Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nosin' in the Rain (addendum)

Nate mentioned this blurry photo of him standing in front of the Met Opera in his Portland rainy-day getup.

During that weekend, at first it was funny to see Nate and Kyle both dressed in hooded rain jackets and waterproof pants, because it made them look like goofy out-of-towners. A little later -- really, not very much time later -- I appreciated their cultural adaptation more. I spent the weekend struggling with my little umbrella, especially after the coat check at the Whitney Museum lost it and replaced it with an even worse little umbrella from their lost and found.

It was still, however, pretty funny to watch Nate blithely take off a layer of pants in the grand stairwell of the Metropolitan Opera.

T-Shirt Retirement: The Next Wave

Not long ago (last summer, I reckon), I reported that I had to cull a number of t-shirts from my repertoire of t-shirts. I effectively removed t-shirt evidence of ever having been in a high school marching band. This represented the second wave of t-shirt-based-life-evidence-removal, having previously decimated any signs of having ever been a Boy Scout.

Well, the next wave of t-shirt send-offs is now underway. Going this time: any sign that I went to college. Retiring are: the Carnegie Mellon "College of H&SS" t-shirt, the Carnegie Mellon "Official Centenary" t-shirt, my Swarthmore college t-shirt (prompter of the ever-popular "No, I didn't go there, but my brother did. He was really smart." statement), and even though I don't really need to, I think I may well retire a still-intact non-descript Carnegie Mellon t-shirt.

Luckily, I never acquired any clothing items bearing Florida International University insignia, so I'll never have to worry about striking them from the record.

And as for the wave after this one, who knows; it may actually be based on taste (eradicating t-shirts like "Coors Light" and "Corona" despite their still being entirely wearable).

(And, as usual, please, don't take this as a sign of me needing any t-shirts; I still have more of them then any human ever needs.)

(Which is also to say, nothing much bloggable on the Pete front.)

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Connecticut White Guy Blues

Thirty, so far, feels like twenty-nine or twenty-eight did. Saturday night I celebrated the last shreds of my twenties with some friends at a bar downtown with wasabi peas to snack on and live blues. The blues band was surprisingly excellent, especially considering they were a bunch of Connecticut white guys. Their frontman was a 40ish guy in a blazer and slacks -- right off the train from Stamford, you'd figure -- but he could sing, and wail on the harmonica too. I did not actually know there'd be live blues. I was drawn there after I learned they had wasabi peas at the bar. It's fun to set yourself up for random discoveries.

The birthday itself was a leisurely and fairly normal Sunday. Bought a new pair of running shoes, finished reading Into the Wild over a burger and a milkshake, taught myself to fix a flat tire on my bike. Maybe it's fitting to observe your milestones with typical, small-scale constructive endeavors. And I can truthfully say I'm feeling optimistic about being 30.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Nosin' in the Rain

As a counterpoint to Jack's impressions of seeing Shostakovich's The Nose at the Met last weekend (in the midst of a downpour that apparently was dumped on the entire Northeast) here's my own takeaway.

* * * * *

The Nose at the Met! A fun show, one worth flying across the country for, even one worth tromping around New York City under an unholy level of rainfall for.

Shostakovich and his various credited co-librettists stick closely to Nikolai Gogol's nineteenth-century story of the same name, an absurdist satire in which the nose of a Russian civil officer, Kovalyov, leaves his face under mysterious circumstances and impersonates a higher-ranking bureaucrat. The composer lets loose his mature early style in the score: At times the music is dark and contemplative but most often it presents shimmering surface of manic, controlled chaos, full of high contrasts, dischords, and instrumental effects (trombone glissandi and pirouetting flexatone lines abound). An interlude for percussion instruments alone, though its avant-gardeness was already being lapped by more extreme developments in 20th century music, still puts out a raw and driving energy that Shostakovich rarely achieved, or tried to achieve, again. Shostakovich also flexes his stylistic versatility. As in his other major early works, humorous and grotesque fragments of dances or marches pop out of the score for a few bars and, just as quickly, are kneaded back into the orchestra. The Nose also features longer-form exercises in style, in the wordless, perfectly churchy choral music for the scene in the Kazan Cathedral, and in the love song for balalaika and voice sung by Kovalyov's servant. Temperamentally, Shostakovich is an excellent match for Gogol, and the music very aptly builds on the author's coyly subversive attitude and on his satirical eye. The opening of scene 5, which musically enacts Gogol's description of "the 'B-r-rh!' with his lips which [Kovalyev] always did when he had been asleep", provides a perfectly ridiculous introduction to the protagonist. And at the very end, when Kovalyov's nose has been restored, Shostakovich's lightly joshing music conveys both the protagonist's genuine relief and his smug self-satisfaction.

