True, every now and again it does start to sound like easy listening for snowflakes, as if the magic potion failed to kick in. But for the majority of the time songs tasted like home cooking, made from a handful of simple ingredients but leaving a lasting taste. Free-form instruments surrounded the songs, sometimes brief interludes allowing band members to switch instruments, sometimes longer. One psychedelic number effectively combined both.

I’m not a fan of splitting gigs in half. It’s like putting an ad break in a film then not even showing any ads. But they use the two halfs to switch over, taking things in a more uptempo direction. Though tracks remained unhurried affiars, until the final few numbers. Whereupon the band who’d earlier mastered slow-tempo compositions suddenly transformed into a rock-out combo, instruments taking off in their hands like the Pink Panther clutching a raging outboard motor.

I was even able to cope with the guitar solos, partly because the rhythm section was more than merely the bread in the sandwich, and partly because the guitar would get genuinely unhinged. Only the extended guitar of the finale taxed my patience.

They had to huddle together before taking the encore, as if it had come as an unexpected development. Whereupon they covered the TVP’s ’Park Time Punks’.

Overall, colour me a record store clerk.

Not from London...

Saturday, 5 May 2018

HAPPY CHARLIE DAY


This seems a year for anniversaries. As has been previously mentioned here, February was the centenary of the Russian Revolution. While this month marks the fiftieth of May 1968. But today – yes, this very day – marks the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx. (Here pictured in his current hideaway at Highgate. With one of his more disappointing sidekicks, hence the resigned expression.)

I have no idea how Marx spent his birthdays. Perhaps Engels stayed up the night before, valiantly attempting to gift-wrap the means of production for him. But today seems the time to remind people that he so often said the very opposite to what everyone likes to pretend. By which I don’t mean the alt.right goons, who make a meme of him saying “I like to sniff my butt” then imagine they have demolished the Labour Theory of Value. I mean people you’d generally think of as sensible. Many of the worst offenders, alas, think of themselves as Marxists.

Did Marx conceive of history as an overpowering, inevitable force, a train charging down predetermined tracks, on which we – you and me – were merely passengers? No, he didn’t.

“History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.”
The Holy Family


Alternately, did he insist that if we want things to change then it’s up to us to change them? Yes he did.

“The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator himself needs educating.”
Theses on Feuerbach

Did he think the masses so stupefied they required rescuing by a vanguard, like a damsel in some shoddy melodrama? Nope.

”In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’

...or...

“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.”
Both from the Communist Manifesto

...or...

“The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. Hence we cannot co-operate with those who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above.”
Circular Letters

Did Marx see the individual as a problem, a nail to be hammered down so as to make Red Square parades run more smoothly? Um, no.

“The reality, which communism is creating, is precisely the true basis for rendering it impossible that anything should exist independently of individuals, insofar as reality is only a product of the preceding intercourse of individuals themselves.”
The German Ideology

Did Marx see Communism as central planning, where party dignitaries issued edicts and decreed everything to be for the common good? After which we got to cheer? Let’s allow his buddy Engels to answer that one.

“The state will inevitably fall. The society which organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong—into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.”
On the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

There’s two points where Marx is quoted accurately but misleadingly. Marx did refer to “the idiocy of rural life”, it was in the Communist Manifesto. But in context “idiocy” doesn’t mean “stupidity” so much as “idiosyncrasy” or “parochial nature”. Cities are always arterial, connected to other cities in a way villages are not connected to other villages. The drift to urbanism did not in itself socialise the world, but was a necessary step towards it.

Similarly he did call religion “the opium of the masses”, it was in his Critique of Hegel. But he didn’t mean religion was simply a confidence trick, used to stupefy the gullible masses, cooked up by scheming capitalists as they puffed on those fat cigars they always seem to have.

Of course, religion often is used as a confidence trick, but that is scarcely the definition of the thing. Opium was then widely used as a painkiller, and Marx means less “drug” than “salve”. It would in fact be much better if people had picked up from a phrase he used elsewhere in the same passage “the heart of heartless conditions, the soul of a soulless world.” Religion is the...

“...inverted consciousness of the world, because [we] are an inverted world…. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion… Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.”

In short, religion is the attempt to express what is currently inexpressible - the desire for the end of real suffering - so is inevitably driven towards mystical forms of expression. People are fond of telling you communism is just heaven re-labelled. But that actually works much better the other way around.

Marx was not a guru or a prophet. He said so himself many times over. The point isn’t that he can always be relied on to be right. No-one in their right mind would take a hundred-and-fifty year old document as a blueprint for action today, as if it could just be implemented unamended. Particularly one which says itself it shouldn’t be taken for such a thing. The point is that, at an absolute minimum, you can’t deal with what Marx said without looking at what Marx said. And far too many don’t do that, including – most egregiously of all – many of his supposed disciples.

Honestly, just read a bit of Marx. It’s the guy’s birthday, FFS!

Saturday, 28 April 2018

GOMEZ/ TV SMITH (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

GOMEZ
Brighton Dome, Tues 24th April



Roughly two and a half years after I last saw Gomez, they’re back. This time playing their first album, 1998’s ’Bring it On’. An album whose release is further proof that no-one should ever listen to me. If I’d been told beforehand that a bunch of white, middle class kids from Southport were going to make rootsy Americana I’d definitely have told them to put a halt to it. And when it came out lyrics about “Tijuana Ladies” meeting “mariachi desperadoes” slipped into trips to Manchester to play football, like this was a disguise which wouldn’t stay on.

