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Gypsy Project

Jazz Critic Kevin Whitehead Reviews gypsy Project (Dreyfus) the new CD by guitarist Bireli Lagrene.



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Other segments from the episode on March 18, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 18, 2002: Interview with Howard Shore; Review of Bireli Lagrene's new CD "Gypsy Project;" Review of Ian McEwan's latest novel, "Atonement."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Howard Shore discusses the scores he wrote for "The
Lord of the Rings" and other films

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, composer Howard Shore, wrote the music for the film, "The Lord of
the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." He's nominated for an Oscar for that
score, which has already won music awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics
and Chicago Film Critics.

Shore has scored more than 60 films, including "Seven," "The Silence of the
Lambs," "The Score" and "Analyze This." He's had a long collaboration with
Canadian film director David Cronenberg, and wrote the music for Cronenberg's
films "Scanners," "Videodrome," "The Fly," "Dead Ringers," "Naked Lunch" and
"Crash." Back in 1975, Shore was one of the founding members of "Saturday
Night Live." He wrote the show's theme and served as music director until

We invited him for a musical retrospective of his work. Let's start with some
of his music from the sound track of "The Fellowship of the Ring."

(Soundbite of music from "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring")

Choir: (Sings in foreign language)

GROSS: Well, it's a very operatic style of music that we just heard?

Mr. HOWARD SHORE (Composer): Yes.

GROSS: That was intentional on your part?

Mr. SHORE: Well, this piece is based on a poem that Philippa Boyens, one of
the screenwriters of "Lord of the Rings," wrote, called "Revelation of the
Ringwraiths," and it's an English poem that was translated into Adunaic, which
is the ancient speech of men. It's a Tolkien language. And there is a chorus
of--it's a mixed choir here, of a 60-voice all-mixed choir, singing this poem,
and it's a very intense, scary scene, and it has--you know, the structure of
the score is opera in its concept, because it is so of great length, the
score. It's two and a half hours. I looked to opera for form and concept,
because it goes somewhat beyond what I thought of as a movie score.

GROSS: Was there any music that you studied or immersed yourself in to help
bring to life a non-existent time in a non-existent place?

Mr. SHORE: Well, Middle Earth is 6,000 to 7,000 years ago, and Peter Jackson
didn't want to create a fantasy world. He wanted to create a historical
feeling for the story, in the sense as if it had actually happened, so all of
our work is really based on making it as real as possible. There wasn't any
one particular piece in my research that I looked at, that I followed, but the
research led me to studying a lot of work that was created before Tolkien
wrote "Lord of the Rings," and then I studied everything in the last 50 years
on how "Lord of the Rings" affected popular culture in terms of music or
literature or cinema, and that actually did lead me in a lot of directions.
And once I had absorbed what I felt had been done in this world, I then put it
all aside and of course, I wanted to feel what was my voice and what I create,
and what was the feeling that I was comfortable with as an artist to create in
this world.

GROSS: I want to talk with you about some of the other scores that you've
written. Why don't we start with "Seven," which is a crime film about a
serial killer. I'm going to play some music from this that really kind of
establishes the feeling of dread, of approaching evil. Let's listen, and then
we'll talk about it.


(Soundbite of music from "Seven")

GROSS: Music composed by my guest, Howard Shore, for the movie "Seven."

Where is this music in the movie, and what did you need it to do?

Mr. SHORE: Oh, it gave me goose bumps listening to that.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SHORE: It really did. I hadn't heard that in a while. That's a scene
near the end of the film where John Doe reveals himself as the killer. And he
shows up at the station and he just--he's covered in blood and he just says,
you know, `I'm the one who's done this.' And it's a very intense scene, and
that music is quite startling, starting with the strong--and just listening to
that again--I hadn't heard it in years--it was just--it scared me.

GROSS: Do you ask yourself, `What musically says "blood, murder, fear"?'

