Category Archives: Misc

Selective Pious

Art and artist. Two separate entities that are, to many, often inseparable. Can you, in fact, separate the two and appreciate the art as wholly divorced from the artist? For some (like me) it’s easy: YES. For others, not so much. It’s the latter group that can give me pause.

Before going further, I acknowledge that this can-of-worms topic is nothing that can be tackled in a single blog post, but its surface is worthy of scratching nonetheless.

To quickly take an extreme example from recent headlines, consider Bill Cosby. He’s a comedic legend who’s been adored and respected by millions for decades. It turns out, however, that the lovable Dr. Huxtable was portrayed by a man who is (and has long been) allegedly nothing short of a sexually predacious monster. With dozens of accusers taking to the media, there’s the primary concern of the law and whether any (or how many) trials will take place. A secondary concern, however, particularly among practitioners and fans of stand-up comedy, has been the extent to which Cosby’s artistic output has been affected by such allegations. (There’s one specific Spanish Fly bit that really brings the conundrum into sharp relief.) If the allegations are true, then can any part of his catalogue be enjoyed by someone who knows “the real Cosby”? Or should it all be thrown out? (For an interesting take on this, see Greg Fitzsimmons’s shameless plundering of Cosby’s material to save the jokes and personally discredit him.) Also, as for Cosby specifically, it’s notable that he’s still alive and working (or at least trying to). I do think there’s a difference between boycotting concerts to make a financial statement/protest and wholly discounting decades of written and recorded material as if they never existed. I should also mention that, while I like some of Cosby’s comedy, I’m not the biggest fan of his work, so I’m not writing as a champion of his output.

But back to the original point without getting lost further down the Cosby rabbit hole: I believe an artist can be separated from his or her art. (I do admit to having some occasional odd biases, but I’m always trying to police myself.) Of course, I kind of have to. For one, I’m a Wagnerian. Additionally, I’m a deep Miles Davis fan. (More on that later.) Beyond them, I know that many of the artists whose music, etc. I — and many of you — connect with are flawed at best and, for some, downright repellent at worst.

Take the aforementioned Wagner, arguably one of the easiest targets as far as this is concerned. As often happens, in the last several months I’ve had a couple of folks rebut my discussing his music with the standard response that’s a variation of, “Well, he was an anti-Semite.” Yes. No argument here. (However, I highly recommend Think Classical for detailed discussion and dismantling of much of the anti-Semitic lore.) Though, it’s also true that he died a mere half-century before Adolf Hitler was made German Chancellor. While Cosima Wagner, his young widow (and by many accounts a more virulent anti-Semite than he), along with their children, took it upon themselves to pal around with members of the Third Reich, this happened decades after his death. That his music was held up by Nazi party officialdom isn’t itself necessarily a comment on Richard’s own views in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. And, yes, although the composer’s great-granddaughter (and current Bayreuth intendant) Katharina Wagner has said that her ancestor’s anti-Semitism is likely present in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the same can hardly be attributed to the whole ouvre (though many try). Does Siegfried Idyll *sound* bigoted to you?

[Through this, Wagner also takes the heat for other musicians who lived, comfortably or even at all, under the Third Reich yet don’t receive such admonishment.]

I’m of course not saying that everyone has to dismiss an artist’s sins and adore their artwork. Obviously, in the case of Wagner, someone closely related to Jewish heritage or the Holocaust may detest Wagner’s music on principle. That’s completely understandable. What I don’t understand, however, is the social justice warrior mentality – particularly of those far removed from a given circumstance or cause – of tearing down an artist’s output because of such faults as a way to punish them and right past wrongs. And the reason for my misunderstanding boils down to this: where’s the line? I would think that combating racism (or sexism, etc.) itself would be more important than quibbling over (mostly neutral) works of art by creators who may have been racist or sexist.

Such a mentality when put into action often leads to censorship. I think back to 2003 and the Dixie Chicks. Natalie Maines derided President Bush and the Iraq War run-up when performing overseas, and the group quickly became the target of a shocking campaign to silence their music and (hopefully, for the critics) their voices. I’m no Dixie Chicks scholar, but I believe much of their music before this incident was apoltical, meaning that the boycotting and censoring of their work was purely a reaction to their personal actions.

I’m sure that, on principle, many of the aforementioned SJWs sympathized with the Chicks, and that’s certainly understandable. But now let’s replace Dixie Chicks with Richard Wagner or Chuck Berry or Paula Poundstone or R. Kelly. The list goes on and on.

Such dismissals are a cousin of the trigger warning: don’t listen to/read/watch _____ because it’s by a _____ist; in doing so, you’re supporting _______ism.

This is a tricky topic, as I can easily be perceived as being either a defender of horrible behavior or a regressive reactionary. Neither are remotely true. It comes down to a question of whether a piece of music, a book, or a film automatically reflects the worldview and/or behavior of the creator. It surely can happen, but it’s not always the case.

Implying an automatic relation has the effect of making a piece, effectively, “morally programmatic.” As I always tell my students, you can easily make any piece programmatic (i.e., about something) with even the vaguest reference. Simply replace Concerto No. 3 in Eb with Twilight and the job is done. Even with no further discussion, the listener is now implicitly encouraged to hear the piece in relation to “twilight.” Similarly, by relating the work to the composer’s misdeeds, one is implying (Racist) Concerto No. 3 in Eb when the work could be heard as anything but. Is Appalachian Spring promoting homosexuality (or sexuality of any kind), considering the composer’s personal life? (If you find that question ridiculous, then I’ve made my point.) And does this Euro-centric and racist clip by Leonard Bernstein negate his life’s work or merely just complicate his person?:

It’s curious that explicitly racist songs, such as those by Stephen Foster, have managed to remain ubiquitous through considerable sterilizing revisions, whereas non-______ist works by others are shunned simply for associative reasons.

