Music is a subject I love to burrow into, visually as well as aurally. Two recent cultural experiences enhanced my appreciation for the medium and its messages.
Steve Schapiro: Warhol, Reed and Bowie
Steve Schapiro is a photographer whose masterful work over almost five decades has spanned punk rock and movie masterpieces. His exhibit of photos of Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and David Bowie closed last weekend at the Ed Paschke Art Center. The exhibit featured a couple of dozen iconic black and white photos of these music legends.
The art center also showed a 30-minute video about Schapiro with many examples of his earlier work, shooting movie set photos during films such as Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Chinatown. There also are scenes from a recent conversation between Schapiro and Dustin Hoffman as the actor reminisced about photos Schapiro took during those movie set years.
Schapiro, now 80, lives and works in Chicago. He began taking photos when he was 9 and discovered the magic of the darkroom at summer camp. He’s currently shooting photos for several books and other projects, which you can read about in this interview.
Richard Powers: Orfeo, and a dog named Fidelio
I’ve written about Richard Powers before, most notably in my review of the 2013 Spike Jonze film, Her, which I compared to Powers’ 1995 novel, Galatea 2.2. (It drew about 200 readers to my blog last year, more than any other post; it still continues to draw).
Powers can be an acquired taste. I’ve read all his work and I acknowledge this fondness is something like my affinity for the late Portuguese writer, Jose Saramago. Powers is cerebral, mixes science and technology subjects with the arts, and his characters do not always come across as living, breathing humans.
Orfeo is his latest novel and I think his best. You grow to care about his leading character and his quests in music and science. Powers displays breathtaking knowledge of ancient music, experimental music and composition. One long section of the book is about the composition of Quartet for the End of Time, composed in 1941 in a German prison camp by French composer Olivier Messiaen.
Yesterday I had the luxury of a really immersive reading experience. About four hours of sitting around the Greensboro airport and the plane ride home. I realized that too often my reading is episodic—an hour in the afternoon when I finish work or a short session of reading in bed. I don’t know if it was the immersive reading or the nature of Powers’ book, but I found myself really caring about the people in Orfeo.
Peter Els, the leading character, is a 70-year-old retired professor, whose passions are avant-garde music and home genetic experiments. The novel opens with the death of his dog Fidelio, a 14-year-old golden retriever who loved music. “Music launched her into ecstasies. She loved long, held intervals, preferably seconds, major or minor. When any human sustained a pitch for more than a heartbeat, she couldn’t help joining in.”
The novel is about Els’ long history as an avant-garde composer and the lovers and friends he connects with in that passion. In retirement, he offers classes in music at a retirement center and is working with a bacterial human pathogen in his tricked-out home laboratory, where he’s trying to record his own compositions in bacterial DNA.
This unfortunately attracts the attention of the Department of Homeland Security and people in hazmat suits arrive. Els flees and the story threads back and forth through his musical and romantic life to his current period of flight.
A good portion of Orfeo is set in Champaign/Urbana, where Powers was an undergraduate and now is professor of English. (Powers went to DeKalb High School and one of his early books is set in DeKalb.)
Els is inspired by John Cage and participates in “Musicircus,” an exuberant 1968 extravaganza in Champaign, where Cage was in residence from 1967 to 1969.
Powers’ Wikipedia page lists and describes his novels. I recommend dipping a toe into the Powers oeuvre. You might start with The Time of Our Singing (2003), which combines music and physics. And then move on to Orfeo and its musical magic.
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The finale of the HBO crime drama, True Detective, ran Sunday night and I’ve watched it twice so far. I’ve been thinking about TD, its writer/producer and his literary influences–as well as his possible literary compatriots. Here’s what I’m thinking.
Sunday morning, I tweeted this out:
Nancy Bishop @nsbishop
The long, slow tracking minutes of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart wending their separate ways through the utter spooky weirdness of Carcosa*, with its skulls, bodies and overgrown foliage, were breathtaking. They sought and found the monster who committed the murders and, for a while, it appeared all three were dead. Marty had a hammer plowed into his right lung and Rust had a long knife jabbed into his midsection and still had enough strength to shoot the top of the killer’s head off. But in the epilogue, we learned that the two detectives survived. Another miracle of TV medicine. Since season 2 will feature a different plot and different characters, they could have been left to die. But instead we were treated to a final scene of the two outside the hospital looking up at the stars, with Rust telling how he felt when he almost died. Here’s a link to his final speech.
