"C'mon over this Thanksgiving Day."
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As you enjoy your nut cups and National Bird on this festive American day,
it is our honor and privilege to present to you,
for your dining, dancing, and digestive pleasure,
your host Mr. Conan O'Brien,
his Band and Street Choir,
and Mr. Raymond Douglas Davies, CBE:
My most frequent Thanksgiving tradition here at Ye Olde Blogge has been to post a link to some version or other of Fairport Convention's "Now Be Thankful". There are only two or three versions readily embeddable, and I thought I had run through them all until last night I discovered this: a live recording, apparently circa 1975, by Richard and Linda Thompson.
The cobbled-together "tribute video" content that accompanies the recording on YouTube is rather unfocused and annoying, so I have snootily chosen not to embed it, but the link is worth a click for those who are willing to be thankful with eyes closed.
Be happy. Give thanks. You're welcome. Onward.
Brutalism: it's the 20th Century architectural style so many Love to Hate. Marked by harsh, unfinished concrete surfaces, windowless or admitting light from Caligarian angles, the style has become associated with cold authority and faceless bureaucracy, perhaps best exemplified by the much loathed City Hall in Boston.
Brutalist buildings have come in handy to suit the needs of a certain sort of filmmaker. While they tend to be seen now as relics from an unfortunate past, locked into the era of the late 1950s to mid-1960s, Brutalist structures have served well in film as shorthand for The Dystopic Future.
CFCF is the nom sonique for Montreal-based producer/synthesist Michael Silver, whose most recent release,The River, is reported to have been inspired by Werner Herzog's cautionary tale for opera lovers, Fitzcarraldo. While Herzog is the progenitor of the music on the River, this video for an alternate version of the track "It Was Never Meant to Be This Way" looks to a different film maker: David Cronenberg. The moody pulse of the piece is accompanied by radically reedited sequences from Stereo, one of Cronenberg's earliest films, made in 1969 and shot in and around the University of Toronto's Scarborough College, then about two years old. Brutalist unease is on display in abundance.
Stereo in its original form moves much more slowly than the edited music video version. It lacks the explicitly nasty physical violence for which Cronenberg is known, but it touches on many of the themes that have marked Cronenberg's work for the rest of his career: mental telepathy, radical sexual tension shading into violent expression, science as at best untrustworthy and often actively malevolent, and so on.
The film purports to document a series of experiments conducted by a Dr. Stringfellow of the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry (CAEE), in which a group of subjects have been surgically and chemically altered to render them telepaths and placed together for observation. The experiment is not, as you will have guessed, a complete success. Several subjects commit suicide. One is reported to have eased his mental tension by drilling a hole in his own skull—an incident that is described but never shown, as it necessarily would have been in any later Cronenberg film. Erotic tension, expressed and otherwise, abounds. Breasts—healthy, natural, Canadian—are occasionally exposed. There is a great deal of ambiguity concerning what is actually happening at any given moment, whether events are playing out in chronological sequence, et cetera. It has its charms, but is ultimately not so interesting to watch as this description may be making it seem.
Cronenberg filmed Stereo without sound, reportedly because his equipment was too noisy to make live recording of dialog practicable. The film's soundtrack instead consists of a series of voiceovers, purportedly by CAEE scientists, punctuating long silent sequences that often move at the truly glacial pace so beloved of self-consciously serious film makers of the late 1960s. The black and white cinematography—Cronenberg shot and edited the film himself—effectively heightens the off-putting architecture: large physically empty spaces become spiritually empty and more than somewhat threatening in themselves. Personally, I find the architecture more interesting than anything that is happening in it.
Here, for those who have an hour available, is the complete original version of Stereo:
I have a personal favorite Brutalist building: the University Art Museum [now the Berkeley Art Museum] and Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley. Constructed between 1967 and 1970—and therefore still relatively new when I got there in 1974—the Museum is structured internally as a series of descending terraces, arcing around nautilus-like from top to bottom. The topmost gallery was (and presumably stil is) devoted to displaying the Museum's substantial holdings of the work of abstractionist Hans Hoffman. The exposed concrete works remarkably well as a display environment, particularly but not exclusively for modern and contemporary work. Natural light penetrates the space well, making it a surprisingly airy pile o' slabs on a sunny day.
Regrettably, the Museum building has been found to be seismically deficient—something of a concern when a branch of the San Andreas Fault is literally only a few blocks away. Additional support structures have been added, keeping the place open but somewhat compromising the original design. The current building will, however, be closed in the next few years and the Museum and Film Archive moved to a new location in downtown Berkeley, still to be constructed.
I assume demolition will be the ultimate fate of the original Museum building. That saddens me, because I am surprisingly sentimental about the place after spending so much time inside it in my Bright College Days. (I say "surprisingly" because Brutalism is an obvious nominee for Least Cuddly Architectural Philosophy Ever.) Perhaps, after the collections have been moved downtown and before the wrecking ball arrives, some enterprising filmmaker can put the space to use one last time, to preserve its memory. Or as a cool place in which to whack zombies.
