Saturday, 21 March 2015

“WHEN YOU FALL INTO A TRANCE”: VAN MORRISON'S 'ASTRAL WEEKS'


Another in my (highly) irregular series on my top 50 albums

”I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.”
- Sebastian from 'Brideshead Revisited'

”With a childlike vision leaping into view...”

Journey with me now back to 1968. And there's two big ideas in popular music. Post 'Sergeant Pepper', music has started to grow - becoming bigger, more grandiose, more important. The length of time an album took to record, the sum total of equipment the band possessed, such things were becoming vital forms of currency. Also, reflecting the tumultuous events of its time, the growing social and political upheavals, its becoming more politically charged. Why not succumb to that music journo cliché where everything is supposedly summed up by a song title? There was, to quote Thunderclap Newman, 'Something In the Air'. Okay, that wasn't actually released until the following year. The point still stands. In 1968 even the Beatles, the very epitome of love-in hippies, had started singing about revolution.

Though Van Morrison had already released one solo album (which he later claimed had come out against his wishes), he was then chiefly known for the urgent R+B hits he'd clocked up with Them. A band who had influenced much of the then-current wave of music. The Doors' Jim Morrison, for example, had all but studied his namesake. So of course, ever the contrarian, Van took all this as his cue to completely ignore everything set out above and release a languid folk album - flutes in place of electric guitars and harmoniums replacing mellotrons. 'Sergeant Pepper' has taken a record-breaking six months to record. 'Astral Weeks' was laid down in three short sessions. And they didn't bother using anything from the middle one.

Perhaps only Bob Dylan rivalled the reckless perversity in bucking trends, when in the previous December he'd released the country album 'John Wesley Harding'. But there's a crucial distinction. As recounted previously, Dylan took refuge from the antagonisms of his previous patented “me/you” songwriting by escaping into a collectivised American folklore. It was an album borne of his desire to not look or sound like Bob Dylan any more, or even particularly answer to his own name. Whereas Morrison's reminiscences of his Belfast youth were simultaneously highly personal and absolutely universal.

While notable exceptions apply, the new 'progressive' music was for the main part simply standard rock fare with knobs on. With the inevitable result that most of the knobs fell off as soon as they were tried. 'Astral Weeks' was and remains beyond all that.

Compare it to visual art for a moment. If Faust were an artwork they'd be a Dadaist collage, Wire a Bauhaus diagram. 'Astral Weeks' would be a piece of folk or naïve art. And like much naïve art the album has an apparent freshness and simplicity. Only once inside do you realise how easily you can get lost in there.

Listen closely to any track you choose and beneath the languid surface you find something incredibly rich and sophisticated. What almost invariably starts off as a simple little folk ditty soon spawns a multiplicity of instruments. Instruments which don't just play along with one another but take off in entirely unexpected directions, while somehow retaining their harmoniousness when they should by any odds collapse into chaos. (The overlay picture on the cover is perhaps a perfect visual representation of the music.) Morrison has described the album as “just folk music incorporating jazz” and much of this effect seems to have been achieved merely by enlisting jazz musicians to play folk. It results in a double-plus trade-off where the folk stops the jazzing getting too noodly, while the jazz makes the folk richer than just straightforward.

Yet the surface is as important as the substance, the jazz needs the folk as much as the other way around. Its vital that it all feels so immediate, so organic and spontaneous. While you listen you can't imagine it being composed, arranged or produced, you can't separate it back out into its constituent parts of lyrics and instrumentation. It feels like the music somehow just appeared the way we hear it now, simply leapt into view, was cut from whole cloth.

Which I long assumed to be a smart illusion. Like Dolly Parton claiming “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap”, I was smart enough to know it must have taken considerable time and effort to achieve that spontaneous sound. As it happens, it seems they achieved it through... well, spontaneity. Though he'd taken a year to write all the songs (during an impasse where he lacked a record contract), Morrison hadn't met many of the musicians before recording began. And when they all showed up, he simply told them to play what they wanted then vanished off into the singer booth. So casual were the arrangements that to this day the flautist on many of the tracks is unknown.

The album I most associate with 'Astral Weeks' in its effect, in the way it works on you is one it has absolutely nothing in common with otherwise, stylistically or thematically – Patti Smith's 'Horses'. Both induce a fugue state. Its not a matter of what the singer is singing, the guitar is strumming or the drummer is drumming. It's all of those things at once, ganging up on your attention, overwhelming you until your senses can only surrender and be swept along. Compare the hypnotic repetition of simple phrases, “way up on, way up on” from 'Madame George' to “go up, go up, go-up go-up” on 'Birdland'. But while 'Horses' is vibrant and convulsive, seizing at your ears, 'Astral Weeks' is beguiling. It lulls you into its world.

People are wont to argue that good song lyrics are akin to poetry, and so measure them by how well they stand on their own terms. Whereas Morrison's impressionistic flow of lyrics could never be prised apart from the music they go with. Which is why they go with the music. Its like asking if the front wall of my house would stay up if you took the other walls away. I've no interest in finding out, I like my house the way it is.

Certainly, the lyrics can be given to poetic flights. Things open, after all, with the couplet “If I ventured in the slipstream/ Between the viaducts of your dream”. But its the simpler phrases which linger the longest. Take the classic line from 'Sweet Thing', “I will drink the clear, clean water for to quench my thirst”. At numerous points things slip into a childlike perspective, the innocent anthropomorphism of windows rapping or music dancing.

And Morrison is as happy with the mundane (“Kids outside collecting bottle tops/ Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops”). With memories, the minutiae of the detail – the shape of the room, the wallpaper, the time of day – are just a tag for the real substance, a thread leading you to the way the whole thing felt. This is what Waugh (via Sebastian) means in the quote up top, in his comparison of memories to treasure maps.

Which tends to the untranslatable. The surface details of my youth, which would trigger such resonances for me, would seem without significance for you. The tag would be unattached to the thread. But put together with the vocal delivery and the music, they become like biting into that Proustian cake. It's like a spell falling on you, like accessing memories you never had.

The result is an album fit to induce synaesthesia. Basslines snake along long numbers, curving like country lanes. The shimmer of strings on the title track calls up the sparkle of the summer sea, the jaunty swoops of the flute like brightly coloured bobbing sailboats, the harmonium on 'Cyprus Avenue' evokes the golden glow of late afternoon.

”Another Time, Another Place...”

'Rolling Stone' have commented of 'Astral Weeks': “it was instantly recognized as one of the rare albums for which the word timeless is not only appropriate but inescapable”. And indeed it's timeless in both senses of the word. In the already-mentioned sense of not being tied to its era, but instead following more universal themes. But also in the sense of taking time as being ours to play with.

To get to the heart of 'Astral Weeks', you need to compare it to an earlier Dylan track - 'Bob Dylan's Dream'. Dylan sings plaintively of the room he spent so much youthful time in, knowing that he'll never be able to step back inside it. Whereas 'Astral Weeks' is 'Bob Dylan's Dream' inside out. Hartley called the past another country. But that's no reason not to move there. Morrison contends that you can go home again, and that music can be the spell that takes you.

