Friday, 5 December 2008

Synch Sound

Settling into NFT3 for the Out of Sight Out of Sync event, I read Takahira Iimura's programme note. It wasn’t promising.

Using the system of academy leader: 10 to 1, the film replaces the number to white space with bip sound (clear leader) gradually until it reaches complete white.

Could it be that simple? When the film started, my heart sank – yes it could. It seemed we were in for the filmic equivalent of strict process music or total serialism. The creator makes a set of decisions and then sets it all in train like a line of tumbling dominoes. But not so entertaining.

Of course the artist's abdication of ongoing control can lead to embarrassments like the unintentional chord of A minor that turns up in the middle of one of Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke. Oh, how we laughed at the irony…

But for me, once the system is understood, it rather negates the actual experience. The apex is possibly James Tenney’s unlistenable August Harp in which the unfortunate soloist (and listener) endure 43 grinding minutes, arpeggiating at an unchanging trudge through every possible permutation of a diatonic tetrachord, altered by use of the pedals (I’ll save you the effort: there are – count ‘em – 81). An all too representative sample is here. Tenney’s own exertions were somewhat milder as he simply wrote the instructions on the back of a post card, doubtless driving the benighted recipient literally ‘postal’.

Anyway, back to the darkened NFT. It seemed that we’d be subjected to the same sort of artistic waterboarding: the visual count down – 10, 9 (+ 1 white), 8(+2 white)… etc all the way to 1(+ 9 white) and then back up to 10 accompanied only by the intermittent blip and the hiss and pop of the track.

I confess I quickly did some mental arithmetic. Thank God, only 200 seconds.

But then – wasn’t there a missing number? An eye-slip or a knackered print? But the moment had gone. Slowly, other ‘anomalies’ appeared and the sequence began increasingly to short circuit and loop back on itself. So we went from 8 to 4 or from 3 to 7, and the sense of 10-1 being a irreducible series was paradoxically intensified and weakened as it was first broken and then reconstructed. In our heads invisible strings linked the new, artificial series, the criss-crossing creating an elegant mental cat’s cradle.

A dreaded 200 seconds mysteriously became an enchanting twelve minutes. Iimura's underselling the film.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Veljo Tormis

Veljo Tormis: Works for Men’s Voices

Toccata Classics. TOCC0073

The Soviet regime was always wary of nationalist feelings in the republics but, for Estonians, music was a buttress against Russification and Sovietisation. In the four years before gaining independence in 1991 more than a fifth of the population would regularly join the so-called Singing Revolution (laulev revolutsioon), defiantly congregating in the streets to perform forbidden songs.

By then Veljo Tormis had been composing for over thirty years, concentrating on choral music and creating monumental cycles as well as smaller one-off songs.

Tormis was born in 1930, the eldest son of a farmer who was musically active in the local church in Vigala, Estonia, At 12 he entered Tallinn Conservatory but two years later the Soviets arrived and stopped the too-religiously-inflected organ class, so Tormis transferred to choral conducting, though the lack of churches restricted opportunities there as well. In 1951 he moved to Moscow to study with Vissarion Shebalin – to whom no doubt I’ll return – graduating in 1956.

The Soviets attitude to the Republics was always ambivalent: on one hand encouraging nationalism but at the same time taking care that it should not grow too strong. Tormis’ interest in Estonian folk music had been supported by Shebalin and, supporting himself by teaching in Tallinn, he went on to study the music of Orff and, after a visit to Hungary in 1962, Kodaly.

This climaxed with his first great cycle, Estonian Calendar Songs (Eesti kalendrilaulud) for mixed chorus (1967) and by 1969 was able to support himself, composing film scores, an opera and, overwhelmingly, choral music. Estonian national identity is closely bound to its choral traditions – amateur singing is endemic - hence Tormis’ importance and popularity.

Tormis himself said it best in setting the exiled Gustav Suits’ poem I’d Like to Sing a Song (Ühte laulu tahaks laulda)

I’d like to sing a song,
Just this only one:
That would rise a huge wave of sea
From the heart

You can hear (and buy) it here.

Titles like Bridges of Song (Laulusild) and Forgotten Peoples (Unustad rahvad) imply attempts to bind together misbegotten populations through music. The latter (formed of six sub-cycles) is particularly poignant as an epic memorial to endangered civilisations, such as the Izhorians and Votes. The Soviets responded by banning some of his works.

Tormis develops ancient Estonian regilaul, ‘runic’ songs, which might include imitations of natural sounds and something close to rhythmic speaking or shouting, with proto-minimalist rhythms. But Tormis avoids pared down Pärt-ishness: his musical roots are less religious than folk-pagan and very specifically Baltic-Finno-Ugrian: “It is not I who makes use of folk music: it is folk music that makes use of me.” As well as settings of modern Estonian poets, there are spells and incantations from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, and the Estonian equivalent, the Kalevipoeg.

Tormis creates a vast range of colours and textures and a huge dynamic range: the epic Curse Upon Iron (Ruaa needmine) is the highlight of the disc, running the gamut from whispering to shouting, by way of uncanny choral glissandos. You’ll have to turn up the volume for the quiet bits, but prepare to be blasted out of your chair a few minutes later. The Bishop and the Pagan (Piispa ja pakana) sets chant-like sections against, freer, more irregular music to tell both sides of the story of a 12th-century British missionary martyr. Beside these 10-minute mini-epics are catchy, witty and thrilling little pieces like An Aboriginal Song (Pärimaalase lauluke) and Incantation for a Stormy Sea (Incantatio maris aestuosi).

Tormis’ music is simultaneously ancient and newly minted, and the Svanholm Singers under Sofia Söderberg Eberhard hurl themselves into it with fantastic gusto. Tormis himself joins in, playing the shaman drum in two songs and the anvil in another, while counter-tenor Stefan Engström also does a turn on log drums. Along with some whistling, these sounds make the disc even more atmospheric.

Tormis isn’t a new name (for those in the know) but, though there have been several CDs of his music, he isn’t as widely known as his compatriot Pärt. Toccata Classics’ excellent selection, including premieres of a couple of revised pieces, is a welcome push in that direction.

Fans of choral music, and anyone with a taste for Kodaly, Orff (the insistent Musica Poetica from his Schulwerk was used in Malick’s film Badlands) or Bartók’s Mikrokosmos shouldn’t wait.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Shameless self promotion

Just in time for Christmas, I thought I'd point to a few things that I've been up to (relatively) recently.

A heads-up on the arrival of my book Discover Film Music from Naxos. It comes with two 78-minute plus CDs, with examples of everything from Steiner's King Kong (1933) to ... errr .... Ifukube's Godzilla. Actually there's a disc of Hollywood music from the aforementioned ape to Spider-Man, and another covering composers from or working in Britain, Sweden, the USSR, Italy, Switzerland, France, Japan, Belgium and Poland. Not the whole of the rest of the world, I realise, but there was a word-count! Finally, there's a timeline (highlighting selected Oscar-winners and literary adaptations with notable scores) and a glossary. There's a description on the Naxos site and you can buy it from all the usual outlets. If you need any more persuading, there's a review here though you might have to scroll down a bit to get to it.

I should also point out a few other recent arrivals, all Shostakovich-related. A couple of (quite different) round ups of his cinema career that I've written appear in two symposia.

