Archive for category Music

Disintegration Loops

This post has been many months in the gestation. In my head, it started off as a more abstract and metaphysical musing about the nature of dementia, at least as I have encountered it, about how what made a person that person fades, gradually, until it has virtually disappeared, and yet they are still here. As a recent contributor to a discussion in the Guardian described it, ‘death on the installment plan, as every day another little piece would flicker out of existence’. But there are other things that must be said as well – the anger at how our health service and social care – and in particular the failure to join the two up effectively – can fail those rendered helpless by the disintegration of their mind and memory.

The title is borrowed from a series of pieces of 21st century music, by American composer William Basinski, which I have loved ever since a friend introduced me to them a few years after they were released in 2002/03. Basinski had magnetic tapes, recorded in the 1980s, which he wanted to transfer to digital format. But the tapes had deteriorated, so there were gaps, and cracks, which increased as he continued to play the tapes. The original recordings can be heard, but faint, distorted, broken up, fragmented. And somehow this is intensely moving. When I first heard it, I felt the general sadness of loss, of gradual loss in particular, not a sudden shock and wrench but the knowledge that something is slipping away that was and still is precious. And when I saw this happening to someone I loved, that title and the memory of listening to these albums came back to me.

And the idea of loops, of course, resonated with us. The endless loops of conversation: Where am I? You’re in hospital, Mum, you had a stroke. Oh. When can I go home? When you’re stronger. Where am I? round and round again… As the disease progressed the loops got shorter, until all that was left were the questions and our answers disappeared into the fog.

Basinski was not thinking of dementia when he created these pieces. They’re dedicated to the victims of the September 11 attacks in New York, which Basinski saw from the roof of his apartment in Brooklyn, the morning that he had completed the project. But as D H Lawrence said, trust the tale and not the teller. That Basinski associated the work with 9/11 does not prevent it from being also a powerful and poignant and heartbreaking account of a very different kind of loss.

There are as many different experiences of dementia as there are sufferers – and carers. I can only speak of our own, but there are elements in what we experienced that will be shared by many. Over the months since she died we have been gradually able to overlay the images of her the last time we saw her conscious – bewildered, afraid, unable to understand what we were saying to her, unable to smile, unable to recognise the photograph of her beloved little cat that we had brought as a gift – with the woman we had known before. That woman was funny, fiercely independent, interesting and interested, a traveller, a gardener, a musician, a teacher, a fan of detective novels and TV series, a lover of good food and wine. Dementia took all of that, little by little by little, but as we organised her funeral and started to get cards and letters from people who’d known her before, we saw her re-emerge from the shadows, heard the laughter that so many people had mentioned, literally heard her voice on a recording amongst the other members of the choir she sang in for many years.

But as we recovered some of those joyful memories, I thought about some of what had happened in the last year of her life, and I got angry. On her behalf, but also on behalf of the many, many people who suffer from dementia. Many are less fortunate than she was – she had the funds to choose (or for us to choose on her behalf) the kind of care she needed, and to not have to put up with sub-standard care (in fact, the carers who supported her in her own home until her stroke were wonderful, as was the care home that she moved to for the last six months of her life). She had family who were close enough at hand to be involved in her care, who were free to come over at short notice when needed, to spend time on hospital wards to talk to medics on her behalf. But despite all of this, and despite the loving and patient care on the wards from nurses and health care assistants, there was something terribly wrong.

If I could go back, knowing what I know now, I would interject in every discussion about her medical care and about options for discharge, to remind people that, whilst she had been admitted to hospital following a stroke, she had dementia, and that any decision about her care in hospital and about what happened once treatment was over HAD to take account of that. She could not cooperate in her own care. She removed the feeding tube that the hospital had inserted to ensure she did not aspirate and contract pneumonia, because she did not understand why it was there, she only knew it was unpleasant and uncomfortable. She tried (and occasionally succeeded) in removing the surgical collar that was needed after she fell and broke a couple of vertebrae in her neck – again, she did not know why she was wearing it, blamed the collar for the pain of the fracture. Her carers – at her home and in the care home – took her dementia into account. Staff on the wards largely did (they brought her food even if she’d said she didn’t want any and didn’t rush to take it away when she said she’d finished, understanding that seconds later she’d forget that she’d finished and have another go… ).

But when it came to preparing her for discharge, it was as if the need to free up a bed, once no further medical treatment was required, overrode other considerations. We get it, we really do, we know the NHS is overstretched, we know that hospitals can’t have beds taken up long-term by people for whom they can do nothing more. Nevertheless…

We were told how much her mobility was improving, and that with extra help for a while (equipment and additional carers) she would be fine at home. And so she was discharged. We were given a date for discharge, and a time, so planned to get there (we’re an hour’s drive away) well ahead, to sort the house out and get her shopping done.  But she was delivered home much earlier and so we arrived to find her sitting, bewildered, on the sofa (where we knew and her carers knew not to let her sit, because it was so difficult to get her up from it). She had no idea how long she’d been there. We quickly realised that we, and she, were in a nightmare. We were as terrified as she was.

She would be alone for most of every day (carers came four times a day). She had forgotten, after a month in hospital, how to use her TV remote and could no longer read. She would be incontinent and thus sitting in her own waste for hours. She would be unable to change her position in the chair or the bed and thus would be at risk of pressure sores. She would be at risk of falling from her chair if she forgot that she could not get up, and tried to do so. She had forgotten how to use her ‘red button’ alarm and so if she fell would lie there until the next carer visit. She would be shouting out for help, hour after hour – she had no sense of the passing of time, and so would be convinced five minutes after a carer had left that she had been alone for hours already.

She had been promised physiotherapy, and the assumption seemed to be that she could learn, and get better at the limited means of mobility possible for her. But since the dementia took hold, she had been unlearning. Unlearning skills she had had for years, like how to dress herself, how to make a cup of tea. Her discharge took no account of this.

When the carers arrived they shared our alarm and dismay and decided that it was an unsafe discharge and that she should go back into hospital. Next day when we rang to see how she was, the nurse on the EAU said brightly how well she’d done on the rotunda and that she’d be ready for discharge soon. We headed straight over and prepared for a fight.

We pointed out that if one of us had had a stroke and lost mobility, and was discharged to live alone, we would of course be worried and miserable. But we could do something about the situation – ensure that books, radio, TV remote were within reach, keep in touch with the world via phone or laptop and talk to family and friends. We could look at the clock and know how long it would be before someone would visit. She had none of those resources.

We argued, we insisted that we could not accept her being sent home. And eventually someone said to us, what do you suggest then? And we said, well, we rather thought you might be able to offer us some advice and guidance on possible solutions. And just like that, we were put in touch with the social worker and the Age Concern contact, and were given details of suitable care homes, and within a few days, were arranging her discharge to a dementia specialist care home.

