Here's a post of two halves, Brian. News of what I'm up to, followed by news of what the rest of the world is up to. (I think we'll agree to file this one under 'functional rather than stylish', OK?)
So, me first. Starting in the past and working forwards into the future, like some, I dunno, some person or thing in time:
Readers of recent posts will know that my performance Who You Are at Tate Modern prompted some interesting discussion but left me feeling a bit battle-weary. So I was really chuffed to receive an email from the estimable Ansuman Biswas, alerting me to his online review of the piece, here. A more encouraging note to end on, & I was immensely glad of it.
(Incidentally, I apologise to those few folks waiting on CDs of the Who You Are sound score. I still haven't got around to doing these, though all the ingredients are in place. It's impossible to say why I'm doing this post rather than fulfilling these orders, except that I suppose I feel marginally worse about neglecting the blog so appallingly this month. Ditto those who are waiting on copies of The History of Airports. All of the above will go out this week, I promise.)
Those who weren't able to catch World of Work at the Sussex Poetry Festival -- and the number of people who saw it was, after all, smaller than the number of people who made it -- might like to have a look at my post on it over at Transductions; as might those who did see it, but didn't get to look at any of the 62 cards that constituted the performance score.
Audient Marianne Morris contributes the following visual evidence of the thing having happened at all -- thanks to her (I really like these):
From our side, I think the whole thing felt like a mix between an exhilarating mess and just a mess, with the interspersal of some odd moments of surprising composure and consonance (to the degree that one or two folks could be heard insisting that we must have rehearsed -- which we didn't at all, save for a quick shuffle through the score the day before to read through any complex instruction-based cards that would have been hard to process while in performance). One particularly memorable moment had Jonny diving head-first through the fire doorway into an adjoining room -- memorable for everyone except me, that is, as I only saw a blur go past me while I was in the middle of something much less entertaining. I think overall it was good -- enough people I trust to say so or not say so have said so -- and I hope we might do it again sometime.
In the meantime, perhaps I can use this space to thank publicly everyone who made cards for us: they were: Neil Bennun, Andrew Brewerton, Lucy Cash, David Chapman, Tim Crouch, Anne-Sophie Dinant, Clare Duffy, Stella Duffy, Ken Edwards, Alex Ferguson, Andy Field, Tom Frankland, Harry Gilonis, John Hall, Alan Halsey, Robert Hampson, Ant Hampton, Alan Hay, Jeff Hilson, Wendy Hubbard, Jesse Hudson, Mamoru Iriguchi, Elizabeth James, Tim Jeeves, Lowri Jenkins, Lisa Jeschke, Birthe Jorgensen, Simon Kane, Justin Katko, Michael Kindellan, Sam Ladkin, Dominic Lash, Johanna Linsley, Brian Lobel, Joseph Luna, Peter Manson, Greg McLaren, Mervyn Millar, Tim Miller, Geraldine Monk, Thomas Moore, Anthony Paraskeva, Charlie Phillips, Malcolm Phillips, Luke Roberts, Kier Cooke Sandvik, Theron U. Schmidt, Shelley Silas, Davina Silver, Linus Slug, a smith, John Sparrow, Tassos Stevens, Chris Thorpe, Scott Thurston, Nikki Tomlinson, Lawrence Upton, Tomas Weber, Jerry Wigens and Melanie Wilson.
An even more marginal piece premiered before an even smaller audience last Saturday. Jonny has recently moved into a studio in an artists' complex in Seven Sisters and last week's gathering was to launch its public guise under the West Wing-inspired name The Situation Room -- or, surely, any minute now, the Sit Room to its friends.
There was poetry -- yrs truly, Jonny (reading his remarkable extended poem from the newly-published QUID 20, via Barque), and an astonishing London debut from Joseph Luna: nervy (in every sense), ardent, musical, distracted, and quick as the quick brown fox. And after the poetry, the theatre (remind me to tell you about the fundamental correctness of this ordering), as Jonny gave a first performance -- you might perhaps call it a sketch-performance or something (like 'scratch' but less needy) -- of a piece I'd made for him, and for which he'd only picked up the score a few hours earlier.
