It’s that time of year again, and Wales Arts Reviews‘ writers have been choosing their cultural highlight of the year. The brief was simple; it had to be something that happened in 2013 and it had to be something that left a mark on that writer’s psyche. In three parts, we see impassioned writing on a diverse range of subjects, and also see the emergence of a striking cultural map of 2013. In Part Three, we have tributes to M.I.A., William H. Gass and Salvatore Sciarrino.
Matangi by M.I.A.
M.I.A.’s Matangi is the album of the year, hands down. On the art-school-indie side, better than the Monkey’s AM or Bill Callahan’s Dream River and on the hip-hop side, streets ahead of Kanye’s sonically dazzling but lyrically self-obsessed Yeezus. On Matangi M.I.A. manages to be electronically experimental, poppy and sometimes even quite Britpop (a reggae interpretation of Shampoo’s ‘Trouble’ comes as quite a surprise) while writing politically engaged lyrics, which are both playful and erudite (and therefore no relation to anything by Bono). Lead single ‘Bring the Noize’ is, like the entire album, a deft juggling of politics, surrealism and, er, fun (which M.I.A. has got ‘tons of… / Tons and tons of it!’) seemingly being as it is, a slice of experimental hip-hop art-pop which appears to call for a worldwide run on the banks followed by a massive party (hence that chorus of ‘Bring the noise when we run upon them’!) It also comes complete with much impressive, almost Paul Muldoon-esque juxtapositional riffing on capitalism: ‘Corrugated iron wooden shacks/ Gated mansions next to execs/ Boys on motorbikes next to maybachs… Ex-convicts and diplomats/ Rappers and Russians who don’t pay tax…’
There is also the wonderfully subversive pop song, ‘Come Walk With Me’, with its lyric, ‘There’s a million ways to meet you now/ There’s a million ways to track you down’, beautifully sugar-coating the sinister in a way that the late Lou Reed would have been proud of. In a funny sort of way, it also recalls the zeitgeist-chasing of Blur’s The Great Escape LP, but while M.I.A. can do that whole British-art-school-irony thing (she lived and collaborated with über art-school-ironist and Damon Albarn-ex Justine Frischmann in the early 2000s, lest we forget) she simply cares too much to leave it coldly at that – something that she makes clear with a chorus of ‘You don’t have to put your hands up in the air/ Because tonight we ain’t acting like we don’t care’. A lyric that takes you pretty much as far away from late-90s art school millennial irony as you may care to travel.
Perhaps the most brilliant moment of the year though was the sight of M.I.A. performing the ‘You Only Live Once’-baiting ‘Y.A.L.A’ (‘Back where I come from we get born again and again and again’) live on American TV. Dressed like a member of Boney M, if Boney M had been better at fashion and heavily into psychedelics, she eschewed her usually perfect dance routines for some frankly Jarvis-esque leg and arm gesticulations, all the while singing a line about keeping ‘Cointreau in her poncho.’ It was pure barking mad pop genius of the sort that we rarely see these days. Indeed in a world where Miley Cyrus can make it into Time’s Top Ten people of the year, we need M.I.A.’s beguiling mixture of artistry, integrity and proper pop star lunacy more than ever.
The Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans
The Tennessee Williams/ New Orleans Literary Festival, held annually in the playwright’s spiritual home of ‘little bohemia’ is, for Williams devotees, an event not to be missed. Each year in March, the banana tree lined squares and cobbled rues of the city’s French Quarter or Vieux Carre (pronounced locally as Voo Carray) become the stomping ground of literary scholars, actors and fans of Williams’ distinctive blend of Southern Gothic storytelling. Festival goers gather for a four day celebration of all things Tennessee; panel discussions are held on the themes of Williams’ work; poetry and play writing competitions take place; walking tours pound streets peppered with his literary landmarks and of course there is a feast of theatre.
This year’s festival, the 27th to take place in the city made famous the world over by one of Williams’ most well-known plays – A Streetcar Named Desire, was a well-attended, high-spirited affair. Curtain-up on the opening night set the standard for the days to come. Festival director Janet Daley Duval welcomed attendees to an intimate evening of performance in another of New Orleans’ stellar attractions, the Hotel Monteleone. There in its lavishly decorated Queen Anne Ballroom, I along with around 100 others watched Bryan Batt, famed for his role as Mad Men’s Salvatore Romano and theatre veterans Alison Fraser and Cristine McMurdo Wallis expertly make their way through Those Rare Electrical Things Between People, a collection of Williams’ one act plays. Hearing Tennessee Williams’ words in a setting so associated with the playwright is undoubtedly a pull that brings people back to the event year on year.
