Thursday, 17 April 2014

The World of The Double

Richard Ayoade’s film The Double draws on a long tradition of stories which confront the protagonist with a shadow self which threatens to usurp, undermine or derail his or her life. These include Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson )filmed by Louis Malle in the 1968 Poe anthology film Spirits of the Dead), Hans Christian Andersen’s The Shadow (1847), and the novel which Ayoade freely uses as source material here, Dostoevsky’s The Double. The double in fiction is often a manifestation of a part of the self which has been repressed, or which fills out a lost or undeveloped aspect vital to the integration of the whole person. The splintering apart of warring halves of the persona can also give literal embodiment to a state of state of mental crisis, projecting a conflict raging across the internal landscape onto the external world.

John Clute, in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, draws a fine distinction between the double and the doppelgänger. A double may be unrelated to the protagonist, unattached physically or spiritually, whereas ‘a doppelgänger is always intimately connected to the person in whose footsteps he walks’. It ‘may be a projection of the original person whose likeness it takes or mocks’. Given that Simon James’ double, James Simon, presents him with a mocking version of the outgoing person he cannot be, as well as growing evidence of his own invisibility and status as a non-person; and given the physical link which is revealed between them towards the end of the story, they can perhaps be thought of as subject and doppelganger than as doubles.

The urban world of Ayoade’s film is an indeterminate zone, with no specific geographical or historical locus, or defining characteristics of any sort other than a vague latter half of the twentieth century timeframe derived from the background technology. Its expressionistic set design, cinematography and sound push it beyond the authentic replication of real place or mood and takes us into the territories of psychologically resonant architecture and interiors. The characterless city in which Simon James lives and works is shaded in drab, muted colours, with a tendency towards chiaroscuro shades of grey. There is no enlivening brightness. The daylight is smeared, as if having to penetrate through a grimy glass dome. The interiors have the sickly yellow glow of striplighting, which makes everybody look sallow and jaundiced. The sky is occluded, shuttered off in the windowless labyrinth of the office or swallowed up in the shadowed canyons between the brutally monumental slabs of the housing blocks.

Simon witnesses, with mute horror, a bird being spat out of a duct mouth to land with a wet thud on the upper shelf of an inaccessible, glass-fronted storage cupboard. It has presumably been sucked from the sky by a vent on the roof somewhere far above. There it lies, an eviscerated lump displayed like an anatomical specimen. Simon glimpses it again later in the story, untouched and slowly rotting away, roughly filed in its sealed-off stationery mausoleum. It serves as a stark symbol of the death of the soul in this deadening environment, left to wither and decay in airless confinement rather than soaring in expansive flight.

Office technology is monumental and domineering, photocopying machines great glowing hulks which judder and shake into threatening motion as if powered by small nuclear plants. Individuals are hived off into dim wooden pens like so many productive farm animals, faces wanly illuminated by the dull green radiance of computer screens, the bulky extension of the encased tube at the back adding to the air of suffocating claustrophobia. This is a place in which people are a component of an overarching machinery, subservient to the unquestionable logic of a mechanised system the output of which has become almost irrelevant.

The expressionistic tenor of the film extends to its sound design. The office is filled with subterranean rumblings and the incessant grind and chatter of overcharged and unstable technology makes it sound more like an industrial plant in which heavy machinery rolls and booms through its violent processes. The space between the housing blocks is scoured by a bleak wind, which sounds like it has blown in from some chasmic void. It makes of it a blasted no-man’s land, to be hurried across with as much haste as possible.

Is this the drear, depersonalised world which has shaped our hapless protagonist, or is it an expressionistic projection of his inherent nature, a subjectively distorted perspective. Perhaps a little of both. Simon literally projects a long, angular shadow behind him when he pauses before entering his building one night, sometime after his double has set his life on its downward trajectory. It’s almost too perfect an image, reproducing the impossibly jagged and distorted black and white shadows of the German films of the 20s which established the cinematic language of expressionism. It could have been designed for use on the poster. The subjective , self-conscious nature of this imagery is also made clear when Simon walks down his apartment block corridor with a spring in his step, filled with the sudden and surprising possibility of happiness after his meeting with Hannah. The lights fizzle and flicker above him, bathing him in brief pulses of bright, primary colour.

In such a drearily entropic, drained world, imaginative escape of some sort becomes necessary for survival. Simon zones out to the arpeggiated synth soundtrack of a ridiculous space opera. He drinks in the tough guy heroics, and the simplistic life or death choices which the silver-suited, ray gun wielding lead character makes as a matter of course, always accompanied by some macho epithet. The gulf between the life of a downtrodden nobody (or ‘creepy guy’) and the action hero he dreams of is as painfully gaping as it always is in such wish-fulfilment fantasies. It’s the kind of vapid escapism which, in the end, only serves to make the real world that little bit more unbearable.

Hannah escapes through art, drawing sketches which she then tears into scraps. She gazes at the fragments which adhere to her fingers as if they were precious mosaic bricks, before brushing them of into the rubbish chute. This furtive practice suggests that art and creativity is seen as a shameful impulse in this world, unproductive, self-indulgent and useless. Simon rakes through the rubbish bins beneath the mouths of the communal chutes and collects these paper fragments, pasting them back together again in a scrapbook he devotes to the reconstructed pictures. It’s a scenario reminiscent of one of the plot strands running through Georges Perec’s absurdist novel Life: A User’s Manual (La Vie Mode d'Emploi in the original French), first published in 1978. A hugely wealthy Englishman named Bartlebooth learns to paint to a high standard and travels the world producing landscapes at various ports. He sends his paintings back to an apartment in Paris where they are cut into challenging jigsaw puzzles by a master craftsman. He then reconstructs them, and when they are finished sends them back to the place where they were created. Here, the watercolours are washed off, leaving a blank, scarred canvas which Bartleby claims as his own. Another Perec link is made through the first of Hannah’s sketches which Simon puts back together. It’s a view of the back of a head, a figure looking at itself in the mirror. The reflection is not of a mirrored face gazing back at itself, however, but a reproduction of the back of the head which we see. This is a conceit which Rene Magritte used in his painting La Reproduction Interdite (Not to be Reproduced). A poster of it is stuck to the wall of the room in which the protagonist of the 1974 film Un Homme Qui Dort (A Man Asleep) lives. It was a film which Georges Perec worked on with director Bernard Queysanne, adapting his own 1967 novel. Like The Double, it is about a young man falling further and further out of sync with the world around him, slipping into a shadowy state in which he becomes like an insubstantial ghost drifting through life. The narrative progression of both films charts a descent into escalating mental disintegration and despair.

Magritte's painting in Un Homme Qui Dort
Another very obvious literary influence is Franz Kafka, who might as well share a screenwriting credit as spiritual advisor. The Kafka characteristics are all present: the crushing bureaucracy; the blandly indifferent figures of petty authority who operate according to abstruse yet immutable laws; the concern with the fine detail of hierarchies and of power within relationships, and the unceasing struggle to gain recognition or a degree of self-determination; the absurd dialogue which can turn logic inside out and switch from innocuous pleasantry to undermining attack within the turning of a phrase; and the subjection of a powerless individual to the arbitrary dictates of an incomprehensible system, or merely to the chance operations of the uncaring universe at large. The presence of a little Kafka lookalike (played by Craig Roberts, the lead actor in Ayoade’s first feature, Submarine) is a nod to his pervasive spirit. Ayoade has also talked about the influence of Orson Welles’ Kafka adaptation The Trial (1962) on the mood and look of his film.

