Thursday, 22 November 2012

Museum of Contemporary Art (Part II)

Here are some impressions from another recent trip to the wonderful MCA.


Rosalie Gascoigne: Tiger Tiger, 1987

This is made from road signs that are carved up and reassembled. Some critics refer to Gascoigne's work as visual poetry. It caught my eye because it is inspired by a poem I love, The Tyger, by William Blake:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Tim Johnson: Dewachin, 1987

This is inspired by Aboriginal dot paintings and is beautiful and shimmering in the original.

Nick Mangan: eXoecoaXis, 2005

The kids were impressed by the hand-made crystals poking out of the Persian rug, and I like the catchy title...

Robert Owen: Sunrise #3, 2005

Imagine this in your living room - minus the bucket! Love the combination of vibrant colours.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Angus Stone at the Enmore, 1 November 2012

It's like stepping into a fairytale: cut-out trees, a fake campfire in the corner, glittering light bulbs for stars. It fits the atmosphere this evening. People are sitting cross-legged, chatting quietly and waiting patiently for Angus Stone to appear. When he finally does, the crowd goes wild though; and when he calmly utters the profound words: "Hi, I'd like to introduce myself, my name is Angus", there is no stopping at least the female part of the audience. There is a lot of chanting his name and fervently shouted declarations of love. The man himself takes all this in his stride. He strokes his beard thoughtfully and answers carefully that, yeah, he loves us too, which sends the girls into another screaming frenzy.
But all that aside, there's the music. It's mostly stripped back, acoustic and folksy like River Love, the first song of the evening that has more than a hint of Bob Dylan to it, but there are also slightly edgier and darker pieces like It Was Blue and End of the World, which suit Stone's voice surprisingly well. This voice really is something: It's raw and emotional, and like his big sister he has that uncanny ability to give you the impression of sitting right next to you and singing gently into your ear.
For the encore Stone plays a song that he has written on the same day, something gloomy and acoustic about a beautiful French girl who makes him sad for some reason. If feels authentic, and I'm thinking that this is what people crave: that sense of a simple truth; a guy with shaggy hair and a guitar who sings softly about his feelings, his loneliness and his dreams. It certainly isn't new, but it is honest and beautiful - and it still gets the girls...

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Autumn Laing by Alex Miller

A while ago I wrote about the satisfaction of putting things into order, of quantifying and labelling them. Well, here I will attempt something that I have meant to do for a very long time: I will choose one book every month that I loved reading and will try to explain why I did love it. And thus I will hopefully save it from disappearing in that big pile of all the other books and movies and newspaper articles and websites that I really wanted to remember; the ones that moved and inspired me and that somehow fell between the cracks in the mysterious landscape of my mind...

This is a book about being old. It is a book about being young and immortal. It is a book about art, about jealousy and passion, about women and about Australia. Autumn Laing tells her story, beginning, 'They are all dead, and I am old and skeleton-gaunt. This is where it began fifty-three years ago.' Doesn't this alone make you want to sit back and read on? Oh, the power of words, drawing you in and creating a world just for you to discover!

Autumn Laing is young and beautiful. It is the late 1930s in Melbourne, and she is married to kind and gentle Arthur. Theirs is a quiet and comfortable marriage. They have a circle of artistic, bohemien friends who come to their house to eat, drink copious amounts of red wine and discuss art and poetry. They are trying to invent an Australian version of the European modernism and argue about aesthetics, philosophy and ethics. Their lifes change when Autumn meets and subsequently seduces Pat Donlon, a promising and hot-headed young artist. He is married to lovely and innocent Edith, who is pregnant with their first child. The book shifts between the unfolding story and the present, where Autumn is dying, bad-tempered and armed with a sharp tongue. She is looking back with regret and longing and eventually is able to find some kind of peace and closure.

Alex Miller is an amazingly skilled writer. His style seems effortless, but is so confident and elegant in providing first only glimpses of the story and the characters that inhabit it and subsequently weaving all the threads together into a rich and colourful tapestry. Miller lets Autumn talk and gives her a truly unique voice. I tried to slow down my reading towards the end, and I really missed her after finishing the story. In fact, I'm still thinking of her as someone I knew and who has recently died. The power of words...

