Friday, February 26, 2010

Polis Is This

Here's something really good if you haven't already seen it: Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place (the film, in six parts, is embedded below).  It includes reflections on the way Olson wrote about space and place, interviews with poets like Robert Creeley, Amiri Baraka and Jonathan Williams, and Olson's own words spoken by John Malkovich and sung by Ed Sanders of the Fugs.  It's not an experimental film - in some ways it's a fairly typical documentary, with talking heads, archive footage and scenic shots synced to the soundtrack.  The film's website, with a nice sense of humour, describes it's subject in heroic terms: 'Charles Olson the "original aboriginal" fights to save his town from so-called progress as the bullzoder of change rumbles down Main Street USA.  His challenge to us? We must either rediscover the earth or leave it. Have we all become estranged from that which is most familiar? See Polis Is This before the cultural wetlands are completely drained and maybe you can save the place where you live.'

One of the interviewees in Polis Is This is John Stilgoe from Harvard University who says that “the local environment is the prism through which anyone’s understanding of the cosmos is filtered; to look at the outer world from a vantage point in the local. For many people the local landscape was very uninteresting and ordinary, but for him, it was the threshold to the world.”  The documentary actually begins by addressing the viewer on the subject of landscape, asking whether we really see "not just the present surface, but what came before".  Charles Olson wrote about Gloucester, Massachusetts as it was in the fifties and sixties, as it had been in his childhood, and how it had developed and changed since the seventeenth century. His Maximus Poems contain a lot of detail on 'what came before' - some of it rather hard going if you are not that interested in New England history, although another interviewee, poet Robin Blaser says that Olson told him not to bother trying to get his head round all the local detail: "don't do that... this is my place.  Go do it for yours."  (Maybe I will... "I, Plinius of Stoke Newington, to You" etc. etc.)

The complete Maximus Poems that we now have consists of three volumes: The Maximus Poems, published in 1960 (see picture above), Maximus Poems IV, V and VI which appeared in 1968, and The Maximus Poems: Volume 3, published posthumously in 1975.  As you read through them you build up a strong visual picture of Gloucester, past and present, from fragments of description, but it's not really until the very end of the Volume VI that you get what might be called an actual landscape poem: 'The River Map and then we're done'.  It is a fine poem to read and look at, tracing the river like an old chart (Olson based it on a 'Plan of Squam River from the Cut to the Lighthouse' drawn up in 1822), and ending at a seeming oxymoron: 'Rocky Marsh'.  This is Volume VI's penultimate poem: the last consists of just two lines ('I set out now / in a box upon the sea').

It is in Volume 3 of  The Maximus Poems that you'll find some landscape poems reminiscent of others I've discussed here before (Olson sometimes reminds me, for example, of Lorine Niedecker and Guillevic).  On August 6th 1964, Olson wrote a short poem I could imagine stenciled onto the wall of Thomas A. Clark's Cairn Gallery: 'the sky, / of Gloucester / perfect bowl / of land and sea.'  On December 22nd 1965, he described a winter view with high tide and light snow, 'rocks melting into the sea', '... the whole / full landscape a / Buddhist / message...'  Two poems further on he writes of the late afternoon sun and its effects on the landscape - whitening out parts of the view, glistening on the water, bestowing a 'split second of monumentalness' on Stage Head and Tablet Rock. And so it goes on, through the winter of 1966, with Olson meditating on the view out to sea:  Ten Pound Island, Shag Rock, Dog Bar, Half Moon, Round Rock Shoal.  The rest of the sequence returns mainly to history and myth, 'Time's / unbearable complexity', the landscape's deep past: 'Gloucester herself when Earth Herself was One / Continent'.  But in these last poems Olson also continued to write about what he saw and the sad alterations that had made Gloucester 'a mangled mess' - 'now indistinguishable from / the U.S.A.'

Friday, February 19, 2010

Pruitt-Igoe Falls

Cyprien Gaillard's art seems to be getting quite a lot of attention at the moment.  I see that one of his works is included in the new Gagosian Gallery exhibition of art inspired by J. G. Ballard, along with other artists I've discussed here before like Ed Ruscha, Tacita Dean and Dan Holdsworth. Gaillard specialises in showing contemporary architecture as ruins - in this respect the Bugada and Cargnel gallery compares him to '18th century French 'ruiniste' painter' Hubert Robert.  'Whether he commissions a traditional landscape painter to paint colourful views of housing projects in Swiss suburbs, surrounded by their luxurious natural environment (Swiss Ruins, 2005), or introduces a view of a tower-block into a 17th Century Dutch landscape etching (Belief in the Age of Disbelief, 2005), Gaillard shows contemporary architecture as a modern ruin on the verge of being taken over by nature'.

