calimac: (Default)
This is bizarre. I'm going to be outside of St. Louis, and I thought I'd look up the time of the eclipse.

The NASA site says that totality will occur 18.17-18.19. Universal Time. And what is that in something humans understand? Well, here's a Universal Time to Central Daylight Time converter. 18, that's 6 pm if you're not in the army, converts to 1 pm local time. That sounds right; Central Time is 6 hours earlier than the UK, where UT is based, minus one for DST, makes five. So the eclipse will be around 1:18 pm, OK?

But wait! Here's the National Weather Service site, which is linked to from the NASA site, and it says 11:18 AM.

So which is it?
calimac: (JRRT)
It's Quenya for "seventh meeting." It's the International Conference on J.R.R. Tolkien's Invented Languages, and it's been held every other year since 2005. Always, until now, in Europe; but when it comes to within a few miles of my home, I can't resist it.

I have to explain that, since Tolkien was a professor of language by trade, his writings on his invented languages are extremely complex and full of technical detail. Those who study them tend to to be specialists in that particular area, while other Tolkienists, even those who are masters of detail in other areas, tend to avoid it. Kind of like the place of catalogers among other librarians, come to think of it (speaking as a cataloger). Even Tolkien's son Christopher, who is qualified to study the languages, left most of this material out of his posthumous volumes, and it's being edited, slowly - because it's voluminous and extremely crabbed - by a team of Tolkien linguists who are publishing it in small-press editions, because only small-press numbers of people are interested or could possibly understand it.

I'm not one of those scholars of language, though I did study linguistics (as a theoretical study of language) in college and found it fascinating. I'm one of those other, non-linguistic Tolkien specialists. Yet I have read the proceedings of past Omentielvar, and found that I could follow most of what they were saying. So I thought I could float above water here, and indeed I could. It's interesting and meaningful because Tolkien applied the same principles and methods of creativity to his languages as he did to everything else he did.

The sort of people who just want to tattoo something in tengwar (Tolkien's principal invented alphabet) on their biceps would not have the patience for Omentielva, and indeed inquiries about "How do you say/write ...?", which most everyone here has gotten, were a running humorous theme of the conference. It was in fact the second smallest formal convention of any kind I've ever attended, with only 17 attendees, about half of them European. (Not counting 2 more non-attending Europeans who presented papers by Skype, which worked pretty well.) Of the 5 people, all of them Americans, who have worked on editing those small-press linguistic papers, four of them were here, and made up half the American contingent. Most of the attendees were male, but 3 were women, not one whit less sharp, learned, or generally nerdy than the men. Ages ranged broadly from 20s to 60s.

So we all gathered together in the same small meeting room on Cal State's Hayward campus, we all ate our meals together at the same table in the dining commons, slept in independent pod rooms in the same dormitory, and generally lived the life of a scholarly community for 3 days, packed with detailed technical presentations. Of the items on the busy schedule, I find I can most easily describe the ones on the scripts: one describing an inscribed rock tablet found in North Carolina that was originally taken as a Viking relic, but whose runes turned out to be Tolkien's, and hence could not predate the 1950s; one comparing the tengwar to other scripts, notably Pitman shorthand, whose notation also systematically reflects their phonetics; and one analyzing the history of one cryptic tengwa. I was relieved that a presentation of Asterix comics translated into Elvish languages, even with the nonce-words identified below on the screen, were a challenge even for these experienced linguists to translate back. I gave a presentation myself, not on the invented languages, but on the related topic of whether Americans reading the deeply English Tolkien in the original are separated from the text in a way that other foreigners, for whom it's been translated into their own idiom as well as their own languages' words, are not. We had no definite conclusions but an interesting discussion.

And, as the organizers had accepted another suggestion of mine, on Saturday morning we packed nearly everybody into a rented passenger van where I drove them to Berkeley, and gave my walking tour of the campus and Telegraph, including many fabled Sixties historic sites. And, this being Omentielva, we then spent the better part of two hours in Moe's Books. As I've been there often before and will go again, I spent most of that time sitting with one of our younger members, a Swiss, having a conversation that consisted mostly of giving each other informative lessons in Swiss and American history and government.
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Tom Lehrer famously said, "I know there are those who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that." If the paradox embedded here seriously bothers you, then read this and be enlightened.

It was a sad day when the San Jose Mercury News removed Richard Scheinin from classical music reviewing and put him on the real estate beat, but at least it means he gets to write bizarre stories like this.
calimac: (Haydn)
Saturday evening concluded the Music@Menlo chamber music festival. Since returning 5 days earlier from my trip to states beginning with an I, I'd been plunged back into it, including such features as:

A masterclass in which, after hearing each of two sets of student performers, the instructor threw his hands up in despair at his failure to think of anything he could critique them on.

A prelude performance of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. Not my favorite work by a long shot, it nevertheless impressed with the intensity of its color, and even more by the players' introduction, in which the second violinist recited a translation of the Richard Dehmel poem that inspired the work, while the rest of the musicians played passages that seemed to correspond with the particular events of the poem. A brilliant job by the performers.

