Archive for October, 2014

Cogito: John Branch

October 23, 2014


JB photo-painting by RC 2



The Peripheral: Futures Imperfect

The future has been worrying us lately. A good deal of conversation has taken place online about how it looks to us, in fact as well as in fiction, and how that matters. A smart example is Virginia Postrel’s 10/08/14 post on Bloomberg View, though it’s not, and doesn’t pretend to be, comprehensive.

William Gibson’s new book has something to add to this. After working with the future in his early fictions, he steadily moved his settings closer to the present, and his previous three books (sometimes called the Bigend trilogy) took place more or less in the here and now. In a move that seems remarkably well timed, Gibson has returned to the future in The Peripheral, and what he finds there isn’t likely to please those who are afraid of the dark.

The story is a doozy, a complex and elaborate version of athe peripheral basic thriller scenario: Somebody saw something happen, and someone else is now after them because of it. The task for the main characters is to figure out what they’re mixed up in, and Gibson aligns our interest with theirs by giving us a similar experience, requiring us to make sense of what we’ve gotten into. There are no thumbnail sketches of characters as we meet them, no explanatory descriptions of world elements as we encounter them. The novel employs a tactic of indirect and delayed exposition that begins with the first sentence: “They didn’t think Flynne’s brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him.”

We soon learn a little about Flynne’s brother. But who is Flynne herself, whose point of view we follow in the first chapter? Who is Netherton, the man with a hangover whom we follow in the second chapter? What kind of world does he live in, where phone calls seem to present themselves directly to his eyes and ears? What’s the connection between these two? Scores of pages pass before we can work that out, although a parallel between them soon emerges: Flynne witnesses a death in what she believes to be a game-world version of London, Netherton witnesses a death on a strange island of repurposed plastic in the Pacific, and each of them ends up in trouble because of it. But who died, and why, and who’s after them? As the novel’s short chapters (averaging 3.9 pages each) alternate between these two, tentative answers arrive, the picture develops, and further questions accumulate.

Gibson’s method is fascinating and is one of the book’s major pleasures. It shares something with noirish fictions of the past in which the truth about the nature of things takes time to emerge, but the way Gibson proceeds has more in common with a modern-day style in which interpreting the story is a game of collecting and connecting numberless bits of information.lost The TV series Lost may be the most extreme example: that was a hugely baroque exercise in casting the viewer as Tantalus, for whom a coherent and comprehensive explanation always eluded his grasp. Lost piled up perplexities, but you won’t find them in The Peripheral; Gibson isn’t interested in bafflement. Bit by bit, with many small, deft moves, a large structure is assembled before your eyes—much like the way 3-D printing operates.

That’s not to say that everything is explained. A degree of uncertainty is part of the game. Indeterminacy litters the story, in such statements as these:

Something flew into [the woman’s] mouth.”

Looks like the thing we’re printing is for doing something that something a lot more evolved could do a lot better.”

Netherton…looked like he was standing in the back of something’s throat, all pink and shiny.”

Something stilled the part of him that knitted narrative…”

In a way, Gibson is again dramatizing what the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry for him (speaking of the Bigend trilogy) called “the indecipherability of the real world,” though the real world in The Peripheral is in the future.

Actually, there are two plotlines and two futures in The Peripheral. One of the futures—I’ll call it Neartime—is a pretty recognizable extension of our present and takes place in an economically depressed, small-town region of the American South. Here, gaming for pay is one way of making money—Flynne did it in the past but gave it up for work in a 3-D print shop, and her brother’s been doing it lately—but most people earn their living from illegal drugs, manufactured by way of nanotech, and drug money has corrupted the county political system. Gaming now relies on a form of virtual reality, but phones are still, as in our world, separate objects. That’s no longer the case in Fartime, the second plotline, which is situated in London 70-odd years later. Here, “phones” include video and have been integrated into people’s bodies, controlled with a tongue tap on the roof of the mouth, and that’s just the beginning of the differences.

