August 7, 2014
Guests: Jason Hamacher - Dave Douglas & Uri Caine
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Before the Civil War in Syria destroyed ancient religious sites and scattered some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, my guest Jason Hamacher made several trips there, taking photos and recording ancient Christian and Sufi chants. The archbishop, who hosted one of his stays in Aleppo, has since been kidnapped by rebels. The chaos and destruction have made Hamacher's documentation more important. He's planning a series of albums called "Sacred Voices Of Syria."
The first, which was released this summer, is called "Nawa: Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs from Aleppo."
Hamacher isn't coming at this from the perspective of a musicologist or a member of a religious community. He's a drummer who's played in several punk bands in the Washington, D.C. area, including the group Frodus. He founded Lost Origin Productions to distribute his recordings and photographs. A little later, we'll hear some of the ancient Christian chants he recorded.
Let's start with a track from the new album of "Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Chanting in Sufi).
GROSS: That's music from the new album "Nawa: Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs from Aleppo" recorded by my guest Jason Hamacher.
Jason, welcome to FRESH AIR.
JASON HAMACHER: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: I have to tell you, if I had to choose something to release as the single from the album, I would choose this. I think this would be a hit...
GROSS: ...To put it in kind of pop categories. I mean, it's so catchy. What response is this music supposed to get? Like, this is a Sufi chant.
GROSS: Sufi is the mystical part of - it's considered like, the mystical realm of Islam.
HAMACHER: Like the mystical, really esoteric form of Islam. And it is a way to align yourself and the group to God. A way to kind of, really center and focus themselves towards God.
GROSS: So set the scene for us when you recorded this. Where were you and who were the men who you recorded?
HAMACHER: Sure. So I was in the city of Aleppo, which is one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities. You know, there's evidence that it at least goes back 8,000 years. And this is one of the last things I ever did in Syria before the war broke out, this is in 2010. And we all were - there was a very informal - actually, it really threw me off guard actually, how informal everyone was. Like, two guys who kind of joking around, one guy was kicking the other guy in the pants, one guy was smoking. And then, everyone left and they all came back in these white robes; they were kind of flowing robes. And everything - like, everything changed at that moment. The entire vibe, the whole atmosphere of the place changed and became a very holy environment.
GROSS: So who are the men who you recorded? Are they Sufi themselves or is this just like a musical project for them?
HAMACHER: No, it's a combo of both. A handful of them have grown up in the tradition and everyone - obviously, you're not like, a professional Sufi, you know? Some guys were leather workers. One guy was an architect. You know, all kinds of different things. The group founder was actually 17 years old and then his older brother who was 21 at the time of recording, he is the main voice. And he was actually - he sung at a lot of the different Sufi lodges around the city. And a couple of them are professional musicians that you know, held the Sufi beliefs and they kind of banded together and created this ensemble. And to be honest, you know, I had just met them and then had all these grandiose ideas of doing all this work with them and was never able to return.
GROSS: Because of the war.
HAMACHER: Because of the war. I mean, the war happened three and a half months after this. And so they've all fled. They're at different parts of the earth now.
GROSS: Jason, you're a punk rocker.
GROSS: I mean, you've played with several different punk bands in Washington...
GROSS: ...So what made you think of going to Syria to record ancient religious music?
HAMACHER: So I was in a band called Decahedron; that's the band that came after Frodus. And that band broke up, and the next day I was at a friends house and we wanted to form - we wanted to do something new with ourselves, creatively. Something that would challenge ourselves but also force us to do research and learn and do something new. And so we came up with a concept of forming a rock orchestra with several of our friends to score music to some ancient chant. And so we kind of sat around brainstorming and then gave each other homework assignments. Everyone has to find one piece of chant - doesn't matter what faith or what tradition. One item and email it to each other and then we'll come up with a song in two weeks time - to see what it sounded like. And it spun my mind completely in a million different directions and reminded me of a book that I had read, called "From the Holy Mountain" by William Dalrymple, where he described in this book, the world's oldest Christian music was what I remembered being in a monastery in the deserts of Syria.
GROSS: So you actually contacted William Dalrymple, right?
