Perambulating the Bounds

Friday, August 25, 2006

Army of Shadows

This weekend is the last at the Belcourt for the Nashville run of Melville’s film Army of Shadows, a 1969 French movie that never got released in the U.S. before this. Every write-up about the movie points out that it is a bleak, anti-heroic view of the Resistance. In this film the members of the Resistance cell are mostly seen degraded by the violence around them and that they engage in. You never see the cell blowing up Nazi communications, but involved in assassinating a traitor, cruelly because of their uncertainty in doing it, escaping from Nazi custody, delivering transmitters to their contacts, getting a request for weapons turned down by the Brits.

The bleakness pervades the film visually. Many of the spaces are empty, and every room seems cold, although the cities (not just Paris) can’t help but be beautiful. The movie’s in color, but everything is so muted that you can forget and think you are looking at an older film.

I think the film still shows heroism, but it is a psychic sort. From a practical point of view the Resistance shown here is futile, but resistance is presented as an existential stance that faces the bleakness honestly, refusing to go along. That’s all you can do. It’s a requirement.

The acting is terrific. The lead is Lino Ventura, and at this point, thanks to Toby Leonard’s brilliant programming we’ve had a serial Lino Ventura festival at the Belcourt – at different times earlier this year we showed Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud and Classe Tou Risques. This film also has Paul Meurisse, who is tremendous, a fascinating looking guy. My wife’s favorite scene was where he simply eats some buttered bread, wallowing in this fleeting pleasure.

If you’re in Nashville, try to check out the movie this weekend (Sunday’s the last day). In other towns, well, it’s probably shown already.

Maynard Ferguson

Maynard Ferguson died this week (I’m doing too many RIPs here). He was the kind of jazz musician you aren’t supposed to admit you liked, but for a jazz musician of a certain age (let’s say in one’s 40s), he was unavoidable. Every geeky jazz wannabe listened to his band’s albums, went to the concerts. The problem was that he wasn’t cool or intellectual, not a musician who crafted subtle and sophisticated statements, but a flamboyant showman (Buddy Rich comes to mind as another band leader in this vein). He was the high note player – in big bands there was a tradition for the lead player to be a guy who could nail the really high notes, with someone else on the second chair who could improvise fluent solos. Maynard had an unmistakable upper range sound, he’d just charge right up in the stratosphere, a strident sound like Pavarotti in comparison to other tenors. But his improvisation was pretty pedestrian. And he left most of that to band members anyway.

In the 70s he was everywhere with crossover big band music, playing arrangements of songs like Hey Jude. He dressed in jump suits, and sort of had a William Shatner thing going (fellow Canadian). We knew it was tacky, and made fun of it, but the thing was the music really had some of rock’s energy. I remember seeing the band at Montgomery College and in Hey Jude at the end where they’re repeating the theme over and over, all of the trumpet players went out into the audience and played from behind everyone. It was a simple theatrical trick, but it worked like the action sequences in a movie.

What do they call pot, a gateway drug because it leads you inevitably to smack addiction or some such crap. Well, Maynard’s music could be a gateway. People got into it, and maybe they listened to other stuff. Hearing the stories on him this week I’ve only thought back on his music with the affection that inevitably flows to the things that were part of your growing up.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

RIP Dave Schnaufer

Dulcimer player, virtuoso really, David Schnaufer died today from cancer. A lot of people I know really loved this guy. I got a chance to play with him through the Transcendental Crayon Ensemble. We played a tune of his and an arrangement he had done of I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry which gave that song a completely new character. I remember most was the ringing, clear sound he got off his amplified dulcimer. Wonderful. And he was very generous to do this show with us, considering the level he was at and the kind of people he played with.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Briggs and Scarborough at Arts Commission

The Tennessee Arts Commission gallery is opening a new show this weekend with the work of Jason Briggs and Chris Scarborough, two interesting artists. Briggs does ceramic sculptures in strange, biomorphic forms, using clay with a high level of craft but completely divorced from crafts aesthetic conventions. Scarborough's got strangeness on his side as well, in his case by manipulating people in photographs to give them the over-sized eyes of anime cartoons or using similar figures in drawings that play games with whether you are seeing a disturbing mutation or some perspective trick. The opeing reception is this Saturday from 5-7.

