Thursday, August 31, 2017

reviewer talk

I've been mostly offline for a few days because my computer was in the shop.

And I was out much of today to ensure I was up in the City in time for the early-evening start of an SFCV staff writers' meeting.

I like to go to these because our work as reviewers is so solitary. It's soul-feeding to have an occasional tangible reminder that I'm part of a team who are all doing the same thing, and not just by reading their work.

This one, besides the social chatter, took the form of a round table discussing the journalistic aspects of our work. It's useful for those of us who've never worked in traditional journalism - my professional writing training was exclusively that of an academic historian - to learn a little from those who have had that experience.

A few points of particular interest to me, which I note here mostly for my own reference:

One advised us to write our reviews as soon as possible, to preserve the immediacy of the reaction. Another advised waiting, to let the thoughts jell. I find myself more and more tending to jot down phrases between pieces and at intermission, preserving the immediacy that way, and then writing the review the next day basically by stringing those phrases together. I wonder if that's really a good way to write, but the reaction was, "If it works for you ..."

I am concerned about vocabulary. Alex Ross says writing about music is easy, but he's Alex Ross. The rest of us aren't. I tend to think of only a small percentage of the words I actually know. Often I find myself using a thesaurus, but not to find said-bookisms, just to remind myself of other words I know that might fit. That wasn't deprecated, but one who has taught English suggested that finding yourself overusing one word is a clue that you need to rethink what you're saying: useful advice if you have the time and wit to take it.

How much allowance should we make for the imperfections of non-professional performers? Should they not be held to standards they're not claiming to achieve, or are the standards of music absolute? SFCV's editorial policy is not to review non-professional groups that don't meet professional standards, and to drop them if they fall below that - something I could have reported on in a couple cases where I wrote with kid gloves in the review itself. But it's tougher for me since my other outlet has a beat with only two professional venues and a lot of prominent non-pro groups, so I have to review them all the time. My policy - of always mentioning their non-pro status and judging them by how far above or below a fairly tight interpretation of that standard they fell - seemed to receive approval, though one doubted that such groups should be reviewed at all. Not in prominent outlets, perhaps, but my other outlet is a local free paper. I write there to let the readers know what's going on musically in their community, and to give the performers a chance to accumulate press clippings.

Talking afterwards with our top piano reviewer, he said that he reserves strong criticism for professionals who play sloppily or make dumb mistakes. I agree, though I lack his chops to discern technical problems beyond a certain level except in pieces I know well. I judge performers by the emotional impact they make; to me a bad performance is one where the player is just "phoning it in."

Lastly, there's structuring of reviews. One recommended the "layer cake" approach of alternating between background and present-day matters, but that's mostly useful for opera and other cases of single-work concerts. For concerts with 3-5 works, my usual beat, I try to avoid the "and then they played ..." approach and present the works by some theme that's the backbone of my review, which may not be the order they were played in. With a large program - e.g. a guitar recital which may have 17 pieces - you don't have to mention everything. Pick out some highlights or themes and concentrate. Even with fewer pieces you can do that. (Closest I came to that was when I reviewed a concert with a premiere of a concerto when I knew that's what I was there to cover. I tucked the rest of the program into one brief paragraph at the end.) True enough that the one time I reviewed a gala potpourri with 20 different pieces, I managed to at least name-check every composer on the program, but that was before the word limit was cut. Actually leaving part of the program out of the review is a big step I'd have to brace myself to take.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Hamlette & ye Bugges

Silicon Valley Shakespeare, the folks who did Julius Caesar last year in a dirt amphitheater up in an isolated mountain canyon, did Hamlet there this year. I went back, even though so did the flying bugs, who made their presence quite conspicuous for the first half.

Also returning were a few of the actors, all of whom in this Hamlet were women, some of assorted races. I not only don't mind that kind of gimmick in a classic play, I tend to be intrigued and attracted to it, so long as they don't mangle the text. (They didn't; even Hamlet's misogyny was intact.) Though the actors, mostly local journeyfolk, didn't have the depth of OSF's best, they all, including the smaller parts, brought strong character to their roles, and the production as a whole had more spirit and heart than OSF's latest misconceived Hamlet.

