Tuesday, January 22, 2019

active weekend

It was. Not only on Friday did I attend a San Francisco Symphony concert on my own hook, but then on Saturday I went to review Symphony Silicon Valley, and then turned around and on Sunday went to review Jon Nakamatsu and the Escher Quartet (well, 3/4 of the Escher Quartet).

Oscar the grouch

I've seen four movies nominated for Oscars this year, and a bit of a fifth, which is about one more than my average at the time the nominations come out. Moderate pleasure at the ones I saw.

BlacKkKlansman. Curiosity as to the strange plot - African American cop investigates the local KKK chapter by impersonating a racist over the phone - led me to rent this, and I'm glad I did. It's got tension, righteousness v. evil, a good buddy relationship between the two cops, and a little humor, though not as much as the trailer would lead you to expect. I was slightly incredulous at the way the cops expected the Klan not to notice that the guy who showed up in person (because he had to be white) was different from the guy they talked to on the phone, even though that was the way the true story worked. At the very end, the cinematography suddenly turns into some kind of cheap-rent blaxploitation film. I suppose this was done for some reason that white people just don't get, because I certainly didn't.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Is it redundant to say "weird" if it's a Coen Brothers movie? What interested me about the sequence of Western tales that made this up is that, though they were all grim stories about death, the mode of storytelling varied greatly. Nos. 1-2 - despite their topic - were light and sort of goofy, a la Raising Arizona, and were the only part of the movie I wanted to see a second time. Nos. 3-4 are just grim. No. 5 is startlingly realistic in terms of its storytelling, startlingly because it's the only one of them like that. That also makes it the only real gut-puncher. No. 6 seems to be merely symbolic, a la Barton Fink, which is not a compliment.

The Incredibles 2. Though I'd rather enjoyed #1, I only saw this animated superhero film because B. rented it. I love the characters, but the plot was dreadful.

First Man. Perhaps it deserves all the technical awards it's nominated for, but it's not a good movie. The biography of Neil Armstrong it's based on went overboard on specifics - it even tells you how all the Apollo 11 astronauts took their coffee. But the movie is just murky and vague. Half the characters are never identified, so you don't know who they are; and evidently you're expected to read the contents of Armstrong's mind by just looking at the actor's face, because nothing else is provided.

Roma. Began to watch this on Netflix. Even the opening credits bored me to tears, and nothing that happened in the next five minutes changed my mind, so I turned it off.

Nominated movie I haven't seen but most want to is Can You Ever Forgive Me? which I missed on its brief run in the theater. Possibly considering First Reformed, though afraid it will be as crappy as There Will Be Blood. Reviews left me dubious about The Favourite and Vice, although their topics as historical films interested me, but they've both received so many nominations (6 major-category nods each, more than anything else this year) that maybe I'll give them a try. A Star Is Born? If someone puts it in front of me, I'll watch it; otherwise probably not.

Movies not nominated for anything, but that I most want to see, are also historicals of recent coverage: The Front Runner and On the Basis of Sex.

Monday, January 21, 2019

airline reservation

I'm taking a plane trip in a couple months, assuming there's still a TSA by then, and buying my ticket was the hairy activity of this morning. I used a recommended aggregator site called Momondo to find flights, and I have to say it worked well and gave me a clean and easy to use display.

The flights I chose were on different airlines going and returning, and one of them I was surprised to see, as I'd already checked its website which said it didn't have direct, let alone non-stop, flights between those two airports.

Well, when I clicked on my choice, it redirected me to Expedia to make the bookings there. I did that, and got an itinerary with Expedia's booking numbers, which have nothing to do with the airline. I was going to need the airline's numbers, because it also took me past the "choose seat" step, so I was going to have to do that at the airline's end.

One of the airlines immediately sent me an e-mail with their own confirmation code and a direct link to the seat selection page, so that's taken care of. The other ... didn't.

I have a mileage plan on that second airline, but that was of no help in pulling up my booking without the confirmation code. So I phoned them. The agent I reached on the first call couldn't hear my name no matter how many times I spelled it, something nobody else has trouble with. Then she accused me of mumbling. What I said next was anything but a mumble.

