Archive for February, 2010

Fasssssnacht

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

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Fasnacht, Basel’s three-day Carnival, felt like walking onto the set of a James Ensor painting crossed with Diane Arbus’ images of mental institution patients crossed with A Clockwork Orange. Surreal, creepy, tasteless, a bit nightmarish, politically worrisome, and kind of fun.

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It also felt like the first time I encountered any pointedly political art in Basel (no slick, conceptual formalism for Fasnacht!), even if the politics were sometimes in questionable taste and less than self-critical. Lots of the giant lampen, the lantern-cum-floats that are carried around with a band, satirized Quaddafi (and the Swiss foreign minister-as-apologist), North Korea, Berlusconi, Greece’s economic problems, Poland’s twin PM’s (I think), airport full-body scanners, and even Obama’s political platform—one of the floats had “We Camp Do it” and obscure mentions of the “New Deal” writ across it. I saw only one float with imagery that alluded to the Swiss People’s Party racist propaganda, which would seem ripe for satire, particularly since Basel’s a pretty left-wing city. Oh, and there was a funny allusion to Roman Polanski as well, with one float depicting a jail cell window, a hand fluttering out of it, and Zurich City Jail written above it. Less funny? These guys:

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One of many Quaddafi floats. The hatred appears to be mutual: Last year, Libya submitted a proposal to the UN General Assembly calling for the dissolution of Switzerland. This motion followed the arrest of Quaddafi’s violent, lunatic son, lovingly and/or prophetically named Hannibal, in Geneva, for assaulting two of his servants at a hotel there. Quaddafi responded by “lodging a formal diplomatic complaint, expelling Swiss diplomats, and shutting down Swiss-owned businesses in Libya.” He also stated that  Switzerland “is a world mafia and not a state,” saying it was “formed of an Italian community that should return to Italy, another German community that should return to Germany, and a third French community that should return to France.”

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Mr. Mafioso himself. Not sure what the beef is here. But he’s a pretty easy target.

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Greece. They currently owe Germany, and most of Europe, I think, a lot of money.

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North Korea, but kind of Milk Bar with those white masks, no? We got a flag.

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Ahmadinejad. Nice guns. And he always looks so slight in pictures. Embarrassed to say but I have no idea who that is on the right.

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And, finally, a small look inwards (see the Swiss People’s Party’s infamous poster of a veiled woman surrounded by missiles, nay, minarets).

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Wherein I am doused in Räppli, the single-colored confetti, by a clown-masked crusader since I do not have the de rigueur fasnacht badge and I am taking a million pictures, both big no-no’s. Paolo gives me a beer to cheer me up.

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Though the huge brass and drum bands are fun, with their awful arrangements of baseball game classics like “Sweet Caroline,” I like the solitary figures and bands of four who walk around with their piccolos and their masks and their backpacks. Kind of Arbus-y and poignant.

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All the shop windows get into the spirit. Hey ladies!

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Kind of blue.

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Just some ladies on the middle bridge, in the middle of the night, hanging up their wash.

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Mood Indigo at the Nachtcafe

Sunday, February 21st, 2010


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In 1960, one year after Nina Simone’s first album, “Little Girl Blue,” was released, the poet Langston Hughes struggled to put the appeal of Simone’s music and presence — that dusky voice, that unblinking gaze — into words. “She is strange,” Hughes wrote in The Chicago Daily Defender. “So are the plays of Brendan Behan, Jean Genet and Bertolt Brecht. She is far out, and at the same time common. So are raw eggs in Worcestershire.” Hughes was just getting warmed up. “She is different. So was Billie Holiday, St. Francis and John Donne. So is Mort Sahl, so is Ernie Banks.” He continued: “You either like her or you don’t. If you don’t, you won’t. If you do — wheee-ouuueu! You do!”

So begins Dwight Garner’s recent New York Times review of the new Nina Simone biography “Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone,” by Nadine Cohodas (Pantheon Books). I like that Hughes compared Simone to Genet and Brecht and John Donne—it’s indicative of her stunning reach and blurring of forms, no?—though St. Francis seems a bit of a stretch, considering Simone’s defiantly unpacific nature. In any case, about five years ago I was home in California for a spell, a brief summertime visit, and I found “I Put a Spell on You,” Simone’s 1991 autobiography, on the coffee table. My mom had checked it out from the local library, and we traded it back and forth on the couch and on the beach, until we were both finished—and completely winded by its sheer, manic strangeness. As Garner notes in his review, “Ms. Cohodas is convincing on the subject of that book’s factual deficiencies.” Nevertheless, Simone’s story, particularly that of her childhood, caught me. I thought of it the other night on the train home from Germany, while I was reading the new Thelonious Monk biography as we streaked through the snow fields of the Rhine Valley toward Switzerland.

