Category Archives: Music

Things of 2017

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A lot changed for me in 2017. I got married. I got my driver’s licence. I moved out of Wellington. I became a father. I had a brush with mortality. Each of these big changes begat dozens more smaller changes, and from the outside, it might seem my life has been upended and rewritten.

My inner life, however, is largely the same. I still like to read, write, and watch movies, albeit with less tolerance for violence and misery. I still dwell on things a bit more than I’d like. Bottle feeds at five a.m. are part of my life now, and the logistics of keeping the roof over our family – going to work, power bills, rubbish collections etc. – fall largely to me, but the piles of books on the floor and incomplete manuscripts on the computer (and dearth of new blog posts) show I am still fundamentally quite lazy.

Still, nothing ever stays exactly the same in your mind. I’m not sure if it was having kids, or just getting older, but I am quicker to anger than ever before. I have become far less tolerant and forgiving of unpleasant behaviour, and I’ve started to speak up more against it. I even began to relish the opportunity to tap into my ire, mostly on other motorists. Actually, this new tendency to anger may be solely attributable to my spending a lot of time – several days if you add it all up – behind the wheel of a car. But, with politics and #metoo and the intersection between them, there was plenty to get angry about in 2017.

It never lasts, though. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away. The constant shrinking and expanding of life abides.

Health

superficial spreading melanoma stage 1a breslow skin cancerAt the back end of 2016, two months before the wedding, I told Tara a mole on my left ankle had become itchy. Increasingly catastrophic discussion of maladies and death followed, at the end of which she set out an ultimatum: there would be no marriage unless I got a mole map before the wedding date. I’d meant to get one for years, but here at last was an effective motivator.

The session began with a quick brief on what the melanographer was looking for: asymmetry, jagged margins, six millimetres or more in diameter, different colours. “Down to your underwear and we’ll get started,” she said. It wasn’t that uncomfortable; I’m a lot less worried about other people seeing my body than I was at 16, when surgeons at Greenlane carved five ugly lumps out of my body and left unsightly scars behind, or at 19, when a consultant and six student doctors poked and prodded at me on a bed in Christchurch Hospital. On both of those occasions, the surgery and the skin check, it was all just a precaution. I assumed this time would be the same.

‘Possible melanoma’, said the words on the report, referring to a lesion on my inner left forearm. Tara used to call it my yin-yang mole because it had a dark part curled around a light part. We were both rather fond of it. Left unchecked, it could have killed me. Out it came: first in a tight excision, then with a 5mm margin, just to make sure it hadn’t spread deeper or wider. (The mole on my ankle — the one that sparked all this — was fine, unremarkable.)

I have a ten-centimetre scar where the yin-yang mole was, much bigger and more obtrusive than the original lesion. The skin around it is numb or hypersensitive depending on how it’s touched. I feel like a fraud even using the ‘c’ word, given how minimally it had invaded my body and how easily it was treated, but I did have cancer. It sat right there on my arm on hot summer days. Please, keep an eye on your skin, and get it checked if you are in any doubt.

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All that was nothing compared to my wife’s pregnancy. She carried two babies (and two placentas and a whole lot of amniotic fluid and double her usual blood volume, a good 15-20 kilograms) for 38 weeks, suffered nausea throughout (don’t believe anyone who says it always stops at 14 weeks), lost all her fitness, and ultimately endured major surgery to bring them into the world. She assimilated knowledge of the many possible disasters that might befall her and the children along the way, and she managed these risks with regular adjustments to her behaviour and routine, even if it meant giving up something she loved.

It’s the most impressive physical feat I’ve ever observed up close. And then came the trials of breastfeeding and sleep deprivation, which she is bearing mostly with aplomb. I am in awe of her and her incredible body — forever changed, still recovering, but incredible above all.

Music

This year, I made an effort to hear a good amount of new music. I have this subscription to Spotify, which gives me access to more music than I could ever possibly listen to, and which includes virtually all new releases, even obscure ones. Keeping up with the latest has never been easier.

So, here’s a playlist of some of the best music I came across in 2017. A real mixture. You should be able to find at least one thing on here that you’ll like.

Particular favourites included:

Bedouine – ethereal, Americana-tinged folk by a Syrian-born Armenian; an effortless listen
Blanck Mass – an old favourite, new album World Eater was billed as harsh and abrasive (and this being Blanck Mass, it often is), but it is less of a punch to the face than his previous record and contains many thrilling, spine-tingling moments of beauty
Charly Bliss – Pixies-esque, harsh-edged, incredibly addictive punk-pop that is rougher than the bubblegum bounce its vocals might initially suggest
Grizzly Bear – a five-year wait since the last album, and was it worth it? Well, they’re as tight as ever, but such perfection can feel cold at first; it took me a while to warm to this and once I did, it wouldn’t get out of my head
H. Hawkline – perhaps my album of the year, certainly my favourite discovery of 2017, catchy guitar pop in a crystal-clear Welsh accent, all sounds trimmed clean
Kendrick Lamar – finally listened to this guy and he is outstanding, a percussive and lyrically complex rap artist, in his element as a strong black voice in a year of necessary protest
Public Service Broadcasting – Every Valley, a concept piece about coal mining in Wales, is their best record yet
Slowdive – shoegaze is back with a dreamy new masterpiece from some old hands, I tended to restart this immediately after it finished

