Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Claude Debussy - L'œuvre pour Piano [1992]

Composer: Claude Debussy
Performer: Aldo Ciccolini (piano)
Album: Complete Piano Works
Label: EMI Classics

"I confess that I am no longer thinking in musical terms, or at least not much, even though I believe with all my heart that Music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have. It's just that I find the actual pieces - whether they're old or modern, which is in any case merely a matter of dates - so totally poverty stricken, manifesting an inability to see beyond the work-table. They smell of the lamp, not of the sun. And then, overshadowing everything, there's the desire to amaze one's colleagues with arresting harmonies, quite unnecessary for the most part. In short, these days especially, music is devoid of emotional impact. I feel that without descending to the level of the gossip column or the novel, it should be possible to solve the problem somehow. There's no need either for music to make people think! ... It would be enough if music could make people listen, despite themselves and despite their petty mundane troubles, and never mind if they're incapable of expressing anything resembling an opinion. It would be enough if they could no longer recognise their own grey, dull faces, if they felt that for a moment they had been dreaming of an imaginary country, that's to say, one that can't be found on the map."
- Claude Debussy (1901)

Claude Debussy was a composer and pianist associated with the impressionism movement, which also included composers like Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel, amongst others. Impressionism was a breakthrough movement at the time, disregarding many of the more conventional ideas of tonality that had become the norm during the Romantic movement. The impressionists were focussed on capturing the essence of a time and place in the form of music, much in the same way that the visual impressionist artists attempted to capture the energy of a place and time through the subversion of traditional artistic techniques. Romanticism had initially been a rebellion against Classical music and the rigid compositional structures that composers were forced to follow as well as the use of music as a commissioned and undervalued commodity. As a rebellion against this trend, composers began to write music purely for a performance and were not hired or paid by royalty or nobility. However, by the tail end of the 19th century, a few composers (Debussy included) began to tire of the Romantic style and started working outside of the conventions of western Classical and Romantic styles. Debussy was renown for having openly dissed Camille Saint-Saëns, saying: "I have a horror of sentimentality, and I cannot forget that its name is Saint-Saëns", while Saint-Saëns said that he had stayed in Paris purely to spread the word that Debussy's music was shit.

Listening to the music of Claude Debussy, it is easy to see why he was seen as a controversial composer. He was greatly influenced by Erik Satie, whose sparse, minimal compositions and experiments with musical form (writing extremely eccentric playing directions on his pieces like "wonder about yourself" and "very lost" as well as sometimes completely eschewing time and key signatures) had also garnered praise and a good amount of hatred from critics and listeners alike. While Debussy admired the work of Satie though, his work is far more fluid and technically complicated than Satie's, focussing less on minimalism and more on the capabilities of rhythm and tonality to transport the mind. Debussy was also interested in the music of Java, which he felt had a strong bond with the experience of nature, experiences that he tried to both emulate in his music and evoke in his listeners.

I find Debussy's ideas about music and its purpose very refreshing, especially when faced with the legion of pre-20th century musicians who fetishise form and structure and place these above expression and evocation of emotion. That's not to say that Debussy's music is without form; quite the opposite is true in fact; his music is rich in form which becomes increasingly apparent the further one delves into his catalogue of work. Recurring ideas and themes include his frequent usage of alternative tonal systems that deviate from traditional western scales and his obsession with planting ethnomusicological references in his compositions, his appreciation of mellifluous rhythmic passages and phrasing, and his occasional whims to transplant phrases and melodies from one piece into another in an often comic and mischievous fashion.

While a lot of people respect Erik Satie's contribution to music and art far more than Claude Debussy's, I think it's all too easy to overlook what Debussy was doing and why it was so worthy of praise. It is undoubtable that Satie's influence has been widespread and can be seen in everything from ambient music to minimalism with many contemporary musicians and composers citing him as an influence. Now, I could be just making this up, but to me it always looks like Satie gave the middle finger to the mainstream and hung out with the dadaists instead, deciding that he would never be accepted and was probably better off just giving up and playing to people that actually enjoyed what he was doing. Debussy on the other hand, searched to be a part of contemporary music, even though his compositions were very avant-garde and largely unaccepted. I personally really respect Debussy for trying to bring many esoteric musical ideas to the forefront of the public's musical consciousness, even though many people would not have seen him for what he truly was.

Because I fear that the wrath incurred by the scary people at EMI caused by me posting a link to any of Debussy's music would be the equivalent of voluntary blogicide, I'll spare myself the hassle by not posting any download links. Instead, you could just buy it. It's everything that he ever composed for solo piano, it spans five discs and it only costs £12 (which works out at £2.40 per disc). It's good quality recordings of some fairly solid performances from Aldo Ciccolini, and it also means that you're pretty much sorted for life in the way of Debussy's solo piano stuff. Enjoy.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

ユリイカ [2000]

Film: Eureka
Director: Shinji Aoyama
Starring: Kôji Yakusho, Yôichirô Saitô, Aoi Miyazaki, Masaru Miyazaki.

