Saturday, 12 September 2009

Tori Amos




From amongst Camille Paglia's peculiar mishmash of incisive, learned commentary and braggadocio-swollen drivel, I find one insight in particular to be profoundly useful: that continuity is more real than fracture, and that a sensually-alert holism makes for a more sophisticated hermeneutic than po-faced, atomising hand-wringing, to say nothing of the striking of fashionably careerist poses in shrinking and ever more specialised academic fiefdoms: I passionately believe that learning, like Love in 'Aristophanes'' speech in Plato's Symposium, is the pursuit of the whole. To put it more crudely, I believe art is primarily about pleasure, in the broadest sense, which includes intellectual pleasure. We can certainly interrogate our pleasures, expand them, and rank them in a hierarchy of values, but literary- and art-criticism which has lost sight of rapture and rich emotion---criticism, in other words, which thinks itself smugly superior to that which is criticised---isn't worth the name.

A corollary of this is Paglia's useful Frazer-meets-Freud belief that paganism never ended, but gorgeously continued in the high cultural tradition of the West, and that it now surges on, unabated, in our popular culture. (Note to pagans--this belief in continuity is not literal in a kind of ghastly Murray-ite way: it's a metaphor for competing aesthetic modes.) There are serious problems with this view, like, uh, the existence of the entire Middle Ages. But nevertheless I have thoroughly absorbed Paglia's habit of reading popular culture through the lens of the art and religion of the ancient world, a style of looking which, of course, also links with astrology--- another ancient discipline old Paggers and myself both love.

Which brings me by a roundabout route to Tori Amos, whom I saw live last on Thursday night at the Hammersmith Apollo.

Amos is a genius--an absolute 24 carat genius, like her older contemporary Kate Bush, whose rate of output she surpassed long ago. She has volcanic stage-presence, a molten rapport with the audience and their emotions that belies her hermetic, Mallarmé-like lyrics, which often sound as though they have been translated from another language by a computer program ('Deck the halls / I'm young again / I'm you again / Racing turtles / The grapefruit is winning...'), and would make more sense in the original Estonian. Writhing flame-haired between two facing pianos, often playing one with each hand in opposite directions, she creates vast, surging waves of feeling using rhythm and orchestration and that swooping, sweet-spectral voice. It's almost cinematic in the way it bypasses the brain and grabs hold of your heart. She reminded me forcibly of Homer's Circe, and even more of Virgil's, who has a gorgeous cameo at the start of Aeneid 7. This is the brilliantly Amos-esque passage:

Adspirant aurae in noctem nec candida cursus
Luna negat, splendet tremulo sub lumine pontus.
Proxima Circaeae raduntur litora terrae,
dives inaccessos ubi Solis filia lucos
adsiduo resonat cantu tectisque superbis
urit odoratam nocturna in lumina cedrum,
arguto tenuis percurrens pectine telas.
Hinc exaudiri gemitus iraeque leonum
vincla recusantum et sera sub nocte rudentum,
saetigerique sues atque in praesaepibus ursi
saevire ac formae magnorum ululare luporum,
quos hominum ex facie dea saeva potentibus herbis
induerat Circe in voltus ac terga ferarum.


Soft winds blew all that night and the white moon
lit their way, the sea phosphorescent beneath its glimmer.
Keeping close inshore, they skirted the land of Circe,
the rich daughter of the Sun. She makes the virgin woods
re-echo her unceasing song, and there she lightens the night-shadows
of her lofty palace with brands of fragrant cedarwood,
her shuttle flickering to-and-fro over the delicate weft.
From her island they could hear the angry roaring of lions,
fretting at their chains and growling long into the night,
with bristling boars and caged bears and the eerie howling
of beings trapped in the shape of huge wolves---
men whom the savage goddess had transformed with potent herbs
into creatures with the fur and faces of wild beasts.

(Aeneid 7.10ff, my trans)

I love this passage of the Aeneid: it's utterly typical of Virgil's brilliance. The images are visually imprecise, eluding the eye in a kind of shadowy half-light---moonlight, firelight---and along with Aeneas and his men we hear rather than see the island of the goddess, and wonderfully even smell it in the case of the cedarwood torches. The combination of Circe's siren-like endless singing against the roar of the howling enchanted animals strikes an uneasy, decadent note: it makes her sound almost like a self-pleasuring, amoral mechanism, singing over a backing chorus of agonised creatures. I'm reminded of a horrible story about Salvador Dalí, according to which the great artist used to drift restfully off to sleep to the howls of live cats he'd nailed to the ceiling.

God, Amos was working the Circe archetype hard on Thursday night. She struck exactly this note of savage delicacy and sublime, self-absorbed apartness. She rocked up and down the pianos like the Virgilian goddess at her loom, opalescent and witchlike, looping her vocals over the animal roar of the guitars and drums. For Amos in full Circean mode, watch this sadly unembeddable video of 'Rasperry Swirl', especially at 3.43--4.05: she burns, she blazes. Give Sandys' Morgan la Fee two opposing pianos and a drumkit and you have the idea:



Her persona as an artist isn't chill and lunar, despite the frosty associations of early songs like 'Icicle' and 'Winter': she's hot. In terms of ancient archetypes, she isn't the witch---usually a loathsome tomb-crawler and necromancer in the ancient world, splendidly apotheosised by Erichtho in Lucan's Pharsalia. No, Amos is channelling those amoral solar sorceresses, Circe and her niece, Medea; and like both of them, she is a descendent of the sun, not of the moon. The overwhelming impression she gives is of furnace-like power.

So as I watched her last night, kundalini racing up my spine, eyebuds on both palms burning, gays spraying tears and Smirnoff Ice everywhere, I reflected that the reason t'gheys love 'all them old women singers' is to do with this quality of potency, as concentrated in the voice. A good female voice can be like a weapon, a hugely forceful and muscular projection from a incongruously slight physical frame. The strong-voiced woman singer thus partakes of a kind of androgyny, because in vocal power the sexes are equal, and she can ply her vocal line like the amazon plies her sword. (In opera there's often a piquant contrast between this gender equality on the vocal level and the awful way the women characters are treated in the plot, a contrast which I think is key to the stunning emotional reach of the artform.)

As Amos rauchily gyrated sidesaddle on the piano-stool, I thought about the way that men often dismiss a certain type of artistic genius in women as mere kookiness, veiling any visceral sexuality safely out of sight under a gauze of elfin waftiness. It's a subtle disembodying tactic, perhaps---replace the woman who sings about being caught masturbating in her 'pumpkin p.j.'s' with a constructed nymph or queen of the fairies. (Compare the removal of the woman poet from the human order to the supernatural one implied by Sappho's ancient epithet, 'The Tenth Muse', brilliantly dissected by Greer in Slipshod Sibyls.)



(A very botoxed Tori singing 'Bouncing off Clouds')

Oh God, how I love her! Amos has---like many another woman artist---placed the manipulation of multiple personae at the heart of her work, breaking out a shifting and kaleidoscopic parade of masks. She's made this quite explicit at times, creating perplexingly different personalities for different songs---a fluid, feminine artistic mode alien to the male tendency to crystalise and make literal (Pessoa notwithstanding). Here's the cover for 2001's collection of covers, Strange Little Girls---



---and in 2007's American Doll Posse, Amos sang in five personae explicitly derived from Greek goddesses:



A facet of this characteristic elusiveness and indeterminacy is also seen in Amos's habitual word-slurrings and lyrics which teeter on the edge of total incomprehensibility:

Never was a cornflake girl
thought that was a good solution
hangin with the raisin girls
she's gone to the other side
givin us a yo heave ho


---as 'Cornflake Girl' starts, for example. 'My encyclopedia' comes out, in the same song, as 'Ma hencyclopuheedeeah!', and in the slinky, langourously despairing 'Iieee' the word 'chapel' is idiosyncratically pronounced 'chaypull'. Words loose final syllables or develop strange prosthetic consonants.

On Thursday she did a range of old and new material that played out these (ahem) sexual personae in gorgeous fullness. We heard the exquisite 'Icicle' from 1994 (many of Amos' early songs are relentlessly snowbound), which is very nearly an Emily Dickinson poem:

Icicle -- icicle --
Where are you going --
Where are you going --
I have a hiding place --

When spring marches in --
Will you keep watch for me --
I hear them calling --


Evoking an uncomfortable place on the edge of loss of innocence, both sexual and theological, this song has the haunting line 'greeting the monster in our Easter dresses', which has an peripubertal, Angela Carter feel of wolfishness, snow and willingly-threatened virginity. As with Dickinson, the influence of protestant hymnody is fundamental to the structuring of Amos' work, and many of her songs have strongly hymnlike patterns of rhyme and refrain. You can hear something of the same influence on 'Bells for her', the lyrics' solemn fatalism augmented by the use of the lovely gamelan-like tones of a prepared piano, matching Amos' own exquisite, Butoh-esque movements:



Phew. I could go on all afternoon, but I'll spare you. If you don't know Amos' work, hie thee hence to iTunes, or failing that YouTube. All I can say is that she's absolutely bloody blinding. I bow down!

4 comments:

Fionnchú said...

Mad old you indeed, although Tori's no "old woman" at least from my vantage point, yet! I never warmed to her music myself, but I find her spookily attractive and admire her vim and vigor. Not sure what distinguishes raisin from cornflake girls, but I prefer oatmeal like Dr. Johnson's Scot.

Your Aeneid translation's splendid; I admire as you do Paglia's half-accurate argument for the pagan-cultural continuity. As usual for all those non-medie[a]valists, she does skip over a thousand years or so. Glad you're there to set the record straight. Keep frothing up your melange of pop and circumstance.

Bo said...

I'd deliberately NOT called her a M. O. W.! ;)

She is utterly gorgeous, I quite agree. And I must thank you for the marvellous 'pop and circumstance'. Brilliant!

Jake said...

I'd like to agree--"continuity is more real than fracture"--maybe that is the case, and it explains the innate desire for a system of belief, a paradigm for life. But I've developed a distrust of systems--or maybe I just find the need for many at once, shaken like a cocktail.

In another vein: "art is primarily about pleasure." I hope so. But I sometimes wonder whose pleasure--the artist or the audience?

It really is a sweet translation of Virgil--and serves nicely to introduce Tori, whom I adore on rainy days like this one.

Bo said...

Hello Jake. As Lord Shaftesbury said, 'The most ingenious way to become foolish is by a system.'

I'd argue that 'systems'---of which, like Shaftesbury and yourself I am suspicious---are not quite what I meant by 'continuity', which is really a way of looking that does not atomise, but searches instead for reference and resonance. As for pleasure, I suppose the audience. Writing may be the writer's onanistic self-pleasuring, but if (s)he expects to be read we have to get something out of it too, even if the pleasure we get is a difficult and equivocal one.

Glad you liked the Virgil, and the Tori!

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