Archive for December, 2012

Favourites of 2012: Film

December 27, 2012

I didn’t go often to the cinema in 2012, but I did manage to see quite a few films at home. I’ve divided the films below into those which were new — either in theater or on DVD — in 2012, and those which were older but which I saw for the first time this year.

I have said before that I am a film-going dullard, with little innate feel for the medium and a poor acquaintance with its history. This year I made a concerted effort to overcome some of this ignorance by watching a number of “classics”. I saw films by great directors like Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game), Orsen Welles (The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil), Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story), Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), and even Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown). I watched classic film noir (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep), classic western (The Searchers), classic romance (Roman Holiday), classic musical (Singin’ in the Rain), and classic horror (The Uninvited, The Innocents, The Haunting). I watched adaptations of Shakespeare spanning nearly 80 years of cinema, from the 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream up through Laurence Olivier’s 1955 Richard III to Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth and Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 Coriolanus. I staged for myself a Woody Allen mini-festival, watching in sequence a sampling of his more highly-regarded films (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Match Point, and Midnight in Paris). I saw quirky little films by auteurs (Brian Linklater’s Bernie and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress) and massive blockbusters by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) and whoever-the-perpetrator-was (The Avengers).

Sad to say, my affinity for films with broadly classic status continued to have low valence. With a few exceptions, noted below, the famous pictures in the list above mostly failed to resonate strongly with me. Naturally I am willing to accept that this is due to my own insensibility. (Although I will say that how anyone could think The Searchers one of the greatest films is beyond my powers of imagination to grasp.)

Unquestionably my favourite film of the year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I saw again on DVD. Since this was also my favourite film of 2011, I will not belabour the point, but simply direct interested readers to last year’s list. Next to that magnificent achievement (the film, not my list) the films I am about to discuss appear wan and pale. But if one can forget about Malick for a while, colour begins to seep back into them and they can be enjoyed on their own terms.

To the business at hand!

Recent Films

Midnight_in_Paris_PosterMidnight in Paris
(Woody Allen, 2011)

I did not have any clear idea of what to expect from Woody Allen’s film about Paris in the 1920s. I knew that it starred Owen Wilson in a lead role, which would normally have led me to give it a wide berth, but the reviews were strong and the film sounded appealing. I had seen only one other of Allen’s films prior to this one — it was Annie Hall — and that many years ago, so even my sense of what a Woody Allen picture is like was hazy. In some sense, that may have been an advantage, for I now see that Midnight in Paris is a fairly atypical Allen film, and in a good way.

It is atypical in that it is genuinely light-hearted, and willing to risk a sense of nostalgic wonder without letting Allen’s besetting vice — hair-trigger self-consciousness — get in the way. It is true that the film eventually comes around to seeing itself as a kind of psychoanalytic-therapy-by-fantasy, but even this is done in such a winsome manner — thanks, in so small degree, to a surprisingly endearing performance by Wilson — that it does not spoil the fun.

The basic premise of the story is that Wilson, a struggling writer on a visit to Paris with his fiancée and her family, is magically transported back to the Paris of the 1920s, a time and place that he has always considered “golden”, and where he meets many of his cultural idols, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. (The Wikipedia page gives a nice run-down of the famous real-life figures who are portrayed on screen. I had hoped for a glimpse of Stravinsky, but I was disappointed. Probably they were unable to find anyone ugly enough to play him convincingly.) He is so enraptured by this experience that he is tempted to remain in the past, but reflection on this temptation leads to his learning a Very Valuable Lesson.

I suppose one could see the film as a kind of progressive’s catechism about the evils of “living in the past”, but it did not play that way to me. The nostalgia, ostensibly denounced in the end, was too sincerely conveyed to be entirely effaced, and even the denunciation was handled with a winking ineptitude that softened the blow. I came away from the film with a spring in my step.

Take_Shelter_posterTake Shelter
(Jeff Nichols, 2011)

This is a quiet and spare little film that plays like a realistic domestic drama but turns out to be a fable, or something. The story charts the struggles of a young family in rural America as their husband/father descends slowly into madness, prey to delusions and paranoia and troubled by ominous dreams. It is played unsensationally, and is all the more frightening for it. How would you manage if the one you loved began making poor judgements that gradually imperiled the family’s livelihood and safety? At what point would you realize that something was seriously wrong? How would you broach the subject with him or her? How would this behaviour, and these fears, affect relationships within the family? These questions are all raised by the script, and made compelling by superb performances from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. The third main presence in the film, uncredited, is the sky above the family farm. The film’s range is admittedly limited, more or less striking a sustained note of brooding tension, but it is remarkably effective given its slim means. See it with friends and family and you will be arguing about the film’s ending until well into the night.

The official trailer for the film gives too much away, so here is another, made by a YouTuber named Peter Gergis:

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Older Films

double-indemnityDouble Indemnity
(Billy Wilder, 1944)

After many more or less failed attempts to learn to appreciate older films (“older” here meaning, say, more than fifty years old), I decided this year to try a different tack: genre films. I hoped that the familiar conventional elements of such films might pave the way for me to some extent. I believe this strategy has worked; at least, I thoroughly enjoyed this film.

Double Indemnity is considered a classic example of film noir, and with good reason. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, the screenplay was co-written by Billy Wilder and none other than Raymond Chandler. The dialogue is as hard-bitten as one could hope for, and the cinematography, rendered (obviously) in atmospheric black and white, is a perfect match for the story.

It is a crime drama, but the drama derives not from suspense as to who committed the crime — we are told this in the opening scene — nor even as to how the crime was carried out — though it is true that much of the plot is involved with unfolding the (rather implausible) details. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of the film for his “Great Movies” series, in the end the film’s fascination turns on the character and motives of the two central figures (played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck). What do they see in one another? Are they in love, or is one using the other? Why is each willing to trust the other? (Does each trust the other?) What do they really want? And are we, as the audience, expected to sympathize with them, or is the film a dark comedy in which we watch, with a certain satisfaction, as the foolish pave their own path to destruction? You tell me.

