Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Bolshoi Babylon

November 30, 2015


Bolshoi Babylon, a documentary by Nick Read and Mark Franchetti, is about Russia’s famed ballet compay. In 2013, someone threw acid in the face of the company’s director, Sergei Filin. This left Filin blind in one eye. This incident rocked the Russian nation. The Bolshoi is regarded as a symbol of national pride and a cultural treasure. Eventually, one of the dancers is arrested and charged with the crime. At his trial, the dancer, Pavel Dmitrichenko, says he discussed with his neighbor the possibility of his beating up Filin, but he insists that he never told the man to throw acid in Filin’s face. At the trial, Pavel accuses Filin of favoritism and of corruption.

The documentary follows the events after Filin’s return to the company. At first, Filin is greeted warmly. But then we learn that the dancers have complaints about Filin. They don’t like his casting decisions, and they accuse him of corruption. (We’re never told what exactly this alleged corruption consists of.) Filin’s problems are deepened by the fact that company’s new manager, Vladimir Urin, has a personal grudge against Filin, dating from the time when they were both working for the Stanislavsky Theatre. Urin at first seems an incongruous character to be running a ballet company: he looks and sounds as though he should be running a lumber yard. Yet it becomes clear that he deeply cares about the company and about its dancers.

Despite its gimmicky title, Bolshoi Babylon is actually quite a good film. There are extensive interviews with the dancers. We learn about the stress and disappointments they undergo in this demanding, and highly competitive, art form. One dancer refers to her daily rehearsals as “torture”. One complains of not getting enough work, then later complains of having too much work and not being able to spend time with her son. We also get a sense of the feeling of accomplishment that these dancers also get. This film introduces us to people we feel better for knowing.


November 24, 2014


Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, tells the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), an aspiring young jazz drummer who is attending a highly prestigious music conservatory in New York. He is picked to be in the school’s premiere jazz band, which is led by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). When Neiman attends his first band practice, Fletcher shows up and immediately begins acting like a sadistic bully. He humiliates Neiman in front of the other band members, slaps him repeatedly, and throws a chair at his head (this is in a crowded room). Over time, Neiman becomes obsessed with trying to live up to Fletcher’s exacting standards. He practices until his hands bleed. He dumps his girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), telling her that she’s a distraction from his becoming a great musician. He is rude and insulting to members of his own family. However, Fletcher’s abusive behavior leads to a violent confrontation, which results in Neiman being expelled from the conservatory and Fletcher being fired.

Later, Neiman runs into Fletcher in a jazz club. To Neiman’s surprise, Fletcher is friendly towards him. Fletcher explains (not convincingly) that the reason he was such an asshole was that he was trying to get Neiman to “break through” as a musician. He tells a story about how Joe Jones once threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head when the latter wasn’t playing well. (That wasn’t really what happened, but I’ll let that go.) This motivated Parker to work harder and become a better musician. Fletcher then tells Neiman that he is going to be conducting a band at a jazz festival, and he needs a drummer. He assures Neiman that they will be playing pieces he is familiar with. When Neiman shows up for the performance, however, Fletcher has the band play a piece that Neiman doesn’t know. Neiman realizes that he has been lured into a trap, that Fletcher wants to humiliate him in front of an audience.

Now, I have a few problems with this. First, we are expected to believe that when Fletcher bumps into Neiman, he immediately concocts a scheme to get even with him. We are also expected to believe that Fletcher, an obsessive perfectionist, would deliberately sabotage his own band’s performance – and in front of an audience that has record company executives in it. (And the fact that Fletcher didn’t have him rehearse with the band should have tipped off Neiman that something wasn’t right.) In fact, I found the film’s whole premise – that a teacher would try to inspire his students by acting like a raving lunatic – impossible to believe.

I’m sure that a musician’s life can be stressful and difficult at times. (I imagine this is particularly true in a competitive field like jazz.) Instead of trying to depict this, however, Chazelle has given us an overheated melodrama.

M.I.A Knew about N.S.A. Spying Three Years Before News Media Did

June 23, 2013


In 2010, the British pop singer, M.I.A., released a song called “The Message”, which contains the line: “Your headphones connected to your iPhone / Your iPhone’s connected to the Internet / The Internet’s connected to the Google / The Google’s connected to the Government.” Which is an accurate description of what’s been going on.

The Justice Department has just announced its plans to charge Edward Snowden with espionage. It seems that the government and its supporters in the news media are outraged that an N.S.A. employee dared to tell the American people what any intelligent person could have guessed.

Good Vibrations

September 27, 2012

Good, clean, wholesome fun. Plus backstabbing.

