Monday, 30 April 2012

Getting Back into the Game

Glasgow has always had a reputation for political agitation - I don't think that it is coincidental that Arika decided to stage their more political incarnation of the Experimental Festival on the West Coast, and although Joseph Beuys originally came to Edinburgh, it is Glasgow that has the history of its visual art scene named after his most political idea. After a fortnight in Edinburgh, I immediately noticed that the lamp-posts around the Subcity Offices were hung, not with fascists, but adverts for Marxism, the annual London-based jamboree of ... well, have a guess.

I've just read Nick Cohen's What's Left? Two years after most people, but I had to wait until it turned up in Oxfam. Apart from convincing me that I do, in fact, support the invasion of Afghanistan - my complaints about the Taliban's treatment of women and the big Buddha statues they exploded would make any moans on my part mealy-mouthed - Cohen has challenged me to consider whether the role of a theatre and arts critic retains any purpose in the face of mounting political disorder.

Since I am fairly shallow, I retain a holding position: I'll point to my various rants about how Marxism makes for dull theatre, how some work is just too middle class, and hope that no-one notices the internal contradictions. The overuse of the flashy phrase and unfashionable jargon ought to disguise the fundamental emptiness of my rhetoric.

Back and Balding

Having spent two weeks inside Edinburgh's Dance Base (collaborating with Ultimate Dancer on the world's first ever Live Art/Criticism/Choreography mash up performance - details to follow), I have had little time for my usual casual engagement with Glasgow's art scene. Of course, as soon as I nip out for a moment, they put on a massive international celebration of visual arts.

I am hoping to catch up with the bouncy castle down on Glasgow Green soon enough, but I am only really aware of the various events and exhibitions being put on by the ever wonderful Mutual. And that's only because I did a seven hour live radio show with them last Sunday.

But this is a quick warning: I am back in town, and I have a new haircut. It was done by children. I am probably more likely than ever to throw childish tantrums: not because I saw some bad art, but because, already, two days back, and I am already wondering at how much I am missing...

Monday, 16 April 2012

Taraf de Haidouks

Svend Brown is shaping up as something of a visionary programmer. Not content with pushing the Minimal Extreme Festival, he invited Johnathan Morton - the fiend witha violin who fronts the Scottish Ensemble - to curate another minimal festival. And while there were a few moments of disappointment - Icebreaker's ponderous yet loose reading of Glassworks, The Hilliard's strangulated modern choral take on Paradise Lost - the line up was diverse and provocative. And in Taraf de Haidouks, he selected a strong argument for the importance of the violin as a boundary busting, hard-rocking instrument to shame the rebellious hegemony of the guitar.

Morton's no slouch on the four stringn himself - last year he demonstrated that Vivaldi's Four Seasons has more edge than any popular global commodity deserves. Yet in Taraf, and the supporting electronic/ violin maestro mash-up from Pekkar Kuusisto, Morton selected artists from the wilder parts of the musical world. Taraf de Haidouks look disreputable, with one member lurking like a gangster until called upon to throw out some argumentative lyrics, and the whistle player disappearing during the encore for a cheeky cigarette: yet when the  dual violin frontline, a couple of wheezing accordions and a jazzy clarinet are driven along by a frenzy of double bass and hammered dulcimer, they cross beyond their gypsy sound and land squarely in punk energy territory.

Not that Taraf have anything in common with the brain-dead punk revivalists, who mistook thuggish monotony for rebellion (a few members of Taraf appear to remember the 1920s, both musically and physically): it's the reckless abandon that informs their precise playing. Melting down Eastern European melodies, a touch of Hot Jazz, fragmentrs of Klezmer, they are so fast, so abrupt, so assured.

Of course, Morton has now set Brown a challenge: can he curate a programme that has the same eclectic energy as this combination? Kuusisto did the experimental modernity - tinged with a few adventures into Finnish folk romance - while Taraf just shock the Fruitmarket. Brown has admittted that he is influenced by the lamented Triptych Festival: can he go one louder?

