Franco Faccio’s ‘Amleto’ at Bregenzer Festspiele

Last night’s premiere of Amleto at the Bregenzer Festspiele was a shot of adrenaline to the arm of the indoor opera house, which often lives in the shadow of its sibling on the lake, the festival’s crown jewel. It was my fifth indoors premiere, and, by a long shot, it was the most well-received performance there I’ve witnessed.

bregenz amleto(photo courtesy of Bregenzer Festspiele)

With the festival’s new artistic director Elisabeth Sobotka moving away from her predecessor David Pountney’s habit of commissions and world premieres for the indoor theater with last year’s The Tales of Hoffman by Offenbach, it seems that now a fig leaf has been offered to recent tradition: the European “re-premiere” of a little-known work not performed on the continent since 1871 (or anywhere until the 2014 reconstruction by Anthony Barrese and staging by Albuquerque’s Opera Southwest), Franco Faccio’s Amleto. (Also, interestingly, Sobotka herself is a Faccio specialist.)

While I admit that I wasn’t here for the 2010 premiere of the much-lauded The Passenger (by Weinberg), I’ve otherwise seen the premieres run much of the gamut. In talking to folks both behind the scenes and in the audience over the years, it seems that each year from 2011 to 2014 improved (both the piece and its reception by audience and performers alike), and I’d have to say I largely agree. In order, those were Judith Weir’s Achterbahn (2011), Detlev Glanert’s Solaris (2012), André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice (1982, premiered 2013), and H.K. Gruber’s Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald (2014). I’ll avoid giving tangential reviews of each here, but suffice it to say I genuinely enjoyed much of the latter three (and some music of the first, from what I remember). (Despite the questionable handling of race, that is. An unfortunate occurrence in most of them but particularly in Solaris, and – sigh – a modern hallmark of opera anyway…)

With Amleto, Sobotka is bringing 19th-century Italian opera – of the progressive, proto-verismo sort – to a stage once dominated by modern instrumental and vocal techniques and mores. That’s not to say that, as a whole, older works are “less than” (not at all…hello, Wagner). But, despite the inconsistency, I did greatly appreciate and respect the festival’s (Pountney’s?) preference for and willingness to take risks and commission and feature new works each year. In a canon-saturated economy, it seems that new productions of old works are far more important than new works. Knowing that I’d be seeing something genuinely new each year (along with the traditional fare and spectacle on the lake stage) was exciting. (Though, the realities of life do sink in, and the festival was tired of losing money on the premieres.)

All that, however, is not meant to hang a cloud over Faccio and librettist Boito, Barrese, and Sobotka, but rather to simply say that things are different now — not better or worse, just different. Considering last night’s performance in a vacuum, it was definitely a success, and I quite enjoyed it.

You can read all about the history of Amleto and Faccio here. Briefly, Faccio, a leading conductor in Italy (particularly at Milan’s La Scala) was an important figure in the scapigliatura movement. Known mostly as a conductor, he also composed some, including the little-known Amleto, which premiered in Genoa in 1865 and then was quickly shelved and forgotten after a disastrous 1871 La Scala debut. Reconstructing the score from piano reductions over several years, Anthony Barrese then resurrected the work in a 2014 debut by Opera Southwest. (Audio and video recordings featuring strong performances and a moderately traditional production by Opera Southwest are now available.)

Faccio’s score, though nonetheless in the Italian tradition, is forward-thinking and engaging, tending to opt for the dramatic than a melodious hit parade. Boito’s libretto greatly streamlines Shakespeare’s Hamlet for time, and the four acts run shy of 150 minutes (without intermission).

The Bregenz production was led by director Olivier Tambosi and set designer Frank Philipp Schlössmann. Tambosi is a fixture in Europe and the US, and Schlössmann’s work is seemingly everywhere Deutsche Grammophon has advertising lately, as his work for Katharina Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from 2015’s Bayreuth festival can be seen wherever DVDs are sold. The performers and production each stood on their own, but their sum was much greater than their considerable parts. The stark sets and striking use (or absence of) color throughout — with possibly a hint of Tim Burton — helped to propel the narrative. The production team also placed action where there otherwise may not have been any (e.g., overtures and other instrumental passages, underneath an aria, etc.). Two examples stand out. For the opening overture, the orchestra begins after the curtains have already open to display (an unconscious?) Amleto laying on the ground under a lowered light rig. (Is he dreaming? Is he already feeling the psychological pressure of all the lights (eyes?) being on him?) Later, in the overture to Act III, instead of beginning with King Claudius at prayer, we see him awake in his chambers and slowly walk to the chapel, adding weight where the previously was little. Also, much is done with Laertes when he’s not singing. He’s occasionally lurking in the background when Amleto and Ofelia are near one another.

To continue begging the question as to whether we’re watching Amleto in or out of his mind, a seemingly outward-facing curtain is at the back of the stage through Act I. And during Amleto’s first duets with both Ofelia and The Ghost (of his father), he curiously lies down. Is he dreaming or hallucinating?

And nearly everyone who’s not Amleto sports an Illuminati-esque eye on their clothes. Is this to represent their looking at (and putting psychological pressure on) Amleto, or representing to the audience how Amleto sees them? In his incomplete attempt to don a mime’s makeup in Act II, is he looking to become anonymous and erase his identity, becoming just another faceless clown in the court? As he descends further into madness, the makeup then starts to gradually fade in the second half.

One curious musical device that I don’t believe was used — at least so extensively — by Opera Southwest is that of offstage orchestral forces. There seemed to be a separate and permanent offstage brass (and more? hard to tell at times) section that remained throughout the whole of the work. I thought it had to do with the court in the first act, but then it remained. Perhaps this musical schizophrenia is to be reminiscent of Amleto’s gradual dissolution, though I could be reading too far into the lines. (I know it wasn’t a matter of real estate — Gruber’s orchestra for Wiener Wald dwarfed Faccio’s.)

The cast was quite strong overall, with standout performances by Pavel Černoch (Amleto), Iulia Maria Dan (Ofelia), Dshamilja Kaiser (Gertrude), and Claudio Sgura (Claudio). The two truly excellent moments of the evening belonged to the trio of Černoch, Kaiser, and Gianluca Buratto (The Ghost), and Dan’s final aria, both in Act III. That one-two punch set an impossibly high bar for the fourth act. And both in and out of the pit, Paolo Carignani led the Vienna Symphony Orchestra through a dynamic and moving run of the score.

Regardless of how one feels about old works and new, last night’s production and performance was an all-around success. I’ve not seen an audience applaud for a work in the indoor theater here as I did last night (along with one heckle from the balcony for the director…can’t win them all). I’ll be curious to see where not only this production but the work as a whole heads after this. As for the festival, Bregenz is getting its indoor stride, as next year will feature the certainly-not-new Moses in Ägypten by Rossini (alongside Bizet’s Carmen on the lake).

(And as for Pountney, he’s busy getting his Ring cycle off the ground in Chicago, for which Das Rheingold premieres in October. See you there.)

New Listen: Jack DeJohnette’s ‘In Movement’

jack dejohnette in movement

Jack DeJohnette’s In Movement is a powerful addition to an already consequential discography as a bandleader. Among other ventures, the bands and recordings under DeJohnette’s Special Edition moniker are formidable. Unfortunately, this still seems to be a surprise for some, as the drummer, composer, and pianist is often considered “just a sideman.” (Which is laughable — even if he’d never functioned as a bandleader, the fact that he’s played with just about everybody since the 1960s, while remaining one of music’s best drummers at 73, nearly negates the connotation of “sideman.”)

In Movement features:
Jack DeJohnette — drums, piano, electronic percussion
Ravi Coltrane — tenor, soprano, and sopranino saxophones
Matthew Garrison — electric bass, electronics

Much has been made of the historical nature of In Movement‘s lineup. (Coltrane and Garrison’s fathers, John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison, formed half of arguably the greatest quartet in jazz history. Furthermore, DeJohnette sat in with the elder Coltrane in the early 60s, years before joining Miles Davis — also Trane’s former employer — later that decade.) However, don’t be fooled by any sense of nostalgia: the playing and sounds are fresh. It’s an album of today, informed by yesterday, and looking to tomorrow.

One of DeJohnette’s main strengths as a bandleader and composers is his command of orchestration in small ensembles. His Special Edition bands, for example, sound like groups of Mingus-y proportions instead of the quartets and quintets they are. Similarly, In Movement often sounds much bigger than a trio. That’s not to say that it’s busy and cluttered. There’s a lot of space on this record. But, between the three of them, they bring the forces and possible textures of a quintet. Garrison’s electronic work often provides a sonic bed or wash to envelop the group, with DeJohnette’s piano providing a nice acoustic counterpoint to the electric sounds. And it’s worth noting Coltrane’s strong presence, not only on his standard-issue tenor and soprano, but also on sopranino. I believe this album is his recording debut on the instrument, and what a strong one it is. Sopranino is a difficult horn to manage, even (unfortunately) for those who play it regularly, but Coltrane doesn’t falter here. I’ll be honest: when I first read that he played it on this album, I rolled my eyes, and my ears waited for it to stick out like a sore thumb. However, I instead realized partway through “Rashied” that I was hearing masterful sopranino work.

In Movement includes three covers which emphasize the album’s lineage: a weighty, solemn rendition of John Coltrane’s “Alabama” (with the composer’s son on tenor, channeling his father) opens the album; a sparse, soprano- and piano-driven rendition of Miles Davis and Bill Evans’s “Blue in Green”; and a plodding, deeply grooving account of “Serpentine Fire” by Earth, Wind & Fire that sounds wholly different from the original. Other allusions appear elsewhere, with “Rashied” (for drummer Rashied Ali) featuring a fiery sax and drum duet reminiscent of Interstellar Space, and “Two Jimmys” (for Jimmy Garrison and Jimi Hendrix) allowing Garrison plenty of room to paint an abstract sonic canvas rife with effects, distortion, and wandering lines.

It’s better to almost ignore the titles, though, as the other originals blend right in. “Lydia” is a mid-tempo stroll which tastefully blends Coltrane’s melodic soprano playing with DeJohnette’s trademark (at least to me) cymbal work and Garrison’s pocket bass lines and electronic textures. “In Movement” is a fitting title track, capturing not only the highlight talents from “Lydia,” but also exploring quicker, more intertwined lines and grooves. It’s also an apt title — while DeJohnette and Coltrane forge ahead, Garrison both follows on bass and stretches time with his electronic textures. And though “Alabama” served as a somber opening, “Soulful Ballad” is more optimistic, with DeJohnette and Coltrane trading drums and tenor for piano and soprano, respectively.

This is an encouraging sign of where DeJohnette’s bandleader duties may be headed in this stage of his career, particularly on ECM. I’m already waiting for the follow-up.

In Movement was released on May 6 by ECM Records and is available now.

Album links:
Amazon
iTunes

Dave Matthews Band’s ‘Crash’ at 20

Dave Matthews Band’s Crash turned twenty on April 30, 2016.

dmb crash

I don’t have time to mark all such occasions for albums from ~1996 that I hold up as iconic, but I did so for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and must do so again here. Like that other entry, this won’t be a song-by-song novella, but I’d still like to log some thoughts to mark the occasion.

