Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

Warhol’s Featureless Films

Vinyl 1965

Vinyl 1965

An edited version of this article was published on Art Wednesday, 10 April 2013.

Of the many Warholisms, the one that rings most true in his film output is “the idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting”, since there’s never really any action to come. Warhol’s films simply happen, but they do so in a provocative and often menacing way.

Ever needing provocation, I headed to the ICA over the weekend to witness the UK cinema premieres of three newly-restored Warhol films.Sleep, the first of the typically Warholian mono-action epics, screens his lover, John Giorno, slumbering naked in Warhol’s apartment. Alongside its continual screening, the ICA scheduled the viewings of two ‘feature films’ co-directed with Paul Morrison, Chelsea Girls and Vinyl.

The former, the action of which takes place in the centre of New York City’s creative universe – Hotel Chelsea, follows the lives of a number of the young ‘superstars’ that clustered around the Factory scene. Over six hours of footage is divided by splitscreen, giving us a diptych binary of the ‘white’ and ‘black’ aspects of the life of the hotel’s residents. The action takes place in front of a rapidly panning and zooming lens, giving the film a cool and detached aesthetic. Clocking in at over three hours, the film is a challenge of patience that at moments (with emphasis on ‘moments’) explodes with vainglorious brilliance and sordid shock-tactic.

Vinyl is a barely-watchable pre-Kubrick interpretation of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. In a starkly minimalist mise-en-scène, Factory superstars including Edie Sedgwick and Gerard Melanga shambolically play out the tale of ultra-violence and state control in the 70 minute film peppered with musical numbers by The Kinks, The Rolling Stones and Martha and the Vandellas.

While sharing a similar aesthetic as the fixed-lens Factory ‘screen tests’, the ‘actors’ bodies are cooped into a tight frame and shallow space (presumably in some corner of the Factory) and the camera stares down on them cruelly at a steep angle. There’s something sadistic about the film above and beyond the erotically-charged torture of Malenga – the cold Warholian objectivity is palpable throughout and the crude acting is almost abject. With no dialogue or real part to play, Sedgwick mostly looks on smoking, and appears in the film simply to appear, intermittently dancing and sniffing (what appears to be) poppers along with the other actors.

Chelsea Girls, 1966

Chelsea Girls, 1966

Both films have divided the critics since their release and will never be universally appreciated, I’ll admit I also found them hard to watch – they’re challenging to watch in their entirety for all but the most fanatical Factory scene devotees. The now late Roger Ebert observed that Chelsea Girls employed “perversion and sensation like chili sauce to disguise the flavour of the meal.” Whatever you may think of each film, they’ve made their mark more as a cultural statement, an epochal happening that we can still see reflected in self-destructive celebrities and the intrusive lenses through which we view them.

We Know that Music is Music?

Come Together is a record most British fans of the indie genre would know well as a track that straddles the boundaries of indie rock and acid house music. It’s a remix of a gospel-inspired Primal Scream track that appeared on their critically acclaimed ‘Screamadelica’ album of 1991, a collaboration between the band and house DJ Andy Weatherall. The track embodies the euphoric idealism of the acid house movement in the UK, melding synthesised sounds with acoustic brass and a slow thumping beat and a gospel choir’s refrain “come together as one”.

Its eclecticism mirrors the message of a sampled speech from the beginning which reads as follows:

“This is a beautiful day… It is a new day… We are together, we are unified… and all in accord… Because together we got power… ”

“Today on this program you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music”

The speech sampled is Jesse Jackson’s from the 1972 Wattstax Music Festival in Watts, Los Angeles that was celebrated in the 1973 movie documentary Wattstax by Mel Stuart. The speech, it seems, sits perfectly with Primal Scream’s eclectic music and the unity sentiment of Come Together.

However, if you’ve ever seen the Wattstax speech, you’ll notice some glaring omissions: words among these words spoken by Jesse Jackson that were cut from the sample (rendered here in bold type).