This was not the only Billy Wilder film I watched this year. The Marilyn Monroe comedy Some Like it Hot has a strong reputation, but I much preferred Double Indemnity.

roman-holiday-posterRoman Holiday
(William Wyler, 1953)

What a wonderful surprise! Here we have a charming romance with a winsome lead couple (in Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck), a spectacular backdrop (Rome, of course, and gloriously so), an intriguing premise, and a bittersweet finish that wrings the heart. Hepburn plays a modern-day princess who, fed up with endless days of official protocols and rigorous scheduling, escapes from her handlers to enjoy an incognito day of adventure in Rome. It is impossible to imagine a modern film observing the decorum and achieving the dignity of this romantic fantasy. The film floats on an air of sweet fun, pointing up at every turn the blessings of the simple life, and it avoids a conventional “Hollywood ending” in favour of a tough-minded, but very right, example of love and sacrifice. Hepburn is marvellous; I hadn’t seen her on screen before, but I am now compiling a list of her other films for future viewing. Would I have liked Roman Holiday as much if it had been filmed in another city? I don’t have to answer that.

the-innocentsThe Innocents
(Jack Clayton, 1961)

It was Martin Scorcese’s praise of this film that attracted me. I have no liking for graphic horror, but this promised to be a quiet, oblique affair with an undercurrent of supernatural tension. The story is about two children who return home from boarding school to take up their studies under a new governess on a large, remote English estate. The children are strange, eerie, and the governess is slowly drawn into a frightening mystery. The film is unusually unsettling, not for anything explicit, for for subtle touches that accumulate. The young girl, in particular, made my hair stand on end: something about her eyes and her voice. To be honest, I had reached a point in the film where, too frightened to continue, I was going to turn it off, when one of the characters spoke a name that I recognized: “Peter Quint”. Relief washed over me: I realized I was watching an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Fortified with new courage — not because James’ story is not scary, but because I knew I was on terrain I had trodden before without lasting damage — I was able to see it through. It’s a good film, with an uncanny atmosphere, recommended to those with a taste for such things.

match-pointMatch Point
(Woody Allen, 2005)

One doesn’t expect a thriller from Woody Allen, and this film, about which I knew nothing prior to watching apart from the general acclaim it had garnered, took me by surprise. It is about a middle-class tennis instructor in London who, by a series of fortunate events, marries into a wealthy family. He then commits an act that imperils both his marriage and his new social status, and to protect himself he goes on to commit even worse acts, desperately trying to keep the consequences at bay. The general set-up is similar in many respects to Allen’s earlier Crimes and Misdemeanors (which I watched later), but in my opinion Match Point is much the better of the two.

I admire the film’s ability to make gripping drama out of very ordinary materials. Early in the film four characters meet together for coffee, a meeting such as might happen thousands of times on any given day in a large city. Yet it is from the dynamics of those relationships, and nothing more, that the whole drama of the story unfolds. I also admire the film’s portrayal of the snowball effect of decisions and actions; one evil act contains within it the seed of all that follows, and the effort to cut off that growth only makes things worse and worse. Finally, the plotting of Match Point is superb: the structure, with all of its considerable intricacies and cunning diversions, fits together like clockwork. Allen deserved his Academy Award nomination for the screenplay.

Many commentators on the film have remarked on its cynical ending, and, it is true, one could read it as deeply pessimistic. It is probably intended to be read that way. Nonetheless I think it leaves enough unspoken to permit a more ambiguous interpretation. It is the sort of film for which one’s final interpretation rests to a great extent on how one interprets a facial expression in the closing frames. Quite apart from anything else, I cannot help but admire the craftsmanship of any film that can bring things to such a fine point.

***

Other films I enjoyed, but not so much as to write about them here:
  • Recent: Argo (2012), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Damsels in Distress (2011), Drive (2011), Moneyball (2011), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
  • Older: The Way (2010), Ponyo (2008), The Ninth Day (2004), The Thin Red Line (1998), Annie Hall (1977), The Song of Bernadette (1943)

***

Finally, I’d like to say a few words about two excellent music-related “movies” that I saw this year.

ballet-russesStravinsky and the Ballets Russes records live performances of two of Stravinsky’s early ballets, The Firebird, which premiered in 1910, and The Rite of Spring, from 1913. In this modern production from the St. Petersburg Mariisnky Theatre, they have tried to reproduce the choreography and costumes of the famous original productions in Paris. Now, I am not one to sit contentedly through a ballet, but I found these productions fascinating from start to finish. The Firebird, Stravinsky’s first major commission, comes across as a startlingly beautiful work; it is far easier to appreciate the music’s frequent changes in texture and tempi when one sees the accompanying dances, which (and I can hardly believe I am saying this) are really splendid. The Rite of Spring is another beast altogether. One of the surprising things Richard Taruskin said in his discussion of this piece and its famous premiere in the Oxford History of Western Music is that the riot which accompanied the first performance may well have been in response to the choreography rather than (as is usually supposed) the music. Seeing this performance convinced me that he may well be right: the dancing is crude, formless, chaotic, replacing elegance for violence at every opportunity. It is easy to see why lovers of ballet, which until then had been a genre nearly entirely insulated from the incursions of modernism, would have taken offense. I won’t say that I liked it, but it was very interesting to see, and if you love Stravinsky I would say this is probably essential viewing.

Bob Dylan - The Other Side Of The Mirror  [2007]-frontSecond is The Other Side of the Mirror, which documents Bob Dylan’s famous Newport Folk Festival concerts in 1963, 1964, and 1965. The footage is offered largely without commentary, so this is simply an opportunity to hear and see Dylan during what was perhaps the most artistically fertile period of his life. It is frankly astounding to consider how much he changed in those few years, morphing from the earnest strummer of folk tunes in 1963 to the enigmatic bard of 1965. We also see more of the infamous 1965 electric set than was shown in Scorcese’s No Direction Home (if memory serves). Warmly recommended to those who love Bob Dylan.

