Monday, December 11, 2017

FEATURE 139 ~ Here, have 12 of my ear-worms from 2017

Here's twelve favourites I've played a lot throughout the last year, in no particular order.

Bellowhead ~ Crosseyed & Chinless
Exemplifying what was so good about Bellowhead confidently mixing other musical genres into the folk melting pot whilst getting your feet tapping.



Sparks ~ Giddy Giddy Giddy
This for me is pure enjoyment for its barmy vision, musical insistence and lyrical acuteness.



Arcade Fire ~ Creature Comfort
A catchy dance song about an attempted suicide, and how we pursue fame in order to hide our pain.




Laura Marling ~ Soothing
Sparse, sophisticated and erotically charged, plus the sensuous wonder of Laura Marling's voice..




Elbow ~ Little Fictions
Orchestrated masterfully to build on a stuttering rhythm pattern. The peak point of a consistently excellent album




Beyonce ft Jack White ~ Don't Hurt Yourself
The mistress of any styles she attempts,. Catchy, vengeful, political and very impressive.



Susanne Sundfor ~ Accelerate
An addictive dance track, I love the way it opens with that punchy fast drum sound, and then her fabulous voice.




Susanne Sundfor ft John Grant - Mountaineers 
A glorious song, grandly rising from out of the echoing depths swooping up to its thrilling zenith.




Fever Ray ~ To The Moon & Back
The brilliant return of the unhinged dark maiden of electro~indie.




St Vincent ~ Los Ageless
A great song, arty, angular, lyrically cutting, prescient in both style and substance.




Leonard Cohen ~ You want it darker
I just loved the gravelly truth-telling quality of Cohen's voice on this track

 


Toddrick Hall ft Ru Paul ~ Low
Sassy drag update of The Wizard of OZ, written with wry wit and so many hooks I never tire of hearing it.





Sunday, November 26, 2017

FEATURE 138 ~ Twinkle 12 to Sparkle 1

As we are away both weekends before Christmas we've been sorting our Christmas Decorations out. Having collected a range of tree decorations over a few weeks on a theme of wood and emerald, we've been out and bought our tree. As we now live in a house rather than one largish room in a house we've gone for a size upgrade.

























The more diminutive Twinkles, having reached year twelve, have now concluded and in 2017 we launch a new Christmas Tree sequence with Sparkle 1.


























The lounge is quite festive looking, with the tree, LED's in new vases we just bought.

























We bought a cheap basic garland and embellished it with baubles and fir cones for our mantelpiece.


























After buying a natural Christmas wreath from Tesco, ripped off most of its cheap decorations and put on our own. It now graces the door of our house.








Sunday, November 19, 2017

FEATURE 137 ~ Fever Ray ~ To The Moon & Back.

To The Moon & Back is the first single released from Fever Ray's second album Plunge. It's been a long wait. Many wondered whether Karin Dreijer Andersson's eponymous debut album in 2009 was indeed just a one off experiment. All the elements in that outstanding debut remain in the new album, the desolate sonic landscape, the edgy chill, freakishness, alienated tenderness, lyrically explicit, and bearing all with an honest queerness.

Circumstances have changed for Dreijer. In 2009 she was married with two children, the sense of isolation from the rest of the world, from living in a nuclear family, and motherhood in particular, suffused the atmosphere of that album with a snowbound sombre loneliness.  By 2017 she's definitely gone non-nuclear, now divorced, the sexual politics that scorched through the final album from The Knife ~ Shaking The Habitual, reappears here in a more personal guise.

The sound remains indie-electro, but this time it's edge is as hard as nails, the background tone is no longer a melancholic drone. It has a drive that is rawer and sounds actively assertive, thrusting its oddity and experimentation defiantly out and at you. So, at the end of To The Moon & Back, she does indeed sing 'I want to put my finger up your pussy'. Its what puts the words 'explicit' in brackets by the side of her album.

In many ways the new album carries on musically from where the final The Knife album left off. Rhythmically and structurally complex, Dreijer rarely resorts to a lazy pop cliche, unless for reasons of twisted parody. She appears still to be inordinately fond of vaguely Oriental sounding tune riffs, that first appeared on We Share Our Mother's Health, from the Silent Shout album. Fever Ray maintains The Knife tradition of producing visually discomforting pop videos. They rarely appeared as themselves, and if they did they were usually wearing masks. Subverting the conventions of the pop video by staging complete unknowns miming to their songs.

For Fever Ray the visuals here are much more vivid, lurid and garish, this video has the aesthetic of some trashy lesbian schlock horror movie trailer. Dreijer as Fever Ray, conceals herself now, not behind other people, but behind heavy dramatic face make up, if indeed this is really her, it is hard to know. In terms of how far out there she's prepared to go, this is definitely out there on the fringes of the land of Bjork. Watch the video, but be warned its not holy water she's being anointed with.

Oh, whilst it is all the above, its also damned catchy too.


Monday, November 13, 2017

SHERINGHAM DIARY 7 ~ Gone With The Wind

The propelling wind that brought and settled us into Sheringham, has now passed or blown itself out. There are signs of fresh winds gaining in strength but where that weather vane will finally end up pointing us, is anyone's guess . After our six month watershed, Jnanasalin and I seem more able to think about what's next for Cottonwood Workshop? We still intend to source materials from second hand or be hand made by us  Imaginatively we've revived an idea for a range inspired by a New England aesthetic, all muted whites, subtle greys and sludgy blues.

We spent a really lovely autumn day out in Norwich a few weeks ago. It was our first visit in four months, and one of the places we just happened to walk into was an interior decor shop.  Finding ourselves  gazing at a wall full of Farrow & Ball paint swatches, we quickly sifted out three colours ~ Pointing, an off white, Pavilion Grey, a light warm grey, and Siffkey Blue, a soft but darkish blue. As Stiffkey is on the North Norfolk coast, this felt a bit  like 'a fortuitous sign.' So with tester pots in hand I've begun painting a small crate, which eventually will have a padded lid and linen fabric lining. Pictures next month, maybe!


Before
After

I recently completed refurbishing a chest of drawers that feels as though I've been working on it for almost a millennia. After half a year of painting and vanishing furniture for the house, I am, unsurprisingly, more than ready to take a break.

Another thing that has shifted, is that I was called to interview recently and I've started a new job. Having applied for other types of work with no joy. I re-focused my efforts on finding cleaning work that doesn't fluctuate according to season, has regular set hours and income. I'm cleaning communal areas in two Sheringham residential homes that are half way houses for people with mental health problems. So far the job is going OK, I'm still settling in and finding out how best to pace the work and myself.

My last few weeks of housekeeping work at The Two Lifeboats  were easier to manage physically. Its  now off season, so the really manic period is over, thank goodness. October half-term was the very last hurrah for local tourism in Sheringham until Spring 2018. Chip shops and ice cream parlours, have already laid off workers, and closed until March. In my last week, I worked five days in a row, so my fellow housekeeper could have a break after a year with no holiday leave. I have been attempting to leave The Two Lifeboats as well as I can.

I've spent decades living and working around Buddhists, some of whom can be self-preoccupied in quite a unique way, but you could broach most issues you might have with them. In work outside of a Buddhist context, you have to be much more actively forgiving of people's dodgy views, faulty behaviour, crude speech and inability to think or act beyond their own feelings. Without any supportive context or other way to process things, letting off steam by going on and on about what they believe someone has or hasn't done, or getting drunk every day, all become a way of coping or diffusing tension. The degree to which you can actively challenge people is limited.  I've just got better at distracting them, often by using humour to lighten the mood.

People wherever I  work notice I don't tend to behave in quite the way they do. Not easily ruffled, quietly getting on with the task, don't complain much, and remaining calm, outwardly at least, under pressure. Eventually they put two and two together and rumble I'm a Buddhist. I only tell them more about this should they ask. I may occasionally sneak Buddhism in under the radar, disguised in ordinary simple language and from the perspective of personal experience. Nonetheless, there are times when I do feel the absence of close Buddhist friends,.of having easier, more substantial conversations that don't just skim superficially across the surface of what is often a rolling boil underneath.