Just when you thought that the long, tortured saga of the Beach Boys couldn’t possibly get any more surreal, they are back in the news. That’s right, everyone’s favorite dysfunctional California family is at it again. Just recently, Mike Love, who owns the rights to the band’s name, fired fellow band members, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, and David Marks. The reasons are pecuniary. You see, the Beach Boys have planned an upcoming reunion tour. Love explains:

    You’ve got to be careful not to get overexposed. There are promoters who are interested [in more shows by the reunited line-up], but they’ve said, ‘Give it a rest for a year’. The Eagles found out the hard way when they went out for a second year and wound up selling tickets for $5.”

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t even pay five dollars to see the Eagles. Lyin’ Eyes was the most overplayed song of the 1970’s. Seriously, if I ever hear that song again, it’s possible that I might get violent. Anyway, you would think that Love would imagine the Beach Boys to be more popular than the Eagles. I guess he must be a self-effacing guy. He is still planning on having the reunion tour, although he will be the only original member of the band. That’s right, Love will be having a reunion with himself. Several years ago, I saw a reunion of Jefferson Airplane. It had two original members of the band, so I guess it qualified as a reunion of sorts. What Love is doing, however, strikes me as being the musical equivalent of one hand clapping.

Not surprisingly, there has been some sour grapes about all this. Brian Wilson said:

    I’m disappointed and can’t understand why he doesn’t want to tour with Al, David, and me… We are out here having so much fun. After all, we are the real Beach Boys.

So, all Brian Wilson wants to do is have fun, whereas his cousin, Mike Love, wants to make money. Clearly, Love is the more serious person. I suspect that Wilson belongs to that 47% of the population that Mitt Romney says is sponging off the other fifty-three percent. (It’s perhaps worth noting here that Love is a Republican.) You can’t stop progress, Brian Wilson. If you don’t like it, start your own band.

Oh, wait…

(The author is currently working on a biography of the Beach Boys titled, Those Wacky Wilsons. Look for it at a finer bookstore near you.)

Music from the Big House

June 23, 2012

Rita Chiarelli and Ray Jones in Music from the Big House.

During the 1880’s, a former Confederate army officer named Samuel James persuaded the Louisiana state government to let him lease convicts (most of them black) to work his plantation, known as “Angola”, because it was believed that the slaves who once worked there were from that country. After James died, the Louisiana State Penitentiary was built on the site. It was commonly known as Angola Prion. It is said that conditions there were horrendous. It is also believed that the prison played a role in the development of blues music. Leadbelly and other musicians spent time there as prisoners.

The Canadian musician, Rita Chiarelli, visited Angola while she was doing research on the history of blues music. She discovered that some of the prisoners there play blues or country music. She decided to organize a concert in which she would perform with these men. This took a certain amount of courage, considering that these men were convicted of violent crimes. Most of them are serving life sentences.

Of the various people we meet in this film, perhaps the most interesting is Ray Jones, who has been a prisoner at Angola for thirty years. He killed a man during a drunken fight. Jones was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He tells us, “In Louisiana, life means life”, meaning that the parole board rarely shortens convicts’ sentences. Jones expects to spend the rest of his life at Angola. Chiarelli tells us that most of the people we see in this film will probably die in prison. (In one scene, we are shown the prison cemetery.) Not surprisingly, many of them are deeply religious. (Marx: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”) Jones is an ordained minister, and he acts as a spiritual adviser to the other prisoners, as well as being the prison librarian. (I know a man who was wrongly convicted of murder and spent time in prison. He too became a minister.)

Although conditions at Angola have improved since the early twentieth century, it is, like all prisons, a grim place. In one scene we are shown the area in which Jones lives. There are about fifty bunk beds lined up in rows. The prisoners keep their belongings in wooden boxes at the foot of their beds. They have no privacy. We are told that this is actually one of the better parts of the penitentiary. Prisoners are moved here as a reward for good behavior.

The concert scenes are wonderful to watch. Chiarelli is an appealing person, and she develops a real rapport with the prisoners. At a time when there are incessant calls for increasingly harsh punishments for crimes, it is refreshing to see a film that argues for the possibility of human redemption.

Donna Summer (1948-2012)

May 18, 2012

I never cared much for disco, but nonetheless I always liked Donna Summer. One reason for that was that she had a very good singing voice. I remember that back in the 1970’s, the classical music critic for the Boston Globe – a man whose musical tastes were usually limited to Beethoven and Stravinsky – was a huge fan of Donna Summer. He once interviewed her for the paper. I don’t why, but I somehow find that fact amusing.

Two Films about Japanese Artists

April 28, 2012

A scene from Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Eugene’s Bijou Art Cinemas just hosted the Cinema Pacific Film Festival, which is devoted to films from Asia and from the Pacific Northwest. This annual festival is just one of the many benefits of living in Eugene. (If I seem to be on a civic boosterism kick, it’s because of a recent ESPN article that portrays Eugene as a warren of zonked-out hippies with questionable grooming habits.) I regret that because of previous commitments I was not able to attend all of the films. Based on the ones I did see, however, I was impressed by the selection job that the festival organizers did. I found every film I saw interesting in some way. Two that particularly stood out for me were documentaries about two artists in Japan.

