REVIEW: Greek Tragedies, Classical and Contemporary: Antigone and All My Sons

“The killer and the killed are all one family.” This line, spoken near the end of Sophocles’s Antigone, is hauntingly echoed in the title of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. One play premiered in an ancient Athenian amphitheater, the other premiered about a millennium-and-a-half later in the Broadway theater that now houses The Book of Mormon. These plays come from two different cultures, but were written in the same theatrical tradition. Both plays are about “respectable” men and the pain they inflict on everyone around them through their pride and vanity. Both plays deal with the conflict between the needs of the state and the needs of the individual. Both plays take imposing political quandaries and scale them down until they feel intimate and immediate. The pain of one family becomes the pain of the world.


I realize I’m probably not making either of these shows sound like a fun night out. There’s an old theatrical story about a theatergoer who walked out of a production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night (or maybe it was Death of a Salesman, or Gypsy, or Hamlet), yelling “IF I WANNA WATCH A DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY, I’LL STAY HOME!” The story is probably as mythical as Antigone, but the point stands: A lot of people don’t want to pay good money to be emotionally purged with pity and terror. Works of art that deal with “difficult” subject matter are described and marketed with adjectives like “important” and “necessary,” which makes them sound more like medicine than entertainment. We tend to associate pleasure with joy and playfulness, not intensity and seriousness, but it’s a false binary—these plays are very serious, but just because they’re serious doesn’t mean they’re joyless. For one thing, both of these shows do have a sense of humor—Anne Carson’s new English translation for Antigone is leavened with dry wit, and Miller managed to work a few corny Capra wisecracks into All My Sons. Beyond that, there is a very specific kind of enjoyment to be found in both of these shows—the joy of watching talented actors take on towering roles.


The set for Antigone (by Jan Versweyveld, who also designed the lighting) is terse and dark, illuminated mainly by a disk of harsh light mounted in the middle of a sterile white backdrop. It’s very appropriate, if maybe a little on the nose, for a play that starts grim and only gets grimmer. At the outset of the play, we learn that the brothers Polyneikes and Eteokles (the sons of Oedipus—technically his brothers as well, but we don’t need to get into that) have killed each other in battle. A little mythological background: Eteokles was the ruler of the city-state of Thebes, and Polyneikes, driven out of Thebes by his brother, mounted a treasonous insurrection against Eteokles. Kreon (uncle of Eteokles and Polyneikes), the new ruler of Thebes, has ordered that Polyneikes’s body should be left unburied. This does not sit well with Antigone (sister of Eteokles and Polyneikes), who goes to bury her brother and is arrested and sentenced to death by Kreon. Got all that?


The big draw of the play is Juliette Binoche in the title role, but it is not a star turn in the conventional sense. She certainly puts herself through the wringer, playing Antigone as an outwardly brave woman who cannot betray her moral principles but still fears her fate. However, she is simply one member of a terrifically tight eight-actor ensemble, all of whom commit wholeheartedly to the emotional marathon that Sophocles puts his performers through. Under the direction of Ivo van Hove, every actor in the ensemble, including Binoche, takes on the role of the omniscient Chorus at one point or another. This is different from the usual convention—having the Chorus played by an indistinct blob of actors—but van Hove takes pains to remind the audience that this is a capital-C contemporary Antigone.


Instead of togas and tunics, the actors are costumed (by An d’Huys) in snappy suits and dresses; Kreon (played with sneering verve by Patrick O’Kane) lounges around on a black leather sofa. These modernistic design choices are easy on the eyes but remove any specific historical or political context from the play, placing its characters in a generic present day. There are also screen projections and pulsating music, which are distractingly omnipresent—this is especially apparent in the last scene, when all the actors leave the stage and the final moments of the play are dominated by a weird video sequence and an incongruous rock song (“Heroin,” by the Velvet Underground—“I just don’t know”). When I saw the play, I was sitting next to an audience member who kept shifting his legs back and forth for the entire show. It was super annoying, but I could understand why he felt so anxious—van Hove seems to equate seriousness with slowness, and at times the play can start to feel a little ponderous. All the urgency in this production comes from Sophocles’s story and the actors’ performances—not the pacing.


All My Sons, as directed by Wendy Goldberg, is a little brighter on the surface than Antigone—the set (by Caleb Levengood) looks like a picture postcard, with a slightly shabby Middle-American house framed by little Rockwellian tchotchkes decorating the proscenium. For the first few minutes of All My Sons, the dialogue is mostly composed of small-town small talk, but as the audience is introduced to the various members of the Keller family—the businessman father who built planes in World War II, the veteran son who’s engaged to be married, the dreamy mother who keeps hoping her other son will return home someday—the happy image slowly unravels and the Kellers are shown to be a family broken by the foolish mistake of one man.


Despite the fact that most of the student actors were playing roles several decades beyond their years, they all gave a variety of beautiful and subtle performances—from Benjamin Reitemeier’s lovable but deluded old patriarch, to Eric Myrick’s kindly old doctor, to Jordan Rich’s reluctant bearer of very bad news—but the standout was Regan Moro in the role of the mother, Kate Keller. On paper, the role of Kate can come across as a showy, theatrical crazy-lady role, but Moro played her as a decent woman, buckling under the strain of holding a family together with determined denial. Goldberg has staged the play in the round, which means that sometimes the character’s back is to the audience. Even then, I couldn’t take my eyes off Kate Keckler—more accurately, I couldn’t look away.