But if I had to pick one song, it would be ‘Big Enough’ by Kirin J. Callinan, featuring Alex Cameron, Molly Lewis, and Jimmy Barnes. Silly, earnest, and ridiculously catchy, with Barnesy delivering a best-ever scream, it’s like they made it just for me.

Finally, I got to see one of my favourite bands live this year, and that was Pixies. My expectations were not high; it’s a long time since their peak, Kim Deal isn’t part of the band any more, and their new songs are fine but have none of the thrill or menace of their old songs. But then they wandered out onto the stage and fired up with Gouge Away, one of my favourites, and blazed through a 30-song set with barely a five-second pause between each song. I was carried away.

Politics

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, stripesA lot happened in politics this year. We got a new government in New Zealand. Donald Trump became president of the United States. Both of these events were dramatic and surprising reversals of the status quo – perhaps not a complete upending of it, but the landscape is undoubtedly changed. And it was all many of us could talk about.

Me, I was personally struck by a couple of political things in 2017. First, during the interregnum, Green Party MP Julie Anne Genter went on Morning Report and explained she was not a party delegate so would not have a vote at the Greens’ conference to determine their approach to coalition negotiations. Genter is a prominent public face of the party; she’s been in Parliament since 2011, is third on the Greens list, speaks for the party on transport and women’s issues (among other portfolios), and has been touted as a potential future co-leader. She comes from a strong professional background in transportation planning. And yet, when the Greens meet behind closed doors, 180-odd delegates unknown to the public have a vote but she does not. This disenfranchisement of MPs within the party might be commonplace across the political spectrum, but that would only make a strange thing even stranger.

Second, I know a few people who refused to vote in this election because they did not feel any of the parties represented their interests. I’ve often defended those who don’t vote because I think it’s undemocratic to compel people to turn out at the polling booth, and I still believe this, but it has started to frustrate me. If you don’t vote because you want bigger change than any of the options on offer, and you aren’t standing for election yourself, how are you going to explain that to those in poverty? To their children? To mine? For all the talk you often hear about NZ politics being mild and samey compared to polarised places like the USA, there are tangible policy differences between parties (and independent candidates) on critical elements of our society: health and education, for example. Do these differences not matter to you? Is the long-term crusade worth some short-term pain?

Sport

I was largely inactive this year, apart from the odd game of beach cricket and a few runs. My appreciation of sport has turned back to the screen: football highlights every Sunday morning, and if there’s cricket happening, it’s on by default, especially if it’s night and Tara thinks she might struggle to get to sleep. “Is there any cricket on?” And if there isn’t, she sometimes asks me to tell her cricket stories, like a spoken word lullaby. “Tell me about Bradman.”

Fortunately, she doesn’t only find cricket soporific. Just the other day, she was disappointed there was no Super Smash on for us to watch together while we fed the kids. So, after four years together, my enthusiasm for cricket appears to have taken root in her.

The next thing is to grow my daughters into White Ferns. To live vicariously through the achievements of my children. To go full Sports Dad. I’m sure that’ll go down well.

Film

I didn’t see many new films in 2017, but I did watch on in thrilled, appalled shock as a succession of sacred relics was picked off for their transgressions. First, Harvey Weinstein’s victims; then Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, Bryan Singer, and more. It was a familiar story, usually ignored, but this time it stuck. It had everyone — every man, at least — trawling their memory for instances of assault or harassment. I hope it means things are never the same again. (See also: my post on whether you can separate the art from the artist.)

Okay, but what new films did I see? Just these ones, with order of preference in brackets. (Connect with me on Letterboxd to follow my film-watching in real time.)

SILENCE (1)
BEYOND THE KNOWN WORLD (7)
GET OUT (2)
LOGAN (8)
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (5)
THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS (9)
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 (6)
WONDER WOMAN (4)
MOTHER! (3)

Tech

2018TechWith every year that passes, I get further behind the tech curve, safe in my Luddite haven. There are four computers in our house but the newest is from 2012. There are two smartphones, both cheap and a couple of years out of date. There is one television and its projection is via cathode ray tube. There are two cars in the driveway: one from 2000, the other from 1991. Still, I sit on Facebook and Twitter a lot more than I’d like to.

