Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Hazards of Rock Operas

I am a pretentious theater-nerd from Portland, which means I am contractually obliged to love the Decemberists. And do you know that I first listened to their music exactly four years ago today? I was visiting New York City and downloaded their album Picaresque to listen to on the train. (A pretty magical day all around--I went to the city to see The Light in the Piazza. What sonic abundance!) I won't say that Picaresque "changed my life" or any other such hyperbole, but I still think it's a terrific album. Probably the Decemberists' best, in terms of the ratio of hits to misses.

Now they have a new album out, The Hazards of Love, which can't be evaluated in quite the same way as their previous ones. Instead of being a collection of individual pop songs, it is a full-fledged, hour-long rock opera. The ambition of this project excited me, but after listening to the album start-to-finish twice, and a few of the songs more times than that, I don't think it all panned out.

As long as the Decemberists have been doing their unique thing, there've been people who've made fun of them for it. Back in 2005, if you wanted to mock the Decemberists, you'd point to "The Mariner's Revenge Song." Who did these crazy kids think they were--who ever heard of an indie-rock band that performed ten-minute-long sea chanteys about being swallowed by a whale? But I've always thought that "The Mariner's Revenge" is great fun, and furthermore, compared to The Hazards of Love, it gets right a lot of what the new album gets wrong. To wit:
  • Clarity of storytelling--My biggest problem with Hazards of Love is that it's impossible to make sense of the story. And yet, before this album, the Decemberists were always great storytellers-in-song. Though the plot of "Mariner's Revenge" may be unrealistic, it's never hard to follow: someone who listens to the song once will be able to easily recount the whole story. Hazards of Love (which, granted, is six times longer than "Mariner's Revenge") is just muddled. For instance, the heroine becomes pregnant, but it's never clear whether she delivers the baby or not. Characters move in and out of the plot confusingly.
  • Pacing, suspense--Because the plot of Hazards of Love is so hard to figure out, it feels like a shaggy-dog story ("And then this happened... And then this happened") rather than something that builds to a climax. And as I implied above, it's never clear how much time has elapsed over the course of the story. Contrast this with the way that "The Mariner's Revenge" jumps over a span of fifteen years in a deft, clever, and clear way: "It took me fifteen years / To swallow all my tears / Among the urchins in the street / Until a priory / Took pity and hired me / To keep their vestry nice and neat." (This might be my all-time favorite Decemberists lyric. Just wanted to share it with you.)
  • Matching of instrumentation and lyrics: Many Decemberists songs are cleverly arranged in a way that supports the lyrics. Their sea-chanteys use sea-chantey instruments (lots of accordion), while "On the Bus Mall," a song about teenage runaways in Portland, features a contemporary indie-rock sound, with a silvery guitar that reminds me of Portland's drizzle. However, The Hazards of Love often feels mismatched. At one point, there is a short instrumental track titled "The Queen's Approach." The Queen is one of the villains of the piece, a powerful and dangerous woman with a fierce rock voice (provided by Shara Worden). But "Approach" is a meandering little banjo ditty that conveys nothing about her personality. Meanwhile, the moment where the sweet and innocent Margaret runs away to the forest is accompanied by the loudest, most grinding electric guitars on the whole album. As Colin Meloy shouts over top, "Our heroine withdraws... to the TAIGA!" it seems so much like a parody of self-important rock music that I want to either laugh or cringe.
  • Intentional vs. unintentional humor: I've laughed at Decemberists songs before, but usually I could tell that they wanted me to do so. Back to "Mariner's Revenge": it's a song about two people who've been swallowed by a whale, and the band knows that this is preposterous, and cracks jokes: "Its ribs are ceiling beams / Its guts are carpeting / I guess we have some time to kill." The Decemberists told tall tales, but with insouciance and vigor. The Hazards of Love is much more earnest, however--the lyrics are more self-consciously archaic than ever, and the music more self-consciously "rocks." It is telling that the album's catchiest tune, and only single, is "The Rake's Song," which is a piece of insouciant black comedy--unlike the rest of the album.
  • Style of music: This is more of a personal thing than my other complaints, but I'm just not really a fan of what the reviews are calling "prog-rock" and what I always think of as Weird Music That My Dad Liked in the '70s and Still Tries to Play on Road Trips. And yet, that seems to be the dominant musical mode of Hazards of Love. The parts of the album I like best, though, are the ones that don't employ that style, e.g. the folk-country ballad "The Hazards of Love 4." Though perhaps the last song of a big rock opera ought to be more explosive, it's a nice, gentle piece of music on its own. And my favorite moment on the album comes in the chorus of the song "Annan Water," where everything drops out of the mix but a lone organ and some echoing back-up vocals. A beautiful effect, especially in contrast to the overly aggressive prog-rock that surrounds it.
You know, I do appreciate the way that the Decemberists, rather than playing things safe as they get more famous, have done something so ambitious and untraditional. I just wish that I liked The Hazards of Love better--that the story was clearer and moved me more, and that the band hadn't gone so far in the prog-rock direction. I think the Decemberists may have forgotten that their fame is not just due to fantastical stories and wordy lyrics, but to solid pop-music craftsmanship. Their earlier albums had catchy melodies, plenty of hooks... they could actually make a song that begins "Here she comes in her palanquin!" get stuck in your head for days. But this doesn't seem likely to happen with most of the Hazards of Love songs. Obviously, the Decemberists went for a more complex compositional style here, but because it didn't really succeed, I hope they realize that there is no shame in writing a great four-minute pop song, which will have more staying power than a mediocre sixty-minute rock opera.