In a sense, this is the future of Neartime, but in another sense it’s not. Gibson proposes that someone in Fartime has figured out how to communicate with the past but that, once you establish a connection, that entire world branches off, detaches itself from your history, goes its own way. You can tinker with one of these stubs, as they’re called, all you want without affecting your world; doing so is one of the hobbies of Netherton’s idle-rich friend, Lev, a scion of the Russian kleptocracy, which wields much influence here. What’s more, because communications with that past world are two-way, someone in your stub can employ a form of telepresence and participate in your world.

gibsonThat summary says very little about the novel, but it includes an important point. Gibson has always been concerned with the blurred boundary between the virtual and the real. In The Peripheral we have two entire worlds that are, to some extent, unreal to each other. From the standpoint of characters in Fartime, Flynne’s world exists and must be dealt with (they need her help in solving the murder she saw), and yet that world doesn’t matter in that it has no other bearing on their present. They’re connected with a past that was, but no longer is, their own. Similarly, Flynne and the others in Neartime come to know the future to which they had been headed, but they still can’t know where they’re going instead. The people of The Peripheral are detached from both past and future, stuck in the volatility of the now.

As is his wont, Gibson reverts to convention when it comes time to resolve the story. The habit upsets some readers. “I don’t like novels that end happily,” says Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, Act II. “They depress me so much.” Likewise, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry remarked of Gibson’s work that his tidy plot resolutions “[diminish] the impact of his harsh visions.” It should be remembered that Cecily’s complaint leads to Miss Prism’s oft-quoted observation, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” This entitles us to regard an ending as a mere matter of form and to look elsewhere for the substance of a story, which is how we can best judge The Peripheral. In this work, the weight resides, not in the neatness of its final chapters, but in all that comes before, where tech junkies will find much to get high on, and where readers sensitive to Gibson’s immense craftsmanship will discern much to worry about.

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Cooper’s London

October 22, 2014

Books, Music




Chanel: An Intimate Life 
(Lisa Chaney, Penguin paperback)

Chaney has written a strong and stylish book telling the life of Coco Chanel. The strength comes from its giving considerable attention to the background of her life, the era in which she lived, the stories of the various people who were her most important lovers and friends. It is incredibly informative. Lisa-ChaneyAnd the stylishness comes from the writing itself, which is meticulous and readable; and from the intellectual curiosity the book displays. It treats Chanel not just as the creator of ephemeral fashion but as a real artist who understands the uses of fashion and its relationship to its age. I have learned more about what makes the fashion world tick and what are some of the deeper issues that drive its greatest talents than I ever expectedor even knew existed.

coco_chanel 1This is a thoughtful, well-written and meticulously researched work, and as gripping as a novel. You not only get a convincing and detailed portrait of the woman, Germaine Chanel, who became the iconic Coco; you also get to know pre-World War I France from its lower Zola-esque depths to its high societyplus the impact of World War I, the craziness of the twenties, and then the era of the Depression and Occupation. Was Coco a collaborator? Read and decide for yourself which side her moral predicaments set her down on. The book is as interesting and as exciting as her greatest fashion shows. Highly recommended.



The Dreyfus Affair
(Piers Paul Read, Bloomsbury UK)

This book details, step by appalling step, the miscarriage of justice that was the Dreyfus Case. readCarefully researched and written, Piers Paul Read is interested in much more than the details of poor Dreyfus’ humiliation, incarceration and ultimate exoneration. He also portrays with vivid and intense frustration the attitudes that enabled people (who knew perfectly well that Dreyfus was innocent) to justify their involvement in keeping the truth from the public.

Dealing fully with every aspect of the case and every character who either colluded with the betrayal of dreyfusDreyfus or fought for his freedom once they became convinced of his innocence, the book directly involves you in the era. It also makes excellent background reading for everything from Proust and Anatole France to a study of the attitudes that led to the fall of France in World War II and the willing collaboration of so many with the German occupation.

The Dreyfus Affair consciously, I think, sets out to show you the attitudes at a certain level of French society that enabled people to consider themselves patriots ,when actually they were complicit in betraying the soul of their country. It’s a good companion piece to Lisa Chaney’s biography of Chanel, too.

Figaro: New and A-Maze-ing at the ENO

It took me a while to get comfortable with (or even figure out) the visual and metaphoric concept behind this ENO production of The Marriage of Figaro bullsbut by the middle of the second scene I think I figured it out and I began to like the idea.