Which is perhaps a widening problem. Too much music so self-consciously apes a style, it sounds like it’s being played through those white gloves they use on the TV to hold priceless relics. Which doesn’t keep that music alive, just undead. And that approach extended from folk and roots to all music’s branches, like some inexorable disease.

And yet in Gomez’s case the result is such a great album I could put aside my normal dislike of gigs which run through records in track order. Perhaps, with three songwriters in the band, it never sounds particularly restrictive – it’s not an album which sounds like one album. As Alexis Petridis said in the Guardian: “The music flits about, as if trying to cram the band members’ entire record collections into a single album: grinding guitar noise, primitive drum machines, psych-y vocal interludes, blues riffs, shambling funk rhythms.”

And perhaps genuinely timeless music simply reprises easily. The band sing themselves at one point “Why do you keep running around like that/ Sit back 'cause this is gonna take a while? There's no shame in going out of style”.

’Bring it On’ went on to win the Mercury prize, and seems to be one of those albums which cemented itself into the popular consciousness. Which may mean, at least in terms of public interest, the band peaked at the very start. Not only are they playing a bigger venue than last time, this and most subsequent gigs of the tour are sold out. And in fact when I go home and check my CDs, the three Gomez albums I possess are the first three. I guess that’s proof of the pudding.

Not a recent gig but the album’s opener…



TV SMITH
The Hope + Ruin, Brighton, Sat 21st April



Frontman of the Adverts, and later the Explorers, punk stalwart TV Smith has in recent years taken to playing solo gigs armed only with an acoustic guitar. 

Which would be fine, there’s no need to treat punk as a fixed style. Nor does everything played acoustically need to sound like Nick Drake. However, he’s still writing strident, anthemic punk songs as if he just happened to forget the band and amplification, and decided to go ahead anyway. It’s true the change has come about through necessity, he’s openly said he simply wasn’t earning enough to feed a whole band. But then necessity is often the mother of invention. By, you know, necessity.

All of which is compounded by his continuing adherence to punk dress, and mildly bizarre insistence on continuing to strike rock guitar poses. Truth be told, when I saw him some years ago with the (briefly reunited) Adverts it worked a whole lot better.

From York…


Coming soon! An anniversary...

Saturday, 21 April 2018

THURSTON MOORE: 'GALAXIES 12X12'/ THE MEKONS 77 (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

THURSTON MOORE: ‘GALAXIES 12×12’
The Barbican, London, Sat 14th April



After seeing the Thurston Moore Group in Hove last year, I was most taken by the longer, slower, self-weaving pieces. Not least because they took things the furthest from the Sonic Youth days. (Who were great, of course. But all the more reason not to want their blundering zombie corpse.) But mostly because, as I put it at the time, they were “expanding beyond the usual range of guitar rock.” And in fact, listening to the ’Rock ‘n’ Roll Consciousness’ album, I’ve found it’s the longest track, the extendedopeningof’Exalted’ which is the most memorable.

And this gig in many ways picks up from there, ditching the group format altogether for a line-up of twelve twelve-string guitars. For the first half, titled ’Earth’, they playedacoustically.The accompanying film-show mostly featured abiogenesis (shooting, sprouting, blooming and the like), but the appeal of the music was that it wasn’t linear in the same fashion. With’Exalted’there’s an inevitability that it willbuild up into something, the guitars willget louder, the vocals willkick in.

Here, things could take their own course, with less emphasis on an overall structure and more on each passing moment. With just one instrument, albeit multiplied by twelve, sonic range was limited. And changes happened slowly, often passing across players like fronts in aweather system. (Changes communicated by numbers from a held-up notepad, suggesting a modular system of composition.) Which meant you needed to listen more closely than at a rock gig. But once you got there it was mesmerising.

’Sky’, was for a similar number of electric guitars. But anyone expecting the sight of jack plugs and amps meant a return for more familiar territory would have been confounded. It had one of the most “have they started yet” starts I’ve experienced in some while. I think they started at… you know, the start but suffice to say it took its own time to build up.

For the first half of the piece not a chord was played as strings were plucked by multiple fingers, struck with sticks, scraped and screwdrivered. It produced the most ethereal of sounds, where sight unseen whole sequences would never have seemed the work of guitars.

It then slowly built up into a melodic pattern something like pealing bells, before some of your actual guitar riffing finally emerged. As this grew more and more powerful I assumed this time things would end on a crescendo. But instead, in time-honoured fashion, twelve guitars were turned against twelve amps. Rather than the squalls of feedback, this produced a rather aum-like hum. From there the piece took a palindromic structure, passing through an abbreviated form of the earlier sections before diminishing to nothing.

Which is, I think, significant. Despite what the title might suggest, itwasn’t really about blasting off. It more took life in the weightless expanse of space, getting drawn into a gravitational field but then floating free of it.

Moore’s far-out comments in the programme first seemed a bit hippy-dippy, yet in retrospect they seemed almost earned. While the two pieces hit my senses as something fresh and new, at the same time theyseemed on a trajectory that made sense to me. It’s not the Eighties any more, and we don’t need to stay stuck in them. My musical tastes have widened over the years, and the rock track no longer has primacy. So the people I was listening to in the Eighties, particularly those who were even them pushing against the limits of the rock track, why shouldn’t they be moving forwards in the same way?

Theseclipsmay not stay up for long, knowing the Barbican…



THE MEKONS 77
Con Club, Lewes, Thurs 12th April


The Mekons had the short and volatile history you’d expect from a punk band formed in 1977. Their first single was rejected for distribution by Rough Trade, haven of the DIY sound, for sounding too DIY. Until the NME made it Single of the Week, and the decision was soon reversed. They then signed to Virgin records, from where they were unceremoniously dropped after one album. But now, as we’ve come to expect from this sort of thing, they’re back.

Except nothing is so straightforward here. The band actually reformed in ‘84, originally as a means to perform benefits for the striking Miners. But a move to America heralded a new rootsy sound, claimed by some to have invented alternative country. And they’ve been going ever since, with me seeing them in London last year. So the original Mekons have become a second head, hence that ‘77’ suffix.

The difference in the sounds is accentuated by that London gig being an acoustic performance in a Church, and by for this gig band member Jon Langford supporting with the Four Lost Souls – who are in sound the New Mekons in a more stripped-down format. Alas for some perverse reason they played support to the support band, so I missed the start of their set. Still, I did hear the one about the Gospel star staging a comeback despite death.

And the difference was accentuated again by only two members being common to old and new versions, Langford and Tom Greenhalgh. And Langford then abandoned his pole position for the drum stool, for all but one number. Many rivers have been crossed since 1977, and the two lead singers now bear a striking resemblance to Morecambe and Wise. To the point where I wondered if one would do an encore without telling the other.

Which actually became kind of fitting. If they were a political band, with the opening number only semi-jokingly introduced as a Marxist critique of economics, they were also possessed of an absurdist sense of humour. Songs can be about fighting the cuts one minute (still relevant, as they ruefully point out) and Dan Dare in space the next.

Musically things ranged from three-chord jabs to longer, darker, more expressionist pieces. It’s similar to the way old hippie bands such as Gong would alternate between short, sharp numbers and spacey jams, the variation accentuating the unique taste of each. Not au fait with the early Mekons I don’t know if the longer numbers came slightly later, or are even still to come. (Some tracks are recently written, and a Mekons 77 album is “anticipated”.)

Both Leeds-based bands, back in the day the Mekons were fellow travellers with Gang of Four. And if they sound quiet different they have a similar advantage. In retrospect the problem with punk wasn’t so much the often cartoony politics as the way the insurrectionary rhetoric soon became kind of reassuring. (People gonna rise up? I’ll watch out for that.) It was a problem which started with the Clash, and reached it’s risible nadir with the likes of Conflict. Whereas the Mekons were always simply too awkward for that.

As the Four Lost Souls stopped to tune their two guitars, one of the singers commented she preferred music which allowed her to go “left of tune”. Later, the assembled Mekons echoed the sentiment, figuring a left-of-tune sound went with left politics. Amen to that.

Their second single,’Where Were You?’...

Friday, 13 April 2018

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY FINDS YET MORE GRAFFITI BY BRIGHTON STATION...

...though, as said last time, this may be the last load for this location. (However, more graffiti pics from other parts of Brighton to come.) As ever, full set over on 500px....






Saturday, 7 April 2018

CHRIS WATSON/ A CERTAIN RATIO/ SUN RA ARKESTRA (GIG GOING ADVENTURES)

CHRIS WATSON’S ‘NO MAN’S LAND’
Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Falmer, Brighton, Thurs 29th March



Onetime member of acerbic electronica post-punks Cabaret Voltaire, Chris Watson has embarked on a solo career you could never have predicted but still seems entirely fitting. He captures the sounds for David Attenborough and other nature docs, while releasing his field recordings in his own right. (If anyone from Kajagoogoo is now doing something so cool, I wait to be told about it.) He’s now providing a “spatialised audio journey of the imagination”, where you hear one of his sound art creations in sensurround. (And still on until Sunday the 8th!)

Sight seems very much the dominants sense in our culture, we casually use phrases such as “I see what you mean”. Sound is very often reduced to signifiers – car horns, alarms, you’ve got mail – the merely incidental or even the intrusive. The sound of the town gets treated as just noise pollution, which means we conceive of nature as effective silence, the “peace and quiet” of the countryside.

But consign sound to the edge and it becomes associated with that edge, with the liminal and uncanny. Soundtracks become more significant for horror or science fiction flicks than any other kind of film, more necessary for the atmosphere they’re evoking. Cabaret Voltaire, I’m afraid, are another subject I know little of. But what I’ve heard doesn't depart from post-punk’s Dadaism, a wrench thrown in the mechanism of music. Whereas his field recordings are more similar to Surrealism, which treated art as a springboard for a voyage of personal discovery. Surrealists were always collecting found objects, such as strangely shaped pebbles, for that reason.

The event’s title effectively references all that. As we sat or lay in the centre of a near-dark room surrounded by speakers, it became almost like that scene in jungle films, where the white expeditionary force sit around the campfire, hearing the strange cries all around them.

Smartly, Watson starts his sound journey on Brighton beach, where it’s easy enough to attach images to the sounds (I can never feel too far from home if I can hear a seagull.) But he soon dispenses with those handy tags and departs for shores unknown. The blurb explains the journey “takes the listener from the edge of Brighton’s beach and out with the ebbing tide… on a trackless voyage around the planet from the ocean floor.” Which I’d read but happily then forgotten, so discovered in real time that this trip would be taking us beneath the waves.

Someone watching our reaction, with most people sprawled out on the floor, might have thought this was no more than a bliss-out exercise, a sonic massage. But it actuality illustrated the distinction between atmospheric and evocative. Even though I knew Watson’s only contribution to the sounds was to edit them, it was impossible not to hear what happened as a composition. While, much as you listen to music more closely when the words are taken away, there in the dark you listened to the strange sounds quite intently indeed. (And in their own right. A sign on the wall chronologically listed the sources, but I think most attendees didn’t consult it until afterwards.)