Jiro Ono is Japan’s most famous sushi chef. He runs a sushi bar in a Tokyo subway station. The Michelin guides have given the place a three star rating. People make reservations months ahead of time just to eat there. David Gelb’s film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi examines the life and work of this cook who, at the age of 85, says he will never retire. He dislikes taking days off. He is assisted by his son, Yoshikazu, and by a small, hard-working staff that he trained himself. An apprentice at Jiro’s restaurant has to train for ten years before he is considered a shokunin (chef).

Yoshikazu is destined to take over the restaurant after his father’s death. However, a sushi chef tells us that because of his father’s reputation, Yoshikazu would have to be twice as good just to be considered his equal.

Jiro tells us that he arranges his meals like music. He starts with light, subtle flavors and gradually works his way to heavier ones. Gelb builds upon this idea with a shrewdly constructed musical soundtrack. As we watch Jiro and his assistants, they at times almost seem to be moving in sync with the music.

On a somber note, both Jiro and Yoshikazu report that they have seen both the quality and quantity of fish sold in markets decline over the years. Yoshikazu blames this on over-fishing. He is particularly critical of the way tuna are caught, saying that many of these fish are captured before they are mature.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It made me hungry for sushi.

I watched Astro Boy on TV when I was growing up. This show would likely strike contemporary children as crude (it was in black & white, for one thing), but to me it was magical. I remember I was puzzled at how his feet would suddenly disappear and flames would shoot out of his legs when he would fly through the air.

So my curiosity was piqued when I heard that the festival was showing a film titled The Echo of Astro Boy’s Footsteps. This movie is about Matsuo Ohno, who did the sound effects for Astro Boy. Actually, he was the sound designer. He would actually get mad at people if they said that he did sound effects. Instead of trying to imitate noises, he would create whole new sounds. The title refers to the curious sound for Astro Boy’s footsteps, which he created by manipulating recording tape.

Ohno became interested in electronic music in the 1950’s, when he heard a Stockhausen recording. He continues to compose and perform to this day, trying to create what he calls “ethereal music”. A traditionalist, he continues to use reel-to-reel tape players and oscillators, instead of computer programs.

Ohno has a reputation for being irascible and difficult. Yet he devotes a large part of his time to teaching music to mentally disabled persons. He says that we can all learn from such people. However, this film will not dispel the stereotype of artists as eccentric people. A friend of Ohno’s tells us that when the latter was young, he preferred to enter buildings by climbing through windows.

I highly recommend seeing this film.

Two Films about Dance: Pina and Crazy Horse

April 19, 2012

A scene from Pina.

I recently saw two documentaries about two very different approaches to dance. I find it very hard to write about dance, since I don’t know very much about it, though I like to watch it. Last year, I saw a production by the Eugene Ballet of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. I found it deeply moving, but I don’t know how to explain in words why it affected me so much.

I’ve never been very good at dancing. Many years ago, I was, for a brief time, a theatre major in college. The department head told me that I was required to take a dance class, so I would “know how to use my body”. So I signed up for a ballet course. There were 25 people in the class, and I was the only male, besides the teacher and the piano player. I learned how to plié and stretch. I got to be pretty good at it, or so I thought. One day the teacher made us do this exercise, in which one by one each of us would run across the room and jump in the air. After I finished my turn, the woman behind me started to follow, but the teacher immediately stopped her, saying that she wasn’t moving in time to the music. She protested that she was following my moves.

“Oh, don’t pay any attention to Austin,” he said casually. “He follows his own beat.”

I dropped the class.

The people we meet in Pina clearly had happier experiences with their first dance classes than I did. This documentary by Wim Wenders is about Pina Bausch, who was the choreographer for the Tanztheater Wuppertal. Bausch died while this film was being made, so it is really a memorial to her. The film starts with an amazing performance of The Rite of Spring. Later, we see members of the troupe dancing in the streets of Wuppertal, as well as on the city’s elevated railway, the Schwebebahn. (Now, why can’t they build something like that in LA?) There are also interviews with the dancers, who come from all over the world. They all talk about how Bausch inspired them. They describe a woman who was patient and understanding with them. This is in striking contrast to the popular notion of dancing masters as barking autocrats. (An idea that is vulgarly portrayed in the critically acclaimed potboiler, Black Swan.)

I highly recommend seeing this film.

