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February 8, 2011

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Creative hybrids, Hadestown, & Hugo Cabret: the joy of new discoveries

by quaesitor

One of life’s joys is to be introduced to previously unknown works of art, whether they be graphic, musical, dramatic or literary. It doesn’t matter – there’s the simple thrill of discovery at something new. And occasionally, one gets this sneaking suspicion, not to say, hope, that this new discovery will stand the test of time in one’s affections.

Over the last month or so, I’m fortunate to have made two such discoveries – and interestingly, they are both superbly inventive hybrids of different art-forms. ‘Cross-over’ is such a pejorative term amongst music and other snobs – as if there is such a thing as pure artistic forms. Nonsense of course – human creativity is always a matter of rearranging pre-existant objects, ideas and forms in imaginative and new ways (in contrast to divine creativity, which is uniquely able to create something ex nihilo, out of nothing).

HADESTOWN – a folk opera of mythic proportions

Being a bit of a musical snob myself, of course, my heart did slightly groan at the thought of a ‘folk opera’ when Hadestown was handed to me. But I was hooked the moment I pressed ‘play’. Like great works of art (and I really don’t think I’m exaggerating here), it is impossible to categorise. For a start it is a such wonderful concept – a vibrant and utterly convincing retelling of the classical myth of Orpheus & Eurydice. It’s a rich story anyway, which is why it has inspired so many (from the classical poets to renaissance painters to composers of operas – well over 70 at one count!).

The myth’s appeal is obvious. Orpheus is a musician whose lovely wife Eurydice dies and ends up in the underworld – the realm of Hades. When Orpheus discovers her, he is overwhelmed by grief, and he sings songs of such beauty that the nymphs and gods weep. He is then (uniquely) permitted to go down to the court of Hades and his wife Persephone, whom he then charms with his music. They allow him to lead Eurydice back to the land of the living on one fateful condition – he leads her all the way without looking back at her once, until they reach the upper world. When the time comes, and he reaches the open air, he tragically forgets that she has not herself reached it yet, and so he turns to look back at her – with the result that she slips from his grasp forever.

There are variations on this theme of course – but this is broadly the idea. So the story is a gift to musicians – but it surely raises the bar high for creativity. After all – it demands that you write music of  such beauty that even gods would weep at it.

Anais Mitchell is not someone I’d encountered before. But she is supremely talented. She has written some truly beautiful songs – I don’t know what you call it really – folk opera I suppose does the job, but it somehow belittles the achievement.  She has also gathered a remarkable group of musicians around her to join her in performing them (including Ani diFranco and Bon Iver). The musical styles are varied and each authentic and engaging in its own way. A very nice twist (which makes the musical atmosphere she creates all the more apt and poignant) is to place the mythical events in a sort of post-apocalyptic Depression era America. Hades himself is now some sort of despotic crime boss with the most wonderfully sinister and chilling bass voice you’ve ever heard (sung by a very gravelly Greg Brown). Check out Why We Build The Wall below. But that’s not the only stand out – there isn’t a dull moment and it demands repeated listening. Fabulous.

THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET – a children’s book for adults who dream

I was told about this book by an actor friend who has had a job as an extra on Martin Scorsese’s new film (which he’s been making in London over the last few months). And it is based on this 2007 book – the simple story of Hugo Cabret, an orphan living alone in the clock-custodian’s flat of a Parisian railway station in 1931. What makes so unusual is that half of its 530 pages are filled with the author’s own vivid drawings. Where images suffice, they propel the storyline (like storyboards directors use in the planning of a movie); where conversation and detail are required, words narrate in the usual way. So it shows where it can’t tell; and tells where it can’t really show. To that end it is actually a powerful reflection on the dynamic between words and images. I remember my brother in law Jem Hovil noting this interesting observation made by Isaac Asimov:

In a world where the image is in ascendancy, it is worth remembering the power of the word. Isaac Asimov, avowed atheist, attacked the myth of the image by saying:You may have heard the statement, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ Don’t you believe it. Consider, for instance, Hamlet’s great soliloquy that begins with ‘To be or not to be’, the poetic consideration of the pros and cons of suicide. It is 260 words long. Can you get  across the essence of Hamlet’s thoughts in a quarter of a picture – or for that matter, in 260 pictures? Of course not.

We should of course stop playing words and images off against each other – they each have immense value. And that’s what is so refreshing about this book – both are equally essential. So Brian Selznick has produced a beautiful book with images that are utterly beguiling.

But it is far more than just a story in a beautiful form. It is about early creative dreams getting lost as a result of life’s brutalities – and whether or not they can be recaptured. Then there are curiosities and characters that keep one guessing all the way through. And as if that was not enough, the book unexpectedly opens a window on the early days of French cinema and the strange world of automata and magicians (about which I was totally ignorant). And so it is easy to see why Scorsese was so keen to film it. It is a directors’ dream – and I can’t wait to see what becomes of it on screen. My actor friend says that no expense has been spared in its realisation – recreating an entire station in a studio, with working steam engines and all.

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