Originally published 26 May 2010
On a morning in February 1965, John Coltrane entered the studio with three of his most intensely focused collaborators. A few hours and only a couple takes later, they emerged with A Love Supreme. Immediately celebrated, it was both a commercial and critical success. As spontaneous and ecstatic as its subject, the piece was carefully composed and hosts divine symmetry, but was recorded in a fabulously perplexing period of time. Halfway around the world and about a millennium earlier, an anonymous group of Indian artists constructed, painted, and sculpted a shrine of Kandariya Mahadeva. It features a group of ‘The Heavenly Bands’, hundreds of women lined up in voluptuous beauty. The religious and sexual obsession of this pattern is staggering, barely equalled in the best Gothic cathedrals. Another great masterpiece of obsession lies in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Unarguably a turning point in his career and arguably his greatest achievement, it is a theme and variationson the psychological deterioration of man.
All the arts of medieval India were informed by one constant idea, derived from some very very very very old performance practices – to awaken and reconcile traces of the powerful emotions felt during the consistent rebirth that Hindus and Buddhists believed to have experienced. Rasa is the blissful union with Brahman, the ultimate state of being. The Indians believed that the experience that brings one closest to Rasa is sexual love. This is illuminated most thoroughly in the ecstatic celebration of ‘The Heavenly Bands.’
The eroticism and sexuality of the figures, barely clothed and highly exaggerated, is one of architectural obsession. The figures (all female) form a complex theme and variations in each small section. Especially in the crooks between posts. Check out the several permutations of meditative posture and focus. The rhythm of the work is one of ecstatic love of the divine. The fixation runs so deep that the artists were willing to carve similar figures over and over and over until they ran out of room. Perfection is set aside in favor of pure adoration.
When Coltrane and his crew walked in to record A Love Supreme, they knew exactly what they wanted. The album, only 30-some minutes long, is broken up into four sections. As a whole, it is meant to be an expression of Coltrane’s recent religious reawakening in light of his addictions and a general release of spiritual ecstasy. Beginning with a primordial whack on the tam-tam and major key wigglings that invoke creation itself, the bass then enters with the “A Love Supreme” mantra. Part one under way, Trane plays an inventive but subdued (for him, at least) solo. At both 4:15 and 5:05, he plays the primary 3 note motive in all 12 keys. This is obsession. Also a musical pointing out of God’s omnipotence. Like the solo, there isn’t anywhere He can’t go. The groove loosens and instruments are set aside in favor of a vocal chant of the “Love Supreme” mantra. Part two starts with just as the first ended, with a bass wandering around in double-stops. The Coltrane solo contains several variations on the first theme, as the whole piece develops to suit that characteristic. Tyner plays a ridiculous piano solo here, uninhibited fingers and uninhibited joy. He takes control of the progression, turning a fairly comprehendible chart into a chromatic shower. Echoing that, Coltrane hops in and performs more in line with his later years drinking Ornette Coleman’s kool-aid. The album is reaching a climax.
That climax comes with Part three, one of the most blistering examples of hard bop in recorded history. And one of the most intense expressions of faith known to man. Coltrane’s design of mirror symmetry begins to unfold as he enters with a melody similar in structure and harmonic motion to the first movement – moving angularly around a static focal point. Tyner solos with a rhythmically potent left hand and leaves it to Trane with a magnificently articulated variation on the theme at around 4:15, giving room for one of the great recorded demonstrations of saxophone intellect and filthiness. 6:10 marks one of the great moments in jazz as Mr. Coltrane develops this little motif and somehow manages to formulate a mind-bending crescendo after what seems like a cool off. He rips into a variation of the theme followed by the theme itself. The movement ends just as the second began, enhancing the symmetry. The final movement (titled “Psalm”) is a return to the primal opening. The harmony shifts so little that we are left to hear Trane pray through his instrument, literally. The improvisation is based on a “psalm” that is given in the liner notes of the album. His emulation of human speech is on par with some Verdi recitatives and better than many. I recommend following along with the poetry syllable by syllable. Musically, the pattern is charmingly simple. They follow blue lines and use vibrating and earthy backup textures. The bluesiness is an homage to African-American preachers, like the composers’ grandfathers. In the end, the work is a testament to the simplicity of The End and the Beginning, both. The symmetry and use of theme and variations leaves one in a state of resignation, like many great meditations on infinity.
