Archive for the ‘Artistry’ Category

A few years ago, Knives Out (2019) unexpectedly solidified the revival of the whodunit and introduced its modern-day master sleuth: Benoit Blanc. The primary appeal of the whodunit has always been smartly constructed plots that unfold slowly and culminate in a final reveal or unmasking that invites readers to reread in search of missed clues. The two early masters of this category of genre fiction were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, both succeeding in making their fictional detectives iconic. Others followed their examples, though the genre arguably shifted onto (into?) the TV with shows such as Perry Mason, Columbo, and Murder She Wrote. No surprise, Hollywood transformed what might have been a one-and-done story into the beginnings of a franchise, following up Knives Out with Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (subtitle displayed unnecessarily to ensure audiences make the connection — wouldn’t a better subtitle be A Benoit Blanc Mystery?). Both movies are entertaining enough to justify munching some popcorn in the dark but neither observes the conventions of the genre — novel, TV, or film — any too closely. Spoilers ahead.

I harbor a sneaking suspicion that Benoit Blanc is actually a bumbling fool the way poor, rumpled Columbo only pretended to be. Although I can’t blame Daniel Craig for taking roles that allow him to portray someone other than James Bond, Craig is badly miscast and adopts a silly Southern accent others complain sounds laughably close to Foghorn Leghorn. (Craig was similarly miscast in the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but that’s an entirely different, unwritten review.) So long as Blanc is a nitwit, I suppose the jokey accent provides some weak characterization and enjoyment. Problem is, because the film is only superficially a whodunit, there is no apparent crime to solve after Blanc figures out the staged murder mystery (sorta like an escape room) just after the vacation weekend gets started but before the faux murder even occurs. Kinda ruins the momentum. As a result, the film digresses to a lengthy flashback to establish the real crime that Blanc is there to solve. Maybe good mystery novels have partial reveals in the middle, reframing the entire mystery. I dunno but rather doubt it.

The plot is by no means tightly knit or clever as a whodunit normally demands. Rather, it employs lazy, pedestrian devices that irritate as much as entertain. Such as one of the characters (the real murdered character) having an identical twin who substitutes herself for the dead one; such as trapping attendees on a remote island without servants or transportation but largely ignoring their suggested captivity; such as uncovering an orgy of evidence better suited to misdirection and framing of an innocent; such as mixing faux violence with real violence, though none of the characters appears even modestly afraid at any point; such as bullets being fortuitously stopped by items in a breast pocket; such as sleuthing and detecting — done by the twin, not Blanc! — being presented in a montage of coinkidinks that demonstrate more luck than skill. I could go on. The worst cinematic trick is reprising scenes in flashback but altered to insert clues viewers would have noticed initially. Those aren’t reveals; they’re revisions. Moreover, instead of inviting viewers to rewatch, this gimmick jams supposedly unnoticed clues down their throats. How insulting. If Benoit Blanc is really an overconfident, dandified nincompoop, I suppose it’s better and more convenient (for bad storytelling) to be lucky than good. He doesn’t solve anything; he’s just there to monologue incessantly.

The weekend party is hosted by a character patterned after … oh never mind, you know who. I decline to provide the name of that real-life narcissist. Members of the entourage are mostly sycophants, originally good friends but later ruined in different ways by proximity to a hyper-successful fraud. As a group, they’re known as The Shitheads, which just about sums it up. Critics have observed a shift in entertainment toward depicting super-wealthy pretty people as heels of the highest order. Not sure what makes that entertaining exactly. I enjoy no Schadenfreude witnessing the high and mighty brought low, much as they may deserve it. It’s just another lazy cliché (like its inverse: the dignity of the downtrodden everyman a/k/a the noble savage) trotted out in the absence of better ideas.

Like another show I dubbed SufferFest, if you haven’t yet forfeited the nearly three-hour run time, save your effort and skip Blonde unless you enjoy watching people suffer. This pointless, highly selective biopic on Marilyn Monroe depicts her solely as struggling under the so-called tyranny of the lurid male gaze. (No real acknowledgement of her participation in that dynamic.) Yeah, it’s been long established that the old Hollywood studio system and the devouring public can’t avoid destroying their most iconic creations — especially the females. That’s the bitter end of the hype cycle if one is unfortunate enough to succumb. Oddly, the film omits Marilyn Monroe’s death at a relatively young age under questionable circumstances.

To its extremely modest credit, the film separates Norma Jeane Mortensen (or Baker) from Marilyn Monroe, meaning that the blonde bombshell character was an act, a Hollywood fiction — at least until it stopped being one. Whereas most would probably prefer to be remembered in a positive light (e.g., an Irish wake), this film insists (and insists and insists and then insists some more) on its subject being a victim and sufferer, which makes the audience into voyeurs and accomplices. A couple brief moments suggesting her exceptional, incandescent talent on multiple levels were reframed as yet more suffering. The film probably fits the contemporary Woke narrative of victimhood and is wholly unenjoyable. I regret having watched it. Earns a negative recommendation: stay away.

