Friday, 27 November 2015


(You guessed it, another art exhibition reviewed after its over)

Among the Carvers

If you bothered to read the critics, you'll know this show was given a poor press. Some of that thunder can be dismissed as simple art snobbery. Hepworth, as we’ll see, progressed from high-minded Modernism to the best form of populism. In other words, she let the rabble in. Jonathan Jones’ review falls into that category, even if he shies from saying so outright. (But then he's... oh,just see for yourself. It's not a parody. It just reads like one.)

But the most common diss is to claim a disservice is being done to her. Which suggests the real target is curator and now outgoing Tate Director Penelope Curtis. Who, true enough, at times staged some high-concept and quite spectacularly ill-advised shows. And this is but one example of her preference for sculpture, which seems to have have irked those who don’t share it. Yet she was also Director, for example, for the highly successful British Folk Art show. The real reason for the knives is almost certainly down to some London arts scene version of office politics, which the rest of us can safely disregard. Nevertheless, just for once let's take the critics as a starting point.

For, while not necessarily co-ordinated, the attacks take on a remarkably similar form. Laura Cumming indulges in one of the typical laments: “her works are heavily alarmed or locked away in glass cases so that you can’t touch them, as Hepworth strongly urged… [while] the more austere her work, the more sterile it looks in the subterranean galleries at Tate Britain. The groupings of pristine abstract forms… look especially stark and unnatural in the artificial lighting.” And this from critics who said not a word when Joseph Cornell's interactive assemblages were kept behind glass!

Beneath those vitrines the first room shows the 'direct carving' movement of the Tens and Twenties. Practitioners included Eric Gill, Jacob Epstein, Henri Gauider-Brezeska and Hepworth's first husband John Skeaping. Which is fine company. Certainly its enough to get the critics fulminating. Alistair Sooke writes in the Telegraph: “By (rightly) making the point that Hepworth and Moore weren’t the only artists innovating during this period... the show reconsiders her early contribution as less pioneering, and more in keeping with a trend. At a stroke, her artistic courage is undermined.”

Sorry, what? It's acknowledged that this was a movement, but we shouldn't be allowed to say so? You can of course stuff any artist with pioneering courage by disregarding their context or their contemporaries. Picasso would have sole credit for Cubism if we eliminate Braque, Dali for Surrealism if you drop Ernst and so on. But the point is we can talk about Braque and still see Picasso as an important artist. Sooke is in essence suggesting Hepworth's artistic reputation can only be maintained by denial. In short, he's the one doing the undermining, even if its cloaked by gallantry. Besides which, artists developing through movements, through reflecting current circumstances and influencing one another, even if its not always formalised or made up into a manifesto... this is news to some people?

Analogously, in the vidclip below, Sooke praises the show for minimising the comparisons between Hepworth and Henry Moore. Yet, both Yorkshire born, they met young at the Leeds School of Art and, to quote Wikipedia, “established a friendly rivalry that lasted professionally for many years”.

Let's move on to the thing itself. Sculpture, and direct carving in particular, was then seen as “lower in status” than painting, as more of a craft rather than an art. ('Art sculptors' often worked only on the maquette, or template model, leaving the creation of the actual sculpture to assistants.) And much of this movement seems to be about a contrary luxuriating in the low status, in being an artist willing to get your fingers dirty.

But the desire to get your hands on the materials also shows an interest in the materials themselves. They're not considered incidental to the subject, like the proverbial blank canvas, but inexorably tied up with it. Notably the subjects are often animals, and the titles simply descriptive. The human subjects are often similarly impassive, defined by what they are doing – see for example Hepworth's 'Musician' (1929/30, below). Things are simply what they are. As the show says, there is often some of the “hieratic and stately” quality of ancient Egyptian and Mexican carvings.

The wide variety of materials on display suggest an interest in different forms of wood and stone, as if they were your real subject. Hepworth herself said at the time "carving to me is more interesting than modelling, because there is an unlimited variety of materials from which to draw inspiration. Each material demands a particular treatment and there are an infinite number of subjects in life each to be re-created in a particular material. In fact, it would be possible to carve the same subject in a different stone each time, throughout life, without a repetition of form.”

The show talks of her “allowing the natural form of the wood to shine through her carving”. And indeed, in a work like 'Torso' (1932, below) the base of the sculpture remains a rough wood block. But there's also a paradox where the material cannot be too dominant. The two have to blend together. Whereas the patterned lapiz-lazuli of Skeaping's' Buffalo' (1930) becomes obtrusive and distracting.

As might be suggested by the method, the success of the art often comes from reduction – from chiselling away until you're left with the essence of a thing. Epstein's' Doves' (1914/15) are sweeping blocks of stone with the merest hint of dove about them, an assured triumph. While Skeaping's 'Fish' (1929/30) gives his subject an almost cartoony circle for an eye. (And keep that eye in mind.)

Nevertheless, there is something of a Year Zero approach to direct carving. As ever, you go back to basics when you feel you've taken a wrong turn. And once you've realigned yourself, you head off again in a fresh direction. The musical comparison might be the blues boom of Sixties Britain, which allowed bands to head off into psychedelia, hard rock and other frontiers.

Conjoined With Nicholson

Next up is Nicholson. By '31 Hepworth had separated from Skeaping and was sharing both her studio and life with Ben Nicholson. At which point you might start to wonder if the more feminist-minded critics start to have a point. Victoria Sadler, for example, complains “the effect is to undermine Barbara completely by defining her by who she was in a relationship with rather than on her own terms”.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but actually the answer is no. In fact, if paradoxically, this focus on her husbands is arguably too kind to Hepworth. It takes the emphasis away from Naum Gabo, which was using both stringed and pierced forms before her. (This fixation with linear innovation within Modernism always seems to me to be something of a trap. Yet it is the language these retrospectives often deal in, with the neat chronologies they throw up on the walls.)

