Monday, 29 April 2013

Hang out

Flurry of activity - including seeing an all-female production of 'Henry V' and wandering around Hampton Court with a group of overseas librarians (it must have happened to you) - has kept me away from the blog for longer than I'd meant. So - *deep breath* - some catching-up to do, in the form of a few short, sharp recommendations...

Portico Quartet supported by Anchorsong:

I'd never heard of Anchorsong, although given that the main band were Portico Quartet, I was expecting something a bit ambient and jazzy. Not quite. Picture the scene. Compact, skinny chap, totally swamped by his hoodie, wanders onstage towards his box of tricks - so far, so normal. I was already quite encouraged by this, since I have a definite leaning towards people who loop and layer their music. But I wasn't expecting an actual string quartet to join him on stage, complete with notated music on stands.

Given that synthesised strings are common enough in dance/electronic music - just push the 'blissed out' button - this has the potential to be rather witty and fun; if you're going to have strings, why not really go for it, and get the professionals in? And so it proves - visually, it works a treat, since the players beam from ear to ear (presumably this is a bit less intense than their normal fare), and Mr Anchorsong genuinely conducts them, counting them in while he darts between his own pads and keys. Not every song is a masterpiece - his sound is like a kind of 'lounge', easy-listening techno - but the experience is totally pleasurable: the beats thunderous and the playing faultless. This old YouTube clip gives you an idea of what it was like, but I think he's best experienced live and very loud.

Portico Quartet, however, are now probably in a field of their own. A bit odd from the outset: recognisably a jazz group in their early days, improvisers with sax, drums and double bass, they always featured the exotic instrument the 'hang' over a more familiar chordal instrument like piano or guitar. This gives the music an audible sense of space.

The hang looks like a wok, but sounds a bit like you'd imagine a steel drum might if you could caress rather than strike it. It lends an otherworldly, exploratory feel to the music - and no doubt it isn't a coincidence that some of their tracks have titles with a maritime or globetrotting flavour: 'Line', 'Clipper', 'Knee Deep in the North Sea'. Over time, they have introduced more electronica to the point where rhythms cross over each other in a kind of glitchy wash. It's too simplistic to say they're a 'jazz Radiohead' (i.e. come over all strange but the fans have gone with it) but they are doing their own thing, beautifully. This glorious combination of two great tracks gives you a good idea of what I was treated to for the whole gig...

Katy Carr:

Already a folk singer of some note (and apparently three previous albums, which I'll have to track down), Katy Carr underwent a kind of epiphany when she began to explore her Polish roots (on her mum's side, if I remember correctly). Her most recent record, 'Paszport', is a concept album dealing with the Polish experience during WW2, and has led her to an extraordinary style which combines elements of traditional music from both here and there. Backing KC on piano, her musicians brandished guitar, bass and - for the all-important 'oom-pah!' element - a trombone.

On stage, she more or less brought 'Paszport' to life, with projections of old footage behind her band in muted suits and - genius touch, this, I thought - she'd decked herself out in red and white. Without commenting on her 'looks' at all, the actual image she presented was amazing - statuesque, imposing and memorable. Possessed of a brilliant and sometimes breathless voice, her songs had just the right amount of exhilarating catchiness to make the anguished subject matter bearable. Brave and alluring.


I'm still a relative novice with live classical music, although I've begun to detect why I like certain ensembles and what it is I think makes me feel that way - particularly for choral music. For example, the famous Sixteen seem to have a gossamer, light sound that seems almost superhuman, angelic; while Stile Antico, the fantastic conductor-free group - who arrange themselves on stage so their voices blend and balance, and they can maintain eye contact - feel more earthy and immediate to me, somehow more 'live'.

I'd not heard Alamire before, but they'd picked some stellar 16th century composers for this programme: Byrd, Tallis, Taverner. What made me listen with new ears this time was their attention to rhythm as well as harmony. Their director, David Skinner, is a fearsomely dynamic presence and he kept the performance pacy and robust. Nothing fragile or awestruck about this music - more like awe-inspiring: God was going to bloody well sit up and listen to these songs of praise. I was also captivated by the sign-language he must have evolved with his singers, as it was clear not only how he was dictating the tempo, but also operating a kind of volume control switch, bringing singers forth out of the chorus then easing them back. Masterful.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Viewfinder general

This is the latest in an occasional series of posts rounding up some of my recent photography. Thanks to everyone who has shown me kindness, support and interest so far - it really makes it worthwhile, and it gives me the most valuable of excuses to just get some of the stuff 'out there', and look at it again through not just my eyes, but those of others, too.

