The Leach Pottery, on the Higher Stennack in St. Ives, is both a museum dedicated to the innovative potter Bernard Leach and the Leach legacy and a working pottery studio.
All photos: John Harvey, 2017
The Leach Pottery, on the Higher Stennack in St. Ives, is both a museum dedicated to the innovative potter Bernard Leach and the Leach legacy and a working pottery studio.
All photos: John Harvey, 2017
After being closed for rebuilding, renovation and refurbishment for what seems like a very long time, it was a surprise to walk into a building that seemed almost overwhelmingly familiar. The gallery spaces, the shop, the cafe … but wait … what is new and what is pretty wonderful is the new permanent display – Modern Art and St. Ives – which does what, I think, many visitors come to gallery looking for – an in depth survey of the principle British Artists associated with Western Cornwall and St.Ives – Nicholson, Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Naum Gabo, Peter Lanyon, Sandra Blow – together with examples of the European and North American artist who inspired them and with whom their work is associated – Nicholson and Marlow Moss, for instance, alongside Mondrian.
A conscious attempt seems to have been made to include a higher percentage of work by female artists than is all too often the case, including here Margaret Mellish, Marlow Moss and, particularly, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, who is represented with three pieces which illustrate the development of her practice, from naively representational through differing kinds of abstraction and an almost fierce use of colour.What has been added to the gallery – after lengthy negotiations with residents, the town council et cetera – is a single, large high-ceilinged room, which can be used, as in its initial display, to show the work of a single artist – in this case, Rebecca Warren – or, where necessary, divided by a series of removable walls.
For the exhibition of Warren’s witty and provocative work, she has chosen the title All That Heaven Allows, taken from the 1955 Douglas Sirk film, which uses both melodramatic narrative form and heightened use of colour to dramatise the situation of a middle-class widow trapped within rigid expectations of class, gender and sexuality. Tall, angular sculptures of human figures are placed at irregular intervals across the room’s wide space; collages in neon vitrines placed here and there on the walls. Once visitors start walking around and between them, the sculptures begin to take on an exaggerated life of their own, commenting on the viewers and on themselves as works of art.
The roughly worked, one might almost say deliberately ham-fisted, construction of the figures with their clumpy surfaces and irregular colour, make a marked and deliberate contrast to the smooth surfaces and satisfying curves of the Barbara Hepworth sculptures in the permanent exhibition, just as the wall pieces, with their apparently random, yet personal, selection of objects and use of neon, offer an alternative to the more austere and geometrical work of Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo.
I first met Sue Grafton in 1991. I was in the States for the publication of the third Charlie Resnick novel, Cutting Edge, and my US publisher, Henry Holt, had brought me over for a small tour which, best as I recall, began in Minneapolis-St.Paul and continued from there down to California – specifically the annual Bouchercon mystery and detective convention, which was being held that year in Pasadena. The convention is a huge affair, crowded with fans, readers and collectors and just about, or so it seemed then, every English-speaking crime writer alive and kicking. To say I felt a little out of my league would be no exaggeration. I still hadn’t quite recovered from my first book reading & signing on the road just a week or so before, at an independent bookstore in St. Paul where the proprietor had laid on crackers and specially purchased cheddar cheese in my honour, and to which nobody – nobody – came.
Sue Grafton to the rescue. As chance would have it, we shared not just the same publisher but the same publicist, Lottchen Shivers. Lottchen had been the driving force behind the successful campaigns to promote Sue’s books and had promised to do the same for me. [The fact that she never really made it was not through lack of trying.] Once Lottchen had brought us together at Pasadena, Sue became my number one supporter, going out of her way not merely to introduce me to the audience at one of her crowded solo sessions, but to tell everyone how good the Resnick books were and that they should read them forthwith. She even managed to keep my spirits up later, when I sat stranded between her and Walter Mosely in the signing room, my grand tally of four or five customers dwarfed by Sue’s and Walter’s lines which snaked around the room and back out through the door.
