Archive for February, 2007

In Paris for a few days I caught the premiere of the new Edith Piaf film by Olivier Dahan. It is called La M̫me Piaf. It surprised me by its unique, non-linear structure. Instead of a typical biopic developing in chronological order, this one is completely broken up into sequences of her early life and later life, going back and forth at different periods, and this makes the film all the more interesting, as it emphasizes the most intensely emotional moments Рher life being split into snapshots as they are caught and encapsulated into her songs Рa team of songwriters is hard at work here making myth and reality coincide.

A new actress, Marion Cotillard (you can’t get any more French than this name) will certainly garner much praise for her character interpretation. Apparently, Olivier Dahan researched his film for several years. His rendition is both elegant and unusual. Even the old Piaf songs that we have heard a million times are only hinted at, presented in short snippets, emphasizing a particular moment. With this kind of film one cannot help wonder about the frailty of being an icon. In Edith Piaf’s case, it is the myth of the tramp who becomes a lady – but not just in form as the Cockney Eliza in Shaw’s Pygmalion, but in content as well. Edith is raw, she may act vulgar but her feelings are noble. She drinks and drugs herself, she falls, but her sincerity is ever faultless. Why is great artistry so often accompanied by personal tragedy? Piaf could easily qualify as the Van Gogh of French song.

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Is ‘composer’ a viable identity? In our world of multiple, changeable identities, kids and adults play games where they get to choose their temporary alter egos – and suddenly change them as they see fit. Today’s fantasy is to be able to change identity at will, possibly because we are locked in a near-oppressive numerical system. I have more than once guiltily caught myself thinking that the composer’s identity is bothersome and possibly, completely outdated. Have you ever been at a party and when someone asks what do you do, made the mistake of saying I am a composer… the responses almost invariably entail “How come I haven’t heard of you? How many CDs do you sell?” The composing activity is already difficult to understand for most non-initiates, but the word ‘composer’ is utterly inadequate to suggest the range of activities that today’s music creators get involved in.

Primarily and traditionally, the word ‘composer’ suggests the image of a serious person (mostly male) pouring over sheet music, surrounded by piles of manuscripts… possibly with a kitty cat sitting on the music pile…somebody with hair brushed back and maybe a pair of heavily-framed glasses, wearing a suit…or in a different style, the academy-award winning film-composer, in the studio with his equipment, looking a bit sexier… But I am not sure these icons are representative of what composing is about in the present day.

In our hyper-specialized social environment, it appears that if you can’t be a full-time successful composer buried in commissions and prizes you cannot/shouldn’t call yourself a composer at all. What if the writing on the wall read differently: the many ‘real’ composers I know are more comparable to the renaissance thinkers who handled knowledge and practice of a variety of disciplines – Da Vinci with painting, architecture and engineering, for example – so our very own garden-variety composers handle many different activities along with composing: writing (lyrics, blogs, press releases, program notes, theses, books, etc.), and/or visual and multimedia art, web design as well as other professional activities that come with the territory such as teaching and organizing events, not to mention a number of technical/engineering add-ons. Now, this kind of composing identity is more difficult to define. It is not a ‘wearing of hats’, but rather the exercise of a social interaction which includes, besides the music-making itself, a number of ways to effectively communicate the music to other people by way of organizing, educating and entertaining.

But, God forbid that we may produce our own recording, running the risk of having the project called a ‘vanity’… In this case, are the projects myspace and youtube present ‘vanity’ projects?….Not an idea that works in 2007. I had almost forgotten that miserable old stumbling block, when someone recently reminded me of it. Good to know, though, as some of these dinosaurs are still alive enough to refuse to review something because it is a ‘vanity’. The only vanity here seems to me that of the writer who thinks a project is unworthy of his good name.

Maybe it is also time to drop the pretense that we should only devote ourselves to the higher spheres of our art. We may have to roll up our sleeves a bit more these days, but it is a question of balance. I admit that if I have to focus too intensely on ‘reality’ it is more difficult for me to imagine new compositions – and isn’t that what the world desperately needs right now?…. sometimes I don’t think anybody really wants my music or cares about it in any way and that if I stopped composing nobody would miss it. In truth, if my mental energy is absorbed in solving practical problems there will be very little time for a new spark, although it has happened in unexpected ways at busy moments but if the idea occurs, it still will need some attention to develop, otherwise it will just dissolve into the stream of life. As in organics, you need a little sunshine for the plant to grow. I can plant the seed, but if there is no sunshine on it, there is little I can do to make the piece grow – but again, why should anybody care about another piece of music more than another plant in the forest?

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