Hubert Robert, Imaginary View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in Ruins, 1796

This gallery site goes on to describe his ongoing project for a 'parc aux ruines', scattering monuments across the world: 'a monumental bronze sculpture of a duck taken from a derelict Modernist neighbourhood of high rise buildings in Paris' taken to the terrace of Berlin's Modernist Neue Nationalgalerie, 'crushed concrete remains of a tower block from the suburban city of Issy-les-Moulineaux laid out on the main ally of a Renaissance castle' and the concrete from a demolished social housing project in Glasgow, 'recycled into a 4 meter high obelisk (Cenotaph to 12 Riverford Road, Pollokshaw, Glasgow, 2008)'.

In an interview with Alix Rule, Gaillard said "You know how the London bridge or some French castles have been moved, rock by rock, and reconstructed? My main project, the work of my life, is to do the same for towerblocks. I mean, they cost a fortune to demolish - if I could somehow use the money (and then find more money), I would relocate them on a big piece of land in the south of France and create a park. There would be a few from Glasgow and Sheffield, and a few from Paris and from Marseille, and a few from Kiev, the same way Piranesi would make a caprice. The place would become a 21st-century park of ruins as well as my sculpture park."

I've included a link below to the video Pruitt-Igoe Falls (2009) which shows the destruction of a Glasgow tower block along with a nocturnal view of Niagara Falls.  Gaillard is quoted in Interview as saying: "When the building fell, the dust from the destruction made its way through the graveyard below us like a ghost, slowly coming to the camera until everything went black. It becomes a natural monument, just like Niagara Falls at night-both subjects are falling, both slowly bring you to obscurity."  The title comes from the failed urban housing project, Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis, which was completed in 1955 and demolished in 1972.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Garden in Sochi

Arshile Gorky, One Year the Milkweed, 1944
Image added here in 2019 following expiry of copyright

The Tate's impressive and moving new Arshile Gorky retrospective includes a room entitled 'Landscape', with paintings like One Year the Milkweed and Cornfield of Health (both 1944).  André Breton said of these works (for which he provided some of the titles) that they reveal the rhythm of life through Gorky's way of decoding nature.  Gorky had begun working in the Connecticut and Virginia countryside in the early 1940s, improvising drawings and developing his abstract paintings, like the Tate's own Waterfall (1943).  The exhibition guide says of these paintings that they 'combine the immediate with buried memories of childhood.'  I think it is these buried memories (rather than our knowledge of Gorky's suicide in 1948) that give the paintings in the exhibition such poignancy - whether indirectly in paintings like One Year the Milkweed or directly in The Artist and His Mother, that remarkable memorial to his mother who had fled with the rest of the family from the pograms in Armenian Turkey only to starve to death in Russia in 1919.

Arshile Gorky, Garden in Sochi Motif, 1942
Image added here in 2019 following expiry of copyright

Earlier in the exhibition there is a room devoted to the Garden in Sochi series.  This is based on Gorky's memories of childhood, specifically his father's orchard at Khorkom.  He said in 1942 that "there was a ground constantly in shade where grew incalculable amounts of wild carrots, and porcupines had made their nests.  There was a blue rock half buried in the black earth with a few patches of moss placed here and their like fallen clouds."  This description (which reminds me of Bruno Schulz) provides an obvious starting point for a biomorphic composition in the style of Arp or Miró, which is what the Garden in Sochi works resemble.  However, William Feaver quotes another more extravagant explanation for these paintings, where Gorky relates them to The Garden of Wish Fulfillment:  "Often I had seen my mother and other village women opening their bosoms and taking their soft and dependable breasts in their hands to rub them on the rock. Above all this stood an enormous tree all bleached under the sun the rain the cold and deprived of leaves. This was the Holy Tree. I myself did not know that this tree was holy but I had witnessed many people whoever did pass by that would voluntarily strip off their clothes and attach this to the tree."

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A lake beneath the weightless morning sky

'Why do we wish to see a charming landscape reproduced in a picture?  Is it just for the sake of pleasure?  No, we are hoping this image will explain something - but this is a something that will surely always remain inexplicable.'  - Robert Walser, The Tanners, 1907 (Der Geschwistern Tanner, trans. Susan Bernofsky)

I think I first heard about Robert Walser through an interview in the early nineties with the Brothers Quay, who went on to film Walser's novel Jakob von Gunten.  About the same time I bought The Walk and other Stories, with its introduction by Susan Sontag, in Camden's much-missed Compendium Bookshop.  After enjoying the Quay Brothers' film Institute Benjamenta (1995) at the ICA (which may soon be going the way of Compendium), I taped it when it came on TV and remember showing it to one or two people, none of whom seemed as impressed as I was.  I thought that both Walser and the Quays would remain a minority taste, but now we seem to be in the midst of what one review calls a miniature Walser renaissance.  New translations are appearing and I have just finished reading Susan Bernofsky's translation of The Tanners (you can read an excerpt at The Brooklyn Rail).  I'm once again going round trying to tell people how great Walser is - it would be a marvellous book anyway but it also happens to have a cool cover design and Sebald essay for an introduction.