I’d watched a section of a filmed conversation between Watson and Attenborough before the show, and by chance they’d talked about the effect of sound on the pre-born. And aquatic sounds similarly seem to trigger some buried memory of womb states, with the sounds you hear simultaneously entirely unfamiliar and comforting.

Music… sound art, whichever you prefer to call it… always seems at its most effective when it doesn’t just change the way you hear music but they way you hear the world around you. And waiting before the bus home by the busy A23, I realised I was hearing the whirr of each passing car as a phased note in some industrial symphony. Once you’re tuned in, it takes a lot longer to tune out...

Watson interviewed by the irrepressible Graham Duff on Totally Radio here.

From an earlier, different version of ’No Man’s Land’...



A CERTAIN RATIO
The Haunt, Brighton, Sun 25th March




Alas, fate may have pinned A Certain Ratio to the mast of a misjudged but brief fashion statement. In the (unashamedly mythologised) history of the Factory records scene, ’24 Hour Party People’, their only appearance is in order for them to sport some khaki shorts on stage. Notably, they’re not in such attire today.

Let’s jump to the first encore track. A slow, sparse keyboard motif launched the number, which was then not replaced by but combined with a frenetic, pummelling groove. Notably, the main singer has the same dry, intonatory tones of New Order’s Bernie Sumner. While the second main singer (well, she’s more than a backing vocalist) emits rich, soulful tones. And when the band are working is when they manage to make those two things interlock.

Which may sound like a euphemistic way of saying we’re dealing with a mixed-race band. Something which surely shouldn’t be worthy of comment in this day and age. But there is more to it than that. Formed back in ‘77, ACR are generally thought of as part of the post-punk scene. A feature of which was white folks being influenced by contemporary black music in ways which wasn’t merely imitative, after seeing earlier imitations which had ended up as watered down and second rate.

Hence we have a white-boy, suit-and-tie take on funk, dubbed “funk noir” by Simon Reynolds. It’s restrained to the point of being clipped. The band’s name even comes from a Brian Eno lyric. The clarinetist, for example, plays not at all for much of the time. And when he does play he doesn’t play much, the briefest snatches, like he’s constantly thinking where and when to make his mark. But this white-boy funk, soon as invented, is recombined with the get-down world of black funk, cool colliding with cold. If it was a foodstuff it would be a sweet’n’sour.

But often the two don’t align so much as merge, and then they get along together too well. Which ends up as... well, a funk band. A very good funk band, admittedly, but one which hints at so much more. There’s no let up in quality to speak of, but there is one in originality.

It might seem a peculiarity of music history that ACR were one of the most prescient of post-punk bands, yet not one of the best remembered. (The Haunt’s packed out, but confined to us oldsters.) They were channelling a black American influence before New Order, despite both being Factory acts. They were serving up dance music via a band format some way before the Happy Mondays. Yet while I’ve quoted Simon Reynolds’ post-punk account ’Rip It Up And Start Again’ up above, he only really mentions them in passing.

But the answer may lie less in the ill-judged shorts than in a rephrasing of the question. The point of post-punk was to be awkward, to resist categorisation, to repel pigeon-holing, to become nail that couldn’t be hammered flat into the face of musical history. There remains to this day something inscrutable about the Fall and Joy Division, which makes them endlessly fascinating. Whereas ACR worked too well, too neatly.

Or perhaps the problem’s time. I’m woefully ignorant of the band’s history, but the thought occurs they may have sorted themselves into more of a regular funk band as time went on, their edge progressively blunted. Perhaps significantly, their first release, ’The Graveyard and the Ballroom’ was divided into ’Graveyard’ and ’Ballroom’ sides, yin opposing yang yet becoming it. Those more knowledgeable than me are welcome to comment...

Not from Brighton, despite the date YouTube gives it…


SUN RA ARKESTRA
Con Club, Lewes, Sun 1st April



Almost a year after last landing in Lewes, 
the longstanding space jazz ensemble return, still honouring the memory of their now departed main main.

“If we came from nowhere here, why can’t go somewhere there?” runs one of their manta-like lyrics. And over the course of a nigh-on two-and-a-half hour set, they take in nowhere here (somewhat standard loungey jazz), somewhere there (places you’d neither been nor knew existed), all points between and – perhaps most bizarrely – both at once. It frequently felt like attending a cocktail party on Mars.

Not only that, but the whole gig seems programmed on shuffle, leaving you with no idea what would happen next, or where you’d find it on the scale between banal and sublime. There were sections I essentially took as the intermission between the features. But at other points I even found myself adapting to relay soloing, something I normally find anathema.

It’s actually less maddening than that description might make it seem, not least because of the ensemble’s cheery assurance that there’s a method somewhere in all their madness. As said last time “it's not chin-stroking music to chew on, it's joyous, exuberant and energising. If it doesn't quite teleport you to Saturn you can almost feel your feet lifting from the ground.” Band leader Marshall Allan, despite now being in his Nineties, really does lead, directing the ensemble and joining in himself. In their brightly coloured costumes, they even come across like some cosmic form of showbiz. Ensemble members leap into the audience from time to time, still playing, encouraging us to sing along.