After a Summer of working frenetically for Two Lifeboats I find my physical stamina is depleted, and I'm probably a tad run down. Neither Jnanasalin nor I have had a substantial break since our holiday in the Lake District last October. As things stand getting a few days off to visit family before Christmas might be all either of us can manage before 2018 arrives. This has its consequences for both of us, in that we both can feel overstretched when additional demands emerge. We've had a few car related crises this month, provoking stress-filled anxiety as the companion to the egregious expense. Testing how attached we've already become to things working well at the turn of an ignition key.

Jnanasalin's Father has become quite seriously ill, his liver is teetering on the edge of packing in after years of excessive, and anger inducing, alcohol consumption, It could be days, weeks, months or longer, but the future prognosis appears not to be good.  My own Father is 91, and had been relatively alert and coherent for a man of his age. That was until l last week when he had a heart attack, fell on the floor breaking his leg near the hip. He is now in hospital. and we went up last weekend to see him. They intend to operate on the breakage today as they can't leave it any longer. They've made us aware that such a major operation may be too much for him in his current state. We await further news.

Over the last few months you may have noticed the number of articles I post on this blog has increased. Writing I find   challenging, because what I'm trying to express tends to form itself during the process of composition. A lot of the time this takes quite a messy convoluted route to a sort of clarity, entailing a lot of editing and re-writing. Interesting ideas often emerging unexpectedly out of making simple changes to grammar or sentence construction. I've just completed the final part of a four part series about 'everyday beauty' that I've found really engaging to get to grips with. Without writing my thinking and views tends to exist in a  cloud of unknowing, like a slightly foggy dawn with drizzle.

The other day I had the lyrics from a Sparks song going through my head all day. The person in the song is a stunt double on the film Gone With The Wind, who appears not to know how what he's doing contributes to the story line. One line that turned into a bit of an 'ear-worm' goes:~

'Gone with the wind, there's a lot to be said for it, but I don't know just what, they don't tell my type the plot'.

It doesn't take much intuition to guess what this is about. We all try to operate as if we are in full control of our life's direction, we know the plot and how things are supposed to unfold. In fact we know very little. We can always take action, though whether this makes things change to match our desired outcome can be unpredictable. It often comes down to circumstances emerging that make apparent where progress can be made.

Hard as it is, present conditions do not make clear what Jnanasalin and I's future direction looks like. We'll have to cultivate patience a little while longer. What we hope for may of course never arrive, or do so in an unexpected way, offering us something we hadn't envisaged. Perhaps forcing us to rethink what exactly it is we want to start up in North Norfolk. We continue travelling hopeful that in the end we will be doing something. This is a period that asks us to surrender ourselves to the unfolding of time.






Monday, November 06, 2017

Everyday Beauty 4 ~ The World Is Full Of Hidden Beauty
















In Japan, awareness of 'the aesthetics of everything' is very sensitively attuned. It owes its origins to the nature animism of Shinto, aspects of which became indistinguishably blended with nascent Zen Buddhism. These descriptions of aesthetic feeling are comprehensive and finely modulated. Here are just a few examples:~

Aware ~ a sensitivity for the beauty intrinsic to the ephemeral and impermanent nature of the world
Fuga ~ an elegant and sublime aesthetic
Hade ~ a loud and showy but not necessarily garish aesthetic
Hie ~ a chilling sense of beauty
Iki ~ an urbane, chic, bourgeois beauty, with sensual undertones
Karumi ~ the beauty of unadorned simplicity
Sabi ~ an aesthetically bleak quality suggestive of aging, deterioration and time passing
Wabi ~ an aesthetic that finds beauty in simple impoverished rusticity.

There are dozens of terms, but these few give you an idea of the subtleties these aesthetic terms are delineating. If you are familiar with the last two terms, Sabi and Wabi, this owes a great deal to the work of Soetsu Yanagri. In the 20th Century, he revived appreciation of their own art and craft traditions within Japan, and more broadly through his friendship with Bernard Leach. After his death, a compendium of his writings was published called The Unknown Craftsman. This covers his views on art, craft, the process of creativity, and at the same time plunges bravely into the metaphysical impulses that lurk beneath these activities.  Reading it certainly awoke something within me, in a jubilant mixture of recognition and inspiration.

In the middle centuries of the last millennium the Japanese had an encounter with Korean ceramics. It came via a set of roughly finished, imperfectly formed little cups, handmade in a village pottery in as un-self-conscious an act of craft making you could possibly imagine. Japanese culture, became obsessed with their unaffected spontaneity, devoid of artistic individualism. Once arrived in Japan, they became prototypes for the style and form of tea sets, and an elaborate tea ceremony complete with its spiritual gestures and aromas, emerged around their use. These original cups became the source for their broader love for flawed forms, the imperfect perfection, irregularities within regularity, and lines of asymmetry.

'They are regular yet not irregular, irregular yet not regular, in a subtle way that no deliberate effort could achieve - the kind of wondrous effect only attainable by someone in a state of "non-conceptualisation" *

In the west we tend not to appreciate roughly finished or flawed objects, for us they denote a lack of skill and finish, of being cobbled together by an inexpert hand. A roughly finished thing seen from this point of view cannot possess beauty. It does, however, leave us dissatisfied and frustrated with our inability to locate that perfect vision of eternal beauty.  We might purchase a flawed item if it were going cheap, because a bargain makes one forgiving of them. We tend to prefer neatly conceived work, honouring the fine craft in an artist's execution. The cleverer the artifice is, the better.

' certain love of roughness is involved, behind which lurks a hidden beauty.' *

I remember an occasion when I was working in a gift shop, a woman came in bearing a mirror sold to her the day before. It had a hair line crack in the surface of one of its small mosaic pieces. We got out a fresh copy from the store, but its a truth of retail that once someone is aware there maybe flaws they become a 'fault finder general', they discover them everywhere. The mirrors were all handmade, we pointed out that a degree of irregularity reflected its unique character, and its retail cost. She appeared not to hear this. After looking through twenty three versions of the mirror, she grudgingly settled on one. In approaching 'the aesthetics of everything' we should remain aware of our culturally based 'aesthetic prejudices, particularly towards seeing and seeking beauty only in the perfect, the regular, the flawless.

Yanagiri believed how something is made conditioned its aesthetic qualities, whether it be handmade or machine made. An object imagined and made by an individual perhaps pounds to a gentle heartbeat, it feels loved even before we encounter it. By comparison, the machine made, has a diffused process of creation, and hence feels more emotionally neutral. Its far too intellectually neat, to say that machine made objects are heartless and hence unlovable. This would tend to prejudge what our response should be, rather than feeling what our response actually is. Machine made objects can possess Hie, a colder more austere sense of aesthetics and beauty, which has its own attractive allure. The machine made can glory in its consistency and multiplicity of form. Its the beauty that relishes pattern, repeating itself over and over again. The relentless power of objects being pressed, stamped and cut out like rows of gingerbread soldiers, with infinite precision.

'Why should one reject the perfect in favour of the imperfect? The precise and perfect carries no overtones, admits no freedom; the perfect is static and regulated, cold and hard. We in our human imperfections are repelled by the perfect, since everything is apparent from the start and there is no suggestion of the infinite. beauty must have some room, must be associated with freedom. Freedom, indeed, is beauty. The love of the irregular is a sign of the basic quest for freedom.'*

The pure and perfect in form can provoke such a mixed response. We laud perfection, but at the same time feel dwarfed and intimidated by it. Its similar to when someone loves you, but too much, it feels far too possessive or imprisoning. Humanity can respond to cleanly executed efficient forms as an existential rejection, because they lack the space to allow us to be mortal when in proximity to them. We scrawl graffiti over them, we break and vandalise there smooth finishes. We don't appear to like the smooth clean cut heroes of old, preferring anti-heroes who don't play things by the book, don't fit into institutions, and generally have fucked up lives. We like our heroes to be less than perfect and messy around the edges, we believe its more real, more human.

There appears to be a thin line for between sleekly perfect beauty and bleakly perfect sterility. Each object possesses its own aesthetic, with its own intuited sense of imaginative restraint or freedom. Everything asks us to find our own way to interact and engage with it, whether its an object, environment or person. We tend to surround ourselves only with objects and people we resonate with, revere, or have fallen in love with. To an extent we choose them because they mirror or compliment aesthetic feelings about ourselves.