With 640 pages, Michael Mishra's A Shostakovich Companion from Praeger Publishers should keep everyone who has a sturdy enough bedside table entertained for a good while. There's a full description and a list of contents here. In brief, the first half is taken up by Michael's look at how Shostakovich's music was received through and after his life (thankfully, a section not hijacked by Testimony discussions), and an analytical biography. Then there's a series of essays (including a return appearance from the editor!) analysing aspects of selected works. Approaches range from the musicological (his passacaglias) to the more literary (his dramatic impulse seen through the two operas). Finally a trio of articles look at his pianism, his legacy as seen through his students, both official and unofficial, and, courtesy of yours truly, his cinema work.

With a cover price of £95 it might be something that you'd want in your Christmas stocking (though one kindly soul is selling a second-hand copy on Amazon for only £94.99!) Whilst the cover might not be as striking as some others, I've included it simply because I've done it for everyone else and I'm nothing if not fair.

If you're harder pressed (and happy to take a shorter essay from me - though who would want to do that?) you could shell out about half as much for Pauline Fairclough and David Fanning's Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich (details here). Where the analyses in Mishra's book often look in great detail at particular works, this takes in entire genres (though with chapters on the First Symphony and the Second Piano Sonata). It begins with musicological workouts for the symphonies and string quartets before wandering further afield. The ballet, film and theatre music is set in the context of Shostakovich's life and the political turmoil in which he was unfortunate enough to live. This approach has the advantage of including some usually overlooked pieces, like The Song of the Forests, a work better than its 'inspiration' (Stalin's reforestation scheme) might imply.

Just to reassure everyone that my contributions to these two books are different, and different again from my full-length book. Indeed, if I ever got the chance to do a second edition, I'd definitely include some of my subsequent observations from these essays as well as my ongoing research.

Finally, a more specific essay Keeping the Icons on the Wall: Shostakovich's Cinema and Concert Music appears in the trilingual (English, Russian and Italian) Dmitrij D. Šostakovic (1906-1975). Tra musica, letteratura e cinema (there's also a pdf with a little more info). I look at some of the revolutionary songs and other pieces that Shostakovich quoted in various works and see how their repetitiveness, in conjunction with the films' cinematic style, could echo the effect of religious icons, enhancing the propaganda while turning music critics off. This book's a bit harder to track down, but you can buy it direct from the publishers Leo Olschki and there's also a list of overseas sellers on the site.

Sadly, I don't get any extra money should you decide to indulge in these tomes (and I selflessly urge you to do so), but I do get a nice warm glow from knowing that I've satisfied you!

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Korean Film Festival

The Korean Film Festival at the Barbican looks promising, if only on the strength of the two films that I've already seen.

Kim Ji-Woon's The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Joh-un nom, nappun nom, isanghan nom) is a massively enjoyable mash-up of Leone (the title, credit sequence and train-bound opening scene are explicit nods), Kurosawa and Hong Kong wire-work with some bizarre comedy thrown in. The market gunfight with the diving helmet (you have to see it) is hilarious, while the climactic single-handed decimation of the Japanese army as they gallop through the Manchurian desert is weirdly life-affirming in its pure energising enthusiasm. The delirious, almost relentless alternation of chase-fight-chase-fight hardly lets up and the 139 minutes fly by as quickly and as enjoyably as any Keaton film. There are a few nods to 1930s Sino-Japanese relations but if you're looking for a history lesson, this isn't it.

There are a couple of screenings at the London Film Festival but the Barbican has managed to persuade the director along to do a post-film screen-talk.

Utterly different is Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine (Milyang). The quiet story of a woman struggling to start a new life after the death of her husband is utterly gripping and filled with tiny but resonating signs of her recovery. Jeon Do-yeon is on screen practically constantly and deservedly won Cannes' best actress award. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The Silence Before Bach

A quick heads up for a great film in the LFF: The Silence Before Bach (Die Stille vor Bach). Sadly, as so often with the avant-garde stuff in the fest it is allegedly sold out (a single show on Thurs 23 Oct at 4pm in NFT2) but if you're in the area it's definitely worth dropping in to see if there's a chance of getting in. Information here.

I'll be writing more on it in due course.

Rock Monologue (Рок Монолог)

“Rock music caught me on the head when I was sixteen and it never let go.”

Russia has a huge ‘bardic’ tradition, with a sub-strand of singers who fearlessly speak against authority on behalf of the people.

Ideally they should be careless of material success; difficult to the point of eccentricity; widely known but paradoxically impoverished, and forced to work underground, using guile to get their message across: a message that is universally understood and yet tolerated by the authorities that it criticises.

Pushkin (and, after him, Musorgsky) put one at the centre of Boris Godunov: the yurodivy, the ‘holy fool’ who refuses the Tsar grace and accuses him of murdering his way to the top, but who nevertheless enjoys his protection.

In later times rock musicians began to take on some aspects of the role, one of the most famous (in Russia) being Yuri Morozov (1948-2006) a composer/multi-instrumentalist/producer/sound-engineer.

Pop and rock, like jazz, were strange beasts in the USSR. While they were so popular they demanded some official recognition, their Western influence had to be curbed. Hence they became charged with a meaning even beyond that in the West. Imagine Elvis being put in a mental asylum on the basis that his music is …. well …. anybody who’s sane can hear that it’s just wrong, can't they?

Rock Monologue, Vladimir Kozlov’s portrait of Morozov, attempts to tell something of his life, concentrating on his struggle. Unfortunately Morozov died during filming, so his interviews are framed by friends’ posthumous thoughts, supplemented by Gennadi Zaitsev’s archive film.

But it starts with the regulation counterpoint of official Soviet events (Red Square parades et al) with Morozov’s darker songs about dreams (a recurring theme in his work), dissatisfaction, and how everyday smells and noises block out everything of value. In Zaitsev’s home movies Morozov and his friends horse around, as they occasionally fled the city to the dacha, trying out different personae, dressing up in costumes (or wearing nothing at all) and prancing around the forest, filming and photographing each other.

Back home, he filled his flat with a Heath-Robinson recording set-up or used downtime in the studio to record his music, often multi-tracking himself. Since using state equipment for personal profit was illegal, he embarked on a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, duping them by duping his songs: repeatedly cross-recording them, so the KGB wouldn’t believe that such poor quality could come from professional equipment. Alvin Lucier’s greatest hit, I Am Sitting in a Room, uses the same technique to brilliant, if very different, effect.

As for the actual music, Morozov drew on heavy metal, prog rock, psychedelia, jazz, musique concrète, '80s synth-pop, Russian folk music and anything else that came to hand, pushing it through tape effects and weird concoctions of string-and-sellotape synthesisers. A couple of album covers give some sense of the range: the Genesis-surrealist Jimi Hendrix's Cherry Garden (1973), and the near Ultravox-ish The Exposed Feeling of Absence (2005! - obviously being fashionable was not high on Morozov's list of priorities).

Oddly, for all this experimentalism and official disdain, Morozov was immensely popular. Given the number of his albums in circulation he should have been a multimillionaire, as they were widely (if secretly) circulated: apparently most of the Soviet submarine fleet had copies.

Outside Russia Morozov’s music is still pretty difficult to track down – though the web, a sort of latter-day magnitizdat (the audio equivalent of samizdat) has come to his aid. I’ve found a few mp3s to link to (there are others), though with around sixty albums to his name, plus production credits for a host of other bands including DDT, Akvarium and Chizh and Co, it’s hard to feel that anything but a substantial chunk would only be a snapshot.

