Sunday, September 20, 2009

Gary Wittner/Thelonius Monk

Fans of Bill Frisell should check out Gary Wittner's CD 'Roadway'. Though few who listen to Gary Wittner will mistake him for Bill Frisell, these two unique guitarists are similarly rooted in Americana. Wittner's strongest influence by far is the quirky, angular music of Thelonius Monk.

Though only three of the thirteen pieces on 'Roadway' are Monk tunes, Monk's presence is felt throughout. Wittner's many original compositions are clearly and profoundly Monk-inspired. The three remaining pieces, solo guitar pieces recorded live at Concordia University in Montreal, are country blues in feel, but here again the spirit of Monk bursts forth occasionally. The instrumentation adds quirk with the odd addition of Howard Johnson (tuba, contra-bass clarinet) to the guitar-bass-drums core.

Aiko Shimada: Blue Marble

Aiko Shimada: Blue Marble I discovered this CD thanks to the recommendations of a computer. "People who buy Laurie Anderson CDs," it told me, "also bought Aiko Shimada's 'Blue Marble'." This was a major breakthrough. At the time (2002?), most computer recommendations were ridiculous. "You like classical guitar? You might also like the Spice Girls!" After this I began to trust my computer just a bit more.

The Laurie Anderson comparison is a stretch, but understandable. There are moments reminiscent of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," others of the the Kronos Quartet. Sometimes Shimada sings accompanied by a band, sometimes by a string quartet ala "Eleanor Rigby". Sometimes it's just her and her electric guitar, or just her ethereal voice overdubbed over itself. There are also two instrumentals, one for violin and viola, the other for electric guitar (Bill Frisell!) and string quartet. But for all its diversity of instrumentation, Blue Marble is solid and cohesive, strong but gentle.

On Beyond Zebra (epics): Acts of Andrew

Pardon my blasphemy, but many of the more exciting stories were removed from the New Testament. The (now apocryphal) Acts of Andrew is a case in point. The travels of the apostle Andrew, his miracles and eventual martyrdom, make for fascinating reading.

I first became interested in the Acts of Andrew through Dennis MacDonald's book 'Christianizing Homer: The Odyssey , Plato, and the Acts of Andrew'. I was intrigued but not convinced by MacDonald's argument that the Acts of Andrew was a Christian retelling of Homer. And yet MacDonald's point-by-point comparison of the Odyssey and the Acts of Andrew enhanced my enjoyment of this (truly odd) story. In it Andrew survives among fierce animals, calms storms, heals the blind, raises the dead, and defeats armies. He also causes an illegitimate embryo to die and rescues a boy from his incestuous mother.

In his book 'The Acts of Andrew in the Country of the Cannibals,' Robert Boenig traces the development of the story by presenting translations from the Greek, Latin, and Old English. A highlight is the Old English version, in which a Beowulf-ish Andrew (with the kind assistance of Jesus, of course) rescues Matthias from the country of cannibal anthropophagi (literally man-eaters). Absurd, perhaps even heretical, but fascinating stuff.

Brad Shepik

There are many stories, myths and cliches about a player who is so excellent that, after hearing that person perform, other players become frustrated and throw their instruments out the window, off a bridge and/or into a river. Brad Shepik is one of those players. In fact, he's a level higher. I went to the same school as Brad Shepik for a very short time in the early 80s. Shepik (then Schoeppach) must have been nineteen at the time. When I first heard him play, not only was I inspired to toss my guitar, but the people who inspired me to toss my instrument were inspired to toss their instruments! He blew away the people that blew me away, then moved on.

I followed his career for a short time in Seattle, then he was off to New York. Shepik has gone many different directions, musically speaking. On 'Drip', he forms a trio with Scott Colley on bass and Tom Rainey on drums. The eight tracks showcase not only Shepik's excellent guitar playing, but also his skills as a composer. A highlight is 'Reve pour Louis', a beautiful and respectful 'jazzification' of the gamelan music of Java.

