Modern Mozart – Mike Oldfield’s latest reminds us of the uplifting power of music

As an 18-year-old college sophomore at a small midwestern college, I had to search far and wide to find the kind of eclectic British progressive music that I craved.  I had been early amongst my peers in appreciating bands like Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  My brother and I had an informal competition to find the best new music, and then we would enjoy introducing each other to our new discovery.  But I was not prepared for what I came across while working for my college FM radio station in 1973.

The album cover displayed an ocean shore with a bow-tie twisted silver tube and the simple words “Mike Oldfield-Tubular Bells.”  I had read about this 20 year-old musical prodigy who had created 40 minutes of instrumentals, and that he had played the 20+ instruments himself.  Today’s technology would have made this practice fairly common with an average laptop and commonly available software.  Released as the initial effort of young entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Records label, Tubular Bells made Oldfield famous and wealthy, but also put great pressure on the young musician to produce a successful follow-up.  It’s millions of copies sold worldwide produced the seed money that launched Branson’s massively successful business empire capped by his recent sale of his Virgin America Airlines to Alaska Air for $4 billion.

For US listeners, Oldfield was plucked out of obscurity when director William Friedkin used the opening piano solo notes as the “Theme from The Exorcist” which earned the composer a Grammy award in 1975.  Oldfield’s subsequent works remained popular in Europe, but never really caught on in the USA. His third album, Ommadawn  was categorized by some as “world music” due to an extended section at the end of part one being dominated by a mesmerizing pace of ensemble African drumming.  Oldfield’s melody-centered long-form instrumentals were considered passe’ when punk rock came on the scene in the 1980s.  Sales were disappointing and even Branson began to lose faith in his prize stallion.  With the exception of the popular hit “Moonlight Shadow” in 1983, the 80s became increasingly more about hit music videos.  The MTV Generation’s short attention span was a daunting audience for the long form rock musicians of the 60s and 70s.  The 1990’s brought two sequels, Tubular Bells II and III, but they appealed mainly to older fans who had embraced his original opus and newer fans didn’t seem inclined to devote the time to “listen” to music like the previous generation.

This past Friday, Oldfield released his 26th album, an attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle.  This new work, Return to Ommadawn, owes it’s musical heritage to many of his works of the 70s and 80s.  But Oldfield is now creating his music with a maturity of a man who has developed an exquisite sense of proper balance. His newest effort displays the confidence and experience of an accomplished musician who knows how to get the music exactly as he imagines it with today’s digital recording and mixing technologies.

The modern serious composer has a daunting challenge. How does the his work get heard in a world of pop, hip-hop, and dance music?  Oldfield’s offerings go straight to the heart, not just the feet and hips.  His creations hearken from a time when people listened to the soft shades and voices that combine like fine food with delicate spices and sauces.  There is no “hit song” or “Love theme from <worthless teen movie>.”  The more one puts the album through it’s paces, the more the listener marvels that one individual has so many shiny polished gems to share.  Return to Ommadawn is rich with the varying aural atmospheres that graced his past compositions but with the maturity of four decades has come a leaner,  pacing. 

I remember discovering new artists and musical works by listening to late night FM stations.  In high school, I would set my stereo system on a timer and fall asleep as the midnight radio personality would play both sides of the Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by the Moody Blues, Tommy by The Who, Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull, or Nursery Cryme by Genesis.  I remember hearing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in a record store and paying three times the face value to a young employee for a pre-released promotional copy off their turntable.  Is there an opportunity for new music to be introduced in a society with the focus and constant distraction of the social media world of today?  Is there any hope that an artist like Oldfield can get a fair hearing?  I believe this is very important to the improvement of modern culture.

The popular music scene has always been dominated by “fast-food” music and today’s “rip and share” piracy has made it very hard for any but the most widely distributed artists to find an audience, let alone make a living.  Oldfield ceased public performances after his sole symphonic composition, Music of the Spheres, was performed in Bilbao, Spain in 2008.  Living in the Bahamas, it seemed his live performance days were over until he received an email that film director Danny Boyle wanted to talk to him.  Boyle was going to produce the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics. Their ensuing conversations resulted in Oldfield performing a medley of his pieces in a tribute to the British National Health system.  Oldfield enjoyed playing a medley from parts of Tubular Bells I and III and the public response was gratifying.  Inspired by the experience to try recording again, he penned a series of songs and enlisted The Struts singer Luke Spiller to provide the vocals. Man on the Rocks was received with modest, but encouraging European success.  Return to Ommadawn is a return to his long form roots and before it was released he was already well along in working on Tubular Bells IV. 

It’s time for a new generation of young music lovers to discover the joy of heart-expanding music that inspires and uplifts.  In the effort to replace the darkness and cynicism of our doubts about the direction of our species, we must first endeavor to purge the mind of hatred and dark passions.  Inspiring music lifts man’s thoughts out of an animalistic nature to something more selfless and limitless.  Music can be used to expand our attempts to bring a more civilized aura of kindness to this universe.  It can effect our thinking in a way that allows each listener to find his own path with the inspiration that an accomplished and creative musician can produce.  Mike Oldfield’s Return to Ommadawn is exhibit A.

If you are reading this post and are curious about this work, please go purchase it.  We waste so much money in silly ways without a thought.  File-sharing discourages creativity and impoverishes the artists who push the boundaries of modern music.  For the cost of a couple of large Starbucks lattes we can help them keep the flow of innovation going!

Movie Review – Fences

When I saw the trailer for this movie, I almost jumped out of my seat.  Denzel Washington has used his considerable talent and “pull” over the last few years to do projects that ask tough questions of his fellow humans.

I thought his turn in “The Equalizer” posed important thoughts about the consequences of one’s actions and how one must juggle what you “can” do with what you “should” do.  His character discovers that while he could take on “the bad guys”, perhaps the ramifications of his actions must be sufficiently pondered.   The impulse to wreak havoc can cause irreversible damage.

His alcoholic pilot in “Flight” forced the audience to make a tough call. Can a man who endangers hundreds of passengers by flying drunk be a hero?  Washington portrays a “high-functioning” drunk who overcomes his self-induced handicap enough to take quick-acting, and radically unthinkable, solutions to a hopeless crisis in mid-air.  I have watched that film several times just to read Denzel’s face and try to interpret his thoughts as he makes several critical ethical choices throughout the film.  The pilot’s ethical thought-processes veer, like a drunk, back and forth down a hallway of choices before his character faces a final resolution.  It’s a painful journey and ends with a mixed result that doesn’t fully satisfy.  And it shouldn’t…

Years ago, during my time working for a local school, I organized regular outings for the students to go see different live performances in St. Louis.  Every year, I sent at least one group of students to see a play at the Black Reparatory Theater.  Whenever they had an August Wilson play, I sent a group.  My wife, in the years before we got to know each other, joined one of those groups as a chaperone and saw “Fences” at the Black Rep.  It made quite an impact on her.  When we saw the movie trailer we both made a mental note to make “Fences” one of our date night movies.

The plot of the play is centered around Troy Maxson (Washington) and his wife Rose (Oscar Nominee Viola Davis).  Troy was Negro League baseball player in the 1930s who would probably have been a major league star if not for Jim Crow restrictions preventing blacks from playing in the major leagues.  Now Troy is a sanitation worker in his 50s raising a teenage son from his marriage to Rose and occasionally sharing some of his meager earnings with a jazz musician son from a previous relationship. 

This dialogue heavy film is a powerful portrayal of life on the edge.  While it’s about a black family in the 1950s, many of the conflicts that arise have deep roots in ambition, disappointment, and the frustration of lost chances during youth.  Obviously, these are human traits and challenges shared by all races. 