Tangentially related: I have finally come to understand that Silicon Valley innovations, and those of startup culture generally, are not necessarily good for society. Sitting on Facebook and Twitter is the obvious one, especially Facebook, with its unholy quest to capture as much of the global population’s attention as it can. If Uber (a company that will never have me as a customer, for the awfully unimaginative name as much as the dodgy business practices and toxic work culture) reaches its goal of a fleet of ultra-safe, self-driving cars, the roads will become a funnel for capital to Uber shareholders, and they will have the power to shut them down any time they like. So, for that matter, will hackers. Such ideas are presented as a logical next step for our species, an evolution; we all need to pay attention and speak out, with words and dollars, when we see that it isn’t as simple as that.

Books

2018BooksThis year, I undertook a new project: prioritise reading books from years ending in 7. I put together a master reading list of books from 1917, 1927, 1937 etc., aiming for a variety of voices (i.e. female, people of colour) in there, and hoped the jumping around in time wouldn’t be too taxing on my rather comfortable reading mind.

I managed 45 books in the end, most from this project. You can browse them here (and please, add me as a friend on Goodreads if you haven’t already!). The highlights:

‘Summer’ by Edith Wharton (1917)
‘Oil!’ by Upton Sinclair (1927)
‘Trout Fishing in America’ by Richard Brautigan (1967)
‘Consider Phlebas’ by Iain M. Banks (1987)
‘Underworld’ by Don DeLillo (1997)
‘Then We Came To The End’ by Joshua Ferris (2007)
‘Rants in the Dark’ by Emily Writes (2017)
‘The Whole Intimate Mess’ by Holly Walker (2017)
‘The New Animals’ by Pip Adam (2017)

And a few major disappointments:

‘Death on the Nile’ by Agatha Christie (1937)
‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac (1957)
‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ by Mitch Albom (1997)

The same project will go for 2018, and 2019, and so on until I get bored of it. It’s the best time travel we’ve got.

Travel

2018TravelOn the fourth day of our honeymoon, Tara and I hired a two-person sailboat and tacked out to the middle of Muri Lagoon. Neither of us had ever sailed before. “It’s not that hard,” said the incredibly laconic, shirtless man who had drawn some basic diagrams in the sand and sent us on our way.

That first leg was tense. If we weren’t shouting half-baked instructions at each other, we were crouching in uncertain silence. Then we came to the buoy we had pointed ourselves at, and I announced I would try to manoeuvre us around it, so I gently leant on the tiller.

In no time at all, we were whipped around in the breeze, picking up pace as we turned. I panicked and strained to pull the rudder back to a more neutral position. The boat started to list, Tara screamed, and we plunged into the water.

I thought Tara might be freaked out by this, but instead, she roared with laughter. I was confused and distracted for a moment, then I started laughing too. We righted the boat, hauled ourselves up into it, and headed back in the other direction — with Tara at the tiller this time. “My turn! I want a go!”

We must have capsized another six or seven times in the next two hours as we hurtled back and forth across the lagoon. Every time, Tara’s amusement would ring out across the water, drawing stares from sunbathers on the beach. We got terrifically sunburnt and drank a litre of saltwater each, and there was the food and the snorkelling and the cheery hospitality, but that mad sailing experiment was the most fun we had on our holiday.

People

I was a family of one for many years, intermittently linking with brothers and parents but still very much a loner. And then Tara came along and became my family.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, beard and outdoor

We were married in February on a day that drove us mad in the planning but is increasingly golden in our memories. Friends and family came and smiled with us in the sun, and if we don’t get to see them much now, at least we got to see them that day. It helps that Meeko & Redge captured such perfect images for us: romantic but not idealised, formal but not constrained. Their photos show our best selves, loving and joyous and a bit messy.

Soon after – thank you, Rarotonga – we found out our family was growing inside Tara’s belly. Soon after that, at the 12-week scan, two blobs on the monitor indicated we would be a family of four. Just like that! And so 2017 became, more than anything, the year of pregnancy: bearing it, managing it, supporting it.

Nora and June were born in November. Because they are my babies, and I therefore see them for several hours a day, observing their subtle developments and interacting with them more and more, they are the most interesting babies in the history of the universe. Their enormous eyes, deep blue and alive, stare out at me (or at least the wall behind me) for several hours a day. Their limbs flail about haphazardly when I plonk them on the change table, or under the play gym, or in the bouncer by the window. The work of caring for them is long and repetitive, but never boring: their continuous development and discovery forces us into the moment.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, baby and hat

My dad told me in the lead-up that once they’re out, everything changes. He was right, but not in the way I expected. In Lost In Translation, Bill Murray’s character says at the moment of your child’s birth, “your life as you know it is gone, never to return”. Instead, I feel a great expansion of possibility for all four of us. Easy for me to say as the dad who goes off to work each day and gets barely ten per cent of the social pressure of parenthood, right? But Tara is in the most meaningful ways the same Tara, just like I am the same Barns – valuing the same ideals, preoccupied with the same thoughts, distracted by the same distractions – but with bigger, fuller hearts (and perpetual bags under our eyes). The thought of what lies ahead has never been so exciting.

