Saturday, 28 January 2012

James Blackshaw and James Tiptree Jr.

A forthcoming LP from the brilliant twelve string acoustic guitarist and chamber music composer James Blackshaw has just been announced, and I was excited to discover that he's named the album, Love Is the Plan, The Plan Is Death, and all of its six tracks after science fiction short stories by James Tiptree Jr. Blackshaw has drawn his titles from literary sources before. 2009's The Glass Bead Game comes from Hermann Hesse's novel set in a future world in which monkish scholars and intellectuals devote their lives to a complex game which encompasses all life and thought. 2010's All Is Falling seems to reference Samuel Beckett's 1956 radio play All That Fall, the demands for the production of the sound effects for which led to the establishment of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. 2007's The Cloud of Unknowing, meanwhile, is named after an anonymous 14th century work of Christian mysticism, and is typical of Blackshaw's tendency towards titles which allude to spiritual and mystical, although he firmly denied any personal religious faith or belief in an interview in The Wire in October 2006.

James Blackshaw - Love Is the Plan, the Plan is Death
Tiptree was the pen-name of Alice Sheldon. She was the child of colourful society parents (Herbert Edwin Bradley, and attorney and explorer, and the writer and adventuress Mary Wilhelmina Hastings Bradley), and worked with US Intelligence Forces during the war, going on to spend a brief period with the CIA in the mid-50s. She abandoned this direction, although her decision to study experimental psychology, in which she attained a PhD, could be seen as tangentially related. She was also interested in the nature of human visual perception, and its aesthetic dimention, having been an artist earlier in her life. Her doctoral studies fed into the subtly and deeply troubling story The Man Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats, which dissects the psychology of evil (or the weakness which permits evil) with great acuity. She began writing science fiction short stories in 1968, choosing a male name (she picked the surname, Tiptree, at random, noticing it on the lid of a jam jar) as a mask, and perhaps also as an experiment in testing the expectations of the SF world, still dominated by men at the time. It was also a good way to go unnoticed, and thus not have to bear the pressure of being a pioneer female writer in the field, and attracting unwanted attention as a result. This disguise was maintained until 1977, when her true identity was uncovered (against her wishes - she referred to the anonymous period as her 'James Tiptree retreat'). She wrote as both Alice Sheldon and Racoona Sheldon in the 80s, with some reduction in intensity,although the stories are still fine and worth reading. Everything ended in 1987. Her husband, Huntingdon Sheldon, with whom she had lived in a close and mutually supportive relationship for over 40 years, was drifting away from her, declining into the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease. In an act which was seemingly pre-arranged and agreed upon, she shot him and then turned the gun upon herself. Love is the plan, the plan is death.

Tiptree's best stories are incredibly powerful and intensely felt works, often meditating on mortality, loneliness and the gulf between individuals and the sexes. They use science fiction's devices and props to great allegorical effect. The Women That Men Don't See and The Screwfly Solution are both devastating commentaries on the position of women in society and underlying male attitudes to them - the first heartwrenching and the second utterly terrifying. The heightened emotional tenor of her short stories bears comparison with Harlan Ellison. Like Ellison, the intensity of her fiction and the lyrical, burning language in which it was written couldn't easily be sustained over longer lengths, and she was at her best in shorter forms. Also like Ellison, she gave her stories baroque and poetic titles, which make for ideal, evocative song titles. Blackshaw has chosen The Snows Are Melted, the Snows Are Gone from Tiptree's first short story collection, Ten Thousand Light Years From Home (1973). Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death, and And I Have Come Upon This Place by Lost Ways are from Warm Worlds and Otherwise (1975), A Momentary Taste of Being and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (my God, what a story that one is) from Star Songs of an Old Primate (1978) and We Who Stole the Dream from Out of the Everywhere (1981). Blackshaw could have chosen from the equally striking story titles I'll Be Waiting For You When The Swimming Pool Is Empty, Faithful To Thee, Terra, In Our Fashion, And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill's Side, Mother In The Sky With Diamonds or The Girl Who Was Plugged In. I look forward to reading these astonishing stories to the accompaniement of whatever music Blackshaw has been inspired to create from them.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Tender Buttons, Trish Keenan and Gertrude Stein

A little over a year has gone by since the untimely passing of Broadcast singer and writer Trish Keenan. Browsing in a bookshop the other day, I noticed a copy of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, which had exerted a great influence on her approach to lyric writing, and to making music in general. Never one to disguise the source of her inspirations, she wrote a song called Tender Buttons, and Broadcast’s fourth LP took its title from it. I was interested to read Stein’s work (which can loosely be described as a prose poem) and trace some of the ways in which its style and its ideas about associative, semi-automatic writing, sound and sense translated into the Tender Buttons (and Witch Cults of the Radio Age) songs. And so I began to beat a trail through its knotty, meandering text – as you can too (it’s over here at Project Gutenberg).

Gertrude and Alice in Paris
Stein wrote Tender Buttons in 1912 whilst she was on holiday in Spain with her lifelong partner Alice B Toklas, whom she had met five years earlier, and with whom she lived in Paris. It’s a work which deliberately dismantles the structure and sense of language, and which has no readily definable sense of progression or cumulative meaning. It incorporates a strong sense of serious playfulness – wordplay and the delight in toppling and tumbling the blocs of language. There is certainly no story here, nor any comprehensible depiction of reality as it’s generally perceived. Stein’s work is of its nature hermetic. It expresses the specificity of a unique individual consciousness (all individual consciousnesses being unique) with all its private accumulation of experience, opinion, and self-regard, revised and edited in memory. With no attempt at explanation, clarification or contextualisation, this is an internalised self-portrait, viewing the world seen from a particular perspective and further refracted through personal linguistic association. Such unapologetic and unedited hermeticism ultimately leads to a cul de sac, to isolation and artistic solitude, and is not a form which is worthy of pursuing beyond the occasional experiment. The personal insights which the techniques of semi-automatic writing and unconscious word association provide have to be shaped and recast, or placed in a more universal context in order to communicate with other people with any degree of clarity. Trish seems to reflect upon the danger of becoming isolated in a private world of hermetic meaning in the line ‘in autosuggested pathways you are caught’ from the Tender Buttons song I Found the F.

An obvious comparison with the prose style of Tender Buttons would be the stream of consciousness passages in Ulysses (Stein and Joyce knew each other in Paris, although they didn’t exactly get on) which attempt to encompass the mercurial rush of the mind’s associative, semi-conscious buzz and chatter in unpunctuated prose. What structure Tender Buttons has is created by its division into three sections labelled Objects, Food and Rooms. Within these categories, subheadings are collected; a random assortment of objects, some of a surreal and largely notional nature; and a menu of foodstuffs and accompanying words associated with the act of eating (dinner, cooking, cups, breakfast etc.). The Room section has no sub-headings, proceeding in a series of discrete paragraphs, ranging from single sentences to lengthy passages. It is defined by a general sense of domestic interiority and spatial awareness, with words such as corners, table, drawer, chair, floor, roof, door, chair and looking-glass rooting it in a particular sense of place. The sense of a self located in a particular domestic space comes through in various of Trish’s lyrics for Broadcast songs, from the title of their second single, Living Room, to the lines ‘interpret the rooms’ from Tears in the Typing Pool’, and ‘in today’s room with today’s view’ from ‘The Be Colony’. It is also present in Trish’s story Life of a Dummy, in which the interior voice of Marie says ‘my room caverns me. I hear the corners of it’.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso
The fractured nature of Stein’s prose, its shattered syntax, reflects her attempt to pay attention to and bring to bear all of her senses in recording her impressions and thought processes, and to continuously shift the angle of her perception. She was an enthusiastic patron and collector of modern art, and an early champion of Picasso and Braque when their work was still receiving general condemnation. She later affirmed in her 1938 book on Picasso that Tender Buttons was an attempt to create a literary equivalent to the prismatic effects of cubist art. Commenting that it was her ‘first conscious struggle with the problem of correlating sight, sound and sense and eliminating rhythm’, she seemed to view it as both a visual work, with the look of the words on the page being a part of the whole, and a semi-musical one, in which the words come to life when read out, aloud or in the head. There is a rhythm in it, too, with lines varying in length, and commas and other punctuation sporadically if unconventionally used. But it does avoid the traditional metrical cadences of poetry or incantatory prose. It possesses a more elastic rhythm, the shifting, rolling, asymmetrically accented beats of free jazz – Rashied Ali rather than Elvin Jones.

Its method of following associational lines of thought has led to the idea that Tender Buttons is a piece of automatic writing, a direct outpouring from the unconscious with little mediation on the part of the conscious mind. Stein had shown an early interest in experimental psychology, and studied the subject from 1893-7 at Radcliffe College (an educational college for women formally connected with Harvard) under the tutelage of the renowned and pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James. She took part in some experiments into what became known as Normal Motor Automatism. This phenomenon was observed when the subject’s attention was divided between two activities, both requiring intelligent engagement – say writing and conversing. One or other would exhibit a form of automatism in which the normal structures and controls of consciousness would break down and a ‘second personality’ would appear to manifest itself. These experiments (and Stein’s co-authored paper about them) later formed the basis of an argument put forward by the psychologist BF Skinner in a 1934 article accusatorily entitled ‘Has Gertrude Stein A Secret?’ Skinner was a behaviourist with the view that human beings were programmable through the scientific application of a series of positive and negative reinforcements. Such techniques could be used by a rational and benevolent technocratic elite comprised of the likes of Skinner to shape society. He cast his ideas in fictional form in the utopia Walden Two, where they lead to a paradise of human happiness. Such dreams immediately dissipate when exposed to the air of the real world, of course. Given his belief that the mind was a mechanism open to moulding and manipulation, it suited him to suggest that Tender Buttons was a piece of automatic writing, akin to what Stein had produced in the Normal Motor Automatism experiments. She denied that this was the case. The abandonment of grammatical form and meaning and the seemingly random leaps of loosely associational sense may have been akin to the products of automatic writing. But this was a piece produced under conditions of intense concentration rather than deliberate distraction or dissociation. This concentration extended to the act of writing itself, the physical production of words on paper. The appearance of these words on the page suggested further variations or connections, so that the piece becomes as much about language itself and its translation into written form as it is about the expression of a particular mental state, conscious or unconscious, as it passes through a series of instants.

Whilst acknowledging that she made extensive use of automatic writing (‘that’s where most all of my lyrics come from’, she said in a September 2005 Wire Jukebox interview) and other associative techniques such as cut ups in the development of song lyrics, Trish was also wary of ceding the creative process to unconscious forces. Talking about the role of improvisation and chance in the making of the Witch Cults of the Radio Age LP, she suggested that ‘because we had a loose concept and a title first, we explored a place once removed from the notion of the automatic – more like improvisation with restraints’. She pointed to one method of writing in an automatic style within particular controlling and guiding parameters in the Wire Jukebox interview. ‘You get a list of adjectives’, she said, ‘a list of nouns, and a list of verbs. You choose a meter and a rhyme scheme and you have to have a few internal rhymes in four to six verses…once you get the structure of sentences into your mind, your automatic writing improves – that just keeps it in check, short lines’.

She was interested in the dissociative effects of automatic writing, the sense that it brought forth a ‘second personality’ as Stein put it. ‘Suddenly you’re not yourself’, she enthused in a Wire interview from October 2009, ‘as though you’ve created another you’. This pleasure in discovering new aspects of your personality and need to create alternate identities to inhabit and from which to create was a major theme in her writing, and was reflected in the changing nature of her stage persona. Different forms of ‘I’ turn up in her songs. The nature of personal identity, the sense of self, is also central to her story Life of a Dummy, which was published in the literary and arts paper The High Horse in the mid-noughties. This is an absurdist tale set in Madame Tussauds, its genesis in a piece of reportage about he discovery of the missing heads of the Beatles’ waxwork dummies. It is structured as a fragmented, three-layered narrative, each layer written in contrasting style. It’s a modernist form which embraces multiple perspectives and modes of writing, drawing from Stein’s early innovations. In one strand, presented as if it were a transcript of a TV show, complete with audience laughter, the Beatles dummies go through their wisecracking routines in Hard Days Night fashion. Paul becomes increasingly reflective and distant from the others, however, retreating into himself until he can no longer be heard by the others – the sensitive Beatle. Another layer records, in diary form, the observations of a museum worker, who notes the political wrangling and personal manoeuvring of various showbiz (rather than showroom) dummies (principally Diana Dors, Humphrey Bogart and Tom Jones) as they jockey for favoured positions in the display. The final layer is the interior monologue of that same worker, Marie Michaels, a ‘mid 30s sizzler from the Midlands’ according to the newspaper which George reads. The same paper reveals that she had stolen Paul’s head and communed with it in her bedroom. Marie’s inner thoughts reflect on the idea of an autonomous self, one which in this case has become interpenetrated with that of Paul McCartney, and by extension with the fantasy figures of popular culture in general. Just as Paul grows silent, heard only in Marie’s head, so she begins to see herself as reflected in his writing and persona. ‘If only we had a universe of our own’, she muses. ‘Separate and not found-out’. She comes to realise that the version of Paul which she has taken ownership of is in fact hollow (‘all that space inside you won’t fill up’) and that it is she who inhabits him, who creates her own self (‘I collect my own past Paul. I am my own first person’). Still she cannot help but see part of herself through his elevated, romantic perspective, however, and wishes that he would ‘write me alive into a song one day’.

Mirrored selves
This preoccupation with creating new identities, partly constructed from the fragments of a pop cultural or art historical past, or of maintaining the integrity of the self, is a recurrent one. It’s a way of breaking from the limitations of background, class, cultural or familial expectations. Finding freedom through ceasing to be yourself, or rather transforming into new selves – allowing yourself to be subject to change. The song Corporeal, from the Tender Buttons LP, revisits the dummy theme in the lines ‘we are mankind, we are mannikin’, with further reference to ‘the strings of my autonomy’. In Arc of a Journey, the question is asked ‘can I see more than what I’m programmed to be?’. The repeated refrain of Subject to the Ladder may even be an allusion to the spiralling staircases of our DNA. Mirrored selves and fractured identities abound (with mirrors making regular appearances in Trish’s lyrics). The notion of a refracted and distanced perspective on the self, as if viewed by another, separate persona, is suggested by the lines ‘a prism is only walls’, and ‘I am iris and the lens’ from I Found the F, and in Colour Me In from the Ha Ha Sound LP, with its uncertain attempt at self-reassurance, ‘I must be real because somehow I feel that I’m just the idea’.

Stein’s flow of words in Tender Buttons is drawn into a euphonious whole through the use of alliteration, assonance, variation and repetition, creating a linguistic structure of sound which bears its own justification – bypassing the need for direct, rational meaning. Perhaps this was the kind of thing Trish had in mind when she wrote of ‘model euphonic paradigms’ in The Black Cat, a song from the Tender Buttons LP which alluded to the destabilizing logic of nonsense in the work of another writer – Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. You can hear the assonance in a phrase such as ‘a single mirror, a manikin’, with its progression of pinched ‘i’ vowel sounds; or in the violent k sounds of ‘a jack in kill her, a jack in, makes a meadowed king’; or in the kaleidoscopically shifting vowel sounds of ‘out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question’. Such connectivity through assonance is found in the Broadcast song The Be Colony from the Witch Cults LP, with the short a’s and sibilant ss’s of the line ‘asses, ashes and classic glasses’, repeated with slight variation, the word ‘nurses’ replacing ‘asses’. Sometimes simple and playful rhymes break through, such as ‘pick a ticket, pike it’, or the childlike ‘a sister is not a mister’. There are lots of words beginning with a hard c sound, which makes an emphatic, percussive impact, like the sound of a crisply struck cymbal. These are strung together into phrases such as ‘cold coffee with a corn’, ‘a cape is a cover’, ‘a climate, a single climate’, ‘careful and curved’ and ‘a can containing a curtain’. Trish drew on the sound qualities of c words in her lyrics for Tender Buttons, which provide their own inbuilt staccato rhythms and inflections. She lists these words like beads on a necklace, the repetition of the hard consonant serving to emphasise the variations in the following vowel sounds; ‘the comb, the calm, the colour, the cortex’. Coal, the word which sets the word train into motion, may well have been triggered by lines in Stein’s Tender Buttons. She writes early on in A Piece of Coffee from the Objects section, ‘the clean mixture is white and not coal color, never more coal color than altogether’; and later ‘color is in coal…coal any coal is copper’. Trish also juxtaposes the words coal and colour in the lines ‘the coal, the coal light, the colours, the caress’. The harshly repeated phrase ‘die cut’ at the end of the song sounds likes the commands of a director making a film collage – abruptly ending and juxtaposing (and colouring?) small fragments of image and sound. Burroughs and Gysin style cut ups were another compositional technique which Trish used. She said of the song Libra, the Mirror’s Minor Self in an interview in The Wire at the time of the release of the Witch Cults LP that ‘the words were a cut up of my horoscope’. The science fictin song Arc of a Journey from the Tender Buttons makes reference to writing techniques which sidestep conscious control: ‘automatic oracles’ which give access to ‘verbal hemispheres’ and ‘a mnemonic game’ which expresses ‘the axis of feeling’.

The chiselling of the hard c sounds in Tender Buttons is alleviated by a verse in which the softer f consonant dominates (it’s a song which is full of f and c words which don’t have to be dipped out on the radio). ‘The fen, the fine, the fin, the defend, the fawn’ is a word list which offers a shifting, subtly morphing series of word sound rooted around the ground of the f. The choice of the f seems to follow on from Stein’s line ‘a window has another spelling, it has ‘f’ all together’. Trish also wrote the song I Found the F on the Tender Buttons LP, which opens with the line ‘I found the fragrance separate from the flower’. The balance of soft and hard consonant sounds reflects the general contrast offered throughout of hard and soft words; a contrast contained in the very title Tender Buttons. Tender here can imply either physical or emotional softness. It’s a word which appears in various contexts throughout the poem. This contrasting of soft and hard runs through all three sections, including phrases such as ‘an elastic tumbler’, ‘all the handsome cheese which is stone’ and a can containing a curtain’. The title A Piece of Coffee in the Objects section treats a liquid as if it were solid and divisible. Masculine and feminine qualities can also be ascribed to these hard and soft contrasts, as Stein seems to suggest in the sentence near the beginning ‘callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men’. The malleable meaning and grammar of Tender Buttons could thereby be seen as attempting a feminisation of language and of writing. Tenderising it and rendering it more pliable, the better to put it new uses, shaping it into new forms. This would seem to tie in with comments which Trish made in the Broadcast feature in the October 2009 issue of The Wire (number 308). She observed that ‘what excites me now is the female voice playing games with words and vocal sound while managing to anchor deeper philosophical concerns…they seem to gesture towards the absurd and playful at the same time as having a kind of fearless form experimentation’.

This malleability can also be found in the questioning tone which frequently emerges, and which further denies the rigidity of assertion, statement and absolute certainty. Common suppositions are abandoned as linguistic meaning and structure is uprooted. There are repetitive lists of what is? and why is? clauses: ‘Cloudiness what is cloudiness, is it a lining, is it a roll, is it melting’ and ‘why is there no necessary dull stable, why is there a single piece of any colour, why is there that that sensible silence’. We are also asked to entertain certain notions: ‘suppose there is a pigeon, suppose there is’ (pigeons are a recurring subject of the poem), or ‘suppose an eyes’. Once the questions start, they stream out in an unending, conjoined ribbon. Like children newly learning about the world by answering every statement with a ‘but why?’

Sense and supposition is also destabilised through the odd juxtaposition of jarring or seemingly incompatible nouns, verbs and adjectives, each torn from accustomed meaning in its odd and unexpected company, and new and startling associations created as a result. ‘The difference is spreading’, as Stein puts it. ‘Glazed glitter’ sounds like the kind of word collision which Mark E Smith might come up with (indeed, it’s close to Glitter Freeze, the title of his song on the Gorillaz LP Plastic Beach). We are also confronted with ‘a method of a cloak’, ‘peeled pencil, choke’,and ‘a substance in a cushion’. Nouns are made strange by adjectives which nudge them form their usual orbits: ‘the serene length’, ‘the sudden spoon’ and the ‘cunning shawl’. This seems to allow them to take on a life and character of their own, beyond mere functionality. There are also definite but strange and nonsensical statements and assertions along the lines of ‘rhubarb is susan’, ‘no eyeglasses are rotten’, ‘an elegant use of foliage’ (which could make a kind of sense in certain horticultural contexts, I suppose), ‘the alteration of pigeons’ (vivisection or genetic manipulation?) and ‘a blind agitation is manly and uttermost’. The nineteenth century French writer Comte de Lautreamont wrote of something being as ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’, a statement taken up by Andre Breton as a credo of surrealist intent. It could equally be applied to Stein’s linguistic grafting. This idea, adopted by the Surrealists, of disrupting habitual ways of seeing or thinking, and of constructing new patterns of perception and consciousness also corresponds to Trish’s expressed views of psychedelia as a way of reaching altered states through artistic rather than chemical experience. She talked, in an interview in The Wire in October 2009, of ‘the idea of psychedelia as a door through to another way of thinking about sound and song. Not a world only reachable by hallucinogens, but obtainable by questioning what we think is real and right, by challenging the conventions of form and temper’.

Sometimes Stein seems to be collecting words and assembling them together according to some hidden logical system. Allowing associations to emerge from words and the ideas which they embody, she makes of her mind a subconscious cabinet of curiosities. Like one of Joseph Cornell’s assemblages of seemingly unrelated objects contained within a box, and therefore inviting us to make connections, the positioning of these words next to each other on the page imply some secret correspondence. The idea of such an assemblage is made explicit in the final Rooms section, in which Stein writes ‘there was a whole collection made. A damp cloth, an oyster, a single mirror, a manikin, a student, a silent star, a single spark, a little movement and the bed is made’. Trish uses this in her Tender Buttons, beginning the verse which steers from c to f with the preface ‘the collector’ before listing her gathered words. The covers of the single America’s Boy and of the Tender Buttons LP depict her placing words on a transparent board, the curator and arranger of her own personal language.

She also makes much use of colour, another engagement of sensory perception, prompting visual associational triggers. She writes lines such as ‘any little green is ordinary, ‘a corn yellow and green mass is a gem’, ‘why is a pale white not paler than blue’, and ‘a plain hill, one is not that which is not white and red and green’, the latter suggesting some kind of Fauvist landscape. Trish also used colour in her lyrics. This is captured visually on Julian House’s cover for the Future Crayon compilation, with its prismatic raindrops on a grey background, one filled with a neatly arrayed spectrum of coloured pencils. This links in directly to the song Colour Me In from the Ha Ha Sound album, in which the opening line, ‘I am grey, still on the page, oh colour me in’, is followed by the paintbox being opened to shade the hills green, the sky blue and the heart red. Stein’s ‘little green’ is also extracted and inserted into the non-c verse of the song Tender Buttons (‘the collector, the green, the fine…’).

Stein also used repetition in an insistent way, underlining the materiality of certain objects or the stability of certain ideas or concepts, or revising and refining others. So we read of ‘a dark grey, a very dark grey, a quite dark grey’, as if she’s defining its precise nature as her perception of it grows clearer. She tells us ‘book was there, it was there. Book was there’, as if we might doubt her, and that ‘a steady cake, any steady cake is perfect and not plain, any steady cake has a mounting reason’. Some favourite words are scattered throughout, such as tender, china, cheese and clouds (clouds also being a favourite of Trish’s, which turns up in several Broadcast songs, Ominous Clouds being the most obvious). Sometimes words seem to get stuck, as if Stein has become fixated upon them, hypnotized by some quality they possess. They are caught in a stuttering loop which anticipates the repetitions of sampling. The cogged mechanisms of the mind temporarily become locked in their turning ratchets, juddering back and forth before freeing themselves once more. So, we get ‘this which is so not winsome (that ‘so’ making it sound uncannily modern) and not widened and really not so dipped as dainty and really dainty, very dainty, ordinarily, dainty, a dainty, not in that dainty and dainty’; ‘little sales of leather and such beautiful beautiful, beautiful beautiful’’ and ‘aider, why aider why whow, whow stop touch, aider whow, aider stop the muncher, muncher munchers’. You can imagine that last sentence as a sampled and savagely spliced and edited vocal playing over some digitally created rhythm.

The use of words and their placement alongside each other in accordance with their sound and scansion as much as with any sense they might make immediately suggests music, and pop and rock lyrics in particular. There are references and allusions to music throughout Tender Buttons. The phrase ‘dance a clean dream’ could very well sum up the entire work, and I can certainly imagine it as a line in a Broadcast song’. Stein also writes ‘this is a sound and obligingness more obligingness leads to a harmony in hesitation’, and ‘so the tune which is there has a little piece to play’, and also ‘a cup is readily shaded, it has in between no sense that is to say music, memory, musical memory’. The latter seems to imply that music and memory don’t conform to conventional logic or sense. Elsewhere she adds ‘harmony is so essential’ and that ‘no song is sad’. Whether the latter means that the very act of singing is in itself joyous, or that to have no song is a sad thing is ambiguous. Then again, all sense is provisional and open to negotiation in the poem. Stein herself became involved in setting words to music, writing opera libretti, and enjoying a particularly fruitful artistic partnership with the American composer Virgil Thomson. Her libretto for his 1933 opera Four Saints in Three Acts follows the mixing and realigning of language of Tender Buttons, although in a slightly less absolute and uncompromising style.

By the end of the final section of Tender Buttons, the effort of constantly shifting perceptual points of view and avoiding established or reflex patterns of language and meaning begins to show signs of wearing down. Perhaps this is deliberate. The Room focuses on the domestic space, and a sense of being at home turns the mind towards the comforting and the familiar. The abstraction of the previous sections begins to form into blurry, impressionistic word pictures, language beginning once more to coalesce into more conventional sense. We get the vague picture of actual places, and atmospheres specific to a particular time. Stein details a scene with ‘a bridge a very small bridge in a location and thunder, any thunder’, which could be a landscape on the wall or in the mind. She also observes that ‘this cloud does change with the movements of the moon and the narrow the quite narrow suggestion of the building’. We get the impression of someone in a room in a house using her imagination and her linguistic powers to expand her consciousness beyond its confines. So, from the chairs and the doors and the table linen and the spoons, and all the other domestic objects and interior architecture which is mentioned, we get to paragraphs which imagine landscapes, and different climates (‘climate, climate is not southern, a little glass, a bright winter’). Near the end, the mind soars into the night sky, questioning and wondering: ‘star-light, what is star-light, star-light is a little light that is not always mentioned with the sun, it is mentioned with the moon and the sun, it is mixed up with the rest of time’. This expansion of the mind from the domestic and particular to embrace the cosmos is echoed in Broadcasts’ song Arc of a Journey, in which Trish sings of the ‘constellation of Orion, a picture with a past, a future so vast’.

