Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Little More Allegro This Time

In his book Saturday, Ian McEwan writes a main character who is a neurosurgeon, the detail about whom which is of (mild) interest to me at the moment is that he is described having several different recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations available for him to listen to in his operating room, whether it is (and I don't have the book with me anymore, so I apologize for the lack of specifics here (it's at my parents house (which is where I found and read it in the first place (though, Dad, if you'd care to find the book and scan it for the pertinent section and post it up as a comment - the passage in question occurs, I'm pretty sure, during the first description of Henry (the main character)'s typical day-in-surgery)))) so-and-so's such-and-such recording, or someone else's different-in-some-way performance, and, of course, occasionally, the Glenn Gould (though the book, distressingly, doesn't specify which of the two Gould recordings the character would listen to).

This detail is pertinent because I'm at work, suddenly having decided to spend some lunch break moments to jot (blog (I guess my vacation away from blogging is ended)) this down (up (blogging goes up, I think)), because I have just begun to listen to the Hilliard Ensemble's recording of Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame.This is a piece that I really enjoy, and listen to quite a lot, but it's also a piece to which I have a specific-recording addiction.Specifically, the Ensemble Organum / Marcel Pérès recording on Harmoni Mundi. Which is incredibly different from the Hilliard's take at it,and apparently, if one pokes around the internet, is something of a contentious issue, in that the various scholarships on performance practice for Machaut sail in wildly varying directions. And,apparently, the recording I like is potentially pretty wack, despite it's awesomeness. The aesthetician in me doesn't worry about"authenticity" (should those be single (scare)quotes?) as such, but the historically minded part of me does feel the need to at least engage with the differences. Such that my immediate impulse is to accumulate the various recordings of this piece and then actually dig into the scholarship surrounding it. Simply not enough time to do all that on lunch break too, so this'll have to suffice for now.

But I also bring this up because of this review of the American Symphony Orchestra (my current employer)'s performance of a couple little ditties by Szymanowski. And my currently-employedness has nothing to do with my negative reaction to this review. Beyond just the fact that it reads like a tossed off blog post (not that there's anything wrong with tossing of blog posts(there is something wrong with publishing them in the Times, though)), I am saddened because Tomasini had an opportunity to engage with the same problem I am currently discussing here, namely, that he has become addicted to a specific recording of King Roger, and in this concert found a live performance which failed to live up to his recording-based expectations. I was at this performance too, and find his appraisal to be off-the-mark, and would guess that what Tomasini heard as confusion and/or muddledness was in fact simply a performance of a different interpretation than the one he was used to listening to.

It's difficult, though, to branch back out to various recordings once you fall in love with one, though. Or at least that's my experience(the other example that jumps into my mind at the moment is the fact that I nearly always listen to the Carlos Kleiber/Vienna recordings of Beethoven's 5th & 7th Symphonies and Brahms's 4th Symphony, despite the fact that I own several recordings of each of those pieces). I know what I'm doing as I do it, but seem to be comfortable staying recording-biased, I guess for no other reason than the pleasure that accompanies the recordings which I have thusly fetishized.

Which is what makes that detail about Henry in Saturday so interesting to me. Is having several recordings of the same piece available for various instances just an expansion of the same problem (if it is a problem) that I have, or a way of conquering recording chauvinisms? Or, in that it (having multiple recordings of the same piece on hand) can still result in a similar bias against live performances, does it still not address what I think happened to Tomasini with the ASO?

Depravity/ Batman Redux

[This was going to be a comment on Jack's Batman post below but it got too long. --ed.]

I haven't seen "Dark Knight" yet (or "No Country", for that matter) but I think the deliberate moral depravity you get in movie villains is an outsized version of the more run-of-the-mill moral threats to society that people see or think they see. Sort of on par with the alien invasion in Independence Day. So, when you make a serious-minded movie with similarly scaled villains, yes, you're commenting on cultural anxiety blahblahblah, but you're also probing the murky, apparently troubling ramifications of these moral circumstances that, to my knowledge, have never actually existed within the whole of human experience. Good behavior gets compromised by much softer stuff than your average cartoonish supervillain.

(Making sweeping, unsupported statements about "society" takes me right back to tenth grade English class, by the way. Think I could stretch this to exactly five paragraphs?)

