Friday, 14 July 2017

‘ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG’

Another in a long and noble series of art exhibitions reviewed after they close


”A picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.”
- Rauschenberg

The Start Was Anti-Art

Robert Rauschenberg is an artist who can be hard to place. Arriving in New York in the Fifties - after, and in vivid contrast to, Abstract Expressionism - he’s often associated with it’s successor Pop Art. And he can seem to match Pop’s philosophy, as expressed in my recent review of the Academy’s Abstract Expressionism show: “You didn’t make art by contemplating the depths of your soul, but by taking surface features of the world around you and recombining them.”

And this is emphasised by his bold use of colour. Eschewing any intricate tonal qualities he usually picks the bright primary and secondary colours a child would choose – bright reds, full blacks and whites, bold greens, solid oranges.

Yet Pop, particularly American Pop, is cool, neat, smooth – and ultimately detached. Warhol’s silkscreens are like the mass produced products lined up neatly in a shop window, whereas Rauschenberg’s paint-spattered assemblages resemble the broken-down stuff slung out the back. A look normally achieved by his making art from objects thrown out in the trash. (Notably, though the Tate’s mailing called him “a Pop Art pioneer”, the show itself stays away from the term.)

Certainly, this singularity is part of his appeal. He was not just a contemporary to Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly but had romantic relationships with both. Yet neither of those artists appeals much to me. But he’s not quite the one-off he appears. And in fact the start of this show does much to reveal his secret origin. His roots lay in what, at least in my mind, was the most important Modernist movement of them all. In a word, it’s Dada.

In 1947 he enrolled in Black Mountain College, described in the indicia with rather English understatement as “an unconventional institution”. With John Cage and Merce Cunningham as tutors, it was effectively Hogwarts for anti-artists. (It even has that numinous Lynchian name, making it seem still more the stuff of fable.) And, like a story which began in legend even then, Cage and Cunningham, were themselves disciples of Marcel Duchamp. (Cage, Cunningham and Rauschenberg all featured in the Barbican’s ‘Bride and the Bachelors’ exhibition of 2013, on Duchamp and his successors).



Much of this early work is conceptual in nature, even if the term doesn’t come up. It doesn’t matter much what for example ’Black Painting’ (1951, above) looks like. It’s more the fact that he painted it. It’s the size of a vast Ab Ex work. But unlike, say, Barnett Newman’s smooth surfaces it’s rough and uneven, made of scrumpled newspaper soaked in black enamel.

Two things to note: though Rauschenberg was officially a student of Cage and Cunningham’s, it seems they soon embarked on collaborations. And the fairly self explanatory ’White Painting’ (1951) is believed to have been an influence on Cage’s ‘silent composition’ ’4’33’’’ (1952). Plus the provocative refutation of Ab Ex sometimes seems openly intentional. ’Automobile Tyre Print’ (1953) was made from tyre tracks as Cage drove over lined-up pieces of paper. It seems a wilful parody of the Ab Ex notion that artworks were about capturing the gesture made by the artist.

More notorious was ’Erased De Kooning Drawing’ (1953) in which he… well, the title gives the punch line away. This could be seen as an antagonistic gesture, literally rubbing out the opposition, as a Dada prizing of negativity over creativity, plus a Modernist desire to be forever in the moment and starting from scratch. (Though the history of the piece is strangely complex. De Kooning had given him the drawing, precisely for that purpose, but later objected to the exercise being publicised.)



But possibly more important for his subsequent development are the Personal Boxes and Elemental Sculptures. (See for example, ’Untitled’, 1952, above). These were made from found materials, a practice Rauschenberg cheerily admitted was due to his straightened financial circumstances at the time. (On moving to New York in 1949, he subsided in a condemned building with no hot water.) But what’s significant is his uninterest in disguising their origins or even their weatherbeaten appearances. 

Unlike the hermetic spaces of Joseph Cornell, packed with secret chambers, Rauschenberg’s assert their materiality. Cornell magically transforms, takes twigs and suggests mighty forests. With Rauschenberg twigs remain twigs, thorns stay thorns and dirt is just dirt. There’s anti-art here, but also a back-to-basics assertiveness. And it may be Rauschenberg was also channelling another Black Mountain current. For his tutors also included ex-Bauhaus artist Josef Albers, who emphasised the “natural properties of everyday materials”.

Duchamp is not stuff which washes out, and and his provocative conceptualism recurs through Rauschenberg’s career. ’Shades’ (1964), for example comprised six prints on plexiglass arranged before a bulb, re-slottable into any order. When having agreed a commission for a portrait of Iris Clert then promptly forgetting about it, he sent the show a telegram with the message ’This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So’ (1961).

But from this point on he stops making art purely to illustrate points and instead hits on aesthetics. There’s still a heady dose of anti-art, as if he’s defying us to take his output as finalised works. But they are, if you follow, anti-art art. Cage’s commitment to conceptualism, his fixation with the process and indifference to how the finished work turns out, all that is left behind.

And perhaps that’s what you need to do with Cage – make him your tutor, but remain aware at some point you need to graduate. The composer John Adams has remarked how he initially found Cage’s all-embracing theories of music liberating, but after a while those strictures came to be confining and he had to break from them. Cage is like the Grand Master in those kung-fu films, who the hero goes back to after some setback to reorient himself. You take on as much Cage as you can, but from there you need to clear your own path.

The Splatters That Matter (Going Red)


Once in New York, Rauschenberg embarked upon the Red paintings. ’Yoicks’ (1954, above) is built around a contrast between regular patterning (the stripes and green dots) and the random (the roughly applied, dripping paint.) It could be read as art (form) and anti-art (formlessness) set against one another in some ceaseless, Manichean struggle. Each trying to overcome the other, while being reliant upon it’s existence.


And much of the idea here comes from the understanding that art is not merely the realisation of your intention. Even as you paint the brush will always take its own direction, and that should be acknowledged and made part of the work. This juxtaposition recurs frequently, for example in ’Bed’ (1955) when he daubed and trickled paint over the patterned squares of his own quilt and pillow.


