Monday, December 31, 2012

the annual year-end post

And then I wrote: Not a lot, really. One major article published, "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2009," co-authored with Merlin DeTardo, in the journal Tolkien Studies. This will be the last in a series of eight (one covering two years) for me, as I've been promoted to co-editor of the journal, but while that's already meant a lot of work, none of it is yet visible. One review, one article, and one short contribution in Mythprint, though I have three other reviews in press there. I also have a short piece in press in a festschrift honoring Tom Shippey, which is actually reprinted from a Tolkien fanzine appearance four years ago, but I don't know when the book is coming out, and the publisher has not announced it on its website.

On the other hand, I've had 27 pieces published on San Francisco Classical Voice, more than two per month: one major article (a report on the Stanford "Reactions to the Record" symposium), a concerts preview survey, 12 orchestra reviews, 9 chamber music and solo recital reviews, and 4 CD reviews. So that's been keeping me busy. The furthest I got from home this year was the California Symphony in Walnut Creek. Speaking of travel ...

And then I went: Not very far. Just two plane trips, both brief and to the point, and three overnight car expeditions, one of them just to Berkeley for Mythcon, because commuting would have been impractical. Total list of cities stayed in away from home:

Seattle, WA
Sacramento, CA
Greensburg, PA
Berkeley, CA
Pismo Beach, CA
Glendora, CA

The trip to PA was possibly the only one I've ever taken (since I could read, anyway) without the personal company of a single map, as I was entirely in other people's hands and I'd been basically everywhere I was going before. The trip to Southern California involved driving on back roads and to obscure places I'd never been in a lifetime of regularly driving there, and consequently employed many maps. The overnight in Sacramento was for my most personally unusual and unprecedented activity of the year, viewing the annular eclipse in Redding. The remaining two trips were for Potlatch and Mythcon, further than which my SFnal convention attendance is unlikely to extend in the future, either.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Australians in France!

Sorry, but that's the thought that kept coming to mind whenever Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe face each other down, which they do frequently, as Valjean and Javert in the movie of Les Misérables.

I read a lot of reviews of this movie before seeing it, many of which claimed the singing was terrible - wrong - and some of which went so far as to slam the musical itself for pedestrian lyrics and music. That I already knew was wrong, for I'd seen the show on stage, years ago. As B. puts it, Les Miz has only four tunes, and they get repeated over and over. But at least it has tunes, and they're good tunes that you can remember the next day, or, in truth, twenty years later. As I found when attending a "best of current Broadway" free show-in-the-park in Manhattan four years ago, none of those shows had anything I could still remember by the time we left the park at the end of the hour.

My personal jury is still out on the question of whether having the ballads whispered in close-ups is really more effective than having them belted out to the rafters on stage, plausibility be hanged. The plot mix seemed to tilt a lot more towards the personal over the epic than in my memory of the stage show, almost as if it were saying, "This crazy world doesn't amount to a hill of beans next to the problems of three little people," but that may be my hallucination.

Still, I will cop to the emotional effectiveness of the final scene, where Valjean dies before Cosette's eyes [oh, come on, surely we don't need spoiler warnings for this story], and his ghost gets up and slowly walks away, like Hazel's ghost at the end of Watership Down.

Particular casting points for having childhood and adult Éponines and Cosettes 1) who look enough like themselves at the other age that you can accept that they're the same person, and 2) who, all four of them, look enough like their putative mothers that you can accept that they're their daughters.

The only casting I found ineffective was Crowe's, actually. Javert is a man of rigid iron, and Crowe does better playing characters like Captain Jack or General Maximus, men of flexible steel. Singing aside, Crowe would have been better cast as Valjean. Mel Gibson, were he still the right age, and not crazy, and could sing, would have made a better Javert if you really need an Australian.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

My last couple of days saw brief but intensive tours of duty as a member of the DeHoard crew. Victory at sea, the sea of paper and fabric.

Friday, December 28, 2012

a Norman Rockwell original

I'd once seen an original painting by Norman Rockwell, and irrespective of my opinions of its subject matter, I was astonished at the sheer beauty of its mere draughtsmanship. No reproduction, including this one, captures the sheer elegance and control of detail, as well as the shaping and effectiveness of the whole.

At that point I forget anything I'd once been inculcated with about Norman Rockwell, ignorable corny Americanist, and began to respect him as a great artist.

Consequently I was a willing target for a suggestion to visit the huge Rockwell exhibition currently going on at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Thither B. and my mother and I went yesterday. It doesn't have that Nixon portrait (that's in the presidents file of the National Portrait Gallery in D.C.), but it does have an enormous selection of famous and obscure work from the Rockwell gallery in Massachusetts. And it's on for another month, so there's still a chance for locals to see it.

But, despite that awesome draughtsmanship well exhibited, the most astonishing thing in the hall is a set of printed reproductions: a corridor lined with framed original copies of every single one of the 323 Saturday Evening Post covers that Rockwell painted, usually 5 or 10 of them a year for over 45 years. They're not all corny; some of them are weird or surreal or self-referential or just cheeky.

What the original paintings make clear is, first, how much care and detail Rockwell packed in - his triple self-portrait, for instance, is over 3 feet high, but the Post printed it at about 1/6th of its full size - and, second, that the corniness was, at least in part, his editors' doing, not his own, because, once freed from the Post's puritan content restrictions, he began creating openly and powerfully political art, like "The Problem We All Live With" and "Christmas Eve in Bethlehem."

Of the works I hadn't seen before, this Post cover was the most striking. As with others, it's less forceful in reproduction. It shows a girl, apparently just pre-adolescent, her doll tossed to the side, trying on lipstick, presumably for the first time, and comparing her visage in a mirror to that of a woman's glamor photo held in her lap.

And it occurred to me that this is Susan Pevensie at the moment that she loses Narnia.

Nothing in C.S. Lewis studies has been more unnecessarily roiling than the so-called "Problem of Susan", because nothing he wrote has been more persistently misunderstood. (Here are a couple of clear-minded explanations.) This painting, showing a girl in the same situation as Susan, might help clear it up. This girl isn't interested in sex. She's trying to be Grown-Up, in capital letters, and trying it out, perhaps before her time, rather than letting true adulthood grow naturally into her. And, it seemed to me on looking at the original painting, she is doing this less because she really wants to than because she feels obliged to. This is What Women Do, and, if she is to be a woman, she'd better do it. That gives it a poignancy of loss of childhood, represented by the undignified position of the doll, which may be absent from Lewis's tone.

Remember, too, if you're minded to query the girl's sense of the obligations of womanhood, that this is 1954 - just as the Narnian books were being published - with all of the cultural baggage of that period in Anglo-American middle-class life. Which brings me to my last point about Rockwell: how well and vividly he illustrated the culture he belonged to. Much of Rockwell's interest was in childhood. My mother's childhood was in the middle of the Rockwell era, in a fairly Rockwellish environment, and she exclaimed at his ability to capture detail in such matters as the clothes. Look at her scuffed shoes, she said. That's what saddle shoes really looked like, and you won't see that in photos, which would be neatly posed wearing new ones. Corniness is not just corny: in Rockwell, it's the truth.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

an answer I require

I did well in Jon Carroll's Christmas quiz this year, as revealed by the answers.

I knew the answers to 11, 13, 14, and 20 without even having to puzzle over them, and got 12 right on the first shot too. That's better than I normally do. I knew 1 in general terms, though not the specifics, and 2 except that I misspelled it, and 3 except that I got the case of the last word wrong, and I guessed 5 correctly on being put the question, which implied something other than the default answer. I got 3/4 of question 4, 3/5 of question 6 (though without all the details given in the answers), and 1/3 of question 8. I knew the first part of 7 without even needing the hint, and guessed the work referred to in the follow-up and what its cultural landmark was, though not the author's other honor.

No question in the entire history of this quiz has bothered me less at not being able to answer than this year's 16, because I have never claimed to know anything whatever about the subject. Same thing goes for 10, and I don't mind admitting that one of the factors of 9 is also beyond me.

That leaves 17, which I genuinely didn't know, 18 and 19, which I once knew but forgot, and 15, which I should have gotten right but fastened on one of his compatriot contemporaries.

Not bad.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas presents

His and her matching Barnes & Noble gift certificates. From each other.

Well, great minds ...

Actually, there was more. But this is the amusing part.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


1. Rainy day in California. And a typical one by our standards. Instead of a storm moving briskly in and out, it sneaks in overnight and then everything is just wet and soggy all day.

2. Nevertheless we ventured out to the annual caroling, as usual inside and toasty. Had a flutist for a while, but she flit. Sang "Deck Us All with Boston Charlie" in honor of absent friends. B. led a rousing rendition of "Carol of the Bells" in cat language. Sang "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen." Man, that Praetorius really knew how to arrange four-part harmony. Sang a Czech carol, but in English. ("I'd rather sing in German than in Czech / Yes, I would / If I only could / I surely would." People get a little punch-drunk after lots of caroling.)

