Painting modernity

19 February 2017
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Paul Nash, ‘The Menin Road’, 1919. Tate/Imperial War Museum.

The painter Paul Nash was lucky to survive World War 1, if anyone who fought in the trenches can be described as “lucky”. He broke a rib in a fall at the Front, and was sent home to recuperate. While in Britain, many of his comrades in his regiment, the Artists’ Rifles, were killed in an attack on Hill 60. Whatever else it did, the war transformed his painting, from the relatively delicate pre-war landscapes to hard angular representations of the war, notably in his “memorial” painting, ‘The Menin Road’, commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee after the war. It dominated the room it was hung in at the Tate, as I suspect it also dominated the exhibition in which which it was first shown.

The war seems to have made a modernist of him. The Unit One group—which he formed with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Edward Burra,  Edward Wadsworth and the architect Wells Coates—asked the question, as Jenny Uglow notes in her NYB review of the show, “Whether it is possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’”. The Tate has a room hung with works representing the Unit One exhibition, and it’s easier to see what they are against than what they are for, but the pieces exude a modern sensibility in ’30s England, when such things were as contested as they are now.

Nash had moved to the Kent countryside after the war, as Uglow notes, “[e]xhausted, his lungs damaged by gas, his mind in meltdown,” and some of the landscapes from there are as good an answer to his own question as any. His angular paintings of Dymchurch and the Rye Marshes catch the shapes that lie beneath, conveying the sense that this landscape is made and remade by man.

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Paul Nash, ‘The Rye Marches’, 1932. Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.

Nash was also a contributor to, and organiser of, the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, although you get the impression from the Tate exhibiton that he liked the idea of surrealism more than the thing itself. His own surrealist paintings feel more like a series of technical experiments rather than a commitment.

The sense of the modern continues into the Second World War, where he was again a war artist, as he had been at the end of World War 1. He became fascinated by planes and the aerial war. The Tate show doesn’t include his large canvas of The Battle of Britain, which captures magnificently the chaos and confusion of a large scale air battle, at least one fought at the speed of propellors rather than turbines. But it does have several of his other wartime works, including ‘Totes Meer (Dead Sea),’ of the graveyard of shot-down German planes near Cowley, Oxford, which T.J Clark celebrates in a slightly overworked review in the LRB.

[T]he sea of machine parts shimmers in the moonlight… Gun-metal greys are played off against cartoon greens, blues, pinks, wintry dead browns; the dune yellow is savage, with a horror-movie shadow louring at its edge and great gashes of red traced across it.

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Paul Nash, ‘Totes Meer,’ 1940-41. Tate Gallery. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

His other World War II pictures on display here are on the edge of abstraction (for example his 1944 work, ‘The Battle for Germany‘. I liked them, although the War Ministry did not. T.J. Clark suggests that

it seems that the 20th century only came to Nash, as something paintable, in the form of total war… part of me regrets, I admit, that Nash never encountered another, more ordinary form of modernity – the edge of the city, the clank of the combine, the exhausts of suburbia – that he felt he could put in a picture.

But I think he’s wrong about this, at least on the evidence of the Tate exhibition. The same modernity that’s seen in the war pictures is also there in Nash’s landscapes, in the paintings of Dymchurch and Avebury, or even in ‘Landscape at Iden‘, with its pruned orchard trees and chopped and stacked logs. Modernity doesn’t require machinery.

‘Paul Nash’ is at Tate Britain, in London, until 5th March, at The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, from 8th April to 20th August, and then at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, from 9th September until the end of January 2018.

The images are used with thanks. They are all from publicly owned collections and have been acquired with public money or gifted.


The Atkin-James song book

12 February 2017


I have been a fan of the songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James for all my adult life, ever since a friend turned up at a flat I was living in in my late teens with a copy of their second LP, Driving Through Mythical America. It was obvious at first hearing that these were songs of a different order, from the very first song, ‘Sunlight Gate’, a lyric about the Vietnam war which never names it and manages, at the same time, to be timeless. And that’s not even one of the best songs on the record, by some way.

So I’ve been looking forward to reading Ian Shircore’s book, Loose Canon on their lifelong collaboration. I wasn’t disappointed.

These lyrics aren’t a sideline for James: while I tend to think that his poetry is over-rated, the constraints of the song lyric seem to suit him well. As he said on the John Peel Show in 2000, “This is the work I’m known least for, but which is closest to my heart.” Atkin’s arrangements, which are given good consideration here, are often rich and subtle.
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Quentin and Roald

5 February 2017

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I’ve always loved Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl’s children’s books. They are the way we see these stories: the two men are joined together in the same way as A.A. Milne and E.H. Shephard, or Lewis Carroll and J.C.Tenniel.

For a few weeks more (until 1st May) the British Library is displaying a set of 10 further portraits of Dahl characters that were commissioned from Blake to mark the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth in 2016.

No claims for the quality of these images, snapped on a phone.

In a note that accompanies this small (and free) exhibition, Blake says,

The Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits ask you to imagine that a number of Dahl’s characters have been invited to come and sit for their portrait; they are depicted, not quite as they appear in the illustrations, but more formally. The perceptive spectator may notice that one celebrated couple declined to appear together, and another formidable personality obviously disapproved of the whole venture. Nevertheless, I hope you will be happy to see this group of well-known characters treated as though they were real people—which, of course, to many of us they are.

Anyway, Charlie is at the top of the post, and here are two more of the characters that did turn up for their new portraits. Matilda, of course:

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And Danny, the Champion of the World, with his father.

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Big band Christmas

30 December 2016

Guy Barker Big Band Christmas SpecialThe trumpeter Guy Barker must be well on his way to becoming a national treasure, at least in those parts of Britain where jazz trmpeters are treasured.

He’s played with everybody, of course, from Frank Sinatra to Georgie Fame to Sting, but he’s also a composer and an arranger. I’m particularly fond of his Soundtrack CD (2001) of themes for a couple of imaginaryfilms. I’ve seen him play a couple of times in the last year or so, taking the Bix Beiderbecke role in the Jazz Repertory Compay’s reconstruction of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, and with Mike Westbrook.

But the prompt for this post is his Big Band Christmas show at the Royal Albert Hall in mid-December. When I say, ‘big band’, I mean big: some 40 players on stage, including two drummers, two pianists, two banks of brass and an 18-piece string section. Barker was mostly conducting rather than playing, and the repertoire had a Christmas feel to it. A selection of vocal guests, including Kurt Elling, Wayne Peters and Vanessa Haynes, the vocal group Accent, and the saxophonist Soweto Kinch, appeared from the wings. The singer and broadcaster Clare Teal co-hosted with Barker and also sang some numbers.

guy-and-soweto-kinchOf course, there were some standouts. A fabulous version of ‘All The Way’, more or less a duet between Kurt Elling and the double bass; the recreation of Charlie Parker and Kenny Dorham’s bebop version of ‘White Christmas’, originally performed live on Christmas Day 1948, with Kinch taking Parker’s part and Barker playing Dorham; and Vanessa Haynes lit the place up every time she came onstage, notably on a version of ‘Heaven Help Us All’.

But mostly, the event was about the power of a big band being given permission to swing, in that way that jazz musicians can. You wonder how much time a band of that size has managed to find to rehearse, but the arrangements wer rich and the playing tight. And the musicians also seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Just before the end, just before they tipped some theatrical snowflakes on to the stage from the bridge for the final number, Clare Teal asked if we’d like the show to become an annual event. By then it already felt like a Christmas institution.

Images: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall.


Christmas Eve

24 December 2016

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The blog posts from the poet, Helen Mort, which I follow, are always a pleasure to read. Her final post of 2016 pointed me to “Christmas Eve,” by the West Midlands poet Liz Berry.

