Thursday, 29 March 2012

Jeff Mangum's ATP Festival 2012


On Sunday morning, a sea mist rolled down the Bristol Channel and veiled everything in muffling billows of cool, suspended moisture. With great and presumably entirely serendipitous appropriateness, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble came onto the stage of the Crazy Horse Bar at midday to play Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes II, a piece which uses recordings of voices and sounds spatially distorted and made spectral by the fogs which so frequently envelop San Francisco Bay. Marshall is an American composer who studied with Vladimir Ussachevsky at the legendary Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Centre in New York before moving West to study with Morton Subotnick in California. In the book American Originals, a collection of interviews with modern composers conducted by Geoff Smith and Nicola Walker Smith, the authors suggest to Marshall that ‘some of your music…could almost appeal to a thoughtful alternative rock audience’, to which he responds ‘well, I hope it would. A lot of my music is actually quite accessible – it’s not that hard to like it’. This proposition was put to the test here, and the results came up positive. It’s a piece which has definite affinities with the atmospheric electronica of Oneohtrix Point Never and Blanck Mass, both of whom draw a great deal from the pioneering concrete and synthesiser music of Marshall’s mentors, if not from Marshall himself.

The American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) specialise in modern classical repertoire, having performed music by the likes of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, John Cage, George Crumb, Kevin Volans, Olivier Messiaen and Iannis Xenakis. They also have connections with the leftfield rock and pop world, having played on 4 songs on the Grizzly Bear record Veckatimest, appeared on the LP A Winged Victory for the Sullen (a recent project from Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid), and supported Jeff Mangum on his recent comeback shows in the US. For their ATP performance, they operated as a string quartet, and in addition to Fog Tropes II, played Marshall’s Entrada and Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. I’d not heard Fog Tropes II before, but was familiar with the original Fog Tropes, which used a recording of the resonant, mournful echo of a distant fog horn, to which the searching instruments of a brass sextet sent out fragmentary responses of varying lengths and pitches. Fog Tropes II takes a similar approach, with the string quartet enveloping the fog-altered voices and dim quayside sounds with a sinuous miasma of shifting sound. Entrada followed immediately on, a rather melancholy piece, with notes dying away in arcing descents, and a sense of stillness pervading. It had something of the feel of the Estonian composer Arvo Part’s meditative laments.

The audience in the Crazy Horse Bar squatted, sprawled or sat on the floor and listened in hushed silence. Clarice Jensen, the cello-playing leader of the Ensemble, thanked them for their attentiveness, and commented that this was the festival’s equivalent to going to a Sunday morning church service. This carried self-effacing connotations of people having turned up dutifully, out of a sense that this was somehow good for them. But ATP appeals to and attracts a broad range of believers, and this congregation was a reverent one, open to such spiritual sustenance as was on offer, whether it be through the loud testifying of The Boredoms’ percussion rituals or the quieter prayers and meditations delivered up here. Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yey centres around a recording he made outside Waterloo Station in the 70s of a tramp declaring his faith, or perhaps just singing an old remembered song. The tape is looped, and the string quartet gradually adds its individual voices and fills in an accompaniment around the repeated refrain. There is a certain inherent irony in the meeting of high and low, the blending of rough street song with refined chamber music, the opposite ends of the social spectrum harmonising in unlikely collaboration. I was doubtful as to whether I would enjoy or even be able to tolerate this piece, having found the recording released in 1993 unlistenable. There was still the perceived need to fill as much of the disc’s capacity as possible at this point, leading to a hopelessly distended arrangement of the piece, with full, lush orchestration taking over and unnecessary vocals by Tom Waits intruding on the tramp’s singing. But hearing it live, and at a more reasonable 20 minutes or so length (more akin to its original appearance on one side of the first LP released on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label in 1975), it was far more involving and moving. The repetition of the song fragment led to a focussing in on its every element, with the character of the voice, the fine details of its London accent and its occasional frailties, leding an ever-increasing sense of actual presence, an invocation of a real person and a specific time and place. The tramp’s singing is surprisingly sweet and phrased with easy assurance, and bears repetition. The quartet builds up its accompaniment with accumulated layers, enveloping the voice in a glowing, protective aura. It provides a gently cocooning bed on which the tramp can lie, soothed to sleep by his own comforting lullabye. The strings never obscure the voice, however, and eventually die down one by one, falling silent once more, leaving the naked fragment of song, a ragged scrap of stubborn hope, to slowly diminish, a fading memory. It was a performance which mesmerised a good proportion of the audience, who rose and gave ACME a round of standing applause. The quartet stayed on stage to play an encore of a piece by New York composer, singer and performance artist Meredith Monk from her opera Atlas. It was a more rhythmic, angular dance piece which acted as a recessional to send people out with a spring in their step.

Lost In The Trees elsewhere, not in Minehead
A walk up through the old town, past the church which we’d looked round the previous day, with its beautiful 16th century oak screen, medieval door and font and 14th century illuminated book, took us up onto the ness, and above the level of the mist, which lay over the channel below us in soft white drifts. It sent exploratory tendrils drifting towards the town in a manner which couldn’t help but remind me of John Carpenter’s 1980 film The Fog, with its throbbing and pulsing synthesiser soundtrack probably an influence on the impressionable young minds of the electronica acts who’d played the previous night. We walked through the clifftop woodland and scrambled down a path to double back into the harbour area and along the sea wall, arriving back at Butlins and entering the Crazy Horse Bar once more, in time to see Lost In The Trees. They were one of the major discoveries of the weekend for me. Lost in the Trees is the musical project of singer, songwriter and composer Ari Picker, an native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He stood centre stage dressed in workmanlike folk shirt, acoustic guitar firmly grasped and played with a muscular rhythmic attack. He was flanked by two women strikingly clothed in vivid scarlet dresses, perhaps in thematic reference to the song Red, a single from the current LP A Church That Fits Our Needs. Jenavieve Varga remained standing to play the violin, whilst Emma Nadeau (they all have such great names) sat behind a small keyboard, the puffed sleeves of her dress giving her something of a Victorian look, a red-dyed version of PJ Harvey at the time of her White Chalk LP. Picker’s songs are rooted in a sense of place and particular landscape, with rivers, lakes, woods and forests, and the houses and gardens which are built and cultivated within or by them all featuring in his lyrics. These draw from personal experience, whilst retaining a universal. Their rural backdrops and sensitivity to the changing seasonal atmospheres connect them with folk traditions, and through their haunted symbolism, shade them with a touch of American gothic. Picker’s voice is light and pleasing, delivering his intensely felt words without resorting to quavering emotiveness or overdramatic shifts into anguished falsetto. This matter of fact delivery allows the strong melodies and the varied and inventive arrangements to convey the powerful feelings contained within the songs.

The Church That Fits Our Needs (continuing our Sunday service music) addresses, with grater or lesser directness, the suicide of Picker’s mother three years ago. But the music is not in the least maudlin or dispiriting, refusing to be weighted down by the depression which weighed down her life. Picker’s knowledge of and schooling in classical music has led him to create some exhilarating arrangements, richly blending singer songwriterly folk with orchestrated chamber music. It’s a sound which brings the North Sea Radio Orchestra to my mind, or more closely the baroque, hymnal music of Sufjan Stevens, as well as Arcade Fire in their more instrumentally augmented moments. The latter influence certainly comes to the fore in Fireplace, with its declamatory, anthemic quality and driving energy. Picker may be the guiding light of Lost in the Trees, but the star of the show in many ways was Emma Nadeau, who displayed an almost comically diverse range of instrumental talents. She sat behind the keyboard playing swirling organ lines, but also pounded out aggressive martial drums on Garden, traced more delicate percussive patterns on celeste for Song for the Painter, and rose to play the French horn, her red-sleeved arm plunged into its mouth as if to forcefully extract its sound. Her most striking instrument was her voice, however, a soprano of penetrating classical purity which provided wordless accompaniments to several songs. It varied from operatic Callas dramaticism, to soaring Yma Sumac swoops on This Dead Bird Is Beautiful, to Edda dell’Orso Morricone widescreen romanticism on Artist’s Song. She was quite extraordinary. Jenavieve Varga’s violin was also highly expressive, producing grand, dramatic sweeps of sound, colouring the songs with heightened emotional flurries and ascending slides. Picker, with his unassuming folk everyman garb and solid but unspectacular guitar style, seemed deliberately to be casting himself in the scarlet shadows of these two charismatic accompanists. There was a drummer too, who performed his function perfectly, but he remained firmly in the background, as did the cellist, who naturally had to remain seated. There was a slightly religiose air to the show as a whole, appropriately enough for a group who’d just released an album entitled A Church That Fits Our Needs. It was a paradoxically joyous act of valediction and remembrance, a very public acknowledgement of loss which we could all identify with on some level, and a continuation of the Sunday service which had been inaugurated by ACME.

Art Ensemble of Chicago - Roscoe seated centre
This diverse and non-denominational gathering crossed over into the next performance. Roscoe Mitchell began his solo set with a continuous, held note blown with circular breath through a small wooden flute. Its rough-edged, softly burred arboreal sound tuned the audience up and served as a preparatory introit for the ensuing music. Its zen-like asperity was perhaps an acknowledgement of his long-term musical colleague Joseph Jarman’s absorption in the activities of Buddhist monkhood in Brooklyn. Mitchell was a member, alongside Jarman, of the legendary free jazz group The Art Ensemble of Chicago, who incorporated elements of ritual, theatre and playful humour into their performances from the late sixties through to the eighties (and sporadically beyond). They wore self-assembled ‘tribal’ costumes, painted their faces or wore masks, and played a wide array of instruments, both ‘proper’ and toylike. This gave their concerts a self-consciously artistic extra-musical and ritualistic aspect which linked them to the similarly visually arresting appearance of the Sun Ra Arkestra, which also used unconventional and ‘improper’ instrumentation, forcing the musicians to diverge from familiar instincts and patterns. Like Ra and his people, they were also attuned to the pop currents of the day, and channelled elements of them into their diverse musical collages alongside passages of abstract composition, freely improvised wildness and small ‘toy’ sounds. Indeed, before he set up his own band to record the seminal 1966 LP Sound, with layed the foundations for the Art Ensemble, Mitchell’s first appearance on record was an alto break on Nick ‘The Greek’ Gravenites single Whole Lotta Soul, which featured Paul Butterfield and his future Blues Band members Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield, the latter of whom would accompany Bob Dylan into his electric phase. Gravenites himself would prove instrumental in the formation of the San Francisco acid rock sound through his connection with Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company. The Art Ensemble of Chicago collaboration with the soul singer Fontella Bass (who was married to their trumpeter Lester Bowie) on Theme de Yo-Yo, from the soundtrack to the 1970 French film Les Stances a Sophie, is fantastically funky, free jazz which you can dance to. All of which made Mitchell an ideal choice for an ATP festival, a musician who has hurdled musical barriers with nonchalant disregard.

