Tuesday, January 31, 2023

concert review: Third Coast Percussion

SFCV publishes its weekly "push" to subscribers on Tuesdays, so reviews of concerts over the weekend have to be turned in in time to be edited and published then. Reviews of weekday concerts are usually handled in the course of the week, but for whatever scheduling reasons, this review of a Wednesday concert, which I turned in Friday morning, didn't appear until this next Tuesday.

I'd seen Third Coast Percussion perform before, but this was the first time I was reviewing them. I felt rather like I was skating on the edge trying to describe the individual character of these pieces. Listened to on one set of preconceptions, they all sound alike, almost indistinguishable. But by another, closer listening, they reveal vast stylistic differences, mostly in their treatment of how the players' rhythms relate to each other, and that's what I was trying to command the language necessary to describe.

I was also a little flummoxed on describing the style of the composer Jlin, who has no classical training at all, working in forms of popular music that are completely foreign territory to me. The program notes said her sound "is rooted in Chicago's iconic footwork style," which sounds as if the reader is supposed to know what that is. But I'd never heard of it. Looking it up, I find it derives from something called house music. I don't know what that is, either.

I'm always ready to use technical stylistic terms like Impressionism and atonal music in my reviews, even though some of my readers may have no idea what those sound like. I know what they are. But I'm not going to employ terms that mean nothing to me as if I know them equally well, and I'm not going to write something like "whatever that is" in a professional review.

I was accordingly driven back to generalities. All these unknown things seem to be dance music typically played in clubs, so that's what I wrote that Jlin's background was in. It was the editor who put in "a style called 'footwork'", which communicates the "whatever that is" attitude without saying so explicitly.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

hard times of old Ashland

A couple weeks ago, those of us who are members of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (now they call us "change makers," blegh) received an e-mail signed by the Artistic Director announcing that the Executive Director, who runs the business side of the organization, has abruptly resigned, and that the "restructuring" this is part of also "unfortunately, include[s] 12 staff separations and 7 employee furloughs, as well as putting a stop or delay on hiring 18 open positions."

Holy bard! What is going on here? The rest of the text was administrative blither that doesn't really make sense to an outside observer: "a necessary part of stabilizing the organization as we turn our focus toward building a solid infrastructure to address inherited structural deficits, aligning budget to post-pandemic industry realities," yadda yadda whatever that means.

Then we get an invitation to a webinar to discuss this further with the Artistic Director and the newly-promoted interim COO. That was yesterday afternoon on Zoom. It didn't begin well. Asked by the moderator to explain the Executive Director's departure, the Artistic Director talked about how much she had valued his work. A question immediately appeared in the Q&A, "Yes, but why did he leave?" which was never addressed though several later-posted queries were.

After that, though, they got down to a more straightforward English-language discussion of what it said in bureaucratese in the e-mail. OSF is in financial crisis. It's actually been in more trouble for many years than it appeared - this was hidden due to a practice of listing the value of its capital assets, like buildings, among its financial assets - but it's the post-pandemic era that has really pressed this. During the pandemic, no theater was going on so little money was being spent, but last year's season was severely overproduced considering that only 45% of the pre-pandemic audience showed up. (We were there in September and noted how unusually empty the theaters were.)

Next year's season will have fewer productions, and a couple planned ones were additionally canceled, but that turned out not to be enough. Thus layoffs. And now they want to rebuild the relationship between the artistic and business sides. I was quite surprised that they need to do so: I'd never pictured OSF as the kind of organization which keeps finance and artistry strictly separate, not expecting the artistic staff to worry their little heads about how much money there is and to mutely accept budgetary dictates while the business side meanwhile doesn't ask how these dictates will affect productions. Now they want decisions to be made in mutual discussions. Well, duh.

This already began last year. One of the shows of the cancelled 2020 season was to have been a guest production by the Upstart Crow Collective of the Henry VI trilogy. OSF wanted Upstart Crow to appear in 2022, but decided that the big Henry VI was too expensive, so the groups worked out a revival of an old Upstart Crow production of King John instead. We saw that and it was an outstandingly good show.

Various other points were addressed, including why the "change makers" nonsense (originally it was supposed to be a new alternative to membership, but it got changed to a replacement when the Artistic Director wasn't looking, and after that it was too much work to change back), but what really got the Artistic Director and COO - who are both Black women, by the way - hopped up was responding to some catty comments they've gotten denigrating the production of new plays and of "woke" attitudes. They found this insulting, and pointed out that OSF has always put on new plays, starting in 1951 with Death of a Salesman. I chimed in in comments by saying there was no more "woke" period in OSF's history than the 1970s, when the then Artistic Director put on plays about burning contemporary issues like Vietnam or apartheid every year, it seemed. So there's nothing new about this. It's an OSF tradition.