’Charlene’ (also 1954, above) incorporates photos (including of other artworks), newspaper clippings and found objects – including reflectors and an umbrella. Some of these are visible, others semi-buried under great occlusions of paint. Yet at the same time the division of the work into panels, and the incorporation of a flickering light in a frame, is almost a reference to Renaissance art.


It was this incorporation of objects into paintings which would soon develop into his best-known works, the combines. He would walk the streets of downtown New York, finding and utilising discarded objects. He rarely needed to go further than a couple of blocks. Findings included a door, a handle, a metal bucket, brackets and what look like pram wheels, all of which summarily show up in ’Gift For Apollo’ (1959, above).


But it’s ’Monogram’ (1955/9) which is one of his best-known works, and a crowd-puller for the show. The tyre, a perfect man-made object, is placed around the goat with horns and painted face. This combination would seem to make up the monogram of the title. The combines often add physical objects to a flat painted surface, but unusually with ’Monogram’ this is placed on the floor. A shoe heel planted in the board (to the goat’s left in the illo), emphasises this.


What to make of it all? While Rauschenberg was gay, Robert Hughes’ theory that it’s all a metaphor for anal sex is now pretty much rejected. It seems a trivial biographical detail shoehorned onto a work, and besides in the piece’s long gestation the tyre was added late. The wildly painted goat’s head recalls to me both the phrase “painted savage” and the donkey’s head atop a piano from Dali and Bunel’s surrealist film ’Un Chien Andalou’ (1929, illo above). Above the dead painting rises the savage spirit of art, untrammelled and ready to inhabit pastures new. And those pastures are things society has thrown out, like the return of the repressed.

Or something like that. But really, I’ve no idea. Like much anti-art, the work is volatile and inchoate. It seems to simply shrug off analysis. You’re never even sure of its tone, whether to find it compelling or mischievous. And that’s probably the point. As Adrian Searle wrote in the Guardian, “Rauschenberg kept definitions at bay throughout his career, allowing himself less the task of understanding than that of making. Sometimes it must have seemed as if his art almost made itself. He never tried to sew things up.” Art is often about trying to bring order to the world, through the manipulation of symbols. Rauschenberg reminds us we can’t even bring order to art.

And that’s inimical to his lineage. Anti-artists are often accused by smart-arse know-nothings of failing to recognise a basic contradiction. But what dim bulbs perceive as a weakness is the very point, the contradiction is precisely the thing you want to raise – artworks which clearly exist, but your brain doesn’t know what to do with them. His combines contain objects, recognisable things, bits of the world. And yet for all that they’re ultimately inexplicable.

Radical and innovative artists are often said to have divided the critics. Rauschenberg united his, and they were united against him. With the heady, metaphysical world of Abstract Expressionism all the rage this out-of-towner, hauling bits of trash into galleries, ran counter to ever fashion. (His comments at the time seemed to even invite this polarity: “I want my painting to look like what’s going on outside my window, rather than what’s inside my studio”.) But perhaps his indefinability had something to do with this too. Unlike Rothko’s colour fields, there were no metaphysics to float off into. His metal buckets and painted goats left critics without a role, something unlikely to go down well.

Images Rub Off On You

I earlier compared Rauschenberg’s combines to Warhol’s silkscreens. Yet of course he not only turned to screen-prints himself but at roughly the same time as Warhol – in 1962. Though there’s debate over who influenced who, this show contains transfer drawings of his going back to ‘58. (Transferring magazine images by oil rubbing, the way the ink from a wet newspaper will come off.)

Ostensibly easier to read than the combines, it was these screen-prints which cemented Rauschenberg’s popularity. And they do look very Sixties in their immediacy, their ‘fastness’, compared with the multi-layered works of earlier. But is that look misleading? Does it confuse our propensity to scan images with our ability to read them? Are they not less challenging but more beguiling?


And in fact Rauschenberg handily proves what they’re not by providing one standard photo-collage - ’Signs’ (1970, above). We’ve all seen such works, images from magazine covers distilled into one frame. And indeed it was originally intended as a magazine cover, for ’Time’. (Though rejected due to the incorporation of a bloodied civil rights protestor.) We don’t question why Kennedy and Joplin are adjacent any more than we question who they are. The medium naturalises their association, because it’s expected to act as a prĂ©cis of its times.


The screen-print ’Retroactive II’ (1964, above) even incorporates some of the same elements, such as Kennedy and an astronaut. But with this medium we cannot help but be more aware we are looking at a reproduced image of Kennedy. The image being less perfected makes everything looks so much more in flux. (These images, remember, stem from the still more ghostly transfer drawings.) 

And what about those points where Rauschenberg has directly applied paint? The show comments how he’d “unite disparate printed imagery with gestural brushwork”. While David Anfam, in his book on Abstract Expressionism, describes the two styles as “colliding sign systems”. In a way they’re the reiteration of the stripes and splodges of earlier. One we associate with mass production, with disseminated information, and the other with personal expression. It’s like reading a letter which shifts between an official-looking font and spidery handwriting. 

The prints are placed in an adjacent room to ’Oracle’ (1962/5) a multi-part sculpture of scrap metal parts and wireless mikes. This includes a detuned analogue radio, switching continually between static and snatches of stations, providing a companion in sound for what the prints are doing.

Rauschenberg would also reuse images from print to print (trucks, military helicopters) in different contexts and combinations, as if turning the images of the mass media into personalised motifs. Sometimes he would employ his own photos among the media images, such as ’Scanning’ (1963) which incorporates an snapshot of the Cunningham Dance Company.

Ultimately the screen-prints seem less to do with Duchamp or even Cage, and more an analogue of William Burroughs’ cut-ups. The everyday reality we experience is not just used as source material for the artist, as it is with Schwitters' bus tickets. There’s also the sense that it’s an obscuring fiction which, when cut up and reassembled, will start to tell the truth.

The prints were so popular that Rauschenberg won the Grand Prix at the 1964 Venice Biennale. In a story now well-know, he called his assistant the very next day with instructions to destroy all his remaining silkscreens, resolving it was time for something new.

Creating A Performance

The Surrealists liked to see mistakes as “sacred”, providence in action. And, appealingly, it was a mistake which led Rauschenberg into his next endeavour. A 1963 programme had accidentally credited him as a choreographer, which suggested to him he take up performance.