But most important was Nicholson's take on Modernism. It then often felt like a continental import to Britain; like olives or camembert cheese, a product which simply didn't grow here. So British Modernism tended to be merely imitative of continental innovations. Whereas, to again quote Wikipedia, Nicholson's “gift... was the ability to incorporate… European trends into a new style that was recognizably his own.”

Tate Brit's previous ’Picasso and Modern British Art’ was anchored to one of Penelope Curtis' more hopeless conceits, and for the most part to get anything out of it you needed to blinker the intended through-line from your sight. But Nicholson was one of the few British artists able to ingest Picasso without becoming a mere disciple, and so emerge from it unscathed. Works such as 'Au Chat Botte' (1932) display a Horlicks-drinking, raincoat-wearing English take on Modernism – almost numinously drab. And, not unassociatedly, Wikipedia also mentions “he believed that abstract art should be enjoyed by the general public”, rather than be uber-fashionable continental chic for elite metropolitans. (As with the fish eye, watch out for that one.)

Plus, unlike Skeaping Nicholson was not a sculptor but a painter – making it unlikely Hepworth would simply absorb his influence directly. Hepworth herself said of their relationship "as painter and sculptor each was the other's best critic." A comment perhaps embodied by her 'Two Heads' (1932, above). While Moore was ceaselessly carving Mother and Child figures, Hepworth fuses together two adults. Its hard not to see the figures as Nicholson and herself. Similar profiles of the male head seem to have been recurring figures for Nicholson. While the incised, cartoony eye recalls the round fish eye of earlier. And, while the male head does dominate, its presented as a joining of minds as much as bodies.

 The Limits of Abstraction

As the Thirties progressed, Modernism came more and more to have its head. And it decided that head was square. Or pure oval. Possibly triangular. Certainly anything but head-shaped. The show does describe the appeal of this tendency to 'pure form' very well, as “an idealist belief in the universal language of abstraction as the appropriate response to the rise of a right-wing totalitarianism in Europe”. In short, Esperanto for the eyes. And the rise of fascism threw up opportunity alongside motive, as continental artists increasingly needed to flee persecution. They'd figuratively, and sometimes literally, turn up on Hepworth and Nicholson's doorstep.

The problem is that aesthetically this was an ill wind which almost beached Modernism. Nicholson, by the time of his white-on-white reliefs, is a good example of an artist who had painted himself into the corner of pure form and lost everything that was once interesting about him.

But the ill wind swayed Hepworth herself. 'Three Forms' (1935, above) is an example of a less effective, less resonant work of art which at least we get to blame on the Nazis. If the direct carving works seemed merely formative, merely the start of something, 'Three Forms' seems its end. I confess I'd like to draw three cartoony faces on it in the manner of 'Two Heads'. In a sadder universe Hepworth might well have ended down that cul-de-sac, with only perfect spheres for company.

”The Sea Is Never Far”

Happily for our world, she not only sprang back but into her mature phase. Reports seem to vary as to when she moved to the town with which she’s most associated – St. Ives on the Cornish coast. Wikipedia suggests either 1939 or 1949, while her dedicated website weighs in on the second. Perhaps she settled there gradually. Whichever, it was Hepworth the St. Ives artist who endured over the abstract internationalist. And this seems the place where her mature phase as an artist begins. Earlier on, it is likely this show lied not and she was merely one among many, perhaps even a disciple to Epstein and others. No longer.

The sea might seem the least sculptural subject of all. Imagine the pointlessness of a bronze of rolling waves. Yet Hepworth used this to her advantage. The BFI film 'Figures in a Landscape', shown as part of the exhibition has a fruity voice-over by Cecil Day-Lewis which frequently tips over into self-parody. But when he says “the sea is never far, it shapes the rocks, hollowing those caves” he makes a valid point - the sea itself acts as a sculptor. And more important still, she sought to capture the sea without slavishly duplicating its surface features. And a feature of this work is the way it never quite resolves into either abstract form or naturalism – its, to coin a phrase, 'just abstract enough'.

It often reminds us of the way nature can give us geometry, in its stones and seashells. The trademark holes in her work she called “caves” and “hollows”. The bold colours of a work like 'Sculpture in Colour (Deep Blue and Red)' (1940, above), recall the way an exposed interior of a stone or piece of wood can be be a strikingly brighter colour, before the sun wears it down. (She said herself “except in two instances I have always used colour with concave forms. When applied to convex forms I have felt that the colour appeared to be 'applied' instead of becoming inherent in the formal idea. I have been very influenced by the natural colour and luminosity in stones and woods.”) Even her radiating spoke strings, perhaps the least naturalistic element of her work, still suggest the ribbing patterns on seashells.

And perhaps she was almost poised for this. The cartoony features of earlier never return. But they always acted as a cross between a counter-weight and an anchor rope – pulling her art back from toppling irrevocably into the neat geometry of pure form.

And more than we notice any of this we sense it, so we don't react to these works as something abstract, austere or removed from our lives. Yet its just as important that these suggestions never become more than that. We find we can relate to the work without ascribing a fixed meaning to it. 'Pelagos' (1946, above) is described by the Tate's website as potentially resembling “a shell, a wave or the roll of a hill”. When Hepworth spoke of it resembling “the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills” the important word is “tension”.

Let's do the very thing Alistair Sooke told us not to, and compare Hepworth with Henry Moore. Rather than diminishing her or making her his understudy, this brings out everything that's singular about her. As is well known, both Moore and Hepworth disliked galleries and preferred their work to be shown in situ. But from that point, they may well differ. As said over his own exhibition, Moore's work has an autocthonian dimension. While Hepworth's muse may well have been the sea. To this day Moore has a sculpture park set in the Yorkshire countryside, and Hepworth on the Cornish coast. As Herbert Read said in 'Modern Sculpture' “She has gone directly to nature, to crystals and shells, to rocks and the form-weaving sea”.

