Rhythms of art
September 19, 2007
ASPEN Music is powerful stuff for certain, able to cause riots, used for societal change, serving as the grease in the pursuit of amorous activity. Music seems not only to be something we virtually all listen to, and something that many of us produce, but also to be something that lives inside of us. A recent article in The New Yorker magazine detailed the case of several people who, after being struck by lightning, developed a previously untapped, now insatiable, interest in music, and even an uncanny ability to create it.Artists, including those who are not necessarily musicians, often tap into music in ways that suggest this sort of power. In numerous paintings, films, photographs, books and dances, the subject of music and musicians seems to elevate the art into another realm, almost as if the music itself was overriding the other media.Enlightening is the view of Michael Raaum. The Basalt painter is a music enthusiast who often travels out of state to various reggae festivals. His 2006 painting “One Love” is an ambitious outgrowth of his love for the music, a 5-foot-wide, reggae-themed canvas. Other paintings of his have musical titles – “World Beat,” “Jam Session” – and his latest series, currently showing in the Works on Paper exhibit at the Aspen Chapel Gallery, is a set of portraits of the four Beatles. Almost like the lightning victims who have had their inner music unlocked, taking up a paintbrush is, for Raaum, a route to expressing his internal rhythms and melodies.
“The music is integrated into my life. And the art is a reflection of my life, the things I wish to reflect,” he explained. “So it would be dishonest not to reflect that.” Putting music into his painting – apart from his figurative work, his more abstract pieces often include musical symbols – “is not so much intentional as it is unavoidable.”Next Friday, Sept. 28, Jazz Aspen Snowmass kicks off a new program, the Ten-Spot Series, which will have one event each month for 10 months, at $10 apiece, at Carbondale’s Thunder River Theatre. Opening the series is another example of the music component of art rising to the top; it will be a concert performance of the late jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s arrangements of songs from “Fiddler on the Roof.” Here, the performance is stripped of acting, sets, narrative and even lyrics, leaving only the musical portion of the musical.The following week will see the publication of “Rock and Roll,” a photography book by Old Snowmass resident Lynn Goldsmith. The coffee-table book has an extensive text aspect; the innovation is having notable people – Bill Clinton, Muhammad Ali, playwright and actor Sam Shepard – write about how music has affected them. (Clinton writes about early soul singer Junior Walker; Ali about James Brown. Shepard contributes an original poem about Patti Smith.) Goldsmith has left her mark in fine-art, photojournalism, fashion, sports and other niches of photography, but her enduring association is with her images of musicians.
The Aspen Writers’ Foundation – an organization focused on the written word – has also been looking across the aisle to see what musicians are doing. Their Lyrically Speaking series presents singer-songwriters performing their music, and also speaking about the writing process. Next up in the series is the provocative Michelle Shocked, who appears Oct. 18 in an event at Belly Up.The current happening that most prompts this line of thinking is the film “Once,” which shows today through Sunday at the Wheeler Opera House, and Saturday and Sunday at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale. An ultra-low-budget film by Irish writer and director (and sometime musician) John Carney, “Once” has been hailed for reimagining and reinvigorating the genre of the movie musical. Whether it even qualifies as a musical is questionable: No one bursts into inexplicable, coordinated dance routines. Conversely, one of the great charms of the film is its effortless naturalism. And while there is plenty of music-making, it all flows convincingly out of the storyline and the essence of the characters. In any event, the critical response has been affectionate in the extreme. The film’s run in Carbondale has surpassed three weeks, an impressive feat.The reason critics are tempted to call it a musical is that music is front-and-center in “Once” more than any film that comes to mind. The film stars a pair of musicians: Glen Hansard, whose previous on-screen credit was also playing a musician, in “The Commitments”; and Markéta Irglová, a Czech woman with no previous acting experience. Hansard and director Carney were bandmates in the long-running Dublin band the Frames, which the former still leads. Carney departed more than a decade ago to focus on filmmaking. Hansard and Irglová met in Prague a few years ago, and together made an album, “The Swell Season,” which was released last year.”Once” opens with a scene torn from Hansard’s own teen years. His character, a singer-songwriter who never gets a name (the credits refer to him as “Guy,” and Irglová’s character as “Girl”) busking on a bustling Dublin street. The music eventually draws the interest of Irglová’s Girl, an immigrant flower vendor. Girl, too, is a musician, one who yearns for every chance to play and listen. The tiny apartment, which she shares with her mother, her daughter, and the neighbor boys who drop in to watch TV, in a gritty immigrant neighborhood, doesn’t have room for her piano. But, as she informs Guy, she has an arrangement with a local music-store owner, who lets her play to her heart’s content.
What follows is a supremely memorable, and enlightening, piece of cinema. Girl leads Guy to the music store. Guy picks up an acoustic guitar and begins to pick out the spare, rising melody to one of his songs, “Falling Slowly” (written by Hansard and Irglová). Away from the streetside setting, Guy’s voice reveals an exceptional tender and haunted quality. Girl falls in behind him, adding a layer of beauty, on piano and vocals, to the song. Astonishingly, in a bit of movie-making that defies all trends toward catering to short attention spans, director Carney actually allows the song, the scene, the characters to play out to its end. The scene never becomes a music video – it doesn’t cut away to a montage of the characters’ pasts or future; there are no camera effects. It works as music – “Falling Slowly” is a wonderful song, and this stripped-down version is more compelling than the version that appears on the recent Frames’ CD, “The Cost.” The scene works as drama for their phrases move from tentative to harmonious, as Guy and Girl form a bond with music as its foundation. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that the music is allowed to make its own dramatic impact. And what a job it does here.As “Once” makes its way to a story of near-romance, it never loses the early spell it casts. Part of that is because the movie never ditches the emphasis on music, which gives it a unique voice in the realm of romantic cinema. In two worlds full of clichés – love stories and rock ‘n’ roll – the note-perfect “Once” never stoops to the obvious. And part of the film’s success is due to the way it tallies up wise observations on life outside of music: priorities and circumstances, immigrant culture and Dublin culture.
Still, the most riveting scene in “Once” is two musicians, sitting in a music shop, working their way through an entire song, as the camera watches and listens. Which says something about music.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org