Mr. SHORE: No. I think compositionally first.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHORE: I have a feeling and I want to express that in music. And I
always think of music first on the page in relationships of one note to
another, and that's all where it begins. And then after that, once I'm
feeling I've captured some of the emotional feeling that I had and how I felt
about the scene and I've got parts of that on paper, then I can go to the
process of orchestration and, you know, bringing it to life, what is it really
going to sound like. And then you go through a process of conducting and
there's an expression in the performance and the recording. It's all part of
making a score.

GROSS: Now you did several scores for the Canadian filmmaker David

Mr. SHORE: Yes.

GROSS: ...including "Scanners," "The Fly," "Videodrome," "M. Butterfly,"
"Naked Lunch," "Dead Ringers."

Mr. SHORE: Yes.

GROSS: How did you meet, and why such a long collaboration?

Mr. SHORE: Well, I've actually finished--"Spider" is the last film I just
finished with David. That's our 10th film, and it's been over 20 years. But
we somewhat grew up making movies. And David's a few years older than me, and
I knew him in Toronto. And he was sort of an older kid that was very wise and
was making 8mm movies and then he started making 16mm movies, and I knew about
him. And I always thought it would be wonderful to, at a certain point if I
had enough experience, to approach him about doing one of his films. And I
finally did in the late '70s, and I worked with him on a film called "The
Brood." And it was actually the first film that he had worked with a composer
and I had worked with a director. So our whole, you know, learning process
has been growing up together and making movies. I've learned so much from him
about how to make movies. He's such an amazing director, and the process just

GROSS: Let's hear an excerpt of how your music is used in the film
"Scanners." "Scanners" is a film about a group of people who have this
ability to read other people's minds, to read their thoughts. And you think
that that would be a good thing, that you'd want to read other people's
thoughts. But what happens is that it's so intense to have all these other
voices in your head, all these other thoughts and voices from other people,
that your head can just literally explode from the pressure of all that
information and all those voices inside your head. Now two brothers who are
the best scanners, the best readers of other people's minds, are also--they're
each other's archenemies. And this is, like, the final contest between them
at the end in which they're both scanning each other's minds. And their
bodies are kind of, like, exploding in the process. As we hear this music,
their veins are starting to kind of rise above their skin and kind of pop,
and their faces are distending and contorting. So let's hear that final scene
in the showdown between the two brothers who are scanners.

(Soundbite of "Scanners")

Unidentified Man: All right. We're going to do it the scanner way. I'm
going to suck your brain dry. Everything you are is going to become me.
You're going to be with me, Cameron, no matter what. After all, brothers
should be close, don't you think?

(Soundbite of music; stretching and straining noises)

GROSS: That's an excerpt from the David Cronenberg movies "Scanners." My
guest Howard Shore did the music.

You know, mixed into that music we're hearing are, like, other kinds of sound,
including what sounds like it might be, like, the growling of tigers and maybe
machinery mixed under that, just to give you the sense of, like, the agony of
the scene that we're witnessing. What is happening with the music there?

Mr. SHORE: Right. This is a very early film of mine. I think this was maybe
the second film that I did. And this is quite an experimental piece using
orchestra and using electronics, but pure electronics. These are sounds that
I've created through tape manipulation. They're sounds that I had recorded,
and by the use of tape--this is precomputers, presynthesizers, this piece--and
it was using older tape techniques, musique concrete tape techniques of the
'50s. When I was growing up in Toronto, I was interested in a lot of these
techniques. And as a kid, I was interested in tape recorders and splicing
pieces of sound together. And I heard Toru Takemitsu's--the great Japanese
composer--I heard his music very early on when I was 10 and 11. And I was
experimenting with these type of techniques quite early on.

So working on "Scanners," I think maybe in my late 20s, I finally had a chance
to use some of these techniques with an orchestra, and was able to actually go
into a recording studio and try some of these things that I'd been
experimenting with for years.

GROSS: My guest is composer Howard Shore. We'll hear more of his film scores
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is composer Howard Shore. He's nominated for an Academy
Award for the best score for the film "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship
of the Ring."

I want to play an excerpt of the score you wrote for the David Cronenberg film
"The Fly." And although this is kind of a remake of the Vincent Price film,
this film is--oh, there's a real existential quality to it...

Mr. SHORE: Yes.

