Monday, 1 August 2011

I'll Be Your Mirror at Alexandra Palace


Sunday began in darkness at (just after) noon with Godspeed You Black Emperor, who played a nearly 2 hour long unbroken set. I initially waited in the Great Hall, before the penny finally dropped that the fact that I was almost entirely alone in this large space probably indicated that the action was elsewhere. The Great Hall wouldn’t have suited their music anyway; it requires suitably shadowy and relatively intimate surroundings in which to achieve its fullest effect. The group sat and stood in a communal circle, unconcerned with facing the audience. But this didn’t feel like a rejection or a gesture of aloof indifference, rather an invitation to join in this communality. The music is all about dynamics shifting over time, with a slow build up to a thundering crescendo followed by a subsequent ebb and flattening into alluvial dissipation. The piece Gathering Storm is paradigmatic in this sense, both in terms of its title and its form, with a gradual massing of instrumental forces rising higher and higher until they burst forth in an ecstatic melody. This was accompanied in performance by a series of images of their Canadian homeland; wooden homes were lingered over, both intact and derelict, before we rushed through the landscape, often seen through the windows of cars and trains. This evocation of home and belonging fulfilled the promise of the word ‘hope’, which flickered in scratched scrawl across the screen at the beginning of the set. This tentative grafitto had provided a subliminal visual plant behind the opening number, which hovered around a single chord for about 15, incrementally increasing the mass and volume until it was an all-encompassing torrent of glorious noise.

Godspeed You Black Emperor
In between Hope and the Storm, the images darkened, and hope seemed far distant (but with that initial burning word still echoing in retinal after flash on the mind’s eye). Official document or desperately typed pages swiftly scrolled by, interspersed with disturbing pictures hinting at the hidden agendas and secret processes of the war on terror, the subliminal flash of a scrawled ‘fuck America’ the response (and the dark antithesis to the original ‘hope’). The cover of Robert Burton’s 17th century philosophical treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy is followed by contemporary woodcuts of demons, scourging clerics and conquistadors, the roots and early symbolism of modern empire. These began to deliquesce in the manner of igniting or chemically disintegrating film, a visual representation of the sinking spirit of melancholia inflecting much of the music. After the Gathering Storm had broken and passed, the set ended with a triumphal piece in which the final explosive clarion chords were accompanied by aerial and ground level shots of anti-war protestors filling the streets of New York (or it could have been Montreal, not sure) – hope realised, if only for a day. It’s paradoxical in a sense that Godspeed You Black Emperor, an instrumental group in which the only vocal elements are provided by samples, should be one of the most unequivocally political acts producing protest music of recent years. The lack of lyrics allows a certain flexibility in the interpretation of just what the nature of that protestation is. The live back projections bring this sense of resistance firmly into focus, however. As the music passed the apogee of its final explosion, the members of the group got up and quietly left one by one, just as they had first entered, and the reverberating sound diminished until it had dwindled to a looping singularity – and then it was over, the end of a quite overwhelming experience. Time to go out and breathe the air of the bright North London afternoon, spirits raised high.

The Passion of Joan of Arc
Liars in the Great Hall delivered their usual pummelling post punk thrash, all distortion, ritualistic drum pounding and muttered or shouted vocals of a vaguely (or explicitly) threatening nature. It all blurred into an indistinguishable continuum for me, and with the lyrics being unintelligible to my ear, it proved a little wearying in its relentlessness, with no discernible purpose behind the attack (the LPs have much more cohesion to them). A large hall wasn’t the most appropriate setting, maybe, with some of the intensity of their performance dissipated, particularly from the vantage point of the back of the crowd. I headed off to claim a prime position for the screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc in the West Hall. Portishead’s Adrian Uttley and Will Gregory, Goldfrapp’s musical partner, had composed a live score sometime ago for Bristol’s Colston Hall, and this was played again here, with both participating. Uttley was one of several guitarists, and also occasionally picked up his mandolin for minstrel moments. Gregory crouched studiously behind his KORG synthesiser, but also managed to coax plangent and sacred sounds out of that most humble of instruments, the kazoo. The ensemble also included kettle drums, three gradations of medieval harp and a chamber choir. The whole was unobtrusively conducted by Charles Hazelwood, who had an exceedingly busy weekend, given that he had conducted the Human Planet Prom at the Albert Hall the previous evening and again the following morning, before dashing across town to conduct again in another grand Victorian building. He gave a cheeky Kenneth Williams moue in reaction to the audience’s applause as he took to the podium – acknowledging that this was no place for classical formality. The film itself remains a hugely affecting masterpiece of the silent era, an unflinching depiction of suffering and of a soul preparing itself for death, as well as a timeless study of heroic political resistance in the face of seemingly unassailable power. The harrowing pictures of Joan’s body burning and toppling forward as if in prayer at the end of the film are reminiscent of the footage of self-immolating Vietnamese monks in the 60s, and are intercut with scenes of violent rebellion which have the immediacy of contemporary news footage even though they take place against a medieval backdrop.

