Music reviews: Tender Symmetry, Ghost Gamelan, An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil

2018 and early 2019 have seen a number of interesting musical settings of Blake’s poetry or compositions influenced by him, three of which are reviewed in this music round up.

The first album is Tender Symmetry by Michael Price is the follow up to his 2015 debut, Entanglement, and its 2017 successor, Diary. Having begun his career as a music editor for film and television (for which he won an EMMY award in 2014), Price had achieved considerable success before releasing his own compositions, and for his third album he has decided to base the various tracks on work by William Blake. The various tracks were recorded at a number of National Trust locations, including the ruins of Fountain Abbey and Quarry Bank in Cheshire; the reason for these on-location recordings is that the album as a whole is also intended as a meditation on the sense of location. In some cases, this is – to be honest – redundant: I wouldn’t have known where the recordings were taken place without the luxurious sleeve notes, but in one case at least, “Willow Road”, the echoing effect on the singer’s voice is electrifying.

Tender Symmetry is a work which frequently alludes to Blake rather than necessarily setting lyrics from the poems to music, although this does happen on some of the tracks on the album, such as “Speke” (“The Garden of Love”) and “Willow Road” (“Ah! Sun-flower”).The album as a whole moves away from Price’s electronic-themed work to focus on orchestral settings, the effect of which can be extremely beautiful – “Speke” is an exceptional example of this, with the delightful soprano Grace Davidson and the Shards choir. Throughout, however, the entire album is delightful, whether the simple cello and strings of “Willow Road” or the more fulsome orchestrations of “Quarry Bank” and “Shade of Dreams”. The majority of the tracks on the album are relatively minimalist (think a step up from Michael Nyman), while a few bring more depth to their arrangements.

The use of Blake is indicated via reprints of his various poems, including “Holy Thursday”, “The Lily” and “A Cradle Song” as well as those mentioned above, in the beautiful booklet that accompanies the album. Without the liner notes, in some cases it would be fairly obscure as to why Price incorporates these lyrics alongside his beautiful music: with the various settings, it strikes me that the overall effect is to use Blake as a particular example of English music, by which I mean an especial sense of place rather than anything remotely approaching nationalism. Blake functions as a genius locii for the songs, offering a pastoral vision for these classical settings. The whole creates a beautiful, if slightly esoteric, adaptation of Blake’s words.

The second track reviewed here is from the 2018 album, Ghost Gamelan by Susheela Raman. Raman, who was born to South Indian parents in London and raised in Australia, offers a fantastic combination of classical Indian influences with some of the more alternative of European and western traditions. Whereas many performers dealing in a fusion of east and west tend to focus on pop or rock traditions, Raman is as likely to name check the industrial band Throbbing Gristle, or the work of her long term collaborator, Sam Mills, who was a founding member of 23 Skidoo. Having been nominated the Mercury Prize for her 2001 debut album, Salt Rain, which brought her blend of British-Asian music to a wider audience, she has often used Indian style dance rhythms, as in the wonderful “Chordhiya” from the 2005 album Music for Crocodiles, or the hypnotic “Half Shiva Half Shakti” on 2003’s Love Trap.

The allusion to Indian classical styles – which does not, by any means, indicate the full extent of Raman’s style – is important because of the refracted influence it has on the song from Ghost Gamelan which is reviewed here: “Rose”, the final track on the album, is a setting of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” to music, and is unlike just about any version of that poem that you have heard before. If there is an echo – which I am fairly sure is unconscious – it is with the song “Love’s Secret Domain” by Coil, pertinent here because they were one of the spin-offs from Throbbing Gristle which Raman says have played a role in her musical style. Unlike Genesis P. Orridge’s original outfit, with its discordant, intense industrial noise, Coil were increasingly willing to experiment with eastern instruments and sounds on later music, merging these into aslant renditions of techno performances that were intended to transform the listener’s perceptions (hence their own fascination with Blake). This is not at all to say that “Rose” is directly influenced by Coil’s music, rather that the gamelans used for this track – the Indonesian hand drums and metallophones (a kind of xylophone) – create a haunting, slightly dissonant effect that does indeed change the listener’s understanding of Blake’s song. “The Sick Rose” becomes a strangely beautiful, strangely sickly echo of itself, making this one of the most memorable versions of that poem yet.

The final album is, in many ways, the most oblique: An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil is the third in a series of collaborations between Josef van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch, and is described by the pair as an exploration of “the theology of William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg” via the occult work of “Helena Blavatsky”. Of that comment, I’ll shall be much more scathing below, but it is worth noting two things: first of all, that Jarmusch’s interest in Blake extends back at least to his wonderful 1995 film Dead Man, and that with van Wissem (who describes himself as an “experimental lute player”) the duo have not been concerned in the slightest to play around on their various releases.

On first listening, I was tempted to agree with Grayson Currin’s remark that it would be harder to “conjure a more esoteric scenario for an album” than this one, and initially the album is heavy going. This is perhaps most true on the most overtly Blakean track – “When the Sun Rises Do You Not See a Round Disc of Fire” – which concludes the record, taken from a statement made by Blake that appears in Gilchrist:

When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea? O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.

This comment by Blake is clearly intended as a key to unlock the instrumental gnosis of the album: for Blake, all perception is shaped by imagination so that, unlike the miser who sees a gold coin, Blake sees angels rising into heaven. The joyful nature of this statement is transformed into an extended drone of guitars that conclude with a voice reading from Godfrey Higgins’ Anacalypsis. This work, with its subtitle – An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis or an Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations and Religions – is the kind of thing Blake would have read during his lifetime (HIggins published it fifty years after Blake’s death), and I have a suspicion that the combination of Blake and Higgins is due to Coleridge’s joke on Blake being an “ana-calyptic” rather than apocalyptic poet (the pun being that Blake does not reveal – the original meaning of apocalypse – so much as obscure).