We’d never promised her that we wouldn’t ‘put her in a home’. But even if we had made that promise, we’d have broken it. What mattered was that she was safe, that someone was there 24 hours a day to take care of her, that they were able to keep her comfortable. And the language of ‘putting’ someone in a home is inherently prejudiced – we found the best care home we could for her, and we worked with the care home manager and staff to meet her needs as well as we could, just as we had worked with the carers who came to her home. We have no regrets about that – only about our naivety in our dealings with the hospital and our failure to remind them at every stage and in every discussion about her dementia.

The other thing that rapidly became apparent to us was that with every hospital admission, the dementia gained ground. This is borne out by statistics from John’s Campaign:

  • One third of people with dementia who go into hospital for an unrelated condition NEVER return to their own homes
  • 47% of people with dementia who go into hospital are physically less well when they leave than when they went in
  • 54% of people with dementia who go into hospital are mentally less well when they leave than when they went in

John’s Campaign‘s raison d’etre is pretty simple – the belief that in all hospital settings, for patients with dementia, ‘carers should not just be allowed but should be welcomed, and that a collaboration between the patients and all connected with them is crucial to their health and their well-being’.

In that grey area, where someone may be deemed to ‘have capacity’ to make decisions, but at the same time is unable to hold on to even simple information, let alone weigh up pros and cons, the family (if the patient is fortunate enough to have family/carers who are able and want to be involved) must be seen, surely, as a tremendous benefit for the hospital.

John’s Campaign applies to all hospital settings: acute, community, mental health and its principles could extend to all other caring institutions where people are living away from those closest to them. In the time since the campaign was founded, over 1000 institutions have pledged support and a lot of progress has been made – but there is a lot yet to be done.

https://johnscampaign.org.uk/#/about

If a patient with dementia has no family to speak for them, to ensure that their dementia is taken into account in all decisions about their medical and social care, how can we provide them with advocates? As Nicci Gerrard said in a recent article, dementia is our collective responsibility. You might not have encountered it yet. But odds are, you will. It’s in all of our interests that we recognise the scale of it, recognise what’s needed to keep people with dementia as safe and as comfortable as possible, that those of us without dementia speak up for those who have it, who can no longer recognise or articulate what they need. They may no longer be able to articulate their needs, or explain the reasons for their anxiety or distress, but the anxiety and distress is no less real for that – and all the more heartbreaking to witness.

A good place to start is in collectively facing up to the fact that it is in our midst and that each year hundreds of thousands of men and women are living with it and dying with it. If not you, someone very near you. If not now, soon.

 

Support, Information, Advice

If dementia is now a part of your life, there are places you can go for support and advice. I’ve already mentioned John’s Campaign. I found the Alzheimer’s Association forum, Dementia Talking Point, very helpful on all sorts of practical issues, and often very reassuring.

Some books that I found both fascinating and useful. Several of them at some point made me laugh, and all of them without exception, at some point made me sob.

  • Nicci Gerrard (founder of John’s Campaign) – What Dementia Teaches us about Love
  • Andrea Gillies – Keeper: A Book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordsworth and cake… (Andrea Gillies took on the care of her mother-in-law, who was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. This is a journal interwoven with an investigation of how Alzheimer’s works)
  • Emma Healey – Elizabeth is Missing (a wonderful novel, whose protagonist is a woman with dementia, who can’t always recognise her daughter, but knows that her friend Elizabeth is missing…)
  • Robyn Hollingworth – My Mad Dad: The Diary of an Unravelling Mind
  • Wendy Mitchell – Someone I used to Know (Wendy was diagnosed with early onset dementia some years ago, and writes a truly remarkable blog about her life with the disease. Her experience is very different to that of my mother in law. But it’s a rare and invaluable gift to hear someone explaining so clearly what it’s like have dementia, and a joy to hear of the rich life she can lead even now.)

 

 

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Notre Dame in flames

It’s too early to know what’s been lost, what’s been saved. It’s too early to know what started the blaze. All we know is that a beautiful place has been ravaged by fire, and that not only those whose city it graces but all of us who care about history and beauty feel a sense of shock and loss.

The great cathedrals were intended to inspire a sense of worship, a turning of the heart and the mind to God. For me, what they inspire is certainly awe, but awe of the human beings who imagined and then built something so extraordinary. Without any of the knowledge we now have of materials science, of engineering and physics, they built something that has survived (and survives still) for centures, that has outlived wars and revolutions, and has remained (and will remain still) a place of contemplation and stillness.

https://www.thenational.ae/world/europe/blaze-engulfs-notre-dame-cathedral-in-paris-in-pictures-1.849459#27

A place of Christian worship has occupied this site since probably the 4th century. Notre Dame itself dates from the 12th century – obviously since then there have been alterations, additions, refurbishments, renovations and repairs. The flying buttresses were added in the 13th century, and then strengthened again in the 14th. The Cathedral suffered damage at various times – Huguenot riots, the Revolution, the street fighting during the Liberation. The spire which collapsed in the blaze yesterday was from the 19th century.


That most glorious church of the most glorious Virgin Mary, mother of God, deservedly shines out, like the sun among stars. And although some speakers, by their own free judgment, because [they are] able to see only a few things easily, may say that some other is more beautiful, I believe however, respectfully, that, if they attend more diligently to the whole and the parts, they will quickly retract this opinion. Where indeed, I ask, would they find two towers of such magnificence and perfection, so high, so large, so strong, clothed round about with such a multiple variety of ornaments? Where, I ask, would they find such a multipartite arrangement of so many lateral vaults, above and below? Where, I ask, would they find such light-filled amenities as the many surrounding chapels? Furthermore, let them tell me in what church I may see such a large cross, of which one arm separates the choir from the nave. Finally, I would willingly learn where [there are] two such circles, situated opposite each other in a straight line, which on account of their appearance are given the name of the fourth vowel [O] ; among which smaller orbs and circlets, with wondrous artifice, so that some arranged circularly, others angularly, surround windows ruddy with precious colors and beautiful with the most subtle figures of the pictures. In fact I believe that this church offers the carefully discerning such cause for admiration that its inspection can scarcely sate the soul.”— Jean de Jandun, Tractatus de laudibus Parisius[

For me, Notre Dame has other connotations. In this place, inspired by this place, composers such as Léonin and Perotin wove extraordinary, other-worldly sounds with human voices, using the acoustics of the cathedral to worship God in song. The idea of polyphony was regarded with suspicion by some – the fear was that the listeners would be swept away by the beauty of the sounds and forget to take heed of the words:


Bad taste has, however, degraded even religious worship, bringing into the presence of God, into the recesses of the sanctuary a kind of luxurious and lascivious singing, full of ostentation, which with female modulation astonishes and enervates the souls of the hearers. When you hear the soft harmonies of the various singers, some taking high and others low parts, some singing in advance, some following in the rear, others with pauses and interludes, you would think yourself listening to a concert of sirens rather than men, and wonder at the powers of voices … whatever is most tuneful among birds, could not equal. Such is the facility of running up and down the scale; so wonderful the shortening or multiplying of notes, the repetition of the phrases, or their emphatic utterance: the treble and shrill notes are so mingled with tenor and bass, that the ears lost their power of judging. When this goes to excess it is more fitted to excite lust than devotion; but if it is kept in the limits of moderation, it drives away care from the soul and the solicitudes of life, confers joy and peace and exultation in God, and transports the soul to the society of angels.


