Archive for the ‘Books’ Category
In about 1997 Ken Goldberg sent me a black and white photograph of FLW his 1:1,000,000 scale model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House that had been compiled from individual silicon atoms. It’s about half the size of a playing card and was slipped into a glassine envelope.
In the 1930’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s concrete house, cantilevered above a waterfall represented an engagement with nature. In 1996 we were at the dawn of an era where the computer would increasingly become our interface with the natural world. Computer chips are cantilevered from silicon.
I was just beginning to make books in 1996. I was inspired by modern architecture. My books have a ‘floating’ spine that’s an homage to Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. The covers are kraft board shellacked to resemble polished concrete. But they’re also inspired by the construction methods Mies van der Rohe used: how he worked with new materials, reinforced concrete and steel, and had a vision for the components of a building being made elsewhere and assembled onsite.
My books use new environmentally responsible synthetic papers that are remarkably sensual, they feel like an alien form of cashmere. They’re assembled from stapled sections printed at copy shops on machines that provide near offset print quality. The components for the bindings are pre-cut in bulk and rapidly assembled using industrial strength double-sided adhesive tape.
Art and Architecture Books as Cathedrals
I’m impressed by but don’t relate to traditional art books. I saw an exhibition of rare sacred books at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in the late 1990’s: ancient lectern bibles with the text decorated by hand by monks, all the way up to contemporary books of photography on rich paper, exquisitely bound in linen, with ribbon bookmarks and slipcases. The art books seemed to me to have the gravitas of cathedrals, magnificent, imposing, heavy. They represented for me the way the cathedral was the site for the religious experience.
I’d gradually grown away from the Catholicism of my mother’s family towards Eastern religions. When I think of a cathedral it’s a concrete structure by either Tadao Ando or Toyo Ito made of concrete, almost devoid of decoration except for a simple cross.
The main decorative feature is a skylight that concentrated a beam of sunlight that seemed like the tractor beam of warmth suggested by renaissance paintings of Jesus Christ with a glowing heart. The religious experience wasn’t just in the chapel it was everywhere there was light. I increasingly came to believe that most of the books I was working with would exist mostly as light, in electronic form and only be decanted into the physical world as they are needed.
A company called Concrete Works tweeted a comment by Tadao Ando a couple of months ago: “Concrete is the marble of our era.”
A few days ago Ballardian tweeted a quote by J G Ballard: “Concrete is a beautiful material. Handled intelligently it’s much more 20th century than wood or brick.”
Books As Treasure or Treasure Maps?
“I marvelled at her comic-book collection, stacks of them earned from a childhood spent in bed, every issue of Superman, Little Lulu, Classic, Comics and House of Mystery. In her old cigar box were all the talismanic charms of 1953: a roulette wheel, a typewriter, an ice skater, the red Mobil winged horse, the Eiffel Tower, a ballet slipper, and charms in the shape of all forty-eight states,” writes Patti Smith in her memoir Just Kids, of her friendship with an ill child when she was eight.
Later in life art and literature would become her talismans. “We spent a night looking at our art books. My collection included de Kooning, Dubuffet, Diego Rivera, a Pollock monograph, and a small pile of Art International magazines. Robert had large coffee table books he had acquired from Brentano’s on Tantric art, Michelangelo, Surrealism, and erotic art. We added used catalogs on John Graham, Gorky, Cornell, and Kitaj that we acquired for less than a dollar.”
My box of charms is my iPhone. I have a paperweight model of the Eiffel Tower but it’s in a box of things, still in storage I haven’t unpacked since returning to Australia from Los Angeles, and I don’t miss it. The artworks I like to meditate upon are contained in iPhone apps: Walter de Maria’s Earth room in a guide to tranquil places in New York, and a new app called Mars Odyssey Themis, which posts a photo a day taken by the Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
The photos of Mars are extraordinarily evocative and linked to a website that provides a context for them: latitude, longitude, orbit number, when the images were captured, their size. I can link through to see them placed on a map. I can tweet the photos. But I don’t consider these apps as treasures. I won’t put them away in a box somewhere and in fifty years find them and be transported back in time.
