Monday, April 30, 2007


So my concert reactions have gotten un-chronological and incomplete recently, but here's a thought I don't want to forget entirely. Back in March for that Tetzlaff/Ligeti concert at the NY Philharmonic I'd attended the preconcert lecture, mostly to see what was up with it. I won't be doing that again, since it costs five bucks and all you get is the fussbuckety lecturer-in-residence telling you why both Bach arrangements on the program aren't true to their originals, though for opposite reasons. Also he copped out of saying anything about the Ligeti concerto, since he knew nothing about it. Which was fair, given that there would have been no possible way for him to get familiar with this music, nor a compelling reason to do so. But he did do a fine job describing the relationship between Bach and the Cathedral movement of the Schumann's Rhenish Symphony (and I like that he illustrated his examples the old-fashioned way, playing parts of the score at the piano).

One of the lecture attendees (there were maybe 40? mostly old) asked an interesting question during the Q&A: are any contemporary composers trying to evoke Bach the way that Schumann did? I've been trying to think of something ever since.

(The lecturer responded by lauding Arnold Schoenberg's arrangement of the St. Anne Prelude and Fugue. Note to classical people of a certain temperament: Arnold Schoenberg died during the Truman administration. He is no longer contemporary.)

But seriously, are there any contemporary composers doing the Bach thing? There are a zillion examples up through the mid-twentieth century: Honegger, Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Shostakovich in his piano preludes & fugues, even Arvo Pärt with a couple of his early collage pieces. Of course the neo-Baroque thing came and went; it's no surprise that there aren't but I'm still surprised I can't come up with examples of composers even trying to achieve the same atmosphere or temperament of Bach.

My answer for now is Sofia Gubaidulina, who used Bach's Ricercare theme in her violin concerto Offertorium and who writes in general with attention towards both the awe-inspiring spiritual experience and the careful working out of small musical materials, both of which also characterize Bach. Similarly, Messiaen (not, of course, contemporary any more) achieved the same thing in yet another unique language.

Pärt's recent music gets at a lot of it, I guess, though texturally it's so stripped down that I don't pick up Bach from it. And it occurs to me that I haven't listened to Penderecki's choral works, which seem like they might have something to do with all of this.

Who else is there? All the other contemporary headliners I can think of are going for muscular, secular, Sibelius-inspired post-romanticism (John Adams) or else some kind of evasive, aesthetically cool modernism (Thomas Adès, Kaija Saariaho).

Maybe I'm just thinking about this the wrong way.

Carlos Kleiber and the Cult of the Recording

So I was thinking today, during a car ride in the family's minivan to Oakland and back, while listening to a CD of Carlos Kleiber conducting the Vienna Philharmonic playing Brahms' (pronounced Brahmziziz) 4th Symphony, about what Jack posted the other day about how Salonen's music is murky and muddled in performance, but sounds crystal clear on the recording. One would hope that the high quality of the recording comes from a well-rehearsed orchestra playing in a studio environment, and that the engineering assists only in having the microphones in the best of all possible locations, but, without having heard the piece either live or recorded, I immediately still worry about potential studio-magics.

There were always rumors (and I'm never really sure how substantiated any of them were) about various legendary recordings being spiked (or, you know, like, untrue, man). Of course, had we all read more Adorno, we would already know that the truth-value of any given recording is always-already in doubt (he would say "always-already" though, since that's Heideggerian jargon). Now, again, as always, I'll avoid actually talking about Adorno here (but did, of course, want to mention his influence (only fare)), but I do find it interesting about how recordings really do influence the contemporary experience of classical music (and have for a long time).

Incidentally, an interesting thing will happen in May when Jack & Nate go hear Dreamhouse played in Boston since we've all three of us listened to the only existing recording of the piece many many times (with I believe Nate coming out on top, in terms of sheer number of times through the piece), and they'll get to actually hear it live. I can't help but think. that at least for Nate (due to his excessive drive-time listening-to of that piece) there will be some amount of brain-dialogue between pre-knowledge of the piece-as-recorded and the live experience of piece-as-performed.

But I was thinking about engineering wizardry on classical albums, and of course with the Kleiber on the stereo (at a leg-rattlingly high volume) his recordings seem like a good example of what to talk about when talking about symphonic recordings. He didn't record much, at least relative to many of his contemporaries, but all the recordings of his that I have heard absolutely rip. They're really really good (and dammit, I'm losing steam here on this post), and in terms of tempi and proportion and all that they strike me as being spot-on. As for energy and charge and all that, both his recordings of Brahms 4 and Beethoven 5 &7 on Deutsche Grammophon are some of the most exciting recordings of anything that I've ever heard. I've seen some DVDs of him conducting as well, and his physical presence in front of the orchestra is mesmerizing as well.

The recording team for DG on for Beethoven 7 and Brahms 4 are the same. One can't help but wonder if they happened to really get something right on the technical end of the deal that make those recordings what they are, but I tend to lean (mostly based on the DVD footage of Kleiber) towards the fact that they were just excellent recordings of a group and conductor that both were at the tops of the games and positively feeding back on each other. The Kleiber Beethoven 7 recording, for me, has never been matched by a live performance (rated by goosebumps given). The Brahms, today, happened to remind me (beyond all of this garbage) of why I played French horn for so long.

But, yeah, did I have a thesis? Shit. Recording important, music good. San Dimas high school football rules!


