Place: At my main computer at home.
Reading: Since my last visit to the Salon, which admittedly was a while ago, I have completed A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit, Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands (which I also wrote about), and The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, all of which were outstanding. Current reading includes Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto and Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby.
Viewing: My movie viewing was severely interrupted a few weeks ago when Dish Network, my now-former cable provider, dropped Turner Classic Movies along with several other Turner-related networks, including CNN. TCM is my one essential channel, and I gave Dish a couple of weeks to see if anything got resolved. Nothing happened, and therefore I am now a Charter subscriber – both for cable viewing and for internet. So yesterday’s viewing included TCM’s airing of Them!, which fit right in with all of those other (often very good) late 1940s and 1950s films about paranoia and the end of the world and Communism and the atomic bomb. Also viewed recently was Shohei Imamura’s dark, clinical, and remarkable Vengeance Is Mine, and, finally, The Big Lebowski (can’t believe it took me so long to see it).
Listening: Along with a sudden inexplicable interest in revisiting old Genesis songs that I haven’t heard for years (“Mad Man Moon” from A Trick of the Tail and “You Might Recall,” an outtake from Abacab, are current favorites), I can’t point to much I’ve listened to in the last week or two. However, a live performance in Berkeley last weekend of Benjamin Britten’s church parable Curlew River, with Ian Bostridge, is something I hope to write about in the next few days. Watch this blog.
Blogging: I haven’t been very active recently, aside from posting a couple of bits of poetry by T.S. Eliot and Xu Lizhi. But I have a couple of pieces in the works along with the Curlew River notes mentioned above.
Pondering: How I am going to spend my Thanksgiving holiday of five days. Aside from Thanksgiving dinner with the family, nothing is scheduled. It could be a time of writing, or reading, or movie viewing, or traveling, or staring at the wall. Possibly a little of each…
Anticipating: Among my recent technology changes is the addition of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall to my media empire. Even watching several trailers of archived performances last night was pretty exciting, and I will probably watch my first concert today. The treasures they have stored away are many.
Gratuitous Photo of the Week: Alexander Graham Bell and his grandson Melville wandering in Beinn Bhreagh, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1908. I saw this photo in the most recent National Geographic, loved it, and wanted to share.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
― T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding from Four Quartets
I want to take another look at the ocean, behold the vastness of tears from half a lifetime
I want to climb another mountain, try to call back the soul that I’ve lost
I want to touch the sky, feel that blueness so light
But I can’t do any of this, so I’m leaving this world
Everyone who’s heard of me
Shouldn’t be surprised at my leaving
Even less should you sigh or grieve
I was fine when I came, and fine when I left.
One of a series of beautifully illustrated books that includes The Infinity of Lists, History of Beauty, and On Ugliness, Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands examines imagined utopias and dystopias from fiction, antiquity, folklore, and religion – entire worlds, continents, cities, or even dwellings that might be entirely fictional, or re-imaginings of existing places, but which, in Eco’s words, “have created flows of belief.”
Utopia, or non-place, has sometimes been interpreted as eu-topia, or good place. Thomas More was only one of the most famous of the many who imagined such a society. For instance, a concept found throughout human history is the Earthly Paradise: usually, according to Eco, “where at the beginning of the world one lived in a state of bliss and innocence,” was cast out, but may one day return. One finds it in literally all the major world religions, whether it’s the Garden of Eden, Mount Meru, the Kunlun Mountains, or the Elysian Fields. Very often it lives in the imagination, but for many thinkers and religions it has been an earthly (but distant) place: Sri Lanka, perhaps, or remotest Africa, or Armenia or Palestine, or an island in the middle of the ocean, or the top of the world’s highest peak. Perhaps it is the Isle of the Blessed that was written about so much during the Middle Ages and Renaissance (many, like St. Brendan, found it in close proximity to Ireland).
Perhaps, too, Atlantis was such a place. Atlantis, the continent that disappeared into the sea after catastrophic earthquakes or a flood, is the prototypical legendary land. Plato’s mentions of it in a couple of his dialogues (in the Critias, Atlantis is an island where live the descendants of the god Poseidon and his mortal lover Cleito) are the earliest that still exist, although there is evidence that the idea went much farther back. Centuries after Plato, Roman writers like Pliny the Elder and Diodorus Siculus returned to the concept. There was a renewal of interest during the Renaissance as well, where America, and later, Scandinavia were identified with Atlantis (although how these still-existing places could be Atlantis if Atlantis was destroyed and fell into the sea wasn’t explained). Another period of interest was the late nineteenth century. Think of the appearance of Atlantis in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870):
“…there beneath my eyes was a town in ruins, demolished, overwhelmed, laid low, its roofs caved in, its temples pulled down, its arches dislocated, its columns stretching over the earth; in these ruins you could still detect the solid proportions of a sort of Tuscan architecture; farther off, the remains of a gigantic aqueduct,; here, the caked heights of an acropolis along with the fluid forms of a Parthenon; there, the remnants of a wharf, as if some bygone part had long ago harbored merchant vessels and triple-tiered war galleys on the shores of some lost ocean; still farther off, long rows of collapsing walls, deserted thoroughfares, a whole Pompeii buried under the waters, which Captain Nemo had resurrected before my eyes!” Read more
“In this universe of ours, with its wealth of errors and legends, historical data and false information, one absolute truth is the fact that Superman is Clark Kent. All the rest is always open to debate.” – Umberto Eco, The Book of Legendary Lands
In this lively album, and the stage spectacle from which it is drawn, the Irish early music group eX takes a look at the multifarious subject of possession, employing folk music as well as selections from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque (and one surprise).