There is, of course, a peculiar inverse of this phenomenon: people liking an artist’s output because of their personal statements or deeds. This is why I largely avoid “message music” (e.g., political and religious music), as the music becomes secondary to the message. It’s a delicate balance that’s difficult to pull off. For me, Rage Against the Machine is one of the few to do this consistently so well. Just ask House Speaker Paul Ryan, a professed fan whose beliefs and policies are diametrically opposed to the band’s message.

I’ll regularly (but not always, depending on the situation) give a quick substantive defense of liking Wagner’s music when confronted with the anti-Semitism proclamation. Sometimes I’ll counter with the following, particularly if I already know the answer: do you like Miles Davis? The Prince of Darkness recorded music adored by millions, and in particular his collaboration with Gil Evans found its way into the mainstream. And though tales of Davis’s narcissism and drug abuse are legion — arguably common characteristics for many high-achieving musicians of the time — perhaps less known are the accounts of his wife-beating, not to mention his general misogyny. To hear Frances Davis, Miles’s first wife and the namesake of “Fran Dance,” discuss it in The Miles Davis Story is chilling. (You can also read discussion of it here.) What’s more, Miles was a trained boxer — not a prizefighter, but his study and practice are well documented. So while domestic abuse is horrible enough, his was that much more lethal considering his strength and training.

Now, if you’re reading this and 1) you like Miles’s music and 2) this is news to you, are you now going to discard all of your Miles recordings and boycott his music going forward? The more likely outcome is that you’ll perhaps give some thought to 1) how horrible he was for that and 2) the cognitive dissonance between your admiration for his music and disgust with his person. And that’s a perfectly natural reaction. And, what’s more, you’ll likely continue to listen to your favorite Davis recordings. (I’m curious to see how the upcoming biopic addresses this, if at all.)

Another reason this has been on my mind more than usual lately is because of River of Fundament. I wrote that many of the reviews have been, to put it kindly, sub-par (i.e., lazy and uninformed). A common thread in a number of the reviews is the charge of misogyny in the work. This review, for example, refers to the work’s sexism without actually providing a supporting example. Similar to others, it relies upon a general notion that, because Barney’s works are generally masculine, they are therefore misogynist, and therefore River of Fundament is no different. A sensational argument, but not a substantive one. (In all transparency, I’ve not seen all of The Cremaster Cycle, so I can’t speak to that work with any authority. As I wrote here, my only real Barney reference is River itself.) In fact, one could easily argue that the female characters in River are held in higher regard than the male ones. (Another topic for another day.)

Of course, Barney aside, there’s the whole discussion of what makes a work “masculine” or “feminine” in the first place. And couldn’t the argument be made that such coded descriptors perpetuate said paradigm? If a woman makes an aggressive work and a man a gentle one, are the works therefore masculine and feminine, respectively? Or only when they align? (And when they align, is it automatically problematic?)

Furthermore, River is (more than) loosely based on Ancient Evenings, whose author, Norman Mailer, is associated with misogyny like Wagner is associated with anti-Semitism. Like Barney, my experience with Mailer is limited to River of Fundament and Ancient Evenings (which I’m currently reading). Now, from the little I’ve read about Mailer’s life and the video interviews I’ve watched, misogynist seems an apt description. (As an example, of his half-dozen wives, he stabbed one.) That being said, I have yet to really interpret Evenings itself as being misogynist. But to many the combination of Barney and Mailer apparently is the artistic equivalent of a local chapter meeting of NO MA’AM.

Back to the the beginning: where is the line? Anti-Semitism is bad. (Duh.) Misogyny is bad. (Duh.) (Well, except when it’s associated with the gentle styling of a muted trumpet, that is…) What other qualities are non-starters? Charlie Parker was a drug addict who stole from his bandmates and, though an artistic asset, was often a personal liability to his friends and associates. (It’s striking that one of his proteges was a young Miles Davis.) What qualities cross said line? And do those qualities negate the artwork? Carlo Gesualdo was a forward-thinking composer in the sixteenth century whose idiosyncratic harmonic approach wouldn’t really be seen nor heard again for centuries. He also committed a double homicide (and kept on composing). Does “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)?” perpetuate misogyny? Its composer, Duke Ellington, was a rampant womanizer. Can it not be true that Ellington was both a cad and also arguably the greatest American composer?

Forgetting art altogether, what about that band of racist and misogynist eighteenth-century philosophers and politicians that so many Americans revere? Oh, sorry, I meant the Founding Fathers. What about them?

It’s easy — and tempting — to throw the baby out with the bathwater in such scenarios. But art, like its creators, is complicated. Virtue isn’t a prerequisite for creating good, meaningful work. Similarly, a good piece of art can be appreciated in spite of the artist’s shortcomings without being seen as a tool to negate or celebrate them.

Matthew Barney & Jonathan Bepler’s ‘River of Fundament’

Last weekend I finally saw Matthew Barney‘s River of Fundament, the 2014 film that is the operatic result of his years-long collaboration with Jonathan Bepler to explore, as Barney has put it in interviews, “the language of opera.” I wouldn’t dare call this “an official review,” particularly since I’m still absorbing the work seven days on, but I’d like to log some thoughts. I find it’s a worthwhile endeavor for a few reasons — some selfish, others less so:
• This is my site. I’ll do what I please.
• It may help me process it for my own understanding.
• A number of the legitimate reviews in circulation, particularly the more negative ones, are flawed in at least one or two common respects. (More on that below.) I may not be The New York Times or The Guardian, but I get some traffic. In light of that, I’d like to offer my own $0.02.

Any attempt at a concise summary of the film’s plot is futile, but I’ll try anyway. (You can read or hear far better synopsis straight from the source here.)