(The poem depicts a woman ashamedly confessing to her new boyfriend that she's already pregnant by another man. He forgives her, and their love is transfigured. Pretty terrible already, and the music is worse. But now you know why Schoenberg wrote it as a sextet, and if you think that's a stupid argument, I once heard a Menlo performer give a talk seriously pitching for a calendar date encoded in the number of bars a piece had.)

Another prelude performance interrupted twice by what sounded like the same very loud cell phone going off. At the end of the piece, festival co-director David Finckel appeared on stage to announce, through tight lips, that the performers would be doing those passages over again, to get a clean recording (audition tapes for their younger performers being an important by-product of the festival). They got an even bigger applause after the remakes than they had originally. And I wonder if Menlo has procedures to ban egregiously errant audience members.

A concert by the 10-to-18 year old students including the usual hefty samples of Dvořák and other hoary classics played with the fresh dedication always heard here, but also a new thing for one of these concerts, a piece by a living composer (which means, as the students excitedly declared, that you can shoot him a message asking if something in the score is a misprint, which you can't do with Dvořák). The piece was a string sextet (yes, another one) by Jörg Widmann, whom I knew from a stunningly crappy piece of merde dropped on the Banff String Quartet Competition last year. The sextet was far better, a concise technobeat moto perpetuo with some minimalist sensibility. I actually kind of liked it. Here, you can listen to them playing it here (the music begins just after 5 minutes in).

An evening concert of late Romantic music bifurcated between elegant, restrained performances and madly impassioned Expressionism, which I reviewed.

And Saturday's final concert, whose major work was a string Octet by George Enescu, which he wrote poised on the century's edge in 1900, at the age of 19. It's half a 19C work and half a 20C one in musical style, and is largely composed of lyrical melody with a good sense of structure keeping the very long, virtually unbroken work from meandering. There are many solos, usually for one of the first two violins (here Bella Hristova and Danbi Um) or the first viola (Paul Neubauer) backed with amazingly interesting harmonies from the rest of the ensemble; these alternated with dramatically intense tuttis. This piece comes right behind the previous concert's Kreisler string quartet for most interesting discovery of the year, but I doubt I will ever hear it played so well again, even if I ever do.

An overlapping ensemble played Shostakovich's early Octet movements, Op. 11, with great drama but without sounding at all like Shostakovich, and the year's theme of showing off the violin came in some brief pieces by Dohnányi (with piano), Martinů (with cello), and Corigliano (without anybody), all played by either Hristova or Um with great display but not that much memorability. Give me Enescu, a relative ranking I never thought I would be making.

As this will be serving as my formal review of the final concert, here, have a photo:
MM_2017_Carlin_Ma-0708
The Enescu Octet showing off. From left around the circle: Bella Hristova (vn), Paul Neubauer (va), Soovin Kim (vn), Clive Greensmith (vc), Nicholas Canellakis (vc), Richard O'Neill (va), Arnaud Sussmann (vn), Danbi Um (vn). Photo by Carlin Ma, courtesy of the Music@Menlo Festival.
calimac: (Default)
1. Share movie reviewing duties with Roger Ebert.

Some self-important artist once said, "Nobody ever erected a statue to a critic." Well, here it is:

Ebert up

Yes, Champaign-Urbana was Ebert's home town, and in front of the old theater in downtown Champaign where he would hold his annual movie festival, there's now a statue of him, with extra seats. Of course, you don't have to agree with Roger in rating a movie:

Ebert down

2. Eat with the Amish.

Did you know there was an Amish country in Illinois? I hadn't. But when I found it, about 40 minutes drive south of town, I knew I would also find what they have in all the other Amish countries in PA, OH, IN, etc., which is one of those enormous Amish businesses, spreading over vast acres, incorporating gift shops and bakeries as well as a restaurant with rooms upon rooms of seating and endless delicious American country cooking. This one, out on a country highway west of I-57, features broasted chicken: lightly fried, tender; and I also stocked up on fish of the same kind. Plenty of starch but not much on the veggies here, but I was content. And so were the snickerdoodles I took home from the bakery.

3. Visit a peaceful Catholic women's college.

Actually St. Mary of the Woods, outside Terre Haute just over the Indiana line, has been co-ed for a few years now. But it was a women's college when B's mother attended, class of 1944. B. has always wanted to visit, and having Mythcon within two hours' drive was our chance. Campus is spread out over lawns and woods, and the admissions office arranged for a golf cart for us to ride around in and a couple knowledgeable and interested student guides to take us there.

Since we were doing that, we flew into Indianapolis instead of Chicago: no further away from Champaign, and easier to deal with, and the college was along the way. Also along the way, I found, was an opportunity to:

4. Pose with the tigers.

Out in the deep woods of Clay County in western Indiana is the Exotic Feline Rescue Center, which as a zoo appealed perfectly to our tastes: out where we could see them were a dozen tigers, half a dozen lions, cervals, pumas, and so on. A folksy volunteer gave us a tour with stories about how the animals came to the center, and they'd come up and rub their heads against the fences. And sometimes they'd pose:

tiger
calimac: (JRRT)
As Mythcon's themes this year included "Digging for Gold in the Archives," and our Guests of Honor were two Inklings archivists, I was one of a couple participants who proposed giving sessions recounting our own experiences in library research. My particular themes were the importance of serendipity and of diligent patience in dealing with problems like great distance and archaic rules. I spoke of researches I've made at UC Berkeley, Stanford, the Wade Center, Yale, and Oxford (drawing from what I wrote once for File 770).

