Thursday, 28 June 2012

David Jones at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff

The David Jones exhibition currently on display at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff focuses on his graphic work rather than his better known paintings. Here we have woodblock prints and etchings, book illustrations and personally produced Christmas Cards, and his later inscriptions, with combined his love of the word and the drawn line. These works encompass two periods of his work. The formative years of the 20s, and the mature ones of the 50s and 60s. Jones’ art underwent a series of major shifts during his lifetime as he exhausted or abandoned one particular technique and searched for, discovered and learned another. He was a restless soul, never settling for long in any one place, and often residing in the houses of friends or family, or in retreats such as the Benedictine Monastery on Caldey Island off Pembrokeshire Coast of Wales, rather than setting up his own home. Art was, for him, a holy calling, and one which he pursued with solitary and ascetic single-mindedness, to the exclusion of other concerns or pleasures. His fragile health and a succession of nervous breakdowns arising from a sensitive, self-questioning temperament also sometimes precipitated major shifts in his modes of artistic expression. Failing eyesight meant that he no longer possessed the firmly concentrated vision required for etching by the end of the 1920s, for example. From the 30s onwards, he concentrated more on his writing, writing his major, book length prose-poem In Parenthesis, which was published in 1937, and which addressed his war experiences, locating them withinin a wider spiritual and mythological framework. He also began to compose his great work of Blakean mythopoesy Anathemata, which draws together ancient matter from Britain and the Mediterranean to create a sense of deep history and cultural subsoil upon which the present is overlaid. His experiences in the First World War trenches of the western front, where he was stationed with the Royal Welch Fusiliers from 1915-18 also contributed to subsequent ill-health, both physical and mental. But whilst the form of his art may have undergone various and significant changes, its content and purpose remained constant. It was an expression of Jones’ universal sense of the sacred, of the echoes of ancestry in the present, and of the vibrant, complex interconnectivity of all life, in all times.

Jones’ own ancestry was a mixture of Welsh, English and Italian. His father, James Jones, was Welsh, from Holywell in the North, and worked as a supervisor at a printers’ shop. His mother, Alice Bradshaw, was from Rotherhithe by the Thames, her father a mast and block maker, and her family dockside workers. David was born in Brockley, Kent in 1895, in the heart of the garden of England, and he would return there at various points in his life to live with his parents. This was far from the Welsh mountains which he would later claim as his spiritual homeland, but his father always instilled in him a sense of his essential Welshness, and he was familiar with the country from visits to see his grandfather and other relatives. The pull of these different claims of ancestry and birthright, of the English pastoral, the working man’s craft, the myth-soaked Welsh landscape and the Roman classical heritage fed into the teeming detail of Jones’ pencil and watercolour works. Their baroque weave of detail, created with a pencil line whose traceries can be followed beneath the translucent coloured surface as if refracted through a still surface of water, gives the sense of planes of historical, geological and mythological time intersecting and combining. After the war, Jones found a specific vessel for his sense of the numinous quality of the world in Catholicism, a marked break from the low church sensibilities his father had brought with him from Wales. In this respect, he sided with his mother’s ancestors, with the church of Rome. His decision to convert to Catholicism may have been influenced by the visit he made in early 1921 to the artistic and religious community set up on Ditchling Common in Sussex by Eric Gill and Hilary Pepler in 1913. By the end of the year, Jones had gone to live there, and became a sort of surrogate son to Gill, now indisputably the charismatic leader of the community. Gill had three daughters, but not the male heir which his traditionally paternalistic outlook led him to desire. Jones, looking for direction in his artistic and personal life, was the ideal person for Gill to take in and to whom he could impart his own ideals and beliefs. Ditchling offered a retreat from the world, and a supportive environment for a young man still dazed by the battery of war. Its daily routine was dedicated to artistic work, craftsmanship and religious devotions. There was also an attempt to attain a degree of self-sufficiency, with animals reared and crops grown. Gill and Pepler had both been inducted into the Tertiary Order of St Dominic, as lay members rather than friars or monks, still able to live and go about their business in the world. Jones followed suit in 1923. He was obviously, as were so many, in thrall to Gill’s commanding presence and forthright, frequently expressed views.

Gill revered the old crafts, and was firmly set against the appurtenances of technological modernity – cars, radios, telephones, grammaphone players and the like. He turned his back on the modern world to a large extent, and preached Dominican values of asceticism, discipline and hard work (the extent to which he practiced them is another matter). All of this appealed to Jones, whose sense of a present time rooted in and infused with ancient history and populated by mythological archetypes was attuned to the spirit of Ditchling, set aside from the speeding course of the contemporary world and its streamlined rush into futurity. Gill encouraged him to put aside the drawing and painting he’d been doing at the Westminster School of Art and take up a craft. In learning new technical skills he would cast off habitual gestures and develop a new vision, along with a new means of artistic expression. Jones tried carpentry, but discovered that he really had no talent for it whatsoever. So he took up wood engraving instead, which turned out to be far better suited to his artistic temperament. He was commissioned by Harold Munro of the Poetry Bookshop in London to illustrate one of two alphabet books for children written by Eleanor Farjeon, The Town Child’s Alphabet, which was published in 1924, and all the original plates for which are on display. Jones’ illustrations acted as a farewell to the city (which is clearly London), and he depicted it as a friendly place, full of characters who would cheerfully stop and give you the time of the day or point you in the right direction. He creates a magical, Mary Poppins London out of choking smog and hard labour, a utopian ideal of town or city life which reminds me a little of the 60s world Mary, Mungo and Midge. It’s a world which seems even more fantastic from a 21st century perspective, with its drayhorses, coalmen, lamplighters, one-man band ‘jazzmen’, and trolleybus drivers. The outlines of Jones’ people and the settings in which they work are bold and clearly drawn and the illustrations bright and uncluttered. With their spare caramel brown and chalky blue colouring on the white page, they look designs for ceramic plates or bowls, akin to those Eric Ravilious produced for Wedgwood in the 30s. They offer an appropriately optimistic and cheerful view of the modern world, parcelled up and neatly compartmentalised for children to enjoy. Their evident comfort with modernity is at odds with Gill’s rejection city life. I particularly like the T is for train driver illustration, which depicts a tube train emerging from a tunnel, a study in arches and curved perspectives which perfectly captures the excitement of the underground world through a child’s eyes.

The community at Ditchling broke up in 1924. Gill fell out with his co-founder Hilary Pepler, largely over financial affairs. He’d also attracted a great deal of attention by this time, with many writers, journalists and artists coming to hear his readily dispensed wisdom and firmly held and asserted philosophies, and to witness his ideal of the sacred creative life in action. He evidently enjoyed his growing status as an anti-modern guru, but eventually decided it had gone too far, and was impeding his work. He took his extended family (his own and two others) and headed for the remote country of the Black Mountains in Wales, settling in a crumbling old Benedictine monastery at Capel-y-ffin. Jones went with them. He was almost a part of the Gill family now. He had become engaged to Gill’s daughter Petra, a betrothal which Gill’s biographer Fiona McCarthy suggests might have expressed a seigneurial right of filial bestowal on the father’s part – an arranged marriage, in effect. There had been a dark cultish aspect to the commune at Ditchling, with Gill’s views and influence increasingly dominant over his family and other residents. The remoteness of Capel, and the gothic atmosphere of the monastery seemed to make this more pronounced, although Gill himself frequently escaped to other parts, and at this time found other outlets for his prodigious sexual appetites. Gill was a paternalistic head of the ‘family’, whether it was his own or the wider one of the community at large, and the offering of Petra to Jones was a way of drawing him in and sealing the bond of kinship. Iain Sinclair tries to evoke some of the atmosphere of the approach to Capel-y-ffin in Landor’s Tower, his exploration of the cultural and historical matter of the Black Mountains, the land of his own ancestry. He imagines Jones’ state of mind, and clearly feels a degree of affinity with the artist and his sense of uneasy connection with this dark landscape. Gill and his entourage turn up at the Welsh country station of Pandy like ‘Russian folk, a travelling circus’, animals straggling alongside. ‘David was the only one standing still’, Sinclair writes, ‘trying to understand, the where and the why, the how of this potentially fatal decision: the flight into Ewyas’. Driving along rough country roads in the back of a lorry towards the old monastery, ‘headlights caught the glittering eyes of a sheep trapped between hedges, they slowed to a walking pace as the panicked animal skittered uselessly from verge to verge…the countryside was strange and dark and deep, not a farmhouse light to be seen; late in the year, their move seemed more than ever a banishment, a mad flight from the duties and complexities of civilisation, a wilful descent into paganism and perversity’.

