Filmmakers Sara Leavitt and Ryan C. Douglass Chronicle Martin Bisi’s Legendary Brooklyn Music Hotspot
When Martin Bisi signed the $500-a-month lease for what would become BC Studio, it’s unlikely that anyone would have predicted that the Gowanus basement space would become one of the world’s most revered places to record, to rival Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland and Rockfield Studios in Wales. Sara Leavitt and Ryan C. Douglass‘ gracefully insightful and poignant new documentary film Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio chronicles Bisi’s individualistic rise to underground music icon, via talking heads, candid conversation with Bisi himself and tantalizing archival footage of bands throughout the studio’s thirty-three year history.
Bisi recorded Herbie Hancock’s Rockit while still in his teens, winning a Grammy in the process, which brought in a deluge of work. Beginning in the mid-80s, Bisi became the go-to guy in New York for bands that went for a dark, assaultive, experimentally-inclined sound. A short list of his best-known production gigs includes John Zorn’s Spy vs. Spy album, multiple projects for Sonic Youth, the Dresden Dolls’ debut as well as more recent work with Serena-Maneesh, Black Fortress of Opium, Ten Pound Heads and Woman, to name just a few.
In the late 70s, when he wasn’t doing sound and stage work for Bill Laswell’s Material, Bisi could be found hanging out at CBGB and offering to do do sound for bands. “I like to be around things that are happening and this was one way to do that,” he explains early in the narrative. The Material connection led to Brian Eno putting up the seed money for the studio – although after some initial ambient experiments there, the composer pretty much backed out of the picture, something the film doesn’t address. Perhaps the space was grittier than what he’d envisioned for his more outside adventures in ambient sounds.
The film vividly captures Bisi’s sardonic humor and surprising humility but also a fierce pride of workmanship and sense of place in New York history. All of these qualities inform the grimness that underscores the story. Bisi’s “blood is fifty percent coffee,” as Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione, one of the more colorful interviewees, puts it, and that intensity fuels plenty of the film’s more memorably twisted moments. As the story goes, Bisi kills a rodent with a dumbbell during a Swans session and gets credit for it in the cd liner notes. Thurston Moore pulls a rather cruel practical joke on Lee Ranaldo during a particularly tough Sonic Youth take that ends up immortalized on vinyl. Fast forward about twenty years, and Viglione takes a ball peen hammer to the wrought iron stairs on the way down to the main room, the results of which can be heard on the recording of the Dresden Dolls’ Miss Me. Plenty of time is also devoted to the studio’s role as a focal point in the formative years of hip-hop in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
The film winds out on a rather elegaic note, as Bisi and the rest of the Gowanus artistic community uneasily await the opening of a branch of an expensive organic supermarket, anticipating a deluge of evictions and gentrification as the neighborhood’s buildings are sold off to crowds of yuppies and trendoids. The talented drummer Sarah Blust, of Rude Mechanical Orchestra and Marmalade, eloquently speaks for her fellow musicians in the neighborhood, with a resigned anger. In the film’s climax, Bisi goes out into a snowstorm to pay his first visit to the new store: the scene is priceless. In addition to its aisles and aisles of pricy artisanal food, this particular branch of the chain is especially twee: it sells used vinyl. Bisi’s reaction after thumbing through the bins there drew howls from the audience at the film’s premiere at Anthology Film Archives.
There’s a long wishlist of stuff that’s not in the movie. Admittedly, a lot of it is soundguy arcana: how Bisi EQ’d the room; his trick for mic placements in the different spaces for various instruments; or the magic formula for how he achieves such a rich high midrange sound, his signature throughout his career, in what appears to be a boomy, barewall basement milieu. What’s also strangely and very conspicuously absent is even a single mention of Bisi’s career as a solo artist. A distinctive songwriter, composer and guitarist, his work as a musician has the same blend of old-world craftsmanship and outside-the-box adventure that marks his career behind the board. Other than a playful few bars behind the drum kit – which he appears simply to be setting up for a session – there’s not a hint that he even plays an instrument. But Bisi seems ok with that. Maybe that’s the sequel.
