To Wiels this afternoon to see the work of two artists; the American, Tauba Auerbach, and the German, Thomas Bayrle. The title of the Auerbach exhibition, Tetrachromat, refers to a theory that there may be a small percentage of people – for genetic reasons, only women – who have a fourth type of colour receptor on their retinas. The tetrachromat would have an extra variable modulating red, green and blue wavelengths, and would therefore see distinctions between colours that appear the same to the trichromat. I love the idea, but I found it difficult to see what this possibility had to do with the works on show, which mainly consisted of Auerbach’s fold paintings and weave works. Both involve trompe l’oeil effects, which linked up well with the Escher-like effects of many of Thomas Bayrle’s works on display (huge patterns composed from a multitude of tiny, identical patterns). Bayrle was born in 1937 and his work is far more conscious of the post-war periods he has lived through, with tacit commentary on the Wirtschaftswunder and the iconographies of communism, capitalism, fascism, mass production and propaganda. Auerbach’s work, which seeks to ‘collapse traditional distinctions between image, dimensionality and content’ is less political and far more esoteric but the two exhibitions go well together.
You know you have reached old-fartdom when you are invited to a rock concert by your N° 1 sprog and insist on turning up early for the warm-up act (she blames it on too much opera- and classical music-going where, it is true, the doors close on the hour at the dot). Nevertheless, this was a memorable evening in a most enjoyable setting, the vk venue, in deepest, most vibrant Molenbeek. The warm-up act, garage band Mozes and the Firstborn, happily warmed us up and we occasionally caught a glimpse of a face under all that hair. And then on to the main act, indie rockband, The Walkmen, and since we had arrived so early, we were right up close to the stage, which was fun. They played most of the tracks off of their Lisbon album and many more besides, including The Rat. The Walkmen have a very distinctive sound which is down in no small part to the voice of their vocalist, Hamilton Leithauser, but it’s perhaps only when you are up close, as we were, that you can see how much effort he puts into achieving his effects and also, therefore, how much strain he seems to be putting his voice under. In between tracks he explained that this was a long tour (they began in Stockholm in March and will end in Leeds on Saturday) but it didn’t show in his, or his fellow bandsmen’s delivery and they gave an excellent performance. Indeed, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Thanks, E!
At the writers’ workshop this evening I proudly showed off my latest acquisition, which is a 1947 novel, Devil by the Tail, by one Langston Moffett. Who might he be? No less than the son of prolific American journalist, playwright and author Cleveland Moffett (1863-1926), and the father of Cleve Moffett, an active member of our workshop. Can writing run in a family? Based on the example of the Moffetts, you’d have to say that it can, for Cleve also writes wittily and beautifully (and, happily, this evening submitted the last chapter of his current work in progress). Cleve’s father had a battle with the bottle and Devil by the Tail was, he insists, largely autobiographical. The blurb certainly makes it sound like an ‘Under Several Volcanoes‘; ‘This novel is the portrait of likeable, immature Gordon Sullivan who tried to escape the stark gray ugliness of sobriety through the dreams and refuges provided by alcohol. It is the story of his musings, adventures, futilities, and truly Gargantuan benders in Mexico, Europe, America and Canada on his long flight from the devil which he had by the tail.’ I can’t wait to read it! Langston Moffett was also a collected artist. I have not been able to establish whether this cover illustration was by him but it is certainly a pretty cover.
The Czech Republic has a wonderful tradition, dating from the nineteenth century, of taking its old trees very seriously (see this link, for example). There is a national list and the bigger and older trees are venerated. Things are done differently elsewhere. I was saddened to read in my Sunday newspaper that the Pontfadog oak – having been at least 1,200 years old and therefore the oldest tree in Wales, the third largest in Britain and one of the oldest in Europe – blew over last weekend in a gale. Since the oak had lost its heartwood it was impossible to tell exactly how old the tree was. But the youngest it could have been was 1,181 years, and the oldest was a staggering 1,628 years. In other words, the oak was seeded some time between AD 367 and AD 814, long before most English cathedrals were built. For a large part of its life the oak was a working tree, pollarded to produce building- and firewood. It put on six inches of growth just last year but once it had fallen the locals realised it had lost all of its main roots and was probably only still standing because of its sheer weight (in 1880 six men sat around a table inside it!). Beyond sadness at its demise I suppose my point is that it could (should?) have been better protected. A plan was drawn up by the Ancient Tree Forum. A six thousand signature-strong petition was addressed to the Welsh Assembly. But the money couldn’t be found. To the end, it was never fenced off or protected. And now it is no more.
