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tinariwen

Just when you think you've heard it all, guitar-wise, a band like Tinariwen comes along sounding completely different. Even though they've adopted the electric guitar, the desert blues and rock of this Tuareg band is firmly rooted in the Saharan traditions where African and Arabian music meet in a distinctly sparse and, well, deserted sound.

At Paradiso this weekend they showed that it is music meant to be experienced live, in long, trancelike jams evoking the desert in all its awesome desolation. Fittingly, in Tamashek Tinariwen means 'empty places' (the plural of 'Ténéré', meaning 'desert' or just 'empty place').

Tinariwen (photo by Thomas Dorn)

The band's history is the chronicle of the Tuaregs' struggle for autonomy. The nomadic Berber tribes that once traveled freely across the desert of Algeria, Mali, Libya and Niger were confronted in the 20st century with European-drawn borders and nationalistic politics that all but destroyed their culture. In exile from Mali, the band members met in the early '80s in a rebel camp in Lybia. They took part in the Tuareg Rebellion in 1990 before dedicating themselves to revolution through music.

Self-proclaimed "guitar-poets", Tinariwen have attained a legendary status among their people as a much-needed symbol of unity for the younger generation. The lyrics of their latest album, 'Aman Iman' ('Water is Life'), testify to their struggle to revive the identity and language of a proud and ancient culture. As such, perhaps the closest Western relative of their music is the early blues, which told equally heartfelt stories of oppression, endurance and longing.

At the same time, though, they are rebels who know how to rock, and they got even the somewhat jaded Paradiso world music crowd to join in handclapping, ululating abandon.

See also this interview with Tinariwen manager Andy Morgan.

everything that happens

Curious new collaboration by David Byrne and Brian Eno, almost 30 years after 'My Life in the Bush of Ghosts'. Their new album, called 'Everything That Happens Will Happen Today', is a mellow collection of what Byrne described as "sung songs" and Eno as "electronic gospel". Its uplifting tone apparently came as a bit of a surprise. As Byrne wonders in the liner notes:

Where does the sanguine and heartening tone come from, particularly in these troubled times?

Self-released and available download-only (or in an embeddable streaming player) at Everythingthathappens.com.

notes from underground

I am a sick man... I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts.

These opening statements set the tone for what must be one of the most savage rants in world literature. Fyodor Dostoevsky's 'Notes from Underground' (1864) presents the rambling account of an anonymous narrator, a minor civil servant in St. Petersburg who has been hiding "underground" for twenty years, brooding in a paralyzing mixture of shame and spite.

This underground man, as he came to be called, is one of the first literary anti-heroes, in the original sense of the term: a non-hero, an utterly unsympathetic creature who at turns lashes out at the reader with a harsh arrogance, and engages in even harsher self-examination with an almost masochistic pleasure. As he himself remarks, he is so ashamed by his own story, "it's no longer literature, but corrective punishment."

Though 'Notes from Underground' doesn't make for very comfortable reading - the experience is more like bathing in vitriol - it does contain deep psychological insight in the 'condition humaine' of the modern man trapped in his own consciousness. The book was praised by Nietzsche and Freud, and has often been cited as the first example of existentialism, influencing Sartre and other 20th century existentialists, all the way to Paul Schrader in writing 'Taxi Driver'.

I would now like to tell you, gentlemen, whether you do or do not wish to hear it, why I never managed to become even an insect. I'll tell you solemnly that I wanted many times to become an insect. But I was not deemed worthy even of that. I swear to you, gentlemen, that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness. For man's everyday use, ordinary human consciousness would be more than enough; that is, a half, a quarter of the portion that falls to the lot of a developed man in our unfortunate nineteenth century...

In a sense, the underground man's situation is even more pathetic than Kafka's Gregor Samsa: his world is not even absurd enough to escape being human. There is only the sickness of being overly conscious, which makes him perceive the meaninglessness of his own situation so clearly, while at the same time making any other situation, and indeed all action to change his situation, equally meaningless. It is this kind of argument, a dialectic which doesn't manage to arrive at any synthesis but instead spirals into meta-arguments and into utter relativity, that is perhaps the clearest symptom of his sickness. The result, as he states with maddening lucidity, "the direct, lawful, immediate fruit of consciousness is inertia -- that is, a conscious sitting with folded arms."