Over the past several years, photographer/filmmaker Philip Grossman made several trips to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown in Pripyat, Ukraine. Notwithstanding the Soviet Union’s bungling attempts to downplay the disaster and evacuate the area during the crucial first few hours of the April 26, 1986 meltdown at Reactor #4 there, considerable documentation of the disaster’s aftermath exists. Filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko took a camera into the disaster site in the days afterward: he was dead within the year. One hopes that Grossman either used an unmanned drone (as film footage he’s taken there seems to indicate), or that he at least had sufficient protective gear, if such a thing even exists. To say that the matter-of-factly haunting and foreboding full-color images he’s assembled are a heroic achievement is an understatement. Many of them, as well as a film of the area as it looked in the spring of 2011, are currently on display at the Wald and Kim Gallery, 417 Lafayette Street, 4th Floor through June 28. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 AM to 6 PM; ring the fourth-floor buzzer.
Grossman’s photos both underscore a familiar narrative and open frightening new ones. The army of half a million “liquidators” enlisted by the Soviets to secure the area and clean up the worst of the toxic wreckage may have actually amplified the disaster’s effects many times over by stripping metal from abandoned buildings and vehicles and selling it for scrap, effectively poisoning an unknown and probably significant amount of the Soviet steel and aluminum supply. Grossman’s shots, particularly of the interior of homes and municipal buildings in the area, reconfirm this deadly harvest. The same applies to the random bundles of metal beams and building materials lying around, seemingly for the taking (let’s hope that a hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand years from now, when all this material is practically still as deadly as it is today, that people will know to leave it where it is).
But that’s been documented elsewhere. What Grossman has to offer that’s new is the disaster site as it exists today. The concrete “sarcophagus” built to contain the most toxic part of the reactor complex looks like a crack house, as if a good snowstorm would be enough to cave it in. Grossman’s shots of the skeleton structure for a fifth reactor, abandoned in the wake of the meltdown, are chillingly ironic. Even more chilling is a look at what’s left of the control room for Reactor #4, juxtaposed against another control room at the site that wasn’t consumed in the initial blaze. Cheapness and a cynical disregard for maintenance leap from the dust and fading plastic: how many other reactors like this are there in the world, and why haven’t they been shut down yet?
Grossman’s photos of the surrounding area show a ghost town. There are a couple of low-rent memorials; homes where the only things left are old shoes and beer bottles; a preschool full of decaying, murderously radioactive stuffed toys; an abandoned hospital, a recreation center and sleepaway camp for children. The implications are extreme: perish the thought that this could have happened in the summer and subjected even more children to the consequences. The official Soviet report of the health effects of the disaster mirrors the coverup of the early days: we’ll probably never know the full amount of casualties. The World Health Organization estimates that cancers caused by radioactive poisons released at Chernobyl killed a million people worldwide, a shocking number tempered by the WHO’s notoriously alarmist predictions. And yet, for the reliably pro-industry WHO to come up with such a staggering estimate could well indicate that the death toll so far may be even higher.
And will be in the decades and centuries to come. There are two “sons of Chernobyl,” as they’re called in Russia, on the way. The contaminants in the water table inching toward the Black Sea are expected to reach there in thirty years or so. There’s also the threat of forest fires in the area. Over the past decades, fire crews have routinely been sent into the forest there to hose down the soil to help prevent the kind of conflagration that could literally rekindle the catastrophe. Almost thirty years after Chernobyl, more than half of all wild mushrooms in Germany, thousands of miles away, remain too contaminated with nuclear toxins for human consumption. At least the Germans had the sense to make it illegal to harvest those mushrooms, or, for that matter, to sell wild game meat.
Meanwhile, the United States and other nations continue to allow the importation of vehicles and products from Japan. What’s even more troubling, of course, is that the Fukushima disaster released more lethal radioactive contaminants than every previous nuclear meltdown – Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, LP-1 in Idaho and Oak Ridge in Tennesee – plus the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs, plus every atom bomb test and nuclear leak in history, COMBINED. In simpler terms, the world became more than twice as deadly on March 11, 2011. Levels of nuclear contamination in Tokyo, a hundred miles from the Fukushima disaster site, are so high that if that the city was in the United States, it would be off limits not only to human habitation but also to human traffic: the danger of spreading those toxins via car and truck tires is considered too high to risk in this country.
