Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book Review: Sunset Park, by Paul Auster

Article first published as Book Review: Sunset Park by Paul Auster on Blogcritics.

Paul Auster returns to Brooklyn in his 2010 novel, Sunset Park, although not with the same kind of enigmatic Kafkaesque overtones of his earlier visits. His characters are faced less with an incomprehensible world neither they nor we can understand, than they are victims of their own fears and insecurities. Reminiscent of the group hero featured in some of the naturalistic dramas of the last century, the novel is less about one central figure than it is about a set of people, four squatters in an abandoned house in a run-down Brooklyn neighborhood and the family of one of those squatters. Different sections of the book are told from the point of view of six different characters.

While these are all different kinds of people in many respects--a young woman who sells real estate, a graduate student writing her dissertation, a college drop out in love with a teen ager, a musician "wannabee" who runs a fix it shop, an independent publisher, and an aging actress—they all have one thing in common. In one way or another they are all wounded beings. Indeed, in one way or another, the wound is the dominant thematic trope of the novel. From the time the idea is developed in a schoolboy's essay on To Kill a Mockingbird and its reiterations in a variety of discussions of the classic forties film The Best Years of Our Lives and the emphasis on injury ending career of Cleveland Indian pitcher, Herb Score and others, it is made clear that wounds are endemic to life. As one character asserts, "wounds are an essential part of life, and until you are wounded in some way, you cannot become a man." It is the necessity to go on living in spite of one's wounds that is man's burden and in some sense his blessing. It is in overcoming one's wounds, physical or emotional, that one realizes his or her potential as a human being.

If there is a central character in the book, it is Miles Heller. Son of the publisher and the actress who were divorced soon after his birth, he has left school and broken off all contact with his family as a result of intense guilt over the death of his step brother. When the novel begins, he is living in Florida, working as a trash remover in houses which have been foreclosed on, and having an affair with an underage teen. He returns to Brooklyn to live as a squatter in Sunset Park with Bing, an old friend and two other women, Alice and Ellen, who had been roommates in college. All four are more or less emotionally wounded in one way or another, as are Miles' parents, and all of them must find a way to live in spite of those wounds.

But it is not only the characters that are wounded. The world that they live in is wounded as well. It is a world where a financial crisis has put people on the streets collecting cans and bottles for the deposit money, where the publishing industry is going down the drain, where dissidents are not tolerated. It is a world where the broken and old, everything from typewriters and houses to people are simply abandoned and left to rot, where the dead are buried and forgotten. Auster has written a compelling critique of our modern society and its effects on the people who are doomed to live out their lives in it. Whether or not it is possible to live productively and meaningfully in such a world is the question, it is a question that may or may not have an answer by the time you get to the end of Sunset Park.

Paul Auster is a truly exciting writer and in Sunset Park, he is at the top of his game. He creates characters that are human in their flaws and their passions. He puts them in situations that test their humanity. He writes with a style that is both literate and accessible. He is a novelist to be reckoned with.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Music Review: Annie Dressner-Strangers Who Knew Each Other's Names

Article first published as Music Review: Annie Dressner - Strangers Who Knew Each Other's Names on Blogcritics.

Vulnerability, fragility and innocence are the first impressions you get from singer/song writer Annie Dressner's debut CD. They are impressions embedded in the youthful sound of her voice. They are impressions evoked by the plaintive sweetness of her melodies. And as often as not they jump out from the passionate conversational awkwardness of much of her lyrics. There are eleven songs on the album, and but for one or two they all have the feel of very personal expressions. There are those artists who create voices not their own to speak for them, personae; there are those artists who speak sincerely in their own voice. Then there are those that manage to give the appearance of sincerity whether they really are or not. I don’t know for sure which of these categories Dressner fits into, but if she isn't in the second, she's done a hell of a job convincing this listener.

"Fly," the album's opening song, is an upbeat expression of the need to spread your wings and fly in spite of the fear of falling. Of course, implicit in the metaphor of flying and falling is falling in love; you need to make the effort even if there is always the danger of failing. "Find Me" is another upbeat proclamation of the need to "climb that mountaintop" and commit to life and love. Songs like "Cigarette," "When I See Stars," and the haunting "Come Back" are mournful looks at lost love perfectly suited to Dressner's vulnerable mask. In a note on "How Am I Supposed to Be?", Dressner describes the personal nature of the song and how she uses her music to deal with her emotions, in this case a "very personal loss." "I'll look for you in me;" is her lyrical attempt to "try to find a closeness to someone" she'd lost.

Perhaps the one exception to the personal subjective character of her songs is "Hardy Boys," a song Dressner points out is not about the young adult book series, but about a friend's band with the same name. She explains that she met the members of the band and was invited to join them on a tour they were going on to Canada, but she thought better of it and didn't go. Although even here the song seems to stem from a personal experience, the difference is in the emotional stakes.

The album's title song, "Strangers Who Knew Each Other's Names" is, she says, "a love song of sorts." It deals with what she feels is a universal experience of meeting someone face to face for the first time and feeling an instant kinship, feeling as though you've known each other for ages. Again, the impetus for the song is personal experience. She was friends with someone on Facebook whom she had met in the past but really didn't know very well, and then when they ran into each other, they were indeed strangers who knew each other's names.

Joining Dressner on the CD is Anthony Rizzo on electric and acoustic guitar, Dan Kendall on bass, Paul Goodwin, keys and mandolin, Kevin Hudson on drums and Chris Fisher-Lochhead on viola. Steph Allen and Theresa Hoffmann do backing vocals on a couple of tracks, but Dressner does her own backing on most of the songs.

Strangers Who Knew Each Other's Names is an auspicious debut for a promising artist. It is a collection of songs that shine with honest emotion and haunting melodies.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Art of the Art of War: Tim O'Brien

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader.

Francis Ford Coppola finding it necessary to explain and perhaps justify the "reduxing" of Apocalypse Now talks about the addition of forty nine minutes of footage not used in the original as providing a fuller and presumably more accurate experience of the moral insanity that was Vietnam. Now while in 1979 that might well have been a worthy endeavor, one wonders if, with the passage of time, that particular message has been made superfluous having been repeated many times over the ensuing twenty years.

