Weekend links 511

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Design by Romek Marber, 1963.

• The death of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki prompted so many “Shining composer” headlines you have to wonder what kind of notices he might have received if his early work hadn’t been purloined by Hollywood. György Ligeti always seemed ambivalent about having his music used as cinematic illustration (Kubrick annoyed him by altering some of it without permission) but Penderecki worked as a composer for Polish films in the 1960s, not only providing a score for The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) but also (surprisingly) writing music for a number of short animations. I’ve been listening to his music for almost 40 years, after a chance discovery of the stunning Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima led me to seek out more. I have to admit that the appeal of his recordings lay in their ability to thrill and terrify—qualities that musicologists seldom address—and I’ve never paid any attention to Penderecki’s later work which was less of an assault on the senses. At The Quietus James Martin argues for listening to the entire oeuvre, not just the early works. For more about the composer’s life and work, Culture.pl has a number of good articles, eg: Mazes, Notes & Dali: The Extraordinary Life of Krzysztof Penderecki, and Music Is Not for Everyone: An Interview with Krzysztof Penderecki.

• The late Romek Marber (1925–2020) was a designer/illustrator whose name is familiar to collectors of Penguin books via the Marber Grid, the template he created in the early 1960s for the Penguin Crime series, and which was later extended across the entire paperback range. Marber talked about this period of his work in Penguin by Illustrators in 2009. Elsewhere: Rick Poyner on Marber’s design, and a suggestion for how the Marber Grid was designed.

• “…you’ll see Lego and children’s toys, but also Rawlplugs, tile spacers, Monopoly houses, cigarillo tips, curtain hooks, biofilters, Smarties tube lids, fishing beads, broken security seals, razor parts, bits of toothbrushes, roofing screw caps, medical lancets, golf tees, false teeth, plastic soldiers, posties’ rubber bands, bungs and stoppers.” Beachcomber Tracey Williams talks to Andrew Male about the undying ubiquity of plastic waste.

• “Thanks to Bookshop, there is no reason to buy books on Amazon anymore,” says Alex Lauer. The caveat is that the service is limited to the USA. I order books direct from publishers or from eBay and Abe; the latter may be Amazon-owned but you’re still paying most of the money to the individual sellers.

• Mixes of the week: Radio Belbury 19: Family Fun Time, and Through A Landscape Of Mirrors Vol. VII – France IV by David Colohan.

• “[Amanda Sewell’s] Wendy Carlos: A Biography is a great work of scholarship,” says Geeta Dayal.

• “Part of me expects to go on forever.” David Barnett on Michael Moorcock at 80.

• “What is the point of a critic if not to tell the truth?” asks Rachel Cooke.

John Boardley on medieval road-trips and the invention of print.

Anna Bogutskaya on where to begin with the Weird West.

• Inside Tove Jansson’s private universe by Sheila Heti.

• Memory Of Hiroshima (1973) by Stomu Yamash’ta’s Red Buddha Theatre | Hiroshima Mon Amour (1977) by Ultravox! | Hiroshima (1982) by Borsig

Weekend links 195

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Untitled painting (c. 1920–1933) by Ethel le Rossignol depicting “the Sphere of the Spirit”. An exhibition of  Ethel le Rossignol’s channelled paintings takes place at the Horse Hospital, London, next month.

• “It’s always disconcerting to discover a favourite writer was kind of a jerk. How does this realization effect our understanding of Walter Benjamin’s work?” asks Morgan Meis.

• Mixes of the week: Georges Vert (aka Jon Brooks) presents The Pan-Europa Mix. Mr Brooks also unveiled another seasonal mix which he calls Winter Velvet.

Knopheria by Chrome Hoof ft. Shingai Shoniwa. A video from the band’s latest album.

Without sci-fi trappings of any kind, The Metamorphosis forces us to think in terms of analogy, of reflexive interpretation, though it is revealing that none of the characters in the story, including Gregor, ever does think that way. There is no meditation on a family secret or sin that might have induced such a monstrous reprisal by God or the Fates, no search for meaning even on the most basic existential plane. The bizarre event is dealt with in a perfunctory, petty, materialistic way, and it arouses the narrowest range of emotional response imaginable, almost immediately assuming the tone of an unfortunate natural family occurrence with which one must reluctantly contend.

