Archive for December, 2010

Favourites of 2010: Books

December 31, 2010

The end of the year is finally here, or nearly so. I think I just have time to squeeze in this last entry in the “Favourites of 2010” posts.

Only one of the books I read this year was actually first published this year, so I am allowing myself to draw on any book I happened to read in 2010.

Planet Narnia – Michael Ward
I don’t often read, much less enjoy, books of literary criticism, but for sheer pleasure nothing I read this year matched Michael Ward’s fascinating study of The Chronicles of Narnia. It is rare to read something that illuminates a well-beloved literary work the way Ward has illuminated Narnia with his theory about how the Chronicles are constructed on the plan of the medieval cosmos. It sounds right to me. A splendid Lewisian feast. [Book Note]

The Histories – Herodotus
Time was long past due for me to acquaint myself with this foundation stone of the Western house of intellect. It was a long trawl, but richly rewarding on many fronts. The stories which Herodotus so lavishly supplies were frequently delightful, and I have half a mind to make a children’s book from the best of them. When the narrative finally settled down to recount the Persian Wars, it was absorbing reading.

A Soldier of the Great War – Mark Helprin
It would be hard to imagine a more humane war novel than this long, leisurely account of one man’s experience of the First World War. Helprin reminds us that war is more than a clash of bodies; each body houses a mind, heart, and soul, and the inner life carries on beneath the fray. The book evinces a great faith in the strength of goodness. Ultimately it is the story of a man who lives obedient to love and beauty, and it is quite beautiful itself. [Book Note]

Surprised by Beauty – Robert Reilly
An alternative history of twentieth-century classical music that brings attention to a host of relatively little known composers, each of whom rejected to some degree the radicalism that dominates the standard histories. Reilly writes with knowledge and affection about these composers, who have toiled, often in deep obscurity, to carry on the tradition of writing music that is beautiful and attractive to audiences. A treasure trove. [Book Note]

Younger than sin

December 30, 2010

In November a conference was held at Notre Dame University under the rather odd title “Younger than Sin”. Videos of the invited talks have been made available online, and I’ve been listening to a few of them. I’d like to recommend two in particular:

  • Anthony Esolen (Providence College) speaks about images of childhood in Dante, Shakespeare, and Dickens. Esolen is always eloquent and insightful, and he has an especially keen appreciation for the moral and spiritual lives of children. It’s a wonderful talk.
  • David Fagerberg (Notre Dame) speaks about the virtue of humility in the life and writings of G.K. Chesterton. This, let me say, is the single best talk I have ever heard about Chesterton, and I recommend it to everyone, especially those for whom GKC remains a bit enigmatic or irritating. After hearing Fagerberg’s talk I do believe that Chesterton’s primordial greatness will be evident to all.

(Hat-tip: Mere Comments)

Favourites of 2010: Popular music

December 29, 2010

Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More
My palm this year goes to the debut album from Mumford & Sons, a folk-rock outfit from the UK. I liked it the first time I heard it, and it has continued to grow on me throughout the year. In Marcus Mumford they have a wonderful singer. What really sets the record apart from the competition, however, is the songwriting. It is rare to hear a rock album in which themes of truth, hope, grace, and purity of heart recur, and that fact alone makes Sigh No More rather surprising and special. There is something about the spiritual vitality of this record that reminds me, ever so gently, of a certain Irish band that still hasn’t found what it’s looking for. In the beginning I turned to Sigh No More simply for good music; now I find I go to it for sobriety and refreshment of spirit. No-one is more surprised than I am. [Listen to samples]

Here they are performing “Roll Away Your Stone”. This song starts rather quietly but gathers steam as it goes.

Bob Dylan: Bootleg Series, Volume 9 –
The Witmark Demos: 1962-64

A long time ago, when the world was still young, a collection of Bob Dylan’s early, unpublished songs was issued on a disc called The Bootleg Series, Volume 1. That disc was bread and butter to me. You can imagine my excitement, therefore, when I learned that Volume 9 in the now encyclopedic Bootleg Series was going to revisit those songs again, and the sessions in which they were recorded, issuing two new discs of previously unreleased material. When you love something, the prospect of having “more of the same” is tantalizing indeed.

