Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Tone Poem Tuesday

 The operas of Giachino Rossini are staples of the operatic stage, and the overtures from those operas are staples of the concert world. But even within Rossini's well-known work, some works are more well-known than others. William Tell and The Barber of Seville are some of the best-known works of all time, including their overtures, which have enjoyed (or endured!) second lives in popular culture outside of the context in which Rossini originally wrote them. Less well-known, but still a staple of the repertoire, is Rossini's take on the Cinderella folk tale, La Cenerentola.

La Cenerentola was Rossini's follow-up after the huge success of The Barber of Seville, and its success was more uneven than the earlier opera's. La Cenerentola did not open particularly well, but it grew quickly in popularlity through the 19th century. However, the style of singing its music required did fall out of favor, and thus La Cenerentola fell into relative obscurity. The opera was revived in the mid-20th century and has enjoyed stable popularity and performance ever since.

The overture is pure Rossini, starting with an air of subdued mystery before giving way to the kind of infectious energy and earworming, propulsive melody that is his hallmark. I'm always interested in how many of Rossini's overtures don't start with any kind of Bang!, instead starting pensively and building up their energy.

Here is the overture to La Cenerentola by Giachino Rossini.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Something for Thursday (Friday edition)

UPDATE: The video for the performance I chose, for some reason, won't embed here, so click through to hear the music.

 A day late, but not my usual excuse this time! I wasn't too busy...in fact, I was all set to post, but I couldn't pick out a piece of music for this.

You see, yesterday Sheila O'Malley posted about the work of painter Edward Hopper, the artist behind Nighthawks and other famous paintings that suggest urban loneliness and solitude. In Sheila's words:

I love the loneliness in Edward Hopper’s work. The insomnia. The urban midnights. The voyeurism. The emptiness. If you’re heartbroken, Hopper is your kindred spirit. I find his paintings very sad, sadness you can wallow in. Many (most?) people do what they can to avoid loneliness. I have never been able to pull it off. All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

Living in a major metropolitan area, you are constantly up against other people’s lives. People have private moments in public. You can peek into people’s windows as you walk by. You give each other privacy as best you can. People can weep on the subway, and nobody freaks out. Everyone clams up, goes into their own private head-space, and the weeping person may as well be in her own room for all the attention she gets. Believe me: having been that weeping person, there’s a comfort in anonymity. There is nothing quite like the freedom to be left alone.

At the same time, there is the sense of being privy to other people’s secrets. There are just so many damn windows. How do other people live? How are they managing?

Here are a few of Hopper's paintings, including, of course, his most famous painting, Nighthawks.

A lot has been said and written about Nighthawks, and those four people in that cafe...but what catches my eye is the storefront across the street. There's no merchandise on display in the window. Nothing at all. If the couple from Phillie's wants to window shop, there's nothing there to look at. Just a cash register, and a printed bill in the window that we can't read from this distance, so we don't know if simply says "closed", or "closed forever", or "seized by the IRS", or...anything at all. And above the storefront...equally vacant windows into offices or apartments.

So, back to the music. I read Sheila's post and wanted a piece of music that conveys the sense of loneliness that Hopper creates in many of his paintings, and that's where I struggled. I could have picked a song, maybe the title track, from Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely, but I just wrote about that album recently and wanted something else. Slow ballads, maybe...or songs about urban life, like Glenn Frey's 80s potboiler "You Belong To The City"...but nothing really fit, and I'm not sure this piece fits either, but I'm going with it.

Enter Claude Debussy.

Debussy, like Bach and Chopin, wrote a series of short pieces for keyboard that he called Preludes. Where Bach and Chopin used their Preludes to explore each key in the chromatic scale, Debussy did not. This Prelude was written in D minor and is titled "Footsteps in the Snow". Its character is cold and austere, with one particular motif recurring throughout in almost chant-like fashion. About halfway through we get a genuine break into lyricism, but the mood shift is short before the lyrical melody carries us right back to the work's core motif, a sad and insistent motif indeed.

Does "Footsteps in the Snow" suggest the same kind of loneliness that Edward Hopper suggests in his paintings? Well...I suppose that's for the listener and the viewer of the art to decide, isn't it? Debussy is definitely conveying some kind of cold, quiet, hushed solitude.

Maybe it's odd to be thinking of quiet urban solitude in the bright summery suburban days of my life right now, but the cold is always coming....

Wednesday, July 21, 2021


 This is in my workplace's parking lot. I drive past this each and every day.

And if it has to bug me, well, now it's damned well gonna bug you!

Rending of teeth! Gnashing of garments!

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Tone Poem Tuesday

 A contemporary work today, by Belize-born British composer Errollyn Wallen.Wallen's family moved to London when she was just two, and it was there that she grew and matured into her professional life as a prolific composer and teacher.

Of this work, Wallen says:

Composing for the orchestra is my favourite challenge, [and this] work is an especially important one for me. It is an innate human instinct to be free, just as it is a low of nature that the river should rush headlong to the sea. That is the concept behind Mighty River.

Slavery claimed the lives of countless people, but somehow my ancestors found the grit and determination to persist in spite of the conditions in which they found themselves. I dedicate Mighty River to my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. Though I never kner her, I am driven on by her courage in the face of dreadful dods and am inspired by her example not merely to survive, but to thrive.

I first heard this piece the other day, and it's quite amazing. This performance by the National Youth Orchestra is quite something, and I'm discovering a keen apprecation for the music-making that comes from youth orchestras and ensembles these days. What they sometimes lack in technical polish they often make up for in an ability to make accessibile to emotional heart of a work. I'm less and less drawn to the musical restraint of maturity as I get older.

Mighty River opens with a solo horn quoting "Amazing Grace", and then as the rest of the orchestra joins in, the piece genuinely does settle into the kind of constant flowing motion that is suggestive of a river on its way to the sea. But throughout the piece, with all its rocking and flowing rhythms, bits and pieces of other spirituals are heard, including more quotes from "Amazing Grace". The music takes several darker, more introspective turns, but somehow it always finds its way home to that rocking ostinato, and ultimately back to "Amazing Grace" before ending on a gentle major chord. One senses the constance of Black persistence and forced endurance mirroring against the constance of the river's motion.

