Friday, October 20, 2017

items

1. I just finished a work project that had been hanging over me for two months. It's not like it took that long to do the work, just that it was hard to face doing it. It's a detailed critique of a paper whose author had taken extremely ill to my temerity in giving initial reports of errors and unclear material. What reaction I get to the full report will determine what happens next.

I got lots done in the interim, but it was all small or extremely time-bound projects. Bigger jobs I should have gotten started on, I thought, "No, I have to get this done first." Didn't help.

2. Took All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders to read on the way to a concert last night. (More on the concert later.) I'd also seen somebody reading it at last weekend's brass quintet concert. It took me until the end of the YA section at the beginning to figure out what other author that section was strongly reminding me of. Not at all Cory Doctorow or Jo Walton, Anders' stated inspirations for that part (and I've read the relevant books by both). Look: juvenile characters, trying to run their lives around their oblivious parents. Extremely ordinary mundane opening setting and situation, and then Really Weird Stuff starts happening which the characters have to deal with without freaking out. A subtle but pervasive wacky goofiness underneath. And all told in a plain, clear, almost over-simple language. Who is this like? (Doctorow is more didactic than this, Walton more elusive.) The author I'm thinking of is very American, whom Brits may not know, but I think most of my American readers will have read this person. Clue: has a cult following. Can you guess?

3. And while up in the City, dinner at a Nicaraguan restaurant. Why not? I never had before. Liked me them Nicaraguan tamales, which have rice in the light masa mix, and a big hunk of pork inside, plus olives and sliced tomatoes. It occurs to me that, of however many countries there are in Latin America and the Caribbean (at least 40, counting the more important island colonies), I've now eaten in restaurants representing only ten of them. I should collect some more - easy to do in the City - despite many of the countries being tropical, which means a fondness for plantains and yucca, which I don't like.

4. What I most miss from my old XP computer is the solitaire game. I hate the newer versions, which have ugly designs and which, when you pick up a card from the tableau, automatically turn over the face-down card beneath it. I hate that. I don't want computers that play the game for me. If they do, why am I there at all? All I want the computer to do for me is shuffle, which with physical cards I am incapable of. (One of many sporting tasks I can't do. I can hit a golf ball, a volleyball, or a bowling pin: that's about it. At tennis, ping-pong, or softball I am beyond hopeless.)

Anyway, there's lots of instructions online for getting the good solitaire on a newer computer, but they all start with porting it from your old XP, and I no longer have my old XP. But, aha! I finally found the right game downloadable online. It's here. It's not perfect - if you make it full screen, the cards don't get larger, just further apart - but it's what I want.

5. Astonishing analysis - by William Saletan, who does politico-cultural analysis as well as anyone - of how moral conservatives can bring themselves to defend Trump. It's easy. You just abandon every moral principle you've ever advocated, and turn it all upside down.

6. The moving story of a cartoonist who lost his home in the Santa Rosa fires, told in his chosen medium.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

English suites no. 9

A fairly well-known suite by an otherwise obscure composer, Peter Warlock's Capriol Suite is from a favorite genre of mine, 20th-century retellings of much older music. It's a selection of French Renaissance dances from the collection of Thoinot Arbeau, faithfully transcribed, but with touches of orchestration that make it Warlock's own, particularly in spicing it up. For instance, that pungent chord at 0.12 is intentional, and not the result of the players' wobbliness, which I chose this performance in spite of, preferring the vigor and energy of this rendition above others. There's a lot more pungent dissonance in the finale.

The very brief movements are Basse-Danse (0:00), Pavane (1:24), Tordion (3:26), Bransles (4:33), Pieds-en-l'air (6:37), and Mattachins (Sword Dance) (9:30).



Literary authors writing under pen names is fairly common, and not just among women hiding as men: Mark Twain, O. Henry, George Orwell, Cordwainer Smith ... But though there have been musical forgeries from time to time, Peter Warlock is the only composer of any note I can think of who was a pen name. The choice of name either reflected his interest in the occult or didn't, depending on who you read; his legal name, Philip Heseltine, he used only on his critical and scholarly writings, in which he specialized in studying Renaissance music.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Christopher Robin, hello

There's a movie coming out called Goodbye Christopher Robin, one of those modern historical dramas so popular recently. It's a genre I'm very susceptible to, so I'll go see this one.