River of Fundament is a loose interpretation of Normal Mailer’s 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, and the content is largely informed by both the book as well as critic Harold Bloom’s review in The New York Review of Books. Ancient Evenings is a graphic tale of an ancient Egyptian nobleman who, through magic, reincarnates himself several times in order to attain greater knowledge and power, ultimately failing his third rebirth. The 700-page+ novel, which Mailer considered his best, was largely panned by critics because of its intensely sexual and scatological passages and themes. Traveling from womb to the outside world, the reincarnated must traverse a river of feces, or River of Fundament. Also included are tales of Isis and Osiris, Horus and Set, the Battle of Kadesh, a peculiar accounting of embalmment, and other detailed curiosities. Content aside, it is also written in an engaging but unusual manner. It’s less like you’re being told a story and more like you’re peeking into others’ lives. As for Bloom, his criticism suggested that Ancient Evenings was symbolically autobiographical for Mailer, in that he had hoped, through his life’s work, to eventually evolve or reincarnate into one of The Great American Authors, namely Ernest Hemingway (as represented by the pharaoh, per Bloom). That, and Bloom considered the sordid descriptions of ancient Egypt to be a comment on American society.

River of Fundament’s central setting is the wake of Norman Mailer, taking place in a precise reconstruction of Mailer’s Brooklyn home (which just so happens to be floating down the East River as a funeral barge). The protagonist is the dead Mailer himself, whose various reincarnations visit his own wake, each being reborn in a river of feces that flows beneath the home. The wake is full of friends, family, and spirits. (For an extra dose of realism, the wake guests include various levels of arterati, many of which could be tied to Mailer in one way or another, such as Fran Lebowitz, Salman Rushdie, Elaine Stritch, Dick Cavett, and more. The casting of Paul Giamatti as Ptah-nem-hotep and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ellen Burstyn both as Hathfertiti also lend “celebrity” credence.) Over the course of the evening, the living gradually exit, leaving only the spirits as the successive Normans work to ascend to greatness. Parallel to this are three separate live performances filmed in Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York, the footage for which is interspersed throughout each of the film’s three acts, respectively. These performances each center around the ritualistic destruction and rebirth of an American-made car (harkening back to Bloom’s essay), with each car acting as a simulacrum for Norman’s spirit. Also, like Ancient Evenings, the live performances tell ancient tales. In Los Angeles’s REN the car (Norman) dies its first death, only to be reborn. The Detroit performance (KHU) is a retelling of Isis and Osiris, and Brooklyn’s BA includes the fight between Horus and Set, both symbolically and physically.

Throughout the three acts, these parallel worlds eventually blend together. In Act I, the wake’s living and spirits are separated — only the Egyptian characters (Hathfertiti, Ptah-nem-hotep, Set, Nepthys, Isis) able to communicate with both — and REN is presented as a flashback to another time. In Act II, the wake’s drunkenness begins to blur the living and spiritual worlds, which are affected by KHU‘s telling of Isis and Osiris. Finally, Act III sees Mailer’s house near completely taken over by the spirit realm (save Norman’s widow) while the wake crosses paths with the seemingly contemporaneous battle between Horus and Set.

I’ve been wanting to see this for over 18 months. Thankfully, the Cleveland Institute of Art‘s Cinematheque, in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland offered two screenings over the weekend and I was able to attend. Frustratingly, I missed the Detroit screenings in June 2014 because I didn’t even know about the work until I saw the beautiful, jaw-dropping exhibition at Munich’s Haus der Kunst the following month. (I touched upon the work in this earlier post.) It was a happy accident that I saw the Munich show — the first major one for the sculptures and film in tandem — as I simply visited the museum on my day off. Though, within about twenty minutes, I was admiring the Boat of Ra with equal parts wonder and awe. Many of the sculptures were products of or featured in the live performances (e.g., the destroyed cars), but the exhibit also featured pieces related to the wake setting as well as production stills and other small works. I spent at least a couple hours in the exhibit, devouring the program and gallery’s every description and evaluating every crevice. I hadn’t before heard of Ancient Evenings, but I got the gist, and I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of Egyptian mythology and the American auto industry (and, particularly living so close, Detroit). Once through the exhibit, I decided that I had to see the corresponding film. How or when were an absolute mystery, as it had already left Munich and was on its way to Australia.

So, after over a year-and-a-half of waiting, occasionally binge-reading what info I could find (including reviews), and often pondering about what the work would actually be like, I was delighted to have a regional screening and my calendar align. Once it looked as if the weather would be clear for the 3.5-hr.+ commute each way, I even started reading Ancient Evenings just to at least get a point of reference. (I also read Bloom’s criticism, of course.) By this point, though, I was shouldering a burdensome dichotomy: my own ponderous — idealized? — notions about what River would be, and the often mixed-to-negative reviews by those who seem to know Barney’s work well. (After all, it’s hard for me to get out of the house for fun these days between work and a baby at home, and I was committing significant mileage and hours to see it. What if it turned out to be a bust?) At the close of Act III, one of my initial thoughts after getting my wits about myself was: Did I see the same film as some of those critics?.

I was moved.

And I wasn’t just moved in a materialistic “I finally got to see it” sort of way, but rather genuinely so. It caught me off guard, as I knew so little about the actual content going in — or, rather, how it would be realized. Yeah, I read about it for many months, had already made my way through a good chunk of Ancient Evenings, and had seen the gallery exhibition, but the music and most of the images and action were a mystery to me. (Very much unlike, for example, my seeing my first Ring Cycle or Einstein on the Beach — I was well studied going in and went for the live experience.) Running just shy of six hours (not counting the two intermissions), River is relentless throughout save the brief, pastoral prelude and postlude. And, yes, as is made clear in every review (and I can attest), the work is graphic in nearly every way, occasionally bordering on the perverse. Much has been made of the scatological and sexual themes and depictions. Fair enough. However, in all honesty, I didn’t feel that the explicit moments overshadowed the rest of the work. (For example, the sexual occurrences are devoid of titillation.) While there’s at least a running thread of vulgarity throughout, it’s worth noting that more can be said of Ancient Evenings, the work upon which River is at least loosely based. Action aside, the film is beautifully and impeccably shot. The set pieces, makeup, color palettes, and camera work really synthesize into visual enchantment.

