“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Brain Noodles: Arvo Pärt’s Music for Unaccompanied Choir; Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy; The Nice Guys

I can’t remember who first pointed me in the direction of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt – I think it might have been Alan Glynn – but whoever it was, I am very grateful indeed. The most recent piece I picked up was Music for Unaccompanied Choir (Naxos, with Noel Edison conducting the Elora Festival Singers), which is – as the title suggests – a collection of pieces in the vein of choral acapella. Over to the experts at Universal Edition to explain the context:
But by this time all the compositional devices Pärt had employed to date had lost all their former fascination and begun to seem pointless to him. The search for his own voice drove him into a withdrawal from creative work lasting nearly eight years, during which he engaged with the study of Gregorian Chant, the Notre Dame school and classical vocal polyphony.
  In 1976 music emerged from this silence – the little piano piece Für Alina. It is obvious that with this work Pärt had discovered his own path. The new compositional principle used here for the first time, which he called tintinnabuli (Latin for ‘little bells’), has defined his work right up to today. The ‘tintinnabuli principle’ does not strive towards a progressive increase in complexity, but rather towards an extreme reduction of sound materials and a limitation to the essential. […]
  The Tintinnabuli technique of composition is a process by which a form of polyphony is built out of tonal material drawn from beyond the paradigms of functional harmony. In vocal works, structure and form are additionally subject to all parameters of the text (syllables, words, accents, grammar, punctuation).
  At the style’s core lies a ‘duality’, a new sort of ‘basic structure’: two parts join to form an inseparable whole. One of the two is the omnipresent major/minor triad, the notes of which are bound to the other – the so-called ‘melodic voice’ – by strict rules. This ‘duality’ of two juxtaposed parts, which exist only in connection with one another, joins to form the smallest and most important building block of the Tintinnabuli style.
  The combination of this compositional style’s formal logic and its starkly reduced sonic material inevitably results in an extremely dense musical texture.
  So there you have it. If any of that sounds remotely intriguing, there’s plenty more in the same vein over at Universal Edition.
  This week’s most enjoyable book was Mary Renault’s THE PERSIAN BOY, the second in Renault’s trilogy about Alexander the Great. Told from the perspective of Bagoas, a Persian eunuch who is first the youthful plaything of Darius, and then Alexander’s lover and life companion (notwithstanding Bagoas’ awareness that he will always be second placed in Alexander’s affections to Hephaistion), it’s a beautifully detailed work of the intricacies of life at court – Alexander refuses to allow Bagoas go to war, so we get second-hand accounts of Alexander’s genius on the battlefield – and an impressionistic take of Alexander’s gradual shedding of the cruder Macedonia culture and his adoption of Persian ways and mores, which gives the title its second meaning. I’ve loved Mary Renault’s novels of Greek mythology and history for many a long year, but held off until last month, for some obscure reason, on reading the Alexander trilogy. Next up is the final part, FUNERAL GAMES, which, given that (spoiler alert!) Alexander dies at the end of THE PERSIAN BOY, I can only assume concerns itself with the protracted war of succession that ensued after his death.
  Despite the epic grandeur of the story and its setting, it’s the small, intimate moments that resound. Bagoas, looking upon the sleeping Alexander, observes that ‘there was no weapon devised to cut, or pierce, or fling, that had not left its mark on him.’ And yet, ‘His back was smooth as a boy’s, his wounds were all in front.’
  Movies-wise, I was really looking forward to Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, a retro private eye comedy set in 1970s LA; I’m afraid I found it all a bit flat and underwhelming. To wit:
The Nice Guys (15) are Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a private eye and muscle-man enforcer, respectively, operating in 1970s Los Angeles. Commissioned to find a missing teenager, Amelia (Margaret Qualley), the hapless duo soon find themselves mixed up in the apparent suicide of a porn star, Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), and wide-ranging corruption orchestrated by Amelia’s mother, the district attorney Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger). Written and directed by Shane Black, it’s a mismatched buddies comedy influenced by 1970s neo-noir such as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, in which the private eye stumbles around unable to lace his own shoes, let alone solve a case. Heavily moustached and stubbled, March is the antithesis of the noble private investigator, a greedy con-man so useless even his young daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), despairs. Healy (equally hirsute) is the more principled of the two, his cynicism and propensity for violence notwithstanding. Black trades heavily on nostalgia here, the pair’s relentless bickering (which, you won’t be surprised to learn, eventually gives way to a belated and grudging mutual respect) recalling Black’s scriptwriting debut, Lethal Weapon, but while Crowe and Gosling obviously enjoy one another’s company, the movie lacks the killer comic touch that might release it from the genre’s conventions. The humour feels strained, with set-ups that are a little too long and pay-offs nowhere as sharply delivered as they need to be. It’s competently but unspectacularly directed, and Gosling and Crowe are charismatic enough to make for a pleasant two hours, but the longer it runs the more it comes to feel like a comedy sketch spoof that has spiralled out of control. ***
  Other movies reviewed (in the Irish Examiner) this week include Jojo Moyes’ adaptation of her own Me Before You, and Duncan Jones’ Warcraft. Those reviews can be found here.

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