As I type this, I'm listening to the ninth inning of the Pirates/Cubs game. Salomon Torres has one out and no one on; Bucs up 3 to 2. Let's see if they hang on to this.


Kyle Gann discovers Comics Curmudgeon, in an unexpected convergence of blogs I read all the time.

(Fly out to Duffy, two outs.)

The Guardian's Slava obit coverage links to this lovely Haydn performance on YouTube, the slow movement from the concerto in C. That's a good high art use for YouTube.

(2-out walk ahead of Derrek Lee. Uh oh.)

The Colorado Rockies' shortstop turned an unassisted triple play over the weekend, which reminds me of the one we saw Mickey Morandini turn against the Pirates in Three Rivers. Almost certainly the most unusual thing any of us will ever see at a ballgame: only 13 of these have ever been made in major league history.

(All righty, a running catch by Duffy & Greg Brown's going all Jolly Roger again. Hey, they're at .500 for April! Only, what, five months and change to keep this up. Aaaand that Cumberland radio station is advertising the National Day of Prayer again. Off it goes.)


So right before I left Portland, during the flurry of "Farewell Pete" activities (I only lived there for three months, but did manage to makes some friends, some of whom I imagine I will in fact stay friends with. I've been describing the experience of living there as something like going to camp (although I myself never went to the kind of summer camp that lasted all summer), except that I was the only one in Portland that was at camp. I've tried to extend the analogy by saying that its like going to camp, except that I only made friends with counselors that are there year-round, but that's not quite right either.) I managed to read George Saunders' most recent collection of short stories (2006), In Persuasion Nation. Based on these stories, it seems altogether reasonable that he got that genius grant (see our discussion here).

Most of the stories take place in a sci-fi near-future where corporate media and advertising has gotten more perversely pervasive thanks to some additional technologies. Characters now have implants that cause pop-up ads to appear in their periphery when they see certain trigger objects, and are accosted by the police when they ignore them.

One of the most notable aspects of these stories is the kind of dumbed-down language that the characters speak in. Its certainly a trendy idea these days - the notion that instant messaging and text messaging on cell phones is killing our language. My sense of this problem (again, probably the influence of Pinker should be explicitly stated) is that its not that big of an issue - language changes with time, you know, and in literature (do to it being all language-y) there's this inflated fear that without the right words we won't be able to say as much as we can say now. But really the utterance "l8r" seems to me to carry just as much information as "I will see you again later." or even "See you later." Its certainly data compression, but the semantic content is left intact. When it comes time to say things like "I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket..." we will still have to resort to saying "I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket..."

Saunders is often (on his book flaps) compared with Pynchon and Vonnegut. The science fiction-y stories definitely pull him closer to the Vonnegut side of the spectrum - their pretty clear cut satires, much in the model of the kind of Vonnegut stories you might read in Welcome to the Monkey House. However, I think the weird language of Saunders' characters keep us even more distanced from them then we are already just as a facet of reading satire. The title story from Pastoralia is without a doubt one of the finest short stories I've ever read - I think it just gets "it" right, but there is a certain distance kept from the central character.

What I'm trying to get at: the Saunders stories are good, but very few of the characterizations were resonant for me. I think his over-focus on the inevitably stupid language of the near-future, while working well with his already-established style, makes it hard to feel much humanity in the stories. Maybe that's the point. But in the stories where the morals are more obvious, the moralizing gestures fall flat because we don't believe in the characters as fully as we might.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Foreign Bodies

The good folks at Metro North are a round trip's worth richer again, thanks to the fact that Esa-Pekka Salonen was conducting in NYC again today, this time with his home team, so to speak, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. On the program: Salonen's recent short piece "Helix" (composed in '05), Ravel's Left Hand Piano Concerto (with Jean-Ives Thibaudet), and forty minutes' worth of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet score.

Salonen announced recently that he's departing the LA Phil after the 08/09 season (details here, plus photo of highly awkward-looking man-hug) in order to have more time to compose, so it was a good chance to hear Salonen both as conductor and composer: how his orchestra sounds late in his tenure, how his composing is maturing. And, more to the point, the concert was predictably pretty awesome.

I have to say that Helix didn't impress me too much. At ten minutes long it sounds like a chunk of a larger work, without much to stick in your ears besides its general shape and texture, which is a fairly constant increase in mass of sound. Mandy, who came with me, put it well: a lot of climax for not a lot of development. (She liked the piece in general, though.)

The LA Phil sounded fine throughout, and fantastic in the Prokofiev. Ravel's Left Hand Concerto, as always, is something to see — listen to it with your eyes closed, and you wouldn't easily guess that five fingers are flying instead of ten — and this was a fun, bright, sharply outlined performance. The Prokofiev was dazzling start to finish; I find it funny that you don't get a lot of hummable tunes out of that music, but it's still so brilliantly characterful. Salonen's big-picture verve and detail work are both electrifying.

Prokofiev offers a lot of subtle pleasures, but my favorite parts were still the huge punchy punctuating chords, Salonen conducting them with forearm blows like he was hammering them into the air.

And an encore! I love these: orchestras should always do encores. This one was Luciano Berio's charming arrangement of Luigi Boccherini's Ritirata notturna di Madrid. There's a fascinating postmodern backstory to this piece, but if you want to imagine it, think of a kind of U-shaped classical mini-Bolero.

