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Tindersticks
Ypres Tariq Goddard , November 7th, 2014 15:05

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I have always been drawn to the music of Tindersticks and been deeply affected by war memorials; beyond that and a certain mournfulness, the two would seem to have little else in common. Even so, I was not completely surprised that Stuart Staples, Tindersticks front man, should also be fascinated by these sad monuments; the alphabetical records that adorn them proof that death in war merits recording in a way that most other ways of dying do not.

Commissioned by the In Flanders World War One museum in Ypres, to create a permanent orchestral soundscape to be played continually through the museum every day without interruption, Ypres can be best understood as an aural memorial without walls to the hundreds of thousands who died during the two battles for the town, now known as Ieper. The project is a rare instance of an artist nailing down what he has set out to accomplish, and succeeding in meeting the terms he set for himself so completely, that any further embellishment, though not wholly extraneous, will be very much the stuff of footnote and qualification. Stuart Staples, who composed the eight pieces alongside Dan Mckinna, writes that he wished his music to create the "air" in the spaces it would be heard in, the only artistic reference points being "Britten's 'War Requiem' (via Arvo Pärt) and the way the atmosphere is dictated by the Seagram murals in the Rothko Room in the Tate Britain".

This intention is wholly realised. Like the Rothko paintings Staples alludes to, there is the slow-release sensation of a small and fragile substance gradually being overwhelmed and crushed by the power of a larger and angrier one, followed by complete immersion in a dense and vast absence. For fans of the band there are not a great many reference points in their back catalogue to call upon, since despite a long history of instrumentals, often ramshackle or dreamily cinematic, Ypres presents a rupture, closer to the mournful orchestral backing heard on the band's love peans, though robbed of romance and the reassuring structure of a song.

The starting point of these pieces is a cluster of E Flat, F and F sharp notes, which means very little to me so far as reading music is concerned. However, the effect is like a creeping artillery barrage, full of autumnal disquiet, as if to announce the reason this music exists is not a good one. The opening piece, 'Room 1 - Whispering Guns', proceeds as a warning, thuds of distant shellfire falling softly as rolling bursts of irregular snare fade in and out eerily, like a military band that has been recently decimated, resplendently incomplete. An unbroken and tense ominousness holds each of these tracks together in an imaginatively untransferable whole, so that by the end, it is impossible to think these sounds, lovely in places, could be about anything other than killing on an industrial scale. The mood, painful throughout, lightens only by a finger flick, towards the close, as the music slowly turns warmer. 'Sunset Glow, The Third Battle Of Ypres', suggests that even over a battlefield there may be beauty, and that if loss of any kind is unredeemable, it can still occur in the same space as natural magnificence, just as our lesser sufferings may be accompanied by a dawn chorus or similar beautiful interruptions. This graceful closing also contains, perhaps, an ounce of the utopian longing for another kind of life and world, reminiscent of the "diving for pearls' line that finishes Elvis Costello's 'Shipbuilding'.

This is not a polemic work in the way that song is, or from another point of view, the countless revisionist histories that justify the conflict through appeals for 'balance' are. No obvious stand is taken on heroism or the politics of the war, there is an absence of sloganeering, and the titles are as descriptive as anything you would expect in a museum context. But the harrowing and repetitive sound of bells, ringing to herald generational extinction, have an angry vengefulness that incorporate both polarities: the nobility of sacrifice and its ultimate futility. This is important as the concentrated attempt in recent years, driven by Sandhurst trained historians and their allies in the media, that complain modern sensibilities are inadequate to understanding World War One, as if the death of millions did not offer a transhistorical message to humanity, hold increasing sway.

This development, in light of Britain's involvement in two recent wars, have led to an unfortunate equation and confusion between honouring the personal bravery of "our boys", with the political aims of the ones who send them to fight. As a consequence, facile jingoism is part of our popular culture in way that would have been unthinkable when Pat Mills wrote his anti-World War One epic, Charley's War, in the 70s. Arguably, but to these ears, Ypres sounds like a judgement on those who were responsible for a needless and preventable cataclysm that left 8.5 million dead and 21 million wounded, that lead to an even worse confrontation twenty one years later, a writ that extends to its present day apologists.

The attempt to naturalise the causes of World War One, and justify its conduct because of the existence of men brave enough to die in the trenches, is not so much a way of making the horror explicable, or wishing to understand the point of view of those who were there at the time, as a political project connected to the present. Which amounts to this: if you can get away with whitewashing the First World War you can get away with anything. The proper response to memorials, to lists of the dead who often shared the same surname and mother, is not just respect and grief. It is rage. This anger is not the same as tarnishing or taking their memory lightly or in vain, that is what those who tell stories about them do. Nor does calling terrified and unlucky soldiers who die or are horribly injured on landlines or roadside bombs "heroes" penetrate the reality of their situation or experience; this may console their next of kin, but is of no real use in preventing the next war, or the one after that. These misrepresentations provide us with a world that is not fit for heroes, only a world fit for more wars. Ypres is an eloquent meditation on such complacency, on valour and its misuse, as well as a memorial to the battles, and war, that was meant to end them all.

Johnny Bull
Nov 8, 2014 8:00am

Brilliant piece. Can't think of a better person to write this. I just know I'm going to love this record.

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George
Nov 8, 2014 2:53pm

Superb! Music and review masterful and moving. Thanks!

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Nov 10, 2014 5:39am

Hey, I'm sad too!

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