MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light

The Los Angeles Master Chorale launches their season this Sunday evening with a performance of Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light accompanying the silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Here’s my essay for the program:

Transparent Yet Unknowable: The Fascination of Joan of Arc

“The fashion in which we think changes like the fashion of our clothes,” writes George Bernard Shaw in the lengthy preface to Saint Joan, the play considered by some to be his masterpiece. Shaw adds that “it is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to think otherwise than in the fashion of their own period.”

Figures like Joan of Arc hold an enduring fascination because of this tension between their seeming closeness and their distance — a distance that isn’t measured just by history but by their difference from ordinary patterns of social expectation. And artists in particular have been keen on bridging the gap and portraying a Joan who tells us something about the human condition as we ourselves experience it, here and now. They intensify our desire to identify with her across the centuries.

Composer Richard Einhorn describes his deep admiration for the film by Carl Theodore Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which inspired him to write Voices of Light. The film, says Einhorn, is a work of art that makes Joan uncannily present to contemporary audiences: “Watching this film, we forget we’re watching a silent film, we forget the technique and we get caught up entirely in the intensely human, passionate, tragic, yet deeply inspiring story of Joan. She truly was one of a kind.” Ultimately, he views Joan as “a woman who was both extremely transparent and utterly unknowable.”

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Filed under: choral music, composers, essay, film

Pollock and Cage

Animator Léo Verrier’s new Jackson Pollock-themed short (above) leads Colin Marshall to compare this film fantasy of the birth of Pollock’s famous technique with the real thing: “Chance may have led him to discover this practice, but it hardly means he gave up control.”

Marshall quotes another filmmaker, the maverick Stan Brakhage, on Pollock, who recalls a trip to visit the painter:

But they [some New York painters] were like commenting and the used they words ‘chance operations’ which was no bother to me because I was hearing it regularly from John Cage. And the power and the wonder of it and so forth . . . but this really angered Pollock very deeply and he said ‘Don’t give me any of your “chance operations”.’ He said, ‘You see that doorknob’ and there was a doorknob that was about fifty feet from where he was sitting that was in fact the door that everyone was going to have to exit be. and drunk as he was, he just with one swirl of his brush picked up a glob of paint, hurled it and hit that doorknob smack-on with very little paint over the edges. And then he said, ‘And that’s the way out.’

Meanwhile, in If Jackson Pollock Wrote Music, Kyle Gann explores the connections between Pollock and composers John Cage and Morton Feldman:

In the middle of the 20th century, the arts exploded into a new and unsettling realm of abstraction. Paintings were no longer paintings of something; they were simply paint. Music, too, was no longer about melody; it had abandoned the grounding in tonality that had been its mainstay for centuries. For some composers, notably John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown, music was now about sound the way paintings were about paint.

Filed under: aesthetics, art, art history, film, modernist composers

Through the Eyes of Another Animal

“We, as human beings, have not seen ourselves until we have been seen through the eyes of another animal,” says the film director Godfrey Reggio, quoting (or perhaps paraphrasing) the anthropologist Loren Eiseley. Last night brought the local opening of Reggio’s latest collaboration with Philip Glass Visitors, shown on the magnificent Cinerama screen in Seattle (one of only three such remaining screens in the world).

The Eiseley quote was Reggio’s reference for discussing the powerful images of the Bronz Zoo gorilla named Triska whose deep, straight-on gaze haunts this meditation on the contemporary situation of the technology-crazed human species. “Visitors” deliberately plays off the etymology of its title – as in one who goes to see something.

Glass’s partnership with Reggio has resulted in some of my favorite work by this composer. I’ve heard stories of Koyannisqatsi changing people’s lives the way we sometimes hear about Einstein on the Beach (one of my big artistic adventures in 2012).

Each time Glass and Reggio work together, they rethink the very foundations of how image and music can interface and together generate powerful emotional responses that are at the same time thought provoking. As Reggio aptly put it, the music doesn’t illustrate a narrative. Conventional film narrative is jettisoned, there are no words, and the linear, plotted “foreground” we expect from a film experience is stripped away so that the background becomes foreground. Music and image are co-equal partners.

And what’s especially striking on first viewing/hearing of Visitors is the often-somber tone of Glass’s score – played with exquisite care and conviction by the Bruckner Orchestra Linz and Glass authority Dennis Russell Davies.