The Japanese response to Fukushima in many ways was the same as the Soviets’ was to Chernobyl. According to an official Japanese government website that was abruptly taken down about a week after the Fukushima calamity, only forty people were killed by the meltdowns there. But while high levels of toxins as deadly as those released at Chernobyl continue to drain into the Pacific – whether the result of leakage, deliberate dumping, or both – the carnage left in the wake of Chernobyl may only be a small fraction of the toll Fukushima may ultimately claim. Can anybody say “global extinction event?”
What’s most heartbreaking about Manfred Kirchheimer‘s practically dialogue-less 1981 documentary Stations of the Elevated is that all of the artwork featured in the film is gone forever. Some of it was sandblasted, some sent to the scrapyard and the rest of it is at the bottom of the Atlantic. Did you know that’s where most New York City subway cars have gone to their final resting place in recent years, ostensibly serving as artificial reefs, asbestos insulation and all? Fortunately, you can see all of the long-gone, distinctively New York-flavored guerrilla art immortalized when the film – the first full-length documentary on New York City subway art – screens on June 27 at 8 PM at BAM’s Harvey Theatre. Advance tix are $25 and highly recommended. What’s also hard to believe is that this screening kicks off the movie’s first-ever theatrical run (it premiered at the 1981 New York Film Festival but lacked the music licenses necessary for a fullscale release). As a special enticement, the Charles Mingus repertory ensemble Mingus Dynasty will perform beforehand – it’s a good assumption that they’ll be playing music from the film soundtrack.
How fortuituous for future generations of New Yorkers that the filmmaker was out trainspotting with his camera, catching subways (mostly on the 4 and 5 line) as they rolled past, or into the Dyre Avenue station. Without Kirchheimer, there’s be far less evidence of the haphazard talent of legendary graffiti artists like Lee, Fab 5 Freddy, Shadow, Daze, Kase, Butch, Blade, Slave, 12 T2B, Ree, and Pusher, all of whom are represented. Kirchheimer wisely chose to film from spots where the trains would be moving at little more than a walking pace, and his lens lingers. Yet the effect is often akin to a series of jump cuts, tantalizing the viewer. Obviously, Kirchheimer wanted to capture as much as he could in a limited amount of time (45 minutes): to say that he scored is an understatement.
Kirchheimer’s background, other than as a documentarian, is as a film editor, which served him well here. Juxtaposed with the languid, now rather quaint (and for New Yorkers of a certain age and sensibility, impossibly nostalgic) shots of the trains in all their spraycan glory are images of campy billboards (the smoking Marlboro Man is priceless) and an upstate prison that from above bears a remarkable resemblance to the MTA train yards. The sound editing mirrors the editing of the film itself, a handful of Charles Mingus compositions cut and pasted with a rather sardonic bass solo from the composer himself front and center. There’s also a long gospel refrain from Aretha Franklin as the film winds out.
Kirchheimer has been quick to admit that he knew little about graffiti art when he began work on the film, and that the project opened his eyes to what he has termed a “scream from the ghetto.” Ironically, much as many of the deaths heads, cartoon figures and hastily painted yet stunningly lavish car-length tableaux make for a perverse celebration of civic pride. New York may have been gritty in those days, but it was those artists’ New York. Shame on the powers that be for failing to realize that and for destroying it (a sick cycle that perpetuates itself – yesterday’s cover of Metro featured a gang of gung-ho volunteers hell-hent on eliminating graffiti and graffiti art completely throughout the five boroughs). And kudos to Kirchheimer for preserving it with such a wry, keenly aware sensibility.
The New York debut of Chicago’s Sounds of Silent Film Festival Friday night at Anthology Film Archives was close to sold out and would have been if not for the monsoon. It was sort of a Bang on a Can marathon of film music. The concept, said composer and Access Contemporary Music honcho Seth Boustead, was to introduce themselves to New York audiences with a greatest-hits package from the previous eight Windy City festivals. Eleven short films, none of them dating further back than 1967, got new scores from an eclectic mix of contemporary composers, both a showcase for their talents as well as a way of getting a captive audience to witness a program of first-rate, frequently creepy indie classical music.
