How about a week without American culture?

The worst fears of many about a Trump presidency are coming to fruition, especially with the implementation of the federal orders banning entry to anyone from born in one of seven Muslim countries (though not the worst, like Saudi Arabia or some of the Gulf states, with strong business links), or who holds dual nationality. Not to mention the ongoing plans for the Mexican Wall. And Britain’s excuse for a Prime Minister has offered Trump a full state visit, before tootling off to sign a lucrative arms deal with another dictator, President Erdoğan of Turkey. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world…..

But getting angry may not achieve anything, least of all convince the millions of Americans who strongly support Trump’s actions, and previously have shown ferocious support for capital punishment, horrendous rates of incarceration of those convicted of petty offences, an insane gun culture which causes annually over 10 000 more deaths of Americans (at the hands of other Americans) than any other cause, use of gas-guzzling cars for small journeys and contempt for the very idea of climate change, not to mention neo-imperial military action against many other countries who are not necessarily compliant towards the US.

The issue is, to me, why we continue to legitimise a tacit view which assumes that the United States stands at the centre of the world, but only economically and militarily (both of which might be able to be shown with some degree of objectivity), but in cultural and intellectual terms too?

With this in mind, I have a proposal, which I will implement in a hard-line form for the duration of February, and recommend to others in milder manifestations. How about, first of all, going a week without partaking of any culture produced in the US? I do not want to limit this in terms of ethnicity, allegiance, ideology, and so on, simply down to where it was produced, as far as this can be ascertained fairly. So, just put on hold for now, any novel, poem or play from an American writer, any music produced by American musicians, any American visual art, any American films or TV, and so on. Then see how many times this becomes an issue, and this may give some indication of the extent to which your cultural habits are dominated by US culture. Try and make a point of seeking out something from elsewhere instead. For example:

  • If you were going to watch South Park or Family Guy, how about looking into some comedy and animation from elsewhere? There has been loads of such work from Eastern Europe over an extended period – this blog should give some pointers.
  • If you were going to listen to any African-American popular music, how about trying something from one of the 54 countries in Africa instead (or by African diaspora communities in countries other than the USA)? Try some of the work of Afrisa, or Prince Nico Mbarga, Hugh Masekela or King Sunny Ade, just to take a few of the most obvious examples?
  • If planning to listen to American minimalist music, how about trying some non-American alternatives? For example, the work of Louis Andriessen, Michael Nyman, Kevin Volans, Gavin Bryars, Arvo Pärt, Karel Goeyvaerts or others? Some might dispute the use of the term ‘minimalist’ for some of these, but assertions of unity amongst even the classic American ‘minimalists’ look less and less tenable all the time. Nyman himself just today pointed out to me that when he coined the term ‘minimal music’, it was when reviewing a performance at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1968 of Springen by Danish composer Henning Christiansen, played by Charlotte Moorman (US) and Nam June Paik (Korea, moved to US in mid-30s).
  • If planning to watch an American film, think of the many other countries with such important film industries as well, and how about watching an Italian, Russian, Iranian, Chinese, Nigerian or Argentinian film instead? From these and many many other countries, there is a vast amount to see, of all types. Just avoid the easy option of watching one of the usual blockbusters, and seek out something different.
  • Post-1945 American art is endlessly celebrated and anthologised – why not check out what was being produced in France, Sweden, Italy, Japan, during the same period?

And so on and so forth. I intend to do this for the whole of February, but my suggestion to others is this – try doing it for a week, and then the following week, limit US culture to no more than a third of what you watch/read/listen to/etc (which is still a huge percentage), and stick to that for the rest of the month. Do this for the sake of diversity and to challenge the notion that the country which now has Trump as President, and refuses entry to millions of people of Muslim origin, should continue to exert cultural hegemony as well.

This is not kneejerk anti-Americanism – I have in my office at work hefty volumes of poetry of William Carlos Williams, Lorine Niedecker and Charles Reznikoff which I had hoped to get round to soon, but they can wait. Instead, I will have a read of the new volume of the poetry of Basil Bunting which I received recently. I will have some works of John Cage and Morton Feldman to practice in advance of a concert in Oxford in early March, but as far as listening more widely to these, I have spent vast amounts of time before – I would sooner spend more on Franco Evangelisti or Henri Pousseur or Bent Sørensen or Yuji Takahashi. And lots and lots of recordings of Sardinian, Iraqi and Japanese traditional musics on which I’d like to spend more time. And films I have and have been meaning to watch from Dziga Vertov, René Clair, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Dušan Makavejev, Zhang Yimou, Abbas Kiarostami, Nagisa Oshima. And many others which are lighter fare. Sam Fuller, David Lynch, Harry Smith, Kenneth Anger, Sidney Lumet and John Cassavetes can wait, great though they all are.

