Brian Eno, Mr. Potato Head opera theater, etc.

Phil Ford

There are some people who have a genius for awesomeness. This is not the same thing as being cool. Having a genius for awesomeness means that you have an unerring instinct for awesome ideas, for figuring out what things out there in the big wide world are awesome, for thinking of awesome things to do. Stewart Brand has that kind of genius, as does Edward Tufte. It's the kind of genius that album producers ideally have: someone like Rick Rubin is famous not only for knowing which knobs to twist, but for having out-of-left-field intuitions about framing concepts, like being the guy who invented rapcore and then getting Johnny Cash to do a series of recordings of songs by people like Glenn Danzig, Beck, and Trent Reznor in stark minimalist roots arrangements. My friend DD liked to call such people conceptualists. The greatest musical conceptualist of them all is probably Brian Eno: indeed, his "Oblique Strategies" deck, which I have been perusing this last week, is both a stockpile of concepts and, as a mechanism for deploying them, a particularly elegant concept itself.* 

My Ph.D. advisee Kim Schafer, who is writing about the carillon as a component of the collegiate soundscape in America (and is herself an expert carilloneur), informs me that Eno is now working on something called the Dartington Carillon. The carillon is itself one of the great undiscovered cool things in the world (well, undiscovered by musicologists, for the most part): when you think of it, what musical instrument is as environmental, as intimately bound up with architecture and landscape, as the carillon? And no kind of music from before the 20th century is as well suited to the style of background listening that contemporary listeners have developed in response to the 20th-century ubiquity of recorded and broadcast music.** It's probably not surprising, then, that Brian Eno (who theorized and damn-near-invented ambient music) would be interested in carillons. The as-yet-unrealized Dartington plan is a grab-bag of modern-artsy ideas  — it's a combined theater and art gallery with poetry written on the bells and leather-head mallets provided to visitors so they can strike the bells themselves and participate actively, etc. — which makes it sound a little like a whole bunch of community arts project funding proposals all jammed together. But still, it's a cool idea to emphasize the carillon's environmental properties and create a building that is at the same time both a landscape and a musical instrument:

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On an unrelated note, I found the most heartbreakingly sweet video clip at Parterre Box. A four-year-old boy listens to Donizetti's La fille du régiment while his Mr. Potato Head guys dance along. The look on his face at the end . . .

La Cieca also tells us that Celine Dion is planning on starring (and singing!) in a new biopic of Maria Callas. Now Carl Wilson has written a wonderful book making the case for Dion, so I'll tread lightly here and suggest that while Dion's art doubtless has its value, she might be overreaching a bit. The news article to which La Cieca links is worth a read: at one point La Dion told Kent Nagano (the conceptualist of the piece, the guy who's been putting this together) that she doesn't read music, and he consoled her by saying, well, Pavarotti didn't either. He also suggested she get some coaching from someone like Renata Scotto. I wonder what that would do. No, seriously, I'm actually kind of curious. OK, now that I think of it, I'm in favor of this. Do it, Celine! it would be kind of interesting to see what happens. I think the project is doomed to almost certain failure (as when-worlds-collide crossovers often are) but it would be an interesting failure. 

*Today's oblique strategy: Be extravagant. OK!

**Click here for an old cogitation of mine on kindred topics — the best
thing about it is the recording of Kim and Leanne Zacharias playing a
cello-and-carillon duet.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Brian Eno, Mr. Potato Head opera theater, etc.

  1. Dan Johnson says:

    Do you know Eno’s Bell Studies for the Clock of the Long Now?

  2. David Cavlovic says:

    It’s about time the Carillon was appreciated here in the New World. Of course, if you are Belgian or Dutch, you always appreciated it. Why, back in the good-ol’ LP days, when record labels mattered, and ARCHIV PRODUKTION actually put out interesting historical stuff (the 1950’s and 1960’s!), when they had categories of realeases, they actually had a series examining the history of the Carillon. They even released excerpts of this series on 7-inch 45 rpm discs (these were the first 7-inch 45’s on ARCHIV I was ever able to find).

  3. Peter Alexander says:

    I’m kind of late to the party, but the Boulder Daily Camera has an article today (Sept. 4) about the U of Colorado carillon (Macky Bells), and a student who played it for the commencement ceremony, then rushed down to graduate:
    http://www.dailycamera.com/news/2008/sep/03/students-keep-macky-bells-tradition-ringing/

  4. Susan says:

    He’s mine! That 4 year old. 4 1/2 now. I just saw the links on the stats page of the video and went back through your blog to find this post. Later, after he goes to bed, I’ll read your blog for real.
    Thanks for the post! 🙂

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