Here, he was smartly dressed in suit trousers and shirt, the only hint of former stage extravagance confined to a brightly coloured and boldly patterned tie. After his initial held flute tone, a prolonged, breathy exhalation which suspended time, he picked up his tenor sax and set out on an improvisation which was abstract yet maintained a consistent internal logic hinting at a compositional basis. Mitchell, both with the Art Ensemble and in his solo projects, has always combined improvisation with his own modern chamber compositions, creating what would once have been known as third stream music, following Gunter Schuller’s 50s terminology. That swiftly fell out of fashion, however, as it seemed to be too much of an attempt to dress jazz up in respectable clothes in order to usher it into the academies where proper music was made. Mitchell used overblown and split tone notes to widen the range of his horn’s sound, giving the sense of ghost accompanists casting flickering sonic shadows. It’s a difficult feat to sustain interest in an entirely solo saxophone performance over a lengthy period of time, but the intensity and focus of Mitchell’s playing, and the sense of concentrated purpose exerted a mesmeric effect. If you made the effort, you were drawn into the sound. He next picked up his soprano sax and once more employed circular breathing techniques to produce an unbroken stream of sound, a jostling Brownian motion of swirling and colliding scales and runs. It was reminiscent of some of Evan Parker’s solo soprano performances, although without his trademark sparking off of glinting overtones in the upper register. A flute interlude explored extended techniques such as tonguing, key-tapping and semi-articulated, percussive rasps of breath sounding the resonance of the metallic tube. A reminder, perhaps, of Eric Dolphy’s playing of Edgard Varese’s solo flute piece Density 21.5. A further piece on tenor horn began with short, abstract phrases, some only a couple of notes long, interspersed with pauses in which Mitchell removed the mouthpiece and stood in silent contemplation for a second or two, mentally calibrating his next sound. These fragmented shards gradually began to expand and coalesce, until eventually they fused together. The piece then built up momentum and once more sped into roiling, perpetual motion. Eventually, Mitchell began to decelerate and deconstruct the music, parcelling it off into its base component elements, from which it had initially sprouted. Overall, it was an uncompromising set, abstract and without introduction, contextualisation or explanation, offering no concessions to the casually curious, more rock-oriented spectator. Most of these would presumably have opted for the Olivia Tremor Control show, which was playing at the same time and had drained off the majority of the potential audience. Indeed, I’d have loved to have seen them too, but there was no way I was going to pass up the chance to see such a legendary figure, being a huge fan of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Mitchell didn’t disappoint, and I have to confess to being mildly awestruck at standing in such close proximity to him as he was in full flow. Never uttering a word throughout, he ended by slowly and deliberately turning in three directions, giving a deep and stately bow in each, making sure he encompassed all who’d come to see him. It was a respectful and sincere gesture, an appreciation of our appreciation, and a marking of the end of another performance with profound spiritual foundations.

Sun Ra Arkestra - Marshall Allen
A swift exit and dash over to the Centre Stage allowed for an exciting leap from one free jazz legend to another, although in this case the legend was an abiding but absent presence. The Sun Ra Arkestra were just emerging to fill the stage, their spangly, iridescent capes and caps glinting under the lights. These days, the stage costumes are worn lightly over more serious jazz suits. There were about ten musicians filling the Ark in this incarnation, with a front line of three seated horn players, a trumpeter standing behind them, a percussionist and drummer, bass player and pianist and to the left, leader and alto player Marshall Allan, a Ra veteran who came on board in 1958 and is still sailing, now as captain, at the age of 88. The Arkestra is now essentially a heritage outfit, keeping the music and memory of former times alive. There’s no longer likely to be any of the fierce exploration of the 1965 LP Magic City, or the adoption of new pop styles. Sun Ra, during his lifetime, progressed from Elligtonian big band dance music (he’d started out in the Fletcher Henderson band), through free jazz, singalong pop, Disney songs, disco (on the 1978 LP Disco 3000), and a planned suite of Michael Jackson arrangements he was contemplating shortly before his death in 1993. Whilst Arkestrians are still alive, however, there’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t keep playing, and the legend of Sun Ra has grown to such magnitude that it seems a privilege to hear the musicians who collaborated in creating it.

Sun Ra Arkestra - Knoel Scott rejoins the fray
The band was sharp and finely tuned, and moved effortlessly across the various styles which Ra had encompassed, sometimes within the breadth of one number. They started off with traditional, old-fashioned big band jazz, rooted in Sonny Blount, aka Sun Ra’s early musical life in the forties and fifties, before his Saturnian transformation. Its simple, uncomplicated pleasures seemed at odds with the space age paraphernalia and gaudy clothing, until you remember the ‘exotica’ with which Ellington’s peerless arrangements were surrounded in the Cotton Club of the twenties. It’s a small step from an imaginary ‘jungle’ backdrop to an otherworldly galactic spacescape. The dance band jazz evolved seamlessly into the interstellar music of the space chants, cosmic singalong incantations which, as John F Szwed has pointed out in his Sun Ra biography Space is the Place, echo hymnal church music, with the concepts of Heaven, ascension and the holy chariot replaced by space, Saturn and rockets, red and white choir surplices by multi-coloured band capes. We were still in the prolonged, multiform Sunday service here. The Arkestra concerts of old were always theatrical affairs, encompassing more than just the music. The dazzling costumes provided visual stimulation, and parades through the audience and dancing on stage further distanced them from more sober notions of jazz performance, lending them the air of grand communal celebrations. This was reflected in the colourful capes here, with little modern additions such as the spectacles with tiny spotlights on either side, giving them an odd affinity with Orbital’s live appearances. The swaying from side to side of various Arkestra members emphasised the underlying pulse of the music, and alto sax player Knoel Scott performed some impressively athletic back flips at the side of the stage, which left his cape tangled and askew, but the man himself unruffled.

Sun Ra Arkestra - James Stewart blows
There was space for an old standard, sung with relaxed urbanity by trumpeter Michael Ray, with appropriate lyrics about starlight and romance (I’m not sufficiently au fait with the old Broadway songs to identify it, however). One of the more unexpected curios from the old Sun Ra trunk was taken out and dusted off (although in the Ra universe, nothing is truly unexpected, and anything possible). An old single which offered an alternative theme for fellow caped and garishly costumed outsiders Batman and Robin. Farid Barron played spiky, splintered piano throughout, never failing to swing, however, even at his wildest. If he embodied the spirit of Ra’s blend of conservatism and avant garde exploration at the piano, without ever resorting to slavish imitation, then Marshall Allan reproduced the sound of his abstract synthesiser splashes, albeit via a wind instrument metamorphosed into a piece of technological gimcrackery. This enabled him to recreate the aural spiral galaxies, ring nebulae and globular clusters which Ra pounded, wrestled and shook from his long-suffering Moogs. Drummer Craig Haynes was introduced as ‘showing that the apple never falls far from the tree’, a reference to the fact that he is the offspring of Roy Haynes, who has played drums with the likes of Charlie Paker, Lester Young, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, John and Alice Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Andrew Hill. Not much to live up to there, then. The pressure was also put on relatively new crew member James Stewart, who was introduced as having stepped into the position vacated by the late John Gilmore, a tenor player who was held in huge regard by his fellow players, including John Coltrane, but who had chosen to subsume his identity within the body of the Arkestra. Stewart played several forceful and confident solos which would in no way have shamed his illustrious predecessor. The Arkestra paraded off at the end of their set, leaving Allan to blast off a few more choruses of electronic spacerocket fire, before departing himself, safe in the knowledge that the wisdom of Ra was still being preached. At various stages, Yamatsuke Eye of The Boredoms could be seen peering on from the wings, taking in what could be seen as a spiritual ancestor of his own groupings, and observing an alternative way of conducting a musical ritual designed to launch listeners into the aether.

Following the big sound of the Arkestra, The Magnetic Fields opted for a distinctly lo-fi set up. The piano, ukelele, cello, guitar and harmonium instrumentation was defiantly small and acoustic, and played with a quietness which seemed to deliberately reject the restless festival ambience. Settle down, they appeared to be suggesting, and listen. This was made more difficult by the bass beats once more thumping up from the Reds stage below, which led frontman Stephin Merritt to comment ‘you’re listening to our last festival performance’. The band further eschewed overt drama by remaining seated throughout. Well, Merritt stood, but his lower half was obscured behind a table, atop which his harmonium was perched like an oversized typewriter. He was dressed in flat cap, scarf and tweed jacket, as if he’d just come in from a pheasant shoot on nearby Somerset farmland. Any minimal rhythmic movements or rock stances were thus discretely hidden away. The harmonium is the chosen instrument of musical eccentrics, ranging from Nico to Ivor Cutler. With his wryly humorous and occasionally rather jaundiced worldview, Merritt definitely tends more towards the Ivor pole of this binary harmonium pairing, as opposed to the humourless Teutonic nihilism of Nico, which he could only approach with a massive dose of inoculating sarcasm. Merritt also occasionally took up the kazoo, as if the rest of the instrumentation was proving a little too high-tech for him, and he needed to get down to basics. The whole set up was more suited to the environs of a hushed concert hall or a hip supper club, but the audience was attentive and, save at the bar counter peripheries, politely silent.

The set opened with a song from the triple, thematically indexed A-Z of love songs, 69 Love Songs, whose title and format tells you all you need to know about Merritt’s approach – a contemporary, more liberated and open incarnation of Noel Coward, without the sentimental patriotism. Highly literary, clever and enamoured of witty word play. The song was A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off, its lovelorn protagonist metaphorically likening himself to the hapless decapitated fowl and sadly observing that ‘no-one loves a chicken with its head cut off’. It’s a good example of the bathetic quality of many of Merritt’s songs, which blend heartache with humour, undercutting any maudlin wallowing with an occasionally cruel undercurrent of mockery. Sometimes the songs are merely silly, which seemed to be the case with several from the new album Love At The Bottom of the Sea, as evidenced by titles such as My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre (about a wife finally growing sick of her spouse’s louche infidelities), All She Cares About Is Mariachi, and I’ve Run Away To Join the Fairies. Merritt introduced the new single Andrew In Drag with a brief explanation of its perversely ironic but strangely touching tale of a straight man falling for another straight man during his one night of donning convincing drag, and accounted for the precise number of times he would sing the words ‘Andrew in drag’. It’s an interesting take on the perennial themes of impossible love, hopeless yearning and mournful pining which run through the Magnetic Fields work. Claudia Gonson, sitting at the piano, also remarked on another theme of many songs, that of revenge for a love betrayed, and another new song, Your Girlfriend’s Face, was a slightly creepy addition to the canon of fantasies of retribution.

