Thursday, 29 March 2012

Chto Delat vs Fluxus

There is a battle for the soul of creativity, which rages across genres, across time, across art forms. In certain periods, one side will dominate: yet even in the most polarised skirmish, neither side can deny the opposition’s importance. Ranged on the high ground, with battalions of conceptualists and scholiasts, are The Forces That Believe in Form. The plains are held by Those Who Believe in Content.

The 1960s looked tasty for the Formalists. Their enthusiasm is for the way that art is presented. Recognisable tricks include the classic “Ah, but what is art?” bombshell, dropped by Marcel Duchamp when he exhibited a pissoir in a gallery; the adventures of Fluxus, as booked by Minimal Extreme; the abstract choreographer of ballet.

Yet the Content Young Team has always been more populist. Emphasising what the art is actually about, their ranks feature the great romantic ballets (sod finding new moves, let’s get down to Romeo and Juliet’s tragedy) and Chto Delat, Russian troublemakers and stars of Arika Episode 3. Critics, always an alienated bunch, might be able to play both sides. This critic is sufficiently lazy to have grasped hold of a tagline  - I don’t believe in systematising taste – and so gets to run with both packs.

Glass/Flux was a sweet introduction to the Fluxus gang – kicking off with LaMonte Young’s hummed Composition 1960 #7. It wasn’t clear whether Ars Nova had actually started: as a teacher, it brought back nasty memories of those times a class acted in unison to create a low level buzz that might just be my hearing aid playing up, again. But the interludes taken from Philip Glass’ opera Einstein on the Beach were cunning interjections. They marked the shift between pieces – Jackson Mac Low’s The Blueburd Assymetries and Dick Higgins’ hank and mary, a love story, a choral could have run into each other too easily, since they both juggled words in disordered orders – and gave a quick blast of how Glass enjoyed playing with form without getting hung up on content. The choir sung them beautifully, Jonathan Morton gave it laldy on the violin, but the actual words were just numbers, counting.

Fluxus were naughty youngsters meddling with the zeitgeist: on the rump of hippy culture (LaMonte Young inspired The Velvet Underground via John Cale) and a more rigorous classical heritage, their selection at ME was psychedelic and witty. Emmett Williams had Paul Hillier, the big chief of contemporary choral, grunt and grumble his way through Genesis until the strange candle lighting ritual resolved into the Grand Phrase That Started the Universe. It’s high concept all the way – every piece questioned what a choir could do and still call it music – but equally funny. A score for the Formalists.

Chto Delat weighed in with The Russian Woods. The references to post-modern dance, the lecture demonstration and choral sing-along were in place, but secondary to the clear enunciation of the idea. The Russian Woods are a transparent metaphor for contemporary Russian capitalism. Broad enough to apply to any country, but made specific by some fancy video footage, The Russian Woods made a stark comment on how the apparently diffuse layers of society – from celebrities to internet geeks – are part of a social ecosystem.

Despite the laboured interludes, The Russian Woods is healthy food for thought. Rather than wail against the system, it sought to understand how it operates, linking the activities of the church to those of the media. The direct address to the audience, the self-deprecating chatter of the performers as they reflect on the process of the product while they make it: Chto Delat are more interested in saying their piece, and making it stick in the memory.

This cosmic square-go is, perhaps, ultimately about the purpose of art. The Formalist tend to see it as an end in itself, although they might add that the cognitive dissonance produced by artists messing with the way art is presented might have a social and political dimension: the Contentualists (sorry) often grade art according to its social or political function, even when they consciously exploit the format to support the content. Both the Fluxus crew and the Chto Delat gang are provocative. They hot-wire the easy judgement – I am not sure whether The Russian Woods is amateur propaganda or a subtle parody of  the way that media is screwing my mind – and expect the audience to engage. I’ll call it a draw, or plaintively ask whether I can have both.  

Arika vs Minimal Extreme

While they aren’t always lessons I wish to learn – I am determinedly not sold on Marxist foundations for aesthetic endeavour – Arika’s triple festival took an exciting stroll into theory and format. The first two episodes emphasised discussion and concepts, while the third dives straight into the ways that contemporary art can respond to political situations. I might quibble with some of the speakers – again, it’s about my low tolerance for Marxism as anything more than just another competing ideology, alongside a few questions about how the impressive sounding language transforms into meaningful mundane action – but Arika’s format, which places the actual artistic happenings between intelligent lectures and debates, points a way out of the usual festival grind.

