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.

And How Dark is Darkest?

 Posted by at 6:52 pm  Echo Effects, Old Men Travelling  Comments Off
Aug 222013
Kiosk 26, Armenian patriarchate

The darkest hour – when is that, I ask myself on my way to Ramsgate yesterday. It is hot driving the M2 motorway in the August sunshine. The roadside grasses are burnt a yellow dry and on either side flat fields spread out, empty, the harvest gone. It hardly feels like England I think, more like somewhere further south, and the hot car without air conditioning reminds me of other road journeys heading south I made long ago.

Where the time of the Devourer is begun. It is a welcome constancy to reach the leafy suburbs of the coastal town, park the car, get out and stretch my stiff legs, and feel the cool coastal breeze in my face. I am told all the county towns of Kent disappoint but I enjoy walking past the bungalows and villas and low retirement apartment blocks, not made over neat or tidy. Down towards the cliff top which rises above the harbour, it is not beautiful either and the wind off the North Sea must drive the inhabitants mad all year. Looking out the sea is empty except for a single ship near the horizon.

Not many are walking the cliff top road, only a few with dogs and leather tans. Below there is the harbour. It is empty like the dry stubble fields I saw from the motorway. The ferry stopped years ago I am told, and the railway station a generation before that. But the arcs of the twin outer and inner harbours remain, calming the sea waves as they enter. Only a few small fishing boats and other modest crafts remain. Nothing is happening in the whole harbour area, low dark buildings and cars and goods trucks parked at random angles.

Then directly beneath me there is the sea and sand and breakwaters, and the wind is lifted over the cliff so a small number of families and holidaymakers are sunbathing on the golden beach, and a few even swimming in the sea. As close to aquamarine as north can be I think.

I look into the still bright eyes of the old man who we have come to see. He will be ninety on Sunday and is not well. Hello Max, he says taking my hand in his.

May 282013

But you need to be patient with me. I’ll get there, in fact the novel has already started, we are all, so to speak, in the middle of it, you just haven’t noticed yet.

A bird is singing out of your ear, and if you were to look up and to the left for a moment you would see that it is there sitting on a small branch. It is a pale breasted bird and appears to be wearing a small red felt hat. It is probably the Owl of Minerva, or pretending to be. You can pretend too.

Look up further. The old tree you are sitting against is filled with many more birds and if you care to listen you will quickly find that they are all also singing. In fact the air is filled with song, and they are exotic songs which are not commonly heard in these shadowy, cold lands of the north. Shimmers of sound, it is a matter of fact. Look around and you could make another list of all the animals around you if you cared to. Some are wild and some domestic, chickens from the local farm, as well as lions and a rhinocerus from Africa. You appear to have charmed them all with your notes. That is the idea isn’t it? Songs.

Notations. Catalogues. The strings of your harp are also of a precise number, and tuned to an exact pitch: as I’ve had reason to say before and on more than one occasion, the musical component comes first – rhythm, balance, measure.

You could list these separately if you wanted to, and discover all the harmonies which each ‘scene’ makes. Go on pretending. And the tuning can be changed to suit the mood. We may begin happy, or sad if you prefer, whichever is proper to your situation. Sometimes it is a playful scene. Sometimes it is violent and horrific. There and back, it is of vital interest.

So when to charm open the Gates of Hell you must face first down the Furies: follow the score here – sung by a female contralto these days (I was fortunate to hear Janet Baker in one of her last performances). Keep pretending. Watch, or rather hear, the beautiful patterns of Gluck’s notations along the lines of music and the rhythms – or ‘feet’ as they are properly called. The notations, the catalogues, as your eye runs along with them, although if you prefer you could just as well call them lists . Here is a 10 minute YouTube clip of Janet Baker singing Orfeo (which includes a WWF ad to ‘Save the Rhino’ as well as the famous 1990′s staging of the Furies at the Gates of Hell). The demons love their mathematical regularities – “No!… No!!… NO!!!” : HE of course is captured, and the Furies are simultaneously captivated by what they hear. Isn’t that the point? Time no longer.

Time no longer, and my life is too short: these days the musical components seem to work better listening to Oliver Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps. I can’t go any faster, my work is a cathedral and I need a long time, centuries. And how much longer do I have?

(The Beginning and ending above include lines from ‘From an Unfinished Novel’, some draft material abandoned by Nescio and never completed: see Amsterdam Stories P121-122)

Mar 302013

Like an inhabitant of Novillas (or Buenos Aires), I have begun reading Jacqueline Rose, On Not Being Able to Sleep. In dialogic mode it was only a matter of time before I would begin doing so, but like an inhabitant of Novillas I have lost my memories of why I should have to. Somebody must have mentioned it in passing somewhere. I suppose. I only know I feel compelled.

At the beginning I note the inverted commas in the title to the Introduction: ‘Shame’ . ‘Signifying what?’ I wondered (equally in inverted commas), ‘Including us two naughties, and other literary devices, such as that all us men should be ashamed of ourselves and our history (if we hadn’t forgotten it all)’. Rose’s introduction gives the examples of the 1998 Australian ‘race’ election where the opposing parties competed in shameful exposure, and then all describes the similar process of the South African Truth and Reconcilliation Commission.

