Category Archives: Music

The Polar Express (the train of life)

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I’m not the first to look for the deeper meaning in the animated film The Polar Express. It is a wise film interspersing thoughtful conversation with high action – it would make a thrilling fast ride at a theme park.  The music is also wonderful – it would also make a great musical.

train

Faith, and lack of it, along with the innocence and loss of childhood, are big themes, but also the general challenges of life that we experience whether child or adult. There are some key one-liners from the train conductor (Tom Hanks) – I thought one might pop up “it’s not the destination but the journey that is important” but instead, better, it’s: “it doesn’t matter where the train goes, it’s making the decision to get on it that matters.”

Hanks

It is a risk for all the children to jump on the train but they do and discover aspects of themselves that they either didn’t know they had or find they needed confirmation of the qualities they did have. On the journey they are challenged, but also helped, by Doubt – the spirit of the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man who appears on and off in various parts of the train – also played by Tom Hanks.

This pairing of these two characters (conductor and spirit man) could be seen as theological – Hope (the conductor) and Doubt (the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man) are two sides of the same coin. We experience one with the other in most cases, but with friendship, empathy, and our own individual reflection, we can get through them.  Three of the children become good mates – one boy struggles particularly with the concept of Christmas (we’re not given details but we assume he’s had a tricky home life, is lonely, and certainly doesn’t come from a wealthy background) but he is valued by his two friends.

boy

Materially the children are on the search for presents but learn a great deal more about the gifts they already have within them and also what they need to learn and do to maintain hope and faith. The conductor makes a passing but key comment ‘sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.’

Holding onto the unseen is the challenge in life – the symbol of the bell in the film personifies this. Doubt says you must see to believe.  Hope says you sometimes have to believe in order to understand, and to see.

bell

Happy Christmas.

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The Arts as vehicles for Identity and Truth

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In his statement to his film Mr Turner, Mike Leigh says:

“Back at the turn of the century, when ‘Topsy-Turvy’ was released, I wrote that it was “a film about all of us who suffer and strain to make other people laugh.”

Now I have again turned the camera round on ourselves, we who try to be artists, with all the struggles our calling demands. But making people laugh, hard as it is, is one thing; moving them to experience the profound, the sublime, the spiritual, the epic beauty and the terrifying drama of what it means to be alive on our planet – well, that’s altogether something else, and few of us ever achieve it, much as we may try.

Yet Turner the man was eccentric, anarchic, vulnerable, imperfect, erratic and sometimes uncouth. He could be selfish and disingenuous, mean yet generous, and he was capable of great passion and poetry.

Mr Turner is about the tensions and contrasts between this very mortal man and his timeless work, between his fragility and his strength.”

I enjoy films which are about complex people and I read this after seeing the film. Too often it feels as though society puts people into boxes and has no time to consider those who are outside the box. The business of the arts is to explore characters and the world they lived/live in.

Timothy Spall as Turner

Timothy Spall as Turner

Turner seemed not to engage with the reality of his own responsibilities yet his paintings engage realistically with the world of nature. I look at the paintings and their wildness strikes a chord with me – the emotions I can’t always engage with are almost acknowledged by the art and artist instead – on my behalf.

The same could be said of Beethoven the composer.  The classical pianist James Rhodes says ‘his music is the very definition of “interiority” – music became about feelings, about looking within and expressing things hitherto unsayable…Study Shakespeare and he will show us who we are.  Listen to Beethoven, a man tormented and isolated, who wrote simply to justify his artistic and intellectual existence, and he will show us who we could be.’

Beethoven

Another who was labelled as odd was Alan Turing – the code breaker in World War Two.  At the time, he didn’t behave or talk like ‘the group’ he was working with, but they learnt to respect and work with him – all portrayed brilliantly in the film The Imitation Game. We should be careful of the word ‘odd’ – life is complex, and we sometimes need complex people to illuminate our own lives, whether we see our lives as black and white, or grey.  As Oscar Wilde says ‘the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.’  And let us remember we are all human – so complexity generally comes with that.

The superb Benedict Cumberbatch as the persecuted Alan Turing

The superb Benedict Cumberbatch as the persecuted Alan Turing

Phoenix Rising

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I’m not saying anything new when I say that this year’s Eurovision winner won for more than a song (if people do win for their songs).  It was a win for anyone who feels that they cannot be who they are – Conchita not only is who she is but stands up and sings about it.  She has been interviewed many times since winning, and she talks about a difficult childhood – as usual, those who are seen as different are sidelined, or worse, bullied.

Conchita2

Her song ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ is about identity – she has also said since winning, that she is her own truth, which is as close as you can get to living authentically and being truly who you are.  It’s ironic in one sense that there is still a stigma against people who want to do this – and have the guts to do it.  You can be punished in this world for being truthful – be dishonest about who you are and this is preferred!

