Saturday 25 May 2019


The Old Market, Hove, Thurs 23rd May
Part of the Brighton Festival

This 1923 film was based on Oscar Wilde’s play and styled after Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for it. And, as with other films of its era, its theatrical in a positive way. Not just uninterested in affecting naturalism, it positively revels in artificiality and the opportunities that creates. Notably, the film never leaves Herod’s palace, which is treated as a castle in the sky. (Well, a mountaintop, but it comes to the same thing.)

Particularly with its close-ups, film inevitably throws the artificiality into sharper relief than stage. It’s not just that the bizarre wigs and costumes are highlighted (though it’s partly that), it’s the way objects (keys, royal rings) can be enlarged on the screen to the point they become fetishised. And, though described in the Festival guide as a “cornerstone of camp”, it doesn’t have the self-parodying humour of camp. It uses film to stage psychoscapes.

I’ve not read Wilde’s play if I’m honest, but the consensus seems to be his achievement was bending the original Bible story until Salome (previously un-named) emerged as the protagonist. (Herod effectively becomes the lonely businessman emptying his wallet in a lapdancing club.) Interestingly, the actor who played Salome, Alla Nazimova, also produced the film.

Which plays up an interesting tension. Sexuality is here all about dressing up and performance, perhaps most obviously in her dance of the seven veils. Yet in this version her desire for John The Baptist is real. The film takes this as a given. But, with his plain loincloth against all this luxuriousness, this could be taken as her yearning for the real. He’s the one exception to the decadent rule of Herod’s palace, a gender-inverted virtuous maiden who refuses her kisses.

The fact of which is to make the tragedy hers. In seizing on him as a means to escape her world’s addiction to sensory gratification she subjects him to her sensory gratification. In other words, reduces him back into a prisoner of the palace. She’s effectively a prisoner of it herself, even if her cage is more gilded. Title cards were removed from this showing, but one states “She kills the thing she loves; she loves the thing she kills.”

Hayley Fohr of Circuit Des Yeux provides the live soundtrack. The Festival programme played up her baritone vocals, which are rich. But the soundtrack is uneven, and sometimes feels unfocused. At times it’s almost clumsy, transitions in the music not matched by anything on the screen. The electronic sections seemed to be for when the film focused on characters, like personalised mood music, but often felt meandering.

But the circular, sonorous motifs of the violin and double bass provided an earthiness to counterpoint the pie-in-the-sky proceedings. And the instrumentation could be boldly pared down, so each instrument got it’s (in cinema terms) close-up. The drums in particular were held back, then came in with a harsh rattle for the deathly finale, a funereal full stop to proceedings.

Films of this antirealist aesthetic seem most suited to the live soundtrack treatment. As a result, they often get it. And the truth is I’ve heard it all done better. For example Partial Facsimile’s live score for ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ was much more successful, despite arriving without any Festival fanfare. However the weaknesses here could still be worked out. It has the makings of a decent soundtrack, but needs finalising.

None of the soundtrack seems to be on-line, but the film’s public domain so can be seen here.

The Con Club, Lewes, Sat 11th May

Lau-related proceedings so far… After having first seen Martin Green perform his solo project Flit, and then the full folk trio in action in Shoreham last Winter, this was my chance to catch frontman Kris Drever.

The tour was pre-announced with the notice “he will be performing traditional songs and previously unreleased material from one off projects, as well as music from his award winning back catalogue.” And he performed few Lau songs (if, in a welcome unsurprise, finishing with ’Ghosts’), and had only solo CDs on his merch stall.

However, they were similar enough to confirm my working hypothesis that the band start off with Drever’s songs, then subject them to elaborate and inventive arrangements. Certainly Drever’s solo songs seem quite different to Green’s.

He played solo and often quite simply, attaching a capo to his guitar for several numbers. And I found that, as a general rule, the simpler the accompaniment, the less his hands moved on the frets, the better the song seemed to work. Drever’s songwriting seems remarkably akin to his personality, understated yet beguiling and resonant. (Though he had pedals at his feet, so like so often the apparent simplicity may have actually been hard work to convey.)

He keeps his subject matter similarly close, ranging from life on Orkney (where he lived) to life on Shetland (where he lives now), occasionally breaking out as far as Dundee. He joked about “going for the big universal themes”. Yet of course folk is all about finding the universal in the particular. Songs stretch back into ancient history, and up to the present day.

