Wednesday, August 16, 2017

when is the eclipse, anyway?

This is bizarre. I'm going to be outside of St. Louis, and I thought I'd look up the time of the eclipse.

The NASA site says that totality will occur 18.17-18.19. Universal Time. And what is that in something humans understand? Well, here's a Universal Time to Central Daylight Time converter. 18, that's 6 pm if you're not in the army, converts to 1 pm local time. That sounds right; Central Time is 6 hours earlier than the UK, where UT is based, minus one for DST, makes five. So the eclipse will be around 1:18 pm, OK?

But wait! Here's the National Weather Service site, which is linked to from the NASA site, and it says 11:18 AM.

So which is it?

Monday, August 14, 2017

omentielva otsea

It's Quenya for "seventh meeting." It's the International Conference on J.R.R. Tolkien's Invented Languages, and it's been held every other year since 2005. Always, until now, in Europe; but when it comes to within a few miles of my home, I can't resist it.

I have to explain that, since Tolkien was a professor of language by trade, his writings on his invented languages are extremely complex and full of technical detail. Those who study them tend to to be specialists in that particular area, while other Tolkienists, even those who are masters of detail in other areas, tend to avoid it. Kind of like the place of catalogers among other librarians, come to think of it (speaking as a cataloger). Even Tolkien's son Christopher, who is qualified to study the languages, left most of this material out of his posthumous volumes, and it's being edited, slowly - because it's voluminous and extremely crabbed - by a team of Tolkien linguists who are publishing it in small-press editions, because only small-press numbers of people are interested or could possibly understand it.

I'm not one of those scholars of language, though I did study linguistics (as a theoretical study of language) in college and found it fascinating. I'm one of those other, non-linguistic Tolkien specialists. Yet I have read the proceedings of past Omentielvar, and found that I could follow most of what they were saying. So I thought I could float above water here, and indeed I could. It's interesting and meaningful because Tolkien applied the same principles and methods of creativity to his languages as he did to everything else he did.

The sort of people who just want to tattoo something in tengwar (Tolkien's principal invented alphabet) on their biceps would not have the patience for Omentielva, and indeed inquiries about "How do you say/write ...?", which most everyone here has gotten, were a running humorous theme of the conference. It was in fact the second smallest formal convention of any kind I've ever attended, with only 17 attendees, about half of them European. (Not counting 2 more non-attending Europeans who presented papers by Skype, which worked pretty well.) Of the 5 people, all of them Americans, who have worked on editing those small-press linguistic papers, four of them were here, and made up half the American contingent. Most of the attendees were male, but 3 were women, not one whit less sharp, learned, or generally nerdy than the men. Ages ranged broadly from 20s to 60s.

So we all gathered together in the same small meeting room on Cal State's Hayward campus, we all ate our meals together at the same table in the dining commons, slept in independent pod rooms in the same dormitory, and generally lived the life of a scholarly community for 3 days, packed with detailed technical presentations. Of the items on the busy schedule, I find I can most easily describe the ones on the scripts: one describing an inscribed rock tablet found in North Carolina that was originally taken as a Viking relic, but whose runes turned out to be Tolkien's, and hence could not predate the 1950s; one comparing the tengwar to other scripts, notably Pitman shorthand, whose notation also systematically reflects their phonetics; and one analyzing the history of one cryptic tengwa. I was relieved that a presentation of Asterix comics translated into Elvish languages, even with the nonce-words identified below on the screen, were a challenge even for these experienced linguists to translate back. I gave a presentation myself, not on the invented languages, but on the related topic of whether Americans reading the deeply English Tolkien in the original are separated from the text in a way that other foreigners, for whom it's been translated into their own idiom as well as their own languages' words, are not. We had no definite conclusions but an interesting discussion.

And, as the organizers had accepted another suggestion of mine, on Saturday morning we packed nearly everybody into a rented passenger van where I drove them to Berkeley, and gave my walking tour of the campus and Telegraph, including many fabled Sixties historic sites. And, this being Omentielva, we then spent the better part of two hours in Moe's Books. As I've been there often before and will go again, I spent most of that time sitting with one of our younger members, a Swiss, having a conversation that consisted mostly of giving each other informative lessons in Swiss and American history and government.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

o to be a blogger

Tom Lehrer famously said, "I know there are those who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that." If the paradox embedded here seriously bothers you, then read this and be enlightened.

