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Edging pop festivals closer to Avignon - click opera
February 2010
 
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Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 11:37 am
Edging pop festivals closer to Avignon

I was once asked by the NME to list the summer festivals I planned to attend. I think they meant Glastonbury and Knebworth and things like that, but, to shake up their boring consensus a bit, I told them the Avignon theatre festival was the coming highlight of my summer. It was a lie -- I'd never been to Avignon, and I've still never been. But there was an important truth inside the lie, which is that, even when I play live at a rock festival, as I did last weekend, what I do onstage is much more in the theatre tradition than the rock tradition.



I couldn't help noticing, at the Faraday Festival, just how different my act was from everyone else's (with the possible exception of Robyn Hitchcock, who really blew me away with his set of surreal psychedelic songs). I seemed to be the only performer not playing a musical instrument, the only performer to move around on an empty stage, the only performer to use his body to any significant extent, the only performer to be aware of the positions of the lights and orient specific songs to specific lights or stage positions, the only performer to dance vigorously while singing, the only performer to mime the situations unfolding in the lyrics, the only performer to use gestures that assumed constant attention from the audience, the only performer to embody various dramatic personae in the course of the songs -- men and women -- and the only performer to be dressed in a costume and a wig (see Jordi Vital's photos). And was anyone else swordfighting?



I don't say this to boast, just to note a radical divide between what I've come to do in my music shows and what most bands do: they stand there, playing instruments and singing songs, while a lighting guy does their lights and a sound guy their sound. That -- and the odd forceful gesture with a guitar -- seems to be enough for them. Anything more would be eccentric, unmanly, dangerously artificial. It's as if we came from two completely different traditions, these musicians and I. They come from music, I'm essentially a theatrical clown, in the direct line of commedia dell'arte.

It's partly a question of age: I'm older than most of them, formed by the 70s, by glam rock performers like Marc Bolan and David Bowie, or obscure 80s followers of theirs like Alberto Camerini, the synth pierrots of New Romanticism. The glammers and the pierrots took Bowie's "whole new school of pretension" and Adam Ant's "ridicule is nothing to be scared of" very seriously -- and, sometimes, to ludicrous effect. But somehow, after them, music lost touch with theatre. Glastonbury and Avignon went their separate ways. I personally blame Grunge's puritan revision of punk rock values ("we mean it, man" became we mean it, man) and MTV's association of theatricality with everything over-commercial and untrustworthy.

It's a great pity, because the result is a festival completely overshadowed by the drama of its own setting. Faraday takes place in magnificent clifftop gardens, dominated by Romanesque villas and a lighthouse, overlooking a nocturnal sea, with a cape of glittering stars flung overhead. During my set there was a brief power cut and a firework display over the sea. Naturally, all this got incorporated. The audience loved the mime -- a hit-and-run accident acted out entirely in gestures for "The Mouth Organ", a scooter ride through Rome for "Giapponese a Roma", a wheelchair-bound Robin Hood, the disabled Beowulf -- the ludicrous gesticulations, the theatrical magic happening on the stage. It was as if the music were finally working with the magic of the setting, rather than against it. It was as if people had been hungry, in this atmosphere of cookie-cutter, formulaic "indie" music, for some kind of theatrical eccentricity -- and a wider sense of what "indie" is -- to re-emerge, to re-enter pop music.

On Saturday afternoon I bought a copy of french newspaper Libération, and sat there over coffee on the seafront, under the palms, reading it. Libé had a pull-out special on the Avignon theatre festival, which runs this year from July 4th to 25th. It reminded me of my snobby boast to the NME all those years ago, and of my constant refrain, in interviews, that pop music is the most conservative artform and needs -- desperately -- to learn all it can from other, more adventurous, arts. Avignon this year has a whole series of plays based on Dante's Divine Comedy, including Romeo Castellucci's production, which sees the damned forced to gaze at each other through eyes pinned open by Ludovico's Technique, from A Clockwork Orange. This, more than any music paper, was the world and the stuff of my songs.

The atmosphere of Libé's Avignon section was darkly, glamourously Gallic. "Everything I do has a connection with catastrophe," Castellucci told the paper. "Every story starts from a darkness, an emptiness" said director Joel Pommerat on the next page; his play was said to "fog up the viewer's perception to the point of anxiety". Huguette and Rene Radrizzani (that's Rene's splendidly grizzled face on the left) were "transmitters of obscure forces, passionate about sulfurous texts". They'd translated "difficult" German expressionist August Stramm into French. Also appearing at Avignon this year: Mathilde Monnier and Philippe Katerine, Ostermeier's Hamlet and the new Heiner Goebbels, Jan Fabre and the Brothers Quay.

One day I'll go to Avignon itself, but for now I'm happy to be a kind of mini, portable Avignon-of-pop, bringing a touch of bizarre theatricality to an indie music festival near you.

44CommentReply

aidaho
aidaho
honeybunnyroo
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 09:56 am (UTC)

i would love to see you perform. i unfortunately missed you when you played spaceland a few years ago. are you coming back to la any time soon? or sf?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 10:02 am (UTC)

No US performances planned at the moment, though I do have a US live agency, the newly-hatched Uncle Booking. Maybe in 2009?