The score for in situ (you see what I did there) is twelve loose-leaf A4 sheets, one of which, on white card, is the ground plan of the Sit Room; the other eleven, on various kinds of translucent paper, were various texts and images designed to be layered over the ground plan, and over each other, to create a shifting, permutable score, that in theory could be organized a mind-boggling number of different ways, as well as being, in respect of each single image considered alone, almost indecently open to interpretation. Unfortunately I can't show you my favourite images from the score here as several of the sheets contain what Blogger (and, who knows, maybe you too) would consider pornography, but here are a few samples of less horse-frightening material from the set:
It was great to see Jonny at work in his new space -- & really exciting to imagine all the work that he'll be able to do there -- hopefully I'll be able to be part of much of that work. I'd like to work more on in situ too: there's a lot there and much though I enjoyed his first pass, I think we could go deeper and make the new room work harder.
Principal current task for me is the scripting for Henry & Elizabeth, the new home-performance piece. Writing this stuff is tricky -- the last couple of pieces in this format, Homemade and At Home, were mostly devised with the actors and barely scripted at all, so it wasn't so difficult to navigate between prepared and improvised material (and ninety-six shades in between). There's more direct storytelling in Henry & Elizabeth than in either of those previous shows, and it's been a pleasure writing specifically for the voices and personalities of the two wonderful actors I'm going to be working with, Philip Bosworth and Claire Burlington; but trying to envisage and write for situations that are supposed to be acutely responsive to whatever house they may be performed in is ticklish. I'm enjoying the complexity of the task, and it's fun exercising the storytelling style that I last used on Wound Man and Shirley, but I'm spending quite a lot of time with my head done in. Still, I'm aiming to finish by the end of the weekend -- hence the present efflorescence of displacement blog-activity -- and hopefully a bit of pressure, and a soupçon of adrenalin, will help me get it done.
(Btw, booking for Henry & Elizabeth in London is not yet open -- I'll say so here when it is, I promise.)
From that I'll go straight in to the final stages of making Where You Stand for Queer Up North. It's very different to H&E in every way and I've been glad to have it jockeying for position in my head over the past couple of weeks. I'm working on it with Jonny and Kier, who continually inspire me with their own distinctive creative visions -- I'm particularly excited by some of Kier's recent domestic photographic work, as evidenced here and here, and I imagine you may see that material, or something like it, popping up somewhere in the piece. Like Hey Mathew and Who You Are, the entry point is the fascinating area of queer phenomenology; but the new piece will be much shorter (we've been asked to make performances lasting 20 mins) which I hope will mean I can be even braver about treating it as, essentially, a poetic rather than prosaic structure. Wonderfully, there's no pressure from QUN or from Theatre in the Mill to do anything other than explore whatever seems to be interesting. I'm looking forward to really immersing in it very soon. Also, I just found out that the transcendentally lovely and brilliant James Lewis is going to be our stage manager for the week; I haven't seen James since we finished Wound Man and I'm so delighted he's on the team.
Tucked between Where You Stand and the launch of Henry & Elizabeth is an intriguing one-off event that it looks like I'll be participating in, as part of a season of 'Live Weekends' at the ICA, designed apparently (at least in part) as a start to the process of undoing the damage to relationships and the Institute's reputation caused by Ekow Eshun's appalling, woefully underconsidered decision back in 2008 to close the venue's Live Arts department -- just one of the many salient moments in what has sometimes seemed in recent years like a project of self-euthanasia. A weekend called Futures and Pasts, curated by Tim Etchells with Ant Hampton and Lois Keidan, is going to include a ten-hour portmanteau performance lecture, called 'Some of the Futures', on Saturday 22nd May, with a number of speakers, each involved with Live Art or live arts in some way, giving individual thirty-minute presentations on what the future might hold for work in our territory. Don't know much more about it than that at the moment, but it's an intriguing set-up; and at a personal level, my already insanely busy timetable over the next few weeks means I'll have to find an ingenious way of composing a thirty minute lecture in odd, rare, exhausted fragments of spare time between now and then. The rest of the weekend looks great, too, with a special Open Space event around Live Art facilitated by Phelim McDermott among the attractions.
