MUSIC: Bach’s Mass In B Minor

◆ by Jeffrey Huntsman

Unbridled expression is the commonest way great emotional intensity is realized. Ecstatic spiritual rites, dancing to exhaustion, talking in tongues, even a heavy-metal rock concert are highly individualistic manifestations of passion. Nonetheless, as spontaneous as they may seem, they are all best understood through lenses that reveal intentions, structures, and cultural meaning. In time such practices may become formalized into styles, movements, or even genres — think Romanticism in art, literature, and music. In these examples there is a kind of symmetry between the forms of expression and its intended content, so a wildness of expression serves a wildness in meaning.

But there is a contrary impulse as well, which works through a dynamic tension between a passionate intensity and a highly formal structure. The power of Kwakiutl carvings, early Celtic knotwork, and Islamic calligraphy all depends precisely on the spring-wound energy of the internal forms straining against the outer boundaries. Dylan Thomas’ most personal and wrenching poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” pushes his anguish about his dying father against the formal strictures of his sestina version, with a single pair of rhyming words throughout. The emotional storm is harnessed — barely — by the straited structure.

Bach

In Western music, there is no better example of emotional intensity manifested through highly formal structure than Johann Sebastian Bach. His compositions — even the cantatas he turned out at a rate of one or more per week of his later professional life — are each models of precise musical genius. It is possible in many cases to demonstrate with mathematical exactitude the balance of musical motifs, textual meanings, and spiritual revelation — although just as surely Bach himself would never have overtly modeled his work mathematically. Writing one such masterpiece of controlled focus would be a wonder for most of us; the hope of “tossing off” hundreds is virtually unimaginable.

Out of a lifetime compendium of Bach’s treasures it is daunting to choose a single exemplar of supreme excellence, but if pressed to choose one, Bach’s Mass in B minor would be it for many. A product of his late life, the Mass in B minor (1749) is unusual for one composed by a Lutheran, because it sets the whole Latin text of the Roman tradition. Several parts were actually composed earlier: a segment of the Crucifixus dating from a cantata of 1714, the Sanctus from 1724, and the Kyrie and Gloria from 1733. Revisiting, reusing, and revising earlier material is something most musicians do, of course, and Bach’s companions here include among many others Handel, Janáček, and Lauridsen. But there is nothing stale in this reimagined masterpiece. The Mass was Bach’s last major composition, completed after he had gone blind and when he surely was most mindful of his impending mortality.

Although it apparently languished unperformed over two centuries until 1859 — Bach himself does not seem to have heard it in its finished form — it has since become recognized as an epitome of his writing for voice, with a compendious variety of musical styles, a breadth of textures and sonorities, and his characteristic richness of technical complexity and finesse. So towering is its stature that no one since, not even Beethoven (who tried twice to get a copy of the ms.), has written another mass in that key. That player’s number has been permanently retired.

The Chamber Singers, under the baton of Music Director D. Gerald Sousa, is returning to the Mass after a decade and a half of consistent growth in its size and musicality. For this performance, the BCS is partnering with the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra (Artistic Director Barthold Kuijken), a group also with many past and current connections with IU’s Jacobs School of Music. It will be an especially rare treat to hear the Mass played on period-correct instruments, like Bach himself could have used, and the splendid venue at St John the Apostle Catholic Church, on the northwest edge of Bloomington near Ellettsville, is a virtually third acoustic partner.

[The Bloomington Chamber Singers, with the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra, will perform J. S. Bach’s Mass in B minor on Saturday, April 13 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, April 14 (at 3:00 pm at St. John the Apostle Catholic Church in Bloomington.

The Ryder, March 2013

FILM: People Will Say We’re In Amour

The Heart-Stopping Cinema of Michael Haneke ◆ by Craig J. Clark

This has been a long time coming, but it appears uncompromising Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke is finally starting to gain some mainstream acceptance in the United States — that is, if the multiple Academy Awards nominations for his last two films are anything to go by. Between them, 2009’s The White Ribbon and last year’s Amour were nominated for seven Oscars, with two nods for Best Foreign Film (which Amour won), Best Cinematography, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay. That’s not bad for a period piece about the nature of evil and a heavy drama about a couple facing their mortality with grim determination. Hardly what one would consider feel-good films, but Haneke has never been interested in coddling audiences or providing them with easy answers to life’s problems.

That hard-line stance goes all the way to his first feature, The Seventh Continent, which was released in 1989 and is one of his most quietly devastating efforts. It also illustrates his early propensity for formal experimentation, breaking the action down into three distinct parts. The first takes place in 1987 and observes engineer Dieter Berner, optician Birgit Doll and their young daughter Leni Tanzer as they go about their daily routines. Nothing that unusual happens; we just watch them (usually from a distance or framed in such a way that their faces aren’t visible) as they do all the mundane things one has to do to get through the day. Part two, which takes place a year later, is structured the same way, and features repetitions of some of the same shots and actions. There are enough subtle differences, though, that an observant viewer will begin to wonder just what Haneke is getting at. Well, what Haneke is getting at is what happens in the third part, which takes place in 1989.

The first clue that something is amiss doesn’t come until nearly an hour in, when Berner casually mentions to Doll that they “have to cancel the newspaper subscription.” It’s at that moment, when the characters reveal that they have crossed some kind of threshold without telling us, that the dread starts to mount. There’s one mention that they’re immigrating to Australia (the seventh continent of the title), but it soon becomes clear that they have an entirely different destination in mind. What that is I leave the reader to discover for themselves if they so choose.

For his second feature, 1992’s Benny’s Video, Haneke ventured into Atom Egoyan territory with his story of a teenage boy (Arno Frisch) who is obsessed with capturing images on videotape and then playing them back repeatedly. A child of affluent parents, Frisch is also in the habit of renting violent movies and listening to loud rock music while he’s holed up in his room, a practice disapproved of by his father (Ulrich Mühe), but his mother (Angela Winkler) doesn’t find it too troubling. Maybe if she had a look at some of the videos he’s taken and edited together, she would.

“Benny’s Video”

Provocatively, the film opens with footage of a real pig being killed with a captive bolt pistol (similar to the one favored by Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men). And if that’s not disturbing enough, the video is rewound and played back in slow motion, and then a third time when Frisch shows his set-up to a girl that he meets outside the video store he frequents. Conveniently, his parents are away for the weekend when he brings her home, so when he kills her with the same weapon that was used on the pig, he has time to coolly clean everything up. The only thing he doesn’t do is dispose of the body, as his parents discover to their horror when they get home. From the way they go about dealing with the problem, though, it becomes pretty clear how Frisch became so dispassionate that he could take a human life without batting an eye.

The final part of Haneke’s “glaciation trilogy” was 1994’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, which tells the backstory of a young gunman’s rampage at an Austrian bank by breaking it down into bite-sized narrative chunks spread out over the two months leading up to it. Rather than explain how the event comes to pass or why each of his eventual victims was there when it happened, though, Haneke teases out just enough information with each fragment to give the audience the chance to figure out how they all connect (or not, as the case may be). As such, there is no one central character to latch onto (not even the murderer), but we do come back to a few of them enough times to get a feel for how they pass their days in the shadow of looming tragedy.

Meanwhile, Haneke starts each day (there are five depicted in the film) with news reports on unrest and violence in places like Somalia, Haiti, Northern Ireland, Turkey, Lebanon and Bosnia, as well as an in-depth look at the Michael Jackson child abuse scandal that was consuming a lot of media attention at the time. I’m sure Haneke is making some kind of point about how easy it is for people to lose perspective (the Jackson case is given as much weight as all of the other stories, if not more), but the main thing one takes away from the film is that there are no easy answers. And apart from the gunman, whose death by his own hand is revealed in a title card at the top of the film, we never find out the fate of any of the other characters. That may be frustrating to some, but anybody who appreciates not being spoon-fed will have much to chew on after all 71 fragments have been slotted into place.

