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Further Down the ‘River of Fundament’

Here we are. December 2016, nearly 2017. It’s been almost two-and-a-half years since I saw Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament exhibition at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Ten months have passed since I saw the film at Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In that time, I’ve read and listened to quite a bit on the topic — including finishing Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, and Okwui Enwezor’s Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (Haus der Kunst’s official exhibition catalogue), and devouring what relevant interviews with Mailer and Barney I can find — and have dug farther into Barney specifically, including material on The Cremaster Cycle. Needless to say, I remain under utterly fascinated by River of Fundament. Not only that, but my appreciation continues to grow deeper.

I don’t intend to dive too far deep into the weeds, but I’d like to add some thoughts to the initial review.

It took a while for me to finish Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. Work and parenting leave time for little else, and it’s difficult to find long stretches of time to fit in chunks of substantial reading. Though, I am glad I read it as I did in relation to seeing the film. I read the first portion of the book — until the beginning of the Night of the Pig — before heading to Cleveland, and it helped to have Mailer’s re-telling of the myth of Isis and Osiris (and Set and Nepthys) fresh in my mind in addition to the characters and context of Mailer’s original tale. For the rest of the novel, it was great to have River of Fundament as a reference, as there were many subtleties that stuck out to me that otherwise wouldn’t have. I made notes throughout the book and won’t catalogue them all in this post, but here are a couple of examples:

1. “Some life like none I had known before began to tremble in the metal.”
“The magic is in the metal itself.”
– p. 204 (Mailer, Norman. Ancient Evenings. New York: Random House, 2014.)

These are two quotes of many that reference metallurgy and its surrounding mysticism — a core facet of Barney’s entire cycle (film, sculptures, engravings, and more). Norman and Menenhetet seek higher power through reincarnation, and this is expressed in parallel through Barney’s ritualistic destruction and rebirth of the three automobiles. Along with this, however, is the hierarchy of metals that is referenced by Barney — lead and zinc giving way to copper and brass in an attempt to achieve gold.

rouge battery(Matthew Barney’s “Rouge Battery” at Haus der Kunst; photo by me)

2. “Before our eyes the river began to fester.” – p. 270
“I have made them see Thy Majesty as a crocodile, The Lord of Fear in the water…” – p. 303

These quotes evoke the imagery of Horus’s birth as depicted in River of Fundament. Before the deceased Trans Am crests the water, the river does indeed fester. (Furthermore, Mailer references froth or frothing at various points in the novel, which is also a visual and vocal device employed by both Barney and Bepler.) A dying Isis gives birth to Horus inside the Trans Am whilst a crocodile calmly lies below her feet and newborn.

birth of horus(River of Fundament production still, “Birth of Horus”)

nepthys(River of Fundament production still, Nepthys)

And that’s to say nothing of the myriad references to orchids, pigs, bulls (evoking Barney’s Guardian of the Veil, the cycle’s antecedent), gold leaf, and much more. Thinking back to River of Fundament, a number of other questions arise: Was Mailer’s Honey-Ball portrayed as one of Barney’s Ptah-nem-hotep’s little queens, specifically the one who serenades Norman I? Was Hathfertiti I’s tuneful and catchy “Ballad of the Bullfighter” inspired by Honey-Ball’s “sweet and innocent song” that, in its own way (but different from the film), gives way to “[crying] out”? (p. 476) And many more…

Some instances reference specific imagery; others are more abstract evocations. Nonetheless, I came across many such connections while reading Mailer’s tome. Despite the host of negative reviews, many, but not all, of which were a consequence of uninformed or lazy criticism (I guess program notes are optional these days), I’ve found Barney and Bepler’s work to be a richer experience than I had initially thought. (It was quite positive to begin with.)

Visuals and text aside, memories of the music regularly play in my mind’s ear. There are the few samples hidden throughout the official website, and snippets in the various trailers and interviews, but nothing too complete. After all, it’s operatic, and there are no real neatly-isolated arias. (Even if there were, I don’t think a Greatest Hits would be released, much to my personal chagrin.)

My growing interest feels like a nascent “project” of some sort. I don’t quite know what that may be, but the “work” slowly continues when I have the time. Perhaps I’ll log more here as I go.

