28 May 2008

Peter Blegvad
The book of Leviathan
(& much, much more...)
The book of Leviathan
...nothing will ever look / sound / seem the same to you again…
Peter Blegvad 2007
Peter Blegvad, April 2007
[ photo by Michael Eisenberg ]

I’ve been acutely and happily aware (at least to whatever degree one can be aware of the talents of an artist 'from a distance'...) of the depth and breadth of the mind of Peter Blegvad for many years now, through his musical endeavors (with Slapp Happy, as well as his solo and collaborative work) – his creations are entertaining and stimulating, bringing with them smiles, incentives for further thought, intellectual and contemplative explorations…and also a good bit of head-scratching, which I’ve always considered to be a good thing. I had heard about his comic strip Leviathan (which appeared regularly in The Independent on Sunday in the UK), but until I purchased a copy of the collection a couple of years ago, I had never actually experienced it firsthand. I’m sorry I waited so long – it's a treasure of the highest order.

Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons, Futurama and Life in hell) is quoted on the back of this volume: ‘Peter Blegvad’s comic strip is one of the greatest, weirdest things I’ve ever stared at.’ At the risk of giving anyone the creeps by appearing to quote Pat Robertson, ‘I heartily concur’. Blegvad combines his senses of humor and irony with his intellectual strengths and his amazing artistic abilities into Leviathan, giving his readers an opportunity to take one of the wildest rides they’re liable to experience. The episodes in this book range from purely humorous takes on a baby’s view of the world he inhabits to visual illustrations of puns to hallucinogenic explorations of the conscious and subconscious to sublime meditations on everything from the most seemingly insignificant daily occurrences to the meaning of life and death. Quite a range, right? Peter Blegvad pulls it off beautifully. Perhaps I’m a little prejudiced by already being a huge fan of his music, but none of his outings collected here come across as shallow or pretentious in any way. The subtleties are many, the layers of wit are as innumerable as those in a piece of mica – each reading reveals something missed the time before.
Levi -- mirror
Leviathan himself – ‘Levi’, as he is called – is a visual as well as a philosophical enigma. He’s drawn without facial features, which allows the reader to project his / her own personality / outlook more readily onto the narrator. His parents and his older sister appear in some episodes, but for the most part he’s accompanied and guided through the mazes of life (in all its dimensions) by the family cat, who gently imparts wisdom while at times openly expressing amazement that humans manage to survive without caretakers. The artist’s hand appears from time to time, allowing him to more directly interact with the characters and events depicted in the strip – and on a couple of occasions, the characters themselves make attempts to escape the bounds of the graphic territory.

I read this book in a couple of sittings – but I’ve revisited it often and at great length and leisure, with new rewards each time. In his introduction, Rafi Zabor admits that he has encountered a few ‘intelligent, literate, artistically sophisticated people’ who just don’t get it – and I suppose that’s inevitable in any artistic undertaking. It resonated within me at the deepest level – and no, I’m not claiming that I ‘get’ every single nuance it contains…but I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s being reprinted as a paperback, to be released in June 2008 – it’s a work to which you’ll find yourself returning again and again, finding new subtleties each time and appreciating all of the ones you found before even more. The Leviathan link at the bottom will reveal several complete story-threads from the book and give you a visual idea of what’s in store.
Peter’s literary / philosophical / ruminative pursuits are further documented on the website Amateur Enterprises (link below). It’s hard to tell how much of the text was actually written by him – it’s all stylistically in sync – the artwork, as well, appears to be his. It’s a great place to spend some time – and it’ll both amuse and cause deeper thought on a wide variety of topics. There you will find links within links within links leading from one topic to other related ones, or to deeper exploration of a subject. It’s a fascinating and (at least to me) thoroughly enjoyable experience – but it might be wise to have some Advil (or your preferred analgesic equivalent) handy, just in case.

And briefly touching on some of his music...
If you’ve never heard of Peter before, I strongly suggest taking in some of his musical adventures as well. The creative forces unleashed in this book have their equal counterparts in audio form in recordings by Slapp Happy (essential releases : Slapp Happy [1974]; Desperate straights, a joint venture with Henry Cow [1975]; and Ça va, a reunion album recorded in 1998); a classic collaboration with former Henry Cow bandmate John Greaves (with whom Blegvad still performs on occasion) and Lisa Herman, Kew.Rhone [1977]; as well as some fine work as a solo artist or leader (check out Just woke up [1995]; Hangman’s Hill [1998]; or an amazing collaboration with Andy Partridge of XTC, Orpheus the lowdown [2004]). The songs on these albums range from slightly twisted pop ditties to very twisted pop ditties to extended treatises on philosophy, science, pseudo-science, the physical and extended characteristics of objects, the process of cataloguing, &c. Some songs / subjects are treated straightforwardly (at least at first listen / read), some with more of an obvious ironic / humorous bent – and the latter is usually done with an extremely ‘straight face’, making the aspects of the finished product even sweeter to savor for those who like a rewarding challenge.

