Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy review ***

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Jasper Johns “Something Resembling Truth”

Royal Academy of Arts. 10th November 2017

So here’s my theory. Sometime in the mid 1970s the real Jasper Johns was kidnapped by aliens and replaced with a cloned doppelganger. All the AI software was packed in but they forgot to prevent him from clicking “remind me later” when the updates rolled in. Which means that somewhere out there some little green fellas with one eye and a pokey-out antenna in a parallel Piccadilly are right now swooning over some sexy encaustic rendition of a far away galaxy. Whilst we look at bits of string dangling over some grubby canvasses or some vague tracings from a man too preoccupied with his own mortality.

How else to explain the chasm between the powerful and seductive work of the 1950s and 1960s and the relatively mundane offerings of the last few decades? This large scale retrospective kicks off with an introductory room with an iconic 1967 Flag, a trademark 1961 Target, and one of the grey cross hatched paintings from the 1980s where the doors have closed. Which seems prophetic. The curators have chosen to follow a broadly chronological format but have snuck in some of the later works to emphasise the links between the different periods of Mr Johns illustrious career. For me it just serves to highlight the fade in the power of the ideas and of the execution.

Mind you when it’s good it’s bloody marvellous. I can’t see how anyone could fail to be blown away by their first sight of Johns’ US flags from the mid 1950s. Conjured by a dream apparently, begun in oil but finished with strips of paper and that drippy, waxy encaustic paint, they have the material quality of their Abstract Expressionist predecessors but none of the boorish arrogance. Here is an everyday image, rendered realistically, but of a symbol charged with meaning. A sign of the signified. Having experienced this eureka moment there was no holding JJ back in his hunt to give us ““things that are seen and looked at, not examined”. Targets, the contents of his studio, hooks, coathangers, cutlery, beer cans. And the maps, those marvellous maps. I love maps, (I confess, without shame, to a geography degree), but these are something else. Of course I say maps, but bar one diversion, it is just one country and one typology. And then the numbers. One font, multiple variations, multiple materials. I wanted to go and lick the wall of bronzes. Don’t ask me why. Had to settle for staring.

All this symbolic stuff mixes the best of the pop, the conceptual, the minimalist and the Duchampian everyday with the beauty of the making. The fascination with language and meaning and the urge to deconstruct the painting itself led to some other jaw dropping stuff. Paintings prised apart by balls, the dissonance of primary colours and their linguistic identities, a canvas bitten by a bloke, presumably Johns. Bits of bodies. The bronzes perfect in their verisimilitude and the inspiration for subsequent generations. Love it.

Then he discovered that wretched cross-hatching and it all came off the boil. I can see the urge to portray repetition, literalness, the absence of meaning. But take away the mystery of the symbols and you risk banality. Trying to make us think there is something behind this doesn’t cut it for me. Same with the references to Munch, the collaboration with Samuel Beckett, the Catenary series, the revisit of his Seasons work which take up the second half of the exhibition. There is still much to chew on for sure and the imagination is fertile. They just don’t grab you by the throat like the earlier work.

In contrast to his mate Robert Rauschenberg, whose sense of fun and collaborative urges meant he could keep leaping from one bonkers project to the next, I reckon this dissection of the everyday might have been a bit of a trap for Jasper Johns which proved tricky to escape. Which is maybe why he has ended up quoting himself, always a bad sign. Still lucky for us he fell into it in the first place as we would be much poorer without it. As a reminder “art” is simply that which the rich and powerful buys, (with their own money or yours via pubic galleries), in this most perfect of capitalist markets. But, luckily for us plebs, the key externality is the opportunity to see some life enriching stuff. The first five or so rooms of “Something Resembling Truth” are about as good as it gets in terms of the second half of the C20 for such stuff.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle at Wyndham’s Theatre review ****

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Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Wyndham’s Theatre, 9th November 2017

Everyone’s at it. The “science” play. Science, whether directly through using theory to inform plot, or indirectly, often through the impact of ecological or other catastrophe, has underpinned many of the best new plays I have seen in the last couple of years. Steff Smiths’s Human Animals, Nick Payne’s Constellations and Elegy, The Forbidden Zone from Schaubuhne Berlin, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone, Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children and Mosquitoes and Christopher Shinn’s Against all have a healthy dose of science in the mix.

