Peace on Earth

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

from “Christmas Bells”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

On “Debaser”

There’s been a lot of steam lately about the novel and whether literary fiction has more inherent value and weight than fiction classified by genre and what separates the two. When is a novel about love a romance, or a novel set in the future science fiction, or a novel underpinned by a felony of some kind a crime novel? Like The Trial. Crime and Punishment. L’Etranger.

And why are novelists recognised by a genre so readily dismissed as lacking the poetry of craft to be stylists, or the intellectual vocabulary to address issues like identity and meaning and morality and art and the slippery composition of truth?

It’s a complex debate, and is as much about the quality of a work as it is about the arbiters of quality and the climate in which that quality is being judged. And it isn’t unique to writing. The division of the novel into genres all vying for a place in the canon, or not vying for a place in the canon but questioning and rejecting everything the canon stands for, can be seen across all the arts. In music, the white European canon begins with the baroque, classical, the romantic, then across the Atlantic to jazz, blues and gospel, all fusing together to form the rebel teenage sound of rock’n’roll.

Nowadays, rock’n’roll has been carved up into so many camps it’s hard to keep track. Hard to say where easy listening ends and becomes the ballad or folk, becomes modern rock then heavy rock then metal. Then there’s the commercial mainstream and the artists who tough it out independently and the experimental, the alternative, which is generally regarded as more introspective than the mainstream, more socially aware and sympathetic to wider and more inclusive expressions of being human until it gets appropriated by the mainstream and turned into Johnny Rotten selling Country Life butter on British TV.

Pixies

The Pixies

And then there’s The Pixies.

Ivo Watts-Russell from the UK indie label 4AD wanted to pass on The Pixies when they were first brought to his attention, believing they were too straight, too normal, and too conventionally ‘rock’n’roll’ for 4AD’s small but eclectic roster. He reconsidered, and the label is still releasing B-side and session compilations to this day. But the thing of it is, Ivo Watts-Russell’s initial misgivings were right. The Pixies were too straight, too normal, and too conventionally rock’n’roll for 4AD. They were all those things to the point of combustion. They were straight and normal like the guy next door who turns out to be a serial killer’s straight and normal. They were conventionally rock’n’roll with a surf pop twist and the stop start phrenetics of a jackhammer. The Pixies were like nothing that preceded them and everything at once. Their music was too happy to be Punk, and they didn’t appear to be protesting about anything or particularly angry or cynical or even art school clever. But they rocked. They juxtaposed the sordid with the mundane, the extra-terrestrial with the flesh and bone, sang in bad Spanish and English and bad English and threw it all together as if at random. Without trying, The Pixies were surreal, as epitomised by the opening track of their second album, Doolittle (1989).

“Debaser” is a song about a guy. It may be the band’s chief singer songwriter Chris Thompson (aka Black Francis, or Frank Black), but we’re not sure. Whoever he is, he’s got a movie. And he wants us to know he’s got a movie because he says so.

Got me a movie / I want you to know

The movie’s the 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. The film features a scene where the eyeball of a slaughtered calf is sliced open by a cut-throat razor. The scene’s referred to in the song.

Slicin’ up eyeballs / I want you to know

Un Chien Andalou

Un Chien Andalou

We’re then introduced to a girl. We’re told she’s groovy, but the second she appears she vanishes without a trace, because the guy seems more interested in being the title of the movie, an Andalusian dog, and telling us that when he grows up he wants to be a debaser. Whatever that is. Frankly, it’s all a bit confusing. But then that’s the point. Like Un Chien Andalou, Debaser isn’t really about anything. Something Luis Bunuel and Dali would have applauded no end. Their divining rule of thumb in making Un Chien Andalou was to make as little sense as possible and to entertain no idea or image that lent itself to rational explanation. Debaser is an anti-song, the words chosen more for their sound than their meaning and delivered like they’re falling off a cliff. Fast, sharp, brutal. And it doesn’t mess around with dead weight. They’re in and out of the song before you can say boo. Which is trademark. The Pixies wrote adventures you didn’t listen to so much as buckle up for and hold on until the end. They were to music what William Burroughs was to literature: outlaws on the edge of form, substance and taste. And like William Burroughs – – crime writer, criminal, iconoclast, author of fantasy, science fiction, horror – the mischief and nonsense at the heart of every Pixies’ song, the cryptic allusions to avant-garde cinema and incest and oddball pathologies and the Bible, all prevented them from achieving the kind of commercial success they deserved.

It’s been said of the Pixies that, like the Velvet Underground, not everyone bought their albums but those who did went out and formed a band, or were indebted to them in some way musically. Like the boys from Nirvana. Radiohead. The Smashing Pumpkins. A band’s band, perhaps. Or just hard to pin down. A fierce light that still burns today but burnt brightest between 1986 and 1993. An accident of musicians in the right place and time who rewrote the lyrical and melodic songbook, and in many ways demonstrated Henry Miller’s observations on nonsense and its unsuspected affinities with the profound. In On Writing, Miller talks of his literary relationship with nonsense, his fear of it, his terror, and draws on the ‘pure nonsense’ of fantasy to extrapolate on how the imagination, given wings, is driven to create worlds with their own laws not bound to the earth by gravity but desire, and how threatening these worlds are to the mainstream, the top 40, the social realists, the purveyors of all things literary and tasteful, circling their prize-laden wagons so the crime writers and the fantasy writers and the romance writers and the Pixies and William Burroughs and Henry Miller can’t get in.

