Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Faith In Fakes by Umberto Eco

Faith In Fakes by Umberto Eco is a superbly entertaining beginner’s guide to semiotics. To what? Semiotics is the study and interpretation of symbols. In our increasingly iconic age, the discipline has much to say, and to do so must delve deeper and wider, into sociology, philosophy and psychology. In this superb selection of essays, Umberto Eco discusses topics as widely spaced as blue jeans, the film Casablanca, ancient monuments and theme parks. Throughout, he manages to communicate intensely difficult ideas with ease, making Faith In Fakes a truly enlightening read that both informs on theory and entertains via the mundane.

The reader must be prepared to go part-way into the discipline, however, especially in relation to specific authors and rarefied vocabulary. While names such as McLuhan, Foucault and Barthes might not deter most readers, words such as oneiric, corybantism, synecdoche, mytonymy, eversive and anthopophagy could prove to be stumbling blocks. There aren’t many of these specialist words, however, because overall Umberto Eco’s style is beautifully communicative and easy to read.

A particularly pleasing piece was Eco’s analysis of the film Casablanca and its cult status. He contrasts Casablanca with other films, ones that might be cited as “works of art”. He then makes a distinction not because these other films are intrinsically “better”, but because they aim higher in that they are better focused and constructed, intellectually. Basically they have potential meaning or significance, have been well written, well acted and well characterised, though most of them might not achieve any of their targets. Hence they are not necessarily better films.

Casablanca, on the other hand, Eco describes as a hodgepodge (bricolage) of ideas, badly characterised, poorly written and ultimately incredible, either as a film or as a reflection of any kind of reality. (Eco, I am sure, would also argue here that this latter point is wholly valid since the film employs realism both in its style and in its definite historical setting.)

But the point is that a near random juxtaposition of elements eventually becomes an art form of its own, able to make statements in its own terms. Copying from one learned text is called plagiarism, Copy from fifty and it’s called research. Use one cliché and it’s culpable. Use a hundred and it’s called Gaudi. It’s a brilliant point.

As a film, Casablanca, he argues, never inhabits a single genre, never communicates merely a single message. It is presented almost as a series of unrelated tableaux, where the characters do as required by the passing scenario. It thus becomes a pastiche where there’s something for everyone, where it can become more entertaining to spot, categorise, recognise and then discuss the loosely-related vignettes than to appreciate the whole, because there is no whole to appreciate.

McLuhan advised us that the medium had become the message. Eco takes us further, illustrating how mass media are no longer conduits for ideology because they themselves have become the ideology. So now, when we watch television news that concentrates on celebrity and the entertainment industry, we ought to be rendered keenly aware of the motives and interests at play. When, come to think of it, did you last hear a wholly negative film review? So where lies the line between reviewer and promoter?

We seem, according to Eco’s logic, to confuse three similar, related, but different concepts – popular, populist and demotic. What we call popular culture should really be labelled populist culture. Popularity is its aim, not yet its achievement. In a row over music downloaded via the internet, reports in July 2008 claim that over eighty per cent of musicians earn less than five thousand British pounds a year in royalties. And remember that they are the ones that actually have the recording contracts!

So what should we call this not so popular popular music? I argue we should refer to populist music and populist culture, because it aims to achieve popularity, though little of it ever will. But what happens if or when it does? At that point its very success becomes its prime platform for further promotion. Now it carries the illusion of being demotic, that it both stemmed from and is the property of ordinary people, rather than, obviously, a marketed commodity aiming to achieve a status that will foster that illusion. Its adherents to date can now be trotted out as evidence of its potential to attract and as proof of its worthiness to do so. The medium has thus become the ideology, the mechanism by which a commercial enterprise that aspires to popularity from a narrow sectional origin might achieve popularity and then use its achievement to seek more of the same.