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The art or the artist, that is the question

Queensboro Bridge New York City, featured in Woody Allen's MANHATTAN

New York’s Queensboro Bridge Photo by Fraser Mummery

Woody Allen’s 1979 film MANHATTAN is an elegant rhapsody; a cinematic wonder of jazzy dialogue, lush black-and-white photography, and profound immaturity regarding girls and women. The artist, whose character in MANHATTAN falls in full-hearted love with an adolescent, would later have an affair with and marry his wife’s adopted daughter. He would also be accused of sexual abuse by another adopted daughter, who was also an adolescent at the time of the alleged abuse.

Allen is usually the first example of the ‘art vs artist’ debate, which comes down to the following question: can the misdeeds of the artist be separated from the art they make? Roman Polanski raped a 12-year-old, but he also made the classic thriller REPULSION. Louis C.K. masturbated in front of several women without their consent, but he also made the consistently sharp and insightful sitcom ‘Louie’. R. Kelly had sex with underage women and married one when she was 15, but he also made the unique hip-hop opus ‘Trapped In The Closet’, hot and fresh out the kitchen.

In the post-Weinstein era, now that no one can ignore their conscience while turning a blind eye to sexual harassment, there’s a lot of hand-wringing going on. History is full of people who did abhorrent things and made great (or at least memorable) art. What are we to do?

The question is actually a lot simpler than writers of prevaricating thinkpieces would have us believe. Instead of getting hung up on the scales of justice — on one hand this but on the other hand that — let’s focus on one of the key issues here.

A good number of our social norms are designed to limit harm. Sexually harassing a colleague is frowned upon socially because it might negatively affect the victim’s professional and personal life. Having sex with an underage child is frowned upon socially because the underdeveloped brain and body of the child may not be able to cope with or comprehend the intensity of the act, and the power imbalance inherent in any adult-child relationship is problematic. Murder is frowned upon socially because wilfully ending another person’s life is an affront to the very idea of society.

Many of these social norms are applied into law. If you’re going to have sex with a child, the courts will incarcerate you and put you on a list for the rest of your life. It’s a simple, inarguable outcome of an act that contravenes the values of basically every society.

To say that art can be separated from the artist is to say that in the creation and presentation of art, social norms are not relevant. Let us not talk of Rachel Weisz’s horror at having her breast groped, unscripted, by Dustin Hoffman in CONFIDENCE; let us instead consider the genuine shock conjured by Hoffman with an ad lib. Let us not talk of Maria Schneider’s appalled feelings of violation at an unscripted rape scene in LAST TANGO IN PARIS; let us instead isolate the depth of emotion Bernardo Bertolucci manufactured when he sprung it on her.

The question, again: can you separate the art from the artist? Does a great piece of art take precedence over its maker’s violation of social norms?

Well. If your response is ‘the art matters more’, I have a question for you: are you kidding me? Anthony Rapp has lived through decades of confusion and trauma after Kevin Spacey tried to force himself on him when Rapp was 14 years old, but you’d rather not talk about it because you really liked Spacey in THE USUAL SUSPECTS? Lana Clarkson had her life snuffed out by Phil Spector’s gun-wielding hand, but can’t we just focus on the genius of the Wall of Sound?

It need not be a zero-sum game. All art is filtered through the context in which we absorb it: our own life and experience, our mental state at the time, the news of the day, the other works referenced by the art, and the deeds of the artist.

It’s similar to the ‘politics should not interfere in sport’ argument. Our world would be pleasantly stuffy and genteel if athletes could compete solely within the confines of their chosen field, freed from the burdens of political trivialities like nuclear threats and institutional torture. But athletes do not cease to belong to society the moment they step across the white line. They know it, and so do those watching. Ask Serena Williams if context matters, or Caster Semenya, or Henry Olonga. Just as politics intrudes on the field of play, the artist’s sins are bundled with the art they produce.

Why, then, do so many people struggle with this question? Why are our social media feeds littered with good folks agonising over whether they should hide their precious DVD of CHINATOWN? The answer is that it’s hard – hard to reconcile one’s admiration for the work with one’s revulsion for the artist. MANHATTAN seems an easy one: where I once found Isaac’s attraction to Tracy – sweet, young, unimpeachable Tracy – understandable and even worthy, I now find it an unpleasant fever dream of a man with an unhealthy fascination for teenage girls. But what about DOGVILLE, which I find so bleakly insightful about the human condition, and so aesthetically inspired, but whose director has consistently subjected leading women to traumatic on-set conditions? What about ENDER’S GAME, a fascinating and morally confronting book, royalties from which support the author’s crusade against gay marriage? One side of you is saying ‘can’t we just appreciate a great piece of art?’ And the other is saying, ‘oh, so child sexual abuse is okay now?’