The agent I reached on the second call already knew my name. Why? Because this is the phone number listed on my mileage plan, and it came up automatically on her screen. So why didn't the first agent ...? Who knows; the second agent kept apologizing for what was not her fault, but showed no other interest in the issue. I'm glad I kept her on the line, though, because after I got the code number I found I couldn't add the flight to my mileage plan. Why? Because I'd booked with my full legal name, but my mileage account predates that rule so didn't have it, so the names didn't match, which produced an error, and users can't change the form of name on their mileage accounts. The agent fixed that, but my suggestion that there's a procedural glitch here that should be bucked to higher authority, along with the one about not sending confirmatory e-mails to Expedia customers, again produced only apologies for what was not her fault. I don't think they're going to fix this (actually it should have come up years ago), so next time ...

Sunday, January 20, 2019

marchless

After two years of marching, this year I was not at the local Women's March.

This had nothing to do with the charges of anti-Semitism against the national organization. I'm satisfied that the local group had nothing to do with that. And in any case somebody's vague association with Farrakhan bothers me less than having Trump as the formal head of the country. If Trump's only importance were somebody's vague association with him, I wouldn't worry about him either, and indeed for decades I never did.

No, this was a personal health issue. The occasional difficulties I have with my legs are at a maximum right now, and extensive walking aggravates this. I'm sure that it was my trip to UC Santa Cruz last week, which involved exhausting walking uphill in the rain, which set this off. How annoying.

Also, I was at work last evening, at a concert for review, and to stay alert it's wise not to have done too many exhausting things earlier in the day. Even as it was ...

Saturday, January 19, 2019

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Friday's concert was a big event in SFS history: the first conducting appearance of our new Music Director Designate, Esa-Pekka Salonen, since his appointment was announced six weeks ago. And this was literally the first, as this was the first concert of three performances of this program. It's obvious how much everyone is delighted to have him, considering the huge ovations that accompanied both his arrival on the podium and his final bow two hours later. He held his fist to his heart in response, and at the end blew a kiss.

It's sheer luck we got him on the podium for this week. He was not originally scheduled to conduct SFS this year. But a conducting cancellation occurred just before his appointment as Music Director Designate, and he was quickly slotted in.

EPS, as I suppose I should start calling him, has conducted SFS before, but I have no memory nor notation of ever having heard him here. The only time I'm sure I've heard his conducting live was in 2002 when I took a trip to LA to hear the Philharmonic, which he was MD of at the time. They were doing a Shostakovich symphony cycle, and I took advantage of the opportunity to hear the Second and Third, Shostakovich's most obscure symphonies, figuring I might never have another chance.

Friday's concert featured one new work, Metacosmos* by Icelandic composer (now resident in England, poor soul) Anna Thorvaldsdottir, 41. It was commissioned by the NY Phil and premiered by EPS there last spring. Though much briefer (about 14 minutes), it was interesting to hear in the context of the rest of the program, which consisted of two giant tone poems from 1896. Metacosmos, though using a different musical language, shares their sweeping atmospheric quality.

It begins, like Also sprach Zarathustra, with a low rumble (basses, contrabassoon, and padded felt on cymbals in this case). Gradually more layers pile on top, some subtly and some abruptly, and the climax comes when drum tattoos over a dissonant background are suddenly interrupted with a bang. The sound quickly resolves into a single consonant chord, and a long Sibelius-like melody, phrases coming from different string sections, is played over shimmering Sibelius-like strings, augmented by subdued pulsing sounds from the brass and added clicks from string players. Then a few strings rise quietly to their highest notes and the music disappears.

Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra was next. I liked EPS's handling of the introduction, the part heard in 2001. He had the same quick succession of the tutti chords that Karajan used in the version used in the film, instead of the pause for breath of most conductors (which is actually marked in the score, so don't blame them). On the other hand the rhythm of the trumpet calls was surprisingly flexed.

When the introduction ends after about 90 seconds with a giant tonic chord and a pause, it sounds like the piece ought to be over. In fact, when I found that alone on the movie soundtrack album way back then, I thought it was over. Nope, there's another 35 minutes of mush. After quite a while, the introduction reappears fortissimo, again ending with a big tonic chord and a pause, and you again think the work may be over, but you're wrong again; there's more.

