Friday, December 26, 2008

Just hear those sleigh bells jinglin'

The traditions are holding strong around here: family, friends, and enormous quantities of food forced upon me all day.

One of my favorites is Christmas movies (I mean, good any time of year, but especially good now). I've enjoyed Christmas movies all month. At the Michigan Theater: Elf, White Christmas, and The Bishop's Wife. At home, It's a Wonderful Life and last night while I wrapped presents at the last minute, Meet Me In St. Louis (which I argue isn't a Christmas movie, but I'll watch happily). They showed The Shop Around the Corner, but it was 2 am, and I had to go to sleep (a similar thing right now- I'm watching The African Queen, but all this eating has exhausted me!).

One thing I think is worth noting about these movies: so many of them place music centrally. There's plenty of song in the classic Christmas musicals. Singing is par for the course in the lives of the Smith Family and friends in Meet Me in St. Louis, and in Holiday Inn, and White Christmas. All about performers, but the biggest moments come in communal non-performance moments. At the end of White Christmas, the entire audience (in the film and in the theater) bursts out in the title song. And it's a spontaneous song that proves the most heartwarming in Meet Me in St. Louis, where the parents begin singing You and I, and everyone gathers. But even in the nonmusical films: when the community wants to help George, they sing. And as the lovely Zooey Baschenel learned so well: "The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear." There's something about the holidays that hammers this home: while the songs may come across as cheesy (and the movies), what matters is their familiarity. That everyone can join in, together. People complain about hearing the songs all the time, but does anyone complain about singing them?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Oscars 2008: Music edition

This reveals some surprising sensibility. The Academy has reversed an earlier decision that ruled the score for The Dark Knight ineligible. The reason? Too many names listed. Apparently, the film listed the two (yes two) composers, Hans ZImmer and James Newton Howard, along with a music editor, sound designer, and arranger. It's about time people started realizing that the score is not just the non-diegetic music someone composes and maybe a song or two, it's the whole sonic backdrop. Of course, only the composers will be nominated, but it's nice to see a film recognizing the work.

On a side note, I find it interesting, this quote:
According to Zimmer, the "Dark Knight" score was the product of a singular vision. "It's very stylistically cohesive--it wasn't done by committee. James and I divided everything up. I thought the Joker character should have have a singular voice, so I [did the score] for him and James basically became the Harvey Dent character and did his score."

How does this make it cohesive to divvy up the characters? Now I want to listen to the movie again and see what they mean.

But anyway, the only score that's seized me this year is WALL-E, and there it's not so much a typical "score" so much as a brilliant soundscape of silence, electronics, music, and a beautiful use of older songs woven in.

In other movie news, the New Yorker review of Baz Luhrmann's Australia is not only hilariously pointed (as they tend to be), but comments on something that I found equally distracting in Lust, Caution: the use of Elgar's Nimrod Variation. I know it's sweepingly lovely, but it doesn't work in contexts where you want to cast the English Empire/West as the bad guy.

Lesson: Hollywood should employ me.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Known Unknowns

I have just returned from the university orchestra, to which I can say the following:
-The Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra is amazing. You had me at brass ostinatos. Really, I'm a big fan of sweeping, sinuous melodies layered over ostinatos or arpeggios (like the end of Prokofiev Five, or his the end of the the first movement of the piano concerto, with that crunching low brass melody over the piano runs).
-Dvorak's Carnaval Overture is pure fun. It's like listening to a really good storyteller, effortlessly engrossing without anything too extravagant.
-Malcolm Arnold's Tam-O-Shanter reminds me that we need to have more drunk orchestra pieces.
-Vaughan Williams does folksy, slow-moving music. Two on one concert is sort of unfulfilling.
-Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture can start a concert.

Today, I read the Time Magazine's top ten lists. A bit of a time sink, but it's good to keep up with contemporary pop music. Among the great finds are Kanye West's brilliantly stark new CD, MGMT's atmospheric lushness (and one of them is a cousin of a friend of mine here!), Greg Gillis's mashup genius work, Vampire Weekend's dorkiness, and Fleet Foxes' catchy-haunting song White Winter Hymnal. Good stuff, recommended for its thoughtful commentary and blend of immediate gratification (e.g. Jonas Brothers) and subtler pieces.

Also today, I started writing my film theory paper (well, one page). This was, in all honesty, one of the better classes I've taken here. The final class we had was an excellent case of why not knowing can be even better. Having made (and admitted) the mistake of assigning the hardest reading on the last day (Deleuze), it proved surprisingly liberating. The professor admitted his own difficulties with the material, and what ensued was less a dense untangling of the prose as you might expect, but a sort of free association, like flying above a tangled landscape rather than walking through. We weren't worried about reconstructing arguments and preconditions, but just about what issues it raised through confusions, less theory and more riffing. I don't know how movement gets beyond movement to the particle, except that I offered that maybe it's like light, which is a wave and a particle. "Could you elaborate?" asked the professor. "No." How nice to be honest.

I always loved those moments in undergrad, where you'd struggle with a hard reading for a week, discuss in class, and suddenly make a connection or understand a point or hear just the right words, and have everything fall just into place. I should be so lucky to give that feeling to others. There was none of that this week, but it's also nice to not know something, and just smile at it.

That's a Tuesday.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Study carols

My holiday spirit has been climbing, as I start humming Christmas carols, and the Michigan Theater shows a number of holiday films (last week: The Bishop's Wife, one of my favorites; this week: White Christmas!). But this set of three articles from Brian Eno, Robert Fulghum, and Joan Tower caught my holiday-sensitive attention.

Reading these articles, my first thought was the summer camp I attend for folk dancing, where singing, dancing, and living are blended into a continuous communal activity for a week. It's a beautiful thing, feeling that bond through the voice, the hand, the smile, knowing you're among friends.

But it's also a crucial part of my holidays. I love caroling. I didn't do it last year. My friends Mary and Evan held a caroling event the first two years here, where we wandered around Ann Arbor, rang doorbells, and just sang. Sometimes, it angered the person, or maybe just bored them. But those moments of sudden connection, of their memories and our new-made ones made it worthwhile. Ruth and Emlen Cresson hold a carol party every year in Philadelphia. Now in their late 80s, these long time staples of the Philadelphia dance community have had to stop dancing due to health reasons. A couple years ago, I made it back for their party, where people call out their favorites, and we just sing. Who knew so much feeling could come out of a simple act? Last year--after the annual New Years Scottish dance (all 6 hours of it!), there's a pot-luck get together for hanging out--the jam session turned into a spontaneous carol sing. Even a week after Christmas, it feels just as warm and fresh. Yes, and necessary.

It's nice to be reminded out of the blue, in the middle of paper-writing season, of the whole reason I'm in this, namely that music is a passion of mine, but it's a passion I can share. I can't sing all that well, and am barely proficient at piano, and even the writing about it gets called into question now and then. But what I do have is that love, and most importantly, friends to share it with.