SNAP Art at the Aldeburgh Festival
June 8th – June 30th 2013
OPEN DAY, JUNE 8th 1-4pm

The third annual exhibition organised by Abigail Lane together with Aldeburgh Music. To celebrate the Benjamin Britten Centenary, artists from previous SNAP exhibitions have been invited to contribute works related to or inspired by Britten. We are very pleased to also include artists affiliated with The Wysing Arts Centre (Cambridge) and OUTPOST (Norwich). For updates, please check our Snap Notice Board. For all other events, please visit Aldeburgh Music.


S N A P _2 0 1 3

Peculiar English
By Jonathan P Watts

‘You see - I’m gradually realising that I’m English - & as a composer I suppose I feel I want more roots than other people.’ - Benjamin Britten, 1940.

The lineup at the first Aldeburgh Festival looks remarkably establishment today: An exhibition of Constable watercolours; Tyrone Guthrie; William Plomer; E.M. Forster; and then Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, Sir Kenneth Clark. For a generation of art students in the sixties Clark, with all his transhistorical notions of civilisation, would embody a kind of English country seat connoisseurship, antithetical to growing Marxist-inflected ideas on art and culture. On the continent Theodor Adorno’s bellicose vision of the new music urged a generation of radical composers to start again. Freedom was on the agenda. Freedom from all familiar sounds. Freedom from all relics of convention. Schoenberg was the man of the hour. To look back beyond the ruins of WW2 was rear-guard. In his Philosophy of Modern Music (1949) Adorno sent up Britten for his ‘triumphant meagerness’ and preservation of the antiquated. [1]

In opposition to the security of the known and acceptable, Adorno set out a lonely path for the composer.[2] His powerful narrative of origin banished Britten to the margins of the avant-garde. And yet, contrary to Adorno’s placeless modern, Britten had found his home. His was a self-conscious Englishness, an engagement with the culture of place, that included reading Crabbe, looking at Constable, and listening to the wind in the reeds. It was a peculiar kind of Englishness. On reflection, Britten quashes any reflex accusations of little-Englandism, with its connotations of ruralism, conservatism and provincialism. He’d hung out with Paul Bowles in Brooklyn. Absorbed the particular culture of the Second Viennese School. He was pacifist, and as the older generation of East Anglians say ‘per-cooliar’. i.e. he was queer. Artists at SNAP this year have picked through the hinterland of Britten’s music and biography. The results affirm and contradict.

While the Damstardt School left the ruins behind with the war, in Paris the pioneer of musique concrète, Pierre Schaeffer, scavenged bombsites for music-making material: ‘At... Cavaillé-Coll and Pleyel... I find parts of an organ destroyed in the bombing... My originality will not be to play them like an organist but to hit them with a mallet, detune them perhaps. The war has already taken this on.’ [3] With his colleague Pierre Henry, Schaeffer pioneered musique concrète - electroacoustic ‘music’ produced by recording and electronically rearranging objects ‘as found’. It was in ‘54 that Henry performed in the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, at Britten’s invitation. This event has inspired Benedict Drew’s moving-image/sound installation matériel (2013). Drew learnt of Henry’s concert from a friend in the pub who had hosted him in London in 2000, however summarily dismissed it as a skeptical half-truth. After searching Festival archives it emerged that, indeed, in ’54 a musique concrète concert took place in front of a bemused audience. For SNAP, Drew has seized upon Henry’s otherworldly objects and electronics. What if Henry had actually concocted a time machine? ‘It’s important that we veer into complete fiction,’ Drew explains. ‘A sound reverb describes place exceptionally well. If different quality reverbs are brought together then you are joining and bending two places, bringing two places and two times.’ [4]

Coventry Cathedral is Britain’s emblematic post-war reconstruction work - a structure designed by Basil Spence to occupy the bombed-out ruins of the former cathedral. Here, in ‘63, Britten’s War Requiem premiered at the reopening. Although composed in the aftermath of WW2, the words of Requiem combine Wilfred Owen’s WW1 trench poetry with Latin of the Mass for the Dead. It’s as if Britten - Britten the pacifist - wrote Requiem to commemorate all the dead in all wars in all places. Painter Maggi Hambling vividly recalls the sensation of hearing it for the first time soon after its premier: ‘The piece’s dynamic combination of strangeness, horror, lament, fear, strife, tenderness, chilling authority and grandeur was unlike anything I had previously experienced.’ [5] For SNAP Hambling has painted a series of imagined war-wrought landscapes and unidentified victims in response to Requiem. The paintings are hung clustered in the Dovecot - a small space Hambling has transformed to approximate a bare concrete room at Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. Intermittently Requiem sounds. Singer Ian Bostridge has observed how Requiem addresses whichever conflict or crisis stirs at the time of its performance. [6] In their anonymity, Hambling’s landscapes and paintings do the same - these are memorials for all the dead, and all those that will die as long as war continues.

