Accessing my inner Grinch ~ theatre notes

Friday, February 01, 2008

Accessing my inner Grinch

I see that the Sydney Festival has been generally greeted with hosannas, palm leaves and so on, with only a few grumpy souls daring to swim against the popular tide and ask "where's the meat?" Much as I hate to align myself with Fairfax critics - or, worse, the "elitists" - and given that my experience of the festival is limited to viewing the program (although I've seen a sizeable proportion of the programmed work and, yes, liked it), I have to place myself with the questioners. A keen sniffer of the wind, I wonder if this festival's unarguable commercialism will indeed be taken as the "gold standard" for Australian arts festivals. In the current funding climate, which is gleaming with the steel of promised razor gangs, it doesn't seem unlikely. And the prospect fills me with gloom. I hope it's unwarranted, but pessimism - if undesirable as a default position - is often borne out in contemplating Australian cultural policy.

Sydney attracted an attendance of an estimated 1 million people (as a proportion of population, a figure of 23 per cent), as opposed to half a million for Melbourne - around 13 per cent. It was an undeniable crowd pleaser, with headliners like Björk, Brian Wilson and Joanna Newsom, some interesting dance, a minimum of theatre and absolutely no "art" music, whether contemporary or classical. There's no doubt in this little blogger's brain that the artistic substance and energy lies with the Melbourne programs over the past few years. (Just compare the programs: MIAF 2007 here, Sydney 2008 here.) As a commissioner and programmer, MIAF artistic director Kristy Edmunds, following on from Robyn Archer, has led the way in curating some of the most exciting and ambitious festivals of recent years, in the face of some of the most vicious public attacks ever seen on a festival director.

The question is whether an arts festival is about, well, art, or whether it has to disguise itself as a big party in order to survive. Those of us who love art have had a good run in Melbourne these past few years. But Toto, I've got a bad feeling about this... are we going see the fabulous land of Oz dissolve back into the grey plains of Kansas? Maybe it was but a fitful gleam that oh so briefly illuminated the antipodean shadows. Maybe I need to get out of the country for a while to regain some perspective. Maybe I'm talking through my hat. Sydney was always a different city to Melbourne, after all. I guess time will tell.


Nicholas Pickard said...

It is certainly true that Sydney is a very different city to Melbourne and I think this festival reflected that difference more than anything else.

This festival would not have worked in Melbourne - that's for sure.

But, dear Alison, as you know, I thought this festival was just wonderful. As I mentioned in a recent entry I cheekily suggested that Herald journalists were unenthusiastic about this festival because there were no Sirs or Dames for them to gush over.

From the ground here, I really don't see what was wrong with the festival.

I totally see your point about this popularism spreading, but in Sydney, we really need more people engaged with the arts - on any level - and desperately.

And they came in their thousands, and they endorsed public money being thrown at the arts (theatre, the dance programme, urban theatre projects, physical theatre).

And I really must point out that I don't think it was really as 'popularist' as everyone has made out.

We will definitely have to agree to disagree over this one... and time will surely tell what becomes of it all.

Kirsty said...

Hi Alison. I know that Bjork is considered a popular music artist, but I would classify her recent works as 'art' music, experimental even, and suspect that it is quite challenging to those who became fans with her first solo albums.

Either way, I think your closing remarks on the Sweeney Todd review about the popular in fiction might have some relevance here too?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Nicholas - I quite see your point here. And since I wasn't there, I'll absolutely take your word for it. It's not so much the festival itself as what will probably be made of it in the general cultural discussion - the Sydney Festival has often been used as a stick to beat MIAF (which has also been attacked for its lack of sirs and dames). And Kirsty, I'm totally with you in Bjork and Newsom, both artists I admire (I'm not nearly so sure about Brian Wilson - I just have never got the "Brian Wilson is a great artist" argument...) I've nothing against populist art per se. I make a large part of my living from it, after all.

But let me suggest what concerns me by stepping sideways. Traditional publishers with a sense of literary responsibility used to consider that their popular books - cookbooks, potboiler bestsellers etc - were the bread and butter that subsidised the less profitable but artistically valuable parts of their list. This is a consciousness that has become more and more rare as publishing has become corporatised (I'm not saying it doesn't exist, but it's rare).

When Bloomsbury - a reputable literary publisher - struck gold with Harry Potter, the expectation was that this would mean a much greater freedom for the literary end of things: that this inrush of billions of pounds would mean the ability to subsidise more adventurous publishing. In fact, the opposite has happened: the shareholders now expect a clear 15 per cent profit on all their titles. And I've been told of writers who have been on their list for years who now, because their sales do not create the 15 per cent dividend, have been told that their books are now no longer suitable for Bloomsbury.

