Perhaps an attempt at escapism from the drier aspects of academic study, Seeing Serendipity endeavours to examine a range of experiences relating to aesthetics of the everyday and unconventional encounters with art. From the joy found in childish medieval graffiti to the subtle pleasure in watering plants, I aim to prove that enriching aesthetic experiences aren’t exclusive to frequenters of the National Gallery or those with V&A tote bags. Essentially a fortnightly train of thought set in motion by serendipitous encounters with street art, rolling hills, or music overheard in a kebab shop at 2am.
On Opera and Britney Spears
Exploring a Wagnerian approach to pop music.
Wednesday, 25 November 2020
Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Tristan und Isolde in the first production of the opera. Munich, 1865.
Several months ago, on a particularly rowdy night-bus home from Brixton, I was listening to When I Saw You by The Ronettes. I had hoped the comforting harmonies of early R&B pop might muffle the sound of a drunken argument playing out two rows in front of me, but I found my mind wondering to another musical genre all together. The Ronettes were a seminal girl group in early sixties Pop music. Although suitably kitten-heeled and beehived, the trio didn’t find fame until March 1963 when they were signed by visionary record producer Phil Spector. The following years saw the release of several tracks that demonstrate Spector’s innovative ‘Wall of Sound’ music production formula. When I Saw You is one such track. It is an archetypal Doo-Wop influenced R&B song: a sentimental romantic narrative crooned in the melodious tones adored by the 1950s teen. The most extraordinary feature of When I Saw You arrives in the last ten seconds of the track, with a motif of descending strings lifted directly from the Liebestod in Wagner’s tragic Tristan und Isolde, an opera which had premiered almost a century earlier in 1865. I had heard of Spector’s self-described ‘Wagnerian approach’ to rock and roll, but happening across this musical exchange – a nod from one master to another – was enlivening. It also gave an uncomfortable bus journey an unexpected silver lining.
The scope of influence that Spector’s desire to create “little symphonies for the kids” has had on the history of pop music cannot be overstated. Several of Spector’s developments, including the ‘playing the studio’ compositional technique and the very status of music producer as auteur, have become naturalised elements in music production. Another essential development in the story of pop music as we know it lies in Spector’s knack as a businessman. He recognised the spending power of the American teen and catered precisely to their tastes. This is evident in the storylines of the songs he penned for girl groups, which are invariably centred around high-school crushes and whimsical accounts of first love.
Spector’s Wall of Sound formula aimed to mimic the operatic drama of rich orchestral layering and achieved this through the use of large ensembles and echo chambers. Another Ronettes track, Be my Baby, features a bizarre experiment involving multiple pianists playing in synchrony to acquire this novel depth of sound. Crucially, this Wagnerian approach to sound played superbly through the analogue sound systems of the era, blaring out richly and distinctively from jukeboxes, causing his tracks to stand out in the record stores habituated by his teenage audiences. For five years, Spector played maestro to this adolescent demographic, producing over twenty-five top forty hits from 1960-65. This emphasis on the purchasing power of the young buyer has also become an established and crucial element of the pop music industry.
Spector’s firm hold on the charts didn’t go unnoticed by others looking to make waves in the industry. Brian Wilson, the lead singer and creative mind behind The Beach Boys, was besotted with Spector’s methods. After obsessing over the technique for several years, Wilson released the highly experimental Pet Sounds LP in May 1966. A reaction to both Spector’s work and the instrumental diversity in The Beatles’ Rubber Soul produced the previous year, Pet Sounds is now considered one of the most influential LPs ever produced. Although The Beatles’ Revolver certainly experimented with sound production, I don’t believe the band offered a comprehensive retaliation to Pet Sounds until May 1967 with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles decisively marked the union of innovative studio practices with the idea of the album itself as a cohesive work of art; an intriguing evolution of Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk. A century after Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s orchestration techniques continued to inspire, prompting a quick succession of musical megalomaniacs who came to define the pop music genre.
Still from the music video for Toxic, 2004. Courtesy of VEVO.
