Culture Corner

Concert Review: Paul Simon at the Prudential Center (Newark, NJ), September 15, 2018

By Bernie Langs

Paul Simon sings “The Boxer” at the Prudential Center—YouTube view by audience member.

Singer-songwriter Paul Simon completed his farewell tour with an outdoor concert in Queens, New York on September 22, 2018, close to where he and his former musical partner Art Garfunkel grew up together in the 1950s. The duo joined forces in the 1960s creating hit records as Simon & Garfunkel and acrimoniously splitting in 1970 at the height of the band’s fame. Garfunkel has a fabulous voice, hitting and sustaining high harmony and lead vocal notes that few can attain in the pop/rock genre, but Simon wrote most of the band’s hits and played a mean and creative acoustic guitar on songs such as “Mrs. Robinson” and “The Boxer.” Simon’s voice is wonderfully rich and unique and he’s a masterful composer and arranger, but in the same way that Eric Clapton had many great records after he left his Cream bandmates in the late 1960s, both he and Simon could never maintain the unique fantastic sound they had as a member of a group during that turbulent decade in musical history.

I saw Simon perform at Newark’s Prudential Center one week prior to his final bow in Queens. The artist informed the crowd that although it is well-known that he grew up in New York, he was actually born and spent the very early days of his life in Newark. Simon has always had an amiable persona and has hosted Saturday Night Live many times over the years, often appearing in self-deprecating skits and showing off his natural wit and humor (see his infamous opening bit where he is dressed as a turkey for Thanksgiving while crooning his song, “Still Crazy After All These Years”). I jumped at the opportunity to see Simon in concert after viewing video of his brief reunion tour with Garfunkel—they have yet to speak again according to many sources.

Simon played many of his solo hits as well as those from his days in Simon & Garfunkel and each song was a delight for different reasons. He had a back-up band of about fifteen musicians, featuring virtuoso guitarists Mark Stewart, who played with Simon on the prior tour with Garfunkel, newcomer Biodun Kuti, as well as Bakithi Kumalo, who is a smooth bass guitar master running complex lines that are easy on the ears, yet technical wonders. The band’s lineup included drummers and percussionists, string, woodwind, and horn players, and a bevy of back-up singers. The group performed as a miraculously tight unit amid the complex arrangements. Simon’s solo career is an homage to world music, showcasing African and Latin textures throughout his compositions. In the international mode, the band tore through crowd-pleasing renditions of “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes,” “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” and the grooving, reggae-inspired “Mother and Child Reunion.”

For me, the hits from the 1960s that Simon performed throughout the evening were the highpoints. The performer’s voice was unexpectedly strong for a 77-year-old man and he did not shy away from challenging vocal phrases and high notes, which he hit each time. He retains a knack for making his guitar playing stand out as both accompaniment and lead. Simon took time during the show to tell anecdotes, reminisce, and discuss the emotions surrounding his retirement from touring. He never mentioned Garfunkel by name, who flew by in only a handful of photos in the highlight film reel of his career. When Simon performed their music, the oft-times melancholy tunes took on greater significance, not just for the star himself as a farewell, but as a moment of finality for the music of the 1960s. Simon opened the show with “America,” a hit from 1968 that could have served as the thinking man’s hippie anthem. “The Boxer” was released in 1969 and it was played in Newark as a dark, yet celebratory poem on the subject of the unexpected and unending turbulence of life and love. As the emotional tone and tide rose during the lamenting chant sung by the backup singers at the end of the song, Simon’s acoustic flairs finally relieved the crowd from its grip and we were brought back to calmer waters by his instrument’s marvelous ringing, bright tone.

Near the halfway point, Simon told the audience that the next song was one he’d known immediately on composition as a more exceptional creation. He explained how he’d given it away to another artist to record and would now play his own rendition. The joke, we realized as the tune began, was that the song was “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a huge hit for Simon & Garfunkel, sung solo on the record by an emotionally expressive Garfunkel until Simon enters later with dazzling background harmonies. At the Prudential Center, the composer reclaimed his song, and the new arrangement with Simon on lead vocals was not only the best moment of the evening, but among the top performances I’ve ever heard live. I was absolutely stunned by how “Bridge” built and towards the end I became completely overwhelmed by the music. Perhaps the Sixties and its promised utopian nonsense, which I’d bought into, were now long gone and deservedly recognized as idealistic, unrealistic dreaming? Perhaps my musical heroes were now too often appearing in the obituary section than in the arts section? Perhaps Simon, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney were old men—not the youthful powerhouses who had had wowed us decades ago as they swept millions of people into the clouds with promises and sounds of sweet song? But as “Bridge” finished up, and later as the artist played the final song of the evening, “The Sound of Silence,” alone with his acoustic guitar, I knew that Simon’s music was as strong and powerful as ever and he had absolutely proven that the soul survives.

Kelvin Droegemeier, Trump’s Pick for Director of Office of Science and Technology Policy

Aileen Marshall

Kelvin Droegemeier, November 19, 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On July 31 of this year, Trump nominated Kelvin Droegemeier, a meteorologist, for Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  This position has been vacant for 19 months since Trump took office, an unprecedented length of time. At this time, Droegeimeir will need to be confirmed by the Senate.

Droegemeier, age 60, was born and raised in Kansas, and earned a bachelor’s in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma in 1980. He received a master’s in atmospheric science in 1982 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and then a Ph.D. in the same field there in 1985. That same year, he joined the faculty at the University of Oklahoma and became their Vice President of Research in 2009.

Most of the work over his career has been developing ways to use computers and other technology to predict severe weather events, particularly for businesses. He has been active with the National Science Foundation (NSF), a government agency that supports scientific research and awards grants. In 1989, he started the NSF’s Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms. He was that Center’s director from 1994 to 2006. In 2000, he started his own private company, Weather Decisions Technologies, which now has offices worldwide. He founded the Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere at the NSF in 2003. He was that center’s deputy director from 2006 to 2012. He was appointed to the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation, and acts as advisors to the president and congress, in 2004 and 2011, under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama, and was the board vice chairman from 2012 to 2016.

At the University of Oklahoma, Droegemeier created the Sasaki Institute to develop “application and knowledge, policy and advanced technology for the mutual benefit of the government, academic and private sectors.” He also established a supercomputing center there. According to his biography at the National Science Board, Droegemeier has more than 75 journal articles and book chapters, and over 200 conference publications. He has worked as a consultant to several companies, including American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Honeywell, as well as with the National Transportation and Safety Board. He is currently Oklahoma’s Secretary of Science and Technology and on a state committee to encourage the growth of private weather companies.

Last year, Droegemeier wrote an editorial to the Des Moines Register encouraging federal research funding. “Though the benefits of short-term savings in the yearly federal budgets may be appealing, they result in insidious, long-term consequences…. Our country is losing ground rapidly to other nations…Due to underfunding, we risk losing an entire generation of researchers… Balanced, predictable and stable funding, is essential for the United States to remain a world leader in research and a translator of research outcomes into practical products and services that benefit all of our citizens.”

Reactions to his nomination by his peers have been positive. John Holdren, Ph.D., a previous director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, called Droegemeier “a solid choice.” He said that Droegemeier was a serious climate scientist and advisor. Kei Koizumi, who previously worked with Droegemeier, while working at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that “He is an excellent scientist, communicator, and public servant, and therefore a superb choice to be the next director of OSTP.” Roger Wakimoto is the President of the American Meteorological Society and has known Droegemeier for many years. He said that Droegemeier “has often been the voice of reason with indisputable and comprehensive facts at congressional hearings and other venues….I give him my unqualified support.”

So far, during his Senate committee hearings, Droegemeier has strongly supported keeping science free of political influence and sexual harassment. He said that having researchers from other countries is an important part of science, but should be done “with care”.  He has avoided a response when asked about climate change. Droegemeier is expected to have his full Senate confirmation hearings starting the last week of September.

