Tuesday, 28 June 2011

God Only Knows

For the past few days, following the publication of an interview with Brian Wilson in The Guardian, I've been obsessed with "God Only Knows" by The Beach Boys, long considered to be one of the most beautiful songs ever written. I first heard Pet Sounds in 2006 when, having been long aware of its reputation, I copied a friend's CD to my iTunes library. The version I recently starred on Spotify contains both the mono and stereo edits, and it is in the latter form that my idea of music has been transformed.

The liturgical quality of the harpsichord and French horn intro is newly aired through with space. The moment the strings drop must be the most exquisite in all of pop and surely informed the first song I ever bought, Oasis' "Wonderwall". And yet, this was 1965/6, before even Sgt. Pepper, the album more often credited with revolutionsing pop.

When I suggested to a friend, a classical musician and disciple of the great J.S. Bach, that were his hero to have lived in the 20th century and become a pop musician, "God Only Knows" would be the sort of song he would have written, he laughed heartily and replied: 'I had not been aware of any genius within The Beach Boys. What did they sing again? Surfin' California? Fun Fun Fun?'

That comment was made at a dinner table for five, including three classical musicians - the eldest a violinist in his sixties - and yet I was the only one to give Pet Sounds the memory it deserves. It is an album with an abundance of beautiful chord sequences, melodies and harmonies, and for me, "God Only Knows" is the mortal man's "Air On a G String" just as "Wonderwall" is the common man's "God Only Knows". Brian Wilson hasn't made music to worship to at Easter, but the very perfection of some of his works must encourage listeners to at least remember their spirituality for a moment, in these more secular times. And far from the universal acclaim bestowed upon him in death, Bach himself was largely ignored in his lifetime.

Could it be imagined what would happen if a studio expert with 21st-century technology to hand, such as Timbaland, reworked "God Only Knows" for today's ears? The result would be the ultimate mating of music and sound, for the two are now seemingly separate causes. The fact that, despite all the studio wizardry possible in one's own bedroom available at a fraction of what Pet Sounds cost to record, no comparable music is being made to what Brian Wilson was able to achieve through sheer passion, piety and genius (and LSD), is as solemn an indictment on the decline of the art form as anything yet written. Music is dying; sound waits for its accession. Is there really no one out there who can put the two together in an original recording?

Monday, 13 June 2011

12-Pages Issue 7: Radicals Cover and Introduction

Introduction by Paul Mendez

A group of artists, writers, musicians and thinkers in the early nineteenth century, among them the British notables Mary Wollstonecraft, Lord Byron, Thomas Paine, William Blake and Mary Shelley, became known as the Romantics. Priding intuition and imagination over reason and empiricism, their original thought and free speech was a radical departure from Enlightenment rationalism, yielding a cannon of seminal works, such as Paine's Rights of Man and Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, whose legacies are enduring.

It has become a topic of contention as to what the term 'radical' means today, such is its ever-changing context. Arguably, since the events of September 11, 2001, pejorative connotations have been dominant. Radical Islam and the threat of terror hang over the globe like the Armageddon of Revelation, precipitating a war between the secular and pious that has prattled on bloodily for a decade. Indeed, the 'radicalisation' page on Wikipedia focuses almost solely on the path to jihadisation and subsequent commitment to the performance of terrorist acts. It can thus be argued that, paradoxically, radicalisation today serves to create something conventional: a homogenous army of self-destructive followers as opposed to the individual, free-thinking, independent agent for positive change that each of the Romantics is remembered as being.

Indeed, worryingly, the gloved hand of the state, fearing the might of the people as demonstrated in the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, is frequently creeping round to silence such independent voices, even in the second decade of the 21st century. Following Ai Weiwei's arrest and detention by the Chinese government, the Booker-Prize-winning Indian novelist Arundhati Roy told The Guardian of the increasing persecution she has received as she continues to polemicise about the problems of the Indian state, its stance on Kashmir, its scant regard for the environment in favour of rapid development and its record on corruption.

