Can Anyone Make Me Less “Miserables?”

The more I go over it, the more I’m torn on how to react. My instinct is to despise and dismiss. But many viewings of the trailer for the new film interpretation of Les Miserables – due out Christmas 2012 – force a more considered analysis of my concerns.

After hearing Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed A Dream,” though I have been a fan since the Princess Diaries, my immediate response was to see her as a vessel ill-equipped for the musical delivery of a song as untouchable in the musical theater world as “And I’m Telling You” and “I Will Always Love You” are in R&B diva-land. Incidentally, Jay Caspian King of Grantland presents a marvelous breakdown of all the monumental performances of those two songs. And I was tempted to do the same here. I combed through every possible distribution channel for recorded music in order to make an airtight case against this new “musical mockery” of Les Mis.

But, in my fervor to defend the truly great singers of the stage against this “interloping hack,” I stumbled upon something truly beautiful.

I make no apologies for having nearly impossible standards of excellence for female vocal performance – regardless of genre. And as a result I can only really enjoy the singing of a small, select handful of women, and can barely listen at all to those that fall even a little short. This is by no means braggadocious, in fact, quite the opposite. As a result of what simply amounts to snobbery – well-founded snobbery perhaps, but snobbery nonetheless – I am unable to enjoy a whole host of beautiful songs and the “good” singers that perform them. I am locked in a prison of the “great.”

So as I embarked on a mission to annihilate Ms. Hathaway’s daring attempt at musical theater (based, of course, solely on the film’s trailer – more on that later) I found myself unable to compile much evidence of singers, that in my opinion, are so monumentally superior to her in skill and execution, that she has disgraced the very thing she – in all likelihood – adores.

That is, until I rediscovered Judy Kuhn.

Judy Kuhn has been a major Broadway performer since the 1980s. She ought to be a Broadway legend, but it seems she may fall into that honorable, but unfortunate, designation of a “singer’s singer,” those who are venerated by other performers for their talent and skill, but are mostly unknown by the public. She’s received several Tony nominations, but hasn’t won. She’s overshadowed by Elaine Paige, Lea Salonga, and, hell, even Susan Boyle. But her voice soars over all theirs with a grace and completeness only a handful of women come near.

The irony is that we’ve all heard her and didn’t know it. She was the singing voice of Pocahontas in the Disney feature by the same name. But unlike Jodi Benson (Ariel), Paige O’Hara (Belle), or the aforementioned Lea Salonga (Fa Mulan AND Princess Jasmine), Ms. Kuhn has not garnered as much notoriety for the role. (Perhaps because that movie wasn’t nearly as well-liked as the others.)

But, her version of “I Dreamed A Dream,” which I discovered while trying to smite what may be the greatest-threat-to-musical-theater-in-the-history-of-the-world-embodied-in-the-person-that-is-Anne-Hathaway, immediately halted my crusade. I was transfixed. I played the clip over and over and over again. It was a breathtaking experience. One very unlike those sublime moments in life that defy explanation. This one I can explain.

What struck me first was the effortlessness with which she sings. As a listener I’m cradled comfortably in her mastery of her voice. This is the opposite feeling of hearing anyone sing on American Idol. There, at any moment, the whole thing might come derailed. That foreboding, awkward dread of what might happen in another note or two, is entirely absent when listening to Ms. Kuhn. As I rest assured in her control I start to notice other things. The pacing of the lyrics is relaxed but doesn’t lack motion. Her diction is clear without getting too “Whitney Houston” with the consonants. The front of every word holds pitch and tone cleanly and with precision that comes only from years of labor. Often you can hear an affectation of the voice’s timbre when certain vowel-consonant combinations or diphthongs occur. Kuhn’s timbre is thoroughly consistent and changes only when she commands it to. Her releases are full of energy. Her vibrato is pure, even, controlled and balanced.

