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Peter Brook and the world we call "World" - click opera
February 2010
 
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Wed, Sep. 24th, 2008 04:26 pm
Peter Brook and the world we call "World"

I'm having a Peter Brook week. The radical British director, now 83, has been dominating my video projector; I've watched his Mahabarata (1989), Meetings With Remarkable Men (1979), Marat / Sade (1967), and as much of his King Lear (1971) as YouTube allows (it looks pretty great). I've also been lucky enough to see a Peter Brook theatre production at the Theatre Bouffes du Nord in Paris, an opulent-yet-tatty bobo theatre far from the stark "empty space" of his famous 1960s treatise.

One thing that strikes me about Brook is the nature of the "world theatre" style he's developed. It's certainly an orientalist vision, centred on dignified, spiritually-radiant characters from distant, exotic and "unspoiled" cultures. It's, in other words, a projection onto the other of what the (liberal) West wants and needs it to be.

This vision is generally focused on "timeless, universal storytelling" and features beards, deities, elegant robes and haunting ethnic music. Brook's theatre company mixes-and-matches different ethnicities (there's a Japanese, an African, and so on, all with remarkable, striking faces), cutting and splicing different cultures and traditions in a way which is either calculated to produce some sort of Brechtian alienation (and Brecht is certainly an influence) or to suggest that traditional world theatres all have something in common -- an implied universality which would be the opposite of the alienation effect.

Often, when you look closer, the stories are wrangled by Western professionals -- omnipresent french scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carriere pulled together the eccentric strings of The Mahabarata, for instance -- and Western music is often mixed with the ethnic sounds ("Meetings With Remarkable Men", for instance, is through-scored rather intrusively). Something about this reminds me of The Incredible String Band's Afghan trips in the late 60s, or the crossing point between the Magic Realism and World genres in the 1980s, or anthropology and travel documentaries which all sound as if they're scored by the same "ethnic" synth sounds, and which all lament -- in a diffusely-humanist, valedictory way -- the disappearance of noble cultures and traditions, encroached upon by our own greed and rapacity.



Something about this -- and the New Age spirituality in the Gurdjieff film -- sticks in my craw a bit, even if I'm essentially a member of the Western bourgeois audience who laps this stuff up and finds it "spiritual" and "beautiful" so on. I associate it with joss sticks and copies of David Sylvian's precious 1980s records "Words with the Shaman" and "Plight & Premonition".

I also can't help connecting it with something I read recently in Fareed Zakaria's precis of the arguments in his book "The Post-American World" in Newsweek. Zakaria wants to say that the "rise of the rest" (of, in other words, a thoroughly materialist and capitalist India and China) is not bad news for America, and won't come at its expense. He ends his precis with this slightly odd thought: "Generations from now, when historians write about these times, they might note that by the turn of the 21st century, the United States had succeeded in its great, historical mission—globalizing the world. We don't want them to write that along the way, we forgot to globalize ourselves."

What's odd, to me, is the idea that it took America to "globalize the world". Surely the world was already global? What Zakaria probably means is that this was a specific kind of globalization which matched America's aspirations and suited its needs (until relatively recently, when China and India started succeeding beyond anyone's wildest expectations, and beating America at its own game). And that's how I feel about World Theatre (or World Music, for that matter). The world has a huge variety of theatrical traditions, but World Theatre (and I think immediately of certain robes, certain synthesizer sounds, certain notions of "human dignity", and a certain Western audience with its own requirements) is a narrow and recognizable genre, just as World Music is -- a genre defined more by our need to find something beautiful and spiritual and dignifying than by what's actually out there.

29CommentReplyShare


imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Sep. 24th, 2008 03:57 pm (UTC)

It's my understanding of the general theory of relativity that there can't be a reading of events which fails to take account of the position of the observer.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Sep. 24th, 2008 04:08 pm (UTC)

That Schrödinger's Cat business.