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Anything I missed? As always, comments are welcome.

Merry Christmas!

December 26, 2012

A little late this year, but no less sincere: Merry Christmas!

Favourites of 2012: Popular music

December 19, 2012

Truth be told, I heard relatively little popular music this year. I therefore cannot claim that my selections are anything like a “best of the year”. But these are the records that occupied my attention more than any others.

(Note: Several of the videos in this post are prefaced by short advertisements. I apologize for this. If I could get around them, I would.)

CohenOldIdeasOld Ideas
Leonard Cohen

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tune
(“Going Home”)

I do not know if we shall have another record from Leonard Cohen, who is now nearly 80 years old, but if it should happen that we do not then Old Ideas will stand as a fitting leave-taking. The songs seem to come to us from one perched at the boundary between life and death, looking first at one, then at the other, calmly but not complacently, and trying to say something fitting to the occasion.

Given the way these songs circle ceaselessly around loss and death, it is perhaps surprising to find them also enlivened by sly humour, stately grace, and a steady hope. For Cohen, it seems, the prospect of death provokes serious reflection but not despair, and he approaches us, his audience, not as one sliding into oblivion but as a prophet — albeit a reluctant one (which is the only true kind) — who can speak with confidence because he speaks the truth.

To say that he “speaks” is closer to the truth than you might expect, for some of the songs are indeed close to being simple readings of his poetry rather than songs sung. The music, which is never of very great interest on its own merits, sometimes settles into the merest background accompaniment. That is fine with me. And though I will not claim that Old Ideas is an unqualified success — the first half is notably stronger than the second, and that ought not to be true of a bona fide masterpiece — it is a record that I believe ranks with Leonard Cohen’s best, and that is no small matter. It is my favourite record of the year. [Music Note]

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart.
Come, healing of the reason.
Come, healing of the heart.
(“Come Healing”)

***

mumford-and-sons-album-babelBabel
Mumford & Sons

When Marcus Mumford first came to my attention a few years ago, following the release of his band’s debut record, I was surprised that he was possible. His songs, dressed up in attractive if fairly nondescript roots music, revealed a mind and heart of rare qualities. Here was a young man, still in his early 20s, writing songs about purity of heart, about grace, and about his desire to live in the truth. It was as though he had somehow gone around the moral and spiritual squalor of contemporary life by another route, emerging onto the stage holding a candle in the darkness, ready to sing about hope and a happy ending.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the songs struck a chord with young audiences, and in the several years since that first record became a surprise hit, Mumford & Sons have been on a wild ride, thrust into the limelight, playing to sold out stadiums, and lionized by taste-makers. They have been rubbing elbows with people who matter. Mumford himself went and married an edgy Hollywood actress. My great fear in advance of hearing Babel was that this success, and this new social status, and the scrutiny that goes with them, would have quenched that good and courageous spirit that had attracted me in the beginning.

These worries were not entirely in vain. If I am interpreting the record well, it is fairly clear that the success of Sigh No More was destabilizing in much the way I had feared. “I’m a cad, but I’m not a fraud,” he sings in “Whispers in the Dark”, “I set out to serve the Lord.” So the memory is there, but this new record is notably darker than the last, the songs populated by ghosts and wanderers making their way through trackless wastes, out of balance, lost and labouring under a confusion of tongues. Hope is not absent, but the traveller’s song is no longer a confident “I will hold on hope”, but a plaintive “Give me hope”.

The good news is that Mumford himself seems aware that something precious is under threat, and he is not content. The record’s lead single, “I Will Wait”, shows us a man broken-down and exhausted by “days of dust” who falls in a heap with this prayer on his lips: “Tame my flesh, and fix my eyes”, and who asks for something that only seems contradictory: “a tethered mind freed from the lies”. At several points on the record we encounter a similar wish, for an anchor, a secure foothold in a storm. In “Hopeless Wanderer” the wayward pilgrim is encouraged by these words: “Don’t hold a glass over the flame / Don’t let your heart grow cold / I will call you by name / I will share your road”. And there is reason to hope that this encouragement has been taken to heart, and that all shall yet be well. “Raise my hands,” they sing, “Paint my spirit gold, and bow my head. Keep my heart slow.” Keep my heart slow. It is the prayer of a man who has not lost sight of the most important things.

Musically, Babel ploughs much the same field as did Sigh No More; call it folk-rock, or call it pop music in acoustic garb. I’ll not quarrel. There are, in my judgement, no songs on Babel as immediately memorable as “The Cave” or “Little Lion Man” from their first record, but, taking the record as a whole, the quality of the songwriting has in general improved; fewer peaks, but also fewer valleys.

At the same time, some apparent limitations to their range are becoming apparent. The music has a tendency to bounce between two poles: adagio and piano, on one hand, and allegro and forte, on the other, with not much in between. It becomes predictable, and I’d like to hear something more supple from them on subsequent records. It also feels increasingly clear that the name of the group is all too apt: Marcus Mumford is the man among boys, and without him there would be little reason to pay attention. (Admittedly, I say this without any knowledge of how their songwriting happens; I give my impressions as a listener.) The musicianship, too, is not all that it might be; I cannot play the piano, but I expect that in two or three days I could learn to play the keyboard bits on these songs. Taken together, these considerations point to a lack of depth, and I am not altogether sure that his Sons are going to help Mumford reach his full potential. Nonetheless, for a sophomore record — often a major hurdle for any band that meets with great success their first time out — Babel is promising, and I’ll keep listening.

Here is a live performance of “Ghosts that we Knew”:

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taylor-swift-red-album-1350575305Red
Taylor Swift

This is getting complicated. Ms. Swift’s previous record was — whatever the musical cognoscenti may say — some kind of middle-brow masterpiece that bounced from strength to tweeny-bopper strength, but which continued her gradual migration away from her country sweetheart roots. Not that she ceased to be a sweetheart, of course, but the music was definitely shedding whatever perfunctory twang and drawl it once had. For some of us this was an unhappy trend, though it was hard to be too anxious when sated on such irresistible confections. Then last year she appeared on the Hunger Games soundtrack alongside The Civil Wars singing “Safe and Sound”, a pleasantly creaky little song co-written with T Bone Burnett (!); in even my fondest imaginings I’d not dared to hope for such a thing, and it raised a question that suddenly seemed a genuine question: what would she do next?

