Tag: Dublin (Page 1 of 2)

Thomas Moore: “His Songs Are Timeless”

Moore Ireland portrait

Portrait of Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852), Irish poet, singer and songwriter, by Martin Archer Shee (National Gallery of Ireland)

When it’s discovered I lived in Dublin, I am always asked, since I have no Irish ancestry or family, why I chose to live there.

Romantic as it sounds (and romantic as it was at times), it’s because so many of the artists I admired in my youth were from Ireland; some chose to stay, some chose to leave, but I felt, as a young woman hungry for art, adventure, and love (and some magical combination therein), that it was important to be in the place of my artistic heroes and heroines, as if by some magical osmosis their genius might seep into my own work. I was fortunate to have spent good amounts of time working with and around artists of all kinds during my time there, and though it wasn’t quite what I’d been expecting, to quote Danish photographer Krass Clement (who himself spent a good deal of time in Dublin in the 90s), “I was a bit scared, but also drawn to the atmosphere.” Amen.

Moore

Thomas Moore (Photo via)

I seriously contemplated a trip to Ireland on my way back from Berlin recently. The timing meshed beautifully with the last third of the Wexford Festival Opera, an fest I have long wanted to attend, and which holds particular fascination for its blend of Irish culture and rarely-done work by famous composers. One event, The Thomas Moore Songbook, especially caught my interested. I’ve loved the work of Moore for many decades; the 19th century writer was one of the figures firmly in mind when during my initial move to Dublin decades ago. As my exposure to the music, movies, literature, theater of Ireland expanded, I became especially fascinated by such a small country, with such a difficult and very painful history, producing so very many great artists of all stripes, some wildly divergent in terms of their thoughts and feelings around the notion of Irish identity. Moore was one of the very first widely-acclaimed Irish artists to examine this question in a way that was inspiring, enchanting, and important, all at once. His work seems more important than ever now, in light of current news around borders and Brexit.

As well as being an acclaimed singer, songwriter, poet and entertainer, Moore (born in 1779) led an incredibly interesting, accomplished, and occasionally tragic life; he was one of the first Catholics admitted to Trinity College Dublin, had a brief stint living in Bermuda, and outlived all five of his children. The Poetry Foundation (who publish Poetry magazine) describes him as “a born lyricist and a natural musician, a practiced satirist, and one of the first recognized champions of freedom of Ireland.” His best-known work is Irish Melodies (1808-1834), which came to span over ten volumes and cemented Moore’s reputation in the poetry/music worlds. Composers (including Berlioz) set nine of them to music, and the works were translated into several languages including Czech and Hungarian.

Moore Byron biography

Volume 2 of Moore’s biography of Lord Byron. (Book and photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Moore was also good friends with Lord Byron, who described various Moore works as his “matins and vespers.” The two had a long association, and Moore wrote a biography of his famous friend (who died in Greece in 1824), one Mary Shelley particularly admired. My intense love of the work of the so-called “dangerous-to-know” poet in my university days led me to Moore and made me a forever fan. This love expressed itself most clearly via loss; when a very close friend of the family’s, passed away in the late 1990s, my grieving mother asked me what should be carved on his gravestone. With nary a hesitation, I choose a few passages from a poem of Moore’s, words she loved. When my mother herself passed away in 2015, I couldn’t imagine the words of any other poet on her gravestone.

Wexford wasn’t in the cards this year, alas, but when I return to Ireland, it will be for a lengthy visit; there’s so much to see, to rediscover, to reconnect with and to explore anew. The Wexford Festival Opera is at the top of that list, and I am hoping there will be more of Moore’s work presented — that is a given if Una Hunt has anything to do with it. Hunt is an accomplished broadcaster, musician, coach, and scholar, and is a leading authority on Irish music history, particularly within the realm of forgotten composers. She has been at the forefront of the new Archive of Irish Composers at the National Library of Ireland and has taught at many of Ireland’s most prestigious music academies. She was Executive Producer of My Gentle Harp, a six-CD compilation (released in 2008) that is a complete recorded collection of all 124 songs from Moore’s Irish Melodies. In 2010, she presented the Melodies at Carnegie Hall  (to two standing ovations, no less) and a year repeated the concert in Russia as part of the unveiling of a sculpture honouring Moore at the University of St Petersburg. Along with extensive publishing and performance work, Una has also produced a number of documentaries for Irish broadcaster RTÉ, including a tribute to French composer tribute to Claude Debussy.