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Julia Stone at the Metro Theatre, 15 September 2012

I have been vomited upon by my two sick children for the last two weeks and have only recently re-surfaced from under a mountain of dirty bed linen, stacks of salted crackers and seas of chamomile tea...

So just before heading to Fiji for a long anticipated and, I think, well deserved holiday, a quick recount of my last little adventure into the Australian music scene. The venue is the Metro Theatre again and the occasion the concert of the lovely Julia Stone.

Support act is The Trouble with Templeton from Brisbane. The band's young singer and songwriter Tom Calder is definitely someone to watch. He's got charisma, a wonderful voice and he writes songs that are catchy and packed with raw emotions.

Julia Stone herself, when she finally enters the stage, is delightful: Her unpretentious and relaxed banter gives the concert a very personal and intimate feel. She tells little stories about how the songs for her solo album By the Horns came about and what inspired them. She is sweet without drifting into the kind of sugary and infantile cuteness that strangely seems to be the default setting for a lot of girls these days (Wow, I sound like a grumpy old woman, and I'm breaking my own rule of not being bitchy in this blog, so enough of this).

Julia Stone does a few trumpet solos, but for most songs she plays the guitar (one bearded guy seems solely assigned to hand her a different model after each song). Stone seems mature and confident and is clearly a seasoned performer. But her most obvious asset is her sheer talent: Her voice is beautiful and fragile, and it matches the songs with their stripped back, acoustic compositions that sound deceivingly simple, but are delicate and well crafted arrangements.
After playing together with her brother Angus for six years, they both have taken this year to pursue their respective solo projects. I'm very much looking forward to seeing Angus Stone perform at the Enmore Theatre this November, where he will play songs from his new album Broken Brights. They have promised to get back together after this little excursion. Whatever they decide to do in the future, these extraordinary siblings have proven that they continue to deserve a central place in Australia's musical landscape.

Monday, 13 August 2012

David Helfgott at the City Recital Hall, 10 August 2012

As David Helfgott jogs onto stage and gives a thumbs up into the audience with both hands, grinning like an excited child, you can't help but be enchanted. This is not your average start of a classical concert, and Helfgott certainly isn't your average classical performer. After having inspired the Oscar-winning movie Shine in 1996 with Geoffrey Rush portraying him as an adult, he is in fact probably one of the best known pianists of our time. The movie shows Helfgott's childhood in Melbourne, born to Polish-Jewish parents. He displays early signs of being a prodigious piano player, but increasingly struggles with a schizoaffective disorder. The movie was subsequently strongly criticised by his sister who disagrees mainly with the depiction of their father as an authoritarian tyrant.

Today David Helfgott performs Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, the very piece that brought about his mental breakdown and admittance to a psychiatric hospital as a young man. It is known to be one of the most technically challenging pieces to play. "Rach Three" is a wonderful composition - full of longing and nostalgia and a passion that sometimes simmers under the surface and sometimes bursts open in glorious, brilliant rainbows. The extraordinary thing about Helfgott's performance is how he seems to literally live and breathe the music he is playing. Every now and then he mutters and grunts, bowing deep over the piano and frowning in concentration. At other times he beams gleefully into the audience, nodding vigourosly when playing a particularly triumphant part. He plays without sheet music and is utterly immersed in the piece. His enthusiasm is contagious and highly entertaining. There is nothing grave and somber about Helfgott's playing; it is pure, unadulterated joy.

When he finishes, the audience erupts in cheers and gives a long standing ovation. Critics have found fault with Helfgott's technical abilities in the past; they have condemned an audience, not used to classical concerts, for clapping between movements. They were bothered by Helgott's grunting while playing. Looking around me, I see smiling faces everywhere, people laughing out loud at Helfgott's repeated hugging and kissing of his fellow musicians on stage, others copying his two-handed thumbs up. This man brings joy and wonder into people's lives, he makes classical music approachable and is truly inspiring in his playfulness. Why so serious?

