Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Way More Exciting Than Monday Night Football

Just back from the campus recital hall, where the Fine Arts Quartet performed Arriaga, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky. The concert was on a chamber music series that (shudder) you actually have to pay a normal price for, but a coworker/friend (recent arrival at the Press) is a family friend of the quartet, through her father, who's a professor & widely performing concert pianist; so I got to attend a concert on a comp ticket for the first time in something like 20 months.

The Fine Arts Quartet is what I would describe as an "old school" ensemble, though when I ran that by my friend she corrected me to "Russian school," which, okay, is probably more accurate. By "old school" I mean they play with a savory tone and lyrical but measured expressiveness that evokes old LP records playing through big fabric-fronted wooden speakers by the stereo cabinet. Visually they are definitely old school, being four oldish tuxedo-wearing men who play with not much unnecessary physical movement. The music produced has the warmth and authority of a firm handshake.

Shostakovich's Quartet No. 1 was fantastic. Hearing it from an ensemble with this aesthetic made the performance sound authoritative, like this is exactly the sound Shostakovich had in mind when he wrote it -- accommodating that lyrical strength, playing a bit with textures and tone colors. (The quartet's players are all Russian-Jewish, which I'm sure is steering my impression towards "authoritative," too, even if that's a bit glib.) I like this piece a lot -- it's not freighted nearly the same way most of Shostakovich's better-known quartets are, but it's fleet and classical and has an subtle, honest emotional range. You can hear shades of the quick music of the Sixth Symphony (composed around the same time in the late 1930s) in the last two movements.

Tchaikovsky's Second Quartet was played even better, but I just find this piece to be an absolute sleeper. It's like a casserole of modestly searching romantic tunes, some cripsy garnish, and a whole lot of blandly creamy filler. You take your serving and express polite thanks for it afterwards. I wish it was more my taste: this was performed spectacularly, just the way you'd want it.

The Quartet's encore was the last movement of Haydn's "Lark" Quartet, which being (a) shorter, (b) faster, and (c) lighter, made me a lot happier. Hope that's not too Top 90 of me.

The opening work was the first quartet by Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, who died at 20 (in 1826) while he was developing into a promising composer. "Promising" comes across in the quartet, which has a good amount of personality and zest but hasn't entirely arrived yet. The Quartet sounded less solid for much of this piece for whatever reason.

Tomorrow evening's tentatively planned campus spectator activity of choice: hockey game vs. Harvard. Hopefully will be more of a contest than the football game vs. Harvard.

Ready For Some Squishball

What, my silly robot poem post is going to sit atop the blog for a whole week? I'll at least note this YouTube footage of last night's Steelers/Dolphins game, consisting mainly of a punt that illustrates the swampy, substandard quality of the field. Steelers win, 3-0; that's hard to do in rugby football descendants that allow forward passes.

Today's NFL news (to say nothing of local TV coverage) has instead been dominated by the sadder story that Redskins safety Sean Taylor was just shot and killed in his home. Paul Lukas' reliable Uni Watch blog provides a tribute to his DIY uniform stripes.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Sifting through some backed-up files from my non-heady college days in search of examples of writerly merit... The occasional oddity turns up among the drafts. I'm probably about as tired right now as I perpetually was at the end of any given semester, so I'm mentally ready to find the following first cut at a poem vaguely funny, as I presume I did when I first wrote it. (If memory serves, I typed it out over a couple of afternoons as a counterpoint to, or substitute for, more pressing end-of-term tasks.) My aesthetic evaluation of it five years later is "undercooked" and "positioned uncomfortably between real-poem and fake-poem status". Anyway, for your optional perusal.



the claw-handed robots
are on our moon
they are waving solemnly
they take a step backwards
to fit in a snapshot with the flag

they can withstand the cold and non-pressure of space
they like the cold and non-pressure of space

we are on the back porch drinking margaritas
your mouth laughs and tastes like salt
you are tucked in my lap like a comma
the robots run their calculations

we built them ourselves you know
the claw-handed robots
we thought they would want to serve in factories

but they didnt
so we sent them away on a spaceship
we thought they were headed for the sun
but they werent
and now theyre pissed off

the robots gather and wait
in geosynchronous orbit
one of them knows how to swivel its head just right
so it looks at us all the time

we didnt give them love or genitals
they dont need them
they have force shields
and those claw-hands
they will kill us with their higher math
how could we be so stupid
we didnt make them alive enough to die

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Herzlichen Glückwünsche fürs Turkeyfest!

"Six-Finger Turkey", ballpoint pen on sticky note, 2004 (?).

I've been posting lightly for the past several days, and I'm going to remain absent for the rest of the week as I meet up with most of the rest of the immediate family in Miami for Thanksgiving. But I hope it's a very happy holiday for one and all.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Guide

Did You Know? Seasonal Affective Disorder is a scienticially proven mental condition that strikes more than 1 in several Americans every winter. Adhere to these handy consumer suggestions to ensure that you don't inexorably sink into a gray interior landscape of despair!