I also found myself on a panel discussing Orwell's 1984. Not a usual subject for a Mythcon, but there are connections with Lewis (they reviewed each other's books: Orwell disliked the magic in That Hideous Strength and Lewis disliked the sex in 1984) and resemblances to Tolkien (they both had deep senses of political morality and a preference for Little Englander socio-economics). Among my contributions were a citation of the ingrained sense of viewpoint balance in Orwell's essays and his creation of the best opening sentence ever written for an essay (written during WW2, the essay starts, "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."), and noting the sensible description of Orwell's political positions in Thomas E. Ricks' Churchill and Orwell: despite his attacks on the Soviets, he was not a neoconservative or anything of the kind: he was a man of the Left who hated totalitarianism from any quarter, instead of excusing it when it came from the end of his side of the spectrum.

But another panel which most seemed to interest people was on The Silmarillion. This consisted of 5 mini-papers on a variety of topics. Mine was on music and the Ainulindalë, based on a longer music and Tolkien presentation I'd given in earlier years and later published. Creation stories based on music are not that rare, but Tolkien's is particularly detailed. It describes, with considerable sophistication, a massive structure of counterpoint, in which themes create harmony by being played simultaneously in different voices, and themes evolve one into another.
The voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing ... [It] was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.
What could it possibly have sounded like? Something of unutterable beauty, to be sure, but as for what earthly music might have inspired Tolkien, I have a clue, which comes of all things from Donald Swann's song cycle The Road Goes Ever On. Tolkien told Swann that he heard Galadriel's lament Namárië as a Gregorian chant, and sang one, which Swann transcribed and used.

To Tolkien, a conservative Catholic, Gregorian chant would have been the music of holiness and closeness to God. That sense of connection to the divine is part of what Tolkien is trying to show with the Elves and their connection to Valinor, and Catholic symbolism in the Elves has often been noted by critics, so why should not their music be divine Catholic music?

But since Gregorian chant is monophonic, the sectional polyphonic music of the Ainur would therefore have to be sacred choral music. Probably the elegant and transparent music of the High Renaissance, something like ... and I played this recording:
As you can see in the score, that's ten-part harmony, folks. It's the English Baroque Soloists in Nisi Dominus from the Vespers of 1610 by Claudio Monteverdi.

Or this motet by Giovanni Gabrieli, his 16-part(!) Omnes Gentes, played by the Gabrieli Consort:
I then sampled some later, 18th-century pieces that also illustrate Tolkien's methods. The concluding "Amen" from Handel's Messiah, for instance, a work Tolkien must have known even though Handel was a Protestant: a massive fugue with a text of but a single word. (Think Tolkien's Eä!) This is the Handel and Haydn Society:
Or the "Confutatis" from Mozart's Requiem, which sets turbulent and peaceful music against each other as Tolkien does Ilúvatar's and Melkor's:
That's the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields recording used in the movie Amadeus, whose fictions about Mozart and Salieri I had to spend my final moments refuting.
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We're back from Mythcon 48, held in the Newman Center, a building which takes the 7½th floor concept from Being John Malkovich and really runs with it, on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign IL (half a block from the city line with Urbana that bisects the campus).

Though small, and bereft of some old regulars suffering health or finance issues, Mythcon was livened by lots of new people, many of them young, many of them students or recent former students, e.g. of Leslie Donovan's at UNM. This confirms my feeling from Signum's Mythmoot that recruiting and welcoming students who voluntarily and enthusiastically sign up for courses on our topics are the way to go; which makes sense since when the Mythopoeic Society started half a century ago - this year is literally our 50th anniversary - it was mostly college and high-school students.

I had a fairly busy convention for programming, with one full-length paper and two shorter presentations for panels, plus narrating the Not Ready for Mythcon Players, but later for that, and for the question of "So what else is there to do around there?" Champaign-Urbana is famously not near anything worth noting; this turns out not to be quite true. For now, other papers I attended included:

The Guest of Honor speeches by the archivists of the two major US Inklings collections. Laura Schmidt of the Wade Center gave a basic educational talk on what archives are good for, with plenty of illustrations from her own Inklings and others collection. William Fliss of Marquette U's Tolkien collection, lacing his speech with Tolkien allusions, discussed addressing the accessibility problems with the material in his charge.

This was actually particularly interesting. The Tolkien papers were donated at two different times, one set with first access on 1970s microfilms and the other with Christopher Tolkien's annotated photocopies (the originals are fragile and only used when the copies aren't sufficient), and kept under different arrangements, plus security regulations require using only one reel or folder at a time. But if they're digitized, researchers can look at whatever they want instantly and compare items across the board, plus the reproductions will be better. So that's what they're working on. (Still only onsite, though, for copyright reasons.)

