Tag Archives: culture

Music and film – Part II

Amsterdam’s cultural life has once again offered something quite thought provoking and of course I’d like to share the products of my grey cells with you. I’ve discussed music and/in film here already earlier but this latest experience provides yet another angle to the topic.

The Amsterdam film museum Eye presented the Japanese silent film The Story of Floating Weeds (Ukikusa monogatari) from 1934 with introduction and piano accompaniment by Martin de Ruiter and voice acting (benshi) by Ichiro Kataoka.

“Floating weeds, drifting down the leisurely river of our lives,” has long been a favored metaphor in Japanese prose and poetry. Donald Richie

The film tells a story of a man leading a theatre troupe and being torn between his responsibilities as a father and the demands of his nomadic profession. For a more elaborate plot description and analysis, see this blog text on Silent Volume.

Silent film in Japan

In the introduction to the cinema concert Mr de Ruiter told us that in Japan silent films were made considerably longer than in the US and Europe. Whereas in the US the last silent films where made in the end of 1920s and e.g. in the Netherlands Philips was able to equip the Dutch cinemas with sound systems very quickly in the 1930s, in Japan silent films were made until the 1940s.

It is also notable that the Japanese silent film making owed much to the Noh theatre tradition.  The director of the afternoon’s film Yasujiro Ozu bowed to the old tradition by using a rather stationary camera positioning, which according to David Bordwell is Ozu’s stylistic trademark. There were very few scenes where the camera would actually follow a person or close up. I’m not an expert here but seems to me that Ozu’s work belongs to the Pure Film Movement of early Japanese cinema.

Here’s a short clip from the film to give you a better idea what I’m talking about here.

In addition to being stationary and showing mostly the whole set of a scene, Ozu’s style of shooting also viewed the actor from a point of view similar to that of a theatre audience; from slightly below, always showing the full bodies of the actors – including their geta, Japanese version of flip-flops. In the few close-ups at the most dramatic moments the actors didn’t show there emotions so much on there faces as with their hands and other bodily gestures. There was a lot of scratching and touching different body parts as a reaction to e. g. an accusation or embarrassment.

Picture from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/78/Geta.JPG/200px-Geta.JPG
A pair of geta

This, in my view, is in line with the above-mentioned debt to the Noh theatre in which the actors wore masks.

Picture from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/cc/The_Childrens_Museum_of_Indianapolis_-_%22Ko-jo%22_Noh_Theater_mask.jpg/170px-The_Childrens_Museum_of_Indianapolis_-_%22Ko-jo%22_Noh_Theater_mask.jpg
A “Ko-jo” (old man) mask used in Noh theatre; in the collection of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

Dramatising a story

Old films, let alone films from other cultures, tend to use different strategies and methods to dramatise their stories. Most notably there are differences in the amount of time taken and details used to build up the story line and highlight the dramatic climaxes.

In this cinema concert, however, the drama began from the setting you see in the picture on the top: An empty screen and empty piano chair. Outside of the picture on the left there’s also a speakers stand for the voice actor. In other words, the setting was full of potential but provided few cues as to what was to come – which of course is the case in most performances.

Not being at all familiar with Japanese silent film before this experience, I could only expect what I had read in the short description on the EYE website.

Power of silence

I couldn’t find any information about the piano music Mr de Ruiter played that night, but I’m quite sure it wasn’t the same composition heard on the clip above.  Whereas the music of this clip sounds like quite typical late Romantic piano music (not quite my cup of tea so I can’t name the composition), the music Mr de Ruiter played was more serene, even abstract at times, and used a lot of pentatonic scales giving it an “Eastern” flavour.

Although Mr de Ruiter has composed music for silent films and is the programmer for “silent film and live music” at the EYE, I couldn’t find confirmation to whether he had actually composed the music we heard that afternoon.

One of the most dramatic moments in The Story of Floating Weeds was when the troupe was sitting together for the last time and began singing, trying to enjoy this last moment together. The drama of the moment was highlighted – one might even say created –  by the pause in the piano accompaniment. This left us watching the silent singing and hand clapping of the people on the screen – and indeed for one of them it was too much and he broke off crying.

I found that a very strong moment with much more profound effect as in your standard Hollywood build-up with more and more action and louder music/sound effects. It was also a bold move from the composer. The music until then – and after this scene – was indeed more like an accompaniment; moving with the action on the screen, sort of mimicking it.

By dropping the accompaniment out when the people on the screen were singing, music – for a moment – gained agency in the dramatisation of the story. The sudden absence of the music, just when the people were singing and in need of accompaniment, turned our focus on the (absence of) music as well as on the dramatic moment; the the film characters were forcing themselves to sing, although most of them felt like crying. One could also say that music assumed a personage of its own as one of the singers on the screen who – like one of the figures actually did – couldn’t go on singing but had to break off.

