Saturday, July 30, 2016

Symphony Saturday

Tchaikovsky wrote one symphony that he did not give a number. This work is quite different from his other symphonies, in that not only is it not numbered, but it is a programmatic work that carries a title: Manfred. In terms of order of composition, Manfred falls between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, which is why it's featured in this spot, this week.

I had never heard the Manfred Symphony until just a couple of weeks ago. It is a strange work, to be sure -- it has moments of absolute brilliance, and it also has moments that make clear some of Tchaikovsky's later dissatisfaction with it. The brilliant moments, though, are so brilliant that on balance I end up truly enjoying this piece, and wondering why it seems to languish in obscurity, compared with Tchaikovsky's other symphonies.

From what I've read, the work has never really overcome its programmatic elements, some of which led Tchaikovsky into structural problems. (Or so say the critics.) The result is a work that is at times disjointed and inorganic, especially in its final movement. I'm honestly not sure about all that, but I do know that the work is also technically difficult, occasionally requiring virtuoso skill from its players, and it also calls for a very large orchestra, which contributes to the fact that it is not played all that often outside of recording studios. Opinion on Manfred seems largely divided.

Most interesting to me is the story of the work's genesis. Mily Balakirev had a program, based on Byron's poem Manfred, which he wanted to see composed into a symphony. He first tried to entice Hector Berlioz himself to do the job, after hearing Berlioz's wonderful Harold in Italy, but Berlioz demurred, citing his age and ill health. (As Berlioz had a year left to live, he seems to have been quite correct.) The program ended up finding its way to Tchaikovsky's hands, and Tchaikovsky composed it. The reaction to the work was divided from the outset, and Tchaikovsky himself considered destroying parts of it:

He found progress difficult, but by August 1885 he declared “this will perhaps be the best of my symphonic compositions.” By the time of the première in March 1886, he was qualifying that “because of its difficulty, impracticability and complexity it is doomed to failure and to be ignored,” and by 1888 he declared that “it is an abominable piece, and that I loathe it deeply, with the one exception of the first movement.”

The work's program is as follows:

1.Lento lugubre - Moderato con animo

Manfred wanders in the Alps. Wearied by the fateful questions of life, tormented by the burning anguish of helplessness and by the memory of his criminal past, he feels cruel tortures to the soul. Manfred penetrates deeply into the secrets of magic and communicates imperiously with the mighty powers of hell, but neither these, nor anyone in the world can give him the oblivion which is the single thing he vainly seeks and begs for. A recollection of the lost Astarte, whom he once loved passionately, devours and gnaws at his heart and there is neither limit nor end to the boundless suffering of Manfred.

2.Vivace con spirito

The Alpine fairy appears to Manfred in the rainbow from the spray of the waterfall.

3.Andante con moto

Pastoral - picture of the simple, poor, free life of the mountain dwellers.

4.Allegro con fuoco

Underground devils of Ahriman. Infernal orgy. The appearance of Manfred amid the Bacchanal. Summoning and appearance of the shade of Astarte. He is forgiven. Death of Manfred.

And here is the symphony itself. Let me know what you think!

Next week: The Fifth, which happens to be one of my most beloved works of classical music!

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.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Something for Thursday

I heard a performance of this on the radio the other day, and since this is one of those "Hear it once and hum it for days and days" pieces, I just have to share it. It's one of the most famous overtures of all time, even if the opera it opens isn't performed very often. The overture is in four sections, and the third and fourth comprise two of the most famous passages of classical music ever, with the slow section often used to accompany pastoral imagery in film and teevee, and the final section...well, everybody knows what association eventually resulted there, don't we?

Here is Rossini's Overture to William Tell.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

In (partial) defense of SCORPION

So we’ve been watching a show called Scorpion lately. It just wrapped up its second season; we’re four or five episodes into the second year.

Scorpion is a techno-thriller show about a team of supergenius misfits who are all brilliant at something but who all lack social skills to one degree or another (and they're led by Walter O'Brien, the guy among them who boasts both the highest IQ and the least amount of social acumen, and who is apparently based in part on a real guy), and their Homeland Security handler who manages their caseload and the local waitress from a diner who ends up helping the team to interact with people who are not supergeniuses. Together, this team – called “Scorpion”, hence the name of the show – addresses problems.

I’ve always liked this kind of story, the team-of-skilled-folk who put their skills together to accomplish amazing stuff and solve problems. I guess it goes back to The A-Team for me, although this style of story certainly goes back much farther than that; The Guns of Navarone is one such story, I suppose. Maybe Mission: Impossible! is as well. But this show’s most recent ancestor seems to be the wonderful Robert Redford-led ensemble caper flick Sneakers. The formula is always the same: each person in the team has a different skill set, and they are called upon in various ways to help out in the missions. You have the leader, the supergenius hacker; the supergenius psychiatrist; the math genius who is afraid of his own shadow; and the mechanical wizard who can do anything with a set of tools and whose main means of expression is harsh bluntness.

Scorpion is basically our current source of light, fun action entertainment. It’s not a great show, although I do sometimes get the impression that it could be, if it ever really homes in on its tone. The first season never quite got there, and my general impression was that the writers really needed to just let go an embrace the full-on potential their show and its characters have for some really gonzo geeky storytelling. Happily, they seem to be trending in that direction in the second season. There’s been some really gonzo stuff happen already, and hey, the second season gave us a slow-motion shot of Katherine McPhee in a wet t-shirt. (What can I say.)

