Saturday, November 29, 2014


Ivan Hewett, Music: Healing the Rift (2003)
This article called it one of the four indispensable surveys of 20C music. Since I've not only read but own all the other three, I hastened. No, it doesn't belong in that company. It's a load of clotted rubbish, focusing on extreme modernism, but I propped my glazed-over eyes open for the last three chapters, a confused attack on "the return to tonality," which it claims is illegitimate both because it lacks an organic connection to the previous common practice (185) and because tonality was never a universal practice anyway (221). Suggestions that postmodern evocations of older music are stale copying [akin to what the Tolclones are to Tolkien, though Hewett doesn't make that comparison] might be interesting if followed up on. Criticizes this nostalgia (222), but defends nostalgia when it's nostalgia for high modernism (248). Complains both that postmodern music's extramusical associations are too specific (James MacMillan) and not specific enough (John Tavener). Classifies Harrison Birtwistle (211) and György Kurtág (218) as minimalists. Cites the popularity of minimalism as evidence that it's merely soothing, nothing more (188), then cites the lack of stardom of some composers as evidence that it's not so popular (211). Attacks an essay by Robin Holloway for saying what it emphatically didn't say (250-1).* Best line: the beautifully self-contradictory "As Germaine Greer keeps reminding us, obsessiveness is a peculiarly male trait" (189).

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012)
This comment is what tempted me. Opens with two captivating detailed chapters on the political state of the initial antagonists, Serbia and Austria-Hungary. You'll never think of "plucky little Serbia" again after this. Begins with the bloody coup there in 1903. Why? Because the officers who plotted it were still running things behind the scenes in 1914, and organized the terrorist cell that shot the Archduke. So far the book is so good, but then it rapidly devolves into mindnumbingly endless detail on European diplomatic minutiae, distinguished mostly by irritation at Grey for being so damnably anti-German all the time. Most annoying repeated error: calling H.H. Asquith "Herbert Asquith", which is like calling J.R.R. Tolkien "John Tolkien". (Checked Barbara Tuchman, who at a glance doesn't use a forename on him at all.)

Alex Wellerstein, Restricted Data (2012- )
Not a book, but a historian's blog on the Manhattan Project and the security aspects U.S. nuclear policy. Fabulous stuff. Covers just the aspects I'm most interested in reading about, and is piercingly intelligent in ways I've seen nobody else attempt. I particularly cherish his demolition of the revisionist theory of the reasons for dropping the bomb on Japan (he says it's a consensus view, but it's actually a demolition) and his pointing out that "we didn't cross a moral line at Hiroshima because we'd already long since crossed it." Connoisseurs of historical gossip might be particularly tickled by his speculation on who smeared Richard Feynman? And yes, he tells the Cleve Cartmill story!

*Holloway had written of the evolution of musical style, "History and hindsight tend to make factitious inevitability out of what must in fact have been completely fluid. The choices made, the paths taken, were not the only possibilities." Hewett asked, incredulously, "Is Holloway really suggesting that the coincidence of Beethoven's driving, sharply polarized tonality and that vast upheaval in consciousness brought on by the French Revolution is 'purely factitious'? Or that the sudden upsurge in exotic musical vocabulary in the late nineteenth century is utterly unconnected with the imperial adventures of the European powers?" No, you clown, even on the assumption that these are simple cause:effect relationships, he's not saying the effect wasn't generated by the cause. He's saying that the cause could have generated a different effect, that is, expressed itself musically in a different way.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Stu Shiffman

Alas, he is gone.

Let us be thankful for the good life he lived before his illness, and for his noble ability to carry on afterwards. Let us be thankful that he found his true love, and was able to marry her before the end. Let us be thankful for his deep command of his wide spectrum of interests, from Victoriana to folk music; for the bright legacy of art he left us (and the Hugo to honor it); and for the good times those of us fortunate enough to know him had with him personally. I particularly recall the lunch the two of us shared at a Chinese restaurant somewhere on upper Aurora, where we ordered the beef with bitter melon and made faces at each other in an attempt to convince ourselves that we found the taste ... interesting.

Let us be grateful for his life, and to him for sharing it with us.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

concert review: Chora Nova

It's been 3 years since I've heard this chorus which sings unusual repertoire in Berkeley, and I think they used to be of higher technical quality than in today's program of a Bruckner mass and a small bouquet of his motets. But maybe it was the repertoire, since the old Chora Nova was back for the final work, Brahms' Gesang der Parzen. That was the best of the program.

The Bruckner works were all Catholic pieces in Latin, appropriate for a church setting, albeit a Congregational Church, and were all accompanied, if at all, by an organ and/or wind and brass, oddly enough. The Brahms is pagan and in German, and is with orchestra, here inadequately impersonated by a piano. (The pianist was fine; it's reducing Brahmsian orchestration to piano-size that was the problem.)

Dinner afterwards enabled me to write a Yelp restaurant review with the word "homeopathic" in it, as in "The salad was supposed to have dressing on it. If so, it was present in only homeopathic quantity."

Monday, November 17, 2014

concert review: Escher Quartet

I drove up the obscure little streets to the remote fastness of the Kohl Mansion for a concert. It was dark, so I'm glad I already know how to get there.

