Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Philip Glass

Today's the birthday of American composer Philip Glass (b.1937)
Ever since hearing the song-cycle Songs from Liquid Days (1986) in  the year 1988  (it sometimes takes a year or two for American culture to filter through to British consciousness) I've followed with interest this most prolific composer's musical career. The three large-scale operas Einstein on the Beach (1976) Satyagraha (1978-9) and Akhnaten (1983) were for myself works which opened my eyes to Glass as a composer of unique vision. The ground-breaking 4 hour opera Einstein on the Beach is well-worth a fresh production (2012). It includes awe-inspiring ensemble singing and is as experimental today as when first performed in 1978. The last work in the trilogy of opera based upon Science and Religion, the dark and brooding Akhnaten (its dark orchestral colouring is achieved partially by the omission of violins) in particular the aria for counter-tenor Hymn to the Sun with its expounding of  monotheism and  plaintive coda chorus of Hebrew slaves is a personal favourite. The haunting Facades (1981) for saxophone and strings, is another relatively early work I enjoy hearing.

Philip Glass studied music under one of the most influential teachers of composition in the 20th century Nadia Boulanger (1887- 1979). He has integrated the hypnotic, rythmic patterns of Indian music with elements of pop and World-ethnic music to his classical training to formulate one of the most distinctive and instantly recognisable voices in modern music. It seems as if he has collaborated with  nearly every big name in modern music - David Byrne, Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson, Tangerine Dream, Mike Oldfield and Mick Jagger for starters as well as  Ravi Shankar, Brian Eno,  Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson and the Aphex Twins - testimony to the fact by all the evidence given, that he is no vain and difficult to work with prima donna, but of an easy-going nature and thoroughly professional in his music-making. Included among his many friends and artistic collaborators are the poets Allen Ginsburg (1926 - 1997) and Leonard Cohen (b. 1934) both of whom Glass has written a song-cycle based upon,  Hydrogen Jukebox (1990) and  Book of Longing (2006) respectively. The list of film directors, choreographers,  theatre directors and musicians Glass has collaborated with is seemingly endless, nearly every big name in theatre, dance, film and pop seems to have worked with him at one time or another.

In 2007 I had the pleasure of attending a performance of Glass's opera Satygraha at the Coliseum, London. Sung in Sanskrit, the opera celebrates the lives of those who have fought against racial prejudice in the 20th century.Each act of Satyagraha focuses on a major figure in the struggle against oppression, namely, Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The demographics of the audience attendance of performances of this opera are worth noting. The London theatre discovered it was staging a performance attended by the highest percentage of people outside London who had booked tickets on-line and then travelled to the metropolis to hear the opera in its entire history. Some several years earlier I  attended a performance of The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 based upon a Doris Lessing novella, also at the Coliseum (world premiere 1988) yet another early memory of hearing Glass's music. Some of the best themes and motifs of  this work appear in the highly popular Violin concerto no. 1 (1987) which again I had the pleasure of hearing  performed  a few years ago in Norwich.

Throughout the decade of the 1990's Glass consolidated his status to the point of near over-exposure. There once seemed a time whenever one attended a cinema or turned on the TV one would encounter Glass's unique and hypnotic music, this is reflected in the fact that he has won awards for music for films such as Kundun (1997) Dracula (1999) performed by the Kronos Quartet and The Hours (2002). Wikipedia gives a long and comprehensive list of the many films Glass has written music for and in this context one cannot overlook mention of the trilogy of Qatsi films, Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of balance (1993) Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation  (1998) and  Naqoyatsi: Life as War ( 2002)  all directed by Godfrey Reggio.  Each of these three films were inspired by Glass's music and filmed specifically and primarily to showcase his music. They contain the essence of the composer's message - a deep concern for the ecological survival of our endangered planet, whether from over-population, pollution or war. Glass's 'message' often seems to be a reminder that we are sleep-walking into our own extinction as a species and according to Wikipedia the composer describes himself as 'a Jewish-Taoist-Hindu-Toltec-Buddhist'. He's been involved  over the years in the campaign for Tibetan independence and is a friend of the Dalai Lama.

