March 26, 2004 (link)
Well, today is this site's third birthday -- in less than an hour, it'll be three years ago to the minute that I posted my first entry here. I had hoped to have something fancy worked up, but alas, nothing's ready just yet. We'll see if I can drum up some sort of belated birthday present within the next couple weeks. Also, the Rockoverlondon version of this site is temporarily down -- we changed hosts, it should be back up within a week or so.
For the moment, a few links:
Oh, one more thing -- I suppose that, instead of getting the site a birthday present, I got one for myself: after all these years and posts, I finally got Deep Chill Network's Cyber Sleep 1, as well as two other CDs (Deep Freeze and Dreams 1). I haven't really sat down with it yet, but am very much looking forward to doing so!
Current music: Love - "The Daily Planet"
March 17, 2004 (link)
Recently I've had occasion to reassess my take on Breaking the Waves. (Warning: if you haven't seen the movie, there are some spoilers in the rest of this post.)
I've talked before about how powerful and moving a film I found it to be, which made it all the more bewildering when, a few months ago, a good friend and colleague of mine mentioned that he absolutely despised the film. He did explain his opinion at the time, but for some reason, I didn't really parse the reasons he gave -- I just chalked it up to a difference in perspective, and didn't really think much of it. But at a party the other weekend, I was chatting with someone who had the same reaction to the movie, and something in how she said it made her point of view finally "click" for me -- not that I necessarily agree, but at least now I understand where she, and my colleague, were coming from. The key seems to be in one's interpretation of Bess's degradation and murder -- specifically, the question of whether one is meant to think that her death was the key to her husband's miraculous recovery. In other words: did Bess die so that Jan might live? Was he restored through her sacrifice, and did his deliverance depend on -- was it bought with -- her suffering?
My take on it is, and has always been, that while Bess may have believed that she was giving her life so that he might live, the timing of Jan's recovery was meant to be a terrible, tragic coincidence. (I want to call it "dramatic irony", but since the audience isn't really in on it until after everything happened, I'm not sure that it'd be an accurate use of the term. Besides, Jan's return to health is a structurally necessary part of the film: if he died too, or remained paralyzed, the movie would be so crushingly bleak that I suspect it'd fail under the weight of its own hopelessness. When I saw the movie, I have to admit that it took me by surprise -- perhaps I should've seen it coming, but Bess's death left me stunned enough that I didn't.)
Both times I saw Breaking the Waves, this reading seemed to me so self-evident that I never even considered the idea that we might've been meant to take things far more literally -- that, when Bess died, her sacrifice made Jan able to walk again, and so the movie becomes a parable about suffering and redemption and Imitation of Christ and so forth. This was how my colleague interpreted the movie, as did U., the girl with whom I spoke at the party -- and if they took it that way, no wonder they didn't like it! To my mind, were their interpretation to be correct, it would completely rob the movie of its pathos, which -- for me, anyway -- came from the fact that Bess's death was (in my interpretation) so completely unnecessary: she didn't have to die, her death was meaningless, and that's what made it so moving and painful (much like the scene in A Midnight Clear where the unexpected, touching peace between the soldiers is shattered by a profound betrayal, one made all the more devastating by the fact that it was, in some sense, conceived in innocence).
But in this other interpretation, Bess's sacrifice serves a purpose -- it's shoehorned into utility, and becomes a means to an end, a sort of quid pro quo. It also drastically changes the entire structure of the movie's ending: if we're meant to believe that Bess's death is what restored Jan, then his return to health is, in fact, the movie's first "miracle", and the point at which the movie fundamentally changes its terms of engagement and abandons "pure" realism. But if Bess's death didn't revive Jan, if the two events are coincidental in their timing, then it means there is nothing necessarily miraculous (in the supernatural sense) about Jan's recovery, and that -- crucially -- God thus remains off-stage until the bells at the very end of the movie. The bells then become a very intentional (and literal!) deus ex machina, straight out of any number of Greek tragedies, but also represent a glimmer of hope and transcendence given to us as the only possible antidote to one of the most profound, infinite, and irreconcilable tragedies that exists: the annihilation of an innocent. (In this interpretation I don't think it's really possible to see the bells as ironic -- consciously clichéd, perhaps, but nonetheless sincere -- whereas in the alternate interpretation, they might very well feel like an ironic statement, a piece of "genuine" kitsch, a cheap commodified imitation of a miracle where the point is the lie, rather than the heart behind it.)