Then I had to figure out how to review the dourest and least effervescent string quartet I'd ever heard while making it clear that they were still excellent performers who gave a rewarding experience. Fortunately I'd heard, and reviewed, them often before, so I knew the approach to take. Fortunately, also, I'd heard all these pieces in concert before, so I had lots of benchmarks to judge the performing style.

Then I surprised myself, having recently written that I'm not even ready to start thinking about writing my review until 9 the next morning, by getting up at 5 and writing the review, in full, by 8:45. But I wasn't quite done, because I wanted to check some things against the scores, and I had to go to the library for the Shostakovich. So it didn't actually get turned in until 1 pm, which is still 24 hours earlier than my wont.

This also enabled me to correct the error of having briefly fallen for the typo of the group's name in the program book. The Escher Quartet is named for the Dutch artist. Esher is a suburb of London.

Another thing I needed, but was able to get quickly online, was the adjective meaning "frog-like." (Haydn's quartet is called "The Frog," you see, for an odd sound made by the instruments.) I didn't look up "frog-like" or "list of words for animals" or anything like that. My secret Google trick is to use, when possible, not what I'm looking for but words that ought to occur in a good article about it. So I typed in a few words of that kind: "feline bovine avian," figuring that the results containing all three of those words ought to include lists with others like them.

They did, and the winner was "ranine." I hadn't heard that before, and apparently neither have very many others, for when I typed "ranine frogs" to double-check, Google asked if I meant "raining frogs," a phenomenon evidently more common than the need for an adjective meaning "frog-like."

Anyway, I'm fairly pleased with this review. It conveys the intangibles that I wanted to express, and it got written fluently, without my frequent devil of "Help! I'm writing a review for a large audience! Brain freeze!"

what's wrong with Interstellar?

Mind you, I haven't seen the movie. This is more of an explanation of why I'm disinclined to see it - a decision that has to be made, by necessity, in the absence of the knowledge that comes from actually seeing it. But this is based on articles by people who have seen it. Anybody here who has seen it is welcome to correct any erroneous assumptions here, and to convince me it's better than that. Remember, I hadn't been planning to see Star Wars until someone talked me into it by persuading me it wasn't as bad as all the hype from the studio had convinced me it would be. (It wasn't, until years later when I realized that, actually, it was.)

I have two problems with the plot of Interstellar as I understand it. The first is the wormhole.

Wormholes are, or at least were when I was studying cosmology, a purely theoretical concept. It's possible that the matter absorbed by a black hole could be ejected in some other location, providing a way to transport between far-flung galactic-scale distances. The only catch is that it wouldn't be that much faster than light, if at all, as it would take hundreds of years in exterior time to be absorbed by the black hole and who knows how much longer to come out. Oh yes, and you'd be pulverized into individual subatomic particles in the process.

Ever since wormholes were theorized, they've been used in SF as a replacement for the purely imaginary hyperspace of earlier works, one with a possible actual scientific basis to it. Writers use it as if it were like the London Underground: you go in this station here and come out a few minutes later at that one there, with no idea of where you were in between. It's a time-saver shuttle with no interference with anybody who happens to be going in the other direction.

And that's fine for routine run-of-the-mill SF. The only thing that ever bothered me about that was the pretense that, as an actual method of transport, this was any more believable than hyperspace. The problem with it here is that Interstellar purports to some sort of real scientific plausibility. It has Kip Thorne as a consultant! It talks about Stephen Hawking! But it's no more seriously scientific than Babylon-5.

There's another problem, even if you grant the wormhole. The reason the astronauts are traveling through the wormhole is that Earth is becoming uninhabitable - OK, that unfortunately is very believable - so we need other Earth-like planets. Previously such planets' existence was pure guesswork based on lack of evidence, but recently we've acquired some evidence, and they may well be abundant. But stars are still interstellar distances apart - that's why it's called that - and without advanced equipment of the kind we don't have, you can't just mosey around checking them out for planets, like they do in, say, Dark Star, the way you'd run around to various grocery stores looking for elusive foods like bean sprouts or peanut sauce mix (two items I have had to look for this way). You'd have to use the same painstaking telescopic techniques we're using now, and once you found something that way, you'd have to mount a massive expedition to travel several light-years through regular space to check it out to see if it's really suitable. Wormholes are not like the Underground in the sense that you can pick your station from a list already knowing what you'll find when you get there.

And if you did do all this, you could still do it just as easily from here as from the other end of a wormhole. There's no need to go that far to look for other Earth-like planets, and they won't be much closer together anywhere else than they are here. (Even galactic clusters are not that compressed.) Unless you already knew there was a specific one right there by the other end of the wormhole, for a sufficiently interstellar-scale value of "right there," in which case how would you already know that? And on a plot-planning level, it's not necessary to include a wormhole to postulate a planet you can get to that easily, for a sufficiently cheap SFnal value of "easily."

I wouldn't bring any of this up except that reports by those who've seen the movie include the feeling of being scientifically ripped-off by the lack of actual plausibility, and this is what concerns me.