 

Culture Corner

Camila Cabello’s Havana Wows Pop Music

Bernie Langs

 

Photo: Sony Music Entertainment

The first time I heard the pop song Havana by Cuban-American recording artist Camila Cabello was on a radio tuned to one of my 20-year-old daughter’s stations. I was immediately floored by the the great groove and the unusually complex, smooth, and melodic vocals. I’ve lamented for many years that most contemporary rock and pop songs bounce back between two or three chords and depend on singing lines that border on the monotonous. I’ve also long held the opinion that the main concern in today’s music is tilted towards the emotional state of the lead singer, too often an expressive lament over a broken relationship or other adolescent issues that have long ceased to concern, amuse, or interest me. Therefore, as an old-school rock-and-roll geezer, my attention was pleasantly caught by Havana as it played that first time for me over the airwaves. When I got home, I located the song on Spotify and found it sounded even better on good audio speakers. My daughter popped into the room as I listened, informing me that she too loved the song, and suggested I find Cabello’s version in English, rather than the Spanish one I was listening to. I had been so transfixed by the entirery of the music that it didn’t register that I hadn’t comprehended a word.

Havana was released in the summer of 2017 and was composed by Cabello and nine other writers. But the magic, along with her fantastic singing, is in the tune’s brilliant production by Frank Dukes. Much of the song is done with just a few instruments, a minimalist and smart use of piano, horns, and creative bass playing. The bass line hits many wonderful lower fret notes, and they buzz and reverberate while remaining softly cool, calm, and completely unaggressive. Cabello’s voice is stunning, displaying multi-faceted and multi-dimensional textures and emotions. The lead vocal is powerfully up front in the mix, teeming with a Latin pop feel expressing sensuality and confidence, along with a big dollop of subtle and clever humor. In the sections with just a sparse piano and bass accompaniment, her singing is bold and forceful. Each time I listen, I look forward to two of her well-produced vocal twirls in the melody, nailed by Cabello with delightfully awesome wonder and beauty. Her multi-tracked backing vocals are best listened to with good headphones with the singing “placed” and separated by producer Dukes to the far left and right sides of one’s internal listening space, making it startling, fresh, and surprising every single time.

Soon after I fell for Havana, I read an interview with Cabello in Rolling Stone magazine and learned how she has deftly handled the social media attention and drama surrounding her leaving a girl group that we rock-and-roll geezers don’t give an old man’s hoot about. But she also spoke about choices and chances and more on the art and craft of music than many of her contemporaries about whom I’ve read interviews.

Last month, I hunted down the song’s video, which is truly clever, downright funny, and does justice to the song. I’ve since learned that the video won many music industry awards and has been viewed 680 million times on YouTube. Cabello plays several roles in the short film, and there is a telenovela-in-a-video, a family sage-in-a-video, and a movie-in-a-video in Havana as well as other unexpectedly funny turns. Cabello’s Spanish-speaking grandmother in the video is played by a bearded man wearing a wig and a nightgown and his heartfelt concern about Cabello’s lonely, homebound alter-ego makes you forget it’s a young man doing the worrying. There is a short rap break in the song performed by Young Thug that is tasteful and fits in well with the groove of the recording. Once again, the production makes the transition from Cabello’s singing to the rap a seamless one, and Young Thug’s appearance in the video works nicely within the framework of its many shifting themes.

Havana is the best song I’ve heard in twenty or thirty years. The only great rock and pop songs in recent memory for me have been by Joe Strummer and The Mescleros, which were composed and recorded between 1999 and 2002. Havana delights with each listening experience. As one who records and writes his own music, I find it inspiring on many levels, from composition, performance, and in cleverness and production. I hope to hear many more songs in the coming years from this young talent expressing her good vibes and playful humor. I recall that as a teenager in 1975, I read a music review in Rolling Stone by its editor, Jann Wenner, of a concert in Los Angeles by the Rolling Stones, which he felt was the best show of their entire tour at the time. The last line read something like, “For days I talked about it to anyone who would listen.” Since hearing Havana I am doing the same, telling friends, colleagues at work, and even random strangers just how great this tune is.

 

Culture Corner

Visiting Michelangelo’s Sculptures in Florence

Bernie Langs

One of my personal goals during a late May 2018 visit to Florence, Italy was to view as many sculptures by Michelangelo as possible. Here is a rundown of my thoughts on some of the works that I saw.

The Deposition at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and Palestrina Pietà at Galleria dell’Accademia

These two sorrowful scupltures are very much akin. The Depostion was created by Michelangelo originally for his own tomb and it is generally agreed that the hooded figure of Nicodemus carrying the body of the dead Christ is a self-portrait of the artist. It is a moving, emotionally strong work of art reflecting the deep-rooted inner pain suffered by Michelangelo. The sculpture seemingly begs to be read as a statement of profound religious ideals, but it can also be read as a harsh metaphor for mankind’s turmoiled existence. The Palestrina Pietà is another study in grief, also depicting Christ in the moments after his death, this time supported by two figures, the one to his side most likely his mother, Mary. This sculpture is now attributed to Michelangelo, though may be a work he started that was later completed by another hand.

Museo nazionale del Bargello: Brutus, Bacchus, and Madonna (“Tondo Pitti”):

 Brutus is a fantastic marble bust depicting Julius Caesar’s infamous assassin. Although Dante placed the ancient Roman far down in the depths of Hell, Michelangelo’s work leans towards Brutus’ heroic nature, mirroring the Florentine movement of Republicanism against the notion of tyranny, a perspective current to the artist’s sphere. While many sculpted busts from the Renaissance, ancient Greece, and Imperial Rome illicit only an appreciative glance when I visit museums, the rough texture, turned head, and other features of Brutus compelled my extended meditation. Based on photos I’ve viewed in art history books, I had concerns about seeing Bacchus face-to-face, in the God of Wine’s all-too-very naked flesh. I found the inebriated young man easier to view in person than in printed reproductions. At the Bargello, I was also delighted to encounter the gracefully sculpted Madonna (known as “Tondo Pitti”). It is one of the Master’s emergent marble bas-reliefs and a study in nuance, poise, and gentle religious rendering. The sculpture is breathtaking in its simplicity and the stone’s ethereal color.

Galleria dell’Accademia: David and The Bearded Slave

 

The big enchilada of Michelangelo’s achievements and one of the most referenced works in all of art history, David, does not disappoint when encountered in a museum setting. The Master’s creation is enormous in size and impossibly carved with a polished gleam. The youthful figure liberated by the artist from a block of marble into the absolutely stunning, striking image of the Biblical hero makes for an awe-inspiring personal encounter. While I found many other sculptures by Michelangelo more engaging on emotional and philosophical levels, David’s undeniable beauty is quite enough for any viewer to experience joy in its presence. The Accademia lines the approach to David with several unfinished pieces that are grouped together under the heading of non-finito. The works garner less attention from many tourists than the colossal David at the end of the passageway. These odd, yet beautiful “slaves” or “prisoners” in varying twisted or turned poses offer great insight into Michelangelo’s working process and showcase the tragic aspect in the forefront of many of his late works.

Casa Buonarroti: Madonna of the Steps and Battle of the Centaurs (detail)

Palazzo Vecchio: Genius of Victory

I chanced upon Michelangelo’s Genius of Victory while roaming through the huge chamber of the Palazzo Vechhio’s Salone dei Cinquecento. One walks in the majestic space gaping at enormous military and battle frescos. It was beneath one of these paintings that this sculpture by Michelangelo drew my attention. This great work of art is made even greater because of where it is situated. Nestled along a wall below the massive, colorful frescoes, it is strategically placed in the company of several other monumental statues, including Vincenzo de’ Rossi’s Labors of Hercules. The Palazzo Vecchio was also the site where Michelangelo planned to paint and Leonardo da Vinci toiled unsuccessfully with “dueling” frescos that are now lost to history. David was also originally displayed in the outside courtyard of the Palazzo.