And though it is certainly important to take a moral position on war in general as well as on each and every particular war, to create a work of art that points out that war is hell is not exactly what you would call breaking new ground. Who is it out there saying that war is a good thing, that what we need is more wars? Even the military today see it as a last resort, something to be avoided if possible, at least for public consumption. And to point out that a war some thirty odd years old was an evil nightmare, while useful from the doomed to relive forgotten history school of thought, some would argue is more propaganda than moral imperative.

War has spawned works of art, great and not so great, and the measure of that greatness was not necessarily the message they espoused. If Homer glories in its heroes, Joseph Heller rails at its insanities, all twenty two of them. For every Wilfred Owen, there's a charging light brigade; for every saved Private Ryan, there's a Gunga Din. For every Henry V, there are a few good men. Still the message of a work of art has to be a significant part of its value.
One of the most memorable "anti war" stories I ever read never mentions war. It's about a dentist. William Carlos Williams' short story "The Use of Force" - popular some forty or so years ago, shows how using force even for good, dehumanizes those who use it. The dentist prying open a terrified little girl's mouth to fix her teeth becomes a brutalizing monster no matter how well intentioned he might have been when he started.

And is this not the point of Apocalypse Now? When you descend to the heart of darkness you do not return unscathed. The horror that you find contaminates. That was Conrad's vision and it is that vision that forms the mythic underpinning of Coppola's film. War is hell and when you descend into hell something happens and that something is not good. Like Kurtz, you become the savage you sought to civilize. At best you become callous, indifferent, at worst you become a butcher, a beast. The hell of war is as much about what killing does to the killer as it is about the killing itself.

And while Col. Kurtz may have been the best the army had produced, indeed like Conrad's Kurtz the best that Western civilization has produced, - a poet warrior in the classic sense - like his namesake, he has found the horror and it is him.
Which brings me to Tim O'Brien.

The first I read of Tim O'Brien were some selections from his novel (some would call it a short story collection), The Things They Carried. One story particularly caught my attention: "The Lives of the Dead." Like the Williams story it is not so much about war or even force, it is about how one deals with the horrors that war brings. But the significant thing about this story is that it recognizes that these horrors are not the special province of war alone, they are in fact part of the baggage of everyday life. O'Brien does this by counterpointing the deaths of his war buddies against the death of a nine year old girl, his first date, from cancer. Ultimately the story asks what is it we can turn to, to help us to deal with these horrors we all must face.

And there is an answer: ". . .in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world."

It is in art that there is solace in a world where youth is no defense against death and
insanity becomes the norm: "I'm forty-three years old, and a writer now, still dreaming Linda alive. . . .She's not the embodied Linda; she's mostly made up. . . .Her real name doesn't matter. She was nine years old. I loved her and she died. And yet right here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can still see her as if through ice, as if I'm gazing into some other world, a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all. . . .I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I'm young and happy. I'll never die. I'm skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story."

Linda, his comrades in Vietnam, the author himself, their lives are saved in the story, in the imagination.
This is not simply ars longa in modern dress, nor is it escapism. For O'Brien there is salvation in art. Indeed that is the central theme of his 1979 National Book Award winning novel, Going After Cacciato. Paul Berlin, the voice of the novel, sitting alone in the isolation of guard duty in Vietnam, sends his unit off in his mind in pursuit of an AWOL Cacciato who has set off on foot for Paris. "Paul Berlin, whose only goal was to live long enough to establish goals worth living for still longer, stood high in the tower by the sea. . . and wondered, not for the first time, about the immense powers of his own imagination. A truly awesome notion. Not a dream, an idea. An idea to develop, to tinker with and build and sustain, to draw out as an artist draws out his vision." It is in the imagination, then, that there is a reason to go on living in the face of the absurd horror that is war, that is life.
Imagination creates golden helmets out of barber's trays, giants out of windmills, and glorious Dulcineas; it takes all that is ignoble and horrifying in this life and makes of it something beautiful and noble. It transforms a strange almost simple soldier walking off into the night and away from battle into a holy grail floating always just beyond the reach of those taking up the quest. Like Arthur's knights, Berlin imagines that he and his unit are on a quest, seeking an ideal that is always to be strived for but never reached, and it is the imagining that is important, because in the imagining there is sanity.

They can travel the paddies and mountains of Vietnam, the streets of Mandalay, move from Asia to Europe and eventually to Paris always with the moon faced Cacciato one step ahead, not quite catchable. But catching Cacciato really isn't important, imagining going after Cacciato is essential.
Tim O'Brien was in Vietnam. He knows what he writes about and that knowledge is evident on every page of his book, and one thing he knows is that war is hell, but when you are the one stuck in the middle of one with your buddies dying around you, saying so isn't really all that useful.

And herein lies the difference between Coppola and O'Brien. What Coppola shows us is that war is hell, and it contaminates everyone who participates in it. What O'Brien shows us is how to keep that from happening. He shows us how to live sanely when living is intolerable, and this is a lesson worth learning, for there is the intolerable in life, even when the war is over.

O'Brien shows us how not to be a Kurtz.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Friday Night Lights: Hello, Goodbye

Article first published as TV Review: Friday Night Lights - Hello, Goodbye on Blogcritics.

Perhaps like me, now that it has broadcast what is supposed to be its last show and been nominated for an Emmy, you have finally got around to taking a look at the critically acclaimed TV drama, Friday Night Lights. Sure, there were people who had been heaping praise upon it for years, but since I've just finished watching the fourth season of The Wire, you can see how it might take awhile for that praise to make a dent. Finally, in conjunction with the show's imminent demise, and a valedictory revisit with Peter Berg its creator and two of its stars on Fresh Air, I figured it was time to see what all the noise was about.

Luckily video of the show is readily available in a number of places on the net, and I have now, in less than two days, gotten through the ninth episode of the first season, and let me tell you those praise heaping critics know what they're talking about. This show is great television. It is addictive—once you get hooked, you're stuck for the ride. Plot lines are emotionally satisfying. Characters are complex. Besides, the writers are big on cliff hangers. It's hard to wait for the next episode, and that's the nice thing about watching on line. You don't have to wait a week for the next fix.