Hill Pastures - 1926

Petra eventually called off the engagement. As Sinclair puts it, she ‘reclaimed a stolen virginity and Jones was excluded from the garden he was struggling to design’. This is a reference to the shocking revelations in Fiona McCarthy’s biography, arrived at through a decoding of Gill’s copious diary entries, that he had had incestuous relations not only with his sisters but probably with his daughters too. Petra’s rejection (also a rejection of her father’s authority) led Jones to leave Capel for the monastic retreat of Caldy Island (although the would later be best man at her marriage to a man of her own choice in 1928). Jones’ view of women, in his art and by and large in his life too, was from hereon a distanced and idealised one, quite the opposite of Gill’s obsessively priapic perspective. There are many Goddesses in his paintings, whether they be in the form of the Virgin, Aphrodite, Persephone or Iphigenia. Sometimes these impressive, coolly impassive figures are literally placed on precarious pedestals, the other elements of the picture gathering around them as if to pay obeisance. The one genuinely sensual, eroticised portrait which Jones painted, a Female Nude in watercolour and pencil from 1929, was withheld from exhibition during his lifetime, implying an implicit disapproval. His view of women was akin to his approach to his art – chastely reverential and filled with a sense of sacred purpose.

The Book of Jonah - 1926

The parting with Petra marked a breaking away from Gill’s influence, too, and his mentor left a deep and lasting impression. The very fact that he’d brought him to Wales, into the wild heart of its harshly beautiful landscape, reconnected Jones with his spiritual home. This can be seen in his 1926 painting The Lancers (or Ponies on a Welsh Hill Slope), the copper engraving of which is to be found in the exhibition. The round curves of the two ponies’ flanks, bellies and necks finds formal echo in the contours of the mountainous hills beyond, which as a result seem to have a breathing life of their own. Jones displays an instinctive, deeply felt sense of the living contours of the landscape. The time spent in Wales seems to have unleashed Jones’ creative impulses, tapping into some deeply bored well of inspiration, and the period of the mid to late 20s was a particularly productive one. Examples from two series of wood engravings are included in the exhibition. The Book of Jonah (1926) and The Chester Play of the Deluge (1927) are both very dark, as befits the subject matter, with large areas of the woodblock left to impress expanses of black ink, carved figures emerging as fragile, skeletal white outlines from the murk. The leviathan in Jonah is particularly effective, a black void set against the differentially rayed lines of waves, sunbeams, hazy sky and rain, the negative twin of Melville’s white whale Moby Dick. The oceanic scenery of both draws on his time looking out of the window of his cell on Caldy Island, ‘trying to iron out the sea’, as Iain Sinclair puts it.

The Chester Play of the Deluge (1926) - The Dove

The Dove, from the Deluge, is masterful in its simple contrast of boldly outlined forms. The waters fill most of the frame, with swollen, blocklike clouds hanging heavily like boulders in the narrow strip of sky at the top. In the foreground, the jaggedly cruciform branches of the olive tree, from which the descending dove is plucking a branch, reach up from the waves like a figure finally breaking the surface after a deep and lengthy plunge and taking a huge, life-giving gasp of air. It’s outlined with a blurred white halo, making it stand out softly from the sea with a spectral shimmer, a symbol of radiant newness. The submerged height of the mountain can be seen beneath the recumbent moon shape of the ark, and is suggestive of great depths. Its angled shadow is reflected by the rays of sunlight fanning out from beneath the sea’s horizon. The small, irregular oval of lapping water marking the emergence of the mountain’s peak upon which the ark perches could almost be the distended disc of the rising sun, visible through a world made momentarily translucent. The carved wooden block from which what is generally considered to be one of Jones’ finest prints was taken is also present here, giving an insight into the craft techniques used to create the final image.

Nativity with Beast and Shepherds (1927) - Christmas Card

The Lancers, his picture of two Welsh hill ponies, had shown Jones’ affinity with animals. This is further seen in other works in the exhibition, including the picture Reclining Cat, which captures his favoured domestic creature at languorous ease. One of the first extant drawings from his childhood is a depiction of a bear, dating from around the turn of the century when he was 8. A sketch of a comical camel (is there any other kind?) from a book of observational drawings made at London Zoo is included here. These were studies which were helpful in creating the menagerie crowding onto the ark in his Deluge woodcuts. There are also a couple of Christmas cards which he designed to send to friends, Animals Kneeling (1927) and Beasts Rejoicing (1929), both displaying a keen eye for individual character in the non-human. They are notable for their avoidance of the strong temptation towards anthropomorphosis to which many artists succumb when using animals as subject matter. Jones had great compassion for animals, viewing life as sacred in whatever form it took. His pencil and watercolour paintings are also wound about and garlanded by profuse growths of flowers, vines and undergrowth which almost seem to be further extending buds, tips and tendrils as you look. He may have been a Catholic, but there is a definite Pagan cast to his art, in keeping with his keen sense of connection with his Welsh and Roman roots.

In Parenthesis frontspiece - 1937

Jones was also interested in animals on a symbolic level, and in particular in the Biblical ritual figure and subsequent metaphorical notion of the scapegoat. What has now largely become a figure of speech derives from a Jewish ritual which was enacted (and may still be) on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Two goats would be brought into the Temple. One would be offered up to God as a sacrifice, the other would bear the transferred sins of the Israeli people and be exiled into the desert wastelands beyond the city walls. Here, Azazel, the lord of the wilderness (an aspect of the Devil who would tempt Christ when he entered his terrain) receives it. Christ would become a metaphorical scapegoat, a divine bearer of the sins of all mankind rather than those of a particular tribe. The term has since implied and element of martyrdom, whether selflessly entered into or imposed. The front and endpiece illustrations David Jones produced for his First World War prose poem In Parenthesis use the scapegoat as a metaphor for the sacrifice of soldiers in the trenches. In the frontspiece, a tin-hatted, semi-naked soldier is caught in a tangle of barbed wire and netting but remains standing in statuesque pose. His arms are stiff and partially outstretched (although not so fully as to blatantly emulate the crucifixion) as if he has been hung on an upright pole as a grisly, tattered scarecrow. Rats run around his feet and he is set up within a blasted landscape of war resembling the wasteland depicted by Paul Nash in We Are Building A New World. It’s an oddly stripped-down, modernist landscape, all forms simplified to their skeletal essentials. The soldier’s face is blank and without emotion or pain, his eyes empty and devoid of pupil or iris. He’s a carved representation rather than a real figure of flesh and blood. In the endpiece, his place is taken by a real scapegoat, its hooves tangled up in the barbed wire like the goat found in a thorny thicket by Abraham, a ready replacement for his son Isaac as an offering to God. The spear piercing its side makes clear the holy nature of its sacrifice. The dying beast looks upwards to the clear night sky, in which a sickle moon and large, ‘naïve’ pointed stars (something of a Jones signature) glow. A beam from the brightest of these stars shafts down to pierce the creature’s eye, connecting it to he heavens just as the shaft of the spear connects it to the earth. In the wasteland of the western front, it is caught in a limbo between two worlds. On the wall of his room in the rest home in Harrow where he spent many of his later years, restricted by declining health, Jones pinned a picture of Laika, the space-faring Russian dog, who was a kind of modern, rocket-age incarnation of this ancient archetype.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner plate 3 - The Death Fires

The symbolism of the sacrificial scapegoat also informed Jones’ illustrations for Coleridge’s fantastical narrative poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He provided 8 plates to illustrate this at the behest of Douglas Cleverdon, who ran a literary press in Bristol, working on them at the same time as he was composing In Parenthesis. They were published in 1929. Jones was just learning the craft of copper plate engraving at the time, and the illustrations, which use this technique, were thus of necessity as much as design lacking in formal complexity or intricate detail. They have a certain naïve, comic book quality which serves them well. There was certainly no attempt to emulate the richly textured light and shade of Gustave Dore’s renowned lithographic illustrations. Basic outlined figures with notional, simplified features lend the plates the flattened look of murals, with spare use of shading giving the impression of shape and depths to ocean waves, or of the haze of an unearthly supernatural heat. The exaggerated and simplified form of Jones’ characters lends them the appearance of Classical figures on vases or friezes, and also brings to mind Jean Cocteau’s personalised interpretation of those same influences. In drawing on ancient models, Jones’ illustrations take on a peculiarly modern appearance, fully in keeping with the artistic trends of the time. Perhaps this was not so surprising. He had, after all, been accepted into the very modern artistic community of The Seven and Five Society in 1928, taking his place alongside his friend Ben Nicholson (who had recommended him) and others such as Winifred Nicholson, John Piper, Christopher Wood, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Jones’ Mariner, transfixed to the mast or hung from the rigging, is very much the scapegoat figure, and ancient, nautically bearded version of the soldier in the barbed wire thicket, with the same shrugging, spread-armed pose and downward, blank-eyed gaze. Several preparatory stages of plate 3, The Death Fires, are displayed in the exhibition, allowing us to see the build-up of detail in the composition. Beginning with the central element of the boat, the cluster of imploring crewmen are added on deck, then sun, moon and stars, and their surrounding shaded haze of sickly shimmer. Then there are Coleridge’s ‘water snakes’, creatures of uncharted oceans which Jones depicts as sinuous, many-legged and oddly benevolent looking monsters (in the poem, their appearance presages the dropping of the albatross from around the Mariner’s neck). They are aquatic arthropods, segmented insects of the deep rather than fearsome leviathans. A proof for a copper engraving displayed alongside the Rime illustrations remains as a tantalising hint of an unrealised project. Wounded Knight features another of Jones’ Goddesses, in this case the Celtic Arianrhod. She cradles the head of a dying knight, perhaps Arthur himself, in some otherworld, whilst horses dance on land and ocean wave in the background. Jones was to have illustrated La Morte D’Arthur for Cleverdon as a follow up to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It would have been a project perfectly suited to his abiding artistic, cultural and spiritual concerns. But failing eyesight and health meant that he was unable to devote the concentrated vision required for the copper engraving process on such an involved piece of work. This is a great shame, as it could almost have been the book he was destined to illustrate.