3. It's the annual Chronicle geography quiz. Answers are on the lower half of the second online page. Of the 50 questions, I didn't know nos. 2, 26, 31, 43, 44, 46, 47, or 48, should have known 5, 8, 11, 34, and 37, got close on 7, 18, and 50, part right on 25, guessed wrong on 41, guessed right on 9 and 16, and the other thirty were all easy.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

and I say the hell with it

Here's another article on how to deal with children who are picky eaters. Really, I wonder if the people who write these articles ever were children, because they invariably have no idea how children think, or feel, or react.

As a child, I was not the extreme kind of picky eater who refuses to subsist on anything but macaroni and cheese, or hamburgers and french fries. I ate a good variety of healthy foods, and from the moment I could take solids would devour as much broccoli or spinach - two of the vegetables classically most hated by children - as you would give me. I liked other veggies, too, but there were others I totally detested, including beets, peas, lima beans, brussel sprouts, and cooked carrots. (I liked raw ones.) My particular curse was potato. In any form other than fried to death, like potato chips, something about the mix of mealy texture and taste just repels me.

Another problem was certain combinations. I liked fish and I liked corn, but if the sauce from one got into the other, the combined taste was literally nauseating. Cold meat sandwiches, I'd take apart and eat all the ingredients separately.

Except for the one about potato, which was unique to me, my brothers shared most of these dislikes. And another thing: most of what I disliked as a child, I still dislike today.1 The difference is that now I can stomach them down if I have to. The taste is still the same, it's just less hideously intense. (I know this because of attempts at politeness as a guest in people's homes for dinner.) Correlate that with a developed taste as an adult for spicy foods, which never attracted me as a child (not that I had much opportunity to try them in those days), it seems crystally obvious to me that children's taste buds are simply younger, more vigorous, and more intense than adults', same as are their eyesight, their hearing, their emotions, and just about everything else.

But what does the article say? It says, eat the food yourself and show how good it is. Good lord, I had the rebuttal to that when I was five. "Fine, you eat it, then. If you like it so much, you can have mine, too." You're not going to convince me by example that my taste buds are lying to me about how something tastes, any more than by taking something down off a high shelf you can convince me that I could reach it, too.

It says, "When your kid says of the perfectly delicious pasta you raced home from work to cook for him, But I don’t like the way it tastes, she may not be lying."2 May not be lying? MAY not be lying? I NEVER lied when I said food tasted bad, though in the opposite direction I eventually learned to be polite to the cook. Never, nor did my brothers. As my most analytic brother repeatedly pointed out, he'd be delighted if his tastes changed and he liked everything on the plate and thus avoid these endless squabbles. We didn't like hating foods; we hated it. We hated not getting enough to eat, we hated displeasing our parents through no fault of our own, we hated arguing over it, we hated the implication that we were lying for some unfathomable reason.

It says, don't threaten to revoke privileges. OK, that one I'll go along with. That's not going to make food taste better.

It says, offer small rewards, as long as they aren't preferred foods. No, that's the flip side of revoking privileges. If offering cookies as a reward for eating lima beans only reinforces that cookies are good and lima beans are bad, offering stickers as a reward for eating lima beans also only reinforces that stickers are good and lima beans are bad. It doesn't change how lima beans taste.

Oh, but the article says it does. It says, make the child try the food 15 to 20 times. Isn't that the definition of insanity, trying something over and over and expecting a different result? And saying that if it doesn't work, you haven't tried it often enough? Maybe by the time you've offered the food 20 times, the child has gotten older and the taste buds have matured, i.e. faded. We had some of those foods 20 times and they never got any better. Some were worse than others, but for the worst, every meal of it, every bite, was torture. We're not talking "ehhh, I don't wanna try something new, I don't like the look of it," we're talking hard-earned experience of vile, unspeakable awfulness.

The article doesn't discuss dislike of combinations, but I've seen that absurdly psychoanalyzed as a deep-seated need to sort life into distinct compartments. No, it was because we hated the combined taste, which is what we said was the reason. My father thought it the height of wit to say, "It all gets mixed up in your stomach anyway," which has nothing to do with the taste, as we repeatedly pointed out to no avail. Such irrelevant logic did not impress us.

So, while I don't know what to say to the parents of mono-eaters, the kids who won't touch anything, except to note that I never knew any such children in my own childhood, the same way I never heard of anyone allergic to peanuts in those days either,3 for the ordinary picky eater I say: trust your children. If they say they hate a food, for god's sake feed them something equally nutritious that they do like. If you're bored by it, eat something else yourself, or just put up with it. Isn't that less bad than endless complaints from tortured children?

1. One exception: pizza. Yes, I was the only child in the world who hated pizza. It was the combo of cheese and bread that got me. Sometime when I was about 17 it suddenly ceased to bother me.

2. The way the child's sex mutates in the middle of the meal is also a disconcerting feature of this story.

3. I'm not saying these things don't exist now. I'm saying that they used to be very rare. And not just unnoticed, rare. Peanut butter was so ubiquitous in children's lunches in my childhood that, if allergies to the mere presence of peanuts were anywhere near as severe and common as they're claimed to be today, children would have been dying like flies. What I'm saying is that something has changed in the way children are reared. In the case of peanut allergies, it's claimed that it's something to do with early exposure to peanuts. What it may be in the case of children who'll only eat macaroni, I don't know. I know two adult men my own age who subsist on the plain hamburger and french fries diet, and always have. That's two, but I didn't know any as a child, and I hear of it a lot more among children today, even though I now know fewer children.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Time Names Mitt Romney Man of the Year 1912

NEW YORK (The Borowitz Report)—In an extraordinary gesture of recognition for a losing Presidential nominee, Time magazine today named former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney Man of the Year 1912.

In a press release explaining its decision, Time’s editorial board wrote, “Even though his quest for the Presidency was unsuccessful, Mr. Romney’s ideas about foreign policy, taxation, wealth inequality, and women’s rights typified the year 1912 as no one else has.”

In giving Mr. Romney the nod, Time said that he beat out such other candidates for Man of the Year 1912 as Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Edward Smith, captain of the Titanic.

“It was very close between Romney and the Titanic guy, but we gave it to Romney because it took him slightly longer to sink,” Time wrote.

Mr. Romney could not be reached for comment, a spokesman said, because he was travelling around the world visiting his money.

-- The Borowitz Report

Robert Bork and the Saturday Night Masacre

I'm finding myself commenting this, in one form or another, a lot:

There is one error in Jeffrey Toobin's blistering obituary of Robert Bork. Bork should not be condemned for being the man who fired Cox. He and Richardson and Ruckelshaus had a meeting in which they agreed that the deed would have to be done - the Justice Dept. as a whole cannot defy the President's will - and since Richardson and Ruckelshaus were resigning in protest, Bork would have to be the one who pulled the trigger. Bork offered to do it and then resign too, but Richardson told him no, don't resign, because that would leave the Dept. without anyone legally capable of serving as Acting Attorney General.

I don't know what Bork's personal opinions on the matter were, but his action was, unfortunately, proper.

Further, when afterwards Nixon called Bork in and offered to appoint him as the new Attorney General, Bork had the wisdom to reply, "That would not be appropriate."

Bork knew he was marked by his role in this, and I was surprised when Reagan pulled him back out of obscurity a decade later and nominated him for the Court, although I found that others, even fellow Watergate junkies, had completely forgotten who he was.

Everything else Toobin says about Bork is completely correct, most emphatically this about his post-nomination career: "In the subsequent quarter-century, Bork devoted himself to proving that his critics were right about him all along."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

two concerts

Both of these could just be called fun.

New Century Chamber Orchestra, Menlo-Atherton CPA, Wednesday (the first time I've heard them anywhere except the Concrete Tent in Palo Alto)

Aulos Ensemble, Kohl Mansion, Sunday

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

president pro what?

The death of Daniel Inouye - all honor to his memory, pretty much the last significant survivor of the last great Senate, and also lately its president pro tem - has afforded Matthew Yglesias the opportunity to write about the absurdity of putting this purely honorary position third in line for the presidential succession.

Yglesias' points are all accurate and thoughtful, but more needs to be said. President pro tem was not originally honorary. The Vice President, as provided for in the Constitution, normally presided over the Senate, and the president pro tempore, to give the title in full, was elected just for the occasion when the VP was absent or the office vacant, to actually preside over the Senate, and was chosen for his actual qualifications to do so. So reliable was the PPT that, in the first presidential succession act of 1792, he was placed second, not third, in the line of succession.

This is why some people claim that David R. Atchison was president for one day in 1849 between the expiration of the term of President Polk and the inauguration of President Taylor. But this is not true; the president pro tem was pro tem, remember, and as Congress had adjourned sine die, Atchison held no such office at the moment and had to be elected anew to it when the new Senate convened.

The temporariness of the office is what led to a change in the law in 1886. The Vice President had died, neither house of Congress had gone into session yet, and thus had elected no Speaker nor president pro tem, so the line of succession was completely vacant. What there was continually in office was a Cabinet, and so the line of succession was changed to eliminate the Congressional officers entirely and put the Cabinet, starting with Secretary of State, in their place.

It made sense. Half a dozen Secretaries of State in the past had actually gone on to be President in their own right, while only one each of Speaker or president pro tem had ever achieved that office. (Trivia question: who were they?)