This, if true, is… clever. Too clever, for me. On a very personal note, the summation of my own feelings towards Blavatsky are best summed up by Peter Washington’s excellent book, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, and too serious an attempt for me to combine Blake and Swedenborg should always bear the following quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in mind:

A man carried a monkey about for a shew, & because he was a little wiser than the monkey, grew vain, and conciev’d himself as much wiser than seven men. It is so with Swedenborg; he shews the folly of churches & exposes hypocrites, till he imagines that all are religious. & himself the single (E42-3)

As some kind of theosophical treaty, then, I am unconvinced by An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil, and for a more coherent experiment with Blake’s skewed theology I would still recommend Ulver’s 1998 album, Themes from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, though even that is a little serious for me these days. Yet in the end, these comments also are too serious: Swedenborg and Blavatsky are fringe figures, one at least of whom Blake was able to mock, and very few listeners to this album will have actually read either of them. As such, they create a mood rather than a serious structure for esoteric enlightenment – which draws us to the music itself. While obscure to begin with, some tracks – such as “The Unclouded Day” – quickly become more lucid, with van Wissem’s beautiful playing, and the elongated, heavy mood of tracks such as “Dark Matter” throb away in such a fashion that they provide a melancholy contrast that is hypnotic. If one is willing to draw aside the veil with a lightness of touch, this is certainly one of the most interesting albums to be inspired by Blake in recent times, though I for one cannot take it too seriously.

Michael Price – Tender Symmetry, Erased Tapes, 2018, £20.
Susheela Raman – Ghost Gamelan, Naive, 2018. RRP £11.99.
Josef van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch – An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil, Sacred Bones Records, 2019. $7-$19 at Bandcamp.

Blakespotting: Blake news for March 2019

March was a fairly quiet month for Blake news, with the big splash being the release by space-folk duo, Astralingua, of their new album, Safe Passage. A beautiful piece of work which has already garnered very favourable reviews, you can read my thoughts about the album in the Zoamorphosis review, in particular of their first single, an adaptation of Blake’s “A Poison Tree”.

Other musical news for March included the thirteenth year for Outside the Box, an annual music festival at Southern Illinois University. This year’s event included a virtual reality exhibit, “Fool’s Paradise”, combining music, poetry and art. According to festival organiser, Christopher Walczak, the Digital Museum of Digital Art “commissioned a number of visual artists and composers to create a virtual world full of art based on the works of William Blake”, with the event running from 27-30 March.

The stage performance of David Almond’s classic for children, Skellig, at the Nottingham playhouse was reviewed by a number of newspapers. Blake’s poetry appears throughout the novel and the stage play, adapted by Trevor Nunn, manages to retain some of the Romantic poet’s work in its depiction of the encounter between two children, Michael and Mina, and the creature that is part human, owl and angel. The Times described it as capturing “a spirit of adventure and magical realism”, while LeftLion called it a “soaring production”.

The Blake-Parry hymn “Jerusalem” features in Arcadia, a film by Paul Wright stitched together from BFI footage and which was first shown on BBC4 on 7 March. According to a review in The Financial Times, it mingled lush pastures, clopping horses and country churches mingled with inevitable weirdness and occult hints. Arcadia doesn’t “trace a simplistic journey from innocence to corruption”, and while much of the English countryside may have been lost, so also the sense to retain what many people have has also grown.

 

Review: Astralingua – Safe Passage

Ten years may be a long time to wait between debut and follow up, but the launch of the album Safe Passage earlier this month as the second release by space-folk duo, Astralingua, is a collection of thoughtfully crafted songs. Comprising vocalist Anne Rose Thompson and composer/vocalist Joseph Andrew Thompson, their first EP, Contact, came out in 2008; one reason it has taken them so long to release Safe Passage is because parts of it have been recorded in the Mojave Desert, others in a cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The duo, based in Denver, Colorado, are joined on this album by various musicians to provide string, woodwind and mandolin accompaniment and the overall effect is entrancing. Joseph Thompson has described their style as “spacey” – in the colloquial sense, but also referring to both the sensation of open space that they hope to inspire with their tracks, as well as the musical sense of slower tempos and long echoes. This creates a series of frequently haunting, always beautiful songs, which first came to my attention because of the their first single from the album, an adaptation of William Blake’s “A Poison Tree”.

The first track on the album, “Plunge”, is the most upbeat of the songs included here, a beautiful start to the album with Joseph and Anne accompanied by a string octet with sections that echo The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. It is a particularly rousing start to Safe Passage and is intended as a more stirring introduction to the tracks that follow. The tone changes immediately with the following track, “Visitor”, a more minimalist and much slower piece that begins with solo guitar and delicate vocal harmonies before other instruments slowly join in. The lyrics, including the haunting opening line, “Come with me my weary child, cold and all alone”, draw on various poetic references such as W. B. Yeats’s “The Stolen Child” and Geothe’s “Erlkönig”; the whole song is ambiguous as to whether the child has ascended into heaven or has died, and this melancholy theme continues throughout the rest of the album.

“Sweet Dreams” continues the pensive reflections introduced by “Visitor”, with the subtle Travis-style guitar accompanied by mournful guitar and, as with every track on Safe Passage, the harmony of Joseph and Anne Thompson’s voice is frequently breathtaking. “The Nimble Men”, the shortest piece on the album, is presented as a chaos of sound that breaks the softer themes of “Sweet Dreams” and “Space Blues”, one of my particular favourites: while dealing with the experience of travelling through physical and interior space, it demonstrates the ambition of Astralingua’s music, seeking to offer a musical meditation on awareness and experience. “Phantoms”, while also following the slow tempo of the majority of the album, strikes a very different, more forceful tone as the confident, minimalist piano solo is interrupted by mournful cello and then disturbed, cackling voices; with “NSA” – a reference to “No Strings Attached” – these three pieces can be seen as representing the pivot of the album, a meditation on loneliness that lead us to the single that was the initial inspiration for this review.