Mind you this is nothing new. The brainy playwrights have been at it for decades. Think of Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, even Brecht’s Life of Galileo, the mighty Caryl Churchill’s A Number and Love and Information. Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s After Darwin. Indeed Michael Frayn in Copenhagen even took Werner Heisenberg himself as the subject for his play. Nor is it really surprising given the importance of mathematics and physics to our lives. After all it is the role of theatre to comment on, engage with and maybe even influence the big ideas that underpin our world. But it does take a fierce intellect to make this sciencey stuff work.

It was probably only a matter of time before the prolific, eclectic and clever Simon Stephens came up with his own variation. Like Lucy Kirkwood in Mosquitoes he takes a big idea from theoretical physics to create a metaphor for the actions of his characters, though I am not sure he is as successful. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that if we measure the position of a particle with ever greater precision, then at some point we have to accept a correspondingly increasing imprecision in our measurement of the particle’s momentum. (Thank you Wiki and the programme – I would be lost without you). When we look at the little stuff, like electrons, its behaviour sometimes emulates a particle bouncing around but sometimes it is like a wave. Apparently “vagueness” is built into nature at the quantum scale. Yet we humans are always deluding ourselves that we have control and that there is order around us. We live at a larger scale than the quantum so see the physical world obey laws and we can trust the effect of statistical averaging.

Allied to the Uncertainty Principle is the idea of the observer effect. The act of observing will influence the phenomenon being observed. At the quantum scale for us to “see” and electron, a photon apparently must interact with it, thus changing the path of the electron. You can see why this concept might appeal to the inventive playwright. 

(I will refrain from opening up to the idea that some neuroscience even suggests our concept of “free will” is an illusion. “Free won’t” maybe, but the electrical activity in or brains that prompts an action seems to come before our “conscious” realisation of the intended action. Get your head round that). 

Anyway this randomness is the idea Mr Stephens builds into his play. Unpredictability is built into our lives. When forty something garrulous, and dissatisfied, American expat Georgie Burns (Anne-Marie Duff) randomly kisses, on the back of the neck, mid seventies lonely butcher Alex Priest (Kenneth Cranham) on a bench in St Pancras station, no-one, least of all them, could have predicted where this would lead. As it happens it leads to a beautifully observed affair which brings happiness and lashings of extra life to both

Now I guess that, at the end of the day, you might be able to take any other boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl, or other feasible combinations) stage double hander and overlay the same idea. Nick Payne’s Constellations covered similar territory albeit with a very different formal structure. Indeed if you jettisoned old Heisenberg and just took the play on its own merits you wouldn’t lose much. You would ask yourself why would Georgie ever approach Alex in the first place, but might soon be persuaded as to why, and indeed would be offered some alternative explanations. The question of the age gap would loom large but fairly soon be dismissed, as it should be. Some of the twists in the romance might seem a little contrived but then you could say the same about all romances, real or imagined.

That the play works independent of its big ideas is down to the performances, and to a lesser extent, the sure direction of Marianne Elliot, the much praised set of Bunny Christie and the lighting of Paule Constable. In Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham we have here two actors at the top of their game. In fact they are so at the top of their game that they are both banging in hat-tricks on a weekly basis like the love-child of Harry Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ms Duff is always better than the play she leads, even when the play itself is perfect. Saint Joan, Cause Celebre, Strange Interlude, Husbands and Sons, Oil, the unfairly maligned Common. In her every major London stage role in the last few years she has, to overwork the sporting metaphors, banged it out the park. Of course, there may be some cause and effect here, as I will see everything she stars in. Even so, for my money, she is on a par with the theatrical dames of the prior generation. I am literally wetting myself with excitement at next year’s NT Macbeth with her and Rory Kinnear.

Now I was not as impressed as the smart money with Florian Zeller’s The Father thinking it a bit too tricksy, (mind you I had an uncomfy perch on the night of performance so my view might, literally, have been guided by arse), but there was no doubting Mr Cranham’s sterling performance. Here his Alex starts off, unsurprisingly, a little discombobulated by Georgie’s approaches. As the relationship unfolds, and he opens up, we see the joy fill first his face and, eventually, his whole body. Ms Duff similarly is as skilled in bringing Georgie to life through her movement as much as her words. Together their timing is perfect with the interplay of lines, and pauses, perfectly modulated. As Alex explains, when talking about his love of music, it is all about “the space between the notes”. They get it.