Google The Tanners and you'll find plenty of reviews, so I won't say much here about the novel itself.  My excuse for mentioning it at all is Kaspar Tanner, a landscape painter, brother of the book's main character Simon.  The quote above comes from a passage where Simon is looking at his brother's pictures.  He goes on to say: "It cuts so deeply into us when we, lying at a window, dreamily watch the setting sun; but that's nothing at all compared to a street when it's raining and the women are daintily raising their skirts, or to the sight of a garden or lake beneath the weightless morning sky or to a simple fir tree in winter or to a boat ride at night, or a view of the Alps."  These images made me think of haiku, and a few sentences further on Simon refers to his sister's friend, a poet thus: "people are saying he's built himself a hut up in the high pastures so he can worship nature undisturbed, like a Japanese hermit."  Sadly we don't get to see this hut (if indeed it exists) in the novel.

Susan Sontag wrote that Walser's stories and sketches reminded her of 'the free, first person forms that abound in classical Japanese literature.'  The story that most impressed me in that first Walser anthology I read was 'Kleist in Thun' (1913), about the great German writer who took his own life in 1811.  In it, Walser (to quote W. G. Sebald) 'talks of the torment of someone despairing of himself and his craft, and of the intoxicating beauty of the surrounding landscape.'  'Time and again I have immersed myself in the few pages of this story' wrote Sebald, in the essay 'Le Promineur Solitaire: A Remembrance of Robert Walser' which appears as the introduction to The Tanners.  He quotes Walser's description of the lake and the Alps dipping 'with fabulous gesture their foreheads into the water.'  At another point in the story Walser pictures Kleist on a skiff, looking out at the clear morning lake.  'The mountains are the artifice of a clever scene painter, or look like it; it is as if the whole region were an album, the mountains drawn on a blank page by an adroit dilettante for the lady who owns the album...'  (trans. Christopher Middleton).

Thun c. 1900 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

I visited Thun once as a child (see photograph below), on a family holiday to Switzerland, and I still have the travel diary I kept.  "Today it was even wetter than yesterday, really pouring.  So we went to Thun by train.  At Thun Mum and Dad bought a cow bell and we went in a castle/museum - boring."  Oh dear.  In the afternoon, from Thun, we took a boat trip to Spiez - "it was freezing...  The scenery spoilt by the weather."  Walser closes the story with his own recollection of Thun, "the region is considerably more beautiful than I have been able to describe here, the lake is twice as blue, the sky three times as beautiful".  He says that Thun is visited every year by thousands of foreigners who can read if they wish the words carved onto a marble plaque commemorating Heinrich von Kleist.  I don't think we went to look at this (if it still exists).  The long last paragraph of Walser's story begins in Kleist's mind - music and radiant shafts of light flickering about his senses - and ends Walser's comments on Thun. Susan Sontag thought it 'an account of mental ruin as grand as anything I know in literature.'

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Alpine Symphony

Apparently, 'the first commercial CDs pressed were The Visitors by Abba and a recording of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss'. I'm afraid we're not interested in Abba here, but Strauss is another matter - as his tone poem (not really a symphony) is a famous example of landscape programme music (following others I've mentioned here before like Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture.)  It was completed in 1915 (an earlier version, written in memory of Swiss portrait painter Karl Stauffer, was begun and abandoned in 1899).  The Alpine Symphony is divided into twenty-two sections as follows:

1. Nacht (Night)
2. Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise)
3. Der Anstieg (the Ascent)
4. Eintritt in den Wald (Entry into the Woods)
5. Wanderung neben dem Bache (Walking along the Brook)
6. Am Wasserfall (at the Waterfall)
7. Erscheinung (a Visual Feature)
8. Auf blumigen Wiesen (on Flowery Meadows)
9. Auf der Alm (on the Pasture)
10. Durch Dickicht und Gestrüpp auf Irrwegen (Wrong Path through the Thicket)
11. Auf dem Gletscher (on the Glacier)
12. Gefahrvolle Augenblicke (Moments of Danger)
13. Auf dem Gipfel (at the Summit)
14. Vision (Vision)
15. Nebel steigen auf (the Fog Rises)
16. Die Sonne verdüstert sich allmählich (the Sun is Gradually Obscured)
17. Elegie (Elegy)
18. Stille vor dem Sturm (Calm before the Storm)
19. Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg (Thunder and storm, Descent)
20. Sonnenuntergang (Sunset)
21. Ausklang (the Journey Ends)
22. Nacht (Night)

