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‘Ground Work’ is a collection of poetry and art by David Attwooll and Andrew Walton, based on a year of walks in Port Meadow, Oxford. The collection was exhibited earlier this year by Jenny Blyth Fine Art at Art Jericho. I spoke to them about the project, and the challenges of committing one of Oxford’s best-known landscapes to paper and canvas.

This is obviously a very collaborative process. How do you find working with someone else in such a close way?

Andrew: I’d known David as a good friend since the seventies and as someone who was very interested in the visual arts, is amazingly knowledgeable about music and is a very good percussionist playing in a street band. A couple of years ago we were having supper and he told me that he’d started writing poetry… Out of that we thought it would be interesting to have some kind of exchange, with no preconception to what it might be. So we talked about it and decided maybe it would be a good idea to go for walks together – and so we went to Port Meadow, which we both really like. Really we kind of discovered the project through that.

David: Working together is great fun. A bit like improvising in jazz in a band: it’s not always clear who started a particular riff but the collaboration can take you to places neither of the individuals had anticipated, as you bounce things off each other – as well as just nattering, of course.

Why did you choose Port Meadow as a subject?

D: It’s somewhere both Andrew and I know well. We first met when I moved to West Oxford and our families had picnics together etc there over the years. He has deeper roots there having grown up playing on it, but I worked nearby too for a dozen years (at Oxford University Press). But I think the main reason is its ‘otherness’ as a place, outside contemporary Oxford’s space and time – something I tried to get over in some of the poems (e.g. ‘Topography’ and ‘Cumulus’).

How did you decide upon the titles for your paintings?

A: The work divides clearly into two groups. Therefore the works painted in the landscape are titled to indicate where and when. Titles for studio work always come after the event – quite a few of them have come after we’ve hung the show,  I don’t think of a subject then paint it . It’s more that I will have noticed something in the painting that will make me think of say early [Robin] Nolan. It’s the process of improvisation that I think is a fundamental part of most people being creative. If you’re following a set of fixed rules you don’t come across new things you just cover the same ground again. There are all sorts of things to do with improvisation that are common to any creative form – music or visual art – there’s a theme that is returned to, gone away from and brought back again – a kind of openness. 

'Overview' ⓒ Andrew Walton

‘Overview’ ⓒ Andrew Walton

Are the shapes in ‘Four Plots’ allotments?

A: It might be! In terms of the meaning of things… visual images, like music, are not good at communicating specific things. If I want to say to you that I need five pounds because I’m broke, I wouldn’t paint a picture but I’d say ‘Can I have five pounds please?’ It’s unambiguous. But even the most apparently obviously images are interpreted by different people in different ways. So it might be about allotments.

Do you find art is quite a free medium because of this ambiguity?

A: Well I don’t write poetry so I can’t really compare. But what I am aware of with the years’ project as it’s gone on is that when I look at David’s poetry (he has a poem for every month), I can look at them and it’s like a diary of what happened on those works. But I’d struggle with most of my things to draw a direct connection. Some of them, but not a lot.

Did you conceptualise the poems as a diary of the walks?

D: Well, not exactly. The 12 walks were a useful structure and I like playing with structures and forms: each of the poems in Ground Work uses a different form or stanza structure – a sonnet, a prose poem, different rhyme scheme, syllabics, free verse, etc.
Some of the poems were fairly direct reflections of what we talked about or what the weather was doing on a particular walk. Others were much more loosely linked (‘Isis’ about the river because we borrowed a boat that time, and so forth).
Exhibition at Art Jericho ⓒ Andrew Walton

Exhibition at Art Jericho ⓒ Andrew Walton

Where did the artifacts mentioned in ‘The Museum of Everything’ come from?

A: There are my sketchbooks and items that I’ve collected over the last 50 years. For example the clay pipes I found in my teens where one part of Port Meadow had had allotments on … When they stopped being allotments there was an abandoned allotment shed, and I found that the man who had owned the plot dug up the pipes and put them on the shelf in his shed. But he didn’t take them with him. So I stole them! 

So are they your souvenirs?

A: I’ve always been intrigued by archeology. As a boy I took part in archeological digs in Oxford, so these bits of broken pottery and other things say a lot about a period. And there’s also a kind of magic about finding things. Some of them are very beautiful and detailed, or they’re strange like this ceramic bust that reminds me of Ottoline Morrell. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t look at if it was in Boswell’s window but when you find it lying in the mud it’s quite curious.

This is a place with a great sense of history – from the prehistoric artifacts in ‘The Museum of Everything’, to the links between landscape and computer technology in ‘Topography’ and ‘Shift Key’. Is the transformation of the landscape over time something that was particularly important to you when putting the set together?

D: Good question and yes, absolutely. I avoided using the word ‘palimpsest’ in a poem, but it does feel like a piece of re-used vellum where the earlier writing is still just visible below subsequent texts – layers and layers of it. 

How do you build from sketches to the finished article?

A: I think it’s a kind of immersion in the place… I’m there, looking at this place and I note down the rise and fall of the ground or the track, what’s happening with the trees. But then between sketch and finished article I don’t know how it happens.

Inspiration strikes?

