The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (2007) – the American chapters

Alex Ross’s the Rest is Noise is by far the most comprehensive and accessible introduction to the classical music of the long difficult twentieth century that I know of.

Born in 1968, Alex Ross studied classical composition, but was also a rock DJ at Harvard. He was just 28 when he was appointed classical music critic for New Yorker magazine, combining formidable technical and historical knowledge with a wonderfully clear and expressive prose style. He has a modern, unstuffy, relaxed approach to music of all sorts and sounds.

Having recently visited an exhibition of art from 1930s America and read the book of the exhibition, I decided to reread the relevant chapters of Ross’s masterwork to shed light on the musical highlights of the period. In the event this also requires reading one of the earlier chapters in the book, the one which describes the beginnings of 20th century American music.


Chapter 4 – Invisible men: American composers from Ives to Ellington

African American music

Slavery. Blacks. African Americans. The chapter opens by describing the way prescient critics and composers grasped that the one truly new and different element in American music was the black African element. It’s amazing to learn that when the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák went to New York in 1892 to teach at the new National Conservatory, he met a black composer, Harry T. Burleigh, who introduced him to African American spirituals, prompting the European master to write an article on ‘the Real Value of Negro Melodies’ in 1893 and predict that:

the future music of this country must be founded upon  what are called the negro melodies.

The early part of the chapter lists black composers who struggled to reconcile the European tradition with their background, and coming up against prejudice, racism, the difficulty of getting a full classical training and, if they did, of writing in a foreign idiom and getting performed. Ragtime classic Scott Joplin wrote an opera which was never performed. Harry Lawrence freeman founded the Negro Grand Opera Company and wrote two tetralogies of operas in the Wagner tradition, but which were never performed. Maurice Arnold Strohotte who Dvořák thought the most gifted of his pupils had a piece titled American Plantation Dances performed at the National Conservatory in 1894, but then couldn’t get any subsequent works performed and languished in obscurity. Will Marion Cook managed to get into one of the few colleges which accepted blacks and became a world class violinist, moving to Germany where – surprisingly – he was respected and taken seriously. Back in America he found his career blocked, began work on a classical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but never completed it, and found himself driven to orchestrating and directing blackface musical revues, and then a bandleader founding the New York Syncopated Review, and hiring the young genius clarinettist Sidney Bechet as star soloist.

Cook’s career shows how the exclusion of black ‘serious’ composers from the mainstream pushed them again and again towards music halls, revues, popular music – and indirectly fuelled the creation of jazz. Once this had crystallised as a form, a completely new style of music, towards the end of the Great War, there was an explosion of long-suppressed talent. The Russian pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein had predicted, back in 1893, that within 25 years Negro musicians would form ‘a new musical school’.

Neither he nor Dvořák nor many of the wannabe black classical composers could have anticipated just how revolutionary the advent of jazz would be. As Ross puts it, with characteristic eloquence:

The characteristic devices of African-American musicking – the bending and breaking of diatonic scales, the distortion of instrumental timbre, the layering of rhythms, the blurring of the distinction between verbal and nonverbal sound – opened new dimensions in musical space, a realm beyond the written notes. (p.122)

Just reeling off the names of some of the masters of jazz is dizzying – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson, Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman. As is the list of Broadway masters who came to fame in the 1920s – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin. They invented rhythms, styles, timings, structures, tones and timbres, and wrote thousands of compositions which changed the nature of music all round the world.

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Histories of modern American classical music generally begin with Ives. The son of a traditional marching bandmaster in New England, he grew up surrounded by the music of brass bands and church music but, after a successful university education, decided to work for an insurance company, composing in the evenings and weekends completely revolutionary works which experimented with novel musical techniques including polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatory elements and quarter tones. An immediate flavour is given when you learn that Three Places in New England requires the orchestra to play orchestrated versions of two popular Victorian songs at the same time. That said, compared with most of what follows, a lot of Ives still sounds reassuringly familiar.

Edgar Varèse (1883 – 1965)

Whereas Ives was American through and through and incorporated snatches of hymn tunes, popular songs and classical references in works still titled Violin concerto and so on, Varèse was French and determinedly avant-garde. He travelled to New York during the Great War and pioneering a highly experimental sound, latterly involving tape recordings, which earned him the sobriquet ‘the father of electronic music’.

