Tag Archives: music

Cremona — Italy’s City of Violins

By Stefano Rellandini
May, 2016

Violins are seen at Edgar Russ' workshop in Cremona, Italy, March 10, 2016. Making violins is a passion in Cremona, the ancient Italian town that has been producing them since the 16th century, but turning passion into profits has not been easy. Cremona, in northern Italy, has more than 100 workshops making violins and other stringed instruments for musicians worldwide, following in the tradition of its great violin-makers which have included Antonio Stradivari and Nicolo Amati. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini SEARCH "VIOLINS CREMONA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES

Violins are seen at Edgar Russ’ workshop in Cremona, Italy, March 10, 2016. Making violins is a passion in Cremona, the ancient Italian town that has been producing them since the 16th century, but turning passion into profits has not been easy. Cremona, in northern Italy, has more than 100 workshops making violins and other stringed instruments for musicians worldwide, following in the tradition of its great violin-makers which have included Antonio Stradivari and Nicolo Amati. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

Making violins is a passion in Cremona, the ancient Italian town that has been producing them since the 16th century, but turning passion into profits has not been easy.

Cremona, in northern Italy, has more than 100 workshops making violins and other stringed instruments for musicians worldwide, following in the tradition of its great violin-makers which have included Antonio Stradivari and Nicolò Amati.

Many of the town’s “liutaia” specialise exclusively in master instruments in the tradition of Stradivari, each taking months to produce and costing around 20,000 euros each. Some liutaia make as few as six or seven violins a year.

Edgar Russ, an Austrian who came to Cremona in 1984, says it is tough to make a living by crafting only master instruments and that the town’s violin-makers need to change.

“At the end of the day, you work for free,” he says.

Russ offers various levels of craftsmanship, a model he says does not sit well with Cremona’s traditionalists. But he believes it is a way of prospering and ensuring it remains a thriving centre of violin-making in the long-term.

His workshop makes violins for beginners as well as his “Linea Macchi” line for professionals who cannot afford a master violin. He also makes a handful of master instruments each year.

Only the masters are made by his hands alone.

“The real energy comes from the passion for this kind of work. It makes me happy to create something which does not have any straight lines. Even if you don’t play, you love to hold it in your hand. It’s beautiful to look at, it shows all your personality and your ability and your craftsmanship.

“And it makes a beautiful sound.”

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Copyright Reuters 2016

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Bagpipe bandits: how the English blew Scotland’s national instrument first

VIVIEN WILLIAMS, University of Glasgow 
February, 2016

Simon Fraser University Pipe Band at the World Pipe Band Championship, Scotland, in 2011. Photo: Simon Fraser University

Simon Fraser University Pipe Band at the World Pipe Band Championship, Scotland, in 2011. Photo: Simon Fraser University

The Great Highland bagpipe is as central to Scottish identity as tartan and Robert Burns. Walk down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and you’ll hear that familiar wail, while pipers gather each year to empty their lungs at everything from local competitions to the famous Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The pipes were not invented in Scotland, though. In fact, they are part of a much older tradition that some may find unpalatable: the English were playing the pipes hundreds of years before the Scots got their hands on them.

Bagpipes are actually a family of instruments, and most countries from India to Scotland and from Sweden to Libya boast at least one indigenous variety. They date back over 3,000 years, but appear to have been developed from the hornpipe, which goes back even further. Through the millennia, bagpipes have appeared in an incredible number of varieties – big like a zampogna gigante; small like a musette; droneless, or with two or more drones (or reeds); and with either one or two chanters (or pipes).

The drones can be vertical or horizontal, compressed into a little barrel or dangling on the piper’s back, and the bag can be inflated by a mouthpiece or by bellows. The bag can be covered in brocade or tartan, left as a tanned skin, or even made of Gore-Tex. Each has its own scale, tone and sound, all of which tells a tale about their home country.

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Bag-innings

Early documents about bagpipes are scarce. Though literature featuring bagpipes in Ancient Greece is dubious, sources confirm that the instrument was known to the Romans. The ancient historian Dio Chrysostom described Emperor Nero as being able to play the pipe both with his mouth and by squeezing a bag under his armpit. According to the most widely accepted opinion, the Romans brought the instrument into Britain after their invasion in AD 43.

It is not until the Middle Ages that the bagpipe tradition took off in a significant way, however. By that time there are copious references all across Europe. A remarkable episode in British bagpipe literature is the Exeter Riddles, a manuscript containing Anglo-Saxon riddles possibly collected by bishop Leofric (1016-1072). Riddle 31 tells of a beautiful, noble bird resting on a man’s shoulder, with its beak facing downwards and its feet in the air. The answer to the name of the bird is the bagpipe, since its beak is the chanter and its feet are the drones.

