Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Sinister Resonance in Electric Eden

Two absolutely essential books are appearing on the publishing horizon, both set to come out later this summer. They both look at music within wider cultural (and social and philosophical) contexts and both are by writers associated with the magazine The Wire. Both could be said to be connecting with current trends on the musical margins (the folk revival – or rather a revival of the 60s/70s folk revival – and the ‘hauntological’ summoning of the ghosts of the mediated past) but placing them at the crest of the broad sweep of history lends them a depth which gives us an idea of why they have made such an impact on a certain (admittedly small) section of the population.

The first book is David Toop’s Sinister Resonance, subtitled The Mediumship of the Listener. It comes with an impressive pre-publication collection of recommendations from a varied roster of artists, from musicians and composers such as David Sylvian, Alvin Curran and Christoph Cox, to writer Steve Erickson and film makers and puppeteers the Brothers Quay. This is testament to the breadth of cultural reference which Toop brings to his books. Part of their pleasure is in the unexpected juxtapositions which they introduce between seemingly disparate musicians (and, indeed, artforms). His first book (excepting Rap Attack, which as the title suggests, was more narrowly focussed), Ocean of Sound, ranged from Debussy to Indian dhrupad singing, free jazz noise attack to Eno-esque ambient calm. Exotica traced the invisible threads connecting the likes of Sun Ra with Martin Denny (well, maybe not so invisible there) and Haunted Weather set the radar to detect the music emerging from the cracks between sound and silence in the new millennium, taking in the wildlife sound recordings of Chris Watson and the digital minimalism of Toshimaru Nakamura and Ryoji Ikeda, with a fascinating detour to look at the soundscapes which Toru Takemitsu produced for the 60s films of Hiroshi Teshigahara (Japan always tends to be Toop’s centre of gravity when it comes to cultural reference).

Toop points out in his introduction (part of which you can read on the Continuum site, here) that this book is ‘more about listening than it is about music’. He begins by relating an experience of waking in the night to hear the dying echoes of a sound, whose source remained mysterious and which may indeed have leaked through the boundaries of dream. This is the Sinister Resonance of the title, which he goes on to explain thus: ‘sound is a sinister resonance, an association with irrationality and inexplicability, that which we both desire and dread’. Such an association leads on to hauntings and his fascination with supernatural fiction which he shares with many of the ‘hauntological’ artists. He gives his own interpretation of that horribly clunky academic neologism (invented, perhaps inevitably, by a French philosopher – Jacques Derrida) in terms of ‘exploring the ghostly and nostalgic affect of music’. ‘Sinister Resonance’, he states, ‘begins with the premise that sound is a haunting, a ghost, a presence whose location in space is ambiguous and whose existence in time is transitory’. The thinking behind the subtitle‘The Mediumship of the Listener’ is elucidated by noting that ‘listening, as if to the dead, like a medium who deals only in history and what is lost, the ear attunes itself to distant signals, eavesdropping on ghosts and their chatter’. He talks of late night reading, which makes him more alert to the sound in silence, and also ‘to the importance of sound in literature, not only for the twentieth century authors such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett, but in the supernatural fiction and ghost stories of writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood, Shirley Jackson, Arthur Machen, Bram Stoker and Wilkie Collins’. Two examples of the emotional impact of sound exaggerated by surrounding silence within supernatural fictions (in this case films) are given, the first arising from an interview with a member of The Animal Collective, who recalls the effect of the music and sound design of The Shining. Toop talks of the crunch of snow, the bounce of the ball, Danny’s car in the corridor driving over different surfaces (with their hard and soft sounds) and the distant echo of dance band music, whose obscured source is located in time as much as space (hauntological before its time). The second is the sound of the harp played without the touch of human hand in The Haunting, an effect which director Robert Wise may have borrowed from a similar scene in I Walked With a Zombie, produced by his mentor Val Lewton. Toop also points to the seemingly counterintuitive dimension of ‘listening’ within visual media, citing Nicolas Maes’ painting The Eavesdropper, and also mentioning Juan Munoz, Georges Seurat, Marcel Duchamp and Ad Reinhardt. He intriguingly posits that sound provides ‘a hidden if uncertain history within otherwise silent media’, perceptible through a species of clairaudience. It’ll be fascinating to hear what any accompanying CD might contain. A series of readings intermixed with resonant sound from film, maybe.

The second book is Rob Young’s Electric Eden, subtitled Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music. This traces the changing ways in which British (although it looks like they’re predominantly English) traditions have found expression throughout the twentieth century and on into this one. It’s not shy of using the f-word (folk) to describe many of the impulses underlying the music which it looks at, but at the same time isn’t bound by it. This is a musical stream from which a wide variety of artists have drawn, effecting their own transformations whilst maintaining a sense of underlying continuity. The eclecticism of the Matter of Britain which Young draws together can be gleaned from the links which he provides at the book’s accompanying blog (which you can find here). These include Vaughan Williams, Sandy Denny, Ghost Box, Kate Bush and early music pioneer David Munrow amongst the musicians; William Blake, John Clare, Arthur Machen, William Morris, John Cowper Powys and Christopher Priest amongst the writers (the latter presumably for his A Dream of Wessex); and on the ‘magic box’, The Changes (when will the BBC get round to releasing this?), Smallfilms (Oliver Postgate), Derek Jarman, Powell and Pressburger and Peter Watkins. All indubitably British and the kind of names far more likely to conjure my nationalistic pride than the usual martial icons of Churchill and Nelson etc. Other links take you to the excellent Toys and Techniques blog; the fantastic graphic work of David Owen at the Ink Corporation, which re-imagines folk as a popular art form central to British culture; Subterraenea Britannica, which explores the man made underground spaces of the land; and the unclassifiable English Heretic.

The cover of the book is particularly fine, with its ploughman working his way around the pylon standing in the centre of the field. Big technology in a rural setting always tends to make me think of some post-catastrophe world in which pylons and cooling towers stand as memorials to a fallen civilisation in much the same way as Roman bridges and temples must have done in the early centuries of the last millennium. The pylon plays an important symbolic role in The Changes, which takes part in an England in which technology, and electricity in particular, is suddenly considered evil. Young also points to the post industrial fantasies of late Victorian and Edwardian society in his excellent Guardian article on Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia (find it here), mentioning William Morris’ News From Nowhere, Richard Jeffries’ After London and HG Wells’ The Time Machine (in which the bucolic future world of idle pleasures is, of course, a false Eden). The publishing blurb for the book offers an enticing glimpse of what we can expect:

‘In this groundbreaking survey of more than a century of music making in the British Isles, Rob Young investigates how the idea of folk has been handed down and transformed by successive generations – song collectors, composers, Marxist revivalists, folk-rockers, psychedelic voyagers, free festival-goers, experimental pop stars and electronic innovators. In a sweeping panorama of Albion’s soundscape that takes in the pioneer spirit of Cecil Sharp; the pastoral classicism of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock; the industrial folk revival of Ewan MacColl and A. L. Lloyd; the folk-rock of Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, Shirley Collins, John Martyn and Pentangle; the bucolic psychedelia of The Incredible String Band, The Beatles and Pink Floyd; the acid folk of Comus, Forest, Mr Fox and Trees; The Wicker Man and occult folklore; the early Glastonbury and Stonehenge festivals; and the visionary pop of Kate Bush, Julian Cope and Talk Talk, Electric Eden maps out a native British musical voice that reflects the complex relationships between town and country, progress and nostalgia, radicalism and conservatism. A wild combination of pagan echoes, spiritual quest, imaginative time-travel, pastoral innocence and electrified creativity, Electric Eden will be treasured by anyone interested in the tangled story of Britain’s folk music and Arcadian dreams.’

