Interlude: Art and Music in a Time of Discontent

&lWe take a moment out of Weekend Cat Blogging to share some thoughts on art and music in a time when not only we at CatSynth, but many of our friends seem to be having a difficult time. It truly appears to be a “Summer of Discontent.”

Well-intentioned friends have often suggested turning to music, “you can turn your angst into a great punk-rock ballad” or “channel your energy to finishing that album”, or something else similar. Of course, that's not how such things work. For me, music is best created in a state of dispassion, or contentment. Despite the stereotypes of “the artist”, I have always found it difficult to make music in a state of discontent, such as anxiety or unhappiness. In such times, we at CatSynth often turn to writing and film as our preferred forms of art:

Not just any film will do in a time of discontent. The avant-garde shorts with which Luna poses above, are thinking films, all detail, and best suited to a more content and thoughtful mood. The work of Brakhage, previously discussed on CatSynth, contains numerous examples as well. Similarly, the music from my album Aquatic is really suited for either a very relaxed or thoughtful state of mind. The tradition of “modern classical” from the 20th century fits here. Some of the most extreme “noise” music, or academic computer music, fits in this category as well. One must listen an appreciate the details of different sounds, timbres, harmonies, phrases. In film, it's about the images. Those who are looking for overall structure of melody or narrative are likely to be disappointed. And while I find much to appreciate in this category of film and music, I find it best to experience when happy, contented, and unencumbered by anxieties.

On the other extreme are the films that move one to passion through the story or the characters. Dramas, comedies, sci-fi classics, of varying technical quality, but that one nonetheless loves. Musically, this is the domain of the best dance music, disco, techno/electronica, latin/salsa. Melodic classical and jazz falls into this category as well (this would be most of the well known classical composers, e.g. Bach, Beethoven, etc., and the jazz greats in the “Ken Burns documentary” sense). In such music, one doesn't focus on the individual details, though might take delight in a particular phrase or lick. Things have a melodic structure, a chord pattern and familiar cadences, such as 12-bar or 16-bar blues, or the familiar harmonic structures of classical music. Sometimes, a memorable tune. This is film and music for “feeling”, and in the case of dance music, passion and motion, almost like a drug.

In a time of discontent, I often turn to a third category of “dispassionate” film and music. The recently discussed work of Antonioni (and to a lesser degree Bergman) fits into this category. I would put David Lynch here as well. More akin to the modernist visual art I favor, these are films you just watch, and forget whether you like/dislike the characters, or whether they make narrative sense. That is unimportant. “Filmmakers films”, perhaps.

Similarly, I would identify examples of “musicians music”, where one gets lost in the listening or creation process. On the more experimental/electronic/noise side, I would put the some of the “improvisations” I have done for synths like the Evolver or Octave CAT. It's easy to get lost, but also easy to keep going.

But such music need not be so experimental, and indeed some of the examples are the so-called “two-chord jams.” While not always strictly two chords, they usually follow a pattern that stays very close to the original “tonic” chord. A one-four-one-four pattern works particularly well:

One of the best known examples of a two-chord jam using this minor mode (or dorian mode in western music theory), is Herbie Hancock's classic “Chameleon” as heard on his 1970s Head Hunters album. The synth and bass patterns just keep going on for ever, back and forth between one and four, until the “end phrase” that can really come in at any point, or not at all. Additionally, there are the free solos on the Arp Odyssey that are completely unencumbered by harmonic/melodic structure, while the rhythm players can continue the main pattern. There is an even better version of the synth solo to be heard on the live album Flood (if one is lucky enough to actually find a copy).

The reason such a jam works is that it really is only “one chord,” structurally speaking. It never leaves the tonic, in a since, no strong “dominant chord” to ever break up the continuity into harmonic structures, cadences, etc. This is the sort of thing that drives music theorists (and some modern-western-music purists) crazy. Even though the have a term for it: ostenato. But like I said earlier, this is really “musician's music.”

The effect can be hypnotic for both performer and listener alike. Such single-harmony patterns are also invaluable for online jamming, such in the Ninjam sessions presented in June. With all performers at various time delays, but still metrically in sync, the single harmony allows everyone to continue to play together. At the same time however, one is free to get lost.

