Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Ernesto Neto/the 'New Decor' (Hayward Gallery)

Lee Bul's chandelier Sternbau no. 3. Pretty, but perhaps a little inconsequential.

I hoped that after its hiatus the Hayward would open with a new exhibition that would be interesting. Brazilian installation sculptor Ernesto Neto was not someone who I was particularly familiar with - this was his first solo exhibition in the UK so I can probably be forgiven for this - though I had seen images and so forth. I didn't really know anything about the other exhibition.

I'd like to think it would take quite a lot for me to leave an art gallery (voluntarily) without at least attempting to look at everything. This time, however, I simply had to go - Ernesto Neto's exhibition made me feel like pieces of my brain were being systematically removed and replaced with squishy multi-coloured slime.

But first, the 'New Decor'. This was, to me, a fairly inconsequential arrangement of objects - connected by the rather obvious theme of artists' responses to the everyday objects that surround us (furniture mostly). I didn't really get the sense that the curator (Ralph Rugoff, the gallery's director) saw this theme as a subject for critique. Though individual artists did offer 'takes' on furniture through re-interpretation or re-contextualisation, there seemed to be no overarching 'point' to the exhibition; not at least in the sense that I was expecting - a critical rethinking of the objects that we surround ourselves with. Nevertheless, there were some nice pieces. Elmgreen and Dragset's mirrored bunk beds (Boy Scout) had a anxious and nervous tranquility, and were a little worrying for it. It was also nice to see some work by Doris Salcedo, which often has great expressive poignancy. Roman Signer's fantastic Floating Table (one of those 'does what it says on the tin' pieces) had a bizarre innocence but (like other works in the show) was worrying.

The standout work for me was Jin Shi's haunting installation 1/2 Life, a portrait of Chinese migrant workers seen through their possessions. Here, their life was depicted by showing a 1/2 size mock-up of a typical hovel - so that we 'look down' on these people's lives as the Chinese population does. The piece lacked the worker her/himself - and this conspicuous lacking contributed to a haunting state of instability, as we waited for the worker to (never) return.

Many of the pieces, however, had not much to say (at least as far as I could see), and some reminded me of exhibits in the Millenium Dome - a kind of semi-ironic celebration of western bourgeois banality.

Up the stairs, I moved into Neto's big work The Edges of the World. A touchy-feely, childlike environment, one is immediately confronted with squashy fabricy textures one is encouraged to 'be gentle with'. Sacks of stones hang in loose, ladies' tights-like stalagmites, dripping and oozing with 'playful' organicism. Bright colours are everywhere. One is invited to hit a drum and watch plastic grains bounce all over its surface and onto the floor; to turn (with an oversize mitten) the pages cardboard 'children's' books contained in a see-through stretch-fabric globule; and to take one's shoes off and wander through what feels like a play pen that should be attached to a Heston Blumenthal gastropub. There was also a swimming pool.

I didn't get that far, I was tiring of it all. Neto's uncompromisingly joyful aesthetic combined smell of Southbank saturday afternoons, children's feet and socks, and the noise and clatter of said children's intensive running around of the exhibit was too much for me. Maybe I'm a miserable bastard, but it was all too much fucking fun for me. I mean, there's nothing worse than being forced to smile and be happy and be content with the world. Neto's art is not only shallow, it's positively malicious - invading and pervasively joyous to such an extent as to destroy whatever curiosity I might have had.

If you do go to this exhibition, and if you come away happy and smiling and pleased with the multicoloured vibrancy of the Southbank and all of its minions and minstrels, I assure you, you have been hoodwinked.

Monday, 5 July 2010

John Cage: Indeterminacy at Shoreditch Church

A third concert review, and I hope to do a couple more next week if I get the chance. This concert was a nice one, and picked up on strands of musical thinking exhibited in the previous two in an interesting and slightly unexpected way.

After a slightly blustered journey from Old Street (had to break out the A-Z as my knowledge of this area is shamefully poor), arrived at the truly beautiful church and greeted with a nice glass of red. The concert began a little late (seems in the hot weather, people rock up late for concerts, something I don't really ever do); nevertheless it began with some bravura. Richard Thomas's startling and inspired performance of 57:30 for a String Player (1953) was a real treat. You can see his cello accompanied by the heavily branded edition peters landscape part (I always think it's rather stupid to have landscape parts; though it did allow for some theatrical page turns). There was a certain intense hilarity inherent in this opening string music, something that became a theme for the rest of the concert.

The music from Suite for Toy Piano (1948) that followed felt very much like filler to me, though it had its charm. I do understand Cage's motion towards chance as a determinant for his compositional output - some of his earlier, semi-improvised compositions (as I feel sure this one was) are quite weak. These pieces also had some of the elements of structured silliness or charm shown in the earlier work, though the music for toy pianos is (of course) more evocative of innocence.

Next came the well-known Solo for Sliding Trombone (1957-8). This is performed quite a bit and there isn't much I need say about it save for the interesting 'functionality' this particular performance had. Alan Tomlinson's meticulous setting up of the table for his mutes, the music stand, the part, and his chair spilled over into the musical performance (despite his spoken disclaimer that the preceding activities were not written in the score; they probably are implied on some level). Cage's music seemed to have the same 'functional' quality that his setting up of his apparatus had - but a mysterious functionality understandable only to some higher authority. I got the feeling that if he didn't parp his mouthpiece into the harmon mute at the particular point that he did, something else might have been adversely affected, and (like an employee) the play would have to 'compensate' somehow. Again, the silliness invoked by this piece had a distinctly structural feel to it - like someone being instructed to play. This was in marked contrast to the A band's performance the previous night - it seemed that no one was instructing them to play, not even the concert organisers.

After a protracted period of (perhaps improvised) silence, Richard Thomas played a further cello piece. Though maybe a little weaker this time, it was nevertheless fascinating to hear this music in combination with the sounds from outside - notably the usual friday-night spats between men and women on the street. This was followed by a performance of 0'0" (1962), realised by the iPhone ensemble (I wonder whether they do other performances, and what they perform). This, again, picked up on the structured silliness of earlier pieces. This time, I felt it was a bit forced and perhaps a little embarrassing. Tania Chen's lunatic tap dancing combined with snippets of radio and the sounds of the world cup (I think), as well as another ensemble member's brushing and straightening of her hair, seemed a bit much for me. It looked to me rather like undergraduate performance art, somewhat unconvincing.

After the interval, we returned to a ten-minute realisation of Music for Amplified Toy Pianos (1960), a very beautiful work, and a little short (I felt) at the length that it was. An extra 5 or 6 minutes would have been perfect to fully articulate the atmospheres generated, but in a long programme like this it might have been unsuitable. This performance also lacked some of the silliness present in previous works - instead it was purely tranquil, articulating well Cage's mantra that music should 'sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences'.

But lastly we came to the moment most audience members had probably been waiting for. Comedian Stewart Lee has been a supporter of experimental music over the years, and his sense of comic timing and understanding of the domain was a obviously an advantage in tackling Cage's Indeterminacy (1959). Lee's somewhat clinical approach - sitting at a desk, with each story on a card - had a poignancy to it. There was something of the archivist about Lee's performance (and a tangible absence of Cage himself); but Lee was not cold, he had great warmth and humility. Though often Tania Chen and Steve Beresford's interruptions didn't perhaps interrupt as much as they might have done (and occasionally one got a sense of the awkwardness apparent, with Lee waiting for interruptions that didn't materialise), the performance had a charm and polish to it. I especially liked the Richard Buhlig story (including Cage waiting for 12 hours outside his house), one of the particularly wordy stories taking quite an effort to read in one minute. Thirty minutes was also a good length of time for the work, as enough variety was introduced without lapsing into indulgence.

A good evening overall, though the concert did have its low points. The humour inherent in Cage's work was emphasised - which seems to make sense, seeing as Indeterminacy is one of Cage's most humorous and accessible works. It's interesting to me that because Cage himself was such a warm person (and that his writings and interviews became so widely disseminated), his more austere works often found difficulty amongst even learned auditors - it's easy to understand why. Maybe Stockhausen and Boulez understood that, if one desires to work as a serious modernist, one probably ought to be a bit humourless. Though the public persona might suffer, people might be inclined to take as read the seriousness of the work without any dissonance in understanding.

Friday, 2 July 2010

The A Band / Sogabe Hidekazu @ Cafe Oto

Another day, another gig. This one promised to be a fascinating trip, the newly reformed improvisation troupe do not perform all that often.

Dalston on a sunny afternoon is perhaps not a place to sit indoors, and Oto's slightly muggy interior (and abundance of tea lights) was maybe anti-seasonal. Still, all this hot weather makes my skin itch, and I was happy to retreat into some darkness.

The concert started at 9 with an opening set by Sogabe Hidekazu, a young Japanese improviser who (as far as I can tell from his website) is primarily a visual artist (there are some works of his on the Saatchi gallery webpage). Playing an electric bass and a effects pedal, Hidekazu's opening ocean waves of no-input feedback noise - and the baseball cap - seemed like a nod to Toshi Nakamura; the ringing tones generated by the body of the bass suggested something more melodious however. On the whole, however, his playing did not sit easily with me - portions of the performance were spent tediously repeating cells of material (generated by the 'infinite delay' of the effects pedal) while Hidekazu toyed with his controls. This, plus the fizzing buzz of the Cafe Oto PA as it rattled on its assembly, the bedroomy feeling of the musical structure and the sonic content, and the enforced recapitulation at the end to the opening waves of noise, reinforced Hidekazu's admirable, but ultimately crude set.

It seemed at this point (when there was a short interval) many audience members decided they couldn't stand the heat (or, indeed, the noise), and made a break for it. A shame, because when the A band came on - tonight performing as " 'Allo Aloe" - we that remained witnessed a truly remarkable set of improvised music. I say this without exaggeration - I watched the whole of the Freedom of the City festival, and while much of the music played at the Conway Hall was well thought out and nuanced, nothing was intoxicating as this performance of the A band's.

The group was constituted of around 9 members, who all (as far as I could tell) played together at the opening - a blaze of 4/4 toms, cymbals, and wailing, call-to-prayer-like vocal layering. The opening had something of conventional 'indie' about it - but after maybe a minute and a half, the anarchic tendency the A band are known for came into the foreground. Members began to leave, jettison their roles as musicians and adopt honorary positions as audience members. The music disintegrated from its metered opening to an expanse of beautiful and evolving textures. The musicians let each other 'solo' - almost like jazz - but also conversed with each other and the sound technician, moved around the space, contributed when they felt it was necessary, and added absurdism to the situation by (for example) laying out duplo bricks on a table in front of the performers, and subsequently throwing them everywhere.

What was intriguing to me was that as a unified performance, so much of the music had such stability and expressive integrity - ideas were allowed to last for enough time to become established, but not too long as to become boring. Transitions were usually seamless, and without the moments of awkwardness present in the support set, and yet all the musicians seemed to perform 'haphazardly'. Even one player's failing instrument - a toy piano made on a roll of cloth, producing a beautifully mundane MIDI piano sound - contributed in an absurdist way by failing to work.

The A band's fluidity when it came to performing also helped solidify for me the usually edifying nature of performance; of an 'us and them' relationship between performers and audience. This was dismantled, casually, by the A band - instead, as an audience member, one felt a combination of involvement, inclusion, and voyeurism. One was watching a group at play (gaming, scheming, forming nexuses of activity and falling away again) - but a group at play with itself. The performance lacked the bourgeois ritual that made it necessary to clap at the end - so that the final applause (of the few audience members that remained after their hour or so of playing) seemed inappropriate and tokenistic.

