Saturday, April 29, 2017

Grania Davis

who, it would appear, died yesterday, was one of the most interesting people I knew - and one of my favorites, a model of the lively and intelligent older woman.

In her distant youth, she was for a few years the wife of Avram Davidson, and remained a friend and literary collaborator with him ever afterwards, and one of the foremost proponents of his work after he died.

Soon after her time with Avram, she was for a brief period the live-with ladyfriend of Philip K. Dick. Being romantically entangled with PKD was a hazardous occupation (Grania slotted in between his third wife and his fourth wife), but she remained devoted to his work as well, and one of the last times I talked with her was over dinner at the PKD conference in San Francisco a few years ago.

By the time I met her she had settled down for the long haul, in a home in Terra Linda in Marin County, with a very calm and quiet doctor named Steve Davis, who died a while back.

But it's unfair to define a woman by her men, however important or interesting or relevant they may be. Grania was a solo author herself, not just Avram's collaborator. I first encountered her in the form of the name on the title page of The Rainbow Annals, a fantasy novel based on Tibetan mythology, which is something you don't see every day. It stuck with me, and I remembered it when I met her some time later at some fannish social event.

We always remembered each other, and always had a great time talking. She was interested in almost anything. I was not in the least surprised to see her and Steve among the audience at a performance reading of Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon, something else you don't come across every day. And the last time I saw her was at Borderlands for the publication party of her short-story collection, Tree of Life, Book of Death: The Treasures of Grania Davis. That I had to have, and I was delighted to get it in the author's presence.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

concert review: Murray Perahia

Another recital by one of my favorite pianists since I first encountered him when he was an obscure student some 45 years ago. I last heard him three years back, also at Davies, in a program much like this one.

Three medium-weight works by heavyweight composers: a French Suite by Bach, a set of Schubert Impromptus, and a stray but dark-toned Rondo by Mozart. Plus one very heavyweight work, Beethoven's final Sonata, Op. 111.

Perahia played them all with feeling and authority. Considering that the last time I heard Schubert's Impromptus they were played with no feeling whatever, it increased my appreciation for what a truly great pianist can bring to a work.

No encore. After applause brought him out yet again even after the house lights had gone up, Perahia put his hand to his heart to express his appreciation, and then went offstage again. I expect he felt that after you've given Beethoven's final words, there's nothing more to be said.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

concert review: Dover Quartet

This is the string quartet that won the Banff competition the time before I went, and the video embedded at the bottom of my review (of the finale of a different Beethoven quartet than the one they played this time) is the same video I embedded at the bottom of my post last year saying "I'm going" to the competition because "I want to hear more people who can play like this."

And I did; and I see from the bio in the program book that the winners of that iteration, the Rolston Quartet, will be teaming up with the Dovers to play Mendelssohn's Octet in Montreal in June. That should be good, and not just because I believe that whenever two string quartets appear on the same program, they should be required by law to play the Mendelssohn Octet.

I have heard the Dovers myself before now: they re-appeared for an alumni concert at last year's Banff, and I caught them last fall in San Francisco playing Dvorak's "American" Quartet, not a gnarly enough work to catch this group at its best. This concert, though ... this one was tough stuff. I reported the pre-concert lecturer (well-meaning, but it's really about time for him to retire) mentioning that one of his community-class students had asked him in puzzlement at the Shostakovich, "How do you listen to music like this?" I didn't give the lecturer's frustrating answer, "Just listen." Isn't it obvious from the question that the student needs his or her hand held a little more than that? I'd find a more lyrical recording of the piece - there are some - and point out the melodies and what the composer does with them. Once you absorb that, you can hear it in a tougher performance, and use it as a base to grasp what the tougher one adds to it. I don't have that much trouble with Shostakovich (any listener who finds the Second baffling will be absolutely dumbstruck by the late quartets), but that's how I learned my way around late Beethoven. I was astonished the first time I heard a performance of Op. 132 (the piece played here) that brought out the curvaceous beauty of the work: I'd never heard that before. But now that I've found it, I can always hear it.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

workshop review: theatricality and the string quartet

They said it was a workshop, rather than a concert. It lasted about an hour, and was held in the Bing Studio, a small cubical space tucked away in the basement of Stanford's Bing Concert Hall. I went because some of the music was by Caroline Shaw, a composer with a good claim for a space on my list of top ten living ones.