Writing cinematic music is not easy: it requires a broad sonic palette and the ability to seamlessly negotiate abrupt emotional, melodic and rhythmic shifts. Conducting a live ensemble to keep pace with a film without the benefit of a click track is even more difficult, but conductor Francesco Milioto kept a tight ensemble drawing heavily on the Access Contemporary Music roster on a steady course. Christie Miller’s moody clarinet and bass clarinet often took centerstage, along with Hulya Alpakin’s insistent, often menacing piano, Nathan Bojko‘s dynamic percussion leading the group into richly noir territory. The rest of the ensemble – Lesley Swanson on flute, Alyson Berger on cello, Elizabeth Brausa and Gregory Harrington on violins and Alexandra Honigsberg on viola – played with what was often a white-knuckle intense focus.
Oboeist/composer Patricia Morehead’s scores for Steve Stein’s Must Like Magic, a wry account of a magician and his new apprentice, bounced along with a surprisingly effective undercurrent of unease. Boustead’s pulsing, smartly developed theme and variations grounded Guy Maddin’s surreal, vaudevillian, early Soviet-influenced sci-fi Heart of the World with an unexpected matter-of-factness. One of the most enjoyable films on the bill, Martin Pickles’ G.M. – a snarky but loving homage to Georges Melies – got a dynamic Randall West score that went from droll to neo-Bernard Herrmann in seconds flat.
The ensemble’s most difficult task was blending in with the original minimalist soundtrack of Steve Bilich’s haunting, accidentally 9/11-themed Native New Yorker, which won the award for best short film at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival. Shot with a a 1924 hand-crank Kodak, it follows the trail of a shirtless American Indian as he makes his way to lower Manhattan and then gets to witness the horrors of that morning: the shots of all the ambulances racing across the Brooklyn Bridge, streaming dust and debrus behind them, are shattering. William Susman’s new score bookended an uneasy, Philip Glass-ish, circularly summery interlude with a marching theme that moved from murky to horror-stricken.
Another rarely screened gem was Martin Scorsese’s final NYU student film, The Big Shave, a brief 1967 antiwar parable wherein a draft-age guy starts shaving, and then keeps going long after he should have stopped, with expectedly gruesome results (one suspects Roger Waters ripped it for the Bob Geldof shaving scene in The Wall). Brian O’Hern’s music underscored it with a cruelly cynical faux-martial bombast. And Virgil Widrich’s delightfully creepy Copy Shop – Kafka meets Rod Serling – got a similarly noir, macabre, carnivalesque score from Eric Malmquist.
The rest of the music was a lot more interesting than the movies. Doug Johnson scored claymation inovators the Brothers Quays‘ homage to an earlier pioneer of the style, Jan Svankmajer with a lively, flinty, goodnaturedly wry sensibility. Amos Gillespie’s eclectically rhythmic score overshadowed a rather sentimental Michael Dudok de Wit short, Father and Daughter, Matt Pakulski doing much the same with Gus Van Sant’s abbreviated First Kiss. Amy Wurtz’s music for first-wave anime filmmaker Osamu Tezuka’s The Mermaid held the audience in check with its foreshadowing and drift toward darkness in a way that the film couldn’t. The night ended with Boustead’s Bizet arrangements for Alexander Payne’s Carmen, an over-the-top satire which has far more resonance for those familiar with the opera than for those who aren’t.
Last night violinist/composer Alicia Svigals debuted her new score to the 1918 German silent film The Yellow Ticket to a sold-out house at Lincoln Center, accompanying a screening in tandem with jazz pianist Marilyn Lerner. The movie isn’t much. A screwball tragi-comedy starring nineteen-year-old future Hollywood siren Pola Negri, it casts Polish Jews as the unlikely protagonists in a family drama concerning a question of parentage. The pro-Jewish angle was undoubtedly less of a decisively progressive move than an excuse to paint the WWI enemy Russians as cruel and discriminatory (which they were, actually). The film, newly restored, has historical value for including rare footage of Warsaw’s Jewish district – and little else. But Svigals’ score is exquisite.