Saturday, 14 April 2012

VERSECORE music poetry gig

4th May 2012 at The Third Door

Outlaws in the badlands ‘twixt poetry and music…

Doors 8.00pm, Music starts at 8.30pm, £5/£4 concessions

VERSECORE is a seminal night of music and poetry bands that will change the way you think about both genres.

Three bands team up to bring you music and poetry like you’ve never heard before – Zorras make poetry-music-video-weirdness fusion. With megaphones. Church of When the Shit Hits the Fan features poetry and beats from outer space, mind-bending hip hop for the next millennium and Opul is poetronica to break the heart and reconstruct the soul.

Come experience three bands that are combining poetry and music in new ways, and using projections, film and technology to expand the impact of their creative expression.  A rare platform focusing solely on bands that have collaboration and innovation at their core. 

Okay, so I didn't actually write that. I think a press officer did. having said that, I have had these outfits on the show - in the case of Zorras, I managed to injure one of them live on air - and I am pretty interested in what they are getting up to. In fact, I am kind of annoyed that this event isn't happening in Glasgow. 

Writer Sandra Alland and musician Y Josephine formed Zorras in 2007, and have not stopped creating, publishing and performing since. Zorras have become known internationally for their unique bilingual mixture of text, sound poetry, percussion, singing, guitar, megaphones and projected images. Recent highlights include a Canadian tour, Berlin, Liverpool, Aberdeen and Las Palmas.

Zorras inject passion and humour into both personal experiences and cutting observations of our troubling times. They have a talent for surprising people (pleasantly), and for challenging preconceptions about performance poetry and intermedia art. From The Edinburgh International Book Festival and University of Toronto, to counterculture German film festivals and your favourite London squat, audiences have yet to throw a tomato. Phew. 

“A medley of poetry, music, video, megaphones  and drumming that would put Sheila E to shame.”
Jane Czyzselska, Diva Magazine

Just to add a wee note here: Zorras have got a new EP coming out this Friday

"COWTSHTF are a power duo comprising of HQ and AA. HQ is an award-winning slam poet and commissioned playwright and AA is a massively in demand hip-hop/electro producer. Together they create dense slabs of cartoon apocalypse rap and have performed live on Radio 1 and T in the Park and created a Lovecraftian clown theatre show for the Edinburgh Fringe 2011, Hydronomicon"

BEATS: Asthmatic Astronaut
VOCALS: Harlequinade

"Perfectly gathers super illmatic poetry on monstrous glitches and blasting beats. We send over a trillion thumbs up for all three tracks... a clever melt-down version of 21st century hip-hop battery Antipop Consortium and the sophisticated spoken-words by Saul Williams."

Opul is music by James Iremonger and poetry by JL Williams.  Opul is poetronica.  Opul is all the stars in the universe opening their mouths and making a sound. Opul’s music is composed, produced and played by Iremonger and comes to the audience live via laptop and electric guitar.  Williams’ poetry is read live and amplified/effected by Iremonger during performance.  EP Provocateur out on Black Lantern Music.

"The apocalypse starts early with Opul, a collaboration between poet JL Williams and composer James Iremonger, who blasts out a laptop-sourced blend of industrial beats and impressionistic piano sketches to frame Williams' words."
Neil Cooper, The List

Box office: 0131 225 6313

Ballet Toes

I am beginning to suspect that taste may be an important part of the critic's armoury. Between interviews on the Radio Hour, Howie Reeve, sometime of Tattie Toes and the inimitable curator of Frost and Fire, commented that I always seemed to be enthusiastic about my guests. I didn't dare tell him that I was still surprised when anyone agreed to come on the show - let alone some of the bigger names I have had in the past year - but I admitted that, most of the time, I am genuinely excited by the artists I lure onto Subcity.

