Saturday, September 06, 2008

A late-night tribute to Bill Evans

OK, so we're really going to do this? I mean you're really going to post some weird sort of interview with yourself?

Well... Interview is probably too grand a word. I thought we could just have a chat. I've been reading Derek Jarman's book Kicking the Pricks, the one that came out around the time of The Last of England, and he uses this device quite a bit, and it seems kind of effective. And I've seen others do it too. Lawrence Upton, for one. It's funny how it seems slightly pretentious as a format, but I don't know that it's terribly different to writing dialogue between howevermany different 'voices' in a play script --

Which, incidentally, is what you should be doing right now.

-- I know, I know... Anyway, let's see what happens. It already has a nice informality to it, don't you think? Stops all that egregious ornateness. I catch myself sounding like Stephen Fry sometimes. This is actually, weirdly, less performative, don't you think? I'm thinking of that lovely Bill Evans album, Conversations With Myself, the one with the multitracking, so he's improvising along with a couple of other versions of himself. I love the intimacy of it. Just doodling. -- And it's nice to have no idea where this is going. One of the reasons my posts here get so absurdly long sometimes is I have a rough map of where I want to get to...

And then you take the most scenic route possible.

I really didn't think you'd interrupt so much. But, yes, I know. Not that driving around like this (if we're going to extend the metaphor) is going to be any less circuitous. But at least it should be possible to give this a limit of, oh, what, an hour, maybe, and then just stop, wherever we happen to be. Wouldn't it be nice to end up somewhere completely unexpected?

Fair enough -- but first things first, where are we going to start?

Er... dunno. Small talk.

Fat chance. You're like that Ivor Cutler song, aren't you? "Don't give me the small talk, give me the big talk! A million million and six... Oh, I love that big talk, give me some more! Elephants, elephants!"

Try me, wise guy.

OK. Small talk. Wow. So... What did you do today?

Oh, I had a really nice day. Had a hard time waking up, that seems to be par for the course at the moment. But I pulled myself together and went to the post office to send Jonny a book I think he'll like. I got the 76 down to Waterloo and en route I had a nice idea for King Pelican which I'm supposed to be writing (as you well know) and which I've been a bit stuck on. Actually I'm not sure it's the idea I need it to be, but it's always reassuring to know these things can pop up out of nowhere, isn't it? I was listening to some of the music I want to use, too. That always helps. I really can't start work on a piece until I know its soundworld. I haven't really focused that yet for King Pelican but it's getting there. I'm just a bit unsure about one thing, the music for the end sequence, I want to use a piece of classical stuff that's (a) a little bit hackneyed probably, and (b) has been used in loads of films and Inspector Morse I think or something like that, and (c) wasn't written until thirty or forty years after the time in which the play is set. -- Yet as regards (c) I'm contemplating using a certain amount of contemporary stuff like Plone and Opsvik & Jennings and that doesn't seem to bug me at all. There's always this distinction (which is preserved in the forms you have to fill out for the Performing Right Society) between music that the characters on stage can supposedly hear and music that they can't. It always used to strike me as the bizarrest categorical distinction to want to preserve, and rather a profound quasi-theological question somehow in relation to the kind of work I make... Anyway, I'm digressing.

Yup. And you seem to have given up on paragraphs.

Where was I? Oh, yes, on the bus. So. Met Lucy at the BFI for lunch in that nice Benugo bar at the back, where, anomalously, the bar staff were actually quite polite and cheerful for once. Maybe they're all new. Anyway, had a good chat with Lucy. She's been working on Helium with Slung Low and was full of interesting stuff about the way that audiences now front up to what appear to be participatory theatre experiences with a real sense of collaborative ownership that, if anything, exceeds the parameters that the makers might intend.

Oops, don't tell Shutters and Wilko.

No, quite. Hm, I hope it's not indiscreet to be repeating this. I was just fascinated. She was saying about how people arrive kind of wearing this badge of honour of having been to see Masque of the Red Death and sort of ready and up-for-it and presuming free-range roaming rights. Whereas Helium is a rather more authored experience, you're guided through, there's not just this proliferation of options and routes and, you know, Choose Your Own Adventure stuff. But I suppose the genie's out of the bottle now! The thing that bothers me in all this is, as I was saying over at the Guardian blog the other day --


-- it seems to me we now routinely devalue the participatory act of paying attention. The idea that if a piece asks you to sit still and watch and listen (and would prefer you not to play Xenakis on your Quality Street wrappers), that somehow puts you as an audience member in a passive and powerless position. It's that Goodman thing, isn't it, wanting the audience partly to be moved by what it is doing -- watching. I mean I think that can be expanded on in all kinds of ways but as a basic statement I think that's very acute.

Yeah, you see, all this waffle is fine and dandy but we're supposed to be in smalltalk mode. Tell the ladies and gentlemen about the chips you had.

Yes, it's true, Benugo do do inordinately good chips.

What happened after that?

Oh, a little potter around the South Bank, up to the Hayward bookshop, then home. Bought some chocolate.

Chips and chocolate: bravo! I thought you were supposed to not be eating chocolate these days.

Well, you know. There's only so many fronts you can fight a war on at one time, right? ...And then this evening I've been taking care of my other blogs. There are three blogs associated with the Hey Mathew project, which is about a fortnight away from starting in earnest, so I've been trying to collect and post some material for those.

You're going to link to them here, right?

Probably, eventually. Not quite yet. In a few days. And one of them's private, anyway.

I thought the whole point of Hey Mathew was that thing you were saying the other day about Tracey Emin, about the demolition of privacy. Privacy the invention of naughty capitalist pig-dogs etc. etc.

