A Faint Distrust of Words


AND CHRISTOPHER HEIL (Literaturverlag Droschl)

Novels set in New York and Berlin of the 1980s and 1990s, in other words, just as subculture was at its apogee and the first major gentrification waves in various neighborhoods of the two cities were underway—particularly when they also try to tell the coming-of-age story of a young art student maturing into an artist—these novels run the risk of digressing into art scene cameos and excursions on drug excess. In her novel A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil, second edition 2018), Andrea Scrima purposely avoids effects of this kind. Instead, she concentrates on quietly capturing moments that illuminate her narrator’s ties to the locations she’s lived in and the lives she’s lived there.

When she looks back over more than fifteen years from the vantage of the early 2000s and revisits an era of personal and political upheaval, it’s not an ordering in the sense of a chronological sequence of life events that the narrator is after. Her story pries open chronology and resists narration, much in the way that memories refuse to follow a linear sequence, but suddenly spring to mind. Only gradually, like the small stones of a mosaic, do they join to form a whole.

In 1984, a crucial change takes place in the life of the 24-year-old art student: a scholarship enables her to move from New York to West Berlin. Language, identity, and place of residence change. But it’s not her only move from New York to Berlin; in the following years, she shuttles back and forth between Germany and the US multiple times. The individual sections begin with street names in Kreuzberg, Williamsburg, and the East Village: Eisenbahnstrasse, Bedford Avenue, Ninth Street, Fidicinstrasse, and Kent Avenue. The novel takes on an oscillating motion as the narrator circles around the coordinates of her personal biography. In an effort of contemplative remembrance, she seeks out the places and objects of her life, and in describing them, concentrating on them, she finds herself. The extraordinary perception and precision with which these moments of vulnerability, melancholy, loss, and transformation are described are nothing less than haunting and sensuous, enigmatic and intense. Read more »

Hannah Höch. Whitechapel Gallery London, 15th Jan-23rd March 14

by Sue Hubbard

Image-4In the 21st century we have largely lost touch with the avant-garde. In an age of rapid technological change, where the new is invariably seen as good, the shocks and surprises, the eclecticism and flattening out of postmodernism have become the new orthodoxy. No one is upset by a pickled shark or, for that matter, a pickled anything else being art. In-your-face and gritty is what we expect from contemporary culture. There is nothing much to dare anymore, nothing much to lose, in a society where what is ‘shocking' is mostly an ersatz construct quickly appropriated by the economic mainstream.

But at the beginning of the 20th century things were different. Establishment ideas held sway and there was plenty to be radical about. Epic socio-political changes were afoot. The growth of industrialism, photography, cinema and mass media, as well as the gradual emancipation of women, along with the decimation that was raging throughout Europe resulting in two World Wars, formed a potent mix.

In 1912 Anna Therese Johanne Höch, who had been born in 1889 in Gotha, Germany, left her comfortable upper-middle class home for the cultural melting pot of Berlin. There she attended the craft-orientated School of Applied Arts, an education not uncommon for young women at the time. Here her cultural interests and an astute eye saw her turn traditional craft into something quite new. During the turbulent years of the First World War she met poets and painters, publishers and musicians, including that guru of junk art, Kurt Schwitters, just as Dadaism was hitting town. In August 1920, her radical interests led her to take part in the First International Dada Fair.

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Great Songwriters: Who Are They, And Why Haven’t There Been Any For The Last 20 Years?

by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash

Every morning, millions of humans belt out songs in their showers. There’s no art more popular than song. A great melody is a whoosh of sublime emotion plugged straight into the human heart in the snappiest concentrate imaginable that, once stuck, stays stuck forever.

Great paintings can go unseen by many; great novels can go unread by most humans; but a great song is heard by all.

I’ve been thinking about the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and the greatest songs ever written, and naturally, the Beatles sprang to mind. But then I started making some comparisons, and came to a number of bizarre conclusions.

BTW, when I say greatest songs, I mean those with the greatest melodies, which more or less restricts us to ballads, and also excuses some terrible lyrics (the words of Irving Berlin’s classic White Christmas are absurdly banal; the lyrics of Puccini’s soaring One Fine Day are awkward, to say the least; and the Rolling Stones’ most moving ballad, Wild Horses, has the stupidest lyrics extant).

Here are my conclusions, briefly, before I get to a putative canon of actual songwriters and their songs: something that’s never been attempted before, which is why I’m doing it now.

Conclusion one: there are only eight truly greatest songwriters of all time, and they leave all the others in belly-crawling dust, for an obvious reason that will be revealed shortly.

Conclusion two: there are no great songwriters working today, and those who are still alive, have their best work long behind them. Today we get unbelievably excellent pop confections and sonic surprises on the pop charts — Umbrella, Kanye West’s amazing Runaway — but no great songs. Tell me one. Just one. 2010’s Need You Now by Lady Antebellum is excellent, but not great, like Unchained Melody and Hey Jude are great. We haven’t had one of those in 20 years. It’s been a goddam bare, empty, denuded desert out there for almost a quarter of a century. The creative spasm of the sixties lasted until the 90s, and then songwriting oomph hit the skids. It’s been riding its banana skin downhill ever since. Why? After providing the canon, I’ll give you four reasons why.

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