And -- to get back on topic -- what I mean is that the difference between "world" and "World" (or "globe" and "global") makes no sense unless you take into account the (Western) position of the observer who is saying that the US "globalized the world".


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zenmonkeykstop
zenmonkeykstop
zenmonkeykstop
Wed, Sep. 24th, 2008 05:14 pm (UTC)

The relevant concept is probably actually the loss of absolute simultaneity of events, which is a consequence of special relativity. Einstein was actually highly skeptical of a lot of QM and proposed the 'paradox' (that Schrodinger enlarged upon) in an attempt to poke holes in the theory by showing what he saw as its internal contradictions. Michael Redhead's book "Incompleteness, Nonlocality, and Realism" covers all this fairly well.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Sep. 24th, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC)

http://www.ubu.com/film/taj.html


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Sep. 24th, 2008 07:20 pm (UTC)

Interesting film, thanks stranger!


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Sep. 24th, 2008 04:55 pm (UTC)
OMG Momus can we please talk about David Sylvian

I have absolutely been dying to see you take him on as his spiritual opposite - he, a splendidly materialist mystic, and you, a sublimely abstract businessphilosopher. Unlike you I really like Words With The Shaman as it's pretty.

He goes so awfully between the movingly romantic and the blitheringly ponderous. No sense of humor - that's part of it, another part is that he can't grasp a cause with any subtlety. It's always full-on religious ecstasy with him. An American quality!

I wish he were singing in a language I don't understand. He makes good sounds. Nine Horses could have been a cool album if only I didn't know what he was saying. Another Momus/Sylvian opposition - he uses wispy-voiced women in his songs and they sound like the incarnation of the classically-considered frailty of women, and you work with tiny tiny little things like Kahimi Karie who are actually very rude and forward types.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Sep. 24th, 2008 06:34 pm (UTC)

It seems contradictory how, on the one hand, you argue for the preservation of difference, and yet you also become gleeful at China/India "beating America at its own game." An Eastern country may preserve some difference while developing into a capitalist giant, but how long can it last? There are definite signs that Japan's Japaneseness is gradually eroding.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Sep. 24th, 2008 08:21 pm (UTC)

Frankly, China and India's materialism and prosperity worry me a lot, not just from a spiritual point of view, but from an ecological one. I'd much rather they pointed the way forward to a less materially-rapacious lifestyle we could all adopt. This is a real gap in Fareed Zakaria's analysis, with its "rise of the rest" and the idea that prosperity floats all boats -- we'd need eight or nine earths to sustain the world's population at American levels of affluence. It just can't be done.

But I don't think modernity has eroded Japan's "Japaneseness" at all. It has an entirely Japanese way of being modern -- and in many cases more considerably modern than our Western cultures, without being any less alien for it (one tiny example: the Washlet toilet). Japan, like India, was most influenced by the West up to and during the 1980s, and is now heading away from that admiration, that influence. I think you see that all through Japanese culture -- a tiny example would be the "Matsuri-kei" singer I showcased yesterday. A very Japanese sound, as well as a very digital one, ne?

(I have a piece somewhere about how modernisation in Japan was at one time signified by Western things, but now tends to be signified by digital things, often in combination with traditional Japanese craft and cultural symbols.)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Sep. 24th, 2008 08:36 pm (UTC)

Ah yes, it's this one: Fatal MEETS vital.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Sep. 24th, 2008 08:41 pm (UTC)

"This "meets" formula interests me. One of my first Japanese tours was billed "Momus meets Poison Girlfriend", and throughout the 90s in Japan the most common template for the "meets" idea was that something Japanese would be spliced (by art directors, journalists, designers) with something Western. But that no longer seems to be the case. Now "meets" is as often the splicing of something trad and Japanese with digital techniques. Digital stuff has replaced Western stuff as the "modern" element in the meets formula.

You can actually see this shift in the work of a single designer or design collective. When I first became aware of design group Delaware about ten years ago, they were copying American clip art of surfers and water-skiers. Now, especially in the work of departed partner Ten, they're colliding lo-res jaggy graphics with trad Japanese banners and screens.

