Monday, August 28, 2006

Des Canyons aux Étoiles

I must attend more live music. No matter how good a recording, it simply can't compare to hearing the resonances shimmer away into the rafters of the concert hall. And shimmer they did last night in the hands of the pianist Benjamin Kobler, the horn player William Purvis and the NJO Summer Academy, under Reinbert de Leeuw's baton.
Des Canyons ... is an epic work: 12 movements of Messiaen's inimitable colour, birdsong, space and rhythmic invention. Its programme is a double journey: while travelling through the deserts, canyons and birdlife of Utah, the listener also traverses a spiritual desert, via fear and awe, on into the life of the resurrected in the celestial city. I, for one, came away from the performance bathed in what felt like it must be the ecstasy of the saints in glory.
Perhaps nowhere in the work is Messiaen's compositional style more tuned to that ecstasy than in the eighth movement "The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran" (the brightest star in Taurus, apprently). Messiaen has the knack of transporting the mind to a position in which it seems to be surveying the whole of creation, which he does in this movement superbly. The strings and woodwinds create a cosmic sense of space into which the piano, percussion and individual winds float glistening strands of birdsong to paint the rapturous souls of the resurrected.
There is a lot of piano solo, not least because there are two birdsong movements for the pianist alone. That's one of the joys of the piece for me, and the piano playing was powerful. However, the only movement for solo horn, "Interstellar call", was the high point of the solo work. William Purvis conveyed its structure and emotion beautifully, and his use of the piano as a sounding board at certain points added electrifying resonances beyond those of the hall's acoustic and beyond those to be heard on the recording in my growing Messiaen collection.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Vital Sparks: Olivier Messiaen

Tomorrow evening, I'm off to an Edinburgh International Festival performance of Olivier Messiaen's enormous orchestral piece Des Canyons aux Étoiles, so it seems appropriate to inaugurate a projected series of occasional blog entries on the writers, musicians and artists who most invigorate me with a few words about Messiaen. Over the past few years, I've grown more and more interested in his music. I've yet to undertake any serious reading about him and his work, but his orchestral and piano writing affects me deeply.
Messiaen was a man of strong Christian faith and profound artistic originality. The combination has, apparently, puzzled other avant-garde French composers, but it is essential to the intellectual and emotional content of his works. He can hold the full richness and complexity of faith in a few notes. It never ceases to amaze me how a single Messiaen chord can express so much: the now and the not-yet of trusting God, the simultaneity of joy and sorrow in the soul's present adoration of Christ and its ache for the perfection of heaven. His suite for two pianos Visions de l'Amen is particularly full of examples of this, as is his orchestral work, Éclairs sur l'Au-delà.
The musical colour of Messiaen's work is breathtaking. He was a synaesthete, seeing sounds as colours, and used this as a basis for his musical composition. Birdsong was another strong element in much of his work. I often wonder how his work looked to him. It would never be possible for me to experience what he experienced, but the palete is wonderful and stimulating nonetheless. I've only ever heard his music on CD or on the radio; tomorrow will be my first experience of it in concert. I can hardly wait.