Joan's tears
The concentration on the actual recorded transcript of the trial meant that a lot of the drama was conveyed through close-ups, and there are some remarkable faces here: Maria Falconetti, in the title role, who gives one of the most remarkable and fearless performances in the history of cinema (and whose tears are mirrored by those of Anna Karina as she watches the film in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie); a relatively youthful Michel Simon, an iconic, beautifully ugly figure of French cinema, also present in such classics as L’Atalante, Boudu Saved From Drowning and Quai des Brumes, and whose 1968 swansong, Ce Grand Pere featured a soundtrack by Serge Gainsbourg and Michel Colombier (including a songs, L’Herbe Tendre, on which Gainsbourg and Simon, fellow spirits in many ways, collaborated); and the legendary Antonin Artaud, surrealist, experimental film maker and proponent of a confrontational performance style (the ‘theatre of cruelty’) who could be said to be one of the presiding spirits of the weekend. The music blended the sacred and elevated with industrial and noise elements. The choir produced ‘angelic’ interpolations at key moments which bordered on the clichéd but were archetypically affecting for all that. They also passed around ‘hocketed’ syllables to suggest the conspiratorial muttering of the ecclesiastical jury. The clamour and clank accompanying the torture chamber sequence conveyed the physical terror of pain and suffering experienced by Joan upon seeing these appalling devices demonstrated. The nauseating roll of the spiked wheel upon whose crushing revolutions the camera focuses was particularly well evoked by the metallic rumble and fingernail scrape of guitar and synth, anticipating the industrialised instruments of death from centuries to come. The final burning at the stake and subsequent revolt of the onlooking peasantry, a sequence which still has an almost unbearable intensity even to this day, was made even more powerful by the conjoined forces of the ensemble, with clangourous, tolling guitars heralding the uprising (and also echoing the climax of the Godspeed set). It was wonderful to see this deeply affecting film further elevated by such a finely attuned and adventurous soundtrack.

It took me a while to see the latter half of the Acoustic Ladyland set in the Panorama Room as I had to negotiate the frustrating contraflow system which sought to reconfigure the everyday relationships of space and distance according to some arcane and evidently incommunicable logic. If you crossed a particular threshold between the corridors and halls of the Palace, you could not then step back, as an imposingly built orange-jacketed security person would tell you with implacable finality. A complete circumambulation of the building would then be necessary in order to return to the spot which you had just left. It was like passing through the mirror in Cocteau’s Orphee and entering a world which operated according to its own laws. There also seemed to be a problem with the room having reached its capacity, although there seemed no shortage of space when I was finally granted access. This was the group’s last performance and they went out in blazing style. They played a scorched-earth punk jazz, with short tenor sax phrases in a ripe Albert Ayler-ish tone occasionally exploding into frantic squeal and skronk, backed by guitar thrash and scrabble, and drum hurricane and coal chute tumble. It took jazz back to its party roots (with the audience batting large black and white balloons about), a music to dance to, as it had been in the hot 20s, the swing band 40s, and the hard bop 60s, although now the moves were of a more primal pogoing variety.