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Monk and Simone were given similar labels as adult musicians: intuitive, emotional, mostly untrained geniuses. Clearly, the racism and/or sexism of the label isn’t nearly far enough from the surface. As the new Monk bio records, “Journalist Lewis Lapham’s sympathetic portrait of Monk for the Saturday Evening Post is typical of much of the writing about Monk. He described Thelonious as an ’emotional and intuitive man, possessing a child’s vision of the world, Monk talks, sleeps, eats, laughs, walks or dances as the spirit moves him.'” Oh, how this passage dates Mr. Harper’sor Lapham’s Quarterly, rather.

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But so too went descriptions of Simone’s “witchy” and “primitive” playing, despite her initial plans to be a concert pianist. In fact, Simone and Monk share interesting parallels: both were child piano prodigies born in North Carolina, and took classical lessons as children with European immigrant musicians, all the while absorbing the spiritual music of their families and communities. Though I haven’t read the new Simone book, the Monk biography is wonderful, its prose fluent and absorbing, unlike the stilted writing of so many music bios that I pick up around our house, all of which my boyfriend inevitably borrows, buys, and never finishes, as they are usually insanely unreadable. There’s a lovely moment early in the Monk book that recalls:

By the send of the summer of 1943, Monk had finally completed a ballad in C minor that he had been noodling around with for at least a year. He asked a friend of his , a young woman from the neighborhood named Thelma Elizabeth Murray, to pen lyrics to accompany the song’s haunting melody. Titled “I Need You So” … Monk registered the composition with the U.S. Copyright Office on September 24, 1943, granting Murray full credit for her contribution. It was the first composition registered under Monk’s name as the lead composer. The lyrics were never recorded, but the melody lingered on. A few months later, it was resurrected in a different key with minor alterations. He began calling it ” ‘Round Midnight.”

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This song is forever being played around our house, either on the stereo or by my boyfriend. I’m not sure when I first heard it, likely as a child on the record player, but I first remember it in the somewhat cheesy but mostly wonderful 1986 movie that bears its name. We owned a worn VHS copy of it when I was growing up, and my mom was always putting it on in the middle of the night while she read or baked or couldn’t sleep. I’ve seen it so many times that certain scenes and songs are ingrained in my memory: a peacockish Herbie Hancock in a silk robe, making eggs in a hotel room; the impoverished Frenchman sitting outside a jazz club in the gutter in the rain, listening to the music being played inside. The film follows a destitute and alcoholic American jazz great—a composite of the lives of Lester Young and Bud Powell (the latter somewhat of a protege of Thelonious Monk)—as he fulfills a contract at a small Paris jazz club in the 1950s, becoming friends in the process with a local jazz fan and his small daughter.

Dexter Gordon played the lead jazzman and also played the soundtrack, so I grew up with his tenor sax rendition of ” ‘Round Midnight” in my head. When I was living in Marfa, Texas, for a few months some years ago, I asked my mom to send me the film. She did, and I played it for my boyfriend, who promptly learned ” ‘Round Midnight” on his guitar, filling our barren West Texas rooms with its familiar melody.

But, but: Back to Langston Hughes, and his words anointing Nina Simone. I’ve never been a fan of poems—even Hughes’—about jazz. They often seem too, um, jazzy. Their rhythms, their words, often feel like they’re simply aping an art form that is impervious to textual description. An exception might be the poems of Kevin Young, who drafts the rhythms and ideas of blues and jazz in a way that is beautiful and intelligent and in no way embarrassing. But there is another poet—a German, oddly—who is able to engage a kind of jazziness that articulates its dark, trenchant weirdness, its strange, syncopated community. It’s Gottfried Benn, and translator Michael Hoffman calls his poems “jargon-glooms,” which I just love.

Night Cafe
by Gottfried Benn (1886-1956)

824: Lives and Loves of Women.
The cello takes a quick drink. The flute
belches expansively for three beats: good old dinner.
The timpani is desperate to get to the end of his thriller.

Mossed teeth and pimple face
wave to incipient style.

Greasy hair
talks to open mouth with adenoids
Faith Love Hope round her neck.

Young goitre has a crush on saddlenose.
He treats her to onetwothree beers.

Sycosis brings carnations
to melt the heart of double chin.

B flat minor: the 35th Sonata.
Two eyes yell:
stop hosing the blood of Chopin round the room
for that rabble to slosh around in!
Enough! Hey, Gigi!—

The door melts away: a woman.
Dry desert. Canaanite tan.
Chaste. Concavities. A scent accompanies her,
less a scent
than a sweet pressure of the air
against my brain.

An obesity waddles after.

