The Walking Dead

Sundays at 10 p.m. on AMC. Four episodes into the first season.

As monsters go, zombies aren’t particularly interesting. Zombies don’t reason; they don’t remember; they don’t have any kind of motivation beyond a mindless drive to eat your brains. Exceptions abound, of course—one classic deviation immediately leaps to mind—but in general, zombies are simply ravenous monsters pointlessly and inexorably overwhelming the human race.

The interesting thing about zombie apocalypse stories (if there is an interesting thing, which there sometimes isn’t) is the way the non-zombies react, how they handle the collapse of society, the formation of small, fragile cells of survivors. Zombie stories tend to be depressing, but zombies aren’t the half of it. The depressing thing—the riveting, dramatic thing—is how quickly civilization disintegrates, how rapidly the surviving humans lose their humanity.

The Walking Dead, AMC’s new TV adaptation of the intensely dark comic book series, is consistently good at dramatizing zombies. The depiction of living people is a little more scattered—sometimes heartrendingly powerful, sometimes downright obtuse—which is a problem because the survivors, the actual characters, have to be the legs of the show. There are definitely more right notes than wrong here, and the production values are incredible, but the wrong notes are still discordant enough to give me pause.


Series I finale aired Sunday, November 7, on PBS.

Sherlock Holmes would be nothing without John Watson. It’s easy to forget that, what with all the attention-grabbing deductive shenanigans and outrageous displays of arrogance, but stalwart Watson is not only the frame by which the stories are told (the conceit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fiction is that Watson is recounting his friend’s adventures); he also, more important, is practically the only story element that humanizes the iconic detective. Without Watson, Holmes would be unbearable and incomprehensible; even with Watson at his side, he’s a pill.

So Watson is key. He can’t just be a dumb loyal dog trotting after his master—that gets old fast—but there still has to be a reason that he puts up Holmes’s abuse. Holmes only has to make sense in relation to Watson, but Watson, as our portal into the story, has to make sense in himself.

What I love most about Sherlock, the BBC’s clever modern-day take on the detective (recently broadcast in the United States on PBS), is that it seems to understand that: the odd, prickly relationship between Holmes and Watson is central to the show and vividly dramatized. Watson might not be able to keep up with Holmes’s mental gymnastics, but he’s not a passive sounding board. He talks back, and he learns, and in his own way, he’s just as alienated from society as the great detective—an interesting, provocative take of the familiar Holmes-Watson dynamic. The show has its weaknesses in other areas, but with this pair at its center, it can’t help but be a smashing success.


Tallis Scholars at the White Light Festival on Sunday, November 7.

The fascinating thing about composer Arvo Pärt is that his music, particularly his choral music, simultaneously sounds both old and new. The textures—long pedal tones, simple chant-like rhythms—hearken back to plainchant and early Renaissance polyphony, but the stark harmonies, with their pressed semitone dissonances, could never be placed in the fifteenth-century. That strange duality gives his work an eerily timeless quality; neither here nor there, it exists on its own plane.

That duality also makes the Tallis Scholars unusually well suited to perform his music. Named for sixteenth-century English composer Thomas Tallis, the ten-voice choir specializes in sacred Renaissance music, so Pärt’s similarly textured sacred works fall into the ensemble’s repertory with apparent ease. Sunday evening’s program moved seamlessly from Pärt to Palestrina, Tallis, Allegri, Praetorious, and Byrd. The choir’s flawless intonation and expressive phrasing polished each piece like a pearl on a string, threading them together into a miraculously cohesive whole.

The Forty-Part Motet

Special installation at Jazz at Lincoln Center as part of the White Light Festival through November 13.

The idea is so simple that it’s easy to underestimate. The installation divides the individual voices of a choir onto separate speakers that surround visitors as they listen to a performance of a sixteenth-century motet. One can sit in the center of the oval, awash in the music, or one can walk up to the speakers and hear the choir atomize back into individual voices. There’s not much to it.

Yet however simple an idea it is, multimedia artist Janet Cardiff executes it beautifully. For starters, choosing Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium was a stroke of genius. The motet features forty parts or, more precisely, eight quintets, with intricate polyphony both inside and among the fivesomes. At the center of the room, you hear the music moving around the oval, in front of you and behind you, introducing new ideas, echoing old ones, until suddenly all the voices sound at once in an almost overwhelming deluge of sound.

Brahms’s “Ein deutsches Requiem”

Dresden Staatskapelle at the White Light Festival on Sunday, October 31.

Lincoln Center’s new White Light Festival celebrates music conceived with spiritual meaning, music that consciously seeks some transcendent quality. It is, in short, a festival after my own heart. In virtually every other arena, I find the phrase “spiritual, not religious” irritating—I dismiss it reflexively—but in the concert hall, the words actually mean something to me. Maybe it’s the collaborative nature of the medium, maybe it’s something about the way sound reverberates in a room, maybe it’s just years of conditioning, but music affects me like nothing else.

As for the festival, if you’re going to pick a spiritually meaningful work in the canon of Western music, you’d be hard-pressed to find something better or more appropriate than Brahms’s glorious Ein deutsches Requiem. It’s both a compositional masterpiece and an acutely personal work: Instead of setting the traditional Latin texts (the “Kyrie,” the “Dies Irae,” and all that), Brahms personally selected passages from Luther’s translation of the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, deliberately avoiding Christian dogma (Jesus is quoted but never directly mentioned) and highlighting more broadly humanistic passages of comfort and hope. The result is a requiem like no other: a passionate attempt to confront and accept the specter of mortality, not so much for the dead as for the living.