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Saturday, 27 June 2015

Doublethink in Mecca : being devotional despite inflicted modernity ?

This is a Festival review of A Sinner in Mecca (2015)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

27 June (29 June, Post-script added)

This is a Festival review of A Sinner in Mecca (2015), which screened at Sheffield Documentary Festival 2015 on Tuesday 9 June at 6.15 p.m.

This remains the most perplexing film from Sheffield Documentary Festival, with its themes almost at poles away from each other (please see below) having tumbled around in one’s head, in search of supremacy, throughout the screening. Although, in fact, none ultimately found any, and one’s hopes for a considered response were then jostled by a good deal of immoderately detailed criticism, and even hostility, in the Q&A* (so what one first wrote please see below was not an ideal appreciation) : it was painful that there was the palpable affront to, and taken by, director Parvez Sharma (@parvezsharma) at being asked why he had made A Sinner in Mecca, and what it was about (as he pointed out, to these people who had just watched his film, there was insult in so doing).

These themes in the film [its official web-site is], which refuse to stay together and be quiet, are fairly simply stated (though it is not intended to be reductively done) :

(1) The desire to complete a Hajj to Mecca and show that one is a good Muslim

(2) How the traditional elements of a Hajj (specifically the environment and manner in which they are carried out) have been influenced or even changed by the Islamic tradition to which the ruling Saudi royal family adheres (the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam)

(3) A prohibition on filming at Mecca and the other religious sites (whereas we have footage, and much contemporary audio, of everything that Sharma does to complete his Hajj)

(4) Recent executions, by beheading, of men just for being gay

It is partly in the interaction of themes (1) and (2) that tension arises within the viewer : Sharma is clearly sincere in wanting to carry out the traditional steps of a Hajj, and seek acceptance from God for his pilgrimage, but he in no way refrains from doing so and at the same time pointing out how a shopping-mall, for example, complete with a branch of Starbucks, is a matter of a few hundred metres from the most sacred Islamic site, The Kaaba (or Ka’aba), in the mosque Al-Masjid al-Haram [the link is to the Wikipedia® web-page]. It feels like a remarkable doublethink on Sharma’s part, trying to engage with the significance of all these ritual acts (and their meaning to him), but at the same time as criticizing what the ruling family has done to holy sites (or, later in the film, seems to have allowed to happen to them).

One is reminded that, in the Christian tradition, all four Gospels have accounts of Jesus driving the money-lenders out of the Temple (e.g. Matthew 21 : 1217, 2327), and Islam has equivalent passages of zeal for God’s house :

At the culmination of his mission, in 629 CE, Muhammad conquered Makkah with a Muslim army. His first action was to cleanse the Kaaba of idols and images.

Narrated Abdullah: When the Prophet entered Mecca on the day of the Conquest, there were 360 idols around the Ka'bah. The Prophet started striking them with a stick he had in his hand and was saying, "Truth has come and Falsehood has Vanished.. (Qur'an 17:81)"

Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book 59, Hadith 583

Since, from what Sharma says in the film, we do not know whether theme (3) is a religious prohibition (or an administrative one), and in the light of a harsh state religious penalty from theme (4), one might imagine and hence be anxious that he risked execution to take his footage (please see below). Here lies what appears to be a further conflict : even if a person decides for himself, irrespective of such a penalty, that a good Muslim can be gay (or lesbian), why would he (or she) flout a prohibition not to film in sacred places ? As with the pull between themes (1) and (2), so, in that between (1) and (3), one spends time not quite fathoming why Sharma has chosen to film his Hajj and that gnaws at one, as one watches the film :

Is he if a real distinction is being made here filming it as proof for himself that he did it, or to show us ? (Although, if he is showing it to us, we may not (easily) understand what this series of acts means to him spiritually, especially the final one, which is alarming.) If he had not filmed, of course, there would not be a documentary (not in this way, at any rate), but does the film, as we watch, leave us with the uncertainty how he can be both sincerely pious and simultaneously documenting his experience, if (and we do not know) filming is against a religious ordinance ? Or do we maybe need to throw ourselves into a world such as that of Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales (or of Gide’s Les caves du Vatican), and not try to separate religious experience from humanity from human nature ? (With the example of Jesus and Muhammad, after all, we see how they concentrate on what is holy about the Temple / the Ka'bah, and dismiss the unworthy human additions : does the pilgrim, too, undertake certain steps to reduce his or her unworthiness ?)

Quite often (maybe through not being a Muslim ?), one wonders whether Sharma must be ‘going through the motions’ in his Hajj (or, in part, feel that he is ?), since he is commentating so pointedly on what has become of its elements in modern Saudi Arabia that, though, does not quite identify our question, but is an attempt at understanding what it must be like to be in locations that have now been ‘reinterpreted’ so radically (not his word, but a euphemistic analogy). For example, Sharma tells us of the history that gives symbolic significance to the activity of running between two mountains (and we are shown a moment of animation) : they are mountains, now that the space has been enclosed, that we cannot see, but only what resemble (again, not his word) ‘soulless’ modern corridors.