Depending on how you parse it, Crash is either the second or third album released by the band. I suppose it’s officially seen as the second major label release (after 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming) and studio album. However, this doesn’t count the band’s self-released debut Remember Two Things from 1993, a mix of live and studio recordings that was eventually given a wider, major label pressing and re-release. Be it second or third, Crash was a juggernaut. “Crash Into Me,” “So Much to Say,” “Too Much,” and “Tripping Billies” dominated the airwaves, and the album is currently 7X platinum. Stats aside, this album is a monumental one for me personally. Regular readers should know by now that DMB is a cornerstone of my musical DNA, and this album was my “patient zero” — my entry point.

Even though “What Would You Say?” and “Ants Marching” had crossed my ears, I distinctly remember the time I first I knowingly heard “So Much to Say,” Crash‘s lead single. To date this then-adolescent, I was watching MTV and taken aback by seeing a saxophonist playing in such a quality, catchy song. I dug it and wanted more. Not long after, I purchased the CD and quickly seared every note and syllable into my brain. I listened to the full album constantly: at home, in the car, on my bike, doing yard work, walking around the neighborhood, etc. And I mean the full album — every last song. Often times I’d put in the CD and just select “repeat all” and let it go. I would of course go through spurts where I listened to some songs repetitively more than others, but in this album’s case every song got a turn. Nothing was glossed over.

Fast favorites for me were “#41,” “Two Step,” and “Let You Down,” but that studio recording of “#41” left a specific still-deep impression for several reasons. The instrumental jam, though short by the band’s live standards, particularly engaged this then-young saxophone student. By 1996, I had fallen down the rock rabbit hole. I made room for other styles, too, but as I wrote here I was under the spell of Smashing Pumpkins et al. That said, I also had a burgeoning interest in the saxophone, and there really no bands that I was aware of that included a fully-integrated saxophonist. I mean, I listened to a ton of oldies growing up. However, as I wrote here, much of the sax’s use then (and to a large extent now) was either a novelty or a cameo. Furthermore, those bands that did regularly use saxophone still preferred to exploit that honky rhythm & blues sound (e.g., Pink Floyd). So, to hear an album by a current band that both included sax and was good (great!) made quite an impression. And not only did it include saxophone, but the instrument was integral to the record’s — and, as I later learned, the band’s — sound, be it in the background, foreground, or just part of the overall texture.

Another thing about “#41” that was important for me at the time was the realization and understanding that some sort of improvising was occurring. At the time (I was 12 going on 13 — cut me some slack), I knew of jazz but wasn’t strongly interested in it, and the idea of full-blown improvising was something I knew happened, but not for extended periods of time in more “mainstream” solos and styles. Also, to focus to Crash, LeRoi Moore‘s brief riff-based solo on “Too Much” remains intact to this day, though it did go away for a few years. I heard the same thing on Letterman as I did on the album. “#41,” though, was another story. The violin and flute solos I liked, but they were short and bounced along with the rhythmic feel from the song proper. Roi’s sax solo, on the other hand…that was a whole different entity for me. In fact, I listened to that solo so much that I almost considered it a different song. Looking back, I think it was the first instrumental solo I committed to memory. I could sing or whistle it at the drop of a hat. Carter’s cymbal crash at 04:27 helps note the shift in feel, and Roi’s off to the races.

(Imagine my delight when, in 2010, Jeff Coffin and Rashawn Ross started playing an interlude horn line that used bits from Roi’s studio solo…)

In fact, I often thought of it as the “Moonlighting solo” to myself, as the rhythm section’s groove reminded me of the Moonlighting theme song. (A song that, when I heard it by the time I was 6, I really liked. Having recently listened back via YouTube, I don’t remain as sold on it, but in my mind there’s a connection. Ha!)

Even though “#41” remained a centerpiece (and to this day my favorite DMB song), it certainly wasn’t the only piece to make an impression. Instrumentally, Roi’s solo on the outro of “Proudest Monkey” was another improvisatory standout. That, and his soprano sax tone sounded magnificent to me. Even now, when I think of soprano tone, that’s one of the first things to come to mind along with Dave Liebman.

That’s enough shop talk, though. Back to the album at large.

Not only was the saxophone’s immersion in the band’s sound a game-changer, but so was the band’s overall sound of being a rock band with no lead guitar. (Well, at least at it’s core. I continue to contest that being the case these days.) Yes, Tim Reynolds is present throughout the album, but he’s felt more than explicitly heard. Instead, I was listening to a band that figured out how to rock with both a violin and saxophone (and flute!). Wild!

Also, Crash covers a fair amount of stylistic ground. The overall atmosphere of the album is cohesive, but the band covers a respectable range that includes rock/pop (“So Much to Say,” “Too Much,” “Tripping Billies”), more jam- and jazz-influenced fare (“#41,” “Say Goodbye,” and “Proudest Monkey”), ballads (“Crash Into Me,” “Let You Down,” “Cry Freedom”), the in-between (“Lie In Our Graves”), and a couple hard-driving selections (“Two Step,” “Drive In Drive Out”).

Most people consider the follow-up, 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets, to be the band’s best album, and it’s a consistent favorite among much of the hardcore fan base. I definitely see where BTCS devotees are coming from (and, in some respects, I agree that it’s DMB’s best): it’s an epic album with superb songs. That said, its grandiosity is something that gets in the way when I’m thinking of what makes an album my favorite when it comes to DMB (or most any band, I suppose). BTCS features Alanis Morissette, Béla Fleck, Kronos Quartet, and many more. It’s a big studio undertaking whereas Crash, still a big studio album, features the core five (plus Tim Reynolds) and, for the most part, features a pretty “live” sound. One drawback I always saw with Under the Table and Dreaming was the production — maybe it was the time and technology, but the album has much less of a “live” presence than Crash.)

