Monday, June 22, 2009

Sydney Opera House

Brian Eno's illumination of the Sydney Opera House was a wondrous act, images morphing into each other just slower than the human eye can follow, works of art beamed down from the Harbour Bridge. Brian arranged a carbon offset deal before these lights blazed, as part of which the neighbourhood highrises dimmed. Office workers asked for the illumination to start at 5 so they could admire it on their ways home.

We were whisked from the airport at 5am and driven straight to the building. Like the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House defeats any attempt to anticipate it. It thrilled me with its beauty.

The unique element of this 'bid' byt the architect Uzon for the site was that two buildings, the somewhat bigger concert hall and the opera house, were placed side-by-side (rather than one behind the other) so both could share the full glory of the harbour setting. My favourite feature of buildings is how they open out to their environment: here you see something of just how well that works.


Robert Ott, in loving memory

And so Robert Ott, a dear friend from Santa Fe, has zoomed on. He was always a great adventurer. Cancer became one final exploration, Roberto defying all medical diagnoses to stay with his body as cancer cells burst into its universe.
Robert's main practice was Tibetan Buddhism, perhaps because it's more accessible to white folk than Native American religions. He delved those Native American stories, and walked the spirit of the land. Most memorable of our excursions was a visit to Cerro Pedernal in Northern New Mexico. He knew my affinity with sacred mountains and gifted me this day. We drove off at dawn, his rackety four-by-four surging the dirt tracks till brush blocked the way and we hiked on. Scatched, bleeding, we made it to the summit and honoured the four winds in ceremony. 'You must come three times,' he told me as we bounced the track at the close of day, explaining the law, 'before you bring anyone else here. That is how it is done.' And I understood just something of how serious a commitment to sacred mountains might be.
Georgia O'Keefe's ashes merged with the dust of that mountain, and Robert's will too. As he was dying the week before last, I invited him in to the Blue Mountains just west of Sydney, as the scenery opened up to astound me. I felt him rush right in, sharpening my appreciation. I invited him in again as we turned Rame's Head peninsula in Cornwall yesterday,the Atlantic Ocean stretching out blue before us, and he was there again. He taught me about the Navajo rainbow beings, awestruck at the beauty of this planet, and now he's one with them.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The ClientEarth Forum, Sydney

Bless the Australians - 600 or so of them come out on a blazingly sunny Sunday afternoon of a holiday weekend, and pay $40 a head to attend a three-hour forum on the environment at the Opera House.
The lady next to me is 85. She's come along after reading James Thornton's article in the Sydney Morning Herald</span>. Her bag is filled with one intelligent tome and she tells me of others that she feels are related to what James was writing.
For now she is spry, but she quite reasonably wonders about dying. How do you do so in a way that has no negative impact on the environment? How do you avoid taking up reserves better deployed for caring for others? In essence it's a question about euthanasia, which I've never before thought of in environmental terms. The best I can come up with is natural burial, citing my own mother's funeral, buried in a wicker coffin in a woodland meadow.
James Thornton and Brian Eno share the stage for the opening round, part of the Luminous festival Brian is creating. The link between them is that Brian is the patron of James's environmental charity, ClientEarth.
I enjoy the pairing, and the elegance and lucidity of James's approach. He has been building up a creative head of steam in the days before, and it is good to view the ease with which this creativity flows. James is my partner, so my attention is partial. I listen to sighs of appreciation from the crowd as his speech takes in flights of understanding.
After forty-five minutes a team of environmentalists emerges from behind the backdrop. Anais Berthier has flown in from the ClientEarth Brussels' office, while others on stage represent Australian science, environmental law, the young, the indigenous. After a lawyer introduces her organization as twenty-five years old, Steve trumps her with his aboriginal background to claim one of the day's biggest laughs: 'My organization is 60,000 years old'.
The lady beside me had been listening to James' tale of the life cycle of the leaf, the tree, and the forest. We pay most attention to that short cycle of life, the leaf - but need to move out attention to the longer one that accumulates all experience, the forest. 'I want to die like part of the forest,' she says. ('The young' have their own representative on stage. I feel my lady should be up there too, some voice for the elderly, some wisdom drawn from many years of radical living on this planet.)
Each panel member has their say, latterly in response to audience questions. I'm interested in how the creative arts meet current challenges so wrote down a couple of Brian's statements. 'Art lets you experiment with other worlds and other realities in a non-risky way - you can switch it off,' he suggests. 'We don't come from A culture any more, but many many different cultures. All of us come from many different cultures, an important first step. We need to agree, in some respects, to be part of the same culture together.'
But of course, being part of the same culture doesn't require simply acceding to the commonly held view. Anais spoke lucidly against the nuclear industry, attacking the moves for commercial gain from nuclear profusion being promulgated by her native France. Her comments drew cheers and applause - clearly nuclear is the bete noir of the Australian environmental movement. Brian dared to be a lone contrary voice, saying something might be gained from nuclear. Members of the audience bayed at him. Brian was posing the need for a nuanced discussion (another part of Brian's NGO work is opposing nuclear proliferation). I like his call for 'nuance' in discussion - and have found myself adopting the word.
So out we step into the sunshine, and the neighbouring botanical gardens where flying foxes roost in the trees. They're thinking about culling these fruit bats, because there aren't enough trees to sustain their population and they're killing off the few trees that are there. What's wrong with planting more trees as an alternative policy, I wonder? We're so intent on managing the planet, viewing its constituent elements as 'resources', that we often forget to listen to it. This forum, a fusion of alert and engaged people, was a good reminder to slow down and listen some more.

(Here's a link to an ABC radio broadcast featuring James and Brian)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Comradeship and the Holocaust

The lead character of my new novel was born in Vienna in 1919, his journey taking him through Dachau (and Sydney as it now turns out) to a meeting in California in 1994. Reading my way into such a life could take me another few decades. I have to keep reminding myself that my research needs to fit the scope of the book not the life.
I wandered out to the Sydney Jewish Museum in the Darlinghurst district of the city the other day. It's a beautifully designed museum, telling the story of Jews in Australia as well as the Holocaust (Australia took in, somewhat reluctantly, 30,000 surviving Jews after 1945, DPs (displaced persons), the highest per capita after Israel).
The museum exhibits include a lot of testimony from survivors. Were it not for the Friday early closing (2pm) I'd have spent hours there. Images of children were, for me, especially poignant. A father buried his photograph of a little girl in the grounds of Dachau. That photo is on the wall here in Australia, where the father moved, but he never saw his little girl again. The museum houses 'The Children's Memorial', drops of water falling into a beautiful stone bowl which collects 1,5000,000 of them before they spill out, representing a tear for each lost child. A glass memorial is formed of photographs of these missing children, beautiful faces smiling out from before they were stripped from their families for extermination.
The aftermath of war has become the central theme of my writing. Back in the 1980s, researching my first novel ON BENDED KNEES, it was hard to find books about wartime civilian life in Germany. Now they exist. I picked up George Clare's fine memoir Last Waltz in Vienna at the museum, picturing the members of his family from 1842-1942, the year he was forced to change his name and his parents were sent to Auschwitz, a tender depiction of that splendid loving mixed normality of family life that was destroyed. It's good to reach beyond the horrors of the numbers and the large personas of history to discover the smaller lives that bore the brunt of it all.
I've just finished Sebastian Haffner's Defying Hitler, written in 1939 (when the author was an emigre in London) but not published until recently. It's a clear-eyed and personal account of how a nation could be so blindly misdirected towards evil. I was most struck by a passage towards the end of the book, where the author is forced to undergo a Nazi bootcamp in order to pass his exams as a Referandar (a legal role that opens up into being a judge). The young man has been hiding so as to avoid the need to salute passing Nazi flags. Now he finds himself wearing a swastika armband, shouting 'Heil Hitler', singing the martial songs, saluting. What happened? State-instituted terror was a significant element, but he writes compellingly of comradeship ... 'We floated in a great comforting stream of mutual reliance and gruff familiarity ... And yet I know for certain, and emphatically assert, that this very comradeship can become the means for the most terrible dehumanization.'
Chapter 39 of the book discusses 'comradeship' at length and is well worth discovering in full. I'll only quote one more part here:
'It was remarkable how comradeship actively decomposed all the elements of individuality and civilization. The most important part of individual life, which cannot be subsumed in communal life, is love. So comradeship has its special weapon against love; smut. Every evening in bed, after the last patrol round, there was the ritual reciting of lewd songs and jokes. That is a hard and fast rule of male comradeship, and nothing is more mistaken than the widely held opinion that this is a safety valve for frustrated erotic or sexual feelings. These songs do not have an erotic, arousing effect. On the contrary, they make the act of love appear as unappetizing as possible. They treat it like digestion and defecation, and make it an object of ridicule.The men who recited rude songs and used coarse words for female body parts were in effect denying that they had ever had tender feelings or been in love, that they had ever made themselves attractive, behaved gently and used sweet words for these same parts ... they were rough, tough, and above such civilized tenderness.'
I've been struck what a crude, rude bunch of men a group of barristers in England can so readily become, flicking food over formal dinner tables, guffawing at any perceived lewdness, refined and intelligent men spiralling down into crude camaraderie, locked into the adolescent mind of English public schools. I attended my own old boys' reunion last year and felt similarly uneasy, jokes directed at the few female members of staff present. How did people take those small units of love, Jewish families and others, and dehumanize them enough that they could exterminate them? This use of the tool of comradeship is an interesting perspective to consider.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

'Tales from the Afterlife'

In his review of David Eagleman's SUM, Nicholas Lezard ponders what Brian Eno's 'opera' of the book will be like.
Having just returned from its debut performance (as TALES FROM THE AFTERLIFE) at the Sydney Opera House, I can clue him in. This was more a different way of delivering text than an opera, thirteen of us reading twelve of the tales (twins reading one, their very similar voices trading their sentences). They chose us for a different range of voices, from the two children who opened and closed the event through a mixture of ages, cultures, accents, both male and female. I was the English voice, delivering the short story 'Angst'. It was pleasing to discover layers of language and meaning through the rehearsal process.
Brian's aim, as he mentioned in the ClientEarth forum the following day, is to show how culture has a different route to follow than the fast and furious one of rapid and graphic images, all high volume and high testosterone. Instead, TALES FROM THE AFTERLIFE shows the 'other direction - make it quieter, less eventful. There's a lot of empty bandwidth there... Slowness and stillness is a message. It questions the progress myth, the idea that the future is going to be faster. It should be slower and more meditative.'
Brian read SUM in one burst when he discovered it, but his subsequent readings of the book were more gradual and considered. His idea was that reading to music would slow down the delivery process, and possibly build up some cumulative power. He wrote, and performed live, pieces for each of the segments. Our direction was to take our time, find pauses wherever they felt right, letting Brian's music play around us. As the lights dimmed at the close, and then rose again to halflight the audience (it was odd, looking out at the Opera House, how spectrally grey the audience was during performance, as though they were inhabiting the afterlife), Brian's music dimmed then swelled again, somehow gathering in the collective power of the readings, quite thrilling and moving.
I liked David Eagleman's enthusiasm - he read a story himself and is a neuroscientist at Houston University, his new specialty synesthesia. His next fiction project looks at the possibility of being a 'possibillion' - holding onto some middle-ground between atheism and agnosticism, recognizing that the mind finds more fun in exploring possibilities than dismissing them. The whole AFTERLIFE event was a playful and surprisingly successful attempt at lifting words from the page, rendering a group experience out of their performance.


Thursday, June 04, 2009

When the Rain Stops Falling

Rain torrents from the ceramic tiles of the Sydney Opera House's iconic roofs; it's how they are kept clean. Wednesday afternoon we took shelter inside the House's theatre space for Brink Theatre's original production of When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell.
The play (being performed simultaneously right now at London's Almeida Theatre) is gearing itself to be an Australian classic. It's powerfully performed, a sequence of monologues and duets performed by sets of actors playing the same characters from the 1950s up to the 2030s. The opening spectacle, a fish falling from the sky, establishes climate change as one theme in a narrative that traces faultlines running through characters' ancestry - like fathers like sons, though with some honest attempt to break from the cycle by the close. Clever staging sees characters onstage as ghosts of themselves, in silent attendance of scenes from their futures and past. I'm tempted to come away and psychoanalyze the play - some residual penal consciousness is at work, one character exiled from London to Australia so that his horrific criminal tendencies are exported. I can be suspicious of plays gaining easy dramatic traction by bringing in a scenario of emotional horror (in this case extreme serial child abuse).
But then this did make for vivid theatre. In discussion with the actors afterward, the audience clearly adored the experience. And the many lines about waiting for the rain to stop drew gusty laughs as we got ourselves geared to splash our ways outdoors once again.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Touching Sydney, for the Luminous festival

Sydney's surely working its charms on me. I prepared my way down here by reading Thomas Keneally's The Commonwealth of Thieves on the plane, which has set me up well for understanding the history that stems back to those early days as a penal colony. I'm becoming something of a bore perhaps, stating the history behind the names of every ferry and many streets, all of which look back to that brief and intense period at the end of the 18th century.
We were whisked from the airport as dawn stroked the skies to sign in at the Opera House, receiving our backstage passes as performers. Like the Taj Mahal, this is one of those buildings that photos don't fully prepare you for, its real-life beauty a deep thrill, a rare piece of architecture that matches the magnificence of its setting on the Bay.
The grounds of the Opera House reach into the Botanical Gardens, trees hung with flying foxes who we last night watched stream in through the darkness above the Harbour Bridge in their thousands; sacred ibis prod the grounds of the city parks with their beaks, white cockatoos screech from the treetops.
I stepped onto the stage Tuesday night for our first rehearsal for the staged reading of David Eagleman's SUM (I'm performing the short piece ANGST), locating out places on stage, finding the rhythms of the piece against Brian Eno's original musical score which he's playing from the wings. Back for the tech rehearsal tonight, looking out into the surprisingly intimate auditorium of the Opera House.