Museo delle Cappelle Medicee: Tomb of Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici with Night and Day and Tomb of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici with Dusk and Dawn

On my final day in Florence, after seeing hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and architectural wonders of the bejeweled city on the river Arno, my very last stop was at the Medici Chapel, where I stood with a handful of visitors to take in the sight of two tombs designed and executed in marble by Michelangelo. One set of sculptures depicts Giuliano, Duke of Nemours (and a brother of Pope Leo X) flanked by reclining statues of Day, in the guise of a strapping man, and Night, depicted as a sleeping woman. The other is the tomb of the Duke of Urbino, Leo’s nephew. The Duke’s pose is thoughtful and pensive as he sits with Dawn on his right and Dusk on his left. All of the figures in the room led me to a state of bewildered, confused meditation. The gestures and bodily postures of both deceased men, as well as their distant facial expressions, led me into serious thought and an odd, quiet sadness. They came across as holding an internal, desperate gravitas, tinged with the mournful aspect one finds in ancient Greek and Roman funerary steles and sculptures. The four reclining mythological figures appeared in my mind’s eye as a mirror of the deepest religious, spiritual, and philosophical state that embodied the soul and genius of Michelangelo. These figures are beyond allegory. I stood in the Chapel for a very long time, dumbfounded and amazed that an artist’s inner being could reach so profoundly and harshly into such deep and dark territories unknown in his time – and to this very day.

 

 

Culture Corner – The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

 

Bernie Langs

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Julian Jaynes
Houghton Mifflin, 1990; originally published in 1976
491 pages
Paperback, $15.00

 

 

Two cylinder seals with modern impressions; top: Weather god on a lion dragon, Northern Mesopotamia, Mitannian period, mid-2nd millennium B.C.; bottom: Worshiper and a god with a rod and a ring, Mesopotamia, Kassite period, reign of Kurigalzu I, early 14th century, B.C. (The Metropolitan Musuem of Art; photo: BL)

Wall-sized Assyrian palace scupture (detail); 883-859 B.C. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art; photo: BL)

Mable statue of a kouros (youth) with close-up of face; Greek, Attic, ca. 590-580 B.C. (The Metropolitan Musuem of Art; photos: BL)

Having read two-thirds of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes, Ph.D., I am comfortable in discussing the ideas proposed in this groundbreaking, extraordinarily exciting treatise prior to finishing the book. Dr. Jaynes lays out his theories and conclusions from the very start, working backwards by examining detailed supporting evidence, which he offers as proof of his hypotheses. The Origin has evoked a wide spectrum of reactions since its publication in 1976, labeled by some critics as nothing more than an outlandish set of propositions, while others embraced it as a revolutionary and unique perspective on how the mind developed in the ancient world.

Dr. Jaynes’ presentation of such a large-scale and all-encompassing overview on the subject of the history of mankind’s inner thinking can’t possibly hit the bullseye. Yet in The Origin he proposes with confidence and endearing, affable humility that he has discovered how human neurological development worked in tandem with historical, religious, cultural, economic, and social events mostly over the last three thousand years he discusses how this ultimately leads to the unique, individual, and highly structured voice we maintain today: our inner consciousness.

Although this book is at times scattershot, it must be recognized at least as a great start to further engage in a more complete, nuanced, and timely follow-up. Dr. Jaynes’ theory centers around details of the biology of the brain and interpretation of the vast ancient historical record, and he readily notes that such an enormous theory of everything needs more work and study. Dr. Jaynes concedes that many of his ideas are speculative, but he does not waver from his belief in its basic foundation.  One may criticize, for example, his dependence on selective writings, artifacts, and remains from the ancient period for use in generalizing what motivated the behavior and interior observations of all people thousands of years ago.

When looking at the statues, buildings, imprints of seals, ivories, and so on from ancient Middle East, we can’t help but make assumptions about the past based on our contemporary atmosphere. Yet it is apparent, as Dr. Jaynes notes, that in the regions covered by the book the expressions and features of kings, gods, attendants, and others are coldhearted and emotionally distant.. Eventually, there’s a slow progression, culminating with the ancient Greeks at about 700 B.C, as the images morph into representations graced with loving beauty, heroic postures, grand gestures, and an appreciation, bordering on ecstatic at times, on notions of both body and soul.

Dr. Jaynes details the Greek reaction to the horrific misery of the “Dark Ages” which were initiated in about 1200 B.C. and lasted several centuries, set in motion the timeline that will eventually resolve into the way we speak to ourselves in our heads to day. The proposed “bicameral mind”, presented in The Origin can’t be observed or proved to actually exist, yet the theory is beautifully described with personal passion by Dr. Jaynes. He believes that the left and right portions of the brain were divided in the way they processed the external world surrounding ancient mankind, with one half fooled by the other to believe that hallucinated voices originated from sources that could be deemed as commands by the gods. These voices, heard only by some, arose as spoken language along with the development of the written word. Those with the strongest connection to what they believed was the forceful directing of society by these vocalizations took on the roles of king, priest, or intermediary with the gods.

Dr. Jaynes proposes this system developed regionally and with individual characteristics throughout the area under study. The so-called “breakdown” of the bicameral mind occurred slowly over centuries, after populations grew, war became unexpectedly common, and trade led to increased contact between varying tribes and societies. These changes introduced incompatible rival gods and customs in the region leading to confusion of the voices, akin to the described mayhem in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Dr. Jaynes also describes several natural crises that put the normalized system of the period into panic. By the start of the first millennium, Homer’s work had been passed down for generations and finally canonized in The Iliad, and Dr. Jaynes unveils the tense struggle within the general population, as the hallucinated commanding voices needed to be replaced for survival’s sake by an emerging personal, inner dialogue. Jaynes’ discussion and analysis of these changes motivating the non-evolutionary, yet biological shift, reads as the most historically and scientifically sound section of the book. Ancient mankind perceived the world through external instinctual sensation, which Dr. Jaynes’ believes was dominated and ordered by invisible vocalizations. After 1000 B.C., the world had to adapt to changes on many levels making internal decision-making processes take over based on reactions to visual stimuli. The world moves from the shackles of auditory constraints towards the eye’s window to the soul.

I have to admit that I do not completely believe Dr. Jaynes’ idea that the minds of those living in the ancient civilizations under study lived and died by the commands and rules laid out by hallucinated voices of the so-called gods and divinities. The tenuous biological support of the wider theory, which relies on studies that discussed observations of patients today with neurological conditions and symptoms mirroring what he believes were the hallucinated and god-like voices in the heads of the ancients (e.g., schizophrenia).

Perhaps the works of the Pre-Socratics and others who put aside the conception of the gods as creators of the physical world and the actions of men can be read as the evidence of the final labor push of the birth of the inner individual. Standing in front of the famous Kouros sculpture from ancient Greece the other day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I meditated on its mysterious face in light of the theories of Dr. Jaynes. The sculpted youth appears ready to wake up, was along with the whole world, to freedom granted by new consciousness. You can almost hear the voice of reason speak for the first time.

Culture Corner

Emotional Immediacy in Recent Movies

Bernie Langs

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

(Source: Wikipedia)

The powerful lessons of the arts, can be used by each of us as tools for enabling the expansion of our emotional dictionaries. As the woes of the world grow in seemingly new dimensions with undercurrents of danger and potential violence, we are experiencing them through media and social network platforms at any moment of our day. I have come to depend on artistic media as a way of allaying the underlying state of anger and frustration induced by the current pervasive toxic political and cultural environment. There are many recently produced movies available on cable channels, Netflix, and other services that remind us of the complexities of our inner states, and teach us lessons about life, love and more, giving us respite and pause from the daily grind of pervasive anxieties. After a typical day’s deluge of negative news stories, I watch movies and shows to find solace in characters placed in extraordinary and unique situations, and in doing so, I become attuned to a broader depth of emotions.

As contemporary comedic dramas go, The Edge of Seventeen is a marvelous movie, starring the formidable Hailee Steinfeld as high school student Nadine Franklin caught in the whirlwind of being a strong-headed outcast at school, save for her bond with her childhood best friend. There have been many movies about the odd-person-out at school, but I venture to say that this is absolutely the best. Edge is startlingly funny, with Woody Harrelson playing one of her teachers who is placed in the uncomfortable position of having to hear out the details of Nadine’s constant travails. Harrelson has proven to be a powerful actor over the years, recently starring in and receiving a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the small-town sheriff in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and as a beastly drug lord running a bare knuckle fight ring in Out of the Furnace. Almost every line he speaks in Edge generates delightful laughter, a return to the masterful comic timing he displayed on television years ago in his first major role as the dim-witted, endearing character Woody on NBC’s hit Cheers. Edge is much more than a study of teens going through growing pains. It’s a beautiful snapshot of young people today with in-your-face, realistic dialogue about sex and drinking and the tricky dynamics and pressures of friendships in a text messaging world. The supporting cast of Nadine’s schoolmates includes the nuanced and understated performance by Hayden Szeto as Erwin, her shy, smart, and talented admirer. The plotline mostly revolves around how Nadine’s one true friendship with Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) is ruined as she angrily refuses to accept that Krista has become the girlfriend of her older brother, Darian Franklin (Blake Jenner). Darian is popular, and is a school star in academics and sports. He has also become the rock for their needy widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick), who often depends on him while serving in her role as single parent and family breadwinner. By watching the maturity and awareness of many of the movie’s high school students, I unexpectedly understand more of the world of my 20-year-old daughter. This is a joy of a film and I’ve watched it on cable at least five times.

Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is an overwhelming study in tragedy, with its actors and actresses displaying stunning skills and emotional range. I’d heard about the powerful sadness of Manchester before viewing it but the harsh sorrow of the movie still came down on me with an intense immediacy. Casey Affleck plays the lead role for which he won an Academy Award. I expected a “situational” tear-jerker, a film about men and women facing a bad turn of life and learning to cope with the fallout. Instead, Manchester is the story of how a man sets off a series of events that leads to the accidental death of his children and how, years later, he has made no progress in moving on. Michelle Williams, a young actress of extraordinary brilliance, plays his ex-wife; their final confrontation, where she pleads with him to discover a way to forgive himself in an act of surprising reconciliation and healing, is an incredible cinematic moment. As the movie began to wrap up, I was suddenly devastated with the realization that Manchester would not have a typical Hollywood ending where lessons are learned, and everyone moves on to some degree. Oddly enough, I found myself hoping for that sense of cliché and relief. But Affleck’s character, on the surface a simple man, but at times violent and unlikable, is so completely lost in guilt and grief, which he will carry in an internal prison for all his remaining days. It is a portrait of a young man unlike any I’ve ever witnessed on the screen, a hard lesson about actions and circumstances from which someone chooses not to return to any semblance of normal life after experiencing a terrible loss.

The Florida Project is a superlative “dramedy” co-written and directed by Sean Baker and for which Willem Dafoe earned Best Supporting Actor nominations at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. He shines as Bobby Hicks, the manager of the Magic Castle, a motel in Kissimmee, Florida near Walt Disney World. Bobby handles tricky situations again and again, struggling with the problems of the motel’s residents, many of whom are engulfed in near destitute situations. The story centers on a single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and her six year old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), as Halley falls deeper and deeper into desperation and trouble. As Moonee and the other children literally run around the area without supervision and with surprising independence, the viewer can’t help but fall into their strange yet innocent world. These children, all under ten years old, are crude, wild, and unexpectedly sharp and funny. I couldn’t tell if these young actors and actresses had been allowed to purely improvise many of their well-delivered and hysterical observations or if the script called for them. The various motels, abandoned fields, and apartment complexes, along with kitsch fast food and souvenir joints, are presented through a cinematography with a rich palette of muted colors. I am a frequent visitor to Orlando, and The Florida Project exposed me to a disturbing societal underbelly of which I was not aware. Looming large in the background throughout the movie, for both the film’s characters and audience, is the shadow and unseen majesty of Disney World, a contrasting paradise to what these children experience daily as they hustle tourists for ice cream money and create other dangerous mischief. The final sequences left me completely stunned and overwhelmed, especially the final closing minutes which were as uniquely memorable and moving as it can get..

Another notable film available for streaming is Get Out, which has been widely praised, earning first time director Jordan Peele an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, resulting in the category’s first African American winner. The movie is billed as a horror flick but it is much more than that, especially with its tension-relieving humor. Outside of one difficult sequence, the violence in Get Out is in line with what has been readily shown on television. There has been a lot of press about how Get Out is an original take on race relations in the United States. I found that the movie’s lessons are unusually subtle and it takes a lot of thinking on the part of the audience to appreciate the depth of what Peele is trying to convey. The film sets up clichéd characterizations of white and black tensions that veer off unexpectedly and don’t quite resolve the way the viewer might think they would. Peele is smart, quick, and extremely funny. I recently caught much of his hysterical 2016 film acting debut alongside Keegan-Michael Key, his partner for many projects, in Keanu; an absurdly laugh-out-loud adventure of two middle class friends forced to pose as tough street assassins as they work to infiltrate a violent gang who has kidnapped Peele’s kitten and made it a coveted gangster mascot. Peele is a force to be reckoned with, a young director and writer who knows how to make his audience laugh and recoil in shock, while also giving them much to think about. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

 

Culture Corner

My Thoughts On Two Documentaries: Long Strange Trip (Amazon Studios, 2017) and Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars (2017 film; released on Showtime Network in February 2018 for television)

Bernie Langs

 

Cream in the 1960s, (from left to right) Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton (source: Wikipedia)

 

Promotional poster for Long Strange Trip (Amazon Video)

 

Two recent documentaries, one on the Grateful Dead and the other about Eric Clapton, offer fantastic insights into two of the most talented and powerful musical forces that arose in the 1960s. All of the surviving members of the Dead are interviewed at length in the Amazon Studios-produced the 6-part, Long Strange Trip directed by Amir Bar-Lev. Eric Clapton cooperated with director Lili Fini Zanuck in the making of the story of his life by giving voiceover narration to archival film footage, music, and documents from his long career as a premier English blues and rock guitarist. Both documentaries offer incredible journeys into the music and lives of those involved, including candid appraisals of some of their darker moments. In particular, the living-on-the-edge life of the Grateful Dead’s late leader Jerry Garcia (1942-1995), his tragic death, and the terrible self-abusive states of addiction suffered by Clapton.

I saw the Grateful Dead three times between 1978 and 1980. During that period, I would often play along at home or college on guitar with Dead albums, where I learned to listen carefully to the other players and respect the unity of the whole sound rather than standing out as a soloist or “stepping” on another musician’s phrase. The Grateful Dead were known for playing as a unit and for being uncannily of one mind during their complicated and experimental live performances. When I joined a band in 1979, I took this lesson to heart as I played with my fellow bandmates.  In the documentary, bassist Phil Lesh, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, and rhythm guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir delight in discussing the magic of playing and jamming live and how the audience would be taken along with them on their journey.

As the Dead’s audience grew, it made a transition from arena performances to stadium venues. These shows attracted a large number of people who would arrive without tickets, many in hope of gaining free entry by slipping through fences or gates. Others would set up booths to sell unauthorized merchandise and there were those who abusively drank alcohol or ingested drugs leading to erratic or often dangerous behavior. The members of the Dead grew alarmed as violence became a regular feature in stadium parking lots, at times to the point of loss of life. Lesh, Weir, Hart and Kreutzmann took to recording public service announcements with forceful messages that only ticket holders were welcome and that the circus-like atmosphere that had been created was not in the true spirit of what the band stood for.

The surviving members of the Dead appear to have emerged in excellent mental shape after years of substance abuse and come across as sharp, insightful and articulate in the film’s interviews. Lesh gives a detailed account of how virtuoso guitarist Garcia deteriorated from heroin use in his final years. He notes that even if the band had stopped touring as an intervention, Garcia would have likely just gone out on the road with his solo band and met with the same sad end.

The musical soundtrack of Long Strange Trip confirms that the Grateful Dead’s performances remain beautifully textured and vital, with each member playing lines of melody that unite seamlessly into a magical whole for a refined essence.

Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is a completely different tale of self-destructive behavior of a guitar magician. The documentary runs just over two hours and is an extremely painful two hours at that.

I have seen Clapton perform many times, but not in the past 25 years. I have great memories of a concert in the 1980s at a small club in Manhattan and of an outdoor festival in 1978 at an aerodrome field outside of London. I became aware of the talented blues player in 1968 when my brother mixed up our daily album selections with records by a far out band from England called Cream. I was 11 years old and records such as Wheels of Fire completely changed my understanding about music. Cream’s extended jams pounded at a breakneck pace, with Mr. Clapton soloing at blistering speed amid the complex, jazz-inspired drumming of Ginger Baker and the wandering, fuzzed basslines of Jack Bruce. I believe that this was Mr. Clapton’s peak period which was matched in 2005 at Cream’s reunion concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and Madison Square Garden where the wisdom of all of his playing years coalesced.

