Archive for April, 2009

Technique as resistance

29 April 2009


Spare a thought for Aleksandr Rodchenko, who spent a decade or more as a leading light in the Constructivist school of painting. But he then decided that being a constructivist and a painter was incompatible; art needed to have a material base. He turned instead to photography, design,montage, even advertising. But what to do with all of those paintings? According to the current exhibition at the Tate:

When I look at the numbers of paintings I have painted, I sometimes wonder what I shall do with them. It would be a shame to burn them, there is over ten years of work in them. But they are as useless as a church. They serve no purpose whatsoever. [1927, Novyi LEF No. 6]

There are parallels between Rodchenko and Shostakovich. Both were leading innovators in the post-revolutionary period; both fell foul of Stalin’s ‘Soviet Realism’ period, and had to make amends for their previous ‘formalism’ during the ’30s; but both escaped the camps and outlived the Great Leader.

What’s also interesting is that although at first sight their more ‘realist-friendly’ work appears to be a retraction, it is not exactly as it seems. In Shostakovich’s case the 5th Symphony was a tuneful contrast to the more challenging 4th (criticised in Pravda, apparently on Stalin’s direct authority). Rodchenko, for his part, ended up photographing the forced labourers building the White Sea canal.

Both have been criticised for this (it’s customary for Rodchenko to be accused of ‘propaganda’, usually by people who haven’t lived through having friends and relatives sent to camps or killed in well-organised state terror). In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross explains that the 5th is full of musical clues: quotations from and references to the 4th which would pass by the untrained listener, references to a previous setting of a Pushkin poem about the legacy of the artist, and “an apparent allusion to Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudunov, the ultimate pageant of Russian suffering.”

For his part, Rodchenko’s canal pictures, at least to this viewer, do emphasise scale,  but they are also framed to emphasise distance and indicate power relationships within the shot. At the very least, they make the picture ambiguous, as in the example below. Both men used their mastery of technique as a form of resistance, inscribing clues – for those who could read them – for later generations.


The photograph of the Rodchenko painting, ‘Suprematist Composition’, 1918, at the top of this post comes from Rodchenko pages on Art Experts Inc. There’s a huge Shostakovich resource here.


The mystique of underground car parks

26 April 2009


Tom Sutcliffe had an entertaining riff in the Independent last Friday on the film trope of the underground car park, apparently as a result of watching State of Play. For those of us of a certain age and interest, the underground car park is forever associated, in movies, with All the President’s Men, as well as the dozens of gangster movies which have used it. Tom writes:

Underground car parks feature in a lot of thrillers because they are functionally helpful locations for a director. They feature a multitude of hiding places and a shortage of safe escape routes. They allow for the sudden and serendipitous arrival of third-parties but can also be plausibly deserted. And the repetitive architecture and murky shadows create a kind of concrete hall-of-mirrors which automatically increases our uncertainty and anxiety.

There’s another reason as well. They’re also ‘functionally helpful’ for the producer and production manager. It’s a luxury to have a location which can be closed off from the outside world for the duration of filming. And the fact that there are so many underground car parks which look all but identical means that the location fee should be negotiable.

And see also my later post on All The President’s Men.

Not photographing David Byrne

25 April 2009


At the start of his set at the Royal Festival Hall over Easter, David Byrne explained the rules on photography for the gig. Amateur pictures were allowed, but only good ones, and as we left the concert security would ask us to delete any poor pictures. We could upload them to the internet as long as we posted them widely and made sure that other people would find them. And there was aesthetic and technical advice for thise of us on the balcony – probably not worth trying to take a photo since we were so far away the flash would have no effect and it would almost certainly look awful.

For those of used to gigs  with draconian notices forbidding photography, or celebrities obsessed with their image rights, this was refreshing, a performer in touch with the times and with his fans.

Three other things I learnt from the event, which showcased songs on which Byrne and Eno had collaborated:

  • The songs from My Life In The Bush of Ghosts have held up remarkably well despite being almost thirty years old now
  • The mid-period Talking Heads songs (Once in a Lifetime, Life During Wartime) sound awesome even without a mid-size band and lots of brass
  • The decision to use dancers, and choreography, was a huge success. For sheer wit the acclaim should go to the the track where Byrne and the three dancers all performed from office chairs at the front of the stage – Herman Miller chairs, of course.

Eno appeared – despite apparent protestations beforehand of stage fright –  for a final encore and joined in some choruses, applauded hugely, but reminded me why I don’t listen to Tiger Mountain for the vocals. I didn’t take a photo either. I was in the balcony, and it would  have looked awful.

Thanks to pH balanced (which reviews the latest Byrne/Eno collaboration) for the photo.

Horses and bridges

24 April 2009


I was cycling through Hyde Park this week and was halted as a couple of Army horses were escorted out of Knightsbridge Barracks, manuring the road as they went.

For some reason this brought to mind Jan Masaryk, the Czech foreign minster during and immediately after the second world war, before Czechoslovakia became communist. It was suggested that the country might become a bridge between the communist east of Europe and the social democratic west.

It may have gained (or lost) something in translation, but Masaryk’s response was that:

“The trouble with being a bridge is that horses gallop across and crap all over you.”

1959 and all that jazz

7 April 2009


A fine documentary on BBC4, part of an evening’s programming about 1959 (did you see what those schedulers just did there?), reminded me that 1959 was probably the vintage year for jazz.

Not only Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, but also Mingus Ah Um. And Brubeck’s time signature experiments on Take Five, as well as Ornette Coleman’s experiments with tonality on the ambitiously titled The Shape of Jazz To Come.

No need for me to add to the screeds that have been written about Kind of Blue, apparently the best-selling jazz record of all time, and still selling thousands of copies a week. The title track of ‘Take Five’ – when released as a single two years later – became the first million-selling jazz single, helped by a catchy melody, and maybe the mostly white quartet. The Shape of Jazz to Come opened up the world of ‘free jazz’, and in the programme the bass player Charlie Haden recounted how – having heard Coleman play – he’d chased after him as he left the club to say he’d like to play with him. ‘How about now?’ said Coleman.

My personal favourite of the four is Mingus Ah Um, probably because of its rich large group sound, its energy, its compelling tunes, and the way it seems to be both rhythmic and free-wheeling at the same time. It includes his soulful and much covered tribute to Lester Young, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ (there’s a long live version on Youtube), as well as ‘Fables of Faubus‘. I didn’t realise for some years after I first heard it that the lolloping syncopation on Faubus was Mingus’ way of mocking the long-serving racist governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, who had called out the National Guard, in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling, to try to prevent de-segregation of the school in Little Rock.