The Thomas Moore Songbook was a huge hit at this year’s Wexford Festival Opera; both of its presentations sold out, something Una wasn’t surprised by, but, as you’ll hear, led to more questions, and more opportunities. As you’ll hear, Una has very strong opinions about the role Moore has played in Irish culture as well as identity. Why should you care about Moore? What does his work say to us now? How can a country forget (and/or ignore) its classical composers entirely? Blame not the bard...

Head & Heart & Movies & Me

(photo via)
Movies were one of my first great loves. I would sit in the grand silence of many an old cinema, with scratchy red seats, the velvet sheen long since worn off, and spider webs wrapped like lace around the dusty, grey crystals of faded, wheezing-gold wall sconces, floors sticky with a thousand screaming-kiddie afternoons and breathless teenaged nights. It was magic. Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocky, Jaws, Clash of the Titans and Flash Gordon, and later, Thelma and Louise, Aliens, JFK, and Tim Burton’s Batman were a part of my culture diet, alongside nights at the opera and afternoons at the museum. Along the way, I developed a desire to direct movies, write movies, produce movies, be in movies. 

When I was old enough to attend the then-named Festival of Festivals (which later grew into the behemoth that is the Toronto International Film Festival), I purposely sought out the strange, the unusual, the odd — stuff that I might never see again. That’s what a film festival’s really for, isn’t it? The blockbusters could wait. Along with the big, ballsy blockbuster stuff, I had developed a love of smaller fare: the intimate wordplay of Woody Allen’s work, the poetry of Federico Fellini, the deliberate thoughtfulness of Ingmar Bergman. The work of Wim Wenders, whose visual poetry and keen integration of timing, color, sound, and performance feel quietly operatic, yet grandly passionate, fired my imagination with tales that deviated from the orderly narratives I’d seen in so many Hollywood movies. The smaller works introduced me to new ways of looking at old myths, and the courage to dream up new ones. 

(photo via)
Even as I wrote, I continued to watch, waiting in interminable lines (and frequently terrible weather) to be let in to the dusty, dark palace of my dreams. I clearly remember the many magical elements of De vliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman, seen at the film festival): long silences punctuated only by breath and wind, brown-and-gold tinged cinematography, the mud around an actor’s face. Terence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line utterly awed, silenced, stunned, into a very intense head and heart-space. Walking home later, the rain drops that sat, jewel-like, on the grey, lined cobblestone streets of Dublin looked different, filled with a magic I knew nothing of, but could only marvel at.
This wonder extended itself to all types of movies, provoking equally powerful reactions and throwing open doors of creativity and dreaming, inspiring stories and screenplays that meshed the human, the historic, the fantastical, and the frightening. Going to the movie was a ritual, usually exercised opening night; there was something about the occasion that seemed exciting, and important to be a part of culturally. Sure, the actors were hot/interesting/cool, but what friends and I really wound up talking about over drinks in a smoky bar later was the way things were filmed, the way they sounded, the shadows, the light, the performances – the way everything came together and made us feel. And that’s ultimately what it was about: feeling. Big or small, indie or studio, if we felt something, if we were moved, if we came out of there and found everything looked different, the source hardly mattered. Being moved and being entertained were not mutually exclusive experiences. Back in the 1980s and 90s, I happily hopped between the small, medium, large, and super-gulp worlds of movies with ease, untroubled by questions around budgets, marketing, demographics, brand, or even hype. I simply went because I loved movies, and I loved the experience of going to see them.

