Saturday, May 31, 2008

I Forgot How to Need It

And I know, I know, enough posts for today, already, but speaking of welders starting fires at buildings which house things that I like a lot, apparently there was a massive fire at the bottling facility of FX Matt Brewing (just shouted-out to in my last post!), in Utica, New York yesterday.

"Utica Fire Marshal Raymond Beck said two employees had just finished welding brackets to a piece of machinery in the second floor bottling area when the fire erupted."

Luckily, though, it was only the bottling facility which was damaged, and not their brewing facility. Someone pour out a little bit of Saranac onto the curb in remembrance of the bottling building.

I Saw a Sign in the Sky

So, to try and loop back onto last weekend before the rest of this weekend and its own concerts happens:

Friday, May 23rd

Went to a new music concert in Kreuzberg (the Eastern most section of the former West Berlin), by the Ensemble Zwischentoene, part of a weekend-long sequence of concerts called “Idiota Triumphans” – though other concerts kept me from attending the other nights of Idiota. I was tipped to the existence of this concert by the other music-nerd that’s at the Goethe-Institut currently, my friend (one, of course, becomes friends with the other music nerds (my friend Derek, who was with me at the other concerts this weekend – Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday – was the other music-nerd at the G-I last summer)) Maggie, who actually wasn’t planning on attending, but showed up after all at the last minute. Three pieces by three composters – “Berlin Exercises” (2000) by Christian Wolff, “Sieben Stimmen” (2003) by Christina Kubisch, and “Aguas” (1994) by Maria de Alvear.

So none of this music was brand new, but it’s hard to judge that sort of thing anyway, these days. Carefully programmed though – the three pieces certainly belonged together, though at times it was hard to differentiate this concert from a hypothetical concert-that-ends-a-weekend-long-extended-techniques-seminar. Which is not to say at all that I’m down on extended techniques. George Crumb is one of my favorite it composers. (Though if we can consider John Adams sitting in front of his computer and hitting the shortcut keys for “Copy” and then “Paste” on his music-scoring software as a compositional extended technique then maybe I can come out as being anti-extended techniques.) I guess the question is – which I, in usual fashion, will not pursue – whether or not extended techniques can ever be emancipated from their very extended-ness.

The composers, I think, were also fans of Nono. Lots of sparse scoring, blunt refusal to groove in the usual now-is-now fashion (though still too much rhythm, if you ask me). All three pieces were for various chamber ensembles. The hall itself was really quite cool. It was an old Ball House which was only partially restored (the kind of artsy “look its still partly destroyed” kind of aesthetic which now that I’m getting out more in Berlin seems commoner than I initially would have guessed).

“Berlin Exercises” seemed to be about a couple things – there was a sung text, which I could only understand snippets of – but the piece was structured around a song initially incanted only by solo voice, then slowly expanded by the instrumental ensemble, with lots of riffing on single notes and things. The piece was in four movements, and seemed to be at least casually winking at the good-old-fashioned Classical Symphony. Good piece thumbs up. It’s actually really great to have gotten out for a couple of contemporary concerts – something that I missed entirely last summer, though I must admit that seeing new music generates a certain kind of itch internally for me, which generally (the itch) represents, I think, the not-making-music-ness of my current existence (I was talking to Maggie during the intermission, and describing my approach to the piece – something basically to the extent of “I tried to figure out what its project was and then approach it in terms of that project.” “But you’re being a critic!” she exclaims, and I have no choice but to admit that that’s the case, though the last thing I want to be is an ex-musician turned critic (I want to be a musician and a critic, if anything).).

“Sieben Stimmen” was more of a dud for me. Interesting enough – the piece was scored for – I guess it was seven – musicans who were striking tuning forks of various pitches and holding them to various objects. The basic problem with a piece like this is that it can begin, but never end – it can only stop. Very quickly the sonic world becomes defined by the anticipation of the dull percussion of the hand (or knee (or mallet)) striking the fork, followed by the sharper attack of the tuning fork being touched to its resonating object (whether a desk, a bowl, a suitcase, or a closed piano), finished with the rapidly fading tone itself. The piece was clearly somewhat “aleatoric” as I suppose they’d say (which they? you know, them.), in that the players were letting the pitches ring until they couldn’t hear/feel them ringing anymore. So there’s no way to end this piece – at some point there can only be a halting of attacks, which is not an end (this argument will allow a counter-argument against the necessity of “endings” but not against its essential principle of what it means to end (which I haven’t, and won’t, explicate)). After a while, though, since this piece was really long, it stopped being music at all for me, and just something of a performance, in that I was engaged only at the level of being bored and wanting to leave but being compelled as a polite contemporary audience member to sit quietly and only think internally over the authoritarian dynamic of performer-to-audience. Eventually, the players started to drop out, and suddenly a 3-part Major chord was come upon. Suddenly I thought that maybe there was a way to end the piece after all – but of course, the piece wasn’t actually over. Too bad – had the piece actually ended on that single Major chord I would have been totally satisfied and totally on board with it. But as is, since the piece took another five minutes or so to finally die away to its end in a very boring kind of “Oh look, a couple of the players haven’t finished all their previously-established tuning fork routines just yet.” way, I’ve got to give it a thumbs down (and, again, if you find me in person some time, ask me again, and I’ll give you a thorougher rundown).

“Aquas,” as I put it to Maggie as we walked away from the concert, was, like, totally about water, or something. Probably the best piece on the program. It had a dance too. I’m totally making this concert sound worse in writing about it than it actually was. It was good – interesting music. Super glad I heard it. Wish I was making new music or at least performing it myself. Though I have found myself parodying some of the stylings during the week since this concert, it was still more than worth hearing (and, of course, any time you get to parody something by singing random pitches and waving your arms around slowly is a good thing).

Maybe He's as Scared as Me

This is the sort of thing that I find to be really interesting:

I was just sitting in my room, reading a book (the specifics of which I’m sure I will eventually blog about, once I finish reading it (in fact, I’m almost sure of that)) and drinking an Aventinus Weizenstarkbier (Strong Wheat Beer (they call it a “Weizendoppelbock” in the States – but I think that’s because G. Schneider & Sohn (the brewery that makes the Aventinus) is clued into the kind of beer snobbery that runs rampant in the US these days, and packages accordingly (Schneider-Weisse being well known these days, at least on the East Coast, for their collaborative brewing with Brooklyn Brewing (the part of Brooklyn Brewery that is in Brooklyn and makes its own beer (as of the last time I was intensely snobby (about a year ago now (and don’t think that being in Berlin makes me anything but wistful for my time as beer elitist (Miami and Miller High Life have pretty well wrecked that ship, though))) – as opposed to the bulk of the Brooklyn line, which (as already parenthetically afore-caveated) is brewed up in Utica by Matt Brewing (one of my personal favorite breweries on the planet))))), when I noticed a large black insect-type thing bouncing around the ceiling. Or it seemed to be bouncing around the ceiling, anyway.

I found myself immediately wondering if it was a spider – something about it seemed, well, spider-like (I would argue that my thoughts to this effect weren’t nearly so concrete at the time – there is some amount of “writing” that is happening to this event, now that I’m writing it). Though it was so obviously the kind of behavior typical to light-compelled insects, I wrote it off as being some kind of bug. Then I had a quick flurry of activity wherein I imagined, ironically (sarcastically? the Germans use “ironisch” to describe light sarcasm, and “sarcastisch” for what we might call caustic witticisms), that Western ingenuity had already eradicated all dangerous spiders from Europe centuries ago – I found myself, a couple days ago, giving a friend of mine here a run-down of Jared Diamond’s theses from Guns, Germs, and Steel, with touches of his Collapse as well, including various counterarguments - most notably the “Western ingenuity” counterargument from the NY Times Book Review review of Collapse (that’s right – I give new friends rundowns of that sort of thing – if they aren’t the type to be interested in that sort of thing, then they probably won’t actually wind up being my friend (which is their choice, not mine)), so the whole "Western intellect" - an argument that I find to be thoroughly incorrect and offensive - thing was in my mind.

I went back to reading. Maybe a page or two later, I was shocked to find a spider crawling on the right lens of my glasses (which, for the record, still only correct for mild astigmatism and not at all for distance). I brushed it to the seat of the couch and promptly crushed it with a German grammar practice book. I am left to wonder how much of or what kind of coincidence this really was.

