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August 2007

Suppose someone asked you...

...what you were doing on this day ten years ago when you heard the news? Would you know what he was talking about? I had no idea what the title of this post of Rod Dreher's meant: "Where were you when you heard?" Turns out he's talking about the death of Princess Diana. I could not have told you what month or year she died, much less the exact date. There are many things in this world I Just Do Not Get, and Diana-mania is one of them. I would assume that maybe you have to be British to understand, except that plenty of Americans seem to have it, too.

I mean no disrespect to the poor woman, but "poor woman" is as far as my very few thoughts about her ever went once the stories of the broken marriage began to appear in the press. I've always been inclined to like Prince Charles, maybe just because we're the same age and are both sort of nerdy and he seems to have the occasional interesting thought. And I wished the couple well when they married. But by the time she died Diana registered on my consciousness only as another sad lost celebrity. Poor woman. RIP.

Of course, for Americans of a certain age (over fifty, roughly) "Where were you when you heard?" will always refer first to the Kennedy assassination (Mr. Siniard's 10th grade biology class, if you want to know).


No Mortal Place At All

I had one cheer (from Ryan, in the comments) and one jeer (via email, from Robert, who has heard "A Whiter Shade of Pale" a few too many times) for my inclusion of Procol Harum in my desert island music picks. I hadn't listened to my favorite Procol album, A Salty Dog, for some years, so I wondered if maybe I would change my mind if I heard it now.



Sunday Night Journal — August 26, 2007

Such Beauty Can’t Disappear

A week or two ago I linked to an entry on Rod Dreher’s blog where a Russian woman who signed herself simply as “Masha” had left some comments that struck me as beautiful, so much so that I’m going to reproduce them here in their entirety. I can’t ask her permission as there’s no way to reach her via that blog, but would certainly be happy to give her credit if she should see this and contact me. Aside from correcting a few spelling errors, I’ve left her words as she posted them.

If it is possible to call epiphany some particular moments which made me think about God's existence, there were some. Perhaps they are too banal.

1. First time—aged 13 or 14 i was sitting by the window at the second floor of our house (in the evening) and looking at piles of clouds and slanting beams coming from behind it, pile of clouds looked like a mysterious city, in the garden where many blossoming flowers and scent of wild roses reached balcony, i thought about paradise and that i m such lucky person to live in it—such beauty around and no one of my friends or relatives or even acquaintances ever died, i lived in the world where death existed only in books or TV and then thought about my grandfather who was about eighty and soon had to die, and looking at that city of clouds through hand i closed eyes and imagined that when i open eyes it will look like hand of 90 years old woman, tried to persuade myself that life will pass the same quickly as closing and opening of eyes—the clouds will look the same, roses will smell the same and i will see the same tops of pines and birches, i thought that such beauty can't disappear and my grandfather will not disappear and perhaps we will meet after death. the city of clouds looked very material and it encouraged that thoughts

2. Second time—several years later—we visited cemetery one morning in May, also nature was blossoming, and suddenly we heard singing of psalms or something other religious, it seemed strange in deserted end of cemetery overgrown with trees, we went to the voice and seen an old priest at one of the graves singing alone, he looked big and respectable, dressed in red-golden clothes (it was in closest weeks after Easter), he waved censer over the grave (the grave was old), he was completely absorbed by singing of that psalms or prayers and obviously did it with all his heart, bumble-bees flying around and birds singing, the whole picture was so beautiful and inspiring that i again thought about eternal life.

Posted by: masha | August 17, 2007 4:47 AM

And third time was 2 years ago, when i first seen mountains. In moscow region landscape is either flat as chess-board or has small hills, i hadn't seen even big hills before going to Crimea, and i didn't expect mountains would impress me, after seeing them on tv and on pictures, besides, by 25 i became very dry cynic. But when i seen big hills in both windows of car it was such a joy that it was taking my breath away, and when car made several big turns suddenly appeared a view which almost made me cry—gigantic mountains and rocks and light blue sea looked simply unreal to me, i never expected that such beauty exists, i have been there again this year, tears didn't appear this time but still it brings to mind one psalm (i don't know it in english) about greatness of creation, there are words 'above mountains will stand waters' (it is frightening even to imagine how above mountains can be water)

Posted by: masha | August 17, 2007 4:55 AM

“Such beauty can’t disappear.” This is something I think about frequently. Three times last week within thirty-six hours I witnessed beauty that shouldn’t disappear. Early one morning, down by the bay, there was an offshore breeze broken by the trees on the shore so that the surface directly in front of me was mirror-smooth, while further out, where the waves were stirring, was a sailboat, white with a white sail and gleaming in the sun, moving slowly parallel to the shore.

That evening I walked down to the bay at sunset for the first time in many months and was well rewarded for my trouble. It always makes me a bit ashamed that I take these sunsets for granted. Cynics may think it banal to be enraptured by a sunset, but that’s only because it happens every day and cost nothing but a moment’s leisure to observe: if sunsets were so rare that one could hope to see no more than one or two in a lifetime, or if access to them could be restricted and sold, they would be cherished and treasured more than diamonds.