Following a brutal bus-jacking, driver Makoto (Yakusho) and siblings Kozue (Aoi Miyazaki) and Naoki (Masaru Miyazaki), the only survivors of the incident, decide to journey across Japan in an old renovated bus with the siblings' cousin, Akihiko (Saitô) in an attempt to return to the lives that they had lived before. Director Shinji Aoyama said of the film that it is a "prayer for modern man, who is searching for the courage to go on living".

Eureka is perhaps best known, even by those yet to see it, for it's pacing, which is slow, contemplative and at times, sparse. Combined with the film's three-and-a-half-hour running time, this looks on the surface to be more of an endurance test than a pleasurable viewing experience. This is however, merely surface appearances, which in this case would be misleading, as although the film is slow, it never becomes dull. This is no doubt due to the directorial prowess of Shinji Aoyama, who imposes on the film a unique rhythm that carries it through the meandering first half and through to it's (what was for me a) shocking, powerful conclusion.

For me, the success of the film lies in its well-conceived structure. The decision to focus the first part of the film on the everyday lives of the bus-jacking victims works to entrance the viewer by showing all of the subtle nuances of each character's psychological state and bringing the audience closer to the characters. After watching the film, a friend of mine said that he felt at times that he was living through the film alongside the character, rather than being a third person observer as with most films. This reminded me a lot of how I feel about the work of Yasujirō Ozu; the impact of the film is increased greatly because one feels that one has lived with and got to know the characters so well that it's impossible not to empathise. I think that this can only be achieved through showing showing the mundane activities that fill in the gaps in people's everyday lives, so for me, the length of the film works perfectly.

In an interview with Aoyama, included on the DVD released by Artificial Eye, the director talks about the impromptu nature of the filming sessions, in which he would give as little direction as possible to the actors to see what they would do with it themselves. He also talks of the particular type of film that he used, which can be traced back to early Japanese cinema when it was the studio-standard. The entire interview and director's statement is transcribed below:

Director's Statement

This film is a sort of prayer for modern man, who is searching for the courage to go on living.
A crime is committed suddenly, as if it were a natural disaster. It changes the life of three people, who formerly led lives that were quite normal. It is as if they are pursued by an endless tidal wave preventing them from regaining their balances lives. On the edge of despair, they take off for a voyage of resurrection.

In my earlier films, I told stories that juxtaposed social misfits, each under the burden of that particular psychological baggage of post-War Japan. With Eureka, I add to my body of work a prayer for life and the desire to be reborn.

The number four has an important places in Eureka. There are four principal players and four tombs in the front yard. Four is a number that moves the wheels of destiny - at least in the first part of the film. In Japanese, the number four is pronounced "shi", which could also signify death. The number four could also stand for the traditional family (two parents, two children). In the last twenty years, family tradition has all but disintegrated, and the ideal number, four, has become meaningless.

Interview with the Director Shinji Aoyama

Birth of the Project

Shinji Aoyama: When he invited me to participate in J-Works, I had not worked with my friend, producer Takemori Sento, since Helpless, my first feature in 1995.

At the time, I had the music of several rock albums going around in my head, especially "Daydream Nation" by Sonic Youth and "Eureka" by Jim O'Rourke. I was also thinking about John Ford's The Searchers.

Then I met Koji Yakusho, who had played the lead in several films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, with whom I had worked as an assistant, and whose style has greatly influenced mine.

Koji Yakusho expressed an interest in doing a film with me in our native prefecture, the island of Kyushu. For me, the landscape and dialect of Kyushu are essential elements in the film. I had lived there and shot Helpless there. Without the local character of the language, I could never have woven real emotions into the story. We, therefore, began developing a story set in our birthplace.

The people of Kyushu began to take a central place in my thoughts, as they recounted their stories in local dialect. Two stories came to the fore. One about the personal collapse and feeling of powerlessness of people who had been through a devastating accident. The other was about people who struggled to restart their interrupted lives. I combined the two stories and began writing them in dialect.

Work on the story began simply: I just wanted to film a bus that never stopped moving. As there are two parts to the story, I used one bus for the hijacking and another for the sequences depicting the "rebirth" of the driver and children.

I wanted to make a film in its most elemental state. Therefore, I chose black and white cinemascope (actually sepia, because we shot on colour stock). This format is almost never used in Japan these days - even though it was the studio norm in the 60s and 70s.

The director of photography, Masaki Tamra, and I are spiritual friends. I almost never feel the need to give him technical directions. We understand each other intuitively. In fact, he frequently contributed more than I could imagine. We spoke mostly outside of our time working on the set.