Ironically, just about that time, things were changing. The Senate changed its rules in 1890 to make president pro tem a permanent position; while he still needed to be elected at the start of each Congress, at least the post ceased to expire every time the VP resumed the chair. In the 1930s Congress began meeting just before the start of the presidential term, instead of nine months later; this eliminated the reason for the 1885-6 gap. No Secretary of State since 1886 has become President, though several have been plausible candidates for the office, including the current incumbent. But very few of either PPTs or Speakers have been presidential candidates, either: since WW2, basically just Richard Russell (before he took office) and Newt Gingrich (afterwards), not an inspiring duo.

In 1947 the succession law was changed again, to the current order: VP, Speaker, PPT, then the Cabinet. This was at the initiative of President Truman, who pointed out that, since the President appoints the Cabinet, in the absence of a VP (which was the case in 1947), the President could appoint his own successor, and Truman didn't think the President ought to be able to do that.

There were several problems with this reasoning. First, why not? If a President leaves office midterm, shouldn't he be able to leave his office to someone sharing his policy views? Even Nixon, who resigned in disgrace, left his office to a man he'd appointed who shared his political stance and was merely untouched by the scandal which was the reason for the resignation. The VP and Secretary of State would normally do so; the Speaker or PPT might not. This actually became a problem during the period of Watergate after Agnew's resignation; House Speaker Carl Albert was aghast at implications that there was a Democratic plot to change the party holding the White House.

Secondly, although the President appoints the Cabinet, they have to be approved by the Senate, and it's not nominal because sometimes they don't approve. (On one infamous occasion, a nominee lost on a tie vote; the VP, who could have broken the tie, was taking a nap and didn't wake up in time.) The President in effect appoints the VP, too; though the VP must be approved by the convention and then elected by the voters and the Electoral College, they don't really have much choice, given the presidential candidate they've accepted.

Possibly Truman was motivated by irritation at calls proposing that, since the Democrats had just massively lost the 1946 midterm elections, he should appoint a Republican as Secretary of State and then resign; but, perforce, Republicans had become Speaker and PPT and, once the law was altered, he could have resigned with the same effect without taking the intermediary step.

It's also possible that Truman saw the Secretary of State as the President's creature in a way the VP was not. The VP cannot be fired midterm as a Cabinet officer may; also, the idea of the VP as the President's choice was a new one, dating from FDR. Previously, VPs were usually picked by party bosses as ticket-balancers and forced on presidential candidates who often held very different political views. (This had created political turmoil at every midterm VP succession up through 1901.)

Ironically, things were changing again. The idea of the VP as the emergency backup President was beginning to take hold in hair-trigger Cold War conditions, and concern for the rest of the line of succession to be similarly ship-shape was growing. Meanwhile, the VP's presiding over the Senate had become more nominal and purely ceremonial (the nap incident mentioned above was a major blow to VPs' credibility as presiding officers), and so was the president pro tem's. Strangely, the last vestiges of the office's role as the best senator to preside in the VP's absence was cast off at just about the time he was put back in the line of succession, and since then he has always been automatically the senior senator of the majority party, with results that Yglesias describes. Meanwhile, the actual presiding over the Senate is now usually done by majority-party frosh, who thereby get the opportunity to learn Senate procedure. The Speaker of the House is still the leader of the majority party, but that's equally tradition: he doesn't have to be (the Speaker of the British House of Commons is emphatically not, but is entirely nonpartisan).

In the meantime, if something should happen simultaneously to Obama and Biden, who should become President? Should it be John Boehner, or, if he went in the same explosion, Inouye while he still (barely) lived, or Pat Leahy, Inouye's putative successor? Or should it be Hillary Clinton or (prospectively) John Kerry? I think the answer is obvious.

Monday, December 17, 2012

electoral college

The Electoral College voted today, and, although the votes won't be counted officially for a couple weeks yet, and we may not know about individual faithless electors until then, it appeared to go without any major hitch. This was of interest this year, since a few Republicans somehow got it into their heads that, if the Republican electors withheld their votes, they could prevent a quorum and throw the election into the House. Unfortunately for them, they misread the Constitution. The supermajority quorum is for a House contingent election; as for the Electoral College, so long as over half the electors vote for one candidate, it doesn't matter what the rest of them do. And Obama has the votes.

Retro stuff was going on, though, in Romney's stronghold of Mississippi:

The state's Republican governor, Phil Bryant, joked that Billy Mounger, an 86-year-old elector, probably wished to vote for Calvin Coolidge, a renowned small-government conservative president in the 1920s.

"I'd like to have Coolidge back," said Mounger, a Jackson businessman.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christopher Tolkien moans in pain

A number of people have been circulating around an English translation of an article by the French paper Le Monde including what is claimed to be the first-ever press interview with Christopher Tolkien, son and literary executor of J.R.R. Tolkien. The most notable thing CT is quoted as saying therein is,

"They eviscerated the book [The Lord of the Rings] by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25. And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film. Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time. The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away."
Wow. But wait. Is this what Christopher Tolkien really said, and is it really his first recorded words on the subject?

Apparently, it's not either of these things. Although this may have been CT's first sit-down press interview, he's recorded television interviews before. And though I don't have a copy to hand, he did issue a brief statement at the time of the Lord of the Rings movies a decade ago, to the effect that he would not be discussing it, but making it clear that his approval would not be forthcoming and was definitely being withheld. So that the above are his sentiments is not surprising. (At least half of the top Tolkien scholars feel similarly, and decline to speak out about the movies for the same reason, which reticence enables certain fools to claim they do not exist.)

As for the actual words, remember that the above is a translation. Whether CT spoke in French I don't know - he's been living in France for over 35 years - but that's the language he was published in. The above is an unauthorized translation, and, according to Tolkien scholar Marcel Aubron-Bülles, who is fluent in French and English as well as his native German, it's not a very good one. Marcel says, on an e-mail list I belong to, that he and some colleagues were refused permission by all parties involved to publish their own translation, and they do not wish to do so without permission. All he will say is, "In the original the article would leave almost all readers sympathetic to the cause of Christopher; with the translation this does not seem to be the case." He recommends that we read the original article in French. Well, in French CT says,

"Ils ont éviscéré le livre, en en faisant un film d'action pour les 15-25 ans. Et il paraît que Le Hobbit sera du même acabit. Tolkien est devenu un monstre, dévoré par sa popularité et absorbé par l'absurdité de l'époque. Le fossé qui s'est creusé entre la beauté, le sérieux de l'œuvre, et ce qu'elle est devenue, tout cela me dépasse. Un tel degré de commercialisation réduit à rien la portée esthétique et philosophique de cette création. Il ne me reste qu'une seule solution: tourner la tête."
That's fine if you read French. My French, which is adequate for assigning library subject headings to a book on history or law, is not up to determining the quality of a translation. And don't try it in Google Translate, either; I did, and that machine doesn't know English, let alone French, as well as the bad translator does.

So I don't know if what I'm responding to is Christopher Tolkien or not, but I don't find that much to disagree with in it. Yes, the movies eviscerated the book. No, the fact that the book is still on the shelf does not make up for this. The movies dominate the discourse, and the book's distinctive qualities get overshadowed, with features from the movie even mistaken for the book's. (For an example of what this kind of media colonization looks like in its fully developed phase, see The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book whose very title has been drowned out by its movie's.) Is the movie for young people aged 15 to 25? Well, not for me; I didn't care for movies like that when I was that age, or now, either. But I loved Tolkien's writing, then and now, so I feel entitled to say that they're very different. The differences in the plot are not that important; it's the differences in spirit and atmosphere which really stand out, and as defenders of the movie's changes say precisely the opposite, that the movies got the spirit right, that accounts for the bitterness in Christopher Tolkien's tone, and my own.

As for the nature of the chasm between the two works, and the specifics of the diminishment of the book's philosophical impact, that CT speaks of, that will have to go in another post.

CT says his solution is to turn his head away. Not entirely: as I've noted, he's spoken on the subject before. But mostly he's kept silent, on this and anything else outside of the scholarly books he's produced, editing his father's writings. But he says it's the solution for him, not for anyone else, and it's easy for him to say. He's not active in Tolkien fandom and never has been, and he's been living in seclusion for some 35 years. I don't have his option; living in the world, and interacting with Tolkien fans, some of whom perforce are also Jackson fans and think the one has something to do with the other, I cannot avoid these movies by not seeing them or not talking about them. All I'd do is force a muzzle on myself in an interesting conversation, or quit Tolkien discussion altogether, and I don't wish to do that.

Nor would it be wise, in my capacity as a scholar of the Tolkien secondary literature, to remain ignorant of the movies, because their colonization of the book even infects scholarship. How could I know how to take, or to counteract, bizarre claims that Aragorn is a reluctant king, or that Sauron the terrible is a helpless eyeball, if I didn't know where they came from - the movies, of course - or why? At the very least, know thine enemy.

Where I potentially question CT's statement, assuming it's rendered accurately, is in the implication that it has affected the work itself and everything to do with it. To an extent, yes; I noted the media colonization and how that even affects some scholarship. But productive Tolkien scholarship continues to pour forth, as CT very well knows, because I know he reads some of it. Perhaps its volume is indeed somewhat encouraged by the movies, and only some of the time is it marred by writers' inability to distinguish between the movies and the book.