Here's a bluffer's tip. When talking about 'Astral Weeks', mention the German word heimat, which fuses together 'home', 'source' and 'belonging'. Its the idea that we are formed by primary relationships, with people and with places.'Astral Weeks' portrays Belfast as heimat.

And the fact that the title track is in many ways a gospel number, mentioning “I got a home on high... way up in the heaven”, merely compounds this. What heimat and heaven have in common is that they're source places, they're where we were made the way we are. (Though the phrase “to be born again” might not have had the same associations when written. Stemming from the Bible, it would probably still have been seen as a religious phrase. But it's association with right-wing evangelism mostly dates from Chuck Colson's 1976 book of the same name.)


People are wont to to tell you 'Astral Weeks' is Blakean. Me, I find the notion fanciful. They're as wont to see it as Edenic, and there I think they're on the money. 'Sweet Thing' is, after all, about nothing other than two lovers in an idyllic garden. There's the repeated references to being beyond thought. Perhaps the epitome of the mood is the way Morrison sings the line “to dig it all and not to wonder”. In the (in many ways splendid) cover by the Waterboys, Mike Scott sings the line hopefully - as though that's the life he wants to be living. Whereas Morrison sings the line as if that's what he's doing right now. (And I say that as a huge Waterboys fan.)

Brian Hogg makes a vital point - “the strength of 'Astral Weeks' is not held in individual tracks, instead it comes from its cumulative air of passion and mystery.” ('Strange Things Are Happening' 4, 1988) Which is correct, but relies on a different definition of 'cumulative' than 'beginning to end'.

Popular music comes from popular culture, and frequently you have to think yourself back into its era before you can fully appreciate it. Yet as 'Astral Weeks' breaks all those rules perhaps its not surprising that the ideal way to hear the album didn't come about until years after it was released – on rotation. It's a song cycle which doesn't run through but loops endlessly, from the dying ex-lover on 'Silm Slow Slider' to the refrain “to be born again” on the title track. And you inevitably find you can quite happily listen to it repeatedly. In the words of the song, you'll always be “caught one more time, up on Cyprus Avenue”.

And, as if to prove that point, let's look at individual tracks by starting off with the closing number...

”Ain't nothing but a stranger in this world”

Some albums come with their own get-out clause, making one track the antidote to everything else, such as 'Malibu' from Hole's 'Celebrity Skin'. 'Astral Weeks' conversely is an album built as an an antidote to one track, which then gives that track the last word by making it the album's closer. With its mournful sax refrain, seemingly floating above and beyond the rest of the number, 'Slim Slow Slider' is as hauntingly empty as the rest of the album is rich and golden. Notably it's the only track to name a place outside of Belfast – Ladbroke Grove in London, the big city. (Though Morrison was resident in America when the album was made. And perhaps he even needed that distance from it all.)

Equally notably, its the shortest track on the album. (Unless you count 'Like Young Lovers Do'. Which we don't.) Compared to what has come before, its almost abrupt. “You're out of reach” is the chilling counter to the eloquent flow of lines like “the love that loves to love”. (And note how 'Madame George' featured “throwing pennies”, whereas here its “catching pebbles for some sandy beach”.) It's like grits in the bottom of the glass.

And yet of course its Morrison seeing his old flame in the street (“with your brand new boy and your Cadillac”) that starts the song cycle, that unleashes the flow of memories that make up the album. Which is where the album starts...

The shimmering flux of the title track is one of those songs which acts like a spell upon you, kissing our eyes back into seeing, taking us back to “another time, another place” like the visual conceit of films going wibbly to signify flashback mode. Having quoted 'Brideshead Revisited' once already, this is how an older, more weary-wise Charles reacts to suddenly re-hearing it's name:

“On the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless... for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.”

Typically, the line “nothing but a stranger in this world” doesn't really register until you've heard the cycle through, and realise Morrison is opposing the contemporary world of Ladbroke Grove with his youthful memories of Belfast, that “this world” he's so outside is our world.

After all this metaphysical flying through time we find ourselves in a child's bedroom. But not for long, because “Little Jimmy's gone/ Way out of the backstreet/ Out of the window/ Through the fallin' rain...”

That unused session mentioned earlier was the only one which didn't take place in the late afternoon. And the whole album has that unhurried pace, as if the bustle of the day was all behind you. But only 'Beside You' is set in that twilight time. It's an account of a child starting to explore the world around him, discovering the streets that surround his home as a way of finding out about himself. New instruments continue to strike up, like further features of this new world appearing. Such vivid descriptions of Little Jimmy's explorations (slipping from “he” to “you” as the song goes on) may initially seem at a remove from the title-supplying chorus, which is more a simple love song that a protective parent may sing to a child. In one the child is tucked up safely at night, in the other he's absent without official leave. But it's through that juxtaposition that the song draws its meaning.

It's the benevolent paradox of childhood, as summed up in the joining line “you turn around and I'm beside you”. You can slip your parent's hand and run off, secure in the knowledge that at some point your parent will come along and find you. You know they have the same limited physical existence as you, that pushing open the window and sneaking out works when they're not there to see and stop you. But still your young mind ascribes to them some vague sense of omnipotence. They won't so much look for you as know. I'm of the generation where religion was a fixed part of the school curriculum. And, while children are of course credulous by nature, its worth noting how easily it is to conceive the concept of God at that age. A limitless, all-pervasive loving force – something like your parents, only even more so.

From thereon in it's possible to make out a fuzzy narrative, a life story built around a love affair. As little Jimmy grows we first encounter hopeless adolescent infatuation outside the school gates ('Cyprus Avenue'), rising to a meeting of souls and bodies ('Ballerina'), then the inevitable break-up and dissolution ('Slim Slow Slider'). There's no shortage of lines which support this narrative, such as the girl being specified as fourteen on 'Cyprus Avenue' then as twenty-two on the later 'Ballerina'.)

Except the more you try to pin things to it, the less they adhere. 'Sweet Thing', for example, strikes up out of order, before the girl down Cyprus Avenue has even been glimpsed. But there's worse...

This narrative structure is mostly likely a detour I've built in my mind to skirt the obvious. In it the singer of 'Cyprus Avenue' is a schoolboy to go with the schoolgirl he's so smitten by. Which he most probably isn't. “My tongue gets tied” might suggest adolescent awkwardness, young mouths fumbling to express strange new feelings. But what of the line “conquered in a car seat”? Doesn't it suggests an ironic juxtaposition between the active, adult role of being behind the wheel and the regression back into a blushing boy? Besides, would one schoolchild strike another as “so young and bold”? In which case what we actually have is a song about an older guy parking up so he can gawp at a schoolgirl. Lester Bangs was probably right all along to say Morrison had a tendency to sing about paedophilia.

But, were we to somehow set this no-small-matter aside, the lack of coherence in itself doesn't matter much. While the album is playing, while it's all happening, the music and lyrics seem in such a state of harmony that surely it must all make sense. It's just when you try to make sense of it, it all seems to dissolve. It's like chasing the end of a rainbow, it so clearly seemed to be somewhere until you went there. But then sense was never the object. Morrison always insisted that he wrote the songs in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, had not the slightest clue what any of it might be about and has no interest in speculating on the subject.

