Wednesday, July 27, 2022

concert review: Music@Menlo

Tuesday's was the only concert of the Music@Menlo festival I'm attending this week, so it gets a separate review. This concert was titled "Admiration," and admiration of who? Haydn, this year's theme composer.

The first half was a solid, hearty program of quartets in C Major by Haydn and Mozart: Haydn's Op. 33 No. 3 "The Bird" named for various chirping figures, was one of the then-recent quartets that inspired Mozart to write his set of six that he dedicated to Haydn, of which we heard K. 465 "The Dissonant" named for the extremely hairy slow introduction which is totally uncharacteristic of the rest of the quartet.

Played in a crisply articulated manner, with vigor and dramatic intensity, by the Orion String Quartet, what they mostly showed to me was how distinct and different Haydn and Mozart were as composers within the borders of the Classical style. To say that Haydn is wittier and more pointed and Mozart is more lyrical and graceful would oversimplify greatly, but it gets you somewhere along the mark.

That Haydn and Mozart each admired the other's genius at composition is historically known (for Haydn to have picked the young Mozart as the greatest composer of their day showed great perspicacity on his part), that Mozart learned technique from Haydn and that, later on, Haydn picked up some from Mozart, is also deducible. But what we learned here is how each had a distinctive and detectable individual style, which isn't always realized.

Exhibit A, Orion String Quartet playing Mozart, L to R, Todd Phillips, Daniel Phillips, Steven Tenenbom, Timothy Eddy.

The rest of the program was early 20C French. On the 1909 centenary of Haydn's death, a French music magazine put Haydn's name to musical notes (musical notes already have letters from A to G, to H if you're German; for the rest you have to either ignore them or fake it) and commissioned six noted French composers to write brief piano pieces utilizing this motif and commemorating the occasion.

We heard four of them here, played by Hyeyeon Park, a regular Menlo pianist who doesn't often get the spotlight, more usually taking a self-effacing role as the pianist somewhere in the background of a large ensemble.

The four composers we heard are all names that should be familiar to students of French music of the period: Reynaldo Hahn (who took the theme most seriously, writing an elaborate series of variations), Paul Dukas (whose lush impressionistic arrangement is not what you'd expect from the composer of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, not so surprising if you remember La Péri), Vincent d'Indy (who wrote a minuet), and Charles-Marie Widor (who wrote a fugue).

Omitted from the program were by far the two best-known composers of the bunch, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Their Haydn pieces will be heard in a concert next Sunday when I'm not here. In their place, we got one full-length work by each composer, with no connection to Haydn, but offering something substantive instead.

For Debussy, senior Menlo violinist Arnaud Sussmann and first-time pianist Mika Sasaki played his Violin Sonata, with Sussmann packing a crisp declarative style rather similar to the way the Orions played Haydn and Mozart. It took the swamp out of Debussy, though Sasaki carefully put a little bit back in.

Exhibit B: Sussmann and Sasaki in Debussy

For Ravel, the four-hand version of La Valse, with Park on the treble and Michael Brown on the bass, where he mostly emitted rumbles but occasionally shot his arm over past Park to emit a mighty descending glissando across the entire keyboard. In its orchestral form this is quite a hothouse piece, and Ravel packed as much of that as possible into this hardly-reduced version. It was a bit more lurid than Menlo usually gets.

Exhibit C, Park and Brown stomping all over Ravel

I also got to the Prelude concert by the young professionals that preceded this event. First, Kodály's Serenade for two violins and a viola, avoiding the eerie lightness of Beethoven's similar piece that I heard last week by placing the viola line determinedly low, even when carrying the theme with the violins playing a descant accompaniment, and by being based on gritty Hungarian folk music which got quite the emphasis here.

Exhibit D, the rhythm of Kodály, with Katherine Woo, Chih-Ta Chen, and Risa Hokamura

I hope that cellist Joshua Halpern has gotten over his self-confessed aversion to Shostakovich as a bitter and complaining composer after playing the solo part in his Cello Sonata. This piece is built on the same model as his Fifth Symphony which followed after a couple of very eventful years, except that the finale is jaunty instead of pompous. Halpern and pianist Sam Hong showed off the tremendous wave of dynamic emotions that the composer could produce even with only two performers to work with.

Exhibit E, Halpern and Hong show how Shostakovich goes

A good evening. I'll be back for a little more next week.

Photos courtesy of Music@Menlo

Tuesday, July 26, 2022


When I wrote recently about the theater-in-a-city-park dramatization of The Lord of the Rings which turned out to be more movie than book, I didn't mention how I realized that would be the case. Before the show started, one of the few actors with a carrying voice announced that this would be "J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings." Then he went around the audience - there were close to 100 people there - coaching them in audience-participation parts. One of the cue lines was something like "Oh no, Saruman is bringing the mountain down!" When he got to me, I asked him to confirm that line, then I asked him, "Are you doing the book or the movie?" He said he knew both, and acknowledged the truth when I pointed out that, in the book, Caradhras acts on its own, not at the behest of Saruman. "You said you're doing Tolkien's Lord of the Rings," I said, "but you're not: this is someone else's." What he said then - this was hurried because he had to move on - was that they were doing "the story."

