Thursday 17 January 2008

Closure of the Red Rose

Bad news: the Red Rose in Finsbury Park, comedy club and London's busiest venue for improvised music and the location for numerous regular events and one-off concerts (such as the visits of such luminaries as Charles Gayle and John Tchicai), is to be converted into a pool hall. Imagine that.

An e-mail that's been circulating tells the full story.
From: Gerard Tierney
Sent: 2008 January 08 19:08

I am afraid I have to announce that the new owners of the Red Rose have decided to make something different out of the Hall. In the 3 months since they took over from Joe they have not been able to make enough money, so they have taken a new partner and are "doing up" the Hall to use as a pool hall, heaven help us. This was announced between Christmas and New Year and despite valiant efforts by a number of people to try and make a counter-offer for the business, there was simply no time.

John Russell, one of the valiant ones, did wring an important concession out of them, buying time to allow the 3 concerts I mentioned in my previous email to go ahead, thus allowing music to continue to the 20th.

Some 50 concerts now need a new home:
Back In Your Town - taking a bit of a break.
Mopomoso - information on new venue / dates when available.
London Improvisers Orchestra - ditto.
Free Radicals - ditto. (FR booked acts, I will be in touch as soon as possible to say whether February can be salvaged, and otherwise to see if a March restart is viable, and if so on what date.)
(The Freedom of the City Festival on the first May Bank Holiday weekend is safe, as already booked in to Toynbee Hall.)

Having been involved in the management of the Red Rose in various capacities for about 20 years up to 2004 I can safely say that it is remarkable the building ever survived that long, but, as I said the other night, that is no consolation to musicians or audiences (or organisers).

John Russell, on the mopomoso website (
After a rather hectic holiday negotiating with the current leaseholders to buy the lease of the Red Rose and so save the venue for performances, we were sadly unsuccessful in our attempt, so the concert on January 20th will be the last performance of any description at the venue, as the decorators move in on the 21st to change the room into a snooker hall. We are currently negotiating to move to a new venue, details of which will be announced shortly.

What this says about contemporary culture and Britain's attitude to advanced creative music and art is really very sad. Just think - some of the most important musicians in Britain today, as well as visiting jazzmen - the likes of Charles Gayle, William Parker, Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, Eddie Prevost, Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper - have all appeared in this place, have all had to be shunted into the backroom of a pub between comedy acts. And now even that's too much to ask. Hopefully some people will step into the breach - they'll have to - but I suspect this could be something of a milestone (and not in a positive sense, either).

The question has to be raised, though - can this music survive merely through the efforst of a small group of individuals, however dedicated? Artist- and label-organised festivals like Freedom of the City or, in America, William Parker's hugely important Vision Festival, do a lot of good, but they are exceptions rather than rules. What seems to happen is that a small number of people manage to maintain something for a long period of time, but then, when they retire or move on to other things, new owners who don't share their desire to provide a home for improvised performance think "we could make more money as a snooker hall." Perhaps what is needed is some kind of public money - yet the amount of arts funding available for fringe music has radically decreased in recent years. Maybe it's a result of 'Cool Brittania', with its glib and gimmicky attitude (diamond-encrusted skulls, Turner Prize shock-value (perhaps it would be MORE shocking to have something not shocking win), reaching its nadir on the abysmal 'Culture Show' on BBC2) - maybe not. Whatever, it's a sad situation, and it doesn't look like it's going to get any better - the London Musicians' Collective had its funding cut in the arts council's binge of cuts this year. The "Music Unit" says about the LMC: "we do not believe they deliver strong value against the investment of public money." Is not the point of arts funding to support creative arts that the free market had no interest in?

You could argue that the music is, and has always been, by its nature, 'underground' and of minority interest - and mayhbe that's true. But since when has this meant such music should be forced nearly out of existence?

What can we (as fans, critics, musicians) do? Not a lot, it would seem. Maybe if enough people protest about this sort of thing, some pen-pusher/policy-maker in some governmental beauracratic body will put aside a few extra pounds. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. But, for now, turn up for mopomoso this Sunday, the 20th January, at 8PM - excellent value, some excellent improvising groupings from musicians young and old, and the last ever gig at the Red Rose. Getting a big crowd there would be a suitable gesture.

