Tag Archives: Gustav Mahler

Omnibus (week of March 11, 2018)

Another busy week, another paltry instalment of Omnibus. Still, some good stuff here.

Eight reviews.

Movies

Thor: Ragnarok — I don’t normally watch Marvel movies unless I’m seeing them in a theatre with friends. That’s what they’re for. They’re an outing. But I’d heard enough good things about this one that I made a point of actually sitting down and watching it myself. It is without a doubt one of the very top-tier Marvel movies. Black Panther, this, Civil War, and maybe the first Avengers. Those are the ones that really make the MCU concept worthwhile. In this particular case we have a movie directed by somebody with a distinctive comedic sensibility, Taika Waititi, packed with a cast of outstanding comic performers — some of whom haven’t gotten to do as much straight comedy in their Marvel roles as you’d like. Partially I’m thinking of Chris Hemsworth. But it applies even more to Mark Ruffalo, who is hysterically funny in this, as both Bruce Banner and a slightly more verbal incarnation of Hulk. But the scene stealers are all newcomers. Tessa Thompson is brilliant in the hitherto unconceived-of role of “drunk Valkyrie.” Waititi himself absolutely kills as the universe’s most ineffectual revolutionary. (My favourite line in the whole movie is “Piss off, ghost! … He’s freakin’ gone.”) Best of all, Jeff Goldblum is here, and he Jeffs as Goldblum as he’s ever Jeffed, all over this whole damn movie. (“Wow, I didn’t hear any thunder, but out of your fingers — was that, like, sp-sparkles?”) Also, let’s talk aesthetics. Firstly, the Marvel Symphonic Universe problem is solved at last by none other than Mark Mothersbaugh, who delivers an electronic score that kicks ass when it needs to, and is just as content to camp it up in the comic scenes. Also, this is the first Thor movie to really take advantage of the fact that a key element of Norse mythology is the RAINBOW BRIDGE. We have some colours going on. Thank god. Also — and I don’t want to overemphasize this, because ultimately Thor: Ragnarok is just a well-made, silly fantasy comedy — we have a sly anti-colonial narrative on our hands, here. We learn that Odin took the nine realms by force with Hela as his executioner, then covered the whole thing up because of, I dunno, public image troubles? The need to suppress revolution? This is how colonialism works. This movie isn’t Black Panther — it is not explicitly political. But for every couple dozen good gags, there’s one halfway decent insight. I’ll take it. Pick of the week.