To say that River is rife with symbolism is to say that I breathe oxygen. Plenty is there for the uninitiated. However, the deeper one digs into both the film and its myriad sources, the more rewarding of an experience it is. For example, take KHU, Act II’s live performance from Detroit. If one knows the story of Isis and Osiris, particularly as told by Mailer, then you realize just how ingenious Barney’s interpretation is. Here, the resurrected Trans Am acts both as Norman’s spirit but also as Osiris, who is ultimately deceived and murdered by Set. Once his body has been found and retrieved from the river by FBI Agents Isis and Nepthys, Set (a detective, now portrayed as a double by both Eugene and Herbert Perry) commands that the body (car/spirit) now be dismembered and cut into fourteen pieces, all of which are then incinerated and poured into molten molds, creating some of the more impressive exhibit sculptures. At the end of the act, Isis then gives birth to Horus, who will attempt to avenge his father (Osiris) in Act III. If that weren’t enough, at the beginning of KHU, Barney (representing Osiris) is dressed as James Lee Byars in The Death of James Lee Byars, and placed inside a goldleaf-lined ambulance near his golden Trans Am. While this may seem like a non-sequitur at first, it’s worth noting that Byars was born in Detroit but died in Cairo, Egypt, and his Death was one of his most known pieces. It’s all there: Detroit, Egypt, art, gold (an idée fixe throughout River), and death.

If anything negatively affected me, it was the utter bleakness at the end of Act II and the first part of Act III. The wake’s drunken, origiastic peak in Act II and the pharaoh Usermare’s desacratory holding court at the beginning of Act III was rather discomforting. However, I assume that was Barney’s intended effect. Consequently, I came away disturbed more by Usermare’s character than with anything he (or his court) specifically did. I was affected but in no way offended.

I mentioned a number of reviews having shared flaws. Many of them (over-)emphasize the (legitimately) graphic elements. It’d be easy to assume, based on reading most reviews, that River is six hours of continuous, purposefully alienating revulsion. Not so. (It’d be like saying Strauss’s Salome is only noteworthy for brief nudity and a touch of necrophilia, saying nothing of the revolutionary musical score.) Who knows; perhaps it helps that I’m not easily disgusted. At any rate, I went in with an open and, admittedly, willing mind. On this point I’ll note that Barney has stated that he himself was uncomfortable with Mailer’s explicit nature in Ancient Evenings, implying that he wouldn’t let his own taste impede Mailer’s to a certain degree.

The most glaring failure of most of the reviews, however, relates to the music. River of Fundament is almost always reviewed strictly through the prism of visual art or as an art film (emphasized by the exhibitions and limited screenings, respectively), both of which it certainly is *in part*. However, this is truly a collaborative piece by Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler. That Bepler’s masterfully eclectic score is often treated like any old soundtrack is beyond egregious. Going back to the beginning, Barney and Bepler wanted to tackle “the language of opera.” And, donning my professor hat for a moment, “opera” connotes (mostly) continuous music. (Technically, River could be a singspiel, etc. because of the dialogue, but that’s why Barney often avoids labeling it as opera outright.) Bepler’s largely through-composed score takes up much of the film — I’d guess at least 4.75 hours of it. And it’s not just a sound bed, but wholly integral to the dramatic experience. Text is sung throughout — with both traditional and extended techniques — via aria, recitative, and sprechstimme, complete with solos, ensembles, and choruses. The libretto comes from excerpts of Ancient Evenings, Hemingway, Whitman, Emerson, Yeats, and others.

Also noteworthy is that most of the music is diegetic in some form or another. For example, when the music starts to emanate during Norman’s eulogy (about 20+ minutes into the film), it quietly emerges from the musicians attending the wake, almost as if they’re warming up during the reading. (The eulogy, read by Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, is an excerpt of Ancient Evenings.) Gradually, Stritch (and others) begin to incorporate elements of sprechstimme and recitative, taking the “live” performers and sound and making them extra-diegetic, more for the audience than the subjects. The music generally becomes more dissonant and “ancient” as the film progresses, with string instruments made from sheet metal in Act II’s KHU, and Act III’s BA featuring brass horns made from car parts, and Native American Indian music in Act III’s latter wake scenes. Bepler handles these transitions — both small and large — masterfully throughout.

The stylistic diversity is truly staggering, and, to my ears, is (almost) all very effective. (I was a little jarred by the R&B section near the end of Act II’s wake, possibly because it was juxtaposed with one of the more nihilistic scenes.) The score includes elements of classical, (free) jazz, folk, mariachi, soul, R&B, traditional Native American Indian, Partch-ian systems of both construction and micro-tonality, drum and bugle corps, and more. At first glance, that may seem ineffectually broad. However, when you consider some of the performers, it’s a veritable Who’s Who of each style, two of which perform main characters: modern voice pioneer Joan La Barbara (as Norman’s widow), and free jazz percussion pioneer Milford Graves (as Norman II; also notable is that he’s Jonathan Bepler’s former teacher). Other musicians include Dr. Lonnie Smith, Lila Downs, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), James Carter (in a brief, unexpected appearance that made my jaw hit the floor), Eugene and Herbert Perry, Belita Woods, and many more. Though, Barney wasn’t going for names alone — the three live performances which are spliced into each act feature local talent as well. I can personally attest to this, as a friend of mine, Dr. James Fusik, performed as part of Detroit’s KHU, as well as a number of other familiar faces of colleagues and former classmates. Also, I’d be remiss to not give special mention to Detroit-based vocalist Jennie Knaggs, who deftly performs a variety of styles throughout (both during the wake and in KHU).