“A Poison Tree”, which was released at the end of 2018, is a superb interpretation of Blake’s Song of Experience. The simplicity of the guitar, mandolin and violin accompaniment create a sound that has – fittingly for this space folk duo – been described as celestial. It is an extremely original interpretation, with Joseph Thompson having said in interviews that he has wished to bring out the playfulness of Blake’s poetry. I would remark that this would seem a very unusual interpretation for such a poem that is usually seen as a darker meditation on themes of revenge, but – in a very different style – it can be seen also as a motivating factor in one other adaptation, the Britpop bounce of Blur’s Magpie, which was the B-side to Blur’s 1994 single, “Girls and Boys”. For me, when listening to the song it demonstrates more a sense of wistfulness, perhaps, that anger should lead to destruction: certainly it ranks as one of the very best popular interpretations of Blake’s poem.

The adaptation of Blake is followed by three very different tracks that are, however, linked by a slower tempo. “The Fallen” is, like “NSA” and “Space Blues”, one of the longer and more ambitious tracks on the album. It also includes a number of literary and folk references, such as to “The Unfortunate Rake” and “The Cowboy’s Lament” (which later influenced the Scottish song, “Willie McBride”) as well as echoes of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in the final word, “Nevermore”. “Passage to Albion”, which follows, is one of the most beautiful pieces on an album that brims with a range of sweet harmonies, while the final track on Safe Passage, “The Troubled Road”, is a much longer and somewhat darker piece: a narrative song, it follows the singer as he travels along the road that leads to the Styx, this lost Orpheus apparently unaware that he has died and is now entering Hades.

The space folk sound that Astralingua evoke on Safe Passage is entirely their own, but has echoes for me of other artists who sometimes fall into this category, particularly those who explore the more melancholy aspects of the genre, such as Fever Ray in “If I Had a Heart”, Grimm Grimm’s “Hazy Eyes Maybe” and the superb “Dead Queen” by Espers. You can listen to the album via streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, or order the album from Astralingua’s Bandcamp page. It is delicate, melancholy and, with its tribute to Blake’s “A Poison Tree”, a completely original setting of one of the Romantic artist’s most famous poems.

Safe Passage, released March 8, 2019, and available as CD and digital download from astralingua.bandcamp.com.

 

Blakespotting: News about William Blake in February 2019

February was a busy month for Blake-inspired music. Reviews began to appear for the most significant launch of the new year, Fearful Symmetry: The Songs of William Mac Davis, which was released by Centaur Music. Performed by Lynda Poston-Smith (soprano) and Robert Carl Smith (piano), the album comprises a series of eight songs drawn from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, as well as additional pieces that take their lyrical inspiration from Christopher Smart and various other poets and lyricists. World Magazine described it as a series of melodies that “command immediate attention”, particularly as sung by Poston-Smith.

Other releases were somewhat more allusive rather than being direct settings of Blake to music. Thus the new single from These New Puritans, “Anti-Gravity”, was inspired by Blake’s quote that “the imagination is not a state, it is human existence itself” according to reviews such as those in DIY Magazine. Likewise, Hearbreak (for now) by Roman Lewis includes a track, “Rose”, that references Blake’s “My Pretty Rose Tree” and can be heard at Clash. Somewhat more substantial is An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil by Jim Jarmusch and Josef van Wissem. Jarmusch is famous for his Blakean movie, Dead Man, and this new collaboration with van Wissem, according to an interview with Pitchfork, draws upon Helena Blavatsky as well as William Blake to perform an occult meditation on apocalyptic visions.

February also saw a number of live performances, such as the Martha Redbone Roots Project, which played in New Jersey at the Lackland Performing Arts Center, and Mike Westbrook who performed some of his Blakean pieces as well as others at Ronnie Scott’s in London.

In contrast to new musical releases, February was quiet in terms of the literary and visual arts, but previews appeared for a major video game release due in March that makes considerable use of Blake’s words. Plenty of commentators noted that the protagonist of Devil May Cry 5, V, cites Blake throughout the game, The Independent observing that the game is probably the best in series so far, and Videogamer announcing more simply that it is “bloody brilliant”. Theories began to appear on Reddit that the game draws upon The Book of Urizen, but my favourite comment is that, apparently, V has “a dedicated button to recite William Blake poetry during combat“. Less impressive was the new movie Burning Men, a virtual straight-to-streaming release in which the lead for the band Burning Men, Ray, also quotes Blake regularly. According to Cath Clarke in The Guardian, however, the whole experience is rather dreary and depressing.

Finally, Blake made a couple of other, interesting appearances during February. The first was as inspiration for the poet and model Wilson Oryema who, in a poem written for The Guardian‘s fashion section, said that his inspiration was William Blake and Nayyirah Waheed. Blake was also the source for a debut collectino, SS19, from the fashion brand maharishi, which drew on quotations from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to demonstrate “a balanced interaction of opposing forces” in its new range.

Review: Johanna Glaza – Albion

Superlatives are the bane of reviews. In recent months, however, I have found myself throwing superlatives around with abandon when describing a number of artists – usually women – who have demonstrated a profound relationship to the words and art of William Blake, whether it is Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead, Harriet Stubbs’ astonishing performance on Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception or, now, Johanna Glaza’s EP, Albion. The four pieces included on this release, available via streaming or as a cassette, demonstrate a remarkable talent which refuses to be easily described and which has made me listen to Blake’s words as though I have heard them for the first time.

Glaza, born in Lithuania and resident now in London, is an independent artist who records music that she describes as “baroque folk songs with an avant-garde twist“. Her previous releases, available at Bandcamp, include Wind Sculptures (2017), Paper Widow (2014) and Silence is Kind (2013), all of which have attracted considerable praise with comparisons to Kate Bush and Tori Amos but, as more percipient critics have observed, her experimental music only bears at most a passing resemblance to those artists. On this new EP, the track “Isabella” is perhaps the one that would work best as a single for wider consumption, offering as it does something approaching a more conventional lyrical verse-chorus-verse structure and musical signatures that generally balance each other – although even then the shift in tone in the middle is nothing short of astonishing. Indeed, even this, the nearest you will find to normality on Albion, reminded me at times of early Genesis when Peter Gabriel flirted on the edges of acceptable easy listening.

