Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Flower/Corsano Duo in Cambridge

Live at the Portland Arms, Cambridge
17th February 2009

According to Nietzsche, we are "fools for rhythm." Is that such a bad thing? The Flower-Corsano Duo are all about that relentless rhythmic surge, that urge to pound and strike a drum-kit until it gives off a million sharded beams of hard light, a near-mystical beam with an aura enhanced by twanging plucked scales. It’s a beam that emerges with such clarity only out of a sheer single-mindedness, as opposed to diffuse hippy mysticism, messing around with weirdness. These guys know what they are doing, and do it – they go straight for the peaks, even if, on this occasion, it took a while to get going (this was by no means the best Flower-Corsano performance I’ve heard).

I hate to say it, but it’s hard not to avoid terminology like ‘consciousness altering’. This music offers an alternative of some sort, to the packaged and the satisfied. In its desire to always maintain that state of yearning on which its power to move the body and mind is based, this music refuses a satisfaction and a comfort with ‘how things are’ – the desire to prolong that sheer enhanced experience is inherently a desire that acts against the diurnal jackboot tread, or what poet Sean Bonney calls “that shameful but essentially boring public murder.” And yet I'd hesitate to make this too political – not only because I know nothing of Chris Corsano and Mike Flower’s political views, but because what they create too is a commodity, aimed at a particular crowd. They provide a vaguely 'spiritual' experience for an ‘experimental’ scene which doesn't believe in the spiritual but wants to get those same kicks in a ‘justified’ left-field setting.

That’s the too-cynical reduction; swing to the other extreme, and they offer a hope of some sort, or a burning desire; or, hell, I like it anyway, even if its ‘spirituality’ is actually just constant rise to climax (masturbatory or coupling, take your pick), even if all it is is repetition to orgasm and serene aftermath of that jerking trance.

And fuck the sexual analogies, it must be said that Corsano is an excellent drummer. Some drummers play something for a while, then stop and move on because it's too much effort, but he can stay in the zone, in the pocket, stopping only when the music dictates a new tack; his arms moving at pummelling speed, his dexterity is that of a boxer as he consistently rains down blows on his kit, plays very loud and very fast. It's not polyrhythmic complexity so much as single-minded determination and drive, building to the inexorable bodily mysticism that the duo pull off so well: a hard-hitting prayer, a religious punch to the gut.

The structure is not so much about note choice but about the creation of a continuous sound stream which retains its interest through a control of dynamics which is actually quite subtle. Ebb and flow, ebb and flow. Both Corsano and Flower vary the loudness in a manner that could be quite instructive for certain bands ‘on the scene’. Flower’s ‘Japan Banjo’ is laid horizontal on an ironing board, of all things; his somewhat decrepit face hidden by straggly hair, his jeaned legs kicking it to ecstasy shudder, his quivering body and bobbing head in electric shock at the electricity of his performance and of his own electric instrument.

The sincerity embodied in that drugged-up trance (where music is, as far as I can tell, the only drug, at that particular point in time) – that sincerity is a belief in sound or 'vibrations' as Albert Ayler would have it. And that doesn't seem like a hippy catchword when one senses the drum-pound tremble the floor slightly, undulation/ underlation, over and over, constant motion. It's waves, ebbs and flows; it's mostly that inexorable rhythm lull, some ex-hippy's eastern-tinged vision in a temple where they all take pot; though it emerges from and back into drone sunrises, a sitar-sounding drone which must have been playing throughout the performance but which one only notices when Corsano calls it a day and Flower switches off his amp. “Go take a crap” advises the bald wunderkind as he lays aside his drum-sticks, and that’s not bad advice; for all that talk of ‘spirituality’, for all that element to the experience Flower/Corsano offer, you’re yet shuddered into an instructive awareness of your own body that might make you value that dump you take as more than an unclean thing evaded in a quest for clean perfection. This is a messy mysticism, the dirtied but still utterly valuable legacy of some kind of psychedelic hippiedom that never really existed in the 60s when that sort of thing was most conceivable; but it exists now, beats into broken dreams its brilliancy.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Poetry Reading, Cambridge: Simon Jarvis & Keston Sutherland

Reading for 'The Dial'
Erasmus Room, Queen's College,
13th February 2009

The packed Erasmus Room is half-wrapped in rapt shut-eyed meditation, half-wrapped in laughing poetic helium sailing up to some Unconditional cloud, half-bemused along the lines of, “what ‘school’ is that from again? What do you call this poetry?” And when Erasmus empties, the fresh footfalls down stone-cold steps are made heavier with so much accumulated meaning and unending invention, but sheer joy makes buoyant every further tread into intellection: a sheer joy at having found a poetry to do all the things that it does, actually existing in that room as air that floated round the ear-lobes.

Simon Jarvis’ reading truly was prosody as cognition, in action. The ability and capacity to sustain a thought through multiple guises and disguises, to analyse each and every process described inside the narrative structure, shows a psychological and philosophical grasp of intricacies not losing itself in trains of thought or puffs of vapour (smoke-rings blown round and round on themselves) – no, but never losing sight of an unwavering and brilliant clarity of mind. The whole is an edifice of crystals gleamed into a wall of light never too dazzling for the eyes not to pick out the beauteous and bountiful detail. Jarvis’ command of verse form and thought is absolutely extraordinary, and this was a lesson in recitation: variance, pacing, all in his voice – he stood still, feet planted in the same place to root his travelling vocal cords.