However Lester Bangs, in his celebrated review, essentially stated that he has no idea about any of it either but doesn't see why that should stop him. Which is pretty much the approach I'm taking. When the love-story narrative works, go with it. As soon as it doesn't, let your mind focus on something else.

Take the sequencing, for example. It works better experienced as a geography than a narrative, the title track like crossing the crest of a hill to see what's laid out beyond, next a downward swoop into the serene valleys of 'Cyprus Avenue' and 'Madame George', then climbing the next peak with 'Ballerina'.

But, were we to insist on forcing the pieces into a fixed narrative, perhaps the worst aspect would be that it excludes the album's best track and incorporates its worst. Thematically, 'Like Young Lovers Do' is a companion love song to 'Ballerina'. Yet it's urbane and polished while the rest of the album is free-form and impressionistic. Compare the crooner scatting of the vocals as it closes to the ululating glossolalia of 'Madame George's “love that loves to love”. The track is such a sore thumb stuck on an elegant hand that you can only assume it was intended as a single. (Though no single was ever released.)

And speaking of 'Madame George'...

”And you know you've got to go...”

Ultimately, we need to be less concerned with what slots into the narrative than what fits the picture. The love story, like a love story in a movie, is a framing device. A way to convey what's really going on in a form most of us will recognise. So when the album's key and stand-out track, 'Madame George,' ignores it completely... well, so should we.

Mid-way through another idyllic reflection comes the phrase “and you know you gotta go”. Already the longest track on the album, just as it seems to be over it strikes back up for an extended closing refrain, built around the repeated phrase “say goodbye”. It hangs around as if the song itself doesn't want to leave, drawing out the moment as long as it can. If 'Madame George' is the key song on the album, this coda is quite possibly the key moment of the key song.

The cartoonist Dylan Horrocks once described nostalgia as “remembering the past without the passing of time... You're just remembering what the place was like and the particular atmosphere and so on”. ('The Comics Journal' 243, May 2002) By a kind of rose-tinted wallowing in the past, we evoke place over time. Tableaus triumph over narratives. Birthdays become special days, made up of cakes and presents, unconnected with our getting older. (I find myself I can remember whole chunks of childhood birthdays, but never what particular age I was.) Time has to be suspended for its time which is the undoing of all of this.

I think 'Astral Weeks', however tied up it is with recalling your youth, is doing something else - something more than what can easily become a old-chocolate-wrapper sense of nostalgia. And this coda is where that becomes clearest.

Earlier I compared the album to 'Bob Dylan's Dream', a comparison most notable with 'Madame George'. Significantly, both share the conceit of the past being represented by a room. ('Madame George' is perhaps the only interior-set song on the album.) And of course the past is territorialised for us, tied to memories of spaces we no longer inhabit. But more than that, enclosing the past makes it hermetic. For Dylan its a space he can peer back into, but behind a door that's forever locked. It's notable he dreams of the room – a static space - “while ridin' on a train going west” and comments of his time there “we never thought we could ever get old”. Whereas Morrison starts the song inside the room, then announces he has to leave. And that leaving is the heart of it all. We have our memories and we can indulge them, but embedded in them is the end-date, the knowledge that the situation ends.

'Madame George' is, in about every sense of the word, idyllic but that doesn’t make it utopian. It's on an album which can radiate with sunshine but is as likely to pour down “rain, hail, sleet and snow”. It’s not the soundtrack to a cheery singsong past. It’s an account of life being lived to its fullest, for both good and ill. As Lester Bangs says its “transfixed between pure rapture and anguish. Wondering if they may not be the same thing”. (Disclaimer: Ultimately, I’m not sure that I hear this album the same way as Bangs. It often feels like he heard the album he needed to hear at that time, rather than the one Morrison actually recorded. But that quote at least seems to me to be almost perfect.)

And, though at it's strongest on 'Madame George', this duality of memory is to be found elsewhere on the album. Take 'Ballerina', where Morrison sings “when you came up to me/ Child, you were heading for a fall”. And of course the Fall isn't a twist ending or an interruption to the Edenic myth, it's a core component of it. Some have suggested the woman's impending death on 'Slim Slow Slider' is as a result of drugs. But not only is that interpretation unsupported by the anything in the lyrics, we're not dealing with something that needs pinning to drugs, disease or any thing in particular. The line is “I know you're dying baby, and I know you know it too.” Its the knowledge of death which is significant, the sour-apple taste of knowledge, the opposite of all the not-wondering that went on earlier. Things have shifted from the innocence of the garden to awareness – exile in the outside world.

But for all that, the concept of a song cycle remains essential. When we think back to, for example, Morrison proclaiming “I shall never, never grow so old again”, we know full well that he does. He does it on the very same album. Time will pass. But its not that we're supposed to retrospectively fault this statement, to find it false or naïve. Its a true expression of a true feeling. It means that within the rapture of youth there can be no real sense of death, even if the concept can exist in the abstract.

Ultimately, its not just the songs but the conception of time which becomes cyclic. Rather than progressing through stages of our lives like baton-passers, the adult arising to replace the child, we grown in some way more akin to tree rings. The youthful state is kept alive inside of us, everything that happens being absorbed into our being. And this is captured in the afore-mentioned fugue state conveyed by the music, the sense of it happening all at once.

And it worked. Being out of time created something timeless. One of the (possibly apocryphal) stories about 'Astral Weeks' is that it sold poorly on release, but then carried on steadily selling the same number of copies with each successive year. It is true that when it achieved gold record status, it had taken thirty-three years to do it. It regularly appears on best-of album lists, including of course this one. It's an album you could never tire of, or feel you'd fully got to know. You'll always be caught one more time, down on Cyprus Avenue.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

UNDERWORLD/ ALTERNATIVE TV (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

UNDERWORLD
Brighton Dome, Sat 7th March


When dance music first showed up on our fair shores, it appeared to have cut quite a separate channel for itself. Attempts to mix it with other music styles just seemed to disrupt its flow, and divert it into some stagnant pool. The charts were awash with attempts to cram it's trance-out tracks into three minute ditties, in the process losing the essence of both dance and pop. This was the period where any old number suddenly found itself re-released with a four-four beat grafted onto it, less a remix than the musical equivalent of a shotgun wedding. While the Madchester scene, the main attempt to marry dance with rock, ended up with Oasis. In an era of tribute acts they were the biggest tribute act of all – a tribute to rock cliches in general rather than to any particular band. It marked a risible return to square one.

But then as we hit the Nineties people finally started to figure out the combination. And as a fan of most of those outfits at the time - the recently-seen Orbital, Leftfield, the Chemical Brothers – it now seems inexplicable that somehow I skipped Underworld. I always took to them when I heard them, but somehow never ended up hearing them that much.

And if 2015 seems a somewhat belated date to catch up with a band from the early Nineties, then better late than never...