From Cork…


Dome Theatre, Brighton, Sat 18th May
Part of The Brighton Festival

I confess to mildly mixed feelings on Malian singer Rokia Traore becoming guest director of this year’s Brighton Festival. Not because I don’t like African music, I like a lot of what little I know. But because I’m somewhat cynical about the generic applause it generates from the hands of white Western audiences. Applause which simultaneously exoticises black music while awarding yourself politically correct points.

Initially, Traore is one in a chorus of five singers who take turns to sing the lead. Assuming this was the pattern for the proceedings, I figured we were in for a night which was merely okay-ish. I’m somewhat skeptical of the everyone-gets-a-go format, which normally ends up with no-one getting enough time to get a real go.

Traore then spoke of the irony that some of the worst places to hear African music or see African art can be in Africa itself, due to the lack of entertainment infrastructure, and the foundation that had been devised to counter that.

From then on, she sang lead - and the night was much better for it. In fact my personal highlight was the very next number. It was the only song in English, and she seemed to adjust her vocal style to suit the language - a kind of calm, measured anger. Following her talk it seemed concerned with the situation in Africa today, so perhaps coining a new genre - the State of the Continent song.

And my second favourite, ending the main set, was the only choral number. Traore explained it was a “classical’ (presumably traditional), which became a hit record a while ago. The combination of which seems to sum up her attitude to music.

Saturday 18 May 2019


Barbican Gallery, London

”He ate up every image, every word, every bit of data that appeared in front of him and he processed it all into a bebop cubist pop art cartoon gospel that synthesised the whole overload we lived under.”

-Glenn O’Brien

Samo (The Words on the Street)

Most people reading this will know how young New Yorker Jean-Michel Basquiat not only went from graffiti artist to acclaimed painter, but in the shortest of times. Previously unknown, at least to me, is that he began as a graffiti writer.

In 1978, then teamed up with Al Diaz, he started plastering Manhattan with ‘Samo’ graffiti (short for ‘same old shit’, example below). Though described by the show as “poetic”, with its appended copyright sign the pithy phrases are more Dadaist, acerbic nihilist messages served up with playfulness. “Anti-art”, the arch-Dada term was sometimes employed.

Many pieces run variants on the phrases “an alternative” or “an end to”, such as ”an alternative 2 playing art with the radical chic sect on Daddy’s $ funds.” Others, despite being sprayed on public walls, absurdly gave space for a multi-choice response. Samo seems to have ended with their friendship, Basquiat even embarking on a ‘Samo is Dead’ campaign. (Though he kept the name a while longer.)

His breakthrough moment was the 1981 ’New York/New Wave’ show. Designed to capture the downtown scene, it’s been described as “the Armoury Show of the Eighties”. Despite exhibiting with better-known artists, and being the only prominent painter, his work got noticed.

Two notable things about his art here - how city-based it is, and how iconic his style, using symbols above depictions. The untitled piece below (1981) could even (semi) approximate for a street scene in pictorial space, though windows are grids, the sun a red circle and a red car is drawn the way a child would. The pictorial space would soon disappear, but the iconic style would remain throughout. It makes his images ‘quick’ and active, rather than contemplative.

Indeed, the more fulsomely titled ’Untitled (Black)’ (1981, below) is already turning the rigid city grid into a more generalised lattice. While introducing what would become a recurrent motif - the skull-like head.

Basquiat’s art is often associated with music, with him even playing in a short-lived band (Gray). Yet there’s an odd incongruence here. The dominant downtown music scene of the time, reflected in that show’s title, was No Wave. Which might best be described as an attempt to out-punk Punk. If a Punk single was, to coin the phrase, a 33rpm scream played at 45, No Wave was the same scream played at 78. And, at least since Romantic times, this was the response art had to the city. It was either a den of depravity or the place where alienation happened, possibly both at the same time.

Whereas, rather than dark, alienated or nihilistic, Basquiat’s art is exuberant. It’s child-like in tone as well as form, channelling a child’s sheer love of drawing. In an early TV interview with Glenn O’Brien, featured in the show, he sports a spiky punkish haircut yet smiles beautifically throughout.

”Extra Large”

And as the those references to pictorial space dropped away the size of his canvases increased. Asked “what’s your medium?”, his quipped response was “extra large.” For example ’Jawbone of an Ass’ the next year (above) is nearly double the width of those earlier works. Yet his art didn’t become any more detailed. Instead his canvases used the extra real estate to expand, become fuller. There’s simply more to see, elements jockeying for our attention on crowded but seemingly casual compositions.

