Thursday, April 29, 2010

Penderecki Conducts Penderecki

I like these university classical concerts that you'd never hear anywhere else. Tonight's was the Philharmonia, conducted by a visiting Krzysztof Penderecki in four of his own works. Penderecki is in his late 70s, rotund, with a trim white beard and a distinguished air about the podium. Largely on account of his composition style, his conducting tended towards broad strokes: cues, indications, shaping ideas in the air, beating time. The Philharmonia was definitely "on" tonight, with the solo woodwinds sounding especially robust.

They started with the classic Penderecki sound, via the famous Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima of 1960 and then the wackier Capriccio for violin and orchestra of 1967. I wonder if the Threnody is one of those pieces destined to sound better in recording, where the timbres are uncannier more urgent and the textural changes are more sudden. Still it's a wild piece to watch the strings saw into live. The Capriccio is a strong piece -- not exactly humorous, but animated with a perverse and very noisy spirit, and somehow humane throughout. There are the balance problems you'd expect between a solo violin and a massive orchestra, not only acoustically but existentially: during interludes I kept forgetting there was even a soloist standing by. (She was an unpretentiously dressed Syoko Aki, by the way, university faculty, and she brought off that solo part rigorously and well.)

Skip ahead to 2008 and a horn concerto unfortunately subtitled "Winterreise," with William Purvis soloing. Penderecki, in the intervening decades, has abandoned the avant-garde for a serious-toned romanticism. The horn concerto has a lighter tone than any later-stage Penderecki I've listened to, but it's not a very good piece. First and foremost, the horn doesn't have anything particularly memorable to play. The orchestra's music sounds surprisingly cinematic, like filler in a lesser John Williams soundtrack, only with no tunes and a less indulgent orchestration. So despite some bright spots it was a weird disappointment of a piece.

The second half of the program was held in the imposing presence of Penderecki's Fourth Symphony, from 1989. Subtitled "Adagio," the symphony is cast in a continuous half-hour movement, predominantly in a tragic, prophetic tone. It can be oppressive, but it does command attention. The main theme, endlessly reworked, is a sinking fanfare gesture, introduced in searing brass with antiphonal trumpets. There's a lot in common with the sterner parts of symphonic Shostakovich -- tremolo strings, glumly meandering wind solos --- although Penderecki doesn't go in for anything emotive. In the second half of the symphony there's a long contrasting section with churning fugal activity in the strings, which dissipates the dour atmosphere for a while. The symphony ends more or less in the same place it began. I wouldn't call it an enjoyable listen, but it's compelling.

* * * * *
CORRECTION [5/1/10, 8 AM]: I listened to the first few minutes of the Fourth Symphony on the Naxos listening library yesterday, since I had a nagging sense I'd misremembered the opening. True! The sinking fanfare gesture is actually introduced in threatening low strings, with the searing brass holding dissonant chords behind it. Regrets for the error.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Poetry Blood in the Virtual Waters

'Cause these media-types are like sharks in a frensy. For you public radio enthusiasts, some PRI coverage of the Miami Poetry Collective.

The MPC was up in Tampa/St. Pete over the weekend, doing our thing at a farmer's market in downtown St. Petersburg. A most excellent time, featuring some delightful poem topics (my favorite of the day being "Muscovy Ducks and SCOBY," which fell to me since I was the only poet at the fair that could readily identify the acronym SCOBY as "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast," thanks to kombucha's place near the top of my favorite beverages matrix--the poem featured, to everyone's--I read it out loud, at the orderers' request--delight, an image of a flush of muscovy ducks lifting off from the scum and muck of a pond like a mother being lifted from its tub. And if you're not familiar with kombucha, it's worth making yourself familiar, especially if you like the taste of sour fermented liquids (one of the flavors coming up out of the somewhat mysterious colony of symbiotes comes from the beloved brettanomyces yeast, which beer enthusiasts will recognize as the souring agent of lambics, guezes, and other open-vat Belgian-style beers)) from some delightful humans. Poets got high-fives and hugs at a rate well above that of Miami.

St. Petersburg was the first city in Florida besides Key West that seemed downright livable to me (bike lanes!!!). Fueled by farm-fresh, less-than-20-minutes-from-bush-to-consumption blueberries, the eight of us poets roamed about St. Pete on a beautiful, flush-with-bicyclists (there was both a triathalon and a fixie rally going on) weekend. Here's some pictorial documentation from my friend Nick. This was our first poetic venture outside of the confines of Miami, and it definitely went well enough that it seems like something that we're gonna keep trying to do.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Cats Playing Schoenberg

Courtesy of my neighborhood museum of contemporary art, check out this youtube video made by Cory Arcangel of edited clips of cats-playing-piano pieced together to perform Schoenberg's Opus 11.

