Sunday, September 30, 2018

In praise of letting music collect a little dust

I am a big fan of letting books steep on the shelf — just ask my wife.

I take a similar approach to music. According to my Infernal Device I have 47.2 days worth of music. The “most-played” list indicates I keep roughly five days in constant rotation. But once a week I'll put the ID on random, just to see if there exists any good reason for the other 90%  to languish in obscurity. Occasionally something gets rescued and thrown into the spotlight.

Steven Wilson hasn't been an “obscurity” for me, exactly — but he did slip in status from “golden-haired child.” That sobriquet went to the no-haired child.
The hair-tint still applies, however.
I had about five years of acquiring and exploring Wilson's ouevre. It was all one big delirious treat for my ears — until it wasn't. At some point I realized that if this guy had a sense of humour he wasn't about to let it slip into his music, so I gravitated to the funny guy and didn't look back.

These days I'm not feeling the LOLs quite so deeply, so I gave this setlist a play while doing the weekly house-clean. To my surprise, I found myself consulting the ID and giving “two- or three-star” songs a bump of an additional star or two. I even bought tickets to his November show. More anon, I'm sure.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Recovering brand integrity

Seems to be le mode du jour:
Buruma apparently has a wife and daughter -- I don't know if it's a relationship in good standing, but giving them first dibs at vetting Ghomeshi's mea culpa (absque 'culpa') would have been a stellar idea. Heck, just running it by the office fact-checker would have been a stellar idea.

It's a shame -- NYRB is a publication I've long admired, and Buruma's round in the editor's office appeared (from this distance) to be keeping its reputation on-track. But this move was so unfathomably stupid -- was perennial "poor misunderstood me" Mark David Chapman not available for a clarifying closing editorial? -- it makes Buruma's prompt sacking entirely explicable. And that's not even bringing into account Buruma's awkward attempt at defending the piece.

Paying Ghomeshi real money to address the public from a prestige platform remains a fireable offense -- this is good news.

"I don't ever want to hear his voice again." I wrote that four years ago, and my feelings have not changed one iota. And alas for the Mother Corp, my feelings of distaste and revulsion have expanded to include our national public broadcaster and many of the products they have on offer. It is curious to read this account of the post-Ghomeshi gong show and note which names associated with him and the enabling of his behaviour are still pulling in a Corporation paycheque.

I doubt I am alone in my disappointment, nor in my deliberate shift away from unqualified support of the Corp. CBC's brand, in other words, is still struggling to recover from l'affaire Ghomeshi.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

In search of lost books

Somewhere in this house is the copy of Frank Herbert's Dune which I first bought and read 40 years ago.

It is one of a handful of books that generates a cascade of memories with its physical, visual presence. Were it to disappear completely, and were I to buy as exact a replica as I could find, the replacement would not hold the same value. It would not be the book I bought at a second-hand bookstore in Abbotsford, B.C., the summer I bunked at a friend's place, waking up early to pick raspberries for five hours, then spending the rest of the day riding 10-speed bicycles and visiting derelict shops run by hippies.

Outside these shops the air smelled of cedar trees and rain. Inside it smelled of cigarette smoke (Player's Navy Cut) and patchouli oil.

Do you think I can find this book?

I'm pretty sure I last retrieved it three years ago, figuring the 50th anniversary of its publication was a good reason to re-read it. A few pages in, however, I realized two things: 1) this book was going to fall apart if I proceeded any further; 2) I wasn't sure I had it in me to proceed any further.

The prose read pretty much how I remembered it. Amalgamated linguistics aside, Herbert could hardly be called a “stylist.” He believed in sturdy narrative architecture, and laid down words like so much bricks and mortar. And I'd forgotten about the Appendices — an obvious source of inspiration for David Foster Wallace (whose writing I've only consumed in short doses).

Somewhere I put down Dune, and now I can't recall where. If you see it let me know.
It looks like this.
This podcast did a terrific job of covering the novel for me, and saved me the effort and heartbreak of buying and reading another copy. Coyle Neal introduces fellow host Danny Anderson to the book and they discuss it at length. I was chuffed not just to have my recall of its contents affirmed, but also my innate pronunciation of the novel's various Fremen words and names. A very enjoyable hour-and-a-bit — so much so that I aim to check out Anderson's earlier, pre-Dune-enlightenment sci-fi social-crit gabfest with Carter Stepper.

And if any of that appeals to you, then check out The Christian Humanist's discussion of H.P. Lovecraft — which I consider among the clearest explorations of the qualities and themes that make Lovecraft's horror horrific (and nigh-unto-impossible for today's super-enlightened writerly types to emulate).

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Puppet Uprising — now more than ever

In '77 I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a hippie. It didn't matter what the returned prodigals were saying before submitting to baptism, hippies were still doing all the cool stuff. They'd given us Sesame Street, H.R. Puffnstuff and Lidsville. Hippies brought us Star Wars, and the Muppet Show. And these cats all knew the rat race just produced more rats. They were gonna change things, we still had a generational revolution taking over, you just had to seek it out with greater fastidiousness and commitment —
Wait: this ain't Lidsville!
Eyeh. No need to go any further down that yellow brick road.

My childhood church didn't have many hippies. But it had a puppet troupe.
"Praise the Lord with clashing cymbals, with felt-clad hands and googly eyes..."
Actually our church had a number of super-cool youth initiatives, courtesy of the youth pastor Ken Dalenberg (quietly indefatigable) and his wife Sharon (the very definition of vivacious, and who should have been paid for her contributions — which were considerable — but never mind).