Over in The City Halls, Minimal Extreme goes old school, offering more minimalism than before and ranging away from the predictable runs of Glass and Reich. Like the lamented National Review of Live Art, and this year’s noob, Buzzcut, Minimal Extreme throws a huge variety at the audience. The audience is left to find their own way through the programme. Yet the balance between the familiar (Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet by Gavin Bryars even got covered by Tom Waits) and the awkward (the new works from Bang On A Can, the selections from Louis Andriessen).

Barry Esson, Arika’s public face, did express his intention to reconsider what it means to hold an “experimental festival”. This reconsideration was an astounding success. Instead of a relentless succession of bands (compare Arika’s Instal, which was wonderful in its own right), there is time to shoot the breeze, listen in to the latest theories on “positive nihilism” and realise that a Japanese artist knobbing about amongst some cupboard boxes can be a moving attempt to embody the hopelessness of human existence. For Minimal Extreme, director Sven Brown is following the value for money route: for the price of a fancy symphonic orchestra, he can put on an entire weekend.

Ironically, since Minimal Extreme and Episode 3 occupied the same weekend and undoubtedly share an audience with a taste for the extraordinary, the two festivals have a great deal to teach each other. While Minimal Extreme could do with a little more of the chat that made Episodes 1 and 2 powerful exercises, Arika’s musical programming would benefit from a touch of contemporary classical. Esson pointed out that so-called experimental music has increasingly followed an aesthetic designed in the 1960s, and has lost its true edge of adventure: while this is true for rock based music, the energy of minimalist composers often comes from a freedom of investigation into alternative traditions.

Hoketus, by Andriessen, is a fine example of how a composer can chafe at the restrictions of minimalist phrasing – he calls it a technique or strategy, not a genre – and then compose a knock down battle that questions the style. Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion – performed by Theatre of Voices on the Saturday to less effect than Cryptic’s recent staging – juggles with the religious heritage of song and its contemporary secular context. Perhaps it is because of the training given classical musicians, but they are far more comfortable messing up traditional assumptions without rejecting them outright. Many of the bands that Arika booked for Instal flung the rule book out the window. The minimalists tended to make annotations or correct it.

Both Arika’s triptych and Minimal Extreme are baby festivals, and their current incarnations are not completed works, yet they both emphasise the curatorial creativity of their directors. A good evolution would be for them not to clash next year: an even better one would be for them to take notes from each other.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Brown Dance

"I have started working with music because I felt that the dancing was strong enough to be independent of the music and the two things could happen at the same time and the audience could relax."
Trisha Brown

For some reason, when I was reading Peggy Phelan's essay on Trisha Brown's Orfeo, this statement felt important. Unfortunately, I was on the bus and by the time I got home, I'd forgotten why. Then again, I am quite happy just to name check Phelan and Brown, to show off how I use the trip up to the psychiatric clinic educationally .

Brown is important to me because her For MG was performed by Scottish Ballet. Since, for once, I am too young to have seen her work at the Judson Memorial Church - she was part of the gang of choreographers who came up with "post-modern dance", a category I love - this connection is important. And because I am always going on about how I am a post-modernist critic, I instinctively warm to Brown's career.

Now, what was I thinking? The music and dance relationship must have been important. Brown's earliest works, back in the 1960s, didn't have music, as such. That could be argued to parallel her choreography, which wasn't dancing, as such. So embracing music - she'd done a Carmen, and directed a version of Monteverdi's Orfeo - marked a willingness to get back into the more expected tradition, of dance as movement to music.

I know that Merce Cunningham used to randomly select bits of John Cage for his dances, insisting that the only connection between choreography and composition was that they finished roughly at the same time. But Cunningham was before Brown, a modernist, if you will.

Seriously, what's my point? A choreographer using music: whatever next? A speedway rider deciding he likes to wear a crash-helmet?

Oh God No

It's probably a sign of how empty my life must be, but I am dedicating my life to ridding the world of contemporary dance.

I'm sorry, that might have come out wrong. I mean, of course, the use of the word "contemporary" to describe dance. At the moment, and this is a rough guess, there are three categories of dance that I'd call "headlines". They are "ballet", "contemporary" and "traditional". Underneath these are all sorts of genres, but lets get into that some other time. 

(I am pretty aware that the "national" category is pretty obnoxious, too. But I only have five hundred words here. One act of language reconstruction at a time, I think.)

I've gone on about this before, so allow me to indulge myself. The phrase "contemporary dance" is generally used to describe dance in the western tradition that is not ballet. Since it started about a century ago, it isn't really contemporary anymore. More to the point, it doesn't clarify anything about the nature of the actual dance.

Contemporary styles include improvisations, movement based on Cunningham technique, devised dance, neo-classical ballet... there is no real need for the dance to have anything that reflects the use of the word "contemporary" in mundane language. It is actually  a code word for "hey, it's not ballet".

