Peter Gabriel – San Jacinto (New Blood version), live in London HD

A year or so ago Peter Gabriel released New Blood in which he reworked a group of his songs for orchestra and voice alone. I’d heard the version of Mercy Street awhile back – very beautiful, of course, though I’m just not sure anything could improve on the original (and that link also another exception to the rule that music videos – this one directed by Matt Mahurin – detract from the power of the music).

Then last night I came across the new version of San Jacinto and … well, what to say? It’s one of the greatest vocal performances I’ve seen in quite awhile, spine-chilling, perfect. The orchestra frames his voice in such a way that the rawness and depth of the song can come fully through. And I’m not sure he’s ever sung better, honestly. Well, just watch. And then, when you’ve recovered, you will probably want to rewind…

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on “measuring” “sexuality”

May as well try to “measure” music in order to say it’s one “thing” or the “other.”

Music, of course, has multiple layers/dimensions – four major ones: rhythm; melody (to one degree or another); timbre; and (in all but monophonic music) harmony. (Each of these in turn are multi-layered: melody can be contrapuntal to any degree of complexity, timbral possibilities are infinite, and so on.) We can’t simply take and reduce it as a phenomenon to just one of those, then reduce that to a choice of two dots.

Of course, that’s what Stalin’s cultural goons did, according, apparently, to Shostakovich: they at one point started counting the number of major and minor harmonies in a piece, and those whose ratio was too skewed to the minor got their composer condemned for insufficient revolutionary joy!

But of course even harmonies can’t be reduced to two. They exist within larger systems of key. And then, even major and minor keys are only two of seven traditional Western modes. The music of other cultures encompasses a great variety of modes also, including microtonal ones. And then of course there is modulation into other keys, and atonality too: neither major nor minor nor modal in any other way.

Sexuality, like music, is multi-dimensional. Immeasurable.

However, these days we have become so locked within an extraordinary – not to mention extraordinarily dogmatic – paradigm that it is almost impossible even to discuss “sexuality” in the true, vast meaning of the word. For various historical and cultural reasons, our vision has become utterly one-pointed, and grotesquely disfigured, in this regard.

And just how much pounding on square pegs to get them to fit into round holes thus has to go on can be demonstrated every single day with new material. Today, for example, there is this report on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, beginning: “We’re slowly getting a sense of how many TGBQLX people there are in America. I.e. how many homosexuals, lesbians and transgenders there are in the population.”

That “i.e.” is revealing. What comes after an “i.e.” of course is meant to be a definition or exemplification of its antecedent, so here Sullivan is saying the following: 1) transgender identity is practically speaking congruent with “sexual orientation,” like the “L” and “G” categories. He makes this clear by the next sentence: “When I was a newbie gay, the mantra was 10 percent.” But of course when he “was a newbie gay,” that meaningless 10 percent figure was meant to relate just to the categories of “L” and “G.” People weren’t talking about the other ones.

And 2) we can simply ignore the “B’s,” “Q’s,” and “X’s,” because they too are really the same basic “thing” as the “L’s and G’s” (and, of course, “T’s”).

So, all the usual problems apply. Firstly, those who identify as trans have innumerable “sexual orientations,” and these are not possible to map onto the ones we have: if one biological male becomes a woman and then invests her sexual life exclusively (for the sake of simplicity) with men, clearly she is in not the same but the very opposite category of “sexual orientation” as the biological male who becomes a woman and then invests her sexual life exclusively with women. One of those two categories has to be considered – according to the logic we have harnessed ourselves to – as precisely “straight.” In other words, transgender simply can’t be used to bolster figures of “sexual orientation.” At all.

Secondly, the categories “Q” (by which is usually meant “queer,” an explicit rejection of the system as a whole), and “X,” which I’ve never seen before in this context but which can only be referring to something like “none of the above,” actually have nothing logically to do with the idea of “G” and “L.” But if one wishes to think that they (along with “B” of course) are really just variants on “L” and “G,” then of course the former can, and practically speaking are, more or less always ignored.

They’re even mentioned at all, in that case, so that wishful thinking and a desire for hygienic, stable, absolute categories can feel as if it is being true to “diversity,” while at the same time resolutely closing its eyes to it at every turn.

For it is precisely those “B’s,” “Q’s,” and “X’s” – amongst many other phenomena internally contradictory within our constructs of “gay” and “straight” themselves – which reveal the instability of our contemporary regime of “sexuality.”