The crazy day in the Almaviva household is well-represented by a set that keeps revolving; keeps shifting into a series of mazes; references the maze of the Minotaur myth (Figaro as Theseus doing the bull dance or Almaviva as the cruel king?). There is also a good reason for a story set in 18th century Spain to be full of the imagery of dead bulls, bull masks and the bullfight. I found the design by Peter McKintosh also evocative of the original era of Beaumarchais’ revolutionary, disturbing play. The comedy was paramount, just. But this was a darker and more considered production that you often get of Figaro. Like  the famous production a few years ago at the Royal Opera House, this castle abounds with life, with servants and supernumeraries bustling about the maze doing their duties.

fiona shawBut in the end, it is not the concept that drives this production. The evening works so well because the director, Fiona Shaw, knows how to get her singers to act their characters and to understand and convey the nuances and complications of the various relationships. This is a seriously intelligent Figaro and, by the end (though the music is telling you that forgiveness and reconciliation can be transcendent and are possible; though you are basking in the wonderful world of sound that is created by the score and the increasingly fine ENO orchestra), the thrust of the story and the way the actors have shown their reactions suggests strongly that the reconciliations will be short-lived and that the Count will betray his Countess again.

This is an interpretation informed by the third of the Figaro plays, The Guilty Mother (La Mère Coupable); and by the end of the first half you begin to suspect and foresee the affair that’s bound to happen sooner or later between the betrayed, disappointed Countess and the young Cherubino. You can also, of course, see the inspiration that this text gave to Hugo Von Hoffmansthal when he wrote Der Rosenkavalier for Richard Strauss. This is a literate and strongly theatrical interpretation of the opera and of the play behind itprobably because it’s directed by a consummate actress who here shows herself to be a mistress of theatre as a director, as well.

Ultimately, though, it’s the music that carries the emotions and provokes the intellectual interpretationand Shaw knows how to listen to the music and interpret it dramatically through the singers and their reactions to events.The constant movement of the revolving set and the actors moving through the mazes;

the choreography of all the movement (as well as of the actual dances); and the life going on in the corridors or behind the scenes that we observe and that gives the sense of the very public life of the Almaviva palace; all this enhances the sense of urgency and restlessness in the tale.

The ENO has a strong cast in this first revival of Shaw’s production, with everyone working together brilliantly as an ensemble but also shining in their solo moments. The climax of the evening, as it should be, is the third scene. Each of the events is telling, with the Countess’s solo aria bevan and brandonand her duet with Susanna outstanding both musically and dramatically (full praises with no quibbles to Sarah-Jane Brandon as the tortured and lovely Countess and to Mary Bevan, the Susanna who has been promoted from being Barbarina last time). The Count’s fury and psychopathy are brilliantly and frighteningly conveyed in his solo by Benedict Nelson in that scene; and the trio of David Stout’s Figaro, Lucy Schaufer’s Marcellina and Jonathan Best’s crabby, tight-fisted Bartolo succeeds in provoking considerable laughter in the recognition scene, where it turns out that Figaro is the long-lost illegitimate offspring of the couple that are trying to cheat him (leading so preposterously, but delightfully, to happy marriages all round, to the great fury of the Count). One must also note the fine contribution of Samantha Price’s boyish, androgynous Cherubino throughout. As for the Barbarina of Ellie Laugherne, her voice is so lovely and her acting so natural that she is very likely to be Susanna next time round.

Musically, Jaime Martin keeps complete control of the score and offers some really illuminating musical moments. The music and drama develop just as they should, and the confused dénoument in the garden/maze works with a clarity and impact that are very satisfying. Susanna’s big, loving aria and Figaro’s jealousy in the final scene are also memorable highlights, both exquisitely controlled.

cast bowingThis is a fine evening of opera, with all the elements blending seamlessly. The night I attended, Mary Bevan was presented with well-deserved Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent during the applause, having just proved by her singing and acting that she is a very deserving winner.

Note: The revival of Fiona Shaw’s production of The Marriage of Figaro is in repertoire of the English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 23 November 2014.