Here are some of the landscape motifs (I'm basing this on an article in Wikipedia that draws on Norman Del Mar's Richard Strauss: A critical commentary on his life and works and on Marc Mandel's 'Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64,'):
  • The mountains - a solemn motif played by trombones and tuba; the 'peak motive', is shaped like a mountain (upward leaps of fourths and fifths) and resembles Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra
  • The sun - this has its own theme, a descending A Major scale
  • Woods -the 'instrumental tones deepen as thick foliage obscures the sunlight'
  • Birdsong - heard in the upper woodwinds and a solo string quartet leads the transition into the next musical section
  • Brook and waterfall - a rushing passage gives way to cascading scale figures in the winds and strings and marks the beginning of the section which takes place 'At the Waterfall'
  • Flowering Meadows - suggested by a gentle backdrop of high string chords, with a marching theme heard softly in the cellos and isolated points of color (short notes in the winds, harp, and pizzicato in the violas) 
  • Alpine Pasture - cowbells, bird calls, a yodeling motive, and the bleating of sheep (depicted through flutter tonguing in the oboe and E-flat clarinet) 
  • Rain and storm - a drum roll, isolated raindrops (short notes in the upper woodwinds and pizzicato in the violins), flashes of lightning (piccolo) and then the storm itself, using a thunder machine and organ
It is interesting to think how far this kind of composition can reasonably be taken.  Birdsong, thunderstorms and flowing water are pretty standard, but the attempt to convey musically an alpine meadow is more unusual.  The orchestra offers a wonderful range of possibilities - just looking at the list above we have variations in instrumentation, tone, volume, duration, rhythm, pitch and so on, in any possible combination.  But would it be possible to move away from the sublime and the picturesque, to convey more unusual settings or simply nondescript landscapes through purely orchestral sound?

Friday, February 05, 2010

Music with Roots in the Aether

In the early seventies, Robert Ashley produced and directed a 14-hour television opera/documentary about the work and ideas of seven American composers, Music with Roots in the Aether, which premiered at the Festival d'Automne à Paris in 1976. It comprises seven films, each two hours long, most of which have a live performance preceded by an interview in a 'landscape':
  • Landscape with David Behrman
  • Landscape with Philip Glass
  • Landscape with Alvin Lucier
  • Landscape with Gordon Mumma
  • Landscape with Pauline Oliveros
  • Landscape with Terry Riley
  • Landscape with Robert Ashley
Robert Ashley is quite self deprecating about the interviews, saying they were "casual and desultory. They had to be, because of the manner in which they were made. They were made in front of a video camera, with the rule that there would be no video editing." But the landscapes more than compensate for this (some of them are interior landscapes) - the location and natural sounds integral to each conversation.  As I write this I'm watching Terry Riley on another part of my screen, bathed in sunlight, on a grassy slope above a pond. The camera sometimes gets distracted by the surroundings - see for example 35 minutes into Landscape with Terry Riley, where he is talking about Indian ragas whilst we watch a bird washing its feathers.

In an article about Music with Roots in the Aether, Arthur J. Sabatini notes the importance of Philip Makanna's camerawork, which 'functions to structure, comment upon, and provide an alternative take on the conversations and musical performances. He handles the camera gracefully and settles it in on telling images, settings, and moments of dialogue during the performances. With noticeable still photographic technique, he frames scenes and selects perspectives and angles that metaphorically enhance the conversations. For example, as Ashley and David Behrman stand on a hillside overlooking the San Franciso Bay remarking on music across cultures and history, Makanna leaves their voices in the background and pans the Golden Gate Bridge from shore to shore. At another point, when the discussion turns to technology, he follows the microphone wires and video cables trailing the speakers. Thus, Makanna's cinematography and camerawork underscores the musicality of each composers' voicings and their relationship to the landscape.'

Kenneth Goldsmith (the poet who runs Ubuweb) has written a short piece for The Brooklyn Rail about Robert Ashley's films.  It includes an interesting digression on aether with which I'll conclude this post, well off the topic in question but sailing into fascinating waters... "Aether, then, is a loaded word, full of dreams and secrets— a fluid, transmissive medium, ready to heap its treasures upon those who approach her with the right state of consciousness. Antiphanes told of a certain city where words congealed with the cold the moment they were spoken, and later, as they thawed out, people heard in the summer what they had said to one another in the winter. Similarly, Rabelais, writing in 1532, alludes to this phenomenon in his frozen-sounds episode of Gargantua and Pantagruel, where out at sea, with little in sight, a strange assortment of sounds are heard. The captain of the boat explains that the boat is passing by the Frozen Sea, which was the site of a bloody battle between the Arimaspians and the Nephelibates. During the battle, it was so cold that the sounds froze and the whole battle was silent. Now that it is springtime, all these sounds— long inaudible— are being released and creating a racket, although not in their original temporal sequences of action."