My guess is that, in lesser hands, this might all be far less effective. Simon Stephens is a wise man I think because he seems to know how important is the rest of the collaborative eco-system. Whether this be the writers whose works he has adapted (Chekhov on multiple occasions, Mark Haddon for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Bizet for Carmen Disruption) or directors (Marianne Elliot, here and many times before, Carrie Cracknell, Katie Mitchell and, successfully, the erratic Ivo van Hove).

More importantly he is a very wise man because, as he says in the programme, “I think I only write plays because I’ve never been in The Fall”. There are those of us who recognise that the most important artist in the world is alive, well (hopefully) and using his free over 60s bus pass in Prestwich, and those of you who don’t.

Designs of the Year 2017 at the Design Museum review ****

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Beazley Designs of the Year 2017

The Design Museum, 8th November 2017

If you have any interest in design you are probably on to this but, if not, you should be. This is the tenth year of the exhibition, now held in the basement of the Design Museum’s plush new Holland Park home. I have been in the previous three years and, as before, there is plenty to fascinate and wow the imagination of the layman.

The exhibition comprises 62 projects divided into six categories: architecture, digital, fashion, graphics, product and transport. These are contained within a grotto like structure made up of some sort of curious paper mache like material. Very playful. There’s even some Lego to keep the kids occupied; one of the products is some natty “sticky strips” that might allow your Lego creations to defy gravity. I divined a more interventionist vibe than in prior years with a very definite focus on recycled materials and on minimising ecological impact. Sexy brand stuff was thin on the ground. The designers on show plainly what to make good things happen. Hats off to them.

Now I have to confess that I find the architecture, product and transport categories more interesting than the digital, fashion and graphics categories but there is literally nothing here that doesn’t get the brain cells working in some way. The Smithsonian National Museum of African_American History and Culture in Washington, Zaha Hadid’s last building, at the Antwerp Port Authority (I’ve seen it – it’s bloody awesome) and the  controversial Benetton store in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, stood out in the architecture section. My favourite though was the Croft Lodge Studio fashioned out of a derelict C18 cottage. I want one. In transport the standout surely was the Scewo mobility chair which can climb stairs. I also fell for the self-driving, electric tram system from China which is guided by a double-dashed strip on the street! As for products I was drawn to the search and rescue drone designed to help migrants in the Mediterranean, the Gita robot personal helper (though it could get very annoying) and, especially, the Sufferhead Original Stout beer concept, a powerful idea.

Anyhow I am sure you will find something to draw you in. Now it is a pretty small space, so this won’t take up too much of your time, maybe an hour or so. Which means, if you aren’t to feel a little bit miffed by the 13 quid admission, (get an Art Fund Card to halve the price – all you cultural flaneurs should invest in one), you need to leave time to cruise the permanent exhibits in the DM. Up on the top floor is a compact overview of design history, piled up with some absolute classic products, which should equally please the nostalgic old and digital young. There is little that will surprise but much that will delight.

Best of all is the beautiful interior of the DM space carved out of the old Commonwealth Institute which has rescued, and restored, its truly stunning, though very problematic, hyperbolic, paraboloid (!) copper roof. The original building, completed in 1962, designed by Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall & Partners, is the finest modernist building in London IMHO, ahead of the Royal Festival Hall. After the CI itself was canned there was a real chance the building might be toast as well but fortunately pragmatism reigned, and architect John Pawson was finally wheeled in to oversee the salvation of the interior. Some whinged about the price to be paid to make this all happen, namely the development of luxury flats in the square in front of the new DM. Ignore them. These too are stunners, an understated design from Dutch wunderkind-architect Rem Koolhass’s OMA.

So pop on your smartest black designer togs and channel your inner Arne Jacobsen, Dieter Rams or Jonathan Ive.

 

Slaves of Solitude at the Hampstead Theatre review ***

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Slaves of Solitude

Hampstead Theatre, 8th November 2017

As this blog testifies I spend a lot of time in theatres, (too much I think), but the SO is far more circumspect in her choices. Occasionally, very occasionally, the SO’s desire to see a play, and her enjoyment thereof, outstrips mine. Slaves of Solitude was one such occasion, though we both agreed that this fell a little short of our expectations.

Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962) was a writer and playwright whose star is now very firmly in the ascendant after many years of neglect. His studies of working class London life between the wars, such as Hangover Square and the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, (adapted for TV a few years ago), bear comparison with Dickens. They are populated by recognisable characters and shot through with a sardonic wit. Early on he was an actor and his most famous plays, Gaslight and Rope, were both made into successful films (Gaslight twice in the UK and then the US – obviously the UK version is superior). If you know either of these films, especially Hitchcock’s version of Rope, then you will appreciate how skilled Mr Hamilton was at creating gripping thrillers, though these plays are somewhat removed from his novels.

He was not it seems, a happy chappie. Left scarred by a car accident in his twenties, disdainful of the culture around him and a committed Marxist, he sank into alcoholism and died at 58. Despite his heavy drinking he kept writing throughout although the tone of his work darkened through time. Slaves of Solitude is the only one of his novels set during WWII and is apparently a “lighter” work than some of his other novels.

The novel has been adapted for the stage by Nicholas Wright who is a dab hand at this sort of thing and is an admirer of Hamilton, along with master director Jonathan Kent, whose last major outing was the Chichester Young Chekhov Trilogy. The play is set in a genteel boarding house in Henley-on-Thames run by the brisk, but warm-hearted, Mrs Payne (Susan Porrett) and Irish assistant Sheila (a fine professional debut from Eimear O’Neill). It is December 1943. Residents include the redoubtable Mrs Barrett (Gwen Taylor) and the kindly spinster Miss Steele (Amanda Walker) and the bombastic, blazered Mr Thwaites (an authentic Clive Francis relishing the character’s preposterous turns of phrase). There is also the enigmatic Mr Prest (Richard Tate) who spends a lot of time up in London.

Our “heroine” is Miss Roach , a pitch perfect Fenella Woolgar with her prim exterior reserve concealing a more passionate, though buried interior. She works in publishing and has been forced to leave London to escape the Blitz. This is the stiff upper lip England of fading Empire, adapting to the war time privation of ration books, blackouts and the arrival of American troops. We see early on that the women are far more willing than the nasty, misogynistic, bullying Mr Thwaites to sympathise with the plight of individual “enemies” caught up in the war. This is put to the test after Miss Roach meets vivacious German emigre Vicky Kugelmann, (a magnetic performance by Lucy Cohu), who proceeds to move in to the boarding house.

Miss Roach’s afternoons in the pub also contrive for her to meet Lieutenant Dayton Pike (Daon Broni), a friendly American GI, who begins to chat her up. Casting Pike as a black soldier, in contrast to the book, creates a heightened level of interest which Mr Wright’s adaption capably, if not forensically, explores. Roach and Pike’s subsequent affair is complicated by the presence of Vicky and by Pike’s own excessive drinking. An impromptu party at the boarding house gets out of hand with, inevitably, unfortunate consequences. Miss Roach escapes but Pike catches up with her for one final goodbye.

Now Patrick’s Hamilton gift for characterisation and creating atmosphere is splendid. The set and costume design (the Hampstead excels in this) from Tim Hatley is ingenious and puts us right inside the dining room of the boarding house and the saloon bar of the pub. These are emotionally stiff, but still sympathetic, people. The established social order has been thrown into turmoil by the war. Outsiders have arrived. Risks can be taken, particularly by women, leading to behaviour which would have been shunned before the war. Yet there are still consequences.

Unfortunately we see that this precarious world will be shattered via a flash forward at the opening which, for me, was unnecessary. The plot drifts along fairly predictably until a lurch into something more melodramatic in the second half, and the ending, which is intended to offer a modicum of solace is a little abrupt. These shortcomings were broadly compensated by the overall “feel” of the production however. Yet I was left with the nagging doubt that this was one of those subtle stories that might have been better left on the page and not taken to the stage. Whilst I do sometimes find his work annoying and frustrating I can’t help feeling that Terence Rattigan has cornered the market in theatrical British forlornness.