It was a sad day when the San Jose Mercury News removed Richard Scheinin from classical music reviewing and put him on the real estate beat, but at least it means he gets to write bizarre stories like this.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

concert review: the end of Menlo

Saturday evening concluded the Music@Menlo chamber music festival. Since returning 5 days earlier from my trip to states beginning with an I, I'd been plunged back into it, including such features as:

A masterclass in which, after hearing each of two sets of student performers, the instructor threw his hands up in despair at his failure to think of anything he could critique them on.

A prelude performance of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. Not my favorite work by a long shot, it nevertheless impressed with the intensity of its color, and even more by the players' introduction, in which the second violinist recited a translation of the Richard Dehmel poem that inspired the work, while the rest of the musicians played passages that seemed to correspond with the particular events of the poem. A brilliant job by the performers.

(The poem depicts a woman ashamedly confessing to her new boyfriend that she's already pregnant by another man. He forgives her, and their love is transfigured. Pretty terrible already, and the music is worse. But now you know why Schoenberg wrote it as a sextet, and if you think that's a stupid argument, I once heard a Menlo performer give a talk seriously pitching for a calendar date encoded in the number of bars a piece had.)

Another prelude performance interrupted twice by what sounded like the same very loud cell phone going off. At the end of the piece, festival co-director David Finckel appeared on stage to announce, through tight lips, that the performers would be doing those passages over again, to get a clean recording (audition tapes for their younger performers being an important by-product of the festival). They got an even bigger applause after the remakes than they had originally. And I wonder if Menlo has procedures to ban egregiously errant audience members.

A concert by the 10-to-18 year old students including the usual hefty samples of Dvořák and other hoary classics played with the fresh dedication always heard here, but also a new thing for one of these concerts, a piece by a living composer (which means, as the students excitedly declared, that you can shoot him a message asking if something in the score is a misprint, which you can't do with Dvořák). The piece was a string sextet (yes, another one) by Jörg Widmann, whom I knew from a stunningly crappy piece of merde dropped on the Banff String Quartet Competition last year. The sextet was far better, a concise technobeat moto perpetuo with some minimalist sensibility. I actually kind of liked it. Here, you can listen to them playing it here (the music begins just after 5 minutes in).

An evening concert of late Romantic music bifurcated between elegant, restrained performances and madly impassioned Expressionism, which I reviewed.

And Saturday's final concert, whose major work was a string Octet by George Enescu, which he wrote poised on the century's edge in 1900, at the age of 19. It's half a 19C work and half a 20C one in musical style, and is largely composed of lyrical melody with a good sense of structure keeping the very long, virtually unbroken work from meandering. There are many solos, usually for one of the first two violins (here Bella Hristova and Danbi Um) or the first viola (Paul Neubauer) backed with amazingly interesting harmonies from the rest of the ensemble; these alternated with dramatically intense tuttis. This piece comes right behind the previous concert's Kreisler string quartet for most interesting discovery of the year, but I doubt I will ever hear it played so well again, even if I ever do.

An overlapping ensemble played Shostakovich's early Octet movements, Op. 11, with great drama but without sounding at all like Shostakovich, and the year's theme of showing off the violin came in some brief pieces by Dohnányi (with piano), Martinů (with cello), and Corigliano (without anybody), all played by either Hristova or Um with great display but not that much memorability. Give me Enescu, a relative ranking I never thought I would be making.

As this will be serving as my formal review of the final concert, here, have a photo:
MM_2017_Carlin_Ma-0708
The Enescu Octet showing off. From left around the circle: Bella Hristova (vn), Paul Neubauer (va), Soovin Kim (vn), Clive Greensmith (vc), Nicholas Canellakis (vc), Richard O'Neill (va), Arnaud Sussmann (vn), Danbi Um (vn). Photo by Carlin Ma, courtesy of the Music@Menlo Festival.