Friday, November 14, 2014


Despite writing that John Dean's new The Nixon Defense was "too much Watergate detail even for me," I kept reading it, especially once I came upon his description of his March 21, 1973 talk with Nixon, the one in which he warned of the "cancer on the presidency." Despite the lengthy and almost unedited quotations from the tapes, this book is otherwise the most clearly-written account of Watergate that I've ever read, and it made much clear to me that already should have been, but wasn't.

Dean began the March 21 meeting by laying out the entire history of the break-in as he knew it. (Nixon already knew much of this, but he wasn't revealing that fact.) Then he turns to the "cancer," by which he primarily meant the demands for hush money by Hunt and the other arrested men.1 Dean was trying to make the point that this was a bottomless pit, and that the solution was to cut out the cancer by saying no and taking the resulting heat (Hunt had threatened to tell all he knew) instead of letting it get worse.

So Dean was shocked when Nixon asked him how much money it would take in total to buy these guys off. Floored, he made a guesstimate of a million dollars, and Nixon started musing about how to get hold of the money.

This was the point at which Dean realized that, in a word, Nixon was a crook, and that he, Dean, should not be tied to this sinking ship any longer.2 It was a few days later that he secretly went to the prosecutors to make a deal, which led to his fatal testimony before the Senate - fatal because it was backed up by the tapes, which, it turns out, Nixon did mean to destroy, but never got around to doing, partly because of mixed feelings about it - he felt they'd be his only defense against Kissinger subsequently painting himself as the sole hero of Nixonian diplomacy.3

Once Dean went "off the reservation," Nixon and his loyalists saw him as a scum-sucking traitor, because they couldn't imagine any other reason for his action, and they talked big about destroying him. Nixon started rewriting his version of the conversation, including claiming that it was Dean who brought up the amount of money and the suggestion of paying it, and/or that Nixon was joking when he seemed to be going along with it.

Nixon also claimed that the story Dean had begun with was the first time he learned any of it, which had the advantage of painting Dean as having maliciously withheld it earlier - untrue; previously he'd lacked a direct channel to the President, and had been desperately trying to send signals through Ehrlichman, who'd brushed him off4 - and of Nixon as a wounded innocent.

The fact is that Nixon had been painting this picture of himself all along. It's true that the Watergate burglary itself took the White House men by surprise - the specific plot had been hatched at CREEP and was none of their doing - but it took only a couple days of inquiry of Magruder and Liddy there before they had essentially the whole story, and Haldeman told it all to Nixon. But it did implicate the White House, so the cover-up began automatically. But then every time a made-up cover-up story broke down, Nixon had to erect a new one by claiming that new information had come to his attention, etc etc. That's what happened when it became known that Dean had talked to Nixon on March 21, but that wasn't the only time.

I've long inchoately thought, but have only recently realized explicitly, why this seemed, even at the time, to be a completely non-credible line. The way Nixon talked in public about Watergate, it was if he was performing deep speculative spelunking into unknown and unrecorded events, like a criminal investigation into the mysterious inner workings of the Mafia, or a diplomatic speculation about what was going on inside the hidden walls of the Kremlin. Yet what Nixon claimed to be investigating this way was what his own top aides had been doing in his name!

An honest President who knew nothing about Watergate would have immediately called all the relevant aides in on the carpet - or, if he trusted Haldeman, have him do it; that's what a chief of staff is for - demanded the whole story, and used cross-examination to iron out gaps and inconsistencies. And, if he then still suspected that they were lying to him, fire their sorry asses on the spot.

And, as I noted above, that's what the White House men - primarily Ehrlichman, Haldeman, and Dean - actually did, only it wasn't that difficult. Dean himself was the one sent to query Liddy, who, in a subsequently famous conversation on a park bench, acknowledged all and admitted he was to blame for the goof-ups.

Why couldn't they just tie it off at that point, blame it on Liddy - and possibly Magruder, who had issued Liddy's orders - and let them take the heat and save everyone else? Why did they instinctively begin a cover-up, instead? One which started off badly enough by claiming, ludicrously, that the burglars had acted on their own initiative, with no connection to CREEP, even though 1) their leader, McCord, was CREEP's security director and a retired CIA man [the revelation of which in court is what first convinced Bob Woodward that there had to be something serious going on here], 2) somebody had to have given them their fancy equipment, sheafs of unmarked bills, etc., and 3) nobody but CREEP could possibly be a customer for what the burglars were tapping. (Then when that story fell through, they had to act shocked, shocked! that they'd been misled so, and come up with another ludicrous story, this one about it being a secret CIA national security operation - thus McCord and Hunt, the retired CIA men - so the FBI should keep its investigating hands off.5 But Helms, the CIA director, refused to certify this, so that was off; and on they went to invent more cover-ups.)

They couldn't cut it off at Liddy's level for two reasons, and Nixon explicitly understood and approved this refusal to stop. One reason was that the burglary was already tied to the White House, not just CREEP, by the revelation that the burglars had Hunt's name and White House phone number in their papers, and Hunt, Woodstein quickly established, was known to be an aide to Colson there.6 The other reason ties in to Dean's approach to an answer to the biggest remaining mystery of Watergate: Who approved Gemstone?

