Comics Review: Pope Hats by Ethan Rilly

Hard to find and with a streak of weirdness.

Pope Hats #1/#2/#3
Ethan Rilly
Adhouse, 32pp/40pp/40pp, $4.00/$6.95/$6.95

It feels rather cruel to be reviewing a comic like Pope Hats. "Hey, here's an awesome series! You're going to have to work pretty hard to get hold of it, because the issues go in and out of print regularly. Right now you can get the first and third, but you'll have to sit tight hoping that the second is reprinted. Oh, and if you do like it, it will probably be a year until the next one."

Such are the pains of getting stuck in to the US small-press scene. Serialisation is frequently a frustrating experience for the reader, but never more so that when the sums are such that the author has to hold another ("real") job to make ends meet. But with Pope Hats, Ethan Rilly proves that the wait can be worth it.

Rilly burst into consciousness with the first issue in 2009, which was largely based on a self-published – photocopied, even – minicomic made and sold in the Toronto area in 2009. It focuses on Franny, a young law clerk, and Vickie, an alcoholic wannabe-actress and her best friend. Also featured is Saarsgard, a ghost who is stalking Franny, and kills her neighbours cat for attention.

Despite the apparently fantastical element, the book is a down-to-earth, though lighthearted, look at the shitty life of a recent university graduate in modern America. Vickie is the friend who's "taking a break" before starting a career – the one who has the sex, the parties, and then, seemingly, gets the career anyway. Franny, head down and hard-working, seems to be driving herself to a breakdown by thirty.

The comic is split into two stories, in the one-man-anthology format popular twenty years ago (it was the bread and butter of cartoonists like Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware and Chester Brown), but less and less common today. Michael DeForge's Lose series is the only other that comes to mind – the product of another Toronto-based artist. Maybe it's something in the water?

That format continues into Pope Hats #2 and #3, but Rilly never quite seems sure what his extra pages are for. The first comic is split nearly half and half between the main narrative and the "back-up" strip, featuring Franny in a diner "telling stories". The whole thing is framed square on to her, and for the most part she's speaking directly to the reader – a tricky shot to get right, and one which can get boring fast. It's testament to Rilly's character work that that never happens.

The back-up strips in the second comic – by far the strongest of the three out so far – are more fully-featured. The first, Gould Speaks, is a monologue set almost entirely on a coach journey to Montreal. Gould comments on his journey, while mulling over Lindsay, who we see in fleeting shots sleeping, waiting.

She sleeps so soundly… eight solid hours, every night. It almost bothers me.

Where are the demons?

It's a powerful piece, and like the main story in Pope Hats, cut through with a streak of weirdness, as it slowly becomes apparent that Gould's monologue isn't entirely unheard by the rest of the coach after all.

That weirdness is less and less evidence in Franny and Vickie's story as the issues progress, however. Saarsgard, the stalker ghost, disappears – whether this is a meaningful point of plot or simply Rilly deciding not to write him anymore is unclear – and his half of the action is replaced with Franny's hellish new job. The observational aspects of life in a high-pressure corporate law firm are (to the best of my knowledge) spot on, and Rilly has spoken in interviews about being extremely interested in the "unique environment" it presents. Though firmly true to life, elements of the earlier volume's strangeness poke through, particularly in the design and characterisation of Franny's boss, Castonguay. Drawn as a monster of a man, with an obsession with working out and a caricature of an executive's determination, he sets an imposing figure.

As the book enters its third volume, which was released in November, it's clear where Rilly's heart is. The story of Franny and Vickie takes a back seat to the office drama, and Vickie even announces a move to LA on the back of some acting success. It would be a shame if the characters end up being parted so the story can change tack – with Vickie cast off as Saarsgard was – and hopefully the thread gets a proper ending.

Similarly, the back-up stories are reduced to just two pages, and are all adaptations – two of Spalding Gray anecdotes, and one from an interview with Ai Weiwei (featuring his famous lazy cats). They're examples of strong cartooning, but when you've got a voice as honed as Rilly's, you don't need to use others' words.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A renaissance of conductorless orchestras reveals the limits of traditional leadership

What could the modern counterparts of the first conductor-free orchestras, once a socialist utopian vision, teach our politicians today?

Moscow, 1922. In the bitterly cold first months of the year, word spreads among concert-goers of an innovative concert soon to be held in the Hall of Columns in the House of Trade Unions, in the Kremlin. The concept? A conductorless orchestra.

It was called Persimfans (an acronym: Pervyi simfonischeskii ansambl bez dirigera) – or First Symphonic Orchestra without a Conductor. By doing away with the conductor – the musical figure of authority – its founders sought to embody the egalitarian ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution; Persimfans was a microcosm of socialist utopia.

