Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Is Jazz Dying?

Among the several virtues of the recent film La La Land is that it has gotten people talking about jazz. A few people. One of the protagonists in the film (Ryan Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who has a dream of opening his own club. He's afraid that the jazz traditions are dying, and yet he finds it impossible to make a decent living without stooping to accept a job as a sideman in a pop-funk band.

Some viewers have commented that the way this issue is developed in the film is a little childish and generally unconvincing. I agree. Here are a few reasons:

a) Few unemployed jazz musicians living in one-bedroom apartments seriously imagine they might lease or purchase a historic ballroom in Los Angeles any time soon.

b) In any case, running a club is an entirely different kettle of fish from playing music on the highest level. Both take a lot of time, but they aren't the same thing at all.

c) Most aspiring musicians of any genre spend a great deal of time jamming with their musician friends, trying to develop new sounds, rather than sitting alone at the piano trying to copy riffs from LPs that are fifty years old.

d) The manager of the nightclub where Gosling works could easily have agreed to let him play something more complex  than "Jingle Bells," if he kept it mellow, and he could easily have agreed. It not, he could also have amused himself jazzing up the items that were on the playlist for his own pleasure without alienating the dinner guests unduly. That's what jazz musicians do. (Check out Charlie Parker's version of "White Christmas" on iTunes.) As it stands, the conflict in the film rings false.

All of this doesn't effect the film much, however. La La Land is a fantasy, and jazz is a pretext, and it works well enough under the circumstances. So let's not get too concerned about it. The question remains: Is jazz dying? And the answer, to anyone who knows jazz, is an obvious no.

Most people don't know much about jazz, and I suspect that many adventurous listeners who give it a try find that they don't like it much. Yet in the set of statistics I just dug up online, which runs to 2014, jazz accounted for 1.4 percent of music sales—the same as classical music. Not bad! I suspect if it rose much higher we could attribute it to the success of one particular vocalist or "crossover" artist who would no longer be doing "real" jazz anyway. 

There are many types of "real" jazz, of course, though they aren't mutually exclusive. You might like Trad Jazz, Swing (Big Band), vocal jazz, Bop (cool, West Coast, hard bop), Modal, free jazz ("out"), fusion, Euro (chamber jazz), or "ethnic" jazz, by which I mean jazz inflected with Asian, Brazilian, or modern African elements, to mention a few of the most obvious style-niches.

The beauty of jazz—I think the film got this right—is that those who love it really love it and are thrilled to be in its presence on any given night. Jazz blogs abound covering some of its many underground nooks and crannies. (One I read regularly is dothem@th, maintained by Etan Iverson, the pianist of The Bad Plus.)

The energy of a live jazz set tends to wax and wane, and the temptation musicians face to coast is ever-present—especially on a Monday night in Minneapolis. I consider my time well-spent if there are ten or fifteen incandescent minutes in a given performance. Often there are more.

I've been going to jazz shows since the late 1960s, when the Guthrie Theater presented a top-notch series (Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd, Garry Burton, etc.). In those days the storefront club Cafe Extraordinaire (located where K-Mart now sits on Lake Street, but one hundredth the size) also booked some big names into its dark, low-ceilinged room full of folding chairs (e.g. Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson). The six dollar cover seemed enormous to a high school kid like me, and the club was twenty miles from home, but it was worth it to listen to the McCoy Tyner Trio while resting my tennis shoes on the front leg of his piano!  

All serious jazz fans maintain a memory list of greats they've heard "live"—experiences often only dimly captured in recordings. I won't bore you with mine. But I would like to send one query out into the blogosphere. I once heard Charles Mingus play a surprise set at the Guthrie with only two or three days notice. I heard about it on the radio (KSJN).The two young reed men in his group were fantastic, but at the time I'd never heard of them and didn't remember their names. In retrospect I wonder if they might have been Rickie Ford and Sonny Fortune. Can anyone help?

The greatest challenge jazz presents to newcomers is simply one of sorting out the styles. If your introduction to jazz piano, for example, happens to be Thelonious Monk, you'll have a very different impression of jazz than if Bill Evans is your guide. And what about Jaki Byard, Muhal Richard Abrams, Bud Powell, Robert Glasper, Mal Waldron? The stylistic differences are striking, radical, and the list goes on and on.