John of Salisbury (1938) [1159]. Pike, Joseph B, ed. Policraticus, sive de nugis curialium et de vestigiis philosophorum [Frivolities of courtiers and footprints of philosophers: being a translation of the first, second, and third books and selections from the seventh and eighth books of the Policraticus of John of Salisbury]

It is deeply touching that the response of Parisians to the sight of this place, so deeply a part of their (and our) culture and history, engulfed in flames, was to sing.




• «Tous les yeux s’étaient levés vers le haut de l’église. Ce qu’ils voyaient était extraordinaire. Sur le sommet de la galerie la plus élevée, plus haut que la rosace centrale, il y avait une grande flamme qui montait entre les deux clochers avec des tourbillons d’étincelles…»


Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831).

One is not, sadly, surprised to note not only an outbreak of ‘whataboutery’ (as if those of us who care about the damage to this beautiful place must therefore not care about, for example, the burning of black churches in Louisiana) but a rush to blame, to line up the usual suspects. I won’t dignify the latter with any further words.

Notre Dame will be rebuilt. Notre Dame will survive. Notre Dame reminds us how extraordinary human beings are. That we can imagine and create something like this, envisage something bigger and finer and more beautiful than we have ever seen and then make it reality. That we can hear the way sound echoes in the vaulted roof and creates harmonics, and compose music – and systems of notation which enable us to see and study and play that music today – to glorify God with many voices weaving together. Many voices, making harmony. That we could do those things must surely give us hope for humanity.


The west rose window (about 1225)

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2018 – the best bits

Family circumstances make it unlikely I will have time to do my usual detailed breakdown of my favourite TV programmes, books, music and so forth for the year just about to end. I managed the film review, but for now, I will make do with mere lists, and hope to have time at some later point to talk a bit more about why.

TOP TV – not ranked in any way!

  • Derry Girls
  • Black Earth Rising
  • They Shall Not Grow Old
  • No Offence
  • Strike
  • The A Word
  • Killing Eve
  • A Very English Scandal
  • Bodyguard
  • Star Trek: Discovery
  • Agents of Shield
  • Humans
  • Hidden
  • The Bridge
  • The Walking Dead
  • Unforgotten
  • Doctor Who
  • The Cry
  • Treme
  • Secrets of Cinema
  • Black Hollywood

 

2018 in Music

 

Books of the Year

  • Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13
  • Naomi Alderson – The Power
  • Wendy Mitchell – Someone I Used to Know
  • Thomas Mullen – Darktown
  • Cath Staincliffe – Girl in a Green Dress
  • Helen Dunmore – Birdcage Walk
  • Lawrence Wright – The Looming Tower
  • Stephen King – The Outsider
  • Ben Aaronovitch – Moon over Soho
  • Sarah Hilary – Come and Find Me
  • Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race
  • Stephen King & Owen King – Sleeping Beauties
  • Eva Dolan – This is How it Ends
  • Robyn Hollingworth – My Mad Dad
  • Paul Dobraszczyk – The Dead City
  • Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad
  • Caitlin Moran – How to be Famous
  • Henry Marsh – Do No Harm
  • Philip Kerr – Prague Fatale
  • Dervla McTierney – The Ruin
  • Keith Richards – Life

And a mention also to the Crucible Theatre production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, and to Philippe Sands’ superb podcast, The Ratline

Thanks to all who shared these delights with me – the usual suspects (Martyn, Arthur, Viv, Ruth, Liz, Jane).  

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Ten Albums

So, I was challenged to post on Facebook ten albums that have significance, in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on my rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain.

Well, I can’t resist this kind of thing.  But I do want to explain.  So here they are.

NB these are not the ten best albums I’ve ever heard.  Not my ten favourite albums.  Just ten albums that have somehow or other stayed with me, that I’m always delighted to hear, that led me on to other things, or took me back to somewhere special.

  1. Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic (1974)

Pretzel_Logic_albumMarshall Hall student residences, Sheffield City College of Education, 1975-77.  My first encounter with the Dan, pretty much.  And still my favourite ever Dan album.  Infused with jazz, explicitly in the Ellington cover, ‘East St Louis Toodle-oo’, and ‘Parker’s Band’, less overtly in the Horace Silver bass pattern on ‘Ricki Don’t Lose that Number’.  At the same time, superlative pop/rock, ‘complete musical statements within the narrow borders of the three-minute pop-song format’, according to Rolling Stone.  Impenetrable, ambiguous lyrics, which still deliver a hell of a kick.  Fave track?  ‘Any Major Dude‘.

Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again
When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won’t be there no more
Any major dude will tell you

2. Osibisa (1971)

220px-OsibisacoverCriss-cross rhythms that explode with happiness.  For me, hearing this some time in the early 70s was connecting with part of my own past, my childhood in West Africa.  Living pretty much on the campus of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology, where my father taught, we heard the highlife music wafting over from the student residences.  A blend of Latin and African sounds, made for dancing, it was infectious stuff.  But I’d forgotten those sounds until Osibisa.  They weren’t all Ghanaians but their roots were in a highlife band, The Star Gazers, featuring Teddy Osei (sax), Sol Amarfio (drums) and Mac Tontoh (trumpet) who went on to form Osibisa in London in 1969.  Joining them were band members from Grenada, Trinidad, Antigua, Nigeria, and another couple of Ghanaians.  It wasn’t ‘authentic’ but then neither was highlife.  Music can’t be kept pristine and pure, it is promiscuous, one form instinctively bonding with another to create something new.  And it’s portable – the music of Africa crossed the Atlantic on the slave ships and interacted with the music that it found there.  Osibisa brought the music of Ghana back to me and today, all these years later, one track especially brings back not just those early years but our family home in Nottinghamshire.  Our house was called Akwaaba – ‘welcome’, in Twi which is the official dialect of Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region of Ghana.