A: No it’s not inspiration. I think that’s a cliche. It’s that I’ll be aware of things, and sometimes it’ll turn into exploring patterns. For example, if you know the Meadow at all you’ll know the tracks that the horses make. I’ve always loved those and it’s curious because when the track gets too muddy they then walk net to it and a new track is made and the old one fades away. There are quite a few drawings to do with playing with mark making as a result, such as ‘Track on Wind’.

'Track & Wind' ⓒ Andrew Walton

‘Track on Wind’ ⓒ Andrew Walton

Is ‘Moonrings’ to do with a similar pattern exploration?

A: The paintings come in a particular way. I know that with ‘Moonrings’ I will have – because I’m left-handed – I will have gone from right to left, so you can see that there’s more pigment at the beginning of the stroke. Then I’ve refilled the brush. All I will have had in my head is that maybe I’ll go across the middle with a particular sort of brush. Then I suspect I will have thought that I’ll work below it – the idea of making shapes then develops. I will have started in the corner and the brush will suggest moving in a certain way – and it ends up like that. Finally things will come right at the end, when I step back and think ‘actually, I do need a line across to separate it.’ The picture tells me that. You can see how this one I will have started drawing the circles anti-clockwise. 

If I spend a day on the Meadow, I might be painting, I might just be wandering around. I’ve always got a sketchbook with me, so I might draw what I’m seeing. And then I’ll notice things. Some of the ‘Ground Work’ series are drawn from being there at this time of year, and when you see the water catching the light you get a fantastic brilliance on bits of water. But they’re painted back in the studio. This was me thinking I’d try to describe that particular corner of Port Meadow where the old dust cart track meets the new. If anything it’s the most stilted image in the show! But in conjunction with the others it says something. 

'Moonrings' ⓒ Andrew Walton

‘Moonrings’ ⓒ Andrew Walton

I’m particularly fascinated by the snow scenes, as they strike me as the most abstract. 

A: For me they’re the most literal. This time last year there was very heavy snow and so I deliberately went to the meadow twice in the middle of a blizzard. It was just fantastic weather… I tried drawing and the ink froze as it came out o the pen. But they’re very specific, to do with what it was like to be there with the distant landscape obliterated. 

Do you feel that there’s been a distinguishable difference over the last ten years in how you think about approaching a painting, or is that not a conscious thing?

A: I’m always intrigued by this business of balancing whether you can control things or not. I quite like things to do with chance and the unexpected. There’s an element to do with that in the painting ‘Strata’. There will have been a definite decision to make something that’s that proportion and divided into those four rows. After that it wasn’t that pre-planned: things will appear, like for some reason I’ll have thought to have the dark green, and then the lighter as a sense of light on the landscape. This could be a tent! But I had no idea that it would come out like that. I’m not even sure which colour came first. I suspect the light was first and then I added the darker.

I went to art school in the sixties when the rule book was ripped up and people went into all sorts of things and different directions: performance art, conceptual art. I’m not an intellectual and I’m always slightly confused by conceptual art, I think it’s posturing or the result of art having been taken over by institutional respectability. The theorists move in. I experimented with performance art and things, I think a key thing for me is that I’m an image maker in the old-fashioned sense. I remember thinking this through when I was sitting in a church looking at some old Romanesque carvings, and feeling an affinity with those people who were doing the same. Carving images. In a sense it’s very simple, I like the surprise of what happens when you make an image.

L. C. Broad

You can read reviews of ‘Ground Work’ by Sabotage Reviews and Poor Rude Lines on their respective websites. For more information about the collection itself or to order a copy, please visit the Black Poplar Press site. 

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I confess that until last night, I’d never been to a live storytelling event. While I devoured fairy tales, myths, and legends as a child and have retained a love for the fantastic and inexplicable within novels that I now read as an adult, I’d never had the opportunity to indulge in the group experience of watching an oral rendition of these tales. So when a friend persuaded me to watch Nick Hennessey performing tales from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic and possibly my favourite folk epic, I duly bought my ticket and arrived with a sense of mild apprehension that the event could not parallel the mental images I have of the tales from reading them myself. But from the opening verses I was spellbound, lost in Hennessey’s images of the frozen land of Pohjola and its inhabitants.

Nick Hennessey ⓒ One Big Idea Photography

Nick Hennessey ⓒ One Big Idea Photography

Originally published in 1835, the Kalevala is a collection of Finnish and Karelian folklore compiled by Elias Lönnrot, who transcribed the tales from oral performances. The eventual result was a tome of 22,795 verses that recount the Finnish creation myth and tell the stories of, amongst others, old man Väinämöinen who sings life into the newly created world; the seducer Lemminkäinen who is resurrected by his mother after being cast in pieces into the river of death; and Louhi, the hag of the North who steals the sun and the moon from the sky. Full of magic, mystery, and murder, the stories bring together a wealth of influences from Greek and Egyptian mythology, to the Icelandic Eddas and Sami culture. As such a monumental gathering of Finnish folklore, the Kalevala was central in the forging of Finnish national identity in the later 19th century, and was the source of inspiration for various paintings, novels, theatrical works, and musical works. 

