Wednesday, April 26, 2017

concert review: Murray Perahia

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

concert review: Dover Quartet

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

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

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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

workshop review: theatricality and the string quartet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

wickedly funny

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

concert review: Stanford

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

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

a cluster of holidays

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 15, 2017

concert review: Redwood Symphony

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

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

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

Friday, April 14, 2017

items impersonal

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Tolkien Studies 14: an announcement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 10, 2017

and then it turned out ...

... that installing the Bluetooth software disabled Outlook.

Outlook is an important program for me. I maintain all my e-mails on it.

Amazingly, however, repeatedly insisting to Windows that I wanted to start Outlook anyway eventually reversed the polarity and caused Outlook to disable Bluetooth instead.

However, since I was done with Bluetooth and hope never to have to use it again until the next time I buy a new cell phone and have to upload a ringtone when there's no other way to do it, that satisfies me.

I refuse to use wireless accessories on my computer, and this gives me another reason why.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

nightmare in blue

One nuisance of getting a new cell phone is that if you want your own choice of ringtone you have to upload it from scratch again. There's no way to pass it over.

In previous iterations, I think I was able to send the ringtone directly from the site I got it from to my phone. But this time, I was told on the website to save the file and upload it to my phone. Also, the tutorials on the phone's website say that the only way to get files on or off the phone is via Bluetooth, using the phone to connect with the other device which also has Bluetooth.

Bluetooth. Great. I didn't have Bluetooth on my computer. Neither did B. As of yesterday morning, I knew exactly two things about Bluetooth:

1. It's some sort of wireless communication protocol.
2. It's named for an ancient king of Denmark.

Now I know a lot more, including why it's named for an ancient king of Denmark, but first I had to learn it. I read the Wikipedia article, which amazingly was helpful. Then I set out to find some Bluetooth.

I didn't have Bluetooth.
B. didn't have Bluetooth.
The phone repair store didn't have Bluetooth.
The AT&T store didn't have Bluetooth.
Nobody had Bluetooth. Why does the phone require it, then?

The last told me I could buy a Bluetooth device at the computer store for maybe $10. If I hadn't already read on the Wikipedia article about the existence of Bluetooth transmitters that plug into computer USB ports, I wouldn't have had any idea what the guy was talking about, but I did, so I went.

After some trouble finding it, including sending a phalanx of employees around looking for the guy who ran that department, I bought a Bluetooth USB Dongle. I thought that was a slang word, but that's what they're actually called.

The guy said it was plug and play. It wasn't. It came with an installation disk. The disk was 3.25 inch instead of 4.75 inch, so I had to figure out how to get my computer's CD-ROM reader to take one of those without it falling through the hole in the middle.

The installation process gave me some cryptic error messages, but seemed to work. I had to correlate the Dongle's manual with the phone's online tutorials, and found that neither set of instructions bore more than the remotest resemblance to the actual processes, either of getting the phone and the Dongle to recognize each other, or of then designating the ringtone file on my computer and getting it transferred. Only years of experience trying various tricks on recalcitrant computers enabled me to get past the various error messages, failure messages, and lack of options where the instructions told me options should be, and complete the process.

All to put a ringtone on a phone. Good gravy.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

some news

1. To my amazement, when my anti-virus program finally expired today, I was able to re-load and register it with the help of only one quick call to customer support. I'd thought my renewal had been canceled, but somehow I now have it for four years instead of the offered two.

2. On my trip to the wildflowers, my cell phone died. Not exactly: it was still on, I could still make calls on it, but the screen was totally dead. I took it to a repair shop and they said it could actually be fixed, for $90. I judged that, since I could buy a new one for $50 (I'm still sticking with clamshell dumb phones), I'd be willing to go through the hassle of learning a new model.

The one that the AT&T store is selling these days is from a company called LG, which they claim stands for "Life's Good." Yeah, well, it would be better if your cell phone weren't so irritating for its lack of options, like one to silence the on/off tone without also silencing the ringtone. And boy did I struggle to write my first text message on the thing, because instead of putting in what you type it changes it to what it thinks you mean, and it's always wrong. At one point it thought that "home" was "gooe" and asked me to add that to the dictionary, so I had to inform it that "home" is a word. Then I lost the whole message while trying to figure out how to put a period at the end of it.

3. Review later, but this will probably not go in it, so:
Dear parents, When you take your small son to the symphony, even if you dress him up for the occasion, if he spends the whole concert squirming, rattling his program, whispering in your ears, and so bugfck restless that he chews up the end of his tie, then he is bored and he is not appreciating the music. I don't blame him - I wouldn't have gotten much out of such advanced stuff as this when I was his age, either - but please put him, and yourselves, and me - the innocent bystander you chose to sit right in front of at this open-seating concert - out of our collective miseries and let him play outside or something.

Friday, April 7, 2017

wildflower alliance

I used a slight pause in my usual schedule of reading and computer-sitting to take advantage of the fact that I live in California. I spent yesterday on a wildflower-sighting expedition. After the heavy rains of last winter, this is becoming a spectacular spring for them, and I thought it about time I took something more than a desultory look.

The peak has been moving slowly northward with the sun, and this week it was reported to have reached Carrizo Plain, a place I'd long wanted to return to. Located high up in the coastal mountains some distance south of here (basically, you drive up the Salinas Valley and then turn left), in the deep countryside some 50 miles from any actual towns, Carrizo Plain is a rift valley generated by the San Andreas Fault (oh, relax: we're used to earthquake-related geology around here). It's a national monument (BLM variety, not NPS) with a small visitor center, which wasn't yet true when I was last there.

After an early lunch in Morro Bay, a small coastal town with a huge rock and lots of great seafood restaurants, I drove up into the mountains. At first I saw mostly little clusters of orange California poppies, the state flower, by the roadside; then these gave way to various yellow and blue flowers. Soon I could see that the green hills - themselves a temporary phenomenon; 9 months of the year the grass is brown - held splashes of yellow so intense as to be visible half a mile, then - as the vistas broadened - 3 or 4 miles, then even ten miles off.

In the plain itself, the wildflower carpets - mostly different species than I'd seen earlier on - were sometimes so thick as to eradicate the green. Flowers were even growing in the alkali flats. There were a fair number of people around, even on a weekday, taking photos or just looking.

When I reported to B., she was more interested in the fauna. I saw a wild turkey, lots of crows, and a couple lizards darting into the underbrush: larger, darker-colored, and more broadly built than the tiny brown fence lizards we have at home. Many visitors brought their dogs to see the flowers, including one giant black poodle the size of a Great Dane.

The plain is actually closer to the Central Valley than to the coast highways, so when I left at 4:30 I just headed east, down the precipitous slopes into the low valley, and for dinner sought out the rather good Indian restaurant that improbably sprouted up at the I-5 Buttonwillow exit some years back. From there, a straight marathon run back home.

Photos, we have a few: just of the flowers, mostly. The colors, though, were ever so much more vivid in person.

This one shows the ground carpet effect, a little of the alkali, and a distant view of yellow splashes on the hillside.

A closer view of a hillside splash.

What the splash flowers look like close up.

This was the most common flower on the plain. From a distance, they look yellow and black, but close up it appears that the black is an illusion.

But it's not a monoculture.

A typical human sight: people taking photos of family members sitting in the flower beds. From their ages when I saw them closer up, this seems to have been a teenage boy taking a photo of his mother, with Dad looking on. (Yes, that's an actual lake - another seasonal rarity in the desert - in the background.)

A different mix of flowers in a field some 30 miles to the west. (At Shell Creek, for anyone who cares about the geography.)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

additional items

1. As a Honda owner, I got an e-mail a while back inviting me to test-drive their hydrogen fuel-cell car, the Clarity. I went to this a few weeks ago. Fuel-cell technology is old; the trick was making one small enough and reliable enough to use in a car. They seem to have done this, and the car is fun to drive. It's also surprisingly inexpensive to lease (no outright sales), as they're trying to build up the numbers so as to encourage the building of infrastructure, i.e. fueling stations. So far there are stations around California from Sacramento and Truckee to San Diego, which with a 350-mile range is enough to get you around most of the state except the far north and the eastern deserts. I went to this out of curiosity, but if I were looking for a new car, I'd consider this, except for one thing: they only have a luxury model, which I don't want.