24 May 2008

directed by Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth
Khadak DVD cover
Mongolian with English subtitles

Khadak is a incredibly beautiful, mind-blowing film that will take the viewer to another world – it offers rare insights into a culture about which most people in the West (or most of the planet, for that matter), I’ll wager, know very little…Mongolia. Critics have called it ‘stunning’ and ‘beautiful and mysterious’, and comparisons to Fellini have been made. The story is set in the present day, but it is rife with customs and beliefs that go back for thousands of years. Using magical-realist imagery and time-shifting, non-linear storytelling techniques (which, for me,
brought to mind the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, Theo Angelopoulos and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, as well as the aforementioned Federico Fellini), the directors plunge the audience into the story they’re telling – and while it is firmly planted in its setting, it has lessons to convey to all of us, if we will but pay attention and let it wash over us.
Khadak 023
The center of the film is Bagi, a young man who lives with his mother and grandfather on the frigid steppes of Mongolia – they herd sheep to survive and have little contact with the outside world, although they are not unaware of its existence. One day they and their far-flung neighbors are contacted by representatives of the government who inform them, with little ceremony, compassion or subtlety, that all of their animals are infected with an unnamed ‘plague’ and must be destroyed. Bagi’s family, along with the others in the area, are to be forcibly relocated to more modern environs and assimilated into the workforce there. Needless to say, this is a traumatic turn of events for these people – Bagi’s grandfather, for one, has a very hard time accepting the terms and form of this abrupt change in lifestyle.

Bagi, we learn, is subject to visions of varying intensity, the meanings of which are unknown to him – for that matter, he views them with not only skepticism but an attitude bordering on disdain. He looks upon the traditional spiritual beliefs of his people as quaint and useless. Shamanism plays a huge part in their lives – represented in the case of Bagi’s area by an old woman. She is called upon by his family to heal him after he goes in search of a lost sheep and is later found almost frozen to death. The ceremonies and treatments she brings forth to return him to health are fascinating to watch. After he regains his consciousness and his strength, she informs him that his ancestors are ‘calling’ to him – she recognizes within him an inherited ability that allows him frequent and intense contact with the spirits of those who have gone before, as well as the potential to be a healer and leader for his people.
Khadak 043
He rejects these ideas initially, until several turns of events cause him to come to the realization that the ‘animal plague’ is a hoax perpetrated by the government in order to force the relocation and assimilation of the nomadic herding families. In his new town, living with his mother and grandfather, Bagi takes a job as a mail carrier – he now utilizes a motorcycle instead of his beloved pony, which he had to leave behind in the countryside. One day he meets a strong-willed, independent young woman who is arrested for stealing coal – he finds himself drawn to her in ways that he does not understand. She is also a performance artist – one of the most visually (and audibly) striking scenes in the film centers on a presentation by this young woman and her friends / collaborators.
Khadak 121
Khadak 029
Bagi eventually finds himself believing more in his gifts and developing his control of them, as well as feeling more and more compelled to utilize them to pass the truth of the situation along to the other relocated families, to rally them to rise up and oppose the lies they have been told, and to encourage them to return to the lives and the lands they knew before. As a result, he comes into greater and greater conflict with the authorities – they view him not only as a troublemaker and lawbreaker, but as someone who is quite possibly mentally ill or afflicted with epilepsy (the story they give him to quash his belief in his own spiritual gifts). He comes to understand that telling the truth sometimes comes accompanied by a high price – but also that the truth is something of incalculable importance and power.
Khadak 114
The film has an almost dream-like feel to it – but that shouldn’t be taken to mean ‘slow’. It holds the attention from first to last – striking imagery, both arresting and stunningly beautiful, adds to the effect of the story upon the viewer. The directors – I understand this is their first feature – have achieved a cinematic miracle with Khadak. The film gives the audience a glimpse into a culture that is largely unknown outside of Mongolia, and at the same time tells a story that has vital relevance for anyone anywhere in the world, with the potential to engender both courage and strength in the face of adversity and insensitivity.
Khadak 014
I’ve also included a link to the film’s website below – there, you can read more about the film, view still images, read about the crew, as well as about the directors’ next project (it looks like it will be stunning as well). Khadak is not a film you’re going to come across at the local mall multiplex – but it is available through Netflix and more discerning local rental outlets. I encourage you to check it out – it’s an experience you will neither forget nor regret.
Rosa Passos