(photo via)

I don’t know when the divide came, or how. It’s strange that so many of the filmmakers I admire aren’t around anymore (“dead” doesn’t necessarily translate literally in Hollywood), that so many of the actors whose worked I followed are either now a part of blockbuster franchises or relegated into old fart-style roles, that films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, or Only Lovers Left Alive should be anomalies. And yet, in the landscape of contemporary movies, they are, and they’re treated more as lovable/weirdo/cool/hipster-y outsiders than full, firm, equal – and necessary – parts of the film industry. The sharp rise of delineations between blockbuster and indie rile, depress, infuriate, but hardly surprise; it feels as if hype is somehow more important than heart – real heart, not the cliched, easily-digestible kind manufactured by the bucketful and ladled out by studios keen on a quick ROI. Why should head and heart be so separate? Small sparks might provide temporary heat and light in the film world now, but nothing like the roaring fire I once felt. 

Style plays as much of a role as content here. I greatly miss the grand experience of movie-going in an old cinema. The contemporary glass-and-metal popcorn palaces just don’t cut it; movie-going is a seduction, what with the raising of a curtain, the teasing of trailers, the shared silence, the delicious anticipation, the film itself a penetrating, all-encompassing, extended main course, with little side plates of things to dip in and out of for fun or rumination (or both). Multiplexes are, to my mind, the opposite of sexy; attending one is akin to going to a peep show featuring a plastic performer. I don’t feel seduced, I don’t feel beguiled, I don’t want more. Everything’s too loud and everything’s very ugly. Watching movies on a laptop is strange and uncomfortable, ease and convenience replacing the slow brew and simmer of a movie-going experience that feels long ago and far away. 
(photo via)
Getting the movies out of one’s blood completely is, however, an impossible task. Very often find myself thinking in cinematic terms, directing scenes in my head, framing visuals I see or imagine, coming across various faces and casting them in the many unpublished narratives that sit, Leviathan-like, on my hard drive. My faith is partially restored by digital culture too, and by my work as an arts journalist; interviewing various filmmakers whose work I admire, connecting with other film lovers on social media, and the ease with which digital culture now allows one to access movies new and old, has lead to a kind of cinematic renaissance of sorts. I’m looking at old works with new eyes, and new works with far more critical readings and realizations, armed as I am with a knowledge of an industry in flux and the tyranny of what is perhaps best termed “kinder-mind.” 
When I like something, it’s good to be able to proclaim that love loudly, with a modicum of possible influence (maybe?) and to find a community with which to share that love; expressing dislike (and cynicism) is a much harder task, especially when something (or someone) is extremely popular, and it’s something I grapple with. I hope I’m getting better, and I hope there are more movies on the horizon to inspire, entertain, move, and beguile – and more places to be seduced in. There’s still few things better than having your breath taken away in the darkness.

Brighter

As spring approaches, I always think about Ireland a little more than usual. I moved from Dublin in the spring, and every time there’s a whiff of spring in the air I remember the crocuses that were merrily breaking through the ground when I left Ireland. Standing in stark contrast to all that spring gaiety was Ballymun.
Through the 70s, 80s and 90s, the area one travels through to get to (and from) the airport in Dublin was dominated by seven low-level apartment buildings and became infamous for its drug-related activities, particularly when Dublin suffered a serious heroin epidemic in the 1970s and 80s. To quote Design Research Group’s thorough feature:

They were a well intentioned attempt to relocate people from the inner-city of Dublin to more modern high rise accommodation on the then outskirts of the city. The symbolism of the names of each block, Pearse, MacDonagh, Clarke, Connolly, Ceannt, Plunkett and MacDermott, each a leader of the 1916 Rising was indicative of efforts to re-imagine an identity for the Irish state during the late 1960s. Their very modernity was such that it embodied a shift away from the rural towards the urban.

