Tom McCarthy at the British Library

‘Happy Bloomsday’, began Tom McCarthy at the British Library this evening (16 June). He was here to launch his collection of essays, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish. His talk was typically broad in reference, including some of his acknowledged favourites – Mallarmé, of course – among Edward Ruscha (whose ‘Orphic’ dismembered typewriter of Royal Road Test provided the opening image), Don DeLillo, cricket commentator Henry Blofeld, Georges Perec, Zinedine Zidane (as in the 2006 film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait), plus Hamlet, Don Quixote, Bartleby, Yeats, Freud, Auden, and Beckett. Written down like that, it looks awfully male, but I guess that’s several centuries of patriarchy for you.

Edward Ruscha, page from Royal Road Test (1967, printed 1971): Tab Key Top (photographed as found in bush)

As elaborated in the post-talk discussion, McCarthy’s concern centred on the idea of writing after Mallarmé (and indeed since at least the sixteenth century) as rewriting, as inauthentic, as mediated. Even the best writing is still inauthentic, but radically so. The ironic self-consciousness of this stance is evident in McCarthy’s fiction, which is written dispassionately, like a Freud case study, all emotion circumscribed or in suspension. Equally, politics is experienced on an alienated globalised or geopolitical level. Questions of visceral emotion, or political action, or spiritual transcendence are not relevant. It validates Ballard’s assessment of modernity as the time of ‘the death of affect’. It’s a style of writing that I enjoy tremendously, and it touches on many of my own interests, even though, at the same time, I am aware of something that I feel should be cracking through the surface of the prose. What is this lack – a cry of lamentation? the nauseous sense of urgency? (Perhaps my sense of this was highlighted on this occasion – still in the week of Grenfell.)

I read McCarthy’s last novel, Satin Island, in a state of tickled jealousy: the opening pages in particular present a hilariously vertiginous forging of links, associations, patterns, and structures in the modern technological environment, linking oil, tragedy, myth, and structural anthropology – a combination of topics that I addressed in my PhD thesis. But then, as if to make it more personal for me, there is a meditation on a ventilation system, the like of which is only equalled by my favourite song by The Beale (a group I later joined), ‘97 Circular’, in which the criminally underrated singer and artist, Adrian R. Shaw, proclaimed ‘I’m in love / With a ventilation shaft’, his voice cracking as he recalls ‘all its elaborate brickwork’.

Reading the opening pages of Satin Island was simply one of those sequences of chances which we all experience from time-to-time with an artwork which shares our outlook. In the case of Satin Island, anyone who casually observes the effluvia of globalisation and has an interest in structural readings of myth and tragedy (Lévi-Strauss is a prominent presence) will recognise themselves to some degree on the page.

Stéphane Mallarmé, pages from Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897)

McCarthy’s protagonist, named U, sees networks, randomness, designs, patterns, primal scenes, abstractions, complicity, and traumas, all resonating and repeating in his experience of the world. The novel chooses not to push the political or ethical demand that some will find inextricable from this network. It remains the novel of the protestant individual and not of the collective spirit: Dionysian ekstasis as synthesized MDMA that we come down from all too soon and re-atomised. So too in McCarthy’s talk at the BL, the constellation-patterns of Mallarmé’s ‘Un coup de dés’ constitute a semiotic mark not an affective symbol, and Zidane’s famous headbutt of Materazzi is replicated in a playful GIF of colliding ‘Z’s. McCarthy’s stance definitively avoids kitsch and the emotiveness that occludes insight and reflection. And yet I am nagged by the cyclopean strength of this ironic posture of studiousness and play. In Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (the film which follows Zidane throughout the ninety minutes of a 2005 football game), at half-time, the film presents a montage of the day’s global news. McCarthy shows as a still from the aftermath of a car bomb in Iraq, in which a boy wears a football shirt with Zidane’s name. But this queasy conjunction cannot disturb the reflective repose of the British Library ‘Knowledge Centre’. How could it? Too remote in time, place and context.