Annihilation — I liked it, but I wanted to love it. It’s possible I was overhyped for it. I was told it was bonkers. I’d heard comparisons to 2001, which is always going to be hyperbole. But I was hoping at least for something with a layer of abstraction to it — something that would cause me to leave the theatre wondering what actually happened. This isn’t that kind of movie. It isn’t especially open to interpretation. It isn’t The Tree of Life. It isn’t The Fountain. It’s a movie I will inevitably like better on a second viewing, because I will be able to approach it on its own terms, rather than on the terms of the movie I hoped it would be. That said, there is much to love about it on a first viewing: the casting is good, with Natalie Portman giving a creditable lead performance bolstered by outstanding supporting performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson. And it really is a visual feast. Even its mundane shots are elegant. (It envisions the savage wilderness with more atmosphere than The Lost City of Z did, and that movie’s visuals were the one thing that lived up the the hype.) And when the monsters, mutant plants, and hallucinatory cosmic phenomena begin to crop up, it truly becomes a wonder. Annihilation is a good movie. Chalk it up to unreasonable expectations.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “When Fiction Lives in Fiction,” “A Defense of the Kabbalah” & the prologue to Bartleby the Scrivener — I waltzed into the Paper Hound the other day, a rather excellent small bookshop on Pender Street. “Just browse a little,” I said to myself. “Maybe pick up something light,” I said to myself. Six pounds of books later, I find myself leafing through the selected non-fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, whose essays read much like his fiction does — because so many of his stories are formatted as essays on books that simply don’t exist. My first casual flip through these characteristically miniature pieces includes three essays on topics I find particularly interesting these days: metafiction, the Kabbalah, and Herman Melville. The Bartleby prologue is primarily about Moby-Dick. It is the piece in which he refers to it as “the infinite novel,” an appraisal that many editions of Moby-Dick still trumpet on their back covers today. He should have said “the fathomless novel,” but this is a translation and I shouldn’t quibble. In any case, I should also probably actually read Bartleby the Scrivener, because I sort of have no idea what this is all about. “When Fiction Lives in Fiction” contains a suggestion that I find intensely seductive. Borges suggests that we find metafiction creepy because we look at a story within a story and feel as though we ourselves may only be part of an endless chain of fictions, subject to the wills of the storytellers beyond the veil. (I brought this up in my comics writing class today, and our instructor compared the idea to the distressingly popular Silicon Valley notion that we are all in a simulation, because simulations would exist within simulations, ergo there must be a long chain of simulations and it’s infinitesimally unlikely that we’re at the top of the chain. I thought that was quite clever. My instructor’s comparison, mind you — not the actual idea. The idea is nonsense.) I feel as though I’ve read Borges saying this in a more direct way, but it’s hinted at here. Maybe I’m just connecting the dots myself. Who can say. This essay also contains some favourable remarks on Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, one of my favourite novels, and a deeply Borgesian book — by design or not. The Kabbalah essay contains a contention that I find rather interesting: “every object whose end is unknown to us is provisionally monstrous.” He’s talking about God, whose endlessness isn’t necessarily something to be worshipped in Borges’s view, but rather something to be put off by. That idea that the things that extend beyond our field of vision — things we can only see in part, if at all — connects this essay with the metafiction essay. Borges is distressed by the notion of God for the same reason he’s distressed by stories within stories: both make him feel like he’s not in control of the strings. I sympathize. Again and again, reading Borges feels like talking to a really smart friend.

Elaine M. Will: Look Straight Ahead — A webcomic assigned in the comics writing class I’m taking. I was uncertain about it at first, because if anything it is a too accurate portrayal of the overwrought inner monologue of a high school student. But once the main thrust of the story gets underway, which deals with a psychotic break that goes far beyond standard adolescent alienation, it picks up steam. The visual presentation of the protagonist’s psychosis is deeply immersive and makes up for some lingering weaknesses in the dialogue and captioning. Fine.

Music

Gustav Mahler/Leonard Bernstein, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra & Helmut Wittek: Symphony No. 4 — Oftentimes when I’m writing these reviews, I’ll throw on a symphony. Usually it’s something I’ve reviewed before, or else I don’t get through the whole thing and it’s not worth remarking on, so I don’t. I’m not sure why I love symphonic music particularly for this kind of writing, but it’s increasingly what I fall back on. As I type this, I am listening to this particular recording over a glass of rather good Australian petite sirah. One must have these little rituals — even at the risk of becoming a caricature of one’s self. *sip* As for the recording, it’s one of two Mahler fours I return to, the other being the CanCon preference, Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s recording with Orchestre Métropolitain. I believe that was the second Mahler recording I ever bought, after a deeply dodgy Naxos recording of the eighth, which remains one of my least favourite Mahler symphonies, even in a good recording. (Chailly’s recording wins, BTW, and not only because it’s got Ben Heppner at his best. That does help, though.) Still, as much as I find nostalgic value in the YNS recording, I’m always going to go for Bernstein in a pinch. He’s a legendary Mahler conductor for a reason: he brings out all the music’s extremity and drama. There’s nobody who imbues this music with more energy than Bernstein, and energy is what’s called for. Mahler is not Bach. He is not one of those composers whose music seems to unveil natural laws. He is a composer who writes his own rules — his music is intensely human and requires a human interpretation. I’ll always prefer hearing an adult soprano (i.e. Karina Gauvin in YNS’s recording) to a boy soprano. But that aside, Bernstein’s rendition of this most light and pleasant Mahler symphonies is a treasure.

