Category:souvenir (november 2001)

September 26, 2013

On Dennis Johnson's November

On and off for the last several months, I've been soaking in an extraordinary piece of music, and trying to get up to speed on the series of minorly monumental circumstances that are bringing it out of obscurity.

In 1959 Dennis Johnson, a college friend of LaMonte Young, composed November, a six-hour piano piece that basically gave birth to the minimalist music movement as we know it. Young, never shy about his own importance, credits November as the source and inspiration for his own ur-minimalist composition, The Well Tuned Piano. It was all there in November first.

But except for a rough 2-hour recording from 1962, Johnson's work had faded from consciousness, discussion, performance, and history. And Johnson himself had disappeared from the music landscape. Until musicologist Kyle Gann began investigating it, and reconstructing the score. Then R. Andrew Lee recorded it. And it got released last spring on a 4CD box set.

I found November through musician Ben.Harper's blog, Boring Like A Drill. The unfolding of November's story across several years of posts is convoluted, but really wonderful. Here's a bit of his description of attending a live performance of November by Lee, timed to the CD release:

Over five hours, the music works a strange effect on the listener. The intervening decades of minimalist and ambient music have made us familiar with the concepts of long durations, tonal stasis, consistent dynamics, repetitions, but November uses these techniques in an unusual way. The sense of continuity is very strong, but there is no fixed pulse and few strict repetitions. The slowness, spareness and use of silence, with an organic sense of rhythm, make it seem very similar in many respects to Morton Feldman's late music. The harmonic language, however, is very different. Johnson's piece uses clear, familiar tonality to play with our expectations of the music's ultimate direction, whereas Feldman's chromatic ambiguity seeks to negate any feeling of movement in harmony or time.

The semi-improvised nature of November adds another element to a performance. It was interesting to watch Lee relax as he moved from the fully-notated transcription of the piece's first 100 minutes, into the more open notation that made up the next three hours of playing. He seemed to go into a serene state of focused timelessness, perfectly matching the music he was playing.

November reminds me of a CD by Gabriel Orozco titled "Clinton is Innocent," on which the artist improvised some random one-handed note clusters that were meant to evoke memories of the piano music of his childhood home. I used some of Orozco's music in my first short film, Souvenir (November 2001), but for these months now, the coincidence of Johnson's title has had me rethinking that score.

Late November [boring like a drill]
Gann talking about November on WNYC's Spinning on Air last August [wnyc.org]
Buy R. Andrew Lee's recording of Dennis Johnson's November from Irritable Hedgehog [irritablehedgehog.com]

UPDATE AN HOUR LATER: D'oh, there I go again, I just listened to the WNYC show again.

September 13, 2013

A Vested Interest

Josh Marshall solicited "What's Your 9/11" thoughts from the readers of Talking Points Memo. I've avoided reading them, and most such other efforts this week. But the title he gave to reader DE's submission really encapsulated my own ambivalence about what the Memorial Industrial Complex has metastasized into, and why I'm reluctant to turn myself over to it:

So my personal unease with 9/11 memorials is the feeling that there are a lot of people in this country with a vested interest in the country not moving on, even though the two main perpetrators of the attack are either dead or in US custody and the organization they led has been soundly defeated. They want our leaders to keep delivering the Gettysburg Address every year, to keep us on that war footing, so that they can misdirect our resources and some Americans' lives in the service of foreign and domestic policy goals that have nothing to do with what happened on 9/11.
This manipulation of memorialization by keeping the wounds open was quickly apparent to some, of course. For all the good that did.

"A Vested Interest in the Country Not Moving On." [tpm]

I'm a bit embarrassed to admit I didn't read it earlier, and I have to read it now, obviously, now that it's finally been published in the US. But I wonder if my first short film may be an inadvertent adaptation of Geoff Dyer's 1994 essay on World War I and the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, France.

The Millions has a nice interview with him about it:

TM: You write in the book, "The issue, in short, is not simply the way the war generates memory, but the way memory has determined - and continues to determine - the meaning of the war." Can you describe the meaning of the war?

GD: Always in the book I'm just trying to articulate impressions of it. It's certainly not a history book. I always have faith in this idea that if I remain honest and open about my own confusion, the blurriness of my impressions - it's not because I'm short-witted or stupid - the chances are those feelings will be shared by other people. And I just had this very distinct sense of the First World War as being something rather buried in its own memory. There's so much discussion, as the war is going on, about how it will be remembered, or if it will be forgotten. So right from the start it just seems preoccupied with how it will be remembered. The other crucial thing is that distinction I make with the Robert Capa pictures of D-Day, where it all seems to hang in the balance and there's a great sense of immediacy. With the First World War there's no immediacy to it. It comes buried in so many layers of myth and memory.

Hmm, actually, maybe not. Or maybe the opposite. In 2001-2, I was looking at what a place of horrible destruction was like when there was no one left who did remember it. The difference between remembering and knowing, perhaps. Or the past and the experience of the present.

Also, Spiral Jetty first re-emerged in 1994, not 1999. I'd have thought the New Yorker would've caught that.

The Millions Interview | Geoff Dyer on the London Riots, the Great War, and the Gray Lady [themillions.com]
The Missing of the Somme (Vintage) [amazon]

August 5, 2009

In Memory Of

Harry Patch had a bustling career as one of the last living British WWI veterans. He was the last soldier to fight in the trenches. He died on July 25 at 111, just a couple of weeks after fellow veteran and oldest man in the world for a month Henry Allingham passed away at 113.

There are three known WWI veterans still alive: one British seaman living in Australia one American, and one Canadian.

But Patch's archetypal trench warfare experience, combined with his lucid memory and firm convictions about the horrible wrongness of war, made him the most celebrated. When the BBC tracked him down for an interview in 1998, it turns out Patch hadn't talked to anyone about his war experience at all. In 80 years. The BBC made a documentary about Patch called The Last Tommy in 2005, and then another documentary of Patch meeting with a 107-year-old German veteran in 2007.

In 2008, Patch's autobiography, The Last Fighting Tommy, as told to Richard Van Emden, came out. Here's a video of Van Emden promoting the book:

Then England's poet laureate wrote a poem about Patch which the, what, composer laureate? set to music. All but a handful of the 79 Harry Patch YouTube videos right now are posthumous tributes. And now Radiohead has released a song, "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)."

In his interview Van Emden acknowledges the quirks of fate that made The Last Tommy a lucid, powerful rememberer, not someone else, a senile symbol. But he still said that while Patch was alive; now he's gone, and his memories with him. All we're left with are stories, which are not the same thing.

I didn't know or even try to know whether there were still people with a firsthand memory of the brutal trench warfare of WWI when I began making Souvenir (November 2001), about the Battle of the Somme. [Patch fought at Passchendaele, not the Somme.] There were few enough veterans for my purpose, which was to see a site of horrific death and destruction after all the people who remembered it had disappeared.

I've left these threads alone for a while, but lately, as I've been plugging ahead on other installments of the Souvenir Series, I've had the urge to follow them again. As it turns out, a collection of essays was published in January on this very subject. War Memory and Popular Culture: Essays on Modes of Remembrance and Commemoration includes "The Ninetieth Anniversary of The Battle of The Somme," by Dan Todman, a military historian at the University of London whose blog is named Trench Fever.

It's the absence of firsthand rememberers that frames Todman's whole survey of the contours of "memory":

Here, then, are four problematic areas: how to define "memory: how it works for individuals and groups; the relationship between history, memor, family, and trauma in the production of ideas about the unlived past; and possible explanations for the "memory boom."

...

The 2006 anniversary is a particularly useful one for considerations of what memory and "memory" mean, in both popular and academic terms. Ceremonies in Britain and in France and the media reporting of them made frequent references to the need to "remember the battle and those who had died during it. But the number of those who could actually do so was now extremely limited. The commemorations in 2006 were the first major anniversary at which no veteran of the 1916 battle was present.

Buy War Memory and Popular Culture: Essays on Modes of Remembrance and Commemoration at Amazon; I just did. [amazon]

David Kurtz, writing on Talking Points Memo about finding the grave of Corporal Pearl B. Wilkerson, who was killed in action in April 1945, just before the European war ended:

But what lingers for me about Wilkerson is how Memorial Day -- for all the somber remembrances and displays of military hardware -- is a small strike against the inevitable forgetting. Poor Wilkerson got a head start on being forgotten: buried in a now-churchless cemetery with headstones knocked over and steadily sinking into the ground, near a briefly prosperous village of Irish immigrants that was long past its prime when Wilkerson died and will eventually be a nameless crossroads. His is the same fate as that of the overwhelming majority of men who ever fought and died for their clan, tribe or country. Today we acknowledge how much we've forgotten by paying homage to what we have managed to remember.
Kurtz is right, of course, but it's worth remembering [sic] that forgotten and buried--if buried at all--in an unknown, even unmarked grave has been the standard fate throughout history of those killed in war. Remembering and memorializing individual soldiers is a modern, i.e., 20th century, i.e., post-WWI practice.

Lutyens' triumphal arch tower at Thiepval was one of the first attempts to recognize all the British soldiers who died at the Somme; their names cover every available surface of the arch. From the WWI innovation of dog tags to identify the dead to our current ability to match DNA from the tiniest fragment of a fallen soldier's body, technology has rendered the idea of an unknown soldier obsolete. Perhaps it is time to switch to the Tomb of The Unremembered Soldier instead.