I recently came across some more examples of still of music in Tony Allen's 1970s Afro-beat classics “Progress” the aptly named “Afro Disco Beat.” Many examples were also to be found Afro-beat of the 1970s (more so than contemporary versions), the Ethiopiques recording reviewed at CatSynth, and the extended solos in James Brown's brief stint with the Original JBs in 1970-1971. In many of these examples, the horns and voices fit perfectly into the continuous pattern, with hits or short phrases, rather than attempting to be melodic.

In a more contemporary electronic context, this effect and discipline can be “trance” music such as some of the tracks on the recently-reviewed John B recording. More dance-oriented music is less dispassionate and more likely to “push listeners' buttons,” and thus really falls into the earlier category.

So why bring this all up now? Well, the Tony Allen tracks from the 1970s and others have been the perfect kind of music for this time of discontent, dispassionate but still drawing one in, even to jam alongside the recordings. And I do see patterns to be drawn between these jam pieces, the free “noise-improv” and the detached films described above.

And finally, I think this type of music is the answer to “why don't go make music now” – getting away from passions and anxieties, rather than making some vain attempt to express them. And as such, is probably the key to revisiting and completing my album 2 1/2. Indeed, I think I might be able to further use the “three categories of appreciation,” thinking, moving and detached, as a way to better organize the existing tracks of the album and create the missing elements.

We will have to see if any of that actually works. But for now, just keep getting lost…

Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007), Part 1

Two weeks ago, on July 30, we lost not one but two of our great modern filmmakers. I had just finished watching L'Eclisse by Michelangelo Antioni a day or so earlier, and was preparing to write about it when I read the news about Ingmar Bergman. I immediately put my Antonioni article aside to remember Bergman through one of my favorite films “Persona.” And upon publishing it, I learn that Antonioni, too, passed away on the same day. Of course, life happens, and it is only two weeks later that I am finally getting around to completing the first of two articles remembering the work of Antonioni through his early 1960s “trilogy” of masterpieces: L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse.

Perhaps an interesting place to start is with this reflection on Antonioni by Ryan Walker Knight at The House Next Door:

For a long time I thought I didn?t get Antonioni. I rejected what I saw?a cool, detached intellectualism?as stuffy pretentiousness. I knew something was happening in L?avventura but I couldn?t articulate my anxious distaste. Also, I was bored. So I let it sit, somewhere behind something else in the recesses I don?t dip into every day and went on enjoying Godard…

Indeed it was shortly after seeing a few of Godard's early 1960's films that I saw L'Avventura for the first time – a phenomenon may be fairly common in the age of Netflix, as suggested by the blog 64 and Broadway, Barcelona. I recall watching Monica Vitti's performance as Claudia and then writing, “I have collected so many examples of mid-century European womanhood, what am I going to do with them?”

Indeed it was shortly after seeing a few of Godard's early 1960's films that I saw L'Avventura for the first time – a phenomenon may be fairly common in the age of Netflix, as suggested by the blog 64 and Broadway, Barcelona. I recall watching Monica Vitti's performance as Claudia and then writing, “I have collected so many examples of mid-century European womanhood, what am I going to do with them?”

Of course, the appeal of L'Avventura was not just Monica Vitti's angst-ridden beauty, but it “cool, detached intellectualism”, mixture of confusion and boredom, the total “WTF” nature of the storyline, and all in the context of Antonioni's incredibly crisp, clean and geometric imagery.

The interesting thing about the settings in L'Avventura is that they are in contrast to the modern characters, the ancient volcanic islands in the first part of the film, the old “Roman” estates/mansions and the crumbly villages and town squares of Sicily. In the later films, the settings would be more modern as well. The stark contrast of old and new worked in L'Avventura, but so did the modern urban/industrial settings of La Notte and L'Eclisse. This paper by Yuri Sengalli (University of Toronti) compares and contrasts the settings in Antonioni's “tetrology” of films (Red Desert is sometimes considered the “fourth” in the series):

The four films reveal Antonioni's mastery and firm control over every detail of the visual arrangement of his images: the representation of and the relation between 'inside and outside', which is to say between a protagonist's intimate state and the dehumanized setting, is a matter of striking prominence with this director. In fact, the interiorization of the contemporary landscape and, likewise, the exteriorization of a character's inner life is the key issue of the works themselves…Significantly, the camera movements point to a deceivingly quasi-documentary recording and understanding of the characters and their precarious ties to their 'habitat'; more precisely they are used to indicate the problematic psychic states of the individual in the contemporary environment. Ultimately, a sort of subjective, psychological realism seems to surface.

