March 19th, 2014

Early Music Now: East of the River, “Levantera”

On Saturday, March15th, we went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Zelazo Center to hear “East of the River” as part of the Early Music Now<> concert series. Augmented by three additional musicians, the group played a culturally rich, musically addictive program that traced the migration of Mediterranean, medieval music through the Balkans and into the Middle East and Armenia.
In the program called "Levantera" — which refers to an easterly Mediterranean wind — recorder players Nina Stern and Daphna Mor performed with violinist Jesse Kotansky, kanun player Tamer Pinarbasi and percussionist Luke Notary.
Stern and Mor performed on a number of different recorders and recorder-like instruments. The kanun, played by Mr. Pinarbasi, looks like a large autoharp without the chording bars. It is played by striking the strings with the fingers, and has a dulcimer-like sound. Complicated to play, it has a tuning lever for each string capable of setting any of nine “micro-tones” between notes, something unique to Turkey, where the instrument originates. Mr. Notary’s main instrument was a frame drum (similar to the Irish bohdran), but also played bells, rattles, and a wooden box about the size of a beer case, with a sounding hole on one side, that he used as a stool during the concert. (It has a formal name, which I didn’t catch, but I think of it as the “boom box”.)
The program opened with a 14th Century English Petrone, from the Robertsbridge Codex, but thereafter drew most of its material from Eastern Europe. Sources included Armenia, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Macedonia, plus Turkey, Syria, and Andalusia.
East of the River spent several days in residency in the West Allis schools prior to the concert. A large group of fourth and fifth grade recorder players from West Allis, along with their teachers, joined the group onstage for a number of selections, a Medieval “Cantiga d Santa Maria,” a “Caribbean Tune,” and “Ala De’Lona,” a traditional Middle Eastern tune. The recorder choir, conducted by Ms. Stern, played very well, with a solid sound, well in tune, and no missed notes that I could detect.
All of the music was new to us and very interesting. We were particularly struck by some of the Balkan folk dance music, which was described as having “asymmetrical or compound meters with various combinations of short and long beats.” (For example, the dance tune “Sandansko Horo” is in a 22/16 meter! “Krivo Sadovsko Horo” is in 13/8, and “Bucimis” in 15/16ths time.)
Ms. Stern and Ms. Mor had some of the loveliest recorder sound we have ever heard. They were well supported by their accompanying musicians, which made for a delightful concert.
This event was Early Music Now’s annual chocolate social and silent auction. They lay out an ever-changing buffet of chocolate cookies, brownies, truffles and bars (some of which are actually non-chocolate, for the averse--), intended to lure you into the auction room, where they always have a fascinating array of really classy donated items and gift certificates to be bid on. We enjoyed the chocolate offerings and looking at the swag, and purchased some books and an album to take home.

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Saving Mr. Banks

Sunday evening, March 16th, we caught up with "Saving Mr. Banks" at the budget cinemas-another movie we had wanted to see, but missed in the holiday glut of activities.
Saving Mr. Banks is purportedly the story of how the Disney movie "Mary Poppins" got made with the supposedly very reluctant cooperation of Mary Poppins' creator, P.L. Travers (pen name of Helen Lyndon Goff). Interwoven with the story of making the movie are flashbacks purporting to be the story of Helen's young life, from her family's move to the Australian town of Allora, Queensland, in 1905, to the death of her father, Travers Goff, in 1907. Both narratives are substantially fictionalized, and the backstory in particular, sentimentalized. For example, Mr. Goff is portrayed as dying of consumption (complicated by alcoholism), whereas in fact, his cause of death was influenza.
The actors in the backstory, Colin Farrell as Travers, Ruth Wilson as Helen's mother, Annie Rose Buckley as young Helen (nicknamed "Ginty") and Rachael Griffiths as the supposedly "very nearly perfect" aunt, do a good job of selling their portion, predictable as it is.
But, the real reason we went was to see Emma Thompson work, and she does give a memorable performance as the "fussbudget" version of P.L. Travers we see in the movie. Tom Hanks isn't quite the Walt Disney I remember from television, but close enough that he's believable, and his honest pleasure in his accomplishments, such as Disneyland, is quite credible.

