Further Down the ‘River of Fundament’

Here we are. December 2016, nearly 2017. It’s been almost two-and-a-half years since I saw Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament exhibition at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Ten months have passed since I saw the film at Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In that time, I’ve read and listened to quite a bit on the topic — including finishing Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, and Okwui Enwezor’s Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (Haus der Kunst’s official exhibition catalogue), and devouring what relevant interviews with Mailer and Barney I can find — and have dug farther into Barney specifically, including material on The Cremaster Cycle. Needless to say, I remain under utterly fascinated by River of Fundament. Not only that, but my appreciation continues to grow deeper.

I don’t intend to dive too far deep into the weeds, but I’d like to add some thoughts to the initial review.

It took a while for me to finish Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. Work and parenting leave time for little else, and it’s difficult to find long stretches of time to fit in chunks of substantial reading. Though, I am glad I read it as I did in relation to seeing the film. I read the first portion of the book — until the beginning of the Night of the Pig — before heading to Cleveland, and it helped to have Mailer’s re-telling of the myth of Isis and Osiris (and Set and Nepthys) fresh in my mind in addition to the characters and context of Mailer’s original tale. For the rest of the novel, it was great to have River of Fundament as a reference, as there were many subtleties that stuck out to me that otherwise wouldn’t have. I made notes throughout the book and won’t catalogue them all in this post, but here are a couple of examples:

1. “Some life like none I had known before began to tremble in the metal.”
“The magic is in the metal itself.”
– p. 204 (Mailer, Norman. Ancient Evenings. New York: Random House, 2014.)

These are two quotes of many that reference metallurgy and its surrounding mysticism — a core facet of Barney’s entire cycle (film, sculptures, engravings, and more). Norman and Menenhetet seek higher power through reincarnation, and this is expressed in parallel through Barney’s ritualistic destruction and rebirth of the three automobiles. Along with this, however, is the hierarchy of metals that is referenced by Barney — lead and zinc giving way to copper and brass in an attempt to achieve gold.

rouge battery(Matthew Barney’s “Rouge Battery” at Haus der Kunst; photo by me)

2. “Before our eyes the river began to fester.” – p. 270
“I have made them see Thy Majesty as a crocodile, The Lord of Fear in the water…” – p. 303

These quotes evoke the imagery of Horus’s birth as depicted in River of Fundament. Before the deceased Trans Am crests the water, the river does indeed fester. (Furthermore, Mailer references froth or frothing at various points in the novel, which is also a visual and vocal device employed by both Barney and Bepler.) A dying Isis gives birth to Horus inside the Trans Am whilst a crocodile calmly lies below her feet and newborn.

birth of horus(River of Fundament production still, “Birth of Horus”)

nepthys(River of Fundament production still, Nepthys)

And that’s to say nothing of the myriad references to orchids, pigs, bulls (evoking Barney’s Guardian of the Veil, the cycle’s antecedent), gold leaf, and much more. Thinking back to River of Fundament, a number of other questions arise: Was Mailer’s Honey-Ball portrayed as one of Barney’s Ptah-nem-hotep’s little queens, specifically the one who serenades Norman I? Was Hathfertiti I’s tuneful and catchy “Ballad of the Bullfighter” inspired by Honey-Ball’s “sweet and innocent song” that, in its own way (but different from the film), gives way to “[crying] out”? (p. 476) And many more…

Some instances reference specific imagery; others are more abstract evocations. Nonetheless, I came across many such connections while reading Mailer’s tome. Despite the host of negative reviews, many, but not all, of which were a consequence of uninformed or lazy criticism (I guess program notes are optional these days), I’ve found Barney and Bepler’s work to be a richer experience than I had initially thought. (It was quite positive to begin with.)

Visuals and text aside, memories of the music regularly play in my mind’s ear. There are the few samples hidden throughout the official website, and snippets in the various trailers and interviews, but nothing too complete. After all, it’s operatic, and there are no real neatly-isolated arias. (Even if there were, I don’t think a Greatest Hits would be released, much to my personal chagrin.)