Monday, 30 July 2012

Jack White at the Hordern Pavilion, 26 July 2012

I've go a confession to make: I used to be a rockabilly. This was when I was about 17 years old, right after a brief gothic stint and just before donning Doc Martens and jumping around to Ska and Punk music. It took me a year or so to figure out that my rockabilly friends not only adopted the music from the 1950s, but also the macho culture and latent racism of this period. But for a while my girlfriend and I were part of this cool gang, clad in leather jackets adorned with the Confederate flag, sticky hair and all; feeling very rebellious and different indeed. Until I understood that subcultures are in a way much more conservative than the mainstream, with their stringent rules about the right clothes, the right hair and the right music. Rebellion? Sure. Individuality? No way.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I'm at a concert again - one that I had been looking forward to for months. The support act is the infectiously cheerful Lanie Lane with her mix of rock'n' roll, blues and rockabilly. And that music takes me right back to these exciting times of carving out an identity, deciding where I want to belong and gradually realising what's important (and it isn't what brand of hairspray you're using).

After this stroll down memory lane allow me to be briefly reduced to a gushing teenager in reliving the amazing two hours that are the Jack White concert. Oh. My. God. What a musician! What a guy! I was never so right in anticipating an event; this is without a doubt the best concert I saw this year, if not one of the best I've ever been to. Jack White is a true rock star. Mysterious, a bit bonkers, it seems, but oh so sexy, and with the most amazing voice and guitar skills.

With his terrific all-male band (alternating nightly between this and an all-female band), he plays songs from his time with the White Stripes and the Raconteurs, and from his debut solo album Blunderbuss, about which I wrote in an earlier blog entry. He starts thunderously with Black Math from his Elephant album with the White Stripes. To imagine the power: With just one gesture you indicate you want the audience to clap, and several thounsand people obediently raise their hands. The contrast between his earlier, explosive pieces like The Hardest Button To Button and his new material as a solo artist is sometimes stark, but White pulls it off as he tackles each song with intense concentration. It is only halfway through the concert that he allows himself a half-smile. He ends the concert with an electric rendition of Seven Nation Army, and the crowd goes wild, shouting the lyrics and roaring the bassline. I'm squeezed in, I am drenched in sweat and my lukewarm beer is sloshing out of my plastic cup as I jump up and down - in short, it is exactly how a great concert is supposed to be.

You might have noticed the slight improvement in the quality of the concert photos (I know, the photos of my rockabilly years are pretty dodgy. They are scanned, but I couldn't figure out how to change the frame. Where is your personal technical advisor when you need him...).
I could claim that I took a proper camera this time and was really, really close to the stage. But I'm just going to admit that I got them from Jack White's official website (, because we weren't allowed to take photos. I'm sure you're glad.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

I feel like sharing a poem again; one that I love passionately and irrationally in equal measures, as it is - in my view - intensely beautiful, but quite long and not easily accessible, although it is very well known. It is a wonderful example of what I wrote about poetry earlier; that it is sometimes best just to let it wash over you and trust that the poem will carry you safely ashore.

John Keats had the extraordinary power to move his contemporaries as well as readers today. Surely part of his appeal is due to the tragic circumstances of his short life and his death of tuberculosis at the young age of only twenty-five years. He fell in love with his Hampstead neighbour Fanny Brawne, a romance that was beautifully captured in the movie "Bright Star". Keats wrote almost all of his major poetry in the short period between 1818 and his death in 1821.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cooled a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stainèd mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Clustered around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets covered up in leaves;
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Called him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain
To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: Do I wake or sleep? 

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Books that changed me

I love to gaze emptily at my bookshelf and just skim the book titles. I've spent many a happy hour standing there, occasionally pulling one book out or the other, opening it at a random page, reading a few lines and smiling in that warm and secure knowledge of having rediscovered an old friend.

The Little Witch (Die kleine Hexe) by Otfried Preussler:
This is the first book I read when I was five years old. Here it was: The magic of words and the astounding miracle that a whole world is just waiting for you when you open a book. I was hooked.