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rhodri
rhodri
Rhodri Marsden
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 10:20 am (UTC)

I seemed to be the only performer not playing a musical instrument, the only performer to move around on an empty stage, the only performer to use his body to any significant extent, the only performer to be aware of the positions of the lights and orient specific songs to specific lights or stage positions, the only performer to dance vigorously while singing, the only performer to mime the situations unfolding in the lyrics, the only performer to use gestures that assumed constant attention from the audience, the only performer to embody various dramatic personae in the course of the songs -- men and women -- and the only performer to be dressed in a costume and a wig.

Jesus, imomus, I bet you went down really badly :)

Edited at 2008-07-08 10:20 am (UTC)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 10:45 am (UTC)

Not at all, I had the audience like potty in my hands!


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eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 10:47 am (UTC)

sounds like you had fun! Nice to see someone offering something in a music festival context which might just end up broadening the musical horizons of the audience for a change.

I've always admired artists who have dared to use theatrics as part of their overall expression. They've generally been better communicators - Bowie of course, Zappa 's legendary shows at the garrick, NY, complete with stuffed giraffes and whipped cream, even acts like Faust, making sculpture on stage. Different, but with a great communication with the audience with gestures, is Javier Krahe, a sort of Spanish Georges Brassens-Jake Thackray.

Today this stage risk-taking has almost vanished. One obvious target I blame is populist (not necessarily populAR!) 'gala' shows like pop idol or fame academy, which declare themselves as the sort of 'gold standard', to which any young performer must adhere in order to be 'serious'. In fact the aim is to eliminate any vesitge of individuality from the participants in favour of an industrial 'norm' - if you don't dance exactly as the choreographer tells you, or sing like some wannabe Mariah carey or Madonna, you've had it. As for the show -it's more like a nazi rally than creative expression, only instead of the salute, their hips all shake at the same time! So the aspiring performers, who equate success with TV, are frightened into conforming.

In the end what they produce is the sort of performer who is good at winning galas, but which has little or no meaning beyond that context.

However those who deride this mass produced stuff need also to take a look at the underground - In electronic music it's just as bad in other ways - some nerd behind a laptop programming sounds. A new conformity of everyone using their shiny new MacBooks. Not my thing. I suppose by using piles of broken record players and analogue tape in my events, I'm quite a misfit in that world too!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 10:59 am (UTC)

"You can't do that on stage any more", as Zappa said.

But of course you can!


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 11:08 am (UTC)

lololol you're making yourself sound like Renato Zero.

AND YET I HAVE STILL TO SEE YOU DRESSED UP IN YELLOW SPANDEX DOING A FANDANCE WITH GLITTERY TRIANGLES.

Though I admit I long for that day.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 11:14 am (UTC)

Glitter and sparkle are to the stage what denim is to the high street. Did Renato ever dress up as a pantomime janitor?


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Renato - (Anonymous) Expand




(Anonymous)
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 12:16 pm (UTC)

When I first saw this, I thought it said "Aging Pop Festival"


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 12:39 pm (UTC)
Living in song

"I seemed to be the only performer not playing a musical instrument, the only performer to move around on an empty stage, the only performer to use his body to any significant extent, the only performer to be aware of the positions of the lights and orient specific songs to specific lights or stage positions, the only performer to dance vigorously while singing, the only performer to mime the situations unfolding in the lyrics, the only performer to use gestures that assumed constant attention from the audience, the only performer to embody various dramatic personae in the course of the songs."

Perhaps this description locates you in the chanson tradition, rather than (or as well as) the line of "commedia dell'arte"? Vigorous dancing aside, Brel ticks all of the above boxes with aplomb, of course, as does the magnificent (and, here in England, bizarrely neglected) Aznavour. Here's theatre, here's how to inhabit, to embody, to live and breathe every nuance of a song:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=neazIF9vDIU

And it's all his own hair!

Jamesy


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petit_paradis
petit_paradis
erik
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 01:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Living in song

and in just a simple but well-cut suit! no need for theatre-costumes here. just play with your cuffs and kerchief!


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 01:11 pm (UTC)

Your tragedy, Momus, is to have come of age at a brief moment when pop music and art seemed to coincide. If you'd been born five years earlier or five years later, you'd have been doing something else with a lot more success.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 01:40 pm (UTC)


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 02:28 pm (UTC)

Quite. Something that exasperates me is sharing a bill and a stage with lots of equipment-heavy guitar bands and having to explain to a promoter why I really need more that just the remaining square foot of floor space to stand in. Great photos, though.
-Ross


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 02:41 pm (UTC)
Beck and Morrissey

I attended the Wireless Festival in Hyde Park on Friday. I only saw two of the acts - Beck and Morrissey, in that chronological order. I was looking forward to seeing Beck (my first time), but was very disappointed. I remember thinking, during the set, "But Beck is artificial and inventive and ironic, and this is... ROCK MUSIC." It really did just seem like rock music of the most turgidly boring kind. I thought that he would be more ironic than Morrissey, but he came over as far, far less ironic. And less theatrical. The strange thing is that Morrissey has an image - which he himself has at least partially encouraged - of being 'authentic' and 'real'. He has insisted, more than once that "only seals perform", but certainly on Friday his performance was far more theatrical, in the way you have described, than that of Beck, who was static and manly with his shades and his guitar.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 02:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Beck and Morrissey

So Beck doesn't dress up in a plastic horse's head any more?