My two year old iPhone is starting to malfunction. I’ll need to replace it soon. The apps are backed up and I can put them onto a new phone but eventually they’ll become antiquated or incompatible and the shell of a dead iPhone evoke a room in Soho filled with dirt or wind drifts on the surface of Mars. What remains though is the essence of the experience for me. The art works are conceptual, they’re treasure maps not treasure.
The iPad and the Walkman and the Sunset of Mature Technologies
In 2008 Bill Viola gave a public lecture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He showed an excerpt from a new work, Ocean Without A Shore, that showed people walking towards and through a curtain of water. It represented the intersection between life and death. It began in grainy black and white, shot with a 1970’s surveillance camera. The colour footage was shot with a state-of-the art super high definition camera. The curtain of water, whose settings took two days to calibrate, had been used by Sports Illustrated while shooting its swimsuit issue.
He said he now felt that he had a full palette of tools. That technology had advanced so far so quickly and become so ubiquitous that it no longer had to be the focus of his work, that people would be able to concentrate on the experience the works provoked. He talked about being in a church in Italy and the simple beauty of a Renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary moving him to tears.
Things start to get interesting when technologies become fully mature and are about to be bypassed for a new format or a new class of device that alters and significantly heightens the experience of the artform. At the end of analogue era the extraordinary musicians of the punk rock generation had access to cheap vinyl recording and pressing facilities as the recording industry was focusing on the introduction of the CD, and their independent singles changed the nature of popular music. And the Walkman, an ordinary cassette playback device, shrunk to fit into a pocket and fitted with high fidelity small lightweight headphones changed the way we experienced music, privately, while in motion.
The iPhone is the natural successor of the Walkman, making it possible to experience every artform through a pocket sized device, and adding communications and mapping capabilities. Maybe the iPad is an end of cycle device that heightens the experiences the iPhone offered. For electronic books it holds the promise for a renaissance of great typography and graphic design.
The 21st Century Urban Pastoral Experience
Maybe the transformative devices of the twenty first century will be more like those of the nineteenth than the twentieth: things that transform urban life. Maybe our century’s version of electric lights in everyone’s homes and traffic lights on the streets and rapid public transport and the development of vast irrigation systems to bring water to cities will be a denuding of the glory of the machine. Maybe urban farming systems for every family and individual solar power generators will be the hippest devices and cities will become vast garden spaces where cars have disappeared and bicycles move through disciplined herds of grazing animals.
Engineering May Precede Science
If we consider the debate about whether or not games are art from the angle of the experience they provide, they join up with the pioneering telerobotic projects of Dr Robert Ballard and Ken Goldberg. On the internet gamers join up to become immersed in distant worlds that may be mapped upon our own, and explore them.
“We’re going to follow a rain drop in the rain forests of Belize,” Dr Ballard said of his Jason Project that connects schoolchildren with scientists on a mission of exploration that uses robots remotely operated over the internet. “We’re going to start with a raindrop in space and follow it down through the canopy and find people in the canopy live working, drop to the floor, see the creatures of the floor. Follow the river systems, go into the limestone formations, into the subterranean, into caves, come back out and go into the Barrier Reef and walk them through it all live with the scientists working at each place along the way. We’ll go from live to virtual reality back to reality. Virtual reality is really wonderful for showing you where you are and getting you around. It can’t beat reality once you arrive but its wonderful in virtual reality not to have your body and just fly through space. You don’t have to look out of a window. You’re a bird and you can go very fast and you can go anywhere. You can start in space, looking down at the earth and fly down and enter the rain forest and then be there live and then move from there through some other system and then constantly moving between the two. Electronic travel is what it is.”
In the hydrothermal vents of the Galapagos Rift Dr Robert Ballard’s robots observed the earth’s crust moving and agitating in a way that confirmed a previously controversial theory of the movement and continents. And the discovery of tubeworms that live without any access to light or oxygen provided a new view on the evolution of life on earth.