The vocal duties for the evening were shared out between Merritt, Shirley Simms, who sat plucking her ukelele (or was it a mandolin?) and Claudia Gonson, all three of whom engaged in some enjoyable inbetween numbers banter. The words are everything here, and they were clearly articulated and crystal clear throughout. Simms’ voice tends towards a sweet fragility, which suits the more vulnerable songs, whilst Gonson, with her long black hair and sideways glancing piano stool posture, reminded me a little of Laura Nyro, the ultimate accolade in my book. Merritt has his patent deep and resonant Scott (Walker) intonations, also employed by his fellow master of clever dickery (I mean this as a compliment) Neil Hannon. It’s a sardonic Scott voice, the Scott who sang the supremely cynical Jacques Brel song The Girls and the Dogs. But Merritt is also capable of adopting the Scott voice of Boy Child or Big Louise. The song The Book of Love from 69 Love Songs was prefaced by a call for raised hands from anyone who had had it as their first song at their wedding – a few shot up. It’s a sincere and, needless to say, bookish analysis of true love which implicitly acknowledges its reality and attainability, the grail which still beckons beyond all the bitterness and disappointment. Also from 69 Love Songs came Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old, a call to live for the moment and enjoy simple, unaffected (and non-rock’n roll) pleasures, with its refrain ‘tonight I think I’d rather just go dancing’.

Merritt had at one point promised, in recognition of ATP’s experimental tendencies and the music which had preceded him, a free jazz set. He could have perhaps unleashed a brief blast of Experimental Music Love from 69 Love Songs, with its Come Out To Show Them style Steve Reichian phased loops. The band did play a number of older songs, shorn of their electro-pop sheen (which has returned on the latest album) - Fear of Trains from Charm of the Highway Strip, and Swinging London from Holiday amongst them. It was all very urbane and low key and rather unsuited to the setting, but enjoyable nevertheless. It would have been even better if I had been sitting at a small table in a conducive club, candles providing a flickering, subdued and romantic lighting, and a glass of fine wine before. But needs must, and I made do with craning over the necks of those standing in front of me in the packed venue, a pint of Exmoor Beast ale in hand, which was none too shabby (in fact it was bloody gorgeous, a little too drinkable).

We all had to pile out after the Magnetic Fields had departed, in order to allow Jeff Mangum to set up and do a sound check. Given that he was performing solo with nought but an acoustic guitar, this seemed a little unnecessary, and together with his ban on any photography or filming, gave an impression of slight divadom and preciousness. The queue outside swiftly grew to gargantuan proportions, and was hugely dispiriting for any who found themselves at its tail end. Eventually everyone made their way inside, leaving the venue absolutely packed, this despite the fact that this was the second time that Mangum had played over the weekend. The sense of anticipation was palpable, and when Mangum did appear, there was a huge reaction. He performed the Neutral Milk Hotel album In An Aeroplane Over the Sea in its entirety, with an interlude for a cover of a Daniel Johnston song, True Love Will Find You In the End. He revealed that he had wanted Johnston for the festival, but that he wasn’t available, and the programme revealed another tantalising possibility, as Mangum had also invited the electronic music pioneer Pierre Henry to be on the bill. The Neutral Milk Hotel material was greeted with a reverence bordering on worship, with people singing along in ecstatic communion. I must admit to be an agnostic when it comes to this music. I’m not keen on the strained quality of Mangum’s voice, its gruff emotionalism, and I’ve never quite got the appeal of the Neutral Milk Hotel albums. They seem lyrically opaque, offering a stream of consciousness flow of words which might be psychologically revealing, but is desperately incoherent and distractedly all over the place, never settling on one idea or image before darting off to another. Mangum seems repeatedly to equate women with birth, death and pregnancy, using them as the primal carriers of his instinctive symbolism, and spatters semen across several songs, whether on a mountaintop or in garden, hoping something will germinate. He wildly conflates history with personal experience, dreams and sexuality in a way which doesn’t seem to shed much light on any of them. God and Jesus are called upon, but in the end, ‘God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life’, which suggests that no reply has been received. Perhaps it’s the very nebulousness of the songs, their scattershot assemblage of richly allusive imagery without any readily apparent meaning, which allows people to imbue them with their own personal feelings and emotions. The ever popular tortured artist effect may also play a part, with Mangum’s disappearance after Aeroplane leading to an accumulating mystique. The idea of the romantic agony, with the work of art being painfully torn from the sensitive and tormented soul of its creator, is also still powerful. There’s a lot of art of this nature which I love, but it tends to rely on a certain level of personal identification, requiring the spectator or listener to empathise with the artist’s struggle, and therefore risks leaving others cold and uncomprehending. The Aeroplane album is filled with interesting instrumental sounds, with marching bands and a startling burst head-clearing bagpipes overlaying the fuzzy guitar and Lennon-esque vocals at its core. Their absence from Mangum’s acoustic performance of the songs was keenly felt, leaving them sounding exposed and a little ragged. He was joined on stage for one song by Scott Spillane, with his white tuba, and Julian Koster, bending and bowing his musical saw, but other than that, Mangum was on his own. I know this was an intense and magical show for many, but I’m afraid I remain a non-believer. A curious one who may investigate more, however.

Mangum asked that the set by Western Saharan band Group Doueh be delayed, a reasonable enough request given the sound leakage from the Reds bar below the Centre Stage evident over the weekend. Group Doueh, like their fellow Saharans Tinariwen, base their sound around a harsh, burning lead guitar. This is played by the pater familias, Doueh or Salmou Baamar, who takes his Jimi Hendrix fixation to the point of physical emulation, playing the guitar behind and also on top of his head, turning his back on the audience so that they can better appreciate his showmanship. The rest of the band are largely drawn from Doueh’s extended family, with two female singers, one of them his wife Halima, sharing chanted vocals which lead into extended instrumental passages. These are largely carried by the guitar, which is backed by Doueh’s sons El Waar and Hamdan, the former playing swirling 60s organ, the latter circular, off kilter drum patterns. There was something reminiscent of the freeform nature of San Francisco acid rock to these open ended songs, the guitar and organ pushing on and on to the point where it seems they might never end, leading dancers in an ecstatic St Vitus’ dance. There was a certain disjuncture between the Muslim basis of the music and the beer-soaked surroundings, and mild gambling opportunities provided by various slot machines in the background. But they adapted to their surroundings, and the women danced and provided a bridge to the audience, whilst the men stood stolidly in the background and got on with things.

A helpful ATP attendant told us of a secret jam session to be held in the Reds bar after Group Doueh had finished their set. This proved to be a grand sprawling affair which gathered together members of various groups, members of The Boredoms, The Sun Ra Arkestra, the Elephant 6 Collective and ACME. They packed the stage, slowly finding their way into the simple chant and riff of Sun Ra’s Englightenment, an appropriate enough sentiment with which to round things off. It never developed much, and frankly became musically tiresome pretty soon. James Stewart and Michael Ray from the Arkestra tried to raise everything with some fiery outburst of tenor and trumpet, but to little effect, and after a while wandered off. The Boredoms guitarists looked a little bewildered, and joined in as best they could. Yamatsuke Eye, who I suspect was instrumental in bringing everyone together, looked on from the sidelines. Scott Spillane took up his white tuba once more, which had by this time become a visual signature for the weekend, and paraded out into the audience, Julian Koster, another inveterate collaborator, following him and playing his musical saw percussively against the large horn’s resonant bell. It may have been a mess, but it brought everyone together in a great spirit of bonhomie, and spread a general feeling of different worlds meeting and having a great, raucous blast. It brought the festival to a fitting end, and given that there are to be no more Spring weekends for the foreseeable future, with Minehead ATPs now confined to the dark (and cold) days of December, it may well have also been a last blast as far as I’m concerned. I hope not.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Jeff Mangum's ATP Festival 2012


A Hawk and a Hacksaw were playing a live soundtrack to Armenian director Sergei Parajanov’s wonderful debut film from 1964, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. It’s a poetic, dreamlike take on Georgian folk tales, full of expressionistic colour and primal emotion, and shot in a constantly inventive style. It’s also a film with its own music, dialogue and sound, and so perhaps an odd choice for accompaniment. It’s more common, and makes better sense, for silent movies to be revived with alternative live soundtracks performances. The images of Parajanov’s film are strong enough to float free of the anchor of narrative logic, however. Which was a good thing in this context, since it was very difficult to gain a vantage point from which subtitles were visible. Indeed, it was very difficult to find a vantage point from which much of the screen in general was visible, hung as it was at the back of the low stage, with pillars or the stacks of the mixing desks blocking most angles of vision. The music was good, A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s usual blend of Eastern European folk styles filtered through New Mexican ears and played on accordions, fiddles and brass instruments. But I soon tired of craning over people’s necks to glimpse even a tiny fraction of the unfolding film, and people were undoubtedly tiring of me stumbling into their seated forms in the pitch darkness on the periphery of the room, so I left for the bright sunshine outside. The soundtrack is to be released in the near future, and I’ll listen to it and watch the film in more comfortable surroundings then.

Bore conduction
Later in the afternoon, the massed forces of The Boredoms took up their assigned positions on the Centre Stage in preparation for their latest musical and theatrical spectacular. The extended Boredoms family were visible around the site in various groupings throughout the weekend, and I’d seen them along the seafront the previous day, Yamatsuke Eye, Yoshimi P-We and others messing about on the machines outside the arcade and sitting for photo’s on the colourful children’s rides. They somehow seemed to fit in perfectly with the whole surreal atmosphere of the out of season and somewhat shabby English seaside town. The configuration for this performance took the shape of a double circle. In the inner ring were six drummers, including core Bores Yoshimi and Yojiro Tatekawa, who looked neat and mild-mannered, his smart casual clothing topped with a crisp new baseball cap – the Dave Mattacks of the group, his calmness offsetting Yamatsuke Eye’s more wild-eyed, hairy demeanour. Both Tatekawa and Yoshimi sat self-effacingly in the curve of the circle arcing across the stage front, facing inwards and therefore with their backs to the audience. In a concentric, containing outer ring were 10 seated guitarists, amps rising behind them like a stacked circle of technological megaliths within which the ritual would take place. A further guitarist stood beside these ten, and the circle was completed by Yamatsuke’s grafted 12 (or so) necked guitar sculpture, laddered fretboards ranked in rows of three and connected to a central megabody; Mahavishnu10. Chief Bore Eye stood inside the magic circles and conducted the unwieldy ensemble with movement of his body and loud, exclamatory vocalisations. His conduction approached the condition of dance, in contrast to the curtly imperious gestures with which Frank Zappa used to cue his band. He slowly crouched down, and the volume fell, then rose up and lifted his arms in invocation, and the surrounding sound built to a correspondingly ecstatic crescendo. The piece started with splashing cymbal taps and atonally plucked, arrhythmic guitar notes, clearly spaced apart – the pointillistic sounds of the first drops of a rain shower falling onto the surface of a lake or river. The singular cymbal splashes and guitar notes gradually coalesced into a shimmering veil of percussive rain and co-ordinated chordal thrum, swelling and dying as Eye stretched upwards and crouched down.