Here is Mighty River by Errollyn Wallen.

Monday, July 19, 2021

WNY Love Letter: The Dumas Bridge

 First things first: it's not a bridge. Also, I am quite literally the only person who calls it the Dumas Bridge.

Let's back up.

One of my favorite locations for nature walks in my neck o' the woods is Knox Farm State Park. This park is located in East Aurora, NY, and it constitutes the house, stables, farm buildings, and grounds of the old Knox Estate. The Knox family was, for a time, one of the richest families in the region (if not the richest family in the region). Seymour Knox was one of the founders of the famed Woolworth Company, the chain of five-and-dime stores that used to be prominent in American retail. Other members of the Knox family were high-ranking bank officers, and Seymour Knox III was the first owner of the Buffalo Sabres.

I honestly don't know where the Knox Family has gone since then. There may still be Knox descendents in the area, but if there are, they don't seem to be nearly as eminent in the community as they were "back in the day". The family's old country estate has since become a park, first a local park, and later part of New York's State Park system.

Knox Farm is itself a wonderful place, with the feel of an old English estate: the main house still stands and before COVID was the site of many wonderful events, including a craft sale where I used to go Christmas shopping each year. But there are also the outlying woods, surrounding the estate, through which well-maintained trails run. Walking in the Knox Farm woods is always a peaceful return to nature, and while there's enough variance in the topography to make different parts of the park feel differently from one another, it's not at all a demanding place to walk, like some of the other local nature parks located in the hillier regions.

I'll say more about Knox Farm in a future post, but for right now, I single out a single spot on one of its many trails:

It's not so much a bridge as an earthen embankment build to allow transit over a narrow bog through which the higher meadows drain into the lower ones. A culvert runs beneath the "bridge" to allow flow, but it's not like there's a stream there, just a slow occasional flow of dampness. Instead of a drop on either side, like you might expect from a bridge, there's a slope, so if you jumped you'd roll about six feet down on the northern side, and maybe ten feet on the southern side. The worst that might happen is a sprained ankle and you'd get muddy.

So no, it's not much of a bridge. But it has wooden fenceposts on either side that are of particularly rustic construction, and between those posts, and the fact that the bridge is far away from any visible buildings on the estate, and the wooded path that approaches it with its gentle S-curve, the bridge seems to me to always feel like something from a much earlier age. In fact, for me it suggests something quite specific: this bridge looks like a location out of The Three Musketeers, which is why I call it the Dumas Bridge. Every time I am here, I imagine our heroes--Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan--galloping around the bend and over the bridge on their way to thwart some scheme of Milady de Winter or Cardinal Richelieu.

Or perhaps D'Artagnan and Constance meet by moonlight on the bridge, for a secret tryst. Or perhaps Milady's agents meet on the bridge by torchlight to exchange secret information.

Who knows...but it's nice to have an imagination that I can bring to bear on my walks in the woods. I could as well think of this place as the Alexander Bridge, imagining Taran and Eilonwy and Fflewdur Fflam crossing the bridge on one of their adventures. Or maybe there's a place like this in The Shire, a place in the back woods that Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin pass as they make their way in secret to the Old Woods and Bree beyond whilst evading the mysterious Black Riders.

Or maybe young Aeric Seaflame finds a bridge like this on one of the back roads of Frobish Forest as he flees the agents of Lady Perris Winterborne...but to learn about that, you'll have to wait until I finish writing the book in which those exploits take place.

For now, we'll stick with Dumas.

All for one, and one for all!

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Something for Thursday

 For some reason I have Jim Croce on the mind, so here are two of my favorite songs of his. Both are sad songs about the endings of relationships. "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)" is the better known of the two. It's one side of the conversation between someone who is pining for a lost love, and the operator on the other end of the phone line as the singer searches for that lost love. Why? Not to catch up with them or to learn about their new life and new relationship (with "my best old ex-friend Ray"), but from a standpoint of vengefulness. He just wants to show them that "I've overcome the blow, I've learned to take it well"...but in the very same breath, without even a pause, he admits that he wishes his words could convince himself. He sings all this in a kind of breathless rush; Croce was very good at using different melodies and even different rhythms to suggest complex meanings in his songs.

Ultimately, he doesn't make the call, concluding "There's nobody there I really wanted to talk to." He closes the call by telling the operator "You can keep the dime," which I suppose is something that would have to be explained to listeners today, like, oh, that line from "Easter Parade": "You'll find that you're in the rotogravure."

The other song might be sadder. "Photographs and Memories" isn't sung to some third party, like a telephone line operator. It's addressed to a lover long gone, though it's clear from the lyrics that the lover isn't there to hear it. Is the singer going through old belongings and thinking about how that's all that's left? Maybe.

Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you
Memories that come at night
Take me to another time
Back to a happier day
When I called you mine
But we sure had a good time
When we started way back when
Morning walks and bedroom talks
Oh how I loved you then

There's a beautiful sadness to the tune in the first two verses, but then Croce does something else with the chorus: he adopts a more cheerful tune as he remembers that "We sure had a good time...." But the verse ends on an unresolved chord, and so does the song. It's like he can only get so close to finding happiness in his old memories before he returns to sad reverie. There's something about sad memories of relationships that ended badly, isn't there? You can remember the good times, but somehow the sadness takes them over and you almost feel guilty for remembering the earlier times with a smile.

Anyway, here's Jim Croce with "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)" and "Photographs and Memories". Oh, and pay attention to Croce's guitar work. There's some very deft playing here, especially in "Operator", where the guitar almost forms a kind of countermelody to the tune he is singing.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Repost: From the Books: Douglas Hofstadter on the Rubik's Cube

A repost, first published in 2014, on the occasion of the anniversary yesterday of inventor Erno Rubik's birth on July 13, 1944. Thank you for all the puzzling fun and intrigue, Professor Rubik!

And as noted below, I *still* need a Megaminx, because of its dodecahedral shape....

My uncle Jerry once told me an awful joke:

What goes, "Click--do I have it yet? Click--do I have it yet? Click--do I have it yet?"

Answer: Stevie Wonder doing a Rubik's Cube.

I know. Awful.

Anyway, many squeals of delight reverberated through the online world yesterday as Google's doodle turned out to be a quite-functional Rubik's Cube, in honor of the puzzle's 40th anniversary. That's amazing to me, another milestone of a passage of time that just doesn't feel that long. I remember the first times I saw the puzzle, in the toy store of the Beaverton Mall in Portland, OR. This was late 1980 or early 1981, when the Cube was just starting to become the most popular thing going.

Eventually I got one, courtesy my parents, and I fiddled with it a lot until I could get two sides complete at the same time. But I was never able to crack the thing entirely, and I think my father was intrigued by the puzzle's mathematical nature, so he sprang for a solution book, through which we pored until we both saw how the thing worked and how it could be returned to its pristine state, usually in a smaller-than-expected sequence of moves. The logical approach to solving the Cube, which I have long since forgotten, was really quite elegant, and I occasionally want to revisit it, now that I'm old enough to appreciate such things. At the time, for an awkward fifth grader in a new school, the ability to solve a Rubik's Cube turned out to be quite the ice-breaker. (It may have also cemented my reputation as a soft and nerdy kid, but hey, it wasn't like I was going to be on the football team anytime soon, anyway.)

Years later, in college, I bought a book by Douglas Hofstadter called Metamagical Themas, which was the title of a series of columns Hofstadter wrote for Scientific American back in the day. Hofstadter is an interesting person, although frankly whenever I read him (and I haven't read him in too, too long), I got the feeling that I was peeking through a knothole in a fence into an awfully grand universe. In short, he was often way over my head. But he did write two columns about the Rubik's Cube, which he found appealing as a puzzle and as a mathematical object. Both columns are presented in the book, and I excerpt the first of them here:

The Magic Cube is much more than just a puzzle. It is an ingenious mechanical invention, a pastime, a learning tool, a source of metaphors, an inspiration. It now seems an inevitable object, but it took a long time to be discovered. Somehow, though, the time was ripe, because the idea germinated and developed nearly in parallel in Hungary and Japan and perhaps even elsewhere. A report surfaced recently of a French inspector general named Semah, who claims to remember encountering such a cube made out of wood in 1920 in Istanbul and then again in 1935 in Marseilles. Of course, without confirmation the claims seem dubious, but still titillating. In any event, Rubik's work was completed by 1975, and his Hungarian patent bears that date. Quite independently, Terutoshi Ishige, a self-taught engineer and owner of a small ironworks near Tokyo, came up with much the same design within a year of Rubik and filed for a Japanese patent in 1976. Ishige also deserves credit for this wonderful insight.


When I first heard the cube described over the telephone, it sounded like a physical impossibility. By all logic, it ought to fall apart into its constituent "cubies" (one of the many useful and amusing terms invented by "cubists" around the world). Take any corner cubie -- what is it attached to? By imagining rotating each of the three faces to which it belongs, you can see that the corner cubie in question is detachable from each of its three edge-cubie neighbors. So how in the world is it held in place? Some people postulate magnets, rubber bands, or elaborate systems of twisting wires in the interior of the cube, yet the design is remarkably simple and involves no such items.

In fact, the Magic Cube can be disassembled in a few seconds, revealing an internal structure so simple that one has to ponder how it can do what it does. To see what holds it together, first observe that there are three types of cubie: six center cubies, twelve edge cubies, and eight corner cubies. Each center cubie has only one "facelet"; edge cubies have two, corner cubies have three. Moreover, the six center cubies are really not cubical at all -- they are just square facades covering the tips of axles that sprout out from a sixfold spindle in the cube's heart. The other cubies, however, are nearly complete little cubes, except that each one has a blunt little "foot" reaching toward the middle of the cube, and some curved nicks facing inward.

The basic trick is that the cubies mutually hold one another in by means of their feet, without any cubie actually being attached to any other. Edge cubies hold corner cubies' feet, corner cubies hold edge cubies' feet. Center cubies are the keystones. As any layer, say the top one, rotates, it holds itself together horizontally, and is held in place vertically by its own center and by the equatorial layer below it. The equatorial layer has a sunken center track (formed by the nicks in its cubies) that guides the motion of the upper layer's feet and helps to hold the upper layer together. Unless you're a mechanical genius, you can't really understand this without a picture, or better yet, the real thing.


It is likely that many people will buy cubes, little suspecting the profound difficulty of the "basic mathematical problem". They will innocently turn four or five faces, and suddenly find themselves hopelessly lost. Then, perhaps frantically, they will begin turning face after face one way and then another, as it dawns on them that they have irretrievably lost something precious. When this first happened to me, it reminded me of how I felt as a small boy, when I accidentally let go of a toy balloon and helplessly watched it drift irretrievably into the sky.

It is a face that the cube can be randomized with just a few turns. Let that be a warning to the beginner. Many beginners try to claw their way back to START by first getting a single face done. Then, a bit stymied, they leave their partially solved cube lying around where a friend may spot it. The well known "Don't touch it!" syndrome sets in when the friend innocently picks it up and says, "What's this?" The would-be solver, terrified that all their hard-won progress will be destroyed, shrieks, "Don't touch it!" Ironically, victory can come only through a more flexible attitude allowing precisely that destruction.

In a postscript, Hofstadter adds:

I finally must confront the matter of the cube fad's passing. David Singmaster's Cubic Circular is going under after Volume 8. Many thousands of Megaminxes [a puzzle similar to a Rubik's Cube, but dodecahedral in shape] were melted down for their plastic. Uwe Meffert's puzzle club seems to have been a flop. The Skewb and many other wonderful objects I described never hit the stands. A few that did were almost immediately gone forever. So...have we seen the last of the Magic Cube? Are those cubes you bought going to be collector's items? Well, I am always loath to predict the future, but in this case I will make an exception. I am bullish on the cube. It seemed to seize the imagination wherever it went. Despite the line concluding my second cube column, the cubic fad finally did spill over into the Soviet Union.

In my opinion, the world simply overdosed on cube-mania for a while. We humans are now collectively sick of the cube, but our turned-off state won't last too long -- no more than it lasts when you tell yourself "I'll never eat spaghetti again!" after gorging on it. I predict that cubes will resurface slowly, here and there, and I am even hopeful that some new varieties will appear now and then. This is Mother Lode country. There may never again be quite the Gold Rush we witnessed a couple of years ago, but there's still plenty of gold in them thar hills!

I've just decided that I needed a Megaminx. Among other things, the shape of the dodechedron plays a role in the Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title) series.

Long live the Cube!

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

A Repost: "Whacking. I'm hell at whacking."

 A repost, published in 2008, on the occasion of Harrison Ford's 79th birthday. Ford has long been one of my absolute favorite actors.

Sheila waxes poetic on one of my favorite movies, Witness. (Yeah, I didn't rank it highly enough.) Here's Sheila:
Let's look at how delicately things are set up in this film - so much so that you don't notice them. John Book has recovered (somewhat) from his wound and Samuel Lapp takes him on a tour of the farm. He shows him the well. ("It goes ... it makes ... it goes ..." so cute) He shows him the silo and tells him how it works. He shows him the trap door. All of this will become crucial in the final scenes, as John Book sneaks around, trying to evade the murderers. But what becomes clear, beautifully, in subsequent viewings - is that it is SAMUEL who showed Book the way. It is SAMUEL who, innocently, gave John Book the tools for survival in those crucial end moments. And so the title of the film takes on even more meaning, more depth. WITNESS. "What's up there?" asks John Book. "Corn," answers Samuel. Notice the grace and simplicity of how that information is imparted. You might not even notice it. A lesser film would have just had John Book figuring out how the silo worked while he was under the gun (which is how so many thrillers operate - they ARE their plots. That's it.) ... but in Witness we are introduced, via Samuel, to "the way things work". And he's excited to show John Book around and to show him the well and also to show him how much he knows. It isn't until later that we realize what Samuel Lapp has done, in that innocent tour.

She's absolutely right. The exposition there is handled so well. Problems can often arise with this kind of thing, in movies like this; they've got to get that gun onto the mantle in Act One so it can go off in Act Three, but so many times, the filmmakers go overboard, making it blindingly obvious that they're setting up something for later. This quiet scene between Samuel and Book, where Sam's just showing Book around the farm, helps us get our bearings, and we never realize that we're being set up for the climax.

Done wrong, this sort of scene-setting stands out like a sore thumb. A perfect example is in James Cameron's Aliens, where we have that early scene where the one female Marine is demonstrating the robotic forklift-you-can-wear thing: there's never one iota of doubt that Ripley will be putting that thing on and using it as a weapon by film's end. That's just badly done. Of course, Cameron would later get it right in Titanic, where he knew that he would have to make clear to the audience what exactly was going on at each stage of the ship's sinking, but he also know that he couldn't stop the tension of Rose and Jack's harrowing exploits in the ship's water-filled lower decks to explain it all, so he gives us the computer simulation of the sinking early in the movie. We never have to stop the action so Jack can tell Rose something like "See, the ship is going down by the head, so the stern's going to rise up. I just hope the ship's hull can withstand that pressure, because if it can't, the ship will break in two!" Likewise, in Witness, we're spared John Book talking to himself (us), saying things like "This is a silo! I'll bet there's corn up there!"

Sheila's post also gives an appreciation for Harrison Ford's work in Witness, a performance that Ford has never since come close to equaling. His work in this film is as good an example of character creation as I've ever seen. There's not one moment in the film where Ford in the slightest way echoes something he did as Han Solo or Indiana Jones. His performance is full of tiny little touches, moments it's so easy to miss, that add up to John Book being a real person, and not just a guy on a screen. I commented over there as follows (fixing my own typos):

Every time I watch this film I get a little more sad that this appears to be the last time Harrison Ford really used his talent to great effect. His performance is full of so many little details. I love how, after Eli interrupts his dancing with Rachel, he heartbreakingly wipes the sweat of his forehead on his shoulder. I love how the first time he's handed a glass of lemonade (by Rachel) he downs the whole thing in one gulp, but the next time (by Hochleitner) he takes a single small sip and hands it back. I love how at the end, after he's beaten the bad guys and all the cops are there on the farm, he's standing there, leaning exhaustedly against a police car, having a much needed cigarette, when we haven't seen him smoke at all in the whole film to that point. I think that a good test for people I meet is to see if they give me a knowing smile when I tell them to "Be careful out among them English."

Of course, I could go on. I love the bashful smile that Rachel gives John Book when they're in the workshop and Book's working on fixing the birdhouse he'd earlier driven into. She's smiled at him politely before, usually with her lips, but this is different; she shows her teeth here in a full smile that's at once more revealing and yet more shy than she's been to that point. I think that's when she first starts realizing her attraction to Book, because of the line that accompanies that smile, a very simple observation on her part: "You know carpentry." In that moment I think that Book stops being something alien to her, some being almost literally from another world she can never know. I think that's where it starts. Witness really is full of tiny moments of magic that you don't even realize are there until you think about them.

On another tangent, a recent thread over at FSM included speculation on the relative lack of eroticism in the scores of John Williams. While only a couple of readers make the obvious point that John Williams really hasn't scored any movies much at all that would call for an erotic kind of tone, others bring up as an example of a "sexy" score Jerry Goldsmith's Basic Instinct. Now, that is a terrific thriller score, but I'm not sure how sexy it is. Basic Instinct, for all its kinky subject matter, just isn't sexy to me. In the whole of that film, with all its nudity and violent sex and infamous shots of Sharon Stone's privates, there is nothing at all that is nearly as erotic and beautiful and sexy as in Witness when John Book and Rachel Lapp dance in the barn to a golden oldie, with no clothing being removed at all.

(One of my favorite bits of trivia about Witness is that the barn dance was filmed during daylight in the middle of summer. Since it had to be night, the crew basically draped tarps over every entrance to the barn, thus creating the necessary darkness, but also making it really really hot in there; hence the sweating that only highlights the emotion of the moment.)

For me, just about the only flaw in Witness is the film's score, by Maurice Jarre. It was the mid-80s, and at the time Jarre was into heavy synthesizer use, and this score is just about entirely on synth, if not entirely outright. Some of the atmospheric music early on works nicely, but it's all mostly long chords that set a tone, and of course, the barn-raising scene is a wonderfully scored sequence. (When watching it, there's a bit early on where John Book introduces himself to a new group of Amish men he hasn't met before. The first one whose hand he shakes, the one in the light green shirt? That's a young Viggo Mortensen, there, fifteen years before he'd take up his role as Aragorn son of Arathorn, King of Gondor.) The score's "suspense" material is all fairly routine and a bit repetitive; none of the music hurts the film, but I've always thought that the film would have been better served with a more strong touch of melody, excepting that great barn raising set piece. (Speaking of which, "Building the Barn" is done brilliantly by full orchestra on the Jarre compilation album The Emotion and the Strength. You can listen to a different recording of that orchestral arrangement here. On a more personal note, this bit of music reminds me strongly of one of my favorite days of my recent years.)

Anyway, you all be careful, out among them English.

Tone Poem Tuesday

 This one I owe to YouTube, which served this up as a completely random suggestion based on however their algorithms work.

In 1950, conductor Arturo Toscanini had plans for a large-scale symphonic suite inspired by New York City, but he never got the project finished. Before the idea foundered, though, he commissioned a part of it from Duke Ellington, who is only one of the great jazz musicians of all time--in fact, Ellington might well be the greatest jazz musician of all time.

The result of this was a symphonic work titled, simply, Harlem. Ellington intended the work as a musical tour of Harlem, exploring its character through musical interludes and sonic pictures. The work is jazzy, obviously, but unmistakably urban in its sound, as it takes us from a bluesy beginning to bustling streetscapes to percussion dances to mournful funereal passages. It's quite a work, and I had never heard it until YouTube's algorithm suggested it to me.

This performance is by my own local band, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Here is Duke Ellington's Harlem.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Round about we go....

 OK, here's a question regarding driving behavior and roundabouts: Do you use your turn signal when entering one?

But before I get to that, let me just note that I love roundabouts. I find them civilized and much less prone to idiotic bullshit than your typical 4-way intersection. There's no running red lights, and there are no pesky left turns which always gum things up. Studies a-plenty have demonstrated that roundabouts are not only safer (producing far fewer accidents per capita than standard intersections), they also move more traffic through an intersection in a given time than lights or the combination of four-way stops and relying on people to know the right-of-way rules will.

(On that last topic: People suck at right-of-way these days, and it's only getting worse. What happens at YIELD signs always irritates me: if you have no sign and I'm sitting at a YIELD, what happens is YOU GO, and I wait until you've passed to do anything. What is not supposed to happen is you coming to a complete stop and waving at me to go. The same similar thing happens at 4-way stops all the time. If two cars arrive at the same time, the one on the right is supposed to go. What actually happens, if I'm the car on the left, is that the nitwit on the right starts waving at me to go. This shit drives me crazy and my approach is to ignore the waving and look the other way until they go. But anyway, back to roundabouts.)

I see more and more roundabouts in my travels these days. There's been on in the village of East Aurora for years, and now there are several in the village of Hamburg (more on that below). I've even learned, via Facebook, that my old hometown of Olean has several roundabouts in its downtown! I'm sure this went over very poorly down there, just from what I remember of that city's denizens: it's a very conservative area that tends to be deeply resistant to change. Sure enough, a Facebook group I occasionally check out about Olean's history had a thread recently about the roundabouts, and there was comment after comment to the effect of "I HATE THE ROUNDABOUTS!" And one fellow actually said my favorite talking point when people want to resist change: "Roundabouts work great in Europe, but they're not for Americans!"

I always wonder just why such people think that "Americans are too dumb and/or stuck in their ways to do anything new at all, ever" is such a virtue, but again, I digress.

So, back to the roundabouts in Hamburg. There's one right in the village core, and as we travel to Hamburg every week for a trip to a bakery there and to the Farmers Market in the summer months, we go through this roundabout more than any other. On this past Saturday we drove through there, and something odd happened. Here, via Google Maps, is the roundabout in question:

We were at the spot labeled B in the pic, heading west, into the village. Ahead of us was another car (who had already done a couple of confusing things, which made all this stand out in my head). This car was at position A, just about to enter the roundabout and therefore bear right, when they turned on their left turn signal. This is because they were heading for position C.

And I thought, "What the hell are they signaling for?!"

Now, I can see the logic, sort-of. If this was a 4-way intersection with a light or STOP signs, the driver at A would have been making a left turn, hence the left signal. But this is not a 4-way intersection! It's a roundabout, and since it keeps traffic moving at all times and since each act of exiting is a right turn, I maintain that there is no need to signal at all when negotiating the roundabout, no matter which way you're going. If you're in front of me in a roundabout, it does not make any difference at all where you're turning. There are only two possibilities in a roundabout: exit, or keep going around. Which one you're doing at each exit point does not matter to me at all. There is nothing for me to do with that information.

What say you, folks? Am I all wet (and guilty possibly of crappy driving)? Should I be signaling my way into and through the roundabout?

(Note that this is only about this kind of roundabout, not the more complex ones you find in larger cities where there are things to contend with like lane changes.)

Friday, July 09, 2021

From the Books: SEASONS OF A FINGER LAKES WINERY (On Geography in fiction and elsewhere)

 I'm reading a book right now called Seasons of a Finger Lakes Winery, by John C. Hartsock. The book is just that: a year in the life of a single winery in New York's Finger Lakes region, a place where wine and winemaking have become a major industry and a vital part of the tourist trade there. I'll have more to say about the book later on (I'm greatly enjoying it!), but for now I want to highlight this lovely passage that captures some of the geographical appeal of the region for me.

I've enjoyed the Finger Lakes ever since the first time I visited them as a not-quite-ten-year-old kid when we moved to New York, but over the last fifteen years or so that region has become my dream place. If I were suddenly gifted enough financial resource to live any place on Earth, I would live among the Finger Lakes: maybe on the shores of Cayuga Lake near Ithaca, or perhaps on Seneca Lake up by Geneva, or maybe along Canandaigua or even a small cottage on one of the smaller lakes, like Honeoye or Conesus. I've been reading a bit about the Finger Lakes, off and on over the last couple of years, as research and story-fodder for a story sequence that I'd like to write one day, and this passage is from one of those books.

In this passage, Gary and Rosie--the owners of the winery on which the book focuses--are taking a day off from their winery operations, which are on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, to visit a different winery, which is on the western shore of Keuka Lake. As the crow flies, the distance is maybe fifty miles. The driving distance is at least seventy miles, depending on route, and a lot of that is two-lane roads.

Here is our author:

From Ithaca they turned west to Watkins Glen. It's one of the anomalies of travel in this part of the world that most through roads generally run north to south because the lie of the lakes is north-south. If you could go due west the trip might be cut to forty-five minutes. But there were those lakes, a mile to two miles wide and up to thirty-five miles long that you had no choice but to drive around. In certain place names you can detect references to a long-ago ferry, such as King Ferry. But the days when farmers ferried their teams of horses and wagons loaded with produce across the lakes were long gone. The result is that today, with the automobile, most of your travel is north-south, with occasional short jogs east-west between the lakes. This was particularly true because of Cayuga and Seneca Lakes, the two largest and longest of the Finger Lakes. But it was also true of the other Finger Lakes--Owasco, Skaneateles, Keuka (the crooked lake shaped like a Y), and Canandaigua. Then there are a number of smaller lakes. Glaciation had decreed the north-south disposition, and in losing the east-west orientation you lost your bearings--travelers bypassed the region. The result was that the necks of land between the lakes seemed forgotten by time. One could see it in villages such as Mecklenburg, where houses had weathered to a washed-out gray from lack of paint. This region is, after all, the home of the original Podunk (just northwest of Ithaca), which is little more than an empty crossroad.

This is all quite true. New York is in two distinct parts: a region that spans farther north-to-south than it does east-to-west, at the top of which is Lake Champlain and at the bottom of which is New York City. This region tapers toward the long, somewhat narrow region that extends several hundred miles east-to-west but is only maybe about a hundred to a hundred twenty miles wide at its widest. Here you find cities along the northern portion: Syracuse, Rochester, Batavia, Buffalo; and you also find smaller cities along what's called the Southern Tier, the counties that border Pennsylvania: Binghamton, Elmira, Corning, Olean, Jamestown.

And for about 75 miles in the middle, between the two tiers, is a sequence of eleven long, narrow, and deep lakes formed millennia ago by the glaciers that spread over New York and then retreated. These lakes, the Finger Lakes, make it so that for a large chunk of the middle portion of the state, east-west travel means going north and then south again, or vice-versa. You can drive straight across the state from Jamestown to Binghamton, and you can do the same thing from Buffalo to Albany...but if you want to drive a straight line from Dunkirk to Cortland? It's not going to happen, because of the lakes and their deep valleys. (And also the deep canyon of Letchworth State Park, which might be a Finger Lake that didn't work out because the Genessee River broke through and remained a river, instead of filling its canyon.)

When you read about the growth of the wine industry in the Finger Lakes, one word that always turns up is microclimate: the individual lakes, by the nature of their length and depth as well as the depth of their individual valleys (there are places where the vistas above the Finger Lakes put me in mind of pictures I've seen of the lochs of the Scottish Highlands), create very small regions where the climate is perfect for certain grape varietals. That climate vanishes just a few miles away in any direction, but amongst the lakes? Especially the bigger ones? That's where the lay of this relatively small portion of land makes magic happen.

With microclimate in mind, I would coin another word: microcharacter. Each lake feels like it is its own world in itself, and even though one lake is just a few miles from the next, there is always something rather unique about each one, and when you drive straight from one to the next, your course takes you up, up, up over a long rise--and then you crest and you know you've left that lake behind and are descending down, down, down to the next one. Every year when we travel to Ithaca we take one of these routes back at the end of the day, and since this annual trip is one of my most beloved rituals, it's when we crest the rise from the Cayuga Lake valley and cross over into the Seneca Lake valley that I'm always saddest. That's when I know that the day is over and that Ithaca is behind me for another year.

As a writer, this affect of the directions of the lakes is an important one as well, because this shows perfectly how geography affects character of a place. The nature of the land in the Finger Lakes region pretty much makes it impossible for an Interstate Highway to go through there: there isn't even a north-south Interstate through the Finger Lakes, much less an east-west one. Interstate 390 runs from Rochester south, skirting the western edge of the Finger Lakes region; to the east, Interstate 81 runs from Binghamton to Syracuse (and beyond). Ithaca lies entirely off the Interstate Highway system, and it's all the better off for that, I think. Could there be Interstates through the Finger Lakes? I suppose there could, but the question then would be...why? What would be gained from running, say, Interstate 286 from Owego northward to Auburn? Or a similar stretch from Corning, snaking between Keuka and Seneca Lakes, to I-90 someplace between Canandaigua and Geneva? And an east-west route between Geneseo and Cortland would be pointless, even setting aside the huge expense of constructing a series of really ugly concrete bridges across seven Finger Lakes.

Hartsock is right when he notes the "lost in time" feel of all the little villages in the Finger Lakes region, and he's astute in noting why. One thing you notice when driving through the region is lots of train tracks: there used to be a lot of railroading through the Finger Lakes, but even that has slowed to a crawl, and some of the railbeds are being converted into walking trails. Again the geography shapes the region: the ever-ongoing speedening-up of commerce of the last century has largely left behind a region where the land itself acts as barrier to commerce. I do drive through all of those towns, not just the ones between the Lakes but the old rail towns north of them, with a sense that it's a shame the world has left them in the dust, and a wish that they could capture a bit of their old prosperity again...but not too much. After all, if things get too rich, that's when powerful people far away start looking at maps and seeing things like roads that aren't there.

So, fiction writers (I'm talking about fantasy and SF writers here, who are working in made-up worlds) should think in terms not just of how geography affects things like commerce and trade and wars, but how geography affects a region's entire character. What's it like to be a young kid in a town that has gone several generations since the last trains ran? How does it feel to live in a village that was hewn from a rocky ravine more than two hundred years ago and watch the entire world heating up while your seasons remain pretty much the same?

And what's it like to live in a place like that and make your living doing something that requires huge investments of time in a world that values investments of time less and less?

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Diggin' Up Bones (#AmWriting)

 The other day I was looking for something completely different in my archives, and I found a post from July 2010, eleven years ago:

I haven't talked about writing in a while, so here's a brief note about it. My main energy lately has been going to the space opera project I've had in my head for seven or eight years now; it's an idea that's been kicking around and kicking around and kicking around, until I finally decided that hell, it was just time to start writing the thing. The entire long-form story involves two princesses from some planet who leave their world to take their first trip to the Galactic Capital, or something like that. But on the way, their starship experiences some [ahem] technical difficulties and they end up on a strange planet they've never heard of before.

All the set-up and such took me through eight chapters, all well and good. All the while I've maintained two files, in which I keep lists of my characters as I introduce them (or merely mention them), and lists of the locations I either use or mention. This way I'm not scrounging about later, wondering what star systems I needed names for, or who lives where, that sort of thing. I'm not one to make big encyclopedia-type profiles for my characters -- my theory is that if the character's favorite movie or preferred sleepwear comes up in the course of the story, my character will fill in the blanks when we get to that point -- but I do want to be able to keep things straight.

So anyway, my two princesses have just arrived on Planet Whosis, which is ruled by A Guy, who has A Son.

And I don't have names for any of them. Not the Planet, not the Guy, not the Son (actually, I do have a name for the Son), not the Possibly Evil Councillor, not the Leader of the Rebel Faction, and certainly not the Odd Looking But Extremely Lethal Weapon They Use On This Planet.

As far as I can tell, this is the first time I mentioned in this space the writing project that became Stardancer. At this point I didn't have a title for that book, and I certainly didn't have a title for the entire series! I didn't come up with The Song of Forgotten Stars until not long before I had to have the book ready for publishing. At this point I had my main characters: Tariana, Margeth, and Lt. Rasharri, and not much else. Tariana's name was actually Tarina at first, but I didn't like the way that sounded so I added the extra vowel syllable. I seem to recall modifying Lt. Rasharri's name in some way, but I don't recall exactly how.

At that point I had the basic scenario down, but one set of character relationships didn't work at first, so I had to make some significant changes, making Prince Joskin not the son of the actual mad King but of the son of the mad King's brother...and at this point I had no idea that Master Gharanas, who was just a guy who showed up at one point where I needed a hot-tempered young man to burst angrily onto the scene, would stick around as the story's single most important male character and eventual love interest to Princess Tariana.

Now I'm writing the fifth book in this series, this many years later, and looking back at the very beginning feels...interesting. It's like looking at something that's familiar but isn't quite a memory, if that makes any sense. And to think that the main idea for The Song of Forgotten Stars actually came to me ten years before that....

Something for Thursday

 Here's a deep cut from a classic musical! Singin' in the Rain would be my favorite musical of all time if not for My Fair Lady, and like all the greatest musicals, it is packed with songs and numbers, some of which are classics in their own right. But there are several other numbers in the film that aren't as well-known, for one reason or another. One of these is the "Beautiful Girl Montage".

This number appears in the film just after the silent film industry has been absolutely rocked by the first "talkie", The Jazz Singer, which is forcing all of the studios to adapt to the new sound format. Among other things, the arrival of sound in motion pictures kick-started the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical, which this montage illustrates. But after a brief montage in which several songs ("I've Got a Feeling You're Fooling", "The Wedding of the Painted Doll", and "Shall I?") are mashed together (mash-ups aren't at all new!) in a pretty frantic, zippy sequence before the tempo slows and we settle into a single number: "Beautiful Girl".

In the film, "Beautiful Girl" is a number that is being shot for a new movie by the studio that our main characters work for. It's kind of an odd-duck of a number that features exactly none of the main leads, except for Debbie Reynolds, who is in the number only as one of the "girls" who looks adoringly at the guy who sings the song (who is only seen in the film long enough to perform this number).

As for "the guy who sings the song", he's an actor named Jimmy Thompson who seems to have had very little by way of a career. He had thirteen credits, the biggest one probably as one of the crewmen in Forbidden Planet. He would show up in another Gene Kelly musical, Brigadoon, but for his one big number there, "I'll Go Home With Bonnie Jean," his voice was dubbed. Come to that, I don't know if he was also dubbed for "Beautiful Girl", in which he seems to have a bigger, actually impressive voice.

"Beautiful Girl" is not one of the more popular numbers from Singin' in the Rain, but I've always loved it as a bit of scene-setting and world-building, with its 1920s aesthetic. It doesn't really move things along other than to provide and in-universe reason for Debbie Reynolds's Kathy Selden to be in the same place as Gene Kelly's Don Lockwood, but so what? I've never been one to insist that the plot must be advanced at all moments. Plus, I love some of the wordplay in this song and it's swinging tune.

Here's the "Beautiful Girl Montage" from Singin' in the Rain.

Wednesday, July 07, 2021


 When I was a kid and my mother's family still lived in the Pittsburgh area, we would obviously go to visit on occasion, which meant a lot of driving through that city. If you've never been to Pittsburgh, it's a very hilly place, and when it came time to build expressways through the region, this involved the construction of tunnels, some of which are quite long indeed. There are two very well-known tunnels around Pittsburgh, one through the Fort Pitt hill and another through Squirrel Hill. The video below takes you from the Fort Pitt Tunnel all the way to the Squirrel Hill one.

We made this drive a lot when I was young. My grandmother and my uncle lived in one of the eastern suburbs, which made this stretch of road a necessary jaunt when we went downtown and back again. Later, when my sister was in college in Pittsburgh, we'd still make this drive occasionally. Those tunnels were always very exciting. We drove through the Squirrel Hill tunnel a lot more often than we did the Fort Pitt one, but that Fort Pitt Tunnel is very exciting if you're northbound, because as soon as you emerge from the tunnel and into the light, there before you is the entire city of Pittsburgh, just across the Monongahela River. Then, if you're on your way to Monroeville and points east, you cross the river and turn right, following the Monongahela a bit longer before the river turns away to the south. Eventually you get to the tunnel under Squirrel Hill.

Pittsburgh is an exciting town to drive through, as this video shows. I like that there are videos like this! I've no idea when I'll get to Pittsburgh again, but for now, this video brings up some happy memories.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Tone Poem Tuesday

 There's a quote by composer Gustav Holst that strongly resonates with me:

If nobody likes your work, you have to go on just for the sake of the work. And you're in no danger of letting the public make you repeat yourself. Every artist ought to pray that he may not be 'a success'. If he's a failure he stands a good chance of concentrating upon the best work of which he's capable.

Those words come to mind as I consider the work of American Modernist composer Charles Ives. For much of his life his music was completely ignored, and thus he was able to toil on his own, following his own interests and go where his own ears took him. By the time his work began to gain some renown, Ives had produced some of the more shockingly original music of the 20th century, all by following his own guiding light. Ives lived to the age of 79, but he stopped composing almost entirely in his early 50s, for reasons that have led to much speculation. He did live long enough to see his work gain acceptance, though, as he finished out his working career not as a musician but as an insurance agent.

Ives is always an interesting listen, though he unquestioningly, unhesitatingly, and unapologetically puts unusual demands on the listener. This was very much a part of his character. He once said "I don't write music for sissy ears," and he responded to another audience member's distaste for a dissonant work with a caustic rejoinder: "Stop being such a goddamned sissy! Why can't you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?"

I haven't heard a great deal of Ives, but he is always fascinating and, indeed, moving. His work stands outside most of the traditions of his time: he is certainly not a jazzman, though he does incorporate popular songs here and there, nor is he exactly an atonalist, though he does experiment with alternate tonalities and things like quartertones.

The piece I feature here is a chamber work called Central Park in the Dark, and it's one of Ives's early works, written when he was just thirty-two. It starts as an atmospheric piece of tone-painting, but it becomes more and more raucous to the point of sheer cacophony, and we hear snatches of popular song and general noise. Of this piece, Ives himself wrote:

This piece purports to be a picture-in-sounds of the sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear some thirty or so years ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air), when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night....The strings represent the night sounds and silent darkness – interrupted by sounds from the Casino over the pond – of street singers coming up from the Circle singing, in spots, the tunes of those days – of some "night owls" from Healy's whistling the latest of the Freshman March – the "occasional elevated", a street parade, or a "break-down" in the distance – of newsboys crying "uxtries" – of pianolas having a ragtime war in the apartment house "over the garden wall", a street car and a street band join in the chorus – a fire engine, a cab horse runs away, lands "over the fence and out", the wayfarers shout – again the darkness is heard – an echo over the pond – and we walk home.

This is what Charles Ives was composing in 1906. By way of context, George Gershwin was only eight years old at this point, and Igor Stravinsky was still seven years away from premiering the work of his that would hit the musical world like a lightning bolt of intense Modernism, The Rite of Spring.

Here is Central Park in the Dark by Charles Ives.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Seven Four Twenty One

 As another Independence Day arrives, I find myself increasingly unable to really understand what's happening in America. I find myself these days oddly optimistic about the future of humanity, but a good deal less so about my country.

Here's a piece I just saw for the first time this morning. It was written last September, before the election, but you don't have to change many words to make it relevant for this day, today, this morning.

From "A New American Manifesto":

From the People of the United States of America: From time to time in human societies, things get so bad with the governments that we set up that we have to take a step back, stop being citizens of that government and just be basic humans again, loyal only to the primary needs of humanity. This is one of those times and it’s only fair if we are going to take such a drastic step, that we first explain why. We owe everybody that.

First of all, we start by taking for granted that nobody’s life should matter more than anyone else’s. Everyone should have the right to live their life without people oppressing them. At minimum everyone should have the right to live. Nobody should be prevented from moving around freely or doing whatever they want as long as they are not causing harm to someone else. More than that, every human has the right to seek out things that bring them joy.

These are basic things that humans need.

The whole reason we create governments is so that communities can come together and agree among themselves to set up structures that make sure that ALL the humans among them have access to these fundamental needs. If the structure that they set up stops functioning properly, if it becomes corrupted, if it stops serving the needs of the people, then it is critical that those humans be allowed to dismantle that structure in order to build one that does a better job. They need to be allowed to create new structures that are better at keeping them safe and happy.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Not unlike a similar missive, written in ink on parchment, and signed two hundred and forty-five years ago by a gathering of wealthy white men in Philadelphia. Later, some of those same men would gather to bang out some ideas for how to go about forming a more perfect union. Imperfect men, imperfectly representative of their new nation, doing incomplete work in forming a nation that somehow always feels...incomplete.

Well, that's America, and we do still have it in ourselves to make a more perfect union. 

This is a harder and harder country to love, but hope still flickers. A little, anyway.

Flicker on, America. Flicker on....

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Friday, July 02, 2021

Something for Thursday (Friday edition)

 Maybe I should just start calling this feature "Something for Friday"...but then I'll start screwing it up and it'll just become "Something for Friday (Saturday edition)", so why not stick with what's kinda-sorta working...

...anyway, here's a song by Taylor Swift, because I think Taylor Swift is awesome and so should you. This is a recording of one of my favorite songs of hers, and one of her first big mega-hits, though this particular version is the newer version that she re-recorded this year in her ongoing bid to reclaim control of the rights to her own music. (It's all a mess, but apparently some other schlub owns the rights to her first bunch of albums, but as she is the singer-songwriter of the songs, she retains recording and performance rights for the songs themselves, so she's hit on the elegant solution of simply re-recording all her old material anew.)

Here's "Love Story (Taylor's Version)" by Taylor Swift.