I'm still inclined to think my interpretation is right, but my confidence in it has definitely been shaken. Obviously, I need to see the movie again -- and a very important part of that will be seeing the chapter headings (which, chances are, I would also be able to get from the published script -- something else I should probably seek out, since it would tell me a lot). I've been able to find a few of them here and there on the net -- Chapter One is "Bess Gets Married", Chapter Two is "Life With Jan", and Chapter Seven is "Bess's Sacrifice" -- but haven't yet found a complete list. I find myself thinking that Chapter Eight might be called "The Miracle", but I'm not sure -- and since I know that the movie is structured in eight chapters plus an epilogue, and since the bells must happen in the epilogue (since they're at the very end of the movie), then if Chapter Eight is called "The Miracle" then my interpretation can only hold up if the title is meant ironically in some degree.
And I think that might actually be the case, or at least it's consonant with what I remember of the film (in which the chapter titles are indeed "detached" from the rest of the movie, and seemingly out of place), and what I know of Von Trier and his outlook. Then again, according to this Chicago Reader review, he said that the nonnarrative interludes are a "God's eye view of the landscape in which this story is unfolding, as if He is watching over the characters". Perhaps this is a case of "trust the tale, not the teller": if the interludes had seemed that way to me, when I watched the movie -- if God had felt overtly present before the very end, the last possible moment -- then the movie would not have had the impact upon me that it did.
Current music: Sleepbot Environmental Broadcast
March 4, 2004 (link)
I did a search on harmonium + "celestial voices" to see if my thought below was an original one. I got 40 hits, most of which were Pink Floyd discographies, and none of which had anything to do with Harmonium the band. But getting this was a pleasant surprise, and a nice unexpected connection. I don't know the full opera, but I have the "Suite 1992" on CD, and it's terrific -- I bought it after seeing a live performance of the material on TV, and was thinking about putting part of it on one of my Waldo CDs. Something I read recently described it as being connected to Feldman, and I'd agree, but the suite, at least, also has a flavor all its own -- an ominous, strained quality -- that's then paired with textures that at times resemble contemporary ambient music, of all things.
(I'd love to bring it all back home full circle, but alas, that 6 a.m. siren didn't make me think of "Generals gathered in their masses...")
Speaking of self-titled songs on self-titled albums, I recently heard this one for the first time:
"What is this that stands before me? / Figure in black which points at me..."
Fantastic, I can't believe it's taken me this long to hear it. (I blame Napster -- I tried looking for it back in 2000, but couldn't find the real track amongst all the false leads.)
It's so evil! I love it! And just as with Harmonium, I suspect this is probably the best song they've ever done. (You could even make the same argument for Talk Talk, though I think the first two tracks on Laughing Stock would trump that one: it's a great song but "Ascension Day", especially, has to get the edge.)
The title track on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is also terrific -- I love the B-section in particular ("Nobody will ever let you know / When you ask the reasons why"), maybe it's a little cheap but I'm easy. But, is it just the MP3s I've got, or does the recording sound like complete ass? I don't know, but I'm usually the sort of guy who leaves his EQ flat all the time, and this record cries out for -- and sounds great with -- the kind of smiley-face EQ curve (treble boost, bass boost) that I usually despise.
I had a bunch of very strange dreams last night, perhaps in part because of the ominous-sounding fire siren that woke me up at 6:00 a.m. -- I was about five seconds away from turning on the radio to find out if we were in the midst of mayhem, when the siren finally stopped. One of the dreams had me hanging out with David Bowie, in a small room or a car somewhere, singing the chorus to "Cracked Actor" with him until I forgot the last part of it and had to stop.
Another dream had me sitting in a room with a bunch of people (maybe a classroom or meeting room?), listening to the self-titled track from the self-titled album by Quebecois band Harmonium. I like the song a lot, enough to put it on my most recent Waldo CD, but this was a very beautiful alternate version, one that began from the song's coda or second half (the part that starts at about 4:45, where the flugelhorn comes in). It was a little bit faster, and featured a small string section, with drums that were mixed somewhat more upfront than on the regular release. I don't know why it was playing in my dream, but it was gorgeous, so much so that I started weepig (which was a little embarrassing), and I was bitterly disappointed when it faded out prematurely.
