Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pine Mouth

Before this week I'd at least heard of "pine mouth," the mysterious and ultimately harmless effect wherein eating pine nuts can temporarily screw up your sense of taste. Apparently it started to get noticed around 2008, and no one's sure what causes it. But some weekend pesto pasta has given me pine mouth, I'm ready to say with some certainly. Seems to be the easiest explanation for (1) bad taste in mouth; (2) no other symptoms; (3) just ate pine nuts. This is supposed to go away within a few days or a couple of weeks.

Descriptions of pine mouth are all over the Internet now, and they tend to play up how horrible it is. I don't find my experience that horrible. There's a lingering bad aftertaste to everything, bitter and a bit puckering, and my sense of sweet is way depressed. But the bland savory foods I tend to rely on aren't affected that much. Sugar-free wintergreen-flavored gum helps. It's after you eat that I have to ameliorate it, a lingering, somewhat distracting sense.

Maddie didn't get it, from the same batch of nuts -- it's really that unpredictable an effect -- although I need to check in on the friends we had over for pesto pasta dinner. People theorize that Chinese pine nuts are to blame, but I'm sure I didn't help things by using pine nuts that had been sitting around for a while. They seemed otherwise edible, but you're apparently not supposed to do that.

Weird, huh?

A Couple of Jackasses

I was scanning youtube for a video clip of Bob Odenkirk shouting "a couple of jackasses" but I couldn't find it, so here's this video instead:

And then this link to an article from the Miami Herald about O, Miami:

and another one.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Put It in H!

So I have a hard time describing Bach's B Minor Mass. The Bach Collegium Japan has been touring the U.S. with it this month, under their dapper and extraordinarily distinguished-looking conductor Masaaki Suzuki, and they stopped in New Haven Saturday night. I went with Maddie and with my friends Kate and Alex, following dinner at my apartment. Maddie & I cooked vegan dinner — pesto pasta with sauteed veggies, butternut squash soup, bread from the machine — and Kate & Alex brought me a second birthday cake.

The Collegium's tour has obviously come at a poignant time, just post-tsunami, and the sacred music institute here turned the performance into a Red Cross fundraiser. The B Minor Mass is formal and affirmative enough to seem to stand aside from earthly tragedy. It's a humane and fairly all-embracing work, and in a memorial context it maybe stands as a signpost for shared humanity.

Woolsey Hall's famously muddy acoustics don't particularly suit a baroque vocal mass, but up in the second balcony the sound was pleasing enough. You couldn't hear much of the choral counterpoint, which melted into a luminous mush. That's a big loss in Bach, but it doesn't interrupt the emotional and dramatic swell. And the lightly scored passages sounded fine. (They performed, incidentally, with a chorus of about 20 people, plus the 5 vocal soloists, and an orchestra of something like 10 strings, 10 of those wonderful period brass & woodwinds that are like heirloom tomatoes, an enthusiastic timpanist with two drums, plus chamber organ and harpsichord.)

Compositionally, the Mass is, you know, regarded as one of the towering achievements of European art, and I'm intimidated away from trying so say anything really cogent about it. In fact, I haven't really even listened to it much in recorded form, since I feel like doing it justice would require more attention than I tend to give my casual listening.

I can say that it's a much more expressively rich work than I was somehow expecting, certainly thanks in large part to the Collegium's expressive performance. (I don't have anything like the Baroque chops to describe their interpretation, but it felt true, while being frankly expressive. I think what you want for this piece isn't far off from what you want in a good Mozart Requiem, or for that matter the Frank Martin Mass for Double Choir.) Suzuki is a fun conductor to watch, too, efficient in his gestures but urgent when the music becomes more urgent.

None of the following represents a particularly nuanced commentary, but here goes. Bach's opening Kyrie Eleison is a somber choral fugue that extends luxuriously beyond the length of time you think it will last. There are exultant movements where the trumpets and timpani come in to underline a thumping kind of "happy Baroque" sound familiar from Sunday-morning NPR. My favorite of these is the "Et resurrexit" following a moody, plaintively chromatic "Crucifixus": Hey, Jesus is risen! This is great! The bass soloist's scene was stolen, to my ears, by the guy playing a two-looped baroque horn, adroitly lipping his way around his quietly dangerous decorative garlands. One of the most surprisingly moving passages sets the perfunctory-sounding Credo text "I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins." The line "Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum" both pleases me in its major-key joyfulness and reminds part of my brain what it's like trying to play E-flat clarinet in a staggeringly difficult Messiaen wind-orchestra piece. The "Sanctus" is just magnificently stately. I forget which quiet movement the countertenor sang so exquisitely, but he netted an extra-large ovation at the end for it.