But before I have to throw in a comparison of the movie with reality, I'd better triangulate reality with the general impression of it. For The Enchanted Places, Christopher Milne's memoir of his childhood and the story behind the books, is the most seriously and comprehensively misread book that I know. This is pervasive; it's not just one or two cases. People read it, but what they get out of it isn't there.

You know the basics. A.A. Milne, successful dramatist and humorist, published between 1924 and 1928 four children's books of fanciful poetry and stories inspired by, and using the real name of, his small son Christopher Robin and his collection of stuffed toy animals. They became huge and lasting successes, to some irritation of the author who preferred to be known for more serious or adult work, and to his son, who, as the end of The House at Pooh Corner points out, did not remain a small boy playing with stuffed toys.

That part's true, but a mistaken emphasis on the irritation has created false stories of a bizarrely dysfunctional, but imaginary, family out of the memoir that Christopher Milne, as in adulthood he preferred to be known, published half a century later in 1974. (I'm citing the 1975 US edition from Dutton.)

False story #1: That A.A. Milne was a cold and distant father with no interest and little contact with his son as a real person.

Partial truth to this: That as a small child, Christopher was largely raised by a nanny. This was absolutely standard practice in upper and middle-class families in Britain at the time, and for many generations earlier. Some parents were cold and distant, some were warm and loving. They all had nannies. You can prove nothing from this. The Milnes, at least, were not the kind of parents who only see their child for a few minutes at bedtime and allow no real interaction then, though they've been falsely accused of that.

Another partial truth to it: AAM did not have a gift for playing with and relating to small children. (Not the only renowned male children's author of whom this was true: Dr. Seuss was positively uneasy with small children in a way that Milne was not.)

But CRM is not resentful. He calls his childhood "happy" (p. 5) and is sympathetic to his father: "Some people are good with children. Others are not. It is a gift. You either have it or you don't. My father didn't. ... My father was a creative writer and so it was precisely because he was not able to play with his small son that his longings sought and found satisfaction in another direction." (p. 36)

But CRM also says that this applied only to nursery days. "Later on it was different, very different." (p. 36) And he proves this with extensive anecdote throughout the book. First, AAM did have the courtesy to arrange for the nursery visits of an acquaintance whom the boy called Soldier, who did have that knack with children (ch. 4) Even from when CRM was still small, the book tells some remarkable anecdotes showing AAM as a father of both sensitivity and wit. My favorite is this:
Once, when I was quite little, he came up the nursery while I was having my lunch. And while he was talking I paused between mouthfuls, resting my hands on the table, knife and fork pointing upwards. "You oughtn't really to sit like that," he said, gently. "Why not?" I asked, surprised. "Well ..." He hunted around for a reason he could give. Because it's considered bad manners? Because you musn't? Because ... "Well," he said, looking in the direction that my fork was pointing. "Suppose somebody suddenly fell through the ceiling. They might land on your fork and that would be very painful." (p. 120-21)
That's the species of wit I'd like to show with small children, and have very occasionally had the luck to come up with. And that was in the deprecated nursery days! Read the father gently correcting a factual error the son had been taught in school (p. 119-20) or the truly extraordinary way he weaned his son, then aged about ten, from an interest in shooting (ch. 21). And the cherished family holidays (ch. 22). The son says he and his father were very close for many years, and there's plenty to back this up. When CRM was in his 20s, his father sent him philosophical books, hoping the son would share his beliefs but not pressing him to do so (p. 142-44); this is discussed in CRM's third book, The Hollow in the Hill, which is not really a memoir but, as its subtitle states, "The search for a personal philosophy." In his second book, The Path Through the Trees, which is a memoir and a sequel to The Enchanted Places, there's lengthy discussion of AAM's role in helping CRM join the Army in WW2 and in his positive enthusiasm in helping the son realize his aptness for and to qualify for his post as a sapper, a combat engineer; and post-war pulled strings in the book industry to help CRM get set up as a bookseller.

A further warp, and yes I've actually seen this claimed, is that "his dad bought him Tigger because he wanted to see what personality young Christopher gave him -- in other words, A.A. was not being a thoughtful dad but seeking copy as a writer." That is an unjust insinuation worthy of a cruel prosecutor. Here's what CRM actually says: "Both Kanga and Tigger were later arrivals, presents from my parents, carefully chosen, not just for the delight they might give to their new owner, but also for their literary possibilities." (p. 77) So the charge is as if it was just his father. As if the parents couldn't have both motives, of being thoughtful and generating ideas. As if there's anything wrong in AAM's hoping he might get a story out of this. People post amusing videos of their children on YouTube all the time, and I hope you can tell the difference between the ones who are actually exploiting and abusing their children and those who are just delighted to share something amusing.