3. Kirsty MacColl – Kite (1989)

220px-KirstykiteWhenever I post anything about Kirsty I get such an outpouring of love in the comments.  From people I knew adored her, and people I had no idea would feel that way.  It’s more than the music – we respond to a sense of who she was, that she wasn’t and couldn’t be ‘plastic’.  Before Kite I’d heard, obviously, ‘Chip Shop’ and her cover of ‘Days’ and although I’d liked her voice, I wasn’t expecting something this powerful from her.  Apart from ‘Days’, there aren’t any covers here, it’s all her.  She managed to attract brilliant musicians to work with her – and everyone who did seems to have loved her to bits.  Even Morrissey, in all of his petulant and quarrelsome – and lengthy – autobiography doesn’t have a bad word for her. I always loved the story of her making music with Keith Richards and telling him he was playing something wrong.  She was tough and vulnerable at the same time, her voice was sweet and strong, her words were funny and heartbreaking.  If I have to pick one track from this, it will always be ‘Free World‘.

4. King Crimson – Red (1974)

220px-Red,_King_CrimsonThis is seriously heavy.  It’s said to be one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite albums, which kind of makes sense.  Whilst Crimson are obviously prog, they transcend the stereotypes of the genre, and this album in particular is grungy, particularly on One More Red Nightmare.  Crimson was a constantly mutating ensemble, in which the only constant was Robert Fripp.  This particular band comprised Fripp on guitar and mellotron, Bill Bruford on drums and Jon Wetton on bass and vocals, plus Crimson alumni David Cross (violin), Mel Collins (soprano sax) and Ian McDonald (alto sax).  This was to be the last Crimson album for seven years.  Next up was Discipline in 1981, with Fripp (obv) and Bruford plus Adrian Belew and Tony Levin.   Top track – ‘Starless‘.  It’s bleak and beautiful and kind of terrifying.

5. Motown Chartbusters Volume 3

chartbusters 3I bought this for pennies from someone in my class at school.  A great big hefty slice of vinyl, already a bit crackly.  Packed with classic Motown tunes, by their greatest songwriters (HDH, Whitfield & Strong, Smokey, Marvin, Stevie, Ashford & Simpson amongst others) and their finest artists (Temps, Four Tops, Marvin, Smokey, Stevie, Supremes, Isleys and more).   I know and love every note on this album and always will.  But in the end there’s one that just floors me every time, Diana Ross & the Supremes – Love Child.  This is a classic story song, a story not so far from the real lives of many of the Motown stars, poverty, single parenthood, and the shame of being both poor and illegitimate.    Diana may not have been the best singer on Motown’s roster but her voice could burn and yearn nonetheless.  Where I lose it is the coda.  Diana soars with ‘I will always love you’, whilst the backing singers (apparently not Cindy and Mary on the recording) provide an urgent counterpoint with ‘wait/wait won’t you wait now/hold on/wait/just a little bit longer.’  It’s pretty much damn perfect.

6. Flobots – Fight with Tools (2007)

Fight_with_toolsThe first thing I heard from the Flobots was ‘Handlebars’.  I can still remember how it affected me, the lyrics and the instrumentation – not just the usual guitar, bass and drums, but viola, cello and trumpet.  It gave me goosebumps.  In the years when I was running regularly, Flobots were my ideal soundtrack.   No matter how tired I was, how daunted by the distance still to go and the steepness of the hill ahead of me, the combination of passionately political lyrics and tight urgent rhythms powered me onwards.  There’s always a sense of hope in the words of their songs, a sense that however crappy things are (and lord knows they’ve got crappier since 2007) there is and always will be resistance, people who will man the barricades, who will refuse to shut up.

We are building up a new world
Do not sit idly by
Do not remain neutral
Do not rely on this broadcast, alone
We are only as strong as our signal
There is a war going on for your mind
If you are thinking, you are winning

I’m picking ‘Anne Braden‘.  This epitomises their politics, I think.  It celebrates a white woman, from the Deep South, who always knew that there was something wrong, and who threw in her lot not with her ‘own people’, but with the oppressed.  She was tirelessly active in the civil rights movement and anti-racist politics throughout her life, facing arrest and the constant threat of violence.  She believed that there was ‘another America’, and we have to hang on to the belief that she was right.

7. Le Mystere des voix Bulgares (1975)

Le_Mystère_des_Voix_Bulgares_(UK_album)

This was originally released in 1975 on a small record label, and might well have been forgotten, had Ivo Watts of 4AD not heard an audio cassette of the recording and tracked it down.  It was re-released in 1986 and  had a tremendous impact. From the  Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir, who contributed the most to the album, the Trio Bulgarka emerged, and worked with Kate Bush on her Sensual World album in 1989.  She said that ‘it was something strange to feel this very strong female energy in the studio. It was interesting to see the way the men in the studio reacted… Instead of just one female, there was a very strong female presence.’  What struck me so forcibly when I first heard it was the harmonies.  A cappella vocals can always tingle my spine whether it’s The Sixteen doing Allegri’s ‘Misereri’ or The Four Freshmen doing ‘Their Hearts were full of Spring’, but these are not just spinetingling but weird and unsettling.  Especially “Sableyalo Mi Agontze” (Заблеяло ми агънце) [The Bleating Lamb].

8. Songhoy Blues – Soubour

download

I’ve written often about my love for the music of Mali.  It’s the birthplace of the blues, and its music never fails to move me, emotionally and physically.  These young musicians grew up not only with the astonishing legacy of Malian music – the genius of Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate, Ali Farka Toure – but also the music that had emerged across the Atlantic, Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix, inheritors and interpreters of the sounds that generations of Africans had taken with them on the slave ships.  Their music has also been shaped by the threat posed by IS affiliates to that incredibly rich culture – see the documentary They will have to kill us first, and Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2014 film, Timbuktu.  Hard to pick one track, but for today at least, I’ll pick ‘Petit metier‘.

9. Alice Cooper – School’s Out (1972)

220px-72_schools_out

Summer of ’72, my French penfriend, Catherine, was visiting.  She brought with her the sound of Claude Francois and Michel Sardou, and went home with singles from Hawkwind and Alice Cooper.  I’m somewhat surprised I was allowed over to see her the following year…  Not everything that I loved back in the summer of ’72 has stood the test of time, but this one has.  And particularly Alice’s appropriation of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story in ‘Gutter Cat vs the Jets‘.  The Alice image never appealed to me especially, but the music did and does.  If I was asked to pick ten musicians Alice would never make the cut (soz Alice) but every time I hear this album I’m reminded of how it galvanised me back then.  It also reminds me of the polarisation of music back then.  Of my school friends, most listened to Motown, Northern Soul, Ska and reggae.  Others listened to Deep Purple, Zep and Alice.  I never quite got the hang of which gang I was supposed to be in, because I loved all of the above.  Still do.