Apollo’s Girl

October 17, 2014





Yale in New York: Now Really Big!
(Sunday, October 19, 5pm,
Avery Fisher Hall)

To launch its eighth season, Yale in New York is Opening Big—very big—with a concert at Avery Fisher Hall; the full Yale Philharmonia

brentano quartet(plus the Brentano Quartet, Yale’s Quartet-in-Residence), led by Adams_John_Conduct_9-1_500Composer-in-Residence, John Adams. On the program: Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, preceded by Mr. Adams’ own Absolute Jest. And, as a chaser, Stravinsky’s Orpheus.

Absolute Jest is both an Adams original and an homage to Beethoven—specifically, the Scherzo movements of the late quartets. While the quartets are known for their dark, deep and measured timbres, their Scherzos are fast, light and nimble. It is Adams’ choice to select high-energy fragments, to award them to the quartet (“…An orchestra is bigger and harder to move. …You need a quartet to keep up the speed of light.”) and to merge it with the full ensemble. It’s the kind of lineup that Yale in New York has become known for.

We go to concerts for many reasons; I went to Yale in New York the first time because its program was so intriguing. concert. The second time around I went for the very same reason: a new production of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale. Of course it’s always a popular choice. But it’s never the story; it’s the way the story is told.

SoldiersTale_0431This story was revealed by both the dance and the music departments. The actors danced (mighty well!); the narrator was a spot-on Michael Cerveris bringing a new translation to life; the costumes were simple but compelling: Ilona Somagyi’s take on red appeared in apt and cunning ways that never failed to amuse (and, I’m convinced, were channeled by one character in Sprint’s video commercials). Of course it should tour–it was created for touring– but with David Shifrin and Ani Kafavian heading up the chamber ensemble, it’s hard for schedules to align. We can, for now but hope, and whet our lips for an encore. see it

But to plug into the opening of Yale’s new season and see what the cheering is all about, be in your seats on Sunday at 5pmbeethoven-330x350
Come to think of it, why not subscribe to the entire season? this season

Cooper’s London

October 3, 2014





Spaghetti Western at the ENO

In some ways, you could think of Puccini’s opera La Fanciulla del West as the first spaghetti western. This idea is enhanced in the new and richard jonesextremely successful production of The Girl of the Golden West at the ENO by Richard Jones. Some of the signature visuals realized by Set Designer Miriam Buether (a certain amount of stylization, the use of neon lighting here and there to point things are arresting in themselves, but with the costumes of Nicky Gillibrand, the show is completely evocative of the Gold
Rush era in California and not of some arbitrary updating. The production constantly evokes the quintessentials of Western golden west setfilm design
the saloon, the heroine’s little log cabin. The final scene is set in front of the Sheriff’s office and you almost expect John Wayne, Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda to come on out and save the day.

Originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Fanciulla is a bit of a Cinderella among the Puccini operas because it’s Puccini at his most Giacomo_Puccini bowlerexperimental and modernistic. There are few “famous tune” moments; the score is constructed mainly from thematic cells and leitmotifs, rather than Big Moments. But it’s gorgeous and sonorous throughout. And when those moments do come (Jake Wallace’s ballad, various moments of narration by the main characters, the dance sequence in Act I, Jack Rance or Dick Johnson telling about their lives, and above all Dick Johnson’s “Ch’ella mi creda” in Act III) they have huge impact. The translation by Kelley Rourke is fine, fits the music, and allows the singers to sound American. The moods evoked by the score are consistent and emotionally suggestive throughoutthe sonorities and orchestrations are astonishing.

Richard Jones is not afraid of the great melodramatic swatches of this tale; indeed, he often almost sends them up by having them overacted, causing laughter from the audience, but also reminding one of the early cinematic acting styles contemporary with the opera’s first performances. This, ironically, makes the whole evening feel more authentic because of the way it plays into our experience of Hollywood Westerns. At times the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, but you come out feeling this has, somehow, brought to life the Wild West of the California gold rush. The story remains credible right through the rescue of her lover by Minnie at the end. There’s also a terrific recreation of the kind of mountain snow storms and avalanches that you remember from The Gold Rush or even Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

The entire cast sings and acts with exemplary commitment; the sense of the community in which Minnie is a kind of sister of mercy and mentor, a mother figure who is an object of both love and lust among the miners, is strongly conveyed. Craig Colclough makes a slightly one-dimensional Jack Rance– Sherriff and bully–and Peter Auty is a sympathetic Dick Johnson (he’s really– gasp!–the Bandit Ramerrez). Both have fine voices, while Graham Clark’s Nick, Nicholas Masters’ Ashby, Leigh Melrose’s Sonora, Clare Presland’s Wowkle and George Humphreys’ Jake Wallace, the Minstrel, must be praised as standouts among a consistently strong cast.