At the end of the day, Crash is my personal favorite. Admittedly, it may partially be for nostalgic reasons, as it’s where it all started for me. Even so, it’s the band’s studio album I listen to the most, and it’s the one I keep handy in case I need a fix. For example, I use my iPod Classic when I’m on the move, but I do keep select albums on my iPhone and iPad, and Crash is always the first DMB one to get thrown on there. Its song selection, live sound, and lack of guests (beyond Reynolds) combine to offer a great distillation of a band that’s become a real piece of my life over these last two decades.

And with that, here’s to many more with Crash and the band…

Selective Pious

Art and artist. Two separate entities that are, to many, often inseparable. Can you, in fact, separate the two and appreciate the art as wholly divorced from the artist? For some (like me) it’s easy: YES. For others, not so much. It’s the latter group that can give me pause.

Before going further, I acknowledge that this can-of-worms topic is nothing that can be tackled in a single blog post, but its surface is worthy of scratching nonetheless.

To quickly take an extreme example from recent headlines, consider Bill Cosby. He’s a comedic legend who’s been adored and respected by millions for decades. It turns out, however, that the lovable Dr. Huxtable was portrayed by a man who is (and has long been) allegedly nothing short of a sexually predacious monster. With dozens of accusers taking to the media, there’s the primary concern of the law and whether any (or how many) trials will take place. A secondary concern, however, particularly among practitioners and fans of stand-up comedy, has been the extent to which Cosby’s artistic output has been affected by such allegations. (There’s one specific Spanish Fly bit that really brings the conundrum into sharp relief.) If the allegations are true, then can any part of his catalogue be enjoyed by someone who knows “the real Cosby”? Or should it all be thrown out? (For an interesting take on this, see Greg Fitzsimmons’s shameless plundering of Cosby’s material to save the jokes and personally discredit him.) Also, as for Cosby specifically, it’s notable that he’s still alive and working (or at least trying to). I do think there’s a difference between boycotting concerts to make a financial statement/protest and wholly discounting decades of written and recorded material as if they never existed. I should also mention that, while I like some of Cosby’s comedy, I’m not the biggest fan of his work, so I’m not writing as a champion of his output.

But back to the original point without getting lost further down the Cosby rabbit hole: I believe an artist can be separated from his or her art. (I do admit to having some occasional odd biases, but I’m always trying to police myself.) Of course, I kind of have to. For one, I’m a Wagnerian. Additionally, I’m a deep Miles Davis fan. (More on that later.) Beyond them, I know that many of the artists whose music, etc. I — and many of you — connect with are flawed at best and, for some, downright repellent at worst.

Take the aforementioned Wagner, arguably one of the easiest targets as far as this is concerned. As often happens, in the last several months I’ve had a couple of folks rebut my discussing his music with the standard response that’s a variation of, “Well, he was an anti-Semite.” Yes. No argument here. (However, I highly recommend Think Classical for detailed discussion and dismantling of much of the anti-Semitic lore.) Though, it’s also true that he died a mere half-century before Adolf Hitler was made German Chancellor. While Cosima Wagner, his young widow (and by many accounts a more virulent anti-Semite than he), along with their children, took it upon themselves to pal around with members of the Third Reich, this happened decades after his death. That his music was held up by Nazi party officialdom isn’t itself necessarily a comment on Richard’s own views in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. And, yes, although the composer’s great-granddaughter (and current Bayreuth intendant) Katharina Wagner has said that her ancestor’s anti-Semitism is likely present in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the same can hardly be attributed to the whole ouvre (though many try). Does Siegfried Idyll *sound* bigoted to you?

[Through this, Wagner also takes the heat for other musicians who lived, comfortably or even at all, under the Third Reich yet don’t receive such admonishment.]

I’m of course not saying that everyone has to dismiss an artist’s sins and adore their artwork. Obviously, in the case of Wagner, someone closely related to Jewish heritage or the Holocaust may detest Wagner’s music on principle. That’s completely understandable. What I don’t understand, however, is the social justice warrior mentality – particularly of those far removed from a given circumstance or cause – of tearing down an artist’s output because of such faults as a way to punish them and right past wrongs. And the reason for my misunderstanding boils down to this: where’s the line? I would think that combating racism (or sexism, etc.) itself would be more important than quibbling over (mostly neutral) works of art by creators who may have been racist or sexist.

Such a mentality when put into action often leads to censorship. I think back to 2003 and the Dixie Chicks. Natalie Maines derided President Bush and the Iraq War run-up when performing overseas, and the group quickly became the target of a shocking campaign to silence their music and (hopefully, for the critics) their voices. I’m no Dixie Chicks scholar, but I believe much of their music before this incident was apoltical, meaning that the boycotting and censoring of their work was purely a reaction to their personal actions.

I’m sure that, on principle, many of the aforementioned SJWs sympathized with the Chicks, and that’s certainly understandable. But now let’s replace Dixie Chicks with Richard Wagner or Chuck Berry or Paula Poundstone or R. Kelly. The list goes on and on.

Such dismissals are a cousin of the trigger warning: don’t listen to/read/watch _____ because it’s by a _____ist; in doing so, you’re supporting _______ism.

This is a tricky topic, as I can easily be perceived as being either a defender of horrible behavior or a regressive reactionary. Neither are remotely true. It comes down to a question of whether a piece of music, a book, or a film automatically reflects the worldview and/or behavior of the creator. It surely can happen, but it’s not always the case.