Did I initially see a spider, somewhere (with the way my hair is these days (big), it’s very possible that I spider could have been crawling around and happened into my field of vision at two very different distances-from-my-eyes), when I thought I saw a bug on the ceiling? Did I happen to notice the spider earlier on, while I was reading, but not register it until the bug on the ceiling reminded me of exoskeletal lifeforms? Was it a total coincidence (was there a bug on the ceiling and then there just happened to be a spider on my face)? Did some ominitient, omnipotent being-that-is-greater-than-me hear/read my thoughts and send a spider to my face in order to let me know that It knows I was thinking about spiders? None of the above?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Targeting of the Demographic Groups You Don't Belong To

Saw the new Indiana Jones movie yesterday, and the short review is "don't see it." Reports that the sequel captures the same swagger as the old movies are way off base. It's just an extension of the brand into an inoffensively marketable, family-friendly action adventure along the lines of "National Treasure." (I saw the last twenty minutes of "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" on the plane last month, and it was legitimately not bad. The conclusion of Indy 4 felt like a stale retread in comparison, with Harrison Ford failing to generate the same charisma as Nic Cage in a similar leader-of-an-ad-hoc-family-unit role. Also, the climax of "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" didn't draw any ironic applause from the audience, although that may have been a function of being on an airplane.) The way I see it there's no point in complaining about this: it's just the world we live in.

It's not Star Wars bad, but any question of whether George Lucas would handle this script with anything more than his customary grace is answered by about the time when Indiana Jones, emerging from a refrigerator that's been launched across miles of the desert by a nuclear explosion, is quizzically greeted by a CGI prairie dog. That is all of 20 minutes into the film, and, again, it is just the world we live in.

There are many parts that don't suck, at least toward the beginning, particularly the motorcycle chase through Yale, although that's probably less interesting if you weren't around New Haven during the filming.

There has been a protest registered against the movie by the Russian Communist Party, which objects to the cartoonish Russian Communist villains. In fairness, an accurate portrayal of late-1950s Russian Communist activity would have featured less KGB meddling at Area 51 and more brutal suppression of popular uprisings in Hungary.

Won't Take My Eyes off the Ball Again

So I've fallen a bit behind with my concert blogging - I had a full weekend of concert-going, most of which was new music, and little down time to process it all, let alone process it all for mild consumption. And I will catch up - that much is certain, but I may end up working backwards (though since I'm writing this post without any pre-writing (to be sure, most of my posts are "written" - which to me means that I work on them before posting them or whatever (typos and occasional grammatical errors aside (and, God forbid, the occasional unclosed parenthetical)) and not typed out on-the-spot) who knows what exactly I’ll wind up bringing up, so it my concert round-up starting from back on Friday may well be quite achronological) chronologically.

So to start with the wandering back through the time-line of my Berlin concert-going between the 23rd and 27th of May, I shall first speak of the concert I attended last night: The Berlin Radio Symphony, conducted by young Kristjan Järvi, playing Tubin’ 4th Symphony and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This isn’t necessarily a concert that I would always go to, but my friend Derek was in town (he was actually in town for almost the whole span of concerts about which I have yet to blog), and wanted to go, so I went along. I’d never heard anything of Tubin’s, so I guess was kind of interested on that front, and, you know, what the hell, it’s always good to hear a Rite of Spring, right? (Actually, one of the first classical music concerts I can remember being genuinely excited about in my life was the Pittsburgh Symphony performing RoS, back when I was in High School (Junior or Senior year) – right around the same time as a Shostakovich 10 that was also exciting (maybe Nate can remember the Shosty 10 – not the one that we saw when we were both in college (twice), but back when I was in High School and you were in college (I think I actually wrote about the Shosty 10 concert for my college entrance essay for the music schools I applied to)).)

Tubin’s 4th Symphony doesn’t make me want to immediately run out and hear more Tubin, but Derek insists that most of his music isn’t so tension-less, apparently this 4th Symphony is a phenomenon similar to R. Vaughn Williams’s 5th Symphony – some unnecessarily glorious, placid symphony sandwiched between other symphonies of starker character. Part of my discontent is also, of course, personal, in that I am an angry young man, so have no time, really, for such escapist music (like how I definitely wouldn’t bother going to see any Delius or Rimsky-Korsakov either (unless it was the Berliner Philharmoniker)). And part of my discontent lies with the conductor – Kristjan can probably be ranked, not only as the youngest Järvi, but perhaps as the “lesser Järvi.” The Tubin was played through with a very high gloss – the piece is built around a small number of thematic motives, and so when it was played through so superficially, the already tension-light music became tension-less. Not bad music though, and I’m sure plenty of the audience really liked it – it’s easy to listen to, and was played cleanly and briskly.

I am not the type of concert-goer who often complains about tempos. Sure, I notice things some times, but in general, I won’t comment to whoever I saw the concert with about tempo decisions. Generally speaking, I think they’re an easy thing to complain about, and I feel like it’s kind of cliché to mention them in a critical light. That being said, Järvi’s tempos through the Rite of Spring were totally wack (and, actually, I’m pretty sure that the last time I publicly talked about a conductor’s tempos was also a performance of Stravinsky – namely, Mariss Jansons’s rather bizarre take on Petrouschka with the Berliner Phil last summer). I think Rite of Spring falls resoundingly into the category (as does, apparently, our blog) of things that are “good for good reasons.” The reasons are numerous – I would (am (citing) (one of the major differences between English and German style, I’ve been noticing this summer, is the preference for my English to operate in a style laden with passive and conditional constructs, whereas German is much more direct much more of the time)) cite, for instance, the melodic paring of muted bass trumpet with English horn as a great example of the goodness of RoS. The kind of tempos designed for maximum contrast from movement-to-movement but totally ignore the proportions of a piece as a whole.

Thus the concert performance was exciting, in that the famous parts were all expertly swiftly played, ripshit loud, and the slow-but-also-famous parts were, like, slower and quieter than the loud fast parts. And the rest, well, it slunk along, waiting to get famous again. Järvi also almost lost the band on a couple of instances – which I think has as much to do with it (the piece as a whole) having an unnatural flow as his rubato-related decisions. So, maybe I’m just being overly nerdy/curmudgeonly/cliché, but it seems to bad that Järvi decided to force the excitement-issue rather than letting a piece that can absolutely speak for itself do so.

And this ignores Järvi’s conducting style. Derek assures me that the blog really does require a video component to properly capture my discussing various conductor’s styles (especially when I’m being deprecatory), so again. It actually reminds me of being a kid, when occasionally, in the context of Little League baseball or whatever, various kids (I probably did a bit myself as well) would try and imitate various Major Leaguers’ batting stances. But I think the ladies love it when you conduct with your hips.

At the same time, though, I’m reminded that it is good to go to concerts of famous musics, even if not necessarily performed by totally famous groups. I like engaging with these pieces of music – the GFGR stuff – whether or not an actual performance is good or not (sort of like, I suppose, the difference between, say, the DDR as actually existing socialism and Marxist theory (in that we can’t let the failure of actually existing socialism deter us from being socialists in the same way that we can’t let lousy performances of Stravinsky keep us from thinking about his music and pursuing concerts of it)).

Monday, May 26, 2008

Herman Melville Hates Penguins

It's no secret that everyone loves penguins these days: they're small and endearing, they protect their young, they were in that one movie, and then they were in that other one animated movie, etc. In the BBC's magnum opus of a nature series, "Planet Earth," which I just started watching on DVD, the first episode wastes no time at all in cutting directly to penguin footage, presumably to hook people in because they love penguins. (Right after the penguins: adorable baby polar bear footage. After that they stop pandering quite so much.) So yes, everyone loves penguins. But not Herman Melville:
What outlandish beings are these? Erect as men, but hardly as symmetrical, they stand all round the rock like sculpted caryatides, supporting the next range of eaves above. Their bodies are grotesquely misshapen; their bills short; their feet seemingly legless; while the members at their sides are neither fin, wing, nor arm. And truly neither fish, flesh, nor fowl is the penguin; as an edible, pertaining neither to Carnival nor Lent; without exception the most ambiguous and least lovely creature yet discovered by man. Though dabbling in all three elements, and indeed possessing some rudimental claims to all, the penguin is at home in none. On land it stumps; afloat it sculls; in the air it flops. As if ashamed of her failure, Nature keeps this ungainly child hidden away at the ends of the earth, in the Straits of Magellan, and on the abased sea-story of Rodondo.
That's from Melville's 1854 sketch of the Galapagos, "The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles." This is now my favorite Melville passage about zoology, surpassing the chapter in Moby Dick where he notes that the people who classify whales as mammals are wrong. I mean, taking penguins down a notch in high-flown 19th-century prose style? That's great.

Friday, May 23, 2008

No Tattoos, You Don't Stand Out

To begin with a couple of pronouncement-type-things:

1) Subversion is essentially a local action. It requires an appraisal of terms and context which inevitably limits the realm of interaction. Therefore (the usual parenthetical statement of awareness for my own lack of evidencing this claim), if you think you’re being subversive on some global scale, you’re not. At this point in the post, I’m not exactly sure why I’m stating this, but it’s been popping up in my brain a lot recently, for reasons generally unknown to me – though I think it’s related somehow to my “cultural” experience in Berlin. This post is as much about me figuring out why I’m thinking this than explaining it to you.