Friday 11 January 2008

Listening to Bailey: An Experiment

Thought I’d try something different – a little exercise, see how it goes. I’m going to put on Derek Bailey’s solo guitar album (recorded in 1981, but not released until the 90s), ‘Aida’, and type up any thoughts that come to mind as the music unfolds around me. Obviously it’s going to be a bit disjointed, fragmented, but hopefully something of value will come through…‘Stream-of-consciousness’ criticism…Or maybe not.

The first track, ‘Paris’ – after listening for a few minutes, I’m struck by how he seems to be on the edge of melody, something very simple, ancient, a dulcimer, struck-plucked, mixed with the ostensible vocabulary of twentieth-century modernism. At once close, physical, sound, connected with the act of being, and yet distanced, cold, far, remote, mysterious (Bailey’s personality?).

Like poetry, it’s music that you have to feel (and I don’t necessarily mean in an emotional way, as you might feel ‘moved’, sad, by a sentimental melody, melancholy from a Miles Davis’ ballad-lament), to absorb…You have to concentrate on it – free improv involves intense concentration, more so than any other music if you are to get something out of it, perhaps - but at the same time you have to absorb it, to let it be something not quite understood – see Evan Parker on shift from left to right side of brain.

Paris’ – a lot of the focus on the rhythmic here (an echo of rhythm, almost - jazz, music heard on radios at the back of your mind, where only traces of it are sensed, remain), on repeated figures stretched out and intermingled with others and evolving into others and juxtaposed with others like a spiders’ web. Clear yet cloudy like the way the sun strikes a spiders’ web in the early morning light, picking out the sharp lines of it and the dew, at once a shape and something vague and transparent. Sometimes his rhythmic stuff is very simple and ‘primitive’, like the way a child would obsessively bash at something he’d learned to do (dissonant chords 15 mins in). Like Picasso, going back to a child-like attitude –but paradoxically this happens often through extended techniques – through extending your knowledge of the machinery of the instrument so you can play as if for the first time. Miles Davis to John McLaughlin during the 'In a Silent Way' sessions: “play like you don’t know how to play guitar.”

The way it finishes with someone’s watch (?) beeping, breaking the spell – he plays the phrase one more time before cutting off. “Well that’s the fist number.” A typically English down-to-earth mysticism (though he’d hate it to be described as such, and I don’t really mean mysticism in the conventional sense. What do I mean? – hard to explain – ideally, I’d say listen to the music, but I’m aware that most (like me at first) just hear cold, hard, horror. A man who “devoted his life to making horrible music that no-one wanted to listen to,” as a friend remarked ironically to me.

Like speech half-heard, imagined in the head (a half-conscious thought, maybe), Bailey’s music unfolds over time, not quite understood. Who knows what happened in his head when he played? Did he hear voices, translate them into notes? Did he hear a musical phrase, in its entirety, not quite understanding it, knowing where it came from exactly, like the way a line of poetry comes to a poet (William Empson’s ‘taste in the head’). Did he hear sSunds in advance? Sounds in remembrance? The way phrases echo, are developed for minutes a time, their shades and nuances stretched out, moving on - like Evan Parker’s "music under the microscope" (Ian Carr's description) saxophone solos. Yet neither Bailey nor Parker as as distanced as that phrase suggests – it’s not as if they say ‘I choose to examine this sound objectively, now what can I do with it,’ as that wouldn’t work – you have to be fully involved in the sound, in creating, you become the sound, as Stockhausen instructs in his improvised pieces

Two minutes into ‘An Echo in Another’s Mind' – splintering, scraping sounds. 4 minutes - maybe an oriental tinge? The 'ancient' sense, closeness to some sort of melody, that I thought about when listening to 'Paris', maybe the strangeness of it is because it's a recall of a different type of melody, a different type of music to the usual western stuff - maybe he was more in tune with an eastern sensibility? Not that he'd explicitly acknowledge this as anything other than a possibility, in a music of possibilites...The chapter in 'Improvisation' where he comments on how some improvisers employment of ethnic instruments "is about as near to the dignity of ethnic music as a nuclear explosion is to a fart"! Still, Jamie Muir employs gongs and various eastern percussion instrument on 'Dart Drug'...There's a video of Bailey playing with a Japanese dancer on youtube - have to dig it up and see if those ideas are confirmed.

In any case, he abruptly breaks of this more exploratory ruminative strain for some hard, hard, hammer-blows - Beethoven's fifth filtered through fifty layers to become Derek Bailey striking his guitar, jangling it, brutal, exploiting that percussive side of the acoustic guitar (fret noise, the sound of the fingers striking the strings) that hardly anyone else seems to.