The music was for vocalist and string quartet, a medium that's attracted Arnold Schoenberg and Laurie Anderson, a quaint pair, but not many others. The singer was an avant-garde soprano named Majel Connery, and the quartet was the St. Lawrence, Stanford's resident artists, who are always up for strange collaborations. The theatrical part was delivered by enlisting a "daring ... unconventional" (it says here) opera director named Christopher Alden.

I rather liked the music, two works commissioned for the occasion. Shaw's piece, Contriving the Chimes, sets excerpts from a notebook kept by Isaac Newton at the age of 19 listing his sins. ("Contriving the chimes" was one of them, though nobody seems to know what it means.) Connery chanted, yelled, and occasionally sang over hyponotically fragmented motifs from the strings. That lasted about 15 minutes. The other piece, August is also cruel by Doug Bailliett, is about twice as long. It's a song cycle inspired by Schumann's Dichterliebe. Most of the texts (by the composer) are varied declarations of love, often frustrated. Both instrumentally and vocally it was far more expressionist than the Shaw, with occasionally campy vocal styles and a lot of overripe harmonies.

If not always the most attractive, the music seemed interesting, and it honestly presented itself. The staging, however, was pretentious and full of itself.

It looked like this: the quartet played on a platform in one corner of the room. They were dressed in black from neck to ankle, and barefoot. So was the singer. She walked, crouched, rolled, and otherwise carried on while singing from a runway that extended diagonally across the room from the platform. The audience were mostly seated at café tables scattered around the room.

Suspended around the length of the runway at various heights, hung from strings tied to the rafters, were a couple dozen apples. (Isaac Newton - apples - get it? In the post-concert discussion, the opera director was actually proud of coming up with this infantile connection.) The apples played an increasing role as the performance went on. During a moment of anguish near the end of the Shaw, the singer vigorously batted all the apples, which went swinging around the room. Those seated near them ducked. One apple actually went flying, as it accidentally came loose from its string and landed smack on the table immediately behind me. Fortunately it hit no one; had it hit me, I would have been a lot less forgiving than was the startled man who had an apple explode in his face.

During the Bailliett, the singer cut down all the (remaining) apples and stuffed them in a suitcase, which she then stabbed with the scissors. What the thinking was behind this action, I couldn't say.

The composers get a solid B. The performers get an A for effort. The direction gets an R for "Remedial training needed." The most concise evaluation I can give of this event is that my old friend V. would have liked it; and if you knew her, that'll tell you what this felt like.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

wickedly funny

Not everybody shares my sense of humor, but I hope some of you will be amused by this. I got it from the blog of Mark Evanier.

First, in order for this to work, you have to be familiar with the stage musical Wicked and the song "Popular". If you're not (as I wasn't), watch this decent-quality clip from the first stage production a couple of times to get to know the song. It's pretty funny already.

This is from the schoolgirl backstory in Act 1 of Wicked. Glinda, future Good Witch of the South (Kristin Chenoweth, in the Emma Woodhouse part), expresses her eagerness to perform a makeover on her homely roommate Elphaba, future Wicked Witch of the West (Idina Menzel, in the Harriet Smith part).

