Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Architecture of Pleasure

Lina Bo Bardi, Museum on the Seashore, Brazil, 1951

[longer version of a review for Architecture Today #232)

Rowan Moore Why We Build
Agata Pyzik

Rowan Moore’s ambitious book starts with an image that is hard to beat: as a prominent critic of The Observer and a former Architecture Foundation director, he is taken by the Dubai’s satraps for a helicopter flight over the now so familiar landscape of thrilling, yet deeply unsettling city. The list of financial excesses and cost of the inaugural parties can be probably matched only by the declining Roman Empire. And just like with the Romans, the Emirates' millionaires seemed decadently aware of the fall that was just round the corner. Moore sees a greater meaning in this, and as if responding to people, who’d like to see architecture as something purely functional, makes a quasi-antimodernist argument: architecture was, is and will be built partly as a result of our madness, as a folly responding to our desires to change the world according to our visions.

VDNKh Moscow
The motor may be love for beauty, for money or for vice, or for power – all of those wishes are reflected in the madness of Dubai, as they are in seemingly much less controversial projects. His book then continues as a catalogue, or an atlas of human follies as architecture. His greatest interest and fascination lies with the fantastical. The most inspiring chapters consider the fake in architecture (or the fake that becomes real), the spaces for love and lovemaking (or simply sex trade) and spaces, that are expressions of power. He discusses alongside each other, Richard Rogers flag projects of Centre Pompidou in Paris and Lloyd’s in London, Stalinist Moscow’s metro and the unbelievable VDNKh, the All-Russia Exhibition Centre for all the Soviet Republics; John Soane’s uncanny house-museum, the billionaire Larry Dean’s Xanadu or rather Dynasty-like Dean Gardens, and the driven in its literalness phallic brothel by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, famous inventor of “architecture parlante”. He’s interested in how an even single building may change the city, always ready to give dozens of examples and in our fascination with power, stating very truthfully, that “we often like a presence of force in a  building, as long as we feel it’s not directed at us”.

Dean Gardens

My definite favorite is the erotic chapter, where Moore assumes a role of an infinitely interested observer, yet not a pornographer, with a wit confirming London’s reputation as a city of vice much surpassing anything ever done by the French. He gently mocks Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos, both erotomaniacs, who were in love with Josephine Baker, and their male fantasies about women’s sensuality and sexuality. Let's not pretend in the case of many of the cherished great inventors in architecture, starchitects as well as their less monied, less talented, but still powerful colleagues (all no doubt The Fountainhead lovers), their sexual (sometimes not only) fantasies laid way to many ridiculously self-indulgent projects. Money and power meaning abuse of women shocker; to which probably the chapters on fascinating brutalist Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi, as well as Zaha Hadid can be a counterbalance. Architecture remains a hopelessly men-dominated area and as I would oppose simplistic oppositions, it is rare on Moore's part to point out what often is hidden behind the spiky ambitions.

If the erudite delicious passages about the French neoclassicist architecture, bathed in erotomania have any predecessor, it will be the Anthony Vidler’s Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely or Robert Harbison’s unique Eccentric Spaces or Reflections of Baroque. Both are stylists, who want to take the architectural writing to somewhere more interesting, than just sheer journalism. The postmodern era in building spawned not only the atrocities of Philip Johnson (who gets kicking), but also some the most sophisticated writing devoted to make it an expression of the personality of both author’s and the strangeness of the built space.

The consequences of the financial aspect of those follies are present, but not those, that drove the Pomo architecture into the atrocities of the zero degree of architecture, which is speculative housing. The quality and at the same time problem of this book is that Moore doesn’t want to focus on mediocrity, and if so, only on the splendid, larger-than-life mediocrity, like China Central TV Headquarter, project in Beijing by OMA/Rem Koolhas or their Olympic Stadium from 2008. Despite pointing out the cynicism of the authorities, who publicly aim at the ‘openness’ and internationalism, it’s hard to resist an impression Moore is sparing us the final word. The time now is hectic and the readers become more and more aware of the political complications of the last 30 years in building – Moore resists yet an overarching argument, which would turn his book inevitably into a diatribe. Although it announces at the beginning it’s purpose is to “explain this universal drive to build”, we’d still expect more of an erudite of his sort.

LIna Bo Bardi, SESC Pompéia Sao Paulo, 1977

 This book is not a manual, the charm lies rather in those little snippets of information, some great lines ready to be quoted, especially on Soane, Ruskin or sex. it is a formidable puzzle trying to hold together as an answer to how we build and how we used to build, written with grace, a bit in the way of ancient, renaissance or baroque authors of architectural treatises. But what is sometimes lacking is the future tense here. for those willing to know more on architectire t is a great journey though, which in the end, makes us read his author’s and our own judgment between the lines.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Auf wiedersehen, Mr Beckett!

