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I only live here part 3: Call Mr Robeson & Inside

Posted: September 2nd, 2010, by Stan Tontas

CALL MR ROBESON, Zoo Southside, 21.8.2010

I liked this musical biography a lot, only knowing the vaguest picture of the singer’s life: Ol’ Man River, South Wales miners and not much else. He turns out to be tough, charismatic, intelligent, well-read and driven, reaching heights of international fame then battling on in the face of politically-motivated attacks. When he (as played by Tay? Aluko) talks of his father as his inspiration you shudder to realise that you’re only 3 full generations from slavery. That sobering fact is used to explain his determination to carry on in the face of travel bans and hostility.

The play uses music to great effect in two powerful scenes: switching his set to Negro Spirituals / Freedom songs on realising his audience had been segregated (these Walls of Jordan, going to come crashing down). And at a festival at the height of his notoriety, with a cordon of workers protecting the stage from an attack by white supremacists, a rendition of Old Man River in which he struggles to be heard over the blades of a police helicopter but finally drowns it out. Music as weapon in defence of human dignity and attack on injustice, in Aluko’s gorgeous voice that reaches you through your gut as much as your ears.

There are moments of humour, with a recurring joke about his womanising, but also harrowing psychological drama as he reaches his lowest point in the mid-1950s. It adds up to a complete portrait that returns to life a complex and driven man who has slightly fallen out between the cracks of history.

INSIDE, Zoo Roxy, 16.08.2010

First a caveat: I know nothing about dance except that it comes with music. While others in the queue for this were asking “are you here for the Jean Aubreu?” I was thinking about 65 Days of Static. (The entire reason I saw this show? Many years ago that band left a sticker in the 13th Note Club which held together my bikelight until recently.)

Overall I enjoyed the show with some reservations that may have nothing to do with its quality. The dancing was both muscular and supple; looked high standard to me. I have issues with the way it related its theme of imprisonment, which felt like it drew wholly on film and TV representations rather than any real-life experiences. I’d love for the clichés of rape, pecking orders and macho posturing to be supplemented (if not overturned) by a more nuanced portrayal. I was left with unanswered questions. Increasing numbers of people are imprisoned: what is it actually like? Surely a big thing about confinement is the lack of space, constraint of movement? That didn’t feature here as the dancers slid & scampered across the whole breadth of the stage.

Another avenue not explored is the two-tier power structure of guards and prisoners (think Stanford Prison Experiment). These dancers all seem to play the role of prisoners, and interchangeably so. It’s an approach but I think they’ve missed an opportunity ripe with possibilities for reversal and surprise. Maybe that would require a more political engagement than the media-led view; but it would have dodged the brief moment where it looked like a boy-band video.

Aside from this: it was too long. I didn’t see enough variation in the routines and would have happily sheared off 20 minutes. The music is good but the programme’s “experimental” tag overstates it slightly; QUIET-loud-QUIET style post-rock isn’t unfamiliar now. I could have listened to more of the harsh rhythmic-industrial parts, they seemed to fit well with the dancing.

Gripes aside, a dance show that holds my non-dance fan interest has to have had quite a bit going for it.

I only live here part 2

Posted: August 30th, 2010, by Stan Tontas

Edinburgh’s slowest Festivals reviewer gets around to typing up his notes…

Although Edinburgh had more “Free!” events than in previous years, in most cases you were getting what you paid for and the standards were pretty low. Better to decide based on the quality of the beer than the banter. (A notable exception must be the Not-the-Perrier Award winner.)

One of the better free shows was News At Kate, at the Voodoo Rooms. Topical material from a performer who comes across as geniune and front-free, taking perceived-as-tricky topics like feminism and managing to make them funny. She engages with audience members without putting them down for cheap laughs and it’s impossible not to like her. Warm & funny stuff about her encounters with Peter Stringfellow and Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth.

I love unashamedly highbrow culture when it’s as open and exploratory as this. A near-capacity Usher Hall in rapt attention to 4 virtuosos, not just for straightforward crowd-pleasing chamber pieces but challenging works. The 3 scheduled pieces, by Steve Reich, George Crumb and Aleksandra Vrebalov were varied and made (discreet) use of delays and electronics.

The first piece comprised a tower of Babel of stringed instrumentation, starting with (I think) a one-stringed Tibetan thing and moving to and through melodies & rhythms that evoked klezmer, Raz Mesinai-esque Middle East and Japan.

The second piece, unmistakbly by Reich, was the least interesting. Pleasant string lines, with snatches of voice (which turn out to be Holocaust survivors, making me uneasy with the disjunction). It felt like the soundtrack to a Shinkansen documentary, lacking intensity and seeming too familiar. (Even as an evocation of train travel I liked it less than Henry Thomas’s hobo ballads.)

