Ai Weiwei: ‘I have to speak for people who are afraid’

This was Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light, strung across Exchange Flags during the Liverpool Biennial 2008. I was reminded of this stunning installation, perhaps Liverpudlians’ favourite from the Biennial, reading an informative piece about its creator, Ai Weiwei in today’s Guardian.

The article notes that Tate Modern has commissioned Weiwei to fill its Turbine Hall later this year, but goes on to focus on his delicate relationship with the Chinese government, resulting from his angry and sustained denunciations of officialdom through interviews, documentaries and the internet. The article explains that his attitude to authority was forged in his childhood experiences before and during the cultural revolution:

“I experienced humanity before I should. When I was very young,” he says. If that sounds grandiloquent, consider his history: Ai spent years of his childhood in a labour camp in the far north-west of China, on the edge of the Gobi desert. His father, Ai Qing, was an artist and one of China’s most revered modern poets, but fell foul of the late 1950s anti-rightist campaign. Life was precarious, and his parents had little time to spare for their offspring. “It was like being a little boy in the centre of a storm. Just always scared or surprised by surroundings that you cannot make sense of. And you have no comparisons because you have no memory of what another life can be,” he says.

Ai Qing, a cosmopolitan intellectual who had translated symbolist poets, spent years cleaning toilets. “Sometimes he shared stories with us, like his early [years] in Paris and the kind of paintings and artworks he liked – always things full of joy,” says Ai Weiwei. “But it had nothing to do with our surroundings – they were very tough. For years he wouldn’t take one day off. We always saw him as this very tired worker coming home with no energy; just having to lay down and sleep.”

Ai Weiwei says his father’s experiences have left him with a sense of duty

To speak for the generation, or generations, who didn’t have a chance to speak out … And I also have to speak out for people around me who are afraid, who think it is not worth it or who have totally given up hope. So I want to set an example: you can do it and this is OK, to speak out.


Four beetles found at Lennon home


Couldn’t resist that headline from today’s BBC Liverpool report of the National Trust’s survey of the wealth of wildlife found in the garden at Mendips, Lennon’s childhood home. Here’s the story:

Four beetles were among the wealth of wildlife uncovered in a survey of the garden at John Lennon’s childhood home. The National Trust, which owns the house known as Mendips in Woolton, Liverpool, carried out the survey on the 100ft-long (30m) garden. A wasp beetle, which mimics wasps, three species of ladybird, as well as wildflowers, frogs and wood mouse were among the discoveries. Lennon lived at the house from the age of five to 23. Ecologist Peter Brash, who carried out the survey, said: “This wildlife survey at Mendips uncovered a garden which has been undisturbed for years with lots of nearby green spaces including Strawberry Fields, creating ideal corridors for wildlife.

Strawberry Fields
Strawberry Fields

We can only speculate on the wildlife that would have occupied the garden in the 1950s when John Lennon lived with his aunt and uncle. But it’s clear from the lush green surroundings of the Woolton area of Liverpool that bird song and butterflies would have been an everyday part of his life.”

The survey team turned up wildflowers including lesser trefoil and common cat’s ear in the lawn, which Lennon used to mow to get his five shillings pocket money. Birds seen or heard in the garden included wrens, swifts, goldfinches, swallows, housemartins and dunnock. The Trust’s biological survey team examined the wildlife in the garden of Mendips as part of its work surveying species and habitats of National Trust properties.

Early Beatles songs were written at Mendips. The three-bedroom semi-detached house was bought by Yoko Ono in 2002 and donated to the National Trust. The Trust restored it to how it would have looked when it was Lennon’s home and opened it to the public in 2003.

With my daughter, I joined the NT guided tour of Mendips and 20 Forthlin Road, Paul McCartney’s childhood home, last summer.


It’s a tremendous experience  – due not only to the superb NT restoration of the properties, but also to the enthusiasm of the two guides: contrasting personalities, but both extremely knowledgeable.  Mendips was John Lennon’s boyhood home from 1948 – 1963.   John’s Aunt Mimi and her husband George were a childless couple and so they were very happy to raise John here (from the age of almost 6) as their own. Menlove Avenue is a wide and busy boulevard scattered with trees and parks with simple semi-detached houses lining both sides of the suburban road.

20 Forthlin Road was built by the council in the 1920s and has been in the ownership of the National Trust since 1995. It  is perhaps one of the most important houses in the history of popular music, since the Beatles composed and rehearsed some of their earliest songs there. It was also the birthplace of the group The Scaffold, of which Michael McCartney was a member.

