Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Jordin Kare

My old friend Jordin was in hospital for heart surgery. His recovery was not going well, and now
it
isn't
going
at
all.

Oh, alas.

I wrote about my friendship with Jordin when recounting my history with filking a couple years ago. But some of that could bear repeating.

Jordin appeared at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1978, a new grad student in physics fresh out of MIT. He'd been involved in the heavily-organized science-fiction fandom of the Boston area, and sought out such fandom as existed in the Bay Area. He tried out my on-campus club (I was a senior-class undergrad at the time); he became vice-chair of the Elves', Gnomes', and Little Men's Science Fiction, Chowder and Marching Society (the old-line East Bay fan group) for a while; but what most interested him was filking, the singing, composition, and collection of humorous and serious original songs and parodies about SF, fandom, and space exploration. Organized filking, as a fandom of its own and not just something fans occasionally did at parties, was just getting started in our area then. Jordin was used to organized Massachusetts filking, where they had things like the NESFA Hymnal, a full-scale songbook, and when he found that we were disorganized, yet had songs known not in Massachusetts, he formed the idea of a west-coast songbook. He proposed this at a local housefilk and asked if anybody wanted to help. Teri Lee and I volunteered, and that's how we became the three editors of The Westerfilk Collection. There turned out not to be time to compile it before the 1979 Westercon in San Francisco, though we did produce some songsheets then, and it came out the following year.

Ah, we had some great times creating that with the primitive technology of the time. The three of us did most of the layout on evenings and weekends in the Lawrence Berkeley Lab office, up the hill from campus, which Jordin did his physics work out of. Teri hand-drew the sheet music (yes, really), and I - who had the most secretarial experience - typed up all the lyrics on the finished sheets with one of the office Selectrics. Jordin kept the work organized. We had a lot of laughs and a lot of fun. There was of course much more than that - there was choosing appropriate songs and getting rights to them, organizing the contents, getting illustrations, and then printing and distributing, and Jordin was the principal in most of this, as well as the guiding spirit who kept it all focused on a vision.

Then it was published, and for years it was the basic bible of West Coast filking as it was intended to be. Jordin got more involved in filking. He learned to play the guitar, to sing (after a fashion), and to compose songs, some of them heroic ballads of human longing for space, and others corrosively funny. I could tell you of a lot of these songs, but others can do so more authoritatively than I, so let me just mention one, a parody to a hoary old folk tune (so you should know it) and one of his very first. Around the time these movies were new, Jordin expressed concern that, while there were a lot of songs about Star Wars, there seemed to be a dearth about Close Encounters. So he wrote one.

They'll be comin' to the mountain when they come
They'll be comin' to the mountain when they come
Devil's Tower is their mountain
For their taste there's no accountin'
They'll be comin' to the mountain when they come.


And many more verses equally silly.

Then I went off to grad school and eventually dropped out of filking. For a while I didn't see much of Jordin, but a lot happened to him. First he and Teri parlayed the success of the Westerfilk into Off Centaur Publications, the first major filk publishing outfit, even more important for its concert and studio tapes than its songbooks. Jordin actually recorded a couple tapes of his own songs. After several years of great success it all broke up in recriminations and lawsuits, sometime around 1987 (I was no longer around, but I'd known most of those involved, and doubt very much Jordin or some others were at fault), but Jordin kept on in filking.

But meantime he also got his Ph.D. in 1984, describing a method of automated search for supernovas - how exciting! - and began a career in high tech for some impressively well-funded startups. His specialty was laser propulsion of space travel, and he actually got some test rockets up. It expressed the same organizational skills he'd displayed in editing the Westerfilk and, more importantly, it was a step towards realization of the dream he'd expressed in his serious filksongs.

(Jordin's scientific papers all used the middle initial T., which he once told me he'd made up so that he would have one.)

By the time I saw Jordin much again, he was married to Mary Kay, a long-time fan and library cataloger (also my profession) originally from Oklahoma, and he was busy with his fast-moving career, shutting back and forth between the Bay Area and Seattle. He and Mary Kay lived in the Bay Area for a while, then they moved to Seattle because more of the work was there, then they decided they preferred the Bay Area, then they tried living in both places at once, then they moved back to San Jose. My relationship with Jordin had become a casual acquaintance, not the closer friendship of our Westerfilk days, but I'd see him at parties and he'd tell stories of working with Elon Musk and the like.

And then he needed to get his aortic valve replaced and
then
he
didn't.

And we have lost a visionary - who strove to convert his visions into practice - and a creator and a wit and a friend.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

concert review: Music at Menlo

Well, the Music at Menlo summer festival has started, which means I'm spending a lot of my time up there. Last year, the Menlo School campus was under construction and the ballroom concert facility, Stent Hall, was closed. This year Stent is open, but the construction is still going on, so half the parking lot is still occupied with construction office trailers. And the lawns on campus are now replaced by gravel. They were artificial turf before, I think, so I don't think water rationing has prompted this, but it will put a damper on the outdoor lawn practice sessions that Menlo has been prone to.