The band’s final album, Goodbye, was a farewell to their fans offering a selection of live recordings and studio songs. The opening number is a live version of a fast-paced blues song that was one of their signature numbers, “I’m So Glad.” The song has Clapton tearing off what I believe to be the finest guitar solo in all of rock music, performed with screaming passion and intensity that never flags.

The Cream years were rough on Clapton, having already emerged as a blues star and given the nickname “God” by his London fans. Whereas the Dead welcomed widespread fame, Clapton didn’t care in the least about stardom. He wanted to perfect his craft and was on a mission to educate the world about the unrecognized African American pioneers of the blues genre. The late Muddy Waters and B.B. King appear in the documentary speaking fondly of the unexpected popularity of their music after Clapton had worked tirelessly to promote it.

In one film segment from the 1960s, Mr. Clapton plays some riffs for an interviewer and notes how he can be “aggressive” as he slashes into a searing lead. This particular guitar tone had been a Cream staple sound during live performances, for example, in “Deserted Cities of the Heart”. Later in the film, as we watch Mr. Clapton descend into years of alcoholism, he goes on record at the time as hoping his life would end, in order to remedy his suffering. In one interview, his eyes barely open, he bitterly wishes that Cream had never existed and says that he loathed, once again, his “aggressive” tone and playing from that time.

Clapton describes in detail how his problems stem from his troubled family history, having grown up believing his grandmother and step-grandfather were his parents only to learn his older sister was his mother and that his father was nowhere in the picture. His mother went off to have another family, and when he finally does meet with her, she acts terribly, scarring him for life and pushing him into the solitude of obsessive practice, which made for a genius guitarist. Equally tragic is how much Clapton enjoyed the positive energy and friendship of fellow blues genius Jimi Hendrix and how much the overdose death of Hendrix left him feeling isolated and alone with his talents and musical insights.

I had known of Clapton’s heroin addiction, which ceased in the 1970s, and that he’d gone into alcohol rehab years later. I had not known until 12 Bars that his drug and alcohol abuse spanned decades of seemingly nonstop misery. There were years lost fretting over his relationship with Pattie Boyd, the ex-wife of his close friend, George Harrison of the Beatles. She had inspired the tortured song “Layla”, which remains a fantastic piece of music. Viewers of the film learn just how long his infatuation with Boyd lasted before it came to a maddening culmination and how Clapton remained unhappy despite finally winning her over.

The bulk of 12 Bars focuses on the period of Clapton’s emergence as a Blues guitarist through the “Layla” sessions. Many of his solo studio albums are dismissed as uneven and uninspired. After years of playing drunk onstage and making angry, embarrassing statements to his audience, he regained the great magic of his live concerts. There is a concert film produced in 2002, One More Car, One More Rider where he shines on acoustic guitar during “Bell Bottom Blues” with the late Billy Preston riffing beautifully on the organ. Clapton was also the band leader of a fantastic musical celebration of the life of the late George Harrison in 2002, “The Concert for George”, which recently was re-released in selected theaters.

12 Bars ends in the present with Clapton happily married and enjoying life with his children. He operates and funds an alcohol rehab center to assist those in need. He is set to perform concerts in October at Madison Square Garden. We can only hope that he has truly finally found peace of mind. And whether I am misinterpreting his guitar tone or not, I’ll always have the music of Cream and many other songs by Clapton to simply enjoy and assist me in my own personal journey in this life of the heart and mind.

 

 

Culture Corner

 

“Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 13, 2017 – February 12, 2018)

 

Bernie Langs

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently had on view an internationally acclaimed exhibition, “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer”, which closed on February 12th. Of the 600 drawings attributed to the great genius of the Italian Renaissance, the show brought together 133 of them from all over the world, the largest number of such works ever assembled by the Master. In addition, the show offered a handful of sculptures by Michelangelo as well as many rare preparatory “cartoons” and one of his early paintings. Drawings, paintings, and sculptures from the hands of other great artists of the period, including those in Michelangelo’s inner circle, were on hand, along with art from other eras serving to drive home essential ideas about what influenced him and why. One of the larger galleries boasted a brightly lit, small-scale reproduction of the Sistine Chapel’s famous ceiling, which hovered above the large space. Many of the drawings in that room were studies for specific images from the Chapel and each of the placards highlighted exactly where you could locate them above on the ceiling. These included a preliminary sketch of God’s reaching arm for the touch that will enliven Adam’s soul, the faces and bodies of the Sybils (including the well-known sheet in the Met’s collection, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl), and a letter written by Michelangelo with a tiny self-portrait illustrating the physical misery of this huge undertaking.

 

Just days after I had seen the exhibit, the curator, Dr. Carmen C. Bambach, and Research Assistant Jeffrey Fraiman who was deeply involved with many of the logistics of the project, invited me for an afterhours viewing with only about 25 others in attendance. I jumped at the opportunity.

 

Given this chance of a lifetime, for what end would I use it? One of the first major exhibitions I had ever attended, was in 1980 at the Morgan Library, “Michelangelo and His World”, which brought together 41 of the Master’s drawings. I specifically recall my strategy on studying his drawings at that visit, and this time, I specifically chose to take the exact opposite approach to understand the profound ideas revealed by the drawings. One can demand that the works of art assist with the progression of one’s own personal theories in hope of completing aesthetic, spiritual, or mystical inner dimensions within the soul or psyche. Upon entry to the Michelangelo exhibition, I said to myself: “Rubbish to all that,” and dove in simply to look at the drawings in the hope of experiencing what Kenneth Clark’s aptly calls “Moments of Vision”.

 

The Michelangelo exhibition gave its audience a chance to discover hints of how a genius of the highest level worked out his ideas. Viewers can see first-hand how his creative process initiated, perhaps as a work on paper in charcoal or in the wonderful textures induced by red chalk, and ended up as the sublime perfection of the frescoes in the Vatican or the perfect sculptures of The David or The Moses. The long-dead Michelangelo can’t go on camera and reveal how he did it so we are left in the uncomfortable situation of having to imply what his thinking process may have been by examining the clues he left behind and mixing them with tales of his personality gleaned from the reports at the time about his life or writings of his friends, such as Girogio Vasari in “The Lives of the Artists”.

 

The Met’s staff, including Dr. Bambach and Mr. Fraiman, do the tireless groundwork for all of us prior to our visit. They comb through the complicated historical record and centuries of scholarship, subsequently devising and writing up their theories. Dr. Bambach and Mr. Fraiman and their colleagues perform the Herculean task of condensing centuries of study and ideas so that their impressively educated passion sparks the hearts and minds of each one of the more than 600,000 people who viewed show.

 

A sheet of paper in one of the first galleries held numerous drawn studies of varying images by Michelangelo, some popping into the viewer’s eyes seemingly out of nowhere and retreating as another one emerged in its place. The drawing was crammed tight with idea after idea. On one side, I found of great interest an incomplete profile of a man buried in all the images of faces and bodies, fabulous in solid, confident detail, yet unusually halted in its progression. Other drawings in nearby galleries had isolated sketches on the same page floating in their own spatial realms and aesthetic dimensions, worked out by strokes of chalk, charcoal or pen. Many drawings were fully formed, or at times, there would be a section of a lightly present image next to another in sharp detail, reminiscent of da Vinci’s obsessive sketches in his famous notebooks.

 

Two of the rare works in the exhibition were large planning “cartoons”, one a section of a preparatory drawing for Michelangelo’s Vatican frescoes, depicting a detail of Roman soldiers for The Crucifixion of Saint Peter in the Pauline Chapel. The second was a design attributed to the Master and his workshop for Michele di Jacopo Cosini’s painting, Venus Kissing Cupid (the finished painting was also on view). The Vatican fragment left me engulfed in pure amazement and overwhelming awe. The Pauline paintings in the Vatican are of a completely different nature than the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and Last Judgement wall. They seem to present an intense inner contemplative expression of Michelangelo’s suffering and spiritual conflicts. The frescoes have a tightness and harsher spatial reality of personal tortured reality than the grand images in the Sistine. Yet the cartoon at the Met had aspects of softness and clarity not apparent in the completed project.

