Recommended

"The Curfew," Jesse Ball

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Today I read a book by someone I know. To call him a friend would overstate it, but we’ve spent time together. He’s always intimidated me but not in an unpleasant way, and not through any conscious effort on his part. He is simply apart – naturally so.

The main way we would spend time together was playing poker. It was a small group of us – five or six guys, all around 24. This was almost a decade ago. We would play for small stakes: $10 to play, $5 a big pot. But at the time – first jobs, new to the city – it was just enough to be meaningful. A $10 or $20 loss would sit in your stomach until morning. It was a thing that we could do that made us feel like grown-ups, some agency in our lives.

Jesse was a fantastic player. He was unpredictable. When he would enter a hand you could feel it, but still you felt like this time you might outsmart him. It would rarely happen. Always he would walk away the big winner. But no one begrudged this. He liked us fine and clearly enjoyed the company, but his mind was simply somewhere else.

For a few months he moved to New Mexico or Arizona and was a blackjack dealer. I wasn’t aware that he was doing this, that this was happening. But one day he reappeared and said that he had been dealing blackjack in New Mexico. This made plenty of sense. Our lives felt smaller.

He married an Icelandic woman. There is some relation to Bjork in some way, a fairly direct one but I’ve forgotten the particulars and it would make this to be something that it is not. I have never met this person but I imagine her to be steadfast, reserved. Very intelligent. Big, specific thoughts spoken late into the dark. A woman like that.

I say all of these things about Jesse, talk about him in this way, but know that it is not particularly my place to do so. These are simply the things I remember and I want to record them here. This small backstory.

Jesse has written three books. The second was called Samedi the Deafness, and it was a strange, fragmented novel about a stranger in a strange land. But the story was different from that. The way the story was told was lightly sketched and highly explained. Emotions and moments are detailed very plainly and with effort, and in their directness there was epiphany, but all else was void.

It’s been a while since I read it but I remember being moved by it very much. Afterwards I sent Jesse an email telling him how much I loved it, and he responded kindly. I sent another message, this time offering a theory about what he was trying to say. I don’t think he ever responded. Despite my disappointment I liked that.

This new book, The Curfew, the one I read tonight, is similar only it aches. There are a few pieces of art that actively make me want to be in a very deep love, an infinite horizon. “Ache,” “actively” – these are specifically chosen words. This book is one of them.

It’s a lonely book. A very lonely book. It is parsed, with spaces poetry-like. It overflows with sadness and love that is protective of others but most of all itself. The point of the love is the love and that is a very fragile thing in a dangerous world and that very much includes this one.

These are words that get used so often when people mean heartache and desire. Yearning, wanting, that aching thing again. All of these are right, except imagine that they are being defined for the very first time to mean precisely this thing. They mean all around you is a world that you are of and you have feelings about not particularly one way or another. But inside of that world is this other world, this other thing that does not make you special because many people have this feeling, but one that is special anyway precisely because it is yours. That kind of love.

This feeling makes the world smaller. We pair up, find happiness, look inward, both inside our own minds and hearts and then into our partner’s and then, finally, into that space that is created together. That space.

There’s beauty in this. I am particularly attuned to this love, I feel. But at the same time I fear its reductiveness. It makes the world special and mine but the world should not be mine. It just simply isn’t true, and the attractiveness of that falsehood brings anxiousness.

I’m sitting on an airplane having just finished it and I am overwhelmed with this understanding. I’ve had these feelings before. Most have been during autumn, a walk at night and the wind picks up through the trees and there’s that extrasensory thing that awakens and you travel through yourself and see the dim outline of truths that one day you will discover.

That’s what this book is. It’s called The Curfew. It’s written by Jesse Ball. Read it. Find love.

The Staircase

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The last half hour of The Staircase, an eight-hour Sundance documentary about the murder trial of novelist Michael Peterson by filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, is almost entirely without dialogue. After the court reporter reads the verdict — which sends Peterson to prison for life — she polls each juror in open court, asking if they believe the defendant to be guilty. As each of them answers in the affirmative, Lestrade cuts between the faces in the courtroom: Peterson stunned but still calculating, his daughters Margaret and Martha frozen in grief, his lawyer David Rudolf genuinely shocked by the verdict and prosecutors Jim Hardin and Freda Black no less surprised.