Other film references seem to adorn The Double, Ayoade’s cinephiliac side bubbling irrepressibly to the surface. Hannah has a blue glass mobile similar to the one which Juliette Binoche gazes at in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Blue. It’s a visual echo which draws a comparison between the two women leading lonely lives in their solitary flats. The periodic rumbling in the café, presumably indicative of subway trains passing directly underneath, is reminiscent of the shuddering passage of the heavy trains which sets furniture and glasses rattling in the bar in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (and later accompanies the telekinetic shifting of the glass along the table by the damaged young girl). It’s a film which shares, for the scenes set outside of The Zone, The Double’s oppressively colour-drained palette. Simon’s use of a telescope to spy on the life on display through the windows of the apartments opposite, and at Hannah’s in particular, inevitably recalls Rear Window. But perhaps a more appropriate comparison, given the Eastern Bloc drabness of the housing, would by Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil shares similarities in its building of an exaggerated, absurd architecture of bureaucratic oppression. It’s also similar in its depiction of a society in a state of dulled, stupefied inertia, lumbered with antiquated systems and baroque. barely functioning technologies; and in its general air of pervasive grubbiness and corrosion. There is none of the brightly brittle emphasis on the artificial promise of escape through consumerism found in Brazil’s mutated post-war Britain, however. The world of The Double builds more upon an Eastern Bloc variety of austerity. There seems to be a lot of unspoken emptiness and absence, a fearful quietude which has settled over everything. Vast importance is attached to work and position, and the moral backbone which their diligent pursuit provides. But this work has no readily apparent purpose. A militaristic authority figure, the Colonel, is presented as a gleamingly spotless, airbrushed icon, imbued with an almost spiritual power of redemption. To gain his blessing means attaining a higher state. James Fox lends him a suitably aristocratic bearing, vaguely benign but detached and unapproachable.

Such influences are used lightly, however, and with conscious application. They build up layers of resonant association which add further depth to particular scenes. Ultimately, The Double creates its own world, visually self-contained, shot through with bleak absurdist humour (just as Kafka can be) and full of idiosyncratic and finely observed detail. It is, I feel compelled to conclude., a singular achievement.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Under the Skin

WARNING: Plot Details Revealed

Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer, is a film which seems almost deliberately designed to divide audiences. This is due partly to its cool, clinical cruelty, and partly to its semi-formless narrative structure. It proceeds with a meandering drift, and even the most dramatic moments are flattened by the camera’s classically uninvolved eye, holding back and watching from the middle distance. The drift of events and encounters occasionally dissipates, the nebulous focus realigning itself and fixing into moments of complete abstraction. The film opens with just such a moment, a striking formal sequence in which the basic visual and linguistic elements of the human perspective coalesce from fragmented circles of light and the rote repetition of phonetics. These are the elements of cinema, of course – light and language, the script learned and reproduced by the actor, possibly adopting a new accent or intonation. The words we half-hear are divorced from any real meaning and reduced to mere sound, language made strange. The eye which stares out at us lets us know that we will be watching what follows from a radically altered viewpoint. The camera’s eye will represent this new vision. It will be part story, part cinematic experiment, for which we will be the subjects.

We are given no explicit cues as to the central premise of the story at the outset, no prefatory written explanation or scene-setting approach of a spaceship. If some of the lights which dazzle us are indeed a craft of some kind, then it is as abstracted as the spaceship in which Kris approaches Solaris in Tarkovsky’s film. Burning arcs of light, blurred with speed, which might have marked the meteor trail of a capsule plunging through the Earth’s atmosphere, are brought into focus and revealed as the swerving passage of a motorcycle along winding nightroads. We are plunged into a world whose nature we are expected to work out for ourselves. We gather that an alien in female form, played by Scarlett Johansson, is trawling the streets of Glasgow in a white van, picking up human meat in a disturbingly literal sense. She is assisted by brutal, swiftly mobile motorcycling enforcer, a more murderously violent incarnation of Death’s outriders in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée.

The dizzying, disorienting sensation caused by the distanced alien viewpoint is perfectly accompanied and amplified by Mica Levi’s score. Levi, the woman behind the hyperkinetically inventive art-pop of Micachu and the Shapes, produced an atmospheric soundtrack for a sonic journey guiding people around the bewildering spaces of the Barbican in London in 2011. This electronic piece transformed the concrete surroundings into a natural paradise of tropical birdsong and running water. The headphone cocooned wanderer experienced a disconnection from their normal experience of this familiar environment similar to the effect created by the film’s deliberate remove. Although in this case, the electronic sounds provided more of a warm, ambient breeze, wafting between the concrete masses and reviving the utopian spirit of late modernist post-war architecture. Levi’s music for Under the Skin is more in line with pre- and post-war modernist tendencies in classical music. Its skittering, scrabbling, stridulently chittering strings (evoking the anthill or insect swarm) are overlaid with the odd, sensually upgliding glissando line – a disconcerting combination. The style is reminiscent of Gyorgy Ligeti, Giacinto Scelsi or parts of George Crumb’s Black Angels quartet (extracts of which were used in The Exorcist). There are also little burbles and squawks of electronic sound, which suggests a coldly calculating machine-like intelligence at work. Modernist composers’ determination to completely dismantle the structure of late romantic music and reconfigure the separate elements into new patterns and forms led to pieces which sounded strange and alien compared with the familiar worlds of well-tempered melody and harmonic development. This strangeness has made them ideal for accompanying the discovery of the new worlds of SF or for expressing the destabilising, disruptive forces of horror. Ligeti, Penderecki and Bartok have all duly been brought into service, and many soundtrack composers have drawn on their soundworlds. The third movement of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta has proved a particularly rich template, and has been directly used in The Shining and the Doctor Who story The Web of Fear. Levi’s score takes its place within this tradition, and does so to great effect.

There is also a disconcerting disjuncture between visual style and formal register throughout the film; abrupt fissures open up between scenes of distanced but largely realistic observations of ordinary life and an ascetic surrealism which leads us into edgeless no-places where boundaries and surfaces are indeterminate and fluid. ‘I’m dreaming’, one character whispers to himself as he walks into such a space, and the alien replies, with soft assurance, ‘yes, you are’. These are voids in which all the cinematic appurtenances of set dressing and digital backdrops, the illusory reproduction of authentic worlds or the creation of new ones shaped from the imagination, are erased. When the men whom Scarlett Johansson’s nameless alien draws into these no-places are gradually submerged beneath the translucent, oily-black surface which she walks over, it’s as if they are sinking into the screen itself, passing out of our vision. The realistic scenes also have a strangeness which derives from their very authenticity. Many of the encounters weren’t staged, but surreptitiously filmed. This extends the cinematic experiment beyond the audience to those on the screen (and those who were filmed but refused consent to appear in the film, or ended up on the cutting room floor). Would it have been better to have a non-star in the lead role? Perhaps, but it would have lessened this extra dimension of cinematic self-referentiality. Because, in a film about the protective and deceptive nature of surface appearances, it’s quite apparent that none of these randomly selected passers-by recognises Scarlett Johansson, the Hollywood movie star, in this relatively de-glamourised guise.