And why should that be? The BBC4 documentary ’Basquiat: Rags to Riches’ recounts how, recuperating from being knocked down by a car as a child, he was given a copy of ’Grey’s Anatomy’, sparking an interest in the breakdown of the human body. A video in the show tells another story, of him seeing a photo of someone holding up a skull. I have a different theory to both.

It may be best displayed by the (somewhat ironically titled) ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’s Greatest Hits’ (1982, above). Invoking the great Renaissance artist of course turns anatomical accuracy into an aesthetic, the first time such a thing was comprehensively attempted. And the images here are tagged with terms such as ‘heel’, ’studies of the human leg’ or ‘study of feet’, as you’d expect from ’Grey’s Anatomy’ or one fo Leonardo’s notebooks.

Some of which correspond to the expected images, ‘study of foot’ (lower right) being next to a reasonably convincing foreshortened leg. But, while ‘heel’ (upper left) has a surfeit of red and black lines, they’re useless as maps of muscle or vein. While ‘torso’ (lower centre) could be found scrawled on a toilet wall. Yet a lattice of ladders draws these disparate images together. Such references are used to playfully underline how iconic Basquiat’s art is.

Similarly, in a method reminiscent of Pop Art, in his imagery he wilfully mixes wildly varying cultural streams. ’Untitled (Titian)’ (1982), for example, references Titian and Leonardo, but also Miles Davis. Batman and Biblical references are both prone to show up.

There’s also the writing, kept from the Samo days. This is initially individual letters which in the fuller canvases spread into phrases. Just like the images, they spill across the canvas in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Just as his images stem from wildly different sources these often mix up different languages, perhaps reflecting the cosmopolitan environment of New York. Indeed, so iconic is his art there seems (in the first illo) little difference between the grid windows and the letters ‘A’ and ‘R’ to their left. To him, writing and drawing were not separate realms.

When writing about Robert Rauschenberg, I appropriated David Anfam’s phrase “colliding sign systems”. There’s the same combination of objects and splashes of colour here. Except with Basquiat it’s never clear how much they’re colliding and how much they’re combined. Text, iconic drawings and abstract marks, they can juxtapose but as often blend into one another. It’s like a child playing with letter bricks, lego and plasticine, just because they’re all to hand, not caring to distinguish between them overmuch. Your reaction is less a perplexed “what is all this stuff doing stuck together?” and more an awestruck “there’s so much stuff here stuck together!” Marc Meyer described his art as “a tumult of unrelated information” applied with “direct and theatrically ham-fisted brushwork” (from Brooklyn Museum’s ’Basquiat’, 2005).

And this information overload, this feeling of your senses being stimulated in fifty different ways at once, of text and image overlaid, still duplicates the effect of the busy urban environment on you – just in a less literal way than earlier. The central panel of ’Five Fish Species’ (1983, below) not only namechecks Times Square, but reproduces the forest of signs you’d find there. The black nodes and lines seems semi-analogous to a city street plan. Of all the New York artists, he may be the most New York of them all.

In this way he sees the city, for all its noise and clamour, as both his muse and playground. An approach which makes him the successor to Laurie Anderson and artists of the Seventies Downtown scene, as seen in an earlier Barbican show.

”Nothing To Be Gained Here”

The show often wades into these flurries and tries to make order of them. Sometimes it even seems willing to show lesser works, just because they better fit their agenda. Which is misconceived. His paintings aren’t cryptic crosswords to be decoded and ‘solved’ by literate readers. This is more down to curators and critics trying to establish their interpretive role, doing that vital job they do regardless of anything going on in the work. They’re there to answer that guy who insists on asking “yes, but what does it mean?” Often before he’s even asked.

One they busily attempt to interpret is ’Jawbone Of an Ass’. But look at it again. Does it look like it’s asking to be made sense of? Despite being so iconic Basquiat is quite unlike the bold, clean style of Keith Haring. (Even if both came out of New York street art and became friends.) He’s more similar to the rough, raw expressionism of de Kooning or Rauschenberg. Like de Kooning he “looks messy, convulsive, less unfinished than inherently unstable.” Like Rauschenberg he often painted on discarded items, such as doors or wood panels.

But Basquiat took it further, splashing paint like no-one else. His was the most spontaneous, free-flowing style of the lot. Text is often written only to be struck out, often then replaced by itself again. It’s almost impossible to conceive of him making preparatory sketches. It’s like his art appeared without any intermediary stages. (Which partly explains how he could be so prolific within his short life.)

