Monday, May 18, 2015

Attunement: Conversion experiences

Joni Mitchell: Blue

In her New Yorker essay "Some Notes on Attunement" (December 17, 2012), Zadie Smith writes about her intense dislike of Joni Mitchell. She describes hearing Blue at a party in college: "a piercing sound, a sort of wailing—a white woman, wailing, picking out notes in a non-sequence. Out of tune—or out of anything I understood at the time as 'tune.'" Her friends are astonished: "You don't like Joni?"

Years later, riding in a car with her husband, she hears something on the stereo: "…it was that bloody piping again, ranging over octaves, ignoring the natural divisions between musical bars, and generally annoying the hell out of me…"

This is the sort of thing she was hearing, or not hearing: Joni Mitchell singing "California":

And then, suddenly, something happened: "This is the effect that listening to Joni Mitchell has on me these days: uncontrollable tears. An emotional overcoming, disconcertingly distant from happiness, more like joy—if joy is the recognition of an almost intolerable beauty…I hated Joni Mitchell—and then I loved her. Her voice did nothing for me—until the day it undid me completely." The album that evokes these powerful responses? Blue.

She describes this change as "a sudden, unexpected attunement." "Attunement" is an unusual word, but it can mean becoming responsive or receptive to something; its suggestion of harmonizing seems particularly appropriate for a musical epiphany.

Smith uses the word "attunement" to make a connection to the opening "Exordium" of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.* The Exordium is a sort of parable in which an ordinary man retells the Bible story of Abraham and Isaac in four different ways in order to try to understand it. But no matter how he approaches the story, he can never fully grasp its meaning. Kierkegaard's point is that sometimes there has to be a breakthrough, not so much in understanding, but in acceptance. As Smith puts it, "you need to lower your defenses."

Books, opera, and Bollywood

The subject of today's post is conversion experiences, an indifference or an outright aversion turning into a need, a craving. As longtime readers will know, I've had such experiences with individual works: the very first post on this blog was about my conversion experience with Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. This time I'm going to discuss how encounters with particular works opened me up to three different artistic forms: Victorian literature, opera, and Bollywood films.


Victorian literature: Like many of us, I suppose, I first encountered Victorian novels in college. And while Great Expectations gave me a welcome break from my science textbooks, I wasn't compelled during college or in the years afterwards to further explore the world of the Victorian novel. So I managed to make it to early middle age without reading Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, or Middlemarch.

And then I read Zadie Smith's essay on Middlemarch in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin Press, 2009), and, to paraphrase that essay, the scales fell from my eyes. It inspired me to immediately start reading Eliot's great novel; you can read my responses in "Three love problems: George Eliot's Middlemarch." Eliot led me to the amazingly rich novels of Anthony Trollope, a writer I had previously (and ignorantly) disdained for his overwhelming productivity, and then on to Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, the Brontës, and Elizabeth Gaskell. I've also since delved into the 18th-century precursors of Jane Austen such as Fanny Burney, Charlotte Lennox, Eliza Haywood, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Samuel Richardson. In short, almost all the novel-reading I've done over the past five years has grown from the seed of Middlemarch, for which I will always be grateful to Changing My Mind.

Guillermo Resto as Aeneas and Mark Morris as Dido

Opera: I've written before about being intrigued by a PBS broadcast of Jean-Pierre Ponelle's film of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) when I was a teenager. But for more than a decade afterwards I felt that opera was a form that had nothing to do with me. First, there was the sound of operatic singing, aptly described by soprano Renée Fleming as "a 'cultivated scream'"**—it just didn't appeal to me. Then there were the characters: druid priestesses, mad Scottish brides, sleepwalking village maidens, and incestuous demigoddesses with spears and horned helmets. And finally there was all of opera's cultural baggage: it was, and ever had been, an art form produced by and for the rich; these were most definitely Not My People.

But then we saw the Mark Morris Dance Group's production of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. The opera tells the story of Queen Dido's reckless love for the marooned Trojan warrior Aeneas, and her subsequent abandonment, despair and death. This opera was an oddity: it was by a composer we'd never heard of; it was composed in the 17th century, almost a hundred years before Le Nozze di Figaro; it was only an hour long; and it was sung in English. And—it was ravishing. 