A few months ago, I discovered David Hurwitz’s YouTube channel, which offers reviews of classical music recordings (as opposed to live concerts). Hurwitz shares with me (or is it the other way around?) an apparent fascination with the German symphonic repertoire. As executive editor of Classics Today, he has access to a far wider discography and, for purposes of comparison, delves into historical recordings from the 1930s to 60s far more thoroughly than I do. He deplores streaming services (I do, too), preferring physical media, though I will admit I stream plenty of recordings I don’t (yet) own, primarily to make a purchasing decision. (It’s a little weird that so much of the recorded repertoire is available to stream, essentially for free.) My opinions about specific recordings (orchestras, soloists, conductors) vary widely from those of Hurwitz, which is just fine since I’m not a newbie in need of guidance. Still, Hurwitz always has interesting things to say and some biases I find inexplicable.

Having heard quite a lot of Hurwitz’s discussions of various symphony cycles, I was prompted to go back and listen to discs (both LPs and CDs) not spun in a while. Just yesterday, I recovered a startling memory, namely, that in my early adulthood (pre-Internet), releases of new recordings were not publicized and it was only when one appeared in record stores (remember them?) that I was caught between the horns of an obvious dilemma: whether to purchase (with my rather limited funds) or defer. More importantly, I recalled febrile excitement when something appeared I really, really wanted to hear and own. On more than a few occasions, I had to prioritize and/or sacrifice in order to obtain to the venerated object(s), something less true now than then. Leaving something behind was disappointing but inevitable.

That singular excitement felt at the availability of some new objet d’art is commonplace in various fandoms, though individual tastes and predilections channel people toward different things. For instance, I’ve never camped out or even queued for the initial release of a new model iPhone (back in the day, derisively called the “Jesus phone”). Nor do I attend the opening night of a new movie out of a desire to be among the first viewers. Overpaying for tickets to a championship sporting event doesn’t appeal to me. I also don’t pay for pointless upgrades (e.g., airline tickets, valet parking) that function more as markers of status than as desirable, enhanced services. However, for many others, these are the venerated objects and services for which they are prepared to pay and/or sacrifice — sometimes quite a lot.

Age and wealth inform the calculus. The heightened emotionalism of my youth has been alleviated over the decades so that I now only infrequently venerate some object or experience. It’s too exhausting, but back when I had an abundance of emotional energy, it was commonplace. Also, had I the wealth to simply obtain everything I ever wanted without deferral or sacrifice, it’s not clear that anything would have gained special significance bordering on the sacred. This may well be one of the inevitable pitfalls of excess wealth: draining meaning out of things others are able enjoy with enthusiasm precisely because of scarcity or hardship.

Reflecting on these ideas, I also realized that there is still one category of venerated object for which I lust. It’s not a branded fashion item, luxury German sedan, pampered vacation, or second home on a secluded lake somewhere. Those are arguably within my reach but tend to be the domains of others far better situated financially than am I. No, my remaining venerated objects are obvious given what I’ve written above: high-end audio components. Whereas most recordings are quite easily obtained for less than what is now spent on a typical fast-food combo meal, the truly exceptional high-end audio I venerate starts around $15k and climbs from there. As with all luxury goods, diminishing returns set in early despite considerable emotional investment, so I have settled instead on an audiophile middle tier that frankly puts to shame the degraded listening environments most are only too happy to accept, typically out of ignorance and under-developed taste. Their veneration is projected onto other things.

Watched Everything Everywhere All at Once (DVD version) at home on my TV, which is where I see most films these days. Very few inspire me to trek to the theater anymore to overpay for seats and popcorn. Was pleased to enjoy this film quite a bit — at least before turning an analytical eye toward it. Let me provide a fun, glossy assessment before getting bogged down in troublesome detail.

The film introduces and trades heavily on characters from a supposed multiverse (a multitude of parallel universes branching indiscreetly from arbitrary decision points into an infinity of possibilities) “verse-jumping” into our universe to fix and repair damage done in one or more of the others. As plot devices go, this one is now quite commonplace and always (perhaps inevitably, given our preoccupation with ourselves) positions our universe (the only one we know until someone from outside intrudes) at the center of the others and as the linchpin in some grand plan to save the space-time continuum. It’s a worn trope yet allows storytellers immense freedom to conjure anything imaginable. Everything depicts disorienting alternative universes quite well, most of them (for no particular reason beyond having fun, I surmise) absurd variations of the familiar. Indeed, unlike most films where I sit in stone silence no matter what is presented, this one generated laugh-out-loud moments and gestures across the couch to the effect “did you see that?” In short, what that means is the film produced reflexive responses (it goosed me), which is quite unusual considering how most films, despite lots of overwrought action and drama, fail to register more than a checkbox “yup, got it.”