Akseli Gallen-Kallela 'The Aino Triptych'

Akseli Gallen-Kallela ‘The Aino Triptych’

Subsequently, the stories offer a wealth of material for an evening’s entertainment. And we were not disappointed. Drawing together prose, verse, gesture, narrative, music, and song (including an impressive display of throat singing), Hennessey brought forth his vision of the tales kept in a copper box. ‘In my throat the words unfreezing, In my mouth they roll and tumble, Through my teeth they dart and scatter, From my lips they leap and flutter, Falling gently where you listen.’ As the winner of the 2000 epic-singing World Championship, Hennessey’s English recitation of the Kalevala retains, in many parts, the lilting trochaic tetrameter of the original Finnish whilst being combined with a subtle humour that gave the ancient stories a modern edge. 

While the climax of the first half came with Ilmarinen’s forging of the sun and moon, perhaps the most touching moments of Hennessey’s performance were reserved for the second half with the telling of Kullervo’s story. Those familiar with Sibelius’s music will know Kullervo, the tragic hero of the Kalevala, from his choral tone poem of the same name. The Kullervo cycle tells the tale of a young boy brought up without love or tenderness, living a doomed existence that leads from one disaster to another. The story of child abuse, homicide, incest, revenge and suicide is macabre enough in itself, but Hennessey’s rendition brought home the distinctly human elements of the tale. Silence reigned in the auditorium as he lifted his hands to the heavens crying ‘Why was I born?’, Kullervo’s grief and despair at a world intent upon deceit and violence encouraging us to appraise the way we interact with others around us. As Ilmarinen learns after ordering his wife to bakes stones into Kullervo’s bread, treating others with contempt can only lead to harm, violence breeds violence, and jealousy will leave dreams shattered in pieces at our feet.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela 'Kullervo's Curse'

Akseli Gallen-Kallela ‘Kullervo’s Curse’

In 1936, Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’ mourned the group interaction and shared experience that is lost through the demise of storytelling. 78 years on and organisations such as The Society for Storytelling and the Crick Crack Club, who hosted Hennessey’s performance at The Forge in Camden, are aiming to combat the reduction in oral narration, the latter describing storytelling as ‘a contemporary performance art.’ Renovating and renewing aged stories from Baba Yaga to Gaelic folk tales, these performers bring to life Muriel Rukeyser’s poetic statement that ‘The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.’ If you have the opportunity to seek out one of Nick Hennessey’s performances of the Kalevala then I strongly suggest you do – it may just be the best £9 you spend this year.

L. C. Broad

*****

For more information about Nick’s forthcoming shows, please visit his website. More information about the Crick Crack Club and The Society for Storytelling is also available from their respective websites. 

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Nathaniel Mann has held a joint composition residency at the Pitt Rivers and Oxford Contemporary Music over the last 18 months, creating projects inspired by the museum’s objects and archives. His latest project is ‘Rough Music’, a culmination of his work during the residency. I spoke to him about his time at the museum, folk music, and story telling. 

How does the ‘Embedded’ scheme work?

Embedded is a scheme run by Sound and Music – directed at Sonic Artists and Composers of Classical and Contemporary Music. The ‘Embedded’ composers undertake residencies with a diverse variety of partner institutions, from museums to ensembles to orchestras. 

How do the residencies work in each case?

They’re very different, each one is tailored to the host. The idea with Embedded is that they are longer-term residencies, so you can get under the skin of a place. In my case I’ve spent time getting to know people at the museum, looking at the sound archive and exploring the collection. Over the course of the 20 months I’ve done 2 major projects and several smaller ones. 

Can you tell me about your latest project, ‘Rough Music’?

My first project was a direct engagement with the museum’s collections. I was asked to consider presenting and responding to their sound archive which had been recently digitised. Then I looked into Chinese Pigeon Whistles, which was quite a major project that got picked up and commissioned by Without Walls Consortium and Brighton Festival, and as part of Audible Forces it ended up touring the UK. ‘Rough Music’ is the final piece, for which I’m producing a bespoke set of bronze musical meat cleavers.

So there have been different levels of engagement with the museum and the collection as I’ve gone along. The first was very hands-on, working with the archive itself. The next was then inspired directly by objects in the museum, and this third one is a more general response to the collection. An amalgamation of influences and references which have inherent links to the museum and its collections. In a way it’s a hybrid based on things that I’ve learned about and reflected upon.

The roots of ‘Rough Music’ stem from my interest in work song – songs that accompany process, so it’s not just about the performance. 

What would an example of a work song be?

They’re songs that have purpose, so sea shanties from the UK, and chain gang songs from South America are obvious examples. But I’d go as far as to say that a lullaby is a work song in some sense. 

That was the initial interest point, and I started looking for ways to incorporate instruments into songs. I tried using my grandad’s old meat cleaver as a percussion instrument. I’d been doing that whilst singing a Spanish work song as a way of beginning to experiment with performing work songs. After that I had a chance meeting with a bronze swordsmith from the South of England and a flight of fancy led me to start dreaming about building a custom set of tuned meat cleavers. Initially I was dreaming about combining work song, Gamelan, and bell peals to create something new … particularly with the dynamic gestures involved in playing the meat cleaver. In a general way, it reflects that there are lots of artefacts in the Pitt Rivers that are repurposed everyday objects. This is something that has become a very important theme.

