Monday, June 30, 2008

Love And Loneliness With Robots

As a brief, blessed escape from the merciless, D.C.-worthy heat that descended on the Portland area this weekend like a hot sticky shroud, Kyle and I sat in an air-conditioned theater for a couple of hours on Saturday evening to watch Wall-E, Pixar's latest. And I would highly, highly recommend you go see this movie.

I was expecting it to be a good -- just about every review I saw was positive, not counting that one Yahoo! user on the movie-showtime page I looked up who seemed to be lamenting the film's lack of Happy Meal tie-ins. But I found it to be just a beautiful, affecting film, more so than I expected.

Part of that may be that the movie centers around a bunch of quirky, cute, almost voiceless robots (why wouldn't I guess I'd be really into robots?* Jack predicted his reaction to Cars easily enough) but my reaction was mostly shaped by the first 30 minutes or so, which for all its clever slapstick sets a measured pace as it follows the titular robot through a depopulated, sometimes threatening, still somehow lovely urban garbagescape. When the plot wheels started turning I felt like I'd rather see another fifteen to twenty minutes of establishing material.

The movie is comparatively weak whenever its cartoon people start to take up the screen (and by cartoon people I mean both the computer-animated human characters and live-action Fred Willard), as happens more frequently near the end of the movie. But even then the core (robot) relationships are built up with a minimum of dialog -- the whole movie makes for a phenomenal example of how to "show, don't tell", which largely reduces to "don't assume the people watching your film are morons", so it's an especially notable attitude in what's at least nominally a children's movie -- and most of what matters unfolds in the same graceful, lyrical way as the beginning. Ridiculously good cinematography helps in that area too, of course, as does an appropriately new-agey score by Thomas "I'm really pretty glad it isn't Randy again" Newman.

I guess I shouldn't forget to note that the movie is very funny, too, with a lot of silent-movie-type physical comedy and a sustained 2001 homage that ripens into full-blown parody at the right moment. All in all I'd say it's a very solid film that verges on transcendent if you prefer robots to people, animation to real life, and/or movies without words to movies with.

*More specifically what I've mostly always been into is what I'd call a childish idea of robots. Not an adult idea of robots; spending four-plus years at Carnegie Mellon was enough to show me that I don't give a low-enough-level shit about what robots actually do or how they work for that. It's a shame that Pixar's movie about ants was a relative clunker, since I could have gotten way into that too -- though there I may actually care too much about the bizarre real-life details of eusocial insect behavior to put up much at all with the film's solitary, inevitably male protagonist and party of quirky, non-ant companions.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Dept. of Sepia-Toned Tunes

Speaking of hit summertime oldies, Andrew Druckenbrod's article about the history of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" is pretty interesting. Three things I did not know that I find interesting:
1. The song, written in 1908, has been a totem of nostalgia for a good several decades now. Since today's baseball nostalgia usually calls back to the 1930s and 1940s, I find it interesting to consider that there was baseball nostalgia then, too. I thought it was a recent-ish phenomenon, but no, baseball just has always clamored for nostalgia, apparently.

2. The song's '30s resurgence was driven by a promotion-minded guy who'd acquired the copyright and started hawking it around to stadiums.

3. Singing the song during the 7th inning stretch at major-league ballparks only started up in the late 1970s, when White Sox owner Bill Veeck started having Harry Caray sing it through the PA system. I didn't know it was this recent. Evidently this caught on somewhat more widely than Disco Demolition Night.
In more current baseball news, as I type this, the Pirates are down 7–0 in the third against Tampa Bay. In his major league debut, Jimmy Barthmeier is doing a plausible impression of someone who's been in the starting rotation for a while.

* * * * *

So Pete's visiting New Haven this weekend, which should be fun, but I really need to clean my apartment in the next two hours before he gets here (hence the procrastinatory Friday night blogging). I just finished painting my bedroom today (Behr brand Satisficient Off-White #350-E1) so I'm shorthanded on rooms, plus all my stuff is all over the place. Maybe could have planned it better? Dunno. Anyway, happy weekend to everyone else.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Swan Pop/Bubblegum Song

The song "Beach Baby" was ginned up in 1974 by a British studio band called The First Class. It's an overorchestrated, bubblegummy Beach Boys knockoff, but it's cute. I wouldn't mention it here except that it straight-up steals the famous theme of the last movement of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony, which is kind of awesome.

If you doubt this at all, skip to three minutes into Beach Baby and listen how they actually give the theme over to a French horn. The Sibelius theme is about 1:20 into the movement, by the way.

Beach Baby is no Love Supreme, but hey.

Sibelius's Fifth Symphony, I might add, is just as popular and listenable now as it was in 1974.

* * * * *

Guy on cell phone walking down the street outside my window just now:

[sounding angry] "Because I'm fun, that's why. I'm more fun than you!! Every fucking time I [incoherent from here on out]"

Oh, other people's cell phone conversations.

But Your Lie Doesn't Rhyme With the Word Overseas

And for those of you who were playing along at home, here's the playlist, in chronological order, of the songs I cribbed lyrics from for the titles of all my blogposts the past two months:

The Beatles – Back in the USSR
James Brown – Sex Machine
Off Minor – This is a Hostage Situation
John Adams – El Niño
Black Sabbath – Iron Man
Deltron 3030 – 3030
Pavement – Cut Your Hair
Orchid – Snow Delay at the Frankfurt School
R. Strauss – Beim Schlafengehen
Aphex Twin – Come to Daddy (Pappy Mix)
Sonic Youth – In the Kingdom #19
The Aquabats – Anti-Matter
Radiohead – 15 Step
The Who – Boris the Spider
Sufjan Stevens – Seven Swans
Ten Grand – This Isn’t Heaven, This Sucks
Fugazi – Oh
The Muppets – Rainbow Connection
Great Ants – Calling
Neutral Milk Hotel – Engine
Cat Power – Good Clean Fun
City of Caterpillar – A Little Change Could Go a Long Ways
Rage Against the Machine – Vietnow
The Beatles – The Fool on the Hill
Grandaddy – Everything Beautiful is Far Away
Olivia Tremor Control – The Opera House
Philip Glass – Einstein on the Beach
Dr. Octagon – Earth People
They Might Be Giants – Which Describes How You're Feeling

My Nucleus Friend, Prepare, I Return Again

So I’ve made up my mind and decided to go to watch the big Germany-Turkey football game instead of seeing the Staatskapelle play Janacek’s Sinfonietta. Back-tracking a bit, that means my last concert in Berlin was the Schnittke/Shostakovich shindig. Not too shabby a way to go out. So with the close of the Berlin concert season, my blogging should dip down to a less frequent pace (“at a medium pace,” I say to myself, in the same Adam Sandler voice that’s been familiar to him since 7th grade and the second great milestone of swearing-is-funny that was reached with the release of the SNL star’s first comedy album in my formative years (the first milestone being my “first swear ever” in 3rd grade, playing kickball at Franklin Elementary during recess, when I said “pitch the damn ball” and everyone around me laughed and thought it was awesome (the third being Dirty Weekend/The Frank Sanchez Band)) (And speaking of swearing, let me just also parenthetically note the passing of George Carlin, who was of course the Godfather of contemporary comedic swearing (though one of my favorite jokes of his, from one of his later HBO specials, during one of his opening monologue-rap thingies, is swear free, where he's going on about contemporary existence and gets to the statement "I'm an alpha male on beta blockers," which I think is great example of smart funny word play (and there's a short bit a little later on in that same special about corn-holing, which is also funny (and sweary)))). In fact, it will almost certainly be the case that I take a vacation from blogging for a little while, if for no other reason than I’ll have nothing to blog about (though I have enjoyed blogging this summer, and hope that all of you have enjoyed reading my vague and half-assed attempts to (b)log my concert-goings (all, what?... n+7 of you?)).

There’s a great joke in the “Mr. Plow” episode of The Simpsons, where Homer goes to an ad agency to buy a commercial to revitalize his business, and the ad agent tells Homer that Homer is in good hands, since he (the ad agent) invented that annoying radio commercial where one guy is in the know and the other isn’t, and then Homer punches the ad agent, and the ad agent says that Homer’d be surprised to know how often that happens (I think I’m remembering this correctly (gee, I really don’t type out Simpsons references too often)). This evening – and this is, I guess, my closing anecdote for Berlin2K8 – I was hanging out with a bunch of Canadian and US ex-pats at a couple of bars that were obviously ex-pat bars (I think I’ve actually had about as many interactions with the ex-pat community (or some segment of it) in the past week as I’ve had in the entire 3 other months that I’ve lived in Berlin. Not sure what’s up with that exactly (except for my apparently kind of annoying desire to speak in German even though I can’t actually speak all that much German – that definitely keeps me from hanging out with too many English speakers (oh, and also my lack of money – I can’t really afford to drink in bars very often (it being about 3 times as expensive as drinking out of corner stores, and 4 times as expensive as drinking bottles of beer from the grocery store))).). Two of the people I was with, whom I had just met this night, a man and a woman, worked for an advertising company. (I try to keep my generally better-left-undiscussed political opinions off the blog, but a couple sneak in during the following anecdote. I apologize.)