My growing interest feels like a nascent “project” of some sort. I don’t quite know what that may be, but the “work” slowly continues when I have the time. Perhaps I’ll log more here as I go.

More importantly, though, I feel it’s necessary to note some of these “findings” (subjective though they may arguably be in part). The mostly negative reaction to both Ancient Evenings and River of Fundament have led to scant information being available save a few diamonds in that rough. I may not change minds or alter the course of either’s reception, but I can certainly do my part to justify what I consider to be an important artistic achievement by Barney and Bepler.

(All River of Fundament-related posts are here.)

The (Supposed) Mediocrity of Now — Canonical Musings

(Rambling in multiple directions below, holes and all…)

They don’t make ’em like they used to.
Dead artists sell more.
If only they went back to the roots.

Yada yada…

While the above statements can convey a fair amount of truth in a great many applications, they also carry with them an implied bias against the now, be it for better or worse. One way in which I’m regularly dubious of these claims is when discussing artistic style and merit, particularly in music. (Since I’m a musician, that’ll be the focus, though I see it in various media.) By and large, there’s an inherent institutional bias in favor of those artists and works that have come before. The argument in support of this is that an artist or work must “stand the test of time” — whether it holds up under prolonged cultural, critical, and communal scrutiny. Those are noble criteria. After the initial fanfare of a premiere or release, it’s important to look under the hood and see how much there is there and how — or if — it influences the field. But, ultimately, this of course begs the questions: WHO is dispensing this approval and HOW and WHY?

In music, one aspect of this criticism is that pretty much everything’s been done before (until it hasn’t, that is), and so to really appreciate something one must just go back to the “original sources.” One doesn’t get Lady Gaga without Madonna. Fair enough. One can of course give credit where credit is due, but that doesn’t mean that anyone who likes Gaga should just shut her off and go back in time. She also plays piano and can sing (can Madonna do much of either consistently?) and wears costumes — enter Elton John. (And I do love Elton.) But, again, does this mean that Gaga’s Monsters should just listen to Madonna and Elton for the “authentic” Gaga experience? It’d be a good frame of reference, but it’s no substitute for Lady Gaga herself. In appreciating Gaga, they are footnotes, and footnotes and references are important. Go read them. But a series of footnotes does not automatically synthesize to create a new and original idea or argument. (Of course, this says nothing of the influences of Elton and Madonna, and their influences, etc…)

Having influences — and/or building upon their work — doesn’t automatically strip an artist of their originality. Also, yes, there are plenty of derivative artists working today. Just as there were decades and centuries ago. (The new wave of blue-eyed soul singers is but one exponent of this.)

One current group making noteworthy, original music is Bon Iver, having recently released another jaw-dropping album. I’ve been listening to 22, A Million on near-repeat for weeks, which is how I reacted five years ago when I first heard its predecessor Bon Iver. I received Bon Iver as a birthday gift a couple weeks after its release. At the time, I recognized the name and peripherally noticed praise online, but I hadn’t listened to anything from the album or artist. But I clearly remember being floored the first time I listened to it. (Specifically, I was in my Houston apartment packing late at night for my first stint teaching abroad.) I was transfixed and utterly distracted from the task at hand (packing). I gave the album three full listens back to back. And then I just kept listening to it. I never wrote much about it (except here), but it quickly became a desert island disc for me. Fast forward five years and 22, A Million seems to be on a similar trajectory. It’s an engaging and beautiful extension of Bon Iver, taking Justin Vernon’s project to new sonic and artistic planes.

All this is to say that, even though Vernon is in his mid-30s, I don’t hesitate to say that he’s written some truly great albums, and I easily place them alongside other, older works.

In a related vein, I praised Mette Henriette’s self-titled ECM debut as a wholly original statement. I thought then, as I still do now, that one of the album’s strengths was that, artistically, I could only really hear Henriette’s voice and vision. I can make a couple of leaps and say that a couple sections may sound similar to this or that, but overall it’s a pretty self-contained statement.

