Author Archives: John Fusco

2017, YEAR OF THE ROOSTER: Keep it Simple

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“2016 can suck it!”

I keep hearing this along with posted images of the grim reaper. “When we ring 2016 out, make sure to put a bullet in its head.”

Without a doubt it’s been a rabid, laughing hyena of a year. Maybe not the worst year in history. Maybe not as bad as 72,000 B.C. when a volcanic super-eruption on the island of Sumatra exploded and an apocalyptic winter reduced human populations to 3,000 survivors. And then there was the Black Death. I can well imagine folks saying “1348 can suck it!”

More recently, 2003 has been flagged as a really bad year and, believe it or not, 2006 had more celebrity deaths than 2016. But there’s no denying it: 2016 does not have a huge fan base. I’m not at all surprised.

At this time last year I wrote a blog piece about the Year of the Fire Monkey “its wild and mischievous energy that could rock the world if wisely channeled,” but also “if it burns too hot, flame out of control.” Donald Trump is the perfect president-elect for a Monkey year. I haven’t checked this yet, but I would not at all be surprised if he was born in the year of the Monkey. If you follow this at all — or if you remember my new year’s 2016 blog — Monkey cannot stop chattering (tweeting?). He is reckless, dangerous, and the biggest fool in the zodiac. Yet, it’s that energy that can often shake things up, create a necessary correction when things have maybe gone too far the other way (and only then might we find the middle ground). In the ancient stories Monkey often shocks us with his crude antics just to show us where we do not want to go. He even raised havoc in Heaven until Buddha got a hold of him.

The good news, Boys and Girls, is that we are now headed into a Rooster Year. 2017 will set the world stage for the Year of the Red Fire Rooster. Don’t let the fire element scare you; the Monkey’s fire is yang energy; Rooster’s flames are yin. Phew.
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The Old Sifu once told me, while first teaching me Golden Rooster stance in kung fu, that the Rooster is associated with the Sun Coming Up. Rooster crows at dawn, welcomes a fresh, new day (thank you, God). Rooster is also about being cool, calm, and confident, he’s a kingly bird, his mannerisms are proud and graceful. Rooster is a leader with big goals but keeps a wise and enlightened approach to those goals. Although I’ve heard it said that Rooster likes to crow about his achievements, what Old Sifu advised me about this Rooster Year is “say less, do less, but do it better.” I brought up Bruce Lee’s oft-quoted “fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks, fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

“That’s what I said,” said the Old Sifu.

Feels to me like Rooster is a good year for simplifying. Reduction. Those who follow Tao are spare in what they do; they seek quality. Call it Tao jazz if you will: It’s often the notes we DON’T play that make the music swing. It’s when the Rooster kicks ass in the barnyard but doesn’t crow that he’s truly the cock of the walk.
2017

One thing that the Old Sifu said that did concern me was: “In the Year of the Rooster, the new leader must not flaunt his authority — a negative Rooster trait that needs to be checked — and must not underestimate his world opponents.” Yeah, it’s time to move past the Monkey business.

The wise Taoist Deng Ming-Dao, had this to say today:

“We’re at the end of a year. What’s done is done. For all of us, there was some good and some bad. Some joys and some disappointment. Some elation and some grief. Thus is human life not a pure metal, but one that is alloyed, tempered, and forged….We all recognize that we did what we could, and while we are ready to try again, we must have the faith, the honesty, and the optimism to declare that events are done.”

Wishing everyone a peaceful, simple, productive, and healthy new year. Looking forward to your great works and friendship.

And, hey, 2016: Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.

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HISTORY HUNTING: In Search of Marco Polo’s Last Words

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Venice.2

It was all feeling a little Dan Brown to me.

I had spent years researching the rumors that Marco’s Last Will and Testament was housed in a vault in the Museo Correr in Venice, Italy. Now, a call from my Italian contacts — some in high political places — was telling me that there was no record of such a document. And if there had been, it had gone missing. No one in Venice, my contacts told me, knew anything.

Look, I said: “I know, for a fact, that a pair of modern-day explorers got to privately view it back in the 90’s. I know it’s in Venice. Somewhere.” Niente, they said. It does not exist. Now, keep in mind, I once had the manager of an elite Venice hotel try to tell me that Marco Polo, himself, did not exist (!)

Venice

So what a thrill it was when the call did eventually come, to tell me that the ancient parchment had been located — now moved to a vault in one of the world’s earliest surviving manuscript depositories, in St. Mark’s Square Venice.