Trish’s writing was always highly evocative, drawing on a variety of influences, Stein’s included, but always retaining a distinct identity of its own. It sparked off rich imagistic associations and spun profoundly playful wordgames. I’m sure she would have gone on to write and publish more poetry and prose alongside her songwriting had she been granted more time. But we are left with what we have, and those are riches enough.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Kosmische Musik, English Apocalypses and Cosmic Cowboys

What a wonderful selection of LPs turned up at the Oxfam music shop in Exeter today (and a very big thankyou to the generous donor). There were some prime examples of Kosmische or Krautrock music from the late 60s and 70s, including the LP with the track which gave rise to the genre’s dubious English label. This is Mama Duul Und Ihre Sauerkrautband Spielt Auf from the Amon Duul album Pyschedelic Underground. Amon Duul was in the fact the name of a Munich commune with radical artistic and political aims. Its music tended to reflect the non-hierarchical ideology of the commune, with large groups of people gathering to indulge in endless freeform guitar, percussion and chanting sessions. One of these was recorded in 1968, and resulted in the Psychedelic Underground album, as well as several subsequent releases, including the double LP Disaster/Luud Noma, released on the BASF label in 1972. Those who favoured a more focussed and disciplined approach to music (and, it’s probably fair to say, had more musical talent and imagination) split off, but held on to the Amon Duul name. They became Amon Duul II and released some of the classics of the Kosmische genre at the heavier, guitar-based end of the spectrum. The only record of their’s which we’ve got in this batch is Made in Germany (the single LP version), however, a 1975 attempt at a more poppy direction which is generally considered to be a bit of a misfire, but might be worth a listen nevertheless. The Amon Duul commune reflected the darkening tenor and shift towards violence of the counterculture in Germany, playing host at various times to members of the Red Army Faction, better known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, as singer Renate Knaup recalled during the excellent BBC4 documentary on Krautrock.

Faust were another German band whose music arose from communal living conditions, although their ensconcement in a house-cum-studio converted from an old school in the rural setting of Wumme was always directed towards artistic rather than political ends. Known for their pounding rhythms, minimalist approach to harmony and use of non-musical sound from radio static to heavy industrial machinery, they mixed this experimental approach with the odd snatch of tuneful psych pop. They also had a strong graphic sense, and their first LP was released on clear vinyl in a clear plastic sleeve, with the band’s name placed alongside the black outline of an x-ray of a human hand, lyrics printed in red unobtrusively running beneath that. We haven’t got that one, but we do have The Faust Tapes, with its equally eyecatching Bridget Riley op-art cover, and its cut-up and collaging structure, juxtaposing fragments of song with percussion, manipulated tape sounds, noise and instrumental improvisation. The Faust Tapes originally cost 49p in the shops. Outside the Dream Syndicate, a collaboration between Faust (well, most of them anyway) and Tony Conrad was a little more expensive at £1.49. It offered two sides of heavy drone, pounding percussion overlaid by the single held-tones of Conrad’s abrasively bowed violin. Conrad was a member of LaMonte Young’s Dream Syndicate in New York, and as such was a pioneer of minimalist music, although relations with Young have subsequently deteriorated over issues of ownership of recordings made at the time. His face glares in monochromatic close-up from the sleeve of the LP, a rather more intense, less friendly variant on the cover of the Terry Riley LP A Rainbow in Curved Air, in which his bonce rises above the landscape like a benevolent sun. Riley appears in a duet with John Cale (who played alongside Conrad with Young), on the LP Church of Anthrax, which we’ve also got in, another album of sidelong drones, with rhythmic propulsion here given by Riley’s avant barroom piano.

The electronic end of Kosmische music is provided by Kraftwerk, with their second LP, its cover boasting the simple but striking graphic image of a green bollard. Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider had been left on their own at this stage, original member Klaus Dinger having left to form Neu with Michael Rother, who had also played with Kraftwerk in live performances. The music is still feeling its way towards the cool electronic modernism with which they would become synonymous, and meandering flutes, guitars and violins and experimental tape manipulations still play a significant part here. However, the extended Kling-Klang is a pointer towards things to come, and also lent its name to the studio into which Schneider and Hutter would disappear for lengthy stretches of time to perfect their perfectly formed pieces of man-machine music. Like all of their first three records, this has never received an official release, presumably failing to meet their exacting standards of painstaking perfectionism, so this is a rare opportunity to get an original copy. If Kraftwerk grew into the electronic classicists of German music, then Klaus Schulze, as an early member of Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream and subsequently as a prolific solo artist, represented its Romantic aspect. We have his third LP, Blackdance, with its somewhat corny cod-Dali cover. In fact, this contains as much acoustic guitar picking and percussion as it does synthesisers. Julian Cope included it in his top 50 in his book surveying German music of the 60s and 70s, Krautrocksampler, confessing that ‘as a 17 year old, this record was my seduction LP, the only one I had…it’s easy to spend an entire evening just flipping Black Dance back and starting again’.

Florian Fricke, the main creative force behind Popul Vuh, largely put aside synthesisers from an early stage. His music blends improvisation and composition, combining piano, electronic guitar with chamber music arrangements often incorporating sacred vocal sounds. His soundtrack for the 1979 Werner Herzog film Nosferatu includes the lengthy piece Brothers of Darkness, Sons of Light (Bruder des Schattens – Sohne des Lichts), which begins with ominous, subterraenean vocal chants shadowed by mournful oboe and punctuated with dripping, splashing cymbals, before transforming into a circling piano and guitar figure which takes us out into the sun, haloed with a burred haze of sitar and tamboura. Gorgeous sacred music, slowly ascending towards transcendent peaks, and a perfect accompaniement to the Caspar David Friedrich inspired landscapes of Herzog’s film. This one’s made it onto the Oxfam online shop (through the auspices of my trusty compadre Kevin) and you can find it here.

From the same era in England we have a few albums by Van Der Graaf Generator. The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other displays the light and dark side of Peter Hammill’s writing, with the beautiful, plaintively hope-filled ballad Refugees set between the alternate apocalypses, future and historical, of Darkness, White Hammer and After the Flood (one to compare with Peter Gabriel’s Here Comes the Flood). H to He Who Am the Only One is a title which indicates Hammill’s interest in science fiction, religion and mythology, and the album is shot through with these themes, from the monsters of the deep in Killer to the fabular cast of The Emperor in His War Room and the metaphysical cosmic terror of Pioneers Over C. There’s still room for another of his extended, heartfelt ballads, of the sort which found a place in his solo LPs, with House With No Door. Hugh Banton and Dave Jackson’s unison organ and saxophone lines create a uniquely dense and powerful sound, and guest Robert Fripp adds characteristically jagged and surprising guitar lines here and there. A slightly later record from the mid-70s is Still Life, followed up on the themes of the earlier LPs, with Pilgrims a companion of sorts to Refugees, and Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End (with its nod to Arthur C Clarke’s classic novel) continuing Hammill’s use of SF to meditate on transcendence and immortality.

Heading over the pond, we’ve got early Byrds escapee Gene Clark’s lost and rediscovered mid-70s classic of cosmic country pop No Other. Strength of Strings and Lady of the North are soaring songs with the full glimmer of orchestrated and chorally arranged production surrounding Clark’s gently cracked croon. Take a pedal steel glide above the clouds. The Grateful Dead are present in the form of the slightly underwhelming form of Bear’s Choice, Bear being their resident chemist and wayward genius Augustus Owsley Stanley III. He chooses to focus on the Dead’s R&B side, with Pigpen to the fore – always the least interesting aspect of the band to my ears. I expect you had to be there. There’s some pleasing, low key acoustic numbers on the first side, however. The first two solo LPs from Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia, Ace and Garcia, are here. Ace is a Dead album in all but name, with the various members playing throughout. Garcia’s sees him trying out all the instrumentation, with only drummer Billy Kreutzmann on hand to help out, and essaying a little studio experimentation and electronic tape music as well. These LPs contained many of the songs which would remain concert favourites for years to come: Weir’s Playing in the Band, Cassidy, One More Saturday Night and Looks Like Rain, and Garcia and co-writer Robert Hunter’s Deal, Bird Song, Sugaree and Loser. For a bit of Tex-Mex psych, there’s a couple of LPs by The Sir Douglas Quintet, whose whimsically British sounding name did little to disguise the fact that his was a Hispanic and Texan band through and through.

There are a few records by Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. Beefheart’s Clear Spot sees the good Captain aiming for a degree of commerciality, with a slicker production and more direct songs. The results lack the poetry and colour of other records, and Beefheart seems preoccupied with more carnal and earthy matters, neglecting his visionary side. Fortunately, this returns in the later LP Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), the bracketed title track of which memorably creates a crooked rhythm from the juddering swish of windscreen wipers. Floppy Boot Stomp and When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy are irresistibly childlike and infectious. The cover features one of Beefheart’s paintings which would come to occupy his creative talents (as plain old Don van Vliet) in the place of his music (and there are further sketches on the insert lyric sheet). Zappa is present in the form of that old perennial Hot Rats, with Frank sporting a bowler which the pidgeons seem to have got to on the inside cover, striding past the gates of Buckingham Palace. His more scabrous and unappealing side is revealed on the ‘comedy’ of the new Mothers Fillmore East June 1970 album (other portions of which, featuring John and Yoko, turned up on their Some Time in New York City LP), and the 1977 Zoot Allures, which at least has the lyrical, filigreed guitar instrumental interlude Black Napkins.