Further, while there are some reclining figures, mostly early on in this show, there's nothing to Moore's degree. Its like two painters, one working in landscape and the other portrait. (Or at least square format.) And Hepworth uses this to group her figures. Of course all artists benefit from having their work accumulated, that's why everyone wants a solo exhibition as soon as they can get one. To get an idea what an artist is doing, you need some dots to connect. But there's something more with Hepworth. Her works don't accumulate so much as gang together.

There are sometimes several forms on one base as in 'Group (Concourse)' (1951, above), like semi-abstraction's answer to a crowd scene. The mere act of placing forms together is almost enough to make them more figurative. Try imagining one of the forms in 'Forms in Echelon' (1938, also above) taken in isolation, and the effect would be quite different. As the show says “she liked to display her sculptures as if in conversation with each other, so that they become more of a group than an example of individual figures”. And this changed relationship between them changes their relation to us. They don't belong on some high Olympian plinth, but set in surroundings. They need to have a place in the world.

For all that Moore was willing to plasticate or even break apart the human form, Hepworth had a greater tendency to abstraction. This could be down to the way the 'pure' human form is assumed to be male. Give it any female attributes and in the popular imagination it becomes 'womankind' rather than 'humankind'. For example Moore's 'Family Group' (1949), part of Tate Britain's permanent display, identifies the mother primarily by her skirt and longer hair, and the father simply by the absence of these. Formally speaking, they're not that different to the identifying figures we find on loo doors. There is admittedly no firm evidence for this theory, and it may merely be projecting more contemporary thoughts back in time. But for Hepworth semi-abstraction might have been a route out of a man's world.

Art For A Modern World, A Modern World For Art

Ironically the two great post-war British sculptors are also known for each creating an important set of drawings. You could perhaps play compare and contrast endlessly between Hepworth’s Hospital and Moore’s Shelter series. For example, both are built up through shading and contour lines. Yet Moore's wartime shelter drawings looked back to the underworld of Greek mythology, it's faceless figures shades. Whereas in 'Concentration of Hands II' (1948, above) the surgeons are masked but in the way a superhero might be masked, so they can stand for a concept. The composition means the picture's emphasis falls not on their faces but their working hands, the masks just de-emphasises them further.

But this time the differences aren’t so much the differences between the two artists. Though separated by only five or six years, everything had changed in the meantime - they effectively belong to different eras. The NHS was bright and newly born when Hepworth drew it. As the Doctors work on the human body, so does post-war politics on the body politic and the sculptor on her block. (A comparison made directly in some of the other drawings, such as 'Fenestration of the Ear', 1948). Like the NHS, Hepworth sees art as playing a public role.

In these days of blockbuster shows and Tate expansionism its difficult to reconstruct just how much Modernism was initially shunned by a distrustful British public. Taking up internationalism meant quite literally to abandon nationalism – to turn against any possibility of a sizeable domestic audience. And yet, both Moore and Hepworth broke this bind to become popular artists. The show presents Hepworth as quite single-minded in her career, careful in how both her work and her own image were presented. (For example arranging her studio to be more photogenic. Film of her also excluded her assistants, fitting the 'single-handed genius' notion many then had of artists.) But while she might have helped herself along, that hardly seems the whole story.

Neither did Hepworth or Moore blunt their edge out of careerism. Firstly while their work can be talked about it doesn’t require explaining in the way, say, Cubism might. And people generally sense that it’s okay to look at a piece and simply say whether they like it or not. The public has a way in. But further, in a rare case of the ‘avant garde’ actually behaving the way its supposed to, it would be truer to say Britain finally caught up with them. There was a widespread post-war feeling that merely defeating fascism wasn’t enough - people didn’t want to go back to the way things were. Benevolent public institutions seemed our antidote to the ego of wartime dictators. This was to be the era of the Common Man.

So, living in a newly invented world, they needed a newly invented art to go with it. And alongside this reimagined nation, the internationalism of the Abstract Modernism era returns – only in a more optimistic, less defensive way. Hepworth submitting designs for the rebuilt Waterloo bridge and exhibiting in the 1951 Festival of Britain, celebrating post-war reconstruction, must be seen in this context. As Fiona McCarthy says, she was “eager to take an active part in Britain's postwar reconstruction - by making public sculpture for new schools, for civic centres, taking art out of the studio.”

The show displays 'The Quarrel With Realism', Le Corbusier's article from 1941 from the magazine 'Circle'. (Co-edited by Nicholson and with Hepworth was heavily involved.) “What will become of painting and sculpture? It would seem that these two major arts should accompany architecture. There is room for them there.” While Hepworth herself said in 1946 “one of the functions of sculpture is to fulfil the demands and conditions of a given site. Present conditions restrict this idea so that the sculptor works mainly in his studio and eventually, if he is fortunate, a suitable place is found for the sculpture by somebody who has the money to buy it. This means that the creation of large sculptures is restricted; but is partly compensated for by the growth among all kinds of people of a love for sculpture.... This kind of appreciation will help to develop the sense of form (nearly atrophied in Western civilization) until it becomes a part of our life in the way that poetry, music and painting have been and are increasingly part of our life.”

And the new taste for public projects proved both a context and a market for large, site-specific sculptor. Once a hospital might have hung in it's lobby a broad oil of its generous benefactor, for the rest of us to walk respectfully beneath. The creation of institutions such as the NHS allowed for sculpture to celebrate the doctor or surgeon, or perhaps just the idealised human form.