Monday, April 27, 2009

With Apologies to the Rolling Stones

This is what happens when I listen to the Stones on my iPod the same day I read the recent New Yorker article on neuroenhancers...

What a drag it is, gettin' slow
School is different today
I hear every student say
That Facebooking and parties take their toll
And though he's not really ill
He'll just take some Provigil
And go running for the shelter
Of a neurons' little helper
And it helps him through the day
His last paper got an A




Work is different today
I hear all my colleagues say
That this economic crisis really blows
So our jobs don't go offshore
To some kid in Bangalore
We go running for the shelter
Of a neurons' little helper
And although our job's routine
We work just like a machine

We'll begin
With Ritalin
Heed the call
Of Adderall
What a drag it is, gettin' slow

Things just aren't the same today
I hear everybody say
The tempo of the world has got revved up
Life goes Faster, says James Gleick
And I don't wanna miss a trick
So, quick, it's helter-skelter
Take a neurons' little helper
And it helps me to endure
Though my blood-tests are impure

We'll begin
With Ritalin
Heed the call
Of Adderall
What a drag it is, gettin' slow

Life's just much too hard today
I hear every parent say
That their kids begin competing at age four
So to get the upper hand
(Even if the practice's banned)
All children can take shelter
In these neurons' little helpers
Just pretend you're A.D.D.
And the pills are almost free...

On a more serious note, this article has to be one of the most insidiously thought-provoking things I have read in The New Yorker in a while. I say "insidious" because its subject matter is so calculated to get under the skin of the average New Yorker reader. A quick sketch of this average (stereotypical) reader: Upper West Side liberal, lives in an apartment spilling over with books, dresses in a tasteful and timeless and slightly rumpled way, would rather spend money on travel or restaurant meals or furniture than on trendy fashions or plastic surgery, wants to raise brilliant and creative children while at the same time lamenting the fact that kids these days are under so much pressure so young, works hard and is ambitious and curious (otherwise they wouldn't be reading The New Yorker, would they?). The article says hey, this (i.e. use of neuro-enhancing drugs) is going on, and there's probably no way to stop it now, and it will put even more pressure on your children and on future generations--everyone will be faced with tough decisions. How much will you sacrifice to keep up with your competition, if someone you know uses these drugs? And people said that this "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality would result from plastic surgery--and neuroenhancers are more ethically justifiable than plastic surgery, especially for the type of people who read The New Yorker and care about the beauty of the mind rather than of the visage. And furthermore, you, the hypothetical reader--you have had these thoughts, have you not? Thoughts like "There aren't enough hours in the day to be the kind of person I want to be..." "I should do more, read more, remember more--and start by tackling that stack of half-read New Yorkers..." "Why can't I come home from work and write the Great American Novel instead of watching American Idol?" So (the article implies), admit it, you're frightened, but you're also intrigued and tempted. This is Eve and the snake and the apple all over again.

Illustration stolen from The New Yorker.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Happy Baptism, Billy S.!

Hundreds of years of convention dictates that we celebrate Shakespeare's birthday on April 23 (also the anniversary of the day he died) but we don't know his birthdate for a fact--all we know is that today, April 26, is the day that he was baptized. So, let's take a moment to celebrate, shall we? We have these plays, and that's so much more important in the long run than knowing the exact date their author was born, isn't it?

In 2016--just a few years away, really--I expect there will be a massive outpouring of interest in Shakespeare to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death. Which got me thinking: this means that nearly all of Shakespeare's plays have also turned 400 within the last 15 years or so--and the remainder, such as The Tempest, will very soon follow. So why hasn't there been more of an interest in commemorating this? Why haven't I seen plays advertised as "The 400-Year Anniversary Production of Hamlet?" Sure, it sounds a bit crass and commercial to put it like that, but since the theater is a huckstering and commercial art form anyway, why not take advantage of this anniversary?