Finally, we have the third and final of Throbbing Gristle’s original Annual Reports, 1978’s DOA, which mixes their usual, rather desperate ‘industrial’ attempts at being as shocking as they possibly can (the usual mix of fascism, disease, child murder and disfigurement) with more interesting experiments with found sound, tape manipulation and the poppy electronica of the Abba tribute (sort of) AB/7A. If this included the repellent porn calendar insert included with the initial pressing, it would seemingly be worth huge amounts of money. Thankfully it doesn’t. Coming almost up to date, we also have a copy of Boards of Canada’s second LP from 2001, Geogaddi, it’s artificially time encrusted electronica spread across five sides of vinyl, the sixth being inscribed with the figures of a man, woman and child resembling the etchings on the gold plate attached to the side of the Voyager space probe. All this and more should be in the shop in the next few days, so if you’re in the area, pop in and have a look.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Indo-Jazz Fusions, The Travels of Travis and the Doctor's Forgotten Adventures

Some good records have been donated to the Oxfam Music Shop in Exeter of late, and have made their way onto the online shop. There’s a copy of the 1976 LP Doctor Who and the Pescatons, a spoken word record in which the then current Doctor, Tom Baker, narrates a story written by Victor Pemberton. He’s certainly come up with a great monster name, evoking images of large fishy beings exuding a powerful odour. The scaly critter with large, luminous green saucer eyes rising from the waters of the Thames on the cover would tend to confirm this association. Baker is joined by the late great Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane, and Bill Mitchell as Zor, a simple, monosyllabic monster monicker which suggests subtle intelligence is not a salient feature of this particular alien menace. The record was engineered by Robert Parker and Brian Hodgson of the Radiophonic Workshop, who provide incidental sounds and atmospheres. The music was composed and played by Kenny Clayton, apart from Ron Grainer's (and Delia Derbyshire's) legendary theme music, of course.

More spoken word tales come in the strange form of a 1959 half-speed 16 rpm LP (presumably allowing more running time) on Top Rank/Vanguard in which Nelson Olmstead reads some of Edgar Allan's Poe's classic horror stories and gothic poetry. A good cover, in which the swooping, sharp-fanged bat seems to oddly echo Edgar’s hair and the rounded collar of his sober jacket. Many of Poe’s key works are sampled here, with a fair few having formed the basis of Roger Corman’s cycle of adaptations in the 60s; namely The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, The Cask of Amontillado, The Black Cat and The Strange Case of M.Valdemar (all featuring in whole or part in the anthology film Tales of Terror), The Raven (well, yes, a very loose adaptation, played for laughs) and, perhaps best of all, Ligeia, filmed as The Tomb of Ligeia.

There are a couple of interesting East West fusion records from the 60s. Ravi Shankar was the pioneer and inspiration, of course, and we have his 1962 LP Improvisations in which he plays variations on his evocative and touching theme from Satyajit Ray’s 1955 film Pather Panchali, the first of the trilogy about the progress of the Bengali village boy Apu. He’s joined by West Coast jazz flautist Bud Shank on this one, who also takes part in the full on fusion of Fire-Night, which also features Dennis Budimir on guitar, bassist Gary Peacock and Louis Hayes on drums. Peacock was in the early days of his musical career here, which would see him playing with Albert Ayler on the free jazz classic Spiritual Unity, form a musical partnership with Paul Bley, make a couple of beautiful duet albums with Oregon guitarist Ralph Towner and, from the 80s onwards, settle down into the long-term renown of Keith Jarrett’s Standards trio, where he somehow manages to ignore the pianist’s incessant moaning and wheedling. Ravi engages in a different sort of fusion on Karnataki, blending Northern Hindustani classical music with the Southern Caranatic style.

We also have a copy (the second one which has come our way of late) of a more British take on Indo-jazz fusions: not John Mayer and Joe Harriott’s well-known recordings, but a record with the dubious title Curried Jazz made by a temporary grouping known as the Indo-Jazz Ensemble. This features the great British (well, Canadian, but he’s been based in Britain since the 50s) trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, who celebrated his 82nd birthday last week, and is happily still in fine form. The group also features Ray Swinfield on flute, an Australian musician who moved to England in the 60s. Swinfield was a regular member of Johnny Dankworth’s band and a prominent figure on the 60s British jazz scene. He was also a tireless session musician, and featured on The Beatles’ Penny Lane. He recorded with Johnny Pearson (who died just last year) on many of his KPM library recordings, and I’m fairly sure he is the flautist bringing a touch of the pastoral to the brave new high-rise world of Mary, Mungo and Midge, which used selections of Pearson’s ‘Mini’ tracks (Mini Walking, Mini Clarinet, Mini Movement etc.). He teamed up with Kenny Wheeler again along with a great group of jazz musicians to provide the soundtrack for the varied adventures of Mr Benn. His contributions are particularly effective in the balloon race episode, with the lovely theme accompanying Mr Benn and his cohort’s dreamy drift through the clouds. The music which propels chase scenes or conveys bustling activity is a particularly tricksy and fastpaced piece of lightning bebop, expertly played in faultless ensemble. There’s a bit of breathy flute exotica over a tom-tom rhythm in The Hunter episode, and even a blast of raucous, atonal free jazz chords in the Spaceman story. ‘Mr Benn and the spaceman ran back to the spaceship, the noise was so terrible’, Ray Brooks observes in his narration, perhaps a reflection of common percepetions about the wilder shores of freeform jazz improvisation in the 60s and early 70s. This is definitely music worthy of the attention of Mr Trunk for a potential future release. Swinfield released one LP under his own name in 1968, One For Ray, which featured compositional input from Barbara Moore, she of the Barbara Moore Singers, who also produced some of the most distinctive library sounds of the era. The solarized and dazzlingly colour-drenched photographic cover is unmistakeably of its time.

We have the soundtrack LP to Lindsay Anderson’s sprawling, surreal 1973 film O Lucky Man!, which follows the picaresque misadventures of Malcolm McDowell’s Travis through the various levels of society and murky professional masonries in the England of the time. Alan Price’s band turn up at various intervals (with Helen Mirren in tow) and look on with distanced amusement, and the songs provide a jaundiced commentary on the proceedings in a traditional theatrical manner. Travis, who Anderson would take into one final film in 1979, Britannia Hospital, first appeared in If…, full of anger and firy, romantic rebellion. We have the LP Missa Luba, recorded by the Congolese vocal group Troubadours du Roi Baudouin, which contains the Sanctus which Travis repeatedly plays as he waits to make his move. It even turns up on the jukebox (probably only the jukebox in his head) to console him after he’s received a resounding slap from Christine Noonan’s dark-haired roadside café siren.

The Modern Jazz Quartet’s The Sherriff is notable for its fantastic cover, designed by Polish artist Stanislaw Zagorski. Zagorski also designed many Polish film posters in an era when Eastern European poster design was at a real artistic peak. These posters often avoided direct representation of the film’s content, aiming instead for a telling image or piece of surrealist association which would evoke the spirit of the picture. Skulls often seemed to feature, particularly when it came to Hitchcock movies. There’s a great book of Polish film posters in Exeter library for any in this neck of the woods who wish to explore further. Zagorski also designed the cover for the Velvet Underground’s Loaded LP, the one with the roseate clouds floating up from the subway entrance. The music of The Sheriff includes some Brazilian tunes, de rigeur for the time (1963), although the Quartet, as befits their restrained classicism, steers away from the standard bossa favourites and opts instead for one of the pieces from composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras suite.

When it comes to undiluted strangeness, its impossible to outweird The Residents. The compilation Ralph Before 84: Volume 1 gathers together a variety of material from the anonymous San Franciscans originally released, via their Cryptic Corporation, on their own Ralph Records lable. Matt Groening is a big fan, and The Residents have probably influenced his skewed view of the world's inherent oddness to a great degree. He included them in his All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in 2010, and they put on a compelling show, strange, theatrical and musically disconcerting. These tracks are taken from the LPs Residue, Duck Stab/Buster and Glen, Subterranean Modern, The Tunes of Two Cities, Fingerprince, Title In Limbo and the imaginary anthropological study Eskimo. It’s a good and wide-ranging general introduction which even includes a James Brown cover, It’s a Man’s Man’s World. Needless to say, it differs significantly from the original, and further covers of easy listening and rock and roll standards I Left My Heart in San Francisco and Jailhouse Rock warp the originals in wonderful ways.

