Monday, July 16, 2018

Tolkien exhibit

The Bodleian Library's Tolkien exhibit, which I got to at its opening at the beginning of June, runs through October 28, and I hope many will be able to attend.

What I hadn't seen until now is the exhibit's promotional video.

This is good, featuring several intelligent experts, although I question one sequence with the people from the local Tolkien society: I don't know the source for claiming that Tolkien and Lewis would commune at Merton's stone table (which they could only have done long after their most productive collaborating years), still less that it's the inspiration for the one in Narnia, to which it bears no resemblance other than being stone and a table. (And as for reading aloud in the Black Speech to honor Tolkien, that's just inconsiderate.)

But the other news is that the Morgan Library in New York has now officially announced that the exhibit is coming there next year, January 25-May 12. Although a few pieces that the Bodleian only borrowed from other Oxford institutions aren't coming along, it should still be a grand exhibit when transplanted, and I'm thinking of going again.

Friday, July 13, 2018

orphaned in black

B. rented the fifth and final (I hope) series of Orphan Black, and I've been sort of playing catch-up given that only sometimes am I home when she's watching an episode, and I can't always figure out time to watch one when I am.

Anyway, I think I caught them all, in some order, and the first thing that occurs to me is that I don't think of a show like this as having "episodes" at all, just hour-long chunks of a continuing storyline without much to differentiate them except which pieces of plot occur when. With half a dozen major characters, each usually in different places doing different things, all being followed at once, no episode has a distinct individual plot, and nothing ever ends. This makes it hard to nominate or vote for episodes of shows like this for the Hugo, and with their dominance I'd favor just eliminating the rule that divides them up for voting.

Yet, I find on dipping into the extra features (which thankfully do not consist of unnecessary promos for the show - you've just watched the DVD of the whole thing, what would you need that for? - but interviews with the cast and crew, but my do they blither on), that the writers and directors do think of each episode as a distinct entity with an individual character and style, as in a traditional show. That surprises me.

Having given up any hope of believable plot or character motivation by the end of the second season, by this point I'm just watching it to get to the end of the story, which at least it does, and to admire the acting, which despite everything remains good. But in the meantime we're treated to endless scenes of characters being abruptly bumped off, other characters whom you thought had been bumped off coming back to life, then getting bumped off again, and far too much of characters being told to sit tight and not do anything while we wait for the rest of the plot to catch up. In particular, it's been clear since near the start that Alison, though a great character, is absolutely useless for the main storyline, and is good for nothing except to sit around fretting with an occasional irrelevant domestic drama to distract her. Sarah is mostly shunted off to a corner to suffer physically,* and Felix, once the bulwark of the show's emotional support, is now used only to schlep little pieces of the plot around. I will give them credit, however, for having hit on, in Rachel, the rare knack for creating a character who's simultaneously sympathetic and a nasty villain.

*She goes through hell to rescue Cosima, who, when she finally finds her, says basically, "I'm good." Then she goes through hell to save Kira from Rachel, until Kira changes her mind. Then Rachel changes her mind.

Usually a show's cast and crew hold a party to honor the ending of the show's run. In this case, the characters hold the party, probably because this way, multiple Tatiana Maslanys can show up. During it, Helena (probably the most interesting character overall, and I've already heard one good Mythcon paper about her) says that she's going to write up their story - presumably as the show we've been watching five seasons of - and she's going to call it "Orphan Black." And everybody says that's a good idea, but why black, anyway?

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

concert review: Bridge Piano Quartet

Yikes, did this ever turn out to be a challenging review to write.

First, it featured a work to which the music was virtually inconsequential, and was all about the texts the narrator was reading. So I had to focus on that, which is not what I was expecting of a concert review. (When I covered the discussion panel on anti-Semitism in Bach, I at least was clear on what I was getting before I started.)

That the topic was early 20C Asian immigrants and their travails with bureaucracy in trying to get into the US immediately suggests contemporary parallels, and the connection was drawn in the pre-work talks. So I alluded to that, but without making explicit my own opinion. Nobody on stage would have disagreed if I had been explicit, but I dislike it when reviewers throw in personal political views that aren't germane to the concert, even (maybe most so) when I agree with them. For instance in this week's issue, here. It doesn't add anything to the review and is either obvious or annoying. There are other forums for that.