I look forward to watching this film again, more than once, if for no other reason that I missed parts of dialogue.  The film is rides the broad shoulders of Washington’s powerful acting and directing. Davis’ portrayal of the conflicts dealing with the “war” between her husband, his sons, and his commitment to Rose give Washington a worthy character to spar and court with.  Steven McKinley Henderson’s portrayal of Jim Bono, Troy’s friend who has been with him through trials and triumphs, is chummy when needed but also stands ready to give gentle and keen counsel to Troy when he seems destined to make another major life-altering mistake.

While sprinkled with some adult language and mature discussions, Fences is an important statement about the state of families and fidelities of all sorts that every family should watch, discuss, and dissect.   Wilson’s play won a well deserved Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and is part of his ten play series centered in his hometown of Pittsburgh. 

I don’t suppose anything can help a white-bread suburban-raised boy like me understand the black experience in America, but I think efforts like Fences can help us be more aware of the challenges that few other ethnic groups in the USA have had to face in the last four centuries of our existence in North America.  Run, do not walk, to see Fences.

When Virginia WASN’T for ALL lovers

A heartfelt tale of courage and love

When I saw the trailer in the theaters for this film, I was concerned about what direction the writer/director was going to take this true story of love, courage, and persistent principle.  As a long-time high school teacher of US Government, I have a reverence for the Constitution of the United States.  The times our federal government has violated individual civil rights has, with very few exceptions, been the times where our laws have either violated or ignored those rights.  More rights have been violated because of our ignorance of our founding protections than due to any other reason in history.

Americans should know their Constitution backward and forward.  It’s is the protection of all.  Holding our laws elected representatives accountable for adhering to those founding documents is the only way to protect people, property, and individual freedoms.  So often, my wife and I looked at each other and grieved during this film.  A simple knowledge of the rights of the individual, and the restrictions of the powers of government to infringe on those rights, would have prevented the horrible miscarriage of justice that these two lovely people sustained. 

The promise of public education today no longer is simply whether you can add a sum of numbers or quote from a popular book.  At the heart of our children’s knowledge base should be their understanding of what governments can and can’t do.  Add to that the things that government should and should NOT do. 

As I watched the agony of what the Lovings endured as a result of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws (16 states had them at the time, all in the south) I wanted to yell at the screen:  “This is why Congress passed the 14th Amendment!  Your marriage certificate should be honored due to Article IV of the Constitution!”  Their local attorney should have at least explained those arguments to them.  What the heck am I talking about?  Let me explain…

Early in the film, when Mildred discovers she is pregnant, Richard tells her he wants to marry her, but because of state law banning interracial marriage they had to drive to the District of Columbia in order to get married.  After they get back, Richard mounts the marriage certificate on the wall of their bedroom almost like a talisman to ward off the evil spirits of the authorities in Virginia.  I don’t want to give away the complete narrative of the story, but Article IV of the Constitution would have been my first challenge to the arrest of the Lovings in July of 1958.  The “Good Faith” clause of Article IV of the Constitution says, in part, “Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.”  Certainly a marriage certificate is a public record of such an act.

This means that the State of Virginia should have been required to honor their marriage certificate.  I used to explain to my US Government students that when the first state legalized same-sex marriage, that it meant that all states would have to recognize any marriage certificate from any other state.  I suppose it could be argued that since the District of Columbia was not an actual state, that Virginia was not required to honor it, but I would have been eager to be the attorney to attack that argument.

But the eventual successful challenge to the southern racial marriage laws came down to the ruling that they were a violation of the 14th Amendment.  The 14th was specifically crafted by the post-Civil War congress to deal with exactly this kind of law.   The south created local restrictions on the “freedmen” as they were called.  Certain professions were off-bounds, activities were proscribed, and included among these prohibited actions were interracial relationships, whether marital or simply carnal.  These local ordinances were known as the “black codes.”  When the Congress heard of these restrictions, they passed, and then ratified, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1868, just three years after the war.  They felt so strongly about the importance of protecting such freedoms that each southern state being readmitted to the Union, after revoking it’s ordinance of secession, was also required to ratify the three “Civil War” amendments, including the 14th.  It reflected the federal government’s expectation that the “prodigal” former Confederate states would be prohibited from keeping their racist ordinances.  In fact, part of Chief Justice Warren’s opinion on the case, unanimously supported by the other justices, said “The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.  The 14th Amendment should have protected all interracial couples from 1868 all.