If you emerged from the theater after seeing La La Land with the idea that you might like to learn a little more about that elusive thing called jazz, here's a short list of recent mainstream piano recordings to check out on iTunes. Why not download a few numbers? It would cost less than your morning latte. I wouldn't say these are the BEST. They're just a few albums I happen to own myself.

  • Kenny Barron/ Dave Holland: The Art of Conversation (2014)
  • Bill Charlap: Notes from New York (2016)
  • Gerald Clayton: Life Forum (2013)
  • Chick Corea: Further Explorations (2011)
  • Herbie Hancock:  River - the Joni Letters (2007)
  • Brad Mehldau/Joshua Redman: Nearness (2016)
  • Fred Hersch: Night and the Music (2007)
  • Robert Glasper: In My Element (2007)

And for historical perspective I'd throw in the 2 CD set by Bill Evans called Some Other Time, recorded in 1968 but released only last year.

I haven't followed jazz avidly for a long time, though I occasionally "dip in" to see what's happening. I also belong to a Jazz Night group that meets once a month to listen respectfully to selections brought by the various members. I came across a very thick book the other day, Jazz Record: the First Sixty Years, by Scott Yanow, in which he chronicles the art form in exhaustive detail over the course of 800 pages of fine print. The narrative ends in 1976, but Yanow concludes:

Some of the lazier observers of the current jazz scene have complained that jazz has lost its direction since the 1970s and that the music has run out of fresh ideas. The truth is that jazz is in a golden age that started in the mid-1890s, accelerated around 1920, and has not stopped since. The music on a whole has never had an artistic off period, and it continues with brilliant performances and recordings up to the current time.

He follows this remark with a list of roughly three hundred "young" performers, only a smattering of whom I've heard of.

In short, jazz is still very much alive and well. The challenge for the performers is one of making a living from it. The challenge for us lies in sorting it all out.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Northwoods Journal

It was dusk when we pulled into the Mont Royal supermarket—a place where the lighting director probably makes more than the produce buyer. It was a glitzy shopping experience of the kind I don't generally associate with Duluth. But we'd come looking for fresh fish and bought a pound and a half of lake trout. The butcher was excited to sell it to us. "Caught just yesterday in Bayfield," he said enthusiastically. (Everyone else seemed to be buying frozen shrimp and scallops for their New Years Eve party.)

It was dark by the time we got to Two Harbors. Not a big deal, though it seemed odd to arrive at our cabin in Castle Danger without having gotten a good long look at the big lake. We could hear it, however. It was roaring. We breaded, fried, and ate the fish while listening to jazz piano on Hil's iPad (Billy Childs, Fred Hersch), took a walk in the dark along the approach road to the resort, then built a fire in the glassed-in fireplace.

Now I'm reading Martin Heidegger, who tries to convince me, based of the etymology of the German word, that "building" is "dwelling." Think about it. It's a ridiculous position to take, though it highlights Heidegger's singular preference for passive rather than active notions.
Tomorrow we'll ski.

Morning. Two red-breasted mergansers (I think) just drifted by outside the window. I had a dream that I had been selected to give some sort of speech at a college campus. No one told me this until I arrived, however.

We skied Gooseberry State Park. Plenty of snow cover. Two hours without seeing a soul. These are our favorite North Shore trails. The woods are varied and generally open, never flat but seldom treacherous. Climbing gently, descending to that creek. (Don't know the name.) The frozen river is nice, of course, but even more impressive, I think, is the view inland across the expanse of woods and hills from the ridge, a mottled pattern of frosty grays and greens stretching to the horizon. We took our usual route but tacked on another small loop at the base of the "deer yard" and then up a little hill to a bivouac shelter with another great view, flushing a grouse along the way.

Later, on our way out of the parking lot, we came upon four pine grosbeaks sitting in the road.

After lunch we decided to go back out and ski the municipal trails in Silver Bay. That was ambitious. It was something of a shock to arrive at the parking lot and find it almost full.

"I can't believe there are so many people here," I said to the middle-aged woman who was just climbing up over the snowbank with her skis.

"Everybody decided to come north, I guess," she said, with only a faint wisp of disdain in her voice.

"Yeah, but we skied Gooseberry this morning for two hours and didn't see a soul."

She wasn't interested. She was gone in a flash, off into the dense woods. And she was the only person we saw during our ski.

The trails here are narrow. They run through the dark spruce woods maybe thirty feet up the bank from the Beaver River. The afternoon sun coming across the frozen river penetrated the vegetation here and there to give the woods a genuine sparkle. A half-mile in, the trail leaves the river and the countryside becomes more open, occasionally meadow-like, which makes it easier to see the spectacular rock outcroppings in the distance, hundreds of feet high.