Coming from the world of Dada and cubism, Varèse was keen to incorporate non-musical sounds in a futurist attempt to capture ‘the sound of the city’ – look out for the fire siren in Amériques. His key works are Amériques (1918–1921), Offrandes (1921), Hyperprism (1922–1923), Octandre (1923), Intégrales (1924–1925), Arcana (1925–1927), Ionisation (1929–1931), Ecuatorial (1932–1934), Density 21.5 (1936), Dance for Burgess (1949), Déserts (1950–1954) Poème électronique (1957–1958).

Varèse broke down language and form into a stream of sensations, but he offered few compensating spells of lyricism. His jagged thematic gestures, battering pulses, and brightly screaming chords have no emotional cords tied to them, no history, no future. (p.137)

I like the YouTube poster who describes Amériques as like The Rite of Spring on crack.

George Antheil (1900 – 1959)

Antheil was born American, to German immigrant parents, who went to Paris determined to be the most avant of the garde, wowed modernist writers with his Dadaist/Futurist ideas, caused a riot at one of his premiers in the approved avant-garde style and brought back to New York his notorious Ballet Mécanique. This was originally intended to accompany an experimental film by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy with cinematography by Man Ray and which you can see on YouTube. To the kind of fire siren sounds Varèse pioneered Antheil added the use of several airplane propellers onstage. Sadly these tended to blow the audience’s programmes around and wreck ladies’ hairdos. The critics were underwhelmed at his ‘bad boy’ antics, and his reputation went into decline. After a spell in decadent Berlin writing for the stage, by the 1930s he was back in the States, writing film scores in Hollywood. Although it’s loud with four pianos and plenty of percussion, it’s striking how prominent the three xylophones manage to be. Xylophones suddenly appear in modernist music and have never gone away.

The Wikipedia article has a musical analysis of Ballet Mécanique.

Carl Ruggles (1876 – 1971)

A difficult, obstreperous, loudly racist and self-taught composer, Ruggles devised his own form of atonal counterpoint, on a non-serial technique of avoiding repeating a pitch class until a generally fixed number such as eight pitch classes intervened. He wrote painstakingly slowly so his output is relatively small. His longest and best-known work is Sun-Treader (1926–31) for large orchestra, a weighty 16 minutes long. As Ross sums him up:

If Varèse is like early Stravinsky with the folk motifs removed, Ruggles is like Ives without the tunes. (p.138)

Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965)

Cowell was another  highly experimental; American composer. He was the centre of a circle which included Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, Leo Ornstein, John Becker, Colin McPhee, Varèse and Ruth Crawford. In the 1920s he founded new music magazines and organisations, published much new music, and reached out to incorporate South American composers such as Villa-Lobos. Among his many students were George Gershwin, Lou Harrison and John Cage.

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

The most glaring thing about Gershwin is how tragically young he died, aged 38 of a brain tumour. How much he had accomplished by then! A host of timeless songs, a pack of shows and revues, and then some immortal concert hall – Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928) as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935). He grew up in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family on the lower East Side of Manhattan, was intrigued by the music-making of some relatives, wangled piano lessons, got a job very young in Tin Pan Alley while the Great War was still on, churning out popular tunes and songs incorporating the latest sounds i.e. the arrival of jazz from the great mash-up of syncopated sounds which were in the air. His biggest money-spinner was the early song Swanee which Al Jolson heard him perform at a party and decided to make part of his black-face act.

As success followed success Gershwin took to the party high life of New York like an elegant swan. And beneath the stylish surface there was an enquiring mind, always questing to improve his musical knowledge. He continued to take musical lessons throughout his life and made several trips to Europe where he sought out the masters. He was particularly impressed by the serialist composer Alban Berg in Vienna. In Paris he studied with Maurice Ravel, who ended their lessons, supposedly by telling him, ‘Why be a second rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?’

Many commentators then and now have noticed how many of the popular ‘composers’ of 20s and 30s America were Jews – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin – and how thoroughly they co-opted and expressed the African American idiom. This allowed a field day to anti-Semites like some of the Regionalists and ruralists. Scholars have pointed to the similiarities, both were ‘outsider’ groups liable to harsh discrimination. In our own censorious judgmental times, how would they have avoided the block accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’?