It would require a formal letter from me to the curator, expressing my passion and interest as a historian and filmmaker, and then a set appointment allowing a 30-day advance notice so that the climate-control could be carefully prepared at the archive — otherwise the 14th century parchment could disintegrate. What you’re about to view here is the ACTUAL PARCHMENT, the authentic document (handled only by an archivist in white gloves).

Join Marco Polo actor Lorenzo Richelmy and I as we get to view the “lost” Will and Testament of Marco Polo. Although his last words were reputed to be “I have not told half of what I saw” (when asked to recant his incredible tales about Asia), what you will read, along with us in English from the Latin, are among Marco’s last words and wishes — and they hold a few surprises about what he brought back with him from the Court of Kublai Khan, including a Mongol servant — likely given to him by the Khan — whom Marco would later grant official release from service and a financial stipend to live a free life in his own home in Venice.

The Music of Marco Polo

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This was a fine week for the hardworking Marco Polo team, our loyal ‘Golden Horde’ as we learned that the series was ranked #2 in digital TV, only behind ‘Orange is the New Black.” Also came in at #3 in all TV shows–a quantum jump of 48 spots from the week prior — only behind OITNB and some show called “Game of Thrones.” Want to say congratulations to all, from the bold and brilliant writers room to the amazing cast (the most ethnically diverse in TV history), crew, and every single department and component of this massive nomadic production. We are family.

Amongst the fun and rewarding feedback and reviews on social media this week, I’ve been hearing a lot about the music in Season 2, and getting as many questions about it. Many are fascinated (or ‘haunted’ as a few have said) by the Mongolian throat-singing, the unusual Silk Road instrumentation, and the way that it all blends into an edgy, modern cinematic score.

As with every facet of the series — from unique costume design to the 13th century sets — the music of “Marco Polo’ is rooted in history while pushing that authentic soul toward new, creative ideas (through the eyes of the outsider Marco Polo). Daniele Luppi’s main title music captures the ‘East meets West’ theme with a haunting nod to Morricone — using Mongolian throat-singing in place of the chanting man-choir you remember from Leone’s spaghetti westerns. For those who are intrigued by the cycle of influence between Kurosawa and Leone, and also the way that some vintage Hong Kong movies have cannibalized spaghetti western soundtracks (sometimes so bad it’s great), this was a musical idea I’ve long been excited about. So I was thrilled when it was nominated for an Emmy back in Season One, and that it continues to excite folks in Season 2.

Periodically in our show, the authentic sounds of renowned Mongolian folk-rock bands Altan Urag and Khusugtun can be heard, adding a chilling authenticity and tribute to Mongolia. In Season One, the end credit music featured an Altan Urag epilogue track for each episode. All of this under the direction of our super-cool music supervisor Jim Black and post-prod expertise of director Dan Minahan (and our great editing and sound team).

But who are the Marco Polo composers who have brilliantly designed and created the original compositions and cues that drive the drama and adventure of ‘Marco Polo’? The musical storytellers on our creative team? Meet Peter Nashel and Eric Hachikian, two masterful musicians of classical pedigree and no strangers to film scoring.

What’s incredibly impressive is that these guys came onto Season One only days away from our first episode music delivery date. The way that they immersed themselves into the characters, background history, the complex multicultural traditions of our story world — not to mention researching ancient Silk Road instrumentation — under the guns, was a thing of wonder. As a musician myself, I fell in love with these intrepid cats and their commitment to such an epic challenge. They’re not only musician’s musicians, they’re musicologists and truly go deep into the history of the instrumentation — and then they bend it, twist it, amplify it, bust it open, and create a seamless blend of East and West that informs not just mood but character.

“What was so cool for us about this show was the range of storytelling,” the guys told me recently. “It let us blend modern cinematic score elements with traditional indigenous instruments”. This season, Peter and Eric also felt fortunate to collaborate with a premier Morin Khuur musician, Jigjiddorj Nanzaddorj, who has twice been named the state laureate artist of Mongolia.

MPS2_MorinKhuur-1The Morin Khuur, also known as the ‘horse head fiddle’ is one of the most important traditional instruments of the Mongols. The instrument, originally fashioned in ancient times from an airag (fermented mare’s milk alcohol) ladle is a wooden-framed sound box with two strings that run up to a tuning scroll that’s carved in the form of a horse head (see the pic of me trying to play one on location). The bow is loosely strung with horse hair.