We are complex beings, capable of holding many things in our minds at once. You can watch [x] knowing that [y] did [z]. Absolutely, you can. But you’re lying to yourself if you think the deeds of the artist have no bearing on the art. They should sit uncomfortably alongside the work, elbowing their way into your thoughts. Go ahead and praise LAST TANGO IN PARIS if you must, but be ready to have a conversation about how Bertolucci traumatised Schneider in his pursuit of artistic ecstasy. The art can still be great, whatever the context, but a person still made it, and they bring all their baggage to it. There is no separation.

Still feeling uneasy? There are other things you can do. Watch films directed by women. Read books by first-time authors. Pay attention to artists who use their celebrity to speak out against injustice and seek out their work. Their art won’t all be as memorable as ANNIE HALL, but some of it will stick with you for good reasons, and some of it will be as great as anything caveated by its maker’s transgressions. There is gold this side of the moral horizon.

 

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Things of 2013

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I’m now 29 and I have no kids. No property or other investments, either. I would like all of those things at some point in the future, but they aren’t my priority at the moment. I’m more interested in travel and pursuing new opportunities in my career. Round up a few other 29-year-old New Zealanders and see how many say the same thing.

Most of what follows is about me.

Music

The best twenty seconds of a song I heard this year were 3:10 to 3:30 of ‘The Red Wing’ by Fuck Buttons, from the album Slow Focus.

My music listening habits never really developed past the age of 16, when I got my first computer. I come across a new album and listen to it once or for months on repeat. Slow Focus was my favourite album of the ten or so new ones I heard this year. James Blake’s Overgrown would be next, and I also really liked Nothing Was The Same by Drake.

The steady accumulation of layers and abrasions on ‘The Red Wing’ reaches a glorious, spine-tingling apex about halfway through. My second favourite twenty seconds of a song are also from ‘The Red Wing’ as it starts to devolve from 6:10 to 6:30. The album as a whole is relentlessly dark, loud, and repetitive; it calls to mind the twisted sensations of being off your face in a dark nightclub, or the sick emotion that accompanies losing something important you can never get back. It drags me through a 45-minute catharsis. My kind of music.

Oh, the best New Zealand album I heard this year was Anniversary Day by JP Young. It would be my favourite album of the year but it came out in 2012. I recommend you go and listen to (and maybe buy) it now, especially if you have any connection to Wellington. It is a genuinely great album, poetic and easy to get along with.

Politics

In my dictionary (the excellent WordWeb), the first definition of ‘politics’ is Social relations involving intrigue to gain authority or power. No wonder it fills so many pages in the newspaper and minutes on the airwaves. Not here, though.

Sport

Wellington Indoor Sports Shed 1

From in front of that massive, stunted goal in Shed 1 – about waist-high and about a third of the width of the pitch – James rolled the ball out to me. I was just on our team’s side of the halfway line, the opposition goal about fifteen metres behind me. We were ahead, but we’d just conceded a goal and needed to regain control of the run of play.

I leaned back slightly as the ball reached me and tapped it with the outside of my right foot to MHS, who was over by the left sideline. As he put his foot on the ball and drew a defender, I spun round and sauntered into space a few metres downfield. Just as I was nearing the penalty spot, with no defender near me, MHS took a couple more touches and tapped the ball past his marker, into my path. In my peripheral vision, I sensed two things: one, the opposition goalkeeper was positioned slightly to the left of the centre of the goal, back near his line; two, an opposition defender was rushing at me from my right.

As the ball ran in front of me, I controlled it with one touch from my right foot and – judging that I had less than a second in which to act before I would be tackled – snapped a left-footed shot along the ground, past the oncoming defender, and into the bottom right corner of the opposition goal.

The exact same sequence of events could have happened a hundred years ago, albeit on grass rather than turf and with a plain leather ball rather than a bright yellow plastic one. I will remember it for decades, just as I remember my chipped goal from near halfway in a second XI match at high school and a perfectly timed flick off my pads for four from the first ball I faced in house cricket. Such moments in our sporting lives are timeless.

Film

I seem to be getting more bored with the movies. I went dozens of times this year, more than I have since about 2006, and I always enjoyed myself from start to finish, whether it was any good or whether the dude behind me provided a running commentary throughout (as happened in The Hunt and at least one other film I can’t remember). But I rarely left feeling inspired to talk about what I’d just seen, or to think about it a week later. The prime example of this was Hyde Park on Hudson, a film so bland I barely remember seeing it.

Good films I saw this year included 20 Feet From Stardom, The Act of Killing, Before Midnight, Fast & Furious 6, Gravity, The Hunt, Like Father, Like Son, Mr. Pip, Much Ado About Nothing, The Place Beyond the Pines, Wadjda, and (if I’m allowed this one) Lawrence of Arabia in glorious 4K at The Embassy. Despite its flaws – particularly a lack of balance between its three parts – The Place Beyond The Pines has stayed with me, proving that striking a resonant tone in film is less tangible than the technical combination of good characters, dialogue, cinematography, sound, and editing. The Place Beyond The Pines only had these things in patches, but I haven’t forgotten it.