The true test of her mastery of the song comes as the melody’s direction turns downward on the line “but the tigers come at night.” The word “night” is placed near the low-end of the vocal range for an average mezzo-soprano. If you listen to many versions of this song you frequently hear a loss of power behind that note. Not in Ms. Kuhn’s performance. She arrives at that moment with such rich presence and darkness to the sound. If that wasn’t difficult enough, a few bars later a parallel phrase occurs with the lyric “as they tear your hope apart.” Here the gesture is lowered a whole step, and yet she delivers with just as much strength and resilience. That gauntlet is chased by the next stumbling block for most performers. The line “as they turn your dream to shame,” concludes with a stepwise ascension in the melody, accompanied by a necessary increase in volume and intensity. In order to amplify the emotional moment, a singer can often fall prey to the temptation to over-sing, which results in a loss of control of the timbre and vibrato creating what I hear as schmaltziness. Yet again, Ms. Kuhn maintains musical integrity without losing any of the emotional effect the composition works to evoke in that moment. Then there’s the high sustained passages, the emotional connections to the lyrics, the tension between hope and despair, intonation, pitch, breathing… I could go on and on with the technical analysis, but I trust my point has been conveyed.

The fact remains, Judy Kuhn’s singing is truly inspiring. What makes this rendition all the more awe-inducing is the time and place of its performance. She’s singing a concertized version – sung outside the context of the actual theatrical work in which it would naturally occur – for President Reagan and the First Lady who were truly beloved figures. Let me not forget to mention this was a live performance captured with the A/V technology of 1988, observed decades later though YouTube, and lacking any kind of substantive musical production. This song ought to have a whole orchestra filling every corner of the room and allowing the voice to truly flourish. Instead she’s got one piano and a snare drum (other guys are on the stage but it’s hard to tell what or if they might be playing). No offense to those musicians, but, the accompaniment is garbage. Still Kuhn completely obliterates this song. I’ve never heard a better version. Period. Go ahead and take a couple of hours to listen to all the different versions you can find. It’s possible you might prefer another one – and you have every right to do so – but it won’t change the fact that, from a musical and technical standpoint, Judy Kuhn is untouchable.

So where does that leave Ms. Hathaway. Well, it is terribly unfair to judge her, her performance of the song, and the movie solely on a 90-second preview. We don’t even get to hear the whole song. It’s decontextualized from its true dramatic setting, and the emotional connectedness between her performance and the drama is interrupted. This song is a total downer. As Hillary Busis put it, “”I Dreamed a Dream” is one of musical theater’s greatest bummers — a pathos-drenched ballad about one woman’s descent into despair[.]” It may be that the cinematic elements and Ms. Hathaway’s performance work together in a way that overcomes whatever deficiencies would be exposed in a more traditional staged performance. I hope.

If, and it doesn’t seem like much of an “if” at this point, the filmmakers are going for a very dismal, dark and über-realistic interpretation of Les Mis, then a realistic and somewhat poorly sung version of the song might work to great dramatic and narrative effect. Though by listening to what evidence is currently available, it does seem that Ms. Hathaway is attempting to do a mixture of both pure singing and melodrama. She may be biting off more than she can chew. My hope is also that all the filmmakers recognize their actors’ strengths and limitations, and use that to great advantage in giving us a profound and potent story. If, on the other hand, they hope a few months of singing lessons and a highly paid vocal coach can help Hathaway go toe-to-toe with Judy Kuhn, I’m afraid it may be their dreams that turn to shame.

The Tyranny of Taste

George Eliot once said, “I think I should have no other mortal wants, if I could always have plenty of music.” She would have loved our modern era. It seems that we have more music available to us, and more music being produced, than ever before. iTunes has over 20 million songs for sale, and as of October 4, 2011 had sold its 16 billionth song. Spotify, the latest trending digital music source, has a 15 million song collection. One of the slogans on their website reads, “Get listening. Millions of tracks are now at your fingertips.” Millions! If the average length of a song is four minutes, and you listened 24/7, it would take you about 7 years to listen to just one million songs. That’s a lot of music.

And more music than ever is being made today. With the advent of YouTube and the rise of distributors like CDBaby, Tunecore, and Bandcamp, it has become easier to skirt around the traditional industry and make your own music– and many people are doing it.

Under this looming avalanche of sound, one needs certain survival skills. It’s not possible to listen to everything out there, or even what any good musical aesthete is “supposed” to listen to, so we’re forced to pick and choose. This is well and good.

Much of the time, at least in my own observations, I find our choices are governed by personal taste, what we “like.” Now, taste certainly has something to do with it. But lately I have wondered whether, in our consumer-driven, individualistic society, taste hasn’t started to get the better of us.

Think of this scenario: have you ever been in the iTunes store, or on YouTube, and said “Naaah” after listening to a new track of music for maybe 30 seconds? An artist’s creative output, judged within a few blinks of an eye. I raise my hand as guilty. Now, sometimes music is just that bad, and deserves an easy dismissal, but I fear that when this becomes a pattern in our listening experience, it is a sign of the tyranny of taste.

In his pop culture analysis, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, Ken Myers observes,

“In an age of egalitarianism and relativism, it is easier than ever to regard matters of taste as wholly private and personal. I like Bach, you like Bon Jovi, praise the Lord anyhow. But is aesthetic judgment purely a subjective and neutral matter? Is ‘beauty’ exclusively in the eye of beholder? Is something ‘beautiful’ just because I like it, or does it have some objective quality rooted in creation that allows me to recognize that it is beautiful?”

Myers raises the question of an objective standard of goodness and beauty in art, and he argues that such aesthetics are spiritually based, “Culture has very much to do with the human spirit. What we find beautiful or entertaining or moving is rooted in our spiritual life.” This is true of any culture that has held to an objective worldview. The problem, Myers points out, is that today’s more subjective ethos arises out of a cultural relativism. With the disappearance of any concept of transcendence, personal preference reigns. The result of relativism and the commodification of music, is that pop culture today is increasingly market driven. We are so awash in it wherever we go, that it is only fitting that individual taste would be the dominant factor in our artistic consumption decisions.

The problem is, when we let our own sense of taste dominate our artistic sensibilities, we can begin to think that music as an art form is our servant, that it is there for our sole benefit, and exists only to satisfy us. A lot of music and music listening today has become a form of emotional masturbation. We tend to like and listen to music that matches our mood or makes us feel good.

But music does not exist solely for us, which is hard to remember in our age of market-crafted pop stars and he-who-gains-the-most-votes-wins talent shows. As the late Francis Schaeffer observed about perspectives on art, “The first is the most important: A work of art has value in itself….If we miss this point, we miss the very essence of art.”

Scott Avett, singer and songwriter of the Avett Brothers, has recently made a similar connection between the value of art and the “success” of art in pop culture terms:

“In all types of art there is a choice. Create what you feel because you believe in it, or create what you think will be ‘successful’. The difference between the two is this: with the latter, that which will be ‘successful’ can only succeed’ for a temporary moment with you and your physical state. But that which is created in sincerity, that which reveals part of your soul without control or plan, will outlive all of us and be generated between men for years to come. Though the work may not succeed in number of viewers, it still bears a life.”

As music listeners, I think it is helpful to remind ourselves of this truth from time to time. What we hear bears a life of its own, sparked by the life that created it. And if it has been made for beauty, that beauty is part of it regardless of our like or dislike.

So what’s the pay dirt? How should understanding this reflect in our music listening experience?

First, I think it should remind us not to devalue the very thing that we enjoy. Treating music as just a means to an emotional end makes listening a utilitarian, rather than artistic, pursuit.

Second, we should be aware of how the dominance of taste can close us off to types of music that we wouldn’t normally listen to, which is to our detriment. Technology has made a wide variety of music more available to listeners,  but it has often also led us into our own own tiny, personally-crafted ghettos.

This leads to my third point: we should actively find ways to expand our own sensibilities. One thing that I have done in recent years is to seek out and listen to older musicians who have been recognized for their musical talent and prowess. I admit, the sometimes dated nature of the sound has occasionally  jarred my personal preferences, but I’ve also been surprised by how much truth and beauty I have found.