Fortunately the first two concerts have been over at the CPA, which is the high school auditorium across town, and which is actually large enough for just about everybody who'd like to come. The first concert was Italian Baroque, and I covered that for the Daily Journal, which won't be out for a few days yet; and the second was high Classicism, which I covered for SFCV and which is up.

In case you wonder, as one did, what the "Hob." in Haydn's work lists is short for, it's "Hoboken." Anthony van Hoboken was the scholar who cataloged Haydn's works, as Ludwig von Köchel did Mozart, though Hoboken's is more of a classified list where Köchel's is chronological.

I wish I'd had more space to discuss Gibbs' lecture, which was fascinating. He began by discussing the rise of professional playing and the need for textbooks to teach it. In 1756, the year of Mozart's birth, he said, an influential violin textbook appeared, which he quoted from. Two decades later, the author wrote Mozart a letter encouraging his violin playing, even though we think of Mozart mostly as a pianist. By this time I had been waiting patiently for Gibbs to reveal the punchline, which is that the author had reason to be concerned with Mozart, as he was Mozart's father, Leopold. When Gibbs did unveil that tidbit, it amused the audience greatly.

Gibbs has compiled a list of the repertoire at Ignaz Schuppanzigh's 1820s set of chamber music subscription concerts, the first set of their kind, and found that 86% of the music was by one of the trinity, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. That's what really set them off as the founding composers of what we now call the classical repertoire. The rest was by younger living composers, starting with George Onslow (a Frenchman I've heard of but know little of), and also including Spohr, Hummel, Andreas Romberg, Carl Czerny, and oh yes, a fellow named Schubert. Why did Schubert write his String Quintet with two cellos, instead of two violas as Mozart and Beethoven did? Well, probably because he'd been listening to Onslow, who did it that way, like this.

Monday, July 17, 2017

not of its time

I haven't fully researched this out yet, but as one of those grain-of-sand-type irritants, it's worth recording.

Sometimes when I wish to amuse myself, I go and read some of the numbered list articles at Cracked.com. Here's one from 2010 that I just came across: "6 Great Novels that Were Hated in Their Time," and by "hated" they mean "hated by critics and readers alike when they first hit shelves."

Well, maybe not.

I've read all six of them. One I found merely uninteresting, two in my opinion deserve every negative review they ever got (I'll let you guess which two), but the other three really hit me strongly when I read them at a tender age, and I still consider them masterpieces of their kind.

But were they hated? Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, did get a lot of political criticism from the right when it appeared in 1939, but not so much critique for its literary qualities. It was a huge bestseller, majorly talked about, and that successful movie adaptation the write-up mentions came out only nine months after the book was published. That was really hot stuff, even then.

And then, at the end of the list, comes The Lord of the Rings. The entry quotes the Drout Tolkien Encyclopedia as saying that "No 'mainstream critic' appreciated The Lord of the Rings," but besides the fact that this comes from one of the less reliable contributors, what it seems to mean is more that they weren't in a position to fully appreciate its greatness, not that they didn't like the book. Because in fact, while the book did receive its share of severe pans (most famously from Edmund Wilson), it also got many strong positive reviews (most notably from W.H. Auden and Naomi Mitchison). It also got readers, selling remarkably well for a three-volume novel of a highly unusual kind from a basically unknown author. Most of the really hostile critical commentary on Tolkien dates not from when The Lord of the Rings was new, when the kind of people who didn't like that sort of thing mostly ignored it, but from more recent years when its popularity has become massive.

Among the negative reviews the article quotes is one from The New Republic describing it as "anemic, and lacking in fiber." That puzzled me, since The New Republic's review, which you can read here, concluded with unsurpassable enthusiasm, "There are very few works of genius in recent literature. This is one." (A famous line, given that it was quoted in innumerable blurbs for decades afterwards.) Did it also call the book "anemic, and lacking in fiber"? It did not.

I had to do a little digging, but it appears that this quote comes not from any review when the book was new, but from a New Republic article - called, with oh so brilliant originality, "Bored of the Rings" - from January 2002. That's right during the hoopla attendant on the release of the first installment of Peter Jackson's movie adaptation a month earlier, and not far in the wake of all the mass polls declaring Tolkien's book one of the most popular of its century. So, rather than a critic not recognizing a new and untried book as a masterpiece, this is someone spitting in the wind in defiance of a long-established masterpiece.