William Burroughs

William Burroughs

The complex debate around the novel and the canons of art is as much about the quality of a work as it is about sameness and fear. The literary novel, no matter how well written, how well produced and sold, how beautifully realised its ideas, has become a snobbery of aesthetics that’s being called to account by the so-called trifles of the penny dreadful. The pop novel. The novel that gets picked up by filmmakers or flaunts a stand at airport bookstores. Or the pure nonsense and escapist fantasies of spec fic, science fiction, novels populated by people of all ages, in love, on the run, biological hybrids, animals that talk, in English, bad Spanish, bad English. This is not a new writing conceived in the hallways of academia or literary journals but a groundswell following the success of a few genre writers that’s disrupted establishment fiction. It’s old school rock’n’roll. And although it’s not new writing in the experimental sense of the term, it may very well lead to a new novel that isn’t bound by the same pedestrian laws as gravity and history and sense.

 

Sean MacGillicuddy

 

Debaser – Recorded 1988 at Downtown Recorders in Boston Massachusetts written by Black Francis. Label 4AD.

Anthology: Art & Music

The seasons have long inspired artists across all disciplines, both singularly and as a complete cyclic whole. Here is a representation of some of those sets from visual artists and composers around the world and from the Renaissance period through to the Twentieth Century.

 

Giuseppe Arcimboldo
(1526-1593) Italian

Arcimboldo’s portraits are among today’s most recognisable Mannerist paintings, particularly his portrayal of the Four Seasons, two of which are on display in the Louvre. Mannerism was an artistic movement that straddled the Renaissance and Baroque periods and focused on the connection between humans and nature.

“Arcimboldo also tried to show his appreciation of nature through his portraits. In The Spring, the human portrait was composed of only various spring flowers and plants. From the hat to the neck, every part of the portrait, even the lips and nose, was composed of flowers, while the body was composed of plants. On the other hand, in The Winter, the human was composed mostly of roots of trees. Some leaves from evergreen trees and the branches of other trees became hair, while a straw mat became the costume of the human portrait.” (from Wikipedia)

 

Nicolas Poussin
(1594-1665) Italian

Painted only 100 years after Arcimboldo’s portraits, between 1660 and 1664, Poussin’s series portrays the seasons through allegorical landscapes, focusing on the grandeur of nature and it’s power over man rather than the Mannerist depiction of intimate connection. Commissioned for the Duc de Richelieu, the nephew of Cardinal Richelieu, Poussin’s series symbolises the seasons through Old Testament episodes.

 

Antonio Vivaldi
(1678-1741) Italian

Composed a half-century after Poussin’s series, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni) are arguably the most recognisable pieces of Art music in the world today. The suite is a set of four violin concertos, each representing a sonnet describing one of the four seasons. Firmly Baroque in style, the concertos are balanced, evocative and virtuosic.

 

Astor Piazzolla 

(1921-1992) Argentinian

Contrasting in style to Vivaldi’s concertos, Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas, also known as the The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, is a modern chamber music suite representing the season’s in Piazzolla’s native Argentina. Composed in the twentieth century, the suite is a set of four tango compositions scored for Piazzolla’s quintet of violin (viola), piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón.

Elise Janes

See the Anthology of Poetry.

On “October”

U2OctoberU2 are arguably one of the biggest rock’n’roll bands in the world. Generally speaking, they behave like one of the biggest rock’n’roll bands in the world without tripping over themselves or their work as humanitarian fact totems. It’s all about the music, and with Bono’s thoroughbred falsetto and the Edge’s signature guitar, U2 have carved out a kind of sonic trademark that can be traced back to their debut album Boy released in 1980. The following year they released October, with a title track that stands out from U2’s stable of songs for being so unremarkably simple and restrained. It’s just the Edge on piano, and Bono. And although it’s not a particularly short song for the format, at two four line verses and no chorus or build or quirky middle-eight to set things off, it feels brief. Like it’s over before it began. Or there’s nothing to it. Bono called October an interlude, a cold, slow, pared back, weighed down, moody evocation of winter. An Irish winter. The indifferent inevitability of it. Its through to your bones and soul.

October

And the trees are stripped bare

Of all they wear

What do I care?

October

And kingdoms rise

And kingdoms fall

But you go on

ImaginationDeadImagineBono’s description of October as an interlude on an album full of songs suggests it hasn’t fully ripened or been written into its full term. That it lacks some pivotal ingredient of song-ness and is no more than a bridge between movements, a phrase. Which asks the question: what is a song? When is a song a song and not an interlude or a jingle? In most of the arts there’s a consensus of definition based on tradition, form and length. So a painting must use or at the very least be about paint to be a painting. A film must be a film. A dance must be a dance. And a novel must be a prose narrative of considerable length with a plot driven by actions, characters, thoughts and speech. Etcetera. But wherever there’s a consensus of definition, there’ll always be those who question how those definitions are made and who they serve. Like Samuel Beckett’s Imagination Dead Imagine which is no more than a pamphlet with next to no plot or characters to speak of but is considered by many to be his greatest novel, a work of such concentrated intensity that all but the pragmatic essentials of narrative have been excised from the text. Or the short story attributed to Ernest Hemingway that reads:

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Or M. Flanigan’s Codeine Dream.