Perhaps the crescending example of this is her largest work, the 6.4 metre tall 'Single Form' outside the UN Secretariat Building in New York. It was built to commemorate the former Secretary General (and personal friend of hers) Dag Hammarskjöld, but of course is not at all a personal portrait. Speaking at its unveiling in 1964 she commented “the United Nations is our conscience. If it succeeds, it is our success. If it fails, it is our failure." (Moore similarly created a work for the UNESCO building in Paris in 1958.)

That much of the public art of this era, donated to public bodies or spaces, is now being sold to private hands or (yes really) carted off by banks encapsulates perfectly the difference between their era and ours. Everything not bolted down is now to be flogged off and everything bolted down to be unbolted on order for it to be flogged off. (It is of course worse when day centres close or one of the world’s richest countries leaves people to die of destitution. But that’s not a defence, just a way of reframing the same critique. Since when was that made the choice we had to make?)

As part of her plan to take art out the gallery and studio Hepworth made collage cut-outs of her sculptures, against both natural and architectural environments. (Some of which have only recently been rediscovered.) Being more abstract than Moore, her work perhaps fitted the urban environment better. But perhaps what's most surprising is how adaptable they are.

The snappily titled 'Photo-collage with Helicoids in Sphere in the Entrance Hall of Flats Designed by Alfred and Emily Roth and Marcel Brewat, Zurich' (1939, above), which was used for the poster image (up top) sees one of her works plinthed in a sleek Modernist pad, the sort of thing we saw Jacob Shulman photographing in 'Constructing Worlds'. A modernist work in a modernist environment - of course it fits! But when you see 'Photo-Collage with Helicoids in Sphere in the Garden of Redleaf, Penshurst' (1938, also above) it also fits - so well it takes you a moment to realise they're the same work. Similarly the later 'Theme on Electronics (Orpheus)' is shown at Mullard Electronics Centre in 1957. Yet there's also a photo of it from the previous year, in her garden. Hepworth's motive may well have been commercial, enhancing sale potential by expanding reach. But we're less interested in intent than effect. This ambidextorousness of her work is in itself a feature of her popularising of Modernism.

One Last Twist

In the mid-Fifties Hepworth made a series of works using the tropical hardwood Guarea. They're considerably larger works given a room of their own, recalling the Elm Figures of the Moore retrospective. And like the Moores they seem grand and ostentatious rather than potent. They look tasteful, like heirloom furniture. At the time I called the Moores “reassuring”. By that point he was washed up. But with Hepworth there's almost literally another twist.

The following room is given over to the bronzes she exhibited at the 1965 Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands. Much effort is put into recreating the once-outdoor pavilion indoors, even down to wallpapering the back wall with a forest scene. This is pointlessly gimmicky, but it doesn't matter much when the new material gives Hepworth such fresh life.

After the perfect geometry of earlier, surfaces are now roughly textured. If you encountered their mottled copper greens while walking outdoors, you'd be hard pressed to figure how naturally weathered they were. Spoke strings vanish while holes multiply and almost take over. Hepworth stretches and twists the material, in a way simply not possible with wood or stone. 'Oval Form (Trezian)' (1961/3, above) looks almost like an enlarged twist of tagliatelli. Other works seem to evoke geometric symmetry only to bend their way out of it, such as 'Curved Form (Trevalgan)' (1956, below). It's a long way from the direct carving days. The works don't necessarily look like they were made, it seems entirely possible they might have grown that way. Perhaps they were once purer forms, but were hurled into Hepworth's elemental sea and emerged looking like they do. They were compared at the time to the younger generation of sculptors associated with the term Geometry of Fear, such as Eduardo Paolozzi or William Turnbull.

Fiona McCarthy writes of the tendency of critics to place Hepworth in Moore's shadow. “When his triumphant 1948 exhibition at the Venice Biennale was followed by Hepworth's lower-key showing two years later, the international critics assumed she was his pupil.” And in some ways this continues. Though we may be less negative about women artists these days, perhaps Hepworth has been running with that handicap since then. Moore's most recent Tate retrospective was five years before this, without critics savaging it in the same way.

Yet however great an artist Moore was, Hepworth was almost certainly better. If the task of an artist is to capture their era, Hepworth took that task on more successfully. Yet paradoxically her art is also more fluid, less tied to a fixed meaning or set of meanings. And she carried on creating innovative works after Moore's effective career was over. She was Britain's best post-war sculptor.

Saturday, 21 November 2015


De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, Mon 16th Nov

“Bexhill!” bellows main man Mike Scott at the climax of their first number. Mischievously aware that this is not the most rock'n'roll word to shout. But the gag turns out to be double-edged.

Last time they played these halls it was to revisit the classic album 'Fisherman's Blues'. Their best-known era consisted of Celtic folk with a side-order of Americana. This set starts, closes and is dominated by new numbers. (Not just taking up over a third of the set, but front-loaded in the running order.)

Last time, I made a gag about a Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman getting together. This time every member of the band, bar Scott and the fiddle of stalwart Steve Wickham, is a Yank. While the latest album, 'Modern Blues', was recorded in Nashville. An album which may well be best described by the band's own website, as “an electric, soulful, bold, freewheeling rock'n'roll record with a skinful of killer new songs”. The jacketed bass player looks remarkably like a solicitor from small-town Surrey, and makes John Entwistle look a master of stage moves. Yet he turns out to be David Hood, from the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section the Swampers.

In short, Scott truly is bringing rock'n'roll to Bexhill. A band who should have long since been stuck on cruise control come up with the most kick-ass, rootsy rock'n'roll you've heard in a long time. “I'm still a freak,” Scott sings. “I never went straight.” Wheezy, swirly organ suffuses each track, sounding like a log fire feels – like being bathed in warmth. Almost every number goes into a wig-out instrumental section, which gets unhinged even by Waterboys standards.