So what is all the hoopla about. It's kind of late in the game for a synopsis. Suffice it to say, the show, set in the small Texas town of Dillon, focuses on a high school football team and its central role in the town's social life. Major characters are the coach and his family and players, but it is the town, its citizens and the stakes they have the team and the Friday night game that give the show its power. Football is king, but football is a trope that stands for anything that dominates the culture of a community and binds together all social elements. There is plenty of football, but as many others have pointed out, this is less a show about football than it is about human problems and interactions. It just happens that these particular humans are obsessed with a game.

The acting is superb. Kyle Chandler plays the coach, Eric Taylor, with convincing restraint. Connie Britton reeks with Southern charm and strength of will as his wife. The young actors (too many to mention) that make up the team, the cheerleaders and the student body are varied and convincing as they work through the turmoil of youth. If at times the townsfolk are pushy smarmy stereotypes, they are nonetheless played with conviction. The writing is smart, and the photography is exciting. This is a show that has everything going for it.

And yet . . . . and yet, it has never been a ratings success. Of course, there have been plenty of attempts to explain the show's lack of mass appeal. Viewers, especially the ladies, think it's about football, and weekends with the Big Ten and the NFL are football enough. Viewers, especially the men, discover very quickly that there is less football than they expected. Once viewers get an idea, it's hard to change their mind. Scheduling, if not plain bad taste, may have been the problem.

Still it managed a decent run, and there is a good deal of buzz suggesting that this current demise might not be fatal. In a recent interview on NPR, Berg admitted that there were talks in the works about a future for the show. He wouldn't say what that future might be, but it would seem there is hope. A variety of sites on the net have indicated that Berg has confirmed that a feature length movie is in the works. One can only hope. In the meantime, there are still four and three quarters of its five seasons waiting for me to watch.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Music Review: Jessye Norman-Roots: My Life, My Song

Article first published as Music Review: Jessye Norman - Roots: My Life, My Song on Blogcritics.

When an opera diva turns to pop and jazz, she's likely to have mixed results, and dramatic soprano Jessye Norman's 2010 double CD collection Roots: My Life, My Song is no exception. Of the 23 tracks recorded in concert in Munich, Frankfort and Berlin there are some truly remarkable performances, but there are also some that miss the mark.

The repertoire is not solely pop and jazz. The album includes a nice helping of spirituals, a show tune or two and even a classical piece. In the liner notes, Norman explains she has chosen "music that comprises my personal universe and allows my fellow musicians and me to explore, to expand our own musical language and to pay homage to the icons who created the music that we celebrate and love." This is the "music of her heart," and there is little question that whether she is singing a French cabaret torch song or an upbeat Dixieland standard, she is enjoying herself immensely, and that joy is infectious.

Her passionate swinging version of the traditional "God's Gonna Cut You Down" which closes the first CD to a huge ovation shows her at her powerful best. The lullaby "Pretty Horses" shows the softer side of her voice and echoes with a simple beauty. Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk" and Duke Ellington's "Heaven" give her the opportunity to do some interesting scat and vocal improvising. On the other hand her performance of "Mack the Knife" seems mannered and artificial at times. Her voice seems shrill at times in "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." She uses "Somewhere" from West Side Story to show off her operatic chops if only for about a minute and a half.

It is when she can make the most of the drama implicit in the music and the lyric that she is in her most clearly in her milieu. She milks "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" for all the pathos inherent in the traditional plaint. Her "Stormy Weather" begins slowly against a bass accompaniment and builds to a stormy crescendo that rocks the concert hall. This is not to say that she can't swing. She may not be Ella Fitzgerald, but her homage to Nina Simone with "My Baby Just Cares For Me" swings with the best of them, as does her take on the Duke Ellington classic, "It Don't Mean A Thing," a crowd pleaser that gives the band a chance to shine. Mike Lovatt begins with some fine work on the trumpet and then the rest of the band—Ira Coleman, double bass, Martin Williams, reeds, drummer Steve Johns and Mark Markham—gets recognized for an impressive solo.

She features a number of pieces she calls her French connection. The "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen is her sole concession to her operatic background, although even here she makes sure to add a playful element to the performance. Poulenc's "Les Chemins de L'Amour" written for a popular cabaret singer of the day begins with some bluesy give and take between the trumpet and the saxophone before transitioning into a sultry waltz. "J'ai Deux Amours,"made famous by Josephine Baker, is another cabaret classic done with stylish ease. Then there is also "April in Paris" which seems to get into the mix simply as a result of the title.

While there will certainly be those who would prefer that the opera star stick to opera, there will just as certainly be others who are thrilled by versatility. If the reactions of the audiences to her performances are any indication, the later may well be in the majority.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Graphic Biography Review: The Wright Brothers

Article first published as Graphic Biography Review: The Wright Brothers, written by Lewis Helfand, illustrated by Sankha Banerjee on Blogcritics.

The Wright Brothers is one of the latest publications from Campfire Graphics, publishers of illustrated editions of classic literature, original fiction, mythology and biographies for young adults. Campfire, according to its mission statement, aims "to entertain and educate young minds by creating unique illustrated books to recount stories of human values, to arouse curiosity in the world around us, and to inspire by tales of great deeds of unforgettable people." Other books in the series include: Harry Houdini, The Three Musketeers, The Dusk Society, and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.

The lives of the Wright Brothers and their pioneering attempts to construct a flying machine is clearly the kind of inspirational story that is more than likely to capture the youthful imagination. Lewis Helfand's account emphasizes the Brother's faith in their abilities, their rejection of conventional behavior, and their perseverance. It suggests that genius needs to develop according to its own rules, an idea that some parents may want to treat gingerly.