Forthlin Road
Forthlin Road with NT guide

It’s authentically furnished as it would have appeared during the 1950s and early 60s and there is a display of family photographs taken by Michael McCartney.




Superlambanana stays

Taro Chiezo with his original

After six months of negotiations Liverpool City Council has agreed a deal to keep the original Superlambanana – or at least a replica of it – in Liverpool. The new sculpture will be made of more durable materials than the 17-foot original and will be licensed to be on public display for the next 80 years. The artist, Taro Chiezo, will oversee the construction of a brand new sculpture which is expected to go on show within the next six months at a location still to be decided. The original sculpture, which arrived in the city in 1998 was limited to a 10-year display licence, and will be handed back to its creator. It was unveiled at the opening of the Tate Gallery Liverpool.  Intended an ironic comment on the dangers of genetic engineering, it was developed with the city specifically in mind as both the banana and lamb were once a common cargo in Liverpool’s docks.

At first the Superlambanana was controversial, but slowly became a popular feature and a recognised symbol of Liverpool – particularly after the hugely successful Gosuperlambananas display of 120 mini lambananas at various locations in the city for 12 weeks in the summer. Each was individually designed by an artist, school or community group and sponsored by businesses or community organisations. They were enormously popular, with residents and tourists following the trail to see them all – and taking an estimated 1,000 snaps of the statues each day.

All but two of the SLBs were located in Liverpool. Lovemedoodle was located at Euston railway station in London, whilst The Highest SuperLambBanana was located on top of Moel Famau in North Wales.

At the end of their ten week run, the mini Superlambananas were auctioned off for the Lord Mayor’s charities, with each having a guide price ranging from £3,000 to £8,000.[18] The first of two auctions was held at St George’s Hall on the 9 September 2008 with 68 Superlambananas up for sale. In total they sold for a combined sum of £550,000 or approximately £7,800 each, well above estimates.

The final salute was a display of most of the superlambananas on St Georges plateau, 8 September 2008.


Capital of Culture: The Transition

Liverpool’s year as Capital of Culture came to a close this evening with the Transition celebration at Pier Head where I took these photos. Continue reading “Capital of Culture: The Transition”

In Liverpool’s footsteps

Well here’s a turn-up for the books: the rest of the country looking to Liverpool as a model!

This article in today’s Guardian reports that today Andy Burnham, Culture Secretary, will announce a plan for there to be a regular British Capital of Culture – with the format drawing on the success of Liverpool in 2008. Actually, by now, it’s not that surprising – not only was 08 a quantitative success (3.5 million first-time visitors last year, generating £176m from tourism alone, plus huge regeneration benefits), but, perhaps more importantly, a qualitative triumph – transforming Liverpool’s image in the UK and around the world.  And living here, the change in how we feel about our city has been palpable.

Andy Burnham told the Guardian:

In Liverpool, something important and significant has happened that has implications for cultural policy in Britain, but more broadly for regeneration, education, skills and the new economy. But more valuable has been its success in regenerating belief, hope and human spirit. It has changed outside perceptions of Liverpool and Liverpool’s perceptions of itself.

In the speech he gave at Liverpool University, Andy Burnham identified five lessons from Liverpool’s year as capital of culture:

Lesson number 1 – A vibrant cultural base has economic benefits – particularly for the visitor economy. Regeneration led by culture and cultural projects can be the most successful and durable – unlocking investment and stimulating a new creative economy. This is why it is important to sustain investment in culture and the arts.

Lesson Number 2 – Placing culture centre stage also has wider indirect benefits – more elusive, but adding quality and value that cannot easily be replicated by other investment. And, crucially, turning perceptions on their head.

Lesson Number 3 – The ability of culture to contribute to the delivery of world-class public services – most particularly education and health – is under-developed in Britain.

Lesson Number 4 – Centres of power in culture and creativity can shift just as quickly as in finance. And creative skills will be more important – not less – in the economy of the future. It is vital to understand the links between a vibrant cultural base, culture and creativity in schools, and the digital economy.

Lesson Number 5 – Investment in a strong cultural base should be maintained – more so, not less, in tough economic times. But more can and should be done to unlock the full value around Britain of the investment the country already makes in it cultural organisations.


Liverpool Capital of Culture success

I’ve just caught up with this article, in the Independent last week, applauding the success of Capital of Culture.