Even when they turn to old numbers, they get swept up in this new fervour. 'Medicine Bow, stirring and expansive in the original, is now fiery and propulsive. Then, in a fiddle-dominated coda, turns into something from the Cale-era Velvets. They even do the double from their last appearance, and provide the second time I've actually liked the hit 'Glastonbury Song'. In fact its the more traditional version of 'Whole of the Moon' which doesn't quite spark up.

Perhaps the most crucial thing is that, even as it proudly wears the influence of the great music of the past to the point of name-checking influences, its never referential. Scott is simply taking the music he likes and making more of it. Reviewing the album in the equally rock'n'roll Telegraph, Neil McCormick suggests “Scott is perhaps the closest thing we have to a Neil Young figure in British music, ranging across folk, blues and country.” And he probably is.

Its one thing to see a longstanding band and be cheered they're still coming up with decent material. Its another to walk out thinking “these guys should really be planning a live album right now. This stuff needs getting down.”

Scott's mission to take rock'n'roll to unlikely places continues with this version of 'Still A Freak' from Brussels..., from Bexhill itself, Fisherman's Blues' for the encore. With added “whoo-ho-hoos” from the audience...

Friday, 13 November 2015


...well the West, and partly the North coast of the Isle of Wight. Hendon Warren (just north of the Needles), the Yar marshes and Yarmouth to be precise. As always, full set over on Flickr.

Saturday, 7 November 2015


Brighton Dome, Wed 28th October

If I haven't seen Godspeed live for something like a decade and a half, I'm not being quite as tardy as normal. They were, after all, on hiatus for eight of those years.

On that last sighting my analogy for their sound had been the workings of an American football team. (Though I'm not even sure if they play American football in Canada.) The enlarged ensemble divided into two teams; the acoustic and classical instruments would lull you in, before passing the ball to the electric section who'd take up and run away with it. (Think for example of the early track 'East Hastings'.)

Whereas at this gig they had a string section of one, violinist Sophie Trudeau. (Though a double bass appeared from time to time.) And instead there's... count 'em... two drummers, two bassists and no less than three guitarists. These days tracks more commonly start somewhere between a drone and a wall of sound, the piece then gradually emerging like a sculptor hammering away at a block. Tracks were less neatly divided into sections, more likely to morph and blend, to surge rather than develop. On more recent recordings the patented sampled vocals were less predominant and tended to be more incorporated into the music than floating above it. (Considerably less dominant in the gig, which featured precisely one vocal sample all evening.)

(In a side-note for music trainspotters, though the setlist contained only two pre-hiatus tracks it doesn't seem to have been the long gap which caused the musical change. The pre-gap album 'Yanqui UXO' (2002) was already transitional. While the comeback album 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!' (2012) comprised material which they'd already been playing live pre-hiatus, suggesting they merely picked up where they'd left off. The actual shift was marked, but by the promotion of the exclamation mark from the end to the middle of their name, a bit! like this Though what that's got to do with anything I couldn't tell you.)

In short, they've dropped the nouveau-classicism to become more sonically adventurous. Though some still insist Godspeed are a prog band in disguise as something more contemporary, there's really very little soloing and a great deal of ensemble playing. I am not normally at all curious over the mechanics of music, but was so often unable to conceive how they were conjuring up their sound I took to closely watching people's fingers. (It didn't help much.)

With their long-duration tracks containing dynamic contrasts, describing their sound as 'apocalyptic' is a little like describing Motorhead as 'loud'. On the other hand, it would be difficult to write about Motorhead without mentioning that they're loud... Back in the Eighties, some on the religious right attempted to negate the threat of nuclear annihilation by conflating it with the Biblical notion of the Rapture. (As if the Godly would somehow get saved from the fallout.) We'd cite this as proof of their rabidness, their nuclear apocalypse sounded to us like the very definition of a bad idea. 

Godspeed picked up on this theme, the afore-mentioned 'East Hastings' even starting with a recording of a blood-and-thunder street preacher. But they were part of a shift towards embracing the notion, towards what some called 'the ambiguous apocalypse'. This went back to the original paradox of the word, with its connotations of both annihilation and revelation. You're never sure whether Godspeed's tumultuous sound is of something collapsing or being built up, or even if there's that much difference between the two.

Guitarist and quite possibly band founder Effrim Menuck had this to say about their sound: “We hated… privileging of individual angst, we wanted to make… a joyous, difficult noise that acknowledged the current predicament but dismissed it at the same time. A music about all of us together or not at all... For us every tune started with the blues but pointed to heaven near the end, because how could you find heaven without acknowledging the current blues, right?”

As a chiefly instrumental band known to have strong political views (for example including a diagram on an album cover of the connection between the mainstream music business and the arms industry), Godspeed's output has led to the strange pursuit of pinning specific tracks to specific topics. This one's about the Intifada, that one's about the black bloc, and so on. Yet even were it to turn out a specific track had been composed about cuts to tax credits or the closure of a local library, that would really seem to miss the point.

As ever, Godspeed played beneath a film show. (With projectionist Karl Lemieux even considered an official band member.) And while this does include images of protests and the like, it more often shows fragmentary and semi-abstract images of urban spaces, or simply projections of the filmstrip itself. And that's almost a clue for how to hear their music – as something less specific than universal. As Mark Richardson said in Pitchfork: “Godspeed's music works so brilliantly because it can be abstracted and scaled, blown up into an edifice that towers over a continent or shrunk down to something that feels at home in a bedroom.”

