Saturday, 26 January 2013

A Bigger Splash, Tate Modern

If there was a spread of schools emerging in the post-war international art scene then the predominant trend may well have been performance art. This is the subject of A Bigger Splash, Tate's composite exhibition at the Modern. Hockney's eponymous painting which is one of the two big draws of the first room is probably the least appropriate work on show! The juxtaposition of a two-dimensional background to the contrived (and, yes, fairly effective) dynamism of the splash that suggests a recent dive into the pool is meant to involve the viewer in the action of the scene. However Pollock's drip painting on the other side of the room has all the visceral vitality that Hockney's lacks and connects the piece to the action of the artist, even without Hans Namuth's short film showing the manner in which Pollock set about his work. It's that lack of calculation - or, more accurately, the manner in which Pollock takes it out of his own hands - that is a characteristic of the exhibition.

Consequently, one of the other characteristics of the works of the show is that of naturalism in all its chance and chaos*. There is a difficult Rubicon in these facets of the art, replacing representation with recording, interpretation with capturing. This resulted in two distinct impression through the rest of the exhibition: the first, one of post war artists trying to re-establish an aesthetic/ethical framework for their art; the second, the art becoming increasingly personal - therefore corporeal - therefore disturbing.

So chance in painting would come through the shooting of canvases (Nikki de Sant Phalle) and dripping not a brush but one's feet on a swing arrangement (Kazuo Shiraga). Damien Hirst used both of these techniques in his butterfly works (hatching cocoons on a canvas) and with the spin paintings (using centrifugal forces to dictate the flow of paint).

Direct human intervention is most famously essayed by Yves Klein, where (female) models would dip themselves in paint and roll on a canvas. A film available in the exhibition shows the important addendum to these works, that is an audience at their creation (complete with a string trio playing music, literally underscoring the importance of the event itself).

Finally with Viennese Actionism this direct recording in paint of the action of the artist matures. The artists wrestle with one another and enact all manner of (mock-)violent and sexual encounter in paint and other media but without producing a final work. The performance is the work and photographs of the event in place of final canvases in the room attest to this. With no end objectivity to these events or happenings it becomes difficult to see what the end result is intended to be, let alone what the conclusion of the argument actually is.

Inevitably the transformation or annihilation of the self would be an extension of this technique, redundant though it is. There are a pair of rooms in which artists reconfigure their own gender or take on alternative personae. Marc Camille Chaimowicz's imaginative reconstruction of Cocteau's apartment tries to do that to another artist. Only Edward Krasinski's application of a blue tape (noteworthily close to Yves Klein's Blue) at a fixed height across a room, re-configuring the perception of depth and dimension, succeeds in really re-appropriating one's sense of the nature of action in space. Equally, Helena Almeida's mixed media works, like Inhabited Painting (1975, right) re-touches photography, with a simplicity not unlike John Stezaker, in an obvious but nonetheless pleasantly confusing manner (more YKB!).

There are records of political acts as part of performing art with videos of the IRWIN group placing a black square in Moscow's Red Square, not to mention Chinese artists re-appropriating the culturally complacent calligraphic art with their own body-and-ink performance acts. The exhibition ends with the trompe l'oeil works of Lucy McKenzie twisting the screw of contrivance once again by creating a constructed space for actual inhabitants. This is also the art of the matte artists in film; on reflection I was surprised not to see the background of such familiar films as Hitchcock's The Birds or the like.

This exhibition is an enlightening but by no means comprehensive inventory of performance art. Though there are many tributary schools and pieces, I'm not sure one can do this exhibition without mentioning Fluxus. It stands as a useful catalogue of the post-war cultural struggle to re-appropriate art and aesthetics. The works themselves - when there are any, itself an indication - are rarely of intrinsic aesthetic appeal. I found the greatest value in the exhibition was the conversations the different rooms and exhibits initiated between me and my companion.

*One also notes that the music of this period was about to get the same treatement as the likes of John Cage began to experiment with guidelines for improvisation and the construction of musical works through chance operations.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Jazz-a-Belles, CD Launch, Lauderdale House

This may have been the official CD launch gig for the Jazz-a-Belles, but it worked out as a full-length concert too. It was also an opportunity for colleagues of the trio, like myself, to see the girls' act, being unable to come to the West Country charity concerts over Christmas or the North London cafe slots last weekend.

