Posts Tagged: Björk

West Coast Story

La La Land is a movie I should have enjoyed, what with the singing and the dancing and its many references to classic Hollywood movie musicals and 60’s French jazz style – my very bread and butter! And occasionally I did enjoy it, but most of the time I just had this nagging feeling that something, or a lot of things rather, were missing.

There’s two basic approaches to a movie that trades in this brand of nostalgia:

  1. you tell a deeply felt story using an anachronistic style enriched with contemporary detail/sensibility to give it a new texture and a timeless feel or
  2. you do a loving, high camp homage that is all about style, recontextualizing/repurposing/juxtaposing it as the very clay in your hands.

or you know, some combination of both. Which is what I think La La Land was trying to do, but ended up doing neither, or, perhaps more charitably, did such a watered-down version of both that it canceled itself out and left us clad in GAP khakis when we’d rather be swaddled in mink stoles.

Strategy #1: historical style X contemporary detail = a new story imbued with a sense of timelessness

If you’re going to do this, you have to put a lot of thought into the details, because therein lies the interest and texture of the film (/play/opera/musical/project). Almodóvar does this even when he’s nominally going for the campier (#2) approach. He can’t help it.

So if you’re going to make a movie about a contemporary jazz pianist whose main struggle is one of artistic freedom v. societal norms and expectations it would maybe help to get the details right about what a contemporary jazz artist looks like w/r/t the realities of the music and such a career.

Now. Our protagonist’s basic musical sensibility is ‘pure jazz’ = McCoy Tynerish post-bop, ‘free jazz’ = Claude Bolling Writes a Cadenza, and ‘sell-out jazz’ = mid-career Stevie Wonder.

And you know, there are those dudes out there who are still into the post-bop purist thing, but if that’s what we’re going for, let’s go for it, especially in the music. The score, which consists of six original songs, isn’t bad but it definitely doesn’t go there. Harmonically, the songs hover in a mildly jazzy 5-to-6 chord pop fusion area, when they might instead ascend to a more complex 10-to-12 chord jazz standard territory, or even 8-to-9 chord broadway showtune territory – can someone give me a straight up secondary dominant up here??

[Cred where she be due though: the composer, Justin Hurwitz, wrote not only the songs, but the entire score, including the orchestration, a rarity in Hollywood, and I loved some of his orchestrational touches, with obvious nods to Philippe Rombi (Angel, for example) and the Björk/Vincent Mendoza collaboration on Dancer in the Dark (though I longed for that score’s kaleidoscopic brilliance!)]

Our protagonist isn’t only angry with every post-Weather Report development jazz, he’s also upset that his former club is now a “tapas and samba” place – as if that didn’t sound like a veritable match made in heaven! It seems to me like a more interesting and plot-consistent take on the new place would be if it were cast as a pop/hip-hop venue, aka the music of our very time.

But mentioning hip-hop or other Contemporary Urban Musicks would veer us into a whole racial dynamic that Mr. Chazelle seems very squeamish about, and any time the film strays too far into said territory it reveals a nervous tokenism. (Two lily-white protagonists? Fill up your jazz club with black people! That’s not what most jazz clubs look like these days, but hey, you stay balanced.)

Strategy #2: historical style X heightened/deconstructed detail = high camp (which often turns out to be a potent delivery system for a serious messages about our own time)

Chazelle leans more towards this approach and he has some successful moments. My favorite was the dream ballet at the end (whatup Agnes!!) with its use of On The Town style backdrops set on a studio soundstage and its nods to Jerome Robbins choreography.

Jacques Demy is a big influence on the film too, particularly Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. But it’s like, whatever you use as your starting point, you gotta Next Level that shit, and that’s hard to do with Demy, because his approach to film style and fantasy are already pretty gonzo (have you seen, par example, Peau d’âne??)

François Ozon is a director who loves to play pastiche with the likes of Demy and Minelli and these old Hollywood musicals and it’s worth comparing his work with Chazelle’s. In Water Drops on Burning Rocks8 Femmes, and Angel, Ozon imbues his stylistic allusions with a zany irreverence and a free spirit that makes La La Land look clichéd.

And here’s the secret about these two approaches: you don’t have to pick just one! Get you a man who can do both! You know how there’s “Serious Almodóvar” and “Playful Almodóvar”? Guess what girl – she the same mofo!!!

In Conclusion

Am I being too mean? The Dream Ballet, the Observatory sequence, the opening party were all fun and interesting and good. The movie offered these and other magical moments where the combination of picture and score set sail (flute trillz be praised y’all!)

But the stakes were low, and I can only imagine the protagonists’ bland trade-offs are indicative of Damien Chazelle’s rather frictionless career. This struck me as an honest movie, just not an interesting one.

And I’m not suggesting that he should write a gritty, racially-charged story of an out-of-control artist struggling with abuse. If he had just imbued this particular story with a richer level of detail and zestier approach to style, it would have burst off the screen instead of just sitting there. For a movie about lives not lived and paths not taken, there were an awful lot of missed opportunities.

 

 

Vulnicura

bjork on the floor

It’s scary when a favorite artist comes out with a new album, because you want that perfect balance of the familiar and the new.

And it’s in that regard that I think Vulnicura knocks it out of the park – after the third track.  It’s not that I don’t like “Stonemilker”, “Lionsong”, and “History of Touches”, but I do feel like they’re a retread of Björk’s previous (though excellent) material.  I know she can do better.