Helix was actually the third Salonen piece I've seen performed in the space of three months, after his Piano Concerto with the NY Phil and a Pittsburgh Symphony concert I saw back at the Burgh earlier in April. That one had the youngish American conductor Michael Christie conducting Salonen's three-movement Foreign Bodies, from '04. Which is an OK piece, again not a great one; Salonen's calling cards of sound bulk, multilayered textures, and forward momentum are all out in full force here.

The PSO did well by it, but a piece that thick creates a fairly muddy sound, which I think is inevitable, rather than attributable to rusty performance; the same thing was pretty evident with the Concerto and Helix, too. It'll be interesting to see whether orchestras can pull this off with more clarity as time goes along. It's out on CD with the LA Phil already, polished in the recording to a sonic high gloss; no muddiness there. Maybe thick orchestrations just function better on CD? My knowledge of acoustics gets off at an earlier stop.

Michael Christie seems like a conductor with something to say; he conducted an eye-opening Sibelius Second Symphony, from which he coaxed a surprisingly modern-sounding sense of edge and contrast. Notably by holding silences long enough to settle in as negative space: this was thrilling in the scherzo, where you have this Beethoven-sounding flurry that goes for a minute and a half and then just stops cold. The soaring parts all soared just the same, more powerful for being restrained just a bit; and the PSO were in fine form, all of them, especially the invincible-as-ever brass section. Pretty blissful.

(Andrew Druckenbrod in the PG had a pretty negative take on the Sibelius, which surprised me a bit. He has one of those newspaper-website quasi blogs now, by the way.)

Christie conducts the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and I'm tempted to go hear him put on Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony with Hindemith's Mathis der Maler next month. And most definitely MTT conducting Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements with the San Francisco Symphony later that week at Carnegie Hall.

The Metro North is really becoming something of a symphonic umbilical cord here.

We Work Hard, We Play Hard

Besides the Pirates hitting .500 again, the biggest Pittsburgh sports news this week appears to be the introduction of a Steelers mascot.

Yes, every football team should have its Stakhanovian industrial hero, its larger-than-life-sized working-class Muppet.

The mascot is being named by way of a fan contest. Off the top of my head I would suggest just calling him by his last name, maybe something ethnic and mascot-sounding like “Foamkowski.” As in, “Yo, Foamkahski, sitcher fat foam head dahn, me’n the guys back here can’t see nothin on the fild.”

I think the Steelers should get by without a mascot. I do think, though, that they should have a corps of beefy hardhat-wearing men who blow a whistle after every Steelers touchdown and break it down to Everybody Dance Now.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Sprachgitter Done

So here I am, one last time, actually, in Portland's Central Library. Internetting away. I'd been roaming around downtown Portland a bit, taking in the scene for one last time. The weather has been steadily improving (warmer, less rain), and with that the homeless population is beginning to bloom as well. All the homeless kids that were down south somewhere for the winter have hopped on the freight trains, and wound up in Portland now, filthy as ever, dogs and cardboard signs galore. Depressing really, the sight of them, glad I won't have to see them on a daily basis this summer - the kids are smart enough to know that the System doesn't work for them, smart enough to be homeless and to ride the rails (I, at any rate, infer some kind of ability in such activities) but too jaded/disenfranchised or whatever to do anything but opt out entirely. Well, not entirely, 'cause most of them do partake of Portland's numerous social programs (easy to get two square meals a day). Although, I suppose my reaction to the badness of America is similar in its way - generally pessimistic, unimpressed, but my aesthetic has no room for doing nothing. Or not much anyway.

Anyway, I had to swing by the library to drop off my stack of books that I had checked out. Mostly poetry, as it turns out, which seems appropriate (Celan, Roubaud, Jarman) and Danielewski's newer book Only Revolutions which seemed conceptually and typographically interesting, but didn't grab me (not in the least). By which I mean to point out, I didn't just go to bars in Portland, but I read a lot of books too. A good three months. Nice change of pace.

Paced triumphantly out of Trader Joe's yesterday, not working there anymore (hopefully never again). They bought me lunch. Got to take a friend. Worst Thai food I've ever had, but at least it was free. Did manage to get a new pair of glasses and some prescriptions filled with my health insurance before it lapses (although a loop in my brain fires "GO COBRA!"). But now this post is feeling like a journal entry, so I'm gonna stop.

("Keep going. (They don't know who they are either.)")

RIP Mstislav Rostropovich

The great Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich died today at 80. I hope to write up a little about his work as I know it (he was a close friend and champion of Shostakovich, so I got to know some of his discography that way) when I have a chance. For now here's an anecdote that springs to mind, related by Shostakovich's friend Isaak Glikman in Story of a Friendship as he describes the composer's first heart attack in Leningrad in May 1966:

I stood on the pavement, numb with shock, with no one to say a word to. ... But suddenly there appeared at the hotel none other than Mstislav Rostropovich, clad in a summer shirt and filthy as a chimney-sweep. He had heard by telephone what had occurred, and had that instant set off from Moscow. Finding no taxis at the airport, he had flagged down a passing motorcyclist, jumped on the pillion and got himself to the Yevropeyskaya Hotel enveloped in a cloud of dust. Such was the impulsiveness and the resourcefulness of the famous cellist in his young days.