By contrast, the preceding “The Future Was Not the Animal I Saw” is much closer to a Steve Reich composition or the post-tonal serialism of Henri Pousseur. The fact that I am searching for analogies in classical rather than popular music demonstrates just how idiosyncratic this wonderful piece is, while the final track, “Broken Ray”, is a heart-wrenching lamentation in which the ambient keyboards perfectly suit the intensely beautiful lyrics:

Like a broken ray of sun
Upon my chest, upon my chest
Lies your path
You walk away

The wound in the sky
Never heals, never heals

And where your heart used to be
Lies a stone
Lies a stone
Upon the hill

Beautiful as the entire EP is, however, the reason for reviewing it here is because of the titular track: drawing upon lines from Blake’s Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, it has correctly been described as “the work of genius” by Paul Scott-Bates: when first listening to this, many will disagree, but each time I hear this track I can only agree with Scott Bates. Of course, I am an unusually pertinent target listener for such a track, but I am increasingly astonished by the dynamic range and dramatic qualities of Glaza’s voice. In addition, the deceptively simple piano accompaniment, frequently pivoting around a series of notes and percussive accompaniment, is perfect for the metrical complexity of Blake’s words, the first lines of which are reproduced below from plate 43 of Jerusalem:

We heard the voice of slumberous Albion, and thus he spake,

Idolatrous to his own Shadow words of eternity uttering:

O I am nothing when I enter into judgment with thee!
If thou withhold thine hand; I perish like a fallen leaf:

O I am nothing: and to nothing must return again:
If thou withdraw thy breath. Behold I am oblivion.

I can barely begin to explain just how electrifying these and the following lines are when sung by Glaza, maintaining a beautiful, angelic modulation for lines that could easily become atonal. It is simply stunning, a full embodiment of the human voice divine that sounds utterly unfamiliar, even alien at the same time. While remaining entirely original, it also reminds me of a similar experiment by Marc Almond and John Harle, The Tyburn Tree (Dark London) from 2014 which also took lines from Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion to create a disturbing, haunting composition. I have long been a fan of Almond, but I’m afraid in this particular instance even that bold work has been surpassed by Glaza who has produced an astonishing piece of work: Jerusalem does indeed have a voice, and her name is Johanna Glaza.

Albion (2018) by Johanna Glaza is self-released and is available from johannaglaza.bandcamp.com.

Blakespotting: News about William Blake in January 2019

One of the most impressive examples of Blakean inspiration to start off 2019 was his use by Refik Anadol, whose astonishing immersive installation, the Infinity Room, was showcased during the Winter Gallery Crawl in Pittsburgh. Created using a series of lasers, the room draws upon Blake’s quotation – later cited by Aldous Huxley – that “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Born in Istanbul and currently living in Los Angeles, the small cube – each side 12 feet in length – contains mirrors on the floor and ceiling to support, according to an interview with TribLive, “the idea that there is no gravity”.

A significant new literary release at the end of 2018 and which began to receive reviews in January was the fourth novel by Mexican writer, Adriana Díaz Enciso. Entitled Ciudad Doliente de Dios (“The Doleful City of God”), it tells the story of Cristina, a girl abandoned in an orphanage by her parents, who has mystical visions that lead her to a knowledge beyond her years. With an image of Los englobing the fallen body of Urizen as a huge drop of blood for its cover, the book is framed in the cosmogony of William Blake, and a post giving an insight into her thoughts on the Romantic poet and artist can be found at Finding Blake.

Musical sightings and performances included a profile of Martha Redbone for Berkeleyside, whose 2012 album The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake, remains one of the best Blakean compilations ever recorded; she also performed at the Weill Hall, Sonoma State University, on January 24th. Jim Jarmusch (whose 1995 film Dead Man cast Johnny Depp in the role of accountant in the wild west, William Blake) and Jozef Van Wissem, announced a new album – An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil – which draws upon the ideas of Blake, Swedenborg and Helena Blavatsky and is to be released in early February. Another announcement was the new album Inside the Rose by These New Puritans: due out in March, some of its music including the titular track claim the inspiration of William Blake.

The month ended with a performance by Patti Smith at the Camden Roundhouse that attracted rave reviews. Appearing in London at the close of January, Smith’s set included a series of her own music, cover versions of artists such as U2 and Midnight Oil, and recitals of readings of her own work, Virginia Woolf, Robert Burns, and, of course, William Blake. Ellie Porter, writing for theartsdesk.com, remarked on her “ceaseless energy”, while Emily Finch at CamdenNewJournal described her as a “booming bright light”.

Review: Naomi Billingsley – The Visionary Art of William Blake

Within Blake studies, Blake’s visual art tends to be studied less than his poetry and illuminated books. There have always been notable exceptions, of course, from Anthony Blunt on, but The Visionary Art of William Blake is an excellent contribution to an area of Blake studies – his painting and engraving not devoted to the prophetic books – that has been comparatively neglected. While Blake’s painting might be under-represented to some degree, since the turn of the millennium there has been some increase in critical works that consider the religious aspects of Blake’s works such as Susanne Sklar’s Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ as Visionary Theatre and Magnus Ankarsjö’s William Blake and Religion, and in such contexts Naomi Billingsley’s new book is an extremely welcome addition.  Unsurprisingly given its sub title – Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination – the book concentrates on Christ (her own preferred term although Blake tends to use Jesus more frequently). Alongside a discussion of Blake’s Christology, Visionary Art presents an opportunity to discuss some relatively neglected works, such as the designs to Night Thoughts and the Butts temperas.

Visionary Art is arranged into five sections that correspond – generally – to several periods of Blake’s artistic production. These general themes (on resurrection and apocalypse, inspiration, community, Christ as universal form divine and crucifixion as self-annihilation) do not always match perfectly on to their corresponding texts, which include the illustrations to Milton and the designs for the Last Judgement as well as Young’s Night Thoughts. This is a function of any attempt to try and arrange Blake’s concepts into some kind of coherent schema that offers an interesting approach to Blake’s art other than a simple chronological survey, and Billingsley is not tied to that schema (including, for example, examples of resurrection imagery that is not restricted to Young), thus allowing herself flexibility. The only time it became problematic for me was in the discussions of the temperas for Thomas Butts, where it seemed occasionally she had to remind herself that as well as close readings of the images themselves she had set up a framework to discuss Christian inspiration. That said, this is an exceptionally good book for close readings of individual designs as well as overviews of Blake’s various series, with plenty of examples of detailed analysis of sometimes overlooked works.