True. But sometimes you need a bit of safe space, don't you? To think about things, talk about things, in a space where you're just sharing those thoughts with a couple of other people maybe, who know you and know the context you're speaking from. I don't think that's a malign use of privacy. I was telling someone the other day about how when I was pretty young, probably about seven or eight, I got caught playing doctors & nurses with a girl I was friends with, her mother walked in on us and I was outraged because I'd thoughtfully stuck a sign on the bedroom door saying PRIVATE - KEEP OUT. It never occurred to me that such a sign would have an effect precisely contrary to what I intended. I think kids do need that kind of space, and I still actually (slightly indignantly!) feel like it ought to be respected; and what's good for kids is normally good for artists, right?

So you wouldn't be up for open rehearsals? I thought that was something you were in favour of.

Well, I really like the idea, and I think it's important, but it's part of a contract, isn't it, it's part of opening out a process to its various potential audiences -- and to other practitioners, too, just as importantly: I was thinking only the other day (during a fascinating conversation with Julia Barclay, who's doing some research work on the conceptual and practical interfaces between theatre and philosophy, and the travel between the conceptual and the practical) about how little I know about how other folks, even some I'm pretty close to, actually make their work, and I do think we should share those things more. I think the blogs we're setting up for Hey Mathew can partly have that function, that people will be able to engage with our process, if they want, and either, as it were, spectate, or, if they prefer, actually involve themselves in the creative conversation. -- But it's still the case that sharing the process includes being honest about times when the doors need to be closed.

OK. Well, thank you for the characteristically full answer. We're nearly at our hour, aren't we?

Really? Already? I feel like I've only just got going. How shall we finish up?

I was thinking... How about a snapshot of right now? 2.11 am on Saturday 6th September? What's happening?

Um... OK. Well, I'm pretty tired, I'm getting that looking-forward-to-being-in-bed feeling. I had a little nap earlier but it didn't do the trick. I don't think I have the capacity for any more reading today but I might just watch -- uh-oh, here comes a guilty pleasure, even though I don't believe in them... -- I might just watch the next bit of Dead Poets Society, which has somehow ended up on my iPod. I love watching movies on my iPod, it's insane and obviously massively disrespectful to the filmmakers concerned, but I really like it. Partly I think I still haven't got over the novelty of it. I wonder what my 11-year-old self would have made of it. I thought Game & Watch Snoopy Tennis was pretty awesome. Actually I was pretty happy with a ten-colour biro.

Oh, but Dead Poets Society? Really? Are you sure?

Maybe not. Actually even just writing it down has made the appetite fade a little bit. In fact it was last night's craving. Tonight I'm not feeling it so much.

What else?

Oh, well, a certain amount of exhausted dismay at how perpetually untidy this room is. Books absolutely everywhere. I need more shelves. Every so often I really damage a book this way, and I hate that. It's like when I used to accidentally tread on the cat's tail. She was a peculiarly underfoot sort of creature, wasn't she? She'd get over it in a heartbeat, of course, being trodden on, but even writing about it now I can feel it, the awful wincing crunching feeling of having done it. And it's just as bad with books. Worse, really. They don't bounce back. Ach, this room is impossible, or I'm impossible, one or the other. Far too much stuff for the space. I was really hoping I'd have time this summer to seriously sort it all out, all the piles of papers everywhere, all this crap: but it hasn't happened yet and I guess it probably won't now. I hate being ashamed of the state of my room, though, the invisible floor. Cramps my style, innit. It's just the immensity of the task is completely overwhelming. The only upside is the peculiar juxtapositions it throws up from time to time. I trod in some wasabi the other day. It was on a plate on the floor. I was oddly proud of that.

What else?

I've got "Pearl's Girl" by Underworld going round my head. I was listening to Second Toughest in the Infants today on the way home. Mark Fisher's Guardian blog post about narrative has been on my mind in the last few days, and it was kind of in relation to that. Mark's a fantastic critic but I slightly disagree with him on the importance of narrative. It's good that he qualifies it so readily -- he's obviously not necessarily talking about linear narrative, for example. But I don't think it's right that story (which anyway isn't quite the same thing as narrative) provides structure. I really think you first have to find the formal and structural shape of a piece, and then lay narrative (if that's the way you're going) over it. It's not narrative itself, it's the acuteness of its application. -- So anyway I was thinking about the kinds of structural models that I instinctively reach for, and realising that it's almost always musical, and very often it's vertical rather than horizontal -- about layering, adding, withdrawing, rather than linearity or chains of consequence (which I suppose is what the boffins call "plot"). And Underworld do that brilliantly on Second Toughest, and it gives them space for those brilliantly abstract lyrics:

rioja. rioja. reverend al green. deep blue morocco. the water on stone.
the water on concrete. the water on sand. the water on fire. smoke.
the wind. the salt. the bride boat coming. dave in the water.
old man einstein on top of his house. white deep blue
andalusia red yellow red yellow black car. red light.
far. black place. walls. blue chair. morocco. hamburg. paris.
the pieces of the puzzle are waiting. the water of the dark boats gliding.
the bride boat's gone out to sea and dave is floating.
dave is floating. and old man einstein crazy in his attic.

The scale they work on, and the propulsiveness they generate, and the painterly qualities of the lyrics: all these factors added together tend to make people call classic Underworld "cinematic": which is as good an encapsulation as any I know of what's wrong with theatre. To me they create a really theatrical space; but that's me swimming upstream again.

Oh, good, well as long as this silly interview format at least gets us to the time-honoured "what's wrong with theatre" conclusion, that's the main thing.

Let's go to bed, eh.

I bet that's not the first time you've said that to an interviewer.

Oh but it is. It so is.

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