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Mike Heron after ISB

‘Beyond the Incredible String Band: Seven Songs by Mike Heron’

PopMatters 7 September 2023

 

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Laurence Coupe PopMatters

 

 

 

 

Art & Enchantment

ART AND ENCHANTMENT: How Wonder Works

Patrick Curry

London & New York: Routledge, 2023

 

Patrick Curry is, to my mind, one of the most important ecological thinkers of our time. The author of a major philosophical work, Ecological Ethics, he is also a brilliant exponent of the nature wisdom contained in the pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Certainly, he persuaded me – a long-time Tolkien sceptic – of the ecological importance of that wonderful work. ‘Wonder’ is, in fact, the principal concern of Curry’s more recent writing. He has certainly understood Max Weber’s argument that modernity has brought with it a ‘disenchantment of the world’, due to the excessive concern with rationality and systematisation at the expense of spiritual, communal and imaginative life.

Curry’s new book follows naturally from his earlier work, Enchantment in Modern Life. Essentially, it is an ambitious but thoroughly readable approach to the culture of the last century or more in terms of a kind of vision that opens up possibilities and connections. Metaphor is key to this: it awakens us to a new reality, a new way of being in the world. Where there is metaphor, there is also likely to be myth: image and narrative complement each other, opening up the world to the power of enchantment. In doing so, we learn to revere nature itself, our ultimate reality.

His focus being on the modern world, he is careful to make a key distinction: it is fine for a work of art to be ‘modern’, but we must be suspicious if it is specifically ‘modernist’. What he means by ‘modernism’ is an ideology of artistic progress informed by a contempt for tradition, which it associates with ignorance and superstition. Modernists espouse secularism, materialism and rationality. Some people may argue with this usage, but it certainly makes sense in terms of his argument that certain ‘modern’ works celebrate and enact enchantment while other ‘modernist’ works enact a resistance to it.

Curry focuses on exactly how we locate enchantment through art in all its main forms: music, painting, poetry, fiction. What I like about the book is that rather than give a simple history of these genres, he offers his own personal journey through them. Not that we are subject to his whims: he manages to be both expressive and authoritative.

Music is particularly important because the word ‘enchantment’ literally means the state of being ‘in a song’. We are given fascinating insights into the way music works, while being left in no doubt which forms of music and which musicians the author regards as important ‘enchanters’, and we are left in no doubt as to which classical composers are worth listening to – Chopin, Debussy and John Luther Adams, for example – and which are not, notably Wagner and John Cage.

Nor is popular music overlooked. Here I must admit that I found myself ticking off with satisfaction the names of the songwriters and/or bands which he celebrates: in particular, Bob Dylan (of course!), Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Nick Drake and the Incredible String Band.  Compared with these, he conjectures, the current pop scene seems woefully mechanical and unadventurous, though he makes a good case for some musicians who have emerged in our current century – in particular, Joanna Newsom.

With painting, he demonstrates how Monet, Matisse and Bonnard confront the world of disenchantment and convey what enchantment might be like. If you are someone who has been impressed by Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Damian Hirst, be prepared to thoroughly disabused! (By the way, it’s good to see the 19C art critic and social theorist John Ruskin celebrated as an advocate of enchantment and a resolute defender of the natural world.)

As for literary forms, it will come as no surprise to find Currry  passionately celebrating, in his chapter on fiction, the genius of Tolkien – with an interesting case also being made for Russell Hoban and Karen Blixen. Not being familiar with these writers, they have now been added to my list of prospective reading. His discussion of poetic enchantment begins, of course, with the Romantics. We then get an interesting case for Yeats’s bravery in countering the world of disenchantment. Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin and Auden are assessed in relation to the world of wonder – with Auden being seen as being dogged by his own modernist cleverness. Particularly welcome for me in this chapter is a sensitive exposition of the massive contribution of Edward Thomas to poetic enchantment in spite of his life being cut so short by war.

All in all, this is an uplifting book, encouraging us to appreciate what it means to be ‘in a song’, in a state of ‘enchantment’. There is endless possibility, despite all the forces working against this mode of being. I finished reading the book with a declaration made by the Incredible String Band in mind: ‘Be glad, for the song has no ending.’

 

Laurence Coupe

Songs of Dominic Williams

Songs of Dominic Williams

Ringing Roger, July 2010

Dominic Williams has been appearing in folk clubs for four decades or more, performing his own and other people’s songs, as well as traditional material. He has played at the Edinburgh Festival, and has also appeared several times on Radio 2. To me, the way he delivers his own lyrics is very striking: a mixture of fragility and resolution. I would strongly recommend looking up some of his performances on ‘You Tube’. I’ll just offer three examples which indicate the range of his genius.