Superprog guitar sculpture
All this acted as a prelude to the main body of the piece, which began on Eye’s cue, the drummers launching into a thunderous, propulsive and highly disciplined rhythmic torrent. The guitars produced chordal clouds which hung in the air above, sometimes echoing back and forth in antiphonal response to Eye’s gestures. An initial climax was reached when he took up his staff (a section of curtain pole, by the looks of it) and struck massive chordal clusters from his guitar sculpture, three pre-tuned necks at a time. I can’t imagine a denser sound than that produced at these moments. It was a fairly lengthy performance of one and a half hours, and like all rituals, there were periods of lesser intensity, a marking of time building up to the moments of transcendence. But when they broke through, they were truly stratospheric. The music was unbroken but multi-sectioned, with each part evidently fully and thoroughly worked out (sounds of rehearsals could be heard as we came in on Friday, and on Saturday morning). Eye introduced a playful, childlike electronic arpeggio, to which he happily capered, and he and Yoshimi enjoyed a passage of call and response vocalisation, throwing words and sounds between each other across the circle. He also blew a whistle for a while, partly as a means of cuing the ensemble, and partly to create a startlingly loud blast of high-pitched noise. Its piercing, amplified shriek was almost unbearably shrill, leading someone to my side to stick his fingers in his ears. Luckily, having previously experienced a Boredoms performance (at Matt Groening’s ATP in 2010), I knew to wear earplugs if I wanted to hear anything else during the weekend. The whole thing was brought to a final climax with the ultra heavy riff which they’d used for their more drum-based shows at the 2010 ATP, with Eye leaping in the air to strike the guitar necks with greater force. Then the circle was completed, everything returned to the calm of the opening section, the thunderstorm dying down to individual raindrops once more. Once the last drop had fallen, a brief silence was observed before wild cheering and applause. Everyone should experience a Boredoms ritual at least once in their lives. There’s nothing else quite like it.

I caught the end of The Apple’s In Stereo’s set later on the Centre Stage, a cheerful piece of singalong pop psych, in which the Elephant 6 mob were once more invited onto the stage, along with anyone from the audience who wanted to join in. The orange-jacketed security, who were friendly, relaxed and helpful throughout the festival, were clearly not inclined to allow that to happen, so any freeform, anarchistic blurring of the divide between artist and audience remained merely notional. Then it was time to wait for Joanna Newsom to appear. This was to be the second of her two sets over the weekend, the first having clashed with Young Marble Giants. Thankfully, this repeat performance meant that I didn’t have to miss them, although apparently the songs which Newsom sang did vary over the two evenings. Thankfully there was no repeat of the technical difficulties which preceded her show at Matt Groening’s 2010 ATP, which forced people to wait for some time outside the Central Stage entrance in a dispiritingly lengthy queue. That performance saw her backed by the chamber group from the Have One On Me LP, whereas here she played solo. This left her to fill out the arrangements from Ys and Have One On Me on harp and piano alone, a considerably more involved task requiring great concentration. She didn’t shy from choosing challenging pieces, too. At one point, in between songs, she took a deep breath and commented that she really was going for it, and that maybe she should loosen up a little. She didn’t however, continuing at an equal pitch of intensity. Her voice has grown in strength since her vocal problems of a few years ago, and her wordless chorusing towards the end of Have One On Me, shared with backing singers on the record and in previous performances, was confident and almost approached a bel canto classical style. The high notes on Sadie, from the first LP Milk Eyed Mender, were also clearer now, having lost the shrill, slightly screeching quality they possessed on that record. In this sense, her progress echoes that of Kate Bush, whose vocals also grew in assurance and range (although in both cases, the early, more untutored style had considerable charm). There was a great deal of expressivity in the voice, too, with the emotions of the songs powerfully conveyed. This came through particularly in Monkey and Bear from the Ys LP, in a baroque, bardic storytelling fashion, Newsom really bringing the anthropomorphised characters to life. She caught the growth of monkey’s sharp, controlling nature, his materialistic drive which increasingly pushes bear, the romantic dreamer away, and thus brought the song’s symbolic heart to the surface and made me see it in a new light.

Indeed, her performance revealed other aspects of familiar songs to me, or brought a new clarity to their underlying themes. I noticed the recurrence of bears as a sort of emblematic (and the symbolic use of wild animals in general). There was the romantic, mystical half of the Monkey and Bear relationship, of course; The equation of bears with nobility, goodness and strength in Esme (‘brave as a bear with a heart rare and true’); and with the fear of wildness in the line ‘I took a blind shot across the creek at the black bear’ in Soft As Chalk. The concern with ‘long time’ and the sense of personal identity and place within its geological and evolutionary perspectives also came through in Soft as Chalk and Sawdust and Diamonds. Her playing was supremely accomplished throughout, with the lack of supporting musicians allowing her to display the full range of shimmering harp glissandos and rippling arpeggios, emphatically plucked or tenderly brushed chords. Her piano playing showed a light and deft touch too, with the sprightly instrumental melody which emerges in the course of Soft As Chalk dancing with a breezy, jazz-inflected bounce worthy of Oscar Peterson. She played songs from all three of her albums: Sadie and Bridges and Balloons from Milk Eyed Mender (and, I see from a Youtube video, Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie the previous evening, too); the epics Monkey and Bear and Sawdust and Diamonds from Ys, both very challenging to perform in this solo context; and Have One On Me, Jackrabbits, Soft As Chalk and Esme from Have One On Me, the latter almost unbearably tender and touching. A wonderful, wholly committed performance, and undoubtedly one of the highlights of the weekend for me.

Next up was another of my favourites, the masters of slow burning quietude from Duluth, Low. They had a perfectly balanced, symmetrical stage set up, all standing to the fore in a line. Mimi Sparhawk was at the centre behind her simple snare, trap and cymbals drum set up, which she plays standing in the Mo Tucker tradition. To her right stood Alan Sparhawk, guitarist and partner, and to her left bassist Steve Garrington. Garrington, a relatively new addition to the trio, having joined for the 2007 LP Drums and Guns, also adds a new dimension to the Low sound, retreating from the front row to sit behind the piano on several numbers. Alan greeted the audience in a relaxed manner, asking them if they were having a good time before dedicating the first song to the people of Syria. It was Nothing But Heart from the recent C’mon LP, and in the context of the dedication, its repeat to fade chorus of the song’s title became a hollow refrain, the plea of a tyrant. This false leader reveals himself in the empty promise of the opening lines: ‘I would be your king/If you want to be free’. Sparhawk immediately dedicated the next song to Syria, too, insisting that he was serious, and that ‘we’ve got to stop killing each other’. Low have always possessed a strong sense of moral purpose, without ever descending into preaching or strutting pomp. This partly derives from the Sparhawks’ religious beliefs, and partly from the asceticism and purity of approach of the punk and hardcore which inspired them. This seriousness is reflected both in the lyrics and in the stripped back sound. It’s difficult to imagine Low, for all the shifts in dynamics over the years, existing as anything other than a trio, with the Sparhawks’ delicate harmonies and simple guitar and drum accompaniments at its heart. Their seriousness can be offputting to some. I heard one party dude taking the piss out of the Syrian statements on the way out. When Alan told us that we were all angels after one particular song, someone behind me demurred, saying ‘we’re no angels’ (speak for yourself, mate). Such proclamations of holiness certainly rub against the cherished cliché of rock as the rebellious devil’s music. Their sincerity is never in doubt, however, and is inspiring and affecting for others.

Low - perfect symmetry
The lyrics often have an allusive quality, showing a deliberate disavowal of directly or easily comprehensible meaning. They also sometimes play with troubling or provocative perspectives, as with the terrorist’s prayer Murderer, from the Drums and Guns LP, played here. This attempts to get into the mindset of a religious extremist (the religion is not revealed) wishing to become a ‘fool for god’ and carry out whatever murderous tasks he might require. Alan Sparhawk can, at different times, be equally compassionate and admonitory. He ranges from the withering contempt of his judgement, in Witches, that ‘all you guys out there trying to be like Al Green, you’re all weak’, to the tender reassurances whispered on Nightingale. Both of these songs come from the excellent C’mon LP, much of which they played here, including Try To Sleep (without the stardust sprinkle of the celeste line, alas, but still gorgeous), You See Everything and Especially Me. Mimi provided the harmonies which shimmered above Alan’s vocals on most songs, but took lead on a couple. Her singing (rather than harmonising) voice has an unforced, natural quality which imbues the songs which she carries with a touching directness. Their quavering fragility is bolstered with quiet conviction. Quietness has always been a touchstone of the Low sound, and several of the songs here were played pianissimo, with Mimi lightly brushing cymbal and drumhead and Alan stroking guitar chords with his thumb – playing as if the baby was asleep upstairs. Unfortunately, the location of the Reds stage directly below meant that these intimate songs had the unwanted, Charles Ivesian addition of colliding polyrhythmic bass lines pounding through the floor, subtlety and nuance losing out to dumb heaviosity (although I don’t mean to impugn Blanck Mass, from whom these intrusive sounds originated – more on them in a sec). This sound bleeding didn’t detract unduly from the performance, however. A little mental filtering served to block it out. Perhaps more sensitive programming in the future might eliminate the problem, however. It was significant that by Sunday evening, Jeff Mangum was insisting that Group Doueh, due to go on at the same time as him in Reds, delay the start of their performance until he was finished.

Low - Sweet, sweet sunflower
Alan also turned up the volume for some songs, playing slow, expressively distorted guitar, vaguely reminiscent at times of the Neil Young of Cortez the Killer, and demonstrating what a fine player he is in his own unshowy way (although he has in fact showcased his guitar playing on a solo instrumental record, Solo Guitar). A couple of old songs were dusted off and greeted with great enthusiasm; the fierce and vaguely threatening Monkey (‘tonight you will be mine/tonight the monkey dies’) from the Trust LP, and Sunflower from Things We Lost In The Fire. It only dawned on me as I was listening to it here that the lyrics which I had previously half understood as a blend of mourning and hope might actually be lateral Christian allegory, a song of resurrection. As with Joanna Newsom, live performances of songs can bring new perspectives on familiar songs, new revelations of previously occluded meanings. Alan Sparhawk, the band’s stage spokesman, maintained a relaxed and friendly rapport with the audience throughout, and at one point invited anyone who wanted to join him for a run to meet outside the entrance to Butlins the next day at one o’clock. He was as good as his word (we happened to be heading out to town at that time) and set off with a ragged trail of spindly indie kids in tow. He is clearly a very fit man, so how long they managed to keep up with him, I don’t know. A great performance though, full of conviction and slow-burning fire.

