Cultural Comment

Eddie Perfect and Barrie Kosky – Nature and Sexuality Examined at Misanthropology

The planning for our Sydfest week was fairly complex and more expensive than in past years – usually all I ever did was haul a chair and food to the Symphony Under the Stars. This year, however, the timing of Misanthropology, midnight, forced us to look at staying in the city.  And so it happened.  A great thing too.  We ended staying two nights, so we could simply wobble back to the room after the Symphony Under the Stars.

It was a show that had at its heart the concept that we as human beings are not developing, evolving, moving forward.  Instead, we are wallowing in a cultural netherworld.  This argument was supported by songs like Eco Lodge (which I still have stuck in my head), songs about self-absorbed cyclists, the creepy concept of a father buying his daughter’s fake breasts and the concept of “stray” women being fair game for footballers in a song that held up Kerry-Anne Kennerley as a symbol of the cultural netherworld.

In Perfect’s argument, we are, as a society, confused about nature and sexuality and how we deal with them.  With nature, we seem to want to protect it, but we do that by transferring our overwhelming instinct to dominate nature – in every way possible.  In terms of sexuality, the elders of society – fathers, experienced TV personalities – are not dispensing wisdom; instead there are fathers telling their daughters that it is OK to be more sexually desirable through acquisition of artificial breasts and a female TV personality can water down talk of rape by saying that there are “stray” women looking for sex in the early hours of the morning.  Amongst the cutting satire and great singing, there is meat in Perfect’s social commentary.

My favourite moment, however, came with Perfect’s response to the type of cultural concepts being created by Barrie Kosky.  Its argument was that we as humans have now produced shows that require long commitment to view shows that are self-indulgent, pretentious and devoid of clear meaning to the gathered crowds.  And that is Kosky. Here is one example of a Kosky adventure, complete with men wearing dresses.  The highlight of the song for me was where we hear Perfect, as Kosky, declare that Europe loves him, as a way of justifying himself in the face of Australian criticism.  The song summed up for me just where Kosky sits in the context of Australian culture – as a self-promoting touchstone that attracts funding, praise and adulation for shows that have little to do with Australia or its people; a hostile force that has not but disdain for critics.

With that, Eddie Perfect neatly tied together a few threads of the Sydney Festival for me. His musical performance was excellent and he managed to, along with Paul Kelly, provide a picture of Australia that shows us that we are fairly laconic, lacking in pretention and willing to provide a slightly innocent, strongly moral look at the human experience.

And then, after the show, Eddie stuck around and had a drink with audience members who didn’t have to race home.  I can’t imagine John Malkovich or Barrie Kosky doing that.

Cultural Comment

Minto Live at the Sydney Festival

On a Wednesday night, I saw the much maligned Giacomo Variations.  I do understand why McCallum would be so scathing of the show.  Perhaps he should have instead gone to Minto to see Minto Live (or, as the locals would call it, Minno Live).  This event was an interesting and refreshing mix of locals and imported performers doing their thing on the streets of the much maligned suburb.  Tellingly, the streets where the performances occurred were the new, freshly redeveloped streets of the suburb.  We saw locals sing, dance and gain a sense of pride in their suburb.  As well as have an audience of between 300 – 400 see it.  Here’s three images I particularly liked.

One of the local dances
Ever wanted to dance in your front yard in front of hundreds?
Turn on the car radio and dance in the street like this family.

They showed just why this event was a winner – people really appreciated the effort the locals had made in preparing their dances and connected on a personal level with the concept of freely expressing yourself in front of a crowd.  The next picture is of an indigenous local who wanted her dance to cleanse the area of the heartache associated with death and domestic violence from the past.

Cleansing the area of its heartache.

I was walking next to the performer of the cleansing dance, who was very excited about having completed her dance, feeling joy and affirmation for their lives from the gathered crowd – affirmation I don’t think she’ll forget.  I saw this performance the night after spending nearly $100 to barely hear John Malkovich speaking above an orchestra.  The contrast was stark.  Malkovich, by contrast with these dancers, didn’t like giving interviews or interacting with Sydney on any level.