David Cronenberg on Franz Kafka’s story.

• “I was very much into now-ism.” Laraaji talks to Bobby Barry about his music.

The Edge Question for 2014: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”

Storybook Apocalypse: Beasts, Comets, and Other Signs of the End Times.

• Return of the wunderkammer: Philip Hoare on cabinets of curiosities.

• Birditis: Ian Penman on the “full catastrophe” of Charlie Parker.

Rick Poynor on The Compulsively Visual World of Pinterest.

• RIP psychedelic poster artist Gary Grimshaw.

• At PingMag: The automaton clocks of Tokyo.

Dust & Grooves: Vinyl music culture.

Wunderkammern at Pinterest.

Ligeti: String Quartet No. 1 “Metamorphoses nocturnes” (recorded 1978) The Arditti Quartet | Thru Metamorphic Rocks (1979) by Tangerine Dream | Metamorphosis (2012) by Demdike Stare

Le Grand Macabre

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Yesterday I mentioned Leslie Megahey’s Ligeti film, All Clouds Are Clocks, an hour-long documentary based around an interview with György Ligeti filmed in 1976. A unique feature of that film was that Megahey returned to film Ligeti in the same room in 1991 where they discussed the composer’s work during the intervening period. Of these, Le Grand Macabre, written in the late 1970s, was the most ambitious piece.

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Bartók and Ligeti share some attributes: both were Hungarian, and both were forced to flee their native country. Both composers also wrote only one opera apiece. Le Grand Macabre is Ligeti’s opus, an absurdist drama based on Michel de Ghelderode‘s 1934 play, La Balade du grand macabre. In the film Ligeti explains that he didn’t want to repeat the mid-century concept of the anti-opera but was also dissatisfied with the traditional variety, hence Le Grand Macabre‘s description as an “anti-anti-opera”, a work that combines the tradition and its reaction.

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Leslie Megahey’s Bluebeard

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Back in the days when the BBC’s television output challenged its audience rather than pandered to it, Leslie Megahey was a name I always looked out for. During the 1970s and 80s, Megahey was one of the corporation’s outstanding producers and directors, and since his tastes often ran very close to mine seeing his name in a magazine listing was an alert for some essential viewing. Favourite Megahey documentaries would include his Omnibus film about (and interview with) György Ligeti in 1976, and the two-part Arena special about Orson Welles in 1982 that persuaded the director to talk at length for the first time about his career. Megahey’s arts films included drama documentaries about the French painters David and Gericault, and two dramas with painting themes, Cariani and the Courtesans (1987), and Schalcken the Painter (1979), the latter being an exceptional adaptation of the Sheridan Le Fanu ghost story. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was one of the last of his BBC films, an adaptation of the Bartók opera that had this Bartók obsessive hopping with delight when it was screened in 1988.

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Bluebeard and Judith.

Bartók’s only opera was written in 1911, and is easier to adapt than most, being a single act of an hour or so in length with only two performers, Bluebeard (bass) and Judith (soprano). Given this it’s surprising there haven’t been more filmed versions. I wrote something a while back about the seldom-seen Michael Powell version; then there’s a version from 1981 by Miklos Szinetár scored by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Georg Solti conducting. Megahey’s film also features the London Philharmonic with Adam Fischer conducting. Robert Lloyd and Elizabeth Laurence are the performers.

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The libretto by Béla Balázs turns the old fairy tale into a psychodrama that’s also one of the first post-Freud operas, with the audience being asked in the prologue “Where is the stage? Is it outside, or inside?” Judith is ushered into the castle by Bluebeard to find seven locked doors: her curiosity and her demands to discover what lies behind the doors (or inside the mind of her husband-to-be) seals her fate. In some of the fairy tale versions the brothers of the bride arrive at the last moment to rescue their sister; not so here.

Continue reading “Leslie Megahey’s Bluebeard”

A playlist for Halloween: Orchestral and electro-acoustic

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Bluebeard (1982) by János Kass.

I thought I might not be able to do a fresh playlist this year, so much has already been covered by the previous lists (see the links below to earlier posts).