But if you take a meat cleaver of a shop shelf today, it won’t make a sound because of the handle design. It’s entirely by chance that my grandfather’s makes any sound at all. So when I started to collaborate with the swordmaker and cast bronze cleavers I went into a period of research, to design a new handle to allow it to resonate. There’s no precedent for this kind of instrument in the way that I want to use it… I contacted Margaret Burley from the Horniman Museum and was talking to her about instrument design and ways of possibly suspending the cleaver so I could get the thing to ring. She couldn’t help me with design, but she told me about an example of previous use of meat cleavers in music. Last year in the Royal Academy of Music, there was a print of a butcher boy in the 1900s with panpipes and playing a meat cleaver. The caption was: ‘butcher boy playing rough music, as was typical at times of elections.’ 

I started to investigate this term ‘rough music’, and it turns out that rough music was used in celebrations, at elections and during times of protest. I found a text in which there was a group of East London butchers who would take meat cleavers and grind them down so they could take them to weddings to play rough music. I suspect it was a precursor to tying cans to the back of the car as you drive off after the wedding. All over the country you find examples of ‘rough music’ used as a form of social control, and this still has resonance today. In protest movements in Montreal two years ago, they went on to the streets with casserole dishes and pots and pans. So the term ‘rough music’ used to be a lot more common – I spoke to my dad about it and he remembers his grandmother, who’s from a little village in Suffolk, saying that they would ‘give the neighbours the rough music’. If anyone in the village was having an affair, not paying their debts, doing something the rest of the villagers disapproved of, the rest of the community would surround their house under the dark of night banging pots and pans, and assailing the house with noise.

So it’s primarily used for social control, rather than being constructed for any aesthetic purpose?

The methods were different in each town and county. This idea of using sound as a form of celebration and protest starts to add layers to the project.

Having found these references to the ‘rough music’, I started to look at Hogarth’s prints and found that they’re littered with meat cleavers. Understanding this as a reference not to butchers or violence but to the sound and music makes an incredible difference. I then found an academic called Jeremy Barlow who’s written a tome on music in Hogarth’s prints, and he’s identified the meat cleaver and marrow bone as a musical symbol in the prints.

Suddenly, things started to link-up and my idea, which had started as an impulsive association of different things, began gathering a lot of weight. The biggest surprise was to discover that mid C-18th composer, Bonnell Thornton, wrote an Ode to Saint Cecilia in 1749, a satirical burlesque work, and the idea was that the instruments of the people would be used – there is a verse about the meat cleaver and marrow bone, and how they sound. There’s even a tantalising reference that states that on one occasion, tuned meat cleavers were cast in bell metal for the entertainment of the audience. And that’s what I’m exploring in ‘Rough Music’ 300 years later! 

William_Hogarth_-_Industry_and_Idleness,_Plate_6;_The_Industrious_'Prentice_out_of_his_Time,_&_Married_to_his_Master's_Daughter

How did you fix the resonating problem with the meat cleavers – did you look at historical sketches or was it a process of trial and error?

There are no sketches so I don’t know how they did it, which is tantalising in itself. I’ve come up with a new design. The cleaver has a bamboo handle with rubber suspension inside so its free to resonate. They have a lot of overtones – I was initially thinking of tuning them properly but I’ve decided to leave it up to chance. Every time it’s cast, changes in the cooling speed, the percentage of the alloy and other factors determine the density of the metal, you naturally get variations in tuning and timbre. 

Is ‘Rough Music’ unique to Britain?

It has a lot of names in the UK – it’s also called ‘skimmington’ and ‘Charivari’ – from the French. So it was actually present across Europe.

This will be performed by the Dead Rat Orchestra, your ensemble – who are the other members and how did the ensemble come about?

There are three of us – myself, Daniel Merrill and Robin Alderton, we’ve been performing experimental music together for twelve years now. We started off with abstract electronic glitch music, and since then we’ve opened ourselves up to everything. We play various instruments – although our principal line up is violin, harmonium, and percussion/guitar – but then for one of our pieces we have 2000 shards of mirror polished steel in the micro tonal scale. In the right space, in a church with a solid floor, we just drop them to the floor and it’s like a cascade of shimmering notes. We do all kind of curious projects including site specific music. We also incorporate the idea of work song – there are times when we’ve taken logs and axes on stage and sung lullabies whilst chopping wood.

What is it particularly about work music that fascinates you?

I’m interested in the fact that it’s not supposed to be a performance. Because it’s supposed to accompany an activity, it gives it a different quality to most performances. I’m interested in the instrumentation, the brute sound of axe against log against floor, there’s something quite visceral about it.

How do you feel about the change in dynamic when you introduce an audience into the work song setting?

I recently did a performance in Barcelona, in which artists Iratxe Jaio & Klaas van Gorkum put me to the test on this. This was going to be performed as a live soundtrack to a film derived from their project called ‘Work in Progress’. We spent a lot of time discussing what work song is, what role it plays and what it has been replaced by, and the possible reasons for it. I think they felt that my interest was based on nostalgia and romance, and that I wasn’t really thinking about it. So they set me some work, which was that I must learn a work song in Basque, a language I don’t speak. To learn any song in a language that you don’t understand is quite difficult, so that was the first task. The radio is an obvious replacement for work song. So the task I set myself, whilst singing this work song, was to construct a radio transmitter circuit from electronic components as I sang. I got to the point where the radio was functioning, so I could then duet with myself over radio waves. Of course, this response isn’t without its problems, but it’s starting to engage with it in a somewhat more considered way.