Low - Alan Sparhawk
Heading downstairs to the Reds venue, I joined Mrs W for the latter half of the Blanck Mass set, some of which I had inadvertently experienced in filtered form. This is the solo electronica project of Benjamin Power, one half of Bristolian duo Fuck Buttons. His record was one of my favourites from last year, filled with all-engulfing ambient pieces which made for an invigorating aural wallow. Mrs W informed me that the start of the set more closely resembled the music on the album, albeit at vastly greater volumes than any at which we’d listened to it. By the time I arrived, however, it had morphed into far more abrasive sonic forms, with looped layers steadily accumulating, and deep, throbbing bass lines pulsing through the room. Swirling visuals revolved in swift, slightly dizzying orbits on the screen behind Power, who stood attentively at his laptop throughout. It still amazes me what volumes and ranges of sound can emerge from such a small and unprepossessing object. I could feel the vibrations from where I was sitting on the floor pass through the bridge to the tip of my nose, which felt tingly – a slightly disconcerting physical experience which suggested that some fairly specific wavelengths and frequencies were being brought into play. By the end, the rippling loops, thumping bass and regular drum beats meant that Blanck Mass had essentially been absorbed back into the body of the Fuck Buttons from which it had been spawned.

Dashing across the central ‘tent’ to the Crazy Horse bar, I caught the tail end of Mount Eerie’s set. In this instance, Mount Eerie was Phil Elverum playing solo, his fragile, wavering voice accompanied only by chords plucked from his small acoustic guitar. This context suited songs which were suggestive of a lonely soul in the wilderness, real or figurative (or both). There was no hint of the crashing, distorted metallic guitars which sometimes tear into his songs on the records. Elverum had to make a sudden mental adjustment some way through his performance, shyly admitting that he’d run out of material, having become used to the 30 minute duration of his support slot on the current Earth tour. A request from the audience for Voice In Headphones from the Lost Wisdom LP was gratefully received, and he rounded off his set with this haunting and beautiful song.

Earth - Dylan Carson
I returned to the Reds stage to see Earth themselves, cover stars of last month’s Wire magazine. Frontman and guitarist Dylan Carson was quietly spoken and hesitant, and played for significant lengths of time facing drummer Adrienne Davies, his back to the audience. Not that this was music for demonstrative gestures, anyway. It was stately and slowly worked out, and played at a medium volume which demanded active listening. This led to a call to turn it up, suggesting that this malcontent hadn’t been paying attention to Earth’s recent musical development, and was still hoping for the kind of crushing drone metal which they’d pioneered over a decade ago (and which Jim Jarmusch had used to such effect on the soundtrack to his film The Limits of Control). The band features Lori Goldston playing cello, hardly an instrument which would find a meaningful voice within the overwhelming volumes of a metallic onslaught, no matter how much it was transformed by leftfield impulses. The sober dress code, with Carlson in neat shirt, buttoned waistcoat and striped tie, was a further signal that this was far from heads down power chord music. Conscious clarity rather than distorted blur through overdriven volume was now the aim. It was fascinating to watch Adrienne Davies providing the gelid, creeping sloth rhythms which drove the music. Her arms raised the sticks and then hung in the air for a suspended moment before deliberately bringing them down to strike the beat. It was like watching the dreamlike movements of actors in a Japanese Noh drama, time slowed down to serve a ritualistic observance of a state beyond everyday experience. Davies was akin to a slomo version of Yamatsuke Eye, the figure at the centre of the Boredom’s roiling whirwind. Earth’s progress was more like a viscous lava flow, gradually burning a course through mountain rock. Like Eye, Davies seemed to be conducting the tempo of the music, drumsticks held up as twinned batons. No wonder, then, that it was to her that Carlson looked in the early stages of the set to get the measure of the music. The intensity picked up towards the end, if not in volume, suggesting that this is a music which needs to take its time to find resolution, and is not content to settle into easy grooves. It was absorbing to listen to and watch the concentrated quest throughout, however.

Adrienne Davies conducting Earth
Earth play with occult imagery and Blakean demonologies in their titles and covers, and Carlson talked of his fascination with English folklore and local legends in his Wire interview. This gives them something in common with the electronica duo Demdike Stare. They come from near Manchester, and have named themselves after a local seventeenth century Pendle witch (or rather someone who was accused of witchcraft), Elizabeth Southerns, known as Demdike. Miles Whittaker said of his musical partner Sean Canty, in a Wire Jukebox feature in the June 2011 edition, ‘he wanted to write a soundtrack to a horror movie that didn’t exist’. The visuals projected behind them went some way towards hinting at the movie he might have had in mind. A drone accumulated into a swarming cloud of buzzing, abrasive sound, suggesting the ominous approach of some dark, scouring force. On the screen, an old man walked across a blasted plain, billowing stormclouds massing behind him and a strong wind blowing his white hair about his face. A cowled figure approached from the other horizon. As it neared, its hood blowed back to reveal a young girl, her face a mask of lichenous scabs through which eyes blazed with malevolent triumph. And that was as much as we saw, a tantalising prelude to a film which we’ll never see. There were other sequences, some with a point of view camera prowling through deserted institutional corridors, others focussing on women’s faces filled with romantic tristesse which could almost have been taken from some forgotten Antonioni movie. The music began to develop clattering, echoing beats suggestive of empty, underground spaces. The visuals began repeating themselves, what was initially startling soon becoming overfamiliar, and they were finally overlaid by the mystic sigil Panasonic, after which no more was seen. The performance was scheduled to go on for an hour and a half, but had started late, and in the end wound down before an hour had passed. I assumed the extended running time meant they would be replicating the visual show to be performed at the Union Chapel in London on 31st March. Perhaps the breakdown of the projector led to a premature end, or maybe they were honest enough to admit that they’d run out of ideas. It was good while it lasted, but the music did seem to have got stuck into a loop which was failing to fruitfully develop. Enough was enough. And that was what we decided for the night, too. I’d have loved to have seen Oneohtrix Point Never, whose electronic music I like a great deal, but he wasn’t due on for another hour, and I no longer have any real desire to stay up until past three in the morning. This would have been endurance rather than enjoyment. There were more delights to come the next day, including some legendary titans of free jazz, so it was back to the chalet.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Jeff Mangum's ATP Festival 2012


The All Tomorrow’s Parties festival curated by Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel was postponed from its Christmas slot for undisclosed reasons, which was a blow for those unable to reschedule their lives, but frankly a blessing for others in that meant that it took place during a clement spring weekend and precluded the need for enduring shivering nights in thinly walled chalets. The spring festivals at Minehead Butlins have been abandoned in favour of the winter Nightmare Before Christmas events (now just singular, too), so this was maybe one last chance to experience their pleasures. Minehead itself has much to offer, with a pub, The Queen’s Head, serving its own ale alongside others from the Exmoor brewery, and a lovely little restaurant called Pinocchio’s, which offers simple but tasty Italian fare at astonishingly reasonable prices (for fancier meals, they’ve also opened a new place called Fausto’s opposite where Pinocchio’s used to be housed). The weekly Friday farmer’s market also provided tasty treats to smuggle into Butlin’s later on. Since we were coming up to the north Somerset coast from Exeter in neighbouring Devon, we arrived fairly early, although it amused me to hear Matana Roberts later talking about the six hour journey she’d made from the US – just three times as long as it took us to get the train and circuitous bus route across the county border. Normally we’d take the steam train which runs along the old Beeching-axed West Somerset Railway line from Bishops Lydeard, just outside Taunton, into Minehead, but it was only running on the weekend during this out of season period. The bus journey is a nice meander through the villages if you’re in no hurry (and this is not a part of the country where being in a hurry is ingrained), though, and you get to see the only church dedicated to Saint Decuman in Watchet, the old copse of radio masts just beyond, the romantic rise of Dunster Castle on its mount, the Keith Richards Antique Centre and a trail of associational SF pubs (the Lethbridge Arms in Bishops Lydeard, which I reflexively double-barrelled with an added Stewart to conjure up images of Doctor Who’s Brigadier enjoying a whisky or two in his retirement, and the Wyndham Arms in Williton) leading to the old hometown of Arthur C Clarke (commemorated by one of the local information boards in the old 19th century coaching inn The Duke of Wellington in Minehead, now a Wetherspoons).

Elephant 6 promenade concert
The first act of the festival was the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise, a loose assemblage of individuals drawn from the various acts making up the extended family of the Elephant 6 Collective. They were first gathered together in Denver in the early 90s by Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel), Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart (Olivia Tremor Control) and Robert Schneider (Apples in Stereo), and numerous bands and projects branched off from the mutually supportive circle. The crowded stage exuded the good cheer of people who knew each other well, and the constantly shifting configurations and swapping of instrumental duties all added to the sense of a merry jamboree, a grand opening ceremonial. This was followed through when the brass players, including Scott Spillane (mainstay of the band The Gerbils), a white-bearded and baseball-capped fellow with a white tuba coiled around his sturdy frame, marched outside and played an impromptu promenading parade concert, reawakening the spirits of Minehead’s Edwardian seaside heyday. There was a wide range of instrumental colours to hand within the collective, from the aforementioned white tuba through musical saws, violins, cellos and clarinets. For someone (like me) unfamiliar with the Elephant 6 bands’ music, however, the songs, for all the good spirits behind them, sounded like rather standard indie fare. Only on a klezmer-inflected lullaby, with lilting clarinet and violin melodies and a slow and steady rhythm evoking camels lolloping across a desert horizon, did the music achieve the potential of the forces gathered.

Charlemagne prepares
Legendary New York minimalist Charlemagne Palestine was a benign and friendly presence, a shambling bear in a garishly patterned shirt. He was relaxed and chatty, and keen to shine the spotlight on the soft toys tumbling out of his propped open suitcase. These add a totemic presence to most of his performances, and I noticed that his menagerie on this occasion included Iggle Piggle from In the Night Gardend and an old Rupert Bear, examples of the native English fauna (and perhaps picked up at the extensively stocked soft toy shop just beyond the railway station, where Charlie Brown jostled for position alongside Captain Caveman, Tintin, Hello Kitties, Spongebob Squarepants and other unlikely companions). A gradually swelling drone emanating from a laptop proceded the actual performance, as Charlemagne wandered about the stage preparing himself. It rose to a volume which demanded people’s attention, and after it suddenly cut out, Charlemagne poured a glass of wine (he had red and white on hand, and chose the former), took a sip, and then produced a ringing tone from the rim, softly singing in harmony with the crystalline overtones. He then settled down at the piano, lamenting that his favoured Bosendorfer had now been taken over by Yamaha, a promising to try to make the instrument magically sound as if it was being electronically enhanced (after the performance, he suggested, with an air of wistful regret, that the days of acoustic instruments were reaching an end). He then proceeded to play one of his extended pieces of ‘strumming music’, beginning with two alternating notes in the upper middle register and building them up into repeated chords which slowly worked their way down the length of the keyboard. The piece flowed in a riverrine fashion, the insistent, swirling rhythm occasionally speeding up in small whirling eddies of sound, sometimes shifting back up in pitch in a flurrying backwash on its general downward course. Finally, in the lower regions, the deep, sonorous notes piled up on top of one another, colliding in thunderous waves of distortion. Charlemagne was lost in rapt absorption throughout, and whilst the amplification of the piano and the lack of a suitably churchlike resonant space meant that the apocalypse didn’t quite blossom on this occasion, it was still fascinating to witness his absolute focus of attention, and to hear the piece slowly unfold, erupt and then return to its point of origin and die down to the simple base elements of those two opening notes. Charlemagne continued to be a notable presence throughout the weekend, whether dancing in the night with a couple of young women on the paths outside the chalets, or craning over people’s heads to catch a glimpse of Earth playing (investigating fellow musical spirits, maybe).

