REVIEW: Wordless! - Art Spiegelman / Phillip Johnston / The Silent Six at Barbican Hall (2016 EFG LJF)

Art Spiegelman


London Jazz Festival Wordless! - Art Spiegelman / Phillip Johnston / The Silent Six
(Barbican Hall, 11th November 2016. Review by John L. Walters)

After a short overture from Phillip Johnston’s Silent Six(*), illustrator-author Art Spiegelman starts to talk from a podium on the right of the stage. What we are about to see and hear is lengthy slideshow lecture on the history of wordless books, with live musical accompaniment. This may seem hopelessly arcane to some of you, but it was an unabashed multimedia triumph.

Wearing a cool wide-brimmed hat and speaking confidently from notes, Spiegelman took us through a roll-call of artists – obscure and known – who made wordless books, sequences of pictures that tell their stories through drawn images alone. Such books are often regarded as the forerunners of graphic novels, and of course Spiegelman is known as the author of the prizewinning holocaust memoir Maus (1991), which stretched the possibilities of the comic book in ways rarely equalled.

The extraordinary Wordless! project, first commissioned in 2013 by the Sydney Opera House for its ‘Graphic’ festival (LINK) opened up the wordless pioneers’ achievements by adding what was effectively live cartoon music. Johnston’s music for his band The Silent Six was full of honks, whistles, jokey pastiche and stop-go rhythms courtesy of drummer Rob Garcia. (You may know Johnston from Fast’n’Bulbous (LINK) with Gary Lucas, or the fabulous Microscopic Septet, whose History of the Micros featured cover art by Spiegelman.)

Johnston’s scores were expertly timed to each scenario, whether comic, dramatic, melodramatic or sexy. Paired with raucous jazz, you could see A. B. Frost’s late-19th-century Our Cat Eats Rat Poison (or Fatal Mistake), an exuberant tale of a cat causing havoc, as a forerunner of Tom & Jerry. The intense woodcut storytelling of the prolific Frans Masereel showed the influence of his silent film contemporaries; Johnston’s inventive underscoring kept pace with every punishment that Masereel dealt out to his beleaguered protagonists: humiliation, arrest, trial, execution.

The tight scoring to image sequences dictated by Spiegelman’s narrative meant that there was no place for extended improvisation, but each member of the Silent Six demonstrated his virtuosity the musical space around the pictures: Trombonist Joe Fielder was particularly impressive (and fiendishly loud) in the odd moments when he had a chance to solo, and baritone saxophonist Mike Hashim honked out Johnston’s riffs with downtown glee.

The artists in Spiegelman’s whistlestop tour included: H. M Bateman, Otto Nückel, Milt Gross, Wilhelm Busch and Si Lewen (1916-2016) whose extraordinary anti-war The Parade (LINK) has just been reissued in concertina format. However different (in temperament and graphic texture) Johnstone always rose to the challenge of interpreting these purely visual narratives. Contemporary wordless picturebooks, by artists such as Shaun Tan, Raymond Briggs (The Snowman) and Suzy Lee, are predominantly aimed at children. By contrast Spiegelman’s wordless books, however childish or slapstick their humour, were rooted in adult anxieties and desires. His own Shaggy Dog Story is a love triangle with a canine twist; Lynd Ward’s God’s Man (1929) is a Faustian flake’s progress made from fluid, sensual wood engravings, accompanied by an expansive Johnston composition that recalled the fevered languor of Las Vegas Tango by Gil Evans.

‘Wordless books give shape to thought,’ declared Spiegelman, who ended the evening with an exuberant, semi-animated slide show mash-up of pictures and music, coloured squiggles connecting cartoon versions of Johnston (soprano sax) and his crew.

Though the whole performance hinged around Spiegelman’s examination of his own interests and obsessions with the comic book format, it never became self-indulgent. Wordless! flowed from historical facts through personal insights to thoughtful critique – he calls it ‘intellectual vaudeville’ – and we left a packed Barbican Hall feeling enlightened, engaged, entertained and ready for another cracking jazz festival.

(*)The Silent Six

Phillip Johnston, soprano saxophone, composer
Joe Fiedler, trombone
Mike Hashim, baritone saxophone
Neal Kirkwood, piano, melodica
Dave Hofstra, bass
Rob Garcia, drums

LINK: The Eye magazine on wordless books

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