A father-daughter pair of papers on the Deadly Sins in Tolkien: Gollum's envy and Thorin's avarice.

Our first-ever paper on Orphan Black, an sf tv show I've actually seen, on the mythological resonances in the character of Helena. Singling her out in this way made me realize that, at least so far, Helena has a three-part story separated by the hinge points that Janet Croft identified in the paper.

Yet another paper by John Rosegrant providing brilliant psychoanalytical insights into Tolkien's characters. He does this every year. This time the best part was his declaration that trying to pin down who or what Bombadil is misses the point.

A thought-provoking paper concerning the story, quite clearly false but reported in a couple early books on Tolkien, that his mother, Mabel, had been a missionary to the harem of the Sultan of Zanzibar in her youth. (And sometimes since repeated from there.) Where did this rumor come from? Nancy Bunting believes that the story has two independent sources - I'm not so sure that the second one is independent, and need to check up on exactly what it says - that it must have come from Tolkien himself, and that his mother had made up the story and told it for reasons of her own, which Nancy is confident she's found; further, that it's not the only time Mabel embellished an otherwise puzzling story, the other concerning her baby son. If this paper ever gets published - I advised Nancy on where I thought she should send it - you can read all about it. Until then: well, you should have been at Mythcon, shouldn't you?
calimac: (Haydn)
Life goes on, for those of us lucky enough to be alive.

I'm still occupying much of my time at the Menlo festival, where workers are rolling the artificial lawns back onto the gravel, fortunately. My review of last Saturday's first concert, the Italian Baroque one, is up, and I see the Daily Journal has entirely redone its archives. All my past links here to my articles there are dead, though I have redone all the ones on my own webpage list of my journalism.

The second concert of high classics I already mentioned here; and here's the third, Thursday's covering the cusp between Classical and Romantic. That Mendelssohn not only was already composing before Beethoven died, but had heard his late music and was inspired by it, is something I've noted before; and Spohr's octet - which Menlo has played before - was also a then-new work Mendelssohn had heard and absorbed.

In theory I could go on like this - concert 4 with the Schumann/Brahms circle (nothing by Clara, but it does have Joachim) was tonight and tomorrow, and I'd love to attend, but no; my assignments have ceased for the moment and I have other tasks to attend to. But I'll be back later.

In the meantime I did get to the first young performers' concert (10 to 18) on Sunday, including all 3 groups I'd heard Gilbert Kalish coach on Thursday, and I may get to one or two more of those master classes.

I did get to one more lecture, violinist Aaron Boyd's eccentrically-spoken encomium to Fritz Kreisler. His worshipfulness of Kreisler is so great that someone asked if Kreisler had made any recordings that were less than perfect. Well, yes, Boyd admitted, that during Kreisler's last couple decades when he was totally deaf he did make some he should not have; but then Boyd went on to describe how even the deaf Kreisler was so great a player he moved other violinists to tears.

He didn't mention my favorite Kreisler anecdote: the one about the hoax Kreisler pulled by attributing concert pieces to then-obscure Baroque composers, raising a furor when he revealed that he'd composed them himself. Here, for instance, is the concerto he ascribed to Vivaldi. This was written in 1927 when few people had heard much Vivaldi, whose works were only then being unearthed, and didn't know what he sounded like. This sounds more like Bach, or perhaps Handel, to me, except for the final eight bars which must be a total put-on that don't sound like anybody.
calimac: (Default)
My old friend Jordin was in hospital for heart surgery. His recovery was not going well, and now
it
isn't
going
at
all.

Oh, alas.

I wrote about my friendship with Jordin when recounting my history with filking a couple years ago. But some of that could bear repeating.

Jordin appeared at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1978, a new grad student in physics fresh out of MIT. He'd been involved in the heavily-organized science-fiction fandom of the Boston area, and sought out such fandom as existed in the Bay Area. He tried out my on-campus club (I was a senior-class undergrad at the time); he became vice-chair of the Elves', Gnomes', and Little Men's Science Fiction, Chowder and Marching Society (the old-line East Bay fan group) for a while; but what most interested him was filking, the singing, composition, and collection of humorous and serious original songs and parodies about SF, fandom, and space exploration. Organized filking, as a fandom of its own and not just something fans occasionally did at parties, was just getting started in our area then. Jordin was used to organized Massachusetts filking, where they had things like the NESFA Hymnal, a full-scale songbook, and when he found that we were disorganized, yet had songs known not in Massachusetts, he formed the idea of a west-coast songbook. He proposed this at a local housefilk and asked if anybody wanted to help. Teri Lee and I volunteered, and that's how we became the three editors of The Westerfilk Collection. There turned out not to be time to compile it before the 1979 Westercon in San Francisco, though we did produce some songsheets then, and it came out the following year.

Ah, we had some great times creating that with the primitive technology of the time. The three of us did most of the layout on evenings and weekends in the Lawrence Berkeley Lab office, up the hill from campus, which Jordin did his physics work out of. Teri hand-drew the sheet music (yes, really), and I - who had the most secretarial experience - typed up all the lyrics on the finished sheets with one of the office Selectrics. Jordin kept the work organized. We had a lot of laughs and a lot of fun. There was of course much more than that - there was choosing appropriate songs and getting rights to them, organizing the contents, getting illustrations, and then printing and distributing, and Jordin was the principal in most of this, as well as the guiding spirit who kept it all focused on a vision.