The other performance, by Ten, asked the crowd to think about their cultural heritage and used paint and dancing to do that.  It was a challenge for a number of children present to maintain interest during the talking elements – but for the most part, it was engaging, funny and it resonated with the culturally diverse group of locals and visitors. Mixing cultural heritage with the St. George Cross was a very interesting concept.

Part of the Ten performance

This was the Sydney Festival as it should be, in some respects.  It went out into the community, collaborated with locals and produced a very enjoyable, free event.  I hope there is one of these collaborations every year.  It is as far from European costume foolery and Eddie Perfect’s sharp social commentary as you can get – but it was still a nice night out.  I’ll end this blog with a picture that summed up the spirit of Minto Live for me.

Taking the knitting circle outside.
Classical Music Cultural Comment

Colm Mac Con Iomaire – Irish Music Goes Global

The last concert in our Sydney Festival extravaganza was a concert by Irish musician Colm Mac Con Iomaire with gathered musician “friends” as he put it.  And you can believe they are friends.  Colm is so low key, humble and understated that you could believe that they enjoy cups of tea and the occasional beer together.  I had no idea about the music before walking in, except that he was Irish and liked to mix things up.  His type of music, I discovered, shows what can happen if you combine a detailed and sophisticated understanding of Irish culture with a knowledge of how to use music technology and a willingness to absorb other cultural elements.

I had expected the sort of Irish music everyone hears when you see any Irish program or documentary about Ireland.  Jigs.  Lots of tin whistles and bodhrans,  Chieftains style – or perhaps what we consider “traditional” Irish music (check out “Paul Keating” in the video!).  However, it wasn’t in terms of style.  His is modern Irish music that has matured and changed in contact with the world outside Ireland. Colm was very particular about telling us where the musicians in the group came from, as if to tell us about their cultural background and how that might inform the music.  The same went for his introductions of the songs, where the influences were discussed.  He reflected at one point about an Eastern Europeans writing music in Ireland, and vice versa being a great thing, which it is, symbol of the blending of global boundaries to create new musical voices.

His music also makes extensive use of technology, where he recorded his violin (though, probably more accurate to call it a fiddle) playing a particular loop while he placed other layers on top – but wasn’t afraid to start again if he stuffed up, showing his desire to provide the best sound for the audience.  It gave a more haunting and rich quality to the music being made.   It also added an element of the type of repetitive looping that was heard earlier in the week with Philip Glass.  Except this time, it wasn’t there to show the mechanistic nature of modern society, more as a way of driving the music forward, provide a framework over which the melodies sang their links to Ireland and the Irish people.

Ultimately, while this music had influences from various cultures, especially bluegrass from the USA, it softly spoke about Ireland, its history and its people in musical forms. Colm’s love of Irish Gaelic could be seen in the way he spoke the soft phrases from the language in his introductions, as well as in reading poetry by Michael Hartnett and the softness could be heard in the music and the gentle way it wandered.  In that, Colm had much in common with Paul Kelly – he is telling the story of his people in just writing about them – except in a more abstract fashion.  It was a lovely sorbet after the massive feast of sounds we had been enjoying.

Talking of that feast, there will be blogs this week about other events from the Sydney Festival – Minto Live, Eddie Perfect and the Symphony in the Domain.  Hope you enjoy them and get something out of them.



Cultural Comment

From New York to St. Kilda – Philip Glass and Paul Kelly at the City Recital Hall

We went to vastly different musical experiences at the City Recital Hall as a part of the Sydney Festival this week. Philip Glass and Paul Kelly. Both were sold out, both had adoring, appreciative audiences and both told rich stories about the cultures of their respective places.

Paul Kelly is an artist I haven’t paid anywhere near enough attention to over the years. I bought a collection of his over 10 years ago and was dimly aware of his better known songs. This is due mostly to an outer suburban life where you don’t hear much outside the “hits”. My partner, though, has been a very enthusiastic fan for a long time. So, for her, the evening of Kelly where he wandered through his catalogue from F to L was a night of rapt reacquaintance with the songs, without the presence of bogans demanding he play more “hits”. For me, it was a discovery of a whole type of storytelling I had never knew existed.