Many works are composites, originally different pieces cut up and recombined. Canvases could be covered with xerox paper then painted over again. ’Piscine Versus the Best Hotels’ (1982, above) does both of these, assembled from four original panels. It’s one of many works which look less like an individual piece of graffiti art transplanted to a gallery than a much-tagged wall, covered in archaeological layers of spray-can, scrawl and flyposting.

Yet these ‘explanations’ often take no interest in any of this, and simply disregard the form of his work. In particular they leap on the text, seeking out connections, while treating the images as a kind of honorary text, something to be ‘read’. Responding to visual art as if it isn’t visual art must surely be a clear case of a category error. To use one of his repeat phrases, “nothing to be gained here”. While his most common tactic in interviews was to derail probing questions with a dissembling smile. He once complained “it’s like asking Miles how does your horn sound?”

Moreover, it’s well documented that he worked on several pieces at once, moving from one to the other as the impulse took him. Consequently you can spot phrases and motifs springing from one work to another. Hardly the method for a man with a focused plan for each work.

Art As X-Ray

There’s another New York City connection. He’d often paint to music, and while there was no discernible No Wave connection, his art has the free-flowing collage style of early Hip-hop. As the scene was then New York based, Basquiat knew many of the artists, appeared in Blondie’s ’Rapture’ video (stepping in after Grandmaster Flash failed to show up) and even produced a Hip-hop single, (Beat Bop’ in 1983, described by Franklin Sirmans as a “deep, moody, industrial soundscape of brooding rhythms and disjointed melodies”. (’In the Cipher: Basquiat and Hip-Hop Culture’, also from ’Basquiat’.

We should remember this was before Hip-hop became Rap, when its basis was DJ turntabling. It had a wild, polyglot, collage style, at odds with pop structure, almost wilfully anti-canonical where anything from music history was fair game. Franklin Sirmans also says “Basquiat’s art - like the best Hip-hop - takes apart and reassembles the work that came before it.” He then himself quotes Brewster and Broughton’s ’Last Night a DJ Saved My Life’: “Quite simply DJing is all about mixing things together… lifting forms and ideas that are already around and combing them creatively.”

Made to be played to live audiences, with no hope of ever reaching the radio, tracks could stretch out as much as his canvases. ’Beat Bop’ lasts over ten minutes. At that point the nearest musical genre to it, in construction if not sound, may well have been Jazz. (Of which Basquiat was also a fan, even swapping works for rare albums. ’Beat Bop’ is of course a pun on Bebop.)

But that’s still to approach his art via influences and analogies, rather than discussing what it does. Possibly of all the great artists, Basquiat was the one who most looked like he threw up his works without much conscious thought. To me it maps the human mind in flight, as it leaps from one free-association thought to another. (In one, a “first drawing of moon” is next to a tennis ball. Other times its words: “Jesus Christ - Jerusalem - Jews - Jot - Josephus”.) The endless excisions and repetitions are the equivalent of “yeah but no but yeah”.

On top of the stimulation of a vibrant city, Basquiat was something of a prodigious dope smoker - a substance known to speed up those mental leaps. It can also have the effect of aestheticising language, making everyday phrases suddenly seem defamiliarised and humorous, just as he repeats terms such as “regular processed cheese” in his work. Something like “keys tuned” seems chosen more for its musicality than its meaning.

’Glenn’ (1984, above) is dominated by a giant free-floating head, emitting rays from its crown and spewing lines of force from its mouth. It sits above an overlaid photocopy collage, some of which include variants of the same head. (Such as in the lower left corner.)

People talk about an ‘x-ray’ effect with Basquiat, similar to Paolozzi’s, though in both cases anatomical diagrams are probably a better analogy. And we’re all used to that effect used in art for symbolic maps. For example, a cartoon of a man with a bottle of beer drawn where his brain should be is instantly explicable. Here the effect is inverted, it’s everything around the head which demonstrates what’s on his mind. But the effect’s the same - art as an x-ray into the mind of the artist. (And while this one’s of Glenn O’Brien, many were actual self-portraits.)

’Black (Titled)’

Yet, having said there’s no point looking to Basquiat expecting him to make sense, when viewed at a broader level than individual works themes do recur and accumulate. In particular there’s repeated references to black history and institutionalised racism. This is unmissable in titles such as ‘Irony of the Negro Policeman’ (1981) or ‘Hollywood Africans’ (1983). Even a seemingly innocuous word such as “sugar” becomes in context a tag for slavery. And, tonally, this creates an undertaste of anger in his work which counterbalances the playfulness.

