I had one of those ping moments this week where two things that hitherto have not particularly seemed to be connected suddenly reveal themselves to be not only linked but actually, basically, the same thing. (If you've grown tired of my theatre rants, do please feel more than encouraged to skip the next ten paragraphs.)
The more recent of the two conversations out of which all this arises was on Friday, catching up with the lovely Nesta Jones at Rose Bruford, with whom I haven't really had a proper chat since we met up at the beginning of August in Edinburgh. So I was telling her what a dismal time I'd ended up having on the Fringe this year, and explained that I was starting to conclude that the kind of work that I tend to make was no longer feeling altogether compatible with the way that audiences use the festival, and the way that the structure of programming and marketing work serves and encourages exactly those dissonant audience expectations.
As I've probably said a dozen times on this blog, most people nowadays cram so much in to their Edinburgh timetables that they tend not to establish relations with particular pieces in the way that they would if they were seeing only a couple of shows a day: which above all means that there is no way of dealing with work that does not present itself completely and close itself down within its allotted time frame. The sixty or seventy minutes of the advertised slot in the Fringe programme is all the headspace that's available; nobody has the time and space for reflection, or for letting an unresolved presentation continue to work itself out. So the more problematic work that I've shown in recent years -- Napoleon in Exile, Hippo World Guest Book -- is more coolly received than it might be in other contexts, while the most resolved work -- Kiss of Life or Nine Days Crazy, for example -- is overpraised because it delivers itself fully complete and giftwrapped. Which is why the best Edinburgh work I've done has been the home performances, The Tempest and Homemade, very largely because the audience is more or less obliged to sit with those pieces for some while after the actors have left the building and the shows are ostensibly 'over'. In fact it's the audience, and especially the homeowners, who decide when the work is over, and even then, there may be remnants and echoes for days afterwards: which is how I'd like all my stuff to feel, wherever it's encountered.
So anyway, that's thing two. Here's thing one. A few days ago I had an email from a colleague who confessed to having been a bit disappointed with her most recent project (which actually was pretty fine: but one benefit of email is that one's own instinct to offer reassuring blandishments doesn't end up interrupting an interesting train of analytical thought). One of the pressures that she'd had to contend with was the audience feedback at an early showing, which asked for clearer narrative. This she had attempted to provide, but felt, I think correctly, that something important had been sacrificed in the trade-off.
Again I fear I'm probably repeating myself but it seems to me that a big problem with monitoring audience feedback, especially when it's a general audience rather than a clutch of fellow practitioners, is that while their impressions and responses -- whatever they may be -- are completely valid and a worthy topic for artists' attentions, their analysis may not be. (This is partly because, despite all our brave noises about engaging in dialogue with audiences, we still don't really open up our processes to them, only our productions: 'work in progress' tends to be precisely not that -- all progress has actually been suspended for an evening while some strangers come and assess some prematurely harvested output. An audience that was part of a dialogue within the actual making would be much better informed: but artists are of course protective of their process and there's little evidence anyway that a large audience is champing at the bit to spend an afternoon in a rehearsal room watching five frazzled actors eat biscuits.)
This is to say, an audience that is asked "What could we do to improve this work?" might well reply "Clearer narrative please": but it's not high-handed to note that they might be wrong. What's the response behind that answer? "We are confused. We did not understand what was going on." Well, that in itself is perfectly legitimate, and should be taken on board. But does a general audience necessarily understand the options available? Does it appreciate the incredibly complex relationship in theatre between cause and effect? If twenty people say a show is too long, and one says it's too short, I'm unwilling to disregard the anomalous voice. What you have there is twenty-one people indicating that there may be a problem with the length of the piece. That lone dissenting individual may have realized that if the piece were longer, it could attempt more, make certain aspects of the work more detailed or more complicated, create a whole stage world that was richer and more involving, and consequently the show would seem to move more quickly and ultimately feel less long. Similarly, a "confusing" piece might be clarified in all sorts of ways. If it were more abstract, if in fact it dispensed with narrative altogether, or if it tried to create situations that could be read a number of different ways, those changes might exactly do the trick. If we are not going to give audiences the critical apparatus to be able to analyze more acutely both the work to which they are exposed and the reactions that that work produces in them -- and how could we 'give' them what we hardly possess ourselves? -- we should be careful what questions we ask them, or at least approach cautiously the considerations that they are kind enough to share.