As Kelly gave short, but rich accounts of the background of the songs and then sang them in with the unassuming air of a musician who is in the prime of his career, sure of the tone he is setting with his audience. There was a spellbinding bond between a musician and his/her audience that you experience every so often in a concert hall – Stephen Hough, the English pianist comes to mind. As the night wended its way along, I could also see an emerging image of the variety of what it is to be Australian. I’m pretty sure that was never Kelly’s intention, but It struck me that he has been quietly assembling the Australian story simply by writing about it.

And all this in a setting that we haven’t normally associated with a so-called “popular” artist, the City Recital Hall, which is a far cry from the many venues Kelly would have played before now. But there, the focus was on him and he left a lasting impression.

I contrast this with Philip Glass, for whom the Recital Hall would be a familiar setting. He brought an isolated New York feel to the festival, playing in his own bubble, resembling more a machine that we were there to observe, rather than a musical event with which we could participate. No less special or remarkable than the Kelly performance – just very different. Glass brought a view of his world that highlighted how mechanical the city can be, driving incessantly and with relentless intensity. I know there are many New Yorks, from what I have been told, but Glass brought us one of them. While I understand that world and often feel isolated in the mechanistic and cold Sydney, I found myself more drawn to the warmth of Kelly. I look forward to listening to the A to Z recordings.

Classical Music

Sydney Festival – Philip Glass and the Giacomo Variations

The Sydney Festival has long been a distant thing for me, despite me being a Sydney resident for 36 of my 38 years – for years, it was only ever about the Symphony Under the Stars, certainly not those expensive evenings with imported musicians and other artists; nor the eclectic shows in obscure settings doing obscure things.

My partner and I have attempted to change that in 2011 by immersing ourselves in Festival mania.  So, it was the expensive evenings with imported musicians (with a couple of locals).  We got tickets to a Philip Glass piano recital, the Giacomo Variations (starring John Malkovich), Paul Kelly, Eddie Perfect and Colm Mac Con Iomaire.  With the added bonuses of Minto Live and the Symphony in the Domain.  Pretty hefty prices, pretty hefty effort.  Especially getting the tickets, which involved an involved battle with the Sydney Festival ticketing website when the tickets were released.  It was frenzied and it was a case of grab what one can.

This first post is about the imported musicians.  The first night involved seeing Philip Glass at the piano in the City Recital Hall.  His style of music used to repel me – indeed I enjoyed Peter Schikele’s satire on Glass.  That changed with The Truman Show, where the music definitely set the tone of the film in spectacular fashion.  This does not prepare someone, though, for a whole evening of music of such a repetitive nature.  While pieces like Mad Rush are charming (and we can see where Yann Tiersen, the Amelie bloke might have got some ideas) – an hour and a half can be, well, repetitive.  While pieces like Mad Rush are charming (and we can see where Yann Tiersen, the Amelie bloke might have got some ideas) – an hour and a half can be, well, repetitive.  Ironically, I was doing the Amelie thing half way through the concert, looking at other audience members.  Many weren’t exactly entranced, more “I had no idea I paid $75 to see end to end repetitive patterns of music”.

It was fascinating, however, to see Glass play the music.  I especially liked watching him play Etudes.  Etudes are generally studies designed to train pianists to play various passages – Chopin wrote them to also show off, Liszt to “transcend” the piano and, incidentally, show off just how hot he was to the ladies in the audience.  Then there was Rachmaninov, who set nearly impossible technical targets for pianists.  We also had Debussy, who took the technical side of the Etude as a start, then managed to still make them sound like a commercial for some kind of arty product or perfume.  Then there is a Glass Etude, which doesn’t attempt to hide the mechanics of an etude behind displays of virtuosity and flair.  Instead, it makes the machine at the centre.  And that was what the entire evening of Glass’ music was.  The left hand wasn’t more quiet, the machine that drives the music wasn’t chugging along in the background. The machine was the star of the night.