● Therapeutic Light Box
Pro: Provides full-spectrum light to compensate for missing sunshine
Con: Known to cause Spending Two or Three Hundred Dollars on a Lamp Affective Disorder
Recommended? No

● Repainting Household in Warmth-Inducing Color Scheme
Pro: Warm colors known to sometimes "fool" the brain into being happy
Con: Current color of walls probably already pretty good, yet obviously not working
Recommended? No

● Football
Pro: Weekly ritual of watching television provides suprisingly robust illusions of importance, pride, manhood
Con: Season doomed to end in disappointment due to weak offensive line, shoddy special teams play
Recommended? No

● Alcohol
Pro: Accessible
Con: Overuse can reduce liver function, ability to project oneself as respectable human being
Recommended? No

● Embracing Depression as Aspect of Literary Persona
Pro: Lends emotional relevance to poetry, drama, short fiction
Con: Generally necessitates overuse of alcohol (see above)
Recommended? No

● Global Warming
Pro: Effective, long-lasting increase in outside temperature
Con: Some probability of eco-apocalyptic nightmare scenario
Recommended? Moot

● True Love
Pro: Will inspire rich feelings of shared happiness at any time of year
Con: Exists only as cruel illusion, pursued by young idiots unaware of chasm of bitterness lurking in heart of every man and woman
Recommended? n/a

● Attempts at Humor
Pro: Diverting
Con: Generally not adequate to the task at hand
Recommended? Whatever

Friday, November 16, 2007


So the other day, I was sitting around daydreaming (actually, I do that a lot - in relation to my Master's degree, its an activity that I feel is an extension of "pre-writing."), specifically, musing over an occurrence from earlier in my semester:

I am taking a course on composition pedagogy, as a preparation of my future TA duties of actually teaching a class (that starts in January). For this class, I had to write a paper. One of the classroom activities that we did with this paper was a peer-review. During my peer-review, a sociologist named Frank told me that I "write like a positivist." Now, this puts me in an awkward position - mostly because, while I'm well aware that my Darwinism, and belief in the value of scientific process in general, does make me something of a positivist, I'm also active in Academic circles where in "positivist" carries a rather explicitly pejorative connotation. I checked with Frank, he meant it in a good way, but still, the fierce Marxist homunculus that lives in my brain was taken aback at the notion that the brain in which it lives could really be more positivist than not.

The purpose of the daydreaming, if it can be said to have a purpose at all, was to find an out to this quandary. The goal, of course, was to coin a new philosophical outlook that could define a middle ground where my Marxist homunculus and the distributed, quite possibly epiphenomenal, consciousness that emerges from the rest of my brain could hold hands, run through the park, and just be, you know, friends. My initial stab was to claim to myself that I was a "negative positivist," but that didn't seem quite right. Plus, it reminded me of Jean-Luc Nancy's "singular plural," which, although I've only ever read the front cover of the English translation, and maybe part of the blurb on the back, and I have no notion of what it could possibly mean, still seemed too similar. My next jump though, seems to be sticking a bit for me:

I am an "empirical negativist."

I won't bore you with the details of what this newly-named philosophy entails, but I did want to post something about it. Why? Because, when I googled "empirical negativist" it came back with zero entries, so by publishing this here, I totally take ownership of this entirely new and novel concept.


In other news, Graduate school also continues to make me feel like I'm the kind of person that should probably have a couple of tattoos. My most recent terrible idea for a tattoo was to get, in big capital letters, ALWAYS down the inside of my right forearm, and ALREADY down the left. Which is to say, I will never have any tattoos.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mahler 9

I don't think I can say very many unintuitive things about the Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle, and Mahler's Ninth Symphony. This was Tuesday night in Carnegie Hall, and for me another worthwhile jaunt down the Metro North.

Time stopped in the last movement of this symphony. I don't think I've heard an orchestra performance that generated the same trance. Rattle, after the first movement, had stepped off the podium to respectfully implore the audience (which had actually been fairly well-behaved) to maintain complete silence; I thought this was a little much at the time, but during the last movement the gesture was obviously paying off. As the final, sublimated music finished dissolving, faint impressions of traffic noise were encroaching on the silent hall. A muted ambulance siren picked up as the last melodic strains dissipated, a quiet tendril reaching in from our time and place; Rattle held the orchestra in place while that sound, too, faded, and for another few seconds of complete stillness after.

Afterwards I avoided the subway and chose to walk to Grand Central in the cool evening, in a bit of a temporally disconnected daze. Back at the station I learned that I had about three Earth-minutes to get onto a train. (I'd also stopped in a deli to pick up my traditional post-concert-jaunt roast beef sandwich, for the Metro North ride home. I had my feet on the ground enough to realize that I was incredibly hungry.)

When I woke up this morning I was still kind of in this daze; Wow, I thought, Mahler hangover. It persisted until lunch, when a pleasant conversation with a coworker finally re-extroverted my train of thought.

Mahler 9 is, I feel, one of the few-and-far-between meaningful spiritual experiences you can have as an agnostic person. The last movement, ardently coming in after fifty minutes of disjointed, anguished, and sardonic music, is so different from everything you've heard that it feels like the piece is stepping outside of itself to offer a consolation. (Beethoven's 9th does a similar thing very explicitly in its last movement, with the "O Freunde! Nicht diese Töne" announcement.) And then the question becomes whether that consolation will survive to the end of the piece and turn out to be a true comfort or not; instead of providing an answer (like the Ode to Joy does) Mahler vaporizes the music, so exquisitely slowly, and by the end it's clear that there's no more of an answer in this music than there is in looking at the stars in the sky.

I don't think this inheres to the symphony, but it's what I get out of it, and I'm glad I get this out of it.

The Berlin Philharmonic, I probably don't need to say, is just really, really good. You hear it in the solo playing and in the sectional playing too, especially in the disjointed parts of Mahler 9 (especially well-done in the first movement) where different voices need to tug painfully against each other but still remain aligned with the overall flow of the piece.

They also gave the US premiere of a new Magnus Lindberg piece, Seht die Sonne, which was 25 minutes long, endlessly inventive, gleaming like glass and steel architecture, cold, and emotionally nearly empty. Stylistically it's not far off from Salonen's recent work, though more attentive to detail work and favoring more abstracted melodies and a less continuous dramatic contour. The writing for winds is extremely good -- Lindberg knows his instrumental acoustic properties, and can alloy a winds & brass sound that makes most 20th-century symphonic wind writing seem naive in retrospect.

* * * * *

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela was at Carnegie on Sunday, and Mandy and I went to that one. Fun! The reviews from the NY Times sum it up; I'd add only that the flag-jacket pops-orchestra routine at the end is pretty incredibly cheesy, though I don't mean that in a bad way.

Kept me from pulling my hair out over the Steelers game, too; maybe better just to read the final score first off, while exiting the upper reaches of Carnegie Hall in a crush of people, having asked Nate to text it to my phone.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

It Is a Bad Idea to Annoy James Harrison

Since I won't be able to watch the Steelers' second consecutive division-defining home game against the Browns tomorrow, I'll supply a modest offering to the gods of Felicitous Football Outcomes in the form of this December '04 Post Gazette picture of James Harrison taking down a drunk Browns fan who'd run out into the field in Cleveland.


The Steelers won that game 41 to 0. This weekend, well, here's hopin'!

Friday Night: It's Miller Time

Last night was evidently some kind of "National Free Night of Theater" (not to be confused with today's "National Free Night of Striking Stagehands Shutting Down Broadway") which interested me insofar as it was possible to get free tickets to New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre for a four-person Arthur Miller play called "The Price." Occasionally it occurs to me that I never see any theater, and that I probably should try to see theater more often, so this was good news.

Long Wharf Theatre is located in New Haven's meatpacking district, which is smaller and notably less trendy than New York City's meatpacking district.

I don't know how well-known or often performed "The Price" is. All I know Arthur Miller from is reading "Death of a Salesman" and "All My Sons" in high school, and seeing Bolcom's opera version of "A View from the Bridge" last week. (Incidentally, seeing an opera and then a play by the same writer will show you, very quickly, how capable opera librettos are at draining dramatic immediacy out of a story.) "The Price" is from 1967; the story concerns two estranged brothers (policeman Victor, the central character; rich surgeon Walter) in their 50s who meet for the first time in 16 years while trying to sell an apartment full of old furniture left over from their years-dead father, since the building is about to be demolished.

It's kind of an oddly-shaped play. The first half is surprisingly comedic, mostly focusing on Victor and the 89-year-old, cartoonishly Jewish furniture salesman he's called for an appraisal. (Cartoonish in mannerism, at least. Fortunately the play doesn't push out into squirmier territory, considering one of the main plot points involves whether Victor is getting a fair price for the stuff.) Then in the second half Walter arrives, and suddenly you've got Arthur Miller there in full brilliance, running this long scene where the two brothers alternately try to disentangle their family past and attack each other over it, fleshing out a miraculously realistic sense of a deep personal history that can't be assigned a single truthful interpretation. If you define a good piece of writing as one that gives the illusion of its characters' existence seeming to extend beyond their immediate portrayal, this is a tour de force. Both actors were quite good here, I think.

So that was worth seeing. Also, as the program book noted, the guy who played the furniture salesman (David Margulies) was also the mayor of New York City in both Ghostbusters movies, and he also appeared in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. (Tell me he doesn't totally steal that scene from Jim Carrey.) It probably marks me as a regional theater philistine to gleefully find out the bit parts that actors have played in Hollywood movies, but, what can you do.

Arthur Miller plays will also make you grateful that your family relationships aren't fraught with peril. Hey everyone, thanks for not being estranged!!!

Friday, November 09, 2007

Miami Thinkin'

The finally cooled-off weather of Miami has caused the number of out-of-state license plates to suddenly jump, multiplying their numbers many times over. Many of these out-of-staters, as one might well imagine, are old people. This makes the already dangerous roads of North Miami Beach that much more dangerous. I came as close to being hit by car as I've been since living down here yesterday afternoon. I'm really hoping that the driver that turned left almost right onto me saw the screwy angry-terrified face I made at her, but there's no real hope that she did, or that she will encounter enough other bicycles on the roads here to get better at not almost hitting us.

Along with the old people, and perhaps relatedly, a large flock of large black bird-of-prey looking birds. They can be seen hovering over the wetlands across the street from me (beyond the Target). I'm not really sure what kind of birds they are, and I don't have means currently to magic a picture of them onto the internet, so identification may have to wait for the time being. The point is, there are lots of them, and they're here to pick off the elderly.

This morning, I was biking to campus for a rousing 9 AM online writing tutoring session, taking the usual slightly-longer scenic route on the bike path that loops around the small section of Biscayne Bay upon which my University campus lies. These birds roost in two trees right on the bike path - a truly formidable sight! It was actually rather startling at first, but once I remember that I'm not old and that they're not here to devour my soul, I was okay and biked on by.

Speaking of the bike path, a couple mornings a go, I was fat, awake, and motivated enough to go ahead and take a jog on this same path. The morning people on the path are a couple times more pleasant than the evening crowd, I must say. Everyone smiles, even exchanges words as they walk dogs, ride bicycles, or wheeze their way to sore legs and no loss of weight. This overwhelming pleasantness (and now that its not so damn hot everyday, things really are rather pleasant) caused me to have one of my most Miami thoughts to date: "Man, I should get a pair of rollerblades." Which is to say, I don't actually plan to ever get said roller-shoes, but it was amusing to think it.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Schnittke 9

Since I only live, what, like 3 hours from Lincoln Center now, I popped down into the City last night to hear the Juilliard Orchestra give the US premiere of Alfred Schnittke's unfinished Ninth Symphony, completed by a composer named Alexander Raskatov. Raskatov's own "Nunc Dimmitis" followed; Dennis Russell Davies conducted.

There's a short but descriptive preview article in yesterday's NY Times. Listen to the audio clip there, too, which is the first 5 minutes of the first movement.

Schnittke died in '98 after the last of a series of debilitating strokes, having shortly beforehand had scrawled out a nearly illegible reduced score with his non-paralyzed left arm.

I'd noticed this concert was coming a while back and decided to try to make it, figuring that even if Schnittke 9 wasn't a valedictory masterpiece it'd be my only chance for a while to hear a late Schnittke symphony, or really any Schnittke symphony. Not in the classical top 90, these.

Schnittke's Ninth is not a valedictory masterpiece, but it's a compelling work. There are three oddly matched movements, two Moderatos -- very similar in tone, though the first is longer and ranges more widely -- followed by a Presto, amped up but made from the same general mold. It seems that Schnittke left this as a completed work, though the program note observes that Raskatov feels like Schnittke intended a fourth movement. All three movements end abruptly, creating a strongly fragmentary feeling at the end.

The first movement is the strongest: the cellos and basses start by scaling a tonally ambiguous rock face of a theme, and from there follows a wandering elegy of a movement, like an eroded ruin of a Shostakovich symphony. The dramatic geography is still there, but without a symphonic ediface constructed above it; recognizable themes are barely present, counterpoint is often reduced to a tumbled overlay of unreconciled parts, and the emotional climaxes sound feverish and inchoate. I doubt this interpretation is what Schnittke was going for, but it works -- concentrating a very potent emotional energy and subsuming it into an elemental, dehumanized landscape. Moments of lucidity and consonance are few, hard-won, and fiercely ardent.

The second movement retreads much of the same ground, with some commentary from the harpsichord (a Schnittkean calling-card); the third movement kindles the same sort of material into a violent fire before a slower, chorale-like coda of sorts puts it to bed.

There's a lack of variety in the instrumental texture that starts to weigh in the second half of the piece, and the constant wandering loses immediacy too. It's very hard to tell, of course, how much this has to do with incompleteness, or with Raskatov's work. The Juilliard Orchestra is extremely good, but I'd be curious to hear whether a professional orchestra's strings would sound more pointed or purposeful. There are recordings of all of Schnittke's prior symphonies, but it's hard to make a comparison without really giving something on CD a very close listen, which I haven't.

The Ninth itself is going to be recorded with Davies and the Dresden Philharmonic next year, so it will at least persist in that form.

Raskatov's "Nunc Dimittis" (for orchestra plus vocalists, a mezzo-soprano and the four-man Hilliard Ensemble) was appealingly translucent after the Schnittke, even if dry and acerbic. Raskatov seems to combine the static moods of eastern European "holy minimalists" with the sparse gestures of expressive modernism: usually the vocalists would measure out repetitive lines with the orchestra (very seldom the full orchestra) employed as a stripped-down and slowly shifting backdrop. A brittle concertante group of piano, celesta, harp, harpsichord, and electric guitar & bass offered effective punctuation here and there, as well as calling Schnittke to mind again. Savage cluster-chords would periodically crescendo out of the low brass or strings to a rattling volume and then disappear. It was a bit hard to judge this piece, just since the acoustic blend of the voices wasn't very good from the second tier of Avery Fisher Hall.

Before all this, Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante, op. 84 (violin, cello, oboe, bassoon soloists) amiably filled up the first half of the program. The first movement was satisfying, intelligent and colored with some surprising harmonies; but the slow movement is fairly drab, and the last movement frequently gets bogged down in uninteresting violin filigree, which the violinist wasn't selling hard enough either, I don't think.

The program note included a neat short cultural history of the sinfonia concertante as a classical form, so I'll include that here as well. I'd only add that, if the words "Sinfonia Concertante" don't make you think of Mozart's K. 364 for violin, viola, and orchestra, you need to find a recording of that. That is rightfully in the classical top 90.

* * * * *

(excerpted from program note by David Wright)
As a genre, the sinfonia concertante is a creature of the Classical era, when public concerts first became common. The new bourgeoise concertgoers revelled in these concerto-like works for multiple solists, which emphasized the showy, the cheerful, and the exotic. Over 99 percent of them were in major keys, and the solo groups might include such far-out combinations as harpsichord-violin-piano, piano-mandolin-trumpet-bass, or harp-cello-basset horn. After the fall of Napoleon, Romanticism and the cult of the individual changed audience tastes; traveling virtuosi such as Paganini and Liszt roamed the continent, and the sinfonia concertante, a relatively modest piece tailored for local talent, disappeared as quietly as it had sprung up.

And Number One on Today's Top 90 Repetitive Radio Classical Countdown is...

Tonight I had one of the rare homeward commutes where I listen to the radio's music instead of packing my own, and I learned that WETA -- D.C.'s only classical-only station -- is taking votes for a top-90 countdown around Thanksgiving.

It turns out that you can't get to their list of preselected candidates (you can also fill in your own) once you've voted and they have your IP address on file, so I can't say much specific, except that this list pretty well defines what drives me nuts about the programming on major classical radio stations. I don't object to any of the individual pieces on their checklist but rather to the fact that it entirely encapsulates the range and style of music they program during their drivetime blocks. (I didn't see anything edgier than Stravinksy's "Petrouchka", or darker in attitude than Mozart's clarinet concerto or Brahms' fourth symphony.)

More than that, the repetition bothers me; you hear so many of those pieces over and over again. I remember a mildly revelatory experience on a Boy Scout trip, being in a van in some rural someplace between Pittsburgh and Ontario with a local (I think) Sunday-evening oldies show on the radio. And it was remarkable to me how much better that show sounded than the daytime rotation from a big, commercial oldies station -- not because those particular 1950s and '60s pop rock selections were any better but because they deviated from the day-and-a-half's worth of stuff that resurfaced every day or two on the commercial playlist. I understand the desire to supply mellow, very agreeable music during the stressful parts of their listeners' workday but it always saddens me that you just get Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol" over and over again, given the extremely deep bench that recorded classical music has.

At any rate, my three too-hot-for-commuting write-in nominees were:
  • John Adams: Harmonielehre, Part III ("Meister Eckhardt and Quackie")
  • Shostakovich: String Quartet #13
  • Gyorgy Ligeti: Violin Concerto
Represent. As with nearly all voting systems the write-ins wouldn't stand a chance against the listed choices even if they were sufficiently well-liked. But, given that I should be able to vote from a couple machines at work with different network addresses, I'm hopeful that these three can outperform, say, most of the pieces on that Bernhard Crusell clarinet concerto album that they keep playing.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Super Whiling Away the Hump Day Bros.

YouTube has no shortage of videos of people working their way through a variety of video game music on whatever instruments are at hand, but this performance makes me think the Super Mario Bros. theme is surprisingly well-suited for the button accordion.

This concludes the thinking portion of my Wednesday, if you can call it that.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Two-Minute Warning Pittsburgh Sports Blogging

Well, not much to say about that Steelers game! James Harrison is going to be haunting some dreams tonight.

I had some people over to watch, which was fun. Everyone left at the half, which makes sense since most of them aren't that into football, and since the Ravens weren't looking like they were that into football either.

Let's not let this overshadow the Pirates' momentous news today. I don't mean that they signed a new manager; I mean that in so doing they finally have transcended irony. Or rather, sunk to a depth where the laws of irony no longer operate.

What I mean is: you would think you could make a caustic joke along the lines of, "Hey, they found a guy who proved he can manage a talent-thin AAA team! He'll be perfect!" But this, in fact, appears to be the literal rationale for signing John Russell, and moreover it seems like a canny and sensible decision. So, no joke there. I'm now at a loss of what to say.

Sadly, if Russell can repeat his accomplishment of losing 88 games (like he did with the Ottawa Whoever-the-hells last year) it'll still be an improvement for the Buccos. Of course, the major league season is longer, so it'll be a challenge.

But why think these thoughts now? Batch is kneeling, Carey Davis is done running, and the final score reads a glorious 38 to 7. I can't believe I was so worried how this game was going to turn out!

Now all that's left to happen is for Harrison to run out of the stadium, chase down the Ravens team bus as it's leaving, and throw it onto its side just for the hell of it. That kinda night.

Eddie's Destiny Redux

Cannon, originally uploaded by nateborr.

I don't have much to add to Jack's rundown of this past weekend. I thought A View From The Bridge was solid too. The hamminess of some of the characters didn't bother me as much as it did Jack, I think, though the heavier dramatic touches (the roles of the chorus and narrator especially) got to be a bit much by the end. Tim Page in the Washington Post has a fairly glowing review which I think comes to a similar conclusion, that whatever you think of the drama it makes for a powerful opera.

Walking around the Manassas battlefield was nice too though we both got a little bit of sun (the Internet said it was supposed to be mostly cloudy but what does it know). The back half of my Sunday was spent in social football watching; Monday, work followed by more-or-less successful photo development and printing at class. After that, I came home and found the Steelers up four touchdowns on the Ravens; can't ask much more for the first day of the week.

Music in Miami

I finally managed to get out to a cultural event here in Miami back on Friday, namely, a concert at Lincoln Theatre in South Beach given by the New World Symphony, dedicated to new American symphonic music. The concert was also included as part of a larger South Beach festival centered on the clocks falling back early Saturday morning - there were music and various events planned for an entire 25-hour span beginning Friday afternoon and extending into Saturday. I went to college with one of the current horn players (he graduated a year behind me from CMU), so was able to get a couple of free tickets, which mainly served the purpose of making it possible to convince a friend to go with me (i.e. drive me there). And, as it turned out, another of my colleagues was attending this concert as well with his girlfriend, since he has been writing a sequence of poems about Morton Feldman, who was featured on the program. If I had to guess though, I would think that the NWS concert was planned before it was included in the larger festival. The program was as follows:

Morton Feldman's Piano and Orchestra: This was actually the first live performance of any of Feldman's music that I've ever heard. Piano and Orchestra seemed to me to be a very successful piece. Tilson Thomas gave a lively introduction to the piece, where he related some anecdotes about interacting with Feldman, including an impersonation of Feldman's notorious Brooklyn accent and flippant attitude. MTT also had the pianist and orchestra introduce several of the motives of the piece, inviting the audience to try and determine for themselves, as they picked these motives out of the larger canvas of Feldman's work (the usual references to Rothko et al. were also made), what they meant. Given the unusually broad audience for a concert performance of music of this sort, the introduction was probably quite important, although I would imagine that MTT would have given a similar spiel regardless of the context - that seems to be pretty standard fare for new music these days. The performance itself went pretty well - Tilson Thomas also had pleaded with the audience to be as quiet as possible, and they mostly seemed to buy into that. Talking to my friend after the concert, he revealed that the performance really barely got through itself, but I suppose that's also a pretty typical attitude for a performer to have. Tilson Thomas conducted in a style that seemed to be his best impersonation of Pierre Boulez, which was definitely a different look than what I'm used to seeing from him (and in the other two pieces on the concert he went back to looking like himself). Feldman's music being Feldman's music, there were quite a few walkouts in the audience - which (and please, forgive my elitism) was awesome. Good for them. That music is boring as shit, you know?

The second half of the concert shifted to the 21st Century, starting with

Stephen Mackey's Turn the Key: Because of Dreamhouse, I will always give Mackey an extra large helping of benefit-of-the-doubt, but at the same time I thought this piece was rather good. Mackey was present in the concert hall, and gave a rambling, egotistic introduction to the piece (yes, it really is his past experience as a freestyle skier that makes his music so different from Feldman's, I agree). Mackey described the piece as a "rhythmic fantasy" and thats an accurate description. It uses some of his usual smatterings of pop-oriented musical material (most apparent in the writing for percussion), but maintained enough of a sense of heightened musical awareness to not be so accessible as to lose my interest (I'm, in my mind, making a comparison to a specific other American composer whose music I think is rather terrible, but I guess I won't name names at this juncture). And, at risk of sounding too condescending to be able to qualify that condescension with my own awareness of it, I really think that Mackey is the kind of composer that we, as Americans that enjoy new music, should get behind. Even if not all of his pieces work as well as this one did, it seems to me that he's got the right idea, and his right ideas can appeal to a larger, orchestra-sustaining public.

The last piece on the concert, which cemented its status, in my mind, as being conceived and planned well before being included in a larger cultural festival was

Charles Wuorinen's Concerto for Amplified Cello and Orchestra. This piece was in five movements. The first two were pretty cool, but after that, this thing pretty well just lost me. And I don't really blame myself. Wuorinen was also at this concert, and introduced the piece. It's good to have the composers introducing their own music, I think. Since these intros are so par for the course now, its good to have the persons themselves doing it. The cello was amplified, so far as I could tell (and this was backed up by Wuorinen's own commentary) to make it loud. And it did. The piece was initially conceived as a ballet, so the equalizing of volumes makes more sense in that setting, but as a concert piece, the lack of commentary towards the loudness of the cello within the piece itself was for me distracting, especially as I struggled to find places to enter the piece at all.

Very good program overall though, and well-programmed to boot. We didn't really stick around South Beach for any of the other festivities though. Just stayed down there long enough to have a couple of plastic cups of Dogfishhead 60 minute IPA outside a small beer bar on Lincoln Road.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Eddie Never Knew He Had a Destiny

(analog blogging circa 6 pm Sunday on a Greyhound bus, faithfully retyped with light editing some 4 1/2 hours later)

Currently I'm on the way back from DC, where I spent the weekend with Nate. Largely that was to take in William Bolcom's A View from the Bridge at the Washington National Opera. We agreed on a positive judement: musically involving & unusual, dramatically effective. Well worth seeing.

View was adapted from the Arthur Miller play and premiered at the Lyric Opera of Chicago back in '99. (Having gone to the Met in '02, the opera's on its second major revival here -- heartening, as most new operas drop out of sight permanently at about this point). Bolcom's stylistic signature involves mixing early American popular styles (ragtime, light jazz, pre-rock pop) with a muscular, dramatically potent brand of expressive modernism. In View this provides a lyrical, very approachable front. The first act tends to flit from scene to scene a bit, while the second act anchors itself with heavier and darker music. There are more than enough highlights to make this a memorable opera: a gorgeous song called "New York Lights" sung by the lead tenor; a scene soundtracked to a mocked-up early-50s instrumental rock record, with the characters singing lines that fit into its harmony; a couple of particularly ominous arias in the second act that hammer in a coldly emotional intensity.

There's one thing that doesn't quite work about this kind of opera, I think, and that's the selective push for realism that the staging aims for. Setting an opera in gritty working-class Brooklyn is a stretch; putting it on the shoulders of the male leads to take on a convincingly threatening swagger may have been too much. (The baritone, Kim Josephson, had originated the lead role of Eddie at the opera's premiere. He sang it very well, but something in his bearing didn't quite do it for me.) Almost-realism tends to pull one out of the production a bit, and it clashes with the more stylized aspects of the opera (dramatic high notes, portentious choral proclamations).