I am usually all for nice, direct categories. But this one is too big. It leads to stupid press releases that say things like "the choreography is based on hip-hop, with contemporary influences", as if breakin' is some sort of folk dance and that spinning round on your skull is old school.

(Well, yes, it is. But that's another set of language codes.)

Instead, I am going to start replacing "contemporary" with a more specific adjective. This might lead to a period of unwieldy phrases. With footnotes. And pages of definitions. 

Of course. my real agenda is to alienate everyone, by retreating into a language that needs a glossary. I may not have ever made it back to academia, but I am sure as hell going to pretend I did.

Fight Club and Chto Delat

Last night I watched Fight Club on some cable channel. The night before I caught Chto Delat's The Russian Woods. One's a serious learning from a (probably) Marxist performance troupe. The other's a nightmare dredged up from some masculinist imagination, made celluloid in Hollywood. The Russian Woods is rational and reasonable. David Fincher's movie is hysterical, takes liberties with the cinematic format. Guess which one is a more effective satire of late capitalism.

The Russian Woods comes complete with a song book. The lyrics read far worse than they sound sung. The blunt delivery of the chorus - who represent symbolic characters - and the awkward movements of the recruited performers lend the play a strained formality. The Woods themselves are a simple metaphor for contemporary Russia (or possibly late capitalism or whatever we call neo-liberalism these days): a dragon guards the oil, the bears are the Orthodox church. Celebrity, the workers, politicians all get a corresponding animal. Artists, represented by fox-spiders, fiddle with the perception of reality. Or maybe these creatures are the media in general.

Perhaps the naive production is deceptive: The Russian Woods comes on like a simple morality tale, a Marxist version of a medieval allegories. The final creature discussed - and there is no narrative, no drama, just a series of introductions to the animals - is the hamster. As Chto Delat's main-man points out in the (compulsory)  post-show chat, the hamster is the modern citizens: switched on to the internet, not necessarily to reality.

My instinct is to shout "fuck off" very loudly and repeatedly at the stage. Quite rightly, this could be condemned as an ideological response. I have no time for the use of Marxism as a foundation for aesthetic endeavour. From the way that the show segues into the discussion, with no chance for escape, the simplicity of the correspondences between the mythological denizens of the woods and social groups, the drab choreography of the performers and the self-consciously didactic performance of the singers, it is like a parody of agit-prop theatre: more concerned with getting to the issues and the discussion that making anything that could be mistaken for light entertainment, it takes itself seriously. The little jokes - like the character who keeps complaining that they ought to have had a seminar and not an artwork - come across as attempts to forestall the obvious criticism.

However, it was free. And if I haven't sussed out that Arika want to engage their audiences' politically by Episode 3, I am stupider than I imagined. And while I might be able to entertain my critical person by noting that The Russian Woods has echoes of Greek Tragedy and the propaganda plays of the early Soviet era, strolling along to a festival that had staged a four hour reconstruction of transcripts from Guantanamo Bay and expecting frivolity was absurd.

So, yes, The Russian Woods is a play that exists to provide the basis for further discussion. Yes, the post-show was vital.  And a mythology to describe the contemporary condition is viable. It's nice to understand something easily. There's no attempt to hide the agenda.

Plus, it was short.

Fight Club, comparatively, is dishonest. A big budget blockbuster, it has a subversive message. That makes it either a cunning way to buck the system, or a moral compromise that undermines its intention by the use of a corrupted medium.

My bellowed obscenities are quietened. Honesty is good. Being able to understand is good. The lack of compromise is good.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Ah, Bang on a Can All Stars. Like the Gorillaz, only for contemporary classical music. Apparently over in NYC, they do marathon music sessions that last for twelve hours. They have a special fund whereby the public can support new compositions, and Thurston out of Sonic Youth had a chance to rock out the clarinet. Every player - but most especially main man Evan "Mr Clarinet" Ziporyn and Mark Stewart on guitar - have distinctive personalities that infuse the (allegedly) staid world of classical with a rock'n'roll individualism.

Thanks to Sven Brown's long relationship with BOAC, which goes back to his time up in Perth, Glasgow gets some bi-annual Banging.  They turn up at the start of Minimal Extreme, head into battle with the London Sinfonietta over Andriessen's Hoketus. Then they do an early slot on Saturday to showcase their repertoire: no Thurston this time but a funky spot of Reich's Electric Counterpoint. They might not quite be as spectacular as Rammstein, but they seem to be determined to prove that attitude isn't the sole preserve of the street tough rocker.