I fear that unless some very smart advocacy happens, it becomes too easy to smuggle in those corporate values under the guise of supporting art. And corporate values have a way of being self-perpetuating and - rather like a pine plantation - destroying all diversity in its shade. It would be naive, imo, not to be wary.

I hope that's clear, and I'm not sitting with the Cravens polishing my canons. Yes, time will tell...

Anonymous said...

"I just have never got the "Brian Wilson is a great artist" argument..."

I pity you Croggon.

Alison Croggon said...

Ok Troubador - convince me! Whisper into my shell-like quite what merits Wilson's elevation from a popster weaver of pretty tunes to "serious artist"...

Nicholas Pickard said...

I am totally with you on that Alison. At a forum for Sydney's cretive futures held last year, Fergus Linehan pointed out that Australians have this habit of funding huge events and spectacles all the time.

"It's so easy to raise a few million dollars for big events, but try and raise a few thousand for something smaller and it is almost impossible," he said.

It's an absurd situation and at a critical stage in NSW, with a government that likes to have photo opportunities held under fireworks displays rather than funding real creative practice.

On another matter, it doesn't seem as though Troubador intends to back up his/her statement with anything substantive, so here are some interesting opinions on Brian Wilson.

I know it's on his website, but just look at what Phillip Glass says:
Pet Sounds became an instant classic when it first appeared. Listening to it today, it is, perhaps, easier to see why it was one of the defining moments of its time, along with the music of the Beatles, Pink Floyd and the Greatful Dead ... its willingness to abandon formula in favor of structural innovation, the introduction of classical elements in the arrangements, production concepts in terms of overall 'sound' which were novel at the time, all these elements give Pet Sounds a freshness that, thirty years later, is immediately there for the listener.

Just because it's pop culture doesn't mean it's not art.

Alison Croggon said...

Nup. Still don't get it. Maybe call it one of my blind spots...

Nicholas Pickard said...

Maybe your Brian Wilson is my Benedict Andrews?

Alison Croggon said...

If Brian Wilson, why not Abba? I want more than pretty melodies about surfing going on before I'll allow it to be "art". Love, Miss Tosspot

Anonymous said...

Alison, you said that you didn’t know “quite what merits Wilson's elevation from a popster weaver of pretty tunes to "serious artist".

Here are some scattered thoughts that occurred to me while listening to Pet Sounds again recently.

The first is another quote from you during a conversation you once had with some playwright:

“...since all interesting drama is about derailment in one way or another. Which is to say, the interest of drama or characterisation is not in the constants, which may or may not be there, but in the dislocations...”

I think that principle applies to Pet Sounds. It derails constantly. Wilson almost never stays in the same groove for an entire song. There are constant tempo and mood shifts. Sometimes they sound like Jingle Bells morphing into Brahms. There’s a constant feeling of restlessness. Even the simplest song on the album, “Sloop John B” one Wilson didn’t write and one of the few that doesn’t change tempo, embodies the restless quality of all the others.

What gives that song its character is the arrangement, the sound textures he achieves through the constant layering of instruments and harmonies. It’s the layering that gives the song its musical narrative, that creates a sense of movement and dramatic escalation. Even the backing vocals are arranged differently for every chorus. In the penultimate chorus the band stops altogether and the voices continue a cappella. Not only does that moment create a sense of space around the voices, it gives the illusion of a suspension in time.

This effect, the suspension in time is also a recurring element throughout Pet Sounds, sometimes achieved with tempo changes where the music seems to slow to a standstill. I won’t harp on much more about tempo changes except to say they are rare in pop music, even today. In the 60s most pop music was meant to be danced to. Pet Sounds was meant to be listened to, and there is a lot to listen to.

In your comments section you also said:

“I want more than pretty melodies about surfing going on before I'll allow it to be "art"...”

Aside from the fact that there are no songs about surfing on Pet Sounds, the instrumental track “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” has barely a melody to speak of, let alone a pretty one. It creates its tension and movement in the first half through a constantly ascending and modulating chord progression (i.e. it doesn’t stay in the same key). There is no hook or chorus to anchor the piece (actually none of the songs on Pet Sounds have conventional verse/chorus structures except “Sloop John B”, the one he didn’t write). Let’s Go Away For Awhile keeps building but it reaches not a climax, but a plateau. The second half of the song has a descending chord progression that is kind of a response to the first half, but it’s not symmetrical. The tempo is markedly slower and the time signature has changed from 4/4 to 6/8 (i.e. from a conventional beat to a kind of waltz). Odd time signatures are nothing new now, but they were extremely rare back in the 60’s, and to change the time signature in the middle of a song was even more rare, in fact I can’t think off another example. LGAFA is a strange and unsettling piece, yet never loses its lush sweetness.