Next up for Haneke was his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, which had previously inspired some aspects of Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka. Made in 1997 for Austrian television, its story concerns a land surveyor (Ulrich Mühe, the father from Benny’s Video) who arrives in a snowbound village, having been summoned by the Castle, only to find that his services are no longer required — nor were they ever, apparently. Mühe attempts to gain entrance to the Castle, but is frustrated at every turn, and it doesn’t help that he’s been assigned a pair of interchangeable assistants (Frank Giering and Felix Eitner) who make quite a nuisance of themselves. He also takes up with barmaid Susanne Lothar when he finds out she’s the mistress of a high-ranking official, but how he expects to get anywhere that way is frankly beyond me.

Things get more complicated from there — much, much more complicated — as Mühe peels away the layers of bureaucracy and obfuscation only to find more where they came from. His relationship with Lothar also becomes a major distraction, and like everything else he tries it gets him no closer to gaining entrance to the Castle, but by the end there are people trying to get to close to him because of his perceived connections there. At least Mühe remains sane enough to appreciate the irony of that.

Haneke’s next theatrical feature, made the same year as The Castle, was Funny Games, which is one of his more notorious films (made even more so by the fact that he remade it shot for shot a decade later). Briefly, it’s about two unfailingly polite young men who show up at the vacation home of a nice, upper middle class family and proceed to terrorize the hell out of them. It’s difficult to say any more about the plot without giving the “game” away, but the whole thing starts with a simple request for eggs and, before it’s over, they’re not the only things that end up getting broken.

It’s instructive to watch Funny Games in tandem with The Castle since Ulrich Mühe plays the hapless father and Susanne Lothar is his wife. Haneke even recasts one of Mühe’s unhelpful assistants (Frank Giering) as one of their tormentors, and the other (Arno Frisch) had played the title character in Benny’s Video, so he was well-versed in the art of inflicting randomly cruel violence on others. Of course, Haneke chooses to only show us its after-effects, scrupulously keeping the actual acts of violence (with one notable exception) offscreen. This is much appreciated considering some of the worst offenses are committed against the couple’s child, making this a film that disturbs as much as it enrages.

For an encore, Haneke puzzled out 2000’s Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys, which is a companion piece of sorts to 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance since it presents a series of interlocking stories about people whose lives intersect in ways both ordinary and unexpected. The main focal point is Juliette Binoche, who plays an actress working on a thriller that we get to see in various stages of rehearsal and shooting, but we also spend time with her photojournalist boyfriend (who seems most at home in the middle of war zones), his younger brother (who yearns to escape from the family farm), a young African (who takes offense to the brother’s treatment of a beggar), his father (who drives a cab to support his family), and a Romanian immigrant (who winds up getting deported since she was in the country illegally). As with 71 Fragments, Haneke leaves it up to the viewer to figure out how their stories fit together.

While Funny Games and Code Unknown were both in competition at Cannes, and Code Unknown received a special Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, Haneke moved one step closer to the coveted Palme d’Or with 2001’s The Piano Teacher, which was awarded the Grand Prix (the second-highest prize at the festival), plus Best Actor and Actress. As anyone who’s seen the film can attest, Isabelle Huppert definitely deserved the latter for diving headfirst into the role of a deranged music professor who enters into a sado-masochistic relationship with a student (Best Actor winner Benoît Magimel) whose aggressive nature both attracts and repels her. Then again, it doesn’t help that she has the worst stage mother this side of Barbara Hershey in Black Swan, which is all the more pathetic when one considers that Huppert is clearly in her 40s and therefore has little chance of being “discovered.” Not only does she still live at home, but her overbearing mother is constantly checking up on her, which probably accounts for why she has so many sexual and emotional hang-ups.

“The Piano Teacher”

As is frequently the case in Haneke’s films, it takes some time for Huppert to reveal the depths of her psychosis. The camera dispassionately observes her in uncomfortably long takes while she engages in erratic behavior which becomes increasingly dangerous, both to herself and others. Her passive-aggressiveness even compels her to destroy a student’s chances of playing professionally just before an important recital. Little wonder, then, that Magimel tells her, “It’s totally sick what you’re doing here.” That’s as may be, but it doesn’t prevent him from coming back for more.

Huppert returned for 2003’s Time of the Wolf, an apocalyptic tale that shows how the world ends, neither with a bang nor a whimper, but rather with uncertainty, misery, and the high probability of death by exposure and/or starvation. Set during an unnamed calamity that spurs city dwellers Huppert and Daniel Duval to stock up on some essentials and flee to the country with their children, the film immediately puts them at a disadvantage since another family has beaten them to their cabin and the father has a gun. This means the supposed safe haven where they were planning on waiting out the catastrophe instead puts them face to face (for the first of many times) with desperate people who will do whatever is necessary to hold onto what little they’ve got. After Duval is taken out of the picture, Huppert tries her best to provide for herself and her children, finding food and shelter where neither is easy to come by.

Much like the similarly themed Children of Men and The Road, Time of the Wolf is bleak pretty much from the word go, and it only gets bleaker as it goes on. Even so, there are some starkly beautiful images on display, with Haneke going the Stanley Kubrick route by shooting all of the night scenes by firelight. (One such tracking shot features Huppert and her children walking past a row of farm animals that have been killed and set ablaze — an image both poetic and horrifying at the same time.) It may not be a comforting vision, but few people go into a Michael Haneke film expecting to be reassured about their place in the world.

Another winner at Cannes (earning him Best Director and two other awards), 2005’s Caché found Haneke on the threshold of a crossover success that seemed unlikely just a few years earlier. A tense drama about a man unwilling to face up to his past mistakes, it stars Daniel Auteuil as the host of a popular public television program who starts receiving creepy videotapes showing the exterior of the house he shares with book editor Juliette Binoche and their preteen son. The premise is similar to the opening scenes of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, but whereas Lynch quickly branches off into other, stranger avenues, Haneke stays firmly rooted in reality as the tapes (and the gruesome drawings and postcards that begin arriving with them) chip away at Auteuil’s long-dormant conscience. But what does he have to feel guilty about and why does he feel compelled to keep secrets from his wife and son?

“Caché”

Without giving too much away, Auteuil eventually receives a tape that leads him to the apartment of a mysterious Algerian man (Maurice Bénichou) who’s cagey about the connection between them when a clearly agitated Auteuil shows up at his door. He also has a memorable confrontation with the man’s son (Walid Afkir), but that only comes after an event that I wouldn’t dream in a million years of spoiling. Haneke’s films may be deliberately paced, but that only serves to make the shocks more effective when they do come.

For his first (and, so far, only) English-language film, Haneke followed in the footsteps of The Vanishing‘s George Sluizer and Nightwatch‘s Ole Bornedal by remaking one of his own films. In his case he chose Funny Games, casting Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the affluent couple whose home is invaded and Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet as the ones doing the invading. Both films are equally effective (it all depends on whether you prefer to read subtitles or not), but Pitt and Corbet make for very ingratiating home invaders and the games they come up with are designed for maximum discomfort, both for the “players” and for the audience.

Before Amour, Haneke’s biggest success, both domestically and internationally, was The White Ribbon, which stands apart from the rest of his filmography thanks to its period setting and Christian Berger’s stark black-and-white cinematography, which perfectly evokes the place and time (a small German village in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War I). The imagery also captures the outlook of the villagers, many of whom see everything as strictly black or white. As Haneke deftly illustrates, that sort of environment is a veritable breeding ground for intolerance and corruption.

“White Ribbon”

If anyone could be said to be at the center of everything, it would be the village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who narrates the film from the vantage point of some unspecified time in the future. His main concern, both in the past and the present, is his tentative courtship with the local baron and baroness’s nanny (Leonie Benesch), a girl of 17 who is unjustly dismissed after an incident that doesn’t even involve a child under her care. The incident is far from the first, or the last, though, and most seem to somehow involve the older children of the local pastor (Burghart Klaussner), whose ideas about punishment always seem to outstrip the misbehavior involved. Then there is the doctor (Rainer Bock), who’s carrying on an affair with the town midwife (Susanne Lothar, returning from The Castle and the original Funny Games), which turns out to be the least of his transgressions. With role models like these, it’s no wonder the children lack a proper moral compass.