The first time the term “bagpipe” appears in its English-language form is several hundred years later, in 1288 (albeit modified for a Latin text). It appears in an entry in the Book of the Treasurer of King Edward I, “cuidam garcioni cum una bagepipa pipanti coram rege de dono ipsius regis, ij s.”. This translates as “a certain servant with a bagpipe who piped before the king was given two shillings” – a good sum, roughly the weekly income for an agricultural worker at the time.

Wha’s like us?

The first unquestionable appearance of the bagpipe in Scotland is not until the 15th century, in carvings in Rosslyn Chapel and Melrose Abbey, respectively of an angel-piper and a pig-piper. It is reasonable to think that the tradition was absorbed into Scotland from the south, before developing its own characteristics. By the 16th century it was Scotland’s military instrument, and a carrier of public events.

Much 18th-century Scottish material about the bagpipe is linked to Jacobitism, the movement that sought the return of the Catholic Stewart kings to the British throne following the removal of James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Jacobites saw the bagpipes as an icon of Scottish national belonging and military pride, while their Hanoverian opponents used the instrument in propaganda to caricature the Jacobites.

This politicisation of the bagpipes led to a common belief that they were banned in Scotland. Partly the source of the confusion is the Disarming Act of 1746, to which a passage added two years later ordered “restraining the Use of the Highland Dress”. It included tartan and plaid, but never the bagpipes. The misconception was probably strengthened by episodes such as the hanging of piper James Reid of Dundee. He was captured in 1745 in Carlisle and sentenced to hanging for treason, having taken part in Jacobite rebellions. He may have been a piper, but his hanging had nothing to do with disobeying the Disarming Act.

The bagpipes have been banned – but in Poland during World War II. Original research from the Ethnographic Museum of Warsaw in collaboration with Poznan’s Museum of Musical Instruments shows footage documenting how Germans ordered Poles not to play their version of the pipes, perhaps threatened by the instrument’s ability to stir nationalist spirits. Such is the information that comes out of bagpipe studies, which has been undergoing a revival of late – and is indeed the subject of a paper at a conference in Glasgow on February 26-28. So while the Scots may have made the instrument their own over the centuries, they share the piping tradition with the hands of many nationalities – including the English. Widdye credit it?

The ConversationCreative Commons

Vivien Williams is a Research Assistant (Musicology), University of Glasgow. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Schiff sonatas score, Super Bowl blanked

Sir András Schiff, piano/Facebook

Sir András Schiff. Publicity photo/Facebook

ROD MICKLEBURGH
February, 2016

The treasured Leila Getz, described in the program as “Head Honcho” of the Vancouver Recital Society, welcomed us with her usual enthusiasm. “Thank you for choosing András Schiff over the Super Bowl. The magic begins.” And indeed, it did.

Moments later, the stately, 62-year old master pianist, wearing a knee-length black tunic, walked out from the wings, acknowledged our applause, sat down on the cushioned bench, rested his hands on the top of the piano for 20 seconds of contemplation, and began to play.

Levi's stadium. Photo: Jim Bahn/Flickr/Creative Commons

Superbowl half time show at Levi’s stadium. Photo: Jim Bahn/Flickr/Creative Commons

While gazillions tuned into the greatest annual event in the history of the world, aka the Feb. 7 Super Bowl, which surpasses even the Eurovision Song Contest in global importance, I sat entranced, with hundreds of others at the packed Vancouver Playhouse, for Schiff’s virtuoso recital. And to think, my first reaction when I discovered the cultural conflict between Super Bowl L and this long-ago booking was to ditch Schiff.

How could this life-long sports fan not prefer the performance of helmeted, gridiron goliaths bashing away at each other during those engaging snatches of football sandwiched between eight hours of commercials? Luckily, after one unsuccessful attempt to unload my Schiff ducat, I came to my senses. Denver and Carolina? Snore me big. Plus, I had PVR. András Schiff, it was.

The program by the renowned Hungarian-born maestro, no “hairy hound from Budapest” he, was sublime, even to these unclassical ears. Entitled The Last Sonatas, the program featured four pieces of music by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert, all written during the composers’ final year of life. So there was a poignancy to them, too.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking of the Super Bowl, and how glad I was to be missing it. For one thing, András Schiff played 90 minutes straight. No half-time. Not a single time-out. No five-minute break for commercials every time he switched composers. Lovely. And mesmerizing.

Furthermore, what happened on the keyboard was easily the equivalent of what was taking place on the football field. You don’t believe me? You think a sonata is just a sonata? Take a gander at the commentary by wordsmith extraordinaire Donald G. Gislason in the programme notes.