I walked back from a Committee meeting with a Finnish member. Are you, he asked me, by any chance related to John Westlake, the chap who helped restore the Finnish constitution? I had to admit that I wasn’t, as far as I knew, related but, still, afterwards I googled the John Westlake (1828-1913) in question and was fascinated to read about this one-time influential international lawyer and progressive supporter of women’s suffrage (he was married to a suffragette) and the Christian Socialist Movement (he is considered a founder of the Working Men’s College). He even had a book written about him and his work (by John Fischer Williams, here) and there are three portraits of him in the National Portrait Gallery. Then, this evening, in Rhode-Saint-Genèse, after the concert, I was approached by an old man who asked me ‘Are you, by any chance, ‘related to Brian Westlake?’ Once again, I confessed that I wasn’t, and then he explained to me that Brian Westlake had been an imported English football player in the 1960s. Once again I googled his name and, sure enough, Brian Westlake (picture from Doncaster days) was an established centre forward in the First Division who played for Stoke City, Doncaster Rovers, Halifax Town, Tranmere Rovers and Colchester United before transferring in 1967 to Daring Club Molenbeek, one of very few foreign players to play for the club. The Royal Daring Club Molenbeek - five times winners of the Belgian first division – has long since disappeared. The name is heavily redolent of another era in sport. Westlake is not an unusual surname in Devon and Cornwall and has been steadily spreading out. It was just a curious coincidence that I should indirectly bump into two Westlakes in two days.
This evening, in the cultural centre of Rhode-St-Genèse, I was happy to participate in the culminating event of a longstanding cooperative venture bringing together the music of composer Nigel Clarke, the conducting of Luc Vertommen, the playing of Brassband Buizingen, the ‘radio voice’ of Frank Renton, and the verses of yours truly. The occasion was a ‘champions meet’ – a try-out concert between Brassband Buizingen (the 2012 Belgian brassband champions) and Brassband Schoonhoven (from the Netherlands) – in the run-up to the 1 May 2013 European Brassbands Championship in Oslo. But it was also the occasion for the launch of a double CD, When Worlds Collide, bringing together all of the component elements listed above. Brassband Buizingen have chosen to take to Oslo as their set piece a daring new composition by their composer-in-residence, Nigel Clarke, entitled When Worlds Collide (you can hear a few clips from the work-in-progress at this link). The subtitle of Nigel’s witty piece is ‘or Little Green Men in Intergalactic Spaceships with Rayguns and Phasers‘. In the spirit of the piece, I wrote an acompanying poem composed entirely out of the titles of American 1950s science fiction B movies, and I was invited to read out the poem before the music began. (As I explained to the audience, I think the titles give an extraordinary insight into the state of mind of 1950s Cold War America.) When it was all over, Luc Vertommen had a surprise for Nigel and for me. We were each appointed honorary life members of Brassband Buizingen. I was so deeply touched by this. So talented and stylish are Brassband Buizingen that it is easy to forget that this is an amateur band (you wouldn’t think it if you heard them) and I have grown to admire them as they strive always not just for excellence but also for originality. Taking When Worlds Collide to Oslo is in my opinion a good example of that. Brassband Buizingen could have opted for a ‘safer’ piece within their comfort zone and polished it highly. Instead, they have gone for an original and provocative piece. There are six of Nigel Clarke’s compositions on the double CD, all performed by Brassband Buizingen, and all very different. Indeed, the combination of Nigel’s prolific originality, Luc’s brilliant conducting and the players’ excellence is a perfect match. I wish them every success in Oslo!
