Thursday, June 22, 2017

concert review: Garden of Memory

The first time I went to one of these annual walk-through concerts, over a decade ago, I assumed from the kinds of ambient and avant-garde music being promoted, and from the fact that the event was four hours long, that we'd be likely to be offered some four-hour-long works, of which there exist quite a few, by austere quasi-minimalist composers like LaMonte Young or Morton Feldman.

Nope. Some of the music sounded like theirs, but the performers played mostly in half-hour sets with breaks between them, which, in a world in which unbroken four-hour-long music exists, struck me as slightly cheating.

This year, however, something close to that order of magnitude finally happened. A pair of new performers, violinist Helen Kim and pianist Samuel Adams (yes, that Samuel Adams, and I noticed that his famous dad had come along to listen) occupied the main chapel for 75 minutes with Feldman's For John Cage. Wispily ethereal, like most of Feldman's work, it actually maintains interest for all this time by the minute variations Feldman continually runs on a set of tiny upward scale passages, microtonal on the violin just slightly off from the piano.

The performers had to play much louder than the score's ppp because, even in the separated main chapel, a continual wash of echo from other performers down the hall kept seeping in. Plus plenty of found sounds in the chapel itself, including my empty water bottle rolling off the bench and onto the floor. But this is a work dedicated to John Cage, who would not have minded such intrusions in the least.

Other performers I heard in the main chapel were Sarah Cahill playing a session of Lou Harrison piano music, which is also what she did last year, and Kitka, the small but mighty acapella female choir, which this year gave us extremely spicy South Slavic folk music.

I spent most of the first hour, which is always the least crowded part, wandering around in search of performers I hadn't heard before. I was most taken by a pair of women in the large columbarium, Krys Bobrowski who played glass harp on a set of industrial beakers while Karen Stackpole rubbed large gongs with a mallet, setting up an ambient sound of conflicting overtones that buzzed mightily. I also liked Robin Petrie and friends, as they were billed, who played a gentle folk-like ambience on hammered dulcimer, guitar, and hand drum. The Real Vocal String Quartet, who were playing a jazz-bluegrass fusion work and humming as they played, sounded promising. For the rest, I heard a guy playing a xylosynth, which is what the name sounds like; another group whacking away at wooden xylophones in a dead, dry sound; a saxophone quartet playing slow ambient dissonance; another sax and plucked cello in slow jazzy improvisations; an ambient electronic hum so quiet and motionless I couldn't tell whether I could hear it or not; a slow noodle on electric guitar; a strangely weak violin and cello duo; a solo violinist playing what the sign outside his niche said was "Cluck Old Hen Variations" and it sounded like that; and what I can best describe as a modernist baroque harpsichord.

I did catch a set by old favorites Paul Dresher and Joel Davel on their battery of electronic synthesizers, and the superiority of their music-making to much of the rest was renewedly impressive. But I missed their space-mate Amy X Neuburg entirely, and percussionist Laura Inserra (but I picked up a CD of hers at the main sales table), and every time I tried to look in on Probosci, the new group that most impressed me last year, the other group sharing their cramped space (the Garden of St. Matthew, which is always overcrowded) was playing instead.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

items

1. It's been blazing hot here lately, getting up to the 3-digit numbers Fahrenheit. And to think that it's only June. It's so hot in the desert that planes are forbidden to take off. Memo: don't change planes on summer afternoons in Phoenix or Vegas.

2. Accordingly, I bought a small watermelon at the store. It wasn't until I cut it open that I discovered that it was a variety with yellow pulp, which I'd never had before. It tasted like any other watermelon, but looking at it was disorienting.

3. It's so hot that the cats are thiiiis long. Maia has been playing dead on the carpet, though it'd probably be cooler on the linoleum.

4. Speaking of the linoleum, it's been the subject of Pippin thinking outside the box, as it were. We don't know why he's doing it. It's not necessarily associated with the box needing to be cleaned, and we've had him medically tested for any physical problems.

5. The word before the Georgia election was that even a narrow loss would be a grand repudiation of the Republicans. The word after the narrow loss is that it's a disaster for the Democrats. My own take is that a continuing series of narrow losses won't cut it.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

concert reviews

I was almost on my way out the door to the San Francisco Symphony last Thursday afternoon when my editor phoned and asked if I wanted to review ... the San Francisco Symphony. Well, that was easy.