In practically an hour of music, the former Klezmatic and Itzhak Perlman collaborator blended somber klezmer themes with vivid, plaintive neoromantic melodies that echoed Tschaikovsky and Ravel, particularly in one of the soundtrack’s most chilling passages, piano joining the violin in adding ominous close harmonies to a variation on the steady, pensive, minor-key title theme. The score’s dynamics turned out to be pretty straightforward, other than a brief, furtive suspense interlude and a couple of shivery, overtone-generating solo violin cadenzas that only hinted at the raw firepower that Svigals can generate in concert.
Svigals’ themes unfolded and shifted shape cleverly and memorably. A moody, apprehensive hora early on, introduced during a broad sequence where Negri’s character fends off a would-be suitor, romped back in later as a joyous freilach. The soaring blue-sky interlude illustrating Negri’s train passage to what would ostensibly be a new life as a student in St. Petersburg turned ominous and chilling in a split second, to match a jump cut. Lerner’s understatedly haunting, resonant block chords and elegant arpeggios made a poignant and intuitive backdrop for Svigals’ highly ornamented phrasing, sometimes tense and nuanced, occasionally channeling fullscale horror. Svigals has a forthcoming album of Osvaldo Golijov works recorded with clarinet powerhouse David Krakauer due out this year; this deserves to be immortalized every bit as much.
For those who haven’t already discovered him, Phil Ochs was arguably the greatest rock songwriter of the 1960s. Ochs cut his teeth in the West Village folk movement in the early part of the decade alongside Bob Dylan, a friend in their early days who would become something of a competitor. A legendary party animal, rakishly handsome and considerably talented multi-instrumentalist proficient on guitar, clarinet and piano, Ochs grew from a wryly witty singer of stinging topical songs, to become one of the most devastatingly powerful lyricists in the history of rock. But where Dylan found rock and roll, Ochs followed his muse into classical before embarking somewhat frantically on a rock career most notable for his 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement, probably the most resonant requiem ever written for the idealism of the 60s. With its cover image of Ochs’ tombstone, it left no doubt that it was also a somewhat early suicide note. Kenneth Bowser, producer of the acclaimed Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, has a poignant, insightful new documentary out, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, a rapidfire collage of period footage, brief snippets of live performances and interviews with colleagues and fans which traces Ochs’ career from his early coffehouse days to his 1975 suicide. It’s currently playing in New York at the IFC Center at Sixth Ave. and West Third St.
Singer Judy Henske, who comes across the most articulately of all of Ochs’ contemporaries, explains that he “made people nervous.” Ochs’ brother Michael (whose halfhearted decision to manage his brother springboarded a successful career as a music executive and archivist) and sister Sunny dredge up some cringe-inducing childhood anecdotes including a candid assessment of the mental illness that had plagued their father, and which their brother probably shared. His plunge into chronic alcoholism may have only exacerbated what seems to be a pretty clear-cut case of manic depression. Bowser follows the theory that Ochs saw himself as an archetypical everyman who took every attack on his fellow freedom fighters personally, and substantiates it well. Ochs is credited with changing Bobby Kennedy’s views on Vietnam on a flight from Washington, DC to New York by playing him his epic JFK requiem Crucifixion, and took Kennedy’s assassination, just a few months later, very hard. The police brutality against protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, followed by the Kent State murders left Ochs at a loss as to how to address them; a particularly crushing blow seems to have been the coldblooded assassination of his friend the Chilean folksinger Victor Jara by a CIA-sponsored death squad in 1972. There’s almost as much footage of Ochs toward the end of his career is there is for his early years, and it is heartbreaking. A brief recovery promoting a benefit concert for Chile, alongside Dylan – who otherwise is conspicuously absent here – is followed by some cruelly vivid homemade footage of Ochs in various inebriated states shortly before the end. While there are numerous contributions on Ochs’ legacy from the likes of Sean Penn and Billy Bragg, Bowser also smartly puts Ochs’ producers Jac Holzman and Larry Marks on screen, who along with A&M Records’ co-founder Jerry Moss offer considerable insight into Ochs’ legacy as someone who was something of an eminence grise before his time. Perhaps the most telling moment of all is when frequent Ochs collaborator and pianist Lincoln Mayorga, playing completely from memory, rips into the ragtime of Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, the uncharacteristically lighthearted 1967 song (and Dr. Demento staple) that remains, somewhat ironically, Ochs’ best-known composition. IFC showtimes are here.
