Nat Lucas

“Good symphonies are often in some ways an unfolding sequence of miniatures,” says composer Thomas Adès. This prompts me to discover whether it is possible to create a symphony from a sequence of bar miniatures. In preparation I select two different 50cl bottles each of gin, vodka, rum, brandy and whisky.

A friend arrives and I explain my mission. We open the miniatures and test for pitch by blowing across the neck of each bottle. All except two sound an F sharp. The Vecchia Romagna brandy sounds an ‘A’ and there is one non-starter – the Flora de Cana rum is presented in plastic instead of glass. We tune them using half sips and arrive at a range of five notes. The difficulty of the undertaking begins to dawn on me. Even if scored for two players, all of the intended five symphonic movements will need to be molto adagio (very slow), to allow time for raising each bottle to the lips for blowing. I experiment with a percussive rather than melodic approach. However, only the note of the beater in the form of a knife, chopstick or pencil, is sounded as each bottle is struck. This results in either resonant bell tones or dull clicks of little sustainable interest. In fact, there is now so little interest that my friend departs.

I try suspending the bottles using string over the frame of a chair. They chime against one another like a 1980s executive toy. My two cats become anxious and circle the room. All imaginings of my opus turn to ashes in my mind’s ear. Clearly, this has to become a miniature symphony of silence in the tradition of John Cage. I work my way through the movements tasting the spirits in pairs.

1st movement ‘Gin’ – the inspiration here stems from Tchaikovsky’s setting of Eugene Onegin, the story of a battle for love. For the ‘Symphony of Miniatures’ this becomes ‘two gins,’ Miller’s and Hayman’s sloe gin. The citrus bursts out of the botanicals in the Miller’s while the plums sing fruit crumble in the sloe gin. A bold exposition of themes in a major key.

2nd movement ‘Vodka’ – when discussing musical form, Schoenberg stated, “Contrast presupposes coherence”. This movement sets the resinous Russian Tovaritch against the baritone smoothness of Dutch Ketel One. The grain of the Tovaritch ripples in the mouth like a sound that one becomes less aware of through repetition. The movement trickles away pianissimo.

3rd movement ‘Rum’ – this heralds pleasant surprises. Not only does the Rhum J.M dance around the tip of the tongue, but the Flora de Cana tastes exactly like the sound of a bassoon. Specifically, it tastes like the opening of the Rite of Spring, rather than the bubbling use of the instrument in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Wistful and melodic.

4th movement ‘Brandy’ – by now it is fair to say that tastes and themes from previous movements are mingling with the current notes. The Vecchia Romagna ushers in wonderful burnt toffee flavours. These burst the constraints of the Courvoisier Cognac and nudge it into French horn territory. By this I mean that it acts as egg yolk upon the imagined orchestra, binding together the strings, wind and brass. At least, at this point, I think that is what I mean.

5th movement ‘Whisky’ – a bottle of Macallan Gold and another of Laphroaig 10 Years Old remain. Unfortunately I am now defeated and wish to invoke the example of Schubert who left his Eighth Symphony ‘Unfinished.’ On reflection, given that he was interrupted in his composition by death, perhaps it would be better to consider the fifth movement of the ‘Symphony of Miniatures’ as ‘implied.’


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by TOAST ( 25.07.14 )

Nat Lucas

Elderflower blooms herald the arrival of picnic season, granting them the welcome of a whistled refrain in a songless city. Picnics are thought to have their origins in the practice of groups of women meeting in taverns, each bringing some solid food to contribute to a feast. I prefer to leave the conjuring of quiches in more capable hands and instead focus on providing the drinks. An aunt and uncle return from a walk with a wicker basket full of elderflowers gathered in Nunhead Cemetery. A few days later I am presented with a bottle of pale pink cordial. Immediately I face a dilemma. Should I construct a picnic friendly elderflower Collins, or should I stay true to my personal preference of avoiding longer drinks, and instead provide an elderflower martini? Unable to decide I try both.

Premixed elderflower Collins drinks are now so readily available that I saw one on offer in a metal-look ‘shaker’ while I was strapped into what I trust was a slightly less synthetic metal tube, on a no frills hop over the channel. I base my recipe on Diffords ‘Elderflower Collins No. 2’ which is distinguished from the ‘No. 1’ version principally by the exchange of gin for vodka. The most appealing part of making this for me is the inclusion of the Luxardo maraschino liqueur as of course, once you have the jar open, it is vital to check that the cherries have not gone off. I manage to restrict myself to just two. For many people, the inclusion of the lemon juice, the sinew of the drink that binds the elderflower to the spine of the vodka, makes this perfect picnic refreshment. Made of softer stuff, I find that the lemon slices through the drink like a cymbal in a string quartet and so move on to the martini.

