much ado about nothing

I recently purchased and downloaded ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ from Digital Theatre. It’s a recording of the excellent production with David Tenant and Catherine Tate as the leads Benedick and Beatrice. I usually find Shakespeare on screen to be dull and unengaging compared to live performances, but this was both funny and moving, so in the latter respect it was similar to Baz Luhrman’s ‘Romeo+Juliet’, which was the first time I had believed and felt the on-screen emotions.

Unlike that film, though, and unlike the Kenneth Branagh version, this Much Ado was still contained within the confines of a theatre. It employed unusual techniques, however, such as a revolving stage which meant that there was always the impression of further action taking place within the dark shadows of the colonnade that kept rotating in and out of view. Without the recording, I would not have experienced this wonderful production, so I’m glad it exists, but I would still prefer to have experienced the joy and humour live on stage, which makes me glad we’re once more approaching the season of outdoor Shakespeare.

This year the festival includes Much Ado About Nothing, but how will it compare to Tenant and Tate? I’ll certainly take the opportunity of seeing the rarely performed Titus Andronicus, which is not for the faint-hearted, and adding to my collection of Macbeth productions, which peaked with  the WWI-set production by The Royal Shakespeare Company in The Gulbenkian Theatre in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. My favourite outdoor Shakespeare remains Comedy of Errors by Illyria, but that’s going back quite a few years now, remaining a bright highlight standing out among many others.

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015 theatre No Comments

conjunctions of time and space

I was in Edinburgh recently, where I watched a fascinating, if overlong, television documentary on the life and work of David Hockney. The location of such viewing would normally be unimportant, but I mention it because the following day (i.e. yesterday), I went to an display of Roy Lichtenstein’s later work in the Artists Rooms strand at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art.

While I was growing up in Edinburgh, I would frequent the gallery in the Royal Botanic Gardens now known as Inverleith House which is where I first encountered many of the works now on permanent display in the Gallery of Modern Art. My visit yesterday felt like a chance encounter with familiar faces or past loves from long ago (literally in the case of some portraits), and the realisation of recognition, like Nicholas Jenkins encountering Jean Duport in an art gallery in the final volume of ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’, was an overwhelming wave of memory like Proust’s famous taste of madeleine cakes described in ‘A La Recherche du Temps Perdu’.

But that was’t the only connection occurring across time. Lichtenstein was developing his iconic and distinctive style at the time Hockney was painting in California, and the latter’s ‘Rocky Mountains with Tired Indians‘ was on display yesterday. The documentary had discussed Hockney’s efforts and explorations to depict water, so it was interesting that the exhibition explicitly covered Lichtenstein’s explorations to depict reflections on glass. In both cases it was important for the artist to consider the role of the light effects on the finished work, distorting or obscuring what lay behind. Some of Lichtenstein’s reflections were highly stylised bands using large versions of the brightly coloured Benday dots of his trademark style, which contrasted with his use, in ‘In The Car‘, of relatively simple lines to indicate glass and possibly movement. The faces in that painting were also very familiar to me because, as a student, I had a large poster of it which I bought in The Third Eye Centre in Glasgow. That poster dominated every flat I rented for many years and I would ponder it for hours.

In a more distant personal connection, the exhibition also contains a flattened but solid explosion like the one in ‘WHAAM‘. That painting was my first encounter with Lichtenstein’s work and it quickly became a favourite. It was my introduction to Pop Art long before I encountered Warhol’s soup cans or Monroe prints. The solid explosion in the exhibition, appropriately high up on the wall like the jet fighter being destroyed mid air by a missile, has at least three flat layers arranged to give it a remarkable appearance of volume.

But that wasn’t the only reference in the exhibition to earlier art works . One was a direct development of  Lichtenstein’s ‘Art’, with the word alone inside a border and half-hidden by ‘reflections’ on glass, while another, of a yelling baby, referred to Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream‘ which I saw in the same gallery a couple of years ago. Stylised lilies floating on polished metal referred to Monet’s series of lily paintings. I was unaware of Lichtenstein’s nudes painted in the 1990s in his trademark style, but I like them a lot because they unexpectedly tap into the rich tradition of the human form in art.

