Easter Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the holiday ahead.

Concert

Easter Weekend at Aldeburgh Music, Suffolk IP17 1SP. 29-31 March

The Alderburgh is marking Benjamin Britten’s veneration of Purcell with a weekend of concerts. Providing a snapshot of a powerful musical bond, the concerts will variously delve into musical history, bringing it up-to-date with a present generation of performers and composers.

There are two concert performances of Purcell’s powerful opera, Dido and Aenas, set in Orford Church, while La Nuova Musica connects Purcell with his predecessor, John Blow. Featuring ensembles closely bound to the Aldeburgh, including a leading role for the young artist programme, the weekend is described as “a celebration of the patron saint of music and musicians whose feast day is Britten’s own birthday”.

 

Dance

Sutra, Sadler’s Wells. London, EC1R 4TN. 3-6 April

After touring the globe, showing to audiences as far-flung as New Zealand and Singapore, Sutra returns to Sadler’s Wells on Wednesday for its fifth anniversary. The collaboration between choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Turner Prize-winning sculptor Antony Gormley and 17 Buddhist monks from the Shaolin Temple in China has been described as "outstanding".

Polish composer Szymon Brzóska was specially commissioned to write the score, while Gormley’s set of 21 wooden boxes provides a striking backdrop for a unique artistic production which explores the philosophy and faith behind the Shaolin tradition.

 

Art

Nástio Mosquito: Nastia Answers Gabi. IKON gallery, Birmingham B1 2HS. Now-21 April

Following his appearance at the Tate Modern last November, artist, videographer, poet and provocateur Nástio Mosquito’s latest exhibition reflects on the nature of our globalised world, with particular reference to representations of Africa and post-colonial clichés.

A notoriously irreverent artist, his videos are knowingly politically-incorrect. He picks apart the philosophical language familiar to the art world in order to convey his philosophical scepticism about contemporary society. Including videos in which he talks to his female equivalent Nástia, as well as a short scene in which he answers questions from renowned curator Gabi Ngcobo, Mosquito uses humour to explore post-colonial clichés and expresses an urgent desire to engage with reality on all levels.

 

Theatre

Untold Stories. The Duchess Theatre, London WC2B 5LA. 22 March onwards

The National Theatre’s critically-acclaimed double bill, featuring two auto-biographical recollections by Alan Bennett, is now showing at the Duchess Theatre for a 12-week run.

Hymn, the first of the two plays, is a memoir of music and childhood, directed by Nadia Fall to music by George Fenton. A nostalgic piece, it brings together Bennett’s memories of concerts at Leeds Hall with stories of his father teaching him the violin.

Cocktail Sticks is directed by Nicholas Hytner and was first performed at the National Theatre last year. Described as "tender, touching and sad”, it is inspired by themes and conversations from Bennett’s memoir A Life Like Other People’s. Alex Jennings play Alan Bennett in both pieces.

 

The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle. Soho Theatre. London. 3-20 April.

Nominated for ‘Best New Play’ at the Irish Theatre Awards and off the back of a hugely successful Edinburgh and Dublin run, The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle will be showing at the Soho Theatre throughout April. A play about a man who has barely lived enough to have regrets, critics have described it as “high accomplished” and a “marvellous production”. Written by Dublin-based playwright Ross Dungan and performed by eight Irish actors, this exciting new play is story-telling at its best.

 

Chinese shaolin monk performs in 'Sutra', a ballet by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, on July 8, 2008 in Avignon, southeastern France, as part of the 62nd Avignon international festival. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Getty Images
MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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