'A beautiful artifact may be defined as one that reposes peacefully where it aspires to be.'*

Yanagiri points out, that you cannot do consciously what you previously did unconsciously. Its impact would be different, because its meaning and value come via entirely different aesthetic impulses. The Japanese spent centuries perfecting and refining the design of tea sets, but none could replicate the qualities of the Korean originals, because the creative process was far too deliberate and imitative. A modern example might be 'vintage furniture' where they are consciously designed with imperfections and irregular aspects into them, using artificial cracks, fake woodworm trails, aging effects or inauthentic signs of wear and tear. All these exist in the comfort realm of aesthetic artifice, a place where contrived antiquity, the finely executed fake can be nonetheless loved because of its sentimental aura, its aesthetic nostalgia for a past era that has meaning to us.

The original Korean potters made pots without concern for whether they were perfect or not. They never signed their pottery, they appeared unconcerned, content to remain 'the unknown craftsman'. Yanagri believed modern craft makers were betraying something byn signing their pots. They were turning themselves into 'the known craftsman' placing their ego, praise and reputation as primary concerns. Distorting how we should view and value their a work.  Free of aesthetic, conceptual or intellectual justifications, any object should be free to speak for, and to be, itself. Even the fake and imitative should be worthy of aesthetic appreciation on its own level, just where it aspires to be.

'There are many ways of seeing, but the truest and best is with the intuition, for it takes in the whole, whereas the intellect only takes in a part.......  the sharp edge of intuition is blunted by failure to see with the naked mind. To be naked-minded means to be unrestricted by the eyes that see. When this is achieved, even the dust that spoils the vision will have vanished.'

Seeing with 'the naked mind' epitomises a Zen approach to 'the aesthetics of everything'. With a mind stripped naked of artifice, expectation or pre-judgement of experience. If we were capable of seeing the world in this way what sort of hidden beauties might be revealed? This is the role a true artist can play, they are the advance search party, returning with their sense impressions and aesthetic discoveries. This means they should challenge us to look again, to look here, here where hidden beauty can now be seen.  Hidden beauty becomes hidden because it rarely conforms strictly to human conventions of classical beauty. So pioneering artists might find their work takes time to be properly appreciated. Broader society being slow to adopt the new, initially rejecting what artists unearth, because they see it as coming from the realm of ugliness, from a darkly perverted discomforting vision of the beautiful.

Dogen once met a cook from a near bye monastery, who told him that

'Nothing in the whole world is hidden'**

This brief sentence had a huge insightful effect upon his future beliefs and philosophy. So, to borrow Dogen's style of discourse for a while ~ what is it that is hidden?, everything is hidden, hidden by what?, hidden by the word 'beauty', hidden by the word by, hidden by the word 'hidden', hidden within its hiddeness. Things are hidden not just by words, but the words behind words. So when we hear that:

'The world is full of hidden beauty'*

This is both true and not true, though ultimately beyond two ways. True, in that, for the present, we cannot experience aesthetically the beauty in everything. Not True, in that the aesthetic experience of the beauty of everything, is nonetheless present however unseen it maybe. It isn't locked away in a cupboard that we have to find the key to open, though it may sometimes feels like that. Dogen says in his Genjo Koan:~

'When one side is realised the other side is dark'**

If we believe something to be hidden, it will remain hidden, because belief will conceal it from us, even though actually it isn't hidden at all. The light of belief shines so brightly that it casts dark impenetrable shadows.

Because of the human need to see, we tend to be drawn to, and value the light. It brings us comfort and a sense for being secure. We avoid the dark, because it makes us fearful and vulnerable.  The beneficent Gods, and what is good, occupy the light of heavenly realms. The demonic Gods, and what is evil, occupy the darkness of hell realms. Our imaginations and perceptions tend to be clothed by the light, and made naked by the dark. Beauty, however, exists equally in both realms.

I once had an urge to go out one night, out into a dark autumnal evening. It was raining. All the visible signs said stay in, stay home, don't get cold and wet. I put on warm clothes, boots and waterproofs and went out regardless. The roads were glistening with shifting blue reflections of car headlamps and the sulfurous orbs of streetlamps. Across the road was an unlit woodland park, as I ventured in, my sense of knowing where I was changed. The light diminished, everything became shadowy and suggestible of form. My eyes adjusted. I became aware that my hearing was more acute; to the distant swish of cars on wet roads; to the rain falling erratically off branches and slapping on wet leaves decaying on the ground. From out of the blackness I heard a three dimensional sonic landscape. I smelt the pungency of mould and earthy decay. Pushing my hood back allowed small raindrops to splash upon my face, tiny beads of light falling from out of the darkness. It was an exhilarating and rejuvenating experience, that I didn't want to leave. There's much that is hidden from us because it resides in nightlight, a velvety dark beauty buried in the undergrowth and shadows.

A child's or artist's imagination would not be content to leave rocks lying upon the earth, without lifting them up to see what is beneath them. Our perceptions can be like this, a stone strewn surface, where even our eyes have developed hard unyielding cataracts. Beneath the fixed, solidity of our views, habits and misperceptions, lies a clearer more piercing way of seeing the world. The 'naked mind' is when our eye sight is stripped bare of obscurations. It is, nevertheless, an ongoing effort to stay open and receptive to whatever strikes our senses. Inevitably we will keep finding ourselves getting stuck in habitual ways of seeing things. This is why intuition maybe more helpful for sensing the aesthetic qualities of everything. Keeping ourselves awake, alert for when an unexpected surprise might lift our perceptions out of the ordinary.

Off the coast at Sheringham are three large wind farm shoals. They're actually way way beyond the horizon but nevertheless hover there magnified by air density. When they first were built I really resented them, this series of regimented white lollypop sticks parading across the far sea. They interrupted the wide uninterrupted horizon that I loved. I felt the loss of an open expanse untainted by human intervention. However, one evening we took a walk by torchlight along the promenade. The light had dimmed, the winter air cold, as a strong wind blew in the sounds and smells of the North Sea. On the horizon, each individual wind turbine had its red safety lights lit up. My views of the wind farm shoal were instantly transformed, the darkness had revealed it as a captivating thing. It was a magical lost city, a dream palace on the horizon, inhabited by strange sea angels, flickering their luminescent wings as they rotated on the horizon. By showing me another way to imaginatively look at them, not only was my perception  altered but my feelings too, moving from loathe to love.

'Most beauty is related to laws that transcend the individual'*

Our usual manner of seeing, limits what we are able to perceive.  We become used to reading certain things into situations, objects and people. We judge people on impressions of how we see them, how they seem to be. It can be really hard to remove these initial gut feelings, even if we later receive evidence to the contrary. Often we don't understand why we feel the way we do, its too hard wired into our psyche to consciously extract. In my own experience such responses are rarely to do with the person before you. Emotional echoes from the past have been re-awoken in you, triggered by meeting them. One day you may see them do a kind, caring,beautiful thing, you hear about the details of their life, or they confide in you and you find yourself being touched.  Then its as though a dream bubble has been pricked and you no longer see them as you did previously. Those views obscuring your ability to truly see them, have been seen through, diminished or vanished.

How we relate to and interpret other people functions on the level of aesthetics. Occasionally this  can provides a beautiful experience of aesthetic feeling for all humankind, if not all sentient life. In the light of which our petty individual carping will suddenly seem trite or trivial. 'The aesthetics of everything' includes everyone, every being. That feeling of transcending the limitations of individualised perception happens when we truly see people, just as they are and from a more interconnected perspective. We access this experience more easily via our relationship with nature, but with effort and awareness we can reveal that its everywhere. Endeavouring to proceed through life keeping our mind, eyes and heart as open and wide as we can, on the basis that you wouldn't want to miss anything, would you?  Because:~

 'The world is full of hidden beauty'*


Appendix
I don't believe I could compose a better list of practices to help expand awareness of 'the aesthetics of everything' than Yanagri's own.

' First, put aside the desire to judge immediately; acquire the habit of just looking. 

  Second, do not treat the object as an object for the intellect. 
  