10. David Bowie – Aladdin Sane (1973)

220px-DavisBowieAladdinSaneWell, obviously there would be Bowie.  I could have picked ten albums just from his lifetime’s output. But them’s the rules.  Aladdin Sane is an album that surprises me every time I hear it, there are details that I didn’t recall from so many previous listenings.  And there’s Mike Garson’s fabulous piano on the title track, amongst others.  When Bowie died I reminisced about ‘Time’, and how when we played this album at home we had to ensure we were within arm’s reach of the volume control in case of sudden parental proximity when Bowie got to the v v rude bit of the lyrics.  Tough to pick just one track from this album, but I’ve settled on ‘Lady Grinning Soul‘, which is another that features Garson.

 

Ten albums, from the thousands that have found their way on to our record player/CD player/cassette deck over the years.  They’re weighted towards the 1970s, which I guess is inevitable.  My teenage years, when my musical tastes were forming, freeing themselves both from parental influence and from the tribalism of my peers, trying things out and finding out what moved my feet, my hips, my mind and my heart.  That process has never stopped, but it was at its most intense then.   I carry with me the earliest music I heard – a kind of mash-up of the Goldberg Variations with E T Mensah & The Tempos, probably – and there was a gradual immersion in the world of pop and rock when we returned home from West Africa in the late 60s.  All of those sounds are still part of my listening world, and I’ve added music from all around the world, and ‘classical’ music that my parents weren’t into (late 20th century stuff, and opera), and jazz and, well, a bit of everything really.   And there’s a world of music out there that I don’t know, and that I might love if I get the chance to listen.  So ten albums is daft and arbitrary but if you made it 100 albums it still wouldn’t be adequate.

“The world without music? It would be like a prison, right?” (Garba Touré, Songhoy Blues)

Right.

 

 

 

 

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2017 in Film and TV – the best bits

It was a good year for superheroes.  Most specially because of  Wonder Woman, not because it was the best of its genre this year necessarily but because for the first time with a superhero movie I didn’t have scroll through hundreds of images to find one where a woman was centre screen, in charge.  I wrote about the film, how it made me feel, the exhilaration of seeing all the tropes I love about superhero movies but with a woman, a glorious, magnificent woman, where usually there is a man, or mainly men (quite possibly glorious and magnificent in their own right, but still).

I loved Guardians of the Galaxy 2, warming to it despite a phase when I wearied of some of the schoolboy humour, until I realised what that was telling us about these lost children, and how they were forming a strange, new family.  There was plenty of daft humour too in Thor: Ragnarok,  as one would expect given that Taika Waititi was directing (responsible for last year’s delightful Hunt for the Wilderpeople and for What we do in the Shadows).  And it was perhaps a sign of changing times (and not a moment too soon) that Valkyrie is played as a cynical, world-weary, boozy mess who comes through when she is needed, such a male archetype.  As well as obviously kicking ass in a most splendid way.   Spiderman: Homecoming  was charming, funny and really used the notion that Spidey is an adolescent boy, cleverly and with heart.  Logan, though, of all the films that belong broadly in that genre, was the one to break your heart.  With gripping valedictory performances from Jackman and Stewart, and a mesmerising and terrifying one from Dafne Keen.

Star Wars is not so much my thing.  I did enjoy the first trilogy, albeit critically, but I never felt them to be mine, and I have never even seen the prequels (nor do I intend to).  But I loved The Force Awakens, and I loved Rogue One, and I look forward to seeing The Last Jedi before long.

rogue one

War for the Planet of the Apes was brilliant – referencing Biblical epics, Westerns, Apocalypse Now, Schindler’s List and probably other genres and specific films as well, whilst maintaining the power and emotional heft of its predecessors.

war planet apes

My efforts to find an image for each film in which a woman is prominent were doomed in the case of Dunkirk.  That’s fair enough, given the premise, I didn’t expect women to feature other than in traditional roles – as nurses, or serving tea and jam sandwiches.  There has been a more serious issue raised, that of the absence of non-white faces.  I don’t honestly believe this was a deliberate whitewashing, nor do I accept that just because Farage liked the film it was a pro-Brexit parable.  But it would have taken very little to ensure that there were visible representatives of the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, or the lascar crewmen on British merchant vessels that took part in the evacuation.  They were there, and this could have been conveyed without changing the basic structure of the film and its deliberately narrow focus on a few of the rescued and rescuers.  But having said that, whilst watching the film such considerations never crossed my mind.  I was overwhelmed, by that intense focus, by the score which built and built the tension until it was almost unbearable (and the use of the Elgar Nimrod as the first of the little ships appeared reduced me, predictably enough, to sobs), and by the non-linear structure which forced one to concentrate, to hold those strands together even as the direction teased them apart.

dunkirk

The opposite for the next two movies – three women foregrounded in each of them.  I wrote about Twentieth-century Women for International Women’s Day,

20th c women

and Hidden Figures we missed at the cinema but caught on DVD – uplifting and inspiring even if, oddly enough, the sexism and racism they encountered was actually ramped up for the benefit of the story.  Who would have thought that could ever be necessary?

hidden figures

Baby Driver was beautifully described by Empire as:

not a film just set to music. But a film meticulously, ambitiously laid over the bones of carefully chosen tracks. It’s as close to a car-chase opera as you’ll ever see on screen.

Even if the narrative arc (young man in debt to gangster does ‘one last job’ and finds out there’s no such thing) is traditional enough, the choreography, the seamless blend between diegetic and exegetic music, make it entirely original and massively enjoyable.

La La Land inspired me to write about musicals.   It was gorgeous and delightful and poignant and much more that I wanted to say was expressed so well in a piece on the marvellous That’s How the Light Gets In blog.

la la land

 

And one more cinema outing, a rather lengthy but entirely captivating one, for Bertrand Tavernier’s Journey through French Cinema.   It is what it says, a journey and a personal one at that, through French film from Tavernier’s first childhood moment of enchantment, on through the decades as he goes from a kid in the audience to a film maker himself.  I believe there’s a follow-up in the making, bringing his journey more up to date, to which I will happily commit as many hours as it takes, as soon as it’s out.

a-journey-through-french-cinema

Mind you, speaking of French cinema, I should really note that we did go to see Elle.  However, my feelings about that film are so predominantly negative, that despite my overwhelming admiration for Huppert, and despite moments of brilliantly black comedy, I shall pass over it without substantial comment.

On to the smaller screen.

As always a good deal of crime fiction.  The dramas noted below are not an inclusive list of what we watched.  There were others that were workaday, or that strained credulity with plot craters and characters who behaved with a stupidity that was at the same time predictable and utterly inconsistent with what we already knew of them.  I’m not going to name the guilty parties, just those that we were gripped by and that managed to avoid the worst clichés and pitfalls of the genre.