Though the 1977 song Dream (Сон) starts as a fairly inconsequential bit of sub-Deep Purple, the guitar solo briefly branches into something a bit weird before it pulls itself back together. The song’s title is rather more romantic than that of the album from which it’s taken: The Cretins’ Wedding (Свадьба кретинов).

The title track from the album Странник Голубой звезды (Blue-Star Wanderer, 1980-81) begins like a cheapo-synth folk song, but finishes off with a weird theremin-ish fluttering.

Weirdest of all is the title track from the 1981 album The Legend of May (Легенда о Майя). Obviously a post-Day-in-the-Life/Dark-Side-of-the-Moon production, it leaves them in the dust for sheer unsettlingness, with its Dada-esque combination of pretty much anything, including karaoke-ing over the Beatles.

You can download five more (equally strange) songs from The Cretins’ Wedding here. Sadly the titles came out (for me) as a series of question marks so you may need to identify them from my descriptions.

The title track is pierced by a series of almost blindingly bright guitar chords, while the middle section features a Cale-ishly moaning violin.

Я смеюсь над часами (I Mock the Hours)
The slow-mo guiro under the flowers-in-your-hair folk-pop at the start is slightly disconcerting but when something more akin to industrial noise breaks in…

The relentlessly bleak Черный пес (Black Cur) combines massively over-fuzzed guitar and detuned pub piano under a throat-mangling vocal line. The end of the song gets even stranger…

The relatively ‘normal’ Кретин (Cretin) features Morozov’s sneering over a heavy metal riff, to make one of the less sonically-interesting tracks here, though they lyrics (“I feel the stars: they are as slippery as human brains”) are typically dark and poetic.

Конформист (The Conformist). Again, after the intro’s wailing electronic would-be violin, the surface initially seems, well, conformist, despite the lyric (“In muddy waters, swim flowers and rubbish”) but soon the background stuff starts to break through and various strange noises leap from speaker to speaker.

It’s quite obvious that Morozov needs some serious advocacy in the West. Kozlov’s documentary is a start and it would be good to see more screenings following on from the one at the recent Russian Film Festival. But unfortunately it concentrates on Morozov’s more conservative output. That’s odd given that it also stresses his ‘outsider’ status, admitting that he was difficult to work with: more than once he denied the existence of his wife and his increasing religiosity may have caused some problems. But he inspired adoration from some of those who worked with him. He himself excoriates the compromises of Dylan (his honorary PhD), and McCartney for his knighthood (“that’s got nothing to do with music.”) Lennon was his hero, though there’s a feeling that it’s as much for his political statements as anything on his late-60s avant-garde albums. But for a Soviet artist the two sometimes became intertwined.

In the meantime, here are the first few few minutes from Rock Monologue (in Russian, subtitled in French):

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Quantum of Solace

Jack White is apparently dismayed that his song for the new Bond film has been used to advertise Coke rather than being reserved for the film world's largest product-placement fest.

In other news, it's sad that Amy Winehouse's effort was dropped. Bravely, perhaps, she wrote the lyrics as a sonnet, but subversively divided it into a quatrain, a quintrain and triplet, before finishing with the tradition final couplet. However, her great coup was what can only be described as a singular rhyme scheme. I have it on very good authority that the lyrics were not:

It's a quantum of solace:
From the Hill of Dollis
Being chased by the polis
With their pack of collies.
A Bolivian bloke called Gonzales
But not being played by Telly Savalas
(actually it's Peter Sallis)
We thought about Miriam Margolyes
But, we realised, she'd have to go bra-less.
Concerning international hauliers,
The story’s desperate and lawless,
The sub-plot’s from Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß.
I admit, the song's not flawless
If you can do better, call us!

Friday, 19 September 2008

Live and Remember (Живи и помни)

The Russian Film Festival opened with Alexander Proshkin’s award-winning Live and Remember, based on the novel by Valentin Rasputin.

Rasputin was born in 1937 in Irkutsk, Siberia, and was a journalist before publishing his first fiction in 1961. He’s associated with ‘country prose’, a genre that began during the Thaw and was characterised by Chekhovian understatedness and slice-of-life stories. Though popular and officially praised (Live and Remember won a State Prize) it presented a sceptical view of modern life and industrialisation, though others felt it was a romanticised Russophilia.

His 1976 story Farewell to Matyora was the basis of the best, and best-known of several film adaptations, though when director Larisa Shepitko was killed in a car crash in 1979 her husband Elem Klimov completed it in 1983. Based on Rasputin’s own childhood, it tells how a village resists the flooding of their valley for the Bratsk hydro-electric dam.* In 1965 the project had inspired a very different artistic response in Yevtushenko’s panoramic epic poem. They, in turn, were different from creatives’ views of the Dnieper dam: Esfir Shub’s K-Sh-E: the Komsomol is the Patron of Electricity (1932) or Fyodor Gladkov’s novel Energy, which, written between 1932 and 1938, was actually in production for longer than the dam itself!

Siberia during the war. While most of the men are away fighting, the women work as loggers, to supply the wood vital for the war effort. When Nastya's soldier-husband, Andrei is stationed near the village, he takes the opportunity to go AWOL. As a deserter, he can't go to the village, so he lives in the woods and Nastya brings occasional supplies, while there are various attempts to find him. Ironically, after four years of childless marriage, she falls pregnant. Andrei sees it as a blessing and insists she bears it but Nastya doesn’t know what to do: unable to reveal that it is Andrei's, she claims it was a passing Red Army Commissar. The village is divided, some, including her mother-in-law, condemning her and some more sympathetic, but when suspicions grow (perhaps fuelled by Andrei's father) she sticks to her story. The war ends but Andrei still doesn't reveal himself. A search party is sent out and Nastya, hoping to warn him, sets off across the lake at night. One of her oars breaks and, realising that she may in fact be leading them to him, she jumps into the lake. At a commemorative meal, Andrei is condemned, though there is an irony when one of Nastya's friends agrees that "he is in hell", while Nastya is elevated to a 'saint'. A tug-boat sails down the river, broadcasting the Red Square victory parade and when the captain sees but doesn't recognise the unresponsive Andrei, he shouts: "Are you alive?"

Throughout Live and Remember, there’s a constant feeling of the hardness of life: the opening scenes riff on shots of and discussions about axes - vital to life in this harsh landscape. When Andrei steals a calf, there’s a montage of their eyes – beseeching? apologetic? hopeless? - before he brings down the axe.

Alexander and Gennadi Karyuk’s wintry cinematography (underlined by constant, snow-squeaking shoes) is slightly warmed by Roman Dormindoshin’s music which, though often gently minimalist, occasionally rises to muted melody.

Though Rasputin (like many writers) tends not to enjoy adaptations of his work, the appropriately named Dariya Moroz, who plays Nastya, helped kick-start the film after starring in a stage production. Book-ended by the actors playing an old Siberian game, that was dropped for the film and a new coda written. Predictably he though the film was OK but disliked the changes.

Playing Andrei, Mikhail Evlanov is something of a feature in the festival. To judge from this and his other roles, he obviously enjoys make-up and in Live and Remember he is gradually transformed from merely unkempt to being a kind of wild-man. Disillusioned, he destroys his medals and attempts suicide, in contrast with the village’s returning hero, Maxim Vologzhin.