It’s not as if the UK has been awash with good news of late – but before we head towards year’s end with those round-ups of all that went awry in ’08, we shouldn’t forget to celebrate one big success story: Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture.

Recently the Daily Post reported that Liverpool’s tenure as the UK’s European Capital of Culture 2008 has generated an £800m boost to the regional economy.

Another assessment in  the Daily Post stated ‘Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture has been an unprecedented success – and cultural leaders say it’s in the communities where it has had its greatest impact’.

Many expect to see the legacy of Capital of Culture in the new Museum of Liverpool, the new-look Pier Head with its canal link to Leeds, the Kings Dock and the Liverpool One shopping centre. But, in an interview in the Daily Post,  Culture Secretary Andy Burnham sees it in the eyes of the children he met through the Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium (Larc), an experience which proved the power of art and culture to change lives.

In another piece, Samantha Parker looks at the impact Culture Year has had on Merseyside’s communities and what it means for the future.

And in another piece of good news – it looks as though the original Superlambanana is to stay in Liverpool.  The BBC is reporting that Taro Chiezo, the designer, is in town and is likely to sign a deal for it to stay.

P.S. 5 January: It had 7,000 events, involving 10,000 artists and 60 premieres. But was Liverpool’s year of culture a success? Alfred Hickling gives his verdict, Guardian

Capital of Culture: looking back

The Peoples Launch

A look back at events attended in Liverpool during Capital of Culture year, 2008.


  • Wayne Shorter (Phil): Daily Post
  • Turner Prize 2007 (Tate): Tate site
  • Three Sisters on Hope Street (Everyman): Daily Post
  • Busqueda, by James MacMillan & Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – Joanna MacGregor (St Georges Hall)












  • American Piano Music – Joanna MacGregor (Cornerstone Festival): review
  • Stockhausen Memorial Concert (Cornerstone Festival): To mark a year since the passing of Karlheinz Stockhausen, with Joby Burgess (percussion), Sarah Nicolls (piano) and Matthew Fairclough (sound diffusion).
  • Recollections: photographs of Philip Jones Griffiths
  • William Blake: River of Life (Tate): Daily Post

What a Capital year for Liverpool said the Daily Post.

William Blake: The River of Life

I visited a small exhibition down at the Tate today – William Blake: The River of Life.  The exhibition explores the themes that pervaded Blake’s work throughout his life – childhood and innocence and death, resurrection and the afterlife. The images selected are overwhelmingly religious.  I found it difficult to become engaged with the material.

From the exhibition notes:

Blake’s work expresses a singular and personal mythology that draws upon narratives and themes from Biblical subjects and classical poetry. For Blake, creative inspiration and religious belief were inseparable. In his most dazzling works he expresses almost limitless imaginative ambition. His intent was ‘To see a world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wildflower’.

Blake held radical religious and political convictions. Believing in the importance of a spiritual art in a materialistic age, he became convinced that there existed a richer spiritual world beyond physical existence. This display presents Blake’s preoccupation with the life cycle, not as a predetermined journey but rather as part of a totality within which life, death and resurrection belong to a single spiritual realm.

The first section of the exhibition, ‘Paradise Lost: Innocence and Childhood’, takes Blake’s The River of Life (c.1805, top) as its point of departure:

Here Christ is depicted leading children through the stream of time, which flows between innocence and experience separated on opposing riverbanks. Blake’s view of Man’s creation by God offers insight into his philosophies. He regarded each man a freespirit.  Our loss of Paradise occurs not in the Garden of Eden, but at our moment of birth, with man dragged from the spiritual realm and enslaved by being given material form. Blake equated the childhood state with divinity.

Age Teaching Youth (c.1785-90) meditates on the relationship between innocence and experience. The image of a seated adult with children or youths reading occurs in a number of Blake’s works from the 1780s, including the title page to Songs of Innocence.   It has been suggested that the leaf and tendril motif on the dress of the youth in the foreground (who seems to be drawing) identifies him as representative of a mind limited to nature and its imitation. The old man might represent the law, which is contradicted by the girl who, gesturing heavenwards towards the infinite, might represent imagination.