Vertigo was made in the later half of 1957. Originally deemed so-so, it now ranks as one of the most baller films of ever. The plot is complex and strategically revealing, much due to the masterful pacing of Hitchcock, but it boils down to an exercise in theme and variations and symmetry. It begins with 5 of the most rapturous minutes in cinema. Hitchcock introduces two of his most common devices in the film, extreme close-up and gradual close-up. Also, he states the theme of color shifting and geometry that characterizes psychological fantasy throughout the movie. Check out Bernard Herrmann’s score. Crazy intense, right? It cycles through this nice andante figure and some obsessive double time variant. In fact, this motif doesn’t return until a scene where Madeline is getting her hair dyed about 3/4 of the way through the film. And even then for only about 10 seconds. It involves a close up on the face. Much of the psychological deterioration of Scotty comes from his preoccupation with his disorder (vertigo, if you didn’t catch on) and his self-blame for the lives it ends up costing. Hitchcock simulates this sensation by simultaneously pulling back the camera and zooming in. Beyond description, watch it here.
The theme and variations that echo from art in the previous two cases are established in Vertigo with even more virtuosity. First of all, the film is based on the simple tailing of a female heroine. Hitchcock manages to develop even the driving scenes (you know, the usually lame Seinfeldy green-screen face-shots) into a crescendo of distress. The first “following” is marked by a slight curiosity. The same following scene is repeated with variations 4 times in the next hour. Each time gaining intensity. This motif peaks when the two characters, tailer and tailee, end up in the same car. That sequence involves some serious gradual close-up action, as do most of the remaining scenes with those two characters. Also, Hitchcock uses the theme and variations to toy with mysticism. First introduced in the absolutely perfectly executed Ernie’s scene, the camera develops a murkiness in certain ethereal situations involving psychological confusion or ambiguity. Profiles were his thing. That music is the basic love theme that comes back regularly and obsessively, eventually being perverted into a Wagnerian exercise in chromaticism and diminished chords. One kissing scene toward the end in a hotel room actually being a shameless rip-off of Tristan und Isolde.
I mentioned the symmetry because of this fact alone: Hitchcock takes breaks (or full cuts to black) at almost identical intervals into the film and out of it. He begins with about 35 minutes of straight cinema, and ends with the same amount. Those values get smaller and smaller until in the middle of the picture he uses 3-4 minute scenes for a while. Who thinks of that stuff?
I wish I could talk about this movie forever. Having seen it once before, I would happily claim it as one of my top ten. It is full of totally irrational kissing, Midge (who disappears halfway through the film and has the most awkward relationship ever with Scotty), obsession, angled camera work, gradually darkening lighting (the end is almost invisible), and so many other things I’m not yet able to pin down.
Originally published 25 May 2010
So, there are about 45 days remaining until my next adventure in the mountains of Massachusetts. I just spent a long, long, long year reading, playing piano, goofing around, and not attending college. Recently, I started thinking about doing something that there is absolutely no possibility that anyone who A) has a job, B) is in school, or C) has any kind of responsibility could pull off. I think it will mix nicely with how I want this blog to work.
History is all about parallel and paradox. There are endless permutations of things to examine in our world. All too often in academia we aren’t encouraged to get creative about history or (dirty word) analysis. After all, those two topics are supposed to be about quantification, right? Let’s kill that association.