You can see all three movements and read about it here. Without too much comment, I'll simply say that I approve.

And not to underestimate of mild interest's own homegrown Nintendo-mod videos, Arcangel also made this video of Super Mario clouds scrolling by, which is pretty cool too:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Spring Training, a Month and a Half Ago Now

Right: so, this is old news by now, but back in mid-March I flew down to Bradenton, Fla., for a wonderfully relaxing week of Pirates spring training baseball, setting down on sleepy Ana Maria Island, where the parents had rented a house. Pete came up for a few of those days, too, so we had some enjoyable Partial Family Time. Early mornings with coffee and watching the sun rise, long walks along the beach, beers over dinner, wine over Boggle games to 100. The ballgames, even longer and lazier than normal baseball games, appeared in the afternoons with pleasing regularity.

It felt like an early preview of retirement living -- being in Bradenton, Fla., in itself contributes a lot to that sense -- but, being not even 30 years of age at the time, I knew my retirement to be a long way off.

The charm of spring training ballgames is seeing your major-leaguer players in a minor-league environment, with fans who are more likely to be following the team closely. The Buccos' park seats about 4500, and usually about half the crowd or more would be rooting for the opposing team. (Even for, say, the Minnesota Twins. I guess the better the team, the more fans will flock south to watch them play spring training games.)

Spring training games are longer and rougher around the edges, as you'd expect. The pitchers are all stretching out their arms, so you see a lot of two- or three-inning appearances with a lot of rust on display. The final game we watched ended as a 16-15 loss against Tampa Bay. (True to form, the Pirates ended that one after having the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the ninth.) And you get to see a lot of the younger guys get out there, nice in the case of the Pirates since so many of their prospects are more interesting than the major leaguers at this point.

Garrett Jones is fun to watch, particularly in drilling a home run off C.C. Sabathia at the Yankee's park in Tampa, where we headed for one game. (The Yankees's park, unsurprisingly, is bigger and much less charming than the Pirates' field, and they eschew cheesy between-innings entertainment. And it's called Steinbrenner Field, natch.) Andrew McCutchen is, as everyone says, the most dynamic player the Pirates have now. Aki Iwamura seemed intriguing as the stopgap free-agent second baseman. Brandon Moss played abysmally and seems to have finally lost his opportunity to stay in the outfield. Steve Pearce struggled mightily, at one point running to a foul pop-up from first base and colliding with double-A catcher Hector Jimenez, who'd been parked under the damn ball for ten seconds. Jiminez caught the ball and then leveled a wordless glare at Pearce for about two seconds. (You don't see these details from your vantage point in a major-league park!) Unremarkable but still interesting appearances were made by Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez, Tony Sanchez, Gorkys Hernandez, Danny Moskos.

"Steve Pearce!"
Despite a few inspiring wins the team's already doing horribly in the part of the season that counts (having notched their worst-ever inning, followed shortly by the worst-ever loss that keyed their worst-ever 3-game series), so it figures to be a long season ahead. (Let's spare a quick thumbs-up to Chris Jakubauskas being out of the hospital, after getting drilled in the head with a line drive on the twelfth pitch of his emergency spot-start last night.) But it's still good to have seen the team up close. I should get to see a couple of games this season in person, but not more than a couple.

A couple of satisfying culinary highlights of Bradenton: there's an excellent doughnut shop called Turner Donut a few blocks from the ballpark, a mom-and-pop establishment with sticky buns that are huge and sour-cream donuts that are platonically ideal. This is now hands-down my favorite donut shop anywhere, particularly as I've only ever really lived around Dunkin' Donuts locations. A barbecue joint called Mr. Bones has a coffin full of ice and bottled beer (Rogue Dead Guy being apropos and, obviously, delicious), cozy voodoo-highlighted decor, and delicious delicious meat. (We went here before Pete arrived, of course.) And the final evening's dinner was at an unpretentious little seafood spot out on a pier at the tip of Ana Maria Island, where you can eat fresh fish and watch the dolphins periodically appearing in the shallow water. Pete, you can get fed up with following the PBC Blog, but you have to admit it was a good place for Dad to scout around for Bradenton recommendations.

Memo to Steelers: Draft Other Pouncey Twin

I'm excited about the Steelers' first-round draft pickup, center Maurkice Pouncey, because he's an identical twin. Intriguingly, Maurkice declared for the draft this year as a junior; his brother, Michael, remains at the University of Florida.