And damn, does she ever: once we get to “Black Lake”, this album hits its sweet spot and doesn’t stop.  That particular track has the epic scope of “The Dull Flame of Desire” but the soundscape of a muted “Vespertine” (with some new sizzle and flare thrown in.)   I love the pacing and I dig the senza vib. in a big way.

“Atom Dance” is my favorite track on the album, but let’s all take a moment to acknowledge the utter badassery of that cello break on “Family”:

It’s hard for me to imagine anyone coming up with a better 30 seconds of music than that in 2015.

Sharpsichord

Björk just released the album credits for Biophilia, her latest album, on her web site.  As I postulated in my post about the new work, Björk was indeed the impetus behind all the musical elements on this album, having written the brass, choir, and organ arrangements herself, and having done the lion’s share of the producing.  That’s not to take anything away from her numerous collaborators, whose contributions were clearly invaluable.

One of the interesting things I learned from reading the credit roll is that Björk came up with the concept (if not the execution) for all of the newly invented musical instruments on this album except for one: the Sharpsichord:

The Sharpsichord, also known as the Pin-Barrel Harp, is the invention of an English musician and engineer named Henry Dagg (duly credited on bjork.com, I might add).  He invented the instrument for a folk music sound installation in Kent, after which it seemingly had no further use, and could no longer stand to live in the out of doors.

If you’ve listened to Biophilia as many times as I have now, the sound of the instrument will no doubt be familiar from the song “Sacrifice“.  The instrument is basically an enormous, many-geared music box that activates a set of harp-like strings, and, strangely, has a sort of shamisen-like vibrato.  It’s shocking that this instrument wasn’t custom-engineered for Björk, given that it incorporates all of her favorite things.

Here is Mr. Dagg himself performing on the musical saw with sharpsichord accompaniment.  I’m hard pressed to think of a stranger music video on the internet.  His eyes tell the whole story:

Biophilia

If anyone seriously interested in creating music isn’t listening to Björk, and namely her new album, Biophilia, I don’t know what they’re doing.  I’m talking here to composers, producers, singers, instrumentalists, arrangers, whatever.  Music industry types are certainly taking notice, since project is being released simultaneously as an album and an app.  The app is said to be revolutionary, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it is.  Not having an iPad myself, I can’t comment.  But that’s OK, since everyone else is already talking about the app, and I want to talk about the music itself, which is more than enough topic for conversation.

Many Björk albums have an orchestrational unity.  With Vespertine, she explored the tinkly sounds of celestas, music boxes and harps; Medúlla was a study in a cappella; Volta was largely defined by brass.  Biophilia incorporates all these sounds and textures, and of course Björk’s many flavors of electronic beats.  She adds some startling instruments to her palette, the tesla coil being one, and the commissioned gameleste being another:

But Björk’s real sonic obsession on this album is the organ, and she gets everything she can out of it.  There are Messiaen-like cluster progressions:

There’s are chiffy bass lines and percussive jabs:

And a sort of minimalist, modal/tonal hymnody:

Now, as with all Björk projects, this one is a collaboration, so one does wonder who is directly responsible for writing these organ parts.  Until I can see some liner notes, I’m glad to believe that Björk herself.  She arranged much of the brass music for Volta, and like that album, the organ harmonies here are so integrated with the vocal lines, it seems impossible that she is not their author.  And even if she’s not, she certainly deserves credit for assembling the whole thing.

I think that what appeals so much to me about the organ on this album is that as Björk steadily expands her use of electronics, she also steadily expands her use of acoustic instruments.  What’s more, it sounds to me like she has translated some of her previously electronic ideas into acoustic ones and, in some cases, even re-translated them back into electronic ones.

I don’t know if that even makes any sense.  Just go listen to the album like 30 times.  It has everything you’d want from Björk: epic hymns with brass and choir, aggressively undanceable dance music, bold modernist compositions, and haunting, contemplative etherea.

Top 10 Personal Favorite Composers

OK everyone, this is the last Top 10 Top 10 list – Personal Faves.  Here are the rules:

1) These are your personal FAVORITES.  No explanations, no reasoning.  Don’t choose someone just because you think he or she is a particularly good or great composer.  Choose someone because you love his or her music.  [Note: the two need not be mutually exclusive.]

2) These are your personal favorites at this very moment in time.  Try to let it flow – don’t hem and haw.  Five minutes hence, you might have a totally different list.  In fact, you could come back five minutes later and post a whole new list.  I would love it if you did that.  Maybe the You of five minutes ago really didn’t understand the You of now and your new perspective on life, love, and music.

3) Your list need not reflect any particular order.  It can if you want it to though.  Also – and this is very important – just because someone’s not on your list doesn’t mean you don’t love them.

4) Our working definition of ‘composer’ is anyone whose primary means of musical conveyance is the written note.  Feel free to understand this broadly.

Discuss! We’ve had some astonishingly interesting and in depth discussions on these lists.  Between like 5 people.  And I love those 5 people, and respect them and value their opinions and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from them.  But I have a little thing called Google Analytics, and, Dear Readers, I know that there’s many more of you out there.  This is a get-to-know you activity – absolutely not a debate.  Just fun, y’all!!

I’ll start.  In no particular order (excepting Beethoven):

My Top 10 Personal Favorite Composers

1. Ludwig van Beethoven

2. Alfred Schnittke

3. Maurice Ravel

4. Jean Sibelius

5. Claude Debussy

6. Giaocomo Puccini

7. Stephen Sondheim

8. Henry Purcell

9. Joseph Haydn

10. Björk