Firmly back in the present, Haneke’s second Palme d’Or winner in a row was Amour, which is that rare thing: a tearjerker that conjures up profound emotions without having to ladle on the sappy strings or Nicholas Sparks sunsets. Rather, it uses the most straightforward method of telling the story of a man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who watches helplessly while his wife (Emmanuelle Riva) incrementally slips away from him. After all, who needs cheap melodramatics when you’ve got two actors with more than a century of film-acting experience between them?

The film opens with the story’s end, as the fire department breaks into Trintignant and Riva’s apartment and finds her dead with flower petals strewn about her room. It then flashes back to the night of another break-in, which the couple missed because they were attending a piano recital given by one of her former students. Apart from that all seems well, but the following morning Riva zones out for a few minutes during breakfast, which raises a red flag for Trintignant. “We can’t pretend nothing happened,” he says, and next thing we know Riva has had an operation, but it apparently did more harm than good because when she comes home she’s in a wheelchair and has lost the use of the right side of her body. It’s quite understandable, then, that she makes him promise never to take her back to the hospital, even if it will cause him great distress to keep it.

For the most part, Trintignant and Riva exist in isolation, save for the occasional visits from helpful neighbors and their daughter (Isabelle Huppert), who fills them in on her problems (a philandering husband, a directionless son) and grows increasingly concerned about Riva’s condition, which deteriorates rapidly. In a matter of weeks she goes from zipping around in her motorized wheelchair (the introduction of which provides a rare moment of levity) to being confined to her bed and barely capable of speech. Given the range of emotion she has to express, I’m not surprised she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but Trintignant is equally deserving of recognition for his work here. I’m sure it will be a long time before I see another pair of lived-in performances such as these.

[Editor’s note: The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Caché, Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher and The White Ribbon can all be viewed on Netflix.]

The Ryder, March 2013

FILM: True False Festival

by Peter LoPilato

One of the best documentary film festivals in the world is just a short drive down I-70 in Columbia, Missouri. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating – it’s not that short a drive (six hours) but it is a fantastic festival. Filmmakers and occasionally the subjects of their documentaries present films, take part in Q&As and hobnob with festival-goers in hipster cafes, taverns and ice cream shops.

Think Lotus, only with movies. Film showings take place in multiple screening rooms in downtown Columbia and on the campus of the University of Missouri, all within walking distance of one another. For four days, from mid-morning until past midnight, Columbia is transformed into a film-lover’s playground. You can leapfrog from a film to a panel discussion to a performance by an indie band. And at night there are parties! Real parties — this is not one of those dreary academic affairs, with all due respect to academics. True False 2013 will feature close to forty new films and forty now bands. Most films come freshly discovered from Sundance, Toronto and other festivals; others appear mysteriously before their official premieres elsewhere.

Musicians Perform At The True False Film Festival

Some of 2012’s best documentaries were showcased last year at True False including The Ambassador, The Imposter, Queen of Versailles and Searching for Sugar Man.

This year’s festival will take place February 28th through March 3rd. As we go to press, the full slate of films has not been announced. It will include however, No, by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. No captured the Directors’ Fortnight top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Actress and fictional filmmaker Sarah Polley (some of you saw Take this Waltz last year at The Ryder) will present her documentary debut with Stories We Tell. By the time you read this, the rest True False program should be posted on the festival’s site.

The Ryder, February 2013

STAGES: February (& More)

by Ryan Dawes

◗ King Creole’s Bayou Boogie


Saturday, February 16 / Bloomington Convention Center / 6 pm / $60

This Mardi Gras-themed event will feature a performance by Curtis Jackson’s Motown Review, which will serve as soundtrack to the shell-crushing ecstasy of a massive crawfish boil.  Other Cajun, Creole, and Yankee dietary delights will be served compliments of local restaurants.  The event will benefit the Bloomington Independent Restaurant Association and the Monroe County Chapter of the American Red Cross to support their work with victims of disasters, military families, and emergency response and preparedness.  Tickets can be purchased at bctboxoffice.com or at the door.

◗ Soup Bowl Benefit


Sunday, February 17 / Monroe County Convention Center / 5 pm / $25


Benefiting the Hoosier Hills Food Bank, which collects and distributes food for local NPO’s, the Soup Bowl offers ticket holders their choice of hundreds of handmade ceramic bowls made by area artists, along with soup and bread donated by local restaurants and bakeries.  The idea for the Soup Bowl Benefit was first conceived by local artist Carrie Newcomer and music attorney Robert Meitus, who participated in a similar event while on tour.  Since then, the benefit has helped HHFB buy trucks and refrigerators and feed families across Monroe and 6 other counties.  Musical entertainment will be provided by Another Round (formerly Straight No Chaser) and the old-time folk outfit, The Monks.

◗ Pokey LaFarge & The South City Three with Al Scorch


Thursday, February 21 / The Bishop / 9 pm / $10


Lotus World Music Fest alumni Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three conjure spirits of the historic South with a glowing brand of  rag-time, western swing, and country blues. The sweaty, humid feat is achieved with Pokey’s brilliant guitar-picking and crooning voice stacked charmingly atop guitjo, double bass, kazoo, and harmonica. Chicago’s own banjo shredding Al Scorch will pre-heat the Bishop with his old-soul narratives supported by a bluegrassy, gospelish folk that is often penetrated by a youthful post-punk recklessness, lending more emotion to the work. Each act alone would be worth the same door price.

Pokey LaFarge & The South City Three

◗ The School for Scandal


Friday & Saturday, February 22 & 23; Tuesday, February 26 through Friday, March 1 / Ruth N. Halls Theatre / 7:30 pm / $10-25

Set in London in the 1770’s (when it was also written), this theatrical comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan is about the repercussions of the age-old practice of gossip. We see this play out as Lady Sneerwell plots to wreak social havoc by spreading unfounded rumors of a love-affair so that she may pluck what she wants from the wreckage, that being the affection of a married man. After more lies, backstabbing, bribery, and the arrival of a rich uncle in disguise, Sneerwell’s plot unravels in a way that illustrates just how “tale-bearers are as bad as the tale-makers.” Tickets are available at the IU Auditorium box office or at the Lee Norvelle Center box office in-person, which opens one hour before the show.

◗ Dragon Wagon


Friday, March 1 / Max’s Place / 10 pm / Free

With a fiddle player who was trained the tradition of Celtic violin and later toured with a death metal-bluegrass hybrid outfit, DW is a bluegrass folk-rock band, but obviously not without a diverse array of other influences. The band is based in Ann Arbor, MI and has been playing together since 2008.  Legend has it that percussionist Fritz McGirr was once hired by Guinness Brewing Company to rap about beer and play the Bodhrán (double-sided, hand held frame drum with goat skin). DW mandolin player Troy Stanley Radikin confirms this.  Donations for admission will be accepted.

◗ Spamalot


Wednesday, March 6 / Indiana University Auditorium / 8 pm / $38-62

“Bring out your dead!” Created by the writers of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, Spamalot is the Broadway version of the former.  After entertaining more than 2 million people and grossing more than $175 million in its first year, Spamalot was awarded a Tony for Best Musical in 2005. So enthused by the first year’s success, that 1,789 Monty Python fans amassed to form the “World’s Largest Coconut Orchestra” in Shubert Alley in Manhattan. Since then, the production has toured through Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Europe, and Australia.  If you’re not dead yet, you can find tickets at the IU Auditorium Box Office, located just south of the main entrance.

◗ Unknown Mortal Orchestra with Foxygen, Wampire

Friday, March 8 / The Bluebird / 9 pm / $12


Led by Ruban Nielson formerly of New Zealand, UMO creates a guitar-driven psychedelic pop with strains of funk and garage rock influenced by solitude and liver-punishing life on the road. His high-pitched, emotionally charged vocals combined with fuzzy distortion sound like a mix of Elliott Smith, Jimi Hendrix, and a new 21st Century bleakness that didn’t exist before. Sharing similar threads of psychedelia (not to mention the local labelship of Jagjaguar), Foxygen will precede UMO on stage, sporting surprising song structure that illustrates admirable instrument and genre diversity, amounting to a very entertaining and thoughtful experimental pop.