Which can be hard to reconcile this with Basquiat’s bright-eyed and playful personality. Perhaps by him as much as us. At one point he described his work as “80% anger”. Yet see him asked about “anger in your work” here. It seems most likely he was not innately political, but born black in America, racial politics was a subject likely to find him. To misquote the title of an earlier work, Basquiat was ’Black (Titled)’.

Racism of course affected Basquiat personally, as he went through daily life. But it also influenced how his art was framed. His story soon became the black street-kid graffiti artist who hit the big time. A paradox of his work is that it’s so raw, so concerned to getting back to art as mark-making, and yet at the same time highly citational. (One effect of which is that it can’t be easily labelled, either as Modernist or Post-Modernist.) The temptation is to rid your brain of one of these seemingly contradictory facts. Today, judging by this show, the tendency is to forget the first. Whereas in Basquiat’s day it was to downgrade the second.

Marc Mayer writes of primitivism in art: “A pose, an attitude, primitivism served a strategic purpose at either end of the century. For Matisse, it was an anti-academic posture, an antidote to the impressively skilfull aloofness of the hopelessly conservative Ecoles and academies… For both Matisse and Basquiat, it was time for an artist to make believe that he knew nothing at all but raw feeling. It was time to reconnect the primary sensations of colour, shape, texture and line to the primal fetish for plain handiwork and scary faces.”

Though it’s true he had no formal art training he was privately (and well) educated and took advantage of a Brooklyn birth to attend art galleries and museums. We’ve already seen how past art masters are included in his stew of references. He was more multi-cultured Renaissance man than instinctive savage. In short, his primitivism was as affected as Matisse’s. But people noticed those affectations more when a white man did them. Basquiat was himself aware of this framing, made by a white art scene, and criticial of it.

The Sharp-Pointed Crown

This is of course unsurprising. There’s a romantic appeal to portraying him as some visionary outlaw, happily throwing up graffiti in the street until some passing gallery owner tapped him on the shoulder to tell him about canvases and offer him fame. The truth is that, no Banksy, he actively chased success and basked in the lavish lifestyle it gave him. Picasso famously said he wanted to live not like a rich person but as a poor person with money. And, despite his comfortable childhood, Basquiat had for some years lived the life of an impoverished artist - so, when given the chance, did much the same. When you’re poor, you are effectively money’s bitch. It’s not surprising that people reverse that power relation when they can, scattering the stuff like they’ve no respect for it.

In this sense, the early gag of appending Samo with a copyright symbol should be seen as double-edged. The anti-advertising worked as advertising, spreading his name, getting him interviewed by Glenn O’Brien. Similarly, three-pointed crowns became a motif of his from early on. They often float above heads, for example on the helmet he wears in the poster image, or are used in place of a signature - the way Malevich used a black square.

And while the image is most commonly a symbol of power, I suspect for Basquiat it represented the modern form of power - fame. They’re sometimes replaced by halos, in his 1983 sketch of Keith Haring even writing “Famous” on it. The halos sometimes had radiating lines emitting from them, as if capturing a glow. Yet other times they make the halos appear barbed.

’Famous’ (1982), a double-sided work, has two jet-black heads. One, highly misshapen, has a red eye and a row of bared teeth. In the production line of photo-collages beneath it the phrase “face gets blacker and blacker” is repeated, but never shown complete. The phrase “Hall of Fame” is next to the less highfalutin’ “regular processed cheese.” The wide-eyed head on the reverse looks less angry, but lies below a rough black bar, the symbol of censorship, which drips paint like rain from a black cloud. All of which sounds like a conflicted relationship with the fame he sought.

And perhaps a source of this conflict was that the whole ‘untutored graffiti artist’ narrative. A story strong enough to sell, at least in part, it propelled him into fame. As Rene Ricard said of him: “One must become the iconic representation of oneself in this town.” And if his success was part due to racist notions of blackness which he then used his art to criticise, that would inevitably barb his crown. The show displays his notebooks, one stating “I feel like a citizen its time to go and come back a drifter”. Basquiat had been homeless for a spell, sleeping in Tompkins Park, and in that note seems almost yearning for those days.