  Third, just be ready to receive, passively, without interposing yourself.  If you can void your    mind of intellectualisation,  like a clear mirror that simply reflects,  all the better.' *


* These quotations come from chapters in The Unknown Craftsman, by Soetsu Yanagri,           published  by Kodansha America, Inc.

** Quotations from Dogen, a 13th century Japanese monk, founder of Soto Zen Buddhism



Saturday, November 04, 2017

FEATURE 136 - Brian Eno & Kevin Shields - Only Once Away My Son

Unlikely collaboration though it may seem, this is nine minutes + of unadulterated drone music I find quite a glorious thing to hear and behold. At times it has an almost orchestral feel. It will be compared with Eno's earlier work with Robert Fripp. Though that collaboration focused much more on exploiting the mellifluous tonality and inventiveness of Fripp's guitar playing. Shield's guitar playing has a rougher edge and you don't quite know where it might end up, if it ends up anywhere. Eno's collaborations do tend to be what stretches him these days and can feed into his own studio work. Not heard much by The Bloody Valentine before, but I am aware of their pure noise reputation. Might dabble and see.


Monday, October 30, 2017

Everyday Beauty 3 - The Aesthetics of Everything

















Brian Eno is a muti-faceted talent, reknowned for being a non-musician who nonetheless makes music, he is also a producer, a visual artist and an investigative thinker. I've viewed recent lectures he's given, where he posed the questions ~ What is Art For? In this he made, what is by his own admission, a very narrow definition of the function of art and culture, that it is:

'everything that we don't have to do' *

Humanity he believes, has this 'functionless' aesthetic impulse that seeks to express itself across an extremely diverse collection of objects,people and cultures. It does not matter how ordinary or humdrum either, it is there in the way we style our clothes, the design of screwdrivers, to the decorative finishes applied to everything be it handrails, cars, cameras or buildings. It includes the contrived artifices of art, craft and the so called higher arts, but isn't restricted to them, or by them. 'The aesthetics of everything' appears to dismantle any boundary you might wish to erect around creative invention.

Apparently we cannot leave a basic activity or object alone without adding these useless embellishments. It is not sufficient for things to be functional, operate perfectly or be well designed for use. They do, however, enhance that function, the individual, the beholder and the world. This aesthetic volition, seems to be one of  those 'values that transforms people's lives. For by decorating the object, building or person we alter not only our view of them, but also the way we engage with them. It lifts our spirits, introduces small pleasures into using tools, whilst executing ordinary tasks in the mundane world. They appear to be:~

'all constructions of little worlds, that say I belong to the kind of world where this sort of hairstyle can exist.'  *

Our relationship, is not just with what we consider aesthetically beautiful, but the dichotomy it traps us in. Could this be altered by 'the aesthetics of everything'? Perhaps it could open our eyes to a world hidden from our perception by the beauty-filled tint of the spectacles we wear. Presenting us with fresh perspectives for cultural, social or spiritual interactions with this world. By more closely aligning ourselves with everyday experience, we place ourselves in a position that brings a sense of unity, purpose, inter-connection and identification with a broader range of other peoples aesthetic visions.

'culture is a set of collective rituals we are all engaged with' (which are) 'rehearsing through acts of imagining' (exposing us) 'to the joys and freedoms of a false world, so we can locate them in our own world' .*

Such imaginative rituals appear to occupy a pivotal role in the development of empathy and hence the maintenance of social cohesion. By broadening the sources for aesthetic engagement we make it possible to dissolve the social distinctions of good taste, the distinctive aroma of personal preference we tend to spray-tan our Self identity with.

I can see how Eno's definition could be viewed as the 'democratisation' of aesthetic experience, though it shouldn't necessarily be seen as a downgraded or dumbed down version. We are often encouraged to believe that creativity, art and culture are like frivolous molluscs, that artists live in remote ivory towers, only made possible by the hard work and industry of others. Culture, so narrowly defined, has to justify its existence by being economically viable. Eno is adamant that, even though their contribution to GDP is huge and self evident, there is no such thing as the 'creative industries', that this term misrepresents what their true purpose is, they are ~

'not add ons, but the central thing that we do.' *

There is nothing practically useful about any aesthetic activity. They are part of what Sangharakshita refers to as 'the greater mandala of uselessness', where you are doing something that is important and has meaning for you, but essentially has no practical use whatsoever. 'The aesthetics of everything' may affect ones spirits, bring its own rewards, improve the quality of your life, or change your perspective, but it has no practical application. Its not a great career move.

'everything that we don't have to do'*

Places the locus for creativity in the daily awareness of experience. Encompassing the full breadth of forms that human creativity and self-expression can take. All humanity shares in common this universal aesthetic predisposition. It is only the style and lengths to which it is taken that is different.  The creative hierarchy of aesthetic endeavours into, applied, decorative and high arts by Ruskin and the Arts & Crafts Movement in the 19th century, does still permeate, and I'd say, poisons our everyday perceptions. We'd have to ditch these distinctions, in order to be able to appreciate fully all dimensions of  'the aesthetics of everything'.

The force coming from our surrounding culture we should bear in mind. In Eno's view. whilst there is a place for the Genius - the talent of the individual, its the Scenius - the talent of the whole community, he puts greater value on. He gives the example of Russian Constructivism. The first flush of revolutionary fervor leading to the democratisation of art, stimulating a huge flowering of creativity across artistic mediums and social classes. Whilst we only remember the celebrated names now, there were literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people involved.  Dependent upon a background network of cafes, bars, galleries, sympathisers, buyers and patrons for support and for an artistic movement to grow. It emerged out of Utopian idealism, political, social and creative that encouraged it to flourish, albeit all too briefly.

'New ideas are articulated by individuals, but generated by communities.' *

In Buddhism in particular, we are supported by a broader spiritual community that helps and encourages us to make individual progress. Individual progress strengthens the collective, the sense of commonality, of shared practices and unified purpose. It is said that the Bodhicitta, the overwhelming desire for enlightenment, is more likely to arise within a communal situation rather than in a specific individual. Developments arise, not just because of your individual creativity within spiritual practice, but also because of everyone else's, from past, present and future. We all need the beneficial qualities of a surrounding context. The people who teach you meditation or study, the Buddhist Centre with its teachers, the movements founder, all the inherited teachings and insights that take us all the way back to the Buddha's era.

'If you make work in a different way that in itself is a political statement...it becomes a vision of how we can do things....what you present is an idea of how life could be different.'*

Valuing what your everyday surroundings provide you with benefits greater aesthetic awareness.  But also stimulates acts of imagination and empathy. Those actions, however,, slowly shift you away from a strong tendency in our culture to think that its 'all about me', that in the end 'it all depends on me', 'me and my genius' or the lack of it.

We tend to look for the guiding genius in a situation. Even when the creative process and its sources were actually much broader and more diverse than that. In soccer its the gifted footballer, rather than the combined talents of everyone to work together as a team. In pop music, the lead singer in the band, or the band's songwriters tend to attract and garner more praise, whilst the remaining band members become like session musicians. Many years later these individuals emerge disgruntled and litigating in order to get the appreciation, and financial reward for their musical contribution to the creation and success of the band they were part of.  A rock band may have geniuses within it, but the sound and ethos of it is a collective amalgam, garnered from all the people involved. The band were also part of a much bigger music scene in a town, city or country, and the multi-faceted inheritors of specific musical legacies.

We tend to believe any modicum of success we obtain is down to how much individual creative icontrol we hold over a situation. We may put it down to luck, but luck seems to me to be just a helping hand reaching out to us from an underground culture. Whilst we shape our reality, we are simultaneously being shaped by it. Its important to know when to surrender to being shaped, to surrender our grip on control, let whatever will happen happen, allow others to lead, to sit back and let go of our need to steer. Similarly, in experiencing the everyday we could just allow things to happen, let experience wash through us without trying to hold onto the best bits, let what ever comes into our experience be, allowing it to linger or go unhindered. However, when we encounter a pleasurable or painful experience we tend to become consumed by it, it eats away at us for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We may discover we can neither surrender to nor control our experience. the baggage and back story that accompany them can be so well versed, and too strong to resist.