When Christopher Nolan's previous Batman movie came out I saw it with my friend Kuzman and a bunch of his friends, many of whom were very much into the Bat-mythology and talked at length after the film about how well "Batman Begins" treated the theme of fear, etc. I have modest comic-book-geek chops based on hanging around a bunch of techies for my whole adult life so I hung with them for a while, but when I wanted to get out of the conversation I just said, "You know what I think is really underrated? The old Batman movie from the sixties with Adam West." And sure enough, they just sort of stopped talking to me after that. But the 1966 Batman is a surprisingly fun watch, almost entirely because West plays the part so unflinchingly straight, with all the William Shatner-esque would-be gravitas he can muster. I haven't seen the latest DVD incarnation but the Adam West/ Burt Ward commentary track on the one I did watch a couple years ago is a hoot too; Ward is all jiminy-jillickers about how great it was to be part of this franchise as a kid that he's probably honed at boat shows for decades while West talks about the theater of the absurd.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Perfunctory Bullet-Pointed Blogging Beats No Blogging at All

Other highlights of the weekend in New York City:

● Birthday shindig at a bar in the west 40s for my friend Lisa
● Cooking breakfast on Saturday morning at chez Lisa-and-her-boyfriend-Andy (Lisa can make biscuits! Andy can poach eggs! I can make myself modestly useful in assisting to prepare eggs benedict!)
● Watching Batman Returns with Pete, then having Korean food on 32nd St. with Mandy for dinner
● Going to Carroll Gardens, in Brooklyn, with Pete to see a neat outdoor screening of this unfortunately execrable little indie documentary about the guy in Philly who does the mosaics on South Street
● Brunch in Brooklyn with my college friend Dan (last hung out with when he lived in New Haven, back in '06, at a Bridgeport Bluefish game), then wandering toward the Bridge to check out the Olafur Eliasson Waterfalls. We seemed to share an opinion: kind of interesting, kind of hard to see the point of, not spectacularly impressive in scale next to the bridges and the city itself.
● Walking back to Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge.

At that point I headed to Grand Central and returned to New Haven, though I'm not going to bullet-point that with the "highlights."

Pretty decent weekend! At some point I will do catchup blogging about the first half of the summer, which despite a good amount of heat-wave-fueled laziness has produced some good times.

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It turns out that Stephen Scott and his Bowed Piano Ensemble are indeed touring to the East Coast very shortly, playing a concert at Bard College in August. And they're performing "Vikings of the Sunrise," the piece I really liked on CD. But (drat!) I'll be visiting Nate in Portland when that happens. I already told Pete about this, since he'll be up in that neck of the woods at the time: herewith I continue to apply pressure and encouragement for him to go see this concert, so I can experience it vicariously.

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If you haven't seen this yet, it's pretty funny.


At the dentist's yesterday, the hygienist turned out to be one of those people who's really fascinated by twin stuff. (The twin thing turned up in the brief pre-opening-wide conversation.) Some people just are, it seems. Is it hard to be away from him? (mm, not really.) Have your parents always been able to tell you apart? (yes, though they say they kept the hospital ID bracelets on for a little while at first.) Do you ever get that thing where you're in pain and he feels it? (no.)

"Wow," she said earnestly a little later on, while she was scraping away at my back teeth. "Do you have fillings?" (nn-hnn.) "I'll bet he has the same fillings."

I hadn't thought of that one before, but I kind of want to check now; who knows? I can't even remember how many fillings I have, though. I suppose it'd be freakier if they turned up on opposite sides of our mouths. (The hygienist was pretty awed by the mirror-image twin thing, too, which I described to her.)

More important to day-to-day life: no cavities this time around, gums doin' fine, next dental appointment in January '09.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Our Seventh Full-Length Motion Picture Feature in Color

Pete and I, in conversation, exiting the theater after the new Batman movie in New York this weekend:
JACK: But I just always feel like there's something ghastly about movies like this, you know? The ones that show this moral degradation, and have characters having to face these terrible decisions. I think it's sick that people come up with it, and I think it's sick that they treat it like entertainment.
PETE: So you want to see it again?
JACK: Yeah, I'd see it again.
That's still how I feel about the movie. I'd read the reviews and I knew it'd be dark, so no surprises there, but something really rubs me the wrong way about lacing a blockbuster like this with moral depravity. It doesn't hurt the plot, for sure, to pump up the evil side of the good-versus-evil dynamic. But it's all for sport, and it's not really saying anything meaningful about the supposedly weighty themes it dredges up. And yet it maintains too dour a tone for you to just shrug it off as movie atmosphere. I don't like this. (A similar thing bothered me, and quite a bit more, in "No Country for Old Men," which is both sicker and ostensibly more serious. And "Dark Knight" at least has the courtesy to mostly avoid killing off innocent bystanders, generally limiting the carnage to criminals, cops, and public servants.)

