Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Sound(s) of Silence: Comparing Notes

Author, professor, and musicologist Adam Ockelford. (Photo: Getty)

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." – Elvis Costello

Guilty as charged. Yep, I guess I’m definitely one of those Declan grumbled about who attempts to dance about architecture. The same quote has often been attributed to the artist/comedian Martin Mull, but since the subject is using language to try and define or describe sounds, let’s leave it in Costello’s sarcastic hands for now. It somehow just feels right coming from him.

In Comparing Notes: How We Make Sense of Music, a captivating new book by Adam Ockelford, newly published by WW Norton and distributed by Penguin/Random House, a noted musicologist asks some thought-provoking questions. How does music work? Indeed, what is (or isn’t) music? We are all instinctively musical (not so sure about that one) but how and why? There would seem to be two kinds of books about music -- maybe more but at least two: those that try to describe music in a certain context and those that try to define music in all contexts. I suppose I’m even more guilty of Costello’s criticism, since often I not only write about music itself (as in my recent Amy Winehouse or Sharon Jones books) but I go so far as to write about people who write about music. Thus, writing about writing about sounds: a double offense as far as Costello’s credo goes.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Juliet, Naked: Getting it Right

Rose Byrne and Chris O'Dowd in Juliet, Naked. (Photo: IMDB)

Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel Juliet, Naked has an irresistible premise. Its heroine, Annie, lives in an English seaside town, working at the local museum. Her long-time live-in boyfriend, Duncan, teaches university classes in film and TV but his obsession is an indie musician named Tucker Crowe who mysteriously disappeared from the rock scene years ago after releasing a heartbreak album called "Juliet", stirred into existence by a high-profile break-up with a beautiful model. Duncan and other Tucker Crowe fanatics gather on a website, spending hours dissecting his lyrics and speculating about his life. When Crowe’s old recording company releases an album of Juliet demos called "Juliet, Naked", and sends Duncan a pre-release copy, he goes into fandom overdrive, penning a review that proclaims it a masterpiece, Annie, who is feeling increasingly remote from Duncan, publishes her own critique for the website under a pseudonym, declaring it dreary and half-baked without the sophisticated musicianship that distinguishes the album it was just a preparation for – and Tucker Crowe himself e-mails her from America to second her opinion. Unexpectedly, these two, both at loose ends in their vastly different lives, become (e-mail) pen pals, and then circumstances bring him to England, where they finally meet.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Against All Odds: Into the Breach

Into the Breach by Subset Games was released on Nintendo Switch on August 28 2018. (Photo: Gamespot)

Historically, I’m terrible at strategy games. I can grasp the rules of chess, but I’m never able to think ahead and avoid my king’s inevitable demise. I rule over my fiefdoms in Risk with the same short-sighted bluster as the worst despots in history, charging into conquests that end with me fleeing back to Australia with my tail between my legs. I love the story and graphics and atmosphere of StarCraft, but I can barely complete the main campaign without cheat codes (never mind compete against other players online). So it was a rather big surprise to find myself sinking hours and hours into Subset Games’s Into the Breach, which is one of the toughest strategy games I’ve ever played.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Accurate Sounds – Robert Hilburn's Paul Simon: The Life

Paul Simon in a promotional photo for his 2018 farewell tour. (Photo: KeyArena)

With his farewell tour ending September 22 in Queens, NY and a new album coming out this Friday, Paul Simon remains current. To coincide with the tour, Simon granted L.A. Times music writer Robert Hilburn more than 100 hours of interviews for a new biography released last May, according to the press release from Simon & Schuster. But rather than hook a new album and a farewell tour to a book for commercial purposes, Hilburn goes much deeper by writing a balanced study of his subject. His focus, and it’s a good one, is to identify and explain the driving impulses behind Simon’s creativity. Naturally that’s an easier task with the co-operation of the person you’re writing about.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Neglected Gem: Blunt Force Trauma (2015)

Ryan Kwanten in Blunt Force Trauma (2015). (Photo: IMDB)

Two people stand at opposite ends of an arena in designated spots. They wear Kevlar vests and belts with pistols stuck into them, sometimes in a holster, mostly not. A referee hovers somewhere above, and at a predetermined signal, the two open fire on each other. The first to leave their spot loses.

In the world of Blunt Force Trauma (2015), the American-Colombian coproduction helmed by Ken Sanzel, these underground dueling sessions, organized like MMA fights, can be found across the American South and Latin America, in empty factories, abandoned train depots, and isolated underground parking garages. Contenders duel not for honor, but for money and, if they’re good, for fame. The best of them, Zorringer (Mickey Rourke), is so high up there that he lives on a Colombian mountain and has an associate pick his opponents from all over and drive them to him. John (Ryan Kwanten) is a promising hotshot who wants a duel with Zorringer, and to get it he goes from place to place dueling, winning, and hoping to get The Invite. At one place, he meets (but doesn’t duel) Colt (Freida Pinto), a fiery duelist who doesn’t wait for her opponent to stagger away but keeps firing till they drop out. Colt is seeking the Red Wolf, a legendary duelist who killed her brother, and she hitches a ride with John. They head south, following reports of the Red Wolf’s duels.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Unfollowed: Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade

Elsie Fisher as Kayla in Bo Burnham's debut feature Eighth Grade. (Photo: IMDB)

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Joe Mader, to our group.


Bo Burnham’s first feature Eighth Grade has been celebrated as an empathetic, heart-felt look at female adolescence in the age of social media. Credit for his seeming success has gone to the performance of Elsie Fisher as his heroine Kayla. Her face is almost never offscreen during the 93-minute running time, and Burnham’s script is successful at capturing the awfulness, awkwardness, and daily humiliations eighth-graders, and girls in particular, are subject to. But despite the digital morass of posts and likes and follows and heart emojis, and up-to-date scenarios such as active-shooter drills, the movie doesn’t bring much new to past portrayals of tortured teenhood such as John Hughes comedies or even Rebel Without a Cause.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Judith Marcuse (1982)

Photo by  David Cooper.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to writers and artists from all fields. In 1982, I sat down with Canadian choreographer and dancer Judith Marcuse.

At the time of our conversation, Judith Marcuse's dance program Playgrounds was premiering in Toronto. Marcuse's career as a dancer began 20 years earlier at London's Royal Ballet School, but she would soon return to her native Montreal with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. In 1972, she turned primarily to choreography, and over the decades has created over 100 original works, many addressing a variety of social issues (e.g., the environment, teen suicide, bullying and homophobia). In 2007, she founded, and still co-directs, the International Centre of Art for Social Change in association with Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. 

 – Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Judith Marcuse as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1982.