eX: Possessed

eX Possessed covereX
Heresy Records 012

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.”

Sunday Salon 7-13-14

Time: 7:00 a.m. Sunday, up a little later than usual, but not feeling overly guilty about it.

Place: Back at my main computer, which had been out of commission. It wasn’t starting up, so I took it into the local shop and paid $49 to find out that there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. And sure enough, it’s working fine now. I have no explanation, nor did the repairer.

Reading: My current major reading project is Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands, which is quite a lovely experience so far. I am also gradually working my way through The Mindful Way Workbook, which is providing some helpful hints. And having recently discovered Gabrielle Bell, the wonderful graphic novelist, or comic diarist as she is sometimes called, I’ve started on her book The Voyeurs.

Viewing: Twice a year, Barnes and Noble has a 50% off sale on the Criterion Collection, which is sort of a boon for film fans, except that they, which is to say I, purchase more films than absolutely necessary. This has allowed me to see, finally, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, a haunting and vaguely disorienting film about the relationships, romantic and otherwise, in a young Japanese woman’s life. It’s very different from Kiarostami’s last film, the much acclaimed Certified Copy, but leaves the viewer unsettled in much the same way. (By the way, Kiarostami’s totally gorgeous 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us is about to come out on Blu-ray, and I will be all over that.) Several other Criterions I bought, including Breaking the Waves, Master of the House, and Picnic at Hanging Rock, await. Also viewed this week was Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord, which was about as enigmatic as the Kiarostami film. I also had the opportunity to attend a performance by Jean-Michel Richaud of Leonard Nimoy’s one-man play Vincent this past Thursday at the Nevada Museum of Art. Years ago I saw Mr. Nimoy himself perform the play, in which Theo van Gogh talks about his recently deceased brother, on television, and it was great seeing it again.

Listening: Not so much music listening the last couple of weeks, for reasons addressed below.

Blogging: I finally put a mind to completing the writing I have long wanted to do on the subject of Chinese calligraphy, having been inspired months ago by the exhibition Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (and now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Many pages of notes, and a general sense of inadequacy, left me overwhelmed for a long time. Finally I arrived at a form for all the stuff – two posts, an introductory blog post on the wider subject of calligraphy in China, followed by a review of the exhibition catalog. The latter, by the way, was the 200th post I’ve made to my blog! This whole project was a lot of work. But the result is fairly acceptable, and now it’s done!

Pondering: (1) The vagaries of my mood. As I’ve described here in recent weeks, I’ve been having some slight depression problems. But a week or two ago these suddenly vanished, like mist dispersing and evaporating as the sun rises. Now everything is more or less fine. Why this happened is as mysterious as why the darkness descended in the first place. But I’m not complaining about the result! (2) As part of my increased exercise regimen, I have been working my way through the Couch-to-5K running program. Earlier this week I started Week 4, which features a considerable increase in activity from Week 3, and I wasn’t able to complete the first day. Yesterday was Week 4 Day 2, and at first I thought I was going to have to abandon the last five minutes of running and fail again. But I willed myself on, and as I did I had a strange experience, very like the one described in mindfulness meditation. While meditating, instead of dwelling on thoughts and feelings, you’re asked to observe them, stepping slightly outside of one’s self as it were. As I ran, rather than feeling exhausted, I was somehow able to observe myself being exhausted instead, at a remove, and I completed the run without too much difficulty. This is an experience I need to remember, and call upon when other difficult circumstances arise.

Anticipating: The end of my wisdom tooth extraction-related pain. The infection and swelling on the left side of my mouth still hasn’t quite gone away, making chewing actual food difficult.

Gratuitous Seven Pieces of Advice from Rumi:

In generosity and helping others be like the river.
In compassion and grace be like the sun.
In concealing others’ faults be like the night.
In anger and fury be like the dead.
In modesty and humility be like the soil.
In tolerance be like the ocean.
Either you appear as you are or be as you appear.

Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy

Out of Character coverOut of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy
Edited by Michael Knight and Joseph Z. Chang
(2012, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 352 pages)

This book is the catalog for the eponymous exhibition, recently at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and at the time of this writing on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition is based on the personal collection, dubbed Guanyuan shanzhuang (The Mountain Villa for Gazing Afar), of Jerry Yang, co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo! Inc. Most of the book’s text is presented in both English and Chinese. Along with a review of the basics of calligraphy, the catalog’s articles, by a variety of scholars, introduce us to some of the major figures and historical trends in the development of Chinese calligraphy over the centuries.

Imperial Copy of Su Shi's Letter Qianlong Emperor (1711-99)In his “Introduction: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy,” Michael Knight compares calligraphy to dance: “The rhythm and flow of the dance are controlled through character size, contrast between light and dark ink, and the speed with which the individual strokes are applied.” The four most common formats for presenting calligraphy – all of which are represented in the exhibition and its catalog – are hand scrolls, hanging scrolls, albums, and fans. Fans, albums, and hand scrolls were not typically left out for display in a home. Fans were often actually used, and albums and hand scrolls were brought out for special occasions. Hanging scrolls were sometimes left out as wall decorations, but were more often also stored away. Because of this careful storage, many of these precious items have survived for hundreds of years.