Though there might initially be a whiff of The Return of Martin Guerre, we’re soon reassured that Andrei is indeed who he claims, but Nastya’s reminiscences of their happy marriage are brutally cut short by Andrei’s ruthless self-assessment as a wife-beater and a deserter: a double-criminal.

Counterpointing the two younger leads is veteran Sergei Makovetsky as Andrei's hyper-intense father, cannily putting together the clues about Andrei, but struggling to do the best for both his son and the village. His age and gammy leg explain why he isn’t at the front, highlighting suspicions about the young village leader, a drunken bully ironically named Nestor. Several smaller parts are taken by non-professionals. Presumably they were brought in from Irkutsk (it was actually shot around Nizhny Novgorod) to help with the peculiar local accent, which caused the Russian actors (and some Russian audiences) a bit of trouble. Following on from Rasputin, Proshkin and Moroz both wanted to contrast rural and urban outlooks: four country people, practicality – like Nastya binging food to Andrei – is a stronger expression of love than for urbanites.

Unsurprisingly, Live and Remember is a bit reminiscent of Farewell – the overwhelmingly female cast facing intense difficulties, and, in its whiteness and moral contemplations, Shepitko’s The Ascent (1976): the title is a grim reminder of Andrei’s fate, to live on and be tormented by his memories. It also has the sensitivity to rural life that Proshkin showed in The Cold Summer of ’53 (1987). But it’s its own film, and, if it isn’t quite Farewell’s equal, it's certainly an outstanding achievement. Sadly, it was given a fairly limited release in Russia (though it was well-received) but, hopefully, success on the festival circuit will help its profile, while it's also been released on DVD.

* Given the project’s birth pangs, it’s ironic that the name derives from the Russian for ‘Brother’

Live and Remember (Живи и помни; Zhivi i pomni, 2008)
Farewell to Matyora (Прощание с Матёрой; Proshchai s Matyoroi, 1983)
K-Sh-E: the Komsomol is the Patron of Electricity (КШЭ: Комсомол – шеф электрификации; Komsomol – shef elektrifikatsii, 1932)
The Ascent (Восхождение; Voskozhdenie, 1976)
The Cold Summer of ’53 (Холодное лето пятьдесят третьего; Kholodnoe leto piatdesiat tretevo, 1987)

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The manifest destiny of fair comment?

The news that composer Keith Burstein has been bankrupted by his libel action against the Evening Standard raises mixed feelings. On the one hand, a ‘little guy’ has been squashed by the corporate suits (and Associated Newspapers at that). On the other hand it seems like an attempt to rein in critical comment has failed. On the other(?!) hand, what are the limits of a critic's responsibilities?

The backstory: reviewing Burstein’s opera Manifest Destiny, Veronica Lee said it was ‘trite’, ‘horribly leaden’ and ‘unmusical’. And that was just Dic Edwards’ libretto: Burstein’s music was dismissed simply as ‘uninspiring’.

Hey-ho: we all get bad reviews and learn to conquer the urge to fire off an email, explaining just why the perceived ‘faults’ are actually our meisterwerk’s crowning glories, or saying that we agree but that some sheister producer/publisher/singer/fill-in-the-job-title completely shafted us and that only a critic who has no conception of what it is to be creative could fail to recognize the travails of being an artist.

Burstein began life as a conductor of modernist works but as his interest in composition grew, so he became a neo-tonalist, writing stuff like this. He co-formed The Hecklers to argue against the disproportionate public subsidy given to unpopular music, incidentally winning a libel suit against News International, which claimed he disrupted the Royal Opera's production of Gawain. He quickly left the Hecklers and has since come to see his association with the group as a bit of an albatross.

Unluckily, Manifest Destiny, which centres on a suicide bomber, premiered five weeks after 7/7, possibly setting up unintended parallels. Chris Cleave’s suicide-bomber novel Incendiary was ‘lucky’ enough to predate the attacks and, four years later, as the film adaptation is about to be released, it all seems a little distant.

For reference, here’s the Standard's review:

How horribly prescient; Keith Burstein’s opera about suicide bombers receives its world premiere a few weeks after 7/7. What a pity it’s such a trite affair. The heroine, Palestinian poet Leila (Bernadette Lord), leaves Daniel, a Jewish composer, to return to her homeland to become a suicide bomber. Her cell leader Mohammed falls in love with her, sees the error of his ways and, in order to save her, hands Leila over to the Americans. But it’s all too much for her so she tops herself anyway.

The libretto by Dic Edwards is horribly leaden and unmusical and the music uninspiring, save for the odd duet, and full marks to the talented cast of four for carrying it off. But I found the tone depressingly anti-American [there’s a synopsis here], and the idea that there is anything heroic about suicide bombers is, frankly, a grievous insult.

Burstein, who had previously written about the opera in The Guardian, took this to imply that he found suicide bombers heroic. The Evening Standard argued that it was ‘fair comment’.

Burstein felt there was nothing to do but go to law. He won the right to sue for defamation – to be heard before a jury – and was awarded £8,000. But the Court of Appeal overturned that, judging the original review to be fair comment. And ordered Burstein to return the 8k and stump up the rest of the Standard’s costs. Not having 67 grand to hand, (in the Alice in Wonderland world of law, that almost seems quite reasonable) he was bankrupted.

Burstein has vowed to fight on (with what, I don’t know), and will go to the European Court of Human Rights to argue that the denial of a trial before a jury and the fact that he had to pay the Standard’s costs before all legal options were exhausted was a travesty of justice.

The importance of trial by jury (preferably not by Gilbert and Sullivan) is a whole different topic, so let’s not go there. But it's worth returning to the review and the crucial last line. There's nothing wrong (or actionable) in saying a work of art is rubbish (and hopefully Burstein isn't complaining about that). The BBC review and a passing comment by the Telegraph probably didn't have crowds hammering down the door but artists inevitably expose themselves to that.

But Burstein is saying that if that creation is seen as a manifestation of the artist, then to say that the work supports suicide bombers is, to some degree to say that the man does. How is the critic to unhitch the two?

In a later twist, the new Terrorism Bill outlaws anything that the publisher might reasonably believe will be understood as a direct or indirect encouragement or inducement to the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorist acts. Whether that makes Burstein's work unperformable is a moot (but interesting) point, relying on the producers' (or courts') assessment of whether there are any potential terrorists in the audience who may be fired up by the opera.

The rights to the bankrupt Burstein's works have been taken by the receiver and future royalties will be used to pay m’learned friends. Quite how long this will take I don’t know: there aren’t many composers charging three figures an hour.

In the meantime, Burstein’s website, which included soundclips of his work – and perhaps even of Manifest Destiny - has been taken down. If it’s a result of the judgment, then surely that's an unintended and unfortunate effect.

However, you can (for how long?) see extensive chunks on Youtube.

I’ll risk a critical comment: I’m glad he wrote it. I’m glad I’ve seen it. I’m glad I won’t be seeing it again. Please - don't sue me!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

LFF Preview (Experimenta)

Again, not an exhaustive list: just those that catch my eye.