False story #2: That Christopher Milne spent his life in burning resentment of his father exploiting him as a literary character.

What people who purvey this are thinking of is a passage in the epilogue to The Enchanted Places in which CRM recounts a shadow that came between him and his father in the post-war years when he struggled to find a job and a career. "In pessimistic moments ... it seemed to me, almost, that my father ... had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son." (p. 165) Emphases added. CRM is not fully endorsing this bitter view, even for the time period that he had it. Eventually he realized that "If I wanted to escape from Christopher Robin, so, too, did he." (p. 166) AAM's burden, of course, was being known just for that, or having his other works judged only in that context.

As a boy, CRM would sometimes be teased by other boys over Christopher Robin. But that wasn't a heavy burden. If it weren't that, they'd find some other excuse to tease. CRM is clear that this was no more than an occasional irritant: Its "appearances at school were few. Mostly we were occupied with other things ... mostly I had other things to think about ... it never occurred to me that perhaps I ought to be blaming somebody for it all. ... My relations with my father were quite unaffected." (p. 163-64)

In adulthood, he retained continued discomfort with Christopher Robin, but it's something he came to terms with; it could hardly have been otherwise once he settled on a career as a bookseller (as was pointed out to him by his mother, "who always hit the nail on the head no matter whose fingers were in the way," p. 167). All he says about its place in his maturity is that "posing as Christopher Robin does today make me feel ill at ease" (p. 5) and "he still fills me with acute embarrassment ... after years of practice I am still terribly bad at this sort of thing" (p. 168). That's only acceptance insofar as he was willing to tell the story in his book, instead of hiding out altogether; but it's far removed from the kind of burning resentment, especially of his father (to whose memory he dedicated both his second and third books), of the brief spasm of 1947 and of the false story.

I hope, probably in vain, that we can have done with the misreadings of the book, before whatever misreadings generated by the movie descend on us.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

museum visit

Our friend E. recommended the exhibit on Teotihuacan current at the de Young Museum in the City. So, B. having the day off work today, we went. It's a pleasure to have such things within the range of doing on impulse without prior notice.

Most of the Mexican pyramidal sites that people know are in the Yucatan, but this one is in the central highlands near Mexico City. It predates the Aztecs, but whether it was built by their ancestors or someone else is unknown. It's been excavated for over a century, but a lot of valuable material has recently been discovered in tunnels.

I was most attracted to the carvings in serpentine, jade, onyx, and other stones, but there were also a lot of intriguing ceramic pieces, carvings on large conch shells, etc. One of their favorite images was the feathered serpent, sometimes depicted on wall murals at 6 to 8 foot length, and just begging to be incorporated into a fantasy novel. (It's been done, by Kenneth Morris and perhaps others I don't recall.) There were also feathered felines (the captions used the word feline for all such creatures, whether feathered or not, as their resemblance to what we'd call cats was elusive), birds with hands, and people with ghostly imperturbable expressions akin to those of moai statues, carved from stone but with eyes of shell or pyrite. It was all memorable and distinctive stuff.

We added a successful browse through both of the museum's gift shops, and then drove down, out of Golden Gate Park where the de Young is located, to Borderlands in the Mission district, passing by a whim past their future site on Haight a couple blocks east of Ashbury, to which they're in the process of buying the freehold; this turned out to be a better route to the current store than the one I'd been previously contemplating. There we had cider in the attached cafe - ah, fall! when the cider blooms - while waiting for the store to open at noon, where we bought more books.

Lunch at a Mexican place in South City where I'd been before, and then home, and that was our half-day out.

Monday, October 16, 2017

concert review: American Brass Quintet

Sent out to hear and review a brass quintet concert. A brass quintet? Never done one of those before. Yes.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

English suites no. 8

Like Rossini and Sibelius, Elgar wrote little in his last years. Much of what he did write was reworkings and expansions on old notebook material, but the results could be good, like this work, the Nursery Suite (1930).

Elgar was inspired to put it together by the suggestion that he could dedicate it to a nursery, specifically that belonging to a young royal mother, Elizabeth, then Duchess of York, for her two small daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Yes, the present venerable Queen was a dedicatee of this work at the age of four. Nor was this the only occasion in recent history that a royal infant has caught the attention of a major composer, as we'll hear in a later entry.

