Monday, 26 February 2018

Who is really the bird brain?

It was nine years ago when I first looked at a bird with anything more than passing interest.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like our feathered friends – rather that I hadn’t really expended enough mental energy to regard them as anything other than feather brained.

But in 2009, The Other Half and I were in Berlin and decided to take in the city’s zoo. In the event, our visit was cut short by a storm, but we were impressed enough that we returned before our week was out.

Aviaries are the sort of places I would previously have skipped, but with a quality camera around my neck, what stopped me in my tracks was a king vulture.

A family nearby was trying to attract its attention through the fence, but it maintained a regal sense of aloofness – ignoring them completely and opting instead to stare me down. That bird had attitude. And I got great pictures.

Since then, I have looked out for birds – and always make a beeline for any vultures. Ive have even been able to identify one in the wild, flying above a Pyrenean town – a lammergeier.

Anyway, fast forward to last autumn and a lunchtime browse in the shop at the near-to-work British Library. Such visits have to be strictly rationed, since it’s well nigh impossible to walk out without having added to our own already creaking shelves.

On this occasion, I picked up a 2017 paperback version of The Genius of Birds.

By this stage, it was some time after my ‘ravens rock’ thing had first blossomed, but the initial enticement to Jennifer Ackerman’s book was a rapid flick through the index to see if ravens merited a mention.

Standing in the shop reading a brief section on how researchers had been on the receiving end of a pair of ravens using weapons against them (dug-up stones) was all it took. I bought the book.

A few weeks ago, waiting for something else to arrive, I plucked it down from the shelf and started to read. Nothing had suggested just how compulsive I’d find it.

Every time I visit the hospital my father now frequents regularly, I talk to the crows that rule the roost on the recreation ground opposite – we know each other well – so it delights me that corvids rate very highly in the avian intelligence stakes.

The early part of the book includes fascinating information about the tool use of New Caledonian crows, the Einsteins of the bird world, but other corvids feature too.

However, there was a whole world of bird brains to discover.

The chickadee, for instance, with it’s astonishingly varied call that can be used to warn its community of a nearby predator and even how threatening that predator is.

We can read about the architectural and aesthetic works of bowerbirds and learn about the astonishing capacity that pigeons have for navigation. It’ll never be so easy to simply dismiss them as ‘rats with wings’ after reading this.

King vulture with attitude, Berlin 2009
In a German experiment, it was found that homing pigeons that were allowed to fly around outside their loft and get to know its surrounds, and then participate in races of up to 175 miles, had hippocampi that were 10% larger than homing pigeons that had not been allowed outside a spacious loft/aviary.

Here, Ackerman adds a fascinating note on research done with humans, showing that experienced black cab drivers in London have more “grey matter” in the rear of their hippocampus than bus drivers or new cabbies.
Which begs the question of whether navigational tech such as GPS is damaging to human intelligence.

The author is always careful not to over-egg any puddings by anthropomorphising avian intelligence, but that works both ways, as she urges us not to consider ‘intelligence’ only in human terms, even where intelligence does not easily correspond with the human understanding of the word.

And at the end of a book that constantly makes you go ‘wow’, Ackerman brings everything together within the context of climate change and what that might mean for birds.

This is popular science, but don’t let that suggest that it’s sloppy. There’s plenty of science here and that can take some serious reading attention. But from start to finish, it’s also an absolute joy. I’ll never again consider birds to be rather boring.

• The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman is published by Corsair and available in a variety of formats.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Del Toro's Shape of Water is the shape of magic

It’s rather amusing to consider that the founders of the Academy Awards, which will be handed out this year in LA on 4 March, would probably never have imagined that the film with the most nominations this year would include scenes of female masturbation and human/monster sex.

Ninety years after the first gold statuettes were handed out, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is up for 13 gongs. Though Dunkirk has eight nominations, its main competition in the really big categories is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, with seven overall.

But let’s set that aside for the moment.

The plot of The Shape of Water is, on the surface of it, very simple.