Crazy Horse, a documentary by the legendary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, is about the famous club in Paris that features nude dancing. This place is not like your ordinary strip club, however. The people who work here all take what they do very seriously. They regard their work as art, just like the dancers at the Tanztheater Wuppertal. (The artistic director says that the government should require everyone in France to visit the club.) As with his previous films, Wiseman has no narration. Instead, his camera follows people around as they carry out their business, leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions from what they see. Of the various people we meet in this film, the one I found the most affecting was the head costume designer. She agonizes over every detail of the skimpy outfits the dancers wear. Crazy Horse seems to take us into another world, where things like wigs and g-strings acquire enormous importance.

This is another film I highly recommend seeing.

Nixon in China

March 18, 2012

The Eugene Opera Company recently staged a production of John Adams’s Nixon in China. It was daring for a small company with limited resources to stage a work like this. It was nevertheless a handsome production with good performances. I must say, though, that the opera itself is a curious and unsatisfying piece. As the title indicates, it is about Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. It is an opera about politics that largely avoids the topic of politics. In an interesting moment in the first act, for example, Mao tells Nixon that he prefers right-wingers to “doctrinaire Marxists”. One would like to hear him explain why he feels this way, but instead he quickly moves on to another, less interesting topic. (I can’t remember what it was.) To be fair, opera is not the most ideal medium for discussing complex political ideas. But in that case, why make an opera about Nixon’s trip to China? Peter Sellars, who originally conceived the idea for this work, said that he was interested in this event because it was both “a ridiculously cynical election ploy … and a historical breakthrough”. Nixon’s “breakthrough”, by the way, actually consisted of the fact that he simply ended the US’s irrational policy of not recognizing the Chinese government. In any event, the opera never really explores this seeming contradiction. Indeed, it’s not clear what this work is trying to say.

An interesting question is how did Mao and Chou rationalize meeting with a man who waged a savage war against a Communist country? And how did a rabid anti-Communist like Nixon bring himself to get all chummy with Chou-en-lai? Clearly there were geopolitical motives here, but the opera doesn’t even address these issues. Instead we get Nixon reminiscing about his days in the army during World War II (who cares?), and Mao and Chiang Ch’ing talking about how happy they were in the days before the revolution (again, who cares?). Adams and the librettist, Alice Goodman, have said that they wanted to make these people seem human. Yet what is important about these people is not that they were human, but that they made decisions that had dire consequences for other people.

The opera’s portrayal of the Nixons is not really believable. Pat Nixon, for example, is portrayed as fun-loving and free-spirited. That’s not the impression I got of Pat Nixon. I don’t see how a fun-loving free spirit could have remained married to such a relentlessly grim person as Richard Nixon. The latter comes across as amiable but a bit dumb. This certainly doesn’t fit with what we know about Nixon.

The best part of the opera is the ballet scene in the second act, if only because something interesting is actually happening on-stage. Aside from that, it is only because of Adams’s music that this opera keeps our attention. The term “minimalist” is often applied to Adams, but that term is misleading. One of the striking things about his music is his varied and imaginative use of tone color. He subtly uses different instruments to indicate the changing moods of the characters. It’s too bad that there isn’t a more compelling story to go along with this.

Katia Kabanova

July 21, 2011

Recently I saw a film of Leoš Janáček’s opera, Katia Kabanova. It was a production by the Teatro Real in Madrid, directed by Robert Carsen. The opera is based upon a nineteenth century Russian play, The Storm, by Alexander Ostrovsky. The theme of the work is the destructive effect of middle class moralism on people’s lives. This has renewed relevance for our time, thanks to the Tea Party.

The opera takes place in a Russian village on the Volga River. Katia (Karita Mattila) is married to a merchant, Tichon, whose widowed mother, Marfa, is constantly lecturing him about how he must assert his authority over his wife, or she will be unfaithful to him. (This is not far-fetched. From Phyllis Schlafly to Michele Bachmann, the fiercest advocates of patriarchy have been women.) Katia, however, has caught the eye of Boris, who is constantly being berated by his uncle, Dikoj, who controls his inheritance. When Tichon goes away on a trip, Varvara, a foster daughter of Tichon’s family who is sympathetic to Katia, persuades her to secretly meet with Boris. Katia does so several times, and she and Boris make love. Not surprisingly, Marfa turns out to be a hypocrite (isn’t that always the way?), for she is having a torrid affair with Dikoj at the same time. When Tichon returns, Katia is seized with guilt, and she confesses her infidelity before the entire village. Dikoj orders Boris to leave for Siberia. Overcome with grief, Katia drowns herself in the Volga.

Carsen has the stage covered with water. An important motif in the opera is the dual nature of water, which can bring both life and death. The actors stand and walk on narrow wooden platforms, which are moved around by women dancers wearing white dresses. The narrowness of these structures represents the constricted nature of the character’s lives. Janáček’s music is agitated and sometimes harsh, reflecting the inner turmoil of the characters. Yet there are passages of soaring lyricism, which not only reflect the fleeting moments of happiness in these people’s lives, but also hint at the possibility of a better way of life. I highly recommend seeing this film if you get a chance.