2) Some things are good for good reasons. Subversion, due to its inability to grasp at anything approaching universality, tends to fail at being “good for good reasons.” Which is not to say that I think universality is culturally approachable in the first place (if there is an Operatic, for instance, X-bar, who knows what it is or might be). This is part of the enjoyment-enjoying that I’ve been having (until the Philharmonie caught on fire, there has been a noticeable lack of meta-enjoyment since Tuesday in aforementioned brain-that-notices-things part of my brain (and, incidentally, I was trying to explain the other day to a classmate of mine (who is from Idaho and in University in Utah) what my “cultural” experience is like – in terms, mainly, of going so often to concerts, and specifically in reference to the concert that this post will eventually get to mentioning, and he expressed some amount of surprise that I think as much as I do about any given concert – that concert-going and/or music-hearing is or can be a cognitive experience (this, actually, paints something of an incomplete picture, of course, since as I’ve mentioned already earlier this month, there are aspects of all of these concerts which I think are explicitly not cognitive)).

Yesterday I was walking to school, listening to Stravinsky’s Symphony in C (one of the recordings I’m addicted to – the MTT/LSO disc of the Symphonies of Psalms, in C, and Three Movements), and I ran into a friend of mine, so pulled the headphones off my ears. It happened to be at a loud part, so my friend could hear that I was listening to raucous “classical” music, and immediately made some conductorly hand gestures and vocalizations as a way of commenting on the music. It’s interesting to find oneself living up to type – there is certainly nothing performative in intention at work when I decide to listen to “classical” music while going from one place to another, but as soon as my listening went from being private to public, suddenly there it was: I was, in fact, listening to such music, and had probably either to a concert the night before or going to a concert that night. Nerd alarm.

The concert in question (and this is the least real-time (as Jack put it) of my concert blog posts), was Tuesday evening’s performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin by the Deutsche Oper Berlin. It is my stance that most Wagner is not good – or rather, there are generally things that are good, but his work as a whole, and in its quest for that very same wholeness is bad. Some things are bad for good reasons. Or rather, there are plenty of things that I think are bad and feel my reasons for thinking so are sound (“good”). The problem with Parsifal, for instance, is that it actually is good, despite the fact that it would be best for all of Wagner to be bad.

Watching opera is something like watching baseball – it has a pace all of its own, and generally for optimal experiencing thereof requires viewers to align themselves with that pacing. Wagner, then, is the American League of opera – through various inventions intended to beef up the offense, instead what we get is an overly long often excruciatingly boring outcome. Though I didn’t fall asleep – I definitely zoned out a bit during the first act, but once I got used to the thing I was actually more awake/attentive then I even wanted to be for the second and third acts. Several of the singers were really quite good, no stand-outs for me though, and the band, as usual, was pretty well astounding (though I admit that the level of astonishment is related to the fact that the Deutsche Oper is the “second” opera in Berlin, and the depth of insanely high-quality musicians in Berlin is probably second only to London in the world (though I’m not expert on that matter)).

Getting back to subversion, then, it seems to me that there are aspects of Lohengrin that are probably rife for the subverting, and this staging struck me as mostly conservative. Especially when you have a German king singing heroically about the power of Germans, and the need to re-crush the Hungarians (Lebensraum, anybody?) and the giant stage-large chorus singing “Sieg! Sieg! Sieg! Heil! Heil! Heil!” The military costumes were just sort of ambiguous 19th century outfits, and the set itself was a lazy quasi-expressionistic sort of thing. Though, of course, there’s no need, as such, for subversion, just opportunity. So, if this was a “serious” staging, then fine…

Except for the Lohengrin himself. In what is easily the strangest costuming decision I have ever seen, Lohengrin appeared in the first act (the libretto calls for him to show up in brilliantly shining metallic armor) wearing what I think might best be described as astronaut pajamas. He was in silver moon boots (recalling, for me, terribly specifically, the white army surplus winter boots of a certain particularly hickish member (“What’s the difference between [him] and a popular camping snack?’) of our Boy Scout Troop (is that public knowledge, that we were Boy Scouts? I guess it is)), silver stretch pants, and close-fitting amateurish-looking cardboard chest armor. And carrying a giant sword with both hands. Absolutely foolish looking.

To me, there’s no way that they could have been doing anything here but been trying to subvert the uebermensch character. This, of course, fails to do so, because even in astronaut pajamas, the way the man sings and what he sings doesn’t change, and that still carries the majority of the impression. And, again, I’m leaving plenty of blanks here, but the abject goofiness of Lohengrin’s external appearance ended up just leaving me confused and I guess a bit angry. I guess, when I think of subversive actions, I think of actions intended to raise questions, and this particular event (especially given that it could have simply been a bad choice and not a political comment) failed to raise any questions other than “What the hell were/are they thinking?”

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Beautiful Paint-job Hopelessly Marred

Die Philharmonie brennt! Everyone’s favorite exteriorially eye-soring interiorially acoustically-marvelling building in Berlin – the Philharmonie – caught on fire yesterday (Tuesday). Apparently, some welders were working on the roof, heard that I was in town and actually enjoying my life, so decided to put that to an end. Though, through some massive number of fire trucks (30ish) and personelle (200ish), they were able to save the hall (according to the article I read, there was only a relatively small amount of water (I think relative to the large amount of water sprayed onto the building) dripping into the hall itself, and that the firefighters spread out plastic on the seats to protect them. It’s as of yet still hard to tell what the impact will be, but hopefully it won’t be too bad and the concert schedule won’t be too severely derailed.

My friend Dan emailed me before I had a chance to write this post about this news, and included in his email a joke that I think I would have come up with on my own – especially given that Jansons (it still blows my mind that Mariss Jansons, given how much of a rock-star he is in Europe now, was ever Musical Director of Pittsburgh (too bad our hall (acoustically) pretty well sucked (as did our Principal Trumpeter (seeing orchestras with good trumpets inevitably leads to me hating on George (for good reason – I didn’t like him back when I saw the PSO on a weekly basis (I’d like to think (and in my imagination do play it out this way (as previously alluded to in the last blog post where I mentioned the Principal trumpet fucking up PSO concerts)) that Mariss didn’t like him either) and was vocal about it then too (though we didn’t have a blog back then))))) is conducting the Philharmoniker in a performance (hopefully to still occur) of Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony (and Berio’s Folk Songs!) – but he recommend that once the hall reopens I attend the next concert dressed as Shostakovich.

So hopefully that won’t be too much of a damper on my concert-going (though, honestly, if the hall is out of commission even for just a week it will fuck up my plans pretty badly (few if any of the other halls in Berlin have standing room seats, so even if the BP changes venue there’d be no way for me to see the concert). I’ll update y’all as whatever happens – or actually, once I post again about seeing a concert at the Philharmonie, you’ll know that concerts are going on there again.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008



Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Belated Beijing Photo Post

I can't keep up with Pete's real-time Berlin traveloguing, but I can put up a few more pictures from Beijing.

I still don't have about a quarter of the pictures I took, since it took me a little while to figure out how to put the memory card in my new (and small and totally cute) digital camera (read: I didn't push the memory card in the whole way) so by the time I figured out I was actually saving pictures to the camera's own memory (which the Circuit City guy had told me it didn't actually have) I'd left some pictures on Mike's laptop, where I can't get to them for a while. Good story!

I'm actually really lucky I have the rest of them, because I left my camera at the security gate at the Beijing airport when I went through and didn't even notice it was missing, occupied as I was with watching my toiletries bag being methodically disassembled. Fortunately, I'd also emptied out of my pocket the index card I'd (in an act of unnecessary anal-retentive preparation) written my flight number and departure time on, and since I was an hour and a half early (in another act of unnecessary anal-retentive preparation) the airport personnel actually had time to deliver it to the gate, where they handed it over to me while I looked at them in bafflement. (Where did they get my camera?) They knew it was mine because the last picture in the camera was this shot of me on the No. 2 subway line that I made Mike take that morning.

(Usually the subway was significantly more crowded than this.)

Anyway, other random photos (click for larger):

This building likely means nothing to you, but to me it is the beloved "Three-By-Obloid" building that served as my principal orienting landmark near the Xizhimen subway stop, out by where the Exhibition Center Hotel is. Like much modern Beijing architecture it is clearly European/contemporary but somewhat lacking in charm. I was always happy to see it, since that meant I was more or less in the right place.

The Exhibition Center itself was running an exhibition of construction equipment the second week I was there. I didn't go in, but the cranes out front cut a fairly echt-Beijing scene. The first week I was there there was an exhibition of police vehicles.

This is a pedestrian bridge near Mike's homestay apartment, around 7:30 in the morning during the second week I was there. It was really windy that day and the weather had been good in general, accounting for the unusual sight of the mountains out there in the distance. I still don't know how far away they are, but usually they're completely obscured by middle-distance haze. The first time you see them is kind of a jolt.