Dr Ballard invents and refines tools for each of his missions. The engineering often precedes the science. “When the mission to the Moon was being systematically designed in the 1960’s, there was considerable uncertainty and debate about the nature of the Moon’s surface,” wrote Henry Petroski in The Essential Engineer. “This naturally presented problems to the engineers responsible for designing a landing module that would set down on an unknown base. The bottoms of the legs of the lunar lander, which would be manually guided down onto the exotic surface, were fitted with what looked somewhat like, outside-down hubcaps, thus providing a broad convex surface over whick to spread the weight of the vehicle, just in case that was what was necessary. The true nature of the surface was determined only after the landing, and among the most valuable things the astronauts brought back from their historic voyage were Moon rocks, from which geologists back on Earth could learn a great deal about the Moon’s ‘geology’. (Even the word for the science of the Earth had to be drafted into service for the study of nature of this neighbouring but foreign body.) The Moon landing is a wonderful example of engineering not only preceding science but making it possible.”
Artists and Architects Electronic Monographs
Enough time has elapsed since the introduction of the internet for us to have a perspective on how it’s altered the way the we live our lives. There is a generation of artists whose works were created to be experienced on the internet who should be celebrated with a mid-career retrospective exhibition and a monograph of their body of work.
Many of their works may still be active or archived online, so with an electronic publication the works themselves can be experienced rather than as representations. And many architects have long been using sophisticated 3D modelling techniques and animations to create models of their concepts.
The most valuable aspects of monographs though are the essays by critics and scholars who put complex works into context. Footnotes and bibliographies can be made dynamic by linking to the works they cite. But links have made us more sophisticated readers. We’re used to relating and connecting ideas and works. Writing can become much simpler and elegant because we’ll link through rather than needing each work to exhaustively explain something.
A Monograph For Ken Goldberg, Engineer and Artist
Over the last fifteen years Ken Goldberg has engineered devices, written algorithms and devised interfaces designed to be used in manufacturing or in gathering scientific research. His works are designed for groups of people working collaboratively, connected to the equipment and each other over the internet. To test his concepts and project how they might be used he created telerobotic art projects on the internet.
The art projects Ken has created anticipated the social dimension of the internet: privacy and surveillance, how we tend nature, observe creatures in remote wilderness locations, how we consider and organise information we receive, and how we decide whether or not to trust what we find. Ken even invented a wholly new artform when a classically trained ballerina improvised a dance to real-time seismic readings from the Hayward fault running beneath San Francisco that had been transformed into sound.
At the end of 2007 I talked to James Dyson, inventor of the dual cyclone vacuum cleaner who was in Australia launching the airblade, “the only hand drier that literally scrapes water from hands.”
JAMES DYSON: INVENTION AND DESIGN
He gave me his autobiography, Against All Odds, which chronicles his inspiration for the dual cyclone vacuum cleaner, the thousands of prototypes he made, and how his concept was rejected by vacuum cleaner manufacturers until he set up his own factory and became staggeringly successful in making and selling his own machines.
He writes that once the prototype was perfected he hired four designer/engineers straight out of school, and with the help of an office administrator: “We were a band on a mission to design a vacuum cleaner that could challenge the world, and it was bloody exciting. With this team, at last, I could put into unhindered practice all the things I believed, about the interdependency of design and function, about the way in which aesthetic perfection could be generated out of the engineering principles of the work, rather than being used to hide them, and about enabling the consumer to understand the technological benefits of new products, by using them to make the products fun.”
In making my books I’m guided by the ‘interdependency of design and function’. My books are compiled from stapled signatures attached to a ‘floating’ spine. Many of the decorative features of regular books have been eliminated, for instance, there’s only one end page: the cover attaches directly to the first page of the first signature, which has been reinforced at the fold.
I don’t use any glue. All of my books are held together with industrial strength double-sided adhesive tapes. Towards the end of last year I visited the 3M Lab in Sydney which consulted with me on how to select the best tapes for the materials I’m using.
I’m not a designer. The first person I’m going to be hiring is a designer / production manager. I have someone in mind, a person with traditional book binding skills but an open mind about innovation. My books may be made differently than those made by traditional bookbinders but there’s an overlap in knowledge, of the grain directions in paper, spine strength and precise cutting of materials that will be invaluable to my business. She’ll be overseeing a casual staff shared with architecture firms: the skills needed to make up my books are the same ones needed for making models of buildings.