◗ Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma


Monday, March 18 / Indiana University Auditorium / 8 pm / $38-60

As one of the most recognized cellists in the world, Yo-Yo Ma directs and performs in the Silk Road Ensemble, which is part of a broader educational initiative called the Silk Road Project and includes performers from nearly 20 countries, playing instruments unique to their countries. For example, you can hear a kamancheh (bowed instrument with silk or metal strings) from Iran, a shakuhachi (end-blown flute) from Japan, or an erhu (double stringed fiddle with a python-skinned sound box) from China, just to name a few. Altogether, the Ensemble boasts both an enormous fleet of symphonic sound as well as illuminates individual instruments solo.

The Ryder, February 2013

OPERA: Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten”

A Modern American Opera With An Ancient, Exotic Feel ◆ by Kristen Strandberg

Philip Glass’s music often conveys a sense of mesmerizing calmness, yet can just as easily–and sometimes simultaneously–provoke a sense of unease. Such is the case with his 1984 opera, Akhnaten, which the IU Opera Theater will perform on February 22 and 23, and March 1 and 2.  While the IU Opera often performs one or two contemporary works each season, this marks their first performance of a Glass opera.  Akhnaten may be slightly more challenging for listeners than this season’s Mozart or Verdi operas, yet Glass’s music is still accessible and somewhat familiar.  Much of the opera’s music contains the unmistakable sounds of Glass’s minimalist style, in which short musical fragments are repeated over long periods of time with slow-changing harmonies.  Yet, Akhnaten’s dissonant sounds set it apart from Glass’s well-known piano music and earlier opera Einstein on the Beach, giving it a foreign, ancient feel.

“Anhkaten” At The IU MAC

The mesmerizing and reflective quality of Glass’s music has a powerful effect when paired with visual images or a narrative.  He has written music for several films, such as Candyman (1992), The Truman Show (1998), and The Hours (2002), which received nine Academy Award nominations including Best Original Score.  In film, the synergy between Glass’s score and the on-screen images offers depth and insight into the narrative: during Virginia Wolf’s suicide scene in The Hours, the mesmerizing calmness of Glass’s score offers psychological insight into the character, giving the viewer a sense of peace and finality in spite of the urgency and distress of the visual images.  The 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi offers a similar alliance between image and Glass’s music.  The film consists entirely of landscapes and city scenes without dialogue or narrative, and while the landscape scenes are often beautiful, Glass’s repetitive minimalist music can be deeply unsettling, giving the viewer the sense that something is very wrong; later scenes showing the effects of pollution confirm this sense.

Glass’s operatic music similarly complements images on stage.  Written in 1984, Akhnaten is Glass’s third opera, telling the story of an ancient Egyptian king who is overthrown after his attempts to impose religious reform on his kingdom. The music complements the ancient Egyptian setting, altering our sense of time and place because of its unfamiliar and somewhat unsettling nature.

Throughout the opera, the instruments and voices create layers of sounds; the strings, brass, percussion, and voices each repeat their own musical ideas without interacting with each other, producing a sense of organized chaos.  The Act 1 love duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti demonstrates this effect while also speaking to Akhnaten’s desire to abolish polygamy in his kingdom. The duet features Glass’s signature repetition in the orchestra, while the two voices interject in their own style, perhaps symbolizing the characters’ unity in conflict with the desires of the polygamous kingdom.  Other elements, such as dissonance and a lack of sustained notes and vocal beauty, remind the listener that this is not a nineteenth-century operatic love story, but a much more distant, unfamiliar one.

Akhnaten is performed by twelve solo voices, a chorus, and a narrator, with a mixture of sung and spoken text.  Glass and his collaborators drew upon various sources for the text, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Bible, and several letters and poems.  Each segment is performed in the source’s original language- English, Hebrew, or Egyptian.

The IU Opera Theater will perform Akhnaten at 8 pm on February 22 and 23, and March 1 and 2 at the Musical Arts Center.  Additionally, they will join the Indianapolis opera for two performances on March 8 and 9 at Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University.

The Ryder, February 2013

FILM: And The Winners Could Be…

Oscar Predictions From Somebody Who Has No Business Making Them ■ by Craig J. Clark

There’s a very good reason why I’m not in the Oscar prognostication business. In my Top Ten Films of 2012 article I singled out two performances which I believed merited some measure of recognition from the Academy and, true to form, when the nominations were announced last month, Denis Lavant failed to score one for his sterling work in Holy Motors and Rachel Weisz’s revelatory turn in The Deep Blue Sea was similarly passed over. I also find it hard to fathom that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master didn’t get nominated for Best Picture, Best Director or Best Original Screenplay, but at least at least it can crow about its three acting nods. Whether any of them will translate to actual wins is anyone’s guess. And when you get right down to it, guesswork is all it really is.

Ever since the nominations were announced, a lot of ink (both digital and actual) has been spilled by people in the industry and those standing outside it, all sharing their thoughts about who was snubbed and who’s likely to go home empty-handed come February 24. Some of these people may have even seen all or most of the films that are nominated, but in the field of entertainment journalism that’s hardly a prerequisite. With that in mind, here is my idiosyncratic take on who’s likely to win in the major categories, and who actually should win.

◗ Best Picture
It’s a nine-horse race this year, and at present I only really have five horses in it: Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, and Silver Linings Playbook. Of the four that remain, I strongly suspect I will have seen Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty by the time this issue goes to press, which just leaves Argo (which I had ample opportunities to see when it was released last fall) and Les Misérables (which holds no interest for me whatsoever). And since the Academy declined to nominate Ben Affleck or Tom Hooper for Best Director (or Quentin Tarantino or Kathryn Bigelow, for that matter), their films don’t have much of a chance of taking the top award anyway. In many ways, Best Picture appears to be Lincoln‘s to lose, but if by some miracle that comes to pass, I’d like to see it be lost to Amour just because. Even sight unseen (since it won’t be coming to the IU Cinema until the week after the Oscars are given out), Amour is my pick.

◗ Best Director
And Michael Haneke is my pick for Best Director, even though chances are great that the Academy will give it to Steven Spielberg, whose last nomination was for Munich. Of the other nominees, Life of Pi is well-regarded enough that Ang Lee could be a spoiler (especially considering his last time up to bat was with Brokeback Mountain), and David O. Russell is something of a wild card thanks to the heat behind Silver Linings Playbook‘s clean sweep of the acting categories (the first time that’s happened since Reds pulled off the same feat 32 years ago). As for Benh Zeitlin, since he’s in such august company with his first feature, he should consider that it’s an honor just to be nominated and leave his acceptance speech at home.

◗ Best Actor
Of the five nominees, I’ve only seen two of their performances, but that hardly matters since everybody and their brother knows Daniel Day-Lewis has a lock on this. That’s really too bad for Bradley Cooper, who proved he was more than just a pretty face with Silver Linings Playbook (no matter how problematic its depiction of mental illness may be), Hugh Jackman (who used his natural singing ability to his advantage in Les Misérables), and Denzel Washington (who, like Day-Lewis, already has two Oscars in his trophy case). If it were up to me, though, the little gold statuette would go to Joaquin Phoenix for his incredibly brave performance as a troubled World War II veteran searching for a purpose in The Master.

Best Actress
This is one of the more difficult categories to handicap since its nominees are all over the map in terms of age and experience. At 9 years old, Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhané Wallis is the youngest performer ever to be nominated for Best Actress, and at 85, Amour’s Emmanuelle Riva is the oldest. And the only other nominee I’ve seen is Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, which seems like a real long shot to me. I expect this is the one category where the Academy and I will align, though, with the award going to Riva for what I can only presume is a harrowing — and touching — performance.

