Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Music at Menlo, week 2

During roughly the second week of the Menlo festival, I reviewed two more concerts: the "Leipzig" concert, which I found relatively easy to do - mostly familiar music, and pretty straightforward - and a viola recital, which was a bit more challenging, involving as it did close consideration of an instrument I couldn't even begin to play in some pretty abstruse repertoire. I wound up treating the violist's playing entirely separately from describing the works played, and in the process of drafting cut a lot of explanatory sentences about the playing which might have been useful to less knowledgeable readers, but which I thought looked too naive and elementary in context. At one point I added and then immediately cut a sentence explaining that I was not a viola player.

I've also been to a couple of prelude concerts, a couple of master classes, one of the student marathon concerts (at which a crisp version of the first movement of Dvorak's "American" Quartet was the highlight), and the last one of the year of what Menlo calls its Encounter sessions. These are lectures, usually by visiting experts, on topics related to the theme of the annual festival. They're ticketed and fairly expensive, and since I'm not reviewing them directly, and thus don't feel eligible for a comp ticket, I rarely go.

But I was added as a late substitute reviewer for the third week's Budapest concert, in place of my fellow reviewer who's actually Hungarian but can't make it, and I know little about Budapest, so I hoped the Encounter on Budapest and Vienna (which I'm also reviewing) would be enlightening.

It wasn't. The touted expert turned out to be an expert on prehistoric archaeology, and while he was very interesting on what we know of the cultural life of the Stone Age Danubian peoples, once we jumped to the 18th century his knowledge was much thinner and no more than mine, in truth. He also said a few things I wished to query factually, but my attempt to wait to catch his attention after the talk was pre-empted by the arrival of the festival directors, who wished to whisk him away for a late dinner, so I missed my chance.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Mythcon in Atlanta: programming

So yes, I was going to get to this.

The theme was "On the Shoulders of Giants," how work has been built on the foundations of our predecessors. Both our Guests of Honor gave their plenary talks on this theme. Robin Anne Reid, the scholar who is one of the contributors to my "Year's Work in Tolkien Studies" consortium and who penned a useful Year's Work-like historical survey for the Mythsoc Press's recent collection of essays on Tolkien and women (including his female characters), talked about scholarship in the context of one's predecessors. Donato Giancola, who's painted a number of covers for recent Tolkien book editions, gave a slide talk illustrating his development as an artist in the context of the artists he most admires. While I don't much personally care for Giancola's "muscular realism" style, it's an honorable tradition in Western art history and he carries it on worthily.

My own talk, more than an academic paper, and which I delivered entirely off the cuff due to the disappearance of all my notes (see previous entry), was on the development of the "Year's Work": what goals I'm trying to accomplish by doing it and how both the individual entries and the complete annual report are put together. All that was missing was some of the more pungent entries I was planning to quote.

Other papers I attended discussed:

The moral dynamics of Frodo's journey to Mordor, with the vital roles of Sam and Gollum;

The sense of fate, that's both in a sense foredoomed and something you have to work to achieve (or avoid), that Tolkien got from Beowulf;

Frodo as a Faustus character, an interesting and unprecedented comparison from a high-school student who happened to be reading both works at once;

A stout recovery of Edith Tolkien, JRR's wife, from the calumnies the presenter perceived that biography Humphrey Carpenter poured on her;

How Tolkien may have (might have?) used the theme of music in his works to reflect his own relationship with his mother;

A close biographical and personality analysis of Sam Gamgee as a person in Tolkien's fiction;

A comparison of how C.S. Lewis and H.P. Lovecraft reacted to World War I;

An analysis of characters in Orphan Black as Parsifal figures (OK, that may sound like stretching it, but the argument was coherent);

A moderated group discussion session on thoughtful quotes from the essays of Ursula K. Le Guin;

A talk describing Mythlore's new online archives, by the editor and the archivist;

A description by its creator of a cross-edition Lord of the Rings citation system, which would be more useful if it included more editions and (if copyright allowed) more pull quotes (he actually wants us to adopt his system of numbering all the book's paragraphs - I don't think so); and his also not-very-complete index to Tolkien's published art.

Mythopoeic Awards: neither winner of the Scholarship Awards got my first-place votes, but both I consider worthy books. On the other hand, I know at least two members of the Fantasy Awards committee who disliked the Adult winner so much they refused to give it any points at all.

My personal choice for the winner of the most ingenious food sculpture at the banquet is the same young man who gave the paper on Faustus, who arranged some bits of pork loin on a plate in the shape of a large letter "S", explaining that it was the Worm Ouroboros: a worm, or a boar "S".

