Notes on the Culture

1217948261Every Tuesday, Matthew Reed Baker will offer his thoughts on the arts and culture scene. This week: Summertime and the living’s easy, but not for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project which continues to churn out new recordings; plus Bela Tarr’s seven-hour opus is released on DVD.

Because of Boston’s staid reputation, it’s nice to have the Boston Modern Orchestra Project give this town a little cachet. This composer-focused ensemble is dedicated solely to contemporary works, sometimes willfully hard—as evidenced by their work with composer in residence, Lisa Bielawa, who may have written the world’s most difficult violin concerto. But what really sets the BMOP apart in the blogs and mags beyond New England is its new record label, BMOP/sound.

The label has been putting out new releases each month since March, which kicked off with the first full recording of the ballet Ulysses, composed by BSO favorite John Harbison, and received five stars from the BBC’s music magazine. Three albums later, the label put out a collection of compositions from legendary jazz-classical composer Gunther Schuller, a colleague of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and…Toscanini.

Oddly enough, the BMOP felt that this summer was meant for bio-classical, what with Charles Fussel’s takes on Oscar Wilde and Hart Crane, and Eric Sawyer’s operatic take on Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Despite the seeming eclecticism, BMOP/sound is creating a cohesive identity for this series of releases—from the clean sound to the packaging—and by releasing them so regularly, the label has a shot at creating a legion of obsessive collectors.

Hungarian summer un-fun, a good thing: After years of delay and frustration, Susan Sontag’s favorite film is out on DVD! Well, if that doesn’t rope you in… Bela Tarr‘s great seven-hour opus, Satantango, is finally available for home viewing on these shores, and kidding aside, it can’t be recommended highly enough.

Sontag wrote famously (at least, it’s a famous line to film nerds) that Satantango was “devastating, enthralling for every minute of its seven hours. I’d be glad to see it every year for the rest of my life.”

Released theatrically in 1994, the film details (and I mean “details” in the most rigorous sense of the word) a collapsing collective farm in Hungary, representing the dull decay of Communism with an ennui that’s you can almost feel physically. Sadly, Sontag is no longer with us, but you can fulfill her dream for yourself, in the comfort of your own home, and with the benefit of bathroom breaks.

Still not hooked? How about the fact that each shot averages about 10 minutes, making Stanley Kubrick look like Michael Bay?

Ach, it’s too easy to make fun of, but really, this masterpiece and most of Tarr’s work is some of the best you’ll ever see from arthouse film—ravishing black and white, haunting dystopic visuals, and a quietly epic story told from varying points of view, all presented in a dreamlike haze of real time.

I saw this film in repertory years ago, and found time and space stretch around me—it was both jarring and disappointing to emerge blinking hard and bewildered onto a crowded city street afterwards. Few films change the way you fundamentally experience the world, and this is one of them. Plus this package also contains one of the coolest DVD extras ever: Tarr’s adaptation of Macbeth, lasting 63 minutes and reduced to only two shots.

Lastly, summer was meant for painting: Boston-based New American Paintings is a “juried exhibition-in-print”—in other words, it’s an arts journal, but one that specifically aims to link artists and buyers. For the past 15 years, it has published six issues a year, with each one focusing on one of six designated regions and featuring the work of about 40 selected artists. The submissions deadline for February 2009’s New England issue is August 31.

Portrait of BMOP Artistic Director Gil Rose by Liz Linder, from BMOP’s website