Mixtape for St. Valentine

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

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Suzanne ////// Nina Simone

House Jam ////// Gang Gang Dance

Nemesis ////// Aaron Parks

Right Down The Line ////// Gerry Rafferty

Crybaby Blowout ////// Kinski

California ////// Dr. Dog

Stillness Is the Move ////// Dirty Projectors

Deadbeat Summer ////// Neon Indian

Georgia On My Mind ////// Django Reinhardt

Baby, Let Me Follow You Down ////// Bob Dylan

Goldchain ////// Dominique

Within Your Reach ////// The Replacements

Angithandi Ukulwa ////// Steve Kekana

Sea Lion Woman ////// Feist

Britten: Cello Suite #1, Op. 72 – 1. ////// Benjamin Britten, Mstislav Rostropovich

Blind ////// Hercules and Love Affair

Late Green ////// Theo Bleckmann And Ben Monder

Beyonce ////// Halo

I Loves You Porgy ////// Heinz Sauer & Michael Wollny

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Far Out, Far East

Friday, February 5th, 2010

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Maps are beauties, no? Whether one can read them or no, whether one is traveling the land they chart or no. Obscure longing married to geographic specificity, and all that formalized wonder, those regions and rivers and bodies of blue and gold and brown and green. To that end, I have always gotten a strange thrill from books with a map nestled between the table of contents and the first chapter. Although I have never been a fan of sci-fi or fantasy, which most reliably include maps to orient their readers to some newly invented world, when I come upon a map in a book of fiction or biography, the pleasure is immediate.

Such was my happiness then when I opened David Hinton’s Selected Poems of Li Po (New Directions) and found a map wonderfully titled, a bit deadpan, “Li Po’s China.” Of course, Li Po’s poems work like mapping devices, setting down the place names—cities, villages, people, rivers, mountains, drinking establishments—that function like so many objective correlatives, evoking definitive feelings though the names themselves are as abstract and distant as were the wilds of Western China past the Three Gorges to Li Po himself.

Like Hui-yuan fostering Ling-yun,
you open the gates of Ch’an for me

—”Visiting a Ch’an Master Among Mountains and Lakes”

It must be February, because I think the opening of this poem would make a perfect valentine, expressing so unerringly the feeling one has for a lover—despite the fact that the story of Hui-yuan fostering Ling-yun has yet to be told, and will not; that the gates of Ch’an have never been seen or described; and that Hui-yuan, Ling-yun, and Ch’an are complete strangers, never to be divulged. Pound, of course, in his Cantos, appropriated the power of such naming, using names from histories that would mostly remain opaque, though his poems, mostly, did not. (And though Hinton’s translations of Li Po are wonderful, I am still partial to Pound’s, less literal though they might be.)

In any case, as I have been reading Hinton’s somewhat chronological collection, I have been moving back and forth between poem and map, tracing Li Po’s travels as he traveled further through his life. It’s a lovely and oddly apt way to read the poems, as reading poetry in general often feels like using one’s finger to trace the long, attenuated line of a river or highway on a map unfolded and spread out in front of you.

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Related: We watched David Lean’s film adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago last night—in the wrong order, second half first: we were both too lulled by the fire and inept to catch our mistake—and all I kept thinking about was the Russian landscape that Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, and Omar Sharif were traveling over. Its kind of crushing vastness. I kept  wondering where exactly in the Ural Mountains their dacha was located—I almost stopped the movie to find a map—and then of Nabokov and the White Russians who were exiled, and Chekhov and his serfs and their revolution, and of all the exiles and poets and poet-exiles who traveled across or were forced into Russia’s eerie, artic expanse. Osip Mandelstam, Pasternak himself, Bertolt Brecht. (In the summer of 1941, B.B. traveled by train from Moscow all the way across the continent to Vladivostok, the Russian Pacific port city right above China, where he, in turn, boarded a ship bound for San Pedro, California.)

There was a wonderful article in the New Yorker recently by Ian Frazier that chronicled his road trip across Siberia (a book is forthcoming, I believe). From it, I gleaned these astonishing facts: “Three-fourths of Russia today is Siberia, and it takes up one-twelfth of all the land on earth, spanning eight time zones.” Eight times zones. Though the piece didn’t prompt any longing in me to visit Siberia myself—Frazier sounds mostly miserable as he cites a litany of garbage, cold, mosquitos, garbage, cold, mosquitos—I loved the image that opened the article, with it’s William Eggleston–like color and car-against-landscape poetic vernacular. If Robert Frank’s photographic series “The Americans” “sucked a sad, sweet poem out of America,” as Jack Kerouac said (tho I paraphrase), then this image appears to do the same work for Siberia and its mammoth reach.

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There Went Your Places of Winter, Rather

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

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Photos: Flora, Basel; Installation with photos of Robert Walser, Cornerhouse College, Zurich; Hannah Weinberger performance, Zurich; Feldbergstrasse, Basel; Paolo, Strathmere, New Jersey; Strathmere, New Jersey; Chelsea, New York; View over bay, Strathmere, New Jersey; Brecht in bed, Basel; Cadillac grills, New Jersey; Toward Whale Beach, Strathmere, New Jersey; Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland; Highline, New York; Wood delivery, Feldbergstrasse, Basel; Paul at leisure, Basel; Full moon, Basel; Unity, Basel; Self-portrait, Strathmere, New Jersey; Matthauskirche, Feldbergstrasse, Basel; New Year’s Eve, Brooklyn, New York; Paul in the snow, Basel; Sunset, New Jersey.