Actors portraying the three or four main characters do well in their respective jobs, playing several versions of themselves from different universes with diverse experiences. Most of the film is chase-and-evade, devolving at times into a familiar martial-arts punchfest that has frankly lost all possibility of making an impact in the era of overpowered, invulnerable superheros and magical unpredictability. Why filmmakers believe audiences want to see more of this drivel is beyond me, but I guess the animal curiosity to find out which make-believe character will prevail in a battle royale never gets old with mouth-breathers. I’m quite over it. The central conflict, however, wasn’t about the strongest punch. Rather, it was about persisting in the face of revealed meaninglessness a/k/a nihilism.

So here’s where hindsight analysis kinda ruined things for me. Although I recognize storytelling as elemental to modern cognition and consciousness, I don’t regard most narrative forms as art. Cinema, because of its financial interests and collaborative nature, rarely rises to the level of art. There are simply too many diverse elements that must be assembled under a unified aesthetic vision for that to occur often. Cinema is thus more entertainment than art, just like sports and games are entertainment, not art. Impressive skill may be demonstrated, which often produces enjoyable results, but I don’t conflate skill or mere craft with artistry. (I also tire of everything that provides moral and epistemological orientation being conflated with religion). So when films introduce super-serious subjects that really trouble me (e.g., overpopulation, institutional corruption, the climate emergency) but treat them lightly, I’m bothered. Everything does that with philosophy.

Coming to grips with nihilism and the absurdity of existence is the central feature of more than one 20th-century philosophy (and their variants). Downstream (or parallel?) are artistic genres that also express the idea, though in far less overt terms. One can easily get lost down a hole, seeking the bottom (alternatively, the root of things) but finding only the abyss. For that very reason, I have acquaintance with philosophical themes but have not truly sunk into them deeply. Nihilism is not something to mess with, even as a thought experiment or intellectual inquiry — especially if one is inclined to connect strongly with those same things. In Everything, the nihilist conclusion (i.e., that nothing matters) manifests absurdly as a giant, black, everything bagel that can literally suck a person into its hole. Well and good enough; probably best not to overexplain that McGuffin. But it demands a conclusion or resolution, which comes in the form of the mother rescuing the daughter. Ironically, it was the mother (from an alternative universe) who had introduced the daughter (also an alternative) to verse-jumping, who then (the daughter) got lost down the hole and threatened to collapse the multiverse into the everything bagel in a final gesture of despair. In effect, the mother had tinkered with powers well beyond her control, unwittingly created the daughter-monster with out-of-control feeling and unexpected powers, and had to clean up her own mess. How does she (the mother) do it? Through the power of love.

OK, fine. Love (especially unconditional love, as opposed to romantic or familial love) is a universal salve capable of healing all wounds. Except that it’s not. When the film finally depicts the rescue, saving the daughter and multiverse from destruction, it comes across as flat, obvious, and ineffectual (to me at least) and breaks the tone and pacing of the film. Lots of films resort to the power of love to save the day (typically just before the stroke of midnight), but they usually (not always) have better set-ups, which is to say, their film universes cohere and deliver cogent conclusions rather than waving a magic love-wand over everything to solve and resolve. The writers of this film are adept at the enjoyable absurd parts that launch and propel the story but could not stick the landing. Introducing (albeit comically) doomsday philosophy but then failing to treat it seriously enough left me deeply conflicted and dissatisfied. Perhaps it’s a case where my suspension of disbelief was not complete enough. Or maybe I brought too much into the film from outside, but we all have inescapable frames of reference. I wasn’t exactly triggered, merely frustrated. YMMV

Was surprised to learn a while back that West Side Story (1961) was being remade by none other than Steven Spielberg. Yeah, that Steven Spielberg. Among the spurious reasons (I gather) for the frankly unnecessary remake was a desire to recast with actors of the proper ethnic origin. Ugh. Sure, the original actors who portrayed Bernardo and Maria were Americans of Greek and Russo/Ukrainian descent, respectively. So what? Spielberg’s casting didn’t get much closer (Canadian and American/Colombian, respectively), though the newly cast actors certainly look like they could be Puerto Rican. Any further updating of this particular adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (one of many) for today’s woke sensibilities was also foiled considering the plot (starry-eyed, ill-fated, would-be lovers divided by rivalrous families/gangs) remained essentially unchanged and the original 1950s NYC setting was kept. In addition, the original musical score (altered — more on that below) and choreography (updated? I can’t tell) were used. It wasn’t a shot-for-shot remake, and I presume some of the dialogue was changed, but I didn’t make direct comparisons. Lastly, considering the 1961 original won numerous awards, who exactly was crying out for a remake? Unsurprisingly, the remake was also nominated for awards.