Using the word ‘soulless’ is not, of course, at all meant to denigrate the inherently sacred nature of this spot (for Sharma himself indicates that he does not relish what has been done here). It is an attempt to say what it looks like, as a space that one would think lacked significance, and even much humanity as when we castigate planners for giving us an unwelcoming underpass, or a corridor that we have to tramp down to get to platforms on an Underground line. Sharma, however, must somehow keep everything holy in his soul and heart, despite the fact that this and other settings for elements of the Hajj have been changed so much that we wonder how the religious acts themselves can remain. (Likewise, he shows us what disgusts him in traffic-jams on a coach that last for hours, and in having to make devotions in a city full of discarded rubbish that no one deals with.)

Somehow (or mentally somewhere : as if in a minimal area of overlap between themes (1), (2) and (4), in a Venn diagram ?), despite being critical that Saudi cemeteries / monuments have been destroyed (because the Wahhabi faith of the royal family discredits praying to idols), Sharma sees himself as capable of making a Hajj that is acceptable to his God yet, in so doing, rejecting / critiquing what has now been done to the religious centres, including the fact that his sexual orientation stands condemned and that filming is banned (theme (3)). This seeming confusion of attitudes is why, early on and for the round-up portal-page for Doc/Fest coverage, this comment was made :

Despite director / cinematographer Parvez Sharma’s hope that his film was not self indulgent, and the insights that he wished to share through going on a Hajj about Mecca and other holy sites, and the ruling Saudi dynasty and its attitude to the past, how he pursued, and attained, the object of his quest seemed to stay very personal to him and his experience

The more reflective step, before starting to analyse the film’s themes (as attempted above), was to consider the case of Arthur Koestler, who (in the summative Bricks to Babel, which probably excerpts an earlier work for this material) reported his experience of being so far ‘inside’ the ideologies of both first Communism and then Christianity that objections to them could be heard, but never penetrate to or undermine belief : the internal logic of each belief-system had a self-sustaining answer for everything that challenged it. Here, one needs to come to a realization that none of the negative associations involved in what we see of Saudi such as the Wahhabi accretions / rulings / modernizations affect Sharma’s core relationship to his faith, and, more importantly, what he ends up telling us that he has nevertheless taken from the Hajj : He feels accepted by his God, and he is vindicated as a Muslim who is also gay.

However, for us as viewers, that part of what happens in the film is utterly internal to him, with (especially, again, if we are non-Muslims) only his words as mediation between his experience and us not least if we do not relate to the notion of, or what is needful in, a blood sacrifice [in the tradition of Ibrahim / Abraham]. Moreover, the path that Sharma is shown having chosen, to travel to Saudi (despite being gay), and intending to film, is a very narrow one : on account of a sequence at the opening of A Sinner in Mecca, which, quite from choice, seemed to front-end what followed, but never to be returned to**, one was left, as one watched (despite the fact that, flesh and blood, the film-maker had introduced his film), more and more anxious at the risk that he had run to make it (and whether there was still a possibility of reprisal, against him or those who screened his film ? on which, please see the Post-script).

In the event, perhaps it could have helped one focus on other aspects of the film, if one had known beforehand what one came to learn in the Q&A : one device that Sharma had been using to film had actually been confiscated, and what he had filmed was deleted (so he had had to replicate it later on), but nothing worse had happened***. Even so, it may be that the nature of the themes that Sharma is handling here (as teased out above) just inevitably mean that it feels in conflict with itself, and that we are likely to stay external to his understanding of himself in relation to Islam and his God ?


Synergistically with working on the above review, and en route to and from The Stables for a folk gig last week, Richard Thompson’s album The Old Kit Bag was being replayed.

One had forgotten that, in part two (The Pilgrims Fancy, titling tracks 7 to 12), was a song called ‘Outside of the Inside’. It begins provocatively with God never listened to Charlie Parker / Charlie Parker lived in vain, and calls his jazz ‘monkey music’, and him ‘Blasphemer, womaniser’ the first of several take-downs of Western figures such Albert Einstein, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Van Gogh and Botticelli.

Towards the end, we have these rather chilling lines :

I’m familiar with the cover
I don’t need to read the book
I police the word of action
Inside’s where I never look

The review of the film that appeared in The Guardian (by Safa Samiezade’-Yazd), now read, tells us : Parvez, who is gay and Muslim, has had death threats for making the film, leading to increased security at the festival screenings. (In retrospect, then, the search of our bags in the way into the screening at Doc/Fest had been nothing to do with trying to restrict pirating…)

As the review also has a short interview, at the end, with the reviewer as a sympathetic questioner, it is well worth a read to give the film’s director a chance to talk about A Sinner in Mecca, without (as we had twice in the Doc/Fest Q&A) a point-by-point insistence on the ways in which he had misrepresented Islam and its tenets, for example :

This is a film about the change that needs to happen within Islam. It’s a direct challenge that has never been mounted to the Saudi monarchy. It’s a call to action to all Muslims to take back singular authority over their faith.

Seen at Sheffield : Doc/Fest films with full reviews


* Except that one did not wish to get caught up in the emotion behind these harsh comments, and see a film-maker who has brought a film be attacked, was it possible that the fact that, in themselves, they were being made almost provided sufficient justification for having made A Sinner in Mecca ?

** A little stagily, though, in fact, the staginess proved to help convey the sense of fear and desperation of the director’s correspondent, and thereby to leave one, later, in trepidation for his safety.

