Beginnings Part 4 supplement — Invocations from Beethoven, The Moments, and Hollie Cook

 
Hollie Cook.  Image via  holliecook.com .

Hollie Cook.  Image via holliecook.com.

 

Note how the beginning of Beethoven’s Symphony #9 suggests an invocation, the calling down of energy in preparation for a focused explosion.

 

Hollie Cook’s “Ari Up” begins with something that works similarly.  The voices suggest priestesses.

 

“Come let her fire blaze, come.”  It is an invitation, an appropriate way to begin a song in remembrance of Cook’s friend, Slits singer Ari Up, who died a few years before this recording.

I call your name again again
(again, again, again)
Do you hear me now and then
(again, again, again)
The storm inside my soul is wild like your eyes
Your hurricane pulls me in and lightens up my life . . .

 

Finally, note how the first few bars of “Love on a Two Way Street” by the Moments provide a regal, almost processional opening.  It is as if the space in which the singer recounts heartbreak must be safeguarded by way of this clearing out of space.


Thank you for reading.

 

Beginnings Part 4 supplement — An Invocation from Matana Roberts

 
Matana Roberts.  Image via   fucinemute.it .

Matana Roberts.  Image via fucinemute.it.

Jazz saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts creates music she describes as Panoramic Sound Quilting.  “I have a deep interest in American history and old oral traditions developed, deconstructed, merged together often times through profoundly contradictory means.” 

Her music “aims to expose the mystical roots and channel the intuitive spirit-raising traditions of American creative expression while maintaining a deep and substantive engagement with narrativity, history, community and political expression within improvisatory musical structures.”

The second chapter in her Coin Coin series, Mississippi Moonchile, is indexed by tracks, but is in fact one continuous take.   The performance is both composed and improvised.  It’s worth noting here that the opening of this 50-minute work is titled “Invocation.”  (The final piece is titled “Benediction.”)

Note how this invocation clears out space.  The rattling percussion and vocal swells suggest a moment of ritual purification.  The space in which the musicians are about to perform must first be claimed by them.  That purification in turn readies the audience, driving out distractions and settling them into the sacred space of listening.


Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 4 supplement — The Great Gatsby

 
At left, the narthex at Hagia Sophia, and above, the vast room awaiting inside.  Images via  orthodoxartsjournal.org  and  openbuildings.com .

At left, the narthex at Hagia Sophia, and above, the vast room awaiting inside.  Images via orthodoxartsjournal.org and openbuildings.com.

The opening of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby feels like a pause taken by a tour guide, who stops us tourists in the antechamber of some magnificent structure, a church narthex perhaps, and tells us just enough about himself for us to understand what we are about experience through his telling:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

He didn't say any more, but we've always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought-frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don't care what it's founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction-Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament"-it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No-Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, opening lines of The Great Gatsby

 

Note the quiet that descends over this introductory moment of reflection and the moral and romantic energy that gathers, ready to charge the readers’ subsequent entry into the narrative.


Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 4 — Beginning as Invocation

 
Qawwalli maestros the Sabri Brothers.  Image via   alternatingcurrent.podbean.com .

Qawwalli maestros the Sabri Brothers.  Image via alternatingcurrent.podbean.com.

 

Some beginnings take the form of an invocation, a claiming of the space and gathering of energy.  The idea has obvious liturgical resonance.  Just as priests begin a liturgy with a a prayer, perhaps said as they disperse incense around a sacred space, authors, musicians, dancers, filmmakers often begin by claiming the psychological space that exists in the minds of the audience members. 

 

In this selection from the Sufi musicians the Sabri Brothers, the first 30 seconds suggest a grabbing of attention, clapping and drumming announce that something is astir.  Then, the droning of the harmonium is soon joined by voices, and we hear 90 seconds of invocation from the singer.  Note how focus descends upon the performance here.  The singing gathers energy inwardly amid the silence of the drums and clapping.  By the 2:00 mark, the introduction has done its job and steeped us in the mindset that subsequently explodes outwardly into ecstatic praise.  The introduction has cleared the way.

