On Bon Iver

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“This is for you..?” Justin Vernon’s voice breaks off in a quizzical tone and the audience laughs, before wildly applauding as the band breaks into crowd-favourite, Re:Stacks.

It’s been nearly ten years since Bon Iver produced the acclaimed For Emma, Forever Ago. So the legend goes: Disenchanted with life following a string of personal setbacks, Vernon retreated for three winter months to the seclusion of his dad’s remote cabin in Wisconsin, burying himself in ice, sorrow and music. “I named this band after this TV show, Northern Exposure,” he said last night.  Vernon spent the months in his cabin watching reruns of it, naming his band after a winter-time greeting from the show ‘bon hiver’, ‘good winter’ in French. In a 2008 AV Club interview, Vernon commented on the experience:

AVC: For Emma, Forever Ago is a sad, lonely record. Is that a reflection of how you felt while making it, or was it actually pretty fun being alone in the wilderness?

JV: I don’t think I really had any clue what was going on while I was there. I was just there. There would be days when I would work on music that sounded really happy. Or I’d be really happy to be working on it. I think you can be jazzed about working on a really sad song if you’re into it. But when I left the cabin, I don’t think I felt renewed or “done” or anything. I still felt sick, my liver still hurt. I was going back to North Carolina sooner than I thought, to work with The Rosebuds. It took me months and months to realize what I had accomplished up there musically, personally, all that.

AVC: You had to step back to appreciate what you had?

JV: The enigma of everything, I’m beside it. Yeah, I went up to the cabin in the woods and I made a record. It’s sort of odd to look back and see it as magical, because it felt like a lonely few months at the cabin, where I plugged in the laptop and fucked around.

AVC: There’s already a mythology of sorts around the record, where people talk about the music in the context of how it was made. Do you think knowing the backstory is important to understanding the record?

JV: No. I’ll get e-mails from people saying “I listened to this song and it made me feel this about my life,” or whatever. I think the story pulls people into the music; it gives them a place to enter. But I hope people are reacting to the music.

When Vernon opened with Woods under the multicoloured spotlights, the audience quiet in anticipation, every individual drowning in his haunting autotuned vocals: “I’m up in the woods, I’m down on my mind/I’m building a still to slow down the time.”  

Then the rousing Perth, a favourite of mine off the second album. Written after his video director Matt Amato broke down upon news of the death of his best friend Heath Ledger:, Vernon has said:”And his best friend was from Perth. It just sort of became the beginning of the record. And Perth has such a feeling of isolation, and also it rhymes with birth, and every song I ended up making after that just sort of drifted towards that theme, tying themselves to places and trying to explain what places are and what places aren’t.” According to an interview on Triple J, “the night he recorded the final vocal alone in his studio, [he] listened to the playback, broke down and sobbed.”

I nearly teared as the song ended with powerful, pulsing drum beats. I’ve spent countless nights in the dark listening to this song, drowning in its vitality. Here we all were, people of disparate lifestyles, nationalities, backgrounds, gathered in the dark to share in this experience. For some, like myself, the song held special meaning; others were discovering it for the first time.

The Staves were a welcome surprise. I enjoyed their second album, If I Was, produced by Justin Vernon himself. Minnesota WI, Flume, Lump Sum, Heavenly FatherRoslyn, were all marvellously performed. But the best of the night was undoubtedly Blindsided, Vernon’s excellent bluesy guitar solo, his soft falsetto and the Staves’ ethereal voices melding to sing, “Would you really rush out/ For me now?”

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Skinny Love stunned, every rough facet and sharp barb laid bare in Vernon’s raw scream-singing. The earliest impression I had of him was from his imperfect, yet captivating performance on Jools Holland a long, long time ago, before the bland, lifeless perfection of Birdy’s cover. I recall being stunned by how Vernon wrung every bit of emotion out of the song leaving the audience feeling like they’d gone through the same painful journey with him.