Pop music is often overlooked and undervalued as a source for exploring the convergence of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and considering the infiltration of themes of mass-production and commerce into the art world from the sixties to the present day. As someone born in the late nineties, the undisputed Princess of Pop and Queen of Commercialism for me is Britney Spears. Britney’s ‘all American girl’ stylisation in her early career, her iconic dancing and distinctively girlish vocals have combined to make her an ultra-marketable entertainer in the twenty-first century. As a carefully curated performer designed for mass-consumption, Britney’s music powerfully demonstrates Spector’s legacy. Her music also bears the lasting influence of Spector’s contributions in sound engineering. With its numerous cultural allusions, from Blade Runner to Marilyn Monroe, the 2004 music video to Toxic acts as a masterful postmodern pastiche of pop culture references. Although probably quite different form the artistic legacy Wagner had in mind, it is nothing less than a noughties Gesamtkunstwerk.
In Praise of Shadows: Beauty Growing from the Realities of Life
Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Illustration by Himarni Bronsword
Usually, I’m not one to celebrate the arrival of autumn. I envy those who appear to revel in the oncoming bleakness; unfazed by the fleeting daylight, excited by the opportunity to buy anything remotely pumpkin-spiced. This year, however, having left for London in the summer, arriving home in South Manchester for lockdown meant arriving to a place transformed. The city had been entirely engulfed by the ochre hue of early November. This transition had completely escaped my notice in London, owing to life being dominated by concrete and the constant sense of being pressed for time.
In his seminal work on Japanese aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki explores issues such as how we interact with darkness, and the degree to which we appreciate our given surroundings. First published in 1933, the essay pays particular attention to the contrast between Japanese and western aesthetics during a period of encroaching western influence on Japanese design.
Tanizaki argues that certain qualities of Japanese culture are at odds with the infiltration of western technologies, which had become inescapable in Japan’s cities by the 1930s. Several examples are given; including the phonograph, which Tanizaki argues cannot convey the most valued qualities of Japanese music, those of tonal nuance and reticent softness. Similarly, the effect of electric flood lighting on the traditional Nō and Kabuki theatres is described as detrimental to their enigmatic beauty, as the use of masks and the subtle iridescence of the costumes are enhanced by low light.
Tanizaki muses that if such gadgets had not been ‘borrowed’ from the west, the Japanese may have developed them naturally, independently to accommodate local tastes. The fountain pen, for example, might have had a noiseless tufted tip with jet black ink, never blue, seeping down steadily from the handle. The term ‘national temper’ is used to illustrate the key variable here. The West is characterised by Tanizaki as striving for never-ending, often needless, improvement. A desire to master the elements and dominate nature. Traditional Japanese design, by contrast, seeks harmony with the inevitable. Architecture utilises darkness in the shadowy eaves to reveal the subtle beauty of a painting. A lacquerware bowl is prized more highly once it has been tarnished through repeated use and handling. Although it may be practical to light a room with electric bulbs, or have a bathroom made up in dazzling porcelain tiles, Tanizaki holds that “the quality that we call beauty...must always grow from the realities of life,” and sometimes, life is dingy.
This strikes me as an incredibly noble frame of mind. And an excellent example of how aesthetics can express a general cultural attitude. The Japanese term shikata ga nai, although without a direct translation, roughly means ‘it cannot be helped.’ Again, this extends beyond itself to embody an entire approach to life. Shikata ga nai can be uttered in situations as trivial as being overtaken in a supermarket queue, right through to tragic and life-altering events. In the same vein, the aesthetic concept wabi-sabi is derived from Buddhist teaching and embraces impermanence and imperfection. A dignified resignation to things beyond our control has shaped the Japanese concept of what is considered beautiful.
This way of thinking is slowly being given a new lease of life in the west. Practicing mindfulness is certainly a burgeoning trend, with a flurry of apps for guided meditation emerging over the last few years. We are increasingly coming to realise that the industrial and domineering relationship the west has formed with the environment, as described by Tanizaki, has catastrophic effects both external, as evidenced by climate change, but also internal, as our collective obsession with conventional notions of success, productivity and constant improvement take their toll on mental health.