Mute cleaner Elisa Esposito works at a secret US government facility in Baltimore in 1962. Her best friends are her neighbour Giles, a late-middle aged illustrator who has (probably) been forced out of contracted work because he’s gay, and a fellow cleaner, Zelda, a black woman with a problematic husband, who defends Elisa against bullying colleagues.

But Elisa dreams of something beyond mopping the labs and, when a strange water creature – The Asset – is brought to the facility in the hope that it will help the US side of the Cold War space race, she is the first person to realise that the monster is not … well, quite the monster he initially seems.

However, just as their relationship is developing, it becomes clear that the brutal Colonel Richard Strickland and the US military want to vivisect the creature.

In terms of this film, the words ‘fairy tale’ have been mentioned plenty of times, And it’s absolutely true. Because del Toro has created something that is just that – which is precisely why it is so powerful.

Some have claimed that the plot is simplistic – fairy tale plots are.

Some have suggested that the characters are not fully developed – just as in fairy tales.

Fairy tales are simple and full of ciphers. And they stay with us – just like folklore and mythology – down the generations.

The Shape of Water is full of shallow characters – but only if you are not willing or able to look slightly deeper. Even Strickland has a lot more to say to us if we listen properly (further clues here would represent spoilers).

Indeed, this is an extraordinarily intellectually complex film: simple only on the surface: if you’re prepared to look deeper, then it has many, many rewards.

It is also a generous emotional experience – never lapsing into lazy sentimentality – with a number of moments of utter joy. And those include Elisa using sign language to tell Strickland to ‘fuck you’, which he can only guess at in utter frustration: the look on her face is simply sublime.

Sally Hawkins as Elisa is just wonderful – can’t she and Frances McDormand share the best actress Oscar this year? Indeed, as gutsy, feisty women, they make a wonderful pair of contrasting characters. Hawkins conveys such a purity and yet such a hunger, such a passion and such a moral strength – and all without speaking.

Ophelia Spencer as Zelda is wonderful. Michael Shannon as Strickland is really nasty – yet also has those depths that should make us think – while Michael Stuhlbarg as one of the scientists is equally excellent.

Doug Jones – the amphibian Abe Sapien in both del Toro Hellboy movies – does wonders in the fish skin, making the ‘monster’ a believable yet utterly strange being, while Richard Jenkins as Giles (justifiably up for a supporting actor Oscar) really does turn in the performance of his career.

The design is almost pure graphic novel, with a gorgeous colour palette of blue-greens and a retro sense of the future that really helps draw you in. 

Alexandre Desplat’s score is one of the few I will bother to buy to listen to. Eerie – and, in this centenary of Debussy’s death – it has the shimmering ‘watery’ quality of some of that composer’s watery-themed works.

At the top of this review, I mentioned the bath time masturbation scenes: they come into their own when you realise that they ensure that Elisa cannot be viewed as a naive, ‘disabled’ victim and therefore exploited – indeed, most of the film’s strength comes because she is the absolute opposite of that: it’s her incredible strength that inspires the others around her.

There are so many themes here: loneliness; the sense of being ‘apart’ – not part of society’s most accepted class/es. There are environmental themes too and political ones. And one of the most telling points is that, when the ‘monster and Elisa come together, it feels proper and apt and tender and convincing – just as such things have in myth down the centuries.

So, simple on the surface perhaps. But dip below that surface and you’ll see why del Toro’s latest work might well be his very best yet. This is cinematic magic. Go and catch it.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Black Panther leaps onto screens with style and depth

Marvel’s growth as a cinema brand was always set to continue this year, with Avengers Infinity War due out in the spring, Deadpool 2 shortly after that and Ant-Man and the Wasp in mid summer, but for a whole bag of reasons, Black Panther is arguably the biggest release of them all.

Sitting in a packed cinema on opening day, with one of the most mixed audiences imaginable, it was impossible to miss the expectation, just as it’s impossible not to be aware of the film’s cultural importance.

The eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s based on the superhero comics series that was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966.

