Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him."

At the risk of coming on like a fourth-rate observational comedian (rather than the sixth-rate pasha of male pattern obliviousness that I so plainly am), can I first of all make a fuss about this: that I bought some socks the other day, a pack of four pairs, and they're good socks, don't get me wrong, I'm not agitated about the socks, but there was a sticker on one of them that said: "The most comfortable sock in the world!" [sic -- or, oh go on then, soc]. Singular. Now, on the one hand (or, oh go on then, foot), I'm sure I should be pleased to have happened across the most comfortable sock in the world. As golden tickets go it's not exactly one to write home about (after all, what's a blog for?), but neither is it to be sneezed at (or into). But how curious, how exquisitely cruel and unusual, to nominate a single sock as the most comfortable in the world. I appreciate that it may not be possible for them to make all socks to the same standard of comfort: apart from anything else, outlay on stickers would presumably increase unsustainably, and their message would have to be downgraded to: "Among the equally most comfortable socks in the world", something clunky like that. Whatever, there's no way of retaining the zing of the superlative, at least not without some kind of, I don't know, distortive advertising mendacity, which obviously isn't an option. So I appreciate the predicament they're in and I will happily reiterate my gratefulness. But surely they in turn must understand that any pleasure I might have derived from the knowledge that I was wearing such a paragon of hosiery is dismally occluded by the unsettling apprehension of the shortfall, as it were, of my other sock. I am walking around -- o the humanity -- wearing a pair of socks one of which is CERTIFIABLY less comfortable than the other. Is this, by Jove, is this even truly a pair of socks? Where, in this context, can the quality of 'pairness' be said to reside? Am I perhaps, ah! poor deluded fool!, am I perhaps wearing odd socks which just happen to appear, superficially, I mean to the casual observer (of which my ankles may have many from day to day, who knows?) to be a pair? This surely strikes at the very foundations of something-or-other. My head is literally revolving with the implications. Truly, best beloved, I am wearing Pandora's socks, thank you, I'm here all week, try the Quorn.

I've spent the past few days in hot and sulphurous Portishead -- the place, yes, not the chic trip-hop torch band of yesterdecade, whose songs memorably underscored every single incidence of sexual congress throughout two whole series of This Life. No no, but Portishead, little coastal mini-town near Bristol, Port-Z to the locals. My dad's there, and some seagulls, and a newish Waitrose supermarket with, to my mind, a curious Tarkovskian ambience. I was just hanging out for a few days, watching the Open golf and reading a bit, all very chilled, I mean very hot indeed mostly but very laid back.

The most difficult thing I did all week was try to respond with as little fatuity as possible to an invitation from the Live Art Development Agency, who are compiling a publication on behalf of Arts Council England with the aim of encouraging dialogue between 'mainstream' theatre venues and artists working in 'experimental' modes. I am requested to contribute something "reflecting your thoughts on the importance and cultural value of contemporary experimental theatre and the necessity of investing in our cultural future". My response should be "between 5 and 50 words". ...Nice to be asked but I can hardly think of a more consummate example of the way in which public dialogue around live arts practice is currently prosecuted. "Here's one of the most complex questions it's possible to ask about the operations of artistic culture, posed in terms that are themselves unreliable; could you send us your response on a bumper sticker by return?" I dare say they're inviting some more extended contributions too and these 5-word quotes are the equivalent of the parsley sprig labelled 'serving suggestion' on the picture; and I have no beef whatever with the Live Art Development Agency, I think Lois Keidan and Daniel Brine have done incredibly valuable work there. But if ACE really does use 'mainstream' and 'experimental' as terms to help them think about the relations between artists, producers, audiences and the public sector, then everything they do will be expressive of a model that no longer relates helpfully or meaningfully to (at any rate) innovative theatre practice. And if this new project is the beginning of an investigation into the inadequacy of that model, or even just an acknowledgement of an anxiety about those terms, then that's great, but if they were to really get into it, the implications would be overwhelming, disabling even, for their own operations.

It did mean, nonetheless, that I spent most of the rest of the week thinking about 'mainstream' and 'experimental' practice and wondering what was what...

The evening before I left for Portishead I went with Gemma to see the West End transfer of Sunday in the Park With George. Disappointing that the promise, as advertised outside the theatre, of "AN ELECTRIC DANIEL EVANS" was not fulfilled, but other than that it was a fabulous experience. Daniel Evans (unplugged) was sensational: I've seen him a few times on stage now and I've never seen him do anything he didn't look born to play -- which is quite something, considering the distance between Sondheim and, say, Sarah Kane. In fact most of the cast were great -- though my pleasure would have been double had I known as I watched it that Seurat's mother, who has that most beautiful song in the first act, was being played by Gay Soper, near-legendary voice of The Flumps.