These surreally empty scenes occasionally cross the boundary into hard-edged abstraction, any trace of human presence, recognisable landscape or interior expunged. A linear lava flow of roiling red matter channelled towards a letterbox aperture hints at the conveyor belt transportation of processed human meat (all of which reminds of the alien ‘harvesting’ machines in Nigel Kneale’s 1979 Quatermass conclusion). But this is the most abstracted of gore scenes, presenting us with a rectilinear line of colour rather than a river of blood or steaming heap of guts. The slot towards which it is conveyed expands as we watch until we are confronted with a black screen banded by a single straight line of burning red. Held for a number of seconds, it’s a cinematic abstract expressionism, with a similar refusal of direct representation. It’s one way in which the film attempts to get under the skin, to pass beyond external appearances and search for some numinous quality beyond, some essential human essence – the soul, perhaps.

There are several scenes in which we are faced with a black screen, or one which bleaches out into a searing whiteness. Scarlett Johansson’s blank face becomes blurred in fog, its features reduced to the barest outlines before disappearing altogether. Similarly, we first see her properly within a screen of boundless white light, which threatens to grow brighter and sear away all contrast between her form and the background. As she drives through the night streets of Glasgow, her vigilant, expressionless face morphs with a visual collage of the people she is watching through her windscreen, until she seems to be composed of a billowing mist, suffused with an orange, sodium-lit luminescence. She’s illuminated by a similar light later on, when her body is burnished by the radiance of an old bar heater, making her look like a gilded statue.

This abstraction, the distortion or transformation of the human form into new and strange configurations, its absorption into its surroundings or its total erasure, is a part of the cold emotional tenor of the film. This is another aspect which makes it hugely divisive. It what makes the film have the feel of a psychological experiment at times, like the Voight-Kampff empathy tests in Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and in Blade Runner. It’s as if we were being presented with a series of self-contained scenes of suffering and cruelty and asked ‘how does this make you feel?’ A baby crying in the teeth of the wind, abandoned and helpless on a heavily, roughly pebbled shore as the tempestuous tide relentlessly draws nearer. And this? A deformed, lonely man offered a hint of companionship and affection which we know will be the prelude to his unpleasant death. Now answer the questions on this form which will precisely map your emotional reaction.

The alien perspective is a SF device which, when brought to bear on the ingrained rituals and routines of modern, everyday life and the assumptions which accompany it, makes the familiar seem strange and less solid. That’s certainly the case here when the Scarlett Johansson alien drives or walks around Glasgow, watching a swarm of Celtic fans, mingling with shoppers in a crowded mall, or tracking late night revellers or isolated individuals striding briskly through the street. We share her viewpoint, the van’s screen becoming a secondary cinema screen for significant periods of time.

The alien can also be taken as a metaphor for the outsider, the nonconformist or the feared and despised ‘other’ in general. This aspect becomes increasingly prominent in the latter part of the film, as the alien leaves the hunting ground of Glasgow, with their ‘safe’ houses, abandons the mobile shelter of the van, and sheds the first superficial layer of skin, the fake-fur coat she has donned at the beginning of the story. The SF alien, with all its manifold potential for metaphor and allegory, is largely employed in this context to lend the central character a blank, affectless view of the world, and a fixity of purpose devoid of any empathy or emotional attachment which is akin to a schizophrenic or psychopathic state of mental disorder. Remove the fantastic elements, and this could be a film about a young woman with profound mental health problems.

In this respect, it shares certain parallels with a previous British film with the same title. Carine Adler’s 1987 film Under the Skin starred Samantha Morton as a young woman traumatised by the death of her mother. She suffers a breakdown and embarks on a self-negating trail or casual, emotionless sexual encounters in an attempt to numb her pain. In the current Under the Skin, sex becomes something which cracks the alien apart, in the end stripping off her protective skin in a literalised metaphor. It is seen as a destructive, violating force, a forceful infection of the human into the body beneath the carefully constructed outer carapace.

The removal of emotional affect, combined with the implicit mission to ‘harvest’ human meat (something made a great deal more explicit in Michel Faber’s source novel), bring an almost unbearable cruelty to some scenes. The wailing baby on the beach and the encounter with the unfortunate man whose head is misshapen by a genetic disorder are calculated to cause discomfort and distress, and are deeply upsetting. They work by creating a sense of empathy and pity in the audience which is not remotely reflected in the responses of the aliens, although their human appearance still leads us to expect it. These two are reductive embodiments of the female and male attributes projected as desirable traits in a heavily mediated world of surface appearances and relentless competition: the seductive, sexy woman who can get anything she wants through the unfurling of her charms, and the brutishly strong action man, capable of ruthlessly battering down any obstruction which blocks the path to his goal. Everything beyond these shallow surface identifiers is unknowable to us. These characteristics represent the skin to which the title refers, easily copied and cultivated from the flood of signs assailing the everyday world, presenting us with the idealised forms of perfection and conformity over and over again. In Scarlett Johansson’s case, the skin is represented by the fake fur coat she buys, and the make-up she puts on to create a mask of artificial sensuality. The man’s skin is his armorial biker’s leathers, which accentuate his broad shoulders and puffed out chest and give him an air of permanently poised aggression. You get the sense that there may be no human flesh, real or facsimile, beneath this stiff hide.

The encounter with the deformed man is the central point of the film, fulcrum on which it turns, beginning its descent into disintegration, its departure from the city into the hinterlands. He hides his swollen face beneath the hood of his coat (his own protective hide) and goes out at night to do his shopping. The Johansson alien (and the lack of a name makes it difficult to refer to her as anything else) asks him about his girlfriends, or whether he has any friends at all. This opens up such an unbearable well of loneliness that it appears to affect even her alien consciousness. Perhaps it taps into some universal knowledge of isolation and alienation common to all intelligent, self-aware life – a condition of being which ignites a spark of commonality which can span even the vast gulf which we’ve witnessed dividing these species. She is infected with a viral microbe of pity and compassion which begins to spread. From hereon in, we observe her steady disintegration. This is in part marked by her loss of language, her retreat into dumb incommunicativeness. She becomes increasingly isolated, drifting uncomprehendingly towards the condition of the man whom she took pity on and allowed to live. She becomes self-reflective in an attempt to understand this newly emergent self, becoming mesmerised by her face and body as seen in mirrors, as if she had been unaware of them before.

To go further inward, to get under the new skin of which she is becoming conscious, she heads out into the Scottish wilds. These provide psychological landscapes which are perfectly congruent with her inner states. The loss of language, the erosion of the ability to communicate, is a symptom of overwhelming feelings of bewilderment, loneliness, fear and loss – feelings which are part of the infecting virus of humanity. There is an element of deliberation here, too. The first layer of skin, the fur coat, is shed and the protective womb of the van abandoned. In this formally rigorous film, the hinterlands beyond the city are the location for a progressive disintegration which reverses the initial integration and efficient fulfilment of duty which comprised the first half. The enveloping Scotch mists, ruined castles through which biting winds gust and empty, silent pine forests in which the slightest snapping of a twig ricochets like the crack of a gunshot are the perfect symbolic backdrops to express a state of alienation and psychological breakdown.

