Elen sila lumenn omentielvo!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Something for Thursday

I know, I know -- complete lack of posting of late! As usual, sorry about that. Nothing bad is going on -- quite the opposite, actually! I'm writing and working and this week we've been spending time at night with a couple of good friends from our college days who decided that it was high-time they saw Niagara Falls and some other nifty stuff 'round here, so I actually have not even been at the computer much. And that's a good thing! It's been a tiring week, but in a way that is recharging some other batteries. That doesn't mean we can't have some music, though!

I know I've featured the Polovtsian Dances by Alexander Borodin before, but I don't know how long it's been and hey, I love this music so much that I don't care if I featured it last week! I've been on a big Borodin kick of late, so much so that I'm wondering why it took me this long to really lock onto him. I've been vaguely aware of Borodin for years, but only recently has be really pushed through into my consciousness, and I am very glad that he did. Here is how David Dubal describes Borodin in his book The Essential Canon of Classical Music:

With such a short life of so many demands, Borodin composed little. His music is the most lyrical in spirit of the Russian Five, and his melodies possess a delicate "oriental" atmosphere. His compositions have a special sweetness as well as a legendary character. In highly charged and picturesque music, Borodin idealized the savage life of the Russian steppes. His pieces have the allure of blazing Tartar blades and Arabian steeds in the heat of battle. It is music that leaps forward and seductively whispers mysterious romances in the slow movements.

This particular performance of the Polovtsian Dances is taken from a production of Borodin's opera Prince Igor, and the choreography of this production is as captivating as Borodin's music itself. I'm happy to note that this entire production of the opera is also available online, and I'm really thinking that I need to watch it. (And if you hate opera, it's OK -- the only singing here is by a chorus.)

Here are the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, by Alexander Borodin.

Monday, July 25, 2016

View from a Saturday Morning

Over coffee the other morning, this was my view:

An exciting Saturday morning at Casa Jaquandor! #Cane #DogsOfInstagram #greyhound #Lester #catsofinstagram

Lots of excitement, let me tell you.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Symphony Saturday

We now reach the later period of Tchaikovsky's career as a symphonist, which is where things go from "good", "solid", and "promising" to "great". This is the Symphony No. 4 in F minor.

I have to confess that I didn't always like this symphony all that much, but I have warmed substantially to it over the last few years. Tchaikovsky's music is, in a lot of cases, best understood in the light of the events of his life at the time he was composing. This symphony, which has some of the most anguished passages I know, sprang from Tchaikovsky's suicidal days after his ill-advised marriage and the beginning of the great relationship of his life, his patronage by the wealthy Nadezhda von Meck. This symphony begins with a passage he referred to as "Fate knocking at the door", which is a phrase that has also been used to describe the opening motif of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and indeed Tchaikovsky seems to have taken that earlier great work as a major inspiration:

Of course my symphony has a program, but of a kind impossible to formulate in words... Was it not the purpose of the symphony as a musical form to express that for which there are no words, but which surges from the soul and demands expression? Basically, my symphony is patterned after Beethoven’s Fifth. Not Beethoven’s musical ideas, but his fundamental notion... The Beethoven Fifth has a program. There can be no doubt what he wishes to express. The same idea underlies my own symphony, and if you have not understood me, then the only conclusion to be drawn is that I am not a Beethoven, which I myself have never doubted. I will add only that there is not a single line in my symphony which I have not felt deeply, and which does not echo true and sincere emotions.

He would dedicate this symphony to Madame von Meck, who prized it highly when he played it for her on the piano. Doubtless she was moved by the work's feel of constant emotional struggle and turmoil, and was then brought to a state of intense excitement by the finale, which sounds in its closing passages as though the orchestra is going to levitate, so great is the energy being expended.

Here is Tchaikovksy's Symphony No. 4 in F minor. (Pay special attention to the conductor at the 12:00 mark. I'm always amazed this doesn't happen more often!)

Next week, we're still with Tchaikovsky but we take a break from his numbered Symphonies for one that's titled.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Bad Joke Friday

Courtesy Bad Science Jokes:

A guy goes to a psychiatrist.

"Doc, I keep having these alternating, recurring dreams. First I’m a teepee; then I’m a wigwam; then I’m a teepee; then I’m a wigwam. It’s driving me crazy. What’s wrong with me?“

The doctor replies:

"It’s very simple. You’re two tents.”