Before the Revolution, Persimfans’s founder, Lev Tseitlin, had travelled to the United States, where he became disillusioned with the structure of modern orchestras. He loathed their latent hierarchies; the ultimate authority of the conductor, the leader, section principals, trailing all the way back to the fourth desk of double basses. Under this system, Tseitlin believed, musicians were reduced to mere “mechanical keys”, which the conductor simply “played”.

In Persimfans, Tseitlin turned the internal mechanics of an orchestra on their head. Hierarchies were dismantled and socially egalitarian principles were instilled; all members received equal pay, players were free to choose their voice or desk (traditionally viewed as a measure of ability), and committees were established for decisions regarding performance and interpretation.

Players were required to study the entire score, knowing the part of every player in the orchestra (in traditional set-ups, players are only given the music for the instrument they play). The musicians faced each other directly to maximise rhythmic homogeneity, with some even having their backs to the audience. Any arrangement that implied authoritarian motivations was eradicated, replaced by a system that prioritised the collective.

Persimfans was fairly successful for a number of years. The enormously influential Otto Klemperer, after having heard a Persimfans concert, is reported to have said: “If this kind of thing continues, we conductors will have to find a new trade.”

But despite the orchestra’s initial popularity – and imitations cropping up in Baku, Kiev, and Leipzig – it had been disbanded by 1933. The exact reasons why are unknown, but it’s likely economic forces eventually took their toll, with players working long hours for poor pay – that, and alleged ideological fights within the string section (some things never change).

Once the original fell by the wayside, so too did the concept and – apart from a few exceptions in Eastern Europe – conductorless orchestras largely disappeared for a number of decades.

However, in the 1970s, conductorless orchestras underwent a renaissance. And now, numerous orchestras operate on both sides of the Atlantic with great success.

One of the first to appear in that decade was the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, based in New York. Although free of the ideologically-laden mission of Persimfans, many of its core tenets resemble its ancestor. It aims to “create extraordinary musical experiences through collaboration and innovation”, “challenge artistic boundaries” and “inspire the public to think and work with new perspectives”.

The orchestra’s musical plaudits are now numerous, having won a Grammy in 2001 for a brilliant album of Stravinsky’s orchestral miniatures. The orchestra also appears annually at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall.

But does the premise of a conductorless orchestra have any real-world currency? As Tim Thulson, a cellist with Washington DC-based conductorless orchestra Ars Nova, tells me, “artists thinking about political problems are, admittedly, like poker players who aren’t betting real money”.

Well, in 2007, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra became one of the first winners of the Worldwide Award for the Most Democratic Workplaces – an award that recognises organisations “based on freedom, instead of fear and control . . . allowing people to self-govern and determine their own destiny”.

How are the ideals honoured by the award practically enacted? And how do those qualities instil leadership?

Firstly, the principle that anyone can influence artistic direction remains paramount. “We must have all our players ready and willing to speak up, to stop the orchestra, to argue for their ideas,” Thulson says. “Even if they’re in what’s traditionally a non-leadership seat. If the presumption is that high voices get to lead, we have to treat that as a fragile presumption . . . We can’t let traditions make us boorish or lazy.”

But another, crucial, principle concerns sound – and how audiences react to the difference in sonority of conductorless orchestras. Whereas traditional concert-goers talk about “the composer, the sonata form, or the great recordings they’ve heard”, Thulson explains, Ars Nova audiences discuss their “concert experience”; the dynamism of the players and “how exciting it is to hear the inner workings of the music”.

This is a common positive appraisal of conductorless orchestras – their demonstrative, vital and dynamic nature. It’s an attribute often credited to the diversified origin of the artistic ideas that make up a musical performance. As opposed to the single vision of the conductor, audience members hear the collective conception of between 30 and 40 musicians.

Thulson views this premise as having broader social implications. “Pluralistic society,” he says, “gives us more sources of social good of all sorts, whether that’s ethical traditions beyond our own or simply global cuisine.”

Notions of pluralism are under intense scrutiny in the current US presidential election. Now more than ever, diversity and difference are under attack from the narrow-minded politics of Donald Trump. Harvey Seifter and Peter Economy, the co-authors of Leadership Ensemble: Lessons in Collaborative Management from the World’s Only Conductorless Orchestras, think the Republican nominee could learn a few lessons from the tenets of conductorless orchestras.

“Leadership ensembles are high-performing multi-leader teams that share and rotate leadership roles based on knowledge and expertise, and operate collaboratively on trust, mutual respect, emotional intelligence and integrity,” Seifter says.

“In each of those respects, they are the antithesis of the politics of Donald Trump, and the ethos of Trumpism.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Thulson argues, is the leader representative of collaborative politics. “Good leaders are servant leaders . . . They’re moderators whose first responsibility is to make sure everyone’s voice gets heard.”

Although a conductorless orchestra may seem like a radical parallel to draw, and while listening to the public may seem like a basic point to make, recent political events – the ascent of Trump, Brexit and broader euroscepticism – have shown what happens when the fundamentals of democracy are forgotten.