Which is better? Another lame pass by Peyton Manning or the Star Wars-tinged Allegreto from Mozart’s Sonata in B flat major K. 570 “with its recurring tick-tock beat, [summoning] up the mechanical world of clockwork music, and [featuring} some robotic C-3PO-style humour in its cosmic leaps and mock-confused meanderings of imitative counterpoint”? To say nothing of Mozart’s ability to provide more than taco chips and chili at halftime. “[He is] like a celebrity chef challenged to create a multi-course meal using only a few ingredients,” Gislason tells us. “Mozart is masterfully economic in this movement, constantly re-using his material over and over again, making garnish and main course at will.”

I was hardly sorry to have missed all those third-and-outs by Manning and “Fig” Newton, when I got to hear the second movement from Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A Major D. 959: “A tour de force of compressed emotional energy that explodes into near-chaos in its middle section. It opens with a simple, sparsely textured, repetitive lament that circles fretfully round itself like a madman rocking back and forth in his hospital chair. More wide-ranging harmonic ravings lead to an outburst of unexpected violence and eventually to a dramatic confrontation.” Just like Von Miller taking down Carolina’s haughty, pouting quarterback.

And okay, there have been worse half-time shows than Beyoncé, the Mars guy and Coldplay, but Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat major Op. 110 gave them a pretty good run for the money. “Beethoven lards his first section with rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprises, dramatic pauses, and other raw signifiers of loutish humour,” enthuses Gislason. “The central section continues the mayhem with a series of tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by off-beat accents”. With the added thrill of “[hearing] the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder and louder, leading back to the fugue theme…” A true pop sonata by that 57-year old hipster, Ludwig van. I slay, indeed….

So, all in all, with the help of a few, pretty fair country composers, András Schiff was my Super Bowl MVP, man of the match in every way. (In fact, the Stupor Bowl, still plodding along when I got home, was so boring, I wound up switching to curling, as its no offense and numbingly-long commercial breaks came to a stultifying close.)

I never bothered with the PVR.

Copyright Rod Mickleburgh 2016

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Bread, circuses and deflated footballs, by Tom Regan, F&O Summoning Orenda column

This is where we have come to. We have, as a society, become obsessed with trivial pursuits. Not that this is necessarily a new development. As journalist H.L. Mencken said , you”ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. We have always been rather easily baffled by bullshit. But the advent of the Internet and social media has kicked this cultural trait into hyper-drive.

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 Listen to András Schiff perform Mozart’s Sonata in B flat major K. 570, in Los Angeles, February, 2015

Rod Mickleburgh F&ORod Mickleburgh has been a journalist for more than 40 years, with stops just about everywhere, from Penticton to Paris to Peking. Managed a few awards and nominations along the way, but highlight was co-winning Canada’s Michener Award with my highly-esteemed Globe and Mail colleague, Andre Picard, for our coverage of Canada’s tainted blood scandal. Left the Globe, my reporting home for more than 22 years, in the summer of 2013. Have my name on two books: Rare Courage, containing first person-accounts from 20 veterans of World War Two, and The Art of the Impossible, a tale of the wild and wooly 39 months of British Columbia’s first New Democratic Party government led by Dave Barrett. Co-authored with Geoff Meggs, The Art of the Impossible won the Hubert Evans Prize for non-fiction at the 2013 British Columbia Book Awards. Currently investigating time management, without regular deadlines. Visit Rod Mickleburgh’s WordPress site, Mickleblog.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we need a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Visit our Subscribe page for details, or donate below. With enough supporters each paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our original works like this.

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Auld Lang Syne changed en route to world domination

By Kirsteen McCue, University of Glasgow 
December 31, 2015

Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787

Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787

Auld Lang Syne was famously written by the Scottish national bard, Robert Burns. What is less well known is that the melody was not the one he intended. The one that became famous was first attached to the song in the late 1790s and Burns, who died in 1796, knew nothing about it.

The man who published the soon-to-be-famous song was an Edinburgh song editor, George Thomson. Burns had told him a few years earlier that a melody was usually his starting point for writing a song. Yet his inspiration in 1788 when he wrote Auld Lang Syne, which translates roughly as Old Time’s Sake, was actually not a melody but an existing song with the same opening line – “Should auld acquaintance be forgot”.

Scholars have dated versions as far back as the 16th century, to a song called Auld Kyndnes Foryett. Burns himself would have known several versions that were popular in print and performance throughout the 18th century. His song is much closer to these versions than the 16th-century original. One of these, by the poet Allan Ramsay, is set against a backdrop of war and talks of the parting of lovers. Burns typically opens this out and makes it more universal.