I also find interesting the emphasis of the Estate on promoting Tolkien's other work, not The Lord of the Rings. To some extent I have no problem with this. The Lord of the Rings doesn't need promoting; much of the rest of his work is little-known, and some of that is unjustifiably little-known. But there is an implication that, because the Silmarillion (in its broad sense, not specifically the 1977 volume of that title) was his life-work, and The Lord of the Rings only an odd, and in some respects uncharacteristic, offshoot (for one thing, the Silmarillion is a lot less sexually dimorphic than The Lord of the Rings, let alone The Hobbit), that the Silmarillion is therefore more important. I disagree. The Silmarillion is an amazing accomplishment, rich and loamy, but it's not designed for a mass audience's interest. It is only that the author found a bridge between it and popularity with The Lord of the Rings that the Silmarillion is of general interest at all, and it doesn't matter that The Lord of the Rings is a kind of a bastard work, begun not at Tolkien's own initiative but at the behest of his publisher. What matters is that he completed it. That was very rare for Tolkien. Unless I'm missing something, he didn't complete any of the large-scale narrative projects that comprise the Silmarillion, and there were something like a couple dozen of them meeting that threshold over his life. The Silmarillion was his lifework, yes, but The Lord of the Rings is his masterwork, and those who admire the Silmarillion more need to accept that.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I saw it in 2D, 24 fps, and I still feel as if I've been bludgeoned by a giant stick.

Nobody who loves the book should be wooed thereby into seeing this movie (unless, poor sods like me, they feel they have to). Nobody.

I doubt I'll have any more to say until the bruises begin to go down.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

let us now praise famous musicians

Three distinguished names from three fields of music who have died in the last month deserve comment by me.

1. Charles Rosen. A noted pianist, but more famous as a musicologist (although he claimed not to be one, not having a degree in the field), he wrote deeply insightful books on classical and romantic musical style, which I'm afraid I never got much out of, because they're a bit above my grade level. I did get to meet him, once, when he attended the Stanford recordings symposium four years ago, where he irritated many by making contrarian remarks casting doubt on the assumptions motivating the whole symposium. I didn't share the musical tastes he expressed there, but I thought his logical strictures had a lot to be said for them.

2. Dave Brubeck. I don't often listen to jazz, but when I do, it's likely to be Dave Brubeck.

3. Michael Dunford. Who? Well, not very many people, even rock fans, know of this guy. He was the guitarist and chief composer for the 1970s English art-rock band Renaissance, which has been one of my secret obscure passions (and one of the 2 to 5 rock bands, depending on your definition of "rock band", that I actually like) ever since DGK quietly put on one of their albums while I was at his house one day some 30 years ago, and I came back next week and said, "What was that album you played the last time I was here?" because it had not left my head in the interim.

What made Renaissance great was not just the sensitive classical influence on their work, which they actually wore pretty lightly, but Dunford's sumptuously beautiful melodies and the transparently clear and unearthly way that vocalist Annie Haslam sang them. Dunford's hypnotically rhythmic fingerwork and his propensity for playing it on an acoustic guitar also won my favor.

They may have to grow on you - they had to seep in to me - but here are my three favorite songs of theirs, all of them strongly bent towards the lyrical side of the band's output. (All the lyrics are by Betty Thatcher, a reclusive poet to whom Dunford would mail tapes of his melodies, and she'd send back these cryptic ... words.) Be patient: the Renaissance is not in a hurry.

"At the Harbour" - this song is framed by Renaissance's pianist John Tout playing a remarkably straight and unimpressionistic version of Debussy's La cathédrale engloutie.

"Black Flame" - if there's one Renaissance song I could save from the dust of civilization, this would be the one.

"Ocean Gypsy" - this song was later, and apparently somewhat more famously, covered by a band called Blackmore's Night, but this is the original.

Thank you for these, Mr Dunford - and colleagues.

Monday, December 10, 2012

how long is it?

Recently in a comment section not quite near you, Lisa Hirsch opined that "A modest and charming book ought to get a modest and charming film."

Well, it's not going to get one.

Early reviews of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey have one thing in particular to say about the movie, besides comments on the 48fps: it's loooong. And slooooow.

How long and slow is it? One review actually tries to calculate minutes per page. And that is minutes per page, not pages per minute. (Another review and another and an American one too.)

According to IMDB, the movie is 169 minutes long: that's 2 hours and 49 minutes. That's almost as long as Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring, part 1 of his Lord of the Rings, which in theatrical release (the short version) was 2 minutes short of 3 hours. According to the reviews, Jackson's Hobbit part 1 covers the first 6 chapters: that's almost exactly one-third of the book. Although the original 3-movie plan for The Hobbit was to have the third movie cover events between The Hobbit (which takes place first) and The Lord of the Rings, it now appears he's just splitting The Hobbit up into three movies: the taglines for the sequels on IMDB correspond to the plot that way.

If the two subsequent movies are the same length, the totality will be 8 hours and 27 minutes. More likely, it'll be longer: Jackson's LOTR sequels were longer than his first one. (Meanwhile, Tolkien's successive volumes were consecutively shorter, if you exclude the Appendices.) If The Hobbit movies increase in size at the same ratio that the LOTR movies did, the total will be about 9 hours, plus or minus 15 minutes, depending on whether you take the ratio of the theatrical versions or the extended editions.

The Hobbit in the standard paperback is 273 pages of text (287 - 14 forematter). In the same edition, the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings total 1283 pages if you exclude the Prologue and Appendices, 1442 if you don't. That's approximately five times as long a book, but it didn't get five times as long a movie.

The Lord of the Rings movies, then, worked their way through the book at an average rate of between 1.88 and 2.58 pages a minute, depending on the page count above and whether you use the theatrical or extended editions of the movies. The Hobbit, meanwhile, is proceeding through the book at the stately pace of between 0.49 and 0.54 pages a minute, depending on how long the three movies turn out.

Now comes the interesting part, and trust me, I've worked this out with a calculator. If Jackson had gone through The Hobbit at the same clip that he proceeded through The Lord of the Rings in its theatrical version - already a massively slow undertaking by movie standards; the four-hour Gormenghast miniseries ran through its two huge volumes at nearly 5 pages a minute - it'd be between 105 and 120 minutes. Even at extended edition rates it'd be no more than 145 minutes. (At Gormenghast rates it'd be over in one hour.)

But! What if he'd filmed The Lord of the Rings at the pace he's filming The Hobbit? (If he'd filmed it at Gormenghast rates the entire thing would have been 4 1/2 hours - just right for the two-movie version he'd originally intended.) Determining the answer depends on both whether you're counting the Prologue and Appendices as part of the book, and on how long you expect the three-part Hobbit to turn out, but the answer would be somewhere between 40 and 49 hours. Ye gods.

Some of the Hobbit movie reviewers say that only Tolkien fans will enjoy something that slow-paced. They're wrong: only the most devoted Peter Jackson fans will. One of the frequent defenses of the LOTR films is that Tolkien fans would only be happy if they got something that was days long and had everything from the book in it. This time we're actually getting that. I don't expect to like the prospect.

From the length alone, I'm expecting this movie to be Jackson's Phantom Menace, the most tedious blockbuster I ever saw. Maybe it will induce equal cringes of embarrassment in the movie-maker's fans, and maybe the movie will slink away in shame and we can forget about it, like we eventually forgot about Ralph whatzisname. That would be the happiest outcome.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

three small concerts

1. Friday. I'm the emergency fill-in reviewer (review) for the Del Sol Quartet concert that evening. In the City. At some old warehouse in the crease between Folsom and Potrero; what am I doing down there? And I only get charged with this task about noon. Del Sol plays new music; amazingly, one of the pieces on the program I already know. I spend what little time I have to prepare by listening to web recordings of music by the other composers. None of it winds up sounding much like the string quartets I hear live that evening, but I do like some of it, especially the second half of this one, which is where I first get the idea that its composer is a man with a "sure sense of dramatic structure." At least I've heard Del Sol often enough that when I write of their evolution in character, I speak from experience.

2. Saturday. Palo Alto Philharmonic, local amateur orchestra. What happens if you invite as soloist a violinist who's more used to playing in orchestras? She plays along with the firsts while waiting for her solo entrance, that's what, as if this were Bach instead of Brahms. In truth, Christina Mok has been getting better at solo work, and now she's better than the orchestra, at least if it's this one. The other half of the program is Americana: Harris' Third Symphony, which the orchestra gets a good handle on, and Ives' Decoration Day, which they don't.

3. Sunday. Free Renaissance music concert in the library. Woman in Ren Faire-type costume, bearing lute. Speaks with a brassy voice, sings higher and clearer and very well. Sings a song I recognize from a Philip Pickett album. Sometimes accompanied by another woman, similarly attired, bearing recorders of varying sizes, mostly inaudible, which turns out to be a relief.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

"MTT conducts Berlioz" read the concert description on the ticket. But he didn't.

Tonight's concert went through two program alterations on the way which eliminated both of the pieces originally scheduled to be on it. Gone was Berlioz, and gone was the US premiere of a piano concerto by some German composer, probably never written, or at least I could find no reference to it on his website.