It's a few years ago now since the amazing coup by the organisers of the Norfolk and Norwich music Festival ( the oldest of its kind in the UK ) of booking Philip Glass to perform his piano music at the Theatre Royal. I really wanted as much to attend this recital, to meet the composer whose music has accompanied and inspired many moments of my listening for the last 20 plus years. I imagined quite wrongly, that after performing Glass would retire and rest up for the evening, but no, apparently and frustrating, taking advantage of  a warm May evening, he visited the park adjacent to the Theatre to meet and encourage young musicians. I wonder how many of those young people realised they were in the presence of one of the world's most successful and popular composers of the late 20th century. I shall just have to content myself with playing  recordings of his Dance No. 4  for Organ (1978) and a transcription for organ of the touching aria from the finale of Act IIII of  Satyagraha  in the church of Saint John Maddermarket occasionally for visitors.  

Monday, January 30, 2012

European Ice-Skating Championship 2012

The European Ice-skating championship was held in Sheffield, UK this year, not that TV coverage is exactly extensive these days. Long gone are the days of live coverage of each of the competitive events. As a sport ice-skating has lost some of its credibility, partially from blatantly biassed judging in the past. Nor is the sport quite so dominated by Russia any more as it once was. Anyway, here's a couple of pictures which covey some of the excitement and grace of the sport. 

Above - Siobhan Heekin-Canedy and Dmitri Dun of the Ukraine  
Below - Kiira Korpi of Finland. 

Results include - Gold for Carolina Kostner of Italy who won the Ladies event for the 4th time and Gold for Evgeni Plushenko of Russia who won the Men's event for an unprecedented 7th time. Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat won  Gold in the Ice-Dance for France for a 2nd time.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Augustus consulting the Tiburtine Sibyl

The French artist Antoine Caron's  Augustus consulting the Tiburtine Sibyl (c.1578) exhibits notable characteristics associated with Northern Mannerist art including- a frequent recourse in subject-matter to allegory and mythology and depiction of animated figures, utilizing theatrical staging which is often heightened by an unusual perspective. Today the Sibylline oracle  most likely to be consulted would be Wikipedia which informs us that -

To the classical sibyls of the Greeks, the Romans added a tenth, the Tiburtine Sibyl, whose seat was the ancient Etruscan town of Tibur (modern-day Tivoli). At the mythic meeting of Augustus with the Sibyl, Augustus inquired whether he should be worshipped as a god.

Whether the Roman Emperor Augustus ( 63 BCE - 14 CE) was ever guided to Christ as a spiritual teacher by an ancient Roman oracle pointing heavenwards towards Mother and Child is, of course, highly improbable. Such recasting of mythology in religion was, however, a prime concern of early Church Fathers such as Saint Augustine (354 CE - 430 CE) and Eusebius of Caesarea (263 CE - 339 CE) both of whom wrote of sibyls who 'prophesied' the coming of Christ.

During the Renaissance philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and Pico della Mirandola (1463-1493) as well as late Northern Mannerist artists such as Caron, sought to re-integrate pagan antiquity by suggesting it pre-figured and 'anticipated'  Christianity. Most striking in Antoine Caron's painting is the depth of field conveyed by its perspective, drawing the eye deeper and further into a far distant infinity; an effect which is heightened by placing architecture at varied intervals to enhance its depth of space.  It's an effect similar to the early paintings of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) which often feature desolate streets in shadowy cityscapes to create an unsettling effect.

As ever there's a Sir T. Browne connection to this post for he wrote a chapter entitled On the picture of the Sibyls in Pseudodoxia Epidemica  in which he ponders why various ancient sources number and name different sibyls. With characteristic humour Browne discusses artistic licence along with revealing  his access to reproductions of major western art-works stating -

Which duly perpended, the licentia pictoria is very large; with the same reason they may delineate old  Nestor  like Adonis, Hecuba with Helen's face, and time with Absolom's head. But this absurdity that eminent artist, Michael Angelo, hath avoided, in the pictures of the Cumean and Persian Sibyls, as they stand described from the printed sculptures of Adam Mantuanus.[1]

Michaelangelo's Cumean Sibyl
The veracity of pagan oracles must have been of particular interest to Browne for he's also the author of a miscellaneous writing entitled  - Of the answers of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphos to Croesus, King of Lydia. (Tract XI.) .