More importantly, though, I feel it’s necessary to note some of these “findings” (subjective though they may arguably be in part). The mostly negative reaction to both Ancient Evenings and River of Fundament have led to scant information being available save a few diamonds in that rough. I may not change minds or alter the course of either’s reception, but I can certainly do my part to justify what I consider to be an important artistic achievement by Barney and Bepler.

(All River of Fundament-related posts are here.)

The (Supposed) Mediocrity of Now — Canonical Musings

(Rambling in multiple directions below, holes and all…)

They don’t make ’em like they used to.
Dead artists sell more.
If only they went back to the roots.

Yada yada…

While the above statements can convey a fair amount of truth in a great many applications, they also carry with them an implied bias against the now, be it for better or worse. One way in which I’m regularly dubious of these claims is when discussing artistic style and merit, particularly in music. (Since I’m a musician, that’ll be the focus, though I see it in various media.) By and large, there’s an inherent institutional bias in favor of those artists and works that have come before. The argument in support of this is that an artist or work must “stand the test of time” — whether it holds up under prolonged cultural, critical, and communal scrutiny. Those are noble criteria. After the initial fanfare of a premiere or release, it’s important to look under the hood and see how much there is there and how — or if — it influences the field. But, ultimately, this of course begs the questions: WHO is dispensing this approval and HOW and WHY?

In music, one aspect of this criticism is that pretty much everything’s been done before (until it hasn’t, that is), and so to really appreciate something one must just go back to the “original sources.” One doesn’t get Lady Gaga without Madonna. Fair enough. One can of course give credit where credit is due, but that doesn’t mean that anyone who likes Gaga should just shut her off and go back in time. She also plays piano and can sing (can Madonna do much of either consistently?) and wears costumes — enter Elton John. (And I do love Elton.) But, again, does this mean that Gaga’s Monsters should just listen to Madonna and Elton for the “authentic” Gaga experience? It’d be a good frame of reference, but it’s no substitute for Lady Gaga herself. In appreciating Gaga, they are footnotes, and footnotes and references are important. Go read them. But a series of footnotes does not automatically synthesize to create a new and original idea or argument. (Of course, this says nothing of the influences of Elton and Madonna, and their influences, etc…)

Having influences — and/or building upon their work — doesn’t automatically strip an artist of their originality. Also, yes, there are plenty of derivative artists working today. Just as there were decades and centuries ago. (The new wave of blue-eyed soul singers is but one exponent of this.)

One current group making noteworthy, original music is Bon Iver, having recently released another jaw-dropping album. I’ve been listening to 22, A Million on near-repeat for weeks, which is how I reacted five years ago when I first heard its predecessor Bon Iver. I received Bon Iver as a birthday gift a couple weeks after its release. At the time, I recognized the name and peripherally noticed praise online, but I hadn’t listened to anything from the album or artist. But I clearly remember being floored the first time I listened to it. (Specifically, I was in my Houston apartment packing late at night for my first stint teaching abroad.) I was transfixed and utterly distracted from the task at hand (packing). I gave the album three full listens back to back. And then I just kept listening to it. I never wrote much about it (except here), but it quickly became a desert island disc for me. Fast forward five years and 22, A Million seems to be on a similar trajectory. It’s an engaging and beautiful extension of Bon Iver, taking Justin Vernon’s project to new sonic and artistic planes.

All this is to say that, even though Vernon is in his mid-30s, I don’t hesitate to say that he’s written some truly great albums, and I easily place them alongside other, older works.

In a related vein, I praised Mette Henriette’s self-titled ECM debut as a wholly original statement. I thought then, as I still do now, that one of the album’s strengths was that, artistically, I could only really hear Henriette’s voice and vision. I can make a couple of leaps and say that a couple sections may sound similar to this or that, but overall it’s a pretty self-contained statement.

Of course, my argument isn’t to throw out the titans and disregard history. (My various entries on Wagner, Liebman, and Einstein on the Beach, among others, are evidence of such.) However, they have their place, just as newer artists have theirs.