I feel nothing

But pain

By itself, I feel nothing but pain is an anguished but hollow sentence waiting to be framed by what caused the pain in the first place and how the person suffering the pain plans to deal with it. Or not. However, like Hemingway’s shoes, Codeine Dream is a fully realised world as darkly grim and furnished as any conceived by Mishima or Kafka. The line-break gives it compression. What caused the pain or how the pain might be alleviated or endured is overshadowed by the expanse created by the return carriage. The same can be said of October, with its spectral landscape and manifest cold and the vanity of what do I care. In some ways, its distilled brevity holds more abstract significance than many of U2’s more definitive songs for not proclaiming itself with such exuberant sincerity. It is the winter of things, the spring, the bleak evanescence of change. And its line break appears at the end. Its compression is in the reprise.

And on… Bono sings after the final line.

And on. As if addressing something out of reach. The unknowable, perhaps; forever. Yearning, pleading, praying. Holding on to the note for fear it might drift away. So melancholy. Lost. So beautifully forlorn.

 

Like footsteps disappearing in the snow.

 

Sean Macgillicuddy

 

  1. October Recorded 1981 Label Island Lyrics and music Bono and The Edge
  2. Flanagan Codeine Dreams published in The Quarterly 24 1992 Vintage Books New York

 

On “Gimme Shelter”

It’s 1969, and the Beatles perform together for the last time on the roof of Apple headquarters in London as the US military begins a clandestine bombing campaign in Cambodia. It’s four years since the US officially entered Vietnam, and President Richard Nixon vows to begin withdrawing ground troops by September. Neil Armstrong sets foot on the moon. Members of the Manson Family murder Sharon Tate and friends at the Benedict Canyon mansion she shares with husband Roman Polanski, as the US National Guard contains anti-war demonstrators with rubber bullets and skin stinging spray following the arrest of the Chicago Eight. Moratorium marches erupt across the US. Journalist Seymour Hersh publishes details of the My Lai massacre and the Rolling Stones record Gimme Shelter with Meryl Clayton singing a last-minute backing track that lifts the song through the roof.

gimmeshelter 1 imagesMick Jagger called Gimme Shelter an end of days song, a bleak and foreboding mirror to the insanity of the Vietnam War, race riots, anti-war riots, activists and anarchists and revolutionaries of all persuasions clashing with police from Chicago to Paris to New York. It’s a slow build, with Keith Richards picking a careful path through the overture before Meryl Clayton’s haunted vocal sweeps in like a fog, a mist, a darkening of something, a brewing, the helicopters in that scene from Apocalypse Now backlit by the sunrise, the moment before a scare, an explosion, a gunshot, the sound cranked out of old Triumph speakers to give it a bit more grunge, like something put together on the fly, the run, fleeing from something with good reason because they’re coming and they’re coming for you! Then Charlie Watts steps in with two snap reports on the tom and away we go.

Oh, a storm is threat’ning

My very life today

If I don’t get some shelter

Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

War, children, it’s just a shot away

It’s just a shot away

 

MansonAltamontKeith Richards, who actually wrote the song, doesn’t recall being infused with the same social outrage or conscience as Jagger, but it’s sure as hell infused with something. Gimme Shelter packs all the heft of an anti-war song, but unlike Sunday Bloody Sunday or Edwin Starr’s War, it’s rarely pulled out by filmmakers to soundtrack peace rallies or brand a sentiment. There’s something about Gimme Shelter, a menace, that lends itself equally to a helicopter gunship flying low over the Mekong Delta or the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the post-war diaspora of Vietnamese refugees that literally took to the sea. Seeking shelter. And many of those refuges travelled south down the Indonesian archipelago to Australia, where they were resettled without being interned in detention camps or issued with Temporary Protection Visas. The then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser died in March 2015. At his funeral, members of the Vietnamese community attended to pay their respects carrying banners and placards applauding him as a champion of humanity. Their appeal for shelter has not been answered in the same way since.

AltamontGimme Shelter appeared on the 1969 album Let It Bleed. On December 6 of that year, during a promotional tour of the US, the Rolling Stones held a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in San Francisco. The local chapter of the Hells Angels was asked to provide security. They were reportedly paid in beer. In a documentary of the event, aptly named Gimme Shelter, Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old arts student from Berkeley, is seen lunging towards the stage with what appears to be a gun. He is stopped by members of the Hells Angels armed with weighted pool cues and motorcycle chains, then beaten to the ground, and stabbed five times in the upper back. Meredith Hunter died at the scene. He was one of four to die that day at Altamont, an event promoters tried to sell as an alternative Woodstock but is now viewed by many as the symbolic end of an era. The Sixties. However the Sixties is seen, lost and remote to some, remembered by others as the most colourful, violent, ground-breaking decade of the century, it was the first time in history where the universe seemed to align in such a way as to create a space for thousands of people across the globe to stand up and in one voice say: What binds us is stronger and more valuable than what divides us. The anti-war movement. Feminism. Civil Rights. Gay Pride. In some ways, the anti-establishment movements of today have their roots in the Sixties. And behind every banner, every charge at the barricades, every Molotov cocktail and upturned car, what motivates the anger and passion and theatre and violence can be found in the last refrain of Gimme Shelter sung loud from the rooftops and pavements of Chicago, Paris, New York.