By contrast, Keston Sutherland, (who, preceding Jarvis, read from an in-progress work entitled ‘Stress Position’), often had his body enact his poem’s narrative drama, spiting out hard-edged catalogues of numbered body-parts, twisting to face himself in imagined dialogues, clutching his stomach as he talked of spilling guts and intestines, hands reaching for doors and becoming lips, staggered journeys on bleeding stumps of missing legs. Sutherland’s delivery is, of course, noteworthy, but it has an extreme caustic tone to it which leads one to believe a certain hoodwinking: Jarvis seems less knowing (though arguably his verse is more knowing, or knows more) and is thus easier to take on trust. Sutherland packs incidents on incidents on incidents, often more lurid and violent than they seem (which is still quite a lot). To take one example, the central tale was (he informed us in his brief pre-amble), derived from his ‘earliest sexual experience’, of seeing sexual graffiti on the inside of a toilet cubicle door. In the poem this expanded into rape by a gang of skinheads, the sheer shock of which was somehow numbed in such a poetry of excess, with its aforementioned broken and malfunctioning bodies, its narratives-of-sort and its spinning MacDonald’s floor. It wore its intellection on its sleeve perhaps too much – its “kooky little references” (as Sutherland calls them on that popular youtube video performance of ‘Hot White Andy’) overshadowing the sheer visceral force of its tales of amputation. Not only an intellection, but a caustic intellection: a deliberate burning away, with a focussed blowtorch of words – or poetry as corrosive acid – but at the same time an obscuring, veiling, drawing back.

It shared with Jarvis’ work – on a very thin string – the desire to peal back minutiae of social experience – or, one should probably say, existence – and to tear it into its constituent parts, and beyond, to create a spiders’ web settling itself over the vacant and gaping wound of life in the modern and debased world, which simultaneously revealed more and more wounds and wounding. This could be desperately bleak: as someone said, would it actually be possible to live in such a fashion, whereby buying a pint of milk leads to a politico-philosophical meditation on the financial system and social foundation of the modern western world, and its connections to latent and not so latent state violence, the maintenance of torture facilities, &c.? Why such stretching to extremes does not make these poets suicidal, or does not make them write like Paul Celan, is because the mechanisms with which to deal with this have also become the ways in to thinking it at all, and thus accomplish the double function of salving the wound while refusing to let it heal or lessen: the mechanisms, techniques, are simultaneously anti-thesis and synthesis to the scalpel-sharp reaching of the analytical thesis which is these poem’s engagement with the minute particulars of life.

For Sutherland, the mechanism is the caustic, the bathetic, the never-quite-meaning-what-you-are-saying-ironic-cooption of bits of discourse, the self-consciously intellectual: it all adds up to quite a bitter brew, actually, which is doubtless what he wants. For Jarvis, though, without sacrificing any of that absolutely withering and microscopically precise analysis, there is more largesse: his reading opened up vistas, most notably allowing us to think ourselves back into to those thoughts we might not dared have thought in Sutherland’s supra-super-post-modern discourse: such as, the sheer unthought-of pleasure of rhyme, through which the poem and poet breathes and thinks. The ‘music of poetry’ sings itself not as drug – though occasionally the fuel and vehicle for descents and ascents into glittering guttural inarticulacy – but as the true and right surface and centre for utterly engaged thought.

As in ‘The Unconditional’, food was a central preoccupation in the material which Jarvis brought along for the occasion. The first poem, half-an-hour to recite, was entitled ‘Dinner’, and its narrative was of two characters, one male and one female, eating a meal in (what turned out to be) a hotel restaurant. Recollections of a man named Neil lead to one of many crises, where evaded eyes (that strange Donne conflux-word “eyebeams” notably threading its way in, on more than one string) and serious expressions, frowns and involuntary grimaces, build up a pressure-cooker in which every moment of social interaction could lead to crisis and to sustained philosophical digression. Clusters and swirls of thought find their equivalent in densely-packed sections of relentlessly over-egged rhyme, both incredibly virtuosic (to simply find so many rhymes is an achievement) and near-hammer-blow unbearable, killing with sweet music, violin strings stinging the ear with waspish gut-glee.

The music threatens to overwhelm – hence the careful variance and deployment of different line lengths, the modulations of tone and cadence – and it could also overwhelm meaning in a Swinburnian sense. But Jarvis is not Swinburne, and lets one have one’s cake and eat every last crumb (leaving a very clean plate indeed). One can follow the narrative, engage with the philosophical engagement, laugh at the jokes and at the splendour of delivery, but at the same time, there were people in the room tapping their feet, and at times the music grew so great that one imagined Jarvis holding court as a musician with nothing but the sound of his voice to sustain the entirety of an orchestra, or perhaps a funk band. Of course, there was a passage of minute musical description, and its references to ascending and descending lines came back to the verse, deliberately or not, as the rise and fall of Jarvis’ vocal cadences.

And more was to follow: after that half-hour train reached its destination, ‘The Absolute’, at least at first, threw itself even more into sound – sequences of vocal gymnastics not unlike the burp-splurges of free improvising funny-voices-jukebox/bodily manifestation in sung form, Phil Minton, though with a certain Jarvisian elegance to them qualitatively different from Minton’s more Rabelesian toilet-humour delight. To pick one example: the false climax, as Jarvis’ voice dropped lower and lower till one thought ‘The Absolute’ of the poem’s title would finally get its definition – then instead the poem trailed into a series of negative definitions, of what the absolute was not. Did we find out what the absolute was? Was there an absolute? What were the conditions of the possibility of its existence? Perhaps those conditions were that room, there, where, read out, the poem sneaked back onto the page, waiting for Jarvis next to breathe it to life, hydra-headed, the true broken stenograph of a singular poetic vision.