Except that chess move, however appealing a story, isn’t quite true. As ever, finding out about an artist undermines their myth. And the reality cannot help but feel a little disappointing by comparison. Rauschenberg had always built on what had gone before. He had made giddying leaps, yes, but had always leapt from where he was. And even burning the screen-prints, though the biggest leap yet, didn’t take him back to square one. 

He had often provided sets and backdrops for Cage and Cunningham, often of such a speedy and extemporised nature that they were essentially part of the performance. Plus he’d at times worked performance into his art. ’First Time Painting’ (1961) had been painted on stage with microphones to pick up his brush strokes. When an alarm embedded in the canvas rang, the work was declared finished. While this description might sound gimmicky, a performance disguised as painting, the resulting work is one of his best.


Performances included ’Elgin Tie’ (1964, still above) where he descended from a skylight on a rope, finding and responding to objects tied along it as he went. Finally he climbed into a barrel of water and was led off by a cow. Except the cow flunked it on the night, and just shat on the floor. Or ’Spring Training’ (1965) which included turtles being unleashed with torches on their backs while Rauschenberg wheeled a shopping trolley through the audience filled with ticking alarm clocks. The group set up to perform these, the Judson Dance Theatre included Tricia Brown, providing a direct link to the Seventies Downtown scene.

Generally the performances are situational, about setting something up then seeing what happens, so are less parametered, more free-form and anarchic than the chance scores of Cage and Cunningham. Yet they’re also too clear-cut a ‘performance’, with defined roles before a set audience, to be Fluxus happenings. They’re mid-range crazy.

Playing With the Box (Flat-Pack Art)

To reinvent himself Rauschenberg clearly needed to burn things down. Yet every time he does it a little of him gets lost. The show peaks early, with the combines, and from there declines. At first very slowly, and the enticement of the new prevents you noticing. But from this point on the seams are starting to show.

In 1971 he relocated to Captura, an island off Florida. Though the show slides over it, this was a virtually enforced move - to overcome his escalating alcoholism. Yet what was good for his health was not so invigorating for his art. You get the idea that to Rauschenberg the trash of New York was simultaneously poison and fuel. His art was a response to how he found the city, both literally and metaphorically. 

In fact his new practice became to display the used cardboard from the mailing packages he received. It’s like he was in exile on Captura, and all he could do from there was fetishise his connection to the outside world. These displays get us to focus on something we would normally see as incidental, and often employ the distressed nature of the boxes. But overall the main thing in their favour is comparison to the bypassable textiles from the same period. Ideally the show would not devote so large a room to these when the highly productive early years are run through so quickly. But you can’t win ‘em all.

Art of Our Ruins

Happily, exile was temporary and Rauschenberg’s fetishisation of the outside world became interaction. He founded ROCI, the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (1984/9), where he’d visit a country, stage a responsive exhibition, donate the work to a native museum and move on to his next stop. There is at times something slightly worthy about all this, betraying its roots in the Live Aid era. But it’s a Rocky comeback compared to the cardboard boxes.

Notably the best work from this era came from a place he had more of a personal connection to. In 1985 Rauschenberg returned to his home state of Texas, to find it impoverished by the end of the oil boom. This inspired his Gluts series. “Greed is rampant”, he commented, “I want to present people with their ruins”. Though this included latter-day combines, incorporating rusting highway and gas station signs, the best of the work is photographic.


And the strongest of these is ’Glacial Decoy’ (1979, above), a series originally intended as a backdrop for a Trisha Brown dance piece. Most are anonymised, de-contextualised close-ups - a broken window in a dilapidated frame, a stone on the ground. Some have moments of movement to them, such as water spurting or a solitarily American flag fluttering. But they’re eerily de-habituated, as though only traces of humanity now remain. We see the odd figure, one with their back to us as they paint a sign, but birds and animals are more common.

But most effective is the format. Four images are adjacent on a slideshow. But they are less juxtaposed than accumulated, running right to left across the screen. And this gives them a quiet inevitability. A panorama of desolation, however vast and huge, must by necessity have an edge. And then the ever-hopeful human brain soon goes to that edge, and tries to imagine things are better beyond it. Wastelands are barren, but have parameters. Whereas there's no edge to this slide show. Pick a card, any card. It doesn't matter which, there's no winning hand to be found here. Just endless reshufflings of the same bum hand in a card game you can't win.

Rauschenberg’s earlier screen-prints had been largely reliant on the mass images of the media. Many of his later works look back to them, but advances in photographic and print technology meant he could make more use of his own photos.



’Duet [Anagram (A Pun)]’ (1988, above), particularly with its title, seems to invite comparison between it’s elements. And unlike the photos or the screen-prints they’re signs and symbols, designed expressly to be read. Yet while meaning tantalisingly looks like it should be within reach, it never quite yields up. The musical bell could be said to be like the telephone and the telephone like the musical notation, itself comparable to the measuring rod. But the notation seems to also morph into contour maps and diagrams, while a chicken also cheerily appears. Rauschenberg remained cheerily inexplicable until the end.

Despite what some who practice it fondly want to believe, art does not emerge from the furrowed brow of the artist. It may be instanced through individual creators, but it’s always a social product. So it follows that the high point of Twentieth century art was when the conditions for creating art were the most promising. Effectively, this loads everything onto that century’s first half. Check how many blog posts I’ve written about the era before 1945, and how many after.

But neither is the story schematic, and Rauschenberg was not only one of the finest American artists - he came up with his best work in the supposedly staid Fifties. He kept the Dada tradition going, picking up the baton from Duchamp, Cage and Cunningham, then passing it on to Trisha Brown and the Downtown scene of the Seventies. What’s more he passed a magic shapeshifting baton, which transferred the anarchic spirit to it’s holder without ever degenerating into an orthodoxy.

It’s true, he peaked early with the red painting and combines. Though that peak was so high that his next wave of works, the screen-prints and performances, still stood tall. Admittedly with subsequent offerings the trajectory was noticeably downward. To the point you could claim his burning of his remaining screen-prints was more brave than smart. But a decline in quality is the career curve of the majority of artists. While Rauschenberg was back on the incline in later years. In word and deed, he was exemplary. If we were to think of the greatest post-war American artist, there is only Pollock to rival him.




