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!