Again, a few minutes later, that oriental sound (koto? shamisen?), in the lower register of the instrument, before ending, suddenly, like an unfinished sentence, leaving unspoken thoughts to be picked up on (or forgotten about) for his next improvisation...

Sunday 6 January 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck
Music: Nick Cave/Warren Ellis
Director:Andrew Dominik
Writers: Andrew Dominik (screenplay), Ron Hansen (novel)
Director of Photography: Roger Deakins
Release Date:30 November 2007 (UK)

It's hard to imagine this film being much of a success, despite starring Brad Pitt. It's a long-haul: slow-moving, intensely melancholic and sombre, dealing in grey-paletted landscapes and skyscapes, pauses, silences, things unsaid as much as things said. Still, it's been critically successful, and it address questions pertinent to today's society: Fame. Hero worship. The desire to be someone else, as an escape from the drudgery of your own life ("do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"). The realisation that that someone else is "just a man," just like you, and that he perhaps struggles with the same sense of drudgery and hopelessness, as you do.

John Hillcoat’s fine Australian western, 'The Proposition' is a film to which I compared this, if only because it features a similarly melancholic soundtrack by the same two men, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (Cave, by the way, has a cameo near the end of the film, and, what with his weatherbeaten face and large moustache, he looks like he belongs nowhere else if not in a western saloon). Partly because of this music, the mood is similar - fatalistic, sad. Yet Hillcoat’s film allows a greater sense of engagement with its characters, and therefore provides a basis for the sadness, which is not really the case here, as I shall go on to explain. The two films have different themes as well: 'Proposition' dealt with the coming of the frontier, of civilisation; it dealt with man's relation to the land, the primal versus the civilised, the clash of cultures, the role of family, the role of violence, and the execution of law and order. Here, even though the setting is the actual American west, rather than Australia, less traditionally 'western' concerns predominate: as outlined at the end of the previous paragraph, the emphasis is instead on fame, hero worship, the desire to be someone else.

Notably, the film conveys a sense of the drudgery and sheer hardship of life in the west that many films miss, and, unlike most other westerns (with the exception of 'True Grit'), the dialogue often feels authentic – slightly grandiose, perhaps stilted to our ears – almost Elizabethan; slow, deliberate, unusual, and just right. In addition, the carefully crafted sound design adds a vital, if almost imperceptible extra dimension to practically every scene – whether through the sound of a child singing heard through a window, or a half-open door; whether through wind in the grass, chatter in a saloon, or the rumble of an approaching train felt, as much as heard, through an ear pressed to the rails.

Such attention to sonic detail complements the strong visual sense of the film: everything in the frame is there for a purpose, every frame is composed in an almost painterly fashion. One of the most striking examples is a stunning shot of Jesse’s silhouetted figure disappearing into a cloud of smoke as a train approaches, then re-appearing seconds later in another place. Also striking are the ‘interludes’ that punctuate the main action, in which spoken narration (passages from the novel on which the film is based) is overlaid onto moody shots of clouds moving across the sky, glimpses of fields and snow through windows, sunlight falling on an empty interior, all shot through a strange, hazy, dream-like lens. I was reminded of a Russian drama I’d seen a few days before - 'The Return', in which the landscape becomes almost a character, or at least a driving force which partially dictates why the characters behave how they do and what courses of action they take.

Tying in with this, Roger Ebert comments on the bleak emptiness of the landscape (like McCabe and Mrs Miller, it was shot in Canada - all huge grey skies, desolate waving wheat-fields, snow, ice, and mud), and how, because of this, because "the land is so empty, it creates a vacuum demanding men to become legends." Whether or not Jesse James wants to become a legend (and the film implies that he does not, that he is, at the very least, ambivalent towards his status), his actions do seem to indicate some attempt to go beyond the ordinary, to carve a place for himself, if only for some obscure, inner sense of satisfaction, completion.