I had my review in Saturday morning, but I don't think the copy-editors work on weekends, and it usually takes them most of a day to get the work up, so the review didn't appear until this morning. Now that SFS is moving all its first performances to Thursdays instead of Wednesdays, this will create a timing problem.

I'd like to add something about the process of writing a review like this. I'm a repertoire-oriented classical listener, not a performer-oriented one. When I talk about Lalo's orchestral style, or compare Rachmaninoff to earlier Russian composers, I'm speaking from long-standing personal knowledge of their full orchestral oeuvres. But the individual characteristics of performers, even distinctive ones, tend not to stick in my head. That's where having a dozen years of a blog in which I review all the concerts I attend, whether I'm covering them professionally or not, is useful. My statements about the styles of conductor Petrenko and violinist Bell (whom I barely restrained myself from calling "the famous Washington Metro busker") come from comparing what I thought this time with what I'd written about them before. That's the external memory function.

I used the same technique to write, for my other outlet, this preview article on tomorrow's (it's tomorrow's now; it was next week's when it was published) Garden of Memory concert. I waited until the list of this year's performers was posted, then I scarfed up descriptions I'd written of them from previous concerts, strung them together, and that's the article. I wrote this for publicity. Although it's already crowded enough in there, I'm still trying to get others to attend. I know lots of people who would love this event, but I've only occasionally seen any of them there.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Dark Carnival

According to the news here and here, the Berkeley SF and fantasy store Dark Carnival (named for Ray Bradbury's first book) is shutting down.

Sorry to hear it, though I confess I hadn't been there often in recent years. My sf/f fiction buying has dwindled, and the store is 50 miles away and a bit off my usual beaten paths. But I have gone there occasionally, because it's a gloriously cluttered store full of tiny nooks, odd balconies, and miscellaneous contents, in particular books of non-mass-market origins, the kind I most want and that are hardest to find. For years its alphabetical shelves featured large stocks of hard to get books like Philip K. Dick's Nick and the Glimmung or the Newcastle edition of Dunsany's 51 Stories because nobody bought them out. I was last there in search of a copy of Mervyn Peake's collected Nonsense Poems. I was sure they'd have it. They did.

But I remember Dark Carnival from its earliest days. It was the first sf specialty store in the Bay Area, long before Borderlands or Future Fantasy and even a bit before The Other Change of Hobbit or Fantasy Etc. (Of these, only Borderlands is still with us, and it had a scare not long ago.) I found it down on the south stretch of Telegraph, the first of its three locations, when I returned to UC in the fall of 1976. It was very small then, mostly a large semicircle of paperbacks, but there wasn't a lot to stock in those days. Jack Rems, owner ever since, was usually there, as was his first clerk, a young woman named Lisa Goldstein, who'd occasionally mention she was working on a novel. It was published several years later and led her on the path to becoming the renowned fantasy author she is today, but then she was a bookstore clerk. D. and I would hang out down there and indulge in a lot of chatter with Jack and Lisa, but we'd also buy books.

I remember author readings by the likes of Peter Beagle and Patricia McKillip, the first occasions I met either, but the occasion I most remember is walking in a few months after opening to find Jack holding out an ARC (cardboard-bound pre-publication Advance Reading Copy) from Ballantine Books that had just come in. It had a letter printed on the cover from the editor, Lester Del Rey, saying that he had something really special here: for everyone who had loved The Lord of the Rings, this was the new book they were waiting for. Lester was proud to offer us this epochal reading experience.

Remember that this was early 1977 and nothing else like The Lord of the Rings had yet seen print. We were curious and hopeful. But it took only a few minutes of flipping through the ARC to discover clumsy hack writing, carbon-copy ripoffs, and generally pervasive badness of a kind we'd not seen before in books that were supposed to be good. (We've seen it a lot since, though.)

You're ahead of me. The book was The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. Didn't buy a copy of that one.

