Thursday 31 July 2008

I've been listening to some Steve Reich lately. Conditioned to expect extended melodic and harmonic development and a diversity of themes in the music I like best (apart from blues, where the stuff I like best is basically the same 12-bar boogie going on and on and on) I find myself grappling with this music a lot. It substitutes layering and slow, phased variations for the qualities I'm more used to listening for. In a sense it has links to the drones of Carnatic music, without the virtuoso improv layered over those drones, and I can begin to trace how this music has had an impact on people whose music I do like and respect, like Robert Fripp or the drone metal movement. It's very krautrock, too, although that seems to have been more a parallel development. This interview with Reich is a really good ear-opener as well.

Monday 28 July 2008

Thomas Mann may have been self-important and arrogant - qualities for which he is given short shrift in Javier Marias' excellent, opinionated collection of literary thumbnail sketches, Written Lives - and perhaps entirely too aware of the character of certain of his books as 'important novels'. As far as I know none of these qualities preclude him from having actually produced work worthy of his sense of importance.

It is tempting to call The Magic Mountain an allegory. The characters seem to depict clear-cut schools of thought - Settembrini, the revolution-mongering, humane, austere humanist, Naphta, the reason-denying, reactionary, voluptuary mystic, Clavdia Chauchat, the apposite, alluring feminine sprite, Joachim, the duty-bound honourable, one-dimensional soldier, Meinheer Peeperkorn, the charismatic, conservative, romantic man of action, to say nothing of Hans Castorp, the willing pupil, the tabula rasa on which time and history will write their testaments of conflict and doom.

Mann himself notes with approval a comparison made in the critical literature to the grail legend. And indeed, Castorp is in many ways the archetypal holy fool on a quest perilous. But it is also a portrait of a specific moment in time, peopled with realistic characters and settings. So this is not the never-never land allegory of the fabulist. Instead, it is a novel which dares to make the claim that its characters and its little incidents are not just themselves but indicative of larger themes and currents as well.

The events of The Magic Mountain take place in a world on the brink. There is a struggle between 18th century humanist values and an ages-old yet brand-new radical retreat to the familiar fundamentals of a pre-Enlightenment hegemony of febrile mysticism. Europe stands at a crossroads, worked upon by opposing forces, clinging to opposing views of the past, torn between opposing views of the future, and it only takes one act of violence to signal the plunge into decades of world war, interrupted by uneasy peace in the 20s and 30s, and ended only when new, non-European forces were to take control of matters and shape a world that would bear little resemblance to the verities of imperial Europe.

It's not an unrelievedly serious book though. Mann initially planned it as a satire on life in the many sanatoria of pre-world war Europe, and there are scenes where a certain antic humour intrudes. And while, much of it is dominated by discussions between Castorp and his many would-be mentors and advisors, there is also a sequence of action that has great symbolic consequence, as Castorp wanders lost in a snowstorm and falls into a dream that may well contain the central philosophical message of the book. Even if much of the book is talk and exposition, there are, in addition to this sequence, perhaps another three or four memorable scenes in the usual sense that mark important beats in the story and phases in the argument.

It is almost impossible to summarise this book in any but the most rudimentary way. I won't even try. And while it might seem that the conflicts epitomised here belonged to a specific period of time, the fact remains that in a world where the forces of reaction and retreat still strive for the upper hand over humanity, nothing contained herein is in any real sense outdated. And yes, pompous though Mann may or may not have been, his characterisation of his novel as one that needs to be read at least twice seems justified. That's certainly what I intend to .
Seems like a good site. Art, music, literature, film, theatre reviewed reasonably responsibly.

Thursday 24 July 2008

Shostakovich's 5th is thought to be his symphonic masterpiece by many - but, listening to it with apocalyptic gyrations and final dystopian slumber of the 4th resounding in my mind's ear, it seems like a step backward. On further consideration though, it isn't. It's a step sideways, which is why it dissapoints at first, but not a step backwards at all, which is why it eventually wins me over. The opening has a solemn sense of purpose that doesn't suggest cringing populism so much as a wiser, veiled sense of purpose that has a stength of its own.

Art finding its own voice within strict limits is always fascinating - hence the appeal of sonnets, haiku, miniatures, black and white photography, silent film, 12-bar blues songs. How much more fascinating when these limits are imposed by politics not form or technology and enforcable by pain of death or disgrace.

I watched Ed Wood Razor Hands. I mean Sweeney Wonka and Cannibal Pie Factory. Er, that is to say Sweeney Todd. There is much gleeful slitting of throats, but neither Polyhymnia nor her defunct sister Aoide have visited their blessings on the lead actors, which makes the whole point of a musical somewhat moot. Depp's singing is weak and not even particularly enthusiastic, despite which he doesn't even manage to reach Oasis levels. Tim Burton's Corpse Bride is a little better, but her constant look of vague unease made me want to offer her a good laxative and a joke book to read whilst perched on the bog. Things all look very intricately gothy in trademark Burton fashion. It's a wicked story about sad, mad people and Burton is finally unable to relish the ghastliness of it all enough, trying to fit in his usual premise that the weird, morbid, gloomy people are in some way better, even when, as in this case, they are total psychopaths. Next he will officiate at the canonisation of the Sawney Bean clan. Lookitup, won't ya.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

I wouldn't say this is on par with Don Rosa's The Life And Times Of Scrooge McDuck, but it certainly is one of the best Disney graphic novels around. It could have worn its theme (family loyalty) a little less prominently on its sleeve, but one assumes Disney product is created keeping in mind a very young lower age limit for the target audience.

In other news, the UPA government has failed to fall, which is not particularly something that brings me to despair, but isn't especially a joyous moment either. And no one knows what the new killer deal is all about, still. Ho-hum.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

CINEBOOKS, a British publisher, has recently entered the market here with affordable reprints of various Franco-Belgian comics, although the quality of translation sometimes leaves much to be desired. Still, I've discovered some good comics:
YAKARI: A native American boy who talks to animals and his adventures with them. Great art, closer to Uderzo's style, charming stories.
YOKO TSUNO: A Japanese electrical engineer has Tintinesque adventures. Tightly plotted, exciting, clean-line art.
BLAKE & MORTIMER: Exploits of a pair of British adventurers. Very Herge-like art. Gripping adventure stories, somewhat cramped layouts and verbose exposition notwithstanding.
THORGAL: Absolutely stunning art. A long-running series about the Viking Thorgal and his adventures, with elements of myth, fantasy and SF. Ranges from the whimsical to the epic, very original and well worth a look.
GREEN MANOR: Perhaps the best of the lot story-wise. A series of chilling little tales centred around a Victorian 'murder club' and its members.
PAPYRUS: Adventures in ancient Egypt. Suspense, mystery and a touch of magic.
THE FASCINATING MADAME TUSSAUD: A partly fictional tale of the waxwork lady's eventful early life.
They have many other titles as well, including Iznogoud, Lucky Luke and French Biggles comics. There were also French Famous Five comics at one point - I wonder if these will be reprinted? (Incidentally there were British Famous Five comics as well, some of which I am pretty sure featured art by John Ridgeway and possibly Steve Dillon.)

Friday 18 July 2008

There is music I can live without for the rest of my life.

I think I can survive without ever hearing a single song from Dark Side Of The Moon ever again. It will be alright. I will live. I have lived without hearing a song from The Wall of my own freewill ever since my second year in college, when a tape player chewed up my cassette. I might want to listen to Piper At The Gates Of Dawn now and then. I have the CD.

I never need to hear anything by U2 ever again. I never did in the first place, but Achtung Baby had me going for a while. Now, it's okay. I don't even feel a pang knowing I shall never wilfully listen to 'Whose Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses' again.

I am letting go of The Downward Spiral. Pearl Jam's Ten. Temple Of The Dog. I think I can go through life without hearing a note of Megadeth ever again, although I feel a pang when I think of So Far So Good, So What or Peace Sells. I never really needed to hear Oasis, and I refuse to do so again. After years of thinking of Desire, heard on a long lost tape, as an essential, I bought the CD and found that I could survive without any of it, except maybe Isis.

I am discarding the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I never listened to Coldplay anyway. I want to cling to REM, but maybe I should be brave and rip that scab off too. Certainly no Counting Crows anymore.

There's more music I could probably discard and never feel the loss. Doing this helps me clarify what it is that I can't live without ever hearing again. Although, of course, I would live even if.

But most of all I love to hear the music I've never heard before in the music I've heard so many times before . I think that's how I decide what not to discard.

Thursday 17 July 2008

I just found out that there is a Bird Hospital in Delhi, near the Lal Kila, run by Jains. A friend once took a wounded squirrel there - they treat squirrels too, it seems, although they have been known to act snooty about birds of prey. Someone's even written a poem about this hospital.
Elizabeth Hand remembers Thomas Disch.

Thursday 10 July 2008

Oh crap.

Thomas Disch is dead.

I've only read 334. It's brilliant. Dehumanised residents in a high-rise housing complex, it's you and me and everyday life in the later Roman Empire. So much more prescient than Heinelein and maybe even Dick. An SF writer who wrote for grown-ups. Farewell.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

I went by your father's shop five years ago
To get a new pair of spectacles
Your father was friendly, and polite
A real old-fashioned Mangalorean gentleman
He told me square frames suited my face

I dropped in again three years back
And your mother sat in his old place
Told me he was no more
But I suppose you'd already know that,
If you can know things

I visited again two years ago
Because a friend had opened shop in the same building
And your father's shop was closed down
Everything was gone
The shelves, the frames, the posters, the sign

Once you told me about a giant lens your father had ordered
I don't remember if anyone knew why
But it was a source of joy and pride to him, and to you
So I'll imagine you, with him
In space
Gazing through the lens
Aim it over here. No, a little to the right. See? This is me, waving.

Your pal,

Monday 7 July 2008

Even after a person
is gone from this world,
people often tend
to remember birthdays.

They say: today is
the birthday of someone
who would have been
so many years old.

So just in case you're
not around next year:
happy birthday.

"Happy Birthday" by Thomas Ligotti