Thursday, July 26, 2018

This must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays.

Last Thursday was the most personally distressing day I've had in a while; and if the succeeding days have also been bad, it's because of that Thursday. And the full story is here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Mythcon in Atlanta

The Mythopoeic Conference was at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Atlanta this year, and therein marks a landmark: not merely only the second time it's been in the South (Nashville, 2003). Traditionally on college campuses or in conference centers - and still was last year - in recent years Mythcon has been moving more to hotels. But this was the first time that hotel was central city, and therein marks a significant shift in functioning.

The group cafeteria meals at traditional campus Mythcons are the making of its social cohesion. You get your food from the counter and can sit down at a table with anyone, newcomers and old-timers alike. We meet each other and can discuss programming and other events.

While at hotel-oriented SF cons, while it's possible for a newcomer who knows no-one to hook on to a dinner expedition, it's not that common or easy. It requires both boldness and luck to find one.

Consequently, at previous hotel Mythcons, which have mostly been out in the suburbs where a car is necessary for much of a choice of restaurants, we've had the hotel cater all our meals. But this is much more expensive at a hotel than on a campus, and adds logistical hurdles not a concern at campuses which were going to serve cafeteria meals already.

This year we had just two catered meals in the hotel's ballroom (obscurely located downstairs from the lobby: the meeting rooms where we held programming were easily findable on the 3d floor), bumped up from one (the Sunday banquet) when we found we weren't meeting their catered minimum. The hotel had a restaurant, which so far as I know nobody used (its menu didn't appeal to me), so all our other meals had to be out.

The committee did several intelligent things to mitigate the disruptiveness of this to the Mythcon atmosphere, although several of those things could have been executed better:

1. Downtown locale. Lots of restaurants in easy walking distance, at least a dozen within 2 blocks. However, only 7 of them plus a mall food court, not all of them that close, made it into the list buried inside the program book. This should have been much more extensive.

2. Full two-hour break from programming for lunch (and no formal programming at all on the unplanned dinner night). I was hoping they'd know you can't gather and execute a convention meal expedition in less time than that, and they did.

3. Reservation for Saturday lunch at the Irish pub across the street. We had their back room, so it was easy to chat freely across the table. On Saturday we packed at least 35 people in that room. And not only was the food as good as at any other restaurant I ate at in Atlanta, but the service was awesomely efficient. Drinks, food, and bills all handled at top speed with absolutely no errors in who got what or standing around asking, "Who had the fish?" About a dozen of us went back the next day (the program listing said we had a reservation then too, but the pub didn't know it: this didn't prevent them from giving us the same room or sending latecomers trickling in to find us).

It was a brilliant success; the only problem was that only by carefully reading the restaurant listings buried in the program book could one learn about the reservation. It only got mentioned at a plenary session because I asked about it from the audience.

4. The "buddy system", an innovation whereby old-timers and newcomers could sign up to give the latter ready-made acquaintances to talk with and show them around. B. and I signed up, had a pleasant conversation with our "buddy" (a college student giving an excellent paper on Beowulf) and coaxed her along to the big Saturday lunch. After that we didn't see her much; I trust that she made enough other friends. The problem with this system is that, though the committee had been considering it for some time, it was only announced at the last minute. I have no idea how much it was actually used.

It seemed to me, as an old-time Mythcon programmer, that all these were good ideas. But we heard at the members' meeting from people who still found themselves isolated, friendless and without meal expeditions. So it didn't work perfectly, and I think lack of publicity and explanation was the cause of the problem. On the other hand, I've met people who attended campus Mythcons and didn't feel part of the community either, so the problem may not be completely solvable.

Oddest was the case of the two finalists for the Mythopoeic Awards who were at our table at the banquet, with no indication from the committee to the general membership that they were there. There might have been more finalists at other tables, and I'd have no idea of it, as none of the actual winners were present. It was astonishing to me that they'd come and the con would have no programming with them. But while Mythcon programming is mostly academic papers, there's usually some discussion panels and readings, and there were none this year. Available space and time-slots were tight, but it would have been easy enough to squeeze more events in.

I learned from one of the finalists that she'd actually been offered a comp membership. This hadn't been done for finalists when I was running Mythcon: we told them about the con and said they'd be welcome, but we strictly limit comps and didn't offer them any. I think changing that policy could be a good idea, but only if you then put them on programming. The final ballot comes out 3 months before Mythcon, and you then have to hear back from the ones who are coming, but that still leaves time to fit them into the program. As programmer on any Mythcon I've run, I would have signed both of these two up in a flash.