Of the few times I heard him in concert: He was performing as a cellist with the Pittsburgh Symphony in February 2003 on the weekend of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, and he opened his Sunday afternoon concert by performing the Prelude from Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in their memory -- a moving tribute, and a clear sign of how Rostropovich believed music speaks directly to our shared humanity.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Farewell Low Clouds

So I head out of Portland this weekend, and amn't sure whether I'll be spending any appreciable time on the internet before then, so thought I should post something. So here's a list of the bars I went to in Portland (most of them anyway (in no particular order (asterisks by my favorites))). If you're ever heading to Portland, let me know, and I'll tell you which of them are the best:

The Space Room
Produce Row
*Concordia Ale House
Amnesia Brew Pub
The Doug Fir
The White Room
The B-Side
The Basement Pub
McCormick & Schmick's
Union Jack's
Chin Yen Lounge
Rogue Public House
*The Laurelthirst
New Old Lompoc Brewpub
Billy Ray's
The Vern
Lucky Labrador Brew Pub
Roots Organic Brewery
Bridgeport Ale House
*Horsebrass Tavern
Bahgdad Theatre
Bar of the Gods
The Spare Room
Sandy Hut
*The Slammer
Cocktails and Dreams
66th Avenue Lounge
Thai Noon Lounge
The Bar at the End of the Universe
The Speakeasy
My Father's Place
Dot's Cafe

Sneezy, Grumpy, Dopey

I've been greeted on my return from the Northwest by some truly gorgeous spring weather, though while I was gone greater D.C. officially reached the part of the year where I'm basically allergic to the world. The first troubling omen, as it is each year, was the sight of my car dusted to an ominous yellow-green by tree pollen -- a particularly intense omen this time around, since I had left my car parked under one of the tall ash trees on the apartment complex grounds for a week. (The pollen's actually more or less unavoidable; the reason I try not to park under the trees between April and October is that the birds sitting high up in said trees will crap all over my car. Hence the second troubling omen of the year.)

I did remember to stock up early on generic Sudafed and Claratin this year, so I can avoid most of the allergy symptoms (in particular the obnoxious nocturnal ones like wheezing and full-body itching) by just eating some pills every couple of hours. The cost of this is a sort of muffling, medicine-induced haze, which I can sort of but not quite cut by ramping up my daytime caffeine intake. Thus an afternoon like today's, where I struggle to stay awake at my desk and have a slightly floaty drive home. It doesn't help that I'm driving a rented '07 Sentra while a Geico-affiliated auto body shop in Alexandria fixes up my bumper, and maneuvering the slightly larger, more softly upholstered vehicle feels like walking around in a too-large suit. Once I've fed myself and slept off a couple hours on the couch I'm readier for action through the late evening -- that "action" mostly consisting of casual Internet browsage and reading more of The Language Instinct -- though the option of fully alert wakefulness is pretty much off the table for the next couple of weeks.

Anyway, I'm kind of looking forward to midsummer, when the weather becomes clingy and insufferably hot and my nose doesn't run any more.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Again with the Robot Orchestras

Score one for targeted Gmail marketing: I had to click through their link to the "Fauxharmonic Orchestra," which presents itself as a top-end synth-orchestra service, apparently with an eye to engaging would-be composers who can't get real orchestras to return their calls. (The Fauxharmonic, like other robot orchestras out there, trips up over unfortunate details like grace notes and starts to sound like a Final Fantasy soundtrack when the winds all have to play at once.)

I wouldn't have remarked on this if not for the damn Adagio Contest:

The deadline's April 26th, so you'd better settle into D minor pretty quick and start cranking. If you need inspiration, recall that right now, across planet Earth, there are thousands and thousands of lost kittens crying for their mothers.

I remember watching one of the evening TV news magazine shows a couple of years ago — this must have been back at home, since I don't ever watch these otherwise — spotlighting some camp where middle-aged people would go train to break into cabaret singing and so forth. The woman at the center of the story was pursuing a dream, evidently impossible (to everyone but her) because of her obvious inability to sing well. I don't think illusions like this are a bad thing, per se, except to the extent that they're facilitated by people making a wad of cash out of convincing someone it all might actually lead somewhere. This is, of course, Snake Oil.

The robot adagio contest looks like maybe more of a composer-oriented marketing gambit than a composer-oriented Snake Oil thing, but still. Would it kill them to do this in anything but the worst possible taste?

In any case, there was only one way in the classical realm to achieve "Master of Melancholy." That was to defeat Alfred Schnittke in a barehanded cage wrestling match, and he took the title with him to the grave in 1998.


Joe Francis, the mastermind of the Girls Gone Wild video empire, was sentenced to 35 days in jail today for contempt of court.

A word to the wise: even if you're not fond of the women suing you for producing topless videos of them while they were underaged, it is not a good idea to shout obscenities at their attorneys during a settlement hearing.

If you need to know why Joe Francis is worthy of your schadenfreude, you can read this profile of sorts from the LA Times last August. Classy guy!

As one of my coworkers said, it's remarkable that some father or brother or boyfriend hasn't kicked the crap out of him yet.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

One Skull Short of a Mouseketeer Reunion

In recognition of the one-year anniversary of this blog, here is the entirety of my incomplete Futurama post, which Jack occasionally mocks in his comments. It was originally begun at 12:20 AM on August 10th, 2006; at some point Jack updated it with some graffiti which is also addressed below. Not really worth reading, but: no more unpublished drafts.