'There is a back story to anything that tells you how you should perceive it.'*

Lets say we are meeting a friend for a coffee, cake and a chat in a favourite cafe, we go there with an air of expectation and anticipation. Filled with updates and stories to tell them, we meet them accompanied by the complete back catalogue of all we know about them, how we perceive them, who we believe they are. But when they turn up, they appear uncomfortable, restless, not the self we usually meet up with, something feels wrong. They confess a criminal act they've committed. You're view of them is thrown into turmoil and confusion. This action conflicts with how you see them, contradicts all the stories you've told yourself about them. You find yourself in two minds about whether you can remain friends with such a person?

Likewise, we think we know what the experience of everyday life is like. We think we know what art, craft, design and Theresa May are like, but we don't. We tell ourselves oft repeated stories that confirm and fix our perceptions of them. This is sometimes referred to as 'confirmation bias', where we only find ideas and people that support the views we already hold. If we are 'to see things as they really are' this would entail being willing to loosen the hold these 'back stories' have over us, disrupt their self-perpetuating feedback loop. Though I wouldn't for one moment suggest that this can be quickly or easily accomplished.

When we think about what 'everyday beauty' is, we can get hooked on that one word 'beauty' Beauty exists in an incestuous relationship with its ugly shadow. When we encounter anything we make judgements along a spectrum from wonderful, through just ok, to horrible. As the cliche goes 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' so if we were to change what our eye beholds and looks for, would we then see aesthetically beautiful qualities even in things that we previously catagorised as ugly?

There is a popular traditional Zen saying that goes as follows:

'At first, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. 
Then I saw mountains were not mountains, and rivers were not rivers. 
Finally I see mountains again as mountains, and rivers again as rivers.' 

For the purposes of this article I have transposed this into:

At first, I saw beauty as beauty, and ugly as ugly.
Then I saw beauty as not being beautiful, and ugliness as not being ugly.
Finally I see beauty as beauty, and ugly as ugly.

I'm treading on risky ground here in trying to explain a Zen saying. However, I'm doing so because I wish to use it to demonstrate stages in how perceptions change on the journey to seeing 'everyday beauty', 'the aesthetics of everything' in its fullness.

We live in a concrete world of fixed definitions and dichotomies, where beauty is beauty and ugly is ugly. Its a human need to make judgements and to control, to know where we are, and what is what. However, to begin appreciating wider qualities of everyday experience we would have to break out of catagorisation into This versus That. This limits what can be seen as beautiful or ugly. If these could be less rigidly held, they might become more permeable or elastic. Starting to perceive 'ugly' characteristics in the 'beautiful,' and 'beautiful' characteristics in the 'ugly,' may begin to break down such two-sided distinctions, making them appear inviable.

Many years ago, in the first flush of my ardour for Buddhist practice I threw out of my record collection anything I thought was raucous, coarse, violent or unsavoury in tone, because I felt it might impede the refining of my mindfulness practice. So, out the window went my entire collection of Nick Cave records. Some years later, after my practice had become very dry spiritually and my imagination deprived of necessary sustenance, I found myself re-purchasing music I'd previously thrown away, including the Nick Cave. I was surprised at how different my perceptions of it had become. What I'd previously seen as an unhealthy dwelling on the murderous darker sides of human behaviour, instead stimulated imaginative connections of empathy and compassion within me. What must it be like to be like that? How desperate must you be in order to do such things? I felt touched by how murder was a tragedy for all concerned. Whether victim or perpetrator it was all suffering under different names. What I'd previously seen as bad, distasteful or ugly became tinged with a sympathetic, melancholic air of beauty.

This type of opening up of our awareness, subtly relaxes our preferences and seems to me to be quite a crucial stage. It straddles the gap between being ignorantly unaware and becoming aware in an ever broader and more equanimous way.  The final sentence of the Zen saying, might appear to have returned us to the state of the first sentence, However, in the first sentence we sought out the beautiful and avoided the ugly. In the final sentence, such craving or aversion have ceased, and things can be simply beautiful or ugly, pleasant or painful without any additional prejudicial thought being attached to them. An appreciation for the aesthetics of everything, is what the state of 'everyday beauty'appears to become in its fullest ultimate sense.

As we pass from being Unenlightened and Unaware, to Unenlightened but Increasingly Aware, to Enlightened and Fully Aware, our aesthetic awareness is transformed.


* These quotes are all Brian Eno, taken from two of his lectures, his John Peel Lecture in 2015, and Andrew Carneige Lecture 2017



Monday, October 23, 2017

Everyday Beauty 2 ~ Sensuous Impressions

















In The Religion of Art, Sangharakshita composes a definition of art and the purpose of beauty. He saw a correlation in spirit, between the way Buddhist practice and artistic practice are executed, in that both refine perceptions and are potentially trans-formative. What he ends up with has a 'Ruskinesque' ambiance too it, though thankfully not delivered in such Victorian self aggrandising terms. It is characteristically succinct:~

 "Art is the organisation of sensuous impressions that express the artist's sensibility and communicate to his audience a sense of values that can transform their lives."

Lets start by examining 'the organisation of sensuous impressions.' As beings with sense faculties, we receive and process sense input, our worldly experience bombards us with them all the time. We have no control over the nature of that sense input, but have control only to a  moderate degree over how we respond, whether we find it painful or pleasureful, ugly or beautiful to engage with. Appreciating 'artistic' or 'everyday beauty' is one of many impressions arising from sense input. Such impressions are a basic instinctual assessment, a knee jerk reaction to sense input ranging from attraction through to aversion. How sensitive and receptive we are to this, affects the depth of how negatively or positively 'impressed' we are by them. As the interpreter of sense input, we are daily engaging in composing a long running narrative drawn up by an instinctive and selectively aesthetic sensibility.

Sangharakshita uses language with clear precision, it is not just any old sensuous impression, but organised sensuous impressions. The one thing you can be certain about everyday sense experience is that it will be disorganised and random in how things strike you. Sangharakshita believes that art, with a capital A, requires someone to take the chaos of their sense input, organise it and present their sensuous impressions to us - an artist, with a capital A. Let's skip over Sangharakshita's use of the possessive pronoun 'his', and proceed on the basis that there is no need to specifically gender the artist when making a general definition of art. There is an artist whose aesthetic sensitivity, based on their own sense impressions, expresses those impressions through a sensory based medium, that in some way stimulates other people's sights, sounds, taste, touch or consciousness.

Though 'an organiser of sensuous impressions' is adequate in describing what an artist does, it also is what all human beings do constantly. It doesn't exclude anything we find in our daily experience either. We are literally surrounded, if not engulfed, by other individuals organised sensuous impressions, by our neighbour's garden, by the design of knives and forks, by advertising, cars, houses, interior decor, roads, lights, police sirens. Even aspects of nature have been re-organised, into fields, forest plantations and canals, into productive and non-productive, urban and countryside, into idealised, romantic and symbolical landscapes. These maintain an impression of being part of natural beauty, even though they're a reconstituted version of it. The motivation for such 'reconstitution' is often for practical, social or economic reasons. The outcome has, nevertheless, a refined and refining aesthetic quality in-spite of that not being its primary intention. We cannot avoid being affected aesthetically by everything that we make or come into contact with. How much we are aware of that is a separate concern.

One cultural legacy of the Renaissance that lingers on, is that we still give creative prominence to an artist, a lone visionary genius.  Aesthetic sensitivities, to appreciate and create beauty have become limited to a gifted elite. The artistic emphasis is placed on the transcendent qualities of great beauty, that light a lofty beacon for the mass of people stuck in lives of ugly squalor, suffering and despair., well, that's how the story goes. The ability to experience 'everyday beauty', can appear to offer no such relief from suffering or a transcendent option. It is stuck right there in the muck of life, however illimitable it maybe for everyone to access. 'Everyday beauty' includes but doesn't depend upon the output of a single artist as sole creative instigator.  All artists organise their sensuous impressions within a context, as part of a culture, a loosely interdependent, collective supporting framework. The Renaissance view tends to downplay or ignore the broader role that society plays in supporting the flourishing of artful beauty.