In these times of austerity* I decide to make use of what I have readily available and create my elderflower martini with Black Cow vodka. Described as a ‘milk vodka’ because it is made from whey, this Dorset distilled spirit has a gentle roundness to it which does not lessen its impact. Sipping it neat is like easing a finger into a suede glove stitched by retired elves. To this I add Carpano Antica Formula – the bittersweet Italian vermouth, instead of the more usual dry vermouth. The resulting drink, dressed with a single floating rose petal, tastes of summer – grassy and with a hint of peaches.

Elderflower Collins No. 2:

2 shots Black Cow vodka
3 teaspoons Luxardo maraschino liqueur
1 shot elderflower cordial
1 shot freshly squeezed lemon

Shake with ice and strain into an ice filled glass. Top up with soda water and garnish with a lemon slice.

Elderflower Martini:

2 shots Black Cow vodka
1 shot Carpano Antica Formula
2 shots elderflower cordial

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with a rose petal.

*Austerity used here in the sense of ‘without luxury’ of space. My drinks cabinet is a just-slightly-larger-than-A4-sized gap on the work surface between the refrigerator and the draining board.

Pictured: Elderflower by Barbara Agnew


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Nat Lucas toasts the month with a drink (and a sprig) of which Dickens would approve

Closer inspection of the plant setting the garden awash with blue flowers proves initially disappointing. It is not borage but its equally hairy ‘hounds tongue’ relative, green alkanet. In the spirit of adventure, the substitute is tested to see if it possesses any of the properties commonly associated with its better known cousin – as a curer of both hypochondria and melancholia and as a source of courage.

Hypochondria

The gardener and diarist John Evelyn, a contemporary of Samuel Pepys, who lived just a few minutes up the River Ravensbourne from where I sit, wrote of borage ‘the sprigs… are of known virtue to revive the hypochondriac and cheer the hard student.’ Being neither, but suffering from a spring cold, I try using some of the green alkanet leaves in an inhalation. The smell of rivers seeps into my encumbered nasal passages. On emerging from beneath the towel I find that the remedy has worked. Whether it was simply the effect of the steam or the alkanet is debatable.

Melancholia

Historically borage has also been thought to dispel melancholy. Although I have no such malady I try some of the alkanet leaves as a tea infusion. There is none of the delicate cucumber flavour that would be expected of borage. Instead, I find the green alkanet to possess a soft taste more akin to under ripe galia melon. I sip the tea and gaze out of the window trying to remember lines of poetry. Nothing changes and I cannot recite anything appropriate beyond the first line. Perhaps I have shored up my defences against any future malaise.

Courage

Aside from its uses in gin, borage has commonly provided flavour and garnish to a ‘stirrup’ – a type of drink traditionally served to a hunting party prior to departure. Roman soldiers drank wine with borage to give them courage before battle. Being in possession of two cats instead of the prerequisite pack of hounds and disinclined to wear a toga, I decide to offer claret cup to my father in law.

Claret cup is essentially a punch and its precise ingredients may vary depending upon the maker. It has literary associations – Jane Austen uses it as a social enabler in Pride and Prejudice and it was famously a favourite drink of Charles Dickens.

Dickens’ recipe was as follows:

Put into a large jug four or six lumps of sugar; give the preference to six. The thin rind of a lemon, leave to stand for ten minutes and stir. Add a wine glass of brandy, then a bottle of claret, then half a bottle of soda water. Then stir well and grate in nutmeg. Then add ice. If borage be used for this cup, half a handful will be found quite sufficient. Stir well before serving.

I follow this recipe using the green alkanet flowers, ‘bright blue with white honey guides,’ as a garnish instead of the borage. Increasing the amount of brandy by another half a glass adds breadth to the flavour and moves it away from sangria territory. Serving in a tumbler instead of a stirrup cup allows the colour of the flowers to be appreciated. Refined sipping is recommended to navigate around the flowers, which the father in law declares ‘taste of fish’.


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By Nat Lucas

“A room is, say, 9 by 12, but when you’re introducing sound to it, you can create a space that’s giant, hearing things outside the room or feeling certain through a vent, and then there are abstract sounds that are like music. They give emotions and different moods.” (David Lynch 1999)

It may seem counterintuitive to take an auditory approach to a photographic exhibition, but as the artist under consideration is David Lynch, stepping off the travelator of convention seems acceptable. Heard in isolation, the ‘multichannel sound composition by the artist,’ could be described as the noise that your brain blots out in the course of everyday experience. Loosely pulsating brass drones are layered with occasional octaves, fifths and harmonics in the upper frequencies. We hear wind across open pipes interspersed with the chippings and banging of hot and cold metal. This is the sound of the shadow of an industrial age. It is the music of everything that has been cancelled.

This soundscape frames Lynch’s uniformly sized, monochrome images perfectly. In true cinematic fashion it provides another dimension to the mise en scène he presents of decaying abandoned factories. Those familiar with his films (such as ‘Eraserhead’ and ‘Dune’) will not be surprised to learn that he began to take these pictures while scouting locations for film shoots. With this exhibition what was previously a backdrop becomes the focus of attention, the used up factories now take the lead roles in creating an atmosphere of tension.

This is a post-industrialist landscape embodied in a range of locations such as Lodz, Berlin, New York and Northern England. Husks and kernels of buildings decay, their walls rupture and forgotten sills are covered in debris. One door opens onto darkness while another gapes onto an unspoken void. Obsolete machines cling to walls with twisted edges like sordid metal lips. Skylights are distant, always out of reach. Nature scurries to wild the ruins and reclaim the ground. Human life has been deleted. 

Eight photographs form a study of glass panes, all either shattered, vicious toothed or absent. The window frames bring to mind rhythms of Mondrian squares but somehow in the negative. Only where panes are missing can we see a few stark twigs gesturing upwards. 

Three works “Untitled (England) late 1980s early 1990s,” provide an alternative to the heavy shadows of the rest of the exhibition. Here pylons stride across electricity farms and bulbous smoke stacks still breathe (above). Lynch managed to chase around the North barely a wisp ahead of the demolition crews. Within the frames there is space for a glimpse of a green, though less than entirely pleasant, land. Industry is dwindling but has not yet been fully disassembled.

In his Darwin College Lecture ‘Life in Ruins,’ the writer Robert Macfarlane suggests, “Ruins offer niches for narrative.” The ‘Factory Photographs’ offer a palimpsest narrative where industry is being overwritten by nature. The story is one of a shifting population and a change of power. As Lynch remarks, “Every work ‘talks’ to you, and if you listen to it, it will take you places you never dreamed of.” 

David Lynch: The Factory Photographs at the Photographers’ Gallery to 30th March 2014.

Photograph: Image 2, David Lynch, Untitled (England), late 1980s/early 1990s.
Archival gelatin-silver print. 11 x 14 inches. All photographs in an edition of 11. © Collection of the artist.


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by TOAST ( 06.02.14 )

 

The fourth in a series of pieces written to photographs taken by Nicholas James Seaton on our autumn/winter 2013 shoot in Canada. Each focuses on an element, albeit a non-traditional kind.

By Nat Lucas.

Where once slipped burnished reflections in silver-grey, the flash of a passing express or arrows of geese rising up from the river, now laps the canker of rust. Bound unwillingly on steel framed beds these colours chime with autumn hues and vie to shrug their spore onto a careless passing sleeve. Illustrious names weep together – burnt orange, yellow ochre and cadmium red, shackled in a mottled bruise.   

Derricks gaze sightlessly into water; shoulders hunched against the bite like king penguins taking turns at the edge of an ice locked huddle. Cold chilled they sweat and wait, mustered at the command of ghost squads of stevedores. Hamstrung by rust they will swing and hoist no more.

Exposure hastens the rasping tongue of corrosion, the weakening flakes and slow dull notes of fatigue. Singing cables whipping above the festooned pier turn brittle when the bulbs go out and folds of litter bag the shore. Emasculated rivets drop unheard from the underbelly of the pontoon.

The transcendent form of Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930) seems the stuff of fables from these bashed and fettered sheets:

 

“And Thee, across the harbour, silver-paced

As though the sun took step of thee, yet left

Some motion ever unspent in thy stride, -”

 

The manufacturing heartland is strapped into a rust belt. Pounding, flaming cities shrink to arid necropolises for machine tools stripped of salvageable parts. Rust blooms over conical towers, the past proud spires of factory husks, while vegetation hastens to reclaim old ground. Crowds shuttle in to stare toothlessly at the ruins. ‘Decay tourism’ has set up its stall. 

Metal memories are embedded in each one of these thousand shallow rough bubbles. Darker stains describe the best of times. Tremulous chariots for three point turns, mobile sanctuary for courting teens, are stacked wrecked shadows. Worn out, but held in fond regard, weathered in human harness unlike those cloud bothering, plunging elevatored monoliths.

To read the other pieces in our Element series, click here.

Excerpt from The Bridge by Hart Crane 1899 – 1932. Published 1930, Black Sun Press.


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by TOAST ( 07.10.13 )

Nat Lucas.

It is difficult to imagine Orlando Gough entering into anything without total enthusiasm. His full steam ahead approach to life gathers you up in his wake – whether he is discussing cooking, a new rap artist or in this case, the day of events that he has curated for the ‘Voices Across the World’ festival at the Royal Opera House (commissioned by its contemporary arm ROH2). At the heart of the day are twelve of his favourite singers…


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by TOAST ( 19.07.11 )

Nat Lucas discovers how time moves differently on a late summer row down the Thames.

The sky is an ink wash of gunmetal grey, silver and indigo. Swollen with rain it dips down to meet the water; the willows mutter in the rising breeze. Two men pass by on a working barge, a patchwork of black with a shock of exhaust. They raise their hands and nod in greeting as they overtake. They have watched our progress for the last twenty minutes on a straight avenue of the river. We rest and balance our oars on the water for steadiness as their wake slaps against our boards. Then the rain comes…


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by TOAST ( 14.09.10 )
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