As it was, this finalist told me she had heard nothing back from the committee, had no idea what to do at the con (though she'd been to Mythcons before) and spent most of the time in her hotel room. I think that's sad, and while one could be a little more proactive in wandering downstairs and seeing what's going on (and I know she found the hospitality suite the previous evening), they shouldn't be entirely dependent on having to do that.

Mythcon committees are small and sketchy and overworked and, of course, all volunteer, and things get missed, but this is how we learn to do better. In both cases, not grasping what it is that people don't already know may be the insidious culprit.

As for programming events, and the searing (non-con-related) experience that made this Mythcon regrettably memorable for me, those'll come in later posts. See you on the flip side.

Monday, July 23, 2018

concert reviews: Music @ Menlo

I'm just back from Mythcon in Atlanta, and while it's too early (or too late, in the evening that is) to report on the conference, at least I can tell you what I was doing much of the previous week, which was attending the first week of the annual Menlo chamber music festival, and reviewing same.

Reviews of the week covered the first two of the festival's seven keynote concerts inspired by the output from various notable European cities: London for the Daily Journal and Paris for SFCV.

The original set of press photos for the London concert included one of facially expressive violinist Angelo Xiang Yu in mid-grimace. It was a great photo, but the authorities must have decided it was too grim, so they deleted it before I could pass it on to my editors.

The allusion to Paris being a hard sell is no exaggeration either. I was surprised at the number of people otherwise available who declined my offer of my companion ticket to this concert because they just didn't find the repertoire appealing.

At least ... well, let's save that up too.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Tolkien exhibit

The Bodleian Library's Tolkien exhibit, which I got to at its opening at the beginning of June, runs through October 28, and I hope many will be able to attend.

What I hadn't seen until now is the exhibit's promotional video.

This is good, featuring several intelligent experts, although I question one sequence with the people from the local Tolkien society: I don't know the source for claiming that Tolkien and Lewis would commune at Merton's stone table (which they could only have done long after their most productive collaborating years), still less that it's the inspiration for the one in Narnia, to which it bears no resemblance other than being stone and a table. (And as for reading aloud in the Black Speech to honor Tolkien, that's just inconsiderate.)

But the other news is that the Morgan Library in New York has now officially announced that the exhibit is coming there next year, January 25-May 12. Although a few pieces that the Bodleian only borrowed from other Oxford institutions aren't coming along, it should still be a grand exhibit when transplanted, and I'm thinking of going again.

Friday, July 13, 2018

orphaned in black

B. rented the fifth and final (I hope) series of Orphan Black, and I've been sort of playing catch-up given that only sometimes am I home when she's watching an episode, and I can't always figure out time to watch one when I am.

Anyway, I think I caught them all, in some order, and the first thing that occurs to me is that I don't think of a show like this as having "episodes" at all, just hour-long chunks of a continuing storyline without much to differentiate them except which pieces of plot occur when. With half a dozen major characters, each usually in different places doing different things, all being followed at once, no episode has a distinct individual plot, and nothing ever ends. This makes it hard to nominate or vote for episodes of shows like this for the Hugo, and with their dominance I'd favor just eliminating the rule that divides them up for voting.

Yet, I find on dipping into the extra features (which thankfully do not consist of unnecessary promos for the show - you've just watched the DVD of the whole thing, what would you need that for? - but interviews with the cast and crew, but my do they blither on), that the writers and directors do think of each episode as a distinct entity with an individual character and style, as in a traditional show. That surprises me.

Having given up any hope of believable plot or character motivation by the end of the second season, by this point I'm just watching it to get to the end of the story, which at least it does, and to admire the acting, which despite everything remains good. But in the meantime we're treated to endless scenes of characters being abruptly bumped off, other characters whom you thought had been bumped off coming back to life, then getting bumped off again, and far too much of characters being told to sit tight and not do anything while we wait for the rest of the plot to catch up. In particular, it's been clear since near the start that Alison, though a great character, is absolutely useless for the main storyline, and is good for nothing except to sit around fretting with an occasional irrelevant domestic drama to distract her. Sarah is mostly shunted off to a corner to suffer physically,* and Felix, once the bulwark of the show's emotional support, is now used only to schlep little pieces of the plot around. I will give them credit, however, for having hit on, in Rachel, the rare knack for creating a character who's simultaneously sympathetic and a nasty villain.