On our way back we took a detour to Lax Lake, where the ice houses can be beautiful set against the same rugged hills we were skiing between. There weren't all that many houses out on the ice--too early in the winter, perhaps?--but little matter; few things are more brilliant than just to be out on a snow-covered lake in full glare of winter sun.

I was cooking up a lamb stew with white beans and vegetables when Hilary got back from testing out a new set of aluminum snowshoes we'd inherited. "I haven't quite mastered the snowshoes," she said, "but the moon is spectacular."

I went outside to take a look. There was a crescent moon, more golden than usual. There was Venus, above and to the left, and then Mars, higher up, smaller.

I'm drinking a glass of Willamette whole cluster pinot noir. A few steps above my normal price point, yet I'm finding it unpleasantly sweet?! (Do you think that will stop me from having another glass?)

I have a collection of Heidegger's essay here beside me on the couch. Having read a few pages, I arrive at the conclusion that Being isn't very interesting. Can anything be done about Being? I think not. Let's put it aside, therefore, and redirect our attention toward a more important concept: Value.

So I turn to Kenneth Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, where I read:

Men, in moments of
Idleness, occupy their minds
with the vacuity of
Feminine eyebrows..."

—Ou Yang Hsiu

The poet must have had a rough life, for he goes on to say:

               —who ever
has been benefitted by the
presence of a woman? Still,
my lewd heart yearns for the past ...

Turning from Rexroth to the French thinker Gabriel Marcel, I read:

Might it  not be said that to create is always to create above oneself? And is it not exactly, also, in this sort of connection that the word "above" assumes its specific value?

A little further on in Marcel's work, I come upon a remark that might well have been aimed, in the kindest way possible, at his estimable German colleague:

When he coins a new word, a philosopher is often the victim of an illusion. The strange and surprising impression produced on him by his new word often prevents him from seeing that there is nothing strange or surprising about the thought it expresses.  

And so, we walk outside again to view the stars. A clear night, constellations everywhere, the moon still 20 degrees above the horizon.

And then a bonus—a pack of coyotes, not that far away, yipping like mad.

Monday, January 9, 2017

La La Land

When the temperature is approaching zero and the skies are gray, the idea of spending a few hours in sunny Los Angeles might sound like a good one. And Damien Chazelle's new film, La La Land, satisfies that urge to a T. It's a quasi-romance on the order of A Star is Born, in which two aspiring artists fall in love—sort of. It also happens to be a musical. The songs are fairly catchy, and few human activities have greater power to lift the spirits than tap-dancing.

The opening number, a ten minute song-and-dance in the midst of a traffic jam on the LA freeway, appears to be a single take, and it establishes that this film is going to be full of creativity and whimsy. That impression is reconfirmed in many places along the way.

In short, La La Land has enough energy and surprise to dismiss from our minds the notion that it's striving slavishly to ape some lost film aesthetic. I'm a big fan of Hollywood musicals (not Broadway musicals)  and I've never seen a film quite like this. 

On the other hand, I'll have to admit that the opening sequence reminded me of a very, very long Target commercial.

In fact, La La Land is the kind of film in which you often find yourself thinking about the art director. The colors are super-bright, like a film from Pedro Almodóvar in his prime, though never to the point of outright garishness. Yet you look at a turquoise tumbler on a table, and notice how well it harmonizes with the bathroom curtains. That's not a good sign.

The most serious shortcoming of the film, however, is that the central romantic entanglement is tepid. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sustain a sort of antagonistic humor in the early going, but we don't feel much of an amorous countercurrent. They even sing a song together as they look out over the lights of Los Angeles in which they analyze this lack of feeling they share for one another. Anyone familiar with the energy and tension generated by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, or by Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, or even by John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century, must find this tone a little troubling. (Judy Garland and Gene Kelly? Kelly and Rita Hayworth? Grant and Jean Arthur? Astaire and Rogers? The list goes on and on.)

Gosling is largely to blame. He's sort of glum, and his repartee has an element of bitterness in it, based on the fact that no one shares his enthusiasm for mainstream jazz. When he eventually joins a band to start earning some real money, we're supposed to take it as a sell-out to pop commercialism ... but I sort of liked it. And anyway, musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, and Chick Corea (jazz greats one and all) made the same choice back in the early 1970s, during the glory years of fusion. Hey! A guy's gotta eat.