Sunday at Galapagos composer/singer/multi-instrumentalist Lisa Bielawa and an inspired cast of indie classical types played a stunningly eclectic mix of new material from her two latest albums, Chance Encounter (with the Knights and soprano Susan Narucki) and In Medias Res (with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose). The concert got off to a rough start: drummer Bob Schultz was game to recite a series of occasionally bizarre, frequently amusing overheard-on-the-street quotes over what turned out to be pretty steady solo drums, but he wasn’t given a soundcheck (big mistake) and consequently the lyrics were often inaudible. And in the rap era, making the beats fit is part of the fun; this piece seemed more of an slapdash attempt at jazz poetry with random words set to an unrelated rhythm.
Things got exciting fast after that. Harpist Ina Zdorovetchi played another piece from the BMOP album, shifting from unselfconsciously Romantic cinematics to a mysterioso theme, followed by pianist Sarah Bob playing another solo work that went in the opposite direction, a tug-of-war between consonant comfort and bracing, wide-open, sky-at-night atonalities. After a pause for technical difficulties, the excitement went up another notch. Split between the stage and the back balcony, members of the reliably surprising indie orchestra the Knights turned in a marvelously orchestrated (in both senses of the word), strikingly stereo version of Bielawa’s Prologue and Topos Nostalgia section from Chance Encounter. Alternating fugal astringencies between the two sections of the ensemble with still, quiet beauty and the occasional playful conversation between instruments, it was a showstopper: flutists Alex Sopp and Lance Suzuki along with violinist Carla Kihlstedt backlit by the sound booth while Narucki and several of the Knights held court onstage, among them violinists Colin Jacobsen and Christina Courtin, violist Nicholas Cords, oboeist Adam Hollander and Bielawa herself adding terse, pensive accents on piano.
The program concluded with Kihlstedt singing the Song from Bielawa’s Double Violin Concerto, a potently effective transposition of modernist melodicism to a traditionally classical framework, accompanied by string quartet, viola, piano and harp. That Kihlstedt was able to sing her tricky counterrhythms while playing was impressive enough: what was breathtaking was how powerfully she belted those off-center tonalities. Clear, pure and laserlike, she didn’t have much of anything in common with Narucki’s virtuosically operatic delivery, but she was every bit as intense and compelling, maybe more.
In addition to the music, two short films were screened: Lisa Guidetti’s 2007 lushly summery, awardwinning look at Chance Encounter being played in Chinatown’s Seward Park, and Renato Chiocca’s view of Chance Encounter as it was created – to expose random outdoor audiences, pretty much anywhere (in this case, Rome), to the work of new composers. It’s as simple as bringing a truckload of chairs and letting the audience assemble without knowing that they’re in store for what could be an amazing free concert.
How do you say sturm und drang in Arabic? Jordanian composer/pianist Zade likes a BIG sound, which takes on an even more dramatic effect given the striking setting for this outdoor evening concert recently rebroadcast on PBS: a Roman amphitheatre dating back two millennia. In fact, it seems that the massive choir joining with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Zade’s band may actually outnumber the audience. The subtext couldn’t scream any louder than the music: if we don’t get peace in the Middle East, this is just a small piece of what we stand to lose.
Zade’s lavishly orchestrated Middle Eastern-inflected, minor-key neo-romantic soundscapes have a lot more in common with the Alan Parsons Project – or Richard Wagner – than they do with pioneering Middle Eastern composers like the Iranian Abolhassan Sabeh, who, like Zade, would utilize the even tunings of the western scale. Ironically, it’s the little touches here that resonate the loudest: the brief yet viscerally haunting ney flute solo at the end of the tango that takes up the fifth track, or the wistful interplay between piano and acoustic guitar on the intro to the next one, Santiago’s Dream (inspired, Zade tells the crowd, by Paulo Coelho’s hit new-age novel from twenty years ago,The Alchemist). An electric violin solo trading off with the flute sounds like a particularly inspired mashup of ELO and Jethro Tull – and the crowd goes wild for it!