Prior to that, in the early medieval period, few artisans signed their name to anything. If we look for those involved in constructing a cathedral, we tend to refer to them by the buildings they made as The Master of so an so, because distinct stylistic signatures show an individual's talent and skill can be identified.  In that period, a cathedral was viewed as a collective effort, and whilst there was someone whom we would now call an architect, they were just one of a broad team of artisans involved. Any individual's visionary skills and effort flowed into the collective creative melting pot. Whether they thought of what they were doing as art or craft, is unlikely to have been considered. Artisans had a low position in society, and as such no evaluation of their skills into a creative hierarchy was made. The power of the feudal society they lived within was greater than any individuals skills or need for recognition

Sangharakshita's intention in writing his definition was to place artistic endeavour within an overarching spiritual intent. When he says an artist's work should communicate.'a sense of values that can transform our lives' he wasn't meaning with a desire to redecorate your front room or bake a superlative carrot cake.  If we return again to our medieval cathedral workers. They did have a belief in a greater value, beyond the practical task of building a cathedral and earning themselves a living. They were constructing a cathedral, not just to benefit  themselves but for the benefit of everyone in their community. They held a belief, in this case a Christian one of souls needing to be saved, and that a cathedral, once constructed, could contribute towards transforming the meaning and purpose of everyone's lives.

Likewise, the purpose of Buddhist practice is not just to enlighten your individual consciousness, but to ultimately enlighten everyone's. Sangharakshita believes this process of altruistic transformation is given further impetuous by running an artistic process in parallel with it. Both are examples, for him, of an individual striving for the higher evolving of all human consciousness.

Artists puts something of themselves into their work, what they value fuels their perceptions, purpose and process. For those looking at their art, its unclear how, if at all, those values might become communicable through the finished piece?  In my experience, I don't believe there to be such a tight correlation between personal values, talent and the spiritually trans-formative impact of the art produced.  Can any artwork be inherently spiritually trans-formative simply by virtue of who made it? The aesthetic refinement, spirituality or skill of the artist may not actually be that important. The perceptions and receptivity of the individual engaging with the artwork, could be a decisive and more crucial element.  Otherwise any piece of art would have exactly the same effect on everyone who looked at, heard or felt it, which generally they do not.

It's conceivable that mutual aesthetic communing is going on. Yet, for the values and aims of the artist to be communicable, would require the viewer of their art to be aligned and resonate with them. A work of art, or 'everyday beauty', is like a spiritual teaching that has no potency until someone who is receptive enough to it, encounters it, allowing moments of insight to burst within them. Receptivity seems to be key. I doubt whether a work of art, or 'everyday beauty', can inherently possess or actively trigger such a response in others The power to stimulate insight, appears to be primarily dependent upon specific conditions; the individuals receptivity, the cultural background that they approach it from.

What has previously caused me to question Sangharakshita's definition, is that I find it hard to see artists who exemplify what he's describing. Even if there were artists whose were sensitive to the sublime, that doesn't necessarily mean their art will have that effect upon others. I can certainly remember experiencing momentary explosions of bliss whilst listening to a piece of music, or viewing a painting. But like peak meditation experiences these arise from suddenly finding oneself alive in the present moment, there is an element of surprise to them, and they tend not to be consciously repeatable afterwards. They are not in the possession of the artwork, niether are we possessed by the artwork. You could say we read into and receive from an artwork and everyday life, precisely what we want from them.

Two of my peak experiences were both when looking at paintings by Van Gogh. The paintings were in themselves  muted and low key for Van Gogh, one of a patch of grass, and one of forest undergrowth. There is nothing particularly exceptional or special about either painting, but the moment my gazed rested on them I had this huge emotional response, like a lift rapidly and ecstatically ascending to the top floor. What I brought to this experience was an enduring love for Van Gogh's work, his passion, expressiveness, his strength and use of colour, and an identification with the self evident drama and tragedy of his life. All of these may have primed me emotionally, to be ready to receive moments of bliss-filled recognition.

When it comes to an elevated sense of beauty versus an everyday sense of beauty, I can't help but feel such a dichotomy is an unnecessary one. One can hold an opinion about aesthetics or spiritual efficacy, but it will never be based on objective facts, only subjective responses given a rational veneer. I myself have only an instinctual sense that our perceptions of everyday objects and events can be transformed, that the elevated exists muddled up and entangled within the mundane. I cannot know any of this with objective certainty. So my belief, whilst awaiting more definitive proof or refutation, has to be held lightly and provisionally.

Everything begins, travels through and ends back in everyday experience. Cultivating receptivity and reciprocity with 'everyday beauty' is similar to developing an appreciation for a 'high art' sense of beauty. To fully appreciate everyday life takes a lot of awareness, and that starts as a conscious practice. To sense what the value of it might be, to cultivate receptivity to it, to relax the rigidity of our likes and dislikes. There is pain there, as much as pleasure, and how you approach them both is key, but this will not in itself make then go away. Nonetheless, a way to relax and ease those pain-filled / pleasureful ties needs to be found, because as Dogen put it they 'bind ones self without a rope.'.  Transformation, if it happens anywhere, will arise out of our everyday vicissitudes, from our sense impressions of it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Everyday Beauty 1 ~ Loving A Bright Red Plastic Tulip



In the early 1960's there was still such a thing as a local corner shop that seemingly had everything. Mrs Whitaker's faced the end of our road in Halifax. When you entered you stepped into a short narrow room with a high ceiling and worn unvarnished floorboards. To the left, dark shelves rose packed to the ceiling with merchandise, to the right, a large shop window with an old display of stock, much faded by light. At the far end was a small wooden counter with a hinged top, behind this stood Mrs Whitaker, the entrance door bell having already summoned her from her back room.

Once I was considered old enough, Mum would send me there with a hand written note and shopping basket. The note contained a list of things we needed, to be handed to Mrs Whitaker on arrival.  On this particular day, Mum sent me to buy Daz washing powder.  The pack of Daz came with a bright red plastic tulip. In the sixties everything seemed to come with a promotional free gift, or a token to cut out and save. Its questionable whether soap powder and a bright red plastic tulip were natural sales companions, though it seems someone at Proctor & Gamble deemed it to be so. I became really entranced by this unexpectedly beautiful thing being given to me, for free, and returned home delighted.

When Mum saw me coming in holding a red plastic tulip she quizzed me about how I'd got it. I told her it came with the Daz but she thought that so unlikely, she marched me straight back to Mrs Whitaker's to apologise for my having thieved it. There of course she found out the vindicating truth. Mrs Whitaker's shop was soon to vanish; the arrival of the first supermarket in town a few streets away, quickly killed it off, The tulip, however, remained with me as a much prized childhood possession.

I was around six or seven, and still possessed a fascination and delight with everything I encountered. Most young children have this briefly, an irrational unbounded love and appreciation for objects, places, even imaginary people. Everyone else, but me, seemed to know this tulip was a poor crude substitute for the real thing. However feeble its verisimilitude may have been, it was as charmingly innocent and devoid of pretence as I was, I didn't care, I loved it, and saw it as beautiful. My free spirited perceptions were able to appreciate it just for what it was, not for what it wasn't or what it should have been. I took direct unmediated delight in its everyday beauty, however tawdry. It seems sad that we lose this ability to appreciate the beauty of ordinary everyday things, and can spend our subsequent lives grieving, searching and longing for this way of perceiving things to be revived in us.

What is it that changes our way of seeing?  A lot of this comes down to a lack of life experience, and an accompanying naivety. Together these make children able to view things with a constantly new, fresh and vital eye. It is familiarity that slowly dims or extinguishes a child's 'beginners mind'. Life experience itself can cultivate a bored disinterest in what has already been seen and known, as we seek out fresh stimulating experiences, to feel that buzz of the new once again.  Our countries economy survives on our desire for novelty. whilst our formal education informs, alters and refines our sense for what an aesthetic pleasure can be. The higher up the educational ladder we go, the more knowing and sophisticated our aesthetic sensibility may become.

This can come at a cost, we start to self censor our responses to the breadth of things we are able to appreciate possess beauty. What we believe to be beautiful or not beautiful, is created  through learnt biases within our own culture, it is an acquired distinction.  Like osmosis, we absorb other peoples aesthetic views through the conversations we have, the books, papers, websites we read, the advertising, programmes, theatre and films we watch, making them our own.  As we narrow, refine and elevate of our views of aesthetics, we turn an appreciation for beauty, everyday or otherwise, into a search for an other worldly and rather rare endangered species.