Instead, we got, as a curtain-raiser, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, very nicely done, followed by a premiere in the form of Pandora for string orchestra, by associate concertmaster Mark Volkert. This had been originally scheduled for October, but since, according to the program, it was written two years ago, dilatoriness of the composer is unlikely to have been responsible for the change.

Volkert's piece seemed to me to consist of shrieking and screeching. As I'm not formally reviewing this concert, I'm not obliged to describe it any more fully than that, nor to try to pretend that I liked it.

Then came Yefim Bronfman to play Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, which I'm sure I enjoyed infinitely more than I would have the new concerto he was originally scheduled to play. I would just like to remind anyone who holds to the theory that ugly times demand ugly music that Beethoven wrote this concerto while Napoleon was invading Vienna. Beethoven hid in the cellar with pillows over his ears, trying to protect the remains of his hearing from the sound of cannon. Yet in the midst of this he composed what, by dint of its slow movement, is the most beautiful concerto ever written. It received a beautiful performance tonight.

Monday, December 3, 2012


It was Saturday, yes. To the Last Homely House in the afternoon for the traditionally-evening, but we're changing the tradition, Reading and Eating Meeting, where my reading offering was selections from The Hobbit - the scenes introducing Gandalf and Gollum - in token of the brief remaining interval during which we still can read it, unbesmirched. (Anyone who says "the book will still be on the shelf" will be docked of their Tolkien credentials for terminally unperceptive cluelessness.)

Then rush down to San Jose for this Symphony Silicon Valley concert. Fortunately, the horrible acoustics down in the pit gave me plenty to write about, because after a hard afternoon's reading and listening and eating I was a little tired out, which lowers my aesthetic sensitivity level drastically. The other weird thing for me about writing this review was referring to the pianist as "Serkin". Though Peter Serkin is now long since a senior, respected figure in his own right on the concert stage, to me the name "Serkin" by itself still means his late father Rudolf, just as there were still people in the 1940s to whom "Churchill" by itself still meant Winston's father, Lord Randolph.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

a southern venture

So I was away for nearly a week, just before Thanksgiving. Did you notice I was gone? I drove my trusty small blue thing to LA for an errand with assorted objects. One of those objects was to visit friends who are mother & daughter, and here to prove it am I in my position to cheer on daughter who has just run 5K in 35 minutes, which was enough to put her, at age 10, 18th of 87 in the 12-and-under age group in the local municipal race in the rain and drizzle on Saturday morning. (Mom, who took this picture, also came in 18th in her age group, but we will draw a discreet veil over exactly what that age group was.)

Much else we did together. Having, with regrets, missed the recital program that daughter's dance academy put on in June, at least I got to see the videorecording. Much variety of numbers, ranging from quasi-ballet to something of a cross between jazz dancing and break dancing, and of ages from 3-year-olds toddling around the stage up to the maturity of 18. Daughter's best number came when she and a line of other pre-teens in sailor costumes tap-danced to a recording of "Anything Goes", a song which, I gathered, the instructors told the girls nothing about.

While there, I got to visit a fledgling Inklings collection at the college library. And I got to hear an impressively good 8-voice caroling group at the town's downtown festive evening holiday walk. And I played with the family dog. Most of you won't believe I did this. The dog's name is Queen Lucy of Narnia; she is utterly black in fur and appears to be a toy poodle or something of that nature, insofar as it's possible to make the breed out through the blackness. Queen Lucy has one interest in life, a hollow-matrix rubber ball. She picks it up and trots over to you, puts the ball down, and nudges it with her snout in your direction. And then you had better either pick it up and throw it, or kick it, so that she can chase it and bring it back again, or you will get barked at. This goes on all day. Queen Lucy would sometimes pre-emptively run where the ball had gone last time; I would then invariably throw it in the other direction. This made no difference to the dog, who would change gears and run the other way.

Also seen and chatted with much on this visit, Lynn Maudlin who came over for takeout Chinese; Sherwood Smith, for whom I played CDs of two of the Three Greatest 20th Century Symphonists You've Never Heard Of, and a musical post with genuine sound files is coming soon, I promise; and Sarah Beach, with whom I talked Tolkien over Olvera Street Mexican food. And others, leading to the spookiest event of the trip, a midnight ceremony in a rambling house at the highest tip of the foothills at which we turned out the lights, lit numerous candles, and paid respect to the departed to the strains of a recording of Purcell's Ode on the Death of Queen Mary.

And a few other odd errands. Having failed to secure a phone number that wasn't to a sales bank incapable of addressing my problem, I visited in person the headquarters of a certain satellite TV company, threw down on the front desk a huge pile of junk mail (not bills) that they'd been sending over the last five years to someone who does not live at my house, and demanded that they do something to remove this name from their mailing list, an ultimatum they accepted with courtesy. On the way home I stopped, as I've done before, at Galco's, the soda-pop shop in Highland Park, to pick up a caseload of miscellaneous brands of obscure root beers, ginger beers, spruce beers, and other odd drinks that nobody else carries in such profusion; also four bottles of different brands of diet cream soda as a "honey, I'm home" present for my B.

And one more big errand, to the Eaton Collection, the big sf collection at UC Riverside, to donate to their fanzine holdings (or, if they're duplicates, to other libraries in their consortium that collect fanzines) six boxes of old fanzines, mostly apas, from my garage. This included the entire back stock of C/RAPA-pi from my OEship, a duplicate set of Lasfapa from its glory days that fell into my hands under peculiar circumstances, and most of my personal copies of FAPA, an apa that is more nuisance to store and organize than it is desirable to keep. True, I might have dropped them off at some Corflu's freebie table, but having concluded a few months ago that neither that, nor any other significant fanac, is liable to be in my future, I decided that this was a better home.

Riverside was my first stop, and I was due there at 3 pm on Thursday. Having gotten as far as San Luis Obispo by Wednesday night, I saw no reason to struggle through the LA freeways. Instead, I went around the north side of the mountains sheltering the LA basin. A series of back state highways and unnumbered mountain roads, fortunately all of which were paved, makes (with some adjustment for terrain) a beeline from Santa Maria to the Cajon Pass above San Bernardino and Riverside, running along the edge of the mountains, most of which is marked by the San Andreas Fault (thus the beeline), first along the ridgeline over the gaping canyons opening onto the San Joaquin Valley far below, then, after you cross I-5 at the top of the Tejon Pass, along the edge of the high desert (of Edwards AFB and the "Restless" episode of Buffy fame). It was gorgeous scenery, mostly on roads I'd never taken before, and despite the meanderings of the route it got me there, after a 9 am start, and with a break for lunch at Gorman (the logical stop), right on time.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


(This is a review of a concert hall that hasn't even opened yet, so it's both long and esoteric)

Because it was built on its founder's ranch, Stanford University has, geographically, the largest and most spread-out college campus in the US, and probably the world. Its music facilities, however, are gratifyingly compact. About 35 years ago the music department offices and library moved from a ramshackle mansion on a hill down to a purpose-built building right in the heart of campus, where they have a tiny recital hall, called Campbell, busy with performances of obscure or academic interest; and it's right next to the university's small concert hall, Dinkelspiel Auditorium, much used also by the university's public performances agency, which recently changed its name from the straightforward "Stanford Lively Arts" to "Stanford Live", which reads like something Igor would say to Dr. Frankenstein.

Unfortunately, Dinky, as we call it, has problems as a venue. It's old and bland, in a dull postwar composite-modern architectural style, the bathrooms are tiny and cramped, and parking availability in the heart of campus can be nonexistent at worst. The hall is in amphitheater shape, broader than it is deep, and while sightlines are good, acoustics are very spotty. (The larger hall, Memorial Auditorium a few blocks away, is in WPA style and even duller acoustically.)

So Stanford undertook a few years ago to build a new small concert hall, to replace both of them, and to be suitable for Music Dept. everyday use as well as concerts by both the department and Stanford Live. Because there's no more room in the center, it's over on the other side of campus, in the fringes of the arboreal greenbelt separating Stanford from the city of Palo Alto. It's called the Bing Concert Hall, for a wealthy alumnus donor whose name was already speckled over campus. It's opening in January. And yesterday was a press preview of the facility, to which the always-solicitous Stanford Live staff kindly invited me. At least that's how it was billed: I doubt that more than 15 of the 80 or so guests were press; the rest appeared to be mostly from other Stanford departments, with a few I recognized representing other local arts organizations, like Music@Menlo.

Strangely, although rehearsals are already going on there and we were told it sounds great, we didn't get to hear any music. There was a reception with coffee and noshables in the lobby, an hour's panel in the hall, and an opportunity to wander around the building, both auditorium and backstage. The panel included administrators from both SLA and the Music Dept., the architect and acoustician, a music prof whose opera will be premiered here this season, and two noted violinists, Geoff Nuttall of the St. Lawrence Quartet (Stanford resident ensemble) and David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet (frequent SLA performers). They ought to have been encouraged to bring along their violins and give us maybe a little unaccompanied Bach or something, but no.

Everyone involved in creating the place was so pleased with the accomplishment, and with the support from Stanford during the recession that proves the university's commitment to the arts. They spoke of a long-term plan to turn this isolated patch of campus into an arts center - there's already a nice new visual art museum some distance away, with more buildings to come. I don't think the music department will be moving any time soon, so its facilities will be far away, and I'll miss not being able easily to drop into the music library after concerts to look things up. At least there's lots of instrument lockers for student musicians to use here.