After the interval came the most avant garde piece, Black Mass, featuring bowed gongs and wine glasses. Austere passages of intense concentration on single sounds and their resonances, the possiblities of sound from the instruments. It’s not dis-similar to Improv in its approach. Rather disconnected on the face of it, has moments of beauty and is presented theatrically: dangling violins are silhouetted against the far wall of the Hall.

Edinburgh’s applause for Black Mass earned us an encore of Clint Mansell’s soundtrack to Aronofsky’s The Fountain, an absolute stormer. It uses melodic string lines with an underlay of electric guitar and drums to life you up and dash you down. The crowd went wild, in a refined, concert hall, way.

I only live here, part 1

Posted: August 13th, 2010, by Stan Tontas

It’s the Edinburgh festivals season. For a change, I have been going to shows this year (instead of scowling at tourists from out in the suburbs). So I’ll post some reviews, in a very-much-not-instant tweeting as the lights go up style.

After 2 days of intensive trawling through free shows at the Edinburgh Festivals, I’ve found the first one which I would feel good about paying to see.
Are You There? at the Roxy Arthouse (wendy squat style venue; sponsored by a beer company that’s not shit) is by turns creepy, funny and touching. It takes a ghost setup and instead of sticking to farce, says things about distance, communication, relationships and letting go. It’s a shoestring show that makes up for resources with care in the script and performances. It feels like what a Fringe show should be.
There are wee things that need tightening up — early scenes maybe run for longer than they need to, gaffer tape could be used at the top corner of the walls — but the two performances are already good and this was the first or second night I saw.

The Theatre of Eternal Football

Posted: June 14th, 2010, by Stan Tontas

I’m not going to pretend to care or know about the football part of the World Cup. What I love is the peripheral stuff — ill-informed, national chauvinist commentary, folk taking passionate positions on the correct weight of a football, counting the number of times African teams are described as “colourful”, or having “natural flair”.

But the chief delight this year is the fact that all of the matches are soundtracked by LaMonte Young. A cheap plastic trumpet, the vuvuzela, multiplied by 50,000 makes for a two hour drone performance worthy of the Dream Syndicate or the Theatre of Eternal Music.

The drone always has something of the ecstatic about it, from medieval plainsong  to buddhist chanting — now its introduction to the World Cup seems to be backing up all the clichés about football as religion, stadia as cathedrals.

Apparently it reaches 130 dB in the stadium. Imagine what it’d be like on the pitch, moving through that, the way the sound would change in an almost physical way.

I just wish that my TV’s red button gave me an option to silence the commentators and immerse myself in the noise of the vuvuzela. Maybe then football would make sense to me…

Edinburgh Film Festival tickets on sale

Posted: June 4th, 2010, by Stan Tontas

Tickets for the Edinburgh Film Festival went on sale today and people queued up at the Filmhouse to get them. Box Office staff brought them out drinks of water. The programme was released on Tuesday and the films start Wednesday after next. Not much time to faff, so what’s looking interesting?

The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet’s follow-up to Belleville Rendevous is based on a Jacques Tati script. It looks to make its Edinburgh both familiar and magical but at £15 I can wait for general release.

Studio Ghibli fans: Mai Mai Miracle is a “beautifully rendered, fantastical animated epic” from Miyazaki protege Sunao Katabuchi.
The Black Panther / La Pantera Negra is described “as if film noir collided with leftover Harryhausen props” — fans of the stylised silent SF film La Antena might like that.

There are 2 films called Soul Boy – one set in Wigan casino, the other in Nairobi. Double bill material?

The “we got funding after Chloe Sevigny signed up” genre is still thriving, but I can forgive that because she’s also in a film that brings together Werner Herzog and David Lynch, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (that’s not the production minutes, that’s the title).

As usual there’s at least one British films desperately hoping for distribution by taking either the it’s-not-porn-we-went-to-art-school, or controversial subject route. Read about those in the Daily Mail. You can enjoy the nascent 1990s revival when you realise that Mr Nice has been turned into a film. There are multiple short film programmes – see them here or wait until the best ideas are stolen for adverts, its your choice.

However, all this is nothing next to the fact that they’ve scheduled 3 of the Childrens Film Foundation’s best works. Who knew that Powell & Pressburger’s last film was called The Boy Who Turned Yellow? The other 2 are Glitterball and What Next? and will either prompt a long overdue  reappraisal, or shatter your childhood memories.

What more do you want a film festival to do?

The Blind Owl by Sadeq Hadeyat

Posted: May 3rd, 2009, by Stan Tontas

The flipside of my unsuccessful “random culture” experiment with En la ciudad de Sylvie was picking up this strange, nightmarish book from the library. My whim was rewarded by a dense, multilayered and disjointed journey that sticks in the mind long enough to repay repeat readings. There are passages that recall Edgar Allan Poe and if you have any expectations ofa 70-year-old Persian novella, it would overturn them.