2. Hugo finalists came out yesterday. There are still a few Puppies disfiguring the ballot, but not many, and the Puppy-inspired drop in female finalists has been entirely reversed: out of 24 fiction candidates, 17 are by women: 71%, the highest ever. Looks like we won the war on this front.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017


1. Much talk of Mike Pence's rule of never being alone with a woman not his wife. Assorted thoughts: 1) does that apply to his daughters? his mother? (I don't know if she's still alive, but according to Wikipedia she lived at least long enough to witness his conversion to evangelicalism, of which as a Catholic she did not approve.) 2) At least it's better than Trump's rule of grabbing them by the ... 3) I thought conservative Christians disapproved of Sharia law, but whatever. 4) Is the purpose to avoid the appearance of impropriety, or fear of Glenn Close's character in Fatal Attraction, or - most likely - the self-loathing of men who (like the protagonist of Melanie Jeschke's Christian romance novel Inklings) fear female sexuality because they're men and they can't help themselves?

2. I'm saving this link to a recipe for creamy lemon pasta.

3. Yevgeny Yevtushenko died. Aside from Shostakovich's fabulously creepy setting of his poem "Babi Yar", I think of him mostly from Kingsley Amis's account of meeting him in Cambridge in 1962, at which Yevtushenko confessed his admiration of Kipling ("Isn't he an imperialist?" He gave a brief shout of laughter. "Oh yes. But ... good.") and recited from a Russian translation of same which, according to Amis, sounded like this:
Boots, boots, boots, boots, koussevitsky borodin
Boots, boots, boots, boots, dostoievsky gospodin
4. I'm really going to have to go to the library so I can finish reading this article.

5. Popped down to Lyric Theatre to catch their production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida. This was marketed as a feminist show and used to promote a fund-raiser for girls' education; did they not see the third act? Regardless of the deflating ending, this was a good production with an especially fine turn by Elana Cowen as the imperious Lady Blanche.

6. I like the anti-virus program that the shop installed in my new computer a year ago, but I strongly and emphatically dislike the protocol for renewing my subscription, which caught me in a hellhole of endless loops and disputable charges which not even a friendly human in customer service, when I finally found a phone number for one, could get me out of. It keeps warning me I need to renew, and when I click on the link, keeps telling me I already have (which I did, or I think I did). It expires in 3 more days, and if it turns out it hasn't renewed, I'm taking it back to the shop, having the program removed, and replaced with the different one they're selling this year.

7. An occasional visit to File 770 (down at the moment, so no links) showed a piece on a huge and expensive library-market reprint volume of Tolkien studies from Routledge, with comments by Tolkien scholars Douglas A. Anderson that they hadn't sought permission, either from him or his publishers, for his contributions, and from Robin Anne Reid that she hadn't even heard of this set.

Well, that may be their experiences, but mine is that I was contacted by editor Stuart Lee (whose existing reputation in Tolkien studies is very good) a couple years ago to offer my comments on a prospective list of contents, and then again by him for permission to include two of my own essays. This was followed not two months ago by an e-mail from an in-house editor at Routledge to confirm formal permission for my pieces, adding that they'd already contacted the publishers of same.

Maybe I received this favor because I was a contributor to Stuart's previous Tolkien collection (original rather than reprint material, different publisher, expensive but more widely distributed), while Doug and Robin were not. But I should also add that news about the Routledge volume has made it into the grapevine.

As Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull say therein, and Robin observes as well, this is a rather unnecessary set as any libraries that can afford or would want it probably already have everything in it in their original publications, and is mostly intended to cadge money out of unwary collection development librarians. No doubt true, but I see no reason to attempt to disfigure the project by refusing my passive participation.

8. Speaking of Tolkien publications, the very last piece for this year's edition of Tolkien Studies has just come in formatted from my co-editor for my final review before it goes off to the publisher, so I'd best get on that now.

Monday, April 3, 2017

photographic proof

Before the funeral: the family (me, my brothers, my father's relatives by marriage).


I'm seated at right. Next to me is my stepmother, then my younger brother, then my stepmother's sister. Standing behind are the sister's family (ex-husband, daughter, son-in-law, son [also married, with a small child, but they're at home in Australia]), and at the far right my middle brother.

Me and a bunch of rocks.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

concert review: Danish National Symphony Orchestra

Usually a visiting foreign orchestra brings out the expatriate/immigrant community in force, literally waving flags. I've been to concert halls full of Venezuelans, even Kazakhs. But apparently there are no Danes around here, because only about half an audience, and that an everyday one, turned up at Davies for this largely blonde orchestra and its Italian conductor, Fabio Luisi.

Too bad, because it was a good show. No Danish classical concert would be complete without a piece by national icon Carl Nielsen, and here it was his curtain-raising show-stopper, the Helios Overture, in which the sun rises, crosses the sky in a blaze of glory (Nielsen wrote this on a vacation in Greece, and couldn't get over how sunny it was down there), and sets, all in 12 minutes.

Wagner's Wesendonk Songs. Local favorite Deborah Voigt has a regal soprano, but even in quiet music Wagner's orchestra does his singers no favors, and as far as the lyrics were concerned it came out like this:
And a bounding, eager, excited Beethoven Eroica, an outstandingly dynamic performance.

Judging from the conversations I heard on the way out, everybody in the audience recognized the schmaltzy encore, but nobody knew what it was. "Was that de Falla?" No, it wasn't de Falla. "Was it The Merry Widow?" It wasn't The Merry Widow. It was, in fact, that hoary pops favorite Jalousie "Tango Tzigane", and the reason the Danish National Orchestra chose such an unlikely-seeming piece for its encore is because, in fact, its composer was Danish. Yes, he was.

As the last ovation died away, something happened that I'd never seen before. Virtually all the members of the orchestra hugged their stand partner.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

concert review: Oakland Symphony

Gabriela Lena Frank, Concertino Cusqueño. Her orchestral works are even more colorful than her string quartets.

Anton Bruckner, Te Deum. This devout Catholic composer for some reason nearly gave up writing large-scale sacred music in his maturity; this is one of the few. Typical Bruckner orchestral noodling overlaid with vocal lines. Great chorus work, and outstanding principal soloists in powerful soprano Hope Briggs and well-textured tenor Amitai Pati.

Antonín Dvořák, Symphony from the New World. Closest existing work to the Platonic ideal of a symphony, this unsurprisingly had won an audience poll for what to play. Impressively deliberate performance of the introduction and slow movement, broad and stately in the finale.

Very good show. Glad that B. could accompany me to this, as it was a special occasion for me.

Friday, March 31, 2017

concerts in London

My free day in London (about 6 pm Saturday-6 pm Sunday) allowed me to squeeze in two concerts.

Saturday evening, after an improbably spicy dinner in one of the less touristy parts of Chinatown, I wandered down a couple blocks to the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, one of the least field-like open spaces in the western world, for one of their regular "[Baroque composer] by Candlelight" concerts.

This one was "Vivaldi by Candlelight," but though there were lots of candles around, the house lights were not entirely down, and strong beam lights glaring down from the sanctuary windows kept the musicians' parts illuminated. Nor was the music entirely Vivaldi, but a mixture.

The generically-named ensemble was nowhere near as good as the church's famous namesake Academy. They played Pachelbel's Canon as if it had been written for mechanical clock, and there was something rancid in their Bach Adagio. I doubt anyone else noticed.

Sunday morning I got to another one of the 11:30 AM coffee concerts at the noted recital venue, Wigmore Hall. This time the program was one I'd be likely to attend anyway: pianist Tamar Beraia performing Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Schumann's Carnaval (two attractive and varied suites which have in common that Maurice Ravel orchestrated both of them, though most people only know about the one).