Ross is more relaxed and points to the notion of the Melting Pot – New York in particular was a massive mash-up of hundreds of influences, everyone – writers, poets, painters, composers, singers, comedians – was stealing from, remixing and contributing to a mass explosion of creativity. Also, as I read in a history of jazz decades ago, it is commonplace to say that jazz – and the vast ocean of sounds which come out of it, rock’n’roll, pop and the rest of it – is entirely due to African rhythms, syncopations and the blurring of voices and timbres Ross describes. But this history pointed out another truth so obvious nobody sees it – there isn’t a single African instrument anywhere in a jazz band. All of the instruments were invented by white Europeans as was the system of music notation used by all the big bands. Seen from this point of view, African American music ‘appropriated’ 500 years of European tradition – and gave it a good shake from which it’s never recovered.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

One of the prime shakers was Duke Ellington, the jazz big band leader who broadened its style and appeal into a large band capable of projecting a well-organised, full sound while still giving space to many of the greatest soloists of the day. With Ellington jazz moved out of low dives and bars and into the swellest of must-see nightclubs. His impeccable personal taste and style, his good manners and slyly intelligent way with reporters and interviewers made him a star, as did a steady stream of jazz standards. From the 1930s to the 1970s his band undertook wide-ranging tours of Europe and Latin America, helping to make him a household name around the world.


Chapter 8 – Music for All: Music in FDR’s America

A host of things led to decisive changes as the 1920s turned into the 1930s.

1. The Depression wrecked the country, destroying middle class savings and crushing the rural population. Somehow, eerily, there continued to be a market, in fact the market grew, for shiny escapist Hollywood fantasies of the high life, starring a new generation of movie stars Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow. As the country got poorer the Hollywood fantasies got shinier, the stars more glamorous.

2. Talkies And now they were in talking pictures. Sound completely transformed movies, in the obvious respect that you could hear the movie idols speak, but also because they could now carry extended soundtracks. Music. Short songs, extended show pieces or just background music. This music had to be accessible and comprehensible immediately. No place here for modernist experimentation – Varese, Ives, Ruggles, Virgil Thompson – no thank you. Opportunities opened for thousands of hack composers to mash up all the sounds they heard around them, jazz, swing, along with any useful bits of classical music, with a few geniuses standing above the crowd, most famously Erich Korngold (1897-1957), a child prodigy who produced the scores for many of Errol Flynn’s swashbucklers in the 30s, and Bernard Hermann (1911-65) who kicked off his career spectacularly scoring Citizen Kane (1941) before going on to score a host of famous movies, including a clutch of Hitchcocks, most famously the shower scene of Psycho (1960). Both the children of Jewish immigrants.

3. Politics Stalin’s Communist International issued the call for a Popular Front to be formed against the fascist powers at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 but the whole of the 30s are sometimes seen as the Popular Front decade, when working men and women, some politicians, as well as the intelligentsia all became politicised, all asked themselves how such poverty and misery could come to the greatest country on earth and, not irrationally, concluded there was something very wrong with the system. More than one composer decided to reject the intellectual allure of modernism – indelibly associated with ‘abroad’, with the big city specially New York – and realised it was their ‘duty’ to write about their own country, about its sufferings, in music which would be understandable to all.

4. The Exodus Also Europe came to America. The advent to power of Hitler in 1933 drove a wave of European emigrants – Jews or socialists and communists, or just people the Nazis described as ‘degenerates’ – to flee to the Land of the Free. And so half the great composers of the day landed up in America – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Rachmaninov, Weill, Milhaud, Hindemith, Krenek, Eisler and many others. As Ross puts it, entire communities from Paris or Berlin settled en masse in New York or the Hollywood Hills (p.260). they were all welcomed into the bosom of Roosevelt’s New Deal America although, arguably, in pampered America none of them produced work of the intensity which brought them to fame in troubled Europe. But it had another impact: in the 1920s artists and composers went on pilgrimage to Europe to sit at the feet of the masters and bring their discoveries back to breathless audiences. But now the masters were here, living among us and regularly putting on concerts. The special role of the artist as privileged messenger from the other world evaporated. They had to find another role.

5. The Federal Music Project was set up as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935. It created employment for a small army musicians, conductors and composers and led to the thousands of concerts, music classes, the establishment of a Composers Forum Laboratory, as well as scores of music festivals and the creation of 34 new orchestras! An estimated 95 million Americans attended presentations by one or other FMP body. A huge new audience was created for a type of accessible culture which increasingly came to be defined as ‘middle-brow’ (p.278).