*** Even so, the fact that he had made A Jihad for Love (2007) connected him, as a film-maker, with being gay, so he had clearly heightened the risk of being identified, when in Saudi Arabia, by filming. (And, as was put to him in the Q&A, his film had been open about his marriage to his gay partner in New York City at the start of film, but, in some parts of the States, legislation against same-sex marriage was being passed, so the negative attitudes were close to home.)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The best of Sheffield Documentary Festival 2015 : in the John Akomfrah retrospective

This is a Festival review of The Nine Muses (2010)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

24 June

This is a Festival review of The Nine Muses (2010), screened at Sheffield Documentary Festival 2015, in a retrospective of Director John Akomfrah’s work,
on Monday 8 June at 12.00 p.m.

The Nine Muses (2010) was easily the best film seen at Sheffield Documentary Festival 2015 (@sheffdocfest), and, this Tweet, from the previous night, proved prophetic :

The film opens with large, beautiful vistas, as if of Scandinavian fjords, across which we slowly pan, left to right.

They are perfect, but we sense the coldness in their perfection and, when we come nearer to and look at the land from a craft, it seems washed out in a grey, inhospitable way (perhaps an effect achieved by colour grading ?). So these views stir something in us already, which builds with the accretion of readings from classic sources such as various episodes from The Odyssey and the opening Cantos of Dante’s Inferno (from The Divine Comedy*) : quite likely, director John Akomfrah intended, with this vivid, unmistakable choice of a land of ice and snow, that we should already be reminded have stirrings of ancient lore, such as in the following passages, mentioning a land of winter (and an ideal realm, too) ?

HYPERBOREA was a fabulous realm of eternal spring located in the far north beyond the land of winter. Its people were a blessed, long-lived race free of war, hard toil, and the ravages of old age and disease.

[…] To the south the realm was guarded by the bitterly cold peaks of the near-impassable Rhipaion mountains. […] Directly to the south lay Pterophoros, a desolate, snow-covered land cursed by eternal winter.

From that first implication, visual images of snowbound land- and cityscapes, and aural images of journeys, deception, captivity and slavery as Odysseus and others revolve patterns of voyage, shipwreck, and escape combine and complement each other, whilst thoughtfully chosen archive footage** establishes a freezing Britain. Also established, by a title, is the theme of the Muses***, though it is probably harder to keep in mind the film’s apparent Muse-by-Muse taxonomy (or even to be certain whether that scheme is seen through to the end ?).

On a first viewing, certainly, it seemed more convenient to allow the film’s mutually reinforcing elements to work, as it were, impressionistically. For, apart from the ‘purely visual’, one is quite occupied with texts that appear on title-cards (e.g. from Emily Dickinson****), readings (much from Samuel Beckettt’s novels****, with some repeated passages), and music (such as Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel). (Director John Akomfrah went on to direct The Stuart Hall Project (2013), similarly rich in content for a single viewing, and seeming longer than its 103 mins.)

Meanwhile, as the film develops, with the specially shot scenes juxtaposing their more nearby context in the natural, material world with a figure***** in a synthetic jacket (sometimes two figures if so, in jackets of different colour), we hear words of dislocation and disassociation from Beckettt (or Finnegans Wake, 'The Song of Songs', or Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy), and maybe reflect on the appropriacy of needing to belong where one is :

Beckettt, brought up in the halfway world of being Anglo-Irish, and all too easily appropriated as an English writer (though he actually learnt his craft by writing in French, and came to translate his prose into English), and finding himself by meeting Joyce in Paris and exiling himself in France starting with Watt, for some, the worlds that he found to express in his novels, and which Akomfrah has fittingly and adeptly alluded to here by quotation.

Achieving potency by its layering of material, The Nine Muses (2010) easily laid down a challenge to other film-makers at Sheffield to think to their craft (and worryingly many in the screening did not seem drawn by this work and willing to stay for the duration) a challenge not, if this is regarded in essay style, necessarily to work within this format, but to remind them :

Cinema, when it is at its strongest and best, is not grounded or rooted in only the visual (and with what is found to accompany it), but in being a total entity, and, in a different sphere, one might think of the conception and execution of Tarkovsky’s final piece of work :

Seen at Sheffield : Doc/Fest films with full reviews


* All were credited as being on Naxos Audiobooks.

** Sacrificing concern at any grainy quality (or other issue) to concentrate on content and significance of the imagery.

*** A title tells us that they are the nine female children of Mnemosyne (the Goddess of Memory), fathered by Zeus.

**** Also, T. S. Eliot ('The Journey of the Magi' ?), and e e cummings. With Beckettt, Molloy and The Unnamable are credited (though one could have sworn that Malone was there, too).

***** There are credits for wearers of a blue jacket, two yellow jackets (one of whom was Akomfrah), and two black jackets.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

He’s the daddy ! : Colin Currie DJs at Saffron Hall (Part I)

This reviews Colin Currie Group’s all-Steve-Reich concert at Saffron Hall (Part I)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

23 June

This is Part I of a review of The Colin Currie Group’s all-Steve-Reich programme, with Synergy Vocals (in Part II), at Saffron Hall on Sunday 26 April at 7.30 p.m.

The review is in two Parts : Music for 18 Musicians (19741976) is here

Music for Pieces of Wood (1973)

The Colin Currie Group (@ColinCurrieGrp), led by Colin Currie (@colincurrieperc), opened the gig with a piece that echoed (though not literally) Saffron Hall’s (@SaffronHallSW’s) interior furnishing or appointment, Music for Pieces of Wood (1973).