EPS conducted all this with great attention towards shaping and clarifying the melodic phrases. It was outstanding work, probably better than the music deserved.

Last we had Four Legends from the Kalevala, an even larger slab of Sibelius. One of these four has independent fame, the almost glacially slow and quiet Swan of Tuonela. EPS conducted that one without a baton. The rest are livelier, with outbreaks of the chittering charm Sibelius is known for. Of course, this is early Sibelius, so occasionally he gets over-excited and produces these Wagnerian/Mahlerian passages that come out sounding indulgent when conducted with the intense dedication that EPS was showing here.

In these pieces, his emphasis was on expressing the drive, the flow, the pulse of the music. Watching him move precisely to a complicated rhythm, and even more hearing what it sounded like when he did, was worth all the trouble of being there. We have designated a winner as our next MD, judging from tonight's efforts, but I'm hardly surprised to say it.

*The program book prints the title in all-caps, but I consider that merely a typographical convention I'm not bound to follow.

Friday, January 18, 2019

vampires

I've never written of the strange and occasionally elaborate games my brothers and I shared in childhood, but somehow I was recently reminded that for a period we were obsessed with vampires. But our vampires probably had little in common with other people's vampires.

The vampires of our mythology had these characteristics: They were all named Count something, and they had stage-Hungarian accents in which they frequently said "Good evening," regardless of the time of day.

We were in our vampire period when a family vacation took us to Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state. One of us (we switched roles frequently) was Count Dracula, while another of us was Count Coulee, who was showing his guest and fellow vampire around his magnificent home, which was played by the interior workings of the Grand Coulee Dam.

Vampires are where you find them.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Retro Hugos for 1943



This is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, as drawn by Mervyn Peake. Vivid, isn't it? Peake's illustrated edition of the Coleridge poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was published by Chatto and Windus in 1943, and is the first reason you should consider nominating Peake for Best Professional Artist of 1943,1 for the Retro-Hugos 1944 (works of 1943) are being presented by this year's World SF Convention in Dublin. (The book might also be eligible for the special category of Best Art Book, for while it's not completely a collection of visual art, the illustrations were the point of this new edition of the classic poem.)

Though remembered now mostly for his Gormenghast novels, Peake was primarily an artist. He had in fact 3 illustrated books published in 1943, and all three of them were arguably fantasy or sf.2

I'm here, as I was last year, to peruse the bibliographies of five of my favorite English fantasy authors who were active in the era covered by the Retros for eligible works. Peake illustrated those 3 books. J.R.R. Tolkien didn't publish anything in 1943. That leaves:

C.S. Lewis, who published 3 books in 1943, two of them popular theology/moralist treatises a little removed from Hugo interest, but the third is Perelandra (Bodley Head), and this is most emphatically a good candidate for nomination. This is the novel in which the hero, Ransom, is supernaturally transported to Venus to serve as a Heavenly kibitzer in what is essentially a re-run on a new planet of Eve's temptation in the Garden of Eden. If Lewis's novels may be classed by which of his favorite authors most influenced them, this is his George MacDonald novel. I'm not that fond of MacDonald either, and I've always found Perelandra a bit airy and dull. When people question the authenticity of certain posthumously-published Lewis works on the grounds that they're not very well-written, my reply is to crack, "What about Perelandra, then?" A couple points in its favor, however. One is the character of the Unman - and I trust it's clear that he's not the same person as Weston whose body he occupies? The Unman is a horrifyingly vivid creation, emphasizing the sheer emptiness and nihilism of the mind of the devil. The other point is the famously fantastical Venus of the setting. It's completely scientifically implausible - we didn't know much about Venus in 1943, and Lewis knew even less - but the lush green floating islands are unsurpassed as a landscape of the imagination.

Charles Williams' principal work of 1943 was his treatise on The Figure of Beatrice (Faber & Faber). This study of Dante is commonly held to be Williams's greatest achievement in literary criticism. I'm afraid it's beyond my ability to judge or even much to understand, for Williams, who's not easy to grasp at the best of times, travels far beyond the Divine Comedy in Dante's output, devoting much attention to La Vita Nuova, Convivio, and De Monarchia, none of which I've read. The Comedy, at least, is fantasy by our retroactive standards, making The Figure of Beatrice a worthy candidate for Best Related Book.

