Monthly Archives: December 2014

Some Leaf Collecting highlights from 2014

 

Leaf Collecting is now two years old. Many thanks to all its readers.

Our cultural survey of the year is less thorough than others’, but here are a few highlights.

In music: two new Scottish bands Honeyblood and Turning Plates; the rediscovered Connie Converse who sounds so like the wonderful Roches in their youthful heyday; many great examples of live samba and son in Cuba; The Sixteen, performing both medieval and 21st century sacred music, at James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival.

In theatre: visiting the great historic building of the Abbey in Dublin to see Shaw’s timely Heartbreak House. 

Films: mostly older ones like Bunuel’s The Criminal Life of Archiboldo de la Cruz, That Obscure Object of Desire and The Phantom of Liberty;  Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria;   Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar nominees Paradise Now and Omar; Vibeke Lǿkkeberg’s astonishing documentary Tears of Gaza; the great music animation Chico & Rita, whose pleasures, it cannot be denied, derived partly from having recently seen some of those Havana buildings in their baroque stone flesh.

On TV: the continuing excellence of Rev.; the irreverent but informed perspective of This Week; Talking Pictures, an old format made fresh by the opportunity to see how an interviewee’s perspectives and opinions might change over years and, especially, how interviewing styles and film programme formats changed; chances to re-view Edge of Darkness and to see The Life and Loves of a She-Devil.

On radio:  the consistently varied delights of Late Junction and PJ Harvey’s wonderfully subversive guest edition of Today.

In visual art: the great spiritual paintings of Jean-Marie Pirot aka Arcabas.

The Scottish referendum: whether the whole campaign was exciting and passionate or antagonistic and unpleasant depended at least partly on which side your opinions lay, but everyone seemed to agree that a 84% voter turn-out reflected an unusual and encouraging level of political engagement.

 

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Betjeman’s voice from Christmas past

 

As well as to Philip Larkin,   the George Macbeth anthology Poetry 1900 to 1965 introduced me to John Betjeman’s Christmas poem “Indoor Games Near Newbury”. At the time of my first reading, my immediate comparison would have been a handful of experiences of pre-adolescence social gatherings at school or in my own and others’ homes, albeit occasions at which all cars, never mind the chauffeured cars mentioned by Betjeman, were rarer. These days, the poem does still recall particular memories of  my own childhood home, a generously proportioned Victorian villa full of corners and passages and alcoves, which felt especially dramatic in dark winter-time, but also, suddenly, the Alberto Cavalcanti episode of the children’s party game in the brilliant film Dead of Night.

Later, I discovered “Christmas”, Betjeman’s more direct paean to the season and a poem about, to use a modern slogan, “putting Christ into Christmas”. Betjeman scans through the post-war Christmas landscape, with its once-a-year  explosions  of fellow feeling and  frantic commercial activity, and reminds us that all this is peripheral to a Christian faith which can be practised every day and any day. Michael Sheen  performed it  well in neon-lit urban streets in the BBC programme Essential Poems for Christmas.  I wonder if its sentiments are now even more old-fashioned than those of “Indoor Games Near Newbury”?

 

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“…that God was Man in Palestine”. The Grotto of the Nativity, in the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem.

 

 

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Look here for ideas

 

The book festivals have for a long time included events which feature more than one literary speaker:  in other words debates and discussions rather than individual talks.

It might have started around the same time that music festivals started to include non-musical events.  Glastonbury, with its foundations in political protest, was probably first. Then these became an essential feature of the newer boutique festivals like Latitude and Wilderness.

TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) was the first big indoor talk event I noticed when its name was publicised by the established media.   TED’s speakers were fairly highbrow and North American but as the format has expanded both of these elements have been diluted.

The commonly applied genre title for such discussions and events has become “ideas”.  If you can think up a better title for your event, that’s good, but, if not, you are allowed to be a Festival of Ideas. As I scanned the internet I found that the format was more deeply rooted than I thought. The Institute of Ideas has been hosting an annual Battle of Ideas since 2005. Events have been taking place for some years at York, Bristol and Cambridge. However, the pre-referendum  Imagination in Glasgow in September, was, said its organisers, “Scotland’s first-ever Festival of Ideas”.

Although the performers and leaders at these events are principally talkers, a tendency has developed to include musical guests, almost as if it is recognised that audiences need more variety than merely lots of spoken words about politics, economics, business, science, history etc.  The Observer’s Ideas Festival, developing from its previous sponsorship of an earlier TedX event, included, according to its own report, “standout sets from Benjamin Clementine, Rokia Traoré and Edwyn Collins”. Radio 3’s Free Thinking event incorporated some classical music performance.