The first section of Visionary Art, dealing with the designs and engravings for Night Thoughts, is exemplary, not least in that it provides an opportunity for Billingsley to demonstrate her extensive critical knowledge of the historical context surrounding the (failed) publication of Night Thoughts. She draws succinctly upon critics such as Eaves and the editors of the 1980 facsimile edition, building upon them with her own research to offer scholarship as is always evident throughout the book. Despite my previous comment, this is one chapter where resurrection as a thematic approach does work very well alongside a study of the failed project, with its emphasis upon Blake’s “endeavour to regenerate Young’s poem through a dynamic of creative conflict” (p.34). Several very interesting points also emerge in this section: that Blake, for example, is often very hesitant to use the image of the crucifixion, at least in the 1780s (hence the creative conflict of his emphasis upon images of resurrection rather than death); that he is not really a systematic theological thinker, at least in his visual series – a well-made point that is a recurring theme of the book); and that he seeks to emphasise an active Christology in which Jesus is full of energy and vitality as an example intended to transform the viewer.

The second chapter, dealing with inspiration and prophecy is, as previously indicated, where I felt the schema of Visionary Art was less successful. Despite this, the chapter offers once more an excellent reading of the tempera paintings for Thomas Butts (again, with some very good historical context) but occasionally it felt as though the dual demands – to provide as comprehensive reading of these paintings while also linking them to the overarching theme of inspiration and prophecy – could not always be reconciled. With regard to the thematic approach, I would have preferred something more wide-ranging across Blake’s entire oeuvre, but as an exploration of the Butts temperas in their own right this is one of the best accounts I have ever come across. Thus, for example, while considering the relevant critics such as David Bindman and Mary Lynn Johnson, Billingsley shows masterfully how the temptation to discover “a complete understanding of the series is impossible on secondary grounds, and may not have been intended by Blake in the original scheme.” (p.65) With this in mind, she draws links very well between individual designs, such as those depicting Christ’s nativity and his life, a theme through many of the paintings, without being bound to try and explain the entire series as a coherent and systematic Christology. She is also extremely good at drawing attention to Blake’s innovations, such as his depiction of the baby Jesus springing upwards from Mary at the scene of his birth and, in a comparison with J.M.W. Turner’s Holy Family (1803), draws attention again to how Blake’s paintings are intended to inspire the viewer rather than seek out the historical Jesus, this being a common factor of his Christology. As such, the Butts series is better read as “a web of recurring themes… in the context of Blake’s theological mythos” (p.86) rather than a systematic arrangement of narrative or theological ideas.

Chapter three, on Jesus as facilitator, concentrates on the watercolours created for Butts during and after Blake’s time at Felpham, offering a view of Christ’s ministry as a means of building a community. This is an ecclesiology that, as Billingsley rightly observes, is concerned less with church structures as with participants in the divine body of Christ. The watercolours produced during this time for Butts are often more vivid and memorable than the temperas, perhaps due in part to Blake’s renewed engagement with – even a reconversion to – Christianity during his time at Felpham. It is in this section that Billingsley offers some of her most insightful readings of images that are frequently neglected, such as The Hymn of Christ and the Apostles (c.1805), a depiction of the disciples playing musical instruments that is “a clear manifestation of Blake’s statement that ‘Jesus & his Apostles & Disciples were all Artists’.” (p.127) The focus on the ministry of Jesus as an embodiment of the human form divine, a community of believers joined in the practice of art (which is, ultimately, to perform actions with love, care and devotion) works more effectively in this chapter, returning to a constant theme in The Visionary Art of William Blake, which is that by seeing these pictures the viewer is also intended to “internalise the processes of regeneration and inspiration” (p.131) and thus, by recognising their own human form divine, become part of that community.

In the following section, Billingsley explores how, in the penultimate decade of his life, “Blake was intensely engaged with fundamental questions related to art and Christianity” (p.164), exploring these particularly via his illustrations to Milton and various designs for The Last Judgement. Regarding the former, again she notes the slight variations and repetitions between the versions for Joseph Thomas, Thomas Butts and what was presumably an unfinished series for John Linnell. The focus on depictions of Christ, with five out of the twelve watercolours presenting the Son at the centre of the image, allow Blake to “Christologize” Milton’s poem, for example by making him central to the creation of Eve as well as the rout of the rebel angels, and she once again demonstrating her critical skills in a close reading of The Rout of the Rebel Angels that draws parallels and contrasts with The Ancient of Days, Christ circumscribed within a sun from which he casts error just as Urizen, similarly encircled, creates error. The centrality of Christ is another feature of Blake’s multiple designs for the last judgement, which also serves as a major source for his aesthetic theory. A common element of those designs (which take their inspiration from Michelangelo’s famous fresco for the Sistine Chapel) is the position of Christ at the centre of the image, which “does not make him a formidable law-maker, but subverts such a conception of God: that throne becomes the Mercy Seat and the book of Law becomes the Book of Life (Revelation 20:15).” (p.153) Such insight is one of the joys of Visionary Art, demonstrating a profound sympathy with Blake’s visual art as a means of conveying the complexities of his thought. The chapter, covering as it does the period of 1805-1811, also deals with a series of four unusual pieces – including The Virgin and Child in Egypt (1810) that are completely unlike anything else produced by Blake’s contemporaries, approaching almost the form of the icons of the Orthodox church.