Furthermore--from a more idealistic standpoint--wouldn't it have been wonderful if at least one theater company, somewhere in the world, made an effort to produce each of Shakespeare's plays exactly 400 years after it was first performed? Yes, I know that the chronology of Shakespeare's works is disputed, so the order of performance would never be strictly accurate. But we do have a general idea of the order in which the plays were written, and it would be amazing for everyone involved--the artists and the audience--to be able to trace the evolution of Shakespeare's style in "real time," the way his original audiences did. Why didn't the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, or a similar organization, commit to this? (I assume this would have to be done by an established company, because it is a huge undertaking that would have to go on for about 20 years. Pleasant as it is to imagine a scrappy little theater company taking on this task, beginning in 1990 with an enthusiastic production of Henry VI part I, they'd probably fold by 1998 and the Henry IV plays.)

Maybe there is some theater company that's doing this--but if so, I haven't heard of it. Or maybe it's just a lost opportunity that I'm acknowledging too late to do anything about it.

As I said, I've never seen a "400th anniversary" production of any Shakespeare play, but I did see a 100th-anniversary production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard in 2004. In nearly every respect, it was a dreadful and misconceived endeavor, but the one part of it that really moved me is the speech where Gaev pays homage to the family bookcase:
But Lyuba, do you know how old this bookcase is? I pulled out the bottom drawer last week, and I looked, and there were some numbers burnt into the wood with a poker. This bookcase was built exactly one hundred years ago. So how about it? We could celebrate its centenary. It’s an inanimate object, but all the same, whichever way you look at it, it’s still a bookcase. […] Dear bookcase! Most esteemed bookcase! I salute your existence, which for more than a hundred years now has been directed toward the shining ideals of goodness and of truth. For a hundred years your unspoken summons to fruitful labor has never faltered, upholding, through all the generations of our family, wisdom and faith in a better future, fostering within us ideals of goodness and of social consciousness. (source)
Naturally, I could not help thinking about the one hundred years that Chekhov's play had endured and how it, too, is a monument to truth and to fruitful labor. I can only imagine that the effect would be similar if one was to hear some of Shakespeare's beautiful poetry that deals with the nature of time and memory and existence (e.g. "Age cannot wither her...") exactly four hundred years after it was first written...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Red mountain majesties

This is Red Fuji (Southern Wind, Clear Sky) by Hokusai.

It is the second print--and the second-most-famous print--in his renowned series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji; in both cases, The Great Wave off Kanagawa comes first.

I bought a poster of this image last year and hung it in my living room at college. "I come from the mountains," I explained to my housemates, "and I miss them when I'm on the East Coast."

Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say that I "come from the mountains," since Portland is not particularly high in elevation, but still, on a sunny day you can at least see a couple of genuine glacier-capped peaks, which is more than can be said for New York State.

People like me love making fun of Easterners who think that the Catskills (tallest peak: just over 4000 feet) are "real" mountains. But when I went to France, and gave my host family a calendar featuring Oregon photographs, and worked out the height of Mount Hood in meters just so I could tell them accurately (11250 feet/3429 meters), they gave me a look as though I wasn't describing a "real" mountain at all. "Oh! It's like the Pyrenees!" they said, smug in the knowledge that Mont Blanc, the highest of the Alps, lies within their borders.

No one would ever say that Mount Fuji isn't a "real" mountain though, and it's not that much taller than Mount Hood (12388 feet/3776 m). You could think of Hood as Fuji's kid sister--the smaller, rougher version. Fuji is the most-climbed mountain in the world and Hood is the second-most-climbed; Fuji has an exceptionally symmetrical cone while Hood has a few lumps on it; both are located pretty close to big urban areas, closer than is usual for such tall mountains, though of course the population of the Portland area can't compete with that of Tokyo!

My friend Lexi, who I lived with last year, didn't like my putting up the Red Fuji poster. She said it frightened her. (She's not from the mountains--grew up in New Jersey and Texas.) Somehow, that made me stubborn--since I had to defend my poster, I ended up liking it more. I bought a diary with this same image on the cover and have been using it for the last few months:


and today, while once again browsing at the used bookstore, I found this--36 Views of Mount Fuji by Cathy Davidson, a memoir of time she spent living in Japan:


The reason I bought this wasn't just because of the Hokusai print. (You know what they say about books, and covers...) No, I picked it up because I am planning a vacation to Japan in a couple of months--to visit Lexi, who is teaching English there.