My great and unrealistic hope is that the Steelers also draft Michael Pouncey next year. Because how often do you have the opportunity to put identical twins on your football team? Michael is also a center, but like at Florida, they could move him over to guard. Or else dress only one of them for games, then surreptitiously swap in the other one at halftime. (Man, that center, it's like he could play 120 minutes out there.) Granted, they've expressed a desire to "have our own image instead of always being the Pouncey twins." I can relate! But as a twin and a Steelers fan, I want the team to take the opportunity. They have a year to think about it.

Anyway, Maurkice Pouncey sounds like a good guy with a good character, and that's great. Any need to elaborate on that? No?

Meanwhile, I love the trade to get Bryant McFadden back, since with Larry Foote and Antwaan Randel-El already re-signed, you can really say they're Getting the Band Back Together in a significant way.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Empire State of Mind Never Ended

Selections from Kevin Volans' 1st quartet, White Man Sleeps, by ACME

An unexpected, Internet souvenir of NYC: Via Alex Ross, Q2 has a recording of an American Contemporary Music Ensemble set at (Le) Poisson Rouge that Jack and I heard on our New York trip a month ago, with music of John Luther Adams and Kevin Volans.

I most enjoyed the introduction to Volans' string quartets, which have a warm, large-grained minimalist style, reminiscent of Philip Glass' fifth quartet. They came across very well with the instruments amplified, too, especially by giving ACME's quartet players a hearty pizzicato (for example in the first White Man Sleeps movement, embedded above). Adams' murmuring The Farthest Place set the tone of the concert especially well, too. His In a Treeless Place, Only Snow probably would have sounded better unplugged -- in the club, the instrumental layers seemed to pile up on each other rather than blend, though the Q2 recording sounds cleaner -- but it was a really likeable performance overall.

Above, the living-room window view from the New Jersey apartment of Kyle's friends who graciously put us up for the long weekend. This was taken on Monday morning, once the city skyline was visible again through the weather.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mock Football 2K1D0

Tonight begins this year's NFL Draft, which the league hopes will attract greater than usual TV ratings due to a widely-reported glut of talent and, more so, because they've stretched the draft into a days-long progression of marginally comprehensible, sports-related goings-on, perhaps putting it into direct competition with cricket in the international athletics world. I have nothing to add to my mock mock draft from last year (you only get so many NFL Draft-related jokes in a lifetime) and anyway by the time I get to posting this the first round will most likely be over, putting an end to most of the speculative fun.

On the topic of Mock Football Anything, though, a few words about Monday Night Jihad by Jason Elam and Steve Yohn. I read it a few months ago because "debut suspense novel from a 14-year NFL place kicker and his Colorado pastor" was my second-favorite noun phrase of 2009 (although Elam just retired from the game) and it turned out to be a serviceable, probably inaugural entry in the genre of Christian Terror Football Thrillers. The prose is watery and the characters are generally stock, despite some nice detail work here and there, and the depictions of R-rated-movie-level violence too often come off as sadistic. The authors put their evangelical and Fox-News-Republican worldview in plain sight, though in both respects it's understated enough to come off as sort of affable, at least compared to something truly noxious like Left Behind. (That, and the lead character's conservative cred is built up with the same signifiers a lazy, left-wing caricature would use -- the Fox News watching, the Ford Expedition, the basement full of hunting trophies -- which along with the fact that his name is "Riley Covington" makes it almost possible to interpret him as a joke.) The book holds two big pleasures for me, though, both of which -- to conform this post to my declared subject -- relate to the fundamental Mockness of its football contents.