Bing is less conspicuous on the outside than it looks impressive from the inside. (The conceptual drawings on its website are wholly misleading.) The lobby is austere, high-ceilinged, and faces the outside with glass walls. There's plenty of room to sell CDs, upcoming tickets, or intermission snacks. The warm-looking auditorium, though much smaller than Disney Hall's in LA, resembles it so much that I was not surprised to learn that they were designed by the same acoustician (though not the same architect). I once described Disney Hall this way: "the auditorium inside consists of interlocking shells and resembles a symmetrical glass candy dish - except that it's made of wood - with the performers down in the base where the candy crumbs go." And that's what we have here, except that it has only 2 1/2 levels of seating areas as against Disney's five or more, and carries just 842 seats (Disney has over 2200). It turns out that this is called "vineyard" design, because the look reminded someone once of terraced vine cultivation [some folks like wine; I prefer to think of candy], it was invented half a century ago for the then-new Berlin Philharmonic hall, and a lot of blither was emitted at the panel about how it maximizes closeness to the performers, immediacy of the music, and intimacy and equality with your fellow audience members.

The wood at Bing, by the way, is textured beech against the walls, and yellow Alaskan cedar in the stage area, a wood so reverberant and soft that you can feel that quality from just walking on it. It looks fine now, but it's going to get badly scuffed up real fast.

There's one other big difference between the halls: Although the performing area at Disney looks like it's down in the middle, it's actually neither quite the lowest spot nor quite centrally located. Only about 15% of Disney's seats, I'd guess, are actually behind the performing area. At Bing, it really is the bottom - the first row of front seats are right on the same level as the stage - and it really is in the middle, which means that half the seats are functionally behind the performers, and it's that which counters the fact that the seating capacity is actually greater than Dinkelspiel's, by about 130 seats. (And once the ticket tiers were revealed, we know that, in any sold-out concert, the folks you're looking at across the way are either paying a quarter what you are, or three times as much, depending which side you're on; so much for audience equality.)

Geoff Nuttall mused over the possibility that his quartet could sit in a square, all facing each other, instead of in the usual semi-circle facing the audience, and I hope they'll try that here. Somebody else mentioned rehearsing a chorus here that decided to sing in an inward-facing circle. Orchestras can't sit that way, but I suspect that won't make much difference here: the hall is small enough and looks reverberant enough that I doubt there'll be much differential acoustics for a large ensemble. The sound here is very exposing, Geoff said: whether that means the student orchestras will sound worse or learn to play better remains to be seen; probably both. What worries me most is pianists (who wants to sit behind the raised lid?) and, as my SFCV collegue Jason Serinus pointed out during the Q&A session, solo singers. I've sat behind solo singers, and, even at Disney, the muffled sound emerging from the backs of their heads is not artistically edifying.

The Kronos Quartet is planning a spring concert including work by Laurie Anderson with projected video accompaniment. This goes on the back wall, so nobody in the back half would be able to see it. A staff member I spoke with speculated that they'll just not sell tickets to that half (the ticket-biz term of art turns out to be "kill the seats"). What I tried to point out to him, but didn't seem to get across, is that, since Kronos concerts at Dinky are always sold out, killing the seats in Bing will create the problem that you're effectively moving them to a much smaller hall instead of a marginally larger one, while not killing them will prevent half the audience from seeing the visuals that they could have seen in the other venue.

I predict trouble over the seating here, lots of trouble, especially in the trying-out phase over the next couple years. Again, the bright-eyed staffers on the panel emitted a lot of blither, less about how all the seats will be equally good than about how different folks will prefer different seats. Maybe (and I've been known to enjoy sitting behind the SFSO at Davies - even though the sound is very different back there - but I don't want to sit there all the time or even most of that time), but I suspect it'll slant strongly in one direction. But I hope, more than expect, that the sound will be awesome and, for large groups, even more overwhelming than it can get at Dinkelspiel. We'll see.

Other amenities: I hope they put up more directional signs before the opening: it's slightly rabbit-warreny in here. The dressing rooms are pretty spacious, and have windows that open over a private courtyard. The public restrooms are merely slightly larger than the ones in Dinky, but there's three of them per sex, not just one, so lines should be mitigated. More alarming is that they're computerized. The stalls have green lights above them that are supposed to turn red when the door is locked, except that they don't. As the briefing indicated that they were already functional, someone ought to look into that. I didn't dare actually to use a toilet or urinal yet, but after trying several of the laser-operated sink faucets, I finally found one that worked, so I don't know if they're not quite functional yet either, or merely the kind that require users to wave their hands around futilely trying to get the faucet to turn on. (The soap dispensers are laser-operated too: lordy.)

One other amenity I do expect to be better besides the restroom lines is the parking. There's a new parking lot across Campus Drive, rather farther away than the Tresidder lot is from Dinky, which will be a bit of a pain when it's raining, but it looks larger and Bing will have less competition for using it. However, it exits onto Lasuen, which is a one-way alley that empties onto a busy artery without a light, so I predict that exiting after a full concert will be a mess of congestion, at least as bad as at Tresidder.

But I'm really, really looking forward to hearing the music here, come January and the spring. This is going to be a fun place to attend concerts.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

more things Vanessa did

Even after an obituary written in the first shock, memories are flooding back.

1. She introduced me to the San Francisco burrito, one of my favorite culinary treats. (This was on the same occasion that she changed clothes in the middle of the sidewalk, though not while eating.)

2. With the permission of the management thereof, she organized a stations-of-the-cross-like ritual to give blessings for the bounteous offerings at her local Trader Joe's. (She wasn't a trained, degree-bearing performance artist for nothing.) I wasn't present on this occasion, unfortunately, but B. was.

3. She could make a bowling ball sandwich of herself. She would stand barefoot on one bowling ball, and balance another one on the top of her head. She demonstrated this for me once in her apartment; alas I didn't see the time she ventured across the Golden Gate Bridge this way.

4. She participated in the only genuine physical fight I've ever seen between two grown women. (I think she started it.) While this was going on - it lasted about 20 seconds - three or four men, including myself, stood around looking sheepish.

Friday, November 23, 2012

dictionary prescriptivist

The real story behind the term "Black Friday". It wasn't meant to be cheerful.

Another term that's been retroactively re-defined: blue moon.

Thanksgiving report

I'm thankful for the feast and for members of B's large, boisterous family to enjoy it with.

I'm thankful that we avoided any political discussion, even though some of them have the most appalling political views this side of the Rockies.

I'm thankful that my own microscopically-sized family was able to join us.

I'm thankful for all the leftovers forced on us to take home.

I'm thankful that the Redskins shook sportsmanlike hands with the Cowboys after beating them in the football game we were desultorily watching.

I'm thankful that my niece-in-law, whom I'd never had a really serious conversation with before, turned out to be a Tolkien reader and sat down to ask me about the upcoming Hobbit movie. (Perhaps her husband, on whom I'd tried to push the book back when he was 12 years old, had told her this was an interest of mine.) I was polite about the subject, as I usually am to outside inquirers, even if certain online idiots don't appreciate it, and promised to send her my review.

I'm thankful that her mother-in-law specifically invited me to their customary family Christmas dinner, even though B. has to work that day and can't go and I'm not even a Christian.

I'm thankful for the friends I saw in LA last week (about which more later, I promise), and for B. - for letting me go off for a week and for so much else.

I'm thankful for the memories of my late great friend Vanessa, more of which have been flooding back in mind (with a supplementary post soon, I expect).

I'm thankful to you for reading my meanderings.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


I came home last night from a week-long trip (going to have to write about that later, instead of now) to find that V., whom I'd known was back in the hospital, was in ICU - I'd already intended to visit today if she was capable of receiving - and the first thing I learn when I get up this morning is that she died last night. Oh no.

V's was one of my longest-standing and most vigorous friendships. At first she was an elusive will-o'-the-wisp, discernible only in apazines, whose corporeal existence was of dubious veracity. Then James L. pinned her down and introduced us in a café in the City, and from then on, her boon companionship was a regular feature. For a while, we had an active social circle of Lasfapans (whatever those might be) in the Bay Area, until it broke up in an argument over the morality of maid service, if I recall. During this period, a newfound geographical proximity allowed her and APW to act on a long-standing interest in becoming sweeties, but experience taught them that while they didn't work out as a romantic couple, they fit together just fine as housemates. I don't know how the dynamics of that operated, and I'm not sure if they did either.

A and V were among the co-founders of the Bay Area English Regency Society, and its dance-balls were for long our favorite activity. We most liked to dance the Black Nag, because we could goof off while doing it, and annoy John Hertz.

For a while, V. edited a BAERS newsletter, for which I wrote sarcastic historical articles on the monarchy and Regency politics. She was always, always late to BAERS events at sf cons, because she'd always been off making last-minute photocopies of flyers. Eventually, health issues gradually sidelined us both.