Implying an automatic relation has the effect of making a piece, effectively, “morally programmatic.” As I always tell my students, you can easily make any piece programmatic (i.e., about something) with even the vaguest reference. Simply replace Concerto No. 3 in Eb with Twilight and the job is done. Even with no further discussion, the listener is now implicitly encouraged to hear the piece in relation to “twilight.” Similarly, by relating the work to the composer’s misdeeds, one is implying (Racist) Concerto No. 3 in Eb when the work could be heard as anything but. Is Appalachian Spring promoting homosexuality (or sexuality of any kind), considering the composer’s personal life? (If you find that question ridiculous, then I’ve made my point.) And does this Euro-centric and racist clip by Leonard Bernstein negate his life’s work or merely just complicate his person?:

It’s curious that explicitly racist songs, such as those by Stephen Foster, have managed to remain ubiquitous through considerable sterilizing revisions, whereas non-______ist works by others are shunned simply for associative reasons.

There is, of course, a peculiar inverse of this phenomenon: people liking an artist’s output because of their personal statements or deeds. This is why I largely avoid “message music” (e.g., political and religious music), as the music becomes secondary to the message. It’s a delicate balance that’s difficult to pull off. For me, Rage Against the Machine is one of the few to do this consistently so well. Just ask House Speaker Paul Ryan, a professed fan whose beliefs and policies are diametrically opposed to the band’s message.

I’ll regularly (but not always, depending on the situation) give a quick substantive defense of liking Wagner’s music when confronted with the anti-Semitism proclamation. Sometimes I’ll counter with the following, particularly if I already know the answer: do you like Miles Davis? The Prince of Darkness recorded music adored by millions, and in particular his collaboration with Gil Evans found its way into the mainstream. And though tales of Davis’s narcissism and drug abuse are legion — arguably common characteristics for many high-achieving musicians of the time — perhaps less known are the accounts of his wife-beating, not to mention his general misogyny. To hear Frances Davis, Miles’s first wife and the namesake of “Fran Dance,” discuss it in The Miles Davis Story is chilling. (You can also read discussion of it here.) What’s more, Miles was a trained boxer — not a prizefighter, but his study and practice are well documented. So while domestic abuse is horrible enough, his was that much more lethal considering his strength and training.

Now, if you’re reading this and 1) you like Miles’s music and 2) this is news to you, are you now going to discard all of your Miles recordings and boycott his music going forward? The more likely outcome is that you’ll perhaps give some thought to 1) how horrible he was for that and 2) the cognitive dissonance between your admiration for his music and disgust with his person. And that’s a perfectly natural reaction. And, what’s more, you’ll likely continue to listen to your favorite Davis recordings. (I’m curious to see how the upcoming biopic addresses this, if at all.)

Another reason this has been on my mind more than usual lately is because of River of Fundament. I wrote that many of the reviews have been, to put it kindly, sub-par (i.e., lazy and uninformed). A common thread in a number of the reviews is the charge of misogyny in the work. This review, for example, refers to the work’s sexism without actually providing a supporting example. Similar to others, it relies upon a general notion that, because Barney’s works are generally masculine, they are therefore misogynist, and therefore River of Fundament is no different. A sensational argument, but not a substantive one. (In all transparency, I’ve not seen all of The Cremaster Cycle, so I can’t speak to that work with any authority. As I wrote here, my only real Barney reference is River itself.) In fact, one could easily argue that the female characters in River are held in higher regard than the male ones. (Another topic for another day.)

Of course, Barney aside, there’s the whole discussion of what makes a work “masculine” or “feminine” in the first place. And couldn’t the argument be made that such coded descriptors perpetuate said paradigm? If a woman makes an aggressive work and a man a gentle one, are the works therefore masculine and feminine, respectively? Or only when they align? (And when they align, is it automatically problematic?)

Furthermore, River is (more than) loosely based on Ancient Evenings, whose author, Norman Mailer, is associated with misogyny like Wagner is associated with anti-Semitism. Like Barney, my experience with Mailer is limited to River of Fundament and Ancient Evenings (which I’m currently reading). Now, from the little I’ve read about Mailer’s life and the video interviews I’ve watched, misogynist seems an apt description. (As an example, of his half-dozen wives, he stabbed one.) That being said, I have yet to really interpret Evenings itself as being misogynist. But to many the combination of Barney and Mailer apparently is the artistic equivalent of a local chapter meeting of NO MA’AM.

Back to the the beginning: where is the line? Anti-Semitism is bad. (Duh.) Misogyny is bad. (Duh.) (Well, except when it’s associated with the gentle styling of a muted trumpet, that is…) What other qualities are non-starters? Charlie Parker was a drug addict who stole from his bandmates and, though an artistic asset, was often a personal liability to his friends and associates. (It’s striking that one of his proteges was a young Miles Davis.) What qualities cross said line? And do those qualities negate the artwork? Carlo Gesualdo was a forward-thinking composer in the sixteenth century whose idiosyncratic harmonic approach wouldn’t really be seen nor heard again for centuries. He also committed a double homicide (and kept on composing). Does “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)?” perpetuate misogyny? Its composer, Duke Ellington, was a rampant womanizer. Can it not be true that Ellington was both a cad and also arguably the greatest American composer?

Forgetting art altogether, what about that band of racist and misogynist eighteenth-century philosophers and politicians that so many Americans revere? Oh, sorry, I meant the Founding Fathers. What about them?

It’s easy — and tempting — to throw the baby out with the bathwater in such scenarios. But art, like its creators, is complicated. Virtue isn’t a prerequisite for creating good, meaningful work. Similarly, a good piece of art can be appreciated in spite of the artist’s shortcomings without being seen as a tool to negate or celebrate them.