GROSS: ...what happens if your body is taken over by a force that transforms

Mr. SHORE: Yes.

GROSS: ...into something that's quite horrible.

Mr. SHORE: `Insect politics,' David called it.

GROSS: And so this is a track that on the sound track is called "Creature
Music." And it seems to me that there's a lot of, kind of, avant-garde
compositional technique that you're using in this. Let's give it a listen and
then we'll talk.


(Soundbite of "Creature Music" from "The Fly")

GROSS: Some of Howard Shore's music for the David Cronenberg film "The Fly."

Are there certain kind of dissonant and atonal things that you're doing in
that music that would be considered, you know, very new-musicy(ph) if they
were in the concert hall as supposed to on a sound track?

Mr. SHORE: Right. Well, again, "The Fly" offered me a chance to use a
symphony orchestra. I think it was the first time on that film that I really
had access to that size of an orchestra and I also had a film of that scope.
Conceptually, the idea was to write a piece that dealt with the emotional and
the tragic nature of this drama. And so the music wasn't really created in a
genre fashion to what you would think a "Fly" remake would be. It had a
grander, more epic feeling going on. And the orchestra here is using
techniques that I was interested in and things that I had been studying for
years and always wanted to try with an orchestra.

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. SHORE: Just these compositional techniques and that type of
orchestration. And there were things that I wanted to do with an orchestra of
that size, but did not have access to until that time, actually.

GROSS: Well, it's really interesting to me how you're able to work all these
kind of edgy musics into your scores. Let's listen to an excerpt of your
score for "Naked Lunch." And this was the David Cronenberg adaptation of the
William Burroughs novel.

Mr. SHORE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And, you know, William Burroughs and his fellow Beat writers were very
involved with Charlie Parker. Ornette Coleman is much more avant-garde, and
very interesting that you managed to use him on the sound track for this.
Before we hear it, tell us why you wanted to work with Ornette Coleman for the
sound track.

Mr. SHORE: I had met Ornette Coleman in New York, and I knew that--you know,
just growing up in the '50s--I mean, I was a huge fan of Ornette's, and I
asked him to do the film. The period that he was creating, his music in the
late '50s, and "Naked Lunch" coincide perfectly. And Ornette, of course, was
aware of Burroughs and Burroughs of Ornette. So the expression that Ornette
had in music in the late '50s was very similar to what Burroughs was creating
on the page in that same period. So it's like a perfect connection to
Burroughs' state of mind in the '50s was to work with Ornette. And he was
fascinated with the project and wanted to work on it. And it was a wonderful
collaboration, actually.

GROSS: How did the collaboration work, because he's playing against a more
symphonic piece that you've written?

Mr. SHORE: Yes.

GROSS: Could you talk about what he's doing and what you've composed behind

Mr. SHORE: Right. He's working with me in a very improvisational way. I
created a structure and a form for Ornette to express himself in.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear an excerpt of that score? And this is Howard
Shore's composition for the sound track of "Naked Lunch" with saxophonist
Ornette Coleman.

(Soundbite of music from "Naked Lunch")

GROSS: Music from the sound track of the film "Naked Lunch," composed by my
guest Howard Shore, with saxophonist Ornette Coleman improvising within that.

What did you tell Ornette Coleman when you asked him to perform on the sound

Mr. SHORE: We had many, many discussions about the piece. It wasn't so much
telling Ornette what to do. It was more working with him as a peer and
expressing my--it was as if you were playing with Ornette in his group. And
it was a harmolodic very process where all parts are equal. So I'm expressing
ideas that Ornette is expressing, and then I would express another idea.

So we worked together sort of very, very carefully and, you know, before the
recording, in rehearsals with sketches of what I was writing. And then the
sessions were done in a very open, creative, free way.