Furthermore, it’s not just a matter of Bepler juxtaposing varying styles, but rather his ability to so fluently filter them through his own voice and to serve the story. For example, Act I’s REN features a drum & bugle corps as well as a mariachi band with vocalist. Similar to the early wake music, the ensembles mostly begin stylistically traditionally, but eventually the brass are playing dense harmonic clusters and Lila Downs’s beautiful contralto sings atop dissonant bursts from the mariachi violins. The two ensembles are initially separated spatially and musically, the camera and audio going back and forth. Ultimately, in the culmination of REN (and Act I), they find themselves performing together in the same space while Khepera, in a ceremoniously profane fashion (isn’t it all?), prepares the automotive spirit of Norman for death/rebirth.

Of course, the score isn’t just a collection of similarly “Bepler-ed” styles. The composer also demonstrates his ability to tackle various musics head-on. For example, in the wake’s latter half of Act I, the young Hathfertiti sings a truly charming and catchy folk-pop ballad for Norman I (to the guests who can’t see Norman I, and to Norman I himself). It’s a fully realized song amidst the overall work, abruptly cut off at the end by a melismatic outburst from an angered Set. The same can be said for the more straightforward classical writing for Set’s passages, particularly in Act II’s KHU. Heard out of context, one may assume that it’s just another excerpt of contemporary American opera.

The voice as an instrument and atmospheric sound device is really highlighted, particularly in the wake scenes and in KHU, much more so than I had anticipated. It was a pleasant surprise. The aforementioned La Barbara and Knaggs as well as powerhouses Phil Minton and Sidsel Endresen really shine in this regard, as well as the wake’s chorus of Kjersti Kveli, Gelsey Bell, and Megan Schubert. A number of the sounds border on inhuman, particularly from Minton, but their conviction, virtuosity, and gravitas belie any absurdity.

Related to the music, one rather common criticism overall (not just music) is that the film engages in tokenism throughout, such as with the use of the mariachi band or with Act III’s African-American step dance team. I didn’t really get that impression; nothing stood out as such to me. Frankly, those making such broad (and lazy) accusations need to dig deeper into the material. This is yet another common shortcoming. (*)

Take the step dance team as an example, as that’s one that is occasionally highlighted as tokenism. The ensemble appears as part of Norman II’s ascension ceremony (en route to rebirth as Norman III) in Act III. Norman II is portrayed by Milford Graves, whose every scene from rebirth to death fittingly incorporates rhythm in one way or another (sometimes free, other times not). In a final celebration of rhythm, is a step dance team not out of the realm of aesthetic possibility? Until this point, Graves had been playing rhythms and music mostly himself (with found objects, his body and voice, and drums alike), so how is this group not appropriate for joining him in a rhythmic/percussive chorus? Similar criticisms have been levied against the Native American Indian chorus that appears in Act III (and musically opens the film’s trailer). However, it’s worth noting that Norman III is played by the 95-year-old Chief Dave Beautiful Bald Eagle. So wouldn’t that be appropriate also?

Taken together, the exhibition, the film, and its sources are a staggering gesamtkunstwerk. Each may be appreciated differently and separately, of course, and it’s certainly a calorie-burner that, arguably, requires some studying. But if you’re willing to put forth the time and the effort, the payoff makes it more than worthwhile. Personally, I imagine there’ll be more for me to stew over once I finish Ancient Evenings and contemplate the film even more. In fact, having sat and digested it for a while, I’d like a second viewing and listening just to help make more sense of the visual minutiae and to hear Bepler’s amazing score another time. River of Fundament, much like its namesake, is something you enter at your own risk, but you may come out the other side better for it.

 

 

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*I initially did have a question about Horus and Set’s respective pre-fight entourages in Act III. Many thanks to Twitter user @noodlz09, who performed in River, for clarifying. They pointed out that those characters are Mardi Gras Indians, whose “composite ethnicity” is a nice analogue for the metals and characters. After that, nothing stood out to me as racial, ethnic, or gender tokenism. I’m grateful for the clarification — both to set the record straight and also to allay my sole potential concern with the work.

Fandom and Partisanship II: Under the Empire and Dreaming

Seemingly, fandom isn’t gauged just by what you like, but also how you like it and what else you may dislike. This partisan aspect has long baffled – and often irritates – me. I touched on this a bit in this long post about Dave Matthews Band specifically.

Allow me to briefly indulge one of my great lifelong interests that hasn’t yet been mentioned once on this site. In doing so, I’d also like to go far out on a limb to offer an unexpected analogy. Consider it in the vein of one of my favorite posts (on Wagner & Seinfeld), though neither as detailed nor robust. That as yet unnamed interest? Star Wars. Its analogy? Dave Matthews Band.

Unless you haven’t heard, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is out now. Commercial ubiquity notwithstanding, this is a big event for myself and legions of other deep fans. Taken together, the Star Wars series are my default favorite movies, and the story has been with me as long as I can remember. (A cherished childhood bath toy of mine was a Gamorrean guard action figure.) I won’t go through and defend my Star Wars pedigree, but suffice it to say that I’ve dedicated a significant amount of time and money (and my mom’s when younger) to the franchise over my life. As an example, though, I can’t recall a year in which I haven’t received at least one Star Wars-related gift.

Once this new sequel trilogy (ST) is complete, it’ll tell a tale that spans three generations and has been over forty years in the making. It’s been a decade since the last entry (Episode III); or, according to some, it’s been over three decades (Episode VI, discounting I-III altogether). Episode VII‘s opening night was, admittedly, emotional for me, and it was one of the most fun movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long while, likely since the final moments of Episode III in 2005.

