My favorite music from 2020 is All Thoughts Fly, a forty minute instrumental album with one huge instrument raging against its walls.
All Thoughts Fly is written so that there’s room for nothing else except a quarter-comma Meantone-tempered pipe organ. A second instrument would have killed it, and vocals would have buried it. Thomas Aquinas once said “hominem unius libri timeo” (“I fear the man of a single book”). Of All Thoughts Fly he might have said “hominem unius organum musicum timeo”. It’s formidable in what it achieves with a limited set of tones: maximal miminalism. At times it’s forceful enough to punch a hole through reality, but it also attains moments of subtlety, and even sublimity. Let go of the safety rails and listen to it.
It’s inspired by Sacro Bosco, or “Sacred Grove”, a late Renaissance Italian garden scattered with huge, grotesque statues. These depict whales, bears, dragons, mythological figures, a man-eating elephant, disconnected body parts, and more. The perverse statuary is marred by cryptic irruptions of poetry. “And all other marvels prized before by the world yield to the Sacred Wood that resembles only itself and nothing else.”
The sculptor (credited as Simone Moschino) did with stone what Hieronymous Bosch did with paint, but while Bosch was motivated by faith, Sacro Bosco’s inspiration was more earthly (and sad). The park was commissioned by condottiero Pier Francesco Orsini in an act of mourning for his deceased wife Giulia Farnese, and while the precise meaning of the deranged strew of statues is lost to time; they are probably either manifestations of grief or expressions of hope: that are bigger and weirder things than man and his pathetic threescore-and-ten life, and death is not final. It’s notable that many of the monuments (Orcus, Cerberus, and Persephone) relate to underworld and the afterlife.
So what’s the album like?
It’s not classical music. The pieces are structured pretty simply and rely on force more than intricacy. There are suggestions of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Ros, Vangelis, SUNN O))), Berlin-era Bowie instrumentals and so on. Even when classical music is hinted at, it’s closer to Phillip Glass than, say, Bach.
And then there are moments that hint at nothing, where the music sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. Von Hausswolff allows you to climb a ladder of familiarity and then kicks the ladder away. Soundscapes pulse like the heaving flank of an alien beast, the air streaming from Hausswolff’s pipes like bubbles from the gills of a fish. In reality, alien things are everywhere. Gardens are fantastical, and Sacro Bosco’s monuments are largely drawn from real, living creatures.
“Theater of Nature” begins with ripples fluttering across a tonal sea, before progressing into a sequence of four-and-five note ostinatos, puncturing the background drone in huge knife-thrusts of sound. The song is stumbles along in a 5/4 meter, capturing the feeling of the park: man’s purpose knocked astray by nature. We pave a courtyard, but plants grow through the cracks. A man marries a woman, but she dies. There are piercing treble notes that sound like synthesisers. They glide high across the rest of the sound, hints of a heaven you hope exists but cannot reach.
“Dolore di Orsini” is a keening lament from Pier Francesco ‘Vicino’ Orsini to his lost love. Very simple and pared back. All Thoughts Fly breaks things down and builds them up again, again and again, as if letting you catch your breath.
“Sacro Bosco” is one of the higher builds: big, ugly, dark, and challenging. Black gasps of air swirl out like a the breath of a steam engine. But soon the mechanical rhythm is overwhelmed by an ecstatic wall of sound; nature is falling down, falling in, eating up man and his works. It’s pretty violent, and violently pretty.
“Persephone” takes us back to minimalistic sadness. A nearly empty box, with a little lost melody wandering inside it.
“Entering” sounds like a compost of all the proceeding pieces: gathering up “Sacro Bosco”‘s noise and “Dolore di Orsini’s” melancholy and “Persefone’s” melodicism and even a reprise of the “Theater of Nature” theme, along with some beater-box percussion. The track is two minutes long and comes in and out like a wave, as if clearing the ground for the next track.
The twelve-minute “All Thoughts Fly” is high-vaulted and airy, like a cathedral. Hausswolff constructs clouds inside the space, and dashes them to raindrops. The oscillating arpeggios produce a mild hypnotic effect. This is the longest track, and the most Glassian – it was like listening to an outtake from Koyaanisqatsi at times.