I may have been influenced by the silver-intensified dark palette of Reggio’s black-and-white filming, but the music often seems elegiac, certainly more meditative and slower paced in general than the Qatsi trilogy scores and without their exuberant explosions of manic energy. Glass’s orchestration continues to fascinate: especially his percussive touches and simple but mysterious blends.

Jay Michaelson eloquently describes the focus on temporality in Visitors in his recent article “Philip Glass Is Getting Older — for Better or Worse”:

We don’t know anything about these people visiting planet Earth – only that their time is short, especially measured by the geological time of the moon, but even according to our own reckoning and the lines in their faces.

“Visitors” is a film about the evanescence of life, its mystery and its frailty. It is about how we make meaning out of meaninglessness, and how ultimately we are brought to the blinding light of oblivion. It is a late work by a 73-year-old filmmaker and a 76-year-old composer, reflecting as much on their own oeuvre as on the essential questions of mortality and meaning.

Image from Visitors

Image from Visitors

In the post-viewing discussion with Reggio, the director was asked whether he thought we were better or worse off than in 1982, when Koyannisqatsi came out. Are humans even more out of balance? Unsurprisingly, Reggio said he thought so, that we’ve reached a point where our imbalances are “the price we have to pay for our technological happiness.”

And something to the effect that it takes “courage to have the hopelessness” we need to be able to recover a sense of hope. Visitors represents another attempt “to see that which is most vital but which is hidden by virtue of its presence” — a process of defamiliarization through art, in other words.

Here’s Philip Glass in a recent interview with Sam Adams for The Dissolve:

We began talking about a film about humor. And [Reggio] focused it on people, that it would be people who would represent that. And from that, very slowly over those years, it shifted to the idea of the gorilla. And once the gorilla was there, the whole thing changed, because of the reciprocal gaze…

And then we got into a very interesting idea that the film is really about looking at the film….

Then the role of the music takes on a completely different role. So the question is, how does music function in this?

Filed under: film, film music, Philip Glass

Laughing at the Last Laugh

Bradley Cooper and a donut diet-fattened Christian Bale in American Hustle

Bradley Cooper and a donut-larded Christian Bale in American Hustle


I’m a sucker when it comes to the theme of the con artist, the perfect mark for the grifter-artist who capitalizes on this topic, whether it’s Melville depicting a trickster in his last published novel (The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade), Thomas Mann (Confessions of Felix Krull, his last, unfinished novel), art forgers, the plays of David Mamet and John Guare, etc.

Guare in particular came to mind last night when I saw David O. Russell’s new film American Hustle. I was thinking of Guare’s brilliant treatment of another “ripped-from-the-headlines” source in Six Degrees of Separation and then recalled that he’d actually taken on the “Abscam” sting operation himself in Moon Over Miami.

Moon originated as a never-made film project for Louis Malle and John Belushi at the start of the Reagan era. Guare turned it into a play (which I saw years later at Yale Rep, with Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub as “the Sheik”).

One of Guare’s major champions, then-The New York Times critic Frank Rich, described Moon as an “uninhibited comic mess” with its free-associative technique.

As with Mr. Guare’s screenplay for the Louis Malle film ”Atlantic City,” the truly dominant character in ”Moon Over Miami” is the fast-changing, drug-infested beach town of the title. Mr. Guare’s Miami is a malevolent, all-American frontier for ”the pilgrims from the lost places,” with more moons, metaphorical and otherwise, than have been seen since the early plays of Tom Stoppard. The city’s ethos is a surreal melange of 1950’s resort kitsch and 1980’s corruption.

While ”Moon Over Miami” can resemble a campy Hotel Fontainebleau floorshow, complete with band and a chorus of ludicrously buxom ”mermaids,” its main plot is a satirical rehash of the Abscam scandal, with mimed videotape replays of public officials receiving attache cases of cash.

The play originated as a film project for John Belushi, and its Abscam gags now seem to have exhausted their shelf life. When the script narrows its focus to politics (especially in Act II), the writing goes flat. Mr. Guare’s conventional polemical point – that overzealous F.B.I. agents, entrapped Congressmen and mobsters are morally interchangeable – doesn’t justify the laborious efforts devoted to making it. The jokes about the dispirited post-Watergate F.B.I. are much fresher.

But back to American Hustle. Nearly all the reviews I’ve seen refer to the hilarious opening sequence of Christian Bale as the protagonist con man Irving Rosenfeld struggling with his comb-over and glue – the first act of deception we see in a film where getting the style right, “from the feet up,” is the credo for pulling a con off.

