From the archives: June 2009

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Hiromi and the hypercube

Friday, 26 June 2009 — 5:39pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Here is a rough approximation of what I saw at the Calgary Jazz Festival on Wednesday.

That was the ever-theatrical Hiromi Uehara playing the prototypical Gershwin bop standard, “I Got Rhythm”—and boy, does she ever—which she introduced in Calgary as a tribute to her “superhero” (and every other pianist’s), Oscar Peterson.

This is the odd thing about attending jazz concerts in the age of YouTube: you can go home and compare notes with the performer’s previous appearances. In a genre so reliant on improvisation, one of the most tantalizing mysteries in a concert setting is to sort out the spontaneous invention from the premeditated conspiracy of the arrangement. The magic of a great jazz band is that often, you can’t tell—and certainly not from one performance alone. Jazz collectors treasure alternate takes for precisely this reason. The only thing as surprising as the prevalence of well-practiced licks is the astounding synchronicity of a band’s adventures into the unplanned. So the experience of seeing a ghostly resemblance of what you just saw on stage squeezed into a browser window with lo-fi audio is, well, uncanny.

I also feel compelled to add that the performance approximated by the video above is about as representative of the rest of the concert as a musical photo negative. In other words, for the rest of their time onstage, Hiromi’s Sonicbloom (with Tony Grey on bass, Martin Valihora on drums, and David Fiuczynski on a double-necked guitar), playing selections from their 2007 album Time Control alongside standards like “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise”, “Ue wo muite arukuo” (“Sukiyaki”), and “Caravan”, sounded like anything and everything but Oscar Peterson.

Most instrumentalists can be said to trace a glutinous outline of all their forebears in varying concentrations. But Hiromi isn’t every jazz piano style rolled into one: she’s any jazz piano style at discrete pockets of time. She’ll stride into the scene like Erroll Garner, let the grand piano ring over a melodious staircase of Kenny Barron intervals, take a Chick Corea minute to sing and sob on all her pads at once, launch into a Herbie Hancock space-age funk, and top it off a dash of Ahmad Jamal’s crispy blues—sometimes all in the same suite, and with the sporadic slam of the fists or forearm on the keys to make sure you’re paying attention.

I would not call this “seamless”, a word that implies the continuity of a polynomial. The transitions are abrupt, the stylistic lineages unmistakable. Listening to Hiromi is like witnessing a cubist tour of jazz and rock piano with the edges sharpened and the innards bursting out of frame. And while I’m admittedly not too fluent with the evolutionary histories of the other instruments, I get the distinct sense that her bandmates are doing the same, pushing their axes to the limits of their prog-rock vocabulary.

As exciting as it is to listen to musicians who grew up on everything and decided to play it all, one has to wonder if there’s anywhere to go next. If the contemporary style is a collision of styles, where do we go from here? Collisions within collisions, or somewhere else? A sonic bloom, indeed.

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And the token nominee is…

Thursday, 25 June 2009 — 2:36pm | Animation, Film, Oscars

Nothing is ever so counterproductive as a desperate gamble for popular relevance. Case in point: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is expanding the Oscars’ Best Picture shortlist to ten nominees, effectively reverting to the pre-1944 format. The press release is here. This is a boneheaded idea, although I can see why somebody would think it looks good on paper.

In recent years, the best thing AMPAS did for itself was move the Oscars forward by a month. By curtailing the ability of the major studios to do a heavily funded marketing push in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to conquer the industry’s mindspace with their chosen representative, and moving the ballot deadline ahead of the precursor awards that once rendered the Oscars too predictable, the show virtually matured overnight.

Since then, the trend has been towards greater recognition of artier, if not outright independent fare. A decade ago, it would have been unlikely, if not unthinkable, for excellent and unique films like No Country For Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire to claim the top prize. This is not to say that the Oscars used to be bad and suddenly became good: it is merely to acknowledge that the awards were increasingly living up to their social responsibility as a counterweight for the market, as a way of boosting the fortunes of films the public may have wrongfully overlooked. The public may have complained that they had never heard of the films being awarded, let alone seen them—often because the lesser-known nominees had yet to see general release outside of the major American cities by the time the shortlist was announced—but that is as it should be. If an awards show comes off as elitist, it is doing its job.