Finally, it is the demotic currency provided by success that then suggests we should make aesthetic judgments on that basis. Success becomes proof of worth, almost as if the winner has run for election to that office. Success then becomes the only basis for aesthetic judgments, thus denying the validity of those made an any other basis, because they lack demotic legitimacy and must therefore be based on snobbery or elitism or both. The ideology thus rejects any basis for aesthetic judgment except that which its own ideology defines. Aesthetics, incidentally, tend to resurface when the advocate is reminded of the success, and hence aesthetic worth, of The Bridies’ Song or Remember You’re A Womble!

The essays in Faith In Fakes by Umberto Eco are stimulating, eye-opening and enlightening. They provoke thought rather than the desire to write a simple review. For that, I apologise.

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Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Miraculous Bartok from Valencia Youth

A full symphony orchestra in full flight is a thoroughly rousing experience. When that is combined with a programme that offers contrasting style and form, the result is usually a treat. When the whole is also delivered with the enthusiasm of a youth orchestra, then joy also enters the equation. I would not claim that the Valencian Youth Orchestra performed perfectly in Palau Altea last night, but their efforts were well beyond the creditable. 

Even the two conductors, Robert Ferrer for the first half and then Isaac González were rookies, the latter especially appearing to possess a talent that might mature to fame.

The band began with a concert hall regular, Weber’s Die Freischütz Overture. They played it well, not always accurately, but the relatively simple musical ideas were clear and the lines always joined up. The second work proved to be something of an enigma. I know nothing of the music of Manuel Palau, and unfortunately his Dramatic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra did little prompt further investigation. It was a confused piece, with the orchestra sounding all triadic and modal, like Vaughan Williams 80 years too late, while the soloist mingled styles reminiscent of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, interposed with highly chromatic clusters and even, in the third movement, introducing the opening descending chords of the Schumann concerto as a theme! The orchestra and soloist, Bartolomeu Jaume, played beautifully throughout, but the work let them down. 

The second half began with a recently commissioned work by Miguel Gálvez-Taroncher. His Concerto for Orchestra was quite slow to take off, but take off it did. There was the influence of Kancheli, and also Berg. Small germs of music emerged, sometimes in high dissonance, to be passed around the orchestra’s sections. The giant band sported a veritable battery of percussion for this piece and the forces were eventually well used. The work was effectively a giant single climax, from a confused, quiet, chromaticism to a violent, thrashing, atonal quake. It might not prove to be memorable but it was an engaging, interesting and visceral experience. The composer took a bow. 

Bela Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin is a piece I have known for a long time, but listened to only infrequently. Though originally a ballet, it has rarely been staged outside the concert hall. Anyone who has read the story would understand why. Its sexually explicit plot involving a Chinaman who lights up after he has been hung by the neck from an electricity cable illustrates the challenge. It was 1918 in Central Europe, after all, post-Freud, expressionist and post-World War One. But what an experience! I was genuinely apprehensive about whether the youthful orchestra would be able to play its complex rhythms and fiendishly difficult ensembles. I need not have worried. They were faultless and extremely well rehearsed. When Bartok’s pounding rhythms, all assembled as a fugue, brought the piece to its frantic and exciting conclusion, it sounded as if the music had been driven off the edge of a cliff. Exhilarating! Good luck to the young players of the Valencia Youth Orchestra.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Going down with a bang - Amsterdam Percussion Group in Altea

Percussion ensembles often try to raise the macho to an art form. Loudness and aggression often predominate, usually to the detriment of music. Obvious exceptions would be any Korean samulnori ensemble, where the macho is utterly enshrined, Gary Burton at his best, anything involving Steve Reich and, in the past, occasionally, Kodo. But often they seemed intent on beating the guts out of their Japanese temple drums. 

Now I must add the Amsterdam Percussion Group to the list of subtler performers, their concert in Palau Altea proving to be a complete joy. Altea-born Josep Vicent fronts the group. For six years he was a percussionist with one of the world’s greatest orchestras, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, and is now also a superb conductor in his own right. Anyone who attended his reading of Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite with the World Orchestra of Jeunesse Musicales in Villajoyosa and La Nucia earlier this year will testify to that. 