Around eleven that same evening, at the bay again, the moon, waxing a little past its quarter, hung low in the southwest, bright enough to create a pathway of light on the water from me to it, then slowly disappeared into the murky clouds nearer the horizon.

But now, only a week or so later, my memory of these images has already become a bit vague. I’m losing bits of them, and even at best memory is not nearly as good as the real experience. And moments like these generally don’t have any significance outside themselves: how much more difficult is it to accept the loss of pieces of our lives that were not only beautiful but also filled with meaning, like Masha’s epiphanies, either in themselves or by virtue of their place in a human relationship? How many parents, for instance, can be content never to see their children as children again? I find it very difficult to accept that these moments are gone forever as soon as we have experienced them.

In fact I don’t accept it. From the point of view of eternity, those moments will always exist, and I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to believe that we will somehow have access to them in the life to come. Nor does it seem unreasonable for me to be schooled by a thirteen-year-old girl in this question—personally I had more sense at thirteen than at twenty. The obvious objection, of course, is that in heaven we will no longer care about anything that happened in this life. But that seems to me to reduce the significance of our lives, and if there’s one thing of which I feel confident it’s that these moments are significant, and that our intuition of their meaning is a real perception, not just a passing sensation.

Surely in 2000 years this idea has come up and been considered by saints and theologians. Maybe someone more knowledgeable than I can tell me whether there is any widely accepted opinion on it.


Music of the Week — August 26, 2007

Louis Philippe: An Unknown Spring

It’s pretty rare for an artist to go from “never heard of him” to “indispensable” in my book, but it just happened with Louis Philippe. He’s been making music for twenty years or so, but for some reason, undoubtedly having to do with the fact that he works in an unfashionable style, he remains little known. I only know of him because of the valiant (and persuasive) efforts of the eMusic subscriber who calls himself PapaLazarou to draw attention to him. PapaLazarou drew me in by connecting Louis Philippe to The Clientele.

What’s the unfashionable style? Well, for starters, it’s a very highly polished sort of pop music that owes more to Bacharach and David than the Beatles. I’m not a pop music historian and there are a lot of gaps in my knowledge, but it seems to me that the very careful and sophisticated craftsmanship in songwriting practiced by, say, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer almost disappeared sometime in the ‘60s; the same is true of the sophisticated arrangement and production seen in some of the classic Frank Sinatra albums of the ‘50s. Bacharach and David were in the same basic tradition and succeeded in the ‘60s by adding a rock flavor to songs that were not rock-and-roll at all. And there were a few soft-rock groups who may have aspired to continue in that mode. But for the most part rock crowded it out, and rock’s origins in folk and blues made it relatively primitive almost by definition. Artists who might have been capable of the same technical achievement had different aims.

Louis Philippe’s work harks back to that mid-‘60s attempt to incorporate a bit of rock instrumentation into a songwriting tradition that owes far more to Cole Porter than to the blues. In fact it owes the blues, and country, approximately nothing. Philippe is a Frenchman who moved to England as a young man, and I have a vague idea that French pop music of the ‘60s may have sometimes sounded something like his arrangements.

Whether or not that sounds appealing to you, anyone who appreciates the art of songwriting really ought to hear this album. I don’t know of anyone today writing at this level of craftsmanship, unless some of the people still writing musicals are capable of it. Last week I was praising the matching of words to music in songs co-written by Rupert Hine and Jeanette Obstoj (see last week’s review), but they’re clumsy in comparison to Philippe. His matching of the musical to the lyrical phrase is flawless, truly in a class with Porter and Mercer: there’s no cramming of too many syllables into the musical phrase, and no awkward dragging out of a word to fill it up. To an almost astonishing degree the natural spoken rhythm of the words follows the accents of the music.

None of that would matter if the tunes and the words weren’t good, and they’re superb. The melodies are inventive, complex, and graceful; the lyrics are intelligent, coherent, and poetic. Some listeners might be put off by the arrangements, which are light, pretty, and lush, and which feature strings and breathy choirs of backing voices and in general the sort of instrumentation one hears in some ‘60s soft pop. But the effect is not sugary at all. The word “exquisite” comes to mind, but that almost implies “effete,” and that would be way off base. Nor is there the least hint of irony that would make the whole thing seem fey; the album seems as genuine as it is elaborate, and as intelligent as it is romantic. There’s a sort of tensile strength in the melodies that gives the music a core of strength, as if it were built on a frame of some light but very strong metal.

Listen for yourself at eMusic. Here is an overview of the man and his work at All Music Guide. And here’s his web site, where you can find downloads of some complete tracks, although as of right now none from this album. I’m going to be hearing a lot more of Louis Philippe; I’ve already gotten Azure from eMusic.