But the fraudulent election of 1876 undid all those protections.  In order to win the Electoral College count for Republican Rutherford Hayes, the Republican Congress cut a deal with the devil and ended federal Reconstruction in the south, abandoning the freedmen to white ex-confederate control in exchange for the electoral college votes of a few southern states.  Books have been written on this subject that would more fully explain what I am trying to make clear.  The key point is that the North threw up it’s hands and gave up trying to “reform” the south’s racist roots.  Secession had been defeated and the southern states had rejoined the Union, but the north decided it was a fool’s errand to try to force the south to change it’s attitude about it’s black population.  It was 1877’s version of “failed nation building.”  So began almost a century of second-class citizenship for America’s southern blacks.  In order to keep order, and keep the “white race pure,” miscegenation laws were passed throughout the south.  Marital and sexual congress between the races were banned.

While school desegregation was at least moving, but at a glacial pace, as the result of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in the 1950s, no state wanted to take any steps that would further confuse who was “white” and who was “colored” by further mixing the races through allowing relationships that might produce mixed-race offspring.

The prosecution of the Lovings in 1958 would have been seen by many in the south as a necessary legal stand to push back against the advance of racial strife and preserving the rights of states to decide issues that had always been state issues rather than questions for the federal government to get involved in.  Northerners saw federal troops protecting black students at Little Rock High School as enforcing equal rights for blacks against a recalcitrant racist south.  Southerners saw federal troops in Little Rock High as modern day military reconstruction occupation forces and federal interference with local ordinances that had kept “the peace” since the 1880s.  It’s easy to see who was wrong, but it’s important that today’s reader see how the “Rashomon” effect could be at play in the civil rights movement and conflicts of the 1950s and 1960s without excusing it.

As you read this blog, think on this…where did you go through middle school and high school?  If you learned your US History in the North or West, you learned very little about Reconstruction after the Civil War.  Heck, you were taught that the “Civil War” was all about slavery and the need for it’s elimination.

If you learned your US History in the south, there is a good chance you learned A LOT about Reconstruction after the Civil War.  You may have even been taught that it wasn’t a Civil War (this is a true statement.  Sometime, I’ll have to do a blog on this, but the “American Civil War” was not actually a civil war.)  Southerners were taught about “the War Between the States” or “The War of Northern Aggression.”  (I’m serious here.  I married into a southern family for several decades, and these are critical distinctions for them)  Most northerners are unaware that Reconstruction is a ridiculous misnomer.  Little was rebuilt as much as southerners saw it as an attempt of northerners to rebuild southern society in the image of the north.  Northern students, like me,  were told the war was over, the North won, the slaves were freed, and things got much better…until rich “robber barons” took advantage of poor immigrant laborers who created labor unions to fight back.

NOTHING is taught in most northern classrooms about the years of federal military rule in the south, the confiscation and redistribution of southern lands, the decades where ex-confederate soldiers and local officials were denied the right to run businesses, the right to much of their own  land, and even the right to vote.  The bitterness against the freedmen down south was as much about their collaboration with federal reconstruction as it was about pure racism.  Southerners are very aware of this history, northerners are woefully ignorant.

What does this have to do with the Lovings?  It certainly is NOT a rationalization excusing what happened to them, but it continues to be at the heart of so much conflict in this country:  local power versus federal authority.  It’s this question that pitted Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist party against Thomas Jefferson’s opposition, which became the Democratic-Republican party.  By the time Andrew Jackson renamed it the “Democrat” party, Jefferson’s party had become the party that opposed federal authority and enabled the earliest versions of “black codes” preventing slave education, evicting native tribes from their lands in the south to grow a booming cotton economy,  and restricting even those free blacks who had bought their freedom.

What Richard and Mildred Loving were able to do, with the assistance of Life Magazine and the growing influence of television news, was to humanize individual people.  To help Americans evolve their attitudes about “negroes” from racial stereotypes and see them as individual people.  The movie Loving makes us feel it is somehow inconceivable that it was ever considered “ok” to tell people who they could and couldn’t marry or have a relationship with (their case was an important precedent in the Oberkefell case that opened up same-sex marriage).  In the end, Loving may lead to a much more libertarian view by society that even the most well-intentioned societal legislation can be oppressive even if with the intention of doing good.  19th century southern society thought it was doing good by preserving the racial stratification that had served them well for centuries.(they believed it even kept things peaceful for black society.  They “knew their place”) 

It’s easy to see the injustice the Lovings endured today.  The film does a great service by giving us such a beautifully portrayed telling of their tale.  It forced me to ask an important question.  Are we seeing any other “acceptable” injustices being committed today all in the context of what we believe puts us on “the right side of history?”  Right side of history, indeed.

What to do about mobile tech?

Ok, I will start up front by pleading guilty on this.  I was driving down the street the other day.  The sun was out, the breeze was gentle, it was warm for an early December day in the Midwest.  It was truly an early winter climate “gift” for a nice pleasant walk down the sidewalks of suburban America.

What caught my eye was that almost every person, even those walking dogs, were busy scrolling their smartphones rather than taking in the beauty of the day.  Again, I plead guilty.  My family is happiest when I put away my phone to connect and enjoy our time together.  I’m a news junkie, and the last few months have been tough to resist the fascination of new events that a constant refresh brings to one’s thirst for the latest information.

There is no question that this is a huge problem.  And it’s been going on a while and is a broad and international issue.  When my brother and I took the girls to China in the late summer of 2013, I was amazed when I saw this scene ——>

buddhist monk scrolling his smartphone at X'ian temple
buddhist monk scrolling his smartphone at X’ian temple

This is a neophyte buddhist monk at a buddhist temple in X’ian…scrolling through his Xiomai smartphone.  Recently, during the presidential election, I saw this picture on one of the wire services of a visit Secretary Hillary Clinton made at an airport rally.  No one is looking directly at her!  SELFIE!!—->

img_1340I know my wife and family have taken all kinds of “interventions” with me, and I do see the problem. I understand the insular nature of living in your own bubble that comes with “smartphone” addiction.  We talk like we treasure connection with others, and certainly the internet has enabled many of us to connect with people or even maintain connections that defeat the distances between friends and family.

It brings me back to my history roots.  When Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message from Washington DC to Baltimore he tapped, “What hath God wrought?”  Should we be asking, “what hath Jobs wrought?”   Am I overreacting? As usual, I’d love to get your thoughts in the comments section…


Moana – A Pixaresque experience or not?

Disney goes Polynesian
Disney goes Polynesian

This will be a shorter than usual review blog post.  Several days ago I took my youngest girl to see Moana.  Full disclosure – I own a few shares of Disney in my IRA.

I have long admired Disney’s films, several of my children/grandchildren have enjoyed them through the ages, and I love what the merger with Pixar has done to the animation field.  While Moana is not actually a Pixar film (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Inside Out) but a Disney Animation film (Frozen, Tangled, Zootopia).  What both operations have in common is executive producer and head of Animation for Disney, John Lasseter. 

Now you have many imitators of the Pixar/Disney CGI animation creations.  Dreamworks (Dragons, Trolls), Illuminations (Minions) and others pale in comparison to Pixar for one key reason:  story.  Look at the trio of Toy Story films, the family feelings in Finding Nemo.  For me, if I had to choose one example of how superior Pixar is in this field, it’s the married life montage in Up.  You may have mixed feelings about the overall film (Still one of my favorites) but this montage is emotionally powerful…and it’s just a fancier version of a cartoon!  How do you start the film with such a bittersweet theme…and then make it soar?  Great writing, that’s how! Pixar sketches characters that make us care and it takes the time to paint the depth of the characters.  Watch Wall-e interact with Eve when he first meets her.  Is there any better example of awkward teenage crushes but when he keeps wanting to hold her “hand?”