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse:
The knowledge of self was a recurring theme in Hesse's work. And isn't intense self-examination at the core of trying to become an adult? Hesse wrote about finding yourself, being true to who you really are and about claiming your individuality against the odds and against society. So when I discovered these books at the age of about fourteen, they very much suited the angsty, confused and quietly rebellious teenager that I was.

The Age of Reason (L’âge de raison) by Jean-Paul Sartre:
I shared an apartment in Munich with a bunch of crazy, noisy and partying art students. I had just returned from a year of backpacking through Australia and Asia, had broken up with my boyfriend and was at that delicious and heady stage of absolute freedom without any constraints. And - voilà - at this pivotal moment Sartre stepped into my life and talked about just this: You alone are responsible for your own fate, you choose your destiny. There is no helpless surrendering to a divine fate that makes the decisions for you. The purpose of life? You create your own meaning in life (or a lack thereof) yourself.

The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg) by Thomas Mann:
With this book I come full circle: Here again is the vast, sheer endless landscape of knowledge that just waits to be discovered. The language is full of beauty, rhythm and musicality, and one can dreamily read whole passages without quite understanding what Mann is actually talking about. The characters in the book reflect on time, politics and sociological issues. Reading the novel just makes me feel so damn clever and eloquent; a state I have tried to capture and maintain ever since.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Jezabels at the Hordern Pavilion, 9 June 2012

You know what I love about concerts? Once you have listened to a band live, nobody can take it away from you. It is stored in your acoustic memory. And every time you listen to their music - at home, in the car or in the supermarket (if that's the kind of music you are into) - you can tap into that memory and add layers, visual details and so much emotion to the songs that it will change the way you experience them forever.

I go and see the Jezabels by myself, which is an interesting experience in itself. Before I had children, in that distant past I remember vaguely, I used to have these solitary outings quite regularly. And it actually feels nice getting into the car, putting on the Jezabels, singing along and driving into the night.

After the support acts, Lights and Snakadaktal (how's that for a band name?), there is a long break where I have time to study the audience around me. The first thing that strikes me is how young they are and then that almost everyone is clutching an iPhone and is either typing frantically or just gazing at it. I wonder if this is the modern equivalent of the archaic and almost universally outlawed ritual of holding a cigarette; something that occupies your hands and makes you look busy.

The lights are finally dimmed, and the Jezabels make an impressive entrance preceded by an ominous guitar riff and a strong bassline that makes my skin tingle. They launch into Endless summer, one of the more upbeat songs of their album Prisoner. Singer Hayley Mary is an intense stage presence, with raven hair that hides her face and a very tight, catwoman-style black outfit. Next is Easy to Love and Long Highway, songs that both show off the singer's strong voice that ranges from low and smoky to high-pitched wailing.

Mid-concert Mary gives an endearing little talk about how she is probably supposed to say something now but that she is actually quite nervous. She says that they are living a crazy dream and thanks us for sharing it with her. That sends the crowd into another frenzy of shouted We love you's and Oh my God's. The girl next to me exclaims several times during the concert how this is, like totally, her song.

The Jezabels are one of the rare bands that sound life even better, as their songs are perfectly suited for the drama of smoke wafting off the stage and an amazing lightshow. Their sound is dark, moody and quite theatrical, all the things I like in music. Maybe I'm not that old after all...

Friday, 8 June 2012

Vivid festival 2012

Vivid Sydney is a festival of light, music and ideas that's in town for the fourth time. Didn't I say that in this blog I want to share what recently got me excited and delighted? Well, the following definitely qualifies:

The Customs House in blue...

...and again multicoloured. Kiss!

Light pompoms that looked like exploding fireworks...

...the Museum of Contemporary Art...

...and the astounding projections on the Opera House. This photo is from the official website, because mine just didn't do justice to the amazing concept.

Oh, the excitement!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Deep Sea Arcade at The Standard, 2 June 2012

Finding The Standard in Surry Hills proves to be a challenge. We walk up and down Bourke Street a couple of times looking for it, only stopping for a delicious kingfish carpaccio at My Zakaya and again for cheese and dessert wine at Le Pelican.

