The Mandalorian is so fun to watch, you almost forget that it’s an excellent example of how a corporate entertainment behemoth can freshen up an IP and sell a whole new product along the way.
For this week’s issue of Sequential Tart, I wrote about The Mandalorian‘s ties to the genres that inspired George Lucas, and the secret to Baby Yoda’s success as a pop culture figure.
Baby Yoda is an open signifier, practically invented for memes. Within the context of the show, Baby Yoda can mean a fresh start for the Star Wars franchise. It can symbolize a new generation that prompts older, jaded generations to act against the resurgence of fascism. It can represent renewed appreciation for artisan handicraft in a digital age (the enthusiasm for the mostly puppet creature is a marked contrast to fans’ refusal to warm up to the mostly CGI characters of the prequels).
Even the storytelling style of The Mandalorian seems designed to clear a path for this adorable new overlord.
I participated in a roundtable review of the beautiful new David Bowie book by Mike Allred and Steve Horton:
“Using the last Ziggy Stardust concert as a framing device, BOWIE: Stardust, Rayguns & Moonage Daydreams traces how Bowie built and rebuilt identities and created innovations that affected music, art, fashion, videos, and even financial products.”
One of the things I like about the book is how Horton and Allred credit those behind the scenes who helped shaped Bowie.
UltraViolet with Guest Vocalist and Composer Jane Berry November 23, 2019 McDougall United Church Presented by New Music Edmonton
On November 23, 2019, New Music Edmonton invited me to their first concert of the season. The featured group was UltraViolet, a quartet featuring Chenoa Anderson on flute, Allison Balcetis on saxophone, Amy Nicholson on cello, and Roger Admiral on piano.
On this occasion, they were joined by Jane Berry, who provided vocals on all five pieces performed that night, including her own composition.
I’m going to walk through the program from beginning to end because it made for a perfect evening, starting with the venue. McDougall United Church was built in 1910 with oak interiors and maple floors. It has been used as a church continuously, but has been a concert venue from the start. Its grand opening on January 20, 1911 featured a 50-person choir, and a pipe organ was installed the following year. Opera, symphonies, and recitals have taken place there. (This description summarizes a report by Lawrence Herzog and Molly Staley as part of the Edmonton City as Museum Project). This is all to say that the space is storied and cozy, which complemented and contrasted with the adventurous new music on the program.
The evening opened with John Cage’s “Living Room Music” (1940). The musicians sat on comfy reading chairs and “played” everyday objects of their choosing. They made music with magazine, wooden stools, books on a bench, and a two-by-four, among other items. They took text fragments of “The World Is Round”, a children’s book by Gertrude Stein, and gave it a sound-poem reading. Cage probably didn’t call for vehicular traffic to be incorporated into the piece, but the noise of cars driving past the church became another quotidian source of sound in the performance.
The second piece was “Tanzer Lieder” by Quebec composer Ana Sokolovic. The composition is built around poems written by Francisco Tanzer in German, French, and English (to honour the languages of the members of Trio Phoenix, for which the piece was written) . The natural echo in the McDougall sanctuary added a “special effect” to Berry’s vocals, and her harmonizing with Amy Nicholson’s cello was divine.
Next, Berry sang and hummed her own composition, “The Break”. With lyrics about living with bipolar disorder, the song was gorgeous and haunting, particularly when she sang the words “catch me when I’m falling”, or the repeated phrase, “I’m trying, I’m trying, I’m trying”, or the poignant line, “If I told you a flower grew in the darkness, would you believe it?” “The Break” resonated both musically and emotionally.
After the intermission, the ensemble performed “The Woman and the Lyre”, a five-movement piece based on poetry fragments by Sappho. The composer, Alyssa Aska, used translations by Canadian poet Bliss Carmen (1861 to 1929). This was the only piece of the night with an electroacoustic element, as Berry’s vocals were processed live from the mic. It also had a performative aspect. At one point, Roger Admiral got up and plucked piano wire as if they were strings on a lyre. The piece also called upon Berry to pace across the stage nervously, perhaps reflecting the anxiety of the poet. I thought the action was also a metaphor for the tightrope the musicians were walking in presenting a fully realized contemporary piece of work based on fragments for which we do not have a full context. Satisfyingly, the piece ended on a sure and sublime note.
Finally, UltraViolet performed five movements from Frederic Rzewski’s 1986 composition, “Chains”. If the Sappho piece had a historical flavour, “Chain” was unnervingly topical. Jane Berry sat on one of the comfy armchairs which made an appearance at the start of the program. This time, she was holding a copy of the National Post, and literally reading the news: Trump, the provincial budget, university funding, the Climate Strike march, oh boy! Berry begin to break down the words until they were music, while the Chenoa Anderson and Allison Balcetis coaxed their wind instruments to make sounds like early morning bird calls. The ensemble referred back to the John Cage piece by incorporating everyday objects once again to make music, this time there was a wrench, and a stapler, and a set of keys on a lanyard. Berry provided a physical performance as she did in the Alyssa Aska piece, but instead of pacing, she sat in the chair, building a structure with Jenga blocks, until she dramatically swiped it all off the table.
“Chains” was the perfect book-end to “Living Room Music”, with elements that brought “Tanzer Lieder”, “The Break”, and “The Woman and the Lyre: Sapphic Cycle” to mind. Kudos to UltraViolet for a well-considered, fun, and beautifully performed program.
UltraViolet was named in honour of the late Edmonton composer Violet Archer. The ensemble is especially interested in performing brand new work, and have pledged “to maintain gender parity in our programming and commissioning.” Check out video of performances of three new works on their website.
New Music Edmonton presents a number of shows during the year. They host a series called NME at The Aviary: New Music, New Voices (the next one is on January 16, 2020) and an annual spring music festival called Now Hear This, which will take place on March 19 to 22, 2020. Details about these shows are on the New Music Edmonton website.
A week after watching Paul Rudd’s Netflix show Living with Yourself, I kept coming back to one thing: the music.
The show was interesting enough. It’s about a bedraggled man who goes in for a wellness treatment and wakes up in a grave. He finds out that he’s been replaced by a cloned, better version of himself. Amplifying the character’s growing unease and horror, as well as the plot’s self-aware absurdity, was the soundtrack by Anna Meredith. I binged the show, partly to see what was going to happen next in the story, but increasingly to be delighted anew by the score. After the show was over, I went looking for more of the music.
As luck would have it, Meredith has a brand new album out, her second, called Fibs, and it’s thrilling. I just did not know what musical phrasing, instrumentation, or style would come up next, but when it did, it all fit together in its own bold way. Meredith’s musical foundations for this album are in classical music, pop, and electrionica, but flourishes reminiscent of carnival rides, video games, and big, brash marching bands keep the listener tumbling along through her audacious musical explorations.
Meredith is playing a couple of festivals in the Netherlands this weekend and has gigs lined up in the UK for February 2020. I hope she gets to play some Canadian dates soon.
Meanwhile, I have a bunch of back catalogue to binge before I circle back for another musical adventure ride with Fibs.
When it became clear that broadcast television was hellbent on reviving every procedural show from the 1970s and 80s, I thought, “Fine, but I want a Rockford Files reboot.” We could use some of that working class, down-but-not-out attitude a new Rockford could bring.
Enter Stumptown, the new ABC show based on the comic, itself inspired by the Rockford Files, by Greg Rucka, Matthew Southworth, and Justin Greenwood.
It stars Cobie Smulders (who plays another comic book character, Maria Hill, in the MCU) as Dex Parios, an army vet with PTSD who hasn’t had regular employment in 10 years. The show’s first episodes trace her journey from realizing that she has a knack for detective to seeking a license to become a private eye.
But Dex is the centre of the show. Like Jim Rockford, Dex is a bit of a mess–alcohol and gambling are two self-destructive ways she’s been dealing with trauma–but she also has some serious responsibilities, most importantly looking after her younger brother, Ansel, who has Down’s Syndrome (played by Cole Sibus, who also has Down’s Syndrome).