There is a quite a temporal leap from the Coleridge illustrations and the Wounded Knight to the final works on display in the exhibition, Jones having been preoccupied with the writing of The Anathemata and with his pencil and watercolour paintings. These works from the 50s and 60s are some of his inscriptions, deeply personal painted texts, carefully chosen or pieced together for their particular meaning to Jones, which were created either for his own pleasure or as gifts to be presented to close friends. Generally written in Latin with fragments of other languages folded in, and inked or watercoloured over a painted background of Chinese White, which gives it the antique look of fine, time-faded parchment, these treat the word itself as sacramental, a worthy visual subject in itself. They display a delight in the shape of letters and their contrast with and connection to their neighbours in words and sentences which bears comparison with Islamic decorative calligraphy. The inscriptions also draw together the twin strands of the literary and the visual in Jones’ art. The shadow of Gill, in the form of his stone-carved lettering, also falls upon these works. But whereas Gill was concerned in his carving to produce scripts which obliterated the personality of the creator, Jones’ words are far more individually expressive, with no intention of producing a uniform and utilitarian font. His letters curl and bulge, stand on elegant feet or end in viny curlicues, or are finished off with exuberant flourishes. Words vary in size, and sometimes grow or shrink along the line, which frequently wavers from strict rigidity. Particular words and sentences are given their own muted colours – purples, yellows, greens and blues – which gives them a distinctive character of their own, as if they had a synaesthetic as well as linguistic association. They have the feeling of life, as if they were breathing and pulsing, the word an integral part of the teeming world in which it is rooted and whose beauty and meaning it expresses. Included here are Cora Lucia, written for TS Eliot in 1953 and incorporating elements of his work; What Says His Mabinogi from 1958, which juxtaposes Latin and Welsh words (Jones’ mixed heritage finding lexicographical form) and takes its text from his own Anathemata poem; and Mulier Cantat from 1960, which combines Latin and English, setting Biblical texts about the Virgin and the Incarnation alongside quotes from James Joyce. Having begun his inscriptions in the 1940s, he produced his last in 1968 for the poet, essayist and critic Kathleen Raine. It is appropriate that Raine had written much about William Blake, and was a well known expert on the painter, poet and printer. Like Jones, Blake had brought the word to vibrant life on the printed page, making of it a thing of visual beauty and semi-organic form. Jones can be seen as part of a lineage of visionary British artists which runs through Blake (its prime progenitor) and on into the 20th century. An artistic ancestry which both expresses its own time but also seeks, and sometimes almost succeeds, to transcend it and capture a glimpse of the eternal. Time is a factor if you want to see the David Jones exhibition at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, however, as it’s only on until 15th July.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Caroline John

Dr Elizabeth Shaw - the scientist at work

Caroline John, who died last Thursday, was always something of a Doctor Who companion that time forgot, present only for the transitional first series of Jon Pertwee’s tenure in 1970. She played Dr Liz Shaw, and she always emphasised the Doctor when she introduced herself and her character on dvd commentaries, as if she wanted to underline the intellectual substance of her companion. That ‘doctor’ earned her a sort of equality with the Doctor, her qualifications and readily apparent knowledge immediately gaining his respect and the right to share in his empirical attempts to provide a scientific solution to whatever crisis they were confronted with. We meet Liz in the first Pertwee story Spearhead From Space (which also introduces the Autons, animated plastic dummies controlled by an alien intelligence), when she is recruited by UNIT, driven into a shadowy underground complex beneath Kings Cross station and ushered into an interview with the Brigadier. She is clearly unimpressed, making it evident that she is not there through any choice of her own, and that she has ‘an important research project at Cambridge’ in which she is engaged. The Brig tells her that he is well aware of this, and of the fact that she is ‘an expert in meteorites’ with ‘degrees in medicine, physics and a dozen other subjects’, thus informing us of her intellectual qualities. Her scepticism and indeed ridicule of the Brigadier’s claims that the Earth has been subject to alien visitation and attack sets up the new series’ Earth-based format. It also positions her as an audience identification figure for the revamped show, introducing viewers to the UNIT ‘family’ into which she is being invited, and of course to Jon Pertwee’s new Doctor. Liz is in fact being established as the ideal female counterpart of the Doctor’s intellectual probity, defiant individualism and staunch advocacy of reason over force. She even adopts, right from the start, something of the fractious relationship with the brigadier and the military establishment which in general which will become characteristic of Pertwee’s Doctor. During their initial meetings, she is extremely short with the Brig, treating him as if her were a fool, and even laughs in his face. ‘No need to get tetchy’, he remarks at one point. When the Brig announces the arrival of General Scobie, UNIT’s army liaison chief, she tartly retorts ‘you don’t expect me to salute him, I hope’. When she finally does get to meet The Doctor, having been introduced by the Brigadier with a dismissively offhand ‘by the way, this is Miss Shaw’, they immediately set to examining the unearthly plastic fragment of an Auton ‘shell’. Framed by a skeletal sculpture of retorts, test tubes and vials, they discover a common language of thermo plastics and polymer chains, falling into an animated discussion which leaves the Brig looking baffled and a bit miffed in the background.

The excitement of science - Spearhead From Space
Liz is later a bit put out when the Doctor declares the ‘lasers, spectrographs and micron probes’ at their disposal to be too primitive for his purposes. She is a creature of the white heat, technocratic sixties, excited by the possibilities of science and its potential for creating a brighter, more rationalised future. When we first see her, she wears a coat with plastic panels of geometric relief pattern, a sixties fashion statement of belief in such a science-driven, space-age future. A belief in which the Doctor Who series itself partook, of course. The new, all-colour Pertwee era ushered Who into the 70s (the first episode of Spearhead from Space was broadcast on the 3rd January 1970). But Liz remained a 60s figure. She was in fact the creation of producers Derrick Sherwin and Paul Bryant, both of whom had been centrally involved with the production of Who in the preceding Patrick Troughton era. They had already shown their interest in having female characters partaking in the scientific excitement of the period by making Wendy Padbury’s Zoe a mathematical genius. Having established this trait, however, not a great deal was done with it, and her character did tend to fall into the more traditional role requirements of the female companion: screaming and finding themselves in positions of peril from which they had to be rescued. Liz was a more grown-up version of Wendy, and her scientific knowledge and curiosity was central to her character. But Sherwin and Brady were diverted to other projects at the start of the production of the series, and only got to supervise the making of Spearhead from Space. Their place was taken by Barry Letts (who took over as producer) and script editor Terrance Dicks. This duo was to become absolutely central to the creation of the character and feel of the Pertwee era, and they would bring a great deal of their own progressive social and political ideals to various stories. These did not extend to a belief in female equality and the greater participation of women in roles previously closed off to them, however. On dvd commentaries and extras, Dicks always talks about feminism as if it’s a dirty word, and is quite plain about his adherence to old adventure and thriller conventions of the woman as passive victim awaiting rescue by the hero. On the commentary track of The Silurians, Caroline John’s second Doctor Who story, Dicks talks of being ‘stuck with several decisions left to us’. He cites the seven-part story structure and the Earthbound nature of the series, but given the presence of Caroline John beside him in the studio, tactfully omits adding that this list included the character of Liz Shaw. Neither he nor Letts was comfortable with having a female character who was the equal of the Doctor, and Letts immediately set about ‘softening’ her initial appearance and manner. Her practical and businesslike bun, serving to keep her hair out of the potassium nitrate solution and away from the Bunsen flame, was gradually loosened, reaching full-flowing length in The Ambassadors of Death (John’s third story), and achieving salon-styled shape and colour in Inferno. In the opening scenes of The Silurians (the first story on which Letts was producer) we see her in red mini-dress and boots, looking down as the Doctor tinkers beneath Bessie. Her collaboration here is clearly not required, and neither is she dressed for it if it were. John talks in the extras of Inferno about Letts’ requirement that when Liz insisted on going down into the caves with the Doctor to communicate with the Silurians, she should do so in her miniskirt. She argued with him that this was simply absurd, and that practicality dictated that if she were going potholing, Liz would at least wear a pair of trousers. Jon Pertwee lent his support to her point of view, at which point Letts relented and both of them appeared in suitable overalls. John gently reminds Letts of this incident during the Silurians commentary, but he effects to forget, and during the episode including the scene, she is absent from the commentary team, so it isn’t brought up again. But it does serve to illustrate the new production team’s lack of interest in developing a strong female character.