Of course, my argument isn’t to throw out the titans and disregard history. (My various entries on Wagner, Liebman, and Einstein on the Beach, among others, are evidence of such.) However, they have their place, just as newer artists have theirs.

In pop music, “the good old days” are roughly the late fifties through the mid-seventies. There was a lot of great music produced then, and my music collection is a testament to my agreeing with that sentiment. It was the result of countless factors, including but not limited to various cultural, political, and technological developments. That said, is nostalgia on behalf of the baby boomer establishment — those who were young fans at the time but now old enough to be the journalistic gatekeepers — not also a factor? I often think so. In another twenty years, will canonical focus shift to emphasize the nineties and aughts?

Another aspect of this phenomenon is older artists, who themselves created now-classic pieces, who continue to work today. Generally the argument is that they’re not producing at their former (“classic”) level. (Sub-argument: does the new, “lesser” work degrade their overall output? Or, as asked in High Fidelity: is it better to burn out than to fade away?) Consider two sides of the piano rock coin: Elton John and Billy Joel. I’m a fan of both, but, admittedly, much more so of the former than the latter. (I think Joel’s The Stranger is a near-flawless masterpiece, but I think a number of his other albums sound like good imitations of other styles/artists rather than good Billy Joel records.) They’re both held up as rock icons, and they both continue to sell out arenas throughout the globe. Joel, similar to many of his musical generation, hasn’t released new material (save a couple songs in the mid-aughts and a classical album in 2001) since 1993’s River of Dreams. Elton, however, keeps putting out new albums every couple of years. (His 32nd studio album was released this year.) Sure, they’re of varying quality. Wonderful Crazy Night (2016) doesn’t really hold up against 2010’s The Union and 2013’s The Diving Board, but he’s still creating and regularly releasing quality material.

I’ve noticed similar criticism regarding Matthew Barney and Jonathan Beplers’s River of Fundament. (AKA, the piece that has dominated my attention in 2016.) In many of its mixed-to-negative reviews, one criticism often levied against it is that it’s not as good as The Cremaster Cycle, Barney’s 1994-2002 film pentalogy. Other than what I’ve read about it (and its few connections to Fundament), I can’t speak to Cremaster because I haven’t yet seen it. (That’s not out of lack of interest, of course. Many of Barney’s works are difficult to see outside of controlled exhibitions. There’s always YouTube, but I haven’t yet gone done down that road…) Sure, my view of River of Fundament is hardly objective at this point. Instead of mainly considering the work in relation to Barney’s ouvre, I’ve tried (and continue to do so) to consider the work itself in relation to what it was trying to do by, among other things, reading Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings and its review by literary critic Harold Bloom (the former is the basis for the film and the latter also strongly influenced Barney’s interpretation), and also the exhibition book produced by Okwui Enwezor, director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Yes, criticism itself should take the larger picture into account, but the artist’s overall output can’t be the primary focus — just part of it. Alone, “Was it as good as _____?” isn’t a fair assessment.

(As for Fundament itself, I could write another several essays on the work after reading Mailer’s source text. Only if you’re lucky, I suppose…)

To reiterate, this isn’t to say that “new” is inherently better than “old.” Rather, new and old can both be important. Furthermore, going back to the post’s beginning, when considering The Canon, it’s worth remember that who’s granted membership to that esteemed club isn’t an apolitical decision. As Bob Shingleton has wonderfully documented over the years at On An Overgrown Path, plenty of the recent past’s first-rate composers and pieces have been neglected by the artistic establishment. (One example of many here. Also notable is the highlighting that Simpson is often compared with past composers at the expense of his own originality.) Exploring neglected works of the past can be as illuminating and offer as much discovery as absorbing new works of the present.

More music is being written, recorded, and released than ever before. Similarly, access to music is more open and universal than ever before. However, the canonical narrative of the good old days remains, and at the expense of what’s happening now.

‘Einstein on the Beach’ on Video

I rarely publish such posts, but given this blog’s regular discussion of Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, and Lucinda Childs’s Einstein on the Beach over the last several years, I should mention that it is now, for the first time, available for purchase in full on video. It was released in the US on DVD and Blu-ray on October 28.

