Saturday, April 18, 2015

“Beyond Endurance” and BBC's Drama of the Week Podcast

Dominic West plays Ernest Shackleton in Meredith Hooper's radio play "Beyond Endurance" on BBC's Drama of the Week

I'm writing this from Toronto, Canada. Many years ago, our national broadcaster (CBC) pulled the plug on spending for the production of radio drama. It was, in retrospect, the exact worst time to do so. Given the media landscape and the rising popularity of podcasting and archived content, interesting, relevant and new audio drama could have been a popular and important part of the CBC's content mix. This, however, is not a lament about the (mis)management of the CBC. It's a look at another national broadcaster's continued commitment to audio drama: namely, the BBC. And more specifically, since I'm writing this from the other side of the pond, I want to talk about the free BBC podcast Drama of the Week, which can be found in iTunes. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Indelible Voices: José James, Laura Marling and Angelique Kidjo

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Billie Holiday, one of the most influential jazz vocalists in music. On April 7, Cassandra Wilson released her interpretations of the Holiday songbook on Coming Forth By Day. Last year Canadian vocalist Molly Johnson released the personal but slightly uneven tribute to Lady Day called, Because of Billie. And while José James isn't a household name I think his tribute to Holiday may actually nudge the male vocalists in the jazz world to cover the famous torch singer's most popular songs. Yesterday I Had The Blues (Blue Note) has all the makings of an arranged marriage between singer and song, but producer Don Was goes a step further by creating a real blues record that is thoughtful and well paced. James’s soulful renditions are backed by some of the most articulate and seasoned musicians today. Jason Moran, piano, John Patitucci, acoustic bass and Eric Harland, drums, is a trio that pushes and pulls the music while maintaining a solid foundation on which James can feel the lyrics. His first rate version of “Strange Fruit” uses multi-tracking in way that completely re-invents the song. What was once a call to the injustice of black Americans in 1939 when the song was first heard, now becomes a work song fresh from the cotton fields of the 1800s. For James, the music of Billie Holiday has deep roots going much further back in time.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Digging the Roots: Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project & Ken Whiteley’s Beulah Band

Alan Lomax (1915-2002) was one of the great field collectors of American (and international) music. Together with his father John he traveled the countryside in an old car, lugging a 300 lb. recorder to track down the authentic musicians, and capture their songs and performances. Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, and many more in the USA and across the sea Elizabeth Cronin, Hamish Hamilton, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger are among the hundreds of names with whom he worked gathering songs and stories recordings of which now reside in the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. His biography is entitled Alan Lomax: the Man Who Recorded the World and that’s no exaggeration.

Jayme Stone is a Canadian banjo player. He won a Juno Award in 2008 for his instrumental album The Utmost, and another Juno the following year for Africa to Appalachia (with Mansa Sissoko). His records dig into the history of the banjo, its roots in Africa, and the variety of sounds it makes. Now he combines his interest in the sound of the banjo, with a collection of songs from the Lomax bag to “renew this material [nineteen…songs…collected by…Lomax].” The result is startling. These songs were captured on the road with an acetate disc-cutter and cactus needle stylus. Wherever Lomax found a player he stopped, the sounds on his records were full of the surrounding lifestyle of his subjects. Wind, rain, ocean roar, kitchen noise, neighbourly chitchat and intricate finger-style guitar, rough-hewn vocals, tin whistles, whatever. These sounds influenced Stone to bring together some like-minded friends to update this homemade music. It all remains handmade and homemade, (in the studios of Canterbury Music, Toronto and eTown Hall in Boulder Colorado) by friends and collaborators like Tim O’Brien, Eli West and Julian Lage (guitar), Brittany Haas and Bruce Molsky (fiddle), Joe Phillips and Greg Garrison (bass) and a handful of other singers and instrumentalists including Stone’s own banjo.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

For Your Ears Only – Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island (1979)

What album would you take with you if you were isolated on a desert island? It's always been a tempting question, or a popular party staple in which you get to display your cultural credentials without giving away too much about yourself. For critics, especially those always armed with their lists of favourites, it offers a casual forum to defend your tastes, test the wits of others, plus flex some muscle by bragging about rare records that nobody else could give a fuck about. In the literal sense, the idea of the desert island has always been a bit ridiculous. (What critic would ever want to be isolated on a desert island with no access to concerts, free music, or even an outlet to express his or her persuasive views?) After all, isn't music, even in the current age of solitary streaming, best enjoyed in a communal environment. Maybe now, as music is perpetually pigeonholed by genre, we don't even need a desert island because you can retreat to one anytime you like. But the desert island seems to negate the whole purpose of music. It denies music an audience, save for that one lone fan, to test its true value. Yet this question became the subject of a 1979 book called Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, in which twenty prominent American rock critics were asked by fellow scribe Greil Marcus to contribute an essay in response to this hypothetical request.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Palace of Lies: HBO’s Going Clear

Scientology is markedly different from most other religions, not only in its practices but in how it’s perceived by the public. Has there ever been such a universally disparaged belief system? It’s easy for scoffing cynics to dismiss the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard as pure nonsense – and they’re unequivocally right to do so – but to level the same cynicism at the people who willingly choose to ally themselves with his hated institution is to fundamentally misunderstand, or at least disregard, what keeps them there. For the most part, these aren’t suckers and rubes being conned into participating in something against their will: these are intelligent, thoughtful skeptics, who will defend the benefits of Scientology even when faced with overwhelming evidence of its corruption and malpractice. And so the casual question of how anyone in their right minds could jibe with this stuff becomes a very important one: a question of how belief itself can be dangerous.

Documentarian Alex Gibney shoulders the burden of this question, and of the vicious wrath that his exposé would come to invite from the famously litigious Church. Gibney has established himself as a filmmaker unafraid to venture into the dark corners of society and, of course, tell a good story in the process. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, based on a book of (almost) the same name by Lawrence Wright, achieves both as a fearless examination of Scientology’s inner workings. Gibney conducts interviews with eight former members of the Church, including Hollywood screenwriter/producer Paul Haggis (a Scientologist for nearly three decades) and several former high-ranking members of the organization like Mark Rathbun (the Church’s second-in-command) and Mike Rinder (former head of the Church’s Office of Special Affairs), whose shockingly damning testimony has earned them accolades from film critics and vitriol from current Church members in equal measure. But what is it, I can hear you asking, that’s so shocking? What could they possibly reveal about this laughable dog-and-pony show that you wouldn’t already know – or, more troublingly, that the Church is desperate to deny? The Church of Scientology’s policy of loudly and ruthlessly denouncing its critics and apostates is well-known, so this may not seem like unusual behaviour. But Gibney’s interview subjects speak candidly about common practices of systemic verbal and physical abuse and behaviour control which borders on brainwashing. Their claims of unchecked corruption at the Church’s higher levels and of the attacks inflicted on its willing members are just cause for retaliation, which makes the effect of Going Clear incredibly potent. These people sat down to speak with Gibney knowing full well that doing so was dangerous to their personal and financial futures, because if leaving the Church wasn’t enough to provoke its wrath, defaming it so publicly certainly is.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Getting High: Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium

Wellesley Robertson III and Marc Lebrèche in Robert Lepage's Needles and Opium. (Photo by Nicola-Frank Vachon)

Carl Fillion’s set for Needles and Opium, written and directed by the Québecois auteur Robert Lepage and produced by his company Ex Machina – which Boston’s ArtsEmerson series brought to the Cutler Majestic Theatre last week for a four-day run – is an open four-sided figure, like a section of a dollhouse, that hovers and spins above the stage. Most of the time it stands in for a room in the Hotel Louisiane or a recording studio, both in Paris, but depending on how Bruno Matte lights it or how the images designed by Lionel Arnould are projected onto it – and depending, of course, on how it turns – it can become an alleyway outside a nightclub, the interior of an airplane or the backdrop for a nocturnal walk through New York City. And often it emulates the disoriented state of one of its three characters, the French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (Marc Labrèche), who took opium, the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (Wellesley Robertson III), who took heroin, and the play’s protagonist, a Québecois actor named Robert (also Labrèche). Robert finds himself in Paris recording the voice-over for a documentary about Davis’s lover Juliette Gréco while trying to deal with a break-up the anguish of which has swallowed him alive, demolishing sleep and leaving him so vulnerable to sentimental triggers that an allusion to Davis and Gréco’s romance in the voice-over script makes him break down in the middle of the recording session. (He’s chosen to stay in Room 9 of the Hotel Louisiane because that’s where Davis and Gréco stayed when he first came to Paris in 1949 – which was also the year Cocteau wrote A Letter to Americans on the flight back to Paris from New York. The Cocteau sections of the piece are derived from that work and from Opium, the Diary of a Cure.) Needles and Opium suggests that Robert’s unmoored mental condition and his romantic addiction is like the drug habits of his heroes. But in Lepage’s brilliantly conceived text, their stories also intersect with Robert’s in terms of love and loss: Cocteau writes about the death, from typhoid fever, of his twenty-year-old protégé, the prodigious writer Raymond Radiguet (the author of the tender romantic novel Devil in the Flesh, published in 1923, the year Radiguet died).

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Unexpected Joys: Honoré de Balzac’s The Vendetta

Very few book-lovers actually disdain the classics – your Victor Hugos, your Dostoyevskys, your Henry Jameses – but they can be difficult to pick up and really enjoy. This is not because of any fault in their writing, but because there is nothing quite so capable of sucking the joy out of a new book like being told over and over again what an ‘important’ book it is. Almost anything from the canon of classic fiction authors is going to be important – we all know that. But the joy of a new book is also the joy of uncovering something new and unexpected, however famous the author might be. For several years in my teens one of my favorite books was Anna Karenina, and I would ascribe the great love I had for that book to the fact that I picked it up almost entirely blind, without knowing the first thing about Tolstoy, Russian literature, or really anything at all. If I remember correctly I was about to go on a trip and could only take one book… so I decided to find a nice long one.

Honoré de Balzac is an author that I was never really attracted to – I’m guessing my disinclination can be partially explained by the fact that I was assigned selections from his magnum opus, The Human Comedy (La Comédie humaine), in my high-school French classes. (Books assigned in high school never get the love they deserve. My recent advice to a 15-year-old book lover about to be assigned To Kill a Mockingbird in English class was to read the book beforehand so she could actually enjoy it.) The Human Comedy is a massive compendium of almost all of Balzac’s works, broken down into sections and subsections, containing in the final analysis over 2,000 individual characters. As epic and challenging as such a work is, there is a problem with approaching Balzac through such a tome: it is just too damn much. In the flurry of narratives and characters (though they are almost uniformly wonderfully written and remarkable stories) the individual tales get lost. Such is the case with The Vendetta, written and first published in 1830 and included in Scenes from Private Life in 1833 before being final subsumed into its eponymous section of The Human Comedy. It’s re-release in 2008 by Herperus Press, with a new translation by Howard Curtis, gives us the opportunity to appreciate this novella on its own.