Perfect Pitch (Live)

Buoyed by my successful return to Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Cafe in London last week, I decided to try some of my prose there too. Trying to stay within the spirit of the event I picked a somewhat lyrical piece, Perfect Pitch. What follows below is Perfect Pitch (Live), an updated, and dare I say improved, version that better suits the spoken word. I received some brilliant feedback from the audience, so I hope you enjoy it too.

Perfect Pitch (Live)

There’s a tragic symmetry to the receptions that greet both ends of a housing project – fêted inauguration, fated implosion. The violent end becomes a spectator sport suffused with blood-lust, a way of forgetting the collective embarrassment. Anything goes in a crowd.

Hope was there at the beginning, as too were financial constraints, the convenience of easy solutions and relief of an imminent end – all cast aside by a willingness to believe, or self-deceive. Then that hope became Hype, the belief lost all sense of self and together spawned hubris.

High-concept sketches scrawled in a thick, black crayon were the kindling, elaborated in balsa the metaphorical became literal. Each artwork came wrapped in seductive writing that spun a carefully-calibrated narrative – a soothing emollient for the rough spots of groupthought.

Others demand more, and are given it. The full graphical arsenal is deployed – artists’ impressions of gleaming buildings, the sweeping pathways and impeccable grass. Computer animations take the viewer on an effortless stroll through the estate, a beatific vision of the life they could lead. On day one, an idyll, for how long? The odds are poor, non-virtual footage insists on proving the point. But that comes later, that comes at the end, that comes too late.

So, let the city-planners see more – the ghost of buildings-future, a counterpoint to the utopian propaganda. Let them watch the rough-and-tumble of reality played out in virtual time, without ever risking a brick. Hand over the pitch-perfect images to a crack team of the clumsy and disinterested, the careless and vindictive, the demolition man and graffiti artist. Then wait.

The cartoonish weather of a perfect yellow disk on uniform azure? The first to go. Even the ugliest place can be bleached clean under a summer sun. No, the true test comes in the desolation of a thunderstorm or below the chromatic monotony of clouds, variations on a theme of grey, senses as muted as the palette.

Fast-forward now, through the wear and tear of existence, show homes long forgotten. Once blindingly-white walls are now a dulled and off-putting cream, stained with rusty streaks by the rainwater forever dribbling from the porous gutters. Green moss sprouts here and there, adding an insidious organic trim. Within the reaches of idle hands – for he’s here too – urban murals have occupied every available canvas. This new art ages too, and is itself defaced. Tags, electronic, or not, thrive.

Inside the tower a hooded figure sets his back to the broken closed circuit TV and propels a liquid Slinky down failing steps. Its progress is caught in freeze-frame by half-hearted fluorescent tubes, forever on the verge of getting going, but then never do. Come the evening the remaining strands of piss will have frozen and sent an elderly resident tumbling in the darkness, the lights by then finally given up. Skull split and leaking, his blood will add a welcome contrast to the dreary concrete. The steps, half-crumbled, still  hard enough to break both bone and brain. They’ll break more than that yet.

Outdoors, the three oblivious children who spun a roundabout at gleeful speeds have been replaced man-for-man by older, more sullen sorts who insist on keeping a stationary, furtive council on the rusting, circular steelwork. Of the nearby swings, only one remains whole. Another dangles at a limp half mast, and the last is no longer what it was, its seat long-since propelled through a nearby window. The window, too, is no longer that, but peeling, mottled chipboard.

Fast forward now. Show more and scratch. Fast forward. Play. Forward. We go backward.

Yellow-hatted men probe the tower blocks with high-power drills, infiltrating the concrete skeletons with mile after mile of cable. It must be hooked up, every room, every corridor, every shaft must be connected, the building must be riddled with power. And then the lights go on and it’s a derby. The crowd gasps and cheers even as the dust rushes towards them. Eyes shut, lights out now and everybody home. Brush off the evidence and awake, dazed in a shared hangover. Then think.

Clear the rubble and begin again. Eyes open, brew the tea, and whistle. A perfect pitch.