James Benning's genre might be called the "tableau film", in which a static camera watches events pass before its eye. Apparently, the titles of Ten Skies and Thirteen Lakes (both from 2004) pretty much sum up the content, but of course no description can ever encompass a film. Benning doesn't have a monopoly on the idea. Fliegauf's Milky Way (Tejút), which has had a couple of outings in London - and hopefully elsewhere in the UK, is a series of ten shots, though each contained a human narrative of some sort. Kiarostami's Five Dedicated to Ozu, immediately gave away the number of shots it contained (though the ducks were a pleasant surprise). The first 30 minutes of Sokurov's Spiritual Voices (Духовные голоса) watches dusk descend over a landscape, whilst a narrator contemplates art. Compared to these, Benning's latest film RR seems positively action packed, with no fewer than 43 (count 'em!) 43 shots. Each lasts just as long as it takes for a train to cross the frame. This is one of the festival films I'm really looking forward to.

Perhaps in the same vein is a Nathaniel Dorsky programme that promises to 'transcend daily reality and open a space for introspective thought'.

Naturally, the musical theme of The Silence Before Bach (Die Stille vor Bach) means I'll be there. An epigrammatic mosaic-study of Bach in the modern world, it sounds like 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould may be echoing in the background, but it would be no worse for that.

I may well give the Guy Debord double bill a go, if only in the faint hope that, suitably prepared, I'll actually finally make it all the way through The Society of the Spectacle.

From the LFF write-up, the Alina Rudnitskaya programme doesn't sound incredibly experimental: here we get three short docs about Russian women, not including her portrait of Russian faux-lesbian pop-poppets Tatu. I'm always slightly puzzled that the LFF doesn't have a documentary section per se (perhaps some inter-Festival 'respecting-categories' politics) and some seem to end up shunted into the Experimenta section for dubious reasons. Don't get me started on last year's Seven Easy Pieces!

Finally, a suite of shorts under the title A Sense of Place. Included is Rebecca Baron and Douglas Goodwin's ironically entitled Lossless No 2, a latterday parallel of Bill Morrison's Decasia, which uses failed digital files of Hammid and Deren's classic Meshes of the Afternoon.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Russian Film Festival

Squeezing in just before the London Film Festival is the Russian Film Festival, running from 18 to 28 September at the Apollo West End.

I'll be blogging as it goes along but here are a few tasters of what I know (or think) will be worth going for). It's not an exhaustive list.

I suppose most interest will surround Mikhalkov's Oscar-nominated 12 [above], a remake of Lumet's 12 Angry Men. The trailer implies that it's been opened up quite considerably (the original 96 minutes has become 153) and, unsurprisingly, it's another of Mikhalkov's contemplations of the nature of Russian-ness.

Live to Remember (Живи и помни - literally Live and Remember) [left] opens the fest, another historical drama directed by Alexander Proshkin (best-known for The Cold Summer of '53), while Alexander Melnik's Terra Nova (Новая земля) is a sort of Lord of the Flies, but with adult convicts. Melnik is a first-time feature director, like Marina Liubakova, whose Cruelty (Жестокост) features the wonderful Renata Litvinova.

Women directors aren't as uncommon in Russia as in the West and the fest includes Svetlana Proskurina's Best of Times (Лучшее время года). Tarkovsky and Sokurov loom large in her filmography (she's made a couple of docs about the latter), so it will be interesting to see what her own fiction looks like.

The 2003 film Roads to Koktebel also had an occasional Tarkovskian feel and one of its co-directors, Alexei Popogrebsky, has now struck out on his own with the excellent Simple Things (Простые вещи): surely here's a director to watch.

20 Cigarettes (20 сигарет) [left] looks like it could be stylish fun (perhaps it's the first Russian film to feature Slade on the soundtrack?) but these things can be taken too far. The last thing I'm pointing up is Yuri's Day (Юрьев день). It's about an opera singer and is described as "a complex tapestry of mysticism, spiritualism and hyperrealism", making me fear that it's a cross between Diva and the barely watchable 4 (Четыре).

That's not all that's in the fest, but it's enough for now...

Friday, 12 September 2008

London Film Festival (galas)

The launch of the London Film Festival. Obviously it's going to take a while to plough through the programme to decide what's worth seeing, but a few things caught my eye.

Of course there are the galas, though they're films that will be opening anyway. Frost/Nixon looks interesting but Oliver Stone's George Bush biopic W had several people wondering whether it was going to be a knockabout comedy. There was certainly enough laughter at the launch.

There was an audible intake of breath at the words Quantum of Solace (chops to Eon for refusing to back down in the face of a hail of criticism at the name (though much more ridiculous and it would have turned into a Star Wars title). Most amusing, however, is this note: "As this will be the first public screening of Quantum of Solace anywhere in the world, patrons are advised that special security measures will be in place." Noticeably, such measures won't be in place for Waltz With Bashir, not, as I thought, a portrait of the Di-bothering journalist, but an incendiary-sounding animated autobiographical doc about the Middle East conflict.

Whether or not it's the skill of the trailer-maker, Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona didn't seem as bad as rumours have had it. Of course, its acreage of pulchritudineity may prove to be an embarrassment.

The worthiness quotient will be kept high by (artist) Steve McQueen's almost dialogue-free Hunger and Soderbergh's 252-minute Che.

Entre les murs (The Class) looked really promising and Easy Virtue looked like it could be avoid the ever-present danger of squirm-inducing "we're-British-but-we-can-laugh-at-ourselves" 'comedy'.  

I'll drive through a few more pages later.

Len Lye

I bumped into Mr Squares of Wheat the other night at the NFT .... errrr .... BFI South Bank, and he quite rightly berated me for not blogging often enough. So here's another blurt of multiple posts.

Anyway, we were both looking forward to the Len Lye event.

It's fantastic to think that seventy years ago there was an organisation that supported artists who wanted to make avant-garde films, often giving them pretty much carte blanche to do what they wanted, with the proviso that the last few seconds should include a 'message'. This astonishingly enlightened organisation was none other than the GPO (aka The Royal Mail, aka Consignia, aka The Royal Mail).

One of my more pleasant jobs was at the BUFVC, helping put the GPO collection online for educational use. The encodings are lovely and the metadata great, but, sadly, you'll need an Athens account to see them. Alternatively they are available on DVD from Panamint Cinema and the BFI are about to launch a series of restorations.

What would British film be without the GPO Film Unit? Not to list everyone is invidious, but it's hard to ignore the poetry of Humphrey Jennings and Alberto Cavalcanti, the very English surrealism of Richard Massingham and the explosive energy of Lye and Norman McLaren. Apologies for reducing these geniuses to single, only partially representative adjectives, and for omitting any of your favourites. Sit tight: I'll be returning to them.

But, back to NFT2. New Zealander Lye gave his work to the Len Lye Foundation and much of it is held at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. It ranged over painting, kinetic sculpture, poetry, and of course film, and Tyler Cann, curator of the collection ran through Lye's life and work, neatly showing its common well-springs in modernism, aboriginal art and Freud.

Then there was a screening of Lye's first film Tusalava (1929). Amusingly, the BBFC were agitated by the suspicion that it might be about sex. And if you insist on films being 'about' something, it's hard to deny, but you'd have to worry about anyone who found it arousing! The title is Samoan for 'just the same' or 'everything comes full circle' and if it's more than a film about movement per se, it's a modernist take on Maori art and photomicrography, a meditation on creation, struggle and destruction, all carried out at cellular level. Maybe it's just me, but there was also a weird Frankensteinian aspect to it!