Helfand's account begins in medias res with one of the Brother's early failed attempts at flight, and then goes back in time to their childhood. He focuses on their precocious intelligence and independence. Formal schooling is less than stimulating. They, especially the younger Orville, are as apt to run off to their own pursuits, as they are to spend time in the classroom. Diplomas are less important than knowledge and skills. As they grow older, they are motivated by practical considerations: they are pictured as typical American innovative entrepreneurs. They develop an interest in printing into a successful printing business. They start a company to repair and eventually build bicycles. And then they are bitten by the flight bug, the race to be the first to invent a flying machine. Helfand takes some time to describe some of the earlier failed efforts other than those of the Wrights, but his story is mainly devoted to their efforts. He follows their career through their success at Kitty Hawk and then through the rest of their lives. It is a story which is not only interesting, but is well suited as an object lesson for the precocious child.

Sankha Banerjee's illustrations, although not as gritty as the norm in other Campfire editions, are not idealized or prettified. There is a realism to much of the portraiture. Colors tend to be subdued, although they too are brighter than the Campfire norm, especially in the scenes depicting the attempts and successes with flight.

Following the usual Campfire format, the book opens with a page introducing some of the major characters. After the story, there is a page containing further information related to the subject. In this case there are facts about the history of flight from Leonardo da Vinci and Otto Liliethal. There is a reference to Marco Polo and Chinese kites and also a note on the 2001 North Carolina quarter which honors the Wright Brothers. A crossword puzzle based on information in the narrative rounds out the book.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Music Review: They Might Be Giants-Join Us (full album)

Article first published as Music Review: They Might Be Giants-Join Us on Blogcritics.

First there was the advance release of a four track appetizer (See http://elderlythespian.blogspot.com/2011/05/music-review-they-might-be-giants-join.htm). Then there was the announcement of a contest for fans to create a video for one of the songs. And now, appetites having been duly whetted, the four year wait is over and the new album from alternative rockers, They Might Be Giants, is here. Join Us adds fourteen more songs to the four already released, and everything presaged by those four is realized in the complete album. This is the Giants at their best: catchy hooks, absurdist lyrics bordering on the surreal, stylistically eclectic.

These are smart suggestive songs that tease the imagination. They seem fraught with meaning, yet defy any kind of simple explanation. Like the best poetry they can’t be reduced to any sort of prosaic paraphrase. They are the only way to say what they say, or more accurately sing what they sing. To pick at them, to analyze is to destroy them: as the poet says, "We murder to dissect." Besides, it would take more guts than I have to even make the attempt. These are songs that make their impact emotionally. It is not necessary to understand every image; it is not necessary to work out logical connections. I'm not saying it can't be done. I'm saying I can't do it, and I'm saying, in the end, it doesn't really matter anyway. If you take them on their own terms these are songs that will make you happy.

"Three Might Be Duende" is a perfect example. If you're like me the first thing you'll have to do is run to Wikipedia to find out what "duende" means. Then there are other allusions that may or may not need research: necropolis, dystopia, Orpheum act, Faustian pact, espadrille; never mind such mystically allusive phrases as "sleep's older brother" or the paradoxical "a smile that would frighten the blind." It is easy to get lost in these images and rhymes, but it is like the joy of getting lost in a maze that has been purposely been created to put you to the test. Besides the more you listen, the more you hear.

This is true of nearly every song on Join Us. There is the pulsating counterpoint of "Spoiler Alert" and its truck with a mind of its own set against the distractions of the driver which seems to be so much more than a caution against driving and texting. There is the funky homage to the old Frank Stockton story, The Lady and the Tiger and its commentary on the necessity of choice. There is the sci/fi meditation on youth and age in "2082," the metaphysical conceit of "Judy is Your Viet Nam," and the rocking take off on Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" in a kind of post modern rewrite which even includes a pun on Hieronymus Bosch. The trick is that for all their intellectual games with language and esoteric allusions (I also had to look up cephalophore) they don't come across as pretentious; their songs are filled with a kind of self effacing humor.

It is as though each song comes out of the mouth of a persona—so many voices not their own. If there are disappointed lovers, they are characters created to speak their particular disappointment, not generic types. These are characters who use a vocabulary peculiar to them and their situation. The voice in "You Don't Like Me" is nothing like the voice that speaks in "Never Knew Love." The voice in "Canajoharie" is mellow and perhaps sentimental. The voice in "Dogwalker" is harsh and mechanical. Moreover the music is unique to the voice: sound echoes sense to echo another poet.

When it comes to musical style, the band is eclectic if you like what they do, all over the place if you don't. One song will be a march; another has a hip hop vibe. There are sounds that will remind old timers of their past, and there are some modernist allusions to classical forms. There are some jazz riffs scattered liberally throughout, and of course a good bit of swinging rock. This is no generic rock band, neither musically, nor verbally. If each of its songs has a voice of its own, this is a band with a voice of its own.

Whether they are singing about decapitated saints, decorative enamel, or an upstate New York idyll, They Might Be Giants are unique in their invention. Their songs are a breed all their own. You are not likely to hear anything like them from any other band, and if you ever do Flansburgh and Linnell will more than likely move on and find themselves a new voice.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Music Review: Eyran Katsenelenbogen and Andrei Ivanovitch-Classical Meets Jazz:Pictures at an Exhibition

Article first published as Music DVD Review: Eyran Katsenelenbogen and Andrei Ivanovitch - Classical Meets Jazz: Pictures at an Exhibition, American Premiere in Jordan Hall on Blogcritics.

I can't remember when I discovered that Modest Mussorgsky's masterpiece Pictures at an Exhibition was written as a suite for the piano. The recording in my family's collection, the recording that was played with some regularity was the version recorded by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. It was the version famously orchestrated (although I didn't learn this until later) by Maurice Ravel. My youth may have been some excuse for my ignorance, but it is probably a good possibility that I was not alone in that ignorance. I would venture to guess there were a good many listeners who had never heard the work as anything but a suite for the entire orchestra whether in Ravel's orchestration or one of the others—Stokowski's for example. In many respects, it was the orchestral version that made the 1874 suite famous.