Verb, Pure Verb

I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to hear Seamus Heaney read at the Book Festival yesterday. Given that the tickets had sold out within hours of being released to us mere mortals, I had surrendered all hope of hearing him until a colleague of mine suggested that there might be returns. So I made for Charlotte Square first thing yesterday and joined the queue before the gates were opened.
Fortunately, there were returns, and I spent a good hour and three quarters in blissful anticipation of hearing Famous Seamus, browsing the bookshop and buying The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry and Menna Elfyn's Cusan Dyn Dall/Blind Man's Kiss. I had had a ticket to hear her read with Ciaran Carson on Sunday but hadn't been able to make it, so was pleased to see the collection--not usual among bookshop wares in Scotland--was still on the shelves.
Heaney was as precise and as full of glowing phrases in person as in print. He read solely from his recent collection District and Circle. Although there are some fine poems in it, the book suffers a bit from covering much old ground. However, that retreading is a conscious action on Heaney's part. Perhaps it's a function of his age and standing. From the size of the audience and the book's reception, it seems he can happily afford to revisit old themes and approaches.
My main favourites from District and Circle--for instance, "A Shiver", "In Iowa"--weren't among the poems Heaney read. I couldn't help but feel that the best of those he chose to read were the translations/versions of Horace and Rilke, which are some of the best poems in the collection. (In the Q&A session, he said that he doesn't have any German, so I don't know how he did the Rilke unless that was undue modesty on his part.)
Heaney's most interesting comments in the Q&A session were in response to questions on the role of the poet in the responding to world events. Following Robert Pinsky, he said that the poet's responsibility is "to answer what is happening". He formulated the aesthetic problem as being "how to relate your givens to the times" and instanced several different poetic approaches to the problem, among them Brecht's ("hopelessly reading the world" according to his political ideology), Wilfred Owen's and Isaac Rosenberg's.
This, perhaps, is where the reworking of the old ground finds its artistic validation: Heaney's primary givens--his agricultural Derry background; its linguistic, religious and cultural riches--are applied to the age of the "war on terror" rather than to the Ireland of the Troubles. This is Heaney extending the utterly local nature of those givens beyond the Irish social and political context to a global one. I say "primary givens" because it strikes me that the entirety of European literature is a secondary given for Heaney. But, not to be too Eurocentric, one must acknowledge that there is a locality to those givens too, which means that his use of them in the collection is essentially the same.
Anyway, enough of the analysis for now. After the reading, I joined the sizeable queue of devotees processing to the signing tent for the grace of the master's signature ("Seamus has to leave this festival to go to a party, so one book each, please," schoolma'amed Ruth Wishart). There he was, seated behind a desk on a raised platform with the line snaking towards him, the grateful snatching a few words with him, but never so many that the ever-attentive staff would chide them and hurry them on. Nothing I could think to say didn't seem foolish or banal, so I simply handed him my District and Circle with a mumbled thankyou (I didn't think I was that awed!) and looked him in the eye. He returned the gaze and the book with a valedictory "Good man!" I shuffled off, thinking warmly of the title poem of District and Circle and its recognition, as Heaney put it in the reading, of one artist to another.

Festival of Politics

Went to a couple of events on the Festival of Politics on Thursday. The first, the Royal Society of Arts lecture on the impact of technology on society and politics, was interesting but didn't enthrall me. The second event was billed as a discussion on Scottish culture, media and politics. Essentially, it was three journalists bemoaning the direction of newspaper and broadcast media management and its impact on the quality of journalism in Scotland and the UK. An informative if somewhat depressing session, it benefited from having the Scotsman critic and columnist Joyce McMillan as one of the panelists. She is a passionate, articulate and intelligent speaker and was the only panelist to discuss arts and culture.
McMillan's main bone of contention was the poverty of coverage for the arts in Scotland, even by Scottish media. As a Scottish theatre critic of long standing, she's well placed to comment. She pointed out that the appetite for arts and culture has burgeoned over the past decade or so but the space and resources given over to serious arts journalism have shrunk. Newspapers, she said, are edited on the macho assumption that sport (specifically, football) will sell copies, but nobody has tested whether good, extensive coverage of arts and culture could have the same effect. She didn't mention books, however, and the advent of the Scottish Review of Books, which is distributed free as an insert into the Sunday Herald. Okay, so one magazine does not a renaissance make, but it's a significant improvement on the previous situation.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Dampening Seams

Another Book Festival excursion yesterday evening. This time, it was to hear James Lasdun and Michael Symmons Roberts read from and discuss their second and first novels respectively.
Typical Book Festival weather is either warm and sunny, with festival-goers spread over the lawn of Charlotte Square, or tipping it down. Last night was the latter. Audience and speakers huddled in the tents and on the covered duckboards. Books in the book pavilions began to feel the damp. The rain cycled through crescendoes and diminuendoes on the roof of the Writer's* Retreat, bringing memories of camping back for more than just Michael Symmons Roberts.
I know of but haven't read Lasdun's poetry and fiction, which might well change. His second novel, Seven Lies, has just been longlisted for the Booker. It is set partly in Cold-War Berlin and partly in New York, where he lives. Having spent a seminal year and eight months in Berlin, I'm especially interested in versions of that singular city and its tortured history. And Lasdun's reading left the unacquainted hearer dying to know what happened next.
Michael's Patrick's Alphabet I have read. It's a gripping, dark, nuanced read. There is some wonderful description of the "edgelands" where much of the action takes place. I also noted a couple echoes of poems from his second collection Raising Sparks: the narrator runs into a dog whose coat is described in terms that echo "Sun Dogs"; a thermometer breaks in the narrator's darkroom (he is an ambulance-chasing photographer), as in the opening of the poem "Stills"; and St Patrick's use of the alphabet is mentioned in "First Things".
For me, a slight weakness of Patrick's Alphabet is the trajectory of the character Calladine, who ends up blowing up himself and a shopping centre. It doesn't quite convince me; it feels a little too obviously like a plot device. This character's descent into violence could perhaps have done with further exploration and explication. But then, the novel's primary concern is the narrator, the barriers he has built up and what it takes to break them down. He is a strongly written character, who carries the book well to the redemptive twists of its ending.
*Who is the one writer allowed to retreat to this venue?

Friday, August 18, 2006

Festival Three Pack

My first trip to this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival yesterday. I had tickets for three events, but could only make it to two of them. I couldn't make it to the poetry translation workshop with George Szirtes, which was the event I had really wanted to attend, but I managed to pass my ticket on to a colleague, who gave me a report and passed on some notes. Rob Mackenzie was there and has blogged about it here.
The other two events were a panel discussion about literary translation (interesting, but not fascinating) and a poetry reading: Paul Farley, Vicki Feaver and Hugo Williams, each of whom I'd heard before. Although Paul Farley had an irrititating tic of bending his books back so far and so frequently you thought all the pages would come tumbling out at any moment, he and Feaver were superb. Their work is imaginative and powerful. Farley has a pitch-perfect ear. His poetry puts me in mind of Don Paterson (who publishes him at Picador) but has none of Paterson's laddishness. I get a sense of rootedness from his work, but a rootedness that allows him to explore. Feaver interrogates and illuminates women's experience with a precise eye, leading the audience down unexpected paths. Fine work.
Hugo Williams, on the other hand, I can leave or leave. With some exceptions, his stuff started off tediously but, at some point, would pique my interest slightly. It sounded shapeless and prosy, and he read somewhat hurriedly. I simply didn't connect with him, but he didn't do anything with his material to make me connect with him. It didn't help that he began with a poem about letter-writing class in boarding school. The last couple of lines turned it into a poem about memory and writing, but not in a terribly interesting way. However, he lost me completely later in the set when he seemed to say we were in England. I can't stand that at the best of times, but it riles me particularly in festival season, when Radio Middle England and the London press suddenly remember the existence of Edinburgh.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Novel Gazing

In case you hadn't noticed, the Booker longlist is out and the media have begun their febrile speculation as to who will win the prize. (They never do that with the Forward shortlist, now, do they?) The BBC upholds journalistic standards by reporting on the bookies' odds rather more than the books, but The Guardian and The Times have made a better job of it.
James Robertson is on the list with The Testament of Gideon Mack. I finished reading it a week or two ago. The writing is a joy: fluid, gripping and witty; beautifully tuned and paced. As I noted in this post, there is a strong link with James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which is acknowledged in various ways. However, the narrative arc of Gideon Mack is different to that of Hogg's masterpiece and its structure more complex and multi-layered. The Scotland of Gideon Mack is a changed and changing creature, as uncertain of itself and as unreliable a narrator of its history as the central character. Like Hogg, James Robertson leaves the reader with more questions than answers, which is often what Scotland does to any of us who have thoughts about its present and future.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Little Sparta

Several weeks ago, I finally managed to visit Little Sparta, the late Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden. Finlay was a man of unique vision and creativity. With his collaborators, he transformed the bare land of Stoneypath farm into a poet-artist's garden, in which everything--the land, the buildings, the plants, the installations--is shaped according to a coherent overall vision. Although it contains numerous individual pieces of art, the garden as a whole constitutes a single artwork of tremendous invention and beauty. It is the most fully realised aesthetic I've ever encountered.
There's an interesting and informative interview with Finlay in issue 15 of the e-zine Jacket. I'm still pondering what exactly his use of "piety" means, and I haven't yet got round to reading the accompanying articles.
Ian Hamilton Finlay's son, Alec, works in a similar but equally distinctive vein. You can read his eulogy for his father here.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Alasdair Gray Has a Blog

I have just this afternoon discovered that Alasdair Gray has a website. As anyone who knows Gray's books would expect, it is illustrated in his distinctive style. It also contains poetry, plays, interviews, biliographies and a fragment of a storyboard for an "intended screenplay" of Gray's most famous novel, Lanark.

Gray also has a blogspot. Its sole illustration appears to be his self portrait in the profile. Most of the content is in the form of letters to various individuals, although the text of a one-act play called Goodbye Jimmy is also included.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Answers on a Postage Stamp

Does anybody know of, or have any good ideas for, a noun for a gathering of monostiches? "Sequence" seems somewhat overblown. My only thought so far is a "seam" ...

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