[1]   P.E. Bk 5 chapter 11
Wikilink -   Sibyl  -   De Chirico

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Triumph of Winter

January 27th is the birth anniversary of the immortal Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, composer of Don Giovanni, 27 sublime piano concerto's and many other monumental classical works. Its also the birth-date anniversary of Lewis Carroll, an Oxford professor, author of Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs (1870). It is also World Holocaust Memorial Day. These are the main historical characters and events associated with my birthday.

Because this morning is frosty, with a return to real Winter temperatures, The Triumph of Winter (1568) by Antoine Caron (1521-1599) seems a fitting selection. Caron was a French painter of the Northern Mannerist school, an art movement sandwiched somewhere between the Renaissance and Baroque (c.1560-1610) which delighted in unusual perspectives, animated movement and scenes allegorical and mythological. The figure of Mercurius, a god closely associated with the art of alchemy, can be seen holding his Caduceus wand. Standing next to him is a dancing Bacchanalian violinist. Winter, sitting upon a chariot, drawn in procession by storks in harness, is Triumphant. Any of the four statuettes of the Layer monument would, dare I suggest it, not be incongruous or out of place in this decorative and theatrical winter scene. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

World Indoor Bowls Championship 2012

The World Indoor Bowls Championship is currently being contested. Broadcast by the BBC from the holiday resort of Hopton, a Norfolk coastal resort located mid-way between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, the 3 week festival is hosted by Potters Holidays, sponsors of the event to the tune of £3 million since first played in 1999. Decidedly a cosy set-up for spectators at the intimate arena of raked seating with an uninterrupted view of the blue carpeted surface (not unlike an 18th century skittle alley) to watch the action and gasp 'oooo' and 'aahh' at the excitement of it all.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

De Lapide Philosophorum

De Lapide Philosophorum from Alchymia by Andreas Libavius 

It was on a bright Spring morning in May 2011, when casually browsing through Adam Maclean's fascinating book, 'The Alchemical Mandala', that I noticed there were several striking similarities between Maclean's reproductions of  De Lapide Philosophorum  to the four statuettes of the Layer Monument. 

It's recorded that Christopher Layer's youngest son erected the Layer Monument in memory of his father (d. 1600) and mother, Barbara (d.1604). Because the first edition of Alchymia (1596) by the German chemist Andreas Libavius (c.1555 -1616) does not apparently include any illustrations whatsoever, in all probability it's from a later edition of Alchymia that the Layer Monument's symbolism is developed. Although there are considerable differences between the top quaternity of figures in  De Lapide Philosophorum to the quartet of statuettes of the Layer Monument nevertheless the two works share several corresponding motifs.  In addition to shared solar and lunar imagery there is an allusion to the 'sacred wedding' or hieros gamos, often depicted in alchemy as Sol et Luna, and represented by Pax and Gloria in the Layer Monument - an inferior or 'Ethiopian' pair, represented by Vanitas and Labor in the Layer Monument  -  a figure with blackened feet standing upon a Rotundum (the Rotundum being a frequent motif in alchemical depictions of Mercurius) and the holding of identical votive vegetation in both works. But what tips the balance against mere coincidence is the fact that the labels of Gloria and Labor occur in both works.

 There are  two variation illustrations in the chapter entitled  De Lapide Philosophorum. Through the juxtaposition of versions two and three new interpretative insights on the Layer monument can be acquired. Nor can one overlook the medium of both art-works. The intriguing development of an illustration entitled the Philosopher's Stone quite literally transformed into the medium of stone in the form of carved marble is worth consideration.

The observations of Carl Gustav Jung greatly assist towards interpretative insight upon the Layer monument's complex symbolism. The second of the three versions of Libavius' extraordinarily densely-laden symbolic image is reproduced in C. G. Jung's 'Psychology and Religion' (1944). Jung is content to add yet one more intriguing image to his lavishly illustrated volume, merely remarking of version 2 of  De Lapide Philosophorum (fig.142). 

