Sunday, April 29, 2012

Watergate redux

Ron Rosenbaum thinks he has evidence that Nixon personally ordered the Watergate breakin. I'm not so sure that he does, but his article touches on two of the four great remaining questions about Watergate: two of which everybody else has, and two of which I have because I think the answers to the other two are obvious, while mine seem neglected.

The two questions that everybody else has are:
1. Why did the burglars break in to DNC headquarters? What were they looking for there? If they wanted to spy on the Democratic campaign, why not break into McGovern headquarters instead?
2. Why didn't Nixon destroy the tapes while he still could?

The answer to question 1 is multi-fold.
1. When Liddy's plan was hatched, it was still quite uncertain who the Democratic nominee would be. So that part had to wait.
2. They did try to plant bugs in McGovern headquarters. But they couldn't get in because the security was too good. (And they were bumblers.)
3. There were plenty of good reasons to spy on the DNC. Seeing whether Larry O'Brien had information on the Hughes loans, Rosenbaum's theory, was one - and Nixon himself need not have been the only person on his side worried about that, which is why proof of that motive doesn't say whether Nixon was involved. General Republican distrust and hatred of O'Brien was another - again, that could be Nixon, or others, or both. Most likely, I'd think, given the Nixonites' typical delusions, would be the chance to peer into the DNC's fundraising and look for anything embarrassing, like ties to Castro (which motive is how the Cubans were recruited). This all works as one prong of a dirty tricks scheme; we're misled about its importance to the perpetrators because this was the only prong which got very far.
4. They went into the DNC specifically because Magruder told them to. And there's the rub: who ordered Magruder?

As for question 2, that depends on a psychological understanding of Nixon: how obsessed he was with preserving the history of his presidency (which is why he set up the taping system in the first place), the self-wounding a destruction of the entire archive would have imposed on him (and the impracticality of doing it), and the self-deception that led him to see his misdeeds and even his profanity as merely proofs of his toughness.
Also, it appears that Nixon did try to destroy the tapes selectively. The 18 1/2 minute gap was, despite Rosemary Woods falling on her sword for the boss, no accident. And the other missing conversations? Were they really never recorded, or were they destroyed?

My questions, on the other hand, are:
3. Who approved Gemstone?
4. What on earth made Nixon think he could get away with firing Cox?

Gemstone was the code name of Liddy's dirty tricks plan, the one of which the Watergate breakin was one prong. Liddy presented it to Mitchell (and Magruder) twice, each time being sent back to prepare something cheaper. He wasn't present at the third meeting. Magruder says Mitchell approved it, and he got back to Liddy saying so. Mitchell always insisted he did not. Was Mitchell lying? Probably, but it's not entirely clear. Rosenbaum thinks Nixon ordered Mitchell to approve it. To my way of thinking, that matters a lot in regard to Nixon's guilt, but it doesn't affect the basic question of veracity between Mitchell and Magruder.

As for question 4, I can grasp Nixon's reasoning in regard to question 2, but this one defeats me. He seems to have really thought that if he called a halt to the investigation, the whole problem would just go away. In this, he reminds me of nothing more than certain psychopathic criminals in Donald Westlake novels, who if they have a problem with a person proceed to kill that person, certain that that will cancel the problem. Then they're so bewildered by all the fuss that stirs up.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Maybe it was cold, wet, and windy up on stage. Susanna Mälkki wore some kind of an overcoat on the podium, and Horacio Gutiérrez sat down at the keyboard in what looked like a windbreaker. Their rendition of Prokofiev's Third Concerto pleased the audience. Maybe I was just tired, but it seemed to me a fairly nondescript, pedestrian reading of what is admittedly an inherently thrilling work.

Mälkki's Sibelius First came out more appealingly. There were some rough joins and clunkers, but at least she avoided the elephant traps of structure that lurk all over early Sibelius, and the sound colors coming out of the orchestra were consistently vivid and varied, almost as if to support pre-concert lecturer Scott Fogelsong's contention, which he was so proud of coming up with that he giggled all the way through it - what drugs is this guy on? - that the work was written to the model of Tchaikovsky's Fifth. But in fact Sibelius's orchestral palette, subdued and shaded, is quite unlike Tchaikovsky's bright, firmly delineated colors.

Also on the program - more spectralism! This one was Modulations by Gérard Grisey, an early essay in the style from the late 1970s that still half wants to be traditional old-timey post-war modernism. One section in which the soft, high-pitched, overtone-laden chords breathed in and out at a pulse of about two seconds a breath came across, no doubt unintentionally, as the wacky speeded-up Keystone Cops version of Morton Feldman.

More interesting than the concert was getting there. Although the weekend's closure of the eastern approach to the Golden Gate Bridge wasn't scheduled to start for more than a couple hours later, the road that eventually becomes the western approach was already far more clogged than usual as I drove in to town, so I got off it sooner than I usually do and found myself, a little unusually for concert trips, in the Mission District. Finding myself even more unusually in sight of an open parking space, a true rarity in the Mission, I had a quick meal at the nearest hole-in-wall taqueria, Papalote at 24th and Valencia. This is far yuppier than others in the district. The burrito was a bit mellow, if I can put it that way, and heavily packed in a thick flour tortilla. What was unbelievable was the salsa that came with the chips. This was neither liquid nor chunky nor both, the customary range among salsas, but smooth and creamy and resembling a tomato alfredo sauce more than anything else.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Do not see this movie. Just don't.