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The Last Wave

To ‘Pages of Hackney’ last month for a book launch. Pages is a great small independent bookshop I’d not visited before (it opened around the time I left London), with a lively programme of events and extensive second-hand department in the basement. The launch was held in the basement, where I found myself sat next to a display cabinet of pulp erotica. A couple of boxes of LPs were in another corner, and there was so much wine that bottles were stacked up the stairs.

The launch was for The Last Wave, the debut novel by Gillian Best. It centres on the life of Martha, told through the alternating first-person narratives of her family, neighbour, and Martha herself, jumping across time, non-chronologically, from her childhood, and resolving in a symbolic doubling involving her granddaughter.

The opening chapter is set towards the end of the story, boldly breaking the narrative arc by revealing the story’s trajectory, thus placing the novel’s emphasis on individual moments in a family’s life. As each chapter changes voices through the book, we are brought into lives which contain some joy and plenty of regret, and I had a better time with some members of the family than others. I was most won over by the granddaughter, Myrtle, whose combination of drive and wit optimistically counterbalanced the anxieties of adulthood.

The novel is weighted by what one might think of as hot topics for a newspaper: not just Alzheimer’s, but also cancer! Not just post-war sexual repression, but also twenty-first century lesbian coming out! But Best deals with delicate themes authoritatively, avoiding crassness, and with some subtly powerful detail, as in a quiet observation of death’s bureaucracy. When siblings Harriet and Iain are shown a catalogue of cremation urns, Harriet’s thoughts turn unexpectedly to the copy-writer: ‘I thought about the person who had had to write the copy for the brochure, to quietly and sombrely extol the virtues of a gold-plated urn over a simple and understated china white urn. […] It was absurd’ (283-84).

The sea, specifically the English Channel, provides a persistent backdrop for the book, whoever the narrator, and whatever the time-period. Martha derives spiritual strength from the sea, but this remains elusive to those around her, and the sea stops short of taking on the archetypal or transcendental status of a character itself. Yet the book begins with an archetypal image, introducing a terrifically tense opening chapter inside the mind of Martha’s husband. John reaches out for the absent Martha in their bed, her whereabouts unknown. This is a motif that goes back to the ancients: Menelaus does it to the absent Helen in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (424-5); more recently, Mr Ramsay does it in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (Time Passes §3). Best takes this image and embellishes it with items from the world she has created – the sand, the seabed – making it resonate freshly.

Live noise: Nøught & Dead Days Beyond Help

Nøught and Dead Days Beyond Help with Alan Wilkinson, at Café Oto, London, 13 March 2016

I have mixed feelings about Café Oto. The venue cultivates a squat-party vibe with an artisan-loaf aesthetic. It is simultaneously hip and square. It hosts late night noise rock on a Sunday night so that people with 9-5 jobs, childcare, or homes outside Hackney will struggle to negotiate the restricted public transport services, while charging £3.60 for two-thirds of a pint of their cheapest beer (i.e. £5.40 per pint). The constituency which is able both to attend regular events and afford the drinks must be infinitesimally small, unless the cliché of the Hackney-incomer living off a limitless trust fund is more true than I have hoped. But where else could we go to hear music like this, while browsing a small book stall hosting, for example, the recent book on Bob Cobbing? What’s more, as signifiers of cool go, the crowd tonight includes former members of Sonic Youth and This Heat. But this righteous cachet may soon be jeopardized by the same new money that has contributed to Hackney’s modishness over the past decade or so. The new development of flats that is being built within earshot is an ominous portent of the likely struggles that Oto’s proprietors may soon face given the total lack of noise protection.

Dead Days Beyond Help (Alex Ward on electric guitar and voice, and Jem Doulton on drums) are augmented tonight by saxophonist Alan Wilkinson (playing baritone, then alto), and they forego singing to play a raucous set of improvised noise. This was just what I needed: thoroughly refreshing. The rockist temptation to compare the sound to The Stooges’ ‘L. A. Blues’ should be restrained by the clarification that, if so, it is ‘L. A. Blues’ as played by uptight Englanders. (I don’t know if all the players are English, but they play with the repressed tension of the English.) The physical efforts of these three musicians is a pleasure to watch, but equally satisfying is to shut your eyes and ignore the smell of craft beer. I did this, and forgot that the music was being played by technological Europeans. The ideological debates around freedom and idiom in improvised music evaporated. Instead I heard music from the dawn of time: the archaic spirit of humanity was given full voice in the uproarious blending of the three instruments. Yet still that archaic voice was mediated by a specific English anxiety – a tension without release – which kept the music controlled and separated from any claims of transcendence. We are grounded by the interplay between three humans. In a wonderful moment of unified playing, Ward’s guitar and Wilkinson’s saxophone each emitted answering growls while Doulton trapped a drumstick between the cymbals of his hi-hat, tugging at it as if pulling his arm from the percussive bronze jaws of a metamorphosed dog. The drummer won this battle. Of course he did: the musicians played in total command of their noise.

I had to go outside to protect my ears from the horrible simulation of tinnitus offered by the second group. I’m old enough and square enough to know when my ears have suffered enough, and I hate listening through earplugs. I returned for Nought, or, for fans of 1980s computer displays, Nøught (led by guitarist James Sedwards, with Luke Barlow on keys, Santiago Horro on bass, and new drummer Bo Mapper). Nought have a reputation for punishingly heavy sets of thrillingly intricate noise, but the new set this evening was less brutal, more playfully sinister. The first of two tunes lasted about half an hour (true punk rockers are not remotely frightened by this). Unfolding through interconnected movements, the music continually opened up new spaces for the mind to move around in. The syncopated drop-outs in the first minutes were reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s psychedelic soundtracks (as handily collected on Ipecac’s Crime and Dissonance). In short, Nought sound less English, more continental. Both fiery and relaxed, and with a sense of sprezzatura. Their new piece intelligently avoided the potential trap of a predictable escalation towards a crescendo by deploying a lot of dynamic space throughout. The effect was of being carried through a prismatic and protean structure that exists beyond time and space. The vision persists until clock time re-imposes the gentrified realities of the London Overground bus replacement service.

Petomane: Poor Homme

Petomane, Poor Homme
CD, 2015
http://petomane.bandcamp.com/album/poor-homme

IMG_1083


1960s beat group The Beatles recorded a song called “This Boy”. If I remember right, it was the b-side to one of their early 45s, “I’d Like to Shake Your Hand” – a brittle response to East-West tensions in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Anyway, at one point during “This Boy”, one of the singing Beatles cries a keening refrain, his voice filled with the charged adolescent emotion that drives almost all love songs in pop music. His voice rises to a desperate pitch, but the song demands that the tone is instantly brought back to the close harmony of the final verse. On the recording there is an audible cut at this point – not a sound, but the absence of sound: a tell-tale splice in the control room. The singer could not unleash the emotion, and then directly switch to the precise harmony of the verse. Is it a flaw? Of course not, but it lays the process bare. On Petomane’s Poor Homme, the recording process is similarly audible – nakedly revealing the limitations of the equipment.

Poor Homme’s title is recuperated (unknowingly?) from a 1990s advert for legendary wife-beater’s tipple, Stella Artois. As Interbrew’s (as was) most polarising drink, their adverts have ever-tried hopelessly to salvage the perception of the lager. Petomane, as ever, are drawn to such misdirection. This is the first album since the full integration of ancillary member M. K. Smith on guitar and backing vocals, and this augmentation introduced a new collaborative writing process. The resultant stylistic cohesion and rockist moments on the album were initially confounding, but the logic of the piece fell into place during the long coda of the opening song, “Big Guns”. The song galumphs like Dusty Springfield reinterpreted by Barry Adamson, circa 1995. Here the group links concerns old and new: quipping Aux armes et cætera, which harks back to perennial reference point Serge Gainsbourg, and combining it with the tooled-up, working-out of the lamentable man evoked by the album title. All this is done with their customary swell of musical and vocal tenderness. The political resonance is implicit throughout, but the timeless core of songwriting erupts as wildly as a sheela na gig in a council meeting. They have not lost the conceptual purity of a synth duo: they are augmented, the scope broadened – the spirit of Wendy Carlos Alomar.