An further, an invitation: do leave a comment here with recommendations, of any period, genre or whatever, of any type of books, plays, films, music, art, etc., from all the other countries in the world. Imagine, as John Cage said, that the US is just one country in the world, no more, no less.

None of this will stop Trump, for sure, nor is it a substitute for pressing political action. But just perhaps, if a great many made a conscious effort in this respect, the hegemonic power of the United States in general upon people’s minds might be diminished and become more proportionate to its undoubted cultural achievements.

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Culture in the EU (8): Estonia

 

[Because of other commitments, it has not been possible to post more in this series for a little while, but I am endeavouring to complete as many as possible before the referendum on Thursday. For now, I will mostly give links and text without so much commentary, which may follow later]

As a solid supporter of the Remain campaign, in the 18 days from June 5th until the European Union Referendum on June 23rd, I am posting a selection of links and other information about music, literature, film, visual art, dance, architecture, etc., from each of the EU nations.

I make no claims to be comprehensive in any case, and my choices undoubtedly will reflect my own aesthetic interests – but I believe that may be more interesting than a rather anonymous selection of simply the most prominent artists or art. All work comes from the post-1945 era, the period during which the EU has come to fruition, but may (and often will) include work which dates from before the nations in question joined the EU. As I am writing in English, where translations exist I will use these. Time does not allow for detailed commentaries, I just throw these selections out there in the hope others will be interested in the extraordinary range of culture which has emerged from citizens of the EU.

 

Estonia

[With profound thanks to Helen Harjak for various suggestions of Estonian culture to investigate]

A major figure in the post-war Estonian literary scene was the writer and poet Bernard Kangro (1910-1994), who founded the cultural journal Tulimuld, which ran from 1950 to 1993. A selection of his quasi-surrealist poems is available in English translation, called Earthbound.

Kangro - Earthbound

Here is Kangro’s poem, ‘Late Flowers, Wind, Sea, Sand and Fish’, translated Ivar Ivask.

Wind wilts
late flowers,
tiny blossoms
at edge of bay.

Don’t blame the breeze!
The sea’s there
thundering
upon the sand.

Wave above,
sand blow.
Fish laugh
and skip away.

Another poem can be read here.

Another surrealist Estonian writer was the poet and sound poet Ilmar Laaban (1921-2000), who lived in Sweden from 1944. Here is Laaban’s poem ‘Silence and Violence’, as translated by Richard Adang and Andres Ehin

Silence and Violence

Long ago on a windy hunt
a horrible happiness abruptly bloomed in me
and the landscape congealed only its pungent
blood rustling through my veins the gun smoked
incessantly the hound did not bark
as it gazed at the clouds tightening
into meat and skinning over with fur
streaming tangled by despair

Because on the horizon a stout tower appeared
which swayed slowly between emptiness
and the overflowing clamor of hideous joy
like a gigantic latrine
the sweaty sun mottled Earth and Welkin
until suddenly it was eclipsed by cold
ravens of freedom who carried my eyes
and fresh images like flags in their bills

At twilight which was only flashes
as the sea is but the triumph of the drowned
my hunting jacket was freed of its heavy
web of lust I simply ran forward
along the mute moor coming across
animals with shining coals for hearts
I shot them so many that the road home
was finally choked with grass

Long ago I seized the empty beaker
and faced its inflexible challenge
and ever since this endless draught rinses –
my gun-barrel mouth which sparkles
in the starry sky and when it sees
some too-warm nebula defiling cosmic night
it proclaims ponderously and clearly
I DENY DEATH BUT AFFIRM ICE

Here is Laaban’s sound-text composition Ciel Inamputable (1969)

 

Amongst the most renowned Estonian writers of the post-war era are Jann Kaplinski (b. 1941), who drew widely upon mythology and Asian thought, and Jaan Kross (1920-2007), who spent an eight-year period as a prisoner in Soviet labour camps. Here is an obituary of Kross in The Guardian. Kross’s novels often had historical settings, but served as allegories of the contemporary situation under Soviet communism. His four volume sequence of novels Kolme katku vahel/Between Three Plagues (1970-1976) told the story of the sixteenth-century chronicler Balthasar Russow, who wrote the chronicle of the Livovian War, detailing his experience of the effects upon the peasantry from which he came.

Kross - The Ropewalker

 

A sparse form of poetry, reflecting post-1968 disillusionment and disenchantment, can be found in the work of Paul-Eerik Rummo (b. 1942), who also went on to become an Estonian politician. A selection of his poems can be read in translation here; here is one, ‘Crooning’.