Beraia played with a strongly heavy hand, or two, with emphatic and thundering emphases. This suited the Mussorgsky fairly well, but led to some incongruities in the Schumann, plus a couple of conspicuously wrong notes.

I was waiting in the queue at the box office to purchase a ticket, and the man in front of me was trying to exchange his not-able-to-attend companion's ticket for one to a future concert. When the attendant said they can't do that, he just bought the future ticket, then turned to me and said, "Are you looking for a single ticket? You can have this one." Fortunately I had the presence of mind to offer to pay him for it, and he the courtesy to accept. He then said, "See you in the hall" and disappeared for the moment. But apart from his saying "Thank you" when I stood up to let him in to his seat, we did not exchange a single word for the entire course of the concert, because this was England.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Black Wednesday

I was in the UK on the previous day that earned this term, the day in 1992 that the pound dropped out of the European exchange rate mechanism. I was there again on this Wednesday, the one when Mrs May pressed the self-destruct button. The news reports seemed kind of subdued, though, except for a kind of false jollity in the right-wing press, as if they were trying to convince themselves that this was something to celebrate. I hope there will still be a Britain to come back to, whenever I do.

Speaking of which, I squeezed in an extra day to my journey and met up with Tolkien Society folk at the same time, same day of the week, and in the same pub that we met in on my last visit. Exactly the same people showed up, too, which is an effective way of finding out who your friends are.

My brother and I made a success out of our drive out to Wales, for which we had most of a day free. On our previous visit, we had been driven by necessity to eat the vile fast food at the motorway rest areas, having been unable to locate anywhere else at major exits as they'd be in the US. This time I checked Google Maps beforehand, and discovered that casual dining restaurants as we know them in the US do exist in Britain, it's just that they're in remote suburban shopping centers a couple miles off the motorway, where you'd never find them unless you already had directions. We ate at a place called Toby's Carvery, whose carvery didn't look very appealing, but we made decent enough small meals out of appetizers and soup.

While lunching at the one in Reading, realizing we'd have enough time and good weather for a small detour, I pulled out the map and we looked. "Stonehenge," said my brother. "In all my trips to England, I've never been there." So we went; and I have to say that, for a monument that's been there for 5000 years, it's certainly changed a lot in the 20 since I was last there. They've closed the highway that ran right past it, demolished the old visitor center nearby, and built a newer, larger, and tackier one three miles away (to restore the pristine quality of the original site), and run shuttle buses up the closed road so you can get there. Some people denigrate Stonehenge as a tourist attraction, but it remains one of the weirdest, and coolest, sites I've ever visited.

And, oh yes, our makeshift attempts at formal clothing proved quite satisfactory for the funeral.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

alas, a funeral

It was while driving the familiar twisty narrow road with the long Welsh name up the hill that it hit me in that visceral way: when I get to the house, my father won't be there.

My stepmother and her immediate family, all of them close to my father, were there, however, and so were my brothers, and that was comforting as we prepared to pile in to the limos and head off to the crematorium. As I've found before, being a pallbearer is more about the physical effort and care of what you're doing than about what it symbolises. But the ceremony was dignified. Though secular, it included a recording of a choir singing a Sabbath hymn to acknowledge Jewish heritage, plus the group singing of one church hymn in Welsh, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

(And suddenly I incongruously remembered something else my father had done for us. The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Allan Sherman parodied that on his first album. My father introduced us all to Allan Sherman's work, buying each of his albums as it came out and bringing it home with some ceremony.)

The small chapel, or whatever one calls it, was packed. He was well-respected in this small Welsh town, almost (not quite) the only American there. Interesting after building a fair community reputation back in California, he retired to Wales and then did it all over again. One of the first things he did here was get the British branch of Rotary International to establish a doctor bank for third-world countries, and to himself go to Pemba (an island off Tanzania) to deliver babies for a couple months.

So I have my memories, and a few mementos to bring or have shipped home. Did a little else here, which I'll save accounting of for my return.

Friday, March 24, 2017

theatre review: not quite Twelfth Night

I knew that what the Filter Theatre was putting on was not going to be your conventional Twelfth Night, but I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to get.

It didn't begin well. On an undecorated stage with equipment sitting around, a jazz combo played boring jazz music for too long, and then Orsino, who'd been conducting them for a while (I kept hoping his gestures were going to mean "stop"), speaking into a microphone, began his first line like this:

"If ...

If music ...

If music be ...

If music be the ..."

And so on, and on, and on. It's going to be a long night, I thought.

But it got better. As Viola comes on stage, a transistor radio is emitting a weather report. When she asks, "What country is this?" it's the voice on the radio that replies, "This is Illyria, lady." That was funny. Then she borrows a man's coat and hat from the audience to disguise herself. (Yes, really: I saw her give them back after the show was over.)

Toby, Andrew, and Maria's night-time carousing took the form of a musically-accompanied carnival, including audience participation in nerf-ball fights and a conga line. This went on very long, but it made Malvolio's furious shutting down of the party all the funnier.

On the other hand, there was nothing in the least bit imaginative or clever about the duel or the reunion scene.

Finished up the play in 90 minutes without intermission. Parts were tedious - too many and too much for such a short show - but parts were pretty good.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

oh, help

It's a day before I leave for my father's funeral, and my brothers and I get an e-mail from our stepmother with this in it:
I am sorry to emphasise this again but men attending the funeral will be formally dressed in either suit, or pants and jacket but all with shirt and black tie. I am sure you would all like to show the same respect to Robert.
I have to say this threw me totally for a loop. I'm well aware that "black tie" in an invitation is code for formal evening wear, what in Britain is called a dinner jacket and in America a tuxedo. And as Britain is already a more formal country than America, the word "formally" carries special weight there.

On the other hand, could she possibly expect men to wear a tux to a funeral? In the afternoon? Nobody would do that in the US, but I have no idea what British funeral customs are. And the "but all with" last part sounds as if we could wear the bow tie and fancy white shirt of a tux (why mention a shirt at all - it's not as if we'd attend topless - unless she meant a specific kind of shirt?) with other clothes for the rest. That would make no sense whatever.

My younger brother, the law professor, whose judgment I trust, says I'm overthinking this, and it means just wear a dark and sober tie. B. agrees with him, and thinks it's addressed at my middle brother, the engineering technician, who's apt to wear an open-neck shirt and lounge jacket even to a wedding. I already talked to him a few days ago and persuaded him that for this he needs to go out and buy a dress jacket and sober tie, which I gather he didn't already own.

But I just don't know. I mean, mistaking "black tie" on an invitation as meaning "wear a tie that's black" is one of the classic fashion faux pas. I don't even have a black tie, unless you count one with white checks all over it, though I do have a couple dark monocolored ones. My younger brother, who has better diplomatic skills than I, has agreed to query for a clarification, but he may not hear back before I leave. I'm thinking of staying up late enough to phone the Cardiff office of Debenham's when they open and asking them what they think, and whether it'd be even possible to hire evening-wear in my unusual size and shape on two business days' notice. But in the meantime, I can use any advice I can get.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is from Montana. He is, if my statistics are correct, the first US cabinet officer ever from Montana. (FDR was going to have one, but he died just before taking office.)

My statistics also say that this marks 48 states that have provided cabinet officers. The two states bereft of cabinet representation throughout US history are South Dakota (Obama was going to have one, but he had to withdraw) and Nevada.

He is also the first US cabinet officer to begin with a Z, thus completing that set except for Q and X.

concert review: St. Petersburg Philharmonic

I couldn't resist Shostakovich's Fifth performed by the same orchestra (though not, obviously, the same individual musicians) that gave the first performance nearly 80 years ago. (And to think the work was a mere stripling of 35 when I first heard it.)

The most notable aspects of this performance were the richness of the inner string sound in the slow sections, and the sheer vehemence, especially in the percussion, of the loud climaxes. Not so much the scherzo, which was light and witty, in violation of the current fashion for treating all Shostakovich scherzi as portraits in terror of Stalin; but the climax of the first movement and the entire finale were drastically enhanced. Even the slow wandering section in the middle of the finale seethed with looming menace.