Below the film show, the band played in similarly low lighting to Asian Dub Foundation the previous night. Prior to the performance, they milled about on stage setting up equipment, looking like a bunch of laid-back hippies uninterested in showbiz entrances. Yet during the show they never spoke or even seemed mindful of the audience, frequently playing facing one another and with their backs to us. Particularly with the closing howlaround of feedback, it was sometimes quite hard to work out when you should be applauding! It led to quite a unique atmosphere, neither like the formalised interactiveness of a 'gig' or the hushed attentiveness of a 'recital'. 'Ritual' sounds too pious, too Churchy a term, but is the closest I can come up with for now.

From Paris...

Brighton Dome, Tues 27th October

(Officially, this one features PLOT SPOILERS. Though anyone who's ever seen an SF dystopia need not be too concerned...)

A new 'Star Wars' film may be in the offing. At least, I think I read about that somewhere. So what better time for to revisit its opposite pole, George Lucas' first film – 'THX 1138' from 1971? (Which, with maximum irony given his later career turn, even starts with a parodic excerpt from 'Buck Rogers'.) The studio were aghast to see they'd invested in something so bleak and what's worse so arty, and did their best to bury it. Though even among the critics many reacted with hostility, and the film really only gained its reputation in retrospect. This was the highpoint of Lucas as an auteur.

The Seventies were of course not short of dystopian SF dramas. And plot-wise, it's an unashamed mash-up of dystopias already mapped, the numbers-not-names of 'We', the surveillance state and productivism of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', the pill-popping of 'Brave New World', the don't-try-this-at-home porn-fixated public of 'Year of the Sex Olympics'... and probably more. But despite such blatant borrowing it remains highly resonant.

For one thing, its not a film that really draws its meaning from plot or dialogue so it doesn't matter much where it got them from. Present its scenario next to the later 'Logan's Run' (1976) and they'd seem very similar, though it resembles that film in no meaningful sense whatsoever. Instead its substance is there on the surface. As Roger Ebert, one of the few contemporary critics to actually get the film, said “the movie's strength is not in its story but in its unsettling and weirdly effective visual and sound style.”

Firstly, and most unmissably, there’s the sheer unadulterated whiteness of everything. This may even be the film which launched the fad for white as a signifier of the futuristic. (Though there were the hotel room scenes in ’2001’.) Whiteness stands for purity and goodness; in 'A Matter of Life and Death' (1946) Heaven was depicted in radiant white, in 'The Man in the White Suit' (1951) it manages to stand for both the futuristic and the innocent.

Yet its also a sign of artificiality. The whiteness gives a hospital antiseptic sheen and a valium calm which permeate the film. Perhaps best summed up by the android cops whose modulated voices reiterate “we only want to protect you”, even to those they're beating.

But what kind of artificiality? Though set in the entirely artificial environment of an underground city, it was shot on location (in airports and civic centres) rather than in built sets. The initial motive for this was most likely financial. (The film was made for a pittance, with the repeated dialogue references to budgetary constraints surely an in-joke.) The viewer soon finds they can tell stage sets from location footage on sight. Yet here we can't pin what we see to either real or constructed, instead it occupies some uncanny valley between the two.

Further, while something like the city in 'Metropolis' (1927) is grand and distant, here it's all too credible – even recognisable. If, like most of us, you're an urban dweller, you pass every day through places which look something like that. In fact our world now looks more like the film than when the film was made. No terrible take-over or grand disaster would have to come along to push us into that place. Its more that something would need to happen to stop us slipping into it. (The tag-line of the original poster was “the future is here”.)

And this recognisability is juxtaposed with a highly elliptical editing style, which makes events anti-involving. (To the extent that I initially worried the band had re-edited the film to fit their soundtrack. In fact they had the good taste to show the original, not Lucas' adulterated “Director's cut”.) With the low-key performances and the almost perpetual background chatter, it's shot almost like a documentary. (It might work very effectively with no soundtrack at all.)

Further still, the ceaseless borrowing from other dystopias becomes virulent rather than just derivative – like we're in the worst of all possible worlds. This was made in the Cold War era, albeit with the first glimmerings of detente, when it was almost obligatory for dystopias to make explicit which side of the iron curtain they were targeting. Here the unisex uniforms, the fetish for productivism and quasi-militaristic work shifts, the locking-up of dissidents are all familiar tropes of 'anti-communism'.

Yet the continual pill-popping (with “drug evasion” a crime) and consumer therapy (“Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. Buy more and be happy.”) are recognisable features of dissident 'anti-capitalism'. (Of course the sides in the Cold War were only ever the two sides of the same coin. But the movies didn't normally see them that way.) Similarly THX's work shift, on a production line yet technically skilled, matches neither the image of blue or white collar work. (In an ironic reversal to the standard automated utopia, we see people working like machines to produce robots.)

And this unity of alienating systems is perhaps best summed up in OHM, a combination of Catholic confessional, watchful Big Brother and feel-good therapy. Should the pills not be soporific enough, you can pop into one of OHM's 'unichapel' booths, where the platitudinous advice mixes the Stakhanovist with Californian feelgood. “Let us be thankful we have an occupation to fill. Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy.” (I particularly like “fill”.)

When one character comes across the original OHM icon, the one replicated in all the booths, a monk is both mystified and appalled to see him praying to it – and demands he goes and finds a booth. For the power of OHM lies in his prevalence, the copies more significant than the original.

...which takes us to one way in which the film is genuinely original. Dystopias come stamped with a face, like Stalin's mug being stuck up all over the Soviet Empire. Or if not a human face then a malevolently sentient super-computer. Like OHM there may be no actual Big Brother in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. He may be a mere totem of power, a scarecrow of dissent concocted by the regime. Yet the traitorous O'Brien becomes Winston Smith's antagonist. Here, it looks at first that THX's antagonist will be surveillance chief SEN. He maliciously usurps his position to disrupt THX's forbidden love affair with LUH. But rather than agent of power he turns out to be something of a wild card, even a wacko, and they're soon locked up - and even escape - together.