Ten's website features a "flower arrangement of the week", and a "garden of hexagon patchwork". His big idea is to distill traditional Japanese art and craft forms to their most minimal digital signs, so that they can be displayed on iMode cellphone screens.

For a rising generation of Japanese designers, it seems, making references to traditional Japanese forms is no longer fatal, it's vital."


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mustt
mustt
Alexey Munipov
Wed, Sep. 24th, 2008 07:45 pm (UTC)
offtopic

Hi, Nick.

I've sent you some proposal (keywords: Big City, essay), have you got it? Sorry to bother you in your lj - just to make sure you've received the letter.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Sep. 24th, 2008 08:11 pm (UTC)
Re: offtopic

I haven't got that, how did you send it? Is it a physical letter?


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mustt
mustt
Alexey Munipov
Thu, Sep. 25th, 2008 08:31 am (UTC)
Re: offtopic

on momasu - gmail - com


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 25th, 2008 11:05 am (UTC)
Re: offtopic

I can't see anything there from Alexey Munipov, is that your real name?


ReplyThread Parent
mustt
mustt
Alexey Munipov
Thu, Sep. 25th, 2008 12:54 pm (UTC)
Re: offtopic

yes, it's me. Re-sent it from two different addresses - hope it works.


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georgesdelatour
georgesdelatour
Wed, Sep. 24th, 2008 09:12 pm (UTC)

I think culture belongs to those who love it. The future of western classical music may well lie mostly with Asian performers. Masaaki Suzuki is one of the top three conductors of Bach's church music. The Chinese are developing a taste for western pipe organs:

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

If you want to hear world music done in reverse, listen to Ilaiyaraaja. His "How To Name It" features Bach heard completely through Indian ears, with a completely Indian sensibility. Here's his cover of Bach's Partita III for violin:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Lex86hSIy4&feature=related


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fishwithissues
fishwithissues
jordan fish
Thu, Sep. 25th, 2008 12:32 am (UTC)

where's your anti-anti-essentialist mettle?


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Thu, Sep. 25th, 2008 03:14 am (UTC)


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Thu, Sep. 25th, 2008 03:33 am (UTC)


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georgesdelatour
georgesdelatour
Thu, Sep. 25th, 2008 07:20 am (UTC)

Maybe it's more artistically interesting to misunderstand a foreign cultural element than to get it right. If Picasso's borrowings from African art were more accurate, they'd be less fascinating.

Nick, I thought you said that you'd avoided learning Japanese because you wanted to continue to enjoy Japan's strangeness.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 25th, 2008 07:35 am (UTC)

Oh, absolutely, yes! Please don't interpret what I'm saying here as some appeal for authenticity or a condemnation of orientalist projections. I'm all for them, and I think they start an interesting game of mutual definition. I'm all for that Beatles thing of going to India to learn from a guru who's possibly slightly hoodwinking you and playing up to what you want him to be, but who nevertheless manages to shift the West a degree or so in a good direction (which is probably a direction it already wants to go in, but lacked the necessary symbols and vocabulary to embrace).


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drywbach
:-Þ
Thu, Sep. 25th, 2008 01:02 pm (UTC)

Yes, if you're talking about the unknown other, I suppose it's inevitable that you're really talking about yourself. When it's a case of the other being idealised rather than denigrated, it provides a utopian place to stand from which possibly to move an unsatisfactory world. As you say, that can be valuable for the development of the culture that's doing the projecting -- and if it brings healthy change, perhaps it doesn't matter too much if it's so much snake oil.

I can feel a little downhearted about new-agey idealisation of supposedly pure, unspoilt cultures, though, specifically when, rather than perhaps fanciful but creative appropriation, it's heavy on guilt-tripping and light on inferring solutions (taking potshots at the world, rather than levering it). I guess I just find it both pessimistic and naive to suppose people of an idealised culture aren't subject to the same passions as oneself, rather than that they have adopted different (in some cases, no doubt, more useful) strategies for dealing with them. It dehumanises the other, whether to call them superior or inferior, only gives them a kind of supernatural credit for (perhaps hard-earned) attainments, at the same time without taking more than a touristy interest in what we can learn from them and what we might usefully teach in return.

