Friday, May 26, 2017

fifty years ago next week

In commemoration of the impending 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, I am proud to present you with ...

what I believe is the first cover version of any of its songs to be released. It was released in June 1967, same month as the original album, and it was produced by the same George Martin who produced the album. It's a comic actor and musical comedian artist of his (remember that Martin got his start in comedy records) named Bernard Cribbins, singing "When I'm Sixty-Four."



I haven't directly compared this with the original, but it seems to me as if George Martin just took the backing tracks from the original recording, stripped out the backing vocals (none too well), slapped the new lead vocal on top, and called it a day.

I gather that Bernard Cribbins is well-known in the UK, but he's not so familiar over here. I had to be reminded who he was, and who he is to me is the comic actor who played Mr. Hutchinson, one of the most memorable guests ever to stay at Fawlty Towers. Yes, he's this guy.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

publications ahoy

After too long an absence from other scholarly venues than the one I edit for, I got to finalize the texts of two papers today, OKing the final tweaks from their editors.

Both are fairly short, but it's good to have them out. And for one of them, it means I get to be in this.

Also, I've gotten the reading text of the paper I'm giving at a conference next week down to 25 minutes, by cutting out everything that could possibly be considered extraneous. When I gave it at Mythcon last year, it was nearly 50 minutes, but I had an hour slot. This time I have half an hour, so it'll just barely fit if I talk fast.

Among the things I cut out was this:

"Early science fiction was often breezy about the problem of people on other planets speaking different languages than ours. In Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, for instance, the protagonist discovers on arriving that he's somehow grown a new organ that the natives have, which conveniently allows them to read minds and instantly learn each other's language, thus bypassing entirely any question of translation. This is the sort of thing that Douglas Adams was parodying when he invented the Babel Fish."

Monday, May 22, 2017

busy weekend

I managed to do everything I planned on Saturday.

First to the downtown Redwood City street fair. They were holding a chicken wing cookoff, and I didn't want to miss that. Eleven booths in a row were cooking up their own varieties, and $10 was reasonable for eleven coupons good for one wingette each, plus a voting coupon to insert in one of the boxes on the side of the ticket booth to honor your favorite.

Some of the wings had sauces, some had rubs. One had a hugely thick breading. Some were spicy, some not. A couple of the more tangily Asian varieties had the booth workers precariously balancing tiny pieces of cucumber or sprigs of cilantro or whatnot on the wings, from which they'd fall off, usually into the bowl of sauce on the preparation counter, and if not, then in the customer's hands before you could eat it. Not really very well planned.

Also badly planned: no napkins, anywhere.

All this to the accompaniment of a very loud band down the street which was performing actually quite good cover versions of all the songs you used to hear on the top ten radio 30 years ago: "Hotel California", "Eye of the Tiger", and that song that goes "Leo, woah woah woah woaoaoah" - what is that song, anyway?

However, the wings were mostly pretty good, and that was my lunch, before heading to Bing for the afternoon to hear the Stanford Symphony in Anna Wittstruck's farewell concert as conductor. Stanford's reaped the reward of insisting she's been only the Interim Music Director these last two years, and she's leaving for a more stable job at the University of Puget Sound. (So, see, all you Seattleites: there is culture in Tacoma, or at least will be when she gets there.) She's been a good director, and we'll miss her.

She led a dynamic concert with Arturo Márquez's Danzón No. 2, a fine performance completely devoid of the flat Anglo accent that most norteamericano orchestras give it, plus a similar Cuban rumba-inspired piece, a new Dance Suite by Stanford faculty composer Giancarlo Aquilanti, and Beethoven's Seventh, all also well done. In fact all of the music was dance-like (Wagner called Beethoven's Seventh "the apotheosis of the dance"), except for a new piece by another faculty composer, Mark Applebaum, which he titled Xenophobe: In Memory of Democracy. One guess why he called it that, and one for what it sounded like.