It was my insistence on naming the show after myself that freed me to concentrate on the music and art that is gradually devouring my entire life: although I love working freelance for other organisations, the purpose of the VileArts is to explore the culture that enthrals me. Luckily, Glasgow has enough going on to make sure that I never have to spend an evening in my cold, dank flat.

This does have a down side. My progress on Avengers Alliance is slow.

However, for two hours on a Friday afternoon, I get to feel like the hub of Glasgow's culture. I even went on air early, to play back the entire interview I had done with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, choreographer of Scottish Ballet's A Streetcar Named Desire. Having seen the show on Thursday night, I wanted to listen to her thoughts on the process.

Streetcar is an interesting move for the company. With artistic director Ashley page set to leave - and no presence at the International Festival in August - Streetcar could be read as a statement about the company's current situation. It certainly fits in with Page's own approach - after all, he invited Ochoa - using the dancers' contemporary bent to update the classical ballet template. Yet it had echoes of earlier Scottish Ballet trends (ones which made them a rather minor company): a recognisable, narrative ballet, with emphasis on technical excellence. Fortunately, unlike the last time they tried this tact, before Page's tenure, they actually have dancers capable of impressing.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Quartet for the End of Time

I have just been reading Sophie's World in the bath. Rushing quickly past the image I have just conjured up for your repulsion, I got as far as the bit where they talk about the difference between Time in Hindu and Semitic culture. Apparently the Hindu model - adopted by most early Indo-European civilisations - sees it as circular. The Jewish innovation was to go lineal. The circle versus the straight line... and the impact this has on the way that we think about existence.

So, I went to see Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (Hebrides Ensemble), with a special introduction by former bishop Richard Holloway. Messiaen was firmly in the lineal school - I am always surprised that a composer so dissonant could be so Christian - and this composition was inspired, in equal measure, by The Apocalypse of St John and Messiaen's internment in a POW camp.

It's a nice touch, having a reflection before a concert. Of course, the programme notes help out idiots like me who want to talk about classical music but lack the theoretical foundations. But Holloway's brief chat tied in the Quartet to Blade Runner, the contrast between Christian and atheist visions of the End, TS Eliot, the horror of World War II and a multiple choice option of how to listen to the piece (either as a brave statement against a final existential nothing, or a hopeful reminder that God is going to sort it out afterwards).

The Quartet might be informed by readings of Revelation, but The End Times it references are very much the vicious antics of WWII. There is a clarinet solo that honks a bombing raid, a violin and cello imitating birds as they scatter, and a whacking great piano part that slaps the rest of the instruments like a big daddy gangster on his mooks. It is not so much a meditation on the moment when Time stop for good (Sophie's World didn't say, but I think that the end of time will involve the Space-Time continuum being rolled up and put in the cupboard of eternity): it's a musical picture of an apocalyptic period of history, written from behind the barbed wire.

Uncomfortable art has been doing the rounds lately - pair this with Ann Liv Young's Mermaid show, and I am starting to feel as if Glasgow is hosting a series of philosophical, theatrical punch ups. And I did feel uncomfortable during the Quartet - the clarinet feels uniquely suited to acting out the annoying pricks of anxiety, and Messiaen's messing with the rhythm patterns (no, I don't understand how he does it, but I did hear it. Honest) is disorientating. On the way home, this gave me plenty of pondering about why I attend art - it isn't like my life is some cheery sequence of cartoon happy episodes - and what I want from music.

That's the sort of navel gazing I avoid in the bath by reading novels that pretend to be a history of philosophy, and so back to Sophie's World. And back to Time: and the dishonesty of talking about it. Yes, it might be circular, it might be lineal. To find out, I am going to have to get outside of it, and I am not sure how to do that without getting stuck there. Music does seem to have ways of suspending my perception of Time - those Fluxus numbers at Minimal Extreme encourages me to pretend I was falling into a Black Hole and the songs were a simple statement examined from multiple angles, simultaneously.The Quartet is a seminal work of WWII, and has an appropriate ugliness.