The only large misstep in the opera comes at the beginning of Act III, in which Shostakovich et. al. flesh out the scene of the nose's capture as he attempts to flee St. Petersburg in a stage coach. At least some of the material comes from elsewhere in Gogol's writings but, as a couple of vignettes are presented while the police lie in wait for the nose, the opera seems to be treading water. More problematically, there's a darkness here that doesn't appear elsewhere in the opera, particularly related to the policemen, who sing a discontented song (in the Met's production they posture mutinously towards their commanding officer) and later harass a woman selling bagels. The tone of these episodes -- not to mention the overloaded depiction of bad-acting by the Czarist police, which concurs with the party line while it nods towards the USSR's own thugs -- appears almost verbatim in Shostakovich's next opera, Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, and it works like gangbusters in that work, which has a much stronger current of hostility and sexual violence. Here, though, it adds a sour note, and forms the only deviation from the lighter tone of the Gogol story.

All roles seemed universally well sung to me. Shostakovich doesn't provide many opportunities for vocal pyrotechnics but Paulo Szot (as Kovalyov) and Andrei Popov (as the police inspector) stood out in conveying the unselfconscious buffoonery of their characters. The orchestra, directed by Valery Gergiev, sounded energetic and precise throughout, spot-on technically and stylistically.

The Met production by William Kentridge builds on the score's Soviet-modernist, let's-put-on-a-show-until-they-make-us-take-it-off sense of anarchy. The nose is most often represented onstage by a person wearing a large, paper-wrapped nose suit, which sets a vaudevillian tone. Animated sequences are projected onto the set, sometimes forming grotesque little ballets between scenes and sometimes integrating with the action onstage; the English translation/reduction of the dialog, rather than being presented as supertitles, is beamed onto the stage. It all constitutes a postmodern multimedia extravaganza, yet one that looks back to early Soviet Russia's spirit of artistic experimentation in its brash angles and energy, a la mode but retro too. The animations have none of the erasures that I associate most strongly with Kentridge's style; they feature moving collages of shapes, words, and cut-out images, recalling the visual styles of Eastern European cartoons (inevitably, I think of this as the Worker and Parasite aesthetic; stupid Simpsons, broke my imagination) and, aptly, Terry Gilliam's animated Monty Python sequences. Archival film is interpolated too, often with cartoon noses pasted over the human faces. Footage of the young Shostakovich at a piano appears prominently in a gleefully meta sequence just before the nose's absence is discovered: As the percussion interlude thunders away, the composer hammers at the keyboard, the high end of which is projected on top of the sleeping Kovalyov, who thrashes about as though having Kafka-esque, pre-metamorphosis nightmares, like a puppet on the musical string of the composer-puppeteer.

The apparently inevitable Stalin reference -- the nose, in a cartoon late in the game, sketches a quick, graffito-like portrait -- adds little but doesn't detract much either. The problem with using Stalinism as a thematic crutch in productions of Shostakovich operas (predominantly the far more popular Lady MacBeth) is a subject for some other time, but the main issue is that it strips the conflict down into a one-dimensional contest between Stalin on one side and Shostakovich / Society / Art on the other. (And, of course, since you're watching an opera instead of a May Day Parade, you already know who won.) The Met's Nose production does much better elsewhere at playing in a darkly humorous way with the general ideas of impostorship and thwarted claims to power: In an animated interlude, the nose, riding a decrepit horse, tries to balance itself on a statue's pedestal; in another, a silhouetted figure tries to march with a large banner into a stiff headwind, the flag disintegrating overhead as he is continually blown backwards.

The production suffers from some practical flaws, at least from the upper reaches of the family circle seating. The texts projected onto the stage (most often onto the thin edge of a raised platform) were hard to make out to the point of illegibility, especially when lights were shining on the same areas. More critically, some key self-referential commentary on the end of the story (added in from Gogol's narration in a nice touch) is projected onto the top of the backdrop, where the top of the set blocks it from sight for us peasants in the nosebleed seats. Also, in the Kazan Cathedral scene, the solo vocal lines -- already at a disadvantage against the powerful orchestral forces -- are balanced too softly against the choral and instrumental parts; the scene intends to represent a hard-to-hear conversation within a crowded and noisy space but the effect is mere inaudibility. These are just rough edges, though, on a pleasurable overall experience.

Part of seeing this work performed is to lament, not for the first or last time, that Shostakovich's operatic career ended so prematurely -- His masterful Lady MacBeth was famously suppressed by official pressure and the political culture made it impossible for him to write non-propagandistic vocal music until later in life, when he mostly stuck to song cycles. I agree with the view that he directed his narrative impulse into his symphonic output, which starting with the fifth symphony have more Romantic, more plainly expressive trajectories than his earlier works -- in which view there's no net loss. Still, as a creator of operas he could have been another Janacek, maybe another Britten.

* * * * *

Afterwards, Jack snapped a picture of me outside the theater, standing in the rain beneath the poster advertising the show: It may or may not have turned out clear enough even for Internet display, given the rain, but it would show me weathering the elements Pacific Northwest-style, with hooded waterproof coat and rainpants. It was coming down as hard as it did all weekend, then, or maybe it seemed that way with the rain pelting the hard surface of the still very inorganic Lincoln Center plaza.

The subway station had an atmosphere all its own: It was wet and cold, mostly, from the water and (I think) from a collective understanding of everybody else's wetness and coldness. A busker with a tenor sax was playing odd, disjointed musical phrases -- very Shostakovich-like, and for a couple of minutes I thought, "Huh. My brain is really trying to fit whatever he's playing into the mold of the opera I've been listening to a couple of hours." I mentioned it to Jack and he suggested that maybe it actually is... At one of the many breaks in the music I asked the saxophonist what he was playing. "It's from The Nose, by Shostakovich. Did you just come from there?" Yes. "It's pretty hardcore." He asked whether we thought the opera had a cloaked message about the Soviet autocracy so we chatted about that for a minute (short answer: yes). He returned to playing; from over his shoulder he seemed to be playing disembodied excerpts from the piano line in a vocal score. At the end of a page he'd trail off, turn the page, start playing again. A train galloped past on the express track; the ceiling above it, right before or right after the subway passed, dropped about a bathtub's worth of rainwater onto the track with a prolonged and sloppy splat. Only in New York, with Shostakovich, and with rain.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


A few days after hearing Shostakovich's The Nose at the Met Opera, you're not left singing any melodies. No, by and large it's a riot of atonal orchestral firecrackers, grinding harmonic machinery, distorted folk-dance parodies, fractured anti-arias, and bizarro-world vocal counterpoint, all of it hurled lovingly toward a vision of subversive 1920s absurdity via Nikolai Gogol. So even if it's not "catchy" in the usual sense, there's a lot in it not to forget. Plus, it's quite funny, and it's got a careening, cartoonish logic that keeps the audience laughing.

Nate and I had a grand old time taking this in, as you might imagine.

Shostakovich was all of 22 years old when he wrote The Nose, in the late 1920s, and he didn't stick with the style for long. (He grew out of it to some extent, I think, before the cultural authorities made him and everyone else drop the avant-garde shenanigans completely.) So it's a wild thing to hear: I don't know of anyone else who composed quite like this.