The Prince herself tried to make up in dedication what she lacked in anguish and fury; and, except when stabbing people, at which she was not convincing, was quite adequate for this demanding part. Each famous soliloquy came out with honesty. The emotion belonged to Gertrude; I'd never heard the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia announced with such tragic sorrow. Claudius figured out how to make herself imperturbable without being wooden, something a lot of Claudii have trouble with; unfortunately, she also played the Ghost the same way. Laertes transformed Act 1 sparkle to Act 5 ferocity. Ophelia looked like a ghost when still alive. Horatio - the nearby high school's drama teacher - was the cast's best line-reader. Polonius had the most extraordinary accent. An Austrian native about as well assimilated as Ahnuld, she seems to have learned English as a combination of Cockney, Irish, and Australian.

If I can forget about the bugs, I may return.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

a few more things about St Louis in August

If a thunderstorm hits the airport, they shut the place down as if they'd never expected anything like that would ever happen.

The Cathedral Basilica was well worth seeing, a 20C church covered with mosaics and otherwise with the aesthetic principles, just not the artistic style, of a Byzantine basilica.

At Grant's Farm, you can ride on a tram through the deer park and see the deer, elk, and bison without having to walk around in the sweltering heat. Baby bison are unexpectedly cute.

There's a section of town where all the noted Italian restaurants are. I won't say the good ones, because the one we ate at was more emphatically old-school than it was good. If you want a lunch heavier than a full dinner, this is where you go. You might get better Italian at an informal family-style sports bar place in the suburbs.

The quality of toasted ravioli, St Louis's culinary specialty, varies tremendously depending on where you get them. Nor did I have success with the local barbecue.

On the other hand, you don't have to go where it was invented to get a good concrete, which is what they call an extra-thick frozen custard.

There's also something called "trashed wings." Apparently these are chicken wings with the sauce baked on. Despite the name, I like it that way.

For a preserved slice of what a town here looked like in the early 19C, go across the wide Missouri to St Charles. The shops probably didn't sell boutique olive oils back then, though.

Air conditioning is your friend.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


And we awoke and found us here on the dark hill's side

One of my friends of most venerable standing is not only the leading expert on Tolkien's use of astronomy in his fiction, but he also lives in the exurbs south of St. Louis, right in the middle of the path of totality of Monday's eclipse. What are the odds? Did he move there, 30-odd years ago, to prepare for this day?

Regardless, he and frau were well-prepared for a small invasion of assorted friends from long-off and far away for a backyard eclipse party. We dined on hamburgers and bratwurst, and spent our extra time watching old movies of King Solomon's Mines (in which an eclipse plays a key cameo role) and listening to dreadful BBC radio dramatizations of Tolkien's love life ("Ron, hold me!"). The topography cooperated, as the backyard tops a hillside which faces south, the ideal direction. The heavens also cooperated: while it rained on the day we arrived and again upon leaving, it was clear for the days in between, with only a few wisps of cloud around at the eclipsical moment. The projections of pinholes over the skylights kept viewers informed of progress if they ducked inside for air-conditioned relief from the heat.

I've seen an annular eclipse before, so I knew all about the bite being taken out of the sun, the eerie dimmed lighting, the crescent-shaped shadows of the spaces between the leaves. But I hadn't seen totality, and that's what I was eager to experience.

It was different from what I expected. The sky did not go dark; it was still blue with visible clouds and no stars. What did happen as the moon obscured the sun was that the sun's corona popped out. Bright but not painfully so to the naked eye (and quite blocked out by eclipse glasses), this huge splotch around the utterly black disc provided enough light to prevent night but not enough to allow day. The effect was more like that of the kind of twilight that emerges when the sun sets prematurely behind a mountain - as indeed it had.

The speed, however, with which the moon snuffed out the last bits of the sun's disc was much greater than the earth's at sunset, and that's what provided the greatest eeriness. At that moment, the ambient light around us abruptly became much darker over the course of just 3 or 4 seconds, and reversed just as abruptly at the end. It was like ... what was it like?

A fenris-wolf or other mythological monster eating up the sun?