I can probably attribute most of my recent lack of posting to breaking down and buying the entire series run of Futurama on DVD about a week and a half ago, which I just finished rewatching tonight. According to my calculations that averages out to an alarming 6.5 episodes per day, which I guess edges me up towards typical American levels of recreational ass-sitting, but the show's probably worth the nightly feeling of fatigue and mild nausea.

After a second run through the series (my first was around two years ago) the show holds up better than I remember. I think in large part that's because I'm more used to the stable of secondary characters, which aspires to a Simpsons-like richness but is thinner and more annoying. (A big exception is robotics tycoon Mom, who under her lovable public image is a dessicated harpy given to hurling nonsensical invective -- "Cram a bastard in it, you crap" and the like -- at her sons.)

[Manuscript ends]


Dear Nate: please rank the following activities in order of nerdiness:
1. Blogging
2. Watching Futurama
3. Blogging About Futurama
4. Being Too Busy Watching Futurama to Blog
5. Blogging About Being Too Busy Watching Futurama to Blog

In order of increasing nerdiness: 1, 2, 4, 3, 5.

Happy Bloggoversary

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the blog, and this post right here is in fact the 400th. Happy bloggoversary, bro's.


(I find it slightly odd that a fireworks picture taken by Steven Pinker appears on the first page of Google Image Search.)

Clever Softball-Related Post Titles Are Not Coming to Mind

I've been attending the odd event (or rather, "Event") with a New Haven social Meetup group that one of my coworkers is involved in, and as it's turned out I'm also going to play on the softball team they field. It's a coed team, so it's not highly competitive. Which is good. It's still a more jockish crowd than I'm used to associating with. I think I can more or less keep pace with the women.

We'll see how this turns out. So far I'm about as good as I remember being back in college intramurals, which is to say competent. Incidentally, Swarthmore softball "back in the day" was fantastic, due to the large proportion of nerds involved. I fondly recall losing to one of the frat teams by a score of 35-2. For two particular half-innings we held them scoreless and then notched a run, so we took that as our moral victory and went out for milkshakes.

In the meantime I'm enjoying shaking the rust out and shagging some fly balls. The two practices this week were out in East Haven, so I got to ride the familiar route out towards where I used to live and soak up some much-needed sunlight. (At least yesterday afternoon this was the case. Thursday evening it was about 45 degrees out.)

There's really been a spring in everyone's step this weekend just since it's so incredibly nice out all of a sudden: 70ish, sunny. We'll see if this continues through the workweek.

In professional sports news, it's good to see that the NFL is taking an aggressive stance towards controlled substances. From the AP:
Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher was fined $100,000 by the NFL for wearing a cap during Super Bowl media day that promoted a sponsor not authorized by the league.

NFL rules prohibit gear that advertises any product but a designated sponsor, league spokesman Brian McCarthy said yesterday.

Urlacher was fined for drinking vitaminwater and wearing a vitaminwater hat during the media session in Miami leading to the title game. Gatorade is the NFL's official drink.
Urlacher's response, no doubt, will be that he was unaware of the specific sports beverage provided to him by his personal trainer, and that he consumed it unknowingly as part of his trainer-designed sports beverage regimen. Also that he was unaware of the specific hat provided to him by his personal trainer, and that he wore it without inquiring into its promotional content as part of his trainer-designed hat regimen.

The Red Sox, I noticed at on a bar TV the other night, were wearing green jerseys in Fenway against the Yankees. Good god, I thought, this alternate jersey thing is getting out of control. Fortunately it was a one-off affair; Paul Lukas at Uni Watch has the scoop. On the same topic, his MLB season overview of uniform changes is worth reading too, compellingly obsessive as usual. He appropriately singles out the Pirates' new sleeveless red jerseys for particular damnation.

Home Again, Home Again

I'm just now back at my apartment from the West Coast; I should have a meaningful thing or two to describe from the past week at some point (after about 15 hours of sleep, I think, since I took up my redeye flights home by alternately napping fitfully and reading Steven Pinker) but for now I want to note that I feel a little unnecessary, in that the blog seems to have been slightly more hilarious and Shostakovich-centered without me contributing than with.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

In the Year 2000

My nomination for early weekend must-read is this collection of predictions about life in the year 2000, published in Ladies' Home Journal in 1900. It's a fascinating mix of the mundanely accurate (train cars will be air-conditioned), grossly underestimated (people will live to 50 instead of 35), poignantly unattained (free health care for poor children in public schools), whimsical (blue roses the size of cabbages), misjudged (elevated trains will eliminate all city noise), flat-out goofy (C, X, and Q will be eliminated from the English alphabet), and correct in spirit but wrong in particulars (gigantic guns will fire shells around the world capable of destroying entire cities).

It makes you think about what we all take for granted, and what seems like it could be fixed but may not ever be, and just how much changes over three generations. And of course so much is left out: men walking on the moon, vast commercial empires devoted to mass-broadcasted sports, plastics, widely available birth control, recorded music . . .

In any case, I'd like to hear one of those orchestra concerts performed by musicians in a different city, electrically connected to local instruments. It'd save me some Metro North fares, at least.

Full of Fish

Back from dinner for a coworker's birthday; went out to a pretty good sushi place in town. I ordered myself a sashimi platter, forgetting somewhat that this is just fish (as opposed to bits of things in rolls), something I've never really considered that I wanted to eat. But it was extremely good. Some of these fishcuts positively melt in your mouth; it's really like nothing else. Highly recommended culinary experience if you haven't tried it yet. (Unless you oppose eating fish on moral and/or environmental grounds. Sorry Pete. I, uh, have stopped buying canned tuna, though.) Gets a bit pricey, but that sort of thing is supposed to increase the amount of subjective pleasure you draw from something, right?