OK? Now watch this clip from a recent Actor's Fund Tribute to Stephen Schwartz, the composer and lyricist of Wicked (also Pippin, Godspell, etc). Tenor and comedian Jason Graae comes on not just to sing "Popular" in the presence of its composer, but to sing it to its composer, just as Glinda had sung it to Elphaba. Only ... even funnier. Brace yourselves: this is wicked.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

concert review: Stanford

Sometimes I've gone to Stanford for senior recitals. Some singer or instrumentalist will sing or play some pieces. This one, however, was a conductor's senior recital. Diego Hernandez led a pickup student orchestra and chorus in the Fauré Requiem and just the orchestra in Milhaud's La création du monde. He was able to cram in enough expressive gestures in a mostly straightforwardly time-beating style to generate attractively lyrical propulsive performances from good musicians, impressively light and airy despite some heavy orchestration in both works, and even more impressively considering that the concert was held in the outstandingly damp and echoing acoustics of the Stanford Memorial Church.

This fortuitously followed a lecture, in a class hall halfway across campus - but it's a large campus - by musicologist Beth E. Levy from UC Davis, based on her book Frontier figures: American music and the mythology of the American West. She discussed works like the "Indianist" music of Arthur Farwell, taking Native melodies and embedding them in European harmonic practice, the "open Midwestern prairie" school of music, focusing on a Carl Sandburg setting by the protean Lukas Foss, and a brief consideration of the "cowboy" music of Roy Harris and Aaron Copland. I liked Levy's ability to ground emotional and cultural impressions by citing specific musical techniques. Interesting, and I'll have to read the book.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

a cluster of holidays

Being an interfaith family gives us a double ration of holidays.

Saturday, while B. was at church, I went for Pesach seder with the family of friends who've kindly taken me and some other assorted individuals in for a number of years. It was a subdued occasion. Our hostess was ill and hid out in her room for fear of contagion; didn't see her at all. Her husband, who does the cooking in that family anyway, took care of all the hosting duties. Some other customary attendees also weren't there through illness. Our usual seder leader, the hostess' mother, had lost most of her voice from an allergy attack, and one of the other guests took over. She did very well, but then she is, as I now recall, a former radio announcer.

Easter with B.'s family was larger and livelier, and full of people of all ages, down to younger than the children at seder. The house seemed full of a thundering horde of 3-year-old girls, who only slowed down on an offer to have their toenails painted. As an eldest child myself, I gave B's eldest sister advice on how to respond to digs at her age from her obnoxious little brother. Meanwhile, the pug was interested in anything you were standing up to eat from the appetizer table, even if it was prawns with cocktail sauce. After a while I retreated to the porch to read.

Both meals featured lamb as the main dish, and to both I brought the same, or nearly the same, contribution. Having recently discovered that my roasted broccoli dish will travel and still tastes good after a couple hours at room temperature, I've started taking that to events, except that for the seder I left out the parmesan cheese, to make it more compatible with our vague obeisance to the laws of kashrut. At Easter, B's sister-in-law M. (the family's most potent cook) was fascinated, quizzed me closely on the ingredients, and left me with instructions to bring it when she hosts Christmas. Will do.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

concert review: Redwood Symphony

This review marks the only Redwood Symphony concert this season I was able to get to. No, my complaint about the unhappy small child didn't get in it.

Nor did my astonishment at a lapse in the conductor's pre-concert talk. Lou Harrison's symphony contains a movement consisting of three sub-movements, "A Reel in Honor of Henry Cowell," "A Waltz for Evelyn Hinrichsen," and "An Estampie for Susan Summerfield," and while he did explain what an estampie is (a medieval dance, a term Harrison was fond of resurrecting), when he was asked who the three honorees were, he apologized for not knowing. I'm not surprised he didn't know Hinrichsen (Harrison's publisher) or Summerfield (a keyboard exponent of his music) - both of whom I had to look up myself - but Henry Cowell? An equally renowned composer, Harrison's teacher and mentor. I would have expected the conductor to know him offhand.

The other astonishment is that it took the cancellation of another work to get the Harrison on. It's his centenary next month: how can you not have planned to honor it, when as a composer he's so much up your alley? Other people are, though I don't know if I'll get to any of these. Most in the area conflict with other things I'm doing, and while I like Harrison's music and have always enjoyed hearing it, I'm not as moved to seek it out as I am for Cowell's.