At first, thanks to hole that I live in pretty much year-round, I didn’t really see what the big deal was, except that it was weird that the woman whispered the name of her company. I did soon enough find out that she (and the dude, who I didn’t really interact with much at all) worked for one of those companies that advertises and then sells ringtones for cellphones. Apparently one of the biggest purchasers of advertising space on MTV these days (don’t have a TV, haven’t watched MTV much ever, and pretty much not at all since probably 1999 or so). My initial reaction was not to punch her, but to make the Simpsons reference to Homer punching the ad guy – since those cell phone ringtone ads are pretty much the most annoying advertisements currently in existence, I think (I don’t really know, haven’t seen much of them). I didn’t really have a chance, because pretty quickly the woman, who I think was drunk, started to rant to me and a friend of mine about her business smarts, and launched into a whole-hearted if non-sensical defense of the company she works for. Not that I could have launched any kind of offense against it – except that, yeah, you know, I probably would attack it if I had any real sense of the wrongs enacted by them—though I certainly do have a better sense now of the evil of her company after her attempted defense thereof. (The woman, a self-proclaimed proud American, was clearly used to preemptively striking in terms of discussing her vile employers.)

I pretty quickly said something to the extent of “Wow, well, I understand where you’re coming from, since I believe exactly the opposite of you.” – she had said something to the extent of “If you can’t make money doing something, then it isn’t worth doing.” and backed out of the conversation, hung around just to observe (though the bluntness of my statement was noted by both the woman and the surrounding people (what’re you gonna do?)). My Canadian friend, however, decided to jump in and “have a conversation.” I’ll spare the details of the conversation itself (ask me in person, I’ll give you the longer (though probably more righteously indignant) version), but it was a very cool window into the world (though probably, again, a version of this world under the influence) of someone who does bad capitalist things for a living and tries to feel good about doing them. The main moral was something like, in a paraphrase of the woman’s own words “[This woman] has worked jobs since she was 14 years old, so it’s completely legitimate work to design advertisements that induce current 14 year olds to sign up for an initially free ringtone service which automatically ‘sells them up’ to a for pay service (essentially the old ‘bait and switch’ [her words, as if it was something she learned back when she was earning her Associate’s Degree in business]), even if they have to forge their parent/guardian consent in the process, and [her company] should not be liable for any damages to bank accounts there-wrought, because it is their (the 14 year olds) money, and individuals have the right to spend their money however they want.”

That’s just a highlight. Really pretty amazing. Unbridled incoherent senseless capitalist (I actually feel like 'capitalist' is the wrong word here, but am not sure what the 'right' (nyuk nyuk) one is) apologia at its finest. The woman at various points mentioned that since we (my friend and I) hadn’t studied business, we didn’t really have a right to an opinion in the first place. Also, we were mooches who just lived off of our friends (I had claimed, for the sake of simplicity, to be an “artist,” which apparently means “someone who tricks people who want to feel ‘cultured’ into giving him or her money”). And eventually she even accused my friend of being homeless. I tried to get a hook-up for some free kick-ass ringtones, but by then the bridge-that-never-was had already burnt. Fitting that the first genuinely unpleasant person that I meet in Berlin is actually an American.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I Was in a Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket

I’m not sure what the difference between the two activities are, but for whatever reason, walking myself to the Volkspark am Weinberg in Southwest Prenzlauer Berg-Berlin to read in the evening—the park faces West and gradually slopes down towards the South, making it more or less perfect for evening-to-late-evening sitting—is nothing like my biking myself to the beach in the late morning in Miami to do more or less the same thing plus swimming. Especially since what I read is still the sort of thing which makes me unnecessarily aware of the public nature of my context when reading such things (currently reading: auf Deutsch, Hesses Siddhartha; in English, Lacoue-Labarthe’s Typography – the last time I was at the beach I was reading one of Heidegger’s essays about science (is there ever a way to admit this sort of thing without coming off as self-congratulatory?)). I think I’ve mentioned this before – since Berlin doesn’t have any beaches, people here tend to treat their public patches of grass like a beach, which is nice (depending on the demographic and the related folkways for acceptible states of disrobement).

With only four full days left in Berlin, I found myself deciding between acting like normal or trying to seek out other destinations that I still haven’t seen here—there are plenty (a friend of mine was just in Berlin visiting for only 3 days, and though we didn’t actually manage to meet up (it turns out that my no-cellphone-abroad policy can interfere with social activities with out-of-towners as well as in-towners), I was immediately struck by the fact that there’s no way she and her boyfriend could have really seen that much of Berlin in 3 days, if my own map of the place feels as incomplete as it does after having lived here for 4 months (two two-month visits)). As is already evident, I opted for normal.

While I was sitting in the park, I noticed two young women, one of whom was trying to open bottles of beer for both of them (it being, of course, more-than-common to drink beer in the park at sunset) by levering the cap of one bottle of the cap of another. This is something I’ve discussed before with other friends – we know that it can be done, but have never succeeded ourselves. My initial reaction, when first hearing about such a “trick” was to exclaim that such an action would defy the laws of Physics, but was quickly corrected that actually such a trick very much confirms the laws of Physics—or Newtonian Mechanics, at any rate (equal and opposite reactions and all that). Then my brain, being what it is, figured that if one could actually open one bottle of beer with another, then the energies would just cancel each other out, thereby sparking a singularity and opening a black hole. Have I mentioned that I am not a scientist? I am not. However, that still seems awesome to me. Our mother, once upon a time, and mostly (entirely) facetiously, anecdoted her concern for Mikey while he was in China, since they’re trying to make an artificial sun over there, and that’s really dangerous. I, personally, think that I could be in at least as much danger here from double-bottlecap-leveragings in Germany sparking blackholes and rifts in the time-space. Or maybe that’s just my middle-child syndrome talking (“Look Mom! I’m in danger too!”).

At any rate, not only did this woman fail to fuck up time-space, she also couldn’t get the bottles open, but as soon as she looked around to bum a bottle opener from someone, quickly noticed that I had been observing her the whole time. Which luckily didn’t trigger any kind of “Hey! You’re creepy!” reaction, rather a more appropriate, “Hey! Do you have a bottle opener?” reaction (I wasn’t being creepy – maybe nerdy, but definitely not creepy (by the time I was thinking about black holes I probably wasn’t “looking” at anything).) I did have a bottle opener. I’m quite proud,actually, of my bottle-opener keychain (which I transferred from my actual keys to my German keys about 30 seconds after I shattered my Gastgeberin’s plastic keychain trying to open a bottle of beer with t). Flung it to them. Bottles were opened. The Universe remained intact.

Maybe it’s simply the lack of opportunity for such interactions to occur on the beach in Miami that makes it different—the fact that I have never, ever, interacted with a stranger at a beach (except maybe one time when I was little at Cape Cod and digging a hole in the sand and some random old woman said “Fill in that hole. People run here, you know.” to me). And I don’t take my keys to the beach in Miami – or, I take keys, but the smaller, lighter, bottle-openerless, totable set. Or maybe, in Zeno-esque fashion, simply having written (blogged) about my “beach problem” twice (or thrice) now, will have cured me of it (though, then, perhaps next time that I get myself to the beach, alone, in Miami, I will think to myself, inevitably, about how I can’t help but think about writing about the possibility that I might think about having gotten myself to the beach.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mock Alarm

I didn't know we had mockingbirds up here, but I definitely heard one singing like a car alarm while I was on a bike ride the other day. (I caught its wing pattern when it flew out of its tree, too: definitely a mockingbird.) It did a pretty decent cover, too; I don't think it got all the repetitions down exactly, but it was a more tuneful interpretation and more interesting to listen to. Hopefully the other birds don't just tune out car alarms like people do.

I guess that's what you sing when you're a mockingbird on State Street. It's probably a lot harder to sing like a motorcycle.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

News from Mars

This is kind of cute: a woman who works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been putting updates about the Phoenix Mars Lander up on Twitter, and switched over to writing in the first person at some point, thus creating a perky online persona for the Lander. Thursday's update:
Are you ready to celebrate? Well, get ready: We have ICE!!!!! Yes, ICE, *WATER ICE* on Mars! w00t!!! Best day ever!!
That's one small step for man, one giant leap for woman pretending to be a space probe and talking like a teenager.

I had to look up what w00t meant; therefore I am old.