6. Radio and records These new regional orchestras were able to reach beyond concert halls into the homes of many more people as radio stations were set up across America and mass production made radios available to even the poorest families (like television a generation later). Music (as well as news, drama, features and so on) now reached far beyond the big cities. Radio made stars of some of the big name conductors, namely Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini, whose regular radio broadcasts brought Beethoven and Brahms to huge numbers of new listeners. Simultaneously the plastic discs, 78 rpm records and then long players, were a whole new medium which could bring recordings of all sorts of music into people’s homes to be played again and again. A massive revolutionary switch from live to recorded music began to sweep the country in this decade.

How as the American composer, struggling to find a voice and a role, to respond to the clamour and confusion of this new world?

Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)

Copland was another New York Jew who went to Europe to study music and composition for three years, returned and got only small audiences for his advanced pieces until, swayed by the changing social scene around him, and participating in communist meetings and agitation, he realised he needed to devote his talents to the common man, making his music as accessible, as uplifting, as optimistic as possible. His breakthrough came after a visit to Mexico (which often helps American writers, poets, composers, painters see their own country in a new light) and the syncopations of the Spanish tradition helped him escape from both the prison house of modernism but also the sounds of jazz and Broadway which dominated his native New York.

The result was the complex syncopations of El Salón México (1936) and there quickly followed the tide of his most popular works, which used big bold motifs, lots of brass and grandiose percussion, clear harmonies and slow-moving, stately themes which somehow convey the sense of space and openness – Billy the Kid (1938), Quiet City (1940), Our Town (1940), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), Lincoln Portrait (1942), Rodeo (1942), Appalachian Spring (1944).

(Although he’s associated with soft American landscapes, if you look closely you’ll see that his most programmatic music is actually about the desert and the prairie, a distinctly non-European landscape. For me this echoes the way that Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings inspired by the deserts of New Mexico – for me – emerged as the most distinctive works in the recent exhibition of 1930s art, America after the Fall.)

Copland created a way of sounding big and brash and bold and confident, often poignant and moving, which somehow didn’t seem to owe anything to the stilted European tradition. To this day his sound lives on in the movie music of, for example, John Williams, the most successful Hollywood composer of our day. Copland is always mentioned in the company of other populist composers like:

Samuel Barber (1910-81) remembered for his haunting Adagio for strings (1936)

Roy Harris (1898 – 1979) From Wikipedia: “Johana and Roy Harris were a tour de force in American music. Their collaboration has been compared to that of Robert and Clara Schumann. The Harrises organized concerts, adjudicated at festivals, and in 1959 founded the International String Congress. They promoted American folksong by including folksongs in their concerts and broadcasts.” Harris wrote 18 symphonies in an accessible style and on grand patriotic subjects – Gettysburg Address, West Point, Abraham Lincoln. This passage from Ross gives a good sense of his easy confident often amused style:

The work that won Harris nationwide attention was his Third Symphony of 1938 – an all-American hymn and dance for orchestra in which strings declaim orations in broad, open-ended lines, brass chant and whoop like cowboys in the galleries, and timpani stamp out strong beats in the middle of the bar. Such a big-shouldered sound met everyone’s expectations of what a true-blue American symphony should be. (p.280).

Swing

To most of us the period was dominated by the form of jazz known as swing and the big band jazz of Duke Ellington (formed his band 1923) and Count Basie (formed his big band in 1935) alongside white bandleaders like Ted Lewis (1919), Paul Whiteman (1920) the rather tamer offerings of white band-leaders like Tommy Dorsey (1935), Benny Goodman and latterly Glenn Miller. It was an August 1935 concert at the Palomar Ballroom by Benny Goodman which is sometimes hailed as the start of ‘the Swing Era’ and the band’s ‘s confident smooth big band sound earned Goodman the moniker ‘the King of Swing’, a status when his band went on to play the prestigious Carnegie Hall in new York, previously the domain of the most high-toned classical concerts, and took  it by storm. After twenty years of hard work by black and white musicians across the country, it felt like their music was finally accepted.

The highbrows weren’t immune. Stravinsky, the great liberator of rhythm in classical music, had incorporated sort-of jazz syncopations right from the start and now, in exile in California, wrote a Scherzo a la Russe  for Paul Whiteman’s band (1944) and an Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman’s, Woody later commenting that the Maestro hadn’t made any concessions at all to the idiom of the big band – it was Stravinsky through and through.

But Stravinsky’s adventures in America belong to the next decade, the 1940s (he came from Paris to do a U.S. concert tour in 1940 and then the Germans invaded France, so he was stuck).