Beyond that, I'm going to be spending some R&D time at the Royal Court, and starting rehearsals for The Author. The directors, Karl James and Andy Smith, and I had a great Skype chat a few days ago to kick things off; my admiration for the piece itself only continues to grow, the more I try to grasp it. I keep reminding myself that I'm only acting in it -- that I don't have to know everything, that I don't have to make my mind up, that the best thing I can do at this stage is enjoy sitting with the unanswerable questions...
In between all these things, I'm trying to research a new extended experimental prose work about Billy Joel: trying to use the composer of 'Uptown Girl' and 'She's Always A Woman' as an entry point (and exit wound) for what I intend to be a book-length essay that jumps between narrative fiction, prose-poetry, theory, musicology, social history and pornography. It has the working title Man and Pianoman: Billy Joel as Übermensch. Everybody I tell this to snorts, not unkindly, so as to indicate that they get the joke: but it's not a joke, I swear. I now have the complete works of Billy Joel on my iPod -- getting on for 150 songs: if that were a joke, it would be a bad and corny one.
* * *
And now, the rest of the world. (Don't worry, just the good bits. It shouldn't take long.)
This is really scrapbooky. No big thoughts here, just jetsam.
1. Food and drink
(a) I think Charlie Brooker is probably the best crafter of similes in English prose since Wodehouse. This description, from a recent Guardian column, of Walker's new haggis flavour potato crisps, struck me as particularly sublime:
These tasted of nothing, yet somehow managed to make that "nothing" deeply unpleasant. It's like a small piece of fried potato failing to recall a repressed abuse memory while sitting on your tongue.
(b) I don't know if you spotted these when they made the news a few weeks ago, but just in case you missed it, here are the Co-Op's 'Ambient Sausage Rolls'; for some reason I can't stop thinking about them:
The more you ponder the notion of an ambient sausage roll, the better it gets.
(c) Competition time! Some unusually unfocused web-trawling (even for me) led me to these: 'artworks' made out of confectionery, created by which well-known British radio and tv broadcaster? The artist in question has apparently had four solo exhibitions of their sweetie works over the past couple of years.
'It Takes Allsorts to Make a World'
(world map made from liquorice)
L.S. Lowry made over in liquorice and chocolate
The Beatles rendered in chocolate and liquorice
Whoever correctly identifies the artist will win any of their choice out of the three or four Haribo sweets (mostly Sour Cherries) that are currently stuck to the carpet under my desk.
And so we segue serenely from food and drink to:
2. Vomit news
I was surprised that the British press didn't make more of the unfortunate incidence of (presumably) food poisoning that marked the first Broadway preview of Lucy Prebble's Enron. Fuller accounts of the audience's behaviour can be followed through the relevant exchange on the message board at Broadway World, from which I extract one particularly poignant report:
The vomiting was truly terrible, and I believe it all came from one group who must have eaten something bad somewhere. Aside from the woman who caused the hold up at the beginning of the show, two others projectile vomited at the back of the orchestra and a third fell in front of the accessible bathroom. It definitely affected my ability to focus on the show.
3. Sheffield, gateway to the sublime (for Sam)
Sheffield was of course also home to a 19th Century MP who was officially recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as The World's Most Dangerous Spoonerism-Just-Waiting-To-Happen, but sadly YouTube can't help us with footage.