Item 2. On a mailing list I belong to, someone wrote a post about Tolkien's conception of hobbits. This was specifically about what Tolkien intended. And in the midst of defining hobbitic character, the person wrote "a hobbit (or Harfoot in the Second Age)". And I responded, "It hasn't even started showing yet, and already what's being invented for the new Amazon series has started infecting writings that are supposed to be about Tolkien." What did the poster reply with but a defense of the Amazon invention as being compatible with Tolkien's creation: the name Harfoot "is canon" as the person put it, and hobbits must have existed in the Second Age. But even if it's compatible with Tolkien (which it isn't, not entirely), that's not the point. Compatible or not, it isn't Tolkien's creation, but something someone else invented on their own volition. This person evidently thinks that such additions by others are not a separate invention but have the same ontological status in the sub-creation as does Tolkien's work.

Item 3. This was in a Discord discussion some months ago, and it astonished me so much I went back and hunted for it, which isn't easy to do on Discord. A writer was defending fan-fiction, acknowledging that Tolkien might not have liked what's being written, but saying that doesn't matter: "If he wasn't brave enough to take Gimli and Legolas's obvious relationship to its natural conclusion, bless the people that pick up the pen and do so." I find two things astonishing here, one being the crippling lack of imagination that can't conceive of a deep friendship that isn't physically sexual (it's "obvious") - as C.S. Lewis said when writing about this specific point, one wonders if such a person has ever had an actual Friend - and the other being the serene confidence that the only reason Tolkien didn't write it that way is because he chickened out ("wasn't brave enough"). It's not just a matter of the personal preference of "I want to write it this way" but the co-opting and commandeering "This is the way Tolkien should have written it."

My point here isn't to argue against Amazon doing what it wants, or fan-fiction writers doing what they want. My point is that it's not Tolkien. I think these people take Tolkien's legendarium as if it were a legendary tradition like the Arthurian saga, in which there is no authorized core and any interpretation is equally - not just equally valid, but equally authoritative.

That's not the case here. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is not an anonymous legend, but a conscious work of art by a conscious creative artist. It has its own authority, its own integrity. You can write additions to the story if you want, but they're your additions, your invention. They're a modified story by you, they're not Tolkien's.

In all three of these cases, the additions and changes were claimed as part of Tolkien's story. The actor said he was dramatizing Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, not the movie or (what they were actually doing) an amalgam. The mailing list poster was gratuitously (because it didn't affect his point) attaching Amazon's invention to a post about Tolkien's conception. And the Discord poster made bold to claim what Tolkien should really have written.

Don't do that. If you want to play with a legendary tradition in which every contributor has equal authority, you have that right. But label it as such. Don't call it Tolkien.

Why this feels emotionally important to me is a separate point which would go on too long, so I'll leave it be for now.

Monday, July 25, 2022


I received two vaccination shots at the doctor's today. (Not covid - I'm up to date on that - but other things.) Consequently I'm now sore in both arms, so this is all the typing you'll see from me today.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

lord of the rings, not

Somebody is performing a condensed dramatization of The Lord of the Rings around various local parks this summer, so I decided to go.

For a venue I picked Pleasanton this Saturday. Bad choice. The park was right next to a busy street, and about a block away a crew was noisily trimming eucalyptus all morning, not that it was easy to hear half the actors anyway. I had no folding chair and I am not equipped to sit on the ground, so I learned against a tree, which only slightly mitigated the limits on my patience.

The cast of eight were the kind of perspiring thespians I remember from high school, frantically mugging in a desperate attempt at sincerity. The show was supposed to be a satire, but it was only occasionally amusing. When Gandalf described how Sauron let much of his power flow into the Ring, Frodo asked, "You mean like a horcrux?" which was a good point. The funniest part was the Nazgûl, amazingly enough. Wearing opaque black veils down to their waists over street clothes, with black hats to keep the veils on, they looked sinister, but they kept walking into things, and they'd sing silly songs like "Mr. Sauron" to the tune of "Mr. Sandman."

The script made some nods to the book, even giving Bombadil a brief appearance for the Old Man Willow scene. (His song was to the tune of "Margaritaville.") But it was mostly the movies. Elrond was grumpy movie-Elrond, Pippin had a hideous fake Scottish accent next to which Billy Boyd would sound RP, the hobbits' songs were to the movie themes, and when they reproduced the movie's "wizard-fu" scene, I gave up and left. Walking back past the park towards my car after picking up some Vallejo tamales at the farmers' market down the street, I could hear the actors yelling about how many orcs they had to fight, so I knew I'd done the right thing in leaving.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Music@Menlo, week 1

So I've been busy at the first week of the Menlo chamber music festival: mostly at two concerts I was assigned to review. I hadn't been terrifically thrilled at the idea of a concert with two cantatas and two concertos, but it turned out to be excellent stuff, especially the Cello Concerto by C.P.E. Bach, one of my favorite 18C composers. I managed to get in print one of my odder theories - at any rate I've never seen anyone else propose this, though it seems obvious to me - that when what was called the "Sturm und Drang" style of nervous drama spread around Germanic music in the early 1770s, the composers were just imitating what C.P.E. Bach had been doing for the previous 20 years.

On the other hand, I was looking forward to the concert of music for winds, but it turned out rather disappointing, mostly because the pieces by Haydn and Beethoven were bottom-drawer stuff, not very good. They were, however, performed excellently, so there's that.

