Thursday, January 18, 2024

Inner Sanctum: The Star-Crossed Music of George Crumb and Yoshiko Shimizu

KAIROS Records, 2023.

“Whatever you think can’t be done, someone will come along and do.” – Thelonious Monk

“Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that, and don’t listen to me: I’m supposed to be accompanying you.” – Thelonious Monk

This new KAIROS recording of works by the esteemed American composer George Crumb, played by the stellar Japanese pianist Yoshiko Shimizu, is a poetic work of the highest order. In addition to being an intensely uplifting collaborative love letter between a composer and his primary performing interpreter, it also contains one of my favourite musical titles ever, Celestial Mechanics, composed by Crumb in 1979, which might be a pinnacle in the annals of works for piano in the four-hands format. It is not a stretch in this case to claim that Crumb’s challenging but rewarding works constitute a unique domain: astrophysics for piano achieved via contemporary recording technology. If that sounds somewhat scientific, allow me to return to my preferred poetic license: these are diagnostic investigations into the human heart. Even friends or readers familiar with my reasoning may pause and ponder: astrophysics for piano? How does this work? Well, it works exactly the way it sounds. The movements of interstellar masses in space through time usually refers to large objects such as planets in their elliptical guided tours of various galaxies; however, it also occurs within an inner sanctum of silence where microscopic movements of sub-atomic particles collide with each other in a kind of unexpected resonance. And they all dance to a sacred tune, one Crumb calls “Cosmic Dances for Amplified Pianos.”

Monday, January 15, 2024

Year-End Movies III: The Boy and the Heron and The Boys in the Boat

The heron in Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron.

One of the cinematic high points of 2023 was surely the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s return from retirement with The Boy and the Heron. (His last feature was The Wind Rises in 2013, though lists a 2018 short, unknown to me, called Boro the Caterpillar.) Conceived and written by Miyazaki, The Boy and the Heron is a gorgeous fairy tale set, like The Wind Rises, during the Second World War. The young hero, Mahito (voiced in the dubbed version by Luca Padovan), loses his mother during the bombing of Tokyo; a year later his father, Shoichi (Christian Bale), moves them into the countryside, where he has opened a new factory. He is now romantically involved with Natsuko (Gemma Chan), who is carrying his child. This will be Mahito’s new home, but it’s alienating to him. Aside from the sudden news that a woman he has never met before, whom he addresses politely as “ma’am,” is about to become his new stepmother, there’s little actual education going on in his new school. The children spend more time working the land for the war effort than in the classroom, and as soon as he arrives he’s bullied by his classmates; his response is to bash himself in the head with a rock, claiming a fall, so he doesn’t have to go back the next day. Yet in unexpected ways this unfamiliar environment links up with the boy’s identity. Natsuko, it turns out, is his aunt and looks eerily like her, and this is the place where the two sisters grew up; the strange, Medieval tower that is the most striking landmark was created by their great-uncle. And a talking grey heron (Robert Pattinson) who gloms onto Mahito insists that he’s an emissary sent to take him to his mother, who isn’t dead at all. The boy’s adventures begin when Natsuko, whom he has seen, from his bedroom window, entering the woods, vanishes, and his quest, at the heron’s invitation, to find his mother becomes, in the mysterious transformative manner of a dream, a search for Natsuko. It takes him into the tower and out again into an island world where pelicans and parakeets are omnivorous creatures the size of human adults (the main pelican is voiced by Willem Dafoe, the main parakeet by Dan Stevens) and where the bent-backed, protective domestics from Mahito’s world are echoed by small wooden dolls that reside on shelves and around beds and operate as totems.