Une Nuit Sur le Mont-Chauve-movie still-Alexej Alexeieff (Russian-French 1933)
I know I ought to save this for Halloween, but the truth is that Muse is a fickle creature, even for a diarist. Maybe especially for a diarist. One day you concoct a Cheeveresque reflection on the workday commute morning moon. Dazzling, pathetic. But, you know, dazzling. Then, two weeks later you get hit by the Love Train, talented blue songbirds and yellow stars, live to tell with perfect kissmarks on your collar, and when the time comes to put pen to paper you got nothing. Come late October I could be dry as a bone. Back to making best records I ever heard lists, or getting ripped on rye and writing dirty odes to Alfre Woodard. I wouldn't put it past me.
Today's find is a magnificent Soviet-era 10" lp of Moussorgsky's Sur Le Mont-Chauve--a piece that even in the ignorance of my youth when only the crummiest kids knew about classical music, I was not only aware of A Night on Bald Mountain, but was riveted by its alien characters. The graphic art here is striking, laid out in proletarian gray and white intersecting lines, with a small Deutsche Grammophon-style title frame. It's impressive from this historical distance to glimpse a government's struggle to provide not just an economic and social framework for its people, but a unified artistic identity as well. Say what you will about the outcome of the U.S.S.R., this semblance of a national creative spirit is remarkable--even as a relic.
The recording is much as I expected it, sound buried beneath the weight and color of dust, surface wear, and that ephemeral milk-cloud of a long time that separates any object from its native era. A few nights ago I saw Jacques Tourneur's Cat People, the psychological horror movie from 1942. Thanks to producer, Val Lewton's, imposingly small budget the film is a wonder of smart creative decisions--most effective among them, omissions. We see no monsters, we're pestered with no flashy special effects. The movie is joyfully bereft of Cat People! Left with nothing but the human elements of this compelling story, Tourneur is forced to make some profound observations on real fear, jealousy, bigotry, cultural relativism and terror.
I'm often reminded of it, and of the general notion of "horror" as a genre (though more accurately A Night on Bald Mountain is a macabre poem that never explicates actual horror) when I think back to what made me happiest as a child. Childhood was boring. You couldn't drive, and even if you could, you couldn't drive at night. You couldn't get a drink. Everybody stared. So horror was a kind of mystical exercise in adventure and salvation. You went out, got scared and came home. Convincing thrills capped with reliable safety, that was childhood. At least in Carlisle it was.
Moussorgsky's lush, doomy Russian fantasy is a rib of lost innocence, far more than it is a work of art, or a canonical composition, which I wouldn't know how to define or qualify anyway. I love that disconnect from form and genre. In Speak Memory, Nabokov eschewed the Freudian readings he saw threatening his autobiography. His concept framed memories of childhood as attempts to re-establish a sublime moment of mystery and natural essence--the primordial. I like that.