A sign from the heavens that the End Times are nigh?


A dimmer switch. That was it. A giant, celestial dimmer switch.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

confederate statues

I'm a little behind the curve on this one, but I've been away from my computer, and this enables me to say what I haven't heard everyone else say.

I think some history has been lost, and some other history is being found, on this issue.

And what's being lost isn't that the Civil War happened, or that it was important, or that Lee and Jackson were prominent and memorable figures within it. Of course that will be remembered.

But what I haven't seen addressed in any of this is a knowledge of the post-civil war "national consensus," for lack of a better term, of their place in it. This is something I've seen discussed in a number of older history books about the period, pro-Union ones, including James McPherson's.

To re-integrate the ex-Confederates into the Union, and to let them have a little self-respect after their crushing loss, a sort of informal pact was made about the judgment of the war in American history. The South would admit that they lost (when asked why his side was so crushed in the Battle of Gettysburg, Gen. Pickett said, "I believe the Federal Army had something to do with it") and that their cause was a bad one. In return, the North would acknowledge the bravery of the Confederate soldiers, and the greatness of their top generals.

There was no lie in this. The CSA military did fight well and bravely, and on a purely military level, Lee and Jackson were two of the most brilliant generals ever produced on this continent. You can say this without defending their cause; Rommel was also a brilliant general.

This consensus was proclaimed by a man who said "with malice toward none, with charity for all," and advised that we should "bind up the nation's wounds." He was, as you may recall, shot for his pains. The consensus perhaps came into being at the formal surrender ceremony for the Army of Northern Virginia. Gen. Chamberlain (he of Little Round Top) conducted the event for the Union, and surprised the Confederates by unexpectedly ordering his troops to give the salute of honor to their fallen foes.

And I think it's because of that acknowledgment that, up until now, Northerners have ignored the profusion of statues of Lee and Jackson and anonymous Confederate soldiers that festoon Southern town squares. After all, they were great generals and brave soldiers. Let the descendants have their pride.

Up until now. Not any longer. Because if that's the history that we had that's now being forgotten, there's another history that the books I read had ignored that's now being rediscovered. And that is that the ex-Confederates and their descendants have not been living up to their side of the bargain. And not just in the hard facts of racial oppression in the South for over a century and still echoing in ugly ways today, but also in the symbolism which is the subject of the consensus.

Those statues. They aren't lovingly-crafted monuments erected in the echo of the loss, like the WW1 cenotaphs in every British town and college chapel. They're cheap mass-produced knock-offs from Northern factories, put up later, in the Jim Crow era, not in memory of a loss but in defiance of that loss. (the evidence) Look at the capital letters in the term "Lost Cause" and read what's been said about it. Its memorializers don't acknowledge it was bad, they only regret that it was lost.

Nor do we notice who's being honored. There's Jackson, who died during the war (of the aftereffects of "friendly fire," by the way), and thus had nothing to say afterwards. There's Lee, who retired from public life and quietly became a college president. But where is the CSA's third best general, James Longstreet? You don't see many statues of him. After the war, he became a Republican and actively co-operated with the Union government. For that, he's considered a shame in the white South. Confederate apologist historians retroactively blame him for Gettysburg, at best a dubiously tenable position, even hinting that he was secretly a traitor to his cause.

And how many statues do you see in the North of Grant and Sherman? Some, but not a lot; not in every town square. Militarily, they were just as brilliant as Lee and Jackson. They saved the Union, and their place in the history books is absolutely secure. But they don't need all those statues to secure it. And Sherman in particular, for his marches through Georgia and South Carolina, is loathed in the white South with an intensity that no Confederate, not even the equally ruthless Forrest, post-war one of the founders of the KKK, for ghu's sake, is in the North.

This is all coming out in response to the fact that some of the support is finally going over the top. I think it was the Charleston massacre that turned the tide. It doesn't seem that anything can convince us we need gun control, but that did finally convince us to take down the CSA flag, a sore point for years, and began to get people like Mitch Landrieu to think seriously about those statues. And the response to the statue removal, in Charlottesville and elsewhere, has only reinforced the point. When one side has actual neo-Nazis on it, there is something seriously wrong with that side. It doesn't make the other side automatically virtuous, but it does suggest that hysterically inflating any problem that isn't the Nazis, or outright making stuff like "alt-left" up, is an evasion of the truth.