‘ If wind and water could write music,’ the violinist Yehudi Menuhin once said, ‘it would sound like Ben’s.’ Besides an off-site radio broadcast of Britten’s ‘The Spacious Firmament on High’ from Noye’s Fludde, for SNAP this year Cerith Wyn Evans has made a white neon sign that reads ‘340.29 m/s’. The title of this work, 340.29 m/s The Speed of Sound (approx) at Sea Level, anchors the apparently arbitrary figure. Located in the main concert hall, it’s a poignant reminder of the specific physical conditions that give music to place. Hung on the main concert hall exterior is Juergen Teller’s large-scale photographic work William Eggleston Listening to Tchaikovsky, Memphis, Tennesse 2010, which shows the deific American photographer rapt in listening. Over the past year sound artist Chris Watson has retraced the ‘composing walks’ Britten took in and around Snape after lunch everyday. This commission by Aldeburgh Music reconstructs the soundscape - particularly birdsong - Britten would have heard. Some of Watson’s sound recordings of birds have been incorporated into the artist Abigail Lane’s sound installation Underneath the Abject Willow. Gathered in the willow tree on Hepworth Lawn is a 51-piece bird ‘vocal’ ensemble, including, among others, the cuckoo, the nightjar and the curlew, performing W.H. Auden’s Underneath the Abject Willow, and a selection of English and Welsh traditional music. Sharing the Hepworth Lawn is Mark Fuller’s similarly surreal sculptural installation and performance Milk and Music (Sally in our Alley). Of all the art on display at SNAP, Fuller’s has the strongest affinity with Neo-Romantic concerns - the collapse of past and present, familiarity and strangeness, an evocation of weird old England. For the duration of the exhibition a meter-tall ball of milk cartons, encircled by a string strung with mackerel tins, is installed. On the opening afternoon elements of this installation will be activated by a ritual performance devised by Fuller with Sarah Lucas set to Britten’s interpretation of country dance song Sally in our Alley. The Neo-Romantic impulse, to paraphrase the critic Michael Bracewell, engages with ‘mystery and invisible presence’. 7] Exactly to whom or what Fuller’s and Lucas’ strange ritual is directed remains uncertain.

In many ways Sarah Lucas shares an exclusive commune with Britten. For ten years she has lived and worked in the isolated cottage that Britten and Pears retreated to in the latter part of their lives. For half that time she has shared it with Julian Simmons. As Pears was a kind of muse for Britten, so too was this cottage. Here he composed much of Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice. As Simmons is a kind of muse for Lucas, so too today is the cottage. At SNAP Lucas and Simmons share derelict building number 1. Lucas’ work, Eros and Priapus, are two enlarged concrete-cast penises erected on defunct farming machinery. A sourceless, omniscient electronic sound issues from nowhere, oscillating between noise and music, enveloping penises and audience. This is Simmons’ NUMBERSTREAM 100 - a soundwork composed of digitally-processed fragments of Britten music. The two elements merge enigmatically.

In his sculpture Parable Simon Liddiment celebrates Britten’s ‘international Englishness’. Liddiment is fascinated by the legacy of public-facing pre and post- war communication art and design. For him Basil Wright and Harry Watt’s Night Mail (1936), on which Britten and Auden collaborated for the GPO film unit, represents a utilitarian optimism, a meeting of brilliant minds to design Britain. In the late 1950s Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert developed British road signage according to UN protocol. Their typeface, ‘Transport’, still in use today, is a vehicle for communication of simple meaning with maximum legibility. Parable is a 5 meter free-standing composition of near-complete roadsigns. The symbols refer to typical rural subjects - cattle and level crossings. It’s Night Mail that inspired May Cornet’s retrieval and incorporation of past work into new work at SNAP. After watching Night Mail Cornet returned to a detail in an earlier triptych painting called Without You I'm Nothing: ‘There he was, this official-looking figure in a green uniform, wearing a hat, with an outstretched arm.’ The unintentional detail transformed into a post-man. Then Cornet read Auden's description of the envelopes:

'Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue’ [8]

Details surrounding the postman on the canvas became his parcels and packets. For SNAP, Cornet has carved these forms into stone and painted one face with Humbrol enamel. They stand in a line atop a meter-long plinth in the Pond Gallery, ready to be sorted.