But what I most appreciated were little touches of superb ensemble, such as the absolutely perfect meshing of celesta and harp in the final bars of the slow movement.

The other work on the program was Brahms' First Piano Concerto, a heavy warhorse of a different color. Garrick Ohlsson was the soloist, and as there's no pianist more capable of a light, silvery touch than he, it was quite a surprise in a hefty, dramatic Brahms concerto. But Ohlsson can pound it out with the best, too.

No surprise that it was conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, who's been leading this outfit since Mravinsky died some three decades past. Yes, I know. It's hard to keep track of famous Russian conductors making fools of themselves offstage, but Temirkanov is not the one who's cozying up to Putin, nor the one who thinks women are not properly suited to be conductors. He's the other one who thinks women are not properly suited to be conductors. Yes, there's two of these idiots.

It's self-evidently true that a lot of women can conduct just fine. But so can Temirkanov. He and his band gave a good show up in sopping wet San Francisco.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

an ending

Well. The news is, my father died yesterday.

I went over to Wales to see him last November. He had just turned 88 and was very frail, but seemed to be puttering along adequately. But he'd had medical scares in the past, and over the last month went into a serious decline. So I was mentally prepared for this. When I spoke with my stepmother on the phone after she came back from the hospital, she seemed more weary from accumulated stress than anything else. But she has a good support network and will be OK.

I will of course return for the funeral. The date hasn't been set yet. Lightning trips overseas are not something I'll find easy. But it will manage.

My relationship with my father was a complicated one which will not easily fit in this space. When I was a boy, some facile guidance counselor once suggested that Dad and I bond by tossing a ball around in the back yard. Neither of us could think of anything we were less interested in doing. Our ability to communicate in other ways was often at about that level.

Nevertheless, my father did much for me for which I remain grateful. He provided his part of a solid and secure family home life throughout my childhood. He, also with my mother's help, kept books and music around the house which I drew on for self-education. The books were mostly history; I was reading then-new tomes like The Arms of Krupp and Alistair Horne on the Fall of France when I was 12 years old.

He drove us on long vacations which took us to 36 of the 50 states before I left home. He paid for my undergraduate education (which is something a successful upper-middle-class income could easily afford in those days), and never raised any objections over my career choice of librarian instead of a more "manly" occupation like his own of physician. (He was an ob-gyn, which in any case is hardly the most macho of medical specialties.)

And he taught me two obscure but useful skills which I celebrated on his last birthday anniversary.

Friday, March 17, 2017

I'm not Irish

I'm seeing more St. Patrick's Day references in my reading list than usual, so this may be a good time to explain the effects of my not being Irish. Not even a little bit, unless something really surprising comes up when I take the genetic spit test.

B., however, has some Irish (though she's mostly German), and that came up when we were discussing what to have for dinner tonight. She's Catholic, and it's a Friday in Lent, so nothing with meat, and I won't have time today to make a complex dish. But the Irish in her didn't take to the idea of tofu or polenta on St. Patrick's, so I said all right, I'll roast her some tiny potatoes. She likes that, and there's nothing more Irish than potatoes.

I, however, do not eat potatoes. At all. I'll have to have something else. Which is OK, but it gives me the opportunity to bring up a natural phenomenon in the form of a rule of thumb (that is, it's not precisely true, but it works as a generalization) that applies only to me.

[My liking of a culture's food] + [My liking of that culture's music] = [constant]

That is to say, the more I like the one, the less I like the other.

The two extremes of this are Irish and Cajun/Creole. Potato is, I'm reliably told, entirely ubiquitous in Ireland, and not eating it would be a real burden there. (I've never been.) On the other hand, I adore Irish folk music. It is my favorite folk music in all the world. I can listen to it endlessly. Do you know a 1970s group called the Bothy Band? Gee, I'd like to be able to sing like that. I even like a lot of ersatz Irish music, like Enya and the stuff from Riverdance.

At the other end, I love Creole and especially Cajun food. I have visited Louisiana four times in my life, and each time my primary goal was to eat. There's nowhere else I've taken entire trips to for that purpose. But I don't like their music. 95% of jazz does nothing for me; zydeco doesn't appeal either.

That applies across the board. What's my favorite European cuisine? Italian. (Special virtue: it eschews potato.) But what's the biggest hole in my appreciation of classical music? Italian opera. Just don't care for it. My Italian music canon consists of Gabrieli canzonas, Rossini overtures (just the overtures), and Respighi suites and tone poems, not a representative selection.

Even in the rest of the world. I eat Asian food of almost all kinds, except Japanese which I have to treat with great caution. But Japanese composers have written by far the finest Western classical music in all of Asia, really great stuff.

What other food is Irish? I think mostly of boiled meat, a method of cooking it that doesn't much appeal to me; it's usually served inextricably mixed with potato (e.g. Irish stew), and is out on a Friday in Lent anyway. Irish-Americans traditionally eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's, though I dunno what they'll do today (descendants of Ulster Protestants in this country tend not to consider themselves culturally Irish), and the dish's claim to be Irish and not just Irish-American is dubious. Jews also eat corned beef, but as a Jew I have to say that I find Irish corned beef to be exceedingly goyische. I think they boil it.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

victory over wordage

Wednesday was a successful working day. I tackled the one remaining item I needed to cover for the Year's Work in Tolkien Studies: a large anthology of commissioned articles. Too integrated to be appropriate to set out all the papers separately, but too important to treat as if it were a monograph, I ran down each paper in turn. (If this were a book review, I'd never have written it this way: I hate reviews that do that. But the Year's Work serves a different purpose.)

And I wrote all 2400 words of it in one day. I'd read all the articles before, months ago, but I only had notes for about half of them. So a lot of reading was involved too. And a whole lot of potting: it's rather challenging to describe 36 well-researched articles in an average of 64 words each, including the titles of the articles.

But that's done, and the next-to-last missing piece from other contributors has also come in, so the ship is that much closer to sailing.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Tolkien studied

Found in some of those journal articles I was perusing yesterday:

Gay landsmanship argument no. 1: When Sam finds Frodo in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, Frodo has been stripped naked by his captors. Nudity = sex, therefore Sam and Frodo are gay.

Gay landsmanship argument no. 2: W.H. Auden was wildly enthusiastic for The Lord of the Rings. Auden was gay, therefore - since he liked it so much - The Lord of the Rings must also be gay.

Gay landsmanship conclusion: Tolkien may have been married for decades to a woman and had four biological children, but either 1) he was gay; 2) he was subconsciously gay; 3) since he was writing a mythology for England, he realized that England was gay.

Moooviefan argument: Tolkien's dialogue is stiff, wordy, and antiquated. It's boring for Eowyn to say "But no living man am I," but when J-Eowyn says "I am no man!" instead, that's hot stuff, and the audience cheered because Jackson's dialogue is so much better, not because of the exciting plot crux. (You don't hear them cheering when they read the book, do you?)

Moooviefan misprision: OK if you want to write an article about Jackson and not about Tolkien. You are, after all, writing in a film studies journal. But in that case, why put Tolkien's name in your title, and not Jackson's?

On the other hand, I was convinced by the proposition that George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire owes less to The Lord of the Rings than to Lord of the Flies; and I chuckled at this anecdote (unrelated to Tolkien, but good) from an interview with Peter Beagle in Foundation:
I can remember being the middle man on a panel in Oregon State. Lord, this would have been 1975–76, with Ursula Le Guin on one side of me and Vonda McIntyre on the other; they’re both old friends, both marvellous writers. For me, Ursula is still the master. And I was enjoying myself immensely just listening to the two of them, but there got to be rustling and grumbling in the back of the hall, a number of male students complaining they had come to hear talk about some good ol' rocket-jockeying science fiction, and not all this 'shrill feminism'. I remember the phrase. And as though they had been planning for it, Ursula peered around me and said, 'Vonda, I don't know how many times I’ve told you about being shrill.' And Vonda, without missing a beat said, 'No, Ursula, dear, I’m strident. You're shrill.' I remember that as a great moment in show business, me in the middle just listening.