4. Free improvisation
The most unexpectedly delightful moment of the week for me was turning on Radio 4 to hear the legendary Bobby McFerrin essaying an improvised duet with local hero Gail Brand (last seen -- by me, at least -- chasing Stewart Lee round the devastated set of a comedy sketch), towards the end of Midweek. I have slightly mixed feelings about Bobby McFerrin: quite apart from his Greatest Hit, he's done many fine things over the years and very occasionally some pretty rotten ones; but I'll always tip my hat to him for the truly ecstatic solo he turns in on Chico Freeman's track 'You Are The One': it's one of the greatest vocal performances I've ever heard.
This Brand/McFerrin summit seems to exemplify a mood that's weirdly abroad at the moment, which can also be seen in Stewart Lee's excellent recent piece on free improvised music for the Times (blee!), prompted by his curation of an unexpected improv strand as part of this weekend's Cheltenham Jazz Festival. (We ran in to Stew at the recent Hession/Wilkinson/Fell gig at Cafe Oto, & Jonny got chatting to him a bit; I was shy, and hid, though I did once have a wee next to him at the QEH a few years ago, during that year's LMC Festival -- so his longstanding interest in this sort of stuff is not to be doubted. Anyone who can get Gail Brand onto BBC2 deserves rich thanks for that small mercy alone.)
Does all this begin to add up to an inkling of more mainstream acceptance for free improvisation? ...Nah, I doubt it. One swallow doesn't make a summer, as Aristotle and Ricky Martin will tell you. But equally I wouldn't buy Alan Wilkinson's assertion -- he's quoting Derek Bailey apparently, and Lee passes it on -- that "it all sounds like crap to most people on the street". Actually my experience suggests that people can be surprisingly open to this kind of music, provided it's not presented with solemnity and self-regard. They might not go looking for it, but confronted with it, they can deal with it. Far from being 'difficult' music, free improv is in a way the easiest music in the world -- vide Amorfon's lovely CD Kindermusik: Improvised Music by Babies -- though that in itself can be perceived as challenging. Everybody can play this stuff, but hardly anyone (including a significant proportion of improv musicians on the circuit) can play it really well. (The corollary question is whether that matters -- there are plenty for whom the political and ethical dimensions of free improvisation are paramount, and I don't necessarily disagree, at least not entirely.)
Though I've been an avid fan of this kind of music since my mid-teens, perhaps the most formative moment for me, and one that's worth describing in relation to the relationship between improv and the mainstream, came with realizing that free improvised music has as much, maybe even more, in common with the folk tradition as with high-end jazz or classical 'art musics': and that, like folk (which is largely improvised anyway, its degrees of 'free'-dom always changing), it's tuned in to who we are and have been socially and how we relate to the sounds that tell us about our lives. Not even punk -- and I love punk too -- ever had the spontaneity and the liquidity to be as suitable as improv as a music for (and near) people: its resolution was just too low to be anything other than generalising -- Three chords? What tyranny! -- which is why it was so lamely unable to resist its co-option, and within three years to boot, as a heritage industry. Punk requires that you shape your desires to suit its resources, and perhaps what overspills is part of its broader cultural strategy -- what are you going to do with the leftover energy? But free improv is the same size as us, and in its design (if not always it execution) there is no redundancy.
The key text to me in all this is Susanna Ferrar's wonderful album A Boy Leaves Home, which was recorded in 1995 but, the last time I gave it a listen through a few weeks ago, sounded fresher than ever. (Disclosure: I've lived in Sue's house for the last nine years, and we've worked together from time to time. But I thought her CD was amazing before I moved in...) Check the instrumentation credits: "Susanna Ferrar: violin, vocals, feet, motorbike." So, yes, it's an album about movement, about moving, moving on. But what I love especially is the edgelessness of the album. What we have is music, and sound, that are not a retreat from the everyday or a suspension of it, not a leisure option, but which are among the teeming variables of an examined life. Skipping in and out of the demotic, in and out of the idiomatic; music as dance as craft as mark-making as language as a liveable present. Only Adam Bohman's Words and Music comes close as a diaristic statement of a sound-based practice in life-writing. It is more like folk music than anything you'd find in the total output of three hundred hidebound Yetties. Free improvisation is, in this construction, no more 'difficult' than speaking, and possibly rather less so.