 

Other highlights of the exhibition included a powerful sculpted bust depicting Brutus, displayed alongside an ancient Roman sculpture of a similarly posed emperor. There was also a sublime unfinished sculpture  ambiguously titled, Apollo-David, similar in its chiseled texture to the unfinished Deposition in Florence in which a self-portrait of Michelangelo appears as Nicodemus. These sculptures are fabulously rough as opposed to the polish of Pietà in Saint Peters in Rome.

 

A room with red chalk drawings of unparalleled genius had depictions of emotional subjects such as Study for a Descent from the Cross and the dynamic display of Archers Shooting at a Herm. I found myself incapable of thinking about anything besides their exceptional power and beauty. I also found myself returning a number of times to gaze at the Unfinished Cartoon of the Virgin and Child. The face of the Madonna is similar in its features to many of the faces in the frescoed Sistine Chapel. The delicacy of the figure is ethereal, almost beyond physical reality, and well past thoughts of flesh and blood, perhaps created in the Master’s mind from his vision of the Platonic form of feminine beauty itself. His ideal became the blueprint for artists of the time in representing the divine in the guise of paint.

 

Michelangelo was a captive of the times in which he lived, as we all are. He had to create within the confines of the ideas, society, culture, and territorial realities of Italy during his lifespan of 1475-1564. Michelangelo guided art into a new paradigm reaching untold heights and revealing realms of ideas and thoughts on all manners of subjects, both human and spiritual in nature. We can all thank him for his efforts as well as those who continue to study the works of all of the greats and present them to us for the betterment of Mankind.

 

View of the Met Museum’s recreated Sistine Chapel with related drawings on display.

 

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti Roman Soldiers, Cartoon Fragment for the Lower Left Part of the Crucifixion of Saint Peter in the Pauline Chapel. Charcoal, with some black chalk, on approximately nineteen sheets of paper, outlines pricked for transfer. Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Naples (and detail).

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti Sketches of the Virgin, the Christ Child Reclining on a Cushion, and Other Sketches of Infants. Pen and brown ink. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett.

 

LEFT: Mural Fragment of a Male Nude in Three-Quarter Length (Triton or Satyr). Charcoal on rough porous plaster. Sernesi Family, Villa Michelangiolo, Settignano;

CENTER: Bastiano (Aristotile) da Sangallo (Italian, 1481–1551). Copy after the Central Episode of the Bathers in Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina.

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (with slight retouching by a later hand in pen and ink). Unfinished Cartoon of the Virgin and Child. Black chalk, red chalk, traces of brush and brown wash, with lead-white gouache highlights. Casa Buonarroti, Florence.

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti  with some assistance by Tiberio Calcagni Bust of Brutus (unfinished). Carrara marble. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

 

View of the two galleries of the Met Museum’s exhibition “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer”.

 

Culture Corner

 

“Airbag” by Radiohead

Bernie Langs

I’ve come to believe that there are two masterpiece records that not only predicted the political, cultural and even emotional condition of the 21st century, but expressed them musically and lyrically in such a way as to leave themselves open to years of listening and thoughtful reflection. The first was David Bowie’s Heroes LP, released in 1977, and the other was Radiohead’s OK Computer, which debuted twenty years later and recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. The album and CD covers of these collections also display thought-provoking artwork subtly adding to the message of their music, Bowie poses in an oddly Vulcan-like, emotionally removed posture, and Radiohead’s is a near-abstract, blurred looped highway adorned with other clues to the record’s contents and message.

OK Computer opens powerfully with its most forceful and arguably best track, “Airbag,” penned by the band from the ideas of its leader, Thom Yorke. The song commences with an immediate production assault, courtesy of the band and the album’s co-producer, Nigel Godrich. Just as with Heroes, whose brilliance is enhanced by the production team of Bowie, Brian Eno, and Tony Visconti, “Airbag” and all of the songs of OK Computer soar to previously unheard heights of artistic and technical wonder. Both albums are thematically unified masterworks of rock composition, recording, and musicianship.

The conceptual undercurrent of “Airbag” and OK Computer goes farther than holding up a mirror to society’s emotional gutting in the face of obsessive commercialism, the feeding frenzy to satisfy the hunger of the capitalistic “commodity fetish.” Radiohead brings in the world’s dependence on the machine and its deadening, defeatist qualities, expressing the idea from several viewpoints and woeful tales. I am reminded of the hard-hitting forces and revelations of the groundbreaking work by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick in the film 2001. In that movie, it’s not the manmade computer, HAL, that is absolutely threatening to our person and emotions. It is the idea of a human living out his days in the presence of “The Sentinel,” the sleekly constructed, inexplicably perfect machine of unknown origin, a machine about which he will never have any hope of comprehending, leaving him confused and unsure of his meaning and place in the universe.

In 1997, I’d never heard a song by Radiohead, but my younger coworkers at the time were all talking about the power of OK Computer. For some reason, I sensed that this album might be “the real deal” offering heights of music I’d longed for since the end of the 1970s. I sat down late one evening and put the CD on for a first listen. As the guitars of “Airbag” soared and pulsated around the room that night, I kept track with the lyric sheet like a boy checking his baseball score card at Yankee Stadium as he witnesses a perfect game. This was exactly what I’d been searching for from popular music for a long time. Everything worked for me, especially the masterful and innovative guitar work of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien. Colin Greenwood’s sparse bass playing in “Airbag” is mixed abstractly and beautifully with drummer Phil Selway’s pounding, and the effect transfixes the listener. I later learned that Selway had played a phrase which was looped and reconfigured through various tricks of production giving it an uneven, automatic and unreal feel.

Yorke, sings his guts out about the future during “Airbag.” He hits on something about the current world as well, something I’d always sensed around me but had not yet fully realized or been able to articulate. It was a naked exposure of the inter-emotional landscapes of people and how they were shifting quickly because of the currents set loose by technology, those from computers, TV and movies, and by obsessive advertisers trying every trick of the cultural book to sell their wares. And of course, the song was a warning sign about the rising tide of a fairly new thing at the time, called the Internet.

The story of “Airbag” is told in minimal lyrics, just a handful of lines. It’s a life life/death/life story taking place during a World War. The protagonist, Yorke, is in his fast German automobile and is saved from a horrific crash and his demise by the car’s airbag. We hear of how in the “deep, deep sleep of the innocent, I am born again” and how “in an interstellar burst, I’m back to save the universe”, sung with the powerful lamentation of a lonely soul surviving in a cold, sterile, yet still somehow mysteriously miraculous world. Yorke seems to be relating that we are all born to a fantastic uniqueness, each of us with the mission to save our immediate social and familial worlds, yet surrounded by machine, metal, and flashing neon lights, we forget our purpose, and thus, who we are, very early in life.

Bowie sang these lyrics in 1977 on Heroes, “Sons of the Silent Age, don’t walk, they glide in and out of life/They never die, they just go to sleep one day”; “Airbag” and OK Computer updated and upgraded that sentiment. The lead song on Bowie’s masterwork, the well-known ‘”Heroes”’ is an in-your-face drama about the Cold War and about the machine emotions of the times. Bowie’s lovers kiss amongst the guns blazing in the sky, holding on to each other amid the crazed war machine. In 1997, Yorke is alone, reborn with a flourish of a profound interstellar burst that no one bothers to find significance in but himself. He’ll lock himself away until his next fatal car crash and subsequent rebirth.

Radiohead saw the world at that time, saying “here we all are and this is where we are all going.” The first line of OK Computer and “Airbag” is, “In the next World War” and I took it to mean today’s World War, the current, ever-present World War of people and their deadening machines creeping, seeping in from all directions. Sure, a machine can drive you around and a machine can give you the joy and the art of recording unfathomable, timeless music. Yet, we live in a time when many of us are failing to notice or bother to think about the possibly irreversible emotional price we are paying for the non-stop technological life we’ve all willingly and complicatedly chosen to lead.