I think I woke up right after that, feeling overheated and agitated. After a minute, when I thought about the dream, I suddenly remembered -- and "re-realized" -- something that struck me a few days ago, and that I'd meant to write about on here: that part of "Harmonium" has an uncanny resemblance to "Celestial Voices", the last part of Pink Floyd's "A Saucerful of Secrets", especially the way the Floyd would play it live. Both are in B minor, both are structured around a chorale-like progression that's 16 bars long and ends with a prolonged dominant chord, and they even have fairly similar chords:
"A Saucerful of Secrets":
Of course, "Harmonium" ends with an unexpected, bittersweet, and gorgeous progression -- Em, A/C#, G/C, F#m/B (or Bm9) -- whereas the Pink Floyd song just ends with a B major chord, which sounds much more "final" and resolved.
Still, the more I think about it, the more similarities I can spot: both feature falsetto male vocals singing long, slow, wordless melodies that end on their highest note. And the drumming in both songs is along the same lines -- simple, precise beats that might seem foursquare in other contexts but that are just right for the song in question, with occasional fills that are played mostly on the toms.
It's interesting that both songs have been on my mind lately -- "Harmonium" because I was listening to Singing a Song in the Morning the other day, and "A Saucerful of Secrets" because I just wrote a review of a Pink Floyd DVD set I gave Mark for Christmas, which I finally got to see when I went over to his place the other week. One of the DVDs has two songs from the Kralingen Pop Festival (June 28, 1970) in Rotterdam, which I'd seen before but never thought much of, probably because the videotape I had (taken from the "Stamping Ground" movie) was high-generation, with audio that was a half-step too slow. Plus the songs were edited short, with "Celestial Voices" all that remained of "A Saucerful of Secrets".
But man, this DVD was phenomenal -- absolutely chills-down-your-spine material. Like "Echoes", "Saucerful" is a song that almost always comes off quite well in performance -- but if anything, that makes it all too easy to forget that at its best, it can be almost a mystical experience. In the recorded history of Pink Floyd, that doesn't happen too often, though "Saucerful" is probably a bit less vulnerable than "Echoes", the only peak performances of which are a handful of recordings from September-October 1971 -- Pompeii, Montreux, BBC -- which feature high fidelity and no crowd noise to speak of. (It's easy to spot why "Echoes" needs silence to be sublime; if the opening "ping" is too loud, or has to be heard over a crowd of chattering people, then it falls victim to the same thing that happens when Low plays in a bar full of noisy people. The act of listening becomes mediated and self-conscious, because you have to ignore part of what you're hearing: and no amount of ideological trickery will make up for the fact that some things need to be -- deserve to be -- framed in silence.)
Anyway, in the Kralingen video we basically only have "Celestial Voices" but it's a soundboard recording, so -- unlike the audience tape I have of this show -- it has a nice, clean sound with good dynamics and no crowd interference. What this means is, at the start of the clip, when Rick Wright plays the opening chord, it's quiet -- genuinely quiet -- and so it has two things you don't usually get: room to breathe, and room to build. (Literally, "headroom".)
How easy it is to forget what that sounds like! "Saucerful" is a song that normally seems like it's all about crashing and banging -- and if you've seen Pompeii you've no doubt got the mental image of a stoned, greasy-haired David Gilmour sitting crosslegged on stage with his guitar in front of him, making it shriek and yelp, coaxing things out of it that sound like sheetmetal being torn apart -- not to mention Roger Waters pounding the crap out of that cymbal, or Nick Mason his drum kit. But access to a genuine silence takes all that, and then takes the chords in "Celestial Voices", and makes them mutually intelligible in a way they weren't before. There's no paraphrase that would really do it justice, or that wouldn't sound cloying or half-baked (as if all this doesn't already), but it's awesome in the old sense of the word -- huge, majestic, powerful, united. Perhaps it's true that even back then, it did have a whiff of the machine about it, but not in a bad way -- it's a machine that's still being made to serve explicitly human purposes, something where you know that there's a living being behind the controls. It's a little like a pipe organ, or maybe like a machine made out of human beings -- I'm thinking of Amanset's loud songs at their best -- which is a fancy way of saying that they're tight, and strong.
Finally, from Frogwosh:
morgan mentioned springtime being exciting because the smell sense gets turned on again. i think he's right, as every single scentsation was all of a sudden sniffing and absorbing these wonderful aromas.
When I went outside the other day I noticed the same thing -- the moment I walked outside, I took a breath, the air was full of the smell of life. I can't remember it ever being so dramatic or so rapid a change, as though overnight someone had flipped a switch that said "green things" on it. It made me want to take a walk, and so I did -- an hour yesterday, an hour and a half the day before that.
Current music: Adlib - (self-titled)
Euripides II, ed. Richmond Lattimore and David Grene
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