The next section of the exhibition, ‘Experience and Wisdom’, explores Blake’s perception of wisdom and his rejection of rationalism:

In Blake’s view exposure to a material world where corruption and adherence to religious dogma prevail over mercy brings loss of innocence. Wisdom, he felt, could only be gained through our own liberty and self-discovery. Art, he felt, provided insight into the metaphysical world and was potentially redemptive for humanity. In his search for wisdom Blake rejected mere scientific and artistic speculation, but instead sought the demanding spiritual surety available from the imaginative spirit. Blake’s depiction of Isaac Newton, the personification of reason, expresses Blake’s rejection of scientific rationalism. Through the accidental nature of the colours and texture of the rock  Blake asserts his belief in the supremacy of the creative imagination. Likewise, Los and Orc (c.1792-3) is pure visionary mysticism, the two figures representing disparate aspects of the human mind, embattled in attempted reconciliation.

The section ‘Death and the Afterlife’ explores Blake’s visions of the afterlife:

Through visionary experience he claimed to converse with the Archangels. He wrote: ‘heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates…voices of Celestial inhabitants are. . . distinctly heard, & their forms more distinctly seen’. At the very end of his own life he told his wife Catherine that they would never be parted. As well as expressing his affection for his Iife-Iong companion, the sentiment confirms Blake’s belief in a heightened metaphysical realm. Throughout his work the Bible provides Blake’s intellectual foundation, and many of his works concern Christ’s Crucifixion and  Resurrection.


The photographs of Philip Jones Griffiths

Street sign, Liverpool, 1966

Philip Jones Griffiths, Street sign, Liverpool, 1966

I’ve been to see Recollections, the excellent exhibition of photographs by Philip Jones Griffiths, currently on at the Conservation Centre.  One of the great Magnum photographers, Griffiths had a connection with Liverpool, arriving in the city from his birthplace in North Wales to study pharmacy in the early 1950s.

Woman with local children, Liverpool, 1966

Philip Jones Griffiths, Woman with local children, Liverpool, 1966

After working for the Observer in the early 1960s, he covered the war in Vietnam for Magnum, eventually going on to publish Vietnam Inc. in 1971, a book that had a major impact on American perceptions of the war, and became a classic of photojournalism. However, he developed his skills through social and documentary photography in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, including photos taken in Liverpool which are included in this first retrospective of Griffiths’ British photographs since his death in March 2008.

Philip Jones Griffiths was one of the greatest and most influential photographers of the late twentieth century. Anyone who had the privilege to know him encountered a lively and enquiring mind with a strong – indeed driving – sense of justice. This was coupled with a quick and wicked sense of humour, which is evident in many of his photographs in this exhibition, with their irreverence towards authority, both political and cultural.
– Julian Stallabrass

Philip Jones Griffiths

Philip Jones Griffiths

From the exhibition notes:

Born in Rhuddlan, Wales, in 1936 Philip Jones Griffiths studied pharmacy in Liverpool before taking up a career as a freelance photojournalist. During his incredible career his assignments, often self-engineered, took him to over 120 countries and his photographs appeared in every major magazine in the world. An associate member of Magnum from 1966, he became a member in 1971, then in 1980 moved to New York to assume the presidency of the organisation, a post he held for a record five years.


Stockhausen Memorial Concert

Our second visit to the Cornerstone Festival tonight for the Stockhausen Memorial Concert.  Karlheinz Stockhausen died on 5th December last year, and this concert marked the first anniversary of his death with a programme that consisted of  Klaverstucke IX (1961), Zyklus  for solo percusslon (1959), Gesang der Jungelinge (1956)

The musicians were:

Sarah Nicolls (piano)
Joby Burgess (percussion)
Matthew Fairclough (sound diffusion)

Programme notes by Stephen Pratt:

Karlheinz Stockhausen 1928-2007
The great composer and musical innovator Karlheinz Stockhausen died on sth December last year.  Stockhausen’s
achievements greatly overshadow the controversies that critics who know little of his work have purveyed; for some, he was the arch infant terrible who never grew up, the standard-bearer of all things despicable in the modernist musical agenda. His interest in the extra-terrestrial just served to justify the prejudice.

If being a member of the avant-garde means that one is at the forefront of a movement, then at many stages of his career Stockhausen was certainly that. As a young composer he was at the heart ofthe group that formed around Messiaen at Darmstadt in the early 195os, developing an extended musical language from the legacy of Webern’s work.  His rigorous approach to compositional method and technique, his exploration of the spatial organisation of sound, and the extension of performing techniques not only marked him out as one of the most gified of his generation, but the significance of his work upon the future path of European modernism cannot be under-estimated.  At the same time, and almost single-handedly, he put electronic music on the map; few would argue that Gesang der Jungelinge, which we shall hear tonight, is the first great piece by any composer in this medium.