The beginning of Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets takes an analogous approach.  The first words are spoken in a dream from which the protagonist, Charlie (played by Harvey Keitel), awakes.  The bulk of the movie takes place on the streets and in bars, public spaces where Charlie must navigate the expectations and traditions into which he was born.  But first we must know, as this scene tells us, that Charlie is a person haunted by his private theology.  The crucifix hanging on his bedroom wall informs it, but perhaps more important is the mirror into which he stares for a few crucial seconds.

By first stopping here, the movie can move forward into Charlie’s public existence with the viewers having glimpsed the private Charlie, one that will stay with them through the entire picture.


Thank you for reading.

 

Beginnings Part 3 supplement — Opacity and the Artwork of David Hammons

 
David Hammons.  Image via  cargocollective.com .

David Hammons.  Image via cargocollective.com.

 

One way of engaging an audience is to occlude their ability to perceive.

For instance, consider “Made in Hong Kong,” the opening song on Christian Fennesz’s album Endless Summer

 

Notice how the static becomes a mist, and we lean forward, for instance, just after the 0:30 mark when we hear what sounds like fragments of a song emerging from the misted shroud.  We get more fragments as the piece continues, and a natural response is to wonder what it might become. 

The album emerges out of this static mist so that, several tracks later, we hear something as clearly presented as “Shisheido,” a piece to which we have free access.

 

It is as if “Made In Hong Kong” told us, “I’m going to keep it from you,” which teases us into listening forward.

This principle of opacity arousing intrigue informs the artwork of David Hammons. 

I once saw a show of his, "Concerto in Black and Blue," in which the viewers were each handed penlights, which they used to navigate a series of dark rooms.

Viewers exploring David Hammons's "Concerto in Black and Blue."  Image via  sfgate.com .

Viewers exploring David Hammons's "Concerto in Black and Blue."  Image via sfgate.com.

 

 

“How big is this room?”  “Where is the next room?”  The penlights provided only limited information.  By hiding everything, the piece aroused a viewer’s desire to explore.

These paintings, wrapped in plastic tarps and trash bags, arouse curiosity by similar means. 

 
Images via  nytimes.com .

Images via nytimes.com.

These coverings aren’t coming off the paintings, and soon enough the viewer will recognize the covering of the art as part of, perhaps the main aspect of the art in question.  Nevertheless, note the importance of the little bits of painting that peek through the gaps and holes in the covering.  Hammons leverages our reflexive curiosity about what is hidden to bring us face with something else.


Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 3 supplement — High Noon

 
Katy Jurado as Helen Ramírez in  High Noon .  Image via    mygeekblasphemy.com .

Katy Jurado as Helen Ramírez in High Noon.  Image via mygeekblasphemy.com.

 

The opening theme and credits of High Noon play over actions whose exact meanings are unknown.  

The first man to appear looks menacing, and his expressions inflect the arrival of the second man with a sense of impending action.  This is further heightened by the arrival of the third man.  Though we can’t hear their words, whatever they are talking about something gets them up on their horses and riding somewhere together.

Even a first-time viewer might have a sense of what is about to unfold (the theme-song lyrics offer ideas).  Still, this beginning charges the film with questions.  Before we’ve heard even a word of dialogue, we ask, “What is about to happen?” and “How will things play out for these three?”


Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 3 — Beginning as a Question in Need of an Answer

 
Astor Piazolla.  Image via  taringa.net  .

Astor Piazolla.  Image via taringa.net.

 

Where some artworks start with a declaration, others present a puzzle in need of solution. 

In film, the mystery genre operates on this principle and comes in two primary forms:

  • The closed mystery, in which the audience sees a dead body, or perhaps the actual killing onscreen, but the killer’s identity hidden.  Their eagerness to solve the crime draws the audience into the film.
     
  • The open mystery, in which the audience knows who the killer is.  What draws them into the plot are the questions, “Will the killer be caught?” and “How?”