In addition, Glass has not an ounce of flair or concert pianist presence.  He is just there, in plain clothes, chugging away and quietly announcing his works as he goes.  For any regular attender at piano recitals, it was very unusual.  Still fascinating, however.  The added bonus (especially for the audience, many of whom seemed to be flagging from the repetitive onslaught) was the appearance of John Malkovich, reading an Allen Ginsberg poem, the Wichita Vortex Sutra. Malkovich did the poem with a distinctly American dichotomy – detachment and passion.   It was touching that at the end of the performance, Glass hugged Malkovich in a style reminiscent of David Helfgott.

The encores summed up the performing style and attitude of Glass – he said that he was going to play the two pieces without a break, so “he wouldn’t have to come out again”. All planned, all announced, no spontaneity.  I suspect his fans wouldn’t have it any other way. The encores, for me, were lovely pieces that were just the right length.  Perhaps they weren’t written for films or to accompany some other long art project like the others.

Then it was the Giacomo Variations.  The director of the festival, Lindy Hume, came out at the start and apologised for what may happen, in terms of the fact that they could not have a technical rehearsal, due to the arrival of the sets and costumes 3.30 that afternoon.  The floods have had an impact on everything.  The problem, however, was not with the costumes and sets.  They were fantastic and the actors worked very well with them – so much so that you couldn’t tell they were only still familiarising themselves with the stage business.

The problem was the show.  The show is, in effect, like Mamma Mia or We Will Rock You – a show written to recontextualise the music by a particular group or composer, so to make it all fresh.  Except the writer / director, Michael Sturminger has written an uneven and frankly silly show (at times) that crams in as many cheeky – and often gratuitous – sexual references as it can.  Centring its action on the character of Casanova, it’s more Quills meets Amadeus than anything else, except without the faeces being smeared on the wall nor Tom Hulce’s laugh.  It did have pretentions to gravitas and commenting on the nature of love, but pretentions is all it could muster.

The performances didn’t help with communicating the ideas.  The play’s conceit was that there were two non-singing roles (well, for the most part, Malkovich did a pretty good job of singing at the end) and two singers – playing either parallels or an ensemble of 4.  of the non-singers, Malkovich was excellent and carried the show well – giving shape, detachment and heart to the character of Casanova.  One of the difficulties was that the non-singing leading lady, Ingeborga Dapkünaité, was very hard to understand, partially due to problems with sound, but also because of her thick accent obscuring the dense dialogue.  I was wondering whether she was cast for the fact she has been in famous films, rather than her ability to embody the role.  It was telling for me – and ironic – that the singing version of her role, played by Australian ex-pat Martene Grimson, spoke with much more clarity and also out-acted the actress (ironic in the sense that people often say opera singers are terrible actors).   Another difficulty was that when the baritone, Andrei Bondarenko, spoke, he too was very hard to understand, due to his accent and propensity to mumble.

This made the production a real chore for many of the audience, who tried to keep up with the story but found it very difficult to understand what was going on.  This wasn’t assisted by surtitles for the Mozart pieces often disappearing.  The biggest hindrance though, I suspect, was that the lines were littered with self-indulgent twaddle from Sturminger.  It is for these reasons, I suspect, that many walked out (including one older gentleman in the stalls who loudly walked out while declaring “this is crap”) or didn’t return after interval.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t so bad as to warrant walkouts.  The music was performed beautifully by the Sydney Symphony and the two singers (I hope Grimson returns and stays one day) and for my partner, who is not familiar with Mozart operas, she enjoyed hearing the arias and duets she had not heard before.  She, like me, enjoyed many of the recontextualisations – making it clear that Mozart is often about sex, which he was.  I thought the Cherubino piece and the “bed” opening of The Marriage of Figaro were particularly clever.  And Malkovich was excellent, sad and drily amusing in his role.

So, if people have tickets and are now apprehensive, don’t worry – you probably will disagree with me and declare it is a work of genius.  Fair enough.  Or, they will have fixed the sound issues.  Or, you’ll go and find that it is a lovely night of Mozart highlights, beautiful costumes and a variety of ways to depict sex (I would like to see that on a promotional poster!).