Monday, March 13, 2017

concert review: Andras Schiff

For some reason I've never cottoned to Schubert's piano sonatas as I do to his string quartets and symphonies. Schiff played very clearly, but it still didn't strike any emotional resonance with me.

This may have been partly explained by the set of Schubert Impromptus. These can be charming and pretty music, but Schiff's compressed phrasing and his uniformity of tone made them sound sing-songy.

But I wasn't in the most receptive mood, true. I'd just driven up the scenic coast road from the UC Santa Cruz library, where I'd spent a full day hunched over a set of hot research databases. I had my work on my mind, and the news, plus some distressing personal news that's been coming from overseas via e-mail.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

hinky figures

Here's the thing. All winter long, I turn on the front porch light each afternoon that B's at work, because it's dark when she comes home at 6 pm.

Then, just as it's starting to get light enough in the spring that I don't have to do that any more, the clocks change, and she comes home an hour earlier. What's the good in that? If it has to change at all, shouldn't it be going the other way around?

Especially as, just as it's also starting to get light enough for her to see in the morning as she leaves, suddenly she has to leave an hour earlier and is plunged back into darkness again.

Truly it has been said that Daylight Saving Time is like cutting off the end of a blanket and sewing it on to the other end.

It seems to me that the real beef of the proponents of DST is not with human time measurement, but with the axial tilt of the earth. Perhaps they should try passing a law modifying that, and see how much luck they have with it.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Buffy signal-boosting

I found this site averaging out ratings of BTVS episodes. It's several years old, and I also looked up some new 20th-anniversary best-episodes lists, which showed some strong consensus. (Google "best buffy episodes," you'll find plenty.)

It occurred to me that, rather than make my own tiresomely repetitious best episode list (the major variant is that I'm less fond of the season-ending Big Battle episodes than most people are), I should offer my opinion of the most under-rated episodes. I mean, we all know that "Innocence" and "The Wish" and "The Zeppo" and "Doppelgängland" and "Something Blue" and "Hush" and "Who Are You?" and "Restless" and "Once More with Feeling" and "Conversations with Dead People" and the like are great, right? But what about the ones that don't make all the best-of lists or get high ratings in complete evaluations?

DB's Most Under-rated Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes (chronological order)

Lie to Me (2.07)
During the show's heyday, I was on a lot of convention panels about it. On one, we were posed the interesting question: since this show took a while to hit its stride, what's the best episode to introduce people to it with? Had to be a stand-alone, had to hit the major themes, had to be good. Ben Yalow suggested "Lie to Me," the vampire wanna-be episode, and I think he was right.

What's My Line, part 1 (2.09)
Worth it for the (at the time) stunning final line: "I am Kendra, the Vampire Slayer."

Faith, Hope and Trick (3.03)
The first episode I saw. Evaluations mostly diss Mr. Trick. I thought he was a great villain, so suave and cool.

Revelations (3.07)
Gwendolyn Post! Another great guest spot, and an interesting preview variant on Wesley. I was so sorry when Joss didn't hire the same actress to play Adelle on Dollhouse.

Gingerbread (3.11)
The "witch-hunt" episode is important as the only one to face head-on the peculiar premise of mid-period Buffy, when the vampires had become too common to support the early seasons' "secret history" premise, but were not yet openly acknowledged. People were just in denial of the obvious, and this one shows that in operation.

Enemies (3.17)
The "Mr. Light Show" episode. Awesome drama with sinister implications.

The Freshman (4.01)
Had a particularly good gang of guest vampires. "Are we going to fight, or just have a giant sarcasm rally?"

This Year's Girl (4.15)
The essential prelude to the immortally-good "Who Are You?" Faith's blistering encounter with Buffy and Willow is one of the most dramatically intense scenes of the entire series.

Superstar (4.17)
The Jonathan episode. No further comment should be necessary.

Real Me (5.02)
A lot of viewers dislike Dawn, who's the central figure here. I don't; I find her funny rather than annoying. But even better, this is the episode in which the airhead vampire Harmony had her gang of minions, one of whom was played by Tom Lenk, who later returned as Andrew.

Family (5.06)
The yet-to-be-famous Amy Adams plays Tara's Cousin Beth. She only has one big scene, but it's a stunner.

Intervention (5.18)
Introduction of the Buffybot. Her computer readouts are a delight, and so is her Anya-like conversation, especially with Anya. Another demonstration of SMG's acting versatility.

The Weight of the World (5.21)
Widely disliked, but I found this episode in which Willow rummages around inside Buffy's comatose subconscious to have some of the same surreal quality that made "Restless" so good.

And that's about where my real good memories of lesser-known episodes runs out, sorry.

Friday, March 10, 2017

20 years ago today ...

... as various articles have been reminding us, was the premiere of the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was not an event I paid any attention to at the time.

I was never interested in the sort of movies that Joss Whedon was guying by making a girl called Buffy into a vampire slayer, and for many years television and I had not gotten along. Every time I wandered into the living room and caught bits of some show that B. was watching, within 15 minutes I was making so many sarcastic remarks that I would leave before I was kicked out.

So for two years I resolutely ignored everything that B., and my old confederate DGK, and various others were saying about how great this program was. What I finally wandered in to the living room and watched was the last part of "Faith, Hope and Trick," which was the third episode of the third season. It actually looked kind of interesting, and I started paying more attention, and gradually figuring out who the characters were.

The episode that really sold me on Buffy was "Doppelgängland," the 16th of the season. I'd seen the previews the previous week. I'd figured this episode was going to be pure fan service for the boys who wanted to see Alyson Hannigan in leather again. I rolled my eyes. But it was so clever, with Hannigan not only playing two disparate roles, but also playing each of them trying, and trying unsuccessfully, to impersonate the other. I can't resist that sort of acting coup, or the level of wit involved. (Not the only time that kind of wit would succeed on Buffy.) Meanwhile, I was also getting caught up in the drama of the increasingly unstable Faith and the increasingly sinister Mayor Wilkins.

I was hooked. I'd drunk the Buffy Kool-aid. Now it was the turn of some other people to be dismayed. As was proven the year an episode was nominated for the Hugo and almost all the voters ranked it either first or not at all, you either loved the show or hated it.

And, by the end, it took some effort to keep loving it. The last season and a half were spun out to lengths far beyond any sinew in the material. But, at its best, it was transcendently good. It's stuck with me. I've even quoted from Buffy in my concert reviews. ("Reduced to the compass of two pianos, the terrifying Rite of Spring makes the listener want to pat it on the head and coo, 'Who's a little fear demon?'")

I'll tell you my pick for the single best moment in Buffy. It was near the beginning of the musical episode, "Once More with Feeling." Special musical episodes have a mixed history in television. They can be great, or memorably awful. I wondered which this one would be. Buffy is singing her first song, "Going Through the Motions." Just watch it. It's at 2:08. And it rhymes. At that moment, I knew we were going to be in good hands for the rest of the episode, and oh, were we.

The articles say that Buffy kicked off a Golden Age of television. Has it? I watched Angel ... for a while. I watched Veronica Mars ... for a while. People said it was the show for people who missed Buffy, and I could see the resemblance, but it just wasn't anywhere near as good. Except for Firefly, which I adore even more than Buffy, nothing I've seen since then has matched it. Even shows I did tag along with for a while, like Castle or Jane the Virgin, just didn't win my loyalty. They offered no Kool-aid. We binge-watched the first two seasons of Orphan Black on DVD, and loved the acting, similar to Buffy body-switching episodes at their best, but felt bludgeoned by the screenwriting.