I’ve always associated Bon Iver with ‘that shouldn’t sound good, but it does’, their songs exuding a spark derived from the distinctiveness of their sound, the depth of the emotions, careful construction and lyrical opacity. If For Emma embodies perfection in stripping down to the quiet skeleton of emotions, Bon Iver demonstrates how songs can be decadent without being crushed by their own weight. Above all, I love the authenticity of the music and devotion to the craft. Vernon has said, “I’m just living in Eau Claire, not really leaving for much. I go to the farmers market, go to the studio, go home and play with my cats. I don’t know if I’ve ever been this happy, which is really awesome.” Behind the myth, the plaid shirts and autotune, is just a regular joe hanging with his friends, playing around on his guitar and computer, trying to create some damn fine music.

At the end of the night, we all stood, exhilarated, singing “What might have been lost…” along to The Wolves. A seemingly unremarkable little phrase, embodying profound emotion, nostalgia, and regret, resonating through five thousand souls.

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Poem of the Day

Sitting in a Small Screenhouse on a Summer Morning

Ten more miles, it is South Dakota.
Somehow, the roads there turn blue,
When no one walks down them.
One more night of walking, and I could have become
A horse, a blue horse, dancing
Down a road, alone.

I have got this far. It is almost noon. But never mind time:
That is all over.
It is still Minnesota.
Among a few dead cornstalks, the starving shadow
Of a crow leaps to his death.
At least, it is green here,
Although between my body and the elder trees
A savage hornet strains at the wire screen.
He can’t get in yet.

It is so still now, I hear the horse
Clear his nostrils.
He has crept out of the green places behind me.
Patient and affectionate, he reads over my shoulder
These words I have written.
He has lived a long time, and he loves to pretend
No one can see him.
Last night I paused at the edge of darkness,
And slept with green dew, alone.
I have come a long way, to surrender my shadow
To the shadow of a horse.

 James Wright

It is 1 am and my heart is pounding from these words.

On Saṃsāra

Saṃsāra, Sanskrit for the eternal cycle of death and rebirth, of endless reincarnations determined by karma, is a concept that permeates many Asian religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. It means “wandering through”, and is used to highlight the impermanence of life. It teaches one to abandon over-attachment to worldly desires and experiences.

Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson, the creators of the marvellous Baraka, ground their film in this concept, through beautifully crafted filmography, void of any dialogue or explanation. It is a purely image-driven film. Ranging from the beauty of the earth, to religious worship, human discipline, sombre examination of consumerism, the film is a wondrous accomplishment. A fantastic tribute to humanity that also underscores the transience of our momentary existence, Saṃsāra is an altogether awe-inspiring experience.

Saṃsāra truly begins and ends with Tibetan monks painstakingly crafting sand mandalas and subsequently destroying them. “A sand mandala is ritualistically dismantled once it has been completed and its accompanying ceremonies and viewing are finished to symbolise the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.” The film embodies the struggle of reconciling the vibrancy of life and its impermanence, something that deeply resonates with me.

It brings to mind a favourite haiku by Kobayashi Issa, written a month after the passing of his daughter:

The world of dew —
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet . . .

Watch the trailer below. A masterpiece.

an ancient thrill

It is 1915.

In seeking supporting evidence for his groundbreaking theory of general relativity, Einstein applies his equations to Mercury’s orbit, which has long puzzled astronomers as it does not conform to classical Newtonian mathematics. Einstein succeeds in resolving this discrepancy and describes the moment as so thrilling that he experiences several hours of heart palpitations.

His heart hammers rhythmically, rapidly, echoing the dancing heartbeat of a bush hunter stalking antelope on the golden African plains. He realises, at this very moment, he alone wields complete understanding of the movements of heavenly bodies suspended in a limitless universe.

Perhaps this is what Einstein feels: the ancient thrill of mastery, however minuscule and momentary, over all things imaginable.