When he sent his version of Auld Lang Syne to his great friend Frances Dunlop in 1788, he told her he’d heard an old man singing it. There’s no evidence of who this man might have been – and Burns may even have fabricated the story to show how close he was to popular culture.

When Auld Lang Syne was first published in the Scots Musical Museum collection in 1796, it was joined to a rather slow and haunting tune. This melody really brings out an element of sadness in the text. It has found new popularity in recent years, but we don’t know whether Burns chose it or not. He told George Thomson in 1793 that he didn’t think much of the tune commonly sung to existing versions of the song.

Thomson needed no more encouragement to switch to the melody that we know today. Much more celebratory in feel, it had appeared in some earlier 18th-century fiddle collections and was often referred to as The Miller’s Wedding or The Miller’s Daughter. By the time Thomson had made the decision to marry the tune to Burns’ text, the poet had died and there was no chance of asking his opinion on the matter. But certainly Burns would have known it, since he wrote another song called O Can Ye Labour Lea (1792) for a variant of the same tune.

Thomson characteristically forged ahead and sent the tune to Vienna, where the Bohemian composer Leopold Koželuch set it for voice, piano, violin and cello. Auld Lang Syne then appeared in Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs in 1799, set to the famous tune for the first time. From then on, it gathered popular momentum across the British isles and beyond through social gatherings – often Masonic ones – and in many theatrical productions.

When we chant Auld Lang Syne this New Year, we’ll probably sing only a couple of Burns’ original verses. We’ll leave out the drinking verse where we fill our “pint stowp” (pint cup) and the rather affectionate verses about “paidl’d in the burn” (paddled in the stream) or “pu’ing the gowans fine” (picked the daisies fine). Instead we’ll concentrate only on looking back, remembering fondly and joining hands of friendship.

Why the song became world famous is still something of a mystery, though all that socialising and theatre-going in the 19th century must have helped. Burns had died in considerable debt and it really is too bad that performing rights were a thing of the future. As many will be aware, Happy Birthday has been a gold mine for Warner Music over the years. While Auld Lang Syne sits right beside it as one of the most popular songs of all time, it never made any royalties for anyone.

There is a virtual exhibition about Auld Lang Syne on the University of Glasgow project website, Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Kirsteen McCue is a Professor of Scottish Literature and Song Culture, at the University of Glasgow. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Ron Hynes: the man of 1000 songs departs for Cryer’s Paradise

Ron Hynes photographed by Greg Locke

Newfoundland singer – songwriter, Ron Hynes, dies at age 64. Photo by Greg Locke © 2015

GREG LOCKE
St John’s, Newfoundland, November, 2015

Newfoundland singer-songwriter and musical legend, Ron Hynes, died Nov. 19. He was 64. In an ironic coincidence there was a power failure in downtown St John’s around the same time. Across the bar I heard someone say, “I guess Ron turned the lights out when he left.”

Hynes’ music and writing marks a generation that began with Newfoundland’s cultural renaissance in the 1970s. It saw the rise of The Mummer’s Troup, Figgy Duff, Wonderful Grand Band, CODCO, Breakwater Books, Newfoundland Independent Film Co-op and visual artists such as Christopher Pratt, David Blackwood, Gerald Squires and Reginald Shepherd … and so many more.

Collectively, their art is the iconography of Newfoundland and, for the current generation, the touch stones and inspiration for the wealth of Newfoundland musicians, writers and visual artists that followed them. There are far too many to mention, but you see and hear them on Canada’s national TV, radio and in the print media almost daily, and some have international acclaim.

Little of Hynes’s work was the happy, cheery folk tunes most people think of when someone mentions Newfoundland music. His was the music of a story teller: tales of the realities of people’s lives; of the odd melancholy; of hard-won culture and existence in wind-blown sea spray, face up to the North Atlantic ocean.

Ron Hynes was known as The Man of a Thousand Songs, the title of one of his more well-known works. And as a songwriter Hynes was on par with the likes of John Prine, Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt.

His most famous song, Sonny’s Dream, has been recorded by scores of musicians in dozens of countries. It is such a universal story that in many places it has entered into the local cultural canon as a traditional song. Many a Newfoundlander tells of being in pubs in Ireland, and getting into arguments when the song is played (and every pub musician plays it). They will say it’s a Newfoundland song. “No, no, it’s a traditional Irish song,” they are told. This is Mary Black’s fault. She had an enormous hit with it in Ireland.

Hynes’ life was not easy. There were bad deals with record companies (see his song, Record Man), the yoke of addictions, eventually a long struggle with cancer. But he wrote and sang right up to the end. He was working on a new album when he died.