But also: I wonder if any of you Thompsonistas are shouting at your computer screens to the effect that "confusion" may not anyway be an improper sensation for a piece to generate in its audience (or its own makers, for that matter). That's certainly true in itself, but we should also recognize that confusion is not necessarily a terminal state, or one that merely dissipates without further regard. And here, I imagine, you'll see the connection between the two complaints arising from this week's low-level muttering.
When we say a theatre event is over is a matter of profound and consequential importance. Readers who followed the sometimes fractious conversation between myself and my brilliant colleague Simon Kane (and other no less formidable friends) after my last big theatre post will hardly need reminding that of crucial importance to me at the moment is the question of -- and here I'm rather lazily going to quote myself (from that exchange) as I seldom nail it this cogently -- how to arrange the conditions of theatre so as to maximise the outward transferability of performatively signalled information. In other words, how do we get theatre to impact directly and transformatively on the world around it (I'm proceeding from the assumption that that's what we want; at any rate it's certainly what I want) when what we call theatre is, in one way or another, differently real from that surrounding reality? How do we carry information across the power gap from actors to audience, and then carry the audience and the information across the functional boundary between theatre and everything-else, so that the information continues to be active? (The more I rephrase it, the less lucid it becomes, so I'll move on.)
The method that I've been using for as long as I've been seriously making theatre (and long before I even started to think in these sorts of terms about it) is about trying to create a liminal field in the mind -- or wherever, but anyway, in the person -- of the spectator, that exists in a sympathetic relation with the liminal field of the performance they are witnessing: and, once that liminal field is fully created at the level of the individual, to end the performance. At the point that the performance ends, in other words, the work of the theatre experience is continuing, and will continue until, as all properly liminal phases do, it resolves or is 'incorporated' into the life-structures around it. This is an incredibly makeshift gloss on a set of ideas that are as hard for me to grasp as anyone else, but I hope the point is clear. If we have a conversation after you've seen for the first time, say, Longwave, it will be about the performance itself; in terms of its theatrical content or value, it might be a few days before we can have that discussion. To use a slightly misleading metaphor, the curtain call is not your opportunity to say 'thank you for a lovely meal', it's our opportunity to say 'dinner is served'. Everything you've witnessed on stage up until that point is the preparation (by skilled chefs, hopefully!) of something that then becomes yours.
And to reiterate, this is not simply about the artist's desire to create something that has a lingering effect on those who see it, something that is not simply a disposable amusement in terms of the impression it makes. Much more than that, this is about the possibility that your post-show experience may resolve not merely into a settlement but rather into a challenge to further experience and further action. How that possibility is maximised is, obviously, the 64p question, and I daren't get into it now. But one factor at least is fundamentally and invariably true: we absolutely mustn't teach audiences that, five minutes after they've left the auditorium, their involvement with the show is over. There's no reason why we shouldn't ask for an interim report on their immediate reaction, but thrusting a feedback form into their hands as they leave and expecting to be able to extrapolate from their responses any sense of what might be the potential of the work is absolutely contrary to the interests of artists, producers and audience alike. I can think of a couple of examples of colleagues who are extremely interested in feedback, not just as a box-ticking sap to their funders but as an integral part of their practice, who simply gather email addresses after (or before) a performance, and then contact audience members after a few days. I'm sure that's a better model -- I mean more progressive but also likely to elicit more useful reactions.
As for how a gigantic operation like the Edinburgh Fringe might take all this on board, it presumably can't, and it will continue to be an excellent platform for those supplying cheap and mildly discombobulating thrills and an increasingly inhospitable environment for anyone who uses theatre to think with. Genuinely politically engaged work will gradually become the preserve of the curated festival -- and, by implication, the further and higher education sector. And at this point I start drifting into some ill-advised hallucinations concerning Foam Night on the River Tiber, and desist.