A playful, bouncy pop melody is dedicated to Jordan’s Princess Haya, an equestrian of some note and apparently a patron of Zade’s peace crusade, an encouraging revelation (peace of course being a relative term, especially in these parts). There’s also a plaintive breakup ballad sung by Jordanian chanteuse Jama; and the strongest composition, a particularly sweeping, percussive anthem titled Amman that perhaps appropriately has the most indelibly Arabic feel to it.
To say that the surroundings match the music for dramatic impact is quite the understatement: if what’s going on inside the amphitheatre is a little overwhelming, you can watch the headlights of the evening traffic peacefully going by outside at the top of the screen, completely oblivious – or maybe listening on Jordanian state radio, who knows. Casual fans may prefer the cd, since most DVD players don’t have the sonic capability to render the show in all its glorious exuberance (although the sonics of the DVD prove identical to those of the cd if run through good speakers). The cd also lacks the bonus features, including an interview with Zade, whose sincerity as an advocate for peace translates vividly in flawless English.
Last night’s theme was film scores. The New York Guitar Festival is more avant garde than rock (WNYC’s John Schaefer emceed) – this particular Merkin Hall bill started out intensely and virtuosically with a rare artist who’s every bit as good as his famous father (Gyan Riley is the son of avant titan Terry Riley), then got more mainstream with an emotionally rich, frequently very amusing pair of Chaplin soundtracks just completed by Chicha Libre.
Composers have been doing new scores for old silent films for decades (some of the most intriguing recent ones include Phillip Johnston’s improvisations for Page of Madness, and the Trakwerx soundtracks for Tarzan and a delicious DVD of Melies shorts). Riley chose to add sound to a series of brief paint-on-celluloid creations by Harry Smith (yup, the anthology guy), which came across as primitive if technically innovative stoner psychedelia. Ostensibly Smith’s soundtrack of choice had been Dizzie Gillespie; later, his wife suggested the Beatles. Playing solo, Riley opened with his best piece of the night, an unabashedly anguished, reverb-drenched tableau built on vivid Steve Ulrich-esque chromatics. From there, Riley impressed with a diverse mix of ambient Frippertronic-style sonics along with some searing bluesy rock crescendos evoking both Jeff Beck aggression and towering David Gilmour angst. Most of the time, Riley would be looping his licks with split-second precision so they’d echo somewhere in the background while he’d be adding yet another texture or harmony, often bending notes Jim Campilongo style with his fretboard rather than with his fingers or a whammy bar.
With their psychedelic Peruvian cumbias, Chicha Libre might seem the least likely fit for a Chaplin film. But like its closest relative, surf music, chicha (the intoxicating early 70s Peruvian blend of latin, surf and 60s American psychedelia) can be silly one moment, poignant and even haunting the next. Olivier Conan, the band’s frontman and cuatro player remarked pointedly before the show how much Chaplin’s populism echoed in their music, a point that resonated powerfully throughout the two fascinating suites they’d written for Payday (1922) and The Idle Class (1921). The Payday score was the more diverse of the two, a series of reverberating, infectiously catchy miniatures in the same vein as Manfred Hubler’s Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack as well as the woozily careening Electric Prunes classic Mass in F Minor. While Chicha Libre’s lead instrument is Josh Camp’s eerie, vintage Hohner Electrovox organ, as befits a guitar festival, Telecaster player Vincent Douglas got several extended solo passages to show off his command of just about every twangy noir guitar style ever invented, from spaghetti western to New York soundtrack noir to southwestern gothic. When the time came, Camp was there with his typical swirling attack, often using a wah pedal for even more of a psychedelic effect. The band followed the film to a split-second with the occasional crash from the percussionists, right through the triumphant conclusion where Chaplin manages to sidestep his suspicious wife with her ever-present rolling pin and escape with at least a little of what he’d earned on a hilariously slapstick construction site.