I really should read about the work, and listen to it closely, and try to get to know it. I think hearing it in concert needs to happen first. Maybe I'm accepting a kind of mythology about the piece, but it feels like it expresses a platonic excellence or exquisiteness.

As much as people talk about Bach's mastery of counterpoint and musical argument, it's his great control of emotional ebb and flow that makes him who he is. (Compare Monteverdi or Palestrina, earlier masters of less immediately moving contrapuntal musical languages.) And you can "get" that without following the fugal patterns. And that too helps embrace a wide world of listeners.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Sloth Catching Is Not Without Its Risks

For a cheerful midday, pre-weekend news interlude, turn to this charming fieldwork description by animal sleep scientist Bryson Voirin. He doesn't get too far into the actual sleep science in this writeup (although he hints at its inexplicable nature), but the sloth-wrangling details are delightful. The sentence I borrowed for this post title is easily the best sentence I've read all week.

I don't have much of value to say about the troubling balance of what's in the news, other than that the Libya situation seems extremely difficult to grasp even by foreign-events standards, and that I never envisioned a nuclear meltdown crisis as stretching over days or weeks like this. I guess I've always assumed that nuclear accidents would be a matter of being caught off guard, rather than being unable to assert control over a gradually deteriorating situation. Humbling and kind of terrifying at the same time.

Anyway. Hey, 1300th blog post!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Poem on the Internet

Here. Enjoy.

Monday, March 14, 2011

It's a Small (small) Thing

It's mostly, like, functional, and not really rhetorical at all, but I'm still proud that I managed to sneak a set of parentheses-inside-parentheses into a somewhat official-looking (and actually, like, you know, official) blurb at the place where you can buy tickets for one of O, Miami's many wonderful poetry events (I'm actually quite proud of the programming on this one ("Competitive Political violence! That's why you're here!")).

Friday, March 11, 2011

Number of Poet Laureates Co-Interviewed by Pete: 1

Read it here.

Can't You See How Happy We Would Stochastically Be

Teas for Two

Picture me upon your knee
Just tea for two
And two for tea
Just me for you
And you for me alone

Picture me for tea for two
And two for two
And you for tea
Just me upon your knee
Just me alone

Picture me for two for tea for two
And you
And your knee
Just tea for your knee
Just me for your knee
Just me alone

Picture me for two
And you
And two for me alone

Picture me upon you
And your knee
Just me upon your knee
Just tea
Just tea
Just tea
Just tea for tea for you for me upon you
And your knee
Just tea
Just me for tea
Just me upon you for me for me for two
And you
And your knee
Just me for tea for me alone

Picture me alone


The first stanza there, as noted, comes from Irving Caesar's "Tea for Two" lyrics, albeit from the later, solo female rendering rather than the original No, No, Nanette duet. The other stanzas are similarly accepted by the epilog, and were culled from several dozen random walks through the graph, powered by a slapdash Ruby script and the fierce urgency of "I should be doing something else right now". Relatedly: Ella Fitzgerald, finite state machines.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lions (A Space Dream)

I doubt I'm as much of a stress zombie as Pete these days, but I am busy enough at work that our project there -- which is more or less at that point where it's just rolling waves of go/no-go deadlines, after which I guess either our product goes live or everybody gets fired -- is consuming most of my capacity for nontrivial brain work. Blogging, both here and on the now very slow-running Shostakovich-blog front, suffers; I'm spending some self discipline (i.e. precious brain sugar) on keeping myself fed more or less correctly and walking around a lot, in part because it's a pleasant and mind-quieting way to commute and in part because the work project is a health-'n'-wellness-related effort that, for testing purposes, involves strapping on a pedometer and walking around a lot. Sure, there's a night here and there where Kyle and I just split a liter of red wine and watch a few episodes of 30 Rock in a row, but such is the glue that holds our relationship together; highly necessary. Also there was that extremely enjoyable trip to New York and the Met Opera, where the second act of Nixon in China may have been the best unit of theatrical entertainment I've ever seen on a stage.

At any rate, one other thing I'm finding a bunch of time for is reading, since it decompresses me and (at the level I've been reading at) keeps me engaged without being overly strenuous. Currently I'm near the end of Wendy Lesser's so-far-very-fine critical survey of Shostakovich's string quartets, Music for Silenced Voices; a couple of Sundays ago, being earlier in it and having already spent enough thought on Shostakovich that day for the book to work as a change of pace, Kyle offered to find something lighter for me on her bookshelf and came up with C.J. Cherryh's sci-fi novel, The Pride of Chanur, which fit the bill perfectly and is its own kind of enjoyable read. (It maintains the women-authors pattern, too, although as Kyle pointed out the "C.J." and the superfluous "h" at the end of the surname artfully mask that fact, "Carolyn Cherry" having been deemed unworkable as a science-fiction author name in the 1970s.)

One of the book's real pleasures is its bitchin', early-'80s vintage cover painting:

The cover art is by Michael Whelan (color prints available, as of 1982!) and it may be totally appropriate to judge the book by that. Less superficially, though, the novel strikes a good balance between its lean and fast-enough-moving plot and the details of its speculative world, viewed -- as in all of the sci-fi and fantasy material I've ever liked -- indirectly and incompletely as called for by the story, rather than disgorged in huge exposition dumps.

The story focuses on the chaos-inducing appearance of a single human within a loose trading compact among several other spacefaring alien races, but the most engaging stuff is all in Cherryh's setup of the book's universe. (That's also what's stuck with Kyle; another of the pleasures of reading the book is comparing my own reaction to her impression of it from reading it when she was a teenager.) Her most detailed concept is that of the hani, the central alien race of the book -- the human himself is a side character verging on a MacGuffin -- and one based loosely on the social structure of lions, with the related females of each group doing the productive work while the males challenge each other for the limited positions as heads of a house, or else bide their time on the fringe of society. Some of this serves as a socially critical gender bend -- here it's the powerful but violently competitive males who are considered "useless, too high strung" for useful service -- but much of it just imagines an alternative sociology, in which a gender is marginalized based on perceived volatility rather than perceived weakness and sex differences divide into something other than familiar ideas of masculinity and femininity. Combined with some nice secondary details -- theirs is a relatively medieval society, accelerated into space through contact with another alien species and less unified than most of the other races -- it makes a good piece of social-science fiction.

To me, though, a grabbier element of the book is that some of the alien species are mutually intelligible and some are barely relatable at all. Cherryh's execution of this idea seems slightly preposterous -- she breaks the aliens into groups of oxygen breathers and methane breathers that are socially as well as metabolically similar to each other, an evolutionary notion that I find, unjustifiably, much harder to accept than the existence of clearly mammalian space lions piloting interstellar freighters -- but I like her hints of the more-alien intelligences, one whose thoughts run in parallel chains in a "multipartite brain", and another whose actions and communications remain inexplicable except for a recognizable concept of reciprocation and exchange. It's the high-level idea of it that I like, in part because I like thinking about Language and The Brain in any case, and in part because I've been listening to a bunch of Radiolab episodes on my iPod while doing all my walking, including a show from last summer about how language develops, or not, in the human brain and how it can be lost... It has me musing about what intelligence without language, or without conscious symbolic thought, would look like, and wondering how much science fiction there is out there that adequately works over that notion. (Wondering in that sense where I just type it out loud onto the blog, rather than perform a series of focused Google searches.) Stanislaw Lem's Solaris is the best novel I know of for mapping out the gulf between two forms of intelligence in contact, but Lem's a pessimist about the prospect of any understandable exchange at all, while I'm more interested in, and optimistic about, what could possibly be had in common, based on a largely Wikipedia-based, quasi understanding of convergent evolution and information theory. But it's gotten late since I started this post and my own matrix of distributed, parallel thoughts is threatening to fly apart completely, so I'll bring this rather digressive thing to a close.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

A Good Chance to Take Bets on Precisely What Kind of an Ass I Am Going to Make out of Myself

None of you-all are in Miami, I don't think. But if you were, I'd invite you to come to a public lecture I'm giving on Monday, on "A Speculative Geometry of Lyricism." The Facebook event page for it features the following drawing, which I think just about sums it up, so there's no need, really, for you to attend anyway:


Friday, March 04, 2011

You Can't Spell Information Without O, Miami (well almost...)

