Still Life

A film that just went onto my must-see list is Jia Zheng-ke's Still Life, thanks to a compelling review by Artemisia Ng this week in Asia Pacific Arts. The film explores in intimate terms the human cost of the Three Gorges Dam project in China.

Winner of the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival in 2006, Still Life centers on the plight of coal miners and labourers in the historic city of Fengjie in Sichuan Province. The ancient town was where the legendary heroes of Romance of the Three Kingdoms -- Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei -- waged wars. The area's breathtaking scenery and precipitous cliffs are immortalized in the works of Tang dynasty poets Li Bai and Du Fu. 'I assumed Three Gorges only has a rich regional culture, but once I got there, I realized the local life can fully represent the dilemma of modern China,' he says.

. . .

The director looks away from the political and socio-economic impact on the one million displaced residents who were ordered to leave their ancestral homes and relocated to places as far as Canton and Liaoling provinces. Instead, he focuses on the micro. 'Still Life is not a political commentary or a critique of the economy; it's about the awakening of human consciousness' says Jia.

Artemisia Ng. 'All the Gorgeous People.'
Asia Pacific Arts. UCLA. 2007.05.25



A New Day

A page was turned in this island's history this weekend when the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall acquired a new name.

The images in the banners recall the Wild Lily student movement of 1990, a pro-democracy rally in which tens of thousands of students gathered at the square and demanded reforms.

Though partisan wrangling continues, the name change transcends the expediencies of the moment. The choice offered by the symbolism is plain: will this society give pride of place to democracy or authoritarian rule?

Taiwan's people have made their choice. There is no turning back.



Does S.H.E look like The Man?

Angels Over Taipei

Taipei Main Station
Taipei, Taiwan 台灣 台北
©2006 Alton Thompson 唐博敦

Accidents do happen. How else to account for fact that S.H.E, Taiwan's ubiquitous bubblegum band, has actually generated controversy?

No way it could happen on purpose. S.H.E, the creation of record company HIM (a division of Warner Brothers) is an ear and eye candy confection created packaged and owned solely by the suits at Warners. Its purpose is to adorable, harmless, and hugely profitable. These girls are no more in the business of controversy than The Monkees.

The business of S.H.E is business, be it music or product endorsements. In fact, with this group the two go hand-in-glove--so much so that one is hard put to know which end of the business is the hand and which the glove. What are we to make of a song that recounts the legend of Daphne and Apollo just as the group's marketing campaign for Daphne shoes cranks up? Or a song that begs to be used as a ring tone when the group simultaneously pitches cell phones by Okwap?

Local rumour has it that, when not hawking cars, contact lenses, necklaces, cell phones, ice cream and watches, S.H.E occasionally does sell concert tickets. Still, it's safe to say that not since the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man invaded Manhattan has a society found itself so trampled under such dimpled feet.

So what's the controversy? A sugar-coated bonbon of mainland-style Chinese triumphalism aimed at that vast market across the Strait that, as it turns out, didn't go down so well in the girls' native Taiwan. When asked about why they recorded the song the singers expressed incomprehension. They recorded the song for the same reason they record all their others, they said. They are doing what their record company tells them to do.

But is rampant obedience a healthy thing? Taipei Times satirical columnist Johnny Neihu doesn't think so. His recent commentary sounds the alarm:
I worry, friends, I worry. . . . I'm worried about a generation of youth raised on entertainers who tell them to listen to their parents. I'm concerned about a generation that doesn't know how to rock out and break the law. I fear for youths who don't know how to do something as fundamental as stick it to The Man . . . .

Isn't there a critical mass of ke'ai at which all the artists and music are so drenched with manufactured cutsieness that the whole system implodes?

If there is, Johnny, we appear destined to find it.

Taiwan's Triple Morrigan

Keelung Night Market
Keelung, Taiwan 台灣 基隆
©2006 Alton Thompson 唐博敦



Helvetica turns 50

Don't look now, but the Helvetica typeface just turned fifty. The occasion is marked by Finlow Rohrer of the BBC:

We live in a world where we are surrounded 24 hours a day by adverts and corporate communications, many in typefaces chosen to subliminally complement the message.

Helvetica's message is this: you are going to get to your destination on time; your plane will not crash; your money is safe in our vault; we will not break the package; the paperwork has been filled in; everything is going to be OK.

It is sans serif. There are no wiggly bits at the end of the letters. It has smooth, clean lines, and an unobtrusive geometry that almost suggests it was designed not to stand out.

In Taiwan Helvetica is a favourite of the Taiwan High Speed Rail and every airline and bank. Internationally the typeface's fans include The Gap, Lufthansa, Mondaine and Panasonic.

The typeface, inspired by the 1896 font Akzidenz Grotesk, was designed by Max Miedinger in 1957 in conjunction with Eduard Hoffmann for the Haas Type Foundry, in Muenchenstein, Switzerland.

. . . The land where clocks run meticulously and the streets are spotless carries the kind of cultural resonance that the logo makers and brand masters of the major corporations might like a bit of. For others, its neutrality is a platform for daring design.

The typeface's dominance over the past half-century, cemented by the release of Neue Helvetica in the 1980s, has now inspired a documentary, Helvetica and exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic.

It has also inspired a photographer's stage name and a new book.

Finlow Rohrer. 'Helvetica at 50.'
BBC News Magazine, 2007.05.09


Flickr Faves

Two years roaming the halls of the Flickr Old School teaches a learning photographer a few things. Viewing the work of people around you is a constant source of inspiration.

The Old School photographers I appreciate the most work with a variety of styles. Some make their living with their cameras, some do not. Sometimes their images are breathtaking, sometimes disturbing, sometimes playful. But one quality distinguishes them all: these are creative personalities who are exploring, stretching themselves, seeking more. These are people with a passion for making images.

Allow me to share the work of three people who have this quality.

Silvia Ganora

Main Site: Silvia Ganora Photography
Blogs: Sunny 16 rule, My Expressions (colour), Achromatic (B&W)
Flickr: sil63

Sil--rather incredibly--describes herself as an amateur. 'Several years ago,' she says, 'photography went along with writing short-stories. I had a few stories published both on paper and online. Then my writing inspiration went totally dead… and photography became my preferred way of expressing myself.'

What stuns me about Sil's images is their versatility. She pays attention to the broadest vistas and the smallest objects. She is equally at home shooting black & white or colour. She has imbibed and absorbed the many languages of visual art: Vermeer, Van Gogh, Hopper and a host of others.

Sil's photos have earned remarkable plaudits in a short amount of time. She remains active as a writer, though, devoting at least three photo weblogs to chronicle her relationship with photography. It promises to be a long and healthy relationship indeed.

Bruno Taddei

Bruno Taddei official site
LensModern: Bruno Taddei
Flickr: Bruno Taddei

Bruno, based in Varese, is a professional through and through. I recommend viewing images at his official site. Follow the link to his Gallerie pages.

The power of his black & white images floored me the first time I saw them. Those first images I encountered may be seen in the 'Black' set of his Gallerie. The series features human faces and everyday objects in stark, single-source lighting against a black background.

Sometimes things take on a mysterious, abstract quality, as when an clay pot looms out of the blackness like some strange new world discovered in the Oort Cloud. Other times emotions get an intensification that is almost unbearable for the image's refusal to blink at what it shows, as when a woman hides her anguish in her hands.

Carmen Gonzalez
Spain / The Netherlands

Flickr is my autobiography.

Flickr: solea

Carmen, stage name solea, is best known for her confident self portraits. This is a collaboration between model and photographer that has proven enormously fruitful. One result is a level of traffic and commentary that can sometimes upstage the images as such. That's too bad, because these are images that reward attention.

Carmen's success rests on much more than the eroticism to be encountered in many images. The photo-viewing world has no shortage of good-looking people willing to reveal a great deal more personal real estate. But few come close to capturing viewers' imaginations as Carmen does. Here is a photographer with a solid technique who possesses a gift for myth.

Carmen is a natural storyteller whose images communicate on a symbolic level. When she shows us a woman in a white dress standing in a boat, the woman is not just a woman and the boat is not just a boat. Her self portraits--like her other specialty, landscapes--display a variety of textures and treatments. You'll find colour, black & white, and every treatment of hues in between. Some images are realistic, some cinematic, some surreal. Now the narrative is Gothic, now classic, now Victorian storybook, now MTV, now film noir, now documentary.

All have an iconic quality. She has studied the archetypal feminine in all her aspects. Regardless of the voice Carmen chooses for her narrative, she slips into and out of each role easily even as she directs the scene.



Spotlight on Amy Scurria: 'Music is My Prayer'

American composer Amy Scurria takes time today from a busy schedule to share some insights about the process of making music. In doing so she provides a fine debut for a feature I hope to make a regular part of this journal: a series of spotlight interviews with noteworthy composers and performers.

Amy Scurria, winner of four consecutive ASCAP Plus awards, counts the Philadelphia Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra among the many groups who have commissioned her original compositions and is one of the youngest composers on the roster of Theodore Presser, a publisher that claims many of America's most distinguished talents. She holds degrees from the Peabody Conservatory at the Johns Hopkins University and the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. Her mentors in the art of composition have included Chen Yi, Robert Sirota, Samuel Adler, Philip Lasser and Narcis Bonet.