I said love, sister,

It’s just a kiss away

It’s just a kiss away….

Sean Macgillicuddy

On “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)”

If you distilled Baudrillard, Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky into a band, chances are you’d get Talking Heads. They weren’t the first band to sing about consumerism or the media or the meaninglessness of meaning but they did it like nobody else. More Songs About Buildings and Food. Fear Of Music. Talking Heads were a virtual New York of the imagination, all skyscrapers and horns and fast-talking street vendors and cabbies. Like New York, geographically located in the United States but not completely of it, Talking Heads may have been associated with Punk and the New Wave but they were always tuned to a slightly different frequency, David Byrne fronting the band like he was hooked up to an ECG machine telling listeners about a van loaded with weapons and the sound of gunfire in the distance and the diminishing shelf life of identity and possessions.

this must be the placeThen in 1983 they released their fifth and most commercially successful album to date, Speaking In Tongues, with the single “Burning Down the House” peaking at Number 9 in the American Billboard charts. Despite this mainstream popularity, Speaking In Tongues lacked none of the groundbreaking edge of previous albums, with the band trashing the traditional verse – chorus – verse conventions of the song for more hypnotic signatures and beats normally found in gospel or jazz. And no better is this illustrated than in the final track of the album, “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)”.

“This Must Be the Place” is a love song. Its simplicity – the enchanting, happy, catchy riff played simultaneously by both guitar and bass providing no counterpoint to the melody – verges on an asylum soporific, or a lullaby, with David Byrne singing the word ‘home’ over and over again as a kind of refrain. But its simplicity is deceptive. There’s a bewilderment to the song, a constant reassuring that home is where we are, where we’re supposed to be, and nothing’s wrong because one thing means the other. But it doesn’t. Not always. Everything about “This Must Be the Place” is slightly uncertain, vulnerable, baffled, reaching out for something to grab on to as we guess we’re OK, we guess we’re at home, we guess nothing’s wrong but not sure. It’s a lullaby sung to a newborn, with all the puzzled fear and apprehension a newborn has gazing out at a world full of colours, shapes and sounds. Being told it’s safe. Whispered. And you’re holding this newborn. A child you’ve participated in creating. Their tiny body slung over your shoulder as you lull them to sleep, burp them, their little head attached to their neck by a ribbon, their diffident creaks and yelps, now looking up at you with deep olive eyes saying…

You got a face with a view

I’m just an animal looking for a home

And share the same space for a minute or two

And you love me till my heart stops

Love me till I’m dead…

Byrne with lamp 3There’s a beautiful moment in Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s concert film of Talking Heads live in LA, where the lights go down, and the band begins “This Must Be the Place”. David Byrne turns on a ‘50s-style floor lamp with a pull cord, as a bookcase is projected onto a screen behind the band. Home. As the song ends, David Byrne invites the lamp to dance, and at one point reaches out Byrne with lamp 1with both arms and takes the lamp into his embrace and holds it there for a moment before releasing it to topple precariously on its stand as if finding its feet. Which it does. And the song ends. But Byrne’s dance with the lamp remains. There’s something going on here, like a coda that both closes and accentuates the meaning of the song. This awkward dance with the lamp, this fragile song about love, is as simple and hard as it gets. You make it up as you go along. Like the newborn asleep in your arms. You’re their shelter, their food, their answers, their love, their laughter, their safety, their home. It’s bedtime. You swaddle them carefully in a white muslin wrap, as David Byrne sings:

Never for money, only for love

Cover up and say goodnight

Say goodnight…

   Sean Macgillicuddy

  • “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” (1983). Label: Sire. B-side Moon Rocks. Lyrics by David Byrne music by the band from the album Speaking In Tongues
  • Stop Making Sense (1984) concert movie directed by Jonathan Demme shot over the course of three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater.

Harry

Sean has just welcomed his new son Harry into the world. 

On “Wide Open Road”

The idea of an Australian music as recognisably Australian as Italian Opera or American Jazz is a difficult sell. Before the composer Peter Sculthorpe began exploring instruments and sounds that reflected the landscape in which he lived, Australian music was pretty much variations on a European theme. It lacked the bone dry greys and harsh yellows of the interior. Its desolate unforgivingness. Its space.