Liddy had first presented his massive plan to bug the Democrats, spy on them, play dirty tricks, spread disinformation, and put them in compromising positions (by hiring call girls, etc.), which he code-named Gemstone, to a meeting with Magruder (then acting director of CREEP), Mitchell (still Attorney General but due to take over later), and Dean (representing the White House), and Mitchell turned it down more because it was too expensive than because it was, like, illegal and being discussed in the office of the U.S. Attorney General. At a later meeting, Liddy presented a new plan of the same stuff at half the cost, and it was turned down again. Dean says that, until the break-in, he thought that was the end of it, but it wasn't. Liddy again took Mitchell's nonspecific demurral as a finance issue, and prepared a third version at a quarter of the original cost, with bugging the DNC (and McGovern hq, which they were planning on going to next when they were caught) still in the plan. Neither Dean nor Liddy himself were present at the meeting where Mitchell and Magruder considered this version, so we have only their stories. Magruder testifed that Mitchell approved it this time. Mitchell insisted that he didn't. Impasse.

I've always assumed that one or the other of them was lying - both did so on numerous other matters - and that it was probably Mitchell. But it's possible that Magruder misunderstood Mitchell's instructions. And Dean in this book raises another possibility, which points to White House involvement. He says it's possible that both Mitchell and Magruder did drop it, but that pressure from the White House - specifically from Colson and Strachan - for campaign intelligence forced Magruder to revive it. Now, Haldeman, who would have issued Strachan's orders, claimed that the kind of campaign intelligence he had in mind was public stuff, like following Democratic speakers around with tape recorders to catch them making gaffes (this was before the media could be trusted to catch everything). I'm not sure I believe that, but the basic concept seems plausible.

The point is, despite claims that the real crime was the cover-up, not the burglary, the circumstances of the burglary were the reason for the cover-up. Watergate, the burglary, was an inseparable part of that whole series of nasty things that Mitchell aptly called "the White House horrors" that included the burglary of Ellsberg's psychiatrist - another Hunt/Liddy special - the Huston plan, Segretti, and more. This one just happened to be outsourced to CREEP, using the former White House "plumbers" to do it. It was the slow, agonized revelation of all these other things, and their web-like interconnections, over the next two years that buried Nixon.

1. Hunt, in his memoirs, explains his motivation. His view is that he committed all these crimes at the behest of the big enchiladas, so they ought to help and support him, at least financially, when he got into trouble at their behest. Hunt was supposed to be a professional spy, but apparently he never got as far in the Mission:Impossible opening scene as the point where the voice on the tape recorder says, "If you or any of your I.M.Force are caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions."
2. I find it amazing how long it took so many of Nixon's supporters to figure this out. They knew Nixon, they'd seen him up close. I never met Nixon, but I always knew he was a crook, regardless of his stated policies, or how much good he had also done. Same thing about the Iraq War. I'm just an uninformed punter, but I knew it'd be a hopeless quagmire, and others who shared that view broadcast it widely. Why didn't Democrats like Kerry and Clinton know better: who knew Bush and Cheney personally, who were supposed to be so learned in international affairs (and have both since been Secretary of State), and yet who voted to authorize the horrid thing?
3. Why didn't Nixon keep the Kissinger tapes and destroy the Watergate ones? Because separating them out would have been a herculean task. Dean emphasizes in his book how bad the sound quality on the tapes is. At one point Nixon sent Haldeman to listen to some tapes, and Haldeman came back shaking his head and saying, "You've no idea how hard a job that was."
4. Or so Dean says, and I see no reason to disbelieve him.
5. Nixon's explicit approval of this lie, its misappropriation of the CIA and its attempt to block a legitimate FBI investigation, was the "smoking gun" whose revelation two years later was what lost him the last vestiges of support against impeachment and conviction in Congress.
6. Dean answers one of the minor mysteries of Watergate, something often mentioned but never before explained. Why were the burglars carrying an envelope with Hunt's check made out to a country club? The answer turns out to be that Hunt was scamming the country club by claiming to reside out of town, so he'd thus owe a lower membership fee, and he'd asked the burglars to take the check back to Miami with them and mail it from there in aid of this deception. Did Hunt really think the office flunky who opened the envelope was going to care about the postmark? Well, he was a spy, and probably thought everybody else was, too. Why he didn't wait to give it to the burglars until after they'd finished their night's burglary ... but Hunt and Liddy were clowns, we already know that.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

reviews and previews

1. After years of tantalizing almost-appearances, the original text of Tolkien's translation of the Book of Jonah has been published, in a small venue called the Journal of Inklings Studies. Its differences from the edited version long available in the Jerusalem Bible are small but pervasive. Worth a little study time.

2. I have that, but what I don't have yet is the new annotated-and-drafts version of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil by Scull and Hammond. This volume pretty much completes the multi-handed project of providing such editions of all the literary books Tolkien published in his lifetime.