Iconography and iconoclasm segue into the final chapter on crucifixion as self-annihilation. At first glance, this chapter would appear to contradict Billingsley’s earlier assertion that Blake disliked the crucifix as a subject, particularly considering later examples as on plate 76 of Jerusalem, but there is an important qualification: she is right to assert that he “regarded the doctrine of the Crucifixion as Atonement (the Son being offered as a ransom for humankind’s erring from the Father’s Law) as abhorrent” (p.168), and also notes that the subject was not popular in eighteenth-century art as probably too popish. Instead, in Blake we see a movement from cruciform figures, such as Orc in America, which are exemplars of violence upon the human form divine, to a vision of Christ’s ultimate generosity in self-sacrifice as the breaking of Urizenic law. As well as a close reading of the Jerusalem crucifixion and Michael Foretells the Crucifixion from Paradise Lost, she ends the chapter with a consideration of the same subject in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante Adoring Christ from his illustrations to The Divine Comedy, showing how Blake’s attitude towards the crucifixion became more positive in his final years.

The Visionary Art of William Blake is a compelling and scholarly contribution to Blake studies, which draws attention to often overlooked paintings and also reiterates the importance of Christ to his art, while avoiding the temptation to provide some kind of systematising tendency to his Christology. Rather, Blake’s relations with Jesus – as inspiration, source of revelation and, above all, the supreme example of the human form divine – is one which fluctuates and develops across his lifetime. If her thematic schema does not always map out entirely onto the historical survey of Blake’s work, this is due to an attempt to provide more than a mere catalogue of oft-neglected images. As a work of art history, placing Blake in the contexts of religious art in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this book is intensely rewarding.

 

Naomi Billingsley, The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination, London and New York: I.B. Tauris and Company, 2018, 256pp. RRP: £69. 

“A Blakean Year”: 2018 in Review

2018 began in spectacular fashion with the opening of an exhibition at Petworth House in Sussex on January 13. Entitled William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion, the exhibition concentrated on Blake’s experiences and art from 1800-1803 when he lived at nearby Felpham, as well as other works subsequently created by him for the Earl and Countess of Egremont who lived at Petworth. It was for Elizabeth Ilive that Blake produced one of his most ambitious works, A Vision of the Last Judgement, which rightly formed the centrepiece of this display of some of his most exceptional paintings and prints.

Other exhibitions from the beginning of the year included Faith Wilding: Fearful Symmetries at Carnegie Mellon University, where Wilding formerly taught, and demonstrating her multiple influences, including Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf and, of course, William Blake. Also on show from February to April was “Tales of the Unseen”, work by Siggi Ámundason, whose large-scale pen drawings reference William Blake as well as eighties anime, Goya and Francis Bacon.

Musically, the big news at the beginning of 2018 was the announcement of U2’s £xperience + Innocence tour to accompany their 2017 album, Songs of Experience. More affecting to me personally was the death of Mark E. Smith, frontman of post-punk band The Fall, in January, whose life was probably best summed up by the headline “Mark E. Smith Was a Complicated Bastard“. He was also something of a fan of William Blake, demonstrated not least by his cover of “Jerusalem” for the album I Am Kurious Oranj. Other releases in winter and spring included two albums that referenced Blake songs – Shawn Colvin’s The Starlighter, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Englabörn & Variations, including the tracks “Cradle Song” and “Holy Thursday” respectively. There was also, in March, a new version of “Jerusalem” released as Team England’s official anthem for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, as well as the premiere of Daniel Kidane’s Songs of Illumination in April.

Blake-influenced publications in early 2018 included the quite astonishing comic, Her Infernal Descent, which was released in five parts throughout the year. A reinterpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a middle-aged woman is led through hell by Blake as her spirit guide, offering satire and commentary on life in the twenty-first century as well as a rather profound portrayal of loss. This was joined in April by the publication of Polaris Ghost by Eric G. Wilson, a collection of short stories that reference Blake throughout, as well as Patti Smith’s The New Jerusalem, a new collection of prose poems that offered her response to the election of Donald Trump among other things. Julia Fine’s wonderful debut novel, What Should Be Wild, offered Blakean elements of horror and fantasy in the style of an Angela Carter fairy tale.

2018 was, as ever, a busy one for The William Blake Archive, which saw a number of new publications, including new copies of JerusalemUrizen, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, as well as entirely new additions in the form of Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue and his Notebook. The major addition, however, was Vala, or The Four Zoas, which now makes widely available the fragile manuscript of Blake’s most ambitious epic poem.

The middle of the year saw a number of Blakean citations in film and television, not least the Criterion Collection of reissue of Dead Man for blu-ray, which prompted a number of retrospective reviews, such as this at Glide Magazine. Much more controversial was the release of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, a bloody serial killer movie that notes Blake’s “The Tyger” as a model and which, frankly, did not receive great reviews. By contrast, more people were impressed by the fact that season two of Westworld offered multiple quotations from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence as a running theme for its depiction of mankind’s inhumanity to robot. Will Franken’s Red, White & Blake sought to rescue the Romantic poet from bland, liberal academics such as myself, offering a heartfelt plea to return Blake to his position as national writer and artist.

Significant news was Tate Britain’s announcement of a huge forthcoming Blake exhibition, and there was a truly wonderful piece of Blake-inspired art by Jack Handscombe, a student at Edinburgh College of Art, who produced an installation of a figure dressed in racing leathers, entitled “After Blake’s Newton (After Paolozzi)”. Elsewhere in the arts, a new piece of choreography and music inspired by Blake, entitled Apolión and directed by Jerónimo Búffalo, was performed at the Art Centro de Arte UNLP in Buenos Aires. In London, a new show in London was announced, Wirework (originally written by Daleen Kruger in Afrikaans in 2009 but translated into English this year) at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Telling the story of The Owl House, a remarkable piece of outsider art by Helen Martins and Koos Malgas, Wirework explores how they created an extraordinary museum, taking their inspiration from Omar Khayyam, the Bible and William Blake.

The biggest event of the summer, however, was the unveiling of a new gravestone, 191 years after his death on the spot where William Blake was buried in Bunhill Fields. At an event promoted by the Blake Society as an apocalypse (or revelation of Blake’s final resting place), crowds far larger than those expected by the organisers gathered to hear Blake enthusiasts offer a celebration of his life and work and to pay their respects to the memory of one of London’s most famous sons.