At its Film Society premiere it was accompanied live by Jack Ellit's two-piano score, though this is now lost. Ellit scored and 'synchronised' seven of Lye's eight films up to Trade Tattoo in 1937, which may - or may not - give us a clue as to what Tusalava sounded like: his contributions included using Don Baretto and His Cuban Orchestra, and chunks of Holst's The Planets. For the NFT screening Alcyona semi-improvised appropriately organic and swirling music on one piano. Given the film's slow and smooth development, it was an achievement to insert some points of noticeable change, that were not merely tacked on.

Various people have put it on Youtube with their own soundtracks. Two of them are a bit Eraserhead-ish and there's a jazz score that doesn't really have much to do with the film but as far as I can tell (sadly, despite being in two parts, it doesn't play very well) it gets a bit better as it progresses. There's also a self-declared "avant-garde sound design" that's not bad, though it sometimes follows the action a bit too closely for my taste.

They all have different running times (I haven't done an exhaustive comparison of the whys and wherefores) and, weirdly, the first three have somehow found a copy of the film that is left-right inverted. A couple of them have the Film Society leader.

For my money, the best score is this.

Some of Lye's best-known films are Trade Tattoo, Rainbow Dance and A Colour Box. For these astonishing films Lye used heavily treated found footage, drew and painted directly onto the film, stenciled texts onto it and scratched the surface to create an electrifying result. Seeing these films, you can't help but whoop with joy.

The Royal Mail should simply show the genius Trade Tattoo every November. It would cheer up the entire country and they could use the saved advertising budget to keep a few post offices open.

Of course, Lye's films should be seen in their full glory (the web can't do them justice) and I'm looking forward to the BFI DVDs but in the meantime, enjoy Trade Tattoo. Frequently.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008


Cassandras would claim that classical music and television have been falling out of love in recent years and sometimes it's hard to disagree. This year's BBC Young Musician of the Year was marked by an almost complete absence of ... errrrrr... music. Instead we were treated to hours of the competitors hooking up on Facebook in between embarrassedly small snippets of the actual music. But never mind - you could see the entire performances on the web, so that fulfilled the public service requirement.

So, mine was one of the many hearts that sank at the prospect of eight 'celebrities' (from C down to about Y) in an X-Factor knockout competition to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Proms in the Park. In a nod to Marxist dialectics, the candidates ranged from untrained music-lovers, through classically-trained non-musicians, through to untrained professionals, so part of the idea seemed to be to have a kind of nature-versus-nurture debate.

Actually it wasn't bad at all.

Conducting is a mysterious and invisible art and some people, in thrall to egos like Karajan and Solti (affectionately known by London players as The Screaming Skull), think the conductor just sort of windmills around a bit, vaguely in time to the music.

It's one of those things that is best demonstrated by going hideously pear-shaped. I well remember some appalling last-minute-replacement hack managing to turn Berg's Violin Concerto into something resembling Berg's Trombone Concerto.

Maestro's band was under instructions to do whatever they were told, which goes somewhat against some orchestras' natural instincts. If they take against you, you're dead: being at the head of an out-of-control orchestra must be one of the most terrifying experiences you could have.

So it was nice to see the mechanics being explained, including getting the arms to work independently by simultaneously and repeatedly drawing a triangle and a square (counting three in one arm and four in the other) - a ramped-up version of patting your head and rubbing your stomach.

When it came to getting to grips with the dots on the page, were the untrained at a disadvantage? The assigned pieces (the prelude to Bizet's Carmen; Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King; Prokofiev's Montagues and Capulets, and a filleted Blue Danube) were all under about five minutes and, since there was no tricky Rite-of-Spring counting, after some hard slog they could be learnt by heart.

Amusingly, the untrained Goldie quickly sketched the sort of diagram he uses to convey his ideas to his collaborators, and it was absolutely in the tradition of 1960s graphic scores that arch-exponent Cathy Berberian affectionately mocked in Stripsody, where the performer is inspired to make appropriate noises by a series of cartoons.

But back to the maestri. Clips from the final concert are here.

Had windmilling been item one on the job description Peter Snow would have been a shoo-in but it was painfully clear almost from the beginning of the programme that he'd be going for an early bath. He was further disturbed by his insistence on using the score (beating time, molding the sound of the orchestra and turning the pages proved too much) though it wasn't as bad the audience's hilarity would have you believe.

The other nominee for eviction was the man universally known as Blur's Alex James who, as you may have heard, in between television and radio appearances and newspaper articles, runs a cheese farm. A former professional musician clinging on by the skin of his teeth, one felt his pain - though only momentarily. He didn't so much conduct the middle section of the Carmen, as wave his arms in an ... errr ... ecstatic(?) Ibiza moment. Also, it's embarrassing not to be able to count without moving your lips.

Of the others:

David Soul's post-Hutch pop career climaxed with Jerry Springer: the Opera. Soul plays guitar (often, though not in this case, a sign of innate musical inability), but sadly, he's simply not in control of things. Closer to following the band than leading it.

Despite having mastered the piano to Grade 8, Sue Perkins beats time simultaneously with both arms, like Marcel Marceau tossing a giant salad. Apart from being twice as much work as necessary, it stymies any possibility of doing anything else with the music. Having said that, she's progressing well with the conductor-ish gurning, if occasionally there's a look of surprised pleasure that what she wanted to happen actually came to pass. Nevertheless, unless she can loosen up, she's for the chop.

Katie Derham is possibly someone else for whom a little knowledge will be a dangerous thing. The pianist-violinist-newsreader-Classic-FM-presenter (favourite piece: Rhapsody in Blue) has doubtless spent many happy hours conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the comfort of her own living room. But then again, haven't we all? Though my preference is for the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra. She was obviously trying to inject a bit of interpretation (a bit of rubato, etc) but is still too concerned with doing it 'right'.

Actor-comedian-entertainer Bradley Walsh is determined not to be bested, no matter how much he seems to play the clown. Obviously taking it far more seriously than he's letting on (it's on his website), he could well come up on the inside.

On the strength of episode 1, the finale will be between Goldie (an inspired natural, with minimal 'technique') and Jane Asher (a ruthless perfectionist, and a redheaded cake-maker to boot).

I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, 4 August 2008


Anyone who's passing through Paris before the end of August would be well-advised to swing by the Cinémathèque Française, where there's an excellent Georges Méliès exhibition.

The title, Méliès le magicien says what it's all about: linking Méliès' cinema work to his previous incarnation as a magician and performer.

Having bought a theatre from the illusionist Robert-Houdin, Méliès set about creating a series of magic tricks and the exhibition includes various pieces of stage apparatus and costumes. From there is was a short step to the new magic of the cinématographe. Méliès really was a polymath as is shown by some of his exquisite designs (here's the moon-landing from his famous Voyage dans la lune (1902).

Combining the techniques of the black theatre with cinema's superimposition and the tricks of editing enabled Méliès to achieve some fantastically sophisticated special effects, while a model of his studio at Montreuil, gives an idea how he used perspective tricks to achieve some of his grandest effects.

Fantastic in both senses of the word, his films often feature devils (the very beautiful Les 400 farces du diable ~ 400 Tricks of the Devil (1906) or other mythical creatures (La sirène ~ The Mermaid, 1904), while dismemberment is a regular occurrence.

