Camille Reyes

Posts Tagged ‘music’

So this French Guy Writes a Book…

In Culture, Film, media, Music on December 28, 2012 at 9:53 am

Les Misérables (2012), the musical, in a movie theater—I was skeptical.  The signs of hope were there, however.  For one, I’d seen that the director made the actors wear earpieces, piping in live music for each take from an accompanist just off camera.  As a singer, and a one-time (terrible) actor, I instantly recognized the treasure of this method; Hugh Jackman did not need to explain it.  Basically, you get the benefits of two media in one.  You get the enormous temporal flexibility of film—doing shots in any order, taking bits from here and there, multiple takes, etc. without losing as much of the improvisation of live performance, of feeling the song.

Although the movie is far from perfect (paging Russell Crowe, please stop singing, yesterday), it moved me repeatedly.  The “Heart Full of Love” trio with Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Barks was so beautiful musically that the movie aspect—the editing in particular—diminished the romance.  (Wait, I take that back, a little.  I could look at Amanda Seyfried without diminishing anything, especially my pulse.)  I dare say that these three actors were classically trained in voice.  It’s no accident this was my favorite moment in the film.  My ears might be biased.

Amanda Seyfried

Speaking of these biased ears, I had forgotten that the musical was sung-through, meaning there is little-to-no spoken dialogue.  The film preserves this, another wonderful choice from director Tom Hooper.  Les Mis, more than any other piece of musical theater, always makes me wonder about the medium.  Why is Les Mis widely considered musical theater and not opera?  It seems to me that the location for its original exhibition, the Broadway/West End-equivalent stage, is the source of the puzzling definition.  Of course, from a marketing perspective, musical theater is an easier sell.  If by easier, one means making the world’s most risky media investment (a Broadway show), a little more bankable.  This movie will do much good for the art form, and for this reason, I really do not care what we call it.

I do care about the experience of media though, what it means to change the form of something in myriad ways.  In the packed little Western PA movie theater where we watched Les Mis, my mother and I were jarred by the people clapping after the big numbers.  It took me out of the moment so I was annoyed.  At the same time, I liked that people were preserving a little slice of the original medium—the live-stage.  One could argue that the clapping added to more of a shared experience.  I’m usually all about those, unless, it turns out, I’m watching a blasted movie.  Shut up!  I don’t have to suspend my disbelief here, unless you clap, you rube.

How odd that I’m the first to yell, “Bravisima!” at the opera.  Corny, I confess.  I even prefer my opera singers to be better actors than singers.  Witness my devotion to Domingo over Pavarotti.  While the latter might be technically superior, the former wrenches more emotion per note than anyone.  When Domingo sings Puccini’s ballad about the stars as he longs for his lover Tosca in prison, I weep at the exact. same. bar. every. time.  Keep in mind I’m speaking of a recording; I’ve never seen him do it live, and I guess I never will now that his voice has aged out of the range.  Again, I’m back to the medium.  The recording does not diminish my experience, although I’m certain the live version would’ve found me bawling from the Met chandelier, straining through tears for a better view of my tenor hero.

So yeah, Les Mis.  It’s an opera, dressed as musical theater, trying to convince big sister to take it to the movies.  I highly recommend the experience, whatever yours might be, but if you’re not down with people singing non-stop for over two hours, don’t—wait, go anyway, what am I saying?  You might enjoy making fun of the nerds in the audience, the sniveling weenies who sing every part in the shower, especially when the tigers come at night.


Karaoke Ninjas and Radioheads

In Culture, Music on December 17, 2011 at 2:15 pm

I am a karaoke ninja. Well, maybe the ninja who knocks off several roof tiles as she jumps Crouching Tiger style from doll house to doll house. Karaoke is hard, and I love it. What makes it most difficult are my years of vocal training. You’d think this would be a plus, but it is a completely different genre of singing, almost a different category altogether. Think of Mariah Carey (damn fine voice-forget the terrible material) trying to act. Guh.

So yes, sometimes I have Glitter moments on the tiny stage with the ten cent mic and a crowd full of talkers. So what if I chose a weepy ballad! Song choice is half the battle though. I like songs with string sections, piano, and introspective lyrics like some awesome love child between Samuel Barber, Tori Amos, and Ani Difranco. These don’t tend to go over well in a bar. Case of You. Silent All These Years. Breathe Me.

I need to study the karaoke stylings of my best friend. She has no training, and a Big Gulp heart. She always picks crowd pleasers like 4NonBlondes’ What’s Going On? or Jet’s Are You Gonna Be My Girl? Her voice cracks ever so perfectly on the latter. Everyone wants to go home with her. She owns the stage.

The best friend and Gordita singing a crowd pleaser.

But no, I keep choosing my obscure little ditties, wondering what key I’m going to get, hoping I forget anyone is watching. Even though I always have my birthday party at a karaoke bar, it is almost too performative for me. Singing for me is in many respects a solitary pursuit. This made my old stage and professional gigs a bit problematic. I still remember people lining up to thank me for my brief run as Annie in my high school musical. Although I would have never said this out loud, my interior monologue was: You’re welcome, but I didn’t do it for you.