It's slightly disconcerting to hear the Lander's long-term outlook in the first person ("life expectancy=90 sols (92 Earth days) or until I freeze in Martian fall/winter"), but I guess it's better than what the last one would have had to say.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Which Is How We Feel Most of the Time Now

I celebrated the Solstice by heading to the Turkish section of Berlin to watch Turkey's national football team eek out a very surprising win against Croatia. It wasn't the best game ever (I'm still not particularly good at watching soccer, though), but it was fun to watch it in the context of national fans. I'm glad they won - it made the wandering around in the celebratory atmosphere that much more exciting. Next week, however, I think I will pass on heading to the same neighborhood to watch the German team play the Turkish team. Whoever wins, there seems to be a very high probability for some level of mayhem.

I'm already entering the home stretch of my stay here in Berlin - less than a week to go. Time flies. I'm experiencing mostly a sense of preemptive homesickness for the Berlin-once-I've-left, tinged with a healthy dosage of "I can't believe I live in Miami, and have to go back there." Concerts are just about over. Maybe one more, next week - the Staatskapelle is playing Janacek's Sinfonietta and something else, which is probably worth hearing, and it's the night of the aforementioned Germany-Turkey Euromeisterschaft Semi-Final game, so I reckon there'll be plenty of tickets available. A pretty good run of concerts, though, this summer, especially since my concert-going is painfully sparse during the "school" year.

One last thought, in terms of the Philharmoniker (their performance of the 1st act of Siegfried with Rattle was phenomenal - the music ain't great, but they played the shit out of it, again demonstrating their inhuman precision - all those strings whirling around, completely together (and the horns too, of course, continuing to never miss notes (when I was in London, at this horn-players party, I had a hiarious short conversation with a young horn player there about the audition one of the Berliner Phil's current principal hornist, Radek Baborak - and I'm not sure that this will translate to the normal-humans world, but it was really really funny so here it goes: the young gentleman with whom I was speaking was relating this to me in a very excited, accented (somewhere between South African and British) language: "So there he was, on the stage. First they asked for Heldenleben. He played it down. Perfect. Then they asked for Alpensinfonie. Same thing. Played it perfectly. Sinfonia Domestica. Same thing. 25 excerpts later, he still hadn't missed a note. Insane. And they stopped the audition right there, gave him the job. Sent everyone else home. Incredible." I will be lauging about this for a long time, I think. Sometimes it's okay to be an ex-.)):

hearing the LSO last weekend, which is, as already mentioned, also a world-class orchestra, I was able to (re)contextualize the role that precision plays in people's perceptions of a given orchestra. It definitely is the case that the Berliner Phil played together much more tightly than the LSO did (and I realize I'm comparing not many concerts here) - it was very noticable, having been hearing just Berliner orchestras for the last two months, the difference that exists in sound between the two groups. And I reckon it'd be possible for someone used to the sound of a band like the LSO to be put off by the BP, especially given the ease with which Germans, in general, are caricaturable, but I remain adamantly convinced that the precision of the BPhil is one of warmth and expressivity, and in no way overly-perfect.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Solstice Party!

A run-down, mud-caked gaggle of small lawn ornaments: creepy? Or merely sad? Don't ask me, ask the people next door. At least these guys have collected in the back yard, where nobody will actually see them.

Enjoy the longest weekend days of the year! On tap for me: lawn-lounging for a carillon concert; screening at a friend's place of Monty Python and the Holy Grail; coworker's Sunday brunch; hopefully some painting and some quality time on the new bicycle (aka manifestation of the ol' economic stimulus check). Hope yours is filled with the same degree of Connecticuttish goodness, or some equivalently pleasant quality.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

He Knew He Was As Good As Gone

Speaking of Schnittke, I went to a performance a couple of nights ago of his Piano Quintet (along with some of pieces as well - Mahler's Piano Quartet in a minor (the one movement), Schnittke's "Mahler Scherzo," and Shostakovich's 3rd String Quartet) by the Spectrum Concerts Berlin (an association of players-of-chamber-music at the Chamber Music Hall of the Philharmonie (featuring, this concert, the strangely-familiar-to-me-looking Janine Jansen (someone help - who does she look like?)). The Piano Quintet is the obvious highlight, although it's hard to be too excited about a piece that is so unrelentingly despairing.

The Mahler + Schnittke's Mahler-extension worked really well as a preperation for the Quintet - though Mahler's own movement is something of a throwaway (interesting, perhaps, because it's first theme wound up in one of his symphonies, didn't it (the 5th, maybe?)?), but Schnittke's Scherzo is certainly a cousin of his Quintet, in the way that it worms its way around and through the tonal world that is initially established. I'm no Scnittke scholar, but I do think that he, at least in these two pieces, found a very effective utilization of what is essentially a post-Romantic vocabulary - as much as one finds oneself hearing searing clusters of notes, the tension and incise of those highly abstract-and-dissonant gestures are only hightened by the eventual return to the common-practice idiom. (Though, I would mention, that it's writing sentences like that that makes me generally wary of ever actually writing much about "music" on the ol' blog here.)

With that, then, I am aware that there is some opportunity to interpret the last movement (though the piece is played without pauses) of the Piano Quintet as being hopeful, what with the potential "happy" connotations of its tonal gestures and all, but to me, especially as the snippets of that-which-has-come-before surface throughout the passacaglia, there is actually little room for release-of-tension or capitulation of the previously unhappy. Such that the returns-to or reminders of common-practice tonality become de-stabilizing. Also with it's dare-I-say-Feldmanian refusal to leave it's texture, tempo, and atmosphere throughout - where even the waltz is only a minor variance in pace and procession, the piece remains very (post-)Romantic in its this-is-how-I-am-saying-what-I-am-saying-ness. I think this was a good performance - it was hard to applaud too much, initially, since the music is genuinely despair-inducing.

After half time - which included free box wine (and no matter how fancy and/or award-winning the box wine is (though I think the award was for the box and not the wine), it's always, as Frank Sanchez will tell you, box wine) - through the first three movements of the Shostakovich (and, did you know? The British don't refer to Schostakovich pieces as "Shosty 6 (or whatever Symphony number)" but rather as "Shost 6" - or do I only say "Shosty" because Nate (our resident Shostakovich Fachidiot) started saying "Shosty K" in the fashion of Burgess's Alex saying "Benjy Brit" and in fact no one outside of the mild interesters says Shosty (I'm suddenly at a loss to remember (5 + 5 + 5... + 5... - 5) what Americans say to refer to Dmitri K )) I was wondering what it was doing on the program. It sounds like pretty typical Shostkovich String Quartet fare to me - in fact, I think it's a good example of how/why Shostakovich invites the kind of fanaticism that has infected Nate since he was, what? 16?: I think to differentiate this Shostakovich from a lot of other Shostakovich, it requires an attention to detail and nuance that I think not everyone gets the bug to devote.

But with the fourth movement of the Shost SQ-3, it became apparent what it was doing there. That's a great movement of music - clearly a cut above the three movements that precede it. Also rather "sad" but effective music. I guess any given Mahler-Shostakovich-Schnittke programming will work well enough, given the obvious affiinities the composers had for each other, but it was nice to end up having a concert that worked so well, despite it's generally depressing outcome. (As positive a depression as one might have evoked, I suppose.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Petromemento mori

This gas station gone to seed is actually located in St. Alban's, Vermont, about 30 miles north of Burlington and right on Lake Champlain. That's where I was last weekend, on an island in Lake Champlain, camping and learning how to fish with my friend Melissa. This is almost exactly 300 miles from New Haven, so only a five-hour drive, which is not bad at all.

This gas station made me think that if I were the photo editor of an undergraduate literary journal I'd have something to put on the cover. It's better than what the other gas stations on the trip made me think, which was "I have eighty-five fewer dollars now than I did before the weekend."

Camping pictures likely to come later. A freaky Google Maps satellite image of the island is here.

We each caught two fish, which were barely above the size limit, but good enough to filet and eat. Smallmouth bass, emphasis on the small. No large fish appeared to be biting, or at least we didn't see anyone on the motorboats reeling them in either. These are the first fish I've ever caught. Fileting them was less traumatic than I expected; the toughest part is killing them when they're out of the water. So I guess this weekend also marks the first time I've ever bashed something on the head with a rock with intentions of eating it. Also I made a couple of pretty sweet raging campfires; we made s'mores; we played a fair amount of cribbage.

You may recall that several years ago there was a legislative kerfuffle regarding congressional efforts to designate Lake Champlain as one of the Great Lakes. Here is a folksy, semi-informed, and outdated account of that event. The Internet is pretty great when you want marginally useful information.

In general, things have been going fine. Work goes well. Today, not only did Mandy come into New Haven for lunch (she had been in Bridgeport talking with someone in the city public health department), but my college friend Judy was driving through New Haven and stopped for dinner. So, after months and months of not seeing out-of-town friends in New Haven (and this makes sense, considering how much more I'd rather go to New York or Boston or Philly or whatever), suddenly two in one day! This also means I am really full of New Haven pizza today. I mean, where else do you take people to eat but the pizza places.

I've been going on dates with this gal named Ellen (who's getting a master's in the nursing school of Nearby Ivy League University), most recently a bowling double date yesterday evening, so this is good news.

Charlie's out of the apartment now, and I've got a new lease signed for next year for the place on my own. Next up: some paintin' to do! Brought some mild satisficient colors back from Home Depot already. Then: adding furniture! And: pictures on the walls! But first: putting some camping equipment back into storage after it's done airing out!

In short, life proceeds apace.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Heisenberg Uncertainty Parcels

Yesterday evening I went onto UPS' website to find out the shipping status of an Oxford shirt I ordered (it was in Illinois somewhere) and noticed some copy for a tracking service they offer called Quantum View.
From their FAQs I haven't been able to learn much about why Quantum View is called that. (Are the quanta in question amounts of packages? Amounts of shipping information?) However, to me -- not that I think I'm representative of the average UPS customer -- it immediately calls to mind quantum mechanics. Which in turn makes me believe that Quantum View has absolutely no chance of definitively telling me where my package is and where it is going. Would it only be able to tell me a definitive arrival date at the expense of accurately describing its present location? Would the UPS site just show me a probability cloud overlaid on a U.S. map, centered on the Midwest?
At any rate, Quantum View seems to be aimed at businesses that do a lot of shipping, so all my questions are probably moot.
Those are my only thoughts related to UPS at the moment, except that when they used a song by The Postal Service in an ad campaign a little while back I thought it was a sort of veiled attempt to usurp the status of our government-provided mail carrier.

Monday, June 16, 2008

They Can See That He's Just a Fool

So I was in London over the weekend to visit my friend Alice. But since my blogging (and there's been plenty of me-blogging since May, hasn't there?) has been generally limited to reporting concert-goings, I think I'll remained limited to that scope (except I will mention that I think I did a pretty good sweep of things typically-British: visited a city farm, did some blacksmithing, hit a couple of pubs, drank some ale, ate some chips (and actually, I must admit, since this is the most tragic thing to happen to my vegetarianism in the entire nearly five years of its duration, that I ate some number (not a small number) of chips that had been cooked in beef fat, having not known until after the fact that they had been cooked in beef fat - I don't reckon that it signals a total collapse of my vegetarianism (I continued to drink my lattes and cappucinos soy during the remainder of the weekend), but having some large number of Brits laughing at me (along with the near-hysterical laughter of my ever-supportive friend) (and all the Brits were horn players (that's right, I went to a private London horn players party (one of the legends of London horn playing was retiring))) really amplified the disgrace of it), rode a double-decker bus, rode the Tube).

But I did see Bernard Haitink (I'm not the type to collect the names of all the famous conductors I've seen, but I will admit to be happy to have seen Haitink conduct in person as well (and I'm pretty sure I have seen license plates from all 50 US States)) conduct the London Symphony Orchestra playing some R. Strauss songs - song by Dame Felicity Lott, who was really really good - and Dick's Heldenleben as well (Mozart's 25th was also on the program, but we were late to the concert). So that's pretty cool, since the LSO is world-class (generally mentioned in the discussions that happen now in then amongst me and other concert-goers in Berlin of what the Top 3-5 World Orchestras are), and I'd never seen Haitink conduct before. He's really little. Did you know that? I know people shrink in their old age, but he is a seriously tiny dude.

R. Strauss's writing for the female voice is of course amazing - the songs were just a grab bag, but well ordered and amazingly executed. His "Hero's life," though, will never be one of my favorite pieces of music (no matter how often I find myself singing the theme that I think is first introduced by the flutes at some point, but which I hear as trumpets when I sing it but I refuse to look up what it represents, since I just think it sounds cool and dislike what the music "means" in Strauss's own rubric for it). H-leben is an excellent way to hear and orchestra play really well, even if the music is a let-down. And the LSO pretty well nailed it.

Very fun to hear a London orchestra live too, since to this point I'd only ever heard them on recordings. Especially after hearing only German orchestras since the beginning of May, it's good to be reminded that there are other sound profiles out there. If they had been playing a piece of music that I like more, I'm sure I'd be gushing way more, but as it is I guess that's all I've got to say about that.

(And, to report, although I did not see any of Brancusi's Birds in Space, I did see one of his Fishes (which is also an amazing sculpture).)

Shut Down the Devil Sound

From June 11th (posting delayed due to the as-of-yet unblogged trip to London over the weekend):

All the decorum of my Classical [sic] music concert-going during the past month-and-a-third left me somehow ill-prepared for my most recent live-music hearing experience. Thanks to the one music-business connection that I have (that would be, incidentally, my best friend’s wife’s older sister’s longtime boyfriend (not too shabby, eh?)), I went to go see Anti-Flag (from Pittsburgh) and Rage Against the Machine play an outdoor concert in a giant castle in West Berlin. On the Guest List. I am that cool. Though once Rage Against the Machine played their first note and suddenly the thousands of people in front of the stage started to jump around like maniacs and I was totally caught off guard, I was thrown right back into uncoolness.

I’ve been cracking jokes about ‘90s nostalgia for at least a year now, as if it were my original idea, though this concert was the first full-fledged 90’s-nostalgic experience that I’ve had—though, admittedly, it’s nostalgia for a ‘90s that I didn’t actually participate in. Interesting, though, since I was on the younger edge (or possibly more median than I realized (I don’t know if my face has actually aged much in the last 8 years, but my self-image is still very young-faced)) of the demographic. So lot’s of late-20 and early-30 year olds in attendance and not many youngins—the “we’re getting older’ vibe was furthered by the fact that my friend Markus, who came with me to the concert—almost exactly my age, incidentally—actually managed to do some networking for translation work between Anti-Flag and Rage. The teenagers that I did notice were all fleeing the melee of the thousands strong mosh pit (I don’t actually know that “mosh pit” is the exactly-appropriate nomenclature for what we were doing, but it’s close enough) (which I, incidentally, did not flee (I think I did some rather good maniacal around-jumping)), with terrified looks on their faces. That’s right kids, this is how we did things back in the ‘90s. Run back to Momma and your wimpy 21st century “rock music.”

So, do to my general lack of pop-cultural awareness back in the 90s (my favorite band for the entire decade (until ’98-’99ish when Fugazi took over (that’s something of a leap, eh?)) was They Might Be Giants (raise high your nerd flag, Pete (Lay Deep the Foundation, Masons)), I was rather late in coming to an appreciation of RAtM, but I do like their music, and have since, say… 2001 or so. It was always interesting to me too, because during college, I worked in an office with three Republicans, and RAtM was about the only music that we could all agree to listen to when the compulsion hit the office to play music out loud (the only other agreement, organized-noise-wise that was ever reached was to never ever play NPR—though we were obviously coming from opposite ends of the spectrum on that one (though we both (this was really only between me and one of the other Republicans) could say that it was “too liberal”))). Therefore, this concert generated an awful lot of surplus enjoyment for me, in that it was fulfilling a lack that I didn’t actually experience (haven’t been actually experiencing).

Which isn’t to say that I don’t know how to rock, but it certainly was the case that all the Germans surrounding me (I’d say a conservative estimate was at least 5,000 concert-goers) could more thoroughly sing along with the lyrics better than I (though I at least new when to jump even more ecstatically than normal). Zach de la Rocha has quite a stage presence too, so that was cool. And his voice sounded pretty much just like the recordings, which is impressive. Actually, the whole show – especially the initial sequence of the first five songs – was impressively accurate. To the point where it forced me, at least for a few moments in between jumping around and then gagging on the massive clouds of dirt that enveloped the crowd (it hasn’t rained in Berlin since the second week of May (and even then it didn’t rain that much), to wonder about the whole concert-going experience, since they may as well have just played a CD through all the massive speakers. Though, eventually I decided that that was off-base, since, really, the compressed mix on a studio album wouldn’t sound the way the music did as they played it – serious credit to their sound guy, I guess. And Tom Morello (the guitarist) did eventually fuck up a couple of notes, which was refreshing.

Though can I really put my finger on what the difference between RAtM not missing any notes and the Berliner Philharmoniker not missing any notes? Well, yeah, I guess that I can, in that classical music is interpretive, thus always prone to flux, whereas the ideal of rock music may well be just to accurately represent the album that you are currently selling (or, in this case, I guess they’re mostly just selling t-shirts (some of the shirts for their European tour (at some point (actually, the only point where he did any talking) Zach announced, in a very rehearsed-sounding speech, that they were in Europe to help Bush along on his farewell tour (which strikes me as bull-shit—nostalgic or not, I am not of an age where I can at all buy into mass-marketed faux-counter-culture (as much as it’s fun, the way it can get you all bugaboo))) said “The Battle of Europe” which I guess is a riff on their last studio album “The Battle of Los Angeles”—the common-knowledge POV on band t-shirts is that that’s where mainstream bands make their money, but I have to wonder who maintains “creative control” of what the cash cow shirts actually say)).