HAMACHER: (Laughter) Correct.
GROSS: And what did you want to get from him?
HAMACHER: So to my surprise, he actually responded within four hours.
He was like, this is a great idea; unfortunately I don't have a copy of the music that you're looking for. If you ever go to Syria, this is what you tell a taxi driver at the airport in Aleppo. Good luck.
And the piece of information that he told me that really changed everything was, he said, it's not a monastery in the desert. It is a Syrian Orthodox Church in the middle of the city of Aleppo.
So then I found an email address, email@example.com and I did the same thing, like - these are the books I read, this is the author I spoke to. I would love to get this music.
And then two days later, the Archbishop of the United States for the Syrian Orthodox church emailed me from Teaneck, New Jersey. He was very supportive and said that he did not have the music I was looking for but had music that was similar, that was of a different practice, inside the Orthodox church.
And I asked, well, where do I get the music that I'm looking for?
And he's like, well, what we don't have a CD to give you.
I was like, meaning you just have one in the United States, or you don't have one, period?
He's like, well, we don't have one.
I was like, you've been doing this 1,800 years. There's no recording?
He's like, no.
I was like, do you want me to make one for you?
And that was the genesis of how I started doing all of this, which snowballed into so many other things.
GROSS: So in addition to recording the Sufi music that we've heard...
GROSS: ...That's featured on your new album of music that you recorded in Syria, you also recorded ancient Christian music in Syria.
GROSS: Including something that I want to play and this is from a forthcoming album called "Sacred Voices Of Syria." And this is a version of "The Lord's Prayer."
GROSS: Before we hear some of it, just tell us a little bit about this specific recording.
HAMACHER: So this is the Lord's prayer done in the Syriac language and it is the Archbishop of Aleppo - it's his nephew, who's actually Chaldean Orthodox Christian but worked at the church. And this is in 2007. And I really wanted to record his nephew and his friend based on what I was hearing during church services. So one night when the bishop was gone, they just got the keys to the cathedral and we went in and recorded at like one in the morning. It was one of the most sacred, really holy experiences I had in Syria. We went in and it was the cathedral of Saint Ephraim and it was just the two of them - the two voices - and it was so beautiful and so holy. And they both sang for about an hour.
This is what they started with, as kind of a - "The Lord's Prayer," the beginning of the chant recording.
GROSS: And is it right to call this ancient music?
HAMACHER: Oh, yes. This is ancient. Like, this tradition would be well over a thousand years old.
GROSS: OK. Let's hear a little bit of it. This is "The Lord's Prayer," as recorded by my guest Jason Hamacher in Syria. He's not performing; he's recording two Syrian men doing this. One of them is the nephew of the archbishop?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LORD'S PRAYER")
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in foreign language).
GROSS: So that was recorded in the cathedral and you can hear the echo.
HAMACHER: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: So you recorded this in 2007. One of the two people we heard is the nephew of the archbishop. The archbishop was very friendly to you. You had met him on an earlier trip. He let you stay...
HAMACHER: Yeah, I lived with him. Yeah. In 2006, on my first trip we stayed with him. And in 2007, I was there for a month and went to everything with him. I went to - I photographed Holy Week with the archbishop. I went to every meeting, every church service, everything.
GROSS: He was kidnapped during the war. What do you know about what happened?
HAMACHER: No one knows anything. There was all kinds of rumors.
He got kidnapped with another gentleman, it was another - archbishop of the - in Syria they call it the Rum Orthodox. I think it's the Greek Orthodox in Syria.
And so the story that I was told was the Greek Orthodox bishop had gone to do a humanitarian aid run towards the border of Turkey and was kind of frightful about returning by himself. So he called - the bishop I worked with, his name is Yohanna - so he called Bishop Yohanna and said, hey, is it possible, can you help me come back safely?
And he was like, yes, I'll come with my driver and I'll pick you up and we'll go back home.
And this is like, an hour and a half outside of Aleppo. And so he went, picked him up, they were coming back and from what I understand, their car was surrounded, their driver was taken out and executed. And then someone got in the car and drove off and that's it.