GROSS: Composer Howard Shore. He's nominated for an Academy Award for his
music from "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." He'll be
back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Howard Shore tells us about writing the "Saturday Night
Live" theme when he was the program's first music director, Kevin Whitehead
reviews the new CD by Djangoesque guitarist Bireli Lagrene--we're listening to
it now--and Maureen Corrigan reviews Ian McEwan's new novel "Atonement."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with composer Howard Shore.
He's nominated for an Oscar for his score for the film "The Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Ring." He also wrote the scores for the films "Seven,"
"The Silence of the Lambs," "Philadelphia" and "Ed Wood." He scored the David
Cronenberg films "Scanners," "Videodrome," "Dead Ringers," "Naked Lunch" and

Let's get to an earlier part of your career. You were the first music
director for "Saturday Night Live." I think from 1975 to '80...

Mr. SHORE: Yes.

GROSS: were the music director.

Mr. SHORE: Yes.

GROSS: How did you get to work on the show?

Mr. SHORE: Well, my background had always been in theater, and I was part of
a group of writers and actors and directors. As a kid, we did shows on the
weekend that were similar to "Saturday Night Live." We did improvisational
shows with music and sketches and reading of poems and pantomime and
choreography. I mean, we were interested in that as kids. So at 13 and 14 we
were actually doing a version of that show. And my background has always been
a very collaborative background with a theater group. And people ask me
sometimes, `How can you work on comedies and then how can you do movies, you
know, a very comedic nature, and then do a movie like "Seven"?' And I say,
It's really simple in a way. It's comedy tonight and drama the next night.

I mean, if you work in repertory, you're used to working with different forms
of drama. And doing "Saturday Night Live" was a natural expression of the
group that I had been working with. What we did when we came to New York--it
was a small group of us; I think there was maybe 10 or 12 of us--kind of
brainstormed and put a show on the air each week, a 90-minute show, that we
kind of just created from scratch every week. And...

GROSS: Were any of those people who you first came to New York with people
who ended up on "Saturday Night Live"?

Mr. SHORE: Of course.

GROSS: Who were they?

Mr. SHORE: Well, Lorne Michaels and Tom Schiller. Gilda Radner, we knew from
Toronto. And Dan Aykroyd we knew. And then we met Michael O'Donoghue, and
Belushi came from Chicago, Laraine Newman from Los Angeles. You know, it was
a group, basically, of Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles and some New York. And
we met in New York and, you know, bit by bit we created a show. But it was
very--there was a lot of equality in the sense that it was a group of writers
and performers and directors and producers and musicians and composers.
Basically the whole group sat in a room and created the show.

GROSS: Now what are the interesting things about the "Saturday Night Live"
band is that it was either the first, or one of the first, shows that had a
rock, rhythm and blues-oriented band as opposed to a kind of Johnny Carson,
Doc Severinsen...

Mr. SHORE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...type of jazz show band.

Mr. SHORE: Right.

GROSS: Was that clear from the start that you would have more of a rock,
rhythm and blues-oriented sound?

Mr. SHORE: No, again, it came out of something that I was interested in. The
period before "Saturday Night Live" I had been on the road for years. I was
touring with a group called Lighthouse and we were opening for Grateful Dead
and Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and I was on the road for four years
until I was 22, I think, when I came off the road, 23. So I was interested in
R&B and rock 'n' roll. I mean, those were my musical interests. And when I
came off the road at that point, I had a band that I played in Toronto with
that was playing all of my, you know, original music that I was writing and
things that I was interested in. And so the "Saturday Night Live" band was
just an extension of what I had been doing in Toronto and on the road for all
of those years, and it was quite different, as you say, from what the
television norm had been, more of the big band era. And that
seemed--historically now, looking back on it, seemed to be a turning point to
a different kind of sound and a different type of music expression at that

GROSS: And are you featured on--were you featured in the band?

Mr. SHORE: Well, I was conducting and the band had wonderful players from all
over New York. When I came to New York, not really knowing a lot of players
in New York, I really chose people that I was interested in from my record
collection, and I had a really good jazz and R&B record collection. So when I
arrived in '75, I was basically calling up, you know, musicians that I was
interested in as a fan, that I love, musicians like Howard Johnson and Bob
Crenshaw. I mean, those are people I had heard on records for years. I was
thrilled to be able to have them in the band.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a recording of the theme from early in the history
of "Saturday Night Live."

(Soundbite of "Saturday Night Live")

Unidentified Man: Live from New York, it's Saturday night.