Culture Corner

Book Review: Compass by Mathias Énard (New Directions, 2015; translated into English, 2017)

Bernie Langs

There are novels that are categorized as literature and not merely as fiction, and then there are the geniuses of literature and the masterworks of the genre. Reading these masterpieces of literary creation, we enter a process of joyful sublimation to the voices and experiences of unique characters, and we become witnesses to the colorful imaginations of the authors. One surrenders to the writers’ individualized and distinctive tones of language and states of mind as they conjure up realities that arise from a void as an expression of the acrobatic mental instincts which the best authors can relay through the art of written prose. A master of literature can construct a great sentence, a stunning paragraph, an unforeseen set of plot circumstances, and create an entire sublime world for their tales and stories.

I have recently read an amazing book, a true masterpiece, by the French author, Mathias Énard (b. 1972). Compass was published in 2015 and translated into English this year. It is simply the most wonderfully powerful work of fiction I’ve read in recent memory. It was a winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt (a highly regarded prize in French literature). Compass clocks in at a lengthy 443 pages and is a difficult read. It is dense with nonstop ideas and an incredible number of facts on many topics, none of which are dropped easily into the text by the author. Énard’s book reflects his voluminous, deep knowledge of the many subjects he addresses, often expressed as anecdotes from the arts, literature, nonfiction tomes on many subjects, from obscure moments in history and most importantly, from the flavors and ideas of distant and mysterious lands.

The story in Compass is narrated by a brilliant musicologist who ruminates through the complexities of his lifetime that borders on, but never gives completely into, a total disaster. The protagonist, Franz Ritter, is in the throes of horrific insomnia at home in an apartment in Vienna as he delves deep into the memories of his travels through the Middle East and his scholarly pursuit to expose and relate the interconnections throughout history between Eastern and Western (mostly) classical music. One might think this a dry subject, but the emotional passion of Franz and those who shared his quest of making the twain of East and West meet makes for a gripping story. Franz’s baseline tale always returns to his love over decades of the brilliant French academic, Sarah. The reader comes to realize that Franz is now most likely deathly ill, and as we hear the sad details of his strange, mostly unrequited love for her, Énard immerses us in Franz’s consuming melancholy, all the while understanding his odd, unexpected strength. Through thick and thin, he is able to remain above water and not drown in a flood of bitter regret.

Franz is as complete a character as one could ever meet in fiction; always consistent, always real in so many detailed ways in his actions, words and thinking. His many admitted shortcomings still never lead the reader to dislike him. In the stories of the scholars and adventurers that he has met in his life while visiting places such as Istanbul, Tehran, Damascus, and Aleppo, there are numerous acts of duplicity and cruelty, and in Franz’s own case, pettiness. And it is the same with the tales he tells at length about the actions of the eccentrics of the past. Yet within this odd brew, there are grand redeeming moments of love and heroism, from both Franz’s lifetime and from the examples of men and women unearthed from the historical records, those from the desert sands of time.

Sarah rises above these flaws of personality, suffering only from the more intellectual quirk of the occasional fascination with the macabre. As Franz describes his own research of the history of music and delves into Sarah’s complex studies, the reader learns details of their work, with dozens of references to Middle Eastern composers and writers, as well as histories of individuals from the past with like-minded obsessiveness. They were Westerners who went against the grain and saw the allure of these mysterious, disconnected lands.

Here is one random, wonderful passage: “The human heart is indeed a strange thing. Franz Liszt’s artichoke heart didn’t stop falling in love, even with God—in these reminiscences of opium, as I hear the virtuosities of Liszt that occupied me in Constantinople rumbling like death march drums, a singular girl also appears to me, over there in Sarawak, even if Sarah has nothing in common with la Duplessis or with Harriet Smithson (“Do you see that fat Englishwoman sitting in the proscenium,” Heinrich Heine has Berlioz saying in his account), the actress who inspired the Symphonie Fantastique. Poor Berlioz, lost in his passion for the interpreter of “poor Ophelia”: “Poor great geniuses, grappling with three-quarters of the impossible!” as Liszt writes in one of his letters. You’d need a Sarah to be interested in all of these tragic fates of forgotten women…”

Although he is brilliant, Franz is fully aware and accepting of his scholarly limitations, and, wandering his apartment in sleeplessness, he admits he never reached the top as an academic. Both Franz and Sarah are studies in complete devotion to the work itself and to the process of slow and steady, exciting, absorbing discovery. Compass is a brilliant tale of intellectual pursuit that is always in tandem with the underpinning emotion of love as a concurrent force. It is a love which goes naturally with a researcher’s ideas, and as a given that is always present during the events of their lives and in history itself.

The other melancholy, terrible theme of the book is how Franz sees his beloved Middle East devolve to its current situation of war, fundamentalist religion, and miserable violence. We read the awful tales of friends caught in Iran during the Revolution and the destruction of the people and places he’s long loved, and been in awe of, by the barbaric, ruthless armies of ISIS or as victims of Assad in the Syrian civil war. It’s a heartbreaking story of what has been lost, tinged with the sadness of what could have been.

Franz is not a showy intellectual. He never brags about his incredible knowledge and though his studies take him to the heart of the Middle East, to the dangerous cities and outskirts of Iran, Turkey, and Syria where he is clearly a Western outsider, his tunnel vision of discovering artistic and scholarly connections between East and West exposes his disconnect, which leads to a defeat. This all collapses into the mire of today’s horrific problems. Franz and his colleagues didn’t blind themselves to the coming storm by studying in America or Europe encased in an Ivory Tower at a university, mulling over The Arabian Nights, simply reading, lecturing, and attending conferences. But while they put their boots on the ground and ventured abroad, they roamed within the intellectual, fortified towers of their minds and did not stop to consider that there might be something possibly irreversibly horrific being conjured up before their very eyes, even though the region’s history gives them all the glaring warning signs.

As I read Compass, I was completely captivated by the intense musings of the inner states of Franz Ritter’s unique and fascinating mind. Mathias Énard writes beautifully, like a once in a decade master of literature, and I look forward to more novels by this brilliant man.

Culture Corner

 

Television review: The Defiant Ones (HBO documentary)

Bernie Langs

Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, featured in HBO’s documentary “The Defiant Ones”

Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, featured in HBO’s documentary “The Defiant Ones” (promotional photo: HBO)

The HBO television network changed the landscape of TV programming for the better and for many years has offered innovative, well-written, and imaginative shows and documentaries that leave the cliché plagued series of the established networks in the dust. Its latest triumph is The Defiant Ones, a four-part documentary series, directed by Allen Hughes, covering the long careers of former music producer turned music mogul, Jimmy Iovine, and rapper, Andre Romelle Young, better known as Dr. Dre.

 In his book series, Parallel Lives written in the second century AD, the historian Plutarch gives a biography of a Roman politician, general, or famous, personality and offers a corresponding history of someone from ancient Greece in an effort to expose their moral and ethical similarities, and examine their triumphs and failures in tandem. In The Defiant Ones, we similarly get a rendering of two men from extremely different backgrounds, but unlike those written about by Plutarch, these two lives eventually come together and intersect in the most unexpected ways. What stands out to me as the defining parallel quality of both men, each of whom approach music and its industry from different vantage points, is their unflagging commitment to artistry, stripped away from any monetary or social gain. Both have unrelenting pure visions of what comprises great music and neither is willing to compromise their ideals, often risking ruin toe hold fast to their creative principles.

The series offers incredible footage and photographs from the early careers of both Iovine and Dr. Dre, and Allen Hughes was able to procure interviews with many of the main players throughout their lives, including Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Pattie Smith, Stevie Nicks, and Trent Reznor for Iovine, and rappers such as Ice Cube, Sean Combs, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg for Dr. Dre. A host of behind-the-scenes music industry executives and business managers as well as friends and family also weigh in on the parts they played in this incredible musical odyssey. It is striking that all of the famous Rock ‘N’ Roll and pop personalities come across as genuine and emotional in describing how Iovine has one relentless, driving mission in his intersection with them: to find a way for them to best realize their artistic vision and get their work out to as many people as possible so that their audiences think about their work and enjoy it. The number of artists Iovine discovered and directed to success is astounding.