*She goes through hell to rescue Cosima, who, when she finally finds her, says basically, "I'm good." Then she goes through hell to save Kira from Rachel, until Kira changes her mind. Then Rachel changes her mind.

Usually a show's cast and crew hold a party to honor the ending of the show's run. In this case, the characters hold the party, probably because this way, multiple Tatiana Maslanys can show up. During it, Helena (probably the most interesting character overall, and I've already heard one good Mythcon paper about her) says that she's going to write up their story - presumably as the show we've been watching five seasons of - and she's going to call it "Orphan Black." And everybody says that's a good idea, but why black, anyway?

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

concert review: Bridge Piano Quartet

Yikes, did this ever turn out to be a challenging review to write.

First, it featured a work to which the music was virtually inconsequential, and was all about the texts the narrator was reading. So I had to focus on that, which is not what I was expecting of a concert review. (When I covered the discussion panel on anti-Semitism in Bach, I at least was clear on what I was getting before I started.)

That the topic was early 20C Asian immigrants and their travails with bureaucracy in trying to get into the US immediately suggests contemporary parallels, and the connection was drawn in the pre-work talks. So I alluded to that, but without making explicit my own opinion. Nobody on stage would have disagreed if I had been explicit, but I dislike it when reviewers throw in personal political views that aren't germane to the concert, even (maybe most so) when I agree with them. For instance in this week's issue, here. It doesn't add anything to the review and is either obvious or annoying. There are other forums for that.

Second, the acoustics. It was pretty awful for the narration, which knowing the hall I could have predicted beforehand, not that the narrator had a good voice for such work, a fact I tried to elide over - I don't want to insult her. But I had to be blunt about the basic problem. I did not have room to mention that the concert had been played at Old First Church in the City last week, and it probably came off a lot better there.

I had a fairly lengthy chat with the composer afterwards, not discussing the acoustic problems, but asking him musical questions as I was anticipating saying more about the work musically than I eventually decided to do.

I also learned of the origin of his interest in things Asian. Not only has he worked with both Japanese and Chinese musicians, but his bio says he speaks Japanese fluently, and he's learning Chinese (says Wernher von Braun). He told me his interest in Japan had been sparked when he was sent there on his Mormon missionary tour.

Now that's interesting, because he can thus be added to several people I know of Western origin, with no previous personal connection with Japan, who have fallen intensely in love with the country and its culture. I suppose this dates back to the fad for things Japanese that swept Britain at the time of the Knightsbridge exhibition in the 1880s, but the intensity of it in the cases I know, though focusing on different forms - anime in one case, literature in another, J-pop in a third - is striking.

It's also baffling to me, because I have no particular interest in things Japanese (apart from their composition of Western classical music, in which they are supreme among all non-Western countries), and insofar as I have a cultural learning in the East Asian world, it's decidedly towards things Chinese instead. I prefer Chinese painting, folk music, literature (insofar as I've read any from either culture), and above all food. Of course, I also have one friend so interested in China that she visits it frequently, and I wouldn't go that far either. Well, everybody has their passions, and I'm just curious about the choice.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

on the day

With a little bit of help - for none of the non-library-worker volunteers came back this week, though a few had trailed on to the end of the previous week, beyond the dates we'd originally scheduled them for - the library barcoding project is pretty much done. Some of the more obsolescent media material still needs to be done, and the cleanup ahead of me is immense, and will take at least the whole of next week, but at least we can return the library to normal circulation operations.

Another piece of news I'd passed by that went into effect that previous week is that we have a new cat sitter. What generated this was Pippin being moved for medical reasons onto canned wet food. We've always fed the cats twice a day, but when we were gone we'd have the cat sitter put two meals' worth of kibble out once a day and hope the cats would pace themselves (because they weren't getting any more until tomorrow), but that won't work for the wet food, which once opened won't keep without refrigeration, and also because Maia craves the stuff though it's not hers and she only diminishes Pippin's portions.

But the cat sitter we already had couldn't come twice a day because the traffic around here is too thick. So at her recommendation we bought an automated cat feeder with ice packs. But then last month, on our first trip since then that required the sitter to refill the feeder, she didn't understand how it worked, despite my having devoted considerable time to writing out detailed instructions and then rewriting them when she didn't understand the first batch. Fortunately she brought in a ringer to take the other daily visit and not leave the cats in the lurch, but this isn't a permanent solution.