Then it was published, and for years it was the basic bible of West Coast filking as it was intended to be. Jordin got more involved in filking. He learned to play the guitar, to sing (after a fashion), and to compose songs, some of them heroic ballads of human longing for space, and others corrosively funny. I could tell you of a lot of these songs, but others can do so more authoritatively than I, so let me just mention one, a parody to a hoary old folk tune (so you should know it) and one of his very first. Around the time these movies were new, Jordin expressed concern that, while there were a lot of songs about Star Wars, there seemed to be a dearth about Close Encounters. So he wrote one.

They'll be comin' to the mountain when they come
They'll be comin' to the mountain when they come
Devil's Tower is their mountain
For their taste there's no accountin'
They'll be comin' to the mountain when they come.


And many more verses equally silly.

Then I went off to grad school and eventually dropped out of filking. For a while I didn't see much of Jordin, but a lot happened to him. First he and Teri parlayed the success of the Westerfilk into Off Centaur Publications, the first major filk publishing outfit, even more important for its concert and studio tapes than its songbooks. Jordin actually recorded a couple tapes of his own songs. After several years of great success it all broke up in recriminations and lawsuits, sometime around 1987 (I was no longer around, but I'd known most of those involved, and doubt very much Jordin or some others were at fault), but Jordin kept on in filking.

But meantime he also got his Ph.D. in 1984, describing a method of automated search for supernovas - how exciting! - and began a career in high tech for some impressively well-funded startups. His specialty was laser propulsion of space travel, and he actually got some test rockets up. It expressed the same organizational skills he'd displayed in editing the Westerfilk and, more importantly, it was a step towards realization of the dream he'd expressed in his serious filksongs.

(Jordin's scientific papers all used the middle initial T., which he once told me he'd made up so that he would have one.)

By the time I saw Jordin much again, he was married to Mary Kay, a long-time fan and library cataloger (also my profession) originally from Oklahoma, and he was busy with his fast-moving career, shutting back and forth between the Bay Area and Seattle. He and Mary Kay lived in the Bay Area for a while, then they moved to Seattle because more of the work was there, then they decided they preferred the Bay Area, then they tried living in both places at once, then they moved back to San Jose. My relationship with Jordin had become a casual acquaintance, not the closer friendship of our Westerfilk days, but I'd see him at parties and he'd tell stories of working with Elon Musk and the like.

And then he needed to get his aortic valve replaced and
then
he
didn't.

And we have lost a visionary - who strove to convert his visions into practice - and a creator and a wit and a friend.
calimac: (Haydn)
Well, the Music at Menlo summer festival has started, which means I'm spending a lot of my time up there. Last year, the Menlo School campus was under construction and the ballroom concert facility, Stent Hall, was closed. This year Stent is open, but the construction is still going on, so half the parking lot is still occupied with construction office trailers. And the lawns on campus are now replaced by gravel. They were artificial turf before, I think, so I don't think water rationing has prompted this, but it will put a damper on the outdoor lawn practice sessions that Menlo has been prone to.

Fortunately the first two concerts have been over at the CPA, which is the high school auditorium across town, and which is actually large enough for just about everybody who'd like to come. The first concert was Italian Baroque, and I covered that for the Daily Journal, which won't be out for a few days yet; and the second was high Classicism, which I covered for SFCV and which is up.

In case you wonder, as one did, what the "Hob." in Haydn's work lists is short for, it's "Hoboken." Anthony van Hoboken was the scholar who cataloged Haydn's works, as Ludwig von Köchel did Mozart, though Hoboken's is more of a classified list where Köchel's is chronological.

I wish I'd had more space to discuss Gibbs' lecture, which was fascinating. He began by discussing the rise of professional playing and the need for textbooks to teach it. In 1756, the year of Mozart's birth, he said, an influential violin textbook appeared, which he quoted from. Two decades later, the author wrote Mozart a letter encouraging his violin playing, even though we think of Mozart mostly as a pianist. By this time I had been waiting patiently for Gibbs to reveal the punchline, which is that the author had reason to be concerned with Mozart, as he was Mozart's father, Leopold. When Gibbs did unveil that tidbit, it amused the audience greatly.

Gibbs has compiled a list of the repertoire at Ignaz Schuppanzigh's 1820s set of chamber music subscription concerts, the first set of their kind, and found that 86% of the music was by one of the trinity, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. That's what really set them off as the founding composers of what we now call the classical repertoire. The rest was by younger living composers, starting with George Onslow (a Frenchman I've heard of but know little of), and also including Spohr, Hummel, Andreas Romberg, Carl Czerny, and oh yes, a fellow named Schubert. Why did Schubert write his String Quintet with two cellos, instead of two violas as Mozart and Beethoven did? Well, probably because he'd been listening to Onslow, who did it that way, like this.
calimac: (JRRT)
I haven't fully researched this out yet, but as one of those grain-of-sand-type irritants, it's worth recording.