Mia Farrow | Cloud Atlas

Casting a wide shadow over all my cinematic joys this year was the disappointment that Cloud Atlas was not released in cinemas in New Zealand. The distributor must have gotten cold feet at the prospect of selling Kiwi audiences on a three-hour epic with six ongoing storylines painted in broad archetypes, which seems like a fair decision when I look at that sentence, but Cloud Atlas somehow fulfils its extraordinary ambitions and offers a new kind of multi-layered spectacle in film. I watched it at home, alone on the couch wearing headphones, oblivious to a storm raging outside. It was the best new film I saw this year, and when a stranger says they also loved it, I feel like the film is recommending that person to me.

Tech

A couple of months ago, someone did a memorably recognisable impression of me. They held a smartphone close to their face, jabbed it with their index finger, and muttered, “Just… fucking… work!”

The way I treat the technology in my life has become a good indicator of my mood. The more accepting I am of my phone becoming unresponsive or my laptop shutting down unexpectedly, the better my overall frame of mind. If I’m already frustrated, I swear and click the mouse harder and bang my foot on the floor. I apologise to my colleagues for this.

The fact that my use of electronics can be seen as a barometer of my psychological state suggests how deeply I’ve involved these objects in my daily life. When you spend more than half of your waking hours with someone, or something, some irritation is inevitable. But if I lost them, it’d be like losing one of my senses.

Yellow shoes, walking

Books

In August I went to the launch of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, putting one foot in the world that knows her as ‘Ellie’. She complimented me on my yellow shoes, and I asked her how she was feeling. “A bit overwhelmed, to be honest,” she replied, looking around at the faces and wine glasses packed tighter than ever into Unity Books. This was a couple of months before she won the Booker.

After the launch, Nik and Ant and I discussed what a positive occasion it was. A good person being celebrated for an amazing feat of creativity. I still haven’t finished reading the bloody thing because I am so terrible at reading books, but it really is great, and I will get there.

Travel

In September I went to Brisbane, and in December I went to Nelson. First holiday was alone, second was with a companion. The weather was great for both.

Walking at Anchorage, Abel Tasman National Park

People

I think it has to be Tara, four months in, as wonderful as my colleagues, friends, and family are. She plucks snails off the footpath and places them safely in the bushes. She attempts to identify each bird she sees: “Thrush? Female blackbird?” She is comfortable speaking to strangers on the phone. She writes good emails. She gives excellent gifts. Our conversations flow easily, weaving from meaning to silly madness and back. Perhaps I am overly observant, but she means a lot to me.

Also, the Internet has a slightly diminished role in my life right now but I was lucky enough to get to meet Charles, Dan, Kathleen, Isabel, Martyn, Naomi, Neha, Reena, and Sarah this year – all people I came to know about through Twitter, and who have all been teachers in some way or another. Each year brings more new connections, and some old ones rekindled. Many bleed happily from one medium into another: Twitter, then Facebook, then a coffee shop or a pub. There will no doubt be more new people in 2014 – more good people, and more effort not to spread myself so thinly.

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Thanks for coming and looking at this. The years are all arbitrary but regardless of what has happened in 2013, I hope 2014 is all right for you.

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Wore a Kanye West t-shirt to the ballet

I have no qualifications for writing about Swan Lake performed by The Royal New Zealand Ballet with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, other than that I saw it and was wearing this t-shirt:

SWAG t-shirt and lollies

(File Photo)

Like many others, perhaps including a majority of men about Natalie Portman’s age, I became interested in ballet — particularly Swan Lake — after seeing Black Swan. As much as I love that epically unhinged film, Tchaikovsky’s music is what has sustained my interest in the years since. I must’ve listened to the whole score a hundred times; in particular, it provided a surreal soundtrack to my daily train commute in South India, clarinet and strings waving in sync with the branches of coconut palms.

From our seats, we were lucky enough to be able to see into the orchestra pit.

St James | Wellington | NZSO | Swan Lake

St James Theatre, Wellington

And when the lights dimmed, and that familiar musical phrase opened the performance, I already had my money’s worth.

Up went the curtain, and the best dancers in the country moved their perfectly toned, muscular bodies with transcendent grace. Between the music and the movement, I wasn’t really sure where to look. My tendency in describing art to others, especially visual art, is to focus on a particularly memorable aspect or moment and let that speak for my overall impression. This is very hard to do with a consummate performance featuring the life’s work of two dozen dancers, world-class choreographers, designers of three-storey sets and 20kg costumes, and an entire orchestra. How can I omit the flautist’s precise notes, the ornate headdress at stage left, the way liquid nitrogen ripples beneath Qi Huan’s feet? If I don’t mention that heartbreaking key change in the final scene, or Odile’s 32 fouettes, can I even say I’ve seen Swan Lake?