Things do start to click between the two eventually, but the strongest impetus they exchange is one of encouragement and self-sacrifice. Gosling wants Stone to follow her dream, while she wants him to do the same. That's all very noble, and it might even be wise, but it doesn't generate much entertainment heat. And neither of these aspiring artists should be surprised that if and when their careers blossom, they aren't going to be seeing much of each other.

But such concerns, which force us to leave aside superlatives when discussing La La Land, take nothing away from the film's value as a divertimento. Singing, dancing, color, romance, the pursuit of a dream: what's not to like? The ending scenes work, I think, but what happens "in the end" is less important than what's happening scene by scene, and this makes La La Land the kind of film that would, I suspect, be very easy to watch more than once.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Return to Meadowlands

It looked almost like a shaman's shrine, standing in the shadows at the edge of the woods. A spruce log ran about head high between two rough posts. There were feeders dangling from the bar and chunks of suet affixed to both posts.

I think we might have driven right past the station except that there were two cars parked along the road nearby. We were still a quarter-mile away when I spotted a man walking down the road. As we approached I noticed that a camera with a very large lens was hanging from his neck, and he was wearing the most elaborate pair of knee-high white mukluks, cross-laced with rawhide strips, that I'd ever seen. Ah! The shaman himself!

As our Corolla squeaked to a stop on the snow-covered dirt road I rolled down the window.

"See anything interesting?"

"No. But someone saw a great gray owl right about here this morning."

"Really?" I replied, trying to sound impressed. And of course, I was. But it was cold outside, and the time was 3 p.m. That bird could be anywhere by now. Then again, if you really want to see one, it makes sense to spend some time in the vicinity where they've been seen before.

Birders come from all over the U.S. to this very spot in hopes of seeing such a bird. It drops south across the border from Ontario only sporadically, and seems to prefer the thick, quiet black-spruce bogs north of Meadowlands to the upland forests closer to the border. A few years ago, Hilary and I had the good luck to be up north during a rare winter invasion of the species. We saw eighteen of them in a single weekend.

Meanwhile, the shaman was scrutinizing my face, trying to gauge what type of a birder I really was. I took a brief look past his rugged face at the thick wall of black spruce behind him, through which a few glints of late afternoon sun were sparkling--as if I was suddenly going to see those big, expressionless, yellow eyes peering out at me that the shaman had somehow failed to spot! Of course, I saw nothing.

"Good luck," I said quietly, and waved with a single finger as I cranked up the window, released the clutch, and we moved forward respectfully toward the cars parked alongside the road  ahead.

"I think we just passed the feeders," Hilary said, turning her head. Indeed, there they were, obscured in shadow. They didn't look like much. I parked next to the other cars and we got out. A man was standing by the side of the road.

"See anything interesting? A boreal chickadee, perhaps?"

He shook his head.

"I've never seen one," I said.

"Neither have I. But this is the right time of day. I've been told they like the gob of peanut butter that's smeared on the top of the beam ... There's a redpoll eating seeds on the ground under the left hand post."

"I haven't seen one of those for ages," I said, honing in with my binoculars on his red forehead spot and rosy breast.

"We flushed a flock of them down by the Loretta feeder a half-hour ago. I've only been here for five minutes."

The man was from Madison. He'd driven up with his wife and daughter, who were sitting in the car. At one point the girl got out, and she and her dad played briefly in the snow bank. Then both of them returned to the car and got inside.

We stood there for a few minutes more, examining chickadees one after another, eager to spot one with a grayish cheek, a brownish head. There were perhaps thirty of them zooming in and out from both sides of the road, often missing our heads by only a few inches as they passed. But it was not to be.

I waved at the man in the car as we left. He was still looking at the feeding station, but only though the closed window, with his naked eye. It's a six-hour drive from Madison to Meadowlands. I wonder how long he stuck around.

I've been interested in Meadowlands for quite a while. I like the name, and it has always struck me as an improbable place for a town to be—like an Oz or a Shangri La. On our recent visit another element was added to the story, as I was reminded of something I'd long forgotten. Our recent visits have been by way of Highway 169 and Floodwood, but last weekend we came north on the freeway, took the Cloquet Cutoff (Highway 33) and continued north on Highway 53 to Cotton. This is the route my family took many times when I was a kid on our way to the cabin on Lake Vermilion. The stretch between Cloquet and Virginia always seemed dull, and all but interminable.