Two hundred years after the Romantics paved the way for independent minds to help change the world for the better, and in a world where each individual has the capacity to express and propagate their opinions via free blogging software and microblogging sites such as Facebook and Twitter, it seems inevitable that governments will stymie the potential for anarchy these technological and social developments can engender, for better or worse. Individuals become more radical as societies homogenise. Something must break.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

12-Pages Issue 6: Movement

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Movement 1981/2011

The parallels between 2011 and 1981 are not restricted to trends in pop culture and fashion, and cannot all be put down to 30th anniversaries. A landscape of recession, high unemployment, unpopular Conservative government - albeit latterly in coalition form - and cultural flux has prevailed in both eras, and provided the background for other, equally telling reflections.

In 1981, Greece entered the European Community (now the EU). Charles, heir to the British throne, married Lady Diana Spencer. On 16th January, left-wing radical and former MP for mid-Ulster Bernadette Devlin McAliskey was the subject of an assassination attempt by members of the Ulster Defence Association. High unemployment amongst unskilled workers whose jobs had been lost to Thatcherist policies led to millions of women entering the workforce. Hundreds rioted in Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth and Moss Side in protest at racial discrimination and mistreatment by the police. MTV launched in August. Hosni Mubarak was elected president of Egypt. Natalie Portman was born in Israel. New Order released their debut album Movement eighteen months to the day after the suicide of Ian Curtis, representing the action of the remaining Joy Division members to regroup and evolve, capturing both the detritus of what had occurred and the seeds of what was forthcoming.

In 2011, Greece finds itself subject to extensive national austerity measures to follow the EU's $110bn three-year rescue package, designed to tackle the country's overwhelming debt. Prince William marries Catherine Middleton. Artist Duncan Campbell's 2006 work Bernadette, shown at British Art Show 7 in 2011, demonstrated how the contemporary press championed McAliskey as a martyr, then targeted her as a victim. Universities secretary David Willetts attacks feminism for reducing the job prospects of 'ambitious young men'. Thousands marched in protest at government cuts, particularly in the arts sector. The ARK Music Factory packages hits for would-be teen stars; Rebecca Black's 'Friday' receives over 100million views on YouTube. The 2011 Egyptian revolution brought about the prized resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. Natalie Portman wins the best actress in a leading role Academy Award for her turn as a ballet dancer in Black Swan.

Many of these parallels - including natural disasters, wars, political unrest and economic turmoil - will give short shrift to Armageddonists who insist we are living 'in the last days'; apparently this has been the case for at least the last thirty years. Whatever has gone before is permanent and unchangeable; all we can do is look to the future and try to change things while we can. This will involve some sort of physical act or gesture, a movement.

12-Pages Issue 6: Movement Cover

Cover design by James Tuitt

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

12-Pages: Movement Preview with Duncan Fallowell (Film by Sergey Stefanovich)

On Saturday 16th April 2011 I went to visit Duncan Fallowell at his home in West London, to chat about books and writing. It was a beautiful, warm spring day, and being in his library-like lounge, with the sun coming through the windows overlooking Notting Hill terraces, felt a lot like being in an Alan Hollinghurst novel (see the Sergey Stefanovitch film above).

I found this acclaimed novelist and travel writer a most genial and charming advisor, who was evidently extremely erudite and experienced (for example, he was once invited to become the lead singer of the massively influential German band Can, but turned them down). As a Joy Division/New Order fan, Krautrock was where it all started, and is, as I explained to Duncan, the next phase of my educative musical journey. Indeed, I found myself thanking him on behalf of my generation for all the work 'you guys' did in the Seventies and Eighties; people of Duncan's age are our spiritual contemporaries. Their initial thoughts, aphorisms and inventions are what whisper most clearly, compellingly, delicately and everlastingly into our ears.