Imagine you were a student in 1938, what would you listen to? Copland’s serious but consciously patriotic and possibly left-leaning orchestra panoramas of the Big Country? Would you subscribe to Henry Cowell’s New Music and followed the ongoing experiments of Varese, Ruggles and Ives? Would you dismiss all that as European rubbish and tune into Toscanini’s Saturday night broadcasts of the old classics, dominated by Beethoven and Brahms? Would you know about the efforts of the Seegers and others like them to track down and record the folk songs of rural folk before they died out? Or would save your dollars to take your best girl to go see each swing band which came through your mid-Western city, and have an impressive collection of discs by the Duke, the Count, Benny, Tommy and Woody?

Another world, other tastes, other choices.


Related links

Reviews of books about America

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2015

The 247th Royal Academy Summer show and about the sixth one I’ve visited. Maybe familiarity is dulling the impact but nothing here really set me alight, as I’m sure it has in the past. The reverse: I am getting used to seeing the same names, styles and approaches cropping up year after year, which gives it rather the feel of a local school fete, with all the usual stalls, manned by the usual enthusiastic volunteers.

Still, with 1,131 items on display, in almost every conceivable medium, in every size and covering a vast range of subject matter, most of them for sale at prices from bargain basement to outrageous, there is plenty to like, dislike or say ‘My God, how much?’ to.


In the courtyard, an enormous metal assemblage of rusting metal girders arranged in Vorticist rectangles, cubes and geometrical shapes – The Dappled Light of The Sun by Conrad Shawcross RA (b.1977). The sun came out and did, in fact, dapple us as we walked under it.

Inside, the steps leading up from the foyer to the main galleries had been painted with crazy day-glo stripes by Jim Lambie (b.1964). Looks good from above.

Michael Craig-Martin CBE RA unveiling a new site-specific artwork by Jim Lambie for the Summer Exhibition 2015  © David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Michael Craig-Martin CBE RA unveiling a new site-specific artwork by Jim Lambie for the Summer Exhibition 2015 © David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Part of the hang is, apparently, to have painted the rooms in bold colours – turquoise, magenta – which I thought were simply the kind of Farrow & Ball pastel backdrops you get at any exhibition until I read about them. Each of the rooms is allotted to a different curator to make a personal selection and all have a wall panel explaining the thinking behind the selection and layout. Though some of the rooms have a distinct feel – a few felt empty apart from a small number of large works, the sculpture room felt cluttered with objects on racks, plinths and the floor, the architecture room was filled with tables supporting utopian cityscapes – for the most part the wall panel explanations bore little relationship to the actual sensory experience.

I liked, or at least noticed, the following:

In the first room, the hexagonal Wohl Central Hall, centrally placed on a plinth is a life-size replica of a Greek statue made out of slices of coloured plastic – Captcha No.11 (Doryphoros) by Matthew Darbyshire (b.1977). Above it hung Liam Gillick’s Applied Projection Rig, the use of bright colour and plastic, in this, the statue and the painted stairs, all feeling a bit 1960s.

The Central Hall of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

The Central Hall of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

The second room was painted a shocking pink. Above the door were hung half a dozen fluorescent tubes shaped into circles with writing, as pioneered above American diners in the 1950s – Homo Bulla (Man Is A Bubble) by Michael Landy RA (b.1963). The writing was in a cursive script so neither of us could read what they said, but they were pretty.

On the left, in the photo below, you can see Untitled (Watch) by Michael Craig-Martin CBE RA (b.1941). Craig-Martin specialises in turning ordinary objects into highly stylised square-on line drawings, slightly like the precise technical drawing style of the later Tintin cartoons, filled in with bright unshaded primary colours. Later rooms featured Fragment Coffee Cup (screenprint £3,000), Fragment Briefcase (£3,000) and so on.

Gallery III of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Gallery III of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

A small panel of arrow shapes in a rigid geometric lines and bright colours created an optical illusion. Thorns 11 (£6,000) was one of a series of related works by Tessa Jaray RA (b.1937), which also included Borromini’s Balustrade (£12,000) and Light 2 (Diptych) (£18,000). Jagged, entrancing.

My son liked a big painting of a red tree, Tree No.7 by Tony Bevan RA (b.1951), visible on the right in the pink photo above. In a later room I liked Cork Dome by David Nash OBE RA (b.1945). A few years ago an exhibition of his large wood sculptures was hosted at Kew Gardens, where they fitted right in. This one would have sat better in a large room full of similar works.