◗ Best Supporting Actor
It’s been noted that all of the nominees for Best Supporting Actor this year have already won an Oscar, so there’s no chance of the Academy going, “Hey, we kind of owe Alan Arkin, don’t we? Let’s go ahead and give it to him.” For my money, Philip Seymour Hoffman is the heavyweight in this category since his part in The Master is really a leading role, but I believe the Academy will give it to Robert De Niro in recognition of the fact that his performance in Silver Linings Playbook represents one of the increasingly rare occasions where he actually appears to give a crap instead of just appearing in it. (Can you believe the last time he was nominated was for Cape Fear? Talk about a dry spell.)

◗ Best Supporting Actress
This one’s always a toss-up. As much as I enjoyed Jacki Weaver in Silver Linings Playbook, I don’t see her swaying the voters, and I predict that Amy Adams will wind up being the third nominee from The Master to go home empty-handed. That leaves the three performances I haven’t seen, so I’m going with my gut and saying Sally Field will take home her third Oscar (giving her a perfect record) for playing Mary Todd Lincoln.

◗ Best Original Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay
The screenplay awards tend to be where the Academy makes up for some oversight in the bigger categories. (Think Pulp Fiction netting Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay when many thought it should have bested Forrest Gump in the Best Picture race.) Accordingly, I fully expect screenwriter Mark Boal to spin Best Original Screenplay gold out of Zero Dark Thirty‘s failure to take home the top prize. If I had my druthers, though, I would much rather see it go to Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola for their sweetly perceptive coming-of-age tale Moonrise Kingdom (which received no other nominations). And while Tony Kushner is a sure bet to win Best Adapted Screenplay for Lincoln, I believe Benh Zeitlin & Lucy Alibar’s beguiling script for Beasts of the Southern Wild is the one more worthy of recognition.

◗ Best Animated Feature
Since I haven’t seen any of the nominees for Best Documentary or Best Foreign Film (which is far from unusual considering the limited distribution those receive), the final category I’ll be weighing in on is Best Animated Feature, which I feel uniquely qualified for since I managed to see four of the five nominees. (I chalk this up to the fact that the Academy didn’t go for anything off the beaten path, like last year’s Chico & Rita or A Cat in Paris, or 2011’s surprise nomination for The Secret of Kells.) With ParaNorman being the odd one out for me, that leaves Pixar’s Brave, Aardman’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and Disney’s Frankenweenie and Wreck-It Ralph. All solid films (although some are solid-er than others), but my pick for the best of the lot is the endlessly inventive (and lovingly nostalgic) Wreck-It Ralph. I’m pretty sure there are few gamers in the Academy, though, so they’ll probably give it to Brave instead, and I won’t kick up a fuss if they do. After all, I’m used to being wrong about these things.

The Ryder, February 2013

TV: Tilting At Windmills

Aaron Sorkin Speaks Truth To Stupid ■ by Ben Atkinson

There are plenty of news shows out there and even plenty of entertainment shows that cover news. The Newsroom is a drama about journalists reporting news, but the novelty is that it uses actual news stories from the recent past. The show, which first aired summer of 2012, begins its own timeline in April of 2010.

The Newsroom might just as well be the lovechild of Sorkin’s earlier shows The West Wing and Sports Night. The characters are inspiring but imperfect, with a constant battle between their demons and better angels, with the latter prevailing.

Writer and creator Aaron Sorkin believes there are viewers who are disappointed with the current state of journalism and with news shows geared more towards entertaining than informing. The Newroom revolves around the battle between the journalists and ratings-obsessed network executives. Sorkin fans will find the struggle of creative professionals to excel under management constraints familiar (see Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). His own struggles with ABC over the use of laugh tracks and live studio audiences may have influenced his writing. The Newsroom seems to have found a more willing party with HBO which has renewed the show for a second season set to air in June.

The Newsroom

Jeff Daniels brilliantly portrays lead anchor Will McAvoy. Daniels comes a long way from his famous role in Dumb and Dumber, and is more than convincing as one of those hyper-intelligent Sorkin characters who always has the appropriate facts, statistics, and trivia on hand for any situation. McAvoy is another in Sorkin’s line of great men who shape history. Of course he’s a man; while the women on the show wear powerful shoes and are far from the kitchen, their primary role is to inspire and prop up their male counterparts.

Despite the indignant speeches that inspire the left and infuriate the right (hardly rarities in a Sorkin script), McAvoy is a conservative, in the classical sense of the word. Registered Democrats and West Wing fans shouldn’t find this too off-putting, as it rarely explicitly surfaces. McAvoy’s acknowledged quixotic vision of himself as a knight defending truth, justice, and the American way while on a mission to civilize the savages rings rather false to a Leftist view of history. His constant forays against the Tea Party are less an attack on conservative philosophy than an attempt to rescue his party from its fringe elements, something Indiana Republicans might cherish after last year’s Senate race.

Emily Mortimer’s Mackenzie McHale is the show’s heart. Her passion drives everyone and her pure commitment to her profession counters the cynicism that threatens to conquer her colleagues. She is the better angel sitting on the proverbial shoulder.

Together their mission statement is “speak truth to stupid.” Journalism is idealized as a quest for truth, not as a “balance” with equal coverage between two ideological camps. McAvoy isn’t afraid to pursue a line of questioning beyond the prepared talking points and won’t let his interview subjects evade the issues with non-answers and deflections.

Yes, it is easier to look back on a two-year old story with hindsight and imagine how one would like it to have been reported. Sorkin isn’t bashing journalists, but is extolling what they could be as he reminds viewers of the importance of the Fourth Estate.

Reliving actual events makes watching The Newsroom a unique experience. Remembering where one was and how one viewed the events as they happened has a certain element of nostalgia. Many stories are not so pleasant, especially those all too similar to recent events. The first episode deals with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and brings to mind the recent grounding of the Shell drill barge off Alaska. The episode chronicling the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords can’t help but recall recent images from Sandy Hook. Nevertheless, the show manages to maintain an optimistic tone. Rather than compromise journalistic integrity and make deals with the devils, the journalists in The Newsroom rise to the challenge. Season 1 opens with allusions to Man of La Mancha, and it isn’t clear if we are witnessing a fool tilting at windmills or a brave knight stepping forth to do battle with giants. It ends, however referencing a different musical and the enduring embers of hope that can be seen even in the ashes of defeat. Camelot may have been but “for one brief shining moment,” but that doesn’t make a fool of King Arthur. Not everything about The Newsroom is perfect, but it does remind us that when we look over the “great blue motion of the sunlit sea,” some of the drops sparkle.

The Ryder, February 2013

FILM: Bringing Middle Earth Back To Life—Again

Peter Jackson brings The Hobbit to a theater near you ■ by Rick Nagy

Like many other fans of JRR Tolkien, and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, I breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing that Jackson had taken the helm of The Hobbit from Guillermo Del Toro. Don’t get me wrong – I like Del Toro’s Movies, but it was evident he just didn’t get the world of Tolkien. I feel confident that when I walk into the theater at midnight on December 14th to see An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of The Hobbit, Jackson’s long-awaited “prequel” to Lord of the Rings, it will have been worth the wait.


Bilbo Baggins Hosts An Unexpected Party In “The Hobbit”

It wasn’t just that Del Toro wanted to inject a post-modern artiness into the project; he simply didn’t understand what lay at the heart of Tolkien’s world: language.

In an interview with The New Yorker last year, Del Toro showed off some of the movie’s production drawings. What really caught my attention was his description of Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf chieftain whom hobbit Bilbo Baggins follows in the essential quest at the heart of The Hobbit. Apparently, Thorin’s helmet should be shaped like a crown of thorns, because, “after all,” according to Del Toro, “his name is Thorin.”

