Santa is Back in Town…

 Posted by at 12:25 pm  Exodus, IN Conversation, Tonite at the Coliseum  Comments Off
Dec 112013

It is that time of year again when some old man with a big beard and a reality problem visits all our homes.

And as we sit around the fire together on dark December evenings, jesting and telling each other stories of death and life, we can hear the whispering of the Ancestors as they draw closer to join us from out of the surrounding shadows.

One of my current favourite stories of Death and Life begins like this:

‘It was a very momentous day, the day on which I was to be slaughtered. (Fear not, have faith!) The king was ready, the two attendants were on hand. The butcher had been ordered for half past six; it was a quarter past and I myself arranged for the necessary preparations. We had selected a spacious hall for the occasion, so that many spectators could comfortably take part in the festivities. A telephone was within reach. The doctor lived next door and agreed to be on call if a member of the audience fainted (etc…)...’

It still has my hairs standing on end – does it yours? – and wanting to read on. To read the rest of this scintillating short story click on –  ‘The Onion (Merzpoem 8)’

The story was written in German by Kurt Schwitters in 1919 – just imagine that; all that time ago and it feels as though it could have been written yesterday! – and the 2010 translation is by Peter Wortsman.

Aug 282013

A “Long Time to Hope” or an account of odd and alien sounds on the Isle of Man: you or I raising our profile might equally end in a spell of internment there too. ‘Man’ – an odd name for an island isn’t it? – the island, not quite amusing enough for a snigger, but certainly some sort of odd or alien sound: Manx – even odder isn’t it? – and the island being the preferred place for German speakers to be sent to during the last war, and others who had raised their profiles.

You speak German? Then off you go! No – Italian then? That’ll do just as well. All aboard the jolly steam boat and off to the callipsy isle in the middle of the Irish Sea.

How about a “sonata of primitive sounds”? Ursonate , subtitled as such, was the name of Kurt Schwitter’s work of art – a poem if you like – which he wrote and performed quite regularly during the years of the Weimar Republic. It became quite famous and was even made into a phonograph, raising his profile further so that it brought him to the attention of the ‘super recogniser’ authorities of his time. The Nazis designated it Degenerate Art, and soon enough Schwitters had to leave Germany in a hurry. First to Norway, but then when the Wehrmacht invaded there he took a boat across the North Sea.

Arriving in Edinburgh: Raise your profile please. You speak German? Aha, then off you go to the Isle of Man!

It took over a year for the British art establishment to persuade the ‘super recogniser’ authorities that Schwitters wasn’t a Nazi, and indeed that he was a leading continental artist. Released to the polite drawing rooms of London’s W1, he performed Ursonate there too. Not much appreciated by the polite after-dinner audience. But no sniggering please…

…as I found for myself listening to a recording of Ursonate being endlessly looped in one of the exhibition rooms of Tate Britain earlier this year. No sniggering among any of us few earnest listeners in the room as we stood looking at a white wall on which some of the joined-up letters of the sonata – I hesitate to call them words – had also been transcribed. Listening a short time before moving on wordlessly into the next exhibition room.

However, I was unable to remain quiet on Sunday reading the memoirs of my 95 year old Ur-mama who had come to lunch. Snorts and sniggers! Early in her 20′s during the first years of the war she found work in the Visa department of the USA Immigration Service, but when she raised her profile and started to speak in German to some of the Jewish and other refugees seeking access to the USA to help them satisfy the strict quotas in force at the time, the British ‘super recogniser’ authorities stepped in.

You could end up in the Isle of Man, a friend told her warning her about odd sounds and alien affiliations. So she had an interesting war, and later was employed listening to German naval radio traffic…

…”A long time to hope” – reading the sections of typescripts of my Ur-mama’s life from 1940 to 1946: a painful story of remorse too, she feels compelled to raise her profile again and wants to publish this section, but her children and grandchildren are not so sure that she should do so. I snort some more.