Three young women with high-grade vocal training and experience in opera and choral singing, the trio are using the Jazz-a-Belles project to move from the strictly classical rails of this background and into other areas in which they have a (literally) vested interest, namely jazz, or even vaudeville. I say literally, as their act works hand-in-glove with their carefully appropriated wardrobe of vintage clothing of the 1930s and 40s. Taking inspiration from the Andrews Sisters, to quote their own website (the Belleville Triplets also sprang to my mind), the arrangements of Christmas songs and standards are also chased with comparable arrangements of contemporary artists. A David Foster medley of Lady Gaga hits was a unique part of the gig and the arrangement of Amy Winehouse's Rehab (which one can hear on the site) a highlight, not least because of some nicely functioning choreography.

The group are still finding the gravitational centre of their act. The concert was by no means dedicated to these tight trio arrangements. The first half also showcased each performer individually in British folksong, sacred/gospel song and operetta arias as well as a trio of nicely judged Kurt Weill songs. Above all there's a warmth and informality that is as attractive as the performances. Alasdair Hogarth joined the group on the piano.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Barb Jungr, Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zedel

The marvellous new space in the Brasserie Zedel, The Crazy Coqs, is designed with the 1930s heyday of club performance in mind. The intention is that it should host the variety that one associates with the more all-embracing nature of Cabaret. Yet Barb Jungr's Cabaret evening had no props or stunts and, as she herself told us, not much talk either. This was an evening dedicated to the austere central axel of the Cabaret show, song.

The Crazy Coqs stage is not dissimilar to the crescent dais of Wigmore Hall's performance space and for all the informality of Barb Jungr's approach (gracious, effusive but still dry with North-Western wit) and the fuscia-shaded lamps on the tables at which we drank, this was a recital. The comparison with the Wigmore is conscious. Though the emphasis on acoustic connection is simply not a priority to the Cabaret artist, who typically uses amplification, the concentrated focus on the content of a song and the ever-mobile relationship between words, melody and the intention of the composer in putting them together is what brackets the popular singer and the recitalist together (indeed, one might just read the end of Edward Seckerson's brief note on the death of Richard Rodney Bennett to get a succinct idea of what the best musicians think of the implied segregation of popular and 'art'-song).

The theme of Barb Jungr's set (just over an hour without a break) was 'To The River' and took in a number of celebrated songs with that went up to and sometimes past the water's edge. I first began to realise I was watching the real thing at the slow-but-sustained rendition of Waterloo Sunset. This was the first song of the evening to achieve that tricky alchemy whereby the song is stripped of its famous performance history (a hit for The Kinks) to live afresh under its own terms.


This occupation of a song was a subject of some discussion afterwards. This is the second area where pre-war classical recital repertory differs from Cabaret, where song is brought alive from a page but popular song increasingly has to disentangle itself from the vocal and charismatic stamp of its celebrated performer (yes, usually just one).

Reclaiming a song from its pungent recorded history is more than a question of changing its arrangement, manipulating its melody and introducing an alternative voice. These are cosmetic adjustments to the song. Such re-appropriation of the song as a vehicle for the performer is easily overdone; it is the part of Cabaret to which I am allergic, when it brews self-indulgence and nondescript emoting.

This is not the way of Barb Jungr. She sings inside the song, not out in front of it. Joni Mitchell's River seemed to be a simple-pleasure number about a stretch of water for Jungr, dramatically curdled at the end with the realisation it was a fantasy to get to a lost lover. At the centre of her performance were a pair of songs, Old Man River, 'one of the greatest songs of the Old American Songbook' followed by Bruce Springsteen's The River, which she describes as 'perhaps one of the greatest of the New American Songbook'. Calmer than The Boss' striding approach Jungr's is narrated with all the pathos of barely realised youthful liberty fresh in the foreground.

Jungr's gift is in building and maintaining the temperature and trajectory of the song. She also has what I take to be a thoughtful microphone technique, meaning, as I understand it, changing the proximity of the mic to not only control dynamics but also the curious chemistry between the amplified voice and the acoustic voice in a room modest enough for that to have its own colour and coercion. Naturally all this combines in some drama on stage which was well-managed with the house sound and lighting engineer. Jungr was performing with the pianist Simon Wallace who moved between some carefully wrought arrangements to looser improvised backings. His style is decorous rather than tending towards the more baroque stylings of jazz, though a harmonically kaleidescopic break in an extended middle eight showed that he was probably holding himself back.