On the main road near the hotel was an excellent sidewalk-fronting skewer-meat place (this is called, phonetically, "chuar," although I think that retains the regional Beijing accent) and, outside that skewer-meat place, one of the best pieces of public art I've ever seen. Late that night the bucket was gone, but the whole mass of everything in it had just been dumped on the sidewalk for trash collection. The skewers themselves are incredibly tasty, mostly since they alternate chunks of lamb and chunks of fat. Refreshingly, one can order these simply by holding up one or two fingers.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu, again. Mountain view from the wall, below. Really a beautiful day for a walk there.

The Summer Palace is one of the most-touristed city destinations, and by the time I got there (Wednesday or Thursday of the second week) I'd acquired some landmark fatigue. The main complex of buildings running up the hillside there is worth seeing, though; you make your way up and have a good (if hazy) view from the top. The Summer Palace was an imperial getaway built during the 1700s, I want to say. I guess I could look that up. (I don't want to sound too intellectually uncurious, but . . . really, landmark fatigue.) This isn't a great photo but I like how it makes the place look deceptively sleepy. Yep, no tour group throngs here.

I took a bus out to the Botanical Garden, which wasn't at its peak season yet. There were peonies out, and some people looking at or photographing or sometimes drawing the peonies. My favorite spot there was a modest arboretum filled with the sounds of unfamiliar birdsong. (I guess, actually, if the mountains are that close to the Botanical Garden, then they're not that far from the center of the city; that was about a half-hour city bus ride from 3rd Ring Road, I think.)

The Temple of Heaven Park, closer to the center of town, is a must-see spot, on the other hand. One attraction there I was glad to have caught was a short demonstration of yayue music (imperial court music) at a building called the Divine Music Administration. (Wikipedia link.) It's music composed with a very deliberately designed sonority, with several elemental types of sound combined into a very appealing, resonant whole. Essentially the ensemble is a small orchestra with strong pitched percussion notes. I'm curious whether any of these ensembles have been established at any universities in the U.S., similar to the way gamelans have been. It's a pretty gorgeous sound. I bought a CD at the gift center, although much of it is taken up with contemporary song arrangements rather than anything traditional, according to the English in the liner notes.

Also at the Divine Music Administration, a room with a large set of pitched gong bells you could play around with (I want some of these), and a room that makes the boosterish claim "China's Study of Tonal System Holds the Lead in the World." I don't know to what extent or in what way the Chinese type of twelve-pitch-class music theory traveled elsewhere (I've been meaning to look this up, actually) but I love the idea of staking a claim and making a big deal about pioneering the study of tonal systems. Yeah! Music theory is great.

The Divine Music Administration had been rebuilt several years ago after decades of serving first as post-revolution barracks and then as residential housing.

Another scene at the Temple of Heaven Park, displaying some obligatory Olympic excitement.

I had to take a picture of this item on display in the Beijing Opera section of the Capital Museum (with sign detail below). I may not be able to do much more than wander around Beijing doing tourist stuff and buying bottled water, but there are still some things I know that they don't.

I Want Your Soul

"Nobody fucks with the Jesus." You said it man. In a what I think is a first-time ever, here is a picture posted to the blog that I myself took. Sorry so sloppy (or rather, that Jesus isn't bigger). This Jesus is at the chapel at Schloss San Souci in Potsdam. Something happened to Jesus in Germany back during the Aufklarung. To think that just a hundred years earlier He was still mostly skinny and weak.

But don't worry - this Jesus has assured us that he only took HGH on advice from his trainer in order to recover from an injury, and even then, even though he knew it was probably wrong, he wanted to do what was best to help his team.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Brow, Forget All Your Thoughts

As my voice continues to be (overly?) present on the ol' blog here, I have yet another concert to report on (man my life is gonna get boring again come July). This time, it was the Berliner Rundfunk Orchester with Thomas Dausgaard conducting and Christian Tetzlaff (pictured below) playing the violin.

Christian Tetzloff
er... sorry...

Christian Tetzloff

err... third time's the charm...

Christian Tetzloff
The concert program was Strauss's Metamorphosen for 23 Strings, Karol Syzmanowski's 2nd Violin Concerto, and Nielsen's 5th Symphony, performed in Berlin's Konzerthaus (classic shoebox-style concert space (though I think a bit smaller than Vienna's Musikverein and with a slightly sloppier acoustic (though it's been a while now since I've been to the Musikverein))). The Berliner Rundfunk is one of the second tier orchestras here in Berlin - but like New Haven pizza, the second tier 'round these parts is still pretty damn good. Interesting concert. The Syzmanowski sounded dated to me, but was interesting enough and played very well by Tetzloff - establishing one particularly fireworky cadenza. CT also played some interesting little encore as well - I have no idea what it was though.

Strauss's Metamorphosen is of course an amazing thing - really one of those pieces that manages to pretty well loan some credence to the "maybe Strauss wasn't a total Nazi - just naive and a jerk" line. Also, especially given that most of his orchestral output his abjectly bad (again, everything except for Tod und Verklarung and 4 Letze Lieder (and the Metamorphosen) will I totally disregard (despite often humming the trumpet line from the middle of Heldenleben every so often, when it lodges itself in my poor brain)), the Metamorphosen really shines. It may be obvious, but when it gets to where its going, it blows me away every time I hear it. My seat wasn't the best, so the sound in general was rather muddy, so its hard to strike any judgement as to how clear these strings were, compared to the Staatkapelle or (top of the list) the Philharmoniker.

And Nielsen's 5th is a great piece. I really enjoy it. I don't know a whole lot of Nielsen beyond his 4th and 5th Symphonies, but I deeply like both of them. There's something very visual to me (and maybe I mean spatial by this) about his writing - the very large blocks of sound moving against each other. I'm also very interested by the role that interjection can play across the arts, and I think Nielsen is a great example of several modes of interjection/interruption that can play out at a grand level. That is, I tend to see (as it were) Nielsen's writing as large blocks kind of momving against each other, with various other smaller shapes jutting out across and between them (this is best pictured with Atari-era graphics and colors). The symphony was commandingly played, and the group got a deservedly long applause from the nearly-packed house. It was really pretty impressive to see a concert hall so full on a Sunday night for a concert of not-totally-famous music (though I do suppose Germany's own Tetzloff is something of a draw on his own).

When We Move, It's a Movement

The room that I am living in here in Prenzlauer Berg is equipped with a very awesome radio from the DDR-times. Something about it’s shape and sturdiness – and the fact that it exudes an aura of sturdiness beyond its actual looks-like-it-was-both-made-thiry-five-years-ago-and-made-yesterday appearance (I am of the opinion that objects and artifacts are more likely to have auras

(shout out to the Institut fuer Sozialforschung in Frankfurt) than humans (sorry, hippies)) – appeals to my “Yeah, I listen to records.” aesthetic. The first time that I decided to go ahead and turn it on –

it took a minute of button pushing and knob twiddling to figure it out (there’s an off button but no on button, and four different channels of airwaves to potentially be perused, so the odds of any one of them having been at an actual station space,

despite the fact that this room is lived in by passing-through Goethe-Institut students year-round, all of whom presumably use the radio, if for nothing else than to hear the weather (in fact, one of my good friends from the Sprachkurs last summer lived in this very room last summer, and I am also in class with a dude from Venezuela whose girlfriend lived here during the course period immediately preceding mine (though I’d actually rather not think about that)),

especially after my twiddling around, were pretty low

(I realize that this sentence is a good example of what makes me nervous about my usage of parentheticals – simultaneously, I can neither think of a better way to express the necessary information at the right time

(and also, I’m sorry if it’s uninteresting to read about my own interpretation of my style (it’s also been pointed out to me before that in letters that I right to people, much of the text is devoted to an explication of the fact that I’m writing at all) – I think this problem can potentially serve to derail any actual career expectations (career as a writer) I ever build for myself while in Graduate school, in that it’s one thing to not be able to get over yourself, but another to not be able to get over what you’re doing (I credit some amount of this particular stance to my horn teacher, Dennis) and if you can't get over what you're doing, then you won't be able to do it as well as you might (and its generally okay to be big on yourself about it, if it doesn't negatively effect the doing)

nor of a better way to order the information, such as to avoid the need for embeddedness in the first place (put your gun away, Geraldo))

(Such as aggressively inserting paragraph breaks to try and block out the information in a more readable amount of space.),

but when I finally got to an actual station, the voice was talking in Russian, and out of this old communist radio, that seemed incredibly perfect, and for a second, before I moved on down the dial, searching for German language voices, I thought maybe I had also set it to the super-secret DDR time-machine radio settings.

This radio is a relatively stark contrast to the audio-visual equipment to my room in the former West Berlin last summer – a small color television with a DVD/CD player. Though some part of me does miss watching German-dubbed South Park, I think that it is probably more productive to have a radio rather than a TV (I really don’t think that watching cartoons taught very much German). Productivity being an unfair assessment point in the first place, though, since its my general stance that just about anything is more productive than television watching (oh my childhood days of sitting around all day eating meat and watching television for hours on end feel so distant). Productivity is also not just limited to German-class related activities (there is a limit to how much I can study on any given day); I include reading books (in English) and blogging in the “productive” category.