The listener is confronted with a great profusion of fat arses and colourful jokes in the most compassionate songs. The puns are delivered entirely straight: jokes are not clumsily dropped in or played up, but are an integral part of the black humour used to discover our bearings in life’s profane comedy. The coexistence of comedy and tragedy is clearest in “Never Enough”, where we hear of the various metaphorical deaths of a comedian. “Live Long and Proper” is the most successful adoption of the rock form: Smith’s electric guitar strides in like The Clash in 1978 given slick FM Radio production, over a wistful tale of lost lust. As usual, Chris Kasch’s production favours a lot of space in the arrangements, and here the overdriven guitars provide a powerful counterpoint to the spare piano, synth, and drums of the verses. The words, written and sung by John P. Higgins, are not afraid of spirituality, divinity and archetypes. “The Savage Gob” ponders the sanctity of silence and the solemnity of flagstone. The final song, “Eskimo Nelson”, concludes with a beautiful evocation, rich in potent imagery, of the mysteries of inspiration. Poor Homme is a fascinating postcard from people out of place and out of time, made possible as the stars align, letting a little light down Petomane’s dilating passageway into this world of dim, austere foreclosure of passion and imagination.

Oresteia at the Globe

The Oresteia, The Globe, 15 October 2015 (matinée)

oresteia globe stageOn the palace wall is a daub of red graffiti in tall letters:

ΤΎΜΜΑ
ΤΎΜΜΑΤΙ
ΤΕΙΣΑΙ

Everyone in the Globe knows at once that these words are from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, line 1430. They are the concerned words from the Chorus to their queen, Clytemnestra, translated by Louis MacNeice as, ‘you must / Pay for a blow with a blow’. In the excellent middle section of this production, this boxer’s trade-off is compellingly presented.

This Oresteia, directed by Adele Thomas, is largely faithful to the structure of Aeschylus’, and Rory Mullarkey’s translation moves with poetic diction and rhythm in the choral parts. The text works hard to emphasize the pervasive opposition in the trilogy. Early, the chorus describes war wounds with the chiasmus, ‘members truncated and trunks dismembered’; while the opposed elements of their sorrowful refrain, αἴλινον αἴλινον εἰπέ, τὸ δ᾽ εὖ νικάτω (MacNeice again: ‘Cry, cry upon Death; but may the good prevail’) is rendered as a conjunction of ‘hopeless’ and ‘hopeful’. The members of the Chorus move around the stage and yard with disconcerting squalls of sound emanating from their capacious coats. The music is by Mira Calix, combining live clarinet, saxophone, and French horn with pre-recorded electronic elements emitted from speakers worn by the Chorus. (Mira Calix has written about the technology on two promotional blogs on the manufacturer’s website [one] [two].)

For me, there were two points when the music, performances, and staging combined with powerful results. The first was Cassandra’s great scene. This is often an opportunity for a director to change the pace and the emotional focus of the play. It presents a voice from the destroyed city of Troy, breaking out from traumatised silence. It also contains the first moment when Clytemnestra’s absolute command is challenged effectively, and brings the language of prophecy, history, and the divine into the political stage. This is the fifth different interpretation I have covered (the hissing of Tony Harrison’s version, Helen Mirren’s PVC Apollo-tease, Alex Silverman’s operatic score in the 2010 Cambridge Greek Play, and Hara Yannas’s torrent of untranslated Aeschylus in the Almeida this year). In each case, Cassandra’s scene marks a point of contrast, and in this version, we have a terrific Cassandra (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) whose mantic utterances are matched to an atonal score. She sings, closely accompanied by the clarinet, in what struck me as a sort of a free-jazz Schönberg. Albert Ayler interpreting Pierrot Lunaire? Musicologists in the audience are invited to put me right on this. Either way, it is a moment of tremendous, and different, energy.

