Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I would have written a shorter review, but I didn't have time

I feel like I've been neglecting this blog. I've been to a few concerts and other arts events but I've been busy studying for exams and writing short "journal" responses for various classes, so I haven't had the spare time (usually spent on the ground floor of Bird Library) to write anything up. Plus I had to revise the previous review of the TV on the Radio album -- it's much better now; I might put it up.

And so on the same day that the revised 400-word review was due, I also had a 300-word review due. I felt like the premiere piece, with all of its backstory and the program notes that Waggoner wrote, deserved an expanded story, but it's a unique challenge trying to capture a single concert (or a single art exhibit, or any of the other things my classmates wrote about) in 300 words.

Degas Quartet gives weight to Waggoner's world premiere

The Degas Quartet is gaining a reputation as one of the best young string quartets in the United States, and the group’s list of tutors – the Takacs, Emerson and Julliard Quartets – is a "who’s who" of the best international chamber players.

Small wonder that composer Andrew Waggoner chose the Degas to premiere his new "My Penelope" (String Quartet No. 4). Waggoner wrote the piece to touch upon the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and homesickness of his native New Orleans’ displaced people. The formal premiere will take place in November in New Orleans, but the Degas revealed the piece’s profound anguish and tremulous grief at an impressive preview performance October 10th in Syracuse, N.Y.

"My Penelope" immediately jabs for the heart as all four players play with double-stops, grinding out and repeating dense, dissonant chords. This stark opening statement brushed away the memory of the concert’s opening treat, a breezy rundown of Stefan Freund’s "Dance on Hot Coals."

The Degas brought intensity to all of Waggoner’s gestural demands: jarring jete ricochet articulations, high harmonics, flurries of sixteenth notes. A recurring pizzicato figure played by cello and viola recalled a Greek lyre in a strong evocation of the piece’s roots in the story of Homer’s Odyssey. The piece’s ending was a subtle dissolving, a sigh after three movements of storm and stress.

The quartet was clearly drained after Waggoner’s piece, and the first two movements of Schubert’s Quintet in C Major suffered as a result. The group, joined by cellist Caroline Stinson, lacked energy during the opening allegro, playing with too much light and not enough heat. The quintet rebounded, though, and dug into the Scherzo with fervor. The Allegretto finale, with its rich chords enhanced by the two cellists, ended the performance with a perfectly soothing compliment to Waggoner’s seething premiere.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

TV on the Radio makes waves

This is my second review for my Critical Writing class - a 400-word review. Two small things I didn't include: "Province" features guest vocals by David Bowie, which should get hardcore Bowie-philes to pick up the album; also, the album came with a poster designed by singer Tunde Adebimpe. It's currently on the wall in my room.

On any recording today, the term "funk" has come to mean the sound of thumb-slapped electric bass playing some syncopated rhythm. George Clinton, who invented the genre with the bands Parliament and Funkadelic, would be appalled. Without any instance of that "characteristic" sound, the newest album by New York-based group TV on the Radio takes the word back to the way Clinton defined it: strange, irregular and off-beat.

On "Return to Cookie Mountain," TVOTR reintroduces the spacey, uncategorizable elements that made Clinton into the pioneer of "intergalactic funk." Singers Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe show great flexibility in switching from shrill falsetto to throaty baritone. Their vocals are the most important ingredient in the album’s soundscape, floating over the haze of buzzing guitars and droning samples.

The group’s multi-instrumentalist Dave Sitek (he is credited with guitar, bass, keys and sampler) also produced the album, and his production features a careful balance of static drones and bustling energy. The drone comes from guitars, synthesizers and sitar, and it creates a uniform sound world for the whole album, stretching out underneath every track from the opening "I Was a Lover" to the last, "Wash the Day."

The energy churning beneath the mellow surface comes from drummer Jaleel Bunton’s light-handed, complex playing. He drives the fast songs with nimble stickwork and adds emphatic bass drum thumps and cymbal crashes to the slowly unwinding numbers.

Bunton is the key to the album’s best track, "Wolf Like Me," driving the bass groove snare and tom-tom. During the bridge, the guitars drop out to reveal the sampled sound of a tinkling music box and a chorus singing "oohs" and "ahs," and Bunton dials back his playing. He then leads the charge back in, pounding away underneath the layers of voices and synthesizers.

Similarly chorus-like vocals also stand out on "Province" and "Let the Devil In." Sitek’s production presents this singing in a very sensitive fashion, preserving the lyrics as well as the grunts and groans. These utterances recall another dominant but lesser-known frontman: H.R., from the Washington, D.C. reggae-punk outfit Bad Brains.

The lyrics, penned by Malone, Adebimpe and Sitek, sometimes seem like more of an afterthought. The characters in the songs drink too much and mourn squandered opportunities. But even if their boredom and sadness is less than profound, the talent backing them up is off the charts.

Captivating and confusing - Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep"

After seeing "The Science of Sleep," I emerged from the theater feeling as though I might be in a dream, whether mine or someone else's. For all its twists, turns and seeming non-sequiturs, "The Science of Sleep" is an arresting, kaleidoscopic trip of a movie.

With its brilliant color palette and its overlapping layers of dreams and "reality," the action of the film is seen through a series of monochrome cels moving back in forth in space like a series of "Pong" paddles. Sometimes we see through just one color, just one perspectives; at other times, we see through several cels at once, with multiple levels of "dreams" superimposed over the action. We venture into the staging area of dreams, complete with cameras, monitors and incidental music by a backing band, all operated by one man - Stephane, a half-French/half-Mexican aspiring artist who presents his dreams as "télévision éducative." Stephane's eyes, opened and shut with venetian blinds controlled by the "ringmaster" Stephane in his mind - are our windows into his life in Paris and the levels of "dream-life" laid over it.

But with the knowledge, imparted by Stephane's mother, that he has always confused dreams for reality, we see the feints and distortions of his dream-life in a different light. These diversions - the large hands, the assemblage of co-workers all speaking in Stephane's own voice, the landscapes constructed from toilet paper tubes and cardboard - are all the products of the mind of a troubled young man. Even at the film's baseline "reality," elements of fantasy, like the "one-second time travel machine" or the mechanical animation of Stephanie's pony, are present.

But even with these elements of - for lack of a less-loaded term, "magical realism" - the characters at the heart of the film's "reality" are utterly believable. Stephane is a young man, unhappy with his job and struggling to adapt to living in a new city and to speaking a new language. Stephanie is a lovely, slightly insecure artist, easily wounded by dishonesty. Stephane's mother is well-intentioned but slightly domineering. Strangely absent are reflections on Stephane's dead father, but better that his character be absent than thrusted into Freudian-Oedipal interpretations of Stephane's dream-life.

The film doesn't present sleep or dreams in an exactly scientific fashion; it doesn't break down their elements, doesn't discuss the influence of brain chemistry or delve into psychoanalytic interpretation. The opening scene, in the "Stephane TV" studio inside the protagonist's head, seems a more apt description of the formulation of dreams: many different ingredients, thrown together haphazardly, stirred or otherwise agitated. What results seems the product of chance, the bubbling of different elements to the surface. Through all the convolution, the film retains an important level of consistency: everything is filtered through the lens of Stephane, who with his believable, trying past and his yearnings for the future, is an Everyman, both due to and inspite of his delusions.