The film’s take on gender begins to change at this point, too. In the first half, the Johansson alien is a female inversion of the horror or serial killer archetype, a coldly manipulative, predatory stalker – a white van woman. But as her psyche fragments and she drifts from her purposeful pursuit, spiralling further inward (and outward), she becomes vulnerable and open to exploitation and abuse. This is very uncomfortable to watch. The base behaviour of the men she encounters, all of whom, with greater or lesser degrees of directness and brutality, are intent on fulfilling their own appetites and desires, offers a wholly negative outlook on the male sex. Again, there is an element of emotional experiment – how does this make you feel? There is an element of the revenge drama here, after all. She’s getting what she deserves, isn’t she? This is another reversal of generic form. The rape revenge film, one of the most troubling subsets of exploitation cinema, has generally been about women visiting violent retribution on their own assailants. Under the Skin culminates in a scene which reverts to the dispiriting visual style of the slasher film, giving us the close involvement in swiftly edited action which has been withheld from us throughout. The Johansson alien is pursued through the desolate ranks of pine trees by a forestry worker, whom she has briefly encountered earlier, and who has determined that she is on her own. The camera cuts rapidly between the two of them, giving a sense of the urgency of the chase, and creating a fearful tension. The man who is after her wears a huge, thick, high-vis coat, another armorial hide which exaggerates the size of his body and shrouds his ordinary, human frame in an intimidating, monstrous skin.

The final scene, whilst hardly comforting, has a certain bleak poetry to it. The alien form beneath the skin is revealed, only to be set alight in a petrol-soaked pyre. But perhaps this is only one further layer, burnt away to free something more formless beneath. There remains something unknowable about this being, as there remained something unknowable about the humanity which it had adopted as a disguise. This unknowability, the inability to get to the true core of being, the heart or essence, is the indeterminate conclusion of the story – and not necessarily a wholly downbeat one. Fire burns on snow, ashes mingle with the flames, elements coalesce in an alchemical admixture which promises some new combination. This landscape mirrors the opening images, a return to the human form abstracted, transformed, a drifting part of its surroundings. It’s a climax fitting for a film concerned with death, transfiguration and the deceptive nature of surface appearances. At this point, I realised what the film reminded me of: the emotionally intense, poetic and death-haunted SF short stories of James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon). The final images, with the camera rising to follow the path of the spiralling ashes into the snow filled sky until flake and cinder are indistinguishable, can be summed up by the title of one of Tiptree’s finest, most overwhelming stories – Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Solarference present Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at Exeter Phoenix

Solarference are a duo, Nick Janaway and Sarah Owen, who make electronic music which uses traditional folk song as its familiar source and emotional anchor. The resulting hybrid, which the name poetically evokes, successfully casts both forms in a new light. It reflects both the rural character of their Westcountry background and the experimental musics which they encountered in the course of an art school education in London. This blend of musical traditions follows an oral lineage back through the generations and introduces an exploratory use of new technologies, drawing on paths forged in the era of post-war modernism. Such a superimposition of old and new raises the spectre of hauntology, that awkward academic term which has been applied to certain kinds of music and graphic design invoking the ghosts of memory inhabiting a post war period which ended with the onset of the 80s. These ghosts are also often imbued with more ancient layers of time and folk memory, reflecting the fascination with the deep history of Britain which was prevalent in 1970s culture. It has to be said, the term often seems to function largely as a label which its supposed practitioners can reject or express bewilderment as to the meaning of. Whatever terminology is applied, however, the drawing together of the old songs, which seem to rise with uncanny familiarity from some collective strata of the unconscious, with electronic sounds and digital concrète manipulations redolent of an age super-saturated (and perhaps sated) with technological magic, produces a bewitching and very powerful effect.

This fusion of old and new was lent a further dimension on March 9th at the Phoenix in Exeter when they provided a live, semi-improvised accompaniment to the 1920 film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of hubristic scientific alchemy and the duality of the human soul, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The digital projection was taken from a poor quality print, the shadows and fog of the gaslit London street scenes rendered even more murky and obscure by the abrasion and chemical erosion of time. This made for an interesting disjuncture with the duo standing to the side of the stage beneath the screen, their studiously intent features illuminated by the megabyte glow of their lectern-perched laptops. The impression of eras facing one another across a century’s gulf, analogue and digital interpenetrating in some interstitial zone beyond normal temporal bounds, was reinforced by the Victorian/Edwardian casual garb which the two musicians wore for the occasion.

The film, with John Barrymore in the dual lead role, was the most prestigious of three versions made in 1920, and really served to establish the portrayal of the Jekyll and Hyde personae, and set the accepted tone of the story, in the popular imagination. Jekyll is upright and observant of conventional Victorian middle-class social etiquette; Hyde is bent into a devolved, simian stoop and is amorally intent on sating any of the sexual appetites of venting any of the violent urges which define his being. This idea of Hyde as the embodiment of the repressed side of the superficially noble and respectable Dr Jekyll which physically manifests itself as an ape-like monster was first put forward in J.R.Sullivan’s 1887 theatrical adaptation. It was not an interpretation which pleased Stevenson himself. But his creation was soon developing into something beyond his control. The film drew on this sensational and highly successful stage version, and the transformation scene became the central dramatic moment, a testing challenge for actor and special effects artist. There is a definite aura of the limelighted stage suffusing the 1920 film Another faultline between the ages is evident here – the grand world of the late Victorian theatre suddenly fixed on the screen in the new global medium of the movies.

In this instance, it is a rather less successful conjunction. Many of the drawing room scenes are stilted and dull, and John Barrymore’s broad gestural acting can come across as the most overcooked ham in the unforgiving close-up glare of the studio arc lights. His transformation scene in particular raised unfortunate titters and snorts of derision. He mugs frantically, grasps his throat and seems to throw himself bodily about before finally taking a spectacularly melodramatic dive onto the laboratory floor. His performance as Hyde is at times memorably flesh-crawling, however. His lank hair is clammily pasted to his temples and his skull disturbingly distended (a phrenologist’s dream, or nightmare) in the shape of a coconut husk or a bulbous spider’s abdomen. There is indeed one truly horrific fever dream sequence in which a giant, hairy spider with Hyde’s leering face at its head clambers stiffly up onto the four poster bed in which Jekyll restlessly sleeps, crawls over his body and settles down to merge invisibly into it. The figure who then wakes up is, of course, Hyde.