But Josep Vicent is also a stunningly accomplished performer and percussionist. Surely he is destined for significant international recognition. The Amsterdam Percussion Group varied from three to six players. The three core members are all percussionists and, in Palau Altea, their battery of instruments was occasionally augmented by cello, guitar and bass guitar. 

The musical style is minimalist, the debt to Steve Reich explicit, but there was Gary Burton there as well in the jazz-style four mallet vibraphone techniques. Fundamental to Steve Reich’s musical personality was the idea of performance above recording and, surely, this philosophy was fundamental to everything offered by Josep Vicent’s group. 

They started with what proved to be a weakness, apparently improvising a climactic modal interchange over a musique concrète tape. In the 1960s I might have been impressed. The cello piece that followed eventually became vibraphone and bass guitar, and again it left a lot to be desired in the inspiration box.  
Then things came to life. The three percussionists played four tuned drums, offering a piece reminiscent of the first part of Steve Reich’s Drumming. It was superbly done, loud and musical, its rhythms complex yet immediately memorable. 

Quiet then intervened in the form of a Piazzolla tango played by a quintet, again with vibes and marimba. This was followed by one of the evening’s true high points, a piece called Black Page by Frank Zappa. The first section’s difficult chromatic cello led on to a ferocious and supremely skilful unison doubling of Josep Vicent’s drums and the marimba of Mike Schaperclaus, before the piece made its minimal point in vast proportions. 

The evening’s high point came next. It was the quietest piece of the night, played by the three percussionists, Josep, Mike and Arie de Boer, seated like kids at a party on the edge of the stage. Before them were three square bits of smooth plywood, each mounted on what appeared to be a couple of off cuts of two-by-one, amplified. With forehand and backhand strokes, finger prods, karate chops, slaps and taps, the three of them offered Table Music by Thierry de Mey, a percussive ballet for six hands. 

A sextet reminiscent of Gary Burton’s early jazz followed and then a piece of pure Africa, a fast, explosive piece of Burundian drumming. A flamenco-style sextet with guitar completed the performance, which was greeted with a universal standing ovation, and deservedly so. If you missed this one, there’s always the next time. They were exciting, subtle and musical, as well as loud. Josep Vicent will be back. He’s from Altea, after all.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Towards Asmara by Thomas Keneally

Towards Asmara by Thomas Keneally was eventually disappointing. As a process, the experience was strewn with beauty, vivid images and arresting phrases. The author, for instance, described desert vegetation ready to burst into life at the first “rumour” of moisture. The writing style has a quirky inventiveness that regularly surprises.

Where Towards Asmara eventually breaks down, however, is its inability to take the reader past the credibility hurdle that spans observer and participant. Not that one particularly wants to participate! War, famine, being shot at, placed under house arrest or being tortured are all experiences to avoid on most working days and Towards Asmara is packed with them. The journalistic skill with which the book’s events are described is enormous. We are introduced to enough history for context, enough current events to situate and enough political interests to begin an understanding. 

So if the style is good and the context is engaging, where is the problem? The answer is in the book’s characters. Darcy is an Australian, a bit mixed up after his ethnically Chinese wife ran off with an Aborigine jailbird back home. Now she won’t even deal with him. There’s Amna, an Eritrean guerrilla who has suffered every imaginable torture at the hands of the Dergue. There’s Julia, a British lady of some class who is researching women’s issues for the Anti-Slavery Society. There’s Masihi, a film maker, and Christine from France who finds a role working with him. And here is the problem. 

Towards Asmara claims the status of an African novel, but we never experience any aspect of the plot from within an African or local psyche. The place, its people and the events that unfold there are seen from without, via an external interpreter’s filter. The immediacy of war, ambush, famine, conflict becomes lost in the second nature of the characters’ experience. Also, the complications of the personal lives of these observers neither complement nor contrast with the exigencies of fighting for a cause. 