3. From the sublime to the ridiculous: Symphony Silicon Valley's announcement that it will be playing live the score along with two showings of Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie made front page headlines in the local paper. And this won't even be until April. Usually the Symphony is lucky if it makes the inside of the back section. This is supposed to be a big money-maker, and SSV management usually knows what it's doing, but I won't be there, for three reasons: 1) Not to have to see those crappy movies again. I've had more than enough. 2) Not to have to listen to Howard Shore's uninspired score. I've seen other movies he's scored, including Hugo, and he's a competent hack: You want N yards' worth of music that sounds like [this], he'll churn it out reliably and it'll do the job. It just won't be any good. 3) I've heard live symphonies play with silent films before, but the whole idea of doing it with a sound film strikes me as futile. The movie already has the music! Are you going to compete with the soundtrack, or turn the sound off and have the actors yammer away silently?

4. I first learned that John Cleese has written a memoir, So, Anyway ..., from a grumpy review that called it cranky and egotistic, and claimed for good riddance that Python isn't funny anyway and never was. Well, that's manifestly false, and so is the review. Cleese can be grumpy in interviews lately, but this is a delightful and compulsively readable memoir by a man whose life goal is to figure out what he's good at and do it as well as possible. Once he gets out of his horrid childhood, which he blames for his lifetime in therapy ("They f you up, your mum and dad," a poem he does not quote but should), it's very warmhearted about his colleagues and even the two years he spent as an elementary school teacher. I learned a lot about the shards of At Last the 1948 Show that I have on DVD, and the memoir drifts to a close with the founding of Python, which is actually about when his life stops being so interesting.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Most of the public programs at the criticism institute were held in the afternoons at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Lots of little concerts go on there too, in the evenings and weekends. I checked the boards and stuck around. I already mentioned the piano recital I attended half of on Wednesday; there was also a program of scenes from Britten operas, with piano accompaniment, presented twice with some variations in program. I got to the second half of Thursday's program and returned for the first half of Saturday's.

This was the first time I'd ever seen any Britten staged, and while I've encountered some on record and on TV, I'm not very familiar with his operatic output. I'm not planning on rushing out for more. Too much of the writing is in the category I call Menotti-nous:1 ceaselessly meandering melodically-null recitatives setting dull, pedestrian conversations, added points if delivered in a manner where you can't make out half the words anyway. The Turn of the Screw was the nadir in this department, an opera so bad even B. doesn't like it.2 A Midsummer Night's Dream, which has a good libretto (most of it taken straight from Shakespeare's play) if you can decipher it, is better because the four lovers get to sing in ensemble. I give more points to Peter Grimes for its ensemble work, and especially, based on this performance, to The Rape of Lucretia for some real dynamism of plot action.

Mind you, I find most of Britten's concert music for singers or chorus to be pretty good.

Some of the singers, even if halfway unintelligible, had powerful and carrying voices.

The class that put this on is aiming for a full production of Albert Herring in May. That's supposed to be the funny one, so I might go.

1. Say it aloud.
2. A couple of elderly men sitting behind me were grumbling that there wasn't anything from Death in Venice. I muttered, "Because this is supposed to be a highlights program," but not for them to hear.

Monday, November 10, 2014

critical mass, day 4

I've gotten a few comments on these posts to the effect that criticism is some kind of excrescence on the soul of art. If the commenters really believe that, I have to wonder why they're reading me, because critical response to the art I read, see, or hear is what I'm all about. Nobody's ever complained here that I review the concerts I attend, nor that I've moved to selling my reviews professionally. But I attend a conference to learn from the masters of my profession, and out the tired old anti-critical cliches come.

They should have attended Sunday's session - moved over to UC Berkeley in the morning, as the faculty and students were to attend a concert there in the afternoon (I didn't) - and learned what criticism is for, and why writers about music should learn it.

Tim Page said that journalism is not the only use for critical training. His former students have found their learning useful in any writing they do about music: biographies of composers and performers, program notes, arts planning documents.

John Rockwell said that criticism will continue inexorably, regardless of the crises of journalism, though it needs a new economic model. (Bloggers, he points out, are freer to specialize than sole critics for major papers are.) Criticism's purpose is to mediate between the music and the listeners: not to instruct the performers, or function as program notes, but to help listeners to translate the experience of listening and to give new and different perspectives.

Stephen Rubin said that he sponsored this institute with the goal of giving young writers the training and discipline of excellence in succinct writing.

Anne Midgette said that criticism is a way of participating in a discussion about music, and that writing it is itself a creative act, as any good writing is. A critic can translate an unfamiliar work for an audience that otherwise might not know how to absorb it.

Heidi Waleson added that criticism chronicles what musical institutions do.

Alex Ross noted that this is particularly important with the recent flowering of new music concerts (especially in New York, where he works, but also elsewhere). Critics can give the audience knowledge of how music is made.

The critics also had advice for students. Anne Midgette encouraged them to seek out and publicize (without puffery) the new institutions and venues that are the most creative, because they often outstrip established ones in that respect. John Rockwell said that it's fun to discover someone new and great and make them known. Alex Ross pointed out that this isn't just the critic's self-promotion: it makes you constructive. John Rockwell cautioned that it's hard to shake a reputation once established, but Tim Page said that once you're past the stage where everything is either great or terrible, you should feel free to be enthusiastic (a point Alex Ross also endorsed). Anne Midgette also warned against inflexibility and never changing one's mind, to which Stephen Rubin added that the artists you review can change in style or ability.

