Friday, February 29, 2008

Support Your Local Artists / Ex-Local Pro Sport Franchises

I just switched to the other side of the coffee shop table I'm typing at to get my face out of the sun and one of the local artists' paintings on the opposite wall is a rendition of the Troy Polamalu Sports Illustrated cover from a couple of years ago. It's a sorta-primitivist acrylic/ mixed media work in typical local-artist style; the face is obscured into a blurred, almost expressionistic mask but the slight distortion of the subject's form loses the muscular energy of the original.

But still I'm like, hey, go Steelers. I like that painting. I'm not sure what that says about my artistic tastes but I'm guessing there's some stern-faced, possibly Adorno-derived theoretical stance that now thinks my visual aesthetic is a lie.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Downtown Amblings, Ramblings

The Portland area is, I take it, ridiculously gorgeous for February. In fact, for the most part is has been since I first arrived. I've squandered much of this unseasonable luck inside Kyle's studio apartment in McMinnville -- combing through online ads, intermittently phone-interviewing, doing dishes, basically (as it were) playing Super Unemployment Bros. all day -- with a vague sense that I may regret it when it gets dark and rainy again.

Today, though, I've had an early and leisurely day downtown, since Kyle is working in Portland today and Friday and I've tagged along for the ride. This entailed leaving McMinnville not-so-bright and early. Though it did get brighter as we, unfortunately, had to search her car and its immediate environs for a while, since her keys somehow went missing in the process of her unlocking the car, putting our overnight bags inside, and trying to turn on the ignition. After deciding that the keys were almost surely in the car somewhere and starting the engine with a spare, we had a decently pretty and only mildly trafficky drive north to the city. I'm very used to commuting by myself and it's nice to observe how much faster a drive goes with a lively enough conversation. (Including, in this case, some discussion of how quickly one's mind can abandon logic and seek recourse in the supernatural to explain unanswered questions, even extremely mundane questions such as Where The Hell Did My Keys Just Go.)

Once we got to her company's downtown office I took a bus to the city center and settled into the first satisficient coffee shop I found. I read the first chapter of Alex Ross' book (on loan to me from Jack), an agreeably swift-moving description of (mostly) the relationship between Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. I like Ross' style so far: As he notes in his preface he presents a very much reduced overview of culture, history, and individuals, with individual anecdotes or works standing in for the larger, thornier view. The result feels like an elegant montage or rhapsody* on the themes at play -- the fault lines emerging in imperial culture in Europe circa 1900; the enthusiasm for music, but persistent lack of a national identity in music, in the U.S. at the same time -- that portrays well what Ross is mainly trying to get across, an idea of how classical music in the twentieth century is bound up in its time. I'm guessing that readers without a background in classical music, or at least in reading reviews or program notes on classical music, would find his synopses of pieces a little bit opaque in places -- certainly, if you want to know what sonata form is before learning how Mahler explodes/ bludgeons/ recombobulates it in his symphonies you might want to have access to a music dictionary, or maybe just Wikipedia -- but as its presence on a bunch of critics' end-of-year book lists attests it's a good general read. Hey, maybe I should actually read more than 30 pages of it before going on about it.

As with any book I'm getting into, my thoughts try to conform to its subject matter for a little while after I put it down. So, as I walk out of the coffee shop and down towards the grassy walk along the west bank of the Willamette, my brain tries to mash my interior monologue into something like an episodic Richard Strauss tone poem: Strongly defined in tone but weakly defined in content, except for a general sort of programmatic outline (The Hero Ruminates on the Fine Weather and the Prospect of Obtaining a Job in this Downtown Area, etc.) Where Taylor Street empties out onto the parkway next to the waterfront I can see Mt. Hood looming in a bluish haze beyond the east side of the city. This seems like a good portent, even though I miscall it "Mt. Doom" in my mind at first. Kyle calls during a break from what is apparently shaping up to be a slow work day, elated that she found her missing keys in a particular nook behind her car's rear window well and seat back: Also happy. As I walk southish and look at the skyscrapers to my right my musical reference point turns to Jennifer Higdon's City Scape; it occurs to me that a lot of what reminds me of city architecture in her music is how it is rooted in mid-twentieth century style. Architectural artifacts, more than any other cultural objects I can think of off the top of my head, stay visible after their stylistic moment has passed.

From there I've walked between the river and Multnomah County's ever-impressive central library a couple of times, using the library for typing and the not-library for buying a slice of pizza and making a couple of phone calls. The wheels of the job search, going round and round through the beginning of this week, have gained some real traction yesterday and today, and (knock discreetly on the wooden library table) I should have some good news to report from that front shortly. A pleasant day so far overall.

* Easy musical analogy deliberately not avoided. --ed.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

RIP Myron Cope

Myron Cope, longtime Pittsburgh sports broadcaster and journalist, not to mention fixture of Steelers-themed novelty songs, has passed on. Fly those Terrible Towels at half mast today.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

No Accounting for Old Taste

At the end of his survey of the Coen brothers' films in the New Yorker this week, David Denby expresses some reservations about No Country for Old Men that are fairly similar to the problem I see in the movie, and since he's an actual prominent critic he writes about it much less fumblingly than I do. So I figured I'd just clip out a big section of it and then hide behind it:
Civilization, it seems, has come to an end, petering out in the yellow-brown fields of West Texas. But does the story support the sheriff’s metaphysical dyspepsia? And have the Coens found, in Anton Chigurh, a correlative for their malign view of life? Who is Chigurh? What is he? He slaughters twelve people, and yet somehow manages to be seen by no one. He kills a cop, yet the authorities never get their act together and track him down. The plot, when you parse it from scene to scene, doesn’t hang together as a crime story.

Some people have said that you cannot read the movie literally. Chigurh is Death, they say, a supernatural figure, a vengeful ghost. But what do you do with the realistic body of the movie if you read this one element supernaturally? Chigurh, despite Bardem’s gravid tones and elocutionary precision, is not Death but a stalking psycho killer out of a grade-C horror movie. You keep wondering when he’ll return, like Freddy Krueger. He’s a trashy element in the book, too, but McCarthy gave him a shade more reality. . . . He murders people, but he wants to continue working in the trade; he’s not quite the ineffable spirit of Evil.

The spooky-chic way the Coens use Bardem has excited audiences with a tingling sense of the uncanny. But, in the end, the movie’s despair is unearned—it’s far too dependent on an arbitrarily manipulated plot and some very old-fashioned junk mechanics. “No Country” is the Coens’ most accomplished achievement in craft, with many stunning sequences, but there are absences in it that hollow out the movie’s attempt at greatness.
So, yeah, what he said. I'm a There Will Be Blood man, naturally, in terms of rooting for Best Picture, but I'm not going to watch the telecast since the Yale Percussion Group is up against it this year (just like last year!) and they've got So Percussion with them.

Also in the New Yorker this week, Elizabeth Kolbert reviews books on behavioral economics, a subject I always find fascinating; one of those books is available from the old friendly neighborhood university press, though I personally had nothing in particular to do with it. (I think I may have done a very early round of manuscript cleanup on it.) Anyway, interesting reading.

Saturday's typically mild-mannered agenda: haircut; gymnasium; food shopping; [and shortly to come] cooking a chicken curry; watching the university kids put on Carmina Burana.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Who Are the Ad Wizards That Came Up With That One?

As we all know, most of America's orchestras have been experiencing various levels of financial difficulties over the past couple of decades (especially the last decade). Most of my experience of that problem comes from my time in music school in Pittsburgh in the early oughts. Pittsburgh was maybe worse off than many others, but certainly wasn't the worst case. At any rate, as we're all well aware, various methods have been attempted to reinvigorate the American orchestral concert audience, with varying levels of success.