“The body of work that he has left with us is such an enormous treasure for our province and for our people because it is us, it’s our stories and our songs,” said Alan Doyle, of the band Great Big Sea, in an interview. “We had somebody who could record our history in songs that he could sing at a concert and it’s just a beautiful testament.”

Ron Hynes outside The Rose & Thistle on Water St in St. John's, Newfoundland Photo by Greg Locke © 2015

Ron Hynes outside The Rose & Thistle on Water St in St. John’s, Newfoundland Photo by Greg Locke © 2015

In 2006 I was assigned to photograph Ron Hynes for a magazine story. It would turn into a week long adventure through his world. Calling, connecting, missing, chasing him around the bars and coffee shops of downtown St. John’s. I went with him to shows, for lunch. We talked about the hard life of the artists in Newfoundland. I finally nailed him down to a formal photo shoot at the LSPU Hall. The one-time union hall became Newfoundland arts landmark, where so many of Newfoundland’s musicians, actors, performers and playwrights sprung forth, and where Hynes premiered Sonny’s Dream in a concert in 1977.

In that magazine article for Saltscapes, author Philip Lee wrote, “Ron will keep going so long as his favourite song is the one he’s about to write, so long as he feels there is another great one just around the corner. Every day that he is home he reads the words of playwright Samuel Beckett that he has tacked on his wall: Perhaps my best years are behind me. But I wouldn’t quit. Not with the fire in me now.

“I’ve never been able to escape Newfoundland,” Hynes told Lee, “The decision to stay there has coloured my work forever more.”

On Friday Nov. 20 there was a single candle lit by a statue of Hynes at the foot of George Street, the St John’s bar and entertainment district, where Hynes and his fellow musicians plied their trade for years. By any measure, it’s A Cryer’s Paradise.

Copyright Greg Locke 2015

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Links and recommendations:

Do read Philip Lee’s story, Man of a Thousand Songs about Hynes in Saltscapes magazine. It’s the best profile piece I seen to date about Ron Hynes.

Newfoundland’s Cultural Renaissance. …a history of art and culture revival.
Ron Hynes, personal website.

LSPU Hall (after the Longshoremen’s Protective Union)

Recommended videos: Watch Sonny’s Dream, below, and also:  Cryers ParadiseMan of a Thousand Songs, and Record Man.

 

Photographer and journalist Greg LockeGreg Locke is a founder and the managing partner, visual, of Facts and Opinions. He built the Facts and Opinions website, produces F&O’s photo essays  and occasionally writes for our reports, magazine pieces, and blogs.

Greg Locke has been a professional photographer, media producer and journalist for more than twenty-five years. Locke has covered politics, economics, energy issues, international development and civil conflicts in more than 30 countries, including the fall of communism in eastern Europe in 1980′s, civil wars in the Balkans and the conflicts of central and east Africa in the 1990′s. He has published three books and has been a regular contributor to Canadian Business, Canadian Geographic, Time, Businessweek, Macleans and Forbes magazines.

For more about Locke’s work you can visit his website at www.greglocke.com

 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we need a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Visit our Subscribe page for details, or donate below. With enough supporters each paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our original works like this.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Chill, jazz critics: Whiplash is a horror flick

NICOLAS PILLAI, Birmingham City University 
January, 2015

Whiplash movie, publicity photo via Facebook

Whiplash movie, publicity photo via Facebook

Amid Golden Globe recognition and Oscar buzz, Damien Chazelle’s film about a young jazz student and his abusive teacher is pulling in viewers who would normally run screaming from the words “drum solo”. The exhilaration of the last ten minutes, a performance of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, has encouraged a new audience to investigate the jazz pantheon.

Despite this, there is a growing feeling in the jazz world that Whiplash is hurting the music. It’s been variously criticised for being joyless, for getting the music and its history wrong and for eliding the contribution of black jazz players. Some writers have been using “melodrama” as a dirty word.But these criticisms miss something that the general public instinctively understand. Whiplash is not solely concerned with jazz. It is as much a study of alienation and abuse. And so its inheritance is not from jazz history – but from a sub-genre of expressionistic films about obsession and losing one’s humanity. Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull are the real antecedents of Whiplash.

In popular culture, jazz has usually been characterised by emphasis on the physicality of its performers. The heroes of the bebop era were immortalised by the chiaroscuro photography of Gjon Mili and Herman Leonard. But unlike previous jazz films such as ‘Round Midnight (1986) or Bird (1988), Whiplash largely avoids the modernist compositions of jazz photographers, which romanticise the creative process.