Celebration of Blake’s life and work was also a reminder of some of the other figures, as well as Mark E. Smith, who had been influenced by Blake in some way and died in 2018. These included Alice Provensen – who lived to the glorious age of 99. For some forty years she had worked with her husband, Martin, on illustrations until his death in 1987, before continuing a solo career into her nineties. Her books included the wonderful A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard.  She was followed shortly afterwards by Bob Dorough who helped Ginsberg set Blake to music and was more famous as the composer of Conjunction Junction. Likewise, the artist and writer Æthelred Eldridge passed away at the age of 88. Æthelred, born James Edward Leonard Eldridge, had served as associate professor of painting at Ohio University from 1957 to 2014, and was directly influenced by Blake. Eldridge, who ran the site Albion Awake, referred to Blake constantly in his art and was even the founder of a Church of William Blake (which, as Roger Whitson tells in his article on Zoamorphosis, burned down in 2001).

As the year turned to autumn, mid September saw a return of the three-day celebration of Blakean arts, Blakefest, which took place on 14th-16th in Bognor Regis. Blakefest has become a fairly regular cultural and artistic festival, with Lene Lovich and a tribute to George Harrison headlining at this year’s event. Other art shows included an exhibition at the Levy Gorky gallery in New York, featuring a selection of works by Robert Ryman, Cy Twombly, Lee Bontecu and Jaspar Johns. Entitled “Intimate Infinite: Imagine a Journey”, the full show included work by 27 artists and unfolded over three floors in a pattern that was inspired by Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.

The autumn also saw publication of one of my personal favourites, the translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Taking its title from one of Blake’s proverbs of hell, the novel was originally written in 2009. Described by Sarah Perry at The Guardian as “an extraordinary display of the qualities that have made Tokarczuk so notable a presence in contemporary literature”, it is one of the most profoundly Blakean novels ever to have been written.

The year ended with a series of Blake-inspired music: the exemplary pianist, Harriet Stubbs, released her debut album, Heaven and Hell: The Doors of Perception,  which opens with an arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates”. Composed by John Adams in 1977-8, this is the most overtly Blakean of all the tracks due to the narration by Marianne Faithful which brings together multiple extracts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This was followed in December with a new musical adaptation of “A Poison Tree” by the space-folk duo Astralingua, comprising Joseph Andrew Thompson and Anne Rose Thompson. The track is also to be included on their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, due out in March 2019. And, just squeezing in before the near year, was Johanna Glaza’s wonderful Albion EP, a setting of parts of Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion to music, which we’ll be reviewing later in 2019.

Anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Review: Harriet Stubbs – Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception

Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception is the debut album by classical pianist, Harriet Stubbs, who first began to display her prodigious talent when she was awarded a scholarship at the age of five to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. During her time there, this apparently led James Gibb to make an exception to his rule of never teaching children to train her. That the talent of this Yamaha artist is prodigious becomes clearly evident after only a few moments of listening to this album, which aims to bring together a range of modern and more traditional classical music. As well as demonstrating the virtuoso skills of Stubbs, it will also introduce a new audience to compositions that they may not otherwise encounter. The Blakean connection comes, according to the booklet accompanying the album, through her work with Russ Titelman to transform the doors of listeners’ perceptions, “a Blakean philosophy” of progression from innocence to experience and then to higher innocence.

The Blakean connection is also clear in the opening track of the album, an arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates”, composed by John Adams in 1977-8: this is the most overtly Blakean of all the tracks included here because Stubbs has added a narration by Marianne Faithful, one which brings together multiple extracts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The effect is strangely hypnotic and extremely compelling, with Faithful’s raking, rasping tones serving very well as the voice of the devil. In an interview with the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, she indicated that Patti Smith and Meryl Streep were also potential narrators, but that Faithful had been the most enthusiastic.

The selection of Adams as a vehicle for Blake’s philosophy is almost certainly not accidental: after all, it was Adams who began composing his piece for orchestra, Fearful Symmetries, in 1988 after the success of Nixon in China. His minimalist style, indebted to John Cage and with some similarities to composers such as Philip Glass or John Cage, is extremely evident in Fearful Symmetries, with its strong parallelisms and repetitions, although the arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates” tempers this considerably. Adams himself described the original as a “modulating square wave” that circled through the fifths, but the addition of Faithful’s voice breaks up the linearity of the music, an incarnation of Orc in opposition to the potentially Urizenic qualities of minimalism that transforms the listener’s perception of the track entirely.

After such a strong start – in Blakean terms – the rest of the album appears to move in a different direction that does invoke the Romantic artist so directly. This is by no means a comment on the qualities of Stubbs’s performances, which are always superb, from Mozart’s “Rondo in A Minor” onwards. Described by Hermann Abert as one of the “most important keyboard Rondos ever composed”, Mozart’s composition provides an excellent opportunity for Stubbs to display her virtuosity via its multiple embellishments and chromaticism. The lightness of her performance here does not bring with it the intimations of despair that some commentators have observed: instead, the doors of perception are being opened in very different ways, a world of sensual delight through which the listener can experience something of eternity.

There follow five pieces from Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes, Op 34 rather than the later (and longer) Op. 87, Preludes and Fugues. Like that later series of compositions, this version also circles through the major and minor keys, of which Stubbs includes No. 10 in C-Sharp Minor, No. 9 in E Major, No. 4 in E Minor, No. 20 in C Minor and, my favourite of the Preludes here, No. 14 in E-Flat Minor. The simplicity and passion of her performance here was the one that moved me most personally, although throughout all her own dedication and talent constantly shines through.