Coming soon! Well I still seem to be seeing art exhibitions faster than I can write about them, so I guess what’s coming soon is more art and more belatedness...

Saturday, 8 July 2017

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY FINDS MORE BRIGHTON GRAFFITI...

...this time around the Lewes Road area. (My side of town.) Brighton remains resplendent with graffiti, so more pics to follow. (At some point or other). As ever, full set over on Flickr...






Saturday, 1 July 2017

DIAMANDA GALAS/ THURSTON MOORE/ THE FLAMING LIPS (MORE GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

DIAMANDA GALAS
Barbican, London, Mon 19th June


There is perhaps an irony in seeing the diva of the anti-sunlight crowd on one of the brightest days of the year. Fortunately, most of the black-clad audience seem to have made it to the venue without withering to dust.

I’ve only seen Galas once before, before a touristy Brighton Festival audience. She opened with her most unashamedly challenging number, and had successfully driven a good third of the audience away before finishing it. She was utilising, I suspect, the old Sun Ra philosophy - get the lightweights out the way as soon as you can so you can get on with it. Here she’s playing to much more of a home crowd, is greeted with no short supply of adulation and starts with something much more easing-in.

The Barbican being an arts complex, its gigs often turn into multi-media events. I may have written about some of those here, from time to time. Whereas tonight’s concert comprises one voice, a piano and a fairly minimal light show. Yet it stays involving throughout.

Galas puts that piano through its paces, going through everything from coaxing melodies to thumping keys in freeform fashion. But of course the core of the thing is her vocals. Which don’t just have an impressively wide range, but emit sounds the like of which you’ve never heard before. There were times where I thought if she went any further, she’d be beyond human range. (A sideline to her career has been in providing overdubs to horror films.)

There’s elements of blues, gospel, chanson and at times I fancied an Arabic influence. (Though that’s probably not the sort of thing you should take my word over.) Songs are sung in multiple foreign languages, like what was being conveyed was the most universal of experiences.

Perhaps the most emblematic number was also the finest, the closer of the main set. Things started with the Gospel classic ’Oh Death’ before departing for shores unknown. And overall the set was a heady and enticing mixture of traditionalist and avant garde. I am not sure there is much to be gained in comparing Galas to other people. But in some ways she’s like Tom Waits, in that she can shred convention without leaving classic songwriting behind. (Though it seems she took the opposite trajectory to Waits, starting with lengthy sound compositions utilising tape and electronics, and slowly adopting song form.)

As said recently over Chelsea Wolfe, generally I can’t take Goth music seriously. It sounds like a Scooby Doo episode which has inexplicably become convinced it’s really ’Psycho’. Eyeliner alone does not make you angsty. But Galas eclipses this from two directions. First, her blacks are actually full. Her first album, according to its liner notes, "devotes itself to the emeraldine perversity of the life struggle in Hell”, after which she has been 
little troubled by the Trades Descriptions Act. But she also has the blues sense of resilience. It’s funereal but at the same time assertive. We may live in a world full of troubles, but singing about those troubles can in itself become an amulet against them.

The only part I was unsure of were the spoken word sections. Galas gave them such vocal distortions it was hard to hear what was actually being said. While, once divorced from the music, those dark words did start to feel melodramatic.



THURSTON MOORE GROUP
The Old Market, Hove, Fri 23rd June


Since Sonic Youth split and Thurston Moore relocated to London, I have got to see him much more often. (And it is, I hope you understand, all about me.) To date there’s been an impro gig with Dylan Nyoukis, a solo set supporting Michael Gira and guitar duties with both the Can Project and This Is Not This Heat. But this marks the first sighting with his actual new band in tow.

Notably, it’s precisely the same instrumentation as Sonic Youth, with twin guitars. And like Sonic Youth, songs can stretch with long instrumental sections. (The track I take to be the single, ’Cusp’, shorter and more uptempo than the rest, turns out on purchasing the CD to be six and a half minutes.) But Sonic Youth commonly operated in the intersection between punk and noise, and here there’s little to none of their classic de-tunings. 

Instead they’re freeform, subtle and even delicate. Those guitars are tapped and coaxed, rather than screwdrivered. When Terry Riley rather than the Ramones gets played over the PA before the band appear, that seems a statement of intent. And in defiance of all rock gig convention, the main set ends not with a bang by by falling to a whisper.

The songs themselves can be riff-based and assured, but tend to the unhurried. And while there are gear-changing turns, the song and instrumental elements tend to slowly morph into one another. At times it’s like watching a craft worker weave, thin threads coming together to form fuller and more colourful patterns. There’s a win-win element to this, where whichever is going on at the moment seems the real deal.

Moore sings softly throughout, with an overall sound over in the trebly. Bands tend to take positions on stage which match the music. And here he and fellow guitarist James Sedwards take the front – often the very front – of the stage. While bassist Debbie Googe (ex My Bloody Valentine) gravitates back towards drummer Steve Shelley. (Also ex of Sonic Youth, but you knew that already.) And indeed bass and drums tend to back the guitars up, rather than push them along.

I said of Moore’s solo gig: “though known for detuned noise guitar there's always been something serene, something transcendent about him waiting to be let loose.” This is, I suspect, what Moore’s detractors detect, and interpret as detatched cool. But there is, I think, more to it than that. It’s expanding beyond the usual range of guitar rock.

And that now seems well and truly let loose. Moore was probably always more of a beat, drawn to punk’s independent spirit rather than its frenzy. Perhaps significantly the new album is called ’Rock N Roll Consciousness’, which would seem an oxymoron in some circles. Imagine a Stooges album called that.

From the album launch in London…


THE FLAMING LIPS
Brighton Dome, Tues 27th June



By careful planning, a little while after seeing Diamanda Galas I came to take in her polar opposite. A large ensemble whose performance very much is a performance, and  comes complete with almost explosive visual effects. And while her songs stray to the dark side of the spectrum, the Flaming Lips couldn’t be any more about light. The words ‘Yes’ and ‘Love’ flash up on giant LED screens as the band encourage us to scream as loud as we can. Which is emphasised all the more by giving us a taste of complete blackness between numbers.