Matthew Barney & Jonathan Bepler’s ‘River of Fundament’

Last weekend I finally saw Matthew Barney‘s River of Fundament, the 2014 film that is the operatic result of his years-long collaboration with Jonathan Bepler to explore, as Barney has put it in interviews, “the language of opera.” I wouldn’t dare call this “an official review,” particularly since I’m still absorbing the work seven days on, but I’d like to log some thoughts. I find it’s a worthwhile endeavor for a few reasons — some selfish, others less so:
• This is my site. I’ll do what I please.
• It may help me process it for my own understanding.
• A number of the legitimate reviews in circulation, particularly the more negative ones, are flawed in at least one or two common respects. (More on that below.) I may not be The New York Times or The Guardian, but I get some traffic. In light of that, I’d like to offer my own $0.02.

Any attempt at a concise summary of the film’s plot is futile, but I’ll try anyway. (You can read or hear far better synopsis straight from the source here.)

River of Fundament is a loose interpretation of Normal Mailer’s 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, and the content is largely informed by both the book as well as critic Harold Bloom’s review in The New York Review of Books. Ancient Evenings is a graphic tale of an ancient Egyptian nobleman who, through magic, reincarnates himself several times in order to attain greater knowledge and power, ultimately failing his third rebirth. The 700-page+ novel, which Mailer considered his best, was largely panned by critics because of its intensely sexual and scatological passages and themes. Traveling from womb to the outside world, the reincarnated must traverse a river of feces, or River of Fundament. Also included are tales of Isis and Osiris, Horus and Set, the Battle of Kadesh, a peculiar accounting of embalmment, and other detailed curiosities. Content aside, it is also written in an engaging but unusual manner. It’s less like you’re being told a story and more like you’re peeking into others’ lives. As for Bloom, his criticism suggested that Ancient Evenings was symbolically autobiographical for Mailer, in that he had hoped, through his life’s work, to eventually evolve or reincarnate into one of The Great American Authors, namely Ernest Hemingway (as represented by the pharaoh, per Bloom). That, and Bloom considered the sordid descriptions of ancient Egypt to be a comment on American society.

River of Fundament’s central setting is the wake of Norman Mailer, taking place in a precise reconstruction of Mailer’s Brooklyn home (which just so happens to be floating down the East River as a funeral barge). The protagonist is the dead Mailer himself, whose various reincarnations visit his own wake, each being reborn in a river of feces that flows beneath the home. The wake is full of friends, family, and spirits. (For an extra dose of realism, the wake guests include various levels of arterati, many of which could be tied to Mailer in one way or another, such as Fran Lebowitz, Salman Rushdie, Elaine Stritch, Dick Cavett, and more. The casting of Paul Giamatti as Ptah-nem-hotep and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ellen Burstyn both as Hathfertiti also lend “celebrity” credence.) Over the course of the evening, the living gradually exit, leaving only the spirits as the successive Normans work to ascend to greatness. Parallel to this are three separate live performances filmed in Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York, the footage for which is interspersed throughout each of the film’s three acts, respectively. These performances each center around the ritualistic destruction and rebirth of an American-made car (harkening back to Bloom’s essay), with each car acting as a simulacrum for Norman’s spirit. Also, like Ancient Evenings, the live performances tell ancient tales. In Los Angeles’s REN the car (Norman) dies its first death, only to be reborn. The Detroit performance (KHU) is a retelling of Isis and Osiris, and Brooklyn’s BA includes the fight between Horus and Set, both symbolically and physically.

Throughout the three acts, these parallel worlds eventually blend together. In Act I, the wake’s living and spirits are separated — only the Egyptian characters (Hathfertiti, Ptah-nem-hotep, Set, Nepthys, Isis) able to communicate with both — and REN is presented as a flashback to another time. In Act II, the wake’s drunkenness begins to blur the living and spiritual worlds, which are affected by KHU‘s telling of Isis and Osiris. Finally, Act III sees Mailer’s house near completely taken over by the spirit realm (save Norman’s widow) while the wake crosses paths with the seemingly contemporaneous battle between Horus and Set.

I’ve been wanting to see this for over 18 months. Thankfully, the Cleveland Institute of Art‘s Cinematheque, in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland offered two screenings over the weekend and I was able to attend. Frustratingly, I missed the Detroit screenings in June 2014 because I didn’t even know about the work until I saw the beautiful, jaw-dropping exhibition at Munich’s Haus der Kunst the following month. (I touched upon the work in this earlier post.) It was a happy accident that I saw the Munich show — the first major one for the sculptures and film in tandem — as I simply visited the museum on my day off. Though, within about twenty minutes, I was admiring the Boat of Ra with equal parts wonder and awe. Many of the sculptures were products of or featured in the live performances (e.g., the destroyed cars), but the exhibit also featured pieces related to the wake setting as well as production stills and other small works. I spent at least a couple hours in the exhibit, devouring the program and gallery’s every description and evaluating every crevice. I hadn’t before heard of Ancient Evenings, but I got the gist, and I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of Egyptian mythology and the American auto industry (and, particularly living so close, Detroit). Once through the exhibit, I decided that I had to see the corresponding film. How or when were an absolute mystery, as it had already left Munich and was on its way to Australia.

