Monday, July 30, 2012

Steve Reich's Drumming Live with Sonic Generator

Sonic Generator's setup at "The Goat Farm"
Atlanta musicians collectively known as Sonic Generator performed Steve Reich's "Drumming" last Friday night. Spokesman / drummer Tom Sherwood explained that this piece "blew open" his idea of what percussion can do when he was a student drummer years ago.  The musicians performed the piece free, for the audience's pleasure, and for their own.

Forty years after "Drumming" premiered, it still sounds fresh. 
But what you hear is not all you get when you see Reich's music live.  It comes close to being a piece of theatre.
First, there was the piquant setting (see picture). "The Goat Farm" is a hollowed-out, boarded-up old factory amid derelict buildings west of Georgia Tech.  I didn't see goats, but a pen warning "Bad dog!" borders the patchy grass parking lot.  For our comfort, a fan blew at the open barn-sized door.  Thankfully, the show started at 9:30, when the temperature had cooled a bit to a mere 85 degrees.  Seats filled quickly, so blankets were spread around the performing area for latecomers to sit.

There's no story or musical program, but we have a direct musical plan.  At first, it's audaciously simple to the point that a casual listener would call idiotic:  One drummer starts a beat on a snare.  Another joins him.   Very gradually, with incredible precision and patience, the ensemble gradually shifts out of synch, then starts filling in spaces. Eventually (but not for a long time!) Reich brings in variety, as the ensemble moves to marimbas, then xylophones.  In some places, the beats are augmented by voice, flute, or whistling. For the grand finale, Reich integrates all the sounds. 

We didn't know the performers by name, but we got to know them during the music as if they were acting characters.  Sherwood seemed intense, almost grave. The most charismatic performer was the slightly built young man in a tee-shirt who began the piece.  He seemed sometimes to be in a trance as he gradually elaborated the beat.  His whole body swayed as he kept up the rapid-fire drumming.   But, as others joined him at the line of drums, he sometimes looked up from the drums to meet their eyes with a look of amusement.   Other characters joined in. A woman in a dark vest seemed to be self-assured and efficient; while a young man with hipster glasses would approach each musical entrance diffidently.   One vocalist seemed serenely involved in the music, while the other seemed unsure.  Other guys seemed to be buddies, shooting each other smiles as if there were some inside jokes going on.

I initially feared that a drumming marathon late on a hot Friday night might make me drowsy, but the stamina required of us and of the musicians was part of the experience.  We appreciated the musicians' concentration, and we felt tense anticipation as pairs of musicians would move into place, their mallets poised and ready to strike.  We wondered, "Will they ever all play at all the instruments at once?" and we felt satisfaction as the company moved towards that happy ending.

The audience jumped to its feet at the end, and there were smiles and exclamations all around.  Steve Reich's music has been marketed since the 1970s as avant-garde, austere, serious Art with a capital "A."  But, live, it's something close to comedy. 

Sonic Generator announces another performance:  Fritz Lang's classic movie METROPOLIS with a new musical score for sixteen musicians and electronic sounds, written and conducted by Martin Matalon.  It will be a free performance,  September 27, 2012, 8:30 pm, at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Murals by Hale Woodruff: The Heart of Technique

On "teacher's day" at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, my friend Susan and I got a free pass to see murals created in 1938 by Hale Woodruff of Atlanta for Talladega College of Alabama, built for -- and by -- "freedmen" in 1867.   Thanks to the High's staff, we saw techniques that Woodruff learned from his teachers before he put them to use in works that expressed his own big heart.

Pride of place and publicity went to the first panel of one triptych, a life-size depiction of mutiny on the Amistad, ca. 1830.   Striking for the drama it depicts, the panel is also interesting for elements that we can trace back to Woodruff's student works exhibited in the ante-chamber to the murals. 

The human figures are composed in a swirl of action, reminiscent of a forest landscape that Woodruff painted years earlier, in which trees arch above and ground bows below to encircle the scene. Even the brush strokes swirl in a vortex.  In the Amistad scene, the effect is more complex, as the subgroup of men struggling left of center seems to be an eddy spinning off from the circular composition.  The black man facing front is modeled on a life-based portrait of Cinque, leader of the rebellion.  His face stands out in part because it breaks the swirling motion, and in part because of the intensity of his expression.