In a time when the category of race has finally come to be understood – by more and more at least – as ultimately incoherent, that of something we are calling “sexuality” gets more reified, reductionistic, and rigid every year.

And of course there are a number of cultural reasons for this, about which … much more over time!

Ned Rorem on Leonard Bernstein

This likewise from Other Entertainment – “Lenny Is Dead” (October 1990).

During the terrible hours following Lenny’s death last Sunday the phone rang incessantly. Friend after friend called to commiserate, and also the press, with a flood of irrelevant questions: How well did you know him? What made him so American? Did he smoke himself to death? Wasn’t he too young to die? What was he really like? None of this seemed to matter since the world had suddenly grown empty – the most crucial musician of our time had vanished. But next morning it seemed clear that there are no irrelevant questions, and these were as good as any to set off a brief remembrance.

How well did I know him? To “know well” has to do with intensity more than with habit. Everyone in Lenny’s vast entourage felt themselves to be, at one time or another, the sole love of his life, and I was no exception. The fact that he not only championed my music, but conducted it in a manner coinciding with my very heartbeat, was naturally not unrelated to love. Years could pass without our meeting, then for weeks we’d be inseparable. During these periods he would play as hard as he worked, with a power of concentration as acute for orgies as for oratorios. In Milan, in 1954, when he was preparing La Sonnambula for La Scala, I asked him how Callas was to deal with. “Well, she knows what she wants and gets it, but since she’s always right, this wastes no time. She’s never temperamental or unkind during rehearsal – she saves that for parties.” Lenny was the same: socially exasperating, even cruel with his manipulative narcissism (but only with peers, not with unprotected underlings), generous to a fault with his professional sanctioning of what he believed in.

Was he indeed so American? He was the sum of his contradictions. His most significant identity was that of jack-of-all-trades (which the French aptly call l’homme orchestre), surely a European trait; while Americans have always been specialists. … Yes, he was frustrated at forever being “accused” of spreading himself thin, but this very spreading, like the frustration itself, defined his theatrical nature. Had he concentrated on but one of his gifts, that gift would have shriveled.

Was he too young to die? What is too young? Lenny led four lives in one, so he was not 72 years old but 288. Was he, as so many have meanly claimed, paying for the rough life he led? As he lived many lives, so he died many deaths. Smoking may have been one cause, but so was overwork, and especially sorrow at a world he so longed to change but which remained as philistine and foolish as before. Which may ultimately be the brokenhearted reason any artist dies. Or any person.

So what was he really like? Lenny was like everyone else, only more so. But nobody else was like him.

Ned Rorem on Ravel and Debussy

Have been browsing through one of Ned Rorem’s collections, Other Entertainment. This is from a very brief piece on Ravel and Debussy:

Ravel and Debussy, the mother and father of modern French music, were so alike in esthetic and vocabulary that it’s become fashionable to claim how different they were. In fact, the differences are superficial: like Comedy and Tragedy they are two sides of the Impressionist mask. Good musicians of the same generation often come in pairs wherein both speak one language, but with divergent accents – of optimism and pessimism, for instance, or of concert hall versus opera stage. Witness Mozart and Haydn, Mahler and Strauss, Copland and Thomson, Britten and Tippett, Poulenc and Honegger.

In formal matters everyone agrees that Ravel was a classicist, Debussy a free versifier. Yet the orchestral masterpiece of each one proves the reverse. Ravel’s Daphnis is a loose rhapsody, Debussy’s La Mer a tight symphony. Melodically Debussy was short of breath, like Beethoven, while Ravel spun out tunes that were minutes long, like Puccini. Contrapuntally they were, like all the French, unconcerned. Rhythmically they were, like all the French (because of the unstressed national speech from which their music springs), generally amorphous. Harmonically they dealt in the same material of secondary sevenths, except for the whole-tone scale, which Ravel avoided. And coloristically they both excelled, making rainbows from a lean palette. Their game could be called Sound, sound taking precedence over shape, over language.

Mark Cousins interview at Watershed

And speaking of The Story of Film, there’s an interview with Mark Cousins here about the series at the Watershed in Bristol (a place I used to live down the road from). Cousins’s passion for the cinema really comes across.