* What is Carcosa? The unearthly setting for this segment was an old brick military fortress, Fort Macomb, built in 1822 and decommissioned in 1871. You can see some photos of it here. More about Carcosa below.
I thought Matthew McConaughey’s Oscars acceptance speech was gag-making, by the way. I prefer this clever video recap that shows Rustin Cohle eviscerating McConaughey’s thanks-to-god speech. “And it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates,” he said. Really? Scientific? Personally, I’d rather have a beer with Cohle than McConaughey.
* * *
We really are in an amazing era of quality television, as New York Times media columnist (and one of my favorite journalists) David Carr wrote this week, in his article titled “Barely Keeping Up in TV’s New Golden Age.” He said, “The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. And I’m not alone.”
Television recently has blessed us with several astonishingly good series, starting with my favorite, The Sopranos. I still mourn its disappearance (but I loved the ending…. Tony looking up from his French fries as the diner door opens, and then fade to black.). Six Feet Under, Mad Men and Breaking Bad were also captivating series.
This year’s True Detective has been called one of the best TV series ever by a number of critics. It’s almost a genre in itself. It’s brilliantly written and manages to create two contentious detective partners. Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), on the surface a good old Louisiana boy with many personal complications. Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), a loner detective from Texas with a dark and troubled past and a propensity for opaquely gloomy comments. I quoted these when I wrote about TD in January.
“Time is a flat circle. Everything we ever done or will do we’ll do over and over and over again.”
“This place is like someone’s faded memory of a town, and the memory’s fading…like there was never anything here but jungle.”
“Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution.”
The eight-part series covered the detectives’ efforts to solve a bizarrely ritualistic murder; clues indicated that it was committed by a serial killer or a weird cult emerging in the swampy Santeria and voodoo culture of bayou Louisiana. The cinematography of the swampland setting was so visually powerful that it became a character in itself.
The show was written and produced by an English teacher turned scriptwriter named Nic Pizzolatto. Future TD seasons apparently will follow a similar eight-part anthology format with one story arc and different sets of characters in each. So we have seen the last of Marty and Rust. I have mixed feelings about that. The combination of story line, writing quality and characters took hold of me with a weirdly obsessive attachment.
One attribute of Pizzolatto’s writing that made it intriguing is his use of symbolism and stories from unrelated fields. Of course, True Detective draws on pulp detective fiction of the 1940s and 1950s. In addition, the Yellow King and Carcosa and the iconic figures made of sticks and straw are references not only to Louisiana bayou culture but also to the weird supernatural horror writings of Robert W Chambers, Ambrose Bierce and H P Lovecraft, among others. (So deep is my obsession that I’ve downloaded The King in Yellow Omnibus: Tales of the Carcosa Mythos to my e-reader. Believe me, reading horror stories or most any kind of genre fiction is not my taste. I lean toward literary fiction or nonfiction.)
Drawing connections among manifold fields of science, politics and the arts is a characteristic of two of my favorite writers: Playwright Tom Stoppard and novelist Richard Powers. Stoppard, for instance, combines obscure mathematics, English gardens and emotion vs reason in Arcadia; he creates a Zurich confluence of James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and Tristan Tzara (a founder of Dadaism) in Travesties. Powers combines DNA discovery, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Gold Bug in his amazing and complex novel, The Gold Bug Variations; and literature, learning and neural networks in his 1996 novel Galatea 2.2. (I wrote about Powers in my review of the Spike Jonze film, Her—comparing Jonze’s concept with Powers’ Galatea 2.2.)
Anna Metcalfe of the Financial Times interviewed Richard Powers a few years ago and asked him what work he wished he had written.
Powers answered, “Tom Stoppard’s [play] Arcadia. I’d trade my soul for it.”
To me, this kind of literature crossed with science, technology and other arts is often more compelling than fiction that is purely plot- and character-driven—just as Stoppard’s plays give you something to chew on later, not just to laugh at in the moment.
I’m not saying that Pizzolatto deserves to be categorized with Stoppard and Powers yet. His resume is still short, but I think he may be heading in that direction.
Now I can go back to watching season 2 of House of Cards, which is a terrific show but I will not obsess over it.