Podcasts

This American Life: “20 Acts in 60 Minutes” — A classic of the genre. Ira Glass once told Chris Gethard that his favourite episodes of This American Life are the ones where they break the format. This episode from 15 years ago is one of the most explicit of those. It features no fewer than 20 stories, many of them from producers who have gone on to become icons. Jonathan Goldstein tells the story of the time the Penguin (the Batman villain) meets Mary Poppins, and they find they have little in common save for airborne umbrella travel. Starlee Kine talks to an actor about the most mortifying moment his quasi-celebrity has ever brought him. Scott Carrier falls in love. Davids Sedaris and Rakoff do their respective things. Chuck Klosterman compares things to other things. But the best stories come from incarcerated youths. A pair of newly-minted investigative reporters in a juvenile delinquency centre look into the possibility that the kitchen staff has been urinating in the pudding. And a troupe of teenage girls in another facility apologize to their families — in song. Outstanding. The sort of thing that makes people want to become radio producers. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Courtney Barnett, Exitmusic, Okkervil River, More,” “Margaret Glaspy Writes A Bookend to ‘Emotions And Math,’” “Guest DJ: Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats Hop Across An Eclectic Playlist” & “SXSW 2018 Preview” — I have decided that All Songs needs to be a bigger part of my life this year, because it is a legitimately excellent way to get turned on to music that might be part of the critical conversation — but also weird stuff that’s going to get overlooked. In these episodes, I heard music I loved by Courtney Barnett (whose debut I still need to hear in full), Margaret Glaspy, Les McCann (thank you, Guest D.J. Nathaniel Rateliff), Chloe Foy & Skyway Man. Who’s to say if I’ll ever dig in further, but their names are now on my blog, and I’ll know if I ever look back here that these are musicians I once enjoyed, and should maybe have a listen again. I intend to listen to their complete SXSW coverage this coming week. Should be enlightening.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Atlanta” & “Talk Show Talk” — I have to watch Atlanta. I’ve been told by many many people, and by one person many many times, that I have to watch Atlanta. Soon. But this week’s standout PCHH is the talk show episode, featuring Guy Branum, host of Pop Rocket, a ruder and less insightful PCHH on which he is the bright light. They even momentarily made me understand Jimmy Fallon. Also, there’s a particularly nice moment here where Linda Holmes rediscovers why she’s friends with Glen Weldon by way of Cole Porter. This show almost never gets my pick of the week, nor will it this week. And it doesn’t show up on my year-end lists, because it’s a really weird thing to stack up against, I dunno, The Heart. Or even Code Switch, which does get out of the studio from time to time to make something a bit more ambitious than your standard panel chat. But I routinely enjoy Pop Culture Happy Hour more than anything else on my subscription list, and I love when I’ve got a backlog of episodes to listen to, because it’s so much fun.

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Omnibus (week of Jan 14, 2018)

I’ve had a big week for wasting time, and also a big week for getting stuff done that allows me to also listen to stuff simultaneously. You may enjoy the fruits of my labours below.

25 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — It’s been ages, but I went back to Achewood this week and fell right back in. I got the the end of 2004 in the comics, which was also the year when Onstad started writing in-character blogs as all of the major characters. I’m making my way through the first year of those now, because what’s a rabbit hole if you only go halfway down? The blogs are interesting because they’re less explicitly comedic than the strips are. They’re basically sincere character studies where every single character seems unique and well-rounded. That makes them a bit of a mixed bag. Ray’s blog, for instance, is intermittently insufferable because Ray is a rich asshole whose life is a fantasy from a men’s magazine. Seen from a third-person perspective, this is always funny. But when it comes straight from him, it can be rough going because he’s less ridiculous when seen through his own eyes. But the blog never drifts out of character, which is a testament to what a fantastic writer Chris Onstad is. Other characters fare better. I’m particularly fond of Pat’s blog, because Pat is the least sympathetic character in the strip, and thus the most likely to have a completely insufferable blog. So the very existence of the thing is a joke in itself. Also, it features a plotline in which Pat attempts to place the mailman under citizen’s arrest because in Pat’s crazed worldview, junk mail constitutes litter. Achewood is a marvel. It’s a whole universe. I love it.

Movies

The Shape of Water — I’ve always loved Guillermo del Toro as a visual stylist, but the only movie of his that really stuck with me for some time after I watched it was Pan’s Labyrinth. I think what I liked about it was that it presents a very simple metaphor about childhood trauma and takes for granted that you’ll pick up on it. So, it just focuses on telling a story and, even more crucially, presenting a cavalcade of memorable and distressing images. The Shape of Water is much the same. It is not a subtle movie. It finds del Toro wielding Michael Shannon like a bludgeon. More troublingly, it also finds him casting Octavia Spencer as a walking trope, which, ugh. That makes the movie’s central civil rights metaphor a tad less resonant. But all of the stuff that del Toro packs around that metaphor is really marvellous. Maybe the best light to see the movie in is as a tribute to the romances of golden-age Hollywood. Del Toro has always been a film geek first, a storyteller second. And this movie finds him geeking out not only about monster movies, which is his perpetual obsession, but also with musicals and melodrama. And look: there are days when I’m a chilly aesthete, and there are days when I’m totally on board for a musical monster melodrama. This hit me on one of the latter kinds of days.

Coco — I don’t much like to cry in public, so there were some uncomfortable moments in this. *sniff* Coco has one of the most satisfying narrative switcheroos I’ve seen in a while. If you’ve seen it, you know the one. It’s a late-game reveal that I genuinely did not see coming, which is also the element the film’s emotional impact hangs on. Where Inside Out’s effect comes from a sustained melancholy, Coco’s comes from a single surprise gut punch. And what a gut punch it is. I don’t like this quite as much as Inside Out or WALL-E, which remain my two favourite Pixar movies. (Were they this good when I was an actual child??) But Coco goes beyond those movies in a couple of ways. First off, it takes place partially in a convincing (according to my Mexican friend) version of small-town Mexico. Its visual style is a pretty brilliant amalgam of Mexican art and architecture with Pixar’s usual fantastical whimsy. Once the movie finds its way to the land of the dead, it really turns into a visual marvel. And it’s not just the setting — it gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that most of its characters are skeletons and can thus be deconstructed and rearranged at will. There’s a character in this, Hector, who is maybe the closest any animator has gotten to the genie in Aladdin in the past ten years. Story-wise, the tension that drives Coco is the same as in Ratatouille: there’s a kid who wants to be an artist but his family forbids it. But where Ratatouille portrays its protagonist’s family as mere philistines, Coco manages to find a reason why they act like they do that makes them sort of sympathetic. I think that points to a way that children movies have matured since I was a kid: there doesn’t have to be an obvious villain anymore. Coco does have a villain, but for the bulk of the movie the key antagonists are the hero’s own family, who basically have some version of his best interest at heart. This is much more subtle than The Lion King. This is charming. And I’ll note one final detail: the town it takes place in is called Santa Cecilia. Cecilia is the patron saint of music in Catholicism, and thus a significant symbolic figure in this story. Nothing’s an accident in a Pixar movie.

Music

Gustav Mahler/Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra et al.: Symphony No. 3 — Man, it’s probably been five years since I listened to this. Famously long, obviously. But when you’re sitting at home with a glass of Petite Sirah (I am a caricature of myself) and a few open browser tabs, it flies right by. The scherzo is one of my favourite movements in Mahler’s whole oeuvre. I remember learning the offstage trumpet parts back when that was a sort of thing I did, and for all of their endurance challenges, they are some of the most satisfying orchestral excerpts I ever had to practice. There’s a haunting delicacy to that section that’s the sort of thing only Mahler can muster. This isn’t altogether one of my favourite Mahler symphonies, but even his lesser works are essential, to me. And that scherzo. Man oh man.

Bruce Springsteen: The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle — I think I prefer this to Darkness on the Edge of Town. I definitely prefer it to The River. Elements of it feel in retrospect like a warm-up for Born to Run, but it has an unexpected soul element that Springsteen wouldn’t really revisit after this. And I like that facet of this record. Much of the credit should likely go to David Sancious, a marvellous keyboardist who makes his final E Street Band appearance here, to be replaced by the equally brilliant but totally different Roy Bittan. Sancious is all kinds of funky throughout. “The E Street Shuffle” is a truly rollicking opener, and it’s the sort of thing that just wouldn’t fly on either of Springsteen’s next two albums. It’s got the requisite keen observational poetry, but it’s just too… fun for Born to Run or Darkness. Pete Townshend once said “When Bruce Springsteen sings, that’s not ‘fun.’ That’s fucking triumph.” It’s presumably those two albums, and Born to Run in particular, that he was talking about. The element of that classic style that E Street Shuffle is missing on about half of its songs is the profound romance — the seriousness. And while that makes it a less effective album, it also makes it a fundamentally different one, which can serve a different purpose in your rotation. On the other hand, if you’re worn out on “Jungleland” and “Backstreets,” “Incident on 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade” can easily fill in for them.

Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska — I can see myself coming to like this Springsteen album best of all. The guts it takes to make a record like this at that point in a career, I tell you. He’d just had his first major hit with “Hungry Heart,” and he comes back with an album of what were meant to be demos of almost unrelentingly bleak songs. But even that doesn’t quite get to the gutsiness of this release: try and think of a solo artist whose sound is more dependent on their band than Bruce Springsteen. The E Street Band is a way bigger part of their particular equation than, say, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was of theirs. And yet this album happened. Thank god Columbia Records had the guts to let it happen, too. Because, different as it is from everything else in his imperial phase, Nebraska has a delicate beauty that makes it stand up alongside Born to Run in terms of its ability to connect. Its palate of mostly acoustic guitar with a few ornamentations and a generous dollop of reverb reminds me of the first Bon Iver album, except made in 1982. My personal highlights are “Highway Patrolman,” which has a gorgeous melody and lyrics that compel you to actively listen to the story, and “Reason to Believe,” which may only feel as strong as it does because it’s positioned at the end of the album. After so many stories of hardship and wrongdoing, it’s nice to hear Springsteen sing about people’s tendency to keep their chin up in spite of it. I’m still processing this. I can tell I’ll be listening to it a lot.

Television

The Good Place: Every episode thus far — Look, I had some spare time this week, and not a lot of willpower to be productive. It’s been a dog’s age since I had a good long binge, so I binged on this. I am a big fan of Michael Schur, primarily because of Parks and Rec: a show that was one of television’s greatest joke factories, and also had a cast of characters it’s almost dangerously easy to get invested in. The Good Place is an astonishing show, but for neither of those reasons. The Good Place is the first television comedy I’ve watched entirely out of interest in the story. I’m not sure I’ve watched a show whose fundamental rules change as often as this one’s. Maybe Lost. But I’d wager that the twists-per-minute ratio of this show is even higher. I’m going to leave it there. If you’re thinking about watching this, watch it. Don’t read anything more about it, just watch it. If you don’t find it funny, just keep watching it. You will eventually realize there’s a sort of virtuosic storytelling at work here that is incredibly rare in TV comedy. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Love and Radio: “The Machine” & “The Secrets Hotline, Vol. II” — The secrets episode is much the same as the first one, which is to say it’s a bunch of secrets told anonymously on an answering machine. It’s great. “The Machine” is a really great story about a guy who bulldozed a bunch of his town before committing suicide, and managed to be remembered as some kind of hero. Being the show that this is, nothing is allowed to be that simple. It’s great.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Levee Stream Live from New Orleans” — A live episode consisting of interviews taking place in the seat of a sawed-in-half Cadillac, this is the sort of thing that could only come from a collaboration including the Kitchen Sisters. New Orleans is a super cool place I really want to visit, and this is a great evocation of its contemporary culture.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — The highlight of the slew of PCHH I listened to this week was their annual resolutions and predictions show, which I always love because they’re always so wrong except for Kat Chow. Good listening.