And so shoot me for having read Adorno if you must, but there’s an absolutely crucial difference between the interpretative praxis of Classical [sic] music and the reproductive praxis of Popular (Culture-Industrial) music. My defense for being such a snot about the political aspect of the music is that I feel like I’m at least trying to approach RAtM on their own terms – since they seem to think that they can use their popularity to encourage radical discourse amongst their listeners (I’m trying hard not to evoke the problematic of “empty signifiers” in disseminatory musics), at the same time that they mostly just sell t-shirts. Which doesn’t diminish how much the show rocked and was a lot of fun, but further underscores why art music has been so much more resonant for me than popular music now for the last near-decade. And you don’t leave the Philharmonie caked in dirt. I had to shower that night, and even then, the next morning had to pick the dirt that had reappeared in my tear ducts out of there. Gross.

And, of course, I enjoy being an intellectual snot too, so that, if anything, even further amplifies how great it was to see them (both bands) play.


Wishing everyone the very merriest of Bloomsdays, 2008.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

It Will Do

The conversation had begun innocently enough, expressing a mutual disdain for the band of old Germans on the stage in the basement of the kneipe (Berliner terminology for a pub/café) which hosts the weekly Goethe-Institut stammtisch (an actually-existing German phenomenon wherein people meet at the “same table” at the same bar on a regular basis for drinks and conversation, or general merry-making (the best of example of a stammtisch that I can recommend is in Fassbinder’s The Man of the Four Seasons)) playing shitty Dixie-Land jazz music—there’s no piano player this week but they’ve added a trombone, which is about the worst exchange possible, I think (I would rank only, perhaps, a soprano saxophone suddenly appearing (it didn’t) as worse (not that I dislike trombone, or even jazz trombone, so much as I dislike shitty German ersatz-Dixie-Land trombone))—but suddenly I find myself talking to a Spanish woman (reasonably well-known to me (my living in Miami but not speaking a drop of Spanish had been a topic of relative popularity with the Spanish-speaking students here at the Institut for the first couple weeks of class, so I was thereby introduced to many of the Spanish-speaking students as word of my locally-dissonant lack of knowledge got around (this is, though, my explanation, not theirs (that is, that may be fiction, above (within the parentheses only))))) about Wagner.

And my usual, half-assed “Wagner is problematic.” answer isn’t good enough. And “Wagner sucks.” isn’t even an option. This woman seems something of an expert, though, for lack of a better way to put this, she’s something of a Wagner apologist, of the “Wagner wasn’t really an anti-semite, as such; he was just trying to get his music played” sort. This conversation is taking place, at least at first, mostly in German-as-a-foreign-language with splashes of English (though by the end that balance had reversed itself (its hair parted on the other side, as it were)), and I find myself trying to decide how best to say “You can’t explain away Wagner’s anti-semitism that easily.” auf Deutsch. Weg erklären? Entklären? Verklären? (It turns out that “verklären” means ‘to transfigure,’ which is interesting, but not what I was looking for.)

The basic sticking point of the discussion was whether or not Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerke can be interpreted in a de-politicized context. My answer being “No, it can’t.” Though my friend (I suppose, after having such a conversation with an acquaintance, one might go ahead an upgrade the known-status to ‘friendship’) was of the opinion that you can. That Wagner was only political when he was young, and that his usage of mythologies was related to expressing his personal ideas, which just happened to be very Germano-centric (what’s the right term for that?), and had nothing to do with telling people what to think. And that, most importantly, Wagner was not personally responsible for anything that came after him, so we shouldn’t let the fucked-up-mess of post-Wagnerian Germany influence our interpretation of his (works of total) art. Which I disagree with, but didn’t really argue well against (it not really being in my nature to argue with people that I’m not already friends with (since, again, you can’t claim an acquaintance as friend until after a conversation such as this is finished)).

Though it’s not really important to settle these sorts of matters. Both of us will still most certainly go see Rattle conduct the Philharmoniker’s concert performance of the first act of Siegfried tomorrow, whether or not Wagner was really just another mensch. It’s interesting, though, to meet someone with this kind of attitude towards the man, since I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it before. Nobody’s minds were changed, but as my friend pointed out once we were done talking, it is nice to hear other people’s perspectives on the same things, since they can be so wildly different. And, similarly to the conversation which this post is a record of, this post is now fizzling out and leaving me with a lingering sense of disappointment in myself.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Belated Beijing Photo Post: In Which Mike Wins an Onstage Drinking Contest

I meant to post this first thing getting back, but somehow didn't do it at all, and then it's like Hey, it's June. So the second-to-last night I was in Beijing (this was like a month and a half ago now), Mike's host mother took us out to a western-Chinese/Central Asian theme restaurant with onstage entertainment, basically a dinner show. (I didn't really catch the specific region or ethnicity involved; I don't believe it's the same area the earthquake struck a few weeks later.) Think of amusement-park-grade participatory fun and games with more beer involved. Here it was that Mike won an onstage drinking contest. If I'm not mistaken, I think this is the first onstage drinking contest that any of us have won. At least for Mike I've got the photographic evidence.

So they put the beer glasses on the floor, and the contestents (Mike and some mostly Chinese businessman types) had to drink through a straw. Mike pretty much rocked this contest, staking a huge early lead and never really looking back. I wasn't sure whether to be more surprised that he can drink this well, or that he can drink this well through a straw.

Pretty impressive, too, considering he'd been fighting off a round of food poisoning not long beforehand.

After he won, his prize was to be blindfolded and sat down in a chair.

He knew what was coming next, actually, since he'd come here with his host mom before. While blindfolded, he was joined onstage by a belly dancer with a snake, who danced around some and then took Mike into her routine.

This is kind of a blurry shot.

Afterward, the MC woman (who spoke in this perky rapid-fire voice, both in Chinese and then a peculiarly uninflected English translation) told Mike he could choose between three prizes, the bottle of wine (blurry, but in the MC's hand), which was supposed to be "good for your sexual health," the snake, or the belly dancer.

I somehow captured in this shot the half-second that Mike was pretending to mull over this question before replying. Naturally they sent him home with the bottle of wine instead, but way to go out trying.

During this whole sequence of events, Mike's host mother was laughing gleefully and constantly motioning to me to take Mike's picture. What can you say about the kid? He's good at everything he tries.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

After This There Will Be So Many Good Ones

Five weeks into my stay here in Berlin this summer, it’s interesting to pause and reflect a bit over the metamorphosis of my concert-going experience. This centers around the city’s two premiere groups, namely, the Philharmoniker and the Staatsoper/Staatskapelle, since either band is capable of leaving me in a mental state that few other performance ensembles can induce. What is metamorphosizing, then, is my experience of that amazing-performance-induced mental state.

Initially, I noted it here (on the blog) as a sort of meta-enjoyment, or, that is, the acute experience of enjoying, additionally, the fact that I was enjoying myself so thoroughly. This noticing eventually then led to a doubting of my own credentials re: enjoyment (by which I do not mean should-I-have-read-/-be-reading-more-Lacan). And then just last weekend, with the Rattle Beethoven/Berlioz concert, I was concerned that I was/am becoming a sap.

Which brings us to this evening. The aforementioned (some post or two prior) Philharmoniker concert with the one-and-only Mariss Jansons conducting Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony, Berio’s Folk Songs (sung by Elina Garanča, who was incredible (and sang the last folk song a second time as an encore)), and Ravel’s La Valse. Both the Shostakovich and the Berio deserve posts of their own to discuss them (though I’m of the opinion that both Nate and Jack do a better job than me of actually writing about music), and maybe I’ll put some time into preparing such things (I especially plan to have a private e-mail correspondence with Nate about the Shostakovich, which can perhaps eventually be reformulated into a blog post). I also think that those two pieces worked really well together on the same program, and, though La Valse is always-already a throwaway, it can at least be tie-that-binded by the orchestrational brilliance of all three composers.

My day, leading up to the concert, was pretty mediocre. I was more tired than usual in class for no particular reason. In fact, in retrospect, I was even more tired than I thought I was at the time. Tired enough that coffee had no effect (this being the Orwellian coffee that the Goethe-Insitut sells it students for 25 euro-cents a cup (the coffee costs 50 cents per cup, with free refills, but its impossible to drink more than two cups of it (I’m not a snob – all students agree that the stuff is swill (many students, at this point, actually leave the premises of the Institute to go find better coffee (for more money (I, especially going to as many concerts as I’ve been going to, don’t have the cash to spend Berlin-standard money on daily coffee purchases (and I hope that my well-above-average commitment to Free Trade/Organic coffee Stateside isn’t totally undermined by these two months of as-cheap-as-possible-in-all-possible-ways coffee)))))) and I knew better than to finally break down and drink a third free-refill of it, knowing that then I would just be still tired but Berenstain-bearing it (one with a German-English dictionary, one with a broetchen, and one with the shivers)).
Tired enough that I took a nap almost directly after class (after the usual post-class internet-usage time). Though, unfortunately, during this nap I had the kind of restless dreams from which one awakes fearing that he has transformed into a giant cockroach-like beast. Luckily for you, though, with Lay of the Land still fresh in my head, I will repeat Frank Bascombe’s line – which, I believe, he states in all three books – “Relate a dream, lose a reader.” (And, of course, in similar fashion, I’ll go ahead and state that the dream was actually a late-for-the-concert anxiety dream, wherein I was trying to get to the Philharmonie, and did, but couldn’t manage to stay and had to keep running around trying to actually hear the concert.)