In Greek Mythology, the phoenix is a powerful symbol of rebirth and regeneration – it is also associated with Early Christianity for the same meanings.  It can also mean the ‘exceptional man’.  All of these apply to Conchita Wurst and as one person said, she not only provokes questions about identity, but she also provides the answers to them, all within herself.  She won for the quality and power of her singing voice but also because thankfully, we saw that what she represented is not something so very foreign to all of us, that we all have a voice and with that an identity, and we should look to her to know that it is possible to be ourselves.  Eurovision this year was meaningful.

Pheonix

A Way of Seeing

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I often wonder if people who don’t enjoy culture or do not feel drawn to any kind of artistic endeavour, are missing out on a way of seeing the world.  The poet Coleridge said of imagination – that it is the unconscious, primordial power of the soul and that knowledge is wedded to feeling.  So this would indicate that for knowledge to be accurate, it must have a relationship to feeling, to emotion – even to the irrational.  He also said that imagination allows us to see reality as a whole.  Parts are seen as a whole through the creative imagination; art is not a skill – it is the imaginative work of the soul.  Art is a certain kind of seeing – the inner eye’s fusion of the external and internal.

Coleridge

Freud went so far as to say that the discontent of the world is due to the lack of connection between the inner and the outer.

So what of the person making the art – singing the song, playing the instrument, writing the music/song, painting the picture, dancing the dance, writing the poem or book, or acting the character?  Coleridge said that a poet can be known by how he/she makes the reader express their emotions. The artist does not know what they’re expressing until it is expressed – hence it is unconscious.  Mentality cannot be strictly identified with consciousnes itself – e.g a musician is not completely aware/conscious of what or how well they’re playing.  They have a mentality of it but are not 100% conscious of it.

So having said all this, we are pointed to the concept that imagination clarifies and makes aspects of life clearer; in the act of elaboration, ironically we see more clearly.

I leave you with two quotes; one from a composer of great music – Sergei Rachmaninov – who says that his need to create music is linked with his reaction to it after it is created.  Both are efforts to create something good and beautiful through which the rest of life can be carried –

‘I always feel that my own music and my reactions to all music, remained spiritually the same, unendingly obedient in trying to create beauty.’

Life is lived forwards but understood backwards and we often need tools – such as the arts and imagination – to understand it.  In the book ‘The Other Side of You’ by Salley Vickers, one of the characters says ‘how little of another person’s reality is visible to us.  We see their form, their features, their shifts of expression, but all that constitutes their sense of self remains unseen.  And yet this invisible self is what to the individual constitutes their real identity.’

Vickers

Imagination is like a window which allows us to see others more clearly, as we use imagination to interpret the arts which are about people.  Film and Theatre Director Rufus Norris says in relation to his film ‘Broken’ – acting is the business of humanity.  The arts are more informative than we give them credit for and far more than simply fantastical.

Broken

Everything Is Connected

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I have an interest in physical theatre – both participating and watching it.  It earths you.  The workshop I recently attended focussed on movement and meditation.  It involved various simple movement exercises such as standing in a circle and throwing a ball to other people in the circle.  We were simply asked to pass and catch.  We realised very soon though that is was not so simple – that we were sorry, embarrassed or annoyed when we dropped a ball.  Some of us found it funny; some of us were cross and felt we had failed; some of us felt responsible when the person we threw it to did not catch.

We then discussed how we feel when we drop bigger balls in life – the ball of relationships, the ball of responsibility at work, the ball of ‘keeping it all together’.  We discussed how so often we worry too much over actions which actually do not matter – yet do not worry over actions that do matter.  We are told by society that certain actions are important when actually they are not – it is so terribly important that we run as fast we we can in life to achieve as much as we can and never mind the implications on others.  Whether in the world of business, investment, trade or academia there are too many of us intent on getting to the top at the expense of others.  Treat people badly but no matter as you will achieve what you want.  Just get to your destination and ignore the journey (which is probably more enjoyable and enlightening anyway but you’re running so fast you don’t notice or don’t care).

Consider VAT.  The tax we all pay on most items and services in the UK.  It stands for ‘value added tax’ but in life, our actions or non action could be called ‘value added tension’.  When we pass something on to someone – e.g. a piece of work we’ve worked on, we pass it on feeling some responsibility I guess, hoping we’ve done our best and that it will be appreciated.  But, there is nothing more we can do so like the ball in the game, we should just pass it on and not worry perhaps.  However, when we pass on the world to the next generation we have much less concern on what we pass on.  It is strange I find.  We care less for something that actually matters more.

cloud atlas

In the film ‘Cloud Atlas’, we see the major message of the film is that everything is connected.  Actor Tom Hanks who stars in it says ‘It’s above my pay grade to say what’s going on beyond this life but I embrace the mystery of it all.  And as a layman who studies history, I am firm in my belief that the human condition throughout the history of the world has never evolved until someone did the right thing, which is a version of saying “it’s important the karma you put out right now because it’s going to affect eternity.”

