30 November 2017

Dolphin love and limits

I never understood remixes. My literary background had me believing in ultimate, untouchable forms. Any rework or editing is a step toward that final draft. Not to say that I don't enjoy a good remix when I hear one. But now that I think about it, I am fascinated by this open and pliant nature of the song—something counter to literature, in particular the tyrannical art of poetry.


Erol Alkan is making me think about it. Sometime in 2012, six years since its release, I don't feel like dancin' found its way to my player, looped for weeks. Five more years passed till I discovered Alkan's Carnival of light rework. What I heard was something subdued but exciting. How he stretched a pleasant moment, toyed with it, built on it. And when I thought it would simply go on for ever—which I didn't mind—he brought the best bit of lyrics out, leaving me with nostalgic aftertaste.

This month he shared a playlist containing songs in his "Reworks Volume 1" compilation. While The bay (Metronomy), Golden Skans (Klaxons), Congratulations (MGMT), and Why won't you make up your mind (Tame Impala) were instant favorites, Gee up (Kindness) captured my heart completely.

It was my first time to hear it. Naturally I looked up the original, which turned out to be a two-minute ditty. Alkan didn't make it longer, he made it habitable—for me a deliberate and, more importantly, considerate act. I was smiling for seven minutes straight.

The two-and-a-half hour playlist contains many unfamiliar songs (to me). As is my habit, I slept with music I was getting acquainted with. In the middle of the night, a turbulent bass-line, deep and seductive woke me up.


Forever dolphin love makes me think of houses. Outside it's a box. Inside it's a universe. Outside it's plain, inside it's forking. There are rooms and bodies; there are dreams, lives lived and memories.

That's how rich it sounds, and how deceptively linear it seems. Until today the track plays. Sometimes I listen to it the way I re-read a book: simultaneously taking pleasure in what's in front of me and what's to come. Sometimes I keep it in the background, and when I get back to it, I know exactly where the song is, or where I am in the song. In the bar where notes slide off a manic percussion.


Ann Lauterbach has said it before and she couldn't say it any better: "Form, after all, is chosen limits. Limit, as a formal characteristic, is the expression of choice in the service of the possible. The possible is the indeterminate futurity of meaning. Form posits the optimum conditions for meaning to occur." (The night sky: Writings on the poetics of experience. 2005.)

My suspicion is that artists daunted by the freedom they so crave, fearful of the blank space, forget that their job is to create limits.


The best works of art teach you how to regard them. My early dives into electronic music had me baffled over minute-long intros on ten-minute tracks—that or verses that rush to the chorus, or drop or whatever trick's in store for the listener.

I realized that the radio has its own set of limitations as well. Thus the extended versions and radio-edits, terms that once did not make sense to my poetry-worshipping brain.

Listening to Alkan's rework of Connan Mockasin's Forever dolphin love, I learn to appreciate the beauty of a remix done right. When the artist is at liberty to choose his own limits, and chooses well. Then it's not just about giving the song a different flavor or making it danceable; but rather creating out of it another song that stands on its own.

Then you don't notice that ten minutes have gone by because you're offered a full home. If anything, you'll be surprised that you actually want more.


(Read a companion sketch here.)

28 November 2017


Repertory Philippines stages Hair, directed by Chris Millado. The show runs until December 17 at Onstage, Makati.

That was a long first act. When Berger (Michael Schulze) introduced himself—his version of a handshake: asking a kind lady to hold the trousers he just took off—I thought we were off to a good start. Schulze's frenetic ways were captivating, and his openness, infectious. There's a hippie, I said to myself.

Excitement, however, dissolved into dizzying confusion. Tribe leader, Claude (Markki Stroem) entered with faux—not to mention annoying but maybe that was the point—Manchester accent, and Sheila (Caisa Borromeo) convinced everyone that she believes in love. Tried to. More tribe members walked onto and away from center-stage, dropping a thought or two about life, sex, war, race, pills, grass, hair... They rambled on and on until the curtains closed for intermission.


Repertory Philippines culminates its 50th anniversary celebrations with 1960's musical, Hair, directed by Chris Millado. For someone who hasn't seen any of the show's previous incarnations, Hair appears to be emblematic of its milieu and its corresponding idealisms. A re-staging in the here-and-now is tricky: how do you make viewers care about what characters care about in a story deeply entrenched in its social setting?

During its run in the '60s, Hair (understandably) aroused controversy because of its nude scene and high dose of profanity. I could imagine the musical shaking—by way of shocking—people up out of their inhibitions. We are in no age of utopia, and some may argue that we're far worse than we'd like to admit; but boys today can grow their hair long and sex is discussed openly, if frequently. Unconventional is the new normal. What will Hair mean to a shock-proof audience with short attention span?


The book by Gerome Ragni and James Rado suffers from incoherence, and it's further aggravated by the production's weak tone. I wasn't sure what it wanted from me as an audience. From where I sat, it was all freewheeling fun. The joyful, peaceful hippie spirit was there—but it failed to rub off. Even the famous nude scene was rather underwhelming. It arrived with no sense of a journey nor clarity of intention.