And yet, in purely musical terms, the A band's performance was familiar - the music was 'sectional', it contained references (echoes) of other musics (a suitably postmodern stance), the delay pedals of the violin/theremin players created commonplace repetitive figures, there was a piano and a drum kit (both conspicuously 'non-unusual'). Perhaps these commonplace instruments were necessary - for if a music is to be truly democratic (as the A band's performance surely was), it cannot be formed on a principle of exclusion. A good thing indeed; for me, the A band's performance is certain proof that a nuanced and subtle music can exist without being rarified or exclusive.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Music We'd Like to Hear I

If I am honest, I can’t say I am particularly enamoured of the violin as a musical instrument. High, shrill, usually played with such ego, it’s not an instrument that I find enjoyable to behold. Still, the first concert of Music We’d Like To Hear, a full concert of music for solo violin, was not something I was going to turn down. It turned out to be a sublime evening which (to an extent) renewed my faith in the instrument and in string instruments in general.

Clemens Merkel (of Montreal’s Bozzini Quartet) played four pieces, beginning with Christian Wolff, and continuing with three works by the concerts organisers: Marcus Trunk, Tim Parkinson and John Lely. Trunk appeared before the concert began and tried to persuade us that this was not an egotistical affair, that Clemens had chosen the pieces of his own bat, and that, besides, it was a 5-year anniversary for the concert series. The music’s quality, however, dispelled any qualms I may have had.

Beginning with Christian Wolff’s piece, The Death of Mother Jones (1977), it became clear that Merkel’s violin tone and the ambience of the Church of St Anne and St Agnes were perfect partners. The violin was warm, resonant, clear, but also evocative and not particularly ‘pretty’. Merkel’s idiosyncratic playing style also came to the fore, and from the very start, this seemed (to me) as everything solo violin music should be. Contemplative, microtonally rich, variously gestured, with excellent weight of expressive idea, willingness to crumble, with some degree of innocence (and a thankful absence of decadent vibrato). Wolff's piece had a conceptual edge linked to folk music; its harmonies showed this directionality, but much of the music was angular and not ‘homely’ at all. Merkel’s playing breathed with absolute integrity, relaxation and concentration.

Next came Markus Trunk’s austere Four Stills (2002/10). Dominated by dwellings on singular tones, this form of composition was suggestive of Scelsi. But beyond that, Merkel’s playing added a distinctly contemplative or reflective element that, while present in Scelsi’s music, is often clothed in mysticism. I was beginning to think that the expression that lay behind this material was humanistic (perhaps the Lutheran church principles were infecting my senses); but nevertheless, I was struck by the wisdom and humility present in Merkel’s playing. The final section of Trunk’s piece was a particular highlight – the bow drawn across the strings half col legno, in tiny, almost inaudible motions. The sound of the violin seemed to melt into the soundscape of St Paul’s – the distant coloured noise of traffic, the occasional ‘crack’ of a sat on pew, the drop of a pencil. The musical sounds contained, and were contained by, the environmental surroundings.

Tim Parkinson’s piece that followed was just as gorgeous, if not more so. Small melodic ideas are given to us, passing us (as Parkinson notes) ‘like slabs on a pavement’. The perfect weight given to these ideas allowed the piece to be contemplative and not drag, yet not speed and ignore the integrity of each idea. Again, Merkel’s beautiful playing carried the musical model to heights.

Finally, John Lely’s piece. Up until this moment, Merkel had played from music stands, organised first on the right, then left, then back. For this piece, he came to the forward and played from memory. This was easy enough, as the piece - The Harmonics of Real Strings (2002) – was made up of a very slow glissando up the A string. A beautifully elegant idea, executed almost perfectly; Merkel allowed the natural fluctuations of the violin to speak, and ignored the Classical mantra of ‘evenness’ (which would have destroyed the work). Using the bridge, Merkel brought out the higher harmonies present in the string (as Lely no doubt indicated to do). At times the shift in pitch was almost imperceptible, but towards the bridge, the pitch had to shift pretty quickly (the distance of the same interval reduces in real terms as one moves up the string). Particularly spectacular was the extremely high tone at the end, and its seamless transition into noise, and that noise’s subsequent fading into environmental sound, the perfect end to a concert of great contemplation, elegance and force. I look forward to the next two!