14 June 2009

Madeinusa DVD
written and directed by Claudia Llosa
2006 / Peru / color / 103 minutes
Spanish with English subtitles
DVD from Film Movement

Madeinusa opens with a black screen bearing white script, a Spanish version of a graveyard admonition seen in various forms around the globe :
You passing, look and observe how wretched you are,
that this land imprisons us all the same.
Mortal, whoever you are, stop and read.
Consider this : I am what you will be and what you are, I have been.

The black screen gives way to live action color, and we see a young girl, Madeinusa, fourteen years old, preparing a meal, singing a hauntingly beautiful Andean folksong – those of us who have listened to a good bit of international music will recognize the melody…but the words are foreboding and prophetic :
Day and night you sing, saying ‘Oh, Mama! Oh, Papa!’
while running through hills and valleys,
Waychawcituy of the highlands, you who sings to nightfall –
perhaps your mother has left so you can be like me,
for you to be singing.
When ‘Holy Time’ comes around, I will stop and I will go –
over the hills and valleys I will run like you.
Waychawcituy, Waychawcituy, when my beloved father cries,
you will tell him not to, saying you will be back,
saying you will return…
She drops the last of the beans into the pot, and the camera closes in on her dark eyes – they are achingly beautiful, but full of secrets…and seem to be looking far, far away.
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As she is depicted going through her apparent daily routine, we see Madeinusa trailing powdered rat poison in a ring around the family’s small home – dead rats, we learn, are good luck. Her sister Chale, it’s plain to see, doesn’t seem to hold up her end of the chores. The girl’s mother has gone – it’s never explained why or exactly to where, but she believes her mother has gone to Lima. In a heartbreaking but not overplayed scene, Madeinusa looks through a box of keepsakes she has hidden away, relics of her mother – on the cover of a magazine (or perhaps a graphic novel) depicting a woman holding a child in her arms, she writes her name across the top, over the original title. The implication, made stronger as the film progresses, is that the mother was driven away by a combination of life in a poor village and the personality of her husband, the girls’ father, who is also the mayor. In an early scene, he arrives home drunk and crawls into bed between the girls, making his incestuous intentions toward Madeinusa very clear – she reminds him that ‘Holy Time is not here yet – it would be a sin…’

Holy Time, we find, is the local observation of Easter weekend – through their isolation, and combining Catholic mythology with the beliefs of their pagan ancestors, the villagers believe that after the crucifixion, god is dead until the resurrection. During the time in between, literally, anything goes – there is no such thing as ‘sin’ during Holy Time. A festival is celebrated each year, during which the people engage in all manner of debauchery that would not be tolerated otherwise – drunkenness is rampant, women choose new partners with whom to couple, thievery goes unpunished, and more. The mayor has obviously been eagerly awaiting Holy Time, in order to pursue his sexual intentions with his daughter – and from comments made by an older woman (perhaps an aunt) later in the film, it’s a practice that is not uncommon.
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An unexpected visitor from out of town – significantly named Salvador – disrupts the villagers’ anticipation of Holy Time. He is a geologist from Lima is stranded by a trucker who had given him a lift and then refused to travel any further. Generally untrusting of outsiders in the best of times, the townsfolk are insistent on the man being locked up for the duration of the festival, lest he interfere with their customs. The mayor puts the young man under lock and key at his home, explaining to him that ‘…it’s for your own safety’. Madeinusa is instantly intrigued by the stranger – and he is pretty obviously smitten by the innocent beauty of the young girl. She immediately sees him as her way out of the stagnant life of the village, and plots to leave with him when his ride returns after the weekend.
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One of the annual customs played out during the Holy Time festival is a contest to choose the prettiest virgin from the town’s young girls – Chale, who is evidently older than Madeinusa, should get the prize by rights, but she knows that her younger sister is their father’s favorite, and expects her to win the contest. It is very apparent from early in the film that Chale is very jealous of Madeinusa receiving the bulk of their father’s attentions – even his incestuous ones, which normally would be shunned.
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At 3pm on Good Friday, the hour at which Christ is supposed to have died on the cross, the villagers have gathered in the tiny church – a life-sized crucifix is at the center of the altar, and at the appointed time, the head of Christ droops, signifying his death. The figure is taken down from the cross and placed in a glass coffin. The designated virgin, Madeinusa, kisses him and gently places a white cloth blindfold across his eyes – the festival has begun. The blind Christ is paraded through the streets, and the liquor begins to flow. Meanwhile, Salvador has broken out of his makeshift jail cell – not too difficult a task, actually – and is observing the festivities. During a rendezvous with Madeinusa, she exacts a promise from him to take her away…and we see that the armor of her ‘knight’ is not as shining as she (or the viewer) had imagined.
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The isolation under which the people live not only keeps them from being educated and knowledgeable about the world, it has engendered twists in a belief system imposed on them from colonial times that have led to an almost complete moral breakdown…although of course, they don’t see it as such. As the film works its way to its climax, betrayal, selfishness and violence rear their heads – and perhaps Madeinusa is not as innocent as we first thought. The circle winds up completed, its ends joined...but not at all as expected.