Act II was more enjoyable. We got to go inside Claude's drug-addled war-dreaming mind as the tribe went under the influence of hallucinogens. Presented to us were visually attractive, often compelling scenes anchored in the Vietnam War. Ironic how, for a brief moment, the musical gained some sort of narrative structure just when the characters' brains were completely messed up.


Hair's language can be alienating, but its music speaks across generations. Galt MacDermot's score showcases a spectrum of rock, flirts with R&B, and hypnotizes with incantatory hymns. Still, the chance to connect musically was squandered. Whether it was the sound system or opening night jitters, or both, I couldn't tell. The actors' voices lacked the abandon and the urgency of the rebellious young, and were somehow too polished to be irreverent.

By the time they found their footing, the show was drawing to an end. Maronne Cruz powered through the last few numbers, energizing the entire chorus. Then the cast made an up-tempo song with lyrics, "Let the sunshine in" heavy and drab and oh-so satisfying. And till the final heart-breaking scene (that suggested death—of Claude and perhaps their aspirations), Schulze remained a bright spot. He started on a high note and left on a hair-raising one—as if on fire, part-dancing, part-burning.


Many of Hair's concerns resonate with the present, in a way that many problems are universal. When they cried, "What do we want? Peace!" I silently replied, Yes, I want that, too. But then what? Agreement doesn't equate to emotional and intellectual involvement—the reason we bother with theater anyway.

The bigger irony is that the show invited us to "be-in" without allowing us to penetrate the world of the tribe. At the very least I hoped for a deeper insight into the hippie culture, but instead was assaulted with stereotypes. Throughout the musical, I felt like a bystander at the cool kids' party, alone and befuddled by all the commotion, pooped, deprived of a joint.

02 November 2017

To hunt for Paula's poems

My previous job at an online publication allowed me to interview, and that generally means discover fictionists from the US. One of them was Paula McLain. From the get-go (you know, her aura) I knew that I'd like her. The woman invited respect in me. At some point in our conversation I made a mental note to check out her books. It's her education. It showed. And I must've had this affinity with her because she started out as a poet.

I hadn't read YA in while, so I bought A ticket to ride, thinking here's a perfect chance to revisit the genre; plus, it's her debut novel. The story took forever to take off — and frankly it wasn't hinging on a good plot but rather on atmosphere and a sort of teenage mystique — but I hung on and enjoyed the ride anyway because of said mood and mystery. I finished it without that rewarding feeling, though I wasn't exactly disappointed as well. If anything it served as a charming sampler.

The adolescent narrator is also a protagonist. I can't quite place her in time, how far removed she is from the events she is unraveling. She sounds as if the story just happened in the last couple of years, though her voice is already too wise and detached. That said, Paula's strength is in her narration. She can draw you in with her language and commitment to build up tension despite little action from her characters.

But what I really want to talk about (what got me into opening this computer) is The Paris wife, Paula's blockbuster hit, which I enjoyed very much. You can tell the amount of work she's put into it. The thoughtfulness. Her rhythm is more engaging, each chapter brings a reward, either in terms of insight or plot movement, or both.

Paula McLain. The Paris wife. New York: Ballantine Books Trade Paperbacks, 2012.

It stars Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's first of four wives.

What made me smile in this book is Hadley's realization that she's not in Ernest's now-classic The sun also rises, despite it being an account of their Pamplona adventures; and that the woman she is jealous of is nothing but a muse — Duff and Ernest are not having an affair, the writer is only using her for his art.

That tickled me a bit because it reminded me of this artist I used to go out with in college. Somehow I made my way into one of his comic strips, one of our exchanges was slightly edited to terminate in a gooey punchline. A common friend alerted me to it and, while I giggled, I didn't take it seriously. I understood early on that we can use real people in our fantasies without us wanting that very fantasy to be real. The panel featuring moi was not an indirect love letter, it was a clever piece of juvenilia.

The Paris wife also heightens my desire to read Paula's poetry. So far I admire her control. She is tender even as she lets the dark in. Her surprise turns of phrase are hints that she must be a great poet ("Now that I knew what I could bear, I would have to bear losing him"). So are her dabs of imagery.

This passage is taken from a chapter on Hadley, Ernest, their child, and Pauline's trip to the beach. The adult triangle is trying to establish a set-up where the three of them can live as husband-and-wife-and-lover. Hadley just went into the water:
I ducked my head and then surfaced, and swam out several hundred yards, where things were still. I treaded water and let the swells buoy me. At the top of one, I could look back at the beach and see them small and perfect, my husband and child and the woman who was now more to us than we could manage. From that distance, they all looked equal and serene and I couldn't hear them or feel them. At the bottom, in the trough of the wave, I could see only the sky, that high white place that seemed not to change much for all of our suffering.

As a kind of  experiment, I stopped swimming and let my arms and legs fall, my whole weight fall as deep as it would. I kept my eyes open as I sank down and looked up at the surface. My lungs began to sting, first, and then burn, as if I'd swallowed some small piece of volcano.

I knew if I stayed there and let the water come into me, come through every door of me, some things would be easier. I wouldn't have to watch my life disappear, bead by bead, away from me and toward Pauline.

The little volcano in me burned, and then something popped, and I knew that even if I didn't want to live this way anymore, I also didn't want to die. I closed my eyes and kicked hard for the surface. (p 285)

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