Wednesday, January 30, 2013

concert review: missed dates

Tomorrow, January 31st, is Schubert's birthday. And is the San Francisco Symphony playing any Schubert this week? They are not. Guest conductor Charles Dutoit led dull and windy performances of Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole and Lalo's Symphonie espagnole. The latter, which is really a violin concerto, had as soloist James Ehnes, who is 36 years old and was consequently born about the same time I last listened to Lalo's Symphonie espagnole all the way through. I spent much of this performance thinking about how the work was written for Sarasate and how much Sarasate hated any parts of a concerto where he was not playing. Lalo didn't give him much to hate.

And some Elgar. Given the theme of the rest of the concert, did they play the suite from his opera The Spanish Lady? No. Did they play his early tone poem Sevillana (Scene Espagnole), which is so obscure even I have never heard it? No. They played the Enigma Variations, the standard default Elgar work, and made it so dull and windy as to turn it into a libel on the composer's insights into human nature. This was wrong.

I was looking forward to telling you about hearing community orchestras give free performances of Nielsen's Second and Third Symphonies, both of them, but I missed the performance of the Third. I had it on my calendar; I just forgot to go. But I did hear the Second, from the Prometheus Symphony in Oakland last Sunday. That was Mozart's birthday, but they didn't play any Mozart. Besides the Nielsen - a game attempt at a difficult work, seriously marred only by being too slow and by having the composer's name misspelled in the program book - they played Ernest Bloch's Schelomo with one of those amazing young soloists, cellist Oliver Herbert. As is often the case, he was fully technically qualified and lacked only seasoning. He could play all the notes, he just didn't give the impression of having any idea why he was playing them.

I'm looking forward to some concerts more delectable, if not next week - Dutoit is still here next week - then the week after.

Monday, January 28, 2013

the Germans should have a word for it

1. The frustration on discovering that, if the news had only been posted a couple of hours earlier, you could have attended another free concert in the same town that you drove to for the day yesterday to attend a concert in.

2. The relief on finding one's missing cell phone, combined with the self-irritation at realizing that it must have been there since last night, and that one therefore went the whole day before realizing it was not in the pocket where it belonged.

3. The satisfaction on performing the righteous physical exercise of spending an hour walking to the post office and back to mail some bills, while listening to Allan Sherman songs, many of them about being overweight, on random shuffle all the way.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Stanford Savoyards - HMS Pinafore: The Next Generation

That's right, a production of G&S's HMS Pinafore with a ST:TNG theme. I don't attend the Stanford Savoyards, a student group with all the pitfalls of the breed, very often, but once I noticed a poster on campus for this, I couldn't resist. (And when I learned from the program book that I'd missed that last year they similarly did The Pirates of Penzance with a Firefly theme, I could have bit myself.)

So what exactly did they do? The set (the ship's bridge) and costumes were pure TNG, with Trek characters "cast" as the Pinafore ones in appropriate roles, often by performers physically resembling the Trek actors. (However, if your Geordi is pasty-white, you're just not trying.) For instance, the young lovers Josephine and Ralph were done as Counselor Troi and Commander Riker. (She: excellent. He: dreadful.) Dick Deadeye was Worf. I need hardly say who the Captain was. The most successful matchup, and the best acting performance in the show, was Sir Joseph Porter as Admiral Kirk. As the director's note observed, "The similarities in personality between the two made this an easy choice." Gerar Mazarakis, who played the part, had a witty and plausible knack for a parody of Shatneresque overacting. It made for a Sir Joseph utterly dissimilar in tone from any I'd ever seen before, but surprisingly effective.

The show was consequently packed with innumerable clever bits of stage business that any Trekfan would get a kick out of. For instance, Little Buttercup (Lwaxana Troi) was selling from her basket, among other things, tribbles (of course), and those tribbles made an unexpected reappearance in quantity later on in the show, of course.

The lyrics and dialogue, however, were almost totally untouched. No attempt was made to reframe this story of 19th century British class roles or to update the ancient nautical dialogue, or change the names, or address inevitable oddities resulting from the "casting," like Deanna being Picard's daughter.

Just a few changes were made, mostly in the spoken dialogue. Sir Joseph is beamed on board, yes, but from his barge (it's still a barge). There were just a couple minor, and one major, changes in lyrics. The major one was in "For He Is An Englishman":
For he might have been a Vulcan
A Trill, or Q, or Romulan
Or perhaps Cardassian
But in spite of all temptations to belong to other nations, he remains an Englishman, not a human or a citizen of the Federation or anything like that.

As a G&S production, it was basic for this group, which is sometimes better than this. Josephine (Christina Krawec: give her namecheck credit), as I mentioned, was excellent. Most were not, though there were a few honorable exceptions. Most impressive of the exceptions was a fine performance of the unaccompanied madrigal "A British tar." Just imagine watching it being done by Riker, Data, and Geordi LaForge.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

digital publishing

In response to the Aaron Swartz case, Timothy Burke argues that scholars should just get off their butts and create open-source journals. Then scholarship would be free, as it should be, and we wouldn't be at the mercy of print or online publishers charging extortionate prices for us to access our own and each others' work. Burke is exasperated at his colleagues who defend the ancien regime.