And that was it, for this audience member. It's been informative.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

critical mass, day 3

I don't know why I didn't think of this form of title earlier.

Same six distinguished panelists as Thursday, this time accompanied by the (anonymous) reviews that the student fellows had written of the concerts that the institute members (but not me) had been attending the previous two evenings. Three reviews judged as particularly discussion-worthy (and also good) were read aloud and projected on screen, and the prose and description analyzed. Over the session, the discussion devolved from analysis into anecdotage, particularly of awful concerts in the critics' past, but at least it was entertaining.

Topics discussed included:
*Strong language, and whether it's appropriate (John Rockwell, I think: "at least it's fresh"). I'm reminded on how far things have changed from the 1940s, when Virgil Thomson said of a new work, "It's a beaut," and his editors popped in fury and said it would be a firing offense if he put such slang into the New York Herald Tribune ever again.
*Body language of the performers, and whether it's appropriate to spend much of the review describing it. Anne Midgette said there's no quotas, and that if the performer is physically expressive that's part of the show, so sure. Though the review in question wasn't of the SFS concert, much discussion of how guest violinist Gil Shaham smiles a lot, and whether one should mention that he looks like he's enjoying himself. [I certainly have.] An audience member cautioned that physical description shouldn't be used as a crutch for not having anything to say about the music.
*Bringing oneself - your experience attending or your feelings about attending the concert or reviewing it - into the review. Tim Page: You can do this, but it's rarely necessary.
*Discussing encores. John Rockwell: Old-time critics on tight deadlines used to leave before the encore was played. Heidi Waleson: If you're going to mention the encore, at least say what it was; your readership might be attendees who'd like to know.
*Getting as much information as possible into a short space. These reviews were limited to 400 words. Heidi Waleson: If the concert has a lot of works, you need not mention them all. [I'm proud of getting something about all 19 items on the program into this review, though it took me 950 words to do it.] Anne Midgette: The art is to conceal the tightness of your word-count limitation.
*Terminology for identifying performers. Alex Ross: Don't pile up position titles before the person's name like the adjectives in the old Time magazine style. [Which arose, by the way, because Time's founding editor Briton Hadden - there, I did it too - had read the Iliad at an impressionable age.] Tim Page: Don't use "MTT"; it sounds like the name of a gasoline company. Page subsided on being told that everyone calls him that around here, even his own publicity people, and that at least it sidesteps arguments over whether his surname is "Thomas" or "Tilson Thomas". (SFCV's house rules call for the latter.)
*Leads and "kicker" endings. Anne Midgette praised clever endings. Tim Page: Always provide a "kicker"; it's what I glance for first, right after reading the opening.
*A reviewer's comment, "You could hear Mozart smile." John Rockwell: "Hear" instead of "see" is a nice touch. Audience member: Some people make unpleasant noises when they smile; "Mozart's smile" would have been better. I tied this in to Gil Shaham's smile, since he was playing the Mozart, though this reviewer didn't mention his smile.
*Reviewing new music. Tim Page: Do research and listen to the piece or the composer's other works beforehand, but at the concert put that on hold and just have an aesthetic experience.
*Quotability. Everyone: Never either try to be quotable nor try to avoid it.
*Mentioning if a performer is ill. Not if it doesn't affect the performance.

This led to anecdotage on interrupting and stopping performances. Heidi Waleson told of a singer who omitted a song from her recital because she had a cold, and then sang it anyway. Anne Midgette told of a conductor who stopped a piece when a cell phone rang: the phone was on the stage, so he had particular cause for fury. John Rockwell suggested that concert-goers should change their ring-tone to a cough. Tim Page, I think, told a story of a nervous student pianist making her debut who lifted her hands to begin the challenging opening work and then vomited all over the keyboard. He didn't submit a review of that one.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

trailer critic: Hobbit part 3, no. 2

I have little to say about this one that Mike Glyer hasn't said already. This isn't The Hobbit or even The Lord of the Rings. It's The Silmarillion.

Westlake from beyond the grave

A post from Arthur Hlavaty alerted me that a collection of the late Donald E. Westlake's nonfiction has been published, under the title The Getaway Car. I meandered down to my local independent bookstore to see if they had it. They didn't, but they could easily get it from their distributor, and, while I was at it, I asked for the two posthumous Westlake novels I'd never gotten around to buying or reading, which we found in the system even though I hadn't been prepared to ask and didn't recall the titles offhand (ironically, as one of them is called Memory). They all went in with the next day's orders and arrived the day after that.

I've now read all three, and for good measure re-read a couple other books I'd forgotten everything about when I compiled my annotated Westlake bibliography, and updated it.

Neither of these posthumous novels is humorous, and I suspect that if Westlake had published them, he would have used one of the pseudonyms that he kept around for most, though not all, of his grimmer material. Much of that material is not to my taste, insofar as I've tried it, so I just left the pseudonyms out of the bibliography, but as I've included everything else originally published under his own name, I covered these.

I actually liked them both; they're tough and searingly memorable, even the one about the man who's losing his memory. Westlake withdrew The Comedy Is Finished from potential publication because of the release of the movie The King of Comedy, which is also about the kidnapping of a TV comedian. Why he never published Memory, which had been written much earlier, I don't know, but by the same token he would certainly have withdrawn it if it had been in the pipeline when Memento was released.

In both cases, though, they're very different. The King of Comedy is kidnapped by a wanna-be comedian who wants a spot on his show. In The Comedy Is Finished, the kidnapping is by a small gang of leftover 60s revolutionaries who wish to use him as a bargaining chip to get their comrades out of jail. That he's a celebrity is strongly relevant to the plot; that he's specifically a comedian is somewhat less so, though he does have to be quick-witted.

Memory is actually sadder and bleaker than the movie Memento, because this guy is losing not only his post-accident memories but his pre-accident ones as well, so instead of having a base to stand on (however mistakenly), he's sinking into the mire. Also, where Lenny in Memento loses his new memories within minutes, contributing to a frantic, goofy tone to the movie, for Cole in Memory they slowly fade away over a period of weeks, leaving ghosts of themselves behind, so he sinks more slowly and finds himself more lost. There's a couple points in the story where he tries to act on the basis of what he does remember, or of what he's left himself a note to do even though he no longer remembers why, and those are particularly bleak and, well, memorable.

Friday, November 7, 2014

criticism institute: day 2

Thursday's feature was a high-powered panel, with writers whose books I am proud to own (John Rockwell, Tim Page, and especially Alex Ross), plus other distinguished names: Anne Midgette (Washington Post), Heidi Waleson (Wall Street Journal), and Stephen Rubin (formerly of the New York Times). They talked about the profession of criticism and their own roles in it.

Career paths: Some of them had always wanted to be critics. Others (Ross and Midgette) aimed more generally at being writers of some sort (Midgette wanted to be a novelist), loved music on the side, and happened to fall into criticism. All of them emphasized their early careers as freelancers and doing other work than criticism. That they eventually nabbed regular staff jobs was just their good fortune. (Of course they're good writers, but so are others who didn't have that luck.) So the "entrepreneurial" notion, in today's collapse of journalism, of careers made by patching together bits and pieces of jobs is hardly a new thing. It's what they did, and what their students in criticism, like the student fellows at this institute, can expect.

After this, it was flooring when when the first audience comment, from Gil French of American Record Guide, protested that they're training their students for jobs that no longer exist. We're not, they all responded. "I'm just going on what you said," French insisted, but that's only true if he has an opposite switch in his head, which translates what you said into the opposite of what you said.

At least the comment generated some useful elaborations. Midgette forcefully warned us not to confuse the decline of the journalistic institutions with the continuing usefulness of the critical tools. Page, who is now a professor at USC, noted that his students apply what they've learned in a variety of jobs. (Thus following examples like Waleson, who began her career as a publicist.)

Blogging: Except for Rockwell, who quit blogging because he didn't see why he should do for free what he'd been being paid for, all spoke well of blogging and bloggers. Ross gave Lisa Hirsch as a good example ("Is she here? No? Oh well"). There's a great amount of talent out there, the good ones rise in prominence (and sometimes move into paid work) while the ones with "verbal diarrhea" (Rubin's phrase) just don't get read, and the whole milieu keeps the professionals on their toes.

Editing: Only Ross said that his editors have really helped shape and train his writing. Rockwell said the editorial function is to catch stupid mistakes. Others said they learned to write by doing it. Midgette defied us to see any difference between her edited newspaper and unedited online pieces.

Is classical music criticism unique among arts criticisms? Most said yes. Rockwell called non-programmatic concert music the most abstract of arts, with only abstract painting matching it. Waleson cited the technical language and the lack of shared knowledge among the readership that exists in, e.g., film. Ross disagreed: every art form has its technical language and is fundamentally inscrutable in words. Even writing about poetry is hard: you can quote Wallace Stevens, but what is he saying? I forget if it was Ross or Page who dismissed the maxim "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."

Taking notes during concerts: All of them do it, though Midgette quit because the details she was noting overwhelmed her reviews. (I have that concern about my own reviewing, and try to use the details as examples of what I mean generally.) Several confessed that they can't read their own notes afterwards, but said that the mere act of writing them helps. Page noted that when he was on tight deadlines, he tried saving time by writing the parts about the work, rather than the performance, beforehand, but he gave that up because they turned out not to fit into the thrust of his reviews. (I've had that experience.)

Most fundamental question: What do you most value in criticism? Rubin: immediacy, the sense that the critic is taking you to the concert. (This is why he likes Virgil Thomson.) Page: as a teacher, he's interested in the process by which you reach your opinion than what the opinion is. As a reader, he likes good prose. Rockwell: yes, but the prose shouldn't be too flashy and distracting. Ross: the ideas that the critic can introduce him to. Midgette: the variety of opinions. She loathes the idea of everyone agreeing with her all the time.

concert review

I didn't mention this earlier. I went to hear the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra - first time I'd ever seen them live. Executive summary of my review: great stuff, wowza.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

criticism institute: day 1

The institute on classical music criticism began on Wednesday with an introductory lecture - or talk, really - by Anthony Tommasini, chief critic for the New York Times.