Second, the acoustics. It was pretty awful for the narration, which knowing the hall I could have predicted beforehand, not that the narrator had a good voice for such work, a fact I tried to elide over - I don't want to insult her. But I had to be blunt about the basic problem. I did not have room to mention that the concert had been played at Old First Church in the City last week, and it probably came off a lot better there.

I had a fairly lengthy chat with the composer afterwards, not discussing the acoustic problems, but asking him musical questions as I was anticipating saying more about the work musically than I eventually decided to do.

I also learned of the origin of his interest in things Asian. Not only has he worked with both Japanese and Chinese musicians, but his bio says he speaks Japanese fluently, and he's learning Chinese (says Wernher von Braun). He told me his interest in Japan had been sparked when he was sent there on his Mormon missionary tour.

Now that's interesting, because he can thus be added to several people I know of Western origin, with no previous personal connection with Japan, who have fallen intensely in love with the country and its culture. I suppose this dates back to the fad for things Japanese that swept Britain at the time of the Knightsbridge exhibition in the 1880s, but the intensity of it in the cases I know, though focusing on different forms - anime in one case, literature in another, J-pop in a third - is striking.

It's also baffling to me, because I have no particular interest in things Japanese (apart from their composition of Western classical music, in which they are supreme among all non-Western countries), and insofar as I have a cultural learning in the East Asian world, it's decidedly towards things Chinese instead. I prefer Chinese painting, folk music, literature (insofar as I've read any from either culture), and above all food. Of course, I also have one friend so interested in China that she visits it frequently, and I wouldn't go that far either. Well, everybody has their passions, and I'm just curious about the choice.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

on the day

With a little bit of help - for none of the non-library-worker volunteers came back this week, though a few had trailed on to the end of the previous week, beyond the dates we'd originally scheduled them for - the library barcoding project is pretty much done. Some of the more obsolescent media material still needs to be done, and the cleanup ahead of me is immense, and will take at least the whole of next week, but at least we can return the library to normal circulation operations.

Another piece of news I'd passed by that went into effect that previous week is that we have a new cat sitter. What generated this was Pippin being moved for medical reasons onto canned wet food. We've always fed the cats twice a day, but when we were gone we'd have the cat sitter put two meals' worth of kibble out once a day and hope the cats would pace themselves (because they weren't getting any more until tomorrow), but that won't work for the wet food, which once opened won't keep without refrigeration, and also because Maia craves the stuff though it's not hers and she only diminishes Pippin's portions.

But the cat sitter we already had couldn't come twice a day because the traffic around here is too thick. So at her recommendation we bought an automated cat feeder with ice packs. But then last month, on our first trip since then that required the sitter to refill the feeder, she didn't understand how it worked, despite my having devoted considerable time to writing out detailed instructions and then rewriting them when she didn't understand the first batch. Fortunately she brought in a ringer to take the other daily visit and not leave the cats in the lurch, but this isn't a permanent solution.

So B. put out a call on a neighborhood list and we found a professional sitter who's more local and can visit twice a day with no problem. She came over, chatted a lot (cat people love to talk), actually saw both cats (which I wasn't expecting: they're shy), filled out paperwork and took the key, and we await her maiden working visit.

So the cats don't have anything to worry about. I do. So here's the question. Which induces more existential dread, the wave of record-breaking temperatures or the retirement of Justice Kennedy?

Thursday, July 5, 2018

day out

That it was a holiday was not a big concern of mine. I went in to work in the morning anyway, because the project still needs to get done.

And I didn't need to leave until at least noon for the annual backyard grilling, noshing, and schmoozing party of my (non-Jewish, despite those adjectives: some activities are universal) friends whose anniversary this is.

Traded Shakespeare festival information with one of my more Shakespearean friends, and told stories of the Oxford and Montana trips. Learned why neither daughter of the house was present: elder daughter (who teaches at the University of Michigan) is at a scientific conference in Budapest, of all places, while younger daughter (who lives here) went to Detroit to meet her sister on the way out to pick up her car, which she's buying, and is now driving it all the way back to California. Having once made precisely that drive myself (carting my late grandfather's belongings), I was nostalgic.