Besides the Prelude concerts featuring two performances of the rare Beethoven quartet for piano and strings, described in the reviews, I got to two more Prelude concerts featuring two performances of the Mendelssohn Op. 13 quartet by a group called the Abeo Quartet. Op. 13 is one of my favorite quartets, a big and hefty work, and it really felt like having been on a long journey with these performers by the time it was done. Thrilling to get it twice.

Two small boys were sitting in front of me for that and a Brahms Viola Sonata, neither of them very beginner-friendly works. But they didn't squirm too badly.

Also a couple of master-classes for the student and young professional performers, concentrating on putting the work across to an audience. One of the instructors said he didn't like shoulder rests for violins because of the angle it makes you sit at, or something. As if in sympathy, the second violinist's shoulder rest fell off onto the floor with a clang as she lowered the instrument after the slow movement of the Mendelssohn.

But the highlight of the week was a two-hour (plus intermission) lecture on the Haydn quartets by violinist Aaron Boyd, whose combination of erudition, wit, and fluency would make for a winning show even if I hadn't already been in the market for a good overview of this repertoire. Haydn wrote 68 quartets and Boyd couldn't cover them all, but about half got a treatment and all the sets they were published in got generally described. Except for the introduction and coda, Boyd sat with three colleagues from the festival's main artists - violinist James Thompson, violist Paul Neubauer, and cellist David Finckel - and about half of the time was spent playing excerpts from the quartets, plus examples showing Haydn's influence not just on Mozart and Beethoven, but Bartok and Schoenberg. The emphasis was on the audacious originality and imagination that went into Haydn's quartets, ideas that sometimes became so standard they're hard to recognize for what they are. For instance, Haydn apparently invented what Boyd called "beginning before the beginning," that is setting a repeating accompaniment running for a bar or two before bringing in the theme. You hear that at the start of Mozart's K.550 G-minor symphony and Beethoven's Ninth, he pointed out; he did not point out that it's the same thing as "vamping till ready" and so standard in pop music that you'd hardly think anyone had to invent it. I wish I'd taken notes of which of the quartets played I was already familiar with, but it was a thoroughly enlightening and enjoyable evening.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

out of the land of the dex

In addition to attending several Menlo festival events and writing two reviews for publication (I'll summarize that when the week's over), I've been busy with the same task that's been massively occupying me for most of the last four weeks, which is indexing an upcoming book for the Mythopoeic Press. It's a collection of essays which I'd describe as focusing on the aesthetic expression of Tolkien's moral principles in The Lord of the Rings. I'd already critiqued an earlier version, and as I'd indexed a book by the editor long ago, someone prevailed upon the authors to hire me for their index.

I see an indexing job as taking 5 steps.

1. Get familiar with the text. I'd already read this book twice, but I read through each essay again to grasp it as an individual whole before proceeding to:

2. Marking up the proofs. I need a printout of the final paginated copy for this, and I mark it with a felt-tip pen (not yellow: yellow is too light, but not a dark one either: pink is good) with occasional pencil annotations.

3. Transcribing the markups into an Excel spreadsheet. Four columns: heading, subheading if any, beginning page, ending page if different. Alphabetize it, and:

4. Rework the spreadsheet into index form.

5. Cleanup. Mostly done in conjunction with step 4. Look for inconsistencies and problems; word search of the PDFs of the proofs (need that too) for every entry to confirm I didn't miss anything important.

The major work of indexing comes in steps 2-3. An index is not a concordance: I only index names if there's enough material on them to make it worthwhile for the reader to look up the entry from the index, right? Index concepts, too, especially important ones described in consistent language. And always divide lengthy entries into subheadings. A long string of page references is useless to a reader. This time I placed a maximum of 5 references before requiring subheadings.

There's much consideration of phrasing and separation of entries in step 3, but throughout steps 4-5 also, I'm always reconsidering and editing and clarifying. Many indexes are terrible, but I'm determined to create a good one.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

UK political neepery

So it's Sunak and Truss. About what I expected.

If it were up to the MPs, or the general voters, the choice would surely be Sunak, who seems slightly less batty. But it's up to the party activists, who probably prefer Truss for the same reason. It's not looking well for the Tories. Remember when they picked IDS? And that was when they were out of office.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

kitten on the keys

My review of last night's Menlo concert included the words "one of the". After Tybalt finished rolling around on my desk for a while, it read "on+++---+-e of th++*-+-*e".

Saturday, July 16, 2022

eight-step procedure

1. Cat jumps up on desk.

2. Pick up cat, place back on floor.

3. Cat jumps up on desk.

4. Pick up cat, place back on floor.

5. Cat jumps up on desk.

6. Pick up cat, place back on floor.

7. Cat jumps up on desk.

8. Pick up cat, get up from chair, carry cat out of room, place in hallway. Close and latch door.

Friday, July 15, 2022

intractable problem, tiny solution

My now only newish mobile phone said, in its instructions, that to add your own ringtone, put the file in this particular folder on the phone, from which a settings command will allow you to transfer and designate it.

This requires plugging the phone by its USB port into a computer, and that's where the problem came in. When I did so, the phone wouldn't appear on the computer's device list. I'd had occasional problems on my computer in the past, so I tried it on two other Windows computers. Same result.

Finally decided to do something about this. I tried my all-purpose commercial computer gurus. They said there's probably an enabling or setup command somewhere on the phone, but they didn't know my model and didn't have time right then to search for it.