I write series above to take the entire story into account. Yes, I’m a prequel trilogy (PT) defender. It’s worth mentioning, of course, because nowadays (and in recent years) the PT has come under universal fire from both non-fans and fans alike. I’ve been hard pressed to find an article or conversation about VII that doesn’t also include at least a glancing blow to the prequels. Similarly, in conversations with other fans over the years, it’s become apparent that fandom becomes partisan: it’s not enough to love Star Wars, but one must also distance himself from the PT (and, to a certain extent, George Lucas himself). I’m the first to acknowledge the prequels’ myriad flaws, the two most pronounced of which are the acting and the special effects. However, the PT’s biggest asset, to me, was that it told a new story. Granted, the eventual destination was a given (i.e., the rise of Darth Vader), but little of the journey was known. And, though it may seem counterintuitive considering the near universal praise of VII, I believe that the prequels have, in a sense, been propped up a bit by the newest installment.

I came home from my first seeing Episode VII to a quiet house with everyone asleep, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I was pretty jazzed up and still sporting my ear-to-ear grin. Aside from the movie being so fun, I was greatly impressed by J.J. Abrams’s ability to powerfully capture the look and the feel of the original trilogy (OT). Unable to sleep, I ruminated on what I had just seen, and gradually a big concern started to accompany the giddiness: I’d seen this all before, but in Episode IV (and bits of V and VI). I of course noticed all of the cues and nods (and “echoes” as it’s been euphemistically stated in the press) while watching the movie (e.g., Tattooine, Death Star, Death Star II attack run, Mos Eisley, Luke’s lightsaber in the wampa cave, etc.), but I let them go. The more I thought about it, however, the more I felt almost insulted. A number of reviews mention this, but often only in passing. I mean, in a vacuum, the movie is really great. But in the context of the overall series, it treads trodden trails. Much like Rey nesting in an aged, abandoned AT-AT, Abrams has come home to roost in the decades-old shell of the OT. I waited many years to see the story continue in a new direction, only to get a quasi-reboot, albeit cleverly executed.

As George Lucas correctly noted in his recent interview with Charlie Rose, “[Disney] wanted to do a retro movie. I don’t like that… Every movie I work… very hard to make them… completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships… make it new…”

(This of course makes it seem like I dislike the movie. My repeated viewings attest otherwise. I’m just airing a grievance.)

Disney and Abrams decided to play it safe “for the fans.” In corporate speak, that just means “recycle what’s popular.” Instead of an inventive space opera about family dynamics (OT) or an unexpected dive into political gamesmanship and interpersonal relationships (PT), Abrams et al. decided to don Han’s proverbial old coat (new coat?) for one last joy ride. Now I sit and wait for Episode VIII, as that will certainly determine the ultimate fate of VII. If it’s a re-hashing of V, then that’s truly bad and VII becomes deeply scarred. If it goes in a new direction, this can be largely forgotten. As a craftsman, Abrams did a near perfect job, but I’m delighted that he won’t be directing the next installment.

It seems odd to complain so much about something I so much enjoy. I just can’t believe that, with everything VII got so right (the atmosphere, acting, and minutiae), the story goes almost nowhere new.

I said this had something to do with Dave Matthews Band, right?

As detailed here (and so I don’t have to again in this post), I find myself, once again, in the perceived minority when it comes to their discography (similar to the series above). As I explained in that post, I believe that the now-eschewed post-Lillywhite albums of the band’s arguable “middle period” (Everyday and Stand Up) are more in line with the core or so-called “classic” DMB approach than its successors Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King (as electric of an album as its immediate predecessors, if not more so) and Away from the World. Yes, Everyday and Stand Up appear different on the surface — Dave playing electric guitar, shorter arrangements, a more “pop” production aesthetic — but the overall musical formula remained: saxophone and violin as lead melodic and solo instruments, intricate rhythm guitar parts and patterns, and despite the songs’ lengths, many of them stretched out when performed live.

(It’s worth noting, for the record, that a third studio album, Busted Stuff, was released during that “middle period.” Nowhere near as electric as the other two, it was a re-recording of much of the fabled Lillywhite Sessions, released with less fanfare than is typical of the band. Fan reception is often mixed on this one as well.)

Supposedly, this “classic” sound returned with Big Whiskey…, an album in which Tim Reynolds’s electric guitar starts to dominate melodically and the horns (and there’s still a violin, right?) become more a stereotypical rock horn section than individual melodic assets. (Coincidentally, Big Whiskey… is the band’s seventh studio album…DMB’s own Episode VII?) Part of what makes the band stand out from the rest — a rock band with no lead guitar — was largely foregone. This move was further solidified in Away from the World, the band’s triumphant return to its partnership with producer Steve Lillywhite, lauded by many as was the ST’s stewardship by J.J. Abrams — a return to the “original approach” done “for the fans.” And yet both missed the mark in certain respects: Away sounds more like a Dave Matthews solo album than a DMB effort, and Abrams’s VII is a quasi-reboot of IV as opposed to a new story headed in a new direction.

One big difference between these two properties is that, regardless of approach, DMB’s sound continues to grow and evolve. Any discussion of a “classic sound” is largely an academic exercise. Star Wars, on the other hand, risks no longer growing nor evolving in new directions depending on what happens after VII.