Friday, August 4, 2017

things actually to do around Champaign-Urbana

1. Share movie reviewing duties with Roger Ebert.

Some self-important artist once said, "Nobody ever erected a statue to a critic." Well, here it is:

Ebert up

Yes, Champaign-Urbana was Ebert's home town, and in front of the old theater in downtown Champaign where he would hold his annual movie festival, there's now a statue of him, with extra seats. Of course, you don't have to agree with Roger in rating a movie:

Ebert down

2. Eat with the Amish.

Did you know there was an Amish country in Illinois? I hadn't. But when I found it, about 40 minutes drive south of town, I knew I would also find what they have in all the other Amish countries in PA, OH, IN, etc., which is one of those enormous Amish businesses, spreading over vast acres, incorporating gift shops and bakeries as well as a restaurant with rooms upon rooms of seating and endless delicious American country cooking. This one, out on a country highway west of I-57, features broasted chicken: lightly fried, tender; and I also stocked up on fish of the same kind. Plenty of starch but not much on the veggies here, but I was content. And so were the snickerdoodles I took home from the bakery.

3. Visit a peaceful Catholic women's college.

Actually St. Mary of the Woods, outside Terre Haute just over the Indiana line, has been co-ed for a few years now. But it was a women's college when B's mother attended, class of 1944. B. has always wanted to visit, and having Mythcon within two hours' drive was our chance. Campus is spread out over lawns and woods, and the admissions office arranged for a golf cart for us to ride around in and a couple knowledgeable and interested student guides to take us there.

Since we were doing that, we flew into Indianapolis instead of Chicago: no further away from Champaign, and easier to deal with, and the college was along the way. Also along the way, I found, was an opportunity to:

4. Pose with the tigers.

Out in the deep woods of Clay County in western Indiana is the Exotic Feline Rescue Center, which as a zoo appealed perfectly to our tastes: out where we could see them were a dozen tigers, half a dozen lions, cervals, pumas, and so on. A folksy volunteer gave us a tour with stories about how the animals came to the center, and they'd come up and rub their heads against the fences. And sometimes they'd pose:

tiger

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Mythcon report II

As Mythcon's themes this year included "Digging for Gold in the Archives," and our Guests of Honor were two Inklings archivists, I was one of a couple participants who proposed giving sessions recounting our own experiences in library research. My particular themes were the importance of serendipity and of diligent patience in dealing with problems like great distance and archaic rules. I spoke of researches I've made at UC Berkeley, Stanford, the Wade Center, Yale, and Oxford (drawing from what I wrote once for File 770).

I also found myself on a panel discussing Orwell's 1984. Not a usual subject for a Mythcon, but there are connections with Lewis (they reviewed each other's books: Orwell disliked the magic in That Hideous Strength and Lewis disliked the sex in 1984) and resemblances to Tolkien (they both had deep senses of political morality and a preference for Little Englander socio-economics). Among my contributions were a citation of the ingrained sense of viewpoint balance in Orwell's essays and his creation of the best opening sentence ever written for an essay (written during WW2, the essay starts, "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."), and noting the sensible description of Orwell's political positions in Thomas E. Ricks' Churchill and Orwell: despite his attacks on the Soviets, he was not a neoconservative or anything of the kind: he was a man of the Left who hated totalitarianism from any quarter, instead of excusing it when it came from the end of his side of the spectrum.

But another panel which most seemed to interest people was on The Silmarillion. This consisted of 5 mini-papers on a variety of topics. Mine was on music and the Ainulindalë, based on a longer music and Tolkien presentation I'd given in earlier years and later published. Creation stories based on music are not that rare, but Tolkien's is particularly detailed. It describes, with considerable sophistication, a massive structure of counterpoint, in which themes create harmony by being played simultaneously in different voices, and themes evolve one into another.
The voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing ... [It] was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.
What could it possibly have sounded like? Something of unutterable beauty, to be sure, but as for what earthly music might have inspired Tolkien, I have a clue, which comes of all things from Donald Swann's song cycle The Road Goes Ever On. Tolkien told Swann that he heard Galadriel's lament Namárië as a Gregorian chant, and sang one, which Swann transcribed and used.

To Tolkien, a conservative Catholic, Gregorian chant would have been the music of holiness and closeness to God. That sense of connection to the divine is part of what Tolkien is trying to show with the Elves and their connection to Valinor, and Catholic symbolism in the Elves has often been noted by critics, so why should not their music be divine Catholic music?