So I just finished reading Richard Ford’s Lay of the Land, which I picked up at a JFK book kiosk maybe an hour and a half before taking off (suddenly terrified that I had failed to pack any readable English language books

(i.e. books that aren’t translations of Heidegger or Lacoue-Labarthe (some part of me that is who I am in this way is always apologizing to myself for being the part of me that is this way, despite myself)) for Germany (my painfully tight budget shouldn’t really have allowed for this, but since I had more or less convinced myself that it wouldn’t be there anyway, once it was there I had little choice in the matter but to buy it).

I’m not exactly sure how broad the readership for Ford’s three books about (narrated by) Frank Bascombe (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, Lay of the Land) is or should be, but I sure did enjoy all three of these books. Here is a narratorial voice that is only exactly as aware of its own being-writing as it needs to be (that is, really not much). Despite its rich and compassionate detail, it seems to me that there’d be some potentially large readership that would be put off by Frank’s attitude, no matter how well-executed it is (women readers, for instance?). I know Jack likes these books a lot too – in fact, he’s the one that introduced Independence Day to me (though I went back and read our father’s copy of The Sportswriter before reading ID). I find the voice to be compelling – I think that Ford gets at the suburbs in a very incisive way that seems to me quite unique for being so believably from-within (as opposed, say, to Philip Roth, who seems much more outsidery to me (though uses that outsiderness to great effect in its own right (see American Pastoral, for instance))).

The other book I’ve read this month is Milorad Pavic’s The Dictionary of Khazars – most of which I read either before or during my airport/plane day (it was done and I was some number of dozens of pages into Lay of the Land before my descent into Berlin). I’m not sure if it’s a good book or not – it’s certainly interesting, but also distractingly gimmicked (there’s a Male and a Female version of the book, different only by one paragraph (the difference enough to make any even mild feminist angry) with a postscript envisioning this kind of moment where to people – I think a man and a woman – would meet in a coffee shop, see that they were reading the same book and then compare the differences. The author, of course, fails to realize that this would happen anyway, and went ahead and wrote out what the difference would be, and then published to different commodities to make the whole thing happen. Hence the distraction. Parts of the book are really neat. It’s in the format of a dictionary (a “lexicon novel”) which is really an encyclopedia; a fictional history of an apparently actually-once-existing culture, told from the point of view of the West’s three major religions, across three time periods. Lots of interesting themes, lot’s of meta-shit about what is a book, a novel, a history, etc. Most of it feeling underdeveloped. I guess my one sentence review would be something like “Though well-conceived and of interesting themes, the book’s sincerity fails to mask its flaws.”

Saturday, May 17, 2008

No Big Hair!

This post begins, as much as I’ve already (in previous posts) mentioned trying to avoid it, with undertones of “why don’t more people like classical [sic] music?” Today’s rationalization (to be similarly underdeveloped as was the Don Giovanni post): the Dies irae – Tuba mirum of Berlioz’ Grande Messe des Morts (Grosse Totenmesse (Gifuckingantic Death Mass)), as played by the Berliner Philharmoniker in their home hall with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, under the steady (left-handed) baton of Donald Runnicles. The chills I felt when the antiphonal brass choirs made their first entrance were unlike any I’ve experienced at a concert in a long time – I’ve been thinking about it on and off since the concert ended about two and a half hours ago and can’t quite decide what the last time would be. And why I think this informs the whole WDMPSLC[s]M thing is that it was such a physical experience. I don’t see how my education or experience as an orchestral musician or as a person-who-likes-Berlioz-way-more-than-your-average-person (I actually listed Berlioz in my cover letter as an influence on my grad school applications to Creative Writing programs) has anything to do with the essential physical reaction of getting goosebumps from a giant orchestra and four antiphonal brass choirs playing ripshit mega-chords.

I attended this concert with a stehplatz (standing room) ticket, as it was sold out well in advance (all the BP concerts are), which involves getting to the hall early – I got there at 5:45 for an 8:00 show (and was 15th in line (there are 24 stehplatz available for every concert)), and standing around, and then standing, er, well, actually, leaning through the entire program. The first 14 stehplaetze are in the very back of the hall, the second 10 way up high stage left. The sounds a little bit distant, but not all that bad – actually, quite good. During this wait, I started working out what part of this post would be about – namely, that I would once again give an overwhelmingly positive review to a concert here. Part of the hope of eventually living long-term in Berlin is to live here long enough to have an opportunity to take this kind of performance for grants, though at the same time there’s no evidence available that I ever actually would get tired of these concerts.

Which is not to say that I want to give a concert a bad review – and I would never, ever, give any concert a review that contained anything but what I consider my actual opinion. It’s mostly the fact that down in Miami I’m generally regarded as a Negative Nancy (preferably pronounced like the last name of everyone’s favorite positive-negativist (and not pronounced like "nance")), you know, generally hating everything (“I don’t even know you, but I hate your guts.”), being angry and cynical, et cetera, et cetera. So my current conclusion, then, is that I’m not negative after all. I just like different things. And it’s too bad more people don’t like what I like (though again, this last statement is heavily caveated and generally meant to be read as tongue-in-cheek (let’s face it, I don’t actually want lot’s of people liking what I like (then I’d just have to like something else (time to dig the Mets hat out of Mom & Dad’s closet)))).

That all being said, I was damn thoroughly awestruck by this concert. I really think that Berlioz was from the future. I think if I was ever on a space ship fleeing earth at the time of its final demise, I’d want the Berlioz Requiem to be performed as we pulled slowly away and our solar sails unfurled, slowly building the momentum required to zip across space to new planets. This sense of space ship though may just be because the Philharmonie, though probably more circus tent in visual look than anything, also could definitely look like a spaceship (or the concert hall at the very top/front of a space ship). So, although it seems like something of a once in a lifetime concert, it certainly needed be.

Also, the tenor soloist – some Canadian (!) named Joseph Kaiser – was phenomenal. Mother taught us to hate shitty tenors (maybe that’s a stretch, Ma?), but then when you hear a good one, damn. I got chills not as big as the brass choirs, but his voice, coming again from high up and towards the back of the hall, had an incredible clarity and presence, and force, etc. Also, amazing was towards the end of the Dies irae – Tuba mirum, once the apocalyptiloud section is over, the group got to this incredible softer, deeply deeply warm tone to close the movement that was incredibly moving. I don’t know how anyone could get tired of seeing concerts like this.

In other news, at the Neue Nationalgalerie today I saw what must have been my seventh or eighth Bird in Space (the mega-famous Brancusi sculpture (there are sixteen in total (7 marble, 9 brass)).

In other other news, I talked to my Gastgeberin a bit more – she doesn’t just cut hair out of the apartment as a side job – she’s actually a full-time professional make-up and hair artist. She sees and has seen a lot of hair, and mine is beautiful. I’m going to wash it tomorrow (which will either be earlier today (today today, not the today of any prior paragraphs) or yesterday or possibly even two days ago by the time I post this. And if it’s two days ago then maybe the water heater is fixed by now so I won’t have to heat the water in a pot on the stove to wash my hair a second time (even though I haven’t done that for the first time just yet at the time of this writing).

Friday, May 16, 2008

Utter Miscellany

Because May 2008 has turned into the kind of month where acts of nature don't count as "bad news" if they don't kill tens of thousands of people in continental Asia, I found this news item about invincible ants plaguing Houston to be kind of whimsical. For some reason I always find ants fascinating. The new guys drive out fire ants, leading to the excellently evoked silver lining: "While the new ants will also bite humans, it reportedly doesn’t hurt nearly as much as a fire ant bite." So grace, as ever, visits us in the details.

Since the new ants also chew up electronic wiring when they find it, it's obviously only a matter of time until the Pentagon is dropping $50 million on a plan to weaponize these guys.

* * * * *

From this article in Slate I learned that the United States has a recent habit of totally phoning in their World's Fair pavilions, since Congress has prohibited the expenditure of public funds on it. I'm a bit surprised, but I admit I can't get too exercised about this issue. Germany would be really happier with us right now if we'd sprung for a better pavilion in Hanover eight years ago? Also, this guy writes "the State Department salvaged a couple of old geodesic domes" (for a 1992 expo in Spain) like it's a bad thing. That's pretty economical, and geodesic domes are awesome.

What we should do for the 2010 Shanghai Expo is just plop down a chunk of Flushing Meadows with a sign that says "You Know, Your Fair Is Just Going to Turn Out Looking Like This Someday, So Fuck It."