On Blood Meridian

Sean Lewis

Cormac McCarthy is renowned for the violence of his works, his minimalist approach to punctuation (some would say hatred of) and his intensely Faulknerian writing style. With Blood Meridian, he earns fervent praise from critics, with Harold Bloom declaring it the ultimate Western. It has even joined the sacred ranks of The Great American Novel. Bloom elucidates in an interview with AV Club:

AVC: When you called it “the ultimate Western”, did you mean merely the paramount example of the genre, or its final expression?

HB: No, I meant the final one. It culminates all the aesthetic potential that Western fiction can have. I don’t think that anyone can hope to improve on it, that it essentially closes out the tradition. And in the sense that it serves as an extension of the pastoral tradition, it provides an interesting and ironic contrast with American Pastoral by my friend Philip Roth.

Such laudatory comments do not go unwarranted. The book is an entrancing, merciless descent into savagery. It is loosely based on the real-life Glanton gang, a horde of scalp hunters led by Texas Ranger John Joel Glanton. They travel the stark Mexican borderlands, murdering and scalping countless Native Americans for bounty and entertainment during the dark times following the Mexican-American War (1849-1850). The first few chapters leave no doubt that Blood Meridian is gruesome, with excruciating scenes of trees hung with dead babies, the massacring and scalping of innocent women and children, deserts bathed with blood.

We follow the Kid, who joins the gang in their destruction and in so encounters John Glanton, the very picture of a bloodthirsty bounty hunter and the intimidating, ominous figure of Judge Holden. In many ways, Judge Holden stands as one of the best villains of modern fiction. A hairless man of gargantuan bulk, he is eloquent, speaking on the nature of man, war and the law at the campfire before his fellow murderers. He behaves bizarrely, from striding around naked, to documenting artifacts and promptly destroying them, asserting that:

Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He appears a strange, all-knowing, almost supernatural spectre. After the gang comes upon Anasazi ruins, he is the sole character who understands and holds respect for this relic of an ancient Mexican civilisation.

For whoever makes makes a shelter of reeds and hides has joined his spirit to the common destiny of creatures and he will subside back into the primal mud with scarcely a cry. But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe and so it was with these masons however primitive their works may seem to us.

This comment amplifies the wickedness of the judge, for he knowingly participates in the destruction of Mexican civilisation whilst other men desecrate out of hatred and greed bred of ignorance. The Judge is the living embodiment of the naked, undeniable human instinct for destruction. He is the very agent of war. He preaches:

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.

The kid’s travels span the height of the gang’s victories, the riotous revelry which wrecks the towns they pass through, to the ultimate fall of Glanton and the demise of the gang. The kid does not come away unscathed. He is pursued by the judge for being “mutinous”, and he is accompanied by an ex-priest who cautions the Kid against the judge, whom he deems to be the devil itself. The kid evades the judge, but encounters him years later. The bleak conclusion is vague, in McCarthy’s characteristic style, but it is clear that the kid, who represents the wavering flame of morality, eventually succumbs.

McCarthy’s skill with prose is nearly beyond compare. What stands out the most are the landscapes described in Blood Meridian. It will not make for easy reading, but it frames the brutality of the story perfectly. Oftentimes I was transported to stark deserts and salt plains, parched and dusty, beneath painfully clear night skies and bright stars. The landscape is essential to the narrative. As McCarthy puts it:

The desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone.

And his talent goes beyond this. Read this beautiful paragraph from the opening chapter.

The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her bosom the creature who would carry her off. the father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. he can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.

There are scholars who see Blood Meridian as an anti-western work due to the manner in which “McCarthy’s narrative diverges from the traditional mythology of American westward movement […] Unlike traditional westerns, McCarthy’s novel makes “visible those violent episodes that accompanied the fight over land” (Eaton 157), and reveals a different kind of violence: the violence of cultural amnesia. After all, the problem with southwestern mythology is not only that the “myth was easier to swallow than the reality” (Eaton 157), but that the American national identity was grounded in a willed forgetting of the violence of these events.” (Shawn Mark Jasinski) In simpler terms, McCarthy exposes the brutality and violence of America’s expansion, one that has been glossed over in Western fiction and American history.

