Inside the Music of Brian Wilson by Philip Lambert

Adam Bunch

It's the ultimate in the band A = band B + band C style of music criticism, and it grows old quickly.

Inside the Music of Brian Wilson

Publisher: Continuum
Subtitle: The Songs, Sounds, and Influences of the Beach Boys' Founding Genius
Author: Philip Lambert
Price: $26.95
Length: 416
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0826418775
US publication date: 2007-03
UK publication date: 2007-03

Despite the claims on the back of the book, Philip Lambert's Inside the Music of Brian Wilson isn't for your casual music fan. True to his nature as a professor of music theory, Lambert has created an ambitiously detailed study of the song structures, chord progressions, and influences at work in the music of the Beach Boys' resident genius. It's filled with charts, comparative lists and appendices, demanding that the reader not only have some background in music theory themselves (if aren't already comfortable with terms like "triad" and "counterpoint" it's going to be an uphill battle) but that they be willing to engage in an active study of the text. Unless you can hear the chords in your head and posses a disturbingly detailed knowledge of the Wilson discography, Lambert demands that you be listening to the music as you read the text, going back and forth while making correlations between the two. The result is a book that is destined to appeal almost exclusively to music scholars with a deep and intense interest in Wilson's work.

And even they might have some problems with it. Lambert spends much of his energy, particularly when dealing with Wilson's early material, on a focused examination of the way the songwriter's influences impacted his music and developed over time. The author argues his cases chord by chord and verse by verse. While most would be content to say that the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl" was inspired by "When You Wish Upon A Star", Lambert launches into four pages of painstaking analysis; where others would simply mention that the late-1950s doo-wop of the Four Freshmen was the precursor to Wilson's sun-drenched harmonies and early song structures, Lambert spends seven of the book's first 10 pages proving it. The depth of his knowledge and expertise is impressive, but by making his arguments obsessively thorough Lambert leaves the impression that all of Wilson's early music can be reduced to a matrix of influences coming together in the mind of this Californian teenager: take some Four Freshmen harmonies, toss in a Chuck Berry guitar lick, give it some surf rock lyrics and voila. It's the ultimate in the band A = band B + band C style of music criticism, and it grows old quickly.

Not even highly derivative songs like "Surfin'", "Surfin' Safari" and "Surfin' USA" can be reduced to nothing more than mathematical equations. Granted, every song is influenced by others, but in the same way that a great musician doesn't just play the notes on the page, but adds their own personality to the piece, a great songwriter doesn't just write the chord progressions of a song. The reason we love music -- and pop music most of all -- is the intangible element: the soul. And that's why any in depth discussion of a songwriter's work requires a careful consideration of biographical information -- not to fulfill a hunger for entertaining celebrity gossip, but because it's our only way, however imperfect it may be, to try to grasp the intangible force at play in the songs. Understanding the artist is only way we can hope to even begin to understand the soul they poured into their music.

This is particularly true in the case of Brian Wilson. There is no denying that he was an accomplished technical composer -- he obviously had a solid understanding of the mechanics of music -- and it's equally true that his early work drew heavily on previously established formulas. But he was also a young man under enormous stresses and pressures; as has since become legend, by the time he was working on the Smile sessions in late 1966 and early '67, he was taking an unhealthy amount of drugs, playing his piano in the middle of a sandbox and was under the impression that his music was causing fires to rage out of control across Los Angeles. It doesn't take a university professor to realize that this has incredible ramifications on the music itself; Wilson was composing his greatest works in the midst of a mental breakdown from which he would never fully recover, under pressure from his band mates, his record label, and his own Beatle-rivalling ambitions. And Lambert glosses over it. To his credit, by the time he gets to Wilson's most ambitious works -- like Smile and Pet Sounds, the album that proceeded it -- he has shifted his focus from an examination of influences to a close reading of the music itself. But even here, it feels as if he's missing what makes Wilson's songs so wonderful to listen to: the sheer beauty of them.

Inside the Music of Brian Wilson is billed as "the first book devoted solely to Wilson's music" (as opposed to his biography) and it's true that there are many other books devoted to the life of the man. A new perspective is a welcome change, but Lambert has gone too far in the other direction. The result is a dry, narrow-minded text. It's especially a shame because of the potential shown in the fleeting moments that Lambert lets his passion for the music shine through -- like when he compares the perfection of the "wake-up" moment following the break in "Good Vibrations" to the opening chord in "A Hard Day's Night" or the highest note in Mozart's "Deh vieni" aria from The Marriage of Figaro. If only he had more spent time on revelations like these, his book could have been a deeply insightful study appealing to Brian Wilson fans of all stripes.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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