Tuesday 30 July 2013

Twilight from the gods

(Preliminary section of the Specs 'Proms Ring Cycle' blog post)
The opportunity

I've been a little bit quiet of late, but I have an excellent excuse. The Proms are in full swing again and this year - being his 200th birthday - it's a Wagner extravaganza, featuring no less than SEVEN of his operas sung in full. Five of them were all performed in week 2 of the festival, which meant that if you bought a weekly Promming Pass - a new innovation for 2013 - you could go to them all for a total of £32.50. (Just let the brilliance of the Proms sink in for a moment - remember how much it often costs to buy a single gig ticket these days - then compare and contrast.) And the real headline news was that four of these evenings would be a complete performance of the Ring Cycle by the Berlin Staatskapelle, conducted by Daniel Barenboim and sung by an extraordinary gathering of stellar soloists. So much has been written about Wagner, the Ring operas, and even these performances (which the papers, of course, reviewed as they went along). In particular, Radio 3's Sara Mohr-Pietsch - new to the Ring at the start of the week - kept a brilliantly written online diary of the experience for the Guardian and I really recommend you read it. Her reactions are clearly near-instant but still full of wit and insight. The first post is here and then you can just follow the links on the right of the article for her day-by-day account. For now, though: bit of context: the operas are, in sequence, 'Das Rheingold' ('The Rhine Gold'), 'Die Walkure' ('The Valkyrie'), 'Siegfried' (er, 'Siegfried') and 'Gotterdammerung' ('Twilight of the Gods'). Set in a fantasy universe - with links to Norse mythology - overall they chart the story of how a cursed ring comes into the possession of a sequence of giants, elves, divine and human beings until events escalate to the destruction of the gods themselves. Wagner originally planned to write about the death of the hero Siegfried (just the latest in a long line of murderous tragedies) and the resulting self-sacrifice of his lover Brunnhilde, who rides into the funeral pyre while wearing the ring. In this way, she ends the curse and ignites the fire that consumes the gods inside their castle, Valhalla. In the process, however, the composer (who wrote all his own words as well - very unusual) kept working in the earlier elements of the story until he had four operas' worth of material. Also - Wagner didn't really write short stuff. He arranged them into a 'prologue' evening - that's 'Das Rheingold', always performed without an interval, despite being a mere 2.5 hours long - and three 'days', with the other operas clocking in at three to four hours apiece. Promming, even on a season ticket, means standing - which meant that Mrs Specs decided the whole enterprise was 'insane' and went off to Scotland for the week as if to underline this assessment. So, ready your applause for regular returning pal and classical guru David, who went through this transforming experience with me until we descended from the gallery, changed men, blood brothers, some 16 hours of opera later. Appropriately enough for a drama involving rings and fire, the circular Royal Albert Hall was more or less our home for what must've been one of the hottest weeks of the year. The Hall is beautiful but always that bit too warm. It's probably the UK's largest and most elegant steamer, gently cooking us until done (in). Nonetheless, who are we to complain, watching an orchestra in full dress perform such sublime music for hours on end - which did its job, making us forget about the heat - and our feet - for every second they were playing. I can't really talk about the Ring 'in full' - there is so much to think, say and feel - so I'll focus on some things that seem to me, at the end of the week, to be really important.

 (First part of the Specs 'Proms Ring Cycle' blog post)
The problem

It seems a shame to deal with the 'negative' stuff first, but equally it feels somehow irresponsible to leave it out. Some people have read about the Ring Cycle - or about Wagner in general - and won't go near him. Sometimes this is simply due to the idea of listening to four-hour operas (fair point) but the major hurdle with Wagner is the 'Being A Complete Git' issue. It's not just speculation, sadly - his most notorious 'failing' is his anti-Semitism, expressed in a tract against 'Jewishness in Music' - and he was Hitler's favourite composer. This has led to some fairly extreme claims (I've read a summary by the expert Michael Tanner in his 'Pocket Guide to Wagner', which gives fairly short shrift to commentators who have tried to calibrate Wagner's direct influence - if any - on the appalling events of the Second World War) - and whether you're inclined to go fully along with them or not, it's hard not to conclude that Wagner's personal reputation is beyond rescue.