The Hilarious World of Depression: “Linda Holmes Leaves Law to Concentrate On Watching TV and It Works Out Great” — It’s always a shock when you learn about the difference between a person’s public-facing aspect and their private life. I’ve been following Linda Holmes’s work for NPR and as the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour for years, including during the period that she identifies during this interview as a mental health crisis. It was never less than amazing. I hadn’t listened to this show before, and I’m not sure it’s necessarily for me, but this is a really good conversation. Holmes’s story really demonstrates that there are gradations of depression and anxiety and that even the lower gradations need to be acknowledged and dealt with. Lovely stuff.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “The Puppet Master” — This starts off as a pretty ordinary episode of Beautiful/Anonymous with a guest of middling interest. Then he laughs. And as soon as Chris Gethard hears this guy’s laugh, we’re off to the races. I listened to this on a train at seven in the morning. I had to keep pausing it because I was losing my shit. There’s nothing like listening to people laughing. And he really does turn out to be interesting later. Everybody is. That’s the point of this show.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Darren Aronofsky,” “Marc’s Family” & “Ta-Nehisi Coates” — These are all great episodes. Aronofsky turns out to be quite funny and engaging. He was a fan of Maron’s from way back in his struggling stand-up days. Also, Maron hasn’t seen the end of mother! He’s actually interviewing Darren Aronofsky about that movie without having seen it all. I love that. The episode of conversations between Maron and members of his family feels like some much-needed catch-up on the years of the podcast that I missed. And the Ta-Nehisi Coates interview is completely scintillating. Maron is enraptured with this guy, and Coates just loves how good he is at listening. It’s fabulous. Listen to that one.

The Organist: “How to Be in Two Places at Once: The Firesign Theatre in the US and Vietnam” — I am so glad this show exists. We need more arts and culture podcasts that are about long-form storytelling rather than conversation and criticism. I love those shows too, but I feel like Studio 360’s American Icons series has been cornering the market for long enough. I actually found a record by the Firesign Theatre in the five dollar bin at my local record store while I was digging for a gag gift recently. I did not pick it up, but it left me wondering about what it was. Apparently, they were a group of avant-garde comedians and sound artists who made records that had a substantial countercultural impact in their day. This is a good introduction to Firesign because it focuses not on the members of the troupe themselves, but on the people who listened to and understood the records in various contexts. Too often arts journalists default to interviewing the artists. The artists are arguably the least important people involved in a work of art. I will listen to this show a lot, I think.

Trump Con Law catch-up — The episode about whether or not you can prosecute a president is maybe the archetypal example of this show: it opens up the possibility that a thing you want to happen could happen, then shuts it down and makes you realize that it might not actually be a good idea anyway. I’m getting into this now, even if it kind of makes me even more fearful.

On the Media: “The End Is the Beginning” — Come for the retrospective on early third-wave feminism, stay for the tribute to the late Joe Frank — a radio producer I didn’t know and now am in love with.

Uncivil: “Song” — Basically, “Dixie,” the song widely regarded as the anthem of the Confederacy, was written by a white Yankee. Except actually no, it wasn’t, because it was probably taught to him by a black man. It’s a complicated, compelling story and if you want it in detail, this episode is the place to be.

Longform: “Zoe Chace” — Chace is one of my favourite This American Life producers, but the story of how she got there is pretty familiar. You just get an internship to get your foot in the door and do everything you can to stay there forever. That’s the gist of this, though it’s a good conversation because she’s good at talking.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia (part ii)” & “False Flags” — The second utopia episode features an attempt at utopia that seems to be falling apart less than the attempts in the first episode. But that’s because nobody there regards it as a utopia. So that’s interesting. But it’s “False Flags” that really caught my attention. Benjamen Walker merges his argument about the increasing prevalence of conspiracy theories with an amusing fictional vignette about him getting yelled at in the airport. That’s what I come to this show for.