In pop music, “the good old days” are roughly the late fifties through the mid-seventies. There was a lot of great music produced then, and my music collection is a testament to my agreeing with that sentiment. It was the result of countless factors, including but not limited to various cultural, political, and technological developments. That said, is nostalgia on behalf of the baby boomer establishment — those who were young fans at the time but now old enough to be the journalistic gatekeepers — not also a factor? I often think so. In another twenty years, will canonical focus shift to emphasize the nineties and aughts?

Another aspect of this phenomenon is older artists, who themselves created now-classic pieces, who continue to work today. Generally the argument is that they’re not producing at their former (“classic”) level. (Sub-argument: does the new, “lesser” work degrade their overall output? Or, as asked in High Fidelity: is it better to burn out than to fade away?) Consider two sides of the piano rock coin: Elton John and Billy Joel. I’m a fan of both, but, admittedly, much more so of the former than the latter. (I think Joel’s The Stranger is a near-flawless masterpiece, but I think a number of his other albums sound like good imitations of other styles/artists rather than good Billy Joel records.) They’re both held up as rock icons, and they both continue to sell out arenas throughout the globe. Joel, similar to many of his musical generation, hasn’t released new material (save a couple songs in the mid-aughts and a classical album in 2001) since 1993’s River of Dreams. Elton, however, keeps putting out new albums every couple of years. (His 32nd studio album was released this year.) Sure, they’re of varying quality. Wonderful Crazy Night (2016) doesn’t really hold up against 2010’s The Union and 2013’s The Diving Board, but he’s still creating and regularly releasing quality material.

I’ve noticed similar criticism regarding Matthew Barney and Jonathan Beplers’s River of Fundament. (AKA, the piece that has dominated my attention in 2016.) In many of its mixed-to-negative reviews, one criticism often levied against it is that it’s not as good as The Cremaster Cycle, Barney’s 1994-2002 film pentalogy. Other than what I’ve read about it (and its few connections to Fundament), I can’t speak to Cremaster because I haven’t yet seen it. (That’s not out of lack of interest, of course. Many of Barney’s works are difficult to see outside of controlled exhibitions. There’s always YouTube, but I haven’t yet gone done down that road…) Sure, my view of River of Fundament is hardly objective at this point. Instead of mainly considering the work in relation to Barney’s ouvre, I’ve tried (and continue to do so) to consider the work itself in relation to what it was trying to do by, among other things, reading Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings and its review by literary critic Harold Bloom (the former is the basis for the film and the latter also strongly influenced Barney’s interpretation), and also the exhibition book produced by Okwui Enwezor, director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Yes, criticism itself should take the larger picture into account, but the artist’s overall output can’t be the primary focus — just part of it. Alone, “Was it as good as _____?” isn’t a fair assessment.

(As for Fundament itself, I could write another several essays on the work after reading Mailer’s source text. Only if you’re lucky, I suppose…)

To reiterate, this isn’t to say that “new” is inherently better than “old.” Rather, new and old can both be important. Furthermore, going back to the post’s beginning, when considering The Canon, it’s worth remember that who’s granted membership to that esteemed club isn’t an apolitical decision. As Bob Shingleton has wonderfully documented over the years at On An Overgrown Path, plenty of the recent past’s first-rate composers and pieces have been neglected by the artistic establishment. (One example of many here. Also notable is the highlighting that Simpson is often compared with past composers at the expense of his own originality.) Exploring neglected works of the past can be as illuminating and offer as much discovery as absorbing new works of the present.

More music is being written, recorded, and released than ever before. Similarly, access to music is more open and universal than ever before. However, the canonical narrative of the good old days remains, and at the expense of what’s happening now.

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.

“Money, It’s a Hit”

Food and time off aside, the last week has been exciting on the internet regarding the music industry’s economic realities, particularly surrounding various levels of indie music. (I use “indie” lightly, so don’t waste time getting in touch to nit-pick stylistic differences.) In short: Jack Conte of Pomplamoose wrote a frank article detailing the finances of a recent tour, breaking down how much was spent, how much was earned, and what remained (or, in this case, didn’t remain). I was glad he wrote it, even if I did find some of the expenses suspect. (Boiled down, taking music on the road is a large expense in more ways than just financially, but at least light is being shed somewhere.) Quickly, however, a bevy of critical and informed responses were written, including those by Spencer Lee on Medium, Nick Woods on Noisey, and Will Stevenson on Alternative Press. Each response, like the original article, had its pros and cons, but I must admit that I overall side with the respondents, particularly Stevenson. (And I went in completely ignorant of and agnostic about Pomplamoose’s music. I made a cursory attempt to listen after reading the post, but quickly finding an original tune was like finding a needle in the band’s haystack of covers. So I gave up.)