Not his artistic one, though. To begin with, I do fear that you risk hypocrisy if you try and only experience art made by 'nice people'. (It reminds me of efforts by some of my peers in my churchgoing teens, who - fearful of Satanic influences in rock - tried to listen only to Christian bands. Fast track to purgatory!) I genuinely believe that if everyone emptied their bookshelves, CD racks or walls of art created by anyone with even vaguely sexist, racist, homophobic or violent tendencies, we'd be surprised at how little we were left with. Separating the art from the artist is not always a justification tactic, or a cop-out. As 'culture vultures', we teach ourselves to do this willingly, when it suits us. If you admire Caravaggio or Gesualdo, you get past the fact they killed people. The example I've often heard cited along these lines is 'The Merchant of Venice', still performed and loved worldwide. We 'accept' - or perhaps 'overlook' would be a better word - the anti-Semitism, surely because Shakespeare is so good (we haven't really done the same for Marlowe's 'The Jew of Malta').

And that's an example where the racism made its way into the work. Daniel Barenboim himself has said that the Ring does not deal with anti-Semitism, and I would agree. Wagner does employ plenty of 'fantasy shorthand' (people fall in love within 20 seconds of meeting, and conveniently recount everything that's just happened to them just in case any listeners went to the loo during the last opera) but he does not rely on convenient character stereotypes or 'race hate' - that is, ascribing negative traits to entire ethnic groups to stand for real-life prejudices. Everyone has mixed motives and wants to use the unlimited potential of the Ring's magic for their own purposes: power, greed, vengeance, desire, or a mix of them all. (I'll come back to this complexity below.) So, to rush into the briefest of conclusions: please don't be put off by Wagner's own character. If the music intrigues you, press on.

(Second part of the Specs 'Proms Ring Cycle' blog post)

This man is now one of my own heroes. He has an extraordinarily dynamic conducting style - he moves around on the podium, stepping forward and almost launching himself off it one minute, then retreating back to lean on its rails the next. Clearly, dictating the pace is one aspect of what he's doing - but he's directing the action as well. So fluid are his movements that you can see him point with the baton at the back line of the orchestra, say, and then jab his elbow towards one of the singers to bring them in, too. His seemingly spontaneous hand signals and expressions (although I wonder if this is actually long established code between maestro and players) inspire the Staatskapelle to different levels of volume and power as well as speed.

Barenboim's empathy with both orchestra and singers allowed for some superb stagecraft - which got me thinking about the whole business of managing the performance. With full-blown opera productions, the audience primarily sees the singers acting on stage sets. However, this being the Proms, the performances were 'semi-staged' - or more accurately, a concert performance. So, the singers (who I believe are pretty much all current 'Wagner performers') acted their roles properly and convincingly, but sharing the stage with the orchestra. And as a result, they could interact. I think the stage director, Justin Way, must take the credit for this, with Barenboim a fully collaborative co-conspirator. In arguably the most difficult, serious instalment, 'Siegfried', we were treated to some light relief as the hero bantered with the French horn soloist playing his theme.

However, at other times, the singers' engagement with Barenboim in particular was incredibly powerful. Staying with 'Siegfried', the hero handed the conductor his jacket when about to take on a particularly strenuous task, and Barenboim hooked it over his podium rail, without a pause in his direction of the orchestra. Likewise, other characters seemed to draw strength from Barenboim's platform at times when they most needed energy or succour: Wotan leaning on the rail then sinking wearily to actually sit on the podium in 'Die Walkure' (one of the entire week's stand-out performances by Bryn Terfel), or even 'Gotterdammerung' villain Hagen (the brilliant Mikhail Petrenko, prowling the stage in malevolent reptile mode) steeling himself for the next phase of his terrible plan. This opportunity to unite singers and orchestra in front of the audience - only possible because of the artificial circumstances of playing an opera as if it's a concert - is there any better way of expressing the mutual support between the two?