This, of course, elicited from me a loud “NO, NO, NO” in my best Simpsons “comic book guy” voice. Never mind the hackneyed, unnecessary Jesus reference (There’s nothing particularly Christ-like about Thorin Oakenshield), but the name Thorin is not related to the English word for Thorn. Let me nerd-out a little here: Thorin comes from the Norse, and means “bold.” But more than that, the name is related to his lineage in Middle Earth, and shows the relation to his forbears Thror and Thrain.  This is evident to even casual readers of The Hobbit. Names carry a lot of weight in Middle Earth, and nobody possessed of more than a passing familiarity with Tolkien would have made such a fundamental mistake. Del Toro had shown he was not worthy of the undertaking.

And while it’s true I still have a problem with Peter Jackson’s Thorin Oakenshield, it is a much less serious, and primarily aesthetic, problem: Jackson doesn’t casually brush aside Tolkien’s understanding of how language works. Jackson’s Thorin is a young, handsome swashbuckler – entirely different than the grey-bearded ancient of Tolkien’s book. I have, however, decided to withhold judgment because I trust Jackson’s understanding of Tolkien’s world.
Professor Tolkien was very particular about the language in his books. He was a professional philologist, an Oxford Don, a professor of Anglo Saxon, and one of the editors of The Oxford English Dictionary. Here we have a man who cost his publishers a considerable amount of money because his plural word “dwarves” was reproduced as “dwarfs” in one of the first editions of The Hobbit, and this would just not do.

Tolkien thought his works unfilmable, and many of his fans speculate that he would have been livid about all the changes Peter Jackson made to the story in his epic adaptation of “Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien’s most famous book, and one of the most widely read of the twentieth century. But I think Peter Jackson’s adaptation is one of the great films, and a fitting tribute to Tolkien. (I consider Jackson’s “trilogy”one long film in three installments, just as the three parts of LOTR really constitute one novel. For those LOTR fans with the stamina, Showplace West in Bloomington will host a one-day marathon on December 8th.) And while I have some misgivings about The Hobbit, which I’ll discuss below, my hopes are still high that Jackson has produced another masterpiece.
I like to imagine the young JRR Tolkien, standing on a battlefield in WWI, surveying the smoke, the trenches, the death. While doing so, he creates another world, based on his own, but imagined in a far distant, different past – a world called Middle Earth.

Gandalf, In “The Hobbit”

Those initial stories he created as a young man would not be published until after his death; his son Christopher would complete what the professor considered the great work of his life: “The Silmarillion,” the mythology of Middle Earth. “The Silmarillion” is one of the world’s great mythologies, complete with its own creation and hero stories that rival the Greek myths. It is mostly concerned with The Eldar, or as we would say, Elves. Tolkien the philologist had invented two languages, and needed to create the world in which these languages would be spoken, a world where those who spoke those languages would dwell. “The Silmarillion” is the bible of that world.

This love and deep knowledge of language is what sets Tolkien and his world apart from every other fantasy writer. Every word, every phrase, every bit of verse, is only the entrance to a new rabbit hole which leads to Middle Earth, and that makes it an utterly convincing alternate world. The farther down that linguistic rabbit-hole one goes, the more meaning Tolkien’s works have. Tolkien did not simply make up words that have a foreign, mythical sound about them (very noticeable in most fantasy works); his languages are steeped in our own history, and draw upon several sources for their depth and their beauty.

Professor Tolkien’s world, his Middle Earth, is so detail-laden, so exacting in its geography, geology, flora and fauna, that nothing seems false. He gave his whole life to creating this world, and as many have observed, his works sometimes read like history rather than fiction. Middle Earth may be based on our own world, or specifically Great Britain, but is different enough to transport readers out of our own. And it all started with language.

One of the languages so beloved by Tolkien was Welsh, and local author Mark T. Hooker’s collection of essays, Tolkien and Welsh, is a fine explication of just how Tolkien drew upon that language to help create such a convincing world. Again, it wasn’t enough to just make up words and names – those words and names had to have history.

I hope he’ll pardon my description of his life’s work, but his bibliography bears me out: Hooker is a Tolkienologist. Hooker shows how Tolkien uses linguistic devices like mutation, and picks out specific examples from throughout Tolkien’s books to describe this process.

Okay. Despite the blurb on the back cover that Hooker “writes primarily for the lay person,” meaning people who are not professional linguists, presumably, you still have to be pretty far down that Tolkien rabbit hole to appreciate the book. My point is, again, that understanding how Tolkien used language to create Middle Earth is important in understanding his works as more than just great stories. You simply don’t go around saying, “Well, ‘Thorin’ sounds like ‘thorn,’ so well give him a helmet that looks like thorns.”

It’s a long-standing dictum about many adapted films that “the book is better,” a sentiment I’ve never entirely understood. Certainly, there have been terrible movies adapted from books, but they are terrible not because of the changes necessary in filmic storytelling, but because they are just bad movies.

But think of all the great movies that tell an essentially different story than the book on which they are based. L.A. Confidential comes to mind. There was no way to include all the labyrinthine details from James Ellroy’s novel, but director Curtis Hanson kept the feel of the book’s intrigue and dark underbelly by telling a story that works on film.

Peter Jackson certainly has his detractors – “word-for-word” types who wouldn’t be happy with films that  don’t show every detail from the book. But that was never an option. Not only would the films be commercial disasters – a real consideration given the budget – but frankly, boring. Film adaptation is an art unto itself; for anybody who thinks Jackson missed the mark, I highly recommend watching the “Appendices” sections of the LOTR extended-edition DVDs, especially as they pertain to why Jackson and his fellow screenwriters made the changes they did to the story.

Phillipa Boyens, the primary screenwriter of Jackson’s LOTR, and a very obvious Tolkien geek, is quite clear in the “appendices” about why certain additions, deletions and changes were made, meeting the criticisms of the “word-for-word” advocates head on. Her explanation of the changes in Faramir from book to film, one of the many sticking points to Tolkien purists, is particularly convincing. More than anything, the appendices to the DVDs show just how much Jackson understands Tolkien, and called the right shots to make what may be the most involved film project in history.

One minor change that makes me so confident in Jackson as an interpreter of Tolkien takes place in the “Council of Elrond” scene in Fellowship of the Rings. In the movie, when Boromir asks what “a ranger of the north” would know of (the matters discussed at the council), Legolas tells him the ranger is, in fact, Aragorn, son of Arathorn. With only that much information, the Boromir of the film knows that Aragorn is Isildur’s heir. I would argue that this shows Jackson’s understanding of the importance of names and language in Tolkien, and so, stands in stark contrast to Del Toro’s ignorance.

My initial concerns about The Hobbit have nothing to do with language, but with more technical aspects, particularly Jackson’s decision to film at 48 frames per second and in 3D. Jackson may very well be right when he says that 48 fps will be the future standard (it has been 24 fps for most of film history), but I disagree that adopting the technology first will “future proof” The Hobbit. Early test audiences said the film had a cold sterile look, and the first trailers I saw seemed to bear that impression out. The first adoptions of any new technology inevitably become dated and quaint, especially in comparison to later uses of the same technology. And, since most theaters won’t be showing the film in the 48 fps format, it seems like a waste of the technology.

As far as 3D: I don’t want to sound like one of those people who thought air travel was a fad, but….

A director has to make choices for 3D that he otherwise might not have made. Given the scope of the project, I trust to hope that Jackson will not fill The Hobbit with objects flying at the audience, but will create a world that audience feels a part of, creating depth, not simply surprise.

But I have to say, the most recent trailer for the film is amazing. While the images are certainly crisp, like Blu-ray, there is a warmth and a light very similar to LOTR. Jackson’s Weta Digital is the most advanced special effects house in the world, and he has pulled out all the stops. Advances in CG animation technology have improved exponentially since the already impressive Return of the King was released in 2004; the Gollum in the trailer, for example, is lifelike in ways the LOTR Gollum, which at the time seemed impossibly real, was not.

Jackson recently announced that, like Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit will have three installments. Given that The Hobbit as a novel is one third the length of LOTR, perhaps Jackson has decided to make a very close adaptation of the book. The trailers suggest scenes which are either not in the book, or to which the book only alludes. Either way, the same legion of fans that made LOTR a blockbuster  will no doubt return, even if they return with doubts. For my part, Peter Jackson is exactly the right person to bring Tolkien’s first book to life on film, and on December fourteenth at midnight, I’ll know for sure.

The Ryder, December 2012

MUSIC: The Year In Music, 2012

Our Town’s Top Music Mavens Take On The Year In Sounds

■ Jim Manion‘s Best Albums of the Year     

As Music Director of WFHB, I listen to music pretty much all day, every day. My favorites of 2012 had to be records I listened to many times over by choice and will continue to listen to for the rest of my years.

◗ KID KOALA “12 BIT BLUES”

New music created with roots music samples can be brilliant, or it can be stinky cheese. Kid Koala scores brilliance with this electronic tribute to the blues. The Kid’s secret: hitting the dusty blues samples in real-time (on a vintage E-mu sampler) to capture that elusive blues feel. After my first listen (in a rental car), I listened another five times in a row.

◗ NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSEPSYCHEDELIC PILL”

Uncle Neil got mixed reviews for this epic, sprawling journey into the Crazy Horse zone. To my ears, this is as fresh as 1970’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere but ten times as exploratory in the sonic realm. Neil and The Horse are definitely driftin’ back and waving their freak flag. In the process they create spaces of aural imagination that are truly psychedelic.

Psychedelic Pill

◗ GALACTIC “CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS”

Mardi Gras Indians + Stanton Moore + edgy funk electronics + New Orleans music samples = one wildass Mardi Gras album for the ages. My neighbors will hear this a lot again in January and February. Hey Na Na!

◗ SHANNON HAYDEN “SOLID STATE CELLO”

Still in her early 20s, this classical cello/guitar virtuoso composes and performs a visionary fusion of classical and electronic that is stunning and mind-expanding. Shannon records off-the-grid with wind and solar power at her family’s organic farm in central Illinois. If you get a chance to see her live, go!

◗ LERA LYNN “HAVE YOU MET LERA LYNN?”

Southern belle Lera Lynn sings with a big, clear, timeless voice that evokes shivers when it rings. Her lyrics are full of spooky Southern Goth, while her song forms open up to release the tense but resigned anxiety those lines create. A modern day Bobbie (Ode to Billy Joe) Gentry, Lera’s music is heavy-duty whether she plays solo or with her scorching electric band.

R&B Mojo and Rasp-Rap Rushes ■ Jason Fickel‘s Best Albums of the Year     

◗ FIONA APPLE “THE IDLER WHEEL…”

Raw, dark songs with some R&B mojo. Catchy, but it shouldn’t be.

◗ RAY ANDERSON POCKET BRASS BAND “SWEET CHICAGO SUITE”

A blast of horn and percussion exuberance with pieces that begin vaguely familiar, but end up someplace you never expect.

◗ GOTYE “SOMEBODY THAT I USED TO KNOW”

This monster truck of Aussie pop instantly invited covers and parodies (is there a difference?); there was no way to separate it from the year 2012.

◗ DRAKE “TAKE CARE”

When Bobby “Blue” Bland’s words come out of Rihanna’s mouth and Gil-Scott Heron’s rasp-rap rushes out of pop radio all in one jam, you know something has happened.

BOB DYLAN “TEMPEST”

Another awesome collection that yet again brings it all back home and then hurls it right back out.  The title cut is a 13-plus minute titanic ballad, because, really, why not?

■ Abe Morris‘s Best Albums of the Year

◗ MADONNA & BLUNDERBUSS “MDNA”

Madge has been much maligned in the press this year, still this is my pop record of the year. Madonna seethes in post-divorce purgatory, but she ain’t sittin’ still. Girl can still get her groove on putting together her best record this millennium by far.

◗ BEAR IN HEAVEN “I LOVE YOU, IT’S COOL”

I actually heard this for the first time last year while I was in New York, so I bring a bias of this album being my soundtrack for that trip. But 13 months later, I don’t think there’s any album I’ve listened to more. The acid-trip version of Pretty Woman featured in the video for “Sinful Nature” is an added bonus.

◗ MATTHEW DEAR “BEAMS”

Matthew Dear sounds like he records himself singing backwards and then grabs the final audio track by playing back the record at half speed. This voice set a top an utterly lush and gorgeous bed of beats makes for an album that keeps pulling your ear back into the mix.

◗ FRANK OCEAN “CHANNEL ORANGE”

Toeing the line between rap and R&B, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is the most complete record of the year. Often times hip hop albums tend to load the back end with lots of filler, but not this one. The surprising observational and confessional tones of this record make it a stand out in a hip hop world often over-saturated with braggadocio.

◗ JACK WHITE “BLUNDERBUSS”

The mad music wizard from Nashville is probably the best in the biz at finding new and inventive ways of delivering music and keeping fans on their toes. And it goes without saying that Mr. White and his perennially be-suited entourage is one of the most stylish men in America. But on Blunderbuss, Jack White shows us just how cool he is, bringing 13 songs relatively simple in form, and slathering them in layers of swagger. No other person on the planet can make these songs shine like Jack does.

Honorable Mentions:

◗ Tindersticks “The Something Rain”

Grizzly Bear “Shields”

Here We Go Magic “A Different Ship”

Tame Impala “Lonerism”

Die Antwoord “Ten$ion”

Chris Swanson‘s Best Albums of the Year

◗ Father John Misty “Fear Fun”

Finally a new chapter in the great American bathrobed SoCal beautiful loser songbook, and it’s a great one.

◗ Grimes “Vision”

Along with Frank Ocean, Claire Boucher’s Grimes is one of 2012’s great emergent musical personas. A truly gifted songwriter/producer/performer.

◗ Killer MikeR.A.P. Music”

The best hip hop record of 2012. It is wizened (but not jaded) and has the most politically urgent song of the year in “Reagan”.

◗ Merchandise “Children of Desire”

This is what happens when three hard core kids from Tampa let their guard down and let their Anglophilia take hold.

◗ Tomas Barfod “Salton Sea”

The debut solo album by this Danish producer mixes vocal-driven hook-heavy pop songs with gorgeous Kraut-inspired instrumentals.

Best in Blues by Cathi Norton

◗ PHANTOM BLUES BAND “INSIDE OUT”

Taj Mahal’s road band, heavy-weight musicians bristling with chops. This CD features horn backup, lots of keyboard/organ, soulful vocals and urban blues/rock—loaded with style and maturity.

◗ MANNISH BOYS “DOUBLE DYNAMIT”

Fourteen great players from Delta Groove stable of musicians with a double disk release of blues that is solidly based on the roots of the masters while building new branches on that tree. GREAT players like Jimi Bott, Frank Goldwasser and Kirk Fletcher, along with fine vocalists like Sugar Ray Rayford and Finis Tasby.

◗ NATHAN JAMES & THE RHYTHM SCRATCHERS “WHAT YOU MAKE OF IT”

Authentic blues dawg, James built a guitar in high school, played on the road as a one-man band in the blues for 15 years and here puts together a trio to round out his rollin’ blues—live in one take. Solid playing, original attack.  Smokin’.

◗ SMOKIN’ JOE KUBEK & BNOIS KING “UNPLUGGED—CLOSE TO THE BONE”

Ex-Freddie King guitarist Joe Kubek  and Louisiana guitarist Bnois King have had a hard-rockin’ blues career for 20 years. Here they take a wicked left turn and put out an acoustic disc, featuring fine, fine blues players from the West Coast. Great players, and without the loudness as distraction, it’s clear these are fine blues artists.

◗ EDDIE TAYLOR JR. “SO CALLED FRIEND”

Son of famed guitarist Eddie Taylor, Sr., Junior has picked up his traditional blues guitar style and unlike Eddie senior, sings most tunes. His guitar work (like Eddie Sr.’s) features a beautiful old traditional blues attack. Saweeeet guitar work.

Best in Electronic ■ by Markus Lowe

◗ BASSNECTAR “VAVA VOOM”

Electronic pioneer of self-described “bass music” culture returns with more brilliant bass anthems sure to keep your head rumbling and your body moving.

◗ HOT CHIP “IN OUR HEADS”

Indie-dance favorites dive deep into love, taking the quirky, idiosyncratic experimentations of their early career and distilling it into groovy, heartfelt dance songs.

◗ KID KOALA “12 BIT BLUES”

After 3 days with an E-mu SP-1200 sampler, Koala takes the blues on a journey back to hiphop’s electronic sampling roots to produce a really raw, immediate and strangely beautiful album.

◗ SHAWN LEE “SYNTHESIZERS IN SPACE”

The one-man music machine slings psyched funk-soul from the far side of the moon; 1970 has arrived at 2001.

◗ BOYS NOIZE “OUT OF THE BLACK”

Berlin-based Alex Ridha delivers his requisite style of in-your-face electro-bang with choice elements of early influences of old school house tracks, B-Boy cuts, and acid records.

Best in World Music ■ by Michael McDowell

◗ VARIOUS ARTISTS “THE COLOMBIAN MELTING POT: DIABLOS DEL RITMO 1960-1985”

This two-disc compilation is the result of a five-years hunt in Barranquilla, a sprawling city in the middle of the Colombian Caribbean Coast, one of the planet’s musical hotspots. It’s irresistible, incredible, and immoral, even, to have music this good.

◗ JIMMY CLIFF “REBIRTH”

He’s still got it! Cliff is the rare talent whose voice ages beautiful. This one goes back to his roots a la The Harder They Come, but exudes the fresh energy of real rejuvenation and rebirth.

◗ VARIOUS ARTISTS “FUTURE SOUNDS OF BUENOS AIRES”

Traditional Andean cumbia and folklorico roots + electronic soundscapes and street beats = cumbia digital. The best of the best from the contemporary dance scene in Buenos Aires, perfect for the next time you turn your residence into a nightclub.

◗ NIYAZ “SUMUD”

Seamless fusion of ancient Persian poetry, traditional folk from Iran, and sumptuous electronic grooves; Niyaz delivers thick music.

◗ SIERRA LEONE’S REFUGEE ALL STARS “RADIO SALONE”

Remember Lotus Festival 2010? Lanky and magnificent West African roots reggae as per usual, here the All Stars take on Congolese soukous as well, and there is no doubt they are some of the best afropop players on the planet.


Best in metal ■ by David J. Smith

◗ DRAGGED INTO SUNLIGHT “WIDOWMAKER”

Reverb-drenched guitars, violins, and disturbing spoken-word samples lead the listener on a beautiful, exhilarating journey into darkness.

◗ GAZA “NO ABSOLUTES IN HUMAN SUFFERING”

Controversial political and religious views aside, Gaza plays a brutal, supremely creative, and thoroughly enjoyable brand of blackened crust.

◗ EAGLE TWIN “THE FEATHER TIPPED THE SERPENT’S SCALE”

This Utah band’s perfectly-produced sophomore release is a ferocious, complex, and sublime amalgam of doom and drone.

◗ DEATHSPELL OMEGA “DROUGHT”

Another avant-garde black metal masterpiece of meticulous chaos.

◗ KRALLICE “YEARS PAST MATTER”

Harsh, dense, and precise melodic black metal mark this band’s finest release.

Best Traditional Roots, Bluegrass & Celtic ■ by Jamie Gans

◗ TIM O’BRIEN & DARRELL SCOTT “LIVE”

Originally recorded live in 2005 and 2006 at The Grey Eagle in Asheville, NC but only now released in 2012, multi-instrumentalist and singer, Tim O’Brien with singer-songwriter, Darrell Scott harmonize in power and passion a full palette of inspired songs.

◗ THE KATHY KALLICK BAND “TIME”

Kathy is in great company blending heartfelt vocals and dazzling musicianship with her band mates as she treats us to one of the sweetest albums in her 40 year musical career.

◗ THE OUTSIDE TRACK “FLASH COMPANY”

From Ireland, Scotland, the US, and Canada The Outside Track provides traditional lush vocals and driving Celtic tunes with rich complex arrangements on fiddle, harp, accordion, flute, and guitar.

◗ THE HILLBENDERS “CAN YOU HEAR ME?”

They are part of a new generation in a stylistic break from the traditional and commercial bluegrass world along with groups like The Infamous Stringdusters and Town Mountain.  The Hillbenders have their own stamp of originality and instrumental virtuosity. Great pickers, great singers performing all their own material.

◗ BREABACH “BANN”

Bann simply means band in Scots Gaelic. Breabach hails from the Highlands and they weave together an amazing tweed of pipe tunes, fiddle tunes and Gaelic songs with youthful finesse and fury that is finer than the best of an aged single malt.

The Ryder, January 2013

MEDIA: The Year In Television, 2012

■ by Dan Melnick

2012 was a year of antiheroes and villains; single mothers and scientists.  While there is no shortage of dark, morally ambiguous worlds to choose from, there are also the twinkling lights of literal fairy tales and family-friendly shenanigans to save viewers from an otherwise ominous netherworld. If anything, 2012 has provided a wide spectrum to choose from. Perhaps the trend then, is in its diversity. Cable television has never been better. Many shows now offer film-like quality with the longevity and luxury to delve deeper into their characters than any movie ever could, to create a truly immersive experience for the viewer.

If nothing else, the following list below is a perfect example of this. Each show is unique in its own right and there’s no emergent pattern to find, except darn good programming.

◗ ONCE UPON A TIME (ABC)

Taking a page out of Lost’s playbook, OUAT pairs flashback stories with a current one, but unlike Lost, these fairy tale flashbacks actually advance a plot, and a plot that makes sense at that.

◗ SOUTH PARK (CC)

It’s easy to dismiss the show as silly, but 16 seasons later and delving into topics from recurrent Apple “User Agreements” to the train wreck that is Honey Boo Boo, South Park’s social commentary is just as poignant as ever.

◗ THE BIG BANG THEORY (CBS)

Its one of the most watched shows on television, so can millions of viewers be wrong? Discussions of astrophysics may fly over most of our heads, but heart of the show is simple enough that anyone can understand.

◗ ARCHER (FX)

This show doesn’t get the credit it deserves. It’s not only a cartoon, but it’s a cartoon with lousy animation. Sound like anything else you know? But the humor is sharp, the comebacks are witty, and the dialogue is impeccable.

◗ BEN AND KATE (FOX)

Dakota Johnson is perfectly cast as Kate, a believable, quirky single mom who’s the grounding rod for the lightning storm of side characters around her. Johnson’s sense of realism makes everything else funnier.

◗ BREAKING BAD (AMC)

For most shows a season is essentially meaningless, just a bunch of episodes, but BB grows. Each season is another perfectly crafted arc, continuing the story of a conflicted chemistry teacher and transforming him into a ruthless villain.

◗ MODERN FAMILY (ABC)

Like a house of cards, Modern Family stands on the shoulders of the entire cast. It wouldn’t be the comic powerhouse that it is without the delicate interplay between each of their unique voices and styles. Put them all in a white room with nothing to do and even that would be entertaining.

◗ SONS OF ANARCHY (FX)

The Sopranos on motorcycles. Each episode is shocking, the characters are engaging, and underneath it all, there’s still a moral code keeping it all together. Everyone’s favorite bad boys have never been better.

Sons Of Anarchy

◗ THE WALKING DEAD (AMC)

Zombies and an apocalyptic Earth are just the backdrop to tell true tales of humanity at its best and at its worse. Now that they’ve left Hershel’s farm, each episode gets better and better as the actual zombies for which the show is named, become the least of their problems.

◗ GAME OF THRONES (HBO)

Proof that strong characters are the most important aspect of a show. At a glance, it may appear to be a show about swords and sorcery, but that idea couldn’t be further from the truth. GoT is rife with intrigue, turmoil, courage, and fear delivered by an amazing cast and can hold an audience’s attention like nothing else on television.

The Ryder, January 2013

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