V. could argue like the dickens. I think she was wrong, but then, I would say that, wouldn't I? She had the ability to persuade me into activities where my staid self would not normally be seen, like a Jamaica-themed party, or standing guard while she changed clothes in the middle of the sidewalk, or a hunt for ice cream at 2 AM. I also twice was among a passel helping her move house at peculiar hours of the night: more memorable scenes.

She was a performance artist and a journalist. She introduced me to the music of the Bobs. This was so long ago that they were still good. Sometimes we attended their concerts together.

More recently, when her health and schedule permitted, she was among those who accompanied me to classical concerts I review. She was studying harmony at a community college, and worked hard at it. Our last in-person conversation was a long late-evening chat over ice cream (that again!) at Tresidder after a concert at Dinkelspiel a few months ago. Among much else, she gave me a full account of the parlous state of her health, and confessed that it was the free public health services in San Mateo County that were keeping her alive. In another county, she would have died long since. I hope the people who oppose the likes of Obamacare are bitterly disappointed that she lasted as long as she did.

What especially bothers me is that she was 58. Not just that that's young: it's a fatal age. Arthur Sullivan, Charles Williams, Roger Zelazny, James Joyce, Andy Warhol, Richard Burton, George Harrison, so many greats gone at 58.

Here is V. when she was young:

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

online lecture courses and music

This is an interesting article arguing that online (and usually free) college lecture courses are reaching the tipping point that MP3s as a format and Napster (and its successors, like itunes and Pandora) as delivery systems represented for online music: that they're now good enough, common enough, and easy enough to access that they'll become the default method for a simple higher education. Though audiophiles (and most classical listeners) still prefer CDs, or at least the more sound-enriched WAV files that CDs are made of, and some even still stick to LPs, or *gasp* live concerts, for your average pop listener the MP3 - and, significantly, the better-quality compressed formats that have succeeded it - is good enough.

Similarly, the article says, while online education won't compete with truly elite and high-quality universities, or with stimulating seminar courses and other one-on-one or one-on-a-few forms of education at those universities or elsewhere, the average college whose curriculum is based on routine lecture courses, and even more so the baleful for-profit university, is facing real competition. This is even more critical for education than for music, because higher education is now considered a minimum for a decent career, and because traditional delivery methods are now so expensive.

I'm inclined to think this is so, and several consequences and follow-ups occur to me.

First, video education courses are nothing new. Colleges have been offering "distance learning," which includes such methods, for a long time now. Video and audio courses on DVD or CD, and other formats before them, have been popular. Half a century ago, before the rise of the slick documentary series, PBS daytime programming used to consist mostly of professors educationally droning on before the camera. I myself am a devotee of a learning-absorption system that allows you to proceed through the lecture at your own pace, skim or speed up, go to a quick overview mode to see the context of a given point, and easily access past material to review it, known as the "book".

But if all this is so, why is the tipping point only now? Three reasons occur to me. The article alludes to one, that the quality of the video courses, specifically of the lecturers using it, has recently vastly improved. Those old-time PBS professors droned on, I said. They were not very enthralling. Well, many professors lecturing in the flesh aren't very enthralling, either. But it takes more charismatic oomph to reach students through video than in the classroom, and now the video formats are attracting a sufficiency of professors who are good enough at that.

The second reason is the convenience and ease of use of the format. Even little improvements in the simplicity and transparency of the technology can lead to large increases in usage. (Again, this principle is nothing new. I remember from library school a study of corporate technical library usage showing that researchers who worked on the same floor of the building as the library were more likely to use it than otherwise-identical researchers who worked on different floors.) (And, by the way, e-readers are so far nowhere near simple and transparent enough yet. The amount of nuisance it often takes to load books has discouraged me from using mine as much as I'd like. I read things like this with its blithe references to various competing apps and e-readers and I want to run away. I don't want to learn or figure out all that stuff. I want to open up a book, physical or virtual, and read it.)

The third is interactivity, and that's the important point. Not having taken online courses myself, I don't know much about how this works. But if you can e-mail the prof and get responses, or form study groups with other students, and write assignments and papers and get them graded, that improves the educational experience dramatically. How the prof does this if he or she is teaching 11,000 students online simultaneously, I don't know. Maybe a lot of TAs, but that would be expensive.

Anyway, that's my second point. I got a good college education at a top-ranked public university. But the lecture courses were the least valuable part of that. The discussion sessions, the small seminars, the forced thinking and the forced interactivity with the readings caused by paper assignments, were where the education really lay. And what it taught me was how to think more than specific facts. When I think of my academic knowledge of history or of music, the two subjects I know best, far more of it comes from my outside reading than from any courses I took. I took a college course in Beethoven from one of the world's most pre-eminent Beethoven scholars, and it taught me something, but nowhere near as much as getting an A in the course proved that I already knew. Maybe the best thing I got out of that course was the assignment to write what happened to be my first-ever concert review. Only in my profession of librarianship did I get more out of my grad-school coursework than my own reading. Books on librarianship tend to be insufficient, and dull. Books on history and music are plentiful and often excellent.

You can, even today, get a college degree that consists mostly of lectures and tests. (Even at my prestigious school, there were history courses that required no writing assignments whatever.) Probably you can't get quite such a minimal education in science, where hands-on lab assignments are where the real learning occurs. But my biggest fear of online education is that it will increase the number of supposedly-educated students who just sat there and let lectures wash over them making no impact. Interactivity in online education will help counter that.

Two more minor points, specifically about music. The article says that part of the popularity of Napster-style delivery systems for songs is that it enabled customer selectivity.

The story the recording industry used to tell us went something like this: “Hey kids, Alanis Morisette just recorded three kickin’ songs! You can have them, so long as you pay for the ten mediocrities she recorded at the same time.” Napster told us a different story. Napster said “You want just the three songs? Fine.”
I laughed at this, because, again, the Napster offer described here is nothing new. Why do you think the 45 was so popular in the vinyl era, especially the early vinyl era? Because it enabled listeners to buy only two songs at once instead of investing in a whole album. Here, read this: "Previous rock 'n' roll albums had generally consisted of one or two smasheroos diluted with nine or so throwaways, and anyone interested in a listenable album was obliged to wait for the Greatest Hits." Previous to what? Previous to the Beatles; they "practically invented the L.P. as a credible pop medium" by having all the songs be good or at least interesting; it was an "odd feature of Beatle songs ... that almost every one was a hit." (This is from page 10 of The Beatles Forever by Nicholas Schaffner, an insightful history of their cultural impact.) Other rock groups in their wake were forced to at least aspire to the same level of quality, and it seems that it's only in the last couple of decades that the influence has faded away and pop albums have gone back to the "three smasheroos diluted with ten throwaway mediocrities" model. That was after the LP was supplanted by the CD, and the vinyl 45 single became obsolete. For a while that gap in the pop music market - attempts to create the CD single didn't fare well - apparently didn't matter much, but later it became critical, and Napster filled it. Now everything is singles and it's the album that's an obsolete concept.

One other odd point. The article introduces the concept of Baumol's cost disease, a situation where expenses go up without productivity increasing, because productivity has reached a limit point. "The classic example is the string quartet; performing a 15-minute quartet took a cumulative hour of musician time in 1850, and takes that same hour today." That's a very strange example to use in a discussion involving recorded music, because recordings mean that that's no longer true. One hour of musician time can produce an unlimited number of hours of listening time, and the listeners control when and how that listening occurs. Of course, it's not a live, in-person performance; but an online lecture isn't a live, in-person performance either. The import of the article is that this distinction no longer makes that much difference. To an extent the same is true of music. A live performance has something that recordings don't, which is one reason I still go to them; but the same is true of attending lectures in person. The article's whole point is that in both cases, the other form is sometimes good enough.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

movies notes

1. I haven't gone to see Spielberg's Lincoln, even though I'm willing to overcome my aversion to Spielberg and all his works to do so. I'm willing to do so because it sounds like it won't push my Spielberg buttons. Trust Tony Kushner. I haven't gone yet because, for now, it's only playing up in the City. For a movie, I can wait. I have, however, brushed up on the history of the Thirteenth Amendment in my relevant history books to prep myself.

2. What I have seen in new movies, because it's playing in the little art house cinemas that I can get to, is A Late Quartet, a melodrama about personal strains and stresses in a string quartet. This may be a rising genre; I saw a stage play on the same subject a couple years ago. Totally different plots, though with intriguing thematic overlaps: for one thing, both quartets are playing the same work, Beethoven's Op. 131. If this causes that work to become considered a sort of singular ne plus ultra among quartets the way that Shine did the Rach 3 among piano concertos, I shall bite something. The movie has less technical detail than the play, and when the second violinist couldn't explain what a second violinist does that's different from a first violinist, I winced. The miming of instrument playing is better than in the play, but not good enough,* and there isn't much actual music. Reviews cite the great acting, but I guess that in a story like this, I can't distinguish great acting from merely good acting, especially with a rather dull script and duller direction.

*The quartet's cellist is beginning to suffer from Parkinson's and is considering retirement. This is described with a matter-of-factness that may be realistic but doesn't engage interest. The main problem, though, is that at no point does the movie distinguish Parkinson's from vibrato. The cellist plays with a much stronger vibrato than his colleagues (who mostly use none at all), and the actor, Christopher Walken, doesn't portray it well. The result of all this is that his vibrato looks like the result of his disease, even though the disease is clearly not that bad yet.