(Third part of the Specs 'Proms Ring Cycle' blog post)
Dawn of a new opera

I like to think that whatever his rotten prejudices, it's fairly clear that Wagner wasn't trying to write operas to express anti-Semitic hatred or promote racial purity. I think you'd struggle to get any kind of 'design for life' out of Wagner at all. It just doesn't work. For example, Siegfried is designed to be an ideal of a hero - except that he's the product of incest, and more to the point, for a lot of the time, he's a pain in the arse. He's some distance from perfection. Wotan, ruler of the gods, is actually something of a bungler, prone to very human failings and only regaining dignity when he accepts (and seemingly welcomes) the end of the gods - and disappears from the cycle before the final opera opens. He's about the worst advert for elitism or the 'superman' you can possibly imagine. It appears that one of the reasons Hitler really loved Wagner is the epic grandeur - this possibility of a German Opera in the nationalist sense. But ideologically, it just seems that Hitler didn't really understand what was going on in the Ring at all. One of the key themes is the utter uselessness of absolute power and the corruption and ruin it brings. H must've overlooked that bit.

It seems more likely to me that Wagner's main motivation was to come up with a new musical artform: the work is the end in itself. Again, it's a matter of record that he was aiming for this level of achievement - he constructed the purpose-built opera house at Bayreuth, and he seems to have had problems with the term 'opera' itself, preferring 'music drama' for the parts of the Ring cycle. Also, he shunned 'normal' opera's use of showstopping arias, and instead established a system of 'leitmotifs' - melodic signatures for characters, moods, scenes or even objects - that recur and intertwine so that you are constantly being made aware of links and half-remembered incidents that propel you through the cycle and heighten your awareness of what's going on. Sara Mohr-Pietsch is really good on this, analysing how this enhances the action for a first-time listener. Of course, Wagner's talent was such that when he did include a potential 'hit single', it would be an absolute masterpiece: the famous 'Ride of the Valkyries', or the 'Funeral March' for Siegfried - as performed by Barenboim and co, one of the most stirring and affecting parts of the whole experience. I don't mind saying: I had a 'moment'.

The music reaches heights of emotional intensity I have never really experienced at a concert before - and to some extent I'm still reeling - but that extra level of fascination for me comes from how this incredible score supports the unpredictability and strangely realistic complexity of the characters, a number of whom get to develop over several of the operas. I've already mentioned how Wotan continually loses control of the situation - not ideal when you're king of the gods - and how Siegfried, the noble hero, is actually arrogant and foolhardy for much of the time. In Hagen, the Ring has its own Iago, whose futile jealousy and ambition trigger the final chain of events. Even relatively minor characters, such as Fasolt (giant with something resembling a conscience) and Gunther (weak tribal king) more or less have onstage psychological meltdowns. And Brunnhilde - sung in all three of the main operas by the astonishing Nina Stemme - is one of the most amazing characters in anything. A warrior goddess, she is 'demoted' by Wotan (despite being his favourite daughter) to human form as punishment for disobedience. Her fate is to be woken by a fearless hero and become his wife. Yet even as this is all played out, Brunnhilde both falls in love as a human woman, while never fully shaking off her valkyrie roots. During a heart-to-heart with Siegfried she laments at the sight of her helmet and shield - and her final act of self-sacrifice is only possible due to her immense reserves of courage. Over the course of the Ring, Wagner pushes the format in all kinds of directions: the sheer epic length of everything, especially the marathon single act of 'Das Rheingold'; the cliffhanger endings; the weird 'imbalance' of 'Siegfried' which goes on for ages before you hear a single female voice... yet the final opera, 'Gotterdammerung', has more in common with other operas than you might expect - there's a chorus, and more in the way of set pieces. As I mentioned above, the mundane explanation is that much of it was written earlier than the rest - yet (as Tanner points out) he barely revised it later. It's as though the first three operas express in their actual approach the disruption and imbalance in the Ring 'universe' and renewal and restoration of order at the close of the cycle can only be achieved if the format can 'settle'. And Brunnhilde - the only character to be both god and human - is therefore the only one who can symbolise bringing the traditional order to a close and usher in a new era with no need for gods. Is this Wagner actually using the technique to lay 'old' forms of opera to rest, and establish his new version?