For all their thematic similarities, there are obvious differences between these two productions. All My Sons is a student production, while Antigone is performed by a professional company of older, more experienced actors. All My Sons is being staged, naturally, in the Arthur Miller Theatre, a cozy, intimate space. Antigone is performed in the cavernous Power Center. I was fortunate enough to be seated in the second row for Antigone, but somehow I never felt fully drawn into the drama. The Greek tragedies were originally performed for religious ceremonies—perhaps the ideal audience is an audience of gods, not mere mortals. I felt distanced from Antigone, like it was somehow beyond my grasp. On the other hand, Goldberg’s production of All My Sons felt down-to-earth, specific, and real. The play has the structure of Greek tragedy—a well-renowned man commits a grave offense and is forced to pay the price for his actions—but the Kellers are not lofty, kingly figures. They are ordinary people, and their ordinariness is what makes their tragedy so terrifying.


Still, there were moments in Antigone that I’ll never forget—like when Antigone silently buried her brother. Or when Antigone’s sister Ismene (played with shifting shades of tenderness and harshness by Kirsty Bushell), praying to Bacchus, shrieked the words “Grant us light!” Or when Binoche, as the Chorus, sat at the lip of the stage, simply telling the story to a handful of people in the front row. These moments could have been already forgotten by everybody else in the audience, but I’ll probably remember them for a very, very long time. Maybe that’s why we go to see these intense, serious shows—not to feel good, necessarily, but to walk away with a few unforgettable moments.

REVIEW: Michelle Chamuel and Tyler Duncan Sing in the New Year as s/he

It was quite a sight—a crowd of Canadians and Michiganders that stretched across a downtown block, caked in the snow of two separate years, attempting dance in cramped conditions, shivering and ecstatic, all on account of two individuals: Tyler Duncan, the glitter-glazed Paganini of the Irish pipes, and Michelle Chamuel, the returning hero of Ann Arbor music.


The first time I saw these two musicians, they were in a seven-piece band called My Dear Disco, a sensational paragon of Michigan music that performed an amalgamate and widely-accessible style of music which they dubbed “DanceThink,” a newfangled genre that strove to engage both the bodies and minds of listeners. MDD pursued this goal by combining virtuosic blastacular dance-rock anthems with lyrical portraits of self-conscious, dysfunctional individuals, people “standing on the corner between distant and sincere.” It was a peculiar fusion of euphoria and inhibition, but it was difficult to detect this quality when I saw the band the first couple of times, because they were such a terrific multicolored extravaganza live. The nervy anxiety that was as integral to their art as the carefree joy only really became evident when I actually sat down and listened to their DanceThink LP. Dance, and then think.


Four years after their inception, the name of the group was changed to Ella Riot, reportedly because they didn’t want people to think they were a disco group. A few months later, they abruptly announced that they were going on “indefinite hiatus.” A couple of years after this void-creating loss, the frontwoman of the group, Michelle, tried out for The Voice and subsequently made it to second place. Michelle has a tendency to surprise people—My Dear Disco was originally an instrumental group called Toolbox, until Michelle, a music production student from Amherst, ended up working with guitarist Robert Lester on a recording project for a University of Michigan class and demonstrated her incredible voice for the first time—and she managed to surprise both her core group of Ella Riot fans and the rest of the TV-watching public, showing herself to be an insightful and empathetic interpreter of other people’s songs, not just her own. That was awesome.


In the time between the hiatus and The Voice, however, she had already released several recordings, including a side project with keyboardist and bagpiper Tyler Duncan, called s/he. In s/he, the conflicting impulses of abandon and introspection—DanceThink—became explicit in both the lyrics and the music. Take the song “In the Dark.” The music itself is by turns aggressive and meditative—it takes a greater amount of effort and imagination to dance to this music, as though s/he are making a conscious effort to draw attention to the words. Meanwhile, the struggle between reserve and impulsiveness is also illustrated lyrically—“I don’t want to be alone / Kept out the way, come on / Don’t want to behave / I step out into the sun / I want to play, come on / I want to be brave.” In the coda of the song, almost all the instrumentation drops out except for a basic foundation of bass and percussion, and a determined chant is repeated over and over—“Courage take us to the sun, we want to face the open.” Soon, a four-on-the-floor beat takes over, making the song significantly easier to dance to, and Michelle yells out “Let them finally see – you are extraordinary.” In “In the Dark” and many other songs on s/he’s self-titled album, people dance and think simultaneously—dancing, the act of putting yourself out on the floor and flaunting your glorious ridiculousness for the world to see, is shown as something that is liberating and healthy for the mind. However, when this album first came out, it seemed as though I would never get to see a crowd dancing to it—it was a one-off studio project, made for headphones, not amps.


This concert was therefore momentous for a couple of reasons. First off, it would be the first time Michelle performed in front of a LIVE audience—that is to say, an audience not entirely comprised of studio-selected autocheer humanoids, as was the case during her time on The Voice—in a good couple of years. Secondly, this would be s/he’s first live performance EVER. Who knew how they would sound or look live, and would dancing or thinking take precedence?