For Britten’s centenary the blue heritage plaque, the kind stuck on sites of historical significance, has been subtly shifted: ‘Britten Lives Here’. A shift of tense implies that memory is not final, that it’s constantly undergoing retroactive revisions. And if Britten still lives through the music and landscape new experiences are constantly being produced that will be incorporated into his memory. Several works at SNAP explore this apparent temporal paradox between the past and present. Emily Richardson has produced two works that explore the unbuilt memorial to Britten proposed by the architect H. T. 'Jim' Cadbury-Brown for Aldeburgh beach. Long before Hambling’s scallop, Cadbury-Brown proposed an aeolian memorial constructed from a column of wood drilled with two holes. A good westerly gale would sound the two holes which were keyed to Peter Grimes. In the developmental phase Cadbury-Brown strapped two organ pipes to a car and drove it up and down the Aldeburgh-Thorpeness road to determine the correct hole sizes. For SNAP Richardson has re-enacted the experiment, documenting it on film and recording the sound made by the pipes strapped to the car. The moving image work is on display at Snape Maltings, while sound recordings are installed in Aldeburgh Lookout Tower, close to the original proposed memorial site. The work of Roger Eno, Cally Spooner and Ryan Gander each conjure Britten into presence in different ways. Both Eno and Gander use communications technology as a medium to summon the ghost in the machine, to make the physically inanimate animate. Eno’s sound installation Musical Box uses Snape’s red BT phonebooth. Pick up the call specially recorded BT answerphone messages redirects to archival sound recordings of Britten speaking, and fragments of Purcell. Besides a series of paintings installed in the foyer (a series of paint palettes for discarded portraits of Britten), Gander uses the modern medium of Twitter to bring to life Britten’s conducting baton. The baton, we learn, has its own life-world, its own fond and sometimes bitter recollections of Britten. As an artist Cally Spooner insists on live performance as an antidote to what she perceives as the ‘meddling and deadening’ of liveness in mass culture. Spooner has trawled Britten’s writing for encapsulated truths about the nature of live performance. For the duration of SNAP these will be printed on receipts and bookmarks - ephemeral forms that diffuse his insights into the infrastructure of the festival.

How music translates into a visual object fascinates SNAP artist Scott King. For SNAP, King has produced a large outdoor billboard that combines the musical score of ‘Playful Pizzicato’ from Britten’s Simple Symphonyand the Royal Bank of Scotland logo - both elements of an RBS television advert that aired several years ago. Their re-presentation, ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms, translate the advert into a physical visual object, and provide a score from which a small live orchestra will perform on the opening day of SNAP. This representation of music across contexts draws attention to how meaning is recuperated.

The limitless diversity and possible intricacy between words and music in song is a powerful metaphor for the many coincidences and divergences between artwork on display at SNAP 2013 and the corpus of Britten’s musical work and biography. Britten’s music has its own historical allusions, its own allegorical, social and political, or everyday, concerns. Its own emotional, imaginative and material processes. As do the artworks on display at SNAP 2013 which, in their peculiar ways, affirm his life.

1* Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, Continuum (1949/2004), p.5.
2* Paul Griffiths, A Concise History of Western Music, Cambridge University Press (2006), p.273.
3* Pierre Schaeffer, In Search of a Concrete Music, University of California Press (2012), p.5.
4* Interviewed by the author, April 2013.
5* Maggi Hambling, Artist’s Statement, SNAP 2013.
6* Ian Bostridge, ‘War and the pity of war’, The Guardian, Friday 23 September 2011.
7* Michael Bracewell, ‘Lost Hikers’, The Dark Monarch: Magic and Modernity in British Art, Tate (2009), p.xv.
8* W.H. Auden, ‘Night Mail (Commentary for a G.P.O Film)’ in Collected Poems, Faber (1976/1994), pp.131-133.