I often end up doing a double take on the dates of Basquiat’s work, like it’s information I can’t actually take in. Perhaps partly because the Eighties is a decade I remember well, so never really seems of the past to me. But beyond that, let’s recall that, born in 1960, he would not even be Sixty today. This all happened after painting lost its cutting edge role to other media, mostly to music. It might make him seem a throwback.

Yet he seems to belong both to his decade and his medium, successfully channelling influences from both Rauschenberg and Hip-hop. As so often with him, it’s tempting to take up one side of a paradox and drop the other. which can make him appear the token visual artist in a predominantly musical scene. Even the age of his death, twenty-seven, places him squarely in that stupid club. But we need to go back to an earlier point. The central thing to Basquiat is that he can’t be reduced to sense.

Saturday 11 May 2019


The Haunt, Brighton, Sat 4th April

Mono’s monicker may be intended ironically, as they go in for expansive instrumentals ofter described as “post-rock”. (Though the band themselves have responded “music is communicating the incommunicable; that means a term like post-rock doesn't mean much to us”.) Based in Japan, they’re now celebrating their twentieth anniversary and tenth album. Wikipedia notes “the band's live performances are noted for their intensity” (without anyone adding ‘citation required’).

They’re as uninterested in rock’n’roll theatrics as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, playing backlit so as to be become virtual silhouettes, heads bowed in classic shoegaze pose. There’s precisely one track with vocals, possibly the only one of their career, which is sung (I kid not) from behind a pillar. And they speak precisely once, on coming back for the encore to remind us of that twentieth anniversary. Maybe they won’t speak again till the next one.

There may be musical similarities to Godspeed, such as the shimmering guitar sound. But they’re probably best described by Mark Radcliffe’s classic comment about Television, “the nearest rock record to a string quartet”. Though they’re more like this description than they are like Television. In fact they may be more like the description than Television are! Perhaps notably, tracks on the most recent release feature both strings and wind players.

There is perhaps a formula of sorts. Several tracks start off with a slow, measured melody line. Counter-melodies them get added gradually, until the whole thing hits a crescendo. (Often underlined by an abrupt change in lighting.) It’s like watching an abstract painting being composed, first a coloured line being drawn across the canvas, then different shapes forming, before the colours all finally run together.

But if it’s a formula it’s a good formula! Each section seems the thing when you’re inside it, the melody lines involving in their own right, nothing just a bridge to move the track along. In fact it was the track least bound to this, the one with the vocals (‘Breathe’) which seemed the weakest. Mono’s life performances are, it seems, to be noted for their intensity.

From Belgrade…

The Dome, Brighton, Wed 8th May
Part of the Brighton Festival

In which Soumik Datta provided live soundtracks to two Indian films on the sarod, a kind of cousin to the sitar which I am now going to pretend I previously knew existed.

For the first half he played in a trio to ’Around India With a Movie Camera’, an assemblage of imperial-era footage. The film provoked some titters at the crassness of Raj attitudes, not least a speech where the King harped on the virtues of being in a “free Empire”. (Yo wot, your majesty?) Alas the music wasn’t particularly effective, with the East-meets-West combination of instruments serving up a very mild curry indeed.

The problem may have been that the source material was by its nature snippets, like flipping through a book of postcards. And the music seemed to need longer stretches to work up a head of steam, so was always stalling.

Things picked up for the second half with ’King Of Ghosts’. This was a “reimagined” version of Satajit Ray’s ’Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ (1968) which, like no other Ray film I’ve ever seen, was a fantastical adventure featuring magic shoes, dancing demons, wizards in sunglasses and the King of the Ghosts. It seemed more ’Monkey’ than ’The Chess Players’. (And yes, I do know ’Monkey’ wasn’t Indian.)

For this Datta got his longer breaks to stretch out into. Plus he was joined by the City of London Sinfonia. Their contribution was often to create a musical mood for the scene, a task they took to with some alacrity and little regard for the conventions of musicality. For example, in an early scene the title character wanders into a wood. To which their rustling and whispering straight away evoked the sense this was something supernatural we were going into. In short, they made the film more like it was than it had been already.

From London...

Royal Festival Hall, London, Thurs 9th May

The occasion was the European premiere of ’Lodger’, the final album of David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy and last to be made a symphony by Philip Glass. (Though nigh-on a quarter-century after its predecessor.) Tonight all three were performed in succession.