Frontman Karl Hyde mentions at one point his “revisiting” his old lyrics. But the term, with it's poetry associations, seems the wrong one for his words. Rather than neat encapsulations of thoughts and feelings they come across as completely stream-of-consciousness. This is most obvious on their best-known track 'Born Slippy', with its torrent of repetitive phrases passing by in an impressionistic blur (“Drive boy dog boy/ Dirty numb angel boy/ In the doorway boy”), images succeeding each other like a film montage. But its pretty much true of all of them. (Hyde has said they're “first-take a lot of the time”.)

And this in-the-moment flow marries much better to the driving beats. Structured lyrics belong with song structures, they'd just interrupt things here. There may be some antecedents in the more free-form end of rock music, for example Patti Smith tracks such as 'Birdland'. But its on-the-beat style seems closer to toasting or MC-ing than regular singing. (And if dance music didn't go in for MCs very much, it was based in other genres which did.)

And speaking of 'Born Slippy' (inevitably saved for the encore)... I tend to think it's to dance music what Black Flag were for hardcore punk – the epitome of a scene thats simultaneously a critique of it. It has the de rigueur sandwich structure of a dance track – pounding beats/trance-out part/back to the beats. But it's less a ecstatic trip to a blissed-out nirvana than a collaged impression of life reduced to a jumble of basic drives and motor functions. With the euphoria comes the derangement, that's how it is. Ironically if the video to the Prodigy's 'Smack My Bitch Up' – widely seen even at the time as a blatant and lame attempt to evoke some push-button notoriety – it might have actually been effective. Hyde has said of the track:

“it's me walking through the streets of Soho trying to get back home to Romford in Essex. I was referring to myself reduced to a piece of meat, due to the fact that I'd drunk too much. The bigger story is that I'm fascinated by the kind of snapshots that one retains when you've had a couple of drinks. These kind of very precise snapshots one has of a little piece of street, of a tape-recorder or of a rubbish bin.....”

(NB A source of pedantry states we should really call this track 'Born Slippy.NUXX'. Just so you know...)

But however great a track this is, perhaps the most memorable moment for me – largely through being so unexpected – parried those electronic beats with a flurry of blues harmonica. At one point the beats fell away and Hyde won a rousing cheer for what was essentially a solo straight out the delta.

All in all, quite splendid stuff. Hi, Underworld. How have you been getting along?

'Born Slippy', inevitably enough, from 6 Music...



ALTERNATIVE TV
The Green Door Store, Brighton, Sun 8th March


Roughly a year after their storming set in this very venue, as further evidence they're not ones to rest on their punk survivor laurels, Alternative TV return equipt with several new tracks. And unlike most bands of this era, the announcing of these doesn't herald a rush to the bar. And yet that wasn't even the most memorable thing about this gig...

I previously commented they played 'Splitting in Two', while bringing together so many different styles of music. Whereas this time they don't play that track, and instead do it.

After the last time, seeing Blyth Power play the following night, Jospeh Porter cheekily enquired if they'd played anything from their 'experimental' second album, 'Vibing Up the Senile Man'. Clearly expecting the answer “no”. The lyric “but the people were still disappointed/ And disjointed” proved prophetic on release, it quickly became notorious and gigs were often halted by glue-sniffin' punks who'd only come for something to pogo to. Yet the answer to his question was that they had. And this time they serve up two sets – purely so they can devote the first one to it.

Not that its all the second album. Some of the new songs get filed in there too. And, allegedly for the first time since '79, they play one of my favourite tracks - 'Fellow Sufferer', with its remoseless tick-tock guitar pattern, like a condemned man striking the days off his cell wall. But the alternative side of Alternative TV is definitely to the fore. The opening line being “the terror is on the radio” (from 'The Radio Story'), I mentally dub the set 'Alternative Radio'. (I'm quick like that, you know.)

At the time Perry described it as influenced by the free jazz of Sun Ra. Tonight, as he slips on his specs to read the lyric sheet, he jokingly compares proceedings to a jazz poetry night. But it always sounds to me more influenced by the space jamming of festival bands like Here and Now. (With whom ATV often toured back in the day, to the point it got harder and harder to remember who was in which band.)

Except, and particularly in this live setting, it retains something of a punk edge – it's intense nonsense, street-level Lewis Carrol, less floating free and more total derangement. The guitars hold rather than play chords, like summoning up a sonic haze, through which other band members emit strange theramin-like sounds from black box gizmos.

And, despite an odd decision for the support band to play between their sets, splitting in two prove effective. The strange stuff is given the space to get stranger, while served in undiluted form the spiky punk stuff gets sharper. I loved both sets. I'm glad they played both. But I guess I loved the first one more. I guess that makes me a radio listener. A punk contrarian.

'The Force is Blind', actually from last year's gig (though they played it both times), is a good demonstration of how the new live versions depart from the old recorded...


...and as I probably haven't said enough about the new songs, let's pick one of them. 'The Visitor'...

Saturday, 7 March 2015

SPECTRUM OF SOUND/ HEY COLOSSUS/ WALKER + MELCHIOR (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

SPECTRUM OF SOUND 1 (LONDON SINFONIETTA)
Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London, Fri 27th Feb


Contemporary composers, of all the things I dabble in, may be the most dabbled of all. And if I ever need reminding that all I am to this scene is an interested if occasionally befuddled outsider, I just need to read some of the theory that surrounds this stuff. Even when it doesn't actually feature equations, its less layman challenge than full-on anxiety dream.

But I'm not convinced that you really need to digest any of that theory to enjoy some of this music. As Georg Haas, one of the featured composers, says in the programme: “I want to compose expressive, emotional music which moves and takes hold of people.” It's less important to learn about it than it is to unlearn the habits you picked up from hearing more popular styles. (You can, should you wish, imagine I said that in a Yoda voice.)

At least that's my standard position. But sometimes the Zen exercise of taking in some of that theory can get you somewhere. Take another programme quote from another featured composer, Iannis Xenakis: “A cluster of phenomena assembled by the laws of finite or infinite groups is a texture... the result is experienced primarily as a texture and moreover as an interesting one. We are therefore faced with substances – textures – more complex and complicated than the phenomena of which they are composed... Because of their complexity, the textures are on a higher level than the elements of which they consist.”

Sounds all Greek? While I've no real idea whether this is what the man meant himself, it makes me think of something like sonic clusters. It's normally small bands who make popular music, and you listen to the interplay between the players like they were actors or acrobats on the stage. It all gets added together in your mind. Whereas the larger ensembles who perform this music play parts rather than lines – what Mark Berry describes as “swarming sounds”. You listen in the way you'd look at the leaves rustling on a tree, or the murmuration of birds massing in the sky. You're aware its made up of individual units, but what you take away from it is the composite form.

Ironically then, if Xenakis gave us the key to hear this music, his own piece 'Aroura' turned out to be the biggest musical obstacle course of the night. The full first third was a series of musical fragments, like a bunch of jigsaw pieces thrown from the box, only later forming up into shapes. While some of these fragments did come to be developed, others (as far as my ears could figure) were just kind of left latent. If Xenakis has a reputation as a challenging composer, I find I can take to some of his pieces with relative ease. 'Aroura', however, seems a text for the advanced class.