My favorite thing about the 2010 Shanghai Expo is their mascot, who I call "Happy the Wonder Squib" and who is frequently visible in advertisements around Shanghai. The only piece of memorabilia I was tempted to purchase in Shanghai's touristy knickknack shopping district was a small Happy the Wonder Squib refrigerator magnet, which I was forced to decline due to the clerk's unfortunate insistence on charging much more than the item's zero-dollar manufacturing cost. I carry around fond memories of his smiling face and minty-fresh good humor, though.

The word "squib" has a somewhat unrelated literal definition, but whatever.

* * * * *

Is your hard-plastic Nalgene bottle silently killing you? Scientists say: more research is needed! Usually I write off consumer-driven product anxiety as meaningless, uninformed concern, but I'm thinking twice here because I keep a Nalgene at my desk at work and have been drinking it down at least three times a day for the past five years. So whatever that gets you, I'm going to be first in line for it.

* * * * *

I don't care one way or the other about Andrea Bocelli, and I sympathize with the man for his midlife crisis being covered by the Times of London, but you've got to admit that formulating the thought "I regret being forced by circumstances to do things that were very profitable" takes some kind of . . . something. Yeah, circumstances, they'll do that to you.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Protecting the Brain from Conspiracies Against My Cosmos

In a change of pace from my concert-goings so far (that is, Barenboimfest 2K8), I went to a chamber music concert last night, of music for string quintet with flute and erhu. The concert was billed as "East meets West" (in English, not German); not really the kind of concert that I would normally spring for, actually, but since it was the Philharmonisches Streichquintett (formed by members of the Berliner Philharmoniker, led by the principal second violin) and a concert made up of almost entirely 21st century music, I went ahead and attended. Just hearing the string players over here play at all is ground enough to go to a concert - I've mentioned before and already how good the string sound is over here. Also, what with our family being so international these days (except for Nate), figured it was appropriate to go. And since Mikey never tells us anything about China, I had to go out and learn it for myself.

I have only limited experience with the Erhu. Back when I lived in Boston, I used to travel pretty frequently to New York, always taking the Chinatown bus (or I guess occasionally the similarly priced Greyhound (it's a Obama v. Clinton kind of decision between the two)), which, of course, drops one off in Chinatown. One time, when I was in Chinatown, catching a Subway, there was an old (presumably Chinese) man playing a tin-can erhu in the station. For whatever reason, there was a rather long wait for the train so I got to hear him for a little while. He played only "Happy Birthday" over and over again (I suppose he was unaware that the song is copyrighted and he could have potentially been charged for its use (they can get the Cutco knife guy to snip his pennies in two, pocket half)). At some point, a woman gave him a dollar and said "play something traditional." He took the money, but responded in no other way, and continued to play "Happy Birthday" over and over again. Pretty great.

This concert was actually way better than I was expecting. The erhu player seemed, from his bio, to pretty well world renowned, and seemed pretty virtuouso to me. And actually, there is quite a bit of similarity between the tone of the erhu and the tone of the violin - way more in common than I would have guessed. The core of the tone is incredibly similar, but the erhu has way more going on in the higher overtones - sort of like a violin-in-a-tin-can combined with the sound of just a violin. Several of the new pieces (written within the last couple of years) were quite good, I thought (though I may have just been in a good mood (actually, I've noticed this time around in Miami that I have this particular kind of enjoyment that enjoys the fact that its enjoying itself (dare I say, meta-enjoyment) - I'm generally bemused by the experience of it, and trying not to analyse (and I certainly don't analyse on the blog) why exactly I am having to constantly remind myself that I am enjoying myself)).

Part of it is that the introduction of a strange set of overtones into the string quintet also helps in making the Western instruments themselves sound strange. I get kind of punk rock about Western overtones now and then - bemoaning the way Christendom stripped anything "Eastern" (i.e. interesting) out of our tones, making Western music boringer than most others. I am not always punk rock about it, must of the time I know better, and believe in the usual more accurate explanations of phenomenons of overtones that you are now thinking of.

The concert was also an excellent tonicto the last one that I attended - the Barenboim/Staatskapelle Bruckner 8 (which it seems I have decided not to blog in detail about (it was great - a spectacle, phenomenal to see and hear, but also boring as fuck - any faults with the concert, in the end, were Bruckner's fault), despite having some more funny descriptions of Barenboim's conducting moves (the Frankenstein (he did a lot of Frankensteining, which may have contributed to the overall lack of momentum - or, rather, the inability of momentum to overcome the fact that it existed within Bruckner's 8th), the Matador, the Speed-Skater)) - which was all thick and long and uniform and painfully Western. This concert was made up of many short pieces for various smaller groups even, within the string quintet. While some of the pieces were more interesting than others (a couple actually sounded to me what music I would write might sound like, had I studied composition rather than horn (imagine for yourself what that might be)), there was only one piece that I thought was wholly unsuccesful -

happened to be by Philip Glass (part of the West, no doubt). Just boring, typical easy-listening current-period Glass. It apparently had something to do with Tai Chi or Qigong or some such thing, contraposed against Philip Glass "woah, a city!" shit. If there was Tai Chi involved, I imagine it as the kind practiced mainly by shoeless, balding middle-aged men in public parks who hope that doing this Tai Chi in the shade of a Sycamore will finally help them kick that nasty coke habit they picked up in the mid-80s. (I've always (not-so-)secretly hoped that P.G. was a major cokehead and that the reason he stopped making interesting music was to make sure he could sell enough of his music to maintain a $1,000/day habit.)

After the concert I met some friends at a bar, and helped my Canadian friend hit on a girl from Denmark with only DaF (German as a foreign language), having to stay in a crowded, noisy, smoky basement way longer than I would have liked. When I finally got home there was a note warning me that it was dangerous to use the hot water right now where I live - I guess the heater was/is Neo Tokyoing so there was no way to wash the terrible cellar-smoke smell out of my hair or sweatshirt. Goodness knows when I'll have hot water again (my Gastgeber (host woman) recommended I heat up some water in a kettle this morning to wash my hair - she seems to have noticed that hair like mine needs washing (she's a part-time hair stylist so attentive to such things (I'm tempted to have her give me a weird East Berliner haircut before I leave town again)) - or maybe she smelled the smoke. Keine Ahnung. Such is life in Berlin.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

He Just Stares at the World

**I didn't seek internet access over the weekend, so while this is the second post that I'm just posting now, both this and the post that precedes it were written over the weekend.**

Exiting the Staatsoper and heading north on Unter den Linden towards Alexanderplatz, I removed my glasses, which I had been wearing for the last several hours during Mozart’s Don Giovanni (directed, once again, by you-know-who, Daniel Barenboim), and the city gained a Hollywood movie type glow – the kind that tells you “You are in a city!” by demonstrating that things are going to fast for there be time to focus the lens or capture the light correctly. I find opera to be really quite interesting before even considering individual performances, so I do tend to find myself thinking that opera should be more vital to more people, and I felt this way again tonight, walking home through this Hollywood movie to my room in Prenzlauer Berg (it’s not much of a mountain though – would barely qualify as a hill in Pittsburgh (and, incidentally (yes, exactly the kind of “incidentally” that calls for yet another set of imbedded parentheses), several people that I have met here in Berlin this time around – a Canadian and a Brit – have heard of Pittsburgh for its city stairs, which seems a bit strange to me (I expect them to have heard of Pittsburgh for its collapsed industry, if anything (“Pittsburgh: Gateway to the Rust Belt”)).)).

And this thought – that opera should be more vital to more people – is actually directly tied to film, or Hollywood movies, at any rate. Since, you know, like, movies totally took over from opera on the whole Gesamtskunstwerk tip (though, of course, others (e.g. P. L.-L.) out there like to point out that the Nazi-time in Germany was the end-all of Gesamtkunstwerke, and (movies) are super popular et cetera et cetera. But Don Giovanni, all theory and reasons why I like opera and find it interesting aside (though I would like to mention that my bordering-on-passion for opera (people that were in either of the workshops I was in this past year in school (none of them read this blog (I don’t think)) will attest to that (the bordering-on-passion)) is directly correlated to my spending time in Berlin), is better than most movies, and I really think it could be perceivable as so by a wider audience.

Don Giovanni jumps right into its action, is quickly paced, and features a generally charismatic and bad-ass main character, plus has an awesome ending. And the music, being Mozart, is easy to follow without being cloying or trite. This particular staging (designed by Peter Mussbach) also seemed to me to exist in direct relation to the fact that movies (and television) exist. My seat was a hoerplatz – partial view – but I could see enough of the stage to get a sense of its look. There was only one set, which consisted of large black rectangular blocks that slowly moved around in various ways. There were only a handful of accessories in use, and the characters were generally well aware of these giant scene-forming rectangles, often considering them as they sang, often with looks of consternation and confusion – Donna Elvira at one point actually went so far as to don (ha!) a pair of glasses to scrutinize the surface of one of the walls. To me, the scene-less scenery bespoke of the problem of the unreal-real of cinema verite or its total-bastard cousin Reality TV – the opera is better off abstracting things to the point of total obliteration and letting its characters interact with that nothingness than try to compete with the reality of other cultural outputters.