DESIGN REFERENCES DRAWN FROM ARCHITECTURE
I’m a minimalist. I have an aversion to intrusive branding. And I favour industrial materials. I’ve made production models of my books to assess the costs of the materials and work out how to manufacture them. And now I’ll bring in a designer to develop my concepts into good design. My own preferences loom towards cliche.
I’ve been reading The Language of Things by Deyan Sudjic, the director of the Design Museum in London. Architecture is my frame of reference and in making books I’ve been most inspired by the chairs created by architects which Deyan writes about at length. My main inspiration is the modern architect Mies van der Rohe. I’ve been looking at his cantilevered chairs at
the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. “Knoll makes Mies van der Rohe’s gloriously patrician modernist evocations of the classical order,” Deyan writes. And I realised that my concepts of the book’s functions are in line with what Dieter Rams wanted his calculators and clocks to be: “Rams devoted enormous effort and patience to designing perfect objects that could defeat fashion and overcome the passing of time by defying visual redundancy,” Deyan writes.
“He dreamed of objects that became timeless by eliminating the superfluous, rejecting intellectual rigour rather than trying too hard to please. Rams made the perfect calculator, with the most carefully considered radiused corners, the neatest buttons, and the clearest sequence of operating functions. But, with almost unbearable pathos, his most cerebral and high-minded attempt to put design beyond fashion and time ended in the creation of objects with a life expectancy no longer than one of Raymond Loewy’s streamlined steam locomotives. The radio and calculators and record players have each of them been supplanted, not just by newer, younger models, but by entirely new categories of object.”
THE iPAD MAY ALTER THE SCALE OF BOOK PRODUCTION
As I write this post pre-orders for Apple’s iPad are surging and my Twitter stream is bursting its banks with links to articles that predict a new life for long-form writing on screen, and that physical books will become rare, special, niche objects. The concept of Print-on-Demand is ascendent again, with a focus on point-of-sale services rather books printed remotely through internet sites. The scale of manufacturing books is changing which will allow innovations in form.
THE FUZZY MOLESKINE LEGEND
I don’t really grasp the cult appeal of Moleskine notebooks. I appreciate the need for a structurally sound portable book but I’m not a Moleskine customer. I always want to strip away the elastic band and the pocket at the back. I go to supermarkets and buy packs of exercise books for a dollar and take off the covers and replace them with blank, shellacked kraft boards and restaple the books. The $32 Moleskine notebooks and the 33c exercise books are both mass produced in China.
The Moleskine legend is fuzzy to me. Moleskine’s wikipedia entry says that the term ‘moleskine’ comes from an oilcloth covered pocket-size notebook handmade by small binderies in France and favoured by artists and writers who liked to sketch out in the field and observe life in cafes. These are the notebooks that Picasso and Van Gogh and Hemingway used. These are the books that Paul Chatwin eulogised when his supplier of notebooks went out of business in 1986.
When the Italian company Modo e Modo began producing this style of book in 1997 they capitalised the term Moleskine and made it into a brand name. These books are covered in paper treated to resemble oilcloth. They were essentially factory made but some features (I’m guessing the elastic band and inset back pocket, perhaps even the ribbon bookmark) have to be added by hand. Modo e Modo couldn’t keep up with the demand and sold the company to a French firm that moved production to China.
The Moleskine website links the production of the notebooks to the ancient traditions of paper making and bookbinding in China and claims strong environmental standards and a commitment to the structural integrity of the books.
In 1999 an old fashioned quality bookbinding company called Acme published a paper on the problems with assembly line manufacturing of books. “What differentiates a good binding from a fair binding can usually be attributed to materials used and processes omitted plus binder’s skill,” wrote Acme’s owner, Paul Parisi. He talks about books in the same way that Mies van der Rohe talked about buildings, referring to the bones, muscle and skin of a binding. Of a 1922 reinforced concrete office building Mies said: “Reinforced concrete structures are skeletons by nature. No gingerbread. No fortress. Columns and girders eliminate bearing walls. This is skin and bones construction.”
The point-of-sale Espresso binding machine is tethered to a Xerox copier and the books are perfect bound. Perfect binding can exist at any scale: “The gathered book is carried into one of many identical clamps on the perfect binder,” Acme’s Paul Parisi writes. “The folds of the book are cut away, the spine is roughed up to expose the paper fibres and sometimes notching is employed to increase penetration of adhesive. Hot melt adhesive (EVA), cold adhesive (PVA), polyurethane adhesive (PUR) or a combination of two or three shots of different adhesives may be used to attach the leaves of the book before a “cap” of paper is applied. Perfect binders run at speeds of 6000 to 12,000 books per hour … Perfect binding uses mechanical adhesion to bond the paper with hot melt adhesive.
The adhesive, which is 100% solid, is liquefied by heating to a range of 2000 to 4000 F, and by hooking or clinging surrounds the fibres or irregularities of the micro-surface of the paper. Within seconds the adhesive cools, shrinks down tightly around the paper fibres and returns to its solid plastic state. The body of the book is then pressed into a cloth (organic or synthetic) spine liner.
The open-weave reinforcing material is placed dry onto the already glued-on spine of the book with flaps extending over the front and back endpaper. When glue is later applied to the endpapers of the book block before casing-in, some of that adhesive must be able to flow through the open weave of the reinforcing material to allow it to adhere the cloth to the endpapers and the endpapers to the boards of the cover.”
Hardcover stitched books are expensive because they must be “taken off the production line and be processed one signature at a time through a sewing machine,” says Paul Parisi. “Granted, the machines sew at a very high speed, but the extra step of sewing adds to the production time.”
REINVENTING THE AESTHETICS OF BOOKS
“The most important point I wish to make is that publishers are almost always more interested in the aesthetics of a binding than the structure,” says Acme’s Paul Parisi. “A book’s appearance catches the eye and sells. Structure is not something the average consumer appreciates or even notices. Good structure adds to the cost.”
The exciting thing for me about the change in scale of book production and a move away from hulking binding machines is that a myriad of book forms may arise and an entirely new aesthetic for books, one emerging from new, sound structures that are affordable. I imagine that my books will be among many, wildly different forms. And a new design language will be written.
THE AESTHETICS OF REUSE.
Shigeru Ban makes buildings from paper tubes. Tom Dixon ‘restores’ chairs and stools for Artek, that keep the patina acquired through decades of use, but still reflect the simple, smart design of the original furniture. What I wholeheartedly reject are the notebooks I see in bookstores with pages ripped from reclaimed ledger books within covers torn from worn 1960’s children’s books that have been spiral bound using nasty, flimsy spirals. I’m practically phobic about applied decoration so I reject, too, the new covers added to old exercise books if they’re wildly decorative.
WHAT BOOK DESIGN CAN LEARN FROM CHAIR DESIGN
The chapter in Deyan Sudjic’s The Language of Things about architects designing chairs is helping me clarify my thoughts. I look to the way that steel manufacturing in the early part of the twentieth century allowed chairs to be radically simplified. Deyan writes about Marcel Breuer and Mart Stam and Mies van der Rohe developing versions of the cantilevered chair from tubular steel within months of each other in the 1920’s and that furniture designers through the twentieth century made leaps in the form and structure of furniture through borrowing techniques from other industries, such as gas blow moulding from the car components industry.
“In chair-design terms, tubular steel had the impact of electricity on lighting. It could be bent into tight, springy curves that supplanted the conventional one-leg-at-each-corner format for the chair,” writes Deyan. “There had been technically similar chairs before, devised by anonymous American engineers, but Breuer, Stam and Mies were doing something else. They wanted to use familiar domestic objects to make a point about the modern world. They might not be able actually to build Utopia. But Stam could at least pay a plumber to knock up something that hinted at what a utopian machine age might one day look like, with the aid of not much more than a few feet of gas pipe.
Marcel Breuer made something much more polished for use at the Bauhaus, while Mies transformed the cantilever into a languid streak of glittering steel, describing a long arc across his travertine-and-glass version of classicism. Eileen Gray celebrated the poetry of mechanisms in her sparely elegant adjustable chairs, lights, tables and mirrors. A generation later, Charles Eames put the lessons of what in the 1940s was regarded as advanced aircraft manufacturing technology to work, and made chairs out of moulded plywood and fibreglass, shaping profiles of birdlike elegance.