Stockhausen’s work never stood still: by the 1960s he was experimenting with new forms of notation, culminating in the texts for improvisation of Aus den sieben Tagen of 1968.  At the same time, he still recognised the power of the tonally-derived chord, as his remarkable vocal work Stimmung testified; and in Mantra (for two pianos and electronics, 1970) he returned to fully-notated music, with a remarkable fusion of electronic transformation and ‘formula’ composition.  By the mid 1970s he had embarked upon the opera cycle Licht, planning an opera
for each day ofthe week. The final day, Sonntag, was completed in 2003. The c0mp0siti0nal technique was again
generated by fundamental building blocks, formulas; whilst these function somewhat differently in the operas, it is not
difficult to equate this approach to technique to that which he had embarked on in the 19sos. Indeed, with Stockhausen’s music, it is the clarity of the initial thought and the seemingly boundless imagination which he brings to the development of that starting point that gives it its special qualities.

There was an extraordinary, late burst of creativity afier the c0mpletion of Licht when the composer began a set of 24 pieces connected to the hours ofthe day, under the general title Klang. It may be that that Stockhausen felt liberated by the completion of Licht and that many divergent paths were opened up for exploration. Performances have not caught up with the speed Stockhausen was writing in the final years and this work is far from known and remains to be assessed.

Stockhausen never came to Liverpool Hope, but Liverpool Hope did go to Stockhausen. Robin Hartwell has been hugely engaged with the composer’s music since the l96os, and attended many of the composer’s talks and concerts in London and elsewhere. More recently, he has been a regular attender at Stockhausen’s summer school in Kuerten. Two years ago, Helen Thomas sent an article about a section from Licht to the composer for his comments – as recently as August, 2007, he wrote back with the comment that Helen’s work was ‘beautiful, and true’. For my part, I met Stockhausen a couple of times, the last ofwhich was an interview for Radio 3. He was kind and generous in his time with me, and the planned 10 minutes ran to over 40 as he sang sections of Mantra and talked about humour in his work. So, to celebrate Stockhausen’s work in a concert here at Liverpool Hope on this date seems entirely appropriate.

The final piece played tonight, Gesang der Jungelinge, is reportedly Paul McCartney’s favorite Stockhausen work. He was the first Beatle to discover Stockhausen’s music and introduced John Lennon to Stockhausen in 1966. Stockhausen’s Hymnen was Lennon’s inspiration for Revolution#9 on the White Album. Stockhausen appears, fifth from the left in the back row, on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The photo used by The Beatles is the one shown above.

Cornerstone Festival: Joanna MacGregor

Cornerstone Festival: Joanna MacGregor

Joanna MacGregor

We enjoyed a suberb concert last night in The Great Hall at Hope University’s Everton campus – part of this year’s Cornerstone Festival.  Joanna MacGregor presented a varied and exciting programme of American piano music, ranging from spirituals to challenging pieces by Samuel Barber and John Cage. I was pleased to have been introduced to composers like Conlon Nancarrow and Mary Lou Harrison.

Joanna MacGregor is thought of as one of the world’s most wide-ranging and innovative musicians and has pursued a life connecting many genres of music defying categorizations.

Joanna MacGregor is one of contemporary music’s great individualists, a uniquely enlivening presence who slices her way through all the barriers she sees as false and limiting.
– George Hall, The Independent

Even a member of that mythical species, the completely tone deaf, could not fail to be stirred by a Joanna MacGregor performance. Simply to see her zipping around a keyboard grabbing fistfuls of notes at the behest of some unfeasible contemporary score is to watch a pianist pushing the human frame to its limits.
– Peter Kingston, The Guardian

She has performed in over sixty countries, often appearing as a solo artist with many of the world’s leading orchestras. This year she opened the London Jazz Festival with oud virtuoso and vocalist Dhafer Youssef, whose extraordinary music blends Sufi traditions, world and jazz influences, with Arabic lyricism and mysticism. As a recording artist Joanna MacGregor has made over 30 solo recordings , ranging from Bach, Scarlatti, Ravel and Debussy, to jazz and contemporary music. Her own record label SoundCircus was founded in 1998 and has released many highly successful recordings including the Mercury prize-nominated Play (including music by Bach, Ligeti and Piazzolla) and Neural Circuits, with music by Messiaen, Arvo Part and Nitin Sawhney. Current releases include Sidewalk Dances – the Moondog/Bach Art of Fugue project with Britten Sinfonia – and Deep River, music inspired by the Deep South, with saxophonist Andy Sheppard.