It could just be that I am clinging onto a desperate sliver of youth as I lose my hair and swap hip-hop for baroque, but I feel that BOAC have a strong connection to the sort of music I used to love as a kid. Hoketus - and the companion piece on Friday, Workers Union, had the same brutal, truncated attack I dug in SWANS. When bass man Robert Black lays down the groove on Reich's 2x5, I hear the relentless drive of Big Black. Sometimes they even look like a rock band: 2x5 has the classic line-up of 2 guitars, a bass, drums and keyboard. And there is the inevitable fun of watching Ziporyn simultaneously conduct and hoot on the clarinet.

When Reich talks about works like 2x5, he is adamant that it is "clearly not rock and roll", adding suspiciously that "it's completely notated while rock is not." He then admits that the lines are pretty vague these days and anyway, his appropriation of rock gestures is in the same tradition as Haydn robbing folk melodies. Being a determined post-modernist, I supposed to be above simple categorisation: being a critic, I can't wait to shove stuff into a box so my eager readers know where it is coming from.

But BOAC do mess up the categories. Some day, I hope to see them booked by Cry Parrot - or feature a work by someone out of Uncle John and Whitelock.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

More Truth and Lies

Foxy and Husk
Fox-day Afternoon

“Our success is still something of a surprise,” admitted Foxy before taking to the stage at the SECC. “It doesn’t seem that long ago that we made our first appearance in Scotland, in a small venue down a back alley!” Undoubtedly, Foxy and Husk’s rise has been meteoric: from roots in Live Art, their idiosyncratic mix of miming, pop video surrealism and wry irony has seen them elevated into something like rock stardom.

Tonight’s show is a triumphant review of their greatest hits: quoting from last year’s science fiction concept work, based on the writings of Stanislaw Lem – and weaving it around  populist remakings of various pop shorts, it builds to a dynamic finale. Joined on stage by some of their most famous fans – the cameo from Lady Gaga is priceless, although Coldplay are a little limp next to Husk’s brash energy, the duo confirm why they have reached the heights: an undeniable charisma charms the audience and their knack of catching a song’s subtext and exaggerating it makes them intelligent and funny.

The balance between tough and cute is perfect: whenever the choreography threatens to become too serious  - and the middle of the show has some moving meditations on the joys and pains of determined individualism – they pull it back with a cheeky wink or a slapstick flick. The energy on stage is infectious: it is rare to see an entire crowd dancing along to a pair of dancers who parody and pay tribute to the magic of pop and furry costumes.

Bad Interview of Great Composer: a new Series from the Vile Arts

I would like to take a moment to thank Wendy Grannon. Not only did she organise a bunch of interviews with the performers and composers and organisers of this weekend's Minimal Extreme festival (when a press person takes the Vile Arts seriously, it makes me feel warm inside), but she got hold of Louis Andriessen for me. I am easily impressed whenever I get to talk to someone who has a proper Wikipedia entry (as opposed to ones written by the person themselves). But Andriessen took the time to call me back - after I messed up the times - and almost immediately mentioned his previous visit to Glasgow. He played jazz at Tramway.

I am just annoyed I don't have more of his back catalogue.

Sven Brown, artistic director of Minimal Extreme, said that Andriessen's Hoketus would be the loudest event of the weekend. It kicks off three days of hot classical action, both the intense (Bang on a Can have a very NYC energy about them, and a leader who plays the clarinet like it is a rock guitar) and the drifting (see my rambles about Feldman and Riley). Andriessen says that he isn't all about the volume, but he does want it to be intense.

In my brief conversation with Andriessen - and through my pitiful research - I realised that here was a composer who stood right at the cross-roads of jazz, improvisation and what he doesn't like to call minimalism. I kept on describing his work as "minimalist", but he patiently pointed out that that is more a technique than a style of music. Then I decided to ask him about his use of modern technology, noting that his recent compositions involved film. He observed that film isn't all that modern.

There's nothing I enjoy more than making a fool of myself in front of an artist that I both admire and - as the interview progressed - really liked as a person.  As I flicked over his lists of works, the names of his collaborators jumped out at me: Hal Hartley and Peter Greenaway (fim makers), plus texts from Homer, Dante, Nietzsche, Job out of the Old Testament...

Lessons learnt: Hoketus is free and worth catching. Andriessen is more lively than I am, and he was borin in 1939. I ought to do a bit more research.