Whereas his quote came in much more useful for the Haas piece, 'Open Spaces', (in its UK premiere). Even the two percussionists often seemed designed to blend in with the sonic clusters than provide a contrast. As the record shows, I'd previously been much taken by the Sinfonietta's previous performance of Haas's 'In Vain', particularly it's great tonal range. And such a range was back, fading to the borders of hearing then swelling back and surging into waves of sound.

But the piece (and night in general) did more than explore the edges of music. Their tag line was “the music between the notes”, announcing an intent to break the conventions of musical notation into microtones - like physicists splitting the atom. As Dr John Dack comments (again in the programme) “it has long been recognised that our ears have remarkable powers of discrimination”. In other words, we have been closing our own ears up all these years and are better equipped to travel off the familiar symbols of the standard musical map than we give ourselves credit for. I may well be starting to find Haas performances unmissable…



Interviewed before her piece was performed, Mica Levi seemed the very opposite to all that high-faultin' theory bandied about elsewhere. Youthful enough to look like a child called to the front of the class, and correspondingly awkward and fidgety, she seemed unaccustomed to the business of translating her music into words. I am entirely ignorant of her work with the band Michacu and the Shapes, but do know her award-winning and quite splendid soundtrack to the Jonathan Grazer film 'Under The Skin'.

'Greezy' (this time a world premiere) had some relationship to the edgy angularity of that soundtrack, which gave the film so much of its unsettling mood of defamiliarisation. But only just enough for you to guess it came from the same hand. The most conventionally melodic of the pieces performed, it seemed at times even reminiscent of Beethoven's string works. There was the same rich, sonorous sense of melody, the same stately pace. Unexpected in this context perhaps, but still something of a plus. After all, some of us still like Beethoven!

It was built around the heartbeat of a simple viola motif, the player placed centrally on stage, a part almost as minimal as in Riley's 'In C'. Around this the piece ebbed and flowed between the melodic and the tense, one sometimes overlaid above the other. The title, so it says in the programme, refers to a state of remorselessness. For someone still in their Twenties to be producing such effective pieces, Levi suggests contemporary composers will be staying contemporary for some time yet.

Claude Vivier was the wild card of the programme, not a name I even knew before. He was introduced as “another composer interested in melody”, meaning they'd saved the more tuneful stuff for after the interval, like a sweet dish served after a savoury. Like Levi, 'Zipangu' seemed neither insisting on a complete break from music's past, nor entirely in thrall to it. Its, to again quote the programme, “blurring harmonic structures” segued with seeming ease between the harmonious and the adventurous. You get the sense of a composer with the whole of musical history at his disposal, without anything ever falling into post-modern pastiche.

The venue was encouragingly full of punters, in anything weighted towards younger folk, and all of whom seemed appreciative of such adventurous music. I've purloined a ticket to the second part next month (which includes another Haas permiere), so let's see what that brings...



HEY COLOSSUS
The Green Door Store, Brighton, Sat 14th Feb


When Hey Colossus take to the stage with no less than three guitarists, you're already guessing this is not a band to do things by halves.

They sound not unlike a more psychedelic version of the Ex; tight, taunt, pulsing riffs, guitars often neatly interlocking and as often each taking to their own tangent. The effect is something like watching an overlaid multi-image video, you see from the stage three separate players, but your ears hear one composite sound, shifting as if its elements are sliding beneath the surface. Yet while the (for want of a better term) lead guitarist has a penchant for shimmering Sixties riffs, there's also a grittier, garagier sound to them. Try the Ex overlaid over the Fall or the Melvins. Or something like that anyway.

Then just when you think you have their style pegged, they morph into much meatier fare, taking up a metal edge – heads are lowered, the noiseometer hits the red and they start to sound like the behemoth of their name. Notably these tracks coincide with the (for want of a better term) second guitarist coming in on more guttural vocals, perhaps suggesting the band houses two chief songwriters. (Befitting this change in sound, the chap is – tonight, Matthew - sporting a Slayer T-shirt.)

They focus on riffs and pack changes so neatly and adeptly it takes you a while to notice they're doing it. With the distorted vocals and infrequent audience comments, they come across like a band good enough they don't need to brag about it. Apparently they have been striding stages for a decade now. And in all honesty I'm not even sure I'd even heard their name before; I thought to check them out due to the standard desert of gigs this time of year. Sometimes it takes me a while to catch up with these things.

The only criticism, which seems a common occurrence nowadays, is that many of the tracks get taken in just when they seem to be taking flight. Okay, the band have a seeming wealth of material they want to get over. But it feels like the rule of internet browsing, where nothing is allowed to run longer than three or four minutes lest folk start clicking on that next YouTube link, now seems so entrenched it even decrees what can happen in live gigs. Guys, when you've got wings – fly!

If you like this (new track 'Sisters And Brothers')...


...try this. Over half an hour from Camden's Underworld last year...


WALKER/MELCHIOR
Prince Albert, Brighton, Wed 25th February


While Russell Walker was a name previously bereft of connections to me, Dan Melchior had raised a rumpus with both Billy Childish and Holly Golightly. (And according to a reliable source of gossip is of a garage rock persuasion.) They arrived together on our southern shores under the tag line “outsider power duo o-clock”.

Though with only a drummer for accompaniment, Melchior's guitar was so raw and fuzzy you probably wouldn't have heard the bass parts beneath it anyway. Their set seemed based around two notions; Mark E Smith's celebrated “R+R as primal scream”, tracks as stream-of-consciousness torrents rather than compositions, combined with a play on the inherent absurdity of the English playing music so raw.

And the two work together surprisingly well. English reserve is normally played up for the sake of the gag, clipped annunciated vocals contrasting with the driving beat. But here the awkwardness and the abandon collided in the figure of singer Walker; hunched over the mike, eyes closed in both shyness and reverie – Englishness on edge. Setting out his stall, two Syd Barratt covers were played early on. It was a blend of the heartfelt and the humourous, at one point bewailing being banned from the Bull and Bush and not being able to go back for Sunday lunch. And after all, don't us uptight English need such moments of release more than anybody else, the microphone as the valve on the pressure cooker?

But overall, all that makes it sound better than it actually was. This naiveté business can be harder than it looks. Outsider music has as much artifice to it as any other kind of art. You need to maintain a surface of impassioned bumbling while keeping the proficiency under the hood, enough of an arrangement to be able to appreciate the derangement. This gig felt like it had gone a little too native to its outsiderness. Ironically this studio track, 'I Could Sit Here Forever' pulls off the trick much better. It's so dreary it quickly becomes etherial...

Saturday, 28 February 2015

'LATE TURNER: PAINTING SET FREE'

The latest in an ongoing series of art exhibitions reviewed after they close


”I don't paint so that people will understand me. I paint to show what a particular scene looks like.”
- Turner

A Turner For His Time

'Late' and 'free' – the association made in that title is taken as read. Because of course we all know Turner's best work was done in his final years, when he really got away from what had gone before and got down to paint as he wanted. In the same way we all know Van Gogh cut off his ear for a chat-up line or Damien Hurst made a lot of money as a creative statement.

In a similar fashion its become de rigeur for art retrospectives to flag up how clueless contemporary critics were to their genius's genius. After all, it makes us attendees feel so much more “advanced”. This can often feel risible, not just because current art critics can seem pretty clueless much of the time, but because it stokes up an antagonism that seems rather consequenceless. Check it out - we're smarter than a bunch of dead people. Way to go, bro.

However this may be something of an exception. If both statements have become commonplace, its because they're based in truth. In 1835 Turner reached sixty. An age, people then thought, which meant inevitable senility. So when the show tells us works “audiences thought [these works] senile ramblings or simply mad” they mean exactly that. Further, while a younger Turner had pursued a successful career, his following didn't always... well... follow. The show details how even former champions such as Ruskin turned against him, and critics were so scathing that repeatedly commissioners were driven to a change of heart and walked away from the purchase. And of what works did sell he asked plaintively “Ain’t they worth more?” (As that quote suggests, his fear of failing to sell work seems to have been financial rather than artistic. However, he was actually solvent enough to leave a tidy sum in his will. Perhaps, not having come from a moneyed background, his fear of penury was psychological.)

But the show does something better than this. In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones rehearses the familiar Father of Modernism argument for those who haven’t heard it yet: “Here at last is the Turner who matters – the man who invented modern painting.” In the grand lineage Turner influenced Monet, who fed into the Fauves, who begat the abstract expressionists and so on. It’s not so much the wrong answer to come away with. In fact to a surprising extent it’s persuasive. It’s more that it asks the wrong question, starts from the wrong premise.

In short, where is Turner in all of this? What about the man who painted those pictures, and the world he hung them up in? I feel more persuaded by Martin Oldham at Apollo magazine: “One of the achievements of [this] current exhibition… is to bring us back to the artist himself, to allow us to see his art on its own terms again… And it is not painting that is set free here, but Turner the painter, liberated from the often questionable roles into which he has been conscripted in the name of British art.”

All At Sea (Distant Savage Lairs)


So let's start with 'Snow Storm – Steam Boat Off A Harbour's Mouth' (above). How did that come to be exhibited in 1842, and what was all the hoo-hah precisely about? How was it so stormy that it sent the stomachs queasy even of former friends?

As said in an earlier post, Victorian artists “tended to make their compositions like grand tableaus. They're not that different in effect to looking at dioramas or even altar pieces. They appear in our space, arrangements of symbols which we are intended to decode into moral instructions.” And that included depictions of nature. This is how Lady Croom, in Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play ‘Arcadia’, describes her country estate:

“Sidley Park is... a picture, and a most amiable picture too. The slopes are green and gentle. The trees are companionably grouped at intervals that show them to advantage. The rill is a serpentine ribbon unwound from the lake peaceably contained by meadows on which the right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged – in short, it is nature as God intended.”

True, this is a modern writer thrusting comic words into a historical character’s mouth, who may well herself be deliberately self-parodic. But the words are illustrative. And they're illustrative of the 'classical' rules of proportion being applied to nature, of nature being (by man or by God working in man's image) 'cultured', itself made into a pretty picture in advance of the pretty picture being made of it. And if nature itself was being terraformed to better match a human sense of aesthetics, how were paintings on the subject likely to turn out?

But the times they were a-changing. We only need to get three paragraphs in to Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ (1861) to come across the following:

“My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried… and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”

From arranged sheep to scattered cattle. Dickens is describing nature not as an extended garden but in terms of the sublime. It's perhaps a difficult term for us to access today, partly because so many of the terms once associated with it have become so trivialised - “awesome”, “dreadful”, “terrible”, even “sublime” itself. A soundbite description might be that it took religion as far towards pantheism as you could without tipping over. It had to be defined first by uncoupling itself from beauty; it was both the opposite of beauty, in Lady Croon's sense of “tastefully arranged”, and the transcending of it. Or, for that matter, transcending even our ability to take it in. Kant said: “Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.” (A quote I confess to finding while Googling the term 'sublime' rather than taking some well-thumbed volume of Kantian philosophy down from the shelf.)

Nature is now to be 'decultured', restored to its savage state – but that is not all. Just as we are dwarfed by the overpowering intensity of it all, we realise we belong to it. Experiencing the sublime can install the feeling of the leap into the abyss, the desire to allow ourselves be reabsorbed by it, even as we know answering that siren call will extinguish us. This is why Dickens refers to Pip’s dead parents, who have essentially been taken back by the landscape. This is why the sublime is often conveyed through vertiginous drops or, for that matter, pounding waves and stirring storms.

This is why the sublime more frequently appears in art, where it can be made an immediate and arresting sight. As Christine Riding and Nigel Llewellyn comment “the sublime was generally regarded as beyond comprehension and beyond measurement” and so “visual artists became deeply intrigued by the challenge of representing it, asking how can an artist paint the sensation that we experience when words fail or when we find ourselves beyond the limits of reason?” (In general, Riding and Llewellyn stress this insistence on the inexpressibility of the sublime. I would say “yes, people keep saying its inexpressible. But they keep saying it.” Because isn't art always about expressing the inexpressible? I mean, if we could just say it, we would, wouldn't we?)

In 'Snow Storm', as the indicia comments, “Turner has chosen a viewpoint that removed the shoreline from which the viewer could ‘safely’ contemplate the storm, to immerse them, as it were, in the raging sea immediately alongside those struggling for survival.” Indeed the title emphasises how we're away from the harbour. (Turner liked to tell the story he was lashed a a ship's mast to witness the event. The show suggests that was merely a creative fiction on his part. But he could tell the story because the painting made it seem believable.) The boat looks almost entirely at the storm's mercy, a tiny flag at end of an extended, bent mast, backlit by dapples of white, the opposite of the brightly coloured declarations planted in conquest.

When depicting sea scenes artists would typically use the Mediterranean, or at least something which looked like it - a serene pool, a calm turquoise surface for boats to sail along in regal procession. Whereas Turner paints the tempestuousness of the North Sea, laden with heavy greys. It's not just two very different scenes, its like two conceptions of reality at odds. At this time people commonly referred to the world around us as “creation” - as if the process was completed, the deal done. Mountains had been made into mountains and lakes lakes, before any of us were even born, followed by some celestial resting. While Turner's world, conversely, is convulsive, inchoate. Rather than the normal neat delineation between sea and sky, the storm is so thick they're barely distinguishable. The show uses the term “spinning vortices” for many of these compositions, and its never more evident than here.

David Blayney-Brown suggests a gradual development in Turner’s art led to this point. “In 'The Shipwreck' [1806/7] we are still, just, observers of the rescue of survivors from a swirling vortex of waves and flotsam. In the later ‘Wreck [Of a Transport Ship]’ [c. 1810] we have become part of the subject, awash in towering seas with the doomed sailors and soldiers whose terror we share.”

And perhaps ‘Snow Storm’ continues the trajectory. Here the storm has not been conjured up to assail the ship, like some capricious Greek god vengeful against the Argonauts. It simply looks too powerful, it must surely be supremely indifferent to the fate of these flimsy bits of wood. It rages simply because that is what it does, and we are nothing to it. As the title suggests, the storm itself has become the subject of the picture. Dickens's “savage lair” is no longer distant, we are placed in the thick of it. (Though Turner never shied from painting the sea as a thing in itself, as in 'Rough Sea' , 1840/5, or 'Seascape With Storm Coming On', c. 1840.)

Blaney-Brown further comments on the significance the sea held for the British of the time: “as a maritime nation, the surrounding sea was at once a protection and a threat. The life of the country depended on the navy and the merchant fleet; all distant travel was by ship.” While Turner himself had what the show describes as a “lifelong fascination for the sea”, growing up in London when it was still very much a port, the riverside a workplace not a yuppie property hotspot. In later life he lived in coastal Margate under the nome-du-plume Admiral Booth.


Yet the attraction for him must also have been aesthetic and conceptual - the way the sea is never still. Blaney-Brown points out “the lack of topography, of the geographical boundaries of landscape. The sea was the sea.” Similarly, he often painted nature scenes at different times to capture different effects, at odds with the notion of there being some Platonic ideal view. (See for example 'Blue Rigi, Sunrise', 1842, above.) Seventy years later the Futurists would insist “with our pictorial dynamism, true painting is born.” Yet if 'Snow Storm' doesn't pictorially depict dynamism, I simply can't imagine what does.

”Crashin' A-Headlong Into the Heartland”

But there’s also a paradox at the heart it. Go back to that Dickins quote. Of course, in writing a piece of prose, he has to name things or else we’d have no means of picturing them. (Had he written “and next to the thing there was another thing and – oh dear reader - what a thing” it is possible his literary reputation might not be as high.) But he does more than this. He catches Pip in the moment of learning their names, of human culture inscribing some form of meaning onto them. The savagery of the sea is discovered at the same moment as the word “sea”. As much as the sublime might mean surrender, it might also mean delineation. As much as abandon, as loss of self, it might mean elevation, projection of self. As Christine Riding comments: “during the Romantic period…‘insensate nature’ came to be seen as a vehicle for the expression of human thoughts and emotions, that ‘the connection between perception and inner being’ was explored.”

It’s tempting to then try to split our responses in two. Indeed, terms such as Dark Romanticism are based around this. But the neatness is that of the dissecting knife, taking the life from the subject it tries to understand. The two exist not even as a spectrum, but in something more like an inter-relationship. The sublime needs both roles to function as a concept. At one end, its little more than an artistic form of a suicide note. At the other, its equivalent to a trustafarian backpacking through India in order to “find himself”.

Nature, then, is both as an outside, overpowering force and there to reflect what’s inside our heads – it's both beyond our ken and is our ken. And the sublime exists precisely to embody the paradox between these two seemingly contrary states. And this was never demonstrated more clearly than with Turner.


Take for example 'Rain, Steam and Speed', (1844) Though there's also (to the lower left) a boat in this painting, the focus is on the steam train. And we don’t even see the train from its perspective - flying way above our heads like modernity being framed by reference to the existing, the familiar way of displaying the unfamiliar. Instead the boat is pushed to the side of the composition, and with it the ways it represents. From the viaduct we both see the train and take on the elevated view of those aboard. In this way the viaduct (actually built by Brunel) becomes as much the subject as the train - they're painted as if symbiotic.

Note the similarities of title between ‘Snow Storm’ and ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’. The train erupts out of the haze just like the snow storm might have sprung from nowhere. But if 'Snow Storm' was a vortex of churning energy, and even if a similar vortex occupies the centre of the composition here, this is energy harnessed into linear force. While the boat was most likely being broken up by the storm, the train is emerging out of the haze. If the funnel is picked out clearly, the rest of the train is almost a blurry motion line behind it. It always reminds me of the Waterboys lyric on the “hurtlin' fevered train/
Crashing a-headlong into the heartland/ Like a cannon in the rain.” (A song which also parallels a train with a boat.)

William Thackeray said of this work "the world has never seen anything like this picture". And, not uncoincidentally, the world was only starting to see such sights as it depicted. It's composition is like a pre-echo of those early films which would show a train carrering out at audiences not yet used to such things. And even today, to look at the composition gives us some sense of what it must have been like to first see such sights.

We see enough of it to recognise the train as a train, its not akin to that tradition in fantasy art of depicting biomechanical dragons and the like. Yet if it erupts onto the scene it doesn’t interrupt the sublimity of nature. Instead it opposes one sublimity against another. The world of the machine, the world we ourselves made, rears up at us as if striking us from without. Turner's recurring elements are water, mist and steam, essentially capturing both poles of the sublime in one transformative substance – the waves that crash against ships as they try to steer a course, but also the steam that powers our mighty engines.

Having already compared 'Snow Storm' to the later Futurists, having looked at Turner's “spinning vortices” let's hold this work up against their contemporaries the Vorticists: “This was not a future which would download neatly in the background like a software upgrade. It was to come convulsively – bursting into being with a mighty flash, like Frankenstein’s creature, and vie with everything which had been before it.”

As the recent BBC documentary 'The Genius of Turner' put it - “industry becomes the sublime”. And because the sublime was always double-edged, because it already represented the otherness of nature and a projection of the mind, it's not just that industry could lend itself to the sublime – it's more that it had to be that way.

”All Fixed Relations Swept Away”

The indicia comment how so often in late Turner “solid matter dissolves into light and air”. A quote which seems strangely close to Marx's summary of the bourgeois world - “all that is solid melts into air”. So let’s turn to that other great Charlie of the Victorian era and counter Dickens with Marx, again an opening, this time from the Communist Manifesto (1848). It's worth quoting a longer section:

“...steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production... Modern industry has established the world market... This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land.... The bourgeoisie...has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society... Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

What’s most immediately striking about this passage is that Marx is praising the bourgeoisie even as he seeks to to bury them. As he puts it “the bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part”. He admires their achievements, he just wants the workers to get their share of them.

We're told “hindsight is always 20/20”. In fact its often a blind spot. Victoriana to us is like heirloom furniture, we never knew a time when it wasn't there so it can be hard for us to even look at it straight. But those grand Victorian edifices we so often use as landmarks, that seem so much part of the fabric of our lives, what was it like to live while they were going up? Remember the full title of ‘Snow Storm’ was ‘Snow Storm Steam-Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth’. We look back at the Victorian era as a kind of foundation, the period that created the world we live in. But at the time they were in many ways sailing into uncharted waters, leaving old certainties behind.

And in general, interest in the sublime rose as technology grew, and the human ability to influence the landscape grew with it. We didn't turn to face it when we were little Pip-like things, dwarfed by it all. Unsurprisingly, there's a fair amount of evidence we tried our best to shut it out. On the contrary, it grew as a theme in the Eighteenth Century, coming of its own by the Nineteenth. The mighty force of nature arose in art to clash against the mighty forces humanity was unleashing. 

On the most basic level, those developments in navigation and communication cited by Marx granted us greater access to the natural world than at any time before. If the Rigi mountains held a majesty to behold, then trains took us to see them in a third of the time of horse-drawn carriages. But it also made the sublimity of nature beholdable as well as seeable, something not to be shied away from. Now human society was in possession of a force if not as great as nature, then enough to make us more than its mere passive victim. But there's something further. The ever-turning pistons of technology gave us the framework to re-conceptualise nature, to see past the static Creation and find the sublime.