Ettore Sottsass was less interested in technique than in form and pattern, and used the chair as the point of departure for a long-drawn-out series of speculations on the nature of ritual, and symbol. These are things traditionally associated with the objects that a society values. Sottsass was one of the first designers to grasp that, beneath the functional alibis, the psychological need for such phenomena still exists in the contemporary world, even if they may take a different form.
All these designers made objects that did much more than address the purely pragmatic question of sitting. Each of the products could be seen as a kind of manifesto for a personal approach to design. And all of the objects produced have a strong case to be regarded as no less emblematic of their times than the art made by their contemporaries.”
The iPad has drawn a line in the sand. The Kindle app for the iPhone is, conceptually, the Penguin paperback of our day. Ebooks are cheaper than hardback printed books. We can find them around us out in the world (the Penguin paperback in the 1930’s at train stations, the novel bought on our iPhone while we’re on the train.) Screen clarity and battery life keeps improving on the iPhone (and presumably iPad).
The books that are printed now can be entirely different to their electronic counterparts. Page numbers make no sense electronically, pages shift with the size of the screen and the size of the type, the meaningful measure is now a marker that shows the percentage we’ve read. Quotes now might say, this paragraph occurs at the 28.3% mark in the book. The role of illustrations and indexes and notation in books read on screen and on the page can now radically diverge, perhaps so far that they’ll seem like entirely different, unrelated species.
I’m not threatened by change. If books entirely disappear I’ll find something new to make. But for now we seem to need physical books. My perspective is that books are becoming highly specific tools and serving perhaps tiny niches. Some people are frightened of change, holding onto the paper book and making a fetish of turning pages out of blank horror at where the culture is headed.
I’m imagining a whole new generation of books that subversively address the historical form of the book in the way that Robert Venturi’s chairs addressed the decorative forms of antique chairs in the 1980’s.
“What Venturi came up with was a series of three-dimensional cartoons that evoke the forms of Chippendale or Queen Anne, or apply apply decorative patterns to bent plywood,” wrote Deyan Sudjic. “They were deliberately transgressive. You could see them only as a reference to another moment, in contrast to the modernist idea of approaching design as though nothing had ever been done before. They were ironic in a sense, in that they were to be taken not literally, for just what they were, but as a commentary, or as a reference to something else. They could also be understood as working within the parameters of the archetype. To sit on a chair that provides you with a cartoonish memory of Chippendale craftsmanship but does not give you the reality of that craftmanship, is curiously mannered, but does lay out the associative nature of design.”
Bill Moyers: What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology?
Joseph Campbell: What we’ve got on our hands. If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times.
Bill Moyers: And you’d find?
Joseph Campbell: The news of the day, including destructive and violent acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilised society.
Bill Moyers: Society has provided them no rituals by which they become members of the tribe, of the community. All children need to be twice born, to learn to function rationally in the present world, leaving childhood behind. I think of that passage in the first book of Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spake as child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
The Power of Myth. Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers
Haruki Murakami’s new novel, After Dark, is an existential twist on the story of Sleeping Beauty. Mari sits in a diner near the magic hour of midnight, reading, while her fashion model sister Eri sleeps a deep fairytale temporary-suspension-of-life kind of sleep. Mari is drawn into a strange, violent underworld by a jazz musician, who once dreamed of being the sleeping sister’s handsome prince. He sits with the studious younger sister and orders chicken salad and toast. A unplugged television in the sleeping sister’s room screens an incomprehensibly symbolic image. There’s music, too, much of it jazz. Some of it the “languorous, sensual music of Duke Ellington. Music for the middle of the night.” This is an urban version of the Grimm’s midnight forest.
Beginning in a few days the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne is a version of Sleeping Beauty that operates in a dark dreamworld too. The tagline on the programme is a quote from Elias Canetti: “All the things one has forgotten scream for help in our dreams.” The show has music at its heart, by Nick Cave and Elvis Costello and David Bowie.