The black men's faces and their skin glow like burnished wood or copper.  That same warm glow is something that Woodruff used in the first painting of the exhibit, his experiment with landscaping a la Cezanne, in which clouds above and solid objects below all glow with the sheen of taffeta.

Burnished wood also comes to mind because the black men's faces resemble certain African masks, though without the full stylization seen in Woodruff's early Cubist experiment, a depiction of black men playing cards.  One gambler has the pronounced forehead and brooding face of an African mask, all the features concentrated in a small angle above the chin.

As in that cubist homage, different perspectives jostle up against each other.   The ocean waves and even the bow of the ship might be a 2D backdrop, and most of the actors seem to be lined up downstage.  Woodruff's Cubist experiment was jarring and unpleasant; here, the effect appears natural in the Amistad scene, and it invigorates the drama.

One black man stretches, dead, across the lower right-hand corner of the canvas. The image is reminiscent of some stark black-and-white prints exhibited in the ante-room.  They depict lynching, black prisoners at work, and shacks.  Considering the great size of his murals in the next room, it's instructive to see how Woodruff squeezes so much onto hand-sized pages. 

The other panels depict the trial, in which the Amistad rebels were found to be free men, unjustly forced into slavery; and the scene of departure, some of the men for Africa, and some for a new life in the western territory that would ultimately bring about the founding of Talladega College.

Another triptych shows the story of Talladega's founding.  These murals in the same style are less dramatic but more big-hearted.   Again, there's a backdrop, this one showing a sweeping view of cleared land and a horse-carriage racing away towards Ohio.  The most prominent figures are black men emerging from slave territory to the point where they can see Ohio and freedom.   One stands tall, his face expressing such gratitude and hope that our hearts go out to him; at his feet, another rests on one knee, eyes downcast, perhaps in prayer, or weariness, or in relief.   (Woodruff could not have anticipated that it's the same tilt of head and position of hands that we see nowadays wherever cellphone users are intent on texting.)  

Two other panels show freedmen enrolling at Talladega, and the construction of the library.  Especially in that last panel, Woodruff captures a great deal of action in one plane along with a spirit of hope and goodwill.

The High Museum pairs these glowing, feel-good murals with an exhibition of photographs taken around the American South during the past few years.  These, too, provoke smiles -- sometimes at irony, mostly at incongruities, and sometimes at appealing personalities that we can sense at a glance.  One that combines both personality and incongruity is a wooded landscape, early morning mist hovering above the long grass.  In the middle distance, a somewhat rumpled young man (just out of bed? or up all night?) looks away from us into the woods.  In the morning quiet, he carries a banjo.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Those Crazy Episcopalians

Bishop Michael Curry preached on "crazy Christians" July 7.
Photo from another occasion.
(reflections on responses to the national Episcopal Church's convention last week, with extensive reference to a post by Diana Butler Bass at "the Blog" at

Via internet, I heard a sermon on "crazy Christians" by Bishop Curry of North Carolina.  He spoke last week at the national convention of the Episcopal Church, where a large majority of delegates in both houses (lay and ordained) approved the blessing of same-sex relationships (though, pointedly, not "marriage").  While Bishop Curry said that we need more Christians who are "crazy" in standing up to accepted opinion (he mentioned Harriet Beecher Stowe and Jesus Christ), bloggers and pundits mocked the Episcopal church for sliding at last off its long slippery slope into the cold waters of crazy liberalism. 