Eventually, everything seems unlikely, not least the very involvement of those involved with the events that unfold. At one point, there was a suggestion that Darcy’s ethnic minority wife back home in Australia might be offering an intellectual parallel with the Eritrean struggle. She, an apparent outsider, was allying herself and choosing to travel with an indigenous oppressed race, just like her estranged husband was doing with the Eritreans of Ethiopia. But that idea fizzled out, thankfully, because it could never have been sustained. Towards Asmara is a thoroughly enjoyable read. 

At times the style and language are a complete joy. But, when it avoids polemic, it approaches caricature. The reader, like its foreign observer participants, is left out of the understanding and experience the book promised to deliver. 

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: Crime, punishment, and more

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was published in 1966, and is based on events that happened almost fifty years ago. The events were real. This is not a work of fiction. The Clutters, an appropriately surnamed Kansas family, have their own complications within their rambling homestead. What family doesn’t? Clutter the father is a farmer. Who isn’t in these parts? Life is not so productive of late. Whose is? The two younger children, a daughter and a son, still live in. The others have left, happily.

And then, in November 1959, the four Clutters are found gagged, apart from the mother, with either their throats cut or their brains blown out by shotgun fire, or perhaps both. The community is in turmoil. No-one can explain why anyone might have wanted to kill a whole family in Holcomb, a small, poor, rural community in the mid-West Bible belt. 

Hickock (Hicock) and Smith are two lads on the move. Their families might be dysfunctional. On the other hand they might not. Their socialisation might have been lacking. On the other hand it might not. For whatever reason, individually and collectively they prey on others, prey in a way that renders them culpable, detectable and ultimately punishable. They know thieving is wrong. So, one of them says, we’ve stolen lives, so it must be serious. It was the two of them that pulled the trigger, that blew brains out, that slit throats, that did not quite commit rape. There are limits. And all for forty dollars and a transistor radio.

I give nothing of this book away when I reveal that the two lads did commit the murders – exactly how no-one ever admitted – and that, after years of litigious wrangling, both were hanged. The strength of In Cold Blood is not what happens, but how it happens. Truman Capote offers us a vast book in just four sustained chapters, each of which is sub-divided as the narrative shifts between aspects of the different protagonists’ lives.

Throughout, the style is much more complex than mere journalism, but the clarity with which it communicates is at times breathtaking. We hear from those directly involved, both victims and perpetrators, their families, the police, the judiciary, the neighbours, the lawyers, the passers-by, the acquaintances, the cellmates. The detail is forensic. It is essential that the reader is constantly reminded that this is not fiction.

Truman Capote offers dialogue where a journalist would report, offers interpretation where an historian would defer, offer opinion where an observer might decline. And so In Cold Blood becomes and absorbing, multi-faceted, mid-twentieth century reworking of Crime And Punishment. The crucial difference that the intervening years have generated is that where the latter concentrated on the individual circumstances and motives of the perpetrator, In Cold Blood explores the social and the contextual alongside the psychological.

And this is where the book becomes deeply disturbing, because it seems to suggest that the individuality that contemporary society seems to demand of us might itself promote a degree of self-centredness, of selfishness, perhaps, that might give rise to nothing less than contempt for others. In the forty years since the publication of In Cold Blood, it could be argued that such pressures might have increased. Frightening, indeed.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Inheritance Of Loss by Kiran Desai

The Inheritance Of Loss by Kiran Desai is a magnificent, impressive novel that ultimately is disappointing. As a process, the book is almost stunningly good. As a product, it falls short. The book’s language, scenarios and juxtapositions are funny, threatening, vivid and tender all at the same time. The comic element, always riven through with irony, is most often to the fore, as characters grapple with a world much bigger than themselves, a world that only ever seems to admit them partially, and rarely on their own terms. The one criticism I have of the style is Kiran Desai’s propensity to offer up lists as comic devices, a technique that works a couple of times, but later has the reader scanning forward to the next substance.