Sometimes when I wish to amuse myself, I go and read some of the numbered list articles at Cracked.com. Here's one from 2010 that I just came across: "6 Great Novels that Were Hated in Their Time," and by "hated" they mean "hated by critics and readers alike when they first hit shelves."

Well, maybe not.

I've read all six of them. One I found merely uninteresting, two in my opinion deserve every negative review they ever got (I'll let you guess which two), but the other three really hit me strongly when I read them at a tender age, and I still consider them masterpieces of their kind.

But were they hated? Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, did get a lot of political criticism from the right when it appeared in 1939, but not so much critique for its literary qualities. It was a huge bestseller, majorly talked about, and that successful movie adaptation the write-up mentions came out only nine months after the book was published. That was really hot stuff, even then.

And then, at the end of the list, comes The Lord of the Rings. The entry quotes the Drout Tolkien Encyclopedia as saying that "No 'mainstream critic' appreciated The Lord of the Rings," but besides the fact that this comes from one of the less reliable contributors, what it seems to mean is more that they weren't in a position to fully appreciate its greatness, not that they didn't like the book. Because in fact, while the book did receive its share of severe pans (most famously from Edmund Wilson), it also got many strong positive reviews (most notably from W.H. Auden and Naomi Mitchison). It also got readers, selling remarkably well for a three-volume novel of a highly unusual kind from a basically unknown author. Most of the really hostile critical commentary on Tolkien dates not from when The Lord of the Rings was new, when the kind of people who didn't like that sort of thing mostly ignored it, but from more recent years when its popularity has become massive.

Among the negative reviews the article quotes is one from The New Republic describing it as "anemic, and lacking in fiber." That puzzled me, since The New Republic's review, which you can read here, concluded with unsurpassable enthusiasm, "There are very few works of genius in recent literature. This is one." (A famous line, given that it was quoted in innumerable blurbs for decades afterwards.) Did it also call the book "anemic, and lacking in fiber"? It did not.

I had to do a little digging, but it appears that this quote comes not from any review when the book was new, but from a New Republic article - called, with oh so brilliant originality, "Bored of the Rings" - from January 2002. That's right during the hoopla attendant on the release of the first installment of Peter Jackson's movie adaptation a month earlier, and not far in the wake of all the mass polls declaring Tolkien's book one of the most popular of its century. So, rather than a critic not recognizing a new and untried book as a masterpiece, this is someone spitting in the wind in defiance of a long-established masterpiece.

There's more. In the context of "mainstream critics," calling Isaac Asimov a "heavyweight" is laughable, even before knowing that Asimov denied any critical ability and hardly ever wrote book reviews. The quote in any case is not a quote from Asimov, but a paraphrase quoted from the same unreliable article as the line about the "mainstream critics," and while Asimov might have said something of the sort as a cautionary note, he was actually a great admirer of The Lord of the Rings, which he read several times. (Interestingly, Tolkien himself once named Asimov as an SF author he liked, so there was a mutual admiration society there.)

Since I've actually been compiling together a list of early reviews of Tolkien - it turns out that each of the standard bibliographies has items that others missed - I ought to measure also their grades of the book, and see how it came out. But I do know that a lot were favorable.
calimac: (Default)
Another posthumous Donald E. Westlake novel has been published, and I've read it and added it to my annotated Westlake bibliography. I think the writeup communicates all I have to say about it:

Forever and a Death (2017)
Serious thriller novel, set in Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, written in the late 1990s but not published at that time. Based on an unused treatment for a James Bond movie, the novel removes Bond but leaves in the Bond villain, a businessman so over-the-top in his maliciousness that the cops disbelieve the heroes when they describe his deeds on the grounds that nobody would do that. The result has some of the mien of Kahawa without the humorous overtones, and the caper is the villain's not the heroes'. What it does have in common is being long but fast-paced, and in having an assortment of miscellaneous heroes, some of whom get killed. The leading hero - if he can be called that; much of his character arc is left out - is one of Westlake's ordinary men who under pressure discover a capacity for necessary ruthlessness, only this one is more plausibly presented than some.
calimac: (Default)
Good: The setting, the glory of western Canada, with tremendous mountains looming over the city, and cool weather even in the height of summer.

Bad: The traffic. Vancouver is like Seattle, with cramped narrow streets serving as major arteries and too much traffic being stuffed down them. Nor has Google Maps informed itself of a major street closure that's wreaked havoc in the Point Grey district.

Ugly: The drivers. Unlike in Seattle, they're bad-tempered, and unpredictably incompetent. The bicyclists, too: arrogant and entitled over pedestrians who dare to avoid obstacles by crossing bike lanes.

Good: Factory museums outside of town, the salmon cannery at the mouth of the Fraser River and the copper mine in the mountains above Howe Sound. Both full of clearly-presented detail on what was done there and what it was like to work at it (including racial and other labor issues), in displays and from tour guides with the knack to be compelling. Both turned on vintage machinery so you could hear how noisy it was (having warned you to cover your ears).