3. And, as they're on sale online now, I'm avoiding the crowds by having bought my ticket to a premiere-day showing of The Hobbit Part I now. I feel like I've signed my own death warrant. Weep with me. (What's that you say? "Then don't go see it"? What makes you think that, while remaining an active Tolkien fan or indeed a person occasionally exposed to American pop culture, that I could possibly avoid this movie by not seeing it? Better that I should do so the first day, get it over with, and have my own reactions unaffected by reading others'. For a dozen years I have been bludgeoned with Jackson's LOTR, and I would be not one whit less bludgeoned if I had never seen it, but I would be a lot less well-equipped to fight back.)

4. On that subject, I am so sick of the response to complaints about movies that "it's only a mooovie" or "the book is still on the shelf." Those responses are so stupid, so thoughtless, so ignorant. One of the reasons I'm willing to see Spielberg's Lincoln is that Kushner is a screenwriter who gets the point, which is no less relevant, perhaps even more so, for a film based on history rather than on literature.

“A film is a huge, huge thing,” Kushner said of the power of cinema to shape a dominant version of history. “And a film can do damage. I mean, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ or ‘Gone With the Wind’ helped support a reading of the Civil War that I think is hugely historically erroneous in a particularly dreadful way. So there’s a responsibility that you have.”
The closest thing I have for a soundbite version of this is, "It doesn't matter where the book is, if the movie is in the head."

On the other hand, Peter Jackson made similar remarks about his duty to the literature before the release of his first Tolkien movie. Afterwards, when it turned out that he hadn't fulfilled that duty, he changed his tune and began claiming that he'd fixed the problems in a lousy, deficient book that had just happened inexplicably to have sold millions of copies over half a century and inspired the love of a legion of devotees.

On the other other hand, Tony Kushner isn't Peter Jackson and his team. We already know that Kushner is a good writer.

Friday, November 9, 2012

concert review: Collage Vocal Ensemble

What I was busy at on Sunday afternoon was a potluck at B's church, which I attended as a chance for her to introduce me to some of these people. She's active in the choir, which rehearses Thursday evenings, and there was this man there who was apologizing for having to miss the upcoming rehearsal because he was singing in a secular choral concert. And his description of it sounded so interesting that I inquired further, so he organized a ticket for me. That was nice. So on Thursday, while B. was at rehearsal, I drove up to Ladera, a tiny community in the hills above Menlo Park, to hear the Collage Vocal Ensemble.

The concert was held in the Ladera Community Church, as tiny as the village it's in, which is fortunate because its small size negated any bad effects of the not-entirely-dead but extremely unresonant acoustics. The program contained a large number, about two dozen, short pieces, mostly acappella, a few accompanied by piano, one chorus from Bach's cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden with cello continuo, and one folksong (an American variant of the Irish song "The Two Sisters") with guitar. There were a few carols and other Christmasy premonitions, but it was mostly secular works by classical composers running up to John Rutter, with the one folk song, an arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More," and, surprise, the Night Waltzes from Sondheim's A Little Night Music. (A piece I have trouble believing in; the people I've met who actually live near the Arctic Circle are used to the long summer twilight and don't find it disconcerting.) Most of the pieces were in English, some in German, and one in Finnish, a folk lullaby set by Toivo Kuula, the only composer of the evening I didn't know, and who must have been a relative of P.D.Q. Bach because his life dates were given in the program as 1783-1718. (He actually lived 1883-1918; I don't know how that typo happened, and I didn't detect any others.)

Singing a wide variety of pieces, mostly unaccompanied with nothing but a rolled piano chord beforehand to set the pitch, the chorus proved itself impressively able, even of professional quality, in many of the pieces. I was particularly knocked out by five soloists delivering a modestly complex Elizabethan madrigal by Thomas Weelkes with the jollity of the old Oregon Shakespeare Festival madrigalists at their finest. The Finnish hymn was beautiful, as were the Stephen Foster, the Bach, and many other pieces. The only problem with the Bach was that it lacked power; but the strength of a Gustav Holst choral folksong astonished me, and pieces by Britten and Vaughan Williams matched it. The modern English repertoire is clearly where this group is at their best, though they're also good on things like Mozart and Haydn canons, especially if they spread out as they did for the Mozart and take advantage of antiphonal effects.

The one piece of negative advice I'd give this ensemble is, lay off the Brahms vocal quartets. Keeping the harmonies in tune defeated them, and the imbalance of the ensemble (11 women and only 5 men) was fatal in Brahms' layered and balanced approach. The men's voices turned weak and the women's hard and metallic. It was strange to hear the same people turn around and do the Holst with such simultaneous strength and beauty. There was nothing minuscule or diminished about the men there, or in a Vaughan Williams piece for the men alone.

I'm guessing that a lot of it had to do with comfort level, and this was most evident in the solos. Trained choral singers know what to do with an Elizabethan madrigal, but in Sondheim most of them lacked forwardness and power, what actors communicate through stage presence. They were pretty well in tune there, and in the solos in Britten's "Shepherd's Carol" (with nonsense words by W.H. Auden), but less so in those of the shepherds' chorus from Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors. So I think they need to learn what they're best at, and focus their considerable abilities on that. But they shouldn't be afraid to explore as well, because the variety of this concert was part of its delight.

(Also the cookies afterwards. Don't forget the cookies.)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

concert review: no, those other guys

Friday morning I rather obsessively double-checked the online listing for the string quartet concert I was to review on Monday, only to discover that the scheduled ensemble had canceled (someone taken ill, it turned out) and been replaced by another group with an entirely different repertoire. What a relief that at least the sponsoring group updated their website! A lot of organizations wouldn't bother to do that.

Let's see: Mozart and Mendelssohn, ok, in fact I just reviewed another performance of the same Mendelssohn quartet two weeks back; Stravinsky, I have that work; Thomas Adès, uh-oh. I am not reviewing a quartet by so thoroughly intricate a modern composer without studying it first. The score I can photocopy from Stanford, but what about a CD? Stanford has it, but I have no access to their CDs. The nearby public library that recently started charging out-of-town borrowers $80 for a year's card has it; is it worth $80 to me to get it from them? No. I could buy a copy for less than that, but would it arrive in time? It's not as if I can just pop down to Tower, or even Barnes & Noble whose CD selections have been whittled down to nothing, any more. Check WorldCat for a broader library search. Santa Cruz. Forty miles away and over a mountain. They have it. At a branch closed on Friday and Saturday, and I'm busy on Sunday. All right, Monday morning over the hill to Santa Cruz I go. Now I have seven local library cards, and a CD of the Adès to feed my ears as my eyes examine the score.

Running around like this on Monday leaves me tired enough to be slightly zoned out during the concert. (This is why I like to relax on concert days and get there early.) I sit down afterwards at home to write my review not entirely sure what I'm going to wind up saying. It comes out like this.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


The first hat I had to wear on Thursday was that of academic journal editor, for a long phone conference with my fellow editors and our publisher. Much talking. The rest of them were all in the path of Sandy, so it got rather wet out there.

Next hat, that of concerned pet owner, as Pandora went grumbling in for another medical exam. We are in the "adjust dose of medicine, then have another blood test" phase of diagnosis.

Third, my social hat, because it was time for one of those approximately biennial confabs of writers and editors for the classical reviewing website. Up in the city, but naturally. And in a wine bar. Recognized immediately the editor I almost never encounter in person, managed at first to overlook the one I see more often. Hovering waiter asked what I wanted to drink; a request for white wine, not too dry, produced something which nursed perfectly for the hour-plus that I was there. Editor mused: she'd had beer and champagne, what should she drink next? Suggestion that she proceed down the alphabet and have a wee dram kind of passed everyone by.

Lastly, my reviewer's hat, for it had been lately suggested to me by competent authority that, as I would be coming up to the city for the confab anyway, I proceed a few blocks further to the symphony hall for the evening's concert. The funny thing was that, not having known they were going to say that, I'd come up for an overlapping but not identical concert the evening before. So they got a review of two concerts for the price of one.

Only a few times earlier had I gone to two performances in the same set of one work, and this was the first such occasion where I could really hear a distinct difference in the two renditions. As for the part of the program that changed, as far as I'm concerned there's not that much to choose from between Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell - they're both great - or between Prokofiev's Second and Third Piano Concertos.

Between the pianists, however, young and Chinese though they both were, a huge gulf lay. Yuja Wang is great stuff. Her playing is powerful but clean, and she knows how to hold back and drop pearly notes. But then there's Lang Lang. I'd heard of him, of course, but never in person and I'd never really listened to him before. What is this guy, a put-on? My first thought was "musical quackery, like practicing medicine without a license." Comic pianists of yore like Victor Borge and Jonathan Edwards (oh, probably nobody remembers him) should look to their laurels.

Friday, November 2, 2012

i hear a symphony

Some person or persons has been occupying the last several months by uploading sound files of most of my favorite really obscure twentieth-century symphonies to YouTube, and I'm finding links to some composers I don't know at all and will have to check out.

Right now I'm listening to an utterly dandy 1950 work that I thought nobody knew but me. I'm going to have to introduce you folks to some of this stuff after I get it sorted out.