Thus fortified, we finally venture into The Standard (it's just off Taylor Square, for the record) in time for the last few songs of support act The Cairos from Brisbane. They are a talented bunch and their song Shame really makes you want to shout along, but, seriously, what is it with rock musicians and their hairdos? Especially the bass player sports a ridiculous outgrown mullet and keeps blowing his fringe out of his eyes. Very distracting.

Enter the members of Deep Sea Arcade and their singer's own version of a Beatles bowl cut. Nic McKenzie is either very stoned or channeling Jim Morrison (or both) as he prowls the stage with a lazy smile playing around his lips and his eyes half closed.

The retro vibe is supported by the '60s sci-fi and French Nouvelle Vague movies played on folded screens in the background. But the frontman's voice sounds surprisingly fresh and clear as he belts out the first song of the concert, Seen no Right.

McKenzie dedicates his next song Girls to a couple of ladies in the audience. He helpfully points them out one by one (sadly, I'm not included). The influence of The Doors is unmistakable in The Devil Won't Take You, and it is the song that made me discover the band on radio. On hearing the first tunes of the upbeat Steam, everyone in the audience starts cheering and singing along. No wonder it is currently one of my four-year old daughter's favourite songs.

The album's musical influence varies from '60s surf pop and the Madchester scene to '90s beat and The Smiths (which is one of my all-time favourite bands, incidentally). This is psychedelic indie pop at its best with catchy tunes and great, layered arrangements. It's joyful and original, and I'm already looking forward to hearing what they will come up with next.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

Poems aren't everyone's cup of tea. They are usually not straightforward. They can be enigmatic, cerebral and even convoluted. But if it is a good poem, you can just let it wash over you. Allow yourself to be sucked in. Try to unconsciously feel the words instead of intellectually grasping them. If you get lost in incomprehensible metaphors at any time, carry on and trust that you will find your way back again.

Once you're really familiar with the poem, once you wear it like a comfortable old jumper, feel free to do a background check. Look for references, research symbolic meanings, by all means count stanzas. It might lead to another level of appreciation and understanding, but in my opinion it is not the most vital part in getting a poem, in loving it like you love a song without neccessarily understanding the lyrics.

This is one of my favourites. It is about faith and doubt, and about love among the seas of change.

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the Straits; - on the French coast, the light
Gleams, and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the ebb meets the moon-blanch'd sand,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves suck back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegan, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd;

But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Kimbra at the Enmore, 17 May 2012

First things first. Standing in the back of the Enmore theatre, trying to take a photo with an iPhone (not the latest version, naturally), with the lights doing what they do at a concert  (namely flickering, changing colour etc)  is probably not as successful as an aspiring blogger might hope.

But it does have a certain artistic charm to it (or so I tell myself), and you get the general idea of how Kimbra looks like, which is a little bit like a pretty doll. Dark and glossy hair, big eyes, red lips and a short, silver dress. Mid-concert she changes into an equally tutu-esque red number. The whole look is quite theatrical, something Kimbra emphasises by exaggerated hand gestures, as if she would try to shape the lyrics into form. She is clearly not comfortable doing the obligatory chit-chat between songs, and it shows here how very young she is. There are a lot of nervous giggles and stilted, quite obviously rehearsed introductions to her songs, a contrast to the confident and sassy stage persona she's trying to project. But her strong and versatile voice matches the diversity of styles she covers with her songs, from the bluesy Plain Gold Ring by Nina Simone to the tribal Warrior. A duet with Sam Lawrence for Wandering Limbs is beautiful and etheral.