Sherlock: The Final Problem certainly didn’t give us genre cliché.  What it all meant, and indeed, whether it meant anything at all or was just a clever game, is uncertain.   The Guardian‘s reviewer was a bit cross about it, but identified two main strands in the narrative:

One was a subtle, beautifully crafted backstory about Sherlock’s childhood. The other was a fun if unfulfilling gameshow of wild hypotheticals, where everything was at stake yet it often felt as though very little was.

sherlock

It was frustrating and baffling but it didn’t make me cross, I was perfectly willing to believe both that it did mean something and that it was just a fascinating puzzle that I would probably have no chance of unravelling.

Line of Duty series 4 was just superb.  Thandie Newton’s Roz Huntley was absolutely compelling, and the plot twisted and turned as we were made to question everyone’s motives and integrity, at least briefly.  It had the classic LoD set pieces in the interview room, plus shoot outs and chases, and a plot that at least started to weave together strands from series 1-3, whilst leaving plenty to look forward to in series 5, which cannot come around too soon for me.

line of duty

The Missing had only one character in common with series 1, the grizzled detective (Tchéky Karyo) who I was very glad to spend another few hours with.  Keeley Hawes and David Morrissey were both excellent, as always.  The narrative begins, in a sense, at the point that one might expect it to end, with the return of their missing daughter.  Of course, it’s not that simple, it’s complex and agonising, and unexpected.

missing

Broadchurch 3 was much better than 2 (which I quite enjoyed at the time but actually struggle to recall what it was all about, really, apart from Joe’s not guilty plea).  The handling of the rape case was generally excellent even if the resolution left a few dangling plot threads that didn’t quite make sense.   Julie Hesmondhalgh was wonderful, as were, obviously, Tennant, Colman and Whittaker.

broadchurch

Strike was an excellent adaptation of the first two of Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike novels.  Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger were perfect in the lead roles, and I look forward immensely to the adaptation of the third and any future novels in the series.

strike

I Know Who you Are was a fairly bonkers Spanish series in which most characters were pretty despicable, and one of the two genuinely sympathetic people didn’t make it out alive.  The only morality that prevailed was Family and within that there was a hierarchy of loyalty – to attempt to murder one’s sister in order to protect one’s son was seen by most characters (including the intended victim) as pretty reasonable.  It was all thoroughly enjoyable.

i know who you are

Unforgotten 2 was profoundly different, as Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar unpicked another cold case.  They are both deeply sympathetic characters and the whole thing is imbued with a kind of compassion and empathy that draws in the damaged people whose lives have been twisted in various ways by the past crime.

unforgotten

Rellik very cleverly subverted the way in which the detective story must follow a retrograde narrative path, starting with the crime and working backwards, by starting with the crime’s (apparent) resolution and working backwards and backwards, until in its final episode it leapt back to the beginning/end and a shocking dénoument.  The structure took a bit of getting used to and never quite stopped being unsettling, but we thoroughly enjoyed the ride.  It was produced by Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing) and featured, amongst other excellent performances, the wonderful Rosalind Eleazar as an early suspect.

rellik

Witnesses was the second series of the French crime drama starring Marie Dompnier.  This one also stars Audrey Fleurot, who we know from Spiral, and whose return in that series we look forward to impatiently.  Witnesses was compelling and baffling and ended most enigmatically (none the worse for that – I’d rather have honest to goodness open endings than ostensibly tidy endings that actually leave loose threads all over the place).

witnesses

Fargo 3 brought us not one but two wonderful female cops.  Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) and Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval).  And not one but two Ewan McGregors, as he plays twin brothers.  One David Thewlis was more than enough, however – his villain was quite the most revolting, viscerally unpleasant character I’ve seen on screen for some time.  That’s a compliment (I think) to the writing and the acting. Lord knows where this one is going next but we’ll be more than happy to go along.   Fargo also introduced the wonderful phrase, ‘unfathomable pinhead-ery’ into our vocab, for which we are truly thankful.

fargo

 

Telly sci-fi had an altogether brilliant year.

Agents of Shield had an outstanding season with a multi-layered narrative that messed with our heads and our hearts.  Beautifully played and written, and quite breathtaking.

shield

Orphan Black reached its fifth and final season, having maintained its form throughout the four years that it has been running.  The weight of the series is carried – seemingly effortlessly – by the awesome Tatiana Maslany, who plays not only various clone ‘sestras’ but at various times plays one of them masquerading as one of the others.  It’s dazzlingly done.  It also stars the rather wonderful Maria Doyle Kennedy as Mrs S.

orphan

We’re not far through Star Trek: Discovery yet, but from episode 3 on were hooked.  Yes, OK, that coincides with the arrival of Jason Isaacs, but it’s not just because Jason Isaacs.  Sonequa Martin-Green is excellent, as is Anthony Rapp, and Mary Wiseman as cadet Tilly.  It’s visually brilliant, and the plot is loaded with moral ambiguity from which it does not flinch.  It promises much and we look forward to it developing further.

discovery

I remain loyal to The Walking Dead even though no one could claim that it’s unproblematic.  The tone and pace are extremely uneven and it depends far too often on (a) plot armour, (b) magically inexhaustible ammo and (c) people who we know are capable of good judgement behaving with unfathomable pinheadery.  Nonetheless, I cannot envisage giving up on it.  I have to see how this plays out – and  there are episodes which grip and compel and convince.

Possibly the only one of my top TV shows which features in the critics’ lists is The Handmaid’s Tale.  I also read the book for the first time, as part of my 60 books in 60 days challenge.  So much has been said about the series that I don’t feel I can add anything especially insightful – it was horrifying and terrifying and brilliantly done.

handmaid

And of course there’s Doctor Who. I wrote about the (to me, brilliant) news that the next Doctor will be a woman.  Nonetheless, much as I look forward to seeing what Jodie Whittaker brings to the role I will need to grieve first for Peter Capaldi’s doctor, who I have loved – and for Pearl Mackie who has been a wonderful companion.   PC’s final series was excellent, and the finale was heart-stopping and moving.

