Not really a gig review (it was a great gig), but three things that occurred to me as I sat in the Union Chapel, enjoying the songs of James Yorkston.
Note One: Union Chapel as sacred grove
A book I’ve been blown away by these last few days is The New English Landscape, by Ken Worpole (Field Station Press), a set of essays on the post-war landscape of East Anglia, showing how much culturally-embedded ideas of an ‘ideal’ England upstream from London have damaged our relationship with the much more lived- and worked-in landscape ‘downriver’: a landscape – of mudflats and sea walls – that I love. I’ll write more about it, but Worpole makes one off-hand comment that struck me as so obvious that I was shocked never to have come across it before.
Using it as a comparison to the dangerous, ‘liminal’ locus of the seashore, Worpole talks of the sacred grove, which is, he says:
a secret, enclosed space known only to the gods and their self-elected worshippers. It is a powerful spatial configuration which starts with the clearing in the forest, or the woodland glade, and over time is transmuted into the interior of the Gothic cathedral.
I’ve no idea if this insight is Worpole’s, or is common anthropological knowledge (from Frazer, perhaps?) but it struck me as wonderfully, obviously true, in the way that mythic/pscyhological correspondences often do. (eg the expulsion from the garden of Eden as a metaphor for puberty, or the 1970 doubling of Hippolyta/Theseus and Titania/Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Peter Brook.)
It struck me doubly true, sat in the beautiful Union Chapel, my first visit there, under its beautiful dome, columns as trees. Those inside the initiated, having chosen to be there, gathering.
(The person I had arranged to meet at the gig couldn’t make it, but we sat down in the pew behind a woman by wife knows through work, whom she’d been trying to arrange to meet outside work for months. I had a tweet from someone else I know afterwards saying they’d seen me from across the room. Sacred grove…)
Note two: The singer takes nothing home
Yorkston said he would play two songs from his new, very-nearly-finished-being recorded record (produced by Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip). The first, an immediate belter, began with the lines I dreamed I was a red fox/Spiraling over the rooftops
Today’s text is taken from Nicholson Baker’s U&I (pg 20, in its cute little US Random House hardback), which I happened to leafing through yesterday for some other reason, when I came across these lines:
Updike was much more important to me than Barthelme as a model and influence, and now the simple knowledge that he was alive and writing and had just published one of his best books, Self-Consciousness, felt like a piece of huge luck. How fortunate I was to be alive when he was alive!
I remember being struck by this when I read the book before, because that is what I had thought, too late, on reading the obituary of Samuel Beckett, when I was 17. I was suddenly struck with the fact that I had been alive, on the planet, at the same time as this person, and with what a huge privilege that was. Beckett would go on being read down the ages, and people in the future would pause from their reading, look out the window and wonder what the world was like, back then, that it could have produced such a response – and I knew. I was there! (Okay, I wasn’t alive when he was writing most of what people would be reading, down those ages, but that was only half the point: I was enviable. I was to be envied.)
The thought, the memory, passed, and I got on with whatever I was doing, but then that evening, as I was doing the ironing, I watched the BBC4 documentary ‘American Master: A Portrait of John Adams’, during which it was mentioned that Adams was the most performed living composer, and it struck me, again, as it had not struck me since Beckett, that here was someone I was privileged to be sharing the planet with: him, creating, me, listening. Continue reading
Picked up a copy of new magazine Teller at the Tate shop a few days ago and now have read most of it. It’s a 64-page stapled thing about the size of a posh Sunday supp magazine. Comes from “London and Berlin” and calls itself “a magazine of stories”, which breaks down to four photo essays (of 16, 9, 11 and 13 images), two short stories, one travelogue, one anecdote and one autobiographical sketch.
Clearly they’re casting their definition of ‘story’ reasonably wide, though for my taste the scales come down a bit too heavily on the visual side – I count 40 pages of visuals against 18 of text, once you’ve taken out the bits and bobs.
Perhaps once you’ve decided to go for a certain quality of production (and the quality is good: photo reproductions work well on the matt pages) it seems wasteful to give space over to words instead of pictures. Maybe not, I claim no knowledge of the production of these things.
As for the content, it’s variable but certainly encouraging. The main story, ‘Potroom Willie’ by Lee Scrivner, is a fresh take on the ‘world through an animal’s eyes’ genre that kept me fully engaged on the post-lunch train ride home. Potroom Willie, a dog, lives with an old poor couple in back of Texas and has little to his life beyond eating and expelling food:
Then came the jowl machinations of the eating, the most elementary form of mental grasping except for sniffing. And he would suck and vacuum up all that sustenance into his entrails. And he would hork and gulp at the fastest possible rate of consumption. Ravenous, he would devour even the residue of the meaty goop on the sides of the bowl and along the floor, even if it was mixed in with mud and dust and live and Mop-N-Glo.
You might be given to think that the story’s just going to continue in this lively, blinkered vein, but it does open up in a rather unexpected way – a slack-jawed, damn-you-Lee-Scrivner, staring-dumbly-ahead kind of way that absolutely suits this manner of reading stories: with no foreknowledge, at random, in mags like this, rather than, you know, in a collection, or something.