The performance was top-flight. What I remember most strongly is Paulo Szot, as the noseless Kovalyov, singing a couple of laments with legitimate emotional force, even as the scenes are remorselessly spiked with absurdity and lack of sympathy. Andrei Popov, tenor, is the police inspector, and he's excellent at conveying his declamatory high notes as threatening and ridiculous in equal measure.

William Kentridge's staging--generally abstract, and heavy on video projections, animations, and general chaos--is a compelling visual analogue to Shostakovich's aesthetic modus operandi, and a hoot. The opera includes a bunch of high-energy interludes between scenes, which is a great opportunity for Kentridge's animations to take hold. The title nose usually appears onstage in a full-sized, newspaper-colored nose costume, with legs in black pants and shoes. It gets to do a good deal of zany dancing around, which is also a hoot.

Operas should generally come equipped with at least one folk song accompanied by two balalaikas and a flexatone. Oh, I miss hearing it already.

Additionally, the opera inspired me to finally read a couple of Gogol stories, which are excellent. The Nose has a magnificent narrator, who at a couple of key plot points notes that the proceedings are "enveloped in mist" and cannot be explained, and then, on the story's final page, adopts a satirical critical voice and proclaims a blustery lack of understanding why anyone would write about such an event in the first place.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Equinox ≠ Equilux

Here's something I learned this week! The day in which daylight and nighttime are perfectly balanced at 12 hours each is not the equinox. The equinox is defined by the tilt of the Earth's axis relative to the sun, not by the balance of daylight and nighttime. And at the equinox there are more than 12 hours of daylight, because it gets light out before the sun fully breaks the horizon. It's not obvious, but it makes sense when you read about it on Wikipedia.

The day where your hours are 12 light and 12 dark is called the equilux, and it varies by latitude. In Connecticut it's this Wednesday, although it'll certainly get second billing underneath St. Patrick's Day. Nonetheless: a very merry equilux to everyone! I'll be celebrating with evening margaritas, although that has more to do with it being my friend Julia's birthday.

I'm also excited by Daylight Saving Time, since it means it's once again acceptably light out when the workday ends. Or at least, it would be acceptably light out if it wasn't still overcast and raining like it was all weekend.

Tangentially related items of possible interest: Sunrise/Sunset tables from the U.S. Naval Observatory; Sunrise/Sunset YouTube from Fiddler on the Roof.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Springtime Small Ball and the Usual City Enjoyments

Just back from sunny Florida, which by the last day had become windy, thundery, and lashed with a warm rain. The weather played fair enough before that to watch five Pirates spring training games in five days, as planned, with the parents (and, for the last two games, Pete). Observing this much spring training baseball will really slow down your mental metabolism, as will the pleasantly lazy pace of vacation days in general. I feel relaxed and restored, and ready for it to be twenty degrees warmer in the Northeast.

And with that it's immediately off to New York for the rest of the weekend to watch an avant-garde Shostakovich opera with Nate, plus to stay up late on Sunday listening to John Luther Adams. (Monday should be fun, fun, fun at work.) And in between, likely a MoMA excursion plus who knows what. In any case I expect my mental wheels to speed up again: yes, the whirlwind of high-energy art appreciation, best enjoyed while you're young. Which is to say in the next ten days or so.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Not So Great Baseball Expectations

A couple of days ago Jack mentioned to me that one fun thing about watching the Pirates in spring training is seeing some borderline-major-league-ready players like Anthony Claggett and Chris Jakubauskas. There's no compelling baseball reason to see them (their readiness lies on the Pirates' major-league borderline, remember) -- but one of the ways we can entertain ourselves in lieu of rooting for a competitive team is dashing off little alternative identities for players based on their names. (Exhibit one would be Larry Broadway.)

So here, compiled from email exchanges between Jack and me in September and January, is a short dramatic piece about aspiring Pirates pitcher Anthony Claggett, formerly of the Yankees' minor league system.


Jack: Meanwhile they've signed another triple-A pitcher, Anthony Claggett, who judging by his name is a soot-faced Dickensian orphan boy.


Gravel-voiced bullpen coach: Claggett!