By analogy, as each player joined in with a tock-tock sound, one felt that one could be listening to, and through, the line- and clause-breaks of John Milton’s verse in Paradise Lost, with its accentuated language of intonation : it was all there in these pitched instruments, and their cross-rhythms and overtones. (Colin Currie came in third, and there was a thudding, almost dully brutal quality to the timbre and pitch of his instrument, compared to those struck by his peers, and of whom we became less and less aware that they were beating different patterns.)

As we got used to the shape of the piece, we could hear the clear acclimatization of the fourth voice, and ourselves became acclimatized, as it began falling into rhythm (or step) with its neighbours, and speeding up its pace (this video may just confuse, but purports to let one visualize what happens with the various patterns). With all five players introduced and bedded in, and after a small crescendo (at 3 : 04 in the video), the iteration wound down, with beats dropping out, until we were back to the unceasing first two players.

Maybe we were just waiting, maybe expecting for Currie to join in again, but we could be more free this time around (if it was, exactly, another time around**), and just absorb the experience at times, feeling as though we were trotting with the percussionists, or as though it was the cream of the fringe-effects of Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds (composed the year before, in 1972).

At any rate, the effect was persuasive and impelling, one that must have been intense within the sound on stage. Its cessation, when the final iteration was through**, was met with a roar of approval.

Quartet (2009)

As the programme-notes told us, Quartet (2009) had been commissioned by the CC Group, but only first performed in 2014. They go on to quote Reich as calling it one of the more complex of his compositions.

It was the major work, in terms of length (but still as a balance to a bigger second half), but, as one might imagine, not a quartet in the sense of strings*** (although two instruments rely on them) :

Two concert grands, facing each other, and, likewise, two vibraphones, in a work marked Fast / Slow / Fast a form that, as Reich comments, is not only played without pause, but is also one familiar throughout history (from publishers Boosey & Hawkes web-page for the work).

Fast turned out not to be all that fast, in a movement that was joyous, but restrained, and where the players laid easily on the beat. It was distinguished by the gorgeous tone of the instruments, and the use of accents and rubato. At one point, very near the end, we were brought down in scale to a softness of some subtlety, and then up to a dynamic high, before a pause brought in a four-beat close.

The slow movement that succeeded it had the feeling of being at night, but not in any way like that of Béla Bartók’s famous movements with an ‘inner’ shadow, and rather by of Reich moving on from what went before, using open chords (as well as discords, later) to give the sense of introductory material. From there, it moved with delicacy, and with the sense of sounds precisely being placed in the air (fully as much by the score as by the playing).

The central part employed the resonant qualities of these forces, making use of a jazzy riff, spread-chords (which had a querulous, questioning tone to them), and what were nearly chimes (but without overplaying any notion of Night). On, though, we went, with further discord that led to full-throttle reverberation, but it proved to be words such as ‘rubato’ and ‘restraint’ that characterized the moment on which we ended.

There, strangely, more words, by the same amount again, for Slow than for Fast… And here, maybe reflecting that the second Fast built upon and ‘wrapped up’ up what it followed, some short comments :

The movement had a quality that seemed to be of assured urbanity, maybe evoking a city like New York. It, too, left chords in the air, again not quite chimes (because they were unresolved in the bass-notes of the piano), and, as it approached the intensity of its conclusion, one was keenly aware of all the methods of, and need for, clear and close communications between Colin Currie and the three others.

Part II of the review (Music for 18 Musicians (19741976)) is here


* Which, if one studies recorded performances, can be seen to be signalled by a nod (as is the moment of dissipation down to two musicians), as here (at 9 : 36). (Or one can see performers, unlike these or those of the Colin Currie Group, using non-cylindrical, actual and rough pieces of wood.)

** The programme-notes tell us that the time-signature tightens, each time, from 6 / 4, to 4 / 4, to 3 / 4, but maybe even the trained ear prefers to get lost in the changing impressions : as mentioned above, this video purports to let one visualize what happens with the various patterns...

*** Publishers Boosey & Hawkes' web-page for the work, giving Reich’s Composer’s Notes, has him observe : Quartet, when mentioned in the context of concert music, is generally assumed to mean string quartet.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 22 June 2015

Boulez at 90 : Aldeburgh Festival at its niche best

This is an account of Boulez Exploration at Aldeburgh Festival’s Boulez at 90

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

22 June

This is an account of the Boulez Exploration day, on Thursday 18 June at 3.00 p.m. (and 11.30 a.m.), at Aldeburgh Festival’s celebrations of Boulez at 90

On the face of it, Boulez Exploration sounds like a strange activity, but, with a strong communicator and respectful guide in the composer Julian Anderson (and the apt collaboration of Florent Boffard to give and bring out examples from the score (in the morning, it had been Quatuor Diotima : see below)), it was a chance to realize, during Aldeburgh Festival (@aldeburghmusic), just how much there was to explore in the realm of the compositions of Pierre Boulez.

Regarding Piano Sonata No. 3, one might have thought that one had heard a recording, but it became clear that the notion of incompleteness in itself meant that we did not have all the material, and Boffard even had a piece, in manuscript and courtesy of Boulez himself, that might not have been played in public before : at the end of Anderson’s exposition of the work to be heard, and before Boffard gave his performance, one questioner, envisaging that Boulez might not live forever, seemed quite perturbed that we might be left with no definitive version of the sonata...