Mythology is the device that anchors us in time. The timeless stories of the human condition are brought into our own time by writers and artists and dancers and musicians. These artforms all bleed into one another these days, but it’s particularly rock and roll musicians, a generation of mature performers, who are creating the great symbolic works of our age around their music and presenting them in theatre productions in Australia.
The Sydney Festival has been instrumental, too, this year staging theatrical presentations of Lou Reed’s Berlin album, a story of a troubled couple spiralling down into despair and violence , Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac album, a chronicle of her response to the death of both her parents, her stepmother, an aunt and a stepsister within an eighteen month period.
The Malthouse, the Sydney Festival, and St. Ann’ Warehouse in New York (which developed Lou Reed’s and Rosanne Cash’s shows) recognise that a generation of rock musicians, now mature, is engaging the world and the community, and that their music deserves a reflective hearing: something that brings out its symbolism, not treating it as prose or a verb, not treating it as a barely disguised narration of actual events in a performer’s life.
It was the Sydney Festival’s staging of Came So Far For Beauty in 2005, an appreciation of the songs of Leonard Cohen by a generation of singers and songwriters who’d been inspired by him, that set the ball rolling. The show was produced by Hal Willner, whose albums of interpretations of music by Nino Rota, Thelonious Monk, Harold Arlen, Charles Mingus, and classic Disney Themes re-interpret the standards and bring them alive for a new generation. So many rock and roll musicians in such an intelligent setting, within a sharp arts festival was galvanizing, for the musicians and the audience. It’s only the field of criticism that hasn’t caught on and begun appreciating this mature form of rock and roll music.
The sorrow and pain and suffering presented in Lou Reed’s and Rosanne Cash’s performances were received exultantly by the audiences. It became clear that Lou Reed wasn’t being ironic, ten years ago or perhaps more, when in an introduction to a book of his lyrics he described his songs as “compassionate”.
His songs are so devoid of opinion and judgement and sentiment that we can see the whole world, how these people were shaped by their circumstances and we can ’suffer with’ them. The Sydney Festival programme quotes David Bowie saying, “He supplied us with the street and landscape. And we peopled it.”
In Rosanne Cash’s concert the redemptive quality of sadness became evident, that it’s through sadness we appreciate the fleeting beauty of life, and can value it more. “Loss is cumulative,” she writes on her website. “But so is poetry, and art, and faith, and Love. I know now that what survives of my parents, what is truly mine, are their best qualities, which I am free to adopt, and the accumulation of their millions of acts of service to me.”
There’s no simple way to encapsulate what these musicians are doing. Their musical styles are too various, the themes of their music too broad and diverse. The most useful way to group them is by intent: their music is partly the general definition of folk music as being ‘by and for the common people.’ It’s easier to say what this music isn’t.
Although it beats with a similar heart it isn’t the same as the concerts that have grouped musicians together in response to cataclysms: George Harrison’s Bangladesh, Bob Geldof’s Live Aid, Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid, Al Gore’s recently announced Live Earth, a global twenty four hour concert to be staged in July. And it isn’t sympathy for issues, the concerns of the non-musical humanitarian projects of celebrity musicians for debt relief in third world countries or to prevent A.I.D.S. And it isn’t essays of a situation: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, a portrait of the Vietnam War and the state of the world at that time, or the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s re-interpretation of that album in response to Hurricane Katrina’s devestation of New Orleans.
What’s different in the symbolic rock and roll is the scale of the topic — everyday, ordinary moments in life that are the same whether you are a globally famous rock and roll musician or a poor citizen of a besieged nation — and the scale and position of the musicians, who depict themselves standing among people, beside them, with them, not as figures whose celebrity have them looming larger than the population as a focus and a rallying point. Of Black Cadillac Rosanne Cash said, “My hope is that people bring their own lives to it, that they’re not just hung up on the back story”.
Collectively the music of Nick Cave, and Lou Reed, and Rosanne Cash,and those who share their perspective, addresses the spirit and has some of the beauty of the group of voices speaking in the common language of the day that made the King James Edition of the Bible, when spoken aloud, such glorious music. Nick Cave and Lou Reed have both used gospel gospel choirs at recent concerts and this is an especially powerful symbol.
