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Breaking the Rules

June 26, 2018

 

In the last episode of his monumental BBC series, Civilisations, Simon Schama, asks, 'What can Art do when horror comes calling?' In attempting to answer that question, he looks at the art made in Theresienstadt, the model village that acted as a front to hide the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, views the work of modernists such as Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock and interviews and investigates the profoundly moving work of more contemporary artists such as Anselm Kiefer and the Chinese gunpowder artist, Cai Guo Qiang. He answers his question in a variety of ways: Art can respond to horror through playfulness, through refusing to despair. Art can transmogrify the horrific or merely mundane and find beauty in it. Art can shock us out of our complacency and inspire us to respond.

 

 

World War I, was perhaps the most cataclysmic atrocity to be visited on an unprepared world. It was the first war of the industrial age, a war that 'mobilised science for the mass production of corpses' as R Bruce Elder would have it in his book 'DADA, Surrealism and the Cinematic Effect'. It was reason carried to an illogical end; the artistic world responded by turning away from the reason of a world gone mad and embracing whatever they saw to be its opposite. Musicians had similar responses. During the short-lived DADA movement (roughly 1916-1924) artists experimented with creating music through arbitrary means such as assigning notes to playing cards and pulling them randomly from the pack. François Poulenc borrowed from classical music which he plagiarised and distorted and equally from the music hall, from jazz and from nursery tunes. Erik Satie was drawn to static repetition. He was the originator of muzak or 'furniture music' as he termed it, famously once admonishing an audience with: 'Keep talking! Whatever you do, don't listen!' when they scurried to take their seats to hear his entr'acte music during the interval of a play. This was music as drug or a conduit to an altered reality.

 

The poet, writer, artist, film-maker, opium addict and general bon-viveur, Jean Cocteau was one of the greatest influences on Satie and on Les Nouveaux Jeunes, the group of young musicians who admired the older composer (some years later the critic, Henri Collet branded this loose and disjoint collective, which included Poulenc as well as Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and Germaine Tailleferre, as Les Six).

 

Les Six had gravitated to Satie after the first performance of the ballet Parade, a strange experiment which had grown out of a collaboration between the 28 year old Cocteau and the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Cocteau's scenario was a simple tale of a group of carnival performers who unsuccessfully try to persuade passers-by from the 'real' world to come see their fantasy world. He asked the 51 year old Satie, whom he had met two years previously, to create the music and Picasso to produce the costumes and sets. Picasso engineered a huge Cubist construction for the dancer playing the American Manager of the circus troop (described in Cocteau's notes as a 'skyscraper') which meant the poor dancer could barely move. Satie's score is repetitive and mosaic-like. He added strange 'found sounds' from the cold real world produced by typewriters, sirens, airplane propellers, Morse tickers and lottery wheels and borrowings from the jazz bar and music hall. With justification, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire in his programme notes, commented on the 'surrealism' of the venture (probably the first use of that term).

 

The performance elicited a riot (Paris was quite partial to an audience riot and more extreme versions had followed the first outings of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi in 1896 and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in 1913, 4 years previous to Parade.) When Satie sent one of the critics an insulting post card, he was arrested, sentenced to a week in prison and ordered to pay 1000 francs in damages. It seems the real world did indeed resist the fantasy world.

 

WWI ended the following year but the avant garde in Paris continued to find ever new ways to subvert expectation in an attempt to respond to the horror that had come to call. As the poet Francis Picabia, one of the leading exponents of DADA had said: 'Notre tête est ronde pour permettre à la pensée de changer de direction/Our head is round to allow our thoughts to change direction.' 

 

Ismena's end of July concerts devote themselves to celebrating the work of Satie, Les Six, Cocteau, Picabia, Apollinaire and others, and to looking at, laughing with and shaking its own head at some of these changes of direction. 

 

 

 

 

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