Sakai Hōitsu’s painting of a persimmon tree is to me one of the most evocative depictions of autumn. The branches are spindly, warped and imperfect. The few remaining leaves are dying yet elegant, beautiful in a different way to their summer selves. In Praise of Shadows provokes thought on alternate approaches to appreciating beauty. One that is grounded in reality, and which can extend beyond aesthetics to support a healthier frame of mind. Perhaps I shouldn’t wince at the first sign of ground frost, but instead joyfully anticipate the crunch of footsteps on frozen grass.
Sakai Hōitsu, Persimmon Tree. 1816. The Met Museum, New York.
Miserable, Wild, Distracted - 1350
Wednesday, 28 October 2020
Illustration by Himarni Bronsword
An hour and a half journey from the perpetually busy entrance hall of King’s Cross station is the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Ashwell. Stepping across the threshold, you are immediately enveloped by the serene space between stone floor and lofty vaulted ceiling. The mere mention of ‘medieval architecture’ conjures up images of tall spires and gothic arches. But opportunities to understand the people behind these buildings; their worries, flaws, humour and character, in essence, their humanising traits, are rare.
Built in the early 1300s, St Mary’s is one of several UK churches with excellent examples of medieval graffiti. These unofficial, oftentimes clumsy etchings come in the form of anxious prayers from those suffering through the Black Death, archaic Christian symbols and occasional rude village gossip. Whilst one section of stonework is inscribed with sombre life advice, another playfully suggests that ‘Barbara is a regular young vixen.’ When walking around the church’s graffiti-laden pillars, you quickly encounter a breadth of emotion. Another favourite reads Archidiaconus Asemnes; ‘the archdeacon is an ass.’ A few feet away from this, stood in the aisle, a group of gilet-clad locals discuss the best recipe for shepherd’s pie. To witness two such informal exchanges of information, over six hundred years apart yet in such close proximity, is an uncommon and striking experience. It’s particularly unusual to find these instances of self-expression dating from a time when most visual culture is characterised by strict adherence to style and the anonymity of the craftsperson. Archidiaconus Asenmnes breathes life into the scatological humour found in Chaucer and the satire in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
During my visit, restoration works were taking place in the bell tower. Florescent orange street barricades had been hauled in and polythene dust coverings hung phantom-like across pillars. A small Sony radio blasted out a tinny rendition of The Cure’s Just Like Heaven, giving rise to a surreal moment of 80s goth meets 14th century gothic: Pop culture permeating cultural heritage. Here arises the issue of displacement.
Personally, I revel in instances such as these; cases of the contemporary world interacting with the archaic. The prospect of Ashwell’s medieval graffiti being presented as artefacts in a museum setting, clinical and serious, would no doubt sap the life from them. The delight they generate is arguably more a result of their present context in a building which maintains its status as beloved community hub rather than their standalone existence. However, this presents a problem of accessibility. Ashwell, like many villages in the Home Counties, is made up of a very obvious demographic, which is about as white and middle class as the average cast of Midsomer Murders. It is saddening to think that a trade-off would have to be made between an enlivening context and wider demographic accessibility. Sadder still is the fact that placement in a museum would not completely solve this problem; a 2019 government survey suggested that ethnic minorities were far less likely to have visited a museum or gallery in the last year. I won’t insult the study of museology and demographic interaction by attempting to explore it further here, but it is certainly important to bear in mind.
In short, this serendipitous encounter is not without its limitations. It would be difficult to happen across historical graffiti without prior knowledge of its existence. The last ten years has seen an increase in attention, with Matthew Champion’s Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches acting as a helpful field guide for those interested. What surveys such as these acknowledge, but fail to explore thoroughly, is that these works have been disregarded for hundreds of years. They certainly defy the western artistic canon’s notions of artwork and craftmanship from the middle ages, and many would contest categorising them as ‘art’ at all.
This classification conundrum is an appropriate introduction to a column seeking to emphasise the value in everyday aesthetics; in the experience of an object as opposed to, for example, its status as an artwork. Seeing these strange scrawlings was thought-provoking, joy-inducing, and revelatory. Illuminating the personal lives of the medieval layperson and our historically dim understanding of their internal worlds.
High on the wall beneath the church tower reads ‘Miserable, Wild, Distracted - 1350.’ Three words that would be equally at home on a pub toilet door. A binding thread of human boredom and frustration, winding its way down through the centuries, perhaps resonating with a yawning child reluctantly attending Communion today.