It's not just the rape scenes, or the torture scenes, or even the plot holes so big you could drive a car through them, quite literally.

The final straw is when the villain, apparently just to show how villainous he is - for he doesn't seem to have any better reason - kills a cat.

That's just wrong.


Thursday, April 26, 2012


Lisa Irontongue has an interesting post about communication, but what caught me about it was that she begins by discussing amateur press associations, or apas, communities in print within the context of science fiction fandom, that had a lot in common with the online bulletin boards and other communities that succeeded and have in practice supplanted them - except that the exchange of conversation was a lot slower.

I belonged to several apas in my time, and as many as five at once in the 1980s. But I gradually cut back, and my last apa called it a day after its OE died in 2006. The problem is that I've always liked apas best as close communities of friends, and they could spoil or go sour, and other apas I might have joined didn't appeal to me for the amount of emotional effort it would take to integrate into that community. (This is also why I never joined the Well.) The interactive side of my desire for apas is being reasonably met in blog and LJ comments, and the expository side is actually being met better in LJ, because what I always really wanted was an incentive to keep a kind of public diary, and writing for an apa about "what I've been doing since the last deadline" was only a vague approximation of this.

The post says, "APAs originated in science fiction fandom a long time ago (the 40s? 50s?)." They didn't start in fandom. The original apas (known in fandom as "the mundane apas") were founded in the late 19th century by home-printing hobbyists. They'd print N copies of little magazines, and send them off to a central mailer, who'd distribute bundles of copies of each to all the members. The idea was that it was a cheap way to keep a mailing list, and the point was to display your printing skills rather than whatever the intellectual content was (and it wasn't necessarily written by the person who printed it). The mailings were not bound together - they were just bundles of little magazines in an envelope - and there was no interaction between the individual magazines.

H.P. Lovecraft was such a hobbyist, but apas met fandom when some fans, including Donald Wollheim, later a well-known editor, joined some apas in the mid 30s, and invented mailing comments - they'd write their responses to the material in the previous mailing. This was revolutionary. They founded their own fannish apa in 1937: it was called the Fantasy Amateur Press Association ("fantasy" was considered something of a synonym for "science fiction" in those days) or FAPA, and it's still around, though hobbling. Like the mundane apas, its mailings are unbound, and some of them, also as in mundane apas, are full-scale fanzines with contributions by others than the editor.

A few of the other older apas are similar in nature. I'm not sure when the custom began in newer fannish apas of stapling the contents together, and of the individual contributions being just personal natterings and comments by the typist that don't really stand alone outside of the apa context, and of printing being of no other than practical interest, but these customs were already well-established by the time I started joining apas in the mid-70s, which was something of the heyday of fannish apas. But the relics of the history remain in the custom of calling those individual contributions "zines" and in the custom of giving them individual titles as if they were still fanzines on their own. Every once in a while one encounters people who get the terminology wrong, using "apa" as the term for the individual contribution rather than the entity as a whole, or "zine" for the mailing instead of the individual contribution. This annoys me on the same level as misusing "crescendo" or writing allusions to "lions and tigers and bears, oh my" that don't scan properly.

In their day, I found apas handy to read on the bus or during breaks at work, both because they permitted short, disjointed patches of reading (being written in a short, disjointed, patchy way), and because they were handy to ward off unwanted conversation by the sort of people who thought reading was only something to do if there was nobody to converse with. Asked "What are you reading?" I would reply, "an apa," and when asked the expected follow-up, "What's an apa?" I would reply, "this is," and that was usually the conversation-stopper it was intended to be.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

movie seen: The Descendants

I've finally emerged from the state of "so full of pending commitments that I'd feel too guilty to take the time to see a movie" far enough to rent one. Semi-unspoilerish comments:

1. I picked this one in particular probably so that I could weigh in on an argument presented some months ago by a movie-connoisseur friend on the burning question: Does Shailene Woodley (who plays the elder daughter) have a large enough part to qualify as a "Leading Role" by Oscar standards? He says yes, I now say no.

2. I've liked every Alexander Payne movie I've seen, and I've now seen four of them.* His way of presenting characters and their surroundings (this really vividly depicts Hawaii as a place that people live in, if those people are rich haoles) and getting strong, naturalistic acting out of the cast appeal to me, despite the kinds of stories that I'd roll my eyes at in novels. I'm now thinking I should see a fifth, Sideways, a movie I'd avoided, despite my familiarity with its geographic setting, because I feared the characters would be too pretentious.

3. The Descendants is mostly about the characters' relationship with another character whom most of them know, but whom we, the viewers, never really get to meet, so there's a kind of hole (deliberate, I suspect) in the middle of the movie. In this, and in the eulogistic air to that relationship, it reminds me of The Big Chill.