She continued to be gracious and funny – and supportive – each time our paths crossed: once, memorably, in the States when she invited me to join Julie Smith, Linda Barnes and herself for dinner – I made the mistake, near fatal for my bank account, of offering to pay for the wine – and in London in 2008 when she was here to accept the CWA Diamond Dagger for Sustained Excellence in the Genre, and my partner, Sarah, and I had dinner with Sue and her husband, Steve Humphrey.
I’m sure there must have been times when she cursed herself for setting out on the millstone of a writing journey that would take her and her protagonist, Kinsey Millhone, from A is for Alibi and B is for Burglar, on through the alphabet towards X, Y and Z. As we now know, all too sadly she was not to reach Z. Y is for Yesterday will be the last. But for every curse, every moment of regret, I’m sure there were far more cherished moments of accomplishment and delight. Sue, I think, was one of those authors who genuinely welcomed and enjoyed the relationship she had with her readers, to whom she felt a sense of responsibility – just as she did, I’m sure, towards her editor through all those books, all those years, Marian Wood.
It was my very good fortune to have Marian as my editor too, in the US, at least; fortunate both for the unstinting way in which she promoted my work within the publishing house, and for the very hands-on way in which she helped to guide the Resnick books – and me with them – towards a greater maturity. She was only too aware of the power that having Sue as one of her authors gave her; as she said to me on more than one occasion, and I’m paraphrasing slightly, it’s because of Sue that I can continue to publish writers I admire like you and Daniel Woodrell, even though your sales are sadly unlikely to trouble the Best Seller lists overmuch. When Marian left Henry Holt for Putnam and took Sue with her, it wasn’t long before both Dan and myself were cut loose and, as they used to say of big band musicians, pursuing our freelance connections until another offer came our way.
Sue’s success was grounded in years of hard work in the television industry, writing scripts for series such as Rhoda, learning the art and craft of shaping and telling a story, the skill of earning the viewer’s, the reader’s, attention and sympathy. The Kinsey Millhone novels managed to straddle the wide and, for some, uncrossable lines of the comfortable and cosy crime novel and the more hard-hitting and contemporary urban thriller. And in Kinsey, Sue had created a character readers liked, felt close to, were only too happy to welcome back into their lives.
The initial success of the series was helped by being part of a quite spectacular surge in the early 1980s in America in the popularity of crime fiction written by women, usually with female leading characters. [Absurd as it sounds now, when, at this time, I was looking for a paperback publisher for the Resnick books in the US, I was told by one publisher they weren’t taking on any new male writers but if I’d like to consider using a female pseudonym … ] The first of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone books had been published in 1977, the second, Ask the Cards a Question, in 1982, the same year as A is for Alibi. That same year saw the publication of Sarah Paretsky’s first VI Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only. And it was more than a passing trend. Linda Barnes’s first Carlotta Carlyle novel, A Trouble of Fools, followed in 1987, and Julie Smith won the Edgar for Best Novel with the first Skip Langdon, New Orleans Mourning, in 1991.
Of those and other women crime writers whose careers began at a similar time, it is probably the more overtly political and feminist Sarah Paretsky and Sue Grafton who have been the most consistent and are the best-known, the best regarded. Sue’s family and her publisher have made it clear that what would have been the final book in the series, Z is for Zero, will remain unwritten. No ghosts by request.
Ask who are my favourite artists and the answer comes without hesitation: Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. Ask who I think is the greatest artist of the last 150 years – great in terms of the overall quality of the work and the pleasures it brings, great in terms of its originality and influence – and I’ll turn slightly pale and tell you such a distinction is not only worthless but impossible. And then, when my arm is metaphorically up my back and the pressure is on, I’ll say, well, of course, it’s Cezanne.
