Monthly Archives: May 2011
May I always be open to
New ways of seeing,
To the simple, the fresh, the innocent,
To children’s prattle and ingenuous gaze,
For their truth is nearer the secret of living
Than talk in high places or learned tomes.
May I always be open to
New ways of hearing.
May I roam freely in new avenues of listening
And, whatever my passions are,
May I hear caution, may I hear balance,
And may I mistrust my need to be right.
But may I trust in the open heart,
In my own inner truth,
Not caring what a fool you think I am.
Apologies to ee cummins
On 29th August 1952 at Woodstock, New York, there took place the most revolutionary event in the history of music. It was a performance by the pianist, David Tudor, of a work by the American composer John Cage, titled 4’33” (four minutes, thirty-three seconds).
It was revolutionary because the music score contained not a single note. Instead it carried the instruction that at no time during the duration of the piece must the instrument be played. The work was divided into three movements, comprising 30 seconds, 2 minutes 23 seconds and 1 minute 40 seconds. The beginning of each movement was indicated by the pianist closing the lid of the piano and at the end of the movement the lid was raised. In between there was silence. Or was there?
What was the audience’s reaction? For the most part they seemed perplexed. They were unsure whether it was a piece of theatre, an experiment, a hoax or what? There was increased muttering as the work progressed and a few walked out, but there was polite applause at the end. There was nothing to match the riots that accompanied the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
So what was Cage trying to achieve? The work is underpinned by two propositions. The first is that the primary act of musical performance is not making music but listening. The second is that we are surrounded by sounds of many kinds and we should not be constrained by that which we can control.
In 4’33” Cage takes this thinking to its logical conclusion. The piece consists of the sounds of the environment that the listener hears while it is being performed. The composer has no way of controlling the ambient sounds that will be heard by different audiences.
In his book No Such Thing as Silence, the American music scholar Kyle Grant says of 4’33”, ‘Really it is an act of framing,of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention.’ And, of course, the purpose of framing anything is to focus the attention on what the frame contains; to separate it. Brian Dillon, the critic for the Irish Times, wrote, ‘It’s a work that makes audiences listen and alters forever their understanding of silence.’
Not all listeners have not been persuaded. In 2004 the BBC broadcast a ‘performance’ of 4’33” by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. A work of silence on the radio! Listeners complained that it was ‘absolutely ridiculous’, ‘clearly a gimmick’, ‘patronising and disturbing’ and ‘smacking of arrogance and self-importance’.
Before you form a judgement, listen to one or more of the performances on YouTube (and they are, of course, all different). Does the experience cause you to rethink what we mean by silence? Is it likely to influence how you listen in future?
We have a friend – an attractive, intelligent, caring, fun person. But she has one ‘fault’ I find irritating – and I’m not alone, I’ve seen other raised eyebrows – she cannot cope with silence. The slightest gap in a conversation has to be filled – not necessarily meaningfully, just filled.
What is it about silence that many people seem to find threatening? Do they feel lonely? Unwanted? Detached from the world? Are they afraid of being invaded by their own uncontrollable thoughts? Are they fearful of other people’s silence – what are ‘they’ thinking?
It is true that the world generally is becoming increasingly noisy. Research carried out at Sheffield Hallam University revealed that the noise level in Sheffield city centre had doubled between 1991 and 2001. Advances in technology have exacerbated the problem. In 2010 there were 130 working mobiles for every 100 people in the UK. It is virtually impossible to escape Muzac in shops, shopping malls, hotels and restaurants. Whether in the town or a country lane we are bombarded by the loud, throbbing bass emanating from a passing car.
Even in supposedly quiet places, silence is broken by the intrusive text message alert and one-sided mobile phone conversations. The stifled jangles of pop music escape from MP3 earpieces. The noise threshhold has risen insidiously.
Of course, there are orchestrated public periods of silence from time to time – notably on Remembrance Sunday and at sporting events as a mark of respect for some famous sports personality who has died. The silence of such large gatherings is often dramatic and moving and one marvels at the unified self-discipline and control of so many people. But silence is never a vacuum and it would be interesting to be privy to the thoughts and feelings of the individuals within the mass.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, during the first industrial revolution, the poet Wordsworth wrote:
‘The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.’
His words are just as apt for the beginning of the twenty-first century. We would do well to identify an oasis of silence in our daily routines; a brief period when we can be alone with ourselves.
Let us try an experiment. For just one minute, close your eyes so that you are relying only on what you hear. Sit perfectly still and remain totally silent. Try to remember any sound you hear – however quiet or however loud the sound may be – but remain perfectly still with your eyes closed. When the minute is up, open your eyes and try to recall all the different sounds you heard. Decide their source of origin – natural, manufactured, caused by people etc.
Repeat the experiment but this time recall the thoughts that passed through your mind during the silence.
There, now! That wasn’t at all frightening, was it? And maybe you enjoyed an experience you don’t regularly find time for.
See also The quiet moment
We have a family wedding about to take place shortly and the Royal Wedding seemed to be an ideal opportunity to catch up on the do’s and don’ts in this modern age. The wedding itself was a splendid and happy occasion. The bride looked relaxed and radiant, the groom was tall and very handsome and the best man wore a perpetual mischievous grin.
However, in the days following the event – and, indeed, the weeks since – the news media focused not on the newly weds but on Pippa’s bottom and Princess Beatrice’s hat! The moral seems to be, take care when compiling the guest list!
Most recently, attention has been drawn to the auctioning of ‘the hat’ on eBay. It has raised a number of interesting questions:
- Who bought the hat? (The questions where did they buy it and how much did it cost are redundant. We know the answers.)