[text written and then shortened as a review for The Wire #333 which was in September last year]

Deborah Weagel
Words and Music. Camus, Beckett, Cage, Gould

In a way, relationships between words, especially poetry, and music, are self-explanatory, because poetry started as music or music started as poetry (Orphic hymns, oral epics, vocal music, oratorios, masses, operas). In turn, the idea of synthesis of arts, and especially a kinship between word and music appears first in the Greeks as ekphrasis, which is, in literal sense, an “expression” of an idea, a rhetorical device of expressing one art via another and perhaps also first ever definition of intermediality. Modern view on correspondences comes from German Romantics, who insisted on the idea of the interdisciplinary. Since then the idea of synthesis of arts was attractive to many, with Wagner’s Gesamtkunswerk as a most famous example and all kinds of 20th century avant-garde experimentation: Dada poetry, visual poetry or even concrete and sonorist poetry or contemporary hypertext. All that was usually evoking musical language, but treated rather as a metaphor, neglecting its primary meaning. Yet something about the idea of blurring the distance between music and literature still haunts the humanities and interestingly it is usually the literary scholars than musicologists, who want to prove it.

In Words and Music Deborah Weagel interestingly overlooks all the literary avant-garde traditions, from symbolism to dada, and chooses to focus on four artists, two writers and two composers/musicians, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, John Cage and Glenn Gould respectively, which also happen to be well established High Priests of Modernism. She also states from the beginning, that what interests her are only two aspect of musicality of literature: music in literature and literature and music. First surprise may be engaging Camus to this crowd, whose work is not obviously musical. Yet, as it is exposed, author of L’etranger had a great affinity with both Mozart and Bach, believing, that music is an expression of “the unknowable world”, asscribing to certain natural phenomena, such as the look of the morning sun or of the sea thinkgs, like tonality and counter-tonality. Camus lived in an era full of all sorts of experimentation in music, from Schoenberg to Stravinsky or Messiaen, but it was a traditionalist Honegger, that composed music to his play. As we realise, the most common and perhaps basic way Camus and many writers understood musicality was a simple sonata form, A-B-A, that is: a topic, its variation(s) and a reprise. Yet the banality of the idea seems to be able to express itself in infinite number of ways.

In turn, there’s no doubt of Beckett’s interest in avant-garde music: minimalism and experimentalism of his work, from Godot to Krapp’s Last Tape invite comparisons to music and in his case rightly so. Sensitivity to voice, pitch, resonance and duration often make his manuscripts look like musical scores. There’s clearly parallelism between Beckett’s and some avant-garde artists, culminating in his collaboration with Morton Feldman on the play Neither. Playing with the idea of test/textlessness, Beckett’s primal element was word, and again, depending on what we understand by musicality of literature, we can take those experiments as inventing a new form or simply densifying of the linguistical texture. In turn, John Cage, everybody’s favorite avant-gardist, used certain musical procedures in his texts, such as Lectures on Nothing and Something or his famous book Silence. They were avant-garde, so not rooted in music or language yet – what gave an interesting, but perhaps one-off effects, that cannot be really pursued by anyone else. Cage’s elusive philosophy of work remains ever attractive, but it wasn’t actually a more flexible language of art, because it only can be bowed to Cage’s experimentation.

The last chapters, devoted to genius interpreter of Bach Glenn Gould are perhaps the least predictable and focus on his rarely discussed amazing radio works and auditions, like Solitude Trilogy, highlighting the piety and obsessive perfection, with which Gould approached editing and recording of sound. Trilogy is three sound documentaries, exploring the lifetime obsession of Gould, the counterpoint, with the spoken word, using the sound of the sea or train as basso continuo and exploring culture of Canadian Mennonites combined with songs of Janis Joplin. The author of The Prospects of Recording believed in the improving role of technology in maintaining our environment. Various kinds of sounds and the account of his less known work sound fascinating.

Yet, while being very informative, extensively footnoted Words and Music contribute less new to the general subject: it gathers the material, but do not attempt to demystify or challenge artists’ methods. What about Schwitter’s Ur-Sonate, Cage’s important influence: it’s a musical score written for speech apparatus, but there’s no meaning to it, then what does it have to do with literature, apart from its looks? You could say that these classifications aren’t necessary, that they impoverish an artform that is completely self-sufficient. Does this mean the efforts are futile? Not at all: it makes us contemplate the mystery even more.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Commemmorating Loss. Warsaw Jewish Community Today

[I was thinking what I could possibly post to resuscitate blog a little, and because it's Nov 1st today, which in catholic countries is the Day of the Dead, I decided to publish this essay written on the occassion of reviewing a Jewish music gig for The Wire #344 10/12. The great photo above is that of Guta Berliner, a beautiful athlete in 1930s Warsaw, who was a promising sport star of the Warsaw's Klub Makkabi but in 1934 decided to migrate to Palestine, which saved her life. Photo was for a sculptor Nathan Rappaport, later an author of the Ghetto Heroes Monument in Warsaw, Guta's sculpture was either unfinished or destroyed by the war...More photos of Guta and Warsaw prewar Jewish sportsmen here]

OHEL – 70. years of the liquidation of Warsaw ghetto
Ircha Gdola + Shofar + From thee to thee

For obvious reasons, playing music in Jewish tradition has in Poland special repercussions. But it must be said: in the last few years especially, the Jewish music has experienced a revival unheard of in this country before, that made this music enter a wholly new level. It is largely due to the rebirth of the Jewish community in Poland as such, which today still counts only around 20,000 in comparison to three million population before the Shoah. It’s thoroughly moving, how the community is growing back, but it is also, as one might expect, quite divided ideologically, namely around the question of Holocaust and Polish anti-Semitism, that did not ceased after the war and continued more or less in communist Poland, leading to the 1968 purges and many people forced to emigration.