Meanwhile, I'm listening to Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony on CD, which I finally broke down and bought a copy of, largely so I can put a movement on a mix CD for someone. Turangalila and sashimi do a satisfying evening make. Also it's finally nice outside.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Pancakes & Shostakovich

So Nate and I had a good Wednesday together, starting with an excellent Portland breakfast at the Bijou cafe. I had the buckwheat pancakes. Nate had the oatmeal pancakes. Then we walked around the Esplanade that makes a small loop around the section of the Willamette river that is adjacent to downtown Portland. Then we went to the library. Then we went to the Lucky Lab brew pub, which is a real decent place. They had their red ale on cask, which tasted pretty good. Other than that though (whatever their cask offering happens to be when I'm in there (I think their stout on cask was the best I've had there)) I'm kinda tired of what they have to offer. Don't reckon I'll be going there again before I leave Portland at the end of next week.

At somepoint at Lucky Lab, as is often the case with Nate, the conversation turned to Shostakovich. In this case, we were talking about how deplorable the American experience of Shostakovich's music (or really, just his Symphonies) is, and how the whole US-and-Shostakovich versus Communism is stupid and shallow and does little if anything to inform any experience of his music. The basic narrative, as we know it to be (I reference you to any number of concert program notes for Shostakovich's 5th or 10th symphonies (oreven his First Cello Concerto) is that Shostakovich wrote a opera, Laby Mcblahblahblah, which Stalin saw and didn't like, and then he made life crappy for Dmitri. Shosty-K writes a 4th symphony and pulls it before performance, fearing retribution, writes the 5th symphony, which is smash hit, and then later makes up for all that with his 10th symphony, and the DSCH theme conquering the "Stalin" theme. Oh great.

But Nate and I agree: what kind of "victory" is it when you have to keep shouting your name?

It'd be better off if Americans were just presented Shostakovich as absolute music, with no context. The 5th Symphony is a tour de force of structural formality, and the 10th is balanced in its own write too (in a very Shostkovichy kind of way).

Anyway, thats what we talked about. Also the mostly-paralell topic of how deplorable the American experience of Sibelius' music (again, mostly his symphonies) is.

Right now I'm listening to a recording of Sibelius 1, being played by late-'60s era Vienna Philharmonic, and the bass trombone is about the blattiest thing I've ever heard recorded. Reminds me of being in high school, when my Bass trombone playing friend would borrow our other friend, the tuba player, would borrow the tuba player's high-mass tuba mouthpiece (generally referred to as "El Blasto") and play his bass trombone with it. As the Californians say, "Hella-blatty."

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Nate's here somewhere, reading probably The New Yorker


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Weather, the Burgh

So I spent a long weekend in Pittsburgh, Thursday through Monday; I was kind of bummed out about the weather (mid-forties, overcast, often raining), largely since it wiped out the Pirates game I was going to attend with our parents & Mike. Then I read Monday's paper and realized I was missing the worst spurt of weather in the Northeast for some time, and easily the worst since I arrived in Connecticut. Lingering nor'easterly winds did delay my flight back to JFK by a couple of hours, but overall I was unaffected. (I do have some crop-circle-like water stains on the ceiling of my room now -- the deck is right above it -- but since no water actually came through into the room it's fine. Landlords: called.)

Escape to Pittsburgh for the sake of the weather? Stranger things have happened, I guess.

All this talk about nor'easters reminds me of this short item in the New Yorker from last year, which I think is pretty amusing. One man's mission . . .

I've become convinced that downtown Pittsburgh looks its best in diffuse light from overcast skies. The US Steel building gets that brooding, hulking look, and PPG Place takes on an especially icy sheen.

The Mysterious Case of Shostakovich’s Quite Possibly Fictional “Real” Twelfth Symphony

When Nate & I were in New York together in March we watched a short documentary movie about Shostakovich that was playing at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater. It wasn’t a very good film – the only real pleasure in it was the clips of Shostakovich himself talking or performing, which were frustratingly few and far between – but it inspired me to borrow Nate’s copy of Elizabeth Wilson’s excellent book Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, which I’ve been reading during the last week.

Wilson relates a story by Shostakovich’s friend Lev Lebedinsky concerning the Twelfth Symphony of 1961, a work which is widely regarded as a sop to the Soviet powers that be, as well as musically subpar. (I’ve never actually listened to it, mostly because I’ve only read that it’s awful. Nate also says it’s awful, and if Nate says he doesn’t like a Shostakovich piece, it means it’s pretty bad.) Wilson seems fairly skeptical about this story, and it sure looks like there are some reasons to doubt it, but it’s too juicy to pass by without notice:
In 1961 Shostakovich made another attempt to express his true attitude to what was going on in his country. He decided that his Twelfth Symphony was to be a satire of Lenin. When he told me this I tried to talk him out of it. . . One evening he rang me up in a panic. “Lev Nikolayevich, tomorrow my symphony will be played for the first time. Can you come up to Leningrad?” . . .

I arrived early in the morning. He was waiting for me at his hotel. He was pale as death. He looked awful. In the lobby he said to me, “I’ve written a terrible symphony. It’s a failure. But I managed to change it.”

“Change what?”