Tried the phone's help number. Out of our area of expertise, they said, and nothing in their manuals helped. Try one of our retail stores.

Retail store guy didn't know anything either. Even after I explained how I'd verified the problem he suspected that it was a problem of the computer, not the phone. I took leave to doubt this. Learned eventually this wasn't a real vendor retail store but a licensed one, so they're not even employees of the vendor. This was news to me; it was a dedicated outlet when I was last there, before the pandemic. Directed me to the nearest real store.

At the real store, they were busy but the person who took down my name for the customer waitlist, upon asking what I was there for and learning the answer decided to skip the waiting process and help me right away herself. After a little fumbling, located a command buried deep in settings called "USB storage." This was disabled; she enabled it. "That will probably work," she said, though lacking a computer on which it could be checked.

Took it home and it was. Now I have a ringtone I can remember is mine.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

found and bought

I've purchased two small mechanical devices that require the insertion of a battery (not included) to work.

One is a travel alarm, to replace my old faithful which disappeared some time ago, probably left behind in a hotel room. One wants to ensure it works properly. Insert battery, set time, set alarm to go off two minutes in the future, and wait. OK, it works.

The other is a stud-finder. It would be helpful, once I reinstall my hanging shelves, for them not to be knocked down again next time a cat jumps on them. I once had a mechanical (no battery) version of a stud-finder, but I could never figure out how it worked. This one has clear instructions and there's even a demo video on the manufacturer's web site. But that doesn't help. If I am to believe its readings, the studs keep moving around inside my walls. Sometimes they're 20 inches wide. Then they disappear entirely.

Then I've found a box of my mother's old theater programs, mostly 1940s-60s. Most of these can just be dumped: obscure local companies and college productions, touring ensembles. I'm keeping the program from an early touring production of Fiddler on the Roof because it has an article by Sheldon Harnick about how he wrote the lyrics.

And into the box for sale to the used bookstore are a few curious items that, probably, nobody younger than myself will recall from when they were current. Prestige motion pictures, the kind that also had ushers and intermissions, used to come also with program books, as you'd get in the stage theater. But they were large format, at least 11 inches high, and at least partially in color. Souvenir books, really. The expected contents: articles about the movie and its topic, bios of the principal actors and production personnel, stills from the movie and production shots. There were four of these, two of Lawrence Olivier Shakespeare films from the 40s, Henry V and Hamlet, and two from big David Lean films from the 60s, Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia.

Those final two were about the last of their kind. I didn't see the movies in the theater, I would probably have been too young not to squirm, but I do remember my parents bringing home the program books and my looking through them. So yeah, I remember these. I wonder if I'll have to explain what they are to the bookstore buyers. I'm sure they've heard of the movies, but the idea of a program book for a movie is so alien now that they may wonder: what are these booklets, what are they for?

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

the least important part

When I posted about this in an article comment section I got a sarcastic reply about how important this must be, but there's no requirement that comments be on important topics. Therefore this is an unimportant post.

But it seems to me an indication of something - maybe the unreality for us old folks of the whole idea of years beginning with "2" - that people are having trouble either remembering what year it is now, or that a December-January timeline is going to have two different years attached to it.

At the hearing yesterday, chairman Thompson made one of his imposing references to the committee's topic, phrasing it as "the events of January 6, 2020." Oops.

Then I saw an article with a reference to the "tweet Donald Trump sent after midnight on December 19, 2021." Oops.

That this is later referred to as "last December" demonstrates the author's further detachment from mundane considerations of time.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

crown of ignition

A few years ago I broke a tooth - a lower molar. My dentist said it probably needed a crown, but I could survive without one, and he didn't seem inclined to take it further than that, so we let it be.

My new dentist, though, was not, and insisted on scheduling an appointment ASAP, even though I'm going out of town in two weeks. The lab will just have to make the permanent crown faster!

I went in this morning for the first and grizzlier of the appointments. This was my first dental operation ever without the benefit of either nitrous or some pill likewise designed to calm and relax, and it may have been the absence of that, rather than increased age alone, that caused me to feel completely wiped out after two hours of being orally mauled. (My last operation in the chair was a root canal under nitrous five years ago, after which I hopped out of the chair feeling just fine.)

On the other hand, this dentist has two innovations for the patient's use that I haven't seen before and which were quite successful. First, industrial-style sunglasses (the kind that cover the sides of the frames). Previously I spent most of the time in the chair with my eyes shut so as to not get anything in them. Second, a plastic device to bite down on to ease the strain of keeping one's mouth wide open. This also saves wear and tear on the dentist who doesn't have to keep telling the patient to open.

At least that part's over, leaving but a searing memory, and a bill (my new insurance, the one which forced me to change dentists in the first place, is limited in how much of this it covers).

Monday, July 11, 2022

return of the Dark Tower syndrome

It's happened again. Someone whom I know to be sharp and intelligent wrote a reply to a contentious post of mine (in a blog comment section, not here) that was so determinedly ignorant and stupidly argued, and which even went so far as to refuse to accept my own evaluation of what my own opinion was, that I realized there was no point in replying, even privately: the Dark Tower syndrome had struck again.

This I've named for the reactions I got in the 1980s from both sides of the argument over the authenticity of The Dark Tower. It's when someone is so wedded to the truth and justice of their position on an issue that any finding of problems with it, even suggestions as to how to phrase a defense that would be more useful to people who'd like their concerns addressed, is considered as merely proof that you're sworn allegiance to the other side. To get this from both sides, as I did with the Dark Tower, is a rare achievement.