So, after over a year-and-a-half of waiting, occasionally binge-reading what info I could find (including reviews), and often pondering about what the work would actually be like, I was delighted to have a regional screening and my calendar align. Once it looked as if the weather would be clear for the 3.5-hr.+ commute each way, I even started reading Ancient Evenings just to at least get a point of reference. (I also read Bloom’s criticism, of course.) By this point, though, I was shouldering a burdensome dichotomy: my own ponderous — idealized? — notions about what River would be, and the often mixed-to-negative reviews by those who seem to know Barney’s work well. (After all, it’s hard for me to get out of the house for fun these days between work and a baby at home, and I was committing significant mileage and hours to see it. What if it turned out to be a bust?) At the close of Act III, one of my initial thoughts after getting my wits about myself was: Did I see the same film as some of those critics?.

I was moved.

And I wasn’t just moved in a materialistic “I finally got to see it” sort of way, but rather genuinely so. It caught me off guard, as I knew so little about the actual content going in — or, rather, how it would be realized. Yeah, I read about it for many months, had already made my way through a good chunk of Ancient Evenings, and had seen the gallery exhibition, but the music and most of the images and action were a mystery to me. (Very much unlike, for example, my seeing my first Ring Cycle or Einstein on the Beach — I was well studied going in and went for the live experience.) Running just shy of six hours (not counting the two intermissions), River is relentless throughout save the brief, pastoral prelude and postlude. And, yes, as is made clear in every review (and I can attest), the work is graphic in nearly every way, occasionally bordering on the perverse. Much has been made of the scatological and sexual themes and depictions. Fair enough. However, in all honesty, I didn’t feel that the explicit moments overshadowed the rest of the work. (For example, the sexual occurrences are devoid of titillation.) While there’s at least a running thread of vulgarity throughout, it’s worth noting that more can be said of Ancient Evenings, the work upon which River is at least loosely based. Action aside, the film is beautifully and impeccably shot. The set pieces, makeup, color palettes, and camera work really synthesize into visual enchantment.

To say that River is rife with symbolism is to say that I breathe oxygen. Plenty is there for the uninitiated. However, the deeper one digs into both the film and its myriad sources, the more rewarding of an experience it is. For example, take KHU, Act II’s live performance from Detroit. If one knows the story of Isis and Osiris, particularly as told by Mailer, then you realize just how ingenious Barney’s interpretation is. Here, the resurrected Trans Am acts both as Norman’s spirit but also as Osiris, who is ultimately deceived and murdered by Set. Once his body has been found and retrieved from the river by FBI Agents Isis and Nepthys, Set (a detective, now portrayed as a double by both Eugene and Herbert Perry) commands that the body (car/spirit) now be dismembered and cut into fourteen pieces, all of which are then incinerated and poured into molten molds, creating some of the more impressive exhibit sculptures. At the end of the act, Isis then gives birth to Horus, who will attempt to avenge his father (Osiris) in Act III. If that weren’t enough, at the beginning of KHU, Barney (representing Osiris) is dressed as James Lee Byars in The Death of James Lee Byars, and placed inside a goldleaf-lined ambulance near his golden Trans Am. While this may seem like a non-sequitur at first, it’s worth noting that Byars was born in Detroit but died in Cairo, Egypt, and his Death was one of his most known pieces. It’s all there: Detroit, Egypt, art, gold (an idée fixe throughout River), and death.

If anything negatively affected me, it was the utter bleakness at the end of Act II and the first part of Act III. The wake’s drunken, origiastic peak in Act II and the pharaoh Usermare’s desacratory holding court at the beginning of Act III was rather discomforting. However, I assume that was Barney’s intended effect. Consequently, I came away disturbed more by Usermare’s character than with anything he (or his court) specifically did. I was affected but in no way offended.

I mentioned a number of reviews having shared flaws. Many of them (over-)emphasize the (legitimately) graphic elements. It’d be easy to assume, based on reading most reviews, that River is six hours of continuous, purposefully alienating revulsion. Not so. (It’d be like saying Strauss’s Salome is only noteworthy for brief nudity and a touch of necrophilia, saying nothing of the revolutionary musical score.) Who knows; perhaps it helps that I’m not easily disgusted. At any rate, I went in with an open and, admittedly, willing mind. On this point I’ll note that Barney has stated that he himself was uncomfortable with Mailer’s explicit nature in Ancient Evenings, implying that he wouldn’t let his own taste impede Mailer’s to a certain degree.

The most glaring failure of most of the reviews, however, relates to the music. River of Fundament is almost always reviewed strictly through the prism of visual art or as an art film (emphasized by the exhibitions and limited screenings, respectively), both of which it certainly is *in part*. However, this is truly a collaborative piece by Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler. That Bepler’s masterfully eclectic score is often treated like any old soundtrack is beyond egregious. Going back to the beginning, Barney and Bepler wanted to tackle “the language of opera.” And, donning my professor hat for a moment, “opera” connotes (mostly) continuous music. (Technically, River could be a singspiel, etc. because of the dialogue, but that’s why Barney often avoids labeling it as opera outright.) Bepler’s largely through-composed score takes up much of the film — I’d guess at least 4.75 hours of it. And it’s not just a sound bed, but wholly integral to the dramatic experience. Text is sung throughout — with both traditional and extended techniques — via aria, recitative, and sprechstimme, complete with solos, ensembles, and choruses. The libretto comes from excerpts of Ancient Evenings, Hemingway, Whitman, Emerson, Yeats, and others.

Also noteworthy is that most of the music is diegetic in some form or another. For example, when the music starts to emanate during Norman’s eulogy (about 20+ minutes into the film), it quietly emerges from the musicians attending the wake, almost as if they’re warming up during the reading. (The eulogy, read by Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, is an excerpt of Ancient Evenings.) Gradually, Stritch (and others) begin to incorporate elements of sprechstimme and recitative, taking the “live” performers and sound and making them extra-diegetic, more for the audience than the subjects. The music generally becomes more dissonant and “ancient” as the film progresses, with string instruments made from sheet metal in Act II’s KHU, and Act III’s BA featuring brass horns made from car parts, and Native American Indian music in Act III’s latter wake scenes. Bepler handles these transitions — both small and large — masterfully throughout.