The second high point was the second play. After a short interval, this was the best Libation Bearers I have seen. I consider this play a problem for directors. The text is very flat in the first half, containing a moral debate between Orestes, Electra, and the Chorus about whether and how to avenge Agamemnon. It is well-acknowledged that the texts we have of classical Greek plays are essentially librettos of performances with integral songs and dances. In the Globe, the trio of wind and brass players descends from their position in the circle, to play upstage: visually foregrounding the musical score. The Chorus (the company from the Agamemnon, now playing the palace’s slaves) are choreographed in a mockery of the chest-thumping, oath-swearing salute of Clytemnestra in the first play. The rough physicality of the Chorus encircles the compassionate unit of Orestes (Joel MacCormack) and Electra (Rosie Hilal); Orestes’ friend Pylades (Sid Sagar) hanging back until his sole, pivotal line. With movement and music, Orestes’ moral dilemma is dramatized with urgent pace, without losing the solemnity of the text. A greatly satisfying achievement.

Following this, the Eumenides is a disappointment: performed as an impatient dash, as if in fear of the audience becoming tired or bored. Athena in particular is directed to speak her lines as if in a hurry. A new prologue is added about our neglect of old temples and old gods; this serves to remind us to see the Furies in the landscape around us, and not to dismiss them as archaic remnants. But we are also encouraged to ponder the implications of the commercial value of the prime urban locations occupied by Churches. A jarring intervention. The Chorus of Furies are by turns frightening and funny. The first Fury appears at the end of Libation Bearers with sharp, angular choreography of jerks to an electronic glitch soundtrack. This contrast to the rest of the staging is not successfully integrated. Throughout the Eumenides, the Furies risked self-parody with their repertoire of gurns and stares. Audience laughter was possibly played up to, but it is not appropriate. Moreover, if making radical changes to the start of this play – losing the priestess’s beautiful and timely account of the importance of the land – why not update the arguments in the court scene? They are notoriously daft to modern ears (and, some argue, to Attic ears as well), namely, Apollo’s appeal to the ‘flower-pot’ theory of conception (that the mother is merely a vessel for the father’s seed), and Athena’s honouring the male in recognition of her birth from Zeus’s head.

Eumenides aside, moments of humour are played well: as in the messenger’s delight at returning home which then shades into horror in the exchange of news between those who went to war and those who stayed home. As for Aegisthus, he was played as a drunken Geordie (by Trevor Fox, who, since he was in Our Friends in the North, I shall assume is legitimately Geordie). This wrong-footing interpretation was ideal: catching this long-scheming, personally timid, parvenu character perfectly – a terrifying clown.

Unlike the psychologised Clytemnestra presented across the Thames (at the Almeida, then transferred to Trafalgar Studios), the Globe’s Clytemnestra (Katy Stephens) is more in keeping with the traditional interpretation of Aeschylus’ play, and is monstrously ironic from the start – the fearsome watchdog of the house. The monstrousness is expressed on stage by a terrible bloodiness: the production uses comically horrific quantities of Kensington Gore. In the pivotal scene in which Agamemnon walks on rich tapestries into his house, rather than unfolding elaborate embroideries (or visual reminders of his sacrificed daughter’s dresses, as is sometimes staged) the victorious king instead strides, trailing buckets-worth of blood over a pure white carpet. At the Globe, blood is active, lively, messy, and contagious.

Two final points on the staging. Doubling is a well-known motif of the trilogy: most notable is Clytemnestra’s appearance at the palace door with the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, matched by Orestes’ appearance with the bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. A less overt continuation of this tableau is Athena’s presence, flanked by two uncannily similar ‘supernumeraries’ (Emily Dunn and Holly Georgia). At one point I wondered how these supernumeraries managed to have such immaculately identical hair – something of a Mary Quant bob. Much later, I recalled the technology of the wig. The production concludes with a sudden satyr scene: an uproarious revel in contrast to the foregoing tragedy. Here Pan runs about the yard, pulling faces and making obscene gestures in his jet-black, shaggy goat shorts. Just one more thing: he is blacked-up. Perhaps audiences in 2015 are ready to accept white actors in black-face as long as they are portraying mythical hybrid creatures, but it’s undoubtedly an uncomfortable moment. It is, happily, accompanied by the propitious parading of a giant, gold and winged phallus.