This morning, being on good time for my train south, I called into The City Art Centre near Waverley Station but the current exhibition was temporarily closed so I had a coffee in the gallery’s cafe where they were playing my personal favourite ‘Telephone and Rubber Band’ by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra over the sound system. That piece always makes me smile.

Afterwards  I went to The Fruitmarket Gallery across the road where there was an exhibition of Brazilian sculpture  called ‘Possibilities of the Object.’ I found it all very obscure, and indeed the accompanying leaflet tellingly described one work as, “…neither painting nor sculpture, but an object that resists immediate comprehension.” Another work there, however, at least had some meaning for me. It was an open attache case with rows of nails filling one half and pointing straight up, rendering the case unusable, and hinting darkly at the nastier side of business . This seemed a direct reference to Man Ray’s ‘Gift‘, an iron with nails soldered perpendicular to the otherwise flat base plate. That famously unusable iron was my personal introduction to Surrealism, so seeing it referenced in an exhibition that I had only chanced to visit, seemed like another happy conjunction across time and space.

And the moral of this long, rambling story is that interesting documentaries on television are all very well, but it’s still important to get out the door and let them inform and expand a personal encounter with art in galleries.

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Monday, March 16th, 2015 art No Comments

bye, bye miss american pie – d mclean

Today is officially Pi Day. If you write the date in the American format of mm/dd/yy you get 03/14/15 which is close to 3.1415, which means that today should really be called American Pi day. But that has connotations of the film of that name. Pi Day is celebrated each year in America. However, it will be celebrated especially today at 9:26:53 (either AM or PM) because that’s as close as you can get to 3.141592653. I wish my father were alive and aware enough to experience this. It would have appealed to his sense of fun with numbers.

At the risk of sounding like a pedant arguing the precise start of the new Millennium, I would point out that Pi, expressed as a decimal, to five significant places is 3.14159. If you round that up, it becomes 3.1416, so this time next year will nearly be as good as today but without the added bonus of hours and minutes. (See also Pi Approximation Day on 22nd July (22/7).

Saturday, March 14th, 2015 maths No Comments

prophecy theme by brian eno

Any regular readers out there will probably groan as Brian’s name is mentioned here once more. Its most recent appearance in this blog was a quote from him on a poster for Penguin Cafe. This time, it’s because I recently went to see David Lynch’s’Dune’, some thirty years on since its original release, and he appears early in the pre-film credits: “Prophecy Theme by Brian Eno”.

The Arts Picturehouse’s publicity described the film as “under-valued”, but I was keen to see it again on a large screen, and I certainly wasn’t the only one as the cinema was virtually fully-booked.

Yes, the film was still a disastrous mishmash of exposition giving its stars very little to do, and its battle scenes cling to old, out-dated war films, so it doesn’t stand up well to expectations of emotional involvement in the action, but I still like its art direction vision of a futuristic Edwardian art deco.

So, what of Brian’s prophecy theme? It was understated and subtle, especially in comparison to the rest of the soundtrack by Toto, almost to the point of being unnoticeable under the pumping sound levels pounding through the cinema like thumpers summoning giant worms.


Thursday, February 26th, 2015 film No Comments

on the unexpected benefits of algorithms

I was recently talking to one of the volunteers at work, discussing the well-known exercise in probability theory where there’s a game show with three doors. Behind each door is a prize, one of which is very valuable while the other two are worthless. The contestant has to pick one door, then one of the other doors is opened to reveal a worthless prize. The contestant then has the opportunity to change his/her mind and choose the remaining door. What is the contestant’s best strategy?