Aside from writing great songs and stunning arrangements, Wilson also made the whole process of recording an art in itself. There are effects on Pet Sounds that are very much conceived for the record and not as part of a live band performance. He used found sounds; coke cans and bicycle bells became percussion instruments, incidental chatter between band members in the studio were used as background noise.

On some levels I’d argue that Pet Sounds is the music equivalent of Citizen Kane. That was a landmark movie that showed a generation of filmmakers what could be done with the medium of film. It was a culmination of the state of the art of cinema and a step forward that opened up possibilites of how films could be edited, how narrative could be developed within a single shot, the way actors delivered their lines, and what could be done with a film soundtrack. Pet Sounds (along with The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) was also a landmark artistic statement that demonstrated to generations of pop artists what could be done with the medium of recorded pop music.

And when considering whether Wilson deserves to be taken seriously as an artist, one has to factor in the influence he has had on other artists.

Here some quotes from other artists (from the Brian Wilson official website):

Paul McCartney...It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water.... I figure no one is educated musically 'til they've heard that album ... I love the orchestra, the arrangements ... it certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways ... I played it to John so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence ... it was the record of the time.

Neil Young...His music definitely affected mine - the harmonies. Of course I never played in a band that could sing like that.

Bob Dylan...Jesus, that ear. He should donate it to The can't make a record that sounds that way. Brian Wilson, he made all his records with four tracks, but you couldn't make his records if you had a hundred tracks today.

Pete Townsend...I love Brian. There's not many people I would say that about. I think he's a truly, truly, truly great genius.

Eric Clapton...All of us, Ginger (Baker), Jack (Bruce), and I consider Pet Sounds to be one of the greatest pop LPs to ever be released. It encompasses everything that's ever knocked me out and rolled it all into one. Brian Wilson is, without a doubt, a pop genius.

Elton John...Pet Sounds is a landmark album. For me to say that I was enthralled would be an understatement. I had never heard such magical sounds, so amazingly recorded. It undoubtedly changed the way that I, and countless others, approached recording. It is a timeless and amazing recording of incredible genius and beauty.

David Crosby...He was the most highly regarded pop musician in America, hands down. Everybody by that time had figured out who was writing and arranging it all. "In My Room" was the defining point for me. When I heard it, I thought "I give up - I can't do that - I'll never be able to do that."

Graham Nash...He was way advanced of what anybody was doing at that point. And I think the Beatles recognized that and I think every harmony group in the world recognized that there was some different thing going on - something very sophisticated.

Linda Ronsdadt...I don't think there's anyone his equal in popular music for this fifty years. They were really deep, profound emotions that came out of a lot of pain.

Burt Bacharach...Pet Sounds is brilliant. Brian Wilson is one of the greatest innovators of my decade or any decade.

Tom Petty...I think I would put him up there with any composer - especially Pet Sounds. I don't think there is anything better that that, necessarily. I don't think you'd be out of line comparing him to Beethoven - to any composer.

George Martin...If there is one person that I have to select as a living genius of pop music, I would choose Brian Wilson. Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn't have happened...Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.

Don Was...In the fall of 1989, I was working with a band who turned me on to the bootlegged recordings of Brian Wilson's legendary, aborted Smile sessions. Like a musical burning bush, these tapes awakened me to a higher consciousness in record making. I was amazed that one, single human could dream up this unprecedented and radically advanced approach to rock 'n roll.

So Alison...To dismiss him as nothing more than a writer of “pretty melodies”, well them’s fighting words!



Alison Croggon said...

Hi there Troubador - you (and Nick) make your argument well, and I can do nothing but put up my hands and accept that, in this instance, I am a hopeless philistine. Brian Wilson is certainly clever, and as you say innovative (in his realm, though - I mean, widen the lens to John Cage or Stockhausen and those techniques are not exactly new). But no matter how hard I try, I can't see that Pet Sounds amounts to anything more than a pretty noise. Maybe I'll have a Damascus moment one day and see the error of my ways, but for the moment, that's how it is...

Anonymous said...

My point is those techniques are radical to Pop music. You don't run down a piece by say Stravinski and say, "well that's not new, it borrows from an old folk tune", or a Bergman movie and say, "well that kind of framing was used in Rennaisance painting".

One day someone will just have to strap you into a chair Clockwork Orange style and play you Pet Sounds till you get it or die in the process.

Anonymous said...

I think that should be spelt "Renaissance".

(Damn you Croggon you make me so cross!)

Alison Croggon said...

Well, you know, even sticking to pop music, I think the Beatles were much more innovative. I mean it when I say I don't get it. I don't. Maybe I never will. Brian Wilson will have go next to mime as testament to my imperfect aesthetic appreciation. Mea maxima culpa. But be merciful and forgiving O Troubador and spare me the psy ops...

Anonymous said...

At least we agree on mime.