As it turned out, I found Volume 9 not quite as revelatory as I had hoped: most of the very best material, it seems, had been judiciously chosen for inclusion on Volume 1, so that what remained for Volume 9 has the character of something like musical flotsam and jetsam. Quite a few of the songs here are actually the same as on Volume 1, though in slightly different, and somewhat inferior, versions. In some cases the songs break off in mid-stream, Dylan remarking that he can’t remember the rest. Some of his famous songs are given here in early versions, in a few cases with piano accompaniment: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’, ‘Don’t Think Twice’, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” among them.

I will say this: if you have not heard the Volume 1 recordings, I do believe that this collection will blow your mind. Even in those early days, Dylan’s songwriting was terrific, and that voice was like a force of nature. In these songs we hear him sending exploratory roots down into the bedrock of American song, and from those roots, as we all know, a mighty oak would grow. Even if I judge that these Volume 9 recordings take second place to Volume 1, this is still an altogether remarkable collection, and one of the best things I heard this year. [Listen to samples]

Sufjan Stevens: All Delighted People EP
It seems that the Fifty States Project is dead, and that is a disappointment to me. Sufjan Stevens, after writing two records on Michigan and Illinois, respectively, promised that his life’s work would be to bring each and every state in the union under his musical wing. Such promises must now, I suppose, be attributed to the rashness of youth, for after a five-year hiatus he issued two new records in the closing months of 2010 — the All Delighted People EP in August and The Age of Adz in October — and neither has anything to do with the Fifty States.

Of the two new albums, The Age of Adz is undoubtedly the more ambitious and sweeping. Unfortunately — and I say this with real regret — it is a horrid, beastly thing. He has taken the songs, which for all I know were perfectly good songs, and thrown every kind of cacophonic device into the mix: computer bleeps, static blips, electrical feedback, old-school synthesizers, and, worst of all, drum machines programmed to peck out the herkiest, jerkiest rhythms you ever tried to lay ears on. The result is distressing, and I struggled to listen through to the end.

All Delighted People is another matter, thank goodness. As usual with Stevens the arrangements are elaborate and detailed, but at least here it sounds like music: there are recognizable instruments, and rhythms to which one can tap. There is a celebratory, and even ecstatic, feeling to the record, and he is painting on a larger canvas than before, not only because the songs are long, but conceptually, too, they are moving in a larger space than we have heard from him before. It is hugely ambitious, and he unbuttons a little, which is nice to hear. The guitar freak-out that opens the 17-minute closing song is something we would not have found (and did not find) on his last few records. All in all, it’s a fascinating record that shows that this talented musician still hasn’t reached the end of his tether. The Age of Adz obviously raises the troubling question of what we might expect from him in the future, but I’ll not look a gift-horse in the mouth: All Delighted People is delightful. [Listen to samples]

Taylor Swift: Speak Now
Say what you want about Ms. Swift and the legions of adolescent girls who propelled her, once again, to the top of the chart. The simple truth is that her songs have more hooks than a box of fishing tackle. From the first listen I found Speak Now pretty irresistible.

There is something very likable about Taylor Swift: a girlish charm, an impish sense of humour, a good-natured lack of self-regard, and, without wishing to be overly moralistic, there is something wholesome about her too; she believes in true love, and hers are romances in which marriage and children are the natural telos. It is enough to annoy the heck out of the grey lady feminists, which is great, and it is also something that young girls ought to hear. If it takes an earful of sugar to help that medicine go down, well, I have no objections. It is true that she loses her temper once or twice on this new record (“There is nothing I do better than revenge”), but this is balanced off by moments of moral counsel (“Why ya gotta be so mean?”).