First and foremost is the mysterious villain at the center of the story. The novel focuses on Riley Covington, pro football linebacker and ex-special ops guy, but its most promising character by far is the Iraqi terrorist operative Hakeem Qasim, also known as The Cheetah, who [CHRISTIAN TERROR FOOTBALL SPOILER ALERT] leads a double life in the West as Riley's teammate and best friend Salvatore Ricci, a purportedly Italian soccer star who broke into American football as a running back. It is he who, having wormed his way into the underbelly of American culture, orchestrates the plot behind the titular Monday night attack. Now, this plot to terrorize America -- described as an "all too possible scenario" in one of the back cover blurbs -- consists of the following steps:
  • Become radicalized during the first Gulf War when American bombs destroy your family's home.
  • Grow up under the wing of your terrorist uncle, who trains you to move effortlessly within Western culture.
  • Pass as Italian.
  • Become a star soccer player for A.C. Milan.
  • Become the first European soccer star to become a running back for a professional American football team. Excel at your new sport.
  • Found a terror cell in the U.S.
  • Take an American wife and have a daughter.
  • Wait a couple of years.
  • Now that the West has let its guard down, bide your time until your team is scheduled to play a Monday night game. Smuggle a duffel bag's worth of explosives into the stadium's player entrance and hand it off to one of your half-dozen or so collaborators. When the suicide bombings begin throughout the stadium, shortly before halftime, disappear into a service hallway and trade your uniform with... You know, I forget what exactly happens at this point. Anyway, disappear into the night, presumed dead, and melt back into Italy until Riley Covington comes for you at your safehouse.
I'm leaving out a prefatory suicide attack on the Mall of America and the big finale, but this is the gist of it. All of this plays out in as goofily implausible a way as it sounds, and not just because Iraq is not a significant player in international terrorism directed at the U.S. Rather than snarking on it further I'll just point to Jon Stewart's epic takedown of birther logic about Barack Obama's birth certificate (starting at about 5:30 in that video), which proceeds along the same lines as I would, except it's much funnier and has the edge that a disturbing percentage of the real-life Riley Covingtons out there actually believe it's true.

Qasim/Sal emerges from this as a lost opportunity for character development, though, in that he shows possibly unintentional signs of a nascent split personality: The scenes of his doubts about abandoning his American family and life take place before the novel's big reveal, and the authors' forced coyness about his identity plays up the sense of self-alienation. Plus every time he speaks as Hakeem he slips from standard (if presumably Italian-accented) English into a sweaty Hollywood-terrorist vernacular. ("Who am I, friend? I am Hakeem Qasim! What am I? I am an Iraqi! I am a child of Allah! I am a predator, and America is my prey!") I really wish Elam and Yohn had played him to the rafters as a Hitchcock-type, Tony-Perkins-in-Psycho head case. The inevitable, overheated plot twists that would have followed from that would have been a lot of fun. And there's no risk that some Mock Psychology would somehow discredit the book's Mock Geopolitical Landscape.

The second element of Mock awesomeness comes from the fact that none of the NFL's names, players, personalities, or other properties are actually used in the book. For instance, it's the PFL, not the NFL. Riley plays for the "Colorado Mustangs", not the "Denver Broncos". The Pittsburgh Steelers become the "Pittsburgh Miners" (come on). The Jamal Lewis-type Baltimore running back who's killed by an exploding football is named "James Anderson", and so on. In itself this approach is pretty standard for copyright-protected institutions and it's clear that Elam and Yohn are just having fun with it even before you get to the "Twin Cities Norsemen". But what's more fun, and what they seem not to have thought as much about, is the visible seam between Mock and Real. Monday Night Football, for one, is real. College football, unlike the pro level, is unexpurgated -- adding some weirdness to the claim that Covington's drew comparisons in college to former Baylor linebacker Mike Singletary. (How, I wonder, did that guy not go on to a storied PFL career? Would the Chicago Stockmen not have him?)

My favorite Mock/Real collision, though, is that John Madden has been replaced with "[Bay Area] Bandits' ex-coach-turned-announcer Jim Madison", but we still see a kid playing Madden Football on an X-Box! I just love to think about how the gamers in the book's world must wonder about that. "So who's this pasty John Madden guy on the cover? Couldn't they get a coach? I mean, I guess he knows something about football, because it's a pretty good game. But it's not like he's Jim Madison or something." What is John Madden himself like in this Mock Universe? Is he a game developer who kind of regrets never becoming a football coach? Does he hate the Pittsburgh Miners and not really know why?

Okay, and the third pleasure: The number of times the authors refer to their protagonist by his full "Riley Covington" name, especially in the early going. It just gets more ridiculous every time.

I'll note in closing that the novel seems intent on never being filmed by a Disney-owned film company: It depicts thousands of people dying on Monday Night Football (part of the Disney entertainment empire) and ends with a climactic, attempted terror attack at Disneyland. Perhaps that's why Monday Night Jihad: The Movie hasn't made it to the silver screen yet. That and/or persistent, anti-Christian Hollywood bias, and/or the fact that Kirk Cameron would have to gain about 40 pounds of muscle to look like a credible threat as a pass rusher.

This is What Blogs do, Right? Link to Other Stuff on the Internet?

Just in case you were worried that the media frenzy surrounding the Miami Poetry Collective had halted, links of the day (interesting also, to note that one of Nate and my poetry professors from our undergrad days, Jim Daniels, is also mentioned in that article about poetry-off-the-page):

An online article which covers both the MPC and O, MIAMI.