(As both tangent and postscript, I found the other day that my own appearance on Midweek back in 2006 can still be streamed -- an oversight, presumably: it's here if you want it. I haven't listened back to it myself, due to a heavy Cringe Quotient, but my outstanding memory of the whole adventure was the photographer Lennart Nilsson, distinguished but doddery, holding up the pictures in his new book to the microphone so that listeners at home could see them...)
5. Boys on film
I really like a couple of videos that have crossed my retinas of late: so I thought I'd share.
Tilles Singer's Skateboardanimation is just lovely: the only skate-related video I've ever seen that seems to be signalling Camberwick Green in its opening moments:
And Jessica Yatrofsky's East Village Boys, which turned up on the always likeable Milkboys blog a few days ago, is, I think, extremely smart. It uses a very basic formal vocabulary, essentially shifting an x-axis of forwards/backwards against a y-axis of dressing/undressing. What's brilliant is that out of these carefully controlled formal elements, some extremely delicate details and nuances emerge, making it a superb exercise in portraiture. It seems to me very theatrical, in the best senses, and very kindly and generous. Yatrofsky's work in general seems to sit in an interesting zone between photography and live performance and is largely fixated on the male nude, in relation to the female (and more significantly the heterosexual) gaze and mostly placed in relation to 'classical'-signalling music; a pdf of Performance and the Male Nude, a dialogue between Yatrofsky and collaborator Joshua Kil, is definitely worth a look -- I disagree or feel out of sorts about some of it, but it's interesting stuff -- and can be downloaded here.
(This video contains nudity. Like duh.)
6. Demented venal idiocy news
˂copy + paste job˃
Late on Monday 26 April, staff in Philosophy at Middlesex University in London were informed that the University executive are to close all Philosophy programmes: undergraduate, postgraduate and MPhil/PhD.
Philosophy is the highest research-rated subject at Middlesex University, with 65% of its research activity judged 'world-leading' or 'internationally excellent' in the UK government's recent Research Assessment Exercise. It is now widely recognised as one of the most important centres for the study of modern European philosophy anywhere in the English-speaking world. Its MA programmes in Philosophy have grown in recent years to become the largest in the UK, with 42 new students admitted in September 2009. Middlesex offers one of only a handful of programmes left in the UK that provides both research-driven and inclusive post-graduate teaching aimed at a wide range of students, specialist and non-specialist. It is also one of relatively few such programmes that remains financially viable, currently contributing close to half of its total income to the University's central administration.
˂/copy + paste job˃
Philosophy's not my area, but several people -- internationally -- who I would trust to know about this kind of thing have been in touch to raise the alarm and to ask for help in publicising this petition:
Those who are perhaps a little sceptical about the efficaciousness of such online petitions will anyway find at the above page further information, including more direct contact details for those who should be targeted with emails (as well as mentions in passing of similar cases in which petitioning has made a difference).
The proposed closure is described by the petition-makers as "demented venal idiocy", which sounds about right (and is also a pretty good name for a band).
7. Elegance and ethics
Diehard Thompsonistas will know that I'm very much at home to great entertainers -- in fact receiving a few months ago in response to a post here a comment from Tom Noddy the Bubble Man was possibly this blog's proudest moment to date -- and though I'm not sure about some of his recent television stuff I'm basically a big fan of Derren Brown as an exemplary third millennium vaudevillian.