In the ‘70s, The Bushwhackers fused American Country with Anglo-Celtic Folk into an Australian bush music and took it overseas to some acclaim, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that bands began singing about where they lived. The Go-Betweens, Paul Kelly, even Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel, turned the urban experience of Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney into lyrics that spoke of people’s homes, their streets, bus trips up and down the east coast and pubs. Bands in pubs. Working class venues for working class songs. It was a kind of cockney, an unashamedly parochial song-line that didn’t speak for everyone but said it in a distinctively Australian way. And part of that white song-line addressing what it meant to be Australian but a little off to the side of the mainstream was The Triffids.

TheTriffids_Belgium1985The Triffids formed in Perth in the late ‘70s. On the surface, they were just another group of fashionably melancholy and disenfranchised malcontents on the literary fringe of rock. Post Punk. But their music had a kind of landscape: big without being anthemic, vast without being too long. There was a heat to their music, a dryness; a space between the chords that gave it a height and distance more profoundly haunting than the guitar based rock of their contemporaries.

“Wide Open Road” was the first single from The Triffids’ 1986 album Born Sandy Devotional. It’s a perfect example of how the band evoked the brutal reality of place, of Australia, and the interminable endlessness of country and its impact on the soul. “Wide Open Road” is a state of mind. It is the search for love, home, hope, but perhaps condemned, like Sisyphus, to the wide open road of futility and disappointment. When The Triffids’ chief vocalist and songwriter David McComb asks how it feels:

Sleeping by yourself

When the one you love

The one you love

Is with someone else

The answer is simply:

It’s a wide open

A wide open road

triffids_bestofThere’s nothing else. Going on for miles with no enforceable speed limit and flanked as it is by spectral eucalypts and road kill; embodied by the zero desolation of Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris or Nic Roeg’s Walkabout; the word DIG carved into the hide of a coolabah tree by Burke and Wills on Cooper Creek; a dingo ate my baby. There’s nothing back to nature about this Australia. It’s too bleak and forbidding to be sound tracked by violins or middle eights or the tight vocal arrangements of pop or rock. It’s a mirage, where the very stuff of identity is consumed by the ever-shifting horizon promising a connection but:

I reach out just to touch you

Then I realise

It’s a wide open road

David McComb’s vision as a songwriter was a constant grappling with a vernacular for the journey we’re on in this strange and semi-mythical place called Australia. It’s a vernacular of identity. And one could argue this grappling for identity is the very job of the artist, both on an individual and a larger socio-political scale, and that finding a music for this journey is as fundamental to a nation’s character as its architecture, its stories, its coat of arms or flag. “Advance Australia Fair” might rouse us to our feet to open major sporting events, but a people needs a music that scratches beneath the surface of jingoistic nationalism and through the murky interiors of what defines us. That acknowledging the cultural and historical relevance of Gallipoli while viewing the violent liberation of Aboriginal peoples from their families and land as a thing of the past might not be as Australian as we’d like to think.

the-triffids-born-sandy-devotionalThe Triffids’ unique take on the relationship between place and music was as much a lament as it was a love song, a yearning for something lost or for something never there to begin with but remembered on some deep cellular level as our home. Like American Jazz, maybe this pining for a home we’ve never known is the beginning of a white Australian music, a music of displacement, searching, a music that truly encapsulates the wide open roadness of our place in this place.

 Sean Macgillicuddy

McComb, David. “Wide Open Road”. Born Sandy Devotional. Mushroom, 1986. LP

Top Ten Christmas Movie Themes

If you need an alternative to “Jingle Bells” for your seasonal playlist this year, the following Christmas movie themes will more than suffice.

Pushing beyond vocal soundtracks the movies on this list are notable for their incredible orchestral themes and underscoring, though some do have quality soundtracks (double win) and also happen to be great movies. Really, this is an all-round great list for your festive entertainment needs.

Home Alone

  1. Home Alone (1990) – John Williams

There’s no particular order here but it wouldn’t be right unless “Home Alone” had the top spot. Remember the old days when kid’s movies had live actors? Just one of the many reasons this movie is an eternal classic. Another is John Williams. No one writes a melody quite like him and you’ll be humming “Somewhere in My Memory” for days. The overture opens with a foreshadowing of Williams’s “Harry Potter” in playful jingle bells and creepy Christmas-mystery chromaticism, and then expands magically into that simple but perfect melody, the quintessence of Christmas movie magic. Add a children’s choir and melt-in-your-mouth strings and the effect is complete. Home Alone 2 revisits the same melodic material, and some claim it’s even better than the original.

  1. Love Actually (2003) – Craig Armstrong

The first and best (and most English) of ensemble movies, “Love Actually” is a proven hit. Managing to be equal parts festive, funny and romantic the movie gets away with the cheese by being just the right amount of self-deprecating and then nailing the emotional climaxes. Bill Nighy’s “Christmas is All Around You” is a highlight, but the true magic happens in the scoring. You’ll never forget the revelatory moment when Juliet watches Mark’s video to that simple, heartbreaking piano motif. The Portuguese Love Theme is another gem, delicate yet triumphant, but the penultimate scene with Sam running through the airport toward his New York love would be nothing without Armstrong’s immaculate scoring. He wields strings, French horns and timpani in a grand, festive crescendo and if you aren’t struck with goosebumps for those few minutes than there’s something wrong with you.