And yes, she's gotten used to the mountains by now.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Recent(ish) Used-Bookstore Acquisitions

The Complete Plays of Charles Ludlam.

Tony Kushner, in an introduction to a volume of five selected Ludlam plays, writes:
The Complete Plays of Charles Ludlam was published by Harper & Row in 1989. It’s now out of print, one further bit of proof, if you needed any, that we’re slipping into barbarism. The book was over nine hundred pages long and it contained twenty-nine plays. Ludlam’s is a dazzling and significant body of work, and it should be accorded a place of greatest regard and honor in the American dramatic literary canon. The plays are funny, erudite, poetic, transgressive, erotic, anarchic, moving, and so theatrical they seem the Platonic ideal of everything we mean when we use that word. His vocabulary! What other American playwright has ever used so many different words? The endless references, the quotes, the great arias of perversion, the Great Silliness […] Any serious lover of the theater [should] read everything Ludlam wrote.
Well, where Kushner commands, I aim to obey--and the words he used to describe Ludlam's plays made them sound right up my alley. So when I saw this volume at Moe's Books in Berkeley for $12, I snapped it up.

It was a good day, the day I got it, last November. My housemate had driven me into Berkeley and taken me to a football party and a sorority house, which I observed with the inquisitive detachment of the anthropologist. I had just extricated myself from that crowd and walked several blocks down Telegraph Avenue in the rain (it rained like mad that whole day), when I wandered into Moe's to dry off, and spotted the Ludlam book. Then I had a slice of chocolate cake while reading American Theater magazine. Then I went to see the inaugural performance by my friend Mo's fledgling ensemble, the Strangefellowes. Then we all went out for drinks at Beckett's Pub, watched over by portraits of Samuel B. and Oscar W. A good day.

I've barely made a dent in it, since it's not the kind of book you carry around on MUNI; but I am glad to have it on my shelf and be able to savor it at my leisure. I started out by reading Ludlam's famous travesty of La Dame aux Camelias, since you know I have a thing about that story. He borrowed Dumas' plot, Verdi's three-act structure, Garbo's demeanor and costumes, laid a lot of very silly jokes over top, and... well, I suppose it's rather like Moulin Rouge, what with the seesawing between earnestness and parody, wanting the audience to cry but knowing that that cannot happen without also winking at the 100+ years of pop culture that have gone by since Dumas first wrote his tale.

Also, there is something that appeals to me immensely (I guess it's my obsessive side?) about having a playwright's Complete Plays in one volume. This one joins the complete works of Shakespeare, Shaw, Aristophanes and Chekhov on my shelf. (Or rather, it metaphorically joins them, since the others are still in Oregon...)

Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre, by Joanne Bentley.

Wow! What a discovery! When I was writing my play about Hallie Flanagan over a year ago, I got to go into the Vassar College archives and read many of the interviews that Bentley conducted while doing research for this book. (Bentley was also Hallie Flanagan's stepdaughter, and ex-wife of drama critic Eric Bentley--who divorced her when he realized he was gay.) I never read the finished biography, though; and I certanly didn't expect I'd come across a copy of the book in a used bookstore in the Inner Sunset of San Francisco!

"There are books we find, and there are books that find us," said the bookseller when I told him this story. Because, really, if I hadn't moved to the Inner Sunset, who else would have bought this book from him? It might have languished on his shelf for years... And while I don't think I'm going to read it right away, it is an invaluable addition to my library. I think of what's on my bookshelves as an extension of what's in my brain, after all.

There's a bookplate in the front of this book, and just for a lark, I Googled the name: "Toby Cole." Turns out that Ms. Cole was an amazing woman in her own right: theater agent, radio broadcaster, Federal Theater Project actress, progressive activist. She died less than a year ago and I guess someone must have donated her books to this store. Next time I go there, I'm going to see if I can find anything else good from her collection...

Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie.

Less obscure than the other two books, but no less valuable to me. When I was a preteen/young teenager, my family had a tradition of going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and staying at the Mount Ashland Inn. We always stayed in the same room, which always had a dozen or so books in it, including Haroun. It's a quick read, and the only one of the books that was really suited to a girl my age, so for three or four years, I had a tradition of reading it every summer, perched in my little log-cabin nook on Mount Ashland. So I've never owned a copy, but since I'm no longer going to the Mount Ashland Inn, I obviously need one now.