In a pre-concert talk Glass said that he’d gone furthest from the original in content as well as chronology, and in fact had only used Bowie’s words. Which was slightly strange to hear, for no-one has ever suggested the Berlin trilogy was primarily about the words. In fact Bowie may well have written them in rebellion against the notion of ‘meaningful’ lyrics.

Then again, the decision arguably exposes the essential arbitrariness of the “Berlin trilogy” concept, for ’Lodger’ has as much in common with the album after it as the album before. With ’Low’ Glass used the second all-instrumental side. (In the programme he mentally reversed the sides, imagining that came first.) And ’Heroes’,though it departs further from its source, only incorporates two vocal numbers. Whereas Lodger’ has not a single instrumental.

’Low’ is known as Bowie’s “blue’ album, and if it had a colour scheme it would be nocturnal blues, greys and blacks. While in Glass’s hands those colours become oranges and yellows. The programme compares it to Debussy and Raphael.

Only the final movement, ’Warzawa’, has anything that might conceivably be called low, and even there the deep, mournful notes yield to something bright. Driving through the winter to hear it in Bexhill seemed appropriate, like walking through the dark evenings to hit Christmas. As said at the time, the result is “pretty much win-win-win… as tuneful as pop music, as hypnotic as minimalism and as dynamic as classical music.”

If the talk had focused on ’Lodger’s vocals, what hit immediately was another new element - the organ. The venue’s recently refurbished organ, with prodigious pipes, was played by James McVinnie. (Last seen playing solo Glass pieces in Falmer.) This quite literally added a new dynamic, making the music much more propulsive, turning like an elegant machine. The programme points out “here the orchestra is enormous and lush.”

Unfortunately, a few seconds into the first vocal starting your reaction was “uh-oh”. They seemed performed as if singer Angelique Kidjo had just been handed the lyrics, with no indication of style or melody, and so was just proclaiming them. Rather than sparking any kind of creative dissonance they just sounded double-booked with the music. In a completely inverse effect to the organ, they acted as a drag on everything. I found myself trying to tune them out, like a loud audience member who for some reason couldn’t be shushed.

The one time, the solo time, they seemed to work was at the end of ’African Night Flight’. A section which I’ve no idea is in a foreign language or simply scatting, but comes to the same thing - there the vocals weren’t about the words.

It seems clear enough that Glass wrote a symphony but then decided to shoehorn in his vaguely made promise to complete this trilogy. (Though, and before anyone asks, he had started composing before Bowie’s death.) I foresee much future debate, between purists of authorial intent who insist it must be played as written and the rest of us.

Saturday 4 May 2019


Various venues, Brighton, 26th-28th April

Just when you thought it was safe to take off those noise cancelling headphones… and two and a half years since the last outbreak of international experimental sound shenanigans in central Brighton… Colour Out Of Space is back! Now for the eighth time!

As said over the previous outing, the three days run the full range “from acts you willed to be over to those you never wanted to end.” And, having willed more than a few things to end this year (some played up quite highly in the programme), I won’t be reliving the memory here. With thirty-five acts in total (excluding talks, workshops, installations and a film show), covering the whole thing is hardly possible anyway. Mostly it’ll be stuff worth mentioning in dispatches which gets mentioned in dispatches.

Well, mostly…

Perhaps a minor gripe, but at times I confess I find this scene’s blanket audience approval a little indulgent. When so much that’s being created is highly experimental or entirely spontaneous, or highly experimental and entirely spontaneous, I can see a need for a supportive audience - one willing for things to work rather than fail. But default approval isn’t the same thing as blanket approval. Trying is good, but succeeding better.

Mostly this music doesn’t feature words, even when it involves vocals. And looking at a couple of misses might explain why that might be. The “I’m alienated me” vocals were the worst part of Wild Rani’s set, to the point you really wished she’d let the music do the talking. While Natalia Beylis’ vocals… well, more of a voiceover… felt kind of normalising, with their all-too-obvious swipes at the self-help-self-actualisation industry. Perhaps vocalisation risks banalisation, when we’re actually dealing with things too basic to be said. There’s a reason, after all, why Munch didn’t paint ‘The Speech’.

While conversely, with the Charles Mitchener duo (above), for one long section the vocals consisted of forcing a simple phrase from a reluctant throat, where the inability to articulate became not a barrier to overcome but the point of the thing. The result was a free jazz set which I actually liked! (If that sounds an odd title for a duo, it’s a team-up of Neil Charles and Elaine Mitchener.)