Since I was standing only a few feet away from stage right, I had an ideal view of the musicians, but my perception of the sound quality was distorted by my proximity to the speakers. The percussive blasts of bass sounded suitably buzzy, and the blinking-light melodies of songs like “Here with You” and “Mr Hyde” sounded suitably bright, but whenever the music combined noise with melody, it became difficult to distinguish the two—they melted together in a deafening whir of pixelated static. Still, Tyler’s uilleann pipes and penny-whistle proved consistently capable of cutting through the murky mix like a sine wave dipped in white-hot quicksilver.


It was interesting to hear such massive waves of DanceThink emanating from two people in winter coats on a tiny and cluttered stage, since I was so used to Ella Riot’s stage-filling multitude of sharp-dressed musicians. Most of the instrumental tracks were triggered by Tyler from a laptop, but the two musicians were still able to improvise over the loops; Tyler played various keyboards and wind instruments from a stool, while Michelle occasionally distorted her voice through a synthesizer, or gleefully bashed on a drum and cymbal. At times, it seemed as though the two musicians were hiding within their own lightshow, a mélange of subaquatic purples and blues, letting the music hang in the air, detached from the people who were creating it. At other times, it was one of the most powerful performances I’d ever seen from either of them. Michelle’s style of performing had changed considerably during her time on TV, and it was truly something to see live. She owned her few square feet of stage space, rocking a single mitten like a Michiganian Michael Jackson, strutting around with utter decisiveness and punching the air with pugnacious precision. Her utterly distinctive voice was even more captivating, alternating between wailing fierceness and crooning tranquility. Tyler was comparatively subdued but still spirited, harmonizing with a dry baritenor and headbanging while playing a stratospherically squeedly solo on the electric bagpipes.


The music did indeed change when performed live; it sounded much more danceable than it did on record, and Michelle’s fearless earnestness became downright forceful in a live setting. Although the nuances of the lyrics were occasionally eclipsed by the heavy blurts of electronic rhythm, the choruses—“I WANT TO FEEL ALIVE TONIGHT,” “SOMEHOW WE’VE FOUND THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH,” “YOU ARE EXTRAORDINARY”—gained new power when they were finally shouted out into the open air. Dancing and thinking at the same time felt easier than ever before.


When they brought several members of Ella Riot out on stage for the final number, it reminded me how much I’ve missed seeing these wonderful people make wonderful music. I dearly hope that s/he makes live performance into a habit. When I first saw My Dear Disco perform live, they were reading from sheet-music stands, eyes and feet fixed to the floor. A couple of years later, they were the most electrifying group I’ve ever seen. If s/he mustered this kind of energy for their first-ever live performance, imagine what they could be like in a year or so.



REVIEW: Yeezy Season Arrives: The Yeezus Tour at the Palace of Auburn Hills with Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West

I have beheld his bejeweled face. Now that I have regained control of my faculties—now that my ears have stopped ringing, now that my mind has stopped reeling, now that I can raise my voice above a hoarse whisper, now that my assorted joints and tendons have recovered from four hours of protracted fist-pumping—I feel obligated to share the Yeezus experience with you.


First things first, though—the wait. Me, my younger brother and my dad are waiting in the lobby of the Palace, clutching the printout tickets that will be our only physical keepsakes from the concert, and people-watching is the only kinda-sorta entertaining thing to do when you’re waiting to get frisked with a metal detector. The room is a kaleidoscope—every perceivable hue of skinny-jeans is on display here, and a few exceptionally self-possessed young people have taken the effort to get completely tuxed-up. I become conscious of the fact that we’ve put more thought into our attire for this show than we have for events where you’re ostensibly “required” to get dressed up, like theatre productions and symphony concerts. We’ve also paid more for this event, too—about sixty dollars each for the cheap seats. When the doors open, we see people sprinting up the steps to get into the stadium. By comparison, we take our time; no one is really in a hurry to get to row 214. Of course, your distance from the performer doesn’t REALLY matter when you go to a concert; once you’re in the same room as a superstar, all those extraneous concerns fall away. Or so I tell myself, while we wait for Kendrick Lamar’s set to start. We settle into our seats and listen to Kendrick’s DJ spinning a bunch of 90s-era California gangsta funk, the kind of music that was probably really fun to listen to back when it was still scary but doesn’t hold up that all that well today. The house lights go dark for a hot second and everybody goes nuts, but then they turn on again with no explanation—false alarm. We watch a roadie matter-of-factly climb a rope ladder from the concrete floor up to the rafters to operate a follow spot. One of these days, I want to see a movie about the tech workers who operate behind the scenes of these massive shows—mundane actions accomplishing extravagant goals1.


