Category Archives: Art

An Ontario Tempest

The next Shakespeare@Stratford film to hit YouTube is the Festival’s 2018 production of The Tempest, premiering on Thursday, May 14 and running for three weeks.  Here’s my review from when my wife and I saw the play live in October of that year.

This is the third production of The Tempest we’ve seen at Stratford, Ontario; since we started attending in 2004, the Festival has usually marketed the play as a chance to catch an actor of high skill and reputation (and often getting on in years) in the role of Prospero. 2005’s Tempest served as a grand farewell for William Hutt, the most accomplished classical actor in Canada’s theatrical history; the 2010 production was built on Christopher Plummer returning to the scene of his earliest triumphs. This time around, the hook was seeing Martha Henry (since Hutt’s passing, the current Greatest Living Canadian Actor) playing the exiled magician — part of a season with multiple productions (a gender-swapped Julius Caesar and a gender-fluid Comedy of Errors, along with the drag-rock musical The Rocky Horror Show) trendily exploring postmodern conceptions of freedom.

But any dreams or fears of a transgressive Tempest faded quickly; Henry forthrightly played Prospero as female — duchess of Milan, mother of Miranda, wizard ruler of an uncharted, enchanted island — with a few modest tweaks of the script not even scuffing the verse rhythms, and that was that. (After all, it’s a fairy tale; if you’re worried about the lines of descent for Renaissance Italian nobility being messed up, you’ve come to the wrong play.) Even better, this was an ensemble Tempest, with Henry clearly featured, but also clearly first among equals. Rather than chewing scenery a la Plummer or waxing grandiloquent like Hutt, she drove the plot without swallowing the stage, working to provide for her daughter, bring those who exiled her to book, reward virtue and punish wrong with formidable focus, aplomb and dry humor. And all the while, she genuinely wrestled with conflicting impulses: would she take vengeance on her adversaries, or show them mercy? It’s a tribute to Henry’s and director Antoni Cimolino’s conception that, even if you knew the play, the answer wasn’t telegraphed.

The strong cast also elevated this production, consistently playing off Henry’s indispensable work while fruitfully developing their own characters. Andre Morin’s Ariel did Prospero’s bidding with delight, while holding her to the promise of eventual freedom; Michael Blake’s Caliban chafed convincingly under her authoritarian rule. For once, the shipwrecked mariners were three-dimensional characters, not plot tokens — the King of Naples Alonso (David Collins) ripely autocratic, Prospero’s usurping brother Antonio (Graham Abbey) convincingly sociopathic, counselor Gonzalo (Rod Beattie) more of a sage and less of a fool than usual. Tom McCamus as butler Stephano and Stephen Ouimette as jester Trinculo clowned to perfection, nailing every laugh possible whether on their own, with Caliban or with the ensemble. The young lovers were the most pleasant surprise; Ferdinand and Miranda can feel like weak sauce in the wrong hands, but Sebastien Heins & Mamie Zwettler were spunky, passionate, intelligent, fully cognizant of their developing affections — strong & spot-on.

And yes, the special effects and pageantry (serious creature puppetry by the ensemble of Spirits & Monsters at key moments, Festival stalwarts Chick Reid and Lucy Peacock regally presiding over Act Four’s celebratory wedding masque) were impressive as always. But Stratford productions go deepest when they cut to the heart — and this Tempest showed us, beyond its numerous charms and delights, the depth of Prospero’s sacrifice. To become truly great as well as truly free, the exiled ruler must serve her enemies as well as her friends — forgiving wrongs, securing Naples and Milan’s future through Ferdinand and Miranda’s marriage, releasing the spirits of the island, and abjuring her “rough magic.” Martha Henry’s reading of Shakespeare’s Epilogue – bereft but relieved, slyly humorous in its appeal to the audience for final release through prayer and applause – communicated both the cost of Prospero’s renunciations, and their true worth. It was a lovely end to the best, most bracing production of The Tempest we’ve seen at the Festival.