It's got quite a variety of movements, most of them gentle and appropriate to the topic. They are: Aubade (Awake) (0.00), The Serious Doll (4.48), Busy-ness (7.59), The Sad Doll (10.17), The Wagon Passes (12.10), The Merry Doll (13.55), Dreaming (15.26), and Envoi (Coda) (18.43, continuing on from the previous without a break). Of these, the shortest and highly atypical "The Wagon Passes" - which sounds more like Mussorgsky's "Bydlo" than anything else that is not, appropriately as they have the same topic - and the "Envoi" - which recapitulates previous movements' themes amid a violin cadenza - are the most interesting.

concert review: San Jose State University choirs

As a graduate of, and also long-time alumna participant in, the SJSU choral program, B. very much wanted to attend this special concert to celebrate its 70th anniversary, and I was happy to go along. (She also attended a reunion gathering that I did not.)

The Choraliers, the top chorus; the larger Concert Choir; and the simply enormous Alumni Choir all sang in the Cathedral Basilica downtown, mostly acapella and otherwise with minimal accompaniment, a wise choice as the basilica has some of the wettest acoustics I've ever heard. The building is shaped like a short and stubby cross, with the chancel in the middle of the transept crossing rather than at one end. [I have to look up these church geography terms every time I use them.] This encouraged creative placement of the chorus, which variously was split into contrapuntal groups, or lined up behind the audience, or slowly marching through the aisles. The High Catholic interior, with saints in niches and otherwise fiercely decorated, with a ceiling Boschian in elaboration if not in irreverence, helped the atmosphere.

All three choruses were thoroughly excellent. Naturally the sacred classics, by the likes of Schütz and Victoria, came off best; there was also a good one by Charles Stanford, whom I wouldn't have thought had it in him; and the huge Alumni Choir, with its powerful bass section, simply exploded with Bruckner's Locus Iste, my favorite motet of all time. There were also some powerful hymns and folk songs, though the piece by Morten Lauridsen gave ammunition to the argument of a friend who claims that this much-honored choral composer simply doesn't know how to set text. (Apparently he wasn't expecting words like "choreographer" to have so many syllables.) A few other pieces, notably the one in Latvian (they also sang in Sotho and Tagalog as well as English and Latin), were not in good taste; but Ned Rorem's setting of Tudor-era poems, From an Unknown Past, was delightful as well as amusing.

The concert was led and introduced by university choral director Jeffrey Benson, with contributions by some grad students in choral conducting, and guest appearances by Benson's esteemed predecessor Charlene Archibeque, who was director when B. was there and, with a 35-year tenure, was known by just about everyone else too, getting a delighted standing ovation.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Kesh fire report

Wakwaha has been overrun with flame.

Tachas Touchas is seriously endangered.

The other seven towns are OK at the moment, but Kastoha has been evacuated and others are in potential danger, including Ounmalin and Sinshan.

"What Makes It Great?"

I get pretty exasperated at a lot of what passes for music appreciation talks, but one that impressed me was given at Stanford ten years ago by a traveling lecturer named Rob Kapilow, who gives his talks under the rubric "What Makes It Great?" His topic then was Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which you'd think would be too simple to need analysis, but Kapilow's subject was the tiny, small-scale tricks of composition that make this music as enjoyable as it is, about which he was both learned and lucid.

So he came back to Stanford last week with a program on Dvořák's "American" Quartet, another work that might seem too simple to need discussion. It's not, being built very craftily by an experienced master, as we learned at the talk. I took the opportunity to sign up to review it, and I'm fairly pleased with capturing the themes and principles, not just some fragmentary specifics, of Kapilow's presentation.

My one regret, which I had to leave half-implied because of my own space limitations, is that one tightly-packed hour of technical lessons, which was long enough, left Kapilow no time to discuss what was American about the "American" Quartet. In the first program of a series on American music, it was a frustrating omission.

But it would, as I said, have taken another hour. I'd like to try to make two points here. First, the educational context. Dvořák was so deeply imbued with his own Czech folk culture, employing the rhythms and style of Czech music and even speech as inspiration, not as quoted source material, that he thought American composers should do the same with what he thought were the most distinctive features of its culture, namely ones from Black and American Indian subcultures.