Next up was the first of the weekend’s free jazz musicians, alto sax player Matana Roberts. She was playing in the Crazy Horse bar, which hadn’t been a venue in previous ATP festivals I’d attended here, but was co-opted for service now that the stage at the end of the central tented area was no longer being used. Matana came up through the Chicago based AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), which has a noble history of nurturing inventive and offbeat talent. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, whose saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell was to play later in the weekend, were another group of musicians who benefited from its services, so Roberts takes her place within a fine lineage. She also has connections with the rock world, both via the cross-pollination of the modern Chicago music scene, and through Constellation acts such as A Silver Mount Zion and Godspeed You Black Emperor (she played clarinet on their Yanqui UXO LP). Her album Coin Coin is an emotionally overwhelming experience, with glossolaic vocals occasionally spilling over into cathartic, Patty Waters-style primal screams and wails. Her performance here was rather more restrained, however. In an interlude in which she took a few questions from the audience, she pointed out that the intense vocals of that album were a reflection of the particular state that she was in at the time, and that it was unlikely that she would be able to repeat them. She played in a duet with Seb Rochford, the wild-haired drummer who plays with Polar Bear and the now-defunct Acoustic Ladyland (who played at last years I’ll Be Your Mirror festival at Alexandra Palace) and other forward-thinking British jazz bands and collaborators. It was a sax and percussion pairing which immediately brought to mind John Coltrane’s 1967 duet with drummer Rashied Ali, Interstellar Space. But this was a much more tentative meeting. Rochford didn’t provide the constantly roiling, driving percussive undertow which Ali created for Coltrane to ride above, taking much more of a back seat, and remaining silent for lengthy periods of time. I’m not sure why he was so reluctant to get involved. Perhaps he wanted the spotlight to fall more on Matana’s alto playing. She did occasionally come out with the keening, bugle-like calls which Coltrane blew on the LP, and there were some sections of blazing fire music. But the tone was frequently more thoughtful, with her breathy stutters into the sax’s chamber suggestive of musical thought processes slowly but surely taking shape, and being allowed to take their own time in coming to life. Matana herself was an engaging and gregarious presence, entirely dispelling the sometimes aloof preciousness of jazz performance – looking disdainfully down from the heights of the jazz loft. She took pictures of the crowd so that she could prove to her friends back home that people had turned up to see her, and fielded questions and comments from the audience with honesty and good humour. She was also thankful that she’d returned to Butlins in less wintry conditions, having previously come over for the Godspeed You Black Emperor Nightmare Before Christmas festival in 2010, when thick snow had fallen.

Young Marble Giants - Alison and Philip
Next in Crazy Horse, Young Marble Giants were the first in a potential triple bill of performances by late 70s/early 80s Rough Trade bands. They have carried the anti-rockist stance of Rough Trade through to middle age, making no attempt to appear anything but what they are. The Moxham brothers, Stuart and Philip, were here joined by a further offshoot of the family tree, with brother Andrew bucking the trend by replacing machine drums with actual percussion. Philip remained in the background, providing the clearly outlined, echoing bass lines which underlie the music. Stuart, on guitar and small, reedy organ, was clearly enjoying himself, and with throwaway quips and self-effacing asides, gave the impression of someone relishing his renewed moment in the spotlight, whilst not in any way hogging it. Old dreams of cult stardom were being dusted off and realised once more. After the first number, he waved his arms triumphantly in the air, as if to say ‘hey, this is actually going to work’. The projections didn’t, soon breaking down, but it didn’t matter. They’d acted as a good anticipatory prelude, as the prefaratory checks had given us glimpses of Wurlitzer jukeboxes, classical statuary, testcards and 60s models. The sound of the Colossal Youth LP was faithfully reproduced in all its sparse, spacious glory. Alison Statton stood at the front, a still, calm and composed presence in contrast with Stuart’s charming nervy excitability. Her vocals retained all their cool poise, finding their place perfectly in between the choppy guitar or guitar chords and the pointed punctuations of the bass lines. All the favourites were there (Wurlitzer Jukebox gaining a particularly rapturous response), including the instrumental The Taxi, which Stuart approached with some trepidation, but whose organ lines he negotiated with no problems. They spared us the nuclear war-themed Final Day, perhaps not wishing to sour the party atmosphere with songs about impending apocalypse. The set was greeted with enormous warmth, and indicate the enormous affection which they still command. The fact that they packed the hall even though they were playing against the first of Joanna Newsom’s two sets was testament to their enduring appeal.

The Raincoats, playing in The Reds bar (the least conducive of the three performance venues to the weekend’s music) were an ideal follow up. They held up a vinyl copy of their first, self-titled LP to indicate that this was what they would be playing, in its original track order. The songs were more direct than those on their second, and more experimental album Odyshape. There was even a cover of a hoary old classic from yesteryear, in the shape of The Kinks’ Lola, whose tale of transvestite love takes a dizzying turn when sung, unaltered, by a female group. It got them dancing crazily at the side of the stage, anyway. On Black and White, they were joined by Verity Susman from the all-female band Electrelane, who blew some honking blurts of baritone sax. She then enjoyed the rest of the show from the wings, acknowledging ancestry and the passing on of the flame. The experimental side of the band came to the fore in the latter stages, with some scratchy, improv guitar and violin stabs and glides, a glimpse of what was to come. The Raincoats clashed with The Fall, who also enjoyed (if that’s the right word) a brief tenure on the Rough Trade label in the early 80s. I passed the chance to catch the latter part of their set, however. When I saw them live a few years ago, they seem to be operating largely on autopilot, and I can no longer understand a word that Mark E Smith says.

The Music Tapes were another offshoot of the Elephant 6 Collective, a lo-fi, playfully surreal endeavour incorporating music, storytelling and stage props invented by Julian Koster. I only managed to catch a little of their set, but it was great fun. Koster played bowed banjo (eat your heart out Jimmy Page) and musical saw, and told the tale of his childhood portable TV, which would only tune in to static, and which led him to relate the legend that television sets were in fact alien beings who had lost their ability to move or communicate, and had placed themselves in the houses of earthlings in order to learn more of their ways. Indicating the fact that he had brought that childhood TV set over with him (it rested atop an amplifier stack), he proceeded to turn it on and play an instrumental piece, with electronics booming ominously in the background. The static soon started to define itself into a wavering, jack-o-lantern smile, whilst voices rumbled half-comprehensibly from the aural white noise, hinting at grand and not at all friendly plans.

Thurston Moore, the Sonic Youth guitarist, was playing on the Centre Stage, the major venue on the site. I knew that he was tall, but was still struck by how strikingly so he was in person. He effortlessly strikes great rock guitar poses, the instrument looking small resting against his lean, plaid shirt clad frame, which frequently leans back in an ecstasy of unleashed noise. He looks impossibly youthful, and with his studied New York punk attitude and lazy downtown drawl, he is something of the eternal adolescent, albeit knowingly so. He played old and new material, partly signified by the picking up of acoustic or electric guitars. Last year’s Demolished Thoughts was an uncharacteristically pastoral affair, and although violinist Samara Lubelski was on hand, they generally steered clear of the material from the album. Its atmospheres are too reliant on the chamber music colours added by producer Beck. Moore drew significantly from his first solo LP, Psychic Hearts, playing numbers such as Queen Bee and Her Pals, Patti Smith Math Scratch, See Through Playmate and the title track. The extended heart of the performance was Ono Soul, his tribute to Yoko (‘bow down to the queen of noise’) which collapsed into a squalling noise improvisation, Moore’s already battered electric guitar subjected to further maltreatment, sculpting feedback alongside his fellow guitarist (Mark Ibold?) and Lubelski’s violin. The guitarists both picked up their acoustics for the Demolished Thoughts track Circulation (I think), only to demonstrate that these too could be overdriven to produce a noise tsunami. The performance deliberately went slightly over time, a rather calculated way of acting out a bit of rock ‘n roll rebellion. ‘We have to go now’, Moore drawled to the crowd, as if being forced off against his will, bowing to the inevitable protests with a brief and pointed Psychic Hearts, an anthem of teenage outsiderdom. It was all a self-conscious act, but a good one nevertheless.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

David Rudkin: Penda's Fen, The Ash Tree and Artemis 81


Artemis 81 - Cocteau mirrors
When Gideon wakes up, he finds himself in a wooden cabin by the side of the divided shingle shoreline which we are familiar with in its twin-sunned, vividly coloured alien form from the beginning of the story. But here, although the landscape is the same, its unstable components have shifted across the dimensions and washed up on the Earth. Gideon now shuffles along with a tentative, lame gait. He examines himself in the mirror as if seeing himself for the first time, touching his reflection as if expecting to discover that it is someone else behind a pane of glass shadowing his movements. As he reaches towards the mirror, we almost expect its surface to ripple like silvered mercury, allowing access to some world beyond in the manner of Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet and Orphee. Outside in the crisp morning, the angel Helith washes by the shore, feeling nothing of the cold even though he is naked. His unworldly nature is further revealed by the fact that he fails to cast a reflection in the mirror. Gideon is able to hesitantly acknowledge his desire, which Helith unconditionally accepts, and he sleeps that night with his head resting contentedly in his lap.

Entering the poisoned city
The next day, they sail to a city which has fallen under the power of Helith’s brother Asrael and has been infected by his sickness. It is a superimposed amalgam of Liverpool and Birmingham, with trams from the Crich museum in Derbyshire carrying its disconsolate, tubercular citizens across its scarred streets. The trams give it an East European feel, and the whole environment is suffused with a Kafkaesque atmosphere of ill-defined dread. Gideon loses Helith in the crowds as he gets off at a tram stop, realising too late that his angelic companion has not disembarked. He gets lost in a subterraenean warren in which crowds of the destitute and desperate pick through makeshift market stalls selling the scattered rags and relics of a fallen civilisation. A hazy pall of sickness hangs over everything. Gideon discovers a copy of one of his own books, published in a strange language which he doesn’t recognise. He is approached by a woman who looks like Gwen dressed up as the Hitchcock blonde from the Oxford library. With a fearful air of paranoia, she surreptitiously arranges a rendezvous in the cathedral the next day. Gideon spends a restless night on the streets of the city, the occasional chatter of automatic gunfire providing a soundtrack to the general atmosphere of threatening menace.