Meanwhile, we had heard how Boulez had debated, and corresponded with, Stockhausen and Cage about the use of aleatory techniques (which Cage, we learnt, preferred to call ‘chance’), and had, after blasting them both (but without naming them) in an article in 1957 called Alea, had maybe shown them how it should be done in this piece. He had started with criticism, of other things, of Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI, and its apparent scope for random performance of its elements : for Anderson and Boffard were agreed that the scope for playing such works from sight, and with decisions made on the spot, is limited, because one actually ends up needs to prepare one’s approach to the piece in advance (defeating what Stockhausen seemed to have aimed at, with elements that could be played in any order ?).

By contrast, and objecting to anything so arbitrary (if it were possible to play it that way), Boulez had provided choices, and, between them, Boffard and Anderson talked us through the instructions that he had given to the performer, and which were at their simplest in those for the middle movement (Formant 2), called Trope (a word, we heard, denoting a section inserted into a plainsong text) : start with any one of its four sections and play all four, from that point until one got back to where one began. (The titles of those sections (Texte, Parenthèse, Glose, Commentaire) are all evocative of the layers of interpretation of mediaeval religious texts (of all kinds).)

Before, Constellation-Miroir (Formant 3) was an assemblage from sections that were, essentially, individual notes (Points 1 to 3) and groups of notes (Blocs I and II), and, afterwards, Formant 1 (extracts from Antiphonie) had simple-form and elaborated versions of each verset and RÉPONS (the lower- and upper-case descriptions, respectively, denoting them - only one version was to be chosen to be played) : Boffard gave us the simple and elaborated versions, but none of this really served as a guide to listening in the performance (as the effect was too overwhelming to want to keep track of whether one was hearing VERSET II, or already onto verset 3), but an understanding of Boulez’ care as composer, and of his integrity in doing what he believes in.

Pictured a few nights later, Florent Boffard is the last figure on the right

What one saw was how Boulez had given freedom to prepare a version of the sonata for performance (arguing against what he saw as the extreme liberty of his contemporaries in letting their work become too random), and could then listen to Boffard’s pianism and precise articulation against that theoretical and musical background.

A superb event – but what else would one expect of Boulez at 90 at Aldeburgh Festival ?

In the morning, and in a different approach (not least as one ticket-price admitted one to both sessions), Julian Anderson had played us, as DJ, extracts from a constellation of other works by Boulez that surrounded his Livre pour quatuor, and we had heard from members of the quartet how they had gained his trust (by suggesting a pairing to bring its sound into relief). From that point, they had worked with him to ease certain difficulties in a score that is itself, we gathered, virtually unobtainable, such as how to interpret a tempo-marking Vif consistently with sustained playing (Anderson liked the short extract that they played at that original speed, but had to agree that it was punishing on them), or the lack of dynamic-markings or a means of making a reasonably playable transition from one note to another that was quite separate on the strings and finger-board for the next.

An earlier, and more linear, score than that of the sonata, and brought to us with great sincerity and interpretative skill by Quatuor Diotima : one immersed oneself in the sound of their playing, and, rare for a live performance, avoided watching the performers in order better to do so.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Saturday, 20 June 2015

He’s the daddy ! : Colin Currie DJs at Saffron Hall (Part II)

This reviews Colin Currie Group’s all-Steve-Reich concert at Saffron Hall (Part II)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

27 April

This is Part II of a review of The Colin Currie Group’s all-Steve-Reich programme, with Synergy Vocals, at Saffron Hall on Sunday 26 April at 7.30 p.m.

The review is in two Parts : Part I is reviewed here

Music for 18 Musicians (19741976)

Impressionistically, let us start where (after a beautiful first half) we ended the night at Saffron Hall (@SaffronHallSW), with the huge feat that is Music for 18 Musicians, and which only commenced after a sacred silence :

This was music heard as it really should be, live, not as we might know it, say, from YouTube (@YouTube), Spotify®, our own collection of physical recordings, or from the Live In Concert programme, on week days on Radio 3 (@BBCRadio3)…

Though orchestral concerts may still be their own type of monumental enterprise, which usually guarantee that we will hear, for example, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 more or less as we know it, those things will not bear comparison with what is outside the everyday the stuff of what is, say, uniquely best at Aldeburgh Festival (@aldeburghmusic) [e.g. Gerard McBurney's A Pierre Dream at The Maltings, Snape], in Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (@HCMFUK), or in a jazz-gig that is devastatingly in the moment**.

What had Colin Currie (@colincurrieperc), with Colin Currie Group (@ColinCurrieGp) and Synergy Vocals (@vocalsynergy) wanted to bring us in Music for 18 Musicians ? One cannot usefully summarize this work, but best feel for its over-arching structure, behind the sensation of pulses within pulses, patterns within patterns :

Probably, Reich predominantly does not wish us to be in wonder per se – as might seem to be what Michael Nyman’s** music expects of us or, as with that of Philip Glass**, to be mesmerized ? No, something else, here part of which is to do with, in purely visual terms, how the percussionists, as well as some of the singers and pianists, moved around the Saffron stage, and gave us sounds that cohered, coalesced, metamorphosed, and fragmented***.

As one example, how the playing of the large, bright-golden shakers (which were also shaped as if to resemble ice-cream cornets) was passed, baton style, to pianist Huw Watkins (@WatkinsHuw) : Watkins started shaking a second set in tandem with, but more quietly than, the percussionist whom he was relieving, and then the latter, between shakes, deftly dropped out, to be free to play another part, and which gave Watkins variety from the piano riff that he seemed to have been repeating.