Romance (2008)
Telarc, 2008

During a visit to a local music store today, I stumbled across a new CD by Rosa Passos – an artist whose material I will buy without hesitation, given the quality of the work she’s done over the course of her career. Rosa’s voice is simply one of the most beautiful musical instruments on the planet. When world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma first discovered Rosa’s music, he wrote to her and said ‘I’ve fallen in love with your voice…’ – he later played on her 2004 release, Amorosa, and the two of them have since worked on other projects together. I’m certain that many other listeners, famous or not, have been touched by the beauty of her music in a similar fashion – I know that I have. The material she chooses is always first-rate (including her own compositions), arranged and performed with impeccable style and grace.
Rosa with guitar
2006’s Rosa featured just her voice and guitar – an album of breathtaking beauty, and one that I can return to again and again without any fear of it wearing thin. On her new release, Romance, she returns to the small-group setting she has used to such fine advantage through the years – her lovely voice is framed perfectly by 6-7 very sensitive and capable accompanists. There are no more than 6 players on any given track, and it’s obvious that everyone is listening to all of the contributors – no one tries to outshine anyone. The arrangements (all by individual band members except for one group effort) are thoughtful, fresh and relaxed.

The songs on Romance come from the pens of some of Brazil’s all-time greats – the ubiquitous Antonio Carlos Jobim, along with Vinicius De Moraes, Ivan Lins, Chico Buarque, João Donato, Djavan, Dorival Caymmi, and others. These writers have gifted so many great compositions to the world of Brazilian music, many of which have become standards – in Rosa’s hands, they become her own. She pours her heart and soul into her singing, but in such a gentle, natural way that nothing ever comes across as sounding forced or disingenuous. The songs have strength and emotion, coupled with the soft touch of a night breeze off the ocean or a morning warmed gently by the sun. The fact that Rosa sings in Portuguese takes absolutely nothing away from the feelings she communicates – there’s an intimacy in her delivery that leaves me feeling that she’s singing just for me. It’s that captivating.

I can heartily recommend Romance – that being said, everything I’ve heard by her is of the highest quality, a world of incredibly beautiful music. Her recordings Rosa (2006), Amorosa (2004) and Entre amigos (Among friends, with the great American jazz bassist Ron Carter) are especially noteworthy – but it would be impossible to go wrong buying anything she has released.

duo 2

Rosa Passos' official website (bio, discography, song samples, pics &c)

03 May 2008

Arve Henriksen
audio painting with the breath of life
Arve Henriksen
Arve Henriksen is one of those artists who must lead compulsive categorizers (i.e., record store clerks) to pull their hair out – that is, if they bother to listen to his music at all. Seeing that his main instrument is the trumpet, no doubt his recordings generally land in the jazz section – but while some characteristics of jazz might be discernable in his work, the music he makes is so much more than that. He’s an envelope-stretcher of the highest order – the sort of musician who ignores external boundaries and follows his heart and head into areas that push art into the ‘beyond’, instilling it with new life and possibilities.
Arve Henrksen
Henriksen was born in Norway in 1968 – he studied at the prestigious Trondheim Conservatory from 1987-91. He has worked with many musicians whose names are familiar to followers of European jazz / experimental music (especially recordings on the ECM label) : Jon Balke, Anders Jormin, Edward Vesala, Misha Alperin, Arild Andersen, Dhafer Youssef, Trygve Seim, and many others. Venturing further outside the jazz realm, he has performed and recorded with ethnic artists from all over the world, as well as the rock band Motorpsycho and the free-improvising group Supersilent. His work is always thoughtful and thought-provoking – the tools of his trade, beyond his trumpet, include his voice, the use of sampling (both live and pre-recorded) and electronic alterations. Instead of confining himself to what might be expected of a trumpet player, he uses whatever implements he thinks are appropriate to achieve the sounds and effects he hears in his mind in order to convey them to his audience.


Sakuteiki (Rune Grammofon, 2001)

When I played Arve Henriksen’s music for the first time for one of my friends, he listened intently for a bit, then asked, ‘So when does the trumpet come in…?’ When I told him the trumpet was the only instrument playing at the moment, he was astonished – and I’ll admit to being surprised myself the first time I heard him play (on Sinikka Langeland’s Starflowers CD). There are times when his trumpet sounds very much like a shakuhachi, the bamboo flute favored by Japanese Zen monks for meditation purposes – other times, it almost sounds like a human voice, living and organic.