The local PBS segment about the MPC.

Bloggoversary '10

Four years of blog, as of today! I have no major insights (and I also have Spanish homework to cram before going to work) so I'll just offer up a self-satisfied "Yep." Yep!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Noted Mostly Without Comment

That's KFC's new chicken sandwich, if you can call it that. Because you know what sucks about buns? It's that they don't cover your fingers with a film of chicken grease.

Not to make sweeping generalizations, but . . . I kind of want to blame society in general for this.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Comics on the Internet

Wow, so I've gotten rather brazenly self-advertorial here, but...

my ten-years-in-the-making comic with my friends Nick and Shawn is finally in print!!!

Who'd've thought it'd ever happen?

You can check out a preview here, then go buy a copy for yourself here (family members, you can buy one directly from me at some point, rather than troubling Nick with the shipping via his site), then buy a Time Log t-shirt, and get the word out to everyone.

The time travel buddy comedy for the 21st century is here!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Revolution 9

We all like the Pirates, right? But the Pirates are terrible. So I'm going to try to limit how much I write about the Pirates here.

One thing to say about the Pirates, as this Mondesi's House post does, is that through nine games the 2010 Bucs' matches have looked superficially a lot like the 1960 team's World Series games, in that when they win they squeak by and when they lose they get blown out. This seems apt, it being the golden anniversary year for that championship team and this being probably the only way in which the current team can behave at all like that classic one.

Another thing to say is that on Tuesday Dejan Kovacevic, as a throwaway line in his morning link post, mentioned that Ronny Cedeno was leading the team in batting average while batting regularly in the ninth spot. (The ninth spot is customarily reserved for the pitcher in National League lineups but manager John Russell, in his continuing efforts to make chicken salad out of the Pirates' lineup card, has committed to batting a position player ninth, according to the interesting theory that if the #9 guy were more likely to be on base when the top of the order came back up then that #9 guy might actually be batted in.) This is an odd quirk! In fact it still holds as of this typing, among the regular starters anyway, with Cedeno batting .323. Aki Iwamura and Lastings Milledge are tied for second at .250.

To look at just the spot in the lineup, regardless of who's in it -- there has been a lot of juggling so far for this early date, mainly it would seem as Russell tries to determine who could conceivably be consistent enough to bat third -- I crunched out the box scores so far, and came up with these numbers:

Lineup Spot - Average (H/AB)
1 - .263 (10/38)
2 - .243 (9/37)
3 - .297 (11/37)
4 - .250 (9/36)
5 - .200 (7/35)
6 - .194 (6/31)
7 - .226 (7/31)
8 - .148 (4/27)
9 - .343 (12/35)

The nine spot is indeed better than any other slot in the lineup so far. It's basically the Cedeno show down there, although Bobby Crosby did chip in a solid 2-for-4 for showing in a 10-2 loss to the Dodgers a week ago.

This has me thinking: Has this ever happened before in the history of anything, even though it's only nine games into the season? The post-DH Rule American League should probably be discounted because position players routinely bat ninth there, and surely one of them since 1973 had a hot week and a half at the beginning of a year. Or perhaps not surely! The circumstance requires not just a surging #9 hitter (or hitters) but also consistently less-surging 1s through 8s. I'm not sure how typically a hot bat gets moved up in the lineup within the first two weeks of play but that's a consideration too.

Stated more clearly: What, since Abner Doubleday first discovered the rules of baseball engraved on golden tablets buried in the woods outside of Cooperstown, is the latest point within a professional season at which the last spot in a team's lineup had a higher collective batting average than any other spot? And what would it take for Ronny Cedeno and company to beat that record, if they don't own it already?

How would one go about answering this question? It's not a useful new statistic like the OPS ("on-base plus slugging") or the WHIP ("Charlie Morton got WHIPPED out there for a second consecutive start, giving up three home runs"), but surely with all the sabermetricians and Moneyballers working today, the numbers are there to be crunched. If you just type a question into the Internet somewhere, does that mean the answer will be on Wikipedia the next day?

I'd really like to see the Pirates set this standard; they're not going to break any of the good kind of record, obviously. And some sort of quirky objective record of the futility of their lineup would be a lot neater than a gruesome, but most likely not record-breaking, win-loss record.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I'm, Like, All Over The Internet

My fancy-pantsiest (and final) online edition of Gulf Stream to date: (((link))).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tuesday Headlines

Interesting obituary today in the NY Times for George Nissen, 96, who invented the trampoline several decades ago. It never occurred to me before that the trampoline would have had an inventor, or that he'd still have been alive in 2010. He was the Iowan son of a dry-goods store owner, and he sounds like he embodied that classic entrepreneurial spirit: ingenuity plus promotion.