Or likewise, on marimbas, the fact that someone else in the ensemble, who, on another of the concert grands, had been doubling up (with bass-textures), slipped into the pattern of first the right-hand pair of beaters of the person from whom she was taking over, and then both, so that he could walk around her and away, to his next role. Even more so, say, than when (in a move that, too, mimics dance in a larger-scale orchestral setting) an entry can be seen to have been given to the second desk of violins, but just so that the first desk can come in with the key entry, or counter-response, this appearance of instrumentalists in sympathy / synergy with each other was almost balletic : Seeing is hearing.

For words such as sympathetic (for co-resonating strings, etc.), concord, consonance and harmony are all, not without reason, integrated into the language of music and musicality : as was joyously noted, during this performance, When I lose faith in what humanity is, or exists for, moments of this kind tell me.

With any concert, of course, even if only through a video (where one cannot choose what to see), one can enhance one’s understanding of the sound that is being made (when, where, and how, and by what means), and can learn to view one’s way into what is being heard, e.g. which instrument / player is contributing a tone or effect. Just as, here, one could identify, from the movement of her lips, the high soprano (credited as Joanna Forbes L’Estrange) from the four seated and loosely microphoned singers all of whom, at times, came to resemble wordless angel-voices… (Or, from the distribution of the parts in other repertoire, isolate the singers with exquisite vocal-colour in Stile Antico, maybe, or The Sixteen.)

All was in keeping with the poetic formality of the lay-out of the stage (no doubt specified in the score (as since confirmed by buying the recording pictured)), with two ranks of sopranos looking at each other across a paired violinist and cellist, who faced twin clarinettists (on B flat and bass instruments). Far back, two twinned grand pianos, and forward of which, in the intervening space, several pairs of likewise twinned marimbas, a golden vibraphone centrally, and, behind it, two facing xylophones. All with feedback monitors, and with a sound engineer at the back of the auditorium, who later confirmed that, when he detects interference fringes, or the xylophone is played with attack near the end of the work, he can bring up the sound a little to give those things emphasis.

Adding or taking away layers, we saw the care with which Colin Currie curated the performance, clearly signalling each change of section (as, on a smaller scale and amongst nods and other gestures, we saw the principal clarinettist doing, by raising the bell of his instrument, seeming to mark the number of iterations) : it felt as though Currie oversaw it, and maybe had licence (from Reich or his score), to vary the emphasis of each section, given by its duration.

Afterwards, no wonder that those eighteen people linked hands : to us, they were linked in our hearts and souls already, and this was their triumph, that they had communicated something so special, and in all its fullness we were full of magic, and of admiration for Reich’s, and their, conception of this work.

Part I of the review (Music for Pieces of Wood (1973) and Quartet (2009)) is here


* Let alone one such as Jan Garbarek’s one-set Barbican Hall concert at the time of the Dresden album (2010 ?)…

** One has to suggest that there is little more than a superficial relationship between any of these actually quite different and differentiated composers, or, indeed, between most of those who are thought of as together as writing minimalist compositions.

*** Fragmentation fragmented, only by us, so that, in the repetitions (or near-repetitions), we could focus on what the cello contributed, or some other instrumental, or human, voice.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

The ICA's #CatalanAvantGarde season : A brief interview with Sílvia Munt

This is a short interview with Sílvia Munt, director of El Cafè de la Marina (2014)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

This is a brief, recollected* interview, from #CatalanAvantGarde at the ICA (@ICALondon), with Sílvia Munt, director of El Cafè de la Marina (2014), which had a screening on Tuesday 28 April 2015 at 8.50 p.m.

30 April

A very useful event, arranged for the audience, allowed one to ask director Sílvia Munt some questions before the screening (two young Catalan-speakers, one already familiar, kindly agreed to help with translating) : useful, since the exigencies of The Agent’s travel turned out to make lingering long in the Q&A itself inconvenient. So, over some Cava, one was able to establish that, as well as having a warm and welcoming presence and a willingness to engage with enquiry, Munt has directed herself in three of her eight feature films to date (though this one, as became clear (please see below), had been conceived for television).

In this case, though, Sílvia had just directed as well, that is, as having scripted the film (with Mercè Sàrrias). However, when suggested, she did agree that she is not with Woody Allen in how he is reported to direct himself, by being reportedly keen to quit at the end of the day to catch The World Series. Rather, she can fifteen takes to get what she wants from her own performance, and, when she writes, it takes her three months to develop a script. [Damn ! Could have asked her whether she also uses Allen’s method, when writing, of bashing it out on an old Olympia typewriter... (And, in like analogue vein, substituting text by stapling slips of paper in place over the old material.)]

That said, regarding how scripts develop during shooting, Munt said that hers remain malleable (because actors may find that the words do not sound right when they speak them), and then, as it were [not her words], she ‘reframes the utterances’. She went on to say that this approach fits the nature of her work, as dramatic comedy (rather than, say, permitting the cast to improvise replacement material) : therefore, she does re-writes, because any other approach would not (for her) be congruent with her material. [Another point of comparison (not made) with Allen, who tells us that, if his actors re-formulate his text on set, he can even go with that, seemingly irrespective of genre.]