The other fiction, by former Spacemen 3/Spiritualized bassist Will Carruthers is a tour anecdote that certainly passes the time amusingly (and makes me think: god but former indie musicians will keep coming out with books, won’t they – though personally I can’t wait for James Yorkston’s tour diaries next year). It’s an accolade that I wouldn’t extend to the other prose outings – Thomas Rees’s account of a horse race in the Central Asian steppes made me wince a fair few times. (“Sheep, munching contendedly around the yurt tents, are slaughtered… The race is a siren call to horsemen across the flatlands” and so on.)
Of the photography, the stand-out selections are Flavie Guerrand’s ‘I Slid Across The Floor’, a diary of bohemian parties in France during the 90s, and ‘This Time Tomorrow’, a similar look at posh white people letting their hair down in Kenya in the mid 50s, taken by one Charles Trotter.
The one is dim blurred glimpses of cool people working up to or coming down from vaguely suggested debauchery – people, y’know, kind of like us. The other is crisp monochrome snapshots of awful people behaving awfully in a distant, sheltered little world.
The implication, naturally, being that foul time will take our holy condemnation of those nasty Empire lackeys and smear it across the pages of history to attach it to the cool kids of France that we so admire and approve of. Judge not, etc.
As a whole, it’s an intriguing bundling-up of fiction and fact and, at £3.50, very well priced indeed. I would just have liked more in the way of decent, solid stringing together of words. Yes, it’s true that humans tell stories in all kinds of ways, but some of them (the life story, the anecdote) are best heard over a pint, or over a cup of tea, or just overheard. The printed page makes greater demands. Or I make greater demands of my printed pages.
It’ll go on the shelf, though and – not having a spine – is in danger of disappearing for ever. If I make a mental book mark, it will be more for the photos than the text. And I’ll keep an eye out for #2.
PS Good name, too. Straightforward yet enigmatic. Almost an anagram of Letter. And Relent.
Some people need absolute silence to write to. I don’t. I need music. And not just any music. There are certain albums that I play when I’m writing that seem to smooth the path of words from my head to my fingers. Part of it must be the familiarity, that the sounds occupy a part of my brain, that allows another part of it to free up.
I tend to put them on repeat, too, so that songs come back around. There’s something in this, I think, about rhythm and recurrence in prose fiction, about symbols and themes and motifs that pop up, drop away and pop up again. The steady onward progression of music is, of course, built on the interaction between repetition and development, but putting an album on repeat adds another level to this, allows the music to repeat and develop more fully. #
So what is that I listen to? Well, right now it’s The Creek Drank The Cradle by Iron & Wine, a gentle, benign piece of Americana that has, among its pro-writing credentials, some lovely intricate guitar picking and, crucially, unintrusive vocals. Perhaps this is the most important element in writing music – you can’t be distracted by the lyrics: either the singing has got to be relatively low in the mix, or the words so familiar that you’re not even listening any more.
And that’s another thing about the music I listen to: maybe it’s just ambient noise, stuff that doesn’t intrude. I listen to this Iron & Wine album a lot, but couldn’t sing any of the songs when it’s not actually coming out of my desktop speakers.
So, then, here is my Top Ten writing albums:
- The Creek Drank The Cradle, Iron & Wine (Sub Pop, 2002)
- Beaucoup Fish, Underworld (Junior Boys Own, 1999)
- We Made It For You, The Boats (Moteer, 2005)
- A Sky of Honey, Kate Bush (disc two of Aerial: EMI, 2005)
- Drive By, The Necks (ReR, 2004)
- Just Across The River, James Yorkston (Domino, 2004)
- Is A Woman, Lambchop (City Slang, 2002)
- Sound Of Silver, LCD Soundsystem (DFA, 2007)
- Janacek String Quartets 1&2, The Brodsky Quartet (Decca, 2008)
- Tilt, Scott Walker (Fontana, 1995)
I suppose they divide fairly easily into the gentle, folky stuff, and the electronic stuff, which then subdivides into semi-ambient (The Boats, Susumu Yokota) and the more propulsive (LCD, Underworld), while The Necks and Kate Bush are both non-electronic propulsive.
Of course you can take propulsive too far. I do like Steve Reich, but find it hard to write to him. My wife heard Hanif Kureshi’s Desert Island Discs, and he talked about writing to Reich, can’t remember which piece. I suppose something soft like Music For Mallet Instruments comes out occasionally.
The Kate Bush is brilliant writing music, its expert soft-rock rhythms really get your fingers moving, racing along behind and sometimes in front of your thoughts. Also, it’s a concept album and so has an inherent ‘narrative arc’ way beyond the scope of most albums (though unlike most concept albums it’s concept is played out largely through the music, rather than through the lyrics – no rock opera, this). The Necks, of course, being a single, hour-long piece, is all development.
Which leads to another rule. Songs mustn’t be too short, and mustn’t jump about too much in style and tone and BPM over a record. They’ve got to put you in a zone. So, no three-minute slices of pop perfection. No Beatles, no Beach Boys, no Mowtown. Van Morisson’s Common One album would fit in nicely here, I think.
Anyone else out there write to music?