Now while there are those purists who may well object to such "tampering" with the original, there is something to be said for one artists reimagining of another artist's work. There is something to be said for artistic innovation that uses one great work as a springboard for the creation of something new, something that has enough reverence for that great work to try to honor it with a new creative act. Ravel and Stokowski have not been alone in taking a look at the Mussorgsky suite. Check out Emerson, Lake and Palmer on YouTube (http://youtu.be/pncBNp5xmPg). Such innovative approaches may or may not work as well, but when they do, they may both invigorate the original work and produce a work of significance in its own right.

Arguably Classical Meets Jazz: Pictures at an Exhibition, a concert piece, arranged and performed by Israeli jazz virtuoso Eyran Katsenelenbogen and Romanian classical pianist, Andrei Ivanovitch based on an idea from Gerhard Hummer is an example of just such an innovation. Using the Mussorgsky suite as a foundation the two pianists improvise with wit and gusto, creating an energetic new look at the classic. Their collaboration had its world premiere in October of 2007 in Hamburg, Germany, and it has been performed a number of times in Europe. Its American premiere was hosted by the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston on May 24, 2009, and an exciting DVD recording of this premiere is now available.

The thirteen movements of the suite are played in order, each movement giving the pianists an opportunity to explore Mussorgsky's musical ideas and improvise upon them in different ways. There are echoes of jazz keyboard greats like Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk. There are moments that remind the listener of George Gershwin and his use of jazz elements in works like the Concerto in F and the Rhapsody in Blue. There are even quotations from "Summertime" and Beethoven's Fifth. But always there is the classical foundation to build upon, the "Promenade," "The Great Gate of Kiev." The thirteen movements of the suite are played in order, each movement giving the pianists an opportunity to explore Mussorgsky's musical ideas and improvise upon them in different ways. There are echoes of jazz keyboard greats like Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk. There are moments that remind the listener of George Gershwin and his use of jazz elements in works like the Concerto in F and the Rhapsody in Blue. There are even quotations from "Summertime" and Beethoven's Fifth. But always there is the classical foundation to build upon, the "Promenade," "The Great Gate of Kiev." Katsenelenbogen and Ivanovitch have created a unique blend of styles and ideas that is both truly worthy of its source and can stand alone on its own merits. It is a magical reworking that will find an audience with lovers of classical music and jazz enthusiasts as well.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Music Review: A Tribute to Billie Holiday

Article first published as Music Review:A Tribute to Billie Holiday-Various Artists on Blogcritics.

In the liner notes to A Tribute to Billie Holiday executive producer, Peter Stormare talks about how he first got turned on to the legendary singer. It was 1970 and he was a teenager in Sweden. Jimi Hendrix, "one of the gods of rock and roll," had died and he and his friends were in mourning. His mother recognizing his unhappiness suggested a book that might help him deal with his hero's death. The book was Lady Sings the Blues, the autobiography of Billie Holiday. The book's passionate honesty, he says, when he finally got around reading it, changed his life.

It is interesting that it is her book and her life rather than the music that Stormare highlights in his notes. Indeed, it is interesting that he has nothing at all to say about her music. After all, in the end it is the music that is the whole reason for the tribute in the first place. Not that the tragedy of her life is unimportant, clearly it is. But were it not for the greatness of her music, her tragedy would have melted into obscurity like so many thousands of others. In some sense her music is the expression of her life. Her gift was the ability to use her talent to make her audience feel what it was like to be Billie Holiday, to feel the highs, to feel the lows.

The tribute begins with an introductory reading from the autobiography by actress Angela Bassett. Other readings are scattered sporadically among the thirteen musical covers collected for the album from a variety of contemporary artists. Bassett's impassioned readings about Holiday's poverty and addiction, her sexual mistreatment as a child, and her penniless death while facing arrest for drug possession are some of the best things on the CD. They are raw and gritty and they help to define the singer's voice and style. Unfortunately this is not always the case with some of the musical selections.

The tracks on the album are not really attempts by the artists to mimic Holiday. There are some fine, even memorable performances on the album, but there are those that miss the mark, especially if that mark is in emulating Holiday's raw emotion. The most disappointing was the less than dynamic version of Abel Meeropol's "Strange Fruit" turned in by Babyface. It has an otherworldly quality that belies the horrific content of the anti-lynching classic. Boz Scaggs does a smooth workmanlike job on "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me," and the guitar and keyboard accompaniment are nicely done, but raw is clearly not the best adjective to describe the track. There is an artistic sophistication about performances like these, Shelby Lynne's "You've Changed," and Rocco DeLucca's "Lady Sings the Blues" that softens the passion.

Grammy winner, Esperanza Spalding's "I'll Look Around" puts a more contemporary spin on the song and while not free from sophistication has the feel of authenticity. It is the class of the album, but it is not alone. Erin Boheme does a girlish sexy "Them There Eyes." Patti Austin handles the standard, "Body and Soul," with some creative phrasing and there is some nice backing by Dave Koz on sax. Brownstone delivers the goods with a rocking take of "God Bless the Child." Frida Payne does a swinging version of "Billie's Blues" that looks back to the forties and Deborah Cox has a sweet sound on "Fine and Mellow."

For the purist, there is no substitute for the original: there is no one that can do justice to some of these songs like Lady Day. Still the more you listen to the tracks on this tribute, the better you like them. If they will never replace Billie Holiday in the old timers who still remember her, if they send us back to some of those old records, if they manage to send some new listeners over to YouTube to listen to the Lady herself, well surely that's something worth doing.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Book Review: County Line, by Bill Cameron

Article first published as Book Review: County Line, by Bill Cameron on Blogcritics

County Line, Bill Cameron's latest thriller begins in Portland, when retired cop, Skin Kadash, discovers the body of an elderly homeless man in a bathtub in the apartment of the woman (Ruby Jane Whittaker) he is in love with after she, herself, has mysteriously disappeared, and then sets the detective off on a frantic trek across the country to find the woman and discover the secrets of her past. Caught up in his own personal feelings for the girl, Kadash's search is something less than professional. He runs off on what seem to be half baked wild goose chases. He hooks up with her ex-boyfriend, Pete McKrall, an old friend of his, and gets talked into carting him along as a kind of Sancho Panza to his own Don Quixote. Rather than operating as a carefully objective investigator, he is caught up is his own emotional attachments. Kadash is not one of these machine-like master minds that populate so many of the popular thrillers of the day.