The introduction of D.O.A. presents a further twist, how can the murder victim still be alive?  The murder method may not feel too hard to guess at, but this additional twist helps charge the movie with the feeling of unanswered questions, enough to draw the audience forward.

Consider that musical pieces can also present mysteries in the forms of musical questions and, perhaps, surprising answers.

 

The opening movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (0:00-5:37 in this version, performed by Richard Goode) stirs by way of its mystery.  The opening arpeggio quickly begins to explore alternatives, taking strange turns and arriving at unexpected harmonic destinations before returning back to the starting point.  It is as if the journey unearths aspects of ourselves of which we had not previously known.  And if any of the questions have been answered, others linger as the movement closes.  The movement’s mystery draws us forward, perhaps having aroused our desire to see what else we might learn about ourselves as we listen.

 

"Milonga for Three" follows the Prologue of Astor Piazolla's The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night (Tango Apasionado).  It is not the very beginning of the work, but as it follows the prologue, it is reasonable to think of it as some sort of starting point.  

As with the Moonlight Sonata, note how this piece draws us in by raising musical questions.  Also, the sense of space around the ensemble suggests the empty streets of night, something noir-ish.  All three of these examples have associations with the night, a natural starting point for a mystery.  Will anything come to light?  Will our questions find answers?  If we are curious, we must continue into the work. 


Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 2 supplement — Prokofiev’s "Peter and the Wolf"

 
A young Carlina Codina, who grew up to take the stage name Lina Llubera.  She later met and married Sergei Prokofiev.  Image via   www.sprkfv.net .

A young Carlina Codina, who grew up to take the stage name Lina Llubera.  She later met and married Sergei Prokofiev.  Image via www.sprkfv.net.

 

Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf is famous orchestral work for children, where a narrator reads over an orchestration of the story.  It begins with an introduction of the characters and the musical motif and instrumentation associated with each.  Here is a version narrated by Lina Prokofiev.

 

Though the introduction (from 0:00-0:25) may have been written with the mission of introducing children to orchestral music in mind, it accomplishes more than that. 

  • It tells listeners how many characters to expect and what emotional associations come with each—excitement (the bird), playfulness (the cat), sternness (the grandfather), and so forth. 
     
  • The previews of the character motifs allows listeners to anticipate the scope and tone of what follows.  They’ll know to anticipate danger (the wolf), and conflict (gunfire).   
     

All of this sets a young listener’s imagination in motion before the action has started, and by establishing these limits, the introduction frees her to enjoy the story. 


Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 2 supplement — A memoir introduction

 
Joni Mitchell.  Image via   www.stereogum.com .

Joni Mitchell.  Image via www.stereogum.com.

After drafting my memoir about the music business, I realized that I wanted to bring the readers into the story with their expectations somewhat in order. 

First, I wanted to settle, right away, the question of the narrator’s qualifications.  He was not a rock star, but rather someone who had found some degree of success, enough to have given him access to such things as record deals, MTV, the workings of radio, what it’s like to play on Letterman, and so forth.  I wanted them to expect an insider’s look at success without being distracted by the wait for a superstardom that the narrator never attained.

I also knew that someone picking up a rock memoir might expect tales of rock and roll excess, and I wanted to direct expectations away from that, lest the wait for scenes of debauchery start to distract readers.

So my introduction sketched in a few of the story’s plot points, and this panoramic introduction allowed the narrator greater leeway in telling the story that followed, because the introduction allowed readers to set aside questions that might otherwise have lingered. 

Think of it this way: Imagine flying to a place you’ve never visited, and a friend picks you up at the airport. 

  • Suppose she doesn’t tell you how long the trip is, or whether or not you are stopping for groceries, or whether or not you will be crossing the river, and so forth.  In that case, each sight has potentially equal significance.  Your mind has no expectations; each intersection is a potential turning point, each neighborhood might or might not be hers.  With so many options open, your soon lose the ability to take in the details because the big questions—where are we going and how long before we get there—remain outstanding.
     