The fact that this staging of Don Giovanni was so successful calls into question the lack of quality of the unreal-reality of sound film (so to speak) and television. Mozart and Da Ponte are so successful in creating the world of this opera, that a wedding party and a graveyard can both be represented by the same two massive black rectangles. Though the costumes were a bit problematic to me – they seemed a bit too dependent on Hollywood imagery (a sort of Film Noir after the hyper-slickness of The Matrix). Though at the same time, the fact that the costume design was so clearly Hollywood inspired helps to ground my argument about the set design in the first place – the problem is mainly that with such minimal sets, the costumes and accessories carry more weight than they might, so they can’t be seen as just placeholders or clues or whatever.

The fact that Mozart is actually so entertaining is also helpful – there’s no real need to even speak of Gesamtkunstewerke with Mozart, and we can remind ourselves that Opera needn’t be mangled by the Wagnerian project. I think it’s going to be interesting to watch how the Marvel Comics movies continue to unfold, since it seems to me that they are embarking on a serious aesthetic project. I saw Iron Man right before I left the country, and though it was quite good and entertaining as a super hero movie, it was really conservative, and seemed designed for conservative audiences. With Marvel regaining control of the comic stories it had previously sold off and making everything through their own studio, they are exerting a level of control over an incredibly popular universe of stories that seems to me to be a Hollywood equivalent of Bayreuth (I am, admittedly, leaving this thought way too underdeveloped (it may not be worth pursuing (it would probably sound better over a couple of pints))). The main concern being that if they continue to make such wholeheartedly conservative films as Iron Man, then a wider and wider audience will come under that influence. When Iron Man 2 (or The Avengers, or whatever) comes out, we gotta get all the kids out there to go to the opera instead.

Why Did You Do This?

Something about encountering genuine punk culture is confrontational to me. Not in the traditional sense that one would tend to think of punk as being confrontational, that is, not in the “Fuck you, Parents, I’m going to tear holes in my pants and get a tattoo!” sense, but in the more progressive punk culture that seems to have found a way to successfully live in opposition to the oppressive/repressive authoritarian mainstream. For instance, these squats in Berlin that actually exist and actually are squats with permanent status. People actually did countercultural things that worked and weren’t just fashion statements or mere aesthetic exercises. Since I tend to be of an intellectualefitist ilk that is simultaneously outraged and ambivalent I always discount any given political (or even quasi-political) movement and move on to some other “hopeful” method of opting out, and always keep moving on ("Call that going. Call that on."), until eventually I just opt in after all (e.g. go to Graduate school), and at least try to not feel too bad about through a program of self-awareness and ironicization and/or pragmatism.

The above, though, is an incomplete picture. I think about this sort of thing a lot, and a large part of the problem – if my not being punk is a problem – is simply that my artistic tastes are exceedingly highbrow (I again remind readers that I am the one of mild interester that doesn’t particularly care for John Adams (in order to example that my tastes are counter-populist)). So there I was, the next day after visiting Subversiv Squat, back in the Philharmonie for another Staatskapelle concert. Once again it was Barenboim conducting, but also this time playing piano on Mozart’s 25th Concerto for the first half of the concert, followed by Bruckner’s 8th Symphony. I guess Barenboim was on something of a Bruckner kick – I’d have to look back through his concert season to see if he conducted other pieces as well.

I’ll again split off any music-specific thoughts into a separate post (with a continuing interest in what exactly is “mild enough to print”), but I would mention that I prefer Barenboim the pianist to Barenboim the conductor. Actually I very thoroughly enjoyed the performance of the Mozart Concerto; it was played very appropriately, I thought, and just sounded great – exactly what I think modern performances of Mozart Concertos should sound like. The image we are given these days of what Mozart the man himself was like involves a great deal of him constantly having music running through his head – one would hope that his brain invented emotionally appropriate music for various contexts, but for spans of time where I just feel generally pleasant, this music would do finely.

It’s Pfingstenwochenende here in Germany – Pentecost, I guess, is a big deal, or a big enough deal, at any rate, for a long weekend (give the Holy Ghost plenty of time to go shooting through all of us with its holy fire, right? (the kind of time that we should give Santa Claus on Christmas – three full days)). Berlin, as you may know, is industry-less, and is essentially a destination for governmental business and tourism, and little else. The town is crawling with Pfingstenreisers, since, apparently (this is according to my teacher) Pentecost is also a very popular travel-weekend. It may have to do with the weather – it’s absolutely gourgeous here, and I guess early May is when the weather gets nice for the first time after Winter up/over here.

Since it’s my second summer in Berlin, I feel that much less like a tourist, and accordingly despise the tourists (especially because the Staatsoper’s performance of Tristan and Isolde on Pentecost Monday was sold out before I even got here, thanks to all the damn tourists, who will not unenjoy themselves therein nearly as deeply as I would have unenjoyed myself). There was a very different crowd as well in the Philharmonie – much more casually dressed, and hopefully unprepared for the abject breadth of Bruckner’s 8th.

The old (German) man who I sat next to seemed to be the real thing – or the real something, anyway. Any time the timpanist played during the entire performance of Bruckner’s 8th (not necessarily all that often), he would lean forward in his chair (blocking my view (I had a seat just to the stage right of the stage, in the second row (affording an excellent view of the hall, but not a great view, necessarily, of the orchestra, despite being close to it))), and watch only the timpanist, in an obvious state of excitement. During the applause, when Barenboim pointed to the timpanist to stand (just about everyone that wasn’t a section string player got at least one chance to stand for their own applause) the old man shouted “Jawohl, jawohl!” several times. The guy was pretty old – like, maybe in his late 70s into his 80s. I could think of three possible explanations of his behavior (it being Bruckner’s 8th, I had plenty of time to consider the options (I dislike old people, so despite my curiosity did not ask him after the concert about his behavior)):

1) His grandson was the timpanist. This would make sense – he’s there to see his grandson, purchased a seat with an excellent view of the timpanist, and was of course very excited to see his progeny’s progeny flail at the calf skins.

2) He used to be a timpanist when he was younger. Before he totally loses his grip on reality, his caretakers brought him to one last concert to see and remember what he used to be. It was as though he was watching himself earlier in his own life playing there on the stage, and this was the cause for his excitement.

3) He was full-blown senile. Seriously. I’ve never seen an old person act so ridiculously about something as ridiculous as the timpani.

I eventually decided to go with Number 3 there as my conclusion, but that may just have been because I was bored into a state of greater-than-usual mean-spiritedness by the 3rd movement. If anything, it helps to remind me that I can be just as uncomfortable in the environs of the high culture as I can be in the counter-. Although, now I feel like I’m claiming to always be uncomfortable, and that’s not right either – perhaps it will just take more posts (more concerts) to figure this all out.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Take Me With You

In a slight (or rather, actually, drastic) change of pace (genre), last night I went to a squat in Berlin to see a punk show. Specifically, punk of a sub-genre - DIY hardcore - that was of interest to me during the second half of my undergraduate carreer and from which I still listen to a couple of albums. A band from the States (Philly-New Jersey-New Yorkish) that I had last seen back in Pittsburgh in 2004, Off Minor, was the headlining band, so I figured it would be excellent to go see them (Off Minor produced what I rank as one of the best albums to come out of their whole sub-genre, "The Heat Death of the Universe" - one of the few that I still listen to even though I'm pretty well on the other side of what might have been called (were it not so incomplete) my punk phase (Ten Grand's "This is the Way to Rule" being the other best album).) The squat itself was acutally a very impressive space - apparently, as of the last couple of years, an agreement has been reached between the government and the many squats that have been around for a long time, wherein they can register as shared houses and social communities that do social service and still not have to pay rent or leave the premises.

There apparently used to be squats all over the place in Berlin after the reunification, since there were many abandonded buildings in the former East. Many of them have gone away, to become condos or simply to be removed from now-gentrified neighborhoods. I couldn't tell how much of the surrounding buildings at Subersiv were not-squat, but it seemd like several other of the buildings that shared the Hof - the interior courtyard - were of a condition that seemed more yuppie-ish than DIY punk-ish. As for the scenesters - they actually looked pretty much the same as American scenesters, and in fact the turnout was about the same in size as I recall from similar shows in Pittsburgh (which was surprising, in that Berlin is a much bigger city (but at the same time, it's not a particularly popular strain of music (in that it's very aggresive, but socially earnest and generally not-so-mosh-ish (that is, no violent dancing)))).

The music itself is probably below the interest-level of the blog (though it seems to be in hot debate these days - just how interested/interesting and mild we really are), but also of note was that the concert costed 6 euros, which is more than I paid for a ticket to see the Staatsoper play Don Giovanni this weekend (news on that concert (and possibly a couple others as well this weekend) once it (they) has (have) actually happened). I don't mind paying the money, in that its a band on a world tour and I'm all for supporting that sort of thing - but it really brings out the fact of how cheap it really is to see classical music over here.