(Soundbite of theme)

GROSS: Howard Shore, who's playing saxophone on that?

Mr. SHORE: That's Lou Marini.

GROSS: And how has the theme changed?

Mr. SHORE: The theme is interesting that it's an improvisational piece for
saxophone, and because the show is basically an improvisational show and it's
grown over the years--it's now been on--I think it's into its 27th year--I
wanted a piece of music that could grow along with the show and could change
expression by who was performing it, in the same way that the cast of the show
is essentially still the Not Ready For Prime Time Players, but it's evolved by
who's in the cast. So who's in the band expresses the music of the show at
that time.

GROSS: Did you get to meet any music heroes on the show?

Mr. SHORE: Well, of course. It was interesting, in the early part of the
show, we were booking the show--`we' was basically Lorne Michaels and myself
and Craig Kellerman--and we were interested in putting people on the show from
our record collection. I mean, we were avid music fans, of course, and we
wanted to put people on that we were interested in. And not everybody would
really do the show. It was quite different than it is now, because it wasn't
a well-known show and people weren't--they were a little afraid of playing
live on television. It was a little scary and the sound might not have been
perfect and all of that. So sometimes it was difficult to have people on the
show, but we still managed to--I was still lucky to get--people like Ornette
Coleman did the show and Keith Jarrett did it and Sun Ra. I mean, there
was--people that you wouldn't normally think would be associated with the
show. So it was quite wonderful at that early stage.

I remember we did a reunion of the band, which was a wonderful show, and The
Beatles being on the show and The Stones. I mean, they were all childhood
sort of heroes of ours.

GROSS: My guest is composer Howard Shore. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is composer Howard Shore. His score for the film "The Lord
of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" is nominated for an Oscar. He's
written many film scores and wrote the original theme for "Saturday Night

Now before you were the first music director of "Saturday Night Live," you
spent several years on the road with the band Lighthouse, which was a rock
band with a horn section.

Mr. SHORE: And string quartet.

GROSS: Lighthouse had a string quartet?

Mr. SHORE: Yes.

GROSS: Oh, that I don't remember.

Mr. SHORE: Yes, it had an electronic string quartet.

GROSS: OK. No, this was, like, the psychedelic light show era where, if you
played at the Fillmore, which you often did...

Mr. SHORE: Yes.

GROSS: ...there was going to be, you know, a light show and probably a lot of
the people in the audience and a lot of people on the stage would be pretty
high. Give us a sense of what it was like to perform in that era.

Mr. SHORE: Don't remember anything from it.

GROSS: Yeah, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHORE: It was a very amazing time, actually. I mean, I was quite young.
I was 19, 20 when I was on the road. I was studying music at Berkeley School
of Music, I was studying composition, and I had this offer to go on the road
with this band. And Berkeley at that time was very much a working--you know,
it was designed to give you some knowledge so you could make a living as a
musician, and here was a real job, you know, that you could go out and do.
And it didn't pay much money, it was only a few hundred dollars a week, but it
seemed like a really good opportunity to work with some really great
musicians. And the string players were unusual because they came from
orchestras. The brass players were--a lot of them were wonderfully great jazz
players, and there was a great rock rhythm section. And it offered writing
and arranging possibilities, and Lighthouse also played with orchestras at the
time. We wrote a ballet for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet that we performed, and
we also did rock concerts with orchestras that were sort of popular at the
time in the time of--Procol Harum was interested in doing that and "Nights in
White Satin"--I mean, that was the era of rock music and live orchestras.

And so at the age of 19 and 20, I was standing in front of orchestras and
conducting some of my own pieces and orchestrations, and it was quite an
amazing time. You learned an amazing amount about music and about people and
about collaborating. I did a thousand one-nighters in four years.

GROSS: Do you ever get frustrated when you're writing movie scores that
you've spent all this time writing this, like, great passage and they're only
using, like, a short excerpt of it and it's kind of buried in the background
of the sound track and you're really hearing the dialogue and your music is,
like, in back of that?

Mr. SHORE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Does that happen?