So OSF's goals are to run more effectively, to seek more sources of funding and partnership, and to increase outreach: more touring productions, experiments with online theater, using that to involve people who can't come back, convincing new audiences to come. The Artistic Director cited her dental hygienist back in her hometown of LA, a young white woman who comes from this area and visits often but has only been to OSF once. Well, why not more? It's for rich people, she says. Gotta get past that attitude.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Oscar the grouch

I've seen four and a bit of a fifth of the movies nominated in this year's Academy Awards, which is more than average for me. I saw Tár because I was curious to see a movie about a symphony conductor. I found it intriguing but baffling. I saw Everything Everywhere All At Once because it was highly praised in circles I frequent. I found it clotted and unnecessarily incoherent: it tried but failed to make its messiness a delight. I saw Turning Red because it was supposed to be a good animation about a girl on the fringe of adolescence: not bad, but a sad runner-up in a world with Encanto in it. I saw Top Gun: Maverick for the heck of it, because I'd enjoyed other recent Tom Cruise blockbusters: also not bad, and far more watchable than its predecessor, but the plot was naked button-pushing that broke the implausibility meter. Other action movies go over the top with glee and gusto; this one just went. And I started Glass Onion, because it also has been highly praised in circles I frequent, and the opening scenes were impressively imaginative, but it soon settled down to being a country-house murder mystery, a genre I have no interest in, so I turned it off. And Daniel Craig was hideously miscast. To think he used to play James Bond, yeesh.

There's not much else on the nomination list I want to see. I might see The Fabelmans mostly because I'm curious about an autobiographical film by someone who used to live in my neck of the woods. I don't want to see Avatar: The Way of Water because one of those was enough. I don't want to see The Banshees of Inisherin because I don't want to see a movie about friends having a gruesome argument. I don't want to see Living because I don't want to see a depressing story that's merely a showcase for great acting. And I don't want to see Women Talking because I already know that men are scum, I don't need it pounded in.

Monday, January 23, 2023

let there be updates

So I recently wrote about a piano recital of Chopin scherzos, "During Scherzo No. 3, heavy knocking sounds were occasionally heard, as if someone was pounding on a door backstage. Deljavan ignored it. But when it recurred at the start of No. 4, he stopped playing, walked offstage, came back five minutes later and resumed, with no explanation then or later."

Today comes an e-mail from the president of the presenting organization, who writes, "I would like to personally offer my sincere apologies for the disruptions that occurred during the Alessandro Deljavan concert on Saturday night. We very much regret these disruptions." Still no explanation of the knocking sounds.

So my next concert is a review at a venue which has ceased giving out printed programs at concerts. They put up a sign with a QR code in the lobby and invite you to scan that. For those who are not thus equipped, or who simply don't care to read program notes on a smartphone, in both of which categories I put myself, they've put up the program notes on their website in advance. But this time, I found no notes.

So I wrote this morning and asked, first carefully confirming on their press info webpage that the contact person is still the same. Only to get an automated e-mail reply that this person is no longer with the organization and that I should write someone else. So I wrote the new person. And got a response that it's up at a different page. Which, I noticed when I went there, was date stamped this morning.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

two concerts and a play

1. Christopher Costanza, cello

The cellist for the currently-in-abeyance (for lack of a first violinist) St. Lawrence Quartet decided to occupy the interim by playing the complete unaccompanied cello suites of J.S. Bach, in two concerts in one day, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. I attended the afternoon one. This was in the Stanford Music Dept. recital room.

Solid customary performances with the ability to captivate the audience with this austere music of unvarying instrumental color. Costanza introduced each suite individually: No. 6 in D major is the largest in scale; No. 2 is the darkest and most emotionally intense, and not just because it's in D minor; No. 3 is the most robust, mostly because it's in C major.

2. Alessandro Deljavan, piano

Particularly attractive repertoire for a piano recital, so I decided to check it out. Deljavan is a hulking bruiser of a man, the kind with a heavy black beard on the lower half of his head and no hair at all on the top half. But he plays Scarlatti and Schubert slowly and gently. His Chopin Scherzos, though - all four of them, which is what I was really there to hear - were heavy and rough-hewn, without elegance.

During Scherzo No. 3, heavy knocking sounds were occasionally heard, as if someone was pounding on a door backstage. Deljavan ignored it. But when it recurred at the start of No. 4, he stopped playing, walked offstage, came back five minutes later and resumed, with no explanation then or later.

3. Palo Alto Players, The Play That Goes Wrong

I saw the national touring company in this some four years back. It was amusing enough that a local production sounded attractive, especially as this is the company which delighted me with my first viewing of the somewhat similar Noises Off years ago.

And it was good. The actors were energetic and witty, and the audience lively and involved. Only a few of the more violent stunts weren't quite realistic enough in their presentation; most came off well. The fellow playing the Henry Lewis part did a good imitation of Lewis's distinctive speaking style, but otherwise there was little attempt to imitate the originals. The woman playing Sandra/Florence was of size, adding a shred of plausibility to the futility of the others' attempts to haul her comatose body out the window. Mostly the play was successful at getting the farce farcical enough to overcome the dullness of the country-house murder mystery the actors-within-the-show are supposedly performing.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

reading Henry VI Part 1

Our Shakespeare reading group has gotten on to Henry VI, Part 1. Despite its bad reputation (there's a scene in Neil Gaiman's Sandman where Marlowe is critiquing the bad writing in this play, and Shakespeare sheepishly says, "It's my first play," to which Marlowe replies, "And it should be your last!") and oceans of historical inaccuracy, we're finding what I've found when I've seen it staged: it's a terrifically engrossing piece of drama.

It's also long, and full of minor and one-scene characters, so I divided it up into three sections instead of two, so that it might be more easily digested. Here's my historical notes on the first two sections.

Act 1 - Act 2 Scene 3

After the English beat the pants off the French in the wars in the previous historical segment (written by Shakespeare much later), Henry V, in this one the French turned the tables. Shakespeare mucked with history quite a bit, but he couldn't hide this disgrace, so he had to come up with an explanation. Actually, French generalship had improved and English had declined, but Shakespeare couldn't say that, so his explanation is right out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Joan of Arc was a witch! Sorry about that, Joan of Arc fans.

Though King Henry VI is the namesake of this play, he doesn't appear in the first third, because he was only a small child at the time. You'll recall that the play of Henry V ended with Henry conclusively defeating the French, being declared the French king's heir and marrying his daughter. But before Henry would have inherited the French crown, he caught a fever and died, leaving a nine month old son who was declared King Henry VI of England.

In Henry V's will, he named his two surviving brothers - whom you'll remember from the last play - as regents. The Duke of Bedford, who was primarily a soldier, was regent for the English claims in France and commander of the army. His local ally was the Duke of Burgundy, and his principal general was Lord Talbot, who is a leading character in this play. The Duke of Gloucester was regent in England, which put him in conflict with his powerful uncle, the Bishop of Winchester.

Meanwhile the French were not taking young Henry as king, even after the old French king died. They declared his son the Dauphin king as Charles VII (though he couldn't be crowned yet because the English still controlled Reims where the coronations took place). He is not the arrogant Dauphin with the tennis balls from the last play. That guy had died in the interim, and Charles is his younger brother. Of his court, one character to watch is Reignier Duke of Anjou, because later, when peace is declared, a treaty will be signed to have his daughter marry Henry VI.

There is a passing reference in the first scene to a cowardly soldier who ran away, named Sir John Fastolfe. (An unfair charge: it was a tactical retreat.) It was his cowardly reputation, endorsed in this play, that led Shakespeare to adapt the name as Sir John Falstaff, the fictional cowardly knight of the later-written, earlier-set plays.

Act 2 Scene 4 - Act 4 Scene 1

Act 2 Scene 4, with which we begin, introduces entirely new characters, of whom the most important is Richard Plantagenet. We need to know who he is, because this scene is where the issue of the royal succession re-enters the plot.

You may recall that when Bolingbroke deposed his cousin Richard II and became Henry IV, the question came up of whether he was the legitimate next in line to the throne. Richard's father, the Black Prince, had been the eldest son of Edward III, while Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, had been the fourth son. But the third son, Lionel Duke of Clarence, also left descendants, and by the strict rules of primogeniture, it is they who should have been Richard's heirs.

Lionel's daughter had married into the noble family of Mortimer. Shakespeare, simplifying the family tree considerably, makes the heir the single figure of Edmund Mortimer. The rebels against Henry IV, the Percys and Owen Glendower, had allied with Edmund Mortimer, planning to split up the kingdom with him. Then Henry V executed for treason the Earl of Cambridge, younger son of Edmund Duke of York, a younger son of Edward III. Cambridge had been plotting to put on the throne Edmund Mortimer, who was his brother-in-law.

Now Edmund Mortimer is old and dying, and in Act 2 Scene 5 he passes along his claim to his heir, his sister's son. This is Richard Plantagenet. Not only is he the Mortimer heir through his mother, but his father was that same Earl of Cambridge. Because his father was executed as a traitor, Richard hasn't inherited any titles, but he would be the heir to his grandfather's and uncle's title of Duke of York. He is out to have the title reinstated, which happens in Act 3 Scene 1. Thus he unites the Mortimer and York lines in one person. While he's of the House of York, the Kings Henry are the House of Lancaster, because that was John of Gaunt's ducal title.

Plantagenet, by the way, was originally a personal epithet of Henry II's father. Richard has adopted it as a family surname, a new custom of his time, to emphasize his pure father-to-son descent through the intervening 300 years of kings. Calling the whole run Plantagenets, as we do today, is thus purely retroactive.

It's in Act 2 Scene 4 that Richard picks a white rose to signify the House of York, and his antagonist the Earl of Somerset, who is a younger grandson of John of Gaunt and thus a Lancastrian, picks a red rose to signify the House of Lancaster, and they each pester the other nobles to join their side - a risky business, for to pick one side means the other side will label them as traitors.

In Act 3 Scene 1 we finally meet the young titular King Henry VI, whom we find is gentle, merciful, and peace-loving, admirable qualities which nevertheless make him a weak king by medieval standards. So it's unsurprising that the tougher York begins to think of at least accumulating power and even of supplanting Henry as king. Thus civil war is in the brewing, what will eventually be dubbed (by Sir Walter Scott, no less) the Wars of the Roses.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

cobblestone on page 2

Cobblestone is my term for a small verbal infelicity or awkwardness in a novel that trips the reader up. The unclear writing prompts a misunderstanding which causes succeeding passages to seem confusing or nonsensical, until you realize that something went wrong and go back to re-read and re-understand the original passage in light of the later ones. It's not a major flaw, but it subtracts from the pleasure of reading a novel, and if reading a novel isn't enjoyable, why read it? The question for the author is, why write cobblestones if you don't have to?

The first cobblestone in Sabriel by Garth Nix (Harper, 1995) isn't actually on page 2. There's a 7-page prologue, entirely in italics, which I accordingly skipped. But this is the second page of the main text.

The story opens with a character described both as a young woman and a schoolgirl (we later learn she's 18 and on the point of graduating) is examining a dead rabbit on the road that's just been run over by a car. (How this medievalist world acquired various bits of modern technology is not explained.) The girl-woman's name is Sabriel, but we learn that not from an omniscient narrator but because she's wearing a nametag. There's plenty of discussion of emotional states in this book, but very few exterior facts that are not conveyed through seeing or hearing them, as if this were a movie.

Fourth paragraph begins:
A small figure was busy climbing over the gate ...
A small figure of what? I was imagining some sort of hobgoblin or other miniature fantasy creature. However, the next sentence, referring to this figure as "she" and itemizing her pigtails and shoes, suggests it's a younger schoolgirl. Later on - much later, several paragraphs - we find her name is Jacinth, but again not from an omniscient narrator but because Sabriel addresses her by name. She screams when she sees the dead rabbit.

Turn the page, next paragraph. This begins:
Sabriel flinched as the girl screamed, hesitated for a moment, then bent down by the rabbit's side ...
And here's the cobblestone. Who hesitated and bent down? I read it as being the girl, i.e. Jacinth. She screams, hesitates, and bends down.

But the next paragraph begins "The other girl, running, saw her ..." Wait a minute. What other girl? Is this a third character? Have we lost Sabriel's identity? Oh, I see. It's Jacinth. Having her name available at this point, instead of waiting another three paragraphs for Sabriel to address her, would have been more helpful than "the other girl."

Go back to previous paragraph. It's Sabriel who flinches, hesitates, and bends down. But the author could use a remedial course in pronoun references to avoid misunderstanding here.

It was as a precautionary measure to prevent anything like this from causing me to put the book down at this point and never picking it up again that it was the only thing I brought to read for a three-hour wait to have my car serviced. So I trudged through most of the rest of the volume, but not with any sense of growing captivation.

The main problem is that, where Tolkien is very chary with active magic and spell-casting, and is usually silent about its function when he has any, this book is absolutely packed with the complex technical details of its magic system. It's not entirely unclear to the reader what they're talking about - though I never figured out what a Charter is in this world, or who exactly the enemy is - but the sheer immensity of the magic system and the degree to which the characters are far ahead of you in understanding it leaves the reader puffing along in the van.

Sabriel is very heroic, though she has to be pushed into a lot of it by obnoxious sidekicks, but I was annoyed by her refusal to accept maturity: - her reluctance to use the magician's title that she's apparently inherited, her revulsion when a servant calls her "milady." Watching the characters grow up is a major pleasure for me of this kind of story, but this character didn't seem to want to do it.

There's a lot more books to this series but I'm stopping here.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

very social Saturday

We actually went out to a social event that wasn't a family holiday celebration, though it was family more than anything else. Our nephew M. and his wife C. celebrated his 40th birthday by having a party, with catered tacos and a carrot cake.

They're the ones who recently relocated here from Texas, having had enough of Texas. Now M. works for Google (as does his brother), and they live in a home tucked in at the top end of a small canyon coming up from the coast. This is a wet, fog-laden environment that is just where we were thinking of moving when we were contemplating doing that, and the specific location is as protected from the sea and the (when not foggy) afternoon sun as we'd want. So I was also very interested in seeing the place, though the house layout would not have suited us.

Afternoon driving there was clear, though it was raining heavily on our return. Still. it was well worth going. At C's vigilant insistence, everyone was newly tested. I approve.

Most of the guests were M's friends and co-workers, but he also invited all his local relatives including his parents, siblings, and nephews; and we're the only aunt & uncle still in the area, so we came too. Had some interesting conversations with the other guests, who were most polite towards their elders. (Getting on to about 40, they're elders now too, especially in the tech environment, so they know.)

One of the topics that came up was the resurgence of vinyl recordings, so the folks we were talking with were quite receptive to a little of the history of the earlier vinyl age: the turntable speed wars of the 1940s and their outcome, the relationship between singles and albums in pop music of the 50s-70s, and so on. I was most tickled at how their eyes lit up with sudden comprehension when I told them what "LP" stands for and why it's called that.

Friday, January 13, 2023

winter break

I took advantage of a day's break in the continuing onslaught of rainstorms to accomplish two far-flung errands: to visit the UC Berkeley library to do some research for the next Year's Work in Tolkien Studies, and to visit a distant and somewhat inaccessible public library to return an item I'd checked out from there also for Tolkien Studies research. This outing was made possible by my dentist having called to reschedule the appointment I'd had for the day. Otherwise I'd worked out an elaborate schedule combining these with the composers-in-music lecture in the City on Wednesday and the weekly grocery pickup on Friday.

The weather, fortunately, was fine, though the flooding might have had something to do with an accident on the freeway coming home, if indeed that's what caused the huge backup. I wasn't in a hurry so at first I thought I'd sit through it so at least I'd find out what was causing it, but eventually I gave up and took the exit to a parallel road. All the other people doing that were lined up to turn left on one particular road going back to the freeway, so I bet they had mapping services telling them where it ended. I didn't, so I went on, with much less traffic, to a cross-freeway further on.

In the library, I sat down to scan an article from a book only to find the scanner was broken: the scan preview only showed smudges. I had to use another scanner. Wait a minute, I thought. I'd had this same problem with this same scanner when I was here a year ago. And I reported it to the staff at the time. They haven't fixed it in all the interim? And then I remembered the time, years ago, that I reported that a stack move had rendered a location diagram on the wall inaccurate. In those days I was visiting the library every six months, and I reported it every six months for about five years before it got changed.

The day's other strange incident occurred in the elevator when I returned to the parking garage. The door opened. I walked in, pressed 5. Another man walked in, pressed no button, didn't ask me to press any. The elevator slowly proceeded up to the fifth floor. The door opened, I waited a second for the man to exit, he didn't, I exited. And only then did he say "Third floor, please," followed by "Oh" as he realized where he was and what had happened. Then the door closed and I know no more.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

the Romantics

Week two of Robert Greenberg's lecture series, illustrated with film clips, of movies about composers. We sampled:

Song of Love (1947). Robert Schumann (Paul Henreid, more animated than he was in Casablanca) and his wife Clara (Katharine Hepburn, just as she always is) listen fascinated as the young Johannes Brahms (Henry Daniel, taller and handsomer than the original) introduces himself by playing a piano piece he wouldn't write for another twenty years. This is the movie that spawned Greenberg's maxim on historical accuracy: "When unforced errors occur, credibility is lost."

Song Without End (1960). Dirk Bogarde as Franz Liszt. Described as "movie without end," so we were spared any clips from it beyond the trailer, the only credit from which to earn any audience cheers tonight was the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Lisztomania (1975). At last, a movie as flamboyant as the original. Roger Daltrey is Liszt - a rock star to play a rock star, not a bad idea - but judging from the clips we saw, this movie is less about Liszt than about the transformation of Richard Wagner into an undead Nazi Frankenstein's monster.

A Song to Remember (1945). Reduces Frederic Chopin (Cornel Wilde, an Olympic-level athlete to play a weak consumptive, bad casting) to an adjunct to his composition teacher (Paul Muni, chewing the scenery right off the stage).

Impromptu (1991). Greenberg's pick as the most worth seeing of the bunch - which is good because it's the only one I've seen - but not for the plot, instead for the characterization of Judy Davis as George Sand, with extra credit for Julian Sands as Liszt and appearances by Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin. (Why no mention of Emma Thompson, who's also in it?) Hugh Grant as Chopin with an absurd accent, not so much.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Tolkien as a gateway author

or, what I read next by other authors.

I put this as a Tolkien Society blog post, since it was detailed enough to deserve airing there.

Monday, January 9, 2023


I've been hearing about people who are upset at the news that an incoming Congressman is being sworn into office on a copy of a Superman comic book. People are suppose to swear on a copy of the Bible! they say.

Actually, swearing into office in the U.S. doesn't have to be on anything, and while presidents are usually inaugurated on a personal or family copy of the Bible, legislators are just as likely to swear on a copy of the Constitution, which is after all the document they are swearing to uphold.

And in fact, if you read the full news story, Congressman Garcia is swearing on a copy of the Constitution, and underneath it he is placing some mementos of personal significance to him, including that Superman comic, his citizenship certificate, and a photo of his deceased parents. I think that puts it into proper context.

But this raises the question of non-Christians (I don't know Garcia's beliefs) swearing on a religious text. Why does a Christian swear on the Bible? That sounds like the setup line to a joke, but I presume it's either because 1) the Bible is holy and meaningful to you, which is why you might specifically use a copy of it that's personally meaningful to you; or 2) you're invoking the authority of God to strike you down if you fail to abide by your oath.

But by either account this would not apply to non-Christians. If the Bible isn't holy or meaningful to you it would be hypocritical at best, sacrilegious at worst, to swear on it. (I refer you to C.S. Lewis's castigation of himself in Surprised by Joy for having taken communion as a youth at a time when he was secretly an atheist.) And if you don't believe in God it means nothing in terms of verifying your sincerity to swear may He strike you down if you violate your oath, even if Christianity is true and He will.

I'd also like to point out that when Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn want to swear a solemn oath, they prick their fingers and write their initials in their own blood. The Bible doesn't mean much to them.

I turn back to Keith Ellison, the first Muslim (I think) to serve in Congress, who was sworn in on a copy of his religion's holy book, the Quran. And for a copy meaningful to him - meaningful, please note, as a U.S. public official - he asked, as was his right as a member of Congress, to use the Library of Congress's copy that was once owned by Thomas Jefferson. This story interested me at the time because the L.C. rare books librarian charged with carrying this volume to the Capitol had worked at the Stanford library when I was also there, and I'd met him.

A Jewish person who wishes to swear on a religious text would pick the Jewish Bible. In my case it'd probably be the copy of the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation (there's a more recent translation, but it didn't exist then) that I was given for my Bar Mitzvah. (B. pointed out that, if we're choosing for personal meaningfulness, that I could swear on a copy of The Lord of the Rings. I'd have to think about that. It is true that, when we had our photographic portrait taken and bringing along something to hold was suggested, I took a collector's edition of The Lord of the Rings and B. took her violin.)

I'd also like to bring up the question of terminology. The Jewish Bible is, allowing for differences in translation and canonicity, what Christians call the Old Testament. No surprise, the Jews don't call it that. Among ourselves, Jews of at least my persuasion just call it the Bible, because we know what we're referring to. When we need to specify it we use the Hebrew word, which is Tanakh. What Christians call the New Testament, or both together, Jews refer to as the Christian Bible or the Christian scriptures.

While I'm at it, two more Jewish religious textual terms which may confuse others, Torah and Talmud. The Torah, specifically, is the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. A Torah scroll is the Hebrew text of this, hand-calligraphed onto a roll of parchment, and these are the holiest objects in practical contemporary Judaism. But the word Torah may also be used to refer to the body of Jewish religious law and tradition, which includes but is not limited to Tanakh and the Talmud. The Talmud, which is very much longer than the Bible - a copy will take up at least a whole shelf - is a series of nested commentaries on Biblical commandments and practices, compiled by the early rabbis in the early centuries C.E. I will spare you any discussion of its versions or constituent parts, for which you will thank me.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Tolkien Studies 19: an announcement

On behalf of myself and my co-editors, Michael D.C. Drout and Verlyn Flieger, here are the expected contents of volume 19 of the journal Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review. All of the works are now in the hands of our publisher, West Virginia University Press, and the volume is scheduled to be published in softcover and on Project MUSE later this year. This is the 2022 volume, whose issue was delayed due to the preparation of the Supplement which was published a couple months ago. But we always intended on a full 2022 issue, and work on the contents for v. 20 for 2023 is already under way. - David Bratman, co-editor

Tolkien Studies 19 (2022)
  • Verlyn Flieger, "In Memoriam: Priscilla Tolkien, 1929-2022"
  • Nathan Kowalsky, "The Hobbit and the Hermeneutics of the Barnyard"
  • Perry Neil Harrison, "Tolkien, the Medieval Robin Hood, and the Matter of the Greenwood"
  • J.M. Silk, "A Faërie Ring: Poetry and the Metaphor of Music as Devices of Enchantment in Tolkien's Fiction"
  • Vincent E. Rone, "The Musical Continuity between Howard Shore and J.R.R. Tolkien"
  • Paul Acker, "A Rabble of Uninvited Dwarves"
  • Riley McGuire, "The Place of Allegory in Tolkien's Understanding of the Old English Exodus"
  • Christopher Crane, "Early Drafts and Carbon Copies: Composing and Editing Smith of Wootton Major"
  • Ewan Cameron, "Tolkien, Thompson, English Modernity, and the Left"
  • John Rosegrant, "When the Search for Enchantment is Bent: 'The Scouring of the Shire'"
Book Reviews
  • The Nature of Middle-earth, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Carl F. Hostetter, reviewed by John Garth
  • Tolkien and the Classical World, edited by Hamish Williams, and Tolkien and the Classics, edited by Roberto Arduini, Giampaolo Canzonieri, and Claudio A. Testi, reviewed by Victor Parker
  • Musical Scores and the Eternal Present: Theology, Time, and Tolkien, by Chiara Bertoglio, reviewed by Eileen Marie Moore
  • A Sense of Tales Untold: Exploring the Edges of Tolkien's Literary Canvas, by Peter Grybauskas, reviewed by Maria K. Alberto
  • Middle-earth, or There and Back Again, edited by Łukasz Neubauer, reviewed by Merlin DeTardo
  • Book Notes: J.R.R. Tolkien: The Art of the Manuscript, by William M. Fliss and Sarah C. Schaefer, and The Great Tales Never End: Essays in Memory of Christopher Tolkien, edited by Richard Ovenden and Catherine McIlwaine, notes by David Bratman
  • David Bratman, Kate Neville, Jennifer Rogers, Jonathan Evans, Robin Anne Reid, John Wm. Houghton, and John Magoun, "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2019"
  • David Bratman, "Bibliography (in English) for 2020"

Saturday, January 7, 2023

concert review: San Francisco Chamber Orchestra

I did go out and attend one event on my otherwise hermetic New Year's weekend: the SF Chamber Orchestra's annual New Year's Day concert in Palo Alto. It featured the unusual but highly appropriate - in one sense - pairing of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, which has only the first two movements of a standard classical symphony, and Peter Schickele (PDQ Bach)'s "Unbegun" Symphony, which has only the last two movements. Appropriate only in the sense that the forms match up; they sound nothing alike.

Also on the program, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, played by a young violinist of skill who nevertheless adopts the unusual practice of just playing the notes as written: the result was somewhat revelatory and startlingly beautiful. And the rare treat of a mid-period Haydn symphony, this being his "Farewell," which SFCO has played before, but not to mark the retirements of its music director as it did this time. His successor has her own tastes and style in programming, and I'll have to cover her work soon.

For the reason I'm telling you about this concert at this late date is to mark the publication of my Daily Journal review. Which leads me to ask any of you who are actually reading the reviews a question, which I can't answer because I have a subscription to the online paper. The DJ is very limited in how much a non-subscriber can read. My understanding is that it's one article a month, after which you get a short clip with a popup asking you to subscribe. My question is, are you getting the reviews? I was quite startled when I sent a link to my previous review to the concert promoter, who wrote back and asked if it was only two paragraphs long. Were they not getting the one free article? Did the popup not appear? None of this was clear to me, but I didn't want to interrogate them; I just sent a file of the full review.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Ross Douthat writes a fantasy novel

And Laura Miller, Slate's writer on literature, critiqued the posted sample chapters.

Here's my response to Miller, posted in Slate's comment section:

First, I'm dismayed that someone would set out to write a trilogy. A real trilogy is something you discover you've written only after you've done it: three separate books, with their own complete stories, written independently, which add up to a larger story when put together. But that's rare. What mostly gets called a fantasy trilogy has been artificially gingered up to meet a form of a single story in three volumes, which is why so many suffer from "middle book syndrome," where the story just marks time for 300 pages. This is all because The Lord of the Rings was published in 3 volumes, but it's not a trilogy but a 3-volume novel. It was written as one story with no intention of being divided, so it doesn't suffer from middle book syndrome.

Second, Tolkien was hardly a tortured moralizer. He did have moral beliefs, but he didn't go around preaching them. They gradually emerge from reading his work.

Third, I wonder what you mean by "essentialist understanding." Usually "essentialist" is taken to mean "all members of this class are like this." That's not true of Tolkien's elves. You could only call them "essentially good" in the other sense in which they're broadly good, they're more good than bad, they aspire to goodness. Read the Silmarillion and you'll find plenty of elves behaving extremely badly, and a few who are evil the way that Saruman in Lord of the Rings is evil. The reason you don't find elves like that in Lord of the Rings is that the elves are chastened by their earlier experiences, the ones recounted in the Silmarillion, and aren't going to make the same mistake again.

Fourth, Miller's complaint about stories consisting of "stretches of dialog in which characters explain things to each other." She's right about that. And the popular author I find most guilty of building his books that way is Philip Pullman. His first book consists mostly of Lyra overhearing conversations that the author is writing for her benefit, though the characters holding them are just telling each other things that they already know, though they don't know Lyra is there. The whole plot is built out of Lyra learning things this way. I didn't read any further. Tolkien has only a few infodumps and they're genuinely informative to the characters they're addressed to.

Fifth, Miller is even more right about how readers won't care about your invented world unless you've invested their interest in it via character. Here again Tolkien is a model.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

all Beethoven, all the time

Professor Robert Greenberg has been delivering lectures for San Francisco Performances for many years. Typically he gives a talk which occupies half of the program and illustrates the music performed live in the second half. Quite some years ago, I attended a long series of these which formed a cycle of the 15 string quartets of Shostakovich, with some of his other chamber music mixed in. It was hugely successful and led to many others - a Beethoven quartet cycle, a Dvorak one, and various mixed sets. But after all those Shostakovich concerts, Greenberg's mannered lecturing style and a cavalier way with controversial matters had worn me out. So I didn't attend any more.

Until now. I couldn't resist the topic of this series: movies about composers. The idea was to talk about movies with plenty of video clips, chortling at their historical inaccuracies while acknowledging that entertainment takes priority over accuracy in movie-making, so also judging them on how entertaining they are. Whether they were entertaining or not, Greenberg certainly was, though he did obsess over various trivialities. This week, five movies under the program title "All Beethoven, All the Time."

The oldest two (Beethoven's Great Love, 1937, and The Magnificent Rebel, 1962), he dismissed as pretty worthless, but he liked Beethoven Lives Upstairs because it's more about the fictional boy in whose house Beethoven lives as a lodger, and his relationship with Beethoven, than about Beethoven himself. However, the clips did not inspire me that this was a very good movie.

He ridiculed the plot of Immortal Beloved while saying it had some plot twists that made it worth watching, plus Gary Oldman's excellent performance. And he had similar mixed feelings about Copying Beethoven with Ed Harris, which I've seen and am similarly mixed about. Good acting, good depiction of Beethoven's character, but the scene in which the copyist crouches down in the orchestra so that the deaf Beethoven can imitate her movements while conducting the premiere of the Ninth is absurd, especially since she only worked on the finale and had just two days to do it, so when did she learn the rest of the piece?

This was a day of wild and windy storm, so the drive up to the City and back was exciting. I took the hill road to minimize risk of flooding, but did have to dodge two downed trees. Fortunately I found a street parking space right behind the Veterans Building, in a lecture room of which the program was held, so I didn't have to walk the two blocks from the parking garage in the blustery rain. Greenberg thanked the audience profusely for showing up at all ("I was afraid we'd be here by ourselves, building an ark") and he didn't even know how far I'd come.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

aborted events

Things besides pregnancies that have been aborted:

1. Though I'd introvertedly skipped out on the online New Year's events, I was looking forward to the Tolkien Society's annual toast to the Professor's Birthday, and the conversational breakout rooms afterwards, on Tuesday. But by the time I connected, the Zoom had reached its maximum capacity for the event and I couldn't get in. However, at dinner I did finally break out a bottle of Suffolk cider I'd brought home from my last trip to England, and B. and I toasted him with that.

2. Our newly-established city council district had its first-ever councilar election in November and it turned out to be the closest ever. After a mandated automated recount, Candidate A was ahead by one vote (out of some 5600 cast). Candidate B asked, unsurprisingly, for a manual recount. This made Candidate A grumpy. He said asking for a recount was tantamount to accusing the registrar of voters of incompetence (a theory I've never heard before floated, and not accepted by registrars). He said it was outrageous that the public had to pay for this indulgence. Candidate B pointed out that the cost of the recount was out of his pocket, and he'd only be reimbursed if he won. Meanwhile, the local paper ran an editorial saying it was outrageous that the right to a manual recount should depend on whether a candidate can afford it: they should be publicly funded.
In the manual recount, the previously-counted votes came out the same, but a very few votes that had been set aside for irregularities were re-examined and found valid. As I recall, there were 5 of them: 2 for Candidate A and 3 for Candidate B. Now it was a tie.
The city charter says that in that case, you draw a name out of a sack. Candidate A won. Candidate B does not feel crushed, nor do I, though I voted for him. This was not a high-stakes election even by local standards.

3. Meanwhile, back where the stakes are high - where DT lost three elections in four years, Kevin McCarthy has now lost three elections in one day. What happens next? Both groups of Repubs declare they're digging in for the duration. If that's true, they could go on for two years without organizing the House. That means no bills get passed, but they wouldn't anyway; but also they couldn't spend two years investigating Hunter Biden's laptop. More likely one side will give in - and don't expect any help from the Democrats, who are literally chortling in their popcorn (a couple of them brought bags to munch on as they watched the show) - and whoever gets the Speakership is in for an even less enjoyable time than had Boehner or Ryan, both of whom quit in frustration.

4. Much rain this week has built up the mountain snowpacks and caused local flooding, with the usual assortment of people who drive into water and then their cars stall. But so far it hasn't had much effect on the parched reservoirs. Wait till the snow melts, I'm guessing.

5. Deaths of the week:
Elayne Jones, whose a) female and b) Black face at the timpani in back livened up the visual impact of the then otherwise all non-Black and mostly non-female San Francisco Symphony for a while in the early 70s. I remember seeing her there. She was a good timpanist, too, despite which a musician committee denied her tenure as completely incompetent, a decision with more sexism and racism than will easily fit in one box. But the SF Opera orchestra, which co-existed with the Symphony in those days, kept her on.
Suzy McKee Charnas, an sf author who also met with some sexist pushback in her attempt to publish a feminist dystopia. I also remember her vampire stories, in which - every author handles the physiology of this differently - vampires were essentially six-foot-tall, elegant, talking mosquitoes. I met her a few times, notably on a bus when the airline decided that was a better way to deliver us to Wiscon than flying us from O'Hare, and found her a lively and interesting conversationalist.
Walt Cunningham, last survivor of Apollo 7, the most frustrating of all moonshot-era spaceflights. It was a shakedown cruise for the mooncraft, leaving three men circling the Earth for a week with nothing much to do except suffer from headcolds and grump a lot. Cunningham did write one of the livelier of astronaut memoirs, including telling the joke that everyone else declines to recount, explaining why they called publicity tours "a week in the barrel."

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

notable day

"It will be Bilbo's Birthday on Thursday, Sam," Frodo said. "And he will pass the Old Took. He will be a hundred and thirty-one!"
"So he will!" said Sam. "He's a marvel!"

Happy Birthday, Professor Tolkien!

Monday, January 2, 2023

news of the year

It's a new year, and time for some news.

1. Reading about the impact of Pope Benedict emphasizes just how arbitrary it is to evaluate such things on the occasion of a person's death. It has in this case the advantage over doing so at the time of his retirement that it gives us more time perspective, but there's no other reason that now is better than a little earlier or later. His legacy is an important topic: if he hadn't died, would we still not be discussing it?

2. Much fuss about a Stanford "Harmful Language" word usage guide. Please note that this sort of thing is not new. In 1990, the University of Missouri School of Journalism released a list of words for journalists to avoid. One of the slighted terms was "fried chicken." Which caused Mike Royko to famously write, "Fried chicken, fried chicken, fried chicken. I said it and I'm glad."
My take on lists like Stanford's is that most of the entries are actually good advice. But most of the ones cited by those shocked over this are not actually harmful (there's no argument over the harmful ones), just at worst slightly bumptious. What makes this sort of list toxic is the imputation of imposition, that obloquy will ensue if you don't follow the precise rules. Can we relax over this a little? By the same token, nobody who says "Happy Holidays" is actually trying to ban Christmas.

3. The Mineta San Jose International Airport has decided to rename itself the San Jose Mineta International Airport. Apparently if the eponym is used as an infix, it's harder to leave it out. Okay ...

4. Lots of rain locally this week. A little flooding, too.