Picklist #1

Miscellaneous picks from the Archive.org site…

1) Classic book: The Duchess of Langeais by Honoré de Balzac

This short novel tells a tragic love story, or a duel of personalities, in a style that seems surprisingly modern and with a brevity that makes online reading fairly painless. The Duchess is in her early twenties and of noble family. The General is a bit older, a military man returning from a hellish ordeal in the African desert, a shy amateur in matters of love. The story is told in flashback and begins near the end – after a long period of searching the General finds the Duchess has taken refuge as a nun in a Spanish monastery. The next scene returns to their first meeting, in the Faubourg Saint-Germain district, during the French Restoration, a period marked by the segregation of the upper-classes and nobles from the middle class and proletariat. There follows a passage critiquing the politics of the period, leading into the romance story as an example of the society’s shortcomings. During their courtship the Duchess exercises her skills as a coquette, but she’s portrayed sympathetically and with breadth. After many visits to her home and professing his love – but only being offered a foot, a hand to kiss, a scarf – an acquaintance informs the General that he is the victim of fashionable flirtation, whereupon he begins efforts to forcefully extract her surrender. The many barriers that come between them have an almost abstract quality: the Duchess’s religious beliefs which seem vague but later consume her life, a husband who lives apart and is never shown, physical partitions within settings, missed meetings, unread letters, etc. A surprising narrative reversal, which I won’t reveal, adds to the complexity of the structure. Another character of the story is The Thirteen, a mysterious organization with occult-like powers who comes to the General’s aid. The novel is dedicated to Franz Liszt and seems marked by the tone of organ music, with its mixture of orchestral immensity and darkness. The pleasure of reading Balzac is found at the level of the individual word as much as the story. There are many memorable lines and epigrams throughout, despite what may be a dated translation. An excellent feature film adaptation/interpretation was made by director Jacques Rivette in 2007, not yet available on Region 1 DVD.

Project Gutenberg edition, translator not specified

Project Gutenberg, Ellen Marriage translation

William Walton translation, History of the Thirteen, with 5 etchings (detail shown)

Audio – a film club discusses the 2007 movie

2) One Minute videos:

– Search Moving Images for “One Minute” and you’ll find short video reviews of books by the One Minute Critic. Here’s one introducing a relatively recent single-volume hardcover edition of 4 novels by sci-fi master Philip K. Dick.

– Search Moving Images for “Lumiere” where you will find a series of short pieces inspired by the work of the pioneering French filmmakers, the Lumière brothers. The rules for the contemporary films state: “60 seconds max., Fixed camera, No audio, No zoom, No edit, No effects.” Here’s one showing a close-up of a lava lamp.

3) Democracy Now! June 24, 2008 – this broadcast includes segments on the legacies of comedian George Carlin [1937 – 2008] and visionary Buckminster Fuller.

4) The Venerable Dark Cloud – from the Other Minds collection, an excellent 45 minute commercially released but out-of-print album of Westernized gamelan music by Mantle Hood and Hardja Susilo, performed by the UCLA Performance Group (1958?; 1967 according to Other Minds). In the journal Ethnomusicology, Vol. 13 (1969), a blindfold listening test of this album (or another, if this was part of a series), was given to a group of gamelan teachers in Java, with their amusing complaints about “wrong tempo,” “too loud,” etc. (A gamelan group shown.)

5) Crepusculum – Sky Diaries – a 2006 7 song EP of simple, quiet, impressionistic acoustic guitar music. The sort of thing that evokes nature images and the seasons – but it’s actually rather, er… nice. One track is an electronic remix.

6) Some excellent Post-Punk and Post-Rock concert recordings from the Live Music Archives, in no particular order:

Minutemen / Mike Watt
Mission of Burma
The Dream Syndicate / Steve Wynn
Godspeed You Black Emperor! / A Silver Mt Zion
Bardo Pond – 14 concerts
Mogwai – 74 concerts
Explosions in the Sky – 55 concerts, including from 2008
Note: Once you click on the main collection page for each band, click “See Recent Additions” to view all items. Some items are in FLAC file format – requires free download from SourceForge.net to convert to WAV file. Be sure to browse the index of artists/bands.

7) Of Human Bondage (1934) – Memorable melodrama about obsessive love and one man’s winding journey to find his place in life, starring Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. Howard is a failed artist who leaves Paris to study medicine in London. He suffers physically and emotionally from a club foot. In a cafe, he’s smitten by Davis, a coarse and manipulative lower-class waitress; she is destined to reappear throughout his life, each time creating various emotional and moral challenges for him. Howard struggles to advance professionally and in his personal life as Davis’ life descends, and while their encounters seem at first like another chance for happiness, they only serve for him to experience disappointment again. Both of the lead performances are very good and both actors are perfectly cast. There are enough narrative details and cinematic effects to give the film minor qualities. Davis enjoyed a long career and this film is a noteworthy entry in her oeuvre. Howard went on to star as Ashley Wilkes in “Gone With the Wind,” but was killed a few years later during WWII. The theme music, repeated in variations of mood, is by Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind, Casablanca). See also the Somerset Maugham novel.

8) Bernard Parmegiani (b. 1927) – “Outremer,” (1969, about 20 mins.) a piece for ondes martenot, performed by Arlette Sibon-Simonovitch, with magnetic tape accompaniment. The full program from Other Minds begins with sound poems by Charles Amirkhanian, then an intro to ondes martenot and Outremer starts at about the 42 minute mark. At any given moment on this track the sounds you hear are likely to remind you of the effects from an old B sci-fi movie, but they’re so dense and richly layered to ultimately defy soundtrack clichés and connotations. There are probably many early musique concrète works that could be similarly described as sci-fi tinged, but perhaps more than others Parmegiani here gives the best realization of a completely self-contained imaginary world, insofar as none of the musical sources are recognizable, not even as electronic music in general. There’s something like a tension between what’s experienced as interior mental state and exterior space or landscape, and with a touch of surrealism: bowed sounds, bubbles, ripples, suction, oscillations, washes, crashing waves; all very mutable and seamlessly merged. This music seems to beckon for a visual representation – a 70s LP with a star cluster cover, alien terrain, Yves Tanguy, or composer Ligeti’s teenage drawings of the geographical features of imaginary lands. Maybe Debussy could be cited as a reference, in the way directions are suggested then passed over, or Varèse for his concept of “organized sound.” Parmegiani started as a tape recording technician with only self-taught knowledge of composition. Today he’s one of the foremost composers of this form. A wonderful 12 disc box set of Parmegiani’s music was recently released, but it does not contain this piece, which is taken from an out-of-print album by performer Sibon-Simonovitch, Espaces Sonores No. 1 (1972).

Jordon Zorker

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