Friday, April 14, 2017

items impersonal

1. Science fiction isn't supposed to predict the future, but I get a kick when journalism does. I found two examples in The New Yorker's new 1960s decade collection. One is in a 1965 profile of Marshall McLuhan. Among the wacky things that McLuhan has said, it reports, is that he has "predicted a happy day when everyone will have his own portable computer to cope with the dreary business of digesting information." Well, that happened.

The other is an interview that I'm astonished I'd never seen reference to before. It's of Brian Epstein, in New York in late 1963 on his scouting trip to make arrangements for the upcoming visit of what the article austerely calls "a group of pop singers called the Beatles" ("the origin of the name is obscure," it adds). Although nobody in America has yet heard of this group, they seem to be very popular in Europe. Epstein concludes the interview by saying, "I think that America is ready for the Beatles. When they come, they will hit this country for six." I don't know what that expression means, but I can guess, and that happened too.

2. A lot of my friends are posting papers at academia.edu. I have a reading account, but I've resisted the temptation to contribute to it myself, and the e-mail I recently got explains why. It says that 143 papers on academia.edu mention my name and then offers a link to "View Your Mentions." Only that's not what the link does. It takes me to a page where I can upgrade my membership. That's not what it says, of course. But any button on that page that says "Get Started" or "View Your Mentions" gives me the same popup where I can pay $99/year for the privilege of seeing what it just told me I could see without bothering to mention this charge.

It says it can find things Google Scholar can't. Maybe so, but as most of the mentions of my name on Google Scholar actually just mean that my last name - which is not unique, and is used by at least 3 other scholars, one of them much more prolific than I - and my first name, which is quite common, appear somewhere in the same paper. And I'm not paying $99 to find out if this is the same.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Tolkien Studies 14: an announcement

On behalf of myself and my co-editors, Michael D.C. Drout and Verlyn Flieger, here are the expected contents of volume 14 of the journal Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review. All of the works are now in the hands of our publisher, West Virginia University Press, and the volume is scheduled to be published in softcover and on Project MUSE later this year. - David Bratman, co-editor

Tolkien Studies 14 (2017)
  • H.L. Spencer, "The Mystical Philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien and Sir Israel Gollancz: Monsters and Critics"

  • Christopher Gilson, "His Breath Was Taken Away: Tolkien, Barfield, and Elvish Diction"

  • Kathy Cawsey, "Could Gollum Be Singing a Sonnet? The Poetic Project of The Lord of the Rings"

  • Eleanor R. Simpson, "The Evolution of J.R.R. Tolkien's Portrayal of Nature: Foreshadowing Anti-speciesism"

  • Leonard Neidorf, "J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fall of Arthur: Creation from Literary Criticism"

  • Jeffrey J. MacLeod and Anna Smol, "Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer"
**
Notes and Documents
  • Paul Tankard, "'Akin to my own inspiration': Mary Fairburn and the Art of Middle-earth"

  • J. Silk, "A Note on the Sindarin Translation of the Name Daisy"

  • Giovanni Costabile, "Stolen Pears, Unripe Apples: The Misuse of Fruits as a Symbol of Original Sin in Tolkien's The New Shadow and Augustine of Hippo's Confessions"
**
Book Reviews
  • A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins, reviewed by Arden R. Smith

  • The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger; and The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Aleksandar Mikić with the assistance of Elizabeth Currie, reviewed by Dimitra Fimi

  • The Feanorian Alphabet, Part 1; Quenya Verb Structure, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Gilson and Arden R. Smith, reviewed by Nelson Goering

  • Approaches to Teaching Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Other Works, edited by Leslie A. Donovan, reviewed by Diana Pavlac Glyer

  • Laughter in Middle-earth: Humour in and around the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Thomas Honegger and Maureen F. Mann, reviewed by David Bratman
**
  • David Bratman, Edith L. Crowe, Jason Fisher, John Wm. Houghton, John Magoun, Robin Anne Reid, "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2014"

  • David Bratman, "Bibliography (In English) for 2015"