Solarference draw on the wide folk ballad repertoire which mournfully tells of false love and tragically thwarted romance to accompany the scenes involving the ‘pure’ object of Jekyll’s repressed affections and the musical hall artiste (played by Nita Naldi, the future co-star of Rudolph Valentino in some of his biggest pictures) who falls prey to Hyde’s unsubtle and ruthlessly calculating advances. Many of these ballads have appeared on the death-haunted late 60s albums of Shirley Collins (The Sweet Primeroses, The Power of the True Love Knot and Love, Death and the Maiden), on which she was often accompanied by the hauntingly fragile piping of her sister Dolly’s home-built portative organ. It’s possible that it was here that Solarference discovered the songs – a fine source if so. They certainly create a cohesive, melancholic mood which emphasises the female aspects of the story’s tragic trajectory. Barbara Allen and The Sweet Primeroses are both songs of false and violently opposed love. The latter has a verse which begins with the line ‘So I'll go down to some lonesome valley/Where no man on earth shall there me find’, which is used for some of the darkest parts of the story. The words are cut and repeated, creating a truncated echo which makes it seem as if we really have descended into that deep, desolate valley. Barbara Allen, a tale of love scorned and mocked by its object, is particularly appropriate for the scenes in which Hyde taunts and dismisses the musical hall artiste whom he has reduced to his domestic drudge, and whom he later encounters in the opium den. Go From My Window also has the highly apposite line ‘oh the devil’s in the man that he will not understand, he can’t have a harbouring here’. Solarference have evidently chosen these songs with great care and attention to detail.

Black Ships Ate the Sky
They also use the old Charles Wesley hymn tune Idumea to stunning effect. Its opening question, ‘and am I born to die, to lay this body down/and must my trembling spirit fly into a world unknown’, once again highlights the tragic nature of the story, its inexorable progression towards a fatal conclusion. But it also points to the spiritual anxieties which underlie Stevenson’s stories. The concern for the state, or even the existence of the soul in an age of scientific breakthrough – of the telescoping of time into geological millennia, and of psychoanalytical and evolutionary theories which began fundamentally to change humanity’s perception of itself and its position in the scheme of creation. The song was also incorporated into the eschatological worldview of David Tibet and his Current 93 project. It was sung by a number of people on the Black Ships Ate the Sky album, one of whom was Shirley Collins.

Much of the soundtrack was created on the fly from numerous ‘concrète’ sources, sounds recorded and instantly transformed by a powerful and swiftly responsive sound-editing programme. Comb teethe were thumb-raked, miniature music box handles cranked, the bodies of glass bottles chinked and their mouths breathily blown across, Chinese-sounding flutes piped, paper slowly torn and a dulcimer plucked. The resultant noises were expanded, multiplied and dispersed into rich and colourful fogs of sound. The principal source was the human voice, however, the vast potential of which was used to produce whispers, clucks, slurps, sighs, shhhhhs and grunts. These sometimes lent the sequences they accompanied an inner soundtrack, as if they were sounding out the film’s subterranean layers of meaning. For the scene in which Hyde enters the Limehouse opium den, for instance, the recorded voice was atomised, replicated and scattered. This expressed both the fragmentary, partial nature of Hyde’s persona, and the dislocated dreams drifting up from the squalid pallets of the dazed pipe smokers. For the dinner party scene in the Victorian parlour, we heard a layered swarm of sibilant whispers. They were somewhat akin to the susurrus of inner voices heard by the angels in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire as they watch over the readers in the Berlin State Library. This parlour whispering was interspersed with slurping, sucking and the smacking of lips, suggesting that this was a milieu in which the appetites for food and gossip were indistinguishable.

Luciano Berio and Cathy Berberian
The extended vocal techniques, subsequent electronic transformations and their expression of inner states brings to mind the 1960s and 70s collaborations between Italian composer Luciano Berio and his then wife, the soprano singer Cathy Berberian. Her extraordinary vocal performances on Visage and Sequenza III take the listener on an intense, kaleidoscopically shifting voyage through a dizzyingly fragmented mirrorworld of psychological moods. It feels discomfortingly at times like experiencing a monumental breakdown from the deep interior of an individual psyche. Berberian also sang Berio’s more straightforward Folk Songs suite, which gathered together folk melodies from various countries (and included the modern standard Black Is The Colour of My True Love’s Hair), providing a further parallel with Solarference’s blending of the experimental and the traditional. Berio would have created his vocal collages through a thousand cuts and splices of tape, of course. A modern artist who has used less fiddly and laborious (although in their own way equally painstaking) digital means to make music from the isolated, compacted and stretched sounds of the human voice is Oneohtrix Point Never (aka Daniel Lopatin), whose latest album, R Plus 7, is another point of reference. The isolation and reproduction of fragments of human utterance also served to create syllabic rhythms, which provided a propulsive sense of momentum to some of the film’s more dramatic moments.

In the second part of the evening, Solarference returned in modern day civvies to play a small selection from their album Kiss of Clay (the chilly phrase deriving from the haunting graveside song Cold Blows the Wind). The record is, perhaps understandably, more solidly song-based, with the experimental elements restricted largely to creating background colour and atmosphere. Live, however, those elements came to the fore, and the songs were allowed to stretch out into more unusual shapes before returning to their melodic harbour. It was a genuinely thrilling and innovative balance of the traditional and the experimental. The harmonies were lovely in themselves, particularly on the bilingual Welsh song which they ended with, Ei Di’r Deryn Du. This is a fusion music which really works in exciting ways, without sounding remotely contrived or forced. It manages to unite the seemingly alien and irreconcilable worlds of Xenakis, Stockhausen and Pierre Henry with those of Martin Carthy, Shirley Collins and Anne Briggs. The folk tunes and the tales they tell form the human heart, the familiar core, but they are moulded into all manner of new and strange configurations, whilst never losing their essential character.

After the final song, we were invited to come and look at the technology involved, and ask any questions which might occur. Looking at the sound wave patterns and the shadowed sweeps which gathered selected splinters up to transform them, it became evident how intuitive and visually cued the process was (once thoroughly learned and absorbed, of course). This is sonic painting or sculpting in real time, a digital development of the ideas of drawn sound synthesis which Daphne Oram in Britain and Eduard Artemiev in the USSR experimented with in the 1970s. This invitation to come and talk and see how things were done pointed to a real desire on the artists’ part to reach out and communicate their own excitement about their music and the ideas behind it. It was an excitement and daringly exploratory spirit which came across forcefully in the committed and immensely enjoyable performances they gave at the Phoenix in Exeter.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Un Homme Qui Dort

Un Homme Qui Dort is a 1974 film based on a short novel of the same name by the French author Georges Perec, published in 1967. Perec himself collaborated on the adaptation of his work with the director Bernard Queysanne, so this can be seen as an authentic translation of his ideas and intentions onto the screen. Perec loved to play linguistic games. His novels and stories are as much about language and its structures, the way in which they shape our view of the world, as they are about narrative and character. He was a member of the Oulipo group. The neologism Oulipo was itself derived from a linguistic game, a condensation of the opening letters from the grand banner L’Ouvroir de Litterature Potentialle. A rough translation would be ‘the workshop of possible stories’. The group set restrictive parameters and delimiting rules around the use of language, making a game or puzzle of the art of writing and storytelling. The skill lay in creating something meaningful rather than merely mechanical, dryly mathematical or annoyingly clever from the means available. The imagination could be channelled down new paths and surprising byways by the application of such strictures.