In contrast, young student Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is framed in confined surroundings, his movements dictated by the hands of the tyrannical conductor, Terence Fletcher (J K Simmons). The camera is entranced by Simmons’s large flat hands, circling them as they count in the band, cutting to them each time he halts the music with an angry fist. Neiman and Fletcher, pupil and master, become orbiting bodies, their relationship visualised in single shots that whip-pan between them.

Whiplash is also unusual for a film featuring jazz in that it does not glorify improvisation. Indeed, improvisation is irrelevant. For the young musicians of Shaffer Conservatory, success is a matter of fighting dirty in order to gain acceptance. Conforming to Fletcher’s demands is the devil’s bargain that may lead to a gig with the Lincoln Centre Orchestra.

A common trope of the musician biopic is the suggestion that talent is inherent. But in Whiplash, achievement is the result of agonising work, an incremental and painstaking mastery of discipline. I can’t bring to mind another film with as many shots of musical notation. Neiman’s success – if we can call it that – is pictured in visceral terms, in lingering close-ups of bodily fluids: blood, sweat and a single tear.

Traditionally in jazz films, the conductor or bandleader has represented commercial forces that restrain creativity. Simmons’s performance inverts this convention by making Terence Fletcher monstrous, a seething whipcord of hatred and humiliation.

The film delights in offering us glimpses into Fletcher’s interiority, only to snatch them away. Neiman unexpectedly finds Fletcher sitting in at a jazz club. Those large hands – so devastating when pointing, slapping, balling into a fist – tenderly pick out a piano solo. We are fooled for a moment into thinking that we have seen the “real” Fletcher. And then those big reptilian eyes slide over the room until they find Neiman.

In a critique of the film, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody suggests that it exposes its fraudulent jazz credentials by exalting (white) drummer Buddy Rich and by getting a Charlie Parker anecdote wrong.

Brody overlooks the film’s commentary on the role of myth and anecdote in jazz and the way that each generation appropriates these myths to their own end. Fletcher has even crafted his own fable of genius around a deceased former student of his, Sean Casey. Similarly, Fletcher’s unrelenting deluge of homophobic and racist insults, not to mention his casual sexism, vocalise a set of anxieties which have structured the Hollywood jazz film since its inception.

So Whiplash is not principally concerned with the dynamics of a jazz ensemble, or of connection with an audience. It is about the agony of the individual. At a family dinner, Neiman mocks the idea of team sports or of even having friends. Characters constantly wear earphones, isolated in their musical obsession. The film is bathed in a sickly orange-yellow, unsettling and unhinged. There is a consistent interest in textures seen in lingering close-up – the tension of a drumskin; the smoothness of a cymbal; the veins, scars and pores of our protagonists.

The film poster for Whiplash recalls Saul Bass’s work for Hitchcock and this is entirely appropriate. Audiences know what jazz critics do not – that this is a horror film. Look at the fire in Fletcher’s eyes during Neiman’s final solo and the expressionistic flickering of lights as the camera crash-zooms. This is the moment when one psychopath creates his successor.

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The Conversation

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Nicolas Pillai is a Researcher in Jazz and Visual Culture at Birmingham City University. 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On conductor Mario Bernardi, whose notes were “crystal clear, like pearls.”

Royal Conservatory of Music.

Royal Conservatory of Music.

Canadian conductor Mario Bernardi had a simple formula for making a small orchestra sound large. Every instrument should be impeccably tuned so that the notes are “crystal clear, like pearls,” he told  Arts columnist Brian Brennan. “That gives you the sense of a big sound without the quantity.” An excerpt of Brennan’s Brief Encounters column, Conducting Canada to Musical Maturity: Mario Bernardi:

They thought Mario Bernardi was crazy in 1969 when he left a prestige conducting job at the Sadler’s Wells Opera in London to start up a new orchestra from scratch at the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa. They also thought he was crazy in 1984 when he left Ottawa to take over as conductor of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO). But in each instance, Bernardi had a very good reason for moving. In each instance, he saw opportunity for growth.

“It was very limiting being an operatic conductor, especially in a repertory house like that,” he said of his experience with Sadler’s Wells, later the English National Opera. “If you did one that was a success, a Bohème or a Butterfly, you ended up conducting it maybe 30 more times during that season. Eventually you had to face the fact that you could be doing that all your life.”

As for moving to Calgary, it was a matter of trading a small orchestra for a bigger one. The NAC Orchestra was a 44-member chamber-sized ensemble, limited to playing the 18th century compositions of Haydn, Vivaldi and Mozart. After conducting them for 15 years, Bernardi knew the compositions inside out and was hungry for new challenges. The CPO, with its 64 players, allowed him to add the big pieces of Bruckner, Mahler and Wagner to his conducting repertoire. Log in to read Conducting Canada to Musical Maturity: Mario Bernardi  (paywall*).