Also like Rockford, Dex loves her car. Rockford drove late-1970s golden Firebirds. Dex drives a $600 POS Mustang with a cassette of late-1970s/early-80s music stuck in the tape deck. Few things on TV are as gratifying as watching Cobie Smulders beat up the bad guys to a soundtrack of Joan Jett, the Cars, and the Clash.
So far, not a second of the first five episodes is wasted. Details matter in the show, both for the mystery of the week, and for the longer character arcs. And every recurring character seems so well considered and full of history like they could walk off and star on their own show at any time: Jake Johnson (Dex’s ex-felon friend), Michael Ealy (Dex’s cop friend, Miles), Camryn Manheim (Miles’s boss and Dex’s sometime antagonist), Adrian Martinez (Dex’s food truck friend), Tantoo Cardinal (Dex’s ex’s mother and antagonist), and Donal Logue (Dex’s P.I. mentor and antagonist).
There’s another character that makes the show: Portland, Oregon (the show is named after the city’s nickname, Stumptown). I’ve never been to Portland, but the show makes Portland, with its reputation as a hipster big small city (or small big city) constituting another character.
I’m already invested in how things turn out for all the characters. And each week, I look forward to hearing what else is on that endless mixtape.
Last week, Edmonton musician Mustafa Rafiq announced that he would be putting his music curation activities as Sweaty Palms on hiatus while he takes some time off to travel and explore music scenes in Europe.
I met Mustafa this summer while preparing a two-part article on the sound art scene in Edmonton for Luma Quarterly (part one went live in August; my interview with Mustafa appears in November). I was impressed with his commitment to bringing local and international experimental acts to Edmonton stages. He’s presented hundreds of different kinds of shows in different venues, but as someone who doesn’t drive and has a day job, I appreciate his efforts to put on centrally located shows with early start- and end-times. I’ve been avoiding gigs because they just start too late for me, so I was happy to check out some of the venues I’ve been missing out on.
I managed to catch two of the last Sweaty Palms gigs of 2019. The first was on October 11, an electronica triple-bill at 9910. It was my first visit to this downstairs space under The Common. I liked the brothel-esque aesthetic! I sat in one of the banquettes along the wall, opting for comfort over better sightlines, but I am the type of person who closes their eyes once the music gets going.
First up was Matthew Cardinal, a member of nehiywak who also has a solo act. His set ebbed and flowed between being atmospheric and bringing in more of a dance beat. There were passages marked by notes that rang the top end of the hearing range, followed by booming sounds that we could feel through the floor: it was a head-to-toe experience of sound.
Next was Jonathan Kawchuk, who set up what looked like a ping-pong table. He stood on one end with his back to my side of the audience (my viewing angle actually let me see Kawchuk reflected in a mirror on the other side of the room); another musician (I didn’t get his name) was at the other end of the table. Instead of ping-pong paddles, they wielded iPads which seemed to control both the music and a bank of lights above the audience. The sound and light alternated between being soothing and being unsettling, which really brought to mind how little it can take to nudge a person (okay, me) out of their comfort zone.
The final act of the evening was Kara-Lis Coverdale. Coverdale’s set-up was minimal—just her, her sequencer, and a tight spotlight on her fingers—but the music she produced was maximal. Her set came in strong with complex, layered sounds. It evoked images of air travel for me. For the friend who accompanied me, Coverdale’s music specifically evoked Montreal, where my friend had recently vacationed, and where Coverdale is based. I’m sure everyone in the room had different thoughts. The point is, Coverdale’s epic set allowed listeners to dream or meditate on a huge scale.
Less than a week after the triple-bill at 9910, Sweaty Palms in conjunction with New Music Edmonton co-presented a special double bill at The Almanac on October 16. I’ve been to The Almanac for poetry readings. The front of the restaurant is a bistro; the back is a pub set-up where they hold events. This show was an experimental, noise gig featuring two “supergroups”. Opening the night was the duo of Allison Balcetis playing saxophone and Kelly Ruth operating a weaving loom equipped with contact mics running through a sequencer. I interviewed Kelly (also for Luma Quarterly) about her use of a weaving loom to make music, and this was my first time seeing her play. She used a weaving shuttle and her fingers to get sound out of the loom. Maybe because it was October, but the images their set inspired were of wandering through a mansion, exploring the biggest rooms and the smallest corners, and perhaps finding an egress to a batcave or to the outdoors in the end.