The underground man's notes are full of these contradictory, or rather spiralling arguments. For example, though he says his notes are not meant to be read by anyone, he still imagines a public, and constantly addresses them, in a fiercely antagonizing tone, as if he were engaged in a gloves-off polemic with the "gentlemen" he is talking to. Then he starts arguing with these imagined readers, stating that "even if I write as if I were addressing readers, that is merely a front," and shrugs off the paradox.

The book's curious structure can be interpreted in this way too. The first part, titled 'Underground', is one long ranting apology of the underground man's current situation. In the second part, 'Apropos of the Wet Snow', he describes a series of extremely embarrassing events from twenty years ago, which eventually led to his going underground. By the end, we can indeed imagine him brooding over his own complete failure in life until he finally releases all his pent-up frustrations on paper. Which brings us back to the first part, so that even though the events of the first and second part are separated by twenty years, they are directly connected. His recollection of past events causes him to write his angry notes, which in turn keeps his recollections alive as the source of his own anger. It's like an itching wound he can't resist scratching until it bleeds, not allowing it to heal, and then hating himself for his own behavior, but somehow, masochistically taking pride in it too.

"Ha, ha, ha! Next you'll be finding pleasure in a toothache!" you will exclaim, laughing.
"And why not? There is also pleasure in a toothache," I will answer. I had a toothache for a whole month; I know there is. Here, of course, one does not remain silently angry, one moans; but these are not straightforward moans, they are crafty moans, and the craftiness is the whole point. These moans express the pleasure of the one who is suffering; if they did not give him pleasure, he wouldn't bother moaning.

With these "crafty moans" his argumentation gets complicated further, as in the existentialist void one thing does remain clear: the conscious man has a free will. His heightened consciousness might make it virtually impossible to decide what to do with his free will, but even inertia, and failure and pain, can be decided upon consciously and recalcitrantly. So why would a man allow his entire life to be a failure? Because he can. Because he has exercised his free will, no matter how irrational it may sound.

This is the obscure pride that is reflected when, near the end, he addresses the reader (who seems to be present after all!) directly:

...I have merely carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway, and, what's more, you've taken your cowardice for good sense, and found comfort in thus deceiving yourselves. So that I, perhaps, come out even more "living" than you.

Quotes are from the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The full text (in a different translation) is available at Gutenberg.

where it is warm and bright

In the current Cabinet, themed The Underground, Michael Saler tells the story of how the London Underground became a leading patron for graphic design and art in the 1920s and '30s. Led by Frank Pick, the Tube started commissioning posters from leading artists of the time, resulting in some awesome art-meets-advertising in a wide range of modernist styles.

The examples below are 'London Transport' (1938) by Man Ray, 'Where it is warm and bright' (1924) by V.L. Danvers, and 'Go out into the country' (1938) by Graham Sutherland.

London Transport - Man Ray

Where it is warm and bright - V.L. Danvers

Go out into the country - Graham Sutherland

The whole collection is online at the London Transport Museum.

a litany of unreadable codes

Ten years before 'Keane', Lodge Kerrigan made his debut with the low-budget 'Clean, Shaven'. I described 'Keane' here before as "an intense and often agonizing glimpse into the life of a mentally ill father", a summary which fits 'Clean, Shaven' as well, except that the word 'intense' should be underlined and in capitals. Be warned: this film is not for the squeamish, it contains some truly horrific moments and will leave you clutching at your own sanity.

Kerrigan's production company at the time of 'Clean, Shaven' was called DSM III, after the manual of mental disorders, revealing his intentions in attempting an accurate portrayal of mental illness, and specifically schizophrenia. The result is a radically subjective film that immerses viewers in the terrifying world of its protagonist to a degree seldom seen in film. (Only a few other examples of such subjective madness come to mind: David Cronenberg's 'Spider' and Roman Polanski's 'Repulsion'.)

Clean, Shaven

The main character, Peter Winter (Peter Greene), suffers from almost constant auditory hallucinations, paranoid delusions and compulsive behavior. After being released from a mental hospital, he travels in his car looking for his young daughter, who has been put up for adoption during his absence. A subplot - somewhat superfluous - has a police detective follow Winter, suspecting him of murdering another young girl.