Mr. SHORE: You have to realize that filmmaking is a very collaborative art.
And I'm sure everybody feels to some degree that something they created maybe
or--maybe it did or maybe it didn't get in the film. I'm sure actors must
feel that way, too, when certain scenes are not in the film. But what you're
doing is trying to create your best work. You're trying to give your best
expression to the film and hoping for a best overall result for the film,
whether it's music or cinematography or editing or direction or screenplay. I
mean, the best films are the ones that have tremendous balance between all of
those parts. And you know, with your expression, you're creating a part of a

GROSS: Well, Howard Shore, congratulations on your Academy Award nomination,
and thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SHORE: Thank you. Thank you. It was really a pleasure.

GROSS: Howard Shore has an Academy Award nomination for his score for the
film "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Bireli Lagrene's new CD "Gypsy Project"
(Soundbite of music)


When French musician Bireli Lagrene was four years old, his father taught him
the rudiments of the guitar and played him some Django Reinhardt records.
When Lagrene made his first record at age 13, he sounded amazingly like the
great Gypsy guitarist. As Lagrene matured, he got into other styles, playing
jazz rock with Jaco Pastorius and others, and even recording vocal versions of
Frank Sinatra tunes. Lately, Bireli Lagrene has returned to his Django
legacy. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it beats the alternatives.

(Soundbite of music)


In or out of jazz, artists aspire to an original style and individual voice,
but in any field, some folks find success by imitating the pioneers. I doubt
I'm alone in liking some copycats and being allergic to others. Sometimes it
has to do with how many disciples a role model attracts. Miles and Coltrane
are great, but we don't need any more clones, thanks. But guitarists who can
do a good Django Reinhardt are rare. That's reason enough to like Bireli

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: These days, anyone from anywhere can learn to play like anybody if
they put the time in, yet the best Django-esque guitarists share Reinhardt's
background as a French-speaking Gypsy. There's Raymond Bonille(ph) and the
brothers Boulou and Elios Ferre as well as Bireli Lagrene. It's as if they
needed to grow up around Gypsy music to make the guitar shout like that or
make it sing with a violinist's attention to expressive attack and vibrato.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Bireli Lagrene from his "Gypsy Project" CD on the Dreyfus jazz
label. It's a set of tunes by or associated with Django Reinhardt, with a
Django-like quintet, including Florin Nicarescu(ph) on violin. Lagrene gets
to all the stuff that makes his hero fun to listen to: a sound loud and
ringing as a boogie piano, chords shuffled faster than a card sharp's deck and
an ineffable Europeanness that made him sound exotic to Americans. Lagrene
captures that sound so well, he can stamp his solos with more modern ideas and
not sound anachronistic, even with a band sound out of the 1930s.

Lagrene's years playing jazz-rock fusion pay off. That music wasn't so great,
but he got a lot of practice playing clean and fast. Here he is trading off
with guest Richard Galliano on accordion.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: I wish Galliano played on more than just two versions of Django's
"Daphne" here. Since Reinhardt didn't use accordion in his own bands, it
gives this one a slightly different character. Bireli Lagrene has tried to
modernize Reinhardt's group concept before, using synthesizers or slicker
chords, without much success. This time, he might have better tinkered with
his chunky rhythm section relentlessly marching to the old left-right beats
that made Django sound archaic by the 1940s.

Musicians who revive old styles sometimes have to engage in a little creative
anachronism, quietly updating those elements that haven't aged well, so as not
to distract from the timeless qualities. Lagrene the guitarist already has
the right idea, so maybe we're just waiting for Lagrene the leader to catch

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is based in Chicago. He reviewed "Gypsy Project," the
new CD by guitarist Bireli Lagrene.

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the best book she's read so far this year.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Ian McEwan's latest novel, "Atonement"

So far this calendar year, book critic Maureen Corrigan has read some books
that she has liked a lot, others that she's endured, but she's been waiting
week after week to read a book that she could rave about. At last, she's
found it.