Their songs are often euphoric. I’d quote the line “feeling like a float from a Macy’s day parade”, except that’s not from a number they play so I can’t. And perhaps that mood just lends itself to the live setting. So, for example, confetti cannons becomes not just a neat gimmick but a good visual analogy for their sound. I’ve managed to see them twice now, and both times there’s been the same self-pinching feeling, where you wonder whether you’re watching this gig or dreaming it.

Plus, they did their celebrated song about Yoshimi battling pink robots, who was only recently caught fronting OOIOO.

Seeing the Flaming Lips live is often said to be one of those bucket list things. So if tomorrow a grant piano should drop on me from a snapping rope, I can shrug and say “well at least I got to see the Flaming Lips. Twice, in fact.”

The opening ’Race For the Prize’, from Paris…



...and their cover of Bowie’s ’Space Oddity’, complete with Wayne Coyne’s patented zorb ball, from Brighton. Yes, really! From Brighton…

Saturday, 24 June 2017

‘SAY NO MORE’: ANOTHER SPOTIFY PLAYLIST


After last time’s playlist devoted to the human voice, here’s one of music without words. Did you see what I did there? (Actually, the original plan was to go for entirely instrumental music, but one track was too good to exclude despite some chanting on it. A no-prize to anyone who spots it.)

Check it out here.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Their Helicopters Sing
Earth: Miami Morning Coming Down
Kronos Quartet: Winter - Lux Aeterna
Set Fire To Flames: Omaha
Pohjonen / Kosminen / Kronos Quartet: Plasma (Uniko)
CAN: E.F.S. No. 7
Michael Gordon: Tinge
Orbital: P.E.T.R.O.L.
Fuck Buttons: Sentients
Drum Eyes: 13 Magicians
Ozric Tentacles: Kick Muck
Electrelane: U.O.R./The Boat

Saturday, 17 June 2017

“LISTEN TO THE VOICES”: ANOTHER SPOTIFY PLAYLIST


It’s been a while since we’ve had a Spotify playlist around here. The theme this time is the human voice in its varying forms. That’s all… Human voice fans, click here.

Kurt Weill: 'Speak Low' (from 'One Touch of Venus')
Kurt Weill & Mary Margaret O'Hara: 'Don't Be Afraid' (from 'Happy End')
Pinkie Maclure: 'Heartease'
Leonard Cohen: 'Who By Fire'
Nina Nastasia: 'I've Been Out Walking'
The Delgados: 'Accused of Stealing'
Camera Obscura: 'Careless Love’
Goblin: 'Suspira'
Mark Stewart: 'Call To Mecca'
Mark Stewart: 'As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade'
Alternative TV: 'Punk Life'
Crass: 'It's You'
Hawkwind: 'Warrior on the Edge of Time'
“All The Pieces Matter...”
Wu-Tang Clan: 'Wu-Tang Ain't Nuthing a F'Wit'
Cab Calloway: 'Minnie the Moocher'
Ivor Cutler: 'I Believe In Bugs'
Robert Wyatt: 'Team Spirit'
The Specials: 'Alcohol'

”Tell me your confessions
Let me be the ears for all your sins
Let me take advantage of your whims”

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

FURTHER ELECTION THOUGHTS – THOSE GOOD OL’ DAYS AIN’T COMING BACK

A sort of sequel to this.


The over-reaction everyone’s having to the election results, as if we can’t tell a lesser defeat from a victory – what lies behind that? Simple wish fulfilment or something more? Here’s one idea…

Many people my age or older, if from the liberal/left end of the spectrum, have effectively been biding their time. They’ve patiently assumed that if they waited long enough sanity would be restored, the post-war consensus would re-emerge, neoliberalism prove a passing nightmare which vanished with the dawn and Bobby Ewing be found alive and well in the shower.

This is in fact so absurdly regressive that the neoliberal critique of it even has some traction. It’s the trap of subjectivity. Just because that world was everything we knew, that never meant it was everything that was. And, frankly, Keynesian economics are now an analogue TV set. They were only ever an ancillary to Fordist production, out of place in a globalised world.

Nevertheless, the psychological need to believe the old certainties were coming back lay deep, and so gets mapped onto whatever passes. First, it was the financial crisis. And this assumption… not that it provided opportunities to challenge neoliberalism anew, but would in itself sound it’s death knell… was a factor in allowing neoliberalism to reconstitute itself. The markets crashed. The King was found to be in the altogether. But while we politely awaited him to admit this awkward fact, he had another set or ermine robes run up, and then charged them to us. We thought being right, in and of itself, assured victory. Just like we had over the Gulf War, which ended with us getting shafted too. Guys, they don’t care about being right or wrong. They care about being rich and powerful.

Now we’re trying to map that onto this election. Yet, as said last time, it would be truer to say that 
through their Maybot campaigning the Tories lost than Labour won . In a vox-pop on last night’s Newsnight’, one woman said “all they had to do was not be rubbish. But they were rubbish.” Which summarises the whole thing more succinctly than any paid pundit has managed.

And, if you think about the way the vote divided, claiming it marks a return to the old world ignores some very basic facts. Corbyn joked “I have youth on my side”, which they were. A viscious circle had arisen, where politicians felt less need to engage with young people who (by and large) didn’t vote, and an increased motivation to offer bungs to pensioners who (by and large) did. Finally, that circle shrunk to the point where it burst. In short, it was the generation who most remembered the post-war consensus who were least concerned with keeping it, and vice versa. The oldest of the 18-25 segment were born in 1992.

It’s perhaps easy to have an older person’s veneration of youth, imagining it has some intrinsic virtue. Young people are inherently better at staying up late and picking stuff up off the floor, but that’s about it. And I don’t hold with this ‘age is the new class’ business which is circulating. (Actually an update of stuff spouted in the Sixties, but I digress…) And, as also said last time, there’s no reason to assume some inherent change in political awareness has occurred. This election could even be a one-off. But we do need to be more… yes, really... down with the kids.

Because young people weren’t hearkening for some past system they didn’t even know, but responding to being squeezed by pushing back. They were organising around their own needs. Which is the starting point of any radical critique, and we need to be more like that. At times this will involve struggling to keep past gains, such as defending the National Health Service. Which is an entirely valuable thing to do. But at others it will involve totally new struggles, such as opposing the Snooper’s Charter.

And let’s remember – when we were in that era, we just wanted it to end. “Nine to five” meant a life not your own, trapped inside crushing conformity. Rising job insecurity has led to it feeling almost like an aspiration, which can obscure this. But our original instincts were good. We couldn’t have that world back if we wanted it. But besides that, why would we ever want it? Let’s stop opposing their future with our past, and start opposing their future with ours.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

HAS POLITICS CHANGED? (A FEW QUICK THOUGHTS ON THE ELECTION)


“Politics has changed. And isn’t going back in the box.”

So said Jeremy Corbyn. Is he right?

First, things have come to a pretty pass when we’ve come to see a victory in not losing quite as badly as we thought. The Tories have pushed through policies which adversely effect almost anyone who isn’t a millionaire, which have been literally ruinous for many and, in no small number of cases, have resulted in avoidable deaths. They pitched all this on a promise to reduce a deficit they actually increased, so it doesn’t even make sense on their own terms. And they’re still the biggest party. In fact they got a larger number of MPs than they did in 2010. We have snatched defeat from the jaws of even greater defeat. That’s all.

And support from the ultra-right Ulster Unionists is so natural to them that their full name is the Conservative and Unionist Party. Coalition with the Liberals was… well, the way you remember it. But the Liberals buddied up with Cameron’s populist side and got through some socially liberal policies such as gay marriage. The Ulster Unionists will act as a brake on anything further like that. And the Tories were more or less turning in that direction anyway, so it’ll be easy for them. (And, after all that mud slung at Corbyn over meeting Sinn Fein, don’t expect a single word in the popular press about the Tories now being in alliance with a group with a deep terrorist past.)

One thing it definitely means - the very problem May sought to extinguish is now magnified. Face up to it, in recent years the only effective opposition to the Tories has come from the Tories. Outside the heady election campaign, only a backbench rebellion (for example over tax credits) has managed to throw them off track. Now with a smaller majority, backbench revolts can more easily be effective. And with backbenchers themselves in some cases having smaller majorities, they may be more likely to be panicked into revolt by belligerent constituents. And slim majorities by their nature tie governments down in logistics. But… call me a perfectionist, but… couldn’t we hope for more than that?

But Corbyn may yet be proved wrong. Politics could fairly easily go back in the box. The Tories initially did well in polls, suggesting what did it for them was their crap campaign more than their crap policies. In particular, it may be May’s haughty and imperious personality which sunk her. The media did their best to portray Corbyn as a champagne socialist quoffing from Islington. But it was May who visibly considered herself too good for the rest of us. (Calling a snap election after repeatedly promising not to, after voting for a bill supposed to ban them, then saying you’re too busy to meet the electorate... that turns out to not be a good look. Who knew?) But the Tories are now likely to ditch her and go for a more populist figure, possibly Boris Johnson.

And another significant factor was Corbyn rocking the youth vote. Which has a peculiarity. People will often tell pollsters they’ll definitely be voting, but haven’t decided who yet and might even wait until they’re in the voting booth. But there’s a section of the youth vote which does the exact opposite, adamant which way they’d vote but ambivalent about voting in the first place. (This is a large part of the reason why polls can get things wrong, even if it’s fashionable to assume that pollsters are just stupid.) Such a precarious section of the vote could easily sit back down on the couch again, if tuition fees aren’t abolished straight away (which of course they won’t be) or simply when the novelty wears off. (Voting on-line, as some other countries do, would almost certainly strengthen the youth vote. So we can be pretty sure we won’t be seeing that.)

On the other hand, we have got to the point where not losing so badly starts to seem like a victory. New Labour had managed to establish a political consensus around neoliberalism, which pushed questioning austerity off the map. The financial crisis, which some assumed would mark its end, actually cemented it. It became widespread for people to deny the deficit was anything to do with the banking crisis, like one of those ‘Doctor Who’ episodes where everyone forgets what happened five minutes ago.

With the previous election anti-austerity finally came back, but that was a change tied to the rise of smaller parties. (And I remain convinced the Scottish National Party became anti-austerity simply because it saw a market gap.)

But this time the vote swung back from the smaller parties, yet with Labour picking up the anti-austerity mantle. Like it should be concerned about the lot of those who labour after all. (Though, interestingly, it was the UKIP vote which fell the most. Which should really have benefited the Tories more than anyone else.)

The Blairites proved unable to depose Corbyn through their standard dirty tricks. So they figured they’d give him his head, let him lose an election with his loony left rants, then strike. And right now, their gambit’s looking about as smart as May’s. They won’t be able to directly challenge him again for a while.

Of course it’s legitimate to ask – does any of this really matter? Austerity hits us in our workplaces and communities, and so of course that’s precisely where it should be resisted. And ultimately what we’re struggling for is control over our own lives. That’s not something you can vote for by definition. My attitude to political representation is what it’s always been – I’m against it.

And the Left can be worse than irrelevant. Let’s not forget that when austerity first hit, there was a groundswell of public opposition to it. Which was almost entirely successfully channelled by the accursed Trade Union bosses, marching us up to Hyde Park and down again. And Corbyn’s personality or conviction doesn’t matter here. We’re talking about what the Left does institutionally.

But to argue all that now would seem to overlook us being in a place where a lesser defeat looks like a victory. Some folk, it’s true, are doing good groundswell campaigning. But mostly when I read political stuff that should be from my side of the spectrum it seems to have fallen back on abstract calls for revolt. Which don’t seem terribly useful to me. At times they completely mirror the worst kind of mainstream arguments. If someone else is insisting that its your patriotic duty to vote in our great free nation, they’ll be claiming anyone who votes is conforming to the rule of the British state. (Guys, I go to work five days out of every seven. Its a bit late to start arguing that one.)

This is the truth of it. We’re in a situation where most either bought the far-right narrative where asylum seekers are responsible for the crisis in the NHS because they pray funny, or succumbed to heads-down individualism. This is an event which has some potential (I put it no more strongly than that) to turn the tide that’s currently drowning us. It would be absurd to respond by retreating into ideologically pure splendid isolation.