It was the mid-70s and hippies were returning to the fold, eschewing past misadventures with poverty and stench and consciousness-altering substances of dubious quality (with fellow travelers of dubious quality) and introducing disruptive ideas and dynamic modes of expression to the staid worshippers who had remained in the pews — and youth pastors like Ken were receptive. So our church took over a condemned property and put together a haunted house for Halloween. And none of this “Hell's Gates” bullshit. I'm talking a proper haunted house, with monsters and ghouls and giant spiders and Tussaud's usual gallery of physical torment — only with real people screaming.

The admissions line stretched around the block. Letters to the local newspaper shut that down pretty quickly and rescued the kids from all that satanic stuff.

But Ken and Sharon had other projects that caught fire — coffee houses with entertainment that used actual electric guitars; the usual bevy of hay-rides and wiener roasts; a choir with enough pop infusion to attract teens who genuinely wanted to sing the songs...

...and a puppet troupe.

Operating a sanctified muppet at the age of 12 was indeed a transformational experience — for the puppet, somewhat, but moreso for me. For a performance art, puppetry is surprisingly free of ego-related angst. As a beginner I was predictably inert. But that didn't matter — the puppet was cute and attracted all the attention. I became better at manipulation, but there was no singular “genius” at work. These puppets were interacting with each other, and many of them required more than one person to bring them to life.

It sounds wacky, but if you've been behind the curtain you know what this means — the puppets communicate with their handlers more intimately than they do the audience. The more attuned to the puppet the puppeteer becomes, the better the performance. And by the end of the show, the puppet receives all the adulation, while the puppeteer is the same Peter Parker schmuck everyone knows on the street — but he has that magical, near secret modality, that creative intimacy in which he can get lost.

I miss that.

Anyway — in an alternate universe there is an alternate version of myself that met this universe's Peter Schumann and joined his Bread & Puppet Theatre.
“We are the Bread & Puppet Theater because we offer good old sourdough rye bread together with a great variety of puppetshows, some good, some not so good, but all for the good and against the bad. The art of puppetry helps women, men and children alike to overcome the established order and the obsessive submission to its politics and consequent brutalities.” 
– Peter Schumann
Schumann's gig is belligerently artistic in a manner that eschews FINE art — “These puppets are all made from garbage.” It is political in its horrified response to the damage political identity wreaks on individuals and community. It is religious in its reverence for the sacred and its impatience with formal ritual.
I have probably surpassed the age of guru-submission, but I thoroughly grokked David Cayley's Puppet Uprising: The Art of Peter Schumann's Bread & Puppet Theatre, over here. I will not be running off to join the circus, but I could envision a road trip to a remote museum filled with garbage.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Barnes, Kerr, Wittgenstein, Grayling: Ottawa in the spring

I'm staring at two books I bought in late spring, one I finished quickly, the other I hope to (re)open soon — Julian Barnes' The Only Story and Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction by A.C. Grayling.
I got them both at Perfect Books — in Ottawa, where I accompanied my wife on a business trip. While she did the pro thing, I shuffled around town and bumped through establishment doorways like this one.
I knew I was going to polish off the Barnes novel — if E.L. Doctorow is the most partially-read author on my shelves, Julian Barnes qualifies as among the most fully-read. I've never had trouble finishing a book by him. The “lesser” stuff, the highbrow stuff — it all grabs and sustains my interest. The Only Story concerns a young man who falls for a woman old enough to be his mother, in '60s suburban England — lovely review by Michael Czobit over here. So yes: easily devoured. Now to Grayling and Wittgenstein.

I last wrestled with Ludwig Wittgenstein some 25 years ago. And what I call “wrestling” is nothing any self-respecting academic would deign to recognize — one or two long walks after reading, some notes tentatively scratched into my journal. But then it was time to chase down the next paying gig.
Throw in a visit to Haus Wittgenstein, and we're done.
I did a double take when I first saw this fetchingly slender book. I don't know much about Wittgenstein, but I do know he defies summary — “short” or otherwise. Still, if anyone can take a commendable stab at it, it would be A.C. Grayling, another Brit whose writing I've enjoyed over the years. I picked it up and made my way to the cash register.
Lovely photo, Jordana!
Another reason for the Grayling/Wittgenstein purchase: I felt compelled to buy something Philip Kerr related — Perfect Books put a “RIP Philip Kerr” sign beneath their selection of Kerr's Bernie Gunther mysteries. This was the first I'd heard of Kerr's passing. In '92 Kerr wrote A Philosophical Investigation, a futuristic thriller (set in 2013!) that had a serial killer protagonist named Wittgenstein who hunted down other potential serial killers, while conducting interviews with the detective trying to identify and bring him in. I am nowhere near as fond of that book as I am of Berlin Noir, but I already owned the published Gunther novels so this tenuous philosophy connection was just further motivation to pass Grayling's book over to the cashier.

“Yes, I'm sorry,” said my book-steward, when I asked about Kerr. “He died a couple of months ago. There's apparently one more Bernie Gunther novel in the pipeline, due to be published soon.”

I returned home and retrieved the Gunther novels I'd started but hadn't finished — Kerr was closing in on Doctorow, frankly. His stand-alone novels usually left me cool — with one exception — while the later Gunther novels had lost the fever-dream of the original trilogy and showed occasional signs of writer-weariness.
To wit.
Still, Kerr had a definite lock on his protagonist's voice, and it remains music to my inner ear. Gunther surveys the scene around him — Weimar Germany, Nazi Germany, the retreat from Stalingrad, the Nazi flight to South and Central America, etc — and asks, “Surely we are above all this?” He also looks within, and concludes, “No. No, none of us is.” A POV that can't help but feel just a little timely.

Now I am finishing those novels, and wishing Kerr was still around to write more. Alas.

Anyway, the stand-alone that really stuck to my ribs is The Second Angel, which readers seem to have limited use for. Hopefully I'll revisit it and do a little excavating here.