Of the remaining pieces, only one seems to invoke Blake again, however obliquely: Sergei Prokofiev’s “Suggestion diabolique”, number 4 of his 4 Pieces for Piano, and the one where the composer sought to challenge the strict roles of tonality, could be interpreted as another intrusion of the voice of the devil, although to be honest the relations to Blake are tangential at best. This is not to detract, however, from her virtuosity on all tracks. The most profoundly affecting for me, and my favourite from the entire album, is Ferruccio Busoni’s “Chaconne in D Minor”, adapted from Bach’s “Partita No. 2”. Busoni arranged this for piano in 1888 (writing it down in 1892) and it is a stunning piece of music: he was drawn to it because, among other things, it demonstrated how Bach made Beethoven possible, and its impressive range once more allows Stubbs to shine. This is also the moment, according to the liner notes, when experience enters the listener’s perceptions, and certainly there is a shift in the tone of the album with Busoni’s piece. Like other pieces, such as Alexander Scriabin’s “Piano Sonata No. 2 in G-Sharp Minor”, the technical demands are ones that Stubbs rises to with technical proficiency combined with passion, conveying fully the romantic and impressionistic sensations of such music superbly.

The album concludes with Gorgy Ligeti’s “Études, Book 1: No. 5, Arc-en-ciel”, a haunting track on which to end. A traditional form of étude (in contrast to those of, say, Cage), this shows a general theme of Heaven and Hell that contrasts with a number of contemporary composers such as Dmitri Smirnov or, more recently, Daniel Kidane: with the exception of Adams’s Phrygian Gates, the whole album has stronger links to traditional and romantic forms. The comparison is slightly unfair: Stubbs is a superb performer and arranger rather than composer, and many of the pieces included here offer wonderful opportunities for her to demonstrate her abilities.

Then why Blake? While the album identifies itself as “Piano Music Modern and Less Modern”, with the exception of Adams’s “Phrygian Gates” this is not a collection that often challenges the listener in the style of “difficult” modern classical music. Rather, its intention seems to be to open up a range of piano compositions to a new audience and thus to transform perceptions. In her interview with Trinity Laban, she observes that the aim of her album is to “cleanse its [classical music’s] listeners’ doors of perception, to encourage them to re-evaluate what classical music should be”. Unlike G. A. Edwards (who wrote an excellent review on his blog), I have a strong interest in how Blakean themes emerge in such music: strictly, they are motivated most strongly and obviously through her arrangement of Adams, but elsewhere Harriet Stubbs seems also to be infused with a sense of romanticism and energy that was the eternal delight of William Blake.

 

Harriet Stubbs, Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception, Suite 28 Records. RRP (audio CD) £14.54, (download) £7.49.

 

Astralingua: A Poison Tree

Friday 6 December saw the release of a new musical adaptation of William Blake’s song of experience, “A Poison Tree”, by the space-folk duo Astralingua, comprising Joseph Andrew Thompson and Anne Rose Thompson. Based in Denver, Colorado, their music features mandolins, cello and ghostly harmonies in a mixture of classical, folk and psychedelic sounds. The track, which you can hear below (and see the accompanying video), is from their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, due out in March 2019.

Here they tell Zoamorphosis some of the ways in which Blake has influenced them and their music.

Joseph:

I’ve been interested in Blake’s work since I was about 16 years old. A friend lent me a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience and it amazed me. At first glance, it reminded me of the illustrated rhyme and story books I’d read as a child, which endeared it to me. It then became quickly apparent how rich it was in poetry, metaphor, craft, and vision. I bought a pocket copy by Penguin books and carried it around with me for quite some time. I would also go to the local bookstore and pore through whatever Blake collections they had, trying to find the best prints of his artwork.

His artwork was strange, anachronistic, and singular. I saw so many different genres of modern-day art reflected in his works from 200 years earlier – fantasy paintings, storybook illustrations, comic books, and animation. Blake exaggerated proportions, movement, and faces to create effects that I saw in all sorts of pop culture’s artwork. Figures sometimes seemed detached from their surroundings (Nebuchadnezzar), or as if leaping from the canvas. In many, there were layers upon layers of images, blended together like psychedelic paintings. Those were just my first impressions – the exciting things that grabbed my adolescent attention. As time went on, and I came to better understand and appreciate the fine arts, I realized what a master painter Blake was, how capable and detailed, and began to admire him even more.

They say Blake was considered “mad” in his time. I must be “mad” too, as I speak his language and he speaks mine. I imagine I like Blake for the same reason that a lot of artists do. His works weren’t popular in his age but it did not deter him. He didn’t change his style to suit the day. He painted and wrote his truth and vision. Because of that, there’s such pureness and honesty in his creations. His paintings and prints are filled with excitement, passion, and exuberance, and one senses in them the desire to communicate. When looking at his illustrations or reading his poems, you feel Blake’s earnestness. And when you take all this together, you get a sense of his likely isolation and loneliness, his reaching out for someone with whom to connect. In the end, you take his work personally, even though he’s communicating Universal Truths. Plus, his poetry makes you smile.

Rhymed and metered poetry takes work. You have to be more selective with what you say. No word or line can be wasted and you have fewer words from which to choose. A lot of poets have great command of rhyme, but their poetry is lacking. Other poets have beautiful ways of describing unique insights, but all without rhyme. Blake was a master of both. He was so joyfully playful. In his craft, more than just rhyming, he uses alliteration, plays with syntax, mixes and matches lines and schemes. There is such wealth offered to the reader.

Anne:

One thing that stands out to me about Blake, especially in his artwork, is how pure and defined his subjects are, both in emotion and physique. Looking at anyone he depicts, you see beauty, grace, grief, horror, shame, pity, strength, longing, and weakness all expressed – whatever characteristic it is, it is abundantly clear and undeniable.It makes his works so striking and evocative, and I think that’s often missing in modern art, music and media. Our culture now seems to embrace a nebulous, almost non-committal attitude, and characters are often aloof, vague, and undefined. Much the same with our emotions, where there is a prevalence of numbness, disaffection, and distraction. We’re overstimulated to the point of boredom. Maybe that’s why people fall for Blake the way they do when they discover him finally – they see the human experience expressed with such richness and in such volume, much louder and stronger than we are encouraged to experience it. Everything is full of passion and energy. He reminds us of our human capacity for real feeling.

 

“A Poison Tree” is available on Bandcamp, with Safe Passage also available for pre-order.

You can also see Astralingua’s video using Blake’s art on YouTube.