Dreams and hauntings, the daytime reveries of English pastoral Edens, and the nervous nighttime glances over the shoulder at small sounds real or imagined. The books look set to provide an ideal complementary pairing. I look forward to reading them both.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

A Season In Hell

Between The Ears, BBC Radio 3’s occasional ‘radiophonic’ slot, gave a repeat airing to an abridged adaptation of Rimbaud’s symbolist/decadent (the two terms seem to alongside a blurred boundary) prose poem A Season In Hell (Une Saison en Enfer), read by Carl Prekopp from a translation by Jeremy Harding and John Sturrock, which you can listen to here until Saturday 26th June. Composer Elizabeth Purnell provided the music, which included three songs sung by Robert Wyatt, and the shifting contours and transformations of the soundscape. There’s been a long and fruitful tradition of radiophonic fusions of word and sound at the BBC, going way back to the 1957 productions of All That Fall, which Samuel Beckett had written specifically for such a treatment, and Frederick Bradnum’s Private Dreams and Public Nightmares, which was subtitled A Radiophonic Poem, the first use of such a term. The success of these productions, both made under the aegis of Desmond Briscoe, who was joined on the latter by Daphne Oram, led to the formation of the Radiophonic Workshop, in which they both played key roles, a year later. The Workshop would further experiment with experimental and concrete poetry in the 60s and 70s, an area of their work which is often overlooked in the understandable enthusiasm for their creation of a very British form of musique concrete and electronic music. Sound sometimes takes precedence over words or gives them a more associational meaning in programmes such as the 1960 collaboration with Brian Gysin on an adaptation of the cut-ups and permutated poems from his collection Minutes to Go, or Lily Greenham’s 1975 piece Relativity, which took Einstein’s energy/mass equation as its launching point. Interestingly, Greenham voiced the aim of her piece in terms akin to Rimbaud, pointing out ‘how a sentence can be given shape and driven in a musical sense beyond its meaning’. Perhaps one of the most readily available examples of the Radiophonic Workshop’s excursions into word and music is The Seasons, with music by David Cain and poems by Ronald Duncan, which was released as a BBC Drama Workshop album in 1969, and tracks from which are given a regular airing on Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday afternoon show on BBC Radio 6. You can find it here, in fact.

In this sense, Rimbaud’s work, and A Season In Hell in particular, is ideal for a latter-day radiophonic approach, given its avowed intent to create ‘a poetic language that would one day be accessible to all the senses’, as he puts it in Alchemy of the Word, the second of the poems Deliriums. It’s almost as if he were waiting for the possibilities that a well-equipped modern sound studio provide. His famous statement of artistic abandonment from the ‘Lettre du Voyant’ to Paul Demeny in 1871 required the poet or artist to achieve a visionary state through ‘a prolonged, absolute and rational derangement of the senses’, something which he achieved through a combination of hashish, absinthe and possibly, during expeditions to the East End whilst he was living in London with Paul Verlaine, the smoking of opium. The results of reaching a level at which he ‘found (his) madness sacred’ are recorded in A Season in Hell in terms of hallucinatory transformations and a synaesthetic kaleidoscope of impressionistic collisions. He literally spells out such an apprehension of the spectrum of sound with his vowel colours from The Alchemy of the Word: ‘A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green’, although he slyly notes that he ‘withheld the translation’ for this new ‘poetic language’. ‘In the Farewell’ section of the poem he remembers, now in a spirit of having failed, ‘I tried to invent new flowers, new stars, new bodies, new tongues’. The addition of sound furthers the advancement of a synaesthetic language, the attempt to move beyond the limitations of the written word. It allows the words to move into that wider dimension which he was seeking with his colour vowels and which led to him proclaiming, as he looks back at the damage which he inflicted on himself through the intensity of his quest, that he had been ‘damned by the rainbow’. If nothing else, Rimbaud was capable of producing great epigrams. ‘Morality is a weakness of the brain’ is another good one.

Elizabeth Burnell produces some great sounds to colour the words. She occasionally distorts and adds echo to the voice to enhance the mockery and torment of Rimbaud’s self-critical inner demon, and also produces a chorus effect to underline the self-aggrandising rallying calls or denunciations of his more grandiloquent statements. These latter make him sound as if he is addressing a stadium crowd from a triumphal balcony, a hint of the enormity of his ego. There are sounds of oceanic engulfment which might also be the rush of fiery blood as he offers ‘a few leaves of the notebook of a soul condemned to hell’, and the sounds of the ocean return throughout, possibly an indication of the passage across the English Channel on the way to London, where many of the experiences which informed the poem were gained, and where some of it was also written. As he describes his Night of Hell (Nuit de L’Enfer), which follows o from his announcement ‘now comes the punishment’, Burnell underlies his torments with a molten rumble of a drone which threatens to erupt in an engulfing flood of magma, and surrounds him with a swarm of jabbing trumpets. There are metallic clanging sounds which are introduced in the Bad Blood (Mauvais Sang) section in which he imaginatively explores his Gallic ancestry of pagan peasantry, and which could approximate the forging of swords (and of the language and culture of those who wield them which he has inherited), although the mutability of all sounds, in keeping with the general aura of synaesthesia, mean that they also morph into the clinkin. These sounds recur when he makes his claims for having developed a new poetic language in Alchemy of the Word. There are also the sounds of bird song which occur on several occasions, a wood pidgeon cooing as he recalls his childhood, ‘the road in all weathers’ and suggesting a bucolic paradise lost. After the initial roar of noise which introduces the programme, there is a ringing harmonic, a pure note like a singing wine glass or a clear sine wave tone. It is the fundamental from which all the words and sounds and chaos arise, the noise of life, and into which they all fade back at the end, dwindling into imperceptibility but implicitly eternal. It’s an idea which Pete Townshend hovered around in his abortive Lifehouse project, and which was expressed in the song Pure and Easy (now released on the CD reissue of Who’s Next after previously being thrown into the Odds and Sods collection). ‘There once was a note, pure and easy/Playing so free, like a breath rippling by’.

A low-key jazz arrangement backs his statement ‘I became a fantastic opera’, and this sets the tone for the songs which feature in the Alchemy of Words section. These are sung in inimitable style by Robert Wyatt, whose loose, jazzy style suits the words perfectly. The first song is Loin des Oiseaux, in which he is accompanied by a hallucinatory, quavering accordion sound. He sings the second and third verses in French, perhaps feeling that the sounds of the words within the context of the song are more important than the meaning; or perhaps just expecting us to make a little more effort to be more multi-lingual. Here are the words in English, from the translation by Enid Rhodes Peschel: ‘Remote from the birds, from flocks, from country girls/What did I drink, while kneeling in that heath/Surrounded by new growth of hazel trees,/Within a mild green mist of afternoon? What could I drink in that young river Oise,/- The voiceless elms, the flowerless turf, dark sky-/From yellow gourds, far from my cherished hut?/Some golden liquor that induces sweat. I made a doubtful signboard for an inn./- A storm arose and stalked the sky. At night/The forest water drained itself in virgin/Sands, God’s wind cast drift ice on the ponds; Weeping, I saw gold – and could not drink’. The second song is Song of the High Tower, which is accompanied by piano haloed by a sparkle of high, tinkling sounds which suggest intoxicated bedazzlement and the glimpse of a mirage-like paradise in the blurred distance (‘Let it come, let it come, the time we dote on’ sings a female voice – Burnell’s own, perhaps). Wyatt sings the whole song in French this time. In English, it reads thus: ‘I have endured so patiently/That I have lost all memory./My many fears and sufferings/Have taken flight into the skies./And now the health-destroying thirst/Is darkening my blood and veins. Such is the meadowland/Delivered to oblivion,/All overgrown, and flowering/With frankincense and tares,/Amid the frantic buzzing/Of the filthy flies’. The third song, ‘O Seasons, O Chateaux’, is sung in English until verse three, from where it reads: ‘Hail to it, every time/the Gallic cock announces dawn./ Ah! I shall have no more desire:/It has taken charge of my life entire./ That charm has captured soul and body/And dissipated my endeavours./ Alas! The hour that it flies/ Will be the hour of my demise’.

Verlaine and Rimbaud
The poem is essentially a progression of thought in motion, a quality which the radio production brings out particularly well. Rimbaud goes through wild mood swings, and contradicts or undermines his own statements and claims in an ongoing inner dialogue. Forces of self-aggrandisement, self-doubt and self-loathing battle each other for the key to knowledge of the self through which an apprehension of the true nature of the world can be gained. At one point he is proclaiming that ‘the poets and the seers will be jealous/ I am a thousand times richer than them’, the next deriding his efforts as a waste of time (‘so much for my fame as an artist and storyteller’). He veers from peaks of ecstasy and world-conquering ego, to wallowing in self-pity and revelling in his own degradation, convincing himself ‘I reek of charred flesh’, and recalling his ‘skin gnawed by dirt and plague, worms seething in my hair and armpits’. It’s all very self-absorbed, of course, and risks reducing the world to a mere reflection of the poet’s own particular neuroses, which can seem like an amplified version of the world-view of any despondent teenager. Rimbaud wrote Seasons in Hell when he was 18, and it bears the arrogant certainty of youth as well as its violent mood swings. Carl Prekopp, who reads the poem, captures a convincing air of brattish precociousness and the no doubt infuriating know it all conviction. It’s possible to have some sympathy for his patron, travelling companion and lover Paul Verlaine, who he drove out of his mind to such an extent that he ended up shooting him, thankfully with no great accuracy.