1.‘Tommy’s Lot’

This is Williams’ classic lament about the Great War – and, by extension, all wars. If I say that the song and its accompanying film constitute a brilliantly economical history lesson, that might make it sound too dull. Put simply, I’ve rarely come across such a vivid reminder of the price paid by millions of ordinary men for the incompetence and hunger for power of their so-called betters. The idiocy and horror of war are conveyed in sharp, searching lyrics, accompanied by skilfully selected images and a sound that can only be described as superb – delicate but deliberate, lyrical but incisive.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2Ed2Eja9Jw

2.‘Blue Skies Gone’

Here we move from historical disaster to ecological catastrophe. This is an elegy for nature, in our age of planetary crisis, as well as an expression of a personal sense of loss and bewilderment. The songwriter wonders what has happened to the land, to the climate, to the seas and to the very heavens above our heads, registering his own disorientation both sensitively and succinctly. Although the title might just be an ironic echo of Irving Berlin’s uplifting ditty, made famous as performed by Fred Astaire, I suspect that what Williams has chiefly in mind is Marvin Gaye’s ‘Mercy Mercy Me’, with its simple, searching line: ‘Where did all the blue skies go?’ If so, then this song makes a worthy pairing with that: each is a classic ‘Ecology Song’, to use Gaye’s subtitle. The accompanying film, complete with sound effects, moves between images of family & friends and of the natural world. The effect is poignant and thought-provoking.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9matDmIstOY

3.‘Prime Cut Meat and Fine French Wine’

If ‘Tommy’s Lot’ is about history, and if ‘Blues Skies Gone’ is about ecology, then this song is about ideals. It explores what it feels like to be alive now, having come of age in the 1960s – the decade of flower power and the rise of the counterculture. The question it asks, essentially, is what went wrong? Williams addresses an old friend whom he used to think was really radical and alternative, but who has ended up as a pillar of the establishment, enjoying an affluent way of life and espousing reactionary principles. Yet there is compassion, both in the lyric and in the delivery; and Williams is canny enough to include himself in this shrewd assessment of how ideals get abandoned. Moreover, there is more than a hint that, in the first place, those ideals had been adopted by both of them, like so many others, as a matter of fashion rather than conviction.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsRd9BC5Fo0

In all three songs, the songwriter manages to explore what we might call the big issues while registering their impact on individual lives. The political and the personal are brought together, to powerful effect. The songs can stand perfectly well on their own, but I do think that ‘watching’ them is really worth the effort – even if you have to unravel the mysteries of the internet in order to do so. Do have a go!

Laurence Coupe

 

Vaughan Williams

‘O Thou Transcendent’: The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams, dir. Tony Palmer (Palmer DVD)

Ringing Roger, November 2009

The piece of music which is repeatedly voted England’s favourite is The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams – or VW, as he is often referred to. It is right  that the English people have taken his music to their hearts as he, more than any other composer, stands for what the poet William Blake meant when he preached ‘mental fight’ on behalf of ‘England’s green and pleasant land’. It is no coincidence that VW set Blake to music, for they both belong to a tradition that is deeply patriotic without being narrowly nationalistic. I suspect that the affection that so many feel for The Lark Ascending arises from its evocation of the English countryside, for what’s left of it becomes all the more precious as we pollute, degrade and ‘develop’ the rest. Nor should we overlook the fact that it was written just at the start of the First World War – in which the pacifist composer participated as a stretcher bearer – and came to acquire deeper and wider significance as a lament for a vanished Eden, a lost innocence.

The occasion of these comments is the release on DVD of Tony Palmer’s long, leisurely film about VW. Not only does it document the life with a wealth of archive film and photography, but it includes interviews with people who either knew him (eg, his second wife, Ursula) or were influenced by him (eg, the composers John Rutter and John Adams), along with extracts from filmed performances of the major works.

VW’s love of the English musical tradition was initially prompted by his concern about the dominance of European influences, notably German and Austrian: he took exception to the excessive deference of his countrymen to Brahms, Mahler and others. This love took two main forms. Firstly, VW wanted to rescue from generations of condescension the rural culture which expressed itself in folk music: he was the man most responsible for the recovery of hundreds of songs that might otherwise have been lost once the singers who knew them by heart had died. It is fitting that one of the interviewees in the film is Richard Thompson, a pioneer of English ‘folk-rock’: he recalls working in Germany prior to his musical career, and having to defend VW’s music against the accusation made by his colleagues that the music was typically English in being ‘sentimental’.

Secondly, VW wanted to revive English sacred music. He was particularly keen on the Tudor period, and greatly admired the religious songs of Thomas Tallis – composing his haunting Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis in 1910. Prior to that, he accepted the role of musical editor for The English Hymnal (1906), which contains some of England’s favourite hymns, with original melodies by VW himself in many cases. One thinks, for instance, of ‘Come Down, Oh Love Divine’ and ‘He Who Would Valiant Be’.

Palmer’s film celebrates all this. In doing so, it radically revises VW’s reputation. It is often said that his love of England renders his music safe and predictable. Far from it. His great-uncle was Charles Darwin, whose work fascinated him; so he knew all about the long, withdrawing roar of what Matthew Arnold called ‘the sea of faith’. Indeed, he comes across in this film as a complex figure: simultaneously a nature mystic, a cultural Christian and an anxious agnostic. It is no coincidence that the chorus from his first symphony which gives the film its title, ‘O Thou Transcendent’, is based upon a work by the American poet Walt Whitman, whose spirituality was unorthodox, to put it mildly.

Moreover, the man who saw unspeakable horrors in the trenches went on to write some very dark music indeed – for example, the sixth symphony – which conveyed his sense that civilisation was on the verge of collapse and that the earth was heading for catastrophe. It certainly does not make comfortable listening. He deserves our respect and gratitude, and this fascinating film suggests that we are finally able to do him justice.

Laurence Coupe

The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse, dir. Bela Tarr (Artificial Eye)

Ringing Roger, January 2014

 

Do forgive me, but I’ve chosen to review a new-to-DVD film that brings us back down to earth after all the jollity of Christmas. You can rely on the Hungarian director Bela Tarr to do just that. I mean that literally, as The Turin Horse is a masterpiece that makes you reflect on what life is like for those forced to eek out the barest of livings on the land. Nor is that all it does: the story told is also about a growing realisation that the end of time is at hand. So forget the festive fun and prepare to have a life-changing experience.

The title of the film is a reference to an incident late in the life of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Having preached a doctrine of ‘will to power’, and having sneered at Christianity for being a ‘slave religion’ which celebrated weakness, he underwent a curious change in 1889. Residing in Turin, he one day saw a coach-driver beating his horse, and immediately intervened, throwing his arms round the neck of the horse and sobbing hysterically. He was then taken away, and ended up in the care of his mother and sister until his death in 1900. This event has always been taken to have triggered Nietzsche’s madness. I like to think of it as the moment in which he became sane: the moment when he realised that a doctrine of dog-eat-dog was soulless, and that compassion for all living creatures, human and non-human, was the only morality that mattered.

It is a horse which one sees first in the film: a tired, dust-covered, drab creature pulling a creaking cart driven by an elderly man. We see it brought home to a windswept, ramshackle farm, then put to rest in a rundown stable. It is the horse to which the film keeps returning. Though we feel sorry for it, we feel sorry also for its owner and for the patient but weary daughter who looks after both of them.

There, then, are our three main characters. Over six ‘chapters’ and two-and-a-half hours we are invited to observe their daily lives, with its humble routines. The old man rises and is helped to dress by his daughter. They eat boiled potatoes with their hands. The horse is taken out, driven out and then brought back home. They eat potatoes again. They drink the rough, cheap, local brandy. They sit quietly for what seems an eternity. All the time, the camera simply rests upon them. In an era which relishes speed and busy-ness, it is wonderfully calming simply to sit and stay with these characters and every detail of their existence.

But what happens? Well, I suppose we could say that life is what happens. Focusing on everyday actions at extraordinary length eventually has the effect of encouraging a kind of meditation in the viewer. Many scenes are like religious paintings. Even when there is movement, the actions seem like gestures towards eternity.

Eventually, though, we sense a change is coming. A neighbour calls requesting a spare bottle of brandy, staying only to warn the old man that the world is undergoing a painful transformation: the old certainties have gone, corruption is rife, and the world is going to ruins. Sure enough, the signs are there in that isolated homestead: the horse refuses to eat or drink, and is obviously too sick to pull the cart; the well on which they rely for water dries up; the daughter reads aloud from a religious text about sin and damnation; the lamps, though full of oil, refuse to light; darkness envelops the home and its surroundings.

This review is not meant as a plot spoiler. Indeed, there is no plot to The Turin Horse in the conventional sense of contemporary cinema. ‘Things get worse and worse, and the end draws near’ hardly suggests a sure-fire blockbuster attraction. But if you want a film that will stay with you for the rest of your life, this is it.

Laurence Coupe

 

Listening to Van Morrison

 Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus (Faber)

Ringing Roger, August 2010

Forgive me if I start by quoting some of my favourite lines of poetry. They come from T. S. Eliot’s great religious sequence, Four Quartets: ‘Words, after speech, reach / Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern, / Can words or music reach / The stillness, as a Chinese jar still / Moves perpetually in its stillness.’ Eliot is talking about the way art gestures towards a sacred meaning beyond itself. In the case of music, the sound makes sense only because of the silence – the healing emptiness of the divine – which surrounds and sustains it.

It may seem a far cry from one of the greatest religious poets of the last century to one of the most famous rock musicians, especially if our theme is silence. Popular music has become the inescapable soundtrack to all of our lives – leaking from headphones in railway carriages, blaring from speakers in restaurants, thumping out of passing cars, echoing from next door’s sound system. It is as if the general assumption is that life without noise is unbearable; for many of us, it’s the other way round, of course! But Van Morrison has, throughout his forty-odd year career, been obsessed with what lies on the other side of sound. In ‘Summertime in England’ he sings: ‘And you listen to the silence. Can you feel the silence?’ We know that he is talking about mystical communion, which relies on a willingness to sit quietly without being, in Eliot’s phrase, ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’. In case we don’t get the point, he even has a song called ‘Hymns to the Silence’, in which he implies that all his music is written in honour of the sacred soundlessness which lies all around us, but which we seldom hear because we’re addicted to noise.

All this may sound pretentious, but there are a lot of people who take Morrison very seriously. Greil Marcus is one of them. The author of probably the best book ever written about American popular music, Mystery Train, and of one of the most interesting on Bob Dylan, Invisible Republic, he has taken his time to get round to the world’s most famous Irish singer-songwriter. Is Listening to Van Morrison worth the wait? Yes, if you’re of the opinion that the early albums are the best. Marcus is very good at conveying the atmosphere and significance of Astral Weeks, of Tupelo Honey, of St Dominic’s Preview, and of Into the Music. His approach is to use one or two particular songs as keys to the whole albums: eg, ‘Madame George’ for Astral Weeks.  His thesis is that Morrison’s greatest gift is a voice which has what the Irish tenor John McCormack once claimed is a sure sign of genius: the ‘yarragh’. The question to ask of any singer, explained McCormack, is this: ‘is the song singing you?’ Marcus believes that with Morrison this is the case: his voice ‘strikes a note so exalted you can’t believe a mere human being is responsible for it, a note so unfinished and unsatisfied you can understand why the eternal seems to be riding on its back.’

Putting it in the terms we’ve used above, Marcus could be interpreted as saying that the sacred silence is being made manifest in the sound which Morrison makes. Why, then, does he ignore, or even dismiss, most of the explicitly religious music of the past three decades? He doesn’t really explain, but I suspect that he considers that in the later work Morrison is singing about ‘the eternal’ rather than conveying it directly through his voice; in other words, he has lost the yarragh. If so, then I think Marcus is being unfair: true, there is something self-conscious about some of those later albums. But it’s quite an achievement to incorporate into one’s music the traditional wisdom of Zen Buddhism and Christian mysticism, or the philosophy of Jiddu Krishnamurti, while still producing music that can inspire, console and, to use a favourite Morrison word, heal. I certainly wouldn’t want to jettison Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, or No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, or Avalon Sunset.

Nor should one forget that that last album afforded Morrison one of his very few ‘hits’, namely ‘Whenever God Shines His Light’ – for which he deserves special praise for proving himself indifferent to the whims of his trendier admirers by (a) releasing an explicitly religious, almost evangelical  ‘single’, and (b) asking Cliff Richard to sing it with him. If the task is to produce ‘hymns to the silence’, that born-again stalwart of British rock’n’roll has as much right as anyone to sing from the same hymn sheet. I think that Morrison’s manifest lack of concern about image and reputation, about who’s in or who’s out, is a good sign that he is concentrating on what really matters.

Though I’ve written about Morrison elsewhere, I’ve often found it difficult to put my finger on what is distinctive about his art. I’m grateful to the author of Listening to Van Morrison for bringing into play that word ‘yarragh’ – suitably indefinable, but having the advantage of actually sounding like the way Morrison sings. My only difference from Marcus is that I think I can hear the yarragh in more work of Morrison’s than Marcus can. Perhaps you can too?

Laurence Coupe