The film is beautifully photographed and framed – the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains, forests, lakes and meadows stand in stark contrast to the drab lives of poverty and ignorance led by the people of the town. It’s amazing to know that this is Claudia Llosa’s first film – the skills she demonstrates here portend great things from her. Most of the actors are non-professionals – the exceptions are Ubaldo Huaman (Cayo, the girls’ father and mayor of the town) and Carlos De La Torre (Salvador) – the naturalness with which they address their roles is refreshing and very believable, giving a deeper life to the entire film. Llosa’s script – and her direction – remain sensitive to the humanity of her characters, avoiding direct judgment or looking down on them. At the same time, the legacy of colonialism and the imposition of a foreign belief system, even centuries ago, has left emotional, psychological and cultural scars that remain – and the similarity between ‘Madeinusa’ (an actual name that is popular for girls in the region) and ‘Made in USA’ is openly acknowledged in a scene where the young girl, released from a mutual embrace with Salvador, says, ‘My name is on your shirt’, having read it on the label at the back of his neck.

This is a film that will evoke strong emotions, no doubt – the incestuous father will awaken anger and discomfort in many, and could be triggering for those who have been unfortunate enough to be the recipient of such ‘attentions’ – but the story is a touching one in many ways, beautifully filmed, with lessons and insights to be gained by thoughtful viewers. Overall, it’s a beautiful, moving experience – pass it up at your peril. The film should be readily available for rental or purchase – I’ve included a link to the Film Movement site below as well…they have a number of fine offerings there.

Here’s a trailer…

Film Movement website
The man from London (A londoni férfi)
The man from London -- DVD cover
directed by Béla Tarr (with Ágnes Hranitzky)
2007 / Hungary / France / Germany /
XXXXXXblack & white / 133 minutes (+ Béla Tarr interview)
French / English with some optional English subtitles
DVD from Artificial Eye (UK – region 2 / PAL)
Béla Tarr
director Béla Tarr
Make no mistake about it – Béla Tarr is not afraid of the dark. His films are filled with darkness, both visual and otherwise. Scenes that take place outdoors during the day still have an overriding grey weight to them – perhaps a visual representation of the cultural and emotional burdens borne by the characters that populate his films. Time moves slowly, at times almost excruciatingly so – all the better to allow the film to get under the viewers’ collective skin.
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The man from London is based on a novel by famed Belgian writer Georges Simenon, and is set in what appears to be a smallish French coastal city. The story centers around a nightshift dockwatchman, Maloin – his name is only revealed well into the film, further underscoring the anonymity that he feels in both his work and homelife. One night on the job, he witnesses a crime from his vantage point high above the pier – an apparent murder, preceded and followed by shady goings-on perpetrated by characters that look as if they could have stepped full-blown from a 1940s film noir creation. He watches with an almost bored fascination, not alerting any authorities about what he has seen – his actions from this point form the crux of the plot, causing him to sink deeper and deeper into a moral dilemma from which, soon enough, there is no real escape that will leave no harm in its wake.
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Maloin’s homelife is even bleaker than his job – he and his family survive as best they can on his wages and those earned by his daughter Henriette, who works, against his wishes, at the local butcher shop. He continually nags her to quit, complaining that he doesn’t ‘want people watching her arse all day’. For her part, Henriette is pretty much a silent participant in daily events – she rarely speaks, and the expression that inhabits her face most of the time is one of deep-seeded resignation to her lot in life. Maloin’s wife does her best to care for her husband and daughter, but is openly dissatisfied with the family’s situation. In one scene, when Maloin comes home from work and goes to bed, she pulls heavy drapes closed to block the light pouring in from outside – light that seems to be an intrusion into the dark world the family inhabits.
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The watchman’s actions in wake of the murder bring a large sum of ‘found’ cash into his possession – it is this factor, a sudden bounty inserting itself into the situation, which makes his dilemma more difficult. He doesn’t tell his wife or daughter about the money – but in a move that seems to be fostered out of guilt over his inadequacy as a provider, he takes his daughter to a furrier and buys an expensive stole for her after she admires one worn by an aging prostitute in a tavern. Maloin’s wife is incredulous and furious at this extravagance, which he still stubbornly – guiltily? – refuses to explain, and Henriette glumly agrees to return the stole the following day. This lack of communication between Maloin and his family is just one more symptom of the alienation and depression weighing upon him.
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Things get complicated when one of the thugs – Brown by name, the titular character – involved in the murder begins to suspect that the watchman has retrieved the missing money. Maloin begins to sense that he’s being watched, and has this suspicion verified when he looks out of his bedroom window to see Brown on the street, looking up. An English detective arrives, apparently hired by those from whom the money was originally taken, looking for Brown – he brings Brown’s wife along, urging her to aid him in coaxing her husband out of hiding.