**Also, please note that the spellcheck function on doesn't work from over here, so please forgive me if there are an inordinant number of errors (I try to catch what I can, but you know how it goes).**

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Best Of, or Something Like It

The happiest I've been this week was today at lunch hour. I took a slightly long lunch break to wander to the grocery market across the street from my apartment, and then home, to assemble exactly the sandwich I'd suddenly started craving at 11:45 (smoked turkey, apple, brie, romaine, and a little bit of mayo on decent honey-wheat bread) to eat with fresh strawberries and the good kind of potato chips, with a box fan going in the window in the living room, while watching on DVD the episode of The Office where Dwight tries to wrest control of the branch from Michael. I'm serious, this felt about as good as it gets. So I think I'm officially back to Regular Old Connecticut Life again.

Walking back to the office, in a refreshing slight rain not heavy enough to actually get me noticeably wet, I thought, How am I ever going to have any ambitions, if making a sandwich makes me this happy? I'm just going to end up happy without accomplishing anything. And then I thought, I guess the point is you're supposed to parlay your happiness into the energy to have greater ambitions. And then I also thought, Part of the reason making a sandwich made me this happy today is because I'm satisfied from a recent interesting trip abroad, and that took at least a little bit of ambition to put together. So maybe deriving satisfaction out of modest activity is kind of an ambition dividend, of some sort. And then I got back to the office, so I didn't think anything else again for a while.

(This constitutes the approximately bi-monthly "Bemused Page Out of Everyday Life" post I do. I figure someday I'll want to know what I was thinking in everyday life. Oh, and also, I had a really satisfying haircut yesterday.)

* * * * *

Every year, the New Haven Advocate (the city's alt-weekly) runs its Best of New Haven issue, and it kind of cracks me up. Because there's some useful stuff in there, but a lot of it is Best by default.

For example, I wholeheartedly believe in Criterion Cinemas (not pictured, right) as the Best Movie Theater in town, since there are no actual other movie theaters in town. (A friend-of-a-friend once described New Haven as "like a normal city but there's only one of everything," which is not far off from the truth.) Then you have the stuff like naming Red Bull the Best Energy Drink (though, in a coup, Sam Adams took over Best Domestic Beer from Budweiser this year) or the Yale Art Gallery as the Best Art Gallery. Thanks for the tip! Feels good to be "in the know" now.

Somewhat more helpfully, Best Bowling Alley points out AMF Lanes in Milford as #1, beating out the AMF Lanes in East Haven and the AMF Lanes in Hamden. Don't even bring up Best Bagels, though.

Toad's Place, about the only place to hear a concert, took Best Place to Hear a Concert, reminding me of the testimonial delivered to the audience by Pat Metheny when he played the Shubert Theater (Best Theater!) a couple months ago: "For a certain generation of musicians, New Haven was really synonymous with Toad's Place. Maybe you guys can tell me, does that place still exist?"

They didn't poll their readers for Best Regional Transit Route but I'm thinking the Metro North to Grand Central would be a pretty good bet.

* * * * *

At least that all's not quite as bad as the weekend review of various chain restaurants (Applebee's, Chili's, etc.) that ran in the regional section of last Sunday's New York Times. Some snobbishness-related complaints have been registered on The Internet, but what I hold against it is that the reviews basically seem to say "Yeah, it's pretty much OK" in all cases, which would seem to be something that everyone probably already knew before picking up the paper.

* * * * *

If you can name the episode of The Simpsons that the New Haven Uptown Uniplex appears in, you are a huge dork.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Take It to the Bridge!

Mahler fanatics are often prone to making vast overstatements about the power, meaning, and scope of many of his works (you know, stuff like claiming that Mahler predicted his own child’s death, or the entirety of the Second World War, etc.), and if I may allow myself a similar indulgence (I do not mean, incidentally, to take a stance that is explicitly counter-Mahler; I certainly find much of his music to be enjoyable, and I agree with Jack as to level of profundity reached by his Ninth Symphony (I do not think, though, that Mahler fanatics would be equally gracious towards Bruckner (the eventual topic of half of this post) – in fact, in one of his (many, many) poems, Frank O’Hara wrote the line “Mahler is great, Bruckner is terrible.” which I will use as my assumption for what all Mahler “fans” (again, to distinguish “fans” from people that recognize the brilliance and importance of Mahler without getting annoying about it) think)), I would say that Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony predicates (and predicts) the aesthetic of total war.

Barenboim, based on his conducting of the piece, I think would agree. His take on the Symphony was certainly operatic (read: Wagnerian), which led to sharp contrasts between the colossal portions of the Symphony and the pastoral. The scherzo, though it’s hard to be interpreted in any other way, becomes an onslaught of music that knows how to fuck shit up. I wish I had been at this concert with a friend or two, because then I could have tried out my Barenboim impersonation, which will now and forever be based on the way he conducted the end of the first movement (which ends, like, kinda loud). In lieu of that, let’s try an exercise in Simon Says, dear readers, to see if you can adequately capture the essence of Pete’s as-of-yet untested and unseen impersonation of Barenboim being ridiculous at the end of the first movement of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony:

Step 1) Heroically swing your arms to the final tempo of the piece, moving back and forth across your podium, as if making sure that every single person in the orchestra (audience) can see what you’re doing 2) When comes time for the last chord, or rather, just before the last chord, take a step back on your podium to make sure you have plenty of room for your last move and then 3) for the final chord, thrust your pelvis out, as though you are trying to show that embarrassing mustard stain on your crotch to the timpanist and then, with your right hand, gripping your baton in a tight fist, slowly pump your arm towards the sky, starting as low as possible, behind your ass, and extending it to about eye level, and then point forward, all the while not losing any of the arch or reach on your pelvic thrust. Finally, 4) Having cut the orchestra off, rock back out of your pelvic thrust and put a hand on the railing of your podium, as though you are James Brown waiting for someone to come from off stage with a cape to comfort you and escort you away.

Which is not to say that it wasn’t an amazing performance: it really was great. I mentioned this last year as well, but the string players here in Berlin generate tones that are just unheard in the States. The strings could absolutely keep up with the brass during the scherzo, making an incredibly deep sound that was all the more vicious for it’s depth. Barenboim also successfully kept his orchestra reigned in – there were definitely parts where he had his hand out to keep them down, and the players followed him (which made me flash back to many concerts of the Pittsburgh Symphony during Mariss Janson’s tenure, where he would also be giving the hand to the asshole principal trumpet player and never regarded (you could almost hear him thinking, in that Russian-cum-vampire accent “Please, George, you are ruining the show.”). And the musicians were really able to show off their virtuosity through the highly contrasted tempos – maintaining an amazing clarity through the various very swift sections.

I would say, though, that the third movement seemed much more tenuous. To me, it moves forward in such a glacial manner that the operatic gestures really started to feel out of place, and the performance definitely got a bit lost (at one point, Barenboim actually had to conduct the actual meter of the piece, with both hands). It’s really interesting music, so I think it was too bad that it got muddled. The musicians themselves too, I think were affected by the lack of momentum (however slow-going) in the third movement, and occasionally sounded tired. This is, though, of course, relative to a bar that is set incredibly high. Most of the rest of the audience didn’t seem to notice, though, and Barenboim got as thorough and long of an applause as anyone I’ve seen in Berlin except for Abbado last summer.

The first half of the concert was Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, which I had never heard before and knew (and still know) nothing about, so I feel even less qualified to speak towards it. An interesting piece though – my tolerance for Schoenberg being pretty high these days. The piece seemed very contrapuntal to me – with an expanded notion of what structures, exactly, can be counterpointed. Lot’s of very interesting sections that demonstrated the various ways that the soloist and ensemble can overlap. Before the concert, I was reading a placard about von Karajan, where he was talking (I think – my German isn’t that great so I didn’t understand every word) 40 years ago about the importance of recording, using the example of Schoenberg as a composer whose scores are idealistic, and can really only be realized in the studio with engineered sound (in fact, I think based on the example he gave, I think we was even speaking specifically of the Violin Concerto).

This reminds me of something that Pierre Boulez said at the concert of his music that Jack and I saw back in January about how much performance ability has advanced in the last half century. I think the performance of the Staatskapelle of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto reconfirms that notion: I think the performance was incredibly nuanced, with many shades of dynamic being present to a level that I think must have been as good if not better than what Karajan was trying to accomplish with microphones and adjusted levels back in the 60s. I’ve never been a stickler for music having meanings (if it’s not clear I was being tongue-in-cheek there up top about Bruckner’s 9th and total death), and I certainly wouldn’t hazard any guesses as to what, if anything, Schoenberg’s concerto was supposed to or does mean, but it was pretty cool to listen to (boy is that a lame note to end on (maybe if I write enough of these I’ll get better at it).