In fact so strangely random was the set that with the two stand-out tracks, each came not as an opener or finale but at the mid-point in each of the two sets. One sung of angels and demons, and I would be hard pressed to describe it now. While the other was their anthem, ’Space Is the Place’. Except entirely different. 

In today’s bids for pseuds’ corner, imagine the recorded version as like being in the midst of sub-atomic particles, fragments ceaselessly turning and orbiting one another, according to some system clearly operating yet whose workings were inscrutable to you. While this version was based on a pulse. Over which the brass would at times line up and blast in unison, like birds along a telephone wire, and at others fly off in flurries.



Coming soon! Gig-going adventures will come again...

Friday, 30 March 2018

‘THE ENCHANTED ROOM’

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London



Absolutely uninteresting preamble: The subtitle for this exhibition was “modern works from the Pinacoteca di Brera”, referring to highlights on loan from a collection in Milan – their first showing abroad. While the Estorick’s permanent collection celebrates its twentieth anniversary. As these two collections to all intents and purposes focus on the same thing, early Twentieth Century Italian Modernist art, and because I saw both on the same day, I’ve bundled both into this review. (I did say it was uninteresting...)

The World Put Into Motion
“There can be no modern painting without the starting point of an absolutely modern sensation and no one can contradict us when we state that painting and sensation are two inseparable words.”
- From The First Futurist Exhibition, 1912



Value for money, this show bundles together two self-portraits by the Italian Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni. One, abandoned, was recently discovered on the back of the other. It’s a fairly conventional view of an artist, holding his brushes out prominently, art strategically placed on the wall behind him. Yet in the version he rejected it for (1908, above), though he’s still clutching a palette board it’s pushed to the edge of the frame. In fact it’s only half a self-portrait, the other part being taken up by the view behind him. So why reject one for the other, more of a self-portrait for less of one? Artists are usually egocentric creatures, aren’t they?

The show uses the phrase ‘simultaneous view’ many times, and this sets us up for them with a double view. As those narrowed eyes scrutinise so intently Boccioni’s not looking out at us but the same view we see, the thing he will paint. The guidebook confirms this stretching view was not just over suburban Milan but was literally his view, from the terrace of his home. He’d not taken a day-trip out to see some nature, easel under arm – he’d painted his own world. This isn’t just the artist and the view, but the artist as himself part of the view. With it’s broad spaces it may not look urban to us today, but at the time there would have seemed a great many impossibly tall buildings. A better title than ’Self Portrait’ would have been ’Artist and Muse’.

If there are a number of good things to say about this show, it does at times fall into the trap of framing Modernism in terms of a lineage. Yet, not least in the quote above, the Futurists always stated the inspiration for their art was the new world of architecture and machines. And that they found this new world not alienating but invigorating, both literally and metaphorically electrifying, so wanted to create art which both reflected and matched it. Why not take them at their word?

And the key word in the quote up top is “sensation”. The Futurists weren’t just keen on changing the subject matter of art, from haywains to housing blocks, they were insistent this brave new world has irrevocably altered our perceptions. Take for example Giacomo Balla’s ‘The Hand of the Violinist’ (1912, from the permanent collection). As the title suggests it evokes not an engine but the fast-flowing hands of a violinist at work. 

Now of course violinist’s hands have always moved. Or at least the ones who didn’t tended to have less successful careers. But even if you went to the same old concert hall to hear the same classical pieces as played in yesteryear, your journey there would inevitably pass through different streets and they would colour the experience you had.

Yet at the same time this early work gives the game away by being so Post-Impressionist in style. (The favoured phrase in Italy at the time seems to have been ‘Divisionism’, referring to how short flecks of paint combined not on the canvas but in the viewer’s eye. Though how that’s supposed to differ from the Post-Impressionist term Pointillist isn’t clear.) Even assuming my theory of the double view is correct, unlike later there is nothing in the work to insist on this. It can be read as coherent pictorial space. In fact as that’s the way we’ve all learnt to read paintings, at least initially that’s the way we see it.

Early masters of spin and polemic, the Futurists often sought to conceal such debts. In the text quoted above they insisted “we repudiate Impressionism” because “they obstinately continue to paint objects motionless, frozen, and all the static aspects of Nature”. Which indulges the popular stereotype of the Impressionists as daubers of twee and bucolic little scenes, in contravention of anything they were actually doing. A more accurate statement comes slightly later, as if buried in the small print: “It is only possible to react against Impressionism by surpassing it.” (British Vorticism, despite being only a few years younger, had little to no Impressionist influence. Part of that may have been their feeling the surpassing had already been achieved.)



And Carra’s ‘Leaving The Theatre’ (1910) can be seen as this surpassing in literal motion. It’s subject matter, given away in the title, could be Impressionist. Yet Carra has taken those lively brush strokes, that flickering colour scheme, that disinterest in tight delineation and ran with it. It’s not just that so little can be discerned from those scurrying figures. It’s that they’re not moving against a static background, for the painting suggests all is in motion - even the street itself.

Impressionist paintings can still be used as period documentation, as records of the topography of their setting, of people’s clothing and so on. Carra discards all of that as baggage. He’s not going out on some aesthetic limb to prove some abstruse point, as in the caricature of Modernism, he’s going further and deeper into what painting can do. However great Boccioni’s self-portrait is, and I’d insist it is great, Carra has done something greater by going beyond.

And if the street itself seems to be in motion, a flow of energy the way a river is a flow of water, that’s an image the First Futurist Manifesto put into words: “Suddenly we jumped, hearing the mighty noise of the huge double-decker trams that rumbled by outside, ablaze with coloured lights, like villages on holiday suddenly struck and uprooted by the flooding Po and dragged over falls and through gorges to the sea.” It later makes its infamous threat to divert the rivers to flood away the museums. “Lines of force” soon became a common Futurist phrase.