But is Sondheim mainstream or experimental? Perhaps he's a rare example of an artist who has become more experimental over time. Or is he always the same half-dozen steps ahead of us, leaving us always slowly catching up? Can musical theatre on a West End scale (if not actually in the West End) ever be considered 'experimental' in the sense that the Arts Council wants to mean it? ...Can we also in passing acknowledge that Jerry Springer: The Opera, which is now taken to be a contemporary benchmark in 'cutting edge' musical theatre, was actually incredibly conservative in almost every respect? Great popular entertainment, certainly, and very admirably thorough in taking out point-blank every last fish in the barrel. But if we're talking about artistic risk-taking (I always have a problem with the notion of 'riskiness' in theatre because so little is ever at risk apart from money and reputation, both of which are lousy indicators of artistic achievement, but let's go with it for now...), Sondheim has always been way ahead of anything else in the game. As evidence of which, not least, look at the cool and quizzical reception of Sunday in the Park... when it was first shown, and look at its rehabilitation now.

Same thing with Spielberg. I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind over the weekend, for the first time since I was a kid. What an awesome film! Brilliantly executed and, again, remarkably risky. Is Spielberg an experimental film-maker? I don't know how Duel was received at the time it came out but that's near-enough 'arthouse' (an appellation we sadly don't have in theatre -- maybe it's time to start borrowing it) and Close Encounters, while superficially far more complex and abundant, is plainly as much an 'experimental' as a 'mainstream' film. Partly you could see it as an experimental prototype for what became E.T. The Extra Terrestrial -- which is emphatically not an experimental film, and very definitely orienting itself to the dead-centre current of the mainstream (though no less beautiful or admirable for that). I suppose I can relate to that in a sense: there are pieces that I make definitely for me, because I want to find some stuff out; and there are pieces in which I take what I've found and offer it to an audience. To a point, the distinction is pretty clear in my mind. But innovation within the mainstream is very often more experimental, more risky, than soi disant 'experimental' work that actually is mimicking the aesthetics and systems of past experiments without pressurizing the assumptions that underwrite them.

Waaaay back in the day, when I was still a playwright, a director I worked with, who had aspirations towards film, told me (you'll have to forgive this, we were both younger so much younger than today) that he thought of himself as Spielberg and me as Scorsese. Which was intended, and taken, as a compliment: he meant that he was bang-central mainstream in outlook and I was edgier and more likely to be credible among snobs. There was probably something in that, at some level. But I'd trade everything in Scorsese's entire oeuvre for any fifteen minutes of Close Encounters.

What also struck me, actually, watching the film, was how reminiscent it was of Robert Lepage's theatre work, particularly something like The Dragon's Trilogy. The overlaying of cultures and languages, such that the information value of particular communications is surpassed by the tonal significations of the will, the desire, to communicate; the telling of large complex stories through simple symbolic blocks and rhythmic patterns; the use of light, particularly points of light, to create intimacies across (often unchartable or imaginary) distances; the way your attention is constantly directed towards people who are themselves in the act of paying attention to other people or other things. I wonder whether Spielberg was a conscious influence on Lepage. Anybody know?

In fact there is a sense in which Close Encounters is a notably theatrical movie, in so far as I take theatre to arise in part out of a situation in which actors and spectators (necessarily a more stable distinction in the area of film!) are all manifestly and actionably in the same 'room', so to speak: which is, self-evidently, usually impossible with movies, and generally suppressed in stage drama. In Close Encounters, however, we all sit in the dark and look upwards with awe at a bunch of people standing around in the dark looking upwards with awe, both sets of spectators trying to come into some kind of affirmative relation with a display of coloured lights which they can only partly comprehend. I don't think I'm sufficiently match fit at the moment to elaborate on all this but I might chew on it and come back for more some other time.

Nonetheless, to take us back to the seat of today's homily: the best 'mainstream' work is always fully, vividly, even unrelentingly experimental, whether you're talking about Timbaland or John Lasseter or Michael Barrymore or whatever. A couple of days ago I heard for the first time the version of 'Walk on the Wild Side' on Rolf Harris's album King Rolf. It would be absurd to say that it's better than the original, not least because it borrows 95% of the original arrangement: but what Rolf does, in revoicing (and somewhat bowdlerising) the lyric and overlaying his own persona on it, is, I'd say, as shrewd and amibguous a piece of self-conscious performative manipulation as anything that Lou Reed ever did; yet it's never (quotes) ironic, nor disingenuous. Listening to it is wonderfully pleasurable and one is left with nothing but admiration for the out-and-out expertise of its execution, an admiration which is partly an index of the 'riskiness' of the enterprise.

Right, so that's me making the case for Rolf Harris as an experimental artist. Probably time to stop. Work on my new show, Longwave, begins in earnest tomorrow. I am very very scared of it, I think it's going to be steep work. But I have geniuses to play with. All I have to do is get out of their way.

Oh, and for what it's worth: the great Utah Phillips he say:

"To hell with the mainstream. It's polluted. What purifies the mainstream? The little tributaries up in the wilderness where the pure water flows. Better to be lost in the tributaries known to a few than mired in the mainstream, consumed with self-love and the absurdity of greed."