The answer, perhaps counter-intuitively, is: switch and pick the remaining door.  Precisely because it seemed counter-intuitive, I decided to write a simple programme to show the results of a large number of iterations, but, while planning the code, I proved to my own satisfaction that changing your mind is the better strategy. So I had the strange experience of learning through preparing to code, with the outcome that I didn’t need to write the code!

In effect there are only two courses:

  • either the contestant picks the door with the valuable prize (a 1 in 3 chance), in which case it would be unwise to switch; or:
  • the contestant picks one of two doors with the worthless prize,  (a 2 in 3 chance), in which case it would be wise to switch.

Since the latter course is more likely, the better strategy is to switch. QED. The revelation of the prize behind another door is merely a distraction.

Conclusion: the discipline of writing an algorithm helps to think logically about the problem.

Monday, February 9th, 2015 coding No Comments

penguin cafe (nee cafe orchestra)

“Eccentric, charming, accommodating, surprising, seductive, warm, reliable, modest and unforgettable”

Brian Eno

That’s what Brian thinks about Penguin Cafe, according to their publicity material and I certainly wouldn’t disagree. They performed a rare concert last night in the impressive new concert hall at Saffron Hall, and played live on Radio 3 in the run up to the concert.

Arthur Jeffes (son of Simon Jeffes, founder of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra) is in a difficult position. The group, now called Penguin Cafe, opened their concert in Saffron Walden last night with ‘Telephone and Rubber Band’, which never fails to make me smile, and closed their encore with the joyous ‘Music for a Found Harmonium’.

Between these two numbers, they performed a mixture of old (‘Southern Jukebox’, ‘Perpetuum Mobile’, Bean Fields’, ‘In the Back of a Taxi’) and new pieces mainly from ‘The Red Book’ (‘1420′, ‘Black Hibiscus’, ‘Bluejay’, ‘Odeon’). Arthur introduced them all, often with fond reference to his father’s work, and sometimes mentioning his childhood memories of them. The older pieces, usually involved a wider range of instruments, such as a melodica, are still quirky, lively and eccentric, and obviously pleased the crowd.

His enthusiasm for ‘1420’ was obvious, but he appeared slightly nervous when introducing two pieces as ‘world premieres’. He described a new piece called ‘Birdwatching’ as a reworking of a favourite tune by Cornelius, who is, apparently, a “Japanese Brian Eno”, which for me is a good introduction that made me warm to it in advance, and it rewarded my openness with the lively passion and quirkiness I expect of PCO.

For the first encore piece, Arthur played solo piano for Harry Piers (sp?), a piece he wrote for his father’s memorial.  It, too, had emotion, presumably from the memories it evoked, despite its repetitive minimalist style, and was played with passion.

In contrast, the newer work generally lacked the energy and eccentricity of the older pieces, which is why I described Arthur as being in a difficult position. The choice of encore was clearly justified as they finished to an almost unanimous standing ovation. Can Penguin Cafe create new work that meets the expectations of fans of the older music, and continue to perform the older pieces with the required freshness and vitality? On the basis of last night’s concert, they most definitely can, providing they don’t let it slide into bland niceness.


Sunday, February 8th, 2015 music 1 Comment

the phantom tollbooth

After recently discovering the existence of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, I promptly downloaded a copy from Amazon and read it. Wow! It’s crying out to be animated. Yes, I know MGM released a film of it in 1970, but I’ve never seen it, and I don’t want to until I’ve developed my ideas of how I would tackle it. The movement in one scene really stands out for me:  where Humbug, Milo and King Azaz the Unabridged are discussing whether or not Milo should rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the Air, with Humbug believing and arguing two contradictory points of view. I can clearly imagine Humbug sliding back and forth from king to boy, alternating between outrage and persuasion.

It’s such a stimulating story that I’ve started using trello to plan a film. Its system of lists and cards that can be dragged and dropped (or should that be drag-and-dropped?) is perfect for experimenting with different arrangements.