“This is a beautiful day… It is a new day… it is a day of black awareness, it is a day of black people taking care of black people’s business… We are together, we are unified… and all in accord… Because together we got power… and we can make decisions… ”

“Today on this program you will hear gospel, And rhythm and blues, and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music… All of our people have got a soul, our experience determines the texture the tastes and the sounds of our soul. We may say that we are in the slums but the slums are not in us… We have shifted from bed bugs and dog ticks to community control and politics”

Jackson went on to recite the Civil Rights era call-and-response poem ‘I am somebody’ (see a great version here).

From the speech Primal Scream clearly omitted the references to the black community, giving the illegitimate impression of the speech as a universal claim for music and togetherness. When Jackson refers to togetherness and unity he is referring to the Afro-American community which had its own divisions at the time.

Now, the point of this post is not to cry foul at the band’s censorship of some important aspects of the speech but to ask: what can music mean to us?

The edited speech by Primal Scream points to an idealistic universalization of music that all genres are just labels, music is music and it unifies people and gives them power. This fits well with the acid house ethos and Primal Scream’s own eclecticism that borrows heavily from black traditions.

But Jackson’s speech’s message is far from this cosy glow of universal appreciation and empowerment: ‘All of our people have got a soul [and] our experience determines the textures, the tastes, the sounds of our soul’. Jackson’s speech contradicts the universalist message, his message is one of identity politics: he says “our experience determines [our soul]”, not “we have a soul regardless of experience“.

In this sense black music comes from a black (“our”) consciousness that is a result of the struggles of black existence in the US: poor housing, under-employment, prejudice and so on.

Primal Scream are of course white Europeans who could never really know what it feels like to be black and poor in the USA. But perhaps we – all of us – can ‘feel’ the pains and joys of a black consciousness (or consciousness) vicariously in the music of black artists like Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye. So while musical invention can perhaps only be determined by a community experience, its enjoyment – its fulfillment – can bridge the vicariance of community experience.

Primal Scream’s selective borrowing underscores this: a component of experience is lost on us but found in us when we enjoy such music, the same can be said for the music of any time, place or struggle. Knowing it is impossible, but feeling it is for the taking from the music of those that know it.

And that, brothers and sisters, is a recipe for solidarity.

Castor & Pollux: the old in the new

I caught the last performance of Castor & Pollux at the London Coliseum and was taken aback as I took my seat. Right there before you as the Overture played out was an enormous box, which turned out to be an amazing feat of conceptual staging. All the action takes place inside this huge wooden box, that got shallower and deeper during the show using full width screens that dropped from the ceiling. The idea here was that these characters were confined by extraneous circumstances, and the walls of their finitude, of their lust and woes was constantly traced by the movement of the bodies.

At one point a screen rose to reveal a huge mound of (real) earth that was the gateway to hades. It provided a stage within a stage for some crucial moments of the opera, such as the now famous (thanks to Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette) ‘Tristes apprêts’, Télaïres’s song of mourning for the dead Castor beautifully sung by Sophie Bevan who was by then covered in earth and Castor’s blood.

Performers sat on the ledge of the box sometimes, their legs over the edge of their ‘world’ where the orchestra and audience sat and at the end the back rose to reveal blackness and people lept off. There was so much energy in the performances, a frantic energy; Kosky had made the decision to emphasise the psychodrama of the main characters over the choreographed dance sequences typical in French baroque opera and the performers often run up against the walls of the set.

The music was exquisite with Christian Curnyn (a baroque specialist) conducting a smaller orchestra which was raised from the pit (it was very nice to see the musicians in the eye line, violin bows puncturing the action). The period instrumentation gave the sound a deftness and delicacy, and while a little less varied in timbre than the kind of opera most of us are used to, it had a melancholic air that resonates with the psychodrama on the stage.

I have a few gripes, however. The costuming was off the mark. I’m fine with the performers wearing modern business suits (the two leading women wore dresses and heels, all four ended up in underwear at various points), but Ancient Spartan dress probably would have worked better with the sparse set. The demons of hades wore grotesque masks that looked quite cheap. There was also disco-style dancing which was unnecessary and unconvincing, the movement in the opera was great as it was and any jaunty dancing to signify ‘fun’ grated with the fluidity of the bodies on stage.