Tommasini is a mousy-looking man with mousy opinions. He said he would speak on the social and cultural responsibilities and influence of classical critics, but he doesn't think he has any influence. He described his work in a flailing manner as if he were an amateur at it. He doesn't like to speak his mind negatively forthrightly in his reviews because he's intimidated by carrying the megaphone of the New York Times. He favors fuller coverage of management and labor issues in classical ensembles and opera companies, but thinks that's a job better left to business reporters than to critics. He thinks that if the protesters against The Death of Klinghoffer would just go and see the opera, they'd like it and realize it isn't anti-Semitic,* and then we could have an honest debate. (On what? There's no debate if everyone agrees.) He says that Adams and Goodman, the opera's authors, aren't anti-Semitic "in their hearts," as if that excuses any offenses of that kind they did inadvertently commit.

However, he wasn't the only person being mousy. Tommasini remarked that he doesn't like to use technical terms in his reviews for fear that most of his readers won't understand them. His example was "chromatic". (Oh dear: I use that word in my reviews all the time.) As we were packing up to leave, I heard one of the institute's student fellows say scornfully to another, "How difficult can it be to look up 'chromatic' in a dictionary?"

So I did, just to see what you'd get. Chromatic: Of, pertaining to, or based on the chromatic scale. Great, so what's the ... Chromatic scale: A scale consisting of 12 semitones. Of course I understand this, and so would anyone with musical training, but an untrained reader might well think either a) "So what does that mean?" and set off on a wild-goose chase through the dictionary which, sure enough, leads you back to "chromatic" within two steps; or b) "I know what that means, but what does it sound like?" You see the problem?

On the entrance wall of the conservatory there are postings of upcoming performances. There was a piano recital that evening, so why not stick around? So I had dinner at Lers Ros around the corner - which is to Thai food roughly what Bartók is to music - and returned for the recital. Student pianists played a Bach partita as if Robert Moog had written it and an early Beethoven sonata as if mid-period Beethoven had written it. The latter made the most amazing facial expressions while playing, alternately popping her eyes out and retracting them into her head. I left after intermission, my interest in hearing the entirety of Brahms' Paganini Variations being outweighed by my desire to get home and see what my dictionary said about chromaticism.

*I've seen it, in the 1992 San Francisco Opera production. I wouldn't join a protest line against its performance - there was one then - but my opinion of the opera's political expressions was neither favorable nor forgiving. (I didn't like it as much musically as Nixon in China, either.) "Anti-Semitic" is a loaded word these days, and if you use it of someone they react as if you called them "genocidal", but the kind of subtle "oh, just shaft the Jews" kind of anti-Semitism - it's there. It's definitely there. You can only say it isn't by defining that out of the meaning of the word. On the other hand, the St. Matthew Passion is flagrantly and openly anti-Semitic, and we perform that. The issue isn't a dead letter, either: churches were still professing Biblically-based anti-Semitism just a few decades ago.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

concert review: Mission Chamber Orchestra

The little mid-range amateur orchestra-that-could put on a Halloween-themed concert at le petit Trianon. No Danse Macabre, no Night on Bald Mountain! Their choice of scary or creepy music included Beethoven's scariest overture, Coriolan; de Falla's Ritual Fire Dance, which conductor Emily Ray described as "basically movie music"; and Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette, a piece I doubt I'd ever heard in concert before.

Works by two local composers filled out the half. David Holmes has set the lyrics to the spooky 19C English play Death's Jest-Book by Thomas Lovell Beddoes,* strophic stuff that, judging from tonight's excerpts, should work terrifically in a stage production; it's that kind of music. The songs were sung loudly and clearly, but with a heavy Korean accent, by tenor Woojeong Lee.

Then there were two seasonal pieces for strings by Durwynne Hsieh: "Midnight Ride" (as in the Headless Horseman rather than Paul Revere) and "March of the Candidates" - for yes, it's that season too. Of their juxtaposition, Hsieh remarked in his introduction that "both involve people dressing up in costumes and pretending to be someone they're not."

He also remarked that he likes writing for strings alone because it gives the same effect as a black-and-white film: the contrasts are starker and the shadows deeper. I wish I'd had a chance to meet him and tell him that this is pretty much the same reason Bernard Herrmann wrote the score for Psycho for strings. And, indeed, "Midnight Ride" sounded a lot like Herrmann's music, though not like Psycho in particular. "March of the Candidates" was an offbeat jaunt more like Henry Cowell meets Charles Ives, two composers who in life met frequently, so it's no oddity to have them meet again.

The second half included Schumann's Piano Concerto with a really fine young pianist named Soheil Nasseri. He was utterly professional. The orchestra managed pretty well in the outer movements, but wandered off on intonations of their own in the Intermezzo.

*I thought for a bit that I'd heard of him before, but I was thinking of Thomas Love Peacock.