Saturday, November 30, 2013

Triple Earful

Have been getting to grips with three albums which arrived in the post earlier this week: 
- Psapp What Makes Us Glow - their fourth album after a five year gap, and sounds just like their third. Quirky, 'toy-tronic' songs which wouldn't look out of place in a 1927 theatre production (the company not the date). The fact that I once played kazoo with them on stage in Singapore may have something to do with my continued allegiance.  
- Jon Hopkins Immunity - excellent new-ish album by electronica, soundtrack and (staged) dance music composer. Eno meets Autechre on a good day.
- James Blake Overgrown - strange collection of sparse songs set to minimal electronic backing, not too dissimilar to Antony Hegarty. Can't decide whether I like it or not. I have to admit I was prompted by the fact that Eno contributes to a track rather than it winning the Mercury Prize this year (NB: Jon Hopkins' album was also nominated). And it's mildly intriguing that his dad is John Litherland, who used to be guitarist in heavy proggers Colosseum and Mogul Thrash.

Friday, November 29, 2013


For some reason, for about an hour this afternoon, I kept thinking about a joke. "I saw a man with a wooden leg, and a real foot".  (I think it was Steve Wright?)  I just couldn't help sniggering about it. Perhaps it was the stress we're all facing re next week; we're all slightly hysterical. It got a bit embarrassing. I'd be walking to the photocopier or something, trying to stifle a chuckle and at one point an almost tearful, full-blown roar. And then something went really wrong with next week's programme. That did the trick.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Crisp, blue-sky weather and air pollution down to a record-beating PM2.5 level of just 15mcm. Cleaner than Sydney. How long can it last?  

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Back to Siberia

It's been a while since I read a book about Siberia. I miss it. But rectified this weekend through French travel writer Sylvain Tesson's Consolations of the Forest. For six months in 2010 he lived alone in a log cabin, 3m x 3m, on the shore of Lake Baikal. The nearest village was 75 miles away and the nearest other human a stiff day's walk through the taiga. He had plenty of food, books, cigars, vodka and was well-prepared for temperatures of -30C. 
Why did he do it?  It wasn't simply to get away - he's been travelling for years. No, it was, in his words, to slow down time, to experience existence stripped to bare essentials. One is tempted to say he did a lot of nothing, but it's surprising what one can fill days with. He read, wrote and thought, yes, but he balanced this with physical stuff like skating on the frozen lake, pulling a sledge for three days, climbing a nearby mountain, chopping wood. And what of his life back home in Paris? His girlfriend dumped him. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Conspiracy Theory

In response to the oft-asked 'Where were you when John F Kennedy died?', 50 years ago to this day, my answer is probably tucked up in bed in Shotley, Suffolk. So I had nothing to do with it. Or did I...?  'Shot', 'Lee'...? 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

No Ordinary Foot

Intriguing digital display by local massage parlour.

Monday, November 18, 2013

What If...

...Gordon Sumner's mum had never bought him that jumper? 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Such a Common Name

There are David Elliotts everywhere, including 11 on Wikipedia. Here's  a dozen for starters: 1970s player/manager of Newport County FC, a children's author from New Hampshire,  a director who worked on Thunderbirds and Stingray, a Canadian poet, an Australian politician, a rock star from the early 70s (see left), a Professor of Music in New York, an American actor (who changed his name from Smith), Dionne Warwick's son, a North Carolina prison director, a healer, a stained-glass designer, and - the only one I know personally - the museum director and curator, who lived in Tokyo same time as me (We once, confusingly, gave consecutive speeches at an Antony Gormley opening). 
To say nothing of alternatively spelt David Eliot (magician), David Elliot (Scottish footballer) and David Eliott (is there one!?). 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Wise Words

Amidst the rather forced glamour of a press conference for a Chinese film festival to be held in London next month, I met the 71-year-old director Xie Fei. What a nice chap, wise yet modest, outspoken yet gentle, excellent English. He's what is known as a Fourth Generation director having graduated from Beijing Film Academy in the 60s but because of the turmoil which followed didn't make his first film until 1986. (The more famous Fifth Generation, including Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige etc then picked up the baton). He has made several films over the past 25 years, the best known being Black Snow (1989) and Woman Sesame Oil Maker (1993), which won - respectively - the Silver and Gold Bears at Berlin Film Festival. He's now a professor at BFA.
I asked him what he thought about the boom in the number of cinemas opening in China, the huge ambitions of the film industry, the big new studios opening. "It's not about that", he replied, "It's about the films".

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Britten (Enough Already)

Yet more Benjamin Britten. This time four works performed by the China Youth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Lionel Friend, at the Forbidden City Concert Hall. Three of the pieces I'd never heard before, but the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is familiar to most - if only the opening refrain, based on something by Purcell. It was originally written for a documentary film called Instruments of the Orchestra in 1946 and then forever associated with children's music education. We had a copy of the LP at home (the exact one pictured left) and it would be played, occasionally, along with Carnival of the Animals and Peter and the Wolf, for our musical edification, as a break from The Beatles or watching Top Cat

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Top Notch Grass

Today is my brother's 51st birthday. He got a lawnmower. The last time I lived in a home with a lawn was 25 years ago, and then you could have trimmed it with scissors. Since then I have lived in apartments on anything between the 2nd and 21st floors. One day we'll return to our house in Chichester with its lawn out the back, and I'll have to mow it.  
Which reminds me, I once had a big tupperware container full of grass, freshly cut from the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium. I was art-directing a photograph of a white line, for an exhibition on football, as you do. Could have chosen a pitch anywhere, Wormwood Scrubs say, but it had to be perfect, so Wembley it was. The art-direction bit consisted of me saying "That one". But the grass was a bit long, so they brought on a massive lawnmower and for some reason I kept the cuttings. It sat in a cupboard for a year until it took on the appearance of Christmas tree needles. (I used to have a box of them too). And then I threw it away. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

