Saturday, January 31, 2015

suite for the birthday

In honor of my nephew's birth on Thursday, here are samples of music by the composers I lined up as having been born on the same day of the year:

Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715-1777) - a nice little Sturm und Drang symphony
Daniel Auber (1782-1871) - a once-popular overture by this master of light opera
Johannus Bernardus van Bree (1801-1857) - this delightful piece by a Dutch composer you've never heard of is for four string quartets, and the video is the score to prove it
Frederick Delius (1862-1934) - a lesser-known but typical piece by the best-known composer on this list
Havergal Brian (1876-1972) - the crusty Englishman in a cheerily rustic mood
Luigi Nono (1924-1990) - it was hard for me to find anything I liked by this avant-garde modernist, but this is fairly impressive
Leslie Bricusse (b. 1931) - I remember this song!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

oh no, not again

In the course of writing my previous post on women in SF, I happened to look up some older women authors on Wikipedia to check out their eras of publication, because I was thinking of adding a bit about some of them as well.

And that's when I learned the distressing and annoying fact that Zenna Henderson is buried in a cemetery in a small rural Arizona town called St. David.

What's distressing and annoying about it is that I was just there! I was! I drove right through town on my Arizona trip. And I didn't know! I may never be back there again, and now, just after getting home, do I learn that I missed out on this rare opportunity to pay my respects at a beloved author's grave.

Not only that, this isn't the first time this has happened. A couple decades ago, I had just completed the closest thing to a long cross-country drive I've made as an adult, from Michigan to California, when I happened to learn that Philip K. Dick is buried in the unlikely town of Fort Morgan, Colorado. (I think his father had once lived there and bought a family plot, or something. But PKD had no personal connection to the place. At least Zenderson was from southern Arizona, which should have come to mind.)

And what windswept eastern Colorado town had I actually briefly stopped at for a break on my long drive? Fort Morgan. Had I known ...? No.

There are some cases where I've gotten to graves. On a couple of occasions in pursuit of data about obscure Tolkien-related figures, I've gone to their hometowns to look for information in the back files of the local newspaper, which can be found in no other library; and the information includes that they're buried in a local cemetery. So I go out to pay my respects, and on one occasion learned from the office that the grave, even over half a century later, was still unmarked. I thought that very sad.

women? destroy? science fiction?

Women Destroy Science Fiction is the title of a special all-women issue of Lightspeed that's the Potlatch Book of Honor. I like short stories, but so many of them at once from different minds and imaginations is exhausting to read. I'd only heard of a few of the authors, and the e-book doesn't have any running heads, so I could never remember the author or title of what I was reading. I went back afterwards and made a list with reminder notes (the mermaid story, the Texas mall story, the aliens occupy our brains story). But I read all the way through, although I admit skimming at times, a tricky process with unfamiliar fiction.

Technically most of these stories looked pretty good. Tiptree's "Love is the Plan," the only one of the 5 reprints I'd read before, did not stand out in this company and actually looked less coherently written than most: possibly the suck fairy has been at it. Although few begin with exposition (I miss the lost practice of stories that begin with exposition), I rarely had much problem figuring out where I was and what was going on, the challenge of which is a large component of that exhaustion I mentioned.

But I'm used to science fiction as a fairly didactic genre - you tell a story because you have a point larger than the story itself to make - but that too seems to be passing out of fashion. I've noticed from other current authors, like Ted Chiang, a tendency to write stories that don't end, they just ... stop. (Possibly an influence from realistic modernism.) That was true of many of these; they read like just a slice of something, yet just depicting the slice didn't seem to be the point. I mean, I liked Gabriella Stalker's Texas-mall story, and the setting is unforgettable, but I couldn't fathom what she was telling it for. N.K. Jemisin's aliens-occupy-our-brains story was searing, and this time I'm sure there was a point to the ending, but I didn't get what it was. Same with Charlie Jane Anders' memory-cube story. A couple historical pastiche stories did not work for me at all; I couldn't buy the premises.

Accordingly, I found more satisfying stories like Kris Millering's artist-in-a-tiny-spaceship, the only real surprise-punch ending in the main section of the book, and laid out with adequate craft. Some of the (mostly) short-shorts in the "flash fiction" section had the same quality, but I didn't even try to keep track of those with notes. The only one I really remember without a reminder was the one with the heaviest didactic point, Ellen Denham's fable of the aliens who communicate by eating. (I also liked that it was mostly exposition, with an outstanding quick opening.) Ellen is, I think, also the only one of the story authors here I know personally.

