Thursday, September 21, 2017

English suites no. 1

This has been Gustav Holst's birthday, as the radio announcer kindly informed me, so it's as good a time as any to use a Holst work to launch a musical project I've been mulling for some time, which is a series of pleasant, mostly modern, suites, first by English composers and then branching out.

This is probably the best-known one I'll be presenting in the entire series, Holst's St. Paul's Suite. It's played by a student orchestra from Poland, which might account for the unusual sonority. The players are all female, appropriately, as Holst wrote the work for the students of the St. Paul's Girls' School, where he taught music for many years.

Like many of the suites to come, it's in four movements vaguely replicating sonata form, and the finale, as with many of Holst's best works, incorporates a sturdy old English folk tune.

oh Hillary

In the airport, waiting for my flight out, I wandered into the bookstore to see what there was to read, and saw the newly-released Hillary Clinton memoir, What Happened (this was last Thursday, and the official publication had been that Tuesday).

Excellent. This was my chance to register my vote against those who had been declaring that she should keep silent and disappear. So I bought a copy, and read it on the trip. Now B. has it.

Anyone who says that the author blames everyone but herself hasn't read the book. She takes on a full measure of responsibility and owns up to some specific mistakes, as well as to some decisions that might have been mistakes or not (like not calling out Trump when he stalked her onstage), because who knows how it would have come out if she'd done differently?

But, you know, 'it takes a village' and Comey and the feckless media deserve their share of blame too. (And if defeating Trump should have been a slam dunk, then why couldn't Jeb, Mario, Ted, or any of the rest of that gang do it? Especially after all the pleadings to suspend the rules and do it?) In fact, the only people whom Clinton doesn't blame at all are her staffers.

Which points to the problem with the book, which is that, while Clinton may be willing to own up to having committed faults, I don't think she really understands what they are. Too much of her defense consists of demonstrating that she tried hard, as if that amounted to doing a good job (the "A for effort as a final grade" fallacy). Nor does she seem to be able to think of appropriate sound bites to respond to attacks. She was flustered by the quoting out of context of the "putting coal miners out of work" line, so why didn't she respond by putting it back in context by simply repeating the next line of the original speech, which amounted to therefore we must take care of these people?

Like the policy wonk she is, Clinton spends a lot of the book diving into specifics of proposals, which is fine; but, like Obama too often, she lacks aspiration, stars to steer by, goals that may be unreachable but that at least you aim for. That's what gives people hope, and gives them the energy to work for the lesser, practical goals that are actually achievable. Bernie Sanders understands this, and that's what generated enthusiasm. Electing a woman shatters a barrier but isn't a substitute for this.

There'll be plenty of time to move on to the next thing. But as historians, we need to understand where we've been and how we got there. This is a start.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

why

You travel hundreds of miles to attend the memorial service of someone you hardly ever met because of your love and affection for the mourners in their family, whom you do know well. That's why it's more than worth the trip.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

concert review: Pacific Symphony

I'd known that Orange County had its own professional orchestra, but up until now almost nothing about it. But opportunity arose, so I found my way to the office park between Santa Ana and Costa Mesa where lies the Segerstrom Concert Hall. It's right next door to another venue also called Segerstrom Hall, which had on a stage play. It would be futile to suggest that this is confusing.

The hall is small, shaped more like a hatbox than a shoebox, and has bright beefy acoustics. This was ideal for displaying the orchestra, led by longtime music director Carl St. Clair, in the Farewell and Magic Fire Music chunk from Wagner's Die Walk├╝re, completely riding over even the immensely powerful and profoundly deep voice of experienced Wotan Greer Grimsley. (Grimsley looks rather like Patrick Stewart with a full head of long hair, and sounds not unlike him too.)

This acoustic quality would be highly exposing of performing flaws, but there really weren't any. St. Clair gave an urgent searching quality to Wagner, Strauss's Don Juan, and the anchor of the program, Beethoven's Fifth. An abrupt way with the fermatas on the opening theme reinforced that. The orchestra was tightly marshaled without being strained, and had a smooth sound with only the piccolo poking out on top.

There's a huge video display above the orchestra, though the hall is not so large as to need one. But this is LA, where nothing is real unless it appears on screen.

Pre-concert lecturer Alan Chapman noted the simple construction of Beethoven's famous opening motif, and said that "the genius of Beethoven (or Mozart) is to take something that simple and make something that complex from it." That's exactly right, and sums up what awed me about this work on my first encounter with it, an encounter which made me a permanent fan of the heavy classics.

In other good news, availed myself of proximity to have a long palaver with Sartorias in her lair.

In sad news, heard of the recent death of DavE Romm. Alas. I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

going out

As for why I'm in LA, that will come later. But as long as I'm here, I decided to try out two iconic entertainment venues that I'd never been to before.

My reaction to the Hollywood Bowl was, "And now I don't ever have to come here again." Hearing that parking was dicey, I took a park-and-ride bus that delivered us to the front entrance. But words are insufficient to describe the battery of elevators, escalators, tunnels, and other passages, plus a metal detector, that it was still necessary to pass through, past an assortment of stands selling hot dogs and banh mi sandwiches, and picnic tables packed with people eating them, to head further uphill to the arena itself. It was an even longer and more arduous walk afterwards to where they parked the buses to leave, though at least that was downhill.

The arena itself is huge. I splurged on a plastic sports-stadium seat, instead of the wooden benches. I think I was a quarter mile from the stage, and yet still less than halfway up the seating area. There are large video screens by the side, and a tinny amplification system. This did not enhance an otherwise creditable all-Mozart program by the LA Phil. And the Bowl's clout does not extent to prohibiting aircraft from flying overhead during the concert. I would far rather have gone back to Disney Hall, if only the regular LA Phil season there had started yet.

The Comedy Store was a new experience for me. In my extreme youth (and I mean extreme) I saw live both Bill Cosby (in a theater) and Allan Sherman (in a hotel lounge). But I don't think I'd seen live comedy since then. I didn't know quite what it'd be like. The main room is a nightclub setup, with upright chairs and small cocktail tables. The doorwardens ask you how many are in your party, and escort you to seats they choose. I wound up sharing a table with two young women who conversed during the entire show. The performers' microphone was loud enough that I didn't have trouble hearing, but the distraction was still annoying. Fortunately we are long past the days when smoking was allowed in such places.

The show consisted of a series of 15 or 20 minute stand-up comedy sets, each ending by the performer abruptly announcing, "I gotta leave now" (did a red light go on at the back of the room?) but then having to stick around for the degrading job of introducing their successor, after asking the PA guy who it'd be. It started at 9 pm, and how long it lasted I don't know, because after about 2 hours people started to leave, enabling the performers to start making whining jokes about how few people were still there to hear them. I stayed for 3 hours and heard 10 or 12; I lost count. One black man, one white woman, the rest all white men. Lots of jokes about male-female relations, mostly rueful about the foibles of men. Most of the performers were in their 40s or older; the audience looked mostly under 40. This enabled a couple of the Gen-X types to make jokes about Millennials, rather hostile ones. One of the oldest performers made jokes about AA meetings, an underexplored and impressively productive topic for humor. The only performer I'd ever heard of was Yakov Smirnoff, though I gathered from the introductions that some are known for their podcasts or tweets; it's a new world. Most of the performers were pretty good, a couple decidedly not.

Tickets were actually a $20 cover charge; you're required to buy at least two drinks, but considering that this is a profit-making function, it wasn't too much a ripoff at $8 for a glass of wine or $4 for a Coke, which were my choices. Fortunately the servers were on the ball, because they take your credit card when you order your first drink and don't bring it back until you finish your last, which is alarming. They claim to offer vouchers for parking at a garage 3 blocks away (a long walk), but there was nobody at the exit to give me one when I left.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

eating like kings

You all remember this classic Far Side cartoon:

I think it was David Levine and Kate Yule who would remark, "They're eating like kings on the front porch" whenever a spider web had managed to cross their front walkway.

Well, a large spider visible at the center of its web managed to do the same thing at ours today, and that was a feat, because the nearest available fastening points, the walls surrounding our front and side patios, are some eight feet apart. The main web, an impressive structure on its own some two feet high, was near the side, and a pair of long but sturdy threads connected it over to the front wall.

It was with some regret that I cut those connecting threads prior to walking through, and the big spread-out web promptly curled up into a ball with the spider still in the middle of it. Better site planning next time?

Monday, September 11, 2017

a sign

1. The most interesting unintended point in my recent reading, apart from the scholarly treatise with a footnote on p. 307 reading "See p. 307" (this book is from the 1950s, so it's not a sign of the recent decline in copy-editing), came in a book titled Beatles '66: The Revolutionary Year by Steve Turner (HarperCollins, 2016). The idea of discussing just one year in the Beatles' career - this is the year in which they transformed from a mop-top touring pop band to mod-dressed studio artists recording "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane" - is to give a closer focus on their lives than a broader coveraged book can do.