Do you think that there’s a way that the audience can interact in Rough Music?

This is something that we’ve explored a little in Dead Rat Orchestra, and it’s something that I’ve thought about for ‘Rough Music’, especially as rough music is about the community coming out and making noise together and playing music together. But it’s a bit beyond what I’m trying to achieve this time. 

You use both terms ‘noise’ and ‘music’ there – do you see there being a distinction between the two and if so where do you draw the dividing line?

I think there’s room for noise in musical discourse. If you consider sound design in cinema, we’re much more fluent in understanding sonic signifiers that work in a musical way, but are not ‘musical’ as we think of it. As soon as we understand sound in an emotional way, these things can be included in a musical discourse. What I plan to do on the night is explore the range of issues around rough music and the cleavers, so part of it will be based more upon the interlocking peals and the rhythms of the Gamelan, and part of it will be more noisy, with the clamour of the original rough music. My idea is to try and incorporate all of that.

How did your previous project with the pigeon whistles come about?

When you go into the museum, everything has some kind of potential musicality about it…but everything’s muted, behind glass, and you’re left to imagine what it might sound like. There are certain instruments that I couldn’t imagine what they sounded like, and those were the pigeon whistles from China. My inability to imagine what they might sound like was what really engaged me. The only way to really hear it was to find some pigeons. I ended up working with a man called Pigeon Pete, who breeds Birmingham Roller Pigeons, and he’s the only man in the country to have trained his pigeons to return to a mobile pigeon loft. The pigeons recognise the loft visually, as it’s covered with a polka dot motif.

I like the idea of having a composition that travels potentially hundreds of miles and forms a massive spatial composition, constantly moving. The idea of ascension and then return (to the pigeon loft) gives the structure. 

'Pigeon Pete' and the Birmingham Roller Pigeons

‘Pigeon Pete’ and the Birmingham Roller Pigeons

Why were these originally designed?

All over the world pigeons were very valuable, for food, for carrying messages, and so they were first put into use to deter birds of prey. Later it evolved into an aesthetic thing – some of the bird whistles from China have over 35 notes each. Mine only have one note per bird but what you’re hearing is the pigeon’s flight described in sound against the sky – the way they fly and move, the flap of their wings – everything is described sonically. It’s a phenomenal experience, the sense of space and movement around you. 

What do you plan on doing after your residency ends?

I’ll be taking ‘Rough Music’ to the Foundling Museum in July, and the major thing I’m working on at the minute is ‘The Cut’ with Dead Rat Orchestra, which is a canal tour taking a boat from the London Canal Museum, 273 miles over 3 weeks from London to Oxford, Reading, and Bristol. We’ll be starting off with some tunes about the canal and its industrial roots, and by the end we should have a whole new set of material. 

How much do elements of storytelling and narrative inform your work?

With the pigeon whistles, for example, I found it really important to investigate songs to do with pigeon culture. When we do the pigeon flights, singing these songs and telling the story of where this has come from and why I’m doing it is a part of the performance. 

I’m also really interested in story telling in song. I do a lot of folk performance, so I sing story ballads in both Spanish and English. I’m fascinated by stories that start with ‘come gather and I will tell you a story’ – I enjoy this different sense of performance when you’re telling a story, when the delivery of the song is less important than the telling of the story. If it’s a 12 minute long story, people don’t get bored. A song that long isn’t that common these days, but the old broadsides and epics are often that long or longer.

Nathaniel Mann in performance

Nathaniel Mann in performance

Is there any documentation detailing how they used to be performed?

That’s something I’m looking at at the minute. For another project I’m looking at the Tyburn Gallows, looking at broadsides concerning the gallows and hangings, the songs in slang – the criminal, underworld language. There’s an archive in the States that holds an online collection of all these broadsides, with sung extracts of the original melodies alongside the texts. But you listen to clipped, trained voices singing broadside ballads that were sung on the streets about murders, and you can’t imagine somebody standing on a street corner singing like that. And this is because of the physicality, the gesture. 

There are early music specialists who look into the broadside ballads and perform them, but on the whole most of them have very trained and informed voices. My suspicion is that this was not how they were originally delivered. 

L. C. Broad

‘Rough Music’ will be performed by Dead Rat Orchestra at the Ovada Warehouse on the 29th March. For more information, please visit the OCM, Pitt Rivers, or Dead Rat Orchestra websites. Both Nathaniel and the Dead Rat Orchestra can be followed on Twitter, @animateddog and @deadratorchest

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I’ve never watched the Oscars, although I usually have a look to see who’s won what. This year, as ever, the list of awards had very little in common with a list I would have compiled of the excellent films that I’ve seen this year. In particular, I was disappointed to see that Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2 in the original French) was not represented at all—not nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Adèle Exarchopoulos), Best Supporting Actress (Léa Seydoux), or even Best Foreign Language Film. The explicit sex scenes may have put off some judges, whose prudishness permits flaying (12 Years a Slave) but not cunnilingus. However, I think that a significant barrier to wider appreciation of Blue Is the Warmest Colour is the simple fact that it’s foreign. Foreign films come with baggage. Depending on which side you butter your brioche they are cultured or elitist, symbolic or pretentious. And so it is, paradoxically, with Studio Ghibli—paradoxically because the studio that gave us Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away produces not three-hour-long lesbian coming-of-age dramas, but children’s animations.