The Daily: “Special Episode: The Year in Sound” — This is largely Barbaro-less: a collage of mostly Trump-adjacent sound bites from a completely insane year. Remember Scaramucci? I had completely forgotten about that guy. What kind of a year lets you forget that Anthony Scaramucci was in the White House for, what was it, a week?

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Secrets,” episodes 1 & 2 — This new series from Radiotopia’s rotating exhibition space is not particularly experimental or innovative, but both of these episodes have told really compelling stories. The first is about an undercover cop, and the second is about a wildlife photographer who faked his photos. Start with either.

Home of the Brave: “Two More Stories About Mountains” — The first of these two guest stories is an interview with Scott Carrier, with added music. But it’s the second that knocked me flat. “The Ascent to K-2” is a story by Joe Frank, who was still alive when Carrier released this episode, but who died shortly after. I became aware of him thanks to On the Media, and heard my first full piece of his thanks to this. This is an intensely odd narrative about the strangest (totally made up) attempt to climb K-2 that has ever been undertaken. It is radio storytelling at its oddest and best. Pick of the week.

The Turnaround: “The Turnaround with Dick Cavett” — Ah, I forgot how much I enjoy hearing Jesse Thorn interview people about interviewing. Cavett is good fun, and he taught me a new word. I’m going to paraphrase my favourite part of this interview. Cavett says, I think the lack of a sense of humour is the ultimate lack. It is un-human and inhuman. Thorn says, I wonder if the president finds anything funny. I’ve never seen him laugh at something funny. Cavett says, oh no, he’s a born clodpate. CLODPATE! I love it. Great stuff.

99% Invisible: “Mini-Stories: Volume 4” & “Thermal Delight” — This might be my favourite batch of mini-stories yet, but “Thermal Delight” came and went from my brain. To be fair, I was in the heat of cooking at the time, and sometimes that happens. It’s nobody’s fault but mine.

Code Switch: “This Racism Is Killing Me Inside” — This is about weathering, which is one of the most unsettling effects of racism. If you want to know more, you should listen to this episode. This should be a show you listen to always.

Vagabond + Tombstone = “Frère Jacques” in a Minor Key

Ken Russell clearly revered the composer Gustav Mahler. The eccentric filmmaker stated in his autobiography: “Only clichés can describe what nobody has ever been able to portray: a vision of God. Mahler got so near it.”

The characteristic that sets Russell’s Mahler apart from other music biopics is how doggedly it focusses on Mahler’s music itself, rather than simply telling the story of the composer’s life. Russell almost seems to be analyzing the music through images, at times. This is difficult terrain for a filmmaker to tread upon. I’m going to explain why, and it might get technical. Stay with me:

Film is a series of photographic images. At its most basic, it is a document of objects that were actually present in front of the camera, and therefore exist in space. It is a medium for concrete images. If that’s true, then music is the anti-film. Abstract by definition, it may evoke moods or trigger images, but these are, at best, subjective.

What I mean is this: If I showed 50 people a picture of a grey cat and asked them what the image was of, they’d probably all give me the same simple response: “It’s a picture of a grey cat.” But if I played you and your 49 friends a melody and asked what it makes them think of, I might just as likely get “marble columns,” “hibernating bear,” or “a craving for pancakes” as “grey cat.” The smartest of you would probably say “nothing,” or “that’s a stupid question,” because there’s something fundamental about music that you understand: there can be no specific meaning attached to a melody, or a chord sequence, taken in isolation.

That’s not to say that music can’t take on meaning, if it is effectively paired with something more concrete, like an image, or a narrative, or words. Think of ballets, operas, film scores and (obviously) songs. Music is malleable. It has no meaning of its own, so you can make it mean whatever you want.