If viewed as an act of world building, the construction of artificial realities, Seasons in Hell becomes more acceptable, and allows you to revel in the play of imagination, the power of language to effect transformations of perceived reality. Perhaps it’s more digestible fare for someone who reads science fiction and the literature of the fantastic in general. Samuel Delany’s Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand was intended as a diptych of novels, to be accompanied by a further volume entitled The Splendour and Misery of Bodies, of Cities. It never saw the light of day, in the end, but the influence of is clear in the title, and there are many Rimbaud-like characters in his early novels. At the end of A Season in Hell, Rimbaud envisages a time when ‘we will enter the splendid cities’ (the line which Delany draws on) and it’s easy to imagine these as the cities of science fiction dreaming. He also puts his faith in science, having dwelt on ‘pagan blood’ and the Christianity with which he was raised. Towards the end, after he has put the madness of his youth behind him, he declares ‘one must be absolutely modern’, and its easy to see in this the roots of a futurism and streamlined modernism, a Things to Come art deco. Rimbaud himself talks of his ‘dreams of monstrous loves and fantastic universes’, and professes his love of the more popular art forms, amongst which he lists ‘idiotic paintings, motifs over doorways, stage sets, mummers backdrops, insides, popular colour prints, unfashionable literature, church Latin, erotic books with poor spelling, the novels our grandmother’s read, fairy tales, small books for children, old operas, nonsensical refrains, galumphing rhythms’. Who knows what his modern day choices might be.

Before first Communion
Rimbaud’s influence can be felt, for better or worse, in the work of many popular artists, who often respond as much to his youth and wildly rebellious attitude as his small body of work. The Surrealists admired his life, including his later years in Africa, as a work of art in itself. He’s exerted an influence in the world of rock and pop music which is certainly rare amongst nineteenth century poets, perhaps his only rival being William Blake. Elizabeth Burnell’s music acknowledges this influence with an initial opening crescendo of formless noise, rising bass rumble and guitar feedback squall building to sensory overload. His appeal to the 60s and 70s countercultures lies partly in his youthful image. He was only 18 when he finished Seasons in Hell in 1873, and it proved to be his valedictory work. In the final section, Farewell (Adieu), he makes his mind up to ‘bury my imagination and my memories’, and declares himself ‘firmly back on the ground, eager for the rigours of the real’. He tells us in The Impossible that ‘I’m about to disappear, to give you all the slip’, and the fact that he did so with such success, settling after an itinerant life in Abyssinia and scorning any contact with the literary world in which his poems were making a belated impact, fixes his artistic persona in a state of eternal youthfulness. His offhand comment (again in the Farewell section) ‘who cares – I’ll make it to 20 if everyone else has the same plan’ has the ring of the ‘hope I die before I get old’ cult of youth.

Patti and Robert- Rimbaud in NY
Patti Smith relates, in her recent book on her early years in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, how they would read his poems to each other. Her song Easter imagines the young Rimbaud walking to his first Communion with his brother Frederic and sister Isabelle, a scene inspired by the picture of the two young boys solemnly posed with white armbands tied above their elbows. The song Horses replaces Chuck Berry’s Go Johnny Go with Go Rimbaud. Bob Dylan also regarded Rimbaud in iconic terms, perhaps due to his association with Allen Ginsburg, and in his song You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, he ruefully observes ‘Situations have ended sad,/Relationships have all been bad/Mine’ve been like Verlaine and Rimbaud.’ Elizabeth Hand, in her short story Wonderwall, has her protagonist, a young woman with a clear resemblance to Patti Smith living the Bohemian life in New York with her Robert Mapplethorpe like room mate, David. She writes ‘Je suis damne par l’arc-en-ciel’ (I have been damned by the rainbow) on her wall and reads Le Lettre du Voyant. She pushes through some sensory wall in a nightclub after a determined and sustained derangement of her faculties, and encounters a young man who may or may not be Rimbaud. He looks over the scene with interest, noting ‘cela s’est passe’. It’s as if he’s saying this particular dream is over, it’s become a routine, an empty ritual. The narrator has her moment of epiphany: ‘I was nineteen. When Rimbaud was my age, he had already finished his life work. I hadn’t even started yet. He had changed the world; I could barely change my socks. He had walked through the wall, but I had only smashed my head against it, fruitlessly, in anguish and despair. It had defeated me, and I hadn’t even left a mark’. The makers of the programme choose to end their adapatation with the penultimate paragraph. Rimbaud leads the way towards a shining future, and foretells the time when ‘at dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the cities in all their splendour’. He is then absorbed into his own myth, which these and others have drawn on ever since.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Thirty Two

Bedlam - part two

Holding a prostrate posture

Inside Lord Mortimer’s bedroom, we see Sims holding on to an awkward pose in which his upper body is folded over in a bow of self-negating prostration. His cane props him up and precludes total collapse. It is a self-consciously mannered and theatrical adoption of a subservient posture, with which body language he opens himself to the full blast of the chastisement he is receiving. In the script, Lewton describes him as ‘making an elegant “leg” before his Lordship’. Lord Mortimer vents his outrage at the death of his acquaintance, Colby, in a conspicuous display which falls just short of accusing Sims of murder. His reference to ‘that murderous window’ gives a hint that this is an incident which is not without its precedents. Sims folds himself back up to a height (still slightly stooped) from which he can defend himself. He talks of Colby as having been his ‘guest’, who ‘chose to leave by the window before I could open the door for him’. It is for all the world as if he has been staying at a hotel which Sims runs. This is the language of evasion, with the use of witty, pointed phrases defusing the truth by presenting it in the form of an amusement. It is not a refutation of Lord Mortimer’s implied accusation, but a redefinition of the frame within which the events are viewed. The transformation of the harshness of the world into an amusement, viewed through a carefully contrived and positioned lens, maintains a distancing affect. This makes it easier to remain aloof from the suffering and injustice from which the viewers, for whom such entertainments are fashioned, are sheltered. Tragedy is turned into comedy, and outrage into farce. Sims knows his audience, and knows how to work Lord Mortimer’s shallow attentions, to play on his desire for everything to be light and amusing, and to avoid at all costs any matter which requires serious, moral examination.

Protesting his innocence
Nell intervenes at this point, realising that Sims is beginning to turn Lord Mortimer’s weak and easily diverted outrage to his own ends. She exercises her own scathing wit on him, effectively turning their encounter into a dual. Where Sims’ language of amusement has been used to defuse the seriousness of the situation, to ease ire, Nell’s wit is deliberately inflammatory, full of anger and contempt. It is analogous to the scabrous prints and paintings of Hogarth. Beneath her carefully cultivated air of indifference, an essential bearing in this world of elegant facades, there is something within which reacts with instinctive revulsion to Sims’ obvious attempts to avoid responsibility. He is a rival for the patronage of the fickle Lord, and she is doubtless resentful at being reminded that she too is a part of his household hierarchy. She slyly suggests that he is redefining the word ‘accident’, redirecting the exchange towards the issue of his culpability for Colby’s death. She draws attention to the flexible nature of language, the way in which its skilful use can reshape meaning, and even alter the perception of reality. It can be used as weapon or shield, imposing itself at the boundary between truth and convenient fiction. Sims response demonstrates such use of language. He speaks carefully, measuring up this woman who has ostentatiously declared herself his adversary, and who now stands as an unexpected obstacle to his re-establishment of his position with Lord Mortimer. He disarmingly takes her mocking sarcasm at face value and inverts its bitter force by replying with a statement of studied reason, delivered in an even and serious tone. ‘Exactly, Miss Bowen’, he affirms, with cool politeness. ‘This was a misadventure contrived by the victim and executed by nature’s law that all who lose their grip on gutters must fall’. This is the kind of legalistically careful choice of language with which he is able to manipulate the world of appearances to his own ends. He reframes what we are well aware was a murder as an enactment of natural law, the inevitable outcome of a series of events, with any element of contrivance or intervention removed. He can equally well present sanity as madness, social discontent as dangerous psychosis. He is a very dangerous man for Nell to be antagonising.

Having dammed Nell’s attempt to rechannel the course of the conversation, Sims turns back to Lord Mortimer and reverts to a lighter mode of address with which to relate his story. He modulates the tenor of his tale according to the character of his audience, adapting it to their particular tastes. He is a pragmatic artist, producing work to order. Introducing the revisionist version of his story which he is presenting to Lord Mortimer, he says ‘I could never invent one half so droll’. Amusement is once again used as a device to create distance from the world of everyday suffering. This ability to absorb outrage into a worldview of all-encompassing levity, a determined and tirelessly maintained façade of bright gaiety, is what drove satirical artist like Hogarth to ever more extreme depictions of depravity and violence in order to drive their message home. There’s a striking similarity with much of the ‘extreme’ art of the modern age, which vies for our attention in an overstuffed and desensitised world by promising to push the boundaries a little further, or to offer new forms of violent sensation, although this is more allied with marketing techniques than with any moral agenda. The anger which burns beneath the surface of cool indifference which Nell presents to the world, and which is raised by Sims’ manipulative manner and evident evasions, drives her savage wit. But as with satirists throughout the ages, there is a danger that their attentions are worn almost as a badge of honour by those who are their targets. Nell is kept by Lord Mortimer partly for this very purpose, thus demonstrating what a good sport he is. By having his own satirist on call, he pre-empts what might be more wounding attacks from those better placed to make their barbs widely felt. Similar impulses made politicians in the 80s welcome their appearance as latex puppets on the broadly satirical TV show Spitting Image, many even claiming affection for their grotesque caricatures. Peter Cook, who regularly contributed to the satirical journal Private Eye, and effectively maintained its financially viability for several years, seemingly damned his own efforts through his comments on the limited effectiveness of humour which seeks to mock the powerful or influence the course of events. When setting up The Establishment club in Soho in the 60s, he claimed to have modelled it on the Berlin cabarets of the thirties ‘which did so much to prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler’.

Animal analogues - Nell and parrot
Sims, introducing the characters of his story as if he is setting the scene for a play, refers to ‘two poets, Colby and myself’, thus revealing his self-perception as an artist. He goes on to further outline his credentials, providing an introduction for us, the audience, whilst also asserting his superior position of authority in the hierarchy of human value for Nell’s benefit. ‘I am not only a poet’, he pronounces, ‘but also, by your Lordship’s favour, the Apothecary General of St Mary’s of Bethlehem Hospital’. We see Lord Mortimer nod and smile at Sims’ recognition of the munificence of his patronage. He is easily flattered by any inflation of his already puffed up sense of self-importance. Sims’ approach, of tactical unctuousness, is quite the opposite of Nell’s flagrant insults. He tells the story ‘like a romance’, life and death as performance, a staged amusement tailored to his Lordship’s tastes. Lord Mortimer retorts that ‘it’s a romance that cost me 20 guineas a night of laughter’. Colby’s life is weighed in precise fiscal terms. He is part of the human currency exchange, the base rate of individual worth which is evident throughout the film. It is made quite clear that his Lordship regards art as a commodity, with financial rather than aesthetic values taking precedence. The true cause of Lord Mortimer’s distress at Colby’s death becomes apparent. He had commissioned verse from him and, as Nell points out, was ‘foolish enough’ to pay in advance. She is able to get away with such insults, even to the extent of calling Lord Mortimer’s judgement into question, because of her beauty and carefree vivacity, and Sims’ glance takes this in and makes note of it. Ultimately, her cutting remarks have no more impact than the learned phrases squawked by her parrot. She is like the exotic bird, a bright adornment, and she can say what she likes because nothing she says is considered of moment. It is all mere drollery.

Making the pitch
It turns out that Colby was due to write a masque for a fete which Lord Mortimer is to host. Sims once more adopts the mannered pose of a supplicant, his cane as his theatrical prop, and his stance provides the accompaniment to his pitch. ‘If I might offer my humble talents’, he interjects, as if the thought had just occurred to him. Nell barks out a curt, dismissive laugh. It’s a humourless sound which suggests that she finds the very idea ridiculous, or that the transparency of his scheming is absurdly obvious. Sims has effectively used incarceration and murder as a tool to create a vacancy for a position which he covets. There is an analogy with the Hollywood studios in this scene, the first of several such allusions to Lewton’s own milieu in the film. Lord Mortimer could be seen in part as Lewton’s own Hogarthian caricature of Jack Gross, the head of his production unit, whom he regarded as a heavy-handed philistine. The brief span of Lord Mortimer’s outrage at Colby’s demise, and his openness to Sims’ pitch for the work which he was to have undertaken, is perhaps a rueful reflection on Lewton’s part of the dismissive regard in which producers and scriptwriters were held, and the ease with which they could be axed and replaced.

Face off
Sims, alerted by her dismissive bark of non-laughter, faces up to Nell, and they are shot in profile, Lord Mortimer now excluded from the frame. They are like pugilists sizing each other up before the bell rings to start the bout. Both vie for the attentions of a man for whom they have nothing but contempt. She holds her horsewhip between her hands (she is clearly prepared to go out riding, but has lingered to enjoy what she had assumed would be Sims utter humiliation) and flexes it with barely controlled rage. She evidently wishes to use it. Sims talks of Bedlam as a place where he offers ‘wit and laughter’, as if it is the theatre in which he stages his dramas, and where visitors find the entertainment is worth ‘the tuppence they paid’. This is the cheap entertainment of the masses, the pulp fiction or exploitation cinema (or indeed reality tv) of the day. It is at the opposite end of the scale from the exclusive, purpose tailored masque which Sims is preparing for Lord Mortimer. The co-option of the theatre of Bedlam for such a supposed piece of high art reflects Lewton’s own attempts to use the popular form of the horror genre, generally perceived as base entertainment, for higher ends more in line with the genre’s literary antecedents. The range of amusements offered in Bedlam for such a paltry price also position it as the shadow realm to the bright, glittering world of self-absorbed wit which will be celebrated by the masque.

Nell shrugs off his claims with a disdainful ‘you do not entertain me, Master Sims’, the ultimate put-down in these environs. He turns her implication that his wit does not meet the required standard around by taking a passive aggressive stance, observing that ‘most people laugh at my ugliness’, a response which invites pity or at least a polite negation. Nell simply replies, with brute affirmation, ‘it offends me, sir’. There is in fact a deeper and less readily perceptible ugliness which is offending a part of her she wishes to remain suppressed; her moral sense. Its emergence would upset the carefully maintained balance of shallow, superficial jibes enlivened by bold asperity which, combined with her beauty and cleverness, has gained her advancement in these circles. The way in which Sims draws attention to his own ugliness demonstrates an awareness of the values of surface appearance prevalent in this world. We have already heard the small black boy mocking his ugliness before was ushered in, so his self-perception is fairly acute. His plain, dark clothing and lack of powder or elaborate wig make his intrusion into these glittering surrounds all the more apparent, and his attempts to adopt its elegant gestures merely accentuate his incongruity in Nell’s eyes. Sims is aware that by raising her ire, he is making her stand out and betray her roots, cracking the protective shell of her frosty hauteur. He gives a bow, as if conceding the point, and thus brings this opening bout, a practice spar, to an end. ‘To move a lady so beautiful in any way’, he concludes. The camera pulls back to include Lord Mortimer in his bed within the tableau. His laugh adjudges Sims to be the victor of this preliminary exchange, having maintained an even manner and fashioned his language with pointed precision throughout. ‘He’s gallant too’, his Lordship points out, prompting the immediate response ‘I am as you wish, milord’. Sims’ tactical unctuousness and calculated subservience has won him an elevation in the ranks of the Lord’s esteem.

Childish delight
Now he can make use of such favour by suggesting a performance by his ‘company of wits’, an idea which clearly delights his Lordship (‘have your loonies perform?’ he exclaims like an excited child). Lord Mortimer introduces a party political element by animatedly musing that ‘not John Wilkes himself nor his whole Whig party could think of anything so clever as that, eh Nell?’ Wilkes is a historical personage of the time, a Whig politician who was one of the genuine characters of the age, a popular hero to some and an embodiment of the devil to others. He was something of a radical reformist within the parameters of the parliamentary system. He is included amongst the film’s characters not only because of his association with the impulse towards social change, but also on account of the caricature which Hogarth produced of him, which we see later on. The way in which Lord Mortimer talks of upstaging him with this novelty performance suggests a Westminster Village mentality which has more to do with personal rivalries than a principled espousal of a particular social or political agenda. Nell points out to him that he didn’t think of the idea either, but he responds that ‘my friend here thought of it’. Sims and Nell both act, through his patronage, as extensions of himself. They provide the second hand wit of which he is bereft, and which is guided towards his meeting his own ends. Sims is aware of this, and accepts it as part of an essentially venal view of the world and its workings. He knows the value of flattering the powerful, and says ‘let us say you inspired the thought, milord’.