So I felt pretty crappy after my nap. Felt okay by the time I had walked to the Philharmonie to wait in line for Restkarten, but still, no better than mediocre. But the concert itself – completely rejuvenating. I ended up (I was again with my friend Maggie) with a student ticket in the second row of the orchestra level seats, pretty much dead center. Well “better” than any other seat I’ve ever had for a Philharmoniker concert. Again, the purpose of this post is not to talk about the music itself, but it was just yet another completely good performance. And sitting that close adds the additionally benefit of being able to see the musicians faces – to be able to see not just their movements but their facial expressions, especially so when you can actually see on their faces how much they are enjoying themselves.

Also, from so close, the string sound is just phenomenal. There are some textures in the first movement of the Shostakovich that are very eerie, for muted strings and such. The muted string sound was just so… well, unheimlich (uncanny)… that it almost sounded like a parody of what eeriness should sound like. The 6th Symphony was the front half of the concert, and during the intermission I had already totally forgotten what a lousy day I had had. So not only am I meta-enjoying uncritical sap, but I can be rejuvenated by this music too.

Also, Mariss Jansons is a rockstar. It’s really kind of incredible. After the end of the concert (La Valse) the audience applauded enough that, even after the band has left the stage, Jansons had to come back out one last time – this is after, already, several several rounds of applause. He’s already holding it down with the Concertgebouw and Bavarian Radio, but I’m quite curious to see what the future holds for him (and, incidentally (and maybe I’ve mentioned this before, but) his bio only has room for half a sentence about the fact that he was the director of the Pittsburgh Symphony for –what, five years?- before getting his current gigs (it’s hard to claim, though, that Pittsburgh took him for granted though, since the band there always sounded so much better with him than with anyone else (except for the rare other appearances of A-list conductors)))).

So, yeah, hopefully I’ll follow up on some point with more specific musings re: the music itself, but there’s the travelogue concert-goers blog version for y’all (my German has improved to the point where I rarely have to use English in typical day-to-day situations, but I’ve decided to affect a Southern accent any time that I do have to use it from this point out (also, speaking in German with an exaggerated Southern (U.S.) accent is also lots of fun (I do love my affects))).

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The World is All Bending and Breaking from Me

Speaking of glamour-spending, if any one has a spare five thousand Euros kicking around, they can buy me this one particular Hundertwasser print from an exhibition of his lithographs currently on display in Neukoelln-Berlin. I guess that's the good thing about lithographs - since they're printed in bulk, one can buy copies of the things you see on the wall - if you have five thousand Euros (several were way more expensive, but the one I liked most also happened to be one of the cheapest to buy (once again demonstrating that my taste is better than most other peoples'). Though I do like Hundertwasser, in some actual way (as opposed to a oh-that-crazy hippy bullshit way (though some of his art really fails to conjure anything but the later reaction (one of the downsides to being prolific, one supposes, is that you produce more, and therefore more shit too))). But Friedensreich Hundertwasser (and, incidentally, did you know that he change his last name about a decade before he changed his first name? interesting), much like the song-version of Lord Baden Powell, is up when he's up.

Since I didn't have the thousands-upon-thousands needed for splurging on an actual print, I compromised and bought an exhibition poster. Up to this point in my life, I have never wanted to buy an exhibition poster. Something about me is different. In fact, though I only ever bought... (counting)... two prints of works of art ever (a Kandisky and a Van de Velde (the Younger) - both at tender young ages (13 and 17)), both of those were particularly sought having no museum-of-origin markings. And I've definitely, since then (it's been well over (er, well, three years over) ten years since I was 13) there've been times where I would have bought some painting-poster if it hadn't been labeled MoMA or whatever. But today, suddenly I found myself thinking "that would be nice to have hanging on my wall." I guess I'm, like, getting older, or something?

Last night I went to the Komische Oper's production of Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Thought it's only the second KO production I've seen, I'm prepared to make a generalization and state that they sacrifice singing-ability for acting ability. Which is okay, but kind of a disappointment, for more sonically-oriented folks like myself. Though speaking of being visually interested by operas, this was about as a good a staging as one might hope for for Mahagonny. It being Brecht allows for all kinds of meta-opera kind of touches, but I thought this was pulled off pretty well.

A very minimalist stage, the first act featured a large box (about the height/width of the whole stage) wrapped in brown paper on an otherwise empty stage (the full backstage was also visible (the first sign of a Brechtian we-are-making-an-opera kind of gesture (though the massive void behind the stage probably didn't help the already struggling acoustic of the house (I was sitting, FYI, front and center of the first ring)))). The libretto calls for a sequence of projections, so this particular staging just projected Brecht's own words on the box, and occasionally stage hands would walk out and paint words on the box too. The box is unwrapped at the end of the first act to reveal a weird party room that featured the kind of clear-plastic slats that car wash entrances and exits are made from.

After the hurricane that destroys Pensacola doesn't hit Mahagonny, the party really gets going, and there were actually projections and lots of money falling from the sky. I really like this opera, actually. The music is fantastic, and as heavy-handed as Brecht's theses about Opera are throughout, they're the kind of theses about Opera that I find to be incredibly interesting (the threatened hurricane that never actually shows up and the failed Deus ex machina ending in particular). Not a mind-blowing performance in any way, but it's an opera, at least for a person like me, that can pretty well play itself (and the orchestra was quite good and the chorus I think better than average relative to the KO). That actually winds up being something artistically unifying for my past 48 hours, in that both Hundertwasser and Brecht were strongly ideologically driven in their artworks (though those ideologies probably wouldn't be all that copacetic with one another). Though I guess most art is ideologically-driven anyway (since even art-for-art's-sake is just another artifact of Enlightenment), so maybe the distinction is false. Or I just need to find a better way to state what I mean.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Say to Myself, "What's the Use?"

With the fire at the Philharmonie (the building has already been repaired to the level of being safe-to-use and the Philharmoniker is playing there this weekend (I should be standing-rooming one of the shows (Jansons, Shostakovich 6)), several of the Philharmoniker concerts got shuffled around to various other venues. The Abbado + Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto two weekends ago was shifted to the Waldbuehne – Berlin’s massive outdoor concert venue, making it untenable for me to attend (30 euros for the cheapest nosebleed seats). This past weekend’s concert, Sir Simon Rattle conducting Berlioz’ (Death of) Cleopatra and his Fantastic Symphony, was moved to “Hangar 2” at Flughafen Tempelhof – the old Nazi airport in South Central Berlin. The moving of the concert to a massive airplane hangar opened up many extra seats for the concerts so I went ahead and shelled out the 25 euros for one such seat, Rattle/Berliner Philharmoniker/Berlioz being absolutely unskippable.

And I made the right decision. As you might suspect, the acoustics in there were not the greatest – very boomy and muddy on the bottom end, and there were several instances –especially during Symphony Fantastique – when Rattle had to give the room an extra beat between hits to clear itself before proceeding. Playing in such a room also permanently cements for me the fact that Berliner Philharmoniker is unbelievably good. The amount of clarity that they were able to produce in such a context was an absolute marvel. And again, this is not an orchestra that is merely precise (though at this point I’m wondering if I haven’t built a straw man of the conception that the Berliner Phil is technically unrivaled but unemotional or whatever – I don’t know that anyone actually thinks that way (it certainly is an argument that is justly made (and joked about) about many of the Karajan/Berlin recordings, but in terms of actual performance practice?)), but rather an orchestra where the precision is always in service of performances of depth and emotion.

The singer who was to sing the Cléopâtre – Susan Graham – it was announced at the beginning of the concert, had suddenly become ill this day (Saturday the 31st) and was unable to perform. Instead, since they had performed it somewhere or other a couple weeks before, Cléopâtre was replaced with Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. I would never express delight at someone’s falling ill and being unable to perform, but I can’t help but feel lucky about this, as the concert suddenly became a Greatest Hits kind of performance. And again, though it seems that hear would be a chance for the orchestra just to pop off a quick run-through of the greatest symphony of the Romantic Era, in this giant hangar (the acoustic of which was probably even worse than Avery Fischer Hall), but instead played an absolutely stirring rendition. Or maybe I’m a sap. But I’m not. It was damn amazing.

