Recently in Art, Music, & Film Category


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With an eleven-year-old who is heavily into Japanese anime, it is not reasonable to think that one would be spared a theater visit to see the most recent Hayao Miyazaki opus. And, of course I was not.

My general feelings about anime run the gamut. Some seem tremendously long, complex, and arcane (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away), others seem to be very young (Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro) and still others seem odd, disjointed and filled with mysterious almost sensible things (Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away [redux]). All of the ones I have seen have been beautiful.

Ponyo falls into the young, weird, and beautiful category. Our hero is a five-year-old who unaccountably can identify species of Devonian fish at a glance through the water. He encounters an odd goldfish princess (who wants to become a real girl--sound familiar) and her even odder parents--some sort of sea-wizard and a lovely rainbow colored set of diaphanous flowing garments with a beautiful face typified by some sailors as "The Goddess of Mercy."

The story centers around the desire of the young goldfish princess to become a real girl. In her quest she releases some enormous power that drags the moon out of its orbit toward earth. To save the earth and achieve her goal, she (Ponyo) and her young boy-friend/brother-to-be set out on an epic quest through storm and tsunami.

The moving is charming, beautifully wrought, and filled with the mysterious and nearly incomprehensible blend of Shinto and Buddhist sensibility that seem to inform many of Miyazaki's films. And perhaps that is the appeal of most of them--there is always a deeply spiritual element, which is sometimes difficult to understand, but often involved with the spirits of nature and correcting some imbalance that results from an out-of-balance relationship with nature.

Ponyo seemed long (like most anime does to me). But it wasn't long in the tedious, dull sense--more like in a suspended time-sense. And it was undoubtedly beautiful in every frame.

One of the joys of having a child is being able to share for a few moments their vision of the world. I think Miyazaki may actually capture this experience better than any novelist, artist, or filmmaker I know. Ponyou is from beginning to end, charming, beautiful, and oddly captivating. It is certainly appropriate for all audiences and serves as a wonderful introduction to the world of anime.

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The Irish will not forget; nor will they allow the world to do so--this is only part of the mission of the Irish in the world--but an important part. A beautiful, haunting, austere and unforgettable memorial of what happens when any people becomes (whether by choice or not) too dependent upon one fragile food source.

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Sam and Beethoven's Fifth


Sam is in seven dance classes this year. In one of them (ballet) he is dancing to Beethoven's Fifth symphony, the first part of the first movement. Don't ask me how the teachers come up with this stuff.

Recently I was away for several days on a business trip to Evanston. When I left, I heard him toying with the piano and sort of plinking out the beginning of the fifth symphony. Yesterday, as we were getting ready to go to the store, he went to practice piano.

He sat down, and not only did he play the 5th, he played it with arpeggio's, ornamentations and his own additional little pieces. Now, I realize that this is akin to rewriting Shakespeare--I do understand that there's something to the complaint that might come from that. But as far as I'm concerned, I have never seen anything like it and if he wants to go on to rewrite the entire classical canon, I'm going to be right there behind him cheering on.

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Serialism, atonalism, 12-tonalism, spectralism, minimalism, polytonalism, microtonalism, whole tonalism, tritones, open fifths, symphonies, sonatas, and music concrete. If you've ever wanted to understand classical music in the twentieth century, this book may be for you. Alex Ross introduces us to the wild world of twentieth and twenty-first century music--from Schoenberg's Harmoniolehre to John Adams's Harmoniolehre and Nixon in China. Along the way we have whole chapter divergences into the work of Jean Sibelius and Benjamin Britten.

I have to admit to not fully comprehending all that the book had to offer by way of commentary. Nevertheless, Ross opened my eyes to some of the developments within music and made me more inclined to try to understand and appreciate what had happened in this century. The book starts with Debussy, Ravel, Les Six, and Stravinsky and move chronologically through the century. Chapters cover "totalitarian music" including the music of Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, and let's face it, Roosevelt's America (a more gentle kind of totalitarianism thanks to the system of checks and balances.)

There are a few seeming problems with the book. Particularly in the latter half, Mr. Ross tends to be a little gossipy, telling me far more than I need to know about the sex-and-drug lives of composers. I don't really need that much detail to understand the development in the music. However, to his credit, I may need to know that much to understand the "meaning" of music. Additionally Mr. Ross leaves out some major composers entirely--there is hardly a mention of Holst, Elgar, and Vaughn Williams, and not mention at all of Rachmaninov, Bax, Arnold, Scriabin, and other such. However, that too is less a fault than a matter of focus. The undertaking represented by this work was difficult enough--if Mr. Ross had tried to take in more and explain where Elgar and Holst fit into the whole, the book may have fallen into an incoherent set of vignettes. As it is, the book trembles on the threshold, but always manages to retain integrity as a history of the development of musical theory during the twentieth century.

As a result of this, I came to understand why Ligeti, Pärt, Gorecki, Reich, Glass, Riley, and Adams are all so immediately appealing to me and why Stockhausen, Boulez, and Schoenberg are not. I came to have small arguments with the sometimes nonsensical aesthetic positions of the composers (most particularly Schoenberg and Boulez--"We've come to set music free from the tyranny of tonalism; however, we'll impose a new tyranny, so it isn't really free after all, but we'll say it is.")