Principal Themes

Shinji Aoyama: This film is a sort of prayer for modern man, who is searching for the courage to go on living.

A crime is committed suddenly, as if it were a natural disaster. It changes the life of three people, who formerly led lives that were quite normal. It is as if they are pursued by an endless tidal wave preventing them from regaining their balances lives. On the edge of despair, they take off for a voyage of resurrection.

In my earlier films, I told stories that juxtaposed social misfits, each under the burden of that particular psychological baggage of post-War Japan. With Eureka, I add to my body of work a prayer for life and the desire to be reborn.

Working with actors

Shinji Aoyama: I find that the voice of the actor is a prime element in film making. A script only breathes life when the actors begin their work, informing all the fine emotions of their characters. Before principal photography, I might modify dialogue to better fit the character traits of the actors I engage. But all through the shooting, I look for opportunities to rebalance the original dialogue to the style of a given player.

I never rehearse a scene more than three times before shooting it. This is mainly to discover its best rhythm. As often as possible, I shoot just one take per shot.

I think of the actors as if they were really the characters of the film, therefore I rarely comment on their performances. We speak about moments that might seem to be off the mark; but I don't think there is any "correct" way of working with actors.

Yoichiroh Saitoh, who plays cousin Akihiko, is my fetish-actor. He has played in several of my films since Helpless.

In Eureka, we are visitors to Kyushu through his character, the outsider. As a family witness and spy, he is a pivotal character. If we compare him to Jeffrey Hunter in The Searchers then Koji Yakusho would be John Wayne.

I am a big fan of Koji Yakusho who plays the bus driver; and especially liked his work in the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. In Eureka he is a surrogate for both father and mother. But over time the roles are inverted and he becomes a kind of child to the children. At the end of he film, he says to Kozue, "Let's go home", just like John Wayne to Natalie Wood in the last scene of The Searchers. Although it might not seem so, Eureka is indeed a western!

To find the children, I began by holding auditions in Tokyo, then in Kita-Kyushu, where I found Masaru Miyazaki and Aoi Miyazaki, who player brother and sister respectively. It was love at first sight. The fact that they were brother and sister in real life was decisive. They would be able to live their characters from the inside and assimilate the roles. I was especially taken by their faces, which were mute and yet very well expressed disconnectedness. These features are rare among children.

Yoichiroh Saitoh and Ken Mitsuishi, who plays Shigeo, the driver's childhood friend, were necessary to the storytelling because they had the faces of the people telling the story in my head. Then I cast Yutaka Masushige, who I very much wanted to play the inspector. He is from Hakata, near Fukuoka, where we shot. He also has that very particular southern accent, which I saw as necessary to the character. Local people and several actors who have worked with me before rounded out the cast.

The English edition of the DVD (released on Artificial Eye) is available through Amazon in the UK, but I want to issue a word of warning: Because of the length of the film and the decision by the company (and perhaps the film crew too) to put the whole film on one disc, the quality is quite poor compared to other DVDs. I'm personally hoping (probably in vain) for a Blu-Ray release of this so that the quality issues can be addressed. Saying this however, it didn't affect my overall viewing experience and I stopped noticing it halfway through the film.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

The Rotating Banner

I thought I would write a post about the banners that have adorned the top of this page and why they change from time to time. I have semi-consciously chosen to use images of blurred cityscapes taken on my phone whilst staying in different cities around the world. Although this blog is primarily named after the Magical Power Mako track of the same name (on this album), I feel like there is something alien about cities seen through the cheap lens of a mobile phone camera. I suppose it is conceivable that the only reason for me thinking this is because I was brought up in the countryside away from towns and cities and maybe I just have an estranged relationship with big places full of people and devoid of nature. In any case, I thought I'd write a bit about travelling and culture, whilst explaining the origins of the banners on here.

This is a photo of the Xi'an Bell Tower in the Chinese province of Shaanxi. It was taken two years ago when I first went to China. I remember the whole thing being a total shock for me at the time. Everything in China was so much different to what I'd previously experienced, which had been the limited scope of Europe and North America. I can vividly recall the feeling of walking out of the airport into the summer heat of Shanghai, being drenched with sweat within 30 seconds. I found the way the whole country worked to be bizarrely fascinating; getting a light off a taxi driver with a huge 'no-smoking' sign in his car, a guy selling fake watches to people through their car windows at traffic lights, the volume that people spoke at, the willingness of many ordinary people to speak freely and openly with total strangers, and the general standard of driving. I found the whole experience enthralling, as it was the first time that I had ever been so closely involved in a culture so different to my own. At the time, I felt that being in China had allowed me to see myself in a different way. I still believe that living in another culture is like using another side of yourself, like suddenly exercising some muscles that you didn't know existed. I suppose I thought that I already knew myself quite well, but when confronted with the vast change from English to Chinese culture, I found out a whole host of new things. I believe it was a life-changing experience that continues to shape my conceptions of my self.