Tennessee ♥ Road Kill

Road kill seems to be a minor fixation in these parts, to the extent that we even have a law in Tennessee assuring our right to take anything we hit for our “personal use and consumption.” (Actually, you have to get a kill tag from a wildlife resources agent to take any bear you kill with your car.) This law actually makes a certain amount of sense, especially if you drive around in a Hummer so you don’t have to worry about the hundreds of dollars in body damage the deer left you with as it passed out of this life into the next. But it’s more fun to imagine a bunch of slack-jawed hillbilly citizen-legislators sitting around coming up with their legislative priorities for the session, and this makes it to the top of the list.

I think maybe people in this state, where you are more likely to experience a rural environment than elsewhere, may have more awareness of road kill and the death of animals in general. When I ride my bike on the roads near my house, or take a walk, at some point I am likely to pass through an area dominated by the smell of rotting animal flesh. The scenery may look pretty, but this is not a pristine pastoral setting, and that’s the way it should be. Real pastoral involves zoological and botanical churn, stuff growing and dying. It’s not all designed with pleasure in mind, or a pleasure that’s much more complicated and difficult.

In a nice addition to the annals of road kill culture, April Hale, a jeweler at the Appalachian Center for the Crafts, had two “Road Kills Rings” in an exhibit at the Renaissance Center in Dickson. Working with very simple silver rings as a base, one had a small tuft of raccoon fur stuck on top of the ring, the hairs pointing straight upwards. The other had a tiny raccoon tooth on a tiny bed of red velvet and encased in acrylic. My wife described it as a reliquary for the animal, and it had a sense of appreciation for the delicate shapes of the tooth and the range of colors and tones on the strands of hair, and respect shown in the way the remains were preserved and presented. And it’s road kill!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Current LeQuire Gallery show

A couple of artists worth checking out at LeQuire, in their summer show that’ll be up the rest of this week and maybe next.

The show was organized by John Reed, who also contributes a series of pieces that repeat a single image of a cartoonish jackass, big teeth and mouth hanging open. He repeats it at different sizes, on strips of paper, within a large panel of woven paper, on blocky wood panels. Many of the pieces break up the image, which is not stenciled or reproduced uniformly but seems drawn freehand, sometimes verging on a scrawl. The scratchiness of the iterations of the image and all the varied ways it is fragmented give it a goofy ghostly feel.

The most appealing work in the show is a series of plein air urban landscapes by Todd Gordon. He goes to scruffy parts of Brooklyn – empty lots, industrial zones, canals – and paints what he sees in a horizontal format. Many of the pieces are framed out to capture fundamental symmetries of form. I was reminded of several photographers, like Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao who had photos of some similar settings along the IRT 7 line in Queens, or people like Hiroshi Sugimoto or Dodo Jin Ming who make water a major character in their photos. The last association came to mind particularly with Gordon’s painting of New York Harbor, where the image is almost all water (it’s the main image on the LeQuire Gallery homepage right now). I find it interesting that photographers come to mind. Some of it is that Gordon includes a curvature to his perspective lines like lens fisheying, but I think it also has to do with a sense of the work being involved in framing and capturing the pieces of reality caught in the frame.

There’s also some irony in Gordon’s application of a plein air approach to these gritty settings as opposed to the idyllic countryside you associate with those fine French words. And I always find extremely urban landscape paintings refreshing, like some I can think of by Rackstraw Downes at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. And of course there’s the lineage to the NY Ashcan School.

There are four other artists in the show: Julia Martin, Kelly Williams, Art Poledno, and David Guidera. Of these, the one that interested me most was Kelly Williams, with appealing botanical groupings and landscape details.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Nice Quote from Hanna Fushihara

Saw this nice quote from Hanna Fushihara, which was in an article in the NY Times about a Southern California sportswear/surfwear company that is operating at intersection of various subcultures, mainstream business, and celebrity culture. Hanna probably comes from the freakier side of the spectrum of things this outfit is into. I have a typically east of the Rockies distrust of all of that surfer/skater/snowboarder stuff. But here's what Hanna said:

“It was Ms. Fushihara of Little Cakes gallery who pointed out in an ANP Quarterly interview the existence of little pockets of “weirdos” like herself living all over the country, “making music, touring, sleeping on each other’s floors, having weird plays, lots of costumes and masks, posters, self-released CD-R’s, records, etc.” It doesn’t matter anymore where one lives, she added last week in a telephone interview. “You could be in Idaho or Iowa and be connected,” she said. The point by now is beyond argument.”

Friday, August 11, 2006

Albany Waterfront Park

Albany is the town next door to Berkeley in the Bay Area, and among its other landmarks is a park that used to be something like a cement factory that was then abandoned and became a big squat camp for homeless people. The city or some other level of government has reclaimed the area, right on the bay, but it retains the remnants of the self-organizing culture that thrived there. The park is filled with art made from junk and cast off material, much of it elaborate. There are sculptures fabricated from twisted sheets of metal, branches, and wood scraps, including a person riding a dragon, a huge woman who seems to come out of the bay, strange giant figures sitting by the water. You find little shrines in cavities in the underbrush, a few objects arrayed on the branches of a bush, or an enclosure of concrete and metal scrap decorated with mirrors that could have been a work of art or someone’s self-fashioned living room.

My friend Paul and his son Liam took me down there today. The section of the park with the heaviest concentrationsof art is on the backside of a point of land that faces on a calm arm of the bay. In addition to a bunch of these sculptures, there is a series of paintings done on large pieces of scrap wood or other materials, propped up on impromptu easels and lined up along a path like the corridor of a museum. The paintings are heavy on images of violence and decadence, mixing elements from circuses and religion. Many seem to be from one guy, who signs himself as Sniff and makes work with strong recollections of Max Beckmann, only a little bleaker and more violent. It looks like he may still be at work.

On the immediate level, this park is a collection of interesting art works presented in a completely unexpected setting. Part of the impact comes from the density of the work, when you look for these human inventions and start seeing them everywhere. It also goes to say something about the impulse for art. A group of people, left on their own to develop some sort of society, end up naturally inclined to make art in proliferation. The urge for self-expression comes to fore, as one of the most important activities the society, in this case the homeless society of the Albany waterfront, can undertake. Art making shows itself as an essential activity.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Kaushiki Chakrabarty

Last Saturday's concert at Sri Ganesha featured Kaushiki Chakrabarty, a young singer who won a big prize from the BBC last year. I'm not a great judge of where the musicians who come to Sri Ganesha fall out in relative prestige, but I'm guessing she is one of the bigger people to perform there. She appeared with her husband, also a singer, named Parthasarathy Desikan. They both have studied with Chakrabarty's father.

She is a tremendous singer. Particularly impressive singing fast and precisely, through all sorts of patterns that seemed fresh and surprising, and she could run all over a huge range. At each point in a long phrase, the notes were perfectly distinct and perfectly placed. Listening to her makes you so aware of how this music is analogous to extremely finely detailed ornamental drawing, with complex patterns and elaborations that weave together to cover expanses of space in wonderful colors.

So acknowledging the extremely high quality of the singing, the concert was not all it could be. She was distracted by the sound system, made several comments about not being able to hear herself in the monitors. I imagine sound in the Temple hall is a challenge. It's not a concert hall, but more of an all-purpose room with a low ceiling. The result for Chakrabarty was a performance that seemed disjointed. The flights of technical brilliance were delivered in bursts that seems to stand separately, rather than building upon each other. The more sustained passages were sometimes strained, and again did not achieve the kind of spiritual intensity I have experienced with other vocalists in this room.

Desikan, for his part (the majority of the concert consisted of two separate performances by each singer, alone with the accompaniment of harmonium and tabla), sings more from power, a very strong voice. At critical points he came across with a jarring abruptness, hitting a loud, intense, and high sustained passage in a way that jumped out. His singing did not always lead up to those passages and let them grow in intensity. I think that more integrated approach produces a stronger emotional sensation.

At the end, Chakarabarty and Desikan performed a duet. At times during this section her voice was so sweet I wished it would go on for a long time. As concerts at Sri Ganesha go, this was pretty short at something like 2 hours (but non-stop).

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Fallen Idol

A very fine film at the Belcourt this week that you might overlook, The Fallen Idol, a 1948 film by Carol Reed with a screenplay by Graham Greene, starring Ralph Richardson. In short, the story takes place in the French Embassy in London, where the head butler (Richardson) is in love with a French typist on the staff but married to the head housekeeper. He's also buddies with the ambassador's young son, who ends up in the middle of this triangle, aware and unaware at the same time of what's going on. I don't think I should go into the plot details too much. The whole thing is very well done, for instance in the way several critical plot developments don't lead to the obvious places but still drive the plot. It also has this Graham Greene sourness -- things end up well inspite of bad things happening, although the twists that deliver the characters from the worst possible outcomes don't exactly deliver them free of damage. And one of the keys is the tension between whether one should tell the truth or keep one's secrets. The boy is tutored in this by the various adult characters, who push and pull him between those who tell him he must tell the truth and others who tell him he must keep secrets, and in the end he finds himself trying to tell the truth but getting ignored because the larger truth has already been established, and his little truth would actually lead people away from the truth. A very confusing place for a young boy to find himself.