Crooning

I am so fleeting
sighed the girl to the sea
oh, what can I do
you are eternal

I am transparent like you
sighed the girl to the window
oh, what can I do
my heart’s in full view

I open like you
sighed the girl to the door
oh, what can I do
the sun steps in

I am so small
sighed the girl to the sun
oh, what can I do
you are so large

I am so foolish
sighed the girl to the wise man
oh, what can I do
everyone is so wise

More on Rummo can be read here.

Poet and author Tõnu Õnnepalu (b. 1962), who has also published under the names Emil Tode and Anton Nigov. His novel Piiririik/Border State (1993), a short novel about the overwhelming and sometimes destructive effect of Western culture upon a Baltic citizen, comes highly recommended; more can be read about it here.

Onnepalu - Border State

Also, do check out the poet, short story writer and librettist Maarja Kangro (b. 1973). Here is her poem ‘The Butterfly of No Return’, as translated by Ilmar Lehtpere. A further selection of poems, with various translations, can be read here.

THE BUTTERFLY OF NO RETURN

‘again’ is a big word.
slowly and quickly
again

again men rejoice on the radio
that they are on the right road
and talk of the cyclical nature of time

a proper road goes in circles, even I
recognize young skin on the beach and
”et si tu n’existais pas,” is sung loudly

men on the radio speak of the connection
of everything to everything else:  ringingly
one says butterfly effect – I lift my wings

a good sleep gives you cyclical time
for after such a sleep you think you’re revived
and again

I flutter my wing
the good men on the radio start coughing
I flap my wings more amply and a wind comes up

the men cough wheezing, the airwaves revolt
ships sink and swimmers drown, the final sleep
comes stormy and grey

let’s think of a word that never was before
was just now
and now isn’t anymore

***

There’s a whining and ringing in the air.
You talk of a lout.
I’m the very one.  Through me you’ll never
reach the deeper levels or the heights,
the flash of pure being that you believe
you see in the village drunkard
or the poet gone mad.
When he drinks, secrets come to light.
When I get legless, I attack.
Or I drift off, stinking.  My gaze is dark.
I give off my exhaust in your face.
I want lovely meat that won‘t shame me.  I’m afraid of losing.
Words anger me.  I bellow.
I watch the telly, don’t read, can’t write properly.
Rubbish is left behind me.
I am rubbish. I’m the one you’re talking about.
– Ah no, what are you going on about, it’s me.
– Ah no, it’s me.
– No, I’m the one.
– No, I am.  Forgive me.
The whole road is full of us, and our fragile souls
are ringing.  Listen, how quietly, dear girls and boys.

One of the first major groups of Estonian artists to look beyond Soviet orthodoxy was ANK-64, who were responsible for resurrecting cubist and constructivist work from earlier in the century. One of the leading figures in this movement was Jüri Arrak (b. 1936), whose work employs cartoon-like imagery and surrealist ideas; other important artists who were involved with this movement include Kristiina Kaasik (b. 1943) and Marju Musu (1941-1980)

Arrak - Lennuk 6-20

Jüri Arrak, Lennuk 6/20 (1972)

 

Kaasik - Vaade treppu

Kristiina Kaasik, Vaade trepilt (1974)

 

Mutsu - Early in the Morning

Marju Mutsu, Early in the Morning (1970)

In 1967, artist Kaljo Põllu (1934-2010) created another group called the Visarid, which disseminated much information on Western artistic movements and ideas, not least relating to pop art and graphic design.

Pollu - Mangutuba

Kaljo Põllu, Mängutuba (1967)

 

Pollu - Kullatja

Kaljo Põllu, Kuulataja (Vaikus) (1968)

 

Pollu - Keegi

Kaljo Põllu, Keegi (1987)

A starker type of art came from the SOUP-69 group, also inspired by pop art and other movements. Amongst the leading figures here were Leonhard Lapin (b. 1947) and Ando Keskküla (b. 1950).

 

Lapin - Woman Machine

Leonhard Lapin, Woman-Machine X (1974)

 

Keskkula - Finish

Ando Keskküla, Finish (1979).

Also part of this movement was the architect Vilen Künnapu (b. 1948), who would later engage with post-modern architectural ideas.

Künnapu - Office of the State Farm October

 

Kunnapu - Snail tower

Vilen Künnapu, Snail Tower, Tartu (2008)

 

Other notable modern Estonian architects include Raine Karp (b. 1939) and Riina Altmäe (b. 1949), whose best known work is the brutalist Tallinn City Concert Hall (Linnahall) (1976-1980), shown here from various angles.