When Trump said, "Who's next, Washington and Jefferson?" he was not, as some claimed, equating Lee with Washington. He was making a "slippery slope" argument. But others have openly equated them. Perhaps you've seen a little squib, forwarded by Trump's lawyer John Dowd, titled "Lee is No Different than Washington." That's an open equation. The arguments in it are deeply dishonest, but I'm not going to fisk them now. I will just say that it's poisoned the well for any explanation or understanding of Lee's actions. I would have been happy to explain his moral views that led him to take up the rebel cause, and why that wasn't considered at the time (even by his foes) the outright act of treason that it would be in retrospect, but now I can't. It would no longer be the act of purely disinterested historical analysis that I'd intend it as. It would be a defense of white supremacy. That well has been poisoned, and it's time to give it up.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

an administrator's tale

Nicholas Whyte has published the second part of his memoirs of being Hugo Administrator at this year's Worldcon. I do not wish to criticize a conscientious, successful, and innovative administrator whose tenure should become a landmark in future practice of how to do the job well, but a couple matters regarding how he handled the security of the results - keeping them confidential, and ensuring that the correct winners were announced - made me a little nervous reading his story even though I knew it would come out all right in the end. It's not how I and my colleague did it, twenty-odd years ago.

Of course, some things have changed since then. For instance, we did not, as described in his first part, have a research team of assistants to verify eligibility and get contact information. Our team of two did all the work. My partner was primarily responsible for certifying and counting ballots; I was primarily responsible for research and contact with nominees. But these days both parts of this work are more complex and it requires more hands to do it.

But to turn to the last stages of the process. The part in this year's story that made me nervous was having an outside source print winner cards for every nominee, prior to the administrating team stuffing the correct cards into the envelopes. This is exactly how the mistake was made in 1992, still remembered today, of having the wrong winner announced. True, this mistake can be avoided simply by taking greater care in the stuffing of the envelopes, and such care was indeed taken this year, but 1992 was the year before my own first run, and the memory was very fresh. It simply never occurred to me to take such a risk for the sake of an aesthetically beautiful card.

We, the administrators, prepared attractive but simple and straightforward winner-announcement cards ourselves. Decent layout software existed even then, as did laser printers. We had the template ready beforehand, but the winners' names were not entered and cards printed until the counting was finished and verified. No incorrect winner could have been announced because no incorrect cards ever existed. Our procedure had the further advantage of allowing us to prepare a single card when the winner was a tie.

Nor did we tape the envelopes to the ceremony script, as was done this year. Had anybody suggested such a procedure I would have declined, I hope politely but definitely firmly. The two administrators sat at a table backstage with the Hugos lined up on the table and the cards in our hands. (The winner plaques, which we'd supervised the making of, had been attached to the bases by the base designer the day before, under our supervision. Nobody else saw the winners before the ceremony. We didn't even let our own supervisor see the press release.) We'd confirmed with the ceremony head on the order of the awards. As the MC announced each category, we handed the correct envelope to the presenter and the Hugo to the stage runner. Everyone had been informed of their duties at a pre-show rehearsal. Unlike certain Oscar administrators we could name, we were not tweeting photos of Emma Stone and our attention was on our jobs. There was also no chance of a presenter accidentally taking the wrong envelope off the ceremony script, as actually happened at the Hugos this year. An alert presenter and a well and properly labeled envelope prevented any mishap, and kudos to both of them, but I and my colleague would not have taken any risk of letting the envelopes out of our hands before the moment of the presentation.

Everyone has to have their own way of doing things. This was ours. Both our method and the one used this year were endorsed by the success of the well-run results.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

when is the eclipse, anyway?

This is bizarre. I'm going to be outside of St. Louis, and I thought I'd look up the time of the eclipse.

