Staff Picks: Blood, Bach, and Babel

Doireann Ní Ghríofa. Photo: Bríd O’Donavan.

“To spend such long periods facing the texts of the past can be dizzying,” writes Doireann Ní Ghríofa toward the end of A Ghost in the Throat, her fascinating new hybrid work of essay and autofiction from Dublin’s Tramp Press, “and it is not always a voyage of reason; the longer one pursues the past, the more unusual the coincidences one observes.” The pursuit of the past, and the kind of obsession it can birth in the present, is in fact the focus of this book; as Ní Ghríofa becomes pregnant with and nearly loses her fourth child, her story becomes entwined with that of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, an eighteenth-century Irish noblewoman who, distraught over her husband’s murder, drinks handfuls of his blood before composing a poem about him and their love. Past versus present, blood versus milk, birth versus death, the Irish language versus the English: dichotomies abound, but the questions of women’s lived experiences and who history remembers link them all. “This is a female text,” Ní Ghríofa repeats—about her own book, her own body, and Ní Chonaill’s poem, which appears at the end in Ní Ghríofa’s translation. —Rhian Sasseen 

Summer isn’t over, but it almost is, and I’m prone to that sad nostalgia that redeems even the most sedentary summers in retrospect—this one included. Labor Day looms like a threat as I stay mostly reclusive, telling myself to draw out the dog days in the small ways I can. Though there will be no sifting through disposable camera prints this year, other rituals remain. Namely, I’ve been revisiting my playlists from April, May, and June—back when I was still counting the days spent indoors like a game. I have the same songs on repeat again, particularly Hope Tala’s 2019 EP Sensitive Soul. Whenever I hear it, I spend the rest of the day basking in the buoyancy of the UK singer’s breakout track, “Lovestained.” What an aptly named artist, I keep thinking to myself, to have saved this summer. There are moments when I wonder how I missed Sensitive Soul when it debuted in the unimaginably distant world of yesteryear, but I’m so glad I did. Neo-soul, I often think, is an overly capacious genre, and alternative is equally vacuous, but I’m inclined to think that these loose boundaries give Hope Tala the breadth of sound from which she draws. “RnBossa,” how she herself describes the music, feels more indicative of her layered yet airy sound. “I’ll make it better for you” is the repeated refrain of “Lovestained,” and she does, she does, she does. —Langa Chinyoka

 

Jacob Geller.

 

I frequently find myself scrolling through article after article for hours when I fully intended to take that time to finish Northanger Abbey. Despite the overbearing nature of the news cycle, I still crave the stimulation of a good novel or essay. And for that reason, I’ve started turning to YouTube’s wide selection of video essays, which have revealed to me a whole new world of impassioned engagement with culture. Thanks in part to the added visual and aural components of the format, which make room for external references that can attach further ballast to an argument, I find myself entirely entranced with video essays in such a way that no notification can distract me. One of my favorite channels in this regard is known simply by the creator’s name: Jacob Geller. His video essays engage with a wide variety of media, from modern art in “Who’s Afraid of Modern Art: Vandalism, Video Games, and Fascism” to Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” in “The Soul of a Library.” But the centerpieces of each video always return to social critique and video games. Geller sees games as a cultural product on par with any other, and while I already agreed before I saw his videos, I don’t think one could disagree after watching a handful of his deftest arguments. His videos tackle critical theory in a totally unpretentious capacity; “The Intimacy of Everyday Things” reflects Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life with stunning gravitas, and “Games, Schools, and Worlds Designed for Violence” ventures into the analytical architectural space of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. However, the reason I return to Geller’s videos so consistently lies not only in the smorgasbord of cultural references and lenses in his splendid analysis but in the moving, personal nature of his work. The vulnerability and care in each of his videos has the sensation of lived-in experience. And his most recent video, “The Future of Writing about Games”—which came out this past Friday—carries even more weight than usual because it appears to be the thesis of Geller’s entire body of work thus far. But before going to that one, I implore you to scroll through his library for a topic that appeals to your own lived-in experience. That’s the best way to draw yourself into Geller’s world. Writing about games is blossoming in ways that mirror the growth of literary and film analysis, and Geller is here to offer us a refined humanist perspective of what that looks like. —Carlos Zayas-Pons

In both Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers and Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, it all starts with going away on vacation. A desire to escape routine unmoors the protagonists from the security of their daily lives—and eventually their senses of self—with a dangerous freedom that leads them down increasingly disturbing paths. For Ferrante, we are deep in the psychological trenches with the narrator; for Schrader, the tension builds at a distance. The final breaking point arrives the closer each character gets not to other people but to the impulses and desires lurking beneath their own consciousness. —Lauren Kane

I’ve long suspected that if I could learn to play the piano works of Johann Sebastian Bach by heart, then I would understand the universe. Alas, The Well-Tempered Clavier gathers dust on my keyboard. Listening feels easier than playing, but this is because listening allows multitasking, which isn’t really listening. Here’s the way, then: watching a performance of Bach 25 in full-screen. Created by Dwight Rhoden and performed by Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Bach 25 is available on JoyceStream through September 8. In a perfect kinetic expression of music founded on counterpoint, sixteen dancers, often all onstage together, approach and ebb, contract and expand, ascend and sink, join together and disperse. Johann’s son Emanuel is here, too, his music markedly more dramatic, less intricately knotted, and less stable-feeling than his father’s—it’s as if he and the dancers pull darkness from the opening piece’s joyful polyphony and focus on it, recognizing that human beings feel pain in the moment, even if we want to believe there’s a bigger and better picture. The spotlight shrinks to two or three dancers for a little while, allows us to concentrate on one small story, then expands again to show the entire company, curving and angling through their parts, stretching limbs to reach and respond to one another, in a spectacular cosmic pattern. One might not walk away possessed of a godlike understanding of the cosmos—I suppose this was hubris on my part—but Bach 25 leaves me more confident of the very concept: that a complex yet beautifully ordered wholeness is possible, that each small story is part of it. —Jane Breakell

 

Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Photo: Steven Trumon Gray.

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