In other news, I learned today that they renamed the Triboro Bridge after Robert F. Kennedy a year and a half ago. I'm a little offended that no one informed me until now -- I mean, it's my second-favorite bridge in Astoria Park, and I still go over it every time I'm on the M60 bus between LGA and the Metro North. I also happen to think that "Triboro Bridge" was a perfectly fine name and that they should have kept it, but I can be old-fashioned that way.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Poem on the Interweb

More of the poetry you love to hear about. A delightful online write up of the continued awesome adventures of the Miami Poetry Collective, over at the avant guardian internet page. Features a poem by yours truly.

Thursday, April 08, 2010


I read this morning that the biologist Edward O. Wilson has written a novel about ants and my immediate first thought was, "Wow, I hope it's from the ant's point of view!" My more considered reaction in a few seconds was, "It would be neat if it borrowed an idea from Goedel, Escher, Bach and told its story from an entire colony's point of view." Reading the review, it appears that the characters are humans after all. Oh well. I have nothing against a story about a young person's discovery of the wonders of nature. Perhaps there's a science fiction writer who has already produced "Confessions of a Hive Mind" or whatever and I should be googling for that.

In fact, Zack Handlen's assessment in that A.V. Club review that the book is "really just a lecture on naturalism delivered under the cover of fiction" makes it sound unpromising as a novel. Or at least less tempting than his nonfiction collaborations with Bert Hölldobler on the subject that I haven't read, the highly esteemed The Ants and their recent The Superorganism (which Jack thoughtfully gave me a couple of Christmases ago and which I haven't yet tackled solely because it's too physically large to read comfortably on the bus). When I was a teenager Mom and Dad gave us a copy of Hölldobler/ Wilson's slimmer, more approachable Journey to the Ants -- still on my bookshelf -- which played a big part in cultivating a persistent (if un-acted-on) high-level interest in ants, along with Maxis' SimAnt; that one summer when our house was massively infested with ants; and, perhaps originally, the ant farm we were allowed to have instead of a pet when we were six or seven. Who knows, though, a novelistic treatment might go down smoother for a lot of people than non-narrative nonfiction, full-color System 7-compatible strategy games, or pestilence.

If nothing else, too, surely Wilson does no disservice to the basic nature of ant-ness, as did Antz and A Bug's Life several years ago when they dropped simultaneously into the growing market for computer-animated children's movies: Both started with an animal defined by extraordinarily complex cooperative behavior among related, non-reproductive females and ended up with a cookie-cutter plot outline about an iconoclastic male character having self-actualizing adventures with a small band of sidekicks. (The synopsis of the more recent Bee Movie makes it look similarly dire, though I won't knock it here because I haven't seen it, and it's about bees.) Other than Chris van Allsburg's Two Bad Ants and the hostile aliens in Ender's Game I can't think of a fictional treatment of the colonial life of ants that I've been exposed to. Though, again, perhaps I should be looking.

I also wish I still had a copy of a short story that I wrote for some contest our ninth-grade English teacher told us about, in which a teenager sadly ponders an unprovoked space-alien attack on humanity while he casually grinds an anthill underfoot -- because don't you see we're just as pointlessly destructive as they are -- not because it said anything about ants but because I'm enough of a navel-gazer to really like artifacts of my mid-teens sensibility.

Trouble and Tahiti and Zombies

Kyle and I went to a Portland Opera show last Saturday night; as we were waiting for the bus outside the creperie where we had dinner, a young woman asked us for directions. She was polite, earnest, probably in high school, holding a slightly battered tourist map of Portland. Did we know how to get to the Newmark Theatre from here? In fact, that's where we were going too; follow us. Oh, how lucky! On the bus the three of us chatted a bit. She had come down from Vancouver B.C.*, gone to the Saturday Market and a few museums, and was taking a recommendation from some ladies that she met to go see the opera. "They said it was something about zombies?", she said tentatively. Kyle immediately deferred to me with a you-know-about-opera kind of look. "Well... It really isn't about zombies at all." I mean, it was a triple-bill of two short Monteverdi operas from the early 17th century, followed by Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti". We walked into the Newmark with her and helpfully tried to figure out whether there was some other zombie-related performance that she was looking for. Kyle found something called "Dark Day" listed for the Keller Auditorium, which seemed hopeful, but then it turned out to be listed for two or three other cultural district venues, indicating no show that evening. We shrugged. The young out-of-towner headed off in the direction of the ticket windows and I didn't see her again that night.