Sorry, there's nothing else like the best. I have complete sets of five TV programs on DVD on my shelves:
The Prisoner
Monty Python's Flying Circus
Fawlty Towers
and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

embedded concert

The advantage of making it today that I spent all of it doing Tolkien bibliography research at the Stanford library was that I could take an hour's break in the middle of the day - and by then I sorely needed it - to sidle up to the music department and hear a free noon concert by the Rolston Quartet.

This is a big deal, even more that it's for free. The Rolstons are one of the most distinguished of young quartets, and, as the program noted, won the Banff String Quartet Competition last year. The people sitting behind me, whom I've seen at concerts like this before, were remarking and musing on that before the show, so I turned around to say that I was there and heard them win it.

And, indeed, they played today two of the pieces from their Banff repertoire, the Janacek Second and Beethoven's Razumovsky Second. I didn't mind hearing them again. The Janacek was a dramatic combination of searing and subtly intimate, with lots of startling mood shifts, and the Beethoven was played in much the same manner, with those slashing opening chords succeeded by quiet but tense rumination.

And to think I didn't even consider the Rolston one of the highlights of the competition! That just goes to show how stratospherically high the standards at Banff were. This was a great little noon concert. And free.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

on the cliff

Visitors are also a good excuse to get to places. I've been through the Tom Santos Tunnels (bypassing the treacherous Devil's Slide along the coast south of San Francisco) several times since they opened four years ago, but I'd never had the time to explore the conversion of the old road into a park trail. It's a satisfying idea, though, because on the old road drivers could see out of the corners of our eyes that the scenery was spectacular, but taking attention off the road even for a moment was far too dangerous, and there was no place to pull off either.

Thanks to the bypass, there is now, so thence my brother and I went on Monday. It was an alarming day, full of cloudbursts, in the morning, but the weather softened in the afternoon, and, it being the shoulder season when the temperatures of land and ocean were in harmony, there was no fog. There's parking lots now at both ends, with a 1.3 mile trail between, but if you're not minded to walk the whole thing, the south end has the good ocean views.

It was clear enough that I could actually see 25 or so miles out to the Farallones, or the Far-Along Islands as I call them.

Here I am along the trail, and you can actually almost see the islands in an enlarged view.

Monday, March 6, 2017

concert review: 18th century opera ... in Hebrew

"Esther is the story of an unwise and powerful leader under the influence of an evil advisor. Any similarity to present-day events is both coincidental and unfounded."

So read the placard on the titles screen opening up a (professional-quality, I'm pleased to say) performance of this rare and unique artifact: a 1774 Purimspiel in Hebrew, telling the story of the Megilla in opera form.

It was commissioned by the Jewish community of Amsterdam, who hired a rabbi, Raphael Jacob Saraval, to craft an appropriate libretto and transliterate it into Latin characters for the sake of the non-Jewish composer, Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti.

Lost for centuries, the manuscript score was found in a booksale about 20 years ago, and has since been published and performed occasionally. I couldn't miss this chance. 18th-century recitatives and arias in Hebrew? In truth, the scoring was so elaborate that it was hard to make out the words, but it was an adequately composed and enjoyable work.

Described by the impresario of this performance as being in the style of early Mozart, it sounded more like leftover post-Baroque to me, especially in Haman's pompous and heavily-dotted music. Using the same vocal ranges as Handel's oratorio on the same topic, but with a considerably less elaborate libretto, it tells a simple version of the story with many opportunities for arias. The chorus, whose part is small, has two soprano lines and bass, but nothing in between. That, the speaker suggested, implies that the composer was used to writing trio sonatas and just borrowed that technique.

Kyle Stegall as the king was an especially good lyric tenor, and the orchestra, the Albany Consort on period instruments, gave excellent backup.

Sunday, March 5, 2017


I collect really bad blurbs, and I'm putting this one down here so I don't forget it. The downside of bibliographical research on Tolkien in high-recall library databases is that the net scoops up every lousy fantasy novel with a publisher's blurb that claims it's inspired by Tolkien. Like - judging from its blurb - this one, Enchanted Realms by Valan Peters:
Unlike other tales of fantasy, Enchanted Realms ties historical facts with fiction in an effort to suggest to readers that this tale of magic and mysticism could be true. The story weaves the tale of two men rewarded for their bravery after the Battle of Hastings. They are given land close to the Princedoms of Wales and, on their journey to their new lands, the men encounter a stranger who prophesised the births of each man's child. He tells them that these children will be instructed in the secrets of magic and the ancient mysteries. Over the years all his foretelling comes to pass. He gave his name for the first time. "I am known as Whitnecromancer the Great. Remember this night and all the things I have told you for never again shall we meet." Inspired by authors such as Teilhard de Chardin, J. R. R. Tolkien, and J. K. Rowling, Enchanted Realms is a historical novel woven with visionary fantasy to create a unique read.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Picked up my visiting brother at the airport and took him out for exquisite fried chicken and an evening with MTT. On the menu:

Incidental music by Mikhail Gnesin, very Yiddish-theatery.

Cello Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich, very Shostakovichy. (Gautier Capuçon was the growly cellist.)

Tchaikovsky's Pathétique, very thick and full sound with highly flexible tempi, as if the score had been printed on a rubber mat.

Thursday, March 2, 2017


1. I spent a full eight hours at work in the library today. And if you mean, as I do, "work" in the sense of being a librarian rather than doing research, it's been a while since I could say that. But our new cataloging program must be installed and configured and tested, and the data from the old program migrated into it (always a hair-raising procedure), and the volunteer data inputters trained in the small but subtle differences between the programs. And this wasn't the first nearly-full day and won't be the last.

2. Found time to attend the C.S. Lewis book group's discussion of The Screwtape Letters. In a later preface to the book, Lewis said his insights into sin were not the fruit of deep theological study, and quoted "'My heart' - I need no other's - 'showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.'" (Psalm 36: well, that's one translation) And one can see Lewis applying this tough self-critique in the work itself, as in Letter 3, where the devil uses the man's exasperation with his mother as a way of getting him to pray for an abstracted person while never noticing how uncharitable his real feelings are.

But then our moderator asked for examples of Screwtapian evil in modern life, and while the participants made many fine abstract declarations, when they got into specifics it was all about those pernicious liberals: a women's group cursing out a visitor whose only crime was to have voted for Trump, as if there were no harm in that; or hypocritically promoting scientific reliability while ignoring the American College of Pediatricians (and with a name like that, you just know they've got to represent the settled opinion of 98% of scientists) declaring that juvenile transexuality is merely a mental disorder. The members of this Lewis group call themselves Christian; did they really not notice that by their examples being only crude charges against their opponents how perfectly uncharitable they were being? Apparently not.

3. Also got out to a youth symphony concert featuring an excellent rendition of the rarely-heard work I went there for, Glazunov's Fifth Symphony. This is about my favorite of the lesser-known czarist-era symphonies. Here, this is a good performance, though various coughs and such from right by the videographer made me jump.

4. And what am I reading to cleanse my mind between intense bouts of Tolkien-editing? I'm re-reading Continental America by D.W. Meinig, the absolutely definitive geographical history of the expansion, developing boundaries (including internal), settlement patterns, and the geographic side of economic history and race relations, of the 19th century U.S. You've seen those popular books that explain how the states got their shapes? They're trivial fluff. This is the book with the full and real story.

5. B. sent me this. Oy.

Monday, February 27, 2017


As a former awards administrator for two literary societies, I continue to be fascinated by the Oscars snafu this year. There are two outstanding questions in my mind: 1) how and why was Warren Beatty handed the wrong envelope?; 2) why did it take so long for the PwC awards administrators, who have memorized all the winners precisely to prevent problems like this, to stop the train wreck? I checked the time stamps on my DVR, and it was 1 minute 50 seconds after Faye Dunaway read out "La La Land" until a production crew member collected the cards, though there'd apparently been some fuss going on behind for a previous 10 seconds or so. And it was 40 seconds after that - a full two and a half minutes after the wrong winner was announced - before the correct announcement was made: "Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture." And who said that? Jordan Horowitz, one of the La La producers, not an Academy or PwC representative. That's an unconscionable gap of time and dereliction of responsibility.