This was Joanna’s programme, with her own notes (the fact that she writes her own notes, to me, reflects her tremendous communicativeness about the music she is performing – something that comes across in her introductions when playing live:

Lost Highway
Traditional: Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
Johnny Cash/Haden: Spiritual
Traditional: Deep River
Traditional: Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down

When I was a young child, I loved to play (and sing) gospel hymns and spirituals. My father was a lay preacher, and I often travelled with him. I guess my involvement with the direct musical messages of the American landscape began back then; and I love driving across the States, particularly the mid-West and the South, with music for company while I travel along enormous plains and mountains. The first half of this American concert treads a path round all the songs and styles I grew up with, starting with the great anonymous composers of spirituals and a beautifully simple song written by the great Johnny Cash (1932-2003)·

Thelonious Monk (1917-82)
Round Midnight
Monk’s Point

I was given a cassette (remember those?) of Thelonious Sphere Monk playing solo when I was 14. It was all very difficult for me, but to try and get to grips with someone I knew intuitively would be an anchor (those harmonies!. that great way of poking and coaxing the piano!), I lovingly transcribed the iconic Round Midnight, and a much lesser known, quirkily humorous Monk’s Point, with a great stride left hand. Don’t believe people who tell you Monk had a bad piano technique: he knew exactly what he was doing. Not only one of jazz’s greatest innovators, thinkers and composers, but a great player too.

Charles Ives (1874-1954): The Anti-Abolitionist Riots
Conlon Nancarrow (1912-97): Prelude and Blues
Lou Harrison (1917-2003):  Slow Movement, Piano Concerto

A trio of short pieces bringing together the American ‘pioneer’ composers, whose music is both rugged and poetic.  Connecticut-born Ive’s short Anti-Abolitionist Riots (1908) is a dramatic, hard-hitting work, depicting the social unrest around the abolition of slavery riots of the 183os. The piano style is gruff and clangorous, pre-dating Bartok’s piano writing of the 194os. The wonderfully witty Nancarrow (born in Arkansas, like Johnny Cash) wrote the quasi-Bach Prelude and Blues (the prelude is in the style of a fugue) in 1936, before he went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

Lou Harrison was born in Portland, Oregon but lived most of his life in the San Franciso area, eventually buying land just outside the city and spending time on his farm. An early friend and collaborator of John Cage’s, Lou’s music was heavily influenced by Indonesian Gamelan, Cantonese Opera, Native American music, jazz and medieval music. I had the great fortune to meet him at Dartington in 1999, when I performed his wonderful piano concerto, which had been written originally for Keith Jarrett but terribly overlooked. The concerto encompasses all of the above references, but the slow movement is particularly gorgeous, capturing the stillness of the starry night and the sweep and romance of the American West.

Mary Lou Harrison (1910-81): Old Time Spiritual
Professor Longhair (1918-80): Big Chief
Dr John (1940-): Big Mac
Dameron/Count Basie: Nina Simone’s Good Bait

The brilliant blues pianist Mary Lou Williams was friend and mentor to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and wrote hundreds ofcompositions and arrangements; Old Time Spiritual is a simple blues hymn. Two giants of New Orleans are represented here by their most famous tunes: Mac Rebennack (aka Dr John) and the inestimable Professor Longhair, whose seminal Big Chief – particularly its left hand riff- single-handedly invented funk: as Dr John says, ”Professor Longhair put ‘funk’ into music; he’s the father of the stuff.”

The Nina Simone (1933-2003) reworking of Good Bait is the exact same story as my Monk transcriptions, though written down a little later (I think I was 20). I still have this tattered yellowing manuscript, but it’s unreadable (obviously written down in a hurry, and now play my own reworking: such is the story of improvised music). Good Bait comes from her marvellous debut album, made when she was 21; she lost all the royalty rights to that one and was at the start of what was to be a hard, bitter and complex life, fraught with hellish addictions and dramatically varying career fortunes as well as great political courage (she was at the forefront of the 60s Civil Rights campaign, and her music was used once again in Obama’s long campaign trail). She’s never stopped being a powerful figure for me.