Others see it as a universal statement on the prevalence of conflict and mankind’s predisposition towards violence, any time, anywhere, amongst all peoples. No man, white, black or Mexican is innocent of violence in Blood Meridian. An old hermit warns in the book:

You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but When god made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything.

I am more inclined to agree with the second camp; certainly, McCarthy framed it in that historical context but he is too brilliant an author to have meant it to be a simple statement on American expansionism and wilful blindness towards the darker sides of its history. Blood Meridian, as Bloom says, is too grand for that. I have to agree with Caryn James (NYT) who observes:

Blood Meridian makes it clear that all along Mr. McCarthy has asked us to witness evil not in order to understand it but to affirm its inexplicable reality; his elaborate language invents a world hinged between the real and surreal, jolting us out of complacency.

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Blood Meridian reigns as one of the best novels I have encountered. The last paragraph burns, even now, upon my memory. 
And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling all at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

recollections

12, Flinders’ Ranges, the Outback: Huddling around a lonely fire, dogs slinking about at the edge of darkness. We skewer sausages and roast them, with the dusty land, the infinitude of stars as companions. In the morning, I wake early and with the rising sun, trek out to see the kangaroos grazing amidst the bush.

15, Sabah, Malaysia: Chased by a storm at dusk, we stop at a deserted prawning farm by the river, the smell of marshland and rain heavy in the humid air. We pull at our lines to draw the prawns and the water bubbles as fish surface briefly. Then the skies break and rain batters the zinc roofs, vestiges of a fading era. A great peal of thunder and for a brief second white lightning illuminates the entirety of the marshes as the building shakes. Plunged into semi-darkness as the electricity goes out, we wait, a little shaken, for the lights to come on.

17, Yosemite, California: My brother and I step out onto the ice and it cracks ominously. He throws a stone, breaking the placid surface of the lake where it is yet unfrozen. I can see bubbles, tiny and fragile, in the clear ice beneath my feet.

19, Bagan, Myanmar: We sit outside a temple on flimsy chairs, sipping sweet coconut juice through pastel plastic straws. The dusty ground is the color of burnished copper, as is everything in this sacred region. Behind us, miniature wooden puppets hang spookily in a tree, the late afternoon sun casting strange shadows. Later, we cycle by starlight over treacherous dirt roads past fields of dry, uncut grass and the sensation of flight, of freedom, is exhilarating.

In the Midst of Such Paradox

How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

Sage advice by Barry Lopez.

On The Imitation Game and Alan Turing

“Are you paying attention?”

I knew of Alan Turing prior to this movie due to a tumblr post floating around, of the legendary poisoned apple with which he allegedly committed suicide. It’s always an apple: the apple that inspired Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation, the apple farm that inspired the Apple logo, the apple from the tree of knowledge. Lord Byron’s Manfred laments:

But grief should be the instructor of the wise;
Sorrow is Knowledge: they who know the most
Must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth,
The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.

A friend and I caught this movie after our exams, during which the projector died, followed by an agonizing twenty minute wait for it to be revived. The Imitation Game was a brilliantly cast movie with the ever enigmatic Benedict Cumberbatch, Bomberding Cabbagepatch, Beaverwing Cloverpatch, as Alan Turing, Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, the bright cryptoanalyst hemmed in by society and countless other stellar British actors whose faces are familiar (was that guy on Downton Abbey?). This is not a happy story; you who are aware of Turing’s sad demise should know that already. Lives are saved, the war is won, people get married but happiness lasts only for normal people. The film is framed curiously with Turing relating his (off the record) past to a detective while facing criminal charges for his homosexuality. The core of the tale is about Turing’s participation in the war effort. The British government gathers a motley crew of mathematicians and cryptoanalysts to decipher the German ENIGMA code, vital to winning the war and thus the most important battle is fought in a dusty office and a large barn. The closest we get to the actual war is black and white film of explosions and missiles being fired from submarines. Those expecting more action will be disappointed. World War Two is the mere background against which Alan Turing’s life plays out. His mother called him an odd duck: a homosexual genius plagued with what we would today call Asperger Syndrome, unable to decipher social cues and conversation, he spends much of his childhood being bullied. His only friend, the first person to break through the impenetrable fog, is Christopher, whom he will eventually fall in love with and name his codebreaking machine after. After Christopher dies, Alan goes on to make a name for himself as an arrogant mathematician obsessed with solving crossword puzzles, finally finding employment with the Government’s secret ENGIMA unit. He chances upon Joan, a prodigy whose skills may even surpass his and marries her to allow her to work on ENIGMA with the team.