GROSS: So you must have a lot of photographs of ancient sites in Syria that have been fully or partially destroyed by the Civil War?
HAMACHER: Correct. The perfect example is, there was a neighborhood called Jdeideh. It's actually the Armenian quarter of the city. And they had the absolute best restaurants. There were these five, six, seven hundred-year-old mansions that had a covered - the restaurants were set up in these courtyards and the food was just unbelievable. The food from Aleppo has been regarded throughout history as some of the best Middle Eastern food on earth. The Ottoman sultans would actually have their chefs either train in Aleppo or bring someone from Aleppo to learn how to do this amazing cooking.
Almost that entire neighborhood is gone, leveled. There was a place called the Sissi House that was in Jdeideh that I used to eat at all the time. And it was bombed; gone. Like, someone sent me a photo and I couldn't even - they're like, do you think this is the Sissi House?
I couldn't even understand what I was looking at. There's so much of that.
GROSS: The cathedral that you recorded the ancient version of "The Lord's Prayer" that we heard, is that cathedral still standing? Was that cathedral affected by the bombing and the shelling in Syria?
HAMACHER: It still stands. It's riddled with bullet holes. Everything has suffered damage.
GROSS: My guest is Jason Hamacher. His new album of recordings he made in Syria is called "Nawa: Ancient Sufi Invocations And Forgotten Songs From Aleppo."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Jason Hamacher. Before the civil war in Syria he made several trips there, taking photos and recording ancient Christian and Sufi chants. His new album is called "NAWA: Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs From Aleppo." It's the first in his planned series of albums, "Sacred Voices Of Syria." There's another song I want to play from your forthcoming album - forthcoming series of albums of ancient Christian chants from Syria. And this is called the "Al Haw Tar'o."
HAMACHER: Correct. You just spoke Syriac, by the way.
GROSS: So what is Syriac?
HAMACHER: Syriac is the language. It's a form of Aramaic. The ancient language of the Near East.
GROSS: So it's the language of Jesus's time.
HAMACHER: Correct. And so it's the spoken language of the early church. And so that was one of my draws to this community is that it's one of the few communities that still speak and act in Syriac - Aramaic.
GROSS: And where did you record this?
HAMACHER: This is recorded - it took years to figure out how to record this. You know, Aleppo is noisy. There's cars everywhere. And I did this on an Islamic holiday - the night of Eid in 2008 - when everyone was inside celebrating with their families. And the Cathedral of Saint George's was too loud, so we did this in the hallway of their private school. And the whole recording was actually pretty amazing. So we - you know, it's this huge moment. And the Archbishop and an elder take a deep breath, and then we started doing the recording and, you know, broken glass - it was very cold and - yeah, it was a pretty amazing experience.
GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is the "Al Haw Tar'o" from a forthcoming album of Syrian Orthodox Christian music.
GROSS: That will be on Smithsonian Folkways as recorded by my guest, Jason Hamacher.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANT, "AL HAW TAR'O")
ARCHBISHOP: (Chanting in Syriac).
GROSS: That's music from the Syrian Orthodox Church. It's very ancient music, as recorded in Syria by my guest, Jason Hamacher, who's been trying to document various parts of Syrian culture. But that project was halted by the civil war.
GROSS: Listening to that, it sounds almost cantorial. It reminds me of some like Jewish music - some Hebrew music.
HAMACHER: Of course.
GROSS: You say of course. Why do you say of course?
HAMACHER: Yeah. Well, of course meaning, you know, at the time when the Jews were meeting in a cave in Antioch - which was like an hour away from where I did the recording - they were Jews that believed, you know. Like they hadn't called themselves Christians yet. Like, that happened later. And so the theory is that this is the music between the bridge, between the synagogue and the church. And there's very striking similarities between the two.
GROSS: So are there many recordings of music from the Syrian Orthodox Church like the ancient music from the church?