The song (and album) title come from the most famous part of Sacro Bosco, the vast mouth of Orcus, the Roman god of the underworld. He was largely worshipped in rural provinces, which allowed him to survive for a time after Rome’s urban dieties fell before Christianity (it’s fitting that his most famous monument is surrounded by plants). The garden is private thoughts and feelings projected into the crudest biggest form imaginable, and the acoustics inside Orcus’s mouth mean that whispers inside are clearly heard by those outside. Hence the inscription on Orcus’s upper lip, “All Thoughts Fly”.
Sacro Bosco’s patron would have agreed that there’s beauty in largeness, and in music there’s nothing larger (or louder) than a pipe organ. They’re bestial. The biggest ones barely seem like instruments: they’re more like engineering feats akin to suspension bridges. The Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ in Atlantic City, New Jersey has eighteen meter long pipes weighing over a ton each, cold-rolled on machines normally used to make battleships. These immense pipes play notes so deep that they don’t even sound like notes, they’re like jackhammers or helicopters. The first time an organist hit the lowest register C, a shower of tiles fell from the roof.
They’re the most quintessentially masculine instrument, so maybe it takes a woman to wring texture and sensitivity out of them, as Von Hausswolff does on the haunting coda “Outside the Gate (for Bruna)”, which might be the album highlight.
Von Hausswolff could be described as a heavy metal musician who doesn’t play heavy metal. Indeed, her career has been marked by absurd moral panics that actual heavy metal seldom inspires anymore. In 2013, leftist groups attempted to deplatform her as a “fascist sympathizer” for the crime of wearing a Burzum shirt, and in 2021, she attracted protests and boycotts in France because of a hilariously tame reference to the Devil in her lyrics.
Her fash-symp Satanism sounds better with each new release. 2010’s Singing from the Grave, doesn’t stand out as exceptional. 2013’s Ceremony was massive and grand, though some of the “Pitchfork metal”* moments irked me. I like most of what I’ve heard from her next few releases, but here she’s delivered something truly complete and remarkable. All Thoughts Fly fills the the universe, and hints at luminous things beyond it.
(*What do I mean by “Pitchfork metal”? It’s a particular style that’s hard to describe, but bear with me. Imagine a Pitchfork writer with VERY thick framed glasses. No, thicker than that. You’re still not imagining how thick his frames are. Imagine someone with his head fully encased by a gigantic block of cellulose like an insect trapped in amber. But he has a tiny hole drilled into his immense frames, and a wire descending down to his ear. The music he’s listening to is Pitchfork metal.)
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“What I want is a good, strong monarchy with a tasteful and decent king who has some knowledge of theology and geometry and to cultivate a Rich Inner Life.”
Incredible book. Maybe the funniest ever written. I dearly wish I could go back in time and experience it again for the first time.
How did Toole, a 26 year old who lived in a few places and met a few people, write a satire so sharp and cutting? And universal? You will encounter nearly every person you have ever met in A Confederacy of Dunces, and witness nearly every social absurdity. The book is a high-wattage laser focusing on excesses of human behavior until they either glow or shatter. It’s like an American version of Waugh’s comic novels: not as well-written, but funnier, moving with a lighter step, and with even more vivid characters.
The most vivid is Ignatius J Reilly, an obese, arrogant history grad who lives with his mother in 1960s New Orleans. “History grad” doesn’t cover Ignacius. Astronomers don’t want to live on Jupiter, and geologists don’t want to live in a cave, but Ignatius wants to live in the Middle Ages.
He feels a sullen, burning anger against all of modernity. He is proudly jobless (“Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking.”) and occupies himself by writing “a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.” He is laughable, gaseous, and contemptible, the spiritual ancestor of the neoreactionaries. He offends nearly everyone he meets, although not half as much as they offend him. He feels a kinship with the “Negroes”, however, his brothers in societal oppression.
But Toole makes Ignatius sympathetic, despite his tirades and hubris. We’ve all met this guy, or been him. He’s the kid who never got invited to any parties and has decided that it’s just as well: he’s too civilized for those nasty brutes. The sadness at the heart of Ignatius’s self-delusions cause something even stranger to happen, we start to like him.
Francois Truffaut famously said that it’s impossible to make an anti-war film because the nature of film makes exciting. Literary fiction (where we can see inside a character’s head and can witness their internal logic) does the same for egomania. From the outside, Ignatius is intolerable. From the inside, his gale-force personality wins us over. He does indeed have, as he puts it, a “Rich Inner Life”.