After attending the opera—twice—we bought a recording of the work by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the group that had been the pit band for Morris's company. The role of Dido, sung by Judith Malafronte in the production we had seen, was sung on the recording by a singer then unknown to us, Lorraine Hunt. From that recording, here is Lorraine Hunt singing Dido's first aria, in which she tells her sister Belinda of the agitation she's felt since the arrival of the Trojan stranger:

The words (by librettist Nahum Tate) are, "Ah! Belinda, I am press'd / With torment not to be confess'd. / Peace and I are strangers grown; / I languish 'til my grief is known / Yet would not have it guess'd."

From that moment on, we sought out, almost obsessively, recordings and live performances of Baroque opera, starting with the wonderful Handel recordings by Lorraine Hunt and the Philharmonia Baroque. We moved backwards in time to Monteverdi's operas (Hunt gave a searing performance as Ottavia in L'incoronazione di Poppea at SF Opera), and then forwards to late 19th- and early 20th-century operas. If we  still haven't yet come to a full appreciation of the sort of operas that feature druid priestesses and mad Scottish brides, perhaps it's just a matter of time.

Kal Ho Naa Ho

Bollywood movies: For many years I worked at a used bookstore. One of the great pleasures of the job was that while we were buying and selling books, we could play our favorite music in the background. A co-worker began bringing in compilations of songs from classic Bollywood soundtracks that he was picking up at the local flea market for two or three bucks apiece. The music was strange: the sound combined influences from both Indian and Western classical music, but also fifties and sixties pop, reggae, bossa nova. It was kind of cool, but also kind of grating, particularly the high-pitched women's voices. To my untutored ears they sounded piercing and shrill (I didn't know yet that the vocals on most of the tracks were supplied by only two women, Lata Mangeshkar or her younger sister Asha Bhosle), and, of course, I had no clue what they were singing about. As the weeks went by, "grating" began winning out over "cool."

But one Saturday morning I was flipping through TV channels looking for a sports event. Instead I happened across a clip of two lovers serenading one another in Hindi against a backdrop of snowy mountain peaks. We had stumbled across India Waves, a locally produced, super low-budget Bollywood clip show. We were bemused—the clips were rarely subtitled, so we could usually only guess at what was being sung, and were often shown incomplete or in the wrong aspect ratio—but we were also intrigued. We soon discovered other, similar shows such as Namaste America and Showbiz India, and found ourselves occasionally tuning in to one or another of these programs to pass the time on sleepy Saturday mornings.

Perhaps a year after we starting watching, clips from a new Bollywood movie set in New York City started to be shown. Bollywood songs filmed in Switzerland or New Zealand were strange enough, but seeing New York City in this context was somehow even stranger. But we liked the tunes—the high voices had ceased to bother us so much—and seeing the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park used as the backdrop for Bollywood songs gave us a new perspective on familiar landmarks.

At the time my partner worked in downtown San Francisco, and once a week or so as she was exiting her usual BART station would stop to have her shoes shined at a stand owned by a guy named Dwayne. Dwayne always had music playing on his boombox, and one day my partner heard something strange but familiar: a song from that Bollywood movie set in New York. When my partner recognized the song, Dwayne asked her if she wanted to see the movie—he had a DVD that he would be happy to lend her. So a few nights later my partner came home from work and pulled out Kal Ho Naa Ho. Somehow the idea of actually watching a full-length Bollywood film had never occurred to me; without any idea of what to expect, and having no points of comparison, we slipped the disc into the DVD player.

It quickly became clear that the songs we thought we knew from our clip shows had different meanings in the context of the film. An example is "Kuch To Hua Hai" (Something has happened). By itself it seems to be a light, pleasant song about the joys of falling in love ("pyar" in Hindi). Both Naina (Preity Zinta, voiced by Alka Yagnik) and Rohit (Saif Ali Khan, voiced by Shaan) are singing about the way their new love has transformed them. But we learn in the film that while Rohit is singing about his love for Naina, she is singing about her love for someone else. And neither is aware of the other's feelings; when they discover their mutual misapprehension, emotional devastation will follow.