...Which is also undeniably and saliently true. It's more complicated than that, of course: right up to the point that it's not.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Rambly post with crumpled wad ($1.75)

OK, I said I was going to write about dogs and Stephen Rodefer, so I shall, being a man of my word, I shall indeed write about dogs and Stephen Rodefer. Just you see if I don't. But by way of a warm-up -- because you don't just go straight into writing about dogs and Stephen Rodefer like nothing happened, for goodness sake -- here's a bunch of neat stuff, in no particular order, that's caused some manner of vibration in one or more of my sense organs in the last few days.

1. Tommy Turner & David Wojnarowicz's 1985 film Where Evil Dwells -- which can be downloaded from the 'Cinema of Transgression' page over at Ubuweb. I've really been getting in to Wojnarowicz in the last few weeks; earlier encounters with his work didn't feel satisfactory but I guess I just wasn't paying attention, or I was looking for something that wasn't there, or something. I think sometimes the presentation of his work can be somewhat occluded by the sense of him 'standing for' something-or-other (never quite defined) in relation to AIDS, as if that were some kind of summit. Which is possibly so, but it tends to detract from the continuity of his inquiries and their sharp candour in their encounters with history and with the societies invoked by his art. I had underestimated his intelligence, his radicalism, and the sophistication of his making as well as his thinking; and I hadn't understood the extent of his personal mythologies, their scope and distinction. (There's a good exhibit in the archive of the Queer Arts Resource which sets a lot of this up.) Where Evil Dwells is intense and schlocky and I find I like its qualities without very much liking it. But that's conceivably the happiest compliment you could pay a soi disant 'Transgressive' movie. Impossible to tell from twenty years' distance, anyway. Very weird to look at it in all its fumbly bleary black-and-white rawness and think of it as more recent than, say, Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want To Have Fun".

(If you don't know Ubuweb, by the way, it is -- of course you have no way of knowing this, but trust me, it is -- completely absurd that you're here right now instead of over there. Fly, my children! Fly and be free!)

2. There's a really nice moment in the interview with Miranda July which comes as one of the extras on the DVD release of her lovely Me and You and Everyone We Know where she's talking about writing the script without having much premeditated sense of the story she was telling, but instead wanting to be able to allow the changing moods of the screenplay to come from her own day-to-day emotional life, so that no matter how she was feeling, she'd always want to work on the script. She puts it much better than I do, and it might not seem like a very revolutionary idea, but it really struck me. Because I tend to think in fairly formal terms, particularly when I'm writing or conceiving a piece on a large-ish scale, and I generally tend to want to sketch out the structure and the dynamic shape of something before I populate it, it was quite a useful -- 'ow you say? -- oops upside my head, to imagine having that go-to relationship with my work. And if any medium ought to support it, theatre should. ...So we start work on Longwave in about ten days and I'm going to see what happens if I hide all my structural diagrams from myself for a while and just, uh, do it like we feel it. ("Telephone call for Bunky Green, is there a Dr Bunky Green in the bar?" etc.)

This mini-epiphany also made me dig out the Michael Andrews soundtrack CD from the movie and put it on repeat play for a while. Which in turn made me bid for a stylophone on eBay. (Everyone will be delighted to know that I didn't win.)

3. Allen Ruppersberg. My new hero. Not an artist I'd come across before, though now I notice him, of course he's everywhere, and I've obviously just been looking in the wrong direction. Very happily I made it over to Paris on Monday, with Rajni -- a belated birthday treat, to see the Los Angeles 1955-85 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. Great show, large and dense and full of slightly unconnected propositions and therefore utterly exhausting in the summer heat; but before I stopped taking it in, I lost my heart -- lock, stock, and two smoking beagles -- to Al's Cafe. Here's a taster from a terrific essay by Allan McCollum, which can be read in full here:

The menu supplied by the beautiful waitress was on the outside perfectly normal-looking—but the "dishes" were rather odd. The first offering ("FROM THE BROILER") was TOAST AND LEAVES. The second offering was DESERT PLATE AND PURPLE GLASS. The third offering was SIMULATED BURNED PINE NEEDLES A LA JOHNNY CASH, SERVED WITH A LIVE FERN. And so on. From salad to desert, Al's Cafe mediated nature into sculpture, brought the forest and the desert to your table. And it was not, as I thought for a moment, a joke. When a person ordered a "plate," the waitress brought the order to the "kitchen" behind the counter, the "cook" (Ruppersberg) put together the dish (rather quickly, as I remember), and the order was delivered to the table—perhaps a SMALL DISH OF PINE CONES AND COOKIE ($1.50), or maybe THREE ROCKS WITH CRUMPLED WAD ($1.75).

It's like Fluxus-on-vacation meets Arte Povera meets, oh I dunno, Brautigan. Or something. Only better. -- There doesn't seem to be an awful lot of Ruppersberg on the web, nor is there much in the exhibition catalogue. I'll have to keep my eyes peeled.