4. Although I liked the movie a great deal, I have some plot grumbles, and this is where I have to be only semi-unspoilerish.

a. Character in this movie is most dramatically revealed in the form of monologues delivered to the person in a coma. This gets a little predictable, but is well done. But here's this: Matt (George Clooney) gets two such scenes, even the minor character of Julie gets one powerful one (Matt is present but mostly unseen by the camera until he gently leads her away), but Alex (Woodley) never really gets one. Her one big monologue is as much about the reaction of the others in the room to what she says as it is about her. Another such scene we know happens, but we don't see it. The result is that, although Alex has as dramatic a character arc as Matt does, much of it remains undepicted: we see the results and understand the causes, but we don't see it happening as we do for him. This is one reason I don't consider the role a leading one.

b. There's a key piece of information (the one that Beau Bridges has) that remains hidden until a later point in the movie than it ought to show up, and it depends on another character earlier on making an assumption that ought to be unjustified about what the protagonist knows.

c. Most of the characters are well-handled. But in stories of this kind that offer surprise plot twists, as this one does, there is usually one character whom the writers are openly manipulating for the sake of goosing the audience. In this movie, that character turns out to be the land that the family trust owns.

*Answer to obvious question: About Schmidt, Election, and the unforgettable Citizen Ruth.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Pinkwater and the eggplant, I mean pineapple

All you Daniel Pinkwater fans out there, prepare to have have your jaws dropped over this: a controversy over a Pinkwater story and its test questions in a New York state 8th-grade reader.

The story, which is a rewritten version of a fable from Borgel, is a nonsense takeoff on the tortoise and the hare, so it really should only be read, and certainly should only have quiz questions about it answered, by children who already know the Aesop. (Do today's NY 8th-graders? I have no idea.)

And I agree with the protesting students: most of the questions are ambiguous, to the extent that several answers are equally good. (Link to the actual text is halfway down the article.) If I were setting a quiz on this story, I'd say, "There is no right answer. Pick one, and write a paragraph justifying it," and grade the students on the cogency of their essays. But you can't do that with standardized tests, which suggests the whole episode was misbegotten.

Actually, the test-makers say there's no right answer either. (But they didn't explain that to the students.) Instead, "the 'right' answer is the one that field testing has shown to be the consensus answer of the 'smart' kids." What is this, Family Feud, where you're rewarded for guessing not the right answer but the popular one? Or, worse, the most conformist?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

into the vale of contention

In the comments at the end of this SFCV review, Lisa Hirsch and I take issue with the reviewer and another commenter who oppose applause between movements of a symphony, no matter how sublime one thought the performance.

They wouldn't have known at the time of the comments that I'd been giving some consideration to the question of applause, but now all the readers of SFCV can know it, because my report on the Stanford music symposium has finally gone up, including a discussion of that very point.

This report is rather different in approach from the three daily posts I made here as it was going on. Those were my personal reactions, as their titles said, and I wasn't aiming at journalistic objectivity. (That's one reason I named few of the presenters: I wasn't intending fair reports of what they said, and it would be unjust to blame them by name for it.) In the SFCV article, however, most of the content of the first two sections is intended as a journalist's conscientious relay of the presenters' arguments. Only after the second section break do I really get into my own reactions. In fact, as the article was due the day after the conference ended (scheduling issues and editing time resulted in the publication delay), I wrote most of the third section in haste by throwing large chunks of my blogspot reports against the wall to see if they'd stick.

Here is where, after relaying Anatole Leikin's robust defense of inter-movement applause in part 1, I express my concern over it becoming obligatory and hence perfunctory. This occured to me in connection with the concert the previous evening, where Anatole and his fellow performers preceded the Reinecke trio by saying that inter-movement applause would be acceptable. Inter-movement applause dutifully followed, not that it was undeserved, but I was still bemused by Anatole, in his presentation the next day, comparing his reaction on being applauded to Sally Field's on getting an Oscar. That was a bad comparison, because Field was ridiculed for her "you really like me" speech, and the reason it was ridiculed is that she overinterpreted the polite applause she received. Still, will musicians play better if they already think they're doing great?

Editing trimmed my overlong article a fair amount, but intelligently, and I only miss two things of significance. One is that I think my original opening was a bit punchier. It began,

Can old recordings save classical music?

A small, lightly-attended conference on technical issues in historical musicology might not seem the ideal venue to address deep questions on the future of the classical music industry. Yet that was the presiding theme at Reactions to the Record III, a symposium on early recordings, musical style, and the future of performance held at the Stanford Music Department last weekend.

The other was an ultimately unanswerable extension of the point about whether modern classical performances all sound alike. It's a matter of context - I'd like to take this up later in regard to how alike Tolkien is to other authors - and I did begin my classical-listening career with an assumption that all performances were an approximation of a platonic ideal reading of the score, because that's what they were trying to be. It took me many years both to change my mind about that and to develop a secure sense of how they differed, and to be able to say that A is like this and B is like that with a feeling that I had any notion of what I was talking about.

The extension of this question is: OK, they differed more in the early days, but how much did they differ? This too is a question of context. I noted in my reactions to day 1 that the guy who played three diverse recordings of the same Schubert song and called them the same notes but three different works would be stared at in disbelief by anyone whose ears were formed by pop song cover versions. What I didn't say in my reactions posts was that I raised this question on day 3 with Jose Bowen, the guy with the survey of Rossini aria recordings. He's primarily a jazz musician, so I figured he'd have the non-classical ears to grasp the point. But when I tried to illustrate it by pointing to the first evening's chamber music, he started enthusing about how wonderful they were because they were so different.

I thought, "He doesn't get it either. He may play jazz, but he listens to classical with purely classical ears." And I gave up. The problem is this: that the range of possible performing styles in classical music, even within the broad variance of late 19th century style, is minuscule compared to that heard every day from different performers of pop songs, and that therefore, classical music isn't going to save itself by re-adopting 19th-century diversity. It's not going to impress anybody who listens to pop and who thinks of classical as uninviting and only permitting discrimination to be performed by experts. The only hope - but, fortunately, it's not a small one - is that more idiomatic performances will be better, more committed performances and thus more attractive even to the ears of non-expert listeners who can't analyze what they're being attracted to.