Red answers the question, but not in a simple way. She’s doing this, that, and the other: the record, which clocks in at over an hour (even without the [not-to-be-missed] bonus tracks), sounds like two or three records thrown together. Songs that would have been at home on her previous few records, like the jaunty “Stay Stay Stay” or the smiling-through-the-tears ballad “Begin Again”, are placed cheek-by-jowl with material that stretches hard toward a trendy pop sound (“State of Grace”, “Treacherous”). After Speak Now, for which she wrote all the songs alone, Red is a real “Swift & Friends” affair: there are several flat-footed duets with male partners hopelessly overmatched by her sparkle, a half-dozen co-writers, and a similar number of producers lending a hand.

Which brings us to the nefarious handiwork of two vandals named Martin & Shellback, enlisted by Ms. Swift to produce a handful of songs (“I Knew you Were Trouble”, “22”, and the monster hit “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). These songs are cause for concern, for in them Swift’s country roots are not only entirely effaced but actually defaced by pop-monster studio gee-whizzery, and in them the neighbourhood girl for whom we felt such wholesome affection struts forth bearing a disturbing resemblance to those dime-a-dozen robo-divas one hears too loudly in shoe stores. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is by far the worst example of this; it makes me ill. I will confess a grudging affection for the groove of “We Are Never Ever…”, which retains a sense of fun (and the cheerful one-take music video will, I predict, have a long life as a favourite of dancing-animal-loving children), but I cannot finally approve of any song sung in a valley girl dialect.

Despite those reservations, there is much on the record to admire. The quality of the songwriting, which has improved markedly with each of her new albums, continues to trend upward. Not that she is (or ever will be) Karen Peris, but within the parameters typical of mainstream pop Taylor Swift is a songwriter to reckon with. Her strength has always been in her expansive melodies, and though to my ear that element is less dazzling on Red than it was previously, she has stepped up in other areas. She is, for instance, at the age of 22, taking strides to shed her teenager-oriented reputation; if her principal audience until now has been teenaged girls and their mothers, Red seems directed more at the moms than the girls. Seeing this, I am inclined to relax my complaints about aspects of this record: growing up is hard to do, and who among us wasn’t a wee bit awkward as we made the transition?

dylan-tempestTempest
Bob Dylan

Dylan’s latest is an ambitious and lively record that I really want to love, but somehow cannot. It is his best record since Modern Times and maybe earlier (pre-modern times?), with generally fine songwriting, superb musicianship, and loads of phlegm. He cannot here be said to be resting on laurels; the record is by turns funny, jaunty, haunting, and disturbing — it is certainly not boring. Yet I find that I do not much enjoy it, and for me I think the principal reason is the dominance, in the music, of the blues. The blues are not my thing, especially in long form. (Quite a few of the songs on Tempest are longer than 7 minutes, which is too long to be sustained by a blues riff.) Also, the title song, about the sinking of the Titanic and weighing in at nearly a quarter-hour in duration, is off-putting; the words are disturbing, but Dylan sings them in a casual, even jovial, manner that makes him sound like a tubercular Bad Santa. To my regret I cannot enjoy it.

dement-singSing the Delta
Iris Dement

It had been over fifteen years since Iris Dement’s last record of original material. She hadn’t been entirely quiet during that time — she sang some celebrated duets with John Prine and she issued an enjoyable hymn-sing — but some of us had been wondering if we’d ever hear new songs from her again. The mere existence of this record, therefore, is cause for some celebration. The chief reason to hear it is the same as it has ever been with her: that voice, which is one of the wonders of American music. It is not conventionally pretty, but it is unforgettable; call her the Callas of country.

The songs themselves are a mixed bag, but with a singer of this stature you take the good (“Before the Colors Fade”) with the bad (“The Night I Learned How Not to Pray”) and count your blessings. Sing the Delta certainly doesn’t replace 1993’s My Life as the first Iris Dement record everyone should own and give to their friends, but it is something to be thankful for in any case.

I note from her Wikipedia page that since her last record she was divorced from her first husband and re-married to Greg Brown. Obviously no mere aesthetic consideration could cast a divorce in a happy light, but I will say that I’d give my left kidney to hear those two singing together.

***

Songs That Meant Something To Me This Year: Loudon Wainwright III & Ramblin’ Jack Elliot: “Double Lifetime”; Josh Garrels: “Farther Along”; Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson: “The Quiet Life”; Dan Bern: “I Need You”; The Avett Brothers, “Winter in my Heart”.

Favourites of 2012: Books

December 13, 2012

Because I write fairly extensively about books on this blog, and have either already written or am planning to write about most of my favourite books from this year, I will be brief today. In 2012 I read only one book which bore a 2012 publication date, so these are simply my favourites chosen from what I happened to read, without regard to date of publication. A short section on children’s books follows.