Prideful countenance
He goes further by adding that they have both inspired him, ‘milord and the beloved of milord’. By including Nell with apparent generosity, he is underling his ascendancy, from which height he can now bestow his patronisation upon her. The shifting of their positions is given physical embodiment by the fact that he is now placed by milord’s bedside, whilst she has drifted off into the middle distance. His reference to her as the beloved of milord is made with deliberate provocation, and she immediately responds to his goading words. She sets him straight with a refutation into which he has manipulated her. ‘I am milord’s protégé’, she says with a look of defiant pride. ‘I entertain him and he takes no more freedom with me than any other man’. Lord Mortimer’s grinning face drops quite suddenly at this declaration of independence, and Sims gives a cough, seemingly of embarrassment, but also to slyly draw attention to the indiscretion implicit in Nell’s self-definition. She displays a degree of self-deluding presumption as to the importance of her position which is in contrast to the self-awareness displayed by Sims of the contingent nature of the Lord’s favours. He knows that there are certain codes to be observed in order to build and maintain those favours. There is a suggestion that Nell may be something of a smokescreen to disguise Lord Mortimer’s real inclinations, which is seemingly confirmed later in the film, but it is a clumsy social blunder to make this so apparent. Nell can’t bear anyone to think that she is milord’s mistress even on a notional level. Her pride has lost her the point and further relegated her in the ever-shifting balance of hierarchical influence and favour. Sims, on the other hand, has transformed what was initially a summons for a stern dressing down into an audience from which he has been able to gain himself an important commission. His talent for tactical subservience, delivered with a silver tongue, has paid dividend.

He assures Lord Mortimer that he will ‘prepare a masque of madness that will set you howling’, a line which could be seen as a bit of self-reflexive commentary on Lewton’s part. He was, after all, no stranger to the kind of hyperbole which adorned the posters of his films (the tabloid style byline ‘sensational secrets of infamous madhouse exposed’ is splashed across the top of the Bedlam poster) and he himself had laboured under soubriquets such as the Sultan of Shudder, Titan of Terror, Maharajah of Mayhem etc (although I suspect that he may have made some of these up himself). Sims gives a cursory bow to Nell as he passes her on his way out. He’s left with exactly what he wanted, and has subtly undermined her position in the process.

A world of surface appearances
Lord Mortimer is a picture of quivering jollity, declaring Sims to be a ‘capital fellow’ and his use of the Bedlamites ‘a merry notion’, amusement and novelty being an end in itself. Nell re-adjusts her appearance in her mirror, collecting herself after the duel. As she does so, she lambasts Sims, largely in terms which set him apart from the powdered and perfumed climes of Lord Mortimer’s bedroom. ‘He’s a stench in the nostrils’, she begins in a matter of fact tone, ‘a sewer of ugliness, and a gutter brimming with slop’. ‘But witty’, Lord Mortimer appends, as if this obviates any such base characteristics. The vehemence of her portrayal, arrived after only the most cursory of encounters, suggests that Sims has aroused uncomfortable feelings within her. As she looks in the mirror, she readjusts her appearance to try to regain the sense of poise which he has upset. He has given her a reminder of her own essential servitude. She takes up Lord Mortimer’s suggestion that she go and see how funny the Bedlamites really are, a look of calculation fixing itself upon her face as she muses ‘perhaps I will’. Not being one to leave a meeting at a disadvantage, she sets off to further this adversarial encounter, and face the challenge that Sims now offers to her standing in moneyed society and to her perception of it.

Disdaining the neighbourhood
There is a dissolve to a street scene set to the side of Bedlam’s imposing façade. Lavender sellers sing their wares and a woman scrubs the steps of the doorway which leads to Sims’ office, both implying an attempt to ward off the stink and dirt of a grimy, impoverished neighbourhood. The script suggests that plate one of Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress is a reference point for the set design, but there seems little actual resemblance, aside from the notional matching of the passing cart. The buildings in Hogarth’s print are cracked, with plaster having sheared off in geological slabs. The set through which we now see Sims walking is perhaps a little too well-dressed. It all seems quite genteel, when a little Dickensian squalor would have been more appropriate. Sims walks through these streets with a look of scornful distaste, as if he finds the everyday commerce and human transactions of the commonality unbearably coarse. He enters the office, pausing to frown down at the cleaning woman to let her know that he finds her presence an unacceptable impediment to his progress. His bearing in general suggests that he considers himself lord of this particular manor. His obsequious manner in Lord Mortimer’s presence has been inverted and the keen awareness of social position which it displayed now converted into a general disdain for those he considers his inferiors. It’s an attitude which serves to shore up his sense of his own status, his self-perception as an intellectual artist leading him to regard the more corporeal pleasures on offer (which are certainly more evident in Hogarth’s print) with a lofty contempt.

The labour of art
He enters his office and once behind his desk, takes off his wig. This is his inner sanctum and he feels secure in his position, and feels no need to observe the formalities and attentions to appearance necessary for the negotiation of the social maze beyond these doors. Unlike Lord Mortimer, who seems to take a genuine delight in the careful preparation of his outward appearance, the choice of peacock finery with which he will, in all due time, strut out of his bedroom into the world, Sims seems only too eager to cast such dandyish fripperies aside. He certainly feels no need to maintain any pretence of formal etiquette in the presence of his subservient clerk, a man blessed with the Dickensian name, indicative of his mindlessly functional role, of Podge. He calls for Podge to fetch his rhyming dictionary, which suggests that his is not a natural wit, and that his masque will be more of an artisanal work, relying on labour more than inspiration. His mind is now focussed on his ‘important commission’ and he has no time for the ‘snivelling quaker’ stone mason who he is told is waiting outside to inquire about work. His bitterness and anger at his treatment by his patron find momentary release as remarks that ‘I waited four hours before Lord Mortimer would give me a dog’s word’. Hierarchies of power are related to the treatment of animals, with which particular people are related (a recurrent Lewton theme). Sims’ experience is not translated into any empathy or fellow feeling for his supplicant, however. Rather, he takes pleasure in being able to treat someone with the same contempt which he has been shown. It is only when the cheapness of the quaker’s rates are mentioned that his interest is piqued. Once more, the currency of human exchange, the fiscal valuation of a person’s life, comes into play.

The quaker, in contrast with the tense posture of chin on cane in which we had seen Sims waiting earlier, sits calmly with folded hands. He rejects Sims’ frankly offered bribe, and offers to turn a blind eye (or deaf ear) so that ‘I can believe no evil of thee’. The adherence to a moral code which such a rejection indicates (not to mention the implied superiority) enrages Sims, for whom such backhanders are ‘simple business’. He has accepted that the world is inherently corrupt and that you make your way in it by adapting to its ways. The quaker earns his contempt through his high-minded idealism, which he sees as a self-defeating refusal to accept the self-evident nature of society. The idea that change could be effected within the world is seen as absurd. As we have seen, Sims is acutely aware of the limitations of his own power. The quaker, for his part, sees such financial wrangling, which comes before any mention of the labour involved, as an abstraction, and tries to direct the conversation back to the physical actuality of the work at hand (‘my friend, about the stone-masonry’). The relationship between finance and labour is already beginning to come adrift.

Before the exchange can go any further, Nell sweeps into the room, obviously having cast aside any attempts at a more formal announcement of her arrival. The importance of appearance and the concomitant play of words reassert themselves, and Sims quickly reaches for his wig and smoothes it into place. His tone reverts to an unctuous formality, his manner adjusted according to the perceived social standing of his company. ‘I have a curiosity to see the loonies in their cages’, she announces imperiously. This is like a visit to the zoo, the human inhabitants regarded as no more than animals. The link between the world of Bedlam and the moneyed world in which Lord Mortimer and his peers move is made through the constant reference to humans as animals. Right at the start, Lord Mortimer has been likened to a pig, and Nell’s parrot familiar is effectively an extension of herself. Sims has just likened his treatment to that of a dog. As we shall see, some animals are treated better than others.

Taking the entrance fee
Sims asks Nell to hang up her crop, as there are ‘no weapons’ allowed. He has evidently noted her flexing it with barely suppressed violence at the earlier encounter. This disarming foreshadows the later smuggling in of a supposedly defensive weapon later on, and Sims explanation of why such confiscations are necessary also turns out to be an accurate anticipation of how it will be used. He casts this explanation in the form of a literary quote, which he ascribes to ‘Dekker, a second rate dramatist of the last century’. Nell makes a disparaging remark about forgetting that he was ‘a man of letters’, one of several script additions suggested by Karloff, according to Tom Weaver’s commentary on the dvd. Sims demands his tuppence entry fee for the personalised tour. The rate of human exchange is debased here, the inmates worth measured in devalued currency. Their incarceration takes them out of society, and therefore even such pitiful value as they can still command goes directly into Sims’ pocket.