  • Or suppose she fills you in.  “We’re headed across town, about half an hour drive.  We’ll cross the river, swing by the dry cleaners, and then drive uphill to where I live, which is not far from that radio tower you see to the right of the downtown skyline.”  Now you have context and thus freedom to let your eyes wander, to take in details and know that you haven’t lost track of the big picture.

Such was my thinking.  I had in mind something like the overture of a musical, something that would plant ideas in the minds of the readers and give them a framework, a sense of the story’s scale and scope.  Thus prepared, they could sit back and absorb the workings of, in Joni Mitchell’s words, “the star-making machinery behind the popular song.”

 

Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 2 supplement — The Warriors

 
Dorsey Wright as Cleon, the leader of the Warriors.  The Coney Island Wonder Wheel glows in the background.  Image via  pixshark.com .

Dorsey Wright as Cleon, the leader of the Warriors.  The Coney Island Wonder Wheel glows in the background.  Image via pixshark.com.

 

Walter Hill’s 1979 film The Warriors, based on Sol Yurick’s novel, has a relatively simple premise: a street gang from Coney Island, the Warriors, must find their way home from the Bronx while being pursued by all the other gangs in the city, who wrongly suspect them of having murdered someone who was going to unite all of the city’s gangs. 

The opening credits are shown over a seven-minute montage that brilliantly maps out the movie’s premise.

The film opens on a nighttime shot of a The Wonder Wheel, a Coney Island landmark.

A subway train pulls into a station, with the Wonder Wheel still in the background.

We see the Warriors board the train, intercut with a speech from their leader, Cleon, briefing them on the gathering they are about to attend.

Image via  clothesonfilm.com .
 

As their subway train makes its way, we see other gangs getting on other trains, intercut with shots of gang members consulting subway maps.  Even non-New Yorkers will get the idea that the Warriors are traveling from one end of the city to another.  (For cinematic reasons, the film proceeds to take great liberties with the geography of NYC's subway lines.) 

Finally, we see a wide shot of hundreds of gang members gathered outdoors as the Warriors wend their way through the crowd.  Cyrus steps forward to address the gangs, and the plot soon ignites.

Roger Hill as Cyrus.  Image via  warriorsmovie.co.uk .

Roger Hill as Cyrus.  Image via warriorsmovie.co.uk.

 

The film's introduction may not refer to future plot points, as the newsreel at the beginning of Citizen Kane does, but it teaches the audience the simple rules of the story premise and sketches in the landscape.   Rival gangs and a long trip across the length of the city stand between the Warriors and their safe arrival home.


Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 2 — Introduction as Panorama

 
Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane.  Image via   behindtheseens.wordpress.com .

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane.  Image via behindtheseens.wordpress.com.

 

Operas and musicals typically start with an overture, a medley of the melodies to come. 

 

In addition to allowing the theatergoers to find their seats and settle in for the show, a musical overture serves several purposes.

  • It plants themes in the ears of the audience, so that the melodies will be more quickly discerned when they are sung within the context of the show.
     
  • It establishes the show’s emotional and dramatic range and thereby helps the audience clear out the requisite mental space.

A similar approach shows up in literature and film.

Citizen Kane begins with the death of the title character, Charles Foster Kane.  But this is immediately followed by a newsreel (3:33-13:57) that documents the highlights of Kane’s life.  Those familiar with the movie will note that this newsreel effectively sketches out many of the themes that the film then proceeds to explore in greater detail.  The audience is thus familiar with many of the faces and landscapes, and the viewers’ minds are prepared for the film’s scope and tone.

None of this gives away the central story, which is about Kane’s private life, not the public one captured in the newsreel.  By presenting the material in the form of a newsreel (cleverly shown to be flapping off of the projector reel at the end of the scene), the film suggests to the audience that the known facts of Kane’s life are the stuff of manufactured legend.  The panorama thus sketches in the story of Kane’s life in order to ask, “What don’t we know?”


Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 1 supplement — Renee Gladman’s To After That

 
Renee Gladman.  Image via   therumpus.net .

