30 October 2012

New Action

New Acton is often a place of edgy, civilised, arty action. Last Saturday it was Art, Not Apart. It amused me that it was described as Melbourne-like. Melbourne has such a reputation these days, and as far as I’ve seen it fits. But this is Canberra, with its intimate scale and all-ages familiarity. It’s an intelligent community, if staid, and this was a perfect, sunny day. I’d gone to check out the Afrobeats of some mates in Nyash; all jazz school trained. But there were dancers aplenty, arty markets, a short film festival, poets, graffiti walls, a range of musics and more. Nyash were great fun. How can you not groove to Afrobeat. I loved it; many danced to it; this was seriously good cheer. Just one set, of two Fela Kuti numbers, one from the Skatalites, an original, maybe another. I understood the style by seeing it live: two guitars, one strummed, one funky single note lines; busy, synocapted but constant and repeated bass; drums and cross-rhythmic percussion; some yelps and hollers; and that neat horn front line of trombone, bari and alto saxes. Lively, insistent, involving music. I’d just caught the end of Goji Berry Jam. Then there was Schwa. This was intriguing, experimental art: improvisations of double bass, chalk and dance. Chalk? Yes, chalk wall and pavement painting. All to Rohan Dasica’s improvised double bass on pizz and bow. I was not wholy convinced, but maybe that’s too much swing and melody in my mind. This was experimental. The rhythms were there but hardly grooving like the soul of Nigeria. This was not the only experimental music. A quintet taken from classical players of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra played an original set in a style something like Miles fusion accompanying a story of outback travel. I wasn’t too comfortable with this. They were certainly capable players, but it’s a different awareness from dots on pages, as were the electronics at their feet. And perhaps the words might have been more image-rich and poetic. But there was a poet, too. I heard CJ Bowerbird with several poems, and I enjoyed these immensely, even if I missed some lines. He used deceptively common language but there was musicality and also lighthearted but serious intent. Much enjoyed. Otherwise, there were scantily dressed, body-painted girls dancing (one of many sights for very many oggling cameras), markets, demos, sales, films. I saw my first 3D printer at a geek table. I drooled for crepes but forgot to return to eat some. I watched the community graphics and joined in for a short film but didn’t await the delayed start. I played with tuned bells. The sun was direct but the shadows were gentle. This was a lovely afternoon, for all ages and all indugences (and all photographers – have I ever seen so many in one place at one time?). Some oddities of contemporary arts and some inculcated grooves. Very cool.

Urban dictionary tells me that Nyash are female buttocks with personality. Its also a local Afrobeat band comprising Dan Kempers (drums), Rafael Florez (percussion), Simon Milman (bass), Jack Palmer (guitar), Matt Lustri (guitar), Sophie Chapman (trombone), Andrew Fedorivich (alto sax), Nick Combe (baritone sax). The event was Art, Not Apart. CJ Bowerbird poetised, Schwa improvised and an ensemble taken from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra memorised; Alison and Jamie were were colourised then mobilised; Goji Berry Jam extemporised. Schwa comprised Rohan Dasica (double bass) with Adelina Larsson (dance) and David Keany (chalk). Everyone photographed.

29 October 2012

Musea Berlin

Museums are a great joy of travel. I don’t understand the view that they are trivial fodder for tourists. Yes, tourists attend them. We certainly do and they are intellectual highlights of our trips, especially the famed museums. In some ways, I like to tick off great works, but even this is not a trivial exercise. Great works can be peak experiences, but nearby there are always lesser works that make a personal connection. For this trip, our key historical targets were in Berlin: the bust of Nefertiti and the Ishtar Gate, but we caught a string of others. We particularly like blends of history and art in our museums, rather than simple paintings on walls. I love the experience of visiting the lives of people of different eras or places in my galleries. As an example, I have a particular interest in safety pins after first discovering one in the Etruscan Museum in Perugia. A patent was granted on the safety pin in the US in the mid-1800s and they made the inventor rich, but they had existed before as clothes pins (fibulae) and more. They may not have had our technology in those days, but it’s clear they lacked nothing to our inventiveness and intellect. These discoveries excite me. I am writing this weeks after some museums and these things blur over time and visits, but what were the highlights?

The Bust of Nefertiti at the Neues Museum in Berlin was my overall highlight for this trip. It’s a near-life size, realist three dimensional head and neck that was prepared by a sculptor to inform later images. We don’t expect Egyptian art to be so lifelike but some is. This is a truly beautiful woman with long neck and dignified, confident presentation. Her skin is vivid despite its 3,300 years (I’m not sure how much is restoration) and there’s some damage. But this is a woman you could recognise and respect. She resides in a room by herself, behind glass, with several security guards and however many tourists. We had just a smattering of tourists, and just ourselves for several minutes. You can photograph without flash in German and Dutch museums, but not Nefertiti. Anyway, the photos don’t do her justice.

Megan had a life-long wish to see the Ishtar Gate. It’s in the Pergamon Museum along with a range of antiquities, mega and less so, including Germany’s answer to the Elgin Marbles, the Altar of Pergamon, as well as the Roman Gate to the Market of Miletus. These are big and imposing works. It always amazes me how the hand-hewn works of the past seem immense and impressive. You see it in cities, where 3 story church towers look tall and imposing while the 40+ story towers next to them are just functional boxes. My guess is that it’s size on a human-scale, rather than on an absolute scale, that impresses us. It fits with something I read on fractals, that fractals have detail at every level. Skyscrapers seldom have detail on the human level, just detail at a distance, so don’t impress us, as humans, at our scale. They are just big, not imposing. The Ishtar gates were part on an imposing entrance, colourful and tall. The market of Miletus was only one arch in a large town, but classically beauteous. The Altar was stunning with a tall staircase and surrounding reliefs telling mythical stories.

Museums of decorative art are favourites of ours after discovering the museum in the Louvre building. Again, this is history and art, but close to home: furniture, jewellery, clothing. The Berlin Museum of Craft and Design was closed for renovations. But we did attend the adjacent visual arts gallery, the Gemalderie, with its wonderful collections of paintings from late mediaeval through to early modern with particular strengths in early Italian, Golden-era Dutch and, obviously, north of the Alps.

Image of Bust of Nefertiti in Neues Museum, Berlin / Philip Pikart, 8 Nov 2009, from Wikicommons

28 October 2012

Musea others

Back to Amsterdam. We took a Museum card so visited several museums, but renovations were the order of the day. The modern art museum, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, was closed for renovations, opening the weekend we left. We’ve seen tons of impressionists and the like so no particular loss. The Van Gogh museum was busy and interesting for his development rather than masterworks but van Gogh’s not a favourite either. More interesting is the Rjiksmuseum, which is immense with a matching large collection, but this, too, was under restoration and had a disappointingly small subset of its collection on show, perhaps 20 rooms. There were Rembrandts and the Night watch, of course, and some other works of delicacy and still lifes and upright Dutch citizenry, but this was a disappointingly limited display. We visited several other museums on the card, but not so memorable.

This is not the full range of museums we encountered. An interesting trio in Bergen showed us the life of 1200s fishermen in Norway, the bachelor lives of representatives of the (German-originated, first multinational) Hanseatic League and the stone banqueting halls of mediaeval times. The Polar museum in Tromso was small and masculine, dealing with hunting and exploring. Ålesund was rebuilt after a fire in 1904 and has a gem of a museum of Art Nouveau, the Jugendstilsenteret, but its town architecture is a display in itself. Oslo has the Viking Ship Museum which is small but stunning: three virtually complete Viking ships dated ~CE900 and excavated from burial mounds around 120 years ago.

Good on the sensible Dutch and German and Norwegian museums that allow photography as long as it’s without flash.

27 October 2012


Megan said the Saint-Saëns had been used in Babe and I can understand why. We were at the latest performance of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra and the program was Berlioz’s Roman carnival overture, Shostakovich’s Cello concerto no.1 op.107 and Saint-Saëns’ Organ symphony no.3 op.78 in C-minor. I was particularly interested in attending to hear the organ (the Llewellyn purchased a major electronic concert organ a few years back) but in the end, it was the Shostakovich that I’ll remember. Julian Smiles played the cello solo part with dignity and at times, I thought, some wonderfully slow, pained bowing. Pained is the right approach. This was in the USSR in the era of Stalin and following the Great War, thought to end all wars. You could feel an informed dread of Stalinist threats and disquiet with the price of progress that permeated the middle years of the 20th century. I loved the clearly stated solos, the lines that echoed through the orchestra, the solemnity and intelligence, the horn that was a prominent and responsive partner to the cello, one lovely passage that really struck me of violin counterpoint against oboe melody, democratic dignity in the context of war and threat. This was my favourite piece for the night. Julian Smiles followed with a short piece from Carnival of the animals, accompanied by the heavenly sound of celeste played by Suzanne Powell. Nowhere near as profound, but tonally delightful.

I was despairing of constant coughing in the quiet passages. I wonder why this happens. I very rarely feel the compulsion, but it seems almost inevitable in a hall. Amusingly, it appeared as a rising then falling cacophony between movements at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and in Europe. In the Llewellyn, it was frequent and evident during the quiet passages. Why is this? It’s not a young crowd, but it’s not winter, either. So I was at least pleased with the louder works that muted the coughing. The show opened with Berlioz. No great recollections here, although it was lively and attractive and popular music. The final work was Saint-Saëns’ Organ symphony. I was interested in the sound of the organ and initially a little disappointed. The tone was right but it didn’t seem to have the presence of the real thing until some loud chords that boomed over the orchestra. It’s then I thought of the volume of this thing, and also the tuba. Both were used here, and both overwhelmed the orchestra when they upped their volume. To me, the Saint-Saëns appeared a meek Beethoven, with swells and crescendos and classical/romantic cross, but lacking the inevitability and variation and nowhere near as satisfying or involving. I recognised one passage after the organ hits - an attractive passage of floating piano and strings melody - but I found it hard to ignore (and not to be disappointed by) the ghost of Beethoven. As we moved out for interval, it was interesting to hear one woman say this was the best she’d heard, seemingly having attended numerous performances of the work. That’s interesting.

This was another successful CSO presentation. I was educated and entranced by Shostakovich and well satisfied by the others. Our local orchestra does a great job. The Canberra Symphony Orchestra performed Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, Shostakovich’s Cello concerto no.1 op.107 and Saint-Saëns’ Organ symphony no.3 Op.78 in C-minor at the Llewellyn Hall. Julian Smiles played cello for the Shostakovich, Amy Johansen played organ for the Saint-Saëns and Nicholas Milton conducted.

26 October 2012

The mechanics of local democracy

The ACT election is still undetermined as votes swirl around out of our Hare-Clarke voting slips. It’s a complex system and results can vary given how the votes fall, so it’s well regulated with rules but still it’s a time consuming process. I was at another Politics and in the Pub, this time with speaker Emeritus Professor John Warhurst, speaking on ”the good, the bad and the ugly” of last weekend’s ACT election. I’m not a regular, but it’s a chatty place so I got in a few words with a knowledgeable gent who talked of voting rules, and also Caroline LeCouteur, the Greens MLA who has most likely lost her seat. Every election is different, of course, and it’s interesting to see how calm and rational are the professionals. We voters are often worked into a tiz but these people analyse openly (at least within their own circles), knowing they will return for another go in a few years. I also find it’s interesting that, if you follow the press and decent radio, you can know most of what the insiders know. John Warhurst was openly unsure of several influencing factors in this election: this is not ignorance but honesty. There are many factors in an electoral outcome, and just which ones are the deciders is often not known. Opinion writers confidently present their opinions, but they are just that: opinions, often not based in evidence or at least not balanced against other opinions. So what did JW say? Firstly, he’ll likely remember this election for two things: the Canberra Times survey in the week before the election that gave it so wrongly to Labor, and the Liberals’ “Triple your rates” line. He suggested this was the Libs’ best opportunity to take the government, given a national negativity to Labor and an “It’s time” factor after 11/12 years of Labor government. He observed that ACT governments have been virtually all minority governments, and that the Liberals have got Greens backing to form government at least once in the past. He stated that ACT is not a Labor territory, but small-L liberal. That the election is like three little elections, and that government is likely formed by the party that takes two of three electorates. (For those outside the ACT, we have 3 multi-member electorates with 5,5,7 members in one house, and Hare Clarke voting system with Robson rotation. Interestingly, we don’t have a Governor: this role is taken by Chief Justice and passed to the Chief Minister when elected). The recent swings were partly a correction for unusual factors at the last election. The role of minor parties, both at this and the last election. The question of expanding the Legislative Assembly. The ACT has very limited representation: 17 members in the territory assembly to manage state and local government functions for ~350,000 people. A city state format makes this a bit more feasible. (Note that the ACT has limited Federal representation, too: 2 lower house reps with the two most populous seats in Australia, and 2 senators). The effectiveness of negative campaigns, the difficulty of promoting change and the lack of mechanisms to ensure honesty. The role and effectiveness of door knocking, especially given Robson rotation. Caroline LeCouteur also noted the lack of local knowledge of territory matters in the electorate and wondered how to promote awareness. Politics in the Pub: always an interesting discussion.