The act of seeing
As he leads her through the corridor leading to the hall of Bedlam itself, Sims’ face takes on a gloating look of control, full of the certitude of his own power within this domain. The shadows of bars are cast across the passageway, sketching in the confinement of the cages which they are approaching. Their insubstantial form suggests confinement which is as much mental as it is physical. Shadows in Lewton’s films often hint at the existence of a world which parallels that of daylit reality, but which is nonetheless connected to it. Shadow worlds suggest the contingent nature of consensus reality or social assumptions. By stepping sideways into them, there is a sense that characters become at one remove from the normal operations of the everyday world, which in itself becomes shadowy. Once they’re through the door, the camera focuses on Nell’s face, her eyes wide with fear whilst she consciously makes an effort to maintain a semblance of composure. We see Sims carefully observing her reactions with evident enjoyment. The hall is filled with the echoing sounds of human chaos; screams, moans and shouts. These are the uncontrolled forces of the street penned up within a circumscribed space. The sights are initially withheld from our view, and we gain an impression of their horror and piteousness from Nell’s reaction. They are conveyed through the mirrors of her eyes. We see how the scene affects her, and sends a trembling convulsion through her air of aloof disengagement. Then the camera slowly pans back to reveal, stage by stage, the world of ‘the loonies’ which we’ve caught an emotional preview of in her gaze. Straw is cast upon the floor to further underline their status as animals.

Restaging Hogarth - The Pieta
The scene which we see reproduces the main figures from plate 8 of Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress, placing them on a wider and deeper stage. The fact that this is the final scene of Hogarth’s narrative furthers the impression that Bedlam is an endpoint, a place where the stories of its inmate’s lives reach a permanent conclusion, sometimes tapering off into vacuous stasis, sometimes ended with brutal finality. It is a hospital in which a cure or release seems a remote possibility. The soundtrack of the asylum’s main hall is provided by a discordant fiddle, the music of detuned wit and sense, played by the figure from Hogarth’s painting who wears his sheet music for a hat, and who is given embodiment here. Sims points to a young man intently spinning a cat’s cradle, ‘all day long weaving nets to catch peacocks for the royal dinner’. He’s another figure who’s stepped out of Hogarth’s painting. We gain a glimpse of the dream logic behind this character’s mad actions, and perhaps of the story which led him here, just as we know of the events which have led to Tom Rakewell’s presence here. In the foreground, where the gradual expansion of the frame is completed with the halting of the camera’s slow backward track, we see a scene which resembles a pieta. This is the central focus of Hogarth’s painting, in which his protagonist, Tom Rakewell, is comforted and wept over by his rejected fiancée (and mother of his child) Sarah Young. It is evident, however, that Tom is cut off from her, utterly locked into the fixed orbit of his madness. Nevertheless, compassion can still be found even in these despairing depths, and Nell will later demonstrate that such care can bear fruit.

Weaving the peacock's net
Nell’s reaction to encountering these figures is very direct and personal, and demonstrates a deep and instinctive sense of sympathy for their plight. There may be a degree of empathetic connection sparked off by a recognition that she is herself disconnected from the world in which she moves. Her caustic manner has melted away, and she is full of compassion as she observes, to herself as much as to anyone, ‘they’re all in themselves and by themselves’. It’s a state familiar to characters in other Lewton films; Irena in Cat People; Jacqueline in The Seventh Victim; Captain Stone in The Ghost Ship; and Amy in Curse of the Cat People. In the contemporary world of Cat People and The Seventh Victim, such isolation and its attendant crises attracts the coolly appraising attentions of the modern arbiters of madness, psychiatrists.

The compassionate gaze
Sims defines his patients as being a different order of being, claiming ‘they have their world and we have ours’. It is of course the same world. His is a social as much as a clinical (or philosophical) diagnosis. We will discover how similar this enclosed world and the circumscribed circles within which Sims and Nell hustle for position are. Nell muses that they are ‘like separate dreams’, an observation which calls to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s couplet ‘all that we see or seem/but a dream within a dream’. Both describe the contingent and fragile realities of Lewton’s shadow worlds. Nell’s comment is also an admission, made whilst her defensive armour of bright cynicism has been lowered and she is in her truth-speaking reverie, that the world in which she has gained a foothold is based on the illusory reflections and glamours of mirrors, powders the spells of language.

Sims now goes on to elaborate on what he sees as the basic division between the world of the mad and that of the sane, the world inside and that without. ‘Ours is a human world’, he muses. ‘Theirs is a bestial world. Without reason, without soul. They’re animals’. He is like a petty god, defining the terms of being. In reducing his patients to such a dehumanised state, he can treat them as he would animals. He elaborates on the nature of that treatment. Hogarth produced another narrative series of plates called ‘The Four Stage of Cruelty’, in which he depicted, in unsparing detail, the natural progression from the pleasure taken in childhood from the torment of animals to the unthinking and pitiless use of violence against human beings. Here, such a progression is concentrated by making a direct connection between animals and human beings from the outset. The Nazi propaganda Jew Suss, in which Jews are likened to swarms of scurrying rats, is another notorious example of such dehumanising analogies being made.

The Four Stages of Cruelty - plate one
As Sims continues his tour, he dispassionately divides his patients into taxonomic subdivisions, as if they are representatives of different species. The divisions of the animal kingdom provide a suitable symbolic reflection of the divisions of power in the world outside these walls, the world of which Bedlam is the shadow cast. ‘Some are dogs’, he observes, raising his arm to send a young man cowering out of the way on all fours. ‘These I beat’. The first plate of ‘The Four Stages of Cruelty’ depicts some children, including the protagonist Tom Nero, who will go on to lead a short and brutish life which ends at the gallows and the dissection room, torturing a dog to death. ‘Some are pigs’, he continues. ‘Those I let wallow in their own filth’. We see a man, mostly in shadow, sprawling on the floor, his stench causing Nell to wrinkle up her nose. Her reaction once more causes us to imagine what we cannot see, although in this case, it’s a sight which remains hidden. The historical vagaries of censorship mean that we are shielded from the kind of scene which Hogarth wouldn’t have flinched from depicting in merciless detail if he thought that it would serve a moral purpose. The cool detachment with which Sims outlines the degradation of a man lying in his own filth, and his utter indifference to such a state of suffering, brings to mind Pasolini’s controversial final film Salo, his satirical display of disgust at the modern world and its systems of power and coercion as filtered through the madness of the final days of fascism in Italy. As in these and future scenes in Bedlam, Salo encloses its characters within a large building in which strict hierarchies of power dividing master, servant and prisoner are observed, providing a distilled and magnified model of social structures beyond its walls.

Cages of the soul
Nell and Sims pass a large cage standing on its own at the end of the hall, and Sims indicates its hulking occupant, chained within. ‘Some are tigers. These I cage’. This is the most obvious literalisation of the metaphorical (if only barely so) notion of Bedlam as a zoo. It reminds us of the zoo cage in Cat People whose limits the panther paces out; and of Charlie’s mobile cage in The Leopard Man, which also contains a panther. The caging of the wild beast carries obvious symbolic overtones, as Doctor Judd is only too happy to outline to Irena in Cat People, alluding to the suppression of the wilder, untameable aspects of the human psyche. The cage containing the wild man, the unbounded id, is a particularly apt metaphorical symbol made real to apply to the world of carefully controlled appearances in which Nell exists. We have already seen how she barely suppressed her rage in Lord Mortimer’s bedroom. Of course, as Hogarth so clearly illustrated in his narrative sequences, such a refined milieu existed alongside a world of considerable license, where such wild impulses could be easily indulged (for a price), and there was regular traffic between the two.

The Virgin - holy innocent
Sims now guides them to a woman, who stands with catatonic immobility against the wall, like a sculpted relief. ‘Some are doves’, he says, touching her unresponsive face. He leaves it to our imagination as to what he does with these. Her utter withdrawal from outward sensation means he can do what he will. The prospect of such abuse is too horrific for Nell to contemplate, and she calls the tour to a halt at this point, saying ‘I’ve seen enough’. Enough to know that Sims runs the hospital like the autocratic lord of his private fiefdom. ‘But you haven’t seen the other cages’, he protests with mock distress. The varieties of prisons for the human soul are innumerable. As they leave, the camera focuses on the face of the catatonic woman, her raised skyward and filled with light. She looks like a portrait of the Virgin Mary, with her veiled head; a holy innocent privy to what ecstatic visions we cannot know. The idea of the holy fool is taken up in Roberto Rossellini’s film Europa 51. This is a depiction of a woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, who might once have been declared a saint, but whose behaviour in the modern age leads to her being put into an asylum. The resemblance of the catatonic woman to a religious icon is here largely ironic, given her apparent vacancy, and will prove even more so in the light of future developments.