Amy grew up singing in church choirs and madrigal groups. She began teaching herself piano as well as the basics of writing music by the age of eight. She maintains that 'Music is a powerful and unusual language that, when spoken well, can reach the deepest part of the human spirit.' Steve Schwartz of Classical Net Review calls her music 'a journey to discover heartbreaking beauty. The climaxes of her work aren't so much dramatic as rapturous... A tremendous technique infuses the music, but Scurria never uses it to cover up a paucity of ideas. She's an honest workman - the real goods.'

I asked Amy to share some thoughts with us about her creative process.

AT: 'God and Country' themes seem to figure prominently in your work. I'm thinking of the eloquence on display in orchestral works such as We Are Met at Gettysburg and Blessings of Liberty, and vocal works such as Salmo 100, A Prayer, Thou Who Art Over Us, and i thank you God (text by e. e. cummings). How has this become a strength for you? What subjects and ideas have you not yet had as much opportunity to explore but hope to?

Amy Scurria: This question touches on something I think about quite often. I think that it's important for a composer to ask oneself why he or she composes. I ponder this quite often myself and the answer I most often return to is that music is my prayer. It serves as my most honest and pure expression.

When I experience 'writer's block' or even just before I compose, I always begin with prayer and meditation. It opens me to the creative process.

It's interesting that the question I'm asked most often is 'how do you write music?' If I find that they are not looking for an in depth explanation, I more often than not answer: 'one note at a time.' However, I often wish that people would ask instead 'why do you write music?' As all musicians realize, being a composer is not a life filled with glory, a large income, stability, or any other such benefit that might draw a person towards this pursuit.

I won't even try to guess why most people compose, so I'll only comment on why I do. From an early age, I have felt a deep yearning for music. I remember hearing music as early as three years old and feeling compelled to cry; not because the music upset me or even made me sad, but because I wanted to climb inside the music and I didn't ever want it to end . . . so I think that as I got older, listening to music somehow wasn't enough. By the time I was eight years old, I discovered that creating music was the only activity that would alleviate that deep feeling of yearning and somehow make me feel complete and whole. So, at the risk of sounding quite cliché, the reason I compose is because I must!

It surprised me when you said 'God and Country' figure prominently as subjects in my music; however, this makes sense. I grew up in a predominantly military family. My father, two uncles, and both grandfathers were career military men, as were a long line of men in my family going as far back as the Civil War. I, myself, was torn in high school between pursuing a career as a Coast Guard pilot, like my father, or pursuing music. Obviously, I chose the latter--though I often wonder how my life might have been different had I chosen the former. I don't think I ever made a conscious effort to create music that reflects the subjects of 'God and Country,' so perhaps this just happened by default (and partly by circumstance!).

I think what most people don't realize is that when someone serves in the military, the entire family serves in the military. It's a sacrifice that affects the entire family unit. I will never regret that my father was a career military man. In fact, I carry an intense pride for this. However, I'm sure that the sacrifices that we made (moving every 2-4 years, having our family split up temporarily, not always knowing where my father was or if he would come back alive) affected me in a deep way... so much so that it bleeds into my music. It doesn't mean that I always agree with the choices we make as a country. But I do know first hand what it means when someone decides to serve our country. In the case of my father, it was a service that was whole-hearted, complete, unquestioning, honourable, and something to be deeply admired. So, this is probably why after 9/11, I decided to make my commission for the Vermont Youth Orchestra a patriotic work... and why the commission by the Philadelphia and Minnesota orchestras on the Civil War resonated so deeply with me.

Regarding God, prayer, meditation, improvisation and dance are all a large part of my creative process. My faith is an important part of my life and I suppose I am always attempting to compose a better work as an offering and thanks to God.

Regarding subjects and ideas I have not yet had the opportunity to explore yet: there are many. There are so many things I feel passionate about and I could come up with endless reasons to compose as a reflection of those passions. However, some underlying inspirations and influences are the subjects of hope, women's issues, flight, freedom of spirit, celebration of spirit. I have always felt that an 'artist' has a responsibility to have a cause, a message, a reason for creating... for taking the time and energy to express something to the public. My driving force behind this belief has been to create music that reflects hope and beauty. I think it is impossible to avoid the fact that life is difficult. Perhaps in some way I am looking for a haven from difficulties through music, but this is also what I hope to create in my own music. If I can make someone feel hope, recognize beauty in life, imagine something wonderful, feel a freedom from the difficulties of life, then I have succeeded in my pursuits and in my creation of music.

In particular, I'm working on the beginning concepts of a work that will incorporate the use of photography around the subject of women--perhaps a Celebration of Women type of work. I'm still in the very beginning stages of this.

AT: Can you share anything about your working method--where you get ideas, what you look for in choosing a text?