A highlight of not only the festival, but also of my cultural encounters this year is certainly Professor Kenneth Holditch’s literary walking tour, the route to which the academic and author has been perfecting since its inception in 1974. Holditch’s insight into the life of Tennessee Williams, whom he knew personally, enables the tracing of Williams’ steps in the city, offering a greater understanding of the feelings of loneliness and isolation that permeates so much of his work. To ride the streetcar with Williams; to dine in his favourite French Quarter restaurants often name checked in the pages of his work; and to sink a brandy milk punch or two in his imagined company in any of a number of his favourite drinking haunts, where always at least one bar tender or waiter still remembers his daily patronage, and is more than happy to answer the often asked question ‘what was he really like?’ is indeed a privileged and unique glimpse into the life and loves of arguably 20th Century America’s greatest playwright.
The work of Tin Shed Theatre Company
The arts in Wales have always spoken with a soft voice; a reassuring tone that talks of the past with a wistful and romantic longing befitting of any ancient culture. A remembrance of our combined cultural heritage is vital for us to grow as a nation – we must know our history, our traditions and our customs. But we should not be beholden to them. For too long has Wales looked back – comforted by the reflective glory of Dylan Thomas, Gwyn Thomas and Alexander Cordell (the bastions of a Wales that no longer exists) – at the expense of our present and future. However, recently it is possible to perceive a shift in attitudes in Wales, a new generation of authors, artists and theatre companies have emerged that challenge the stereotypical assumptions of what is possible. The new voice that is developing in the Welsh arts is young, vigorous and slightly subversive.
The highlight, in an astonishing year for Welsh theatre, has been the emergence of the Newport-based Tin Shed Theatre Company. Whilst many theatre companies admirably perform the task of dissecting and investigating issues that other forms of visual media tend to avoid, there are very few that exhibit the sheer imagination and intelligence of Tin Shed. Straying from the well-worn path of traditional theatrical presentations, Tin Shed have developed a style all of their own – this year’s Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freakshow and The Ritual offer a beautifully digressive experience that combines wit, pathos and a cinematic quality that is rarely rivalled. Their innovative approach is not just limited to the manner of their presentations, but also encompasses the core narrative of their scripts. The famous Czech dissident playwright Vaclav Havel once wrote, ‘I think theatre should always be somewhat suspect’ and there are very few theatre companies that are as magnificently suspicious as Tin Shed.
We in Wales should be rightly proud of the accomplishments of our theatre companies this year; the NTW’s collaboration with New National Theatre Tokyo to produce The Opportunity of Efficiency, Dirty Protest’s work and their appearance at The Royal Court, and the many smaller productions that have expressed the multitude facets of the human condition. However, for me at least, Tin Shed have set a benchmark for what is possible in this fresh and progressive Wales – a Wales that has a newly acquired, self-assured depth to its voice.
Middle C by William H. Gass
My ‘book of 2013‘ was the 89-year-old William H. Gass‘s third novel, Middle C. I thought it was so much better than almost every other new release I‘ve read this year that reading it was both exhilarating and a little unsettling.
Middle C follows Joseph Skizzen, whose parents had fled Austria to London to escape the Nazis in the late 1930s. The father disappears, and Joseph and the rest of the family end up in a small town in Ohio, America. With the help of a lie or many, Joseph grows up to become a Professor of Music. In his spare time, he curates a private ‘Inhumanity Museum’, which traces centuries of atrocities across the world.
The book‘s subject matter is dark – unsurprising when you consider Gass once said ‘I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.’ But Middle C is a beautiful novel. Sentence after sentence of gorgeous prose. Gass’s command of language is stunning. Rich with detail, ferociously smart, and with an awful lot going on, Middle C is a book of rare brilliance. Deception is at the heart of the story, and with anachronisms and other oddities in the text, the narration may well be hiding a secret from the reader. Middle C demands a second reading, so it is likely to be my favourite read of 2014 too.