More theatrical musical comes in the form of The Incredible String Band’s U, recording the original psych folk band's touring song and dance show, or 'surreal parable' as they style it. Mike Heron and Robin Williamson are joined by Rose Simpson and Licorice McKechnie, along with dance troupe Stone Monkey, amongst whom is Malcolm leMaistre, a future member of the band. The record was produced by Joe Boyd. Whilst it’s generally accepted that they overreached themselves with this ambitious multi-media project, Williamson's Queen of Love and Invocation are fine songs, the former featuring some lush orchestrations, and they stand up alongside the band's best. Changing Horses was the 1969 follow up to the double album Wee Tam and the Big Huge, which had found them at their creative peak. This is a bit of a comedown, dominated by lengthy, multi-part epics written by Heron and Williamson, neither of which really cohere in the way that A Very Cellular Song had on The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. This was the LP in which Williamson and Heron’s other halves, Rose Simpson and Licorice McKechnie, joined the fray. The cover photo, by Janet Shankman, is perhaps the definitive representation of the Edenic, rainbow-coloured hippie idyll which the likes of the Incredible String Band dreamed of and tried in a muddled way to achieve in the late 60s. Both LPs were produced by Joe Boyd, the architect of the British psych/folk/rock sound of the era, who provided similar services for Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan.

North Carolina singer-songwriter and producer Teresa Trull’s debut LP The Ways A Woman Can Be is an interesting and inspiring record of 1970s feminism. It was released on the Olivia Records label, which was run by women for the benefit of women, giving them a supportive environment free from the usual pressures and prejudices of the music industry. The songs address the issues of the women’s movement at the time, and there is a strong sense both of celebration and of self-questioning. The music is soulful and bluesy, with a hefty brass-based backing band, loudly getting the message across without the usual introspective singer-songwriter quietude. We also have The second LP by Throwing Muses, House Tornado, centring around the formidable songwriting presence of Kristin Hersh, at this time also ably abetted by Tanya Donelly in pre-Belly and Breeders days. They both provide songs, sing in a powerfully declamatory style and play angular, off-kilter guitars, creating a whirlwind of circling, rhythmically offbeat sound. The distinctive paintings and collages on cover and insert were created by the artist Shinro Ohtake. And that’s all for now.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Secret Garden at the Bike Shed Theatre

The Bikeshed Theatre (named after the sizeable bicycle shop beneath which it lies – more of a bike hangar, in fact) in Exeter staged a richly imagined adaptation of The Secret Garden earlier this week. It was performed by the Dorset-based troupe Angel Exit Theatre, and it marks the centenary of the publication of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s well-loved novel, which has steadily grown in reputation over recent decades to achieve recognition as one of the major twentieth century works of children’s literature. I had vague memories of the mid-70s BBC TV adaptation, but was entirely unfamiliar with the book, and thus came to the story largely without any preconceptions; The ideal blank state in which to approach any story.

Burnett’s tale has a harsh underlying lack of sentimentality, centring around two children who are both, at least initially, intensely unlikeable. Mary Lennox grows up in Imperial India, the neglected child of parents who show her little love and leave her lonely and brittlely introverted. When they both die during a cholera outbreak, she is left for alone in the house for a while before being discovered and shipped off to England in the cold company of the fearsomely dragonish Mrs Medlock. She begins life again in a rambling old Yorkshire mansion on the edge of the moors, the home of Mr Craven, a remote uncle whom she has never met before, and who has no interest in making her acquaintance now that she has come to stay. He is merely doing his duty as an Edwardian gentleman in agreeing to look after her. Left largely to her own devices, and wishing to escape from the stultifying atmosphere of the neglected, labyrinthine house, she explores the grounds and becomes fascinated by a walled garden which seems to have no entrance, and whose existence nobody seems willing to acknowledge. A robin leads her to a buried key, and she uncovers a door when she disturbs a sweep of ivy. The wild garden she discovers within becomes her sacred space of imaginative play, and draws her out of the stubbornly inward, arrogant insularity which has led her to be so dismissively rude towards Martha, the maid, and Ben Weatherstaff, the gardener. These two take on the role of surrogate parents, but her closest companion becomes Martha’s son Dickon, a gentle-spirited local nature boy, who has a tamed fox as a familiar. She lets him into her secret world (and was Kate Bush’s song Under the Ivy maybe drawing out the potential underlying symbolism of this scenario, in an Angela Carter fashion?) and together they set about nurturing the garden back into life.

Back in the house, Mary is disturbed by pained wails winding through the night corridors. Conquering her fear, and dismissing Martha’s denials, she traces their source to a room in which a sickly boy is confined to his bed. He is Colin, the son of Mr Craven, who is apparently afflicted with a deformity of the spine, and believes that he is withering towards an early death. He is a pitiable creature, and no-one pities him more than himself. Sealed in his bedroom universe, he gleans all that he knows of the world from his books. Mary joins him in his bookish explorations, and in turn tries to coax him out into her secret world. She and Dickon entice him with tales of the garden, and when they finally manage to trundle him out to it in a wheelbarrow, he is entranced by the enclosed, magical world. As time and the seasons progress, he begins to regain some of his strength, filled with new vigour as the garden springs into life, as if, under careful tending, he has himself become a part of its perennial growth and renewal. It had been a place beloved of his mother, who had grown roses there. But she had fallen from a favourite perch in a bower and died from resulting complications. The garden subsequently became a dark space, associated with death as well as with a life whose absence was still rawly felt. It was closed off and declared a no-place, erased from the garden’s map; painful memories sealed and buried. Ben Weatherstaff, the archetypally surly, no-nonsense Yorkshire gardener (akin to Geoffrey Smith, a regular on BBC radio 4’s Gardener’s Question Time, which my parents regularly tuned in to) had honoured her last requests and returned to surreptitiously prune the bushes and keep it alive in the form in which he had helped her to create it. But the creeping spread of his rheumatism eventually made of the wall an unscaleable barrier, and the interior grew wild and untamed, more briar than bloom.

Mr Craven spends much of the story travelling hard across the world, attempting to diminish the continuing pain at the death of his wife through physical distance. But as Colin’s health improves and the garden blossoms, he begins to hear an insistent voice urging him to return home. When he does, he finds the children in the garden, and Colin now able to walk again. His spirit is also transformed by the sight of the garden, his wife’s space which is once more full of the life she sowed in it (her son included), and the crippling melancholia which has for so long weighed heavily upon him begins to lift.

It was immediately clear (through the haze) upon entering the small, vaulted cellar auditorium of the Bike Shed Theatre that Angel Exit intended to engage all the spectator’s senses. The Indian environment in which the story starts was conjured with tamboura drones and billowing clouds of incense smoke. Already, outside in the bar area, we had come across scattered paper flowers and leaves and draped and entwined stretches of cloth patterned with floral designs which had led us to the theatre doors and prepared us for entering a different world. The incense created a heady, intoxicating fug (not a word you get to use so much these days) which immediately transported you elsewhere. Its lingering miasma in the opening scenes also served to suggest the sickly sweet pall of disease hanging in the air as the outbreak of cholera spread. Incense was pumped out again to usher us back into the story after the interval, taking us away from the smells of the bar and café. This time it evoked the rich, somnambulant scents of a hazy summer day, with the secret garden in full flower. The recurrence of scents drew the two worlds together, Mary having discovered the particular beauty and fascination inherent in the new world which she had at first utterly rejected. The exotic and the miraculous are everpresent, and can be revealed in the seemingly everyday and ordinary.

Observant statues - Cocteau's La Belle et La Bete
Angel Exit created a magical space upon the stage with minimal means, the parsimony with props necessary for a travelling company balanced by the imagination and ingenuity with which they were put to use. The illusion of depth and distance was given by the movements and gestures of the cast, who drafted architectural and garden plans in the wake of their regard. Poles (which would later become garden implements) were held up and shifted over and across to suggest the maze of corridors through which Mary was guided when she first arrived at the Craven house. Pictures and empty picture frames were lined up at head height to give the impression of the walls from which they hung. The faces of the actors positioned within the frames provided instant portraits. Their heads turned to follow Mary’s progress as she passed them by in a manner which immediately brought to mind the living statues and caryatids in the castle of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete. Such a comparison was further struck by the chorus’ formation of living furniture, of bedposts, washing line poles or even railway carriage luggage racks; static and rooted yet still observant.

Interior domestic appurtenances were swiftly re-arranged and recast to become aspects of the tamed natural world of the garden. A carpet’s dark weave, patterned with gloomy, dull colours representing the airless, lifeless world of the house was flipped over to reveal a strip of greengrocer’s grass on the obverse side, which served as the emerald baize of a well-tended lawn. Chests of drawers drawn out became bushes and vine covered walls, and the interiors of cupboards, doors spread wide open, became shady bowers under which characters sat. Long bolts of cloth were unrolled and hung and draped in undulating, criss-crossing banners, their floral designs appropriate to the season: spring blossoms and summer roses. Soft, stuffed props of a semi-abstract nature resembling the knots of thorn which appear in Graham Sutherland paintings were scattered throughout, inside and out, taking on forms appropriate to their context. They suggested objects on dressers or cupboards (brushes and hangars), mounted antlers (or antlers placed upon the crown of a head), roots, branches and rose thorns.