Fourth, we should seek to become more aware of our own spiritual traditions and what they teach us about beauty. What is the place and value of beauty and art in our worldview? This question of aesthetics is an age-old one, and its pursuit is one which will not offer up easy, drive-through-window answers. I’m still wrestling with these questions, with my own culture, and with my place within it. But these questions are worth grappling with and worth pursuing, for they are the pursuit of the eternal over the temporal.


A Poetry Project to Celebrate National Poetry Month


A Poem From Us is a website featuring regular people, reciting their favorite poems.

Their goal is simple: use technology to help folks share their love of poetry with others.

Interested in participating? Here’s how:

1. Become a contributor! Start by recording a video of yourself reading a favorite poem. Then, upload it to YouTube or Vimeo and submit the video! Once they’ve reviewed it, they’ll feature your video on the website.

2. Become a distributor! You can request a set of project stickers, which they’ll send to you for free. Each sticker features the project logo and a custom QR code. When a passer-by scans the QR code with their mobile device, a random poem from the project will be played.

As more users contribute videos to the site, different poems will be featured. The stickers serve as a kind of “Found Poem” for the digital age – an offline QR code being updated by online code.

3. Of course, there’s nothing saying you can’t be both a contributor and distributor.


A Tale of a Father and a Son

Painter Makoto Fujimura and his son, C.J., a Philosophy and Music major at Bucknell University, discuss The Tree of Life. The film, written and directed by Terrence Malick, opens in select New York and Los Angeles theatres May 27.

Makoto Fujimura: The intrigue going into Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life, lead one to believe that it would be either one of the greatest films ever made, or a mystery of a film that would lead to a box-office disappointment.  The trailer is filled with promise as it surely is one of the greatest trailers ever made. How can any film live up to the poetic narrative, and the expectation, set up in the trailer? When the movie started, the jarring nature of the initial few minutes made the viewer uncomfortable, and the couple next to us started to chat.

The Tree of Life, Fox Searchlight.

C.J. Fujimura: The disjointed style with which the film begins actually felt unsurprising and appropriate, although I found myself asking how it could be maintained for a feature length.  Malick, from this place of uncertainty, which was surely felt throughout the audience, orchestrated long stretches of imagery and abbreviated moments of human drama into something that can certainly be described as poetry through film. This method turned the medium, usually used to depict or translate events in real time through screen and sound, into a collage of timeless moments and nameless characters. The drama that is represented is more than just the struggle of one family to overcome the loss of a beloved son. It is the dynamic ebb and flow that has been passed down through the universe itself from the beginning of time.

Makoto: The Tree of Life IS a true masterpiece. Great art makes you believe in the medium of art itself. Picasso makes you believe that paint and collage can do great things. The Tree of Life makes one believe in the medium of film; and film that is designed (thank God) specifically not to be seen with 3-D glasses. The movie is better than the trailer, and the viewer does end up journeying into the narrative of a family struggling to find peace in Waco, Texas. The people next to me did eventually become quiet, settling into the emotional depth of what Malick weaves together masterfully.

C.J.: The future of culture is tightly intertwined with the universal. Globalization has created a worldwide sense of community, and art is at the forefront of this new script. This is a story which cannot be read or understood by one set of symbols and, as such, Malick has used every corner and crevice available of the expressive space that film allows. Tree of Life manages to suggest great potential for this medium, and the arts in general by association, to tell this story.

Makoto: There are paintings imbedded in every scene of the film, either consciously or unconsciously. Wyeth pops up, with Bill Viola and Pipilotti Rist seeping in between the scenes; Jessica Chastain, playing the grieving wife, even looks like Helga (Andrew Wyeth’s favorite model). At times I even felt that I was in Chelsea galleries, rather than a theatre. Sean Penn’s character, an urban architect who designs both his own and his parent’s Philip Johnson-esque modernist house, meanders about, lost in a fragile house full of light. We are to remember his teenage days, as a leader of a pack of friends in the dull summers, throwing rocks through windows to prove his toughness. We hear the broken glass, but we also feel the sharp edges of despair and loss.