Having had a delicious crayfish confection from the Banh-mi Vietnamese food stall, I returned to the West Hall to await Alan Moore and Stephen O’Malley’s performance, and watched timidly through the open door into the Great Hall as Swans completed their set. Michael Gira was thrashing around as if in a self-induced fit, or in the throes of divine or demonic possession. The doomy song they were playing was lent further funereal dolour by the tolling of tubular bells. Having already arced a sputum of spit into the audience, he stood up to the mic, the music dying around him, held his arms out wide with fists clenched in a gesture half of crucifixion, half of grim triumph and just roared at full capacity, several times. It was an act which had to be carried through with absolute conviction, otherwise it risked teetering over the edge into absurdity. But from my somewhat distance perspective, he seemed to pull it off (it certainly made the security guards at the door pass a few comments between themselves). This was music which acted as a sort of communal purgation, a purification of sorts, and its excavation of the dark places of the soul was the demonic shadow side of a yearning, religious sensibility, reaching for the light. This comes through in the titles of some of the songs (Children of God, The Apostate, Eden Prison) and in the name of Gira’s post-Swans group, Angels of Light. At the end of the show, he told the audience that he loved them, and it seemed like he really meant it, and that the feeling was mutual.

Alan Moore and Stephen O’Malley (of bracket abusing drone metal group Sunn (((O)))) were due to perform a words and music accompaniment to the 1957/62 Harry Smith (not to be confused with fellow experimental film-maker Jack Smith) animated film, which is often known as Heaven and Earth Magic. O’Malley seemed to take an age to set up his guitar, with engineers also fiddling, leaving the scene, and then coming back to fiddle some more. The resultant delay was particularly damaging in that it meant that a good number of people left when Grinderman began (on time) next door. Alan Moore took to the stage in a very striking long wizard coat, a shimmering sky blue with added glittery sparkles, worn over a dark shirt with white tie. Very elegant. You had to make a conscious effort to shift your attention from his imposing figure as he read in his distinctive Northampton tones and concentrate on the film being projected on the screen, which was, after all, what he was talking about. O’Malley, meanwhile, was another in the line of guitarists who took to their seats over the weekend. He scraped, knocked and bowed the strings to produce sounds which emphasised the electronic rather than the guitaristic component of his electric guitar. Moore had already fitted Smith into his pantheon of counter-cultural heroes, including him in the ‘collectors cards’ series Great Hipster of History in his latter day underground magazine Dodgem Logic. Smith was card number 8 (an early selection, then) and appeared in the third issue, where it was noted that he was hailed as ‘an authentic American magus’ by Allen Ginsberg and that his extensive paper aeroplane collection was eventually bought up by NASA.

Moore’s text, read in conjunction with the quieter passages of O’Malley’s music, attempted to align Smith with his own theories equating alchemy and magic with the transforming power of art upon human consciousness. Smith’s remarkable collage animation sets out his own personal symbology and set of magical arcane, and sets them dancing in an archetypal series of tableaux. It bears some resemblance to the work of Terry Gilliam in its use of cut-outs from old catalogues and text books for surreal and disruptive ends. There were lengthy periods during which we were left with just O’Malley’s guitar, which was particularly effective in the sequence in which a series of cog wheels are turning, as if we are in the engine room of the universe. He provided appropriate clanking, scurrying, rattling, busy, machine-like and metallic sounds, the music of the hidden mechanisms of the spheres revealed. Moore’s poetic prose took Harry Smith from his Oregon birthplace in 1932 to the ‘Beat’ Chelsea Hotel in New York where he died in 1991, and interpreted the images on the screen in terms of his inner and outer life, and the artistic transformations through which he set out to express his visionary ideas and explorations. His reading acted both as a personal interpretation of the imagery of Smith’s film, and as an invocation of his spirit and purpose. It demanded concentration (and didn’t always receive it, as witnessed by a couple of idiots standing near the front who raised their voices so that they could hear each other’s conversation, and be heard by everyone else in the vicinity, over Moore’s voice) and perhaps also a little prior knowledge, as this was undeniably esoteric matter. But for those who made the effort, it was an insightful and involving introduction to the surpassingly curious mind of Harry Smith and his strange and compelling film.