And to loop back onto a thread from an earlier post, here is the type of concert where its entirely illogical to speak of tempo. With Rattle’s Beethoven 7, it becomes a matter of shape and movement – one doesn’t really even consider pace. The second movement was absolutely profound – one could tell from the opening phrase, the balance, but the pressing-ness of the fate of the material, so clearly and cleanly played. It’s the type of performance where I couldn’t help but take note of the fact that I was hearing it – since we’re talking Beethoven, perhaps this concert was the apotheosis of my conception of the Good for Good Reasons.

Also, and this is a rare out-showing of my lingering horn-player-ness (though I can admit, parenthetically, that I have written and deleted many other parenthetical horn-playerly comments as well this past month), but the second horn absolutely blew the shit of that little low turny figure she has in the third movement (“blew the shit out of” is, of course, a very positive comment (just to be clear about that)). On the verge, probably, of being “too much” but for me, fucking rad. And actually, since the stage was an elevated thing, Sir Simon Rattle (in his conductor’s yearbook, he was named Most Likely to be Asked to Go on a Quest to Destroy the One Ring that Rules Them All by Throwing it into a Volcano) didn’t actually leave it between rounds of applause, and after the second time, as he walked towards the back and side of the stage I saw him point to and laugh with the second horn player, clearly about the way she had played that part, and it was great to witness them having that moment. And before I leave the Horns again, let it be noted that I don’t think there’s an orchestra in America that can play Beethoven the way these two players did (really, only Vienna and maybe a handful of other German orchestras could) – they just make a sound that doesn’t exist on the other side of the Atlantic.

The Symphony Fantastique was similarly impressive. Rattle again showed an impressive command of the shaping of the piece – really nailing all the tension-buildings and releases of Berlioz’ score, never letting things get to quick or too stodgy. And, just to note this, the second tuba player had a note that didn’t fully speak in the initial incantation of the Dies Irae theme in the 5th movement, which, officially, is the first flubbed note I’ve ever heard this orchestra make (in what, maybe half a dozen concerts).

This summer for me, in terms of the concert-going is starting to attain the feeling of a last-bash, since eventually the student-ticket thing will stop for me (when I stop being a student) and a since no further money as of yet exists to get me back here. But yeah, it’s the kind of concert that seems primed to be remembered for a while.

Also, a helicopter took off outside during the 3rd movement of the Beethoven, which was too bad.

And if anyone out there is looking for a glamour vacation this fall, might I suggest that you head to Berlin for Saturday and Sunday September 20th and 21st. At this same venue, at the tail end of the Musik Fest Berlin, you can see Rattle and the Berliner Phil perform Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum and Stockhausen’s Gruppen fuer drei Orchester on Saturday, followed by the Ensemble Intercontemporain playing Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux etoiles… on Sunday.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me

I think at this point it’s safe to say that I’m not going to catch up with my concert blogging. Though this week should be a slower one – only two concerts on the schedule (the least so far). But given that I’m already over a week behind, it’s foolish to think that all the concerts I’ve seen since Saturday the 24th (aside from the one or two (I’m barely even keeping track anymore) concerts that I have blogged about that have happened since then) will get the blog space/time that they deserve. So, without further ado:

Opera Round-Up:

Sunday, May 25th

Went to see the Komische Oper Berlin put on Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier with Derek and Maggie. This should not be confused with the Deutsche Oper performance of Der Rosenkavalier that I attended last summer (with Derek and two British women). Though this particular staging was running last summer, I never got around to seeing it. The Komische Oper is the 3rd opera company in Berlin. This was actually my first time attending – I went to no concerts there last summer. Mostly because they put everything on in German, and I had no particular desire to see/hear, say, The Barber of Seville translated into German, with no over-titles. The Komische Oper also occasionally puts out all-out musicals as well, and also other kind of opera-in-review types of set ups.

This particular staging has been running since sometime in 2006, actually, and doesn’t appear to be showing signs of stopping (I don’t exactly have my finger on the pulse of this though – I’m just assuming since it’s one of the most popular operas of all time and in a tourist city like Berlin with a constantly changing but ever-interested-in-seeing-an-opera-since-we’re-totally-like-in-Berlin audience…). It’s a good staging. The singers seemed to be picked as much for the acting skills as their singing – which is not to say that they were bad – they were really good, actually (though I was skeptical throughout until the 3 women did pretty well nail the culminating trio).

A good example was the Baron – first of all, the man was gigantic. Easily a head taller than anyone else on stage. And his acting was Muppet-esque. Which, of course, as anyone else who was raised on the Muppets the way we (at least Nate, Jack, and I, anyway) knows, is awesome. He even kind of sounded like a Muppet. A Muppet who couldn’t project. Too bad – his acting was hilarious, but he just seemed incapable of singing at the necessary volume (I almost wanted to re-reference the Muppets there, but remembered, that, no, the audience for The Muppet Show was just more Muppets, so they probably weren’t worried about how well, say, Sam the Eagle, could be heard in the back of the hall (though, for the record, we were sitting close to the stage, so it was not a back-of-the-hall issue (though it may well be that his voice was somewhere above and behind us (I got all the damn clarinet I needed though – if there little cones splashed our from all the instruments in the pit, my seat must have been smack dead center in the middle of the loudest possible section of the clarineticone)))).

I should be heading back to the Komische Oper one more time before I leave, and look forward to it – the band probably wasn’t up to the level of the other two operas either, but they still play the shit out of their music.

Friday, May 30th

The Deutsche Oper’s Zauberfloete. An interesting piece – contains some of Mozart’s probably-best music (say, the Overture…), but also some of his boringest. According to the program notes, this may have something to do with the limitations of the troupe that he initially wrote it for. I went to this alone, having failed to convince anyone to go with me. I don’t recommend going to The Magic Flute by yourself (while there, I convinced myself that I was there with blog – but no, I didn’t convince myself of that – I though about it, and decided that that was bullshit and I should have waited until other people would have gone. Why? Not sure exactly – except that I think it’s obvious to everyone what the difference is between going to, say, Lohengrin by yourself versus any given Classical comic opera.

It was also, maybe not officially, but also some kind of children’s night. It’s bad enough going to the opera and having to deal with (come into any contact with) old people, but then to have to deal with a bunch of damn kids too. Almost too much for a middle-of-the-road angry young man like myself. But, then, at the same time, it’s important to get the kids out to the opera, and there need to be normals there too to teach them the folkways of decorum. (Actually, I was talking to one of my classmates this morning about why he ended up not going to the opera this night and his final excuse was that he hadn’t had enough time to change into his nice clothes – I was, of course, in a pair of remarkably threadbare dark blue work pants (worn for a whole year in Boston nearly everyday until I got too skinny for them, and then worn again almost the whole year in Miami when I got fat again) with a hole in the crotch (since mended) and a beige pocket t-shirt – the same “outfit,” in fact, that I wore to Jazz at Lincoln Center with Jack and Mandy back in January and actually (really, actually!) felt bad about being so underdressed in then (even though there was no hole in the crotch back then either (I think I actually went so far as to brag to Jack and Mandy about the fact that, even though by all rational standards there should have been a hole in the crotch, there wasn’t (so much for that (though, again, they’re fixed – the next test for them being a run through my Gastgeberin’s brand new Washing-Machine-of-German-Manufacture which has steadily been reminding me through the month of May (and now on into June) that most of my t-shirts are older than I realized)))). Ha, dressing up.

The Deutsche Oper also rocked some amazing black face. I’d forgotten about such things. I’m honestly not sure what to make of it. It seems, like, kind of wrong, since it was clearly not ironic (not nearly as ambiguous in intent as Astronaut Lohengrin). Also because they gave one of the speaking parts for one of the dudes that leads Tamino and Papageno through the castle of ordeals to an actual black person – I wonder if he had any thoughts about it. The depth of variety of black-person-haircut wigs that the DO had was something of a marvel. But having them don sunglasses – shades, as it were – seems to have crossed a line, if the blackface-in-the-first-place wasn’t line-crossing on its own.

Actually, going to Magic Flute by myself is comparable in a way to what it’s like for me to go to the beach by myself back in Miami – it’s something that I can’t do without engaging with the fact that I’m doing it. When I first get to the beach (having bicycled there) and found a spot, my first cycle of thoughts is inevitably “Well, you’ve brought yourself to the beach. Here you are. What are you doing here? (‘Actually, all is not well. What am I doing here…’). Similarly, when Magic Flute first got rolling, I had to first address the fact that I was there. Which doesn’t normally happen with most things. This means, of course, that once I get back to Miami I will try to find funding to start a “Mozart on the Beach” program.

Good Heavens, Miss Sakamoto, You're Beautiful

I can't say that my music listening pursuits have been as high-minded as Jack's and Pete's of late (the performances I've seen since moving to Portland being mostly limited to a couple of Oregon Symphony concerts and a B-52's show) but through something that I'll call "diligent musicomological research" I think I've traced a Mr. Show throwaway gag about a Christian New Wave band called "2001: A New Wave Godyssey" directly to Thomas Dolby.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Tall Trees

View Up 2, originally uploaded by nateborr.