The film gives us a basic backstory about the creation of a fictional east African nation made up of five tribes that are united as Wakanda under the first Black Panther. Once established, Wakanda develops extraordinarily advanced technology, that – among other things – enables it to hide itself from the rest of the world by appearing to be a poor Third World country.

Fast forward to Oakland, California, in 1992, where a Wakandan prince has become convinced that isolationism is wrong and that the country should share its technology with people of African descent around the world to help them defeat their oppressors.

Fast forward once more to the present, just after King T’Chaka’s death and the accession of his son, T’Challa, to the throne. But before hes got time to properly get his feet under the royal table, faces from the past reappear, determined to exploit the change of monarch for their own ends.

This is a cracking Marvel romp, but with enough of a philosophical edge around the issue of isolationism – and the legacies of colonialism that the film also makes clear, open references to – to illustrate (were it needed) that comics and the films based on them don’t have to be vapid.

Scripted by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, and directed by the former, the film also benefits from excellent production design by Hannah Beachler, who creates a visually convincing Wakanda that melds the advanced technology with a vivid sense of actual African cultures.

The cast too is uniformally excellent – starting with Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa (channeling Mandela a tad, but why not?). This is a character who’s dignified, brave and morally intelligent – and fortunately Boseman ensures that hes sexy and complex too, avoiding that oh-so-serious quality some Marvel superheroes have.

Michael B Jordan as Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens is another who adds a pleasing level of complexity to his role, while Lupita Nyong’o as undercover Wakandan spy Nakia, Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s teenage sister and the nation’s tech genius, Danai Gurira as Okoye, head of the country’s all-female special forces and royal bodyguard the Dora Milaje, Florence Kasumba as Dora Milaje member Ayo and Angela Bassett as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother, give the audience more really strong impressive female characters in one film than anyone would usually expect.

And not to forget Forest Whitaker as Wakandan elder statesman Zuri, Andy Serkis – appearing almost without CGI! – as South African black-market arms dealer, smuggler and gangster Ulysses Klaus, Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett K Ross and South African acting legend John Kani as T’Chaka and there’s not much chance things are going to slip in the acting department.

The action sequences are as good as you’d expect; the whole thing looks superb and some of the mythical/ancestral plane sequences are really beautiful. Indeed, the sense of the mythological in the film is part of why its so successful: it has a feeling of a story that really does go back into the mists of time.

Irrespective of the expectation, Black Panther is a top-notch entry into the Marvel film universe.

Of that expectation – no film is going to spark a revolution, but it has gone way beyond simply avoiding being ‘not disappointing’. It offers black audiences – actually, all audiences – a whole raft of positive black characters and a positive black/African world.

It’s going to be fascinating to see what might be inspired by that.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Cello joy as Soltani's debut hits the shelves


Kian Soltani and Aaron Pilsan

Deutsche Grammophon

You know what it’s like: you wait ages for a brilliant cello album to come your way and then suddenly there’s a queue.

The 2012 BBC Young Musician winner, Laura van der Heijden, released her first album in the last days of 2017 (I’ll be looking at this another time), while the recording debut of the 2016 champion, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, arrived at the start of this month.

And now we have Home, the debut of Kian Soltani, the winner of the 2013 International Paulo Cello Competition.

The idea behind Home is to weave together Kian’s roots. Born and brought up in Austria, of Iranian parents, the programme reflects this.

We open with Arpeggione, one of the most famous pieces by Schubert, a composer for whom the cellist has a particular fondness, and a work demanding virtuosity.

After the three movements of that, Schubert’s Nacht und Träume concludes the Classical section of this album, before we head into the Romantic era and Schumann – another Austrian composer with whom Soltani feels a particular affinity.

Schumman originally wrote Zart und mit Ausdruck, Lebhaft, leicht and Rasch und mit Feuer as a three-movement work, Fantasy Pieces for Clarinet and Piano – while also stipulating that cello or violin could replace the former.

More Schumann follows, before we move into a new work.

Seven Persian Folk Songs comprises seven pieces, ranging from the poetic to the ferocious. Written by Iranian composer Reza Vali for Soltani and dedicated it to him, it provides a fascinating contrast to the first parts of the album.