Here’s an extract:

And it’s Christmas soon, abide it or not,

for now the pubs are illuminated pink and gold

The Crooked House, Ma Pardoes, The Struggling Mo

and snow is filling women’s hair like blossom

and someone is drunk already and throwing a punch

and someone is jamming a key in a changed lock

shouting fer christ’s sake, Myra, yo’ll freeze me to jeth

and a hundred new bikes are being wrapped in sheets

and small pyjamas warmed on fireguards

and children are saying one more minute, just one, Mom

But better, as Helen Mort suggests, to listen to Liz Berry reading it out loud on Soundcloud, where somehow she sounds like a Black Country Dylan Thomas bringing her town and its people to life, unsentimentally, at Christmas time in the 2010s. Four minutes you won’t regret.

The image at the top of the post is of the world’s first Christmas card, designed by John Calcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843, and used here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under a public domain licence.


‘Spoken not read’

14 December 2016
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Bob Dylan, by Kyle Legates


There’s no argument here that Dylan deserved to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, not least because he changed our expectations of the weight that a song could carry. I admired the way in which, in his acceptance speech (read out in Stockholm by the US Ambassador) he both managed to compare himself to Shakespeare while at the same time using this as a shield to deflect the critics who had suggested that the Literature prize should not go to a songwriter.

Near the beginning of the speech, Dylan writes:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

Of course, this is also a reminder that several playwrights have also won the Nobel Prize since it was created in 1901–Pinter, Dario Fo, Beckett, Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, Shaw–and that they have also wrestled with the same problems of words-as-performance, without attracting the same opprobrium.

And then, in the speech, he goes off on a little tour, talking about his personal history, the slow way in which confidence and ambition grows with success as a performer, nodding in a clever but flattering way in the direction of the Nobel Committee, before bringing it back to Shakespeare again:

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

I was lucky enough, years ago, to hear Christopher Ricks do one of his lectures where he dissected several songs; the masterly construction of ‘Boots of Spanish Leather‘, with its alternate male and female rhymes (“made of silver or of golden“), and of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll‘ (“now is the time for your tears”), contrasted with the thinner material that makes up ‘One Too Many Mornings‘. Ricks became a bit of lightning rod for other critics, partly because he insisted on saying that Dylan was better than Keats, which was a red rag to sections of the English literati. I don’t think that argument was worth spending time on, even then, but the scholarship in his lecture, and much more, eventually found its way into a long critical appraisal of Dylan’s language and lyrics, a quarter of a century later. As Thomas Jones notes in his review in LRB, Ricks’ says of ‘Hattie Carroll’ that ‘Here is a song that could not be written better.’

Ricks, who was an early champion of Dylan’s literary quality, has been vindicated by the Nobel Commitee’s answer to Dylan’s unasked question, and he was in the pages of the Irish Times (scroll down) after the announcement was made.

Some reminders, since one of Dylan’s powers is that of a great reminder.

First, that every artist, insofar as he or she is great as well as original, has had the task of creating the taste by which the art is to be enjoyed (Wordsworth’s conviction). Second, that the art of song is a triple art, a true compound. And it doesn’t make sense to ask which element of a compound is more “important”: the voice, or the music, or the words? (Which is more important in water, the oxygen or the hydrogen?)

But in some ways Roddy Doyle catches the sentiment and the spirit better in the same Irish Times feature:

-I remember when me brother brought home Highway 61 Revisited, when it came ou’, like. Now, I love me music – always did. But, like, ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’. I mean, there wasn’t much in the lyrics of anny o’ the songs back then. An’ then I heard, ‘They’re paintin’ postcards of the hangin’, they’re paintin’ the passports brown.’ It was amazin’. The start of my life, nearly. Even me da stopped complainin’ about the noise.

The image of Bob Dylan at the top of this post is by Kyle Legates. It is used here, with thanks, under a Creative Commons licence.

 


English landscape

10 December 2016
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Image: Richard Long

 

I am in Cambridge from time to time, and stumbled across the small gallery that Downing College has opened just behind its porter’s lodge. The current exhibition–its third–has borrowed works from Kettles Yard (currently closed for rebuilding) and Richard Long to create an exhibition themed around the idea of landscape.

Kettles Yard being Kettles Yard, there’s a fine selection of British 20th century painters here, from Ben and Winifred Nicholson to John Piper to David Jones to their contemporary Christopher Wood, who died young. One of the most striking paintings in the exhibition is by L. S. Lowry. He’s obviously better known for his industrial images, but used to retreat to Cumbria and the Peak District to recharge. The lake appears in several of his paintings and is likely to be imagined rather than real, a sense of a landscape.