I was really interested to find the other day this clip from the end of a lecture Brown gave at the International Magic Convention in London in 1999 -- so this is before the earliest of his Channel 4 shows. It's worth watching the whole clip (in fact I've just tracked down the entire lecture elsewhere online so I'll be viewing that as soon as I've finished up here) but essentially he makes two connected points here.
The first is simply an appeal to what he calls "the responsibility of elegance": that no matter what kind of style the magician (and, I'd say, by extension, any performer or maker for performance) employs, no matter how rough or clownish or informal it may be, that there is a responsibility to think rigorously about how the work is made and how it can be elegantly executed in front of a live audience. This thought has been, in various disguises, something of a hobbyhorse in these pages since the very beginning -- how many times does the word 'rigour' appear in the Concordance to Thompson's, I wonder? -- and it's good to hear it here, and I like that phrase: "the responsibility of elegance".
Brown's second point, which builds from this first, is more contentious. What he proposes is that a commitment to elegance makes it possible for a commitment to ethical practice to recede in importance on those terms. So, in the example that he uses, the question for a magician of whether or not to use stooges ceases to be a point of ethics; the a priori question of elegance overrides it. (The implication is that to use stooges may be considered an inelegant means to achieving a particular effect.)
I'm fascinated (and not a little disturbed) by this, because it comes very close to a question that started to be important to me when I was doing my attachment at the NT Studio earlier this year. I realised how constrained I had become by my sense of wanting to be scrupulous about supporting and privileging the ethical work of theatre; I hardly ever talked about my work in terms of wanting it to be 'beautiful', say. I would never create material in order that it should be beautiful: rather, I would want it to be as fully activated as possible in terms of its ethical basis -- and if this produced a 'beautiful' effect, so much the better.
I started wondering about this because I seemed to be spending so much time trying to indicate the ways in which I thought theatre, unless its pursuit was wholly underwritten by commercial considerations, was inherently an ethical proposition and an ethically constituted system: in other words, that theatre does ethical work (and that any live performance that refuses to do ethical work is not theatre). In which case, rather than fretting about the ethical index of this or that decision of staging or structure, could I instead return to a language or premise of 'beauty' (or 'elegance', perhaps), confident that what was beautiful in theatre would inherently be of ethical value?
I feel I'm in several minds about this. Partly I'm worried that I don't really trust 'beauty' in theatre, or 'truth', or any of those high-falutoids. I do trust 'beauty' in relation to, for example, visual art: but then visual art is not theatre, though it may sometimes be theatrical or it may be beautiful in ways which I think have something to do with theatricality. I know that I can feel strongly opposed to the ethical work that an aesthetically 'beautiful' piece of theatre is doing, and I probably feel more strongly opposed if beauty is present. (I'm thinking for example about the Castellucci trilogy at SPILL last year: frequently beautiful, and certainly doing ethically-engaged work, but politically -- for me -- hateful in its conception of theatre, and therefore all the more horrible because of the high, not to say lavish, refinement of its beauty.) On the other hand, could I find something beautiful that was not beautiful in a way that could be described principally in terms of its ethical value? I can't think of an example -- though perhaps some later period Robert Wilson might be in that category...
I'm not sure I would feel more comfortable in a rehearsal room where the ethical dimension of our activity together was taken for granted and unexamined. But I'd be interested to test Brown's proposition -- that (roughly speaking) if you take care of the aesthetics then the ethics will take care of themselves -- in a practical way, somehow.
In the meantime, I wonder what you think?
And that's the end of this peculiar melange. We have thrown stuff at the wall, my dears, and we have seen what has stuck; if anybody wants me, I'll be somewhere else... Actually, maybe see some of you at the next Sit Room gathering on Monday (ask Jonny for details), or at Cafe Oto on Wednesday for the super-exciting Paul Dunmall / Oren Marshall / Steve Noble gig. Given that there's still every prospect of waking up on Friday morning with a Conservative government, I can't help thinking listening to Paul Dunmall play the bagpipes has become a matter of the utmost civic urgency.