 

The Estonian painter Raoul Kurvitz (b. 1961) formed a group called Rühm T in 1986, whose work (which included performance art as much as painting) was described by them as ‘Cold Expressionism’. Here is Kurvitz’s painting Chapelle (1999):

Kurvitz - Chapelle

And here is a picture of Kurvitz’s ‘Reconstructed Environment’ Maelstrom (1999/2013):

Kurvitz - Maelstrom

An interview with Kurvitz can be read here, while more information on his work can be read here.

One artist inhabiting the wilder realms of video and performance art is Jaan Toomik (b. 1961), some of whose work was inspired by the Viennese Actionists, and involves various types of degradation to the body, use of bodily fluids, and so on, but also clear political themes, as well as a recurrent concert with the nature of communication. An interview with Toomik can be read here, and here are some videos of his work.

 

 

 

Another is Ene-Liis Semper (b. 1969), whose work focuses on the body, and especially the mouth and tongue. More can be read on her work here, not least her notorious Licked Room (2000), in which she literally licked a room clean with her tongue.

Here are some samples of Semper’s work:

 

 

Semper also formed the theatre group NO99 together with Tiit Ojasoo. Here is a video about their work:

 

This is one of NO99’s best-known works, NO83 How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, inspired by Joseph Beuys.

 

Another important figure in radical contemporary Estonian theatre (about which more can be read here) is writer and director Mati Unt (b. 1944). Here is a video of his production Hot (2002).

 

Best-known of Estonian composers is undoubtedly Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), whose works such as Fratres (1977), Tabula Rasa (1977), Spiegel im Spiegel (1978), and St John Passion (1982) appealed to certain Western ideals of ‘spiritualism’ and won world renown as a result. But not all of Pärt’s work is like this; the cello concerto Pro et contra (1966) is clearly indebted to aspects of a Western avant-garde language, including collage-like techniques, whilst in Credo (1968) for choir, piano and orchestra, Pärt distorts and defamiliarises Bach’s C major Prelude from Das wohltempierte Klavier, Book 1.

 

 

 

 

Here are two examples of Pärt’s later work:

 

 

 

Another composer of the same generation whose work Kuldar Sink (1942-1995), who began engaging with some modernist traditions, including the neo-classicism, the Second Viennese School, aleatoric composition, and even happenings (Sink, like Pärt, and ANK-64, was linked to an Estonian Fluxus movement in the late 1960s).

 

 

In later work, before his death in a house fire, Sink turned to Central Asian folk musics and drastic simplification.

 

 

 

A younger composer who also traversed a path from the avant-garde to modalism and postminimalism (from the early 1980s onwards) was Lepo Sumera (1950-2000)

Lepo Sumera, Pantomiim/Pantomime (1981)

 

Lepo Sumera, Senza metro (1986)

 

Lepo Sumera, Tähed / Stars for soprano and piano (2000)

In the  fascinating work of Jüri Reinvere (b. 1971), however, one finds a particular type of fusion or interplay of modernist, aleatoric, and romantic elements to varying degrees.

 

Jüri Reinvere, t.i.m.e. (2005)

 

Jüri Reinvere, Requiem (2009), excerpt.

Helena Tulve (b. 1972) combines modal elements with a wider musical language influenced in part by musique spectrale, and in some ways reminiscent of the work of Kaija Saariaho.

 

A much more pared-down music can be found in the work of composer and harpist Liis Viira (b. 1983), notorious for her Reverbeebi/Baby Symphony (2015), in which babies’ voices were combined with instruments.

 

The group Ensemble U have garnered attention through their creation of an ‘audience orchestra’ in which the audience members control much of the musical decision making.

 

Estonian cinema is generally thought to have come into its own in the 1960s. One of film which generated a fair degree of international interest was Arvo Kruusement’s Kevade/Spring (1969), based on a popular novel by Oskar Luts, a coming-of-age story set at the end of the 19th century. Here is a section of it, alas without subtitles, but which enables one to sample the visual qualities.

 

 

(the rest of the film can be viewed on the same YouTube channel)

Here is a film from the previous year, Kaljo Kiisk’s Hullumeelsus/Madness (1968)

 

And here is Leida Laius’s Kõrboja peremees (1979)

 

Of post-independence Estonian cinema, required viewing includes Hardi Volmer’s parody of the Russian Revolution, Minu Leninid/All My Lenins (1997), here available with English subtitles.

 

There is also an important tradition of Estonian animated film, in which the leading figure is Priit Pärn (b. 1946). Here is his  Ein murual/Breakfast on the Grass (1983, released 1986)

 

Here is a clip from Pärn’s 1992 film Hotel E:

Many other of Pärn’s animations can be viewed online.

An article on the evolution of Estonian contemporary dance post-independence can be read here. Here is a clip of the work of Fine 5 Dance Theatre, founded in 1992:

 

One can read about the United Dancers of Zuga here (unfortunately I have not found a good clip of their work).