Studio Ghibli1

Studio Ghibli (properly pronounced with a soft g, after the Japanese) was founded in Tokyo in 1985. Since 1989 when Ghibli released its fourth film, Kiki’s Delivery Service, only one of its films has failed to be the highest-grossing Japanese film in the year of its release. (In 1999, My Neighbours the Yamadas—the quirkiest of Ghibli’s films and one of my personal favourites—failed to measure up to Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back at the international box office.) Spirited Away, Ghibli’s eleventh film, released in 2001, is the highest-grossing Japanese film ever; yet it doesn’t make it onto the list of the top-50-grossing animated films, beaten out by the likes of Monsters vs. Aliens, Cars 2 and Shrek Forever After.

Of course for every dollar lost to Pixar or Dreamworks, Ghibli is awarded a point in the “artistic excellence” column. And in fact the Studio has had some limited international recognition: in 2002 Spirited Away won both the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and the Golden Bear. The stage is thus set for a cult following, and so we have the BFI’s complete Studio Ghibli retrospective, showing in April and May. Alongside the films, there are a few talks, including one by Justin Johnson, curator of the exhibition, in which the question of why Ghibli hasn’t had the same box-office impact as its American contemporaries will be considered.

Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki

The key figure at Studio Ghibli is Hayao Miyazaki, the 73-year-old co-founder and director of nine of Ghibli’s 19 films. The way that Miyazaki and Ghibli are often discussed it would seem that Ghibli is Miyazaki, and this may be a reasonable assertion: of the ten films that Miyazaki didn’t direct, he screen wrote two, while his son, in dynastic fashion, directed and screen wrote one other (also directing one of the two films that his father screen wrote). The films that Miyazaki directed include most of Ghibli’s most famous and commercially successful films—My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away—while central features of Miyazaki’s films reoccur in films that he didn’t direct or screen write. It is fair to say that Miyazaki gave Ghibli much of what makes its great films great: beautiful animation, sympathetic portrayals of interesting characters, and a knack for switching between poignant nostalgia and ripping yarn at precisely the right moment.

Miyazaki’s films contain a number of recurring motifs. Almost every one includes fantasy elements, ranging from magical creatures that appear only to the lead character, to entire fantasy worlds. More emblematic of Miyazaki’s work, though, are visions of childhood and nostalgia. A large number of Miyazaki’s films have a young female lead and, taken together, Miyazaki’s explorations of his subjects’ psyches and interactions with the world around them present a rich tapestry of childhood experience. The films tend to be stylized: narratives evince folkloric simplicity, and explicit character descriptions are thin. By leaving much unsaid, the main characters develop organically, drawing from the viewer’s own experience, while the animation, given space to grow, becomes a character in its own right.

My Neighbour Totoro

My Neighbour Totoro

Miyazaki’s distinctive traits are directly are particularly evident in My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke. In My Neighbour Totoro, two young girls move to the countryside with their father to be closer to the hospital where their mother is recovering from a long-term illness. They meet a magical koala-like creature they call Totoro and then undertake a miniature odyssey to find their mother and give her a present of a sheaf of corn. The soft, watercolour-esque animation imbues the girls’ adventures with Totoro with a sense of wistful nostalgia, and gives the mission to deliver the corn the sense of a sweetly ironic epic. In Princess Mononoke, an epic of true proportions in which humans battle gods for worldwide ascendancy, alternating portrayals of gritty realism and glowing psychedelia realise visually the complex relationship between both the humans and gods, and, more specifically, the two main characters, the human Prince Ashitaka and the liminal demigod Princess Mononoke. More recently, Miyazaki’s films have become superficially cutesy, as in Ponyo, where the main character is a toddler fish-girl who speaks in squeaky monosyllables, and Arrietty, a saccharine retelling of the The Borrowers which Miyazki screen wrote but did not direct. The Wind Rises, probably Miyazaki’s last film, may reverse this trend. Released in the UK in May this year, the film is a fictionalized biography of the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter aircraft used by the Japanese in World War II.

Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke

Discussions of Studio Ghibli often stop at Miyazaki; however, there is another person worth mentioning. Isao Takahata, five years older than Miyazaki, was the other co-founder and has himself taken leading roles in seven Ghibli films—five as director and screen writer; two as producer. The films that he directed have had some success on the Japanese market, but in general are far less well-known outside Japan than those by Miyazaki. This is in part because the subject matter is more integrally Japanese. Epics and fairy tales translate easily, whereas many of Takahata’s films are filled the lovable banalities everyday life. My Neighbours the Yamadas comprises a series of family vignettes—the father, deciding that he doesn’t spend enough time bonding with his son, instigating some reluctant pitching practice; the mother panicking, while out, about whether she’s left the stove on. Each moment is presented with touching levity. Only Yesterday deals with the reminiscences of its 27-year-old female lead as she wonders whether or not she’s been true to her childhood dreams. It is far more nostalgic than My Neighbours the Yamadas, but the narrative is similarly situated in the Japanese experience. One of Takahata’s better-known films is Grave of the Fireflies, one of the most powerful war films ever made. The action focuses on Seita, a 14-year-old boy, and his toddler sister as they try to survive wartime Japan after the death of their mother and abandonment by their unsympathetic aunt. Astonishingly it was first released as a double bill with My Neighbour Totoro—a profound and haunting pairing that explores sibling relationships similar but for their very different circumstances.

The BFI missed a trick by failing to recreate the Grave of the Fireflies–My Neighbour Totoro double bill. However, the opportunity to catch Ghibli’s older films on the big screen is a rare one, and the BFI should be celebrated for its initiative. Some of Studio Ghibli’s films are more obviously intended for an audience of children than others, but the best films, a number of which I’ve mentioned, are genre-defying masterpieces. The schedule of films is available on the BFI website: standard tickets sell for £11 and £8.50 concessions are available to students.

M. C. Roberts

For more information about the BFI retrospective, please visit their website.

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Coming up at the end of this week is the Iffley Music Society’s Weekend Festival (Fri 14th- Sun 16th). All of the events will feature the Schubert Ensemble of London, a leading chamber music group who celebrated their 30th anniversary last year. The programme for Friday evening consists of two stalwarts of the piano trio repertoire: Dvořák’s ‘Dumky Trio and Schubert’s Second Piano Trio (Fri 14th, 7:30pm, Iffley Church Hall). In Dvořák’s Trio, the Czech composer stepped away from the traditional formal procedures of Western musical tradition to shape an idiosyncratic work inspired by folk music, contrasting brooding Slavic laments with more light-hearted moments. Schubert’s Second Trio is amongst the series of great instrumental works produced in the year before his death in 1828. This Trio is perhaps best known for the gorgeous theme of its second movement, one of many such moments in Schubert’s output that seem to evoke a lonely tread across an abandoned winter landscape.

Schubert Ensemble of London

Schubert Ensemble of London

On Saturday evening, this versatile group of players expand their numbers to tackle Fauré’s Piano Quartet no. 1 and Brahms’s Piano Quartet no. 1 (Sat 15th, 7:30pm, Iffley Church Hall). This programme will also feature talented British composer Huw Watkins’s Piano Quartet (2012) and will be prefaced by an ‘afternoon encounter’ with members of the Schubert Ensemble of London, discussing and performing excerpts from the pieces to be performed that evening (Sat 15th, 2:30pm, Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, St Hilda’s College). Finally, the festival culminates in a solo recital given by pianist William Howard, founder of the Schubert Ensemble of London, surveying Romantic miniatures by Schumann, Janáček, Dvořák, Fauré and Chopin, as well as giving a performance of David Matthews’s Four Portraits, a work written for this pianist in 2013 (Sun 16th, 3:00pm, Iffley Church Hall). David Matthews, the brother of Colin Matthews, who is also a notable composer, will be present to discuss the piece.

Another fascinating chamber music event on Iffley Road this weekend is the The Chamber Players – Transfigured Night (Sun 16th, 6:00pm, St John the Evangelist). Hearing Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’), composed in 1899, for the first time may be something of a surprise for those who associate the composer’s name with the austerity of his atonal and serial styles. This important early work is suffused in the rich chromaticism of a post-Wagnerian idiom, a debt that was recognised as early as the 1902 première where the harsh critical response was characterised by the famous witticism that ‘it sounds as if someone had smeared the score of Tristan while it was still wet’. Today, though, the work is fascinating in its presentation of a very different side to Schoenberg than our received picture of the composer and is richly expressive in its own right. This piece, marked by a typically fin-de-siècle combination of eroticism and deep-rooted anxiety and neuroticism, will be paired with the more reserved First String Sextet by Brahms, a composer idolised by Schoenberg.

G. Masters

For more information about concerts featured, please visit the Iffley Music Society homepage, and the St John the Evangelist website.

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Most Oxford students will come into contact with the University’s rich theatrical scene over the course of their degree. Until recently, encounters with its film world have been far scarcer, but in recent years a shift has been taking place. The Oxford film scene has emerged, with the establishment of the Oxford Film Fund and its annual scriptwriting competition the first of a series of wide-reaching developments. The Oxford Broadcasting Association was recently set up to bring together Oxford’s filmmakers and to help source equipment and funding, and the Oxford Documentary Society was founded last year, with an emphasis on helping budding documentary makers gain practical experience. But where did this flurry of filmmaking emerge from?