But the evening truly belongs to the two principal women: susan bullockSusan Bullock’s tireless, appealing, vivid Minnie; and conductor keri-lynn wilsonKeri-Lynn Wilson, making her UK debut, who draws a brilliant performance from all the musical forces and makes something coherent and luscious of the score. Susan Bullock is a Minnie in the style of Birgit Nilsson; a clarion voice at times warm, at times laser-like; soft with emotion at some moments, over-riding the orchestra at others. Her singing is tireless in a role that must be as demanding as singing Brunnhilde. Her acting’s also particularly finea gun-toting cross of Lillian Gish and Marie Dresslerbut above all her voice is simply a glorious, Puccinian instrument.

If you are new to this opera, this notable production, cast and conductor will convince you that you need to get to know it better; and if you already know it, it will please you as an excellent and extremely satisfying presentation of an often under-rated work of art. So try to see this new Golden Girl. It’s dramatically and musically practically perfect in every way. October 14 – November 1.

Modernizing the Moor

To mark his 30th work anniversary with the English National Opera, David Alden has been given Otello (celebrating 450 years since Shakespeare’s birth) and has come up with a compelling and evocative production. It is also, for Alden, fairly uncluttered and quite coherent. There are fewer chairs than usual; and the lines of the plot and action are well conveyed. The sets and costumes are contemporary, yet somehow evocative of the original era of the play, so that (for once) the double focus and contemporary references actually work tp enhance what is going on; also, the blocking is somewhat stylized ,yet perfectly clear. So Alden’s fantasies and obsessions do not really get in the way.

This is a good thing because the edward gardnermusical direction by Edward Gardner is exemplary and superbly sonorous. Gardner has a great feeling for this score and its harmonies and a wonderful sense of individual detail, as well as the whole constructed arch of music contrived by Verdi. The orchestra is completely with him; he inspires some brilliant playing. It must also be said that the work of the chorus is exemplary throughout and at times even thrilling.

Gardner also has some wonderful singers to work with. Leah Crocetto, making her company debut, is a sweet-voiced and charming Desdemona; Jonathan Summers is a cold, calculating and powerfully voiced Iago. But the dominant character, as it stuart sheltonshould be, is the Otello of Stuart Skelton. His timbre is clarion-like when required for the bigger moments yet he can pull back the sound to a moan, a sigh, a taut string-like whine, to express love, misery, jealousy or (when going full blast), his rage and pain. From the opening storm to the murder of Desdemona by Otello and his discovery of how he has been tricked, it is a superb performance and I would certainly like to hear him do the role again. Jonathan Summers’ voice and acting are also both mightily impressive and there is a real contest—as there should bebetween this Otello and Iago.

The highlights of the opera are superlatively pointed and performed; the opening storm is dazzling; getting Roderigo drunk a fine love duet; a scary and definitive “Credo”; a powerful ending to Act II from Iago’s Dream Narration onwards.

I took a friend (who once performed as Iago in the play, but had never seen the opera) to see this Otello, and he was bowled over by Summers’ interpretation of the role, and seeing both Summers and Skelton really inhabit their parts. But the full glory of the opera is so richly conveyed because of Gardner’s sensitive, intuitive conducting. Making the play/opera more contemporary in guise worked, finally, because the point of the tale—like so many of Shakespeare’s storiesis ageless. And because Verdi, in his music, offers us a great and convincing interpretation of the many layers of this very great play, while Gardner and his team of singers simply do justice to every nuance of what Verdi has achieved. It’s a triple treat, not to be missed. In repertory at the ENO playing 4, 8, 11, 14, 17 October

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