Finally, the lights shut off for real, and the greatness begins. We see a projection of a little glossy-gritty film, showing scenes from Kendrick’s hometown of Compton—then we hear the sighing strains of “Money Trees,” and Kendrick calmly takes the stage. It’s rare that the opening act doesn’t have to say a single word to make the audience go crazy, but Kendrick’s reputation precedes him: a diminutive kid from Compton who got signed by his idol Dr. Dre and became a legend in the span of less than a year by releasing good kid, m.A.A.d. city, a concept album that tells the story of his spiritual transformation from gangbanger to guru. He followed up on the acclaim by dropping a downright vicious verse on a Big Sean song called “Control,” in which he impudently crowned himself the king of New York and called out every big-name MC in recent history, cheekily daring them to outdo him. The ensuing hype sent his public profile through the roof, but listening to his music, it’s impossible to forget that he got where he is today through talent, charisma, originality and heart. Lyrically, he’s got an uncanny knack for mixing the poetic and the pungent, the pretentious and the personal, often in the span of a few bars, like in “The Art of Peer Pressure” when he describes the experience of cruising with his high-school friends: “We on the mission for bad bitches and trouble / I hope the universe love you today / ‘cause the energy we bringing’s sure to carry away / A flock of positive activists and fill the body with hate / If it’s necessary / Bumping Jeezy’s first album, looking distracted / Speaking language only we know, you think it’s an accent.” In terms of timbre, he’s a man of many voices—he can be a cool outsider, a paranoid kid, a gruff veteran, and a bizarro-world alien with an offbeat croon that’s as mockable as it is musical. His songs range from laid-back philosophical meditations to hard-driving depictions of senseless violence, and most of them are filled to the brim with relentless waves of words, as if he’s afraid that an “ADHD-crazy” audience will lose interest in his fervent sermons if he stops to breathe.


Kendrick performed with a DJ as well as a guitarist, keyboardist, and drummer, but the DJ ended up carrying most of the set. There’s no guitar lick that could approximate the woozy almost-melody of “Money Trees,” no synthesizer that can emulate the sensuous strings that float through “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and no drummer who would be able to replicate the clattering drum-machine track of “Backseat Freestyle,” so these professional and capable musicians didn’t have a whole lot to contribute to the proceedings, besides adding distorted power chords and cymbal crashes to the codas of harder-hitting joints like “m.A.A.d. city” and “Fuckin’ Problems.” It’s not that I don’t think power chords are awesome, and it’s not that Kendrick is incapable of meshing with a band2, but whenever rappers add live musicians to their shows—and they aren’t an actual BAND-band, a self-contained unit like the Roots or Kids These Days—it seems oddly forced. It’s unnecessarily self-justificatory, like the rapper is saying “Look at me! I have musicians playing so-called real instruments and slavishly imitating rock clichés at the expense of hip-hop’s unique musical language! My artistry is valid! Now will you accept me, rock cognoscenti?” There’s a certain species of music fan who believes that truly great music can only be created by musicians who actually play instruments or sing, but to me that’s a purely technical consideration that has nothing to do with the quality of the music itself. When I listen to music, I don’t care if the artist I’m listening to has been practicing guitar for forty years or if they couldn’t play a kazoo to save their life—I’m only interested in the sounds that come out of the speakers. I’m not trying to disparage musical training in any way, but to the average listener, the means are irrelevant to the ends.


In spite of the superstar status of both acts, this was not a double bill—Kendrick was still only the opener, as evidenced by his short half-hour set. When he pointed out near the end that all the people in the video projected behind him were his friends from Compton, it made me wish that he had a bit more time, time that could have been spent spinning stories about growing up in Compton, like a West Coast Bruce Springsteen. Still, even if he did have to wrap things up too soon, he still managed to blow the entire room away in a very compressed amount of time with his mix of irrepressible energy and intimate storytelling, flipping flows with the syncopated precision of a jazz drummer, repeating choruses and verses to make sure we caught every word. Seeing a legend is always a worthwhile experience.


Now we’re just waiting for the other legend. As the house lights go up and the crew prepares for Kanye’s set, I see several empty seats in the house. I know this is most likely due to a number of factors—an unexpected rescheduling due to the accidental destruction of a piece of stage apparatus, plus the fact that Kanye just dropped a defiantly cacophonous cubist-crunk album, Yeezus, which gained him a fan in the late great Lou Reed3 while alienating a good chunk of his fanbase—but it still depresses me to see a house that is less than full. Whatever, could be worse—at least he’s not like Roger Daltrey4, playing some rock-forsaken casino, valiantly asking a gaggle of dilettante Mods who clearly got old before they died to see him and feel him. What a nightmare that would be—“Coming Soon—Kanye West Performing LIVE At The Windsor! Hear The Voice Of A Generation Perform All Your Old Favorites, From ‘New Slaves’ To ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing!’ Watch ‘The Andy Warhol Of Rap’ Vainly Struggle For Relevance While You Sip Martinis And Chat Idly With Your Fellow Middle-Aged Millennials, Or Generation Y-ers, Or Whatever Pejorative Media Nickname There Is For The Generation That Grew Up With Ipods And Helicopter Parents! GET YOUR TICKETS NOW!” Ugh.