Perfect Pitch

There’s a tragic symmetry to the receptions that greet both ends of a housing project – fêted inauguration, fated implosion. The violent end becomes a spectator sport suffused with blood-lust, a way of forgetting the collective embarrassment. Anything goes in a crowd.

Hope was there at the beginning, as too were financial constraints, the convenience of easy solutions and relief of an imminent end – all cast aside by a willingness to believe, or self-deceive. Then that hope became Hype, and the belief lost all sense of self and together they spawned hubris.

High-concept sketches nonchalantly scrawled in thick, black crayon were the kindling, and when elaborated in structurally-benign balsa wood models the metaphorical became literal. Each artwork came wrapped in seductive writing that spun a carefully-calibrated narrative – a soothing emollient to smooth over the rough spots of groupthought.

Others demand more, and are given it. The full graphical arsenal is deployed – artists’ impressions of gleaming buildings, sweeping pathways and impeccable grass. Perhaps followed by CGI visualisations that take the viewer on an effortless stroll through the estate, a beatific vision of the life they could lead. On day one the idyll might exist. But for how long will it remain? The odds are not favourable. What is more, there is non-virtual footage that insists on proving the point. But that comes later, at the end, and too late, it should be there at the beginning, a counterpoint to the utopian propaganda.

So, let the city-planners see more – the ghost of buildings-future. Let them watch the rough-and-tumble of reality played out over time, and do it virtually, without ever risking a brick. Hand over these pitch-perfect images to a crack team of the clumsy and disinterested, the careless and vindictive, and the demolition man and graffiti artist, then wait.

The first thing to go? The cartoonish weather of a perfect yellow disk on uniform blue – almost perverse to include it for buildings in the UK, even the ugliest place can be bleached to freshness by an intense, summer’s sun. The true test of the building’s character is found in the desolation of a thunderstorm or underneath the chromatic monotony of clouds – variations on a theme of grey – to which the blocks of flats match perfectly to create senses as muted as the palette.

Fast-forward through time, through the daily wear and tear of existence, and opening-day show homes are forgotten. Their once blindingly-white walls are now a dulled and off-putting cream, persistently stained with brown streaks of the rusty rainwater forever dribbling from the porous gutters. Green moss sprouts here and there, adding an organic trim, but one that’s sadly unwelcome. Within the reaches of idle hands – for he’s here too – urban murals have occupied the inviting blank canvas of off-white wall and in turn this erstwhile art has itself been defaced by the encrypted squiggles of tag graffiti.

On the other side of the wall a hooded figure sets his back to the dysfunctional CCTV camera and unleashes a stinking, liquid Slinky down the cracked, concrete steps of the stairwell. Its progress is caught in freeze-frame by the half-hearted fluorescent lights, which seem to be forever on the verge of getting going, but don’t. Come the evening the remaining strands of piss will have frozen and sent an elderly resident tumbling in the darkness, the lights by then given up. Skull split and leaking, his blood will add a welcome touch of colour to the forgettable shade of concrete. The steps it seems, though half-crumbled, remain hard enough to break both bone and brain. They’ll break more than that yet.

In the outdoor gloom, the three healthy children propelling the roundabout at gleeful speeds have been replaced man-for-man by older, more sullen sorts who insist on keeping a stationary, furtive council on the rusting, circular steelwork. Of the three swings adjacent, only one remains operational. One dangles forlornly at half mast, and the last is no longer what it was, its seat long-since propelled through a nearby window. The window, too, is no longer that, but mottled chipboard.

Fast forward now. Show more and scratch. Fast forward. Play. Forward, we, go, backward.

Yellow-hatted men have taken to assaulting the tower blocks with probing drills so as to infiltrate these concrete skeletons with mile upon mile of cable. It must be hooked up, every room, every corridor, every shaft must be connected, the building must be riddled with power. And then the lights go on and it’s a derby. The crowd gasps and cheers even as the dust rushes towards them. Eyes shut, lights out now and everybody home. Brush off the evidence and awake to euphoric hangover, then think.

Clear the rubble and begin again. Eyes open, brew the tea and whistle. A perfect pitch.

Cultural Architects: Saramago, Byrne & Le Corbusier Partners

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have synaesthesia for a day, just so that I could experiment with different pieces of music and observe the shifting patterns of colour, the dynamic lines and shapes that come and go in response to changing pitch, timbre and volume. Hallucinogenic drugs aside, perhaps the closest I’ll come to this mental light show is when listening to the brilliant song Don’t Worry about the Government by The Talking Heads:

Though hardly a piece of 60’s psychedelia, almost every time I hear David Byrne sing the following lyrics,

That’s the highway that goes to the building
I pick the building that I want to live in

It’s over there, it’s over there
My building has every convenience

I automatically see bright images flash in my mind – I see a tall building viewed from a distance, bathed in a cleansing, brilliant sunlight. Following it comes,

It’s gonna make life easy for me
It’s gonna be easy to get things done

and I’m seeing his sunny picture of optimism, which brings to mind the Modernist movement in architecture, and its ideological belief in the power of architecture to improve lives. This stack of evoked images and sensations isn’t the only thing I think about. A whole other set of associative connections fire in my brain. When I hear that lyric, it’s as if I’m hearing Le Corbusier himself say:

The house is a machine for living in.

This hopefulness shines through in the song, even if there is a hint of a darker under-current of meaning. That’s not the end of it though, more reflexive associations pile on and automatically assemble themselves into a dialectic argument.

In The Cave by José Saramago, we encounter the tale of Cipriano Algor and his daughter Marta, potters both, who must contend with the capricious nature of The Center, the chief purchasers of their pottery. The Center is an ever-growing cloistered city within a city; one that leaves the original host crumbling under an extreme gentrification pressure. When David Bryne sings the praise that his building has every convenience, he is summarising perfectly the nature of The Center, containing as it does, accommodation, entertainment, employment and food. Who wouldn’t want all that within easy reach? While he may be happy, the Algors are increasingly suspicious of The Center, an unease which doesn’t dissipate when they are left with no option but to move in. Who could blame them for their misgivings, when faced with such unsettling slogans as:

We Have What You Need, But We Prefer You Need What We Have.

Still it’s only fiction, so there’s nothing to worry about, or is there?

Earlier this year I visited Cardiff, Wales where, in the city centre, there is a building in this model. Luxury shopping forms the base, interspersed with food outlets, and all topped off with expensive apartments. It’s an attempt at concentrating all the functionality of a city into the same land area as a hamlet. So is this the start of the progression, is this a new Center, a building that will expand ever-outwards and upwards, subsuming everything in its path?

If this building, and this trend, is to be stopped, I doubt that it’ll be protests or organised rebellion that does it, but rather the unruly Internet. Why move to live where the shops are, when the whole world of shops can be brought to you? It hardly needs stating that one can work through the internet, socialise through it, even send a virtual instance of ourselves into Second Life and nest ourselves in it at one level removed.

So perhaps Saramago will be wrong in the detail, but the consequences might turn out the same. It could go either way; the Internet could provide our means of escape, or equally could seduce us into our own imprisonment.

For the purposes of Saramago’s message it probably doesn’t matter. The alienating and impersonal nature of this emblem of pure, efficient capitalism, is preserved whatever. Moreover it is this influence on one family, a father, daughter, son-in-law, and dog, and their attempts to adapt to a new reality, that is the important and universal concept. Indeed, one of the highlights of the novel is Saramago’s delicate and insightful rendering of the tender, playful relationship between father and daughter, workers of clay, yet both of them, with Saramago’s guidance, shape beautiful words of wisdom in their conversation.

And this Saramago suggests is the key to our salvation, to embrace our humanity and, as simple as it sounds, stick together. On this Byrne and Saramago agree:

I’ll put down what I’m doing, my friends are important

And family too we might be inclined to add. If The Talking Heads are saying we don’t need to worry about the government, then in The Cave, Saramago agrees. It’s capitalism and blind materialism that are the prime threats. Saramago provides few solutions to these and we can’t blame him for that, but whatever they might prove to be, the first step, the foundation, is to stick together and value your friends, family and the stray dog that tags along.

I don’t doubt that a man can live perfectly well on his own, but I’m convinced that he begins to die as soon as he closes the door of his house behind him.

The path disappears around a corner, and veers who knows where, but Saramago at least shows us how we should start the journey.