There’s no place in an English music magazine to consider the complexities of Jewish identity and its crucial problems today, like relation to its past, politics of Israel and politics of memory, but discussing Jewish music renaissance we also cannot completely by-pass it. Pre-war Warsaw was one of the most vivacious Jewish and Yiddysh centers in the world, where different Jewish cultures and political factions - that of Bund and that of Zionism and many others existed. You cannot overestimate the weight the occasion of the concert: 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, which started July 1942, could possibly carry, in a situation, where Jews are still looked at suspiciously by some groups in Poland, despite their incredible suffering and sacrifices they made for the Polish nation. All three acts that participated in the concert are formed by young musicians in their thirties, that at certain point in their careers decided that their identity it too important to be left out of their music, especially, since there’s quite 'radical' (also in the Zornesque meaning of the word) sense to performing Jewish music, especially today. But the ways of resurrecting this music can be as diverse as the community itself – and lets be aware of the danger of the holocaust kitsch hanging there with great possibility.

The open-air event took place near the center of Warsaw, on the terrain of the ex-ghetto (everyone walking around Warsaw cannot miss it, as the wall is traced with a memorial line on the pavement), from the beginning had an incredibly solemn atmosphere. Between the recitations, the musicians were actually trying to decompress this slightly po-faced seriousness. Ircha Gdola is a Polish-British fusion of the talents of many improvisers: saxophonist/clarinetist Mikolaj Trzaska, Michał Gorczynski, Paweł Szamburski, Waclaw Zimpel, and Ollie Brice and drummer Mark Sanders, Trzaska, experimental jazz musician, known for participation in many dissimilar around-jazz projects, from Łoskot to Milość and playing on polish avant pop records, a few years ago felt he has to pay a tribute to his own jewish tradition, absent form his music. His aim is to play Jewish music, as if the tradition wasn’t suddenly broken with the war, but continued, to keep it alive. And to get it, he goes to ArmeniaTurkeyEgypt or Transilvanian Roma, where you can hear untouched Jewish influences.

The act was based on the melancholic sound of the many clarinets and , with tone predominantly elegiac and longing – I was curious, how the musicians are going to make it more diverse? And this way was supposed to come from free jazz, with which Trzaska, collaborator of the likes of Peter Brotzmann, is not a novice. Discreet microtonal whistles and rustles pervaded the sound, which nevertheless couldn’t overcome a slightly ethnographic tone and Mark Sanders, known for many more outré projects with Evan Parker or Derek Bailey, unfortunately wasn’t trying to intervene too much, being entirely a background to his friends efforts. Simple arrangements and harmonies were sweet, but didn’t really stopped sounding a bit too predictably. Does melancholia have to express itself only as a lament?

Raphael Roginski of Shofar says he wants his music to be a musical equivalent of Talmud; as many traditions there is of commenting the scripture, it should be reflected in the music. Songs come from musicological expertise done in result of research and traveling around UkraineMoldova, former pale of settlement. Roginski, supported by Trzaska and Macio Moretti on drums, bent so low over his guitar you can believe he’s really in a trance. Drastic sounds of electronic guitar spread from his corner, while Trzaska finally dropped his melancholy and Moretti was his equal partner. This project, though too often looses edge in noisy jamming and juvenile garage spirit, at least put a bit of life into this a bit too static event. I’m not entirely sure Rogiński is right, but in that night he displayed Marc Bolan’s groove.

That certainly wanst the case with the last band, From Thee to Thee, which succumbed to all sorts of solemn Schindler’s List kitsch. Dozen of musicians supported by singer Ola Bilińska drowned in pseudo-seriousness, that made them only generate somber, one-note elegy, with pseudo-poetical lyrics vaguely waxing on loss. I instinctively feel this is not the way to do it. The question of appropriateness of commemorating such occasion without becoming sacrosanct, falsely pious is a difficult one. When Schoenberg, such rigorous objector of any unnecessary ornament, composed a very sentimentalist Survivor from Warsaw, his previously biggest proponent Theodor Adorno noted, as a larger stamement on post-Shoah experimental music, that if even him cannot convey thsi experience in a way that is not kitsch, no one could. Up to now, there’s no view of musical version of Paul Celan - poet, who managed to reinvent the language to talk about the trauma - but with the two first acts, especially Shofar, I felt Warsaw community got at least some not entirely embarrassing way of commemorating their loss.
Agata Pyzik