Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Of Vampires and the Eating of Shoes

Overcast today - here and there a patch of sky shines slightly blue. Now and again it rains, heavily.

I've a day off from work today - it's half-term this week for the school I teach at on Tuesdays. I've been reading a book of interviews The Solitary Walker lent me (oh dear, if he reads this he'll remember...), Herzog on Herzog (Ed. Paul Cronin). Werner Herzog is my favourite film-maker (to date - I'm not a great film buff so my all-time favourite may yet to be discovered).

As Cronin says:
"...the number of false rumours and downright lies disseminated about the man and his films is truly astonishing... I confess to having deviously longed to trip him up, ... but to no avail. I now conclude that he's either a master liar, or more probably, he's been telling me the truth. ... He is not insane, nor is he eccentric. ... Rather, he is an extremely pleasant, generous and modest man who happens to be blessed with extraordinary vision and intuitive intelligence."

You do scratch your head when you read Herzog's accounts of, as a young man, smuggling televisions (and a colt revolver) into Mexico, of working as a rider in a rodeo, of Klaus Kinski shooting at a shed full of extras during the making of Aguirre. Then there's the time he ate his shoe -  American film-maker Les Blank made a famous short film of the event.

Last night I watched Herzog's Nosferatu. The DVD had a brilliant "extra" on it - this short film about the making of Nosferatu (it turns out it's also on Youtube). It's doubly good if you've read the Cronin book as it illustrates things Herzog talks about in those interviews about the way he works:


I wrote a poem today.

In Our Town

In our town
when it rains
young girls
text in shop doorways
the light they hold
in their hands
shines on their faces while inside
shopkeepers stand plastic buckets
between the aisles

In our town
when it rains
the pessimists climb trees
the lonely people
balance broken cups
on dry-stone walls
and the policemen
run for cover

In our town
when it rains
the statues weep clichés
and the flowers grow

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Calling Planet Earth

Late last night I turned on Radio 3 and immediately realised I was listening to Stockhausen's Gesang der Junglinge. I first heard this electronic masterpiece in my teens - I felt totally by it captivated then and still feel that way. Then, as now, I felt lost in wonder as if I had been suddenly transported to a different planet.

Not everyone feels that way about the piece. It was followed by another piece, this time by Luigi Nono - his
Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica for six instruments and percussion. I didn't know it - but I've made acquaintance with it now, and would quite like to meet it again...

To talk about music as a language is problematic but sometimes useful. Imagine if the most adventurous composers of the twentieth century were poets, not musicians. It is as if they had got together and decided that the poetry they wanted to write demanded a new language -  the languages their audiences spoke simply didn't have either the words, the grammatical constructions or the sounds to say the things they wanted to say. So they created a language: some words and constructions they borrowed from past languages, others they created anew. New poetry was written and yes, the poets were right - armed with the new language they were able to write what they wanted to write. The excitement, the creativity - it was a wonderful time to be a poet.

But the readers of poetry were not impressed. They knew what they liked and they had no truck with new-fangled languages. The new poets were charlatans, they said. Anyone could talk gobbledygook - and make it rhyme. And if these new poets expected their readers to learn a language it meant they were elitists.

The poets pleaded with them. They insisted their new language was easy to learn. Children simply learn their parents' language without thinking about it, by listening. Simply listen, like a child, they said. That's what we did, to the voices in our heads. Simply listen, take your time, and all will be revealed.

But it wasn't that simple.  New technologies created wondrous possibilities for the new poets but they also served the writers of light verse who wrote what they knew people wanted to read, in languages they already knew.

I'll stop there. I should add that I'm not a pessimist - to continue the analogy for a moment, many great poems have been written in that "language" and since we'd be worse off without them, I think they'll endure one way or another. I still think more people will grow to love them.

I began with Stockhausen and the sense I felt of being transported to another world. I'll end with Schoenberg, who finished his Second String Quartet in 1908. It was a radical piece, the first performance of which led to scene not unlike (but less famous than) the one that accompanied the first performance of The Rite of Spring. In the final movement a soprano joins the quartet and sings the words of a poem by Stefan George:


by Stefan George, trans. Carl Engel

I feel the air of another planet
the friendly faces that were turned toward me
but lately, new are fading into darkness,

The trees and paths I knew and loved so well
are barely visible, and you beloved
and radiant spectre - cause of all my anguish,

You are wholly dimmed within a deeper glow,
whence, now that strife and tumult cease, there
comes the soothing tremor of a sacred awe.

I am dissolved in swirling sound, am weaving
unfathorned thanks with unnamed praise, and
wishless I yield myself into the mighty breath.

A wild gust grips me suddenly, and I can
hear the fervent cries and prayers of women
prone in the dust and seized in pious rapture:

And then I see the hazy vapours lifting
above a sunlit, vast and clear expanse
that stretches far below the mountain crags.

Beneath my feet a flooring soft and milky,
or endless chasms that I cross with ease.
Carried aloft beyond the highest cloud,

I am afloat upon a sea of crystal splendour,
I am only a sparkle of the holy fire,
I am only a roaring of the holy voice.