The concerts ends rather abruptly after the smooth pop track Cameo Lover. No encore, just lights on and technicians unplugging the elaborate stage setting. It is all generally quite funky and danceable, maybe a little bit too glossy for my taste. But considering that Kimbra is only 22 years old and Vows is her first album, there can be no doubt about it: This petite young singer is going places.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Flying Foxes by Robert Gray

The following poem has so many things I love about poetry: Its language is vivid and rhythmic, it ebbs and flows, you can smell the words and touch them. It also is a tad dark and melancholic, for which I seem to have a penchant, I am told... And it is Australian and contemporary and so a fitting first poem for this blog, I think:

In the night, the gorging begins / again, in the spring / night, in the branches / of the Moreton Bay figs, / that are fully-rigged / as windjammers, and make a flotilla / along the street. / And from the yard-arms / are strung clusters / of hanged sailors, / canvas-wrapped and tarred - / these are the bats, come / for the split fruit, and dangled, / overturned where they land. / It is the tobacco fibrils / in the fruit they seek, / and those berries, when gouged, / are spilt, through the squall / of the crowd, like / a patter of faeces / about the bitumen. This amidst / the cloudy shine / of the saline / streetlamps. In the ripe nights / the bats fumble and waste / what they wrest - / there's a damp paste / upon the road, / which dries to matted / sawdust, soon after the day's / steam has reared; it is scraped / up by the shovel-load. / The bats are uncorked / like musty vapour, at dusk, / or there is loosed a fractured / skein of smoke, across / the embossed lights / of the city. The moon is lost, / to an underhanded / flicked long brush-load of paint. / You think of the uncouth ride / of the Khan and his horde, / their dragon-backed shape / grinding the moon / beneath its feet. / And then, of an American / anthem, the helicopters / that arrive with their whomp whomp / whomp. I'm woken / by the bats still carrying on / in the early hours, / by the outraged screech, / the chittering / and thrashing about / where they clamber heavily, / as beetles do, on each other's backs. / They are Leonardo / contraptions. They extend / a prosthetic limb, / snarl, and knuckle-walk / like simians, step / each other under / and chest-beat, although / hampered with a cape. In sleep / I trample the bedsheet / off, and call out / 'Take that!' (I am told), / punching the pillow in the heat. / I see the fanged shriek, / and the drip / of their syringes, / those faces with the scowl / of a walnut kernel. / It's some other type of bat / I think of: these, in books, / where I looked them up, / have a face you can imagine / if you recall how you'd whittle / finely at a pencil / and moisten the lead / with the tongue-tip - / a little face that belies its greed, / like that of an infant. / All partly autonomous things / trample others down, / even what is their own, / and the whole earth throbs / and smoulders / with pain. No comfort for us that / in the nights I have seen / how the living pass / about the earth, / that is deep with the ashes / of the dead, and quickly, too, / vanish into dark, / like will o' the wisps / thrown out of the sun. / At three o'clock I gather / our existence / has been a mistake. I would like / to turn my back on / its endless strife; / but when I look out / at the night, I am offered / otherwise only / the chalk-white, chaste / and lacklustre moon.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Museum of Contemporary Art (Part I)

I stole an hour last weekend to visit the new extension to the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay. Here are some things that I saw:

Esme Timbery (with daughter Marilyn Russel): Shellworked slippers, 2008

Ah Xian: China China, 2004

Stephen Birch: Untitled, 2005

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Jack White Blunderbuss

Sometimes I listen to a new album and the magic happens: It is as if I would recognise the music as something I know already, as if a chord is struck and my mind goes "oh yeah, here it is again, I remember this".

I've loved the White Stripes for a long time - especially Jack White's voice that screeches and wails or purrs and seduces, and obviously his brilliant guitar riffs. When I read about his new album, Blunderbuss, I just downloaded it without previously listening to it. And here it was: quite a different sound from his older albums like Elephant in 2003, but I instantly recognised it and had the urge to play it over and over again - probably very much to the chagrin of my poor neighbours. The last album I had this feeling was Suck it and See by the Arctic Monkeys, who's excellent concert I saw this January in the Enmore Theatre.

Blunderbuss is quite organic and a bit retro with female background vocals going "ooh ooh" on I'm Shakin' and with distinctive nods to jazz and bluegrass, but not without surprising and fresh turns like Take Me With You When You Go, that starts out leisurely with a swinging waltz (I assure you there is such a thing) and transforms into an urgent, funky guitar-piece. There is blues and rock and a bit of country, which usually puts me right off any song, but works beautifully with White's voice that is anything but sugary sweet.