As portrayed by Cameron, Kadash is not one of these overwhelming forces of nature; he is a fairly normal human being who makes his share of mistakes even as he doggedly pursues his prey. There is an essential realism to a character who functions on this kind of human level. At the very beginning he manages to get his pocket picked by a man leaving his girl friend's coffee shop. His car gets stolen. He is no physical powerhouse. He runs away from an intruder at Ruby's apartment. He is after all no spring chicken. Moreover he isn't even good looking. He keeps talking about his red neck and Pete keeps referring to him as the elephant man. Presumably Cameron is more explicit about Kadash's appearance and its causes in some of his earlier novels. County Line is after all one of a series, and there will be questions for readers coming to the characters for the first time.

Part two of the novel picks up Ruby's back story: her dysfunctional family, her problems with school and her attempt at escape through basketball. It deals with a period some twenty odd years prior to the first part. Ruby is a teenager, and something of a loner. Her parents are both drunks and have no use for each other or for Ruby and her older brother. Although it doesn't provide all the answers to Ruby's disappearance, it does begin to explain some of the mystery. While the first part of the story is Kadash's first person narrative, part two uses a limited third person narrative from the point of view of Ruby. The novel ends with a third part that goes back to Kadash's narrative, and takes the reader to a satisfying conclusion.

Cameron is an effective story teller. He is adept at weaving plot elements to create suspense and keep the reader turning pages. His characters are multi-dimensional, and rarely cliché. If their behavior doesn't always seem reasonable, rational behavior is not necessarily a hallmark the genre. A good story told with panache goes a long way to making up for a little irrationality, and Cameron tells a good story.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

DVD Review: The Far Pavilions

Article first published as DVD Review:The Far Pavilions on Blogcritics.

The 1984 HBO mini-series The Far Pavilions, an epic six part extravaganza filmed on location in India is now available on a two DVD set from Acorn Media. Based on M. M. Kaye's exotic 1200 page historical romance, the series is a valiant attempt to translate the massive novel about a love affair between a British officer and an Indian princess set against the British occupation of India in the late 19th century and the beginnings of the Indian revolution against that occupation to the small screen. It is a leisurely told tale that tries to make the most of the exotic setting by filling the screen with lavish processions of camels and elephants, striking native costumes and scenic wonders.

The story's emphasis on the clash between eastern and western cultures gives it an unexpected relevance still today more than thirty years after it was made. The problems inherent when a foreign power takes control of a people with vastly different values and tries to impose its own norms on those people is as current as the latest bulletin on CNN. That the last few episodes deal specifically with an abortive British excursion into Afghanistan adds an even further currency to the series. While there will certainly be those that take exception to the series' portrayal of the smug Brits and their feelings of superiority, there will also be those who object to the portrayal of devious natives and their outlandish barbaric customs. In this sense the series is an equal opportunity offender.

The series stars Ben Cross as Ashton Pelham-Martyn, a British officer who had been raised thinking he was Hindu after the death of his parents, and only later shipped off to England and Amy Irving as his beloved Indian princess. They are joined what for the period would have been the equivalent of an all star supporting cast. Unfortunately, in some cases it seems more like an all star miscasting. Sir John Gielgud, for example, is hard to buy as a hard-nosed British officer sent to take charge in Afghanistan. Rossano Brazzi portrayal of the aging duplicitous Rana of Bhihthor is something less than authentic. Too many of the lesser known character actors indulge themselves with eye rolling and indication. But perhaps the biggest problem in the film is Cross who gives a rather wooden one dimensional performance. Best known for his performance in the Academy Award winning Chariots of Fire, Cross is not very believable as a romantic action hero.

Amy Irving, on the other hand, is a true exotic beauty as the noble Indian princess who is willing to sacrifice herself for the happiness of her step sister. She seems very natural in what is certainly an alien role. Christopher Lee manages to pull back some and delivers a nuanced undertated performance as an advisor and protector to the throne. Omar Sharif is excellent as Koda Dad, an Indian courtier who helped to raise the young Ashton. A younger Rupert Everett makes an appearance in the first episode as a Brit coming to work in an Indian financial institution.

The film makes extensive use of Indian rituals and customs both as spectacle and as plot points. Much of the romantic element of the plot centers on the forced marriage of the princess and her younger sister to an older man. The elaborate ceremony is pictured in detail with all the pomp of a royal wedding. Much is made of the ritual of suttee, the outlawed custom by which living wives are immolated with the corpses of their deceased spouses. Indian dances and music are also used to lend the film an air of authenticity and emphasize the gap between the local culture and that of the British outsiders. Director, Peter Duffell seems always able to find quality time for the rich, if not always benign, heritage of India.

Unfortunately, the quality of the DVD picture is not always up to modern standards. At times, especially during the early episodes, the color seems washed out. It gets better in the later episodes. In general the filming seems dated, but that should not be unexpected in a film from this period, and despite its faults, it is still a compelling story told more often than not with style and grace. As far as extra material is concerned, the first disc includes some production notes from Cross and Amy Irving and a short biographical sketch of M. M. Kaye; there is nothing added to the second disc.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Book Review: Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader.

Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
Hardcover, 336 pages
Publisher: Harcourt; (June 4, 2002)
ISBN: 0151008116

The vacuum created since the last great story about a boy and a tiger fell from grace, victim to the zealots of political correctness, has been filled, by a Booker prize winner no less. And although Piscine "Pi" Molitor Patel, who has been named lovingly after a Parisian swimming pool, is a much more complex character than Little Black Sambo and his Bengal tiger doesn't run round in circles turning himself into ghi, there is salvation every bit as magical in both stories.

Life of Pi is the story of an Indian boy, one of two son's of the Pondicherry zoo owner, with a keen insight into animal behavior garnered from growing up in their company and an innate passion for the varieties of religious experience. In his early teens, the family abandons the zoo, sells off the animals and embarks on a Japanese cargo ship to emigrate to Canada accompanied by some of the animals en route to North American zoos. In the middle of the night, there is a shipwreck and it seems that Pi is the only one saved. Most of the rest of the book is the narration of his fantastic experiences and adventures during his more than two hundred days in a lifeboat before he reaches the shores of Mexico.