HAMACHER: Yes. There's about eight different traditions, and many of them are documented, except this one. And that is because this one tradition is only practiced in this one building on earth, and that's the Saint George's Cathedral in Aleppo. Inside of this tradition, there are hundreds of chants - 900. It used to be thousands. And through war and everything else over the millennia, a good portion of these have been lost and forgotten. And so I wanted to record the individuals that know everything - not just portions, but the experts - the people that know all of it. And at the time of recording, there were five. It's now down to three. I mean, it's kind of a metaphor to everything that's been happening in Syria. It's like there's so much rich history and cultural relics that have been physically damaged by bombs, bullets, war, death. But then there are all these amazing chants that can live on.
GROSS: Jason, thank you so much for talking with us.
HAMACHER: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Jason Hamacher recorded and produced the new album "NAWA: Ancient Sufi Invocation And Forgotten Songs From Aleppo." He's the founder of Lost Origin Productions. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Two virtuoso jazz musicians, Dave Douglas and Uri Caine, perform songs known for their simplicity on their new album of duets called "Present Joys." The album features several hymns from the Sacred Harp songbook, a collection of songs notated for congregations and other gatherings of people who don't read music. The songs are meant to be sung in harmony a cappella. This tradition, also known as shape note singing, dates back to the early 1800s. The new album also features several original compositions by Dave Douglas. Caine and Douglas are also known for their versatility, playing jazz that ranges from the avante-garde to music derived from folk traditions. Caine has also reinterpreted the works of several classical composers. He composed a piece for orchestra and gospel choir that was given its world premiere earlier this summer by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Let's start with the opening track of the duet album "Present Joys." This is the hymn "Soar Away."
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE DOUGLAS AND URI CAINE SONG, "SOAR AWAY")
GROSS: That's "Soar Away" from the new Dave Douglas and Uri Caine album, "Present Joys." Dave Douglas, Uri Caine, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
DAVE DOUGLAS: Thank you. It's great to be here.
URI CAINE: Thank you. Thank you for having us, yeah.
GROSS: Dave, several of the songs on this album, including the one we just heard, come from the shape note singing tradition. What is that tradition?
DOUGLAS: It's a collected thousands of songs, some of them come from folk traditions and some of them were written along the way and re-harmonized. And they're arranged for groups of untrained singers for communal singing. So the reason it's called shape note is that someone devised a system of every note in the scale having a different shape on the staff. So that somebody who didn't necessarily know how to read music could just see the shapes and know which note it would be in the scale.
GROSS: So do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do each have a different shape?
DOUGLAS: Like that, yeah.
GROSS: I see this, in ways, a follow-up album to the album that you did right before this, which is called "Be Still." That actually featured several hymns on it. And, as you say in the liner notes, this was connected to the fact that your mother asked you to perform hymns at her funeral. She died of cancer?
GROSS: And how did it come about that she asked you to play some of those songs?
DOUGLAS: Well, she fought the battle against cancer for a good number of years. And as anyone who's dealt with that knows, there comes a time when you're in your third, fourth cycle of chemotherapy, and this is very difficult for the family. And we were blessed in a way that she was willing to talk about it - what would happen? What would she want? And so I asked her, what would you want at a memorial service for you? And she said, oh, I want a party. Everyone should wear bright colors. And I said, well, what about music? She said, oh, no, no, no, don't worry about that. Do whatever you want. And then two weeks later, I went to visit her again. And she handed me a handwritten list of the hymns and the verses and everything that she wanted. And that became the basis of the album "Be Still" and also sort of a re-examination of that music for me.
GROSS: Is the song "God Be With You" one of the songs she asked for?
DOUGLAS: It is.
GROSS: Can you talk about that song and what that song meant to you when you performed it at her funeral?
DOUGLAS: You know, it took me a long time to come to terms with playing these hymns because I knew them from childhood. And I wasn't really sure how to integrate them with the band. And so my first stab at it was to take my brass band, "Brass Ecstasy," and arrange it for brass, and that's what we played at the funeral. So after that experience, I went back to it and fortuitously met the wonderful singer Aoife O'Donovan right at that time and began talking to her about the hymns and her connection to it. And she sings it much more like folk music. And I felt like bringing her into the band added this life to the songs that enabled me to make these new arrangements. So "God Be With You" 'till we meet again became for me, you know, the ultimate goodbye...