Watch the premiere of The Tempest on the Stratford Festival’s YouTube channel tomorrow at 7 pm EDT; a pre-show chat with Martha Henry, Mamie Zwettler and Antoni Cimilono starts at 6:30 pm.

— Rick Krueger

Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Songs of Yearning

I have never before heard anything quite like this album.  And since I first listened to it at a friend’s urging this past weekend, I find myself returning to it again and again.  It resists description, yet compels a response; it’s utterly fresh but feels like it’s been around forever.

Working as a loose creative collective since the mid-1980s, Liverpool’s Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus have consistently pursued what they describe as “echoes of the sacred” in their work, striving to access a sonic space where transcendence can invade a stiflingly measured-out world.   On their fourth album Songs of Yearning, they’ve discovered new room for rumors of glory to run, and the result is uniquely powerful, its resonance strikingly amplified by the shadows of doubt that now openly stalk our lives.

RAIJ’s music calls to mind much that I’ve heard and loved over the years — abstract soundscapes by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno; the “holy minimalism” of composers Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki; the sparse, charged post-rock Talk Talk found with Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, to name a few.   But comparisons to other artists fall short of describing Songs of Yearning’s rich mix of reticent modesty and bold experiment. Dissecting the music into its component parts — a breathtaking gamut of sound sourced from liturgy, folksong, chamber music, pop & rock of all stripes, ambience, industrial noise, found dialogue and much more — won’t do the trick either.  The only way to catch the breadth and depth of what’s here is to dive in:

Short and relatively direct as it is, “Celestine” unfolds the Revs’ approach with inviting clarity.  The simple acoustic guitar pattern and the female vocal in French doubled by bells — they’re straightforward enough.  But that flute — is it slightly out of tune, or carving out its own tonality?  The acoustic bass and harmony vocals — how is it they sound now consonant, now dissonant, flickering in and out of sync by the second?  And in the end, each layer goes its own way, ever so gently drifting apart harmonically and rhythmically, but still bound up in an organic, contemplative whole.

Continue reading Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Songs of Yearning

Shakespeare @ Stratford on YouTube

Since 1953, the little Ontario town of Stratford has hosted what is arguably North America’s premier repertory theater.  Down the decades, every summer the Stratford Festival has presented world-class productions of plays by William Shakespeare, along with other classics of the world stage and new, cutting-edge efforts.  (Not to mention musicals ranging from vintage Broadway to The Who’s Tommy.)

As with so many other performing arts institutions, Stratford’s 2020 season is currently on hold.  To fill the gap, the Festival’s YouTube channel kicked off free screenings of its Stratford on Film series last night — Shakespeare’s birthday — with an intense, gripping 2014 production of King Lear:

 

Each film of the series (an effort to film all of Shakespeare’s plays in ten years) will be available to view for 3 weeks, scheduled as below:

  • King Lear (2014): April 23 to May 14
  • Coriolanus (2018): April 30 to May 21
  • Macbeth (2016): May 7 to 28
  • The Tempest (2018): May 14 to June 4
  • Timon of Athens (2017): May 21 to June 11
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost (2015): May 28 to June 18
  • Hamlet (2015): June 4 to 25
  • King John (2014): June 11 to July 2
  • Pericles (2015): June 18 to July 9
  • Antony and Cleopatra (2014): June 25 to July 16
  • Romeo and Juliet (2017): July 2 to 23
  • The Taming of the Shrew (2015): July 9 to 30

My wife and I have been regular attenders at the Stratford Festival for over 15 years.  We return again and again because of the Festival’s consistently high quality  — an acting company of impressive craft, dedication and emotional heft, working together on the unique thrust stage of the Festival Theatre and other more intimate venues, creating utterly immersive artistic experiences.  (And all in a welcoming, delightful small town environment.)   We hope to return later this summer to see Richard III, Wolf Hall and Spamalot (!)  but in the meantime we agree: the Stratford on Film series is the next best thing to being there, and a first-class way to drink in Shakespeare’s luminous genius.