After a car accident puts the family in debt, Ignatius is faced with the horrific fate of having to work at a job. The bulk of the novel involves him trying to do so, and failing. The actual story’s pretty thin and episodic: this reputedly scotched its chances of publication within Toole’s lifetime – it was rejected by Simon & Schuster’s Robert Gottlieb because, apparently, he saw no point to it.
But there is a point: the ways arrogance is a mask for insecurity. Everything Ignatius says and does is a rationalization for his own failures. He watches far more movies than most people do, but justifies himself by saying he’s injuring himself against “perversion and blasphemy”. When he struggles to fit into a uniform, he laments that it’s made for a modern person’s “tubercular and underdeveloped frame”. In his off-hours, he writes invective-filled letters to a young female beatnik socialist named Myrna Minkoff who he is obviously obsessed with.
Myrna Minkoff is another character who comes alive on the page, which is saying something, because we never meet her until the end. She writes long letters back to Ignatius, focusing on his physical inadequacies, sexual repression, and urgent need for therapy. Supposedly, she is based on the hyper-aggressive female activists Toole encountered while teaching in New York. “Every time the elevator door opens at Hunter [University], you are confronted by 20 pairs of burning eyes, 20 sets of bangs and everyone waiting for someone to push a Negro.”
She is the opposite of Ignatius politically, but his equal at deluding herself. She’s putting on a play about interracial marriage, and has forged links with the female black co-star. “She is such a real, vital person that I have made her my very closest friend. I discuss her racial problems with her constantly, drawing her out even when she doesn’t feel like discussing them — and I can tell how fervently she appreciates these dialogues with me.”
There are other characters: a couple of ess-doubleyous at a French Quarter strip club, some gormless souls at a family-owned jeans factory, a bumbling police officer, etc. They are interesting on their own but become dim shadows when set against Ignatius and Myrna.
The book is famous for its detailed depiction of New Orleans. I always dislike it when reviewers say something like “the city’s almost like another character!” Cities are cities and characters are characters. An urban environment doesn’t have to be a person to be interesting, that’s just anthropomorphism. But New Orleans – the patois, the heat, the culture-clash – is an inseparable part of why Confederacy works. Whenever the action threatens to get a bit too ridiculous there’s always that anchor to pull it back to reality – this sense that it’s in a real place that actually existed. Little details, such as the daily life of a hot dog vendor, are rendered in believable accuracy.
The best part? The dialog. Confederacy is possibly the most quotable book ever written. I can recite large sections of it from memory.
“I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.”
“In my private apocalypse he will be impaled upon his own nightstick.”
“Do I believe the total perversion that I am witnessing?”
“If you molest us again, sir, you may feel the sting of the lash across your pitiful shoulders.”
“This liberal doxy must be impaled on the member of a particularly large stallion!”
“Go dangle your withered parts over the toilet!”
And so on. The book’s a ridiculous caricature, but like a caricature, we recognize everything it. Forty years after it was published, the book still seems eerily accurate to how people think and behave. Maybe life is more limited than it seems: its complexity spun out of a few repetitive people and scenarios, just as a jewel’s intricacies can be understood from seeing a single facet. Either way, when Confederacy of Dunces reaches its disastrous end, you’ll want Ignatius to prevail in his one-man war against the modern world.
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Circumstances sometimes force us to dislike movies. I remember being in a Blockbuster video with a friend (not long after seeing The Phantom Menace) when he learned that I hadn’t watched the original movies. We then had a Never Seen Star Wars conversation. “Whaaaaaaat? Dude! How have you never seen Star Wars?” I still don’t know what I was expected to say: does it take effort to not watch a film? Was I supposed to reveal my secret never-seen-Star-Wars diet and workout regimen? Regardless, he snatched tapes out of my hands and reshelved them. My heart sank: we’d be watching Star Wars that night.
I’ll admit that this ruined the film for me. Even today, my principle association with Star Wars (both film and franchise) remains “the kind of thing people bully you into enjoying.”