If you've been around Thompson's long enough to know about The Cat Test, you may be interested to hear some preliminary findings. If you've just joined us, The Cat Test can perhaps best be thought of as a development of the old miners' practice of using a canary to test for the presence of carbon monoxide. (Not to be onfused with the 'pop' test for carbon dioxide, for which you insert a lit canary into a test tube, etc.) The Cat Test discloses liveness: an ordinary domestic cat is released into the midst of a theatre event, and if the event can refer to and/or accommodate the cat without its supporting structures breaking down -- the structures of the event, not of the cat -- then the event is said to be 'live', and is therefore disqualified from the Hampstead Theatre. If the Cat Test produces only the spectacle of Richard Griffiths shouting at the cat, a 'let' may be played.
Anyway, so on Friday my Rose Bruford students showed Blackout, the piece I made with them over the past couple of weeks, which included in its dramatis faunae a pair of free-range rabbits. The following observations may perhaps be of some use to those with a professional interest in the uses of liveness:
1. On introducing the rabbits to the performance space for the first time, it emerged that one of the participating (human) actors was badly allergic to them, and they (the rabbits) had to be confined to a corner of an unused dressing room.
2. On the day of the performance, having filled the rabbit-averse actor with half a pack of generic antihistamine tablets, the rabbits were once again released in the space and lolloped about quite happily: until the audience were also admitted into the space, whereat the bunnies retreated in a state of nervous dudgeon to a dark corner and clung to each other like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, only female, and lapine.
From this we can conclude that the 'liveness agenda' is almost certainly more satisfactorily pursued in the context of film, where it can be safely captured -- at no risk to any participant of any species -- and played back at a later date.
That's nearly more than enough of that, but before we leave the world of theatre altogether: I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't say anything, but: nineteen bloody weeks? Anybody who hereafter mentions the Controlling Thompson and Mr Anthony Neilson For Whom I Have Nothing But Respect in the same breath, or even suggests we inhabit the same sphere of existence, can expect my slap in due course.
Having advertised the London Musicians' Collective festival in my last post, I was unfortunately, due to other commitments, only able to attend the first of the three concerts, but I was awfully glad to do so: partly because it was a good opportunity to catch up with some old pals who I haven't seen in a while, but also because it was a fascinating programme.
My first LMC festival, their seventh, back in 1998 -- which, over three days, included my first exposures to Charlemagne Palestine, Stefan Jaworzyn & Alan Wilkinson, Pauline Oliveros, and Chris Burn's Ensemble, among many others -- opened with a smart pun: the German sound artist Anne Wellmer navigating her way through a densely attractive trio set by means of a ship's steering wheel which I only realized part-way through was actually functioning as a shortwave radio dial.
So it was nice to start on Thursday with another pun, of a more Christian Marclayish savour: the sound artist Bob Levene had a number of cymbals, into each of which had been cut a recording of cymbals being played. So she was able to play them like vinyl records, mostly stacking the sound of two or three on different decks: oftentimes they stuck, as the stylus struggled uphill (due to the shape of the cymbal, which of course is not flat), and the loops and rhythms thus formed were among the most attractive features of the set. At its best the mass of sound was absolutely gorgeous, as complex and evocative as some of Philip Jeck's work with Dansette record players, and (quite unusually for an LMC fest) I wished her set had been longer: sometimes the changes in texture seemed a bit hurried-through, and she was perhaps too eager to 'correct' the stuck loops -- though I dare say there may have been good hardware reasons for doing so. A lovely presentation, though, and an idea that still makes me smile when I think of it.
I knew that the Japanese sound artist Yasunao Tone had had some involvement with Fluxus in the 60s but I was still somehow expecting a relatively young man to step out on the stage, rather than the distinguished grey-haired 72-year-old who actually showed up: which I hope can be taken as a reflection on the vitality and robustness of the music of his that I knew beforehand, rather than as a comment on my idiotic prejudiced assumptions about the likely output of artists in their 70s. At any rate, Tone, seated at his PowerBook, played two longish compositions, separated by a brief performance of a vocal piece by Nam June Paik.