Georges Perec
Perec’s most extreme gesture in this mode was his novel La Disparition (The Disappearance), published in 1969, in which the letter ‘e’ was entirely absent, as if it had been erased from the alphabet. In an equally astonishing intellectual feat, which took the art of literary translation to new heights, the author and screenwriter Gilbert Adair produced an English language version of the book, an endeavour which was in effect an Oulipoean game in itself. Perec also wrote Life: A User’s Manual (1978), whose chapters were all based in the individual rooms of a Parisian apartment block, and whose narrative structure was largely determined by the moves of a chess game plotted out on a diagrammatic chart of the building in question.

Un Homme Qui Dort was written before Perec joined the Oulipo elite, but clearly points to his interest in linguistic experiment in its use of the second person singular throughout. This creates both a sense of distance and of intimate address, implying a certain narrative omniscience and even control whilst inviting the reader to identify with the nameless protagonist (the ‘you’). In its original French incarnation, the ‘tu’ has additional nuances, implying either comfortable familiarity and intimacy or a belittling condescension reserved for someone too insignificant to merit the formal, polite ‘vous’. The equivalent of talking to someone as if they were a child, a bit simple.

In the film, passages from the novel are read out by a neutrally-toned narrator. This is a literary adaptation in which words and images remain, at some level, separate. There is no dialogue and little natural sound in the film. It is, to all intents and purposes, silent, with recorded sound subsequently overlaid. The words came first, but it often seems as if they are providing a commentary for pre-existing images, rather than the images giving visual form to the words. For the English-language version, Shelley Duvall voices this neutral tone perfectly, and also captures the quality of reverie which permeates the film – a reverie which can bring small details into sharp focus whilst blurring the wider world into a confused fog. Her voiceover recalls her character Millie in Robert Altman’s 1977 picture 3 Women at the end of the film, when her ceaseless stream of empty babble ceases and she speaks in similarly abstracted tones – a voice of almost inhuman clarity. In Un Homme Qui Dort, however, it is not without an undertow of pity and compassion. The narrative voice articulates the protagonist’s otherwise impenetrable inner life. It almost seems to direct him at times, and is an aural manifestation of the surrendering of his free will. But it could also be heard as a voice wholly unallied with his own consciousness and being; a voice which is trying to break through the into the sphere of his isolated orbit, to make him perceive his lonely world with greater clarity, and thereby to prompt him to save himself. This voice is even given watching eyes: the surveillance cameras which are seen at various points throughout the film, swivelling and focussing on their iron pedestals to observe his passing below.

We first encounter the ‘tu’ of the film in his small garret room, the archetypal Parisian dwelling of the struggling artist, existential philosopher or (as in this case) penniless student. He experiences some undefined moment of inward ontological crisis in which the quotidian observances of his life become drained of meaning or purpose. Attempting to approach what is essentially a breakdown with the intellectual rigour and control of an empirical philosophical investigation, he decides to systematically reduce his existence to some absolutely fundamental level. To this end, he strips away all personal and social elements and condenses essential functions into repetitive, reflexive actions, which are performed with mechanical affectlessness and lack of conscious thought. These actions are precisely delineated and enumerated – the 6 socks washed in a pink bowl, the tasteless steak eaten at the nondescript bar – until they become overdetermined and wholly detached from the broader canvas of actuality.

Un Homme Qui Dort could almost be seen as a satire on fashionable existentialism, of young men who adopted the hip pose of alienation and a studied and verbose disaffection with the superficiality of modern society. This is the kind of alienation which fed into the countercultures of the 60s, and into the rock music which was its soundtrack. The protagonist even looks a little bit like Eric Burdon from The Animals. There may be an element of that. But this is also, despite its second person narrative voice, a very personal film, deriving from a very personal novel, which draws on Perec’s own experience of mental breakdown as a young man. The remove granted by the narrative device may have been necessary for him to achieve a certain distance from and objectivity towards those painful experiences. The protagonist’s state lies within his own fragmented self, ultimately arising from his failure, or refusal to connect with the world. In this case, the problem is located within the individual rather than in society. The Escher print on his wall provides a diagram of the confused knots of his mind, stairways climbing the walls at impossible, self-contradictory angles which are at odds with the universally held, empirically verifiable laws of the universe. And yet there they are, seemingly abiding by their own hermitic logic.

The protagonist self-consciously cultivates his mental breakdown as if it were a reaction against the imbalance of the modern world. The controlling limitations he imposes upon his own existence (Oulipo rules applied to real life) follow on from an initial moment of slippage, of consciousness falling out of sync with what is expected of it. He pretends to himself that this is something which can be managed, an act of self-collusion which denies the possibility of help from others. He is in effect declaring himself to be self-contained, a monadic entity. There’s a strong current of egocentricity to this choice. As the narrative voice in the book declares, he becomes, in his own mind, ‘the master of time itself, the master of the world, a watchful spider at the hub of your web’. Out of such willed disconnections are destructive power fantasies made manifest. On the other hand, this is also an act of self-erasure, a depressive stumble towards complete disappearance, the invisibility attendant upon ‘your vegetal existence, your cancelled life’.

Having withdrawn from human society, the protagonist becomes an observing eye, wandering the streets of the city. The city becomes a reflection of his inner state, a mental street map. We get to see it afresh through his detached, floating viewpoint. This is the Paris of the surrealists - of depopulated dawn streets; canalside paths lined with neat, regularly spaced trees which appear to lead to arboreal gateways at the vanishing point; narrow, café-lined evening back roads and broad, stately boulevards; drowsy afternoon cinemas; empty shopping arcades; spiralling stairwells; and parks in which old men sit with statuesque stillness, lost in inward contemplation. It’s a city which seems full of immanent meaning, of mysteries on the verge of revealing themselves. A humming, distant drone infuses the senses with sense of the interconnectedness of the material and the immaterial, an intuitive mysticism made audible. The protagonist sits for ages staring raptly at a knot in the bark of a pavement tree. Its complex detail seems to open up whole interior spaces, new worlds for him to get lost in, like a tree in a Magritte painting. Magritte, in fact, is something of a presiding spirit in the film, along with de Chirico.

But in the end, no Buddhist-style enlightenment is afforded by the retreat from the world and its sensory pleasures and comforts, the erasure of desire and emotional attachment. The point at which dreamlike detachment descends into nightmarish disconnection is indicated by a switch to a scorching, overexposed pictorial style. Details become blanched, contrast bleached out, a visual analogue of a mind losing any element of cohesion or self-control. Expressionistic sound design further adumbrates this frightening state. Whereas before, the distant drone accompanied blissed-out, solitary perambulations, now there are irritating, repetitive tapping and knocking sounds. They are amplifications of the permanently dripping tap in the corridor outside his room, and of his own neurotically drumming fingers. These sounds mock the reductive routines which have come to measure out the daily progress of the hours. Close-up shots of him chewing his fingernails are interpolated into the increasingly frenetic, off-kilter rhythms of the editing, creating an uncomfortable, edgy ambience. This is no longer an experiment in detachment, but a descent into a genuine breakdown. The controls are falling away, the self-delusory barriers crumbling. Any idea of penetrating beyond the surface of things, of attaining some elevated vision, is burned away in the harsh magnesium flaring of burnt-out synapses.