Claggett: Yes coach?

Coach: Go get the next hitter out. And be speedy now! Go! To the mound with you!

Oh yes sir! I will. Oh, I shan't elevate the fastball as I did last week.

(extremely loud baseball-bat crack)

Coach: CLAGGETT!!!

Oh! Oh sorry coach!


Gravel-voiced bullpen coach: Claggett! Doff your greatcoat and toss that ball about a bit. Mr. Lincoln has developed a deathly cough and shall need you to relieve him next inning.

Claggett: (cap in both hands) Sir! I shall make the greatest haste, but would it be too much to trouble you for an extra coal for the stove? The bullpen is dreadful cold!

Coach: Pshaw! You skinny wastrels must always go on about the cold! I tell you, boy, if perchance you appear in an inning without two men reaching base out of five, then talk to me of the cold!

Claggett: Indeed, sir... But might I not at least have a cupful of potted barley to eat, or the rind of your apple there? I grow so faint throwing the fastball on an empty belly, and I ha'n't any food since last evening but a glass of small-beer and a packet of sunflower seeds.

Coach: (screws up eyebrows in apoplectic rage) 'Swounds, Claggett, you shall go to the pitcher's mound now or your supper shall be the back of my hand!

Claggett: Yes, sir.

(extremely loud baseball-bat crack)

Coach: CLAGGETT!!!

Claggett: Oh! Oh, unhappy game!



Gravel-voiced bullpen coach: Claggett!

Claggett: (humbly holding baseball in both hands) I am here, sir.

Coach: Claggett, good. Boy, I am to inform you that you are of no more use to the team. That new Spaniard, Mister Dotel I believe it is, will have your bunk, and I have informed Master Devon in the clubhouse that you are not to take your supper there any longer.

Claggett: Oh... Is that all there is, then, sir?

Coach: It is.


Claggett: Then I understand it's to be the cannery for me again, sir?

Coach: (his face suddenly purple and contorted) Hell's bells, Claggett, must I spell it out for you so plain? You have been cast off, you idle-minded ruffian!

Claggett: I am sorry. It's merely that in the cannery I'm wont to grow so dreadfully tubercular, sir, and I daresay I'll lose many more a finger than I did in your offseason conditioning program.

(barely containing rage) I might only say to you, boy, that your fate would not be half as sorry if you could be troubled to pitch a ball within a Dutch yard of the home-plate once in a fortnight. Now leave this place before I flay the hide from your backside and make it into a baseman's mitt!

Claggett: Yes, sir. I'll only throw this last ball to that gentleman, there, taking his batting exercise...

(sickeningly loud crack of bat on ball)

Coach: CLAGGETT!!!

Claggett: Ah, me! What sorrow there is in baseball, in life!


Jack: Oh, Claggett. I'm gonna miss the poor little scamp.

With that Jack segued immediately into a short riff on Jakubauskas as an "
overweight, middle-aged, ambiguously Latvian man who owns a failing steakhouse", but I think you get the idea. Meanwhile, as noted above, real-life Claggett cleared waivers and is in the Pirates camp right now, so I suppose spring delivers fresh hope even to the very meanest of relief pitchers.

Holding Down Ft. Blog, Sort Of

So I believe I am in the minority of my immediate family that is not currently in south Florida for the Pirates' spring training -- Jack's in Bradenton or Tampa or something with the parents and I believe Pete is about to join them, or just has. Mike is, I'm pretty sure, back in Shanghai, but my ability to pinpoint the hemisphere containing my youngest sibling has dipped over the past couple of years.

I'm at home in Portland, slightly jealous that I can't sensibly fit the pre-baseball season fun into my annual vacation sort-of-planning that already includes a bunch of jaunts back East -- Portland, as I was complaining to Kyle the other day, is a beautiful city, but I wish it could be relocated with its environs, with no other changes, to suburban Philadelphia or something. But -- unlike the titular Atlas of Ayn Rand's hateful brick of a pop-philosophy novel, which I finally finished reading-for-the-sake-of-reading-it a little while ago -- I will not shrug off my responsibility to keep the mild interest flowing here, lest it freeze and burst the tubes. At least until Thursday night! Then I fly to New York for a long weekend.