* * *
I really want to thank David for his generosity, knowledge and above all great company through the hours of queuing, drinking (water mainly, although on one particular occasion, D attempted unsuccessfully to transfer a large quantity of Pimms directly to his bloodstream - we will never speak of it again), and fetching of ice creams and programmes. At one point, I was joking about 'queue etiquette' and how important it was to be careful about not encroaching on people's space at the gallery rail etc, lest we be thrown over. 'These things happen,' David muttered, darkly. This pic shows our special celebration t-shirt, worn to 'Gotterdammerung'. (Incidentally, apologies for lack of umlauts throughout the post. Couldn't get them to appear properly *shakes fist at sky*.)

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Folk art: Rory McEwen

I had one of those brilliant 'Woah!' experiences at a gallery a few days ago, where you go along expecting something to be fairly interesting - a good and no doubt improving way to pass the time - and actually find it's one of the most powerful and moving events you've witnessed in ages. To borrow Emmylou's phrase - it's like stumbling into grace.

We were in Kew Gardens (or, ahem, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew - to bestow unto them their full title). There's a mini-festival there every July and we had tickets to see Bellowhead that evening - so rather than just fry then melt at home, why not spend the day in the Gardens?

Mrs Specs (who I should add, for full disclosure purposes, works at Kew) had heard that the current exhibition in Kew's rather swish modern gallery - devoted, as you might expect, to botanical art - was particularly good. Oddly, given the pleasure I get from photographing plants and flowers, I've never really taken the time to study floral painting or drawing in any great depth. I don't know why this is - perhaps that's a subject for another day's post. But I was no more than mildly curious as we headed inside, attracted at least as much by the prospect of the air conditioning as the artwork.

This indifference lasted approximately the time it took to view the first couple of Rory McEwen's pictures. They are among the most vibrant and realistic paintings I have ever seen - of any subject. The flora depicted have a vivid shine that gives them a 3D feel, without compromising the minute detail the discipline requires. 

McEwen's decision to use vellum instead of paper or canvas would be a major contributing factor to this: the surface itself is not entirely flat, which helps the plants appear to have a 'shape' - plus it has a smooth sheen instead of the slight perforation or 'grain' effect you see on other surfaces.

As I went round the exhibition, I decided that there isn't a single uninteresting thing about Rory McEwen. He seems to have been a kind of 'Pre-naissance Man', in that he turned his hand to a variety of artistic endeavours and was supremely accomplished at them all. In the beginning, he was more folk musician than artist, and the video I've embedded at the bottom of the post is one of the only performances I can find on YouTube. Sadly - while it shows him harmonising like a dream, performing alongside Martin Carthy and Davy Graham, no less - he isn't playing guitar himself. Unusually for the time and genre, he used a 12-string, and according to Van Morrison (in the short film bio running on a loop in the exhibition), he was the only person getting anywhere close to the intricacies of Leadbelly's playing. Frankly, to hear Van Morrison being nothing but complimentary about someone is probably one of the most decisive measures of their genius you could wish for.