It is a great thing that film and theatre can remind us of the priorities in life – I don’t think many people listen to their message but at least it is being said.  The film ‘A Late Quartet’, focussing on music, rightly suggests that music is not separate from life.  It is not just something experienced in the concert hall and then forgotten.  Like great fiction, it is a drama that draws from and is inspired by the choatic nature of our lives.

A Late Quartet

We ignore what we think is unimportant and sooner or later it will come back to bite us.  Modern business and academia does not invite us to live ethical lives that care about other living beings.  Ego is the name of game.  Well one day, the ball we throw out that should have been thrown with more care and value will come right back and hit us much harder.

Sondheim is super

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The more musicals by Stephen Sondheim that I watch, the more my belief (that theatre shows us real life, more than real life itself), is reinforced.

Merrily We Roll Along has been playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London since November 2012 and I’ve just seen it.  It tells the story of a composer (Frank) who turns to commercial producing, putting his own unique creativity at stake, along with his friendship and in the end his own grasp of life.  The musical opens at his house in California in 1975 and then by the end of the musical, it is 1957 and he is on a rooftop with two friends on 110th Street, NYC.

Frank and Charlie on the roof

Frank and Charlie on the roof

It ends, therefore, at the beginning, when he, and his friends Mary and Charlie, are idealistic and full of hope. They have dreams that music and writing can change the world.  By 1975, they are older – some of the dreams are shattered and some of the dreams have been reached but in ways that have distanced them and turned them from who they were – affecting their relationship with each other and with other people.

The three leads are played beautifully by Mark Umbers (Frank), Jenna Russell (Mary) and Damian Humbley (Charlie). Humbley remarks that essentially the musical is about compromise.  We all compromise a little as we go down the road of life but it is like dominoes – one little one falls into another little one and it’s something that can become habit.  It is not bad to compromise but it can also take its toll as the further you go down the road, the harder it is not to keep doing it and you realise what you stood for has been left behind.

Frank, Charlie and Mary

Frank, Charlie and Mary

I found the musical heartbreakingly honest since not only does Frank leave some of his dreams behind, he also leaves some of the special people in his life behind; people he genuinely loved and who loved him.  And, what he ends up with, is not what he set out to achieve.  Songs such as ‘Old Friends’, ‘Growing Up’, ‘Not a Day Goes By’ and ‘Our Time’ nail prefectly those moments in life that we all share, cherish, lose and sometimes regain.

If I had to recommend a show to see, to anyone, I would say this one.  It reminds you of being alive (the name of another song by Sondheim from ‘Company’ – another great musical) and that, even with our best efforts, we will not always make the right choices – but is is always worth trying to make them, and trying to hold good friendships.

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The Naturalism Debate

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Most of the comments about the film Les Miserables remark that the film is too naturalistic and ‘in your face’.  A well known musical theatre performer commented that it was all rather emotional and that she would have liked it if the voices has been ‘tweaked’ a little bit in the studio after recording to make them more presentable/easy on the ear on film. Interesting.  The film’s power in its use of non-edited singing: the actors are in the moment.  Eddie Redmayne who plays Marius says the joy of this is that actors don’t therefore have to make their acting decisions 3 months before their character is in role.

Marius 1

I would also say how stange it is to talk about tweaking emotions.  Do we ‘tweak’ emotions in every day life?  No!  If we’re about to cry we don’t say ‘now hang on a moment, let me make sure I don’t upset other people and I’ll just adjust my tears.’ What is the problem with being real?  Nothing!  If we are embarrassed or somehow disgusted by the rawness of this film then we’re disgusted by the reality of the human condition and even history itself.  The historical facts of the French revolution are gritty and violent like any other battle.  The human stories of Valjean, Fantine and all the people in the street scenes are realistic – there were such people who had lives of utter misery – some of them managed to create a better world for themselves (Valjean – though only because the Bishop gave him a second chance and Valjean acted on it), but others, due to the repression of the system and the unforgiveness of others, had no chance to move away from their wretched lives.

The only voice that is not raw and not broken is Russell Crowe’s – which suits his character, Javert.  Javert becomes obsessed with hunting down Valjean purely because he is the law and there is no bending – ‘the law is not mocked’.  He cannot see that Valjean does not fit into his category of right and wrong.  His uncompromising nature is reflected in his smooth vocals.  Any doubt Javert has (and he does doubt) is seen in his face rather than heard in his vocals.

I would therefore conclude that the naturalism of this Les Mis film works and is justified – it takes courage to face the truth because once you face it you have to engage with the world and your place in it.  Once you do that – as Valjean and Fantine do, they find that their engagement with the world costs.  Facing the truth is a rough ride and the events that happen to them are life changing…what would be the purpose of ‘tweaking’ their emotional response?  Nothing, other than making it look like their characters are pretending and let’s face it, life is not a rehearsal and we can’t pretend our way through it.  The characters in Les Mis don’t.