This music of the downtrodden and beleagured, bearing witness, has always been Nick’s reference point. The volumes of his lyrics printed as books have begun with a quote from the Book of Job, “and I alone am escaped to tell thee”, not the words of Job, being tormented and tested by God, but Job’s servants, who were allowed to escape in order to tell Job of the calamities that befell his family and servants and animals.
The song that draws the perspective for this symbolic music is Nick Cave’s As I Sat Sadly By Her Side. It seems like one of those Renaissance perspective judging devices. The co-ordinates given are universal, as though we’re viewing the song from the position that the Apollo 8 astronauts had, looking back at the earth and seeing one world, undivided. The song is a conversation between a man and a woman, God and humanity, Nick and himself, Nick and his audience, as each of these figures sits beside one another, describing what they see out in the world and in their own hearts. The song has the rhythm of a strong heartbeat and advocates not looking and thinking and talking about the world, but moving out into the world, walking among people.
Nick Cave’s album Let Love In in 1994 begins a mythological journey that moves him from youth to maturity. His whole world and all he believes in implodes. In the song Lay Me Low, his young self dies in order to be reborn into a community directed way of living, but what he also lays to rest is the grotesque caricature that had grown up around him that’s made reference to in music profiles and interviews.
The Murder Ballads album has him moving through the dark forest of original experience (depicted as the midnight woods of Grimms Folk Tales), and like Dante moving through his labyrinth, Nick’s guides — in this case Bob Dylan — can only go so far with him. He is about to move into new territory, to remake the role of the singer and songwriter as a mature artist, for his own time. When he re-emerges into the light, on the Boatman’s Call album, he questions the nature of light itself: rejecting the mystical spotlight shone from a God that moves life mysteriously from the Heavens, to the idea of the light within, the sense of personal responsibility and inner divinity represented by the figure of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Thomas, a scripture discovered in 1945.
Rock and roll was born out of youthful rebellion. There are great numbers of bands and individuals who refuse to grow up, who live in a state of arrested development, perpetually in their early twenties, and another set of bands and individuals reforming or relaunching their careers, in their fifties, to reclaim the success and glory they experienced in their twenties.
This has nothing to do with the mature rock and roll artist, whose references have become symbolic and need to be enlivened by the listeners in their own lives, but the music media insists on reading these songs as prose, as literal autobiography rather than as poetry, metaphors. There’s little to be gained, any more, by interviewing musicians and trying to pin autobiographical details onto parts of their songs, by trying to find a thread that links the wildness of youth to the bruised wisdom of the adult.
There’s little wonder Nick Cave, though polite, is cold and impatient in interviews, little wonder that Lou Reed loses his temper. Their stories and symbols aren’t ones they’re inventing, they’re observing or quoting. They’re familiar stories becoming more beloved in their retelling, reflecting our world, in our time, as a mythical realm.
There are no deliberate links between the works of these artists, they just live in the same world, see the same things, question their consciences in ways that line up with one another. A mature artist’s work is inflected to the community and the examination of the community strengthens their work. So the addition of the works of painters, guest musicians, films, in a stage setting, and being part of a theatre’s run or a festival deepens the appreciation of the works in the way that being a lone focus wouldn’t.
The Tiger Lillies have made an entire career of telling mythologically profound stories in a theatrical setting, through music. They’ve staged a version of Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Match Girl. “Andersen’s fairy tales corresponded to the urge to speak out for a writer who did not come from a genteel class, but from the lower ranks of society, deprived and uneducated,” they say. ” Unlike traditional fairy tales, set in distant lands “once upon a time”, Andersen set his tales in the familiar and contemporary world, making fantastic descriptions stem from realistic ones and investing everyday objects with life and magical powers. His imaginative spirit transfigured the real world and opened up another one, wonderful and spiritual.
However, his fairy tales cast a shadow. They are as mournful as they are wonderful: they caught the spirit of dissolution contained in those times, caused by the disappearance of an old world, gradually replaced by the modern one born with the industrial revolution of the 19th century.”