Friday, November 26, 2010

Old Welsh Song

Certain English-born writers of Welsh descent have sometimes overcompensated by going a bit native. John Cowper Powys, for instance, moved to Corwen and wrote books about Merlin and Owain Glyndwr that were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages long. Richard Hughes, author of A High Wind in Jamaica, could often be found on Welsh rivers piloting a coracle. Henry Treece, on the other hand, re-connected with his Cymric roots by writing the lyric, Old Welsh Song. In 1968 it was set to music by folk queen, Joan Baez, the track both opening and concluding her Baptism album. Lovely in a melancholy kind of a way her version is available as a ring tone for Welsh depressives everywhere. Here are those lyrics in full:

I take with me where I go a pen and a golden bowl;
Poet and beggar step in my shoes, or a prince in a purple shawl.
I bring with me when I return to the house that my father's hands made,
A crooning bird on a crystal bough and, o, a sad, sad word!

Wilde in Swansea

After returning from a hugely successful and lucrative lecture tour of the United States in 1882, Oscar Wilde moved into a fancy house in Chelsea. In order to pay for its upkeep he was forced to go schlepping about the UK lecturing on aesthetics to provincial audiences. For the next few years places like Newport, Cardiff and Swansea would see a lot of the infamous Irish writer.

The attendance for Wilde's lecture on 'The House Beautiful' at the Albert Hall, Swansea, in 1884, was not as large as might have been expected given his notoriety. Apparently locals were politely attentive without being overly enthusiastic. During his talk Wilde waxed lyrical about Harmony of Colouring and Selection of Furniture. The good citizens of Swansea were astonished to discover that when purchasing furniture one should take into consideration comfort. He also suggested that if your mantelpiece wasn't aesthetically perfect you needn't necessarily give it away. Sound advice.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Don't Want To See You Like This

In case you missed it here’s the official video for The Joy Formidable’s latest offering I Don’t Want To See You Like This. Like all their previous singles it’s a multiple orgasm of a pop experience. Apparently Mold’s finest shot their vid on the Gower between rain showers. And Ritzy looks just great done up as a triffid or a wood nymph or whatever she is meant to be. In days of yore when the music industry was less fractured than it is today this band would have been massive. They may yet be. Their debut album proper, The Big Roar, is set for release in January 2011. Can’t wait.

Monday, November 22, 2010

David Hurn at the Third Floor Gallery

I’m en route to Cardiff Bay to view the David Hurn exhibition at the Third Floor Gallery. On this crisp autumn afternoon Bute Street itself is a bit of a street photographer’s dream. Sprawled on the grass outside the Salvation Army hospice a pair of grizzled alcoholics are necking off-licence lager. Further along the thoroughfare a cluster of Yemeni women gossip in the shadow of St Mary’s Church. At the PDSA, a man leads a three-legged dog inside for some canine maintenance. Wish I’d brought my camera.

This used to be Cardiff’s most notorious street but long gone are the cafes, brothels, and fearsome boozers, with names like the Bucket of Blood, that made Tiger Bay infamous. Instead the non-descript council houses could belong to any estate in Britain. When the bulldozers razed this area to the ground in the mid-Sixties they robbed south Cardiff of a good deal of its character. I buy a mars bar from the doleful mini-market and mentally curse those short-sighted city planners of yesteryear.

Down in the Bay, though, there’s plenty of life in evidence as office workers and locals bustle about the shops. Everywhere, it seems, new buildings have sprung up with their ubiquitous wave motifs – architectural nods to Cardiff’s maritime past. At the junction with James Street I press a discrete button on one of the older buildings and get buzzed inside. After manfully scaling three flights of steps I arrive at the gallery itself… which is shut. Note to self: always check gallery opening times before venturing forth. Not to worry though, I’m allowed inside anyway because: “you made the effort to get here.” Good people.

David Hurn’s photographic career has spanned decades. He documented the Soviet invasion of Hungary in ’56; did publicity shots of Jane Fonda in Barbarella; snapped the Beatles in their prime; and all the while faithfully chronicled Welsh life in its multifarious forms. This exhibition – called Passing Time – takes advantage of Hurn’s longevity by pairing up his early pictures with later works. But these are not random juxtapositions – the photographs carry visual echoes or recurring motifs. These aesthetic tics and thematic preoccupations provide insight into the working character of the photographer himself.

A small dog seen on a London street in a photo from 1955, for example, finds a later incarnation in Stockholm in 2010. A nude female model being shot by a barrage of lensmen in Sixties Soho is complemented by a picture of a male stripper taken in Usk in 1995. A more subtle example places the Beatles in flight next to four seabirds winging their way over sand dunes (see pic). It’s an interesting idea that even forces the viewer to re-evaluate Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous notion of ‘the decisive moment’. Is it really the crucial moment that defines a picture, or the unspoken predilections of the photographer?