The current show at the National Portrait Gallery [till February 11th, 2018] concentrates on the portraits (Duh!) which formed a significant part of Cezanne’s work, although he’s not, I think, primarily thought of as a portrait painter. What they illustrate is his growing confidence as an artist, his expanding love of colour, of the richness of paint on canvas, the mark, as he progressed from impressionism towards a burgeoning modernism that held within itself the beginnings of cubism – of Modern Art. And this without losing sight of the sitter, his or her individuality.
Without being (thankfully) of block-busting proportions, it’s a large show, with the works well-displayed and aided rather than, as if too often the case, detracted from, by the wall captions, which are clearly and sensible written, giving just the right amount and kind of information, avoiding the all-too-typical ‘art speak’ that mars far too many exhibitions with over-intellectualised gobbledygook.
Perhaps the most important single exhibition of the year, however, was Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern. Sub-titled Art in the Age of Black Power, and concentrating on work from the two decades following the struggle for Civil Rights, this gave a first showing in this country to a large number of black artists whose work had previously been overlooked, at the same time as giving a wider platform to painters such as Norman Lewis and David Hammons and the photographer Roy DeCarava.
The Place is Here, at Nottingham Contemporary, was the perfect companion piece to Soul of a Nation, concentrating as it did on the work of Black British artists during the 1980s, including Lubaina Himid’s “A Fashionable Marriage”, one of the pieces for which she was awarded this year’s Turner Prize.
American Art was generally well represented. America After The Fall at the Royal Academy and American Prints: Pop to the Present at the British Museum were absorbing surveys, in the case of the BM quite splendidly displayed. And both the exhibition of Rauschenberg’s work at Tate Modern at the beginning of the year, and that of Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy towards the end, were testimony to the breadth and seriousness of their practice. [Johns, he’s that bloke that paints flags, yeah? Well, look again.]
Amongst the other shows I visited during the year, these also stood out …
It’s been Monk’s year, his centenary duly celebrated far and wide, up to and including a full five day, five hour Composer of the Week slot on BBC Radio 4. Welcome to the establishment! I listen to Monk’s recordings more than those of any other artist and in this year of all years, the re-discovered recordings he made in 1960 as potential soundtrack material for Roger Vadim’s film version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses have seldom been far from the stereo. Monk is someone whose music I’ve written about on a number of occasion, both in poetry and fiction, and I was delighted (under statement!) when the American critic and commentator Bill Ott chose to highlight my attempts to convey the individuality of both Monk and his music in an article which originally appeared in Booklist and has since been republished on the excellent German web site CulturMag.
Live tributes I’ve been fortunate enough to see and hear include an evening at the Vortex in East London involving students from the Trinity Laban Conservertoire of Music and Dance; John Beasley’s MONK’estra at Ronnie Scott’s; and, best of all, the triple concert celebration at Cadogan Hall, largely organised by Tony Kofi and culminating in a brilliant recreation of the famous Town Hall Concert for Big Band. I’ve written about that in some detail here …
The other outstanding jazz event for me, also at the Vortex, was a performance by the big band assembled by Hans Koller for the composer and arranger Mike Gibbs to front in his 80th Birthday Tour. Fabulous!
I’ve followed with great interest the burgeoning career of Nottingham-based cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, ever since watching him win the BBC’s contest for Young Musician of the Year, and both the emotional force and warmth of personality that inform his technical ability were very much on show in a recital at Kings Place in which he was accompanied by his equally talented if more restrained sister, Isata, in Shostakovich and Beethoven. Also at Kings Place, the Sacconi Quartet played a selection of Graham Fitkin’s compositions for string quartet, interspersed with several solo pieces by Fitkin himself, Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 and Arvo Part’s ‘Summa’. There was more Glass earlier in the year, when the James McVinnie Ensemble played an exciting and absorbing version on his “Music in 12 Parts’, and brilliantly executed minimalism from the Colin Currie Group playing Steve Reich’s ‘Tehillim’ & ‘Drumming’ at the Royal Festival Hall.