The Idle Class, a similarly redemptive film, was given two alternating themes, the first being the most traditionally cinematic of the night, the second eerily bouncing from minor to major and back again with echoes of the Simpsons theme (which the show’s producers just hired Chicha Libre to record last month for the cartoon’s 25th anniversary episode). Chaplin plays the roles of both the rich guy (happy movie theme) and the tramp (spooky minor) in the film, and since there’s less bouncing from set to set in this one the band got the chance to vamp out and judiciously add or subtract an idea or texture or two for a few minutes at a clip and the result was mesmerizing. It was also very funny when it had to be. Bits and pieces of vaguely familiar tunes flashed across the screen: a schlocky pop song from the 80s; a classical theme (Ravel?); finally, an earlier Chicha Libre original (a reworking of a Vivaldi theme, actually), Primavera en la Selva. They built it up triumphantly at the end to wind up in a blaze of shimmering, clanging psychedelic glory where Chaplin’s tramp finally gets to give the rich guy’s sinisterly hulking father a swift kick in the pants. The crowd of what seemed older, jaded new-music types roared their approval: the buzz was still in the air as they exited. Chicha may be dance music (and stoner music), but Chicha Libre definitely have a future in film scores if they want it.
Thought it might be cruel to call this Woody Allen lite, that’s how this enjoyably puckish, satirical comedy comes across. Allen directs but doesn’t appear in the film, taking more than a few cues from Amoldovar as its three leading ladies vie for the affection of a goodlooking painter. Laughs are plentiful (many of them encouraged by a deadpan voiceover that serves as Greek chorus), even thought each of the main characters is straight out of Central Casting.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall – the actress, not the retro-folk siren who fronts Hungrytown) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are trendoids on vacation in Barcelona. Vicky is putting the finishing touches on her masters thesis on Catalan Identity, likes nice boys and has a stick up her ass. Cristina, who’s just spent the past year writing, directing and acting in a twelve-minute film that she now despises, is something of a restless spirit who likes her men bad. Lecherous painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) picks up the two in a bistro after considerable coaxing and takes them to Oviedo for the weekend. It takes considerably less coaxing to get Cristina to jump into bed with him, but things don’t work out so he overcomes staggering odds (go, Javier!) and hooks up with her vastly more conservative pal. Trouble is, Vicky is scheduled to be married and move to a nice house in status-grubbing Bedford Hills in Westchester Country with her materialistic yuppie fiancé Doug (played to the hilt by Tim Reedy lookalike Chris Messina).
After the weekend, Juan Antonio predictably doesn’t call Vicky back. But he does call Cristina, who ends up moving in with him. Things are going swimmingly until suddenly his ex-wife/stalker/bête noir Maria Elena (a luminous and completely over-the-top hilarious Penelope Cruz) moves in with them after a failed suicide attempt. After a few bumps in the road, the three get along marvelously, marvelously well (Doug’s reaction to news of their, um, relationship is priceless). But Vicky hasn’t forgotten her lost weekend with Juan Antonio and is having second thoughts about a comfortable life in suburbia. Then someone unexpectedly breaks character and throws a wrench in the works.
While Vicky has seemingly reached the brink of self-actualization, Cristina, encouraged boisterously by Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, finds her muse in the camera’s lens. Allen’s satire disappears for most of the second half of the film while his characters struggle to find some depth, but it returns with a vengeance in the seconds before the credits roll. Vicky Cristina Barcelona doesn’t shoot for the lofty, philosophical heights of Allen’s peak, late 70s period, but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless. Put it on your Netflix list or see it when it hits the cable channels in a few weeks.
- avant garde music
- blues music
- classical music
- experimental music
- folk music
- funk music
- gospel music
- gypsy music
- irish music
- latin music
- Lists – Best of 2008 etc.
- Live Events
- middle eastern music
- music, concert
- New York City
- NYC Live Music Calendar
- organ music
- Public Health
- rap music
- reggae music
- rock music
- ska music
- small beast
- soul music
- The Blahgues
- world music