Saturday, February 7th, 2015 animation No Comments

skynet is alive and well and living in digitopolis

In a more or less arbitrary way, I decided to create something, only to discover that someone had beaten me to what I thought was my idea, which just goes to show that creation should come from itself not an independent self-conscious decision. Recently I’ve been lulling myself to sleep at night by mentally listing homophones. It’s an almost infinite list, so it’s not the best aid to relaxation. I toyed with a diversion into word play, and tried to link it to the idea of digital natives, which got me wondering where digital natives live, and voila, we have the city of digitopolis.

First, I made a brief, unhelpful excursion into the etymology of digitalis then a further Google search led me to The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Digitopolis, it turns out, is one of the capital cities in the Kingdom of Wisdom, and is where the one of the rulers, the Mathemagician lives. Why have I never heard of this modern classic, far less read it?

Alternative names for the residence of digital natives include Numeropolis, apparently used by Juster in early drafts and Digital City, resonant of some futuristic space opera, but in practice this turns out to be a much more prosaic project in Teeside. Cyber city is apparently a cyberpunk anime and that leads us into the territory of Chiba City and Neuromancer. But it turns out I’m already there.

I recently started using Chrome in addition to Safari, and installed extensions for Sidekick and Kifi. Twitter has started sending me discover messages, which I turned off, but it feels like I’ve crossed an event horizon.  StumbleUpon was an early attempt at a curated web but it never lived up to my expectations. Now it seems that the web is curated either by an Artificial Intelligence or a hive mind of real people.

But at least I found The Phantom Tollbooth using only Google.

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015 artificial intelligence, creativity, web No Comments

silent (and absent) partners

Silent Partners, the exhibition at The Fitzwilliam Museum about mannequins, is simultaneously fascinating and disturbing, the latter effect hinted at by the exhibition’s subtitle: from function to fetish. The exhibition is certainly wide-ranging in content, starting with the changing role of mannequins from implicit and unacknowledged artists’ models to arty jokes acknowledging their use to criticisms of the formality and rigidity they lead to. In the third and final room, the exhibition covers the introduction of children’s dolls and the development of shop window dummies, which leads neatly into their portrayal in surrealist art and finally in contemporary work by The Chapman Brothers. Given the inclusion of such recent activities, I expected to see mention of other recent uses of mannequins, such as Dr Who storylines from the 1970’s where shop window dummies came to life. That could link to the repeated appearance  of Showroom Dummies and robots in the music and visual imagery of Kraftwerk, and from there to animatronics in entertainment, and then the use of armatures in stop motion animation. The creations of Mackinnon and Saunders for films such as Corpse Bride are fascinating in their miniature mechanical precision, with eye movements adjusted by controls inside the ears.  Lest you think this last point too far removed from the theme of the exhibition, I draw your attention to the large images projected onto the wall of the stairwell leading to the gallery. They include one of these armatures but I saw no reference to it in the exhibition.

Monday, October 27th, 2014 art, Exhibitions No Comments

keep music live

In my younger days, I went to many live music concerts, and have fond memories in particular of seeing both Laurie Anderson and Kraftwerk on several occasions.

In more recent years I’ve been to very few concerts. Indeed, the most recent live music I’ve experienced was hearing guitarist Steve Bean play at my wedding in July this year. I really enjoyed that experience. He is highly talented with a wide repertoire (from Rodriguez’ Caravan d’Aranjuez to Bohemian Rhapsody) and has played with Rodrigo y Gabriela.

A recent quick perusal, however, of the What’s On section of the website for the Cambridge Corn Exchange, revealed two must-see performances.  As a result, I now have tickets to see Philip Glass perform Koyanisqaatsi there on 14 November and the afore-mentioned Rodrigo y Gabriela on 1st December. Exciting! It almost makes up for missing Steve Reich and Kraftwerk perform in a double bill at the Manchester International Festival around 2009.

Monday, October 6th, 2014 music No Comments