UPDATE: For a richer description, please read Chris Evans's AMG review. Sample: " album of pure melody, melody untrammeled and unconfined by the conventions of what passes for modern popular music, melody that unfurls gracefully, languorously and then, when you think it can't help but fold in on itself, unfurls a little more.On first hearing, this can be somewhat daunting. Not because An Unknown Spring can in any way be described as a tough listen, but because our cosseted ears simply aren't used to processing melodies that don't ingratiate themselves by means of repetition or overfamiliar resolutions. A delectable turn of phrase that might pass for a chorus or a hook drifts past and you wait confidently for a reassuring reprise. But it never comes: instead, the melody just carries on evolving."


Blue Cafe

By way of registering his complaint that I didn't include Chris Rea in my desert island list, Robert sends me a link to this staggeringly fine song on YouTube. Rea should indeed be a candidate for "essential"--his best work is about as good as it gets.

In Which I See an Alligator

My daily commute takes me across Mobile Bay. There are two routes, the long bridge which is part of I-10, and the causeway, a combination of raised roadway and bridges. I like the latter, which is much more scenic and leisurely. Most of it is only a few feet above water level. (Here is what it looked like shortly after Tropical Storm Cindy a few years ago.) For years my wife has reported seeing the occasional alligator in the water while crossing the causeway, but she is more observant than I am, and I had never seen one till yesterday. At a particularly low place, where a lot of people fish, there he was, thirty or forty feet from the bank--just a couple of dark shapes in the water, the first one the top of his head, the second his back: something like this. (I seem to be falling into my wife's habit of using the masculine pronoun for every critter, bug, or varmint of questionable intentions, a practice which may or may not say something about her view of the human male.)

I'd guess he was in the range of six feet or so, large enough to do some harm. Alligators are really not nice creatures at all. My animal-loving brother brought a baby one home from a Florida vacation once. By the time it was a foot long it was seriously unpleasant.

(I have no interesting reflection on this, I just thought it was cool.)


A Question About the Preceding Post

Who's notable for his/her/their absence? If you solicited similar lists from people, especially critics, with a strong interest in the pop music of the past few decades, who would probably show up very frequently but is unrepresented here? It suddenly struck me that a majority of those polled would probably find him/her/them a big omission in my list, although no one so far has.


Music of the Week — August 19, 2007

Rupert Hine: Waving Not Drowning

It’s been well over twenty years since my friend Robert sent me a tape of this album, which had gone out of print within a couple of years of its 1982 release. It’s still (or again?) out of print in this country, although you can get it as a thirty-dollar import. But it was only recently that I discovered that two of the best songs on the tape were actually from another Rupert Hine album, Immunity, also available now only as an expensive import, and according to the All Music Guide an even more unsettling work than this one. I’d really like to hear it, but am not sure I’m altogether prepared for it, as Waving Not Drowning captures certain aspects of urban/industrial society in the late 20th century better than any other work of popular music I know, and it’s not a comfortable experience.

Those “certain aspects” are unpleasant ones that were particularly prominent in the late 1970s and early 1980s: anxiety, paranoia, disorientation, isolation, and plain old fear. The music relies, fittingly, although not exclusively, on the cold timbres and unnatural strength and agility of synthesizers and other electronics. To dismiss it as “synth-pop,” though, would be seriously misleading. If “pop” implies something at all frivolous and lightweight, it’s not a word that belongs anywhere in the vicinity of this music, which renders a very dark world with great skill.

The first song, “Eleven Faces,” appears to be about someone trying to pick a rapist (or maybe a rapist-murderer) out of a lineup. The last one, “One Man’s Poison,” is a bleak survey of the unjust vagaries of fortune. Between the two, the mood never lightens, although it runs through many varieties of unease. The experience could be extremely unpleasant if it didn’t keep you so busy admiring its brilliance.

The songs, arrangement, and production are truly extraordinary, all the way through. I have my favorite tracks, of course, but every one holds my interest. A large part of the credit goes to the lyricist, Jeanette Obstoj. As anyone who reads these reviews regularly knows, I place a lot of importance on lyrics in pop music. These misfire occasionally, becoming obscure or possibly just confused, but overall I know of very few more successful marriages of words and music this album.

I’ve found a couple of videos on YouTube and will direct you to them rather than attempt to describe the music further. Personally I have never liked music videos in general and don’t think these are very good even by standards of the genre, but they’ll give you a taste of the music. The first of these, “Surface Tension,” is actually one of the Immunity songs that was on my tape. But it conveys the atmosphere of Waving better than the other one, a bitter look at a disturbed family called “The Set Up.” Bear in mind that the poor sound quality of these videos means that you’re missing a significant amount of the sonic detail that makes the album so compelling.

I should point out that as bleak as the album is, its title suggests hope, being a reversal of the lines from the famous Stevie Smith poem:

I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Running Late

Weekly posts will be a bit late this week--I was out of town all weekend and a few things had come up in my absence. In the meantime, this post by Dawn Eden rather struck home to me, and I particularly like the Chesterton line she quotes: The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. It would do as well as the Keats quote for my epigraph.