I’m having fun. Well, it’s a fun record. For the first time she wrote all the songs herself, which is itself a noteworthy achievement since every Nashville mother’s son is clamouring to get a song onto one of her records. And, to give Ms. Swift her due, the songwriting on Speak Now is considerably stronger and more consistent than on her previous records. A song like ‘Long Live’, a lively reflection on fame and friendship, would have overreached her ability before; not this time. [Listen to samples]

Honourable mention: Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone [Listen to samples]; Innocence Mission, My Room in the Trees [Listen to samples]

The Flight into Egypt

December 29, 2010

The weeks leading up to Christmas 2010 passed in a flurry of parties, Kleenexes, shopping malls, cough drops, gift wrap, sleepless nights, carols, and acetaminophen. Before I knew it, the big day had come and gone. Allow me today, on the fifth day of Christmas, to wish one and all a very merry Christmas and, in slight anticipation, a very happy New Year.

Yesterday was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which is associated in Scripture with the Flight into Egypt. I am not sure if the Flight has its own designated liturgical feast, but here at All Manner of Thing we are celebrating it today:

Favourites of 2010: Classical music

December 20, 2010

Weinberg: String Quartets Nos. 5, 9, and 14 (Quatuor Danel) [CPO]
Put simply, this music rocks my world. Over the past few years Quatuor Danel has been recording the string quartets of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996). With this, the fourth volume in that series, they have now recorded 12 of the 17 that he wrote. In many cases these have been first recordings, Weinberg being quite an out-of-the-way figure, but the quality of the music in no way justifies such neglect. Weinberg, a Pole living in Soviet Russia for most of his life, was a good friend to Shostakovich, and there are obvious comparisons to be made between their music. (It is not evident that the influence between the two flowed only in one direction.) Like Shostakovich, Weinberg wrote music that is fundamentally musical — no gimmicks, no ‘schools’, no ‘theories’, just a keen musical intelligence at work and play. The general idiom of his quartet writing is also similar to Shostakovich’s, and especially to Shostakovich’s late quartets: serious, often inward-looking, and sometimes spare in texture. It must be said, however, that the music is not so bleak as what Shostakovich gave us. This is great, gripping, moving music that I cannot but recommend to all and sundry. [Listen to samples]

Sheppard: Media Vita (Stile Antico) [Harmonia Mundi]
John Sheppard (c.1515-1558) is one of the Tudor composers who tends to get overlooked, but the brilliant young British choir Stile Antico have done him proud with this disc devoted to his music. He was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal during the turbelent reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, and the music on this recording reflects this. On the one hand, we have relatively simple pieces sung in English, and, on the other, gorgeously ornate pieces in Latin. As usual with this choir, the programme has been carefully put together. Consider the following visual aid:

The vertical axis is the length, in minutes, of each piece on the record. The green shows English language music, and the blue shows Latin. Is it not beautiful? The centerpiece of the disc — right there in the middle — is Media vita, an enormously long setting of Compline antiphons for Holy Week, on themes of death. It is Sheppard’s masterpiece, and has only been recorded a few times before (notably by the Tallis Scholars). Stile Antico’s version goes to the top of the short list. Throughout they sing with sensitivity, balance, and beauty. A superb disc. [Listen to samples]

Garden Scene (Joel Quarrington) [Analekta]
Records devoted to music for the violin or the cello are legion; one need not search far for discs focused on the flute or the clarinet; occasionally one comes across music written to celebrate the viola or even the bassoon; but Garden Scene is the only record I know of that focuses on that behemoth of the strings, the double-bass. My initial scepticism was, I trust, understandable, for the instrument seemed capable of little more than grunts and groans. Well, I was wrong about that. In the hands of Joel Quarrington, the double-bass sounds like a bigger, perhaps slightly badder, but still warm and appealing brother to the cello. I would never have imagined that it could be as agile and expressive as it is here. If you love cello music, as I do, I think you would find this very much to your liking as well. The music, all unfamiliar to me apart from this disc, is by Korngold, Gliere, Bottesini, and J.C. Bach (in a transcription of a viola concerto). The programme closes with the first recording of another superb composition by Mieczysław Weinberg, the Sonata for Solo Contrabass, and this is the highlight for me; it’s a terrific piece. Garden Scene won a Juno Award (a ‘Canadian Grammy’) in 2009. It’s a surprisingly endearing record. [Listen to samples]