I am less familiar with the work of Dr. Dre and know much of his history from news stories here and there, from such films as Straight Outta Compton. Compton is a undeniably a great movie, but Dr. Dre’s story, as told in The Defiant Ones, actually inspired me as a composer and musician and in my modest efforts in music recording. Dr. Dre is a perfectionist in the recording studio, demanding and expecting excellence from himself and the artists he works with. I have to admit that I’ve never cared for rap or hip-hop, but on occasion I do see the art and beauty of it, especially in terms of its production values. There is an early film montage of Dr. Dre, pre-fame, masterfully DJing in his native Compton area, where he plays the classic girl group song “Mr. Postman.” I never liked or appreciated that sound before, but he does it not only to perfection, but with obvious respect for the original recording. It was that very show that launched Dr. Dre’s start in the business, since the club owner booked him for future gigs.

In Plutarch’s Lives, there are examples of famous Romans and Greeks who either fell as victims of their character flaws or triumphed over them. Straight Outta Compton glossed over Dr. Dre’s history of violence with women, but it is depicted in The Defiant Ones. It was interesting to see Dee Barnes, a hip-hop journalist, interviewed as an authority on the rap history timeline and then revealed to be one of the women who were assaulted by Dr. Dre in the past. Although Dr. Dre apologized at length for his past horrific actions, having realized it was something terrible that he had done and that he will always have to live with, viewers will certainly take note of his past pattern of inexcusable and downright awful, violent behavior. Iovine also struggled with how he handled the escalation of violence between East and West Coast rap recording artists, many of whom were tied to him and Dr. Dre. At its worst, the violence actually descended into murder. There are incredible interviews at this point in the series with Sean Combs and Snoop Dogg that are emotional and chilling, and the story of Tupac Shakur’s demise is recounted in depth.

One of the great anecdotes in the series describes the origin of the wildly popular Beats by Dre. After his divorce, Iovine felt lost and was floundering as he wandered on a beach one afternoon when Dr. Dre saw him from his balcony and waved for him to come up for a chat. Dr. Dre explained to Iovine that he was getting approached for endorsements but didn’t want to cheaply put his name on sneakers, etc. Iovine brilliantly suggests designing headphones with high-quality sound, an idea that would be right up Dr. Dre’s alley. They went on to found Beats Electronics in 2006, and after carefully crafting and tastefully marketing their product, which was sold to Apple in 2014 for $3 billion. In May 2013, they donated a $70 million endowment to the University of Southern California to create the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation.

Throughout their extensive interviews in the show, Dr. Dre and Iovine never come across in with them in the show as pretentious or egotistically struck by their own success or stardom; Iovine has great comedic timing. I’ve always found Dr. Dre to be a brooding, soulful presence and though he has a lot of screen time in this series, he retains an air of mystery, professionalism, and magic. There is a fantastic shot of him in part four of the series where he hovers like a Zen master over a huge recording studio console.

The Defiant Ones inspires one to stay true to oneself and to one’s vision of life, whether it be as an artist or just in retaining a set of uncompromising positive values and to remain steadfast when these values are challenged.

Culture Corner

 

Ubiquitous Art

Bernie Langs

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.

Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

Ah, yes, the famous malaise of the pseudo-mad Danish Prince, the speech of Hamlet to his school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the depressive bent that has overtaken his disposition, even while recognizing that the magnificent wonders of the world cascade before his very eyes. I believe that many of us also communicate a similar despair through email, text, Facebook, or in conversation with our friends, of our inner conflicts about the depressing state of politics in our troubled nation. Personally, I lay no claim to the insights of a Hamlet, yet, as I’ve hit my 60th year of life on this planet, I find it hard at times to muster the strength to care and gather excitement for professional sports and for what currently passes as art and entertainment. And I’ve long given up hope for the salvaging of the higher ideals of America’s revolutionary concepts of democracy and government. Yet I know in my heart that there are many times when my dreary, lazy pessimism can be shoved aside and temporarily forgotten, such as when at an art exhibition I’ve dragged myself to exhilarate my soul, or the moment an orchestral or guitar passage at a concert rises to heavenly heights granting momentary freedom of mind. Unfortunately, like the feeling I get after consuming a bag of Doritos, I sink back into unsatisfied appetite, and the opiate high of stimulated intellect crashes down, mired in the dreary muck and Dickensian soot of the times in which we live. I always knew the world would change in my lifetime, but I could never have imagined or anticipated a place of constant stimulation mixed with the underlying hum of continual disappointment.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael, National Gallery, London

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael, National Gallery, London (photo: Wikipedia).

Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, pinpoints the source of so much of what bothers me now in the arts. Benjamin was the first to recognize a deadly and serious danger that the art world would confront going forward. He realized that the ease of reproducing great works of art would cast a shadow over the unique qualities of the actual images and first-hand experiences. If the Mona Lisa, for example becomes available as a cheap postcard churned out by the hundreds of thousands and in art history textbooks again and again, over and over, the mind of the beholder loses the ability to conceive of what made the actual physical painting a masterpiece in the first place. This uncomfortable understanding stretches out widely in the arts, rippling forever outwards like the waves set in motion by a sudden disturbance on the surface at the center of a placid lake.

Of course, art should be sustenance for all and available to everyone; that is something I’ve never doubted for a moment. But what art philosophers such as Walter Benjamin realized was that by cheapening the “primary” object of art, people who never visit the original work or take the time to experience true art amid this barrage of valueless clutter will never experience its “aura” or have what art historian Kenneth Clark terms as a “moment of vision.” The essence of the spiritual power and the feat of the technical creation is diluted, or worse, completely lost, replaced by a tawdry mechanized imitation.

In music, for example, it appears that we’ve created a world of the most casual of listeners. Songs are available at any time and in any place. You can halt a Beethoven symphony on a hand-held device in the middle of a violinist’s most passionate stroke of the bow. Few people take the time to ponder a classical piece as an entirety, to struggle with its complex structuring and discover its meaning as a totality, as a bold statement of a nuanced idea. Pop music is ubiquitous, piped in at shopping malls, in pharmacies, even in restaurant restrooms. Has anyone ever been in a Target store or a CVS pharmacy and paused to say, “Wow, I love this song, let me stop and listen?” Pop music has long been the loving cash cow of an aggressive music industry, and it is the songs that are thus devalued as mere commodities. We’ve now reached the point where the capitalist-generated brand of music as a “product” latches on like a deadly virus to the artistic expression of the song, and unbelievably, the artists themselves are transformed and morphed into becoming the physical “face” of a commodity such as soda, a bank, or snack food. In my mind this is a horrific dehumanizing concept that the ghosts of economic opposites Karl Marx and Adam Smith must both be choking on.

Beyoncé as the “face” of Pepsi

Beyoncé as the “face” of Pepsi (photo: Forbes).

When I studied art history on my own, for many years I took in Raphael’s High Renaissance depictions of Saints and Madonnas, through photos in books. For years I viewed them with disdain, seeing them as sugary and overly sweet and not close in conception to the works or genius of his contemporaries, such as Michelangelo and Leonard da Vinci. But standing in front of the very same paintings at the National Gallery in London or the National Gallery of Art in Washington I experienced jaw-dropping, intense moments of revelation. No photo in a book, no postcard or computer image can capture the textures of skin and clothing in Raphael’s paintings. The artist’s depiction of ethereal time and space, religious realms juxtaposed with temporal dimensions, and the souls and complex emotions within the depicted individuals are best experienced in situ. There are mind-blowing, often indescribable details and nuances that can never be captured in widely dispersed and carelessly conceived reproductions.

There’s a funny story that when Dustin Hoffman was making the 1976 movie Marathon Man, there was a scene where he’s fleeing some would-be killers, and to prepare for the filming of that moment he was standing alone on the film’s set doing all kinds of physical and mental calisthenics to prepare for the action. As he was going through all of this, his older, legendary co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, walked up to him and said, “Why don’t you just try acting?” I felt quite the same last year when I went to see the overwhelming, powerful paintings by Van Gogh at the Metropolitan Museum. I couldn’t see much of them because people were blocking the masterpieces taking photos with cell phones and large iPads. What I wanted to say was, “Why don’t you just try looking?” The primary source itself had become for many visitors just a living postcard, a photo op with a piece of famous canvas. The power of Van Gogh was lost to them in their snapping haste, as if the vital paintings were nothing more than soda cans in the flesh bearing the face of their favorite stars. Yes, the soul of genius reduced to the muzak equivalent of a special effects Starry Night.