One thing an artist can do is epitomise an era, literally sum it up in a picture. (Okay, in this case in two.) Henry Moore's sculpture stood for the post-War Britain of benevolent institutions, set up to serve the deindividuated common man. And Turner could capture in dabs of paint this Victorian drive to engage with and transform the world, and the parallel ability to see it as self-transforming. It’s true that Turner was not very often the conscience of the Victorians. He painted their achievements, not the human cost of those achievements in empty workhouse bowls or on child’s limbs crushed by factory machinery. But he is the spirit of the Victorians. Once artists had served the nobility. His patrons were often the industrialists and entrepreneurs whose world he depicted.

As someone already far enough into middle-age that I could credibly retitle this blog 'Late Burrows', it always seems to me I have lived through profound changes. In my youth the personal computer was the stuff of science fiction, the internet simply undreamt of. Yet such changes are as nothing compared to the transformation from sail to steam, a change Turner lived through. (Which may go some way to explain the previously raised puzzle of how the Pre-Raphaelites “notably look more Victorian than their predecessor Turner”. Arriving later, they missed that all-important decisive moment of transformation.)

As the show says he was “the first major European artist to engage with the new technology of the age: steam power”. And I’ve described Turner as “steam punk” so many times I’ve now forgotten whether I originally intended it as a joke or not. While the failure of most Victorian art is that is not that it's of the past, staid daubs for a staid era, but that its stodgy instructiveness manifestly fails to capture its time. Sometimes social innovators will themselves shy from what they're actually doing, and will expend much time and effort in trying to insert themselves into some imagined lineage. So, like the starchy collars they wore, their art was often concerned with upholding recently invented traditions or exhibiting the supposedly eternal values embodied by the carefully arranged poses of Classicism. They couldn't capture the world they themselves made, too often they clung to evoking the fixed fast-frozen relations they were themselves undoing. And indeed part of the appeal of steam punk may be the desire to give the Victorians the art they deserved, the art they so often failed to give themselves.

Sublimity and the City

But back to those developments in navigation and communication. We also see here Turner the traveller, exploring Europe incessantly even in his later years at a time when such journeys could still be a challenge. And he'd depict the towns and cities as readily as the mountains and seas. Unlike the fidelity of the Pre-Raphaelites, Turner would endlessly sketch scenes, but thought nothing of swapping or even inventing elements when it suited his purpose. As with nature, he'd paint the spirit of the city. It, too, had a sublimity to give up.

The curators make much of a pair of Rome paintings, 'Ancient Rome – Agrippina Landing With the Ashes of Germanicus' and 'Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino' (both 1839), being shown together for the first time in many a long year. But more impressive is 'Venice: The Bridge of Sighs' (1840, below) for combining both into a single composition.


By this time Venice had become a tourist destination but was itself impoverished, in decline. Which made it something of a Gothic ruin, gave it a romantic fatalism. And this double nature is what Turner paints; the grandeur of the buildings above removed from the human activity below - pallid, ghostly, almost fading into the pale blue and white of the sky. Whereas the darker hues are reserved for the lower, 'human' section, the water a murky grey. The blacks of the gondolas are enhanced by their reflection in the water, giving the work something of a funereal air. (The show passes on a theory that the elderly Turner used the city to symbolise himself in his own declining years.)


Conventionally, the sun is used as a kind of natural equivalent of a theatre spotlight. If it plays 'tricks' upon our vision, as we tend to call them, the artist knows to disregard the effects of the faulty lamp. Whereas Turner paints something the sun actually does, but in order to convey a subjective impression. In 'Approach To Venice' (1844, above) he depicts the city almost as a Brigadoon. It's like the 'upper' Venice of 'Bridge of Sighs' given its own life. “The artists' vision is lyrical and poetic”, we're told, “depicting Venice as a mirage, dissolving into dusk and poised between day and night, land and sea, reality and reverie.”

The Work Never Finished

Not since the Degas show at the Royal Academy has there been so many preparatory drawings in a show. And not since the Degas show has this been so clearly the correct direction to go in. We are often unaware of what works Turner considered complete and unfinished, which has led to an industry of guesswork. (As said earlier, he was often unable to see through commissions into sales, which may be one reason why there's so many unrealised sketches.) But we need to look upon this less as a problem to be solved and more as a boon, an aid to appreciating what Turner was about.


For the best answer to the question is “some of us don't even like 'finished'.” Generally, the more suggestive the forms, the more fascinating and compelling the work. And this is particularly true for Turner; there's something at odds with his conception of a wild, inchoate nature and the notion of a finished work, its suggestion of something settled. Turner's often quoted as claiming “indistinctness is my forte”, but perhaps “unfinishedness” goes alongside it. The less sure we are whether a Turner is finished or not, the better placed we are to appreciate its merits. ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise’ (1845, above) may never have been intended to be shown in this raw state. But with its formless early morning feel its, to quote Richard Dormont, “sublimely empty”.


'Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834' (c. 1835, above), as well as taking something of an appealing subject, was a gift to Turner's better instincts - an event he had to get down quickly or not at all. And notably the event is what he captures, the gathered crowds as prominent as the burning buildings.

Tell Us No Tales

But perhaps we shouldn't go too overboard with all those savage seas. At his best, Turner was exhilarating. But no-one entirely escapes their times. And even during this Indian summer phase… in all honesty, at times he could be boring. As boring as any stuffed shirt Victorian.

The stumbling block is normally narrative. Paintings then were thought to need a narrative, to be incomplete without one. But, as with the later Pre-Raphaelites, Turner is simply encumbered by its demands and only truly set free when he ditches it. It's like listening to beat-based music, and impatiently waiting for it to break out of the constraints of songwriting structures. While I've no quibble with the 'later = better' thesis of the show, 'narrative vs. non-narrative' remains over-riding.


Try 'Story of Apollo and Daphne' (c. 1837, above), which scores pretty low on the sublimometer. In the antithesis of 'Snow Storm' we watch from a safe, solid vantage point, giving the feeling of a stage set. While it doesn't help that the trees look so much like broccoli, it's the story which scuppers it, tethers it to Victoriana. You wish he'd just painted the mountainsides and the sea. There's also an ideal size for Turner, a frame large enough to impress the eye yet small enough to take in with one glance. Notably, Turner often painted in a square format, unusual for his time but ideal for the kind of impact he needs. The vastness of the Victorian tableaus, a string of smaller scenes to be picked up piecemeal, are contemplative, and mitigate against Turner's strengths.

However, even if the quality of work is not consistent, it remains true that here there's a great many paintings from a century and a half ago that still strike you straight between the eyes. His reputation may be vast, but it's not over-inflated. It's true to say that late Turner was more the start of something, even if we shouldn't let that get us too distracted from the works themselves. For the accomplishments of Turner are the accomplishments of the Victorians, and his contradictions and strange double nature also of them. Ken Kesey gave up writing with the words “I'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph”. But Turner was always both.