We’ll have each other’s minds. Sounds like a better marriage than most. Because I care for you. And you care for me. And we understand one another more than anyone else ever has.

But the true love story in this is between Alan and his beloved universal machine. In a world where he’s almost incapable of deciphering human behaviour and emotions, he speaks the language of mathematics to his machine with unparalleled ease. Perhaps obsessed with the idea of bringing his machine to life, he sets out to design an electrical brain for it.

Of course machines can’t think as people do. A machine is different from a person. Hence, they think differently. The interesting question is, just because something, uh… thinks differently from you, does that mean it’s not thinking? Well, we allow for humans to have such divergences from one another. You like strawberries, I hate ice-skating, you cry at sad films, I am allergic to pollen. What is the point of… different tastes, different… preferences, if not, to say that our brains work differently, that we think differently? And if we can say that about one another, then why can’t we say the same thing for brains… built of copper and wire, steel?

A lifetime of being different and being persecuted leads to his final question for the world, the famous Turing test:

Now, Detective, you get to judge. That’s how the game works. I answered your questions. You know my story. That’s the point of the game. We are all pretending to be something. Imitating something. Someone. And we are no more, and no less, than what we can convince other people that we are. So tell me: What am I? Am I a person? Am I a machine? Am I a war hero? Am I a criminal?

From there, the film is devastating . Under the weight of public persecution, chemical castration and possibly cyanide poisoning, Alan cracks. He gets a visit from his old friend, Joan, perhaps the one person whose ever comes close to understanding him. Alan sits in his armchair in his old robe, in shambles, decrying his fate and pleading for the world not to take his beloved machine away from him. (there was a lot of sniffling around us, props to Cumberbatch for that). 

No one normal could have done that. Do you know, this morning… I was on a train that went through a city that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for you. I bought a ticket from a man who would likely be dead if it wasn’t for you. I read up on my work… a whole field of scientific inquiry that only exists because of you. Now, if you wish you could have been normal… I can promise you I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren’t.

The film’s handling of homosexuality was done with considerable sensitivity. Mr Turing received a pardon for his (a very late one, petitions for which had failed in 2012). It is a welcome champion of gay rights. I can praise The Imitation Game for many things: great acting, gay rights, feminism, embracing the weird and delving into thorny issues such as the complexities of war and power. At its heart, it is a beacon for all the strange ones out there, telling them to accept themselves and to screw normal, a very familiar refrain we have heard over the years. The film is far from perfect; there are a few loose strands such as Alan being blackmailed into communicating with the Russian government, the clumsy framing methods, one of the ENIGMA team conveniently having a brother on board the ship they have to sacrifice (that deserved so many eyerolls), the admittedly at-times clumsy dialogue. It is, however, a timely, luminous adaption of Turing’s story which will resonate with many. The film is likely to leave a legacy of its own in furthering the civil movement for gay rights, and I’ll end with its screenwriter Graham Moore’s message of hope at the Academy Awards: “Stay weird, stay different.” Hopefully we will see more film adaptations for women scientists. Black women scientists! Pauli Murray! Ida B. Wells!

Poem of the Day

A girl on a swing

by CHUNGMI KIM

She sees the mountain
upside down.

With her long hair
sweeping the fallen leaves
she swings
like a pendulum.

From the lagoon at sunset
a hundred sparrows fly away.

Wishing them back
she whistles softly.
And downward
she falls into the sky.