Zhao Mengfu Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime DharmaA central work in the exhibition is The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), an early fourteenth century work comprised of 15,000 characters written in Standard script in an almost unbelievably precise hand. In the catalog article “An Examination of Zhao Mengfu’s Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma (Miaofa lianhua jing) in Small Standard Script,” Wang Lianqi calls Zhao “precisely the Yuan dynasty’s most fully accomplished and greatest artist.” An aristocrat, Zhao studied history and literature as well as painting and calligraphy. No less a figure than the Yuan Emperor Shizu, also known to history as Kublai Khan, praised “the excellence and distinction of his bearing and the pearly brightness of his complexion.” In a government career that spanned over thirty years, Zhao eventually won the grandiose title of “Academician of the Academy of Scholarly Worthies and Grand Master for Assisting Toward Virtue.” Along with being a famous calligrapher and painter, Zhao also wrote books on music, economics, and antiquities.

Wang Lianqi says of Zhao’s calligraphy, “his mental purity and harmoniousness, stylistic clarity, precision, and lucidity are firmly planted amid all the graceful movement.” Many of the calligraphic script styles had fallen out of favor in previous centuries as a focus on Cursive and Semi-cursive scripts emerged during the Song dynasty. But Zhao was a master, and made a close study, of all the styles. In fact, Zhao once created a copy of the Thousand-Character Classic – a sixth century Chinese poem used as a primer for teaching children Chinese characters and for the practice of calligraphy – in all five of the major scripts (Standard, Seal, Clerical, Cursive, and Semi-cursive). His Standard style became the basis for printing in the Ming Dynasty. Wang continues, “But what is especially exceptional here – apart from the refined beauty of its dots and strokes, the stability of its composition, the comfortable spacing, and the openness of its forms (all achieved while adhering strictly to the principles of standard script) – is that Zhao is able to impart freshness and vitality to the forms, so that strength emerges amid their graceful charms. As a result, viewers forget the concentration and care that went into their structure and brushwork and see only their naturalness and serenity.”

Dong Qichang Calligraphy after Ancient MastersThree centuries after Zhao, Dong Qichang (1555-1636) was the major calligrapher and painter of his day. Somewhat less than a stellar student early on, Dong eventually became especially skilled at Standard script, and was teaching it by his early twenties. After failing his first two provincial examinations, he passed his third and took a position at Beijing’s Hanlin Academy. In 1599 Dong was impeached from that position, apparently because he was spending too much time on his art. For the next several years he remained semiretired. In 1616 his house was burned down by an angry mob, and he lost almost all of his calligraphy collection. Finally, on the beginning of the reign of Emperor Xizong in 1620, Dong was in favor again, and was offered prestigious positions in Beijing and Nanjing. Read more

Chinese Calligraphy, an introduction

Zhao Mengfu Four Anecdotes from the Life of Wang Xizhi 1310

The History and The Art

Oracle boneThe earliest examples of Chinese writing still extant today are the inscriptions on the famous oracle bones (both animal bones and turtle shells) and on bronze vessels from the Shang dynasty, circa 1,600 BCE. Perhaps the connection, even this early, between writing and important rituals gave literacy the special status it has had in China. Incised or cut into the surface of the bone or bronze, these early forms of writing were by necessity relatively stiff. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) the basic materials of calligraphy – brush, ink, ink stone, and paper – had became commonplace and the writing styles more varied and flexible.

Calligraphic skill was once an important part of the Chinese Imperial Examination for the government jobs that were such an important part of one’s career aspirations. It was thought that the permanence of calligraphy strokes required careful planning and decisive execution, exactly the sorts of skills one looked for in a government administrator. Calligraphy was an important part of one’s education, and was regarded as one of the four basic skills of the Chinese literati: Shu (calligraphy), Hua (painting), Qin (a seven-string musical instrument like a lute), and Qi (a strategic board game). Painting and calligraphy evolved side-by-side, although the latter was appreciated as an art much earlier.

My first book of Chinese CalligraphyThe usual course of study for calligraphy involved making copies – sometimes dozens, or even hundreds – of famous works of the past, often under the tutelage of a master. Those earlier works were carved onto stone blocks and preserved in copy books (fatie) printed from those blocks. One standard text for copying was the Thousand-Character Classic, an essay on ethics, history and nature from around 500 CE in a thousand non-repeating characters.

To execute calligraphy, typically the brush is held between the thumb and the middle finger. The index finger stabilizes its position at the upper part of the shaft, and the ring and little fingers are tucked at the bottom of the shaft. Occasionally the brush is gripped between the thumb and index finger as a pen or pencil might be held.

Seals and CalligraphyAll manner of considerations enter into the creation of calligraphy: the nature of the brush and ink and paper, the amount of ink on the brush, variations in the thickness of the ink, the strength and direction of the stroke, and the amount of the brush that is used and its angle. Not just the right sort of stroke, but the stroke order, the size of the characters, and the amount of space around the characters are essential. For a long time the choice of script (the five basic scripts are described below) depended largely on the function of the text being written. Eventually this became more of an aesthetic choice by calligraphers. Works also often feature inscriptions, signatures by the artist, seals that identify the artist and/or collector (small squares printed in red and found at the end of calligraphic works), and colophons, writings added after the work is complete by the artist, owner, collector, or viewer. Read more