'Everyday beauty' tends to be broader ranging, more comprehensive and available everywhere, at anytime. If a grown adult, however, were to show a simple childlike delight in something as everyday as a bright red plastic tulip, they may end up being patronised, treated as charmingly naive, unsophisticated, uneducated, ill-informed, unrefined, primitive, their sanity might be called into question. Generally what is ordinary and immediate, is often popular, and this on its own can summon forth an air of cultural condescension. These things being detrimentally compared to more rarefied aesthetic experiences, often held up as supremely 'high art' spiritually inflected, that you have to spend some time learning how to understand, appreciate and have a feeling for.  This tends to stifle or stunt an appreciation for everyday beauty, instinctive, uncensored, and not strongly filtered through a cultural bias. Its present in everything, to consider it beautiful or not, ordinary or extraordinary, low or high brow, machine made or hand made, are distinctions that no longer serve any purpose. Appreciating 'everyday beauty' appears to grow the more aligned we can become with each 'presenting moment.' This may cause the arising of delight, by our closeness to it, by the intimacy of our being with its being, through appreciating its suchness, we touch upon our own.

This is the first of four blog posts I'm planning to write concerning aspects of Everyday Beauty. In future posts, I intend to look at three differing views on the relationship between everyday beauty and art, the elevated and the everyday aesthetic. One takes a modern Buddhist's perspective, one an essentially secular viewpoint, and another takes the secular as its spiritual launch point.  The first comes from Sangharakshita the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order, the second from the artist and non-musician Brian Eno, and the third from Soetsu Yanagi, a 20th century Japanese ceramicist. I'm hoping that through exploring these views,  however divergent or conflicting they may be, some of the elements that encourage or discourage a deeper appreciation for everyday beauty may emerge.

Monday, October 09, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW ~ Sparks ~ Hippopotamus

Its been a while, but a new album by Sparks, for me, is like a reunion with much loved old friends. It's not that they haven't been busy during the eight years since there last studio album. Most recently they've been working on music for a film script called Annette, filmed by Leos Carax of Holy Motors fame, starring Adam Driver, Rooney Mara, and reportedly a cameo by Rihanna. Personally can't wait to see it. After that Sparks returned to the studio for ten months to make this album, which has a guest vocal appearance by Carax on When Your A French Director., singing 'When your a French director, you're an auteur as well, What does that mean? Every scene must be as obscure as hell.'
So, yes, as that lyric indicates, Ron Mael has been sharpening his customary wit once more. It's been well worth the wait.

On Hippopotamus there are fifteen songs, each a miniature gem, each quite different from the other, but still inimitably Sparks. Here are my personal favourites in no particular order, just as they come to mind.




The album's opener, is a short, bitter sweet song, with a simple piano accompaniment. Probably Nothing, is sung in the first person, its a man trying to remember what it is he wants to say to his partner. Devoid of irony, wit or whimsy, its just a very poignant song about someone with dementia.
'Something to tell you, but now I forget. Probably Nothing. Some little story, No nothing, not yet. Probably Nothing. Don't try to think of it, then it'll come, Happens a lot lately, I feel so dumb. It'll come, when it comes, but I still feel so dumb'



The albums title song Hippopotamus, is one of those off kilter Sparks songs where you just have to surrender to the barmy logic of it. On the face of it, it's just a list of odd things this guys found in his swimming pool, including the aforesaid hippopotamus, a painting by Heironymus Bosch, a Volkswagan micro bus, and Titus Andronicus wearing a snorkel. It has all the lyrical inventiveness we expect from Ron Mael, whilst having the insistence of a playground nursery rhyme that children might skip along too, whilst driving you mad at hearing over and over again.
'There's a book by anonymous, a book by anonymous, a book by anonymous in my pool. There's a book by anonymous, a book by anonymous, and a hippopotamus in my pool. No I've not read it, no I've not read it, when it drys out I'll have a go.'  



Giddy Giddy Giddy, on the surface appears light and insubstantial, but nevertheless this addictive little song drives along at an insane gallop as if it startled the horses. But I absolutely love it. Its sending up the rather hyped up state that contemporary life can often get us all into, so self intoxicated and just giddy with glee about something and nothing.
' from another city, where nobody's giddy, comes a scientific group, to analyse our giddiness, Their water ain't too giddy, their diet ain't too giddy, we're prettier than they are, but their infinitely giddier.'



Scandinavian Design, is a classic Sparks song where knowing cultural references are paraded as a lure to attract a woman to stay the night.
'I've got nothing, just a table and two chairs, But I know that everything I need is there, Every line, every shape, sculptural, no escape. Its Scandinavian Design. Sometimes she comes over, I think I know why, she says the sky has bored her, what's wrong with the sky? Who am I to turn her out, all that she thinks about, is Scandinavian Design.'



Unaware, is another of those Ron Mael songs that by concealing plays with our expectations and interpretation. Eventually to reveal the reason why she's unaware is that she's only a baby.
'Taylor Swift has something new, Nike has a brand new shoe, Reads your heart rate, anywhere, she don't know, she don't care, She's unaware, unaware.'



I Wish You Were Fun, is a great song, reminiscent of a music hall tune in its musical and lyrical style. It demonstrates that in another era Ron Mael could have been a successful Broadway songwriter.
'I wish you were fun, I wish you were fun to be around, I wish you were fun, You say that your favourite colours brown. In every other way I find you amazing but one, I wish you were fun, I wish you were fun.'



The closing song on the album, Life With the Macbeths, Russell sings a duet with an opera singer, in a grand satire on celebrity TV, where Lord and Lady Macbeth's life is being filmed as a reality show.
'As the cameras are rolling, we roll our eyes, But our lifestyle demands we hide our sighs, One season, is all you'll see, As the Lady inspires me to depths unseen, Killing all in my way, some will yell 'obscene' The ratings are off the charts. Life with the Macbeths, both tart and smart.'

Hippopotamus, I think will be viewed as one of Sparks late, but great albums. In its range of styles and invention it bears similarity to Indiscreet, an oft overlooked album from their first flush of success. With Russell now 69 and Ron 72, how much longer these two can keep going recording, let alone touring, remains to be seen. There are a number of songs here that refer to aging and mortality, perhaps this is spurring them on to make best use of whatever productive time they have remaining. Long may they continue.



Monday, October 02, 2017

SHERINGHAM DIARY 6 ~ What Will The Next Thing Be?

September is a significant month for Jnanasalin and I. On the 22nd Sept five years we had our civil partnership, and two years ago on the same date we had the 'upgrade' to a marriage. Though a fifth anniversary is, I believe, traditionally marked by a gift of wood. we chose to mark it differently. First, by going to see a broadcast of Yerma at the Sheringham Little Theatre, which was brilliant! and  then a curry at the Taste of India restaurant in Holt, which was notable for being distinctly average.

This year, another thing makes September a time of note, it's our sixth month since we moved to Sheringham.  When we first moved to Upper Sheringham we made a list of things for me to refinish for the house. I'm currently halfway through refurbishing an old chest of draws for our bedroom, which, once done, will mean that list will be completed. We've moved, settled in, found jobs, so, now what happens next ?

Well, I appear to have become a Star Trek addict. I wake up early, so once up, I make coffee for both of us, and then watch an episode or two. So far I've completed watching the Voyager series and am now on Series 4 of The Next Generation. After an extremely dodgy first series, with badly written scripts and everyone acting like the wooden tops, it has improved immensely. I've grown fond of the handsomely bearded Commander Riker, constantly beaming whilst standing stiffly, head bent to one side. Deanne Troi, still wooden after all these years, with her supposed supernatural powers of telepathy and piercing insight. Every time her mouth opens, out spills the dullest of perceptions, she ought to have been called Deanne Trite.

We've officially entered Autumn, and whilst I'm not yet a fully fledged paid up member of the Monty Don Fan Club, I have been getting soil under my fingernails and discovering caches of snails concealed inside bushes. Last week I gave our small gardens, front and back, a bit of a short back and sides tidy up and attention before the colder months land on our doorstep.  Plus, we've found where the best local garden centres are ( Holt and Overstrand ) and  have been buying plants to bed in over the Winter.