Owing to a complete lack of infrastructure (including roads, services, and even access to basic goods), the site quickly suffered a kind of ghettoization, with the apartment blocks becoming the epicenter of the spiral downward. People may know the line about seeing ‘seven towers’ (and no way out) but they don’t necessarily know the place, much less its history or people. Author Lynn Connelly worked to set that right in 2006, when she published The Mun, which portrays its residents in a far different light than the drug-filled media reports that dominated Irish press for so long.
In 2004, demolition on the infamous apartment block began, its residents relocated to housing as part of the area’s regeneration. There have been plenty of good developments, including a Civic Centre, a theatre, residents’ groups, and of course, new housing. But the Ballymun renaissance hasn’t included everyone, alas.
Genius Dublin artist Maser, who’s been doing his special brand of pop-meets-graffiti around the city for over a decade, offered his own colourful contribution to Ballymun, just before demolition began. I used to see Maser’s early work when I’d wander around Dublin, old Minolta in-hand; looking back on it, the graffiti-meets-billboard approach incorporates so many elements of art I love: colour, texture, playfulness, and subtext.

This was done as part of the They Are Us project in 2010 and is dedicated to Rachel Peavoy. The Ballymun flat resident was found on January 11th, 2010 in her apartment. She’d died of hypothermia. An inquest into her death revealed that Dublin City Council had turned her heating off and refused to turn restore it to the flats despite the cold winter.

Next time I’m in Ireland, I’m not just driving through Ballymun. I’m going to stop for a while.
Photo credits:
Top photo by World News.
Demolition photo by Barry Delaney.

Showing And Knowing

There’s a strange expectation that you must be stupid if you flip burgers, make lattes, or, in my case, answer (and make) phone calls. This sharp divide -between what I love and what I do -used to bother me a great deal.

When I arrived in Dublin many years ago, I took a series of “joejobs” and found myself spiralling into a great fierce tornado of depression. In hindsight, I think I hadn’t worked out separating one’s self from the source of one’s income. You’re not necessarily what you do, as this short points out, though for us souls who want the opportunity to do professionally what we love most, the joejob tornado can sometimes be hard to sidestep.

I don’t know what accomplished filmmaker Shaun O’Connor was thinking when he wrote and directed this delightful work, but it feels awfully familiar. There’s a knowing wink directed at people who are both too quick to judge, and who see that judgment coming a mile away. I used to react badly; now, I try not to react at all.

Demonstrating the finer points of my well-read self to people in the joejob environment isn’t a priority anyway; booksmarts are great, but they’re limited -and limiting. Too many potentially interesting conversations and possibly great connections get cut off because one hasn’t read the latest Eggers or Bezmogis or any of the books on the New York Times Bestseller List. But maybe that person likes graphic novels, or comics. Maybe they draw. Maybe they dance. Maybe they own a small business. Maybe they sell vegetables off the back of a truck. Everyone has a story.

Everyone has a feisty, scissor-wielding hairdresser in them too.

Special thanks to the James Joyce Centre Dublin for posting Mr. O’Connor’s work on their Facebook page.

Swirling

A little piece of inspiration, amidst the Christmas/holiday nutties.

The ocean has always been a source of inspiration for me. When I lived in Dublin, I used to have to take the DART south for work twice a week; I loved being along the Irish sea and looking out at the swirling waves. It was a hell of a public transit ride for a wide-eyed Canadian girl more used to seeing concrete and tracts of homogenous suburban town-boxes along commuter routes. I marveled at the many people who simply fell asleep on the ride. How can you miss this?, I thought. Maybe it’s something you get used to, and sick of, the way us Canadians are about snow and winter scenes.

On the (few) days the sun shone in Dublin, the watery landscape turned into a glinting kind of jewel; I only wish I had been painting then. Still, I had my trusty Minolta with me. The photos I took are languishing somewhere in Ireland. I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again; the feeling of seeing that dance of sky and sea will be with me, though, forever. Another ride along the DART is inevitable, both physically and otherwise.

(Re)Birth


Oh dear, oh dear… several concerts, three openings, two books, a TV appearance, and one surgery (not mine) later, and I find I’m getting guilt-pangs. Dear blog, I’ve ignored you, and I am sorry. There will be a lot more posts in the coming days and weeks, including a review of the last North American stop on Hugh Masekela’s recent tour, an audio interview with the playwright behind a new opera about boxing and women, a preview of an upcoming Robert LePage show involving gender-bending, and my own musing on tattoo artist Kat Von D’s latest book.

In the meantime, a celebration of sorts is in order. Artist Louis le Brocquy turned 94 today. To say his work was a big reason I picked up a paintbrush sounds too trite, too twee, too completely earnest. But it’s true. I remember being introduced to his work by an art professor many years ago in Dublin; the way I look at art -and the world -hasn’t been the same since. Le Brocquy‘s fierce sensuality combined with his meticulous skill have cast such a powerful spell that I’ve literally lost hours staring silently at his work. And it isn’t just a technical admiration; there’s a real sense of love that pours forth from his works -for the works themselves, the act, the subject, the materials, the very spirit of art and artistry and poetry, the whole chaotic mass of creation, of birth, of death, of living, of knowing, of being …for the sake of it.

It’s not unusual for me to get emotional looking at his work, either; the magical combination of paint and brushstrokes, light and shadow, shape and form, work a kind of alchemical magic that bounces straight from head into heart, threading the two together until there’s no distinction between me, subject, and canvas. This Irish painter’s vision is so singularly unique as to make words very, very limiting in trying to describe its power. That’s the mark of good art in my books. And I try surround and immerse myself in that kind of awesome beauty as much as I can -or at least tote around the compact version, which isn’t always successful.

Only recently have I returned in a big way to my own art-making, and while it’s been a kind of homecoming, it’s also provided an alarming awakening (more on that in a future post). Every carefully-applied brushstroke whispers a primal, messy truth -one I’m coming to recognize and embrace in every aspect of my ever-expanding world. Le Brocquy’s work feels both soothing and a call for authenticity -in art, in love, in life. I hope I can heed it.

For now, I send my heartfelt thanks, joy, and good wishes to Mr. Brocquy. Love and gratitude, always.


Top painting: Fantail, 1989
Middle painting: Back, 1997
Bottom painting: Study for Children in a Wood, 1988

There Are No Mistakes

It’s been a big step for me to share my artwork. It’s taken years, practise, contemplation, and well… just keeping at the drawing/painting/sketching. Thanks to confidence, as well as a substantial leap in technology, I’m now able to share a very-small morsel of my own artistic output.

It’s somewhat strange, as a journalist, to be sharing another aspect of my life so publicly. I definitely hold a very-precious and delicate part of myself up for scrutiny -and yet, that’s the risk of every artist: putting little shards of your own self out there for oohs or boos. For me, it’s analogous to sex-for-sex, or sex-with-big-feelings. Both are good, but one is riskier. It’s easy to get naked, but to strip away the superficial and reveal true soul -that’s hard. But it’s the call any artist worth his or her salt must heed in order to grow, and, I think, to develop spiritually as a human being. The ability to create -bodily, verbally, mechanically, culinarily, technically, virtually, with imagination, gusto, and fearlessness -is something I suspect we need to embrace in order to move forwards, personally and societally.

Thanks in no small part to one truly gifted artist I met during my time living in Dublin, I’ve felt confident enough to throw my paint-splattered hat in the ring, damning the consequences and inevitable sneers. The encouragement I’ve received since has been really, really heartening, as has every little bit of feedback.

This is a work-in-progress -both the sharing and the artwork itself -so all I ask is, look, and let me know if you have ideas, reaction, tips. I want to hear them.

Night, originally uploaded by catekustanczi.

Salty and Sweet

First things first: don’t bring anyone who’s sensitive to the f-word to see How Now Mrs. Brown Cow. It gets a workout in the hands -make that mouth -of the formidable Mrs. Brown, also known as one Brendan O’Carroll, Irish comedian and super-performer. For two hours, any easily-offended ears will be singed by its extensive and creative usage.

It should be noted, however, that the word, within the context of the show, is made musical, magical, and even poetic. I mean, hell, it’s an Irish show -you have to expect the salty and the sweet, the dark and the light, the low and the high, the profound and the profane, all mashed up in one gorgeous, overwhelming package of funny, naughty, heart-tugging hilarity. How Now Mrs. Brown Cow is the fifth in the wildly popular Mrs. Brown series, which started life two decades ago as a radio series before extending into TV, movies, books, and videos. O’Carroll, donning a big wig, glasses, frumpy dress and dowdy shoes, takes on the persona of a working class Dublin mum. In this show, she’s readying her home for the family, including her beloved Priest-son Trevor, and tangling with her other three sons, daughter, and “granddad”, who becomes the unwitting guinea pig for Mrs. Brown and her friend Winnie (Eilish McHugh) to test mail order products on. The scene involving country music, a baking sheet, and a crash helmet is especially memorable; like the show itself, this single scene is a smart blend of dark humor and gleeful slapstick. Politically correct it ain’t, but funny… hells yes.

The humour extends itself to local references, with O’Carroll playing to both the Toronto crowd (with mentions of local discount store Honest Ed’s) and Irish expats (jokes about son Mark’s “Prod” wife abounded). Later I overheard an audience member remark that some of the show’s references were “too obscure” for most Canadians, which is true. Equally, O’Carroll’s portrayal of Rory (Rory Cowan), Mrs. Brown’s gay son, could be construed as stereotypical and offensive- but as I recall it, some Northside Dubliners (and indeed some Irish) have a pretty narrow idea and tolerance of homosexuality altogether. Should O’Carroll soften the writing? The Mrs. Brown series concerns rough people who say (and do) offensive things, many of which are specific to a cultural time and place. The write and director is full aware of the ridiculousness of Rory, and perhaps, knowingly, portrays partner Dino differently, clothing him not in gold lame pants, but suit trousers, like everyone else. To moan about the “offensiveness” of this show conveys a huge ignorance around Dublin culture, and, to be frank, a poe-faced Canadian seriousness that doesn’t match the larkish nature of the material. There are many other forms of entertainment that portray gay people (and others) in far more offensive ways; this show isn’t one of them.

Indeed, Mrs. Brown is fierce, feisty, and very, very funny -she’s no cuddly Mrs. Doubtfire or cutesy Golden Girl. She’s a lot closer to the tough Northside ladies I once knew (and would occasionally borrow hoovers, tin foil, and window cleaner, or buy fruit and veg from). Mrs. Brown’s shouts at the unseen drug-users outside her door -“injectin’ yer cannabis!” -may be momentarily funny, but reflect a darker reality, one those of us who lived in Dublin around that time vividly remember. Mrs. Brown is tough, loud, and weirdly, very real, with echoes of Dublin echoing with her every word, whether it’s a curse or a blessing.


The potent mix of dark and light is brought to the fore again and again, with sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching results. O’Carroll creates short, simple scenes involving friends and family to explore elementary, albeit timeless themes of human connection and bonding, especially in tough times. Part story, part sitcom, the material leaves plenty of room for improvisation, something that cast members take full advantage of. At last night’s North American premiere of How Now Mrs. Brown Cow (produced by Toronto’s Mirvish Productions at the historic Canon Theatre), cast members Danny O’Carroll (as local boy Buster Brady) and Gary Hollywood (as Dino Doyle, companion to Mr. Brown’s son Rory) couldn’t keep straight faces, as O’Carroll, consciously but keeping in character expertly chided them. One telling moment saw Hollywood’s lack of composure become so acute, he was doubled over hysterically laughing into his hands. Rather than being unprofessional or distracting, the reaction worked beautifully with his character’s extreme horror within the context of the scene. After all, extreme horror and extreme giggles really do look the same at a distance. Salty and sweet indeed. (And, for the record, O’Carroll’s deadpan response -in character -was, “I remember writing this – it wasn’t this feckin’ long.” Ha.)

Other moments where O’Carroll purposely broke the fourth wall included his character’s attempt to place a star atop the Brown Family Christmas tree. After trying a variety of chairs, s/he balanced on a railing in the set, and then took hold of the upper edge of the set itself. It was a good example of O’Carroll’s extreme, and extremely happy, disregard for theatrical convention. He definitely play with panto, with improvisation, and with his castmates in the most jovial of ways, but when it comes to delivering the more serious moments, there’s no horsing around. He goes straight for the heart, without any compromises. Talking with the lone daughter of the family, Cathy (Jennifer Gibney), Mrs. Brown delivers a heart-rending speech about the closeness of mothers and daughters, one that brings to mind possible parallels with fathers and sons, which is made all the more poignant with the knowledge of the comedian losing his own son some years ago. The square emphasis on family, and on the ties that bind between people, generations, faiths, lifestyles, and ideas, couldn’t be more apparent, F-bombs or not.

How Now Mrs. Brown Cow definitely has fun exploding a few proper theatrical conventions, but it also leaves you wondering just where you stand in terms of your relationship to family and those closest to you. Wandering down Victoria Street after the opening, I overheard comments confirming this connectedness. One man remarked to his friend that the title character “is so much like your own mum!” to which the man readily agreed, while another pair of friends noted that the show’s premise, with its mix of stress and joy, “looks just like our Christmas.” Several Irish grannies stood outside the stage door, one with a mobile phone to her ear.

“It’s lovely show, just grand,” one said, waving a cigarette around, “Now what time will you be over for dinner tomorrow?” Pause.

“Don’t be f*ckin’ late again.”

Good advice.

Photo credits:
Top photo of Brendan O’Carroll as Mrs. Brown courtesy of Mirvish Productions.
Photo of “Shadowplay – O’Connell Street, Dublin” by Dave Walsh, blather.net
Photo of Moore Street courtesy of goperimeter.org

Bloomin’ Great

Today is Bloomsday.

Not having read Ulysses in over a decade, much less looked through it (ironically, I left my annotated copy in Dublin), I decided it was the perfect day to pick up a copy. As I flipped through page after page of beautiful, confounding prose, I was reminded of the place writing once occupied in my life, and how my perceptions around it have changed.

It’s not a higher calling to me anymore, nor is it some kind of holy act; it simply is, along with any number of other things people have a particular affinity for. I both fought and embraced the monikers of “writer” and “artist” for years, feeling, on the one hand I wasn’t worthy of those titles, and, on the other, I was purely defined by them. Neither, life has shown me, is quite accurate.

And yet there’s the same sense of wonder, joy, and wordless awe when I open Ulysses, just as there was way back when I first read it in the mid 1990s. The mad combination of drama, poetry, geography, and frankly… a jazz-like feeling of improvisation infuse every word in the 700+ page novel with wonder for me. It isn’t polite, tidy, or precise; this is rough, edgy, coarse prose, the kind you might find your brain -much less (eeek) soul -getting cut on (badly) if you’re looking for soothing respite. That’s a big part of its appeal. Who wants soothing? There’s yoga for that. Joyce’s words are real, raw, crude, shrewd, raunchy, sad, infuriating, confusing … and poetic. Like people. Like life.

This, of all days, feels like the right time to offer up a tribute, and I can think of no better way of saluting the book, and all of us still intoxicated by it. Yes, for real:

There’s a beautiful roughness to this, without the 360 frills, that feels right for the poetic (dare I say Joycean) lyrics; the musical rawness here feels (and sounds) like the perfect dance partner for the pitbull-like aggression of the prose, and, conversely, the prose has a wild, unhinged musicality that becomes more muscular with the beefy sonic accompaniment. My first reaction when I heard this song was: Joyce. And it wasn’t just the June 16th reference, either.