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.

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On Advent, John Mason Neale, and a winter hymn

The first O come, O come Emmanuel published with the first line by which the hymn is known today was published in 1861, in the first Hymns ancient and modern. The two pages shown here are copies of pages from the Open Library electronic edition for the first edition “of the the most popular of all English hymnals.”

The first O come, O come Emmanuel published with the first line by which the hymn is known today was published in 1861, in the first Hymns ancient and modern. The two pages shown here are copies of pages from the Open Library electronic edition for the first edition “of the the most popular of all English hymnals.”

 The period Christians call Advent begins Sunday November 30. In countries with Christian populations pop music increasingly gives way to religious hymns, leading up to Christmas. Michael Sasges gave thought to one of the season’s most evocative pieces, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Here’s an excerpt of his story about  John Mason Neale — On reading and writing our winters away:

This is a “begat” story, its subjects a winter hymn and its creator, a man who passed his adult years in that figurative winter that is the lot of the chronically ill and perpetually defiant.

The hymn is O come, O come, Emmanuel, in Latin Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. It is a winter song because it is only, or mostly, performed and heard by the Christian faithful during that part of the liturgical year they call Advent. 

The last Sunday of November or the first Sunday of December is inevitably the first Sunday of Advent. This year, 2014, the first Sunday of Advent is the last Sunday of November.

Emmanuel is an expression of longing, spiritual longing. If there be an equivalent expression of material longing, it might be Walt Whitman’s Soon Shall the Winter’s Foil be Here.

The man who nominated O come, O come, Emmanuel for inclusion in the English-language hymnology was John Mason Neale (1818 – 1866).

He was a “divine and author,” in the words of a 19th century Dictionary of National Biography, or “Church of England clergyman and author,” in the words of the DNB Internet edition. … continue reading (no charge*).

 

*Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, Facts and Opinions performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes. We appreciate and need your support: please click here to purchase a $1 day pass, or subscribe.   Sign up using the form on the right side of our Frontlines blog to receive posts by email. Contact us at Editor AT factsandopinions.com.

 

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Vera Lynn: “It was simply my duty to keep on singing.”

Vera Lynn singing for workers in a UK munitions factory in 1941. Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London.

Vera Lynn singing for workers in a UK munitions factory in 1941. Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London.

Vera Lynn achieved international fame with the songs she made popular on the radio during the Second World War. Arts columnist Brian Brennan reports in his new time capsule piece that she wanted to try other kinds of music after the war. But the fans wouldn’t hear of it. An excerpt of Brennan’s Brief Encounters column, There’ll Always Be An England: Vera Lynn:

For thousands of Allied soldiers who served in the Second World War, Vera Lynn was the most popular singer on the radio. No matter that Bing Crosby and Judy Garland sold more records. Lynn was the troops’ favourite because, as one wounded soldier said at the time, “She makes you think of your wife, not of her.”

When I interviewed her in 1983, this beloved Sweetheart of the Forces was 66 years old, still singing the old wartime favourites, and still making old soldiers think fondly of their wartime brides. She was in Calgary to perform the first major concert at the Saddledome, a hockey arena built both for the 1988 Winter Olympics and as a new home rink for the NHL’s Calgary Flames.

“At school they thought I had a terrible voice,” Lynn told me. “But they always put me up in front because I opened my mouth so nice and wide.” Encouraged by her father, a London plumber, and her mother, a dressmaker, she gave her first public performances in working men’s clubs at age seven. … log in to read There’ll Always Be An England: Vera Lynn (paywall*)

*You’ll find lots of great free stories on our pages, but much of our original work is behind a paywall — we do not sell advertising. We do need and appreciate your support – a day pass is a buck and a monthly subscription costs less than a cup of coffee.

Here is Brian Brennan’s columnist page;  here is F&O’s page to purchase a subscription or $1 site day pass

Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.

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Michael Jackson: Posthuman

The cover of Michael Jackson's album Dangerous was by artist Mark Ryden. Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Flickr, Creative Commons

The cover of Michael Jackson’s album Dangerous was by artist Mark Ryden. Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Flickr, Creative Commons

By Susan Fast, McMaster University 
November 28, 2014

The album cover for Michael Jackson’s album Dangerous was painted by American pop-surrealist artist Mark Ryden. In it, he depicts a world in which the boundaries between human and animal, living and dead, whole and part, and celestial and terrestrial have been crossed and fused.

Surrealist painters like Ryden often aim to collapse such categories – to reconcile, in their art, what seems to be irreconcilable in life. But actually, this boundary-crossing does happen in life – increasingly so – and corresponds to what some have called posthumanism.