Anyway, the detail is extensive enough to discuss the theatrical acting career of Jane Asher, Paul McCartney's girlfriend. And there's an illustration in the form of a copy of the program from a play she appeared in. It's on p. 37 and it looks like this:

Did you notice - because Turner says nothing about it - a name of particular future moment on that cast list? And yes, I've checked, and that person was associated with this company, so that is the same one and not a namesake. I was tickled and perhaps you shall be.

2. Possibly in honor of the anniversary of 9/11, I watched World Trade Center, Oliver Stone's movie about the two cops who were pulled out alive from the wreckage after being found the next day. It's tasteful, it doesn't indulge in conspiracy theories, and it's detailed on what the cops had been doing that got them caught in the first collapse, but the rescue was simultaneously overdramatized and oversimplified, and I got more uneasy the more attention was spent on the wives and families. The movie doesn't try to hide that most people still missing the day after never came back, but to push these two gives the impression that the movie is saying they somehow deserved a happy ending more than others. I don't think that was intended, but that's how it comes across.

3. And today's weather featured a midwestern-style late afternoon thunderstorm, donner and blitzen fizzing out of a not entirely overcast sky without a drop in temperature or humidity, unlike the uniformly bleak vista from pole to pole and low temperatures that are normally required to get such action in California, and that normally only in late fall or winter. It's changing, all right.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Kingfisher, by Patricia A. McKillip

The topic for today's meeting of our Mythopoeic Society discussion group. As usual with a McKillip, I enjoyed reading this book, especially for passages like this one:
"Sorry, sirs," the driver announced upon consultation with his dash. "Both lanes are blocked up ahead for nearly a mile. They don't know how long before the road is cleared." He paused, listening again. "They're - ah - they're advising people to turn around, catch another road back in town that runs through the hills around the - ah, the - ah - problem."
He sounded oddly shaken. Leith asked, "What exactly is the problem?"
"Seems to be a mythological beast in the middle of the road, sir."
Or this one:
"You disgrace the name of King Arden." Somehow Leith and Val had pushed their way into the tightly crowded kitchen. "You disrupt people's lives and steal from them," Leith continued sharply. "You are not true knights, and no true god would accept your worship. You're nothing but marauding thieves."
"We are questing knights, Sir Leith," Prince Ingram protested. "You can't change facts by calling people names."
"You're trashing a restaurant kitchen. How proud would your father be of that?"
But don't think from these that this is a book that lives off the ironic contrast between a modern setting on one hand and medievalist and mythic content on the other. In fact they're strangely well integrated. This is a story set in a standard fantasy imaginary kingdom with monarchs and princes and wizards and lore and magic, with landscape modeled on the Oregon coast, that just also happens to have cars and cell phones and restaurants, lots and lots of restaurants. McKillip, who's always concentrated on the domestic arts in her stories, and has set plenty of previous books in inns or castle kitchens, also focuses this one on cookery and even more on dining.

But it's more than that. I began to realize what kind of book I was reading in chapter 3, when it dawned on me that the file of staff marching into the dining room of the all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant was actually a Grail Procession. This is a Grail quest Arthurian novel with different names, but it's not just a one-on-one encoding, as the characters are more complex than that, not everything fits neatly, there is (as one observed at the meeting) a considerable amount of The Faerie Queene mixed in also, and the characters are actually descendants of the original "Arthur" centuries ago.

Further, another informed us at the meeting that the villain's cookery appears to be a parody of a current high-end restaurant trend that I'd not heard of, called molecular gastronomy.

There's a lot to this book; the characters are lively and well-drawn even though quite a lot of them have to be crammed in to a relatively short space, and the main dispute - a scholastic/theological one - is never resolved, so maybe there'll be a sequel? I enjoyed reading this one.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

weather

So one epic-sized hurricane drowned much of east Texas, and another one is at this moment bearing down on Florida, with a third right behind it that may miss Florida but has already socked the small Caribbean islands that the previous one already got.

Closer to home, there's been huge wildfires around both LA and Portland.

What we had locally was merely an epic heat wave over Labor Day weekend, 109 F according to the high-school sign down the street. Occasionally over the summers it's gotten too hot to stay up on the upper floor of our townhouse over the days, but never before quite this extreme or this extended.

Then, after that was over, we had a power outage, which explains my general absence from online for a few days.

This isn't the "new normal." We're long past the tipping point (by over 20 years now, I'd guess), and have reached the stage where climate will probably continue to get measurably worse nearly every year. This article seems as accurate as anything I've read on what to expect.

I'm going to go on as I have been, because it's too late to do anything else. I keep thinking of editor Malcolm Edwards' only work of fiction, a short story called "After-Images." That was about nuclear war, but it illustrates the principle of what people do in a situation like this.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

in memory of Houston

I see some bloggers are memorializing the flooding of Houston, since it's not likely to fully recover for quite some time, with their own memories of the place. So why not: I've only been to Houston once, ten-and-a-half years ago (that long, really?), and here's what I wrote about it at the time:

I was so glad that Corflu was scheduled for February. The last time I'd visited Texas was in August, and the heat was memorable. I wasn't going to do that again. But as long as I was to be in Austin again, I wanted to see some more of Texas. On my one previous visit, I'd gone into the Hill Country, and though I would have been happy to return, I preferred to try somewhere else within driving distance where I'd never been before.

Houston. Houston sounded good, especially in February. That meant I would be going east, and I determined to go far enough east to find good Cajun food, which was said to leak over on to the Texas side of the Louisiana border. And I could visit the one tourist attraction that any red-blooded science-fiction fan would want to see in Houston, the NASA Space Center.

The more caustic tourist guides told me that the visitor center there had been turned into more of a NASA theme park, but I didn't find it all that bad. It's a large functional museum with such interesting material as a walk-through mockup of the space shuttle crew area, which is much smaller than you might expect. My only complaint, besides the appalling cafeteria, was that all the relics of past glories - one of the original Mercury capsules, the original Skylab mockup used for crew training, a moon rock display - are tucked into a dark back room with no sign telling you how to get there. A 90-minute shuttle trip took us onto the main campus, with stops at the original Mission Control (into which the original 1965 equipment - complete with dial phones - was reinstalled when the room was decommissioned a decade ago), the crew training facility (from a mezzanine catwalk we could look down onto the huge main floor filled with mockups of everything that currently flies, including pieces of the space shuttle in various different orientations), and one of the original spare Saturn V rockets, lying on its side in a shed built around it to protect it from the elements (with an excellent docent lecture on the rocket's function and role - not that any of this was new to me, but it was a pleasure to hear it well told).

I'd picked a motel on the edge of Houston for ease in getting around, which put me in the most desolate suburban sprawl imaginable. Within three blocks (though they were big blocks) of the motel were two different Chuck E Cheeses. I didn't eat there. On the day I ventured into central Houston I did find a genuine Cajun diner of the kind I'd seen in Louisiana. It's called Zydeco. At lunchtime you join a line of hungry businessfolk stretching out the door. The line moves quickly and you pass a menu board that does not do justice to the variety of unidentifiably brown things in the steam table trays. On reaching the server, shout over the noise at him the same unintelligible syllables that the guy before you said. This will get you a bowl of what looks like watery mud. As you sit down at one of the cafeteria tables and dig in, the first couple spoonfuls will make you think "What the hell is this?" but after that it tastes really good. Yep, that's the genuine Cajun diner experience all right.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is worth a visit. It has a big walk-through butterfly cage, where large quantities of impossibly colored wings flit before your face or settle down on little birdbath-like stands where their bodies gorge on honeycombs or fruit pieces. It has dinosaur skeletons. It has displays with everything you could possibly have wanted to know about oil drilling. It has a gem room, a hushed chamber with huge uncut stones still attached to hunks of the living rock from which they were wrenched, all reverently lit behind glass. And when you've finished looking at those, you notice a corner around which there's another whole room of them. And another beyond that. And all the time you are there, the sound system is discreetly emitting Pachelbel's Canon.

On the other hand, I have never seen a bigger ripoff than the Rothko Chapel on the University of St. Thomas campus, this despite the fact that they don't charge anything to see it. I knew that Rothko was a minimalist painter, but I hadn't realized that even he would decorate an uninspiring and otherwise empty concrete octagonal chamber with 14 paintings every one of which was in flat undifferentiated black. I sat on a plain bench for a couple of minutes to act respectful-like while the docent read a book in the corner, and then walked out shaking my head, any desire to visit the modern art museum a couple blocks away completely squelched.

I found a far better, and positively fannish, work of art in a neighborhood not far away. You've heard of the Tower of Bheer Cans to the Moon; well, in Houston there is a beer can house, a house covered in aluminum siding made entirely of beer cars. The owner made a decades-long project of removing the tops and bottoms of beer cans, flattening out the rest, and attaching them to his house with the various brands arranged in pleasing color patterns. He also made a low front fence out of intact beer cans. There was nothing to do but admire this from the street, so I didn't find out if he drank all that beer, or what.