But since Gregorian chant is monophonic, the sectional polyphonic music of the Ainur would therefore have to be sacred choral music. Probably the elegant and transparent music of the High Renaissance, something like ... and I played this recording:As you can see in the score, that's ten-part harmony, folks. It's the English Baroque Soloists in Nisi Dominus from the Vespers of 1610 by Claudio Monteverdi.

Or this motet by Giovanni Gabrieli, his 16-part(!) Omnes Gentes, played by the Gabrieli Consort:I then sampled some later, 18th-century pieces that also illustrate Tolkien's methods. The concluding "Amen" from Handel's Messiah, for instance, a work Tolkien must have known even though Handel was a Protestant: a massive fugue with a text of but a single word. (Think Tolkien's Eä!) This is the Handel and Haydn Society:Or the "Confutatis" from Mozart's Requiem, which sets turbulent and peaceful music against each other as Tolkien does Ilúvatar's and Melkor's:That's the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields recording used in the movie Amadeus, whose fictions about Mozart and Salieri I had to spend my final moments refuting.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Mythcon report

We're back from Mythcon 48, held in the Newman Center, a building which takes the 7½th floor concept from Being John Malkovich and really runs with it, on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign IL (half a block from the city line with Urbana that bisects the campus).

Though small, and bereft of some old regulars suffering health or finance issues, Mythcon was livened by lots of new people, many of them young, many of them students or recent former students, e.g. of Leslie Donovan's at UNM. This confirms my feeling from Signum's Mythmoot that recruiting and welcoming students who voluntarily and enthusiastically sign up for courses on our topics are the way to go; which makes sense since when the Mythopoeic Society started half a century ago - this year is literally our 50th anniversary - it was mostly college and high-school students.

I had a fairly busy convention for programming, with one full-length paper and two shorter presentations for panels, plus narrating the Not Ready for Mythcon Players, but later for that, and for the question of "So what else is there to do around there?" Champaign-Urbana is famously not near anything worth noting; this turns out not to be quite true. For now, other papers I attended included:

The Guest of Honor speeches by the archivists of the two major US Inklings collections. Laura Schmidt of the Wade Center gave a basic educational talk on what archives are good for, with plenty of illustrations from her own Inklings and others collection. William Fliss of Marquette U's Tolkien collection, lacing his speech with Tolkien allusions, discussed addressing the accessibility problems with the material in his charge.

This was actually particularly interesting. The Tolkien papers were donated at two different times, one set with first access on 1970s microfilms and the other with Christopher Tolkien's annotated photocopies (the originals are fragile and only used when the copies aren't sufficient), and kept under different arrangements, plus security regulations require using only one reel or folder at a time. But if they're digitized, researchers can look at whatever they want instantly and compare items across the board, plus the reproductions will be better. So that's what they're working on. (Still only onsite, though, for copyright reasons.)

A father-daughter pair of papers on the Deadly Sins in Tolkien: Gollum's envy and Thorin's avarice.

Our first-ever paper on Orphan Black, an sf tv show I've actually seen, on the mythological resonances in the character of Helena. Singling her out in this way made me realize that, at least so far, Helena has a three-part story separated by the hinge points that Janet Croft identified in the paper.

Yet another paper by John Rosegrant providing brilliant psychoanalytical insights into Tolkien's characters. He does this every year. This time the best part was his declaration that trying to pin down who or what Bombadil is misses the point.

A thought-provoking paper concerning the story, quite clearly false but reported in a couple early books on Tolkien, that his mother, Mabel, had been a missionary to the harem of the Sultan of Zanzibar in her youth. (And sometimes since repeated from there.) Where did this rumor come from? Nancy Bunting believes that the story has two independent sources - I'm not so sure that the second one is independent, and need to check up on exactly what it says - that it must have come from Tolkien himself, and that his mother had made up the story and told it for reasons of her own, which Nancy is confident she's found; further, that it's not the only time Mabel embellished an otherwise puzzling story, the other concerning her baby son. If this paper ever gets published - I advised Nancy on where I thought she should send it - you can read all about it. Until then: well, you should have been at Mythcon, shouldn't you?