Taking a step back, however, my little analogy comes more into focus. For both DMB and Star Wars, respectively:
• The early releases — the first three studio albums and first three films — loom large over the rest of the catalogue.
• The middle period — the second three studio albums and films — are often vocally disliked by the fan base despite being commercially successful.
• The middle period brought divisive technical change — commercialized production and special effects.
• The middle period continued using parts of the old approach — keeping the guitar out of the spotlight and telling new stories to establish the series’ mythology — even though such aspects were obscured by the technical change.
• Fans have an almost Tourrette-like need to voice their disapproval of the middle period to one another and non-fans alike.
• The recent period — the seventh and eighth studio albums and the seventh film — saw a move away from core approaches (guitar as lead instrument and re-treading old stories).
• Fans have, curiously, thus far lauded the recent periods of both as having righted the wrongs of each middle period despite going in starkly new directions — directions that, in theory, are odd ones to be celebrating.

In both cases, I’m not saying that the middle period (the three studio albums and/or the PT) is better than the rest of the its respective catalogue, but rather that it’s not quite the black sheep that it’s made out to be. Similarly, the partisan back-and-forth that surrounds each is lost on me. (It’s a reason I’m not actively involved in fan club/membership community threads and discussions, though I observe such from afar and in conversation. I just like each for my own enjoyment.) With two more ST films on the way and another DMB studio album in progress, I’m curious to see how each progresses and how the “true fans” will react.

Boasting

Boasting. Like networking and politicking, I have a hard time with it. And that’s unfortunate, because it seems to be a prerequisite for success — or, at least, perceived success.

And what exactly do I mean by “boasting”? It takes many forms, but the most frequent tend to be overly proud gig and recording announcements as well as related humblebrags — and not just the promotions themselves, but the fact that they’re seemingly endless. Those that immediately come to mind for me are those for whom every gig is apparently the best/most creative/last one in (name the zip code). (Really? You’re never playing at that bar in the next town over again? But you just performed there last month…)

Of course, it’s expected and understandable that one is proud of what they’re doing. You would hope so. I know that I’m proud of my own projects and accomplishments, but I try not to be aggressively so, nor do I rub it in others’ faces.

Most days I’m greeted on social media by posts from friends and colleagues to the social media echo chamber, which come in the following general varieties:

• “Check out my new recording. Get the good sounds in your soul!”
• “I’m honored to be sharing the stage with _____ tonight/this weekend — the best band in ______!”
• “Contribute to my Kickstarter! Be part of something important!”
• *invitation to “like” another project*

And then there’s Kickstarter. Woof. I should mention that I don’t dislike all crowdfunding projects sight unseen. Quite the contrary — I think it’s a step in the right direction towards getting people to financially invest in music and the arts, a perennial topic on this blog. I believe I’ve contributed to three such campaigns: one was a Wagner recording project which was unsuccessful, another was the successful (and important) capstone for the Einstein on the Beach documentary, and another was for a colleague’s project (to which I may have donated after it met its threshold). Of course, those three are but a drop in the bucket when compared to the countless campaigns I’ve been invited to “join.”

Many crowdfunding endeavors strike me as odd in the sense that I just don’t completely understand why the fundraising is necessary. I’ve seen peers campaigning to record an album and asking for ridiculous (to me) totals, with such prices being the supposed bare minimum. At a certain level of “making it,” I can understand that, but unless you’re using studio time to actually write material or tinker away as part of the creative process, it seems a bit excessive to go hog wild. Need the album be recorded in GarageBand on a shoestring budget? No. A happy medium exists somewhere. Also, and back to the aforementioned boasting, it seems that every Kickstarted studio album is the greatest sonic experience to ever be recorded. I recall a musician I know personally posting about three different Kickstarter campaigns on Facebook within about a month of each other (one of which was his own), and each one was IMPORTANT!!!, with the listener/funder’s life being significantly “less than” had the campaigns failed. Maybe so, but I’d hate to be the crowdfunder caught crying wolf.

(Music — art in general — requires a financial and temporal investment to create, but it’s the financial aspect that I think escapes most people. As I started to discuss here, I believe that more honest and frank discussion of the money required to realize a project is needed, particularly as we move into this freemium/sharing economy.)

Now, before I get ahead of myself, is it wrong to post oneself in one of the aforementioned manners? No. I think I take real issue with the frequency at which it’s done.

You could easily argue that I do a poor job of “selling” myself. I rarely, if ever, “invite” someone to like a page/account, I don’t often post a link to one of these blog posts more than a couple times each (unless it’s doing well or has potential, which is a rather arbitrary decision/evaluation), and I surely undersell my gigs. It’s not because I’m trying to go unnoticed. Quite the opposite, in fact. I assume that, like myself, most people just tune out the constant barrage of self-hype hyperbole that floods social media (or unfollow such perpetrators altogether). That, and I’d rather “target” and invite those who I’m sure are interested than just carpet bomb the town or network.

I’ve started and stopped various drafts of this posts over the last couple months, prompted by some commiserating I’d been doing with a colleague a while back. We were reveling, as we occasionally do, in our mutual disgust with those who are seemingly political and PR professionals who just happen to have careers in the arts. And then while catching up on my RSS feeds the other evening I saw posts touching upon this general theme by two unrelated folks: jazz pianist George Colligan and music writer Bob Lefsetz. The former’s list of PR ideas made me laugh, and the latter hit the nail on the head, writing, “Beware of self hype. […] Tireless self-promoter is a gig, but it’s got nothing to do with art.”

At the core, and I know it’s an arguably naive and/or pithy statement, but I’d rather the work just speak for itself. Yes, I know that for the work to be heard then it must first be known (via promotion of some kind), but there has to be some sort of balance — and I believe that that balance skews more towards the art or product than the PR. And after all, the posts or gigs of mine that I’ve seen gain the most traction have been those that also enjoyed promotion or assistance from third parties, often unsolicited. A germ of an idea was planted and then grew. Some do, others don’t.

When it comes to “advice,” one constant seems to be that you should discover “your thing” and hone it. Well, I can safely say that self-promotion isn’t mine. And that’s just fine.

‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ at 20

pumpkins-6

The Smashing Pumpkins dropped a bomb on this date twenty years ago with the release of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a wide-ranging double album that stormed the mainstream with a parade of infectious singles and music videos, sweeping up ubiquitous airplay, accolades, and trophies in its wake. (Of the six singles, four became legitimate pop hits.) It also gave us a Billy’s shaved head and the iconic Zero logo. The epic double album covers the rock gamut, and it spawned the equally eclectic box set of b-sides The Aeroplane Flies High a couple years later. Two decades later, it’s still a force to be reckoned with. That’s the historic overview. For me, it’s a desert island twofer, something to which I still listen regularly, and a real touchstone as far as my own musical, artistic, and personal development is concerned.

I’ve debated and hesitated for months over whether to write anything for this occasion, but I can’t not acknowledge the date. Also, I think that SP’s influence has been rather downplayed or neglected, particularly this last decade, and that the band is often seen as a 90s holdout or nostalgia act than a continuing band. (Having seen the band on their most recent tour a couple months ago, I can report that Smashing Pumpkins is alive and well, sounding great live, and still releasing damn good songs.) I doubt Billy Corgan’s temper has helped the band’s legacy, but their significance and influence can’t be denied.

I’ll keep this relatively brief, partially due to time, but mostly for a few other reasons:
1. I can run my mouth and fingers about this album and band all day, and I don’t want to risk losing the forest for the trees.
2. It’s a mammoth work with a great deal of mythology around it. There’s not much I can add in an objective sense that hasn’t been already written. (Pitchfork and Stereogum articles put it more in an historical context.) If I were to really get wordy about it, I’d want to write about each piece. But there are 28 tracks altogether, and I wouldn’t really be breaking new ground.
3. I hold it on such a high pedestal that I don’t think I’d be able to fully do it justice anyway.

Another reason I’d like to opt out of the novel is that this is actually related to another looming topic that I’d like to hopefully touch on in a series of posts over the next year: 1996. In short, my reverence for that year is akin to the baby boomer fixation on the sixties and seventies. For an adolescent me, many formative albums were released during “the long 1996” (late ’95 to early ’97), which arguably begins, for me, with MCIS. (In fact, three of my Top Five — those still alive at the time — dropped seminal albums then.) More on that later.

I touched upon Mellon Collie some here and a little more here. It’s arguably distasteful, but I’ll go ahead and quote myself from that 2011 post as a starting point: “[At that time], SP was music. The incredibly variety on [MCIS] showed me that a rock band could be multi-dimensional, and that the musical possibilities could be endless.” To put it in context, I was twelve when the album came out and purchased it months later, a bit before my thirteenth birthday. If I’m not mistaken, I got it once “Tonight, Tonight” put the Top 40 — as well as MTV with its landmark music video — in a choke hold. Until that point, I had really liked various albums or compilations, but I dare say that MCIS was the first album that really led me down a rabbit hole and left a permanent mark (i.e., that I remain fascinated by today). I spent countless hours listening on headphones and reading the lyrics and looking at the artwork in the liner notes, lost in the myriad textures and styles. From there I quickly worked backward through the catalogue and “caught up” with the band’s history and output, but MCIS was my patient zero.

The diversity of style is part of what captured my attention. In a rock context, it really does have everything: anthemic hits (“Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Tonight, Tonight”), acoustic folk-laden ballads (“To Forgive,” “Stumbleine,” “Thirty-Three”), quirky alternative novelties (“Lily (My One And Only)”), the grunge-inspired (“Where Boys Fear To Tread”), dreamy psychedelia (“By Starlight”), nostalgic pop (“1979”), hard-driving rock and metal (“XYU” and “Tales of a Scorched Earth,” respectively), the sweeping rock epics (“Porcelina of the Vast Oceans,” “Thru the Eyes of Ruby”), and more. So much more. (For example, where else would a song like the lovely “Cupid de Locke” comfortably fit?) Disc 1 kicks off with the title track, a contemplative instrumental featuring piano, strings, and synths, giving way to “Tonight, Tonight,” a song that somehow manages to be anthemic and incorporate sweeping symphonic passages (performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to be exact) without being a ballad. It could be argued that the actual rock album begins with the third track “Jellybelly,” with the rest being a prelude — and what a prelude it is! Finally, regarding style, you can hear both where the band has been (e.g., Siamese Dream- and Gish-esque “Here Is No Why”) and things to come (e.g., “To Forgive” sounds like an Adore outtake). And the fact that all four band members sing at some point on the album is worth mentioning. The lullaby on which they all sing — “Farewell and Goodnight” — closes the album, ending with a solo piano passage which complements the album’s piano introduction. Just hit “repeat all” and you’re good to go.

Of course, as I mentioned here, ambient sounds abound, consonant and dissonant alike.

Most of the albums I’d heard until that point were, in a vacuum, rather homologous. Granted, the albums I had were diverse, but each one was rather consistent. Mellon Collie, on the other hand, was an entire sonic universe, and I found each system and planet appealing in a different way. Because of my age, and the fact that many of my friends are a few years older than I, I’m a bit out of step in my Pumpkins fandom, as they hold Siamese Dream on the pedestal. A great album, no doubt. I’ve worn out my copy of that also. However, I was at an age or stage when Mellon Collie was released that they likely were around the time of Siamese Dream or its predecessor Gish. Perhaps it’s because it was my first deep SP dive. However, twenty years later — writing that is a rare instance in which I feel old — I listen to MCIS more often than Siamese Dream. (I also listen to 1998’s Adore much more than a bulk of the catalogue. Expect a piece on that forgotten gem in a few years if not before…)

There’s no grand point to this post other than to mark the occasion and to publicly thank Billy, Jimmy, James, and D’Arcy for it. Here’s to another twenty.

And with that, KA-BOOM…