Still, the disturbing emptiness of several seats does have an advantage. Using the tried-and-true “look like you know what you’re doing” method, my brother and I work our way into the inner circle of the Palace. Instead of heading straight for the first row, we take a couple of seats in the sixth row, not wanting to attract the suspicion of the security guards patrolling the arrow-shaped apron stage. Soon enough, we get kicked out of our seats by their rightful owners, so we move down a row. This earns us the ire of the people sitting behind us, who realize that we’re a couple of shameless thieves and are understandably upset that they paid two hundred bucks a pop for seats that they could have just stolen, but we don’t care what people say. After a few more minutes, we get ousted again; by process of ejection, we work our way down to the second row. We decide not to press our luck by trying to infiltrate the VIP mosh-pit zone; we rationalize this sensible decision by noting that leaning pelvis-first against a police barrier for hours on end in hopes of catching a stray globule of Ye-sweat is not the ideal way to experience a show. By this point, the centerpiece of the Yeezus show, THE MOUNTAIN, has been unveiled, and it is awesome in the original sense of the term, inspiring awe, a jagged behemoth of a stage prop. We notice it, but at the moment we’re fidgeting in our chairs hoping we don’t get removed from our seats again, or worse, hoisted out of the auditorium by some hard-faced security brute before the show even begins.


But we’ve finally made it. All of the lights go dark, the room is enveloped by a massive blast of bass, and a heavenly choir ushers us into the kingdom of Yeezus. Soon, a piercing guitar line blares out from the speakers, followed by a thunderous drumline, and we hear the voice of our hero: “I AM NOT HERE RIGHT NOW, I AM NOT HOME—LEAVE A MESSAGE AFTER THE LIFE, FLATLINE TONE.” A preview of a totally new Kanye song—already we’ve gotten our money’s worth in spades. Then, a blast of amoebalike noise, the same terrific din that opens Yeezus, and we’re going insane—Yeezy season approaching. Suddenly, Kanye JUMPS out of the darkness, and holy crap he is IN IT. He’s wearing a mask that looks like something a medieval disco executioner would wear and he’s STILL one of the most engaged performers I’ve ever seen, lunging and leaping, growling and screaming, scaling mountains and singing his heart out while lying flat on his back. He’s such a charismatic performer that he could do the whole show on a cardboard mattress and it would still be one of the hypest shows of all time—in fact, a setup like that might have been truer to the minimalist, ostentatiously stripped-down nature of Yeezus—but Kanye has always favored excess over understatement, so he turns the Palace into a theatre. By the end of this show, gauzy priestesses will have emerged from the mountain, carrying gilded crosses and swinging thuribles of incense. A hirsute monster will stalk the stage, like Chewbacca or Sweetums with burning red eyes, most likely representing the demonic side of Kanye’s personality. Finally, Jesus of Nazareth Himself will arrive to bless the newly unmasked and reborn Kanye (all in all, the Son of God is in and out of the venue in a minute flat. Presumably he has other things to attend to). It’s hip-hop as high drama, and I love every second of it. The combination of Kanye’s furious energy with the ridiculous grandeur of the stage show makes the show something more than a hip-hop concert—it’s something visceral and transcendent.


By the finale of the second song—the Cinemascope freakout that closes “New Slaves”—I’m already on the verge of tears. Not only is the energy through the roof, it’s a marathon show—close to thirty songs—and five songs in, I remember that I haven’t drank anything in the past two hours except for the tasteless and meaningless blue sugar-water from the $5 snow-cone I bought before Kendrick’s show (I held it to the sky during his performance of “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and immediately felt like an ass). I realize that I need to conserve my energy if I want to live to see this show in its entirety. Thankfully, Yeezus is a merciful god, and he knows how to structure a set—in addition to being one of the few hip-hop producers who can harness the raw energy of heavy rock, Kanye also has the finest and most affecting catalogue of melancholy-famous-person songs since Roger Waters—so there’s a few scattered moments where the audience can chill. A synthesizer player, a guitarist, and a male vocalist tastefully embellish upon the familiar backing tracks to his songs; these musicians ensure that all of Kanye’s ubiquitous tunes don’t sound too familiar. The people behind us titter derisively when snow begins to fall from the rafters for “Coldest Winter,” but me and my brother don’t care—Kanye fanboys of the first order, we are suspended in an irony-free zone. We’re the goons who hardly ever get to go to concerts, wildly pogoing, executing improvised choreography and hollering “MIDDLE AMERICA PACKED IN, CAME TO SEE ME IN MY BLACK SKIN” without a single solitary shred of self-consciousness.


The moment when Kanye’s power as a musician is authoritatively proven comes three-quarters into the show. One of the high priestesses has set up a contraption that’s half pulpit and half MPC; after contemplating the music-making machine for a moment, Kanye gingerly taps one of the electronic pads, sending a single piano note reverberating throughout the Palace. At this point, the entire room goes crazy for a full MINUTE, because EVERYBODY knows exactly what song that piano note is from. It’s insane—most acts have to play at least a couple of chords from their biggest hits before recognition sets in. Not with this song. Not with “Runaway.” The crown jewel of Kanye’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “Runaway” is not the first song I’d play for someone who knows nothing about Kanye (that would be “All Falls Down,” for what it’s worth), but it’s a song that perfectly demonstrates what Kanye does well. He’s one of the few hip-hop musicians who can write genuinely moving songs without getting maudlin or losing his flair for incisive, analytical commentary. More importantly, he can get the music to match the poignancy of his words, and vice-versa.