Top Photo: "Lines and Textures," University of Toronto Scarborough, photograph by Flickr user Loozrboy, used under Creative Commons license.
Middle Photo: Postcard image, ca. 1967, of Scarborough College, via Toronto Modern.
Bottom Photo: Interior, Berkeley Art Museum, 2008, photo by Gay Swan, via C-Monster.net.
Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire
comme un bourgeois, afin d'être violent
et original dans vos œuvres.
["Be regular and orderly in your life,
so that you may be violent and original
in your work."]
— Gustave Flaubert, Letter to Gertrude Tennant, 25 Decembre 1876.
That Flaubert quotation came to my attention via a comment attached to a post by Amber Sparks—"Get Jobs In Offices and Wake Up for the Morning Commute: Stevens, Poet and Insurance Exec"—part of the week-long tribute to Wallace Stevens at Big Other. Sparks' brief piece aims at one of the points that has always added to Stevens' appeal for me: the fact that throughout most of his career as a poet, Stevens was a well-respected, very successful attorney-executive with The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.
Stevens kept his life as poet and his life as insurance man largely separate from one another: when Stevens died in 1955, there were co-workers who had toiled beside him for years at The Hartford who were astonished to learn for the first time, from tributes in the press, that Stevens had been a poet at all. Legend has it that Stevens would compose poems in his head on the way to the office, dictate rough versions to his secretary, go though his day dealing with surety issues—surety bonds being among the least "poetic" insurance products I know—and revise his work in his head on the way home.
Dana Gioia, in his essay on "Business and Poetry," maintains that having a firm grounding in a "real world" professional position as Stevens did—and as Eliot did during his time as a London banker—is actively advantageous to the poet or other artist even, or particularly, when his or her artistic concerns are entirely removed from practical business concerns.
Wallace Stevens' version of "work-life balance"—if such a concept ever entered his mind—apparently meant being fully invested in his profession, his art, and his personal life at all times, regardless of which of the three he was attending to at any given moment. He was well read in several languages, so I suspect that he knew of, and likely endorsed, Flaubert's sentiment, although Flaubert himself was never one for actually Getting a Job. Flaubert recommends being like a bourgeois, rather than actually being bourgeois; Stevens one-ups the French master, and demonstrated convincingly that the proper combination of attitude and skill permits a life of equal service to Mammon and the Muses.
Illustration: Wallace Stevens—looking rather more like W.C. Fields than he did in life—as drawn by David Hockney, for The Blue Guitar: Etchings by David Hockney Who Was Inspired by Wallace Stevens Who Was Inspired by Pablo Picasso (1977), of which more here.
A tip of the cap and bells is owing to Evan Schaeffer for pointing out the Big Other Stevens Fest, which is well worth a browse.
A Box Comes Home
I remember the United States of America
As a flag-draped box with Arthur in it
And six marines to bear it on their shoulders.
I wonder how someone once came to remember
The Empire of the East and the Empire of the West.
As an urn maybe delivered by chariot.
You could bring Germany back on a shield once
And France in a plume. England, I suppose,
Kept coming back a long time as a letter.
Once I saw Arthur dressed as the United States
Of America. Now I see the United States
Of America as Arthur in a flag-sealed domino.
And I would pray more good of Arthur
Than I can wholly believe. I would pray
An agreement with the United States of America
To equal Arthur's living as it equals his dying
At the red-taped grave in Woodmere
By the rain and oak leaves on the domino.
As I said last year:
"May all Soldiers someday be Veterans."
John Ciardi's poem was previously posted here November 11, 2003.
Photo by Flickr user Beverly & Pack, used under Creative Commons license.
You can have your Rod Stewarts and your Barry Manilows: when it comes to aging popstars exploring the Great American Song Book, give me Robert Wyatt. Here, Wyatt ventures David Raksin and Johnny Mercer's "Laura" (1945), adapted from Raksin's theme music for Otto Preminger's 1944 film.
Clicking the "MP3" icon at the bottom of the player will download a free copy of the track, which comes from Wyatt's new collaboration with saxophonist/composer Gilad Atzmon and violinist/composer Ros Stephen, For the Ghosts Within.
". . . the pages turn and tell themselves . . ."
[Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snider, performed by Shara Worden and Signal]
Once upon a time a woman and her house lived by the sea. They had lived alone by the sea for a very long time—near twenty years—since the man who was the husband of the woman had gone off to war. They had lived without the man, and heard nothing of the man, for a very long time until—after near twenty years—one day he returned. He had been damaged in his long time away. He and his memory were scarred and burnt and broken by what he had seen, and what he had done, and what he had seen done, but the man had somehow remembered the house by the sea living with the woman alone, and he somehow found his way back to them, and they took him in. To help the man and herself to find what had happened those twenty years, the woman read him the story of another man, Odysseus, who had gone off to war and who had been gone a very long time—near twenty years—before one day he returned. And that story of telling a story to get to the bottom of a story was one day turned into another story, called Penelope.