This one was taken from a tour boat on the river Seine on a school trip in the winter of last year as a part of my history course on the French Revolution. The structure on the right is La Tour Eiffel, while the dark figures are the heads of my classmates. Paris in winter is absolutely bollock-freezing, and I didn't really think it would be that bad so I didn't take a coat. I pretty much spent a weekend on the verge of pneumonia, shivering my arse off. One day we got given an orienteering style activity, so I just decided to walk around Paris a bit instead. I spent the afternoon in a beautiful second-hand bookshop called Shakespeare and Company, which had a huge selection of new and used novels as well as a typewriter, piano and bed-area for resident authors who, in the mid-20th century were offered board there in return for their work and shopkeeping duties. For me, the highlight of the whole trip was having the opportunity to sit and read A Quiet Life by Kenzaburō Ōe for several hours without disturbance.

This photo was taken from the river Bund in Shanghai whilst on a tourboat on my third visit to China which took place earlier this month. The events leading up to this photo were quite exciting/dangerous; as I was lining up to get onto the boat, people were scrambling to get on the boat (think Titanic) in a pretty manic fashion, with absolutely no concern for any women or children that could easily have fallen between the boat and pier and died. The whole ordeal was quite funny and completely typical of the Chinese attitude, which despite the country's supposed political alignment, is driven by the desire to get as much as possible as fast as possible. Needless to say, my initially romantic view of Chinese culture had more or less evaporated by this time two years down the line, and my view of China is now fairly ambivalent, having accepted that, like most other places in the world, there is a minute amount of people worth knowing.

I'll continue to update this when I upload a new photo incase anyone is interested where it was taken.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

เรื่องรัก น้อยนิด มหาศาล [2003]

Film: Last Life in the Universe
Director: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak.

Last Life in the Universe is a story about Japanese immigrant Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) and his time in Thailand, in which he spends his days fantasising about committing suicide and leaving his mundane life as a librarian. The film opens with images of the books that are piled high around Kenji's house, lining the walls, enclosing him and looming over him; an homage to his own neatly arranged, painfully repetitive life. Director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang carefully paints a picture of Kenji's existence within the opening scene, showing images of Kenji's suicidal fantasies, which recur throughout the film in different ways: lying under the wheels of a car, slitting his wrists, hanging himself, etc.

Kenji's desire to escape the life that he has chosen for himself, or rather been given, is central to the film's development, which shows Kenji slowly rediscovering life and what existence can mean. The reclusive Kenji, through crossing paths with the broken-spirited Noi and his epiphanic reading of a children's book entitled The Last Lizard, finds the strength to continue living in spite of the chaos that surrounds him and threatens to destroy anything that he should build up.

Last Life in the Universe is a meditation on life and redemption, at the centre of which lies two character who are desperate to be free of their past mistakes; Noi harbours the guilt of feeling that she killed her sister, while it is implicitly suggested that Kenji is attempting to escape his own dark past in which he may or may not have been a yakuza. The film's dreamlike atmosphere conjured up by Ratanaruang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle (famous for having worked and collaborated extensively with Wong Kar-Wai) is perfectly paced to synchronise with Kenji's own attitude towards life, with the first half of the film showing only the cold and inanimate aspects of Kenji's life; the menial chores of his library work and the sterile environment of his home which seems to have had all colour drained out of it. Following his move to the Thai countryside however, nature, colour and love all flood back into his life, offering him a temporary sanctuary from the reality of his position.

Although I have seen many of Tadanobu Asano's performances, I would have to rate this as one of his best. He is well-known as an actor who plays outsiders in a masterfully detailed way, but for me, he really raises the bar in Last Life in the Universe. Had another actor had control over Kenji's portrayal, much of the symbolism imposed by Ratanaruang could have easily appeared heavy-handed or indeed gone completely unnoticed. In Tadanobu's performance however, the nuances are captured perfectly: messing up his hair, taking a drag on a cigarette, trying Noi's papaya salad... all played with a delicate touch that shows his character's gradual development in the film.

I felt that Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (a director whose work I had never seen before) really excelled in creating a symbolically rich experience with Last Life in the Universe, which demands multiple viewings for one to savour the range of carefully placed symbols; a 'learn to speak Japanese' tape in Thai droning through the house while Kenji acclimatises to his new surroundings in Noi's house, emphasising the characters' need to be trilingual and the language-barrier that the characters struggle with; Noi's metamorphosis into her sister halfway through the film; the wardrobe full of sailor outfits; the cleaning of Noi's house: all of which make the film's ambiguous conclusion all the more compelling.