Aside: In arts and entertainment media, remakes are restricted to cinema. No one rewrites a book. Restaged theater and musicals are merely new productions. Rerecording a pop song is understood as a “cover” of the original, not a remake. The rather large discography of classical music includes many, many different versions of the same works, e.g., Beethoven symphonies. (Some suggest, “Does anyone really need yet another version of Beethoven Symphony No. 5?” That question loses legitimacy when asked about live performance.) One might argue that those, too, are remakes, except that there is rarely such a thing as a definitive original. Moreover, consider that music is a dynamic art typically practiced live, in real time. A musical recording fixes that experience, whether live in concert or in the recording studio, on a playback medium intended for repeat play. Comparison of different performances can be quite interesting and enjoyable. Further, a recording of a sporting event might be made for more convenient rebroadcast shortly afterwards and/or for archival purposes, but repeat experience (i.e., rewatching the 1985 Super Bowl vs. listening repeatedly to a favorite music album) is anathema when the outcome has already been seen. Similarly, repeat viewing of TV shows and movies is best at wide intervals, after memory of original viewing fades. Cinema, in contrast with music, has always been a fixed form. Cinema is also not understood as a recording of a live experience. Its genesis as playback differs from stage theater or musical theater. (Some critics and superfans — especially the YouTube variety — don’t wait but instead immediately go back in search of Easter eggs and continuity errors.) Finally, only a modest number of TVs shows have been remade or rebooted, whereas remaking and rebooting movies is comparatively commonplace, which has been characterized as “Hollywood out of ideas.” Take note that West Side Story was first a stage musical and only later committed to film.


Continuing my book-blogging project on Orality and Literacy, Ong provides context for the oral tradition that surrounded the two great Homeric classics: The Iliad and The Odyssey. According to Ong, it took decades for literary critics and sociologists to overcome their bias, borne out of literacy, and recognize how formulaic are the two epics. They are essentially pastiches of commonplace plots, phrases, and sayings of the time, which was a notable strength when oral delivery based on memorization was how epic poetry was transmitted. In a literate era, such clichés are to be avoided (like the plague).

Aside: my review of David Serota’s Back to Our Future mentions the dialect he and his brother developed, filled with one-liners and catchphrases from entertainment media, especially TV and movies. The three-word (also three-syllable) form seems to be optimal: “Beam me up” (Star Trek), “Use the Force” (Star Wars), “Make my day” (Dirty Harry), “I’ll be back” (The Terminator), etc. This construction is short, punchy, and memorable. The first holder of high office in the U.S. to attempt to govern by catchphrase was probably Ronald Reagan, followed (of course) by Arnold Schwarzenegger and then Donald Trump. Mustn’t overlook that all three (and others) came to prominence via the entertainment industry rather than through earnest (Kennedyesque) public service. Trump’s numerous three-word phrases (shtick, really) lend themselves especially well to being chanted by adoring crowds at his pep rallies, swept up in groupthink, with a recognizable beat-beat-beat-(silence) structure. The rock band Queen stumbled upon this same elemental rhythm with its famous stomp-stomp-clap-(wait) from the anthem “We Are the Champions,” consciously intended for audience participation (as I understand it).

Further aside: “We Are the Champions” combines its iconic rhythm with a recitation tone sourced in antiquity. Make of that what you will.

Ong goes on to provide a discussion of the psychodynamics of orality, which I list here without substantive discussion (read for yourself):

  • orality is additive rather than subordinative
  • orality is aggregative rather than analytic
  • orality is redundant or copious
  • orality is conservative or traditionalist
  • orality is close to the human lifeworld
  • orality is agonistically toned
  • orality is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced
  • orality is homeostatic
  • orality is situational rather than abstract

Of particular interest is Ong’s description of how language functions within oral cultures distinctly from literate cultures, which is the source of the bias mentioned above. To wit:

Fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even the possibility of writing … In a primary oral culture, the expression ‘to look up something’ is an empty phrase … [w]ithout writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual … [for] ‘primitive’ (oral) people … language is a mode of action and not simply a countersign of thought — oral people commonly, and probably universally, consider words to have great power. [pp. 31–32]

If this sounds conspicuously reminiscent this previous post, well, congratulations on connecting the dots. The whole point, according to a certain perspective, is that words are capable of violence, which is (re)gaining adherents as our mental frameworks undergo continuous revision. It’s no small thing that slurs, insults, and fighting words (again) provoke offense and violent response and that mere verbal offense equates to violence. Not long ago, nasty words were reclaimed, nullified, and thus made impotent (with varying levels of irrational rules of usage). Well, now they sting again and are used as ammo to cancel (a form of administrative violence, often undertaken anonymously, bureaucratically, and with the assistance of the digital mob) anyone with improper credentials to deploy them.

