• Enrico David @ Hepworth Wakefield

On a brief trip up north to go to two concerts at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, see friends in Leeds and Newcastle and hear the Northern Sinfonia play Elgar and Sibelius at Sage Gateshead, I made time to visit the four-year-old Barbara Hepworth Gallery in her native Wakefield.  It is a magnificent building, its angular design recalling the ‘Walk-In’ statue that graces the entrance to my last School of Music, at Cardiff University.  Inside, it was packed with visitors, young and old (entrance is free) and Hepworth’s work is spaciously displayed.  The collection is especially interesting for its plaster casts of major sculptures.  But my heart still lies in Hepworth’s sculpture garden in St Ives.

But there are temporary exhibitions too, and one caught my eye.  Sparingly placed in their space were works by Enrico David, whom I did not know.  I was especially taken by one lounging in the centre of the gallery.

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• David Nash at Kew

Some snaps of David Nash’s current exhibition of wood sculptures in Kew Gardens – and one living form.IMG_1064 copy

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• Do Historians Hate Music?

I’m a peaceable sort of chap, but occasionally my musical hackles are raised. Today, they’re up again, occasioned by the arrival in the post of Anne Applebaum’s just-published tome Iron Curtain. The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 (Allen Lane).  Anyone who knows me also knows that I’ve spent a good few years of my life exploring Polish music in this very period.  So for me to head straight for chapters such as ‘Homo sovieticus‘, ‘Socialist realism’, ‘Ideal cities’, ‘Reluctant collaborators’ and ‘Passive opponents’ is a totally predictable action, one undertaken I’m afraid more in hope than expectation.

The plain fact is that most historians seem not to like music.  Or, rather, they avoid writing about it if they possibly can.  Literature and the visual arts – fine, although even they are often poorly attached appendages.  Is it therefore a case of such historians believing that music has no place in social, political or cultural history?  Or is it that they have no analytical or descriptive vocabulary with which to discuss it?  There have been occasional exceptions that bridge this gaping hole, one of them being in the writings of Norman Davies.  Davies not only makes the effort but also understands cultural contexts and has the writing skills to convey the significance of music and the other arts to his readers.  Another exception is the historian Toby Thacker, whose Music after Hitler, 1945-1955 (Ashgate, 2007) is a searching enquiry that covers both East and West Germany.  (Applebaum does quote from a 2002 article by Thacker, but his book is not in her bibliography.)  There are also historians whose brief is cultural history, such as Frances Stonor Saunders and her perspective from outside the Soviet bloc in Who Paid the Piper?  The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (Granta, 1999).

I have been poring over Applebaum’s book this morning.  It’s a weighty volume, focusing on three countries: East Germany, Hungary and Poland.  In major respects, it promises to be a fascinating read, a work of breadth and synthesis which I hope will help me in placing Polish music of the post-war decade within a wider context.  In fact, Iron Curtain barely acknowledges that there was such a thing as music, let alone its crucial role in socialist-realist propaganda.  And propaganda, not least that involving music and the visual arts, was at the heart of the ‘crushing’ communist machine.

There is mention of the prohibition of jazz and dance music as part of early 50s rebellious youth culture in Poland; elsewhere there is a quotation of the text of an East German mass song.  As for the music intended to promote socialist realism through mass songs or cantatas – or the concert music of the period – there’s almost nothing, except an incomplete recollection of one incident from Andrzej Panufnik, which Applebaum misleadingly glosses. Chopin Year (1949) is discussed, but not the two Festivals of Polish Music (1951, 1955).  Władysław Szpilman gets a mention for his radio broadcasts at the start and end of World War II, but then casually to remark that he ‘continued to work for the radio until 1963’ totally ignores his principal role in writing mass songs – some of them extremely popular – in the 1950s.  Applebaum has a few easily-reached quotes from Panufnik’s autobiography Composing Myself (Methuen, 1987), but these hardly count as a measured response to the issue.  The gaps are yawning.

I have not yet read Iron Curtain through from start to finish, so it is possible that its focus does not require the sort of essential details whose omission is so glaring to me.  Its attention to literature and film, for example, is a little greater, but any book on the period that fails to engage with Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind (1953) – although it is in the bibliography – or a literary figure like Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński, who was forced into ‘internal exile’ in the early 1950s for not fitting in with Poland’s socialist-realist drive, cannot fail to raise serious questions.  The visual arts are as notable for their absence as is music (a couple of illustrations do not make up for the dearth of discussion of painting, sculpture and poster art).  The general level of interest is summed up by a sentence towards the end of the chapter on ‘Socialist realism’:

In due course, the most obviously Stalinist films became embarrassments to their directors, some of whom denounced or disavowed them after his death in 1953.  The crudest High Stalinist paintings, sculpture, poetry, fiction and architecture met the same fate.

Why is music excluded there?

Readers who are curious in any way about the role of music in history are normally compelled to look elsewhere for enlightenment, to the work of music historians.  There are several recent books, by dedicated writers on music, which engage meaningfully with the cultural, historical and political contexts of post-war Eastern Europe.  (None of these authors is referenced by Applebaum, and it looks as if no music historians were consulted.  I can’t tell if specialist historians in the other arts were consulted.)  But no-one can pretend that any of these music-oriented books reaches the ‘broad masses’ who might pick up history books like this one.  There is something deeply wrong about this state of affairs.  Why is there so little reciprocity on the part of historians?  Do they not recognise what they – and consequently the reader – are missing?