Non-fiction

metaphysical-foundations-modern-science-e-a-burtt-paperback-cover-artIn his classic work on the philosophy of science, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, E.A. Burtt re-examines the history of early modern science. His particular interest is to trace the emergence of the mechanistic view of the natural world, to examine the arguments and motivations of its architects, and to explore its implications. The key sentence of the book is perhaps this: “[the scientist is] under a strong and constant temptation to make a metaphysics out of his method, that is, to suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method must be appropriate and successful.” It is an illuminating book that encourages the reader to critically examine assumptions that are too often passed over quietly. [Book Note]

fermor-a-time-to-keep-silenceA Time to Keep Silence is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s mid-century account of his sojourns at several prominent monastic sites: Fontenelle Abbey, La Grande Trappe, and the deserted rock monasteries of Cappadocia. Fermor was not a practicing Christian, and in the beginning he had more disdain than affection for Western monastics, but the book traces the slow undoing of those prejudices. It is a short book, but full of interest, and the writing is of the highest quality. [Book Note]

chesterton-dickensChesterton’s Charles Dickens, from 1906, is not much read these days, and that is a pity, for I am convinced it is one of his best works of literary criticism. It would be hard to imagine a better pairing of author with subject; there was a reason why Everyman’s Library asked GKC to write prefaces for all of Dickens’ novels. Dickens was for Chesterton not only a literary polestar but an existential one, for Chesterton saw him giving shape and expression to the deep comedy and irrepressible vitality of life. Chesterton considers Dickens’ finest achievements to be his early novels, especially The Pickwick Papers, and argues that while in some sense he became a better novelist as he aged, he also became more conventional and world-weary. Biographical details in this volume are slight, but for a probing interpretation of Dickens’ place in literature and life it is an excellent book, full of delights.

The-Landmark-Thucydides-9780684827902Finally, I made my first acquaintance this year with one of the great works of classical history in Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War. My education in the classics proceeds by fits and starts, and these days mostly crawls, so I was pleased to get through such a substantial work. The story of the war’s progress is absorbing, but extremely complex, and without the helpful maps, marginal notes, and summaries in my Landmark Thucydides edition I’d have been lost. As it was, however, I enjoyed the ride immensely. [Book Note]

***

Fiction

hart_the_devil_and_pierre_gernetMy favourite fiction of the year was David Bentley Hart’s The Devil and Pierre Gernet, a collection of short pieces which is a feast for the mind and the heart, and a delight to the ear as well. Hart is a stimulating and often provocative thinker, and an able stylist (to say the least), and he demonstrates those qualities to good effect in these stories. His writing is serious, and is both intellectually and morally probing, but the lush glory of his prose never loses its sense of play. It is a winning combination. Hart jokes in the preface about the “dismaying” prospect of reading stories of ideas, but when the stories are this well put together, and this absorbing, and this memorable, I can find no grounds for complaint. More, please. [Book Note]

undset-hestvikenOver the course of the year I slowly worked my way through Sigrid Undset’s medieval tetralogy The Master of Hestviken. This is the poor cousin to her more popular trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, but in fact the two sets have much in common: both are set in fourteenth-century Norway, both put the dramatic focus on the moral and spiritual lives of the characters, and both were plausibly cited as justifying Undset’s Nobel Prize in Literature. They are also — not to miss the main point — both excellent. The Master of Hestviken tells the story of Olav Audunsson, a moderately wealthy Norwegian land-owner, the focus very much on portraying the inner drama and moral significance of his life. Olav commits a wrong as a young man, and it dogs him throughout his days, leading to one sin upon another, until it seems to have shaped his entire life. It is a sad and difficult story, but not finally a bleak one — quite the opposite. It is difficult to do justice to the richness of Undset’s story-telling, or the depth and believability of her characters. She is sometimes stern — certainly there is nothing sentimental in these pages — but she seems to love these men and women she writes about, and I grew to love them too.

goncharov-oblomovI do not remember where I first heard of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, but I am grateful that I heard of it somewhere. Though quite a bit too long for the story it has to tell, it nonetheless impressed me greatly with its portrait of a man grown incapable of decisive action and become a ghost or a shadow in the world. His hand is unsteady on the tiller, and even when the wind blows he brings his sail in. It is a brilliant, darkly comedic character study. It had been a long time since a novel gave me so much to think about as I was reading, and Oblomov haunts me still. The story has the clean lines and satisfying shape that give it the character of an especially successful fable. [Book Note]

berry-coulterHannah Coulter was my introduction to Port William and the Port William fellowship, and a welcome introduction it was. Wendell Berry’s portrait of Hannah, an 80-year old woman looking back on her life in a small Kentucky town, is one of the warmest and most thoughtful novels that I can remember. Berry’s prose is quiet and plain spoken — a good foil for Hart’s above — but that doesn’t prevent its touching deep places in the heart. The book is a small wonder. [Book Note]

wolfe-bonfireFinally, I thoroughly enjoyed my romp through Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities in this, the year of its silver anniversary. (Can a book have an anniversary?? Is there such a thing as a silver birthday? Ayyyyiii!) Wolfe’s writing is all that I tend to dislike: sloppy, informal, laden with vulgarity — bereft entirely of poise or decorum. Yet somehow its reckless abandon won me over. It had been long since I laughed as heartily with a book. Pass the styrofoam peanuts, please. [Book Note]

***

Last year in an idle moment I put together a histogram showing the original publication dates of the books I had been reading. That Matlab code works just as well for the books I read this year:

books2012

Notable features: A fair bit of Euripides; a smattering of medieval works; no Shakespeare; some nineteenth-century novels, and a big pile-up in the twentieth century. I am a provincial reader. We can unpack that right-most bar of the histogram to see more detail:

books2012-20thc

I certainly do seem to have a liking for things glossy and new. The 1920s gave the 2000s a run for their money, mostly due to my reading Belloc, Chesterton, Undset, and Lovecraft, but it was not enough.

***

Children’s books

We read an untold number of children’s books this year. The librarians at our local branch have by now memorized our library card number, and I believe we have single-handedly employed a half-dozen interlibrary loan truck drivers. Here are some of the books we enjoyed the most.