One dancer stood out. My companion later told me that she’d earned 100% on a Royal Academy of Dance exam when they were in the same teenage class in Tauranga. Her name is Katherine Grange and she danced in such a way that I could imagine her succeeding in any chosen passion; she just happened to choose dance. As much as anyone else on stage, her performance showed me something I hadn’t previously realised: ballet is a genuine feat of acting, and facial expression is a key element. The feet and arms need to be technically exceptional, but it’s the emotion in the way they move that carries the audience along.

Some of my favourite films, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lost In Translation, make a point of telling the story (or long stretches of it, at least) with images and music rather than words. In ballet, I think I’ve found an art which is based entirely on this principle. “Would you like to go to the ballet again?” asked my friend as we debriefed over a beer. My eyes widened. “Absolutely.” If the human species had three hours to demonstrate our capabilities to visiting alien dignitaries, a full performance of Swan Lake would do the trick.

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Grizzly Bear Live: Keeping It Up

I have now seen Grizzly Bear perform live. I would show you a photo taken by me of the band performing but the venue bastards were particularly vigilant about NO PHOTOGRAPHY PLEASE SIR THERE’S NO PHOTOGRAPHY, so here’s a photo of their set list by Ollie Labone (via Blog On The Tracks):

Photo by Ollie Labone

So how was the gig? It was INCREDIBLE. Never seen anything like it.

Most bands set themselves up on stage so that each member has a clearly defined space. Drummer up the back, singer up the front, guitars either side is the norm – a kind of diamond shape, or maybe in New Zealand a Southern Cross shape. It can give a sense that each band member is keeping their own part of the sound afloat, rather than working consciously with the rest of the group. With the kinds of songs most bands play, this is okay.

Grizzly Bear line up across the front of the stage to share the performance equally. Even Chris Bear, who is an astoundingly good drummer, is up front. (Admittedly, tour keyboardist Aaron Arntz hangs out up the back, but he at least got to sprint around the Opera House during ‘While You Wait For The Others’). You can see each of them, and everything they do, clearly. It’s like being shown all the angles and all the secrets of a magic trick. Their music certainly seems magic to me – all unusual time signatures, multi-part harmonies, and deft instrumental touches, cohering into a majestic whole.

As musicians, Grizzly Bear are like jugglers, with a number of song elements in the air at any given time. Chris Bear sends up kick & snare drum hits, which come down a Chris Taylor bassline. The bassline is built upon by Dan Rossen’s guitar, and Rossen’s voice is joined in harmony by Ed Droste (and, quite often, by the rest of the band). Taylor switches from guitar to brass to woodwind, Bear from sticks to brushes, while Rossen’s and Droste’s subtly distinctive voices interchangeably pick up and pass on vocal melodies. Grizzly Bear work space into their songs, and give each other space to move in them. Their careful placement of different sounds into that shared space seems so natural and intuitive, but I’m sure they must work extremely hard to figure the songs out in the first place, let alone be able to perform them so perfectly.

Unlike with some other bands, I felt like every member of Grizzly Bear played always for the song and never for themselves. Their songs are so rich and layered that if they hold anything back, the performance won’t work. Somehow, through their consummate individual skills and a four-part hive mind, it all stays aloft.

… I’ve made a Grizzly Bear concert sound like maths. It was, but it was so much more. They appear to take real joy from the art of performance, and I think we in the audience all felt that joy too.

They were also surprisingly relaxed between such moody and complex songs. “Who’s going to Boyz II Men? You guys don’t know about that? Boyz II Men on this very stage. There’s only three of ’em, but still, Boyz II Men. I’d fuckin’ see that. You guys should go along, tell me how it is.” And into ‘Cheerleader‘: “God let it go, it doesn’t mean a thing / Chance and sow, nothing changing…” And afterwards: “That was our cover of ‘End of the Road’ by Boyz II Men.”

They rocked, too, and most of the crowd at least bobbed around in their seats throughout. I bobbed particularly hard to ‘Yet Again’, a current favourite:

and pre-encore closer ‘Sun In Your Eyes’, just spectacular:

Two weeks ago, I saw Radiohead live, and that was a moment of completion in my life. But I can’t remember seeing a better or more complete musical performance than Grizzly Bear at the Wellington Opera House.

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Radiohead (Live) (Life)

I have now seen Radiohead perform live. Just look at how close I was!

This was the fulfilment of a long-held dream. I liked Radiohead through my childhood (Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer), wore them like a protective layer through my adolescence (Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief), and evolved along with the Radiohead sound as an adult (In Rainbows, The King of Limbs). No other band has been as important to me in my life as Radiohead, and no other musician or group of musicians has consistently held my attention for so long. I’ve relied upon them to enthral, inspire and motivate me for as long as I’ve needed them. Their music is a comfort zone in my life.