Finally, momentously, two more concerts at the Royal Festival Hall – one at the beginning of the year, one towards the end – that, in their different ways, made the skin tingle and and heart sing: the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir under Nathalie Stutzmann performing Mozart’s Requiem and the LPO again, this time with Orozco-Estrada conducting, pulling out all the stops and then some playing Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.
These are the films I enjoyed most this year (some of them first released in 2016) listed in the order I saw them rather than in any hierarchy; with the exception of ‘On Body & Soul’, which was streamed on Mubi and deserves to be shown far more widely, they were all seen in one cinema or another. If I were forced to choose a top three or four – Go on! Make me! – they would be ‘Graduation’, ‘In Between’, ‘On Body and Soul’ and ‘Manchester By The Sea’.
I could make a list of almost equal measure of those movies that, to my eyes, were over-hyped, over-rated or just plain bad. Top of that list would be Pablo Lorrain’s ‘Jackie’, a wooden study in hagiography almost equalled by the same director’s pompously ‘arty’ ‘Neruda’ – quite a feat to have two lousy efforts released in the same year. Despite some considerable critical acclaim, Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ was as unpleasant and exploitative as I should have anticipated – can we just see that rape scene from a different angle one more time, please? Both ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Blade Runner 2049’ were as empty as they were over-long and overwrought and I’m sorry but, in the face of much positivity, I almost totally failed to ‘get’ ‘Toni Erdmann’.
Next year, must try harder.
No reading year that begins with Virginia Woolf (as did 2016) and ends with Katherine Mansfield can be construed as bad. Nor was it, though I found myself – and this, as I’ve suggested before, may be a function of ageing – spending more time with and deriving more pleasure from books from earlier days than those published during the year.
Having started the year with Lawrence and ‘Sons and Lovers’, I moved on to Woolf and, accompanied by the first volume of her diaries and Julia Brigg’s excellent survey of her life and work, reread, with much pleasure and admiration, ‘Mrs Dalloway’, ‘To The Lighthouse’, ‘The Waves’ and ‘The Years’ together with, for the first time, ‘Night and Day’. Looking for something, to my mind, equally good but different, I moved on to Hemingway. Well, I was about to start writing a novel and in need of something bracing that moved to a different set of rhythms, one more suitable for my purposes. So, before setting out, I reread for the umpteenth time a generous selection of the short stories, followed by ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. And as I was hovering over chapter one, and thinking to prosper from his excellent example, I read again Peter Temple’s ‘The Broken Shore’ and ‘Truth’, in order to remind myself of the tautness, tension and sense of purpose that can be found in the very best of crime fiction.
Once safely ensconced in front of my computer in the mornings, my novel on course and moving along at a not unreasonble rate, I turned to Graham Greene for the sheer pleasure of good stories well told. ‘The Human Factor’ (under-rated), ‘The Heart of the Matter’ (a tad over-rated?), ‘The Comedians’ and, best of all, ‘The Quiet American’. Later in the year, I read, for the first time – what had I been doing? – Elizabeth Bowen (loved ‘The House in Paris’) and some Willa Cather I’d not yet got around to, ‘Alexander’s Bridge’, ‘The Professor’s House’ and ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’. And yes, okay, in between all of this harking back I was reading newer things, trying and, all too often, finding them lacking. Tired and obvious in some cases, trying too hard in others. I had been knocked sideways by much of Eimar McBride’s first novel, ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’, scenes from which are vivid to me still, but didn’t finish ‘The Lesser Bohemians’, in which she managed to make the sexual dalliances and excessive drinking of a young drama student living in Camden about as repetitive and uninteresting (to others) as, looking back, they probably were at the time. As for George Saunder’s much-touted and prize winning ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ – even for a writer, one of whose fortes is being experimental and clever (and who, especially when he forgets to be both of those things, has written some of the best short stories of the past decade or two) – it was too tricksy and clever by half. Unreadable.