I liked A Fall of Ordinariness and Light by Jessie Brennan (b.1982) which looked like a charcoal sketch of a 1960s Brutalist council block but is in fact a treated digital print, but had then been rumpled and creased. I’m a sucker for any painting or image which has been degraded, has fraying edges, bits of newspaper, card or wood or real-world detritus stuck on it, a key characteristic of Modern Art since Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Picasso and Braque pasted newspaper fragments onto canvas, but which always excites me. As if the work is reaching out of its frame into the real world. Or is infected by the universal crappiness of the dusty, diesel-fume, swirling-litter-and-peeling-posters-on-broken-hoardings reality of the cityscapes which imprison us.

I write a blog about walks in the country on which I take photos of landscapes and buildings, generally adopting the same square-on approach, carefully framing the subject so it has equal space above and below and to either side. Which explains why I warmed to Red Roof (£345) a photo by Rachel Mallalieu. You can hear the sea and feel the cracking of the shingle as you walk across it.

Waiting for Spring (£525) a linocut by Louise Stebbing, charming prints following in the footsteps of Ravilious and a thousand others hymning the English countryside. Follow Louise Stebbing on twitter.

My son particularly liked this atmospheric oil painting of what you see in the car headlights alone at night in the middle of nowhere – the kind of scene you see in movies hundreds of times but rarely see depicted in ‘art’ – Luther Road by Donna McLeanwho was also represented by Sarah Lund.

Round the corner, in the relatively small Gallery I, hung an enormous tapestry by everyone’s favourite cross-dresser, Grayson Perry CBE RA (b.1960). Julie and Rob is a large cartoon, is it not, a deliberate reduction of line and colour to an almost Simpsons-like level of simplicity. A snip at £69,600, but then – it is enormous!

Julie and Rob (2013) Grayson Perry CBE RA Courtesy the artist, Paragon/Contemporary Editions and Victoria Miro, London

Julie and Rob (2013)
Grayson Perry CBE RA
Courtesy the artist, Paragon/Contemporary Editions and Victoria Miro, London

Hanging on the wall next to the tapestry, my son really liked Window With Screen No.2 (£10,000) by David Tindle RA (b.1932). He thought it was nice and relaxing. Near it was a watercolour of the small figure of a man walking across burning fields, Fire Burnt The Land Like A Language (£5,000) by David Firmstone MBE. I like Modernist angularity in paintings and sculptures, and a certain amount of dirty realism ie showing the world as it actually is, and I liked the poignancy of the smallness of the human figure.

In the same spirit I liked Forsaken in acrylic and pen (£1,000) by Deborah Batt. It has the squareness I like and the realism of a graffiti-covered world but transmuted into something clearer and simpler, on the way towards the style of a graphic comic, maybe.

Liking objets trouvés and applied to the surface of a work, I liked Periscope Dazzle (£450) by Stuart Newman, a round hollow metal cog used to frame the image of a battleship as seen from a U-boat periscope. I liked the tarnished rust effect round the outside of the cog.


The Architecture room

There’s always a room devoted to architecture which I humorously think of as the Room of Shame, where high-minded fantasists create utopian cityscapes made of perfect loops and shapes, completely ignoring the reality of the dirty, polluted, congested cityscapes they have so far managed to create for us lowly proles to actually inhabit.

For example, Silicon Roundabout is the title of a shiny photograph by Grant Smith of the Old Street roundabout in London, centre of a lot of hype about London becoming a hub of digital/internet technology as important as Silicon Valley in California. I commute via this tube station twice a day and walk along the side of the hoarding in the centre of the photo which has the words ‘White Collar Factory’ printed on it, and the experience is one of jostling overcrowding, diesel pollution from the endless buses, and grit, sand and dust filling eyes, nose and hair from the permanent building sites surrounding the roundabout. This photo makes it look stylish and modern but it is a horrible, anti-human space. How many of the other shiny photos, architects designs and ‘artists’ sketches’ in this room conceal similarly degraded realities.

On the walls and liberally displayed on angular tables were the usual science fiction fantasies of vast air terminals or futuristic cities (some of which have actually been built in China or some such far-off places). In addition, this year, the walls were lined with the wise sayings of various architects and critics. Far more than artists, architects fancy themselves as gurus, as designers of life, as creators of whole ideal environments for people to live in (strangely heedless of the traffic-dominated, windswept, plastic-shopping-centre nightmares most English towns have become under their guidance).