In an explicato locorum signatorum, Libavius gives the following  "explanation" of the second of the three versions of this image.

RR: An Ethiopian man and woman,supporting two higher spheres. They sit on the big sphere and according represent the nigredo of the second operation in the second putrification.

All of this is reduced and transformed in the Layer Monument to the figures of Vanitas and Labor. The blackened feet of Vanitas standing upon a golden Rotundum may be an allusion to his original Ethiopian hue. But it also leaves little doubt that the Layer monument's lower pair of statuettes represents the inferior, Nigredo stage in the alchemical opus.

a - The king, clad in purple with a golden crown, has a golden lion beside him. He has a red lily in his hand, whereas the queen has a white lily. 

b - The queen, crowned with a silver crown, strokes a white or silver eagle standing beside her.

In the Layer Monument both Pax and Gloria have golden hair but no crowns. In version 3 of De Lapide Philosophorum  it's the Queen who holds a votive palm, which in the Layer Monument is held by the King. It's interesting to note in passing that Jung designates the palm as a symbol of the soul. 

The allotting to the King and Queen in version 2 of  De Lapide Philosophorum  to the 'Regal' creatures of Lion and Eagle can be identified as representing two aspects of the Tetramorph, the most developed of all quaternity symbols in western religious symbolism. They are also the two creatures which are  associated with the 'Fixed Cross' of astrology, namely Leo and Scorpio. Because the King and Queen in version 2 are associated with Leo and Scorpio who represent the elements of Fire and Water respectively, one can with confidence assert that Vanitas and Labor also represent  two of the ancient world  quaternity or four-fold division of the elements, that of Air and Earth. This is quite overt in their respective symbolism. (Vanitas is depicted making bubbles blowing air, Labor is seen digging earth).   

In the Layer Monument Pax is not only the Christian Prince of Peace, but also a much deeper-rooted archetype in the human psyche. Utterly Solar in his symbolism and associated with the element of Fire, as well as the zodiac sign of Leo, representing one quarter of the 'Fixed Cross' of astrology, Pax as an archetype symbolises the 'wise Ruler' whose historical counterparts include - Alexander the Great, King Cyrus and the better of the  Roman and Greek 'warrior' rulers' of antiquity. 

In fact each of the four statuettes of the Layer monument are collectively archetypal in their symbolism. Individually they are 'the Wise Ruler', 'the Great Mother', 'the Child/Trickster'  and 'the Old Man'. Together the four statuettes of the Layer Monument may  quite appropriately be defined as an alchemical mandala of the western tradition, this is because they not only represent Christian moral values but also archetypal components of the psyche and its unity. 

Since studying the symbolism associated with the Layer Monument and De Lapide Philosophorum one becomes aware one is not only commentating upon art, but in fact relating to complex symbols of  psychological and spiritual depth.

Books consulted

C.G.Jung -  Psychology and Religion 1944 CW 13 RKP
Adam Maclean -The Alchemical Mandala  1989 Phanes 2nd edition 2002  

Wiki - links  Tetramorph  -  Andreas Libavius

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Beatles at Norwich 1963

This Blue Plaque spotted en route Prince of Wales Road. There are 39 succinct and informative Blue Plaques researched by Nick Williams in Norwich. Besides this plaque there's another Norwich-Beatles connection. Pablo Fanque who was born in Norwich in 1796 was the  first Black Circus owner, an expert equestrian and a tightrope-walker. He is alluded to by John Lennon in 'Being for the benefit of Mr. Kite',  a song on the mega-seminal pop album 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' of 1967.  

The Hendersons will all be there 
Late of Pablo Fanque's fair

But I  just can't imagine today's music stars queuing up for chips with their fans.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Not lost, simply for a time mislaid

And suddenly this surprising earth,
No longer clouded, was known again,
And all you had thought lost you found
Was simply for a time mislaid.

(from a poem by Brian Patten b.1946)