The other more fundamental problem was the ‘humour’, Kosky had not only transposed an old and infrequently performed opera to a modern stage but also ‘played’ with the opera tradition. Sexuality is placed at the core of this drama, which is fair enough, but relies on readymade clichés of perverse male sexuality (lolita girls, a Japanese horror aesthetic), there was some nudity too, which was gratuitous and some ‘shocking’ moments that left the audience cold more than hot. It’s a shame because the leading characters acted out the sexuality of the drama very well without these unhelpful interventions.  Some critics mentioned that the opera was misogynistic, though I think it relied on pre-existent misogyny.

These small issues aside, Kosky really got the performers acting and moving, you could see the show was a physical challenge for the four involved but it paid off fantastically. In this show Kosky really points the way to what can be done with an opera like Rameau’s. After this, could any opera company really drop back to powdered wigs and prancing?

Disclaimer: I work for the English National Opera, but the views here are my own.

Two Boys

Two Boys, composed by Nico Mulhy with a libretto by Craig Lucas, is a detective story based on true events. The protagonist is a middle aged female detective who provides a consistent thread through the work, walking into the past as she investigates the stabbing of a teenage boy in a shopping centre. This leads her through the murky depths of chatroom conversations between teenagers, a world she sees as cold hearted and devoid of meaning.

The modern stylings of this opera are unprecedented in some cases. The controversial Coliseum surtitle screen is given added purpose, bearing the hyper-simplified language of adolescent “leet speak”. Internet avatars provide a contemporary update to the masquerade with a nod to Mozart’s Don Giovanni as three actors play the parts of non-existent characters dreamt up in the mind of a tormented deceiver. CCTV and webcam images flood the set with the cold light of a blurred and flickering reality.

The pace is slow, with no blockbusting arias and few major set changes. It’s when our boys open their laptops that the slow pace picks up into crescendo. The chorus come on stage and weave through each other as isolated individuals in a mass, holding laptops which illuminate their faces. Solemnly they sing “u there?”, “I thought I lost u” and “I love u”, the words multiply on screen layering upon each other and falling into the darkness. The sparse set explodes into a luminous tableau of expanding isometric patterns and algorhythmic explosions. Against this spectacular backdrop is the tale of three lonely individuals; one middle-aged and two adolescents. Old world concerns are at the forefront here, but they are set against the netscape that we all know too well, a network of connected individuals, indifferent and unconcerned as we live and one that will continue to flourish as we die.

Marvin Gaye Sings The National Anthem of the USA

Just before 1983 NBA All Star Game got under way, the teams lined up and soldiers stood on the court holding star-spangled banners. A syncopated minimalist beat begins for moments and an exuberantly dapper Marvin Gaye takes to the stage and begins the second most famous rendition of the US national anthem (Hendrix takes the top spot).

A debate ensued about whether or not Gaye’s rendition was patriotic in its cool and stylised delivery (the debate continues in the comments under the video on youtube). My take is this: while perhaps not patriotic in sentiment, the rendition was patriotic in practice. This is evident in the fans crazed response and the clap through to the end, it says so much about America, the  freedom of expression, and the freedom to have a good time.

What Classical Music Can Teach Us About Snobbery

While camping in Snowdonia recently my friends and I had a bit of an argument about music. I declared that classical music was ‘better’. Though this declaration came with a number of conditions. In fact ‘conditions’ –conditions of reception– are the root of this declaration.

One was outraged, one disdainful the other sceptical. They thought my declaration (borne out of a conversation about pop music) to be ridiculous. Now, of course, the old high-vs-low art debate is a boring freshman student debate that never gets resolved and merely entrenches positions between ‘elitists/idealists’ and ‘subjectivists/realists’. I’ll approach this a different way and do so by responding more considerately to the criticisms from my three friends coming from their respective positions. Here are the main criticisms:

The outraged friend: I’m a snob.

Not the case. I like pop culture and pop music, I like it a lot and I consume vast amounts of the stuff I like. ‘High Art’, as far as I am concerned, is a modern invention. I don’t believe there is any intrinsic quality in culture deemed as ‘high’.