So, despite its furious insistence on breaking with the past, the work is also an example of the Romantic notion of the Industrial sublime, which goes back at least to Turner. The City confronts us not as something of our making but as something from without, while at the same time charging us like particles caught in its orbit.



The City… Impressionism… there’s one great influence on Futurism to come. ‘Simultaneous views’ was our clue, and Gino Severini’s ‘The Boulevard’ (1910/11, perm. coll., above) our example. While Carra thrusts you onto the streets, Severini gives you an elevated, extended perspective. (Despite the title, it’s a panorama.) If Carra was upping the ante on Post-Impressionism until he burst out of it, Severini looks as if a Bruegel has been shown through some distorting, kaleidoscope lens. 

And the fracturing gives you the sense of the jumbled ‘busyness’ of the city streets, a myriad of events happening all at once, a riot clamouring at your senses. If Carra’s figures are blurs, his are ciphers. Perhaps they’re a crowd, perhaps the same few figures caught in various points of their scurrying journeys, perhaps a mixture of these.

Of course the influence here is Cubism. An influence we can pretty much pin it to a month. In November 1911 Ardengo Soffici, already resident in Paris, invited Boccioni and Carra (plus Russolo) over to check out this latest trend. If they absorbed its influence almost overnight, it’s been suggested the self-styled avant garde were most keen not to look left behind when they presented their own forthcoming Paris show. Certainly many works of this period are directly imitative of Cubism. These include Soffici’s ‘Deconstruction of the Planes of a Lamp’ (1912/13) and Carra’s own 1913 drawing ‘Boxer’.



Carra’s ‘The Rhythms of Objects’ (1911, above), though from the same year as ’The Boulevard’ shows the mid-point in a transition which Severini completes. This is less a single or finite number of forms fractured into pieces, and more a collage of elements. Cubist works tended to be monochrome, a colour scheme Carra partly sticks to, yet he is already adding brighter hues – aqua blues and vivid greens.

If Cubism’s brought in last here, that’s the way it worked chronologically. But, and in some accounts almost immediately, the two movements became confused in the popular mind. Futurism was taken to be merely Cubism pronounced in Italian. Even today, it takes a little effort to prise the two apart. First, they differed significantly in tone and approach. Cubism was at the time effectively art for artists, an experimental fringe little seen and still less understood by the public. The Cubists has been quietly at work since 1907 and while a 1911 exhibition caused something of a furore they did not overly court controversy. Their colour schemes were calm and sober, their titles flatly descriptive.

While Futurism roared it’s self-publicising pronouncements, staged events little more than stunts, and in every way clamoured for public attention. It was no surprise the younger brother, crying so much louder, got the most notice. (The situation was then further entangled by the synthesis movement Cubo-Futurism.)

To generalise, Cubism made a maze out of what should have been solid, discernible objects. It fractured it’s images right across the frame, rejecting any suggestion of perspective. They’re almost always interiors and often still lives, reducing the requirement for the stuff through bypassing setting. The chief interest was in devising different ways of representing space, and the resulting works are cool and contemplative.

Whereas after the Tate’s Futurism show, I referred to their works as 
“diagrams of time designed to convey the motion itself”. The resulting works are dynamic, to the point of explosive. Severini later wrote in his autobiography: "I recall an extraordinary feeling of dynamism in that year [1910]. There was a frenzied desire for freedom in the air, an inexpressible appetite for innovation and adventure... Anything was possible."


The Collage Aesthetic
“In the city the visual expressions succeed each other, overlap, overcross, they are cinematographic”
- Ezra Pound

I also said in that earlier piece “Cubism’s subject matter for the most part remained traditional still lives, Futurism always turns to action scenes.” I like to think I’m big enough to admit it when I’m wrong.



It’s arguable that the still life, in placing together objects in order for them to be painted, is already a latent form of collage. True, you could spill a lot of ink arguing whether Cubism could be considered a form of collage. But arguably by presenting several different views of an object at once it collaged it’s subject with itself. And the slightly later Synthetic Cubism (1912/14), where physical materials such as newspaper were pasted straight on the canvas, was all about collage. But collage is what Futurism took from it. See for example Soffici’s ’Watermelon and Liqueurs’ (1914, above), which not only combines painting and collage, but blurs the distinction between the two. Collage elements are added but objects – such as the knife – are added as discrete elements rather than set in a scene.



And Severini’s ’Le Nord-Sud’ (1912, above) shows this influence manifest in a fully Futurist work. Like a cocktail drug, the Cubist motif of laying fragmentary texts across the canvas is combined with Futurism’s dizzying dynamism. To quote Anna Souter from The Upcoming: 
“Our vantage point seems to be both on the platform and within the metro train itself: our perspective is warped and flattened, signs call out at us from every direction, and light and shadows form rhythmic ripples that push us off in opposing directions.”

And to quote Norbert Lynton from ’The Story of Modern Art’: “Experience had to be represented as multiplicity and fragmentation. This would demand overlapping and transparent representation, a mingling of near, far, moving, stationary, seen and recollected.” It’s not enough to show a frozen moment from a Metro ride, because Metro rides aren’t frozen moments. The Metro signs, the views through the window, the people inside the carriages must be laid atop one another. Look for example at the way the curve which starts to rise under the Metro sign twists round across the rest of the work.

