Sunday, 18 November 2012

Surround sound

First there was one bell.  It wasn't the tone of a church bell nor a small tinkling sound - and it didn't come from the usual chords of the musical stave.  It came from somewhere behind me, compelling and mysterious.  

After a while another bell joined it.  Then I saw the musicians, entering the theatre from different points but creating working together to create a soundscape in which they and the audience existed together.  It was as though we entered another form of space, a place in which sound was chief among the senses.

At last the four musicians stood together on the stage, playing their bells - Ghanaian instruments in music which came, I think, from the Siwe people.  By this time I was in the place that they had created.  And this was just the beginning of the concert by ensemblebash at Nottingham's Lakeside arts centre.

I first encountered ensemblebash a couple of years ago, at Ignite, an exceptional free festival in Covent Garden's Royal Opera House.  They were performing for free, sometimes joined by pianist Joanna MacGregor.  If I'd been asked in advance, I wouldn't have thought a percussion quartet would be much to my taste.  But it was free and gave me chance for a sit-down so I settled down with an audience which ranged from small children to regular opera-goers and prepared to give ensemblebash a courteous hearing.  I was soon entranced and excited - and so, I think, was everyone else who had crowded in to listen.  This was performance with wit, intensity and magic - like nothing I had heard before.  So when I saw that ensemblebash were finally visiting the East Midlands I had to be there.

I knew some of the music from ensemblebash's recent album, A Doll's House.  But listening to a CD on fairly unsophisticated equipment is quite different from hearing pieces by David Bedford and Howard Skempton in a theatre - not to mention the added dimension of seeing them performed.  With percussion the visual element is a particularly important extra dimension, whether it comes from watching four players hovering over a single marimba, the blowing of a conch shell or the way music can be made from a donkey's jaw-bone.  The absurd and hilarious dinner-party of Stephen Montague's Chew Chow Chatterbox, in which the musicians use voice, chopsticks, bowls, wine glasses and bottles, couldn't work half as well in a recording as on stage since the players enact the roles of host and dinner guests.

I loved the varied programme which ranged from Peter Garland's delicate variations in a single chord in Apple Blossom to an arrangement of free-form jazz evolved from Max Roach's improvisation with other drummers.  As I lived in the world of sound, I found my emotions shifting from moment to moment in response to the music.  At times it even seemed that I could see the sound hovering like a cloud above the players as they made the air vibrate.

The evening ended with an exuberant performance of John Cage's Third Construction, using a range of found (but carefully-tuned) instruments.  And I bought two more ensemblebash CDs.  The CDs may not match up to the wonders of performance but they have introduced me to still more percussion music and have already been a source of considerable pleasure and well worth the money I spent.  The CDs will have to suffice until ensemblebash return to the East Midlands.  I hope they come back soon.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The satyr dances

I don't feel comfortable in Piccadilly.  It's the province of the rich, who can afford its casual extravagances.  Suited and cloaked doormen - they are always men - stand at the entrances of buildings.  I would be reluctant to risk their contempt.  In Piccadilly, Fortnum and Mason's is mid-range while Pret-a-Manger is dangerously down-market.

It's partly my uneasiness with Piccadilly that keeps me away from the Royal Academy exhibitions, and partly the high cost of admission.  It's expensive even with an Art Fund card.  But when I saw the picture of the dancing satyr, I knew I had to brave Piccadilly, pay the admission price and see the exhibition in which he appeared.  It's called "Bronze" and bronze is the linking motif between all the exhibits.  It's about the material and its qualities rather than a period of history or changes in ideas.  Its focus is what stays the same.

 It's not just the material that is a constant in the exhibition.  There was also a repeated response to it from numerous visitors throughout the exhibition.  The gasps of awed admiration began as visitors opened the door to the exhibition and saw the first piece: the dancing satyr, in a room by himself.

The satyr is a recent discovery, found by fishermen in the sea off Sicily only fifteen years ago.  He's slightly larger than life-size and displayed so that viewers have to look up to him.  After his long immersion in salt-water, he's acquired a greenish patina and a slight roughness.  This only seems to aid the satyr's fluid movement.  It's as though his ecstatic dance continued without pause, whether he moved through air or water.  There's a smoothness about the curve of the limbs and body that made me want to reach out and touch him - but the flung-back head and the blank eyes speak of possession and tell the watcher to keep a distance.

So awe was there at the beginning and it continued.  There are massive statues: of saints, statesmen and peasants.  There is even Rodin's Age of Bronze which conveys uses the material to convey masculinity - or perhaps masculinity to convey the material.  There are tiny works.  Perhaps the most disturbing are the tiny copulating grasshoppers, whose image was cast by encasing them in molten metal.  There are gods and domestic objects.  Men ride horses, and panthers, battle monsters,  suffer agonies of torture or gaze sternly on the world.

Women are less in evidence.  There are goddesses and rulers; a stern and prickly Catherine de Medici, showing off the fashion of the day, is particularly memorable.  There are grief-stricken madonnas and a wonderful South Indian sculpture of the infant Krishna with his wet-nurse Mukhara.  And there are objects of desire - often small pieces presumably intended for private collectors.  Venus (naked, of course) removes a thorn from her foot, a satyr uncovers a sleeping nymph and, in another piece, a satyr and nymph are engaged in enthusiastic sexual intimacy.  It's a mark of the exhibition's focus on the craft of casting that my first thought on seeing this explicit and detailed piece was awe at the skill involved in creating so fragile a scenario in bronze.  Most of the workers in bronze have traditionally been men, so far as we can tell, but two twentieth-century pieces by women sculptors had a considerable impact: a large Louise Bourgeois spider mounted high on the wall and a curved abstract piece by Barbara Hepworth, which seemed to echo the sea evoked in the dancing satyr.

It's impossible to go into detail about all that is wonderful in an exhibition so far-ranging.  The Royal Academy has borrowed pieces from many parts of the world, inviting viewers to make comparisons across cultures and time.  I found myself particularly struck by a small chariot from Denmark made of bronze and gold in the 14th century B.C.  No-one knows its purpose or why the horse is placed within the chariot rather than pulling it along.  It is tiny, delicate and magical in its incomprehensibility - and the gilding on the circle which may be a sun, a shield or a great wheel is a thing of wonder.  And, as the films shown in the exhibition display, it was probably made by one of the two main methods still in use all over the world today.

Coming away from this exhibition, I knew it had changed something in the way in which I saw the world.  It had encouraged me to make comparisons and connections across cultures.  It had helped me look at art through the materials it uses rather than just the period in which it was made.  And it showed me the flexibility of that material in conveying a huge range of emotions and evoking numerous responses.  I wondered if there was any emotion it could not show or evoke.  Then I realised what was missing from that range which included desire, ecstasy, pride, fear, admiration and awe.  A word trickled into my mind and reminded me that one emotion and response had been absence.  Maybe bronze is for every emotion, every response - except love.