Still and all, it's damn gripping, and Heath Ledger is amazing as the Joker (or was amazing, I guess you'd say), and when the movie lets loose into the action sequences it really rolls along, even if it's all two and a half hours long. So yeah, go see it. We didn't watch it in Imax (the one big screen in NYC having, weeks ago, sold out through August), but I suspect that would be overkill anyway.

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While we're on the topic, this trailer is probably worth watching, if for no other reason than because it's full of Adam West reading bizarre lines.

Friday, July 25, 2008

RIP Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch, suddenly famous in recent months for his Last Lecture, has died; I'll echo my brief thoughts based on the class of his that I took from when I heard about his illness, adding that it's very good that he lived a few months beyond what was expected.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Guano Is Not Great

Christopher Hitchens wrote this article in Slate about sightless salamanders and evolution, inspired by an episode of the BBC documentary series "Planet Earth" about caves. It's not a fantastically convincing takedown of creationism, really, and anyway I think he's missing the big point here. Pete and I actually watched this episode together when he was visiting New Haven a few weekends ago, and the important story in it is that there's this cave in Indonesia with a 30-meter-high pile of bat guano in it, and living on the guano pile is the world's largest population of cockroaches, which are in turn eaten by giant roach-eating cave centipedes, and, meanwhile, the bats themselves are in constant danger of being eaten by bat-eating cave snakes. Okay, so I don't actually know if there's a big point about the existence of God in there, but it's pretty remarkable to see on film.

(The best part might be the "making of" featurette afterwards, where they show one of the photographers reinforcing the crotch of his paper guano-wading suit with duct tape, explaining to the camera that if he doesn't do this then the bugs find a way in.)

"Planet Earth" is, on balance, way less gross than this, and usually pretty breathtaking, and I recommend it highly. High-definition filming meets old-school nature documentary production values and a David Attenborough voiceover: recipe for success.

* * * * *

I would not have guessed that the 1967 Pittsburgh Steelers would make a cameo appearance in the election campaign this year, but this is just kind of an odd story all around. Did McCain really forget this, or was he intentionally refitting his war story for a regional audience and didn't think that he'd get caught doing it?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Burgh Media

Don't know if you saw it already, but the New York Times travel section featured Pittsburgh in their "36 hours" feature last weekend. Go hometown! I think I've hit a little over half of those highlights.

I continue to feel that I haven't spent enough time in Pittsburgh as a grownup. Anytime any of you (brothers) want to spend a non-holiday weekend in the hometown doing interesting city stuff, let me know. (As long as it's not the second week of August, when I'll be visiting Nate in Portland.)

The NY Times did their last "36 hours in Pittsburgh" feature in 2002. Plus their feature on the inclines in 2007. My feeling about the inclines is that they're great, but probably not worth driving across Pennsylvania to see.

Have they extended those bike trails to Washington, DC yet?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Werbung gegen Realität!

German prepackaged food products: do they look as good in real life as they do on the package? No, of course they don't. That's what these people have set out to prove.


Now what the Germans need is a single compound word signifying the feeling that your hackbraten doesn't taste as good because it doesn't live up to the picture on the box.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Found Fanfare

Item #36 on the FAQ of this unofficial Montreal Metro appreciation website:

The three-note sound (there may be more notes during a slower startup) that is produced by the MR-73 trains (orange, yellow, and blue lines) is the sound of a piece of equipment called a peak chopper. It is used to power up the motors on the train in stages, to prevent a power surge.

Coincidentally, the three notes are the same as the first three notes as Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, one of the musical themes for Expo '67.
It's true: you can hear it a couple minutes into this audio recording. Which is pretty neat to listen to itself, somehow.

This via a MetaFilter post about where the similar sound made by certain New York City trains comes from. I don't think those tones, as the other comment remarks, actually sound that much like "Somewhere" from West Side Story, even if the pitches are there. Which is a shame, since more things in this country should sound vaguely like domestic mid-20th-century classical music.

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p.s. 750th blog post!

The Inner Life of the Piano

A couple of months ago I heard a recording of Stephen Scott's music for bowed piano for the first time. It's absolutely astonishing stuff, taking off from a '70s Steve Reich kind of minimalism and drawing these otherworldly washes of harmony out of the instrument. There's a Morning Edition feature from last February that's worth checking out (don't miss the film excerpt, especially), and you can watch a mesmerizing video of a ten-minute piece called "Entrada" online too:

For the intrigued, a long, detailed interview with the composer from '05 is at NewMusicBox.