Something nasty in the hay loft - The Silurians
But Liz remained a breed apart from other Who companions, before or since. Perhaps Lalla Ward's Romana is the one with whom she shares most affinity. In The Silurians commentary, during a scene in which one of the reptilian monsters creeps up on her character in a hay loft in which it has been hiding out, John remarks ‘here come my one scream’. It is indeed the only time that she was required to display and vocalise terror. Her brief reactive yelp was also made distant by the fact that we were viewing the incident through the prismatic point-of-view perspective of the wounded Silurian, whose heavy, rasping breathing was foregrounded on the soundtrack, muting all other noise. Liz soon recovers from her encounter, having been dealt a glancing blow by lizard claw, and is able to give a calm and rational description of the creature: ‘like a repetile, but it walked upright like a man’. This scene apart, she is rarely isolated in situations of peril or threat. There is a long chase sequence in the hybrid of SF and spy thriller The Ambassadors of Death (due for release on dvd later this year, with a commentary already recorded featuring both John and Nicholas Courtney), in which she is pursued by two thuggish goons. She gives them a good run for their money (and the HAVOC stunt men were apparently impressed by her efforts) before it all ends in a run across the narrow wooden boards of a walkway above a weir, from the handrail of which she was required to hang before being pulled up by her pursuers. As John points out in the UNIT Family documentary extra on the Inferno dvd, this wasn’t bad for someone who was three months pregnant at the time. She manages to keep her broad-brimmed felt hat on all the while too. This stylish piece of headwear, combined with her white mini-skirt and white boots, makes her look like she should be fronting some psych-pop or folk band in the Pentangle mould. It’s an association enhanced by the jazzy flute piece (presumably a bit of library music) used on the soundtrack of this serial, which diverges from the customary Radiophonics or the blend of orchestral and electronic sounds used by regular composer Dudley Simpson. Indeed, the feeling that Liz and the first series as a whole are still somehow rooted in the 60s is furthered by the use of Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well in the plastic factory scenes in Spearhead from Space.

'Evil' Liz - Inferno
In John’s last story, Inferno, she was able to enjoy playing variations on her character by portraying Liz’s shadow self in the parallel Earth into which the Doctor stumbles and from which he must escape in order to save the world in which the Liz that we know exists. Here, she is a security officer in a Britain which has fallen under the rule of a fascist dictatorship at some point in the 30s or 40s. ‘Evil’ Liz is under the command of the Brigadier’s mirror-world counterpart, a bellowing bully with brigandish eye-patch. John plays this other Liz as a tight-lipped, unquestioning servant of the regime. But something of the Liz the Doctor knows is still present, an essential core which allows him to appeal to her. He tells her that in his world she is a scientist, and asks whether she had ever longed to become one herself. This has a definite effect on her, the element of scientific curiosity being such an ineradicable element of her nature. The alternate Brigadier, interestingly enough, turns into a whimpering coward prepared to sacrifice an entire world (or an even greater swathe of the continuum of existence) in order to save his own skin. The spark of selfless nobility in Liz which has remained alight beneath the hardened carapace built up through years of compliance to power (according to the needs of personal survival), and which the Doctor has re-ignited, causes her to act. She enables the Doctor to escape by shooting the Brigadier in the back, a brutal and extreme expression of her counterpart’s intuitive anti-militarism.

Stroll with the family UNIT - The Ambassadors of Death
As soon as Letts and Dicks were in charge, the writing was on the wall for Liz. She was effectively caught between the shifting of old and new guards, who happened to intersect for a brief moment at the beginning of this new era for Doctor Who. John remembers in the UNIT Family documentary on the Inferno dvd that it was during the party following the completion of that story and the series which it concluded that Letts came up to her and told her that they would be looking for a new companion, and that her contract would not be renewed. She reflected that she could have responded by telling him that she was by this stage four months pregnant, and it been increasingly difficult for her to hide it. The decision was thus, in some ways, convenient for her. She displays a certain amount of hurt at the rejection implicit in the decision, but had the good grace over the years not to make a big deal out of it. Letts, for his part, has always explained his choice to get rid of Liz by pointing to the need for a companion for the Doctor who would need to have things explained to them. This would provide a convenient way in which younger (or slower) viewers could also have such explanations fed to them. It’s effectively an admission that the more adult direction which Sherwin and Bryant had envisaged for the show’s new format would not be pursued, and is also a little condescending towards the audience (be they young or mature). It’s certainly an outlook which current producer Stephen Moffat wouldn’t endorse. John allows a little of her disappointment to show through when she recalls later reading a comment from Letts in a Doctor Who magazine suggesting that Liz Shaw had to go because she was too clever by half. Having said which, it should be added that Letts and Dicks formed an excellent creative partnership, and presided over what is probably my favourite Doctor Who era. Nobody’s perfect, and the shortcomings alluded to were part of the prevalent and ingrained attitudes of the period. The duo, with their otherwise liberal outlook, were fairly representative of the major disparity between radical 60s ideals of creating a new social order and those same radicals’ expectations that women would essentially fulfil the same supportive roles as they had done before.

The last laugh - Inferno
Liz’s replacement was introduced in another story featuring the menace of the plastic animating Nestene Consciousness, The Auton Invasion. Katy Manning’s Jo Grant also meets the Doctor in the laboratory which he has, by now, made his own. The parallels are indeed quite marked. There’s none of the sense of fellow feeling, of a meeting of minds with this meeting however. Jo distracts the Doctor, causes his experiment to catch fire, and destroys it utterly by putting it out with a fire extinguisher. A sensible move, you would have thought, but the Doctor’s having none of it. ‘Dealt with it? You’ve ruined it’, he splutters, and proceeds to decry her as a ‘ham-fisted bun vendor’. When she tells him, with eager to please enthusiasm, ‘I’m your new assistant’, he responds with a rudely dismissive ‘oh no’. He demands someone with qualifications equivalent to Liz’s, before the Brigadier puts him firmly in his place, telling him ‘what you need, Doctor, as Miss Shaw herself so often remarked, is someone to pass you your test tubes and to tell you how brilliant you are. Miss Grant will fulfil that function admirably’. In other words, she’s a secretary, not a fellow scientist. Of course, Jo would develop considerably beyond such parameters, and display great resourcefulness, bravery and moral strength. But, initially at least, she was a step backwards in terms of creating strong, intelligent female characters. Caroline John had her own ideas of what Liz would have done next. ‘She’d have gone back to her work’, she says, without hesitation or doubt, resuming that important research she was whisked away from at Cambridge, and glad to be away from the idiocies of the military mind. She would appear very briefly in the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors, albeit in rather desultory fashion (alongside other former companions) as a siren phantom. Her husband, Geoffrey Beevers, also had a brief moment of Doctor Who glory, playing the Master in The Keeper of Traken, although he was largely unrecognisable beneath the make-up representing the disfigured flesh of his failed regeneration. John herself played many further roles, both on stage and on TV. I’ve recently seen her in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes story The Dying Detective, in which she plays the weary, irritable wife of a loud and gluttonous boor; and in Nigel Kneale’s 1989 adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, in which she sympathetically plays the supportive mother in law of the fated solicitor. In her early career she also appeared down this way (in Exeter) on the stage of the Northcott Theatre in a 1967 production of Ann Jellicoe’s play The Knack, presumably in the role played in Richard Lester’s 1965 film adaptation by Rita Tushingham. John is always marvellous on the dvd commentaries of the Doctor Who episodes she appeared in (she’s not present on Inferno, sadly). She makes a particularly entertaining double act with Nicholas Courtney, with whom she shares the commentary on Spearhead From Space. They obviously got on very well, Courtney affectionately referring to her as Carrie, and they engage in much amusing and unaffected banter. John is generous in allowing others the space to speak, and at times almost seems to be acting as a moderator. She’s all but interviewing Courtney at times, prompting anecdotes and asking him about aspects of his character. The final shot we see of Liz is also the shot on which Inferno fades out. The Brigadier and the Doctor have walked off, engaged in bickering interplay, the Doctor attempting to withdraw a remark made in the belief that he was about to depart in his newly fixed Tardis, and the Brig intent on reminding him of its precise wording (‘pompous, self-opinionated idiot’ I believe you said). Liz looks on with indulgent humour, shaking with hearty, unaffected laughter. It’s a lovely, warm image with which to bid her, and Caroline John, farewell.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter Wins the Art Fund Prize