So B. put out a call on a neighborhood list and we found a professional sitter who's more local and can visit twice a day with no problem. She came over, chatted a lot (cat people love to talk), actually saw both cats (which I wasn't expecting: they're shy), filled out paperwork and took the key, and we await her maiden working visit.

So the cats don't have anything to worry about. I do. So here's the question. Which induces more existential dread, the wave of record-breaking temperatures or the retirement of Justice Kennedy?

Thursday, July 5, 2018

day out

That it was a holiday was not a big concern of mine. I went in to work in the morning anyway, because the project still needs to get done.

And I didn't need to leave until at least noon for the annual backyard grilling, noshing, and schmoozing party of my (non-Jewish, despite those adjectives: some activities are universal) friends whose anniversary this is.

Traded Shakespeare festival information with one of my more Shakespearean friends, and told stories of the Oxford and Montana trips. Learned why neither daughter of the house was present: elder daughter (who teaches at the University of Michigan) is at a scientific conference in Budapest, of all places, while younger daughter (who lives here) went to Detroit to meet her sister on the way out to pick up her car, which she's buying, and is now driving it all the way back to California. Having once made precisely that drive myself (carting my late grandfather's belongings), I was nostalgic.

Tried a couple of experiments with the grill. I've grilled sausages before, but not English bangers, which I usually cut up and pan-fry. They came out well grilled, but the shrimp skewers did not. I'm not sure why. Shrimp normally cooks fast, but these did not, and came out chewy. Saved most of them for my next batch of jambalaya.

Saw a few fireworks on the way home, fewer than usual, but then I left earlier than usual. After I got home, heard a few explosions, or they could have been gunshots for all I knew, but I trust they were fireworks or -crackers. That was about the extent of festivities.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Harlan Ellison sayeth

This is not the sort of quote I'd have expected from such a source, but I'll take what I can get, as a quick memorial for a complicated and problematic man:

"Kittens only have two purposes in life. One is to make everything that's moving stop, and the other is to make everything that's stopped, move."
- Harlan Ellison

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


A lot of things have been going on. I'm still spending most of my days over at my congregational library, trying to organize, supervise, and put my own hand in to our barcoding project. Despite the decline in volunteers (we originally only recruited them for a few days at the start of the project), it's plugging along and I'm determined to get all the circulating books barcoded by the end of this, the second week of work. Then we can reopen the library to circulation, from which it's been effectively closed. Then another week should take care of the reference books and the obsolete media, and then the project will be over but I get to plunge into the online cleanup, which I may attempt to describe when it happens.

It's interesting being in charge of this project. I've worked on large organizing projects in professional libraries where I've worked (including being on the teams reshelving all the books that fell over during major earthquakes), but this one I had to plan and organize myself. Fortunately I've been observing long enough that I knew what to do. It's turned out pretty well, and the inevitable glitches haven't been paralyzing.

Meantime I also have reviews to write. Feeling guilty about having missed the Redwood Symphony's last regular concert of the season because I was in England, I decided to attend their annual outdoor pops gathering. There wasn't a lot to say about it, and I had to finish it off in a blazing hurry, but that got done. The Daily Journal likes me to end reviews with alerts for upcoming concerts. It was easy enough to cut-and-paste a little about Redwood's next pop concert from the press release they sent me without any prompting from me, but the beginning of next season? At the concert they said a brochure was available, but I forgot to pick one up, and the info wasn't on their website; in fact, two weeks later, it still isn't. I had to find out what they're playing, and when, from the website of a ticket broker service.

Then I got to the Silicon Valley Music Festival, which was just crammed full of weird stuff, which with considerable handling I managed to get into a review. When I called one piece "reassuringly postmodernist," I meant it: after all this strange and exotic music, it relaxed my listening tension to find something in an idiom I comfortably understood.

The Redwood concert was on the same day as the Solstice Party, a major event on my social group's annual calendar. I thought I might get over to the party first before the concert, but I was just too busy and it didn't work. I did, however, drop by the still flickering party after the concert, where quiet conversation included my insistence, in response to a question, that no, I'm not attending the SF Opera Ring cycle. I've heard all these operas on recordings, and I am not sitting through any more of them on stage.

One day while I was at the SVMF, B. was off at an evening (fortunately, as the daytimes are too hot for this) march and rally to protest family separation and the administration's other inhumane refugee policies. I'm pleased we got represented, at least. B. carried a sign reading "Brown Families Matter," which I thought was cleverer than any of the signs I saw reproduced in photo reports of the rallies.