Archive for November, 2010

Starting point

It’s another bright and clear morning here for my now weekly blogging session. However, the sun has lost it’s warmth now and there’s a distinct bite to the breeze which makes it hard to sit outside and write. Instead I’ve spent a lovely hour or so in some of Sedbergh’s many bookshops, browsing for inspiration.
I’m just at the starting point for a couple of new works I’ve been asked to do. I love this bit of a project. I like most parts of making new pieces, but I really like the initial research phase.

I’ve already got some initial concepts and even some more formed ideas, which would probably keep the client happy, but I want to do something with depth and narrative, and that journey for me starts with a good few solid weeks of research.
Along the way I’ll probably consider and work up more than a few ideas which will either be shelved for a more appropriate occasion, or more than likely never see reality.

original sketch for 'LandPaper' (2008)

I’ve got dozens of non projects. Most I can look back on as just substandard. A few were logistically beyond the opportunity they had to fit and are filed in the maybe some day folder. Very occasionally one gets dusted off and gets realised – as was the case with LawnPaper at Blackwell.

LawnPaper' - final installation (detail). 2010

So now I sit with a pile of books (I still prefer paper stuff sometimes) to see what went before and where I want to go with these. Then it’s off to the canals at the weekend for a bit of pottering and site searching.

I guess the best bit about this phase is that I genuinely have no idea where this project will take me and what I’ll end up doing. At the moment it’s all still a mystery and one day it’ll be amazing…

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Lately I’ve been driving around listening to a bit of classical music. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to be more precise. The Philadelphia symphony orchestra with the Valley Band and Mormon Tabernacle Choir to be even more accurate. You can download it for free here.
Why? It’s not my favourite piece of music. It’s not even my favourite piece by Tchaikovsky (there are many better). Tchaikovsky isn’t even my favourite composer (although the fact he was a raving queen who married a nymphomaniac has a certain degree of poetic fucked-upness about it).
It’s one of those overly familiar pieces of music that’s been played to death on every popular classical concert and radio station. It’s the one with the galloping melody and canons at the end. Everyone knows it. I played it at the Royal Albert Hall in the ’80s (second horn at the time since you asked – I intended to post a pic as evidence here, and will do when I track it down). There were two youth orchestras combined so a really big sound in one of the most amazing venues. We even had the full cannon and mortar effects (maroons fired from the gallery which scared the living daylights out of you at the crucial moment when you’ve got the main melody and the orchestra is shrouded on a cloud of gunpowder smoke so thick you can’t see the conductor, so you just have to play on and go with the flow. There’s no stopping in front of a full audience of thousands. ). So yes, the piece does hold certain fond memories for me, but that’s not what made me revisit it. A few weeks ago I heard this version on the radio and made me go and track it down.
The first thing that strikes you here are the voices at the beginning. The start of the piece was based on a Russian hymn: ‘God Preserve Thy People’ which has been re-scored for a Russian Orthodox choir and organ (originally done by Butakov in the ’60s). The ultra-low bass notes, the vocal swell and the plainsong organ part adds a new sense of gothic drama to the piece. The rest of the overture is pretty much as scored but it has a looseness which adds to the sense of passion culminating in a huge finale with extra brass and chaotic bells. The final notes of the bells over-ring the orchestra which is a lovely touch.
So, it’s not as Tchaikovsky wrote it. I know, but it’s a subtle difference which has resulted in a complete revisitation of the whole piece. It’s a bit like how I work in the landscape – adding a small subtle element which makes you look at something familiar with fresh eyes.
This in turn made me look into the piece a little more. I knew the story – the defeat of the invading French army in Moscow in 1812 due to a particularly hard winter which froze the French army in retreat and gave the advantage to the much smaller Russian force. It’s full of motifs from other sources – a mash up if you like of folk songs, hymns and the French national anthem. However, what I didn’t realise was that the piece was written as a site-specific one-off performance.

St Saviour Cathedral Moscow in 1904
It was commissioned for the opening of the Cathedral of St Saviour, Moscow in 1880. The piece was originally to be staged outside in the square by a full orchestra with an additional brass band. It takes a lot of orchestra to fill a concert hall, so even more are needed for the same effect outdoors. The bells of the new cathedral would be rung for the first time in the finale with all the bells in the city peeling an echo beyond the end of the piece. Sixteen cannon rounds were scored into the part and would be fired by a bank of electric switches, the delay calculated so that they synchronised with the music. This, even by today’s standard is quite an ambitious performance. It must have been an amazing concept in 1880. Unfortunately there were some political changes around and in the end the funding just wasn’t there for it to happen that way (sound familiar?). Eventually the piece was premiered indoors at a concert hall without the cannons, church bells and extra military band. As a result Tchaikovsky tried to distance himself from the piece as it had not been realised as conceived – too many compromises had turned it into what he considered a ‘festival piece’ (“I don’t DO festival pieces!” as he put it). This was meant to be a one-off spectacular with a performing cast of hundreds spread across an entire city.

I frequently refer to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s concept of ‘One-Upon-A-Time-And-Never-Again whereby the very transitory nature of a piece – be it one day or 16, but always a relatively short time – is part of the essence of the whole experience, e.g: Once upon a time there was a big curtain across the valley. It was there for a few days and while it was there it was amazing. Now it’s gone it’s just a memory. Now that it’ll never happen again makes that memory much more significant.
So listening to this recording now, I know isn’t the real piece. Neither is any other recording for that matter.

Like Magritte’s pipe – it isn’t a pipe, it’s a picture of a pipe. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture would have been an incredible thing to experience had it have happened. What remains is a fragment so far removed from its origins the greatness is lost – an never really happened anyway. It’s a sketch – a mock-up. We can get a sense of the final piece, but it’s not like being there.
This week I hope to go and see a piece I did as a one off last year set up somewhere else more permanent. I’ll see how that goes. I’ll keep you posted.

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