I admire parts of it now; it has good puppetry and special effects, and Alec Guinness is a talented actor. His scenes on the desert planet (which were filmed in Tunisia, I think) have the stately gravitas of Lawrence of Arabia or The Man Who Would Be King. Long shots of desolate horizons, with grime and rust and sand corroding through the frame. There’s a sad, understated quality to his performance – the sun’s going down, his sun’s going down, and everyone lives in the shadow of a once-glorious empire that is rotting like late summer fruit. It’s very British film in places.
In other words, I enjoy the parts where Star Wars isn’t Star Wars. At the movie’s heart is a ball pit of kiddie stuff – lightsabers, blasters, the Force, the Millennium Falcon – that doesn’t move me at all. The more platonically Star Wars the film gets, the more unendurable it becomes.
It’s obvious that Star Wars’ tacky, toyetic style dispersed through culture like poison spores and made the world worse. Less obvious is the fact that this doesn’t work in the original film. Dark Vader and the stormtroopers resemble shiny plastic action figures: any sense of danger is undercut by how stupid they look. One of the more over-the-target gags in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs is that the villains of Star Wars are impossible to take seriously.
When Luke leaves the desert, the film’s look becomes “plastic and PVC”. Next to the awesome heft of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars looks weightless. The X-Wings resemble model kits glued with Araldyte, and they’re flown by pilots wearing dorky oversized NASCAR helmets equipped with welding goggles. Is there a point to all this safety gear when you’re flying at sixteen times the speed of sound? One collision with anything and you’re toothpaste.
The actors either suck or are deep-sixed by the writing. Mark Hamill has the charisma of a crash test dummy, Carrie Fisher is a sociopath who wisecracks about Chewbacca’s excessive body hair the same day her planet blows up, and honestly, why are we all pretending that Harrison Ford is a charming rogue? He’s a sour grinch whose main character trait is that he doesn’t want to be in the movie.
There is a gay robot. I’m not offended by the gay robot. Gay robots are a time-honored British archetype. He’s just a very odd character given the “Epic Campbellian space opera that should be taught in schools and forcibly inflicted upon children in a collective hazing ritual” role Star Wars has in our culture.
The Star Wars setting is interesting, if incongruent. It’s a universe where moon-sized battlestations exist and lasers shred entire worlds to plasma…but spaceships can still be fixed by smearing engine oil on your arms and rummaging with fuel lines. Lucas’s futuristic setting only looks backwards (particularly, to the movies he saw in his youth). He provides pastiches of WW2-style dogfighting, “greaser” muscle car movies, wild west gunfighter duels, Turkish prisons, medieval swordfights, and more. Speaking of, lightsabers seem like they’d be dogshit weapons. Who needs a sword that annihilates everything it touches? A careless backswing would split your head in half. The careful, slow-paced lightsaber duel at the end is actually realistic: that’s the only way you could ever fight with those things.
Lazy reviewers who don’t think usually default to describing films as “a love letter to [the film’s most prominent influence].” Lucas wrote a love letter complete with spelling errors, backward letter Rs, and semen stains. He sometimes comes up with inspired ideas, and sometimes he squeezes the ball through the hoop in spite of himself, but nowhere do we see evidence that he’s competent. Star Wars is just an occasionally compelling mess, roughed into shape by skilled and patient editors.
Was the opening text scroll his idea? It’s a good example of my least favorite thing: audience handholding. Yeah, why reveal the backstory through context or dialog, when you can just put some text-based exposition on the screen. Why even make the movie at all? Just throw the entire screenplay up there in yellow News Gothic Bold text. Really good filmmaking there.
I am not reacting to Star Wars so much as it’s fans and its place in society.
Star Wars belongs with bacon, duct tape, I Fucking Love Science, We Don’t Deserve Dogs, and Beatles worship. In general, I am creeped out by effusive public cheerleading for things that are universally loved. It’s not wrong, exactly, to enjoy a thing that eight hundred million other people enjoy. But it’s strange to turn that into a marker of your identity. What hole are you trying to fill with your Han Shot First T-shirt?
I have a grudging respect for people who join cults. At least QAnon folks are kind of brave, and willing to go against the tide. Where’s the bravery in being a fan of a thing like Star Wars? You are the tide. I don’t hate you if you publically adore this film, but I suspect that in the world of the movie you’d be working for the Empire.
Also, a flickering holographic ghost is not more powerful than I can possibly imagine.
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