Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cartagena Hay Festival 2011: Joumana Haddad, Philip Glass, Michelle Paver

Friday 28 January

I Killed Scheherazade: There is nothing admirable about the acquiescence of a woman who has no rights.
Joumana Haddad, interviewed by Juan David Correa

Lebanese poet, translator, and journalist, literary editor for the newspaperAn Nahar and director of the review Jasad, Joumana Haddad wants to turn the Western world's notions about Arab women upside-down, and clarify that the entire Arab world is not Muslim.

She started her conference by reading from her poem "I Killed Scheherazade." Why would Haddad want to figuratively kill Scheherazade, who is known as a clever, educated women, who spins the 1,001 stories to keep from being killed? Because the entire bargain is perverse. Why should a woman have to keep her man amused in order to save her life? Haddad maintains that there is nothing admirable about the acquiescence of a woman who has no rights. "I Killed Scheherazade" is Haddad's conscious extirpation of those values and practices from her subconscious. Her underlying message is that everyone needs to take charge of their own life.

She came from a comfortably established conservative home life, where a premium was placed on education. At the age of 12, as she was starting to read voraciously, she discovered the "forbidden books" at the top of her father's bookshelf. The book that she specifically mentions as discovering there was Justine by the Marquis de Sade, and while it was harsh and shocking, it was liberating because it brought the realization that through writing it was possible to express anything no matter how outrageous, and that she too was free to imagine. This was a turning point and one of the results is that in her writing she is explicit and calls things by their name, which has caused some controversy.

She talked about how the war in Beirut influenced her life and her writing, where the constant presence of death meant that every day was a battle for survival. She acknowledged that having lived in these circumstances has stripped her of the defences that isolate us from what goes on the world, and leaves her vulnerable.

To finish her conference Haddad read from another poem. A poem of the world's woman: the woman that each of us is, once was, will be, might be, could have been. Unlike Bee Rowlatt, whose book tells the experience of two women, Haddad encompasses the universe of women, and that makes her relevant. Unlike Scheherazade, Hadded is not negotiating her life with an authority; she has subverted the process to tell her own stories for her own ends. I will be buying her book of poetry.

"Music is about listening"

Philip Glass, interviewed by Peter Florence
In the 1950's Philip Glass's father was a mechanic who also sold records at his automotive repair shop. Eventually the records came to dominate the business. His father noticed that some records --some kinds of music-- didn't sell very well, and he began to bring these albums home to listen to them to figure out why. In a world where people listened to classical music or else lounge singers like Frank Sinatra, this was the young Philip Glass's his introduction to modern classical composers like Shostakovitch and Bartok. The more he and his father listened to them, them more they began to understand this music.

Always a talented pianist, Glass graduated from Julliard, and continued to study under renowned international teachers in Paris. It was while he was living in San Francisco that he started writing music for theatre. Glass asked himself who wanted, who needed, music: dancers and theatre; he began to compose for them. Branching into music for film was a logical step.

Glass comments on who ultimately has artistic control in different genres: the choreographer makes the decisions in dance, the director makes the decisions in film, and the composer makes the decisions in opera. Glass himself has written 24 operas, as well as collaborating on a wide range of projects.

Glass says that he has found these collaborations very enriching, particularly as one starts to envision the project from the perspective of the other individuals who are responsible for different aspects for the artistic content. As director Godfrey Reggio with whom he worked on Koyaanisqatsi, famously said, "You have to see the music with your ears and hear it with your eyes;" very apropos for considering music in film. Glass talked about how on one project he gave the technical crew the music for scene to listen to as they were setting the scenes, lighting, and filming, and how having the music affected the way that they conceived of the scene. In the same way, the way a scene is to be played in a film or performance can also necessitate making changes to the music.

In response to a question from the audience about "finding one's voice" as a composer or musician, Glass says that if you are practicing what you do, you will eventually, inevitably, find your voice. In the meantime, he emphasizes the need to learn technique and interpretive skills, so that when you do start to create and develop your own voice, you will have adequate tools upon which to draw. For the budding composer, he recommends writing music for oneself and one's friends to play. "Why write a symphony if you cannot get an orchestra to play it?" he asks. He recommends working with young musicians, one's own age.