As one of only two members of my immediate family currently on my continent of origin and the only one who hasn't been to Eurasia within the past two months I'm feeling rather like a homebody, and consequently kind of ridiculous for not posting as much as my more traveled hermanos.

Despite near total radio silence I continue to do my whole eat/sleep/breathe thing, though, and besides slowly reconstituting the sort of bachelor-grade domestic existence to which I am accustomed I've spent a lot of time with Kyle on various not-too-flashy activities, which kind of makes up for several months of being geographically unable to actually go out on dates at all. We made one of our neater excursions on Saturday to Valley of the Giants, a 50-acre plot of old-growth Douglas fir and hemlock forest overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

Valley of the Giants isn't obscure but it doesn't seem to get a whole lot of traffic. Some of that may be due to the BLM's seeming online coyness about it, though it probably is due more to the fact that it only offers a two mile loop trail accessible only by 30 miles of privately owned gravel logging roads. But for a short casual hike at the end of a long commute drive it's pretty spectacular and very much worth it.

As expected, it's fantastic to walk among a bunch of conifers that are a couple hundred feet tall and a couple hundred of years old. What I wasn't expecting, though, and what was much neater was how much a part of the forest the dead and fallen trees are: The ground below the sparse-enough standing trees are full of big toppled trunks (some weathered, some shattered, most with bright orange wood) that you don't see in human-managed forests, serving as nurse logs for smaller trees, growing fungus, or forming one more surface for the primordial-looking moss that grows everywhere out here. I don't know how old the dead trees are (it is hard to leave the hike without thinking "I should go learn more about trees") but often enough you see a huge living tree straddling a huge fallen one to the point of engulfing it with its roots. More trees than I somehow would have thought break off partway up and stand there for a while longer, too, so that your eyes follow these unhealthy-looking trunks up until you realize that you're looking at a fifty-plus-foot stump.

It was also nice that we had the trail to ourselves, having arrived in the late afternoon in the late spring. The single picnic table half a mile in from the trailhead was all ours as we ate some chicken-salad-and-alfalfa-sprout sandwiches. We also got no rain to speak of, no mean feat given that the nearest "town" is Valsetz, a former logging settlement (now apparently just the foundation of a onetime company store) that was previously the rainiest town in Oregon. Pleasant. Of course no one was around to take our picture together so I had to take one of those arm's-length snapshots, which kind of documents that we were visiting something green.

After the drive back out and north to McMinnville Kyle's car developed a sometimes nasty-sounding rattle that her mechanic decided was caused, as she put it in private correspondence earlier today, by "a two foot long, 5-inch diameter log shoved up against my exhaust heat shield". So perhaps sixty miles of driving on somewhat littered logging roads is best left to a vehicle other than a middle-aged Ford Taurus. Nonetheless, a worthwhile trip.

Summertime Sphere-Sounds

My college friend Dan is on the East Coast this week (a musicology conference and a need for library research brought him to NYC) so yesterday I hopped on the Metro North and we caught the American Symphony Orchestra for one of Leon Botstein's typically cerebral programs, linking a handful of obscure twentieth-century works with a common intellectual theme: here, spatial exploration. So lots of atmospheric clouds of harmony and unusual instrumental layouts to be had. The program notes are well worth reading, if any of this music interests you.

Toru Takemitsu's "Cassiopeia," from '71, is a rarely performed percussion concerto, with a huge kit. The soloist, Jonathan Haas, gleefully described during the following set change how he'd brought a gigantic timpani he'd made from an 18th-century swiss cheese press (if I caught that correctly) he obtained in Colorado; so that was up there on stage, in front of kind of a little framework hut hung with various blocks and cymbals. The program note pointed out that it's a very early percussion concerto, and the solo writing comes off as unrefined, lacking a narrative thread -- this can undo a percussion concerto pretty easily even today. The orchestra writing is attractive, particularly in its quieter pools-of-color moments; it's luscious for the early-70s avant garde but a bit gray by Takemitsu's later standard. The piece foreshadows Takemitsu's percussion ensemble concerto "From Me Flows What You Call Time," from 1990, which I heard the Yale Percussion Group play about a year ago and which more successfully sustains an atmosphere.

I'm more than sympathetic to Andrzej Panufnik's music, and I'm thrilled to have finally heard a symphony of his performed live, but his "Sinfonia di Sfere" (1975) doesn't really bring the goods. Panufnik, in his best work, balanced austerity and human spirit in a wonderful, distinctive way; the Sinfonia di Sfere has some of that, but there's not nearly enough dramatic foundation to hold up a half hour of episodic music here. Highlights embedded within the symphony include a concertante piano tossing off brittle shards of Messiaen-style licks; three drummers, positioned around the stage, providing circulating counterpoint; and five brass players, at stage front, offering some usually quiet solo lines, although these sometimes "stuck" and sometimes didn't (though they were all played brilliantly, especially by the trumpeter). This was actually the U.S. premiere of the piece, and I don't believe it'll ever travel widely. There are actually two recordings of it available on CD right now, although if you want to reach for the good stuff I'd suggest starting with his two most overtly spiritual symphonies, the Sinfonia Sacra ('63) and the Sinfonia Votiva ('81–'84).

Rued Langgaard's "Music of the Spheres" is a legitimately bizarre magnum opus, a half-hour experimental work from 1919 that encompasses, at different times, some daringly static mystical harmonies (often layered into a shimmering or seething curtain of noise), Beethovenian pastoralia, ostinatos topped with tuneful stuff in different keys, a brief and sumptuous soprano solo sung from the second balcony, a half-minute of dissonant organ music blasting through a thick haze of sound, and a chorus obsessively repeating the words "Kyrie Eleison" on a deliberately inexpressive scrap of melody. The spellbinding climax layers orchestra and chorus into a twenty-second-long, impenetrably dense anti-chord; there follows a short silence and then a hackneyed romantic upward sweep from the harp, which is also up on the balcony. Langgaard, who pitched his camp on the wrong side of the tracks from the early-twentieth-century Danish classical music establishment (Carl Nielsen, sole proprietor), has not been much performed in either the past or present. The performance was a fine one, especially for something so ambitious; I wished for a little more TLC around the impressionistic parts of the piece, but it was ear-opening in any case.

Ligeti's "Apparitions" and "Atmospheres" need less commentary, although I'll say I like the second a lot better than the first, particularly the mesmerizing chordal light show at the beginning. Early Ligeti makes me want to hear late Ligeti: he hadn't shed the avant-garde grayness yet.

Botstein has a commanding artistic presence when he talks from the stage (not extensively; mostly, again, to help kill the time it took to change the set from Takemitsu to Panufnik). But he made the point he was sticking up for modernist repertoire that's fallen out of fashion, and he described briefly what each piece offered, and he thanked the audience, humorously but truly, for coming to hear it on what was a beautiful day. It's refreshing to hear a voice speaking with authority about what the artistic agenda is for an orchestra concert.

Thank You Sir, May I Have Another

Speaking of beer elitism, I finally ticked one of the major beers-that-any-beer-snob-worth-his-salt must drink at some point, the trappist beer that is only available or purchase directly from the monastery of its making, Westvleteren. You are perhaps aware of the others (in no particular order): Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, Achel, and Koenigshoeven (though some folks wouldn't count Koenigshoeven since its in the Netherlands, not Belgium (but it's a Trappist, nonetheless)).

This needn't necesarily speak towards quality; Westvleteren has Holy Grailish status mostly due to the fact that it is not exported. That being said, however, the Westvleteren 12 that I had the privilege to drink last weekend (great big thanks to my friend Derek for acquiring it for me (I believe this particular bottle was bought in some dark alley in Antwerp, rather than from the monastery itself or one of the small number of outlets that carry it)), certainly ranks way up there against the other Trappists. Perhaps most comparable to the Rochefort 10 or Orval (a bottle of Orval thats in good shape (it's been my experience that Orval is inconsistent, at least in the States (an issue of shipping, conditions-of-aging, etc.) - or somewhere in between those two. A mild nose, but complex palette, no sweeter than your average Trappist (for you "average" folks out there, maybe you've had the blue-label Chimay and can use that as a base-line inoffensive Trappist ("inoffensive" is my newest pejorative for beer that is in no way bad, but also nothing special (in the States, see, for example, most of Avery's lineup, or maybe the not-bad Brooklyn beers as well (in Germany, see Beck's or Radeburger)))), but with nice burnt-raisin kind of flavours, good alcohol warmth, a nice layer of grain in there too.

Here's a picture of me taking a picture of the bottle with my CVS single-use disposable camera (thanks to Derek also for supplying the digital pictures):

We were drinking the beer out of cereal bowls, since that was the closest thing my Gastgeberin had to Trappist glasses. I apologize for the prominence of the bag of smoked almonds. and bottle of water.