Gone and Largely Forgotten [tpm]

In retrospect, 1939 was a rough year to be a diehard pacifist. But that's when Hugh Harman's Peace On Earth anti-war cartoon was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Mahatma Gandhi was nominated that year, too, but '39 was the beginning of five-year stretch when the award was not given.

The timing makes me think of some of the giant WWI memorials in France which were conceived at the height of unalloyed pacificism. The Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, for example, wasn't finished until 1938, just in time for the French to use it--unsuccessfully--as a position for repelling the German invasion.

Anyway, the cartoon is about the merry little forest creatures of Peaceville, who are picking up the pieces after all the humans have killed themselves off. Enjoy. [via fred]

October 4, 2006

Alberto Burri's Cretto

cretto_burri.jpg

Like Pompeii in reverse, Gibellina has been remembered by its ghost-like burial instead of an unearthing.

In 1968, an earthquake devastated villages throughout the Belice Valley of western Sicily. The Italian government's incompetent response to the disaster and the corruption that absorbed rescue & redevelopment funds turned "Belice" into a cautionary touchstone of Italian politics. It's a scenario that might resonate today, even. In the United States. And/or in Iraq.

Anyway, in the mid-80's, artist Alberto Burri proposed a memorial to victims of the earthquake. His plan: encase the ruins and detritus of the abandoned hill town of Gibellina in concrete, leaving the roads as a solid, labyrinthine palimpsest of the village's public spaces. [The whole town had been rebuilt and relocated closer to the freeway soon after the earthquake. No preserve-or-rebuild debates there.]

gmap_cretto.jpg

The remarkable thing: the memorial was built. Cretto is now a 20+ acre piece of mesmerizing land art, the pathways of an entire town petrified in brutalist, post-minimalist concrete. Now, of course, in 2006, it looks like Peter Eisenman's Berlin Holocaust Memorial, but with content. The other thing it reminds me of is an old NYT Magazine article [date? who knows?] about the challenge of designing effective warning signs for a Nevada nuclear waste dump. To get the "Keep Out" message across 10,000 years from now, someone suggested paving a giant desert quadrant with spiky black stone, which the heat alone would render nearly impassable. Haven't heard much about that since.

Other things I haven't heard: anyone--even the memorial experts--discuss Burri's work in relation to the World Trade Center site, or even in the larger contexts of the evolution of memorial design, much less of Land Art. What gives?

Aleksandra Mir mentioned Cretto in her top ten list for this month's Artforum [artforum]
Cretto [archidose talked about it, though. twice.]

09/2010 UPDATE Google Maps now has higher res images, and Street View. of BF Sicily.

In the London Review of Books, writer Iain Sinclair sets out to visit the now-nearly invisible WWI memorials in some of London's train stations:

The panels advertising the war dead are invisible to through-shuffling station users, clients of apathy. The false ceiling doesnít help. Nor the perch of CCTV cameras keeping vigil on the permanent queue for the cash machine. Search the list for a lost relative and you are bang in the middle of the surveillance frame. Cameras are spiked like hedgehogs. Anybody withdrawing money, buying a railway ticket, is guilty. You are in the stationís memory loop, on tape: part of the involuntary cinema of metropolitan life. This occulted corner is designed to be restless, to keep you moving. It bristles with the ëSecurity Awarenessí notices that signify a contrary condition: the impossibility of free transit. Exhausted travellers spurn the memorial plaque: 11 columns with around 86 names in each.
Museums of Melancholy [lrb.co.uk]

The Canadian Government has begun restoring the WWI-era Vimy Memorial in northern France:

It was 88 years ago today [apr. 9] 20,000 Canadians stormed out of the trenches and into the history books, but the scene of Canada's most famous battle still poses a deadly threat for those toiling here to honour their memory...

But workers rehabilitating it and surrounding landscape must exercise extreme caution...

The same armaments and implements of war that left more than 10,000 Canadian dead or wounded at Vimy in 1917 are still exacting a deadly toll...

The surrounding battleground's "atmosphere of terror and horror" will also be enhanced to contrast with the stark beauty of the monument, says restoration architect Julian Smith.

Project beset by danger [canoe.ca, via archinect]
Official Site - Vimy Memorial
Vimy Ridge - 80 years on [I used this site a lot researching the film]

The lingering after-effects of tragic loss are figuring into American feature films now. Some films are specifically--if obliquely--related to the September 11th attacks, but others can be attributed to a post-9/11 heightened sensitivity to the nuances of experiencing a loved one's death.

Makes sense to me; I set my first short, Souvenir November 2001 in this aftermath, after the active, self-conscious mourning is past. People say that the hardest time is actually several months after the funeral of someone close, because people have usually stopped actively checking on you, and the reality of that person's absence really starts to sink in.
9/11 Is Sneaking Onto a Screen Near You [nyt]

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Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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