La Reproduction Interdite (Not to be Reproduced), the Magritte print on the wall above the head of his bed, turns out to have been a warning. The typically anonymous Magritte figure stares into a mirror, but the reflection is of the back of the head which we see in the frame. Such intense self-reflection doesn’t reveal a true image of some essential core of being; just another blank surface, a short back and sided void. A more constructive direction lies perhaps in the unobtrusive image on a small postcard at the foot of the bed, neglected and incidental. It’s a portrait of the medieval scholar Erasmus. He serves as a symbol of contemplation, learning and curiosity, but also of a desire to travel, to share knowledge and to delight in the exchange of ideas in the company of others. To connect with the world, in short.

The film ends up as an essay in the dangers of falling into the illusion that the individual intellect is sufficient unto itself, that it can be a self-contained, monadic world. In the final shot of the film, the camera pulls back from the protagonist as he wanders lost and bewildered down a dark, sloping alleyway (bringing to mind those haunting late photos of Nick Drake on the pathways leading to Hampstead Heath). The city is now a maze inside his head, locked and turning endlessly in on itself. The camera steadily zooms out until we realise we are looking at precisely the same cityscape which opened the film. We have turned full circle and gone nowhere. The city remains as mysterious and unknown as it was at the beginning, as does our nameless protagonist. His explorations have, in the end, been shallow and self-deluding, revealing nothing. Now he must find help, a guiding thread to lead him back out of the labyrinth.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Keith Tippett and Ellen Fullman at the Bristol New Music Festival

The first Bristol New Music Festival took place over the weekend of the 21st to the 23rd of February. Events were distributed across the Western part of the city in buildings which reflected something of its rich history and culture; Georgian churches, harbourside warehouses, Victorian concert halls, arts centre attics and University rooms. Some prominent names from the new music canon were to be found in an eclectic and wide-ranging programme. The music of Frank Zappa, John Cage, Christian Marclay and Harry Partch was played in various contexts and configurations, with Ensemble Musikfabrik performing on reproductions of Partch’s incredible microtonal musical sculptures. Experimental music and improv stalwarts John Butcher and David Toop were also present. Butcher played, under the guise of Tarab Cuts, in a duet with Mark Sanders, both of them in turn duetting with old 78s of Sufi traditional music, recordings on a fragile, sonically weathered medium which is inherently ingrained with time and history. Toop collaborated with Emptyset, a Bristolian electronic duo, and with the Turkish artist Cevdet Erek, who also created an installation for the gallery at Spike Island, the arts space fashioned from a monumental old redbrick cube of a warehouse.

I travelled up through the flooded Somerset levels (the train looping of on a picturesque diversion past Westbury and Bath) to see Keith Tippett and Ellen Fullman. As a Bristol boy, born and raised, this was home turf for Tippett. He’s part of a significant lineage of adventurous Westcountry jazz and improvising musicians; a lineage which includes the likes of John Surman, Don Rendell, Andy Sheppard, Keith Rowe, and long term residents Lewis Riley, Lou Gare, Mike Westbrook (who studied art in Plymouth), and Kate Westbrook (who attended the artistically progressive Dartington Hall School). The New Music Festival could be seen as an elaboration of the Rare Music Clubs which Tippett organised in Bristol in the 80s and 90s (and which made it down to Exeter on a couple of memorable occasions). Deliberately setting out to dissolve preconceived generic boundaries, these were triple bills juxtaposing artists from the worlds of jazz and improv, classical and experimental, and folk and world musics. The idea was partly to expose people who came along to hear a particular artist to sounds they might not otherwise have entertained, offering familiar flavours alongside others untasted.

There was a certain echo of such open-eared syntheses in the festival performance, too. Tippett was performing in The Lantern, a recently refurbished Victorian theatre space adjoining the more imposing Colston Hall. The latter venue is very familiar to him. In an interview in the May 2001 issue of The Wire, he recalled having heard the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands there, experiences which had a profound effect on the young Keith’s musical education.

He was leading an octet in this late afternoon performance, and there was a definite sense that this was a new generation of musicians which he was nurturing. Tippett has long been involved in musical education, having run a jazz and improvisation course alongside Lewis Riley at the Dartington Summer Music School for many years. He shared the stage in comfortably familiar partnership with drummer Peter Fairclough, a regular collaborator over the years. The young bass player Tom McCredie completed the rhythm section, and to the right of the stage sat a five piece brass ensemble.

It was the compositional side of Tippett’s multi-faceted musical personality which was on display on this occasion, something made visually apparent by the multiple sheets of manuscript paper progressively concertinaed out across his piano stand. The octet were playing his suite The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon, which draws inspiration from Irish traditional music, culture and landscape. It began with a chaotic weave of fragmentary, staccato voices crossing and swooping in abstract, arrhythmic fashion. They were emulating the darting patterns of the subjects of the first section, which was entitled ‘The Dance of the Return of the Swallows’. There has always been a distinctly elemental cast to Tippett’s music, perhaps expressing the rural environs of the Westcountry in which he grew up. His solo piano improvisations seem to summon up the sounds of the weather – wind, rain and sun-dappled haze – alongside the complex whirl and eddie of riverrine flow and the upper-register trilling of birdsong. This evocation of the natural world goes hand in hand with a strong spiritual dimension. Whilst remaining at a far remove from blissed-out new age self-narcosis, Tippett has always been clear about the sacred aspect of his music, its indivisibility from the spiritual dimension of being. Joy and love are words which he is unafraid to use to distil its essence, and in the Wire interview, he summed up his musical mission by simply stating ‘I’m interested in moving an audience. That’s my job’. It’s a refreshing change from the distancing abstractions and affectlessly academic approach offered by many involved with supposedly ‘difficult’ music, which can serve to put off all but a dedicated hardcore of bold listeners. Such an openly spiritual outlook is reflected in the titles for some of the suite’s nine sections, such as ‘The Dance of the Intangible Touching’, ‘The Dance of the Sheer Joy of It All’, and ‘The Dance of the Day of Observance’.

The suite shifted through moods of quiet reflection and soft melancholy, bursting out at regular intervals into joyful, unsuppressible exuberance. The fragementary dabs and darts of the opening gradually coalesced into one such outburst. Here and at various points throughout, there were definite echoes of the Ellington and Basie bands which Tippett had heard next door (where Colston Hall is currently being refurbished), as if he were picking up on reverberations which had never quite died out. It was the lush Ellington and Strayhorn sound inflected with British and Irish accents. Elsewhere, there were elements of plangent brass bands, of pastoral English chamber and orchestral music, and of folk tunes and limpid Irish airs. At some points, emphatically stabbing Bartokian chords (with a dash of Monk and Stan Tracy blended in) powered driving off-kilter rhythms. Tippett rose from the piano stool at key moments to co-ordinate unison brass shouts with dramatic gestural conduction.

It all ended with Tippett’s piano voicing solo, Messiaen-like chords with whispered spaciousness, the last one left to drift off into the air. A few moments of silence settled, and then the audience showed how much they had been moved in the time-honoured fashion. Tippett generously directed praise towards his young musicians from his position at the side of the stage. He thanked us in turn, and finished by requesting that we didn’t reveal the rugby scores. He may regard his music with the utmost seriousness, as a matter of sacred trust and spiritual calling, but he is evidently also a refreshingly down to earth man.