The search for new tonalities and timbres in 20th-century orchestral music led many composers to produce works that sound like—and have been used as—horror film soundtracks although you’ll never find critical discussion acknowledging such a vulgar reaction. This is a very masculine list although some of the performers are women. I might have included Diamanda Galás but she was in the first list, as was Delia Derbyshire with her associates in White Noise, the subject of a longer post here.

The Isle of the Dead (1909) by Sergei Rachmaninov
Mentioned here a few days ago, Rachmaninov’s suitably sombre piece is one of many compositions to borrow the medieval Dies Irae hymn for one of its themes.

Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) by Béla Bartók
Frank Zappa once said that his initial response upon hearing the music of Edgard Varèse was “These chords are mean; I like these chords.” I feel the same about Bartók’s music which can get very mean indeed. The obvious piece to mention would be the Adagio from Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste which Stanley Kubrick used in The Shining. Instead I’ve selected Bartók’s only opera, a psychodrama for two performers and orchestra in which Bluebeard’s new wife, Judith, explores the castle (which also represents her husband’s character) only to find everything there stained with blood.

Visage (1961) by Luciano Berio
In which Berio records his wife and frequent collaborator, Cathy Berberian, then dissects her vocalisations to disturbing effect. “Visage contains no singing, and virtually no words,” says Martin Butler. “The product of days of gruelling recording for Berberian (leaving her physically damaged), it instead consists of her laughter, moans and groans, snorts and wheezes, and gibberish, all brilliantly edited, filtered, distorted and mixed with electronic backing. It is a remarkable demonstration of the power of the wordless voice. The effect is shocking and extreme, but also hilarious and touching – and often all these things simultaneously.”

Bohor (1962) by Iannis Xenakis
In addition to making some of the most thrilling and advanced new music of the 20th century, Xenakis chose great titles for his compositions, frequently unusual words. Bohor is a recording of layered sound sources that include a Laotian mouth organ, prepared piano, Iraqi and Hindu jewellery, and should ideally be heard with the sounds surrounding the listener. Intended by its composer to represent “the onset of madness”.

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Design by Paula Bisacca.

Uaxuctum: The Legend of the Maya City, Destroyed by Themselves for Religious Reasons (1966) by Giacinto Scelsi
And speaking of great titles… The Italian composer uses orchestra, a choir and an Ondes Martenot to convey an ancient apocalypse. Part III was selected by Robbie Robertson (along with works by other composers listed here) for the Shutter Island soundtrack.

Lontano (1967) by György Ligeti
Stanley Kubrick used Ligeti’s music in three of his films. Lontano‘s piercing harmonics and growling chords prowl through The Shining together with pieces by Bartók and Penderecki.

Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land (1970) by George Crumb
Many of the pieces here jangle the nerves but none more than Crumb’s composition for string quartet, glass and metal instruments, a part of which is used in The Exorcist. Composed “in time of war”, it’s a howl of despair whose opening manages to be even more disturbing than Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. The 1990 Kronos Quartet recording is essential.

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Logos (Rituel Sonore) (1970) by Igor Wakhévitch
“Sound ritual for pop group, mixed choir and magnetic tape.” The first album by the elusive French composer, a composition for a ballet, described by Alan Freeman as “a soprano singer, strange orchestral textures and percussives (drums, cymbals, gongs, etc.) blended with effects and processing. As the ominous percussion sets off with drum-rolls and ritualistic tension, the mood is of a looming anticipation of what is to come. Here we go through phases of weird swirling effects, vivid reverb and atmosphere. The tension becomes overpowering, yet we are led on…”

The Dream of Jacob (1974) by Krzysztof Penderecki
The Polish composer wrote for film soundtracks as well as the concert hall so it’s no surprise that his work can be heard in The Exorcist, The Shining and Shutter Island. The atmosphere of sustained malevolence in this piece is perfect for Kubrick’s haunted house. Whatever Jacob was dreaming about, it wasn’t pleasant.

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Design by Heung-Heung Chin.

Necronomicon (2004) by John Zorn
A five-part composition for string quartet from Zorn’s Magick album.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Powell’s Bluebeard
A playlist for Halloween: Drones and atmospheres
A playlist for Halloween: Voodoo!
Dead on the Dancefloor
Another playlist for Halloween
A playlist for Halloween
The music of Igor Wakhévitch