Here’s the flip side of that idea: music, being abstract, steadfastly resists translation into any other medium. You could rework a story as a film. A scene from a novel could form the basis of a painting. You could even reverse those processes, with a modicum of creative license. But we’re still waiting for the day when we can sit through the credits of a film and see the words “adapted from Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 76, No. 2.”

(I should note here that this idea of music not representing anything specific is contentious. I have at least two former music teachers who would shudder to read this. But, among those in my corner is Igor Stravinsky, who argues this perspective in his Poetics of Music, and also in a famous essay accompanying his 1923 Octet. So, I feel vindicated. Also, this guy.)

Here’s what this all adds up to: music communicates to its audience on a different, more ephemeral level than any other medium. (You could argue for abstract painting or sculpture, I suppose, but I’ll leave that for people who know something about it.) That’s why Hector Berlioz can write a brilliant symphony based on a trite, overwrought story of his own devising. Ultimately the audience is not experiencing a narrative, they’re experiencing something else. To delve too deeply into Berlioz’s story (or for that matter, the plots of most operas) would be to miss the point. Taken out of context, the story is trite. In context, it’s sublime. Berlioz could’ve written a novel but he didn’t; he knew better. The same applies to, say, Mahler.

Phew, we’ve made it back to Ken Russell.

Now you can see why film is a risky medium in which to attempt an analysis of a piece of music: a filmmaker could easily throw the narrative elements of a symphony up on a screen, but in doing so he would be presenting them in a context that they weren’t meant for, thereby casting the music in a less-than-favourable light.

Russell veers dangerously close to this in parts of Mahler. But in one scene, Russell’s analysis actually works.

The feat occurs in one of Russell’s famous fantasy sequences, following Mahler’s heart attack on a train. Here, Mahler (Robert Powell) envisions his own funeral, at which he is alive and trapped inside a casket. His wife, Alma (Georgina Hale), and her lover (Richard Morant) take delight in the proceedings.

The sequence is scored largely by the slow movement of the First Symphony. This movement contains one of Mahler’s broader musical gestures: the inclusion of a mournful, minor-key adaptation of the folk song commonly known as “Frère Jacques.” The song is juxtaposed with a klezmer-like theme reflecting Mahler’s Jewish heritage. A standard interpretation of this movement holds that “Frère Jacques” may have originated as a tune sung by Catholics to taunt Jews. Thus, Mahler’s juxtaposition reflects a conflict that, as a Viennese Jew who converted to Catholicism for professional reasons, Mahler would have known well.

The consequences of Mahler’s heritage and conversion is a prominent theme in Russell’s film, but here, he ignores that element of the First Symphony. The sequence instead presents Mahler’s music as the same sort of Freudian dreamscape that Russell is so adept at creating. Russell uses the image of a vagabond figure (Ronald Pickup) from an earlier scene to connect the funeral to “Frère Jacques.” The vagabond was previously introduced in a flashback to Mahler’s youth, in which he teaches Mahler about the natural world, all the while playing “Frère Jacques” obsessively on his squeezebox. He appears playing his instrument atop a tall tombstone during Mahler’s funeral procession.

Ronald Pickup as "Nick"

Ronald Pickup as “Nick”

This image points out a specific feature of the music: the way Mahler has twisted “Frère Jacques” into a minor key. Perhaps the best way to explain it is this:

“Frère Jacques” = childhood = vagabond

minor key = death = tombstone

Thus,

vagabond + tombstone = “Frère Jacques” in a minor key

So, Russell is speculating about Mahler’s creative process and laying it bare on the screen: images collide in Mahler’s subconscious, and out comes music. The music reflects the odd juxtaposition between the images by producing its own odd juxtapositions.

Even if Russell’s analysis is unconvincing, you have to admire his method. He basically reverse-engineers Mahler’s music by putting it back inside his head. That’s pretty clever.