However, as the correct card was held up, proving that what Horowitz said was true, I could easily see what had confused Beatty and Dunaway: bad award card design.

The award card had the Oscars logo at the top. Below that was the name of the winning movie, and immediately below that, in the same large and bold-faced type, the names of its producers. Those are the parts the presenter was expected to read, in that order. Only at the very bottom, in very small, light-faced type, was the category, "Best Picture."

If the card Beatty had was laid out the same way, it would have said "Emma Stone / La La Land", in that order, in large and bold-faced type, and only at the bottom, in that tiny, light-faced type, would have been "Best Actress in a Leading Role."

Beatty clearly had the presence of mind to realize that something was wrong as soon as he saw the card. The next thing he did was to look in the envelope, as if speculating whether another card might be in there. Then he tried to draw out the announcement: "... and the Academy Award ... for Best Picture ..." perhaps hoping that someone would stop him or explain things to him. What he was wondering was why the card had the name of the lead actress instead of the producers. He probably didn't see the category in tiny type.

But then he handed the card to Dunaway, who thought he was clowning around and didn't realize anything was wrong. She glances at the card quickly, she doesn't parse the oddity of the personal name, she sees "La La Land" in big bold type, she knows it's a nominee, she reads it aloud. And the train crashes. As someone has pointed out, if instead of being an extra card for Best Actress, it had been for Best Makeup and read "Suicide Squad", this probably wouldn't have happened.

I'd just like to point out that when I was administrator of the Hugo Awards, our announcement cards had the category name in Big Bold letters at the top of the card, so there was no mistaking which was which.


A few years ago, the Best Picture Oscar went to a movie called Crash. This year's Best Picture Oscar was a crash.

I was the Hugo Awards administrator the year after the presenter was given a card with the wrong winner on it. I was earnestly instructed by the executive committee not to do that. I said, "Don't worry: we will only make new and original mistakes." (I later learned that the late great George Flynn had said the same thing the first time he ran the Hugos, so it wasn't a new and original joke.)

I have no idea how the wrong name on the card happened, and it would never have happened under my watch. We didn't prepare anything except the templates until we finalized the winners, and then we made the cards, the press release, instructions for the plaque-maker, and everything else.

But that's not what happened at the Oscars. Instead of the card being incorrect, Beatty was given the card for the wrong award. How that happened, I don't know either. And so Dunaway saw the name of the movie the Best Actress winner was in and read that. I'd give them both some slack for screwing up: they weren't expecting this; they're actors, they work from scripts; and also but not only because of their ages, they may have "senior moments" from time to time, something that's fuddled previous venerable presenters worse than this without the wrong card as an excuse.

Contrary to statements that nothing like this has ever happened before at the Oscars, it has. In 1964, Sammy Davis Jr. was given the card for the wrong film score award (in those days there were two awards).
He read the nominees for the first award — scoring of music, adaptation or treatment — opened the envelope and proudly announced that John Addison had won the Oscar for "Tom Jones." The problem was Addison actually had won the Oscar in the music score, substantially original category. "They gave me the wrong envelope?" asked Davis, as a representative of Price Waterhouse quickly came out with the envelope that had the correct winner — Andre Previn for "Irma la Douce." "Wait'll the NAACP hears about this!" he quipped.
I've seen neither Moonlight nor La La Land - they don't sound like my kind of movies. I like musicals, but an attempt to watch Chicago proved that's not enough to save a movie for me if I'm otherwise uninterested in it. The only movies that won Oscars this year that I have seen are:
  • Manchester by the Sea - a very close cousin of Seth Meyers' Oscar Bait parody. Story about really depressed people with a happy ending consisting of their becoming slightly less depressed. Arrival was supposed to be the hard-to-follow movie this year, but this is the one whose plot confused me, because the flashback scenes were not stylized in any way, and I often didn't realize I was in one.
  • Zootopia - I realize this movie wasn't about its plot, but the plot was such a tedious routine crime-detection story it bored me, and the parallels with race relations were painfully self-conscious to the point of agony.
  • Arrival - hey, a movie I actually liked.
Other nominated movies I've seen:
  • Hell or High Water - a caper film, fun to watch, but typically for the genre quite amoral. And if the scene where the brothers are getting into separate cars to drive away didn't telegraph what was going to happen next, Samuel Morse never lived.
  • Hidden Figures - I saw this because I like historical movies about the Moon program, not to feel virtuous. But gosh, does it ever make you feel virtuous.
  • Jackie - far duller than I'd expected, and an uncomfortably eerie movie. Felt as if it had been filmed in that weird apartment at the end of 2001.
  • Florence Foster Jenkins - I saw this out of curiosity as to what would be done with a movie about the worst singer of all time. Turned out that they toned down the badness of her singing (she was actually much worse than Streep portrays her), and made the moral out of turning her into the kind of person who'd have sung "I did it my way!" if that song had been written yet.
  • Kubo and the Two Strings - arresting animation, sprightly dialog, but rambling and wayward story.
  • Deepwater Horizon - Liked Mark Wahlberg in Patriots Day? Come see him do the same sort of stuff on an oil rig! Actually, this was an impressively taut suspense/adventure movie.
  • Sully - a vicious libel on the investigating commission, but other than that, pretty good.
  • Hail, Caesar! - If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like. Turned out I didn't.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


1. We saw a student production of The Ballad of Baby Doe, B.'s favorite opera, at Stanford. The leads had some professional experience. Eugene Brancoveanu, whom I've heard with the Peninsula Symphony, as Tabor has such a powerful baritone that he outclassed everyone else on stage, even if they were skilled, which a few of them were. Sets and costumes were basically non-existent. The sight of respectable 19th century ladies wearing miniskirts was difficult to parse.

2. See the note at the end of this Nook help card telling you to connect to WiFi to unlock your book? I'm responsible for that, having complained to them that it was basic enough to tell you how to enter your name and credit card number but didn't bother to say the WiFi needed to be on, which you actually need to know.

2a. Bibliographic compilation and source citation become difficult when the ebook edition contains no clue as to the pagination of the print edition.

3. Cross-posting between DW and LJ stopped working - yesterday, for me. Others complaining about this blame LJ. I blame DW. DW promises you, on the page enabling cross-posting, that if the cross-post fails, it'll send you an error message. It didn't. Further, long before the cross-posting problem showed up, DW's function allowing your own posts to appear on what they call your Reading Page stopped working. [Ed.: cross-posting is working again.]

4. In UK news, Labour lost a by-election to the Tories in a safe seat in Cumbria, and a lot of people think that proves Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn should resign or beat his breast or something. But on the same day, Labour saved a seat in Stoke that everyone thought they'd lose to UKIP. So what does that prove? Should Corbyn resign north of the Mersey and stay on south of it?

5. In US news, Trump voters want people to stop dissing the President. Where were they when some guy called - what was his name? oh right, Obama - when some guy called Obama was the President?

5a. Also in US news, Trump has decided not to attend the White House Correspondents' Dinner, undoubtably because speakers would diss him. I like Mark Evanier's suggestion: Alec Baldwin should go instead.

6. Mark also speaks of suicide and suicide hotlines. I wonder about those. I once called a suicide hotline: not for myself, but because a friend of mine had gotten very depressed and was saying suicide-like things. I wondered how I could help. But they didn't have any useful advice.

7. Imminent, impending, or already immersing tasks: Compiling the Tolkien studies bibliography (see 2a above). Editing a wad of submitted material for the journal, currently sitting in my inbox. Getting the stuff that hasn't been submitted to be submitted. Installing the new cataloging program on our synagogue's library computer, the vendor having stopped supporting our old one, which would be less of a hassle if it didn't mean the online data connections are switched off. A visit from my brother. More concerts. A meeting with our accountant, to humbly submit the tax papers which I hope will all have arrived by then. Next?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

concert review: Oakland Symphony

Michael Morgan's imaginative programming often takes the form of theme concerts with social relevance. Friday's turned out to be two of them.