Some critics reject Persian symphonic music – also known as Persian polyphonic music and generally written by Persian/Iranian composers for Western ensembles and orchestras – because of the differences between Persian and Western scales.

However, composers have found ways to solve the questions these differences ask and Vali’s ability to do this is part of why the resulting work is so fascinating in its melding of different musical cultures, which leaves us with both familiarity and yet something different and challenging.

The album concludes with Iranian Fire Dance, a composition by the cellist himself.

In effect, the Persian/Iranian works add a philosophical complexity to the album as a whole, since in combining the traditional with the new, they add a wider sense of ‘home’ that’s more in keeping with the philosophical complexity of the German concept  of‘Heimat’ than any straightforward understanding of the word.

It adds a musical note too to current debates around migration, integration and cultural fusion.

Kian is a protegée of Anne-Sophie Mutter and Daniel Barenboim – he has been a member of the former’s Virtuosi as well as a member of the latter’s West-Eastern-Divan-Orchestra and is also a member of the newly-founded Boulez-Ensemble.

The Schubert here is exquisite, with a lightness that almost defies belief. The Schumann takes us into more melancholy, contemplative terrain, while the Vali ensures we don’t lapse into easy listening mode.

Throughout, Soltani’s playing is simply superb, with tremendous range of tone and emotion. And enjoying equal billing is pianist Aaron Pilsan, whose playing is every bit a match for his compatriot.

Quite simply, this is a wonderful release that reinforces the variety and beauty of the cello – and also  adds to a growing sense of how blessed we are in seeing such a number of superb young musicians rising up in front of us.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Three Billboards: brutal and funny, with hope at its heart

It’s not difficult to see how Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, has gained seven Oscar nominations. It’s only difficult to see how it hasn’t gained more, because this is a simply superb film.

Frustrated by the lack of any police progress in finding out who raped and murdered her daughter,  Mildred Hayes rents three billboards on a backroad within sight of her home – and near where the crime happened – to ask: “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?” and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

TV takes note. The billboards upset some of the townspeople, including Sheriff Bill Willoughby and the racist, perpetually drunk officer Jason Dixon. Mildred and her son are harassed and threatened. A local priest tries to cow her.

Her ex-husband visits – his naive, 19-year-old girlfriend Penelope in tow – to blame her for their daughter’s death.

But Mildred won’t give in.

Willoughby is sympathetic and looks again at the case, but he’s dying of pancreatic cancer. After one last perfect day with his wife and two young daughters, he ends his own life.

Dixon, his anger bubbling over, hits out.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an extraordinary film. Variously described as a ‘crime film’, a ‘tragicomedy’ and ‘darkly comic’, it is all those and far more.

There is a savage brutality about it – not just in some of the violence, which is never gratuitous – but also in the emotions of people struggling to deal with grief and loss and anger. That it never crosses into mawkishness or sentimentality is an incredible achievement.

The writing is superb. When Willoughby’s suicide letters to his wife, to Mildred and to Dixon are read by them (voiced by Woody Harrelson), they combine an earthiness with a poetic beauty that is searing.

Ben Davis’s cinematography is more than a match, giving us a sense of vast, natural beauty, yet with those three billboards as a constant jarring reminder that something far darker is at the root of all this.

The performances are exemplary.

In a strong supporting cast, Peter Dinklage as a friend of Mildred, Caleb Landry Jones as the ad agency rep and Samara Weaving as Penelope, are all excellent.

Harrelson and Sam Rockwell as Willoughby and Dixon respectively, are both up for supporting actor Oscars. It’s hard to know who you’d pick.

But Frances McDormand is simply outstanding as Mildred. The anger, the pain and the guilt are raw; constantly etched across her face, yet so subtly conveyed. It is a blistering turn and it’s almost impossible to imagine that she will not take home her second golden statue come March.

Three Billboards is about flawed human beings struggling with their demons. They don’t overcome all their flaws, but somewhere in the darkness, McDonagh’s magnificent work suggests that humans can grow; that redemption and release from the pain are possible.