Bideford, Devon by David Bomberg

Hooray for the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, which has just won the annual Art Fund Prize for museum of the year. This is a huge and foppish feather in its cap, one to be rakishly shown off at every available opportunity. It’s a validation of the extensive and admittedly costly revamp which has utterly transformed the interior and revealed features of the Victorian building which had previously been obscured (the lovely ironwork pillars, for example). Visitor numbers to the museum have been impressive, and it has been welcomed back after its four year closure with great enthusiasm by the citizens of Exeter. The first exhibition in the new, light-filled gallery in the extension to the rear of the old building, Into the Light, was a marvellous way to start, with paintings by Monet and Pissarro juxtaposed with British artists loosely falling into a post-impressionist mould like Vanessa Bell, Spencer Gore and Walter Sickert. The current exhibition on the ground floor draws on the museum’s own art collection, and includes Turner’s bucolic watercolour of Totnes from the downstream perspective of the Dart valleyside, David Bomberg’s recently acquired glowing semi-abstract 1946 seascape Bideford, Devon (actually painted in Instow), and an old favourite, Edward Burra’s atmospheric, rain-streaked depiction of the wild, primitive side of Dartmoor, a late watercolour from 1974. Home Dartmoor by Garry Fabian Miller, a display of photographs focussing on nature and the universe on both small botanical and large astronomical scales, all of which were made without the aid of a camera, has been a fine contemporary art exhibition (and it ends this weekend if you haven't seen it yet), demonstrating the museum's commitment to new work. The ethnographic galleries contain a marvellous array of objects from around the globe, including a full set of samurai armour which sits guard in its individual glass box, a large maroon and gold statue of Buddha (helpfully inscribed on its base with the legend ‘sitting Budh or Buddha – a Burmese idol’ by whichever Imperial adventurer brought it back to Blighty), a full sized totem pole recently carved by visiting native Americans, a large and colourful new tapestry from Egyptian artist Mahrous Abdou depicting fields and villages around the Nile, and some wonderful examples of Inuit clothing (white and with hoods, of course), tools and crafts. This gallery, always a good, hushed contemplative space during the week (as long as its not half-term), got the official seal of approval from Sir David Attenborough himself after its refurbishment a decade or so ago, the legendary naturalist giving a talk to support its opening and proclaiming it one of the finest collections in the country. The legacy of all those Majors and clergymen retiring to their westcountry seats after their exploits in the East and the Afric continent. The local history galleries are also marvellous, and very accessible. You can actually touch the medieval oak statue of St Peter crushing the grimacing Devil beneath his feet which looked down on the junction of High Street and North Street for so many centuries. People are always peering over the large city model made in the early nineteenth century, and based on childhood memories of the end of the previous, looking for familiar streets and buildings and divergences from the city they know, ravaged by wartime blitz and equally destructive post-war planning. There's also a carved oak figure from the Iron Age, some 2500 years old, an object of immense, electrifying power (although non-conductive of any ordinary force) - little more than two stumpy legs, an erect prick and a head with crudely carved features (nose and shadowed eyes but no mouth), its wooden surface bears the cracks and crevices of geologic time (the cranium ridged into a vertically-furrowed frown). It is hauntingly suggestive of long forgotten rituals and beliefs, and it must have been unnerving for whoever unearthed it at the clay quarry near Kingsteignton where it was discovered in 1867 to be faced with its blank-eyed gaze. The prize comes with £100, 000 attached, money which should ensure that imaginative initiatives such as the Gripping Yarns day, which saw actors performing short monologues written by local writers and bringing some of the museum’s artefacts to life, are continued. Its success and recognition by leading figures of the artistic and heritage establishments should also demonstrate to a council which often seems fixated on the retail aspect of the city at the expense of all else that there is a need and desire for cultural centres as well. This is great news for the museum and for the city too. I look forward to the exciting possibilities which it promises and the historical and artistic riches which will follow.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Berberian Sound Studio and Cathy Berberian

Cathy Berberian reads the score

The premiere of Berberian Sound Studio, director Peter Strickland’s follow up to his debut film Katalin Varga, has been announced for the Edinburgh film festival. It stars Toby Jones, so nobly affecting as the firm moral spokesman for reason and good in the beleaguered supermarket community of The Mist, and so creepily sinister as the game-playing dream master toying with the Doctor, Amy and Rory in the Doctor Who episode Amy’s Choice. Here, he plays an English sound engineer plunged into the world of 70s Italian exploitation film-making and slowly getting lost in the sonic worlds he’s creating, and in the feuding and personal politics of the cheap studio in which he’s working. All of which makes it seem like Strickland is putting his youthful experiences of travelling from Reading to the Scala Cinema in London, where the films of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and other Italian exploitation directors were a core part of the repertory, to good use. Strickland talks about his Scala experiences in a Sight and Sound interview (in the November ’09 issue) from the time of Katalin Varga’s release, recalling how ‘the cinema smelled of cats, dope and beer. The Northern Line ran underneath. It was a huge epiphany’. In the same interview, he talks about how important sound design and music was to his film, and to his enjoyment of cinema in general. He’d originally wanted the Popul Vuh music which Werner Herzog had used to such sublime effect in Nosferatu for Katalin Varga, although it’s perhaps a good thing that he couldn’t afford it, since it would have sparked unhelpful associations in the minds of some viewers. He remembers seeing Eraserhead at the Scala, and being particularly struck by Alan Splet’s creation of an unsettling sonic backdrop. Katalin Varga has similarly ominous and haunting music and sound, with the buzzing, swarming and throbbing electronica of Stephen Stapleton and Geoff Cox, and of Stapleton’s Nurse With Wound creating a sense of dread anticipation, and acting both as a projection of the dark emotions driving the characters and as an evocation of the landscape through which they move and which to a great degree shapes them. Strickland himself plays in an electronic music trio, The Sonic Catering Band, alongside Colin Fletcher and Tim Kirby, who make a kind of modern musique concrete using the sounds of cookery as source material. You can hear what this tasty culinary fusion sounds like from the extract of Live from the Canteens of Atlantis which plays over the end credits of Katalin Varga. Strickland also supplements his film-making work with the odd spot of DJ-ing, and the extent to which music and cinema hold equal weight for him can be found in his comment (again in the Sight and Sound interview) that Scott Walker’s song The Seventh Seal (whose opening trumpet flourish, which seems to relocate the knight’s quest from Sweden to Spain, ushers in the peerless Scott 4 album) ‘was more important to me than Bergman’s The Seventh Seal’. Much as I love Scott, and his soaring ballad interpretation of the film, I’d have to veer the other way and pledge my loyalty to Ingmar and his timeless film. With his love of music and care for the sonic elements of a film, it is appropriate that Berberian Film Studio is to be released by Warp Films, the cinematic offshoot of the Warp record label. It’s long been known that James Cargill, half of the partnership that was Broadcast, was to provide the soundtrack. But it has now been announced that this will be credited to Broadcast, and a soundtrack record subsequently released as such. This is incredibly exciting, and presumably means that the music will incorporate recordings of the late Trish Keenan’s vocals.

All of which brings me to the title. I’m assuming that Berberian makes reference to the mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, a remarkable singer who pushed the boundaries of vocal music and performance from her first recordings in the 50s through to her sudden and unexpected death in 1983 at the age of 57. Brian Morton, in his piece on Berio’s Sequenza III in his book The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Contemporary Music, describes her as being ‘one of the most significant musical performers and collaborators of the (twentieth) century’. Some people might now her through her album of Beatles covers, Beatles Arias, which is often cited as the height of the classical music establishment’s embarrassing efforts to appropriate the group’s songs as examples of contemporary ‘composition’ in the 60s (and which was almost certainly the source of the French and Saunders sketch in which they played operatic divas making a recording of Kylie’s I Should Be So Lucky). In fact, as the hilarious film of her singing Ticket to Ride makes quite clear, Berberian was well aware of the absurdity of some aspects of the whole endeavour, and there were definite elements of pastiche and comical role-playing involved (unsurprisingly given the arrangements by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, who has always shown a resolutely disrespectful regard for classical norms). These indicated the degree to which performance was a key part of her art, which married the concert with the theatre stage. She had studied mime, drama and dance (and stage writing) at Columbia University in addition to her music activities (which travelled to Milan to explore further), and combined all of these disciplines to mesmerising effect in performance. This can be heard in the piece Recital I for Cathy by Luciano Berio from 1971, although hearing it on a recording (you can find it on the Recital for Cathy CD on RCA) you lose a significant dimension, as the staging is integral to its impact. She gets to sing in a variety of styles, Berio putting together a musical collage which could almost act as a sampler of her diverse range. There are moments of ‘legitimate’ classical recital (passages from two Monteverdi pieces), of atonal modernism, comical circus brass and louche Berlin cabaret (a snatch of Marlene from The Blue Angel, demonstrating Berberian’s talent for pastiche and imitation). The tensions between these warring styles occasionally threatens to tear the whole piece apart, with the orchestra intruding with noisy eruptions. In between these musical scraps, Berberian carries on a stream of muttering verbiage, an expression of the mental chatter circling the mind of the projected singer whose role she is inhabiting. This stream of consciousness occasionally burbles over into a dramatic version of the Sprechstimme which Schoenberg used for his 1912 expressionist horror fantasy Pierrot Lunaire, an amalgamation of spoken and sung text. For stage performances of the piece, Berberian was draped in steadily accumulating layers of costume, increasingly burdened by the multiple personae she was obliged to put on. She ends up in an ominous pose, with a rope noosed around her neck and a vividly bloodstained veil draped over her head.