Pittsburgh, though, still seems to be behind the ball, in terms of succeeding in attracting a new audience (as opposed to say, LA, or St. Louis). Further evidence is apparent for their online description for this weekend's concert, featuring Evelyn Glennie in the World Premiere of Corigliano's new Percussion Concerto:

In February, the PSO performs the world premiere of Corigliano's Percussion Concerto - the only new musical work by Corigliano in the world for 2007-2008. And, we'll be celebrating Corigliano's 70th birthday - at intermission on Friday and Saturday night, all audience members will receive cookies, compliments of Jenny Lee Bakery!

Free Cookies! That'll really bring 'em in! Orchestral music will soon be thriving once more in the darling city of Pittsburgh!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Total Moonal Eclipse!

I was informed of last night's lunar eclipse in a timely manner by the trusty Internet, so Kyle and I headed out into the country to get a decent look at it. McMinnville is, in many estimations, in the middle of nowhere, but one of its big advantages is that you can drive north to the next town and then west and in five or ten minutes be in a place where you can actually see the night sky. As it happened the evening was pretty clear so we headed out, looking for some grassy field or another; ultimately we settled for a patch of grassy turf beneath some power lines next to a small creek, as well as what turned out to be the future site of a Carlton Fire Department substation. So we put down our blankets and regarded the moon in shadow, drinking chardonnay from tumblers and listening to the chirping frogs/ running water/ buzzing power lines around us, until the clouds caught up to the moon and I started to get cold because my seasonally appropriate coat is still lodged firmly within the center of my mostly un-unpacked car.

On the way back to McMinnville the clouds started to clear up again, so we stopped at the side of the road and looked at the sliver of un-eclipsed moon that was emerging along the bottom of the lunar disk. This emergence seemed to be proceeding slowly -- slower than, say, the sun rising -- for reasons we couldn't work out. Fun to observe though.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Long Shadow of the Earth, plus Cheese

If you haven't gotten your fill from me going on about the weekend, my friend Dan's reaction to Saturday Sondheim & SLSO is here.

I had dinner at Cheese Restaurant tonight, with some other folks for a friend's birthday, and the place has aged into a nice little spot called Caseus. I had the gorgonzola tart and a side of braised collard greens. Later we all went to her apartment for cookies and an episode of Project Runway; it turns out I'm not a fan of this, though I could have told you that well before watching an hour of it. (On the other hand, Top Chef starts up again in less than a month, which is more exciting.)

Somehow I missed the memo about there being a lunar eclipse tonight, but fortunately Charlie came home while it was still going on and clued me in, so I got to watch a couple minutes of it from the sidewalk in my pajamas and tennis shoes. Aaaand that'll close out the evening.

There Will Be Brahms

My friend Jamie emailed me this link earlier this morning, to an article over on Slate comparing the soundtracks of There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. I think Jan Swafford is right to touch on an interesting conversation - it's something that I've certainly discussed with various people - she does a good job, incidentally, of reassuring us that it's a reasonable thing to do - if they hadn't been released in the same award season, there's some chance that this conversation wouldn't come up, but indeed it well might since the movies share locations, and are both made by big-name American directors, and especially since both movies can be accurately described as having "good" soundtracks (an increasingly rare attribute for movies to have). What follows is more or less what my reply to Jamie was, with edits to make it more broadly readable:

I think Swafford misreads the There Will Be Blood soundtrack - to me none of the entrances were non-sequitors (she claims the glissando, for instance returns "for no discernible" reason). Also, it's more the fact that the soundtrack has narrative import, as opposed to just playing a supporting role, in There Will Be Blood that sets it apart from most other contemporary music scores. The opening glissando is directly related to the swooping sound Daniel Plainview's son makes when he first loses his hearing. And, if we must address the specific symbols that Swafford identifies for the various musics, how can we not make the comparison between the passion of Plainview as he attacks the rock wall of his gold mine and when he kills a man? Surely, if anything, the music in these places reinforces that view, rather than opposing it. And the Brahms' Violin Concerto, using the terminology of this particular article, is certainly related to the "leisure to flourish" that his hatred finally earned - in terms of the placement of the Concerto, during the movie, and again, immediately as the film ends (and it's reasonable to "read" the soundtrack that plays over the credits, as the soundtrack to the movie starts over black, before the film proper has started).

It's mistaken, I think to take the soundtrack to Blood as constantly standing in opposition to the narrative taking place on screen - it's surely more nuanced than that. I think it's more interesting to try and determine how much, if it at all, it differs from the sound design of No Country, in it's "service" of the narrative of the film. I agree much more with her read of the sound design in No Country - certainly designed to ramp up the irreality of the ongoings (thus making them that much more horrifying). But in the end, it's still a noticeable thing, at least to a critical audience (or one that is unwilling to be manipulated). I've gathered that No Country has been generally
considered to have failed in the moralistic aspect of it's story-telling (mostly between Jack's post about the movie and a conversation with our cousin Max (who was visiting me over the weekend), in that the unreality is too great for there to be much resonance in the movie-goer beyond shock and awe (where there are signs in the movie that perhaps that Coens are trying to moralize a bit (having Moss's wife call the killer on his faulty logic before he kills her, for instance) - though there are perhaps just as many signs that they were more interested in making a genre-piece than any kind of contemporaneously-looking moral fable at all (such as the two boy's reactions to the killer's severely broken arm). It's unclear to me whether the writer of this article thinks that train sounds during a killing is more less melo-dramatic than the old-fashioned movie scores, but surely, it does play a similar role to classic scores.

I'm still up in the air as to what exactly I think the soundtrack to There Will Be Blood does (aside from, along with Thom Yorke's solo album, explain whose presence in the band might be the one that makes Radiohead an even marginally listenable pop act), and how well it does it. It'll probably take additional viewings. But my sense, as a whole, I think is almost exactly opposite to Swafford's - to me, the soundtrack makes perfect sense, and doesn't stand in opposition to the narrative, but in fact helps in an intrusive way more familiar to (Romantic (Wagnerian)) opera than film.

But then again, I relate an awful lot of culture to opera already, so maybe that's just foolishness.

Monday, February 18, 2008

$10 Turangalîla Friday

The other big St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall this weekend was the "Discovery Concert" presenting Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie on Friday night, with David Robertson giving a 20-minute talk about the work before intermission. (I would have branded this as "$10 Turangalîla Friday," that being the price of the cheapest tickets. I actually reached deep into my pockets for $15, to sit in the center balcony.) I like hearing Robertson talk; he has a very appealing, unpretentious bearing as well as a friendly sort of refinement. When he spoke he had the orchestra onstage with him, to play through musical examples ranging from a single idea to stretches of a few minutes of music.

I know this piece fairly well, but the talk did frame the performance a bit differently and I feel like I took more away from it than I had in the past. Robertson did a good job pointing out Messiaen's compositional tricks, smartly emphasizing the layering effects and untraditional developmental techniques that make Messiaen's music move so differently than other composers'. He spoke frankly to the audience about the difficult aspects of listening to the symphony, and sympathetically; this was a good move. (Towards the end of his talk he urged everyone not to leave before the end, and played through a few minutes of the last movement as an incentive.) A projection at the back of the stage displayed the occasional picture (though no examples from the score) and some artworks that Robertson thought resonated with Turangalîla.

(And, of course, he brought up the Matt Groening connection, not just the Futurama reference but that the ondes Martenot player had performed on the soundtrack of several of the Simpsons Halloween episodes, which I did appreciate as a data point.)

Sitting in the center balcony at Carnegie Hall robs you of a surprising amount of Turangalîla's visceral impact; I've sat up there a bunch of times and haven't felt that way before. (A few years back I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra do Turangalîla at Carnegie Hall from the back of the orchestra section -- this is back when I had my comp ticket hookup, of course -- and from there the sheer volume gets nicely overwhelming.) The performance was a very good one; the busier sections seemed a little daunting for the orchestra, but the slower, plusher music was absolutely gorgeous. Robertson has a great way with letting slow music stream along in what feels like an inherent and naturally occurring sense of time. This makes for good Messiaen; on Saturday night the phenomenon was also well evidenced by the spellbinding last ten minutes of the Berg concerto, and even in the quieter parts of the Brahms overture.

Before the fifth movement Robertson turned to the audience from the podium and announced, "I just want to go on record that it's okay to clap after this movement"; people did, long and enthusiastically. Thus emboldened, the audience (or parts of it) also applauded after the sixth movement and the eighth movement, and of course for a really long time at the end of the piece. I'll say again that I am a big fan of applause between movements, and especially in a long affair like Turangalîla it's nice to breathe easy for a few moments and relax your attention a little, and also to confirm that the other people in the audience are also enjoying the performance.

The balcony seats had sold respectably, but far from completely; I'm not sure how full the rest of the hall was. There were definitely more young people there than usual. I'm curious, given the "Discovery" angle to the concert, how many less-than-likely attendees were attracted to it (as opposed to 20th-century-music afficionados), but there's no real way of finding this out.

Alex Ross has an interesting post contrasting this concert with a similar one in the late 1990s. One will note that the "dumping on unsuspecting subscribers" method of concert presentation compares less favorably. Also interesting is Andrew Druckenbrod's account of a much less successful Turangalîla talk in Pittsburgh last year that was delivered by conductor Andrew Davis. Pre-performance talks are all well and good, but unfortunately it's not easy to find someone who's got a gift for it; chalk up another big point for Robertson there.

* * * * *

p.s. Anthony Tommasini's review of these two concerts in the NY Times is spot-on.

Doctor Symphonic

Last March Nate and I selected our traditional mutual-birthday-gift concert as the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's premiere of John Adams's "Doctor Atomic Symphony," the spinoff from his 2005 opera. (Which Nate and I attended in San Francisco over Columbus Day that year, one of the better long weekends I've ever spent, and so far the most distance we covered in a concert jaunt. Incidentally, I'm going to miss the frequency of concert attendance I've enjoyed with Nate on the East Coast over the last few years, now that he's on the West Coast.) Adams didn't finish the spinoff symphony, so instead we got to hear a blazing rendition of Harmonielehre, which by any fair accounting was just as good. I didn't take this as unfinished business, but I'm happy that I was able to hear the actual Carnegie Hall premiere of this piece, which arrived 11 months late this weekend.

The BBC Orchestra had the world premiere of this piece last summer; I listened to the online broadcast at the time and came away unimpressed. Adams subsequently cut the piece down from 40 minutes to 25, which was a good move. (Alex Ross linked to this concert report that I think draws from the preconcert talk, which I didn't attend.) The resulting work is a single movement, instead of three; "Symphony" is a pretty big overstatement.

When I watched the opera, I thought the orchestral writing was incredibly powerful, creating a deep, unstable undertow to the action onstage and illuminating it in places with an eerie, resonant sonic aura. In its orchestral setting it's a lot less impressive, often unable to escape the impression that it's accompanying something that isn't there, and lacking the textural nimbleness that's one of Adams's greatest strengths. The one transformation that holds up on its own merits is the "Batter My Heart" aria, which concludes the Symphony: with the vocal line given over to a trumpet, this music sounds like an evocation of a military memorial. (Susan Slaughter, the SLSO's principal, played this with heroic presence and sensitivity.) The preceding twenty minutes are more than listenable (it's a joy to be hearing recent Adams in concert in the first place) but don't stick in your ears nearly as much. It's worthwhile, but it's still pretty much a pastiche.

The SLSO performed it exceptionally well, which was no surprise after the quality of the first three quarters of the concert. (Oh, also, it's really nice to hear the weighty premiere actually programmed at the end of a concert, where it belongs.) Robertson led a fantastically clear rendition of Sibelius's Tapiola right before the Adams. I find Tapiola aesthetically interesting as an abstract canvas done in a romantic language, but emotionally it doesn't do much for me. I'm not sure it's necessary to append adjectives to a Christian Tetzlaff performance of the Berg Violin Concerto, but you can start with "good" and ratchet it up a ways; the orchestra was honest-to-god luminous, too (major shout-out to the clarinet section). This concerto really rewards repeated close listening; having a chance to hear it performed so exquisitely basically pays off whatever effort you may have thrown into studying 20th-century music theory. Tetzlaff's encore was, appropriately enough, something from one of the Bach partitas or sonatas. This basically pays off whatever effort mankind at large may have thrown into studying the audible resonant properties of strings.

When a concert like this starts with something like the Brahms Tragic Overture, you can often expect an under-rehearsed and dashed-off performance. Instead it was as finely detailed and attentive as you'd want it to be. This is yet another reason to be a huge David Robertson fan.

Saturday at Sunday in the Park with George with Dan and Mandy

Praise be to George and Abe, who were born so that we might not have to work on a Monday in February. I'm moving through the day off at a leisurely pace (sleep in, gym, omelet, laundry, blog) following a full two-day weekend in New York spent largely with Mandy and our college friend Dan, who was in town from Michigan. Dan was in town to participate in a Stephen Sondheim conference (Dan is in musicology school, and studying Sondheim among other topics); the conference was pegged to the current Broadway run of Sunday in the Park with George, which the three of us went to see on Saturday afternoon. Good times. We had coffee afterwards and chatted about it for a while; it's good to be able to do this with like-minded people. Dan and I proceeded on after dinner (Korean food on 32nd St. near 5th Ave.) to Carnegie Hall and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. (I'm going to throw a bunch of words about modernist orchestra music into a post or two later. The short report on the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is that they, and David Robertson, are amazing.)

Sunday in the Park is a pretty interesting work, and hard to classify. [synopsis via The Internet] Musically it's artful and usually fairly subtle, with lyrical melodies swimming along over what's basically a chamber accompaniment (piano, keyboard, two strings, & a reed player) with influences from 80s pop-minimalism and 19th-century French salon music. That's a plenty appropriate atmosphere for a Georges Seurat story. There's a welcome kick to the sassier numbers, which are a lot of fun. Sondheim is, as always, good with lyrics, and compositionally he's in fine form here, connecting the songs with musical material that he develops over time without calling obvious attention to it. The staging was clean and economical, with most of the scene-setting heavy lifting done by some surprisingly effective video projections.

I'm not entirely sold by the jump forward in time in the second act, and I think the concept behind the show gets a lot less interesting when it leaves the Grand Jatte frame, so to speak. It's unusual, though, and I'm generally in favor of that.

After Company last year this makes two very fine Sondheim shows in two years, which is not bad. (Company did not run for very long, and Sunday in the Park has a modest fixed run; I'm not extraordinarily familiar with the world of musical theater but offhand I'd say that people need to work harder at aligning their tastes with my own.) Merrily We Roll Along is getting a staging in London, meanwhile (at the hands of John Doyle, who brought Company to Broadway and Sweeney Todd before that) and I rather hope that'll make the leap across the pond, too.

On Sunday I went up to Columbia to see my friend Andy conduct the college wind ensemble (this is the one I played in while I lived in NYC), which was quite a bit of fun too. They've improved noticeably over the last couple of years, and among other things they brought off a very successful Suite of Old American Dances (which more than anything else makes me want to play in a band again: I love this piece) and a fairly ambitious ten-minute composition by one of Andy's college friends, which was a bit over-typical of serious-minded contemporary band music but clear and effective and well orchestrated. It's good to see the ensemble premiering works; that's very much a good step to take. They've also got a higher proportion of the ensemble being covered by undergrads (rather than community players or ringers), another measure of success.


I made it to Kyle's place in McMinnville, OR at about 12:50 PST early this morning. That means I managed about 1400 miles along with a couple of social calls over the past two days; not a bad haul. I'll provide some details after about 15 more hours of catch-up sleep.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Brief Update

I'll have to save an in-depth recommendation of Carlsbad Caverns for another time, but I spent yesterday morning there and for the rest of the day hauled myself up most of the north-south distance in New Mexico and then westward to a gently wintry suburb of Flagstaff, Arizona. Tonight, if all goes as planned, I will have reached the Monterey Bay area, thus completing the "across" part of my progress on the map and commencing the "up".

Also, to clarify a point raised in comments below, there will be no eating of McGriddles. Even if I were on a disastrous overland expedition that got snowed in with nothing but those in store, I'd expect the party to leave in the spring with three or four fewer men and a bunch of untouched, stale pancake sandwiches.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

V-Day without Janácek

It's with a heavy feeling in my heart that I navigate through Valentine's Day 2008; obviously there is a void here that will ache until it can be assuaged, in that I'm not attending a Janácek opera tonight like last year. Man! It's like you walk by the flower shop during lunch break, and you see men walking out with single roses in paper packages and you just have to think to yourself, "Why am I not watching Karita Mattila sing something in Czech this evening?" There is no easy answer.

So, instead I went to the gym after work, and later plunked down on the couch with some organic blue corn chips and bean dip and some Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA, and I watched a recap of the Steelers' victorious road to Super Bowl XL on DVD. This is, as far as I'm concerned, satisfactorily awesome, and if you have a better idea for the evening of 2/14 I don't want to hear it.

West on Ten

(Ye somewhat over-burdenned Civick, just south of NM on US 285.)

Unlike Pete, I have no zany bike-related Valentine's Day mishaps to report. (Indeed, as the empty rack in the picture above indicates I no longer have a bicycle to my name at all.)

My day started with whole wheat pancakes and scrambled eggs with Aunt Jean and Uncle Vann (the most comprehensive meal I've had in a few days) and continued westward on a couple of Texas state routes with about as many roadkilled skunks as other cars. Eventually that fed into I-10 West, which took up a plurality of today's mileage. Mostly I just kept the cruise control at eighty and steered ever leftward to make up for the car's subtle pull. Periodic gas or bathroom breaks; a pause at a rest stop to refill my water bottles, schedule a phone interview for next week, stare blankly at the big wall-mounted map. I defied my Garmin today, choosing somewhat arbitrarily to blindly follow the Google Maps route instead, so periodically the Garmin-lady-robot voice would note in a neutral (and yet perhaps somewhat annoyed?) voice that "a better route is available". Ultimately I wound up on US 285 North, rural industry behind barbed-wire fences on both sides, aiming for New Mexico and Mountain Time.

I wish my concept of nature were fine-grained enough to describe what exactly happens to the landscape as I drive. As it is my mental symbols for such matters only get about as specific as "tree" or "bird", so all I can do is put the drive into West Texas in terms of "smaller, rounder tree" or "unfamiliar yellowish bird". (Contrast with easily made driving-related statements like "I have been passed by a late-model, four-door Honda Civic".) At any rate the easy hills I started from gave way to mostly-flatness in between low rocky plateaus, which became sparser and sparser until, once I turned north, the land was more or less level and scrubby and dry all the way to the mountains off in the distance to the west. It has its beauty but it would seem to miss the point to say so; functional and unpretentious vegetation on all sides, usually with oil or gas rigs here or there. The towns that exist around the big intersections have their gutted, eroded former gas stations and motels but also their fresh-and-clean H&R Block offices and Pizza Huts.

I'm in Carlsbad for the night, and if all goes according to plan I'll get up and out early in the morning to visit the caverns which also bear that name. I had the not entirely sensical thought just now that while I know about stalactites and stalagmites, I don't know the name for the equivalent formation that grows out from the side of the cave wall. If I weren't typing into a blog post right now I'd probably just let the mental filters keep that one.

The Short Fast Road to Superstition

So, as noted yesterday, my ability to remain agnostic was severely tested yesterday by the more-than-coincidental-seeming coincidence of having my bike tire pop right after I had thought about blogging about the fact that it hadn't popped since Thanksgiving. Well, clearly the fates, or the stars, or who/whatever was not pleased with my trying to make light of the situation in order to remain empirical in philosophical ethic:

The weather in Miami has the ability to turn itself around pretty rapidly. It was stormy and wet until the early evening yesterday, but today finds the skies nearly absent of clouds, the sun heating things until they verge on the 80s, and most of the water already evaporated from the roads (admittedly, since it's a non-teaching day, I didn't get up 'til 11 AM, so the roads had several hours to dry before I got my first look at them). I had a couple of errands to run, so I hopped on my road bike, as it's really the more pleasant of my two bicycles to ride, and I'm generally comfortable enough on its skinny tires and drop-down handlebars now to not feel like I'm putting myself into any more danger than usual when I ride out onto US-1, the highway on which I live.

Of course, I failed to take into account the world of superstition and jinxes which has reentered at least the bicycle-oriented portion of my existence. Today, I had a combination of bike-related mishaps, which, while still anti-climactic as a story, probably add up to at least 1.5 near-death experiences.

As I pulled out of the driveway of my apartment complex, I had the good fortune to immediately catch a walk signal at a crosswalk and cross over to the direction of US-1 that I wanted to go. Since there cars were stopped, I was biking by myself at the edge of the right-most line (the highway is 3 lanes each way with left-turn lanes spread rather consistently every 10 blocks or so). At the very first intersection I came to, the light had been green for some time, but as the cars were stopped a few blocks back at the crosswalk where I crossed over into traffic, several cars going in the opposite direction were making their left-turns into the driveway that is shared by my local Target and US Post Office. It being about as bright as things ever might be at 2 o'clock in the afternoon in February in Miami, I went ahead and gained momentum heading into the intersection, as the cars making their left turns would surely see me. Of course, as I passed through the intersection an SUV being driven by a young female driver went ahead and turned anyway, and headed pretty much straight at me.

This happens occasionally - cars making left turns on the highway are so frantic to have a whole in the traffic to get across that I think the drivers honestly unsee me from their vision. "Surely," they must think to themselves, "that biker will understand our need to turn and stop entirely, letting us pass. Oh wait, never mind, it's gone!" My general defense mechanism is to try and make eye contact with the car that's heading at me. This time, though, my quest for eye contact reveal a driver who was quite probably just learning - there was definitely someone in the passenger seat - and she looked to actually be more afraid than I was. That fear, of course, translated to the driver maintaining her course and speed, rather than, like, slowing down, or, say, turning into a wider arc so as to not hit me. Luckily, I snuck by her, and I'm not sure if I said "Fuck you!" out loud or not, but I certainly thought it.

"Wow!" I thought to myself, as I continued on my way, "That was a close one!" I spent the next 20 blocks or so shouting at all the cars that came even close to me, shaking my head at them and saying "I am here." So of course, at this point it dawned on me that perhaps documenting my possible jinxing with the other bike yesterday was a mistake - clearly I had doomed myself in some way, unless the time traveling jinxes can be stopped - if I could just find some temporally flexible counter-jinx everything would be fine. I went to the bank (one of my errands). At the bank, there was a long line, and one of the bank employees was giving out mini Snickers bars to the people that were stuck waiting. He ran out before he got to me. Aha! A counter-jinx!

Or so I thought. On my way back down towards my apartment, again, approaching an intersection, this time in traffic, my bike experienced about as close to a catastrophic failure as I've ever experienced. I'm not sure what happened first, but my chain jumped from the gears either right before or right after my tire popped (and tore, rather epically) and I did a wobbly kind of skid thing, trying not to fall over and get my head run over by a car. Luckily, the light was red, so the cars were slowing down, and the car that was immediately behind me slowed down enough to where I was able to signal it to stop so I could jump off my bike rather than fall over with it. The rear tire was trashed, and my derailer was bent out of place.

Oh, Pete, you're so naive. Did you really think that not getting a mini Snickers bar would really be enough to counter your scoffing at the awesome power of the poly-temporal jinx? It's generally my policy not to talk out loud to myself, but I must admit, I did some swearing on the sidewalk as I surveyed the damage to my rear wheel. Luckily, though, my tire exploded right around the corner from the local bike shop, so everything was okay - I just had to walk my bike maybe half a mile and I could get it fixed there while I waited. Things were messed up enough on the tire that I had to carry the bike on my shoulder most of the way, since the bike wheel wouldn't spin at all and it was therefore difficult to just walk next to it.

The bike shop wasn't crowded, so they were able to get to work on my bike right away. The wheel was trashed (actually had an impressive amount of the rim ground away from where I skidded on it), as was the tire and the of course the tube. The derailer was fine - it had just gotten torqued out of position. They could fix it right away. My friend Dan called, so I stepped outside to talk to him while they fixed my bike. We talked about the fact that it's Valentine's Day - what he's going to do with his girlfriend, and what I wasn't going to do with my no girlfriend. I sat on the curb, wiped some of the grease from my hands onto my bright blue "Mercy Quality Touch" t-shirt.

After a minute or to of conversation, someone ran out of the bike shop and grabbed my arm. I hung up on Dan. "Someone's got a gun in there!" he said to me. I got up and ran like a little girl until I was out of sight behind a palm tree. There were no immediate signs of gunfire or struggle. The man that had warned me said there was some kind of argument, and that someone had pulled out a gun. He ran off, inside the next store over, assumingly to call the cops.

I called back Dan, to let him know why I had hung up on him, and waited for the cops to show up. I wandered around in little ovals on the sidewalk, trying to look nonchalant. This was Valentine's Day, not April Fool's right? Dan seemed to think that it was a trick so they could steal my bicycle, but that made no sense. Enough time passed with nothing really happening that I started to feel really awkward. Finally a cop showed up and scoped out the seen. I watched her body language - she turned out to be more annoyed than anything. I asked her if everything was cool in the shop, and she said yeah.

When I got back inside, everything seemed normal. My bike was finished. It cost 65 bucks for the new wheel, tire, tube, and the labor. An old man asked me if I rode for a team - that looked like a fast bike. I said no. Then he asked if my tires had air in them. That seemed like a really dumb question. No one said anything about the gun or any sort of altercation. I paid for the repairs and road to campus.

Occasionally, still, here at the program, the notion of writing nonfiction gets brought up to me - that I should write something, or whatever. I continue to stand by the fact that nothing ever really happens to me. Nothing does. That's what's great about this blog - it's the perfect venue for this kind of almost-action that was certainly the most exciting day of bike-riding I've had so far down here (I don't think it's a better story than the one about the time I crashed my bike at CMU though). I suppose if there had been actual gunfire then I would have had a real story to tell, but I think it's just as well that there wasn't.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

There's Taylor, There's Tyler

Today's easy four and a half hours of driving took me from East Texas into Central Texas. The transition largely seemed to be a function of the landscape becoming progressively flatter, scrubbier, and more often occupied by cattle. At about three in the afternoon I got to my aunt and uncle's house in Taylor, where we took a little walk around the neighborhood (whence the view above) and went to a fajita place for dinner, and otherwise spent a lot of time chatting and discussing my likely route between here and Monterey Bay. Tomorrow's still slightly scrawny leg of the journey will probably land me in Carlsbad, New Mexico so I can briefly see the eponymous caverns in the morning.

No setbacks on the road so far, except that my car's CD player won't accept disc 5 of the God Delusion audio edition.

0000 Miles To Graceland

[Written on 2/12 at 8:45 PM Central. --ed.]

(US Route 59, south of Texarkana)

...Or so I was this afternoon when I got into Memphis. The Graceland mansion itself is closed on Tuesdays, though, and it was raining, so instead of keying Elvis' address into my Garmin I put in Interstate Bar-B-Que's and had a chopped pork shoulder sandwich and some baked beans. Better by far than the trail mix or PB-and-honey sandwich components squirreled away in the recesses of my car.

The rain was heavy across Tennessee but it gave way for the most part to merely cloudy skies as of eastern Arkansas. The landscape shifted too, from rolling farmland to flat and somewhat swampy to just sort of mildly hilly, with Nashville and Memphis and Little Rock along the way. (Since I've stuck to highways that skirt the downtown areas the cities are observable just as more industrial-looking highways with denser truck traffic and more heavily worn pavement, plus the highrises a few miles away in the fog.) I'm overnighting in Jefferson, Texas, maybe 45 minutes down US 59 from Texarkana and, by my (Garmin's) estimation, about four hours away from Austin. No in-room Internet but, hey, the breakfast that comes with the room will have sausage gravy.

I think I remember some writer, somewhere, pithily noting Americans' tendency now to measure distance in terms of driving time. They added some sort of brief but astute cultural analysis to it. I remember no specifics but I wish I did, since I completely find myself measuring distance in time. That may be because the interstates, except when they change noticeably in elevation as a concession to one Appalachian ridge or another, more or less cut straight through the landscape, less of it than over top of it.

I should also try to talk about the audiobooks I've been listening to, though I may wait a week to prove to myself that I've retained any more memory of them than I have of the engine noise. For now I'll merely note that I can't find any non-arbitrary pattern in how Richard Dawkins and his wife Lalla Ward alternate reading duties in the recording of The God Delusion, which confuses me as a listener more than I would have thought.

Biking the Storm Out

This morning saw the Miami premiere of the our father's newly reunited waterproof rainsuit, as I had to bike to school to teach despite the fact that it was been rather intently storming since yesterday evening. It's actually kind of funny - I went through a long phase of appropriating items of my father's clothing as soon as got to be about his height, up until this past Winter break, when Dad reminded me to please not take any of his socks. I always thought I was doing both of us a favor - I get shirts, socks, shoes, waterproof pants, he gets new socks and new shoes, etc. Treat himself. Everyone wins.

So at some point in the last year or so, Dad misplaced his goldenrod waterproof jacket and, assuming that I had taken it, bought himself a nice new blue one (a much better color, in the end). I had appropriated the pants of the rain suit back in '03, so it was a reasonable thought on his part, I suppose, to think that I had taken the jacket as well at some point between Portland, Berlin, or Miami. But I hadn't. When I was home for the holidays, it rained one day when we were going to go to the liquor store together, and Dad put on his new blue jacket. Looking for a jacket for myself, I came upon the old weird-yellow one. Dad seemed surprised to see it. But it's mine now, and let me just say that I look awesome when dressed up in a rain suit.

I was biking on the hybrid rather than the road bike since it seems like the more likely rain bike, and thought to myself about how it was nice that I had stopped getting flat tires all the time. Also, I had meant to mention here on the blog for a while now that, since I had been getting so many flats, I stopped being particularly careful about replacinig the tires (in terms of making sure the tread is facing the correct direction on the tire). In fact, the last time I changed my front tire, back just after Thanksgiving, I was so convinced that it was just going to pop again that I didn't bother to fix my tire-change when I noticed I had but the tire on backwards.

Of course, that was the tube that didn't pop, so since then I've been riding on a bike (when I ride the hybrid) with its front wheel on backwards. I was watching the water sluicing off the tire this morning, and trying to convince myself that by having the tire on backwards, I was launching the water forward, rather than backwards, thereby protecting myself from so much nasty road spray. That watching/convincing reminded me that I still hadn't actually blogged about my backwards tire.

Thinking about blogging about the tire made me think that I should make sure to knock on wood or whatever in order to not jinx myself. Nothing will make tires pop like blogging about them, according to common superstitions. I then thought to myself, wow, how would I react if I did finally blog about my tire and then it popped? Would I suddenly become superstitious? Not likely. I would be aware of the interest of the coincidence, but certainly wouldn't assign any meaning to it. Too agnostic for that sort of nonsense.

Well, I went in to my class, and afterwards, when I went to bike home, lo and behold, my front tire was flat! So I didn't even have a chance to jinx my tire by blogging about it! Just thinking about blogging about it was enough to jinx it! Crazy!

But, of course, I probably wouldn't have ever gotten around to blogging about the tire if it hadn't popped this morning (let's face it, it's just not that interesting). So the only thing I can think to explain this is that somehow the jinx that's about to occur when I post this post is somehow going to travel back in time and jinx my tire before the jinxing has even happened! And there's nothing I can do to stop it! I have no choice but to publish this post...

Monday, February 11, 2008

"Check Engine"

Thus spake my dashboard as of 4:00 PM yesterday, so after moving out of my apartment this morning I took a little detour up to Japanese Auto Clinic. Unfortunately I had stocked up on spare wagon wheels and axles rather than oxygen sensors, but they replaced the necessary part in about an hour and a half while I waited at the McDonalds across the street, eating a sausage McMuffin with egg (these are less good now, by the way, than when you are six) and blankly staring out the window at the garage, happy that my car goes up on the lift easily even with all of my worldly goods stuffed into it. If fixing it had somehow required unpacking it I think I would have just driven it into the Potomac and taken a train. So assuming I had to have a car problem this situation worked out pretty close to ideally.

At any rate, I'm in Cookeville, Tennessee right now, about halfway between Knoxville and Nashville, and in pretty good shape. And now it's time for me to go to sleep on a mattress for the first time in about a week and a half...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Brief Description of What My New Job Involves

I'm not moving to Portland; no, quite the opposite, I'm nestling even deeper into Connecticut. My new desk may be within sight of the old one, but the new job has this aura of semi-permanence about it, like I could be doing this for a while if I wanted to. (One of the other production editors has been doing the job for something like ten years.) I'm not taking it for granted that that's literally true, obviously. Still, in the medium term I'm going to need to figure out my long term; in the short term I'm just trying to get used to a whole lot of new work. Tomorrow kicks off the third week of this.

In case anyone was wondering what exactly it is I'm doing now, it mostly comes down to shepherding a bunch of manuscripts (already complete and under contract to the press) through their editorial life cycle. Copyediting, proofreading, and indexing are all done by freelancers for these; I coordinate things, answer editorial questions for the freelancers, try to keep everything on deadline, and check the last stages of proof. (I will be copyediting a couple or three manuscripts each year, too.) There's a lot of work, but ideally following a fairly rational plan. Now and then, as I understand it, one has to work with a crazy author, and then you get a less rational plan.

I'm looking at it as an intellectually semi-skilled day job that I find pretty appealing in comparison to other kinds of work. I'm happy to be here. Actually, this is almost exactly what I had in mind as an ideal thing to try when I was looking to switch jobs two years ago. We'll see how it goes from here.

Go West

Today is my last full day in Arlington -- I start driving more or less towards Oregon tomorrow. The morning here seems pleasant so far, at least through my window: It rained overnight and now the sun's moving up in the sky so the Route 50 pavement outside looks agreeably shiny. The few cars passing are making the wispy rushing sound they do when the road is wet. That's about as close as the incidental noise around my apartment ever got to "soothing ocean sounds" but it still bothered me for a couple of months after I moved in. I've been used to it now for a longer span of time than I spent in college.

Mom and Dad drove down from Pittsburgh yesterday to help with the move and I'd like to thank them in this quasi-public space for clarifying and then largely implementing my moving strategy. I sold off nearly all of my furniture in good shape but I didn't follow that impulse all the way down to the level of dishes/ appliances/ assorted possessions. If they weren't apparently about to resolve the writers' strike I'd pitch a reality show called, I don't know, "Pimp My Move" or something where a team of five professionally qualified yet super-intense helpers show up and completely redo how some blank-eyed twentysomething is trying to fit his possessions into a lower-end sedan. So you'd have the big burly menacing guy, or maybe the gay one, saying, "You see, you can get plastic bowls at Ikea for like fifty cents each so you shouldn't pack these instead of your blender." The helpers' personalities should be varied as well as super-intense. That is key.

Dad also discovered some vacuum cleaner attachments stored in a secret body panel on my vacuum cleaner. It was secret to me, anyway. Were I selling those attachments on craigslist I would describe them as "very lightly used". Mom and Dad seem to find this amusing. I do want to note that it's not because I don't vacuum, or don't vacuum the small spaces or upholstery the attachments are designed for. It's more a matter of never asking myself, "Where are the small attachments for this vacuum cleaner?" Though I did often say to myself, "Damn, I wish I had small attachments for this vacuum cleaner." If the vacuum cleaner fits in my car I will apply this new knowledge in the future.

After winnowing down the volume of my worldly goods to approximately the interior size of my car, we went out for dinner and drinks with some friends of mine. Looking around the table I noted with pleasure that, to a person, nobody there actually lives in the District of Columbia itself. Total Virginiafication of my social life. My work here is truly complete.

In seriousness, it was nice to have a Last Hurrah sort of hanging-out night. (Credit goes to my friend Heidi for putting it together while I was running around, as I've been characterizing it to myself, sort of like a chicken that has had its head removed with an electrocautery scalpel. By which I mean one whose head was removed cleanly enough that it hasn't quite noticed that its head is in fact gone. Probably not the most apt or poetic metaphor.) Today largely features brunch, Goodwill, and last-minute cleaning. So hopefully I can sit in my almost entirely emptied apartment tonight with something like peace of mind, and the thought that opening all the windows in my apartment is something I should have done much more often, not just to clear out the dust on my way out.

I have Internet access through tonight. Once I'm on the road I'll mostly be at the mercy of whatever Internet packages are available at the cheapest roadside accommodations I can find. I don't have much of a detailed itinerary -- just a sequence of interstate highway numbers, mostly (66, 83, 40, 10, 5) and a rough estimate that I'll get into McMinnville, OR sometime next weekend. But who knows; I have no real timetable or much of a need for one. (No job, no apartment yet.) To borrow a near tautology that I remember from a Flannery O'Connor short story, it'll be there when I get there.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Male Regression as Comedic Impulse

Here is one thing that has snapped into focus while watching season three of The Office (American version) on DVD: either out of laziness or out of looking for lowest-common-denominator laughs, writers predicate very much comedy on grown men acting like 13- or 15-year-old boys. I do like The Office, but as the series goes on Steve Carell spends more and more time acting like a petulent child; meanwhile, Dwight (it seems that I call Michael "Steve Carell" but Dwight "Dwight") gradually resolves into this nerdy middle-teenage-years type similar to Napoleon Dynamite, nunchuck skills and all.

Throw into this basically every Will Ferrell movie (notably "Anchorman," which, to be perfectly clear, I found hilarious), of course Napoleon Dynamite, and some slightly more trivial examples (the cops in "Superbad," possibly Owen Wilson in "Bottle Rocket," though that's a more refined character) and you've got more than enough to constitute a pattern.

Is this writer-driven, or audience-driven? Are all our current writers former teenage nerds and tend to fall back on this as a default, or do audiences demand it? Is this regression a specifically male phenomenon? (It's hard to tell when most of your comedy is produced by males.) Will we ever return to a time when your male comedy role models are portraying mature, grown-up types, such as, I don't know, Bill Murray in "Ghostbusters"?

I don't really care; I'm just killing time by writing this.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Vote Late, Vote Once

I was completely exhausted after work, which made me feel extra civic-minded for walking over to the neighborhood polling place this evening. I want to tell my grandkids, like Hey kids! Back in my day, I had to walk a mile and a half just to go vote! In the rain! Okay, maybe it stopped raining around noon, but still! None of you kids know anything about that, what with your "tele-transporter hopping" instead of "walking," and your "Cryo-President Dick Cheney" instead of "free elections." Dagnabbit, the future makes me cranky.

Actually the walk was less than a mile and half, since I ran into one of my coworkers there and she drove me back to my apartment. Like most other young, college-educated male Democrats (I gather from the news) I pulled the lever for Obama, or rather filled out his bubble on the scan-tron kinda form. The form didn't have a write-in spot, thus preventing one from adding "And push Joe Lieberman off the end of a pier"; aside from that I feel that my democratic rights have been well facilitated, though I'm pretty sure the state is supposed to go to Hillary anyway.* (At the moment the NY Times is calling it 48% even, but with only 1% of the precincts reporting, so whatever.) Three cheers for being part of the process, in any case.

*later update. you know what, I actually have no idea how they split up delegates here and how it ties into the actual vote result. but I figure this makes it likelier than usual that my vote "counts." I'm not curious enough to figure it out beyond that, for now; I guess I could be a better citizen after all.

This was the seventh day of my new, improved job at work, which is going as well as I'd want it to. I have to use more of my brain, which is leaving me somewhat exhausted after work (see above) and keeps me from listening to as much obscure 20th-century music on headphones at my desk, though I did find time while editing an index file today to listen through Stravinsky's "Agon." The other highlight was finally obtaining an extension cord so I could move my desk lamp to the other side of my new working space, where I wanted it. So yeah, it's pretty much a nonstop circus.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Carter's Symphonia is Best Experienced with Your Eyes Closed

[largely composed on steno pad during late-night Metro North ride on Saturday]

The Juilliard Orchestra provides one of the best classical listening experiences in New York -- the kids play with fierce commitment (and they're talented, a fractional notch beneath a full-time big city orchestra), the halls at Juilliard are more intimate, and the crowds tend to be more interested and tuned in. Plus, most of their concerts are free, like this one tonight, which had James Levine conducting Charles Ives's Three Places in New England and two substantial Elliott Carter works. (This was the end of a span of Carter concerts that constituted Juilliard's "FOCUS!" festival this year.) This was pretty much a must-see for me; especially to get two Carter works on one program. These were his Cello Concerto (from 2000) and, most excitingly, his three-movement Symphonia, which he composed in the mid-1990s. Carter, alive and well, is 99 this year; he's written a mind-boggling amount of top-shelf music is his old age, and in an exceedingly complex language to boot.

(The free ticket, incidentally, involved spending a half hour in an outdoor standby line in the freezing cold between 6:30 and 7:00. No carping from me about that: I would do the same thing tonight, if I could, if the concert was on again and the Super Bowl wasn't. The standby ticket wasn't a guaranteed admission, so I also wandered across the plaza to purchase another $12 rush ticket to the Berio/Sinfonia concert, figuring I'd reattend that if I got turned away from Carter. I thought of it as a reasonably priced Atonal Orchestra Music insurance policy.)

I hadn't actually seen Levine conduct before; he sits high up on a chair (due to health problems that are periodically remarked on in the press, but that remain obscure) and looks over a score on the stand like he's consulting a ledger, while directing the orchestra in fluid motions with his bare hands.

Three Places was amazing, exuding humanity and textural sumptuousness, not to mention highlighting some heroic brass playing. (This is a piece that will make you take notice if your seat is in the direct line of fire of the trombone section.) That humanity actually made the Cello Concerto something of a shock -- despite a lyrical (though still atonal) solo part (performed by the young cellist Dane Johansen) this is a thorny, severe piece, with the orchestra throwing dissonant punches at the soloist or slashing away with brutal chordal material. After the Ives this seemed harshly lit and anti-emotional -- even the violence in it seemed to be held at a remove, like the work wasn't expressing violence so much as abstractly discussing the idea of violence. Meanwhile, the fleeting instrumental correspondences that typify all of Carter's work -- the constant interplay or mutual interruptions by soloists or ad-hoc choirs -- seemed a lot less effective in the orchestral setting than I expected. This came as a surprise. In the only other substantial Carter concert I've heard, a 2003 one-evening traversal of his six string quartets by the Pacifica Quartet, the opportunity to watch the players keyed the music for me, really to the point of revelation. Here, the visuals were working in the opposite direction.

So, during Symphonia, I started listening with my eyes closed, and boy, this makes a difference with Carter. The image of the orchestra onstage is static, literal, and coloristically limited; Carter's music jumps off of it kind of like an invisible candle flame. I found that without any of that visual dead weight the sounds were a much more vivid experience; it was easier to make the usual pseudo-synaesthetic connections between music and suggestions of color, texture, weight, fluidity, depth of field, and so forth.

(Mandy, actually, had planted the seed for this idea for me last week, by calling to enthuse about another Juilliard/Carter concert [one conducted by Boulez, actually] and noting how she found she needed to listen with her eyes closed. So, chalk up another point for staying on good terms with the ex-girlfriend.)

Symphonia's first movement is an angular, punchy Partita, a good specimen of aggressive modernism but nothing unforgettable. But the second and third movements (Adagio Tenebroso, Allegro Scorrevole) ascend to a way higher level, to that point where you realize there just isn't any other music that sounds at all like it. There's a tender but completely unsentimentalized emotional sweep at play here, and harmonies that are still complex but laced with just a touch of sweetness. (One of the beauties of predominantly dissonant music is that composers can synthesize unexpected consonances out of it.) Much of the Adagio is shaped out of rich, overlapping washes of sound, with a subtle but powerful, oceanic pull; a subtle natural force you have to search your way towards and admit into your senses. It's an elegiac movement, but even in its sterner outbursts there's an embracing goodness to it: not Ives's humanity, exactly, but something believable that seems to reflect well on us all.

The Allegro is one of the more impressive ten-minute stretches of intentional sound you'll ever get to hear. Carter's subtitle for the Symphonia, sum fluxae pretieum spei, refers to a Latin poem by the 17th-century English poet Richard Crashaw that finds metaphor in the existence of a floating bubble. The Allegro is Carter's bubble music, and he aptly creates a swift, airy, and very touching poetry for it. The instrumental textures do amazing things with the harmony; "tonal" and "atonal" don't feel like relevant terms to these sounds, and it barely registers as what you'd usually call music. (With eyes closed, again, it feels like you're trying to employ a sensory apparatus you didn't know you had.) A pattering nature-world is in it, too, with chattery wind solos and even the occasional woodpeckering woodblock. At the end the texture gets brassy and heavier, then lightens and tapers to a final piccolo solo. (I think. Maybe flute? I don't remember now.) Whatever it is, it's a very satisfying conclusion.

(There's a really excellent recording of this piece, by the way, paired with Carter's Clarinet Concerto. And not like this should influence any purchasing decisions, but that CD has some of the better cover/packaging design I've seen.)

The eyes-closed listening made this all a bit sad, though, too, like the feelings involved (though vivid) were tenuous and elusive; at the end of the concert I felt a sense of loss, like the show was over and the feeling of the music was going to be gone. But then you step out into the street and hear the late-night traffic whisking by, and the people who are out, and you get the tactile feeling of the wind and also of the street punctuating up through your footsteps; and you realize your brain is synthesizing all this information differently, beautifully so, for having just listened to Carter's Symphonia. And that's the irreplaceable strength in this music -- that it resonates with the experience of living in the world, strongly enough to echo back into that experience, at least for a few minutes. And frankly, that echo provides a temporary illusion of there being a higher organization to things that's way more convincing than anything anyone's ever said to me about religion.

Berio's Sinfonia Will Make Your Little Girl Cry

[largely composed on steno pad during late-night Metro North ride on Thursday]

Usually when you end up sitting at the orchestra a couple of seats away from a small child, your first thought is "uh oh," since you never know how they're going to act. Do they know it's really noisy if they whisper? Can they keep from kicking the seat in front of them? I was extra-nervous about this at the NY Philharmonic on Thursday night, regarding a mother and her six- or seven-year-old daughter, who were sitting just to my left. The situation suggested that the mother didn't quite know what she was getting into, considering the program consisted of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia and the Brahms Fourth Symphony.

I think I heard the mother pointing out to her daughter someone onstage who had invited them; if that was indeed the case, it was a remarkable lapse in judgment for a musician. Berio's Sinfonia is generally regarded as a masterpiece of tonally unchained late 1960s postmodernism, but it is not generally regarded as child-friendly. Musically speaking, you might say it sounds like what would happen inside your head if you dropped acid while attending a French linguistics symposium. (And that's before it gets weird.) The Brahms Fourth Symphony, for its part, is generally regarded as 45 minutes long.

I don't want to sound snide; I was in a good mood, and I wasn't bitter that there was a little girl in my row. While the orchestra tuned up she was pointing out to her mother how neat the harp looked, and why does the back part of the harp bend up like that, and how much she liked the violins. And actually, I was interested to hear what she was whispering to her mother as the music started; this started with a completely baffled "What are they doing?" after about a minute, followed a little later by "What are they saying?" and then a distinctly grumpy "I can't understand what they're singing."

Oh, but then it got sad. The third movement (again, where it gets weird) really freaked her out, and she whispered to her mother in clear agitation that "This is really scary"; and then she started to cry quietly after a few minutes. And then she was crying pretty openly by about the time the first tenor was going on about the name of Mayakovsky hanging on the clean air. I don't know if you've ever been at a concert where a seven-year-old girl is crying miserably, but this thing happens to you where a pro-social response kicks in, strongly, and you start to really ardently wish that you could make things better for the little girl, make it so she stops crying; but you can't stop the orchestra, can't make the young old suddenly or slow down the pace of Berio, and that's pretty much that. Keep going, going on . . .

The little girl settled down in the fourth movement, and by the time the fifth movement got chattery she could manage a small-voiced "What language are they singing in?" to her mother, who whispered back "French," not that that quite explains it. I was happy to see that after intermission the little girl was animated and bubbly again; I'd feared permanent scarring. (Oh, but will she ever enjoy atonal orchestra music again?) And she reacted to Brahms 4 exactly the way a normal, well-balanced seven-year-old would be expected to: by sitting quietly and looking like she was never going to get to have fun again, ever.

Musically, Sinfonia came off really well, though the busier parts were muddy. (I'm sure that this is largely because of Avery Fisher Hall, once again; the instrumental blend in the Brahms was awful. I was sitting in the orchestra level on a student ticket, thinking maybe the voices would be clearer down there. I don't know if that was really the case.) Lorin Maazel does pretty well with modernist repertoire, from what I've heard him conduct, and he had a good clear read here. The first and second movements, especially, were vibrant and logical and well colored; it's also great to hear this live (rather than on CD) to get a better sense of the vocalists, mikes and all. (Oh, but at the end of the third movement, where the tenor thanks the conductor with "Thank you, Mr. Boulez" [for example] or "Thank you, Mr. Eötvös"? We just got "Thank you, Maestro." What the hell? Will Maazel not deign to have anyone call him the way that, say, a butler would?)

Brahms was periodically really exciting (good third movement, excellent beginning of the second movement) but bogged down in indifference with some frequency (notably the first several minutes of the piece) and, in the final passacaglia, suffered a badly suited and overly stylized balletic lilt that Maazel put into it. (Geez, and did the middle of the last movement ever start to slouch along, too.) I hope their Brahms Festival Brahms last year was better than their Berio Festival Brahms this year. Sinfonia, incidentally, was commissioned by the NY Phil back in 1968 but hadn't been performed by them for two decades before this week.

Man, that poor little girl. I hope she doesn't have nightmares.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Emptying Nest

Today I've sold my television and my bed. This formally guarantees that I will move out, I think, because without those two things I can no longer do about 95% of what I do when I'm at home.

I'm feeling just a little sense that I will miss this place. Even though in my half-decade of renting it it's less often recalled the nest of a bower bird than the nest of one of the smaller, grubbier mammals.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Last Day of Work

As my post title prosaically suggests, today is in fact my last day at work in sunny Reston, VA. In fact it's not sunny, but rainy, cold, and (at this hour) dark. It'd seem a bad omen but it's February and that sort of thing is par for the course.

Part of me, right after I woke up, thought, "2/1. Is it April Fools' Day?", which was quickly followed up with a derisive, mental "Come on." I think I'm in some sort of pre-discombobulation time warp. Yesterday someone sent me a file at work and my first reaction was, "Wait, this hasn't been updated since January 30th. That's like two months."

As my upcoming clean-up week in Arlington progresses I expect my brain to do the thing the big ant nest in our back yard used to do when I parked the lawnmower above it when we were kids. The ants got really agitated but not in any usefully patterned way I could recognize.

At any rate -- All I have on my to-do list at the office is make some minor updates to two or three documents and go to my goodbye lunch. I'm feeling the usual mix of wistfulness, trepidation, and massive elation as I have had when leaving schools or jobs before. But I expect that will diminish pretty quickly; having to pack up my portable stuff and sell of my Ikeaful bounty of home furnishings both supplies me with a lot of near-term tasks to keep my mind on, and fosters the belief that there's no way I have time for employment right now.

As a miscellaneous point, if anyone can recommend audiobooks on CD that would be good for long spans of highway driving, I'm still looking to account for 30 to 40 hours of programming.

Also, in private communication I learned that Kyle's reaction to my earlier post mentioning my move was to add a comment along the lines of, "Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!", though she suppressed that urge. That comment sums up my main underlying feeling about this whole enterprise, too, underneath my reactions to all the surface-level practical stuff.