Amy Scurria: My working method really depends on the type of piece I'm composing. I tend to compose choral works, piano works, and songs straight through whereas an orchestral work involves a lot of sketches. My ideas come from prayer, improvisation at the piano, singing, dance, and sometimes dreams.

When choosing a text the first thing I look for is whether it's available for use! If it's in the public domain and if not, if I can get permission to use it. For this reason, I have been setting a lot of Christina Rossetti's poetry. Not only does her poetry resonate very deeply with me, but her publishing company has been very generous in granting me rights to set her poems. I also love finding female poets when possible. In choosing a text for a musical setting, I usually select a text based on whether I hear music as I'm reading it. Every poem or Bible verse I've ever set has resulted in an immediate 'musical response' as I'm reading the poem. This is when I know a particular poem will illicit musical inspiration and flow nicely for voice setting.

AT: You possess a deep appreciation of poetry. Who are your favourite poets and why? Has poetry as an art form helped you develop as a composer in some way--something beyond simply supplying a text for musical setting?

Amy Scurria: The first time I affiliated any kind of text to music was when I was 16 years old. I was given an assignment in my AP English class and we were given the utmost freedom with the type of project. So, as I often did, I decided to compose a piano piece. In doing so, I selected a poem and composed the work as a reflection of that poem. Though I had an affinity towards poetry for quite some time, this was the first time that text served as an inspiration or guide for musical form.

Once I entered college at Rice University I began to compose songs and experienced firsthand the mistake of not acquiring permission for a text! I composed a full song cycle and later was not granted permission for the use of the poetry! The piece was useless until many years later, when I met a wonderful poet while working on a commission who was willing to rewrite the text for me. She did a beautiful job and the work was revived as a result of her efforts (thankfully)!

So text has always been an important part of my compositional process. Beyond All Walking, my first orchestral work, went through a lot of sketches. I was struggling with the form of the work. I had a strong opening and an ending, but I wasn't certain how to get from point A to point B. My teacher, Bob Sirota, suggested several things, one of which was to find a text to use as a reference. One of my favorite poets is Rainer Maria Rilke. I particularly love the translations by Stephen Mitchell. So, I selected a Rilke poem.

Going Blind

She sat just like the others as the table.

But on second glance she seemed to hold her cup
a little differently as she picked it up.
She smiled once. It was almost painful.

And when they finished and it was time to stand
and slowly as chance selected them they left
and moved through many rooms (they talked and laughed)
I saw her. She was moving far behind

The others absorbed like someone who will soon
have to sing before a large assembly;
upon her eyes which were radiant with joy
light played as on the surface of a pool.

She followed slowly taking a long time
as though there were some obstacle in the way;
and yet: as though once it was overcome
she would be beyond all walking and would fly.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Stephen Mitchell, trans.
Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke.
Modern Library, 1995.

My grandmother had passed away a few years prior to my composing this work and I wanted to write something in response to her passing. I had remembered a class I visited at Rice prior to matriculating. The professor was discussing the artwork of Michelangelo. Michelangelo was of the belief that the physical body acted as a prison to the human soul and that the soul was struggling for liberation from the constraints of the body. I loved this idea that the soul was eternally drawn to the heavens and I could suddenly see in many of his sculptures, that the soul is constantly yearning for freedom from the body. This idea, along with the Rilke poem, provided for me the perfect sources of inspiration I needed to complete Beyond All Walking. Other things provided inspiration for this work, but the text played a huge role.

AT: Has a composition of yours ever surprised you?

Amy Scurria: This is really an interesting question and one I've never been asked! I suppose every composition is a surprise to some extent because I really don't know what I'm going to create until I begin creating it. However, a lot of initial thought goes into a work before the actual composing. So, normally, by the time a piece is committed to score form, it is exactly as I have intended it.

I suppose I've been surprised by the reaction to my works, and I'm lucky to say that I was pleasantly surprised. There is nothing more powerful than when someone approaches me with tears in their eyes and shares how a work touched them. This has happened mostly with Beyond All Walking and We Are Met at Gettysburg. So, in that way, I have been most pleasantly surprised by the reaction the works have created.

AT: Many thanks, Amy, for sharing your comments and your music. We look forward to updates.

Beyond All Walking
(Peabody Symphony Orchestra/Teri Murai)

A Prayer
(Shepherd University Concert Choir/Scott Williamson)

Press Onward
(Shepherd University Concert Choir/Scott Williamson)

Furchte Dich Nicht
(Rice University Chamber Ensemble)

Five Haiku
(Peabody Conservatory Ensemble)

Variations on Reflection
(Susan Boettger, piano)

Blessings of Liberty
(Vermont Youth Orchestra/Troy Peters)

Games Children Play
(Sylvia Danburg, violin, with narrator)

Amy Scurria Home Page
Photo ©Phyllis Berger (USA)