Unsuprisingly, I was intrigued by Le Mélomane (aka The Music Lover, 1902) in which people are decapitated and theirs heads are strung across the five wires of a telegraph line to make a couple of bars of music. As Méliès was based in the US at the time, the melody turns out to be a snippet of God Save America, (or, for Royalists on my side of the pond) God Save the King.

Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)

In the depths of the Cold War Solzhenitsyn became one of the West's favourite Soviet writers. The Gulag Archipelago, his epic dissection of the prison-camp system confirmed everything that we 'knew' about the USSR, while the treatment he received at the hands of the regime only deepened that knowledge.

Without denying Solzhenitsyn's greatness as a writer, we can recognise that his reputation was emblematic of the mirror image outlooks of West and East, shackling artistic worth to 'dissidence' and 'conformity'.

In 1945 Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was a twice-decorated Red Army officer when a letter obliquely criticising Stalin was intercepted. He was imprisoned for eight years, followed by three years' internal exile.

Solzhenitsyn continued to write in secret but it was Khrushchev's 1961 speech denouncing Stalin's cult of personality that emboldened him to submit One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to Novyi Mir.

Based on his own experiences, the fictionalised account of camp life is, at the end, quite optimistic, showing the importance of fortitude and small victories - the hero had enjoyed that day's work, managed to get an extra ration of kasha, and found a piece of hacksaw blade (with no immediate purpose but the thought that it could come in useful). But more than that, it shows that the regime, no matter how brutal, could not guarantee to reduce people to its level. Published at Khrushchev's express command, it made Solzhenitsyn an overnight literary sensation, though almost immediately he also attracted some now largely forgotten criticism, not least from the First Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party.

A few stories appeared while he worked on the novel Cancer Ward but, though it was typeset, it was pulled before publication. Nothing new appeared in the Soviet Union after 1965.

He continued to write through the inevitable campaign of harassment, while living at the dacha of husband-and-wife cellist and soprano Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya. In 1969 Solzhenitsyn was thrown out of the Writers' Union, and the following year won the Nobel Prize. As the attacks continued Union, whereupon his hosts wrote a defence, though it went unpublished and contributed to their own fall from grace. When The Gulag Archipelago appeared in Paris in 1974, he was deported, and settled in Vermont.

For the West, this was a coup: a noble dissident, from whose eyes the scales had fallen, uncowed by the shameful treatment at the hands of an irrational tyrant.

But Solzhenitsyn soon disabused them of the idea that he would be grateful for their refuge. What the West saw as anti-Soviet was nearer to pro-Russist, and he had equally little time for the decadent West. Withdrawing to the snowy woods, his ongoing fiction was interspersed with jeremiads on how Western freedom had descended into decadence, most notably in a 1978 address at Harvard.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union he was rehabilitated, his work was finally authorised and he returned to the country that was, to misquote Stalin, "dizzy with failure."

He quickly came to hate the legalised pillage of Gorbachev and Yeltsin's perestroika, and it became clear that he would settle no more easily in Russia than he did in Vermont.

In Rebuilding Russia (1990) he argued that Russia, Ukraine and Belarus should reform as a bastion of (anti-Western-atheist) Christianity. Unsurprisingly, he opposed Ukrainian independence, though they probably took a dim view of this 'support' as he also denied that the Holodomor - the 1932-3 Ukrainian famine - was an act of genocide, denouncing those who proposed as much. Semantically he has a point. Despite the similar sound, the Holodomor ('murder by hunger') was not a Holocaust, a planned attempt to exterminate the Ukrainian nation. Rather it was a shameful exploitation - even exacerbation - of a natural tragedy. Of course, the Soviets used the same 'not-only-Jews-were-killed' logic-chopping to persuade Yevtushenko to alter Babi Yar. Still, at least Solzhenitsyn wasn't following Stalinist fellow-travellers like the New York Times' Walter Duranty in denying that it happened at all.

In 1936 Solzhenitsyn had planned an epic on the Revolution, though it was only in 1969 that he began The Red Wheel with August 1914. He revised it in 1984 before, over the next nine years, adding three more volumes to bring the story up to April 1917. It's fascinating to think what it would be like had he written it when it was conceived. Although he held out against Party membership, became disenchanted with Stalin, and later saw the Revolution as a schismatic moment when the Bolshviks severed 'Russia' from its roots, pre-Purge he was in contact with conformist writers including Konstantin Fedin. Ironically, it was Fedin who prevented the publication of Cancer Ward.

After some doubts, Solzhenitsyn became a supporter of Vladimir Putin and praised the country's new robust foreign policy, forgetting some of its new illiberalities. In return he was rewarded with the state prize. In his acceptance speech he said that memories of the Soviet period would "forewarn and protect us from destructive breakdown."

Ironically in his 1970 open letter defending Solzhenitsyn, Rostropovich cited the notorious 1948 Musicians' Conference: "Can it really be that the times we have lived through have not taught us to take a more cautious attitude toward crushing talented people?"


A quick note on the Saturday's Stockhausen Prom.

Perhaps there'll never be 6,000 people ready to fill the RAH for two-and-a-bit hours of Stockhausen, but those who didn't go missed a real event. I don't know how it came over on the radio but it's not really something I can imagine in anything other than the flesh.

From the 1950s onwards Stockhausen was an undeniable leader of the avant-garde - his pupils and assistants form a roll-call of modern composers in a surprising variety of styles. But then, in the 1960s he began also to influence popular music, and famously appeared wedged between Lenny Bruce and WC Fields on the cover of Sgt Pepper (back row, fifth from the left). Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd and Bjork are among his admirers.

In 1977 he began a quarter of a century of work on his seven-day opera-cycle Licht, for which he envisaged a new concert hall being built, but which also included the infamous string quartet in which the four performers are linked only by headphones, as each plays in their own helicopter. Perhaps Prince Harry would like to sponsor a performance?

Where he saw such outlandish demands as simply necessary, a general mood-shift against avant-garde 'pretensions' saw a megalomanic attempt to out-Wagner Wagner. Stockhausen began increasingly to work with a group of close collaborators including Kathinka Pasveer and Bryan Wolf, who controlled the sound-projection in this Prom.

All this helped move him towards the apparent periphery. Or perhaps he was simply a victim of fashion and an embarrassment at his earnest honesty, to which art responded with post-modernist irony.

Probably he didn't help things with his claims to have been born on Sirius, though his website describes his death as his "ASCENSION through the HEAVEN'S DOOR into PARADISE", a slightly more conventional pantheistic-cum-Christian view of our fates.

But you can't fault his sense of mission. One of modern music's difficulties is that people hardly have a chance to hear it more than once - premieres are easy: it's the second performances and recordings that are elusive. But Stockhausen released his own series of (91 and counting) CDs, alongside scores, books and any amount of explanatory material.

And he seems to have retained his sense of humour.

But, back to the RAH...

Gruppen, Stockhausen's mid-1950s masterpiece employs three orchestras: half way through writing it, he realised that no single conductor could cope with the three independent but interlinked time layers, so he simply split the orchestra and demanded three conductors. For all its revolutionariness, nobody who's at home with Webern and Schönberg would need to stretch their ears very much, but the most exciting things is the hocketing of melodies (yes - it does have them!) and timbres around the three groups. I was a bit worried that the barn-like RAH would meld it all into a single mush or produce some other weird effect (I remember a Nielsen Fifth where the side-drummer's apocalyptic climax was literally doubled by an echo). Thankfully, at the back of the hall in the circle the three groups were clearly separated though it wasn't quite the surround-sound that Stockhausen intended. Part of the joy is trying (and knowing it's impossible) to imagine what it sounds like from other places: with two orchestras taking up a good chunk of the arena, I can imagine that standing between the marimba and the cellos (or whatever) would have been very strange.