After the song, the keyboardist begins to vamp with a few piano chords. Kanye cries out “CAN I TALK MY SHIT AGAIN?” and everybody screams assent, because this is the part that everybody is waiting for—the VISIONARY STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS. It’s audience banter to the umpteenth power: Kanye takes the time and effort to tell you every single thing he’s thinking about at the present time—his demonization by the media, the difference between dreamers and haters, his plans for the future. It is the most inspirational thing I’ve ever seen, and because he’s back in his native Midwest, Kanye goes all-out, ranting for almost THIRTY MINUTES. Hearing any other musician jabber on for a half-hour could potentially get boring, but I guesstimate that half of the audience considers Kanye to be a visionary genius and hangs on his every word (me and my brother included), and the other half bought tickets to the concert with the expectation of seeing a 21st-century celebrity freakshow (like the snotty kids behind us), so it’s a win-win situation.


Kanye’s usual spiel seems a little different this time, however. It feels bittersweet, as if he knows he can’t scream forever—“I won’t always be this wild,” he admits, “so please embrace this moment right now,” even though he says “I will not lie down” a few minutes later. He gestures to the mountain and tells us, “this is my DEMO TAPE,” and I think he’s talking about some future tour, but then he says “when I start doing movies, or when I have my own clothing stores…I might not be right here, and able to talk to y’all.” It makes sense—the guy’s got a wife and daughter, and he’s a half-decade shy of forty in a genre that is even more obsessed with youthfulness than other forms of music. Call me crazy, but I could see Kanye settling into the life of a creative executive. It would be like when Jay-Z made that bogus claim that he was retiring in order to run his record label full-time. The only scary possibility is that, unlike Jay-Z, Kanye might actually follow through with it, permanently.


When Jay came back from retirement, it made sense, because he never changed; he’s had the exact same persona from day one, the dignified, laconic, witty hustler of indeterminate but advanced age, the elder statesman who will be “Young Forever” because he was old before his time. He’s quite possibly the only rapper in history who managed to age gracefully as an artistic and commercial entity. By contrast, Kanye’s persona—the grown-ass kid who got blinded by the flashing lights and lost himself in a beautiful dark twisted fantasy—is all about youthful impulse, and may have a shorter shelf life, much as it pains me to say it. It’s hard to age gracefully if you’re still running around screaming “fuck you and your Hampton house.”


Maybe Kanye could take a page out of the Beatles’ book, running his dream company5 while still taking the time to release studio albums every so often. Still, what a crime that would be—the one truly crazy, tragic, brilliant loudmouth of our time stepping out of the spotlight once and for all. One of my favorite moments in any Kanye song comes from the outro to “Lost in the World,” when a ghostly choir screams “RUN FROM THE LIGHTS.” Now I’m hoping that Kanye doesn’t heed their advice. Kanye is often considered to be someone who is all ego, but at the present time, this is an inaccurate label; right now he is all id, a million contradictory impulses grasping for something greater. It would be a terrible waste of potential if he chose to fade into the background now, at the height of his powers.


Still, maybe all hope is not lost—an hour later, as the final notes of “Bound 2” play out, me and my brother are holding our hands to the sky, praising Yeezus. Kanye looks back in our direction, and an irrepressibly cheesy grin comes over his face, the first smile he’s shown all night. In spite of all his masks and shutter-shades, it seems that Kanye still feels the need to connect with an audience. He ain’t finished, he’s devoted—and we know it.



1 Kind of like this terrific documentary, “Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle”


2 Proof that he can: this performance of “Poetic Justice”


3 Seriously: here’s the Godfather of Punk’s review of Yeezus


4 No disrespect to the Who—I’m not trying to cause a big sensation…


5 For the Beatles it was Apple, for Kanye it’s DONDA—the nebulously-defined tech-and-design company that Kanye hopes will one day become as big as the OTHER Apple—the Steve Jobs one.

REVIEW: Listen Closely: Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and the Past, Present and Future of Classical Music

“Magical” would not be too strong a word for this event. Knowing that Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was written during the final years of the composer’s life, I had a preconceived idea that I would be spending the better part of two hours listening to a portentous, reaper-haunted piece—which would still have been enjoyable, in its own way. Instead, I found myself listening to a joyous, yet mature and meditative musical celebration of life. I don’t think I could have picked a better piece of music to listen to for my first symphonic concert.

This symphony doesn’t open with a bang but with a whisper; to hear all the various instruments of the San Francisco Symphony quietly emerge out of the silence during the first few minutes was both exhilarating and relaxing at the same time. I was sitting in the balcony, but the incredible sound of Hill Auditorium made every single noise audible with incredible clarity. When the strings floated a high pianissimo note, it sounded like they were sitting only a few feet in front of me; when the brass blasted a powerful fortissimo chord, I felt as though I had fallen into a tuba.

A symphony is an unusual kind of artwork: through the voices of many instruments, one person speaks. Mahler once said that he only composed because he could not express his experiences in words. Of course, the difficulty with an abstract art form like music is that sometimes it is hard to tell exactly what the composer is trying to say. During the first movement, I sometimes found myself concentrating very intensely on the meaning of the piece—“what is Mahler trying to SAY with this melody? WHY did the key change so suddenly?”—but eventually, my left brain settled down and I allowed myself to engage with the music on a less cerebral level.