With our three-year old:

steig-sylvesterSylvester and the Magic Pebble
William Steig (1969)

This is a sweet tale about a donkey who finds a wish-granting magic pebble while out walking and, when surprised by a lion crouching behind some tall grass, foolishly wishes himself transformed into a rock. The end? Not quite. It’s a surprisingly affecting book, maybe a little too sad in the middle sections for very young kids (but parents can paraphrase). The illustrations are wonderful — Steig is one of our favourite illustrators — and the text bears up well under repeated readings.

defilice-potatoOne Potato, Two Potato
Cynthia DeFelice
Andrea U’Ren (Illus.) (2006)

This is a truly wonderful story about a poor, elderly couple living alone on a desolate stretch of Irish countryside who discover a magic pot buried in their garden: the pot makes a duplicate of whatever one puts inside it. After a few hilarious misadventures, the tale comes around to an affirmation of the attractions of simplicity and the importance of love and friendship. The text is terrific: I cannot read it without lapsing into an exuberant (if atrocious) brogue. The illustrations are beautifully done, with a gentle but unsentimental quality.

bedard-wolf-gubbioThe Wolf of Gubbio
Michael Bedard
Murray Kimber (Illus.) (2000)

Books about St. Francis are legion, and we’ve looked at a few, but so far this has been our favourite. It recounts the famous legend about how St. Francis tamed the fearsome wolf that was terrorizing the good people of Gubbio. The illustrations are magnificent, with vivid colours and a style reminiscent of medieval masters, albeit with more naturalism. The text, too, is notable for its haunting cadences; certainly it is several steps above the usual fare in children’s books. I won’t claim that this story is an especially good introduction to St. Francis — throughout the story, he is simply called Il Poverello — but it is a good story nonetheless, and an addendum makes the St. Francis connection explicit.

maurice_sendak_where_the_wild_things_areWhere the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak (1963)

This is obviously a well-known classic, but it seems to me still worth remarking on. Our daughter loves it, and, though I do find it unsettling to some extent, I find it alluring as well. I do not tire of reading it. Sendak has been called “the picture-book psychologist”, and this book certainly could be cited as evidence. It has unspoken depths that prevent re-readings from becoming rote. Perhaps parents and young children, when reading this book together, are really reading different books to a much greater extent than is normally the case. It helps too that the whole book takes less than five minutes to read, making it perfect for bedtime. The illustrations are superb.

willems-bunnyKnuffle Bunny
Mo Willems (2004)

Although it is a simple little story, about a toddler who forgets her favourite bunny in the washing machine at the laundromat, it is told with such panache and humour that we never tire of it. The illustrations consist of hand-drawn figures integrated into black and white photographs, which is a style that I’ve not seen elsewhere. The chief delight, for parents, is in the small humorous touches and the spot-on portrayal of toddler antics. It is also one of the best father/daughter stories that we have found.

rapunzelRapunzel
The Brothers Grimm
Paul O. Zelinksy (Illus.) (1998)

There are many re-tellings of stories from the Brothers Grimm, covering a vast swath of quality. This is probably the best we’ve found so far. The text adheres closely to the original, and preserves its forthright elegance and elevated tone. The illustrations, though, by Paul Zelinsky, are the real attraction: each page is beautifully rendered, roughly in the style of Renaissance masters like Masaccio or Piero della Francesca. The tower in which Rapunzel is confined looks as though it was designed by Brunelleschi. The book is flat-out gorgeous to look at, and we return to it again and again.

With our one-year old:

wheres spotIt is only recently that our little guy has begun wanting to read books. He is fond of books in the “lift-the-flap” genre; probably the greatest such so far is Where’s Spot? He also likes nursery rhymes, and our favourite collection is this one illustrated by Barbara Reid; the pictures are photographs of modelling clay originals, and they are really interesting to look at. Finally, he likes Goodnight Moon; I have the readers of this blog to thank for telling me about that book.

***

Finally, several friends had books published this year. I do plan to read them, though I have not yet done so:

To finish a book is no small matter, and I offer my warm congratulations!

Alma Redemptoris Mater, solemn tone

December 12, 2012

Last week when I posted the music for the Advent compline antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater, Osbert pointed out that the same text has a solemn setting that is, in his words, “one of my favourite melodies in the entire plainchant repertory”. He has good reason to think so. I believe that this is the setting he was talking about:

Today being a great feast of Our Lady, I can hardly imagine a better day to start learning it.

Apocalypse soon

December 11, 2012

The impending end of the world has naturally attracted attention and commentary from many quarters. The event raises questions that nearly everyone is asking themselves: why should I bother with Christmas shopping this year? can I fit in one more Roland Emmerich film festival before the end? And so on.

But the apocalypse affects specialist interests as well. I was reminded of this yesterday when I picked up the most recent edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal and found an article exploring. . . well, here’s a quote from the abstract:

We discuss how the outcomes of clinical trials may be affected by the extinction of all mankind and recommend appropriate changes to their conduct. In addition, we use computer modelling to show the effect of the apocalypse on a sample clinical trial.

It is an issue that had not occurred to me before, and perhaps the same is true of you. Read the whole thing.

Favourites of 2012: Classical music

December 7, 2012

I kick off my annual review this year with a look at the finest music that I encountered in 2012. Some of these recordings are new in 2012; all are of recent vintage.

Filia Sion
Vox Clamantis
ECM New Series (2012)

My favourite record of the year is this collection of mostly Gregorian chant, but don’t give up on me yet. I have many chant recordings in my collection, and they do not come better than this. As is suggested by the title, the programme consists principally of music related to Our Lady, Daughter of Zion. Naturally the music is largely monophonic and anonymously composed, but Vox Clamantis varies the texture by including several pieces by the likes of Hildegard von Bingen and Perotin, and the results are dazzling, in a quietly peaceful way. What sets this record apart from the scores of similarly programmed collections of chant is not the quality of the singing, exactly (though the singing is terrific) nor the technical excellence of the sound engineering (though it could not be better), but the quiet, even contemplative, spirit that presides over the whole. There is a wonderful, restful poise to this music; to hear it is like entering a haven. It is hard to say just how or why that is so; I can only say that, for me, the experience is rare, and so I regard this record as a treasure. The liner notes are worth pondering too: “The Gospels do not reveal all of Mary’s feelings to us; the mystery of the Incarnation is only briefly presented. Relying on a few phrases and returning endlessly to the sacred words and setting them in different contexts, the musical tradition shows their inexhaustible richness. Medieval compositions meditate on the mystery of the Incarnation in all its aspects. They display different shades of joy: explosive, superabundant joy which wells up like a source, as well as the shimmer of peaceful, meditative wonder before ‘the miracle never seen, the joy never known’.” To describe this music, and these performances of it, as “joy which wells up like a source” and a “shimmer of peaceful, meditative wonder” is as good and fitting a description as any. Highly recommended.