— Rick Krueger

The Passengers' Club by Big Big Train

While most of the western world celebrated Friday, February 14, as the secularized Feast of St. Valentine, preparing for a Cinema Show of epic proportions and armed with chocolate surprises, I celebrated it as International Big Big Train Day. 

Granted, by international, I mean several counties in Michigan, but still. . .

On Friday, February 14, Big Big Train launched its much anticipated web-based fan service, The Passengers’ Club. Let me state immediately: this is, by far, the best such service I have seen.  While I belong—rather proudly—to Marillion’s fan service, I have never been totally satisfied with it.  As much as I adore Marillion, I think the service is a tease.  More than anything else, I feel like my subscription subsidizes their advertisements to sell me more stuff.  Granted, I buy it, but I am less than completely satisfied with the service as a whole. Most frustrating by far, though, is Neal Morse’s fan service. I belonged to it for years—happily receiving several cds and dvds a year. Then, suddenly, it all just stopped, switching all of the great releases to mere downloads. Honestly, I feel as though I was totally ripped off. As such, I finally quit my membership about six months ago. I subscribed for a year too long. Trust me, don’t go near Morse’s service. Admittedly, I still love Morse’s music and his integrity, but he needs a serious reexamination of his attitude toward his followers.

BBT’s, however, is extraordinary. The service offers three levels of subscription: one year; two years; and lifetime. Though I am alone to blame, I initially only saw the first two subscription options, and I went for the two year.  Had I been thinking properly and had I been observing what should’ve been observed, I would’ve signed up for the lifetime subscription (Patron). If you’ve yet to subscribe, don’t overlook the Patron option. 

Through the service, BBT is offering music, videos, essays, and photos. Admittedly, the photos did not do that much for me (though, they’re fine photos), but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the other three sections (“platforms” in the presentation). 

The brightest highlight of The Passengers’ Club, though, is the music platform. Indeed, the two songs released thus far are worth the entire subscription price.  The first two songs are the 17-minute “Merchants of Light” and the (almost) three-minute long demo, “Capitoline Venus.” BBT promises new music and new content every two weeks for the next year and claims that we’ll be receiving four full CDs worth of music over the next two years. Though I’m only speculating, I’m assuming this is the equivalent (perhaps, a 1:1 perfect correspondence) of the long-discussed Station Master’s release.  

The second brightest highlight (close to the second brightest star, it turns out) is Greg’s writeup about the songs.  Stunning stuff, to be certain.  Not surprisingly, Greg is a master of the word—whether in essays or in lyrics.  I’d share some of what he’s written with you, but I agreed not to when I signed up for The Passengers’ Club, and, believe me, this is a trust I hold sacred.

Here’s hoping I’ll see you at the Concourse.

Go here to subscribe: https://thepassengersclub.com

Another Miracle: The Flower Kings at 25

Interior art, Flower Kings, WAITING FOR MIRACLES (Sony/Inside Out, 2019).

Looking death straight in the eye

You will never feel that much alive

—Roine Stolt

For anyone in the prog world, Roine Stolt is a grand and solid name, a trusted master of the craft and a man as honest about his opinions as anyone ever has been in the rock world. From The Flower Kings to Transatlantic to Anderson-Stolt to Steve Hackett’s band, Stolt is anywhere and everywhere excellence is. 

Simply put, when I think of Stolt, I imagine that other master of amazing things, Tom Bombadil. And, yes, that means Goldberry is nearby. “He is.”

The new Flower Kings, WAITING FOR MIRACLES, is a thing of beauty, delicate yet everlasting.  Sounding a bit like FLOWER POWER and SPACE REVOLVER, the new album has everything a fan loves: mystery, lingering, soaring, contemplating, undulation.

This is glorious and mighty prog.