The only bright spot was the traditional stop at Berweger's Cheese Shop (long since burned down) to buy a few slices of Tilsit cheese and a big bag of penny candy that we used as chips in our evening poker games. (Little did I know--nor would I have cared at the time--that the cheese shop was an outlet of Berweger's Cheese Factory in Meadowlands.)

The only other memorable landmark (not counting the horrible stench in the outhouse at the Lion's Springs wayside rest) was the green highway sign in the middle of nowhere pointing the way to Meadowlands. The sign might just as well have said Oak Woods or Steep Cliffs. It didn't sound like a municipality; it sounded like a natural phenomenon. In any case, I found it hard to imagine that there were any meadows out in that direction.

These are the things that capture the imagination of children: the things with a mysterious, vaguely romantic flair. The things that don't make much sense.  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Silly Swedish Solstice

Each year the approach of the winter solstice brings out a peculiar form of silliness. Days are short, Christmas is nearing, yet many of us feel the urge to have a nocturnal celebration that has nothing to do with consumerism or religion. Hence the appeal of the solstice celebration.

It can be as simple as pulling the firepit out from under the deck, lighting a fire in it, and standing around with a glass of wine or brandy, admiring the stars or talking about how cold it is.

But the other night a friend from Texas was visiting and we decided to drive down to the slightly more elaborate celebration being held at the American Swedish Institute. The drive itself was splendid, along the west bank of the Mississippi in the dark, with the bright red lettering of PILLSBURY'S BEST FLOUR shining in the distance across the river. South on Portland Avenue, we were soon passing the looming, evil presence of the new death star football stadium.

A few minutes later we were pulling into the lot of the Swedish Institute—then pulling out again. It was full. But parking a block away made it possible for us to get a nice sweeping view of the old/new institution as we approached.

We were waiting in line in the lobby to pay the entry fee when I overheard a tall, blond, thirtyish woman say to a female friend, "My mother always told me I could many a person of any creed or race, but I could never marry a Swede."

Our first stop was for a glass of glüg at the bar on the second floor, where they were also distributing elaborate smores to the kids. (My dad—100% Swedish—used to make glug every year; I think I still have the recipe somewhere. But he was a chemist, and some of the ingredients he used came directly from the lab.)

Our next stop was to the firepits outside. I had imagined there would be a single big blaze somewhere, maybe ten feet high, but the fires were modest, if not actually anemic. All the same, it's fun to mill around in the dark with a bunch of strangers whose faces are lit only by firelight.

A forest of tiny balsam firs had been set up nearby and decked with white lights, in the midst of which sat an antique Volvo driven by two or three stuffed tomtens.

We went into the Turnblad mansion to check out the period rooms, which had been decorated for the season and set with distinctive dishes and glassware from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and even Finland.

Hilary (who spent a year in Denmark during her college years) almost gasped when she saw the Danish Christmas tree. "That's what they look like," she said. "The candles, the paper hearts in red and white. There was a lot of singing and dancing around the tree."

Up on the third floor a nyckelharpa concert was about to commence. The elderly woman standing in front of me had an accent, and I asked her if she was from Sweden.

"Yes. But I came here many, many years ago."

"What part?" I asked.

"Dalarna ... but not where they make the horses," she said. "It's in the south."

"My people come from Smaland," I said. "Where the poor people come from."

"That's even farther south," she said. "The soil isn't much good down there."

While we were waiting for the band to take the stage, I heard a woman in conversation with a friend. "Last year they had a big bonfire in the courtyard. It was very congested. They decided to spread things out this year."

Before the band got going I saw several elderly people enter the room, and I vacated my seat. There was quite a bit of tuning up, last-minute advice flowing back and forth, before the band finally launched into a pleasant medium-tempo tune. Then they played another one in exactly the same vein.

"It sounds like the last tune, only played in reverse," my friend said under his breath.

"And if you listen carefully, you can hear the words 'Paul is dead,'" I replied.

There was a certain ambient appeal to the music, but perhaps no need to actually sit and watch the performance--though I was a little worried that one of the women in the front row was going to nick herself in the throat with her free-swinging bow. The music would undoubtedly sound just as good from a distance, lending atmosphere to the halls and rooms downstairs and throughout the mansion.

Back on the first floor I struck up a conversation with a woodcarver who happened to be sitting there with a piece of wood and a short knife. He uses birch, he told me, and keeps it moist by cutting down a tree and burying it in the snow. Depending on the diameter, you can get from four to twelve spoons out of a section, he told me.