Cary Wolfe, an English Professor and author of the book What is Posthumanism, writes that we are “fundamentally prosthetic creatures,” that we rely on entities outside the self – other humans, animals, technology – in order to function and thrive.

In other words: the boundaries of our bodies and intellect are not as firm and finite as we want to believe.

Posthumanism also argues for the dismantling of the hierarchy that puts humans – largely because of our ability to “reason” – above other forms of life and technology.

Both of these ideas were central to Michael Jackson’s life and art.

It’s somewhat surprising that so few have considered him through this lens; instead, many have simply labeled him as weird or eccentric.

Yet Jackson’s entire career was defined by his rejection of normal boundaries. This includes not only the most obvious of these (race and gender) but also generational barriers, the limits of his physical body, and divisions among real and fictional species – not to mention the seamless way he could fuse artistic genres.

Jackson celebrated the prosthetic idea of the human in a number of ways. For example, through plastic surgery, cosmetic procedures, make-up, hair styles and costumes, he asks us not only to reconsider gender binaries (that’s the relatively easy part), but to question prevailing ideas about aesthetic beauty and what can be called “normal.” Our appearances are all products of outside intervention (even face creams and nail files count); Jackson’s extreme modifications could be thought of as a commentary on this.

Fictional boundary-crossing was also a characteristic of his artistic practice – where, at various points, he presented himself as a werewolf, a zombie, and a panther. In the film Moonwalker he morphs into a spaceship; in Ghosts, he becomes a dancing skeleton, a grotesque monster, and a gigantic face that blocks a doorway.

Ghosts, in fact, is a film in which he addresses the perception that he is a “freak” and “abnormal” directly. It’s remarkable that so much of his morphing in this film is focused on his face – an object of constant scrutiny and derision in the media.

In both his life and his art, he held out his body as a work in progress, fully open to and trusting in limitless experimentation. There’s quite a long tradition of artists who have engaged in body modification as a means through which to test the limits of the flesh, like Orlan and Stelarc.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Jackson’s physical changes was the lightening of his skin. We should keep in mind that this was the result of the skin disease vitiligo. It’s thought, erroneously, that his skin color simply got lighter, but it actually fluctuated – so much so that his intent was certainly far from wanting to “be” white, as many have concluded.

Instead, it’s possible that vitiligo – painful as it must have been for him – served as an opportunity to start a conversation about race and skin color. He wanted to challenge the idea of race as fixed or linked to biology, rather than socially constructed.

Jackson’s boundary-pushing extended to his notion of family, which can be described as a sort of “queer kinship.” This has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but with how he challenged normative ideas about what constitutes family. His family included animals (Bubbles the chimp, yes, but also Muscles the snake and Louis the llama). It included children (Jackson could still play like a child, with children, when he was an adult, testing ideas about the normal, linear progression from childhood to adulthood). It included older Hollywood starlets, like Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli (again breaking the boundaries of normative generational affiliation); and it included Frank Cascio’s middle-class family from New Jersey, which Jackson adopted as his own, regularly showing up and spending time at their home, where he vacuumed and made beds with Cascio’s mother.Much of this has been viewed as pathological because it’s a way of building family that does not conform; it crosses boundaries not normally crossed.

This makes many people uncomfortable.

But Jackson’s vision of the body and of kinship were actually forward-looking, a kind of reaching beyond societal norms that is often celebrated in other artists and activists, but still viewed with great suspicion in Jackson’s case. Elsewhere, I have argued that this is because Jackson crossed so many boundaries simultaneously. It was the combination of social transgressions that caused people to fear – rather than celebrate – his difference.

It was also that he truly lived these transgressions: there was nothing to mitigate Jackson’s differences. When other mainstream artists, like Lady Gaga, transgress boundaries on stage, the impact is often lessened by their private lives, which conform to societal norms.

In a 1985 essay about Michael Jackson, James Baldwin wrote that “freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated – in the main, abominably – because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.”

Michael Jackson – gender ambiguous; adored and reviled; human, werewolf, panther; black, white, brown; child, adolescent, adult – shattered the assumptions of a society that craves neat categories and compartmentalization.

Order and normality are illusions, he said through his life and art.

Creative Commons

The Conversation

Susan Fast, Professor of Cultural Studies, Director, Graduate Program in Gender Studies and Feminist Research at McMaster University in Canada, receives funding from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, Facts and Opinions performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes. We appreciate and need your support: please click here to purchase a $1 day pass, or subscribe.   Sign up using the form on the right side of our Frontlines blog to receive posts by email. Contact us at Editor AT factsandopinions.com.

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