Because the real antagonist, the real puppeteer... well, though reviews of the film often tend to terms like 'oppressive' or 'totalitarian' there's no real sign there is one. Perhaps, with everyone playing their part in production, there doesn't need to be. In perhaps the most dystopian notion of all its a society not held in place but locked in stasis, the daily cycle repeating on rotation, alienated workers producing their own alienation - not an autocracy but a feedback loop. (It seems they don't keep to this in the novelisation. But then novelising this film was probably a category error to start with.)

And this is captured in one of the film's most striking points, the 'white limbo' sequence. This essentially ups the ante to unleash whiteness beyond whiteness. Dissidents and non-conformists aren't placed behind bars but stuck in this white void. There’s no walls or bars holding you in, just the sense there’s nowhere else to go, that over there is just more of being here. In the end, THX simply calls bluff on this – he stands up and starts walking.

This sequence supports a common reading of the film – that its an allegory for Plato's Cave. Much like Lucas, Plato never bothered explaining just how people came to be chained up in that cave, only that they'd been there since childhood. And of course there can't be a reference to their captors, since their captive state equates to our reality.

Plato's Cave could also explain one of the more bizarre moments of the film. Its established that people here watch hologram TV. On walking out of white limbo, THX runs into one of these hologram stars who helpfully points the way out – straight out the screen. They turn and see where they have just walked now shows a screen-shaped black rectangle. It's not just a metafictional moment, like Jodorowsky's 'Holy Mountain' (1973) its a wake-up call to its audience. Alongside Plato we might want to quote Blake: “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”

The film has proved a gift for samplers. Wikipedia lists eleven examples, with a particular favourite being the medicine cabinet which asks “what's wrong?” when opened. But for a soundtrack... the logical choice would seem cold electronica, the sound of white. Yet significantly Lalo Shifrin's original soundtrack didn't go for that. While with 'Clockwork Orange', released the same year, Giorgio Moroder did put its ultraviolence to cold electronica. For the film already looks cool electronica enough, and the creatively counter-intuitive choice of a world-flavoured muscly rock soundtrack becomes effective.

In fact it works almost too well, for it fits too neatly with flaws already present in the film. For, despite its undoubted strengths, flaws run right through it. Much like Julia in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', its LUH who instigates the forbidden love affair with THX. But, perhaps typically for a Seventies film, she's a mere plot enabler. The effects of her actions fall primarily on him and she's soon fridged. (Well in this case embroyed.) All of which underlines the way that heterosexual desire is equated to 'normal living', like the couple unit is our natural state. This is then laced with the whiff of homophobia, when SEN tries to creepily insert himself as THX's new room-mate. (“It will be good for both of us... we'll be happy.”)

And compounded with this... apologies for the jargon... heteronormativeness is a hippyish form of techno-fear. (Though of course, much like the sides in the Cold War, there way never really much to distinguish hippyness from heteronormativity in the first place.) On one level the film is simply about the way technology is de-individualising, and so we must escape it's artificial clutches and get back into the garden. Plato's Cave becomes the hippy notion “it's all in your head, man”, the all-enveloping city nothing more than an illusion you can choose to un-see.

It sounds a strange paradox, a film in which we're inescapably becoming components of our own machines, and one in which we can leave Babylon behind to live out our lives under the sun. But that is the paradox of the film, and perhaps the paradox of its era too. As said over 'Quatermass IV': “It’s difficult to capture in retrospect just how contrapedal Seventies culture was. And how science fiction, which had always held to a view of the future which was bifurcated verging on bipolar, was the ideal arena to capture that.”

All of which becomes most apparent in the ending. After there'd been no previous indication private transport even existed, THX gets into a car. And what follows is a classic movie getaway scene. And what could be more all-American than a man behind the wheel of a car, going where he wants to go? And the... there's no other word for it... driving beat played to this sequence emphasises the he-man heroicness, kept up even after the end credits like he'd punched his way out of the film.

It's true that even here there's some masterful moments. Not least the point where his pursuers give up on him after their operation goes over-budget, not one of the standard scenes in action films. And Lucas has the sense to freeze-frame the final shot, leaving things on an open note. But really, you wonder if everything shouldn't have ended when the hologram showed him the black rectangle and they stepped through it.

The critical reader... or for that matter anybody who managed to read this to the end, might comment it doesn't focus enough on the live soundtrack. They're right, of course. But in my defence I have written about Asian Dub Foundation before. And besides, here's a taster of the soundtrack in action...

Saturday, 31 October 2015


Kings College, London, Sat 24th Oct

'Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet' is perhaps Gavin Bryars' other classic composition, a companion to the afore-seen 'Sinking of the Titanic', perhaps equivalent to Steve Reich's early pairing 'Come Out' and 'It's Gonna Rain'. There are strong similarities between the two, both wrapping indeterminate compositions around ghost voices. 'Titanic' used the tune the band famously played as the ship went down. With 'Jesus' Blood', as Bryars explained in the pre-show talk, finding the originating voice was much more the product of synchronicity.

Helping to sound-edit a film on London's homeless, he happened upon a recording of a frail old man singing. Deciding to create music around the voice, he went back to try and find the fellow - but could not. Similarly attempts to source the original hymn drew a blank, and only then was it realised the old man had made it up himself. More, despite being recorded for a film, there were no images of him. All paths led back to him then came to an abrupt halt. The tape was simply all there was, making it almost ;literally a ghost voice. In the performance the conductor would signal to an off-stage tape operator, as if gesturing to spirits.