To see them perform live, as I did last night, was something I never imagined would actually happen. I almost had a chance in Japan in 2008 but skipped off to India instead, and as much as the band’s members have spoke positively about New Zealand, they hadn’t been here to play since the OK Computer tour of 1998.

But then, in the final encore, there was Thom Yorke singing ‘Idioteque’ right in front of me – this is really happening, happening – and it was happening, and it had happened, finally.

They didn’t play ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, or ‘Karma Police’, or ‘House of Cards’, which I was kind of hoping they would. They didn’t play anything at all from either Pablo Honey or The Bends. But they DID play ‘Separator’ and ‘Reckoner’ back to back – probably my two favourite Radiohead songs – and finished up with stellar renditions of ‘Paranoid Android’ and ‘Idioteque’. Other highlights included ‘Kid A’, ‘Airbag’ and ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’. ‘Myxomatosis’ (dedicated to “Mitt fucking Romney”) and ‘Feral’ were also surprisingly good.

The point is that there are so many good Radiohead songs that it doesn’t really matter if they missed a couple of your favourites. And to see them actually playing in front of you, as tight and professional as you can imagine for a group that uses a lot of guitar noise and computer input, was like having these songs assembled before your eyes and ears. Which is incredible, because to me – and most of the audience, it seemed – Radiohead’s songs are more than just familiar; they’re part of who I am.

I loved seeing all the little things you don’t get from a recording. The way Ed O’Brien would look at other members of the band and smile at seeing them lose themselves in the music. The twisting, hopping dance moves of Thom Yorke. Jonny Greenwood’s fringe flailing along with his rangy arms, running up and down a guitar like Hendrix. Phil Selway’s serene face as he executed complicated drum manoeuvres. Colin Greenwood hanging out up the back with Selway, quietly doing his thing.

It seemed like everyone was very happy to be there. We smiled and gave each other space. The whole crowd sang along to Paranoid Android. Security guards passed water along the front line. You hear a lot about good vibes but it’s rare to actually sense them; at this Radiohead concert, the arena was filled with our collective excitement at seeing some of the great musical minds of our time.

A Twitter person said (1 2 3) that she lost her ticket outside before the concert. Beginning to panic, she hunted around for an hour to no avail. Then she checked the ticket counter… and someone had handed it in. I imagine that person finding a ticket on the ground, considering how gutted they would feel if they lost their Radiohead ticket right before the show, and immediately taking it to arena staff.

I also imagine that person gained some of their empathy from listening to Radiohead songs. I know I did.

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Tracks I never tire of: ‘A Higher Place’

‘A Higher Place’ by Röyksopp, 2001, from the album Melody A.M.

Röyksopp had two big hits from their debut album Melody A.M, ‘Eple’ and ‘So Easy’, both of which appeared on almost every chillout compilation album for the next few years, and both of which had great videos.

They were decent enough tracks, and listening to them had a similar effect as popping sheets of bubble-wrap. Save for the high-pitched, bleeping melody of ‘Eple’, they weren’t that challenging, and they were a little bit fun, and they passed the time, but there wasn’t much more to them. Same deal with most of the rest of the album. For me, though, one track on Melody A.M. stood out as seeming to come from somewhere deeper, darker and more mysterious, and it was appropriately titled ‘A Higher Place’.

Röyksopp waste no time on ‘A Higher Place’. It kicks off with a three scene-setting drum hits and then goes straight into the main loop – a simple percussion sequence embellished by a few soothing synth chords, a constant floating, shimmering motif and, eventually, some minimalist vocal samples. It quickly establishes an offbeat-yet-driving tone and, apart from the subtle loop variations and chord changes, mostly stays there. The few repeated synth gestures are sporadic at first but become more frequent as the song continues – a steady, subtle escalation. There is no hint of verse or chorus, only variations on the same four-bar phrase – poison for some, but just the kind of thing I love.

The lyrics are simple – “take you to a higher place” – but ‘A Higher Place’ doesn’t necessarily take you all the way there. What it does is even better, something the best music (and art in general) manages to pull off: it suggests the existence of such heights rather than presenting them to you explicitly. The track is as ecstatic as the best scenes in Hitchcock films are scary, where the horror is suggested rather than shown. Röyksopp seem to bring you a glimpse of something out of human reach, just enough to get a sense that it’s out there, just for a few minutes.

There is one moment, at 2:44, that is among the closest to a metaphysical paradise as I know in contemporary music. The beat drops off and then all the synth and vocal samples dissipate, leaving a quick moment of silence before – the beat drops again, slightly more complex than before, with a new chord as a landmark to shift the tone a degree out. It’s a moment infused with subtle wonder, deflating my ego in a single beat and just forcing me to listen.

Read about more tracks I never tire of here.

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