Down the wires - the long string instrument
Ellen Fullman is an American musician who plays an instrument of her own devising and construction, which she has dubbed the long string instrument. In common with Harry Partch’s unconventional, self-constructed orchestra, it can be regarded as much as a sound-producing sculpture as a musical instrument in the generally accepted sense. Although in this case, given its unwieldy dimensions, it might be more appropriate to think of it as a sculptural installation. It’s designed to expand sonic possibilities, to produce tones and timbres which would be beyond the reach of the common range of instruments. It is a resonating machine which can accumulate multiple microtonal intervals along its length, amassing dense, lingering clouds of drone.

The Thekla illuminated
Anticipating a magical, semi-ritualistic experience, it has to be said that the initial impression was a little disheartening. The long string instrument was rigged up on the top floor of an undistinguished office and apartment block adjoining the Arnolfini Gallery which still seemed to be in the final stages of construction. A narrow, bare concrete staircase, which bore the builders’ chalk mark measurements, led past what looked like the corridors of student halls of residence to a fifth floor attic which had all the atmosphere and warmth of an empty open-plan office (which a large, rather forlorn cheese plant in the corner suggested it might indeed lately have been). There were only one or two chairs randomly scattered about, and the sizeable audience, who filled the space, milled about looking a little lost, some electing to squat on the hard concrete floor. Through the windows at one end, the lights strung along the permanently moored ship the Thekla (now itself a concert venue) glowed green, whilst on the other side, the harbour venues and casino sign provided seductively twinkling illumination.

The long string instrument itself was fascinating, though, and well-worth elbowing you way through the milling throng to inspect at close quarters. It took up one half of the room, stretching like twinned clusters of power lines from one end to the other, wooden boxes marking the termini and serving as resonators for the vibrations gathered in their hollow interiors. Fullman ducked into the space between and wandered up and down between the two arrays of wires. She coaxed drones from various points along the strings, rubbing them with fingers given added friction by a patina of rosin. She appeared like a curious alien giant on a desert road, looking quizzically to either side and playing the telegraph wires over which she loomed, listening with rapturous attention to the eerie sounds they produced. Her slow progress up and down the aisle was almost like a form of Tai Chi. Her fingers flexed infinitesimally, stretching out into new configurations to caress fresh harmonies from the strings on either side. It was visually very arresting. At certain junctures, a sudden swift stride to another sector of the instrument signified a shift in the shape of the drone – physical movement precipitating a new musical movement.

The drones which the long string instrument produced were not soporific, and didn’t offer a new age blanket. They were astringent, with overtones piling up in justly intoned masses, shifting in dense fogs of billowing sound. Overlaid on this sonic cloud mass, German musician and artist Konrad Sprenger (aka Jörg Hiller) sprinkled pointillistic showers of percussive notes from his virtual guitar. They were scattered in semi-chaotic flurries but more widely spaced into a patterned continuum of sound. They sounded a little bit like a cimbalom’s loosely springy jangle, with a metallic reverberation conjuring cavernous underground spaces. A steady run-off of seeping water dripping into a subterranean pool, maybe. It’s a sound environment which has been explored for real by The Deep Listening Band, adding pattering percussion to the pervasive watery splashing, as recorded on their 1990 LP Troglodyte’s Delight.

It was an effective melding of soundworlds, particulate digital bits floating like illuminated dust over the warm currents of the resonantly vibrating strings. At some point, the virtual element started to blur into smeared portamento swooshing, veering into synth-like sounds which headed towards Tangerine Dream territory. Sprenger soon reverted to his previous mode after this brief spacey interlude, however. He brought the piece to a close by systematically shifting down in key and tempo, giving the impression of strings being tuned until slack and flapping with unmusical non-resonance. Fullman slowed down in accordance, moving back towards the home base of the far resonating box (like the upper terminus at the end of cable car lines). Finally, she raised her hands from the strings, leaving the last hovering overtones to dissipate and dwindle into silence. A moment of suspension, and a bow indicated it was all over. It was an entrancing performance which, in spite of the underwhelming setting, benefited hugely from the visual experience of witnessing this remarkable instrumental sculpture tremble into living, singing motion beneath its creators shaping hands.

Neverwhere bus-stop - Brunel's underworld
After this, it was off to Bristol Temple Meads for a rather surreal journey back home, which involved descending into the labyrinthine stone underworld beneath Brunel’s grand station and waiting for a replacement bus service by a tunnel entrance and beneath a distinctly gothic railway building, above which Jupiter shone brightly. It was an atmospheric end to the day. The healthily-sized crowds at both events I went to suggest that this inaugural New Music Weekend was a success. Hopefully it marks the beginning of a long and fruitful tradition.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Jean Cocteau's La Belle et La Bete

It was wonderful to see Cocteau’s the BFI’s touring restoration of La Belle et La Bete on the big screen yesterday. It’s one of those films which has been with me since my teens, and every time I see it reminds me of previous cinema viewings, at different points of my life – at the Scala, The Everyman or on one or other of the NFT screens. Your response to beloved films changes and develops over the years (as, hopefully, you yourself change), so you see it in a different light each time. Something about their basic appeal remains the same, though. I’ve always loved Cocteau’s dream castle, and in particular the living statues and animate arm torch sconces and curtain raisers. The arms move with docile submission to light the passage of those passing, whilst the eyes of the statues and caryatids follow the to and fro of the regular evening exchanges between Beauty and the Beast, or anxiously track Beauty’s restless pacing as she awaits the Beast’s arrival. The white statue in Belle’s bedroom, which balances a circular candle-bearing plate on its head like a heavy halo, looks on with a small, smug smile of quiet schadenfreude as the Beast enters in a state of dishevelled distress, driven to look on Belle only to find she’s not there. This alabaster feminine statue, whose amusement makes it clear that the Beast has invaded territory in which he is not master, is contrasted with those in other parts of the castle, which are male and carved of darker, granitic stone. Male and female territorial zones are thus demarcated.

It’s a sacred female space which is revealed to be the source of the Beast’s power, as well as the dumping ground for his glittering but useless treasure. This forbidden grove is contained within an ivy-cloaked glass-house, from the roof of which radiant light shafts (light which we mentally shade an amber gold). The grove is guarded by the statue of Diana, and when the glass is broken by the oafish men who would steal the Beast’s treasure and destroy his power (which are her treasure and power), she comes to life and punishes their transgression with an arrow which brings death and transformation: the revelation of the bestial nature beneath the toothsome smile and honeyed words. The Beast, of course, undergoes a similar transformation; his lifeforce is restored and an instant dandyish countenance and costume springs (with a visually literal figurativeness) into being. It’s always seemed a rather disappointing conclusion. Belle has started to love her Beast, and there seems a definite hesitancy and regret that he has disappeared so suddenly. But she decides to play along with this new pantalooned and beruffed creature, who insists that he is one and the same beast who gave his heart and life to her. Perhaps she is thinking that, in time, she can bring the dear, savage old Beast out again. And they can return to live in the enchanted castle in the forest, figures of fearful myth and awful warning, and so untroubled by tiresome strangers, challenging, calculating suitors and squabbling socialite sisters. And he can lay his furred head in her lap and, eyes shining brightly as he gazes up at her with utter, unswerving devotion, lap up water from the cupped grail of her hands.