Don’t get me wrong: Applebaum’s book looks as if it will, in other respects, be an engaging read, not least for its interviews with ‘time witnesses’.  And I promise to read it for what it aims to be, despite my disappointment at the failure of yet another historian to incorporate musical and other cultural aspects closer to the centre of the argument.

• On Vanishing (Bokaer-Cage)

Photo © Michael Hart, 2011

Just over a year ago, in The Cello in Art (3), I posted about the American choreographer Jonah Bokaer, who had just premiered a piece to music by John Cage at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. To mark the centenary today of the birth of John Cage, I’m posting a link to a video of that performance of On Vanishing which I discovered yesterday on YouTube.  All the info is on the YouTube site, except to observe that Bokaer himself does not appear until around four and a half minutes before the end.

• Silence is Relative

Listening to the adventurous and surprisingly fulfilling radio experience of tonight’s John Cage Prom, I’ve been reminding myself of my own encounters with him and his music.

Back in the 1970s, when I was teaching at Queen’s University, Belfast, I performed Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. This was a challenging proposition, not least interpreting his requirements for the preparation of the piano.  His list of inserted items was one of found objects, so I followed suit, using bolts, nuts, and other items that came closest to his own treasure hunt thirty years earlier.  Hence, as is clear from the photo above, plastic rawl plugs and the rubber feet of music stands, cut in half.  It was a memorable evening, at least for me, as the pitch relationship between keyboard and soundboard was contrary to custom and practice!

Later, in the early 1990s, when I was working at BBC Radio 3, I went to New York for the ‘Bang On A Can’ festival. Through my friends Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang, who founded the festival in 1987, I had an opportunity to meet Cage. His gentleness of spirit was legendary, and so it was on that occasion.  The only other composer who has come near to this, in my own experience, has been Jonathan Harvey.  Both have a profound spiritual and philosophical understanding that makes my interest in Zen Buddhism mere dabbling.

The encounter with Cage that made the most impact took place when I was much younger, when I was an undergraduate.  With my fellow student Jolyon Laycock, I made a trip down to London to spend an afternoon with John Cage and his longtime collaborator, the pianist David Tudor.  The venue was a large theatre, now the multi-screen Odeon Cinema, in Shaftesbury Avenue.  We sat in the Gods, looking down on Tudor operating ring-modulation equipment in the pit and a quasi drawing-room on stage.  There were two rows of small pictures, one above the other, in identically sized frames hanging across the stage and with an armchair in front.

On came Cage, book in hand.  Silence.  He sat down and began to read.  Within a minute, Tudor started to apply ring-modulation to Cage’s voice and soon the text became unintelligible.  We were participating in a happening with John Cage.  It felt as if we were in the vortex of contemporary music and culture.  I have no idea how long the event lasted – maybe two hours?  I remember the audience becoming increasingly agitated, shouting, whistling, throwing their programmes in the air.  It was mayhem, in which Cage and Tudor, cool as cucumbers, did what they set out to do.  Then, without warning, Cage got up and walked off.  The end.

Or so I thought.  We emerged onto Shaftesbury Avenue at rush hour.  But such had been the torrent of sound inside the theatre that I heard no traffic noise.  There was silence at that moment.  Although this impression was transient, its aesthetic significance was profound.  And I remain eternally grateful Cage for this simple gift of enlightenment.

• Olympic Curves (mostly)

The Olympic Park is more functional than parading as an architectural showpiece, and most of its buildings are temporary.  The theme for the best of them seems to be ‘being curvaceous’.  Here are a few snaps taken mostly at breakfast-time last Wednesday, when the weather was glowering over the still-deserted concourses.

One of the protruding ends of Hadid’s Aquatic Centre, right by the Stratford entrance.  It should look amazing once the angular sidepieces are demolished.

This is one of the temporary structures, the huge white box of the Basketball Arena, viewed from the riverbank.

To the left of the Basketball Arena are the unmistakable concave roofline of the Velodrome and the comfortingly convex shape of the Bandstand below.

Not so comforting now, eh?

Here are five shots of the Velodrome, venue for some of the most exciting races of the 2012 Olympics.

Velodrome with red railings and red/blue flags.

Velodrome, north end, with seagulls.

The shark theme reappears.

At both ends.

Velodrome, south end, weather cauldron.

And a final couple of shots by the Olympic Stadium, with some blue sky!

I hadn’t realised that the dagger shapes were made by twisting the banners like ribbons.

These elegant lighting masts, topped by wind turbines, were so discreet as to be almost invisible.

• Olympic Orbit

The Orbit tower by Anish Kapoor dominates the skyline at the Olympic Park.  It’s not perfect – the commercial pressures and health and safety put pay to that (the silver casing and solid greys spoil the essential redness), but it’s wild and fascinating, especially at close quarters.  When it’s free to go up, I’ll go (it’s an exorbitant £15 at the moment), but I suspect that the best views are at ground level!  Here are eleven, taken with my little Canon IXUS.

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