GROSS: To you mother?
DOUGLAS: ...From my mom to me and from me to my mom.
GROSS: Why don't we play that song from your previous album. So this is "God Be With You" from the Dave Douglas Quintet album, "Be Still."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BE WITH YOU")
AOIFE O'DONOVAN: (Singing) God be with you 'till we meet again. Loving councils can uphold you. With a shepherd's cane, I will fold you. God be with you 'till we meet again.
GROSS: That's trumpeter Dave Douglas with his quintet from his previous album "Be Still." And his new album is called "Present Joys," and it's a series of duets with Dave Douglas and Uri Caine, the pianist and composer who is also with us. Some music is so well-suited to funerals or to religious services and that's in part because some of the music comes out of those things and was designed for those things. But it's like some forms of music almost seem created to put you in touch with reflection, you know, to help you reflect on life and death. In a way that can be very deep and meaningful and - or I'm wondering, like, your Jewish. And I'm wondering if you've found music either in the Jewish tradition or in other religious traditions...
GROSS: ...That do that for you?
DOUGLAS: Absolutely. Even as a young kid, you know, when I would go to the synagogue and hear the way the cantors would sing on the high holy days and it sounded like the blues to me. And as I got a little bit older I would play as part of Christian services and all types of things. And as a musician you really see you're playing for happy events, really sad events, really emotional events and the music is the vehicle that the emotion is passed through. And I remember as a young kid just realizing it's not really so much the religion that's happening, it's the music and the way people are getting emotional about the music. And I felt it in myself, so I knew that it was - had a certain effect.
GROSS: You played in churches?
DOUGLAS: I did. You know, I used to play everything from cantatas - one summer in order to practice the piano at a place where I was playing, I had to be part of the choir in the church and play the organ. Mr. Rogers went to that church. That's the one thing I remember about it. But...
DOUGLAS: ...You know - and in a way I was thinking was this OK to do this? And then it was always no - the music is what it is - the music is the important thing.
GROSS: My guests are pianist Uri Caine and trumpeter Dave Douglas. Their new album of duets is called "Present Joys." More after break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are jazz musicians and composers Dave Douglas and Uri Caine. Their new album of duets "Present Joys" features hymns from the Sacred Harp songbook, as well as originals by Douglas. Douglas plays trumpet, Caine Piano. So let's hear another track from the album of Dave Douglas-Uri Caine duets. And this is the title track from the album "Present Joys." And it's another song that I think comes out of the shape note singing tradition. Dave, would you introduce the song for us and tell us why you selected it for the album.
DOUGLAS: It does come out of that tradition. And it's - it's an interesting song because it's very upbeat and it's very much about, you know, earthly pleasures, about celebrating what we have here now, which in the Puritan tradition is not often something that you hear expressed.
GROSS: And musicly what do you like about it?
DOUGLAS: Well, it's - as you'll hear, you know, very forthright melody. As with many of these songs a really unusual phrasing structure, just the way the song works. You know, I think if you're singing with a lot of people who are singing it, it seems really obvious. But when you just look at it on its own terms as a musical text, it's just a very, very unusual way of putting together a melody. And then it had this bouncy quality that made me feel like OK, we're so close to the blues with this thing. Let's figure out how to bring this into our world as jazz musicians and turn it into a conversation - a dialogue maybe between the two worlds. And we go back and forth several times.
GROSS: OK, so this is "Present Joys," the title track from a new album by trumpeter Dave Douglas and pianist Uri Caine.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE DOUGLAS AND URI CAINE SONG, "PRESENT JOYS")
GROSS: That's the title track from the new album "Present Joys," which features Dave Douglas on trumpet, Uri Caine on piano and they are both with me. You know, in comparing the tradition of shape note singing and of, like, protestant hymns with the gospel tradition, the hymns and the shape note singing - my impression of them is that they're very kind of simple, easy to sing, unembellished styles. Like you don't, I think, expect the hymn to be sung by somebody who's going to be doing a lot of melisma and embellishment and improvisation, whereas I think in gospel music it's the other way around. There's a level of, like, virtuosity that I think is so - so much a part of gospel music. I was just wondering...
DOUGLAS: I agree, I think...
GROSS: ...What your thoughts were about that?
DOUGLAS: I think that's a - that could be a good distinction. I think though in a lot of gospel music you sort of have the choir as being - taking that role.
GROSS: The everyman role?
DOUGLAS: The everyman role. But also singing maybe simpler parts, background parts or - and in a way the real call and response that the soloist who is doing all these things is getting energy off of the community, which is represented by the choir and how they're singing. And when that works it's beautiful and it's so uplifting. And it's also so free because even though these forms are, as you're saying simple, but within them there's so much room for this type of ecstatic communion that it's - and that's what everybody wants. That's the thing that's so great about it, that that's the goal of it, it's to get off that way. And there's not many things that you can say in life, you know, publicly that you can do that, where you're seeking this type of group ecstasy, group communion as a release.
GROSS: Nicely put. Uri, you have a new solo piano album and I'd like to play something from that. I was thinking - well, first of all, the album's called "Callithump." A word I've never heard before. So I had to look it up. (Laughter).
CAINE: It's a good word though.
GROSS: It's a good word. And you want to say what it means?
CAINE: It's like a boisterous parade.
GROSS: Exactly, yeah, which is interesting for a solo album. (Laughter). So why did you want to call it that?
CAINE: I like the sound of the word.
GROSS: Uh huh.
CAINE: And it's - I mean, I've heard that word before. But...
GROSS: I had not.
CAINE: You know, someone should keep a list of these words that you want to use and - for titles or for names of albums. And so...
GROSS: You had written this down and stored it away for a while?
CAINE: I have, yeah. I have a list of that.
GROSS: So there's a piece that you do on here, an original composition called "Perving Berlin," which - I think it relates a little bit to what we've been talking about because it takes something - probably part of it is inspired by probably a simple, popular, relatively easy to sing melody and then you kind of totally weird it out and complicate it.
CAINE: Yeah, I mean it's - I guess a lot of the songs on that CD are coming out of simple sketches which then need to be amplified. And I guess the challenge on that CD was that I just recorded it with no second takes. It's just from the beginning to the end. So I sort of had a plan to sort of have these different pieces that had different moods. But the compositions were simple because I wanted in a way to try to improvise in different ways on each of the pieces. And I think in that piece it is that. It's sort of setting up a very simple thing which then sort of goes off in all these little side areas and then comes back and then it keeps on going away and coming back.
GROSS: When I record anything and I mean, like, for our show if I'm , like, recording a voice thing, I want to be able do more takes. And I'm trying to understand why you'd want to limit yourself to one take for everything, knowing that this is a document that's going to last. It's not a performance, you know, in a theater or a club.
CAINE: I often record that way too, and I need second takes and third takes. So it's not that I'm against that type of recording. But in this particular piece, what I did was I might have recorded maybe 25 pieces and then chose 11. So that was the way that I was editing myself. It's like just go through this program and see what you can do. And then later pick the ones that you like.
GROSS: So I want to thank you both. And just to sum up where we've been, I've been talking with trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas and pianist and composer Uri Caine. They have a new album of duets and it's called "Present Joys." And Uri has a new solo album that's called "Callithump." And this is Uri's composition "Perving Berlin" from "Callithump."
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Friday night on the Cinemax cable network, Clive Owen stars in "The Knick," a new medical drama series that stands out for at least two different reasons. The director and one of the executive producers is filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and the show takes place in the year 1900. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The first impression of "The Knick," the new 10-part drama series that begins this weekend on Cinemax, is that it seems derivative. It's about a maverick doctor who's rude to almost everyone around him, like the abrasive hero of Hugh Laurie's Fox series, "House." He works at a hospital in a big city in the shadow of bigger hospitals fighting for attention and respect, like the doctors on "St. Elsewhere."
The title "The Knick," in fact, is short for Knickerbocker Hospital and is as derisive nickname as "St. Elsewhere" was for Boston's St. Eligius.