And if the Left inherently tries to scab us out, that doesn’t mean they can automatically succeed. What we need is for this to galvanise a widespread popular movement against austerity. We must march behind them, not out of support but to block out the possibility of their making a U-turn. We may have been finally let out of the box. So let’s make it hard for them to put us back in it again.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

MELT-BANANA/ ROYAL TRUX/ OOIOO/ THE COSMIC DEAD/ BRITTEN SINFONIA + BRIGHTON FESTIVAL CHORUS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES ON OVERLOAD)

MELT-BANANA
Patterns, Brighton, Thurs 1st June



Between buying my ticket and attending the gig, I discovered longstanding live favourite Melt-Banana had slimmed down to a duo. I tried to imagine how that might change their sound, and concluded it would either inhibit them or take them somewhere new. Perhaps further into the power electronics direction they’d embarked on in recent shows.

Turns out, 
I’m a total know-nothing. The power electronics section was gone and they were, if anything, back to the classic Melt-Banana of old. And about as awesome as ever. Singer Yako operated some brightly coloured console, often brandishing it like a Harry Potter wand, from which the back-up instruments were triggered. (I later discovered this to be a MIDI controller. Gotta control those Midis, I guess…)

And classic Melt-Banana, if we were to reduce it to a formula, is a melting down of noise, punk, no-wave, metal and… yes, really pop. Yako might fire her vocals like a machine gun with a stuck trigger, but there’s strong tunes amid all the noise. And I’m not the only one to think so. Frank Mojica of Consequences of Sound has noted that “beneath the cacophony… were delightful pop melodies.”

Except I’m not even sure about ‘beneath’. Some noise music does have buried melodies, which take awhile to find, like a file with a cake in it. But with Melt-Banana tunes effectively ride atop everything, as if surfing a tsunami of noise. You get the exhilaration of noise combined with the sugar rush of pure prop.

As said over Lightning Bolt, noise music isn’t all angsty or aggressive – in fact it can be joyous and celebratory. John Lydon nailed it many years ago, when he sang “We like noise, it’s our choice/ It’s what we want to do.” And perhaps precisely because there’s more of a punk element to the sound, that’s even more noticeable with Melt-Banana.

And you can see that in the audience response. I’ve never known a mosh pit not to open up at a Melt-Banana gig, and I’ve never known it to become macho or aggressive. It’s souped-up good time music on steroids, but good time music still. You would need, I think, some term which portmanteaued ‘riot’ and ‘party’ to describe the Melt-Banana experience.




ROYAL TRUX
The Haunt, Brighton, Wed 31st May


Royal Trux were one of those Nineties bands who were fellow travellers with Grunge. There was the same desire to get rock music its bad name back, to get back to a time when music was made by and for reprobates and degenerates. Once, a street kid with his arse hanging out his jeans wasn’t ever going to get a record deal. Then, about a week later, he was the only one who was. Trux, only recently dropped by their indie label, were suddenly bunged a million dollars by Virgin. (As a sign of the times, check out this vid of them playing on ‘The Word’. Those scuzzy louts were never going to be allowed among that studio audience without Security intervening. Yet they could be on stage.)

In particular, they shared with Grunge the ability to make music that was both aggressive and languid, which swaggered and stumbled at same time, music you were never sure whether it was intent on fucking you up or fucking itself up. And if rock music’s about capturing the teenage experience, then that’s pretty much it.

Some seventeen years after their dissolution, it doesn’t look like they’ve cleaned up their act any. The set list seems to be decided upon on the spot. Jennifer Herrema is quite unashamedly out of it, slurringly rambling between songs. Some frontmen affect effortless cool, others come across as crazy outsiders and others just look like audience members arbitrarily placed onstage. Herrema seems have all three going on.

As the last time I saw them (pre-dissolution), Neil Hagerty seems both more together and more unassuming. Notably, as they come on it’s Herrema who gets the applause. (From their stage personas, you’d imagine them as having a Chuck D and Flava Flav relationship, striker and team mascot, though that doesn’t seem to be the way they actually worked.)

You’d probably drive yourself mad trying to figure out how much it’s meant to sound that way, and how much its just coming out like that. It is uneven. (And YouTube suggests other nights might have been still more uneven.) But that’s kind of the point. Rock music is supposed to be volatile and unpredictable, something you don’t do right by doing correctly. (Or it least it was before it became a heritage industry celebrated by Tory MPs.)

For a band who always manage to sound just like Royal Trux, there’s quite a variety to their music. Rip-roaring punk anthems co-exist with out-there noise guitar and, at one point, a trance-out groove with mantra vocals.

It’s generally considered that the weight of rock history got too much and snuffed out the creative spark. Bands became merely citational, concerned with keeping a tradition intact, like the worst kind of folk music. Keeping things vibrant meant wiping all that from your mind and just striking your guitar.

Yet perhaps the most interesting thing about this band, formally speaking, is that they quite openly took up rock history, often sounding unashamedly like ’Exile’ era Stones, and even releasing a trilogy of albums which represented the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties respectively. And it never seemed to dampen them down.

From Manchester, a couple of days before...



OOIOO
Patterns, Brighton, Mon 29th May


Yoshimi is the only perpetual member of Japanoise ensemble the Boredoms, already acknowledged as a Lucid Frenzy fave, save main man Yamatsuka Eye. For which, given their great musical switches and leaps, there is probably some endurance award. Perhaps it was being made the heroine of the classic Flaming Lips album ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’.

But pedigree though that is, you should put it all aside, really. As OOIOO are very much their own outfit. Though chiefly known with the Boredoms for playing drums, here she trades in guitar and, on occasion, the trumpet. Reviews suggest they were previously more a solo project with some hired help. But tonight they couldn’t be a more focused live band.

There’s the post-punk of the Slits and Raincoats; the off-kilter rhythms and scatter drums, the songs which seem to construct and deconstruct themselves. There’s also the deranged funk of the Talking Heads’ more out-there moments. But there’s also abundant girl-band harmonies and pumping pop hooks. Better hooks, in fact, than any pop band you’ve heard lately.