This unusual presentation of an established Magnum photographer’s work is thoroughly in keeping with the Third Floor Gallery’s left-field ethos. Proprietors Joni Karanka and Maciej Dakowicz pride themselves on exhibiting cutting edge, contemporary, street photography. In an even more radical step they have invited enthusiasts on the forums of Flickr to pick out their own pairings of Hurn’s work which will later supersede the current exhibition. In other words the public will become the curator.

Despite all these bright ideas the Third Floor Gallery barely survives on a shoestring budget. Like all the best cultural hubs it is the drive and enthusiasm of maverick individuals that keeps the place ticking over. Funding, at present, is a pipedream especially with the chill wind of recession blowing in. Yet, if I were in charge of the cultural purse strings it is precisely such enterprises with their emphasis on the experimental and the contemporary that I’d be supporting. You’d never know it but Wales has a very strong photographic heritage and with the digital age making photographers of us all we should be allowing movers and shakers like Karanka and Dakowicz to take us forward.

*Passing Time by David Hurn is on at the Third Floor Gallery from November 19 – January 9. David Hurn will be giving a talk at the gallery on December 3, at 7pm.

*An excellent video interview with David Hurn for Daylight Magazine in which he explains the ideas behind his Passing Time exhibition can be found here.

Fred Astaire in Cardiff

In 1928, Fred Astaire, along with his sister Adele, spent two weeks at the Angel Hotel in Cardiff. They were starring in Funny Face at the Empire Theatre. Music for the show had been written by George and Ira Gershwin. It had already been a hit on Broadway and before its London run the people of south Wales had a fortnight to enjoy it. Tickets sold well and the Astaires played to packed and enthusiastic houses. Fred, talking to local press in Cardiff, said he was thinking of making a movie. Not long afterwards he did a screen test for Paramount but was not considered suitable for films. At another audition for RKO it was said of him: "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little." Soon afterwards, together with Ginger Rogers, he would become a massive screen star.

Bank of the Black Sheep

PI, Robin Llywelyn, is in a difficult spot. He has awoken in a hospice for the dying, handcuffed to his bed, suffering from amnesia. To make matters worse his cancer is in an advanced state – in fact, he only has two months left to live. With time rapidly slipping away Llywelyn attempts to tie up the loose ends of his life and regain some sense of self. In Bank of the Black Sheep Robert Lewis’s hugely enjoyable crime trilogy reaches a suitably comic conclusion. Once again the author has managed to extract humour from the bleakest of human situations. This novel is both a sardonic meditation on death and a crime caper involving a printing press that can churn out millions of pounds in fake bank notes. The action swings from a gothic deadhouse in Llandovery to the bingo halls of Merthyr Tydfil. If you are looking for a slice of noir to help get you through the existential horrors of Christmas, I can think of none blacker.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Bill Drummond in Conversation

Infamous musical, arty type Bill Drummond formerly of the KLF and K-Foundation (with whom he burnt a million quid) will be appearing in conversation at the Milkwood Gallery, 41 Lochaber Street, Roath, Cardiff, on Tuesday, November 9th (6pm-7pm). Amongst other things he’ll be chatting to long-term collaborator Tracey Moberly about their recent project ‘The Foundry’. Sounds cool.

The event is being jointly organised by g39/WARP. You need to email to book your seat.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Stone Tape

In 1982 the landlord of the Prince of Wales in Kenfig claimed that he could hear organ music emanating from the walls of his Seventeenth Century pub. Two rational, scientific men John Marke and Allan Jenkins decided to tape the noises. They both had proper degrees. Marke, an electrical engineer from Nottage, had been attending the pub ever since he was old enough to drink. His collaborator, Jenkins, was an industrial chemist specialising in crystallography.

The theory was that ferric salts and silica in the walls had the potential to retain sound energy from previous centuries. Chemicals present in the stonework were similar to those found in recording tape and microchips. In order to stimulate the silica and release energy they hit upon the idea of attaching electrodes to the 4ft-thick walls and then passing thousands of volts through them.

They set up their recording equipment in a room above the bar. Between the hours of 1am and 4am they set to work. For four weeks they passed an electric current through the walls and recorded the results. The fruit of their labours (now known as the Stone Tape) was a tape which contained some weird sounds. Amongst the noises picked up were ghostly voices (possibly speaking an ancient form of Welsh); organ music; footsteps; the sound of a key turning in a lock; and a ticking clock. The room contained no clock.

Their activities attracted much interest from the media. The Welsh scientists featured on an American TV show called That’s Incredible! They also appeared on BBC’s Newsnight, as well as being interviewed by Japanese and Canadian film crews. In recent times the scientific credibility of the tape has been called into question. Technicians at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop are said to have described the sounds on the tape as being similar to distortion and feedback, possibly caused by the generator used to supply voltage to the walls.

Marke also carried out wall recordings at the Jolly Sailor pub in Porthcawl. The results are not known.

*In the above picture John Marke is on the left, while Allan Jenkins is on the right attaching electrodes to the wall.