One exception to this was my brief stint as a strolling opera singer and hostess at a Tampa Macaroni Grill. I sang arias for tips in a white button down shirt, black apron that was too long for me, and a pink tie I borrowed from my dad (and never gave back). I also had trouble carrying all the silverware and menus to the table. Aside from the Puccini, it was one big mess. I needed the money. I digress.

I inhabit songs, and they inhabit me. Occasionally I surface from this special communion to acknowledge the crowd, get them involved. This might seem theatrical, and it is, but it is also selfless. I’d rather be alone, but I enjoy watching other people so much, it seems unfair to hide completely. My favorite song at karaoke as of late oddly speaks to this strange tension–the tension between adoring, wanting to be adored, and being alone. It’s Radiohead’s Creep. Now those of you who know me are probably already laughing because I look like a cute leprechaun–creepy in a horror movie, but not when you are a petite ginger. The juxtaposition of my physical appearance with the lyrics is comedic at first. But, like the use of a girls’ choir on the same song to promote The Social Network (the trailer is genius, and better than the movie), once you get past the oddity, a strange empathy emerges–at least, that’s my hope when I sing the song, for you and for me.  Here’s the chorus:

But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here

With apologies to Tom Robbins, “even cowgirls get the blues.” Clearly, I need more therapy. But I hope that when someone experiences my version of this song, they think, well, if she feels that way, then maybe I’m not alone.

The first verse of the song sums up the near universal feeling of not measuring up to someone you’ve placed on a pedestal. (This lyric would be the micro-blogging leitmotif of my love life with one exception, not to be discussed.)

When you were here before
Couldn’t look you in the eye
You’re just like an angel
Your skin makes me cry
You float like a feather
In a beautiful world
I wish I was special
You’re so fucking special

I like to really stick the word “fucking” when I sing it–again for the jarring juxtaposition (nice girls don’t say “fuck”), and because the near repeat of the line immediately before is not lazy lyricism. The subtlety is important. I read the line as a 1 part jealousy, 2 parts fatigue and 1 part kernel of motivation to move the fuck on. I try to capture this interpretation in song–not easy to do. I am almost to the best part of the song though, the bridge and the climax:

She’s running out the door
She’s running out
She runs runs runs

This is heartache in three lines. The first time I sang it (on acoustic night at the best karaoke bar in the universe, Baby Grand in SoHo), I achieved near transcendence. Playing with a live guitarist gave me the freedom to stretch it out even more than Thom Yorke does. The audience felt my anguish, knew I was somewhere else, and went nuts. Their cheering brought me back to earth, and for once, I was grateful to them.

Lyrics: Radiohead, Creep (1992)

Bonus: the girls’ choir version without the trailer.

The Decemberists Warm January

In Culture, Uncategorized on January 26, 2011 at 12:10 am

A monument to build beneath the arbors

Upon a plinth that towers t’wards the trees

Let every vessel pitching hard to starboard

Lay its head on summer’s freckled knees

-Don’t Carry It All, The Decemberists

How many “pop” songs are this eloquent and evocative?  This is just one verse, but it sums up the gorgeous lyrics typical of any Decemberists song.  I saw the band, five members strong, play the first night of many sold out shows at the Beacon in New York last night.

I’d seen them previously three times in Portland, Oregon, where the band lives.  The day their instruments were stolen out of a van, it made local headlines.  No one fucks with the Decemberists, especially in Portland.  Even Mayor Sam Adams recorded the band’s intro for the current tour supporting the wonderful album, The King is Dead.  The mayoral salute was bizarre, but fitting for a quirky band (celebrating ten years together) madly attached to their Northwest roots.

Their tuneful terroir was especially evident this go around.  Bespectacled lead singer Colin Meloy was clad in a red flannel shirt, and the backdrop was a forest of evergreens (like the album cover—where is Carson Ellis?).  They are all gifted musicians, switching from fiddle, to guitar to upright bass.  Keyboardist Jenny Conlee frequently played the keys with one hand, and a xylophone with the other, throwing a harmonica in every now and then to really rub it in.  She’s almost as entertaining as Tori Amos, and she doesn’t even make mad love to her piano bench.

The new album has a roots or bluegrass flavor, but I hear a lot of REM from Document days and old New Order in the hooks.  In a potent encore of The Island, they also channeled a prog rock frenzy worthy of Yes.  This is not to say they are derivative.  In fact, they treat each new record as a unique experience.  I enjoy the ride every time, although I must confess I still miss the horn section smuggling my heart throughout Picaresque (2005).

They played my favorite song, Engine Driver, a painful ballad about unrequited love.  They eschewed the crowd favorite Mariner’s Song.  Since my neighbor was drunk and rude, I was relieved to miss her pitching back and forth with the faux boat on that one.  My only unsatisfied, secret request was to hear I Was Meant for the Stage.  Is there any performer who does not adore that song?