At this point, it’s pretty obvious that things are going to turn out well for no one – Brown is being increasingly pursued, threatened with prosecution for theft and murder, and Maloin is increasingly troubled by a decision that he simply cannot make – to somehow manage to keep the money and conceal it, or to return it and have to come up with an explanation as to why he didn’t report the murder and the case of loot. Tarr brings all of the plot elements to a conclusion very skillfully, but without the typical ‘nicely wrapped’ resolution that commercial films seem to favor – the ending here is awash with plotwater yet to be bailed, leaving the viewer to consider multiple angles and questions when it’s all over.

Tarr’s methods make The man from London instantly recognizable as one of his films – but that’s not to say they all look alike, or that his works are overly formulaic by any means. Aside from the aforementioned darkness, he loves long shots that not only almost physically immerse the viewer in the scene, but crank up anticipation and tension exponentially as well. The opening sequence in this film is wonderful – shot from the viewpoint of Maloin’s watchtower above the dock, through the dirty windows that surround his cramped domain, the camera pans back and forth to take in the scene below, moving almost imperceptibly. Not only is Tarr not afraid of the dark – he doesn’t allow himself to be rushed when committing his vision to film, making his work a must to avoid for the impatient viewer, at the same time a treasure for those who can allow themselves to be drawn into it without imposing time-centric limitations on the experience. The photography – in ultra-lush, low contrast black and white – by DOP Fred Keleman, who studied with Tarr, and with whom he has worked previously on the 1995 short Utazás as alföldön (Journey on the plain), is stunningly beautiful, and perfect in representing the director’s vision. The score, minimal though it may be, by longtime Tarr collaborator Mihály Vig, is absolutely perfect in cementing the overall mood of the film.

Here’s a brief trailer, courtesy of YouTube – it’ll give you a better idea of the look of the film than I could ever manage…

The one bonus item included in the Artificial Eye DVD is a nice one – an interview with Tarr, partly in English and partly in Hungarian (with English subtitles), offers a number of insights into the director’s processes and methods. Tarr stresses the human aspects of his films and characters, as well as his overall purposes in filmmaking this way : From the outset of the project usually our departure point is the actual character of the hero. And we ask what the person would do in a real life situation. And how can we furnish them with a real destiny? This is the exciting part, and this is the stage where we depart from the literary work…and we produce something that resembles the original a lot. That’s why I say we don’t translate literature into film, we translate literature back into life, and from this life experience we make a film.