“The whole symphony. But we can’t talk any more. My room is full of journalists and all sorts of strange people.” . . .

Shostakovich [later] explained: “I wrote my symphony, and then I realized that you had been right. They’d crucify me for it because my conception was an obvious caricature of Lenin. Therefore I sat down and wrote another one in three or four days. And it’s terrible!” With his insane technique he could do anything. . . .

I believe that part of the original manuscript was destroyed, while Shostakovich kept the rest, intending to re-use the material in the future. His widow, Irina Antonovna, must have what remains of the original score.
Now, the same passage by Lebedinsky also notes that other people close to Shostakovich (“close” is somewhat relative, since the composer was famously indirect and inscrutable) have accused Lebedinsky himself of forcing the Twelfth’s party-line theme on Shostakovich, not to mention pressuring Shostakovich into communist party membership around the same time. That defensive tone, combined with the singular central position Lebedinsky occupies in the story itself, represents a very big grain of salt. I’m curious whether there’s been any specific reaction/refutation of this since Wilson’s book came out (in 1994).

Regardless of factual merit, the idea of a double-secret “real” Shostakovich Twelfth Symphony that satirizes Lenin is pretty spellbinding. I await the day when some delicate manuscript appears, offering up a chunk of politically impossible masterpiece from Shostakovich’s prime.

Of course, “regardless of factual merit,” any number of intriguing possibilities are worth salivating over. And even if this thing existed, any valuable music in it must have ended up recycled in the Second Cello Concerto or one of the quartets anyway.

All Quiet on the Northwestern Front

So Nate's in Portland for the week, by which I mean Nate's in Seattle right now, and I'm at the public library, where I spend an hour of my day most days, these days. Jack claims that I have bigger news than the shorn sleeve from my disintegrating flannel, and I agree! In fact, I'll mention just one little piece: the blog is almost one year old now! Crazy! Don't tell it, but I'm planning a surprise party for it. I'll tell it that I'm just taking it over to the store, so it can give me its opinion on the new flannel that I'm going to buy, and assuming that it doesn't see through that lie (since, obviously, I'm just gonna take one of my Dad's flannels the next time that I'm home (assuming he has any left)), will you know, take it to where the surprise party is going to be (not sure exactly where yet, but probably somewhere on the "internet".

Friday, April 13, 2007

Goin' on a Holiday

I'm off to Portland, OR and Seattle for a week, so expect even greater quietude on the blog for a little while. Hopefully I'll come back with news, reviews, and (dare I wish) correctly exposed photographs of this magical "North-West" I have never seen before and its crunchy-granola, coffee-fueled way of life. That and a suitcase full of Pete's Pittsburgh-bound crap, apparently.

Lost the Lower Half of My Left Sleeve

So, going back to 2003 now, I've made the habit of wearing a combination of a flannel shirt and a hooded sweatshirt as general coat/overshirt (with either a waterproof windbreaker or leather jacket as optional top layer, for the wet and/or cold months of the year). This has always involved one or two hoodies, but only one flannel each year. Generally, the wear-and-tear of such clothing decisions give cause for the flannel to be discarded at the end of the cold season (with the exception of the inaugural flannel, which also became a crucial aspect of the costume for my now-legendary (although still enigmatic and very rarely appearing (I've never met him)) alter-ego Hank 300). The second flannel was dark blue and green, this years flannel was a grey plaid. This year's flannel, however, was not up to challenge. I knew there was gonna be trouble when the light-grey of the collar and cuffs began to show the slowly accumulating crud of an over-worn shirt (but I do wash the thing, bi-weekly (give or take a week)). But last week, a small hole appeared in the elbow (didn't appear so much as show up, since I don't often remove the flannel from the hoodie, so don't really get a good look at much of the shirt besides the aforementioned cruddy collar and cuffs). The hole, as most holes do, slowly grew, and today finally reaching catastrophic size, and as I put my coat on to head home from work (well, not home, but to the library...) I felt the need to fiddle with the left sleeve, as it felt uncomfortable, and in that fiddling process managed to completely remove the bottom half of the sleeve from the rest of the shirt. Too bad, really, since it's starting to be consistently warm enough in Portland that I was gonna retire the shirt soon anyway, but instead it will be retired with the indignity of having only 1.33 arms.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

RIP Kurt Vonnegut

RIP Kurt Vonnegut.

Someday, someday, this crazy world will have to end,
And our God will take things back that He to us did lend.
And if, on that sad day, you want to scold our God,
Why go right ahead and scold Him. He'll just smile and nod.

-- Bokononist "Calypso", Cat's Cradle

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Unpersuaded by the Music of the Bell

This Washington Post Magazine story's been noted on The Rest is Noise and Talking Points Memo but I'll pass along the link anyway: The author, Gene Weingarten, convinced violinist Joshua Bell to play in a downtown Washington, D.C. Metro station during the morning rush hour to see what would happen.