Not so good: The fabled Museum of Anthropology at UBC. If you really, really, really like traditional native art from various cultures, you'll like this. If your interest is only in passing, there's too much of it, and not enough about the cultures it came from. Go to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix to see this sort of thing done properly.

Good: The Sea to Sky Gondola, up in Howe Sound near the mine museum (and right by a stunning waterfall) is the one to take. Great views not only from the gondola but from up top, decent cafeteria, no insects, no kitsch, and a wooden-plank suspension bridge. Someone decided to hold their wedding on the viewing platform at the far end of this, and we got to watch the couple try to make their incongruously bridally-dressed way back across the suspension bridge against the clutching wind.

Bad: The more famous Grouse Mountain gondola. The ride itself is OK, but the crowds are much worse, there's no good viewing spots on top, the animal shows all shut down by mid-afternoon, and the mountaintop is full of, absolutely loaded with, gnats. And not Gnat King Cole either. Ycch.

Eh: The SeaBus ferry across Burrard Inlet was an inexpensive and brief substitute for a harbor tour, and the north side has got a delightful covered market and street shopping to explore, but the seating on the ferry is all indoors, the south end is an obscure industrial district, and I didn't realize the ferry was part of the Metro transit system until I showed up to buy a ticket, or I would have taken the SkyTrain to which it connects (none of my maps showed that) to get there.

Good: The food. Ranged from good to awesome. One small Thai restaurant really beat the band, but the most memorable meal was of Salmon n' Bannock's "First Nations Inspired Cuisine." Unlike the fabled and now long-gone Muckamuck of decades past, this doesn't try to reproduce their recipes but gives modern presentations of foods that the original peoples of western and central Canada might have been expected to eat. Lots of salmon, bison, elk, wild boar, wild rice, plus bannock, which is a thick chewy cracker vaguely resembling what I've had from Natives in Arizona and eastern Oregon as fry bread. The waitress patiently explained everything and recommended a slate of appetizers to me so I could try a lot of different things. The cured salmon was intensely fresh, the duck sausage extremely ducky, and the boar meatballs sufficiently boaring.

Bad: I was looking forward to having my final meal at a tempting Chinese place near the airport, but to have time I needed to show up at 5 when they opened for dinner. Only they didn't. At 5:10 I had to give up.

Good: Vancouver is still a city of used bookstores. Lots of used bookstores, and I got to at least 8 of them.

Ugly: But the most-praised online is a pestilent rathole of a kind I haven't seen in 25 years, and the others like it are long gone. The stock is not bad, but it's crowded and mazelike and with so many books piled up in the way on the floor that the fire marshal, assuming they have them in Canada (which, judging from this, I guess they don't) would have a heart attack. Also, it smells in here. It smells as if a muskrat had urinated on the carpet and then died there. The best used store - large, clean, well-sorted - is literally around the corner, so whut the hey?
calimac: (Haydn)
Much hoopla about the local production of Hershey Felder's one-man show about Beethoven. I'm interested in Beethoven, so I decided to go. I thought it was all right.

Based on a brief memoir by a doctor who, as a boy, had known Beethoven in his last years, it presents Felder as the mild-mannered doctor, looking back at his memories, often abruptly dropping into the persona of Beethoven himself, or of his own father presenting his memories of Beethoven's earlier years. Then, in one persona or another, Felder will sit down at the piano and play something, and not at very brief length either.

Though Beethoven the rough, coarse, revolutionary is not omitted, the focus of the show is strongly on Beethoven's gentle, heartfelt soul. So the pieces played at greatest length and with the greatest care and emphasis are things like the slow movement of the Pathétique Sonata, the slow movement of the Moonlight Sonata, the slow movement of the Emperor Concerto, "Für Elise," etc. These are all soft and beautiful, the antithesis of Beethoven's reputation though they're all well-known pieces, so it made a nice corrective.

Soft and fuzzy in its picture of the life as well. Much sympathetic clucking about how Beethoven tried (supposedly) lovingly to protect his young nephew from the clutches of his (purportedly) horrible mother, not so much on the psychological disaster area this struggle turned the nephew into. Oh well.
calimac: (Default)
Driving home down the Nimitz freeway at dusk from the annual social, grilling, and anniversary party, I saw bits and pieces of a vast number of fireworks displays, some of them almost directly in front of me. The variety in style of these explosions has been increasing of late, much to their benefit.

Pass the U.S. citizenship test.

For that matter, pass the U.K. citizenship test.
calimac: (Default)
So much dramatic tension is achieved by having characters not be able to communicate with each other - think of the ending of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, which would be impossible without a miscarried message - that we have the critically important question, how do you employ this tension in a world where all the characters carry cell phones?

And the answer is, have them put the phones on vibrate and leave them on the other side of the room. Voila, the return of the missed urgent phone call.

- This piece of dramatic advice courtesy of the third season of Orphan Black, which does it a lot.
calimac: (Haydn)
The Stanford Chamber Music Seminar, wherein resident ensemble the St. Lawrence Quartet and various guest artists coach both young professionals and skilled amateurs in the techniques and, as importantly, the enthusiasms of chamber music playing, was on this week, and several public concerts were included therein. This year I managed to get to almost all of them.