Lord Dunsany. Of the 8 short stories - all of them quite short, though not quite as aphoristic as the 51 Tales - that he is recorded as publishing in 1943, 3 are fantasies. Two have been reprinted in a collection of his stories.

"The Widow Flynn's Apple Tree" (reprinted in The Man Who Ate the Phoenix3) is the longest of these, and one of the finest of Dunsany's later short stories. The bulk of it is a young man's account of how an Irish village sorceress turned him into a goose - no, not that kind of a goose, the kind that flies and honks - a shape he kept for subjectively many years. As with the man who was a dog in My Talks with Dean Spanley, Dunsany's evocation of the goose's perspective is lyric and memorable. The difference in the animalic psychology and the intensity of the sense perceptions merges with the flailing attempt of the narrator to find human language to describe these things that are beyond human ken. He's telling this story in court, having been found unconscious under the titular tree with a broken-off branch in his hand, and consequently charged with attempted burglary of the apples. He explains that the widow had kept her promise to return him to human form, but he was still flying at the time, so he grabbed at the tree to break his fall. This being Ireland, or more accurately Dunsany's Ireland, the judge listens patiently to the whole story and lets the defendant off.

"The Gratitude of the Devil" (also in The Man Who Ate the Phoenix4) includes two of Dunsany's pet peeves in one brief story. This is one of several stories in which he rails against processed foods, which he considered poison. A man who's invented a clever new processed breakfast food is visited by the devil, who's so pleased that he offers the man a boon. At this point the story switches gear as the man, taken by surprise, asks to be able to write the greatest poem in the world. The devil looks unhappy at that request, but the man soon finds himself automatically writing down a sonnet that's beyond his own ability to understand. The successive people he asks to evaluate it fail to give him a straight answer as they're overcome by varying emotions of grief, hostility, or rejection. (The text, or anything about it, is of course not given in the story.) Eventually, just to get rid of the thing, he submits it to a newspaper, and when they send it back with a "not suitable for our needs" slip, he destroys it. Unstated moral, and Dunsany's peeve: the public doesn't appreciate Art.

"A Bit of Bad Luck" (published in Punch, but not reprinted5) is an ironic squib in the form of a complaint by a man whose clever son has invented a matter-transmutation device and changed every bit of iron and steel in the house to gold. Does this please him? No! He doesn't want a golden bootscraper or golden fire tongs or a golden toilet tank chain.6 If he sells them, how will he explain them, what will it do to the price of gold, and above all what will it do to his tax rates? He won't be able to get enough money to buy replacements. What happens when burglars learn there's a houseful of gold in the neighborhood?

That's what I have to recommend for your consideration.

1. More illustrations from the book may be found here.

2. The other two were The Adventures of the Young Soldier in Search of the Better World by C.E.M. Joad (Faber & Faber), a Bunyanesque trek through a serious of tedious lectures on postwar planning, some of them delivered by fantastical creatures or a robot; and All This and Bevin Too by Quentin Crisp (Nicholson & Watson), a narrative poem in 48 verses of limerick, which depicts a sapient kangaroo who patriotically applies for a "kangaroos urgently needed" job at the zoo, only to be buffeted by an avalanche of bureaucracy and paperwork. Ernest Bevin, mentioned in the title but not the text, was the Minister of Labour in the wartime British government, so if it wasn't already obvious what Crisp is satirizing, it is now.

3. Originally published in The Listener, 17 June 1943, p. 724-26.

4. Originally published as "The Devil's Gratitude" in John O'London's Weekly, 10 Sept. 1943, p. 226.

5. 9 June 1943, p. 492-93. Not to be confused with "A Tale of Bad Luck" in the collection The Ghost in the Corner.

6. The story says they can't be changed back, but not why.

rainystorm

What a big rainstorm you have, Grandmother!
The better to grow tall weeds that will blow up in next summer's wildfires, my dear.
That was what I was thinking as I drove my slow way home last night from the staff meeting of my classical-music journalism outfit. The intense rain had driven off some of the intended attendees - one, I know, had to stay home to deal with a flood in his house - and, in the end, there were only six of us writers there to meet with the journal's three in-house staff members. There should have been twice as many.

There was definitely enough food for that many. Since we don't have a large enough office space for a meeting, we'd brought in deli food and hired a by-the-hour meeting room in an old but upgraded building in the middle of the City's Soulless Tech Company district. (Yes, that is a thing.)

As the copy editor poured me a glass of what must have been Cabernet, as he referred to it as "Cab" (which sounded like "Cav", leading me to expect that the other wine would be "Pag") and I settled in with a plate of blackberries and kiwi, the most appetizing foods on offer, our manager briefed us on funding and other big-picture structural issues that we writers can't see from way down here, and then we moved into an open discussion of how to make the website more attractive, easy to use, and popular.

This consisted largely of turning to the two writers in their 20s - the rest of us there were rather older than that - and asking them What Young People Want. That this irresistibly reminded me of the time that Roland Burton Hedley put the same question to Zonker Harris is probably merely a sign of how old and cynical I am.

Apparently one of the things that Young People Like are video clips that aren't embedded in the web page, but which float around the screen getting in the way of whatever it is you want to look at. What those make me want is to find the little red X button to click on and make them go away.

We also had a prelude discussion of opera, particularly the plots (which is a question of drama, not music), which moved me to say, "I have a button that reads 'Never Judge a Book By Its Movie.' Never judge a book by its opera, either."

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Steeleye update

When I heard the English electric folk band Steeleye Span, my long-time favorites in that biz, live in San Francisco in July 2015, I wrote of my particular pleasure at their rendition of "King Henry".

Well, now you can hear it, because a video of the song from eight days later on the same tour has come to my attention. That's guitarist Julian Littman singing lead, violinist Jessie May Smart, redoubtable vocalist Maddy Prior, drummer Liam Genockey in the back, and over on the side, substitute guest bassist Nils Peterson.

Well, there's more. All sorts of good videos are showing up online. (You might want to watch the volume, as the rest of these were recorded at a much higher level than the first one.) Here they are with a really outstanding version of "All Around My Hat" at the Cropredy Festival the next year, 2016. Here the bassist (falling off the right side of the picture again) is Rick Kemp, who'd come out of retirement, as he has several times before, to fill in between permanent bass players. Also, guitarist Andrew "Spud" Sinclair has joined the band; he's behind Jessie and Maddy.

And I couldn't resist this little bit also from Cropredy 2016: host band Fairport Convention, led by Simon Nicol and Dave Pegg, paying tribute to Steeleye with a spoof of one of their most famous songs.

And just in case you're not worn out, here's a full hour Steeleye concert from a folk festival just five months ago. The lineup has filled out and there's seven members now: new bassist Roger Carey behind Jessie, and multi-instrumentalist and singer Benji Kirkpatrick (son of one-time Steeleye accordionist John Kirkpatrick), playing banjo in the first song, standing between Maddy and Julian. It's a heavier rock sound, too much for my taste on the newer songs: however, the beefed up remakes of some of their gentler early numbers, a practice Steeleye has been undertaking for some years now, seem to me to be excellently judged. The quantity of front-line talent is now a match for any previous incarnation of the band. This is, all around, the best Steeleye lineup since the Silver Age of the 90s, and my guess on their prospects has gone well up.

I see I'm one album behind in my collection of their studio recordings, so I've ordered that.

Monday, January 14, 2019

not completely shut down

I ordered my replacement passport on December 12. The website said to expect a non-priority order to be fulfilled in 4-6 weeks.

The government shutdown began on December 22. It was only partial, but the State Department was one of the agencies specifically included. Uh-oh, I thought, what happens to my passport? Should I worry about it arriving in time for my trip in August?

Well, either the Passport Office was deemed essential, or else they're working there anyways, for my passport arrived today. 4 weeks, 5 days, with Christmas and New Year's included into the bargain.

Under whatever conditions they're working over there, I thank them.

Now, to see if the airports have recovered by the time I have to take my next flight, in March.