This is something of a "soft" unfurling of a bunch of O, Miami information--we're not "officially" announcing the availability of all this stuff until Monday--but, seeing as I've turned myself into a poetry stress zombie getting all this stuff arranged and onto the website, I thought I'd share it here first.

Now available for your perusal and awe: O, Miami's Events, Poets, Projects, Partners, Sponsors, and Calls for Work.

And please check back at that site frequently, as we'll be making updates more or less continuously up until and through the festival.

I am astounded by how much we've put together for this inaugural festival, I hope that you are too.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Only Nixon Could Go to China

I've had a hard time coming up with anything to write about Nixon in China at the Met a couple of weekends ago. It's such a rich and intellectually unusual opera that trying to explain it would be a sprawling task. Experientially, though, it's just an electrifying delight.

The way Adams's vocal lines invest Nixon & crew with so much personality by teasing out a densely poetic, unpredictable libretto is a minor miracle. Sparks fly at seemingly unlikely bursts of words: Nixon's exclamatory "News! News! News! News!" first and foremost; Chairman Mao repeatedly spitting out "Founders come first, then profiteers" like a crazy old man to a baffled Nixon and Kissinger; Pat Nixon's dreamy "I think what is to be will be in spite of us" skipping effortlessly over a couple of simple chords. The libretto (by Alice Goodman) makes fairly fascinating reading on its own, often with a strikingly different tone.

Musically there's just nothing like it, with magnificent expanses of vintage mid-1980s Adams bopping and careening along to primary-color splashes of brass and saxophone in the pit. It's in large part a synthesis of Philip Glass and the midcentury Igor Stravinsky, but it's unmistakably Adams's musical personality. There are liberal splashes of prewar dance-band music, including a melancholy semi-slow number in Act III scored for piano and an anachronistic haze of shimmery synthesizer-keyboard around it. Elsewhere any number of the simple harmonic moves have a light shading of oldies-rock chorus in them. It can be a lot more touching than you'd expect it to be. The first half of Act II is magnificent, too, with Pat Nixon touchingly and lyrically drawn as a starry-eyed American abroad being shown around on a photo-op tour. (Janis Kelly was the soprano in the role, and she was one of the show's highlights.)

The opening ten minutes are pretty much iconic for the Adams lover: The chorus of Chinese workers' "The People Are the Heroes Now" sets up the landing of Air Force One -- a cutout of the plane is lowered onto the back of the stage, in a good-natured bit of puckish abstraction, while one of Adams's great orchestral passages churns away -- and soon enough you've got Nixon's aria about the news.

The whole opera, well, it's hard to take in all in one gulp. They more or less assume that you know the outline of the trip, the basic profiles of the players, and (not essentially but very helpfully) a working knowledge of The Red Detachment of Women, which is extensively parodied to fantastic effect in Act II (climaxing when a Cultural-Revolution-symbolizing riot breaks out around a coloratura soprano majestically belting out "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung.") Shortly before then, about at the halfway point of the opera, the thus-far literal storytelling unravels into things much more surreal and indefinite, and the entire third act is more or less a plot-free meditation on old age and the limits of human endeavor, themes that don't really exist in the first two acts. So you need to work to "get" it, or more precisely to apprehend the thematic contours of it and embrace its unexplained business along with the rest.

Adams conducted the orchestra, and Sellars's staging is the opera's original 1987 creation, and James Maddelena sang the Nixon role he created back then too. So it felt like a valedictory production, and one that will be the standard until such time as another generation picks it up. And the opera has a good a shot at staying power as anything else in the newer repertoire.

Right after the smog of early February's Super Bowl obsession cleared, it hit home how much I'd been looking forward to the performance -- Nate & I got these tickets back in August -- and that anticipation's paid off into a satisfaction that feels like it'll last a while. These are the highlights of art appreciation, the events you remember something about for years.

So, yeah, good times all around. Had a great weekend with Nate & Kyle around to hang out with Maddie & myself, too.

(Picture shamelessly ripped off from here.)