Saturday, 31 January 2009

The Interpretation of Dreams

Judge then of thine Own Self: they eternal Lineaments explore,
What is Eternal and what Changeable, & what Annihilable.
The Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself.

William Blake

I heard a joke the other day. I must have heard it before, come to think of it. “Why do swallows fly south in winter?” Answer: “because it's too far to walk.” A friend emailed me the other day and asked if the winter was getting me down. No, I replied. On reflection, the answer's still no: but it seems to have knocked any imagination I might have for six. If you live in the country -as we do- then most of the things around you seem to exist in a dormant state and, I must say, I feel a bit that way myself. I feel about as likely to write a poem as the tree at the end of the garden looks likely to sprout a leaf. In other words, very unlikely: but not impossibly so.

I'm having a “mad ig” at the moment. A mad ig is a wonderful West Yorkshire expression for a brief, frenzied obsession: it may be with something as obvious as cleaning up or in this case (as readers of my previous post may have already guessed) with the music of Stockhausen. I took the above quote from Jonathan Cott's Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer. I was reading it in bed last night. In it, they discuss dreams and how they can be like “master keys” to life's problems and clarify situations. It's interesting how just reading about dreams before you go to sleep can trigger interesting ones.

I dreamt I was at school, in a domestic science class. We'd just been given some instructions. The class was a bit noisy and the teacher, soft-spoken. I was near the back and could not hear what it was I was supposed to do. As everyone got up to go through to the next room to do whatever it was, I felt terrified. I had no idea what was going on. This is a dream I don't want to forget, although I probably will, next time I'm in a hurry to explain something: for a moment I knew what it felt like to be a pupil, as opposed to a teacher. I felt how frightening and humiliating it is when you're a child not to be able to do what an adult -not to mention your own self-respect- expects of you.

I also dreamt I met an organised-looking group of people close to the top of the Old Man of Coniston. They were busy shovelling sods of earth into a mound around the cairn, trying to make it higher. I'm still trying to work that one out.

The Solitary Walker has just treated his visitors to a photo of his breakfast –“a heart attack on a plate” as he put it- so here's a photo of mine: porridge (well, jumbo oat sludge) with chopped banana and honey. I was going to call it “a marathon in a bowl”, but the dollop of honey lets it down a bit.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Surprised by Stockhausen

If you don't read TV or Radio listings, you sometimes find yourself on the receiving end of a pleasant surprise. (OK, I'm prepared to accept that in this case I'll be in a minority). I turned on the radio in the car the other evening as we were returning from The Lake District to discover I was just in time to hear a performance of a piece I didn't know: Stockhausen's Inori for large orchestra and two mime artists.

I've always been attracted to Stockhausen's music. As a teenager, I discovered a record of an electronic piece, Telemusik, in my local library. This led me on to Gesang der Junglinge – one of the earliest -and still, I believe, one of the greatest- pieces of electronic music ever made. It made such a deep impression on me that from then on even if one of his pieces didn't captivate me at first hearing, I was prepared to spend time getting to know it. I was hooked. I begged -successfully- to be taken to a concert of his music in London for my 14th birthday.

What is his music like? It's full of rich, diverse sounds, tactile sounds, sounds that come at you from all directions, sounds that if you close your eyes, can take you to other planets. It can spend half an hour contemplating a single moment, or cram a whole universe of sound into a few seconds. As Robin Maconie, a long-time champion of Stockhausen put it: “Stockhausen’s music is intelligent, haunting, elusive, intimidating, and curiously revealing, to the performer or listener who is prepared to work for it, of an inexplicable and profound beauty.”

Stockhausen was born in Germany in 1928. His father died fighting on the Eastern front, while his mother, committed to a mental hospital, died in the Nazi's “euthanasia” programme. As a teenager he worked as a medical orderly in a field hospital. After the war he was one of a number of composers who attended the Darmstadt Summer School in the 1950s.

Darmstadt came to be associated with theoretical abstraction in music: it attracted composers who were interested in new ways of composing. Composers were often pictured before blackboards, or alongside electronic equipment. Today, they look not unlike the nuclear scientists of that era: it was as if music, like science post-Einstein, had suddenly become incomprehensible to all but a few. There was something in this: like scientists in their sphere of influence, composers like Stockhausen revolutionised the way musicians could think about time; and just as nuclear scientists changed the world after the Second World War, these men radically changed the cultural landscape. However, I think the created image was detrimental: it drew (and still draws) attention away from the music itself. OK, so it's difficult, but it's a lot more accessible than its reputation leads people to believe. Also, in the popular mind of the English-speaking world at the time I suspect the perception of Darmstadt was tinged by memories of war propaganda: here was another group of Germans and Italians to make fun of. The musician-comedian Hoffnung sent it all up to great effect in his sketches about the fictitious composer, Bruno Heinz Jaja.

Stockhausen was a mystic and this, looking back, is a lot more important when it comes to the appreciation of his music than his technical interest in the construction of it – fascinating though that is. If one is interested in classical music and wants to find antecedents who may help make sense of it, the best place to start is with one of his teachers, Olivier Messiaen – a far more easily approachable -even maintstream- 20th century composer. It's only a short step from Messiaen's rich, dissonant piano-chords to the sonorous bell-sounds of Gesang der Junglinge, and the music Stockhausen wrote for piano owes a lot to the older composer too.

One does not have to share Stockhausen's religious beliefs to appreciate his music. Anyone familiar with meditation will be at home with the idea of a single thing repeated and explored, or the expansion of something from a microcosm to a macrocosm. Both these ideas are used by Stockhausen in the construction of his music, and you don't need to have the processes spelt out to appreciate the affect they have on the music's impact. I heard Inori for the first time in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, with no detailed description of its form. Nevertheless, I found it quite overwhelming.