I think one of the reasons films like L'Avventura (and Persona in the case of Bergman) appeal to me so readily instead of having to “grow on me” as many others have commented, is that I really feel I am a modernist in the sense that people used the term in the 1960s. I absolutely love the architecture, art and ideals of this period, the complete detachment and coolness of it all. And the settings and characters of these films fully integrate into that world.

In contrast to the more abstract and wonderfully perplexing character of L'Avventura, La Notte seemed very down-to-earth, with an easy-to-understand story. We spend 24 hours will a couple who seem to be on the verge of falling apart yet not quite managing to do so.

I have to say, I am happy that the Clintons did not choose to remake the finale from La Notte, as suggested by Glenn Kenny and discussed on this site back in June. In general, I did not get quite the same sense from this film as I did from L'Avventura It was more of the classic anti-love story, but one that was very well done, again with that clean, modern style in both its people and settings. And I do have to acknowledge the seemingly unrelated opening credits as brilliant: a rising elevator in a construction site (or that's what it appeared like to me, at least) with a very experimental piece by Giorgio Gaslini. La Notte is probably the most “musical” of the films in the trilogy (or tetrology), with Gaslini's score. But even here, the music is sparing. There are lots of silent moments, and this is something I appreciate as a musician with a deep interest in silence and soundscapes without deliberate music.

In part 2, which I hope to present in the near future (i.e., sooner than another two weeks), we will move on to L'Eclisse and perhaps beyond…

Wordless Wednesday: Almost Modern

Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

From today's New York Times, news of the death of filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.

Ingmar Bergman, the ?poet with the camera? who is considered one of the greatest directors in motion picture history, died today on the small island of Faro where he lived on the Baltic coast of Sweden, Astrid Soderbergh Widding, president of The Ingmar Bergman Foundation, said. Bergman was 89.

While he may be best remembered for films such as “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries”, my favorite remains “Persona.” This is a more abstract, modernist “psychological” film, focusing on the relationship and interaction of just two characters (played by Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersen). And it contains this amazing opening sequence:

Although “Persona” wasn't even mentioned in the New York Times tribute, it is considered by many, including myself, to be his best.

Worthless Kitty Musings: Brakhage and Bast

I have been viewing on and off a collection of short films by Stan Brakhage. Brakhage was a very prolific and influential maker of short experimental films. Most of his films have little or no narrative, and in many cases are made from images created directly on the film (i.e., not filmed with a camera), as in the case of thethe frame from Resurrectus Est shown to the right. Most of the films are also silent, leaving the viewer to focus exclusively on the images.

One of the films that intruiged me was Cats Cradle, originally done in 1964. Basically, it consists of a series of clips of a black cat interspersed with separate closeups of a man and a woman (apparently there were two couples in the film, but was not able to see this as I was watching). The cuts are frequent and the lighting/tinting is an amazing shade of red/magenta. It really is hard to describe, though you can find a better attempt here. An interesting suggestion is that the film can be seen as the “cat's perspective” on the couple.

The film definitely has a sexual feel to it, though there are no explicitly sexual images (discounting the fact that juxtaposing images of a woman and a man usually adds some sense of sexuality). How does the cat fit into that overall sense? Juvenile word-associations aside, cats have a history of association with (female) sexuality and fertility, most notably through the Egyptian goddess Bast. Bast is definitely a goddess for my personal pantheon, and I've been looking for an excuse to use her in a post on this forum. Bast has quite a resume, as the protector of cats, women and children, also associated with perfume, fertility, love, music and dance. It is interesting to consider Cat's Cradle in the context of Bast, even as a tribute of sorts, although I have no basis to assume Brakhage had such an association in mind. Though looking through his filmography, i think he was fond of cats.