At the end of the movie we were stunned, emotionally drained. Over the course of three hours, what had begun as a fast-paced urban romantic comedy had veered into pathos and tragedy and then back to comedy multiple times. And while there was a wedding, if the ending was happy why were our eyes filled with tears?

After Kal Ho Naa Ho (the title translates as "Tomorrow May Never Come"), we were completely hooked. Not only on the charismatic actors—particularly Shah Rukh Khan—but on a style of storytelling that was so unafraid of naked emotion. That was more than 10 years and 300 films ago; our appreciation of Indian films has since broadened into other regions, languages and time periods. But Kal Ho Naa Ho remains a touchstone for us—we still quote its dialogue to one another—and is often the movie we show curious friends to introduce them to Bollywood.

Coda: Joni Mitchell

To bring this post full circle, I have my own Joni Mitchell conversion experience to relate. I first encountered her songs during preteen summer camp sing-alongs: "Big Yellow Taxi," "Both Sides Now," "The Circle Game." But in high school and college, although I had friends who were big Joni fans, I thought her music was precious and hermetic. The lyrics of her most popular songs seemed to be about how bored she was while partying with other privileged people on Mykonos or in Spain, or about mean old daddies who somehow retained her affection, or about record company executives who wished they still lived in Paris. It was a world that didn't include me, or seem to want to. And so for several decades I stopped listening to, or caring about, her music.

And then about five years ago we rented a movie called Love Actually (2003, written and directed by Richard Curtis). The movie had a great cast—Colin Firth, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson—and was entertaining enough, but possessed an artificiality bordering on the meretricious. There was nothing "actual" about the relationships it portrayed; they were entirely contrived and (to borrow a Bollywood term) filmi.

But there was one moment that rang emotionally true. During a Christmas Eve gift exchange with her husband, Thompson's character receives as his "special and personal" gift...a Joni Mitchell CD. Having earlier found an expensive necklace in his coat pocket, she faces the sudden realization that the necklace was not intended for her, but for another woman. She excuses herself for a moment, and as she fights to keep her composure, a Joni Mitchell song comes on the soundtrack: "Both Sides Now." Only this isn't Mitchell's folky version from 1969. Instead, it's orchestrated, much slower and more somber, and the world-weary vocalist sounds like Ann Peebles or Sharon Jones. The raw vocals floating over the strings perfectly heighten the emotion of the scene in the film. As it turned out, the vocalist was indeed Joni Mitchell; the version was from her 2000 album Both Sides Now, the very album that Emma Thompson's character has just received as a gift.

Both Sides Now, with its lush arrangements of standards like "You're My Thrill" and "At Last," and its reworkings of the title song (from Clouds) and "A Case of You" (from Blue) has become a favorite album in our household. Decades after deciding that I no longer needed to listen to Joni Mitchell, a few moments in an otherwise forgettable film made me realize the importance of re-evaluating my judgments, revisiting my conclusions, and trying always to remain open to changing my mind.


* "Attunement" comes from the translation of Alastair Hannay, Penguin, 2005.

** Renee Fleming, The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer, Penguin, 2004, p. 40.


  1. I haven't got an opera conversion story--my mom listens to a lot of opera--but I certainly have one for Bollywood. A blog I read at the time had a short discussion about good gateway Bollywood movies. Kuch Naa Kaho was recommended and I stuck it on my Netflix queue (the mailbox one; no streaming yet) to see what the fuss was. (I've always had a thing for India anyway, ever since my uncle, who spent much of the 70s and early 80s as a Rajneeshi, brought me a pile of ACK comics. Still have 'em.) Anyway, that did the job! Been an addict ever since.

    1. Jean, thanks for sharing your Bollywood conversion experience. Kuch Naa Kaho (Don't say anything, 2003) has a heartwarming story, an excellent soundtrack, and the appeal of a youthful Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai (here's the title song). What's not to love?

      Clips from Kuch Naa Kaho were shown on our Saturday morning shows during our early viewing, and were part of what made us curious about Bollywood movies. Many thanks for the reminder that, as much as conversion experiences feel like they come out of the blue, that moment of sudden epiphany often comes only after months or years of unconscious preparation.