Words -they’re not much, but they can get us through some dark times. They, like any art, don’t define -they refine; the silence between syllables and the long yawning vowels become the music we understand. Writing isn’t reformation but sublimation to a higher power: imagination.

“How moving the scene there in the gathering twilight, the last glimpse of Erin, the touching chime of those evening bells and at the same time a bat flew forth from the ivied belfry through the dusk, hither, thither, with a tiny lost cry. And she could see far away the lights of the lighthouses so picturesque she would have loved to do with a box of paints…”

Move Me

Listening to the first release from The Chemical Brothers, two thoughts strike me: first, this is very ambient-meets-techno, second, what took them so long?

I always loved dancing, and dance music. I didn’t recognize the labels -house, electronica, etc (not that they existed much) -so much as enjoy the output. I danced with equal vigor to the latest pop hits of the day (something about the hummable jumpiness of MJ & the bass-heavy, thumpalicious grooves of “Nasty” sister Janet still moves – literally) as the wordless, hazy instrumental stuff you heard everywhere but could never quite name; it had a groove, it had a heart, it had a beat, and it breathed, in a wordless, low whisper, “move…

So I did -to everything from 70s era instrumental funk and disco to 80s glam pop to the awe-inspiring, genre-defying sounds of the 90s, when technology took a decided leap forwards and married metal, rock, beats and block-rockin’ rhythms to create a holy land where definitions vanished and were replaced by a nirvana outlined in the fuzzy shapes of outstretched limbs and undulating hips.

Dance has always felt like a kind of holy sacrament for me. After moving home from Dublin and London, I bemoaned a North American club culture that seemed to cater exclusively to the under-21, micro-skirted, posing-with-cocktails set; I was more accustomed to the cargo-panted/t-shirt, big-boots-and-all-ages crowds actually dancing at clubs in Ireland and England. The phrase “dance music” has very different connotations between continents; even now, with the success of bands like Air, Daft Punk, and MGMT, it’s still, I think, somewhat ghettoized as being the exclusive enclave of the young. Nonsense.

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As Robbie Robertson breathily intones in the gorgeously dense Howie B. track, “Take Your Partner By The Hand“:

this is a place she goes to fulfill a very basic need
… to communicate without talking…
she wants to make a connection
…this is about smoke and sweat and beats
this is about no questions

I relate even now, my club days like foggy, happy, multi-color memories smiling at me from afar.

So with The Chemical Brothers’ new release, I’m taken back to that place. I love hearing the notable embrace of past (with samples of work from The Who, The Beatles, and Pink Floyd certainly audible) and fearless celebration of present. The Chemicals were one of the first big acts to hit the mainstream back in the 90s, and they paved the way for others –The Prodigy, Orbital, Underworld -to come forwards in North America, and dip into a bigger ocean in Europe. I’ll never forget walking through a dull, flourescent-lit department store in Dublin (a more depressing, middle-of-the-road retail spot you couldn’t find) and hearing “Firestarter” piped through the store’s enormous, bland expanse. Young mums walked by pushing strollers and grannnies glanced at sale-tagged sweaters as the screaming insistence, with echoing beats and shouts, bounced off the scratched, matte lino: “I’m the firestarter…

These days, the songs being piped through that dreary store might be made by someone on a laptop, living in an equally dreary suburb; it doesn’t matter about the source now, so much as the spread. Everything yawns open, embraces, pushes, pulsates, sways and shimmies; the Chemicals recognize this bold, scary, exhilerating sense of the unlimited essence of sound, music and experience -that basic need to communicate – and with a wink to the past, they’re kissing the future, and moving feet, hearts, minds, past categories and into the horizon where sea, sky, and dancefloor bleed.

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