More on this article, and also on what's not in it, to come.

Friday, April 20, 2012

the music listener's glass ceiling

I hope this doesn't become the norm.

I'd considered the possibility of going down to LA to hear the Philharmonic give the west coast premiere of Philip Glass's Ninth Symphony, but it was both Easter and Pesach weekend, a busy time here, and for that and other reasons a trip would not have worked out.

I did read somewhere, though, that the work had been recorded, so when I was making out my online order of delectable CDs, I looked it up. Nothing there.

Puzzled, I went to The Man's website, where I found this: "Download exclusively from ITunes." (I know they don't capitalize it that way, but I refuse to do it their way.) Oh fnick. To buy something from Amazon, evil as they are, you just need to go to the Amazon website and give them your credit card and address, but Apple is evil in its own way, besides imposing insane and awkward-to-type capitalization rules: to buy from ITunes you need to load the ITunes program on your computer, and I'm not clogging up my computer with that thing and all the hassle needed to get it there.

Eventually I remembered that B. has ITunes and I asked her to do it. The page on The Man's website says just click here and you'll be taken to it on the ITunes website, but you're not: you still have to search for it. It took us three searches to find it ("philip glass" didn't work), which exceeded B's interest in the matter. Fortunately, once I found it, it was not difficult to download and burn to a CD, despite confusing instructions in the ITunes help database that turned out to be unnecessary anyway.

So now I have a CD, which is what I want - and I hope it lasts; some of my older hand-burned CDs have conked out after 5-10 years; the commercial ones haven't - but without cover art or liner notes. Oh well.

So how's the music? It's another dark-toned, churning work, at 50 minutes the longest of his non-vocal symphonies, and in three movements, his preferred format. The LA Phil has the most detailed description of the work that I could find. This says the opening was inspired by that of Mahler's Ninth. If the composer says so, but I don't hear it. The tone color and scale of movement are similar, but the somber darkness entirely lacks the gemütlichkeit, the open yearning, and the abrupt mood switches of Mahler, while it does abound in the continuously bounding rhythmic energy typical of Glass. The work I'm most reminded of is the prelude to Glass's own Akhnaten, and I suppose I was waiting for the music to hush and a deep voice to boom out "Open are the double doors of the horizon; unlocked are its bolts" or possibly "Koyaanisqatsi, Koyaanisqatsi."

It never did, though. Instead, each of the three movements, after a quiet beginning, built up energy and then died down again. Other writers have mentioned things like the woodblock pattern at the conclusion of the first movement, not an unprecedented type of sound in a Glass symphony. I, however, am most struck by the towering plateaus of forte climax of both the second and third movements - long undifferentiated stretches of unvarying intensity, in the second movement led by continuously braying trumpet. Even after three listenings, I haven't taken to this as much as I have to the Eighth and the Third, my favorites among his previous symphonies. But I'm glad to have it, even in this crude physical form with just a slip of paper pasted in the jewel box to identify it. I understand that Glass has bypassed the Curse of the Ninth by having written two more symphonies before this one even premiered, though they're not listed on his web site, so there's more to come.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

who are we?

Yesterday, in my capacity of working on programming for Mythcon 43, I met for lunch with our Author Guest of Honor, Malinda Lo, to talk about what will be going on at Mythcon and to exchange programming ideas. Naturally, as one new to the Mythopoeic Society, she wanted to know something of what we are about. So I explained that, as our name suggests, we're interested in myth-based and mythically resonant fantasy, that, while there probably isn't a well-known fantasy writer who doesn't have fans in the Society, we focus on what we consider the quality work, not necessarily the best known, as our awards nominee list, which her work has been on, testifies. It's fair to say that we don't follow the crowd, and, with con attendance under 200, it's pretty obvious, too.

And then I come home and read this post about World Fantasy Con and how they "don't want the 'wrong sort of fan' coming to 'their' convention." Are we like that too?

In a way we are, and I see nothing wrong with it. Mythcon is a particular sort of conference and aims to continue being that sort. People who want other sorts of fantasy cons, there's plenty of others to choose from, most far larger than ours, but there's none, or few, others like Mythcon. Those looking for DragonCon, or even WFC, won't find it at Mythcon, and it would be futile to try, and only annoy those who are at Mythcon because that's what they want.

At the same time it's not exclusionary. Anybody is welcome if they want what we offer, at least for long enough to attend a Mythcon. I go to many different types of conventions myself; each has a particular flavor, and I go expecting to dine on that flavor for the weekend, whether it's my regular dish or not. Mythcon doesn't have to go around proclaiming what it isn't, because it runs under the radar and doesn't have people knocking at its door with the wrong address, but maybe WFC isn't that lucky. Mythcon doesn't have a pre-emptive list of what we don't allow in our dealers' room, but when someone writes in to ask for a table, or for that matter offer to give a paper, on some topic that just doesn't fit Mythcon, we just write back and say no, thanks. It happens occasionally. We're certainly not trying to impress the general literati, as some think WFC is.