I must have liked something. Well, yes. Woody Haut’s novel, ‘Days of Smoke’, was fascinating in the detailed and knowledgeable way it recreated the cultural and politcial turbulence of San Francisco and L.A. in the late 60s, and Henning Mankel’s ‘After the Fire’ dealt tellingly with issues of ageing and mortality that, to some of us, are becoming increasingly relevant. Jane Harper’s CWA Gold Dagger winning, ‘The Dry’, was compelling and believable until she felt the need to pull a plot twist out of nowhere towards the end, which lost my sympathies but clearly not that of the judges.
Almost more than any other, I enjoyed and admired Ann Patchett’s ‘Commonwealth’, a skilfully crafted and in some ways old-fashioned novel, which follows the connections and disconnections of two American families from the 60s to the present, and which I found totally absorbing. I also very much liked two of the novels that were short listed for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize: Sarah Baume’s ‘A Line Made By Walking’, which traces a young woman’s deliberate retreat into solitude in prose that is clear and direct yet evocative and moving; and Jon McGregor’s ‘Reservoir 13’, which is set in a Derbyshire village where a teenage girl has gone missing.
McGregor is one of my favourite contemporary writers and three of his books – ’So Many Ways to Begin’, ‘Even the Dogs’ & ‘This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You’ – are amongst my favourites of the past twenty or so years. I read ‘Reservoir 13’ the moment I got my hands on a copy and then, almost without a break, read it again, the second time to remind myself of what I’d liked, but also because I was hoping to find whatever it was I’d been missing – not the facts about whatever happened to the missing girl, I didn’t need that, nor did I read with an expectation the mystery would be solved; what I’d missed was more about her family, more about the people of the village – in exchange for which I would quite happily have settled for less about the cyclical life of bats, birds and the bloody foxes.
Much of what I wanted is there in the fifteen short stories of ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ that are currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and are available both as a download and, now, a book. If, instead of being issued as a companion piece, all – or most – of that material had been included in the original novel, I think it would have been a more complete and satisfying work. But even as I write this, I know (or think I know) that kind of completeness is not what McGregor is after in ‘Reservoir 13’, what he’s setting out to achieve; this is more a narrative that darts its way in and out, giving us a moment here, a moment there; a voice raised, a sudden sharpened glance; a mosaic from which we build our portrait of these lives. And the writing, the prose is so skillfully handled; like Sarah Baume’s in some regards, it is delicate but strong. Push it and it may bend but not break.
And next year, once I’ve finished rereading Katherine Mansfield’s excellent short stories for the fourth or fifth time … ? Well, with the gorgeous new Vintage Classics editions to hand, all with beautiful covers created by Aino-Maija Metsola, it may be the third year in succession I turn to Virginia Woolf to begin …
Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
Make your way to the rear of the Royal Academy, where the absorbing Jasper Johns retrospective has recently closed [who would have thought there were so many shades of grey?] and, amongst the extension work in progress along Burlington Gardens, worm your way to the entrance to Pace London, which is hosting Impulse, a small – 13 pieces – well displayed, interesting and enjoyable show of post-painterly abstraction. [A journey almost as tortuous, perhaps, as getting to the end of that sentence – language as metaphor? Enough!]
Dating back to the 1960s and 70s, and seen as coming out of, as well as in opposition to, the first generation abstract expressionist work of Pollock and DeKooning, there’s an oft-told story of the moment that this later variation of (mostly) American abstract painting – also known as Colour Field painting – was born. The critic Clement Greenberg had taken the artist Helen Frankenthaler [they were at item] to Jackson Pollock’s studio to see him at work, and, inspired by this, Frankenthaler adapted what she had seen to her own ends.
“The method I used developed and departed essentially from Pollock. I did use his technique of putting the canvas on the floor. But in method and material, Pollock’s enamel rested on the surface as a skin that sat on top of the canvas. My paint, because of the turpentine mixed with the pigment, soaked into the woof and weave of the surface of the canvas and became one with it.”