Personally, the only question I care about is whether this means Up will be Pixar’s first Best Picture nominee, and the second animated feature to make the shortlist in history (Beauty and the Beast being the first). But without an even playing field comparable to that of previous years, it is impossible to tell whether this is actually a sign of forward progress. And against the objections of those who believe the Animated Feature category has created a permanent ghetto for the artform, I do believe some progress has been made. Yes, only very recently did we see the outrageous exclusions of Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, two of the finest pieces of American cinema in the twenty-first century. But the nomination of WALL•E in the Original Screenplay category last year was already a significant step forward, a recognition of what story really means in a visual medium.

The sudden expansion of the shortlist to twice its previous size is a nightmare for historians and other cineastes whose interest is in tracking the evolution of Hollywood’s congratulatory attitude towards itself. And unlike similar lists that whittle the present vintage down to ten—the American Film Institute’s comes to mind—the selection of a victorious picture as the best of the ten guarantees even more pervasive vote-splitting than what we have seen in the past.

(My opinion has always been that significant industry awards should be determined by discussion and debate rather than democracy, but the Oscars are the film industry’s way of patting itself on the back and I wouldn’t expect it to conduct itself any differently. It is a real shame that the Oscars, and not the critics’ awards or the AFI, serve as the primary guidebook for future generations to select films for preservation or rediscovery. One day, this may change.)

In my estimation, this is an unwanted and unnecessary concession to populist sentiment that The Dark Knight—a sterling if overrated crime drama, and the superhero genre’s most earnest bid for serious acceptance—was wrongfully snubbed. It is an intentional return to the pattern of including token box-office hits (remember The Fugitive?), under the appealing guise of easing the inclusion of films that have already been given uncomfortable pigeonholes to keep them out of everybody else’s business—animated and foreign-language features in particular.

If we do see increased recognition of animated, foreign, and independent films—not just this year, but going forward in the long term—I will temper my objections and stand corrected. It is far more likely that the big-studio horses will crowd the race.

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What’s Ramayana, Doc?

Wednesday, 24 June 2009 — 2:34pm | Animation, Film

Last week I finally got around to seeing Sita Sings the Blues, a majestic animated feature by Nina Paley that I would describe as the fulfilment of the postmodern promise. I had been curious about the film ever since Amid Amidi raved about it last year. In December, Roger Ebert wrote:

[Sita] has not found a distributor. Times are hard, and indie distributors are not rolling in available funds. To them, no doubt, this doesn’t have the ring of box office gold: An animated version of the epic Indian tale of Ramayana set to the 1920’s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw. Once they read that, and they’re like me: Uh, huh. And if you were to read that description in the mailer from your local art house, would you drop everything and race through driving rain see it? Uh, uh.

Are you kidding, Roger? That’s exactly what I’d drop everything and race through driving rain to see.

No matter. With the gracious assistance of the Creative Commons license, Ms Paley has since made the film available online.

I could go on about the endless charm of the musical numbers, the playfulness of the shadow-puppet storytelling sequences, the perfect partnership of Sita’s woes and the Jazz Age torch song, or how my apprehensions toward the stiffness of rigid objects often characteristic of Flash animation were washed away with frame after frame of gorgeous design. And there’s no lack of human-interest stories about the making and distribution of the film, either. But my recommendation is to go in cold, bathe in the sheer personality of this very personal project, and come back later to read about its accomplishment as a triumph for the copyleft movement.

Sita Sings the Blues is the epitome of what postmodern art was always supposed to deliver—and coming from yours truly, this is a high compliment indeed. It’s not merely a stylistic pastiche for the sake of being one: the pastiche is a joyful source of creativity that marries several artistic traditions and revels in showing us how the marriages unfold. It celebrates the instability of oral traditions and the diversity of interpretations of myth, while adding to both.

In that light, I’m baffled (but not surprised) that Sita has drawn the ire of academics of the postcolonial school. From an interview with Nina Paley:

On the far left, there are some very, very privileged people in academia who have reduced all the wondrous complexities of racial relations into, “White people are racist, and non-white people are all victims of white racism.” Without actually looking at the work, they’ve decided that any white person doing a project like this is by definition racist, and it’s an example of more neocolonialism.