I was searching for a certain Borges quote (which you probably know anyway, but it's so apposite, I couldn't resist!), when I found this, which may be of interest:
http://www.freidok.uni-freiburg.de/volltexte/1245/pdf/naipaul.pdf


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 25th, 2008 01:14 pm (UTC)

That's interesting that you were reaching for something by Borges, because I was going to refer to his Aleph -- the place where everything in the world is visible -- at the end of my piece. And then, in the pdf you link, there's a nice corollary about

"something Mary Louise Pratt observes especially among male Europeans and which she has named the 'monarch-of-all-I-survey scene'".

I think that's what was reaching for with the distinction between the world and World, the genre. World makes the needs of the Western observer primary in its survey of "the world".


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Thu, Sep. 25th, 2008 06:39 pm (UTC)

"Meanwhile, in the course of "The Silent Woman" a more resonant theme emerges. Alluding to Jorge Luis Borges' story "The Aleph," in which the storyteller goes down into a cellar where he experiences a vision of everything in the world, Malcolm comments, "Writer's block derives from the mad ambition to enter that cellar; the fluent writer is content to stay in the close attic of partial expression, to say what is 'running through his mind,' and to accept that it may not -- cannot -- be wholly true, to risk that it will be misunderstood." The problem, she goes on, is narrative itself, for narrative, in being of necessity selective, is always incomplete and thus never wholly true.

This theme, the elusiveness of truth, underlies (as I said earlier) nearly all of Malcolm's writing. The psychoanalytic books pose the narrativizing consciousness against the Aleph of the unconscious"

from salon


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 25th, 2008 02:17 pm (UTC)

There's something a bit solipsistic in the view that every time we look at The Other, we're really looking at ourselves, we're just creating new Western genres etc. Although you've criticised Edward Said here before, it seems you accept his framing (and thus from your Structuralist perspective you're on the same side). You accept that all we can ever do when looking at the Orient is to orientalize - there's something limiting about this. Although I guess if you're deliberately avoiding learning Japanese so that Japan remains more "exotic", then I guess you admit there is a way of connecting, of in some way aligning yourself with "Japaneseness", however incomplete - although you don't want to do it. You want it to remain Other and separate.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 25th, 2008 03:57 pm (UTC)

I wouldn't go so far as to say "all we can ever do when looking at the Orient is orientalize" -- that's a bit sweeping. But orientalize we must, and do. And that starts an interesting dialectic of identity-amendment. We look at the Other, the Other looks at itself and imagines how we must see it, we look at the Other-imagining-how-we're-looking-at-it and see it changing its way of looking at itself into something more like our way of looking at it, we notice some differences between our vision and what the Other is "really" like and shift our model in the direction of "they're just like us, really", then notice some differences between the Other and us, and change our model again, and so on.

Of course, "they're just like us, really" is also a projection, and perhaps a more narcissistic one than "they're really different, and we ought to learn from that difference".


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Sep. 26th, 2008 06:41 am (UTC)
The arrow of transformation

I think Brook (and also John Berger) belongs to an influential group that combined a search for really democratic art with an interest in religious universalism derived from people like Aldous Huxley. All three came from upper-middle class backgrounds and were looking to 're-unite' themselves with other cultures/ classes. So Brook takes his group to Africa, Berger goes to live in a peasant village - they are trying to narrow the gap between themselves and others. Brook's biggest influence, Grotowski, came from communist Europe.

The trajectory of David Sylvian (wiki says 'Being the son of a plasterer and a housewive (sic)) is towards strangeness, otherness, away from his 'democratic' background. This spirituality and dignification ended up being the selling point to the mass audience, and the mismash that was supposed to bring people together ended up becoming its own aspirational genre.


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