The visiting headliners at the Almanac gig were Montreal’s Sound of the Mountain with special guests from Japan, Tetuzi Akiyuma and Toshimaru Nakamura. This was a spectacular set with a reed instrumentalist and a guitarist on either side of two synth players. The synth and guitar evoked visions of machine-built cities, with the reed instruments evoking the breaths and voices of humans who design and live in them.
I feel really fortunate to have caught these shows, and only wish that I’d caught more Sweaty Palms productions over the past few years. I’m looking forward to whatever Mustafa will bring back from his travels.
Arrow returned last week for its final season, and it appears the writers are making good on the screenwriting advice to give the people what they want, but in a way that they don’t expect.
I’ve long joked that Arrow‘s final season should flashback to the first season, and it did, but with a twist.
Arrow 8.01 begins with the exact same footage (edited down for time) that kicked off Arrow 1.01. There are a couple of differences. In place of Deathstroke’s mask was on a pike is Batman’s mask on a pike, and when the island survivor lifts his hood, the person we see is not 2012 Oliver, but 2019 Oliver. The episode goes on to reenact Oliver’s reunion with his mother in the hospital, and with the rest of his family at the Queen mansion.
But things are different back home. It becomes clear that he’s not on Earth-1 anymore. His father is missing, and his sister, Thea, died of an overdose, a fate she avoided on Earth-1 thanks to Oliver’s intervention. Moira Queen has married Malcolm Merlyn, so Tommy welcomes back Oliver not as a friend, but as his brother.
Later, Oliver meets the Earth-2 Laurel, whom he knows from her visits to Earth-1 in past seasons. As Black Siren, she’s a hero on Earth-2, partnered with a hooded archer, Adrian Chase. Like the Laurel/Black Siren, Chase was a bad guy, Prometheus, in on Earth-1. Conversely, Dinah Lance and Rene Ramirez, who are heroes on Earth-1, are villains here.
There’s also a rouge Dark Archer running around, acting like the kind of extreme, vengeful vigilante that Earth-1 Oliver almost became when he first returned to the island. Oliver expects it’s Malcolm Merlyn, as was the case on Earth-1, but it turns out to be Tommy.
Luckily, John Diggle followed Oliver from Earth-1, and we get a hilarious, revised version of their first meeting. After seven seasons of Oliver wondering if he’s doing any good, Diggle tells him that the awfulness of this other world is proof that Oliver made a positive difference on his own world.
The episode continues the flash-forward scenes from last season. The 2040 Arrow crew is also dealing with brother issues: Connor Hawke is the nice vigilante; his brother JJ, leader of the Deathstroke gang, is not. Meanwhile, Mia is emerging as the leader of the heroic side.
Besides all the callbacks and action in both universes and timelines, I really appreciated that the episode took the time to reset themes from the pilot episode, including:
personal responsibility for destructive past behaviour;
collective responsibility for structural problems in society; and
whether to work within the system or to destroy it from outside. (That’s a trick question: in the Arrowverse, you can never escape the system. The forces working to take down the system from the outside was actually a whole other system.)
For the first few seasons of Arrow, Oliver’s motto was, “You have failed this city.” He doesn’t say it in 8.01, but the episode underlined how Arrow has always about how individual actions can affect society as a whole. If you ever wondered what It’s a Wonderful Life would be like with vigilante archers, this is the episode for you.
On Saturday, I saw the Walterdale Playhouse production of Silent Sky, written by Lauren Gunderson, about Henrietta Leavitt, the early 20th century astronomer who discovered a relationship between the brightness of a star and the intervals of its blinking. She realized this could be used to measure the distance between the Earth and the stars, and between the stars.
Henrietta worked in an all-female group (the principal investigator actually called it a “math harem”) of “computers” (a tradition that extended to the 1960s mathematicians depicted in the movie Hidden Figures) who did the grunt work of analyzing glass photographic plates made from the big observational telescope at Harvard. Women were not allowed to peer out of the telescope itself. The play depicted how much Henrietta and her colleagues loved the work, despite the small-mindedness of the male faculty.