Nick Cave and pals’ reductio ad absurdum rock group Grinderman were in full flow by the time I made it to the Great Hall. They were, of course, incredibly loud, and I fumbled for my ear plugs to protect my ears. You could physically feel the waves of sound as they streamed past and shuddered up through the floor. In Grinderman, Nick Cave and fellow bandmates Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey and Jim Sclavunos go into ‘character’, expressing the base principles of male lust, greed and violence expressed in primal rock noise. They were all immaculately tailored in suits and shirts, as befitting their age, and leapt around the stage with demented adolescent energy, as very much didn’t befit their age. Cave himself planted himself front stage, striking wide-legged cock rock poses, occasionally rushing back to wrench a few distorted chords out of his organ (supply your own Carry On response here…). He also jumped down to sing directly at the audience, indulging in the old holding the mike out for the crowd to sing into cliché, and harassing them in close-up (aggressively demanding of one poor soul ‘give me your money’ several times). The male characters on display in the songs are far from attractive (they are represented on the front of the first LP by a screaming capuchin monkey). The protagonist of No Pussy Blues comments on how he sucked in his gut and combed his hair over his head – hardly a typical example of priapic rock god self-mythologising. It’s all staged with knowing assurance, with the players fully aware of their own absurdity, but enjoying themselves immensely anyway. When it’s all over, they can put away the masks and return, fully refreshed, to their other artistic personae in the Bad Seeds and the Dirty Three.

Walking back through the West Hall on my way to the cinema, I listened to a few songs by The Telescopes. All were loud, hazy aurorae of shimmering noise produced by overdriven and fx pedal moulded guitars and a violin played vertically like a cello for extra drone layers, with largely incidental vocals buried somewhere beneath. The unvarying nature of the initial songs suggested that a sample effectively represented the whole. I went to the cinema to watch Peter Whitehead’s Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, a portrait of the swinging 60s capital which took its title from a line in an Allen Ginsberg poem, intoned towards the end. Whitehead had made a film about the 1965 international poetry gathering in the Albert Hall in which Ginsberg had prominently featured. This documentary was rather pretentiously subtitled a ‘pop concerto’, a rather transparent attempt to disguise the fact that its disparate elements completely fail to cohere. It’s a mix of talking head interviews, concert and recording studio footage and roving observations of the London of the time. There was plenty of inadvertent comedy, as the giggles emanating from the audience indicated. Vanessa Redgrave exhibited her painfully earnest militancy, expressing solidarity with the Cuban revolution (which had, I’m sure, just been waiting for validation from the British luvvie branch) in an odd received pronunciation attempt at Spanish. The spectre of Stella Street was never far away as Mick Jagger offered his opinions on the social issues of the day and the correct way to conduct a revolution (well alright, yeah). He revealed that in the leisure society of the future, which was surely just around the corner, we would not be ‘jumping around and swimming’ as everyone believed (?). Michael Caine had begun to outline his views on nation’s loss of ‘moral fibre’ as reflected in the length of women’s skirts when the dvd, perhaps mercifully, stuck. This left us with a bifurcated Caine visage for a while, the upper half of his face grotesquely distended and perched over a diminutive mouth and chin. Skipping on to the next scene meant that we missed David Hockney and Lee Marvin, unfortunately. Julie Christie gave the most interesting interview, which she prefaced with the plea to Whitehead ‘you will be kind, won’t you?’ She was much less full of the certitude displayed by the other interviewees, and more reflective in her self-interrogation, attempting an honest response to the more personal questions put to her. Quite the opposite was the cockily self-assured Andrew Loog Oldham, a proto 80s figure who embodied the way in which the ethos of that decade was embedded in disguised form in the 60s. He talked about the artists whom he produced as if they were his puppets (something about which I’m sure Marianne Faithfull, seen here wandering amongst the roses in a fey daze, might have a few words to say). We see footage of a couple of these artists recording in the studio, one of whom is none other than Vashti Bunyan. If only we could have heard less of Oldham’s self-important prattling and heard something of her voice. Or at least more of the song which she was singing, Winter Is Blue, which, of her Oldham productions, most resembles the songs which would later make up the Just Another Diamond Day LP. She would soon be free of his baleful influence, anyway, and begin her journey through the British Isles in her horse drawn wagon. The film ends up in Alexandra Palace, the building in which it was being projected, for the 1967 14 Hour Technicolor Dream (claims for 24 hours are exaggerated). But Whitehead muffs what could have been a significant document of the event by attempting to create a subjective impression of what it was like to be there (or perhaps just making the best of some poor quality footage), sequencing a series of blurred colour stills to create a stroboscopic semi-animation. It’s far from being a great film, but the few snapshots of the London of the time now have an intrinsic value as a visual record of an era more usually recollected through an obscuring veil of intoxicated hyperbole.