As far as comics, a particular subject of the above-referenced screed, it depends on what kind. A tableful of ordinary superhero comics would not do well at Mythcon, although we do have a few fans of them among us (B. is one), and we did give our scholarship award once to a book discussing superheros as mythic figures. On the other hand we did once have Neil Gaiman as our GoH, though perhaps uniquely among conventions he's attended, he was better-known among us for his prose fiction. I recall, however, that Sandman was on sale in the dealer's room, and properly so; and B. and I both gave papers on it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

concert review: Olga Kern

It's those Oshman acoustics again, I guess. I came to hear Olga Kern, a tall blonde woman with one black dress, and one red one (she changed during the interval), play Schumann's Carnaval, but I'm not sure I heard it. Her performance sounded so plain and blocky, without a touch of grace or beauty, that the work was mostly unrecognizable, and the Davidsbündler marched in hob-nailed boots.

On the other hand, maybe it wasn't entirely the acoustics, for I liked her Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies, because they're supposed to be shamelessly tasteless. This was the Liszt who led a flourishing afterlife as a house composer for Warner Brothers cartoons. Kern's Chopin sounded like an unsuccessful aspirant for the same position. She should have stuck to the original announcement's plan of playing Rachmaninoff instead of Chopin.

One remaining piece on the program I was unfamiliar with, so since the booklet had nothing to say about the repertoire I looked it up when I got home. It was an obscure bit of Beethoven, his Variations on a Theme by Salieri. This is an early work, from 1799, but it resembles a smaller-scale version of his much later Diabelli Variations in that he takes a dorky little tune by somebody else - this one is an aria from Salieri's Falstaff opera - and treats it to such serious and complex variations as to make the composer of the original embarrassed to have written it.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

concert review: Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland is the least generally prestigious of the seven cities (including itself) whose orchestras San Francisco's is having to visit this year.1 The top-rank prestige of its orchestra is due primarily to its awesomely renowned former music director, George Szell, who lasted nearly a quarter of a century and died in harness in 1970.

Since then, how has Cleveland fared? Its current long-time music director, Franz Welser-Möst, whose hair makes him look from behind like Gene Wilder playing Willy Wonka but without the hat, is quite controversial in some circles, including those of the former music critic for the leading Cleveland paper, who was fired for his unceasing negative reviews. (Were I in that position, I hope I'd have the financial courage to ask to be relieved of the regular duty, and only cover him occasionally. Any artist needs to be described by a variety of reviewers, and regularly reviewing something you hate that much is bad for the soul.) Naturally I was eager to hear for myself.

The Clevelanders played two of my favorite symphonies that are overshadowed by better-known ones by the same composer: Mendelssohn's Scotch2 and Shostakovich's Sixth.3 There's nothing wrong with the orchestra's fast music - indeed, Shostakovich's scherzo might have had a little more power if they'd slowed down a trifle; and yes, fans of old music styles, that was an accelerando in the middle of the already torn-paper-quick coda of the finale - but Cleveland's distinctive character lies in its playing of slow, quiet music. The attacks are supernally gentle, especially in the strings, and W-M takes contemplative passages as if the music had stopped to rest its weary feet in a convenient pond. This pool of stillness first made itself known in Mendelssohn's slow introduction, and reappeared when appropriate up to the end of Shostakovich's Largo, a hushed moment of magically pregnant tranquility.

Also on the program, Orion by Kaija Saariaho, a composer I hadn't heard previously in concert and hadn't taken to on record. This remains music I have no plans to cuddle up with, but I can see where it's going. A little too clearly, if anything: in this work, at least, Saariaho isn't up to anything fancy with structure. She builds her composition out of short phrases, each repeated in various ways several times before moving on to the next, related idea. Though this isn't at all mechanically done, it is predictable, and after a while you kind of get the point, but there's none of the rhythmic action the minimalists give you to groove on while you wait. The sound is dense and layered, mostly high-pitched, acquiring spice through clashing overtones. Undoubtably of more impact in the concert hall than in recording.

1. By this I mean no derogation of Cleveland. I know many fine people from there. I resided there myself for a while in early youth. But even though we lived near the symphony hall, my parents were too young and impecunious, too unestablished in society, and too busy with work and a small child to attend the then Szell-led orchestra, though they were regular listeners to the local classical radio station.
2. Nowadays usually called the Scottish, but in Mendelssohn's time Scotch was the proper adjective for the country as well as the whiskey.
3. And I'd just heard the Fifth the previous night. Were my succeeding week to include concerts with the Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh, I would be even happier.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

reactions to Reactions to the Record, day 3

Last day. Nothing really contentious today. As on previous days, most of the time there are no more than 40 people in the room, most of them presenters. Are Irontongue and I the only non-experts in the world who find this stuff fascinating?

Student presenter invents color-based notation to transcribe tempo and note-length variations in Scriabin performances. Scriabin, who had synesthesia, or liked to pretend he did, would have loved this idea. I ask the presenter if Scriabin would actually have found it useful. Probably not. This is a tool for analysis, not a prescriptive notation.

Retelling of funny story about an argument between Fred Chopin and Jake Meyerbeer over what rhythm Chopin is playing his mazurkas in. Chopin says they're 3/4; Meyerbeer says he's lengthening the first beat so much it's 2/4. Chopin keeps beating three, Meyerbeer keeps saying "two." Chopin gets hot under the collar, throws Meyerbeer out of the apartment. So what's the answer? Presenter, in a fit of sanity, says we can't really know, we can't even reconstruct how the mazurka was danced in Chopin's time (though it'd be informative if we could), the one thing we can know is that Chopin's playing was magical and not subject to "idiot-proofing" rules.

Third presenter has collected hundreds of early recordings of this Rossini coloratura aria because people keep sending him more of them. Analyzing their ornamentations, he finds that, though each singer has her own individuality, they come in national schools. Until, that is, Maria Callas records her version. After that, everybody copies her. That explains a lot about why all classical musicians sound alike these days.

Attempt to tie the theory of Schenkerian analysis to a particular performing style. I've never claimed to understand Schenkerian analysis, so this one went over my head.

Presenter who spends most of his time playing an old Mengelberg recording of Schubert's Unfinished, urging us to listen to the rubato. Hard to miss; so much of it you could get seasick. But however misjudged the quantity and intensity sounds to my ears, Mengelberg always ends it at what seems to me the exact right moment.

Two presenters talk about the "dawn of the recorded era" pianist Frederic Lamond, who is reported to have said: "Haydn is the road to Heaven, Mozart is Heaven itself, and Beethoven is the God who dwells therein." And here I always thought it was Schroeder from Peanuts who was Beethoven's biggest fan.

Evening I skip out to hear the Palo Alto Philharmonic, a local community orchestra I've heard before. They're playing at Spangenberg, the most high-schoolish of all high-school auditoriums, long since generally abandoned in favor of better venues; I haven't been there for decades, probably. But with an orchestra this large (the high school's orchestra has joined them), it doesn't matter if there are any acoustics or not: they'll blast it into oblivion. Music: VW's Tallis Fantasia. Plenty of string exposure. Gratifyingly, parts of it are excellent. A new piece, a slow movement led by its composer, asst. conductor Lee Actor. Actually very good, and pretty well judged for the orchestra's skill level. Quiet parts sound rather like Shostakovich; louder and faster parts a bit like American nationalism. And, speaking of Shostakovich, his Fifth. Music director Thomas Shoebotham says in pre-concert talk that he wants to convey the Volkov subversive interpretation of this work's meaning. Does so by conducting really slowly.

reactions to Reactions to the Record, day 2

Spent the day sitting motionless in an auditorium seat, watching highly educated professionals on stage battle with their computers over who was going to be in charge of which slides the computer projected or what music samples it played: them or the computer. Usually the speaker eventually won out, but it was always a struggle.

Another couple of British professors, amid much other intriguing material on the history of violin playing (with actual demonstrations, thus inserting a welcome note of the genuinely practical into the proceedings), asked the interesting question: to what degree do really old recordings sound quaint because the performing style has actually changed, and to what degree is it just because they're really old recordings with really weird and sucky sound quality?

Actually, this question had already been answered earlier in the morning by an undergraduate presenter, who played a clip of Pablo Casals' first Bach recording. This was 1915, long before such habits were widely disseminated, but there's Casals playing with the firm vibrato and richness of tone that resemble how cellists normally play today. And the sound quality doesn't stand in the way of that perception at all. So when the great violinist Joseph Joachim in a recording from 1903 sounds like a nasal insect, maybe it's because he really did play like a nasal insect.

Next: theories, rather plaintively presented, on how to revive interest in classical music. Turn concerts from theme presentations back into the variety shows they were in the 19C. (Um, when was the last decade that variety shows were booming on TV?) Encourage applause between movements. (I'll go along with that one, as long as it doesn't become obligatory and hence perfunctory.) And the big one: step away from the identikit performance style and allow performers to express their individuality, the way actors do. (That may help, but not as much as you think, because the range of performing possibilities in classical music is just not that wide, and it includes "nasal insect.") Nice try, though. Proved that it helps out Scriabin a heck of a lot, at least.

Nicholas McGegan, conductor of the Philharmonia Baroque, rambled on entertainingly about the practical challenges of running a period ensemble. Among them, the strong acoustic differences among venues, which often requires re-rehearsing a performance with different parameters, like tempo, for each venue. He said they've got a church that looks like an International House of Pancakes [I call it the Concrete Tent myself] but has nice sound, another church resembling "a very elegant bathroom," and a theatre that's "as dry as James Bond's martini." Also dry: McGegan's wit.

And another one of those overenthusiastic people who wave around their artifacts of the composer's intent as if they were the holy tablets being brought down from Mount Sinai. This time the composer was Mahler, and the tablets were a score of his Fourth marked up by Willem Mengelberg with (what it said were) Mahler's instructions, and an attendant recording (made long after Mahler's time, of course). This was interesting, because I'd just gotten to the point in Robert Philip's book where he discusses how Mengelberg was his own man and didn't necessarily do exactly what Mahler wanted. Then you have to explain Bruno Walter, another conductor who worked even more closely with Mahler and carried his imprimatur, but whose performances came out quite differently. Presenter tried to square the circle by calling Walter "authorized" and Mengelberg "authentic." wtf does that distinction mean? Philip says that they both had their own styles and that Mahler, like most conducting composers, may have had his own preferences but was less interested in dictating specifics on other conductors than in ensuring that they made his music sound good, which allows for differing interpretations. That makes more sense to me.

In the evening, a concert by the Russian Chamber Orchestra, a group almost but not quite ready for prime time, flipping "period-style" Baroque performance on its head by playing two Handel concerti grosso (Opp. 6/2 and 6/10) and one Bach Brandenburg (No. 5) in the period style of the early-mid 20C. As one of the conductors whose recordings were being used as a model was Furtwängler, not surprisingly this meant: big, heavy, slow, lugubrious. Worked out pretty well, though. After Kumaran Arul played the keyboard cadenza of the Brandenburg (on a full-size modern Steinway, because that's what they used in those far-off days of the 20C, and at about a quarter of the speed that today's harpsichordists tend to buzz it off in, too), the final cadence of the movement came thundering down with a weighty inevitability like I've never heard in a Baroque performance before. The inter-movement applause after that one was spontaneous, and deserved.

Friday, April 13, 2012

reactions to Reactions to the Record, day 1

It was the first day of the third roughly-biennial Stanford symposium on historical performance practice as revealed in ancient recordings, and I managed to get to a few of the sessions and the concert.

Some guy who calls himself a "sound archaeologist" used recorded examples to try to convince us that three performances of the same Schubert song were stylistically diverse enough to count as different works. That depends on where you're coming from. Anyone familiar with pop music cover versions would stare at that claim in disbelief. Then he tried to convince us that early Brahms piano recordings with deliberately sloppy articulation were better than ones with even articulation. Maybe for you, buster, but not for me. (His "bad" example was Dame Myra Hess. I always liked old Dame Myra.)

Another presenter, British by nationality, employed his countrymen's noted rhetorical tick of proclaiming an intention of discarding the baby with the bathwater (his choice of metaphor) to see how provocative he could be. Like the sound archaeologist (and, indeed, like 99% of the speakers at any of these conferences) he decries the modern "geometric" style of playing that presents the notes as they appear on the page and extols the older "vitalist" style in which the score is only a suggestion, a beginning point for an individual interpretation. (Terms from Richard Taruskin, the big looming physically-absent presence - he was going to be here, but he's in the hospital - at this conference.) Where the presenter's argument led him into intellectual incoherence was in describing adherence to the score as elevating the composer into a "fascistic dictator." Wouldn't the neo-vitalist project of unearthing and worshipfully reproducing the style of the composer's own 1903 sound recordings (presenter-provided example) be a potentially worse fascistic dictator than following the score? (Not that the guys in this project have gone that far; but is any "geometric" performer really doing that either?) On top of which, he explained that the "vitalist" style died out because, via its perceived elevation of German music as emotionally superior to all others, it got sucked into Nazi ideology and was thereby discredited. Weren't the Nazis actual fascistic dictators? In his conclusion he briefly noted that slavery to vitalism would be bad too, but his estimate of the relative dangers seems misjudged. And this from a guy who also considers the interchangeable artistry of the "geometric" style to be an economic conspiracy to save money on rehearsal time.

The evening concert aimed to provide contemporary examples of older-style performance as inspired by records. The problem for me is that I can't really hear that if I don't already know the work. Lieder by Clara (instead of Robert) Schumann, and a surprisingly witty trio for the "we need to back-order this" combo of oboe, horn, and piano by the oft-cited but rarely heard Carl Reinecke were pleasant to listen to, but if they showed the claimed asynchronicity of timing or expressively variable tempos, you couldn't prove it by me. Then there was Rachmaninoff's suite for 2 pianos, Op. 17. That one I have heard before. This was a more enjoyable performance than Music@Menlo gave: more incisive, more varietal, and frankly sounding more like Rachmaninoff. Was that because the performers, Stanford piano pedagogues Kumaran Arul and George Barth (also conveners of the conference) were conspicuously out of sync in some passages? Maybe, but if so I don't see how. I think it was because they were just interested in playing the music and didn't try to make a show out of it.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Of Itzhak Perlman's recent visits here to both play the violin and conduct in the same concert, I found this the most enjoyable. It was certainly the most hefty and lengthy. Two Seasons from Vivaldi, plus a Mozart symphony with all the repeats and Tchaikovsky's Fourth, no svelte chicken itself.

Perlman was rather dry in the Vivaldi solos, and he mostly eschewed joining in on the tuttis in favor of wagging his bow at the orchestra. Conducting Mozart's Prague Symphony and the Tchaikovsky, they came out rather alike: clipped articulation and clear-cut sectioning, joined with a good sense of line to keep the melody going and a fast springing rhythm to keep the energy up.

Usual Perlman shenanigans of checking to make sure that the concertmaster has handed him the correct violin after he's finished seating himself. Scott Fogelsong gave one of his typically self-indulgent pre-concert talks, using Vivaldi's bird imitations as an excuse to insert an entire lecture on the history of the cuckoo in classical music, and bouncing around the stage while playing recordings of Mozart. I hope he doesn't do that if you're seated next to him.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

painter of what?

So Thomas Kinkade, the "Painter of Light," has passed into it. I'm afraid I always thought of him as the "Painter of Buildings on Fire." The strength and intensity of the light pouring out of his windows generated but one reaction in me: Get a fire hose! A strong one! Quick!

If you could tear your eyes away from that spectacle, the surrounding lush flower-bedecked landscapes were pretty, but were so neat and verdant that they appeared somewhat artificial, the same way the imaginary lands in a Tolclone novel feel artificial. What they remind me of more than anything else are the kinds of tourist guides to England or European countries written by rich self-centered Americans who see the country as an unpopulated (there are no people in Kinkade's paintings, either) historical theme park preserved for their private enjoyment.

In the traditional postmortem activity of finding the silk purse in the sow's ear, Kinkade is being lauded for having given many people a lot of pleasure. And it is true that he did. But on that account we should eulogize porn stars on the same basis. Do we?

One thing I can tentatively praise Kinkade for, though. I have never seen any of his originals up close, and, unless you have, it's difficult to detect this feature clearly in reproductions. But Kinkade took Norman Rockwell as his master, and I have seen Rockwell paintings in person, and however corny they may be, know this: up close, the overwhelming impression given by a Rockwell painting is his absolutely awesome mastery of draftsmanship. It's sheer joy just to gaze at his lines and the details they convey.

Many, even most, canonical great painters don't have that level of that kind of mastery. Their paintings break down on close inspection. The impressionists tried to make a virtue out of this, but most painters are, beyond a certain zoom level of detail, just sloppy. And unless that painter is an absolute master of large-scale vivid imagery - Van Gogh, whose work I saw in person not long ago, is a good example, and his paintings look better the further back you stand - I'd rather see the work of the great draftsman (or -woman, but I don't know enough painters to give an example).

As I said, I can't tell from reproductions if Kinkade had Rockwell's detailed drafting skill. But I think that maybe he did. And if so, that earns my admiration.

Friday, April 6, 2012

CD review: Nielsen

When the CD for review pointed its virtual finger at me and said, "Tell me everything you know about Albert Roussel," I had to paddle water until I could do some research and listening. But when it said, "Tell me what you know about Carl Nielsen," it couldn't get me to shut up. Hence all the history lessons and such - I really am a historian, not a journalist, at heart - in my review.

The funny thing is that, on first encounter, I hated Nielsen's music. That first encounter was a performance of his (deliberately) erratic and inconsistent Fourth Symphony by a student orchestra. It must have been a terrible performance; I couldn't tell because I didn't know the work then. Anyway I determined to avoid him. I was still in high school then. A few years later, in college, I'd read enough about him in favorable context that I figured I'd better give him another try, on record. This time I hit on the Second and Third, and was immediately sold. The Second is still my favorite Nielsen symphony, and the Third (a favorite of Leonard Bernstein's) probably the greatest by my standards, and if you like the excerpt of the First attached to the review, give them a try.

Modernist Nielsen fans tend to extol the Fourth and especially the Fifth because they're so innovatively deconstructionist. I agree that they're great art of their kind, but their kind is disconcerting, whereas earlier Nielsen is so enjoyable, turning away from it is like giving up this cat in favor of this one . No comparison. And then there's the Sixth, easily as modernist as the Fifth, but it's reconstructionist, and that's telling when the modernists tend to ignore it. They don't want modern music, they just want to kick the cans over.

(One thing I have to add about where in the Sixth "the music dramatically suffers the composer’s recent heart attack." This inevitably reminds me of the moment in Holy Grail where Arthur and his knights are being chased by a horrendous beast, "when, suddenly, the animator suffered a fatal heart attack. [Gilliam pitches over in his chair] The cartoon peril was no more.")

The sample excerpts my editors chose to go with the review are the exposition of the first movement of each symphony. You can hear the bounding energy in the First, and also its terseness, and the sudden modulations at 0.53 and the whole sequence between 1.30 and 1.46; in the Sixth, listen for how the jaunty march that begins at 0.18 keeps getting harmonically undercut (first at 0.26, and differently at 1.28) and derailed (first at 0.32), and then the "bite" of the violas as they allude to that theme at 1.15.

Sorry, burbling again.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

oh no, not again

Mark Evanier trots out the tired and fallacious old defense of bad movie adaptations, "the book is still on the shelf."

Here's the letter I sent in reply. I got no answer, either by e-mail or in a blog post, but then I never do from him. (The Three Stooges context was his reference.)

Dear Mark,

I have to raise objection to your anecdote about the author (I hear the story often, and usually it's said to be James M. Cain) who said, "My book isn't ruined, it's still right there on the shelf."

That may be true when the book, like Three Stooges movies, has no dignity. But when it does, no matter how beloved and oft-read the book is, that dignity can have its hair pulled or a tire iron smashed over its head, and, unlike when Moe does it to Larry, it hurts.

A book sitting on the shelf isn't alive, it's dead. It doesn't live unless somebody takes it down from the shelf and reads it. When they do, it comes alive in their imagination. That's the thing about books: unlike movies which tell you exactly what everything looks and sounds like, books leave a lot to your imagination. And if your imagination has been hijacked by a movie of that book, your individual creative imaginative experience has been ruined.

It will happen. Movies are powerful experiences, and while they may sometimes be forgotten, they can also make a permanent impression. You can see this in little things. Fan drawings, in science fiction convention art shows, of characters from The Lord of the Rings used to show a variety of imaginative interpretations. Now they all look like the actors from the Peter Jackson movies.

Second thing: A movie can take over the conversation about the book, even when the conversation is specifically supposed to be about the book. I've seen scholarly articles about Tolkien which say things that are true of the movies, but not of the books the article is supposed to be about. And the general run of readers today know nothing about Frankenstein or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, even though they're still much-read books. People are always completely surprised when they pick up the books and find out how unlike the famous movies they are. The movies have drowned the books out.

Lastly, sometimes it's not even true that the book is still on the shelf, if that shelf is a bookstore shelf. Sometimes it's been replaced by a novelization of the movie.