Naturally, after the final notes of the first movement died away, there was no applause between movements. I understand the reasoning behind this solemn decree: a symphony is a continuous work of art that is meant to be listened to in its entirety, and to applaud between movements would disrupt the continuity of the piece. Basically, clapping between movements “breaks the spell.” Still, at all the operas I’ve attended, people applauded at the end of arias and acts, yet no one would argue that an opera isn’t a continuous work of art. At this concert, instead of applause after every section, I heard the sounds of squeaking seats, fortissimo coughs and tuning violinists, which I thought somewhat distracting as well. Still, maybe keeping all that applause pent up inside was for the best—after the concert finished, the applause went on for so long that conductor Michael Tilson Thomas had to take approximately thirty-seven bows (I’m guesstimating here) before the audience had finished.

The second movement was in the form of a ländler, a type of Austrian folk dance that Mahler would have undoubtedly heard as a kid, growing up as the son of a brewer in a small Austrian village. I loved the numerous instrumental trills during this section, suggesting the yodeling that apparently sometimes accompanies ländler dancing. One of the things that was so cool about this section was how Mahler took what some might consider to be a frivolous dance tune and integrated it into a supposedly “highbrow” classical composition without a second thought. It’s a terrific little mashup that reveals the imaginary line between “classical” music and “pop” music to be very thin—or nonexistent.

The third movement was significantly more aggressive and edgy, with multiple discords piling on top of each other. The mounting tension was briefly broken by a beautiful trumpet melody, before the reverie was shattered by another cavalcade of pointed dissonances and irregular rhythms. This particular movement demonstrated perfectly that classical music can contain astounding noise as well as refined melody. When one looks up “classical music” on YouTube, the first page or so of results is invariably a bunch of videos with titles along the lines of “Relaxing Chillout CLASSICAL MUSIC For Study And Sleep.” I can’t help but think of some hapless student vainly trying to cram for midterms with this feverish and unpredictable piece of music blaring in the background.

The final movement sounded like a slowly-fading farewell from another time. As the strings repeated the final melody over and over again, it also seemed to evoke an unearthly feeling of permanence and contentment. Doing a bit of research on Mahler after the concert, I learned that while he was writing his Ninth Symphony, Mahler was living comfortably in Gilded-Age New York City, having just accepted a job as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. It was a rare time of satisfaction and comfort for the man who once described himself as “always an intruder, never welcomed.” Only a couple of years after the posthumous premiere of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the Archduke of Mahler’s homeland would be assassinated, starting a war that would shatter the era of relative peace and prosperity in which Mahler spent his final days. In the aftermath of the Great War, a new American style of music would begin to gain popularity in a way that rivaled the European classical tradition. With its emphasis on spontaneous improvisation, danceable rhythms, and individual expression, jazz seemed to redefine what music could be—or maybe it was a throwback to the days when Renaissance court musicians would throw a band of random musicians together to play for royal dances, embellishing on the melodies and improvising entire solos off the top of their heads. Nevertheless, while many fantastic new genres of music flourished during the twentieth century, classical music started to get pushed to the side, slowly fading out of earshot like the final endless chords of this symphony. If you listen closely, it’s still playing; you just have to listen a lot harder nowadays.

I got into classical music a couple of years ago. When I first started delving into the history of this music and reading articles about the financial misfortunes that are afflicting orchestras and composers across the world, I started to fear that I had arrived about a century too late. On that Saturday night, however, I looked around at the spectacle of a sold-out Hill Auditorium, full of everybody from casual music lovers to aspiring composers from the School of Music, and the serene contentment of the Ninth overcame me. As long as there are people out there who still believe that they can express themselves through the symphony orchestra—this strange, impractical, arbitrary hodgepodge of oboes, trombones, violas and other assorted instruments—there will be an audience for this music.

And now, I would like to ask a humble favor. Since you’ve read through this colossally overwritten half-review-half-essay in its entirety, you clearly have a lot of time on your hands. If you could please take a few seconds out of your day to write something about music in the comments below, it would be so awesome. It can be an anecdote about the role music plays in your life, a fun fact about Hector Berlioz, a story about that one time you met André 3000, another review of the same concert I just reviewed, a treatise on the sociopolitical ramifications of the MP3—anything at all. [art]seen exists to promote discussion about cultural events on campus, yet too often it seems as though we [art]seen bloggers are writing in a vacuum, with no feedback from our fellow students. All it takes to get a conversation started is one comment. Thanks for reading!

REVIEW: The Barber of Vaudeville: Rossini’s Barber of Seville at the Power Center

Giaocchino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is officially classified as an “opera buffa”—Italian for “funny opera”—but a more accurate label might be “opera commedia dell’arte.” The opera takes the instantly recognizable stock characters of the commedia dell’arte—the airheaded young lovers, the scheming old curmudgeons, and, above all, the clever servants—and gives them music to sing that mimics the witty rapid-fire patter of the commedia clowns. At a talk-back interview session I attended after the Friday show, director Robert Swedberg said that his production of Barber was actually inspired by vaudeville, the closest American equivalent to the commedia. Swedberg stated that the vaudeville concept gave the performers the freedom to break the fourth wall and interact with the audience more. This makes sense, since the thing that made both the commedia dell’arte and vaudeville so influential was the heightened emphasis on improvisation, but doing improvisational comedy while singing a million syllables per second and projecting over a huge orchestra is a tall order indeed. Still, the performers were obviously game for this challenge, and there ended up being a surprising number of laughs interspersed with all the singing, which is the ultimate goal of a “comic opera,” I guess.