And the composers who came along in his wake tried. But the problem was, Dvořák was Czech; this was natural to him. Most of these American composers were WASPs from Boston and New York; Black spirituals and tribal rituals were no more native to them than they were to Dvořák, and they didn't have his synthesizing genius as an outside observer. As a result, they came up with passingly pleasant but weak-tea pieces like (and this is the best of them) Edward MacDowell's "Indian" Suite. (Dvořák did have one major Black pupil, Harry Burleigh, but he did not write much concert music.)

It wasn't until some 25 years later that American composers hit on different and more effective ways to sound American. New York Jews like Gershwin and Copland wrote jazz-inflected music. Jazz had been invented by Blacks in New Orleans, but it came to New York and became part of the entire urban culture there. And several composers, of whom Copland was just one, figured out a way to convey the open prairie in music, and not just by quoting cowboy songs, but its spirit in their harmonies and phrasing. Some (e.g. Roy Harris) had been raised out in the open countryside; Copland had not, but again, cowboy tales in Wild West shows, dime novels, and, later, movies had seeped into the hindbrains of Americans who'd never been there. But by this time Dvořák was dead, and didn't see how he'd both gotten the point and missed it.

Closer to Dvořák's point would have been the equally later music of composers who were themselves Black, like William Grant Still and Florence Price, both of whom I want to write about later. (Concert composers of Native American Indian ancestry only seem to have come along more recently.)

The other point concerns the Americanness of Dvořák's "American" music. As Kapilow pointed out, Dvořák himself was convinced he was writing music in a different way here than he would at home. But was he, and if so how? This has actually been a matter of contention. Leonard Bernstein, who was the father of the sort of enthused, intelligent music appreciation we had here, once gave a talk on nationalism in music claiming that Dvořák's American music was no less Czech than anything else he wrote, and attempted to prove it by inventing Czech patriotic lyrics (in English) which he sang to the Largo of the Symphony from the New World, a melody so like a Black spiritual that it's since been turned into a Black spiritual.

But Bernstein was being disingenuous, because most Americans wouldn't know what a Czech patriotic song (in English) would sound like. To my ears, there really is a difference in style, and I can easily point it out. Listen to the opening theme of the "American" Quartet (the first 45 seconds will do). Hear the clear-cut two- and four-bar phrases, the repeating motives, the strong and regular rhythms? That's the American aspect, whether it fits with what Bernstein says is American or not. Compare it with a piece of Dvořák's Czech music, the opening theme of his Eighth Symphony (again about 40 seconds). It's freer, rhapsodic, less "regular" in every respect. Not all his Czech music is so unlike the American, but nothing he wrote here sounds like this.

Friday, October 13, 2017

concert review: JACK Quartet and Joshua Roman

The air was smoky up in the City today - about 10% of the people I saw on the street were wearing breathing masks, not among them the man who wondered aloud to me if there was an epidemic - but I went up there anyway to be part of the small audience for this concert of extremely new string chamber music at Herbst.

The JACK Quartet is so named because those were the initials of the original members; it no longer quite fits. Joshua Roman, who joined them to make a quintet, is the cellist who has also been grabbed as a late substitute soloist for next week's SFS concert, which I'm going to.

The bulk of the concert consisted of works by four living American composers, the youngest of them Roman himself (he's 33). What struck me about these works was how four composers with such closely overlapping technical vocabularies could produce works with such different style and ethos.

That didn't mean they were all equally good, or equally bad, either. Amy Williams's string quartet was too dry and abstract, and John Zorn's piece for two cellos too noisy and frantic, to be very interesting. But the two pieces for full quintet were excellent, and not just because the composers were not afraid to include diatonic harmonies in their toolbox. Jefferson Friedman wrote an emotionally vivid tragic lament, full of long chromatic solo melodies over a variety of backgrounds, from piercing high held notes to pounding jagged rhythms that sounded as much like climaxes by Hovhaness as anything else. Roman's piece was an almost cinematic depiction of a tornado hitting the land of his Oklahoma childhood. It begins and ends with peaceful folk-like melodies, and in the middle goes wild with the effects, including alarm sirens wailing and Isserlis-like wooden doors banging.

Also on the program, something old but just as edgy: quintet arrangements of some 5-part Gesualdo madrigals. The arranger, a former JACK violinist, puts color in the pieces with nasal-sounding passages on the bridge.

In a Q&A session at the end, without mentioning which pieces or what I thought of them, I asked the performers if they were conscious of the same stylistic range in the choices as I was. Their answers all focused more on the importance of composers each learning to develop his or her own style, and on the pleasure of following a composer as it's developed. With all of this I certainly agree.