Music and Football

All set up for the evening. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen
All set up for the evening. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen

 

Culture distinguishes people as well as binds them together

Ethnomusicologists have known for a while already that there isn’t – and probably was –a folk or people without their own music. On a more general level, however, culture, in its many forms, at the same time distinguishes people and binds them together. In cultural encounters of people from different parts of the world avenues and channels of communication are negotiated and found along the commonalities of the various cultural forms. The evening of June 23rd 2014 in Bimhuis, Amsterdam was a good example of that. The ingredients of the evening Bimhuis catered were the Netherlands-Chile football match in the World Championship tournament in Brazil, projected on a screen above the stage, and Konrad Koselleck Big Band’s (KKBB) concert with the Chilian singer/guitarist Rodrigo Cortes Juantok. And to crown the evening chili con carne was catered from the Bimhuis’ own kitchen. All this cooked up to be a very enjoyable evening on many levels.

Dutch multiculturalism

But what first caught my attention was that this was inter- or multiculturalism in a quite specifically Dutch context. As it turned out Mr. Cortes Juantok has already established himself in this country a while ago and arrived at the venue together with his whole Dutch family, in-laws and all. The whole evening indeed had a sort of family gathering feeling to it, the hall of Bimhuis serving as our living room.

Chili con carne ala Bimhuis. Although delicious, this definitely turned out to be the side dish of the evening's menu. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen
Chili con carne ala Bimhuis. Although delicious, this definitely turned out to be the side dish of the evening’s menu. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen

Although sports, food and music are things people from anywhere can enjoy together, the different levels, or dimensions, on which such enjoyment takes place became quite apparent as the evening ran its course. The football match itself was rather uneventful until way into the second half when Netherlands managed to score first once and gave it the finishing touch with another one in the extra time. Many portions of chili con carne were still enjoyed during the hour between the game and the start of the concert and the mood was indeed like in a huge living room.

Bigband in the livingroom

As the KKBB began their concert with a blast that blew the wax out of the ears and took us into a Blues, I couldn’t help thinking that a third culture had just made an entrance to the evening’s cultural encounter. Jazz has been called “American Classical music” and the only truly American art form and big band jazz, in my view, is the quintessential sound of that idea; and big band playing a Blues even more so. Mr. Koselleck, however, is a very capable arranger and eloquently played with the musical elements of these cultural identities. His arrangements brought out different aspects of them in a playful manner without being afraid of some rather cliché-ish manoeuvres to engage the public while maintaining the high musical level of his organisation; and the living room -like mood (which is not unremarkable, since how often does anyone have a big band in their living room? 😉 ).

Complete setting

But the dinner table of this meeting of cultures wasn’t completely set yet: The third piece (if I remember right) in the program was Koselleck’s arrangement of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. To drive home his point, Koselleck announced the piece afterwards; seemingly unintentionally, switching to his native German. In fact, a couple of times during the evening he went to some lengths in educating the audience to recognise a melody he had arranged. Although Koselleck’s arranging style is respectful to the original melody, his adventurous harmonies and rhythms may indeed be challenging to the “uninitiated” listener.

Music and football (or vise versa)

By the time the evening’s guest soloist was introduced at least I had already forgot all about the preceding football match. Although Cortes Juantok entered the stage with a mock cry and Koselleck jokingly announced he’s not able to sing, the rest of the evening was a joyous celebration around the musical gumbo the KKBB served with arrangements of Chilean music (also joined by some Chilian folk dancers), their own repertoire and a couple of Dutch pop and folk tunes. The evening ended with a reggae flavoured arrangement of Mungo Jerry’s old hit Summertime and finally Queen’s We are the Champions in a recapitulation of the football theme of the evening.

Unfortunately, my phone battery died before the concert so I couldn’t take any pictures of the band to post here. For more about the KKBB, please visit their website. And while there chip in on their crowdfunded World War I project, which seems really interesting.

MusicLifeWord

Let me first try and open up the title of this blog a bit. As already mentioned in the Intro, music has had a prominent role in my life for a long time. That role has changed quite a bit during the years from hobby to different levels of professionalism, studying, teaching, performing, composing, arranging, etc. on the practising side and reading, writing, thinking, discussing and lecturing on the academic side.

In this blog I’m sharing my thoughts about music and life as I see/hear them based on my experiences in the above-mentioned areas and activities. Music continues to have a prominent role in my life and in many ways I tend to reflect on life through music and musical activities, as I hope to illustrate in this blog.

What exactly I’m going to be writing about here is difficult to predict. As mentioned in the Intro, many of my writings are likely to touch some topics I have written about during my studies. In general, however, I’m thinking of picking topics out of e.g. gigs I see, music I hear and other related thoughts that pop up in mind head. While music generally provides the red thread along which my thoughts travel, I might take cues from other areas of interest as well e.g. films, other art forms, media, and culture in general. My approach to and thinking of such areas are, however, shaped by my musical experiences. This will hopefully become apparent in the upcoming posts.

I’ve split my posts in four- often overlapping – categories: The Culture category captures most of my writings here. In these posts I discuss topics that are not restricted to music. The Gigs category is rather self-apparent; discussing performances and events I’ve attended. In the Musicians category I discuss specific musicians and in the Intro category you’ll find the introductory posts for the blog.

Last but not least, the “Word” in the title doesn’t only refer to the words with which I express myself here. It’s also a reference to the “Word!” expression of a certain subculture (see Urban Dictionary) where it stands for truth. While I’m not proclaiming to possess any universal or final truths about music or anything else, nor the street credibility of the subculture in question, I do stand behind my words and weight them carefully before publishing. That being said, I’d be happy to hear of your thoughts and exchange views here!