This really doesn't give the ending away, as since Pi Patel is the narrator of this epochal journey over the Pacific Ocean in the company of, a hyena, and orangutan and a very oddly named Bengal tiger, and as since an introductory section assures the reader that said Pi Patel has grown to maturity, pursued university degrees in religion and zoology, and raised a family of his own, there is little suspense about the ultimate fate of the hero. It is the nature of first person narratives that the narrator must live to tell the tale, be it on the open sea in the company of man eating tigers or marooned on some island, unless the author decides to indulge in some sort of trickery, of the "by the time you have read this I will be dead" variety, or "I put this manuscript in this bottle (although our hero does put a message in a bottle) in the hopes that it will be found," and so on. Thankfully Martel does not indulge.

Suspense is not really what he is after, and if there is a surprise at the end, it is not tacked on to get the author out of a corner he has ineptly managed to paint himself into, rather it is a significant insight into what has gone before. And this surprise one cannot give away.

Pi is an engaging narrator. Witty: of an orangutan arriving at his life boat floating on a barge of bananas as the bananas break apart and float away, laments that the bananas split. Clever: in the confines of his life boat he manages to mark his territory and keep it free from the various beasts who share his world. Humble: Over and over again his emphasis is on the fortuitous fate that saves him--flying fish bombard his boat providing divine manna, a wounded zebra serves to temporarily satisfy a threatening hyena, the tiger is sea sick allowing time for safety precautions.

His is a miraculous story; a story, he says, that must make you believe in God. For the survival of a lone Indian boy on a miniature version of Noah's ark crossing the Pacific Ocean to arrive in Mexico can only be attributed to some kind of divine intervention, especially if one is prone in that direction from the start. Religiosity is perhaps the most notable of Pi's character traits even before he leaves his home in Pondicherry to emigrate to Canada with the remains of their zoo. Religion, every and all religions, have for him a wonder and a truth. Born a Hindu, he chooses to be baptized a Christian and practice Islam, not instead, but as well. Crosses, prayer rugs, statues of Ganesha are to Pi what cricket bats and soccer balls are to other children. It is not one, then another--a bouncing between the truths of first one and than the other, but rather an embracing of all at once. Truth is in God, and any religion which recognizes that is a religion worth pursuing, and the pursuit of any one faith need not interfere with the pursuit of the others.

Moreover it is not only in the miraculous event that the signature of the divine is to be evidenced. It is in the everyday course of life. Pi's religion is an updated version of nineteenth century "natural supernaturalism," not with the intent to secularize the divine, but rather to re-emphasize the divinity of what is too often taken for the commonplace, to assert that all that we see, all that we experience is nothing less than the divine work of God. But since we experience it so often, we lose sight of its miraculous nature; we become inured to it like a nurse to the suffering of a patient. Our failure to recognize the miraculous for what it is makes it no less a miracle. It is simply testimony to our own lack of understanding. What is needed is some catalytic event to awaken us to the miracle that is in the life all around us. That event might be a cataclysmic shipwreck, or it might be an intuitive insight that comes from the everyday handiwork of God that surrounds us daily: "the splendor in the grass, the glory in the flower."

Martel's descriptions of Pi's sudden awareness of the spirit of God are reminiscent of some of the great passages of mystical vision in English literature: Arthur's insight about vision at the end of Holy Grail episode in Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," Wordsworth's description of the mystical experience in "Tintern Abbey," Carlyle in "Sartor Resartus." All eloquent testaments to moments of spiritual awakening that seem to come from nowhere in the midst of everyday activity.

Carlyle is perhaps the lesser known. In a chapter called "The Everlasting No," he describes how in a miserable emotional state brought about by the study of "profit and loss philosophies," his hero Teufelsdrockh was walking down the dirty little Rue Saint-Thomas de L'Enfer

. . .when, all at once, there rose a Thought in me, and I asked myself: What art thou afraid of? Wherefore, like a coward, dost thou forever pip an whimper, and go cowering and trembling? Despicable biped! what is the sum-total of the worst that lies before thee? Death? Well Death; and the pangs of Tophet too, and all that the Devil and Man may or can do against thee! Hast
thou not a heart; canst thou not suffer whatsoever it be; and as a Child of Freedom, though outcast, trample Topet itself under thy feet, while it consumes thee? Let it come, then; I will meet it and defy it !' And as I so thought, there rushed like a stream of fire over my whole soul; and I shook base Fear away from me forever. I was strong, of unknown strength; a spirit, almost a god.

The emphasis is on the sudden awareness: the overwhelming insight that comes upon one on an ordinary day in an ordinary place and changes one forever. Carlyle in fact claims that this passage is a fictionalized account of his own spiritual conversion in Leith Walk in Edinburgh. Pi's mystical experience, although not grounded in intellectual despair, bursts just as suddenly from what should have been an everyday normal walk:

One such time I left town and on my way back, at a point where the land was high and I could see the sea to my let and down the road a long ways, I suddenly felt I was in heaven. The spot was in fact no different from when I passed it not long before, but my way of seeing it had changed. The feeling, a paradoxical mix of pulsing energy and profound peace, was intense and blissful. Whereas before the road, the sea, the trees, the air, the sun all spoke differently to me, now they spoke one language of unity. Tree took account of road, which was aware of air, which was mindful of sea, which shared things with sun. Every element lived in harmonious relation with its neighbor, and all was kith and kin. I knelt a mortal; I rose an immortal. I felt like the centre of a small circle coinciding with the centre of a much larger one. Atman met Allah.

And this is only one of several such experiences.

What he discovers is the essential spirit that runs through and unifies all things. Religion is light. It illuminates. It does not contradict science; it completes science. It is doubt that is the problem of modern society, skepticism, agnosticism. These things paralyze. Science, since it has a faith in an order and unifying principle is simply another kind of religion, one to be embraced like all others. Religion and science complement one another; so one can with all reason pursue both science and religion as does Pi.

These theological ruminations are seamlessly woven into a fabulous adventure filled with humor, horror and, humanity.