This is an understanding of Orientalism, as Edward Said called it, of such undergraduate maturity that I wonder how its proponents made it that far in academia at all. If anything, Sita is the very model of where art can go when the narcissistic presumption that cultures can only talk about themselves has run its course: towards the syncretic and the globally aware. Bill Benzon is quite correct when he says:

And if your inner geek is thinking “ancient text + contemporary story = Ulysses,” well then your inner geek’s ahead of mine, because I didn’t think that until 10 or 20 minutes into my first viewing. But I wouldn’t count that as any more than a casual observation, one with a non-casual corollary.

By the ordinary method of reckoning such things, the culture of ancient Greece and Rome is in the direct ancestral line of 20th Century European culture which would necessarily include Joyce’s Dublin. The same mode of reckoning sees little relationship between ancient India and contemporary America, thus both Hindu nationalists and post-colonial Theorists have been criticizing Paley’s cultural miscegenation. Alas for them, cultural miscegenation has been the way of the world since whenever and it’s only accelerating in our era.

For my part, I wasn’t thinking of Ulysses at all, but of this:

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Twitterpated in Persia

Thursday, 18 June 2009 — 12:04pm | Computing, Journalism

I’m as glued to the fallout from the Iranian “election” as anybody else, and if there was one opinion I wanted to hear, it was Marjane Satrapi’s. More than one outlet has sold the present events in Iran as the 1979 revolution reborn, often with a suggestion that it is the long-concealed expression of the way the revolution ought to have turned out had the fundamentalists not steered it off course and filled the power vacuum themselves.

When I read Satrapi’s superb graphic novel Persepolis, I described it as “an act of remembrance for the promise of an Iran that could have been, had the theocratic powers that govern Iran not shoved that promise in a closet, and had the rest of the world not believed them.” Well, the citizenry sure hasn’t forgotten, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see it. It is as if the silenced middle class of educated moderates decided to speak up all at once and say, enough is enough.

For those of you just catching up: Juan Cole summarizes the top pieces of evidence the election was stolen. Christopher Hitchens highlights the blatancy of the fraud when set against the trends in the rest of the Islamic world. Poll analysis superstar Nate Silver and his colleagues at FiveThirtyEight crunch the data and offer their findings in a comprehensive and, thank goodness, levelheaded series of posts, reminding us of the alternative scenarios and the fact that statistics don’t prove a whole lot to the outside observer who fails to account for the reality of the political climate.

Andrew Sullivan has been on top of things from the beginning, as I knew he would be, and if you like your aggregated updates five to ten minutes apart you’ve already been reading him all along.

And now, for a bucket of cold water.

I am deeply unimpressed at the media, by which I mean both the frumious bandersnatch of the “MSM” and independent bloggers, and their coverage of Twitter.

I only signed up for Twitter two weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised to find it useful all of a sudden. Yes, it is newsworthy that it’s our best source of information on the ground when the Iranian government has taken the usual precautionary measures to shut down cell phones, block social networks, restrict bandwidth, arrest and expel journalists, and jam BBC satellites. Yes, it is newsworthy that Twitter shifted its maintenance schedule to accommodate its Iranian users, presumably at the behest of the Obama administration. It is being used to publish eyewitness reports and organize impromptu rallies. And probably the most encouraging thing I’ve seen it do is facilitate the emergence of a mutual understanding between the western and Iranian citizenry: more people know, and the Iranians know they know, that the Iranian people aren’t a rabble of fundie terrorists. (Their state is a different matter entirely.)

But Twitter has taken over the Iranian story to an unconscionable degree. A good proportion of the Twitter traffic about Iran involves people far away from the action feeling important about themselves for using the service, bashing the mainstream media while linking to their stories about Twitter. The peak of involvement among its users was, narcissistically, when Twitter announced its maintenance delay. Sullivan goes so far as to retract his previous mockery of Ashton Kutcher’s pronouncement in that most happily credulous of early-adopter rags, TIME, that “the creation of Twitter […] is as significant and paradigm-shifting as the invention of Morse code, the telephone, radio, television or the personal computer.”

I don’t buy it, and neither should you.

Continued »

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Friday, 5 June 2009 — 4:51am | Adventures

My next adventure:

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 09 September 2004.

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A Link to the Past (older posts) »