Helen Frankenthaler in an interview with Gene Baro, Art International, 1967
The first notable result for Frankenthaler of using this technique was the 1952 painting, Mountains and Sea, which was, in turn, instrumental in the two leading Colour Field artists, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland [both present in this show] changing artistic direction – a Saul-to-Damascus moment engineered, once again, by Greenberg [well, he’s the person telling most of the story].
“The first sight of the middle period Pollocks and of a large and extraordinary painting done in 1952 by Helen Frankenthaler, called ‘Mountains and Sea’, led Louis to change his direction abruptly. Abandoning Cubism with a completeness for which there was no precedent in either influence, he began to feel, think, and conceive almost exclusively in terms of open colour.”
“The more closely colour could be identified with its ground, the freer would it be from the interference of tactile associations; the way to achieve this closer identification was by adopting watercolour techniques to oil and using thin paint on an absorbent surface.”
Clement Greenberg: “Louis and Noland” 1960
‘Tactile’, that’s the key word here, along with ‘interference’: this is a movement away from those vigorous lines that skipped across a Pollock canvas, those mostly deliberate, semi-instinctive whirls and splotches that engendered energy and rhythm, they’ve had their day. The new art, Greenberg decreed, shall be the art without artist, without the artist’s tangible, visible presence made plain though his or her marks; somehow, it will be “purely visual” and open and “relatively anonymous” in its execution. A visual experience that is somehow purer and more all-encompassing.
Both Louis and Noland are represented here at Pace London, Louis with two pieces including, centrally, his vast 1958 work Plentitude [shown in the both installation views above] and Noland with the two smaller pieces seen immediately above, both from a period in the late 70s when he was experimenting with abruptly angled canvases. Indo, from 1977, is quite mesmeric in its central grounding of mauvish blue, bordered and accentuated by thin strips of brighter, contrasting colours.
Frank Bowling, a British artist born in Guyana, moved to New York in the late 60s, whereupon his work moved increasingly towards abstraction; but, for me, the most interesting of his three pieces here is the beautiful 1978 At Swim Two Manatee, which leans back towards his earlier, more figurative work, and takes on, in its borders, an almost Pre-Raphaelite delight in intricate decoration.
For me, though, the most impressive artist on show is Sam Gilliam, whose work I came across for the first time [shame on me] in the groundbreaking Tate Modern show, Soul of a Nation, which also featured Bowling and the fifth artist showing at Pace, Ed Clark.
From the late 60s, apparently, while still working on canvas in a regular way, Gilliam had begun soaking canvasses in paint and then folding and hanging them to make work that was part-painting, part-sculpture [Think Eva Hesse, think Barry Flanagan]. The three-dimensional nature of After Micro W, exhibited here, and Carousel Change, from Soul of a Nation, is such that you want not just to look, to soak up, as it were, the glorious movement and agglomeration of colour, but to reach out, if one were allowed, and touch. ‘Purely visual’, but ‘tactile’ too.
Noland had linked his practice and that of his fellow abstractionists with that of jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk – “what was new was the idea that something you painted could be like something you heard.” An idea taken up and progressed by Mark Godfrey in his essay, “Notes on Black Abstraction” from the Soul of a Nation catalogue.
“These artists may well have sensed that Coltrane’s ability to take apart the conventions of melody and rhythm found a parallel in their own interest in abandoning stretcher bars, flat surfaces and brushes. To put it another way, what Coltrane did to ‘My Favourite Things’ and ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ equals what Gilliam and Loving did to Morris Louis and Frank Stella.”
The other piece of Gilliam’s on show that I love and kept returning to is Onion Skin from 1975, a large canvas which seems to reach back towards the abstract expressionism of the late 50s and early 60s, while having a progressive sense of rhythm and colour that is its own. There’s more than a hint of Jackson Pollock here, and in its organic use of line and colour you can see something, I think, of Sam Francis, but it’s a satisfying whole and Gilliam through and through.
