Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Music at the Movies: 2009

While home, I availed myself of the "dollar" theater ($2.50) to see The Soloist, a film I had been on the fence about way back when. While in Philadelphia, I decided to see Tetro, a film I can't really explain why I went to it (directorial starpower?).

But both of these rank really high on my film music side, if less high on my film side. Tetro's score is composed by none other than Oswaldo Golijov, and while the film's use of it isn't terribly inventive, the music is really quite marvelous on its own terms. Also, I admire the film's use of the Brahms first symphony, a work that always feels exhausting to listen to and is given a formidable presence, the operatic structures, and the use of dance (even though it looks fake and out-of-place in its final presentation). On the other hand, The Soloist is surprisingly good, tender and human without being sappy or formulaic, but what really grabbed me is how effective the film is at visualizing music. There's a synesthetic experience which goes on a little too long, but the poetry of the gliding cameras, the images and music somehow really works together in a way that is altogether rare, simple, and elegant. That's three hits for Joe Wright.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

How to procrastinate, archive edition

At the Library of Congress, I've been exceptionally productive (I'm in Philly airport now, heading down to North Carolina). The Antheil correspondence here is fascinating, doubly so for the comparisons of letters to a childhood friend and those to Mary Bok, who gave him money. Let's just say they don't always match up.

Yesterday I went to the National Archives 2 (I cannot avoid thinking about National Treasure 2 when I say or type this). Here's how you procrastinate there- it's very easy because they do it for you!
9:45 arrive, realize you'll miss the 10 am pulling of records, next pulling is at 11.
9:48 get through the metal detector.
9:50 get instructed to take a tutorial on the computers
9:51 realize that this is practically like reading the website, which, being the studious scholar you are, you have already done the night before.
9:55 still take that tutorial
10:00 go up, get told more info, get your picture taken
10:05 go put your things in a locker. This is hard but doable if you have a suitcase.
10:08 try to close the locker, fail. Fail repeatedly. Get your money back.
10:12 figure it out: there were two quarters blocking the mechanism. On the upside, you have 50 cents more!
10:15 go to with your computer to the entry desk, give them your card, have them ask you for a form you don't have
10:18 get said form
10:20 get through security
10: 25 register upstairs
10:30 wait for assistance
10:38 get a finding aid, proceed to start filling out forms
10:45 get told you did it wrong, fill them out again
10:50 get a new finding aid, get told to fill them out again
10:58 they come to collect for the 11 am pulling, ask the guy if everything is correct, get told yes.
10:59 turn them in phew!
10:59 get them returned with the comment that you neglected to fill in something
11:03 turn them in late, but the guy knows it wasn't really your fault and takes them back personally
11:09 discover there's no wireless; go eat a sandwich
11:13 discover checking out is more complicated than checking in, go upstairs to retrieve aforementioned form
11:19 check out, eat
11:35 check back in.
11:40 check to see if material is pulled; repeat every couple minutes until 11:58, when material is available.

After that, it's a lot like the LOC, except you get to take everything with you on a cart, and can make your own photocopies (after another complicated process I'm too hungry to get into).

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Away We Go!

The title, for those out of the loop, is a worthy summer comedy to take yourself and even a date too (not a first one though). It's funny how Sam Mendes, the dude who made some atrociously overwrought suburban dramas lets himself go into a breezy comedy with a real affecting lead couple. It's a treat.

As for me, I've taken off for the summer, Thursday flying to New York for a day before heading down here to Philly for a wedding (ironically, I had an unexpected layover in Philly). Getting on the plane, I picked up the first pleasure book in a long while, and had settled into my chair. The book is Devil in the White City, a well-recommended bit of pop nonfiction (a rarity for me) on the designing of the Chicago World's Exposition and the serial killer who stalked it. But as I started reading, I grew displeased. I mentally started criticizing the author's proclivity towards meandering sentences that dump factoids indiscriminantly, especially noting the ones that have nothing at all to do with the story. Worse still, he made all sorts of judgments about how he thought things went down with the serial killer. I was flipping to the back to check out the endnotes, and horrified to discover no citations for his revisions. And as I put the book down, switching to a podcast of This American Life, I paused, wondering whether all this dissertation research has ruined pleasure reading, or if these are valid criticisms. I honestly don't know, but was greatly relieved that This American Life still charms me more than just about anything.

Friday, I wandered over to Columbia to check out the George Antheil papers. Our university has a program with them, so getting a reader's card was super easy, and they have wireless you don't have to log into, and the staff is very friendly and the room quite attractive and spacious. My only complaint: handwriting. Roger Sessions needs to make his Ls bigger. Several other correspondents were even worse, and then we hit the ones in French. It's hard enough for me to read a language I half-know, but when you don't even know what half the words are, the context is completely shot. Perhaps I'll make photocopies and have a friend look at them, but considering this is a small part of only one chapter (although the dude is fascinating, especially when he talks about Hollywood), I probably will let it slide. I am resolved to insist upon handwriting samples before embarking upon future studies.

The above statement should not be in any way reflective of my own hand writing and note taking. If I leave unfinished manuscripts, good luck.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Things our teenager selves loved

I wasn't going to post anything about Michael Jackson, partly because of the everyone's-doing-it-so-I-can't (the same thing that sometimes prevents me from ordering the same thing as anyone else at the table), and partly because I didn't believe I really had much to say. Unlike every other person on the web, I can't remember when I first heard his music. From the current standpoint, there's no denying his impact on the pop music scene. I know I knew it growing up, and I know I never paid much close attention to pop music growing up. But it filtered in, and I think what Michael Jackson's death hammered into me was how quietly this music entwines itself with your life, even when you aren't looking. There's something unnamable about the music, something immediately likable about it (it's easy to see why it was such a sensation, even from those delightful Jackson 5 videos), something that leaves you saddened at the loss, a loss that began years before, and grateful that music is something that stays around. How fortunate a gift music is.

In the past few days, there have been tributes, there have been the awkward moments recalling the numerous Michael Jackson jokes that underscore that aura of sadness that enshrouded his most recent years, that misplaced idealism, the bizarre fixations on his face, the questions never answered, and most potent there has been his music, heard anew. I'm not sure whether it excuses or makes us forget the man himself, but it seems to have restored something of our faith in him. I've been tearing through the writings of Charles Ives in these days before the 4th of July. Ives has much to say about the character of man, about spiritual strength endowing music with substance. It's presented me with a conundrum, one which has been debated of late: what impact does/should a musician's personal life have on our appreciation of his or her music? Does Elia Kazan's naming of names affect how we receive his movies? It certainly did for years, as Karl Malden's death notices point out frequently. What of Wagner? It's a hard thing to reconcile, but I believe art is greater than a human's faults. Plenty of mediocre work is done by perfectly nice people. But whatever Michael Jackson's personal failings, the truth about which I'll never actually know, they don't take away the power his music, music that invites us to envision a world of closer unity, and even helps create it by sharing his music.

I'd love to close with a pithy line of Jackson's or Ives's, but all I can think of are the lyrics to Fame, actually. Even if he doesn't make it to heaven, he does light up the sky.