There's more. In the context of "mainstream critics," calling Isaac Asimov a "heavyweight" is laughable, even before knowing that Asimov denied any critical ability and hardly ever wrote book reviews. The quote in any case is not a quote from Asimov, but a paraphrase quoted from the same unreliable article as the line about the "mainstream critics," and while Asimov might have said something of the sort as a cautionary note, he was actually a great admirer of The Lord of the Rings, which he read several times. (Interestingly, Tolkien himself once named Asimov as an SF author he liked, so there was a mutual admiration society there.)

Since I've actually been compiling together a list of early reviews of Tolkien - it turns out that each of the standard bibliographies has items that others missed - I ought to measure also their grades of the book, and see how it came out. But I do know that a lot were favorable.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

more Westlake from beyond

Another posthumous Donald E. Westlake novel has been published, and I've read it and added it to my annotated Westlake bibliography. I think the writeup communicates all I have to say about it:

Forever and a Death (2017)
Serious thriller novel, set in Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, written in the late 1990s but not published at that time. Based on an unused treatment for a James Bond movie, the novel removes Bond but leaves in the Bond villain, a businessman so over-the-top in his maliciousness that the cops disbelieve the heroes when they describe his deeds on the grounds that nobody would do that. The result has some of the mien of Kahawa without the humorous overtones, and the caper is the villain's not the heroes'. What it does have in common is being long but fast-paced, and in having an assortment of miscellaneous heroes, some of whom get killed. The leading hero - if he can be called that; much of his character arc is left out - is one of Westlake's ordinary men who under pressure discover a capacity for necessary ruthlessness, only this one is more plausibly presented than some.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Vancouver: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Good: The setting, the glory of western Canada, with tremendous mountains looming over the city, and cool weather even in the height of summer.

Bad: The traffic. Vancouver is like Seattle, with cramped narrow streets serving as major arteries and too much traffic being stuffed down them. Nor has Google Maps informed itself of a major street closure that's wreaked havoc in the Point Grey district.

Ugly: The drivers. Unlike in Seattle, they're bad-tempered, and unpredictably incompetent. The bicyclists, too: arrogant and entitled over pedestrians who dare to avoid obstacles by crossing bike lanes.

Good: Factory museums outside of town, the salmon cannery at the mouth of the Fraser River and the copper mine in the mountains above Howe Sound. Both full of clearly-presented detail on what was done there and what it was like to work at it (including racial and other labor issues), in displays and from tour guides with the knack to be compelling. Both turned on vintage machinery so you could hear how noisy it was (having warned you to cover your ears).

Not so good: The fabled Museum of Anthropology at UBC. If you really, really, really like traditional native art from various cultures, you'll like this. If your interest is only in passing, there's too much of it, and not enough about the cultures it came from. Go to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix to see this sort of thing done properly.

Good: The Sea to Sky Gondola, up in Howe Sound near the mine museum (and right by a stunning waterfall) is the one to take. Great views not only from the gondola but from up top, decent cafeteria, no insects, no kitsch, and a wooden-plank suspension bridge. Someone decided to hold their wedding on the viewing platform at the far end of this, and we got to watch the couple try to make their incongruously bridally-dressed way back across the suspension bridge against the clutching wind.

Bad: The more famous Grouse Mountain gondola. The ride itself is OK, but the crowds are much worse, there's no good viewing spots on top, the animal shows all shut down by mid-afternoon, and the mountaintop is full of, absolutely loaded with, gnats. And not Gnat King Cole either. Ycch.

Eh: The SeaBus ferry across Burrard Inlet was an inexpensive and brief substitute for a harbor tour, and the north side has got a delightful covered market and street shopping to explore, but the seating on the ferry is all indoors, the south end is an obscure industrial district, and I didn't realize the ferry was part of the Metro transit system until I showed up to buy a ticket, or I would have taken the SkyTrain to which it connects (none of my maps showed that) to get there.

Good: The food. Ranged from good to awesome. One small Thai restaurant really beat the band, but the most memorable meal was of Salmon n' Bannock's "First Nations Inspired Cuisine." Unlike the fabled and now long-gone Muckamuck of decades past, this doesn't try to reproduce their recipes but gives modern presentations of foods that the original peoples of western and central Canada might have been expected to eat. Lots of salmon, bison, elk, wild boar, wild rice, plus bannock, which is a thick chewy cracker vaguely resembling what I've had from Natives in Arizona and eastern Oregon as fry bread. The waitress patiently explained everything and recommended a slate of appetizers to me so I could try a lot of different things. The cured salmon was intensely fresh, the duck sausage extremely ducky, and the boar meatballs sufficiently boaring.

Bad: I was looking forward to having my final meal at a tempting Chinese place near the airport, but to have time I needed to show up at 5 when they opened for dinner. Only they didn't. At 5:10 I had to give up.

Good: Vancouver is still a city of used bookstores. Lots of used bookstores, and I got to at least 8 of them.

