Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Music of the Season

The Dramahound has been derelict in her blogging of late. Christmas is fast approaching, and those presents need to get mailed this week. I haven’t even begun cards, but the ones going to Europe will get mailed this week. In addition to that, I’ve got music to go over (beating out measures with a pencil, with a note from my trusty pitchpipe), and a bunch of writing projects. The new libretto I’ve been working on- the second draft (more like a second first draft) is nearly done, but not quite. The musicalization of a play of mine- the composer and I finished the first song on Sunday afternoon. And the other possible libretto has morphed into songwriting with a third composer. So it’s a busy time.

However, for your listening pleasure, let me tell you about three music opportunities, all at the Church of the Holy Trinity, on East 88th Street in Manhattan (link above). The first is Lessons and Carols on Sunday, December 16 at 4PM. The lessons range from Bible readings to poetry (past years have had selections from Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings). The music this year will be Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols”- the good choral parts, and a harpist as well; and the music of John Rutter and Sweelinck. In addition, there will be many of your favorite Christmas carols to sing along with. It’s too cold this year to sing in Washington Square or Gramercy Park, so come to Holy Trinity on Sunday instead.

Christmas Eve there will be two Eucharist services- one at 5:00 PM and one at 10:30 PM. The earlier service is more geared towards children, and both the children’s choir and the adult choir will perform. The late service begins at 11PM, with a half-hour musical prelude. So get out of your apartment and hear some Christmas music that isn’t Muzak.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Birth of a Nation

Since I moved to Brooklyn, I finally have a mailbox big enough to hold a DVD, so I am discovering the joys of Netflicks. I rent movies I’ve never seen or have only seen part of, or cable series I’m seen some or none of (“Deadwood” and “Rescue Me,” in particular). This week I saw “The Birth of a Nation.” I’d seen parts of it in a PBS documentary, and I’d certainly read about D.W. Griffith, Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh.

My friend Cheryl Davis recently had a production of her play “By Oscar Micheaux” produced by the Milk Can Theatre Company. Micheaux was a contemporary of Griffith’s, and also a film director (he made what were then called “race” movies). Throughout the play, Micheaux invokes Griffith as the exemplar of what is wrong with Hollywood and its treatment of black characters. His first full-length feature, “The Homesteader,” was made in response to Griffith’s depiction of Black Americans. Micheaux also wound up working with a young Robert Earl Jones towards the end of his life, which I find fascinating. Would James Earl Jones ever have gone into acting at all if his father hadn’t?

“Birth of a Nation” was made in 1915, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War. (The link above gives a lot of information about the film and a plot summary.) It was the most popular silent film ever made; then-President Woodrow Wilson (who, don’t forget, was a Southerner himself) described it as “History written with lightning.” It was based on two novels of the Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr., who adapted them into a play (“The Clansman”) that ran on Broadway at the Liberty Theatre (approximately where the AMC is now, on the 200 block of 42nd Street) in 1906. Civil War plays were very popular- the great actor William Gillette’s most famous vehicle was “Sherlock Holmes,” but a close second was his “Secret Service,” about a Union spy. Griffith was originally an actor and performed in several plays about the Civil War. He was a native of Kentucky, and his father was a decorated Confederate Army colonel.

All of that said, “Birth of a Nation” is deeply shocking. When it opened , there were protests in the Northeast, and by the NAACP. The State of Ohio tried to ban it from being shown at all. If you could, even for a moment (and I don’t think it’s possible, actually), try to detach the rampant racism from it, which is in every frame where there are any Black characters, there is certainly more stuff going on besides. It is anti-Northern in a hundred subtle ways. If I’d been a Union Army veteran watching it, I’d have been absolutely incensed. This pricked my conscience on and off while I was watching it, until the final scene. That scene is the two honeymooning couples, by the sea, dreaming of the New Jerusalem, a city of brotherly love and the image of Jesus. These words and images, particularly after what has come before (it’s long- about two and a half hours), are incredibly jarring. This is how the Ku Klux Klan imagines heaven? I could only take cold comfort in the fact that no one could ever make a movie like “Birth of a Nation” today.