One question I had by the end, which it was hard to answer from the presented evidence, was whether Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy really did dominate the Los Angeles performance scene in the early/mid 70s to the extent that the exhibition (more-or-less tacitly) implies; or whether they now appear to have dominated simply because their work has been better documented and preserved. If Burden, in particular, really was so exceptionally prominent, one can't help speculating that he must have been as much a constraining or bullying a presence as an inspiring or liberating one. At any rate, his most notorious work really does strike one, in the context of this exhibition, as -- precisely -- stupid. Which may have been the necessary means, of course.

4. Crying at pop songs. Ever since I came off Seroxat for the last time in 2000, I've been, at certain times of the year (which appear to have slipped round, incidentally -- it always used to be April and November, but not any more it seems...), liable to burst into tears if a song catches me off guard. I'm not, on the whole, a person given to overmuch weepery (though I'm awfully susceptible to deaths in films, the soupier the better), so it's always interesting to go through this biannual phase and see what it is that trips me up.

So: three in the last three days. First one was ELO's 'Mr Blue Sky', which suddenly revealed itself to me as almost impossibly, complicatedly perfect -- I suspect I had the same reaction the very first time I heard it, and I guess overfamiliarity has tended since to obscure the detail of the production and the particular and immense pleasure of the harmonic sequences. (Also, the ending just overshoots, for me; eventually it's risible rather than merely, magically, preposterous.) There was a band called Fred that played the Spiegeltent while we were in Cork -- it all looked a bit like this, give or take a v+t -- and they did a frankly irresistible cover of 'Mr Blue Sky' with which, I'm afraid, Tonstant Weader could be seen and/or heard "singing along"... Point is, it's a good song. It's a good song. There is no Bruckner symphony and no Rossini opera to which I would rather listen, given the choice of 'Mr Blue Sky'.

Then last night it was Radiohead, 'Fake Plastic Trees', though in my defence (if I need any), that was some way through Julien Temple's superb Glastonbury documentary, which had quite a strong cumulative emotional pull, and if there's one thing Bends-era Radiohead don't especially need help with it's emotional pull... The only fly in the garibaldi is the bottomlessly dismaying and seemingly unforgettable knowledge that David Cameron chose 'Fake Plastic Trees' as one of his Desert Island Discs.

And this afternoon's blub-inciting anthem was 'Alone Without You', off of Mark Owen's second album, 'In Your Own Time'. This is a song that's felled me more than once in the past, too... -- in particular: if, towards the end of last year's Edinburgh festival, you saw a fat malcoordinated iPod-wearing man dancing a bit unsteadily down Rose St at about 4 in the morning (like a pissed-up teenager on prescription steroids) and then suddenly stopping and sitting by the wall crying fit to bust, I'm definitely one of the two or three hundred people it might have been. And there are other songs of his that have the same effect. 'Stand', for example, from the extraordinary third album 'How the Mighty Fall', could make a steeplejack's dad cry like Juliet Stevenson in Truly Madly Deeply. AND THAT'S A FACT.

Today, actually, I was completely fine with 'Alone Without You' right until the end: it's quite a steep fade and just as he's going into it he sings: "I sit in the car without driving", and that just got me. Which is funny, there's obviously something about this driving-not-driving motif because the first time I ever really got knocked for six by pop-crying in public, while I was coming off the antidepressants, was in Tower Records in Piccadilly (RIP), and they played (of all things) "Driving With The Brakes On" by Del 'Bloody' Amitri. It was like someone had hit me in the face with an enormous framed picture of everyone I ever loved who didn't love me back. I sat on the stairs between the ground floor and the mezzanine with an armful of amazingly credible and unpleasant alt.rock CDs that I hadn't bought yet, and sobbed my tiny wizened black heart out to Del 'Bloody' Amitri. It was like, if they'd ever given Alan Bleasdale his own hidden camera show...

I don't know what it is exactly about Mark Owen's solo stuff that so infallibly finds the pressure points at the base of my skull and the plimsoll line of my heart. I do think it's incredibly underrated work, particularly 'How the Mighty Fall', which was (I thought) an awesome development. When the Guardian asked me to pick my highlights of 2004 I chose Mark's single 'Makin' Out' as one of them, and for the next two weeks I got endless emails from over-excited Take That fans applauding me for my impeccable taste: which was a slightly eerie experience but nothing compared to what he presumably deals with every day, particularly with the tenth anniversary reunion stuff having, uh, relit everyone's fire. (YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE.) And yet when I met him, a couple of years ago when he wrote a pair of impeccably beautiful songs for a silly show I did called Nine Days Crazy, he was unbelievably level-headed and faultlessly gracious. (Big Johnny Cash fan, too.) Swear to God the feller deserves a medal.

5. Michael Kindellan & Reitha Pattison, Word is Born. Fairly recently out from Arehouse, and not yet up on their web site. I must have missed the launch of this one in the disproportionately torrential cascade of promotional offal that the contemporary modernist poetry scene generates in this country at present. First I knew of it was lunch a couple of weeks ago with long drawn-out experimental pin-up Malcolm Phillips -- himself an Arehouse author (the beautiful and eerily ineffable poems for my double) and a reliably dilated portal for the culturally tantalised and compatibly louche. Malcolm pulled Word is Born from his bag and held it just out of (my) arm's reach, I think as a tactic for reviving my interest in poetry, with which I've had something of a falling-out recently.