Gothic shadows - the bell tower
In the cathedral, he follows the siren figure of the blonde into the gothic guts of the building, which is in fact the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, before which we have previously seen Asrael standing, looking up at Gwen. Gideon ends up in the solid, massively buttressed space of the bell tower, where he discovers Gwen’s blonde double hanging from a noose within the bell. He manages to climb up and lift her, bringing her seemingly dead body back to life but struggling to hold her in an embrace which will keep her from slipping back into suicidal suspension. It is a necrophile love scene which echoes the embrace of Scottie and Madeleine/Judy in the bell tower in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The bells are rung, under the supervision of the onlooking Asrael, and they become a deafened, helpless part of the mechanism. Gwen/the blonde slips from his grasp and, freed from the noose, is left hanging from the guttering of the cathedral tower. Her grip weakens and she falls to the ground far below. Gideon flees and returns to the corridor in the high rise in which he had slept. Here, he meets up with Helith once more, but the angel has changed. He feels the cold and his reflection now appears in the window. Gideon gives him his coat, and the camera circles them as they embrace, replicating Hitchcock’s moral, consecrating eye as outlined by Jed in his film studies lecture on Vertigo. As with Scottie and Madelein’s embrace, the background is transformed behind them, the dark corridor turning into the bright, clear shoreline of the shingle beach. Gideon and his fallen angel lie in each other’s arms, but in the morning Helith is gone, and he is left alone once more.

Entrance to the Underworld
Having gained strength from Helith, at the angel’s expense, Gideon sets off along the tram tracks to the edge of the sick metropolis where he follows the steady rhythm of a low, pulsing thrum which emanates from beneath the earth like the beating of the city’s heart. He steals his way into a subterraenean world, its tunnels demonically lit with red lights and its hallways suffused with the green monitor glow of big science. This is a vast underground control centre similar to that found in Sons of Light and posited in Penda’s Fen, although here the means of control are technological and computerised. Gideon comes across a room filled with banks of instrumentation in which a lab-coated technician sits. He projects a shimmering blue plane of light created from lasers and dry ice into the space beyond, a technological refinement of theatrical smoke and mirrors illusionism. We see the people who had converged on Gideon’s tower, including Gwen, sitting in blank white rooms, staring at the mesmerising light show. Dull muzak numbs the mind as the controller’s voice hypnotically implants the suggestion that they are looking at the sea. This projected sea is a parody, a mockery of the paradisiacal shore besides which Gideon had awoken with Helith. It’s a step in the programming of their perceptions, a conditioning designed to foster an acceptance of a technological acceptance of a facsimile of the real, to seal them all inside their own private preset worlds.

Illusory ocean - the divine invasion
Gideon is horrified at what he sees, and is driven to violence, strangling the anonymous technician, a murder which taints him and also marks a further step away from his dispassionate detachment. Manipulating the control board, he manages to break through to Gwen, his face projecting through the ‘waters’ like an invasive Gnostic deity penetrating the surface of the false, manufactured reality of a malign demi-urge. She awakens and sees the illusion for what it is. Gideon explores the sterile corridors, lit with a jaundiced yellow light, wearing his technician’s lab coat as a scientific cloak of invisible anonymity. He comes across Jed in an empty cell, staring blankly at the walls. Attempting to awaken him, he kisses him on the forehead, an echo of Jed’s parting kiss in another time, another place. Gideon’s is a killer’s kiss, however, sending Jed into agonising paroxysms and leaving him lifeless upon the floor. The conditioning into numb death in life had become too deeply implanted. Continuing his search, Gideon soon comes across Gwen. She has killed the nurse who guarded her, throwing a bright red splash of blood across the wall, echoing the stain left outside the Oxford library and the cathedral by the ill-fated Hitchcock blonde. She, like Gideon, is stained by murder, literally in her case, since the nurse’s uniform which she dons is soaked in blood. ‘This makes it two of us’, Gideon remarks. They are brought together by their violent acts, just as the relatives of the suicides were united by the effects of inwardly directed violence on their own lives. They use Jed’s body as a shield and disguise, wheeling it through the corridors to the lifts leading to the tunnels, the business of death giving them an air of sober authority. It is further used as an obstacle to bring a transport van, taking the fully reconditioned subjects back to the world above, to a halt. They hijack the van and break through to the surface, where they emerge beside a concrete bunker, its tumulus rising beside an oak tree in an echo of the bent Magog rock formation hunkered beneath the isolated tree on the alien shore at the beginning of the story.

Echoes of Hitchcock - The Birds
We find them by the side of Lyn Celyn in North Wales, a reservoir created in the 60s to provide water for the English city of Liverpool (one of the elements of the nightmare metropolis from which they have just escaped). Gwen talks about the loss of the village of Capel Celyn, which was drowned when the waters were dammed, small scale human settlements sacrificed for the needs of ever expanding cities. Nearby is the monolithic block of Trawsfyndd nuclear power station, another example of big science in the landscape. Gideon tries to rouse Gwen from her state of despair. She criticises him for the escapist drive of his writing, his retreat into fantasies of rescue by angelic or alien forces, which deliver mankind or the individual from self-created catastrophe. Discovering that von Drachenfels is to be playing a broadcast concert in a minster in East Anglia (actually filmed at Southall Minster in Nottinghamshire), they decide to travel across the centre of England. He has included the Bach Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor in his programme, the melodramatically gothic piece which he has sworn never to play, and has thus sent out a coded message to them that some sort of climactic moment is at hand. As they approach the town along the main A road, a swarming flock of crows flies above them in the opposition, as if sensing an impending storm. It’s another nod to Hitchcock, in this case, of course, The Birds.

Unholy birth
As they get nearer, distracting illusions assail Gideon – a headless horseman and chanting children. He has to dismiss them from his mind and drive on through. At the minster, he has his Vertigo moment, hesitating before climbing a ladder leading to the roof and through the buttresses. Inside, amongst the arches and high walkways, they spot the Magog statue, placed in an alcove like some gargoyle or ancient, worn Sheela na Gig – a remnant of the old religion hidden within the new. Von Drachenfels is blindfolded in order to play his final improvisation, which is based upon a theme from Gwen’s apparently rejected composition. As its dissonances and ultra sonic notes accumulate, the statue begins to crack open, its womb revealing a phial of glowing yellow poison which, if released, will infect the world in the same way as the sick metropolis was infected. This unnatural birth is powered by the music being played below. Gideon edges towards the statue, attempting to conquer his fear of heights. Asrael, dressed in demonic black and red, has seen them now, and makes his way to the upper walkways to try to stop them. Gwen takes out the ultrasonic whistle which she had made and given as a protective talisman to Gideon and blows it, after first apologising, disrupting the music and symbolically severing herself from the imposing maestro whose influence and authority had seemed so absolute. Gideon is able to reach the statue just before Asrael reaches him, re-sealing it and returning it to unfragmented unity. Gwen calls to him to let go, and he allows himself to fall, completing the moral circle of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as described by Jed in his lecture, in a way that James Stewart’s Scottie was unable to achieve. Asrael also falls, and is impaled in true gothic form on a railing spike.

On the shore
We see von Drachenfels return to his house, which is engulfed in flames. In the basement, he joins his wife by her bedside, and they join in their own Gotterdamerung, Wagner’s music for Brunnhilde’s immolation scene booming all around them. We cut to the grave of Magog by a roadside, and pull back to see the small wooden cabin where Gideon had woken after his rescue by Helith. Gwen is now standing beside it, and she turns and walks along the shingle shore to join Gideon, whose leg is now in plaster, making him doubly lame. The alien landscape with which we started has been brought to Earth, thus turning away from the harmful escapism inherent in Gideon’s stories. Gwen’s story remains largely untold, as he remarks, but ‘we have each come our journey – we are here’. They sit on the lakeside border between land and sea, looking outwards, figures in the landscape with their arms around each other, taking comfort in each other’s presence. Meanwhile, out on the spit of land with its single, gnarled tree, under the pink sky with its alien suns, Helith sits alone, Gideon’s coat cradled in his arms, and heaves a sigh – a fallen angel now infected with the sorrows of the world.

Angels over the Malverns
Landscape is central to Rudkin’s plays and films. It provides an outward manifestation of the psyche, of history, culture and a sense of the self, both individually and collectively. Its topography, with all the legends, mythologies and beliefs which grow from it, forms a relief map of the soul. Simon Schama, in his book Landscape and Memory, suggests that ‘landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock’. Add psychology and a religious sense of moral conflict, and this is essentially the idea of landscape as Rudkin uses it. In Penda’s Fen, this landscape it the Malverns and its surrounding fields and villages, with Elgar as a presiding artistic presence, expressing the genius loci, or spirit of place, through his music. After we have seen an opening image looking down from the Malverns, the story begins with Stephen talking about Elgar and The Dream of Gerontius, immediately imbuing the countryside with a sense of sacred presence. ‘I think the greatest visionary work in English music is The Dream of Gerontius by Sir Edward Elgar’, Stephen categorically states as he listens to the piece and studies the music. ‘It poses the most important question: what is to happen to my soul?’ The music is directly linked to the landscape. As Stephen looks at the photograph of Elgar on the record sleeve, he imagines what it would have been like to have those sounds in your head, and to ‘walk those hills, and hear the Angel and the Demon…the judgement, on those hills’. At the end of the TV script which was published in 1975 (and which is available from the stack in Exeter library), Rudkin writes of Stephen standing on the ridge of the Malverns looking back ‘across the land in shadow: that outer landscape of the earth, and inner landscape of the head, across which this, his journey has been made’.

Projected landscapes - Elgar's inner worlds
Inner and outer landscapes are reflections of each other, each affecting and affected by the other. In Artemis 81, the landscapes to which the characters from the ferry travel to end their lives are bleak reflections of their inner state: the pool in an old quarry on Dartmoor and the scree-sloped edge of Wastwater in the Lake District. When Gideon and Gwen emerge from the underworld, still in a traumatised state of psychological rawness, they find themselves near to Lyn Celyn, the manmade reservoir with its drowned village. The towering, granitic tors massing above the cropped moorland of Dartmoor form a suitably stark setting for the hanging of the witches in The Ash Tree which will spawn the curse of barrenness and death affecting the land and its lord. In Penda’s Fen, the jagged ridge of the Malverns seems at times to form a rift on the horizon, a tear between earth and sky. It’s one of the borderlands found in Rudkin’s work (The Saxon Shore and the spit between lake and sea in Artemis 81 being others), a dividing line between different territories and different states. A geographical feature to be surmounted and its divisions transcended. This rift is echoed in the abyss which cracks open along the aisle of the church in which Stephen plays the organ, building up powerful dissonances, like that which occurs at the moment of seeing God in The Dream of Gerontius. There is a moving scene in which Stephen meets Elgar, his spiritual guide, in a deserted and ruined old shed. Elgar’s revenant, confined to a wheelchair, comes back ‘to look at the world, you see. The lovely world. The silver river and the verdant valley. The beautiful world’. He sees it all projected onto a dilapidated, prefab wall, projecting his inner landscape outwards. He has become a spirit of the landscape, containing it all within himself. He comforts Stephen, telling him ‘if, on the hills, you ever hear an old man’s whistling in the air, don’t be afraid. It will only be me’.