Clearly, the musical aspect is going to give me an extremely soft spot for the guy, so let's temporarily put that to one side. My over-riding impression of his particular achievement in the visual arts is that he pursued the career of a completely free, innovative, questing artist, focusing on - and inevitably finding - new ways to express himself ... without losing an iota of integrity as a 'botanical artist'.

As his art developed, there would still be a plant or flower in the picture, but increasingly more of Rory, too. He painted a glorious series of grasses, where you can clearly see his interest in the modern and abstract come to, er, fruition and yet it's still instantly obvious what you're looking at. Venturing into total abstraction - and sculpture - he made a series of glass grids marked with lines at different angles, unable, I imagine, to fully break away from imagery of branches, stems and roots.

Roots. That word brings me back to the music. I don't think it's necessary to look at McEwen's art and music separately. Folk music is rich in imagery of the soil and the ground, of flowers and trees, and of the effect (kind or hostile) that nature has on the people it shares the planet with. I can see how these twin interests could spring up and flourish together, informing each other. I can see how McEwen might try and merge his own creativity with the traditional approaches to botanical art, much like a folk musician interprets ancient songs in their own style and arrangements.

Once McEwen found out he was dying, he began a series of leaf paintings. They retain the incredible detail of the earlier work - his eye doesn't seem ever to have dimmed - but they sit isolated and off-centre in the frame, as if unable to remain fully upright through lack of strength. Some of them are broken and decaying, but re-assembled, as if to say - 'I might be shattered - but I'm still holding it together.' The video biography notes that these pictures are not named according to the species of tree - instead they are all titled after the place where McEwen noticed and found the leaf. How could this man make his pictures of plant life say so much about being human?

* * *

I haven't even touched on some of the great paintings in this exhibition, so please just go if you can. You've got plenty of time - it's on until 22 September - and the page on the Kew Gardens website with all the details is here.

Finally, here's the man in action.

Monday 8 July 2013

Wrecking crew: Michael Chapman

Back in the mists of time - well, March - Mrs Specs and I went to see Bellowhead at Croydon Fairfield Halls, one of our most local venues. At the time I chose not to write about the rather intriguing support act, but resolved instead to investigate further. There seemed to be more to find out.

Michael Chapman has a lot of history. His first album came out in 1969. Performing solo, with an acoustic guitar, he prefaced almost every song with an explanation for the location that inspired it, or the memory it's designed to invoke. And not every song has words: his instrumentals are so melodic, complex and propulsive, they don't need them. Chapman is one of those musicians you can watch and still not quite understand how the sounds you can hear are being made. But that first time, I was too far away to get a really good look - so I just happily abandoned myself to listening in a kind of dreamy wonder.

Hearing that support slot was enough to kick-start some research, which has, in turn, resulted in a mild addiction. I won't go into any real details of Chapman's past career, fascinating though they are (see below for main reasons!) but what's happening now is interesting enough. Chapman has spent a number of years much further beneath the radar than he should be - but the record label Light in the Attic is reissuing his early records, which will no doubt restore him to the pantheon of past and present guitar alchemists.

But at the same time, he is still pushing the boundaries of his craft, releasing longer-form improvisations on smaller labels which show how influential and important he is to the 'freak folk' / psych scenes (championed by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, and the late acoustic guitar virtuoso Jack Rose among others). I am very attracted to the idea that his adaptable, exploratory genius puts him at the centre of the newly-loved past, and the past-inspired new. Those entranced by the current material will go looking for the old stuff, and what do you know? - it's all coming out again. Perfect.

So, I was thrilled to find out he was playing Croydon again, in the Fairfield Halls Arnhem Gallery (a smaller venue-within-the-venue). This time, it was his gig. I arrived a bit early at the Halls - I wasn't sure if I'd need to secure a place 'at the front', or similar. Initially, I was a bit disconcerted, as the first person I saw hanging around outside the Halls was a man of about 50 or so, in a trilby, grey suit jacket, above sheer black stockings, suspenders and Doc Martens. Suddenly flanked by goths in tutus from about five steps inside the foyer, I realised that the Rocky Horror Show was on in the main auditorium. I was slightly relieved that this turned out not to be Michael Chapman's core audience, as I'd have hated to stand out.