  1. The Holiday (2006) – Hans Zimmer

A more predictable festive romance, “The Holiday” is still a well-produced story with some surprisingly fun details, the best of which is Eli Wallach. Hans Zimmer wisely opts for a lightly textured score, steering away from grandiose orchestral romanticism that could have cheapened the fairy-floss story. Where Williams is master of the melody, Zimmer specializes in layered motifs, making clever use of piano, electric guitar and drum kit alongside strings and minimal woodwind. The oscillating string movement of the central theme is stirringly uplifting while also cleverly evoking the wildness and mystery of the Santa Ana winds. Zimmer also does a great job of blending with Frou Frou’s spacious soundtrack items. The emotional climax of the story, the Cry, is an appropriately triumphant moment without pushing too far into cheese territory.

  1. The Polar Express (2004) – Alan Silvestri

Criticised by some for being too dark and ghostly (have people not seen A Christmas Carol?) “The Polar Express” is a quirky magical journey and a welcome alternative to the bubbly children’s comedies usual of the genre. Alan Silvestri is no stranger to Christmas movies and his bouncy music-hall tunes and expansive orchestral landscaping mark one of the highlights of his composing credits. Try not to focus on the nasal twangs of Tom Hanks half-singing the title song, and listen instead to the musical genius beneath. The opening refrain of the main theme is epic, mysterious and appropriately skin-tingling, complete with wordless choir and wind-chime glissandos. Silvestri contrasts the grand orchestral moments with sections of shimmering strings and panpipe, evoking the glistening moonlit landscape. The songs are also clever, fun and catchy, especially “Hot Chocolate” and “Polar Express”.

  1. Miracle on 34th St (1994) – Bruce Broughton

Even with credits like “Silverado” and “Tombstone” to his name, Bruce Broughton is strangely no longer a household name in movie composition. Though he continues to write for the screen to this day, “Miracle on 34th St” marks one of his last well-known scores. Opening with the famous Christmas-bell herald that forms the musical leitmotif of the movie, Broughton segues seamlessly into the Miracle theme demonstrating a deft hand at the powerful evocation of Christmas joy (he also composed for “All I Want for Christmas” in 1991). He creates a delicate atmosphere with light strings, brass, and, of course, Christmas bells. You may notice the ‘evil’ theme sounds strangely similar to parts of “The Lion King”, composed by Hans Zimmer in the same year. The truly amazing moment, however, comes with his use of a cappella children’s choir, building a powerful, sacred moment from a wordless medieval melody.

NOTE: Though the movie is enjoyable, and stars David Attenborough, do yourself a favour and unearth the 1947 version instead.

NightmareBeforeChristmas985

  1. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Danny Elfman

Tim Burton and Danny Elfman go way back, a unique artistic partnership that has given us such flawlessly deranged movies as “Edward Scissorhands” and “Corpse Bride”. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is no exception, and it’s dark silliness forms a fun counterpoint to the whimsical romantic comedies on offer. The Overture demonstrates the artistic variety of Elfman’s scoring, opening with a Star Wars-esque expansiveness which soon breaks into a zany galloping dance and then into melodic hints of the great songs to come, “This Is Halloween” and “Jack’s Lament”. With bells and other metallic percussion used liberally throughout, contrasted frequently with heavy lower brass and woodwind, Elfman masterfully blends chromatic eeriness, dreamlike delicacy, and heavy black drama into an active score. Listen attentively and you’ll soon realize that the music is as vital to the story as the brilliant animation, never once letting up for the entire movie.

  1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) – James Horner

A fitting contrast to Elfman’s lively, detailed scoring, James Horner specializes more in full orchestral sweeps and unobtrusively fluid themes. Famous for his work on “Titanic”, “Avatar” and “Braveheart”, it’s clear that subtle grandeur most defines his style. Employing full, slow-moving string layers with delicate woodwind and piano solos (you’ll notice how much he loves the oboe), and the requisite Christmas bells, he creates a suitably glistening carpet of sound to mirror the snowy beauty of Whoville. It’s rather clear his talent doesn’t lie in comic songs (eg, “Happy Who-lidays”) so fortunately most of The Grinch is orchestral and Horner more than makes up for it in moments like Memories of a Green Christmas.

  1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) – Vince Guaraldi Trio

The sophisticated comic awareness of “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schultz is perfectly depicted in the musical choice for this animated Snoopy short. The link between childhood innocence and timeless wisdom is brought to life in laid-back jazz meanderings from the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Improvising on some well-known Christmas favourites, such as “Christmas Time is Here” and “O Tannenbaum”, the Trio also add brilliance to the simple beauty of character scenes like Ice Skating. The full soundtrack makes for excellent Christmas cocktail-party music, and would be equally useful for a romantic eggnog-by-the-fire evening.

  1. Joyeux Noel (2005) – Phillippe Rombi

The power of a single voice was the inspiration behind “Joyeux Noel”, and it fittingly forms the genesis of the most powerful Christmas movie moment ever. Though not a festive song, the simple, rustic melody of “I’m Dreaming of Home” evolves powerfully from a wordless hum into a fully orchestrated work under the brilliant hand of Phillippe Rombi, with echoes of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”. A truly exceptional musical experience on its own, the movie itself is another level altogether. The titular scene, complete with bagpipes, a Scottish men’s chorus and an a cappella rendition of “Stille Nacht”, will have you in goosebumps from the outset if not in a complete teary mess. If you’ve lost some Christmas spirit over the years, this movie should be the first on your list.