Glass says that it was not until he was past 30 that he began to consider himself as a performer, as well as a composer. It changed the way he viewed his music: his music was the same, and yet each time he performed it, it was somehow different. He notes that playing in front of an audience is a different experience from playing alone, and that when he was a child and his mother was nearby cooking, he would practice better when he knew that there was someone listening.

Reggio's film Koyaanisqatsi may deal with the ordinary world, but it addresses the subject of how we see and interpret that world. Glass comments that drawing is about seeing, dancing is about moving, poetry is about speaking, and music is about listening.

Woman Who Runs With Wolves
Michelle Paver, interviewed by Peter Florence

Michelle Paver has written a successful series of six books for children set in a hunter-gatherer society in prehistoric times, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, of which the first in the series is Wolf Brother

Paver, a successful lawyer, had always been writer, and since childhood she had a fascination for the stone-age and for wolves. The series began to crystallize after a close encounter with a bear in southern California. The incident left a deep impact on her, and becomes the starting point for her story, as the father of Torak, her main character, is killed by a bear.

For those who think that writing children's books would be, well, child's play, it's not. At least not if you are writing a good book, the sort that is not dumbed-down. Writing her series required creating a world about which there are no historical records. Paver traveled extensively, getting to know aboriginal hunter-gatherer cultures. With the different cultures she visited she learned about the values and belief system: nomadic cultures do not value possessions, nor are they concerned about inheritance laws, they live with profound respect for other living things, many have the notion of a three-faceted soul: the individual soul, the clan soul, and the world soul. This is unfamiliar terrain to the modern reader. We are introduced to this world through the eyes of Torak, who is 12 as the series begins, as he begins his journey through life and discovers the world's spirits, and his place in this world.

Paver resists being classified with fantasy writers. Although her book contains fantastical elements, they are all based on researched reality, even if their cosmovision is foreign to our experience. Historical fiction? Prehistorical fiction?

She spent seven years writing the first series of six books, and observes that about 1,000 hours of writing went into each book. One of the hardest parts of writing, she says, is paring down the text; cutting out the inessential so that only the elements necessary to tell the story and understand the context are left. After all, the book is not supposed to be an ethnographic treatise, it is a child's adventure story; but being a children's author is not child's play.

Is Your Glass Half Philip or Half Empty?
Philip Glass in Concert

Philip Glass's music is instantly recognizable, with its persistent, subtly shifting bassline, familiar to the non-musical connoisseur from the many film soundtracks he has scored.

The first piece he played was six études. In his interview earlier in the day Glass explained that he had written these pieces as exercises to address certain technical difficulties and to improve his playing. The object reminded me of the Goldberg variations. But whereas Bach sounds mathematical and precise, Glass sounds organic, as if the pieces were not musical compositions but rather the sounds of earth, air, fire and water; made out of silica, fire and air, cooled in water…like glass. They gave me the feeling that if I were to put my hands on the piano keyboard, the notes would simply spring from it. They sound "natural," which is an absurd statement because anyone who has ever played, or tried to play, a musical instrument knows that the perfectly formed notes don't spring naturally, they have to be skilfully coaxed out. That is the performer's gift: to make something technically complex, look and sound easy. In fact Glass had some awkward moments during the performance and hit a number of sour notes, underscoring why composers are often not performers.

The Wichita poem, with a recorded soundtrack spoken by Alan Ginsberg, was a glorious close and underlined Glass's ability to collaborate and an example of how he has worked to incorporate music into different media.

For a guy who is frankly not sexy (sorry Philip) the music is strongly sensual. The deep, intense bass notes are like having your thighs insistently caressed while being kissed repeatedly, and just as you are about to say something or change the pace, you find your mouth shushed as it is enveloped in another kiss as the base line continues to throb, persistently, relentlessly…

1 comment:

Elle Dubya said...

"The deep, intense bass notes are like having your thighs insistently caressed while being kissed repeatedly, and just as you are about to say something or change the pace, you find your mouth shushed as it is enveloped in another kiss as the base line continues to throb, persistently, relentlessly…"
ahhhh huh. Evidently, Cartagena lends itself to sensual metaphor. Just imagine if you had been eating a paleta while listening to the music!