As became apparent during the conversation, as it specifically turned to El Cafè de la Marina (2014), Munt has adapted what is regarded as a classic of Catalan literature : a stage-play of this name, in verse form (with lines of ten syllables), by Josep María Sagarra. Just from what she was saying, concerning difficulties of location-scouting an unspoilt shore, the film about to be watched** had to be a period piece. [As it is not a period film, though set on that coast, one had to refrain (as this was meant to be active listening [link to Wikipedia®]) from reflecting aloud on Menú degustació (Tasting Menu) (2013), from Camera Catalonia***.]

As Munt spoke, the likelihood arose (as mentioned to her, and realised in the seeing) that there would nigh inevitably be connections with the themes of actor / director Daniel Auteuil’s Marseilles-set trilogy in the making**** (but of which she said that she did not know). (The original films, apparently much loved, were derived from two stage-plays by Marcel Pagnol and then directly from his film-script, which he directed to conclude it, and later turned into a play : the first play had been directed as Marius (1931) by Alexander Korda, and then Fanny (1932) by Marc Allégret.)

As for El Cafè de la Marina itself on film, a confused account (on IMDb and elsewhere) suggests, with little detail, that one was made in 1933 (or was it in 1941 ?) : if so, contemporary with Pagnol on film. At the time of viewing Munt’s version, that had not been known, or that it had been conceived as a t.v. movie. However, when Munt was asked in the Q&A (before The Agent had to rush off) about the effect of using light indoors in the café, it appeared that there had been some issues in converting it to a DCP, and that the look that we had seen might have been different from what had been intended…

A little more (by way of a quick review) to come...


* I.e. not digitally recorded, but relying on neuronal techniques of capture...

** ‘From cold’, that is to say with no prior knowledge - on the basis that A film should speak for itself.

*** The six-film Catalan strand at Cambridge Film Festival in 2014 the third year of films at #CamFF from Catalunya, curated by Ramon Lamarca (who hosted this evening’s Q&A).

**** So far, we have had Marius (2013) and Fanny (2013) (at Cambridge Film Festival 2013 (#CamFF / @camfilmfest)), but César now seems ‘put back’ from having been, previously, noted as in pre-production on IMDb (@IMDb) :

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 19 June 2015

Full circle in Shanxi province ?

This is a Festival review of A Young Patriot (2015)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

19 June

This is a Festival review of A Young Patriot (2015)
from a screening and Q&A at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 on Saturday 6 June at 12.30 p.m.

From the audience, the first question in the Q&A for the director of A Young Patriot (2015) was from The Agent, about why we see so much of Changtong as he is taking photographs (having failed to get a place at Chengdu University the first time, he is taking a degree in photography), but only have two glimpses of his photography : two images, in passing, on a screen, and a glimpse of the photos that he is sending by post to the school, in Shanxi province, where his fellow students and he taught for a few weeks in the summer.

Haibin Du said that he realized that he had not shown much of Changtong’s work. However, the answer, which he timed so as to be amusing, was that the subject himself was more interesting than his photography. Indeed, he got a laugh by saying that, but did not thereby allay one’s doubts about the ethics of his practice in filming :

The question had not been couched as one about exploitation, but it, and the answer given, imply that it could have been*. For, at least three times, we see this film’s subject (its so-called young patriot) expressing himself unnecessarily candidly through the medium of drink. Yet, apart from his younger brother, who leads him away through embarrassment at what Changtong is saying about him (not that, on any occasion, others are not embarrassed at Changtong’s naive dogma and repetition), no one is there to intervene and stop the filming and could a man as wildly idealistic in a way to rival the character of Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin (in The Idiot brilliantly adapted for film, in Estonia, in a screening seen at Cambridge Film Festival 2012) have given any meaningful consent ?

This film, in seven chapters, brought out the fact that the cinema-seats in the Vimeo-sponsored Screen 2 at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield are hardly the most luxurious in the world : it was at least ten minutes too long, and irremediably chronological, even if it did sometimes juxtapose places. It was mainly apart from the pivotal excursion to Shanxi (though not treated as one by the film-maker : please see below) set in Sichuan province, in Pingyao and, as mentioned, Chengdu.

Mao and lion.jpg

For a subject who was almost romantically attached to Mao, liking to sing (well, almost croon, in a higher pitch ?) his revolutionary songs**, maybe it made sense for us to have opening shots of, seemingly, a fading memorial to those times (unannounced, and wrongly identified by the producer afterwards, who also acted as translator, as Datong). If we had dwelt on those images and what they might have signified, could it have been a better film, and might we not have focused, and been more helpful in not doing so, not on Changtong’s extreme form of (historical) patriotism, but rather on his finding himself in modern China (if on him at all) ?

Several times, the film alludes to Tian'anmen Square, and to an (unstated) background, in the West, of knowing what that name means and what happened there : from the first, Chengtong is aware that there had been a protest, but believes that it had had a humane, even benign, outcome :

Not uniquely for a film-maker, Haibin Du chooses not only to leave Changtong in his ignorance (and, in a film that he later said that he has hopes might be seen in China, he does not inform the viewer), but also to concentrate on it as an ignorance that is specifically his as part of his great dedication to Mao, and what he understands of the history of his country through that lens. That said, in a scene where we see Changtong and fellow students reciting words and singing in a vigil for an apparent anniversary of Tian'anmen Square (the massacre happened in 1989), it is clear that meaning has been generally lost or suppressed about it, and that they are just as much in the dark as he about what they commemorate.