But the key quote is from Pound at the top of this section. We encounter the City like a collage, an ever-shifting combination of elements. The City is itself a show, swirling around us, and we take our seats like spectators. But also, while the figures may be more recognisable than in a fully Cubist work, they are not looking out on with the view they see (as Boccioni was in his self-portrait) but essentially mingling with it. They’ve become city dwellers.



Alas, the effects of this cocktail drug would not last long. Severini’s ‘Large Still Life With Pumpkin’ (above) is from 1917, only five years later, but there's a big gap between that watermelon and this pumpkin. Rather than combining the two it lacks the radicalism of either Futurism or Cubism. The objects are caught within a series of overlapping multicoloured frames. They’re often delineated differently within each, the pumpkin alternated between the textures of it’s skin and a solid block of grey-blue. 

But the through lines are there to see, the effect as if still lives in several different but recognisable styles had been combined. The show refers to this as “the deconstruction of images theorised by Braque and Picasso interpreted in an essentially decorative manner.” In other words, Cubism lite.

It’s most commonly said that the shock of the First World War left Futurism’s hymns to the machine age stuck in their once-full throats. And there’s no doubt some truth to that. But here Severini’s essentially trying to sing the old songs, but only managing an emaciated parody version of them. 


The story of urbanism had a long way to go. But perhaps an art movement which laid so much stress on shock value was never going to give itself a shelf life. With the First Manifesto, they’d insisted on such a thing from the beginning: “The oldest of us is thirty: so we have at least a decade for finishing our work. When we are forty, other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts—we want it to happen!” As it happened, the decade was an over-estimate.

The Enigma of the Everyday
“There is nothing more surreal, more abstract than reality.”
- Morandi



But not everyone ended up slung in that skip. In those heady days Modernist movements could be short-lived, but could just as rapidly succeed one another. By the time of the First World War Carra had already abandoned Futurism, and in 1917 he took up the Metaphysical style of Giorgio de Chirico. Delightfully befitting each movement, Carra had sought out Cubism on that trip to Paris but met De Chirico quite by chance, when military service stationed them together. Equally befittingly, the collection only has a small selection of de Chiricos so he becomes a haunting presence even in a show largely dedicated to Metaphysical art.

The show groups three of Carra’s 1917 works together. ’The Enchanted Room’ makes for a good show title, but isn’t the best example and notably it’s ‘The Metaphysical Muse’ (above) which makes it onto the poster. (The third is ’Mother and Son’.)

Rarely for a Modernist movement, Metaphysical art was all about painting. (Futurism had been characteristically multi-disciplinary.) And if we’re insistent on Modernism only as a series of formal innovations arranged in a lineage, this marks nothing but retreat. Possibly more so than Severini’s pumpkins. Things are back to being there, in front of us, in recognisable pictorial space. There’s no struggle to make them out, no perplexing questions as to why they’ve been painted this way. Art has become straightforward again.

Or is that just the sheep’s clothing? To quote Anna Souter again, these works depict “rooms filled with objects that initially appear ordinary, but which are imbued with intense emotional power.” If they have an unsettling effect that’s partly because it’s not even clear how they come to be so unsettling, as if they’re possessed of an unknowable and barely discernible power. These are the numinous, charged objects we encounter in dreams. (Or at least the type of dream which cinema later went in for depicting.)

An effect enhanced by subliminal visual tricks. The racket of the main figure maps to the folds in her skirt, as this is a cheap child’s toy cast from a mould, yet she’s human height. The two framed objects are a map and another painting, yet the second continues the tapering lines of the floorboards. The geometric cone and the folded skirt also echo this motif, the same time as they disrupt it. The colour scheme is monochrome, yet the map and cone are bright. Your eye finds multiple points of comparison and contrast between the figures, suggesting there must be some rhyme or reason to this you haven’t quite got yet. (Pointing out this stuff is a little like giving away a magic trick.)

The show uses an analogy of mind maps, as if these objects clustered in rooms are spatial metaphors for the thoughts in our heads. Yet if all three works are of enclosed spaces, Carra places a doorway in each back wall, with ’Metaphysical Muse’ adding a second. In fact I suspect Carra included a back wall precisely in order to place a doorway in it. (This fascination for holes and apertures became one of the many things later picked up by Surrealism.)

And each work has those tapering floorboard lines, which evoke space as much as presence. (In the example above, also reflected in the ceiling.) Norbert Lynton referred to “a combination of empty space and oppressively clustered objects,” which give the works their effect. While De Chirico himself often used all these elements in exteriors, such as ‘The Disquieting Muses’ (1916/18). None of this seems to fit the analogy.

And in fact, to reduce the objects in the works to thoughts or even unconscious impulses is too familiarising, robbing Metaphysical painting of its metaphysics. It seems to me vital that they retain their own identity. All three works feature mannequins, with two naming themselves after them. The tennis player is even described as a Muse, creatures regarded as apparitions, visitors from the spirit world. But represented here by a mere physical object.

“Unsettling” is a frequently reached-for word with this style, I’ve used it myself already. And much of that effect comes from the way the works look literally, if strangely, unsettled. The stillness of a still life is surely inherent, something to take for granted, heralded in the name. After all, these are solidified representations in paint of objects that couldn’t have moved in the first place.

Yet with these still lives there’s always the hint of motion, the suggestion of sentience, as if these objects are playing a sinister game of statues in a refusal to surrender their mysteries. If some of the objects look like toys there’s the ’Toy Story’ conceit that all they require to become real is for us to stop looking at them. See for example the later ’Engineer’s Mistress’ (1921, below), whose eye we might catch peeping out at us at any moment.