Over the next month.5 or so, I will be doing a berzerkily ambitious, cracked-out cultural examination. Drawing from three topics, Art Music Film, I will use 99 case studies (33 of each topic) to search for connection, congruity, harmony, and synchronicity in the most unlikely places. Each morning, one of my parents will pull one case study from each of 3 different hats and put them on the dining room table. (Yes, I live in my parents’ basement.) Once I get out of bed, I’ll check them out and get down to business – watching one film, examining one work of visual art (painting, sculpture, architecture), and studying one work of music daily. I’ve been thinking about what pieces to look at for a while now. Here are my choices. In no particular order:
Allegoria della Primavera, Botticelli; Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, Gaugin; Death of Sardanapalus, Delacroix; Mary Magdalen, Donatello; Rape of Europa, Titian; Olympia, Manet; The Swimming Pool, Matisse; The Artemision Bronze; The Kandiraya Mahadeva Temple; Sarpedon Vase, Euphronios; Constantine the Great; Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, Duchamp; Composition in Yellow and Blue, Mondrian; Perseus, Cellini; The Persistence of Memory, Dali; The Last Supper, Nolde; The Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch; Les Demoisselles d’Avignon, Picasso; The Lion Hunt reliefs; Las Meninas, Velazquez; The Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo; The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, Bernini; The Gates of Hell, Rodin; Arnolfini Marriage, van Eyck; Bird and Branch, Niten; La Grande Jatte, Seurat; Self Portrait, Dürer; Rheims Cathedral; Brillo, Warhol; Glass of Absinth, Degas; Bed, Rauschenberg; The Flagellation, Francesca; The San Rocco Crucifixion, Tintoretto
Vertigo; Singin’ in the Rain; Annie Hall; Raging Bull; The Graduate; Taxi Driver; Schindler’s List; Modern Times; Notorious; City Lights; 8 1/2; Hoop Dreams; Triumph des Willens; The Matrix; Chinatown; Casablanca; The Godfather Part I and The Godfather Part II (combined); North By Northwest; Citizen Kane; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Rear Window; Dr. Strangelove; Some Like it Hot; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Apocalypse Now; WALL-E; Ben Hur; La Regle du Jeu; Tokyo Story; The Battleship Potemkin; Jaws; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; When Harry Met Sally
A Love Supreme, Coltrane; Tristan und Isolde, Wagner; A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Davis; Purple Rain, Prince; The Chronic, Dr. Dre; Led Zeppelin IV, Led Zeppelin; Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys; Remain In Light, Talking Heads; The Velvet Underground and Nico, eponymous; The Fame Monster, Lady Gaga; Rejoice in the Lamb, Britten; Pithecanthropus Erectus, Mingus; Paukenmesse, Haydn; Responsoria: Sabbato Sancto, Gesualdo; Cantata BWV 21, J.S. Bach; Pink Moon, Nick Drake; Missa Papae Marcellae, Palestrina; Revolver, The Beatles; Live at the Apollo, James Brown; Exile on Main St., The Rolling Stones; OK Computer, Radiohead; Ride the Lightning, Metallica; Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison; What’s Going On, Gaye; London Calling, The Clash; Homogenic, Bjork; String Quartet Op. 131, Beethoven; Carmen, Bizet; String Quartet No. 2, Ligeti; Requiem, Berlioz; Les Noces, Stravinsky; Die Zauberflöte, Mozart; Gloria, Poulenc
That was an absurd amount of typing. Clearly, the lists have several problems in regard to congruity. I did this on purpose. First of all, more than 60% of the Art category is drawn from before 1890, the Cubist Decade, while 0% of the Films and only barely 30% of the Music is taken from that 50,000 years of human history. There are no examples of eastern Music, only traces of it in certain works. However, I tried to incorporate non-western sources in the other categories. The Art selections are by far the most broad in scope. They represent almost 30,000 years of history from the Lion Hunt reliefs to the pop rebellion and post-modernism. The wierdness that shocks me the most is how overtly poppy my Music selections are. Anyone who knows me is aware that I would be willing to put every Beethoven symphony, Bach passion, and (only about 4) Mahler work on the list. They all ended up on the cutting room floor. But there is so so so so so so much richness in the rock, R&B, jazz, and (dirty word) alternative domains. My goal is to figure out what is enduring and, really, “Classical” about all of these albums. There is hardly anything less expressive about some of Jagger’s vocals in Exile than the whole of Escamillo’s role in Carmen. Also, I really freaking love the bejesus out of Alfred Hitchcock, so I loaded it for him.
All three lists look sort of like a “Greatest Hits” album of sorts. My motivation in choosing popular and time-tested examples is the same motivation I had for doing this project – the study of history should by no means seem reductionist or deconstructive. While we need to reduce and deconstruct in order to find parallel and paradox, it is in the construction that makes beauty. The lists represent a kind of popular consciousness model. While the medium of Art has been used as a necessity and as expression for thousands and thousands of years, we have just recently discovered Film, and Music has only entered the age of recording in the same era. The revolution in recording in both those genres was a seismic shock on the creative world. Music suddenly became exponentially more accessible, permeating virtually every activity in the 21st Century. Film morphed into the definition of an age. There is hardly a human emotion it has failed to express and its integration of Music created a new breed of cultural participation and masterpiece.
I’m not totally sure what I am going to do if my Mom or Dad draws both Godfather’s, Tristan, and The Garden of Delights, in the same day. Or how the hell I am going to figure out what The Chronic might possibly have in common with When Harry Met Sally or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But that’s the challenge. That’s the goal. Even if it is kind of Julie and Julia-ish. What do we have in common? All of us. Using these ridiculously wonderful examples, I’m going to figure it out. Come along for the ride.