Silvestrov: Sacred Works (Kiev Chamber Choir) [ECM]
Nothing I had heard before from the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov prepared me for what I found on this disc. ECM has been championing his music for years, and I had heard several recordings of his orchestral music, all of which I found shapeless and tedious. On the strength of a positive review, however, I took a chance on this collection of sacred choral music, and I am very glad that I did. From the first, I was fascinated by the sound world that Silvestrov conjures up: luminous, hushed, reverent, like the interior of a great Orthodox church, with corners shrouded in darkness, candles burning, and shafts of light illuminating patches of gold mosaic far overhead. A wide variety of texts are set: several Ave Marias, a Gloria and Credo, the Beatitudes, a psalm, a litany. It is true that there is a certain musical homogeneity to the collection; a typical piece has the choir setting up a mesmerizing, hazy aural backdrop out of which solo voices emerge to intone the text; this might dissuade one from listening to the entire disc in one sitting, but who has time for that anyway? There is a delicate beauty about the music, a tenderness of expression, even, that is very attractive. I believe that most, if not all, of the music was written for Kiev’s Cathedral of the Dormition, and specifically for the choir recorded here. Straight from the horse’s mouth, then, and a very welcome surprise. [Listen to samples]

Honourable mention:
Martin: Golgotha (RIAS Kammerchor, Daniel Reuss) [Harmonia Mundi] — Frank Martin’s luscious setting of the Passion, mixing texts from the Gospels with excerpts from the writings of St. Augustine. I returned to it frequently, and found that it lingered long in my memory. [More] [Listen to samples]

Officium Novum (Hilliard Ensemble, Jan Garbarek) [ECM] — This is now the third such collaboration between the Hilliard vocal ensemble and jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek. This time the improvisations are principally constructed atop the Armenian sacred music of Komitas Vardapet, a composer hitherto unknown to me. Also included is the premiere recording (sans Garbarek) of Arvo Pärt’s O Holy Mother of God. I’d have bought this CD just for that one piece, but the whole disc is great, if you like this sort of thing. [Listen to samples]

Beethoven: Cello Sonatas (Miklos Perenyi, Andras Schiff) [ECM] — Actually from 2004, but I did not hear it until this year. Beethoven can be played with a straight backbone and a stern demeanor, as Important German Music. Perenyi and Schiff take another tack: supple, lyrical, and comparatively gentle. It suits my temperament, and this recording opened these wonderful sonatas to me in a way that other recordings have not. [Listen to samples]

End-of-year lists

December 17, 2010

As I said a few days ago, before the New Year turns I plan to write some posts about what was good about the year that was.  In the meantime, several of my favourite critics have been posting their lists. I might update these links as more such lists appear, or, then again, I might not.

Chesterton on Christmas

December 16, 2010

Based on the number of times he wrote about it, I believe that Christmas was Chesterton’s favourite festival. This week at The Hebdomadal Chesterton I have posted a passage that is one of his best on the theme. He writes about the special character of the Christmas story:

The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero-worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously, to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth.  It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can some times take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within.

If you wish, you may read the whole thing.

Favourites of 2010: Film

December 14, 2010

It’s that time of year again. Over the next few weeks I’ll be making a series of posts on my favourite movies, music, and books of 2010. As always, comments are welcome.

Opportunities to see films were few and far between this year, but that need not prevent, and has not prevented, my writing about the best of those that I did see.

Crazy Heart
This is actually from 2009, but I only caught up with it this year. Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a country music singer whose star has faded. He travels the bar circuit, alone, playing to small audiences, and finding his comfort where he can — mostly from a bottle. He is a wreck, headed straight for the bottom. En route, his down-and-out spiral brings him across the path of a young woman, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and this encounter works a slow but decisive transformation. In the end, it is a story about the power of love to rescue souls from destruction. Wisely, given that potentially sentimental theme, the film is hard-boiled and evades a conventional happy ending, but without relinquishing the moral victory that is at its heart. The arc of the story reminded me of the line from T.S. Eliot: ‘to be restored, our sickness must grow worse’. There is a lot of music in the film, much of it of high quality. (Songs were written by T Bone Burnett, Greg Brown, and Waylon Jennings, among others.) The acting is also very good, earning Bridges the best actor Oscar last year. In fact, the whole film is excellent, which is why I’ve put it at the top of this list.