It does raise the interesting question of imported stars and the festival.  I would love to hear Philip Glass’ music at a recital as a part of a night of contemporary music performed by Michael Kieran Harvey.  But in the Festival.  I don’t know if it would attract the same audience, but Harvey is a better pianist than Glass.  It would also be interesting to see the Giacomo Variations done with an Australian cast and Australian designed sets – we didn’t really need to have the sets imported, as lovely as they were.  It would need to be a smaller space than the concert hall, though, in order to make the dialogue easier to hear. This is a moot point, though.  The Sydney Festival dedicates a lot of effort getting in international stars in order to dazzle the Sydney public.  Personally, I am now just looking forward to the locals performing in Minto, as well as Paul Kelly and Eddie Perfect tomorrow.


Why Politics in Queensland Right Now? and… The Preston Institute Begins

I will begin by asking the question – why is the newspaper coverage of the devastation so interested in the politics of it?  We’ve had Moir in the SMH showing Gillard looking small while Bligh is talking about the floods; people speculating about Bligh’s political future beyond the election and comparing her to Gillard.  Yes, Anna Bligh has the job of explaining and talking to her people of Queensland while Gillard has the job of talking about more general Australian Government things. It would sound silly if Gillard was asking “fellow Queenslanders” to help “Rocky” recover.  Comparing them is pointless and just a little bit tacky.

It is during these types of events that normal, boring politics can be dropped and leaders can speak from the heart.  That’s because journalists and readers would be more forgiving of “mistakes”.  It’s also the case that politicians give far too many press conferences on too many small, pointless things.  There stand the often unforgiving pens of journalists and – even worse – the jackals on the side – that has meant politicians have to be safe and scripted.   We in NSW saw the demise of Nathan Rees, partially because he actually said what he thought.

Then we have Tony Abbott.   The eternal politician arrived, first speaking not of devastation and bi-partisan support, but instead raising the idea of spending billions on more dams – which was repudiated pretty swiftly by political interests and actual hydrology experts – demonstrating the gap between Abbott, his media cheer squad at the Australian and experts in the field.  Next, he made the link between post-flood repair costs and the entirely irrelevant NBN project – showing that he will use anything, even devastation and loss – to make a hackneyed political point.  It may be a hackneyed and irrelevant point to people, but in this editorial, The Australian demonstrated their disconnection with true empathy in order to further display their lockstep support of Abbott’s Liberals.

My point?  Now is not the time to make political points – whether it be Bligh, Gillard, Rudd, Abbott, The Australian.  Now is not the time for journalists to be asking whether the spending on the post-flood recovery operation will affect budget surpluses.    That can come in the months down the track when the reality hits and the hard work begins.  Now is the time for words of the sort that Julie Bishop came up with in her excellent National Times piece – “There is a powerful La Nina effect, resulting in warm water surrounding Eastern Australia and directing moist winds over the eastern states.  One measure of the weather patterns is the Southern Oscillation Index, which ominously has already reached record levels in terms of anticipated rainfall.  All indications are that our magnificent men and women of the emergency services have many sleepless nights in front of them. Our prayers are with them all”.  Indeed they were.  And so should be those politicians and political journalists who just can’t help themselves.

By the way… Why The Preston Institute?

People of the outer suburbs have had many people talking about us – even Gerard Henderson in the Herald purports to speak about “Western Sydney” (here’s a quick precis from Loon Pond ), he speaks as someone who would be much too scared to walk through Penrith Plaza or sit on the beanbags at the Mt. Druitt Halfpipe Cinema.  Gerard, of course, for those who don’t know, is the Executive Director of the Sydney Institute.

Hence, I speak to you as Preston Towers, Executive Director of the Preston Institute. The Preston Institute will sit somewhere between the Sydney Institute, which appears to be a supper club for rich and powerful people listen to a revolving list of reactionary conservatives railing against the “elites” while tucking into their Confit of Suffolk lamb loin with smoked white carrot cream, fennel infused milk curd, Pantelleria capers, nasturtiums, green almonds and fennel pollen; and the Ponds Institute, which is a secretive place dedicated to keeping us all clean and young looking.  Hence, I will rail against elites while cleaning up things – all of which is dedicated to making you all young looking.