Some critics, like Peter Debruge in Variety, miss the point entirely by whinging about how the comb-over “threatens to upstage [Bale]’s actorly grandstanding at every turn,” no matter how fitting the metaphor, and complains that the filmmaker has conned the audience and critics by “cobbling a movie together from what feels like outtakes.”

This whole the-style-becomes-the-substance line of critique misses out on where the film (which does have its flaws, especially length) succeeds. I think Mick LaSalle gets it when he describes how the character portrayals have depth beneath all that polyester and sweet-and-rotten nail polish:

Jennifer Lawrence, as Irving’s young wife, embodies the movie’s tonal range. She is funny and alarming, often at the same time.

But it’s [Amy] Adams and Bale who are the film’s heart and soul, the honorable crooks in a sea of piranhas, the movie’s truthful core around which all the madness revolves. Adams, who goes through the movie almost flopping out of her low-cut ’70s gowns and blouses, is especially poignant playing an intelligent person with the least power and the most at stake. It’s fascinating watching her think her way through as she does the most with a bad hand. And Bale brings great suppressed feeling to his scenes with a goodhearted New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner), whose life Irving is being forced to wreck.

Filed under: American history, film, themes

William Kentridge and The Refusal of Time

William Kentridge: >i>The Refusal of Time: Dickensian "Elephant"

William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time: Dickensian “Elephant”


After the Met’s recent revival of The Nose, I was eager to see The Refusal of Time, a 30-minute-long video installation by Kentridge currently being exhibited at the other Met. It was first unveiled at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany (2012). Rumor has it that The Refusal of Time may feature in SFMOMA’s grand reopening in 2016.

The installation includes the “surround-video” effect of five films moving across the space of three screens, all enhanced by Philip Miller’s score of menacing tuba drones, breathing sounds, ululation, and what resembles an army of madly hammering Nibelungs. The soundtrack is projected through looming old-fashioned movie-set megaphones. The films involve images of relativistic metronomes, Kentridge’s characteristic animations and charcoal figures, and an eccentrically parade-dance of vaudevillean silhouettes.

The center of the space itself is dominated by a wooden contraption, a “breathing” machine-sculpture – part Victorian-industrial fantasy, part There Will Be Blood oil drill – that Kentridge explains was inspired by a description in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times of a factory machine “[moving] monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.”

The installation’s title – it reminds me of a moralizing Baroque drama – meanwhile draws together reflections on the collision between “progress” and colonialism, automation, and the physics of time in the early 20th century. From the accompanying text:

Kentridge’s recent interest in the nature of time was given focus through the work of Peter Galison, a Harvard-based historian of science. Galison studied a 1905 paper on relativity in which Albert Einstein hypothesized that, due to the delay in signals relayed via telegraph wire, peripheral railway stations synchronized on a centralized clock were forever fated to operate seconds behind schedule.

Einstein’s nascent theories about the relativity of time converged with French mathematician Henri Poincaré’s development, as president of the Bureau des Longitudes, of global time zone maps at the dawn of the twentieth century. Both scientists faced the radical idea, in a newly industrialized and interconnected world, that time is not absolute but relative and resistant to control.

Kentridge1

On the occasion of the opening in Kassel, Margaret K. Koerner published an interview with William Kentridge and Peter Galison. Kentridge explains how the work is linked to his recent Norton Lectures at Harvard:

The sixth Norton lecture took the process of making “The Refusal of Time” as an example of what the lectures had been talking about: of thinking through material, of allowing the impulses of an image or a piece of work to hold sway and see where they led. Live music was allowed to come into the lecture form at the end of the sixth lecture. The lectures, which started with Plato, end with a black hole. Even though we weren’t starting with Plato in “The Refusal of Time,” the shadow procession came back as well, and it also ends with a black hole…. The image you see at the end, those white holes going down and down, that’s the roll from a player piano. It is both music and information….

[“The Refusal of Time”] starts with: Is a black hole the end of time? As Peter [Galison] was saying, that is one of the questions that physicists consider. But as soon as you say, right, let’s start having things disappear into a black hole, it is an immediate jump to that being, as it were, a metaphorical description of death. Is any trace left when you are gone? Is there any information, attributes of you that still float around the edge? So it is both from the psychological, or the lived sense of, what is the balance between the finality of death and the continuation of attributes of people afterward?

Filed under: art exhibition, film, social criticism, video art, visual art

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