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One nice moment:

I’m really interested in this idea of how you build an appetite for something. When I was writing the book of The Story of Film, I was desperate to see this Ethiopian film – Harvest: 3,000 Years. It took me about two months, and $170, to get my hands on this. And now it’s literally a click away. So I think the longing for cinema, the desire for cinema – you know it’s similar to eros in some way – people don’t need to long for it in the way that they did previously, so there’s not that difficulty anymore….

I first heard about Citizen Kane nine years before I could get to see it, so that was nine years of expectation and imagination. And boy does that add something. There’s a kind of suspense in that, you know. So that’s gone. But something else has replaced it, which is a kind of ultra-availability, and that has its own pleasures and its rewards. And you can sort of binge in a way that you couldn’t previously.

So I think just the culture has changed, and what the role – I don’t need to tell you this, because Watershed is such a beacon for this kind of thing – but the role of Watershed and places like this is to put on Carl Theodor Dreyer films at lunchtime, which you’ve done – beautiful idea – and say to people: look at this splendid thing. And the fact that Adrian can do a score for one of the greatest films ever made, The Passion of Joan of Arc. This is a way of saying to people, within all that blurry, overwhelming, smorgasbord plenitude of what’s out there: look at this thing, look how splendid it is.

That’s why we’ve got Lars von Trier in here saying: Dreyer is the greatest. Trier says Dreyer’s films are like a good soup when you boil them down and down to their essence, which is a lovely way of putting it.

And I think I’m quite an optimist about people and audiences. People want enriching experiences and they want connective tissue. And they want to go away from a lunchtime screening, having felt: wow, I saw something – that lovely phrase that Fenner Brockway, the politician, said: see the flame and go towards it. That’s what people want, you know. But there’s lots of stuff and noise in the way, cultural noise.

Mark Cousins – The Story of Film

It’s a 15-part, 15-hour documentary on the entire history of film, and very enjoyable.

Easy to take apart this kind of project. Are Cousins’s choices idiosyncratic in places? Of course – but how could they not be? Is any individual person going to agree with each of his sentences that begins “this is the greatest x, y, or z in the history of film”? Obviously not. Will some people find him insufficiently theoretical, or whatever else? No doubt.

“The story of film” is going to be a subjective one no matter who is telling it, and Cousins doesn’t try to pretend otherwise. What you find in this series is a very nicely organized narrative touching upon (necessarily briefly) an enormous range of highlights in the history of cinema. Each episode averages 35 or 40 or so clips (a list can be found here), and on the whole they are beautifully chosen. Cousins also often juxtaposes two scenes from quite different times and places as visual echoes – sometimes explicit inspirations for the director under discussion, sometimes not.

One of the crucial choices for the series – and the book which preceded it – was to re-orientate our usual focus upon Hollywood and American film more generally. Instead, Cousins spends greater time than is the norm on other continents – with East Asian, Latin American, African, Iranian film. So I am guessing the series will provide at least a few discoveries for all but the more widely-travelled filmgoer.

(from Wikipedia)
Episode 1. Introduction; 1895-1918: The World Discovers a New Artform; Thrill Becomes Story
Episode 2. 1918-1928: The Triumph of American Film…; …And the First of Its Rebels
Episode 3. 1918-1935: The Great Rebel Filmmakers Around the World
Episode 4. The 1930s: The Great American Movie Genres…; …And the Brilliance of European Film
Episode 5. 1939-1952: The Devastation of War…and a New Movie Language
Episode 6. 1953-1957: The Swollen Story: World Cinema Bursting at the Seams
Episode 7. 1957-1964: The Shock of the New – Modern Filmmaking in Western Europe
Episode 8. 1965-1969: New Waves Sweep Around the World
Episode 9. 1967-1979: New American Cinema
Episode 10. 1969-1979: Radical Directors in the 70s Make State of the Nation Movies
Episode 11. 1970s and Onwards: Innovation in Popular Culture Around the World
Episode 12. The 1980s: Moviemaking and Protest Around the World
Episode 13. 1990-1998: The Last Days of Celluloid Before the Coming of Digital
Episode 14. The 1990s: The First Days of Digital – Reality Losing Its Realness in America and Australia
Episode 15. 2000 Onwards: Film Moves Full Circle – and the Future of Movies; Epilogue: The Year 2046

I’ve only just begun watching it and will probably say more over time. Am skipping around for some reason – have so far seen episodes 1, 3, 8, 10, and 13.