Against the outrage and snickers, Diana Butler Bass suggests that the Episcopal Church is on the path to greater strength, while the conservative churches atrophy.   She repeats the commonly-held idea that liberal churches have declined while so-called conservative ones have bloomed during the past fifty years.   But, she writes, in the past decade, all denominations in the USA have been in decline.   Now, she says, Episcopalians may have an advantage: 
Liberal Christians experienced this decline sooner than their conservative kin, thus giving them a longer, more sustained opportunity to explore what faith might mean to twenty-first century people. Introspective liberal churchgoers returned to the core of the Christian vision: Jesus' command to "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself." As a result, a sort of neo-liberal Christianity has quietly taken root across the old Protestant denominations--a form of faith that cares for one's neighbor, the common good, and fosters equality, but is, at the same time, a transformative personal faith that is warm, experiential, generous, and thoughtful. This new expression of Christianity maintains the historic liberal passion for serving others but embraces Jesus' injunction that a vibrant love for God is the basis for a meaningful life. These Christians link spirituality with social justice as a path of peace and biblical faith.
Pastor Laurene Bowers wrote a book about bringing "post-modern" young adults into our churches a few years ago.  About her idea of "church," I wrote...
Church [according to Bowers] should be more than a school where the pastor teaches, more than a country club where the pastor is a sort of activity director, and more than a service organization such as the Kiwanis club. She writes:  "We embrace a relational theology through which being a disciple of Jesus means that we have signed up for service to be an instrument of God’s blessing through each other: We believe that God’s intervention can only happen through a human agent."  (from my blog post, Growth in Mainline Churches: Thinking Outside the Big Box)
This all makes perfect sense to me, but I know what friends of mine think, though they are too polite to say it:  The Episcopal Church is crazy, self-destructive, not even Christian anymore.  When we elected a woman to be our presiding bishop, a lot of that same sentiment was expressed, as by the exasperated blogger who wrote, "Are you kidding???" 

For my part, I'm too polite to say too directly what I think is crazy: to think that Christ, who served and befriended those whom his society despised, who read between the lines of written laws, and whose God was not limited to ancient texts, would ever recognize a church that defined itself in terms of what it stands against.

I am heartened to recognize my own church home, St. James' Marietta, in Bass's description of renewal within the church:
Unexpectedly, liberal Christianity is--in some congregations at least--undergoing renewal. ... Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation. A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones, noting that these findings were "counter-intuitive" to the usual narrative of American church life.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

1959 and Our Culture of the Moment

Jazz musicians really live "in the moment," responding to the immediate environment of sounds to invent new music on the spot.  As an approach to composition, both musical and literary, jazz holds together Fred Kaplan's book on 1959.  The chapters make a daisy chain of call and response.  For example, a chapter about Swiss photographer Robert Frank's off-kilter portrait of The Americans segues into a chapter about "off-Hollywood" film-making, linked by Frank's own foray into the medium.   A chapter on racism's outrages that made household names of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X in 1959, begins with a New York cop's beating Miles Davis, hero of the preceding chapter about how the freedom of jazz made it our best ambassador during the Cold War.  A chapter on "sick" comics is followed by the story of Herman Kahn, who did his own "stand-up" routine in 1959 to promote ways that the USA could survive nuclear holocaust and "win." 

"Living in the moment," like a jazz riff, keeps sounding in other chapters about novels (On the Road), poetry (Howl), art (solemn abstract expressionists inspire fun Rauschenberg, and then Kaprow's faux-spontaneous "happenings"), "sick" comics like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl,  and even about the A- Bomb and Cold War politics. 

Now, living in the moment has its appeal.  Religious writer Blaise Pascal reflected that his 17th century contemporaries failed to live at all because they clung to the way things used to be or they anticipated some future change.  Psalm 90 reads, "Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom," stating a theme that appears over and over again in scripture, that you can't count on tomorrow, so live each moment to the full.

Then, why should we spend any of our moments reading a book about history, or a novel, or a blog post?  Why write this stuff?  Shouldn't we all be out there doing stuff?   That's what the heroes of 1959 did.  Kerouac went on the road to write On the Road and only reluctantly took time to edit the thing.  Pollack and his contemporaries were "almost heroic" in their spontaneous "attack" of a canvas (Kaplan 166).  Lionel Trilling spoke out against this kind of ill-formed and careless spontaneity at the time, but his journals, published posthumously, reveal that he harbored envy of Hemingway, an earlier "in-the-moment"  artist, writing that Hemingway's life "which is anarchic and 'childish' is a better life than anyone I know could live" (35).