They transported me back to Portland for a spell, spinning a sonic valentine to my adopted hometown.  I could almost imagine the bouncy spring board floor at the Crystal.

I was meant for the stage,

I was meant for the curtain.

I was meant to tread these boards,

Of this much I am certain.

Oh, Colin.

Play it Again, Jacques

In Culture, Travel on July 15, 2010 at 1:03 pm

I cry a lot.  My emotions live close to the surface like giant carp gasping for air in a stagnant pond.  Art is my most frequent tear trigger-music especially.  In college, I minored in Music and spent many nights weeping over my homework.  French Romantic and 20th century music is my own private Victoria Falls.  The orchestral piece, a nocturne called Nuages (clouds) by Debussy holds the number one spot on my personal chart.  When I listen to it, I imagine I’m gliding down a French canal at dusk feeling melancholy with the oboe, and later, as the flute plays the pentatonic melody, I’m the sun peaking over the Alps at daybreak.  I invite you to listen to the piece and tell me what you see and feel.  Where does it take you, or does it?

Vocal music also transports me.  I have two favorite operas, one Italian (Tosca), the other French (Les Contes  d’Hoffman).  When I had to sing in four different languages for my senior recital, the French songs (by Faure and Debussy if memory serves) were the hardest, and most rewarding.  The undulating piano lines help create that dream-like quality, yet prove difficult for the rhythmically challenged among us.

This is all a long build up to say I could not leave Paris without hearing some chansons, the traditional art songs of France.  I believe the form dates back to the Middle Ages, but I’m most fond of the pre-War style with its penchant for tales of the working class.  These are the songs Edith Piaf spread around the world.  A Parisian friend back in New York suggested the Lapin Agile in Montmartre for this old-school cabaret.  Please erase any images of Liza Minnelli or Joel Grey from your collective heads.  This style of cabaret is not nearly so sexual or subversive, although bawdy drinking songs were certainly in the mix.

Luke, our TA and friend, made a reservation for about ten of my study abroad group at 9 p.m.  We piled into these creaking wooden benches, settling into a room once occupied by Toulouse Lautrec and Pablo Picasso.  After sipping on a tiny glass of house wine with olives at the bottom, we noticed a large group of people at the center table as they started singing.  I wasn’t even sure if they were all professionals at first; it was so organic.

They rallied the crowd in festive sing-a-longs as I sat enraptured.  I did not understand a single word, but it hardly mattered.  I felt French; I felt old; I felt a part of something beautiful.  Eventually, the singers would leave the room save one and a set of solos would begin, accompanied by either an upright piano played with total class by a gentleman who matched the crags in the wooden benches, or by guitar.

The soprano’s solo set was stunning, a perfect mixture of sweet French ballads and up-tempo numbers including an Elvis homage/blues song.  I had been fighting a cold all week so I’m not sure my tablemates knew how moved I was, as they likely assumed I was just honking again.  I wanted to stay there indefinitely, until they couldn’t sing anymore.  I wanted to ask the pianist to play The Barcarolle from Hoffman.  I felt at home.  Sadly, the Paris Metro closes around 12:30, and we had class the next day.  I know I will return someday though, just as I know I will walk along the tempest tossed Yorkshire moors once more.  Another story, for another time.  Certain places haunt you.

To Joy, with love

In Philosophy on December 10, 2009 at 4:49 pm


I’ve been stressed lately.  The last time I was genuinely stressed involved a software company in Washington and a overdeveloped sense of responsibility.  The culprit this time is academia and a overdeveloped sense of politics.  I’ve been playing the “what should I get my PhD in” game, and losing.  A friend helped me realize today, through one of her web sites, that I was putting the strategy before the horse.

Before I pick mad gifted doctoral program #1 (of 6-10), I need to stop, collaborate and listen.  Who knew Vanilla Ice was a philosopher?  Me, that’s who.  What do I WANT to do?  I chose NYU and grad school even though it meant some pretty large professional sacrifices, not the least of which was working for the best PR agency in the universe.  This choice has proven to be a magical one–exactly what I was destined to do.

My dad and I talk about destiny a lot.  He believes that we already know what we know, we just have to uncover it.  Sounds a bit like Heidegger, Plato and a lot like my dad–my Cuban American poet/anarchist. I toss a certain spiritual, God directed element into that mix thanks to my mother and her mother before her.  Walk on down the line.  I wish more people could look at life in this manner.  It might not be the most productive system, but it sure feels good. Kudos to mom and pops.

I want to perform, period.  I love sharing, be it through writing or singing in particular. A doctorate would work wonders for my writing, no matter the Humanities field.  I relish the scholarly discipline and the incredible feedback of the academic process.  Yet, I also want to share broadly (hello, blog; next stop world) and the academy holds very few open houses.  Then there is the music. 

Read the rest of this entry »