I guess I won't give away the results, which Weingarten does a good job of teasing apart, but I'll note that he compares the video of the event (which should be available on the article's site if you can get it to load) to Koyaanisqatsi, by which I mean they're pretty disheartening. The movie comparison is apt, I think. Weingarten and Bell's experiment doesn't say a whole lot about classical music itself. It says a fair amount about framing experiences -- the few people who were struck by the music didn't imagine Bell, one of the most acclaimed and accomplished virtuosos out there right now, to be anything more unique than a gifted professional, and how many of us would without a ticket in hand and a concert hall around us? But what it really gets at is our pace and style of life; it's kind of sick that almost nobody stops to listen to Joshua Bell, but it's very sick that almost nobody would stop for anything. I don't think the test would play out the same way in every time and place in the country -- though it'd probably be similar in more cases than I want to think -- but the pervasive idea that we constantly need to be going somewhere or doing something according to these very precisely tuned schedules, to the point where unplanned experiences along the way need to be walked past and ignored, seems like it must be helping make us feel as harried and -- relative to our material comforts -- miserable as we apparently are.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Dept. of Bygone Hoaxes

This is a couple of days late, but there are some funny items in this list of classic April Fool's Day news reports.

Reason + Revelation = Faith?

So I was perusing some corporate internet media today, as I tried to figure out just what it was I was going to do with the internet today, here at Portland's magisterial central public library, and came across this article, linked to from the front page of It continues to sadden me that shit like this gets published so readily, as if there is any kind of new message to be found in Collins' little blurb here (whose real (selfish) intent would seem to be to 1) sell more copies of Collins' book and 2) bring more viewers to CNN's upcoming special on what it means to be Christian). Every fucking Easter, man, this shit comes out. I don't get Newsweek, but is Jesus on the cover?

I'm not exactly sure how much I even want to rant against this particular argument, so I'm gonna stew about it for a little while and come back to it.

(okay... 10 minutes later...)

But reason alone cannot prove the existence of God. Faith is reason plus revelation, and the revelation part requires one to think with the spirit as well as with the mind. You have to hear the music, not just read the notes on the page. Ultimately, a leap of faith is required.

So Collins seems to be a proponent of the usual Dualism, wherein apparently, he has both a mind and a soul:

"...the revelation part [of Faith] requires one to think with the spirit as well as with the mind."

In this sloppy tract though, Collins' demonstrates the circularity of his argument:

"Ultimately, a leap of faith is required."

So, Faith (F) equals Reason (Rs) plus Revelation (Rl).

F = Rs + Rl

And Revelation, apparently, which involves the mental (spiritual) hearing of music, not just looking at notes, which, apparently is something of a leap of faith (as a musician alone, I'm am offended by the conception that there is that much of a leap between the notation and the music). So Revelation involves Faith.

Rl = Rl(F)

F = Rs + Rl(F) = Rs + (Rs + Rl(F)) = Rs + (Rs + (Rs + Rl(F))), etc.

A silly loop, at best. How this answers any of Collins' questions in his article, or bring solace and calm to issues of "life and death" is beyond me. It seems wrong, maybe, to consider Faith to be silly, when its as destructive as it is, but at the same time, a mostly nihilistic agnosticism urges me to laugh and laugh. Gallows humour, maybe, but still

what a virulent meme, that silly loop Faith.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Great Failed Bee Jokes of Western Literature, Vol. I

About the lowest-brow thing I can share from a very cultural weekend Jack and I just spent in New York City is some guy's botched attempt at a tired joke, overheard in a nigh-empty bar in the East Village:

"What kind of boobs make milk? No, wait..."

I can't really explain why I found that very funny. Part of it is that one of my ex-coworkers had an amusing story about a colleague delivering an oddly dramatic, wholly inappropriate (but correctly rendered) telling of the joke at a half-day seminar on the topic of the company's sexual harassment policy.

Barely related is a part of a story I heard this evening on WETA's radio feed of the News Hour, describing massive, unexplained bee die-offs out West. Ordinarily I wouldn't have left the news on for more than a few seconds because there's almost nothing I could hear about the outside world that would make me happier than 53 Miles West of Venus does. But I guess anybody can still get my attention just by talking about social insects.

Only 80 Wins to Go!

So, yeah, it was nice that the ol' Buccos won their Opener. This could be the year that they finally get back to .500!

Also, I just finished reading Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey into Night, which is a rather cynical read, perhaps made even more dark by the knowledge that its autobiographical. The only other play of O'Neill's that I've read was the Hairy Ape, and that was back in high school, so it was good to read another of his plays (thanks Jack, for giving me the book as a gift (and also, seems like I've read more books recommended by you than anyone else recently, what's up with that?)). Very sharply written though - doesn't waste anything in either the dialogue or the stage notes (or whatever they're called). Nothing quite like good ol' fashioned American cynicism.

Contributor: Toad Nate

So how come I'm suddenly listed twice under the "Contributors" over there on the right side of the page? Some kind of screwy account managing? Is there just more than one of me floating around?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Half of This Can Is 90% Lentil

Seen on a can of soup at the corner grocery: "70% Organic." Does this even mean anything? Is that by weight or by volume? Are they including water in that calculation?

By my calculation, that soup could plausibly be up to 30% Twinkie-fed genetically modified beef.

I'm actually curious whether this is a widespread thing or not, and whether kind-of-organic food could cut out a swath of market share from actually-organic food.

Let's Go Pirates!

So baseball season is upon us, so Let's Go Bucs!

Today someone on the bus I was riding complemented the Pirates hat that I was wearing (and wear everyday). I said thanks. Then he told me that I should escape to the airport through the ceiling, and pointed at the ceiling, where there wasn't even an emergency exit or vent or anything else. I'm not sure if his craziness/drunkenness or whatever it was should nullify his complement of the hat or not, but either way I'm pretty sure he's rooting for the Pirates too!