And throughout, there are little notes to suggest that the cycle of life goes on: flowers and a young deer are just two.

If there’s a moral here, it’s in Penelope’s adage, memorised from a bookmark, that “anger only begets more anger”. It’s a line that’s played for laughs and then dropped, yet it’s the truth at the heart of the film.

‘Crime film’, ‘tragicomedy’ … whatever. In the end, this is a deeply humane work that transcends easy labels.

Go on, go on, go on ... Martin McDonaghThe Cripple of Inishmaan

Sunday, 4 February 2018

A shimmeringly good start to the Debussy centenary

A Christmas present to make you feel grown up
In this centenary of the death of the great French composer Debussy, one thing is assured: there will be no shortage of recordings of his works.

If Debussy has never quite been my favourite composer, he’s been hovering not far away from the top of my personal pantheon since around 1980. I had embarked on A level music studies at Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School and one of the first works that we were introduced to was Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.

It was a Deutsche Grammophon recording, with Herbert von Karajan wielding the baton and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra providing the gorgeously lush sound that stunned this then teenage listener.

It was the start of love affairs with all four component parts of that musical equation.

My mother, whose own classical music appreciation largely went little further than Handel’s Messiah (played every year as we put the Christmas decorations up) and Gilbert and Sullivan, was delighted in my interest and happy to buy me albums at Christmas and birthday.

The mantra was established instantly: DG, Von K, the Berlin. Most arrived on cassette, since I had one of those handheld ones that I later took to college. Such tech has gone the way of all flesh, but my vinyl recordings still survive – including one of those joint Debussy-Ravel programmes that seem to have been the light-classical norm for years.

In a general sense, I always loved DG covers – and still do: so much cleaner and brighter and more modern than those that, for instance, had a reproduction of a painting of an eighteenth-century street because it was a recording of something or other by Mozart. And while of course I would not wish to suggest that I am swayed by covers alone, I do still think that DG produces the classiest covers around, even when they’re predominantly artist portraits. 

Before the centenary got underway, DG had released Seong-Jin Cho’s new collection of piano works, Debussy, comprising Images I and II, Children’s Corner and Suite bergamesque.

In January, this was followed by Daniel Barenboim’s heavily-touted Claude Debussy, with a programme of Estampes, Clair de lune (from Suite bergamesque), Le plus que lente, Elégie and Préludes, Book 1.

Since the composer is standardly described as an Impressionist, it’s easy to think of his work in terms of paintings rather than the literature that was his inspiration. It was a poem by Mallarmé that gave birth to Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, for instance.

But it can be difficult not to see pictures in the mind’s eye when listening to his work. To be honest, I dont think that counts very high on a list of problems.

On a different note, I have made the mistake, for some time, of treating music as background – something to play on headphones when working so as to aid concentration – and forgotten the value of setting aside time to really listen.

This weekend, I decided to actually sit down and pay attention to these two new discs.

Now Cho is new to me, whereas Barenboim is an established household god who I have had the very great joy and privilege of seeing play live.

The programmes are different – except for Clair de lune. Both are wonderfully meditative: a proper listen is seriously de-stressing stuff.

I have no preference over that one shared piece. But there is something in Cho’s playing that is so subtle, yet utterly devastating.

The thing I kept thinking of when listening was, ironically, not in his programme – Le Cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral), which is is the tenth piece in Préludes, Book 1. Yet it is what I thought of, time and again, while listening to Cho.

Barenboim is wonderful, with the contrasts that you would expect, but there is an ethereal, shimmering quality to Cho’s interpretation that takes the breath away – thats if you’ve not already found tears streaming down your cheeks.

I was constantly half-thinking of light on rippling water – and yes, of submerged buildings.

In this year of Debussy, these two have already set the bar very high. Get/stream both, if you can. But if you have to choose, go for Cho and then invest the time away from anything else, simply letting yourself be drawn in to the utterly beautiful music and this quite extraordinary performance.

And one can only hope that this is indicative of the quality that we’ll be treated to over the coming months.