The theme that was previously announced was Native America. This intrigued me. My past encounters with actual Native folk music I have not found, shall we say, enlightening. But I remain desirous of coming to a cultural understanding of the original inhabitants of my country; and this, I understood, would be actual Amerinds composing, not 19C white musical Longfellows like Dvorak and MacDowell writing tourist music.

Well, there was one of them. He is a Chickasaw named Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate* whose long choral suite Lowak Shoppala' (Fire and Light) got two movements performed which, it says, include "numerous traditional Chickasaw melodies and rhythms." One depicted a series of clan totem animals in jagged and dramatic but attractive and well-constructed music. The other was based on a series of Chickasaw and Choctaw church hymns, even more attractive and definitely in a Native-sounding harmonic style, sung monophonically by the chorus and then picked up by the orchestra in a dark, heavy scoring (e.g. strings and trombones). I like this guy's style.

The other piece on this half was by John Wineglass, who isn't Native American at all, but African American. His Big Sur: The Night Sun does not, he says, utilize Amerind music but was inspired by a spiritual retreat he took at Big Sur. So I guess it's tourist music. Wineglass is best known as a film and TV composer, and he writes in the florid Americana style common there: themes in strings and soft trumpet, backed by piano chords, with swooping harp coming in at the climax; that sort of thing. He did have some of what I gathered were improvised sections for "world percussion" (including the biggest drum ever, 6 feet tall and about 4 wide), some sort of ethnic flute, and an Ohlone-Chumash vocalist named Kanyon Sayers-Roods whose eerie keening was so striking that it suggests my lack of response to other Native American ethnic singers may simply be explained as she's talented and they're not.

The other half of the concert was Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony, a fine, straightforward performance. So tell us: what's that doing on this program, Maestro Morgan? Well, he explained, this short, light, cheerful and cheeky work defied Stalin's expectations for a huge, pompous peroration to celebrate victory in WW2, the more so as it was a Ninth, with all the epic burden that number has carried in symphonies since Beethoven. "Sometimes," Morgan said, "when you have a strongman leader, who thinks he can tell everyone what to do, artists have to punch back." And when the audience erupted into huge applause at this, he said with a grin, "I don't know what you people think I'm referring to." And he concluded, "Think of the Shostakovich Ninth as a work of resistance ... our own little poke in the eye to strongman dictators." So, social relevance here too.

*Since you asked, it's a tribal name meaning "high corncrib", as everything written about him explains.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Not a very large crowd showed up at Davies to hear Scheherazade.2: Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra by John Adams. The ".2" as in a software version 2.0 release (a reference the composer made in his pre-concert talk) is the only acknowledgment the piece makes to Rimsky-Korsakov, though the works have a strong structural resemblance, being long rambling works in four movements with Scheherazade represented by a solo violin, which, however, gets a lot more work here than in Rimsky; it's a violin concerto in all but name. It was played by Leila Josefowicz, for whom the piece was written. Adams says he was inspired de novo by the original story and wanted to give Scheherazade her feminist voice back in response to the Sultan's marital abuse.

However, I'd rather hear the Rimsky. In the role of villains trying to oppress Scheherazade, Adams' orchestral parts were rather anemic. And, purely as music, his work sounded more like a garrulous piece from the Richard Strauss school of Giganticism than like anything that might have distantly descended from Minimalism.

Second half was a reprise of an old MTT success, a big wad selected from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. This was pieces from the original ballet score, not the composer's reworked suites. I prefer the suites.

That morning I got a call from the box office alerting me, a couple weeks in advance of the next season subscription mailing, that they're eliminating the Wednesday concert series altogether. I'm not too surprised. Years ago, the main concert programs were on Wednesday and Friday, with some Saturdays and an occasional Thursday matinee. But in recent years they've been cutting back on Wednesdays and piling up the Fridays and Saturdays.

However, in the last couple years they've introduced some Thursday evening concerts for weeks without a matinee, and the box officer told me they'll be beefing the number of those up next year. So since I'm often attending other events down here on weekends and it gets uncomfortably crowded in the City on weekends, Thursday it'll become for me.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

on the Electoral College

I was asked to comment on this article about the Electoral College.

First I should add that most of my understanding of the Constitution’s intent probably comes from the Federalist Papers. Prof. Finkelman’s quotes all appear to be from Madison’s reports of the debates, which I’ve never read end to end, though I’ve certainly read a lot of works citing them.

Here is what I wrote directly in comment about the article:

That’s a very interesting article, but I’m not sure about accepting all of the arguments. It is, of course, dangerous for an amateur like myself to dispute with an expert when I haven’t even done any research directly in response to this, but I don’t have time to do anything other than lay out my thoughts based on my past education in the creation of the Constitution. I’ve tried to put the phrase “as I understand it” or “my understanding is” around everything I’m thus dredging up from memory.

I’d like to believe the argument that the construction of the Electoral College had nothing to do with protecting the interests of small states, because that would do away with the irritating Trumpista claim that the College’s purpose was to ensure that the presidency went to a winner of a wider variety of states. But I’m not sure I do believe it.

Certainly the Convention’s rejection of having governors choose the president is no proof that the interests of small states weren’t being protected. The governor system would mean one vote per state, which would give the small states too much power. My understanding has always been the makeup of Congress was intended as a compromise: the Senate was apportioned purely by state, while the House more closely approximated apportionment by population. Therefore, the Electoral College, whose numbers were tied to the number of members of Congress in both houses together, gave the small states more power in the Electoral College than they had in the House, but much less than they had in the Senate.

Also, because the number of electors per state was a second-order effect, derived from the numbers in Congress, I’m not surprised if there was not, as Prof. Finkelman states there was not, much discussion of using the Electoral College to protect the interests of small states. But I would be very surprised indeed if there wasn’t discussion of this point in the Convention’s consideration of the creation of the Senate.

Similarly, the 3/5ths clause was, as I understand it, intended to protect the slave power in the House. The Electoral College would again be a second-order effect, despite the quotes from Charles Pinckney and Hugh Williamson (which, as given here, don’t even directly address that point). In any case, because the Electoral College numbers were based on House + Senate together, the 3/5ths clause would be less powerful in the Electoral College than in the House. Although my understanding is that it is certainly true, as Prof. Finkelman states, that it was the 3/5ths clause that enabled Jefferson to defeat Adams in 1800.

(Incidentally, the description of Adams as one “who never owned a slave” reminds me that visits to historical sites have revealed to me that two presidents we don’t think of as slave-owners actually were slave-owners for brief periods, these being Van Buren and Grant.)

I’m also a bit bothered by an unspoken implication that the Electoral College is illegitimate because of the slave-based taint on its origin, even though the 3/5ths clause has been, by definition, a dead letter since 1865. Really it’s accusing the Electoral College of original sin, and as a Jew I find such an argument does not make much of an impression on me. In any case, I’ve seen people denounce the entire Constitution on grounds of one taint on the Founders or another, an argument that must go all the way back to the first Marxist who ever read Charles Beard’s Economic Interpretation.

Prof. Finkelman reports that James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris supported direct election of the president on the grounds that the people would be sure to elect a famous or distinguished candidate. I’m sure they said this. But I’ve always understood that the argument that prevailed against popular vote for president was that the general voters, being ill-informed of nation-wide affairs in days of poor education and when most voters thought of themselves as citizens of their state, not of the U.S. as a whole, would not know much about potential presidential candidates outside their state. But they would know who would know that, and the original intention was to have the electors of the Electoral College be the sophisticates of their states, men who knew the most eligible candidates from other states. But just in case the electors weren’t so sophisticated, there was the insurance clause preventing them from casting both their votes for candidates from their own state.

This argument contradicts the ones given by Wilson and Morris, but I would have thought that there were disputes over this point and that Wilson and Morris lost the argument. If that’s so, then to quote Wilson and Morris alone would be to misread the Convention’s state of mind.

I could be factually mistaken here, but only if I entirely misremember my own education on this matter. But these are my thoughts.