So I had to get my own copy and I'm awfully glad. For a start it's an absolutely gorgeously made book, nicely set and elegantly weighted. And the concept, maan, is a serious hoot. Eight poems by notorious troubadorial schism-sower Bertran[d] de Born (I go with the authors in favouring 'Bertrand', I think; 'Bertran' sounds too much like a blue-collar programming language), translated independently by Pattison and Kindellan, and the two utterly divergent versions printed cheek-by-jowl, Pattison on the left-hand page of each spread and Kindellan on the right. There are huge swathes where it's impossible to imagine the two translations sharing a source text at all: and wherever there are more openly apparent momentary connexions, they only serve to recharge, rather than dispel, the tensions between the two sets. I think perhaps I am somewhat disadvantaged by knowing some of Kindellan's other work and finding it strongly attractive. (I'd link here to Bad Press's chapbook of his Baudelaire versions but they've naughtily let it go out of print so here instead, for my disappointed Francophile readers, is a ferret modelling a beret.) So I find I'm more naturally drawn to the recto, as the Archbishop said to the bookbinder. But this just adds to the fascinating arguments about reading and fidelity that the book itself is dramatising. It's a terrific project, full of movement and robust -- promiscuous, I almost said -- camaraderie. I still hate poetry, after all that, but mostly because so little of it is as rewarding as Word is Born.

And with a link worthy of Mark Lawson at his most vaseliney, it's actually M Kindellan who delivers us back at the doorstep of this post. Dogs and Stephen Rodefer. Well, the Rodefer part. Rodefer and Kindellan are our David Thewlis and Leonardo diCaprio (whatever happened to him?) for the next few mins. Hold on to your freezeframe buttons, kids.

What it is, and see now look I've built this up absurdly, it was only a passing Thing, but Michael has poetry in the most recent Chicago Review -- real gourmet stuff -- and he was kind enough to send me a copy and hoots if there isn't an essay in there by Stephen Rodefer, called 'The Age In Its Cage: A Note to Mr. Mendelssohn on the Social Allegory of Literature and the Deformation of the Canonymous'. Now I think it's reasonable to say that while Rodefer's got serious game, as a poet with the skill and the learning and agility and the proliferating vocal FX pedals to (actually) think through poetry -- and I absolutely intend both the duck and the rabbit in that phrase, nonetheless his work in recent years, and his boundless presence in and around other work (much of it indebted to his example and mentorship), has at times been so slippery, and so insouciant in its collapse of the categorical proprieties that help us to read poems (and poets) primarily (or at least at some level) regardless of the authorial egos behind them, that there has from time to time been something shambolic and even destructive about some of his interventions, both on the page and at the circus.

So it's an enormous pleasure to read something that has all of the risk-taking qualities that one can sometimes only grudgingly admire in SR, all of the gnarly sardonic bonhomie and livid j'accusery and purple diversionary fuggishness, but manages for once, for now, to frame them so as to add up to something more rhetorically satisfying than a horseracing commentary essayed by a sexed-up lunatic. Considerably more, in fact. Rodefer's interrogation of the half-hidden half-pantomimed manoeuvres by which canons are drawn, often before the work within has even gelled, is not as boorish as it may first appear; he is quite right to name (or, more often, to re-name) names. The circulations of this capital are not abstract, not yet.

For anyone not already somewhat versed in the histories Rodefer lampoons and the scores he unsettles, the in-joke quotient might make the piece sort of unrewarding. I only wanted to celebrate it because it's the first writing I've seen from Rodefer in a while that half-dares to live up to his own significance. Perhaps that's exactly what he's been trying to wriggle out of, but even so, "le style est l'homme meme" is surely the slogan on all this season's must-have straitjackets.

Right, I'm done. I know I was supposed to say the thing about dogs but that's a big piece and I've already gone numb from the coccyx outwards. Maybe tomorrow. Night all.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Listening post

It's been a tough week, buddies, and it may be Saturday afternoon in the world, but if we adjust for the amount of stuff I've managed to cross off my task list in the past few days, it's actually still only Wednesday morning in real terms. There's a long way to go before I'm allowed out to play on the swings. On the other hand, my date for tonite just cancelled, and it would be fundamentally improper not to take this unexpected time-bonus and, frankly, wee it up a rope. And what better way than to follow the example of single geeky thirtysomething men ever since our prehistoric ancestors hacked and hewed in the noonday sun to create rudimentary Paleo-blogs out of coprolite and elk parts, by favouring the world with an account of the records I'm most enjoying listening to at the moment? Zilch better way, baby. Zip. Squat. Rien de rien. 57 varieties of nuh-uh.

So then. Here's what I've been cutting a sedentary rug to this week, Brian...

1. Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, CARTOOM! and Fakevox
I first came across this outfit maybe 18 months ago or so when their track 'The Martin Show' was pinging around the interwebulator: utterly gorgeous Rainbow Slinky-pop with the sort of laminated feel that only Japanese bands can really pull off -- its apotheosis possibly being the UFO's Brownswood Workshop compilations from the early-mid 90s. Unless, in fact, Plus-Tech are that apotheosis: which I like as a thesis because it kind of implies that Brownswood Workshop hasn't happened yet and my copies came from the future -- a much more plausible scenario than idly happening upon them in one of the 68 record stores that used to be on Kings St in Cambridge and have all been turned into hair salons. (How much hair can one bunch of students possibly generate? ...Actually, yeah, that's a lot of hair. But don't hairy students buy records any more? What's going on?) At any rate, Plus-Tech is irresistible at every level. You kind of have to imagine The Go! Team, miniaturised, turned into manga characters, scented with ethyl proprionate, ironed on to a Shibuya schoolgirl's pencil case, and triple-laminated by soft robots. ...I'm just saying, that's what you have to imagine. 'The Martin Show' -- a wonderfully hectic, crowded-out, groovy pop song that sounds exactly how a Jackson 5 milkshake with Deelite sprinkles might taste -- is actually by some way the most laidback tune on either of the albums. This stuff is (locally, at least) not too easy to track down but highly likely to induce a pink goo of self-replicating nano-summers wherever it's played. It's as close as I imagine I will ever come, now, to dancing with a bunch of happy pandas.

2. Paul Dunmall, Solo Bagpipes
I'm sorry to confess that until last year sometime, Paul Dunmall was just a name to me -- a name attached in my mind to Keith Tippett, and therefore to be reckoned with, but I hadn't begun to do the reckoning. And then I picked up a copy of In Your Shell Like on the strength of the involvement of Stevie Wishart on hurdy-gurdy (I've long been a fan of her work with Chris Burn's Ensemble and the stupendous Machine for Making Sense) and Paul Lytton, who's on one of my favourite improv albums LIKE UH EVER: Some Other Season, with Phil Wachsmann. I don't think I even noticed until I started to play it that Dunmall was on bagpipes as well as saxes. It was a complete revelation, it's a hugely exciting album but so attractive (in a gravitational sense) that I'm only now starting out on the rest of Dunmall's -- one would have to say, bewilderingly extensive -- discography (of which this is by no means all!). Solo Bagpipes is just knockout from beginning to end: strenuous, delicate, searching, settling, digging down and down and down... There is an intensity and a fidelity of attention that sounds (plausibly) devotional, and yet Dunmall's never afraid to be comical or colloquial, particularly on the tracks with Northumbrian pipes. As an exercise in gut chromatography I've heard very little to match it: though there are two further albums of solo bagpipe recordings in the oeuvre, which I shall be getting hold of when I've exhausted this one, some time in the 25th century. Admittedly, a lower panda quotient than the above, but I'm convinced very similar sounds to these pass through the transverse temporal gyri of Matthew Barney immediately before and during orgasm: which is, let's face it, more or less a dictionary definition of "close enough for jazz".

3. Mbube Roots: Zulu Choral Music from South Africa 1930s - 1960s
A lovely Rounder compilation [I initially wrote 'complication', which is a pleasing slip but not especially relevant] which I got hold of on the back of hearing, for the first time, Solomon Linda's 1939 recording of 'Mbube' on the radio a few weeks ago. Fascinating and kind of troubling to trace this song back to its source, having known only its eventual route via Pete Seeger's 'Wimoweh' and through various sixties pop renditions to the Tight Fit version ('The Lion Sleeps Tonight') which was, lamentably, one of the first singles I bought as a kid (I was eight, and therefore old enough to know better by about four or five years: though it was number one in the charts for a while that spring I seem to remember, so it can't have been bought only by infants...); and on, ultimately, to the splendid but presumably terminally stupid Dictionaraoke version by Myeck Waters. There are all sorts of questions about the appropriation of this song and the trajectory of crassness and cultural violence that that appropriation describes: though of course those questions are incredibly difficult to answer when you consider them in relation to Seeger, whose concerted internationalism probably ought to be above reproach. What the Rounder compilation also makes clear is how, so often, the pillaging was already well underway by the time these choirs and groups even made it into the recording studio, with producers adulterating the usual a capella performances by introducing piano or banjo accompaniment to make the music more palatable to middle-class tastes, and tending to strip out the vital working-class political context of the mbube tradition. ...Anyway, I really love 'Ina Ma Wala' by the Fear No Harm Choir, and I'll give it four pandas out of five.