Oxford’s theatre scene is, of course, long established, and many of Oxford’s actors, writers and directors come into film from this nexus. One such dual figure is Alex Darby, a student at New College and a Young Writer at the Royal Court. Darby founded the Oxford Film Fund with Jessica Campbell, and he recently made a short film, The Wishing Horse, which dwells on Lily (Imogen West-Knights) and her fractious relationship with her mother (Terry Diab) as they come to terms with the death of Lily’s father (voiced by Richard E. Grant). The film’s twist of magical realism was inspired by G. K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the Wishing Horse. Its widescreen format makes it formally compelling, and was chosen to signify grief’s solitude. In addition, it reveals that there is beauty in the bleakness, as grief’s catharsis is alluded to through aching panoramic shots of Port Meadow. The film also conveys grief’s numbness, as felt conversely alongside a heightened awareness of the senses; Lily experiences the shattering of porcelain, the cold of a freezing bath, and the strange, comforting warmth of a white horse.

The Wishing Horse ⓒ ABG Productions

The Wishing Horse ⓒ ABG Productions

As well as presenting new challenges to writers and aesthetes including cinematographers, directors and editors, the opportunity to act for film gives Oxford’s aspiring thespians an important platform from which to expand their repertoire. The Wishing Horse’s cast is minimal, with West-Knights and Diab the only actors to appear onscreen, and their strong central performances are crucial in carrying the film. West-Knight, like Darby, was part of the Oxford theatre circuit before appearing in this film; again this is indicative of the fruitful cross-pollination between these arenas. Although actresses who weren’t Oxonians were auditioned for the part of Lily, West-Knights suited the role perfectly, and had a professionalism during the casting process that impressed Darby.

The Wishing Horse ⓒ ABG Productions

The Wishing Horse ⓒ ABG Productions

Darby’s contemplative approach to filmmaking is just one of many that Oxonian filmmakers adopt; style and subject vary greatly. ISIS Magazine recently showcased a set of student films in a screening at the Magdalen College cinema, and personal highlights were those by Dylan Holmes-Williams (St Peter’s). Influenced by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme ’95 movement, which called for pared-back, naturalistic filmmaking, Holmes-Williams’ films effectively utilise handheld camera and conversational screenwriting. Shibboleth, for example, centres on a group of male friends who drink and mock one another. The simplicity of the film’s premise is deceptive, however, and the tone abruptly changes with the film’s ambiguous ending.

Shibboleth ⓒ Holmes-Williams

Shibboleth ⓒ Dylan Holmes-Williams

ISIS’s screening was indicative of the enthusiasm for filmmaking present across different networks of Oxford students. The same names cropped up again and again as the credits rolled, with some individuals taking on multiple roles as writers, editors, cinematographers and actors in many different films. It’s great that Oxford’s filmmakers help each other out and that a scene is emerging, with students able to experience a variety of the processes of film production. Other exciting events scheduled include the Oxford Film Festival, running until Friday 28th February, which culminates in the premiere screening of another handful of student short films. One of the next challenges for film in Oxford is to increase the pool of those involved, expanding outside of the existing unit of Oxford’s theatre mafia; as the exchange of ideas grows, the results will become increasingly interesting and the film scene even more inclusive. Oxford’s drama scene often unfairly loses out in public perception to the Cambridge Footlights, and should take this moment of opportunity to put this cold war to rights through the new possibilities of film.

L. Brown

For more information about The Wishing Horse, please see our earlier preview and interview with the director Alex Darby.

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Eschewing the usual serving of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev offered by the Oxford Philomusica for Valentine’s Day this week (Fri 14th, 8pm, Sheldonian Theatre), I’m looking for an alternative, slightly leaner diet. The lively diversity of music from the renaissance and baroque periods this week proves that romantic music doesn’t have to be ‘Romantic’. This a point that my concert of the week is particularly looking to prove: The Fellowshippe of Musickers: I Goe Before My Darling (Fri 14th,7:30pm, Holywell Music Room). This early music group are influenced both by their academic research into period performance practice and by traditional folk traditions. This concert centres on musical depictions of romance, from the refined courtly love texts of the thirteenth-century troubadours to the rougher eroticism of sixteenth-century London. Using a vast selection of historical instruments, this concert promises a sideways glance on Valentine’s Day proceedings for those who find all the Russian Romanticism a little sickly.

Davitt Moroney

Davitt Moroney

The following night, the same venue hosts another superb concert by a ‘historically informed’ performer: Davitt Moroney: Solo Harpsichord Recital (Sat 15th, 8pm, Holywell Music Room). Moroney is widely recognised as a scholar and editor of music from the renaissance and baroque. As a performer, he has won countless prizes, including the 2000 Gramophone Early Music Award for a recording of the complete keyboard works of William Byrd. Moroney is a Professor of Music at the University of California, Berkeley, so this is a rare chance to hear him perform in the UK. The programme features works by Bach, Couperin, and Louis Marchand.

Turl Street Festival 2014

Turl Street Festival 2014

Finally, look out for the Turl Street Arts Festival this week (Thurs 13th to Sun 23rd, various venues). This annual festival is a collaboration between students from the three colleges based on Turl Street: Jesus, Exeter and Lincoln. The festival showcases a whole range of talents from across the arts with poetry readings, recitals, open mic events and drama, as well as art and dance workshops. Look out particularly for the opening concert (Sat 15th, 8pm, Exeter College Chapel). A talented group of student performers present a programme featuring three of Bach’s most widely acclaimed masterpieces: Brandenburg Concertos IV and V and the profoundly moving Magnificat.

G. Masters

For more information about any of the concerts featured, please follow the embedded links.

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