More Fiction from the Pen of Gold

Callum Kennedy
Animal Nature

It begins and ends with a drum: at first, a monolithic beat, slow and brilliant and violent, inviting the audience into this unique location – a hollowed out and disused underground bar, once the home of a notorious lap dancing club, now left to decay. And then, as the audience are guided through the damaged rooms, invited to look at the various performances that seem to be almost incidental (yet are crucial and evocative), the beat becomes faster and heavier. Like a site-specific version of Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians, Animal Nature reveals the elegiac power of percussion.
Despite the intensity of space and music, there is a mocking humour behind the intention. Kennedy has stand up comic miming their acts, dancers talking through their movements, photographers posing themselves in front of their models’ cameras. The inversion of the expected, itself expressed in the increasing use of rhythm as melody, forms the foundation of Animal Nature. At once hilarious and shocking, it asks hard questions about both the nature of art and the essential nature that supposedly creates it.
Kennedy’s earlier pieces have had a restless energy that is replaced here by a knowing, cynical wit: the audience is led around, but invited to consider their own free will in a place where nothing is as it seems. The final words – why did you do as I asked? – delivered by an unseen male bring home the fundamental questions of the work, that tension between the pounding beat of instinct and the civilised restraint that evolves into both obedience and creativity.

More Minimalism (Hippy hate and love for Riley)

“You have never done anything in your life but listen to this music as if that is all there is or ever will be.”

I distrust hippies. Not as much as punks used to – I distrust them even more, and most of their music is a degenerate two chord thrash that pretends to a brute intelligence while betraying lack of imagination. But hippies are only ever two puffs of a joint away from revealing some seriously chauvinistic attitudes, and they all went on to cut their hair and get jobs in silicon valley. Cheers.

Hang on, this was meant to be an article about In C by Terry Riley.Where was I?

Yes, so, before there was Pink Floyd or The Doors, there was Terry Riley. The quotation at the top of the page was from The San Francisco Chronicle. And while it might sound like a typical acid head explaining why The Beatles’ White Album is so cool, it was written about In C, in 1964. Riley was just early enough to avoid getting sucked into the whole mess of hippy culture, but late enough to be part of the scene that was inspired by world music and repetition.

In C was released in 1968, and was the first work that really made minimalism a popular genre. Since Riley would later get more and more into Indian music, it chimed with the general vibe of the time: since the score is made up of a series of musical phrases, and performers are invited to play ‘em how they feel ‘em, it can take on all sorts of different styles. The version I played on the radio show is African in tone: this Sunday’s version is rumoured to be more eastern.

 In the meantime, here's an appropriately trippy version of another Riley classic, A Rainbow In Curved Air. I can hear the similarities with Dark Side of the Moon period Floyd - it was released before it, so I console myself with the thought that the hippies were ripping off the classical composer. Fortunately, it doesn't have Roger Waters shouting all over it (an experience akin to going on a date with a man who explains why you ought to fancy him throughout the film).

Thom Scullion: 86 per cent

It’s not entirely unfair to ask what the hell Thom Scullion thinks he is doing. Last time out, at Arches Live!, he filled up a room with retro computer games and let the audience go wild. I ended up in a particularly vicious combat with a press agent, missed two serious performances and finished the evening being dragged away from the machine by my colleagues. This time, he only had one game – some bloody impossible Jurassic Park tie-in – and I still ended up swearing at innocent audience members, only this time in frustration.

Scullion is one of the Live Art Young Team: impeccable credentials, only he has chosen not to go for monologues or choreography based on post-modern dance but computer games. Chatting to him after I had died six times on screen, he comes across as affable: his lecture, which tried to explain that computers are not as bad as the tabloids paint them, was remarkably intelligent. Yet instead of writing a script about the positives of gaming, he just lets people have a shot on his prized collection of games.

This might make it difficult to review – I mean, how am I supposed to give a star rating to a dinosaur that I am operating? – but it makes more sense. He has stripped away those fripperies of performance – the stage, the actors, the design – and aimed instead for the direct transmission of emotions. Now, I might be able to empathise with Oedipus’ frustration when the messenger won’t give him a reasonable answer to his questions, but I sure as shit feel it when my little dinosaur gets eaten by the big one in exactly the same place for the fifth time.

He also saves himself a bundle on the post-show discussion. His corner of the Old Hairdressers is packed with people, shouting encouragement or laughing at my failure. In short, he doesn’t need to write an essay on how gaming makes a community, he just makes the community.

It’s a sharp idea, and it does all the hard work – once he has got it all plugged in, the installation takes care of itself. It doesn’t hurt that Scullion hovers around, charming and chatting, but the event is an object lesson in how to get the impact of a theatre piece without splashing out on an author, an audience, a stage and a script. Besides that, it is a little more fun than half an hour of incest, monologue and chorus.