Also, it's an enormously likable fantasy-adventure on the surface, but moving, too, when you note that it's the first thing that Rushdie wrote after the fatwa was declared, and it is a fairy tale about the freedom of expression and the need for art and storytelling, and he wrote it for his young son, whom he could not see in person...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Their revels now are ended

OK, I'm about two weeks late in blogging about this, and I don't live in Portland anymore, and I'm sure the people involved are trying to move on... but I can't let the complete elimination of Portland Center Stage's literary department go uncommented-upon. After all, this is to some extent a theater blog, and if I know anything about American regional theaters, if I've gotten to meet certain playwrights and hear their advice, if I can talk authoritatively about script-submissions and the workshopping process, it is largely thanks to my internship in PCS' literary department in summer 2005.

When I met Mead Hunter, PCS' literary manager, I hadn't even completed my freshman year of college. Looking for something to do over the summer, I contacted him; we chatted for about fifteen minutes and then he said he'd be happy to have me as an unpaid intern. I knew that this was a great stroke of fortune, but only later did I realize just how lucky I was. Mead is one of the most respected literary managers in American theater, and no one ever has a bad word to say about him. He is the very definition of "avuncular." I've occasionally heard him take on a waspish tone about some play or playwright, but that's because he's smart as hell and smart people can't avoid thinking critically; but his default mode is that of a generous colleague and a cheerleader for innovative theater in Portland and across the country. Under his guidance, the JAW playwriting festival became a flagship PCS event--and maybe I'm biased, but I think that 2005 was its high-water mark. That was the year that Mead kicked things up to a new level by involving the whole Portland theater community, plus the four main writers were Jordan Harrison, Adam Bock, Ebbe Roe Smith and Itamar Moses--a serious supernova of talent.

And now Mead--a pillar of PCS for 7 years, the wizard of JAW, guru of PlayGroup, and the first person ever to link to marissabidilla--has been let go. Along with four other employees, including his assistant, Megan Ward, another invaluable advocate for new plays and playwrights. And thus, the entire PCS Literary Department has melted into air, into thin air.

OK, I know these are tough economic times, and I know that my feelings are colored by my personal associations with Mead and Megan, and my sense, as an aspiring playwright, that new plays must be promoted and produced. But still--isn't this a shameful and sad development? PCS is still in some ways a theater company that is finding its voice, after its expansion and move to the new Armory theater building two years ago. But I always thought that new plays were going to be an integral part of that voice, and I thought that Portland was steadily gaining respect from the theater community (third-tier city, no more!) for its commitment to new works. And now it's like all of Mead's careful work has been so quickly written out of existence...

Were there signs of trouble before these layoffs occurred? Well, I was disappointed in the '09-'10 season announcement. Two years in a row, now, PCS hasn't programmed any works from the previous year's JAW festival, which used to be a mainstay of their seasons. And I know that people, in these tough times, want the comfort of a familiar and easily-sold title, but I was disappointed that so many of the "new" plays in the '09-'10 season are adaptations: Snow Falling on Cedars, The Chosen, The 39 Steps. Now, I haven't seen or read these plays, and am aware that they may possess multiple theatrical virtues. But because they're adaptations, they are not chiefly concerned with the playwright's voice, creativity and thought. And this flight to known commodities frightens me a little, of course.

Obviously I am only a tangential observer of what happened at PCS, but every time something like this happens, and the effects of the bad economy hit someone I know, I get a sense of vertigo. What I learned about regional theaters by interning for Mead four years ago is now becoming obsolete, due to the financial crisis--that kind of thing. In a wider context, too, I feel like a generational rift has begun to open between the people who graduated college two or three years ago, when the economy was still chugging along; and the people who graduated college in my year, or will graduate next month, and have had the economy whiplash us when we had barely even joined the working world...

Monday, April 6, 2009

My soul is fettered to an office-stool

Just a quick explanation for the decrease in postings around these parts lately: my job is kicking my butt! In my industry, there is a period of intense activity about 2 months long every spring, and we're in the thick of it right now. I only just got back from the office 10 or 15 minutes ago, and as you can see, it's 10:45 PM.

I still have ideas for blog posts--in fact, because I'm listening to my iPod pretty constantly at work, I'm getting some ideas just by going through my music collection--but not necessarily the time or the energy to write them. But, this busy period should be over in four to six weeks. At least I know when the end-point is coming, right?

And I tell myself that, because my life-cycle is governed by the calendars of various artforms, at least this busy period doesn't occur during the SF Opera season, nor during the fall/winter months when all the good movies are released, and at least I don't live in NYC when all the Broadway plays are opening right about now. (Yes, I considered all of these factors before taking this job. I knew what I was getting into!) It could be worse, she says, as with a stiff neck and tired dry eyes, she climbs into bed, steeling herself for another day of this tomorrow...