Ja-Was? Bild

 Posted by at 11:07 am  Exodus, OUT in the WILDERNESS, Tonite at the Coliseum  Comments Off
Mar 212013

“Yes What? Picture” is a 1920 work by the German artist Kurt Schwitters – a large painting in oil, cardboard and wood.  As if making a habit for myself, I stood in front of it again this morning for several minutes in Tate Britain, and to remind myself of the meaning of Merz: ‘denotes essentially the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes, and technically the principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials… a perambulator wheel, wire netting, string and cotton wool are factors having equal rights with paint . The artist creates through the choice, distribution, and metamorphosis of the materials’ Die Merzmalerie (1919, Article written by KS for Der Sturm magazine)… KS later adding elsewhere “deciding for the composition is the rhythm” (1940′s letter while in London).

I am on the clattering train from Waterloo to Southampton, and later tonight  I am going to a performance at the splendidly 1930′s soviet looking Mayflower Theatre building in that city by the sea: Alban Berg’s opera LULU (a brand new production by Welsh National Opera).

LULU – the greatest opera of the 20th Century (some say)!!! Based on an play called Earth Spirit by Frank Wedekind, it is a rise-and-fall story of a very lively/sexually active woman. Berg’s 12 tone radical music has a similar rise-and-fall symmetry, running backwards note for note towards the end in a wonderful  method of recapitulations: the perfect example of the modern coda – full of life – you might say.

Like Schwitter’s Merz work Berg’s music has also had to struggle hard to survive. Banned from Germany, the first performance of LULU was in Zurich in 1937, a few years after Berg’s death from blood poisoning (apparently following an insect bite). It was an incomplete work at that time, and following this performance his widow refused to allow the additional material  which Berg had written to be added to the score. So it was that only after her death over forty years later the premiere took place on 24th February 1979 at the Opera Garnier in Paris (even the BBC felt obliged to put it on prime time TV).

These two naughties were separated by a certain distance (as you advise naughties should always be): as for Schwitters (he neither fits the description of abstract artist or constructivist), “Citizen and Idiot” is how he called himself. Berg might well have used a similar description for himself.

Two naughties and lives of suffering? It was Samuel Beckett who in his study of Proust wrote: ‘The laws of memory are subject to the more general laws of habit. Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities, the guarantor of  a dull inviolability, the lightning conductor of his existence. Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is a habit. Life is a habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals… the creation of the world did not take place once and for all, but takes place every day. Habit then is the generic term for the countless treaties concluded between the countless subjects that constitute the individual and their countless correlative objects. The period of transition that separate consecutive adaptations (because by no expedient of macabre transubstantiation can the grave sheets serve as swaddling clothes) represent the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being’ (Proust and 3 Dialogues with Georges Duthuit. 1999)

The lives of suffering of those two naughties Schwitters and Berg whether under the jurisdiction of Satan or Christ: considering your description of the new Pope like a ‘Man of Steel’, this of course was also the name Stalin took for himself. The Russian writer Bulgakov would have also especially appreciated this irony, as well as the kindred ironies of artistic pain experienced by Schitters and Berg. And also have praised their spiritual courage. And wished them the peace to be given to any Master.

But for Papa Francesco it is too early to say how the habits of his new clothes and vestments will recreate the habits of the man, or (as Bulgakov would have put it) his spiritual courage.

Master of the Merzstall

 Posted by at 11:05 am  Holy Fool/Hero, IN Conversation, Old Men Travelling  Comments Off
Jan 232013
Merz stall Scwitter031

I am looking forward to going to Schwitters in Britain at Tate Britain (30 Jan – 12 May). I like the way TB shows are often less grandiose than those in T Modern, and on more difficult artists from a discomfort zone, the ones that don’t fit in.

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) – artist “worked in collage and paint, sculpture and performance, poetry, and fairy tale…” . And master of Merz (random cut off from “Kommerz”): Merzbau (bombed by the Brits 1944, while KS was living in England!), Merzbarn (a wall built near Ambleside that has now been moved to Newcastle).

Or Merzstall (like Wordstall): vote Kurt S(c)h(w)itters for immediate induction into our hall of (in)famy!