"Do you always harvest your own trees?" I asked.

"No. I have some reliable sources. But deer hunting season is a good time to get wood, and I'm a hunter. And there's no shortage of birch trees in northern Minnesota." He smiled.

He had an array of spoons sitting on a shelf beside him, all of them different in shape or size.

"How long would it take you to make a spoon like this?" I asked, picking up a specimen with a rib running up the back.

"Maybe three hours," he said. "You've got to cut away quite a bit of wood to get to the spoon."

"Do you have a shop somewhere?"

"No," he replied. "I sell a few things on-line." He paused for an instant, and then added: " People from all over the world buy and sell spoons on-line."

Then he smiled ingenuously, and I got the feeling he didn't much care if anyone bought his spoons or not. Perhaps the market was secure, or maybe he had a day job at a hedge fund? It was obvious, in any case, that he enjoyed making spoons. How much do they cost? I have no idea.

Back at the institute's modern addition, we wandered the gift shop looking at knit caps with flaps, attractive pieces of blown glass from Boda and Orrefers, and dish towels decorated in garish greens and oranges.   

Then it was back to the car. Avoiding the major thoroughfares once again, we took 28th Street west all the way to Lake of the Isles and then circled the lake on our way to Wirth Parkway. Quite a few of the mansions on the lake were decked with lights, as usual, but the effect was more subdued than I remember from previous years. The predominate color was white.

When we got back to the house I pulled a bottle of aquavit out of the liquor cabinet, and we had some fun trying to figure out how many times it had crossed the equator on a ship. If you look through the bottle you can see the back side of the front label, where the dates when the booze was loaded onto and off of the ship have been recorded.

"It tastes like pine trees," I said.

"I don't really care for it," my friend said. You can have mine.  

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Rose in Winter

Winter is already here. But a more serious episode of the same familiar story was set to arrive over the weekend—first five to eight inches of snow, then a drop in temperature to -20 and beyond.
Not a super-big deal. But it was enough to keep us at home on Friday night, even though we had tickets to a concert by the Rose Ensemble at a church in St. Paul.

Maybe that was the thing: the image of snaking home through the snow after the concert, with pile-ups left and right, along I-94. Maybe the bridge would collapse while we were crossing the Mississippi? That's a long way down. And those narrow cruciform churches where they schedule the events! Bad sight lines, wooden pews. Ugh! Better to stay home, light a fire in the fireplace, pull out my new (used) copy of Julio Cortázar's Diary of Andrés Fava, and enjoy a quiet evening as the snow piles up on the yew bushes outside the living room window. The price we paid for the tickets might just as well be considered a year-end donation. Right?

Yet checking the website, I noticed that the Rose Ensemble was doing the same show at a church in Bloomington on Sunday afternoon. So we drove down just to see if they'd let us in with our unused tickets from Friday night. The temperature was -7. Not bad enough to keep the fans away, I suspected. All the same, I was pretty sure they'd have some room in the church somewhere. And over the years I've noticed there's something open and friendly about the organization, the exacting standards of the musicianship notwithstanding. Maybe because I've been to so many of the free programs they put on at public libraries. Maybe because I'm impressed by the efforts the Rose Ensemble makes to perform in smaller towns throughout the state, from Hibbing and Albert Lea to Detroit Lakes and Winona.

"I have a problem," I said to the man behind the cash box.

"How can I help you?"

"We have tickets to the Friday show..."

"Of course we can fit you in. I see you were in section B." And he scribbled something on my print-out with a Sharpie. And that was that.

The concert was very fine. A few familiar faces amid the group—founder Jordan Sramek, basses Mark Dietrich and Jake Endres, alto Clara Osowski from the Source Song Festival and Consortium Carissimi. The others were new to me, though they were uniformly on the mark. 

The compositions ranged  from medieval plainchant to Palestrina and Praetorius.  These are the names we hear again and again, along with Machaut, Dufay, Lassos, while seldom recognizing any particular composition as one we've heard before. Throw in a few numbers by abbess Hildegard von Bingen (all of which sound like the same number...but nice) and the world premier of a piece by Victor Zupanc, and you've got a varied and stimulating program.

It's the kind of music in which each voice must stand alone, hit the right pitch, blend, be expressive, hold back, contribute to the whole. There is no place to hide, and these musicians can do it.