Jnanasalin and I both got in contact with our inner bloke, and dug out a couple of Leylandii bushes that seemed to be on a mission, to not just gain territory, but achieve total garden domination. We've also created a herb garden in pots and planted a rhubarb patch. There is a plan, not yet fully fleshed out, to plant a range of decorative grasses in our front garden, and attempt to remove the ugly satellite dish that we have no earthly use for. We're trying to block out the basic structure for the garden improvements now, so we can further develop them in the early Spring.

As yet, I've not been able to find alternative work to my present job. First, there isn't much to apply for, and second, when I do, I'm not getting selected for interview. I don't know for sure, but being sixty and male, could be factors in my not reaching interview stage. I have the relevant experience for the jobs I'm applying for, and do my best to tailor my CV to be appropriate. In North Norfolk employers appear to be looking for more of what they've had before, which quite often is a female part-time worker. Anyway, I'll keep trying to find my way out of the 'glass cellar' I appear to have become locked in. Meanwhile, though I'm losing weight, I also feeling constantly tired.

Jnanasalin is really enjoying being able to drive, since he's gained approval from the DVLC he's like a new man. Apart from making his daily commute to work much easier and shorter, we've taken to visiting a wider range of places, to discover and explore North Norfolk a bit. A couple of weeks ago we went to Dalegate Market in Burnham Deepdale, which was disappointing, but we discovered Creake Abbey Farm Shop on the way back, which we will no doubt return to. With his work, he's gradually getting to the end of sorting out the organisational and staffing mess that he inherited. At present he's on the cusp of starting to enjoy it. For weeks he's been redirecting or quelling the mix of ambitions and loyalties going on between female staff and volunteers, and heaving large plastic bags of clothes around a warehouse, the upside of which is he too has been losing weight!

What will Jnanasalin  and I do with ourselves of an evening, during the upcoming darker winter months? Upper Sheringham, as you might well imagine, has no nightlife bar the occasional Fun Quiz at the Village Hall. Sheringham has its pubs and restaurants, and the Sheringham Little Theatre, where you can see great broadcasts of live theatre, and a pleasantly inoffensive choice of films  mostly four or five months passed their release date, that wouldn't frighten a cackle of blue rinsed pensioners. Cromer has the Regal Movieplex Cinema, which sounds like a grand modern multi screen affair, but its all a bit more cosey and homely than that. Some of its screens can't be much bigger than our front room. However, if you want to see less genteel films and current releases, then that's the place to be.

We've been able during the summer months to make the most of living right on the doorstep of Sheringham Park, a National Trust estate, taking walks there in the early evening. After a strenuous day working inside a laundry the size of a cupboard, or sorting donations in a dusty warehouse for Priscilla Bacon Hospice Shops, it's great to be able to breath fresh outdoor air. We promenade on the seafront with an ice cream or a bag of chips in hand, or make a flask of hot chocolate, sit by the boat pond and read a good book, until our fingers get too chilled to turn a page. We've also taken to just reading in the evening, or myself to writing articles for this blog, or occasionally we do a jigsaw together! Which may sound like we're turning into the sort of fuddy duddy gay couple who'd soon be taking up knitting and crochet, if we hadn't already done so! We're just finding more enjoyment in quite ordinary everyday things.

After six months, its turning out to be a full but simpler life than we had in Cambridge, with fewer opportunities for distraction. Whilst we've been preoccupied with setting up our life here, adjusting our way of being to this, and the change in pace, hasn't quite been at the forefront of our minds. Now we move on to whatever the next stage in settling into life in North Norfolk is.  The most pregnant of questions being 'what will the next thing be,' with regards to Cottonwood Workshop and our 'cafe project'. As yet, whilst fervently saving as much money as we can, its still not certain in our minds exactly what direction to take, and hence what the money will be put to realising,  What our first steps need to be, is still dark to us. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

THEATRE REVIEW - Yerma - Encore Broadcast - 21st September

I had read wildly ecstatic reviews of the Young Vic's production of Yerma before I went to its broadcast at the Sheringham Little Theatre. All mention the much garlanded performance of Billie Piper' in particular. This can make one wary that your perceptions are being pre-primed by heightened superlatives being dished out like exotic hors d'oeuvres. However, this time I must say it was all deserved, to every last full stop and exclamation mark.

This production, written and directed by the Australian Director Simon Stone, has extensively adapted and transposed the original Lorca play, moving the setting from rural Spain to contemporary London.  Not being fully familiar with the original text I'm not aware to what extent he has remained loyal to the narrative. Though having seen other Lorca and read his poetry I can tell that, even though the dialogue is at variance, it is faithful to the tone and feeling of barely restrained, if not unfettered, passion that is distinctive of Lorca's dramatic style, as he slowly cranks up the emotionally tense atmosphere.

The stage set is a large glass plated, carpeted room,  It looked like one of those confining boxy interiors you see a distorted grotesque figure splurging out of in a Francis Bacon painting. In some respects Lorca and Bacon are similar; in that their output on the stage and on canvas is visceral. As though a bucket of butchers offal has been tipped over the floor. The glass box gives visual representation here to things both transparent and caged, those pent up feelings lie just under that bland beige carpet. Those unsaid things are now to be exposed via a torturous dramatic process. Yerma, is in the tradition of a Greek tragedy, placed in an ordinary domestic setting, similar in many respects to any play by Arthur Miller. You know from the outset that this idyllic situation you are first presented with will not last, that it will not turn out well for anyone, someone will by the end die, either at their own or another's hand.

The pivotal character is Eva, a woman in her mid thirties who realises her biological clock is ticking.  The time within which to have a child is running out. She ambushes her partner John with her desire to have a child by him. He goes along with it, afraid he'll lose her otherwise. Eva is a successful journalist and blogger, who uses her own life and difficulties as frank source material. So everything that happens in her life gets broadcast to the world outside.  The years pass with still no baby, her desperation, ,jealousy of her sister and mistrust for how little time John is giving to the baby project, all these feelings end up disastrously exposed for public consumption. Relationships fracture.

Yerma means barren, someone here is infertile, is it Eva or is it John? But Eva is surrounded by people who are emotionally barren, a mother who is unable to express love or affection, a sister unable to walk away from an empty abusive relationship, a husband so evasively out of touch with himself he's unable to be openly truthful with her.

Billie Piper's performance as Eva sets Lorca's heightened melodrama alight, in a flare of combustible despair, frustration and anger. Though she begins by showing her as playful and self assertive, over the length of the play she gradually sours as her wish to have a child becomes a maddening, overriding obsession. One that eventually removes the support of those around her and the stability of her own self. At times this is a raw raging performance, emotionally uncomfortable yet compelling, it is startling to watch.  Yerma is that unfortunately rare thing, a completely female centred narrative. This inevitably makes other characters less rounded, as they come in and out of Eva's whirlwind. Nonetheless, they are well played, particularly Brendan Cowell as John and John MacMillan as the hapless ex lover Victor.

The updated contemporary language, is often apt and frequently base, coarsely filled with profanities. Stone's version, like Lorca's rarely dresses matters up in polite acceptable language, the language, though often poetically heightened, always rings true. One couple in our audience walked out within the first ten minutes, shortly after the dialogue about why John prefers 'bum sex' with her! But that 'bum sex' dialogue is a major pointer towards how John really feels, in his heart of hearts he doesn't want them to have children. This deception is what corrodes their love for each other.

The original play had a chorus who led you from one scene to another, as it has an episodic structure covering many months and years. In this production its marked by projected chapter numbers, titles and headlines that delineate the downward spiral. The chorus here is a choral one, that sings increasingly dissonant verses, often abruptly truncated like badly edited TV intermissions. This gives the play a similar feeling to one of those 'found footage' films, with awkward jump cuts, out of focus, wobbly camera angles encasing a fractured narrative. As filmed, Yerma is one of the most disturbing and compulsive pieces of theatre I've seen in a very long time. Goodness knows what it was like for those seeing it live in the theatre itself.