The members of the small cast each took on a variety of roles, Mary excepted, her presence on stage being continuous. The Lady Bracknell-like Mrs Medlock, loosely draped in a dour, floor-length black dress topped by a floppy black hat and veil, was a natural for a drag act, in the manner of Alec Guiness playing Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets. The actor later became the puny child Colin, a role at the opposite extreme from Mrs M’s formidable and forbidding aloofness. He played him in a broad, clowning style, initially communicating in a series of breathless, animalistic whoops, and warding off potential contact with wheeling and wholly ineffectual karate chop gestures. Mary herself conveyed fierce and scornful self-containment by remaining for the greater part of the play with shoulders tensely hunched and arms held firmly and petulantly, fists clenched, by her side. This stance was only temporarily dropped when she exploded into motion in sudden foot-stamping tantrums. Eventually, this wearying rigidity began to relax as she opened herself to her surroundings and responded to the kindness and patience of those who inhabited them, discovering beauty in the world and allowing it in.

All of the cast also took their turn (Mary once more excepted) in a lively chorus, which served several purposes. They told us of the characters’ actions, motivations and feelings; bridged gaps in the narrative; noted the passage of time; commented on the action in classical dramatic style; and moved and transformed props. They also acted as living props themselves, holding up the blossom-speckled material or giving shape to the bed with suspended curtains, or striking acrobatic poses to combine into a garden hedge. In Angel Exit’s very Pagan reading of the book, they were like nature spirits, arms veined with rooty brown tendrils, leaves and feathers crowning their heads, woven into wild hair. Their eyes were made up to appear in the almond-shaped style of Victorian and Edwardian fairy paintings, as depicted by the likes of Richard Dadd, Arthur Rackham and Richard Doyle. They creep out of and return to the backstage shadows, creatures caught in the periphery of vision. They are not sympathetic or compassionate observers (this is not what the characters need at first, anyway), seeming largely indifferent to the plight of those the edges of whose story they haunt. Occasionally their comments take on a mocking tone, but they are never malevolent. They are not active participants, maintaining the distanced, coolly measured perspective of the wholly other.

Simple puppets were used for the lightly anthropomorphised birds, animals and reptiles with which the characters commune, and which seem to guide them at key moments (the Robin indeed leading Mary to the key to the garden gate). The snake in the opening Indian section circles Mary as she lies in what appears to be a fever dream (an opening which allows for the possibility that all that follows is indeed but a dream within a dream). It rattles and hisses as if it is trying to tell her something. She sees it and tells it that she does not fear it. It’s a dialogue which anticipates her later communications with the robin in England, and once more links the two worlds; the standard Kipling exoticism of India with the mystery found within the commonplace in a Yorkshire garden. The snake, in its fearful, poison-tongued aspect, seems to be a harbinger of the death of her parents. But it is also a creature which has represented change and rebirth throughout the ages and across cultures, and thus presages the transformation of her life.
The robin is manipulated by the actress who plays Martha, who makes it flitter from branch to rake head with convincing birdlike skittishness. She also shifts from Martha’s Yorkshire accent to an avian trilling which contains auditory hints of human language. The fox is a sinuous wind of bristly material with a vulpine snout at its head, which is made to glide and weave across the stage in Dickon’s wake. There is also a miniscule puppet of Mr Craven, which stands in for the actor playing the role during part of his endless journeying. It slowly ascends the Alpine slope of an upward sweep of curtain, whose creases are crevasses and folds escarpments. Its tiny form symbolises the insignificance of man in the face of the spectacle of the Romantic sublime in all its terrifying grandiosity. It also represents Mr Craven’s own diminished and desolate spiritual state. His self-punishing journeys and his confrontation with immensity and the void is a dead end. He needs to return home to discover that nature can also reveal itself on a human scale, against which a sense of meaning can more appreciably be measured.

This was a performance which also incorporated much choreographed physical movement, which often approached the condition of dance. On her trip over to England, Mary was handled like a piece of baggage, her body remaining rigidly straight as she was lifted, spun around and deposited, a passive and unyielding ballerina. The motion of the train in which Mary and Mrs Medlock travelled was conveyed by a rhythmic bounce, ending with a tilting forward sway as it came to a juddering halt. There was a certain amount of miming involved in the opening of invisible doors and the negotiating of phantom garden walkways. The chorus also prowled and leapt in a very balletic manner, sprites treading lightly upon the ground, creatures of the air as much as of the earth.

This was a thoroughly engaging, charming and heartwarming piece of storytelling. Angel Exit Theatre brought the world of the book to life with great imagination and invention, bringing their own particular perspective to the story. They drew out its Pagan aspects, its English nature mysticism (I don’t know to what extent these are apparent in the novel). It is a rewarding and worthy way of celebrating the centenary of The Secret Garden’s publication, marking the continuing fascination exerted by an enduring classic of children’s literature. The company continue on their tour through January, February and March, ending up in Poole in Dorset in April.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Peter Zinovieff on Inside Out

Zinvovieff with the Synthi 100
It’s great to see British electronic music pioneer Peter Zinovieff in this clip from the Cambridge regional programme Inside Out (starting about 17 minutes in), which shows him still exploring and dissecting new (or old) sounds – in this case, the clanking, steaming pistons of a Victorian gas pump engine. He’s interviewed in his house, which looks very nice indeed, painted in calming blue-sky tones with an open-sided staircase climbing up along the wall. It looks like it could be akin to the sort of farmhouse in which Daphne Oram set up her Oramics studio. It’s here that he works in his computer-based studio which, as he points out, offers him a magnitude of bytage (?) several million times greater than he had at his disposal when he first started making music with a computer in the early 60s. Vintage black and white footage shows him setting off his cabinet-sized computer on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank (which also affords us a glimpse of the NFT, below Waterloo Bridge, as it was at the time) to play a piece of programmed systems music in a concert of electronic music. And is that Tristram Cary introducing the piece from his commentator’s booth perched above the auditorium? Those familiar with the Trunk Records compilation Fuzzy Felt Folk will probably be familiar with the sprightly, bouncing tune with its organ-drenched chorus used as the backdrop to some of these old BBC clips. It’s The Troll by Reg Tilsley, originally a piece of library music available from the de Wolfe label, which someone evidently felt was appropriate for the quirky nature of Zinovieff’s inventions.

The EMS VCS3 synthesiser
Cary was the co-founder with Zinovieff of EMS (Electronic Music Studios), where they developed the VCS3, an early model of synthesiser (the VCS stood for voltage controlled synthesiser). He also joined up with Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire, then both working for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, to form the independent electronic music studio Unit Delta Plus in 1966. This was how the VCS3, or ‘Putney’ as it was popularly known, came to be used as part of the Workshop’s sonic arsenal. Although it was only officially purchased on the say-so of Workshop head Desmond Briscoe in 1970 (at a knockdown price of £300), Hodgson and Derbyshire had been using their own instruments since 1967. They’d bring them into the Workshop studios and take them back to Unit Delta Plus in the evening. These small magic boxes provided many of the special effects for Doctor Who and other programmes in the latter part of the 60s. One of the great benefits of the VCS3 was its portability, something which, for all its manifold virtues, could not be said of its successor, the Synthi 100. This was a far larger affair which expanded considerably upon the VCS3’s capabilities. When the Radiophonic Workshop bought one (Briscoe having rapidly become a convert to EMS’ wares) the door to the studio at Maida Vale had to be widened to allow for it to be wheeled in and installed. It was christened the Delaware, in honour of the road in which the studios were located. It can be heard to great effect on Malcolm Clarke’s music for the Sea Devils, as well as on his fanfare opening the 1975 Radiophonic Workshop album, La Grande Piece de la Foire de la Rue Delaware. Delia Derbyshire also used it to striking effect in a live performance of Workshop music presented in the presence of the Queen at the Albert Hall in 1971. Her piece for the centenary of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, using a Synthi 100 borrowed from Zinovieff, set the stalls trembling with its low bass notes booming out of large speakers, particularly during a recording of the launch of the Apollo 11 rocket, perhaps setting Her Majesty’s jewellery rattling.