The NASA site says that totality will occur 18.17-18.19. Universal Time. And what is that in something humans understand? Well, here's a Universal Time to Central Daylight Time converter. 18, that's 6 pm if you're not in the army, converts to 1 pm local time. That sounds right; Central Time is 6 hours earlier than the UK, where UT is based, minus one for DST, makes five. So the eclipse will be around 1:18 pm, OK?

But wait! Here's the National Weather Service site, which is linked to from the NASA site, and it says 11:18 AM.

So which is it?

Monday, August 14, 2017

omentielva otsea

It's Quenya for "seventh meeting." It's the International Conference on J.R.R. Tolkien's Invented Languages, and it's been held every other year since 2005. Always, until now, in Europe; but when it comes to within a few miles of my home, I can't resist it.

I have to explain that, since Tolkien was a professor of language by trade, his writings on his invented languages are extremely complex and full of technical detail. Those who study them tend to to be specialists in that particular area, while other Tolkienists, even those who are masters of detail in other areas, tend to avoid it. Kind of like the place of catalogers among other librarians, come to think of it (speaking as a cataloger). Even Tolkien's son Christopher, who is qualified to study the languages, left most of this material out of his posthumous volumes, and it's being edited, slowly - because it's voluminous and extremely crabbed - by a team of Tolkien linguists who are publishing it in small-press editions, because only small-press numbers of people are interested or could possibly understand it.

I'm not one of those scholars of language, though I did study linguistics (as a theoretical study of language) in college and found it fascinating. I'm one of those other, non-linguistic Tolkien specialists. Yet I have read the proceedings of past Omentielvar, and found that I could follow most of what they were saying. So I thought I could float above water here, and indeed I could. It's interesting and meaningful because Tolkien applied the same principles and methods of creativity to his languages as he did to everything else he did.

The sort of people who just want to tattoo something in tengwar (Tolkien's principal invented alphabet) on their biceps would not have the patience for Omentielva, and indeed inquiries about "How do you say/write ...?", which most everyone here has gotten, were a running humorous theme of the conference. It was in fact the second smallest formal convention of any kind I've ever attended, with only 17 attendees, about half of them European. (Not counting 2 more non-attending Europeans who presented papers by Skype, which worked pretty well.) Of the 5 people, all of them Americans, who have worked on editing those small-press linguistic papers, four of them were here, and made up half the American contingent. Most of the attendees were male, but 3 were women, not one whit less sharp, learned, or generally nerdy than the men. Ages ranged broadly from 20s to 60s.

So we all gathered together in the same small meeting room on Cal State's Hayward campus, we all ate our meals together at the same table in the dining commons, slept in independent pod rooms in the same dormitory, and generally lived the life of a scholarly community for 3 days, packed with detailed technical presentations. Of the items on the busy schedule, I find I can most easily describe the ones on the scripts: one describing an inscribed rock tablet found in North Carolina that was originally taken as a Viking relic, but whose runes turned out to be Tolkien's, and hence could not predate the 1950s; one comparing the tengwar to other scripts, notably Pitman shorthand, whose notation also systematically reflects their phonetics; and one analyzing the history of one cryptic tengwa. I was relieved that a presentation of Asterix comics translated into Elvish languages, even with the nonce-words identified below on the screen, were a challenge even for these experienced linguists to translate back. I gave a presentation myself, not on the invented languages, but on the related topic of whether Americans reading the deeply English Tolkien in the original are separated from the text in a way that other foreigners, for whom it's been translated into their own idiom as well as their own languages' words, are not. We had no definite conclusions but an interesting discussion.

And, as the organizers had accepted another suggestion of mine, on Saturday morning we packed nearly everybody into a rented passenger van where I drove them to Berkeley, and gave my walking tour of the campus and Telegraph, including many fabled Sixties historic sites. And, this being Omentielva, we then spent the better part of two hours in Moe's Books. As I've been there often before and will go again, I spent most of that time sitting with one of our younger members, a Swiss, having a conversation that consisted mostly of giving each other informative lessons in Swiss and American history and government.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

o to be a blogger

Tom Lehrer famously said, "I know there are those who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that." If the paradox embedded here seriously bothers you, then read this and be enlightened.