The greater the book, the dumber the critics' notes. There you have it, my
contribution to the 2,500-year-old history of aesthetics. I hit upon that
diagnostic certainty last night when I was looking over my notes on Ian
McEwan's latest novel, "Atonement." They're embarrassing. Pages of legal pad
are studded with exclamations like `Wow!' and `This is really writing!' When
I say my notes are dumb, I also mean that word in its primary sense. A great
novel like "Atonement" can induce the classic effect of speechlessness on its
readers because it floods them with such complex emotions and ideas, and
because its mastery of language is so humbling. `"Atonement" has it all.'
That's another one of my clumsy but true jotted responses. McEwan's novel
tells an absorbing, suspenseful story, and it's peopled by fully fleshed-out
characters whose actions and interior worlds startle.

Fate takes center stage here: the misdelivery of a letter, the bad timing of
a family visit, the wayward choice to stand at a certain spot when bombs are
falling. All these and other happenstances determine the course of
characters' lives as those characters tell us, in retrospect. But because
McEwan is a postmodern novelist and not just some Thomas Hardy mimic, the
workings of fate as well as the book's satisfying plot closures are thrown
into question in a final coda. There, McEwan, speaking through a novelist
character, lets his readers know that he consciously gave us what he knows we
crave in a good story. Maybe the most amazing thing about "Atonement" is that
this final self-aware twist doesn't diminish what came before. The lamb of
sentimentality and the lion of irony here peaceably coexist.

Part one of "Atonement" takes place on a wretchedly hot summer's day in 1935
at an English country house constructed out of restored materials from the
fictional estates of Agatha Christie and Evelyn Waugh. Thirteen-year-old
Briony Tallis, a playwright and budding novelist who likes writing because it
affords her control and the pleasures of miniaturization, is daydreaming
beside her bedroom window when she witnesses her older sister Cecilia and the
housekeeper's son, Robbie Turner, arguing passionately by the courtyard
fountain. Later that sweltering evening, there's a dinner party followed by
an act of violence. By the end of the night, young Briony will have
semiconsciously entrapped Robbie in a fiction that literally lands him in
prison, except that World War II intervenes in part two of the novel and
Robbie's sentence is commuted when he volunteers for service.

It's 1939 now, and a bloody Robbie is retreating, along with the rest of the
British army in France, to Dunkirk. McEwan does war as convincingly as he
does upper-crust dinner parties. Here's Robbie's first vision of the beach at
Dunkirk: `He saw thousands of men--10, 20,000, perhaps more--spread across
the vastness of the beach. In the distance, they were like grains of black
sand, but there were no boats, apart from one upturned whaler rolling in the
distant surf. There were no boats by the long jetty. He blinked and looked
again. That jetty was made of men, a long file of them, six or eight deep,
standing up to their knees, their waists, their shoulders, stretching out for
500 yards through the shallow waters. They waited, but there was nothing in
sight, unless you counted in those smudges on the horizon--boats burning after
an air attack. There was nothing that could reach the beach in hours. But
the troops stood there, facing the horizon in their tin hats, rifles lifted
above the waves. From this distance, they looked as placid as cattle.'

Meanwhile, in part three, Cecilia and Briony are living separate parallel
lives in London. Both of them are nurses. One is about to have a rendezvous
with love, or is it the horror of the blitz? The coda of "Atonement," as I
said, upends everything. Until now, I'd read the work of all the other
members of McEwan's generation of masters of British fiction--Amos, Barnes,
Ishiguro, Rushdie--all except for McEwan. While other critics have declared
"Atonement" to be McEwan's best book, I can only compare it to the novels of
his distinguished peer group, and even the generation before them.
"Atonement" seems to me to be the most encompassing and accomplished British
novel perhaps since World War II. It's also given me a more dispassionate
perspective on Jonathan Franzen's blockbuster "The Corrections," which made my
best books list and that of most other book critics for last year.

As time goes by, "The Corrections," although filled with smart set pieces and
consciously designed to be the last word on how we live today, seems
air-puffed and self-indulgent to me, offering nowhere near the psychological
depth and narrative complexity of "Atonement." That's another mark of a great
novel. It exposes the veins of fool's gold running through lesser books.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Atonement," by Ian McEwan.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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