The album opens with the fragile and compelling “House of Cards,” moving immediately into the Tennyson-esque rage against fate, “Black Flag.” Followed by ten-minute “Miracles for America,” a plea for the future of the free world, and then another ten-minute track, “Vertigo,” disk one is nothing if not dizzying.  If there’s a rock anthem on the album, it’s track no. five, “The Bridge,” which might very well have topped the rock charts in 1983, with its reminder of the theme of the album, “waiting for miracles.” “Ascending to the Stars,” track six of disk one, gives us a mysterious and dark Flower King, an instrumental and orchestra joy somewhat reminiscent of Kansas in its heyday. Despite its name, “Wicked Old Symphony” is the poppiest of the tracks on disk one, a track that hints at the Beatles as well as early 1970’s America. “The Rebel Circus,” track eight, is another wildly wacky and infectious instrumental, followed by the intense and aptly-named, “Sleeping with the Enemy.” The final track of disk one, “The Crowning of Greed,” is a poem, at once reflective in theme, and progressive in tone.

Disk two is much shorter than disk one, and I have no idea if it’s meant to be a “bonus disk” or a continuation of the album. That track one of disk two is a reprise of track one of disk one does nothing to answer my confusion about all of this. Track two, “Spirals,” is a feast of electronica and reminds us once again of the theme of the album: “Call on miracles—For America.” “Steampunk,” the third track of disk two, seems to take us back into the world of adventures. If “Black Flag” followed the voyages of Ulysses, “Steampunk” has us follow Aeneas. The final full track of the album, “We Were Always Here,” is a rather beautiful rock song, reminding us of life and its unending beauties. “It’s so simple in its purities/All that genius—life energies/like forgotten springs of melody.” Disk two ends with the 52-second long bluesy circus piece, “Busking at Brobank.”

Overall, WAITING FOR MIRACLES, is a joy.  It’s not just a joy as a Flower Kings album, it’s a joy as a rock album. Anyone serious about his or her rock music should add this to the collection. One final note—while I’m not wild about the cover art (too political for my tastes), I absolutely love the interior art, making a physical purchase of WAITING a must.

P.S. I proudly bought my copy from my favorite store, Burning Shed.

In Praise of Compact Discs

Compact Disc edit

Now that sales of physical music product have cratered, and streaming is the default delivery mode for the majority of music fans, I want to raise a glass to the lowly compact disc. The decision by Tool to release their long-awaited Fear Inoculum only via streaming and digital download is probably the final nail in the CD’s coffin.

It’s hard to convey what a magical technological leap forward the compact disc was for serious consumers of music in the early 1980’s. I came of age in the ’70s, when the only choice was vinyl or cassette tape (8-track was so horrible, I never gave it a thought). I bought hundreds of LPs, and every time I opened a new one, I prayed that it wouldn’t have a scratch or skip. By the late ’70s, record companies were pressing records on such thin vinyl that you were all but guaranteed to have a warped album to deal with. To this day, whenever I listen to Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, I expect to hear a skip at the 2:34 mark, because that is where my LP had a scratch.

When compact disc players’ price dropped below $400, I jumped at the chance to buy one. The first CD I bought? Roxy Music’s Avalon. I still have it. What a relief to not have to get up every 20 minutes to turn the record over! What a relief to know that I could listen to an entire album without a skip, pop, or wiggle! CDs took up much less space than LPs, and those plastic jewel boxes were so cool.

Suddenly, albums that were 2-disc sets in vinyl were now single-disc CDs. It’s almost as if Bob Dylan knew that one day there would be the right medium for Blonde on Blonde. I’m currently working my way through Keith Jarrett’s monumental Sun Bear Concerts. When it was released in 1978, it was a ten LP set, and his brilliant long-form improvisations were interrupted by the time limitations of an LP’s side. On CD, it is five discs (plus an encore one), and every performance is complete. I get to immerse myself in the flow of Jarrett’s genius without the rude interruption of the needle hitting the end of the grooves.

Yes, I know that analog vinyl sounds “warmer” than digital CDs. However, with a nice amp and speakers, CDs sound incredible: beautiful stereo separation, and amazing dynamic range. (If you can find a copy, check out the jazz group Flim and the BBs’ Tricycle on DMP from 1983. You will jump out of your chair when the full group kicks in on the first track.) I will trade an uninterrupted Beethoven’s Ninth for some subjective “warmth” any day.