We did get a number with harmonica but we didn't get any Bob Dylan. I'm more than tempted to return to hear what this unique performer does with those songs.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Salad Days, Riverside Theatre

It's great to be able to get a third chance to go and see Tete-a-Tete's Salad Days at the Riverside. A sold-out hit when it was first produced at the Riverside in 2009 (and once more since) this modest, energetic, unfailingly English - with the possible exception of pronouncing the word 'niche' in the American 'nitch' - postwar vaudeville is all technicolour sunlight & smiles.

I haven't enjoyed myself so much in a theatre for a long while. All facets of Bill Bankes-Jones' production conspire to delight, from the astroturf stage in the round to the bright yellow backcloth. A pre-curtain conceit of having the cast show you to your seat as if at a university graduation also sets the tone, not only of welcome and proximity, but also the unstinting professionalism of the in-character cast who never laugh at the sixty-year old show but always with it.

Above all in this respect is the meticulously tooled English enunciation, which allows the book to breathe afresh and the cast to smile relentlessly. This is particularly noticeable in the piano-pianah number (like the Gershwins' Let's Call The Whole Thing Off) where middle-class and estuary divisions spill over one another, clear and rich. Dance numbers are just as finessed and often song and dance occur at the same time. If you're on the front row, as I was, you might even get an idea of the effort involved by the spray of sweat.

This is my second, unashamedly upbeat show of the new year (Jack Frost counts as 2013 for me!) and also has plenty of pantomime-style touches, with minor audience participation in an infectious dance set piece and a song about singing, right at the end. There's also plenty of pun-work in the text but it's delivered without winking (though the drummer in Anthony Ingle's fine four-piece band is prepared to help point the jokes).

The ideal show to escape the bunker mentality of cold old London town in January.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Jack Frost's Christmas Adventure, St. John's Smith Square

Pantomime is best with the family. I didn't have a clutch of 5-year olds to hand but recognising one or two friendly faces on the stage and sitting behind an involved family of seven meant that I got the full effect of this new Christmas-themed children's musical staged at St. John's, Smith Square. The interior of the concert hall had been shrunk down with black curtains, making the audience space shallower and narrower (no seating under the galleries), a sensible decision that brings the audience closer to the front of the stage - and made little of being part of a modest audience at eleven o'clock on a New Year's eve morning.



The performance is a modest affair in scale too. A six-hander with a live band also of six (including the composer Jeff Moore directing from the piano) Jack Frost's Christmas Adventure is performed on a bare stage with a 'snow machine' at the footlights and a frosty seat for the eponymous Jack at the rear. The familiar backdrop of a window looking out into the square has been left in preference to a special backcloth. With this decision to keep the interior aspect of the auditorium more used to recital and orchestral concert and with the performers singing without amplification in the space, St. John's has retained its character.

The cast of a half-dozen have to work fairly hard in this situation. Though the songs are straightforward enough for the well-trained voices there is a great deal of choreography, as a necessarily high-energy child-centric show demands, as well as the unfamiliar demands of stretches of spoken dialogue and interaction. Matthew Sharp's Jack was excellent in the title role, managing a wink behind the gruff premise (his new type of snow has caused him to fall out with Santa and he's refusing to make any snow for Christmas) and slightly alarming make-up. Jack's son and Santa's daughter (Nick Allen & Joanna Foote) are the conventional lovers and Jane Webster eschews the Grotbags approach to the 'evil' Anti-Freeze with good reason: not only is the happy-ending an all-inclusive affair, but her lament of a final number benefits from her proper singing.

Above all I loved the rather more outrageous, crowd-pleaser characters, peripheral to the story but essential to the snap and crackle of the panto at this show's heart. Melanie Lodge played her Elf as a charismatic Essex blonde with wildly elastic emotions (and poses). She shares the stage with Peter Willcock's furry-white-onesie clad Polar Bear, quietly keeping the flame of the panto dame and leading the inevitable singalong number with some technical tips thrown in.

Rachel Barnett's book is played straight by director Bernie C. Byrnes; this is a lean musical that knows it's a panto but doesn't overplay the sentiment and concentrates on telling the story. Jeff Moore's music grins with melody (was that the Sussex Carol popping up in a first half number?) and there was plenty of interest from the young girls in front of me when instruments - particularly the horn - were featured.

In fact in the final analysis there's no better arbiter than the children who laughed a great deal and were more than happy to join in, though it must be said there was a little restlessness at the second of two ruminative numbers so soon after the interval. The honesty and charm - and bubble and foam of the snow machine - of the piece and performance were irresistible to children whether in age or at heart, as the opening number suggested.