The patriarchal establishment is represented by a fictional character named Shaw, who also serves both a love interest for Henrietta and as a metaphor for Henrietta’s complicated relationship with the research field as it was then administered. Shaw embodies the saying, “You can tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much!” At one point, he asserts that there is nothing beyond than the Milky Way, despite the evidence Henrietta has amassed to indicate otherwise. He insists that science must follow a logical path, quoting Newton’s phrase, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
But a narrow interpretation of the phrase does not allow for innovation, differing viewpoints, or plain luck. Happily, the play avoids reductive characterizations. While Shaw stood in for the scientific establishment, Henrietta’s fictional sister, Margaret, stood in for the small-town domestic life that Henrietta might have been expected to lead. Both Shaw and Margaret comes around to acknowledge the value of Henrietta’s grand pursuit of truth, no matter how large and how shattering it may be.
Although the subject of Silent Sky is scientific discovery, music has a large role in the play. It’s used as a metaphor for Henrietta’s scientific theories, and the set is ingeniously dressed in suggest both musical scales and constellations. (Hats off to Beyata Hackborn, the show’s set designer and lighting designer.)
Director Kim Mattice Wanat, founder and artistic director of Opera NUOVA, knows her way around music. She weaves the Congregationalist hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” through out the play, pulling together all the notes and themes of the show. She also works with a wonderful cast. Lauren Hughes is bright and undaunted as Henrietta. Joy van de Ligt provided music and grounded foil as Margaret. Susanne Ritchie and Samantha Woolsey are both fun and authoritative as Henrietta’s non-fiction “harem” mates, Wiliamina Fleming (who discovered the first white dwarf star) and Annie Jump Cannon (who created a classification system of the stars and became a leader of the suffragette movement). Matt Mihilewicz brought physical humour and a believable change in sensibility as Shaw.
I saw the show with three physicists, including one astronomer. The production impressed us all. Four stars for Silent Sky!
But it’s not that simple. The ghosts of patients at an abandoned asylum look scary, but they aren’t the real culprits. The ghost of a psychologist named Ellicott who used anger-inducing therapy on them is stoking murderous rages in living trespassers.
The first victim we follow is a cop who had been called about a disturbance at the place. After he goes home, his amplified rage leads him to shoot his wife and then himself. The next victim is Sam.
This episode seamlessly combined a compelling horror story with developments in the brothers’ relationships. Sam and Dean get a mysterious text, purportedly from their father. Dean is convinced his dad sent the message and that it’s either a clue to his whereabouts, or coordinates pointing the boys to a job that needs doing. Sam is more skeptical. He actually harbours a lot of anger toward his father, some to Dean, and probably a lot to his circumstances overall. When Ellicott’s methods affect Sam, he accuses Dean of mindlessly following their father’s orders and is prepared to kill Dean. Luckily, Dean is the furthest thing from being mindless, and made sure Sam did not have access to a loaded weapon. He also finds and destroys Ellicott’s ghost.
The interpersonal dynamic between the brothers and their absent father is very well depicted. Given Sam’s animosity to his father, and Dean’s contrasting devotion to the same man, it’s both surprising and heartbreaking when, in the last scene, the brother who receives the call from John is Sam.
I’d forgotten house very creepy this episode is! Do not watch late at night on your own! Or, do, and be prepared to get the bejesus scared out of you. Kudos to the show’s special effects and make-up effects teams, and to director Guy Norman Bee, who would return to the show in season 6 and go on to direct 10 very memorable episodes of Supernatural.
Also great in this episode are the actors who play the trespassing teens who Sam and Dean save from the asylum. Brooke Nevin and Nicholas D’Agosto have both gone on to amass a ton of acting credits since. D’Agosto in particular cracked me up with this bit of dialogue as his character, Gavin, describes an encounter with a ghost:
GAVIN There was…there was this girl. Her face. It was all messed up.
SAM Okay listen, did this girl… did she try and hurt you?
GAVIN What? No, she…uh…
SAM She what?
GAVIN She…kissed me.
SAM Uh…um…but…but she didn’t hurt you, physically?