Joyeux Noel

  1. L.A. Confidential (1997) – Jerry Goldsmith

It’s not the most Christmassy narrative on the list but it’s a perfect antidote to glimmering holiday cheer if it all becomes a little to much. The soundtrack itself is brilliant, with upbeat jazz-age standards mixed among festive favourites, but the movie gets its lone-wolf noir atmosphere from the haunting solo trumpet brilliantly woven through the score by Goldsmith. He also plays a clever hand blending grand orchestral sweeps with edgy jazz drum fills. Understated but extremely clever, Goldsmith’s score plays a huge role in the movie’s success as one of the most highly rated films of all time. Ok, yeah, and Kevin Spacey might also have something to do with that. 

Special mentions

Definitely worth a watch for its full-length orchestrated score that brings the innocent animation to life, but most notable for it’s ethereal child solo: Walking in the Air.

Silvestri blends echoes of every famous carol into a surprisingly original score. Perfect for clever instrumental reinventions of your favourite carols.

This one is more famous for the songs but that’s only because almost all of them have since become Christmas standards, particularly “White Christmas”, made famous by Bing Crosby in “Holiday Inn” long before the movie of the same title was made ten years later. Berlin is also responsible for bringing us “Happy Holiday”. If that’s not enough, just watch it for Fred Astaire and Bing himself. Swoon.

Finally…

If you need some more Art music ways to enjoy Christmas, find a live performance of “The Messiah” or “The Nutcracker” that you can witness in the flesh. You won’t regret it. If none are accessible in your local area, try these exceptional versions on YouTube:

On “Strange Fruit”

punksingerThe Punk Singer is a 2013 documentary about iconoclastic singer/songwriter Kathleen Hanna. The movie charts her brilliant, sad, radical, and sometimes violent trajectory across the musical landscape of the American Northwest in the ‘90s. Her limelight began in 1990 fronting the hard core 4-piece Bikini Kill. When criticised for not being able to play their instruments, the band’s response was simply ‘And?’ They  were part of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along ethic of politics, fashion, music and art that owed as much to the Punk vanguards of the ‘70s as it did to the Beats and Dada. Kathleen Hanna was Punk as Kathy Acker was Punk. Barbara Kruger. Her music was the Revolution Rock revived from its reggae roots by the Clash. With Kathleen Hanna, the protest song was taken to a new velocity, with new levels of impact and immediacy, but her musical and political genealogy ran deep, beyond Punk and the protest movement of the ‘60s, to Blues, and Jazz, and perhaps one of the most beautifully haunting protest songs of all time. Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”.

strangefruitsmall“Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher and member of the Communist Party in New York. It was first sung by Holiday in 1939, 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white person inadvertently kicking off what history remembers as the Civil Rights Movement. The song is a simple, poetic, and deeply evocative protest against lynching in the South, where, amidst the fresh scent of magnolias in the breeze, black bodies swing from the poplar trees.

“Strange Fruit” was considered so hot at the time, so incendiary, Billie Holiday’s record company Columbia actually released her from contract, for one day, to record it. (It became her largest selling album.) When she first performed it at Café Society in New York’s Greenwich Village, it closed her set. The manager had all the waiters stop serving, threw the entire room into darkness with a single spot illuminating Holiday’s face, and she sang the entire number with eyes closed, as if in prayer, lamenting:

The bulging eyes and the twisting mouth

Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop…

(Meeropol, 1937)

Billie HolidayBilly Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is a very different scream to Kathleen Hanna’s bullet vocals trashing the hypocritical mores of sexuality and violence and celebrating the wild autonomy of feminism, but the punk girl’s anger grows from the same soil as the blood soaked poplar trees of the American South. In “Strange Fruit”, as Billy Holiday reaches the final word of the final phrase, her voice lifts. Like the opening of a window. Because within every hard core protest song is also a song about freedom and possibility.  As Kathleen Hanna points out in The Punk Singer, there’s no point singing about revolution unless you can dance to it.

Sean Macgillicuddy

Meeropol, Abel. (1937). As “Bitter Fruit”. The New York Teacher (ed. unknown). New York.

The Rejectee’s Guide to Recovery

Despite the tact with which a rejecter will attempt to frame their delicate response, we all know it comes down to one simple fact: they don’t like your work. Maybe you’re not what they’re looking for right now, or the timing is wrong, or you’re simply not up to scratch, but the underlying point is that if they loved it, they’d take it, and they haven’t, so they don’t.

Rejection sucks because no matter what anyone says, it is personal.

So why not accept it? Take a moment for some well-deserved self-pity and emotional wallowing with the aid of a few practical tools. I give you the best five things to read, watch and listen to in the post-rejection wasteland:

Read

  1. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

The thinly veiled autobiography of writerly disillusionment offers a number of good tips for the emotionally wasted: drink absinthe in Paris, fish in the Pyrenees, drink wine in Pamplona, argue with friends, watch a bloody spectacle, run with the bulls. It’s also a nice melancholy reflection on desiring something eternally out of reach.