I’ve been watching my Blu-ray in surround sound this weekend and it is lovely. While I certainly don’t want to dilute my memory of seeing it live, the camerawork allows the viewer to see small nuances that are easily missed in the live spectacle.

The filmed performance is from January 2014 at the Théȃtre du Chȃtelet in Paris. (The same one that streamed online for a few months that year.)

Fervently recommended.

New Listen: PRISM Quartet’s ‘The Curtis Project’

prism quartet curtis project

 

Artist: PRISM Quartet
Album: The Curtis Project (2016)

PRISM Quartet‘s April 2016 release The Curtis Project is a collection of strong, mostly recent additions to the medium’s repertoire that explore many aesthetic avenues. The album is the product of PRISM’s 2012 residency with The Curtis Institute‘s composition department. All seven compositions are from Curtis-affiliated composers: two from faculty members (and Pulitzer Prize recipient) Jennifer Higdon and David Ludwig, and five from then-student composers Kat Souponetsky, Daniel Temkin, Gabriella Smith, Thomas Oltarzewski, and Tim Woos. All works were performed during the residency, at which time all but Higdon’s were premieres. The Curtis Project is PRISM’s debut release on XAS Records, the ensemble’s new record label.

Here, PRISM Quartet’s personnel is slightly amended:
Timothy McAllister – soprano saxophone
Zachary Shemon – alto saxophone
Matthew Levy – tenor saxophone
Taimur Sullivan – soprano (track 1 only) and baritone saxophones
Robert Young – tenor saxophone; substituting for Levy on tracks 12-19 (works by Souponetsky, Temkin, Smith, Oltarzewski, Woos)

These seven pieces are stylistically distinct from one another, all of which branch in different directions. And with three of the works having multiple movements, none of the album’s nineteen tracks are overly long. (Of course, multi-movement works are larger collectively. That said, the longest individual selection or movement is just over seven minutes, and it’s an outlier.) The musical diversity and brevity is noteworthy, as it can often seem that (speaking from experience) “New Music” recordings are geared towards like practitioners — new saxophone music is largely for other composers and saxophonists, etc. The Curtis Project, however, would be equally suitable as a performance program on a university campus, a concert hall for a general audience, or as part of a community engagement or school outreach setting.

The album begins with Higdon’s Short Stories, a collections of six programmatic movements lacking a defined order, which serves as a nice microcosm of the album as a whole. From the calm “Summer’s Eve” and serene “Lullaby” to the frenetic “Chase” and Pollock-inspired “Splashing the Canvas,” the quartet shines in the movements’ more traditional writing. Also, like much of the album, all four voices are given their time to shine both individually and as part of PRISM’s organ-esque blend, such as in the haunting “Coyote Nights,” or the energetic “Stomp And Dance,” featuring key-clicks and slap-tongue.

Ludwig’s Josquin Microludes offers a clever and sonically-intriguing reworking of Josquin’s Mille Regretz, with each of the five differing, near-schizophrenic movements being based on subsequent lines of text and melody. Listening in order, one eventually goes through the (barely recognizable) original. The sixteenth-century source material is interpreted through a twenty-first-century vocabulary, and in doing so Ludwig honors the stylings of both time periods. The fourth movement “Quon Me Verra Brief Mes Jours” highlights this juxtaposition, with hard-driving rhythmic sections alternating with a dream-like processional, giving way to the calmly soaring and dissonant finale.

Although the faculty’s larger works constitute half of the album, the students are by no means also-rans here — each of the pieces have something different to say and chart territory theretofore unheard. Named for a river in the composer’s hometown of Moldova, Souponetsky’s The Dniester Flow depicts the rushing rapids through hard-driving rhythms in the piece’s first half. These give way to more lyrical fare in the second half, during which the tenor, alto, and soprano seamlessly pass the ascending melody to one another until the rapids return at the end. As a matter of programming, this gives way nicely to Temkin’s Blossoming, for which the sound really does blossom out of silence. A full minute of blowing air gradually gives way to soft saxophone tones that build to full ensemble chords and cries of both woe and hope, eventually fading back to nothingness. The use of both “dead” air and semi-tones are tasteful throughout, giving Blossoming a fluidity that’s not often highlighted in keyed instruments.