Luciano Berio: London Sinfonietta at Kings Place review *****

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Luciano Berio: Theatre of the World

London Sinfonietta, Kings Place Choir, Jonathan Cross (presenter), John Woolrich (curator)

Kings Place, 4th November

  • Lucy Schaufer – mezzo-soprano
    Michael Cox – flute
    Darragh Morgan – violin
    Paul Silverthorne – viola
    Timothy Lines – clarinet
    Lucy Wakeford – harp
  • Young violinists from Waltham Forest Music Service and the Kurumba Youth Orchestra
    London Sinfonietta

Luciano Berio

  • Lepi Yuro
  • E si fussi pisci for solo viola and for choir
  • Duetti: Aldo
  • Naturale
  • Duetti: Various
  • Divertimento
  • Chamber Music for clarinet, cello, harp and mezzo-soprano
  • Sequenza II for harp
  • Autre fois
  • Lied for clarinet
  • Air arr John Woolrich
  • Berceuse for Gyorgy Kurtag
  • Sequenza I for flute
  • Musica Leggera
  • O King
  • Chants Parallelles

Many years ago, maybe 30 or so, I heard a piece by Luciano Berio in a mixed programme at the Barbican. The ticket was free, courtesy of FF, and I cannot, for the life of me, remember the other pieces, the performers or the name of the Berio work. But I remember being completely blown away by the music, making a firm mental note that it was by Berio and that I should explore his music further.

Of course I didn’t. Modern classical music was just too tricky to grasp and I had a life to get on with. But there must have been the germ of something there. Now that I am older, and maybe wiser, I am beginning to understand that this was not a one-off novelty experience. There was something about Berio’s music that had left a mark. There seem to a handful of other modernist classical composers who similarly create a connection for me and I am still working my way through other candidates. Outside of the minimalists and a handful of contemporary names, Berio, along with Iannis Xenakis, Gyorgy Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki are the chaps that float my boat. There may be more.

So I am actively seeking out performances, live and recorded, of these lads. Heaven knows why they stand out but I think I am drawn to the fact that they all seem to engage with the musical past in some way, they pump up the rhythm, they can create extraordinary sound worlds (if you can’t hum it best to get wowed I find) and they favour dramatic and dynamic contrasts. No doubt if you know what you are talking about when it comes to music you would be able to offer me more comprehensive explanations (feel free to do so – I would be very grateful). There is still a lot of modern and contemporary classical music that leaves me absolutely baffled so there must be something going on in my head with these particular composers.

Here was a marvellous opportunity to enjoy a variety of Berio’s small scale output as part of the Turning Points series at Kings Place curated by British composer John Woolrich with the London Sinfonietta, who excel in modern works and premiered many of Berio’s pieces in the 1970s and 1980s. Now Mr Berio didn’t seem to suffer from any form of “composer’s block”. Prolific doesn’t begin to describe it. He composed for all manner of instrumental forces, including electronics and tape, and was particularly adept with the human voice, as well as strings, piano and flute Their are many large scale works, Coro and Sinfonia are maybe the most well known, but there is also a wide range of chamber and solo pieces which left Mr Woolrich with a serious curating challenge. One which I think he responded to with aplomb.

If there is one thing that characterises Berio’s oeuvre it is the way he incorporates the music of the past into the music of his present (the second half of the C20 to be exact). The references can be direct in terms of source material, (he arranged the work of diverse composers from Monteverdi to Mahler), or indirect in terms of fragments, quotes and styles. He saw this as transcription rather than collage but the effect, for the non-musical listener like me, is like a comfort blanket which anchors the “avant-grade” in the familiar.

Folk music played a large part in his framework and this concert kicked off with Lepi Yuro, a classic Croatian folk song scored here for viola. That was followed by a famous Sicilian folk song, E si fussi pisci, set first for solo viola and then, in its more usual format, for mixed chorus, with some suitably fishy impersonations at its conclusion. This choral arrangement was one of the very last pieces Berio composed. Nothing challenging here at all.