4. Hans Appelqvist, Bremort
This is brand new (to me -- I think it came out a couple of years ago but I've only just got hold of it) so I wouldn't say I've got inside it yet, but its surfaces are strikingly attractive and the concept very appealing. 'Bremort' is a fictional Swedish town, and the music on the album is frequently overlaid and interspersed with what appear to be field recordings of dialogue and the sounds of domestic life, little fragmentary vignettes from different places in the town: no narrative, as far as one can tell, but the sense of music and daily life containing each other, or perhaps each an Escher hand drawing the other. The music is a genial mix of absent-minded piano, perky beats and nice offbeat family-size instruments -- there's some hot recorder action here -- in a coolly undemonstrative melange of acoustic and electronic, close-miked real and intelligently organised digital, and always this interplay of speaking, muttering, barely-singing voices apparently unattached to (and yet irreducibly belonging to) both individual people and the tonal life of this invented town. I can't think of anything quite like this soundworld: the music perhaps a bit like Patrick Wolf with the angst turned down to 2; the use of voices not really corresponding to the hip-hop skits or seventies rock concept albums that it might resemble in precis -- it does, in this respect, remind me somewhat of Barry Adamson's first album, Moss Side Story, but Bremort wouldn't be adequately described as an 'imaginary soundtrack' (that horribly overused phrase) because it seems to refer only directly out into the world, and not to any other artistic response to the world. It may be that Appelqvist really is sui generis: in which case one can only admire the complete lack of authorial gesturing. It's possible to imagine theatrical performance that approaches this kind of behaviour: but only just. It's extremely rich, its complexity is simply and kindly worn, and its unforced expansiveness seems to be designed to encourage a speculative response that is intelligent but not incursively intellectual. I like it more than I can (currently manage to) say. I know next to nothing about Appelqvist -- I only stumbled across him because he has a disc on Hapna, which is Tape's label (looks like Tape have been working with Minamo, btw, which is exciting news) -- but I'll certainly be keeping an eye on what he's up to.

That's probably enough for one go; I dare say we'll troll around this block again before long, my dears. For the record, I should probably note that two tracks have alternated, like Gladstone and Disraeli (say), in the gubernatorial regulation of my Internal Jukebox this week: viz., 'Going Homo' by The Dickies and, puzzlingly, The Fall's Peel Session crack at 'Hark The Herald Angels Sing'. So perhaps our next instalment will have more guitars in. For now, my work here is done: not least because some neighbour over the way has started playing 90's-build U2, which, as we know, blankly inhibits the appreciation or even the conceptual summoning of any other music or, indeed, anything bright or progressive in the human soul. Listening to late-mid Bono is like trying to eat an assortment of scouring pads in bechamel sauce while somebody harangues you about how fantastic the bechamel sauce is and why are you pulling that face when there are so many starving children who'd be grateful of a sauce that good.

Next time: dogs and Stephen Rodefer. Unless something prophylactic comes to mind in the interim.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Rendering unto seizure

Very possibly the hottest day of the year in London, I should think. And I've spent every waking minute of it (until now) slowly cooking in my room, trying to edit together a sort of showreel DVD which someone's asked me for. I haven't made a bad job of it as far as I can tell: but that's just it, I can't quite tell at the moment because the darn thing's still rendering. At the start of the process, it was reporting that it would take an hour and a half, which didn't seem too bad; but at this point more than three hours have passed and it now says it's going to take another hour and forty minutes. In other words, I appear to be using a video editing package modelled on Tristram Shandy. If I wasn't still ankle deep in the balm of post-Cork mellowness, I'd be chucking an industrial benny right now. Fish fiddle de dee, as our Aunt Jobisca taught us to say.

It's been a nice, quiet, ineffectual week, it's been too hot to do much more than potter so I've mostly been hot pottering. (Impossible to write that without mentally hearing Jim Gaffigan sing it.) Not much exertion of any kind till yesterday, when Theron coaxed me to the Barbican for their Future City exhibition. In all honesty, I know Johann Sebastian Bupkis about architecture, and left to my own devices I probably wouldn't have gone. But this is why I must never be left to my own devices. It's an absolutely sensational exhibition, a gorgeous bazaar of unmanageable visions and dizzyingly gung-ho life-enhancements. I was particularly seduced by the precariously kitsch, almost Spielbergian vision Will Alsop has for Barnsley (see here -- sorry, can't find it any bigger anywhere); and it was good to find out more about Cedric Price and about Debord's creative relationship with Constant Nieuwenhuys. It's an overwhelming show, in which it becomes thrillingly clear that (as is the case with scientists too, I guess), the metaphors that architects use for thinking about the city are not activated in order to bring their ideas closer or into greater focus, but to change what they are able to imagine in the first place. It goes beyond that lovely line of Roy Fisher's: "Birmingham's what I use to think with"; it really gets down into what is the city using me to help it think?

Anyway, it's all still very unabsorbed, and I suspect I'll go back once or twice in the next few weeks, so I might write about it again when I've taken it on a bit better. The route of the exhibition is almost a practical joke, you end up in a central area absolutely dwarfed by projections and displays, and yet towering over these little models of enormous (or scaleless) buildings. It's almost impossible to take in even at the level of which curatorial introduction is pointing at which model. So I spent the last twenty minutes going "wow!" and learning nothing. Which is fine on the weekend, I think.