***

Weinberg: String Quartets, Vol.6
Quatuor Danel
CPO (2012)

I have written before (Exhibits A and B) about the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who lived most of his life in the Soviet Union and was a friend to Shostakovich. I want to praise this recording of his string quartets Nos.2, 12, and 17 not only for its own merits (which are immense) but for what it represents: namely, the completion of the first cycle of recordings of all Weinberg’s seventeen string quartets. I have been collecting the recordings from Quatuor Danel since the first volume was issued in 2007, and I have been enthralled all the way through. If you love the string quartets of Shostakovich, you will love what you hear from Weinberg: indeed, this may be the best music you’ve never heard. Weinberg’s neglect is hard to understand on musical grounds, and I am persuaded that it is mostly due to historical factors: a Polish Jew did not fit the image of the Soviet artist that his government wanted to project, and so while he was fairly well-known within the Soviet Union (and many recordings of his music were made on the Soviet label Melodiya) he had little exposure in the West. That is now starting to change, with numerous labels (CPO, Chandos, Grand Piano, NEOS, and Naxos, among others) undertaking major recording projects to give his symphonies, piano music, opera, and chamber music a hearing. All of it is welcome, and much of it is superb, but from what I have heard these string quartets are the finest of what he has to offer. Here is the final movement of his String Quartet No.2:

***

endBeginning
New York Polyphony
BIS (2012)

New York Polyphony is a young, four man vocal ensemble hailing from the Big Apple. They had made a few impressive recordings prior to this one, distinguishing themselves for the smooth blend of their voices and their nuanced interpretations. All of that is again evident on endBeginning, and, together with BIS’s usual superb engineering, would be enough to recommend this disc. It almost comes as a bonus, therefore, to realize just how very interesting is the collection of music they have chosen to record. Most of it is Franco-Flemish polyphony from the sixteenth century, but much of it is rare: I had never before heard Antoine Brumel’s Missa pro defunctis, which includes the first known polyphonic setting of the Dies Irae, and I don’t believe Thomas Crecquillon’s Lamentations for Holy Week had ever been recorded before. The programme is rounded out by Gregorian chant from the Requiem Mass and several more famous motets on similar themes, such as Josquin’s Absalon fili mi, a setting of David’s lament on the death of his son, and Clemens non Papa’s Infelix ego, a setting of Savonarola’s meditation on Psalm 51 written as he awaited execution in Florence. It is all thematically a bit gloomy, I suppose, but gloom has rarely sounded this beautiful. The programme closes with a new piece written for New York Polyphony by Jackson Hill; Ma fin est mon commencement is described as a “fantasy” on Guillaume de Machaut’s motet of the same name, and it is an interesting piece, even if it doesn’t rise to the same level of inspiration as Machaut’s witty (because palindromic) original. Its inclusion here might have made more sense if Machaut’s piece has also been included, but placed last in the context of a programme meditating on death, it does make for a surprisingly hopeful conclusion. And it provides a sleek title for the disc too, which is surely convenient. Let’s listen to Josquin’s Absalon fili mi:

***

Josquin: Missa Ave Maris Stella
Weser-Renaissance; Manfred Cordes
CPO (2012)

Despite their fairly extensive discography I had never heard Weser-Renaissance before I happened upon this disc. I was missing out. This is a luminous recording of Josquin Desprez’s Missa Ave Maris Stella, coupled with a handful of his Marian motets, including the justly famous Ave Maria … Virgo serena which is here given a glorious outing. I don’t know anything about the choir apart from what my ears tell me: it is an all-male ensemble that sings with impeccable tuning and impressive attention to detail. I particularly enjoy the way they sculpt the musical lines to give them shape and shading. The sound is of burnished gold; the glow of the album cover is a good visual analogue. The choir sounds a little larger than I consider ideal in this repertoire — I am guessing there are twenty or so singers? — but when the results are this beautiful those reservations are swept away. I have a couple of dozen recordings of Josquin’s music in my collection, and this ranks with the elite few. Here is the famous four-voice setting of Ave Maria:

***

Schubert: Die Winterreise
Nataša Mirkovic-De Ro; Matthias Loibner
Raumklang (2011)

There must be hundreds of recordings of this, the most famous of Schubert’s song cycles, and it is hard to know why one should take an interest in a new one, especially one issued on a fairly obscure label and sung by an unknown soprano. The remedy for this wariness is simply to listen: this is an extraordinary re-imagining of this well-worn masterpiece that not only casts fresh light on it, but seems even to find new depths. The most immediate oddity one notices is that Matthias Loibner, the accompanist, is playing a hurdy-gurdy! This is justified — or at least arguably justified — on artistic grounds because the whole trajectory of the song cycle arcs toward the closing song, “Die Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Player”). Surely to play that haunting melody on an actual hurdy-gurdy is defensible, and, if that song, why not the others as well? In fact the sound of the hurdy-gurdy, with its bleak drones and rough-hewn rusticity, serves these songs extremely well, both musically and interpretively. Naturally this would be little more than a curiosity if the singing was not also excellent, but it is! Nataša Mirkovic-De Ro’s voice is not the sort one characteristically hears in this repertoire: it is not a polite, conservatory voice. She has to my ears a quality I associate with cabaret music: impeccable, even exaggerated, diction, bold clarity, earthy frankness, and seductive beauty. She sings as though she is whispering this sad tale directly into one’s ear. This manner suits the stark, somewhat coarse, accompaniment perfectly. All in all, this is a brilliant performance. I don’t recommend it for those coming to Die Winterreise for the first time, but if you already know these songs I think you’d find it quite illuminating. The final song of the cycle:

***

Extreme Singing: Low Masterpieces of the Renaissance
Vox Early Music Ensemble
Ancient Voice (2011)

When first I saw this album on eMusic I passed over it on account of the cute title and awful artwork. I decided to return for a listen, however, after reading a glowing review (which I cannot now find, alas!). On the strength of this experience, I am in a position to coin a proverb: Never judge a record by its cover. (Well, almost never.)