C.J.: We are the YouTube generation. We would rather change the channel then stay put on one story. Our culture is built of bits and pieces thrown together in whatever way works for us. Each part seems small but they are linked by association and they coalesce into a whole. Our musicians don’t cover classics, they sample them. There is too much available, and it comes at us too fast, for us to be satisfied with single strain narrative in the same way that previous generations may have been. The stories are out there to be read, but we are the ones who connect the dots. For us, Malick’s approach is not new or jarring — it’s fitting. The pieces brought together on screen encourage the viewer to make their own connections and form their own greater theme. This film aims to portray life itself, the universal drama, in the same way we understand it: by clicking through all of the related videos on the right side of the YouTube page. From each we take a moment, a line, or a gesture of beauty, and without each, the whole would not be complete.

Makoto: Pay attention to what is in-between things on screen. Note the dragonfly that buzzes in between the father and the mother as darkness enfold the town; see the abstract patterns behind Brad Pitt’s face turned away from the camera — a father oblivious to what is disappearing.

C.J.: We are not given classic Brad Pitt cool-as-hell moments, and blades of grass get more screen time then Sean Penn. It is hard to tell how this will be received, but for me, this fresh approach to film begets a fresh approach to acting, and every one of the actors succeeded, which is remarkable. I’d like to believe that this is only one example of the generative power this film, and other works of art in the future, might have.

Makoto: The Tree of Life is a deeply theological film.  Not since Magnolia has a film captured the depth of the depravity of our hearts, the temptation that sways us, the despair of the loss of life.  It lacks, though, the reality behind what is to come.  What is depicted as heavenly turns out to be nostalgia more than Heaven invading the Earth, or a vision of the New Heavens and the New Earth. The world of reconciliation comes in a stark, desert-like flatland. But the “theology” behind the master may turn out to be more a philosophical, metaphysical search informed by Kierkegaard and Heidegger, than the reality of faith.

C.J.: As a whole, my generation is not excited about faith. It is perceived as a foggy windshield through which the road cannot possibly be seen clearly, although the driver sure looks comfortable. To a peer who is turned off by the heavy presence of faith throughout the film, I would suggest that the portrayal of spirituality is necessary for Malick’s purposes. Faith and religion, much like art, are an attempt to understand something which cannot otherwise be understood. There is no better vehicle for a movie like The Tree of Life than prayer because it focuses the mind on the intangible. The movie would be less effective without spirituality because it would be more difficult for the viewer to accept the metaphysical nature of Malick’s writing and directing.

I think, though, that my peers misunderstand their own struggle with faith. There is faith built into everything we do. It is not a choice, it is a necessity. The choice is this; which understanding of faith is the best?

Makoto and C.J.: The Tree of Life is a film that has to be a film; no other medium of art can capture what Malick captures.

Who was Neda Agha-Soltan?

The grave site of Neda Agha-Soltan.

Who was Neda Agha-Soltan?

It seems there isn’t a journalist in the world who hasn’t asked the question. Through her death, her life has captivated the hearts and minds of people both free and otherwise all over the world – yet few for the same reason.

To those who oppose Ahmadenijad, she is a martyr, one of the most recognized and honorable ways for a Muslim to be remembered. To women worldwide and especially in the Middle East, she is a symbol of strength and courage. To Westerners, she is the face of consequence, the casualty of a ruthless, smooth-tongued regime that refuses to let go its hold on a country ready for change or its contempt for countries it feels have stood in its way. To all people, she is the power of imagery breaking through banned media to show the world what Iran’s president prefers we do not see.

Within hours of her death, Neda became all of these things to all of these people, yet she did so having hardly taken part in anything to do with a protest or a rebellion. In fact, all she really did was to stand by and watch.

With the Iranian ban on media coverage of the protests, we’ll probably never know the full story of what happened to Neda. But between eyewitness accounts and two grainy cell phone videos – one before and one after her death – we can deduce enough: she went to the protests with her music teacher, apparently just to watch. There is no evidence that they were more than bystanders; Neda is not described as being particularly politically active, and the video taken of her before her death only shows her and her teacher standing by and looking on. The video shows that the protest she was watching began to intensify with backlash from weapon-wielding forces. Fearing for their safety, Neda and her companion decided to leave. When the next video starts, Neda has already been shot.

The Iranian government has suggested that the shot was fired by a member of a terrorist organization who mistook Neda for someone else, a tactful appeal to the red buttons of a world sensitive to senseless extremism – and a viable cover, since small, one-off terrorist acts are difficult to trace to a person or group. Others speculate that the Basij, Iran’s sanctioned militia force, is responsible for her death (though the government denies the militia’s involvement in anything except riot control). Others are still looking for someone at whom to point the finger. But no matter who pulled the trigger, we at least know that a trigger was pulled.

Mistake or no, Neda died as a result of protests – protests which may never have reached the level of violence they have if they were, at the very least, allowed. What the world has been given a taste of, then, is not graphic imagery splashed across television and computer screens intended to shock the public, exploit the innocent, or satisfy the morbid curiosity of a Western culture almost entirely (and thankfully) unfamiliar with the violent face of death, but instead a truthful scene, the reality of what atrocities come to pass under a true tyrant – a man who makes Americans’ claims of the Bush administration’s dictator-like qualities seem but a children’s story, and a poorly-written one at that.

In this way, Neda has become a universal symbol of oppression that transcends the boundaries of race, gender, religion, and the like. For Americans, this bears with it the shocking realization that while we make a lot of noise (and do little else) about a single scent of tyranny wafting from the White House, there are others out there being killed by governments that care more about being in control of their people than they do about the people themselves.

Perhaps the most captivating thing about Neda, though, isn’t her life or her death. It is not seeing photos of a beautiful young bride-to-be with a gentle smile, or even the horrific image of that same woman’s face covered in her own blood only seconds after the life has left her.

No – what is most remarkable about Neda’s death, what has drawn the attention of the world, is not who Neda was, but who she wasn’t. She wasn’t a political activist or a criminal, and by all accounts thus far, she wasn’t someone who went against the grain much if at all. So how did she end up dead in a Tehran street?

There is no logical answer to this question, and that may be what has instilled both fear and anger into the hearts of both Iranians and Iranian supporters worldwide. If an innocent woman who was not a protester can be shot dead, allegedly by her own government, then what power remains in the hands of anyone outside of Ahmadinejad’s administration? Worse, are there any limits to the power that Ahmadinejad has?

After all, whether it was outright rigging or not, we can say with certainty that something fishy took place in the recent election, and the state response has been to ban protests, ban the media and thereby the outside world, and react to any opposition to such bans with violence and ultimately murder, all the while telling nations like America to stay out of the way.

If we smell the air deeply enough, however, we find that the fear isn’t all on the side of the Iranian protestors. Indeed, much of it comes from Ahmadinejad himself. He knows that the people are not on his side and he seems to think that ruling with an iron fist and a sharp tongue is the best way to beat them into submission. But tyrant after tyrant in history learned that forcing people to support your government will eventually backfire. From Babylon to the English Empire to Nazi Germany, the same lesson is reinforced: the tighter you squeeze, the more will slip through your fingers. Ahmadinejad has been squeezing the Iranian people for years, and Neda’s death, rather than being any sort of catalyst, is probably more representative of the proverbial straw sending the camel to the chiropractor.

Who was Neda Agha-Soltan? Nobody but a woman living her life in the best way she knew how. Perhaps the better question is: Who is Neda now? She is a tragic icon. She is a martyr. She is a sign to the world that all is not well in everyone’s backyard.

But above all these things, the one thing she must be to the world is a warning that along with any loss of freedom comes the loss of human life. As sad as it is that such senselessness is what pushes people to the brink, we may hope that Neda’s unnecessary loss will at least, in time, not be in vain.

Somewhere Beethoven is looking quizzical

From the BBC: YouTube selects online orchestra.

Video sharing website YouTube has announced the players in the symphony orchestra it recruited online.

Two UK-based winners will join musicians from 30 countries to participate in a three-day classical music summit in New York City.

The YouTube Symphony Orchestra will then perform at Carnegie Hall on 15 April under San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas.

All of the winners’ videos have been posted on YouTube.