OK, then: he's a scholar; why doesn't he do something, then? Instead of just complaining about it?

I have some concern and some obligation to speak here, because, unusually, I have some agency in this matter, or Burke writes as if I do. I'm the co-editor of an accredited scholarly journal. I'm not an academic myself, but my co-editors are. We're published by an established academic press, and our print volumes cost a pretty penny. We're available on an online database called Project MUSE, for which institutions have to buy subscriptions.

So why don't we just abandon this system and go open-source? It'd make the scholarship we publish more freely available.

Well, we've thought about it. But there's two overwhelming reasons why we don't do any such thing.

We don't have the expertise. We don't have the time.

Also, we don't have the money.

Since joining the editorial team, I've been impressed at the amount of time-consuming work involved in the intellectual and scholarly evaluation of the scholarship we receive. I am writing this post when what I ought to be doing is evaluating the four new or revised papers that have just come in this week (and revised ones are tougher to judge than new ones, because you have to compare what it says now to your evaluation of what it said before, while avoiding the trap of judging it by its improvement and not by its absolute quality). Could we also format the journal, host it online, and communicate its presence to the academic community? No. There is no time. And we wouldn't be particularly good at it, whereas there is hope that we are good at what we are trained and expert at.

What about our university press? That sounds impressive, but it's actually a tiny outfit, basically two overworked people in a small office, under obligations to be an income-producing source for the underfunded public university they work for. They can and do perform some tasks we cannot. But they couldn't host the journal online, assuming they were permitted by the university to do it, and they'd be one small entity out in the wilderness if they did.

So here's an idea. A bunch of universities should get together and establish a consortium. Yes, that's the ticket. Pool their resources, hire some people with both academic background and expertise in the technical and marketing sides, split the costs, and have a large online database that everyone would know was the place to go for access.

But ... but that's what Project MUSE is. And JSTOR, the entity that Aaron Swartz performed his guerrilla warfare against. This isn't Pergamon Press or Elsevier, folks, for-profit divisions of rapacious corporations out to squeeze the last penny from your pockets. Project MUSE and JSTOR are both non-profit entities, funded largely by foundation grants. Project MUSE is the creation of a university press that was large enough, and had the forward-looking support, to create such an endeavor. JSTOR is the brainchild of an economics professor who decided that improving electronic access to journals would be sufficient of a worthwhile mitzvah to leave academia for.

So why do they charge so much money to access their resources? I don't know. Are their costs really that high that they must be recouped in this manner? But if so, then guerrilla open-source actions like Aaron Swartz's are ultimately self-defeating. In Kathryn Cramer's immortal formulation, "Information wants to be free, but writers need to be paid." So do the people who put writers' work online, and the companies from which they contract hosting services. Aaron Swartz shouted "Be free! Be free!" but, if this is correct, it can't survive and flourish and keep itself renewed without an income. All he'd do is destroy what he's trying to save. (Did you ever see a movie called Bless the Beasts & Children?)

Or is it that economic greed is so deeply built into the human soul that even non-profit entities are driven to charge as much as they can get away with, sometimes more? In that case, in the revolution is the seed of its own destruction. Let's say Aaron Swartz had been successful at liberating the contents of JSTOR and set up his own open-source database. Soon enough he'd find that he needed money to operate it (see previous paragraph). And then - if this paragraph's thesis is correct - either he, or his successors, would soon enough find that they started charging, and charging, more, and more, and we'd be back where we started, and another Aaron Swartz would come along and tear down the Bastille again, and then another Emperor Napoleon would arise, and then ...

I'm not defending the regime. I simply think we're stuck with it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

It's the annual "Sasha Barantschik leads 18th century music" concert. One Vivaldi - a piccolo concerto - two Bachs - the A-minor violin concerto and one of the keyboard concertos reconstructed to a hypothetical violin-and-oboe original - and two Mozarts: the K.136 Divertimento, one of his most delightful and beautiful works, and the Serenata Notturna, one of his most annoying and boring works. At least as played here, the Serenata Notturna has five soloists, including timpani, and all five get cadenzas (it's like the old jungle joke in which the punchline is "drum solo", and if you heard the joke with "bass solo" instead, Mozart has got one of those too), and all the cadenzas are boring, and the same annoyingly dorky little tutti theme repeats between all of them. I liked everything else, but I was desperate for that one to be over. It sounded a lot longer than it supposedly was.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

wanted: time travel stories (and movies)

I'm looking for examples of time travel stories, either written or in movies, in the Oedipus mode. By which I mean ones that utilize the same twist as that Greek myth of creating a fate by the act of trying to prevent it.

In this kind of story, a protagonist goes backwards in time determined to change or prevent a historical event, only to discover, when returning to his or her own time, that all his strenuous efforts managed to do was to create the history he already knew. In other words, the historical timeline at the beginning of the story already included the time traveler's actions, it's just that he hadn't known it.