‘Where people meet, ideas collide and inventions begin,’ was the contribution from Richard George Rogers, Baron Rogers of Riverside, CH, Kt, FRIBA, FCSD, HonFREng (b.1933). Next to it these words from Piers Gough (b.1946): ‘Of course, architecture is really inventive land escape.’ The ‘of course’ says everything, everything you need to know about the lofty, de haut en bas, guru-to-his-disciples spirit in which World Architecture and its superstars operate. The play on words in ‘land escape’, well…

The funniest thing about the Room of Shame was the way these engineers of the human soul, these people who claim to understand human nature intimately and deeply enough to create entire city and townscapes catering to our every need, had designed tables holding their fantastical designs which featured gaps between the models at about bum height…

Since this was the fifth or six room in the show, quite obviously a number of visitors had done the entirely natural thing and leant or even perched on these empty bits of table. With the result that big signs had had to be fixed to the tables in every possible perching space shouting DO NOT SIT – beautifully epitomising the failure of groovy modern design to understand the most basic of human needs, the need for a bit of a sit-down and a rest. Reminding me of the NO BALL GAMES, NO PLAYING signs on the green spaces of a thousand council blocks I’ve seen over the decades. ‘We have designed these masterpieces of philosophical architecture,’ the signs say: ‘Now don’t you dare mess them up by actually living in them’.

My son – who is studying biology – really liked the Urban Flora Propagation Field Box (£4,000) by Laurence Pinn, Ben Kirk and Andrew Diggle, and was genuinely upset by the strident DO NOT TOUCH sign next to it. God forbid children should get interested in science or try out, test and play with a bit of scientific equipment. Our work is to admire, not to use.

In the same spirit we both liked the chess set where the pieces were miniature versions of famous buildings and – we realised – black represented modern buildings (the Shard, the Gherkin, the Mobile Phone) and white represented old (Tower Bridge, St Paul’s). Franklin’s Morals of Chess (Jade) (£1,960) by Karl Singporewala, a nifty reworking of the perennial theme of the Battle of Ancient and Moderns. But which, inevitably, had a big sign next to it saying DO NOT TOUCH. God forbid people should actually play a game with it…

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Oddly for a room of architecture designs, on one wall hung 40 etchings of the Galapagos islands in the distinctive black-and-white and easily enjoyable style of Norman Ackroyd CBE RA (b.1938). Birds wheeling, guano-covered cliffs, crashing waves. His etchings appear every year but are usually seascapes of the Orkney and Shetland islands and, sure enough, in another room are works with titles like Whitby, Gannets on Flannen, Thirsk Hall in winter, Morning Sunlight Bempton. Priced from £500 to £1,000 these would be lovely objects to own.

In the next room was an example of the instantly recognisable style of Cathy de Monchaux  (b.1960) – Asylum (£28,000) – a kind of shallow vitrine containing a miniature scene constructed from copper wire, medical plasters, pigment, feathers and silk, the delicacy and medieval fantasy subject matter – apparently some unicorns in a wood – contrasting vividly? poignantly? strikingly? with the metallic modern-ness of the materials.

My son liked what looked like two big boards or sides of wooden crates, onto whose visible grain small images had been painted – Noon Fishing and Dawn Fishing by Mick Moon RA (b.1937). So did I for the reasons outlined above about enjoying the involvement of rough or raw materials in art.

Michael Craig-Martin (b.1941) who I mentioned earlier, has always seemed to me the artistic father of cool Young British Artist Julian Opie (b.1958); whereas C-M applies a hard-outlined brightly-coloured approach to objects, Opie creates large bright cartoon-style images of people, most famously in his cover art for the Best of Blur album back in 2000. This year he is represented by Tourist with Beard (screenprint with hand painting) (£8,600) and Walking in the Rain, Seoul (£23,500).

Julian Opie  Walking in the rain, Seoul  From Walking in the rain (2015)

Julian Opie – Walking in the rain, Seoul
From Walking in the rain (2015)

Allen Jones RA (b.1937), recently the beneficiary of a major retrospective at the RA, featured with some of the yellow, cartoon-like, soft porn paintings he does nowadays – Second Thoughts and Salome. Writing ‘cartoon’ reminds me of the Craig-Martin and Opie and, indeed, the Grayson Perry. Is it a trend to treat objects and the human figure as if they were idealised shop window mannekins?

Anthony Green RA always appears in the show, with six of his quirky, cartoony (that word again) portrayals of domestic life (often his own) – a kind of ruder, hairier, male version of Beryl Cook. The Birds: A Second Marriage and The Bureau: Afternoon Sun give you the flavour of his comic realism, often with the canvas or surface itself cut out around the shape of an object in the image, like the artist’s face or glasses. Maybe there is no trend. Maybe I’m just realising that I like cartoons. Cartoons and photographs.

Professor David Mach RA (b.1956)’s enormous sculpture of a gorilla made from coathangers was the outstanding work of the 2010 show. This year he was represented by six works of which I only noticed Sunimi and a golden Buddha, both a tad pricey at £29,500. (Article about Mach)

Because I like novelty, sculpture and harsh subject matter, I immediately liked Margaret Proudfoot’s War Work (Ypres), a three-yard-square map of the field boundaries of a patch of the Ypres battlefield made entirely of barbed wire (£3,500), striking, original, entirely fitting, horrible to contemplate (or touch) yet totally fragile, the photo doesn’t do its scale or its delicacy justice.

In front of it was an over-lifesize dominating sculpture by Michael Sandle RA (b.1936) – As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap: An Allegory (Acknowledgements to Holman Hunt) – a parody or spoof of Holman Hunt’s famous 1853 pre-Raphaelite painting, The Light of The Worldin which the figure of Jesus has been dressed in modern fighter pilot outfit and helmet, clutching the decapitated heads of the innocent children he’s bombed to death, and with Hunt’s illuminating lantern converted into some kind of death ray machine. It’s almost as if the artist is telling us that War is Bad.

On the wall, to the left of the pilot’s head, you can see I Just Want To Be Held, a c-type print by Deborah Brown (£700) a photo of the torso of a (lean shapely) young woman with what appeared to be the hairs or shoots of cactus buds emerging from her smooth skin. My son liked the title, I liked the smooth contours, we both liked the ‘conceit’ or ‘concept’ or ‘gag’. In the past I’ve complained to my companions about the prevalence of boring old painted nudes at the show: mention of this example prompts me to comment there were surprisingly few, if any, full female nudes this year.

My son liked two photos of ruined buildings with incongruous objects in them – Chaise in Morning Room (£495) by Sara Qualter & Bill Baillie, and Thicket by Susanne Moxhay (£795). I know what he meant, but they were a little too stagey for me. Room IX might have been my favourite, with the barbed wire, the cactus nude, and a whole load of striking photos, including two by Robin Friend – Gaewern Slate Mine (Abandoned 1970) (£8,500) and Exit Test (£5,500).

Back in room II, the guide highlighted (among many other works all hung close together) three portraits – of Simon Cowell, Damian Hirst and Grayson Perry (see below). I thought they were all dire, and indicative of the very wide range of ability, success and failure, which is always on display here. You pays your money and you really does take your choice.

Works on display in Gallery II of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Works on display in Gallery II of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

The final gallery (X) is entirely dedicated to a work by Tom Phillips titled A Humument: he has spent thirty years systematically decorating, defacing and redesigning the pages of an obscure second-hand book, A Human Document by W.H. Mallock. We are invited a) to understand this, and then b) to examine 40 or 50 of the the fairly small (6 inches by 4 inches?) pages thus artified. According to the website linked to above, he has completed some 367 pages so far, and still hasn’t finished. This is how they were hung.

And after this, the Exit and the brightly-lit Shop, full of all sorts of attractive merchandise.


The Summer Exhibition Explorer

For the first time the RA has made all 1,131 items available to view via the Summer Exhibition Online Explorer, which you can explore by gallery or by artist, where you can take tours or sample selections. This allows a completely new relationship with the art because you could, for example, surf every single piece before you go, and seek out ‘in real life’ what you fancied as a 2-inch-square photo. Or, after visiting, you can check back on something you thought you liked to see if you still do. You could just surf the images and decide you’d ‘done’ the show but this would be a mistake, as works of art a) are (obviously) all much bigger than depicted on a little computer screen b) have an impact in real life, to do with size and texture and presence and feel, which can only be felt in their presence.

What surfing it did for me, after returning from the show, was made me realise just how many pieces I hadn’t really seen or engaged with because, in any one visit, you can only notice so much, be engaged with so many works. Made me realise I should probably go back, in a different mood, at a different time of day, and I would probably enjoy a completely different selection of the vast array of art on show.


 

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