The stylistic diversity is truly staggering, and, to my ears, is (almost) all very effective. (I was a little jarred by the R&B section near the end of Act II’s wake, possibly because it was juxtaposed with one of the more nihilistic scenes.) The score includes elements of classical, (free) jazz, folk, mariachi, soul, R&B, traditional Native American Indian, Partch-ian systems of both construction and micro-tonality, drum and bugle corps, and more. At first glance, that may seem ineffectually broad. However, when you consider some of the performers, it’s a veritable Who’s Who of each style, two of which perform main characters: modern voice pioneer Joan La Barbara (as Norman’s widow), and free jazz percussion pioneer Milford Graves (as Norman II; also notable is that he’s Jonathan Bepler’s former teacher). Other musicians include Dr. Lonnie Smith, Lila Downs, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), James Carter (in a brief, unexpected appearance that made my jaw hit the floor), Eugene and Herbert Perry, Belita Woods, and many more. Though, Barney wasn’t going for names alone — the three live performances which are spliced into each act feature local talent as well. I can personally attest to this, as a friend of mine, Dr. James Fusik, performed as part of Detroit’s KHU, as well as a number of other familiar faces of colleagues and former classmates. Also, I’d be remiss to not give special mention to Detroit-based vocalist Jennie Knaggs, who deftly performs a variety of styles throughout (both during the wake and in KHU).

Furthermore, it’s not just a matter of Bepler juxtaposing varying styles, but rather his ability to so fluently filter them through his own voice and to serve the story. For example, Act I’s REN features a drum & bugle corps as well as a mariachi band with vocalist. Similar to the early wake music, the ensembles mostly begin stylistically traditionally, but eventually the brass are playing dense harmonic clusters and Lila Downs’s beautiful contralto sings atop dissonant bursts from the mariachi violins. The two ensembles are initially separated spatially and musically, the camera and audio going back and forth. Ultimately, in the culmination of REN (and Act I), they find themselves performing together in the same space while Khepera, in a ceremoniously profane fashion (isn’t it all?), prepares the automotive spirit of Norman for death/rebirth.

Of course, the score isn’t just a collection of similarly “Bepler-ed” styles. The composer also demonstrates his ability to tackle various musics head-on. For example, in the wake’s latter half of Act I, the young Hathfertiti sings a truly charming and catchy folk-pop ballad for Norman I (to the guests who can’t see Norman I, and to Norman I himself). It’s a fully realized song amidst the overall work, abruptly cut off at the end by a melismatic outburst from an angered Set. The same can be said for the more straightforward classical writing for Set’s passages, particularly in Act II’s KHU. Heard out of context, one may assume that it’s just another excerpt of contemporary American opera.

The voice as an instrument and atmospheric sound device is really highlighted, particularly in the wake scenes and in KHU, much more so than I had anticipated. It was a pleasant surprise. The aforementioned La Barbara and Knaggs as well as powerhouses Phil Minton and Sidsel Endresen really shine in this regard, as well as the wake’s chorus of Kjersti Kveli, Gelsey Bell, and Megan Schubert. A number of the sounds border on inhuman, particularly from Minton, but their conviction, virtuosity, and gravitas belie any absurdity.

Related to the music, one rather common criticism overall (not just music) is that the film engages in tokenism throughout, such as with the use of the mariachi band or with Act III’s African-American step dance team. I didn’t really get that impression; nothing stood out as such to me. Frankly, those making such broad (and lazy) accusations need to dig deeper into the material. This is yet another common shortcoming. (*)

Take the step dance team as an example, as that’s one that is occasionally highlighted as tokenism. The ensemble appears as part of Norman II’s ascension ceremony (en route to rebirth as Norman III) in Act III. Norman II is portrayed by Milford Graves, whose every scene from rebirth to death fittingly incorporates rhythm in one way or another (sometimes free, other times not). In a final celebration of rhythm, is a step dance team not out of the realm of aesthetic possibility? Until this point, Graves had been playing rhythms and music mostly himself (with found objects, his body and voice, and drums alike), so how is this group not appropriate for joining him in a rhythmic/percussive chorus? Similar criticisms have been levied against the Native American Indian chorus that appears in Act III (and musically opens the film’s trailer). However, it’s worth noting that Norman III is played by the 95-year-old Chief Dave Beautiful Bald Eagle. So wouldn’t that be appropriate also?

Taken together, the exhibition, the film, and its sources are a staggering gesamtkunstwerk. Each may be appreciated differently and separately, of course, and it’s certainly a calorie-burner that, arguably, requires some studying. But if you’re willing to put forth the time and the effort, the payoff makes it more than worthwhile. Personally, I imagine there’ll be more for me to stew over once I finish Ancient Evenings and contemplate the film even more. In fact, having sat and digested it for a while, I’d like a second viewing and listening just to help make more sense of the visual minutiae and to hear Bepler’s amazing score another time. River of Fundament, much like its namesake, is something you enter at your own risk, but you may come out the other side better for it.

 

 

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*I initially did have a question about Horus and Set’s respective pre-fight entourages in Act III. Many thanks to Twitter user @noodlz09, who performed in River, for clarifying. They pointed out that those characters are Mardi Gras Indians, whose “composite ethnicity” is a nice analogue for the metals and characters. After that, nothing stood out to me as racial, ethnic, or gender tokenism. I’m grateful for the clarification — both to set the record straight and also to allay my sole potential concern with the work.