I took the pictures in this first group in response to an 'abstract photography' challenge. Already a big fan of bringing lines and patterns into photos for their own sake, I was looking forward to tackling this. I knew which two parts of London would provide the shapes I dimly saw and recollected in my head: the London Underground and the Barbican.

This first one, in the end, was the shot I picked for the challenge. I was so taken with the various lines and boxes on the Barbican buildings that I simply decided to find an angle to shoot them that removed any hint of ground or sky.

I love the way the Jubilee line looks like the interior of a spaceship. 

The image below is the closest to an optical illusion I think I've taken. The rectangles and straight lines on this part of the Barbican's highwalk seem to converge at the top left, so if you're not careful when you look at it, the corner can appear to 'come out' of the picture rather than 'sink in'. Avoid if 'refreshed'.

The next two pictures both show 'frozen action' (again, the brief for another challenge, although I ended up submitting the first one as an example of shallow depth of field). The top picture was taken at a record fair. Unused to any kind of street photography or reportage, I thought I would try my hand at 'covering' the fair. I got some shots I was pleased with; in general, people didn't mind being photographed. It was a prestigious event of its kind (the Independent Label Market, where folk from the actual record labels turn up to tout their wares) - so lots of cameras were out and I think the stallholders were fine with being surrounded by snap-happy bloggers. I became hypnotised by the way the hands of record-fair regulars skittered like selective spiders across the vinyl.

Some friends of ours take part in traditional dance, and in a slightly surreal turn, we heard that they were going to perform at short notice in, er, a Croydon car park. This wasn't quite as insane as it sounds - they were there to entertain people gathering for a pagan convention - but we felt like going along and offering some moral support. I grabbed the camera on the way out. This shot is a tribute to persistence. I must have snapped myself half stupid, but I was determined to get more or less the lot of them in the air, show just how WRONG the setting was with its roads signs and traffic lights and - most of all - include the utterly bemused car park chap on the far left. The green man provided a useful focal point, and I was pleased that the road sign behind him matched, in the same way the van picks up the flashes of red on the costume far right. Happy accidents. Icing on the cake.

Finally, I've added here a few pictures of my most hardy regulars, Fliss and Tony, who you may recall from the previous photography blog post. This is our most recent portrait session. As I mentioned, they are accomplished stagefolk with years of amateur dramatics experience, and as a result, they have the most amazing array of outfits. Often we take to the streets with this stuff, but sometimes for the more outlandish costumes, we've used their place as a makeshift studio. So, I'm very pleased with these images because the quarry for the Wild West pictures is a section of the garden that Fliss has been sledgehammering to buggery; and the interior shots were captured by either wedging the pair of them into a cramped corner of their living room or standing them on benches in their conservatory. I think the two of them hide these levels of discomfort bravely, and well.

I hope you enjoy the pictures.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Staying together: Suede

First time at Alexandra Palace. Heroically strange venue. Has its own park. So, you go to the nearest Tube station and get the Special Bus.... And it really IS a special bus, by the way. Travelcards aren't valid - you pay the driver one of your Earth pounds and he leans forward, conspiratorially tapping his nose, and says, 'Free on the way back, mind.' *shudder* Why, driver? Do people... not come back?

So far that evening, I'd already been in a cafe with Yelling Cake Woman (she did actually work there - poised at the till, shouting 'LOOK! CAKE! DO YOU WANT SOME CAKE!' at everybody within earshot, which was quite a large radius). So the idea of getting on a mystery bus only made me feel even more 'Stephen Kinged' than I was already.

The approach to the venue is quite something - the bus skirts around more or less its whole perimeter so you basically feel like you're going to see this band in a castle. This, you think, is going to be epic. And yet, it doesn't work out quite like that. There is an entrance hall with Holiday Inn reception-style foliage (bad) and an illuminated 'suede' logo bouncing around the inner doors (nice). Into the next room, which opens out into Grotsville. It's like an indoor festival food court - burgers, hot dogs, and (perhaps in a nod to the more sophisticated concertgoer) a kiosk advertising 'COFFEE AND MUFFINS', which may as well have borne the subtitle 'For the less robust among you'.