Following up on that striking confession, I found on the web a review by Allan Massie of a  book about Trilling by Adam Kirsch, containing this spot-on comment by Trilling:  the "contemporary American writer [senses] that he has been like the final investor in a Ponzi scheme, having bought into the venerable enterprise of literature only to discover that it is on the verge of default."  Trilling wrote that in 1952, and I tried to express the same idea about the futility of being an English major -- much less effectively -- in this blog a few years ago.  So, if the time spent composing, reading, and reflecting on literature is all wasted today, that's nothing new.

Massie goes on:
In [Trilling's] later years he became aware that “the case against mind is now being litigated in our culture”. The distrust of intellectualism promoted a loss of faith in literature, which is, “as he understood, fundamentally a loss of faith in a certain ideal of selfhood”. Instead, there emerged what Susan Sontag in 1996 called “the triumphant values of consumer capitalism”, in which “cultural consumption is used”, Kirsch writes, “as a basis – or perhaps, a substitute? – for identity”. There was an ever greater alertness to changing fashion, and a weakening of the position that “an actual response to art depends on discourse – not upon any one kind of discourse, but discourse of some kind”.

This is the take-away from Kaplan's book, that 1959 marked a tipping-point when crazy, youthful, spontaneous, and radical began to attract admiration away from responsible, mature and thoughtful. Born in 1959, I certainly have felt the tension between these two approaches to life.  I identify with Lionel Trilling, now that I've seen those journal entries.

And yet.  Massie quotes Margaret Atwood:  “History depends on the written word – electrons are as evanescent as thoughts.”  And a great deal of what Kaplan describes as ground-breaking in 1959 turns out to have been "evanescent," kept on life support by baby boomers in academia whose lives are invested in those ephemeral works that were cutting edge in their youth.  That's nothing new: Kaplan remarks that the "modern" art enshrined at the Guggenheim Museum was already old hat at the museum's opening, eclipsed by Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the museum itself.   It makes sense that what was created "in the moment" might not have a long shelf-life.  I suppose it wasn't intended to, either.

It's ironic that Shakespeare, who wrote 400 years ago, just for the next matinee, manages to go on creating moments for us to live in.   Yesterday, on the occasion of Peter O'Toole's retirement from stage and screen, National Public Radio re-aired an interview in which he casually remarks that he has memorized all the sonnets, and that they are by his bedside wherever he goes, constant companions through life.  He recited "My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun," his voice highlighting contrasts and turns in the composition -- thanks to the time he put into analysis of the verse.   So all of us who heard it were able to catch what Shakespeare put into it, filling just that moment with a rich sense of life experienced vicariously.

Peace, Professor Trilling:  the time spent in reading, writing, and reflecting is what gives the moments of action their meaning.   If a tree falls in the forest with no ear to hear it, then the disturbance in the air makes no sound;  if Jackson Pollack captures his own "action" of hurling paint at a canvas with no mind thinking anything more than "Heck, it's just paint drippings," then his moments were meaningless.  Let us take time to make meaning of our moments, actual and vicarious. 

Doesn't "moment" mean "meaning?" 
Reflections on The Year Everything Changed: 1959, by Fred Kaplan. Published by John Wiley and Sons, 2009.  Also response to a review of Why Trilling Matters, book by Adam Kirsch.  Review by Allan Massie. "Does Lionel Trilling matter?" The Times Literary Supplement online. Published 1 Feb.2012. Accessed 11 July 2012

Monday, July 09, 2012

Power Perfected in Weakness: LBJ's Finest Hours

(reflections on THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON: THE PASSAGE OF POWER by Robert A. Caro, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.)

LBJ takes the oath of office aboard Air Force One, on the runway, in Dallas.  He could have waited until the plane had flown to D.C.; he could have done it earlier; but he waited until Jackie arrived from the hospital -- with the body -- to stand beside him;
"Power is perfected in weakness," writes the apostle Paul in II Corinthians, because goodness -- God, Spirit, self-control, magnanimity -- can shine through at times when we feel vulnerable.  How LBJ handled himself and the institutions of federal government in the aftermath of JFK's assassination takes up the second half of Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson: The Passage to Power.   (My reflections on the first half of the book are here.)   Reading Caro's book during a week of patriotic celebrations, I wondered if true patriotism has more to do with Paul's kind of "weakness" than with competition of nations.  Caro shows how the crisis turned LBJ's personal demons to good for the country.

Caro gives us the events at Dallas from the unfamiliar angle of Johnson's experience.  He and Ladybird heard the shots and saw Jackie's reaction.  Johnson was then dragged to the floor of his open-air limo; his secret service bodyguard lay on top of him as the car accelerated to follow the President's car.   LBJ leans silently against a wall in the hospital until a Kennedy aide enters and sobs, "He's gone!"  We read again and again how LBJ's calm and resolve impressed eyewitnesses who'd always seen him as "Colonel Cornpone." 

In those hours, and in the days that followed, it seemed that the world might be poised to relive mistakes that had turned an assassination at Sarajevo in 1914 into the "Guns of August."   Was Russia or Cuba involved?   Had LBJ's cronies in Texas somehow conspired to make him President?   Ladybird remarked that it would have been better if she, too, had taken a bullet to allay that suspicion, but "thank goodness" [Texas governor] Connaly was shot.  Would Kennedy's ferociously loyal aides balk at accepting the Constitutional accession of LBJ?  Attorney General Robert Kennedy's animosity towards LBJ makes that scenario credible.

I remember those first days, as our home was shrouded in darkness, curtains closed, TV on constantly.  At four years, I knew who Kennedy was, and I understood that he'd been killed.  I don't recall any feeling beyond the solemnity of it all, but reading about it brought tears to my eyes.   Why?    And why did I also read with such pleasure about LBJ's successes?

In those first days, LBJ wooed Kennedy aides to stay on, tip-toed decorously around the Kennedy family during days of public mourning, masterfully dealt with numerous heads of state who arrived for the funeral, and impressed states' governors, even skeptical Pat Brown of California.  LBJ talks Chief Justice Earl Warren into heading a commission to investigate the assassination.  His speech to the nation, written reluctantly by JFK's wordsmith Ted Sorenson, began, "All I have, I would give, not to be standing here tonight."  Caro tells us that, for the first time, LBJ spoke slowly, with dignity and proper emphasis.  Johnson calmed fears and re-directed feeling for JFK towards passing the agenda that JFK had been unable to push through Congress:  cuts to both spending and taxation (to increase wealth and tax revenue -- it's Reaganomics!) and a civil rights bill to open up employment, schools, and public accommodations to Blacks.

So where do these emotions come from, fifty years later, the tears for the assassination and the pleasure at LBJ's behind-the-scenes working of the system?   Is this "patriotism?"  Is patriotism directed at a geograhical area, or at an ethnic group (white English speakers)?   Is it directed at the army and expressed only in terms of US strength?  Is it akin to being a sports fan, and does it hinge on defending our position as "number one?"

Speaking for my own patriotism, it's an admiration verging on affection for the good old Constitution and for the men and women -- voters included -- who go along with the rules of the game of living in a federal republic of conflicting interests that we call "politics."

Echoing an idea expounded by George Will in his 1980 book Statecraft as Soul Craft, I love to see how the form of our government actually shaped the behavior of the man at its helm in those critical days when America was down, doubtful, and vulnerable.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Just Songs: Discovering Joni Mitchell 40 Years Later

I drifted back to the 70s this afternoon, listening to songs by Joni Mitchell that I'd heard in the background in "rec rooms," if I'd heard them at all.   Now, 40 years later, I paid attention!  The songs were so rich and acute that I started the whole collection over again as soon as it finished, to pick up on some of what I'd missed.    (See my reflections on Sheila Weller's biography of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon.)

None of the songs in this collection were hit singles, but were chosen on merit by Graham Nash, Elvis Costello, Seal, k.d. lang, Herbie Hancock, and others.  Bassist Robbie Robertson, writing that he knows Joni's music "from the bottom up," observes that bass lines grew more important to her musical compositions as she matured.  Other comments mostly draw our attention to the acuity of the lyrics, which often give us character studies of people Joni (may have) met, including some that critique the artist's own character.. It seems typical of Bob Dylan, whose appeal to others has always baffled me, that he chose "Free Man in Paris" because it reminds him of -- what else? -- his own time in Paris, though he admits that has little to do with the song. 