What's kind of incredible, but endearing, is the Disney-ised story of making the movie, where California warmth and openness, exhibited by everyone from Disney down to her driver, Ralph, (Paul Giamatti), gradually thaw Travers' objections and get her on board. It appears from the preserved tape-recordings of the script sessions that Travers was just as exacting to work with as portrayed, but much more likely that she was fiercely defending the integrity of her intellectual property than that she was acting out unresolved grief at her father's death. Nor was she the xenophobe the movie shows. At the invitation of her friend, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, Travers spent two summers living among the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo peoples studying their mythology and folklore. After the war, she became Writer-in-Residence at Radcliffe College and Smith College, so she was no stranger to American ways (although Hollywood IS its own country--). In 1960, she went to Japan to study Zen, so she was actually well-traveled.
In real life, the happy ending never happened, and Travers vowed never to let Disney have rights to any other of her works. She cooperated with the making of the "Mary Poppins" stage musical, only on the condition that no one else involved with the movie participate, freezing out Robert and Richard Sherman, who did the movie score, from providing any new music.
So, "Saving Mr. Banks" is humbug, but enjoyable and often amusing humbug.

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Tim’s Vermeer

March 18th, we went to the Oriental Theater to see “Tim’s Vermeer,” a very unusual documentary film produced by Penn & Teller, of magic and debunking fame.
Tim Jenison, a successful inventor and who seems to be a normal-ish geeky guy, became obsessed with the paintings of Dutch master Jan Vermeer, in part because Jenison’s experience in video and computer imaging made him aware of how unusual they were. Vermeer’s work has no outlining, and X-rays of the paintings reveal no underpainting or preliminary sketching. Buoyed by the related work of artists and scholars David Hockney (Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters) and Philip Steadman (Vermeer’s Camera, Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces), he became convinced that Vermeer, about who’s techniques essentially nothing is known, must have used technological aids—lenses and mirrors, “fad” items in Holland of the time—as tools in creating his works.
After some experimentation, he hit upon the technique of using a “camera obscura” type projection, reflected in an angled mirror as a color comparator which he found allowed him to create a very close copy of the target image using a sort of paint-by-numbers color matching. After sharing this idea with both Steadman and Hockney, who were encouraging, he determined upon a very rigorous “proof of concept” experiment. He would use his device to attempt to recreate Vermeer’s famous painting, “The Music Lesson.”
It must be noted that Tim, due to his successful inventions (the “Video Toaster” among others--), is well rich, and can afford to jaunt off to England to consult famous artists, and to the Netherlands and other places to study pigment-grinding and other painting techniques. He can also buy a warehouse and convert it into an exact replica of the room Vermeer painted in. Determined to see if he could replicate Vermeer’s work using only techniques available in Vermeer’s day, he not only learned to make paints, but also cast and ground his own lenses. He also ended up hand-building replicas of Vermeer’s furniture to use as the setting. It took him the best part of a year just to get ready to paint, and then more than four months actually putting paint on canvas. All told, Tim spent nearly six YEARS from the start of his quest to the finish of “Tim’s Music Lesson.”
Among the other cool things about Tim, is that he is long time friends with Penn and Teller, who were interested enough to make this movie about their friend’s odd project. Shooting the film as the project progressed means we get an “unvarnished” view of Tim’s occasional mistakes, frustrations, and sometime regrets at his choice of subject matter, which required a lot of eye-bugging detail. (However, it was just that detail that provided a clue that Tim may have been on the right track, also.)
The result is a very creditable replica of Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.” Tim, who never painted before beginning his experimentation, and who has had no formal art training, does not quite manage Vermeer’s techniques of blending, so there is a bit of roughness in shade transitions, such that it would never be taken for an actual Vermeer. On the other hand, we agreed that Tim had, as he said, 95% made his case that this COULD have been a method used by Vermeer. Hockney and Steadman agree, although of course, there is no way to be certain.
I do have to disagree with one of Tim’s premises, the idea that optical aids had to have been used, since the unaided eye can’t perceive the gradations of brightness that occur in Vermeer’s work. This seems somewhat unlikely to me, since Tim was pointing out just such a gradation of light on the wall when he made this remark, it can be seen in the mirror, and can be seen in the paintings which we view with the unaided eye. So, in my view, the possibility that Vermeer was a visual genius can’t be ruled out.
“Tim’s Vermeer” is a fascinating portrait of a very likeable man exercising a harmless obsession with fascinating results. Altogether it is a totally positive experience, and should be highly interesting to anyone interested in art, vision, and the power of imagination.

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