I am not looking for "Time Patrol" stories, in which secret agents protect the integrity of time by altering or stopping time travelers, or any stories in which events actually change, whether within the original timeline or in an alternate history, regardless of how futile or unexpected those changes might be. The punch of the type of the story I'm looking for comes when the time traveler realizes that the very act of trying to change the past is what created the past that he knows.

I'm sure I've read stories of this kind. I just can't think of them offhand. I actually wrote one like this myself, back my early juvenile days of trying to write SF, but I want something a little better-known, and better-written, than that. Lists of time travel stories are too long to browse conveniently, and often don't have annotations detailed enough to explain what kind of stories they are. I need to tap the power of the human mind to find this.

(PS: The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers would do, in that it's the time traveler's presence which creates the history that he knows, in a way he hadn't expected, but it lacks the essential element of the trip having been for the purpose of preventing it. Also, once he finds himself caught in a historical role, Powers' protagonist accepts the verdict of history and is content to live it out, instead of fighting against it. I want stories in which the protagonist is trying to change history, and fails. Also I'd prefer short stories or movies over novels for my purpose.)

Monday, January 21, 2013

concert review: Jeffrey Siegel's Keyboard Conversations

I ventured up to Villa Montalvo, a former estate back in the winding hills somewhere around here, for a concert. I hadn't been to Montalvo in decades, probably, and, as far as I can recall, never to its Carriage House Theatre, which was difficult to find until, wandering around the grounds in the deserted dark, I spotted a sign reading "Box Office". With lights on, and a few people around. The theatre is small, with the same stage layout as Oshman - a deeply inset proscenium - but whatever Oshman's acoustical problems, this one has solved them, to the extent of falling into the other error of being too vivid and close. The audience shouldn't be able to hear the pianist breathe.

I felt like something of a chump reviewing this program, because a little Googling on the obscurer items had confirmed that this performer takes this exact same program, preliminary remarks and all, around and plays it everywhere. His patter, like his piano playing, is probably entirely memorized. I did not, however, read any of the reviews of the same event in different forums; I want my thoughts to be fresh and purely mine, even at the risk of banality or overlooking something.

What I had done is listened to some of Siegel's other "Keyboard Conversations" (a trademarked title, forsooth) from a library CD set. The one on Beethoven in particular got into more detail than this lighter survey of lighter American music, and the more detail it got into, the more annoying it became. Too much repetition of phrases, too much demonstration of how a rondo theme recurs by playing it over and over during the talk.

And the kiss of death, a bit of composer psychoanalysis, blessedly absent from the live show. Siegel believes that the Moonlight Sonata expresses Beethoven's feelings about his encroaching deafness: the first movement is his despair and loneliness, the third movement his rage. But in that case, what's the second movement, which is brief and cheerful? It doesn't sound like someone faking it for purposes of social lubrication, and in any case Beethoven was famously disinclined to the social graces at any time.

Could it be that Beethoven wrote that movement not to portray his emotions, but to express a particular mood for purely artistic purposes? And if it can be that, then could not the other two be of the same kind? Could it therefore be, then, that presuming the nature of Beethoven's emotions and cherry-picking pieces that seem to fit them is merely projection and guesswork on the part of the analyst, and is, in fact, another case of critics just making sht up?

second inaugural

I already watched the real inaugural yesterday on YouTube, so why should I watch this one? For the speeches and the music, I guess.

Obama's speech was an uplifting recitation of the liberal creed - we help people in order to lift them up and make life better for everyone, ourselves included - with only one serious clang, where he said that the purpose of schools and colleges is to train workers. Ugh, ack.

The Inaugural Poet said "crescendoing". Is there even such a word?

And was that an allusion to the Newtown shootings? My!

The music: That choral arrangement of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was one of the most hideous things I have ever heard. The woman who sang "My Country Tis of Thee" was not much better. James Taylor, who is a lot balder than in the last time I saw a photo of him, maybe forty years ago, turned "America the Beautiful" into a James Taylor song, no surprise. Unfortunately it's not a James Taylor song, is it? The credit of the event has to go to Beyonce, whoever that might be, for demonstrating what a tasteful alteration of "The Star-Spangled Banner" sounds like. The figurations and elaborations she added to the melody were always at the song's service and never got in its way. I was pleased

Sunday, January 20, 2013


1) Short and sweet. To be repeated tomorrow with more pomp and circumstance.

2) In honor of the recently departed, a favorite true tidbit: near Aberdeen in Scotland are the ruins of a medieval Cistercian monastery that's actually called Deer Abbey.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Mars and music

Oh, you know how I like lectures on music illustrated with audio clips of the works being talked about. So let me introduce you to Kyle Gann on "Mars and music", a nice introduction to martial themes, in the broader sense, in classical music literature. Of course you know Gustav Holst's "Mars" (turn the volume up for Gann's clip of that; it's recorded at a lower level than many of the others), and perhaps some of the others. The one new to me that was most fun to hear was Biber's Battalia, of which one YouTube commenter wrote that Biber must have been high when he wrote that.

Allow me to make a few corrections and amplifications, though, all about WW2-inspired music. First, it's Antheil's Fourth Symphony, not his Fifth. Next, the part of Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements that the composer said was inspired by newsreels of marching Nazi soldiers wasn't the first movement that Gann links to, but the beginning of the third movement.

Lastly, if you want to listen to Shostakovich's infamous jaunty "invading Germans" theme from his Leningrad Symphony, and the irritated parody of it that Bartok slipped into his Concerto for Orchestra (Bartok was tired of repeatedly hearing the thing on the radio during its brief heyday, while he was composing his piece), all of which I wrote about way back here, it'll help to know where in Gann's long tracks you'll find them. In Shostakovich's enormous first movement, the German theme begins, quietly, just before the 6:00 mark, and continuous in incessant building-up repetition, akin to Ravel's Bolero, for nearly twelve minutes. You can't miss it.

You could inadvertently miss Bartok's parody, though. It's in the fourth movement of his Concerto for Orchestra, and may be heard beginning on the clarinet at 26:47. Continuations and various squawks of annoyance go on for nearly a minute before the movement resumes its previously untroubled way. Listen to the whole work, though, all five movements - it's a delightful masterpiece, and this is a fine performance.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

concert review: Peer Gynt at SFS

Well, that was a mistake.

I was foolish enough to be attracted by the concept of a program combining Edvard Grieg's incidental music to Ibsen's Peer Gynt - thus implying more than the two standardized suites of it - with Peer Gynt music by other composers, initially listed as "including" Alfred Schnittke and Robin Holloway, but turning out to include nobody else, which I think is a violation of the rights of the word "including".

But instead of a Peer Gynt-themed concert program, what we got was a semi-staged production of an abridged (fortunately) version of the play, with bits of the contributing composers' music inserted where appropriate.

This did have the advantage of clarifying the role in the play of Grieg's music, often criticized as incongruously sweet for Ibsen's cold, inhuman drama. What it does is cut the bitterness, same as a little sugar cuts chocolate's.

But not enough. Staging it this way turned the focus from the music to the play itself. From the one perspective, this forces you to have to care about Peer and his adventures, and I just don't. He's a willfully unlikeable character who stomps on the feelings of everyone he knows. And from the other, such a play performed under such circumstances is sure, in acting and directing, to be deadly, and oh, was this ever.

This was the most tedious performance I've attended since Menlo put on Stravinsky's pointless L'Histoire du Soldat with equally desperate actors, and that was a lot shorter.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

end of an era

For 30 years I've had a post office box. I got it when I first moved back to this area. At first my address was subject to change without much notice; then I lived for five years in an apartment with a dinky little mailbox open to the rain. So it was my principal address for a while. Later still, while living in homes with better mailboxes, I still found it useful as a place to receive magazines, which I would dump in my car to have handy for something flat and expendable to read while eating lunch out. But my magazine subscriptions diminished over the years, and of the last two survivors, one, The New Yorker, I moved the subscription to home so I wouldn't forget to bring them home because B. wanted to see them, and the other, Newsweek, which I'd originally subscribed to as a way of keeping up with the world, ceased being useful because 1) I was getting that kind of basic info from the web now, and 2) Newsweek was ceasing to provide it, filling itself up instead with inferior columnists. My subscription ran out about the time I became finally fed up with the idea that I was paying part of George Will's salary, and that they ran the infamous cover photo imagining an artificially aged Di at Will & Kate's wedding. By the time the print edition finally bit the dust last year, I was already long gone.

That left nothing useful in the box except all the concert publicity materials I get from old mailing lists, and those can be switched if I switch the address I order tickets to be sent to, and send COAs to a couple publicity outfits which have been known to send me complimentary CDs.

Also, I no longer work in the direction that the post office is in, so I don't get there very often. I'd already been thinking for over a year of closing the box (which now costs over twice as much as it did when I got it) when I remembered a couple days ago that the annual renewal notice comes in the box in early December and is due by the end of the month, and I hadn't seen it. Because, it followed, I must not have been to the box in over a month.

That's not often enough. So I went there today and closed it up. I'd remembered where I kept my extra box key, so I brought that along with the one off my chain. The clerk punched his screen for a while, scribbled on some forms, and then handed me $2 as a return deposit for the keys. I went home and filled in the online USPS COA form just in case, and it's done.

As I was standing to the side going over these forms, the next customer was another PO Box owner with a late payment (and the late fee turns out to be another $15). "I've had this box for thirty years," he said. And so had I, but not any more.

Monday, January 14, 2013

a little touch of research

This is just a lucky tidbit of scholarly research that's come my way lately, that I don't have a pending use for, and which I'm describing not for its importance but as a typical example of something I used to, and maybe will again, do fairly regularly.

Fifteen years ago, when I was researching a paper on R.B. McCallum, the Oxford historian and political scientist who was a member of the Inklings - a paper published in Mythlore in 2001 - one of my lucky research discoveries came when I ran across a library copy of Alistair Horne's massive biography of Harold Macmillan, British prime minister in 1957-63. Macmillan had, I remembered, been elected Chancellor of Oxford University in 1960. The chancellor, usually a retired politician (currently it's Chris Patten), is the honorary head of the university and is elected by (essentially) all the university graduates who care to show up in person to vote. Consequently a chancellorship election - a rare event, as the job is for life - is an opportunity for office politics writ large. The 1960 election occurred while McCallum was Master of Pembroke, head of his college, and I wondered if he might have played a role in it.