I say this partly because no explanation is sought, or offered, by anyone in the film, for the gang's actions. This is simply what they do - perhaps to avoid the drudgery of working in a grocery store, like Bob, or making shoes, as Frank suggests he will do; perhaps for the money, to give themselves a chance of a fuller life. Perhaps simply because, in this environment, doing anything feels almost like a random act. The film is detached from the characters, and the characters are detached from themselves. At one point, Jesse speaks about watching himself from outside: "I look at my red hands and my mean face... and I wonder 'bout that man that's gone so wrong." The state governor comments that, while some say Jesse's crimes are revenge on Republicans and people who wronged his family, his victims didn't seem to be chosen on account of their political persuasion. In other words, he's no political rebel. He's just an outlaw, who does what he does - who knows why? That's not important to the governor. He wants the man captured, not to understand his motivation. The film should go beyond his concerns though, and examine the latter..shouldn't it? Doesn't it?

I'm not convinced that it does, and more context of the sort hinted at in the governor's two or three lines might have helped. For all the film's desire for historical accuracy in detail, in the bigger picture it's rather sketchy. I'll return to these criticisms later.

But, still, it's a film easy to admire, for several reasons: the use of space, and silence, building tension in long, drawn-out dinner-table conversations. The inexorable build toward death: like Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in the West', a dance of death - or a slow, deliberately paced walk towards it. It feels like something winding down: everyone is aware of impending confrontation, but unable to escape from it. People face their deaths with stoicism, as if this is what fate has dictated for them, as if it is their role to play: the gang member Pitt shoots in the back for real, or imagined betrayal; James himself, who glimpses his assassin in a mirror but makes no attempt to dodge the bullet's path.

It will probably be admired most for its performances: Casey Affleck's insinuating, awkward hero-worshipper, at once understandable and pitiable - bullied, insecure, unloved - and at once somewhat contemptible, annoying and disturbing. Pitt's James – a performance very different in tone from other western movie outlaws: Kris Kristofferson, the youthful idealist of Peckinpah's 'Pat Garrett'; Robert Wagner, the James Dean-esque teenage rebel of 'The True Story of Jesse James'; Tyronne Power, the blue-eyed Robin Hood of the 1939 James film; Paul Newman, the mixed-up psycho teenager of 'The Left-Handed Gun'; Emilio Estevez, the madman in 'Young Guns'; or, most recently, Danny Huston's murdering outlaw in 'The Proposition', dangerous as a wolf and with something profoundly melancholic about him, as if he senses some underling sadness, or madness, in the universe, as he sits on a rocky outcrop, staring directly into the blazing Australian sun as it sets; or Russell Crowe's Ben Wade in the '3:10 to Yuma' remake - again, utterly ruthless and with some moral element perverted, or simply missing, yet capable of being charming, and with a penetrating intelligence that elevates him above the rest of his gang.
By contras, Pitt plays his outlaw as aloof, detached: melancholy, for no clear reason, at one point he hints at his desire for death, for suicide. "Once you've looked over the other side, you'll never want to go back into your body," he says, before, for no apparent reason, shooting holes through the ice on which he stands: an action which, in a cinema and a genre where it sometimes feels as if every action has to have a motivation, strikes one as a strangely existential act.

Ultimately however, despite these positive aspects, the movie is hard to like, much less love; it’s characterised by the same aloofness I've just discussed in its protagonist. Jesse's occasional mentions of the soul raise the possibility of a deeper philosophical strain (which might be somewhat out of place, given the dour 'factual', 'realistic' nature of the film, such as the vomit that smears Bob Ford's suit when he falls over on a saloon floor), but it remains merely a suggestion, adding to a vague impression of some sort of inexplicable sadness. Of course, James is not a simple human being: psychotic killer and family man, moody and introspective one moment, jocular and almost frivolous the next. We can’t expect everything about him to be explained – but sometimes open-endedness can be taken too far, and I can’t help feeling that there's a lack of insight into his character, and the other characters in the film. They seem to remain ciphers who simply exist, rather than fully fledged human beings who act. James' family in particular is ignored by the script, except for occasional shots to show that he has one at all. The film observes dislikeable characters doing dislikable things; the audience is left to judge, but are not given that much to base their judgments on, despite the slow pace. The film's attitude to its legendary titular character is unclear: do we admire him? He's a cold-blooded murderer - surely just as much of a coward as Bob Ford. Or is he let off the hook because he's Brad Pitt, because he's brooding and handsome and has a family? Ultimately, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ is indifferent - neither tragic nor exciting, just generally glum, it gives the impression of saying more than it actually does. It had the potential to be more than it is, and is thus an interesting, perhaps necessary, but flawed movie.

LINKS: The Proposition (2005) -
The Return (2004) -
McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) -
Roger Ebert review of 'The Assassination of Jesse James'