Too much to bear

Should the latest Turner Prize winner really take the credit for his work? And, as a variety of geri

Issues surrounding repetition and reproduction, recently discussed on this blog, were back in the spotlight this week as the feted avant-garde artist and sometime bear impersonator Mark Wallinger won the 2007 Turner Prize for his piece “State Britain”, a faithful recreation of Brian Haw’s Parliament Square anti-war protest.

"It was the best thing that was shown this year, and I don't think I should be humble about it" remarked Wallinger, having been awarded the dependably contentious prize by art collector and arch-Republican Dennis Hopper, of all people, at the Tate Liverpool on Monday.

The piece has a certain poignancy, as Haw’s original display of dissenting art was abruptly dismantled in May last year under the auspices of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, and is still under lock and key (although the protest, you’ll be pleased to hear, is still going strong, albeit in a somewhat scaled down form).

But does it matter that Britain’s premier prize for cutting edge art has been won by what is, essentially, a copy of someone else’s work? Although Haw seems pretty chuffed about the whole thing, shouldn’t it really be him and not Wallinger who gets the credit (and the prize money)? Imitation is of course the sincerest form of flattery, but the win does seem a little strange even by the Turner’s self-consciously wacky standards. Provocative re-contextualisation is all well and good but there comes a point where it’s just too much to bear.  


Walter Benjamin’s classic essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” 

Spiked Online argues that Wallinger's work isn't as political as it's cracked up to be. 

Sue Hubbard on the Turner

Old Man Rockers (Slight Return)

Meanwhile, with the UK concert schedules packed with gigs by musical greybeards like The Who and The Rolling Stones, not to mention the lucrative comeback tours of nineties pop acts, mainstream popular music seems unusually backward looking at present.

The Spice Girls have recently launched their tour, to generally positive, if vaguely lecherous, reviews, and the big reunion gig of the year, Led Zeppelin’s one-off O2 show, is coming up this week. Much hyped,
once postponed, and nearly impossible to get a ticket for, the gig is part of a tribute night to Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic records, and will be the first time the surviving members of the band have played together since 1995.

Some will dismiss the reunion as an over-hyped nostalgia fest for the band’s legions of gnarly, leather-jacketed acolytes, but their fan base remains large and their influence on the bombastic guitar bands of today, from Muse to the Chili Peppers, is so pronounced that it’s surely churlish to deny them a suitably hard-rockin’ comeback. Likewise, it seems unfair to throw accusations of irrelevance at many of the other old time guitar greats. Bob Dylan, for example, still produces some good tunes and captures the public imagination, and Bruce Springsteen, who comes to the O2 on the 19th December, has reinvented himself as one of the most outspoken and thoughtful critics of the current US administration, as Sarfraz Manzoor will gladly tell you.

The more interesting issue is whether the current generation of guitar bands will produce any zeitgeist-defining artists of equal significance to their illustrious predecessors. Innovation certainly isn’t lacking in modern music’s many and varied sub-genres but, of the big rock bands of the day, has anyone really captured the spirit of the times since Radiohead’s ten year old take on pre-millennial angst, “OK Computer”? Which noughties acts will people be coming back to in thirty years time? Coldplay? The Killers?">The Artic Monkeys? Arguably the really interesting stuff is going on in other, more obviously pioneering, genres of music but whatever you think of today’s mainstream rockers, the twenty-first century doesn’t have a Led Zep. Yet.

Comings and goings in Brighton and Bethlehem

In other news this week, enigmatic graffiti king Banksy took a provocative trip to Bethlehem while the young stars of the upcoming film version of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner were forced to leave Afghanistan fearing tribal reprisals.

On the domestic front Rotherham said howdy to Dolly Parton and her rooting-tooting literacy programme, Brighton waved goodbye to homophobic reggae stars and Ethiopian-American author Dinaw Mengestu made an impact on the literary scene, picking up the Guardian First book award.

In the coming week you could queue round the block for day tickets to the Donmar’s booked-out Othello, moan about the populist content of Richard and Judy’s Christmas Books Listor relax at home with the latest CD from the Thai Elephant Orchestra. Dave Solider, one of the orchestra’s co-founders, says  “the elephants, they don't give a damn…they just go out there and they do it the way they hear it. They're real artists.” If that’s not musical innovation, then what is?

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State