The above four articles speak for themselves; I needn’t summarize and fisk them all here. I encourage you to read them if you have the time. And if you don’t, at least read Conte’s and Stevenson’s. This blog isn’t a link repository, and regular readers should know that I don’t try to throw out click bait to chase the day’s stories. Also, I’m not a road warrior living life on tour. But, regular readers may know that I’m an advocate for paying for music and musicians getting paid (e.g., here, here, and here), so this discussion very much grabs my attention. Besides, it touches upon a related area that I’ve been meaning to start exploring for some time now.

Before continuing, it’s worth mentioning the recent brief but jam-packed Borghi | Teager East Coast Tour in the above articles’ context. Our completely DIY affair had us on the road in my Honda Fit for one week to perform seven sets over four days (or five, depending on if you count 4:00 AM Sunday to be Saturday night or Sunday morning), bookended by a day of travel (i.e. driving) on each end with a day of partial rest before returning home. We stayed with friends except for one night in a hotel that was redeemed with points, three of our seven sets were radio engagements (i.e., no payment of any sort), and we managed to come home with a net profit. A noteworthy feat, considering we perform a style of music that lacks a thriving live scene (ahem, aforementioned indie musicians). We benefit from being a nimble and easily mobile outfit, but it’s still notable.

I mentioned that this whole mess related to something that’s been gnawing at me for a long while, particularly in recent months, and that’s the role of money in artistic creative work. More specifically, the intersection of:
– The real and necessary costs associated with making art (in my case, music).
– The economy of real “indie” and local/regional music and musicians.
(- The evolution and nurturing of a “scene.”)
– Higher education and work as an adjunct professor.
– What “making it” actually means to me, if it means anything.
– Public and private financial support of the arts.

Answers to these issues and questions certainly won’t be offered or discovered in this quick post. And most questions will remain untyped also. If nothing else, I’ll at least mention what got me fixated on this topic more acutely than before…

This past summer, I was fortunate enough to see the gallery exhibition of Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. (I was unable to see the actual film/opera, but the associated artworks were in a standing show for several months. This is an interesting video about it should you have the time.) Without getting too tangential, I was in awe of the work and would love to someday have the opportunity to see the opera. Some of the sculptures on display in the gallery were a result of the largest non-industrial molten pour on record, engineered by Barney himself. That’s more than just an inspired man or woman in a private studio with marble, hammer, and chisel. Rather, it’s a robust micro-economy and industry functioning to realize one man’s creative vision over years. Barney can of course afford to do this, but there are few others who can. That, in itself, is okay. I was and remain moved by this work. However, in just a few rooms in a gallery in Munich, the financial and time-consuming demands of art were perfectly crystallized.

Yeah, I know…all this coming from a Wagnerian. Good point. But what would’ve come of dear Richard if it weren’t for wealthy patrons?

Barney and Wagner (and all other A-listers) aside, how can local or regional (or internet-equivalent) artists secure the considerable capital needed to positively invest in their work? (And by “positively invest,” I mean walk away from the project’s end in the black, not the red.) Kickstarter and FundAnything are nice, but it’s the digital passing of the hat. I don’t see how that can be predictably sustainable in the long-term, especially when Big Art co-opts them (e.g., Zach Braff and Amanda Palmer). Streaming and the cloud threaten purchased, curated libraries. Exorbitant fees and everyday life interfere with live performances. Hope remains, of course. Louis CK and Thom Yorke have helped lead the economic front lines in their respective fields to chart new territory, among others. (Yorke’s latest album is heaven, by the way…) Comedian Paul F. Tompkins‘s model of crowdsourcing live performances is also novel. Possibilities abound, but we’re still very much in the discovery phase (and will likely always be, to some extent).

More to come…