The VCS3 and its later offshoot the Synthi AKS (which added a sequencer and an octave controller and could be handily folded up into its case) were enthusiastically taken up by 70s pop and rock bands such as Hawkwind, Pink Floyd and Roxy Music. Their easy to use, intuitive controls (far easier to master than a Moog, at any rate) allowed for a wide range of electronic textures to be added to the standard rock instrumentation. The facility with which anyone with an ear could produce a musical noise was possibly what led Brian Eno (who used it in Roxy and beyond) to declare himself a non-musician. Zinovieff himself was no fan of pop or rock music, but was happy to find his and Cary’s inventions proving to be so popular. Composers like Stockhausen and Harrison Birtwistle came to use his studios, and he was able to use the income to pursue his own compositional ambitions, as well as inventing and researching new means for creating innovative sound. Keeping such a small and idealistic enterprise afloat proved difficult, however, and EMS eventually went bust in 1977. Zinovieff didn’t compose any further electronic music for many years, the equipment being simply too expensive. All of which makes it so gratifying to see him now, with the full, affordable potential of the modern computer at his command, blending mutated Bartok field recordings with the iron and steam rhythms of an old pumping engine. He’s clearly lost none of his exploratory imaginative power.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Arthur Machen on Night Waves

There was an interesting item in the Radio 3 arts magazine programme Night Waves the other night in which Iain Sinclair and Stewart Lee discussed the writer of the supernatural Arthur Machen with host Matthew Sweet, author of the entertainingly discursive meander through popular British cinema Shepperton Babylon (it's not included in the summary of the show's contents, but you can find it about 20 minutes in). This was to mark the publication of a Penguin Classics volume of Machen’s uncanny fiction, The White People and Other Weird Stories, which will sit neatly alongside the publisher’s previous annotated collections of Algernon Blackwood, MR James and HP Lovecraft. As with those volumes, a scholarly introduction and extensive footnotes are provided by ST Joshi. It’s a measure of Machen’s relative obscurity (and thus enhanced cult status) that it has taken so long for him to join their august company. This collection has an foreword by Guillermo del Toro, a proselytiser for the weird in classic and contemporary form, who helps to nurture it and maintain it in decadent bloom. The cover revels in what Stewart Lee describes as a 1970s heavy metal satyr, a link to del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth which is clearly trying to use his popularity to push Machen to a wider audience. Given del Toro’s well-informed dvd commentaries on his own films and on the likes of Vampyr, its evident that he is adept at tracing lines of continuity in the tradition of supernatural and uncanny literature and film, and he brings Machen in as a prime progenitor of that tradition here.

Lee has previously owned up to his Machen obsessions in his confessional article My Life on the Shelf. Measuring the components of his impressive library of books and music, he reckons on owning 3 feet of Machen books, a considerable girth given the general scarcity of his work in print. It’s not as wide as the 6 feet of music by The Fall which he’s amassed,but then the discographies of certain bands do tend to proliferate and grow wildly and wilfully out of control. Mark E Smith is also a fan of occult and supernatural fiction, as witnessed by this video recently posted on Weird Brother in which he gives a cosy fireside reading of The Colour Out of Space. Lovecraft was also a huge admirer of Machen’s work, and comments in his long 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, ‘of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen, author of some dozen tales long and short, in which elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness’. He goes on to quote from Frank Belknap Long’s poem On Reading Arthur Machen, a paean to the enchantments cast by his writing. The English composer John Ireland was also greatly influenced by Machen, and as Rob Young observes in his book Electric Eden, he felt that ‘no-one who had not read Machen’s fiction could properly understand his music’. The Hill of Dreams and The Happy Children had a particularly strong impact upon his imagination. His 1933 piece Legend, for piano and orchestra, was dedicated to Machen, and inspired by a vision he had whilst picknicking on Harrow Hill on the Sussex Downs, the site of an old bronze age hill fort. He saw a group of children in ancient clothing dancing before him. He looked away, and when he turned back, they had gone. The music evokes the dramatic landscape and, with its swelling, romantic piano figures, the manifestation of the old, layered stories and half-remembered mythological figures which are inscribed in it. Writing to Machen to describe his encounter with these mysterious, otherworldly apparaitions, he received the brief, scribbled affirmation ‘oh, you’ve seen them too’.

Machen’s distanced interest in the occult and in the underlying matter of British mythology, alongside his marginal life in London literary society make him an obvious object of interest for Iain Sinclair. He postions him as a writer of ‘London wanderings, and edgelands, and disappearances’. A typical Sinclair character, in other words. His projections of the city are layered over an older landscape, that of his Welsh upbringing, Sinclair suggests, with a deep and richly strange archaeology of resonant myth. Sinclair recalls his days as a London bookseller, with his stall in Camden Passage in Islington. Machen was always in great demand (this was the mid-70s through to the mid-80s), partly because his books were largely out of print and difficult to dig up. Many copies came on the market through Jon Savage, author of the history of the Sex Pistols and the emergence of punk England’s Dreaming. This points to further secret connections with deeply rooted English dissenting traditions of defiant strangeness which emerge at different times in different forms. The sparseness with which Machen’s work has found itself in print has added to the mystery surrounding it, and led to what Matthew Sweet called the fetishisation of the book. We’re lucky enough to have several volumes of the 1923 Caerleon editions of the Works of Arthur Machen in Exeter Library, which means we can read the likes of Far Off Things, Fragment of Life, The Inmost Light, Hill of Dreams and The Great Return. There’s also a 1915 edition of The Bowmen and Other Legends of War. The story The Bowmen features spectral archers from Agincourt coming to the aid of British soldiers in the First World War trenches. Genuine reports of such sightings began subsequently to be reported, fiction seeping out into the real world and influencing people’s war-stunned perceptions. Machen might protest that these were merely the products of his imagination, and not his version of actual myths, but he came to realise that he had let loose a new set of archetypes into the world, and went on to use them as such. It’s great to have a volume from the actual time that such myths were being formulated and spreading beyond his control. Another indication of the vital value of public libraries in keeping long out of print works available to the general reader.

Iain Sinclair uses Machen’s best known story, The Great God Pan, in his novel Landor’s Tower He superimposes it over the associative flow of the narrative and allowing the power of its language to temporarily ensnare the narrator in its initial, terrible experiment, which releases the ancient spirit of the dark woods loose in modern day London, embodied in the young woman who was subject to the doctor’s abominable surgeries. Sinclair quotes Machen’s description of depthless worlds opening up within and beyond this one, ‘a whole world, a sphere unknown; continents and islands, and great oceans in which no ship sailed (to my belief) since Man first lifted up his eyes and beheld the sun, and the stars of heaven, and the quiet earth beneath’. He had previously used William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland to similar effect in Radon Daughters. In both of these occult tales of cosmic terror and ecstasy, rifts are opened in the normative surface of the world, revealing greater, timeless underlying abysses. Sinclair uses them to hint at the intoxicating, spellbinding power of reading itself. The magic of the word effecting changes in perception through carefully forged language. With The Bowmen, such changes seemed actually take form in the world, the imagination made manifest. Landor’s Tower finds Sinclair (or the story’s narrator, a version or aspect of the author) travelling beyond the orbit of his familiar London territory, returning to the Wales of his childhood, tracing a transition similar to that made by Machen himself. It’s easy to see why he has such an affinity for the Welsh writer who moved to London to establish himself.

Machen’s interest in the occult led him to join, for a short span of time, the fin de siecle circle of those seeking some secret mystery patterning the world, the Order of the Golden Dawn, in 1899. Here, he was able to mix with the likes of WB Yeats and his fellow author of supernatural tales Algernon Blackwood. Machen’s studies were always more a matter of curiosity and distanced interest than Blackwood’s more committed questing, however. He maintained a healthy scepticism about all matters occult, and later wrote of the Golden Dawn that ‘the society as a society was pure foolishness concerned with impotent and imbecilic Abracadabras’. He was not a believer, and his stories remained dreams rather than expressions of a spiritualist worldview.

Sinclair sees Machen’s stories as offering efflorescing worlds born (or reborn) within worlds, in which he splices together his own personal mythology, formed of his observations of his urban surroundings, and his interest in the deeper layers of British Matter compressed beneath them. The White People exemplifies this layered quality, the Germanic folk stories at its heart emerging from the everyday in a manner memorably described as ‘viscous’. Stewart Lee talks of the sense in Machen’s work of a corruption of the spirit resulting from city or suburban life, with its fixed daily routines and mechanised rhythms. Natural forces tend to reassert themselves, both in the world and in the psyche. Sinclair refers to the story The Inmost Light, in which Machen writes of ‘the deformities of London’, and points to his portrayal of a patterned city, with a Welsh or old English landscape underlying its modern, industrialised (now finance industrialised) carapace. Stewart Lee draws attention to the element of hackwork in some of Machen’s writing, which included journalism turned out for the London Evening News, not necessarily to decry it, but to make it clear that he was a working writer who had to make ends meet (he had a family with two children to keep). Both declare their appreciation of The London Adventure, Or the Art of Wandering , a piece of observational autobiography and literary urban cartography, which is available in Exeter Library in a 1924 edition (the year of its publication, in fact, so presumably a first edition). It was written for money, but became almost a meditation upon its own creation, and the need to bring it to a conclusion. He was, to an extent, the archetypal impoverished artist, periodically starving in his lonely garrett, with all the aura of romanticism and actual squalor that such a state entails.

Both of these Machen aficionados seem entranced by his work for its very intangible quality, for what it almost but never quite reveals, both in terms of its hints at other, vaster realities, and in terms of the nature of the author himself; The detailed, occasionally even banal surface which slowly begins to phase into something other, revealing suggestive layers of great mystery emerging from below. Stewart Lee sums up this sense of reaching towards something which remains always just beyond the mind’s grasp by suggesting that there’s an unknowable centre to Machen’s work. Which is why his stories have always woven an addictive spell, and continue to do so to this day.