[In his excellent review of the show for Wall Street International, William Davie, describing this piece, draws a comparison with the paint-splattered floor of Pollock’s studio, and, fearing I’d stolen the idea, had to go back to my hastily scribbled notes to find a scribbled ‘artist’s floor’ in the margins. I don’t have that many vaguely original thoughts, I can discard them willy-nilly]
Impulse at Pace London finishes on Friday, 22nd December.
After a series of grim days, brightened only by the occasional striking sunset and the election news from Alabama, today was nicely crisp and cold and I was able to restore my regime of a post-coffee mid-morning walk around Parliament Hill Fields and Hampstead Heath. [And since you ask, 3.12 miles, 6615 steps.]
Sometimes I’ll listen to a podcast of In Our Time, at others Private Passions or Desert Island Discs; or I’ll set my trusty little iPod on shuffle and see what comes. The sun had mostly cleared the paths of ice, save for one treacherous stretch beside the old boating pond, where the ice spread wide and long, invisible as glass. Up on the slopes, stumps of snow stood haphazardly amongst the grass like the stunted columns of some scattered Stonehenge. And this is what I heard …
If memory serves [and, increasingly, I fear, it doesn’t quite] I first came across the music of Graham Fitkin, like so much other interesting and occasionally testing music, on BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction; this back in the days when I could stay awake late enough to listen. I can’t recall the particular piece that was played, but it might well have been Flak, written for and performed on two pianos, or one of the composer’s more reflective piano pieces, titled simply Piano Piece followed by the date. Whichever it was, the name stuck and it wouldn’t have been much later, browsing the CD racks in the classical department of the late and lamented (by me, anyway) Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus, that I came across the album Flak, released by Manchester’s Factory Records in 1990, and featuring ten compositions, arranged, as the sleeve note disarmingly states, into two groups: “Numbers 1 – 4 are written for two pianos/eight hands and are generally fast. Numbers 5 – 10 are for solo piano and are generally slow.”
Although those are Laurence Crane’s words and not those of Fitkin himself, they serve to indicate the straightforwardness of Graham Fitkin’s approach to both the music and its audience: okay, this is contemporary classical music and while it may sometimes be intricate and difficult to play it is not difficult to listen to and enjoy. One thing that immediately becomes clear when you see Fitkin in concert is his concern for communicating with his audience. Shock, horror, he even talks to us; and talks in an engaging, sell-deprecating, slightly bumbling manner that has the desired effect of breaking down any imagined barriers. Not only that, he has been known to cook for us too! Meringues at a recent band gig in Kings Place’s smaller hall and last night, in the main auditorium, dish after dish of small and richly delicious chocolate truffles.
Fitkin was born in West Cornwall – the Penwith Peninsula – where he lives with his partner and frequent collaborator, the harpist Ruth Wall, and studied first with Nigel Osborne and Peter Nicholson at the University of Nottingham [Penwith & Nottingham, perhaps the perfect combination!] and later with Louis Andriessen in Holland. Andriessen aside, his style owes much to the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and, although that is never really left behind, there is a restlessness that pushes the music into exciting and sometimes surprising areas – the audio-enhanced duets with Ruth Wall; the as-close-to-jazz-as-damn-it gigs by the Graham Fitkin Band; and, memorably, the 2016 London Jazz Festival evening at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, which quite thrillingly merged minimalism with disco and featured two counter tenors singing girl group back-up.
Last night’s concert at Kings Place was arranged around the launch of a new album on which the Sacconi Quartet, who have been collaborating with Fitkin for some ten years, play all six of his existing pieces for string quartet. Nicely programmed, the evening featured three of those compositions – concluding with Servant, my personal favourite and, I would guess, also theirs – four pieces of solo piano, including Running & Breathing and two beautifully reflective Piano Pieces, 00 & 95; these interspersed with Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 and Arvo Part’s Summa [irrevocably linked in my mind with my radio dramatisation of A. S. Byatt’s Frederica Quartet, for which it was the theme music.] All in all, a warm, engaging, enthralling evening of music … and chocolate truffles.
You can find out more about Graham Fitkin and listen to some of music on his web site.