We then moved on to one of Berio’s short 34 duetti (1983) for two violins. These were originally written as teaching pieces to introduce the techniques of contemporary music to students, with one half of the duet given a much higher level of technical difficulty than its partner. Each was dedicated to a performer. composer or musicologist and, through time, they increased in sophistication as Berio took a playful view on the history of violin composition and just what it was possible to do with the instrument. The first piece was dedicated to Aldo Bennici, one of Berio’s favourite champions and a multiple dedicatee. After Naturale we were treated to ten more of the Duetti with Darragh Morgan, the LS’s lead violin, charmingly accompanied by young members of the Waltham Forest Music Service and Kurumba Youth Orchestra. Bartok, Stravinsky, Boulez and Berio’s Italian contemporary and sidekick in his electronic adventures, Bruno Maderna, were all name-checked.

Naturale from 1985 takes a recording of a raw and passionate Sicilian folk singer, Peppino Celano, belting out street vendor cries, (if you get the chance listen to Berio’s Cries of London for six unaccompanied voices which is just amazing), and frames it with an extremely expressive viola playing material transcribed from folk songs as well various percussion effects from marimba, rototoms and tam-tam. It is a extremely affecting and the most substantial piece on show in the programme. 

Next up was Divertimento, an early piece from 1946 (revised in the mid 1980s) composed for string trio, before he went to the US and discovered serialism, and which pays homage to Stravinsky and Bartok. This was followed by the first of the two Sequenzas on show, this being No II for harp with No I for solo flute following later on in the programme. Berio’s 18 Sequenzas are amongst the most well known and performed of his compositions and are staples of the solo repertoire for the instruments they showcase. In each case they exploit, with Berio’s trademark humour and musical knowledge, the full gamut of playing possibility with extended techniques piled up high. Watching Lucky Wakeford thumping the side of her harp or picking up the very highest registers was a joy. Berio wanted to show just what was possible beyond pretty glissando for the harp and he surely does. This was also true for the more commonly encountered Sequenza for flute played by Michael Cox which was another highlight of the evening.

Autre fois from 1971, scored for harp, flute and clarinet, is a miniature subtitled Berceuse Canonique pour Igor Stravinsky, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about its mood and structure. This was followed by Lied for solo clarinet (here played by Timothy Lines) which, as the title suggests, sounds like a mournful song. The orchestral version of Air dates from 1969 but the following year it was recast for soprano and piano quartet. Our mezzo-soprano for this evening was Lucy Shaufer who was in fine voice. Remember Mr Berio’s works for voice comprise some of the finest contemporary pieces for mezzo-soprano given his muse was the American Cathy Berberian whom he married in 1950 and whose professional partnership extended well beyond their divorce in 1964. 

Air was followed by Berceuse per Gyorgy Kurtag, another short piece written in 1998 and dedicated to the redoubtable Hungarian master of the very small. This was followed by Musica Leggara (1974) for flute, viola and cello, (and I gather a tambourine if required), dedicated to a certain Godfreddo Petrassi, which is a spiky canon and not I think the “light music” of the title. Another joke maybe. The concert ended with  one of Mr Berio’s most famous vocal pieces, O King, written in 1968 for mezzo soprano and here strings and woodwinds. This was later incorporated into Sinfonia, possibly Berio’s most influential work. This was written to commemorate the death of Martin Luther King and, as you might expect, packs a powerful emotional punch as the civil rights leader’s name gradually emerges from the soprano’s voice line, If you could pick one work that gets to the heart of Berio’s music this might be it.

i was, annoyingly unable to stick around for the post concert discussion, (I know this sort of thing smacks of obsessive nerdiness but you can learn a lot), but the insight into Berio from the interviews showing in the other Hall at Kings Place was very welcome. He didn’t sound like he was the easiest chap to get on with but the reminisces did show just how broad were his influences and how much he influenced. His role as a teacher and mentor and his fascination with the business of making music, with sound itself, was also emphasised.

And we got to listen to Chants Paralleles, one of his ground-breaking electronic works from 1975. Now a lot of this sort of thing is just so much electronic bubble and squeak in my very limited experience but once again, somehow, Berio makes it vital and intriguing.

There you have it. I am a fan. Give him a whirl. You never know you might like it

And hats off to Kings Place for these Turning Points events. There is a bit of cheesy novelty involved in some of them but this can be overlooked given the learning on offer. The concert on 24th March 2018, from the London Sinfonietta again, which brings together some classic chamber works from the early C20, and links this to space-time and Einstein, (if every playwright on the London stage seems to be intent on shoehorning in brain-bending science, why not music?), looks interesting. As does the OAE’s contrasting of Haydn’s first and last symphonies on the 12th May.

I don’t suppose the bigwigs at the Wigmore Hall are quaking in their boots but Kings Place has emerged as a worthy foil to the grand old dame of Wigmore Street.

 

 

 

Scythians exhibition at the British Museum ****

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Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

British Museum, 2nd November 2017

I have been bowled over by most of the recent exhibitions I have seen at the British Museum, covering the history of Sicily, the art of South Africa, US modernist art printmaking, (The American Dream at the British Museum review ****), British Watercolour art (British Watercolour Landscapes at the British Museum review ****) and the culture of the Celts. I am also, as the preponderance of glowing “reviews” on this blog testifies, pretty easily pleased. I like to think I have discerning taste in what I choose to see and am open-minded. The reality is I am childishly indiscriminate. 

So based on past experience and the reviews I was looking forward to this exhibition. I dredged up what I knew about the Scythians from my early teens as a speccy, bookish, solitary swot who had a brief fascination with ancient history (yes I did play wargames, on boards, before we have computers kids). Good with horses, large empire ranging over big chunks of Northern Asia, pointy hats, gold. I remember I quite liked the idea of them though I might have got confused with Parthians. Mind you so did Kit Marlowe whose Timburlaine the Great is portrayed as Scythian when he was obvs Turkic-Mongolian.

Anyway turns out Siberia was their manor. It also turns out that Siberia is not the snowy tundra, forests, god-forsaken Soviet compounds and mining desolation of popular imagination. At least not when the Scythians were in charge from 900 BCE to 200 BCE. They were nomadic yes, old Siberia wasn’t that hospitable, but they had a rich culture, with fancy threads (squirrel coat anyone?) and luxury tombs (kurgans), and they were a match for anyone else on the planet when it came to art fashioned from gold. especially when that art was based on animals. And especially when those animals were their beloved horses. You know when someone is said to be a bit “horsey, in that they are so keen on Dobbin. Well these Scythians were pretty much indistinguishable from their clippety-cloppety friends. They were even buried with them. They were also very handy with bow and arrow. from atop their horse. Lethal.

They were, even at their territorial height, a loose confederation of peoples and tribes, with Western and Eastern arms, with no state apparatus as such, primarily defined by their Greek and Persian neighbours. In one of the more fascinating insights from the exhibition though, they could trade at scale, in goods, grain and, it seems, people. It seemed they acted as the trading glue between Greece, Persia, India and China who all went on to bigger and better things. In fact it seems that, by around 500 BCE, these Scythian lads may have had a capital in Ukraine bigger than any other settlement anywhere in the world at that time.

They were also not shy of getting stuck into Middle Eastern affairs, controlling parts of modern Iran, knocking on the door of Egypt and fighting with the Assyrians and the first Achaemenid Empire (that’s the Persians to you and me). Whilst this is described by the exhibition I am not sure that the warring history of these people is fully brought to life. Nor therefore is the way in which in the Ancient, and even Early Medieval, worlds the “Scythian” came to symbolise all warlike, Barbarian outsiders. That’s Greek propaganda for you. Old Shakespeare has a Scythian nibbling on his kids in King Lear. Stravinsky had them writhing around in The Rite of Spring, probably the most important piece of music in Western culture.

What are undeniably fascinating though are the remnants of Scythian culture that do survive precisely because of chilly places they frequented. Weapons, saddles and harnesses, fabrics, clothing, a giant coffin, some cheese and, in eye-catching fashion, bits of tattooed skin and a bashed in head, have survived through freezing, (I got a bit lost on the exact science of preservation). To add to the alarm it seems sacrifice, a lot of booze and a bit of reefer played a big role in Scythian culture. They even, in a Pythonesque twist, seemed to wear false beards. These artefacts, together with the metalwork, largely in gold, and with clear links to craftsmanship in China, India and Greece, are the highlight of the exhibition. I think a majority of the most interesting exhibits come courtesy of the State Historical Museum in Moscow so Спасибо. We see how carefully Russia’s past rulers have treasured these objects, once they realised they came from their own predecessors.