Scott is a professor at Colorado College, where he leads the ten-piece student bowed piano ensemble that he's run for three decades. They tour, apparently, though I'm not sure when next. The new-music label New Albion has recorded most of his work and has several discs out.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Divine Music Administration

Alex Ross wrote a long article in the last New Yorker about classical music in China. It's worth reading the whole way through. I especially dug his description of the Divine Music Administration in the Temple of Heaven Park, since I was just there and experienced it with many of the same feelings (though not the same level of serendipity). Ross:
On a day when the center of Beijing was overrun by Olympic hullabaloo--in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, President Hu Jintao was lighting the Olympic torch, to the accompaniment of Hollywoodish fanfares--I went for a walk in the august sprawl of the Temple of Heaven complex, and saw a sign pointing to the “Divine Music Administration.” No such place existed in my guidebook, but I followed the arrows nonetheless. After going around in circles for a while, I came upon a series of buildings where court musicians of the Ming dynasty once rehearsed. The buildings had recently been renovated, most of the rooms filled with exhibitions on Chinese musical history. One could bang replicas of ancient bronze bells and strum on a guqin. A young attendant was standing by. When I asked a question, she proceeded to play the guqin with expert grace. She seemed grateful for the attention; in the past hour, I had been the museum’s only visitor.

Then I heard music--not recorded music but the real thing, a slow, grand, forbiddingly austere procession of sonorities. It emanated from behind the closed doors of a hall in the center of the complex. I cracked open the door, but an attendant shooed me away. “Not allowed,” she said. I walked over to the box office and asked if a public performance was scheduled; the man behind the counter shook his head vigorously and said, “No music.” Just when I was preparing to give up, I saw a van approaching. Twenty or so well-dressed Chinese tourists piled out. Guessing that they were headed into the hall, I slipped into their midst, and made it through the doors.

A half-hour performance ensued, with a full complement of Chinese instruments, and players dressed in vividly colored courtly garb. It was a sound at once rigid and brilliant, precise in attack and vibrant in delivery. It was the most remarkable musical experience of my trip. At the time, I didn’t quite know what I was hearing, but I later surmised that I had witnessed a re-creation of zhonghe shaoyue, the music that resounded at the temple while the emperor made sacrifices to Heaven. Confucius, in the Analects, calls it yayue--“elegant music”--and laments that the people are discarding it in favor of vernacular tunes. Now it is a ghost in a phantom museum.

* * * * *

Other musical miscellany: a brief clip from sometime in the mid-1930s of Shostakovich playing the last bit of his first Piano Concerto.

To Do or Not to Do

I made a to-do list while eating brunch today (western omelet, bacon, fries, cup o' coffee at an unpretentious dinerish eatery near downtown) but I'm deciding against taking any steps toward completing it, since it's muggy and I'm sluggish and I spent the last three days going down and then up the east coast as far as Arlington. Also I'm happier sitting on the couch in my underpants with the fan trained directly toward me, drinking Dry Sack medium dry over ice and watching Federer-Nadal at Wimbledon on the TV.

Yep, if'n I was an animal today, I'd be a lazy ol' hound dog, jest a-layin on the porch, flappin' his tail an' mebbe snuffin' at a fly what lands on his nose now an' then. I will not be judged for this.

(Hmm, rain delay at Wimbledon. I haven't actually watched tennis for probably something like fifteen years. I have no allegiance to either Federer or Nadal, though I was glad that Federer pulled off an unlikely fourth-set victory on the brink of losing the championship, since I'd only tuned in a couple of games before that and I get to watch the fifth set in full. This is possibly not the best way to watch an apparently epic match [as the announcers have taken to identifying it] but I'm doing my best. Also, man, can these two play tennis.)

I'm not exactly the first line of entertainment news, but if you haven't heard it already, the rumors about an Arrested Development movie are heating up. Time will presumably tell whether they can finally get that stew going. It is to be hoped.

* * * * *

[update, 4:20 pm EDT] Yeah, that's just some really good tennis.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Class Dismissed!

There's no jollier feeling right before a long weekend (in my nine-to-fiver experience) than being granted the afternoon off from work. This is what my boss gave us not long ago, despite the conditions (not if you have meetings), exemptions (not if you're a contractor), and vaguely rueful tone (he himself doesn't meet the above conditions) of his email.

Happily that left my unbooked, full-time-employed self to my own devices, so I'm back at home now. My big plan for my newly open afternoon is "go get a haircut, [me] hippie", as it's too hot for even the modest level of shagginess I'm currently at. Tomorrow Kyle & I are heading out to Newport, on the coast, to hopefully see a lighthouse and some fireworks and generally get out of town for the holiday. Should be a fun weekend; hope all of yours are too.