Lowry, Laurence Stephen, 1887-1976; Mountain Lake

LS Lowry. Mountain Lake, 1943. Kettles Yard Collection.

The exhibition is, perhaps literally, overlooked by the Richard Long painting at the top of the post, which has been constructed on the end wall of the rectangular gallery space. I love everything about this: the Dylanesque title, the shape, the choice of typography.

Richard Long’s work has evolved over the years from physical representations of his walks and rearrangment of the landscape. The textworks, of which No Direction Known is one, internalise the landscape, as we always do when we’re out in such places: we are in the landscape, but the landscape is also in us.


Toussaint’s American songbook

3 December 2016

  
A colleague was visiting New Orleans for the first time, and for the second time in a week I found myself extolling the virtues of Allen Toussaint, who was the beating heart of much New Orleans music until his death last year. I was lucky enough to see him play solo at Ronnie Scott’s shortly before he died. He had [turned to performing] relatively late in life, after losing much of what he owned in Hurricane Katrina, after years in the studio as a writer and a producer.

After Katrina, he co-wrote a record with Elvis Costello and toured with him.

Long before the collaboration with Elvis Costello, he had worked with everyone who was anyone in the New Orleans scene, from the Neville Brothers to Lee Dorsey to Betty Harris, and one of the reasons for this was that he had a wide range as a song writer, from an affectionate tongue-in-cheek song such as Fortune Teller, to danceable R and B such as Ride Your Pony or Working in the Coalmine, to a political song such as Freedom for the Stallion.

He learned from Professor Longhair, whose distinctive piano style had lit up the Crescent City in the 1960s, but the reason he got his first break, as a teenager, was that he was a fine technical player who was able to imitate the piano style of Fats Domino. At a time when Fats was on the road a lot, and most recording was done two-track, he’d play the piano part in the studio in New Orleans, and the tape would be sent to wherever Fats Domino was touring so he could add his inimitable vocal.

It happens that there was a final record in the works when he died, released earlier this year and which I stumbled across a few weeks ago. 

American Tunes (Nonesuch Records) is produced by Joe Henry, which is usually a mark of quality. The songs are played solo or with some fine collaborators, including Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks. The title is well-chosen: this an American songbook, but inflected with a New Orleans sensibility. As well as his own songs, he plays songs by Professor Longhair, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Billy Strayhorn and Fats Waller, as well as the (almost) title track by Paul Simon.

As Joe Henry says in the sleevenotes, written after Toussaint died, 

Allen was a quiet radical, musically speaking, and a prince of sublime humility, national royalty, if this troubled country has ever known any such thing… American Tunes is visceral and earthy. The repertoire spans the structural foundation of all that we understand to be American music… Today, in the dim light of his untimely departure, it sounds like the promise made good on all the work he might still undertake.

Five to look up on youtube:

Southern Nights: the title track of best known full length record as a performer.

With Elvis Costello.

Get Out of My Life Woman, his 1968 single.

On Your Way Down, covered by Little Feat.

Toussaint plays Lipstick Traces, which gave its name to Greil Marcus’ book.

If you want to know more there’s a long interview on Quietus, done shortly before he died, which explores pretty much his whole carrer. Richard Williams’ post on The Blue Moment blog after Toussaint’s death is, as ever, succinct but rich.

 


The Liberation Music Orchestra in London

26 November 2016

Obviously the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra isn’t quite the same without Charlie Haden, who died two years ago. But equally, as Alan Shipton of Radio 3 noted before the start of their concert at Cadogan Hall last weekend, right now we need it more than ever.

The Orchestra was created in 1969, at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, as a vehicle for Haden’s politics and music, and has toured and recorded off and on ever since, notably in the 2000s as a protest against the invasion of Iraq. The current band, under the leadership of Haden’s long-term collaborator Carla Bley, has just released a record on ecological themes, Time | Life, which was a work in progress when Haden died. The concert included material from this and from their 2004 recording Not In Our Name.