I would choose "Free Man in Paris" because its distinctive woodwind riff and Joni's overdubbed harmony make sunny fun from a harried man's self-pity.   The man is some kind of music producer "stoking the star-making machinery behind the popular songs," but he could be Everyman nostalgic for the days when he was a "free man in Paris."  Now he deals with "dreamers" and "screamers" on the phone all day.  I've felt like him, and now, hearing Joni's pitiless portrait, I feel found out -- amused, but also ashamed. [Update, 8/7/2017: I've since heard that the song was specifically about producer David Geffen, at that time a closeted gay man, for whom the time in Paris was also a time when he felt free to express his sexuality.  That takes the whiny edge off the song and adds poignance.  I appreciate the song even more.]

"A Strange Boy" depicts another man who won't face reality, but this portrait is much more tender, and the boy/man is nothing like the one from Paris.  The song begins, wonderfully,
A strange boy is weaving
A course of grace and havoc
On a yellow skateboard
Thru midday sidewalk traffic 
and comments how "even the war and the navy / couldn't bring him to maturity," as all his talk is about childhood and school friends.   But when she tells him to grow up, he retorts, "Give me one good reason."  Something in his imagination captures hers,  "He sees the cars as sets of waves / Sequences of mass and space / He sees the damage in my face."  Sheila Weller's book tells us how Joni rode cross-country with a couple of men, and that the younger of the two was this one.   Real or not, he's real to me after hearing this sweetly ambivalent song.  As she sings that "he's a strange boy, a strange, strange boy" the refrain, and her feelings, stay up in the air.

A cheerfully breathless song, "Coyote" is "like a road movie," writes bassist Robbie Robertson.   The scenery did roll right by as I listened the first time, along with waves of emotion.  A cowboy drives "a hitcher" to the next motel, and then, though he has "a woman at home and another one down the hall," he wants her, too.  They dance.  That's explicit as it gets, but it feels much steamier.   She refers to him as "coyote," a metaphor that merges with the singer's childhood memory of a coyote's encounter with a hawk:
And a hawk was playing with him
Coyote was jumping straight up and making passes
He had those same eyes just like yours
Under your dark glasses
Privately probing the public rooms
And peeking thru keyholes in numbered doors
Again, Weller tells us the real-life germ of this song, though the song is good enough on its own.  It's about playwright / actor Sam Shepard on tour with Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and others ca. 1975.

Mitchell draws on another animal metaphor to reflect on a singer's career in "Black Crow."  The "ragged" bird, "black as the highway" that the singer drives on, flies from tree to tree, "diving, diving, diving" for any "shiny object."   Comments by k. d. lang highlight the way that Mitchell's guitar, strummed "in open tuning," creates the feeling of vast space in which the crow / singer keeps flying.

For the two  hours that I listened this afternoon, resting on the carpet with napping dogs beside me, fan going overhead, cicadas buzzing through the hazy green summer heat outside my open windows, I could have been 14 again, daydreaming about writing songs like Carly and Carole someday.  By 15, I was getting into music theatre and opera.  It's been a long time since I thought in terms of just songs.  Joni Mitchell's songs remind me just how rich just songs can be.
(reflections on songs collected by "friends and fellow musicians" of Joni Mitchell for a CD marketed through Starbucks.  Lyrics come from Joni Mitchell's website. )

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Carole, Joni, and Carly in Context

(Reflections on GIRLS LIKE US: CAROLE KING, JONI MITCHELL, CARLY SIMON, AND THE JOURNEY OF A GENERATION by Sheila Weller, paperback published by Washington Square Press, 2008.)

Discussing the cover of Carly Simon's 1972 album No Secrets, Sheila Weller notes that the photo portrays the singer-songwriter as "the epitome of the 1970s educated woman," shown "in errand-doing, lunch-date-going motion in velour jeans, tote bag swinging."  In eighth grade, I picked up on all that subliminally.   More significantly, I took for granted in 1972 that women would have lives and careers of their own, unmarried. Weller does also note  a couple of details that did grab my conscious attention back then, "discreetly visible" under Simon's "tight jersey."