Meanwhile, the production turned out to chain the three operas together, whereby the first ("The Dance of the Ungrateful Women") frees some dead, unlucky lovers from the underworld and the other two are the tales of romantic woe that they tell to the living. You can tell that the dead are dead because of their tattered clothes and George Romero makeup. Zombies! And now I fear I might have dissuaded a youthful opera-goer based on bad information. The first rule of Opera Club is, you don't talk about the on-stage content of Opera Club as though it necessarily has to do with the actual plot of Opera Club.

Anyway, "Trouble and Tahiti", even with supernumeraries in horrorshow garb hanging out on the margins of the stage, remains a catchy and sufficiently barbed send-up of the suburban experience. Bernstein's story (he wrote the words as well as the music) describes a day in the crumbling relationship of a married couple, Sam and Dinah, and although the most direct expressions of their unhappiness are too romantically -- well, operatically -- overwrought for my taste, elsewhere it's masterfully ironic, letting the characters sing from their points of view while the context provides the twist. The best case in point is two back-to-back arias late in the show, in which Sam sings a crowing alpha-male song after the pitifully small accomplishment of winning a handball tournament at his gym, and then Dinah (in "What a Movie", the show's highlight) derides a flimsy Pacific-themed movie musical until it becomes clear that she's caught up in its synthetic romance. Bernstein also gets a lot of mileage out of a "Fantasy Trio" who sing in close harmony about how the characters wish the world to be -- although their big numbers cataloging material comforts and consumer goods are pretty on-the-nose, they're redeemed by Bernstein's inimitably peppy music, here formed into the style of a commercial jingle with a slight rhythmic hitch. It's also instructive to be reminded that people have been calling bullshit on the suburbs since they first started to spring up.

In contrast, the Monteverdi works from some 350 years earlier aren't functional as drama by modern standards at all. "Ungrateful Women" was mostly remarkable to me in that its main theses were "beautiful and unjust women who reject their suitors are making a mockery of love, to the extent that Cupid and Venus have to go do something about it" and "do not turn away love in your youth, since you will not find any in your uglier later years", which either reflect an outdated set of cultural assumptions or suggest that Monteverdi's librettist was dumped the week before he wrote the thing. "The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda" relates the utterly implausible story of a Christian warrior and the Saracen enemy who is his (female) beloved in disguise. The text includes some timeless futility-of-war statements but in this performance it mostly served as the site of a bad chronological pile-up: The Roman classical gods hanging around from the first opera mingled with some bound and '50s-garbed zombies foreshadowing the third opera -- they, incidentally, suggested nothing so much as a mash-up of "Mad Men" and the dream sequences from "Brazil", which I would totally watch -- while a presumably medieval crusader and his lover-opponent fought it out on a stage overlaid with (wait for it) Ground Zero imagery from 9/11. Symbolism!

None of this should be taken to disparage Monteverdi's lucid and evocative music, which was finely rendered by the Third Angle New Music Ensemble (serving as the pit orchestra) in a spare arrangement of strings, harpsichord, and lute or guitar. The ensemble did a bang-up job in the Bernstein as well, as did Jose Rubio and Jennifer Forni in singing the principal roles in each of the segments. The sets and staging came off as a bit junior-varsity but they got the job done, and the folks in white pancake makeup clearly suggested the walking dead even from the uppermost reaches of the (admittedly intimate) Newmark. Overall, musically satisfying, kind of wonky production. Your basic night at the opera.

* Not to be confused with Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River. The distinction has to be made regionally, much as is the case with exurban Vienna, VA when you're in the D.C. area. There I found that saying "I spent a semester in college in Vienna" mostly got me some unimpressed looks, as though you'd told a Pittsburgher that you preferred to summer in Monroeville or something.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Immortal Jellyfish

Slightly late for Easter: here is the path to eternal life! The path involves being a jellyfish of the species Turritopsis nutricula. Jellyfish have a fascinating life cycle: before they live in their familiar shape (called their "medusa" stage), they live as stationary polyps. Polyps bud off multiple medusae, or sometimes other polyps. The medusae will generally reproduce and then die, but in Turritopsis nutricula a medusa can actually revert back to its polyp stage. Theoretically, an individual organism could repeatedly mature and back-mature and thus go on forever: hence, eternal life.

In practice, you're talking about avoiding only death by natural causes, and jellyfish tend to get killed or eaten. But even so: polyps will bud off a number of genetically identical medusae, any of which might conceivably back-mature into polyps again, then bud off more medusae, and so on. So in a sense, you've got some opportunity as a Turritopsis nutricula for a part of you to keep going.