Look at the clip above. It’s Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca (from Puccini’s opera of the same name) singing the aria Vissi d’arte, Italians love the opera and flock to performances from all walks of life, not just the rich and expensively educated. What is to be appreciated here is not some magical intrinsic quality in this being high art (it’s not high art, it’s Puccini!) but an appreciation for the supreme control Gheorghiu exercises over her voice, the phenomenally rich score and strangely resticted delivery of Tosca’s prayer (Tosca meditates on her fate to God, questioning why she has found herself in such tragic circumstances given her devotion to Him (lyrics in English below)).

And this is point one: Classical composers and musicians are better at music than pop musicians are. Such supreme control in Gheorghiu’s voice would be rare, if not impossible to find in the pop world. Classical music is demanding of its artists, very demanding. OK, Jimi Hendrix and other virtuoso’s do exist in the pop world, but read the following points to see why they still fall short of the kind of quality set by classical.

The sceptical friend: I’m devaluing the experiences of other people who get so much from pop music.

This argument is based on subjective experience. By saying classical music is better I’m somehow sneering at people who find ballads by Tina Turner or Blur beautiful. This isn’t true as I find a lot of pop music moving. However, this is besides the point. The argument that I’m cheapening people’s experiences is based on treating the music as self-integrated and standing alone.

Classical music is at a huge disadvantage, it isn’t enmeshed with our lives as mass-produced pop is. Pop flows out of radios and TVs, in cafes and bars, our cars, it really is the soundtrack to our lives and it is produced on an industrial scale. We associate moments of our lives with the pop music that played in the background or in front of us at concerts. It moves us because it is part of us. Even snippets of classical music played in film scores or to promote events have the same meaning in our lives: the prime example being Nessun Dorma, the theme tune of the 1990 world cup – the passion of the music matched the passion of the fans. But when Nessun Dorma was used in this way it became pop. You see, Nessun Dorma is an aria in another Puccini opera, its full meaning and emotional power comes out in the drama it was written for: Turandot.

What is great and better is that we have to make an active effort with classical music, we have to open our minds, learn and understand it on its terms. A Pulp album can move us while we lay on our beds staring at the ceiling, but can it move us to the same higher level as Wagner’s Parsifal or Mozart’s Magic Flute?

This is point two: great art creates the conditions of its reception (Wagner went as far as building his own opera house!). Classical music is demanding of its audience, we consume such culture in places set aside for their proper consumption. We have to learn to enjoy it.

The disdainful friend: Each to his own, it’s all subjective and classical is on par with any other music – it has no value prior to consumption.

I guess my reply to this is a combination of the two points above. Classical music demands that its brightest and best create the very framework of our appreciation for it, and it therefore demands that we appreciate those frameworks to reach the heights of emotion it has to offer. Pop music is like a great sugar rush, classical music is a three -course meal with wine, we have to learn to respect it to get the most from it. Reverse snobbery and subjectivism are barriers to an open-minded attitude that will appreciate something on its own terms. Our culture and economy, designed to satisfy our whims and fickle fancies disguises the fact that to really appreciate something, you have to put the work in.

This is not a snobbish, absolutist or elitist argument, there’s a lot of bad art and music that hangs on or exploits the notion that there is ‘high art’ and it is intrinsically brill. There isn’t. But there is reflexivity in all great art and classical is more predisposed to such reflexivity because it has to be met on its own terms.

It’s funny because we had the argument at the foot of Mount Snowdon, right there before us was my argument in millions of tons of rock. Snowdon’s peak view isn’t going to come to you, you need to climb up there to see it for yourself.

Here is the Libretto (lyrics) for Vissi d’arte

I lived for art, I lived for love,
I never did harm to a living soul!
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of.
Ever in true faith
My prayer
Rose to the holy shrines.
Ever in true faith
I gave flowers to the altar.
In the hour of grief
Why, why, Lord,
Why do you reward me thus?
I gave jewels for the Madonna’s mantle,
And songs for the stars, in heaven,
That shone forth with greater radiance.
In the hour of grief
Why, why, Lord
Ah, why do you reward me thus?