He did. It turned out that McCallum was essentially the campaign manager for the major losing candidate. Macmillan's campaign manager was Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Regius Professor of History, and Horne quotes Trevor-Roper in a letter calling McCallum "a sanctimonious Scottish ass." This compared and contrasted interestingly with other judgments of McCallum, and it made a juicy quote in my paper.

Very well. Recently I happened to be browsing through Trevor-Roper's entry in Wikipedia, and found a reference to a collection of his Letters from Oxford published a few years ago. (I learn of a lot of intriguing books through references in Wikipedia articles.) I wondered if the outspoken Trevor-Roper would have any other quotable remarks on Inklings therein. I ordered the book through interlibrary loan, and found that it did. In two letters to Wallace Notestein, Trevor-Roper gives exceedingly gossipy accounts of the 1938-51 elections to the Professorship of Poetry, another office-politics elective post which comes up more often as it's a five-year term, and which involved, among others, C.S. Lewis - Trevor-Roper was on the opposite side of the academic barricades from Lewis, and his scurrilous and distinctly stereotyped description of Lewis is, so far as I know, yet unknown to Lewis scholarship - and the 1960 chancellorship election.

This time, Trevor-Roper explains that McCallum opposed Macmillan because he didn't want Macmillan as Chancellor to hold the ex officio position of Visitor (another honorary supervisory role) of Pembroke, and that the reason for that was that McCallum had recently "published an article in the Contemporary Review urging that the PM and most of his colleagues be impeached."

Wow. Not only did that sound more than usually juicy, but I'd been keeping a haphazard bibliography of McCallum's known works, and wanted to get this piece on that list.

It turned out that the piece was sort of already there. I had a citation for an article of that date in a journal called Contemporary Commentary, and a notation that I hadn't been able to locate it. But since (I now found on checking) that other title apparently did not exist, while Contemporary Review did, and the volume number in my citation matched the info I had on Contemporary Review's publication pattern, I concluded that the citation had simply gotten the name of the journal wrong.

It had. I found the back volumes of Contemporary Review at the San Jose State library. McCallum's article was there at the cited volume and pages. And it was in a section of the issue called "Contemporary Commentary", which appears as a running head and explains the mistaken citation. But it hardly fit Trevor-Roper's description. It bore the anodyne title "Thoughts on the General Election" (of 1959), and its contents were equally anodyne. No calls for impeachment anywhere. And no, McCallum hadn't written other articles for the journal in that period.

From which we learn: take anything Hugh Trevor-Roper tells you with caution, even when he's not authenticating fake Hitler diaries.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

concert review: *bing*

It isn't often these days that B. and I get dressed up nice and go out for dinner and a concert. But we did it on Friday as a special treat, because I was being sent to review the opening night gala of the Bing concert hall, the one I went to the press preview of some six weeks ago.

And, of course, everyone is going to want to know how the acoustics are in this rather daring-looking new hall. Well, here in the review I spill all the beans I was able to gather.

As a gala, it hardly needed reviewing. The Bing bling consisted of the intermission glasses of champagne, which I did note in the review, and the same array of uniformed staff members were lined up after the concert with the same trays, this time holding commemorative tins of peppermints as a souvenir. The buffet of fruit and desserts at the press preview had been more sumptuous, but there had been lots fewer people. On the other hand, this time the actual snack counter was open for sales.

To describe the contribution of emcee Anna Deavere Smith (a former drama prof at Stanford, which explains what she was doing there) as scripted blither was sufficient. Scheinen called it superfluous aggrandizing, and he was more blunt than I. Suffice that you're not going to impress an old UCB grad by boasting of the architectural and topographic variety of the Stanford campus. Further blither, mercifully brief, came from the eponymous Bing and the President of the University at the beginning. Musical blither came not from the choral piece setting chunks of Bing's previous speech, which was surprisingly good (the music, I mean), but in the form of showing off the hall's sound system with a so-called fanfare by the wankers up at the campus electronic music lab: a classic piece of 1950s-style musique concrète made out of recordings of traffic noise. Be thankful I considered it beneath my notice for the review.

I went back on Saturday for the choral half of the open house festival. The children's choirs were OK, including the teenage boys who did a Beach Boys medley with enthusiasm and amusing choreography but not quite the proper snap, but the Stanford Talisman was, as I noted in the review, really impressive. The more so in that a group performing African music was about 3/4 white, and that it had been originally founded, as they explained in introducing themselves, to fight apartheid, back in the day, with music. (I was all in favor of fighting apartheid, but I did rather feel, even at the time, that the tools available for the average American to fight it with were rather disconnected from the goal, and this is a good example.) They, or rather their successors, are still around and still singing; I guess the music speaks for itself and not just for its political purpose.

Friday, January 11, 2013

the national park meme

So the Pinnacles, a weirdly eroded ancient volcanic lava plug a couple hours' drive south of here, has now been promoted from a national monument to a national park. The purpose of the change was to encourage tourism, actually. Foreign visitors in particular have never heard of national monuments, of which we have close to 100, many of them very small, but everyone knows what a national park is, and now the U.S. has 59 of them. (Not counting the 5 that have been decommissioned.) I thought, how about a list of them to check off which ones I've been to? These are arranged by (principal) state; underline indicates I've been there.

Alaska: Denali, Gates of the Arctic, Glacier Bay, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, Wrangell-St. Elias. Most of these are completely inaccessible by car (also true of several parks elsewhere); indeed, I have never set foot in Glacier Bay NP, but only explored it by boat, though we traversed its entire length.
Arizona: Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Saguaro. Just the south rim of Grand Canyon. I tried venturing down Bright Angel trail, but gave up quickly, because the burros had been there first.
Arkansas: Hot Springs. Possibly the most urban national park. I didn't see the springs, which I guess are mostly inside the bathing buildings, but I did drive to the top of the peak overlooking the town.
California: Channel Islands, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon, Lassen Volcanic, Pinnacles, Redwood, Sequoia, Yosemite. OK, then: taking a boat out to the Channel Islands clearly has to be my next adventure project.
Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain. Mesa Verde was one of the neatest places I visited in childhood.
Florida: Biscayne, Dry Tortugas, Everglades. Go now, while it's still there.
Hawaii: Haleakala, Hawai'i Volcanoes. And I've peered down into two calderas, though I entered neither.
Kentucky: Mammoth Cave.
Maine: Acadia.
Michigan: Isle Royale.
Minnesota: Voyageurs.
Montana: Glacier. Another one whose namesake feature is not likely to be there much longer.
Nevada: Great Basin.
New Mexico: Carlsbad Caverns.
North Carolina and Tennessee: Great Smoky Mountains.
North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt. Just his cabin in Medora: I didn't get out to the wilderness outlying units.
Ohio: Cuyahoga Valley. I must have been near it, but I don't think I've actually been in it.
Oregon: Crater Lake. And, perhaps unlike many visitors, I've also been on the island that's in the lake.
South Carolina: Congaree.
South Dakota: Badlands, Wind Cave.
Texas: Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains.
Utah: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Zion. I'd like to get to some more of these, too, someday. They're all accessible, just long drives.
Virginia: Shenandoah. Just passing through. Time was lacking to drive the parkway, which I regret.
Washington: Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Olympic. The rain forest in Olympic is another one of those magical sights.
Wyoming: Grand Teton, Yellowstone. Yellowstone also extends slightly across the line into Montana and Idaho. I've been in the Montana part, but it requires a long back-country hike to reach the Idaho part.
External territories: American Samoa, Virgin Islands.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


The Oscar nominations have, as usual, snuck in on little cat feet, in contrast to the hoopla attending the announcement of the actual winners.

Of the movies nominated this year, I've seen 5 so far. None of them make me wonder, "Why did it get nominated for that?", though I didn't like all the movies. Lincoln and Argo, which I saw because of my weakness for putatively accurate historical dramatizations, were both pretty good movies. Les Miserables, which I saw for the music at B's suggestion, was pretty good too. The Hobbit was impressive in the technical categories in which it was nominated, no doubt about that. And Brave, which we watched on DVD, again at B's suggestion, was gorgeously animated, and well-enough paced on a scene-by-scene level, but the overall plot was stunningly lax, sloppy, and meandering. It would have been better at half the length. But that's also true of other well-regarded animated features of recent times, like Ratatouille.

What astonishes me is my lack of interest in seeing any of the other major-award nominees. By this time, I've seen 11 of last year's major-award nominees, mostly on DVD, but this year there are only a couple, like Life of Pi or The Master, that I've been thinking I might rent on DVD so that I can turn them off if I don't like them. (I saw the previous movie by the director of The Master in the theatre, and wished I could have turned it off, I don't care how many Oscar nominations that crappy movie subsequently got.) But that's about it. Particular aversion towards the possibilities of Silver Linings Playbook, a movie whose mere existence had previously escaped my attention, and which sounds like exactly the sort of domestic drama filled with repellent and nonsensical characters that I most dislike.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

reviews of The Hobbit

I've been waiting for my capsule review of The Hobbit to be published in its first-rights source before putting it up here. From the December issue of Mythprint:
One frequent response to complaints about Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings was that book fans wouldn't be satisfied unless the movie was forty hours long and got all of the book in. No, that wasn't the desire at all, and to prove it, here we have the first installment of The Hobbit. At three hours for six chapters, it's exactly as slow-paced as a forty-hour LOTR would have been, and it still didn't get everything from the book in. Instead, Jackson has stuffed it full of orcs, which he considers separate from goblins: the difference is, goblins are easier to kill and are voiced by comedians. At least it isn't The Phantom Menace: Jackson still knows how to direct a movie, and he has Tolkien's sturdy tale to rely on. Somewhere inside this bloated monster of a film, for which its Hutt-like Great Goblin is a suitable image, there's a clever knockabout entertainment about dwarves and a hobbit trying to get out. But it never makes it. It's been drowned in a sword-wielding videogame and an action-adventure theme-park roller-coaster ride.
Now, more reviews of The Hobbit, a few superlative in various directions that I've collected over the past month:

The most favorable review, and part 2, and part 3. No, I know what you're thinking, but he really isn't being paid off by Jackson to enthuse about it. Shame on you for thinking that. He's a respectable Tolkien scholar, really.

The angriest review. The review that is so angry it cannot move. It cannot eat. It cannot sleep. It can just barely growl. (And sent to me by the author of the review cited above, I kid you not.)

The most pathetic review. It didn't make him want to walk out in the middle; therefore it was worth his time and money, even though he disliked a lot about it. Really, is that your standard for quality?

The most puzzling review. He doesn't actually like the book very much, and actually prefers it as a remake of the Lord of the Rings movies. Then he goes on, in his last paragraph, to identify exactly what's wrong with this movie, despite claiming (see previous paragraph) that he can't do so.

The most arrogant, stupidest defense of the movie. Yes, as its author says, the backstory added by Jackson really does come from the appendices to LOTR. (Most of it.) But did you notice that it's not actually in The Hobbit? It's wrong to say this is the way Tolkien intended the story to be seen. He had the opportunity to rewrite The Hobbit in this manner, and gave it up after two chapters. The book should not be read with all that retroactive weight bearing down on it; it's not meant to carry that pressure. It really is a more lighthearted story. Further, the backstory isn't where the real problems lie (see the complaints in the previous three reviews, and in my own). Those constant orc attacks from the start of the journey ... those aren't from Tolkien, fool.

The most succinct and to-the-point review. 46 words. And no more need be said.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

dropsy of a concert

I decided I had time to eat at home before rushing off to the concert I was going to review. Maybe that's why I was flustered and clumsy enough to 1) drop my tickets on the floor without noticing that I'd done so (only the second time that's ever happened, the first being the day I spent rushing around Carmel for the Bach Festival); 2) only after flipping through the book I was carrying to see if I'd maybe stuck the tickets inside there realizing that I'd grabbed the wrong book when I'd left the car, and was not carrying the book about the composer whose work was being featured; 3) when fishing in my shirt pocket for a pencil during a break in the concert, dumping the other contents of the pocket out on the floor without realizing I'd done that, either.

However, I wasn't the only one. The conductor came out for one piece, bowed, and then headed backstage again. She'd forgotten to bring the score.

I did, however, manage to get the review written by the next afternoon, which is faster than I usually am. A certain amount of research is packed into this one; let's see if the readers who don't like that object.

As the review says, I hadn't realized just how intense a tribute this would be to Lou Harrison, nor the richness of the SJSU connections. B. was a music student at SJSU during Harrison's years there, and would see him padding around the building. (Meanwhile, the most famous composer I would see around the U.C. Berkeley Music Dept. in those days was Andrew Imbrie. I'd rather have had Harrison.) She also knew some of the other names on the program, including the composer Brent Heisinger, who was her theory teacher. (That makes her the grandpupil of Humphrey Searle. Gadzooks. And Harrison studied with Schoenberg. How did Harrison and Heisinger emerge unscathed?)

If I had realized what a festive tribute this was to be, I might have included it in my contributions to the Spring Season Preview, which is also now up. I'd been asked to write up 3 or 4 interesting-looking concerts of my choice in the South Bay, and I did, and they're slotted in there, three of them in Part 1 and one in Part 2.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

rather peculiar books

I was going to de(con)struct a couple of silly articles about Tolkien that came out in the wake of the moovie, especially one in Time claiming that hobbits and dwarves reproduce asexually because no women are to be seen. Never mind that both Bilbo's mother, and Fili's and Kili's, are mentioned in The Hobbit, let alone all the quite prominent roles of women in the Tolkien books that the ignoranti haven't read, like, uh, Lúthien; it's not enough to complain that they're not onstage in The Hobbit, you have to make a fool of yourself pretending they don't exist at all, and sound like the pseudo-scholar who once claimed the characters don't need to defecate because we don't see them doing that, either.

But the prospect of going on any more than that about it bored even me, so there's no word to describe what it would inflict on you. Instead, these library books:

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum
This is a rather peculiar book. Blum is on a hunt for the physical manifestations of the Internet, i.e. the actual boring-looking, box-like industrial park buildings where the servers and routers are stored. In the process he says some interesting things about its historical development, geographic imperatives (signals may travel at lightspeed, but with this quantity of data, microseconds make a big difference), and security issues, but the main impression is his goshwow sensa wonder at actually being in these holy spots. But the reader isn't there with him (and while the descriptive prose is good, there are no photos), which left me understanding why he wrote the book, but not why I was bothering to read it.

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher
This is a rather peculiar book. It comes in two parts. First, Deutscher elaborately erects a straw man parodic exaggeration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis so that he can demolish it with ridiculous ease, even going so far as mockingly to suggest that we should just eliminate the word "pain" and save millions on aspirin. Then he goes on to prove that the actual hypothesis is in fact true, using three points: 1) the subliminal association of human secondary sexual characteristics with inanimate objects by speakers of languages where they're gendered nouns; 2) distinctions of shades of color according to the groupings set by the color words in the speaker's language; 3) languages which use compass directions for everything instead of self-oriented directional words like left, right, ahead, behind.
This last one most interested me, partly because I hadn't heard of it before, and partly because I have a rudimentary form of the internal compass speakers of such languages must develop. I'm never entirely unaware, for instance, that as I sit at my desk here, I'm facing north. If I spoke one of these languages, I'd have to say that I type words not from left to right, but from west to east, and if I moved the computer, I'd have to modify that statement. And something nagged at me when we first moved to this house, until I realized that it was that now we were sleeping facing east, whereas in the old house we slept facing west. For that matter, I am sometimes incredulous at other people's ideas of what color something is. They say it's orange, but it looks red to me, or maybe vice versa, or maybe yellow, I forget which. The arbitrariness of these divisions is very much to mind.

In other news, I've received a paycheck for all the writing I did last month. Usually they come faster than this, but I guessed the holidays might cause a delay. The check is dated December 31st. I recognize this as a term of art.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

new of the news, supplemental

I should have included this one in yesterday's roundup, because as a separate post it's going to be frustratingly incomplete.

Occasionally over the years I've been contacted by reporters working on feature articles about Tolkien, and sometimes quoted in same, with mixed results. A good description of what this kind of experience feels like may be found in this recent account by my fellow scholar Jason Fisher of his own experiences as a journalistic source. Reading the Christian Science Monitor piece that Jason was quoted in caused me to give thanks that at least I was well out of that one, but I spoke too soon.

In mid-December I was phoned by a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader who was writing a feature article, tied to the Hobbit movie, about the longstanding rumor that Kentucky country folks inspired Tolkien's hobbits. Some other Tolkienist had told the reporter that I'd once written an article titled "Hobbit Names Aren't From Kentucky", so he asked me to elaborate on it. I did, and then I followed my previous practice and sent him an e-mail summarizing what I'd said so that he might have something other than his notes from the phone call to quote from.

But when the article appeared, a couple days after Christmas (it might have been copied by other McClatchy/Knight-Ridder papers as well), I winced to read it. It's not really the reporter's fault - he was just trying to get up to speed on a subject he knew nothing about - but the whole thing, and my participation in particular, came out appearing so inane and trivial, and concluding with a glaringly inaccurate fact, stated as a quote from me,* that I'm not even going to link to it. I didn't feel I should leave it unmentioned, but my hope is that you won't consider it worth the trouble of looking for, because it really isn't. So pooh.

*Well, at least I'll tell you what the error was, in hopes that will assuage any remaining curiosity. The reporter told me that folks in the relevant part of Kentucky believe that Tolkien once came and visited there. I was able to confirm that this was not the case and that Tolkien never visited the U.S. Although he was invited a couple times, I added, mentioning an invitation from Marquette University in Wisconsin, which bought his papers, in particular. Thanks, I'm sure, to the incompleteness of the reporter's notes, this locale got transmuted into the University of Wisconsin in the quote from me. Aargh.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

new of the news year

1. I finally finished watching Ken Burns' Dust Bowl documentary a few days ago. What most interested me was the geography. Centering on the exact area in the US where five states come most closely together (could that have contributed to any lack of regional coordination?), events of the Dust Bowl were given some precise individual locations in the film. And I realized that, apart from passing by the edges on a couple of childhood trips, I've never been there.

2. At a New Year's party I was quietly informed of a home truth that certain people in the SF community consider me an old fuddy-duddy in Tolkien matters. Well, of course they do. I have refused to bow to our new fan-fiction masters. Even a mere personal preference for the original author's unsullied creation is more rebellion than they can tolerate. Well, in Tolkien even ultimate defeat does not turn right into wrong, and I stand with those authors who do not wish graffiti drawn on their creations in public (what you do in private is your own business), such old fuddies as Ursula K. Le Guin.

3. Enough has been said in public elsewhere that I can explain my cryptic post of Saturday. The DeHoard Crew of which I was a part was sorting through the accumulated clutter of the life of our friend Vanessa. V. kept stuff, lots of stuff, in boxes and storage bins, each of them entirely miscellaneous, and they had long since taken over her house. In and among these bins we found papers, fabric, art supplies and sewing equipment, cameras and software, numerous old Altoids tins (not all of them empty), uncashed ten-year-old membership checks for a society of which she was secretary, and a 15-year-overdue library book, which I volunteered to return to its owner because I sometimes pass that way. In the course of two days' work, a pathway was actually cleared between the doors at opposite ends of the largest room in the house ... at which point we found that mice had been living underneath. The most poignant moment for me came when a clearer from the country-dancing side of V's life held up an old apa mailing and asked, "What's this?" Fortunate that I was in the room to answer the question.