Back in the Great Hall, I enjoyed a second viewing of the latter half of Portishead’s headlining set, which was well worth seeing again. They messed up the new Neu-ish song this time, stumbling over the opening several times before finally deciding to give it up as a bad job. A shame, since it sounded really good on the first night. The crowd were in a forgiving mood, however, and encouraged the band at every slip. Beth claimed that the mishaps were Portishead’s attempt at comedy, and it did indeed provide an unintended interlude of relief from the otherwise intense and inward material. They ended up issuing thanks to all involved in the weekend, and there was a sense of fulfilment, of months of planning having come to fruition and events having concluded in a satisfying manner. They seemed happy, which is not something you can generally say when talking about a Portishead concert.

Minor (or medium-sized) gripes about the weekend on my part included a certain feeling of having been herded around like depersonalised cattle at various points. The porter from the local Redemption Brewery was gorgeous, but they proved wholly inadequate to the task of supplying the festival, running out completely halfway through the first day and failing to deliver any further barrels (surely that was one of the reasons for using a local supplier). A missed opportunity for them, I would have thought. This left us with nothing but cans of San Miguel and Gaymers cider on offer, at £4 each!) Worst of all, no-one was allowed to bring in bottles of water, all of which were confiscated at the door and thrown into a large bin placed just for that purpose. I discovered on the second day that this extended to bottles without any water in them; my protestations that I was not in fact bringing in any food or drink, as stipulated, fell on disinterested ears. In crowded rooms and halls on a hot weekend, this risked being seriously deleterious to people’s health. Evidently they were expected to but the small bottles of water on sale at £2 each inside. The result was that there was a queue in the Gents for the one water fountain on site, at which people refilled whatever receptacle they had to hand (I clutched my teacup throughout). Such deliberate creation of scarcity in a market sector over which you have complete control represented capitalism at its shabbiest, and hardly lived up to the ATP festivals’ claims to ‘alternative’ status. A certain creeping corporatism also seems to be suggested by their insistence on turning everything into an acronymic brand (ATP, IBYM etc). Of course, they have to make money, but there are ways and means. Anyway, I managed to sneak in an orange and a couple of bananas, so take that, The Man.

But let’s not leave on such a negative note. There are not many other places you can go to see such an eclectic and bold mix of diverse music and film. There was also a great art installation created by David Wilson, who set up three ranks of praxinoscopes, early illusionistic moving image viewers. These use a central column of faceted mirrors which reflect pictures painted on encircling strips which are spun around, in this case on turntables, with the result that the images move in an animated loop. Wilson focussed on the natural world, creating flying owls, a deer into the black reflective lens of whose eye our perspective zoomed, wolves whose devouring maws loomed into close-up (last second) view, and turning and twisting leaves which shaded from spring greens into autumnal browns. All this was backed by the atmospheric sounds of Blanck Mass (whose debut LP is excellent). It was hypnotic and enchanting, and exerted that kind of primitive yet potent magic which such mechanically contrived illusions still cast. Walking out into the warm night air after Portishead had finished, a similar atmosphere of enchantment hung over the illuminated prospect of London, from this elevated perspective a city of tiny lights. The vista stretched from Highgate Hill to Crystal Palace tower, from Shooters Hill to Barking. The magic city and beyond. It was a great view to stand and contemplate for a few minutes, recollecting the events of the weekend.

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