One online dictionary defines possession as being “spurred or moved by a strong feeling, madness, or a supernatural power.” The CD notes elaborate on this – “having one’s persona, that indescribable essence that makes you you taken over by an alien spirit, demon, god, totem or other numinous character.” In the positive sense, possession by a god or emissary or ancestor is a standard part of traditional religious practice, essential for those becoming shamans – who very often have an associated musical instrument – or other sorts of faith leaders. But there are also many less benevolent examples and rites of possession.
That sense of ritual, with its music and dance, and the “theatrical” aspects of costumes and role-play enter into the eX stage performance, which was first performed at the 2010 Galway Early Music Festival and during a 2012 Irish tour. The music features female voices – lovely, emotive singing from artistic director Caitriona O’Leary and Clara Sanabras – along with a lot of guitars and percussion, with viols and other instruments adding variety. Praise must also be given to the wonderfully lurid album cover, in which the head of Sigmund Freud looms over imagery from Hollywood B-movies.
eX’s presentation is divided into four sections exemplifying different aspects of possession. It may not have made complete sense musically for the CD, but I do wish the recorded program had tracked a little more closely with the staged concert. A DVD of that stage performance would be most welcome.
Part 1, “Ecstasy: The Theatre of Heaven,” is set in Dublin’s St. Patrick Hospital, where patients have identified themselves with Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, and Joan of Arc, all known for their Christian visionary trance experiences. The text of Hildegard of Bingen’s brief but ominous “Nunc Aperuit Nobis Clausa Porta” juxtaposes the serpent and Virgin Mary. In the “Prayer of St. Teresa of Avila” she offers herself to her beloved, the Lord, to the strains of rather anxious, incantory, Spanish-flavored music. The Lord also provides support in the “Song of Joan of Arc,” with the singers here backed by a propulsive beat from frame drum and tambourine.
Part 2, “Witches: The Theatre of Hell,” takes us to the time just before the Salem witch trials, specifically the trial of Ann “Goody” Glover, an Irish laundress who was hanged for witchcraft in 1688 Boston. In his “Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions,” Cotton Mather described how Glover supposedly, through black magic, caused the children of her employer to become sick, misbehave, and even shun the Bible and fly. Perhaps the highlight here is “Witchcraft Discovered and Punished,” the longest work in eX’s program, a Broadside Ballad about the imprisonment of three witches who had supposedly murdered both adults and children, lamed cattle, and taken evil delight in their laments. The music’s ominous repeating beat, with guitar and a counterpoint to the voice in the viol, sets an appropriately eerie atmosphere.
Part 3, “Candomblé: The Theatre of the Gods,” in part documents the way musical ideas flowed freely from Africa to the Old and New Worlds starting in the seventeenth century. For instance, “Fandango,” a Spanish dance by Santiago de Murcia played here on guitar, incorporate rhythms from Bahia. In Candomblé, an African-Brazilian religion, dance rhythms (possibly derived from the Yoruba language) allow the deities, or orishas, to possess people. A sweet Latin, samba-like flavor is brought to the Candomblé-inspired “The Goddess of the Orishas” (Iansa, goddess of the winds and the lands of the dead).
The concluding Part 4, “Tarantella: The Theatre of the Spider,” is derived from the writings of Athanasius Kircher. He was a witness to Tarantism, a trance-like state supposedly brought on by the bite of a tarantula. Musicians would be brought in to effect a cure, finding the right rhythm to which the victim would dance for hours on end, eventually driving the offending spirit away in an exorcism-like rite. Several versions of ecstatic tarantellas, vocal and instrumental, are performed by eX – including the seductive “Tarantella del Gargano,” in which a lover tries to describe adequately his love, and the lively traditional Italian “Pizzica Tarentata,” in which the tarantula appears as a comical representative of St. Paul.
An incongruous highlight of the program is the nicely arranged and harmonized version of “Music Makes Me (Do the Things I Never Should Do),” from the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio, that concludes the CD. While its hints of Tin Pan Alley stand out from the rest of the program, its theatricality certainly fits in with what came before, as does the humorous twist it gives to the theme of the program as a whole. Here the sin comes when the music “possesses” you and you’ve “gotta give in to syncopated time.”