Samuel Barber (1910-81): Excursions, Op. 20

Samuel Barber was the great Romantic ofAmerican 20th century composers; his orchestral music was lushly rich, ofien magical, and his vocal music (most famously the cycle for soprano and orchestra, Knoxville: Summer 0f 1915) captured memory and dreamy yearning.  Excursions (1944) is a popular work amongst young American pianists, thanks to Horowitz’s performances (he also championed Barber’s mighty, virtuoso Sonata), and poses pianistic challenges. Each of the four short movements encapsulates a slice of Americana, in a subtle, fine-boned way. The first depicts city life with catchy, tricky rhytms, jazzy playfulness, and a terrific passacaglia bass. In Slow Blues Tempo portrays rocking-chair-on-the-porch-Mississippi blues, asymmetric and reflective, compared to the later, heavier Chicago blues of the 40s and 5os. The third Excursion, a lyrical set of variations on the cowboy song T’he Streets of Laredo, explores calypso by having each hand play in cross rhythms throughout , and the final movement is a barn dance, similar in spirit to Copland’s Rodeo, but jazzier, lighter and more wittily mischievous.

Frederic Rzewski (b.1938): Winnsboro’ Cottonmill Blues

Like Barber, Rzewski’s brilliant piano music often uses folk material, most famously in his 90 minute The People United Will Never Be Defeated, a set of36 variations based on a Chilean anthem. Winnsbor’o Cottonmill Blues (1975) was inspired by the film Norma Rae, about a strike in a small industrial town. Rzewsld treats the piano as a huge, rumbling factory machine, and carries on the great tradition of tone clusters invented by Henry Cowell, asking the pianist to play with her palms and forearms to generate a terrific amount of noise. The humanity of the 16-bar blues is made explicit in a gorgeous, all-too-brief middle section, before the ferocious machines return.

John Cage (1912-1992): 4’33”

Possibly the most subversive piece ever written, it’s commonly assumed Cage’s 4’33” of silence is for piano solo, but it’s a piece that can be performed by any group of instrumentalists (visit YouTube for an entertaining array of performances). The BBC Symphony Orchestra played it to a packed Festival Hall during their Cage weekend in 2004 (and the alarm back-up system on BBC Radio 3, which kicks in whenever ‘dead air’ is detected, had to be switched off for the duration). Cage cited it as his most important piece; it was certainly his most controversial. In 1951 he visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University, a completely sound-proofed room. He described hearing one high sound and one low sound, which the engineer at the time told him was his nervous system in operation, and his blood in circulation. (There’s since been some skepticism about these explanations, but the experience for Cage was significant, nonetheless). Another influence came from Cage’s friend, the artist Robert Rauschenberg, who had produced, also in 1951, a series of white paintings, seemingly ‘blank’ canvases (”Actually what pushed me into it was not guts but the example of Robert Rauschenberg. His white paintings… when I saw those, I said, ‘Oh yes, I must. Otherwise I’m lagging, otherwise music is lagging’.”) Cage’s musical equivalent to the Rauschenberg paintings uses the silence of the piece as an aural ‘blank canvas’ to reflect the dynamic flux of ambient sounds surrounding each performance; the music of the piece is natural sounds of the players, the audience, the building, and the outside environment.

4’33” falls into three movements; each movement is signified by re-setting the stopwatch and opening and closing the keyboard. I like to perform the timings David Tudor first did in 1952 (though these timings are always at the digression ofthe performers): 30″, 2’23”, and 1’20”.

George Gershwin (1898-1937): The Gershwin Songbook

The Man I Love; S’Wonderful: My One and Only; Clap Yo’ Hands; Do ItAgain; SomebodyLoves Me; Sweet and Lowdown; Fascinating Rhythm; Strike Up The Band; Who Cares; Oh, Lady Be Good; Stairway to Paradise; Do Do Do; That Certain Feeling; Liza; I Got Rhythm.

George Gershwin was one of the most gifted and mercurial composers of the 20th century, a musician who single-handedly invented ‘crossover’ music, and straddled two musical worlds: improvised (jazz) and notated (classical). From the storming success of Rhapsody in Blue to the brilliant examination of gospel and blues in Porgy and Bess, Gershwin effortlessly, and lightly, used his fabulous talent to convey a certain kind ofwit and immediacy and still delights and surprises. The Gershwin Songbook contains (very short, very demanding) arrangements of 16 of his most famous songs with his brother Ira. All draw on the styles of jazz and Tin Pan Alley, but make references to classical composers too, most noticeably Rachmaninov, Debussy, Stravinsky and even Schumann. His exquisite virtuosity is always at the service of a sophisticated and worldly self-deprecation; if Gershwin had been a dancer, not a composer, he’d surely have been Fred Astaire.