Peter and Eric went beyond just using the traditional acoustic instrument though. To match the Khan’s presence, they amplified the Morin Khuur, and in some cases, processed it to match Benedict Wong’s larger than life performance of the Khan of Khans. They also used the amplified morin khuur in the Hundred Eyes Christmas Special (Hundy’s origin story). You might remember it as that haunting, building, bad-ass doppler effect when Hundred Eyes is wrapping his chain whip around his hand as he prepares to do battle. Few have ever pushed the horse head fiddle to that amplified and processed creative extreme, and the result is goose-bump stuff.

And then there’s the thrilling battle score from Episode 10. Come on inside Peter and Eric’s studio for a minute and watch the boys at work with Master Nanzaddorj and the mighty morin khuur:

FullSizeRender-23Season 2 also allowed Peter and Eric to continue their exploration of the instruments from China like the Guzheng, Yangqin, Pipa, Xiao and Bawu. They touched on the Persian roots of the Silk Road as well with the Kanun, Oud, and Duduk, and explored a choir singing Latin text and ancient chants for the Christian story lines. Musically, they had a particular interest in developing Ahmad’s Uzbek lullaby throughout the episodes. This music motif is as pivotal as any dialogue or plot point — and the boys, working with Wild Jim Black, killed it.

So, meet the musicians who have truly infused the new season of Marco Polo with an effective and fascinating score that is as interesting in its conception and historical background as the source inspiration itself. Every time I hear it, there’s another layer, another bold turn, another reference to region and roots, and I feel lucky that we found these guys — another part of the top-notch dream team that is the Marco Polo production.

Turn on the 4K and crank up the volume.

Was Marco Polo a ‘knight’ in the court of Kublai Khan?

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Put the question to foremost historian John Man and he will tell you, “Yes, it’s entirely possible. And if he was, he had good reason to hide the fact.” Man first explored this question when dealing with another: “Why the absence of the Marco Polo name from any Chinese or Persian records?”

Man turns to an earlier historian, Stephen Haw, to seek a possible answer in an intriguing suggestion made by Haw. That Polo, as a Mongol-speaker employed at a high inner-door level by the Khan, would have been given a Mongol name. And just how inner-door was the Venetian?

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We know that he was highly valued by the Khan, employed as an emissary, traveling fact-finder, census-taker, and possible spy. We know he accompanied the Khan into battle versus a certain rival relative, a Christian convert. And we know that he was allowed a ringside seat to Kublai Khan’s erotic pleasure hall and other intimacies. But when we look at the inventory list of items that Marco brought back from China after 17 years, it provides some tantalizing clues to his place in the court of the Khan (not to mention that he brought back a beaded bocqta headdress of a Mongolian princess that some historians believe belonged to Kokachin, ‘the Blue Princess’).

I first learned about the mysterious inventory list when I hunted down Marco’s Last Will and Testament in Venice in March of 2014 and appealed for an opportunity to see the ancient parchment in person; to sit with it and study it. ‘Marco Polo’ actor Lorenzo Richelmy accompanied me to the archives and translated the Latin. References to items Marco brought back led me to the full inventory list which is transcribed as an appendix in the Moule-Pelliot 1938 edition of Marco’s book. 200 plus items! Each listed in 14th century Venetian and Latin.

Moulle-Pelliot

Among the items he brought back is ‘la centura d’argento dei cavalieri tartari’ — the silver belt of Tartar Knights. The Italian scholar Leonardo Olschki, in ‘Marco Polo’s Asia’, states that “from the inventory we learn that almost 30 years after his return home Marco still owned numerous items that he had collected on his travels, including the silver belt of a Tartar knight, which he probably wore as a sign of rank.”

Records reveal that Other Mongol ‘knights’ (known as the Keshigten Guard in the Mongol empire) were sent on very similar, sensitive missions as Marco Polo. In examining this question about Marco’s possible place in the Khan’s guard, John Man cites Marco’s “extreme loyalty” toward Kublai. “His admiration was nothing less than hero-worship.” Being that close and loyal to the Khan of Khan’s, for 17 years, bodes well for the evidence that Polo was quite possibly one of Kublai Khan’s inner guard.

So why didn’t he talk about this in his book? Why didn’t Il Milione (or his ghost writer Rustichello) brag about it along the canals of Venezia? “Marco had to disguise the fact that he actually worshipped a pagan emperor as if he were a God,” says Man. “He could talk about the keshig, but he could not mention being a part of it and therefore one the worshippers.”

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Stephen Haw makes no bones about it: “The conclusion to be drawn is that Marco Polo was very probably one of the keshigten.”