NME recently reported that vinyl sales are outperforming CD sales for the first time since 1986. My 2017 Mazda 3 came with Bluetooth and USB ports, but no CD player. At my local used books/music/movies store the “bargain” bins for CDS are overflowing with 25 cent copies of stuff from the ’80s and ’90s. Heck, it looks like even Blu-Rays are on the path to extinction, now that Samsung is not manufacturing players for them any more.

My only question is this: what if someone at Spotify, or Google, or Amazon, or Apple decides that that album or movie you really like is not acceptable in polite circles any more? When you only own a license to stream something, it can be taken away very easily, and there isn’t a blessed thing you can do about it.

lush simple minds: street fighting years

Thirty years ago, Simple Minds released a gem, Street Fighting Years. It sounded almost nothing like the previous albums–the bombastic Once Upon a Time; the fay New Gold Dream; or the mesmerizing Sons and Fascination. Far more Peter Gabriel in restrained rage than Ultravox or U2, Street Fighting Years lived up to its title: a lush, nuanced, and political affair, all managed by the incomparable Trevor Horn.

Sadly, it was the last album on which keyboardist Michael MacNeil played a central role, giving the band a much needed depth.

At times Celtic, at times Norse, and at times just Simple Minds, Street Fighting Years was a last cry before the wilderness of grunge and techno swamped us all.

Spirit of Talk Talk

In the mail today: a new paperback edition of Spirit of Talk Talk, the 2012 history/coffee table book/tribute to this indefinable British band.

To quote publisher Rocket88’s blurb:

Filled with art director James Marsh’s fabulous designs and photos from every stage of the band’s career, the book includes a preface by founder member Simon Brenner, contributions and tributes from musicians, friends and fans, plus a heartfelt afterword honouring founder and leader Mark Hollis.

Eight pages of new material include brief interviews with band members Lee Harris and Paul Webb (who didn’t contribute to the original edition), more photos and the above mentioned afterword by music journalist Chris Roberts.

Talk Talk came a long way from the Duran Duran clones that I saw open for Elvis Costello back in the summer of 1982.   On first perusal, Spirit of Talk Talk is every bit as enigmatically beautiful as the music they made on The Colour of Spring, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock.  The book can be ordered direct from Rocket88 or through the best online music shop in the world, Burning Shed.

Critical Moments: Tolkien’s Mythology, 1914-1937

As some of you might now, I’m in the middle of completing a book manuscript on the history of the Inklings for ISI Books. Here’s my partial list of critical moments in the creation of Tolkien’s larger mythology, from its earliest hints to the publication of The Hobbit.

“Bidding of the Minstrel” (poem)             Winter 1914[1]

“Tinfang Warble” (Poem)                          1914[2]

On Francis Thompson (paper)                 1914[3]

“Earendil” (poem)                                       September 1914[4]

“Kalevala; or Land of Heroes” (paper)     November 22, 1914[5]

“The Story of Kullervo,” (story)                late 1914

“Qenya Lexicon” (dictionary)                    1915[6]

On the Kalevala (paper)                              February 1915[7]

“Man in the Moon” (poem)                        March 1915[8]

“Sea Chant of an Elder Day” (poem)       March 1915[9]

“Cottage of Lost Play” (Poem)                   April 27-28, 1915[10]

“Shores of Faery” (poem)                          July 1915[11]

“The Happy Mariners” (poem)                  July 1915[12]

“A Song of Aryador” (poem)                     September 12, 1915


“Kortirion Among the Trees” (Poem)      November 21-28, 1915[13]

“Over Old Hills and Far Away” (Poem) December 1915-February 1916[14]

“Habbanan Beneath the Stars” (Poem)   December 1915 or June 1916[15]

Prelude, Inward, Sorrowful (poems)       March 16-18, 1916[16]

“The Fall of Gondolin” (story)                  1916-1917[17]