There could be an overlap here with how one responds to trolling, the asking of supposedly innocent questions which are just gotchas to open eternal quibbles, but I don't think that's the case here. If you're attacked by a troll and don't fall for it, you call them a troll, you don't accuse them of being loyal to the other side. And trolling only reveals itself after multiple exchanges, though it can be suspected earlier (and is often suspected wrongly), whereas the characteristic of Dark Tower syndrome is not a suspicion that the other person is trolling you, but a kind of huffy mulish defensiveness that appears from the beginning. The refusal to accept my own view of my own opinion is the final proof, the cherry on top.

I've not completely given up on the people who Dark Towered me, and I'm not giving up on this person either, but I'll be wary.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Tybalt, you have been a naughty cat

Late last evening, while I was elsewhere, the sound of a loud crash emerged from my office, and then so did a cat. Investigation proved that the ten-pound cat had jumped from my desk on to the hanging bookshelves next to it, which he'd never done before because they're fully occupied.

Thus the weight, or more accurately the momentum, of said ten-pound cat caused the entire assembly to fall to the floor, not incidentally knocking out the power cords from their wall outlets, and all of that is now buried in a large pile of shelves, shelf supports, and all the books and papers on it.

That means not only is my computer unplugged and without power, so are the room lights, so I can't attempt to clean any of this up until the morning.

Right now I have a lot of computer work to do: a book I'm in the middle of indexing, another indexing job about to arrive, and the revised proofs of the Tolkien Studies special issue came the previous day, with only a week to get the whole thing reviewed and returned. That'll have to wait.

The only amusing part of this is imagining how startled the cat must have been when its perch disappeared out from under it.

Then, literally in the middle of the night at 3 am - while I'm up, as I often am at that time, working on a totally different long-standing project - B. reports that the tank lever on the toilet has broken.

So that's the first job in the morning, waiting for the hardware store to open - late, 'cause it's Sunday - to find a replacement part and then hoping I have the mechanical savvy to replace the broken one. Relievingly, I do.

Followed by long job of picking up enough books and papers and shelves and shelf supports to uncover the power cords and outlets. Putting the shelves back up will have to wait for later; everything's now piled on my work table. Despite entreaties, the cat is not permitted in the room.

Fortunately everything electronic still works, and I'm here to report on that and then get back to work.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

There are hazards to holding outdoor concerts in high-tech amphitheaters like Stanford's Frost, where I was last evening. Guest conductor Erina Yashima was about to lower her baton on the big post-intermission work, Dvorak's Eighth Symphony, when the interval's loudspeaker program of recorded Berlioz suddenly re-started. She had to wait until someone turned it off again.

Then, a few bars into the work, the music was ripped to inaudible shreds by a helicopter flying low directly over the amphitheater. She had to stop and then start over again, waiting until the helicopter was well and truly gone, which took a bit. More helicopters appeared during the slow movement, but not so low and not directly overhead, so the music could continue.

And it was good music, with this almost terminally attractive symphony given weight and character by subtle fluctuations of tempo in the opening movement, broadening out in the slow section of the finale's coda to almost tragic dimensions.

It was preceded by soloist Johannes Moser being more dutiful than energetic in Lalo's Cello Concerto, and by a newish piece by Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom. Titled Ramal after a classical Arabic poetic meter, it proved to be full of post-Stravinsky irregular rhythms punctuated by percussion, but with a smooth orchestral style separated by section. I rather liked it.

The amplification system, which proved its necessity by going out briefly during a tune-up, sounded to me more tinny than it had been the last time I was here, three years ago, but that may also be due to my sitting considerably further back this time, but still in the section with actual chairs in it instead of sitting on the grass, three cheers for chairs.

As I was invited to this for a press event, I cheerfully accept the responsibility of letting you know that this was the first of a series of four SF Symphony concerts at Frost, each Friday evening for the rest of the month. The upcoming concerts will include both Strausses, Richard and Johann; Rachmaninoff and Gershwin; Kevin Puts and Gabriella Smith; and Pink Martini. They're surrounded in the schedule by a whole carload of jazz and Latin music performers, and - on August 3-6 - the San Francisco Ballet. Schedule and ticket sales.

Due warning: There are some rather precise requirements for getting in: all bags must be clear plastic, water bottles must be factory-sealed, and if you print out your ticket on your home computer, make sure the QR code appears: inability to get that is what tripped me up. And parking for large events can require quite a long walk around here. But it's really relaxing to sit outside in the evening, when the temperature has dropped to comfortably warm, with no bugs or humidity, and hear some music.

Friday, July 8, 2022

it's ready

Amid all the disastrous succession of mostly public bad news (I don't consider Boris's resignation to be good news, but the cessation of bad news, not that it's likely to help the UK's sorry political situation much), I have one piece of personal good news.

I've finished writing my Mythcon Guest of Honor speech. I'll be delivering it three weeks from tomorrow.

This had been worrying me, because I get ideas for scholarly papers but have trouble bringing them to completion. I considered and discarded two ideas for this speech before settling on one that I thought would work. I'd dredged my way through about a third of the writing before I looked through the notes I'd made, oh, nine or ten years ago, for a previous conference presentation that was never finished or published, and which I wanted to draw on here, to discover that the notes were a lot more thorough and complete than I'd remembered. (I really could have finished it up then.)