Like Deerhoof, there’s the sense that left-field sonic exploits and pure pop aren’t being brought together, but were only ever separate in your mind. As Thrill Jockey say, they’ve “subverted expectations and warped perceptions of what constitutes pop and experimental music”. But more, there’s the same exuberance, the feeling they’re making music for the sheer joyous pleasure of playing it.

But there’s less of the naivete of Deerhoof. In fact the melodic yet skittering instrumental breaks are more reminiscent of what prog did after post-punk had happened by and unplugged it’s mellotrons. Think if ‘Discipline’ era King Crimson had become a Deerhoof covers band. Or possibly vice versa.

And that weird name which sounds like binary notation, apparently based on some doodle of Eye’s, barely pronounceable to the rest of us, Yoshimi manages to say it like it means something.

OOIOO gigs are quite literally a delight.



THE COSMIC DEAD
The Green Door Store, Brighton, Thurs 25th May


Let's start by conceding the point. Yes, the Cosmic Dead is a crap name. Mashing up the name of a couple of classic psychedelic bands is akin to calling a soul group Sly and the Family Tops, or a punk band the Buzz Pistols. But don't judge this book by the cover, okay?

The… polite cough... are a self-styled “psychonautal cosmodelic buckfaustian quartet from Glasgow”. And after seeing Mugstar and entertaining the prospect of the map being bejewelled by numerous Hawkwind-styled bands, the Hertfordshire Hawkwind and the Huddlesfield Hawkwind and so on, it seems there really is a Glaswegian Hawkwind. Okay, alliteration would compel them into becoming the Glasgow Gong. But they sound more like Hawkwind, and when was that ever a bad thing? (Extensive research reveals they've even released a split record with Mugstar.)

Arriving late after being held up mid-Channel tunnel, and sound-checking hurriedly before us assembled folk, they launch straight into their out-there space rock. There's scant regard for song elements to let us in gently. It's all cosmic jams, and cosmic jams today, no stodgy sandwich parts to chew through. There's occasional vocals, but more spacey chants than singing. In fact when they speak, it's easier for them to eschew the mikes and avoid all their assembled effects and delays. (Fortunately their tonsils are at Glasgow decibels, so mikes prove superfluous.)

What does a band need if it's going to get really unhinged? A hinge, right? Tracks are rooted in a powerful rhythm section however far they wander, which keeps things compelling rather than meandering. Rather than float and morph, they tend to shift between quite well defined sections. The result is a set which feels absolutely out of control and entirely driven at one and the same time. Proceedings ends with the guitars looping and everyone bashing at drums. Bar the keyboardist, who adjusts the sound via dials, balanced precariously on an alarmingly teetering stack of amps.

I start to seriously consider that holding a band back from the stage till the last moment, perhaps by 'forgetting' their dressing room key, might actively encourage them to let rip when they finally get there. So we may partly have Channel Tunnel stoppages to thank for such a blistering set. If so Southern Rail could be a gift to the Brighton gig circuit.

Their other remarkable feature, besides being such a good band with so bad a name, is the keyboardist's uncanny similarity to a young Robert Wyatt. I'm not such what the market value of Robert Wyatt lookalikes is, but should there be one this guy could be away.



BRITTEN SINFONIA + BRIGHTON FESTIVAL CHORUS
Brighton Dome, Sun 28th May
Part of the Brighton Festival



This programme, bringing together works by Aaron Copeland and John Adams, was officially about the combining of words and music. Pieces were written around both poems and speeches. But my mind became more fixed on a phrase of Adams’ from the programme. On writing ’Harmonium’ (1980), he said “those of my friends who knew both [my] room and the piece were amused that music of such spaciousness should emerge from such cramped quarters.”

And that very American sense of spaciousness seemed to infuse the works. Someone hatched the ingenious idea to stage Copland’s ’Fanfare for the Common Man’ (1942) with two brass sections placed up at either ends of the circle, granting it a natural stereo effect. But it also gave a sense of physical space to a piece with great musical space, like one of those drawings where little is actually drawn, but large expanses are still somehow suggested.

It was followed by his ’Lincoln Portrait’ from the same year. Now we at Lucid Frenzy towers are less than entirely convinced by the whole ‘Lincoln freed the slaves’ narrative, as perpetuated here. (Brief summary of argument – don’t believe the hype.) Yet a Lincoln quote, if said in 1862, does seem to describe his music: “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present… As our case is new, so we must think and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves.” To this day Copland sounds bold, new and expressive, something like Berenice Abbott’s dynamic New York photography.

Copland may be a rare example of a genuinely successful Modernist. If we were to take Modernism at its word, it aimed to rid art of its cultural baggage and just speak directly. Yet most found it challenging, if not indecipherable. To find a value in it, we often have to reject seeing it in its own terms. Yet Copland’s music feels like it’s aimed straight at your heart. It was populist in the positive sense of the term, and even became popular. Both pieces being conceived of as contributions to the war effort suggest art with a social purpose.

’Harmonium’ was written when Adams was still breaking away from Modernism proper, and with it’s sinfonia and full choir must have seemed something wildly different. In fact the choir is dominant for long sections. The brass in particular seemed indebted to Copland, yet also making an appearance is Terry Riley’s ’In C’… in fact, its actual C! In my favourite section the double basses took up a low thrum, which slowly spread through the other instruments before finally sparking the full-throated choir off again. A crescendo, about the thing you least expect from a Minimalist composer.

Had Adams asked my opinion before composing this piece, I’d have probably told him he was attempting to pull together the irreconcilable and could only end up with the most jack-of-all-trades post-modern slop. Fortunately for us all he didn’t, and the piece works superbly.

As with the previous programme of American music, these dark and orange days seem the most important time to remind ourselves of what is positive in American culture. How much of it came from an immigrant/ New World perspective, of recombining and making new what had come before. And how much it then contributed back to the rest of the world.

This has been not just a great week’s run of gigs, but one where each event has it’s own unique character. You might not expect Copland to sound much like Melt-Banana, and he didn’t. But then neither were Melt-Banana much like Royal Trux, or either like the Cosmic Dead. Everything was best at being itself.