(In '02 I saw the NY City Opera do Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking -- incidentally, the success of that one has touched off some other high-profile operas based on films -- and that production included a fairly realistically staged rape scene acted out over some terribly ineffective orchestral music. The rest of the opera worked fine for me, but that one scene still sticks as downright uncomfortable -- disturbing action has really got to be matched by music that makes as powerful an impact on its own terms.)

There's a CD recording of A View from the Bridge from the premiere production. If you haven't heard any Bolcom before, the first recording to get a hold of is his massive setting of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which took him a couple of decades to gradually complete. (On CD, it makes sense to listen through this bit by bit rather than in one full swoop.) I also highly recommend CDs of Bolcom's Fourth Symphony (which has a vividly imagistic abridged setting of Theodore Roethke's poem "The Rose," sung by Bolcom's wife and frequent vocal collaborator Joan Morris), the Twelve New Etudes for piano, and his Piano Concerto (which has a final movement where Bolcom aims for a caustically ironic sendup of American patriotism, by way of a mishmash of patriotic songs and Broadway filler, but succeeds more in creating a brilliant Charles-Ives-style mayhem that lacks subtext but is a hell of a lot of fun). These don't find very many live performances, unfortunately.

The Boston Symphony has commissioned Bolcom for a choral symphony (his 8th) due to premiere in February, and I'm planning to hear this when they bring it to Carnegie Hall.

* * * * *

Other weekend goings-on were pretty low-key; I mostly had checked off the cultural highlights when I was here a month ago. Since it was, by totally natural processes, 70 degrees on Saturday, we drove out to Manassas to wander around the battlefield and try to get a sense of First Bull Run's geography without watching the introductory movie in the visitors' center. The scale of the fighting ground, as always, is surprisingly small.

Also we hung out with a few people briefly on Sunday (mutual Swat friends, a couple of Nate's local friends), and beyond that spent some time watching nerdy TV-on-DVD while drinking beer and eating junk food. Which is pretty much exactly what I was looking for in the weekend.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Occupational History & Morality

Friday is often an errand-running day for me. I have no obligations but a large block of online writing tutoring in the late afternoon/evening hours, so tend to make my usual trips: to the bicycle store, to purchase my weekly supply of inner tubes (excessive, but still cheaper than car payments!); to the bank, to deposit my bi-weekly paycheck (my direct deposit, may, in fact, never start to work); to the grocery store to buy some non-perishable goods to get me through the weekend (chick-peas, hot sauce, Kashi 7-grain pilaf); and to the liquor store to pick up some kind of booze-object for the night's socializing (ended up taking a 6-er of Xingu, which was well-received, but consumed altogether too quickly, due to its immediate popularity).

At Publix, the grocery store, yesterday, I also needed to get some cash-back with my purchase, to make sure I had some cash on-hand for the aforementioned social gathering, which was also going to involve the ordering of several pizzas (and incidentally, the social gathering was pretty much exactly the kind of thing that I had in mind when I was thinking of the reasons of why to go to graduate school for writing in the first place: it was about a dozen MFAers+significant others (my significant other was a flask of bourbon ("brownest of the brown liquors")), each of whom had brought a piece of writing by a favorite author to read out loud to the group. It was actually a really incredible read-around - diverse tastes, lots of why energy, extremely interesting poems, stories, essays, or sundry other bits of prose (I read two of Donald Barthelme's stories: "Porcupines at the University" and "The Baby.")).

So anyway, there I was, at Publix, getting some cash back. The teller, who like most cash register workers at every-grocery-store-everywhere-in-this-country (and, again, incidentally, the grocery clerks at stores in Berlin were generally friendly and talkative (until the point in the transaction where it became clear that Ich konnte nur ein bisschen Deutsch sprechen.)) said approximately nothing to me while ringing up my groceries, went to give me my $20 cash back in a single bill, so I asked for a ten and two fives. She gave me two tens and two fives. I noticed, and thought to myself "Oh lucky day!"

Now, ethically, I have no problem with drawing a lucky card from the community chest (although this instance was only a Beauty Contest reward for the usually more lucrative Bank Error in my Favor); if anything, I should be handed ten extra dollars from the behemoth chain of shitty grocery stores that is Publix. But I only went about five steps before I turned around and went back to the register where I had just checked out and handed back the ten extra dollars. The clerk was shocked to the point of incredulity. She seemed to doubt that she could have possibly given me too much money, but I was insistent, gave her back the ten bucks and quickly left.

There's no doubt in my mind that this happened because of the amount of time that I spent in my life working at a grocery store. Being ten dollars off on your drawer count, while not being a huge offense, necessarily, is definitely not a good thing to have happen to you, and I would imagine, especially at a giant impersonal grocery store like the one where this incident occurred. But I also know that it probably wouldn't have really endangered her job to have just taken the money and left. I can't offer a whole lot of explanation, except to reflect that perhaps, whereas the "Pete Ethic" is deeply tied to the "Pete Rhetoric," the "Pete Morality" is perhaps driven by the "Pete Aesthetic," and therefore capable of overriding the Pete Ethic with quasi-instinctual actions. Or is it the Pete Morality that drives the Pete Aesthetic?

Which is too bad, 'cause I could of used the ten bucks. Brewery Ommegang's new beer, Ommegeddon had finally made it to shelves down here in Miami, and in a quasi-instinctual action grabbed a bottle and purchased before I even knew what was going on. Cost? $10. Damn.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

People Eat More Stale Popcorn If Served in a Big Bucket

Trenchant observation of the week: People Eat More Stale Popcorn If Served in a Big Bucket. I'll let you generalize your own larger, weary truths from the finding.

That's not a new report, but I hadn't heard of consumer decision researcher Brian Wansink till this week. He's got a rather middlebrow-looking book out on eating habits too, which could perhaps be interesting.

If the fact that People Eat More Stale Popcorn If Served in a Big Bucket does not thrill you with cynical frisson, perhaps you are in need of a stronger trenchant observation.

* * * * *

Halloween movie reviews, extra-early for next Halloween:

Shaun of the Dead. Very entertaining zombie comedy. Hadn't seen it before. Snappy genre parody from the same guys who put out Hot Fuzz this year. Highly recommended.

Carrie. Hadn't seen this before either. That is some seriously fucked-up shit right there.

* * * * *

Well, I'm off to the capital for the weekend to take in a William Bolcom opera and to hang out with Nate again. No doubt that beer will be quaffed, goat tacos will be eaten, and some or other Cartoon Network program will be watched on the DVD. Have a good weekend, everyone!

Also, I'm Not That Fond of Schoenberg

So I've been keeping up with this 20th-century music theory course I set out to audit, and it's driving me crazy. The professor (though incredibly nice) is very much an old school pitch-class-set-theory guy, so there's been a lot of Schoenberg and Webern and reducing jagged little melodies into strings of single-digit numbers.

Instead of paying attention to this, I've spent a lot of classroom time trying to find the simplest possible explanation of why set theory doesn't work right. I don't think it works right, and if that's true, then there must be an identifiable reason why.

Fortunately, studying set theory usually doesn't require actually listening to music, so you can think pretty clearly during class time.

(Note, by the way, that musical set theory has nothing in common with mathematical set theory. Yes, it's sad but true, modern mathematicians sometimes found it necessary to justify their aesthetic system by cloaking it in pseudo-musical nomenclature.)

I've more or less settled on the following. Any other music wonks, let me know if I'm making sense.


Set theory assumes that musical structure can be built on intervallic cells. This, in turn, assumes -- falsely -- that intervals have a consistent identity or meaning outside of their immediate context.

The way I see it: Music works by constantly moving between tension and release. Tonal musical analysis gets at this, because tonal music sets up tension and release with functional harmony: dissonances resolve into consonances, and remote keys navigate back to the tonal center.

Set theory does not get at tension and release, because you're looking at intervallic cells out of musical context. You're not analyzing any given melodic line or a harmony to determine whether it's relatively consonant or dissonant, whether it represents a stopping point or invites a following passage. You're just tabulating the intervals in it, which may or may not be recognizable when you hear the passage.

I think at some point with severely atonal music, you need to just say, "OK, this piece stays pretty dissonant throughout," admit that the specific harmonic content often isn't telling you much else, and hone in on what's really generating the tension & release that moves the music forward. (Melodic gesture, voice texture, etc.) And with less severely atonal music, look for complex or fleeting tonal centers and tease out how they work.

Take, even, rigorous 12-tone music: no one actually claims that you can follow a row as it's being manipulated through a piece of music. Well, figure out what you are hearing, and then figure out why it sounds that way.


I'm really curious how widely this brand of set theory is taught; I only encountered it briefly as an undergrad, and I would have thought it mostly dissipated from the universities as severe atonal music lost its "all that" status in the 1980s.

Most of the students in the class, meanwhile, just need the course as a requirement for the music major, so they're obviously in "persevering" mode. There seem to be a small number of theory geeks who are more engaged with it.

Handwriting & Capitalism

I read an excerpt last night from Tamara Plakins Thorton's Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (Hey Jack! That's a Yale book - you get some kind of discount on your employer's wares?) in a book about literacy last night, and found it to be remarkably interesting - mostly because of my own well-documented history (and ongoing struggle with) the fine art of writing by hand. The main point that I thought was blog-able provides further insight into my latent anti-capitalism: in the early years of the United States, it was the merchants that valued pristine handwriting above all others. In fact, the truly elite members of society went out of their way to make their handwriting look sloppy. The social elites affected illegibility to make it clear that they were so well established that they didn't have to worry about how their handwriting looked. Meanwhile, since the merchants depended upon credit to survive, and their credit hinged upon the way their colleagues and business-partners perceived them, they had to strive for the best handwriting possible on all of their transactions. Good handwriting = good image. Handwriting, therefore, according to Thorton, was an extension of the self.

Thusly, my held-in-from-recess-worthy sloppy handwriting, as an extension of my (albeit young) self, clearly demonstrates my predilection for not being a capitalist.

And that reminds me of another, tangentially related anecdote, about one of my most favorite things that I've ever said to our Grandfather:

This was back when I was only a couple of months out of having quit playing French horn, when I had just started working at a grocery store (assuming, at the time, that that gig would be only a couple-month long "vacation" (oops)). Grandpa was up in New England visiting all the family that lived there, which included me. Hearing that I had quit horn and Graduate school, he immediately started to brainstorm ideas as to what I could do instead. Right at the end of the evening, as I was about to depart, he got to "Well, you could go get an MBA," and I said, "Grandpa, I read too many books in college to be a functional capitalist." And he laughed! (And I'm so glad he laughed.)