Clearly, it would have been a different film, and not that of Haibin Du, to consider wider attitudes to, and understanding of, the past, but maybe film-makers have a duty not to take ‘the soft option’ in choosing their subject (or how to portray it : however important the topic of orca in captivity may be, does Blackfish (2013), for example, lose the opportunity to tell a totally coherent story about it ?). To allow oneself to be attracted to a very colourful figure such as Changtong may be normal, and almost necessarily full of emotional conflict and with scope for development, but perhaps a maker of documentaries needs to be aware of what it truly is about a subject that glisters to know it from gold, and to have a full appreciation of other stories that could have been told or of a different construction to have been put upon this one.

Did one need to have asked what simply following Changtong’s story actually says about his lack of self-knowledge (and his growing and eventual disillusion, precipitated by what happens to his family, because of the Chinese equivalent of compulsory-purchase orders, and how resistance gains no benefit) ? In psychological terms, his adherence to a partial account of the co-eval past, in the kind of patriotism that he has adopted, always had to mean something more than an attractive premise for a film :

From the first, Changtong was really crying out for attention (if not unavoidably for that of a film-crew), but the film itself never seems to have engaged*** with what that was or signified (except that he almost had to be heading for a fall which brings us back, again, to his naivety and whether he was a fit person to give consent). In relation to other Chinese people of his age, 1989 was (just about) part of his life, but not one of which he could have had direct experience or comprehension. Of course, the film did not have to give regard to the wider question of the state of knowledge, but the fact is that it did not.

It also, by not treating the events and experience of being in Shanxi as central to the chosen arc of Changtong’s story (although, cinematographically, it is obviously where the film is most alive, by creatively, and truly strikingly, directing the camera to all forms of local life and, likewise, showing the difference that the students had made as volunteer teachers), held out for that time when life would break in on his lack of self-awareness, and leave him more bitter (maybe even depressed). That said, the film probably did not owe it to Changtong to show him his vocation (in seeming to enthuse the young village children quite effortlessly), or the fall for which he was heading.

We did hear, when asked about whether he had seen the film, that he had, somewhat nerve-wrackingly, been with its director at the back of the screening in Hong Kong. He told us that Changtong had borne it with what sounded like equanimity, seeming to have regarded it as a separate entity. Which maybe it is maybe too separate from what could have been distilled from his life, not as apart from, but as part of the generality of modern China’s relationship with its own recent history ?

Seen at Sheffield : Doc/Fest films with full reviews


* The question had also said how Chantong’s early flag-waving and declamation (in an old uniform of The Red Guard) had come into its own by being a genuine inspiration to the young children in Shanxi, and had even proudly bought and started flying the starred Chinese flag. (Not surprisingly, another question elicited being told that it was the ostentatious behaviour that had interested Haibin Du in his subject character, not photographic aspirations.)

** By heart, and seemingly moved by their sentiments when he had finished a rendition (although one somehow doubted whether he could have laid his finger on what they really were, and their relevance to Mao’s days of struggle).

*** Inevitably, with hours of footage reduced to just a couple, one knows relatively little even of the onscreen contact between director and subject, let alone at other times.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Gerard McBurney's A Pierre Dream at The Maltings, Snape

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

18 June

This is a review of A Pierre Dream : A Portrait of Pierre Boulez at Aldeburgh Festival on Wednesday 17 June at 7.30 p.m.

Actors with placards, at times a little too noisy on their castors, protested not student issues from the late 1960s, but with the face, image and message of Boulez, in this unbroken evening, dedicated to his music and his (often literary*) influences.

At times, he was heard translated, possibly when he spoke in French more (or his English had not been so strong**, or he resisted talking in it ?), but very often not. And his face, whether in stills or footage, spilled onto or was caught on assemblages or groupings, or discrete arrays, of placards***, along with pages from his scores, or shots of places, or even images that were redolent of natural growth or of the rain. (One can taste the production a little here.)

Soprano Anna Sideris adeptly gave us Improvisations sur Mallarmé I and II (from Pli selon pli : Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui… (Improvisation I) and Une dentelle s’abolit… (Improvisation II)), and Charlotte Betts-Dean Le marteau. Elly Condron, credited as a speaking actor (and all in white as a Muse ?), was clear, definite, and, deliberately, a little cool and detached in rendering English translations of French texts for his Mallarmé and René Clair settings (in Le marteau).

From excerpts of the intimate sound of piano**** (or doubled piano) to pieces for eleven players or more, such as Dérive 2 or Le marteau sans maître, writer and composer Gerard McBurney’s staging ranged over Boulez’ work, thought and utterance in this intense show. Hearing, and re-hearing, his texts and instrumental and vocal settings, his voice changed, but was always Boulez, just as he changed from his arrival in Paris to contemporary footage.

Do not take one's word for it : this review in The Times now Tweeted :


* Proust, Mallarmé, and René Clair.

** Striking up a conversation with him at Aldeburgh Festival’s Boulez at 85, with a friend who wanted to know his thoughts about Keith Jarrett (after enquiring about, which he denied, the influence of Messiaen’s teaching, thought to have been heard in works that he conducted the night before), one can testify to his English.

*** The fact that they were non-speaking actors, or that there were screens on the stage that acted as verbal prompts, was not sufficient to explain how they knew where exactly to be : no doubt there must have been tape-marks, of positions, on the floor.

**** Incises, Structures, Notations, and, with flute (which, it seems, Jean-Pierre Rampal rejected), Sonatine.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)