But "The Knick" is set in New York, not Boston. And it's not a modern hospital at all because this new drama series is set in downtown New York City at the start of the twentieth century. And in that way too, "The Knick" seems overly familiar because a recent BBC America series, "Copper," covered very similar terrain in both date and place.
But here comes a pleasant surprise. Cinemax sent out seven of the show's 10 episodes for preview. And the more I watched, the more persuaded I became that "The Knick" was on a very original journey and making the most of its increasingly singular cast of characters.
At the center of all this period medicine and mayhem is Clive Owen as Dr. John Thackery, a medical maverick and pioneer who has more regard for new techniques than any bedside manner. When first we see him, he's shooting drugs between his toes, like Mel Profitt on "Wiseguy," and exhibiting little patience with the staff, like Lucy, a new young nurse from the South played by Eve Hewson. Even though the setting is a turn-of-the-century hospital ward, the verbal tension may as well come straight from the latest episode of "Grey's Anatomy."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE KNICK")
CLIVE OWEN: (As John W. Thackery) Which nurse changed the dressings on this man?
EVE HEWSON: (As Lucy Elkins) I did. Per Dr. Gallinger's instructions. Twice in the past 24 hours and I emptied his drains throughout the night.
OWEN: (As John W. Thackery) And did you recently empty that one?
HEWSON: (As Lucy Elkins) I didn't. It's tended to have collected very little fluid.
OWEN: (As John W. Thackery) And yet, the area of where the drain exits the wound is swollen. Perhaps you might have considered clearing the drainage tube of clogs.
How long have you been here?
HEWSON: (As Lucy Elkins) Almost three weeks.
OWEN: (As John W. Thackery) Then you should already know, nurse Elkins, that the goal is to keep the patients alive, not kill them with negligence after the surgeon's done his best to save them. I expect everyone to be well-versed in their responsibilities.
HEWSON: (As Lucy Elkins) I'm sorry.
OWEN: (As John W. Thackery) No - weakness and self-pity have no place on my ward. If I'm asking too much of you, you can also take the donkey cart called back to Kentucky and continue in the fine tradition of curing people with moonshine and angleworm poultices.
BIANCULLI: These conflicts deepen episode by episode along with the characters. The head of surgery, played by Matt Frewer from "Max Headroom" and "Orphan Black" demonstrates early on a risky operation that will be tried time and again in subsequent episodes. Each time, it becomes more dramatic and more meaningful.
A new doctor at the hospital, played by Andre Holland, is just as gifted, brilliant and innovative as Dr. Thackery. But his skin is black, which makes his circumstances and his opportunities completely different.
And there are other key characters at "The Knick" as well, from the heiress who helps fund the hospital, to the unscrupulous ambulance driver who helps hunt for research cadavers and other moneymaking opportunities. The slowly blossoming beauty of "The Knick" as a TV series is that it moves in unexpected directions and at a thoughtfully deliberate pace. If you presume Dr. Thackery is going to bond with that young nurse or the new doctor right away, you'd be wrong. And medical cases which at first appear to be singular events turn out to be continuing storylines, where we watch patients heal or fail to. And doctors too keep trying new procedures and new equipment in discovering the path to enlightened new age of medical science.
One impressive aspect of "The Knick" is that it mixes the latest developments in medicine - a makeshift suction device, a new X-ray machine - alongside more mainstream discoveries like the bicycle and electricity.
Soderbergh, who last worked for HBO on the Emmy-winning "Behind The Candelabra," trusts both his vision and his actors.
The graphic operating room scenes are riveting, even as their primitive and bloody displays of medical technique make you want to look away.
And though it wouldn't be fair to sample a clip from one of the later episodes, there's a point midway through "The Knick" when Clive Owen, in one single passionate scene, provides more than enough ammunition for a shot at next year's Emmy Awards. And Andre Holland, as Dr. Algernon Edwards, is right on his heels. Getting into "The Knick," deeply into it, where begins to prove itself beyond doubt will take two or three episodes. But once you check into this particular TV hospital and stick around for a while, you'll care about the characters, their stories and their amazing new inventions.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and Film History at Rowan University in New Jersey.
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