January: Wyoming and the Open
(published by NewMusicBox, June 2014)
The other night I went to see Hiroshima Mon Amour, finally. I've been a fan of Last Year at Marienbad for years, but hadn't gone back to Alain Resnais' previous "moody masterwork" (to quote the Criterion Collection blurb). I first watched Marienbad by myself, very late at night, on a nice TV/sound system at a friend's home, an experience with its own sort of perfection. This time I was fortunate enough to see the film in a theater.
I treasure arthouse movie theaters.
I've been going to see more movies lately, at a couple different small theaters, leading to some reflections on the difference of experience. Like many in my demographic, I do not own a television. It is increasingly common to watch movies and TV shows on one's computer. Anyone who engages in this practice knows that the screen is relatively small, and there is a psychological tax to doing your watching on the same device you use for work and procrastination throughout the day. It is easy to become distracted. There are other things in your field of view, and especially if the computer is in your lap or within reach, it's tempting to pull up another window if things get slow, or tense, or whatever. There are psychological outs. (We're all accustomed to the pause button, but reflect for a moment on the fact that it did not exist in the film-watching experience until a few decades ago.)
The first section of Hiroshima Mon Amour features a lot of stark and disturbing footage of people injured and disfigured by the atomic bomb. As a viewer in the theater, I had no choice but to deal with these images, barring closing my eyes or stepping out of the room. That early peak of intensity, unabated by a pause of the film, a walk-around, or a pull-up-Twitter-for-a-second, became part of the unbroken topography of the experience.
This movie is not linear or especially clear in some ways, though I'd argue that it's much more thematically perceptible and generally comprehensible than its reputation seems to suggest. Anyway we can agree that it doesn't grab you and carry you from point to point using the traditional beats of film drama. What I'm trying to say is, if I'd watched the movie at home on my computer, I probably would have paused it on multiple occasions to do and think about other things, and the experience would not have been as rich.
The word I keep returning to is immersive. Going to see a movie at a theater is immersive. Watching something at home on your computer is not. It should be obvious, but bears emphasizing, that movies of all styles benefit from this quality of experience. There is this idea in the culture that big technical films benefit more from the atmosphere of the theater than smaller-scale movies. I completely disagree, and not solely because this notion and its attendant marketing infrastructure has gifted us with the recent, irritating 3-D movie trend. Recently I saw Boyhood in the theater. Boyhood is an intimate personal drama, not a special-effects blockbuster. And it was utterly transporting. I forgot myself for huge stretches of time. At the end of the movie I had to reorient to my surroundings; it was like waking up in an unfamiliar house and taking a second to physically place oneself. That degree of separation lent me significant perspective on my life that week. It's not catharsis, I don't think—not really release, just a sort of meaningful separation that might also have an Aristotelian coinage behind it, and it relied upon the quality of immersion, the degree of submission to the experience.
And look at this, too: it was about a twenty-minute walk to the theater the other night, through a crisp, beautiful December evening. We're nearing the winter solstice, and aren't these long nights of downy blackness just luxurious for watching films or listening to music and getting immersed into other worlds? I walked for twenty minutes and smelled the smells, looked at the lights in the houses. The experience of watching the film had an introduction and coda that set it apart from the fabric of my quotidian tasks and habits—which lent it a veneer of ritual. This is harder to meaningfully achieve at home.
Right away when I saw that Hiroshima Mon Amour was made in 1959 I thought about Kind of Blue, which also celebrates its 55th birthday this passing year. A similarly "moody masterwork," and similarly an experiment with linearity. Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Co. made jazz improvisation a vertical time experience. In bebop the deep meaning of the music, as it is generally analyzed, lies in the construction of lines, the development of motives, and the relationship between the original melody and the extemporaneous solos that follow it. In Kind of Blue the meaning resides in the weaving of textures. The music still proceeds second by second, solo by solo, but we are called to respond not to syntactical brilliance as it proceeds, but to group dynamic, time-feel, mood, and atmosphere as they emerge. The latter is more immediately perceptible to untrained ears, which is why Kind of Blue has sold a zillion copies.
You know what else came out in 1959? Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come. And what else? The Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out. Both these recordings offer unique visions of musical time. I've written before about Coleman's classic band, which features one of my favorite rhythm sections. Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden sound like a sack of wrenches bouncing around in the back of a pickup truck. It's fabulous.
As for the Brubeck band, their time signatures are famous, but the subtler thing that can escape mention is the cleanliness, precision, and melodic content of Joe Morello's drumming. He divides the time into neat little boxes and ties them up with bows. He does this with a minimum of extra noise. I recently discovered their fantastic West Side Story record: check out Morello's playing on "Tonight." That brush work is tightly wound, virtuosic in its details. Listen to the melodic range of pitches he draws from the snare drum.
Hiroshima Mon Amour is all about time, and so is Last Year at Marienbad. They both ask about the meaning of past events and their relationship to present ones.
Alan Watts taught that one goal of meditation is to take an "hourglass" conception of time—wherein we're obsessed with the present and future, they take on this tremendous size like the twin bowls of an hourglass, while the present moment is the tiny pinched center—and minimize our focus on the past and future to create a bigger, richer present. To expand the center of the hourglass. In Kind of Blue the underlying harmonic and melodic structures, the "heads" that begin and end the tunes, are simplified so dramatically that the solos' autonomy expands. They're still circumscribed by atmospheric and modal continuity, but the focus is not motivic or melodic transformation, it is the verticality of the present moment within each solo.
(From linear geometric descriptions, ideas of following a line or walking a path, we arrive at tactile metaphors. We speak of textures and of "weaving." In the formal proceedings of my own music I've always been less interested in walking the line and more interested in what's off to the left. A friend described Night Air as a solitary walk through a city in the dark, briefly glimpsing through windows to see what's going on in the lighted rooms as they pass.)
And then there is Ornette Coleman, who did away with the harmonic structure entirely. So one could argue that in his music the "present moment" of the improvised solo achieves still greater independence from the "past event" of the head. Of course, he did ask of himself and his collaborators a fidelity to the melody. So actually it's more linear, more horizontal in its time-nature, than Kind of Blue. But the present moment is wide, wide, wide.
(My terminology of "horizontal" and "vertical" time comes from Jonathan Kramer's book The Time of Music.)
Linguists have observed that natural languages, ones that haven’t been tampered with, languages that have never been agents of empire, are vastly stranger than the big global languages. When left alone in mountainous corners of the world, languages get singular, ingrown, and specialized. They develop quirks, then sub-quirks based on those original quirks, and so on. They get weirder and weirder, in beautiful and natural ways. The Navajo language has no regular verb conjugations; other languages pile up all sorts of outrageously specific verb forms, or require you to append an article to every noun depending on its shape or type.
When languages become imperial, this color and specificity falls away. When a language travels the world and gets forcibly taught to adults in conquered lands, those adults learn the language incompletely, and it is their version of the language that gets passed down to future generations.
In many respects these simplified, universalized languages are preferable. They are much easier to learn, and they still effectively communicate information. But they lose their natural stamps of strangeness and singularity. They lose their connection to the land that gave them rise. They become standardized. They become more like other languages.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts