Thursday 29 April 2010

Dawn of Midi - First (2010)

[Dawn of Midi are Amino Belyamani: piano; Aakaash Israni: contrabass; Qasim Naqvi: drums and toys. See]

It’s unusual to see such a new band receiving what seems to be almost universally high praise from the critics, indicating that, while Dawn of Midi may not be receiving the jazz press hype they perhaps deserve, there is definitely something rather special going on here. There’s no point in worrying whether to call this ‘jazz’ or ‘free improvisation’ (though all the pieces are improvised, the vocabulary often has a distinct jazz edge to it). Rather, this group has come about at a time when such worries seem irrelevant, when statements of intent can be made through music rather than ideological or theoretical proscriptions; what matters most of all is the creation of serious and engaging sound.

The record opens with quiet but purposeful bass and drums from Aakaash Israni and Qasim Naqvi, soon joined by the piano of Amino Belyamani. There’s no real sense of anyone ‘soloing’ as such; rather, the three musicians collaborate to create music that contains both the melodic/harmonic legacy of jazz and the textural approach of free improv, but prioritises neither. As they write on their website, “In the global art music setting, one can sense a paradigm shift that veers towards an appreciation of timbre, color, and the silences that frame a musical offering…In this age of modern improvisation where the distinctions between musical normatives are blurred, DOM’s thematic and timbral approach is reminiscent of many genres bound in one simultaneous moment.” Without the strictures of chord changes or the ‘theme-solos-theme’ template, the improvisations are nevertheless full of memories, fragments, wisps of genre, of music heard and absorbed by the players. But this never degenerates into a merely banal quoting of genre; instead, the kinship between different musics is recognized as the background to the creation of new sounds and discoveries. It’s a way of ‘making it new’ without trying too hard to do so: innovation by stealth, if you like, or innovation by degrees, with the traditions of the past as a rich well to draw on rather than a burden or hindrance.

There’s nothing flashy or self-consciously dramatic here; the tracks rise and fall, dip and sway, moving away before you can pin them down. Part-way through ‘Laura Lee’, the piano suddenly introduces a meltingly affective, melancholic chord which feels perfectly appropriate, though it doesn’t obviously arise from the territory the trio has just been exploring – and then, even before the sustain-pedall’d echoes of that chord have faded away, Belyamani starts repeating a note, not quite hammering, not quite feathering it. What follows is the most exquisitely judged use of space, bass and drums working in perfect tandem with Belyamani’s odd pauses, which are longer than the momentum of the music might lead one to expect, but shorter than a fully-fledged ‘silence’. It’s as if something really lyrical, flowing, song-like is about to emerge, but is dampened, broken up, forced back underground. This suggestion of what might have been – an allusion to what has not yet come to pass – imparts a wonderful sense of openness. This is a world of possibility in which choices are made at every turn; you can hear the players thinking this music through as they are playing it. Which shouldn’t lead to the usual accusations of ‘cerebral’ and ‘intellectual’ music, as opposed to music from the heart, from the gut – what Dawn of Midi exemplify is that that supreme control goes hand in hand with the creation of emotional states. This is music tied to the motions of the body and the motions of the mind.

I may not have been very specific in what I’ve said so far, and it’s perhaps best to discover the various techniques and variations DOM spin through real time listening rather than after-the-fact criticism. That said, I will note something that happens quite a lot on the record: an emphasis on detail, one note or minute phrase being returned to again and again, all the development occurring in variations of touch. Mid-way through track five, ‘Tale of Two Worlds’, there appears a minimal repeated figure, sounded with a cross between bluesy insouciance and something almost despairing, punctuated by the dampened dabs of a note sounded while the finger clamps down the vibrations from the string. One is drawn into this, forced to examine the implications of a musical phrase that one might have overlooked in the general development of the piece; it’s as if the players have suddenly decide to zoom in, to focus very closely and specifically for a couple of moments, and one realizes that this could happen at any time, one realizes the trio’s great awareness of the myriad of possible implications in everything that they play.

For the ultimate example, listen to the last track, ‘In Between’, where a single piano note (and then a small number of alternating notes) sounds out again and again, for minutes at a time, bass and drums gradually boiling and bubbling underneath, a chord in the other hand supporting but never fully developing the scant material, all creating a kind of momentum through stasis; and, finally, a meditative quality, the piano reminiscent of tolling bells, the bass plucking understated counter-melody, drums with the faintest taps and splashes, a trance with off-centre rhythmic accompaniment. Once this lengthy section finally finishes, and the CD ends, something still seems to hang in the air – the silence itself turned into music by what preceded it. How the music will restart on DOM’s next release only time will tell, but no doubt it will flow as naturally from the silence as it flowed into it. This is an extremely fine debut recording, one which I have no hesitation in recommending.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Squint Live In Oxford

Port Mahon, Oxford, Tuesday 20th April 2010

(Phil Wachsmann, Eric Clarke: violins; Jill Elliott: viola; Bruno Guastalla: cello, bandoneon; Dominic Lash: double-bass)

There were moments when one might have said that Squint's improvisations sounded a little like composed pieces by Lachenmann or Per Norgard. This was primarily due to the particular instrumentation, to the use of extended techniques (with the whole body of the instrument as sound-making device) by an all-strings ensemble, which one would not associate with the more jazz-associated aspects of free improvisation as much as with 'modern classical'. That said, the fact that things were completely improvised ensured a more fractured approach than that allowed by written material; the players were less likely to work in and around the same melodic material for lengthy periods, more likely to move on to another section if they felt that the music had begun to stagnate in any one kind of sonic area for too long.

One might also note the fairly considerable diversity in the backgrounds of those playing: Wachsmann studied with Nadia Boulanger and emerged initially from an indeterminate/ Cageian/ art music context; Clarke is a professor at the University of Oxford with extensive academic research on music under his belt; Elliott has been involved in classical, folk and contemporary music in Oxford for 20 years; Guastalla works as a maker and restorer of violins and cellos, as well as playing in a number of Oxford-based free improvising groups; Lash has played with the late Steve Reid, droned with Tony Conrad, plucked in straightahead jazz contexts, scrabbled away in free jazz settings, and participated in quiet textural improvisations. Such diversity by no means led to a clash of approaches: motifs and techniques were passed round in overlapping relays and leaping exchanges.

At times, one might think that one had pinned down the 'role' someone was playing in the group - Clarke as the most melodic player, tending to focus on longer bowed notes and lengthier phrases; Wachsmann as the one keeping things on edge, abrasive, physically engaged; Elliott plucking round the spaces left by other players; Lash providing the lower end of the music in a supportive role, bowing secure underpinnings or plucking harmonies; Guastalla laying out for a few seconds and then launching in with ferocious energy onto a particular idea or type of sound (notable in this regard was his use of a piece of wood against the strings to create a fantastic loud groaning that sounded as if it could almost have been electronically manipulated). But this was most definitely not a music where one could pin down any one player to any one role. Sometimes two musicians would play in near-concord, shifting echoes of one another's phrases, edging round a tonal centre, soon snapped out of it by someone (often Wachsmann) scraping or unleashing plucked flurries. Sometimes there would be contrasts across the ensemble, players dividing into short-lived separate groupings, pairings: Clarke's groaning ship's mast over brief violin harmony, Elliot and Wachsmann tapping out quiet motifs in the midst of the lower instruments' thunder. At other times, the whole ensemble would dig with slow bowed drones, or some would drop out to leave near silence, the thread of the music hanging on a wisp of sound from bow on wood or string.

This was the group's first gig (though there had been a few private sessions beforehand - it wasn't one of the ad-hoc blowing groups you sometimes find in free jazz contexts) and there were perhaps times when things felt a little tentative: the division into separate pieces (of roughly ten minutes in length) diffused the intense concentration that a single, longer piece would have yielded, for applause means you have to build things back up again, in the process losing the atmosphere and focus of the previous minutes. It must be noted, however, that little hesitation was shown on the re-starts, and furthermore, any sacrifices in terms of total cohesion were more than made up for by the variety of sounds, levels of volume, types of interaction, and musical alliances across the group. The result was intensely absorbing, and it is to be hoped that this group might further develop the many interesting directions they created for themselves during this debut public performance.

Monday 12 April 2010

Redemption in 'Bad Lieutenant' (1992)

Starring: Harvey Keitel
Music: Joe Delia/Schooly D/Johnny Ace/Abel Ferrara
Director: Abel Ferrara
Screenplay: Zoe Lund, Paul Calderon, Victor Argo, Abel Ferrara
Director of Photgraphy: Ken Kelsch

Ferrara’s film is commendably anti-plot, with the narrative trajectory of the central character’s descent to a nadir and subsequent redemption not as glaringly obvious as it could have been – at least, not until the final third, and perhaps not even then. The style is generally observational rather than participant in the alternately frenzied and hollowed ‘sequence’ of things – one might place this in contrast to the flashiness of Scorsese, although it’s also possible to see ‘Bad Lieutenant’ as a kind of continuation of the final third of ‘Goodfellas’: Henry Hill’s drug-induced paranoia a few months down the line, where even the semblance of an ordinary family life has been abandoned as the addict (in this case a cop rather than a criminal, and with even less of a sense of loyalty to a hierarchical structure than a Mafia man) stumbles from dealer to dealer, crime scene to crime scene, taking and taking (money, drugs, alcohol) while at the same time hollowing himself out, glutted yet empty, incapable of fulfilling a need or desire. There is some hand-held/steadicam work (for instance, when Keitel stumbles, paranoid, down some dark stairs), but things are mostly restricted to lengthy, unsparing medium-shot takes (see particularly the “show me how you suck a guy’s cock” scene). There’s little obviously ‘significant’ dialogue as such, or characterisation of any of the other people in the film; they appear as ciphers or vague, almost ghostly figures who the lieutenant happens to cross paths with. That’s appropriate, given his drug-induced isolation and alienation from anything outside his orbit; and one might also note that he himself is hardly ‘characterised’, if by that we mean given an in-depth back-story or a series of recognisable traits/quirks. This doesn’t make him a symbolic blank canvas though: Ferrara’s film isn’t quite the allegory or morality play that some might like it to be – indeed, one might argue that where it fails is precisely in its attempt to turn a piece of observational, semi-exploitative grime and grit (‘Driller Killer’ territory) into something with religious pretensions.

While quite a different film on the surface, Carol Reed’s ‘Odd Man Out’ might be a useful point of comparison here. Kietel’s lieutenant stumbles through the city in a crisis of his own making; James Mason’s wounded IRA man is more the victim of circumstances, as he stumbles through the city and is taken up by various characters who want to use him for their own purposes. Everyone wants something out of the central figure: most memorably, Lukey, the crazed artist, desperate to capture a man’s dying features in order to paint his masterpiece, a depiction of Christ – and it’s with this sense of art as essentially greedy, taking rather than giving, that the film comes close to self-commentary, commentary on the narrativizing of life that films (and allegories) propose. At the same time, there’s a sense that the film uses Mason for symbolic purposes of its own. By contrast, ‘Bad Lieutenant’ is so insular, so claustrophobic, that there’s no space for such a series of angles on its central object of study; at times he seems to be watched like a caged animal, the subject of an experiment, at others the film seems to have been taken over by him, so that there is no chance of going beyond the blinkers of his own vision. Even the use of music is generally restricted to something which, if not strictly diegetic, feels as if it might be coming from a radio or tape deck somewhere on the scene, with the reprise of ‘Pledging My Love’ in the final scene being the notable exception, as well as a consciously ‘in’ reference (it was used in the Keitel-starring ‘Mean Streets’, another tale of crime, corruption and Catholicism with perhaps a slightly less hysteric bent). One might further speculate on the fact that it was released after singer Johnny Ace’s death from drunkenly playing around with a loaded pistol: there’s something here about the disjunct between pledges of eternal fidelity and self-destructive, violent realities. Perhaps the latter arise from the craziness of the former – amour fou pushed so far that it can only express itself as occasional bursts of wild and senseless rage and despair alternating with moments of near-emptiness. Though it’s not the theme I’m interested in exploring here at length, the notion of addiction is undoubtedly a key one in ‘Bad Lieutenant’ as well as in Ferrara’s other films (most obviously, ‘The Addiction’). Zoe Lund, as Kietel’s dealer: “Vampires are lucky, they can feed on others...We gotta eat away at ourselves till there’s nothing left but appetite.”

What narrative the film has is mostly concentrated in the nightmare, self-destructive betting scenario (which is actually given more prominence than the rape of the nun, until that particular ‘storyline’ is amped up to ‘religious’ proportions towards the end). As I’ve already mentioned, Catholic guilt and gangsterism/corruption are clear thematic links with Martin Scorsese; Ferrara’s film is at once more melodramatic and (perhaps) more cynical in its attitude towards the Church. It’s hard to know what to make of the scene towards the end of the picture where Keitel finds himself on a church floor, bawling at a vision of the crucified Jesus. Things are pushed so far over the edge here that we seem to have descended into a black comedy – especially when you pair this scene up with other moments such as Keitel shooting out his car radio when sports results go against him, or, mid-way through an ‘orgy’ with a couple of prostitutes, assuming a Christ position and nakedly dancing to ‘Pledging My Love,’ off his face and whimpering. It’s this kind of excess that makes the film seem both more exploitative than it perhaps is (there’s little actual violence or even sex shown, compared to, say, most Hollywood action pictures that get made today), and that seems to run away with itself to a point that Ferrara might not have wished: for, unlike Wener Herzog with his bizarre Nicholas Cage ‘follow-up’, I suspect Ferrara is nigh-on-deadly serious here (after all, doesn’t the tragic usually verge on the ridiculous?).

In any case, having cried a bit and called Christ a “rat fuck” before begging him for forgiveness, Keitel has had his ‘crisis’/moment of self-realization and can now stumble out to deal with the rapists, through whom he seems to think he can redeem himself: at first, by killing them, and then, as it turns out, by forgiving them and letting them go. But is this act of forgiveness really redemption? Is the Bad Lieutenant’s dilemma that he can forgive others but not himself? Are we really meant to go along with the nun’s forgiveness for her attackers, which seems to prompt Keitel’s actions after his initial incomprehension? What we have here is, it seems to me is a mixture of points of view, a simultaneous criticism and identification with religion about which Ferrara is as confused as anyone: ‘Bad Lieutenant’ is not quite the “powerful tale of redemptive Catholicism” envisioned by Mark Kermode (fresh from watching Catholic horror flick ‘The Exorcist’ for the umpteenth time, no doubt), though at times it does seem to be moving towards a total acceptance of the Catholic dogma of guilt, forgiveness and bloody redemption (the Lieutenant sees a religious vision; performs a decisive action; and dies in the final reel for the journey to be completed). As tempting as it would be to view the film this way, the presence of something more questioning and less centred on ‘closure’ nags away through little hints, little pieces of dialogue.

In the confession scene, it seems the nun has been in some way conditioned by her religious upbringing/vocation to accept her rape as an act of love: she tells the priest how she turned the rapists’ “stale semen” into “fruitful sperm,” a religious justification of victimhood in which men can have it both ways: women must be whores, penetrated at will, but also virgins who remain ‘pure’ because they ‘forgive’ any wrongs done to them. This seems like a refreshing attitude to female victimhood, which one might compare to the equally-controversial ‘Hostel’, where women become objects, stimulants like alcohol or drugs (and where the ultimate stimulant, the ultimate thrill is torture and violence – both as punishment for over-indulgence (the American frat-packers who’ve messed around with the girls too much) and as extension of that indulgence (the older businessman preying on the younger female tourists with a chainsaw in ‘Hostel II’)). So, if ‘Hostel’ is – as well being an uncomfortable exploitation movie – a criticism of the capitalist tendency to treat everything as my property, at the whim of my pleasure – both wholly owned by me, and wholly disposable because of this – ‘Bad Lieutenant’ becomes a criticism of the victim mentality brainwashed into people (especially women) by religion. (Something of that male, acquisitive, violent (and ultimately self-destructive) drive is exhibited, not just by the characters in ‘Hostel’, but by Kietel’s corrupt cop, violating the tableau of family life by sitting dazed, stoned and drunk on the sofa while the women gather at the dining table, snorting coke off the family photos, and taking bets at his daughter’s first communion, and abusing his position of authority as a force of law by pulling over two girls for traffic violation and then verbally raping them while jerking off outside the car door.)

For the nun, it seems, sexualised violence has become the ultimate moment of knowledge and union with God (in some way linked with an ecstatic tradition stemming back to St Theresa); the subjugation of woman (Virgin/Mary/nun) at the hands of man (God/the Church hierarchy/the rapists) has become enshrined in religious dogma, an enmeshing of sadism and masochism (Christ is both son and father of the woman, both suffering, bloodied servant, and the painful produce of the womb; the woman is both loving, protective mother, and helpless receptacle for male desire (if she doesn’t want to bear the Son of God, tough luck – he’s already inside her)). This problematizes the subsequent ease with which she tells Keitel she’s forgiven her attackers – who, OK, turn out to be a pair of stoned Latinos who don’t speak English and seem almost innocents, pretty much incapable of physical violence – and is the kind of attitude we might find justifying the cover-up of the widespread abuse of young boys by paedophilic priests that’s been making such waves of late. Something of the attitude towards sexuality and religion on display here harks back to the ‘blasphemous’ set-pieces of Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’, though the nun can hardly hope to compare with the central figure of persecuted human goodness embodied by Oliver Reed. In ‘Bad Lieutenant’, Ferrara chooses to show the rape, in the film’s most visceral and unexpected scene, which is thrown in with no prior explanation and no apparent connection to the ‘plot,’ loose as it is, so that one at first supposes it to be a sick fantasy occurring inside Keitel’s drug-addled brain. The way the rape is intercut with sudden zooms and cuts to a statue of the crucifixion and a live figure writhing and bleeding on the cross like something out of ‘Passion of the Christ’, seems at once a violation of sacramental ceremony (the crucifix used as a penetrative weapon) and in some way entwined with it (like Alex’s vision of a Beethoven-accompanied orgy of destruction at the end of a ‘Clockwork Orange’). It’s not at all clear, then, that this act, taking place in a ‘holy place, is the supreme act of desecration that it is in ‘The Devils’; in some ways, it even feels appropriate that it’s happening where it is. Such an ‘argument’ is conveyed not so much through dialogue or logic but through the disturbing force of Ferrara’s scene placement and editing.

And it’s this makes the ‘redemption’ climax ring hollow, intentionally or not. Perhaps there’s some sense that the Lieutenant sees something of himself in the rapists (I’m thinking of the scene where he lasciviously peers through the hospital door at the naked figure of the violated nun), and that, because he can’t forgive himself, and can’t be sure that the mute figure of Christ has forgiven him (despite his pleas), he has to forgive others. This then becomes a kind of self-absolution as well as a way of reaching out beyond the purely selfish acquisitive cycle into which he has been drawn, or has propelled himself. When Keitel sees the rapists off at the bus station and ‘Pledging my love’ comes on over the soundtrack, this isn’t just an ironic of music: rather, he has now demonstrated an actual act of love (as opposed to the parody of love that is his liaison with the hookers), has demonstrated that even the most corrupt is capable of doing other than wallow in his own corruption. Of course, it’s at this moment, when his faith in life might be said to have been renewed, that he starts bawling again, and is then killed in a drive-by shooting filmed at a coldly detached distance; death is, after all, the usual end-point of the ‘redemptive’ logic of gangster films and (arguably) of Catholicism: you’ll be perfect once you get to heaven, you just have to die first. Perhaps Ferrara wants to believe in some kind of redemptive trajectory, but at the same time he undermines this, whether intentionally or unintentionally, both through the earlier (implied) criticisms of the Church, and through the treatment of the actual ‘redemption’ itself. Is this the mark of a true artist – like Blake’s Milton, trying to “justify the ways of God to men” only to find himself “of the devil’s party without knowing it”? I’m not sure that it is, as I don’t think that he is either setting out to make, or making, what Premier magazine call “one of the few truly religious films of the 20th century.” To some extent the film is simply a journey into a mind warped by drugs, on which grounds it’s effective, if occasionally a little aimless; it’s also a showcase for its lead actor, though without the playing-for-Oscars kind of showboating that you might see in, for example, Clint Eastwood’s ‘Mystic River’. And finally, it’s an attempt to see and to show just how low someone can go, while staying (or perhaps failing to stay) on the right of the invisible line stretched between nauseated horror and farcical contempt. In the end, though, there’s a sense that Ferrara neither fully invests in, nor totally undercuts the ‘redemptive’ pay-off, with the result that the film’s denouement comes to seem not quite believed in – indeed, almost tacked on.