He talks about positioning the camera at a low angle, looking up at his characters, as one of his favorite techniques when filming – it has the effect of more firmly placing the viewer in the character’s space, as well as filling the screen with the larger-than-life presence of characters that are in actuality, no larger-than-life than the viewer, made ‘large’ by the attention we are compelled to give them. He goes on to speak of conveying the emotions and realities of his characters and their situations to the viewers : What we know about film is that it’s the language of the definite. Film as a genre…is very definite. One can only shoot real things. Viewers…experience the same emotion (as the characters). That is why it’s worth making movies : to be able to show a human gaze or to say something about people without words. And to make you feel someone’s fate, that is the real challenge. This is why I like making films. He goes so far as to state that the dialogue is far less important than the actions and the emotions that are conveyed visually – at one point in the interview, he says, ‘…just watch it, don’t bother with the subs’.
The visuals contained in Tarr’s works are so rich and full of such strength of feeling that this last statement is less of an exaggeration than one might suppose. Immersing yourself in a Béla Tarr film is an incredibly enriching experience – if you’ve never seen one, I can’t recommend his work highly enough. Hopefully The man from London will see a North American DVD release, so that a wider slice of the US film public will have the opportunity to watch it. Until then, check out Werckmeister harmóniák (The Werckmeister harmonies), Kárhozat (Damnation), or the epic (over 7 hours, if you’re really ambitious and not in the least fidgety) Sátántangó. There are precious few directors making films today that approach the depth and scope of his work – these are films you shouldn’t pass up.
Agustí Fernández
Un llamp que no s’acaba mai

Agustí Fernández -- Un llamp que no s'acaba mai
psi, 2009

Improvisation is a tricky business. It’s pervasive in the jazz field, of course, most accessible in the form of improvised solos played over a structured background – it’s when the familiarly constructed elements fall away (or when they’re eschewed from the beginning) that mainstream listeners tend to shy away. Sometimes, even to those accustomed to experiencing free jazz improv, it can sound more like noise than music. Those musicians who can improvise together – at times, seemingly telepathically – are those whose heart and soul are connected more deeply to their art than most. Their thoughts are transmitted through their bodies to their instruments, making them an extension of themselves. Such is the case with this stunning recording.
Agustí Fernández -- in motion
photo by Ferrán Conangla
Pianist Agustí Fernández is a busy fellow – active as a professional musician since the age of 13 (he was born on Majorca in 1954), he has released dozens of albums and performed and recorded with musicians whose names read like a who’s who of forward-thinking jazz, contemporary classical music, and other progressive forms – Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Tom Cora, John Butcher, Matthew Shipp, Marilyn Crispell, Barry Guy, Mats Gustafsson, Mat Maneri…the list goes on and on. His website lists 28 albums that he has recorded as a solo, or in duo, trio or group settings, plus several collaborations. According to the biography on that website, ‘his musical life changed when he discovered the music of Cecil Taylor and Iannis Xenakis, with whom he studied’. He performs widely at festivals and smaller setting concerts throughout the world.
Agustí Fernández trio
photos by César Merino, from the album cover
Un llamp que no s’acaba mai (A lightning that never ends) finds him in the company of two very able partners – John Edwards (double-bass) and Mark Sanders (drums, percussion). The album was recorded in concert, in December 2007, at Ermita de san Roque in Sigüenza, Spain – there are only four pieces, titled simply with ordinal numbers, but the shortest is just over nine minutes long, so the players have plenty of room to stretch out and develop their ideas. The disc starts out with ‘Primo’ – the players stake their ground gently at first…but it’s not long before sounds issue forth that are coaxed from the instruments in what many listeners would consider unorthodox ways…and we’re off on quite a ride through ‘Secondo’. ‘Tertio’ and ‘Quarto’, one that is both stimulating and enjoyable when approached with an open mind (and ears)..

The notes accompanying the disc, by Ferran Esteve (translated from the Spanish by Steve Dept), describe the concert setting this way: Using silence as a backdrop, Fernández, Edwards and Sanders set about unhurriedly, with calm assurance, as if they were assuming that the audience would be fully acquainted with what it braced itself to take in. At first, a gentle introduction, almost threatening, perhaps to intrigue the listeners and focus their attention, as if to remind them that the shots would be called by an incorporeal presence that was about to emerge from three altars and thanks to the craft of their respective celebrants; later on, a brutal, repetitive outbreak, almost orgiastic, which vanishes after reaching the climax, thus returning to the erstwhile menacing tunes, one of the numerous inflection points in the music that resounded that evening; and then the upright bass fired a sudden burst, or the piano, or the drums, or all three instruments simultaneously…
Agustí Fernández -- inside piano
photo by Ferrán Conangla
These three are masters of their craft and of their instruments – their ideas flow together and feed off each other at an incredible level, sometimes with the precision of a school of fish that suddenly changes direction at top speed as if they were a single entity, at other times sonically bouncing off each other like ping pong balls caught up in a whirlwind. Fernández, not content to stick to the keys of the piano, sometimes reaches in to stroke, pluck or scrape the strings. Edwards expands the palette of his instrument in similar fashion, plucking, bowing, rubbing, and otherwise drawing forth tones and notes not usually associated with the double-bass. Sanders is credited only with ‘drums’ on the CD cover – but there’s a lot more coming from him than that simple notation would indicate. All three players have complete control over an incredibly wide dynamic range, employing it as yet another tool in projecting their thoughts into the world – and the ears of the listeners. There are bursts of activity that are so dense they seem to physically fill the air – but there are also phrases and sections of jewel-like, delicate beauty…and many levels in between these two extremes are covered as well.

This is an extremely satisfying recording, one that I’m sure will reveal more of its secrets, subtleties…and beauty…with repeated listenings.

Here are three clips of the trio from YouTube, performing at the Jazz à Mulhouse festival in 2007 – they appear to have been shot from the audience, but the quality is actually pretty good for this sort of thing. They’ll give you an idea of what this music sounds like…

Agustí Fernández official website (in Spanish)
Founded by the great UK saxophonist / composer / improviser Evan Parker, psi offers online ordering with very reasonable prices, a great selection of forward-thinking music

08 June 2009

Clou d’estrade

Pulcinella -- Clou d'estrade
Yolk, 2008

Controlled abandon…? Maybe…but not abandoning control.

More wonderful madness from the Yolk label / collectif in Nantes…! I’m slowly working my way through their website, listening to samples and investigating their artists through other channels online (band websites, MySpace music sites, &c). It’s an invigorating journey of artistic discovery…and I’m continually finding new things to add to my wish list. This album is a delight from start to finish – great playing and writing, infused with both energy and restraint (you wouldn’t guess from the pic below of the band on stage!) – let me tell you, these guys can swing...! There are quiet, beautiful moments as well – but the energy and sheer joy with which these four players address their art is breathtaking.
[ pic © Monique Da Costa ]

From the first bars of the opening track, ‘O mais’, composed by wind player Ferdinand Doumerc, the listener can’t avoid the reality of being in for quite a ride – bassist Jean-Marc Serpin-Morin opens with an energetic riff, and is soon joined by drummer (multi-instrumentalist, actually) Frédéric Cavallin, who enters like a friend who thinks you’ve slept long enough, thankyouverymuch. Time to wake up. Soon after, Florian Demonsant brings his accordion into play, the reeds of Doumerc join in, and we’re off to the races. There’s plenty of humor in Pulcinella's music – but never at the expense of fine playing – and it’s easy to hear Demonsant and Doumerc smiling on this track. The tune is laid out quickly, with plenty of ideas jostling for control – it’s almost like listening to a conversation in a café, with several people talking at once, tossing ideas into the air…but these guys, with all of the energy they’re expending, are working together, not at odds.

The mood settles down a great deal for the second track, ‘Les loups sortent de la bergerie’, which I believe translates as ‘The wolves leave the sheepfold’ – it’s a beautiful melody, slightly reminiscent of the traditional Japanese tune ‘Sakura’ at moments, and gives a strong image of sneaking away, in line with the title. ‘Vie et mort du platane de Prugnanes’ follows, a great tango piece spotlighting both Doumerc and Demonsant – they very deftly move to and fro in the mix, taking solos or playing backup to the other. Serpin-Morin and Cavallin keep things moving right along, with plenty of their own thoughts laid out in the arrangement – at about the four-minute point in the piece, something that sounds very much like a musical saw enters, adding a slightly eerie voice to the sound, like a creature crying off in the dark woods. This instrument is used at other times on the album, never overplayed, an unusual but not intrusive element by any means.