Instead, the Arnhem Gallery was decked out in very civilised fashion with chairs and tables laid out in a kind of jazz/folk club style. I nabbed a chair at the front, determined to get a better view this time. Promoting the latest re-release, 'Wrecked Again' from 1971, Chapman played the first set solo, then introduced Sarah Smout on cello and B J Cole on pedal steel to flesh out some of the tracks from the album (which featured a full orchestra).

(This caused my second visual hiccup of the evening, when under the stage lights Cole, hunched over his instrument and side-on to the audience, took on this slight Jeremy Clarkson appearance. I think it might have been something to do with his crimson-lit hair looking curlier from the side. Momentarily hypnotised by this, I also noticed his loud patterned shirt could have been purloined from James May. A Hammond organ instead of a pedal steel would've made the Top Gear hat-trick. Croydon. It plays tricks on the mind.)

Chapman was clearly delighted to be sharing the stage with these two, and rightly so. He has since said on Twitter that he was going for "atmosphere and texture", and that's exactly what they achieved. I thought it was telling how generous and deferential a bandleader he was, playing mostly electric guitar for this part of the show and providing a pulsing but gentle rhythm as the pedal steel and cello danced above and below it. I remember being particularly spellbound by 'The First Leaf of Autumn', which maintained a stately rhythm throughout but with Chapman's two bandmates taking turns to solo and improvise, elevating the already catchy chord pattern between the verses to more and more euphoric heights.

But for all the delights offered by the band setting - and there were many - I have to recommend without any reservations that if you get a chance to see this man perform solo: just go. When he straps on an acoustic guitar, the years fly away, and for all his self-effacing and laidback demeanour, he gives, without fail, a masterclass. I suppose I would give two main reasons for this.

1) Technical genius. I've been privileged to see a number of musical heroes who are so good at their instruments, it almost seems otherworldly: Richard Thompson, Toumani Diabate, Keith Jarrett. Chapman has the same effect on me. For tune after tune - and tuning after tuning - he plays a percussive bass line, adds a rhythm, then solos over the top. Line after line of melody emerges, yet nothing seems to drop out. Crucially, he does this differently throughout the song - let alone the set - as if he is actually a band (God knows he can make the noise of one) and the various members are occupying the spotlight in turn.

2) Tone poetry. I suspect that one of the reasons the free folk/noise artists have identified with Chapman so readily is that, as well as keys, notes, chords, etc- all that conventional stuff - he's also interested in the actual sound. For the solo part of the evening, he never changes guitar - it's the same acoustic - but he sounds like he does. He describes sitting under a tree by a lake, feeling his way towards a new tune as fish splash in the water - then he starts 'Caddo Lake' and instantly picks the 'blip' of water droplets from the strings. It's transporting. And he uses his gifts for humour, too: 'Fahey's Flag' affectionately sends up John Fahey's playing - with slide mayhem over scarily intricate picking, all at once - without ever forgetting to be an addictive tune in its own right.

This is the right time to mention a virtual pal of mine, known not only, but mostly, as Mondo. His website, Planet Mondo, is the kind of place you must visit as long as you remember to come out again. There's an embarrassment of musical riches, lovingly cushioned in phenomenally wide-ranging but very lightly-worn knowledge. Arriving at Chapman-related conversion a year or two ahead of me, Mondo has explored his fascinating history on his own blog, and I really recommend you read it. Start here, then follow the links where you will - particularly, perhaps, to here.

Finally - in my untiring efforts to make Chapman fans of THE LOT OF YOU, here is the link to the official website, and to whet your appetite, not one but TWO videos - the first with vocals, the second instrumental. I spoil you.

In the Valley:

La Madraguda: