Friday, May 28, 2010

Le Grand Macabre

Alan Gilbert deserves eternal high esteem for bringing György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre to the New York Philharmonic this weekend. (And on Memorial Day Weekend no less! Hey everyone, happy Memento-Mori-al Day.) I'm a little surprised it was the New York premiere of the opera. Everyone else involved also deserves similar esteem for bringing it off so successfully. The production isn't without a couple of flaws, but it's no slam dunk for this to work on an orchestra stage, and it most definitely does. There was a full and very enthusiastic house tonight.

I thought I had a bead on the opera at intermission, pegging its absurdist slapstick rhythm. (I'd listened to parts of it on CD before, but never the whole thing.) But the second act, gloriously, broadens, expands, and spreads its bony wings, turning into one of the the best stretches of opera in the twentieth century.

I didn't actually read this synopsis of the opera on Wikipedia, but I'm sure it's probably mostly accurate. For your reference!

The singers, all of them, were acrobatically adept and completely fearless -- I'm not going to even attempt to write enough to do them justice. (Fearlessness extends to costumes, elements of which included skintight nude-colored leotards, a pair of stilts, and a round pincushion-like suit. Plus the chief of secret police's spider disguise, which is specified by the libretto.) It's amazing to me that vocalists can even execute repertoire like this in the first place. Acoustically, there's some orchestral burial, and it's difficult to follow much of the libretto.

The staging is built around a screen, framed as a creepy sunburst shape, onto which is projected live film of manipulated drawings and models, designed and directed by Douglas Fitch. The aesthetic is a kind of real-time avant-garde Terry Gilliam animation, germane to Ligeti's goings-on. There's more than enough room for the apparatus to fit onstage with the orchestra, and it's a canny choice of art. It never feels squeezed or hemmed in.

But Ligeti is the undisputed star here, Ligeti of the strange harmonies and car horns and a soundworld unto its own weird self. The first act famously starts with those car horns, antique-style handheld squeeze-bulb horns, played in precise counterpoint by the percussionists. (On hearing taxis on Broadway after the show, I kept thinking, No, crisper! More polyphony!) From there it's mostly an affair of careening vocal lines punctuated with orchestral slapstick, or at least it is till after halftime. The second act, again, is where the show really gets into gear, reeling off several consecutive setpiece scenes each unforgettable for their own reasons.

The secret police chief (here the trim and utterly kickass soprano Barbara Hannigan) fires off a couple of paranoid, borderline incoherent warnings to Prince Go-Go about the coming cataclysm. The chorus, as the populace of Breughelland, raucously boos the prince's ministers but cheers the prince himself. Hand-cranked sirens and heavy percussion indicate that something disturbing is afoot. Nekrotzar, the titular macabre, enters to a passacaglia procession with a jaunty bass line, a mistuned solo violin sawing away, and layers of orchestral instruments growing more chaotic above. Brass on the balconies occasionally announce a fractured fanfare that stands in for death's trumpet calls. Nekrotzar gets hammered on wine with his two dissolute Breughellandian attendants, clipped vocal lines going in out-of-sync tick-tock counterpoint with orchestral slashes and jarring pipe-organ blurts. Nekrotzar then sings mellowly about the destruction he has wrought on earth, over a luscious, ambrosial underscore. Midnight is struck, abstractly and unsettlingly -- Ligeti lets you know that time itself is dissipating. The world ends in eerie, static consonances, and existential statuses are examined in the Epilogue in similar sonic circumstances. Nekrotzar, realizing he has not extinguished life after all, melts away to murmuring strings so tonally eroded it's hard to call them either consonant or dissonant. The conclusion is a surprisingly uplifting chorus about living for the day and not dwelling on death. Marvelously, and with a barbed edge, it's a transfiguration of Nekortzar's procession from earlier in the act.

Make no mistake, Ligeti was one of the great tonal composers. But he only used those consonances when he meant it. They're sweeter for their sharp contrast with the prevailing atonal absurdity, which is in turn stronger for the juxtaposition. The opera's got a few instances of completely jaw-dropping acoustical marvels, especially some major-key chords with an otherworldly resonance to them. Meanwhile there are all manner of hazy, ambiguous consonances, especially toward the end of the opera. In a brilliant moment after the supposed end of Breughelland, someone sings that he hears harps from the heaven above. What's actually going on in the orchestra is an unplaceable static hum with a couple of harmonicas tracing simple upward melodies.

It's rare stuff, and it evaporates off the surface of your aural memory very quickly. Precious little of it I can really hang on to even a couple of hours later. The visuals, happily, should stick around for a while longer.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Could Be in for a 'Caning

Hurricane forecasters are saying that 2010 is looking like an extremely active year. Also, one forecaster (Weather Services International) is describing the risk to the East Coast (Outer Banks up through Maine) as equal to Florida and the Gulf States. Nothing adds to your summer fun like low-probability disasters that no one's prepared for.

In 1938, before hurricanes were named, there was a category 3 storm that plowed up Long Island, hence its nickname, the "Long Island Express." You can read about that on this website, by a science professor at Suffolk County Community College. He also notes that the "return time" for category 3 storms in the NYC/Long Island area is about 80 years. (And that number must be decreasing with the ocean warming.)

I'm tempted to think -- considering the long term of climate change, and the current go-nowhere politics around it -- that major storm threats in the northeast media market might have a chance of inspiring some actual efforts to curb climate change. But I'm not willing to bet on that. If the thinkable-but-unlikely does happen, I'll look forward to the claims that God is punishing the East Coast for being full of liberals.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Brief Political "What the Fuck?!?"


"But records indicated that regulators continued granting the environmental waivers and permits for types of work like that occurring on the Deepwater Horizon."

As the kids say, "WTF."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Brief Political Note

United Breaks Guitars

I woke up to this the other morning, thanks to my clock radio being tuned to the eclectic local community radio station. Seems this young country singer from Nebraska had an unpleasant run-in with United Airlines, whose baggage handlers mistreated and broke the guitar he'd checked. They stonewalled him and refused his claim for compensation, and so he took his revenge with this catchy and altogether charming song:

So that's got eight and a half million hits on YouTube now. Fight the system! You know what turns out to be a great aesthetic for corporate protest music, is country. Regretful, wounded pride carries just the right resonance.

I believe this mostly got popular on YouTube several months ago, but I'm a bit slow to pick up on viral videos. As in, this is the first viral video I've picked up on since I don't even remember when, and I heard about it from AM radio.

If I remember the end of the story right, United came crawling back to the guy after a while, offering to replace the guitar if he took the video down. But Taylor had already given him a new guitar, so the music lives on.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


I'm feeling like a bad Pittsburgh sports fan today. First of all since I still can't get exercised about the Penguins, even in their devastating playoff losses. (My feeling on the Penguins remains largely neutral until the playoffs, when it starts vacillating between an intrigued "huh" and a slightly frowning "eh." Eh.) But moreover, I never realized until today that Mario Mendoza, famed establisher of the Mendoza Line circa 1980, was a Pittsburgh Pirate for half his career. I should have known this already!

It makes so much sense, as pointed out by Johnette Howard in this ESPN article about embittered Pirates fandom, that Mendoza would have been a Pirate. (Link via, inevitably, Kovacevic.) And that's even true with Mendoza being a member of the high-achieving Pirates teams of the late 1970s. Clearly he's the one whose spirit invigorates the recent teams, much more so than Stargell or Sanguillen or who-have-you. As I type this, half of our infield would be grateful to be flirting with the Mendoza Line. Not only that, but (as Wikipedia points out) Mendoza, having pitched two innings once to mop up an ugly game, had a career ERA of 13.50, which might even constitute another Mendoza Line that certain of our pitchers have been struggling to get away from.

Howard's article, for me, doesn't get at the primary emotion that comes with being a Pirates fan. I think it's a fitful, degraded remnant of hope, the kind that leaves you wondering if maybe Steve Pearce can get his act together this time around.

Monday, May 10, 2010


All this writing about time travel must've caused me to fall into some kind of time-hole over the weekend, as evidenced by the above black-and-white picture of me playing an Atari 2600. Actually, that's not true; it's just another of the pieces on exhibit at MOCA (my--I never get tired of saying this--neighborhood museum of contemporary art). Scott and I had another Visiting Poet in town over the weekend, Zachary Schomburg (actually, I found this picture--and copy it here without his permission--on his blog), who is a very exciting young poet and all around awesome guy.

Zach currently lives in Portland--though he's been on the road for a while now--so, personally, it was nice to be reminded that there are young people like me in the world (he's maybe 5-6 years older than I am). For someone as blandly hipster-ish as I am, it's actually possible to feel somewhat unique in Miami, but there are really entire cities and communities of people just like me in other parts of the country. So it's good to remember that (though--and this kind of came up in conversation, as it often will when discussing Portland and the aforementioned people-like-me--it's hard to make a strong argument, or any argument, that I should somehow prefer Portland, or prefer Miami, except that Portland is, like, the whitest city ever, and Miami has lots and lots of diversity (the moral being that I should both recognize my inherent blandness, Miami's awesome different-ness, and just get over all of it already)). And his poetry--a lot of short, often prose-poems, surreal narratives--is great! You should check out his books and his press, Octopus Books.

While playing the Atari game/artwork at the museum, Scott, who is also in his early thirties (I am not in my early thirties, but Scott and Zach are), said to me something to the extent of "You've probably never even played an Atari before, have you?" One of those generation of five-years-later kind of things. But, of course I was able to reply, emphatically, "I certainly have! Back around the turn of the nineties, my older brothers and I asked for a Nintendo. In response to this, our father went up into the attic and came down with an Atari, so we played that for a while, until one of the paddles broke, and then, I think, finally Dad caved and bought us a Nintendo." Which is a fun story to tell.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

It's No Real Pleasure in Life

This week's Sports Illustrated goes full-on Roethlisdämmerung. Now look, I've got no sympathy for Big Ben, who's clearly enough cornered himself into a small locked bathroom of his own making. But there's one claim in the article that it's important to defend him from:
"[The story reaches] deep into Milledgeville, the capital of Georgia during the Civil War--it was ransacked during Sherman's march--and ancestral home of the Southern writer Flannery O'Connor. One of her story collections is titled A Good Man Is Hard to Find, which might have served as the theme for Roethlisberger's night on the town."
Now come on. No one is condoning his moral actions, and we all know the man has to "grow up," but there is absolutely no forensic evidence that Big Ben and his entourage shot an entire family to death following their backwoods motorcar accident.

Actually, about the only thing that will make Ben look relatively good is measuring him against Flannery O'Connor–grade misbehavior. Your bad actors in A Good Man Is Hard to Find are up to a kind of no good that even Ben's got too much character to engage in. (Okay, maybe with the exception of posing as a Bible salesman to seduce a farm girl and steal her prosthetic leg.) In any case, the moral for sportswriters is: read the inside of the book you're name-dropping. And I guess the moral for Ben is: Drive slowly. The life you save could be your own.

Speaking of which, on a lighter note, the same article relates allegations that KDKA suppressed video footage of a helmetless, motorcycle-riding Roethlisberger flipping their cameramen the bird on I-376. In late 2006, months after his accident. It sounds almost too cartoonishly horrifying to be true, but, there you go.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Eleven Thousandth Day

Turning 30 years old is nothing. Check out the biblical extremity of lifespan displayed in today's milestone, it being my Eleven Thousandth Day on Earth. Truly, what sights my eyes have beheld within these countless, specifically eleven, thousands of days I have experienced. The occasion shall not go unmarked, i.e. with a game night, for which I just purchased baby carrots and a big bag of Sun Chips, plus there's beer.

Actually I've been meaning to have a game night for a while, and the whole affair is a consolation prize after forgetting to observe Day 10,000 in August '07.

If you would like to calculate your own non-obvious birth milestones, use the Internet thusly. The next most interesting one for me is the One Billionth Second, late November '11, several minutes after 5 pm on a Monday. (One Billionth Second happy hour??) I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, though. One second at a time.