Weller in GIRLS LIKE US presents parallel biographies of Carly Simon, Carole King and Joni Mitchell.   It's about three parts relationships, one part songwriting, and one part social history. 

About social history, Weller is so right matching her subjects' albums to the zeitgeist of that era that I take her word for the parts of the story that I was too young to understand.   She fits their work into a bigger picture of immense cultural change, and she does so without idealizing that era. For example, she writes that Carole King, a teenager unmarried and pregnant in 1959 had therefore married and boarded "the elevator" (of adulthood) "when young adult life had meant responsibility and sober idealism.  Now [in 1967] it meant playfulness, politics, and sensuality" (189). 

Weller observes that Sixties social movements seemed to happen overnight, but she describes how they had been a long time in preparation.   We can see some of this in the family backgrounds of these three women:  Carole King's working-class parents and their divorce;  Joni Mitchell's escape to Bohemian life, immediately marred by pregnancy and the anguished choice between giving up either the career or the baby (haunted for decades after by her choice to give up the baby);  Carly Simon's wealthy, educated parents' cocktail parties with New York cultural figures and their "no secrets" lives with live-in employees who were also their lovers.  The sexual revolution didn't begin in 1967, it just went public.   Weller doesn't idealize any of this:
In hindsight, the last three years of the 1960s were like some self-wrought mini-Messianic Age plunked in the middle of the twentieth century.  Hubristic prophets spouted melodramatic rhetoric...; believers found revelations in holy texts (Weather Underground manifestoes, acid visions, Dylan or Beatles lyrics); [and Students for Democratic Action espoused] "fraternity and honesty."  But they devolved into tableaux both satirically grandiose and improbable...  (256)
Citing Wolfe, she describes Black Panthers sharing cocktails with Leonard Bernstein.  What she calls "the triumphalist chaos of late 60s rock, the radicals' political opera, the psychedelic madness" all "seemed to have backfired" by 1971:  assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin King, massacre at My Lai, and shootings of protesters at Kent State, not to mention high-profile drug-related deaths of counter-culture icons Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, all seemed to be signalling that 1971 was the time to try living out Bobby Kennedy's statement, "We're here to make gentle the life of this world" (321). We were ready for songs that asked, Ain't it good to know, you've got a friend?

About artistry, Weller confirms what I've divined since my days of squinting at LP inner liners' lyrics and composition credits:  Carly and Carole have the AABA form from Broadway in their blood, and all three women respect craft to an extent that bothered some of their peers and critics, for whom anything unspontaneous smacks of inauthenticity. King's lyricist-husband Gerry Goffin had wanted to write his own West Side Story with Carole, and their song "Up on the Roof," with strings added, was a nod in that direction.  Joni had jazz chords and the sounds of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross in mind long before she got the guitar and the folk label, longer still before her jazz albums of the 70s bombed.    

For this poisonous ideal of "authenticity," Weller credits the faux-vagabond Bob Dylan with spreading the notion that craft reeked of dishonesty.  In his encounters with these women and with the Beatles, his example and charisma gave them license to indulge in allusions to personal experiences that no one could divine.   Weller calls it "deep" songwriting that does more than find ways to say "I love you."  At one point in the mid-sixties, Joni Mitchell realizes, "Oh!  You can write about anything!"

All of that is very interesting, but the stuff about who did what in bed (or the bathroom!) with James Taylor (or Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, or Mama Cass Elliot's brother-in-law Russ Kunkel), about marriages brutal and sad, and about flings with Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger, and others -- just didn't interest me much.  Weller quotes many more women friends than I could keep track of dishing about the artist's relationships. 

All three women had long spells of self-doubt and critical indifference in the 80s and 90s, and all have come through with some acceptance that their audience will remain those of us whose notions of relationship were shaped by "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," "You've Got a Friend," and "Both Sides Now."

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

When Plot isn't Enough

(Reflections on THE ROMAN HAT MYSTERY, an early novel by Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee as "Ellery Queen", two novels by Henning Mankell, THE TROUBLED MAN and RETURN OF THE DANCING MASTER, and the Roman Polanski film CHINATOWN.]