Congratulations downtowners

Tonight was the twin openings of TAG's new space on 5th and Twist's new space period. TAG looks great, a nice main room that feels big, with couches that make it truly inviting, not necessarily what you always get from a white walls place. I've talked to Jerry Dale McFadden pretty regularly during the construction, and I know he's done a ton of work, and probably still has some finishing touches to go. But he must be so satisfied with what he and Susan have here. And it was great to see people hanging from the balconies of the Arcade, shuttling between Twist and Dangenart. Beth Gilmore, never exactly the most subdued person in the world, embodied pure joy. It was just what you would expect from her (and Caroline Carlisle I imagine), a three-ring circus with Tom Wills films, Todd Greene with his art on the walls but hanging out in the back playing music with Lain and Tony, and wine and Las Paletas popsicles and other food that I did not inventory. This is going to be great fun.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf died

My first reaction was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was alive? Yes, lived to be 90, died this week. She had a practically perfect voice. Listen to her recording of Strauss' 4 Last Songs. I had never looked into her personal history, just listened to the voice. It turns out she was quite the Nazi. The Times obit goes into the details. File her right after Leni Riefenstahl I guess.

Mess in Chicago

I just got wind of the mess in Chicago right now surrounding the HotHouse. This is a club that used to be in Wicker Park, in the Flat Iron building, finally got yuppied out, and moved to the South Loop. A minor miracle that it survived. I haven't been since the move, but in the early 90s it was the center of the cultural universe if you cared about avant garde jazz or politics. Michael Zerang used to tend bar, Todd Colburn would do sound, and I heard a lot of stuff, and played there a time or two although it was hard to get a show there so I was lucky for that. The show that comes to mind is a duet by David Murray and Kahil El-Zabar, but it was also a place you dropped into on the way to and from things. The HotHouse was the child of Maguerite Horberg -- she went back with all the 60s rads, was big on Cuba solidarity, had a big picture of Che on display. Well, somewhere in the move to the South Loop the place became a nonprofit org, with a board and fundraising, and a couple of weeks ago the board put her on leave. Here's a write up from the Reader. Definitely click through on the link to Carl Davidson's blog. It sounds like a big ole shit storm. What a mess. I hope they are able to save the place.

On better Chicago news, Fred Anderson has relocated the Velvet Lounge to new space on Cermak and reports from the new place are good. Here's a review by Howard Reich of the Trib.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Wise Man Thurston Moore

So often the aesthetic goal of underground music is assumed to be the pursuit of novelty or newness, an idea inherent in the word avant-garde. Then the music can be criticized when it fails a newness test, which all music does because most sounds (or any other form of expression) has existed before. Thurston Moore has a great counter to this in The Wire’s piece on Sonic Youth:

“I don’t like the idea of reaching out to do something new with [our] music, it’s kind of a living organism in a way. I talked to Evan Parker about it once, and he said, ‘We focused on certain aspects of those ESP records, because we liked the ending parts of these pieces, where they were really playing free, and we would just take those and make whole pieces out of them.’ That’s what they wanted to do, those were the moments they wanted to expound upon. I think somebody in that scene called it ‘the living music’. It’s not about any concept of newness—who cares? I have no interest in newness.”

I particularly like the formulation of the goal being to expound upon something you have experienced, therefore it follows upon something.

He’s also got this great take on the noise scene:

“I just think [that scene] has created its own identity outside of any pre-existing genre, and that’s what I’m most interested in, where genre terms become blurred. I know, like, when I get involved with playing with people in the avant garde jazz tradition, they have such a history of language development, with harmonic concepts and fairly sophisticated melodic concepts. I feel like I’m more involved with a scene that kind of explodes that.”

Seems to me this gets at what is so vital about it. It also seems to be a scene that can put down roots everywhere, unlike things like avant garde jazz which has a more of an exclusive character.