The story called Penelope began as a monodrama written by Ellen McLaughlin. Penelope then became a monodrama with songs inserted in it, for alto and string quartet, with text by McLaughlin and music by Sarah Kirkland Snider. At last, Penelope became a stand-alone song cycle, performed by singer Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) and the contemporary chamber orchestra Signal, released last week on New Amsterdam Records, of which Snider is one of the three co-founders.
As I was awaiting the release of the complete recording, I tweeted that Penelope "may be the best thing to happen to Homer since Joyce." After listening to it persistently for the past seven days, I am largely prepared to stand by that burst of (admitted) hyperbole. Penelope's ambitions are more modest than those of Ulysses, but it shares with Joyce's novel the trick of mapping Homer's Odyssey without crinkles or wrinkles on to a more contemporary world. Where Joyce echoes and reechoes all of the wanderings of Odysseus and Telemachus in the wanderings of Bloom and Dedalus through the vividly tangible streets of Dublin, Penelope operates more intimately and within the more interiorized landscape of the nameless woman and returning man.
The "adventure" parts of the Odyssey play no part in Penelope. Here we have no cyclops, no sirens, no Scylla or Charybdis. Telemachus, also, goes missing, as do Penelope's slaughtered suitors. Ellen McLaughlin's text instead homes in on the incidents in the Odyssey most closely tied to forgetfulness and memory—the somnolent land of the Lotus Eaters, which here becomes the hospital ward in which the man has lain sedated with his companions ("my sleeping, drooling, smiling men") for who knows how long and which he rouses himself to leave (still lost, "but not as lost as them"), and the descent to confront and question the shades of the dead—as well as on the women who mark Odysseus' journey home: Nausicaa, Circe, and Calypso, aspects of each of them figuring in to the personality and role of Penelope, retelling the tale. Song by song, points of view shift from the woman to the man to the man's reviving memories and back to the woman. If Athena is here—Odysseus' indispensable patroness—it is in the slow, uncertain redawning of consciousness and self-knowledge. The particular details of the plot, and most particularly the details of what exactly the man has gone through these twenty years, are left intentionally vague, but the extended drawing of them out and the clear eyed looking at them plainly leads to something hopeful and to the cautiously uprising conclusion of the piece, in which the multiple tiers of story on story, "bloody and sacred, truth and lie" resolve toward an infinite horizon, "backward and forward, like the tide."
This recording is naturally, more than anything, about Sarah Kirkland Snider's score, but a great deal of credit for the success of Penelope lies in Ellen McLaughlin's text, which is refreshingly spare and perfectly suited to being set to music. Never underestimate the power of a good libretto.
Snider's score is the very model of smart, contemporary "music savant"—"knowing music" engaged with the "classical" tradition but unafraid to trot out the tools of "popular" music to suit its purposes. The Signal ensemble is structured, on paper, as a seemingly conventional, string-based chamber orchestra. Its players, however, include many of the key exponents of the New York young/new/serious music set—members of Missy Mazzolli's Victoire and violinist-composer Caleb Burhans, for example—and the ensemble is supplemented by two electric guitarists—Grey McMurray, Burhans' partner in itsnotyouitsme, and Snider's husband Steven Mackey—a drummer and electronics.
The final essential element is Shara Worden, whose singing seamlessly and potently brings text and music together. Here there is clarity, profundity, directness, intelligence . . . everything needed to raise Penelope to humane near-perfection. The composer has said that Shara Worden was her dream singer for this work, and her hopes have been richly fulfilled. Worden's voice is occasionally processed or multitracked, but for the most part it stands exposed and, frankly, wondrous.
Penelope is, for me, the finest, most indispensable and potentially lasting new work I have heard or am likely to hear this year. You should immediately get yourself a copy and listen to it over and over and over, as you would read and reread a great novel, story, or poem such as, say, the Odyssey.
Penelope can be streamed in its entirety, and purchased as a download, here—though really you should pick up the physical CD for the sake of its attractive packaging and for the sake of its inclusion of the full text.
The official site for the work is here, where you can find a free download of "This is What You're Like," the woman's reminiscence of what her husband was before he left her:
Live performances of two sections ("Calypso" and "The Lotus Leaters") are included in this broadcast from WNYC's Soundcheck:
And this just in . . . a video:
You should perhaps not vote whilst actually in a saloon, as the gentlemen above are doing. Adjourning to the saloon before or, better, after voting is your right, for the time being at least.
For whom should you vote? That is for you to know and me to find out. The knowledge, once acquired, may or may not send me to the saloon, supra.
You are not to blame for the outcome in any event. As the Bonzos reminded us:
"No Matter Who You Vote For, the Government Always Gets In"