No time for dinner: I had to rush up to the City for Other Minds' big Lou Harrison centenary concert, at Mission Dolores in the evening. I already had a ticket for this; if I hadn't, I might have fugged out, but I'm so glad I went. I've never been a big Lou Harrison devotee, but I've always enjoyed his music when I've heard it. Perhaps not so much the two astringent organ pieces that made up much of the first part - one of them was for foot pedals alone; an interesting idea, and we should have thought of applauding it by stamping our feet - but the very long second part was old Lou at his primest. It consisted of two multi-movement suites, both written in the 1970s, both in his mature modal, old-temperament, Asian-influenced, serenely spiritual style, and both accompanied by the "American gamelan", a collection of found percussion instruments that Lou and his partner Bill Colvig had conjured up out of tin cans, old oxygen tanks, and the like, wielded here by the William Winant Percussion Group, because really, who else would do it?

One was the Suite for Violin composed with Richard Dee, played by Shalini Vijayan, and the other was La Koro Sutro, a big choral setting of a Buddhist prayer translated into Esperanto. Don't laugh: Lou was a big proponent of Esperanto, which he found more useful than English in talking to Asians of various cultures on equal terms. Both works were hypnotically enchanting.

The concert began at 7:30. It ended at 10:30. Not just because the pieces were long. So was the intermission. Why? Well, the basilica was packed, but it has only 3 restroom stalls per sex, and that includes the portapotties they trucked in. Fortunately the Mission District is still hopping at 10:30 on a Saturday night, so I was able to get something to eat, finally, before heading out on a BART slowed by a derailment earlier that day.

I didn't get home until after 1 AM, but I was finally up and awake in time for a late Sunday afternoon concert in San Mateo by Viva la Musica, the choir to which L. is a lately-adhered soprano. For a volunteer choir that doesn't even audition, I thought it did more than pretty well, and I was very impressed by the recently-composed repertoire: a mesmerizing "holy minimalist" setting of St. John of the Cross' "dark night of the soul" prayer, music by Ola Gjeilo, a composer who's impressed the gizzard out of me before, beautifully matched for the choir and instruments (including a piano whose part sounded like a cross between Rachmaninoff and George Winston); and a Jubilate Deo by Dan Forrest, setting its psalmist text in about seven different languages in as many musical styles, all of them slightly florid. Forrest is less incisive or truly inspired than Gjeilo, but still workmanlike and interesting, with a lot of captivating rhythmic accents in his fast movements. The only real flaw was the addition in the Mandarin setting of an erhu, the Chinese equivalent of a haegeum, and you already know what I thought of that.

Also this weekend I had published a review from last week. I actually attempted to interview the 15-year-old soloist after the concert, though I didn't get much out of him, except a few basic facts most of which make up my second paragraph; he seems a lot more confident on stage playing the violin.

And what do you know, the choir from the last concert will be pairing with the orchestra from this one some time next year, so maybe I can review that and get two birds with one. We'll see how the schedule works out. The number of groups I've had to turn down because I'm going to be gone one weekend in June is unbelievable.

Friday, May 19, 2017

another one to cross off his list

I confess I've never read much of the criticism of F.R. Leavis. What I have read was enough to demonstrate that, rather to my surprise, Frederick Crews' famous "Simon Lacerous" parody - "Another book to cross off your list" - isn't much of an exaggeration. Leavis really was that brutally waspish - or waspishly brutal.

At one time, around the 1950s, he was the most influential critic out there. His disciples, trained by him at Cambridge or by his own earlier disciples, infected English departments everywhere, and the loaded terms seem appropriate. I've read one account by a dismayed college don whose department welcomed its first Leavisite, or tried to. He refused to engage in everyone else's give-and-take conversation about critical views. Either you accepted the master's dogma whole or you were beneath his notice.

The don emphasized that Leavis himself, whom he didn't really know, wasn't like that. But the style was in keeping with the severity of his critical views. Nowadays, I understand, Leavis is out of fashion. An age which eagerly studies even the confessed trash of literature - even if it's really only because everything else has already been done to death - on the grounds of what it says about popular taste and the publishing and societal context in which greater works were written, isn't going to have much time for a view of literature consisting of a tiny canon of unquestionable masterpieces and a vast realm of outer darkness.