- Why did they buy it? If it was bought as a donation to charity, why not just make the donation? Anonymity is likely to be shortlived.
- What will they do with it? Place it in a glass case in the entrance hall? Put it in the centre of the table at a dinner party? Hang it on the wall like a hunting trophy?
- Will it ever be seen again? Perhaps at Ascot? Will it be passed on as an heirloom?
- Will it ever be sold again? There shouldn’t be a problem with provenance!
Of course, it could spawn a whole new line in fashion. We are told that within hours of the wedding taking place the Chinese were producing copies of Kate’s dress. The mind boggles at the thought of hundreds or thousands of Chinese trotting around in PB hats!
Even worse, we could see PB masks appearing at test matches throughout the summer!
So, the series has ended.
The artists came with clear agenda: to have their work exhibited at the Royal College of Art and exposure before a knowlegeable viewing audience; to receive constructive criticism, recognition and advice from a panel of respected experts; possibly to succeed in selling their work at the exhibition; and, as a bonus, to make a brief but potentially valuable appearance on TV.
To get their work exhibited artists had to gain ‘Yes’ votes from two of the three judges. Of the hundreds who applied, only thirty-five were successful. It is a measure of the subjective nature of judging that only on eleven occasions was the decision unanimous.
Selling work was equally difficult. There were only eleven successful sales at the exhibition, although several of the artists believed they had made important contacts.
The highest price paid, £3100, was for Katy Sullivan’s ‘In Another World’ – a portrait of her daughter. The judges heaped praise on this exquisite work, especially since this was only the fifth painting by the artist who had given up a medical career to pursue her passion for art. Had there have been such an award they would undoubtedly have made it ‘Best in Show’. As they so irritatingly repeated, it ‘ticked all the boxes’.
The aim of the series was to provide a platform, a launch pad, for the further development of artists’ careers regardless of their prior experience. This competition is the beginning of the journey not the end, and the logical next step on our behalf, the viewers, is a sequel – a ‘what happened next’.
Flowering grasses have fascinated me for many years and have provided a recurring subject for my photography. It is not the botanical detail that interests me but, rather, the way in which grasses interact with the elements – sun, wind, rain and snow. It is the ‘behaviour’ of grasses – sometimes playful, sometimes mysterious, whispering or bold – against an unobtrusive background that intrigues me.
One of the most contentious submissions in the Show Me the Monet series was a painting entitled ‘All by myself’. It comprised 81 small self-portraits of the artist, David Cobley, 80 of which were in the styles of established or famous painters whose work has influenced Cobley. The exception was a portrait painted in the artist’s own style. The work was contentious in the sense that it provoked greater disagreement between the members of the judging panel than any other painting.
The debate focused on whether ‘All by myself’ satisfied the criteria; originality, technique and emotional impact. On the technique aspect, the judges agreed that the artist is an accomplished technician, although they observed a certain unevenness in quality between portraits. Emotional impact is inevitably a subjective dimension and is heavily dependent almost as much on what the viewer brings to the picture as on the response the artist seeks to evoke. Originality proved to be the particular area for dispute.
Self-portraiture has a long history and the introduction of better quality mirrors in the fifteenth century gave an impetus to the art form. Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) painted at least a dozen self-portraits, and in the seventeenth century Rembrandt is said to have painted more than 90, several of which he incorporated in larger compositions. Van Gogh painted 37 between 1886 and 1889. In short, Cobley is certainly not the first prolific self-portraitist, but he may well be the first to include so many in one painting.
When introducing his painting Cobley said, ‘I think it explores the question of identity in quite an interesting way.’ If he means personal identity then I don’t think it does. A very high percentage of the images are front facing and are very heavily cropped to the extent that we do not see above the hair line, do not see the point of the chin and seldom see an ear. It is a technique enjoyed by film directors wishing to create an inquisitorial tension. There is limited change of expression. The eyes attempt to outstare the viewer. Often they present a barrier, not a window. It is difficult to penetrate beyond them to learn anything of the person within.
Despite Cobley’s introduction, the impression remains that he has been pre-occupied with capturing the styles of others rather than finding himself. I agree with judge Charlotte Mullins: ‘No. It’s an exercise’.
The asking price of £100,000 reflects further the artist’s miscalculation of his own worth.
This series of ten TV programmes comprises a pleasing balance of enjoyment, education and entertainment. In each programme artists (amateur and professional, young and not so young) who have yet to establish themselves, strive to get their work accepted for a prestigious exhibition at the Royal College of Art. Those attending the exhibition will include buyers, collectors, gallery owners and agents.
To achieve their goal artists have to satisfy a ‘hanging committee’ comprised of three respected and experienced art critics, including David Lee (the supposed Simon Cowell of the group!). Each entry is assessed against three criteria: originality; technique; emotional impact.
Several factors contribute to the appeal of the series:
- The diverse range of backgrounds from which the artists are drawn is surprising. For example, we have seen a retired female wrestler, a shop assistant, a retired lawyer, a council maintenance worker, students of all ages and levels of experience, professional artists etc. The value they have placed on their work has varied from £8 to a hopeful £100000. Artistic talent is being revealed in most unlikely characters and circumstances.
- The contribution of the judges is wholly positive. Their criticism is consistently constructive and is related to the artwork, not the artist. The artist as a person is respected, does not feel under attack or threatened and is able to appreciate the advice offered.
- The judges think aloud, so the contestants know the basis for the comments made. This is an extremely valuable teaching strategy.
- The artists are not competing with each other but with a standard of entry required for the exhibition, thus there is an absence of aggro.
- Almost without exception the artists express gratitude for the constructive appreciation of their work by people whose judgement they value.
The producers of most other talent shows could learn a great deal from this excellent series.