Moral outrage
Nell strides out of the door, with Sims struggling to keep up with his almost comical bow-legged scuttle (although any such comedic potential in his character is snuffed out by what we’ve just discovered about his nature). He persists in telling her how amusing his ‘loonies’ can be, with an implicit mockery of the shallow preoccupations of her social circle. Having been handed back her riding crop, she immediately uses it to strike him on the cheek, with a gesture which more harshly echoes his stroking of the catatonic woman’s cheek. It was the blow which she had itched to administer in Lord Mortimer’s bedroom. She treats him as if her were a beast, using the crop with which she would strike a horse, in just the way he has demonstrated he would treat the patients whom he regards as animals. ‘Amusement!’ she spits out. ‘From that mad girl with the staring eyes’. It is this woman with whom she identifies, and who becomes for her the embodiment of all that is wrong with Bedlam. She is like a mirror twin, a reflection of her deepest fears over what she might become, the state to which she most dreads being reduced. A woman who is a vessel of mute passivity, locked into her mind behind a blank, wide eyed gaze. A holy fool or innocent, maybe, or just an empty presence upon whom such qualities, or any others, can be projected. Sims immediately takes up a defensive position, preserving his anger for a more considered and pre-planned response; the cold meat of revenge. ‘If I have offended you, Miss Bowen’, he meekly offers in the meantime. She storms out, followed by the quaker, whose half-focussed outline we have noticed in the background observing the encounter. Sims looks after her with a look of pensive calculation, fingering the welt on his cheek raised by her blow, as if only now permitting himself to feel the pain which her blow has inflicted. Nell has created a very dangerous enemy.
Nursing wounds

Saturday, 12 June 2010


Amongst a recent donation of interesting modern classical music to the Exeter Oxfam music shop was a copy of the Theatre of Voices recording of Stockhausen’s Stimmung, which was released in 2007, and which has now found its way onto the online shop. Theatre of Voices is a vocal ensemble which was founded by the baritone singer Paul Hillier, who was also a founder member of the Hilliard Ensemble. It’s not his first recording of the piece; he took part in the Singcircle version which was recorded in 1983 and released on Hyperion Records in 1986. The Theatre of Voices release is only the third official recording of the piece to have been made, the Singcircle version having followed the original 1970 Deutsche Grammaphon one recorded by the Collegium Vocale of the Rheinishce Musikshcule in Cologne, for whom it was originally written. Actually, the availability of three recordings of one piece counts as extreme profligacy when it comes to the Stockhausen oeuvre. He bought the rights to all of the old Deutsche Grammaphon recordings of his music and released them in newly mixed versions on his own Stockhausen Verlag label, allowing him to exert control over all facets of his own music, from sleeve design to notes (which generally include detailed instructions as to how you should listen to the music) to distribution (these CDs are only available through the online Stockhausen shop). The Singcircle and Theatre of Voices versions of Stimmung were also approved by the composer, who perhaps took a slightly more relaxed approach to a piece which allows a significant degree of input from the singers. Indeed, the fact that the singers are given a wide range of vocal content from which they can make their choice in any given section means that any particular version will vary significantly from any other. Each will have its own atmosphere.

The piece was composed in the snowbound winter months of early 1968, whilst Stockhausen was living with his wife Mary Bauermeister and their two young children. So as not to disturb them, he began composing by humming to himself, and as he puts it, ‘began to listen to my vibrating skull’. He began to hear the overtone melodies which arose naturally from the sounds made within the vocal cavity, resonating on the roof of the mouth. These were the kind of universal sounds which he recognised from his trips to the far east, in Tibetan chant and the throat singing of northern nomads, and in instrumental form in the ancient Japanese court music of gagaku, and which he incorporated in the electronic pieces Telemusik and Hymnen. Here, the sounds were produced entirely by the human voice alone, however, any tonal transformations being effected through the physical manipulation of the vocal cavity.

Stockhausen was also influenced by a recent trip to Mexico. The imaginary landscape across which the piece’s ritualistic vocal drone drifts is a wide Mexican plain dotted with Mayan temples. Stockhausen was impressed by the sense of harmony outlined by the temples’ symmetrically stepped mass, and translated the sense of a mathematically determined structure into musical form. He talked of feeling as if he had entered the past and become a Mayan as he gazed at the temples, and he was clearly absorbed by the site to an uncommon degree. The sense of a direct communion with the past, and the quietude of the subsequent New England winter in which he allowed his ideas to naturally rise to the surface, channelled by the necessities of circumstance, was very much a period of calm before a storm. Mary Burmeister left him later in the year, and he responded in an almost comically melodramatic fashion by going on hunger strike. This only lasted a few days, but inspired a series of compositions which moved towards an even greater openness to chance elements, which were grouped under the title Aus Den Sieben Tagen. Burmeister had played an influential part in steering Stockhausen towards an increasingly dominant interest in mystical modes of thought which, in common with many others in the dying days of the decade, became ever more random and indiscriminate. If Chesterton had said that once people stopped believing in God, they would believe in anything, then much the same could be said for the period when they turned away from the comforts of consumerism and tried to return to some idea of the sacred. Stockhausen’s nadir when it came to embracing half-baked, instantly cobbled together mythologies for the modern age was reached via his fascination with the Book of Urantia, which weighs in at a hefty 2,097 pages in which to waste your precious time. Prolonged exposure to such cosmic debris presumably prompted Stockhausen’s declaration that he was in fact not from Earth at all, but from the Sirius system. At least Sun Ra claimed he was from Saturn from way back at the start of his musical life. The Urantia mythos fed into the largely impenetrable world of his Licht cycle of ‘operas’, which occupied him from 1977 until shortly before his death in in 2007. There is something childlike both in his reaction to his wife’s departure and in the way in which he drew the material for his grandest work not from the world around him, but from a book which encouraged its readers to lose themselves in a self-absorbed fantasy of ‘revelation’. Oddly enough, it is just this childlike quality which makes Stimmung such an approachable and instantly absorbing work. This could be said of other Stockhausen works, which lack the aridity of some of the other avant-garde works of the time, and have a theatricality and richness of sound which opens them up to the untutored ear such as the one which I possess (although I’m sure Stockhausen would have been horrified at the idea of anyone approaching his music without thorough prior preparation).

Stimmung means tuning, which could be interpreted as being either musical or mental, or more likely both. It also incorporates the world stimme, which is German for words. This is a vocal piece for six singers built around words and the vocal sounds which are their building blocks. The piece is essentially an extended drone rooted to a ground level of B flat, a long drawn out chord formed of natural overtones which the words seem to arise magically, fluttering about before settling down once more. The idea of tuning highlights the meditative qualities of the piece, which is akin to a mantra, complete with nonsense syllables. The lack of harmonic change lends to a feel of suspended time, of an ongoing flow which is tuned in to the hum of the cosmos, the music of the spheres.

There are 51 sections to the piece, which overlap each other rather than coming to a definitively determined end. Each section incorporates a number of ‘models’, words or phrases which are chosen by the ‘lead’ singer indicated in the score. Each singer has a number of these from which she or he can choose. Others then take up the incantation, which goes on to give the section its particular character, both through the associations which the word carries, and through its abstract sound qualities. This division into discreet parts, each allowing the performer considerable leeway as to which choice they will make in navigating their way through the piece, immediately brings to mind Terry Riley’s classic of early minimalism, In C, which employs a similar model. Some of the sections in Stimmung include readings of Stockhausen’s erotic poetry, taken from 1967 (the year in which he appeared on the Sergeant Pepper cover, of course). There are also ‘magic names’ which are introduced at various points. Again, these are chosen by the indicated singer from a selection which with which they are provided. They are taken from the gods of various world religions. On the Singcircle version which I’ve heard, Buddha and Quetzalcoatl turn up in unlikely proximity, the sounds of the latter broken down and worked over with sensual pleasure. These are introduced to add a particular charge which changes the atmosphere of the piece, shifting the dynamic of the flow, or ‘retuning’ it.