Tried a couple of experiments with the grill. I've grilled sausages before, but not English bangers, which I usually cut up and pan-fry. They came out well grilled, but the shrimp skewers did not. I'm not sure why. Shrimp normally cooks fast, but these did not, and came out chewy. Saved most of them for my next batch of jambalaya.

Saw a few fireworks on the way home, fewer than usual, but then I left earlier than usual. After I got home, heard a few explosions, or they could have been gunshots for all I knew, but I trust they were fireworks or -crackers. That was about the extent of festivities.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Harlan Ellison sayeth

This is not the sort of quote I'd have expected from such a source, but I'll take what I can get, as a quick memorial for a complicated and problematic man:

"Kittens only have two purposes in life. One is to make everything that's moving stop, and the other is to make everything that's stopped, move."
- Harlan Ellison

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


A lot of things have been going on. I'm still spending most of my days over at my congregational library, trying to organize, supervise, and put my own hand in to our barcoding project. Despite the decline in volunteers (we originally only recruited them for a few days at the start of the project), it's plugging along and I'm determined to get all the circulating books barcoded by the end of this, the second week of work. Then we can reopen the library to circulation, from which it's been effectively closed. Then another week should take care of the reference books and the obsolete media, and then the project will be over but I get to plunge into the online cleanup, which I may attempt to describe when it happens.

It's interesting being in charge of this project. I've worked on large organizing projects in professional libraries where I've worked (including being on the teams reshelving all the books that fell over during major earthquakes), but this one I had to plan and organize myself. Fortunately I've been observing long enough that I knew what to do. It's turned out pretty well, and the inevitable glitches haven't been paralyzing.

Meantime I also have reviews to write. Feeling guilty about having missed the Redwood Symphony's last regular concert of the season because I was in England, I decided to attend their annual outdoor pops gathering. There wasn't a lot to say about it, and I had to finish it off in a blazing hurry, but that got done. The Daily Journal likes me to end reviews with alerts for upcoming concerts. It was easy enough to cut-and-paste a little about Redwood's next pop concert from the press release they sent me without any prompting from me, but the beginning of next season? At the concert they said a brochure was available, but I forgot to pick one up, and the info wasn't on their website; in fact, two weeks later, it still isn't. I had to find out what they're playing, and when, from the website of a ticket broker service.

Then I got to the Silicon Valley Music Festival, which was just crammed full of weird stuff, which with considerable handling I managed to get into a review. When I called one piece "reassuringly postmodernist," I meant it: after all this strange and exotic music, it relaxed my listening tension to find something in an idiom I comfortably understood.

The Redwood concert was on the same day as the Solstice Party, a major event on my social group's annual calendar. I thought I might get over to the party first before the concert, but I was just too busy and it didn't work. I did, however, drop by the still flickering party after the concert, where quiet conversation included my insistence, in response to a question, that no, I'm not attending the SF Opera Ring cycle. I've heard all these operas on recordings, and I am not sitting through any more of them on stage.

One day while I was at the SVMF, B. was off at an evening (fortunately, as the daytimes are too hot for this) march and rally to protest family separation and the administration's other inhumane refugee policies. I'm pleased we got represented, at least. B. carried a sign reading "Brown Families Matter," which I thought was cleverer than any of the signs I saw reproduced in photo reports of the rallies.

Friday, June 29, 2018

concert review: Visual Piano

There's a lot of small and obscure performing arts venues in San Francisco, and last night I was at one of the smaller and obscurer, the Center for New Music, carved out of a bit of a warehouse in the Tenderloin, for a program called Visual Piano.

Two performers from Italy were featured on this program. Francesco Di Fiore played the piano nearly unceasingly, and with unflagging high energy, for forty minutes, while Valeria Di Matteo stood over in a corner manipulating her laptop to show films on a large screen.

The music consisted of a dozen short pieces, succeeding each other with no formal breaks, by five contemporary composers of three nationalities: two Italian (Di Fiore himself and Matteo Sommacal), two American (William Susman and Olivia Kieffer), and one Dutch (Douwe Eisenga). Despite their varied origins, and definite individual distinctiveness, their music was all of basically the same kind.