Smith’s Spring/Neap programmatically engages the “extremities of tidal ranges”1, beginning with cacophonous runs and glissandi, likely depicting the competing gravitational forces between the sun and moon. This later gives way to deep, rich chords and blowing air, giving one the impression of calm night tides before the gravity pulls the levels higher once more. Olterzewski’s Toccata is somewhat reminiscent of its centuries-old keyboard namesake, at least in character, although the composer likens it to the twentieth century works for wind ensemble. The aggressive and accented mixed-meter “left hand” of the tenor and baritone saxophones provide a nimble motor atop which the “right hand” of the alto and soprano saxophones playfully melodize. It’s not completely segregated, however, as the tenor saxophone occasionally tags into the melodic fun. Woos’s whimsical 4 Miniatures closes the album. Though concise as the title suggests, the four brief movements are full statements in and of themselves, covering much terrain. The first movement is full of swelling phrases and restful chorales, while the second miniature features beautiful “glass-like”2 harmonies that I could put on repeat for hours. (Selfishly, I would love to hear a larger work from Woos in this style.) The aggressive bomb-like glissandi of the third movement jolt the listener out of the second movement’s placidity, giving way to the jocular closing polka of the fourth movement. Here, over the course of just a few dozen seconds, the saxophones seemingly grow annoyed with one another, stumbling along until closing in what amounts to a tantrum. Humor can be difficult to notate and execute, and both are tastefully done here.

The Curtis Project continues PRISM Quartet’s proud tradition of amassing new works for both the ensemble and the instrument’s repertoire at large. It includes a number of musically interesting and accessible works that display a range of styles and compositional approaches, offering both breadth and depth. The Curtis Project is an excellent first step for XAS Records, and I’m already looking forward to what’s next.

PRISM album link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here

 


1. [Smith, Gabriella. The Curtis Project. Liner notes, p. 7]
2. [Woos, Tim. The Curtis Project. Liner notes, p. 8]

(Other PRISM Quartet reviews here.)

‘Das Rheingold’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago — The ‘Ring’ Begins Anew

Lyric Opera of Chicago‘s current season opened on Saturday with a new production of Richard Wagner‘s Das Rheingold, kicking off a four-year unveiling of a new Ring cycle, which will culminate in full proper cycles in 2020. Having attended their last Ring cycle in 2005, I was glad to be a part of this double-opener.

This production of Das Rheingold, as well as the cycle overall, is noteworthy in several ways. Whereas 2005 featured James Morris as Wotan (in one of his signature roles), this production features Eric Owens in his role debut. (He sang Alberich in the Met’s 2013 production.) Adding Wagnerian heft to Das Rheingold‘s playbill, bass-baritone and Bayreuth staple Samuel Youn made his American debut as Alberich. (In later installments, Christine Goerke is to play Brünnhilde.) Visually, Das Rheingold (and presumably the rest the tetralogy) is a clean break from 2005’s minimalist aesthetic. Director David Pountney, continuing with the original designs of the late Johan Engels (1952-2014) with current designer Robert Innes Hopkins, has conjured up a playful and visually rich staging, particularly in contrast to ’05’s Ring. As someone who saw the Pountney/Engels production of Die Zauberflöte at Bregenzer Festspiele (of which Pountney was the Intendant from 2003 to 2014, and which I attended 2011-16), there are certainly shades of that in this Ring, namely the use of color and frivolity. (Their production of Die Zauberflöte was in the vein of a child’s dream or fantasy. And while that’s not the exact course here, a related whimsy is present throughout Rheingold.) Related, Engels’s use of color was also striking in Lyric’s 2013 production of Parsifal.