As so often seems to happen, I found myself seated next to a fidgetter.  The woman flipped the pages of her program, underlined things, wrote notes in the margins—in short, did everything except listen to the music! I felt like grabbing her by the collar and saying, "Do you even like music? Why did you come?"

But when the Rose Ensemble's manager, Peter Carlson, gave a little speech before intermission about charitable contributions (he was also the man behind the cash box who had let us in) the woman whipped out her checkbook and wrote a check. (Five dollars? Or five-hundred? I couldn't see.) I guess she likes music in one way or another. (Sorry to say, it took her about five minutes of fumbling before she got the checkbook back in her purse.)

But this irritant did little to undermine the loveliness of the performance. And who knows? Maybe the woman was really very interested in the music. When she heard:

O frondens virga,
in tua nobilitate stans
sicut aurora procedit:
 nunc gaude et letare
et nos debiles dignare
a mala consuetudine liberare
atque manum tuam porrige
ad erigendum nos.
Perhaps she wanted to know what it meant.

O blooming branch,
you stand upright in your nobility,
as breaks the dawn on high:
Rejoice now and be glad,
and deign to free us, frail and weakened,
from the wicked habits of our age;
stretch forth your hand
to lift us up aright.

Frankly, I don't think so. But it doesn't matter. The beauty of the voices and the harmonies transcend meaning.

But is that true? Poets of the time loved to exploit the play on words between "virga" (blooming branch) and "virgin" (which is blooming... what?)  Perhaps I was just being a lazy sensualist rather than a serious-minded witness to the faith by ignoring the printed page. Still, at a concert, the sound is the thing. And one's neighbors in the pew ought not to be disturbed.

All I know is that there was still light in the sky as we drove north on Highway 100 toward Golden Valley after the show. The concert was good. The performers, and the organization itself, was generous-hearted. No one could ask for more. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Arrival - Time on Our Hands

Considering the scope of its premise—aliens touch down simultaneously at twelve places widely scattered around the world in spaceships that look like huge orthopedic shoe inserts—The Arrival is a surprisingly small-scale and well-behaved production. The drama is focused on the fact that no one can figure out why they're here or what they want.

The U.S. military enlists crack linguist Amy Adams to break the ice, as it were, with the contingent of aliens who have appeared suddenly in rural Montana. She's accompanied on this tête-à-tête by physicist Jeremy Renner and a collection of military types who are itching to blast the intrusive pod to kingdom come. This storyline is intercut with mysterious and seemingly irrelevant "flashbacks" to Adams's personal life and memories of interactions with her daughter, who appears to have died before reaching adulthood.

Adams and Renner, bucking the establishment every step of the way, succeed in establishing a dialog of sorts with the creatures inside the pod, who express themselves not in words but in complex and attractive rings of messy ink that they squirt squid-like onto the transparent interface deep within their pod. 

 At first world leaders seem to be working together, trading information about what they've learned, but it isn't long before cooperation between superpowers comes to an end and the Americans must resort to satellite photography and other intelligence sources to see what's going on in other parts of the world. The fear is ever present that someone (China? Russia?) is going to start taking potshots at the pods.

It would be unconscionable to say more about the plot, except that it's more interesting than I've made it sound here, due to elements that I cannot divulge. However, it is safe to say that viewers looking for an action flick on the order of Independence Day or Starship Troopers are likely to be disappointed. The sky is often gray, and the tone of the film is brooding and largely personal. Yet Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and his crew do a good job of establishing a sense of profound foreboding, as if the end of civilization as we know it is just one diplomatic gaff away.

As I watched The Arrival, I was reminded from time to time, but for different reasons, of 2001: a Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Interstellar, and even Gravity. (After all, both Adams and Sandra Bullock are grieving mothers.) It's the kind of film that gets better as you stand in the parking lot ten minutes after its over, trying to figure out what actually happened.

(Spoiler alert.) Yet in the end, though the message of the film is worthwhile, its logic doesn't bear close scrutiny. The idea is that past and future are less "linear" than we imagine. In fact, if we learned to use the alien language rather than our own, we might eventually be able to "see" the future. The question then becomes, would we be able to alter it? And if not, would we be eager to participate in events to which we already know the outcome?

Such reflections are stimulating but ultimately sterile, like an M.C. Escher lithograph. The aliens seem to have asked and answered them already—otherwise, they wouldn't have bothered to pay us a visit. But I guess you and I will have to figure them out on our own.