Let me draw another connection. Here’s a curious quote by Walter Pater, though not well known:

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.

Put another way, the separation of signifier from signified, an abstraction conditioned by literacy and rationalism (among other things) is removed (“obliterated”) by music, which connects to emotion more directly than representational art. Similarly, speech within primary oral cultures exists purely as sound and possesses an ephemeral, even effervescence (Ong’s term) quality only experienced in the flow of time. (Arguably, all of human experience takes place within the flow of time.) Music and “primitive” speech are accordingly dynamic and cannot be reduced to static snapshots, that is, fixed on a page as text or committed to a canvas or photograph as a still image (hence, the strange term still life). That’s why a three-word, three-syllable chant, or better yet, the Queen rhythm or the Wave in sports arenas (a gesture requiring subscription of everyone), can possess inherent power, especially as individuals are entrained in groupthink. Music and words-as-violence get inside us and are nearly wholly subjective, not objective — something we all experience organically in early childhood before being taught to read and write (if in fact those skills are learned beyond functional literacy). Does that mean culture is reverting to an earlier stage of development, more primitive, childlike, and irrational?

David Sirota, author of Back to our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now — Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything (2011), came to my attention (how else?) through a podcast. He riffed pretty entertainingly on his book, now roughly one decade old, like a rock ‘n’ roller stuck (re)playing his or her greatest hits into dotage. However, his thesis was strong and appealing enough that I picked up a copy (read: borrowed from the library) to investigate despite the datedness of the book (and my tardiness). It promised to be an easy read.

Sirota’s basic thesis is that memes and meme complexes (a/k/a memeplexes, though Sirota never uses the term meme) developed in the 80s and deployed through a combination of information and entertainment media (thus, infotainment) form the narrative background we take for granted in the early part of the 20th century. Children fed a steady diet of clichés, catchphrases, one-liners, archetypes, and story plots have now grown to adulthood and are scarcely able to peer behind the curtain to question the legitimacy or subtext of the narrative shapes and distortions imbibed during childhood like mother’s milk. The table of contents lists four parts (boldface section titles are Sirota’s; descriptive text is mine):

  • Liking Ike, Hating Woodstock. How the 50s and 60s decades were (the first?) assigned reductive demographic signifiers, handily ignoring the true diversity of experience during those decades. More specifically, the boom-boom 50s (economics, births) were recalled nostalgically in 80s TV and films while the 60s were recast as being all about those dirty, hairy hippies and their music, drugs, and sexual licentiousness, all of which had to be invalidated somehow to regain lost wholesomeness. The one-man promotional vehicle for this pleasing self-deception was Michael J. Fox, whose screen personae (TV and film) during the 80s (glorifying the 50s but openly shitting on the 60s) were instrumental in reforming attitudes about our mixed history.
  • The Jump Man Chronicles. How the Great Man Theory of History was developed through glorification of heroes, rogues, mavericks, and iconoclasts who came into their own during the 80s. That one-man vehicle was Michael Jordan, whose talents and personal magnetism were so outsized that everyone aspired to be “like Mike,” which is to say, a superhero elevated beyond mere mortal rules and thus immortalized. The effect was duplicated many times over in popular culture, with various entertainment icons and political operatives subverting thoughtful consideration of real-world problems in favor of jingoistic portrayals.
  • Why We (Continue to) Fight. How the U.S. military was rehabilitated after losing the Vietnam War, gifting us with today’s hypermilitarism and permanent wars. Two principal tropes were deployed to shape public opinion: the Legend of the Spat upon Veteran and the Hands Tied Behind Their Backs Myth. Each was trotted out reliably whenever we needed to misremember our past as fictionalized in the 80s.
  • The Huxtable Effect. How “America’s dad” helped accommodate race relations to white anxiety, primarily to sell a TV show. In contrast with various “ghetto TV” shows of the 70s that depicted urban working poor (various ethnicities), The Cosby Show presented an upscale black family who transcended race by simply ignoring the issue — a privilege of wealth and celebrity. The Obama campaign and subsequent administration copied this approach, pretending American society had become postracial despite his never truly being able to escape the modifier black because the default (no modifier needed) in America is always white. This is the most fraught part of the book, demonstrating that despite whatever instructions we get from entertainment media and pundits, we remain stuck in an unresolved, unhealed, inescapable trap.


Medieval Pilgrimage

Posted: November 16, 2020 in Artistry, Culture, Music
Tags: , , ,

Listening to the recording shown at left, my mind drifted to various cinematic treatments of Medievalism, including The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Chronicles of Narnia, and too many others to cite. Other associations also came tumbling out of memory, including my review of The Hobbit (the book, not the movie, though I reviewed both) and a previous blog post called “What’s Missing.” That post was a rumination on community and meaning lost in modern technocratic societies. In light of fetishization of the Medieval Period, including for example the popularity of Renaissance Faires, there seems to be more to say about what’s missing.

The Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (English: Red Book of Montserrat), known as such because of its 19th-century binding and its being held the Monastery of Montserrat in Catalonia (a region of Spain), is a collection of devotional texts also containing late Medieval songs. The Wikipedia article indicates that the monastery also holds the shrine of the Virgin of Montserrat, a major site of pilgrimage at the time the Red Book was compiled. Accordingly, its songs and dances were probably intended for pilgrims to the shrine and were part of a well-developed oral folk tradition. The 14th-century manuscript does not identify authors or composers. Furthermore, it predates modern musical notation, so performances and recordings today are reconstructions.

The music on the recording fuses sacred and secular (folk) elements and strongly suggests communal participation. In contrast, the modern concert hall has become the scene of rigid propriety. Audience members try to sit in stone silence (notwithstanding inevitable cell phone interruptions) while performers demonstrate their, um, emotionless professionalism. Live concerts of popular musics (multiple genres) instead feature audiences dancing and singing along, creating an organic experience that transforms the concertgoer into a participant situated in the middle of the flow rather than at the distant receiving end. Middle ground, such as when symphony orchestras perform film or video game music, often draws untutored audiences who may want to participate and in doing so frankly offend others trained to be still.

Is there cultural connection between pilgrimages, processions, and parades? The first is plainly religious is motivation, such as visits to Catholic shrines, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, or Mecca. Processions are more ceremonial and may not be religious in orientation. A wedding procession is a good example. Parades are more nearly civil in character, unless one insists on nationalism (e.g., Independence Day in the U.S., Bastille Day in France, Victory Day in Russia) being civil religions. The sense of devotion, sacrifice, and hardship associated with pilgrimage, historical or modern, contrasts with the party atmosphere of a parade, where Carnival, Mardi Gras, and Día de Muertos in particular invite licentious participation. Typical U.S. holiday parades (e.g., Independence Day, Thanksgiving) feature spectators arrayed lazily along the streets. There is even a subgenre of march form (used in band concerts) called a “patrol” that employs a broad crescendo-diminuendo (getting louder then fading away) to depict a military column as it marches by.

I suspect that modern processions and parades are weak echos of pilgrimage, a gradual transformation of one thing into something else. Yet the call of the open road (a/k/a wanderlust) resurfaces periodically even when not specifically religious in motivation. The great westward migration of Europeans to North American and then Americans across the untamed frontiers attests to that venturing spirit. In literature, Jack London’s memoir The Road (1907) describes the hobo life hopping trains in the 1890s, while Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) tells of traveling across America by car. Another expression of wanderlust was penned by forgotten American poet Vachel Lindsay in his self-published War Bulletin #3 (1909):

Let us enter the great offices and shut the desk lids and cut the telephone wires. Let us see that the skyscrapers are empty and locked, and the keys thrown into the river. Let us break up the cities. Let us send men on a great migration: set free, purged of the commerce-made manners and fat prosperity of America; ragged with the beggar’s pride, starving with the crusader’s fervor. Better to die of plague on the highroad seeing the angels, than live on iron streets playing checkers with dollars ever and ever.

Lindsay invites his readers to embrace a life better lived traversing the landscape in a voyage of self-discovery. His version lacks the religious orientation of pilgrimage, but like the Medieval cultures depicted in film and music from the period, possesses tremendous appeal for modern Westerners starved of meaning that arises naturally out of tradition.

The Anton Bruckner symphony cycle recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan (the Wing Cycle to some collectors) has long been known to me and cherished. Based on Amazon reviews noting remastered and improved sound over previous releases of the same recorded performances, I decided the relatively low cost was worth trying out Blu-ray Audio, my first such disc. Although the entire cycle fits on a single Blu-ray Audio disc, nine CDs are included in the box. Duplication seems unnecessary, but the inclusion of both may be desirable for some listeners. Pleasingly, original cover art (the aforementioned wing) from the LPs appears on the 2020 rerelease. Shamefully, like another recent set of Bruckner symphonies, DG put the conductor’s name above the composer’s. This practice ought to stop. This review is about comparing versions/media in addition to reviewing the performances. Caveat: a superior stereo system is a prerequisite. If listening on some device not intended for high fidelity (phone, computer, etc.), save your dollars and find the recordings on a streaming service. Both CD and Blu-ray players in my system are connected to the preamp via digital cables to use the better DAC in the preamp rather than those in the players.