My top five of almost everything

I should have started this column a long time ago. Remember Nick Hornby's book "High Fidelity"? When I first read this book (only after watching the actually quite entertaining movie with John Cusack, although purists obviously would argue that you just can't take this essentially very British story to Chicago), I was delighted by his idea of creating a top five of... well, basically everything. The central theme of the book is his top five of girlfriends who broke his heart. But he also spends a lot of time thinking about his top five songs, films etc., with sub-categories like best side one tracks of all times (doesn't really work anymore these days, sadly), best Elvis Costello songs, best subtitled films and so on.

I got a bit obsessed with this for a little while and quite creative in inventing my own categories like the five most annoying things my children do, favourite words (this one I actually stole from the magnificent "Mary and Max"), best memories, most disagreeable noises... If you think about it, you can classify almost anything, which probably satisfies the secret nerd in me. But aren't you stunned like me when asked to name your three favourite books or the film that moved you most this year?

So, to cut a very long-winded story short, in this category (here it is again, the pleasing process of putting things into order) I will write down recent discoveries - be it a book, music, a clever quote or a beautiful poem.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Yann Tiersen at the Metro Theatre, 5 April 2012

This musical prodigy from Brittany, France is probably best known to provide beautiful and whimsical scores to movies such as "Amelie" and "Good bye Lenin!". I've seen Yann Tiersen perform live in London in 2003, where he switched effortlessly between violin, accordeon and piano, sometimes playing two instruments at the same time. He appeared to be quite shy, hardly acknowledging the audience and hiding behind a tousled fringe. But the music! Sometimes yearning, sometimes soaring, but always powerful, raw and packed with emotions.

This time was slightly different. Note to self: For a memorable concert experience, do your homework! Be up to date with new material, download the latest songs of the artist you are going to see. Not only to be able to sing along (see my earlier blog-entry about Elbow), but also to check if you still like what they're doing. Well, all I can say is, I'm still impressed by Tiersen's undoubtable musical skills, but somehow it all failed to move me this time. He has replaced the accordeon with an electric guitar, the piano with a multitude of synthesisers and has created a sound that is complex and has fleeting moments of beauty, but for me lacks the intimacy and authenticity of his earlier work. I liked the venue though - not too big and a bit run down with a beautifully tacky chandelier in the foyer.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Elbow at the Hordern Pavilion, 26 March 2012

First stop of my documented cultural journey was the Elbow concert in the Hordern Pavilion, which I was very much looking forward to. Great British band with clever lyrics, rousing orchestral sound and the spine-tingeling voice of frontman Guy Garvey - what's not to like!

Singer Guy Garvey playing trumpet
Seeing Garvey in action reminded me of what's important for a memorable concert. He's such a genuinely nice guy and he managed to make the venue, which is pretty impersonal and has as much atmosphere as a school assembly hall, seem small and intimate. He engaged us in sing-alongs, clap-alongs and general hum- and whistle-alongs - and I mean all that in the best possible way!

But a special mention needs to go to their support act: I had read about British indie rock band Bombay Bicycle Club, but had never heard any of their songs. Love them! Especially Evening/Morning from their 2009 album I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose is brilliant; and the voice of lead singer Jack Steadman reminds me slightly of Brian Molko, the singer of alternative rock band Placebo, also from London.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

A new beginning

Writing a blog seems daunting: Exposing yourself for all the world to see? Scary. But, hey, do one thing that scares you every day and all that... So - deep breath - here we go: After staying at home and looking after my two adorable children for seven years I am finally ready to play being a proper grown-up again. Adult conversations that don't centre around our precious offspring, concerts, exhibitions and hopefully a paid job on the horizon... The first step in that transition is to remember who I used to be, what I love and what inspires me outside my lovely family. The answer to that last question is: mainly music, literature and art.

So in this blog I will note cultural gems that I pick up in Sydney and elsewhere and share what recently got me excited, intrigued, puzzled and delighted.