All of a sudden my paper wasn't one-third finished, it was two-thirds finished, and that gave me the vim to finish the rest up in short order. My writing is a transcription of my talking, and I love writing when what I'd say if I were talking with passion and interest manages to come out through my fingers and down on the page or screen. For me that's natural. Authors whose writing doesn't resemble the way they talk startle me.

I read it out and it came to 58 minutes, so I cut about 5-8 minutes' worth, putting that in footnotes so I can restore it for the published version.

Since then I've been tinkering with it, correcting mostly unclear reference (pronouns where they shouldn't, jumps in thought where I left a stage implied, etc.) and a big flaw of my writing, compound sentences that could easily be separated. I write that way because I see everything I say as flowing together into a single entity. In school I had trouble understanding the concept of paragraphing. "Start a paragraph when you begin a new subject," the teacher said, and I replied, "But the whole paper is about one subject." Eventually I figured that one out, but I still write that way.

As a result of my style of writing, it's usually good for oral presentation, and I've always enjoyed giving papers at Mythcon. I'm looking forward to this one, and I hope my little coterie of fans (I know who you are) are looking forward to it also. I hope to spark some discussion with this one: I have a couple little surprises for you.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

BoJo must go

The alacrity with which Boris was able to find a new Chancellor and new other ministers upon the abrupt resignations of the incumbents made me wonder if the persistent bobble-head-floating-doll tendency of the British government would keep him going. Remember that the resigned Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, had been appointed to replace his paired resigned minister, health secretary Sajid Javid, after the last time he resigned in total disgust at Boris's governing methods. Didn't prevent him from coming back.

However, it appears that the first thing new Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi did was tell Boris that he had to resign. Michael Gove, the only other minister with close to Boris's political weight, had gotten fired for saying the same thing, but I guess firing your new Chancellor the day after you appoint him would be a little too much. So with that and all the massive number of other resignations at cabinet and sub-cabinet level, now it looks like he's really going.

So what happens next?

The Conservative Party controls Parliament, so the next PM will be the new leader of the party. If the leadership is contested, which it probably will be, this could take up to a couple of months. But who knows: in 2016 the candidates kept dropping out, either through lack of support or because something unsuitable cropped up (either in their past or because they opened their mouths) and they wound up with Theresa May because she was the last one left standing.

So Boris could remain PM for a short but indefinite period.

If the revulsion is so great that he has to go now, there will have to be an interim PM until the new leader is chosen. That's happened a few times with the Labour Party leadership out of office, or with PMs in other countries, but never with a UK PM since this procedure was established.

The default candidate for interim would be justice secretary Dominic Raab, because he's deputy PM and that's what the deputy is for. But if he's a candidate for the permanent post, incumbency could be perceived as an unfair advantage and they might have to get somebody else, probably a senior semi-retired figure.

Whatever happens, it's liable to be very soon.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

in memory, Richard Taruskin

A few days ago I pulled out some of my books by Richard Taruskin to browse through during casual reading time. I always enjoy these. Taruskin, whose professorship at the UC Berkeley music department began after my days as a student, created the most intelligent, broadly knowledgeable, and entertaining reading of any scholar of music, outranking even my own professor at Berkeley, the late Joseph Kerman. I once described him as "something of the Harlan Ellison of musicology, or at least the Harlan before Harlan started groping people: loud, opinionated, combative, insanely prolific, and often annoyingly right."

I didn't know then that Taruskin had died last Friday. Dash it: we'll miss his voice. I only ever saw him once: he was in the audience at the first Stanford "Reactions to the Record" symposium in 2007. I didn't attempt to speak to him, even though I was just off a Shostakovich centennial article that leaned strongly on his work: he was just too awesome, even terrifying a figure. He was scheduled to speak at two subsequent conferences in that series, but both times had to cancel for health reasons.

Taruskin's magnum opus is a 5-volume (6 with the index) Oxford History of Western Music. Replacing earlier, more conventionally-written histories, it's selective and idiosyncratic, full of Taruskin's own views, not his opinions of what's good and bad, but his views of what's important to the history of music. Though Taruskin prefers to omit things rather than stuff everything in, it's stunningly comprehensive, covering the entire span of history of written musical composition in our culture (its designated subject), although it heavily concentrates on the last century, which gets two of the five volumes.

One may wonder what's there to write about, and why should a non-specialist care? But Taruskin's topic is the social history of composition (he doesn't have as much to say about performance): what social influences cause composers to write the way they do, how they react to it, how society treats their music. At least the last volume is like that: I picked it up cheap and haven't read the others, though I have friends who've bought the whole set.

But I have made a point of looking for Taruskin's essay collections. I have five of these, three of which are on his specialty, Russian music (of all periods, naturally). Here's my six Taruskin books with some highlights of each.

Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays (Princeton UP, 1997)
Something of a "fix-up" in that it's presented as a succession of 14 chapters, not - despite the subtitle - a collection of essays, but it is in fact based on essays and reviews dating 1983-1996. The theme is the definition of "Russianness" in music and how this has led to the perception of Russia as a second-class nation musically, reliant on folk tunes and not up to the sublimity of German classicism. Taruskin, of course, thinks Russian musical identity is more robust than that. Often rather more technical than his other books. Covers composers from Glinka through Stravinsky and Shostakovich. I found the last the most interesting part: his prinicipal argument is that what we as listeners make of Shostakovich's music (what Tolkien would have called "applicability") is more significant than whatever the composer may have secretly meant (what Tolkien would have called "allegory"), and accordingly he's much less incensed by Volkov's fictions than in his later, more contentious writings.