Not only is the singing marvellously good, but the music and performance decisions are fascinating: they have undertaken to sing a selection of polyphonic pieces written in an unusually low register, and to sing them at the notated pitch (rather than transposing them up, as is apparently usually done). One of the pieces, a setting of Absalon fili mi attributed by scholars to Pierre de la Rue, includes the lowest note written for any known work from the Renaissance — a B-flat below the staff! Thus throughout this programme the basses are given a real workout, and the results are excellent: the choir rumbles magnificently. It is more than a gimmick: the low register gives the music, all of which is music of mourning in one way or another, an impressive gravitas.

In addition to the aforementioned Absalon fili mi, the recording includes a little known Stabat mater by Gaspar van Weerbeke, a few funeral motets, and the centerpiece is Pierre de la Rue’s Requiem. Yes, more singing about death. The chances of your funeral or mine sounding this good are nil. Here is Pierre de la Rue’s Absalon fili mi:

***

bach-schiffBach: The Well-Tempered Clavier
Andras Schiff
ECM New Series (2012)

Andras Schiff is one of my favourite pianists, and I am particularly fond of his Bach. He recorded The Well-Tempered Clavier once before, in the 1980s, and I have long loved those recordings. What a pleasure it has been, therefore, to revisit this great work with him again.

To listen to the whole of “the 48″ takes over four hours, and I confess that I have not gone back to do a close comparison of this recording to his earlier one, nor have I taken the trouble to compare it to any of the many other recordings available. I have been content to simply enjoy this for what it is: superb Bach playing. Schiff’s manner at the keyboard is consistent with his reputation: thoughtful, calm, sensitive, and self-effacing. He is there wholly to serve the music. Nodding to the kinds of instruments for which Bach originally wrote he plays throughout without pedaling, which gives the music a crisp quality that I like very much.

The sonics, as one has grown to expect from ECM, are above reproach. The piano is warm and present, not overly resonant, and I did not notice any extraneous sounds. A wonderful record.

Here is the Fugue in G minor (BWV 885) from Book II. I have a special fondness for this fugue because it contains the only bar in all of Bach’s music that I can play myself. (The fourth bar, to be precise. See page 3 of this score.)

***

ockeghem-sorensenSørensen & Ockeghem: Requiem
Ars Nova Copenhagen, Paul Hillier
Dacapo (2012)

What?! How many Requiems can I recommend in one sitting? (Pall-)bear with me, because this is really interesting. We have here a recording of Johannes Ockeghem’s famous Requiem, now over five hundred years old and still going strong. It has been recorded many times before, and admirably; it is a stupendous work, the earliest known polyphonic Requiem, and a marvel of intricate splendour. It is also missing some parts. Enter Paul Hillier and Ars Nova Copenhagen, who commissioned from the Danish composer Bent Sørensen a number of movements to complete the Requiem. Sørensen’s Fragments of Requiem is here integrated into Ockeghem’s original to produce a (largely?) complete setting. The blend is not seamless, nor is it meant to be, for Sørensen writes in a distinctly modern manner, but the contrasts are not jarring either. One hears a certain distant kinship between the two. The result is perhaps a little odd, but very much worth hearing. The singing is spectacular, as one expects from any choir with Paul Hillier at the helm, and their performance of the Ockeghem sections, in particular, have a wonderful spaciousness about them that I really enjoy. Here is a brief promotional video for the disc (mostly featuring the music of Sørensen):

***

I see in retrospect that most of my favourites were choral/vocal music. I didn’t plan it that way, but neither does it surprise me. Anything great that I missed? The comments are open.

Alma Redemptoris Mater

December 5, 2012

For the seasons of Advent and Christmas the usual Compline hymn to Our Lady (viz. Salve Regina) is replaced by Alma Redemptoris Mater. I do not know it nearly as well as I ought to. Care to practice with me?

O loving Mother of our Redeemer,
Gate of heaven, Star of the sea,
Hasten to aid thy fallen people who strive to rise again.
Thou who brought forth thy holy Creator,
All creation wond’ring, yet remainest ever Virgin,
Taking from Gabriel’s lips that joyful “Hail!”:
Be merciful to us sinners.

From such a humble thread, many glories have been woven. Here is a resplendent performance of a setting, for six voices, by Diego Ortiz. (The conductor’s manner in this video comes perilously close to being antic, but I give him the benefit of the doubt. The sound he coaxes from his choir covers a multitude of sins. And don’t give up on this too soon; it gets better as it goes on.)

(Hat-tip: The Chant Cafe)

Favourites of 2012

December 4, 2012

Every year at about this time I write a few posts about my favourite books, music, and films from the past year. This year will, I hope, be no exception, and I am busily at work. Not that anyone much cares, of course, but it is an enjoyable exercise for me.

Last year I think I jammed in all the posts between Christmas and New Year’s, but this year I want to spread them out a little. My plan is to complete roughly one such post each week until the end of the year.

Even the best-laid plans…

Sing, but keep going

December 1, 2012

Tomorrow being the first day of Advent, today is the final day of the Christian year. I love the second reading from today’s Office of Readings, which comes from a sermon of St. Augustine:

O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity! We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.

So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do — sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going. What do I mean by keep going? Keep on making progress. This progress must be in virtue; for there are some, the Apostle warns, whose only progress is in vice. If you make progress, you will be continuing your journey, but be sure that your progress is in virtue, true faith, and right living. Sing then — but keep going.

“Sing, but keep going” always puts me in mind of my favourite walking hymn, “I Feel the Winds of God Today”. Since I cannot find a good version online, let’s hear instead Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Variants on Dives and Lazarus, which is based on the same tune:

And may I take this opportunity, a little early, to wish everyone a good Advent.

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