The trip allows a mutual birthday gift between Jack and me -- thirty in a couple weeks! -- of going to see the Metropolitan Opera's production of Shostakovich's The Nose. Besides looking forward to the show for musical reasons, the occasion feels pleasingly apt to me: Age 30 marks almost exactly a half-lifetime of unseemly Shostakovich fanboydom (fanboyishness?) for me, which I date to early 10th grade. Also, I undertook my very first visit to New York for Shostakovich-related reasons something like a decade ago, when I roped my college chum Clinton into taking the train there over spring break (with a pleasant stopover at Swarthmore), mostly so I could see the composer's other opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk in performance for the first time (also at the Met, also Valery Gergiev conducting), and as a bonus catch the Philadelphia Orchestra under David Robertson at Carnegie Hall, playing Shostakovich's sixth symphony (along with Weill's Threepenny Opera suite, the actual highlight of that program, and if memory serves Prokofiev's second violin concerto, played unmemorably by someone).

This time around Jack and I will also spend Sunday evening at (Le) Poisson Rouge, apparently the place for the hip kids of classical music these days, to hear some John Luther Adams and what looks like maybe some European minimalist-ish art pop. And Kyle will be along too, though not for the musical stuff, to visit with a couple of her friends, which is nice because we can put up the armrest between us on the airplane. Too, we can go to museums together during business hours on Friday and Monday and add to our literally gillions of hours of entertaining conversation together, but the airplane armrest thing seriously is a major value-added of traveling with her. Good times will be had!

I bring up the fact of Pretty Woman-ing myself across the country for operatic purposes in part because, though I haven't been dwelling on the milestone birthday, it does have me thinking (along with Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers) about the rule of thumb that to master any task or craft you need to do it for 10,000 hours, or 10 years or whatever it is. Because, I guess, 10,000, 10, 30, all big round numbers. And if I try to think of the things I've been doing enough of to get really good at in the past decade, it's a pretty uninspiring list. I haven't had a lot of sustained hobbies; I've gone the pretty common route of former creative writing majors in that I don't actually write in a structured way; I've parlayed a pretty top-shelf undergraduate computer science education (if one I executed without much direction or enthusiasm) into a badly unspectacular software engineering career. But I have been reading a lot of books and listening to a lot of music... Shostakovich's body of work in particular is unique for me in that I've consistently listened my way more deeply into it over my entire adult life. And I certainly don't perform it, and "interpret" would be the wrong word, but I do respond to it in my idiosyncratic way and roll it up into my concept of the world. (Really, it's kind of foundational at this point; it was kind of neat a few years back to realize that reading about gross political malfeasance could get the opening fanfare of his Michelangelo Suite, a work very much concerned with the misdoings of the state, stuck in my head.) In that way and others, if nothing else, I've gotten reasonably expert at being me.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Just Enough Time on My Hands

Ah the wide world of poetry. Tuesday night, my program had its first-annual thesis read-in at a local cafe (walking distance from my apartment!). Not officially program-sanctioned, but student-sanctioned, which is more important. This is what it looks like when I read poetry in public, which really only happens every 2-3 years, at this rate (photos courtesy of my friend Eugenia). I had crazier shit planned than what ended up happening, but DARPA and the MAAD caught wind of what I was going to do and pulled their usual strings to keep it from happening. Nonetheless:

Towards a simultaneity of intensity and half-assedness

"There once was a man from Nantucket..."

Monday, March 01, 2010

Vegan Culinary Note of the Day

Quinoa! Quinoa rocks out pretty hard, as it turns out. Nica's had one box of quinoa in stock over the weekend (I don't believe they usually carry it) so I've just cooked quinoa for the first time. Quinoa is like alien fish eggs of deliciousness. Everyone! Go eat quinoa! You can put it with sweet potatoes and red onion and a pepper into a salad, in the exact proportions specified by Mark Bittman. Good times.