Music in the Late Twentieth Century (OUP, 2005)
This is the final volume in the Oxford History series. It begins with the birth of the modernist/serialist hegemony in Europe in the wake of WW2, explaining how it began as a reaction to the war's destruction; considers subsequent trends like Cagean indeterminacy and minimalism, discussing the impetus behind those as well, and discussing the effect on classical composition of the rock revolution of the 1960s, which had a cultural impact on the reception of music unlike any previous popular music. Taruskin also takes two chapters in the middle to explore in detail two representative but contrasting composers, the elite modernist Elliott Carter and the conservative populist Benjamin Britten. Obviously it leaves out more than it puts in, but this has the virtue of enabling Taruskin to concentrate on the big broad picture, which he does compellingly. For a closer view of what he leaves out, there are other books.

The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (UC Press, 2009)
Collection of 42 essays and talks dating 1987-2007, mostly for a popular audience. They're short and they're usually contentious. Taruskin is a compelling writer and a brilliant mind who's usually right, but he's exhausting to read in other than short doses, and perusal of the book convinces me that he's also a troll. In the sense that we use the term here on the interwebs. Virtually every reprinted essay is followed by a postscript, gleefully recounting all the completely wrong objections made by readers on first publication and explaining how completely wrong they were. Sometimes this was as much as twenty years earlier, and here's Taruskin lurking all that time just waiting for an opportunity to show these people up. Nor are these transgressors ordinary blokes off the street, but noted writers on music, themselves extremely sharp, people whom Taruskin otherwise respects. Much of the time their flaw, to hear Taruskin tell it, is that they assumed incorrectly that he was saying something that he was coming close to but not actually saying. Topics include a defense of Vladimir Horowitz from those who'd deride him as low-brow, the pointlessness of orchestras announcing a "Beethoven season" because for most of them every season is a Beethoven season, a magnificent critique of a set of "with friends like these ..." books ineptly defending the worth of classical music, and his infamous essay suggesting a little "forbearance and discretion" before programming offensive pieces, e.g. a certain opera extolling terrorism in the immediate wake of 9/11. This was of course mistaken as a call for censorship, and the postscript is as long as the essay.

On Russian Music (UC Press, 2009)
Collection of 36 articles dating 1975-2006, largely for a popular audience (some are for concert programs or record liners). Arranged roughly in chronological order by subject. Despite the relatively limited topic area, these are often just as contentious as the ones in the previous book. This is where Taruskin criticizes performing groups for using up some of their limited concert time reviving groveling Odes to Stalin by Soviet lackeys on the (dubious, frankly: I've heard some of this stuff) grounds that the music is good. This is also where Taruskin re-opens the Shostakovich wars. Let us specify that in the factual matters at hand, Taruskin and his more mild-mannered ally Laurel Fay (who did the actual scholarly work here; Taruskin's role was that of "Darwin's bulldog") were completely correct and their antagonists completely wrong and more than a little trollish themselves. Nevertheless it is rather startling to read Taruskin explain that he can say that one of those antagonists "is the very model of a Stalinist critic" and that his "method is precisely what is known in the West as McCarthyism" but that is absolutely not the same thing as calling the man a Stalinist or McCarthyite, not at all! He's not criticizing the man, you see, but only what he did. But what is a Stalinist or a McCarthyite other than a person who does the things associated with those names? Whom does Taruskin think he's kidding here? However, my favorite piece in the book isn't contentious at all: it's a tribute to Nikolai Miaskovsky. A second-rank Russian composer of the 20C's first half, Miaskovsky is beloved by connoisseurs of obscure classics because he poured his compositional energies into no fewer than 27 symphonies. "That heap of symphonies was to us record geeks what grapes were to Tantalus," says Taruskin, and is he ever right about that.

Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays (UC Press, 2016)
Collection of 20 speeches and articles dating 1998-2015, though most are 2008 or later. Taruskin says in his introduction that he's mellowed out and become less contentious than in his previous collections. Who is he fooling? He's just as contentious as ever, defending Rimsky-Korsakov from charges of being a hack, defending Mussorgsky from Rimsky-Korsakov, defending Tchaikovsky from claims that he committed suicide, defending Shostakovich from Volkov and his acolytes, defending musical groups' right to cancel performances of pro-Stalin or anti-Semitic music, and defending Stravinsky from just about anything. I agree with Taruskin a lot more than I disagree, but my, is he exhausting.

Cursed Questions: On Music and Its Social Practices (UC Press, 2020)
Collection of 13 pieces, mostly talks and addresses, dating 2004-2017, all with titles phrased as questions. This collection is more obviously in hte spirit of his Oxford History than the other collections, mostly because of its concentration on what he calls "social practices." The essays being longer than in other books, they explore in considerably esoteric, but - as always with late Taruskin - compulsively readable depth. Some of the essays are specifically about trying to write music history. Others branch off it, discussing the invention of tradition (an old Taruskin bugaboo, most fully explored I think in an early book I don't have), the attempts by the serialist hegemony to dictate what modern music is, the arbitrary and changing definitions of highbrow and lowbrow, the difference between western and Russian perception of the meaning of music (also brought up in the specifically Russian books), and of course the eternal topic of the difference between discretion and censorship.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022


I wrote yesterday that five people I knew had caught the covid recently but none of them had been hospitalized.

Make that six people, one of whom is hospitalized. Crap.

Monday, July 4, 2022

not a hot July the Fourth

The temperature is rather temperate this week, so that's a good thing, but otherwise I was having a hard time feeling like celebrating. We suffered an attempted political coup directed from the highest levels of government last year, and too many people seem not to care; decades' worth of our rights are being stripped away in one massive attack by a group of maniacs; and the pandemic is still going on, marked by my friends' July Fourth party being canceled for the third year in a row. In the past few weeks, at least five people I know have caught the covid, and while none of them died or was even hospitalized, that's way too close for comfort.

But then I saw in the newspaper this article on the meaning of the Declaration's phrase "all men are created equal," and that was worth consideration.

First I'm delighted that nobody in it made the common but tiresome mistake of thinking that "equal" means "the same" and mocking the phrase because people are obviously not identical in personal attributes like talents or skills, or in material comforts. That's not what it refers to.

The immediate referent of the phrase in the Declaration was faith in the principle that, if the British people had representative government, the British colonists deserved it too. Unfortunately it's clear that Jefferson didn't mean everybody should have those equal rights: women, obviously; children; the poor; and, of course, slaves. But the same thing applied to that British representative government. Parliamentary seats hadn't been reapportioned since the Middle Ages, and all kinds of unpopulated places had representation while the new industrial towns were devoid. This was held up as a virtue. It was argued that if the legally unrepresented masses could consider themselves covered by the legislature, then it could cover the unrepresented colonies also, even though, unlike the industrial towns, they were 3000 miles and an ocean away.

So it's a little hard to say to the man who says, yes, all are created equal but that doesn't mean gay people have the right to marry whom they want, that no, that's unJeffersonian. It's wrong, but it's not pure hypocrisy. On the other hand, the ones who say that if all are created equal then we don't have to address inequality have missed the point. Addressing inequality is why the Declaration was written.

A little food for thought on this holiday.

Saturday, July 2, 2022


Can you classify people by the type of berries they like to eat? I eat blackberries, which I developed a taste for when I lived in Seattle where they grew wild in profusion. At the height of the season I'd accompany a friend to harvest some and then she'd bake blackberry and apple pie.

B. eats blueberries. She puts them in her oatmeal in the morning. I don't eat blueberries: I have trouble with the concept of blue food.

Consequently berries of both kinds are on our weekly shopping list. For a couple of weeks now we've had trouble getting blueberries. B. wondered if they'd been scarfed up by people wanting to have red white and blue meals for the Fourth. But that week was a little early to be saving berries up that long for.

Whatever the reason, I went back out to another store and found the last two small containers of blueberries (we usually buy a large container) in the organic foods section. But this week, nada. Our regular Safeway was out, the larger supplemental one I often try was out, the nearby Luckys, not noted for its produce at any time, was out. It even had a notice that they were applying their sale price to raspberries on account of the shortage in blueberries.

I decided not to try the produce markets: they're good for large fruit like apples and peaches, but I don't recall having seen a lot of berries there.

Instead, I invested the time and gas money to drive to Lunardi's out in the south suburbs. As a different chain they might have their own distributor. And sure enough, plenty of containers of blueberries, with a label saying they were from Petaluma, a good farming town not far away.

So I came home with the blueberries, and also with a dinner's worth of the high-quality fresh crab cakes they do so well.

Friday, July 1, 2022

that's three more boxes gone

I sold four boxes of old books and magazines at the used bookstore last week, and this week got rid of three more boxes from the garage almost as expeditiously.

I'd found two boxes of material of my grandfather's that I'd taken after my mother and I cleared out his belongings after his death, and which I'd evidently never looked at, because I was surprised at how useless it all was for any purpose other than stoking his own memories. Bound volumes of the daily newsletters from cruises he'd taken in the 1950s. A scrapbook full of newspaper clippings from the year he chaired the local Community Chest. This was a campaign to raise money, but what it was to raise money for, the articles never did say. (It was for charities. This is what subsequently changed its name to the United Way.) The local paper was apparently so desperate for news items from the town's machers that they even printed a birth announcement for his first grandchild - that would be me - although my parents were living nowhere near the area at the time.

I knew from previous conversations that my brother would be interested in looking at this stuff before we discarded it. Instead, he just sealed it all back up again and took it away when he finally came over this week. He thinks his son, now only 7, will be interested some day.

Anyway, it's out of here. I'm old enough now that keeping stuff that I never use packed up because I might want to look at it someday is no longer really viable. That someday has arrived.

Also found and also out is a whole boxful of duplicate books about Tolkien and the Inklings, some of them rare pamphlet publications, that I gathered up to sell, or donate to the Mythcon auction, or something, years ago. I contacted a friend, or more accurately a friend-like acquaintance, who's in the Tolkien collector biz. He said he's retired from it, but when on request I sent him the contents list, he couldn't resist. He's no longer quite local, but he was in town this week so we met up in the parking garage of where he was doing his personal business, and he took it for a lot more money than I'd have gotten from the exceedingly de minimis bookstore.