I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it. And I’m going to stand here doing it until it kills me. And you’re going to die too! Some day… And how will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.” — The Doctor

 

whojodie

 

Three docs worth mentioning.  Suzie Klein’s Tunes for Tyrants explored 20th century music in the context of Nazi and Stalinist oppression.  She’s an excellent presenter and the material – and the music – was fascinating and powerful.

suzy klein

Bowie’s departure from this dimension was – for me amongst others – the greatest loss of  2016, a year of losses.  Bowie – the Last Five Years brought us the final phase of that extraordinary story, as he worked on his last two albums,  and the stage musical Lazarus.  We were reminded, as if we could forget, not only of his talent, but of his humour and intelligence, his warmth and wit.   And that last body of work is not only a worthy finale to his career but imbued with a sense of mortality and the fragility of life.

bowie

Neil Brand is one of my favourite music-explainers.  Charles Hazlewood and Tom Service have got that nailed in terms of classical music but for the music of stage and screen, for the popular song, Neil is your man, and The Sound of Musicals was a delight.

musicals

 

We loved Poldark, and not just for the scenery.

poldark

The Replacement was a bit bonkers but both Vicky McClure (see also Line of Duty) and Morven Christie (also in The A Word, series 2 of which isn’t covered here only because it’s yet to be watched) were excellent.

replacement

And another favourite of mine, Suranne Jones, was magnificent in series 2 of Doctor Foster.

dr foster

We got to see Jodie Whittaker pretending to be a doctor in Trust Me.  Plot holes a-plenty (unless they’re just an indication of a second series coming up?) but well done, and well played by JW – looking forward to her being a real Doctor shortly.

trust me

Homeland was on excellent form, with the dynamics between Carrie and the new female PotUS adding a new dimension to the plot.

homeland

And Spin took us back into the shadowy world of French political manouevering.

spin

It wasn’t all screen based culture.  I made several visits to Leeds Grand Theatre for Opera North productions, some of which I reviewed for The Culture Vulture  (see the  Reviews page of this site, which also features my review of the Sheffield Crucible’s production of Julius Caesar).  I also saw at Leeds Grand a magical production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, at the Crucible, an intense Desire Under the Elms, and in the Crucible Studio various splendid Music in the Round chamber music concerts.

So, thanks to all who’ve shared these delights with me.  Liz, Viv, Arthur, Ruth, Aid, Dad, and of course him that I’ve been watching telly and going to the pictures and going to gigs and plays with for >40 years…

 

 

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It was fifty years ago today….

The release of Sgt Pepper’s Hearts Club Band, fifty years ago today, is one of those moments in musical history.   So much has been written about the album over the years since.  But this personal account, from Mike Press, is for me the perfect tribute to Pepper, to what it meant and what it means, and to the power of music.   Thanks, Mike, for letting me share this.

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My Mum, my Dad, Sgt Pepper and me – Mike Press

Unusually, I remember exactly what I was doing 50 years ago today at around 6 pm.

It all began with She Loves You.

My Dad ordered it in advance of its release and picked it up from the Record Room in St Albans on his way home from work on the day it came out. And he did the same with every Beatles’ release up to the White Album. It was a family ritual. Part of this same ritual was that we would play the new record over and over at least six times as soon as he got home (to be honest, it was six with a single and at least twice with an album). She Loves You was a revelation, in part because after we’d played it half a dozen times he says “right, shall we play the B side now?”. THERE’S A B SIDE??? You mean they actually give you another song for free? I was stunned with both the concept and the clear generosity of the recording industry, which was perhaps one reason that I gave them so much money in return over my extended adolescence. In this case the B side was even better than the A side.

Thursday the First of June 1967 was just another school day at Fleetville Junior Mixed Infants. We were coasting down towards the end of our primary schooling with the first year of Grammar School just a few months away. Dad and I had been Beatles fans since their first hit. He bought all the records, which we played relentlessly the day they came out, and every so often he’d say “fancy a Beatles’ session?” and we’d play the whole lot in one go. These sessions often drove my Mum to distraction. Mind you, she had a far better grasp of the interpretation of the lyrics than either of us did. When she first suggested that Ticket to Ride was about the Isle of Wight ferry I remember us firmly dismissing this as the overly literal interpretation of a geographer. When John Lennon was asked some years later what the song was about he replied that it was about a friend who ran away to the Isle of Wight.

He drove home from London and stopped by the Record Room, a small shop on Chequer Street run by Mark Greene. Donovan, The Zombies and others reckoned that his was the best record shop outside London. Back then we didn’t have chain stores, we just had people who loved music who simply wanted to share it, and make an honest profit in the process. He knew his music, did Mark, and over the years a fair bit of my pocket money went over his counter. He sold records, and around the corner his brother Sol ran the town’s drapery business, both playing up their Jewishness to give their shops a real character and passion for what they sold. Mark had a humour that was so deadpan that you often weren’t sure if he was quipping or just naive. Like the time a couple of years later I went in to buy John and Yoko’s first album. He scoured the shelves, went down to the cellar, was clearly rattled that somehow it had been misfiled, and then shouted over to his assistant “Mac, I can’t seem to lay my hands on Two Virgins.”

So the old man got home from Mark’s shop with a record in a brown paper bag.

I distinctly remember taking the record out of the bag. It was the most beautiful and wonderful object I had ever held. This was no album cover. As you opened the then unique gatefold sleeve, it suggested opening a door into something unearthly and wonderful. A front cover which immediately engaged my Mum and Dad into a competition on who they could recognise, a back cover with – again uniquely – all their lyrics, and the inner gatefold with the fabs in all their acid drenched glory. Then there was the insert of cutouts, and the inner sleeve, normally white, which was presented in washes of pink.

My Dad took out the record, placed it on the platter, lowered the needle and we listened.

Well it was twenty years ago today…

I simply cannot describe the sense of wonder, of illumination that I experienced as we listened. The next week Kenneth Tynan in The Times described it as the high water mark of human civilisation. At the time people suggested that he was perhaps over egging it a bit, but in retrospect I think we can probably all agree that he’s broadly right. It’s up there with the Mona Lisa and the the Brandenburg Concertos – if not actually just a wee bit better. The sixties were a rollercoaster for all of us, but especially when you were a child. From She Loves You to A Day in The Life. Four years. Culture has never moved with such a frenetic pace or passion.

It was a record that was liberally peppered with wonderful characters, all vividly portrayed. There was Billy Shears, the Sergeant’s bandmates, Rita being tempted with tea, the girl meeting a man from the motor trade, the poor guy who didn’t notice that the lights had changed. And to this very day every time I meet somebody called Henderson I have to bite my lip not to ask how Pablo Fanque is.

I remember my dad saying many years after that first listening that Day In The Life was the best song of the century – and he was a Sinatra fan. Phil Collins said that the song helped him to learn how to drum, because of Ringo’s complex fills – so there is a downside to the album after all. But my first listening of it I remember as a surreal, cinematic experience.

We got to the end (and of course the enigmatic final groove). He didn’t need to ask. Flip over, and back to the start. And again.

That record taught a ten year old to always push the boundaries, to break rules, to take people on journeys, to turn people on, to try to be the best you can be. And with the encouragement of my folks that’s all I’ve ever tried to do.

Nothing musically has ever bettered that evening with my Mum, my Dad, Sergeant Pepper and me.