I love big bands, and the Liberation Music Orchestra is a big band: bass, drums, guitar, tuba, French horn, trombone, two trumpets, alto sax and two tenor saxes. Most of the musicians have been playing with the Orchestra for years. And then there’s the elfin figure of Bley, now 80, perched at the piano, standing from time to time to bring a song to a tidy close, or transition into a new one.

They are Carla Bley’s arrangements—Haden’s wife, Ruth Cameron, who introduced the band, said that Charlie could never imagine anyone else arranging the Liberation Music Orchestra’s work—and she has an unmatched ear for the timbres and textures of the jazz orchestra, in the same league as Gil Evans.

Some of the material on Time | Life goes back to the ’60s—Haden’s Song for the Whales and the Bley composition, Silent Spring, a response to Rachel Carson’s path-breaking polemic, both of which were part of the set at Cadogan Hall. There’s also a fine version of Miles’ Blue in Green, which the band opened with.

It wasn’t just me who found the material from Not In Our Name the most compelling on the night, with the scars of the recent Presidential election still fresh (Richard Williams’ review is here). The title track shares with Mingus’ Fables of Faubus the notion that protest should have a spring in its step and a smile on its face. Bley’s arrangement of Amazing Grace restores the simple power of the original. And the high point of the evening, without doubt, was the long medley of America The Beautiful/Life Every Heart And Sing/Skies of America, with drummer Matt Wilson shifting into a military mode in a long solo before the band returned to cacophonous discord. If it was designed to convey the idea that America has lost its way, it worked.

The band: Carla Bley, piano, conductor; Tony Malaby, tenor saxophone; Chris Cheek, tenor saxophone; Loren Stillman, alto saxophone, Michael Rodriguez, trumpet; Seneca Black, trumpet; Vincent Chancey, French horn; Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Earl McIntyre, tuba; Steve Cardenas, guitar; Darek Oles, bass; Matt Wilson, drums.

The concert was recorded for transmission on Radio 3 during December. 


Reflecting on Alan Stivell

20 November 2016

 

I stumbled across Alan Stivell’s first record while throwing out a bunch of tape cassettes recently. It was called Reflections in England (Reflets in France) when it was released there in 1970, and I’ve been playing it, along with his other early records a lost in the last few weeks as a reult. It reminds me that in bringing Breton music into the mainstream, or at least to the edge of the mainstream, he was maybe the first “world musician” in the days before the category of “world music” had been created. He broke through into the sensibilities of rock and blues fans like me, at least in the UK, long before the African insurgency in the late-70s, and even before Island records launched Bob Marley into the British market and drove reggae from Jamaica to the mainstream.

When you listen to both Reflets and its successor, Renaissance of the Celtic Harp, widely regarded as a masterpiece, you can see why. It has big sweeping melodies and rich arrangements. Perhaps more importantly, it also manages to sound both modern and ancient at the same time, both of the world and of the place, as if the spirit of Marshall McLuhan is running through the standing stones.

In fact, I think Stivell can be placed in a wider context, with those musicians in almost every Western culture who in the ’60s and ’70s honoured their traditional musics while introducing new arrangements and (usually) electric instruments into the mix. I’m thinking, for example, of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span in the UK, for example, or The Band in north America, or Planxty, and later Moving Hearts, in Ireland.

Reflets seems to be out of print now, along with his first live recording, Live at l’Olympia. The full recording of l’Olympia is on Youtube at the moment, as are all of the individual tracks of Reflets, which I have reconstructed as a Youtube playlist.

One of the things I liked about Reflets, but which surprised me at the time, was that it included among the Breton folk repertoire an English song, Sally Free and Easy, collected by Cyril Tawney. Liked, because I knew it already in a version by Pentangle; surprised because I expected a man who was immersed in Breton culture not to mix up his performance with English folk songs.

But it seems that Stivell was a fan of English folk; there are more English songs on Live at l’Olympia, including The Foggy Foggy Dew. It’s a reminder that people like Stivell, who were musical pioneers, are always listening.