Oh well, this coming Saturday night on Radio 3 there's more Stockhausen (Hear and Now, 10.30pm): his two-hour electronic work, Hymnen...

Listening to Stockhausen

Where do you start listening? I've already mentioned Gesang der Junglinge. Kontakte (the version for electronics, piano and percussion) is a captivating piece. Mantra is one of my favourites, and then there's always Stimmung. The latter part of his career was dominated by the opera-cycle, Licht. I don't know any of the music from it myself - apart from the spectacular Helicopter String Quartet, excerpts of which can be seen on YouTube. The best advice is to try several pieces, and stick with it.

Stockhausen links

Listen to Inori

BBC Listen Again: this week only.
This begins with a couple of minutes
of Sofia Gubaidulina's violin concerto -
the Stockhausen comes afterwards.

The Stockhausen Website

Revisiting Stockhausen

A good source of authoritative links

Stockhausen FAQ

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Survivor of the Interchange

My mother recently bought us a work of art – an etching by Piers Browne, entitled Survivor of the Interchange (see picture: in real life it's about two feet high). Buying art for other people is a pretty dangerous business: you can never be absolutely sure what they would or wouldn't like, and the lucky recipient is hardly in a position to say they don't like it!
In this case, the gamble paid off. I can't stop looking at it: I think it's a wonderful thing, and it has set me thinking about what I like and don't like in art.
I find it hard to be dogmatic. It's easy to pigeon-hole the arts into different schools and movements: a lot of it went on in the twentieth century and both creative artists and critics were guilty of it. It can so easily create a climate in which, before you realise it, you feel there are things you should or shouldn't like. This is the downside of criticism and gets in the way of whatever it is an artist is trying to communicate. Of course, it's fair to say that the artistic surprises of the twentieth century stretched the patience of the critic to the limit but, as Addison famously put it (he was talking about literature), “a true critic ought to dwell upon excellencies rather than imperfections, to discover the concealed beauties of a writer, and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation”.
Piers Browne's work is a million miles away (well, probably about 50) from the fashionable contemporary art on display in, say, the Baltic in Gateshead (somewhere I enjoy visiting, incidentally), but I refuse to take sides. There will be those who think it's archaic, and those who think it's just the sort of thing art should be getting back to. A plague on both their houses. It's art, and it's wonderful.

There are more Piers Browne art works to be seen on his website. He is currently working on a children's book, Freya, due out in 2010.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

A Moment

The moment I realised,
the car stopped
without so much as a jolt
and the world began
to rush past.

I was the Pole Star -
and already I could feel
the breath of The Great Bear
prowling around me
in the dark

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

In a Bookshop

All you can see through the tall windows are
the rooftops of the city, and the sky
(both crinkled slightly by the imperfect glass).
This partial view serves to convey a sense
of stillness in which people linger, drawn
to contemplate the stacks, searching the spines
for words they hadn't thought of, books that might provide
some sort of landmark on a mental map.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Cat's Cradle

I've just finished reading a book by Kurt Vonnegut. I 'd read Slaughterhouse 5 a while ago and enjoyed it a lot, so when I heard Cat's Cradle discussed on the radio recently, it spurred me on to read it. It's a book that resonated strongly with its readers when it was written, during the Cold War. It enjoyed quite a vogue then, but rereading it now you discover that it's still a story that leaves the reader with a lot to think about.

Felix Hoenikker, an American nuclear scientist who had played a major role in the development of the atom bomb has died. At the time of his death he was working on a particularly nasty substance for the US military. It began with a seemingly innocuous request: could he develop something which would prevent military vehicles from getting bogged down in mud? With his usual disregard for the existence of life on earth, Hoenikker comes up with ice-nine: a form of water in which molecules are so designed as to freeze at a high -rather than a low- temperature. Anything it touches that contains water is immediately frozen solid. After his death, his three eccentric children find themselves in possession of his entire stock of ice-nine and divide it between themselves...

“Call me Jonah,” begins the narrator, in a deliberate echo of Moby Dick (“Call me Ishmael”). This is clearly going to be a story about people getting swallowed up by events beyond their control. But that's the way life is, as any Bokononist worth his salt would say. The main part of the story takes place on the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, home of the prophet Bokonon and the religion he (well, Vonnegut, for the purposes of the book) invented, Bokononism.

How can one describe Bokononism? A quote from the Books of Bokonon is printed on the flyleaf. (Foma, by the way, is a Bokononist term for harmless untruths):

Nothing in this book is true.

Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.

The Books of Bokonon I:5

Many people have had great fun picking sayings and scriptures of Bokononism from the book, so I won't indulge myself here. For anyone who is interested, there is a lot of stuff about it on the internet. Here, I'll confine myself to singling out the religious practice of boku-maru: two consenting adults sit barefoot, face-to-face, and each presses the bare soles of his or her feet against the other's. Apparently, it is impossible not to love someone with whom you have performed this ritual.

It is often said that Cat's Cradle is a second rate novel. It moves too quickly to dwell on details and its characters are two-dimensional. If it were a novel, the judgement might be a fair one. However, even on superficial acquaintance, it's obvious that the book is not a bad novel, but a really quite good conte:

A philosophical conte, by definition, is a tale or story that attacks serious subjects under a masking tone of levity with often unreal generality of background, universality of type-characters, and no personal sympathy for the protagonists. (McGhee).

The master of the form was Voltaire, and as I read Cat's Cradle I couldn't help but be reminded of Voltaire's Candide, another story in which a man captivated by a beautiful woman is led by a dubious philosopher.

Finally, I must admit to having tried boku-maru for myself. I have to say it's uncannily pleasant. Why not have a go (if you can persuade someone else to participate, that is)?