Renee Gladman.  Image via therumpus.net.

 

Renee Gladman’s To After That is an excavation of sorts, a memoir about coming to terms with a manuscript and all that went into its creation.

It begins . . .

“Let me see it,” as strange as it sounds, was my first thought when I returned home this evening.  Hours before—having printed the last page of the manuscript and prepared to flee the house—I had written “After That: a novella” across the title page, then I ran outside.  When I was about a block from home I turned around and came back.  I pulled the manuscript out again—a crisp stack of ninety-seven very white, very smooth pages—and scribbled in black ink “When I was a poet” just under the title to qualify things.  I changed my outfit, adding a new, more versatile layer (a hooded sweatshirt), and left my house decidedly.  I was outside; the relief I felt was tremendous.

— Renee Gladman, To After That

Gladman has taken her readers in through the book’s front door, by which she shows her narrator leaving and entering an actual front door, the perfect preview of what follows.  The book details an author’s attempts to finish writing a different book, and the process finds her oscillating between triumph and defeat as the manuscript eludes her grasp.  Indeed, the final sentence of that opening paragraph — “I was outside; the relief I felt was tremendous” — lets the reader in on what the narrator hadn’t yet realized: her relief was short-lived.

To After That travels forward and backward through moments of certainty and doubt, and as it does so, it continues to resonate with notes sounded in the opening paragraph.


Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 1 supplement — Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

 
Ralph Ellison.  Image via   www.brainpickings.org .

Ralph Ellison.  Image via www.brainpickings.org.

 

A great example of a beginning with a clearly marked front door: the prologue of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

 

I am an invisible man.  No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.  I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man 

Consider some of what the first paragraph accomplishes:

  • Ellison has unveiled the meaning of the title and thereby presented us with a lens through which we may view all that follows. 
     
  • He has established the narrator’s distanced perspective, a survivor with an incisive take on his surroundings.  We readers might already feel as if we are in the company of someone who has seen more than us, for though the narrator tells us that though we may have looked right at him, we have not yet seen him.

A prologue is often written after the completion of a book so that the writer knows where to point the reader.  In this case, Ellison has pointed us right at the book’s overarching theme.  To be sure, many mysteries await, and what follows is vast and complex, all the more reason why this introduction is not only a model of delicacy but also of an author's awareness of his readers.


Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 1 — Where Is the Front Door?

 
Gabriel García Márquez via  homoliterus.com

Gabriel García Márquez via homoliterus.com

 

Artists, especially those working in various forms might consider the following observation from architect Witold Rybczynski:

The first question you ask yourself approaching a building is: Where is the front door?  According to Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, always a useful guide, locating the entrance to a building is the single most important decision in the design process.  “The entrance must be placed in such a way that people who approach the building see the entrance or some hint of where the entrance is, as soon as they see the building itself,” he writes.  There are several issues here.  One is simply finding one’s way.  In a well-designed building you proceed to the entrance almost without thinking—you know which way to go, you should not have to look for signs or ask for directions.  Furthermore, a building with a clearly identifiable entrance feels welcoming, whereas a building—especially a public building—whose entrance is obscured feels both annoying and forbidding.

Witold Rybczynski, How Architecture Works, p. 84

Since reading it, I have observed this principle in action.  Indeed, when approaching an unfamiliar building, not only am I searching for the point of entrance, in effect, I am surveying the exterior for a sense of its internal logic.   How, if I were to enter, might I move through it?

 
Witold Rybczynski via  treehugger.com

Witold Rybczynski via treehugger.com

Compare that observation about buildings to this one about writing from Gabriel García Márquez:

One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be. That’s why writing a book of short stories is much more difficult than writing a novel. Every time you write a short story, you have to begin all over again.

Gabriel García Márquez,  The Paris Review Interviews II

It seems to me that García Márquez and Rybczynski are describing the same issue.  As García Márquez suggests, how might a book’s entryway train the reader how to read what follows?

And how might a dance piece or musical composition or film do the same?


Thank you for reading.