It's also here I have my usual skirmish with the t-shirt stand. Most of Suede are of course rake-thin, and I suspect this also applies to the fanbase. The XL t-shirt looks like it might cover one of my arms, as though I wished to sport a 'Suede fan' glove puppet. There is no XXL. You don't get this at metal gigs, you know, where loads of us decked out in tent-sized merch stride like colossi away from the moshpit because we're too old and scared.

The actual arena itself is more of the same - literally an empty shed, apart from the sound-desk island in the centre and the bar at the back. The beautiful stained glass window - I was convinced the bands must play under this, illuminated and resplendent - is actually at the back of the hall, in darkness. I was genuinely taken aback that AP would turn out to be literally an aircraft-hangar-type venue on the inside (although, as my friend Jo explained, the building has suffered from fire damage so much over the years, you can imagine them wondering exactly what was worth reconstructing and what wasn't).

Talking of reconstructions... the band themselves have scrubbed up rather well. On stage, they behave more or less as you'd expect from any creatures on waking from hibernation: with a kind of renewed vigour, but at the same time, blinking at the bright lights.

Most of the group - which, by the way, is 'Suede Mk II', the post-Bernard Butler line-up, so they already know a thing or two about reassembling broken pieces back into a whole - are grinning as if they can't believe not just the reception they're getting, but also the fact that they have a second chance to do any of this at all. There are two exceptions: one, Neil Codling on guitar and keyboards, is extremely still and inscrutable - but then, he's also been enjoying a double life as a member of the re-activated Penguin Cafe, so I totally support any efforts on his part to look smug and/or unfussed.

Brett Anderson, meanwhile, must be drawing his energy from the national grid. In really excellent voice, he doesn't appear to stand still, well, ever, and makes a particular point of dropping off the stage to perform at 'crowd level' (slightly misguided given how vast the place is). Of course, as a more elderly onlooker, when the lead singer suddenly vanishes from view, you can spend 10 seconds thinking, 'Is it me? Is it the glasses? Am I having an episode? Is he all right? Has something happened?' - but soon enough, Anderson's head would bob up again and he'd head back to where people could actually see him.

I'm enjoying Suede's comeback overall, in fact. I liked wallowing in the really thorough reissues of the old stuff, and I'm enjoying the new record - which miiiiiight peter out towards the end slightly (like their other albums), but as it roars out of the traps it feels the equal of anything they've put out before. And the gig is punchy and up for it in the same way - their new songs feel as comfortable alongside the oldies as hopefully the scattering of new fans feel alongside, er, the oldies. We might feel like we're standing in a gasworks crossed with a cereal packet, but the sound is actually clear and satisfyingly immense. Not so young, perhaps, but electricity still present.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Joining the dots: Lichtenstein at the Tate

The Lichtenstein exhibition currently at London’s Tate Modern is a brilliant thing. Fans of the work will be thrilled, I’m sure, at the amount of work on display and the intelligent way it’s been hung. Those, like me, who might only know a little about RL’s stuff or who are visiting out of curiosity, are bound to come away with their heads spinning with new images, information and inspiration.

To start: an anecdote (*throws log on fire, lights pipe*). About two or three rooms in, I noticed a man leaning down to speak to his grandson. (This is a guess, given the apparent age difference – no time available to carry out DNA tests.) The boy, clutching a pad and pencil, was asking about the dots in a particular picture – that is, he’d clocked RL’s signature approach of using evenly spaced dots in imitation of the ‘Benday’ printing technique for providing shading. The man said something like, ‘This is how it works,’ and gently backed the boy away from the painting. As soon as the child reached the point when the dots must have coalesced into a patch of colour, his eyes widened in understanding and he muttered ‘Ohhh...’ Grandad then marched him forward again and the boy began furiously sketching in his pad. He stayed with him, pointing at the patterns emerging on the paper and offering nuggets of encouragement.

Apart from thinking the Tate should buy this guy every pint he drinks for the rest of his life, I also realised how accessible RL’s work must be to the young. “It’s just like a big comic” – the ‘only one idea’-style criticism sometimes levelled at RL by adults – must become a massive recommendation to a kid.