Given the anthology's title, I was expecting something ground-breaking or fundamentally different from earlier SF, but I didn't get that sense. These were a bunch of decently-good stories of the same kind as other decently-good SF stories I've read from recent decades. Of course, the protagonists were mostly women (Stalker, in the interview section, says she made hers male just for a change from her usual practice), but I'm not the kind of reader who cares much about that. If a more fundamental femaleness to these stories is the point of the anthology, again it doesn't look different to me. As an SF reader I'm a child of the '70s. I grew up reading Le Guin and Russ and Wilhelm and Charnas and McIntyre and, yes, Tiptree. I'm used to women with distinctively and strongly female voices having a big part in this conversation.

The little personal testimonies that form most of the non-fiction at the back are largely about the struggle to establish women's place in SF. Some of them take a historical perspective, but most sound pretty current. And I'm trying to correlate that with what I've read in the past by women about their role in SF. It seemed the '70s was when they got their established places at this table. Is the current struggle for a further advance (because these struggles are never over)? Or, as Jeanne Gomoll perceived, has there been a retreat? And has it persisted since she wrote in the late '80s? Yet if so, whither authors like Willis and Bujold? Surely some of the biggest and most popular names in the field can't be ignored, or are they perceived as tokens?

I'm not giving answers here, I'm asking the questions. I hope to learn more at Potlatch.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

concert review: Budapest Festival Orchestra

It was close to the last minute that I was asked to cover this visiting orchestra's meal of Brahms. Can you tell that I have a book of scores of the Brahms symphonies at home? If I'd remembered that beforehand, I'd have taken it with me to the concert (it's small-format), but I didn't really need to. I don't need a score to tell me if the conductor is taking the first-movement repeat or not, or otherwise how he's treating a work as canonical as a Brahms symphony.

I've reviewed the Vienna Philharmonic twice, and both times skirted around the problem of their (by now, in today's world) conspicuous dearth of female members, feeling it was a complicated question not easily dealt with in an 800-word review that's mostly supposed to discuss the music. (Basically, the Vienna Philharmonic doesn't conduct open auditions, but recruits its members through a long and elaborate apprenticeship system, and the way to get more women in there is to insert them into the apprenticeships from the beginning, not to impose them from outside at the end of it, but that not only takes a long time, it depends on women willing to go through what is undoubtably a testosterone-heavy process.)

So I was passingly amused that this middle-European orchestra had lots of women, though of course it doesn't have that storied VPO history, having been invented by its own music director to have somebody to conduct (not an uncommon practice in Europe - the Royal Philharmonic was created by Beecham the same way). But I couldn't think of a reason to mention this until the delight of a choral encore - something I'd never heard an orchestra do before - and a four-part mixed chorus at that, something you can't sing without a reasonable approach to equality between the sexes. So, hah, they read my mind.

Monday, January 26, 2015

book review

Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell (Jonathan Cape, 2014)

I've long been a fan of Roy Jenkins, who won my allegiance in both his professional capacities, as a politician and as an author. As a politician, he was the only genuinely civil libertarian Home Secretary (the government minister responsible for prisons and the police) that Britain has ever had, who oversaw the liberation of abortion and homosexuality laws, and who ran a long-running campaign against blue-nosed censorship. He was also one of the founders of what became the Liberal Democratic Party, which was a nice idea while it lasted.

As an author he first came to my attention with a short book on Harry Truman giving a refreshingly different British-eye view of that intensely American figure. He's best-known for his doorstop-sized biographies of Gladstone and Churchill, but my favorite book of his is his comprehensive survey of all the Chancellors of the Exchequer who served between 1885 and 1947. His insights into the likes of Austen Chamberlain and Hugh Dalton are priceless. But then so is his volume of memoirs, A Life at the Centre, not only well-written but introspective and honestly self-evaluative.

That might leave an authorized but not uncritical biographer, writing over a decade after Jenkins' death, with little new to say. And indeed, there's a lot here that just runs over the same ground as the memoirs, and a lot more that does so with a little more of a critical view of Jenkins' actions. Campbell is also very repetitious, probably through lack of editing, and the reader will learn over and over again that Jenkins was not a lazy politician, though he was a dedicated gourmet and oenophile. The most interesting parts come after Jenkins writes the memoirs, and earlier on during the four years he spent as President of the European Commission. Campbell rightly notes that this is the dullest chapter of Jenkins' memoir; it's not so dull as Campbell tells it, because he doesn't let the political issues get lost in the high society.

Campbell is less reticent than Jenkins on his personal life. Of his courtship of his wife, Jenkins says only that, after playing in a cricket match, "we left together and have been so for the subsequent half century." It was not so smooth as that, and Campbell has a lot more to tell, with plenty of letters to quote from. It's a highly Jenkinsian moment when he writes to his then-fiancée, "I think that the desire for a more complete possession than one can ever attain is a necessary accompaniment to loving anyone as much as I love you. Or perhaps it is just the result of too much Proust."

Campbell also lifts the corner on Jenkins' extracurricular sex life. Most of the press attention to the book has gone here, though it occupies only a small part of the space. He had a lot of affairs, but always on a "friends with benefits" basis with social equals whose company he enjoyed (as did his wife, who grew resigned to this). There was never any question of breaking up his marriage; most of them were married too. He never fell in lust with the tea girl, so there were no scandals. All three of his principal ladyfriends are mentioned in the memoirs, though only in the context of his social life.

Most of this had leaked out in other sources since Jenkins' death; what's entirely new is a brief statement that he did a little sexual canoodling in college with his best friend, Tony Crosland, later his government colleague. (There's an attached source note. The reader turns to it eagerly. "Private information," it says. F.U., Campbell.) That would explain a lot about the urbane, civilized, balanced Jenkins' continued fondness for Crosland, who was louche, disorganized, and a staggering berk. Their tempestuous friendship/rivalry is well-chronicled here. But the memoirs are a better source for the dirt on the main political antagonist of Jenkins' later years, David "Dr. Death" Owen.

This is a long book, 749 text pages, considerably longer than the memoirs. Would it were less repetitious, but it never gets bogged down in detail. It's largely sympathetic towards its subject, but sufficiently detached and occasionally critical. I'm glad it's out at last, and that I went to the trouble of ordering a copy.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

concert review: St. Lawrence Quartet

Usually when I get my concert reviews in to the Daily Journal on Monday, they publish them in the Local News section on Tuesday. If I'm a little later, they publish them in the Arts section on Friday. This time I got the review in on Monday, but it didn't appear until Saturday. So the second of my three backlogged pieces has now emerged from the printer queue.

I found this a rather subdued concert of works that could easily have breathed more fire. It was good, though, and while the John Adams String Quartet No. 2 is less interesting a work than No. 1, which I also covered in a local premiere, it's more pleasing to listen to. It certainly fit better between the classics than the new work of the hapless local modernist who was in that position at these performers' last concert.

My statistics tell me that I've now reviewed five works by Adams. That now ties him for most by living composers with Jennifer Higdon. These are good composers to be listening to; I could have fared far worse.

Editing at the DJ is light, but I see that, while I believe in the Oxford comma, my editors apparently don't. And neither do their parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

First half all extreme modernist. Opening work, a new commission, Carnival Fever by Cynthia Lee Wong, who hails from Schenectady, the place where Harlan Ellison gets all his ideas. This piece could have been the idea for a Harlan Ellison story. I remember it, over the fog of 3 hours' distance, as brightly colored, full of percussion, and chittering a lot.

Then, Alban Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra. Pre-concert speaker and program notes made two points about this work. 1) That it was written after Schoenberg berated Berg for writing pieces that were too short. (What must he have said to Webern, then?) 2) That it shows evidence of Berg's love for Mahler. Oh, does it. Half an endless hour of Mahlerian outdoing of Mahler. My applause at the end signaled sheer relief that it was over.

After intermission, Bronfman in Brahms' Second Concerto. Hey, how about some music for a change? Very nicely done, but so relaxed and meandering I didn't recognize half of it. But by this time I was so restless I didn't have much capacity for enjoyment left.

Had it not been for two other errands I had in the City, this would have been a wasted trip.

reviews and previews

I had three reviews in the pipeline. This is unusual. One of them has finally made it out: Symphony Silicon Valley, doing Ravel and Gershwin. I'd never been a fan of these works, except for Boléro, though my appreciation of Rhapsody in Blue went way up after I saw the simply brilliant animation for it in Fantasia 2000. But the concert was OK.

The bit about Grofé's first name was added by the editor. I have no idea why it was considered worth mentioning.

Movies not seen:

1. Via File 770, The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime. So Amazon is making movies now. According to the description, "the production is highly atmospheric, smeary, hazy and dingy as if fogged by doubts about its own reality." This is as it should be, and could make the movie more true to the book than the book is.

As I wrote in the comments, though, I'm a little disturbed by the use of "Edelweiss" as the theme song. It's widely believed – I've heard more than one person state it as a fact – that this was Hitler's favorite song.

That would have been difficult to arrange for, as the song was in fact not written until nearly 15 years after Hitler's death, but its use here in a representation of the Nazi conquest – even if it turns out in the show to be wholly ironic – is only likely to spread the error.

2. Via Andrew Ducker, a fan edit cutting The Hobbit trilogy to 4'21". I haven't watched it because that's still at least four hours too long for me. It wouldn't be possible to create an edit which reproduced the story from the book, because large parts of the book never made it into the movie, notably the escape from the Wood-Elves' castle by barrels, which was removed from the movie and replaced with a thrill-park ride.

Comments reveal some deeply clueless defenses of the movie's changes (all quotes sic), such as "It even fixed to of the biggest flaws in the book version, actually giving and reason why Gandalf left and giving Bard a lot more development." 1) Gandalf coming and going mysteriously is part of his character; 2) The reason is eventually given in the book (chapter 19); 3) Bard should remain in the background: this is not his story, but Bilbo's. Or, "NO person who calls themselves a Tolkien fan is going to excise the Dol Guldur scenes, or references through those scenes to the first dark lord Morgoth, Ungoliant, or Goldolin ect." This is only true if your goal in life as a Tolkien fan is to see everything depicted on screen. Some of us who call ourselves Tolkien fans prefer to read the books.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

no, really

Cut to a wide-angle shot of hedgerows, fields and trees.
Voice Over: In this picture there are forty people. None of them can be seen. In this film we hope to show you how not to be seen.

Monday, January 19, 2015

cliche city

Started to watch a miniseries I'm not going to name because of spoiler issues. In the first episode, a politician is (figuratively) stabbed in the back by his closest ally, whose defense is that he'd concluded their plan was a bad idea ... but somehow he'd never bothered to say so, though he claims he had. Stabbed guy hatches plot with equally political wife to get back. We know they're close because we see them having hot sex. Later, their phone call is interrupted by call to wife from the bad guys; she says she'll call him back. Cut to her going on TV and undercutting the revenge plan. Husband, watching at home, is so furious he breaks wine glass in his hand (cliche). Did she not call him back and tell him why whatever the bad guys told her made her feel obliged to do this?

End of episode. Read plot summary on Wikipedia. Yep, the rest of the series is more revenge upon revenge upon revenge, all generated by allies not keeping each other fully informed, despite everyone having cell phones up the wazoo. Also: remember the jogging scene in the first episode with the old guy who pants that he's getting too exhausted for this? Yep, he will keel over and die unexpectedly later on (cliche).

Not going to finish this.

Friday, January 16, 2015

movies I ought not to have liked, but did

Usually there is nothing that bores me more than a hard-realistic movie in which nothing much happens. I found Mr. and Mrs. Bridge and Junebug pointless, and I didn't even finish watching Secrets & Lies. But I liked this one.*

The 12-year timespan was part of it. The characters have a chance to grow and change, and the audience knows they'll find out what happens next. And the fact that it was filmed over that timespan really helps. Not only do the kids get visibly older, so do the parents. The changes in Ethan Hawke's face and build match that of his character, the divorced father who starts out as an overgrown boy and matures into a man.

The storytelling is crafty and disconcerting. A new scene might follow directly on from the previous scene, or it might skip two years. You never know. And if it does skip two years, it will nicely and obliquely tell you what happened. Twice there are scenes with the boy looking on skeptically as some guy hits on his mother, and then suddenly you jump forward and she's married to or living with him. These relationships don't end well, and there's a nice payoff near the end where the now-grown boy refers to the "parade of drunken creeps."

The only thing I had trouble following was the step-siblings who show up for a while. I wasn't entirely sure how many of them there were, and had trouble telling which boy was which. And the only thing that bothered me was the age difference between the boy and his sister. At the end of the movie, she's about two years older, but at the start, they're obviously the same age. That's because the actors playing them are the same age; you can get away with denying this when they're 18, but when they're 6, you can't hide it.

*That makes 3 movies nominated in this year's Oscars that I've seen so far: Boyhood (the good), Battle of the Five Armies (the bad), and Into the Woods (the ugly).

Draft Day
I don’t know why I rented and watched this movie. I have little interest in football and even less in the NFL draft.

It worked for me because it’s not actually about football (there’s only about a minute’s worth of actual football in the movie, most of it on game films the characters watch), but about chess. And by “chess” I don’t mean the game with wooden pieces and a 64-square board, but the whole range of intellectual conflict of reading your opponent, seeing several moves ahead, and all else that the word connotes.

That makes it a lot like Moneyball, another non-sports movie I enjoyed.

All you really need to know for this movie of how the draft works is that teams trade around their future, and sometimes their present, places in the picking order, and sometimes current players along with them. Then whoever goes first gets their pick from among the current crop of graduating college seniors, whoever they think their team will benefit from the most, and down the line from there. That’s it. Those are the chess rules.

Kevin Costner, who apparently only makes really good movies and really bad ones, plays the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns. (All the teams are real; all the characters are fictional, but well-fleshed out: I had no sense of feeling at sea because I had never heard of any of them, even though within the fictional universe they’re famous names. This may well be because I wouldn’t have known any more about them going in if it were about real people.) He trades away his future draft picks in exchange for the first spot in this year’s draft so that he can get the top quarterback. He then spends all the time between then and the actual draft doubting whether this was the right decision. We don’t get to find out what he does then until after he does it. I can’t describe what happens during the draft itself, which forms the conclusion of the movie, without spoilers, but it’s grandmaster stuff.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

concert review: Music at Kohl Mansion

I'll have more to say later on my trip to Arizona - you'll see - but today, here's what happened when I got back. Stopped off quickly at home, and then headed straight off to work, that is to review this concert from the wilds of Burlingame.

I did not feel particularly prepared for this one. There's really nothing much to say about a minor piece of pleasant Mozart, the new work and its composer I was totally unfamiliar with, and, though I had listened to the Korngold Suite more than once in preparation, I had not found it easy to get a handle on. This in contrast to the resident musicologist, who gives the pre-concert talks there, who utterly adored it on first contact. And also in contrast to my own immediately positive reactions to most of Korngold's orchestral concert music.

So this is a somewhat on-the-wing review, written on-the-fly this morning after I spent most of Monday getting the rest of my business in order. So it may not be deep, but it's lighter than I often manage. The editors have their own ideas of what to use as pull quotes, but I'm most pleased with having coined the proverb, "Nothing can sound too ugly when played on a marimba."

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Oracle, Arizona
Home of the Biosphere 2. Yes, it is still there, and visitable. A highly biospherical experience. Machinery that keeps it running is impressive. The habitat sections reminded me of a zoo aviary, but without the birds.

Benson, Arizona
Not only does it have a song, it has 1) the most fabulous limestone cave you've never heard of, 2) a pretty impressive used book store - medium sized and neatly groomed, rather than large and shaggy. Both are some distance out of town; this is less usual for bookstores. This one, consequent on its location in a ranch house, has not only (inside) a store dog but also (outside) store donkeys.

Tombstone, Arizona
Men in 19c dude outfits prowl the streets, looking for tourists to accost with pitches for re-enactment shows of one shoot-out or another. Ouside of town, a roadside farm stand sells fried peanuts, with a bowl for sampling. Eat them shell and all, it says. My advice after trying it: don't.

Nogales, Sonora
You might think a restaurant with a sign - in English, just about the only sign I saw in English that wasn't on a pharmacy or dentist's - at the exit to the pedestrian customs walk-through, giving detailed instructions on how to walk there, would be a horrible tourist trap. I trusted the guidebooks and they were right, it was good. The menu was dominated by shrimp dishes, which I felt a bit unreal for an authentic Sonoran interior desert experience, so I had the chicken mole.

Sunday, January 4, 2015


Where I am right now, if you want landscaping vegetation, you have the following choices:

1. Cactus
2. Cactus
3. Chapparral scrub
4. More cactus

The most popular choice appears to be 4.

Where we have ivy on our freeway verges at home, here they have cactus. Where our yards have shrubbery, theirs have cactus. Where we have windbreaks made of trees, theirs are made of cactus.

On one side of the freeway are expensive housing developments. On the other side is an Indian reservation. Empty fields or scrub, dotted with the occasional ranch-style house, and the even more occasional GINORMOUS CASINO.

As the riddles always end,

Where am I?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

to the Professor

It's Tolkien's birthday. Raise a glass. Amidst all the troubles of the new year, this spot of celebration.

I shall have to explain this to the folks I'm dining with this evening. Yes, I'm going out, something I rarely do. (B. is not available, for reasons to be explained later.) One exceedingly long-time - like entire lifetime, but rarely-seen - friend, plus his wife, whom (I told you "rarely-seen") I've never met. Restaurant of New Mexico cuisine, albeit not in New Mexico.