My comparison involves four releases of the cycle: (1) original LPs from the 1970s and 80s, (2) 1990 CDs, (3) 2020 CDs, and (4) the sole 2020 Blu-ray Audio disc. All are the same works and same performances. Direct A/B/C/D comparisons are difficult, and I didn’t listen to every version of each, which would have required far too many hours. Rather, I focused on two representative movements well established in my ear: the 2nd movt. (Adagio) of the 5th and the 4th movt. (Finale) of the 8th. Because every recording has its own unique characteristics borne out of the era (typically divided by decade), the engineering team, and the producer, it’s normal for me to attempt to “hear through” all the particulars of a recording to the actual performance. For a recording to be badly flawed or unlistenable is fairly exceptional, and I still tend to make mental adjustments to accommodate what I’m hearing. Similar perceptual adjustments in the visual spectrum known as “white balance” reflect how outdoor lighting and color shift as the sun transits across the sky. Accordingly, there is probably no such thing as authentic or natural sound as one’s perceptual apparatus adjusts automatically, accommodating itself to what is heard to fit circumstance. That said, it’s obvious that some recorded media and listening environments are superior to others.

Easy part first: comparison of (2), (3), and (4) revealed only minor differences at best. A tendency toward bright, treble-heavy equalization was not ameliorated with (3) or (4) as other reviewers suggested remastering had accomplished. With the 4th and 9th symphonies especially, sustained timpani rolls often mask the orchestra and were not appreciably rebalanced or improved. For ease or due to laziness, I tend to cue CDs before any other media. The Blu-ray disc offers substantially the same sound but lumps all the tracks together in one extended, numbered sequence (no track titles). Selecting a particular track is a minor inconvenience and requires the TV screen be on, at least initially. Given that, CDs will likely continue to be the first medium I reach for. Perceptual accommodation may also account for my inability to detect much difference among any of the CDs and/or Blu-ray Audio. However, no surprise to audiophiles and despite their drawbacks, LPs proved to be the warmest, most pleasing sound. A huge amount of gain (volume) was needed to bring the LPs up to the sound level of other media, which overcame surface noise handily. Of course, LPs wear and become distorted over time, and quality of the playback equipment matters quite a lot. But for focused listening sessions, LPs win the media challenge handily.

Hard part second: these performances are remarkable for two principal reasons, namely, consistently excellent (even definitive, some say) interpretations and uniformly sumptuous orchestral sound. Karajan is renowned for his three Beethoven symphony cycles and how he grasps and communicates structure far better than most. The quality is subtle but unmistakable, and the same is true with Bruckner. Like Wagner, Bruckner performance style has developed into a cult of slow in two aspects: passages best realized at surprisingly slow tempos (difficult to maintain and control) and the stately pace at which symphonic form and discussion unfolds. Many individual movements top 20 min. in duration. The Berlin Philharmonic handles them exceptionally well, meaning without apparent impatience or hurry. The Adagio of the 5th is one such example, where the slow introduction exhibits breadth and beauty of tone and critical evenness of pulse (pizzicati in the low strings). Although quite slow, the intro holds one’s attention without flagging, meandering, or luring listeners away toward more obvious excitements. The string tutti that follows immediately is among several passages in Karajan’s recorded oeuvre that overcompensates (for what is unclear) in glorious fashion. My LP is decidedly worn from repeat playing of this movement. No other recording of the 5th (to my knowledge) dares to approach Berlin’s volume and intensity in these first few minutes. Similarly, the Finale of the 8th barrels in with a declamatory tutti that has never sounded better. Everything about this movement works to the credit of the Berlin Philharmonic, especially when the orchestra slots into an ideal combination of tempo and balance at 5:45. This particular passage rarely fails to inspire me, but no other recording captures quite the same authority. Similarly, the gorgeous Wagner tuba solo in the Adagio of the 8th and the rolling, swinging momentum of the Scherzo of the 8th, through many iterations of the same basic motif, are achievements unmatched by other recordings. Further observations could be made throughout the cycle, specifying moments that remain unparalleled.

Overall, none of the symphonies in the Wing Cycle is weak. Each possesses Karajan’s characteristic, dignified approach. Worth noting is that numerous flubs and misalignments are left in, which some critics assess as sloppiness — a quintessential characteristic often mentioned regarding Karajan recordings. To note counters, these represent unforgivable errors to be covered by retakes and/or editing. However, this human quality, audibly distinct from the overproduced and heartlessly punctilious perfection of many modern recordings (especially multitrack, quantized recordings found in pop and rock music), does not detract. Rather, a certain verisimilitude is presented, just like live performance. Truly being in the moment means accepting minor flaws to preserve the larger musical flow. Maybe this is how Karajan embodies a structural vision of the works, obliterated in other recorded performances by piecing together too many disparate parts. Hard to say.

