Recent Reading, Listening and Viewing: Noise, Sunday, Jonsson, Zapp, Orphanage

This is the first of an irregular series where Peter will give some opinions on recent books, music and films.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross. Starting with towering turn-of-century figures Wagner, Mahler and Strauss, Alex Ross goes on to detail the lives and times of the twentieth century composers. On the way, he points out influences, innovations and arguments and introduces readers to a wide range of colourful characters, key events and back-biting musical feuds. All of it is put clearly in the context of twentieth century political and cultural life, so you learn almost as much about the world that gave rise to the music as you do about the music itself. Though it deals with a complex and difficult subject, one the main joys of this book is its accessibility. With only a little musical knowledge to begin with (and believe me, that’s all I have!) you can still understand a lot. I found myself making frequent trips to the piano to try out a sequence of notes or chords Ross mentioned, and quickly discovered that the piano needs tuning! The book is a hefty tome, though, in more ways than one, and I think finishing it will be a long-term project.

The second collaboration between Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, Sunday at Devil Dirt, is every bit the equal of Ballad of the Broken Seas, their first. Stand-up bass, acoustic guitar and strings, very Astral Weeks at times, dominate the musica landscape, and the singers turn up the heat around the half-way mark with “Come On Over (Turn Me On),” “Back Burner” (shades of Dr John’s Night Tripper period) and “The Flame That Burns.” Lanegan’s voice dominates most tracks, a resonant baritone that sometimes sounds like a cross between Nick Cave and Johnny Cash. Every now and then Isobel Campbell’s ethereal tones come in, as if from a great distance, and harmonise with or wind sinuously around Lanegan’s melodic lines. Haunting, sensuous music.

Swedish singer-songwriter Thomas Denver Jonsson was kind enough to send me a copy of his CD, The Lake Acts Like an Ocean, and while it rocks a lot more than I expected, there are still plenty of sensitive ballads like “Only For Beginners” and “Like Friends Falling in Love” to balance the mood. A very versatile album that grows on you with continued listening.

I was fortunate enough to bump into a touring Dutch chamber quartet, called Zapp, at breakfast in a hotel in Parry Sound when I was up there to do a reading in April, and they gave me a copy of their CD, Peculiar. It’s not what you’d expect from a string quartet, but instead it’s full of very jazzy, playful and innovative music, much of which they wrote themselves. Well worth a listen.

The Orphanage is a Spanish ghost story produced by Guillermo Del Toro, who made the wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth a couple of years ago, and directed by J.A. Bayona. While it’s nowhere near as complex and visually stunning a movie as Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s still well worth watching. The story concerns a woman called Laura who grew up in an orphanage and returns to live there with her husband and son thirty years later. Naturally, the place is haunted by the ghosts of her past, and the film details her struggle to confront them. The setting and cinematography are excellent, and Belén Rueda is terrific as the vulnerable, haunted and strong-willed Laura.