Notably, this production of Das Rheingold begins before the Vorspiel, with the three Norns, onstage and in silence, laying the groundwork for the Rhine — a golden satchel that gives way to the river (which in turn houses the gold) — and by extension the drama of the entire cycle. (I presume they will again play some role once the ring finds its way back to the Rhine at Götterdämmerung‘s end. We’ll see in 2019.) The river then begins to flow with the orchestra’s opening churn, with the rapids’ intensity increasing with the musical texture’s density and volume. From the opening scene until the final curtain, Pountney made use of the entire stage, manipulating the width, depth, and height for a more expansive view. The Rhinemaidens themselves were both singing and “swimming” in three dimensions (a task often left to two separate trios) via wheeled, levered platforms. Diana Newman, Annie Rosen, and Lindsay Ammann blended beautifully as Woglinde, Wllgunde, and Flosshilde, respectively. This use of height of course helped also to demonstrate both the depths of Nibelheim and the heights of Valhalla. Further, Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Tobias Kehrer, who sang Fasolt and Fafner, respectively, spent most of their time tastefully singing while stories above the stage, drawing both the eyes and the ears upward as if they actually were the giants they embodied. My only quibble with such staging is that occasionally those singing near the stage’s ceiling didn’t project as strongly as others, likely a consequence of the natural acoustics. (It was less of an issue for the same singers when placed elsewhere, particularly in the case of Flosshinde.)

There was far more humor in this production than I had anticipated, most of which worked quite well. Sonically, this was achieved via more vocal utterances from the characters — laughing, coughing, yelling — than I had expected. Some of the visual elements, I believe, are a consequence of having come fresh off the heels of the Pountney/Engels Die Zauberflöte. (The original announcement of this cycle’s production team was in 2014, and Zauberflöte premiered July 2013.) For Alberich’s transformations while wearing his magical helmet Tarnhelm, he became a dragon and then frog via instantly inflatable backpacks. (I immediately thought of Zauberflöte‘s inflatable grass.) There were the Norns who suddenly appeared with a mop to clean up after Alberich’s severed arm, and Loge’s near-caricatured portrayal as a carefree dandy. (As an example, while the gods initially made their entrances on carts symbolizing their powers, Loge casually rode in on a passenger bicycle.) The gods themselves — including the demigod Loge — were portrayed less as powerful entities and more as hapless patricians. Upon reading the Director’s Note afterwards, it made sense to learn that Pountney likened Valhalla’s inhabitants to the likes of the Habsburgs. Also, Pountney’s describing Rheingold as a “political cartoon” adds to the comedic and structural elements. Many non-singing cast members were mimes who performed a lot of the “behind the scenes” work — operating the Rhinemaidens’ levers and Fasolt and Fafner’s giant limbs — while onstage and visible. In total, it could be seen more as a fantastical reading of Das Rheingold than a cerebral re-telling.

Musically, the cast gave strong performances across the board. While Owens has received top billing as Wotan, he was joined by an excellent cast and by no means the show’s only star. Owens sang and emoted well throughout, though I would’ve preferred more volume. For me, Štefan Margita nearly stole the show as Loge, a role that’s become a regular for him as of late. His fanciful yet emotional tenor soared above the orchestra. And I wouldn’t have guessed that it was Youn’s role debut as Alberich, as he sounded natural throughout. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner‘s Fricka and Laura Wilde‘s Freia commanded attention as Wotan’s wise, seasoned wife and her youthful sister, respectively. Each sang with both power and nuance that really broke through to another level beyond an already strong production and performance. Rounding out the cast were Okka Von Der Damerau as Erda (whom I saw excel as Mary in Der fliegende Holländer in Munich this past July), Rodell Rosel as Mime, Jesse Donner as Froh, and Zachary Nelson as Donner. Sir Andrew Davis led the Lyric orchestra in an exciting rendition of the score, with the brass particularly shining in the later scenes.

Performances continue through October 22, with the new Die Walküre debuting in the 2017-18 season and Siegfried and Götterdämmerung following in kind. Whereas Lyric’s previous Ring featured more marquee names (e.g., Morris, Placido Domingo) and a rather traditional (though minimalist) staging, this new production seems to be going in a new direction in both regards, and I’m excited to see it unfold over these next several years.