An aged judge lives in the highlands of north India. As political and ethnic tensions stretch through the mountain air, he reconsiders his origins, his education, his career, his opportunities, both taken and missed. He has a granddaughter, orphaned in most unlikely circumstances, as her parents trained for a Russian space programme. But what circumstances that create orphans are ever likely? She is growing up, accompanied by most of what that entails.

The cook in the rickety mansion is the person that really runs the household, his rule-of-thumb methods predating the appliances he has to use and the services he has to provide. He manages, imaginatively. He has a son, Biju, who eventually forms the centrepiece of the book’s complex, somewhat rambling story. Biju has emigrated to New York, where he has made it big, at least as far as the folks back home think. On site, he slaves away in the dungeon kitchens of fast food outlets, restaurants, both up and downmarket, and a few plain eateries.

Kiran Desai provides the reader with a superb image of globalisation when she describes the customer-receiving areas of an upmarket restaurant flying an advertised, authentic French flag, while in the kitchen the flags are Indian, Honduran, anything but French. Now there is true authenticity for you, offered up in its manufactured, globalised form. Biju, of course, dreams of home, but the comparatively large number of US dollars he earns – at least as far as the folks back home see it – barely covers essentials in someone else’s reality.

The narrative of The Inheritance Of Loss flits between New York, northern India and elsewhere, and also between the here and now, yesteryear and the judge’s childhood. And perhaps it flits too much, because the scenes are often cut short before the reader feels they have made a point. And ultimately this reader found that the book lacked focus. While the process was enjoyable, the product was not worth the journey.

The Inheritance Of Loss seemed to promise to take us somewhere in this globalised confusion of identity, motive, routine, unrealised dreams and intangible desires, but eventually it seemed to have nothing to add to a sense of “well that’s how it is”, which is precisely where we started. There was an opportunity for more, but it was ducked. The book was thus a thoroughly enjoyable read that threatened to achieve greatness through statement, but unfortunately missed the mark, and by a long way.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene

Anyone who has lived in London could place the Common that forms a geographical centrepiece in The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene. It doesn’t really matter if it’s the particular place one thinks it is, because it’s what happens in the houses at or near its periphery that is central to the book. And the relationships between man and woman, between classes, between interests could be anywhere.

Maurice Bendrix is a resident of the suburban, unfashionable, southern extremity of the open space. He has rented rooms in which he labours over his writing. He is a novelist with several books and some critical acclaim to his name. He is a passionate man, a sceptic, perhaps in every sense, and he is nothing less than scheming in the way that he manipulates friends, acquaintances and probably anyone in order to conduct his research, and perhaps to secure his other interests as well.

It was during one such foray into the mind of a fictional civil servant he was trying to invent that he began to see Sarah Miles. She was the wife of a real civil servant and the affair was constructed to enter her husband’s mind, though it took a more conventional initial route. Sarah and Henry, her ministry mandarin husband, live in a large freehold on the fashionable north side of the Common.

One feels that, left entirely to his own devices, Maurice would not have a great deal in common with the lifestyle of the Miles household. But when he meets Sarah, he finds a passionate woman whose devotion to the institution of her marriage is not matched by the satisfaction she derives from it. Sarah’s frustrations are great, her needs are obvious, and the affair with Maurice ignites. Their passionate, highly physical affair lasts some years. One day in 1944, however, a robot bomb lands outside Maurice’s house and he is injured in the blast. Initially Sarah thinks he is dead. Then, somehow, their relationship ends, maybe because she seems almost disappointed that he has survived.

They see nothing of one another for two years. Maurice, of course, assumes she has moved on to richer pastures, to another more novel lover, who can satisfy her demands in new, less committed ways. He hires a private detective to check on her. He talks to her husband and others with whom she has been acquainted. What he discovers is a surprising change of direction in her life and her priorities, a change that neither he nor Sarah’s husband can either explain or accept.

Ultimately The End Of The Affair is about the space between people. Relationships are always limited, no matter how intimately they are shared. The Common, the geographical space between Maurice and Sarah, becomes a symbol of the no man’s land that must be crossed when people interact. We enter into this territory when it is our intention to go part-way to meet the psyche of another, but perhaps we never really leave home. The territory can only be entered, but probably not crossed, when there is mutuality, at least a partially shared desire to meet in the unsafe space. But it remains a position that can be retracted, a space that can be abandoned at will.

But what emerges in The End Of the Affair is that this space is specific to particular relationships. Scratch the surface of a different association of that same person, and it will reveal a different territory, perhaps not even sharing recognisable landmarks with the first. Perhaps, therefore, we project onto others what we want them to be. Perhaps relationships are never really shared, and remain at best pragmatic and, more likely, ultimately selfish. In the end, The End Of The Affair suggests that they are not, but it is only a suggestion.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Ashes To The Vistula by Bill Copeland

“The insanity of war has robbed me of everything I knew and loved.” These are the words of Filip Stitchko, a Pole, a concentration camp kapo, an overseer, a policeman in Auschwitz. And, by the time the reader has reached the end of Filip’s story in Ashes To The Vistula by Bill Copeland, those words emerge with poignancy, irony and inescapable truth intermingled.

Ashes To The Vistula, at first sight, is a wartime memoir of an innocent victim. But, in war, who is not innocent? And who is not a victim? Equally, who is innocent? As a result of mere circumstance Filip finds himself appointed to a position of responsibility within the concentration camp. He happened to be in a certain place when the Second World War broke out. Filip was in Poland, a country that was squeezed by a partially-shared conspiracy in 1939. Whilst fascists moved east, professed socialists moved west and the state that was created to keep the eagle from the bear imploded. An elder brother, an officer, probably travelled, defeated, to Katyn where history disputed precisely whose guns, whose motives perpetrated a slaughter of Polish officers.

Those left behind at the time, such as Filip and the younger Jakub knew nothing of the elder brother’s fate. This is one of the strengths of Bill Copeland’s book. It has an immediacy, a present that it is uncomplicated by received hindsight. On many issues, Bill Copeland leaves the jury out, enabling the reader to empathise with the dilemmas that confronted wartime and immediate post-war experience. 

This is the book’s subtlety. Though it is primarily plot led, the plot is genuinely surprising, ultimately engaging and, in a few late chapters, both confronts and rounds off several themes that the reader has registered throughout the narrative. Central to the book’s purpose is the relationship of dependence, ultimately inter-dependence between Filip, the privileged concentration camp policeman, and Jakub, a Jewish-named gentile, a slow-witted permanent child whose safety has been entrusted to the older Filip. 

Through the prosecution of his duty, Filip is revealed to be not only a protector, not only a survivor, but also ultimately a compassionate companion and overseer, despite the fact that both circumstance and insanity conspire against both young men. Filip is no saint, make no mistake, but there is an underlying reason for his excesses. Ashes To The Vistula in essence is an anti-war book. In it the reader is presented with thousands of people who suffer the consequences of conflict. None of them have been protagonists, none of them have sought gain or power, except, of course, over their peers once they have been pitted against them as their competitors and antagonists.

This is where we find the book’s tragedy. That war kills, that war kills innocents, that war creates potential for corruption and duplicity, all these are givens. But war also creates insanity, an insanity that affects all involved, where the need to punish someone, anyone, for one’s own arbitrary suffering might override rationality, evidence or even experience. And perhaps, given that insanity, the need to expunge the inexplicable is greater than the need to seek explanation, since, when threatened, we all react before we think. Ashes To The Vistula by Bill Copeland is an unusual and moving study of one aspect of World War Two. It has an immediacy and a clarity that bring the history of its setting completely to life.

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