The camera follows Peterson as he is handcuffed and swallowed into the courthouse's belly, trailing him and five deputies through a maze of barred doors and fluorescent lights until he reaches a police cruiser, whereupon he collapses in a mix of grief and relief, his head hanging in shame for the first time in years. Michael Peterson does not cry, but his children — back in the house where their adopted father supposedly killed their stepmother — do. Young Martha, the only child to really truly believe her father's innocence, is inconsolable, while her older siblings silently take inventory of their lives, and realize that they are left with nothing but each other and a sadness that will not wane.

Over eight episodes, The Staircase chronicled the prosecution and defense of Michael Peterson. He was accused by North Carolina law enforcement of murdering his wife Kathleen on December 9, 2001. He claimed that she simply fell down the stairs. As a novelist specializing in Vietnam fiction, Peterson's coffers are full, and so he hires a dozen or so lawyers and experts to defend his life. It doesn't take long for them to realize that he is, most likely, guilty. 

A narcissist, Peterson at times seems to delight in his prosecution, in the attention that he is getting. And it's plainly obvious throughout that he believes he will get away with it. But in the privacy of his home, we see Peterson interact with his children, and his belabored responses and actions toward them reveal a tremendous amount of guilt.

When Peterson's extramarital dalliances with male escorts are revealed, the case takes a turn toward the sordid, and immediately Court TV and the like begin following it closely. Peterson's explanation is painfully extracted, as he portends that his and Kathleen's marriage was an ideal one, just that she couldn't satisfy his urges the way a hilariously frank man from a military-themed gay escort service could. But as he rationalizes his affairs, Peterson reveals too much, calling Kathleen "demanding" and "a part of every aspect of my life" in a tone that implies a venom that the defense team would rather do without.

The lawyers know that the case they have been presented is an odd one. While Peterson's explanation of a fall can't explain the amount of lacerations on his dead wife's head or the incredible amount of blood at the scene without a magic bullet-type theory, the prosecution doesn’t have much to go on to explain how else it occurred either. The case then comes down to the prosecution making the fall theory seem implausible and the defense the opposite. The inept prosecution fails spectacularly, proclaiming the murder weapon to be a mysteriously absent blowpoke. The item is found by the defense toward the end of the trial in Peterson's garage, and an examination of the metal rod proves that it was not used to kill Kathleen Peterson.

Even though Michael Peterson seems guilty, the prosecution never proves it. Instead, prosecutor Freda Black — whose sack-like dresses and obnoxious demeanor suggest a level of prissiness heretofore undiscovered — simply says the phrases "homosexual," "bisexual" and "anal sex" as often and as angrily as she possibly can, hoping to play on an uneducated jury's prejudices against carnal malfeasance. And, as the verdict suggests, it works: there is little evidence offered that damns Peterson, aside the coincidental fact that a woman he knew in Germany died by falling down the stairs 20 years prior, yet he is found guilty anyway.

Lestrade tells this story carefully, relishing in the minutiae of forensics and Peterson's bottomless well of self-congratulation. There are no epiphanies, just slow unravelings. Most fascinating is watching Peterson's high-priced defense team construct scenarios around their client's thin lies: even though everyone in the room knows that they are building a house on sand, they have makeshift props and buttresses at the ready for every situation. But they can not account for an awful judge, a man named Orlando Hudson whose cases, as a postscript says, are regularly overturned by the North Carolina Supreme Court, and a jury that seems to have little respect for the burden of proof. And so for now, Michael Peterson sits in a jail cell awaiting his appeal, dreaming of Saigon and convinced that the perfect murder is only a competent judge away.