Digressing somewhat, three orchestras dominate the field when it comes to recordings of Bruckner symphonies: the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO), the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO), and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). The BPO and VPO are similar in approach and sound and are well represented in their respective discographies. (The VPO lacks a unified cycle under one conductor.) However, the CSO achieves its fairly unique results with this repertoire through an unusually high level of technical mastery — both individually and in aggregate — and through sheer, overwhelming, even outrageous volume and focus in the tuttis, led by the storied CSO brass section. Critics may complain of brass players swamping the orchestra and turning the whole endeavor into a wind symphony, such an overweening approach being better suited to overt hysterics of Russian symphonists such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. That judgment is rather reductive, considering how Bruckner scored his orchestral works with ample time devoted to each section of the orchestra. As performer and brass player, the blazing thrills delivered by the CSO (in its heyday) have an extraordinary pull on my musical sensibilities.

The CSO’s two cycles under Barenboim and Solti are less consistently good than the Wing Cycle, but when individual entries are good, they’re very good indeed. For instance, the opening horn solo of the 4th (CSO under Barenboim) is perfection, as is the amazing modulating chorale undergirded by the tuba later in the movement. The main climax of the Adagio of the 4th (still CSO under Barenboim) is probably the most exuberant, shattering symphonic climax I’ve ever heard (Shosti 7 under Bernstein may exceed it but only by virtue of the double brass section). Solti’s highlights are the extended coda of the Finale of the 5th, the coda of the 1st movt. of the 9th, and nearly the whole of the 6th for its raw power and precision. Lots of other recordings I could mention, including Giulini’s two remarkable 9ths (frankly terrifying with the CSO but more cosmic with the VPO). The only orchestras that match the CSO for power and intensity are the BPO and VPO. However, European orchestras perform differently together and seldom display the same technical brilliance or volume of American orchestras. Instead, they sound more soulful. These characteristics are impossible to quantify, like the sound of LPs vs. CDs, but are readily apparent upon hearing. Further, both are valid approaches, able to satisfy musical tastes and objectives differently.

Ours is an era when individuals are encouraged to explore, amplify, and parade various attributes of their identities out in public, typically via social media. For those just coming of age and/or recently having entered adulthood, because identity is not yet fully formed, defining oneself is more nearly a demand. When identity is further complicated by unusual levels of celebrity, wealth, beauty, and athleticism (lots of overlap there), defining oneself is often an act of rebellion against the perceived demands of an insatiable public. Accordingly, it was unsurprising to me at least to learn of several well-known people unhappy with their lives and the burdens upon them.

Regular folks can’t truly relate the glitterati, who are often held up aspirational models. For example, many of us look upon the discomforts of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle with a combination of perverse fascination and crocodile tears. They were undoubtedly trapped in a strange, gilded prison before repudiating the duties expected of them as “senior royals,” attempting an impossible retreat to normalcy outside of England. Should be obvious that they will continue to be hounded while public interest in them persists. Similarly, Presley Gerber made news, fell out of the news, and then got back into the news as a result of his growing collection of tattoos. Were he simply some anonymous fellow, few would care. However, he has famous parents and already launched a modeling career before his face tattoo announced his sense of being “misunderstood.” Pretty bold move. With all the presumed resources and opportunities at his disposal, many have wondered in comments and elsewhere whether another, better declaration of self might have been preferred.

Let me give these three the benefit of doubt. Although they all have numerous enviable attributes, the accident of birth (or in Markle’s case, decision to marry) landed them in exceptional circumstances. The percentage of celebrities who crack under the pressure of unrelenting attention and proceed to run off the rails is significant. Remaining grounded is no doubt easier if one attains celebrity (or absurd immense wealth) after, say, the age of 25 or even later. (On some level, we’ve all lost essential groundedness with reality, but that’s another blog post.) Those who are children of celebrities or who become child prodigies may not all be consigned to character distortion or a life irrevocably out of balance, but it’s at least so commonplace that the dangerous potential should be recognized and embraced only with wariness. I’ve heard of programs designed to help professional athletes who become sudden multimillionaires (and thus targets of golddiggers and scammers) make the transition. Good for them that structured support is available. Yet another way average folks can’t relate: we have to work things out for ourselves.

Here’s the example I don’t get: Taylor Swift. She was the subject of a Netflix biography called Miss Americana (2020) that paints her as, well, misunderstood. Thing is, Swift is a runaway success story, raking in money, fans, awards, attention, and on balance, detractors. That success is something she earnestly desired and struggled to achieve only to learn that the glossy, popstar image sold especially but nonexclusively to 14-year-old girls comes with a lot of heavy baggage. How can the tragic lives of so many musicians launched into superstardom from the late 1950s onward have escaped Swift’s awareness in our media-saturated world? Naming names is sorta tacky, so I demur, but there are lots of them. Swift obtained her heart’s desire, found her songwriting and political voice, maintains a high public profile, and shows no lack of productivity. Sure, it’s a life out of balance, not remotely normal the way most noncelebrities would understand. However, she signed up for it willingly (if naïvely) and by all accounts perpetuates it. She created her own distinctive gilded prison. I don’t envy her, nor do I particularly feel sorry for her, as the Netflix show appears to instruct.