After that, the lights were dimmed for Cosmic Pulses, an electronic piece from the thirteenth hour of Klang, a series to be played over a 24-hour period. Like anything by Stockhausen, there's a rigorous plan (permutations of pitches, rhythms and spacial placement) but, on a first hearing (this was the UK premiere), that seemed less important than simply enjoying the sounds bouncing around the hall. At 32 minutes, perhaps it was a bit too much of a good thing but still recognisably way beyond a lot of electronic music's "...and-I-can-do-this-as-well..." noodlings.

Klang's fifth hour is marked by Harmonien for amplified and sound-projected solo trumpet. This incredible virtuoso piece didn't stay a moment too long as Marco Blaauw juggled a belt-load of mutes to create a completely gripping 15 minutes.

The second half began with another classic: Kontakte, for electronic sounds, piano and percussion. There's not much to say, except to exhort people to hear it, but again, the live experience is something different as we watched the interplay of Colin Currie on percussion and Nicolas Hodges, credited only as pianist but who also did a share of the percussing.

We'd taken the opportunity of a thinly populated circle to slither round to the side, above the first orchestra, for a different perspective on the repeat of Gruppen. It certainly proved how different sound perspectives worked though it sounded better from the first position; the spacial effects weren't as strong from the side. Thankfully, the second outing wasn't spoiled as the first had been by a moronic show-off, intent on demonstrating that he knew this piece so well that he could start applauding even before the last note's dying fall.

Finally a hearty clap on the back for Martyn Brabbins, who replaced Ludovic Morlot to conduct Gruppen's second orchestra. Quite how one steps in at the last minute in a work like this is beyond me!

Wednesday, 9 July 2008


Over the next few weeks I'll be back in the blogging saddle and will be leavening the new stuff with a dig into the archives.

With that in mind, here's a belated obit of the Polish cinematographer, Edward Kłosiński, who died in January 2008.

Cinematographer Edward Kłosiński worked with some of the greatest Polish directors on the most important films of the ‘cinema of moral concern’.

After art school, Kłosiński studied cinematography in Łodz, graduating in 1967 and entering the industry when the so-called Polish School, having rejected Socialist Realism, had brought greater creative freedom and an international profile to Polish cinema. Starting as a stills photographer he graduated to filming shorts and educational films.

His break came when he replaced cinematographer Zygmunt Samosiuk on Andrzej Wajda’s The Birchwood (Brzezina, 1970), whose palette echoes the deathly hues of Jacek Malczewski’s Thanatos paintings, one of which hangs in the protagonist’s house.

Kłosiński's first solo feature was Janusz Zaorski’s early comedy Run Away Nearly (Uciec jak najbliżej, 1972). Its delicately erotic scenes (and some less gentle ones) are shot in a quiet reportage style while the broader comedy is underlined by more obvious cinematography.

The following year’s Illumination (Illumiunacja), Krzysztof Zanussi’s, bildungsroman film about a young physics student’s moral crisis, has a similar near-documentary style.

In the mid 1970s unrest was rising in Poland was the ‘cinema of moral concern’ responded by attacking bureaucracy and careerism. Kłosiński was at the centre of the movement but several of his films hit problems. Speaking of that period he said:

'I like that cinema, I know it was needed and important, but in terms of form it is hard to view it as rich. It probably had to be that way. If the formal aspects had been more spectacular, they would have falsified the content which was the most important thing.'

In fact, Kłosiński's documentary approach intensified the effect, bringing home the reality of the situation.

The Story of a Love (Historia pewnej miłości, 1974), documentarist Wojciech Wiszniewski’s only drama, was banned for almost ten years, but things came to a head with Zanussi’s Camouflage (Barwy ochronne, 1976). When a mediocre student paper is rewarded above a better, though unconventional one, the point is hard to miss. In early 1977 the authorities turned on the industry, replacing administrators, and canceling and banning films. Camouflage was a lightning rod for disapproval and positive reviews were spiked. But this only increased interest so, ironically the authorities camouflaged their intentions by awarding it a prize, which Zanussi refused.

Zanussi's contemporary story was complemented by Wajda's Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1977) on the previously near-untouchable subject of Poland’s Stalinist past.
A film student’s project about a 1950s Stakhanovite bricklayer questions national myths and, when her tutor blocks the work, Wajda examines how Poland was dealing with its past. The virtuoso Kłosiński shot not only Wajda’s film but also the ‘found footage’ that comprises the student’s documentary. In 1981 he married the film’s star Krystyna Janda and went on to photograph her directorial debut The Pip (Pestka, 1996).

When Wajda’s career was blocked he made Rough Treatment (Bez znieczulina, 1978) about a comparably shunned journalist. Kłosiński made it look “like a reporter’s work … restless, careless.” Yet their next collaboration was the lyrical Maids of Wilko (Panien z Wilka, 1979).

In Feliks Falk’s bitter Top Dog (Wodzirej, 1977), Kłosiński counterpoints the darkly comedic moments with documentary-like inserts to comment of the hyperactive Master of Ceremonies who feels he has to betray a friend to secure a prestigious booking. It was banned for two years.

As the political situation darkened, Kłosiński shot Zaorski’s Child’s Play (Dziecinen pytinia 1981) about a student arrested for asking awkward questions. Two years later Mother of Kings (Matka Królów), about a man arrested as a collaborator and the effect on his family, was banned until 1987.

In 1981 Wajda rushed to beat a possible ban on Man of Iron (Człowieka z żelaza), about a dissolute journalist’s attempt to disrupt Solidarity. Culture Minister Józef Tejchma, sacked for approving Man of Marble, had returned to his post and, after approving Man of Iron was again dismissed. A few months later, martial law was declared and both films were withdrawn.

This was the most important phase of Kłosiński's career, and though he continued to make many films in Poland he also worked overseas. Kieślowski cast his crews as carefully as his actors and chose Kłosiński for the second episode of Dekalog (1989), which desperately balances one life against another. The mostly naturalistic photography serves to highlight intense moments such as the very slight slow-motion of a coffee cup being deliberately dropped.

Kłosiński's work was usually naturalistic (‘Cinematography cannot be a “wall” separating the film from the viewer’) but Lars von Trier’s Europa (1991) is a barrage of artificiality with its mixture of colour and black-and-white (sometimes in the same frame) and back-projected dreams on a post-War nightmare trans-European train journey.

In 1994 Kłosiński shot Kieślowski’s White, the middle panel of his Three Colours trilogy, perhaps the hardest assignment as the director felt that 'White is not a colour – it is an absence of colour.' Possibly the understated power of Kłosiński's self-effacing style was the attractant.

On his sixty-fifth birthday, three days before he died, Kłosiński was made an Officer of the Order of the Restoration of Poland (Orderu Odrodzenia Polski), one of the country's highest civil distinctions.

Edward Stefan Kłosiński. Born Warsaw 2 January 1943. Died 5 January 2008, Milanówek, near Warsaw. Wife Krystyna Janda. Two sons (Adam and Andrzej), plus a daughter, Magdalena from a previous marriage.