Despite the M-word being used in the title for the programme, Bryars confessed to feeling somewhat saddled with the term. And indeed in our last look at him we saw how different to Reich and Glass he really was. Reich's 'Different Trains' is set to human speech, but captures brief utterances to let their cadence create a rhythm. (In that pre-show talk, Bryars suggested “pulse-pattern music” as a more apt term for this.) Bryars lets the whole recording play out, creating surrounding music as the sonic equivalent of a highlighter pen, bathing it in response. The music somehow always appears to be swelling, new instruments and new elements joining in. (In fact, like extras in one of those old BBC battle scenes, they fade out and then reappear in new guise.)

Like many great works, it succeeds in straddling a contradiction. Bryars spoke of how he considered John Cage and Marcel Duchamp as influences, and the piece has some of Cage's sonic audaciousness – as if you can make music from any old thing, even the barely tuneful utterances of a tramp. And yet the music always works in response, never overpowers that original recording. There's no sense that Bryars has done something terribly sophisticated to a naïve source, so we should all now toast his cleverness with our wine glasses. It always feels like a collaboration, even if it is with a ghost. Bryars has said he intended to create a work “that respected the tramp's nobility and simple faith... the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.”

It partly achieves this through the music itself being so hymnal. Bryars made a point of noting his chosen instrument was the double bass, and his compositions tending to low sonority. Perhaps, rather than Reich or Glass, the closest comparison would actually be the most recent – Feldman's 'For Samuel Beckett'. Even if Bryars is much more melodious than Feldman's austerity, there's the same combination of the sombre with the rapturous. However, as commented last time and a point taken up by Bryars in the talk, he is much more of an English composer. If there's a quietness and simplicity to Feldman, there's also an austere epicness to him. With Bryars there's the word he used in the quote above - an inherent understatedness. And this places him, in every sense, in tune with an old man singing with a frail voice. It's the combination of that understatedness with indeterminacy that earns the piece's title – a softly spoken power which never stops.

'Jesus' Blood' was the only Seventies work of the programme and, with one other exception, all else was post-millennial. Bryars has kept that keen melodic sense over the years, and the more recent works incorporated subtle shifts. Alas, however, in that time he's also become more conventional. 'Jesus' Blood' left me thinking “genuinely hymnal”. While with the other pieces my thoughts were more along the lines of “very tasteful, very sophisticated”. Bryars spoke of how he has extended the length of 'Jesus' Blood' as technology has allowed, from LP-side to CD length. And at times I found myself wishing they'd sacrificed some of the other pieces and chosen something longer than the half-hour they gave it here.

It may be the paradox of 'Jesus' Blood' has become a trade-off. Some of his other Seventies works were much closer to Cage's Dada iconoclasm, much more anti-music. With his signature works, the balance was struck just right. While now that side is almost absent.

My favourites among these tended towards the smaller ensembles, perhaps best retaining that understatedness. 'The Flower of Friendship' in particular seemed to justify its title with some mutually supportive playing. It also epitomised Bryars' singular use of the electric guitar. If it looked strangely incongruous among the other 'classical' instruments on stage, it was played in so un rock-and-roll way it could almost be a brand new instrument. Its timbre was somewhere between a steel guitar and an electric piano, with a radiating rather than a strident sound.

And from one bass player to another...

(We don't just throw this show together, you know.)

Concorde 2, Brighton, Fri 23rd October

Only six months after seeing Squarepusher's solo set, he's here again with a live band. This is apparently their first live outing, despite releasing an album five years ago.

Both are deranged, freak-out dance music. But its remarkable how different the two things are. Less polar opposites than chalk and cheese, two things you couldn't get close enough together to compare.

With bands, its normally not a matter of how well they're playing but how well they're playing together. That's why the concept of a supergroup, where you just place the best bassist next to the best drummer and so on, was always such a bozo notion. If you want a visual image to pin it to, at the recent Melvins gig the twin drummers played on a conjoined kit. But of course that was just a microcosm of the conjoined way the whole band played, as if they'd become one entity. And seeing a whole band in Jenkinson's patented fencing masks, never one speaking to the audience, that seemed to similarly enhance the feeling of groupthink.

Whereas if you want a visual image of the Squarepusher solo gig... well the move 'Inside Out' might be close. Its like its finally become possible to go inside someone's head, and finding inside it an infinite space filled with impossibly grand and huge architectural constructs. Like there's no intermediaries between thought and action.

The live set picked up and discarded genres like it had music history on speed dial, opening with roots reggae but within minutes morphing away from it. The predominant style was probably muscly Seventies funk shot through with frenetic jazz, bass lines skittering around the number rather than just lying in place. The best track, perhaps strangely for so noted a bass player was led by a hauntingly ambient guitar line.

And as a band they work very well indeed. Had this been my first experience of Squarepusher's music, I would have been very much impressed. But compared to the solo set it felt more rooted, more regular, easier to relate to music you'd heard before. It was like Jenkinson trying to channel his mind through group consensus involved taking on a standard language, which stopped his thoughts being so singular. Maybe not all kids play better with others. It was also a strangely short set, perhaps about fifty minutes – leading to some audience disbelief.

Should anyone reading this know more about Squarepusher's back catalogue than me, what was the set mainly composed of? I listened to a few tracks from the one album on-line, which didn't sound so much like the gig. (More song-like than groove-based.) But many tracks seemed to get instant audience recognition, so I'd guess it was mostly old solo stuff reworked.

From London...

Mentioned in dispatches! Having previously enthused over Acid Mothers Temple not once but twice, Hey Colossus and the Melvins I don't really have much to add from seeing them again. Apart from an hour being too short a time for AMT's immersive psychedelic soundscapes, to the point where I thought the audience might collectively refuse to go home. But instead of overlooking such good gigs altogether, let's at least celebrate them with some YouTube clips. (The first two, usually enough, actually from Brighton.)

Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...