Now, who are "you" if you're a number of disconnected and not-very-sentient medusae that budded from genetically identical polyps? Probably not much. But that's the price you pay for immortality.

Half-Stack Cord-Cutting

So I finally sold my half-stack two nights ago. To a nice dude with tattoos that actually plays in a functional band in Miami.

But once I'd sold it (for 88% of what I originally paid for it), I realized why, despite having only used it for a span of 3 months in the past 5 years, I'd hung onto it for as long as I did: selling one's valuables is a trick that can only be performed once. I feel kind of like that cartoon dog with the glass of water and the match and the high dive and all that.

Not that I was particularly attached to the thing at this point--the motivation for selling had more to do with not wanting to ever bother with moving it again (even though I'll be moving within town, not, like, a long way) than anything else. But when I plugged it in to make sure it still worked I had, at first, a pang of "maybe I should hang onto this thing a while longer..."

But, realistically, whatever the odds of my starting a band in Miami, I'd be able to do so with my combo. And inserting my Marshall head and vintage Sunn 0)) speaker cabinet to the local amplification-ecosphere was an act of great kindness. Definitely made the dude who bought it's day. Because it was/is a sweet rig. The guy told me he'd let me know when his band was playing in town so I could come out and see the amp in action. Sort of like going to watch the kid you gave away to adoption play t-ball. Except that I sold it, didn't give it away.

And I've lost one of the only pieces of evidence that I was awesome, once upon a time.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Who's on First?

I've explained the following to several of my baseball-fan friends of mine down here in Miami, and been met with nothing but understanding, but have hesitated on blogging about it because once upon a time our tag-line was "don't be cynical." However, after scanning the PBC Blog today, I've removed it from my bookmark list (which seems like my personal interaction with the internet most akin to this notion the kids have these days about "unfriending" (or is it "defriending") people on the facebook--I don't go to the internet but for a few hours a day (though this is sure to increase now that I've got a job-with-responsibilities-that-include-things-like-going-to-the-internet-during-workdays-to-check-my-email), so my bookmarks are few and unexciting in the first place, but the Pirates had managed to cling to a spot there (I guess I could also compare this to my telephone's speed-dial, but I've never had a telephone with a speed-dialer (except that I press-and-hold "1" to call my voice mail on my smellphone))).

We here on the blog, and our father as well, have discussed several times over the past handful of baseball seasons, that Kovacevic's blogging is about the only thing that makes the Pirates follow-able. So, in honor of that, here's a final quote of inspiration:

In the past, this feature was an analysis of five reasons why the Pirates will win, five reasons why they will not. But, in the interest of full disclosure, I truncated the whole thing to three because I had genuine difficulty spreading out five facets in the winning column.
Going to Spring Training, in of itself, was an enjoyable experience. The field is nice, and the atmosphere is great, and the general vibe of being at Spring Training is fun (though the second of the two games that I attended was a double-digit-runs-having festival of boredom). But golly, what have I taken away, about the Pirates? That they're terrible. And there's a small handful of players that it might be entertaining to follow. So what's the point. I can email with my brothers about plenty of other things.

Way back in the '90s, probably around the time of the steroid-fueled homerun mayhem that for many people apparently revitalized the National Past-time, I seem to recall losing about all interest in Major League baseball. I think I still probably went to a few games with the family (perhaps I maintained a... mild interest (and enjoyed shouting at Aramaramirez, back when he was a pudgy, mopey third-basemen (feeling, probably, a kindred spirit of the pudgy-mopey type)), but--and I'm not great at inventing personal historical narratives--the loss of interest must have happened, because later on, at some point during college, and re-vampedly so a couple of years ago, I more or less decided to follow the Pirates again, mostly for the sake of relating to others.

That renewed interest generally led to a blogged-about-in-the-past following of the Pirates every year at the beginning of the season until they got so terrible that they were impossible to bother with. But this year, that loss of interest has happened before they even got out of the gate. The PBC Blog is just not doing it for me, and not even the fact that it's trying to do it for me is doing it for me.

So if they miraculously do well, and Jeff Clement has less than, like, 24 errors at first base, you can call me a fair-weather fan if I ever mention the Pirates again. But otherwise, I just can't bother any more.

(Though, as an ever-important fashion note (and what do I like to talk about more than my own clothing), I will continue to wear my increasingly awesomely worn-in Pirates-give-away-cap-with-logo-of-advertiser-torn-out until further notice.)