From Britten to Tavener

This afternoon I gave a short speech at the opening of Britten Week - a few days of concerts, talks, masterclasses, an exhibition and a couple of films, organized by Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music and the Britten-Pears Foundation, with a little help from us. It was a small, low-key ceremony attended by faculty and students but good to know that Britten is known and respected here.
There was a nice story in one of the other speeches, by Professor Zhou. As a student, he and a friend had studied in the UK in 1988, both supported by British Council grants. His friend had since gone into business and made his millions, but remembering the help he got he's set up his own award scheme to help other students.    
Later this evening I heard that fellow British composer John Tavener has just died, aged 69. The two were very different, but Britten did help Tavener in his early career (persuading the Royal Opera House to commission an opera, Therese, for example). There were lots of interesting things about him: his Russian Orthodox faith, the fact that his first works were released on The Beatles' Apple label, the length of some of his pieces. But one of the more obscure facts is that one of my favourite experimental musicians, Janek Schaefer (who I invited to perform in Tokyo 10 years ago), happens to be his nephew.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

Anti-Valentine's Day

Today, 11.11, is Singles Day in China, when bachelors 'celebrate' their unmarriedness. Given the one-child policy and the still-prevalent preference to have boys, there are an awful lot of single men around. The current birth rate is around 120 male to 100 female. 
For breakfast, the tradition is to eat four dough sticks and a dumpling; and in the evening karaoke and beer. In between which I guess there's a frantic scramble to find mates. 

Friday, November 8, 2013


Last night I attended the re-opening of Shanghai Grand Theatre after eight months of renovations. It's been subtley done - like London Southbank Centre's makeover. The event was celebrated by the staging of something unsubtle, an opera: a Hungarian-Chinese co-production of Verdi's Attila. 
Whenever I watch opera (which isn't often), it always seems like a caricature of what an opera 'should be'. Large scenery, large orchestra, large cast, large performers (well, the western ones anyway), large singing, large movements... Larger than life. Except the music, which always seems to me small, in the background, unmemorable. It ought to be the perfect meeting of theatre, music and design but for me it's a bit of a melee. 
But against the odds, I rather enjoyed it, possibly because it was mercifully short - 2 hours, a record? - but also because the cast seemed to really enjoy themselves. And I got it wrong about 'it ain't over til the fat lady sings'. She didn't die, Attila did. And quickly!  

Thursday, November 7, 2013

More New Arts Centres

This morning we drove out to the hills west of Nanjing to check out the brand new Sifang Art Museum, designed by Steven Holl Architects. It's part of a park, created by wealthy property developer Lu Jun and run by his affable young son, Lu Xun (fresh out of Cambridge). And there are 22 other bespoke buildings dotted around the park, designed by the likes of David Adjaye, SANAA and Ai Weiwei - a bit like The Commune which we experienced last week, only this has a museum in the middle. The opening exhibition is a small but perfectly formed collection of contemporary pieces from Jun's own collection plus some borrowed works.
From there to the whopping great building site from which the whopping great Jiangsu Provincial Grand Theatre will rise over the next year or so. Looking at the plans, it has the feint air of a Zaha Hadid design (who bid but lost out to a Shanghai-based practice) and will house an opera hall, concert hall, theatre and multi-purpose space. We met with the Deputy Project Manager in a small, old building in the middle of the site, like a raft in the middle of an ocean. Its days are numbered. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Old Museum Turned New

This morning I attended the re-opening of Nanjing Museum, after four years of renovations & expansion. Much of the renovation is underground, linking the several buildings and creating more gallery space in the process. There's a great long section which replicates a Republican-era street (when the city was China's capital), a massive digital gallery and an exhibition comparing Nanjing with Edinburgh of all places. There was a ceremony, a 3D film and a forum, with a few international museum directors in attendance, but actually it was curiously low-key for such a major event.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee (not)

We were talking about novels over dinner tonight, and for some reason I remembered that someone had written a 50,000-word book entirely omitting the letter E. The girls couldn't believe it, so we googled for evidence. And there it was: Gadsby - a novel by Ernest Vincent Wright, about a fictional city called Branton Hills. Imagine not being able to use the word the or the suffix -edSomewhat surprisingly, he couldn't find a publisher so self-published it in 1939, and then promptly died. You can read it here. I got through 20 pages and gave up. 
Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that a Frenchman, George Perec, matched Gadsby with his own novel, La Disparition, in 1968. So far so similar. But what takes this onto a whole other geeky level is that it has been translated into English (three separate times), German, Spanish, Turkish, Swedish, Russian, Dutch and Romanian... with each version similarly spurning the E.
And I thought I was anal.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

No Pain No Gain

A few weeks ago I pulled a muscle playing squash. It's slowly been healing but advice from various quarters prompted me to visit a masseur this morning. Now there are two types of massage: the nice, relaxing experience with sweet-smelling oils and the gentle hands of a winsome young Thai in a designer-spa full of fluffy white towels and artfully strewn rose petals on expensive teak surfaces..., and the agonising, muscle-pummelling version by a middle-aged Chinese lady with knuckles like knives in a utilitarian front-room with building works going on outside. I had the latter. It was excruciating. And it feels like I'm back to where I started.