It was a sad day when the San Jose Mercury News removed Richard Scheinin from classical music reviewing and put him on the real estate beat, but at least it means he gets to write bizarre stories like this.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

concert review: the end of Menlo

Saturday evening concluded the Music@Menlo chamber music festival. Since returning 5 days earlier from my trip to states beginning with an I, I'd been plunged back into it, including such features as:

A masterclass in which, after hearing each of two sets of student performers, the instructor threw his hands up in despair at his failure to think of anything he could critique them on.

A prelude performance of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. Not my favorite work by a long shot, it nevertheless impressed with the intensity of its color, and even more by the players' introduction, in which the second violinist recited a translation of the Richard Dehmel poem that inspired the work, while the rest of the musicians played passages that seemed to correspond with the particular events of the poem. A brilliant job by the performers.

(The poem depicts a woman ashamedly confessing to her new boyfriend that she's already pregnant by another man. He forgives her, and their love is transfigured. Pretty terrible already, and the music is worse. But now you know why Schoenberg wrote it as a sextet, and if you think that's a stupid argument, I once heard a Menlo performer give a talk seriously pitching for a calendar date encoded in the number of bars a piece had.)

Another prelude performance interrupted twice by what sounded like the same very loud cell phone going off. At the end of the piece, festival co-director David Finckel appeared on stage to announce, through tight lips, that the performers would be doing those passages over again, to get a clean recording (audition tapes for their younger performers being an important by-product of the festival). They got an even bigger applause after the remakes than they had originally. And I wonder if Menlo has procedures to ban egregiously errant audience members.

A concert by the 10-to-18 year old students including the usual hefty samples of Dvořák and other hoary classics played with the fresh dedication always heard here, but also a new thing for one of these concerts, a piece by a living composer (which means, as the students excitedly declared, that you can shoot him a message asking if something in the score is a misprint, which you can't do with Dvořák). The piece was a string sextet (yes, another one) by Jörg Widmann, whom I knew from a stunningly crappy piece of merde dropped on the Banff String Quartet Competition last year. The sextet was far better, a concise technobeat moto perpetuo with some minimalist sensibility. I actually kind of liked it. Here, you can listen to them playing it here (the music begins just after 5 minutes in).

An evening concert of late Romantic music bifurcated between elegant, restrained performances and madly impassioned Expressionism, which I reviewed.

And Saturday's final concert, whose major work was a string Octet by George Enescu, which he wrote poised on the century's edge in 1900, at the age of 19. It's half a 19C work and half a 20C one in musical style, and is largely composed of lyrical melody with a good sense of structure keeping the very long, virtually unbroken work from meandering. There are many solos, usually for one of the first two violins (here Bella Hristova and Danbi Um) or the first viola (Paul Neubauer) backed with amazingly interesting harmonies from the rest of the ensemble; these alternated with dramatically intense tuttis. This piece comes right behind the previous concert's Kreisler string quartet for most interesting discovery of the year, but I doubt I will ever hear it played so well again, even if I ever do.

An overlapping ensemble played Shostakovich's early Octet movements, Op. 11, with great drama but without sounding at all like Shostakovich, and the year's theme of showing off the violin came in some brief pieces by Dohnányi (with piano), Martinů (with cello), and Corigliano (without anybody), all played by either Hristova or Um with great display but not that much memorability. Give me Enescu, a relative ranking I never thought I would be making.

As this will be serving as my formal review of the final concert, here, have a photo:
The Enescu Octet showing off. From left around the circle: Bella Hristova (vn), Paul Neubauer (va), Soovin Kim (vn), Clive Greensmith (vc), Nicholas Canellakis (vc), Richard O'Neill (va), Arnaud Sussmann (vn), Danbi Um (vn). Photo by Carlin Ma, courtesy of the Music@Menlo Festival.