To La Monnaie this evening for another portrayal of inexorable destiny – this time Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, with a libretto drawn by Debussy himself from Maurice Materlink’s symbolist play (about doomed love) of the same name. There was a sense of a circle in this performance, since the first foreign performance of Debussy’s revolutionary work was at La Monnaie (on 9 January 1907). There was also a sense of déjà vu inasmuch as Sandrine Piau, who was supposed to play Mélisande, had fallen on the set and injured herself, so she sang (beautifully) from the wings, whilst Monica Bacelli mutely acted her role on stage. Somehow, it worked well, with Bacelli’s portrayal conveying the mute suffering of her character. That Piau had fallen was maybe not so much of a surprise, since the action takes place around a most beautiful Anish Kapoor set design (see the picture) which, on a turntable and with varying lighting, effectively portrayed the various places (a forest, a castle, a rockpool) where the action is supposed to be occurring. Under Pierre Audi’s direction, Golaud (Mélisande’s husband) is portrayed as a psycho-sadist (convincingly acted by Dietrich Henschel). The key turning point in the drama, when Mélisande (earlier described by Arkel as having ‘the strange, bewildered look of someone constantly awaiting a calamity’) and her brother-in-law, Pelléas, finally admit their (unrequited) love for one another was brilliantly done: ‘Tout est perdu,’ Pelléas sings, ‘Tout est sauvé!‘ Exile is no longer an option. His fate is sealed. ‘If I were God,’ Arkel declares, ‘I would have pity on the hearts of men.’
To the Bozar this evening for Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (preceded by Apollo musagète), performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Monteverdi Choir, with Fanny Ardant as the narrator and all under the towering baton of John Eliot Gardiner (picture). A curiosity of the piece is that it is sung in Latin. The choir were made up as assassins and Creon was also made up to brilliant effect. Here, I thought, was yet another combination of words and music (Stravinsky called it an ‘opera-oratorio) to add to the Clarke/Westlake list (see this post). Stravinsky’s music creates an authetically claustrophobic sense of inexorable destiny. We know what is going to happen to Oedipus. This is a musical description of the journey to a horrible certainty.
This evening, at the writers’ workshop, the last chapter of my magnum opus was presented and critiqued. It is such a relief to have got the whole of the thing down, albeit in raw form. Now the polishing begins in earnest. For, to be a little Churchillian, this is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning. I began longer ago than I care to remember but I have a hard and fast deadline before me and so I’ll just have to knuckle down, especially over the summer holidays…
Tonight we watched Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 allegory on the UK’s capitalistic decline, O Lucky Man. I saw it when it first came out. Several aspects of the film made a deep impression upon me. A first was the way Malcolm McDowell‘s everyman, Mick Travis (aka Candide), keeps bobbing back up to the surface, no matter what awful things life throws at him (and it throws plenty). This, I thought, was a message of hope of some sort. But then, right at the end, McDowell is portrayed in a casting call for the same film (it’s all very self- and other-referential, as seventies films tended to be). The director, played by Lindsay Anderson himself, asks McDowell/Travis to smile, but he can’t. The director hits him across the face with his script and a forced grimace crosses Travis’s face, thus summing up what a critic has described as being ‘a hopeless sort of optimism’. A second aspect was the way Alan price’s songs are interspliced in the film like a sort of Greek chorus. And a third was the way every cast member plays at least two and mostly three roles. The film is maybe over-long (three hours) but Anderson covers a huge canvas, taking a pop at imperialism and capitalism (and the linkage between the two, of course) and provides a sardonic portrait of British industrial, commercial and scientific decline. Travis bobs through the canvas, urged by the chorus to abandon his principles in order to succeed but also to keep his idealism high and dry and away from the evils he keeps witnessing (torture, medical experiments, napalm exports, etc). ‘If you’ve found a reason to live on and not to die, you are a lucky man,’ Alan Price sings in the title song. But does Travis find such a reason? Does the world of film provide him with such a prospect, or is the viewer just at the start of the same eternal loop? The film ends with the cast partying happily but I think Anderson knows that we know that he knows that we don’t believe this!