Le Corbusier: The Art of Architecture

Very interesting exhibition in an unusual venue: the exhibition dedicated to the life and work of architect Le Corbusier, one of the capital of Culture highlights, is being held in the Catholic Cathedral crypt. It presents a wealth of original architectural models, interior reconstructions, drawings, furniture, vintage photographs, films, tapestries, paintings, sculpture and books by Le Corbusier himself.

The exhibition presents his most important architectural projects, furniture and interior designs, his paintings, textiles, drawings and books. It gives a comprehensive introduction to Le Corbusier’s work and influences, but also reveals new views on Le Corbusier for people already familiar with his architecture. As indicated by the title ‘The Art of Architecture’, the exhibition focuses on Le Corbusier’s concept of the synthesis of arts – fusing art, architecture, design, urban planning, film and other disciplines into a creative view of the contemporary environment that shaped the 20th century.

In the Observer, Stephen Bayley writes:

The gloomy crypt is all that was finished of Edwin Lutyens’ Catholic cathedral in Liverpool. Now, with dissonant irony, it houses a major exhibition of Le Corbusier. Why irony? Generally, because Lutyens was historicist and Corb was anti-sentiment, at least of the historic sort. Specifically, because Frederick Gibberd’s 1967 cathedral now above Lutyens is a monument to what most people think they do not like about Corb: abrasive showboating in concrete…

The case against Le Corbusier is simple: he is the most influential architect ever … but that influence is malign. How did a belief that ‘space and light and order’ are ‘things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep’ become corrupted into desolate Thamesmead or the burning banlieue of Toulouse-le Mirail?

Le Corbusier’s architectural philosophy was elegant, simple and correct. He wanted houses to be as useful as machines. What we deride as tower blocks he called vertical garden cities, designs which freed up the land. He developed a new system of proportions called ‘Le Modulor’ based entirely on the human form: it is modern classicism. We are absolutely wrong to condemn him because of asinine politicians responsible for postwar social housing. Entirely lacking the conceptual sophistication of Le Corbusier, Thamesmead is hideous because the penny-pinching government insisted on inept systems of prefabrication. There were government cash inducements to build tall at any price. They forgot about the gardens, the proportions and the art.

That was not Le Corbusier’s fault. The case for Le Corbusier is simple: some of the most beautiful buildings of all time are his. The Villa Savoie in Poissy of 1931 (a fine model is in the Crypt) is an absolute, world-class, eternal masterpiece. And so too is the 1952 Unité d’habitation in Marseille. This is the most complete expression of his architectural philosophy: an entire city in a single building created by one controlling intelligence. And it really works.

The exhibition is divided into three thematic sections:

1. Contexts

Contexts is organised around the five cities that shaped Le Corbusier’s life and work and his ideas about the built environment: La Chaux-de-Fonds, Paris, Algiers, New York and Chandigarh. These cities illustrate the historical and social context that shaped Le Corbusier’s work, provide important cultural references and introduce some of his main works.

2. Privacy and Publicity

Privacy and Publicity consists of seven settings representing seminal houses or interiors using either large models or reconstructed rooms. Examples range from Le Corbusier’s early works in La Chaux-de-Fonds, to the famous settings in the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau and the Salon d’Automne, to his artistic concepts from the 1930s and 40s. Chairs, tables and other pieces of furniture shown in the context of these projects are clearly presented as part of a typological evolution from the ‘primitive’ to the ‘standard’ type. A selection of paintings, sculptures and tapestries gives further insights into Le Corbusier’s artistic preoccupation with the human environment.

3. Built Art

Built Art is a bold dramatisation of Le Corbusier’s large-scale projects mainly from his late period. It includes six to eight ‘large projects’ including the Palais des Nations, Geneva (1927), the Soviet Palace competition project (1933), Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles (1947-1952), the chapel at Ronchamp (1955), the Philips Pavilion in Brussels (1958) and the Capitol buildings at Chandigarh (1954-1958). Large-scale models, digital animations and documentary films help explain the ambition behind these projects, namely, to redefine public space and give meaning to the concept of the ‘monumental’ in 20th century architecture. I was struck by the joyful colours of the tapestry that Le Corbusier designed for the Parliament Building in Chandigarh (top), compared to the severity of the building itself (below).