Friday, August 4, 2017

things actually to do around Champaign-Urbana

1. Share movie reviewing duties with Roger Ebert.

Some self-important artist once said, "Nobody ever erected a statue to a critic." Well, here it is:

Ebert up

Yes, Champaign-Urbana was Ebert's home town, and in front of the old theater in downtown Champaign where he would hold his annual movie festival, there's now a statue of him, with extra seats. Of course, you don't have to agree with Roger in rating a movie:

Ebert down

2. Eat with the Amish.

Did you know there was an Amish country in Illinois? I hadn't. But when I found it, about 40 minutes drive south of town, I knew I would also find what they have in all the other Amish countries in PA, OH, IN, etc., which is one of those enormous Amish businesses, spreading over vast acres, incorporating gift shops and bakeries as well as a restaurant with rooms upon rooms of seating and endless delicious American country cooking. This one, out on a country highway west of I-57, features broasted chicken: lightly fried, tender; and I also stocked up on fish of the same kind. Plenty of starch but not much on the veggies here, but I was content. And so were the snickerdoodles I took home from the bakery.

3. Visit a peaceful Catholic women's college.

Actually St. Mary of the Woods, outside Terre Haute just over the Indiana line, has been co-ed for a few years now. But it was a women's college when B's mother attended, class of 1944. B. has always wanted to visit, and having Mythcon within two hours' drive was our chance. Campus is spread out over lawns and woods, and the admissions office arranged for a golf cart for us to ride around in and a couple knowledgeable and interested student guides to take us there.

Since we were doing that, we flew into Indianapolis instead of Chicago: no further away from Champaign, and easier to deal with, and the college was along the way. Also along the way, I found, was an opportunity to:

4. Pose with the tigers.

Out in the deep woods of Clay County in western Indiana is the Exotic Feline Rescue Center, which as a zoo appealed perfectly to our tastes: out where we could see them were a dozen tigers, half a dozen lions, cervals, pumas, and so on. A folksy volunteer gave us a tour with stories about how the animals came to the center, and they'd come up and rub their heads against the fences. And sometimes they'd pose:


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Mythcon report II

As Mythcon's themes this year included "Digging for Gold in the Archives," and our Guests of Honor were two Inklings archivists, I was one of a couple participants who proposed giving sessions recounting our own experiences in library research. My particular themes were the importance of serendipity and of diligent patience in dealing with problems like great distance and archaic rules. I spoke of researches I've made at UC Berkeley, Stanford, the Wade Center, Yale, and Oxford (drawing from what I wrote once for File 770).

I also found myself on a panel discussing Orwell's 1984. Not a usual subject for a Mythcon, but there are connections with Lewis (they reviewed each other's books: Orwell disliked the magic in That Hideous Strength and Lewis disliked the sex in 1984) and resemblances to Tolkien (they both had deep senses of political morality and a preference for Little Englander socio-economics). Among my contributions were a citation of the ingrained sense of viewpoint balance in Orwell's essays and his creation of the best opening sentence ever written for an essay (written during WW2, the essay starts, "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."), and noting the sensible description of Orwell's political positions in Thomas E. Ricks' Churchill and Orwell: despite his attacks on the Soviets, he was not a neoconservative or anything of the kind: he was a man of the Left who hated totalitarianism from any quarter, instead of excusing it when it came from the end of his side of the spectrum.

But another panel which most seemed to interest people was on The Silmarillion. This consisted of 5 mini-papers on a variety of topics. Mine was on music and the Ainulindalë, based on a longer music and Tolkien presentation I'd given in earlier years and later published. Creation stories based on music are not that rare, but Tolkien's is particularly detailed. It describes, with considerable sophistication, a massive structure of counterpoint, in which themes create harmony by being played simultaneously in different voices, and themes evolve one into another.
The voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing ... [It] was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.
What could it possibly have sounded like? Something of unutterable beauty, to be sure, but as for what earthly music might have inspired Tolkien, I have a clue, which comes of all things from Donald Swann's song cycle The Road Goes Ever On. Tolkien told Swann that he heard Galadriel's lament Namárië as a Gregorian chant, and sang one, which Swann transcribed and used.

To Tolkien, a conservative Catholic, Gregorian chant would have been the music of holiness and closeness to God. That sense of connection to the divine is part of what Tolkien is trying to show with the Elves and their connection to Valinor, and Catholic symbolism in the Elves has often been noted by critics, so why should not their music be divine Catholic music?