Returning after forty years (!!!) to read a novel by a leader in the classic detective fiction of the 20th century's first half, I was disappointed.  It was all plot, with characters who were all "types," and no texture - memories, social observations beyond stereotypes, atmosphere, inter-textuality.  Another novel by a modern master, however, was not much more lively, despite the dutiful layering in of mixed feelings, memories, and cultural comments. 

"Ellery Queen" was once a powerful brand name for readers of detective fiction.  It covers stories, novels, and media products featuring detective - writer named Ellery Queen, and it's also the pseudonym for two men who wrote that fiction and edited the eponymous "mystery magazine."   At 12, "he" was my favorite, with his knack for decorously macabre murders and his emphasis on logic to solve the puzzles.  I especially recall a novel built on "The Twelve Days of Christmas," the last verse pinned to the back of the victim:  "Your true love gives to you this ... knife / The finishing stroke to end your life."  

So I returned with fond memories to Ellery Queen's THE ROMAN HAT MYSTERY, one of only a few available on Kindle.   Here, the murder occurs in row LL of a Broadway theatre during the performance of a violent play about organized crime.   Inspector Richard Queen, accompanied  by his Ivy League wunderkind Ellery, blocks access and egress from the theatre until it can be ascertained that, whoever committed the murder must still be in the theatre.

That's as interesting as it gets.   I kept turning pages from loyalty, while the Queens interview witnesses and acquaintances of the deceased, a shyster lawyer.   Clues are repeated:   He must have worn a hat, but none can be found... He owned several books on handwriting analysis...  He (or someone) had doodled the number 50,000 in his program, along with his own signature several times.
Who could have seen the murderer leave that seat?  Where could the hat be?   Why did the murderer take it?  We know that the victim brought a hat into the theatre because he was in evening dress, and, logically, someone would have noticed had he not worn a hat to match the suit.   That, and other leaps of "logic", were pretty debatable.  By the time I learned Whodunnit, I didn't recall much about the culprit, and I didn't care how he did it.  

In the sixty years between Ellery Queen's novel and Henning Mankell's THE TROUBLED MAN, we've come to expect a more textured story.   Plot is overlaid with backstory and sidestory.   For backstory we have Detective Kurt Wallender's tense relationships with his grown daughter and with his ex-wife her mother, with parallels to his ambivalent relationship with his father.  The sidestory is related:  Wallender fears that he is showing signs of the Alzheimer's disease that destroyed his father. 

But the texture here felt just as generic as the plot in the Ellery Queen novel.   We get a bit about the plot -- concerning the disappearance of a retired admiral who had something to do with a Soviet submarine's spying on Sweden in the 1980s -- and then a bit about Wallender's fraught family life, and then a bit of worry about his mental capacities.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.   It's clear by the end that Mankell himself has tired of this character, and he sets up a new focus on the daughter's crime-fighting career.

Mankell gives himself a boost of energy by introducing a different detective for his RETURN OF THE DANCING MASTER.   This one has a bizarre murder that Ellery Queen might have been too fastidious to describe:   the victim's bloody footprints show that the murderer tangoed with him -- or with his corpse.  Mankell varies the point of view, so that we know more than the detective about the one who did it.  When there's a second murder, we know that it's someone else's doing. 

This novel succeeds in ways that the other two do not, creating some images and some encounters of characters that are gripping and haunting.   Even so, the "texturing" again seems routine.  Our detective, for example, has cancer, and the author checks in with the same set of thoughts periodically:  "Oh, I've got cancer, and I may not live much longer, and nothing matters, does it?"  Neo-Nazis are involved in the plot, and we run through a predictable series of thoughts about that every so often.

It may not be fair to compare novels to a movie, but CHINATOWN fits this discussion as an examplar of a detective fiction in which character, plot, and texture are all of one piece.   It's LA around 1940, an apparent paradise of elegant facades, blue pools, and lush green fields.  The characters look good, and their roles in life are well-defined: the efficient detective, the dignified wife, the crusading politician.  The plot is straightforward:  Hired to catch the politician in his affair, the detective discovers that nothing is what it seemed -- not the man, not his wife, not even the blue pool or the green field.  Nothing feels added on, not even Jerry Goldsmith's music (which really was added in later):  it's all integrated.