Fallowell is a writer who understands art. 'A book is a physical object. Writing is a physical act, a sculptural act as well as an intellectual act,' he says in the film, and he told me something similar on my visit. He is full of wisdom and memorable quotes: 'They could all do a brilliant intellectual fireworks display,' he says of the scores of authors whose works line his walls. 'When I write, I try to seduce people,' he said, pursing his lips to sip his tea, somewhat felinely. In fact, I learned more about writing in two hours with Duncan than in several years of reading the often unwielding, opaque surfaces of high literature.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

12-Pages Online Project Space Call for Submissions - Issue 6

TBC Artists' Collective has announced the 6th Issue of the 12-PAGES online project space under the theme:


Edited by Charley Peters and Paul Mendez, this issue aims to capture the state of movement, form and gesture in contemporary art practice.

MOVEMENT is the title of New Order's 1981 debut album. Released just eighteen months after the suicide of Ian Curtis, it represented the action of the remaining band members to regroup and evolve, capturing both the detritus of what had occurred and the seeds of what was forthcoming.

MOVEMENT implies performativity. Whether it incorporates the whole body, as in the case of dance, or just part(s) of it, artists have investigated the effects of movement in their works since natural dyes were first used on cave walls. The drawings of Henri Matisse, for example, uncover a lifetime's approach to his stated desire to 'reconceive in simplicity'. The direct and honest marks left by him are a testament to his belief that drawing is the most intimate means of artistic activity - that it is like making an expressive gesture with the advantage of permanence.'

The need to make marks, record our experiences visually or indulge our desires to leave a physical impression on the world is part of our makeup as human beings. The simple movement of mark-making instruments across a surface and the traces left behind is as old as humanity itself, and will endure forever as a record of what has been and an anticipation of what is to come next.

MOVEMENT (Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus) NOUN 1 an act or the process of moving. 2 a group of people who share the same aims and ideas: the women's movement. 3 a trend or development. 4 (movements) a person's activities during a particular period of time. 5 a main division of a musical work. 6 the moving parts of a mechanism, especially a clock or watch.

SYNONYMS 1 motion, move; gesture, sign, signal; acton, activity. 2 transportation, shifting, conveyance, moving, transfer. 3 group, party, faction, wing, lobby, camp; division, sect, cult. 4 campaign, crusade, drive, push, initiative. 5 development, change, fluctuaion, variation. 6 trend, tendency, drift, swing, shift; march. 7 progress, development, change, advance, improvement. 8 part, section, division; act.

relating to movement - kinetic
fear of movement - kinetophobia

Please submit all works related to MOVEMENT to paul.mendez@tbcartistscollective.org. View the submission guidelines here.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Economy

J.M.W. Turner's Boats at Sea, photo courtesy of Tate

One of the best paintings at Tate's Watercolour show was Turner's Boats at Sea, a ruthless, elementary yet evocative dash-off that nevertheless perfectly captured the architecture and tone of ships sailing as the sun began to set.

It is usually more difficult to express an idea in the simplest of terms than it is to 'throw the kitchen sink' at it - one need only listen to a politician or curator ad-libbing for confirmation of that. The great challenge of abstraction is to create real meaning from the least possible resources; what can be achieved with a precisely chosen word, a strategic fold or perfectly weighted brush stroke?

Turner provides a surprising, and surprisingly contemporary, example.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Natural Disaster

Automobiles caught up in the March 2011 Japanese tsunami are flung about like empty crisp packets on a high wind
Natural disasters do not wait for TV cameras. Like a child or animal Hamlet they clear their lungs and begin their grand soliloquies "with feeling" in one profound, unique take, often when the crew is still asleep.

Once the cameras start rolling, however, affected voyeurs shed tears, as if at a movie. As arresting as the images are, we've seen them all before on the big screen. We are desensitised to violence and destruction, and almost revel in the live action. "The BBC has an incredible video..." Only in the real light of day can such disasters profoundly affect us. Twenty-four-hour TV coverage and analysis of such events is the armchair version of crowds gathering in the immediate aftermath of a car crash, hoping for a glimpse of a severed arm, broken leg or charred face. We condescend to appraise others' pity, knowing we can do nothing to help, as if watching every move is somehow to "be there" for an old friend.

We want an apocalypse, for the spectacle of it, and it will be televised.