‘Sale gosse’ means ‘Horrible brat’ – and the accordion of Demonsant on this tune takes the role with relish, starting out with a repetitive passage that provides the musical equivalent of an insistent child poking one in the ribs, saying the same thing over and over. Doumerc plays some great tenor on this track, and Demonsant rises to the forefront now and then for a bit of melody. The rhythm throughout is very regular and pressing, with a few respites now and then – but just when you might think the piece is winding down, with some beautifully mellow lines from Doumerc, here we go again, full speed ahead. Demonsant’s accordion nudges are never far away, threatening to lead the band into a break-out return to high energy at any moment. The piece moves through a lot of changes, ending with a breakneck return to the rapid melody.

As the title might indicate, ‘Hippocampéléphantocamélos’ is very much a hybrid beast – both the rhythms and melodies involved in this piece vary greatly as it moves along…and there’s a strong feeling of walking to this one…which could of course be the product of my over-active imagination. It’s like listening to some sort of fantastical composite creature ambling along, with its different parts struggling for control over the others. In this track, as well as many of the others on the disc, the control of the band over the dynamics of the music is stunning – delicate work from various members that might be lost without empathy and sensitivity from all concerned shines through in just the right moments as the intensity of the arrangement shifts and instruments come in and out. Everyone has something to say, and they’re all heard. Amazing stuff.

‘Je suis dans la dèche’ goes through a lot of changes as well – slow passages, rapid ones, some really nicely written tight arrangement that give way to intervals of free blowing improv. ‘Amiel’ begins very quietly – lots of tinkling percussion, scrapes from Serpin-Morin on the bass strings, little toots from Doumerc and Demonsant. Only about two minutes into the tune does the arrangement congeal, heralded by some lovely métallophone work and Demonsant’s accordion, punctuated by some nice basswork from Serpin-Morin. At around six minutes in, the voice of the saw returns, and the piece builds slightly toward its conclusion, never venturing far from the lovely melody.

‘Rev’là Raymond’ rounds out the set, beginning with a tune that one could imagine being whistled during a walk down the road, complete with missteps and staggers laid out wonderfully by the whole band, led by Doumerc and Demonsant. At over eleven minutes, this is the longest track on the disc, and allows the group members many opportunities to shapeshift the arrangement and mood – each change is effected naturally and skillfully, with an ease that speaks of players who are in comfortable and known territory with their bandmates. As the tune winds to a close, the intensity smoothes out with a return to a quiet delicate melody that recalls the previous track. With the high energy level of much of the music on the recording, it’s a great way to leave the listener wanting more.

Here’s a clip from YouTube – shot from the audience, not the highest quality by any means – of a concert by Pulcinella performing in combination with the Emile Parisien Quartet. The tune is cut off at the end, but it’ll give you a bit of an idea of what these guys can do...

Be sure to check out the Yolk site (link below), where you can explore to your heart’s content – each catalogue listing offers a sample track. Print (another knockout French band, described in my last post) record for the label as well – their mail-order service is dependable, relatively fast (coming from Europe, after all), reasonably prices…and they take PayPal, which is an extremely safe and reliable method of payment when ordering online, a secure link to a credit / debit card or to a bank account. The band has a great website – all in French, zoot alors! – with a couple of tracks from the disc available for listening, with an additional tune, ‘Morphée’, that’s quite wonderful. There’s also some small-screen video there – much higher quality than the YouTube clip above. The graphics and animation on the site are great – very much in keeping with the humor and spirit of the band and its music. Check it out (link below).

Give me more…!

full band credits from the CD…

Ferdinand Doumerc
saxophones alto, ténor et barython, flûte traversière, métallophone
Florian Demonsant
accordéon, chouette
Frédéric Cavallin
batterie, percussions, glockenspiel, métallophone, flûte à coulisse
Jean-Marc Serpin-Morin

Pulcinella – official website

Pulcinella on MySpace

Yolk label / collectif