Tone has famously made works for, or out of, "wounded" CDs, and by converting digital images and text to sound. I'm not sure how the pieces he presented here were created, but the sound world was certainly similar to the CD works and to his Musica Iconologos: huge insistent blocks of abrasive electronic sound, made out of hundreds of tiny repeating moments, many of which are curiously delicate or even comical in themselves, but because of the way they are packed together, become dense and even daunting. The sound is almost totally ugly, but its rapid movement and the relations between individual moments are paradoxically engrossing, so I spent much of the second piece with the odd sensation of having heard more than enough but still not wanting it to stop. There were obviously people in the audience for whom Tone is a godlike hero; I'm not sure I'm one of them, but I was very happy to submit to the witty, confusing, and occasionally slightly horrible onslaught. When they remake The 5000 Fingers of Dr T but with an infinitely large 80s video game instead of a grossly distended piano -- and it can only be a matter of days before they do -- they should totally get Dr Tone to soundtrack it.
I'm sure I can't have been the only person in the room who felt a little disappointed when it was announced that the trio of Angharad Davies (violin), Julia Eckhardt (viola) and Michael Duch (double bass) -- from whom it would have been reasonable to anticipate an improv set (reasonable not least because that's what it said in the advance publicity) -- would actually be playing a composition by Taku Sugimoto. If you haven't come across him before, Sugimoto is a brilliant and controversial figure who has been a leading light in the Japanese 'Onkyo' movement, which focuses on extreme minimalism (in the sense of economy and restraint rather than the epic repetitiousness of early Philip Glass or Terry Riley) in which the default, as it were, is silence rather than sound. He is a guitarist himself and an acutely fine improvisor -- whose influence was clearly formative on what a few years ago was being dubbed (not altogether seriously) the "new London silence" (associated with musicians such as Mark Wastell and Rhodri Davies whom I used to invite, from time to time, to come and get completely drowned out by the ambient traffic noise at Camden People's Theatre) -- but in the last couple of years his meticulous attention has been trained instead on compositions for himself and others. Those that I know are based on regular divisions of time across which single notes are distributed (so, for example, in minute 1 of a piece you might hear three notes separated by twenty second gaps, followed by, in minute 2, two notes separated by thirty seconds' silence; and so on).
It was that kind of composition that Sugimoto had created for the trio, especially for this event. Each player's score was a single A4 sheet and each (as far as I could tell) had a stopwatch; I don't know how long the piece ran, I would guess forty minutes but obviously music that moves in these ways pretty quickly loses any attachment to one's innate 'sense' of time. Long silences are the rule rather than the exception: in fact after the first couple of notes in this piece were sounded, a long enough silence ensued for one wag in the audience to (briefly) start clapping. There is really no horizontal argument to the music, it's about consideration of individual notes as vertical statements: what melodic or harmonic relationships there are, particularly within each individual instrumental voice, depend on your ability to remember what may have happened some minutes ago. Nor, in this composition at least, is there any variation in dynamics or timbre, nor extremes of range: just different pitches and durations (arco vs pizzicato). I think it's the formal division of time, though, rather than the paucity of sounded content, that makes this work ultimately unsatisfactory. It is, partly, bothersome that such expert musicians should opt to present this rather than, say, an improv set; equally, it probably does take a high level of technical proficiency and, in one sense at least, musicality to be able to play this work. An interesting ambivalence came over me: I felt frustrated with the piece at several points, but also protective of it when an increasingly restless audience coughed or giggled or people walked out. I did realize that my perceptions were shifting slightly, to the extent that I started to be able to make relative connections across quite long spans: but when one such connection suggested the piece had ended, and then turned out not to signal the end at all, I began to feel a bit anxious. How could this ever end? The piece seemed to have surrendered the necessary syntax. But while I was thinking about all that, instead of ending, the piece stopped -- which was fine -- and that was that.
All of which changed the spirit in which I anticipated the closing performance by Sugimoto himself. But although his solo (guitar) set proceeded in a similar way, it was an altogether more enthralling experience, and, finally, one of the most exciting performances I've ever seen (and, occasionally, heard). In a 45 minute set, he played -- I'm guessing -- somewhere around 100 or 120 individual notes, almost all of them D in different octaves, separated, again, obviously, by extended periods of silence. These too were distinct compositions -- eight, maybe? -- though all variations on what can barely be called a theme. There were, though, important differences from the earlier trio. Firstly, there were appreciable differences in timbre (including some notes played as harmonics), which meant that even when the note was repeated several times at the same pitch, there was still a degree of variance in the tonal quality of each note, so that one's attention was (as it were) tuned in to finer details than would normally be the case: which seems in itself ample justification, if such were needed, for this kind of hyperminimalist approach. Secondly -- and this is what really grabbed me -- the compositions this time did not dictate the time-gaps between notes. In fact there's no way of knowing what the composed elements were: but at any rate, Sugimoto certainly seemed to be judging when or where to place each note, how long to hold each silence.