Monday, June 12, 2017

*sigh* Adam West

I reviewed his memoir, Back to the Batcave, when I read it a few years ago. Here's what I wrote:
The memoirs of a man's struggle to be taken seriously as an actor. See him searching for psychological insights into Batman's character before playing him in the camp (West hates that word) 1960s TV series. Yes, really. But what most annoys him is that he's never been asked to play Batman in any of the movies. Points out that he's old enough now (this is 1994, when he was 66) to do the "Dark Knight" role, and he'd play it that way too, he says. Lots of amusing stories of the itchiness of the costumes, the breakdowns of the Batmobile, etc. Repeated avowals that various guest villains were delights to work with are rendered believable by blunt accounts of a few who weren't.
To which I can add that I remember that he specified that the three big repeat villains - Cesar Romero (Joker), Burgess Meredith (Penguin), and Frank Gorshin (Riddler) - were always fully prepared and professional on set, but that it was Gorshin in particular that West made friends with. They'd go off and have a drink together after work.

The fact is that, as a boy, virtually my entire consumption of superhero media consisted of TV shows - the Adam West Batman, re-runs of Superman, and the endless Marvel cartoons of Spiderman, Incredible Hulk, and Fantastic Four that infested the afterschool TV hours. I never read the comic books; I had other things to read. Consequently I was never among those irritated at the Batman TV show for not taking seriously enough the concept of a man fighting crime while dressed as a bat. In fact, I liked the show and West's deadpan straight-arrow portrayal of the righteous hero. Sorry I never saw him in anything else.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Ashland in the cool and damp

Two years ago when B. and I attended the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in June, it was so blazing hot that the power in the big indoor theater shorted out during a performance.

This year it was cold, and wet. A lot of, though not consistently, drizzle, with the occasional cloudburst. Even though we had to walk around in it, we know what we prefer.

We saw five plays this year.

Henry IV, Part I: A routine and not especially inspired modern-setting production, complete with strobes and machine guns in the battle scenes, and ridiculous accents for Glendower and Douglas, only partially redeemed by a sprightly (as opposed to the more usually played irritable) female Hotspur (Alejandra Escalante) and a brilliant delivery of Falstaff's speech on honor (V.1) (but, alas, nothing else) by Valmont Thomas.

The Merry Wives of Windsor: Another Falstaff play, but this time Falstaff was played by a woman, and appropriately a woman of age and size at that (KT Vogt), but unlike Hotspur the character was played as a man. This was one of OSF's patented fast and cheerful Shakespeare comedies, further livened by excerpts from and allusions to 80s pop songs with lyrics appropriate to the plot, with a band to back them up. The entire cast, in their Elizabethan costumes, sang and danced a couple, including something by Whitney Houston (I was told: don't ask me what, as I don't know anything about Whitney Houston) and Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart"; others were more individual, for instance (one of the few I recognized), Master Ford (Rex Young) expressed his rage and jealousy by singing "Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads, with the French parts of the lyrics interjected by the French suitor, Dr. Caius (Jeremy Johnson). Surreal, man.

Beauty and the Beast (stage adaptation of the Disney movie): OSF casts actors, not singers, but the singing here was all first-class and the best part of the show. The acting and pacing were likewise good, and I was never bored; but the staging, particularly of the supernatural elements, was so primitive as to be totally incomprehensible. Were it not for my dim memories of the movie (which I saw only once, when it first came out), I wouldn't have been able to figure out what was going on.

Shakespeare in Love (stage adaptation of the Miramax movie): Slightly spacier (as in, less coherent) than the movie version, played by actors who mostly (the Viola conspicuously excepted) physically resembled the ones in the movie, this was more like watching a remake of the movie than I was entirely happy with. But it was well done.

Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles (modern adaptation of the Euripides play) by Luis Alfaro: Begged for comparison with last year's The River Bride by Marisela Treviño Orta, likewise a new play of Latino pedigree with a strongly mythic plot. That one really socked me, in part because the myth was new to me; in this one, the plot was by Euripides, so I knew what was going to happen, searing as it was. Also, unlike as in Euripides most of the plot was packed into the last ten minutes, instead of slowly unfolding; the rest was mostly background. But it was well-done background; Alfaro translated that plot into his undocumented-immigrant LA setting well, and I was not expecting the marriage to Glauce to be translated as literally as it was. The acting was of course excellent. Sabina Zuniga Varela as Medea was as chatty and bubbly as any young actress in the post-show talk, but on stage, like a good actress, she was totally different: still, silent, and dangerously reserved.