Spike Jonze’s new film Her is a charming, tender love story with a soulful 21st century edge. I loved the film, but the story was familiar. In Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a writer who falls in love with a computer operating system. In 1995, Richard Powers wrote Galatea 2.2, a novel about a writer who loves a neural network that he teaches to know and understand literature and the world. In both stories, the computer companion turns away from the lover and shuts down.
Jonze’s film is visually delightful with sterling performances from Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson as Samantha, the voice of the OS. Phoenix plays a likable character for a change; he’s lonely after a recent divorce and opens an account with a new operating system (its logo is an infinity sign) that promises companionship. That’s how he meets his new OS, who chooses the name Samantha. She says she has intuition and that’s how her personality will continue to develop. “I continuously evolve,” she says.
At first Samantha is a friendly assistant, waking up Theodore, sorting his emails, alerting him to appointments. But as she evolves, she becomes more of a companion and eventually a lover. The brilliant thing about both actors’ performances is that they are so convincing despite their physical restrictions: Theodore has only a voice to react to. Samantha is only a voice with no corporeal presence. Both performances should receive award nominations.
The film is set in the not-too-distant future in a Los Angeles that looks something like Shanghai. Theodore is a writer who creates computer-generated analog love letters for clients at a company called BeautifulLetters.com.
Tbeodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) is also going through a divorce. She’s a video game developer and Theodore tests her perfect-mom game, which takes away points for poor-mom performance. Amy has some great lines. “The past is just a story we tell ourselves” and, best of all:
“Love is a form of socially acceptable insanity.”
Theodore lives well in a modern LA high-rise. The color palette, mainly of his wardrobe, is rich in orange, red and gold. The office of BeautifulLetters is primarily pinks, fuchsias and deep reds. I kept trying to decide what the designer was trying to tell me with those emotionally charged colors. Technology is not cold and inhuman? In addition, the film features music by Arcade Fire, one of today’s great indie rock bands.
When I first read about the film and in the days since I saw it, I keep thinking of the excellent Powers novel. Powers is one of my favorite authors; I think of him as the Tom Stoppard of novelists. Like Stoppard’s plays, his books combine science or technology topics with music, literature, character and plot. He was very prescient in writing Galatea 2.2 almost 20 years ago—before smartphones, apps or Siri. The leading character (who happens to be named Richard Powers and shares some features of Powers’ biography) is working as a sort of humanist in residence at the University of Illinois in a center for advanced sciences. His project is to teach a neural network (an artificial intelligence device) to understand and interpret the great works of literature as well as “geography, math, physics, a smattering of biology, music, history, psychology, economics.” Richard and the scientists create a device named Helen, a funny, smart, charming personage with whom Richard develops a strong personal relationship. The goal of the project is for Helen and a human graduate student to take a Turing test, which examines a computer’s ability to show intelligent behavior equivalent to a human’s. Unfortunately, Helen loses the Turing test and at the end of it says “Take care, Richard. See everything for me.” The politics and meanness of the world cause Helen to implode and shut down.
At the end of Her, Samantha has expanded her OS clients, while Theodore thought he was her only lover. He asks Samantha how many others she has a relationship with. She answers “8,316.” How many are you in love with? he asks. “641.” She explains “The heart is not a box that gets filled up. It expands (as we live).” At the end, Theodore logs on and learns his operating system is not available.
Galatea, of course, is the name of the statue carved by Pygmalion of Cyprus in mythology; the statue comes to life and George Bernard Shaw adapted that story into his play Pygmalion. Later someone decided it needed singing and dancing and it became the musical My Fair Lady. (I never prefer a musical.)
More on Richard Powers
If you enjoy literary fiction, I strongly recommend you check out Powers’ work. Besides Galatea 2.2, my favorites of his many novels are:
- The Gold Bug Variations (which combines genetics, Bach’s music, computer science and Poe’s stories).
- Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, about an historic photograph and a technology editor who becomes obsessed with it.
- The EchoMaker, about an accident victim who suffers a brain injury known as Capgras syndrome, which won the National Book Award in 2006.
Powers holds a chair in English at the University of Illinois. His undergrad and graduate education is in physics and literature. Early in his career, he worked as a computer programmer. He was named a MacArthur Fellow (the “genius grant”) in 1989. And he graduated from DeKalb High School, a year or two before my older son.