One of the few books to get close to Middle C was David Peace‘s Red or Dead – the author‘s ode to Saint Bill Shankly of Liverpool Football Club. While its subject and style are entirely different to Gass‘s work, Red or Dead shares something of the exactitude and relentlessness of Middle C. No doubt, being a football obsessive helps if you‘re going to read Red or Dead, but the book has much to reward even the sport-averse. The 736-page Red or Dead is a towering achievement.
The magic of pianissimo singing
It is easy for an opera singer to sing loudly; indeed they are taught how to do so in order to be heard over a large orchestra and at the back of an opera house. But whereas when singers are loud you hear them, when they sing softly you listen, drawn in by the sound.
In small-scale opera or in a recital the singer who impresses me most is the one who offers light and shade in their singing. My musical highlight this year was hearing Yuri Gorodetski, a young tenor representing Belarus in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition 2013, singing a song in his native tongue. The song was ‘Oh, kalinushka, ho, malinushka’ by the 20th century Belarusian composer Vladimir Soltan. I did not understand a word of it, but I was moved to tears. He sang with such sensitivity, starting and ending in a wonderfully-controlled pianissimo, and immediately became, for the audience at least, a firm contender for the final.
There is more to this than the technical ability to sing softly, especially as this was a song in a language few – if any! – in the audience would understand. However, if the singer fully understands the song this is, through some musical magic, conveyed to the listener. Some years ago, at a masterclass given by Sarah Walker, I heard a young Korean singer who was struggling with a song in English, or German, I forget which. After making various technical suggestions and getting nowhere, Sarah Walker asked whether she had brought something she could sing something in her own language. The young woman then sang, unaccompanied, a folksong in Korean. She sang brilliantly, straight from her heart, straight to the hearts of the audience. As Sarah Walker said, there was nothing she could add!
This was a similar experience. I was won over by Yuri Gorodetski singing this one song, which clearly meant so much to him. It conveyed everything he felt about his country and his musical heritage. He did get through to the Song Prize final, but completely changed his programme, going for heavy-hitting repertoire by Rakhmaninov and Richard Strauss. For me though he gave of his best in that Soltan song.
The Killing Flower
Music Theatre Wales’s production of Salvatore Sciarrino’s The Killing Flower has burnt itself more powerfully into the imagination than the many other musical events I’ve seen in Wales this year. Sciarrino is the most important contemporary Italian opera composer of his generation, but the opera’s strange whispered half-lights lie at the opposite pole of the grand Verdi / Puccini tradition. Paradoxically, that tradition is an essential part of its DNA and its libretto, about a sixteenth century Duke’s murder of his unfaithful wife and her lover, might have been set by the most red blooded Italian opera composer. Sciarrino’s music ratchets up the tension to breaking point, but the opera’s whole seventy minutes scarcely ever rises above a hushed sotto voce, its twenty-piece orchestra playing just on the edge of audibility. And, in its vocal writing, weird as it sometimes is, Sciarrino finds a style that becomes a strange quiet echo of Italy’s bel canto tradition. It’s a fabulous evening and possibly Music Theatre Wales’s most stunning production to date.
The impact of the Gezi Park and Taksim Square protests on Turkey’s arts and culture is my highlight of the year. It has been six months since the initial protests began and in that time there have been at least a dozen books published based on the events. There have also been art exhibitions, short films, documentaries, video games, smartphone apps, even a musical. The protests offered a space where people who might not have met before to communicate and exchange ideas. Those who were experiencing all kinds of frustration and alienation to owing to the sanitisation of Istanbul and Turkey’s multifaceted culture and heritage by a lop-sided political spectrum, in which the ruling AK Parti has seemingly become all powerful, responded to the comments of Turkey’s increasingly autocratic Leader and police brutality with humour and altruism. It was a privilege to witness.
I’d heard John Grant’s name mentioned frequently over the last few years, but not taken much notice. It was a period when, for various reasons, I’d lost interest in music, film and even my greatest love, literature. So it was only recently when another Grant recommendation surfaced that I listened to Queen of Denmark and later Pale Green Ghosts. The range of emotions his music and lyrics evoked in me I compare to that of professor David Zimmer’s ‘awakening’ in Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions. The silent movies of Hector Mann help drive Zimmer out of his depression following a personal tragedy. My own apathy towards music, film and literature was very different to Zimmer’s depression and tempered by something equally very different. Whatever it was I needed to get out of it and to get excited about music again, which I did, and Grant’s music was a major factor in that process. That I was able to see him concert recently and meet him afterwards serves to punctuate such personal happenings with serendipity.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis