Tuesday, June 30, 2015

book review

Terry Pratchett, A Slip of the Keyboard

After three previous failures, I finally found a Terry Pratchett book I enjoyed reading enough to finish it. But it's not a novel: it's his "collected nonfiction". I read the whole thing despite its being extremely repetitive, as frequently several pieces will cover the same points.

I'd had an impression of Pratchett as being somewhat removed from the details of the f&sf publishing genre, but in his essays on writing and publishing I find that's not so. He was clued in even to the ideas and major works of hard SF, which he didn't write at all. I particularly enjoyed his accounts of his own personal discoveries of literature, some of which I found funny, an experience I hadn't much had with earlier Pratchett books. Why, as a boy he liked heroic fantasy so much that "I even bought and read all the Narnia books in one go, which was [a] bit like a surfeit of Communion wafers."

The last part of the book is sufficiently memorable and important that it may make you forget the rest: it's his pieces on his Alzheimer's, on his determination to demystify the disease, on the proper treatment and the role of the NHS. He made these points to many audiences, so this section is particularly repetitious: if you read just one piece from here, make it his Richard Dimbleby Lecture.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Ashland heat

Having enjoyed so much our visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland last year, B. and I decided to return. This year the musical theater offering was Guys and Dolls. Not the container of Loesser's best songs - that would be How to Succeed - it's nevertheless a delight. Aside from setting the costuming in the time of Runyon's stories in the 1930s, which is evidently unusual, this was a fairly conventional production, with a proscenium-ish stage setup and a pit orchestra. It was very enjoyable. The most elaborate touch was a model airplane suspended from the ceiling, representing Sky and Sarah's trip to Havana, as Nathan (who'd bet Sky he couldn't get Sarah to go on a date) watches with dismay from below as it crosses the stage on an (invisible) rail with sound effects.

Like all of OSF's musicals, this was cast with actors who can sing (the very phrase with which Kate Hurster, who played Sarah, described herself at the post-show talk) rather than singers who can act, and this gave it a different feel from the usual local theater company production. Miss Adelaide, for instance - OSF veteran Robin Nordli - is not a great singer but her characterization was superb, particularly when singing part of her lament with a thermometer in her mouth.

At the beginning of the play, the guys are trying to find a new temporary location for Nathan's permanent floating crap game, and I chuckled at this exchange, which I don't think is in the original script.
NATHAN: Adelaide says I should take the crap game and stick it where the sun don't shine.
BENNY: Seattle??
This time we also caught an actual Shakespeare, a production of Much Ado About Nothing in the indoor theater. This was magnificent, a demonstration of OSF at its best. And the best thing in it was Danforth Comins as Benedick, who had thought through the meaning of every word he speaks and spoke them all with an ease and natural speaking quality that matched that of Denis Arndt, my gold standard in this department. Comins is a redhaired mesomorph; Beatrice (Christiana Clark) was tall, willowy, black, and imposing. Leonato (Jack Willis) is the guy who played LBJ last year, and just as commanding here. Don Pedro (Elijah Alexander) was a dead ringer for Dmitri of the Flying Karamazov Brothers. Dogberry (Rex Young) rode a Segway with impressive virtuosity, and ranked pretty well on the sincere goofiness scale. Don John was a woman, for a change (Regan Linton), addressed inconsistently as both "my lady" and "my lord", and rode a wheelchair which is the actress's own. (I spoke with her afterwards, but did not have the nerve to say that I'd like to see her play that equally nasty character, her namesake from King Lear.)

And in the outdoor theater, the 19C stage adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo that Eugene O'Neill's father made his name starring in. Edmond (Al Espinosa) looked a lot like Jim Caviezel in the 2002 movie, but aside from that and the basic structure of railroaded imprisonment - escape - revenge, the plots bore little resemblance to each other (nor is either, I'm told, much like the novel). It was pretty good, though a goofy subplot, involving Villefort having an affair with an innkeeper's wife who's plotting to rob the guests, could have been cut with no loss.

We had tickets to see a fourth play, Fingersmith, an adaptation of Sarah Waters' historical novel, but we'd only gotten that to fill the evening after the Much Ado matinee, and we skipped out and got refunds after disaster struck. It's been hot hot hot here all weekend - over 100F each day - and about 15 minutes before the end of Much Ado the building's power went out. The emergency generators kicked the house lights on, Comins ad-libbed a reference to the loss of air conditioning, and the play finished without sound effects. (The actor playing Borachio had the wit to beat a handy drum to provide some sort of musical accompaniment for the other characters' closing dance.)

When 1) it wasn't fixed in time for the evening show, 2) the stage manager put an indefinite hold on the start of the play while they figured out how to handle the fact that they hadn't been able to change the set [I was told later this turned out to be just 20 minutes, but nobody knew how long it'd be at the time], 3) the audience, which had been admitted to the lobby, stood around indefinitely as the packed room grew hotter and hotter, 4) management, which is at primitive-airline levels of knowing how to handle customer relations in an unexpected emergency, made no announcements, and the only way to find out what was going on was to squeeze out to the entrance and ask someone, 5) B., already suffering from the heat, was getting worse, 6) we considered the fact that the prospect of seeing this play was rapidly shifting from "not very interested, but a nice way to occupy the evening" into "a thoroughly unpleasant way of occupying the evening", we left, collected a refund from the box office, and went back to our air-conditioned hotel to read.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Scalia is fannish

The US Supreme Court has issued a small raft of gratifyingly intelligent decisions in the last few days, which have generated the most amazing, and often hilarious, sputter from their conservative opponents. I want to go back to the ACA decision, King v Burwell, and focus on that.

You may recall that this entire case was about a legislative drafting error. When the federal exchange was created late in the drafting process, the folks responsible forgot to add a reference to it to one section allowing persons to buy insurance on state exchanges. The intent to include the federal exchange in this was obvious, and nobody would have paid any attention to the exclusion had not some opponents of the ACA, on the "any port in a storm" theory of looking for something to derail it with, filed suit on the basis of this.

In his majority opinion, Roberts threw the suit out on the grounds of obvious legislative intent. He didn't have to say anything about the untold chaos that would have ensued had the opposite reading prevailed.

But it's Scalia's dissent that interests me. His position is that the law says "state exchanges," and that the words "or federal" aren't anywhere in there. That this was an error means nothing to him. That's what the words are, and that, as far as he's concerned, is the end of it. He uses his usual patented incredulity on the suggestion that anyone could think otherwise.

You know what this reminds me of? This obsession with holding a speaker to the literal meaning of a statement, even if it's obvious that it's shorthand for something else, or that the speaker misspoke? It reminds me of a lot of science fiction fans. There's a mental disease, a failure of comprehension that seems limited to the hyper-intelligent.

In fandom, we take great pleasure in making humor out of literal or offbeat readings of statements. For instance, I remember a hilarious fanzine discussion of road signs, parsing this "slippery road" image as meaning "Giant Tire-Eating Snakes" or "Drive In This Manner." But these are jokes. They depend for their humor on knowing what was really meant.

It's when you get people who don't know it's a joke, who insist on reading everything literally and mean it seriously, that you're in deep weird fandom territory, like Vox Day thinking that John Scalzi's satirical essay in the persona of a rapist meant that he was admitting to rape. And that's where Antonin Scalia lives. After reading his dissent, I spent the next day imagining him - in cartoonist Ruben Bolling's Crusading Justice Scalia manner - breaking in every time I read or heard a statement not to be taken literally. Sign on a bookstore's fiction case: "Shelved By Author." Enter Scalia: "Do you mean the authors personally came in and shelved these books? If you meant that you arranged them in alphabetical order by the authors' last names, why didn't you SAY SO? Words have no meaning!" Waitress in restaurant: "Would you like our gluten-free menu?" Enter Scalia: "What does it matter what the menu is made of? If you meant a menu listing gluten-free foods, why didn't you SAY SO? Words have no meaning!" Hand-chalked sign on a food truck: "Philip Cheese Steak." Enter Scalia: "Did Philip make this cheesesteak? If you meant Philadelphia, why didn't you SAY SO? Words have no meaning!"

He's following me everywhere.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

concert, non-concert, experience, movie

or, what I've been doing musically lately.

1. My editor phoned last week and said, "There's a festival in your area this weekend." I said it's not for three weeks, but he was thinking of a different one. "What's it called?" I said, so I could look it up online. "Alliance Française," he said, pronouncing it in such impeccable French that I had to say, "I don't know how to spell that." I hadn't heard of it. Turns out nobody else had either, as hardly anyone was there when I turned up Friday to review the first concert. This was a hard review to write because there was not much to say. It was a pleasant concert. Next week's follow-up looks even more tempting. I won't be available, but I hope my review tempts somebody actually to show up.

2. Alert correspondent MTD alerted me that Saturday evening was a drum corps competition at Stanford Stadium. He's alerted me to these before, but I've never been. Drum corps are basically marching bands, though I understand they get pretty snitty if you call them that. Video clips reveal that brass march around the field, percussion stay put on the sidelines (no winds), and play five-minute suites of fetid arrangements of, sometimes, rather esoteric modern classical music, this last fact being the sole generator of my interest. I skipped out early on the nearby Solstice Party to pop over to Stanford, only to find that this was very popular and, well, you know what Stanford parking is like. I didn't want to spend half an hour walking back to the stadium for this, so after nearly running over some pedestrians after I had been firmly directed by a street usher to drive straight through where they were about to walk by direction of another street usher, I gave up and went home.

3. On my way up to the Widner memorial of which I previously wrote, I went on Sunday evening to the Garden of Memory walk-through solstice concert at Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. This was the first time I'd been to it on a weekend, though it turned out not much more crowded than on weekdays. This time I was there early and plopped myself straight down in the main chapel for the first sets by all the performers posted there: William Winant (solo percussion), Kitka (women's acappella chorus with a Black Sea nasal style, performing a new multi-part composition by one of their members, with more open fifths than I've heard since 1400 A.D.), and Sarah Cahill (quiet postmodern pianism, abandoning a piece by Sam Adams when the accompanying electronics didn't work). Then I wandered down to the middle chapel and caught a set by old favorite Amy X Neuburg, performing not her own music this year but a strange and haunting song cycle originally written by Jerry Hunt for Karen Finley. After that I wandered around. Reached Orchestra Nostalgico up at the top terrace just after they finished their last set, dammit. Maggi Payne was letting people try out her theremin. Pamela Z was hooting. The Cardew Choir were singing Oliveros' Heart Chant again, and I still want to point out that Ursula Le Guin invented singing heya first. A group in white calling themselves the Lightbulb Ensemble played minimalist percussion utterly devoid of anything that makes minimalism interesting, even to me. I couldn't stop and listen to a lovely guitar and violin duo, because the room was so crowded there was no place to stand that wouldn't block the thin line of people passing through to the next room. Eventually I found peace in an obscure corner with another old favorite, the soft hypnotic padding percussion of Laura Inserra.

4. At the memorial, the movie all the fans were talking about was Jurassic World. I haven't seen it, and don't plan to. Even Seanan McGuire, who describes herself as the target audience for movies about dinosaurs eating people, only mentioned this to preface a grumble of dismay at the actual movie. And I'm not the target audience. When I last found myself in front of a movie theatre with nothing else to do, I chose:

Far From the Madding Crowd

I've never read the book. I've never succeeded in reading anything by Hardy, though I've tried a couple times. If I'm going to learn his work, then, it's going to be by movie.

Here's what the movie's about. Young woman manages farm. Rather than being far from the madding crowd, she's in the middle of a madding crowd of would-be lovers, men who issue her abrupt marriage proposals even though they've hardly met, and who will not go away and leave her alone. Not being inclined in that direction, I can't tell which of these guys, if any, would seem most appealing. The heroine knows how to run a farm, but it takes her the whole movie to learn to understand her own heart.

Any period story of this kind I will inevitably compare with Jane Austen. The closest parallel to this one is Emma. Our heroine is as headstrong and imperious as Emma, as uninterested in marriage, far less judgmental, but even less self-aware, if that's possible. The main difference is, in this one she's being simultaneously ardently courted by the equivalents of 1) Mr. Knightley; 2) George Wickham (no, not Frank Churchill: Wickham); 3) Robert Martin.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Art Widner memorial

One compensation for cancelling my trip for this last weekend is that I was around to attend the memorial gathering for Art Widner on Monday afternoon up in Gualala, the little town on the rugged Mendocino coast where he'd lived for many years. It was at the town's arts center, a nicely apportioned museum/workshop setup. I admired the signs reading "More Art Upstairs." They seemed appropriate.

Art had many sadnesses in his life, including surviving the deaths of all three of his children, but how he did enjoy life and experience what it offered him with gusto. Such was the theme of his relatives who were there and spoke, especially his adult grandchildren. I hadn't met them before, but I knew of them, as he always spoke of them with fondness and interest.

They in turn were pleased to see so many of Art's friends from SF fandom, of which they in turn knew little except how important it was to their grandfather. Many of us spoke as well. At my turn, I said how for me Art was a boon companion, a pillar of the fannish community and a great guy to have around. What most impressed me at conventions was how Art was always ready to do the trufannish thing, which is to drop everything and go out to a good restaurant with friends. I once treated him at a Vietnamese restaurant when he was Fan Guest of Honor and the concom had neglected to take him out. And, of course, food was a theme of his many travels. After he visited Tahiti and Bora Bora, we all heard about coconuts. Once at a con in Seattle - when there, Art would always mention that he'd be visiting a granddaughter or two - we asked Art how his trip went. (We Bay Area folks usually flew to Seattle; Art always drove.) He told a tale of seething horror! And we all said, "Art, you should have known better: don't expect good Chinese food at a greasy spoon in Roseburg, Oregon."

Three times, I think, I visited Art at the octagonal house he kept in the hills above Anchor Bay near Gualala. It personified him. Several years ago I was in Sitka, Alaska, and visited a museum of Tlingit artifacts. It was in a similar octagonal building, and I kept expecting Art to appear, casting a protective eye over the artifacts as if they were rare fanzines from his collection.

Driving back in the evening, trying to make it off the coast before darkness fell - the herd of cows grazing on the highway near Fort Ross would have been hard to see at night, and then there are all the precipitous oceanside cliffs two inches from the narrow pavement's edge - and trying without success to raise a cellphone signal to make my expected call to B. Locals note that after dinner at Bodega Bay (where the road leaves the coast) just before the last restaurant closed for the night, I headed directly east on the local roads, and still didn't get a signal until I'd gotten all the way to Stony Point, not 3 miles from Cotati. I hadn't realized AT&T was so parsimonious with its coverage.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Hugo amendments

As a former, albeit long-retired, Hugo Awards administrator, my opinion on the Constitutional amendments being offered this year might be worth something. In the end, however, my opinion may not be worth very much.

Amendment B.1.4, "E Pluribus Hugo", is the crowd-sourced solution to the Puppy-sourced problem of slate nominations. This amendment had many cooks. Remember the adage about spoiling the broth? I cannot follow the gist of this thing. It makes my head hurt when I try. I cannot follow the "plain language" explanation of it, either. Remember, we live in a world where even the simple Instant Runoff system we use for the final ballot is too complicated for people - smart people, people with Ph.D.s even - to understand. I know, because they've asked me to explain it to them and gone away dazed. But I grasp Instant Runoff. If even I can't understand this new plan, we're in big trouble.

I accept that the Hugo rules are broken and need to be fixed, and that we need a fix which can't be easily evaded by mischief-makers the next year, requiring another fix and another ... But is this really the solution? Would the much simpler Amendment B.1.1, "4 and 6", do the job? I don't know. Frankly, I'm relieved that I won't be there and have to decide.

Amendment B.1.2 would eliminate the 5% rule. (Look at the amendment for an explanation of what that is.) Rarely if ever implemented when it was new, it seems to have become common recently. What I don't know is, why it was ever invented in the first place. I don't favor eliminating rules unless I know that, because our minds tend to focus on the problems that the rule causes, and without knowledge of why it was created, we can't know whether these problems would be worse than the reappearance of whatever now-solved problems the rule was intended to prevent.

Amendment B.1.3 would create a Best Saga Hugo and make room for it by dividing the Novelette category between Novella and Short Story. So this is two separate proposals in one, joined by a belief in maintaining a parity in the number of Hugos. I favor a social taboo on the increase of Hugos without number, but a take a penny, leave a penny rule seems a little parsimonious.

On Novelette, the makers argue that the middle length of short fiction is in decline. I think this should be established empirically, and I'm not encouraged to accept the makers' assertion on this point by their assertion that short SF in general is in decline, basically because the legacy magazines are. Legacy airlines are in decline too, but flying is booming. So is short SF, just in other places. I would like to hear authors specializing in short fiction opine on whether there are differences in kind roughly equivalent to the current length categories (which were originally established, btw, by the writers' award, the Nebula, and later copied by the Hugos). I've heard differing opinions on that point.

The Saga idea, though, makes me uncomfortable. I'm not at all sure this is what we need. A Connie Willis two-volume series won the Best Novel Hugo a few years ago. I don't know why it got nominated in that form, unless it was that so many nominators put both volumes in one line and refused to devote two lines to it that the administrators gave in. I'm uncomfortable with the lack of definition of "a work appearing in multiple volumes" - what is one work, and what are multiple works with connections? How will nominators decide, and how will they guess what other nominators decide? Did Asimov's Foundation series (which was a saga) and his Empire novels (which were just separate books with shared backgrounds) become a single saga when he attached their backgrounds together with rivets and a ball-peen hammer? I'd be even more uncomfortable if there were a definition, because it'd have to be complicated. I'm uncomfortable with the same saga becoming re-eligible when it expands.

The real problem, it seems to me, is with the length of SF novels. When the base limit of Novel was set at 40,000 words, most SF novels ran 50-80,000. Now they're hundreds of thousands. Books of the traditional length look more like extra-long novellas now. If we're to create a new category, I'd favor hiving off a space from 40,000 to maybe 100,000 as a new category, and letting Novel be books longer than that. Some have suggested a YA novel category, which is what the Nebulas now have. That would solve part of the problem, as YA novels tend to be shorter, but not all of it, and having a division of fiction based on something other than story-length also makes me wary.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Bill Patterson spins in his grave

One of the enduring minor mysteries of the Puppies controversy is why these Heinlein-extollers didn't bother to nominate Volume 2 of William H. Patterson's comprehensive and respectful biography of their hero for the Hugo for Best Related Work. Volume 1 had been honorably on the final ballot in its year.

I may have the answer, or, more likely, a worthy candidate for an answer.

I was browsing through Volume 2 on a library shelf today and found a clinker, a clanger, a horror of a factual error in the index. I must presume that the index was compiled by some ignoramus, and can only hope that Bill, who died about two months before the book was published, never saw it. (But then, see the title of this post.)

What is it? There's an index entry for a person identified as
Robinson, Frank M. "Spider"
That's what. I don't need to tell anybody interested enough to have read this far that this entry conflates two entirely different people, as indeed you'll find if you look up the page references.

It's egregious because, long after having discussed Frank, Bill clearly introduces Spider as a different character as one of the "'new' colleagues" (Bill's words) whom Heinlein first met at the Nebula banquet in 1975. (The other was Joe Haldeman, whom I had best explain to the indexer is not to be confused with H.R. "Bob" Haldeman.)

I don't recall if anyone's previously noted this clanger. It was new to me, and it's painful to look at.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

"How do we approach a Beethoven Festival when the world of Western concert music is a perpetual Beethoven Festival anyhow?" So asks Michael Steinberg's program essay in this week's concert booklet, and Michael Steinberg has been dead for six years, so it's not a new question. His answer is, basically, pay close attention to the music. Beethoven is an exciting, even shocking composer, which is what made him ubiquitous in the first place, but it's his ubiquity that makes us take him for granted and keeps us from seeing his true qualities.

This week's entry in this year's month-long SFS Beethoven Festival is a little different from others. On Dec. 22, 1808, Beethoven presented a famous concert which premiered, among other things, both his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (a more differing adjacent pair by one composer would be hard to match until Prokofiev's First and Second) and his Fourth Piano Concerto. It was something of a marathon. MTT is reproducing that marathon - the whole thing - on Saturday. I'm not going to that. But prior to that, during the week, he and the symphony are giving some half-marathons, just slightly larger than an ordinary concert. Tonight's was one of those.

We had the Sixth Symphony, the Pastorale, in a relaxed, expansive performance. Even the thunderstorm scene was a relaxed thunderstorm. A lot of good playing, but some horn flubs in the last movement, tsk. We had the Fourth Piano Concerto with Jonathan Biss. Unlike the sharply etched version I heard in San Jose recently, this one managed to be both brusque and gentle at the same time, all the way through. For smaller pieces we had the Creatures of Prometheus Overture - a superb performance - and the concert aria Ah! perfido with Karita Mattila, a deep- and hollow-voiced soprano who did not utter a single intelligible syllable and who sounded as if she was singing from the basement.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Steeleye redux

In preparation for my first live Steeleye Span concert in nearly two decades next month, I've finished listening through the band's albums from the intervening period, some of which I hadn't paid much attention to and the most recent two of which I hadn't even picked up until now. I'd been a close and devoted follower of all this electric-folk band's earlier work, with the epically memorable classic period of 1972-77 and the sizzling Silver Age of 1990-97 being particularly dear to my heart, but when beloved lead singer Maddy Prior left the band (temporarily, as it turned out), I kind of lost heart. Not that I had anything against the remaining female vocalist, Gay Woods, but it wasn't Steeleye for me without Maddy.

Too bad I took that attitude, because Horkstow Grange (1998), the first of two albums from this period, is a pretty good one. Very quiet and subdued by Steeleye standards, it has some lovely songs on it. However, Bedlam Born (2000), the follow-up, I don't care for at all. It's far too unbridledly noisy, especially in those songs where bassist Tim Harries takes over the electric guitars: the new melodies are dull (a problem that would continue) and the arrangements uncontrolled and tasteless.

This period ended in a complete meltdown - at one point Steeleye consisted of nothing other than fiddler Peter Knight managing a lone website - but a reunion band containing some returning old members, including Maddy Prior, got together to re-make the old favorite Steeleye numbers that had won a readers' poll on that website. This was called Present (2002). A studio re-make of songs we already had in their classic original versions was kind of superfluous, but these are good performances, plus the album has the stark acappella "Lyke Wake Dirge", a concert favorite they'd never recorded before.

And then they carried on. The next new album, They Called Her Babylon (2004), has two songs I really like: a long ballad called "Heir of Linne" and the title song, the only tolerable one of new guitarist Ken Nicol's wordy historical songs. The rest I find forgettable. It was followed by Winter (2004), a Christmas carol album, much better overall mostly because the folk material is so sturdy and the new songs in their spirit, and with some clever arrangements, like the light pop/swing version of "Hark the Herald Angels".

That was the high point. Bloody Men (2006) seems rather lacking in appeal, with only one really good song this time, the ballad "Lord Gregory", and even that isn't truly up to Steeleye's best. Its successor, Cogs, Wheels and Lovers (2009), has nothing really outstanding, but it's altogether more agreeable all around, with some clever steampunk-mechanistic arrangements.

That leaves the two newest albums. Now We Are Six Again (2011) is a track-for-track re-make of one of the classic-period albums (and not one of the best of those, either): a great idea for a concert, which this was taken from, but entirely superfluous as an album.* (There's a second disc of other miscellaneous concert performances.) Terry Pratchett's entirely un-folky lyrics for Wintersmith (2013) generate a stupendously mediocre rock album of the kind by famous rock bands that my college friends in the 70s entirely failed to convince me were masterpieces. By abandoning its folk roots entirely here, Steeleye has lost any reason I ever had to listen to them.

Let's hope they bring some of it back to the concert.

*This is the second time I've used that word, so let me add that I don't always consider remake albums of previously-recorded material to be superfluous, not if they bring a verve and immediacy to the music beyond the original's. By that standard, by far the best Steeleye live album is something with the confusing title The Collection Steeleye Span in Concert (1994, from the Silver Age).

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Carl Nielsen

Today's the 150th anniversary of the birth of Carl Nielsen, which must be why his bio's the featured article on Wikipedia today. Nielsen is the best-known composer from Denmark, a fact of some annoyance to other composers from Denmark, but he's still not all that well-known internationally. Together with the better-known Jean Sibelius from Finland, just 6 months younger, Nielsen is to me one of the great symphonists of the generation following Brahms.

I first encountered Nielsen's music in the form of a student orchestra performance of his Fourth Symphony. I didn't know the work well enough to judge, but it was probably a terrible performance. Certainly I started putting Nielsen on my least-favorite composer list (which actually existed: the Schwann catalog ran a reader survey to that effect). But I kept seeing Nielsen discussed as an important figure in the history of the symphony, a source that had given me many favorite composers, and conscientiousness nagged me that I shouldn't leave it at that.

Fortunately, what I picked up at random was his Second. The Garaguly/Tivoli recording, which I heard, doesn't seem to be online, but here's the excellent Blomstedt/SFS recording, which did not then exist. This work is titled "The Four Temperaments" and ingeniously maps four types of human character onto the traditional four movements of a symphony. I loved the whole thing, but particularly the mostly-violent "Choleric" opening movement. The climax of the development (3:45-4:30 in this file) immediately struck me as, and remains for me, one of the most thrilling moments in all classical music. (The YouTube notes don't say, so I'll add that the remaining movements are, in order, phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine - though you'll hear that each mood contains hints of the others, since no real human is a pure example of any of these.)

What most struck me about Nielsen's early music was the sheer bounding physical energy of it. I have a sort of private pantheon in which Bruckner is the symphonist of the soul, Shostakovich is the symphonist of the mind, and Nielsen is the symphonist of the body. In the First, you can hear this deriving from the more energetic side of Dvořák, and the Second and Third build on that model with increasing maturity. I still think the Second is my favorite, though recently I've found myself leaning towards the First, whose candidate for most exciting moment comes with the 16 repetitions of a forte "snap" in the scherzo (17:26, repeated at 19:18).

But that's just his early music, and just the First through Third Symphonies and a few of the smaller orchestral works. His chamber music, even when written in the same idiom, doesn't come out that way, and his later music, including the Fourth through Sixth Symphonies, evolve a quite different idiom. Most accounts of Nielsen claim his Fifth as his greatest symphony. It's certainly a strange, striking, and original modernist work, but I can't claim it as dear to my heart as the early works.

Denmark avoided involvement in World War I, but, judged by chronology, it seems to have given Nielsen a severe case of PTSD. His Fourth, written during the war, is disintegrative: little elements of his earlier style keep getting undercut. I find it a very unsettling work. The Fifth, unforgettably manic-depressive, is very striking and more satisfying, and something of an ancestral model for the later Swede Allan Pettersson. The Sixth is the oddest, querulous and enigmatic, and my favorite of the latter works. Here's a concert recording of it, and listen for the passage at 7:57 where the music suffers the composer's then-recent heart attack. (Shades of Terry Gilliam and the Black Beast of Aaaargh!)

Friday, June 5, 2015

concert reviews

The backstory behind my review of the Masterworks Chorale performance of Les Misérables is that the last time I heard them, in Carmina Burana, the soloists were singing like it was an Italian opera and the chorus was singing like it was a German oratorio. It clashed, and not to the chorus's benefit. Would they do better in an explicitly staged work? They did, though the chorus as a group was far superior to having individual members singled out for small solo parts. It was a respectable, not brilliant, performance, and I gave it a respectful, not enthused, review. Next year they're doing Man of La Mancha, and they'd better get someone really good for the lead of that one.

That was last Saturday. Wednesday I ran over to Stanford because a student ensemble was doing Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians at Dinky. This 1976 work is an hour's pure, undiluted additive sectional minimalism, the real stuff. I was drawn to this because Reich's music draws a visceral reaction from me unlike that of any other composer, even other minimalists: a positive visceral reaction, I should add. This evening's event was not ideal in that respect, but it was still satisfying and a rare opportunity. As we left, I saw George Barth, the Stanford piano professor and co-convener of the Reactions to the Record symposia, who remarked, "That was fun." I entirely agree.

My beef is with the people who run the Music Department's e-mail calendar. Even though I subscribe to this, I only knew about this concert because I'd happened to stop by campus last weekend and saw a poster for it. The dept. sends out its calendar late on Wednesday afternoons, and they cover one week starting that evening. Wednesday is the day that B. often works late, so I can't go out in the evening without missing dinner, which is unfair not to plan in advance. After I thus missed one concert I'd particularly wanted to attend, I wrote them asking for a longer or slightly more in-advance coverage, and they irritated me exceedingly by responding, "There were many conversations about the timing and coverage of the Arts Weekly when we launched it several years ago. There are definitely readers who want more advance notice, and as many who scheduling their time with a 'what's going on in the next hour?' approach." The setting these up as oppositional, so that one taste gets its way and the other is just out of luck, is fallacious and offensive, though I didn't put it quite that way when I wrote back. I did say that I found it hard to credit that there was a significant body of readers who'd refuse to attend a concert unless they were left in the dark about its existence until three hours beforehand; and why do they only go on Wednesdays?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

the movies come to me

The last couple weeks have been my time to catch up on DVD with all the movies I didn't see last year. Six out of eight are historical films, five of them set within the last century: I have a weakness for these as long as they're not too mechanically bio-pics. All of these were well-acted, most of them well-written. I liked most of them and I'm not sorry I saw any.

Mr. Turner
Unquestionably a great movie, but that doesn't mean it's very enjoyable. Tedious: no plot. Turner does one thing, then he does another thing, and so it goes, on and on for hours. Movies should have plots. I'd be bored to have to sit and watch even my own life presented this way. I began to enumerate reasons why I enjoyed Leigh's equally long and nearly as rambling Topsy-Turvy much more than this.
1. I'm just more interested in and knowledgeable about Gilbert and Sullivan than I am about early 19C English landscape painting, or indeed painting of any time or place.
2. Topsy-Turvy does have a plot of sorts - the creation and production of The Mikado - albeit one frequently diluted and digressed from.
3. It's more interesting to watch singers and actors sing and act than it is to watch painters paint.
4. Gilbert could be extremely funny. Turner, not so much.

Big Eyes
Another historical movie about an artist, though putting Margaret Keane in the same class as J.M.W. Turner does cause a little seasick feeling. You know this is a Tim Burton film from frame one, as it starts with Amy Adams living in the same sun-bleached and matte-framed suburb that Dianne Weist lives in in Edward Scissorhands, except now it's somewhere in Northern California. The main question this movie has to answer is how and why Margaret let Walter take credit for the paintings. Script, director, and actors are all pretty deft in dealing with this. Yet much of the rest makes little sense at all (If "S. Cenic" is not, as Walter claims, his pseudonym, then who is it?) and I'm skeptical of its forensic accuracy on a number of points. Still, the court paint-off was real, and this wasn't the only time a trial about art climaxed with a painting made under court supervision.

The Imitation Game
First of the "British Eccentric Gawky Male Genius" diptych. Benedict Cumberbatch is bloody brilliant, but I didn't have to know all that much about Turing or Bletchley Park to know that the script is hacky and the plot is garbled to the point of nonsense. You don't have to do that, you know; a more accurate story won't interfere with your precious "what did it feel like?" and might even give a better answer to that question.

The Theory of Everything
"British Eccentric Gawky Male Genius" no. 2. Not quite so brilliantly acted, but more than adequate in that department. Less inaccurate and better-written, but also much more evasive on what its subject actually did that made him such a genius. Pretty good at wrapping up the the awkward trailing off of the real-life story into a satisfying cinematic package.

Story: moving. David Oyelowo: amazingly versatile actor. Artificial MLK speeches (they didn't have rights to the real things): as effective as the originals. Political context: Sorry, but Robert Schenkkan's play The Great Society does a much better job of portraying the conflicting pressures on LBJ and how he responded to them. The movie also treats King's aborting of the second march as an inexplicable enigma, but it was nothing of the sort.

Although the movie's not really about wrestling, it turns out that you do need to know something about wrestling in order to follow it. My complete lack of knowledge of the sport - I can't tell who's winning or losing until the ref holds someone's arm up - was a hindrance. So did the lack of explanation for the motivations of any of the characters. Mark's epic poutiness over one admittedly cruel dismissive insult seems disproportionate, and his passivity in response even more so. Why did Dave come, after he'd so definitively refused earlier? And, above all, why did John shoot Dave? In real life, the courts decided that John was just insane, but the movie doesn't hint towards that, instead implying various possible motives that don't hold up. The opposite of The Imitation Game, this is a movie too imprisoned by reality, and for the sake of filmic craft, it might be better if it hadn't been made.

A Most Violent Year
Oscar Isaac, an actor I knew only as Llewyn Davis, plays a totally different kind of character: a soft-spoken, well-groomed, repressed businessman who's trying (and not entirely succeeding) at being honest in a shady trade, heating-oil distribution. Everything's lining up against him, including David Oyelowo as the local DA, and his trucks are being hijacked at a rate rendered incredible by the eventual explanation of who's responsible for it.

St. Vincent
An entry in the genre of "crusty bachelor makes friends with a boy and shows his true humanity" (see About a Boy and others). Bill Murray has inherited Jack Nicholson's old position as the go-to actor for annoying crusty old bastards who turn out to be lovable, and about time. Melissa McCarthy gets a solid starring role as the boy's mother, and about time for that, too.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

pundits ahoy

Posting these so that I can look at them next summer and snicker:

A guy who says that Jeb Bush will win the nomination.

A guy who says that Jeb Bush won't win the nomination.

A guy who says that only Jeb Bush and Scott Walker have a real chance at the nomination.

quasigrecian thoughts

1. I'm seriously out of it in the pop-culture news. (Remember that I don't watch TV news or talk programs: when I do see them, in waiting rooms or in clips on The Daily Show - I do watch that - I can feel my brain melting by the second.) Consequently the story of Caitlyn Jenner is passing me by. I was never exactly sure who Bruce Jenner was, anyway - yes, I could look it up, but it's the fact that I'd have to do so, plus I'd just immediately forget again - and, like Mark Evanier, I'm already at the point where I don't care whether some celebrity has had a sex change or not.

2. I also feel terribly out of it regarding this Duggar sex abuse case. At least the name "Bruce Jenner" had been vaguely familiar; I had literally never heard of the Duggars before this scandal broke, and was surprised to learn they'd been TV stars for a decade already. At least I'd vaguely heard of Honey Boo-Boo before that became a scandal, although I hadn't been sure who - or, for that matter, what - that was either.

3. Speaking of Mark Evanier, at last here's somebody speaking in favor of two spaces between sentences. I link with enthusiasm. I really don't understand why anyone thinks that a sentence beginning with the name "St. Louis" should have no more space before the "St." than after it, and if you're going to adjust proportionality by hand, you can just goddam work with two spaces as easily as one, or else run a global search-and-replace to eliminate them if you bloody well care that much.

4. At last, an answer to the question that has baffled the ages! A former Navy chaplain is here to tell you how the existence of same-sex marriage harms his opposite-sex marriage. The problem is, of his seven reasons,
#1 is contentless;
#7 requires you to watch a 28-minute video to get the reason, and while I'm willing to read what he has to say, I'm not willing to watch him rant for 28 minutes (see above, re: television);
#s 2, 3, and 5 are distressed at the tax effects of the increase in the number of marriages (which really isn't very large) and thus all amount to arguing for the elimination of tax benefits of marriage (all marriages, not just same-sex ones) to keep single people's (not opposite-sex married couple's) taxes lower - the harm he's feeling is to his pocketbook, not his marriage;
#4 is about not letting couples adopt if they're unwilling to support a child's LGBT self-identification, and has nothing to do with some other couple being same-sex at all;
and, as for #6, if he doesn't like his church's policies of inclusion, they don't harm his marriage, and he can go join some other, more bigoted church more to his liking. It's a free country. Nobody's making any church marry anyone it doesn't want to.

5. Slightly less baffling. I went to change my smoke detector, and noticed, mounted on the upper wall next to it - we've lived here over seven years, and I couldn't recall ever having paid attention to it before - a box. I removed the cover, and found some electric gadgetry inside that looks as old as the house is. Embossed inside the cover were the words "Model KA-10." Nothing else. I Googled this in hopes of figuring out what the box was, and found suggestions that it is:
1) a battery-operated platform scale for restaurant use;
2) a keyboard amplifier speaker;
3) a remote-controlled model airplane;
4) a 1949-model helicopter;
5) a magnifying glass; or
6) a portable piston air compressor.
Any of which would be very exciting to find mounted on our wall. Ah, Google, how I love you.
In the process of perusing this list, it belatedly occurred to me to remember that I had noticed the box before, and that it is:
7) our doorbell chime.