Culinarily this was not much of a visit of discoveries, except for accidentally finding that the Black Sheep, the pseudo-British pub that's one of my favorite local spots, is closing down next month, so I'm glad I'd decided to eat there one last time. Most of the new restaurants in Ashland are the kind with tiny menus, specified side dishes (I hate that, as the mains I like are invariably paired with the sides I don't, and it's insulting the chef to try to mix and match), and high prices. We took advantage of slack in our time schedule to have our best meals out of town.

Monday, June 5, 2017

and a potato chip factory

or, some other things I saw in Virginia

Before my conference, I spent a couple days in the Shenandoah Valley. Mostly because I never had, really; I'd crossed it a few times, but not explored it.

Much of my focus was on the town of Staunton (pron. Stanton1). Staunton was the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson in 1856, though he moved away as an infant when his preacher father was offered a better-paying job in Georgia.2 Nevertheless his birthplace manse, on a hill above downtown, is preserved as a museum of life in those times and classes.3 Next door is a museum of Wilson's life, covering its pluses (he vetoed an immigration restriction) as well as minuses (he maintained segregation).

Downtown Staunton - all within easy walking distance from a sufficiently large parking garage - also has two large and worthwhile used book stores, a hearty restaurant specializing in ribs, and the American Shakespeare Theater, which plays in a small space described as the world's only reproduction of a Shakespearean indoor theater.4 They put on several plays in tightly-cast repertoire seasons; the one on the evening I was there was a basic Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. The line-reading was intense and invigorating, presenting the play as a bawdy comedy in the first half that then goes wrong.5 Romeo was eager and Juliet was earnest, and everything was good but I felt it would be tiring to see much more like this. Best feature was the costuming: basic Elizabethan, but the families were distinguished by putting the Capulets in reds and the Montagues in something around cyan or teal.

Outside town, the floor of the valley is littered with Civil War battlefields. At the ones still out in countryside, it's possible to figure out what was going on. I equipped myself with topographic maps photocopied from this book, and explored 4 or 5 of the, at last count, 16 that I drove through, victories of Sheridan and Hunter as well as defeats of hapless generals like Fremont. Driving along Sheridan's Ride in the opposite direction from which he rode it is slightly disconcerting.

Also on the floor of the valley, out in an isolated industrial park, at least as interesting as any 150-year-old battlefield, and a lot tastier, was the Route 11 Potato Chips factory. You can stand at large windows that peer into the factory floor and watch the cooking, sorting, seasoning, and bagging of the chips, and, as you do, informative company employees will come up and explain to you what's going on. Then you can munch on a few samples of freshly-cooked chips, and buy 2 or 6 ounce bags of every flavor they make. Really good chips, too.

Winchester is a bustling town with a large museum of Valley history and art, another great used book store, and a downtown pedestrian mall lined with restaurants, of which the only one empty of customers at noon on a Wednesday was Italian. I ate there anyway, making it one person from empty, and enjoyed my fish and sauteed spinach, marred only when what looked like a couple slices of baked apple on the plate turned out to be potato. Chips I'll eat, but that's it for me and potato.

I drove a stretch of Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge summit road through Shenandoah National Park. Impressive views from the overlooks, particularly west to the valley (the plains to the east were misty), though there isn't much else to do up there unless you have all day to take a couple hikes. The visitor center display on the history of the park informs on how disruptive the 1930s land confiscation was to the mountain people, and of how it took 12 years to get the concessionaire to stop having race-segregated picnic grounds: it may have been "the custom of Virginia," but it was against the law for federal facilities.6

But, as I noted in an earlier post, the Confederacy is still deeply embedded in the Valley. They must be very grateful for Stonewall Jackson around there, because otherwise they wouldn't know who to name anything after. Stonewall Jackson Road. The Stonewall Jackson Highway. Stonewall Jackson High School. The Stonewall Jackson Hotel and the attached Stonewall Jackson Conference Center. u.s.w.

1. There's also a town called Strasburg, pron. Strawsburg; there's no explanation of this.

2. Wilson was one of 2 U.S. Presidents to have lived under the jurisdiction of the Confederacy. Can you guess the other? Jefferson Davis doesn't count.

3. They don't shy away from telling you that the family "servants" would have been slaves. Not their own slaves, but ones rented for their talents at housework from the surplus at large plantations. Contracts would have specified their care, but the owners got all the money.

4. It isn't, actually: the Wanamaker Playhouse in London, part of the Shakespeare's Globe complex, is built to basically the same design, and I've been there too. But it's not as if they're common.

5. It occurs to me that Much Ado is built to the same plan, though it manages to rescue itself at the end, as R&J does not.

6. But if that's so - and I think it was, because the point of the Freedom Riders was that segregated seating was illegal on interstate buses - then why were there segregated restrooms on the NASA base in Hidden Figures, over a dozen years after segregation was ended in the park?


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Moria with the lights turned on

So the maze of twisty little passages that I've been holed up in for the last two days is the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Virginia, a vast expanse of meeting rooms (at least 50 on each of several floors of each of several buildings) that look as if they've been xeroxed from each other, appropriately so as rumor has it that this used to be a Xerox corporate training center, and what you were mostly being trained in was how to find your way around. The title of this post is a description one attendee has of the place.

And the conference that's occupying some four of the rooms in one corner of the building (but with the sleeping rooms over here and the dining hall over there, so walking is necessary) is MythMoot IV, a Tolkien conference sponsored by Signum University, an online learning venture specializing in teaching Tolkien-relevant subjects that brick universities can't work up the critical mass for any more, like Old Norse. The presiding genius is Corey Olsen, who podcasts as "The Tolkien Professor."

Sometimes my aging Tolkienist friends wonder where all the younger Tolkien scholars are, or indeed if they are. They are. They're here. Most of the presenters here are young, they're all as sharp as we were at their age, as insightful, as well-educated, and they give great papers. I feel very gratified when a young man can say to an appreciative audience, "I don't think I have to explain to most of you who Boethius is." There's a few of us veterans around, and we add up to a total of 120, about Mythcon-sized.

I've heard papers tracking the disappearance of the Ilkorindi from the legendarium, defining the Destruction of the Ring as the final resolution of a plot beginning with the Rebellion of the Noldor, computer-analyzing the text of The Hobbit to see which chapter stands out for the words used (it's not the one you'd think), and considering the awareness of Tolkien's characters that they're part of a cyclical history, and another one arguing much the same about Beowulf. I gave a paper myself, titled "C.S. Lewis, Númenorean" (from which it should be possible to guess its subject), and spoke on a panel describing and outlining the journal Tolkien Studies along with my co-editors, who are also here: it was a rare chance for us all to meet in person.

They're both special guests, giving robust plenary speeches, Michael Drout on the challenges of being a philologist in an age when philology is discounted and the secrets of the great philologists of the past, like Tolkien, are largely lost; and Verlyn Flieger on instances of the sense of wonder in Tolkien's work. (When Gimli rapturously describes the Glittering Caves of Aglarond to Legolas, he's marveling at the caves, but we're marveling at how they have raised the gruff, taciturn Gimli to eloquence.) There's more. Ted Nasmith displayed his Beren and Luthien art, and John DiBartolo told how his song about Gil-galad's spear, Aiglos, inspired an enthusiastic swordsmith to design and make a reproduction of the spear, which he brought along. Not a form of Tolkien art I'd have thought of, but it was a beautiful piece of work.

There was a session teaching Scottish Gaelic waulking songs ("waulking" is beating new-woven cloth to soften it, and waulkers sing work songs for the same reason that sailors and chain-gangs do: the results are strophic verse/choruses, but built totally unlike conventional folk songs), and last evening about a dozen of us gathered outside in the warm night air around a firepit to read aloud, round-robin, Tolkien's "Tale of Tinúviel" from The Book of Lost Tales and lately reprinted in the new Beren and Lúthien. I liked some of the unusual pronunciations we got, of which my favorite was "Tuna-ville."

Thursday, June 1, 2017

interim report

I am in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.