On his website, Arve comments on how his sound developed: ‘An interest in sound-making was there from the beginning of my work with the trumpet. I have spent many hours on developing a warm sound, for instance, but not only that. In my opinion, the trumpet has vast potential for tone and sound variations that we still have not heard. At one point, I think it was in 1988, Nils Petter Molvær lent me a cassette of shakuhachi flute playing. Then things changed. I let the music “ring” and develop in my head. I was astonished by the sound of this flute...This has made me work with tone and sound making in a new direction ’

He went on to explore not only Japanese music, but music from all over the world. The sounds and thoughts that move his spirit find their expression in his music – the results are unique and astonishing. On Sakuteiki (2001), the listener is submerged in a meditative atmosphere – a note on the CD jacket says ‘a treatise on garden making’, gently stressing the Zen characteristics of the music. The tracks are brief – the titles are very much in keeping with the atmosphere (‘inside tea-house’, ‘peaceful – close to cherry trees’, ‘beauty of bamboos’, ‘paths around the pond’, ‘children in my garden’, &c). This music feels as if it is made up of delicate brush strokes – much like a Japanese painting or calligraphy. There is a sense of economy here – a simplicity that is deceiving in its richness. Henriksen made the conscious decision to keep the music from being ‘complicated’ – the rooms in which the recording was made (the Emanuel Vigeland Museum in Oslo, and in two churches noted for their acoustic properties) were chosen for their reverberation characteristics as ‘canvases’ on which he could paint his music. As in the Zen philosophy of garden-making, referred to in the note (as well as the album title, taken from an 11th century Japanese manuscript on the subject), each note and sound is placed as carefully as a physical element in such a meditative space.

Chiaroscuro (Rune Grammofon, 2004)

For his second album, Henriksen chose to work with Jan Bang (livesampling and other samples) and Audun Kleive (drums, percussion) in a trio setting. The music here is still meditative at times, but with a broader audio palette – the contributions of the other two players are stunning, especially in some of the sensitive improvisational passages. Henriksen’s vocals continue to evolve – his range is incredible, at times leading the listener to think there’s a female singer on the recording. Bang’s sampling never ventures into the area of ‘noise’ – he brings sounds into the mix from outside sources, looping them and altering them into unrecognizable but completely appropriate entities, as well as taking samples from the ongoing performances of Henriksen and Kleive, re-coloring and re-shaping them and putting them back into the mix. Kleive’s work is a wonder (he was also a member of Terje Rypdal's fine band, The Chasers, back in the 80s) – his drumming is subtle, never heavy-handed…and least of all, predictable. He brings all sorts of percussive elements into play, shading and shaping his sound to reflect and expand the work of the other two and the sound of the trio as a whole.

At times, Henriksen’s trumpet asserts itself in a way more ‘expected’ – as it does toward the end of the second track, ‘bird’s-eye-view’ – but as if to remind the listener that this is not meant to be a ‘jazz setting’, ‘chiaro’ opens with some delicate percussion from Kleive, with Arve’s voice sounding like a siren luring sailors through the mist. The album’s title is an art term, from the Italian, meaning ‘light and shadow’ – it finds a perfect analogy in this music, which is some of the most ‘visual’ sound you’re likely to find. Like its predecessor, Chiaroscuro is a collection of sound paintings – this is a work of great beauty and emotion, incredibly evocative both of mental images and feelings.

Strjon (Rune Grammofon, 2007)

Arve’s third recording finds him working with a couple of his Supersilent bandmates, Helge Sten (guitars and bow; he produced this album, as well as Sakuteiki, using his ‘deathprod’ monicker ) and Ståle Storløkken (keyboards). The listener can hear elements of Sakuteiki and Chiaroscuro here – some of the darker soundscapes prevalent on the Supersilent releases find their way into this recording also. Henriksen explains that Strjon is the mediæval spelling of his home village of Stryn, on the west coast of Norway – the music here is inspired by the natural beauty and wonder of that area. One can easily ‘see’ the glaciers, mountains, lakes and forests that surrounded Arve as he grew up – the impressions they have left on him find exquisite expression in this work. There is a more ‘jagged’ feel to some of the tracks on Strjon (understandably so, given the stark natural landscape that inspired it) – but nothing is unmusical, in spite of (or perhaps even because of) the unconventionality of the approach and tools that are utilized by the players.
Arve Henriksen
There’s not a weak or ‘throw-away’ track on any of these recordings – and given the quality of his work, as I see it, I can’t imagine him having anything to do with a project that doesn’t move and inspire him deeply and honestly. This is music of imagination, strength and beauty – all it takes to recognize that, to feel it at the deepest level, is an open mind and open ears.

Arve Henriksen's MySpace page (sound samples available here!)