Apart from Greene's astonishing performance, much of the film's power lies in its sound design, by Hahn Rowe. From the start we are made to experience Winter's hallucinations with him, through a soundtrack filled with radio static, random voices, children laughing and menacingly buzzing power lines. Contrary to cinema's conventions, much of the sound has no clear connection with what we see, forcing us to accept it as pieces of a puzzle that will never really fit. It even leads us to distrust the narrative itself, and makes us realize that closure is a luxury of the sane. As one voice on the radio (or in Winter's head?) exclaims: "For you it's paranoia, for me it's reality."

Reality is always a subjective experience, but what if our normal filters of non-relevant input malfunction, and everything we perceive attains the status of 'meaningful'? How could we ever - quite literally - make sense of the world around us? As critic Michael Atkinson points out in his video essay 'A Subjective Assault' (available on the Criterion DVD), "it's the lack of context that is terrifying, and it's the absence of focus of context that seems to make mental illness in general so painful, and life for the schizophrenic a litany of unreadable codes."

The same fragmentary and chaotic perception is carried through in the film's visual style, again making us experience reality through Winter's eyes. Early on we see him covering the rearview mirrors and side windows of his car, in an attempt to shut out his own reflection - but also to reduce his world to manageable proportions. While he finds relative moments of peace in small rituals, putting sugar in his coffee or spreading mustard on a sandwich, the world to him is mostly a scary, incomprehensible place filled with ominous meaning just beyond his grasp. Thus the imagery is dominated by disjointed close-ups of wall, skin and food textures, weird newspapers headlines and other compulsive details - crosscut with Winter's terrified, piercing eyes. (See for example this series of stills.)

Like 'Keane', 'Clean, Shaven' deals with fatherhood as a redemptive ideal, restoring some degree of stability to a mentally diseased mind. Though Winter's intentions towards his daughter are long left in suspense, when he finally meets her we recognize it as the only genuine communication he's had throughout the film. It makes the scene where Winter explains to his daughter that he has a radio receiver in his head and a transmitter in his finger - both of which we have seen him try to remove - truly heartbreaking. Only a child would accept at face value such psychotic ideas, but it is precisely what Winter was looking for all along: someone to listen to his version of reality without judgment.

'Clean, Shaven' has often been called "uncompromising", and it definitely makes for some very uncomfortable viewing. But Kerrigan's "subjective assault" is effective enough to make one interpret the film's tragic ending, not as Greene who doesn't comprehend the outside world, but the outside world (personified by the pursuing detective) who doesn't comprehend him. By that time we have learned to see through his eyes and acquired psychological insight in his tragically troubled mind.

Most of all, though, we have gained empathy for those who are engaged in a continuous, desperate struggle with what most of us take for granted: reality itself.

escher & the droste effect

One more on Escher... An old favorite site is 'Escher and the Droste effect', presenting a mathematical analysis of Escher's 'Print Gallery' ('Prentententoonstelling', 1956).

M.C. Escher - 'Print Gallery'

In 'Gödel, Escher, Bach', Douglas Hofstadter used this picture as an example of what he called 'strange loops', where two levels of reality interconnect in an endless circularity: the man in the picture gallery looking at a picture of a town with a picture gallery containing the man looking at the picture, and so forth ad infinitum.

But as Hofstadter realized, the picture also suggests another kind of loop, contained in the white patch in the middle, where Escher put his signature.

...Escher could not have completed that portion of the picture without being inconsistent with the rules by which he was drawing the picture. That center of the whorl is - and must be - incomplete. Escher could have made it arbitrarily small, but he could not have gotten rid of it.

What the team at Leiden University showed is that in the center the picture would endlessly repeat in smaller versions of itself. This is what in Dutch is called the Droste effect, after the famous Droste cocoa tin with the nurse carrying a tray with a cocoa tin with a nurse carrying a tray with a cocoa tin, and so forth ad infinitum again.

Thus 'Print Gallery' contains an infinitely recursive infinite loop. Its dizzying effect is best experienced in these animations.

See also this NY Times article.