I very often say to actors I work with that there's little more engrossing than watching someone think, or attempt to solve a problem, or just pay attention to something. And certainly this proved to be the case here. It's important to note anyway the care with which Sugimoto arranges the visual and performative aspect of his presentation. Though apparently nonchalantly assembled, the stage picture -- open white guitar case on the floor; stool supporting a bottle of wine, a plastic cup, and Taku's wristwatch; Taku himself, in semi profile, hat pulled down at the perfect angle; behind him, his amplifier -- is presumably composed with all the care of a Braque still life. He is quite content -- he'd have to be -- to be watched apparently doing nothing, though clearly listening, thinking; and there is an impish quality to him also. The very last thing he does in the set is pour himself another cup of wine, having drunk the first in sips between pieces over the last half hour: so is that a provocative tease to those he knows are bored to tears, to signal that he might well go on to play for another half hour?, or does he do it for the sound it makes, as a way of not seeming to play a final note on the guitar? In a sense this encapsulates the whole question around Sugimoto. He is plainly serious, it is not some big confidence trick (we know he has the chops to play more conventionally and knock the socks off this fidgety audience); but he is evidently having fun. There is no solemnity to his self-presentation, he is playful, unassuming. There is no religiosity or ritualising. To appreciate his work, we seem to have to take him more seriously than he does himself, though he obviously takes his work seriously and has something of real importance to share. The first time he does, eventually, play a note other than D, it's a C#, and it's almost impossible not to find it funny: but everything he's asking through this work is about the frame of convention and expectation that makes that funny.
Sometimes it is either lazy or wishful to call an event like this Sugimoto set "pure theatre", simply because of its traces of eccentricity, say, or the suspicion of animosity being incubated in some regions of the audience (and there were again quite a few walkouts). But it is theatrical in the most grounded and actionable ways: it does, in other words, everything I want theatre to do. Perhaps that, in the end, is the big perspective-shift that the work instigates in me and that I value so highly and excitedly; after all, as music, this current thread of Sugimoto's does not, really, do everything I want music to do. But he is closer to realizing the promise of theatre than nearly anyone whose work I've seen this year, and the physical sensation of my encounter with it has not yet entirely left me.
[Incidentally I've just checked over at Richard Sanderson's blog -- he being one of the above-mentioned old pals -- and his account of the same event may make an instructive contrast!]
Meanwhile, in another part of the galaxy, my rehabilitation into the society of late modernist poets takes an at-present undeterminable number of steps forward, and either a slightly greater or a slightly lesser number of steps back, with the publication of a volume called Complicities: British Poetry 1945-2007, which emerges like so much ominous ectoplasm from Litteraria Pragensia. The volume, confected by my kind friends and ruthless supporters Sam Ladkin and Robin Purves -- who also edited, in so far as they were permitted, the Chicago Review British Poets issue earlier this year -- contains a number of toothsome essays which I eagerly look forward to reading (and so will you if you can spare a fig for any of this distant claptrap), including Purves and Keston Sutherland (separately) on J.H. Prynne, and Jennifer Cooke on Sutherland's 'Hot White Andy', which is now available from Barque and the thing above all things you really should read during the dog-days of 2007; Stephen Thomson on the brilliant Jeff Hilson; Sophie Read on Peter Manson; Tom Jones and Josh Robinson on Andrea Brady; an extended essay by Ladkin titled 'Problems for Lyric Poetry'; and, as K-Tel taught us to say, much much more. Some fraction of which more is taken up with two essays, by Sara Crangle and Malcolm Phillips, on my own work; I read versions of both pieces some months ago, and I don't know whether they've changed in the interim but I trust and admire both authors and, whatever else happens, I'm grateful even unto the brink of awe for the generosity of their attention.