This is CJBlog post no. 900.

21 October 2012

One of many

It’s only 10 hours from Amsterdam but Seoul is a big, bustling Asian city and a world away from Europe. We’re just stopping over and in a haze of jet lag and culture shock with the people and the markets and the food and the commotion and the mix of modernity and another tradition. They must love their gadgets because I’ve never seen so many people lost in big-screen smartphones. The subways have gas masks so you never fully forget the close presence of a hot border. We visit a palace and happen on a changing of the guards and this looks so different, but then I realise the English monarchy, or should I say the Queen of Australia, has its ceremony and it’s just the same in military audaciousness and colour. As I noticed in Germany, though, this is a republic so the people own and visit their palace and this tourist event is just that. Who owns Buckingham Palace? Not us: I can’t visit. I am a subject, not a citizen.

I chose the venue, All That Jazz, because it’s easy to get to on the Subway and it’s a long established jazz club. There are plenty of jazz clubs in Seoul, but most of their websites are in Korean so I didn’t know what I was getting. I was disappointed but not surprised. This was jazz club as nightclub scene. CTI-era but too loud and lacking in delicacy. This was smooth: post-bop in style; 32-bars; cycles of fourths; e-bass, guitar octaves, a bit sloppy. Amongst others, they play a blues; Take 5 in 4/4; Tequila, which must be the corniest latin in the books. I find the piano the most convincing with a decent concept of tension and dissonance but loose. Things swing but it could be lighter. I’m not sure how the locals took it. There are numerous jazz clubs and I think there’s a Berkeley campus here, so I guess there’s invention, but this is not that scene. Perhaps, like wine and coffee and American doughnut chains, jazz is a recent import that’s popular but not imbued. There’s Asian pop on the radio in a Western style but it’s too innocent. I prefer the traditional Asian instruments and voices where there’s a dignity and beauty despite its strangeness to my ears. Not really my jazz.

20 October 2012

Girls' music

I’m from an era of feminism when any difference between the sexes was considered totally of nurture, not nature. We’re not so sure these days, and I may get in trouble for my boys’ music / girls’ music conceit, but Susana Sawoff was surely different from the Audiofeeling band that preceded her, and she was different in a very stereotypical way. Susana’s music was vocal more than instrumental, shared more than individualist, sung (strange, this) with two falsetto harmonies from her male bandmates, gentle not excessive, personal and internal not externalised. Here are a few lines: “Tell me my love is good enough / and I will believe in you”; “Let the world stay true”; “Stay for a while / may you voices rest / I will put on a smile / hide on your chest”. There was an influence of jazz, some gentle solos from piano and others, but to me this was more pop, with melodies and love songs and harmonies. Perhaps her choice of non-originals throws my conceit out the window. Her first cover was of a song by Tom Waits and I can only think of that rasping voice as front-bar male. Her other cover was introduced as from the best band in the world. I can only agree, at least in the world of popular music. She sang The Weight by the Beatles, much slower and open and harmonised and with some interesting variations on time and fills and feels. I wasn’t the only one who appreciated this. Excuse my conceit if you think of intensely personal matters as a thing of equal concern to both men and women, but it still seems to fall that way and I can only admire women for it. Women’s or not, this was a moving and gentle concert. Susana Sawoff (piano, vocals) led a trio with Christian Wendt (acoustic and electric bass) and Joerg Haberi (drums).