Performances tend to use amplification in order to enable the singers to articulate the sounds with the necessary softness (they sometimes lower to a hushed whisper). A tape recorder is sometimes used to provide a steady background harmony to allow for tuning. These are the only electronic elements, but the music does display the concentration on the nature of sound characteristic of electronic music. Indeed, the breaking down of words into their syllables, and the play with the transformation of vocal sounds, is reminiscent of Stockhausen’s earlier electronic work Gesang Der Junglinge, which worked its magic through the manipulations of a choirboy’s voice on tape. Stimmung has been performed in some interesting venues. It was played 72 times during the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970 in a spherical hall circled with 50 speakers, around which Stockhausen, seated at his central mixing desk, moved the sound. In 2005, Singcircle sang it from beneath the glass-roofed tip of 30 St Mary Axe, better known as The Gherkin, as the sun set over the London skyline. In 2007, it was sung in the entrance hall of the British Library, a blend of sound and setting which brings to my mind the scene in Wings of Desire set in the Berlin Library, in which the angels listen to the hum and susurration of minds absorbed in reading. It’s a piece of music it’s well worth losing yourself in. You can find it here. Tune in.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Theo Jansen at the Spacex Gallery

The Dutch artist Theo Jansen (that’s pronounced Tayo Yonson) currently has an exhibition at the Spacex Gallery in Exeter, but the actual display of his work in action will take place elsewhere, as it is not designed for such a narrowly confined space. The artist will instead let his strandbeests loose on the beach at Exmouth on the weekend of the 25th-27th June, and in the rather more constrained and built-up environs of Princesshay Square a week later on the 2-4th July weekend. Jansen is an exponent of what’s known as kinetic art, which essentially means sculptures which move of their own accord. . He painstakingly models and constructs large skeletal creatures which are designed so that they are able to fuel their own movement, taking on an independent life of their own. As you walk into the gallery, you come across a compilation of short films and TV clips showing in the room to your right which give of a broad overview of how Jansen makes his creatures and the mechanical means through which they are brought to life. He uses sections of PVC tubing, either bought new or scavenged from skips or construction site dumps (although I suspect that he’s now well enough established to be able to afford his own regular supply). He fixes them together into movable joints using silicone sealant, his mass-manufactured (although couldn’t the same be said of the natural version) equivalent of synovial fluid. These hollow bones are then fuelled by the wind, which is harvested by the creatures’ ‘wings’, or sails, and stored in one litre plastic bottles, arrayed along its back or side like the plates of a Stegosauraus. The intricacy of the interleaving struts which form the creatures frame are of such complexity that Jansen sometimes uses computer modelling to plot their structure and predict the way in which they will move. Ultimately, though, their viability as a species or genus has to be tested out in the real world. There is a particularly enjoyable piece of footage of Jansen driving a car around a deserted warehouse in the city of Delft where he lives and works, one of his creatures attached to the roof of his car (and its size matches that of the vehicle) in order to test out its wings, which move with a gently rippling motion in the passing airstream. He later takes it out on to the road, where locals no doubt look up and think ‘ah, there goes Theo again’.

Jansen playfully (I hope) places himself in the role of Creator. His mis-steps are presented as evolutionary dead-ends, with mutations of form which failed to provide the necessary adaptations to environmental conditions. It’s a neat way of incorporating work which wasn’t up to scratch into his overall concept. All creations, no matter how short-lived, are granted their own Latin taxonomic names, such as Animaris Currens Ventosa, or Animaris Percipiere. The Spacex Gallery was hung with various fragments of older creatures, which Jansen refers to as fossils. Indeed, the white PVC piping, sand-blasted and worn by the elements, does have the look of aged, unearthed bone, or cracked and discoloured ivory. With skeletal remains hanging from the ceiling above your head as you walk in, and displayed in glass boxes and on the walls elsewhere, the gallery comes to resemble a museum of un-natural history, albeit one in which the Creator tips his hand through the inclusion of various blueprints and computer models. There is also a timeline on one wall, which distils the evolution of the strandbeests into geological eras along the lines of the Triassic and Jurassic, although the span of time is here measured in years rather than millennia, and marks artistic as much as evolutionary progression; although in terms of Jansen’s overall concept, there is no division between the two. The artist’s own ongoing development of ideas and techniques is incorporated into the grand design of his accelerated evolutionary Creation.

Alterations are made to successive creatures based on observations of how each new model behaves in the real world. For example, Jansen introduced an evolutionary development designed to cope with the strong winds blowing in off his home turf (or sand) of the Delft coast. This adaptation consisted of a blunt peg-like appendage on its tail which, with a certain amassing of wind volume, would be driven into the sand by a levered hammer, thus giving it temporary anchorage until the winds died down again. The peg and hammer DIY ensemble gave its tail something of the look of an ankylosaurus, one of my favourite childhood dinosaurs (alongside the stegosauras, which had those plates and some cool spikes on its tail. I always think of it as being purple, since that was the colour of the plastic airfix kit which I made and never bothered to paint – but I digress). Some computer designs for as yet unrealised creatures begin to cover the skeleton with a segmented carapace of translucent plastic sheeting. Whether this has any practical purpose or is just an aesthetic choice I’m not sure. They are referred to as woodlice, but look more like shiny beetles.

In one of the TV extracts, Jansen is quoted as imagining a future day when his beests will wander the shore in a world empty of humanity. To this end, he has designed some of them to scoop out incrementally larger piles of sand as they scuttle along, painstakingly maintaining the shoreline’s natural defences against the encroachment of the sea. Presumably this will serve to preserve the remains of a vanished human civilisation, here exemplified by the city of Delft. The creatures will become its curators. With this kind of vision of a post-human world in mind, it becomes particularly appropriate that the beests are constructed from the plastic detritus of human civilisation, the kind of industrial waste which he imagines outlasting the species which produced and discarded it and taking on a life of its own. This gives these creatures, with their fragile forms and small, tentative pigeon steps, a certain poignancy. It’s the same kind of melancholy nostalgia for a pre-lapsarian past as viewed from a despoiled future which was present in the first half of Wall-E. You can almost imagine the Creator’s role eventually being excised, and these creatures beginning to assemble themselves and their descendants from an agglomeration of whatever rubbish is readily available. Such forms of self assembling detritus are found in Theodore Sturgeon’s short story It, and in China Mieville’s city of New Crobuzon in his novel Perdido Street Station, where an artificial intelligence gives itself embodied form by using an assemblage of material from the rubbish dump. Such creatures would slowly wander the empty strand like the giant crab-like creatures which the time traveller encounters on the terminal beach in the dying days of Earth at the end of HG Wells’ novella The Time Machine.

This science fictional element to Jansen’s work is also reflected in an earlier project from 1980, footage of which can be seen in the TV compilation in the first room of the gallery. This involved the release of a specially constructed UFO by the artist and some friends and collaborators (whose look seems to place them more circa 1972). This flew above the skies of Delft, emitting sparks of light and beeping sounds at intermittent intervals. Subsequent street interviews and newspaper articles reveal that, whilst never quite reaching Orson Welles proportions, the effect was rather more startling and disruptive than anticipated. The music accompanying the launch of the UFO from a hill above the city was from Franz Waxman’s marvellous score to James Whales’ 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein. It could have been equally (or perhaps more) appropriately applied to his later work.

In a darkened room to the back of the gallery, you can sit and watch film of Jansen’s strandbeests in motion, projected in all their gargantuan glory onto the walls. These films form a kind of constantly switching triptych on three sides of the room, with two generally providing a contextualising sea or dunescape, giving an impression of the Delft coastline. The third shows the beests being let loose and slowly lumbering into motion. Surrounded by these sounds and images, you can really lose yourself and allow yourself to be transported (it has to be said, this is made easier by the fact that we seldom have company when we go to the gallery). I can imagine this acting as one of Brian Eno’s Civic Recovery Centres, a sound and visual environment in which you can retreat from the busy rush of the outside world for a span. This room, which tries to recreate something of the experience of encountering Theo Jansen’s creatures in their ‘natural’ environment, is an essential part of the exhibition, and imbues the ‘fossils’ which are scattered around the rest of the gallery with a meaning which they might not otherwise possess. They accrue the weight of mortality and passing time which the remains of any once-living thing carries.

Theo Jansen has released his creatures in England before, when one was set loose in Trafalgar Square during his 2006 at the ICA in London, but to my knowledge, this will be the first time that they have trod the sands of a British beach. And the beach is, after all, the environment for which they have been fashioned. The particular genus or species which Jansen has created for the occasion is known as the Ventosa Siamesis, and is some 10 metres long. There will also be a smaller creature with which the public will be able to interact. Jansen himself will be in attendance on Saturday and Sunday from 3-5 in the afternoon, and there is a further opportunity to hear him give a talk and demonstrate his methods at 7 in the evening at Exeter Central Library on Friday 2nd July. As for those heading for the beach with no prior knowledge of what they’re about to encounter, they’re in for a big surprise.