*Note: like all University Opera productions, this show has two casts. For this review, I mention the members of the Thursday-Saturday cast first, and then the members of the Friday-Sunday cast.*

Jacob Wright and Francisco Bedoy daringly sang the thankless role of Count Almaviva, a part that offers crazy vocal challenges and little opportunity for characterization beyond “Male Romantic Lead.” Still, both tenors obviously enjoyed the parts of the opera where Almaviva gets to disguise himself: Bedoy’s performance as a drunken soldier was marvelously ludicrous, and Wright’s portrayal of an obsequious music-teacher was understatedly silly. Ian Greenlaw was practically made of charm as Figaro, the mastermind barber who keeps the plot moving forward with his inventive, occasionally-successful schemes. Isaac Droscha, in the same role, was blessed with an extremely robust and agile voice, and behaved onstage like a true commedia dell’arte clown, throwing in countless little comic asides that landed perfectly every time. Nicholas Davis and Jesus Murillo were both awesome as nasty old Doctor Bartolo. They played the conceited old grouch perfectly and hilariously, and brought the vocal goods with an endless supply of powerful low notes (and some truly STUNNING high notes as well).

The two singers who portrayed Rosina, the leading lady of the show, gave performances that were every-so-slightly different but offered noticeably different takes on the character. Ashley Dixon played the character as more precocious and playful, while Sarah Coit gave a performance that was more knowing, more poised. Both actresses showed that Rosina is really the female counterpart of Figaro, the clever trickster; I was honestly a bit surprised that Rosina and Figaro didn’t end up together at the end. Both Dixon and Coit had lovely and nimble mezzo-soprano voices that made everything they sang sound absolutely effortless.

Both Glenn Healy and Jonathan Harris clearly relished the role of the villainous schemer Don Basilio, with their murkily deep bass voices. Healy’s Basilio was a bit crazier, Harris’s a bit slimier. Kate Nadolny came close to stealing the show as the weary and chronically sneezy maid, Berta. Her droll sense of humor enlivened every scene she was in, and her dance number with a mop during her aria was a highlight. In the same role on Friday night, Frencesca Chiejina hit some truly impressive high notes with a surprisingly rich voice that made a great contrast to her adorable onstage bearing.

Conductor Clinton Smith kept the show moving along, although sometimes it seemed as though the singers were being drowned out by the orchestra. The rollercoaster music of Rossini was deftly played by the University Symphony Orchestra, which had too many talented musicians to name individually here, although the two fortepianists Michael Babgy and Michael Sherman must be applauded for being willing to wear a big white wig and an eighteenth-century period costume for the entire show. Jeff Bauer designed both the sets and the costumes, and the warm colors of the sets and the costumes noticeably complemented one another. In addition, Erin Kennedy Lunsford’s blazingly bright wigs were a delight to look at, and they complemented Bauer’s designs as well. Lastly, Rob Murphy’s lighting design had excellent comic timing.

Even by the standards of many nineteenth-century comedies, The Barber of Seville has a very convoluted plot. Despite some very tasteful cuts that reduced the show to a reasonable length, the sheer number of absurd digressions and dead ends built into the structure of the opera meant that there were a few times when the energy of the show was taken down a notch. At these points, I found myself sometimes wishing that the director and the actors had pursued their comedic impulses a little further, introduced a little more vaudevillian anarchy into the opera. Still, there was no denying the joyous feeling that I had when I walked out of the theatre; this Barber made for a charmingly goofy night at the opera.

PREVIEW: San Francisco Symphony

On Saturday the 16th of November at 8 PM, the San Francisco Symphony will be bringing its rendition of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony to Hill Auditorium, and I will be attending my first ever totally symphonic concert!

The Ninth Symphony is the last completed musical work written by Gustav Mahler. It was composed from 1908 to 1909, but it was first performed in 1912, after his early death from a congenital heart condition at the age of fifty. In the classical music world, Mahler is a legendary figure: he is the man who made the cowbell an instrument in the modern symphony orchestra. As if that wasn’t enough to secure his place in history forevermore, he was also one of the last big Romantic composers, a guy from a small town in Austria who managed to take all his life experiences—childhood memories, love affairs, an immeasurable amount of personal tragedies—and somehow turned those experiences into little dots scribbled on paper.

I’ve been listening to a few pieces by Mahler in preparation for this concert. Judging from what I’ve heard, Mahler’s music is extremely dynamic and unpredictable, using a huge orchestra to alternate between music of stunning beauty and equally stunning pain. His compositions are rich with melodies that often cascade on top of one another, as though the composer has too many melodies running through his mind and can’t wait to put them all on paper. Mahler once said that “the symphony must be like the world—it must embrace everything.” I cannot wait to get lost in Mahler’s world this Saturday.

More information about the performance can be found here: $10 student rush tickets are on sale now.

In the meantime, enjoy a bit of Mahler via YouTube:

Mahler’s 7th Symphony, Movement II, Part I

Mahler’s 7th Symphony, Movement II, Part II