  • ALSO: Anything by Hemingway or Fitzgerald will have a close effect.
  1. The Motorcycle Diaries – Ernesto “Che” Guevara

A startlingly beautiful memoir of the fateful nine months a 23-year-old Guevara spent travelling South America. Between the gorgeous landscape and fascinating anecdotes, get worked up about social injustice and indigenous poverty. Let loose your vicarious desire to join a revolution and make this damn unfair world a better place.

  • ALSO: On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Less Than Zero and other romans à clef will serve a similar purpose.
  1. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

Not only is Heathcliff the best literary creation ever, you can also shelve your murderous impulses and let him take your vengeful fantasies to the extreme. Themes of obsession, possession, revenge and passionate, destructive love will make you feel righteously justified, and the gothic atmosphere will add depth to your moodiness.

  • ALSO: Jane Eyre and Rebecca for hauntings of the past; The Count of Monte Cristo for elaborately plotted revenge.
  1. The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

Read, with growing unease, the story of Balram Halwai’s gradual corruption as he sheds his family background to transcend poverty in a heavily caste-riven society. The message is clear and discomforting, confirming your suspicions that the only way to get ahead is to cut a few corners/throats.

  • ALSO: For atmosphere: English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee. For classic rags-to-riches: Vanity Fair and Great Expectations.
  1. Carrie – Stephen King

Whether or not you’re a fan of the King, sometimes a good horror story is just necessary. He can also weave a damn good yarn and surprisingly three-dimensional characters into the gore and strangeness. A bullied adolescent girl getting hers back is satisfying on so many levels, no matter who you are.

  • ALSO: Other violent revenge tales such as True Grit, Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, and of course Hamlet.

Watch

  1. Empire Records (1995)

Many 90s movies showcased the quirkiness of youth and the value (or futility) of standing up to The Man. None with such colourful aplomb as Empire Records. The characters are zany, the music fantastic, the dialogue hilarious, and the embrace-your-inner-crazy-and-refuse-to-sell-out message is charmingly encouraging. It gets better with each watch.

  1. The Big Sleep (1946)

Raymond Chandler wrote crime novels that didn’t always make sense but we forgave him because he created Philip Marlowe and invented noir. Read the book as well but the 1946 movie, with Humphrey Bogart, is a standalone classic. Be encouraged by frequent double-crossings, the latent atmosphere of disillusionment and the general shittiness of people.

  1. Django Unchained (2012)

Eccentric characters, tangled plot, memorable dialogue, and unnecessary amounts of blood. Must be Tarantino. His deft mood-changes from slapstick comedy to nail-biting rage somehow pinpoint both the endearing and horrific qualities of human nature with great authenticity. No one does revenge quite like him.

  1. On the Waterfront (1954)

Corruption narratives are so cathartic when you’ve been screwed over. Nominated for 12 Oscars, the cast and crew read like a who’s who of golden-era greats. Your fists will clench at the fate of Marlon Brando’s character Terry Malloy, particularly the moment he delivers that line: I coulda been a contender! And you will think: me too, buddy. Me too.

  1. Magnolia (1999) & Crash (2004)

Both movies feature brilliantly interwoven storylines with star-spangled ensemble casts delivering pivotal performances. Dark themes abound but situations manage to resolve with surprising optimism, and without too much Hollywood contrivance. Magnolia is the less crowd-pleasing of the two, and it also has Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Listen

  1. Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

In this seminal album the band manage to sum up all the melancholic love, confusion and frustrated desire of every generation alive. It goes without saying that “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and “Wonderwall” should be the first on your playlist.

  1. The Darkness – Permission to Land

The best album for air-guitaring and hair-swinging to come out of the noughties. Catchy falsetto lyrics give everyone permission to sing out of tune at the top of their lungs. “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” is one of the most satisfying experiences in the universe.

  1. Ben Folds – Whatever and Ever Amen

The epitome of Ben Fold’s early work: revel in his angsty, anti-adolescent rage and insecurity with “One Angry Dwarf”, “The Battle of Who Could Care Less” and the superbly appropriate “Song for the Dumped”.

  1. Colin Hay – Going Somewhere

Leaving Men at Work far behind, his solo acoustic stuff is where Hay’s talent really shines. We have Zach Braff to thank for bringing him back into the light on Scrubs. Do not miss “Beautiful World”, an acoustic cover of “Overkill”, or “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin”.

  1. Rock of Ages Soundtrack – Various

Yeah it’s a compilation but there’s something about cheesy 80s rock that just feels so good when you’re pissed off. This collection features the full range from “We’re Not Gonna Take It” to “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”.

So after enjoying the vicarious fulfillment of your emotional frustrations, take a moment to reflect. All of this incredible art came from people who felt just as shitty as you at some point in their lives. And if they can make the proverbial lemonade out of rejection’s lemons, then why can’t you?

Elise Janes

Share with us! Suggest your own artistic rejection-remedy in the comments below.