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Conventional Reactions

My reactions to the Republican National Convention have been pretty evenly divided between these two videos:

That's about all. This is just about the weirdest damn thing I've ever seen. I can't even fathom how one whole segment of American politics has become like this.

And just think -- if trends continue, and they don't somehow win with this shitshow this year, in 2020 they'll come back even crazier.

UPDATE: I wrote this post before I read the leaked text of Trump's acceptance speech, and jee-sus, that is some messed up shit. That speech may be the single most twisted thing I've ever read, full of half-truths, twisted facts, and outright lies all used in service of maintaining the notion that white Americans should be cowering beneath their beds in the face of the dystopic hellscape this country has become.

I thought Atlas Shrugged was the most twisted thing I'd ever read, but whoever wrote this speech has topped it. My prayer now is that this election represents the death-throes of a particularly ugly strain of thinking on the American right, and after this they'll start swinging back toward rationality and reality again. A country cannot prosper when so many of its people think like this.

Something for Thursday

I was looking for some music to post on Facebook for SamuraiFrog's fortieth birthday (go say hello to him!), and I found this quite by accident. And what a happy accident it is! Here is the United States Marine Band performing selections from John Williams's score to The Force Awakens. It's a five-selection playlist, so make sure the whole thing plays. I've had trouble posting embedded playlists from time to time.

By the way, the United States Marine Band is an amazing ensemble. It selects its musicians after a rigorous audition process, and its musicians are the equal of musicians in any professional orchestra in the United States. This is not just some band that plays Hail to the Chief and a bunch of Sousa marches. In short, speak ill of the United States Marine Band, and you will quickly incur my wrath!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

"You can type this shit, George, but you can't say it."

I recently read a fascinating book about the Star Wars phenomenon, titled How STAR WARS Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise. Written by journalist Chris Taylor, the book traces the history of Star Wars, not as purely a “making of” story, but as a cultural phenomenon. It’s a terrific book that I reviewed on Goodreads, but I wanted to revise and extend those remarks a bit.

This book is one of the most even-handed accounts of Star Wars and the work of George Lucas that I have read. There isn’t much axe-grinding here, which I greatly appreciate. Taylor is interested in just how this thing called Star Wars came to be one of the dominant pop-culture forces today, tracing the influences that led a young George Lucas to think more and more obsessively about his “little space movie”, and then tracing its own influences on those who came after and showing some of the many and surprising ways that Star Wars has enhanced and influenced the lives of several generations of fans, geeks, and whatever else has come afterwards.

Star Wars started as one movie that wasn’t even supposed to be 20th Century Fox’s big picture for 1977, but it became an enormous force, as everyone knows. It is certainly, along with Star Trek, likely the single biggest influence on my creative life, and it’s inspired an astonishing amount of activity over the years, from comics to music to books to fan films to cosplayers, some of whom have organized into the largest amateur costuming group in the world after the Society for Creative Anachronism. All that, from the imagination of a filmmaker from Modesto, California who only became driven to succeed after he nearly died in a car crash in his youth.

From my perspective, the best parts of the book are those that home in on George Lucas’s creative process. A lot of ink and a lot of pixels have been deployed over the years in discussing Lucas, many times in derision. What emerges in this book – and in others I’ve read, such as Rinzler’s wonderful Making of... books for each of the original Star Wars films – is a man with a deeply non-linear creative process. Lucas’s approach seems to be to generate ideas by the dozen, and then mix-and-match them in various ways until something coherent begins to emerge. Sometimes his earliest ideas are set aside only to return many years later, and sometimes his early ideas stick around through most iterations of story.

The genesis of Star Wars, as it went from being an enormous and ungainly thing bogged down in dozens of names and jargon terms, was a very messy process, and it’s always amazing to me to see the long litany of notions that came and went. There are ideas that Lucas entertained in 1975 that would not show up on film until thirty years later (such as the planet Utapau, present in the earliest drafts of Star Wars, when it was called The Star Wars, and which would not actually show up on film until Revenge of the Sith). In this way, Lucas reminds me of some favorite artists of mine, like composer Hector Berlioz, who would think nothing of using a melody in an early work and then using it again many years later, if he felt that he still had use for it.