(Surreal and nightmarish must be the most over- and ill-used adjectives in the critical vocabulary but I have to use them here.)

I can’t say I knew exactly what was going on, I’m reluctant to summarise the little I know of the plot in case it dilutes the jaw-dropping weirdness of the shifts. I can say that it’s a great book in a minor way. Save it for 3AM and it has the heady bite of a vintage wine laced with cobra venom. Loved it.

En la ciudad de Sylvie

Posted: May 1st, 2009, by Stan Tontas

Let’s start with the positive: this is a film that’s absolutely committed to telling its story in its way. It also makes excellent use of sound. The subjective viewpoint is sustained across all aspects of the production and for the whole running time.

That said, my god this was boring. This subjective view that the director maintains so well is that of an extremely unappealing borderline stalker utterly consumed by his internal world and failing (or not even trying) to connect to the many people (mostly attractive young women) who he casts his gaze over. Perhaps if the floppy-haired wannabe-Byron I’m-so-deep look doesn’t make you want to scream straight off you may have a better time empathising with him, but anyone of an age to hold their attention through this kind of film will have met (and tired of) such people by now.

There’s almost no dialogue in the film, except as passing fragments, more atmosphere than anything else. A bigger problem is that our Hero is essentially stalking women and I’m not sure if we’re being invited to sympathise with him, or squirm. In the longest of many long sequences he follows one particular woman for around 40 minutes. A generous interpretation could be that the filmaker intends to build up tension (and there was a short sequence that reminded me of Vertigo, though I can’t pin down why), but that’s being very generous.

Essentially this is a well-made film about an unsympathetic character in which almost nothing happens and I can’t think of a compelling reason to go out of your way to see this rather than spend time people-watching in your local cafe.

Issho Taiko Drummers, Alasdair Roberts & Peter Nicholson @ Stills Gallery

Posted: April 28th, 2009, by Stan Tontas

Very pleased I made the effort to go to this, one of Edinburgh’s few experimental music events. The music was varied, all non-amplified, and high quality and it sparked off loads of ideas in my head. The range of sounds attainable from fully-unplugged instruments reminds me that there’s no need for a lack of electricity to mean a lack of adventure.

First was a cellist (Peter Nicholson?), with 2 songs separated by some strong free playing. I can listen to stringed instruments being taken to extremes forever. This was human enough to be engaging and alien enough to be interesting too.

Next was Alasdair Roberts with solo guitar and beautifully performed folksongs and a rare joy in hearing lyrics that aren’t shit (though he mischaracterises the politics of the Luddites as wanting “barbarism” – at the time they were around this was synonymous with “North African” – I don’t think this is going to bother anybody other than me).

Best of all were the Issho Taiko drummers, though. Having no amplification meant that they had to rein in their thunderous impulses to allow space for the accompanying guitar and drone. The playing was accomplished and the players were listening to each other, producing a surprisingly rich & varied experience. Drones and pounding rhythms that you thought could only be produced using electricity are coaxed out of acoustic instruments. This got me thinking of post- (and pre-)electric raves, thousands of years of sound placed into a secular warehouse party era. Dubstep on Aeolian harps, acid on kazoos, jungle on an air-conditioning duct.

My imaginings aside, this was excellent stuff. These constraints might have stifled the group but instead proved them to be a talented and coherent bunch, reworking (presumably) raucous pieces into an absorbing alternate direction.

Solar powered theremins! in 3-D!

Posted: March 17th, 2009, by Stan Tontas

Solar-powered theremins! In 3D!

The Electron Club, based at the CCA, is Geek Heaven on Sauchiehall Street. The linked video not only features theremins powered by the sun, but it’s filmed in old-school red & blue glasses 3-D.

Churnalism FTW

Posted: January 30th, 2009, by Stan Tontas

It must be great to be in PR. Think of a story related to what your clients do, think of a shocking-sounding number, cook up a survey (the fewer people you ask the better) and email it the newspapers., watch the publicity role in and laugh on the way to the bank.

Do reporters not even think about the plausibility of what they write? “One third of Glaswegians a victim of card fraud last year!!1!!”

One third, eh? So that can’t be the kids and under 18s — a quarter of the population? The folk who can’t get a card because of bad credit – round here that’s got to be about 10%. Those that haven’t got cards worth ripping off? Another 20%. So that must mean that everyone else has been ripped off!!

31% of people ripped off by thieves last year compared to just 26% across the UK as a whole.

The upturn in card fraud is believed to be a knock-on effect of the credit crunch,

Funnily enough, this survey was commissioned by a company that sells credit card protection insurance…

See also the police claiming that there’s been a credit crunch-induced rise in shoplifting because, er there was more shoplifting in December last year than there was in April. Hmm, what happens in December that’s different from April. Has to do with shops… No, you’ve got me.