It got me thinking about how pop, or pop-like, art could easily act as the all-inclusive, multi-generation entry point for any novice. Because of its focus on reproduction and repetition – the same thing that sometimes exposes it to ridicule – the genre, like pop music, has hooks and riffs the uninitiated can latch on to. Warhol print sequences can call to mind my old sticker and stamp collections; Riley’s patterns and swirls my first book of optical illusions.

Where this exhibition really scores, though, is by showing RL to be a questing and constantly evolving artist. After starting with experimental ‘brushstroke’ paintings – that is, making images of huge strokes as though painted with a giant brush – he arrived at the ‘false newsprint’ technique I mention above, with the dots appearing as an instant visual calling-card. The link being, I surmised, that at least at the start he was trying to make paintings about making paintings. By reproducing a comic panel (the famous ‘Look, Mickey!’ image) right down to the fuzzy, off-line shading, he negated the actual subject matter to a certain extent – who’s going to think about Mickey Mouse for more than a few seconds – and forced the attention on to how he actually did it. How are the dots that precise on that scale? How is the paint that even? I also think there is a comment here – and the child-like (NOT childish) aspect of this appeals to me – that comics and cartoons are also art, for everyone, not just the boy with the sketch pad. What better way to get them into a gallery?

Sensibly, the exhibition then delivers the ‘big’ paintings relatively early, because they are almost certainly RL’s ultimate expression along these lines. The other ‘greatest hit’, the massive comic panel called ‘Whaam!’, is exhibited with the original comic to show not only how uncannily accurate RL’s enlargement is, but also how he improved the composition to make the image many times better, as well as bigger.

There is a roomful of these fabulous, exuberant pictures – so often seen on postcards which give you no idea of the literal scale of RL’s achievement – and the space itself is large enough to allow you to stand back, let the dots merge and appreciate each image in its entirety, in comfort.

For me, though, the real treats of the show lay in the more unexpected avenues of his work that don’t seem to get nearly enough attention (or, er, at least they surprised the hell out of me). I was dimly aware he had produced some black and white work, for example, but had no idea of the range – from a glass of fizzing Alka-Seltzer tablets (with vertical lines erased from the dots to represent the liquid bubbling up ‘above’ its surface), to a graphic-design of a tyre that looks flat but springs into ‘false’ 3D life in front of you, to a canvas painted and cut to the shape of a transistor radio, hanging on the gallery wall from its strap. Thrilling stuff.

For an artist with such a distinctive style, RL’s work demonstrates the versatility of his approach. One wall presents an array of ‘mirrors’, although the mirrors are painted depictions of reflected light, the beams differentiated by the ever-present dots. He also made a series of landscapes and seascapes which, as you might expect, are highly stylised and at times almost featureless – but again force your attention on the process: in some, there are different grids of dots overlaid for a more complex colour effect, or in another particular example, the overall image appears across plates of Perspex to give the illusion of 3D.

A whole room, in fact, is given to ‘Art about Art’, which includes RL’s ‘cover versions’ of certain masterpieces he admired. It was interesting to see how occasionally this could be a bit pointless or reductive – I couldn’t see how his coloured shapes added to Picasso’s, for example – but when he took on an imitation of Monet’s cathedral series, it made much more sense to me. He acknowledged that all these works could be seen as parodic to a certain extent, but in this instance, where you have to stare at the dots until they form a coherent image, it really reminded me of how you have to carry out much the same exercise with the original. It felt like RL was expressing kinship, maybe, or acknowledging influence in a more meaningful way than just pastiche.

I didn’t find everything in the show an unreserved success: the ‘Perfect/Imperfect’ paintings, for example – where geometric shapes are first neatly arranged, but then spill off the canvas and physically jut out of the rectangular frame of the picture – felt like a self-consciously kooky idea among work that is otherwise so precise.

But I reckon RL saved the best for last, with his Chinese landscapes.

These paintings are just gorgeous, featuring now virtuosic use of the dot technique (where they vary in size to give depth and density) with beautiful pastel shades, and becoming some kind of marvellous fusion of ancient and modern poster art. Bold but tiny graphics – such as a philosopher or small boat – appear as minute details, almost lost in the abstract wash.

Please go to this if you can – it’s on until 27 May. (Both images are taken from the Tate's website.)