Berberian and Berio

Berberian met the composer Luciano Berio in Milan in 1949, whilst she was studying in Italy. She’d been born and brought up in the Bronx and Queens districts of New York by her Armenian parents and become involved in numerous musical and artistic pursuits in the area. She attended Columbia University, from which she travelled over the Atlantic to France and thence to Milan. Berio and Berberian, whose complementary surnames seemed to presage their personal compatibility, married the year after their first meeting, and embarked upon a fruitful musical relationship which would endure beyond their separation in 1964. Brian Morton rightly asserts that she has to be regarded as a co-composer of the works which Berio wrote for her, so completely do they rely on her unique vocabulary of extended vocal sounds. In 1955, Berio helped to set up and became the co-director of the Studio di Fonologia Musicale in Milan as a part of the Italian National Radio (RAI) station. This was one of a number of experimental electronic music ‘laboratories’ in Europe and the US, usually connected to state-funded public broadcasting networks or the research departments of technological corporations (The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre was one of the few associated with a university, and was established in 1952, a few years after Berberian had left for the continent). The first of these had been the Groupe de Recherches Musicale in Paris, set up in 1951 by the two Pierres, Schaeffer and Henry in conjunction with the Office of French National Radio-Television (ORTF). This was followed shortly afterwards by the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne, where Stockhausen constructed his early tape pieces; the Centre for Electronic Music in Eindhoven (set up in 1956), associated with the Philips Research Labs, where Edgar Varese composed his Poeme Electronique (blasted through hundreds of speakers inside Xenakis’ Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussells World’s Fair); and, of course, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, established, after much lobbying by Daphne Oram, in 1956. Amongst the pieces created at the Milan studios was John Cage’s Fontana Mix (1959), one of his indeterminate works, whose broad instructions read ‘to be prepared from the score for the production of any number of tracks of magnetic tape, or for any number of players, any kind and number of instruments’. The score to which Cage referred was a series of transparent sheets, dotted, gridded and contour-lined with graphic notation resembling a map of sound. These suggested a dense, sedimentary layering of elements, a sonic geology. Berberian incorporated Cage’s own Aria (1958), another indeterminate piece using a graphic score which is little more than a series of coloured, subheaded squiggles with such helpful guidance as ‘not as a birth but as love’ and ‘will you give me to tell you?’. The colours indicate different singing styles, such as contralto (red), Sprechstimme (black with a parallel dotted line), jazz (dark blue), folk (green), and Marlene Dietrich (a category all to herself and, naturally, purple). Berberian’s considerable input into the shaping of the piece means that, once more, she can effectively be considered a co-composer, no matter what Cage himself might have claimed.

Musical cartography - part of John Cage's score for Fontana Mix

Her introduction of a vocal element into Cage’s electro-acoustic collision of sounds brought it under the overarching aesthetic of the Milan studios, which favoured the human voice as a source sound. Luciano Berio shared Cage’s fascination with the work of James Joyce, and with the musical quality of his language. His piece Chamber Music from 1953 uses poems from Joyce’s early collection which Berberian sings to clarinet, cello and harp accompaniment, the harp descending in single, steadily paced, deliquescent notes. Her US-Armenian accent, flavoured by years living in Italy, seems almost to take on a pleasing Irish lilt in places to fit in with the setting. The ‘Strings in the earth and air’ poem which is one of the ones Berio sets is also familiar from Incredible String Band singer and multi-instrumentalist Robin Williamson’s bardic interpretation on his first solo LP Myrrh. Joyce’s words were also the starting point for Berio’s 1958 tape piece Thema: Omaggio a Joyce, this time taken from the opening of the Sirens chapter of Ulysses, a passage in which the writer breaks down customary linguistic form and sense. The first line, ‘bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing imperthnthn, thnthnthn’, makes it clear that Joyce was seeking sense from sound more than meaning deriving from logically constructed grammar. Open-ended ow, oo and ee sounds are contrasted with closed ings, lisping th’s and sibilant ss’s (evoking the hiss of retreating waves). It’s a challenge to declaim it aloud, but Berberian’s initial sonorous and sensual reading (did Kate Bush hear this, I wonder?) is a thing of unadorned beauty in itself. Berio takes elements of sentences, words, and fragments of words from her interpretation of Joyce’s prose, isolating their different sound qualities and manipulating and superimposing them. The music inherent in Joyce’s language is released by all the splicing, multiplication, speeding up or slowing down and spatial filtering of the sounds articulated by Berberian. It really is like a language laboratory, investigating the fundamental matter of language, its affective nature. The elements of speech are transformed into pure sound, devoid of overt meaning but possessed of a musical quality which communicates on its own level. They also thus reflect back on the elements of pure sound in the original ‘nonsense’ text. The song of the siren bears its own meaning, bypassing the distancing logic of language and speaking directly to the heart.

Visage (1960-1), another electronic piece constructed through painstaking tape-editing and built around Berberian’s voice, dispenses with words altogether, apart from an ironic ‘parole’ (words or speech in Italian) clearly articulated in a breathy, ghostlike whisper towards the middle, as if to remind us of the language of a former existence. This really brings Berberian’s extended vocal techniques to the fore, as the piece relies entirely on her extra-linguistic palette of sounds for its colouration and expressive power. It’s a quite astonishing work, built upon an absolutely fearless performance. As with Omaggio a Joyce, the voice is subject to the electronic manipulation of tape edits and effects, but here they are much more extensive and sustained (the piece lasts about 21 minutes). The opening minutes are genuinely disturbing, all the more so for the use of identifiably human sounds which have gone beyond the normal range of human expression. They have been transported into the realm of the uncanny, of supernatural voices sounding from the beyond. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was this piece in particular which inspired the title of Strickland’s new film. It begins with a hissing exhalation of breath which expands like fog to create a chill, all-encompassing atmosphere. Sibilant, floating spirit chatter flitters through this mist, approaching from and receding into the depthless obscurity. A distressed voice makes stuttering attempts at speech, but gets caught on hard, jagged consonants, and is unable to articulate a single word. There is a sudden burst of jarring laughter, tinged with hysteria, and a voice muttering to itself in a nonsense language comprehensible to nobody else, perhaps not even to itself. It sounds like it is reciting a story, or swiftly recounting the fading recollections of a life before they all fragment and dissipate again. The moods of the piece shift and reconfigure themselves, often with disorientating alacrity or suddenness. Laughter morphs into weeping, which them modulates seamlessly back into laughter. These recognisably human sounds then undergo a transformation into staccato insect stridulation and the buzzing of swarming flies – sounds which could easily have been used on the soundtrack of Katalin Varga. At one point, an electronic space of glitter and sparkle is created through filter and echo effects, within which the moaning sounds of pleasure reverberate, a passage which caused the prudish Italian Radio Corporation to ban a broadcast of the piece. This spatial dimension of pleasure is all too soon torn apart by a violent, abrasive sound, as if some external force were also intent on crushing any trace of sensual delight. As a whole, Visage gives us the sense of being privy to the turbulent tides of a psyche which is either being assailed by an external force, or is tearing itself apart from within. It is a wholly remarkable work of immense power, giving the lie to the impression that the music of the post-war avant-garde was all bloodless, over-intellectualised serialism.

Berberaian repeated the vocal pyrotechnics of Visage in the 1965-6 piece Sequenza III, one in a series of compositions in which Berio explored the full range of a particular instrument. Here, she sings without the transformative magic of studio tape editing techniques. The piece allows Berberian to unleash the full expressive power of her extended vocal armoury. We are taken on an exhilarating, emotional and exhausting thrill-ride, which takes in the highs and lows of tongue clicks and rolls, mutterings, laughter, shivers, ecstatic sighs, trills, humming, coughs, neighs, croons, operatic outbursts, ululations, Indian whoops, screams, gasps, gibberings, full-throated declamations and a short passage in which she seems to become possessed and start speaking in tongues (although the piece as a whole could be regarded in this light). It demonstrates the huge variety of sounds which the human mouth and vocal chords are capable of producing, and comparisons with other pieces in the Sequenza series demonstrate that it is an instrument of far greater flexibility than anything else to be found in the music shop. Berberian’s performance is heroic, outlining a whole new vocabulary of musical sound, and also demonstrating how to use it in a directly affecting manner. Berio continued to write for Berberian after their marriage had ended (indeed, Sequenza III comes from this period), most notably in Folk Songs which, probably because it is quite straightforwardly tonal, is one of his best known pieces. It’s a suite of arrangements of songs from around the world with a traditional or folkish flavour. A good many of them, however, are actually composed or at least adapted from traditional material. For example, Kentucky-born John Jacob Niles’ Irish-style ballad Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair (also sung by Nina Simone and by Patty Waters, who turns into an extended Visage-style psychodrama) and the two pieces from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. Other songs take us to France, to Azerbaijan (via a love song unearthed by Berberian from a cracked Russian 78), Sardinia, Italy and Sicily. Berberian also gets a chance to reconnect with her Armenian roots (she had sung in an Armenian folk group when she was at high school in New York) in the song Loosin Yelav. Folk songs may be more conventional in form than the electronic pieces or Sequentia, but it shares, in a more stately fashion, their collage structure. The contrasting juxtaposition of divergent national styles takes the listener on a virtual global tour of Western songforms. There’s a utopian element too, with the drawing together of international songs through unified arrangements (and the inclusion of songs written by composers using material and styles from beyond their borders) highlighting their similarities rather than their differences, and pointing to the universal nature of the essential human concerns and emotions which they convey.

