Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Mike Ratledge - Riddles Of The Sphinx (Mordant Music)

Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen's 1977 film, to which this is the soundtrack, explores 'issues of female representation, the place of motherhood within society and the relationship between mother and daughter' according to the BFI site. It is, in the words of the film institute, 'intellectually rigorous', therefore a challenge to someone like me...

...however, if my mother had been a high-flying career woman and my father equally ambitious I might be different. Perhaps I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a dumb prole, which is what I am, let's face it. Still, I hold no grudges. My mum was a housewife who read Catherine Cookson and the only time I recall her going to the cinema was when she took me to see Bambi, which left me emotionally scarred for years. However, as proof of culturally upward mobility in our family, I've watched about 20 minutes of Riddles Of The Sphinx, which is further than my mum, dad, brothers or sisters would get.

According to Greek mythology, the female (male versions also exist) sphinx asks a question and kills those who cannot answer the riddle. Finally, Oedipus solves it and the sphinx destroys herself. From a feminist perspective, does the riddle asked by the sphinx becomes the riddle that is all women in a patriarchal society? Women as guardians of tombs and temples, the home serving as both? Viewed from a suspicious male perspective, is woman the would-be destroyer of those who fail to understand her?

The word sphinx comes from the Greek Σφίγξ, from the verb σφίγγω (sphíngō), meaning "to squeeze", "to tighten up". Hence, sphincter. I'm in danger of talking through mine if I venture to interpret the film and it's possible feminist theories, so I won't. Suffice to say that the narratives we impose on history and myth are what we wish them to be, to paraphrase the Gertrude Stein quote at the start of the film.

Egyptian mythology in my listening history includes the cosmo-pyramid artwork on Earth Wind & Fire's 1977 album, All 'N'All. It's a riddle how they went from Funk/Soul superstars with some credibility to appearing on Strictly Come Dancing last week. Mind you, the signs were there when they went global and overly showbiz with their Vegas-style shows in which Maurice White would fly around suspended from wires, which Strictly is also prone to having its dancers do, so perhaps Maurice has watched a few episodes and thought 'We must play that gig!'.

Parliament also put on extravagant shows in the 70s, of course, although theirs were less choreographed, more anarchic, and far more funky. It was from their album, The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein, that I learnt how the concept of specially-designed Afronauts, capable of funkatizing galaxies, was first laid on man-child
but was later repossessed and placed among the secrets of the pyramids.

I've yet to work out the secrets of this record, or more to the point, fully understand the socio-political/feminist theories, but then, as a listening experience it's even more abstract than the film. Yet the texts in this format are frequently poetic, along with scenes from domestic life. In a way it reminds me of Delia Derbyshire & Barry Bermange's Inventions for Radio. The music at times is akin to Terry Riley's In C.

All in all, a very interesting album.

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