And then a wander down to the river and a torturous three hours watching England go out of the World Cup. I'm glad it was a decent enough (or at least, entertaining) game and it wasn't hard to be overtaken by it, particularly after Rooney's sending-off and the subsequent long haul a man down. There were moments of stylishness, lightness, digging-in, which had been notably absent through most of the preceding games. But as the threat of penalties loomed it was impossible to feel even minutely optimistic (and surely the players must have felt the same foreboding -- they might as well have got Charlie Brown to take a shot, and Lucy to promise not to pull the ball away...). The immediate aftermath was desperately poignant; there can't be much in the world more likely to thrum at one's mirror neurons than the sight of John Terry crying. I'm sorry Sven's going, but that's almost certainly because I have so little actual interest in football; I liked England having a manager who didn't behave like a secondhand car salesman. But almost everyone with any kind of informed opinion seems to think he was ruinously bad. It's just hard to know that from the results -- I mean it's hard for a layperson like me to get any sense of what the potential of that squad, or the available pool outside the squad, actually was, because almost every (local) assessment of it travels inevitably through the lens of this weird notion that national victory in the World Cup is somehow the birthright of every English citizen.

I'm sorry to see Beckham resign as captain, too, though I'm sure it's the correct decision. He's been in appallingly lousy form for what feels like a dog's age, notwithstanding the sublime free kick in the Ecuador game. Still, it's been interesting to watch his transformation over the past few years; I've rooted for him, residually, ever since '98 when that sending-off resulted in an unbelievably savage lambasting in the press, and there were stories of Beckham effigies being hanged and so on. (...& I also loved him for agreeing to do the Sam Taylor-Wood piece: it made both of them more interesting.)

It was good, anyway, to see the game with loads of other people around, and it was a good atmosphere at the Founders -- I should think almost equal numbers of men and women, which makes a huge difference to the quality of the roaring.

I remembered today, stitching together some footage from his horses for this DVD, that Theron and I only made that piece at all because we'd been planning to do a small group production of Macbeth and couldn't get the funding together. (Much like how Quirkafleeg came about.) Which is why his horses is such a ragbag of ideas -- it was kind of a dumping ground, at least initially, for all kinds of displaced images that suddenly had no performance to house them.

(I think I probably remember that pretty much every time I think of his horses, and then instantly forget it again. ...There's a rat in mi kitchen at the moment which I think Dave put there, a lifesize model rat, as an experiment to see how long it would take me to notice it; of course Captain Oblivious here eventually had to have it pointed out to him -- but now, every time I go into the kitchen I notice the rat and am momentarily startled, as if it were a real rat. I wonder if I'll ever get used to it. Maybe the sensible thing would be to remove it but that seems unsporting.)

Anyway, so I'm wondering whether this is an indication that I should stop mithering about The Witch of Edmonton and The Young Disciple and just make something new with the same impulses behind it. I mean, they're both really unworkable plays, and The Young Disciple really isn't very good. What if I were just to write down a list of the twelve things that I've been imagining about each of those non-productions, and make a show out of those things instead? Would that get the bug out of my system? Or is there something about the (specious, in both cases) authority that the printedness of those scripts confers? -- Cowardly, but true. Nonetheless, J was trying to convince me of this approach -- "just do the bits you like", he said, in his low-falutin' way -- and now I wonder whether there's something really in it.

Mark Lawson was on Private Passions this morning (Desert Island Discs for people who actually like music) arguing -- again, in very simple but effective terms -- for the right to enjoy John Adams and Morton Feldman, both of whom he picked. In a way, John Adams wasn't quite le chap juste for me, because I really don't like very much of his stuff any more -- I was quite keen as a teenager but there's not much nutrition in him musically, though the ideas of Nixon in China and Death of Klinghoffer appeal, and I still feel fondly about his piece 'Christian Zeal and Activity' which I used in a show once. But on the other hand, I suppose that's exactly the point -- it ought to be OK to dig who you dig. Didn't it? I guess I think of it in slightly more vigorous terms -- that there's a virtue in being interested in as much as you can, and to locate your response in that, rather than in 'like' / 'dislike', or in 'our gang' / not... I feel more and more that some of the brainy people around me are actually really boxed in by a categorical or programmatic or (at any rate) ideological rigidity that they use to confirm or deny their availability to certain things. They're beautiful and inspiring people and their militancy is bracing but it's a very bullying mentality, actually, and I guess it's mostly a sort of outsize concretized fig-leaf to cover regions of ignorance and fear. I feel like I sort of want to stand up to it a bit more, perhaps. People take such absurd pride in thinking they know the difference between good and bad art. It's so brutish and insensible. Why would anybody prefer to not know anything, rather than know it?

I seem to be getting a bit ranty. I'll give over for the moment. Suspect it's too hot to sleep but luckily I've got another four hours yet of being ten minutes away from the end of the rendering process. It would have been quicker to take snapshots of each frame of the video, print it out onto glossy paper, and make a giant flickbook. Bugger. Why didn't I think of that ten hours ago?