As for what kind that was, one other concertgoer I talked with described one piece as a combination of Ginastera, Prokofiev, and Bartok. This determined attempt to graft the evening's music onto a respectable high modernist (if presumably primitivist) pedigree was a valiant try at selling it by a now old-fashioned set of standards, but allow me to suggest that the comparison was specious.

This music was post-minimalist. It consisted almost exclusively of repeated arpeggiated phrases over oscillating accompaniment, which is the basis of process minimalism; and what made it post- was, it achieved variety not through cell-shifting or additive processes, but by assortments of speeds, timbres, and energy levels. Nor, except occasionally, did it cease abruptly. The other most obvious influence was smooth jazz of the Windham Hill school, which contributed not just phrasing and sound quality but also, it seemed to me, much of the individual pieces' structure.

That there are so many composers willing to write, not just tonal and pleasing, yet distinctively 21st-century (nothing like this existed before about 30 years ago), music, but nearly identikit cadre music the way that the modernist hordes used to write identikit serialist music is astonishing to me, but not entirely unwelcome. I liked all of this music and would happily give all the composers the time of day, but its tight similarity of style was a little disconcerting. I did say the composers had some individual character, but Susman - the only one I'd ever heard before - differs from all of the rest far more than any of them differ from each other, and sounds like a dissonant modernist in this context, which is actually a pretty hilarious observation.

The visuals were short films tied to each individual piece. Some of them were Reggio-like divided-screen stuttering close-ups of the inside of a piano or of feet on an escalator or the like, but my favorites consisted of grease-pencil shore-scape drawings with tiny bits of quiet animation - seagulls (depicted as wavy line fragments) or a motorboat going by, trees waving in the wind, etc. - salted in.

That was half the program; the other consisted of 25 minutes of more music of the same kind by Di Fiore, played by the piano duet Zofo or by half of Zofo plus a soprano sax, a variety small enough to look silly, though it sounded good. Tiny instrument, tiny program, tiny pieces, tiny venue, tiny audience, but a big enough reward to be worth the trip up to the City for it.

Thursday, June 28, 2018


1. It isn't often, these days, that I'm working in an office all day every day, but that's what I've been doing this week as my congregational library undertakes its inventory and barcoding project, of which I am in charge, giving instructions and advice to as many as a dozen volunteers at once, plus answering questions and resolving snags. It will probably take most of next week too, and then there's some equally consequential followup to undertake. Thus recent bouts of radio silence.

2. Justice Kennedy is retiring, thus providing another opportunity to prove that the US Supreme Court is nothing but a turf war. That he chose this time to retire speaks volumes, as do some of his recent opinions. Tonight I had dinner in a mall food court, and found myself sitting within earshot of a woman trying futilely to explain to her male companion that it's inconsistent for the Court simultaneously to prohibit states from requiring anti-abortion outfits from revealing that they're not medical clinics (on the grounds that free speech means you can't make someone say something) while allowing states to require doctors to read medically nonsensical anti-abortion statements to their relevant patients. That the man was so soft-spoken I couldn't hear his replies is the main reason I was able to resist the impulse to join in and back the woman up.

3. Harlan Ellison has died. (Perhaps reading the recent teeth-grating biography of himself was enough to kill him.) Truly, though, one thought he would live forever, because in a sense he has. He maintained the status of enfant terrible to a greater age than anyone else in human history. And at times he wrote some searingly memorable stories. ("I have no mouth. And I must scream.") So now what happens to The Last Dangerous Visions?

4. Milo Y., up until recently a conservative darling, told people he'd like to see some journalists shot up, and now someone has. I await the declarations as to why there's nothing wrong with Milo's statement, coming from the same people who insist that social shunning of Trump administration officials for their immoral policies is going too far.

Monday, June 25, 2018

concert review: San Francisco Symphony (the same one)

So here's what happens when my editor phones and asks me to cover the same SFS program I'd just heard an earlier performance of and written about here: I take my post, cut out some of the personal chatter, and expand and elaborate on the rest, including some expository info, to review size.

That this is also how I wrote my first review for them, offering them an expansion on a blog post when I saw they hadn't covered a particular concert, is not something I've forgotten.