Ibrahim the Mad

The play 'Ibrahim the Mad' follows the reign of Ibrahim I, the mentally unstable Sultan of the Ottoman Empire who reigned from 1640 until 1648. Ibrahim was placed on the throne after the death of his brother, Murad IV, probably by his mother, Kosem Sultan, who wanted to rule the empire by proxy. Murad IV had ordered him killed upon his own death, but Ibrahim had been allowed to live, probably because he was too mad to be a threat. Ibrahim had spent his entire life in the Golden Cage, a prison with unreachable stained glass windows, with a few deaf-mute servants and some harem girls, under the constant and reasonable fear that he would be put to death. When guards showed up to bring him to the throne, he refused to go, thinking it was a trick. Ibrahim's rule grew ever more unpredictable. He raised and executed a number of viziers, declared war on Venice, and brought the empire almost to collapse in a very short space of time. Eventually the Grand Mufti, with the permission of Kösem, led a coup to overthrow Ibrahim. He was deposed, sent back to the Golden Cage and later strangled.

The play opens with the terrified Ibrahim being coaxed out of his cell by his mother Kösem.

Nine Visits to the Mythworld

"Nine Visits to the Mythworld" is the second book of Robert Bringhurst's three volumes of translations of mythtellers of the Haida people. Bringhurst manages to avoid the "Once upon a time" sameness of many collections by translating, not retelling, the tales. "Nine Visits" focuses on the mythteller Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas. Personal favorites include "The Way the Weather Chose to be Born" and "Spirit Being Living in the Little Finger."

Bulgakov's 'The Master and Margarita

I first experienced "The Master and Margarita" as a play at university. It was the final presentation of a Russian exchange student for her (I think) MA in directing. It was an odd but strangely haunting experience. Since then I have read the book, reread it (in a different translation), listened to two different audiobooks, and watched three different movie/TV adaptations. I also plan to read the graphic novel once I seek out an affordable copy.

Bulgakov's masterpiece is a tough one to describe. It is a beautiful and touching love story, a slapstick attack on Soviet-era hypocrisy, a rewriting of the bible and an homage to Goethe's Faust. It features a talking cat, a hyper-real Jesus and a fascinatingly bureaucratic 'Satan.' Magical and profound, it deserves a second, third or fourth read.

There are two audiobooks available. One is an unabridged and 'serious' reading. The other is abridged, and the reader clearly interprets the novel as comic. There are also three adaptations available on video. The love and respect for the original is clear in the Russian TV miniseries is reflected in its faithful adherence to the text. The same love and respect are apparently (and not surprisingly) found in Poland. The Polish version also follows Bulgakovs text and dialogue faithfully. These two versions differ in style, and because the Russian version is more recent the special effects are more impressive. But both are well worth watching. The third version, however, is not. Perhaps the director felt he was paying homage to Bulgakov, but by rewriting the story as a realistic autobiography, he squelches the originals magic.

On Beyond Zebra (Epic): Scanderbeide

My most exciting recent discovery is 'The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe', a series of translations published by the University of Chicago Press that focuses on works by 16th and 17th century women. My first glimpse into the series was Margherita Sarrochi's 'Scanderbeide'. Published in the 17th century, Scanderbeide's claim to fame is that it is the first historical heroic epic authored by a woman. More importantly, it is an excellent read. Sarrocchi took as her subject the war of resistance against the Ottoman sultanate by George Scanderbeg, a fifteenth-century Albanian warrior-prince.

The 'ide' in the title means tale, as in the Iliad (tale of Illium) or the Aeneid (the tale of Aeneas). Readers familiar with classical epics will recognise the many references to these works, as well as Tasso and Ariosto. But the Scanderbeide is a unique and enjoyable work. George Scanderbeg was apparently an obvious choice for the subject of a heroic poem. His war against the Turks saved the Roman church from its greatest threat, the Ottoman Empire. Sarrocchi deftly weaves a complex and fascinating story from her sources.