Oh boy.

 

Image may contain: 34 people, people smiling, people standing and indoor

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Everyone suddenly burst out singing

A while ago I was chatting to a friend about theatre and I said ‘Well, I’m not really into musicals’.  As soon as those words had left my mouth, I was reminded of how not true that is.

I don’t like ALL musicals, any more than I like all opera, all detective novels, all Motown songs, all superhero movies.  But to not like musicals one would have to have a problem with that central feature, the moment where everyone suddenly bursts out singing.  And those moments make me laugh with delight, well up a bit, want to dance and applaud.

Obviously there are variations on the genre.  To oversimplify things horrifically, in opera, all of the story is conveyed in music and song.  In some musicals that is the case, but more often, there is spoken dialogue interspersed with songs.  In some, the songs are diegetic (my son did A level Film Studies), i.e. the characters in the film are required by the plot to perform the songs at that moment, and all of the music is provided by the people we see on screen (no invisible orchestra).  In others there’s no particular reason why this person or this street full of people should suddenly be singing and dancing, but hey, we’re in a musical so they do.

So, in complete and humble retraction of my idiotic statement, I hereby offer some of my favourite musicals and moments in musicals.

Busby Berkeley’s musicals blew me away when I first encountered them, in my early teens, I think.  The visuals are stunning (though one has to acknowledge that in terms of objectification of women’s bodies, they are a tad problematic).  But the dancing, the tunes – and unexpectedly in Golddiggers of 1933, social commentary, about the Depression, the men who returned from service in the First World War to find only unemployment and poverty.

From the same era, Fred and Ginger. The plots are daft.  Who can even remember the plot of Top Hat, or Swing Time?  But if you’ve ever seen them dancing cheek to cheek, that you won’t forget.  The songs are sublime – well, of course they are, given that they were written by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and their ilk – and the dancing is if possible sublimer.  He was elegance and subtelty personified, she did everything he did in heels and backwards.

astaire_rogers_cheek_to_cheek

There’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ (heaven, I’m in heaven), and there’s also this, Never Gonna Dance, from Swing Time. Beautiful.

There’s a bit of a gap in my musical repertoire, till South Pacific.  1949 for the original stage show, 1958 for the film.

south-pacific

There’s the beautiful Bali Hai, the exuberant ‘I’m gonna wash that man…’, and one song  that I quote regularly:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

west-side-story

Not going to mess with you, this is the best musical ever.  Everything is right – Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics, Robert Wise’s direction.  The tunes, the moves, the words.

DIESEL: (As Judge) Right!

Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!

ACTION
I’m disturbed!

JETS
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.

DIESEL: (Spoken, as Judge) In the opinion of this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home.

ACTION: (Spoken) Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived.

If I try to pick my favourite moments from WSS, I end up with so many, it’s practically the whole damn film.

 

An oddity in the annals of the musical is a single episode from season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. An episode where a demon compels the inhabitants of Sunnydale to burst into song, and in so doing to express thoughts and feelings which they might have been trying to hide.  It moves the series arc along in important ways, but it’s a glorious watch on its own, referencing more musical tropes than even the nerdiest nerd could spot.  Rather than the trained singers who supplied the vocals for almost all of Natalie Wood’s songs, all of Richard Beymer’s and at least some even of Rita Moreno’s, the singing is by the regular Buffy cast members.  This has been the more recent trend (see the film of Les Miz, and La La Land), and there is a vulnerability in the voices which, arguably, adds to the charm and immediacy of the music.

And so to La La Land.

lalaland

The influence of Jacques Demy (especially Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) has been noted, particularly in the colour palette for the film.  But the movie is, again, dense with intertextual references to films (Mia points out a window that was used in Casablanca, they visit the Griffith Observatory that was used as a location in Rebel Without a Cause, the film they try to see at the – long-closed – Rialto cinema, and which Seb quotes to Mia, and those are only the most overt references).  The director has said that he wants to  “to make a movie that would embrace the magic of musicals but root it in the rhythms and texture of real life”

The opening number invites us into the movie musical world:

Summer: Sunday nights
We’d sink into our seats
Right as they dimmed out all the lights
A Technicolor world made out of music and machine
It called me to be on that screen
And live inside each scene

A world where everyone dances and sings, and where a traffic jam is transformed, briefly, into a technicolour marvel until the car horns stop being part of the orchestration and become again just car horns.

Stone and Gosling dance and sing like actors who dance and sing, rather than like pros, and that works.  Their story is simple and poignant and human, even when they float towards the stars.

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make

(Audition – The Fools Who Dream)

What is it that is so joyous, so life-affirming about these shows?  I think there is something magical about singing and dancing, something that every society has discovered and built in to its rituals and rites of passage.  Even when we can’t join in, we feel that sense of exhilaration and exaltation as the protagonists whirl and tap and their voices soar and harmonise and weave into one anothers’.  The flash mobs which we’ve all seen on social media, where in a shopping precinct or a town square or a railway station one person starts to sing or play and then more, and more – if you look at the faces of the audience what you see is delight.

The unreality, the fragility of what we are seeing and hearing in the movie musical is part of its power.  We know the plots are paper-thin, we know we can’t really tap dance and sing our way out of the cinema and into the taxi, we know real life ain’t like this, we know it’s darker and meaner than this.   Which is why we need it.

A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath.  He walks and halts to his song.  Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can.  The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos.  Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace.  But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment.  There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread.  Or the song of Orpheus.  …  One launches forth, hazards an improvisation.  But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.

(Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari –  A Thousand Plateaus)

 

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

The musicals I have selected above aren’t quite singing about the dark times.  But some of them are singing as shadows gather – 1933, 1936 – shadows of which the mainly Jewish songwriters and composers must have been very conscious. There’s darkness in South Pacific despite the sunshine, there’s darkness in West Side Story as the swagger of adolescent tribalism turns to violence and rape.

We should not ask these lovely confections to carry a weight of political meaning and portent that they were never constructed to bear.  That isn’t what they are for, even if they can turn aside for a moment and remind us of the forgotten man, the indoctrinated child, the humiliated woman.   What they are for is to lift our hearts and our spirits, to inspire our imaginations.  If we can imagine this technicolour world, where everyone sings, we can imagine other worlds too.  That’s what we do, as humans, we sing and dance, and whilst we have that much in common with the non-human inhabitants of this planet, unlike them we can choose our own songs and our own steps, and we can choose to sing and dance together.

It’s not enough, but it’s vital.  Whatever we face in the next few years, we won’t be any weaker or less able to face it for finding that sheer delight in a fragile love story told in song and dance, and sharing that delight with each other.

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
(‘Everyone Sang’,by Siegfried Sassoon)

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