"Don't Cha," Tori Alamaze

Thanks to my friend Rich Juzwiak — who really, really needs to start a blog — I've now come across my first listened-to-20-times-a-day single of 2005: Tori Alamaze's "Don't Cha." Google trawls bring up little, aside from this being Tori's first single, and it's released by Universal and produced by Cee-Lo. "Don't Cha" sounds like Mary J. in her hours of darkness — insecure, legs shaky, her feet nervously crossing each other, a quivering sip from a glass of wine, eyelids fluttering as she tries to maintain eye contact. Like 10cc's "I'm Not in Love," "Don't Cha" is about a narrator talking herself into a decision she doesn't want to make. After spending the majority of the track laying down her case for why she's worth catching, Tori wraps up "Don't Cha" with resignation, singing: "I know she loves you/ So I understand/ I probably be just as crazy about you/ If you where my man." It's a personal ad in song: SBW seeks MBM to leave SO for true love. Only no one responds and she's left alone in her too-big apartment and sings her troubles into his answering machine with only pitying handclaps and a keyboard drone as accompaniment. Halfway through she starts feeling strong, the rush of laying her story bare convincing her that she's doing the right thing, that she's too good for this asshole, too pretty to waste her time on some loser who doesn't even know how good she would be to him. But then comes another burst of organ, a little louder and harsher this time, and again she's frightened into a corner, suddenly talking about "maybe next lifetime" and wishing she was already there.

"Predator," Ice Cube

In early December the only thing I was listening to was hip-hop, thanks to an amazing amazing amazing (one more) amazing social history of the genre coming out in February that I was reviewing. Each chapter sent me in search of some long-forgotten single or album, and the music never failed to disappoint. While The Predator isn't mentioned in the book (Amerikkka's Most Wanted gets the ink), it's always been one of my favorite hip-hop albums, and recently I've returned to it. Though "It Was a Good Day" is heavily lit perfection, "When Will They Shoot?" is the track that wows me: that orbiting guitar loop, the Cap'n Crunch snare cracks and Cube's furious barking, as if they parked the studio in the middle of Grape Street and hit record. A+

Interview: Colleen

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In 2003, the Leaf label released Everyone Alive Wants Answers, the debut album by a French musician who performed as Colleen. The album received scant notice, but when it did, the response was ecstatic. Full of found sounds and warbly, trembling carnivalesque tones, Everyone is precious and precocious, a playfully morose exploration of sound as mood and emotion, as life and death.

A few weeks ago I emailed Cecile Colleen asking for an interview for this blog. She graciously accepted. Below are the ten questions that I asked and her excellent answers, all unedited. Listen to excerpts of her album here, an excellent DJ mix she did for French radio here and visit her official site here.

are you a sound conservationist? by which i mean that on everyone alive wants answers the songs seem to be not only songs but snapshots of moments in time and space that you felt an emotional pull toward. i have no idea if that question makes sense, but i have a feeling that you'll understand.

i'm not sure what you mean by sound conservationist, and i have to admit that it feels a bit strange for me to talk about songs which are now, for some of them, three years old. I know that people often talk to me about my music in terms of how it brings you to imagine things, but i have to say that when i make music, it's primarily about just that: music. But what this means for me exactly and concretely is hard to explain, because music is the most important thing in my life, whether i'm recording some songs, playing a live show, or learning to play an instrument. Basically the primary motive behind me making music is the urge to hear something and be moved by it, and reach that myself and not just by relying on other people's music. 

your ear definitely leans toward trebly, unsteady sounds. may i ask why?

I'm not sure if it's trebly sounds so much as a tendency (at least in the first album) to use filters because i love the hiss and treble range associated with old recordings — and for sure that's a love of mine, i love old things in general, old objects, gramophones, mechanical music instruments, and the like. I'm not a computer geek at all and don't spend my time marveling at all the software and gear existing. 

do you listen to music while riding public transportation? does this inspire ideas?

i do, a lot, although thanks to now working part time i have to take public transport a lot less than before, but when i play live i always use public transport to go to the place where i'm playing, so that does mean quite a bit of traveling and having time to listen to music while watching landscapes or just daydreaming. Because i've been so busy in the past year and a half, public transport has actually offered me some very valuable time off, the only time when it was ok for me to do nothing but listen to music. But I wouldn't say it inspires musical ideas as such.

how different are performing and recording to you? do you approach them differently?

Recording and performing are bound to be different if only because of where they happen, especially in my case: when i record music, i'm completely on my own, from beginning to end. No one helps me to record, and i don't ask anybody's opinion on what i'm about to record, or what i've recorded. So it's just me alone in my living room.

Of course performing is completely the opposite, it's really about giving my music to the audience and hoping that some people will be moved by it. 

The one point they do have in common is that in creative terms, they really feed each other: i want to create new pieces because i don't want to play the same things over and over again in the live shows, especially if it's in a city where i've played before, and part of those new pieces might end up being recorded, perhaps for a future release. Or if i've recorded something, i'll try to see how i can come up with some kind of live version of it (if it's technically feasible — sometimes it's just not possible).