Back to Moana:  It’s not a Pixar, but it’s a good solid effort by Disney.  But Keith, you say, what different does it make whether it’s Pixar or Disney?  They own them both.

The difference is the writing.  As a teenager, I had a brother who was a communication arts major in college and he was focusing on the Looney Tunes animators of the Golden Era at Warner Brothers.  He would watch the cartoons with me and point out the difference between a Chuck Jones short and a Tex Avery short.  He could show the difference between a Robert McKimson effort, a crazy Bob Clampett piece, and a Ub Iwerks classic.  More than anything, he would show me all the “inside jokes” that laced a short written by Michael Maltese, Tedd Pierce (the two marooned men in this piece were animated by the artists as representations of Pierce and Maltese).

Today, I look for which Pixar writer is penning the latest effort.  I love a good Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), Pete Docter (Toy Story, Up, Monsters Inc., Inside Out) or Andrew Stanton (A Bug’s Life, Wall-E, Finding Nemo – also the voice of Crush)effort.  Most of the films above are collaborative efforts with other writers at Pixar.  We find that the Pixar films entertain and touch us because the writing treats us, regardless of age, like adults.  Tell me that you weren’t a puddle on the floor when Jessie tells her story in Toy Story 2 then you don’t have a pulse. Powerful stuff.

Again…BACK TO MOANA.  Moana is a good effort, but it is a Disney Animation picture NOT a Pixar film in the mode of the above examples.  Perhaps I have unfair expectations because of the best of the Pixar films.  Not every one is a classic.  I’m not a fan of the Cars series and could care less about the coming of Cars 3.  But most film studios would kill to connect with their audience the way so many Pixar flicks have.  There are few live action films that hit you the way the end of Toy Story 3 does…or when one hears the amazing Peter O’Toole, as Anton Ego, try to explain his experience at having enjoyed the greatest meal even…that was prepared by Remi the rat.  All of these moments work, not because of great CGI effects, but because the writers have created complex but appealing characters and the director has allowed the pace to make us believe that these characters exist and, most importantly, have feelings we can relate to.  Moana, alas, is not one of these classics.

Moana is more like Brave, Beauty and the Beast, or Frozen.  That doesn’t mean it’s bad.  The film has fun songs (Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda contributed) an adventuresome premise, and a winning character in Maui played with gusto by Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson.  A nice sprinkling of Polynesian culture and attitudes inhabits much of the effort, but we have seen the main plot many times before.  Overprotective and unhinged dad tries to prevent daughter/future successor from taking risky voyage to save their people.  This is why I cited Brave etc. as the examples from Disney animation.  Again, the film is fine.  My daughter had a good time.  I guess I was expecting more.

And to be honest, I am getting tired of the overbearing dad portrayals who in the end must suck it up and admit to the young brash reckless daughter that she was right.  Horsepucky.  More often than not, Dad will go to great lengths to rescue the daughter from her folly, often with nary a “I told you so.”  But then, that doesn’t fit in well with today’s youth culture narrative.

And THAT is why this review is in a blog about modern culture.  The Pixar films don’t make parenting harder, but I would dearly love to slap around the sassy Scottish archer who turned her mother into a bear, the snotty Scandinavian princess who got engaged on a whim, or the bunny who wanted to be a cop because that was “her dream” and darned near got killed several times and permanently scarring her parents.  (Marlin was right that Nemo should have listened to him.  Good thing Australian dentists make insecure aquariums)  The Disney “arrogant impulsive daughters know better than daddy” movies are made by men-boys whose daughters haven’t become teenagers yet.

I know I know…”you kids get offa my lawn.”  Let me have it in the comment section.  🙂