So Scorpion’s not a great show, but it’s a fun show with some potential. I think it needs to delve even more into its wit and potential for comedy, and avoid the pitfall of getting too “dark and serious”, outside of maybe an episode or two, here and there, just to change things up. Scorpion is at its best when it uses humor along its way, and I hope the writers sharpen the wit as the show moves forward. They've already discovered the fact that with stories like these, once you establish what each character can do it's cool to stick them in situations where one has to call on skills that another member of the team has.

Some other things Scorpion does well? For one thing, the cast is terrific. These aren’t great actors, by any means, but there’s a lot of chemistry here, which is important in a show about a team. You really do get the sense that these people all like and care about each other, even their gruff Homeland Security handler agent (played by Robert Patrick, the T-1000 himself).

For another, I like that Scorpion’s challenges are varied. Sometimes they have to do straight-up espionage, such as an episode in which they have to break into Cuba’s central bank; other times they have to help find a group of lost hikers in an area where wildfires are starting to sweep through. Each episode manages to come up with a different bunch of challenges, so thus far there’s not a real sense of formula yet.

Additionally, while there are serial elements to the show (and I do think that Scorpion is leaning too heavily on romance amongst the team members in this regard), so far there is not some big overarching mytharc story behind it all. I love that. There’s no “Who killed so-and-so’s parents” or any other slowly-unfolding larger story to Scorpion. There’s no “big bad villain” to be sought after over the show’s run, with BIG DRAMATIC DEVELOPMENTS in the major storyline coming in sweeps-month two-parters. We have a few budding romances, and an ongoing story involving hero Walter O'Brien's dying sister. (As of this point in our viewing, she hasn't died yet, but I know that she does go, soon.) In a time when every show seemingly has some continuing story behind its individual episodes, and in a time when those continuing stories often get drawn out to the point of nobody caring anymore (I’m looking at you, Mentalist, with your chase of Red John going on way past the point of giving a crap), it’s refreshing to see a show that really downplays its serial aspect.

Scorpion is mainly exactly what it sounds like: a fun, likable show that isn’t trying terribly hard to be more than that. And you know what? That is just fine.

And besides....

I know. I’m the worst.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Something for Thursday

When you're a trumpet player, sooner or later you come up against the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra by Haydn. It's one of relatively few notable solo works for the instrument between the Baroque period and the modern years; it's by one of the great composers; and it's a fine piece in its own. There are technical reasons why the trumpet didn't really take off as a melodic instrument until after the invention of valves in the 1820s or so (Haydn's own concerto was written for a keyed trumpet, which was a faulty kludge of an instrument that never really took off), but it's disappointing that none of the great Romantic composers ever saw the instrument as a vehicle for solo work.

Here is a performance by Adolph Herseth playing the solo part. Herseth (one of my great musical heroes) was not a soloist by temperament, but you can hear his amazing skill on full display here.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Terrible Dee-oh-gee

Cane is a terrible dog. I know he doesn't look like a terrible dog, but he is.

Sometimes a brief respite in the grass is nice. #Cane #DogsOfInstagram #greyhound #KnoxFarm #EastAurora #wny

Today when I got home from work, he was outside with The Wife as she was hanging laundry on the line. I came outside and he did the whole "Yay! You're home!" thing, and then he ran a bit and did his business in the corner out by the fence and ran some more and pressed up against me for pets and ear-rubs and all that sort of jazz. Then he went back inside, and I came in with The Wife. We chatted a minute or two about our days, and then I noticed Cane standing near the refrigerator. See, when he comes back inside from doing something, often times he'll get a dog biscuit. Not always, but probably most times. We keep the biscuits atop the fridge. So I noted him standing there grinning at me, and I fetched him a biscuit, which he happily took off to his bed and munched on.

Whereupon The Wife starts laughing and says, "He just totally played you."

I asked, "What are you talking about?"

And she replies, "I gave him a biscuit two minutes before you did! He just had two biscuits in two minutes!"

I looked at Cane, shocked at his conniving behavior. He seemed unmoved by my outrage.

And that is why Cane is a terrible, terrible, terrible dog.

Cane connived me into giving him his second biscuit in two minutes. Because he's a weasel. #Cane #DogsOfInstagram #greyhound

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Sparing no expense for the Prez

I look at this photo and I think one thing:


"Two buckets and a board? Really? The PRESIDENT is coming to see what we're doing and we can't splurge on a friggin' STEPLADDER?!"

Saturday, July 02, 2016


That is all.

The Auroras of Jupiter, captured by Hubble.

Hubble Captures Vivid Auroras in Jupiter’s Atmosphere

Symphony Saturday

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 in C minor is very, very new to me: I first heard it a week ago, after I posted about the Symphony No. 1! I don't really have a great deal to say about this symphony, actually. It's a very nice work, and it would undoubtedly be a lot better known if it hadn't been so overshadowed -- along with the First and Third -- by the back half of Tchaikovsky's symphonic output. The Symphony No. 2 abounds with the feel of Eastern European folk music (he actually used Ukrainian folk songs in the work), and Tchaikovsky's typical fine and transparent orchestration, with some wonderful writing for the horn, strings, and woodwinds.

This is a fairly short symphony, clocking in around 35 minutes. Apparently Tchaikovsky revisited the work some years after its initial composition, and thus we now have two versions -- the original (which ran 40 minutes) and the revised version, which the composer preferred. Critics and musicologists have argued compellingly for each version, but I tend to defer to the wishes of creators in such matters.

Here is Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 in C minor.

Next week: The Third Symphony!

Friday, July 01, 2016