So that accounts for the forward motion; the retro-creep is a certain level of brouhaha (without much haha) that has been occasioned by, or at least attributed to, the subtitle of the book. 'British Poetry 1945-2007' is an obvious hostage to fortune, appearing as it does to claim a comprehensive, panoptic authority that the editors' introduction quite clearly disavows and rightly suggests would anyway be impossible. But one can certainly understand the reactions of a number of senior poets who know from experience that this is (pretty much) how history gets written and how many key figures get written out. (As far as one can tell without having seen the book, the scrutinies of most of its contributors have been applied to works much nearer the end of its stated timeframe than the beginning, too, which would also seem disproportionate, though no one's appearing quite so bothered about that.) The flipside of the obvious problem with omissions further stokes the indignation: that the collection favours younger poets who have only published minimally and are yet to "earn their stripes", as one contributor to the discussion has (perhaps infelicitously) put it.
It's difficult, from my own conspicuously stripe-free perspective -- I take a lead from Leigh Bowery and favour polka dots, it goes without saying -- to enter into this debate; and I rather doubt that the appetite for further brawling persists in any of my friends and colleagues, though the door to my comments zone is always open. My only reflection would be, essentially, anecdotal: one of the reasons I found myself needing to spend a couple of years away from the poetry scene was the misery that this sort of dispirited row induced in me. None of the individuals involved in (as much as I've seen of) this most recent discussion is not a friend (o.n.o.) and few are likely to voice opinions on any topic that could or should be quickly disregarded; I positively like how scrupulous, how challenging, how sceptical (bordering heavily on cynical) they often are. But I well remember how, after both of the Total Writing London festivals I curated at CPT, for example, the first posts at the related discussion lists were complaints about one aspect or another of what had or had not been done. The questions were not inappropriate but the timing kind of was. It takes a tremendous force of will to make anything happen that treats of this important and entirely overlooked area of work; and the point at which the number of publications and events and discussions achieves market saturation or gridlock seems generally to be some way off. I think it is a pity -- particularly in respect of Sam and Robin, who have had to deal with this quite recently with the Chicago Review too, and before that their American poetry number of Edinburgh Review -- that notice of publication can't first be greeted with a general and encouraging welcome and an expression of some modest level of interest; and that perhaps, oh, I don't know, a pleasant half hour might thus elapse before people start throwing furniture.
Incidentally, for those interested in a fuller and less local account of shenanigans arising, Robert Archambeau's Samizdat blog is, as ever, a worthwhile point of call.
Not much else to report, save an ongoing low-level last-ditch attempt at springcleaning (which in my case means making some areas of the floor visible, in the presumably vain hope that my fountain pen will turn up) which is, naturally, endlessly defeated by my increasingly worrying addiction to, of all things, Monopoly.
Otherwise I have been reading John Wilkinson's astonishing The Lyric Touch, from Salt; listening to The Bugle, the new free weekly podcast by Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, which makes me laugh despite all the good reasons one might have to hate it; watching old episodes of the peculiar 90s Lee & Herring vehicle This Morning with Richard not Judy, and (gosh, it's came around again quickly...) season 4 of The West Wing; enjoying a great gig by Make Believe -- thanks to jUStin!katKO, my farflung brother in makebelief; trying not to think about Kyros Christian; and worrying about the fact, which I naively didn't know until I found the evidence in the street a few days ago, that it's possible to buy for your car a pendant airfreshener whose advertised fragrance is "New Car" -- every time I think about that, up pops a mental picture of Gordon Brown.
We'll see how it goes, my predictions for the life of this blog are, as you know, unfailingly inaccurate, but I think this may be the last Standard Issue entry of the year. I will launch Deposit Box if it kills me (as it probably should); there will be the annual naming and shaming of the best 50 albums of the year -- at the moment I'm struggling to get my shortlist down to double figures, even, so expect to hear the sounds of sobbing and wrastling and projectile nosebleeds emanating from my N16 garret window; there should, I hope, be a special feature, possibly between Christmas and New Year, involving a topical luminary; and, in a spirit of punchdrunk interactivity, there might even be a Christmas prize quiz, if I can think up a couple more questions and find a suitable prize in the pile of noxious garbage around and underneath my bed. Oh, and, should our paths cross, I will also be administering forty lashes to that appalling dumbkopf Gillian Gibbons myself, seeing as the Sudanese penal system is just too wussy-ass chickenshit to do it: so expect pictures.
And now, my dears, before I lose that loving feeling, it's a tearful sayonara from me, until next time.