The Town
Ben Affleck impressed me with his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone a few years ago, and in The Town, which is even better, he has returned to Boston with a gritty story about blue-collar criminals. The fact alone that Affleck returned to the same city to tell another story earns him points in my books. It must be the case that he is attached to the place, or that, as Walker Percy might have said, he is on familiar terms with the genie of the place. I suppose I wish that I had a place to love like that.

In addition to directing, Affleck co-wrote the script, and himself played the lead role, so it was his film to make or break. At its heart the story is about Affleck’s character’s moral struggle to break out of the life of crime that he has been living, with all that that entails. Sure, there are car chases and heists and shoot-outs, but the characters are the main point. I especially like Affleck’s directorial style: sober, unintrusive, and carefully crafted. In these respects, his films remind me of some of Clint Eastwood’s recent work (Mystic River, Gran Torino). The Town is maybe not a great film, but it is an awfully good one.

I plan to watch Inception again, just to see if I change my mind about it. After a single viewing, my opinion is mixed. Of course I acknowledge that it is a fantastically ambitious film — by that measure, probably no other film from 2010 could match it. Despite the almost inarticulable convolutions of the story, it retains, even if just barely, a beating human heart at its core. At a time when we have grown accustomed to startling visual effects, Inception still managed to amaze. Yet I have reservations. First, the premise of the film is not compelling. We are supposed to believe that “inception” — the covert planting of an idea in someone’s mind — is something remarkable and unprecedented. But many millions of people are employed today in doing just this; they are called ‘advertisers’. Let that pass. My main worry about the film concerns the very last scene, for the meaning of the whole film hinges on it.

When I left the theatre, I did not regard the ending as ambiguous; it seemed to me that Nolan had told us, in directly a manner as his medium permitted, that the odyssey through dream worlds had ended. This ending affirmed, in quite a beautiful way, the primacy of the real world over our fantasies, which affirmation I take to be basic to an honourable and serious human life. Yet in subsequent conversations with others, I was surprised to find that they thought the ending was ambiguous, and they presented several arguments in support of that interpretation, some of which gave me pause. As I said, I now need to view it again. In the meantime, Inception has my cautious and slightly irritated admiration.

Honourable mention: The Social Network. I find Facebook to be mostly a nuisance, and I watched this film about its genesis with a certain reluctance. I was won over. To be honest, the ‘true story’ angle was largely irrelevant to my enjoyment. It is a smart film, with an absorbing screenplay and some of the most sharply written dialogue I’ve heard at the movies in a long time.


No doubt there were good films this year that I missed. (In fact, there are some good films on the horizon before the end of the year, but I’ll probably not have time to see them until next year.) If you’d like to boost your favourite, I’d love to hear about it.

The Catholics of Baghdad

December 13, 2010

Last week in the Ottawa Citizen, David Warren’s column was devoted to a description of what actually happened during that horrible massacre at Baghdad’s Catholic cathedral on the eve of All Saints Day. It makes for very disturbing reading, but it contains a lot of details that I had not seen elsewhere, and I think it is important.

Our Archdiocese is in the process of sponsoring hundreds of Iraqi Christian families to come to Canada. Part of me thinks that such efforts are not ideal; we want Christians to stay in that part of the world. But when I hear about what they must suffer for staying, I want to help get them out of there.

Consider the Ant Jemima, thou sluggard

December 11, 2010

Some engineers at Georgia Tech had the idea — and who knows where such ideas come from — to pack ants into tubes and then, you know, squeeze them out like syrup. It turns out that the ants will blob and flow much like real syrup. Experiments like this, if they rise above mere curiosities, may raise salutary questions in one’s mind about the old claim that a mathematical description of a phenomenon is a complete description. Or, perhaps, it’s just interesting to look at: