Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Tone Poem Tuesday

The words of a truly great President seem apropos tonight, as a truly execrable President takes the stage.

Here is Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Something for Thursday (Robert Burns edition)

Today is the birthday of Robert Burns, the great national poet of Scotland, whose verse flows in the very heart of that fine and noble land. In that honor, here is one of the finest Scottish singers of our day, Dougie Maclean, performing one of Burns's works. If it gets better than this, I'd rather not know how.

For more on Burns, as always, Sheila O'Malley has you covered.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

From the Books: Ursula K. Le Guin on Tolkien

Author Ursula K. Le Guin has died.

Calling Le Guin an "author" is true, but it doesn't do her justice, and that's coming from one who has not read nearly enough of her work. Not even close. Le Guin was a cultural force, particularly in the genres of fantasy and science fiction where her influence is felt so keenly that her name ranks with the very highest of titans in the fields. Le Guin's brilliance shone for decades, not just in her fiction but in the examples she set in her interactions with the rest of the field and in her thoughts to which she gave voice in many essays. Le Guin was one of the absolute giants, and her passing at the age of 88 is one more milestone in the history of two genres that still strive for respect and acceptance.

I have a small book that I got years ago as a reader's companion volume to the Book of the Month Club's editions of The Lord of the Rings. (The book is cleverly titled, A Reader's Companion to THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS.) It contains a number of short essays about JRR Tolkien and his writing, and the final essay in the book, called "The Staring Eye", is Le Guin's. Here is a part of it:

They were displayed on the new acquisitions rack of the university library: three handsome books, in the Houghton Mifflin edition, with beige and black dust jackets, each centered with a staring black and red Eye.

Sometimes one, or two, or all three of them were out; sometimes all three were together. I was aware of them every time I was in the library, which was often. I was uneasily aware of them. They stared at me.

The Saturday Review had run a special notice upon the publication of the last volume, praising the work with uncharacteristic vigor and conviction. I had thought then, I must have a look at this. But when it appeared in the library, I shied away from it. i was afraid of it. It looks dull, I thought--like the Saturday Review. It's probably affected. It's probably allegorical. Once I went so far as to pick up Volume II, when it alone was on the rack, and look at the first page. "The Two Towers." People were rushing around on a hill, looking for one another. The language looked a bit stilted. I put it back. The Eye stared through me.

I was (for reasons now obscure to me) reading all of Gissing. I think I had gone to the library to return Born in Exile, when I stopped to circle warily about the new acquisitions rack, and there they were again, all three volumes, staring. I had had about enough of the Grub Street Blues. Oh well, why not? I checked out Volume I and went home with it.

Next morning I was there at nine, and checked out the others. I read the three volumes in three days. Three weeks later I was still, at times, inhabiting Middle Earth: walking, like the Elves, in dreams waking, seeing both worlds at once, the perishing and the imperishable.

Tonight, eighteen years later, just before sitting down to write this, I was reading aloud to our nine-year-old. We have just arrived at the ruined gates of Isengard, and found Merry and Pippin sitting amongst the ruins having a snack and a smoke. THe nine-year-old likes Merry, but doesn't much like Pippin. I never could tell them apart to that extent.

This is the third time I have read the book aloud--the nine-year-old has elder sisters, who read it now for themselves. We seem to have acquired three editions of it. I have no idea how many times I have read it myself. I reread a great deal, but have lost count only with Dickens, Tolstoy, and Tolkien.

Yet I believe tha tmy hesitation, my instinctive distrust of those three volumes in the university library, was well founded. To put it in the book's own terms: Something of great inherent power, even if wholly good in itself, may work destruction if used in ignorance, or at the wrong time. One must be ready; one must be strong enough.

I envy those who, born later than I, read Tolkien as children--my own children among them. I certainly have had no scruples about exposing them to it at a tender age, when their resistance is minimal. To have known, at age ten or thirteen, of the existence of Ents, and of Lothlorien--what luck!

In the essay Le Guin goes on to think about what her experience with Tolkien might have meant to her as a writer of the fantastic had she come to it earlier in life than when she did. It's interesting to consider. For myself? I came to Tolkien first when I was eight or so, via the animated The Hobbit, and three or four years later via the books. I have no idea how it affect me, as a writer of the fantastic, but then, Ursula Le Guin was a genius, and I'm only me.

I have intended to re-read Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea this year already; I have now moved it up in the planned rotation. I read it in eighth grade, I think; I recall liking it, but I never read past it. To this day my familiarity with Ursula Le Guin is more through her essays and nonfiction than through her fiction (I also read The Dispossessed, and remember it about as well, which is more reflective of me as a young reader than her as a writer). This needs to change.

Ursula K. Le Guin lived to be 88, and she leaves behind an enormous legacy not just in her own works but in all the authors on whom she was a huge influence. Her life may be over, but the ripples in time left by her having been here? Those are just beginning.

Thank you, Ursula K. Le Guin. You'll be read for a long, long time.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Tone Poem Tuesday

It's always worth remembering that classical music isn't just about dusty old works by composers long dead. British composer Eric Whitacre is still very much alive, and he is actually only a little less than two years older than me. I don't know a whole lot about him, actually. The work featured here is, to my knowledge, the only work of his that I have heard, but it's a beautiful piece indeed, for solo cello and strings. Called The River Cam, the work was composed in honor of cellist Julian Lloyd Webber's sixtieth birthday (and he is actually the featured soloist in this recording), and it is inspired by the titular River Cam in England, which flows through Cambridge. The work is meditative and dreamy in the tradition of Ralph Vaughan Williams, putting me a bit in mind of The Lark Ascending. The music rises and falls and churns, conveying the energy of a river without resorting to brisk tempi or harsh discord. There's a lot going on here as one listens, with the melodic lines going in different directions and at times creating dissonances that are nevertheless very beautiful to behold.

One thing is certain: I'll be attending more on the music of Eric Whitacre.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Symphony Saturday

At last, the kinda-sorta weekly feature returns!

I've been listening to this symphony a lot of late. I find it a very compelling work, with a wealth of Romantic melody, vigorous orchestration, and quite a bit of pleasing energy. It's also a mainly forgotten work, by composer John Knowles Paine. A big focus in this series has been to listen to a good many works of music that don't deserve the obscurity into which they have faded, and Paine's Symphony No. 2 certainly is that. Subtitled "In Spring", the symphony is in four titled movements:

I. Adagio sostenuto: "Departure of Winter"; Allegro ma non troppo: "Awakening of Nature"
II. Scherzo Allegro: "May-Night Fantasy"
III. Adagio: "A Romance of Springtime"
IV. Allegro giojoso: "The Glory of Nature"

This is one of the most genial works I have ever heard, which is one reason I keep returning to it. There is some occasional brooding to the music, but the brooding invariably gives way to song and optimism. Perhaps that's in keeping with the symphony's vernal inspiration, and I for one find it hard to hear the last movement singing its heart out and not feel something of that optimism myself.

What a wonderful symphony this is!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Something for Thursday

A sad note from earlier in the week was the passing of Dolores O'Riordan, singer for the band The Cranberries. I don't know their music very well, but you couldn't be alive in the 1990s and not hear it at some point. I always liked her voice, with its effortless pixie-ish lilt.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Tone Poem Tuesday

I heard this frankly amazing piece the other day on the radio, and I promptly listened to it three more times as soon as I got home from driving about. The work is the Russian Overture by Sergei Prokofiev, and it is simply a collection of tunes, some of which are actual Russian folk tunes and some of which are original themes of folkish nature composed by Prokofiev himself. Prokofiev isn't the type of Russian composer we often think of: he doesn't pour out songlike melody like a Borodin or a Tchaikovsky or a Rachmaninov. His is a more modern sensibility, a reaction against Romanticism but still without the full-on nods to the modern of a Stravinsky. I found this work an infectious listen, with its occasional singing, its frequent playfulness, and its variability between intimate song and boisterous showmanship.

Here is the Russian Overture by Prokofiev.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Greta Thyssen

Roger notified me of the passing recently of actress Greta Thyssen at the age of 90. I confess that I had no idea at all who she was, but thankfully, Roger provided context. In addition to her film career she later became an artist, and was married for a time to Cary Grant.

For my purposes, she starred in several Three Stooges shorts. I've never been a huge fan of the Stooges, but you can't deny that they elevated the fine art form on which Ms. Thyssen several times found herself on the receiving end:

Full points to Ms. Thyssen for her pie-faced slow burn!

Bad Joke Friday

A Star Wars one!


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Something for Thursday

Wow. Edward Scissorhands is twenty-seven years old. That's meaningful to me because back in February 1991, there was an oboe player in my college band that I suddenly realized was pretty cute. She let slip in conversation that she wanted to see this movie, as did I, so I invited her to see it with me.

Spoiler: she married me, and now we have dogs.

Here is a selection from what is, to me, the finest work Danny Elfman has ever done as a film composer.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Tone Poem Tuesday

Starting off 2018's musical selections with a short and lovely setting by Percy Grainger: a familiar folk tune from Scotland, "Ye Banks and Braes O' Bonnie Doon". Grainger is always worth returning to, for his sonorous settings and his ability to paint an amazing tonal picture in just a few minutes.

Monday, January 08, 2018


So yesterday I saw a New York Times article linked on Twitter in which apparently some members of former European aristocracy are starting to raise the notion that maybe, just maybe, world problems might be helped somewhat by a return to monarchy. I confess I didn't bother reading the article because...well, the whole notion just sounds goofy. But I did note the name of the first person quoted in the article: one Count Nikolai Tolstoy, who is a member of onetime Russian nobility, a distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy of War and Peace fame, and the writer of a fantasy novel about the wizard Merlin called The Coming of the King.

As it happens, I bought this book way back when I was in college and going through the big Arthurian phase of my reading life. There was a couple of years where if I was reading a book not related to any of my classes, it was an Arthurian book of one sort or another: either fantasy novels retelling the tale, or a nonfiction book about the legends or the larger category of British folklore from which the Arthurian matter springs. Tolstoy's novel is...well, I started it and got about seventy pages in before I gave up. His writing style was very formal and almost stilted (not unlike The Silmarillion), but what got me was a passage that ranks as one of the strangest passages I have ever read in a fantasy novel. I thought that I had shared this before, but I did a cursory search of the archives and couldn't find it, so here is is anew.

I don't even recall the contextual events in which this takes place, save that it is a big feast-type party or something at the King's great hall. Tolstoy is describing some of the evening's entertainment here, and...well, this happens. I swear that this is from a novel that actually got published.

Low before the king bowed the seven newcomers; and bowed low they remained, with buttocks bare gleaming from the ruddy glare of the king's hearth. For they were the far-famed farters of the Island of the Mighty, whose skill in farting surpassed any that might be found in Prydyn, or Ywerdon, or distant Lydau across the Sea of Udd.

Wonderfully loud was the farting of the royal farters at the feasting of King Gwydno Garanhir upon the Kalan Gaeaf; wonderfully lour, skillfully sonorous, and evil-smelling beyond the achieving of all others of their calling. At first they emitted with rare delicacy the seven notes of the scale, moving up and down the line in harmony, high and low. Then they blew forth tunes such as cowherds and milkmaids sing. They whistled high and they whistled low in semblance of the whistling of the keepers of the king's kennels. or of unseen birds that pipe in the brake.

But these wonderful feats were as nothing to what followed, and an ecstasy came upon the Men of the North as each of the performers excelled his fellow with some new and marvelous display of art and skill. Marvelously true to reality was the snorting of war horses, the braying of trumpets, the roaring of stags, the rumble of thunder, the bellowing of bulls, the snarling of wildcats, and long, low drone of a homing cockchafer on a summer's eve.

Well-fed were the performers upon dulse and lentils and beans, but not beyond the space of half an hour were they able to sustain their skillful performance. There came a moment when their conductor gave vent to a long, low whistling sound like a serpent retiring to its heathery laid; so sibilantly soft, stealthy-sounding, and stalely stinking as to instill an awed silence upon the assembled company. It was a signal for the departure of the troop, and with a final effort of such loudness and force and vigor that men swore afterward it set the goblets rattling upon the royal board, and all but extinguished the pine torches flaring in their sockets and even the great hearth burning beneath the royal cauldron.

Like the gale before which no man is able to stand upright, which blows without ceasing from the mouth of that Cave in the land of Gwent which men call Chwith Gwent, was that mightiest of farts which was in the North at that time. There were those in the king's hall, however, who feared lest the performance might arouse storms and tempests in the winter sky, avowing they could hear afar off in the mountains the rolling of Taran's wheel.

It was amid smoke and confusion and stench that the king's farters flew from the banquet hall to the hostel set apart for them. It was long before the pleasure passed and laughter died away and tongues were stilled, so delightful was their performance to the Men of the North.

As noted, I have little idea what to make of this, and I recall that I read very little farther in the book after this.

As for the novel itself, it was apparently at one point to be the first book in a trilogy of novels about Merlin, but the next books never appeared. Count Tolstoy was apparently involved in some sort of legal action involving libel, which put a bit of a kibosh on his writing at the time. To my knowledge these books have never appeared.

And there, folks, is the strangest thing I've ever read in a fantasy novel.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Something for Thursday

I must admit that I love a good cheesy hard rock ballad, and this might be the greatest of them all.

(And yes, I like the movie that it came from. It's so gloriously entertaining in its jaw-dropping badness that I can never look away from it. It's the cinematic equivalent of a lava lamp.)

Wednesday, January 03, 2018


It's JRR Tolkien's birthday!

Tolkien is, naturally, one of my favorite of all authors. He wasn't my first foray into epic fantasy--that would be Lloyd Alexander--but Tolkien cemented my love of that genre for keeps. He is, for me, as profound an influence on my own storytelling as George Lucas.

Here is one my very favorite passages in a book chock-full of favorite passages. This is from The Return of the King, the chapter titled "The Siege of Gondor".

In rode the Lord of the Nazgul. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgul, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face. 
All save one. There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, streadfast as a graven image in Rath Dinen. 
'You cannot enter here,' said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. 'Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!' 
The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter. 
'Old fool!' he said. 'Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!' And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.

Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn. 
And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin's sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last. 
That is one of those passages that, every time I read it, I pray to whatever powers there are that one day I might write something half so wonderful.

Happy birthday, Professor Tolkien! Long may your stories shine, into the next Age and beyond!