Ugly: But the most-praised online is a pestilent rathole of a kind I haven't seen in 25 years, and the others like it are long gone. The stock is not bad, but it's crowded and mazelike and with so many books piled up in the way on the floor that the fire marshal, assuming they have them in Canada (which, judging from this, I guess they don't) would have a heart attack. Also, it smells in here. It smells as if a muskrat had urinated on the carpet and then died there. The best used store - large, clean, well-sorted - is literally around the corner, so whut the hey?

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Beethoven on stage

Much hoopla about the local production of Hershey Felder's one-man show about Beethoven. I'm interested in Beethoven, so I decided to go. I thought it was all right.

Based on a brief memoir by a doctor who, as a boy, had known Beethoven in his last years, it presents Felder as the mild-mannered doctor, looking back at his memories, often abruptly dropping into the persona of Beethoven himself, or of his own father presenting his memories of Beethoven's earlier years. Then, in one persona or another, Felder will sit down at the piano and play something, and not at very brief length either.

Though Beethoven the rough, coarse, revolutionary is not omitted, the focus of the show is strongly on Beethoven's gentle, heartfelt soul. So the pieces played at greatest length and with the greatest care and emphasis are things like the slow movement of the Pathétique Sonata, the slow movement of the Moonlight Sonata, the slow movement of the Emperor Concerto, "Für Elise," etc. These are all soft and beautiful, the antithesis of Beethoven's reputation though they're all well-known pieces, so it made a nice corrective.

Soft and fuzzy in its picture of the life as well. Much sympathetic clucking about how Beethoven tried (supposedly) lovingly to protect his young nephew from the clutches of his (purportedly) horrible mother, not so much on the psychological disaster area this struggle turned the nephew into. Oh well.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

bombs bursting in air

Driving home down the Nimitz freeway at dusk from the annual social, grilling, and anniversary party, I saw bits and pieces of a vast number of fireworks displays, some of them almost directly in front of me. The variety in style of these explosions has been increasing of late, much to their benefit.

Pass the U.S. citizenship test.

For that matter, pass the U.K. citizenship test.

the original

Monday, July 3, 2017

how to write contemporary drama

So much dramatic tension is achieved by having characters not be able to communicate with each other - think of the ending of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, which would be impossible without a miscarried message - that we have the critically important question, how do you employ this tension in a world where all the characters carry cell phones?

And the answer is, have them put the phones on vibrate and leave them on the other side of the room. Voila, the return of the missed urgent phone call.

- This piece of dramatic advice courtesy of the third season of Orphan Black, which does it a lot.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

concert review: Stanford Chamber Music Seminar

The Stanford Chamber Music Seminar, wherein resident ensemble the St. Lawrence Quartet and various guest artists coach both young professionals and skilled amateurs in the techniques and, as importantly, the enthusiasms of chamber music playing, was on this week, and several public concerts were included therein. This year I managed to get to almost all of them.

They included noon concerts during the week, at Bing, whose highlights included the St. Lawrence teaming up with a guest cellist for a wholly delightful quintet by Boccherini (though possibly "wholly delightful" is redundant once Boccherini's name is mentioned), Op. 25 No. 4. That's this one, although the performance I heard was better. Also the members of the St. Lawrence acting as section leaders for a pickup string orchestra playing C.P.E. Bach's Hamburg Sinfonia No. 2. That's this one, although the performance I heard was better.

On Saturday there was a showcase concert by the young professional groups, including two of the groups I heard last summer at the Banff competition: the Tesla Quartet, the second-place winner, in Haydn's Op. 9/6, and the Omer Quartet in Beethoven's Second Razumovsky.

Sunday was the big finale concert for all 24 participating groups, each playing one movement of something, and for once I was able to attend the whole thing, which began at 11 am and lasted for five hours. No intermissions this year: you know what happens, they're called for ten minutes and wind up lasting 25. Two of them add an additional hour to the playing time.

So instead, there was a lot of ducking out to the restroom during changeovers between pieces, and if you didn't get back in time, you wait outside and listen to the next piece through the closed doors. Usually these events begin with a few dedicated Sunday morning risers at the start and slowly get more populated as the day goes on. This year, however, it was packed at the start, and then leaked away a bit later on. There were a lot of good performances and fewer of the usual winceable but sincerely meant. We got to hear two performances of the slow movement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" and of the finale of Bartok's Fourth. Best of the day was probably a wholly convincing rendition of the first movement of Tchaikovsky's rambling Piano Trio, especially from the pianist, Simon Tom.

Unusually, the program included some songs with chamber ensemble, by Ravel and Finzi. One of the Ravel songs, from the Chansons madécasses to words by Évariste de Parny, is an 18th century anti-colonialist poem, a thing I didn't realize already existed then.