Then again, Glands of Eternal Secretion’s set didn’t get into gear until the second section. Where he gave up scraping tins with kitchen knives (an action which proved to have diminishing returns), to tell an absurdist narrative, no more reducible to sense than the music it accompanied.

Olivier Brisson didn’t just collage together sounds from a range of sources, including tapes, samples and live sounds. His set seemed to combine different ways of listening, from composite sounds to close listening to - like a movie ranging from cinemascope to microscopic view.

Whereas, though equally composed of samples, Red Brut seemed to smooth them together, blending them into something which always seemed to make some sort of sense. (If one you could never actually describe.) In the distinction between Dadaist collage (rough, juxtapositional, abrasive) and Surrealist (presenting the strangest of things as if somehow credible), she was definitely in the second group. Though apparently she also drums in a No Wave band, this set couldn’t have been any more sublime.

Laptop artists can sit so still on stage you find yourself believing they’re transmitting music by the power of thought alone. Then there’s others who, without touching anything as mainstream as an instrument, couldn’t be any more hands on. The show had the smarts to place Jérôme Noetinger’s (above) tape manipulations in the middle of the auditorium, and I got to sit fairly close.

I always get these details wrong but it appeared to me he was live-recording direct onto tape, while also manipulating its sound with magnets, found objects and so on. (I also watched him set up and, archetypically Gallic, his first action was to uncork, scrutinise the label and sip from a bottle of red before touching the first bit of equipment.)

Though where you’d place Af Ursin in that range I’m not sure. He played bowed strings against metal plates. At least as far as you could tell, as he stood behind the plates, blocking off any view of him above some very rock’n’roll-looking ankles. One hand many have been playing bass and the other treble, but that was about the only concession to standard musicality. The result was spectral if anything ever deserved the word. You’d tune in to the point where relatively small shifts seemed magnified. If was one of those sets which convinces you consensus reality was only ever a hoax, and is now breaking down all around you. At least for their duration.

As a gag, for their booklet photo, the Elks superimposed their heads over a group shot of Metallica (above). Knowing little of Metallica, and generally being happier that way, I knew not of this. (I also believe everything I read on social media.) So, spying slouched figures in ripped jeans, I assumed a noise band.

In fact they hovered at the limits of perceptibility as much as Af Ursin. Two wind players barely breathed down their instruments, accompanied by two electronic know twiddlers. The music happened not by outright statement but by the barest hints and whispers. My over-poetic analogy would be coming across an ancient tablet, the script upon it sand-blown and the strange characters barely discernible, but all the more compellingly mysterious for that.

The show had the smarts to programme two complementary opposite acts for the Saturday night finale. White Death’s set was almost as if broadcast by sonar - warm, fuzzy and resonant. It was the musical equivalent of being read a bedtime story, simultaneously comforting and bracingly adventurous. The performer was notably pregnant, which led to musing how that might have affected her set.

…shortly followed by Bill Nace and Twig Harper (above). Nace produced wave after wave or bowed, treated guitar, while Harper spoke in tongues over the top. Not music which immersed you in it but which struck you powerfully. If White Death took you below the waterline, they were all stormy surface.

As said after the third outing
it shouldn’t be assumed a festival such as this covers the ’edge’ of music, as if inhabiting a narrow margin where only one thing is on offer. It’s the very reverse, demonstrating how closed-up our conception of ‘music’ normally is. You generalise at your peril. But it was noticeable how many sets felt mediumistic, in one way or another. Inaudible voices were in regular supply, often in foreign languages. (Perhaps not to the performers. But we’re going with my subjective reaction here.)

Of course those who hear messages in short wave radio static from their dead Auntie Mable are being hubristic, assuming the universe must be full of decodable messages meant directly for them. But we can apply the principle more generally, where the purpose of tuning into the ether is not to receive some specific thing. but make us more reflective. I believe Huxley’s phrase about cleansing the doors of perception may have already been claimed by some band. But if it hadn’t, it would fit in well around here.

The three days finished with Tomutontto (back from the fourth outing), playing what could only be described as dance music for the faerie folk. To which people responded with yer actual dancing, not always a COOS staple! Yet in another way it was a fitting finale…

For COOS has a somewhat Brigadoon-like existence; vanishing from sight until you believe it will never visit our Earthly shores again, and you probably just imagined the whole thing anyway, then reappearing unexpectedly to circumvent all our common laws and customs. Will there be a ninth? It’s probably like one of those movies ending with the hushed line “will we ever see the like of this again?”