Friday, 19 July 2013
Cattle Grids of Dartmoor
Listening to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, I have realised, is not the ideal way for me to wake up in the morning. I'm not talking about John Humphrys' toe-curling attempts at whimsy, Evan Davis' eternal benign haze, Sarah Montague's head-girlishness, or even James Naughtie's helium-quality windbaggery. No, those I can tolerate. They are familiar background noise, easily ignored, like the sound of the gas boiler kicking in at 06:30.
I'm talking about the way certain out-takes of information lodge in my subconscious, as it grumpily and somewhat clumsily swaps places in my head with my waking mind, like two local-radio presenters negotiating a changeover at the top of the hour. For example, for 20 or more years I have been haunted by the image of a wet cricket pitch being dried off by hovering helicopters. Did this ever really happen? Apparently so. But in my mind it has acquired that portentous, archetypal feeling that belongs to a persistent dream. It's tricky enough having to live with one's own, self-generated dream-life, without the BBC dropping its contribution into that murky pool.
Worse than this, though, is to be roused to wide-awake indignation from a sleeping start. By, let's say, a presenter's determination to treat a serious issue as mere light-hearted "human interest" filler between the heavy stuff. "Come on, Humphrys," my mind yells as it roars into life, "This is the ONLY opportunity this man will get to raise national awareness of Restless Leg Syndrome this whole YEAR, and you're using him as a straight-man!" Or there's the unquestioning veneration that is ladled over people who actually deserve the sort of merciless verbal thrashing unleashed on politicians and spin-doctors. The other morning, it was a bunch (a clang?) of "sound artists" who were getting the unwarranted easy airtime. Though it must have been a toss-up in the pre-programme conference whether they'd get the pious or the piss-take treatment.
Sound-artists... I'm very wary of formulations like that. Not just because it sounds like a roundabout way of saying "musician", though there is that. Is David Hockney a "paint-artist", or would that apply more appropriately to Jackson Pollock? In the end, though, "artist" is just a job description, not an honorific term, or a state of mind, or an aspiration. It means "someone who makes a living from making art". What counts as art is up for grabs, of course. So I suppose it does help to say what kind of artist you are, or hope to be.
Obviously, if someone wants to sample sounds in an interesting way, and produces compelling work that people want to listen to, then good luck to them. For example, I admire the work of Richard Skelton: I actually buy it myself. But as I listened to these sound-artists describe their "practice", I knew that sooner or later -- here it comes! -- it would turn into a sermon on the need for us all to pay closer attention to our surroundings, which is never anything more than a presumptious, preachy moralism disguised as aesthetics.
John Cage never intended 4'33" as an opportunity for Thought For The Day sanctimony. Any more that Marcel Duchamp intended L.H.O.O.Q. to leverage the market for "appropriated" art. I am so fed up with hearing what I think of as the Gospel of the God of Small Things. This has nothing to do with the novel by Arundhati Roy, though it has a lot to do with what people who have never read that book imagine it must be about (a classic example of a Takeaway Title). It's annoying to hear work (including my own) damned with the faint praise that it helps open our eyes (or ears) to the little things we fail to notice in our everyday lives. Grr. As I say, from a sleeping start to cold fury in five seconds. Thanks, BBC.
A large part of the theology of the Gospel of the God of Small Things is the belief that "everybody is an artist, and everything is art"; all we need is a little help to see it. Well, I disagree: no they aren't, and no it isn't. That's why some artists can make a living, and most can't. Is everybody a plumber, and everything plumbing? No. Such people need a serious dose of some hallucinogen -- preferably something spiky and unforgiving like LSD -- to teach them that to notice more is a problem, and potentially a nightmare. There's an awful lot going on out there: be grateful for pragmatic simplifications*. Noticing less but in a more interesting way is the thing. Good artists do that. But it's not so much what they notice, but how they notice it and what they make out of it that matters.
Actually, that spot on Today bothered me in another way, too. Somewhere in that brackish area of my mind, between the ebb and flow of the conscious and unconscious tides, the information was floated that a sound artist called John Drever has a CD out called Cattle Grids of Dartmoor. What?
That had me thinking involuntarily about cattle grids all day, when I had other things I needed to think about. There was the one where I rescued a lamb, trapped inside it like a cage. The one that had rolling bars that made it impossible to walk over. The one where the pit underneath was so full of stones and rubbish that even cattle wearing high-heels could walk across it. Oh, and the one which some local cattle-grid artist had painted gaudily in candy stripes. And so on. But, Cattle Grids of Dartmoor, what a great title for a CD!
Though I would probably have had something loud, guitar-driven, and kind of post-punk in mind. The sort of thing that emanates from my daughter's bedroom. But, you know those satisfying zzzzing! or brrrrrat! noises that cattle grids make when you drive over them? Well, apparently John Drever has been systematically recording them. All over Dartmoor. And he's made a CD. Go on, treat yourself!
* I like the quote usually attributed to physicist John Wheeler, that "Time is what prevents everything happening at once. Space is what prevents it all happening to me!". Though Wheeler himself attributed it to "graffiti in the men's room of the Pecan Street Cafe, Austin, Texas". Yeah, I can hear that, sung -- Guy Clark style -- to a guitar accompaniment...