Other major twentieth century composers also wrote pieces specifically for Berberian, tailoring them to her musical persona, or simply trusting her to understand and communicate their particular artistic intentions. Stravinsky entrusted her to deliver his serialist Elegy for JFK in 1964, and William Walton wrote a ‘sequel’ to his famous piece Façade for her in 1979. This was cheekily titled Façade 2, perhaps in recognition of the dawn of the blockbuster sequel. Façade was initially written in 1921-2, and was a suite of light music with jazzy flavours wrapping around a recital of semi-abstract poems by Edith Sitwell. These poems, with their playful experimentation with sound and sense, and Walton’s musical evocation of them are an earlier example of a composer hearing music in the sounds of language, presaging the later Joycean text-based pieces of Cage and Berio. Walton’s Façade 2 was in fact a revision, replacing some of Sitwell’s texts and adding new numbers. Sitwell’s work also caught the ear of Trish Keenan of Broadcast (who mentioned her in a Wire interview in the context of the Witch Cults of the Radio Age LP track Seancing Song). Keenan was beginning her own explorations into ‘nonsense’ lyrics, associative meanings, word sounds and the electronic manipulation of the human voice on the Broadcast albums Tender Buttons (with its Gertrude Stein referencing title) and the Witch Cults LP (made with Ghost Box audio collagist The Focus Group), as well as in increasingly experimental live performances. These later trends in the band which had by this point been whittled down to the central creative and personal partnership of Keenan and James Cargill, seem very much in line with the work of Berberian and Berio. I wonder if she’d heard much of her work. There is a definite affinity with some of Berberian’s work, and immersion in a sound world which always remains rooted in the reality of the human voice. This makes Broadcast the ideal choice to soundtrack Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.

Berberian also composed music herself. The 1966 piece Stripsody is a hugely enjoyable four minutes or so in which she vocalises the sounds of a comic strip, drawn for her by the artist Roberto Zamarin (the strip ideally projected during the performance). The strip effectively becomes a highly colourful graphic score, with Berberian voicing the noisy vitality straining against the boundaries of the frames in the best comics (and she was an avowed fan). It’s a mini-symphony of comic-strip sound effects, its quick-cut edits marking the jump from frame to frame, and from comic to comic (we get samples of hard-boiled gangster strips, westerns, superheroes, romances, animal comics and more). It echoes the rapid shifts and musical pratfalls of the Warner Brothers cartoon music of Carl Stalling (never was a composer less aptly named). There are kerplunks and the bang bang of pistols; the budda budda of machine gun fire and the sirens of police cars; the mewing of cats and the barking of dogs; stomping and thudding (as in ‘stomp, stomp, thud, thud’); the high-speed gallop of cowboys’ horses and the whistle of Indians’ arrows; the sucking and smacking of kisses and the revving of souped-up motors. At one point, there is a Charlie Brownish ‘good grief’, and a brief snatch of Ticket to Ride, pointedly not sung in the operatic style, a burst of which it unexpectedly emerges from. Towards the end, Cathy utters the immortal (if slightly altered) words ‘it’s a plane…no. It’s a bird…no. It’s Superman!’ The piece finishes with snores and zzzzs turning into the whining, whimpering buzz of a fly silenced by a terminal ‘bang’. A whimper and a bang to end. She certainly pulls it all off with a lot more conviction than Brigitte Bardot mustered for Serge Gainsbourg's Comic Strip.

A small frame of the Stripsody score

An audio version of Stripsody can be found on the Cathy Berberian site, as can her beautiful rendition of La Flute de Pan, from Debussy’s sublime Trois Chansons de Bilitis. Berberian died of a heart attack in 1983 on her way to a performance in Rome. She was going to sing The Internationale at a celebration of the centennial of Karl Marx’s birth in the style of Marilyn Monroe. It would have been a gesture which simultaneously celebrated Marx’s legacy and lightly mocked the humourless, ascetic earnestness of some of his acolytes. Now that would really have been something to hear.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Llama Festival 2012

The Llama festival returned last weekend after a year’s break for a rethink, its original ideal of an intimate, small scale local gathering having become rather overwhelmed of late, its friendly and warm atmosphere in danger of being lost. Llama is a cleverly memorable acronym for the Lynton and Lynmouth Arts and Music Association, which always allows for neat programme artwork, on this occasion by Nik Barrie, incorporating the long-necked South American ruminant (brethren to the wild goats roaming the precipitous heights of the cliffs and the Valley of Rocks beyond the borders of Lynton) alongside local landmarks (of which there are plenty, this being a particularly spectacular and characterful stretch of the North Devon coast). This year, the beacon-capped tower which forms a gateway to the short spar of the harbour wall (and which was reconstructed as a form of memorial immediately after the devastating floods of 1952) was outlined against a star-speckled sky in which the llama’s head floated, headphones plugging its prominent ears. It looked like the depiction of a benevolent constellation, an animist spirit of place looking down over the town to give it its blessing. The double-l, which also serves to acknowledge the South Coast of Wales, clearly visible across the Bristol Channel, was something of a misnomer this year, as events were confined to the green of Lynmouth. This is the lowest of the two villages which are divided by steep, rugged cliffs and linked by the umbilical steel cables of the vertiginous cliff railway. Both take their prefixes from the river Lyn, the two branches of which run down from Exmoor through wooded gorges to meet at the head of the village centre and rush the short distance to the sea.

Lynmouth from above - with the green marking the festival site

Both Lynton and Lynmouth have a pleasing feel of being cut off from the world, and seems to attract individualists and non-conformists, with a resultant sense of self-sufficiency and a dedication to building and sustaining a vibrant local community. This is manifested in the arts and music association which organises the festival, in the tiny cinema set up in the old church, in the arts and crafts group, and in the excellent community bookshop to the side of the town hall, a splendid Edwardian synthesis of gothic and Tudor fantasy (where I got a copy of Alfred Bester’s proto-cyberpunk classic The Demolished Man, Robert Aickman’s second selection of ghost stories in the Fontana series and Brian Aldiss’ elegiac 1964 pastoral post-catastrophe novel Greybeard). The weather forecast was mildly apocalyptic in the run-up to the weekend, and the strong winds on Thursday and Friday resulted in performance tents due to be erected on the foreshore left safely wrapped up. This necessitated a certain amount of last-minute re-organisation. But the Llama magic prevailed, and the predicted downpours never manifested themselves. Indeed, there was enough sun on the Saturday, combined with bracing winds, to leave me ruefully wincing at my red-faced visage in the mirror the following morning. The arts and music association must have some powerful weather wizards at its disposal.

The music was eclectic and wide-ranging, encompassing jaunty skiffle, heraldic instrumental prog with an eighties sheen, pogoing, arms in the air bhangra, sax quartet arrangements of popular tunes such as the Pink Panther and Simpsons themes, classic ska and reggae reproductions, exotically attired carnival drumming, and low-key folk blues contrasting with a more cocky, fretboard-wanking stunt guitar variety. The latter reminded me of Steve Buscemi’s 78 collecting character in Ghost World, who goes to see one of his old blues heroes, only to find his ‘authentic’ version of the music eclipsed by a swaggering group called Blues Hammer. A young chap assigning himself with a mono-monickered Harry informed us that he was 16, and won the crowd over with naught but an acoustic guitar, a winsome smile and cheekily insouciant manner, and a handful of breezily inoffensive x-factorish songs full of youthful yearning and bright optimism. A group of young women dressed as for a wedding (all, with the exception of the bride, in male attire) and having a conspicuously good time, formed a temporary fan club and enthusiastically cheered their instant idol. The Bideford Youth Pipers formed into a line in front of us, as if preparing to march into battle, rejecting the stage and the need for amplification (not really necessary or advisable when Scottish bagpipes are involved). Dressed in what was presumably Bideford tartan, they assailed us with versions of popular tunes such as Yellow Submarine, the drummers demonstrating some dextrous beater twirling all the while. We were exhorted to clap along by a small, round-faced character with a disconcerting resemblance to Wee Jimmie Krankie, whose animated manner and clenched fists suggested they’d smash our faces in if we didn’t. They (and their immensely enthusiastic lynchpin and cheerleader) were pretty damn fabulous, actually. A credit to Bideford. 3 Daft Monkeys, whilst not my cup of tea, were firm favourites, with their traveller and festival friendly brand of anarcho-folk set to tub-thumping rhythms and overlaid with fiddling jiggery-pokery. Many capered vigorously to their strumming and sawing, and there was a certain amount of ‘freaky dancing’ from those whose fried synapses had long since been disconnected from co-ordinated rhythmic motor responses. At some point in the evening, the beer and cider ran out in the bar tent, which resulted in something of a mass exodus to the surrounding pubs (strict licensing laws meant that not even a bottle of water could be brought onto the site). I temporarily withdrew to the Rising Sun which, although it didn’t have the legendary Beast, had a perfectly acceptable selection of other Exmoor Ales. I stood on the spar of the harbour wall beyond the tower, where the river met the sea, supping a pint of Stag, then Gold. From here you could gaze out to sea or back towards the festive throng, with the music drifting out over the rocky beach and the waves and maybe even faintly, barely perceptibly, reaching the keen ears of some Welsh folk looking back from the other shore.