They included noon concerts during the week, at Bing, whose highlights included the St. Lawrence teaming up with a guest cellist for a wholly delightful quintet by Boccherini (though possibly "wholly delightful" is redundant once Boccherini's name is mentioned), Op. 25 No. 4. That's this one, although the performance I heard was better. Also the members of the St. Lawrence acting as section leaders for a pickup string orchestra playing C.P.E. Bach's Hamburg Sinfonia No. 2. That's this one, although the performance I heard was better.

On Saturday there was a showcase concert by the young professional groups, including two of the groups I heard last summer at the Banff competition: the Tesla Quartet, the second-place winner, in Haydn's Op. 9/6, and the Omer Quartet in Beethoven's Second Razumovsky.

Sunday was the big finale concert for all 24 participating groups, each playing one movement of something, and for once I was able to attend the whole thing, which began at 11 am and lasted for five hours. No intermissions this year: you know what happens, they're called for ten minutes and wind up lasting 25. Two of them add an additional hour to the playing time.

So instead, there was a lot of ducking out to the restroom during changeovers between pieces, and if you didn't get back in time, you wait outside and listen to the next piece through the closed doors. Usually these events begin with a few dedicated Sunday morning risers at the start and slowly get more populated as the day goes on. This year, however, it was packed at the start, and then leaked away a bit later on. There were a lot of good performances and fewer of the usual winceable but sincerely meant. We got to hear two performances of the slow movement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" and of the finale of Bartok's Fourth. Best of the day was probably a wholly convincing rendition of the first movement of Tchaikovsky's rambling Piano Trio, especially from the pianist, Simon Tom.

Unusually, the program included some songs with chamber ensemble, by Ravel and Finzi. One of the Ravel songs, from the Chansons madécasses to words by Évariste de Parny, is an 18th century anti-colonialist poem, a thing I didn't realize already existed then.
calimac: (Default)
If you're lucky, you have a truly good teacher in school.

I had a couple. And one of them was most definitely my high school history and civics teacher, Mr Leonard Helton, whom I just learned died a month ago.

In those days, Mr Helton was a vibrant, dark-haired, bearded man with glasses. He came from Morgan County, Kentucky, as he never ceased to remind us, and brought his unreconstructed Kentucky hills accent to teach the advanced two year course in U.S. history and civics, an option for the brighter students who wished to opt out of the shorter standard courses.

This wasn't a standard course with a strict lesson plan. There was, for instance, no textbook; our reading was self-directed at Mr Helton's personalized recommendations. The course was more of an opportunity for Mr Helton to give free-form lectures, full of humor and anecdote, but always at the service of the pedagogical point, and to engage in conversation and debate with students. He always came out best in the debates, and not just because he was more experienced and knew more. He was just a better debater, as proved by the time he invited the vice-principal to come to the class and debate him on the topic: Hamilton or Jefferson, which political philosophy is superior, and more at the root of American political culture? Mr Helton allowed his opponent to pick either side (he picked Jefferson, so Mr Helton took Hamilton), and not only did Mr Helton come out best in the debate, he said he'd have done so the other way around, too.

What I learned most concretely from him was not topical, but on how to write a large research paper, a form of work he passionately advocated. I wrote two large papers for him, one on the geography of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and one on the formation of California's first state government, each large enough, at least in wordage and amount of work put in, to have served as a university senior thesis. (As I know because I wrote one of those, too.) It made the work when I actually got to university seem easy.

At the end of the course in my senior year, Mr Helton picked three of his prize pupils (two boys and one girl) and had us take the College Board Advanced Placement test in American History. We gathered in the school office one quiet Saturday, pop-quizzing each other on the way in ("What was the Truman Doctrine?"), and Mr Helton proctored us. We all got the highest score, and to our scattered univs went with the seal of approval of the toughest, brightest, sharpest, and most challenging and enlightening history teacher we could have had.
calimac: (Haydn)
Unless the decision to be implemented in next season's schedule is someday reversed, yesterday's will be the last Wednesday subscription concert the San Francisco Symphony will ever give. The main floor looked pretty full, but only 4 of the 34 seats in my balcony box were occupied. I wonder if it will ever be that empty again?

It has a couple famous excerpts, the Love Scene and the Queen Mab Scherzo, but Berlioz' Roméo et Juliette is rarely heard in full. And now I know why: it's twice as long as the Symphonie fantastique, but except for those excerpts, it's less than half as good. The other instrumental passages at least certainly sounded like Berlioz, though lacking the Fantastique's brilliant imagination, but the two long choral movements, ugh. The texts are largely dull narrative, and the settings even duller, much of them in recitative style, and only occasionally reflecting what drama there is in the text.

The work is also poorly organized. Prokofiev made the death of Tybalt the most sizzling moment of his R&J ballet; Berlioz left it out. And I didn't know he has two Queen Mab scherzos, the instrumental one and a vocal one, a lot of attention for a character with only an evanescent referential appearance in the original play.

This goes on the "I heard it, I don't ever have to listen to it again" list.
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