They are two different facets of making music but i really enjoy them both.

are your performances successful? are you happy with them?

i have to say that so far, over the course of two years, i've been a very happy performer nine times out of ten: occasionally i will have some awful technical problems, or an audience with a couple of difficult members (this is sometimes enough to ruin it for everyone, especially the other members of the audience who just want to enjoy the music in peace — and my music does require silence), but apart from that i feel i've been incredibly lucky with audiences and how my live shows have been received.

I love the immediacy of live playing, the give and response that you rarely have with a record, except if people write to you to tell you that they love it.

There are always things that i could have played better during a show, so i often have the feeling that i could have done better, but then again i don't obsess over it, perfection in playing is not what live shows are about or certainly not what MY live shows are about, and i don't think that's what people come to see me for, so i always judge a show by what i felt (was i enjoying myself when i was playing? did i manage to forget that i was doing this strange thing — performing in front of people — and enjoy the music i was making?) and how the audience responded. If they seemed happy then i'm happy too.

when will you return to the uk and when will you finally hit the us?

i will return to the UK as soon as someone offers me to play a show there this year, and the same goes for the US! It has been quieter over the past few months in terms of live playing for me because i was concentrating on recording the second album, and i think that you do need a break from time to time, if only to regain the sense of wonder at the opportunity of traveling and meeting people and how lucky i've been to be able to bring my music to people elsewhere; it's all too easy for it to turn into a routine and forget about how special live playing is.

can you sing? are there little snippets of words that you have written that make you want to add vocals to your music? do those get used as song titles instead?

Good question: can I sing? Well i still don't know the answer to that, it's a mixture of yes and no right now, though actually i've taken up singing again rather recently (i used to sing as a teenager, but mostly for myself and mostly other bands' songs); right now i'm learning songs by John Dowland, who was one of the greatest English composers of the late 16th century - early 17th century, he made those incredibly beautiful lute songs which have something very minimal and modern about them. The plan with them is that i'll ultimately also learn to play the guitar in a lute-like fashion (the scores i have are transcriptions of the lute parts for classical guitar).

I find it all very exciting and i think it was bound to happen since i just feel like trying every single instrument on planet earth, and the voice is one of them.

I have no idea though if i will ever sing other than in the privacy of my home.

As for words i have a bit of a problem with them — even giving titles to my songs just seems to take me forever. They usually come from novels, are inspired by events in my own life, and for the second album by Dowland's lyrics.

is there a new album on the way? if so, what will it be called and when will it be released?

The second album will be out on Leaf in June 2005 and will be called « the golden morning breaks » (a quote from a song by John Dowland). There is also a recording of a live session which I did for Dutch national radio VPRO which will be released on Dutch label Staalplaat in the Mort aux Vaches series, probably in September 2005.

how strong an emotional attachment do you feel toward your music? do you think of it as an extension of you or as simply a way that you express yourself?

The attachment i feel towards my music is very much part of a broader attachment that i have for music in general, in all its forms. It encompasses the music that i listen to and which is very varied (from 60s pop and folk to jazz to baroque to late 19th century / first half of 20th century composers, early electronic music, music from all over the world, especially South East Asia, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot of things), but also the music that i try to play on instruments that i'm currently learning (the cello for a year and a half, now the piano, the clarinet soon, and bits and bobs here and there), whether it's pieces by other composers or me fooling around and trying to come up with something for my own use. But I also love reading about the history of and the stories behind music, how music has evolved over the course of the centuries, the life of composers and musicians, mechanical music, the social context behind music, instrument-making and instrument evolution… And of course making my own music is also very important!

When you really love music it's just endless really, and that's what makes it so exciting and fresh: the more you learn, the more you find out about other things to learn about. 

do you have a job? and if so, what?

I teach English in a high school; since September last year i've been doing that part time and it's been a real improvement in my quality of life, and i feel all the luckier because not only do i have a lot more free time than before, but the time i do spend at school is very enjoyable this year because my pupils are on the whole a really good bunch (not good in terms of their English but in terms of their personality).

I'll probably be back to a more hectic lifestyle when the second album is released, but right now i'm having a really great time just listening to music, playing the cello and piano, reading and watching films and spending time with the people i love, so i feel really lucky.