Ann Liv Young: self consciously unstructured critique that isn't just badly written but an attempt to break critical strictures as the artist attacks performance convention

First of all, I scored an interview with Ann Liv Young. Although I haven't finished unpacking that conversation - I played a few segments on the radio hour, and intend to release the full recording on the mixcloud - I was initially surprised and relieved at how different she is to her on-stage personae. She was thoughtful, respectful of other artists (even when she says that she doesn't like Katy Perry's music, she is polite and adds "I don't know her as a person)" and even demure.

Then I invited Alan Miller from RPZ onto the radio show, and we talked about the NYC performance art scene. He brought in a recording by Karen Finley. It is probably the most offensive track I have broadcast: Finley is an earlier generation's shock artist, and we talked about how provocation is not only a familiar strategy in live art, but that it has to be experienced to be understood. As always, Alan wised me up to a fault in my thinking: by trying to put Ann Liv Young in a tradition, I was shying away from acknowledging that her work - this weekend, it's The Mermaid Show at The Arches, which is then nipping down to Fierce in Birmingham.

After that, I actually went to see Ann Liv Young's Mermaid Show. For the sake of being a responsible reviewer, I'll slip in a quick act of criticism. If you don't fancy having fish spat at you, or getting wet, don't go. If you can handle loud music, disorientating episodes and the uncanny sound of a huge fish tail slapping against the floor as Young moves around the audience, there is much to consider in her representation of the fish-lady myth.

Then I was sent a video by Zebra Katz. It's a minimal hip-hop track with some offensive lyrics. They do sound as if they are copying Finley's wild style, only the video, which features a female rapper doing a bunch of glamour shoot poses, seems to locate Katz on the wrong side of the misogyny boundary.

Fascinating as this insight into my week might be, at least for me, I am not sure how these elements relate to each other. I've seen Ann Liv Young three times now - and every time, there has been issues with then sound levels, a constant sense that she is about to walk off-stage and a genuine tension as to whether her rants at her co-performer (and husband) or the sound-guy are genuine. She did end The Mermaid Show abruptly by flopping off stage - the version of Firework I had expected did not materialise, so I assume that the ending was not the usual finale. She is known for polarising audiences - love her or hate her. I want to get past that.

The problem is - and I read this on wikipedia last week - that I tend to reify performances. That is, as far as I understand it  - admittedly, that is about as far as the corner shop - I put live performances within a specific tradition. I did say to Young that I thought her art was representative of a New York aesthetic. She countered that I could not be more wrong, and that Europe is more sympathetic.

She elaborated on this during Mermaid: she specifically said that Norway is where it's at. That was just after she'd shouted at The Arches for giving her a rotten fish and announcing that she was pregnant.

For Ann Liv Young, I go back to Karen Finley, or maybe line her up next to The Wau Wau Sisters. Look: female artists who use the body! Nudity that is not intended to titillate! Of course that is who has influenced her! Just like PJ Harvey gets compared to Patti Smith gets compared to Kate Bush gets compared to Tori Amos gets compared to Bjork.

By doing this - but now I have done it, I don't think the comparison with The Wau Waus is too bad - I am hoping to make sense of the experience of Mermaid. But the point and purpose of Mermaid is what I experienced. She says as much during the interview: "I just want people to be honest..."

For the record, here is what I felt as I watched Mermaid. I hope it helps.

The Mermaid is an icon of femininity, and has been sentimentalised, mostly by the children's entertainment industry. The original tales of Mermaids had them down as sexy, soulless seductresses, and when Young lures a male audience member with her song, then goes ape-shit, she reinvents the more terrifying aspects of the myth.

She's like the counter-weight to New Age idealisations of mermaids, a savage creature, disabled on land, flapping hopelessly, rounding on the audience but unable to escape thanks to her lack of legs. There might be something wrong with me because I think getting spat on and splashed with water is not too high a price for a night out. Other people were fuming.