But back when establishing a canon was the way to go in literary studies, it was he whose canon was the smallest and purest who became the highest priest, and that, I suspect, was the core of Leavis' appeal.

What I didn't read enough of Leavis to establish was what criteria he used to determine his canon. Which is why I was so interested to read this summary in a lucid book called Literary Feuds (Leavis' is with C.P. Snow, of course) by a state college professor named Anthony Arthur. He writes that Leavis saw great literature "as a positive moral force within society, particularly in the ways it exemplified the virtues associated with preindustrial rural life and exposed, as he saw it, the hollow and degrading materialism that the Industrial Revolution had unleashed."

And it occurred to me that anyone who holds those views ought to have loved The Lord of the Rings. Positive moral force? Check: Tolkien has one of the strongest moral visions in literature; to him, virtue consists of acting virtuous. It isn't inherent in the white hats the good guys wear. Perils threaten on every side. Contrast Tolkien with later fantasists like George R.R. Martin, for whom the absence of any moral force is treated as a feature, and you'll see the difference.

Virtues of preindustrial rural life? Check: By Tolkien's own account, the Shire is an idealized English Midlands village of his own 1890s childhood, with the Industrial Revolution entirely stripped out. The societies the hobbits visit on their journeys are equally idealized icons of cultures in the medieval literature that Tolkien studied professionally.

Exposed the hollow and degrading materialism of the Industrial Revolution? Check: The villains are manic industrialists, pouring out pollution and slag heaps everywhere. They're driven by self-aggrandizement and a lust for power and control. Saruman in particular rapes the Shire for his own creature comforts and to deny them to its inhabitants (see not just the Scouring of the Shire, but the stocks of goods that Merry and Pippin find in the ruins of Isengard).

This adds up to a book that Leavis should have been pleased to consider worthy of his canon of great literature. But somehow, you know, I suspect that he didn't. Leavis never wrote anything about Tolkien - probably he considered him beneath his notice, and the one thing that rings false in "Simon Lacerous" is the idea that Leavis would have bothered to attack Winnie-the-Pooh at such length at all - but less fastidious but equally high-minded critics like Edmund Wilson and Philip Toynbee did attack Tolkien. I don't need to cite how they violated their own loftily-stated critical principles in dismissing The Lord of the Rings - in Toynbee's case, stated not four months earlier in the same newspaper review column - because Tom Shippey has already done it in The Road to Middle-earth.

Would Leavis have done the same, had he bothered? Probably. His loss.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

This turned out to be quite the worthwhile concert.

The conductor was Roberto Abbado, new to me but a nephew of the late great Claudio Abbado (not that his bio in the program book says a word about that; they never say anything interesting.)

The first piece on the concert was also new to me, selections from a suite of incidental music to Gozzi's play Turandot, composed by Ferruccio Busoni some 20 years before Puccini's opera on the same topic.

I confess never having given Busoni's music the attention it deserves. This was impressive stuff, extraordinarily colorful, based on the winds and brass with nearly omnipresent timpani, and the strings mostly in a supporting role. It was highly rhythmic and great fun to listen to, in the same realm as another much later piece, Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, part of which is based on - surprise! - Weber's incidental music to Turandot.

Followed by a slow drift into more familiar territory. Veronika Eberle was soloist in Schumann's soft and dreamy violin concerto, and it wrapped up with a rhapsodic performance of Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

movies not finished

A few weeks ago somebody in my FL commented on and linked to an article praising the movie Tomorrowland for its positive vision of the future. I recalled an intriguing trailer for this movie before it was released, but I hadn't heard another word about it since.

I should have taken that as a warning (it's not always deserved: some obscure movies are really good), but I borrowed it from the library.

An interminable distance in, the bratty teenage girl who appears to be the hero is, along with the viewer, desperately trying to squeeze out some clue to the plot from the even brattier pre-teen robot who's been manipulating her life, when the robot threatens to shut down if she asks any more questions.

"Yes! Do it!" I thought, and then I thought, "I have the power to do it to you. It's called the 'stop' button." So I did, and then I checked the scene selector to discover that it was still less than halfway through the movie.

Yikes! Neither the presence of George Clooney nor of Hugh Laurie (badly miscast: should have tried someone like J.K. Simmons), nor a walk-on character named Hugo Gernsback (nothing to do with the original), can save this terminally boring clunker.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Gilbert and Sullivan review

The Lamplighters, A Song to Sing, O!, written by Barbara Heroux

I can't send you to this one, because this was the last performance. Wish I could, though.

Once before, maybe 30 or 40 years ago, the Lamplighters did a show with this premise, telling the story of G&S through their music. That one was an original stage musical with the real people as characters, with the songs taken from G&S but with new lyrics written.

This one isn't like that at all. It's essentially a concert performance of highlights from the G&S repertoire, delivered mostly in chronological order and performed by a cast of ten, not consistently representing any particular original performer, in evening dress with a minimum of costuming (usually just the headgear appropriate to a pirate or policeman or poet or peer). This is embedded within a part-dialogue, part-narrated script, delivered mostly by two non-singing actors as Gilbert and Sullivan, mostly from inside shells at the sides of the stage decorated as their personal studies. Much of the script is taken directly from letters and other original sources, and it includes just enough plot summary to make sense of the songs' context.

Most of the songs (some of them abridged) are greatest hits, though there were a few surprises (Katisha's solo, which is often cut), and the requirement to cover every show has put in such gems as the "matter matter" trio from Ruddigore and the Christy Minstrels number from Utopia Limited. At the end, after the description of G&S's deaths, comes the sorrowful "The world is but a broken toy" from Princess Ida, which makes a lot more sense here than in its original place.

Occasionally a song will interact with the narration, as when Bunthorne begins his solo with his recitative "Am I alone and unobserved?" and then stopped and glared at Gilbert in his study until he retired, before going on with "I am." And the narrative description of the Carpet Quarrel is illustrated by the agitated "In a contemplative fashion" quartet from The Gondoliers, the show that had immediately preceded the quarrel.

The stagings, though simple, were always clever and imaginative (other cast members walked across the back of the stage illustrating each of the Mikado's crimes and their punishments), and the performers were the cream of the Lamplighters' estimable crop. There were two unsurpassable comic baritones, Lawrence Ewing and Chris Uzelac; two lyric tenors, Samuel Faustine and Patrick Hagen; two darker baritones, the veteran William Neely and the outstandingly strong Robby Stafford; two lyric sopranos, Jennifer Ashworth and Erin O'Meally; a Katisha/Buttercup in Sonia Gariaeff; and an alto in Cary Ann Rosko to play Psyche, Pitti-Sing, Phoebe, and Tessa (the Jessie Bond parts). It was just excellent all the way through, it was stuffed with 33 superb numbers, and it took three hours.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

stage review: Monty Python's Spamalot

The unanswerable question is, How is it that someone as fond as I of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail had never seen its stage musical spin-off, Spamalot?

Well, I have now. Palo Alto Players is doing it, and they're doing it with such zest and imagination, plus quality, that it's terrifically worth seeing it, and it finishes this weekend, so locals should act now.

It only loosely follows the movie, with just a few parts of the script directly taken from it - and several of these, notably the Black Knight and the reading from the Book of Armaments, were performed quite differently - but it was terrific fun on its own account.

There's gobs of anachronisms, and the fourth wall may never recover from the amount of breakage it took during this show. But what I liked best of the added material was the fair number of really cheap puns, like this one:

ARTHUR (explaining the Holy Grail to uncomprehending knights): It's a symbol.
ORCHESTRA: [cymbal crash]

The songs are quite lively and several, even among the new ones, are memorable, and the spirit and characterization brought even by the back-of-the-stage ensemble members was admirable. I was particularly impressed by Michael Monagle as Arthur; not only did he both look and sound like Graham Chapman, but he had the combination of comedian and straight man mixed perfectly. (Others were more incongruous, but still good: Galahad looked like Jack Black, and Robin looked like Roddy McDowall.)

One other line I particularly appreciated. Having been instructed by the Knights of Ni to seek success on Broadway, and having been informed that this can't happen unless you have some Jews, Arthur is in despair on finding any until Patsy reveals that he's half-Jewish.

ARTHUR: You never told me that.
PATSY: It's not something you say to a heavily-armed Christian.

Friday, May 12, 2017

his stomach hurts

Jim C. Hines has been writing about his depression issues, and one point he keeps bringing up is to say "Depression doesn’t make me creative or smart. My creativity, my work as a writer, these things happen in spite of my depression, not because of it. ... Please stop spreading the bullshit myth that creativity and intelligence are in some way enhanced by mental illness."

Maybe not, at least in his case. And certainly it's better for your mental health not to believe it.

But I'm thinking of two of the twentieth century's most beloved creative artists. And while I don't know whether they suffered from clinical depression or not - and neither does anybody else, because they never got diagnosed or treated for it - they did at least both suffer from profound melancholia so severe that it crippled their social lives, and they were both absolutely convinced that it was the entire engine of their creativity. Which is why they refused to have it treated.

And they may have been right, because a deep sadness and melancholy pervades their best work, and that's what people love it for - though that's along with an equally pervasive sense that you have to accept what life deals you and keep on grappling with it, no matter what happens.

No matter how much the toad work squats on your life. Or no matter how often Lucy snatches away the football.

For the two beloved creative artists I'm thinking of are the English poet Philip Larkin and the American cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. Despite the interesting fact that they were born the same year (1922), they never had any interaction so far as I know, and it would never have occurred to me to think of them together had I not happened to be browsing through biographies of both in close succession.

Then it stunned me how much they have in common, in particular how much that pervasive sadness in their work is responsible for its distinctive character, and - from the biographies - how certain they were that they'd rather live with it than risk losing the creativity they were sure was bound up with it.

Of course, there's more to it than that. Both men's intimates testify that they could be be boon companions, riotous fun to be with; but it's also true that both were totally averse to public lives and rarely appeared there - Larkin had a particular response to the idea of speaking or reading in public; he said "I don't want to go around pretending to be me" - and tended not to travel much, preferring to hole up at home. Larkin had his job as a university librarian; Schulz, who always said he was good at only one thing, had his cartoonist's studio.

There were differences, of course. Larkin, though he never got less melancholy, dried up as a poet in later life, much to his distress, while Schulz, tied to newspaper deadlines, managed to crank them out, publishing a strip daily, with only one short break, for nearly fifty years.

Another difference is that Larkin never married, though he kept a couple of women stringing along for years thinking that he might; an aversion to domestic obligations and to children seem to have been his problems here. Whereas Schulz married twice and had five children. But here's where the melancholia theory really hits the road. Schulz's biographer, David Michaelis, while attributing much of the breakdown of his first marriage to Schulz's inertia and withdrawal, also says that Schulz considered his first wife something of a bully. She was the model for the character of Lucy. Charlie Brown was always saying, "My stomach hurts"; well, Charles Schulz's stomach always hurt. After he divorced and embarked on a much happier second marriage in 1972, his stomach never hurt again, and neither did Charlie Brown's.

But here's the thing. That's also just about the time that Peanuts lost its edge and began to turn into the random mush that disfigured its later years. Maybe he was right: he needed to be unhappy to create great work. Good grief.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

scholarly book review

Tom Shippey, Hard Reading: Learning from Science Fiction (Liverpool University Press)

Tom Shippey is, of course, the renowned Tolkien scholar, famous for his lucid explanations of what Tolkien was actually trying to do, and his robust denunciations of critics who carp at Tolkien from positions of cluelessness as to either his intent or achievement.

I knew that Shippey was also interested in SF, partly because he's edited collections of both the literature and of criticism, and because I knew of his interest in SF and fandom on a personal level. Once when I got to spend most of an afternoon in his company, he spent much of his conversation with me discussing Peter Weston (to whom this book is dedicated) and his fanzines, perhaps because I was the only person Shippey would be meeting on that trip who knew Peter Weston.

But this collection of essays, some of them dating back 40 years, is the first I've read of Shippey's own criticism in the field. And sure enough, he treats it just as he does Tolkien, explaining lucidly how SF works and chiding critics who don't get it. The first chapter, following the same principle of close reading pioneered by Samuel R. Delany in The Jewel-hinged Jaw, compares a sample opening scene in an SF novel (Pohl & Kornbluth's The Space Merchants) with a similar opening "man performing his morning ablutions" scene from a mainstream novel (Orwell's Coming Up for Air), and showing how the details in each give you information about the society you're in, but whereas Orwell's are designed to fix the character in a socio-economic context known to the reader, Pohl and Kornbluth are giving you new information ("depilatory soap"? "trickle from the fresh-water tap"?) and force you to store it in your mind until you've accumulated enough to form a picture of the society you're reading about. SF readers are used to reading this way. People who find SF unreadable don't.

Even better is a set of two chapters on a novel that forms an ideal topic for Shippey's approach. Usually when an established mainstream author writes an SF novel, the results are pretty dire, because they've wandered into a field they don't know how to write. But what happens when an author of high literary reputation who does know the SF field and its conventions writes an SF novel? Well, you get a competent SF novel. But what you also get is a large set of book reviews by literary critics who'd normally never touch SF, but who review this book because of its author's high literary repute. So Shippey has dug up all such reviews of Kingsley Amis's 1976 alternate-history novel The Alteration, and analyzed their near-universal and comprehensive Not Getting It.

In another essay, Shippey uses The Alteration to examine the rules and conventions of alt-history in general. In a third chapter he compares and contrasts it with "change the past" stories, literally drawing a matrix whose axes are the desirability of changing the past, and the possibility of actually doing so (given the opportunity to try). For instance, Lest Darkness Fall and A Connecticut Yankee both treat change as desirable, but in the one it succeeds; in the other it fails.

I really appreciated a chapter on magic in SF in the Unknown Worlds tradition, which treats it as a predictable, reliable science (actually more engineering). Shippey points out that this derives, directly or indirectly, from Frazer's The Golden Bough, which codified rules of magic from societies which consider them predictable and reliable. It's an entirely different view from one treating magic as religion. He contrasts this with stories in which whether, or how well, magic works depends on who's doing it (citing Earthsea, about which he has a whole separate chapter, as an example of this). But isn't it true even in our world that some people have the engineer's equivalent of a "green thumb" and others just don't?

Another place where I felt a little cautious came in a generally excellent chapter on cultural engineering in SF. Shippey discusses two stories by Poul Anderson and Winston P. Sanders (bashfully admitting in an introduction that he hadn't realized when writing the essay that they were the same person) showing that SF authors (at least this one) realize you can't just show up and engineer a culture around: if you try, there will be blowback and other disasters. (See also Le Guin's "The Word for World is Forest," which Shippey does.) What got me was a citation of John W. Campbell getting this point by writing an editorial in ASF in 1959 saying that American intervention in Vietnam would accomplish no good. Shippey commends Campbell for having the self-control to avoid crowing about this perspicacity ten years later; but I think it's far more likely that by ten years later, Campbell had changed his mind. I suspect that someone as right-wing as he would be unable to resist the temptation to be on the opposite side from the anti-war protesters.

Oh, there's much more in this book: a discussion of why 1984 doesn't really work, either as SF or as a novel; discussions of Jack Vance, Bruce Sterling, and Starship Troopers. I'd recommend it with enthusiasm for anyone interested in the thought that goes into SF literature.