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 06:11 pm (UTC)
scrimshaw

"...overshadowed by the drama of its own setting. Faraday takes place in magnificent clifftop gardens, dominated by Romanesque villas and a lighthouse, overlooking a nocturnal sea, with a cape of glittering stars flung overhead. During my set there was a brief power cut and a firework display over the sea."

In a pale act of dreamlike mimicry, something similar happened to me last week at Hatteras. A friend who could only stay with us for the first two days came to visit with his wife and 3 year old son, and naturally we tried to stuff as much into those days as we possibly could. Late the first night, dazed from the long drive, we decided to go see the ocean (we were staying on the Pamlico Sound side of the island, but the 50 mile long ribbon of sand that is the Outer Banks is only a mile at its widest). Climbing over the dunes we were greeted with a view of the Milky Way that caused me to gasp and stumble. It looked less like the spiraled edge of an ancient galaxy than a field of Queen Anne's lace, or marshmallow fluff so thick that I could have dragged my finger across the sky and stuck it in my mouth. Due south (5.8 miles, as the crow flies with motorcycle) the lighthouse kept a steady 8 second rhythm.

We decided it was important for his three year old to experience the Atlantic ocean for his first time. With us as his guides. To be "baptized" as it were. We each took firm hold of his hands, and with a resolute, almost suicidal motion, marched him towards the roiling waves, the wine dark sea.

I meant to say something profound as the water reached us, like, "father, son and holy ghost," but instead screamed out "holy fuck it's cold!" Luckily I think the wind and waves drowned out my blasphemy. What is language in the face of all this anyway? The boy didn't speak or struggle, but seemed to accept all of it as perfectly natural, another step through life's mirror maze.

Returning to the dunes, we accepted a beer that his wife had carried with her, and just then, not 100 yards away, someone began to let off fireworks down the beach. Strange and beautiful fireworks of a kind I had never seen before. They shot up in a fan pattern, never rising more than 10 feet into the air before they exploded. It seemed less like looking at a fireworks display, and more like the tangible presence of some god or angel. Krishna, or Christ, or maybe old Neptune himself, out for a stroll.


I felt the world slip away that night. And became only a point of consciousness on a greater beach than I had ever dreamed existed. "Carpe Diem" seemed a fool's logic. Words had lost their meaning. Time and distance mere illusions.

Returning to the beach house, the world began to solidify around me again and the normal way of perceiving existence returned. But I will never forget that night and if there is a next life, or lives, I hope it happens again. Just like that.

Edited at 2008-07-08 06:32 pm (UTC)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 06:35 pm (UTC)
Re: scrimshaw

Wonderful account, my dear Vronsky!

Lying on the beach on Saturday evening, Hisae and I counted the stars as they appeared. At first there was just one, then four, then five, then seven, then -- suddenly -- about a million.


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eptified
eptified
H. Duck
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 07:32 pm (UTC)

Not playing your own instruments is eccentric, dangerous, in the tradition of the commedia dell'arte, eh? I can't speak for european music festivals, but here we've suffered a glut of laptop-popsters. More lazy than transgressive, I think. Why pay good money to see a man or lady dress up funny and do bad karaoke to their own album, when you could just listen to the album? Or dress up as the artist and pantomime it yourself?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 08:05 pm (UTC)

One of my best shows -- also in Spain -- started with members of the audience singing karaoke versions of my songs. I then took the stage and sang some of the same numbers.


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thomascott
thomascott
Thomas Scott
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 09:33 pm (UTC)

Recall seeing Pulp when they were still complete nobodies (and at their theatrical best) performing off Pulpintro, still one of the best gigs I've been to.
Would love to see you perform live - I reckon you would displace that Jarvis and Russell Senior memory - but cannot think of any reason why you would want to come to Dublin...
I saw the Arditti quartet perform Ligeti last year and that had more theatricality than some of the stuffy, conservative pop gigs I've been to.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 09:50 pm (UTC)

I was lucky enough to see Momus in Galway about 10 yrs ago so maybe Dublin isn't off the radar, on stage with Benjamin Zephaniah !


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jul. 8th, 2008 11:18 pm (UTC)

You should join Golfrapp. You would get better costumes to play with at least. A whole dressing up box to yourself I'd imagine.


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palux_negro
palux_negro
palux_negro
Wed, Jul. 9th, 2008 10:45 pm (UTC)

And you forgot lyrics at Vilanova!!!
I know what your are talking about, I play music as well and feel that the less I play music the more interesting it become. The coolest thing about your shows for me it's the way you get into stage and go out, just few seconds soundcheck, and you can get your stage stuff at the time you leave. I'm obssesed with that, with the smaller pack I can bring to concerts and the faster soundcheck i can do.


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