I also began to think of the 1973 Commission set up in Buenos Aires 1973 under the chair of Ernesto Sabato to preside over the investigation of the fate of the 30,000 disappeared, and the further shameful exposures as/when the bodies buried on the Pamapas came to light (if they ever did).

When we speak our shame, Rose tells us to keep a triptych in mind: shame, disgust and guilt. And not to short circuit the process, stay alert in the tragi-comedy to the moral irony through the full 3 Acts of the opera:  the LULU (say) a free earth spirit woman. Stick with it Rose suggessts, and neither grasp at melancholy (self-abasement as a matter of pride), nor rash acts generally speaking (survival for as long as possible rather than suicide – if possible).

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.

Jan 092013
VIA 2008

Es fugt sich: It Happened – It happened some weeks ago looking back over my shoulder that I saw in the distance the presence of the fifteenth century vagabond, sometime pauper, sometime wealthy merchant, knight and diplomat of princes (Burger und Hoffmann), poet, composer and musician Oswald von Wallenstein (1377-1445).

The three main topics of his work were Travel, God, and Sex. The songspiel -Es Fugt Sich (It Happened) tells his life story and is made up of VII stanzas (each 16 lines long). From the CD Songs of Myself performed by Andreas Scholl (2010) here are some following “vaguenings” of the written words:

# 1. It happened, when I was ten years old,
that I wanted to see what the world was.
I have been in warm and cold places, in misery and poverty,
with Christians, Greek-Orthodox, and heathens…

…I had three cents in my pocket,..

# II. To Prussia, Lithuania, Turkey, Turkey over the Sea, to France…

- I’ve sailed seas high and low -

… the Black Sea taught me how to cling to a barrel,
when my brigantine…

(I was a merchant then, and survived, me and an Russian.)

# III. Before the Queen of Aragon-so beautiful and tender-

I knelt down…

# IV. Mein tummes lebenwolt ich verkeren, das is war
und ward ein halber beghart wol zwai ganze jar

(Truthfully, I wanted to start a new life,

for a good two years I was a half begging monk)

… in truth, never before or after were girls so friendly…

# V. It would take too long if I told all my sorrows,

still, ravishing lips infatuate me especially…

# VI. Four hundred women and more…

# VII. I have lived…

mit toben, wuten, tichten, singen manger lai

(being wild, celebrating, making poems, and singing songs)

Ich Walkenstein, leb sicher klain vernunftlichlt

das ich der welt also lang begin zu hellen.


Toujours et Pres de Moi

 Posted by at 7:12 pm  OUT in the WILDERNESS, Tonite at the Coliseum  Comments Off
Dec 122012
Tonite at the Coliseum

Opera Erratica at Spitalfields Winter Music Festival on Tuesday night (11th December) – and I was feeling decidedly underdressed. No, it wasn’t because I was at ‘posh opera’ and I should have put on a white tie or some other moth-balled nonsense, No, it was just the intense cold walking there, one of those rare evenings in London when the ice crystals sparkle on the street pavements.

Inside the Hoxton Hall: a group of five singers from Ex Audi stand behind the stage. There are no other musicians, all the singers have perfect pitch and they sing unaccompanied - nine superficially unrelated pieces which are sung uninterupted one after the other. Most of the songs are modern (Salvatore Sciarrino, Christopher Fox and James Weeks), but there are also some songs by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) – “far reaches of chromatic harmony… into a musical realm beyond that of his contemporaries… a music of existential isolation” (the programme notes describe).

On stage behind a see-through  screen a middle-aged man and woman appear. They don’t speak, but they bring with them two wooden boxes with lids which they place on a table at the front of the stage, and then open them. The first song has begun already, and then a long naked arm appears out of one of the boxes stretching upwards towards the ceiling.

And then a small naked male figure emerges from the other box. And then another naked women from the first box. And then the same figures appear again and again through the different songs, but in different guises, sometimes clothed, sometimes naked. And then a third woman appears. She is always the same, naked apart from her white underpants. Sometimes the three people are involved in unfolding events together. Sometimes they are alone. The midle-aged man and woman appear to see them sometimes, and react with each other. Sometimes their faces express an emotion, perhaps it is a memory, but at other times it appears like chaos. There is no other sound apart from the singing.

We know of course that the three figures coming out of the boxes are not real. It is an effect called Pepper’s Ghost illusions. The show (which lasts about an hour) has been created by Patrick Eakin Young – from a time when he was living in a  foreign country and he didn’t have any actors he could use…

… to explore the issues which interest him of “loss and memory, the frustrating complexity of communication, and the projection and perception of the self”.

We know of course that the figures are not real, but we cannot help but enter fully into the life of the play, and the songspiel of harmonies takes us deeper and deeper in. I even feel my eyelids starting to flutter shut towards the end.