It's a long work and an involved one, but anyone interested in music with a little understanding of theory has much to gain from making the attempt to understand it. It was fascinating to see Duke Ellington, Brian Eno, and the Velvet Underground (as well as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the whole be-bop ensemble) in conjunction with Schoenberg and the atonalists. Understanding the drone behind "All Tomorrow's Parties" can only help increase ones appreciate for the complexity of some music that appears to have none at all.

For those interested in music and its development, this is simply a must-read. Highly recommended.

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By the attitudes of some who claim to love his music.

As Adorno decreed, the job of a composer was to write music that would repel, shock, and be the vehicle for 'unmitigated cruelty.'"

[quotation in The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross, referring to the Darmstadt and Cologne schools of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

So, my contention, his music was not formed to be liked, admired, or appreciated, but to be merely music--hopefully music that would elicit a gut level reaction. If so, then my view of it would far more please the theory of the school than that of purported admirers. However, we must keep in mind, that despite the theory, everyone wants to be loved, it's just that sometimes we want to exclude the "rabble" from that warm embrace. If so, more's the pity, because it is in that rabble and their acceptance that any chance of a lasting contribution remains.

I become convinced that in atonal and serial music after the advent (partiuclarly in serialist music), what is really being conveyed is the composer's inability to compose without a method. Just as, after Picasso and their crew, as we move into the realm of abstract expressionism, what is really being revealed is the artists' inability to deal with any classical form. So, instead, like Pierre Boulez, we construct musical theory in which detraction is far more important than putting forward any coherent sense of what it is you are about. "I can't compose a concerto or a sonata, so I'll crush them instead."

Interesting musical theory.

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I don't properly remember the title and I must confess to having been somewhat disappointed. It is not as though everything good was in the trailer, but it didn't pull off the high comedy I had hoped for. Nevertheless, it is fun and entertaining and certainly diverting for a ten-year-old.

First, the quality of the 3d was absolutely amazing. Best of all, except for one sly reference to some of the old tricks of 3_D (a little paddle ball episode) the use of it was quite in tune with the story and not at all "in your face." The process gave a fully rounded appearance to characters and made the whole thing much less like animation. Still a gimmick, but rapidly becoming a highly effective one. If this could be perfected for mainstream film, film would become more like attending a live performance.

Now to the plot--there's no real need to describe it--suffice to say that there is an alien that wants something that has landed on Earth and transformed the life of one of the characters. In the process of flowing through the natural results of this we meet General W. R. Monger--a man true to his word and the only one who appear to have any sense; a president who has designed a failsafe system with two buttons exactly the same shape and size, one to unleash a nuclear holocaust on the world, the other to deliver the perfect latte; and a score or more of other more or less amusing characters.

One thing I will treasure and carry away from the film is the sharp (extremely barbed) satire of the way that those in charge of things communicate with those of us who are not. The alien who has found this lost substance broadcasts his image to Earth and says something like the following, "People of Earth, I come in peace. I mean you no harm. However, it is highly likely that the majority of you will not survive the next few days and those that do will become my slaves. Now let me summarize--Come in Peace, no harm, most of you will die horribly--yep, that about covers it." When I heard this I couldn't help of thinking of so many things from our involvement in Iraq to the current bank crises to certain statements issued to the underlings by corporate elders (among the larger banking companies). So, for that alone, the movie was worth having seen.


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Dance Competition


We spent most of Saturday (8:00 am -9:00 pm) at a Dance competition in which Samuel was in three dances. (For those to whom this means anything--two high golds and a silver star.)

In the course of the day, I learned several things. First, I had been dreading this, as who would not--12 or more hours with a half hour break for lunch. And I wound up having a fantastic time. It amazed me what these young people could do, and it gratified me to see so many giving so much of their time and energy to the arts. That was deeply satisfying. Second, I learned how many ways there are to be illiterate. To be honest, I saw a lot of dance (that was rated very highly) that I just didn't "get." The motions seemed hurky-jerky, arms and legs akimbo and in awkward positions, music choice not the greatest, and coherence simply not there. I realize that I am not in the realm of professional choreographers, but I've noticed the same in dances that are professionally choreographed. I watched ballets in which dancers "pas de chat" all over the stage and it just looks like some kind of weird affliction that one might better expect in the medieval ages. I just don't have the vocabulary and grammar of dance clear--I don't understand it and that disturbs me. And so, I conclude that I must spend a good deal of time studying and coming to terms with it.

Finally, I was amazed at the professionalism and caliber of some of the dances. One poor dancer had her music vanish about midway through her dance and she took it all in stride, continuing throughout the entire routine and completing the dance as though nothing had happened. There was one male dancer who took most of the awards for the competition and who looks like he may have a wonderful career before him as a dancer.

But to come back to the first point--it was fantastic to see so many young people celebrating the arts. Even if they did not understand that they were doing so, and even though the majority will not continue in the arts, for them to have this enriching experience so early in life can only be an advantage as they continue on. It is my ardent prayer that each dancer come to know his or her own ability and use it to celebrate the arts in a way that gives God glory.

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