Eventually these mighty warriors got battered by Macedonians and old rivals the Sarmatians in the West (and eventually subsumed into the Slavic world), and, in the East, by various nomadic sorts so that they ended up in the bits of what is now North West China that no-one else cared about. Always the way. Mighty nation goes downhill and disappears (though rarely self-inflicted through arrogant exceptionalism writ large by facile plebiscite).

So another piece of stunning scholarship, adept curating and generous lending from those flipping “experts” here and in Russia. A leisurely couple of hours is all it takes to bring to life an entire world which, at its peak, was the largest, and one of the most important, in the world. I would have liked just a little on how the “Scythian” impacted contemporary and later culture but I guess the team rightly, didn’t want to detract from the objects. Makes sense if you’ve got a skull with an axe hole in it.

The exhibition runs until January 14th. Perfect material for a Christmas family outing I would have thought.

The Party film review ****

 The Party, 2nd November 2017

Other than Orlando this was the first Sally Potter film I had seen. Neither have I seen any of her theatrical events. Which is surprisingly because I would have thought I was bang up the target audience for her work. Ho, hum. So much to see, so little time. Anyway, based on the proper reviews, and the potent cast, this was a must-see.

Now it has been one of my dreams to end up with a cinema all to myself. A combination of art-house sensibilities, day-time opportunity and indolent booking means I have come close a few times. Well my dream was finally realised. I am not entirely sure why the very classy PictureHouse Central, (which as the more observant amongst you may have surmised occupies a prime Central London pitch) was showing this film mid-afternoon on two screens. However, their seemingly thin grasp on retail cinema economics left me sitting in the box seat like some latter day Howard Hughes. I am certainly armed with all the necessary behavioural tics and misanthropic tendencies.

On to the film. We have a very dry, black (and white) comedy of manners which skewers the pretensions of an assembly of metropolitan elite types. Kristin Scott Thomas’s Janet has just been appointed as a left-leaning Shadow Health Minister. She is throwing a small gathering in a Bohemian, bookish London townhouse to celebrate. Think Hampstead old money. Our first sight of her is alarming but brief. One of her phone calls goes well beyond perfunctory congratulations.  The ever watchable Timothy Spall is her gloomy academic hubby Bill, who we first see slumped in his chair, glass of red in hand, then fiddling with his album collection (vinyl of course and extremely tasteful – no Bananarama greatest hits lurking at the back like some people I know). Bill clearly has “something on his mind”.

First guests to arrive are caustic cynic April (Patricia Clarkson) and her ageing hippy German boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) who turns out to be a vacuous “life coach”. They are followed by feminist writer Martha (Cherry Jones) and her younger girlfriend Ginny (Emily Mortimer) who is pregnant, but not sure Martha is overjoyed at the prospect of parenthood. Finally we have unhinged coke fiend and “banker” Tom (Cillian Murphy) who claims his wife, Marianne, will join the throng later. Bombshells of various sorts are then dropped at regular intervals. It doesn’t end well. The usual schtick for a dramatised party. I guess a bunch of fifty-something, suburban, middle class Londoners getting shit-faced, carefully skirting around the political and dancing badly to 80s classics isn’t going to get anyone a film festival prize.

The action is restricted to the house lending a theatrical air and the cast is phenomenal. You can practically hear Ms Potter licking her lips with relish as she sets to work on all the hypocrisy and narcissism that her Leftish character types display. It is so satisfying to see the starkly lit, black and white close-ups reveal the true emotions of these brittle bourgeoisie. There is an air of Bunuel about the set-up if not the outcomes, some Chekhov, (he is always lurking somewhere whenever posh people are holed up somewhere), by implication Stoppard with the brainiac dialled down and some non-malevolent Pinter. Very good company to keep. The humour flows from the inability of the characters to elevate their real responses to the stream of revelations over what they think are the right responses.

The film is sharp, short, (just 70 minutes played moreorless in real time, wouldn’t it be good if more writers/directors had the confidence not to pad out unnecessarily), and relentlessly hits its targets. It is maybe a bit too pleased with itself, and I couldn’t help thinking that the film, its characters, its director and, in this case the audience of one, are all actually in the same echo chamber of “cultural privilege” that it is taking potshots at, but it was still a pleasure. The one-liners end up trumping the message and creaky plot which turns out, in the end, to be to its advantage.