From Pi's decision to change his name to Pi because his schoolmates torture him by mispronouncing his real name as if it were a bodily function to the transcripts of his taped interviews with the Japanese investigators about the sinking of the ship, there is a kind of insouciant naiveté and ultimate faith in a higher power that makes it possible to go on in the face of the horror and evil that are the inevitable in life. Whether it be a graphic description of zebra eaten from the inside as it still struggles for life, or the loss of one's family at sea, there is the essential need to go on. There is evil in the world. There is good. It is not for man to question evil or God; it is for man to find a way to live with that evil, understanding that he is not the center of that creation, but merely one cog in a greater machine.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A review of The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader.

The Meaning of Everything
by Simon Winchester
Oxford University Press
Hardcover: 260 pgs, October 2003
ISBN: 0198607024

Readers of Simon Winchester's 1998 best seller, The Professor and the Madman, may find his latest venture into lexicographical history somewhat disappointing. Though still fascinated by the eccentric character, by the minutia, and by the esoteric fact, that the less charitable might consider trivia, that so often enlivens the dryer pages of historical narrative, in this new book the historical superstructure seems inadequate to support the load. Not that his subject is wanting. The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps the most monumental jobs of work undertaken in the nineteenth century.

The earlier book, concerned as it was with only an interesting sidebar to the great project, lent itself to the kind of popularizing history at which Winchester so excels. It is the kind of footnote that while certainly compelling can be satisfyingly treated without the rigors and intensity of the serious scholar. The history of the Oxford English Dictionary is another matter entirely.

The idea for what is today one of the indispensable tools for the anyone engaged in the study of the English language and its literature, indeed for any user of that language was born in 1857 out of discussions of three members of the Philological Society, a group formed to share among themselves scholarship in the field of language, about the need for a new more comprehensive English Dictionary, since it was felt that those available at the time were simply inadequate. There was Samuel Johnson, of course, but while his work was pioneering, it was also at times iconoclastic and self indulgent: the most famous example of this Johnsonian wilfulness, the definition of oats as a grain in England fed to horses and in Scotland fed to people. The three men, two of whom were to become the early editors of the new volume, Herbert Coleridge, grandson of the poet and first editor, Frederick Furnival, who took over the editorship after Coleridge's untimely death, and Richard Trench, wanted a book that would be a complete record of every word in the language with its every meaning, in short "a complete inventory of the language," that is each and every word without exception.

The method hit upon to accomplish this task was to employ volunteer readers who would read through a variety of texts making note of interesting words, the sentences in which they appeared, and the date of those sentences. These would be written on half sheets of paper and sent to the editor who could than compare the various usages and arrive at a definition, discover changes in meaning , and trace the history of the word and its meanings as it was actually used in the language. This was to be a dictionary, then based on historical principles - what did a word mean and when did it mean it. This should be confused with the question of what "it" might mean.

None of three, nor for that matter most of those who came after them, envisioned the enormity of the task, neither the length it would eventually run to, nor the time it would take to bring it to fruition, It was not until1928 long after they had all passed on, as had two of their successors, that the completed 12 volume result of their discussions was finally finished, and even then it was not complete. Supplements were to come and indeed more supplements are to come - language grows and the dictionary must grow along with it. What these men began was a task without end.

Winchester's account focuses on the characters involved, their different agendas, their bickering and infighting, their selfless devotion to their work. The dominant figure of the work is James Murray, a Scotsman who was the third editor of the work and oversaw the production of definitions from "a" into the "t's." It was he who took over a project that had become moribund, revitalized it, and set it solidly on the road to completion, the road to zyxt--the last word in the Oxford English dictionary - as Winchester never tires of telling the reader.

The problem with the book is that it takes a subject which by its very nature demands a definitive, scholarly approach, and deals with it as pop history. Where the reader looks for the kind of serious erudition that characterizes the dictionary itself, what one gets is something a bit more cavalier. Winchester is as much, if not more, interested in Furnivall's fondness for sculling and waitresses as he is in his editorial failures. He is more inclined to dwell on the pigeon holes in which the volunteer's slips with individual headwords and sentences in which they were used were kept than he is in describing the process by which actual definitions were arrived at. He is more likely to put the spotlight on the eccentric contributors, his erstwhile madman, Dr,. Minor and Fitzedward Hall, a reclusive editor of proofs, than he is to devote any considerable space to the more modern and presumably more conventional and certainly more significant editors like Craigie, under whose guidance the project was completed or Onions (whose name if nothing else one would have thought attraction enough for Winchester) who worked with him. Indeed the history of the dictionary after Murray is sketchy at best. It appears as though once Murray died, Winchester lost major interest.

It is a shame, because the book is eminently readable. The characters some whimsical and quixotic, some staid and portentous, are always carefully drawn with a flair for the dramatic.
The facts are there but they are never overwhelmed by the details, and there is always the little tid bit of gossip, sometimes in the text, sometimes in the footnote to add spice to the main dish. Thus we are told that Coleridge the first editor proscribed labored and unused puns like hespitle
and shepistle, but that herstory was included in 1970. Then there is a footnote that describes a dream of James Murray in which he envisions Samuel Johnson's reaction to the new dictionary:
Boswell seemingly asked the Great Cham, "What would you say, Sir, if you were told that in a hundred years' time a bigger and better dictionary than yours wouls be compiled by a Whig?" Johnson merely grunted. "A Dissenter?" Johnson shifted, a little uneasily, in his chair. "A Scotsman?" Johnson started, and began to speak: "Sir. . ." But Boswell persisted. "And that the University of Oxford would publish it?" "Sir" roared Johnson, unable to contain himself, "In order to be facetious it is not necessary to be indecent." Safe to say the dream was apocryphal, the illustration as much of James Murray's refreshingly sportive attitude - at times - to his job.

Apocrypha it may be, but to paraphrase Johnson from another context, apocrypha so endearing who could wish away. The book is filled with such, one could only wish for something more substantial to hold them together.

The Oxford English Dictionary deserves something more. It is not that what Winchester had done is bad, it is simply not enough,