“Tale of Tinuviel” (story)                            1917[18]

“Cottage of Lost Play” (story)                    February 12, 1917[19]

The Music of the Ainur (story)                  Between November 1918 and Spring 1920[20]

“Turin Turambar & the Dragon” (story) 1919[21]

“The Fall of Gondolin” (story aloud)       Spring 1920[22]

“Lay of the Children of H” (poem)           1920-1925[23]

“The City of the Gods” (poem)                 1923[24]

Question if Beren a man or elf                 1925-1926[25]

“Lay of Leithian (poem)                             1925-September 1931[26]

“The Silmarillion” (story)                           1926[27]

“Silmarillion/Sketch” (story)                     1926[28]

“Intro to Elder Edda” (paper)                   November 17, 1926[29]

“Mythopoeia” (poem)                                  September 1931-November 1935[30]

The Hobbit (novel)                                      Late 1928-1936[31]

“The Quenta” (story)                                   1930[32]

“Earliest Annals of Valinor”                      1930[33]

“Annals of Beleriand”                                 1930[34]

Second version of Silmarillion                 1930-1937[35]

“New Lay of Volunga” (poem)                   early 1930s[36]

“New Lay of Gudrún” (poem)                   early 1930s[37]

“A Secret Vice” (paper)                              1931[38]

“Fall of Arthur” (poem)                              1931-1934[39]

“Beowulf: Monsters and Critics” (paper) November 25, 1936[40]

“The Lost Road” (story)                             1936-37[41]

“The Fall of Númenor” (story)                  1936-37[42]

Draft of Silmarillion to Allen/Unwin      November 1937[43]

“On Fairy Stories” (paper)                         March 8, 1939[44]


Sources

[1] CJRT, HOME 2, 269.

[2] CJRT, HOME 1, 107.

[3]Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 30.

[4] CJRT, HOME 2, 267; Garth has it on November 27, 1914; see Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 41.

[5] Flieger, ed., The Story of Kullervo, 63, 91.

[6] Parma Eldalamberon 12 (1998).

[7] Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 42.

[8] CJRT, HOME 1, 202.

[9] Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 42.

[10] CJRT, HOME 1, 27.

[11] CJRT, HOME 2, 271.

[12] CJRT, HOME 2, 273.

[13] CJRT, HOME 1, 25.

[14] CJRT, HOME 1, 108.

[15] CJRT, HOME 1, 91.

[16] CJRT, HOME 2, 295.

[17] CJRT, HOME 2, 146; and CJRT, The Children of Húrin, 9.

[18] CJRT, HOME 2, 3.

[19] Edith writes out story for JRRT, HOME 1, 13.

[20] CJRT, HOME 1, 45

[21] CJRT, The Children of Húrin, 9.

[22] To the Exeter College Essay Club, in CJRT, HOME 2, 199.

[23] CJRT, HOME 3, 1.

[24] CJRT, HOME 1, 136

[25] CJRT, HOME 2, 52.

[26] CJRT, HOME 3, 1.

[27] CJRT, HOME 2, 300.

[28] CJRT, HOME 4, 11.

[29] CJRT, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 16.

[30] CJRT, Tree and Leaf, 7.

[31] “The Hobbit,” in Scull and Hammond, JRRT Companion and Guide, Reader’s Guide 1, 509-522.

[32] CJRT, HOME 4, 76.

[33] CJRT, HOME 4, 1.

[34] CJRT, HOME 4, 1.

[35] CJRT, HOME 5, 107.

[36] CJRT, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 5.

[37] CJRT, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 5.

[38] Given for Johnson Society, Pembroke College.  See Fimi and Higgins, eds, A Secret Vice, xii.

[39] CJRT, Fall of Arthur, 10-11.

[40] CJRT, The Monsters and the Critics, 1; and Drout, ed., Beowulf and the Critics.

[41] CJRT, HOME 5, 8-9.

[42] CJRT, HOME 5, 7-9.

[43] CJRT, HOME 5, 107

[44] CJRT, The Monsters and the Critics, 3.