This blurring might continue to the point where events whose origins were quite different eventually become rather similar. On TV, as comparison, The Andrew Marr Show on a Sunday morning now regularly seems to include musical performances and arts items alongside its traditional current affairs fare.

While I wince a bit when younger people appear to feel, or even overtly claim, to have invented something that has existed before,  I must concede that market-conscious folk of all generations have probably been prone to that crime. So, if “Festivals of Ideas”  explains to practitioners and audiences what an event is like, then obviously nobody else has a right to complain.

It reminds me of the fuss about the creation of the genre term ”world music” to describe the music which in the 1980s was becoming more widely available in the UK from beyond Europe and America. One of the journalists involved in the discussions said (and it might have been Charlie Gillett because it sounds so calm and sensible), “The term World Music was chosen simply because it included most and excluded least”.

 

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Classical music : a “space odyssey”?

 

One of Paul Morley’s clever quotes about music I shamelessly copied and adapted myself many times. When associated with ZTT Records in the 1980s he described one of the label’s signings The Art of Noise as “God’s backing band”.  It was obvious that his description scarcely applied to that band, except with heavy irony, but I felt it was a phrase which might be applied to other artists whose talent lifted them rather closer to the heavenly, like the late Sandy Denny and the happily still thriving Richard Thompson. So Denny might be reasonably described as “God’s backing singer” and Thompson as “God’s guitarist”.

Catching many of Morley’s contributions to TV arts reviews in later years, I saw that he, a middle- aged man who has heard a lot of popular music, was seeking aural stimulation elsewhere, so I was not surprised to read his recent article exalting the splendours of the music  which we all still tend to categorise as “classical”.

Unlike me, Morley has listened closely over the years to the major figures of jazz as well as of pop and rock –  his article refers to Ornette Coleman and  Thelonius Monk  – and I am sure that this will have guided him towards orchestral classical music. After all, jazz was once described, certainly by Wynton Marsalis, and possibly by others too, as “black classical music”.

In the 1980s the New Musical Express for which Morley wrote often gave an equally high profile to jazz artists like Marsalis, Courtney Pine and Miles Davis as to more familiar rock names like Prince, the Smiths, New Order and Bruce Springsteen. Personally, although I knew I should be finding out about the jazz greats like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, I was reluctant to do so, partly because their music is largely instrumental, and also because, at least by reputation, it centred around long periods of improvisation. At that time I was still more drawn to vocal music and to words which I could understand, and, on the occasions when I did move away from that strait-jacket,  it was towards the new African artists like the Bhundu Boys, Salif Keita and Ali Farke Touré.

Morley is fairly scathing towards modern pop and rock music and many of his generation  will agree. It “has become the status quo” and “trad”;  while some changes in its sound have taken place during the last two or three decades, “what is sung about remains more or less the same; the poses, controversies and costumes repetitive and derivative”.

Here, as I have heard him do before, Morley ponders, not just the quality, but the purpose of present-day pop music . He says that “machines are now the new pop stars (and) performers and singers are like travelling sales workers whose ultimate job is (simply) to market phones, tablets, consoles, films, brands”.  I tend not to follow him down that particular road. I think listeners are still looking for entertainment, stimulation and provocation, even if that comes in a different musical or technical package than it used to do – or a similar one. Younger listeners will inevitably have different preferences to older because they have heard less and will find freshness where Morley and  I don’t.

Morley’s article could be accused of being a bit too self-regarding when it lists disparate artists and makes tenuous musical connections . For example, in one place, Luciano Berio with Bob Dylan and Cecil Taylor; in another, Elizabeth Cotten, Thelonius Monk, Beyoncé and Autechre.  However I readily agree with the main thrust of his argument and it would be good if BBC Radio 6 Music applied some of his ideas in its programme scheduling.

“Classical music is not all big, mighty orchestras and epic, overpowering, bloody-minded symphonies, or tarted-up operatic fussiness”, Morley reminds us.  That chunk of the classical repertoire has usually been a bit overpowering, overcrowded and bombastic  for my own taste, in the same way that my liking for heavy metal and progressive rock has been narrow and occasional. Obviously Mozart’s operas and Beethoven’s symphonies were above criticism, like certain parts of the popular music canon. Otherwise I have often preferred  the periods on either side, either medieval/Renaissance or 20th century, and certainly smaller groups of instruments and voices.

Listening to classical music is like visiting “mind-bending outer space,” exhorts Morley. He will have displayed similar zeal to describe any number of acts in his earlier life, of course – but we know what he means. It was after all his and my generation which played a large part in us becoming now a culture so prone to superlatives and hyperbole. And it is surely true that we are all always still on the search for exciting new experiences, in the arts and elsewhere.

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