Fuseli nightmares - Demons of sexuality
Characters in Rudkin’s TV scripts are always riding through the landscapes, whether on horseback (Sir Richard and Lady Augusta in The Ash Tree), on a bicycle (Stephen, using the favoured mode of transport of his spiritual mentor, Elgar, in Penda’s Fen) or in a car or motorhome (Gideon and Gwen in Artemis 81). The open landscape is the setting for the struggle of the soul which forms the heart of his stories. This struggle is manifested by the emergence of archetypal figures, which emerge from and take their place in particular locales. The dark spiders, an unholy hybrid born of curse and suppurating subconscious desire, emerge from the roots of the ash tree and roam the countryside, feeding on local livestock, the source of the mysterious blight afflicting the land. In Penda’s Fen, angels and demons inhabit the landscape and buildings with which Stephen is so intimately familiar. In his TV script, Rudkin insists on the solid reality of these emanations. When we see an angel looking protectively over Stephen’s shoulder whilst he sits by the riverside, ‘tender and terrible, remorseless, kind’, Rudkin states ‘he is truly there’. Likewise, when a demon presses down on his chest whilst he lies in bed, in the manner of Fuseli’s Nightmare sprite, Rudkin describes it as ‘heavy, real’, and points out that when Stephen turns the light on ‘it does not disappear’, remaining still with its ‘knowing smile, mocking, inviting, terrible’. The angels tend to be emanations of the landscape, another one rising above the Malverns in Stephen’s imaginative inner eye, whilst the demons tend to be associated with buildings or interiors: Stephen’s bed or the rooftop of the church, where they perch like stone gargoyles come to life (immediately reminding me of the living gargoyle in a village churchyard in the classic 1971 Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story The Daemons). These are the demons of suppressed sexuality and deformed religion – both demons of ignorance and the control which encourages and uses it. The fact that a demonic visage causes him to crash his bicycle at the edge of the fenland is a reflection of the ill-use to which the playwright William Arne claims the government is putting it.

Symbolic landscapes - the bunker and the tree
The undermining of the landscape by governmental or other establishment forces is a recurrent theme. The creation of subterraenean complexes, implanting big science within the landscape, works both as a direct commentary on the hastening technologisation of society in the 60s and 70s, and as a metaphorical reflection on the way in which people’s psychological connection to landscape and place, the sense of identity which it brings, is exploited and used as a means of control. In Penda’s Fen, Arne, at a village hall meeting, talks of the hollowing of the fenland where, ‘somewhere beneath, is being constructed, something…what is it, hidden beneath this shell of lovely earth? Some hideous angel of technocratic death? An alternative city, for government from beneath?’ His fears seem to be borne out when we witness a bunch of teenagers drive out onto the fen at night. One of them wanders off for a pee only to return hideously burned and scarred. His condition is covered up by enigmatic, authoritative visitors to the hospital, who don’t allow his parents to see him. This undermining of the local landscape also serves to reflect the co-option of local histories and mythologies, the burying of a natural sense of deep lineage and gradual change. This accumulated knowledge is overlaid with an imposed system, with its own ideological intent. This is symbolised at the start of Penda’s Fen, when the title sequence, depicting the landscape lying in the shadow of the Malverns, is superimposed with a length of barbed wire, against which a hand is raised and caught. The land has been turned into prison camp of the mind, a zone of control. In Artemis 81, Gideon and Gwen also discover a subterraenean control centre, in which controlling forces desensitise citizens, programming them with an imposed sense of landscape (the illusory sea). The bunker adjoining the oak tree which marks the point at which they resurface is a paradigmatic, almost surreal depiction of big science in the rural landscape.

MegaCity - the sick metropolis
The modern urban environment is viewed with suspicion in both Penda’s Fen and Artemis 81. In Penda’s Fen, Stephen’s father puts forward an argument for the continuing centrality of the village to British life. ‘The village is sneered’, he says, ‘as something petty. Petty it can be: yet it works. The scale is human, people can relate there. Man may yet in the nick of time revolt and save himself: revolt from the monolith, come back to the village’. It is an expression of a kind of radical conservatism (with a very small c) which runs throughout Rudkin’s work. Stephen’s mother also warns him of the dangers of getting caught up in the machine, with which the city is associated. ‘You’ll finish on a conveyor belt’, she tells him, trapped in a cycle in which ‘his life’s whole rhythm gets chained to the machine’ which is called ‘Productivity’. The radical playwright William Arne also espouses such a small scale philosophy of green conservatism, telling Stephen (who no longer thinks of him as ‘unnatural’) ‘we are all Consumers, blind gaping holes at the end of the production line…we’re doped serfs, in some mad Great Wall of China enterprise’. He opposes the city, too: ‘One great hope for Man only. That when the great concrete megaCity chokes the globe from pole to pole, it shall already have, bedded in some hidden crack, the sacred seed of its own disintegration and collapse’. The sick city is vividly depicted in Artemis 81, a cold and violent place summed up by the image of a child gleefully pelting a jellyfish stranded on the muddy banks of a canal with rocks. If Arne and Stephen’s parents espouse a form of conservative radicalism, the question becomes what is the true vision of the land which it seeks both to resurrect and to conserve.

Jacob Epstein - Jacob and the Angel
The psychology and sexuality of his characters is a further important aspect of Rudkin’s writing. His protagonists stumble towards a sense of self which contains and balances contradictory forces, often leading them to become sacred outsiders. There is an element of transfigured autobiography in the recurrence of gay characters struggling with their sexual difference in his stories, a preoccupation perhaps rooted in his own bisexuality. The instruction written in Greek on the walls of Stephen’s school in Penda’s Fen, Discover Thyself, could stand in for his characters in general. Stephen’s dawning awareness of his sexuality trails that of his parents, whose quiet understanding belies the clichéd image of the vicar and his wife as unworldly and naïve. When his mother sees Stephen’s reaction to the young local milkman, his father comments ‘I was wondering when you’d notice. Milklad – hardly original’. ‘But so totally unaware’, his mother wistfully reflects. Stephen’s awakening to his sexual nature comes in the form of a dream, shortly after his father has told him that ‘your dream tells a truth about yourself. A truth you hide from while you are awake. A truth you need to know about yourself. For your…well being’. Stephen’s dream opens with a vision of an angel, which Rudkin describes, in his TV script, as resembling ‘the Epstein Lucifer – male and at the same time female; a power of darkness, yet radiant with light’. I’m not sure which of the sculptor Jacob Epstein’s works he’s referring to, but the most apt would seem to be his monumental 1940-1 alabaster sculpture Jacob and the Angel. This is drawn from the biblical story in which Jacob wrestles all nightlong with an angel, and Epstein envisages their embrace in a highly sexualised manner. Rudkin’s angels too are sexual beings. Gideon’s awakening to his true divided sexual nature in Artemis 81 comes through intimacy with the angel Helith. Stephen’s dream continues through images of male desire centring on his fellow pupil, with his suggestive surname Honeybone (described in Rudkin’s TV script as a ‘sexy Saxon (when he’s got over his dandruff problem’). These are followed by the appearance of the demon, squatting leeringly on his chest. ‘Unnatural’, Stephen moans, in tones ‘bleak, self-afraid’.

Dream Ritual
Further truths are revealed to Stephen in a dream which comes to him after he’s crashed his bicycle. He enters a symbolic landscape of neatly tended gardens in which a ritual is being enacted around a tree stump. The censorious Christian ‘mother and father of England’, whom he has set up as a national ideal in his mind, preside over a ceremony in which smiling children approach the blood-soaked stump upon which they lay their hands, which are then severed by a chopper. Everyone maintains a blandly cheerful demeanour throughout. I don’t think you need to dig out a dog-eared copy of Freud to figure out that this is a castration dream, in which sexuality is violently neutered with a pretence that it is all for one’s own good. Stephen looks on in horror when the ‘mother and father’ approach him, beckoning for him to take his own place at the stump. He wakes up to find Joel the milkman leaning over him, pulling him up and making sure he’s alright. Stephen looks at him with momentary befuddlement before coming to his senses. He instinctively lowers his hands, which are grasping Joel’s shoulders in order to raise himself from the ground, downwards, as if preparing for an embrace. Joel sees what he’s doing, is aware of the impulses behind his actions, and gently but firmly rebuffs him. But the dream has pushed Stephen into accepting his sexual nature, and thus also the status of sacred outsider which it carries in Rudkin’s work.

The Ash Tree - The innocent regard
Repression and denial of one’s true self, sexual or otherwise, is seen by Rudkin as truly unnatural and destructive. Stephen chokes on his sense of shame when he meets Joel the milkman on his rounds, now aware of his desire for him. As a result, he is unable to tell him about the fledgling sparrow sitting helplessly beneath his wheel, with the result that it is crushed as Joel drives off. The flame of Stephen’s potential angelic nature is snuffed out by such denial, and he thus fails to act as a godly agent, enabling the divine awareness of every sparrowfall. In Artemis 81, Gideon rejects the affections of both Gwen and Jed, pushing them both away. His denial of sexuality is explicitly embodied in his self-censorship. He goes back and erases the word ‘sexuality’ from the novel he’s working on, using the magic early 80s technology of the golf ball typewriter. His disconnection from his self, the world and those who care for him is reflected in his art. Gwen later points out to him that his work tends towards an escapist reliance on miraculous intervention and instruction from outside forces, whether they be aliens or angels. Such repression invites political or religious oppression. In The Ash Tree, Sir Matthew’s attraction to Mistress Mothersole is initially depicted in almost Edenically innocent terms. He smiles at her from a bridge crossing a stream, and she smiles back whilst she picks herbs from the riverbank. But he comes under the sway of the Puritan witchhunters, who march into the village to the solemn, unvarying beat of a drum. The witchfinder embodies the repression of sexual desire under the guise of religious purity. The power of the church holds sway over the generations, with the local pastor Croome present, alongside Sir Matthew, at the hanging of Mistress Mothersole, and still alive to advise Sir Richard over the exhumation of her body to allow for an extension to the church to incorporate a personal pew. Another disruption of the land which leads to disaster, reawakening the old curse. Sir Richard is initially sexually very open, enjoying banter with his fiancé an exhibiting a taste for bawdy literature and art. But when he is left on his own, his uncle’s influence, and the influence of the Puritan witch hunters whose outlined shadows he has visions of against the windowpanes, begin to exert their influence. Men without women, both Richard and Matthew, suffer from a lack of wholeness, an imbalance which sets their minds adrift, and has fatal consequences in both cases.

To Be Continued...