The B-Music collective/family has been involved in the festival since 2007 and was a significant presence this year. Essentially a group of DJs, musicians and obsessive record collectors, they orbit around the home base of the Finders Keepers label and its offshoots. The DJ team (including David Orphan, former resident of these Exonian climes now returned to his native Manchester soil, as his revivified accent attests – you can find and indeed purchase an example of his fine graphic design work in the form of a Record Store Day poster here) played music in between acts on the Friday evening, unearthing rare and wonderful psychedelic treasures from all over the world which previously only they, their friends and about ten other living people had ever heard of. A projection of a 1903 version of Alice In Wonderland, included on bfi releases of both Jonathan Miller and Jan Svankmajer’s takes on the tale, pointed to the abiding interest in phantasmagorical, surreal and fairy tale cinema amongst b-music folk. This was also apparent in Jane Weaver’s short Saturday afternoon set, in which she introduced a song with a sample of the sublime nursery rhyme which accompanies the children’s enchanted night river journey in Charles Laughton’s film Night of the Hunter. This immediately won me over, it being a long time favourite of mine. Jane created a phantom band from a tabletop array of electronic devices which, alongside her own electric guitar, accompanied her dreamlike psych folk songs. These bore the light impression of influences such as Shelagh McDonald (on her Stargazer album), Wendy and Bonnie (whose album Genesis she covered in a previous Llama festival), Linda Perhacs (the electronic echoes of Parallelograms particularly coming to mind in this context), and even perhaps a hint of Laura Nyro on occasion (although this might more accurately be a reflection of my continuing obsession with the singer). She used electronics (including a rather splendid ‘sruti box’, which provided tamboura drones) sparingly to colour and subtly manipulate her haunting and captivating songs.

Later in the afternoon, Sam and the Plants were in a Radiophonic mood. Sam Mcloughlin sat behind an old wooden cabinet with protruding loudspeaker cone, which looked like a miniaturised version of one of Luigi Russolo’s noise making machines. A long, loose wire spring coiled from the box up to the framework of the tent roof, and was occasionally struck to produce shivering waves which were transformed from motion into sound by his magic box. Other garden shed electroacoustic sounds formed a sonic bed above which his musical partner Alison Cooper played Nico-esque harmonium drones and airy, floating flute. Paper Dollhouse claimed further filmic inspirations behind their name, in this case Bernard Rose’s Paperhouse, a 1988 movie which loosely adapted Catherine Storr’s 1958 children’s novel Marianne Dreams, about a sickly girl whose drawings seem to create a palpable dreamworld which she can inhabit and explore, but not alter. Citing female electronic music pioneers Delia Derbyshire and Eliane Radigue as influences, these two young women, gothily dressed in black, unobtrusively took to the stage, sitting throughout their performance and producing vocal and acoustic guitar drones which drifted out to permeate the site. With its diaphanous, billowing layers of echo and delay, their sound seemed to emerge from nowhere and everywhere, and their unobtrusive stage presence meant that this was effectively high quality background music. The impression given of huge reverberant spaces created the sense of a sonic sounding out of the local geology, creating an echo location map of the surrounding cliffs and gorges. Rather than Radigue or Derbyshire, Liz Harris’ recordings under the name of Grouper came to mind as a point of comparison, as indeed did Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band’s excursions into disused underground water cisterns and caves to take advantage of their rich quality of natural resonance. Ideally, they would have been better suited to a low-lit interior, with suitably atmospheric projections flickering behind them (something from Vampyr or The Haunting, perhaps). Any visual element would have been redundant here, however, as it would have been competing with a truly spectacular sunset, the distended orb of dull orange slowly settling onto and slipping behind the liquid horizon. Paper Dollhouse provided the perfect soundtrack to this spectacle.

Delays in the programme and a need to strictly adhere to the 11 o’clock curfew meant that Bristolian band The Liftmen had to confine themselves to a succinct and sharp fifteen minute set. Which was a shame, because it was a fine blast of jagged, scrabbling post-punk, with off-kilter rhythms and prominent bass combining with a keen melodic sense and playful lyricism reminiscent of Wire or early XTC. It was all over too soon, rather prematurely fulfilling the old adage to leave them wanting more. The Eccentronic Research Council emerged after dark, skulls perched precariously atop their vintage Korg and Moog analogue synthesisers, looking out at the audience through blank, shadowed sockets. They performed a series of songs and chants linked by a narrative which evoked the spirit of the Pendle witches, ten of whom who were tried and executed in 1612. This is territory which has already been obliquely explored by Lancastrian electronica duo Demdike Stare, who take their name from the alias of one of the witches, Elizabeth Southerns, a crone who lived in Pendle Forest. Autobahn 666, played on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone show on Radio 6 a few weeks ago, charted a modern route into this charged terrain (it was the A666 as read by Maxine Peake), and suggested that something of the spirit of those dark days was still inherent in the landscape. The music, pulsing synth tones driving repeated vocal incantations, was combined with a visual projection and narration, authoritatively spoken by Maxine Peake, whose pale visage and intense gaze was perfect for the part. I was reminded of the song Scarlet Ceremony from the Ghost Box LP The Owl’s Map by Belbury Poly, which samples Michelle Dotrice’s diabolical invocation from the 1971 ‘rural ritual’ horror film Blood On Satan’s Claw (another filmic touchpoint here, perhaps). The three female singers and keyboard players were definitely going for (and achieving) the witch as seductive temptress archetype, as opposed to the alternate aspect of the hook-nosed and waning moon-chinned crone which flashed on the screen against dark silhouetted woods alongside them (the fearful Demdike herself). Musical mastermind Adrian Flanagan skulked behind his synth, emerging to shuffle out to the front of the stage like a hulking inquisitor, ready to take his own sweet time. He suspended his microphone from one of the overhead stage stanchions, turning into the representation of a gibbet, the amplifying bulb at the end swaying like a pendant body (strange Lancastrian fruit). Jane Weaver appeared at some point in nun’s habit to sing a few condemnatory lines, effectively sealing the witches’ fate. But their spirit and power lives on, suffusing the barren plateau of Pendle Hill and its surrounds, awaiting the right incantations and electronic pitches to resonate through the millstone grit and awaken them once more.

The Eccentronic Project morphed into a short set by The Chanteuse and the Crippled Claw; same people, same synths, but a slight shift in emphasis towards electro-pop without any extraneous narrative element. Lucy Hope (the chanteuse) took centre stage, singing with a strong, jazzy voice, full of sass and swing. Are You One of Us was an infectious single which invited audience identification, and with its syncopated three-four rhythms, definitely had its jazz hat on. They had a home-made film projected alongside the stage featuring the three women wandering through autumn woodlands in a state of advanced mesmerization, which suggested an affinity with Hammer films (which often featured the beech woods near Bray studios) and Jean Rollin’s dreamy vampire fantasies (in which actors wander through picturesque settings – often chateaus – in a somnambulant daze). The Crippled Claw (aka Adrian Flanagan) joined them onscreen in his finest sinister Victorian undertaker’s outfit. His head was transformed at some point into what looked from a distance like a rotted tree stump, as if he were composed of woodland matter inexpertly taking on human form, moss, humus and twigs passing for hair, flesh and bone. An immensely enjoyable video for Are You One (Of Us) also features Maxine Peake, dressed in a pink and white rabbit suit and firing a bright blue water pistol for reasons its perhaps best not to enquire too deeply into. As soon as the clock struck 11, the show was brought to a halt, and no amount of occult incantation could influence the stewards to relent from their purpose. A final brief a capella song was sung, the Claw tapping out the rhythm on makeshift bongos composed of bony skull pates. Even if it would have been better to have heard more, local sensibilities had to be respected, and it was a good-spirited and intimate way in which to conclude the evening.

By the next morning, the Llama Lounge had been erected on the foreshore, the winds having long since died down. This meant that we could sink back in the comfortably worn sofas with a cup of the exquisite Tea Pigs brew and listen to Jane Weaver and Emma Tricca. It was like being in someone’s front room, albeit one with a fourth wall missing, and a view directly out onto sea and cliffs. Jane told the children to quieten down, and she could almost have been talking to us, settling us down in a Jackanory fashion for the tales to be sung. It was just her, a guitar and an effects peddle this time round, giving the songs an unadorned honesty, allowing them to stand on their own melodic merits. She was followed by Emma Tricca, an Italian singer who has recorded an album, Minor White, on the Bird record label which Jane Weaver runs, and which is dedicated to providing a sympathetic home for female artists. Seated on a wooden box, she sang in a hushed voice, which threaded its way between circling fingerstyle patterns woven on her acoustic guitar. It was spellbinding double-bill made all the more pleasurable by the intimate and informal setting. A fine way to start the day, and also, alas, to end the festival, since we had to head off at lunch-time. Hopefully, this has been a successful ‘relaunch’ of the festival (it certainly seemed so from my perspective, beer shortage and licensing strictures apart), allowing it to continue and thrive. If so, then I hope to return next year.