But since Gregorian chant is monophonic, the sectional polyphonic music of the Ainur would therefore have to be sacred choral music. Probably the elegant and transparent music of the High Renaissance, something like ... and I played this recording:As you can see in the score, that's ten-part harmony, folks. It's the English Baroque Soloists in Nisi Dominus from the Vespers of 1610 by Claudio Monteverdi.

Or this motet by Giovanni Gabrieli, his 16-part(!) Omnes Gentes, played by the Gabrieli Consort:I then sampled some later, 18th-century pieces that also illustrate Tolkien's methods. The concluding "Amen" from Handel's Messiah, for instance, a work Tolkien must have known even though Handel was a Protestant: a massive fugue with a text of but a single word. (Think Tolkien's Eä!) This is the Handel and Haydn Society:Or the "Confutatis" from Mozart's Requiem, which sets turbulent and peaceful music against each other as Tolkien does Ilúvatar's and Melkor's:That's the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields recording used in the movie Amadeus, whose fictions about Mozart and Salieri I had to spend my final moments refuting.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Mythcon report

We're back from Mythcon 48, held in the Newman Center, a building which takes the 7½th floor concept from Being John Malkovich and really runs with it, on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign IL (half a block from the city line with Urbana that bisects the campus).

Though small, and bereft of some old regulars suffering health or finance issues, Mythcon was livened by lots of new people, many of them young, many of them students or recent former students, e.g. of Leslie Donovan's at UNM. This confirms my feeling from Signum's Mythmoot that recruiting and welcoming students who voluntarily and enthusiastically sign up for courses on our topics are the way to go; which makes sense since when the Mythopoeic Society started half a century ago - this year is literally our 50th anniversary - it was mostly college and high-school students.

I had a fairly busy convention for programming, with one full-length paper and two shorter presentations for panels, plus narrating the Not Ready for Mythcon Players, but later for that, and for the question of "So what else is there to do around there?" Champaign-Urbana is famously not near anything worth noting; this turns out not to be quite true. For now, other papers I attended included:

The Guest of Honor speeches by the archivists of the two major US Inklings collections. Laura Schmidt of the Wade Center gave a basic educational talk on what archives are good for, with plenty of illustrations from her own Inklings and others collection. William Fliss of Marquette U's Tolkien collection, lacing his speech with Tolkien allusions, discussed addressing the accessibility problems with the material in his charge.

This was actually particularly interesting. The Tolkien papers were donated at two different times, one set with first access on 1970s microfilms and the other with Christopher Tolkien's annotated photocopies (the originals are fragile and only used when the copies aren't sufficient), and kept under different arrangements, plus security regulations require using only one reel or folder at a time. But if they're digitized, researchers can look at whatever they want instantly and compare items across the board, plus the reproductions will be better. So that's what they're working on. (Still only onsite, though, for copyright reasons.)

A father-daughter pair of papers on the Deadly Sins in Tolkien: Gollum's envy and Thorin's avarice.

Our first-ever paper on Orphan Black, an sf tv show I've actually seen, on the mythological resonances in the character of Helena. Singling her out in this way made me realize that, at least so far, Helena has a three-part story separated by the hinge points that Janet Croft identified in the paper.

Yet another paper by John Rosegrant providing brilliant psychoanalytical insights into Tolkien's characters. He does this every year. This time the best part was his declaration that trying to pin down who or what Bombadil is misses the point.

A thought-provoking paper concerning the story, quite clearly false but reported in a couple early books on Tolkien, that his mother, Mabel, had been a missionary to the harem of the Sultan of Zanzibar in her youth. (And sometimes since repeated from there.) Where did this rumor come from? Nancy Bunting believes that the story has two independent sources - I'm not so sure that the second one is independent, and need to check up on exactly what it says - that it must have come from Tolkien himself, and that his mother had made up the story and told it for reasons of her own, which Nancy is confident she's found; further, that it's not the only time Mabel embellished an otherwise puzzling story, the other concerning her baby son. If this paper ever gets published - I advised Nancy on where I thought she should send it - you can read all about it. Until then: well, you should have been at Mythcon, shouldn't you?