The messiness of Lucas’s storytelling process stands at odds with things he says later about his own process, which is something that a lot of people have used as a source of criticism. Lucas is often thought to have promised a nine-episode Star Wars saga back in the days of the Original Trilogy, but his actual statements were that he had written an enormous story and then cut it in half, resulting in the Original Trilogy being the second half; the seventh, eighth, and ninth episodes were only conceptual in nature. This seems to be partly true, but Lucas didn’t so much cut an original story in half as he kept reducing his focus. The “Star with Episode IV” approach seems to be more emergent than intentional, which is not a bad thing.

Here, from the book, is just such an example of one of Lucas’s old ideas resurfacing much later on:

The moment Lucas decided to add a kind of rational, scientific component to Jedi knowledge of the Force, in Episode I – the infamous “midi-chlorians,” microscopic organisms that are supposed to help the Force bind to living beings – long-time fans revolted. It didn’t matter that, as Lucasfilm protested, the midi-chlorians are not supposed to be what the Force is actually made of – just a biological indication of its presence. If you dig deep enough into the Lucasfilm archives, you’ll find Lucas talking about midi-chlorians as early as August 1977. “It is said that certain creatures are born with a higher awareness of the Force than others,” he said during a role-playing exercise designed to help him flesh out Star Wars concepts after the original movie. “Their brains are different; they have more midi-chlorians in their cells.” This didn’t matter either. What fans actually want, it seems, is as little detail as possible. They want twenty-eight words, and nothing more.”

The twenty-eight words Taylor refers to is the simple description of the Force given by Ben Kenobi in A New Hope, and nothing more. Without rehashing the whole midi-chlorian thing, it’s certainly interesting that Star Wars fans seem to want to leave things open and mystical and unexplained in a lot of cases. They certainly stand in contrast to, say, fans of JRR Tolkien, who want as much detail as humanly possible, to the point of learning to speak fictional languages and developing their grammars beyond what Tolkien created. (I still maintain that the midi-chlorians are not a category error but a storytelling one. Their existence adds exactly nothing, story-wise, to the Star Wars saga.)

This book also provides some evidence in favor of an oft-cited notion, that Lucas functions best when he has a strong voice to tell him “No.” By the time of the production of the Prequels, Taylor describes Lucas as so revered that literally no one goes against him in any way at all. I’ve never been totally convinced of this, and I’m still not. Producer Rick McCallum doesn’t come off terribly well, being shown as mainly a yes-man, but still: Lucas brought in script help for all three Prequels, in acknowledgment of his own weaknesses in the writing department. (Which are, in my view, a bit overblown.) Taylor’s own negative opinion of the Prequels stands, but to his credit, he does give voice to some pro-Prequel voices, and he acknowledges that they are not the irredeemable films that many have deemed them. (I’d rather he hadn’t even mentioned that awful Red Letter Media guy at all, though.)

Taylor seems fairly bemused, in the closing chapters, by the fact that Star Wars fandom has only strengthened over time, even in the face of three Prequel films that are, shall we say, less than beloved. As the book closes, Lucas has sold it all to Disney, but even then he was starting to knock around ideas for Episodes VII through IX, the ones he had previously said he’d never do. One ends up wishing that George Lucas would simply come out and admit that Star Wars has been his life. That wouldn’t be so bad a thing, would it?

Ultimately, Taylor’s book does a wonderful job of tracing the growth of Star Wars in our cultural life, and he also shows how it came to utterly dominate the life of its creator, a complex man whose own skills, great as they are, were not always a match for what was in his head. I’m grateful for the book’s portrayal of a George Lucas who is flawed genius, instead of a hack who just happened to get lucky a couple of times. I hope Taylor gets to revise the book in five or six years, once the Saga again stands complete. Unless, of course, Disney decides to fire up production on Episode X in due course....

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Symphony Saturday

Sorry for missing last week, but here we are again. Tchaikovsky's third symphony, the Symphony No. 3 in D Major, is an interesting work, almost experimental in its form. The symphony is in five movements instead of four, and in it Tchaikovsky makes use of Polish dance rhythms, which led to the work initially being dubbed the "Polish" Symphony.

The symphony is kind of an odd work. It has a sense of optimism that seems, frankly, a little out of place for the famously brooding Tchaikovsky; this is the only one of his symphonies to be written in a major key.

Here is the Symphony No. 3 in D major. Next week, the Fourth, which is a work I've struggled with over the years.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Bad Joke Friday

In honor of the upcoming Olympics: I used to have a fear of hurdles, but I got over it.