Sarane Alexandrian calls de Chirico “the painter of silences. He describes the moment of waiting, where everything holds its breath and is transfixed before the arrival of some portent or some apparition. His universe stands on the threshold of the event. It’s calm and harmonious lines conceal the alarm and curiosity aroused by what is to come.” (‘Surrealism’,, Thames & Hudson) And he evokes a similar sense of anticipation over sound, the suspended moment where an object seemingly hangs in the air before it comes crashing to the floor. There’s a literal element to his titling a work ’The Disquieting Muse’.

In short, these works are better approached in terms of the atmosphere they evoke than the symbols they employ. They work by channel the child’s fundamental incomprehension of the world. Not only are objects inscrutably strange, they’re not even necessarily objects. Children can ascribe an animist sense to things, where that ball that rolls before them quite possibly contains a rolling spirit. As we get older this innate metaphysics is lost, beaten down into flat physics.

But these works give us that sense back, an incomprehension which makes the world simultaneously wondrous and menacing, with each of those reactions not possible without the other. De Chirico said “a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken it will enter the regions of childhood vision and dream."

Which marks both Metaphysical art’s influence on Surrealism and the point they differed. At its least inspired, Surrealism was merely a code you could crack using Freud as a cypher book. (Leading, ironically, to Freud himself delivering their biggest put-down: “it’s their consciousness which interests me”.) Whereas Metaphysical painting remains tantalisingly incomprehensible. The influence is quite analogous to Cubism on Futurism, that of the quieter elder sibling.. Metaphysical art doesn’t shock your senses, but quietly undermines your sureties. In fact Surrealism’s violent eyeball assaults seem much more an inheritance from Futurism.

...which may seem like a long step away from Futurism. Which after all included in it’s manifesto the proud boast “Mythology and the Mystic Ideal are defeated at last.” But the distance may not be as broad as it seems. As said, Futurism had a basis in still lives. And it was not concerned with capturing sights so much as sensations, subjective responses. The difference is that in Futurism the lines of energy are overt, in Metaphysical painting implicit. But that just makes the difference significant. The Futurists were full of bold proclamations and promises, the very notion of which Metaphysical art undermines. This show’s appeal comes not just from grouping together two striking art movements, but demonstrating the transition between them.



Like Carra, Mario Sironi had travelled from Divisionism to Futurism to an apparent reacquaintance with real things. ‘Urban Landscape With Chimney’ (1930, above) takes place in a pictorial space that’s not only viable but integral - it could have been painted from life. There’s none of de Chirico's Mediterranean arches and boulevards, or his extended perspectives filled with a strange accumulation of figures and objects. In it’s monochrome glumness, it’s almost realist.

Yet the puff of smoke as a sign of distant activity was also a motif of his, for example in ’The Uncertainty of the Poet’ (1913). And your subjective reaction to the work is almost identical, falling into the interchange between enticingly mysterious and menacing. As you look at an environment built around motion but currently under a deathly stillness that classic movie line comes back to you: “sure is quiet, maybe too quiet”.

Its effect also comes from its style. When we think of depictions of the city our minds often run to bright, bold, clean colours, as in Charles Green Shaw and Aaron Douglas’ art featured in the Academy’s recent ‘America After the Fall’ show. Sironi is not at all sophisticated but naive, the paint roughly slapped on. The effect is as if the artist is gazing upon something he’s unfamiliar with, like a cave painting of an internal combustion engine. And his task is to pass that unfamiliarity on to us.



Giorgio Morandi’s dalliance with Futurism was only brief. But he took us closer still to the objective reality of this world only to highlight our distance from it. His ‘Still Life’ (1929, above) is best described by Lamberto Vitali’s phrase, passed on by the show, “populated not by things but by the ghosts of things”. In most still lives objects have been combined, arranged, like characters in a diorama. Here we don’t see a teapot, a bottle and a plate - we look straight to that spectralness. What appears before us is… well, some kind of apparition. The juxtaposition still exists, it’s just that rather than arising between the objects it lies between them and us. It’s as if worlds exist only on the periphery of our perception.



Zoran Music’s ‘Horses And Landscape’ (1951, perm. coll, above) uses a similarly restricted colour range for a similarly enigmatic effect. Horses and riders, with their backs to us, return to a landscape they’ve barely emerged from in the first place. That low colour range abets their escape. It’s as if they’re a foreign tribe whose customs we can’t know, whose language we can’t speak, who shrug off our enquiries with uninterest.

There’s art which is about expanding our knowledge or awareness, and there’s art which is more concerned with convincing us we know less of the world around us than we thought we did. Both Morandi and Music are definitely in the latter camp. What seems art’s most fundamental promise, to delineate, to show things, is made problematic. 

De Chirico, Carra and Sironi pay it lip service, only to undermine it. Morandi and Music quietly but calmly dismiss it. They’re almost anti-paintings, a record of a failed attempt to capture something. It was difficult to find a true image for Music’s painting on-line, as many had clearly taken to photo editing in order to ‘fix’ it. A small incident which may say much about the bold certainties of our times, and how much they mirror the pre-Great War era.

Coming soon! I’m still behind in these visual arts posts, but somehow just found myself writing this one and so it jumped the queue. Back to the behind-the-times stuff shortly. I am also working on some wholly new things, which further delays the backlog. No, I wouldn’t believe me either, but actually it’s true...