Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ross & Iverson On Broadway: Rockin' The Glass Canyon

Very glad I happened to see the last-minute announcement that Alex Ross and Ethan Iverson were doing their program on twentieth century music (mostly classical, some jazz) at the Upper West Side Apple Store last night.  It's a simple format: Ross reads from his book (which I, shamefully, have not yet purchased despite getting the highest recommendations of it from multiple sources) and Iverson plays pieces by the composers being discussed.  Surprisingly, Ross is something of a ham onstage (doing voices when reading quotations, employing props), which, in combination with his wry humor (I'll pass on the obvious pun lurking in this sentence) and the piano accompaniment gave the event something of an "educational vaudeville" feel.  If you weren't there, you'll have to take my word that it was much better than that description makes it sound (actually, I think it was being recorded, so you might get the chance to hear for yourself). 

Of the piano pieces, all performed flawlessly by Iverson on a Steinway (at least they sounded flawless - I'm certainly not qualified to assess the accuracy of anyone's playing of the 20th-century classical repertoire - if nothing else, though, this program certainly proves Iverson's versatility as a pianist - from the "Spanish Tinge" to 12-tone), the highlight for me was probably the "Alcotts" movement from Charles Ives' Concord Sonata.  A moving, deeply dug-in performance that snuck up on me and delivered a big clout.  It was also great to hear Iverson improvise on Charlie Parker's "Moose the Mooche" as an encore.  Apparently, he typically plays it as-written, as he does with Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Blues", when performing with Ross. 

One quick note on the sound:
The Apple Store was clearly designed as an electronics showroom, not a concert hall.  I had to strain a bit to catch everything Ross was saying and I'm sure some of the nuances of Iverson's playing were lost, but I was annoyed when I saw someone approach the sound man to complain during the performance.  I don't know that much about live sound, but with the cavernous, highly reflective space and less-than-state-of-the-art sound system he had to work with, the guy was probably making a heroic effort to make things as clear as they were.
Bonus Links
Iverson's comments on the individual pieces are here, and Ross' reports from the duo's earlier appearances can be found here.

Once Again, I Am Befuddled By The Modern World

"Trailers" for books is enough of a thing now that somebody is giving out awards for them?  At an actual awards ceremony?  I've never even watched one of these things.  When I see the words "book trailer", I picture something like this or this (the last one is really more of a "book truck", I guess).  I have no idea what's going on anymore. [via HTMLGiant]

Saturday, April 24, 2010

On First Looking Into Thomson's Have You Seen

I picked up a cheap, mint hardcover copy of David Thomson's Have You Seen...? at the Housing Works bookstore the other night.  I began casually paging through it after I got home, and the next thing I knew, a couple of hours had gone by.  The same thing has happened to me many times with Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of FilmHave You Seen...? (subtitled "A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films") is perhaps a more conventional film book than the Dictionary, being an alphabetized collection of capsule review/essays, at least superficially similar to the ones many other critics have published.  Thomson's style is unmistakable, though.  While he occasionally produces a sentence that leaves me stumped, even after multiple readings, the condensed format generally keeps Thomson sharp and critically focused, while allowing him to show off his mastery of the pithy summation. Many of the entries, in both books, end with a well tuned, instantly memorable line (on Audrey Hepburn: "...Audrey - in eyes, voice, and purity - rang as true as a small silver bell. The great women of the fifties had a character that is in short supply now."; Eyes Wide Shut: "It is a shock to find that the film is only 159 minutes. Every frame feels like a prison"; or his most succinct tagline of all, re: His Girl Friday: "Bliss").

Hopefully, Thomson will get the chance to revise and perhaps extend Have You Seen...? as he's done with the Dictionary (currently in its fourth edition), but even in its current form it's great fun, the one-page-per-movie format yielding some wonderful juxtapositions (part of Thomson's plan, as he explains in the introduction), perhaps none better than Bringing Up Baby opposite Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (imagine those two movies mashed together every time the book is closed!).

One remarkable piece of trivia gleaned from Have You Seen...?:  
Sunset Boulevard and In a Lonely Place, arguably the two finest "dark side of Hollywood" movies, came out in the same year, 1950.  I say "arguably" because I think Mulholland Drive (or to be accurate, Mulholland Dr., a fine distinction Thomson makes a lot of) deserves to be considered a peer of those two films.  Before seeing In a Lonely Place, I thought of Mulholland as, among other things, a kind of homage to Sunset Boulevard, but in fact it has echoes of/affinities with both earlier films.  And what's this I hear about Lynch planning a sequel?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Ever-Popular Authenticity (T)Rap

The Awl brought my attention to this Joni Mitchell quote:

"Bob [Dylan] is not authentic at all. He's a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I."

from this recent interview.

It's not clear to me whether she means this as a criticism, a compliment (doesn't seem like it), or just a neutral statement of fact, but to me, Dylan's "un-authenticity" is a key feature of his art and the main thing that makes him an inspiring figure - the kid from Nowhere, Minnesota who transformed himself into this (and this).

Two other things that caught my eye in the interview:

Joni Mitchell has 40 different tunings?!?

How did I never realize that the dude on the cover of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is Joni?!?  So obvious in retrospect. 

And speaking of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter:
If I was Robert Christgau (who didn't like it very much), I would say that the "Choice Cuts" are "Dreamland" and "The Silky Veils of Ardor".  Just so you know.

The Word For Today... Murgatroyd.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Quote of the Day - Burden of Dreams

"I was sick all day, and then the fever began to subside.  I had received another telex, monosyllabic, saying it was the twilight of the gods, and I knew who had sent it and what the code meant." 

- Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Another Slog Over The Same Bloody Ground

My text for today is this article that uses the latest Confederate history flap as an excuse for a refresher course on the causes of the Civil War, why secession happened, etc. [Warning: this is a long one, maybe the longest thing I've ever posted here.]

I suppose the deliberately provocative title of the article is asking for these kinds of responses, but I got a little depressed reading the comments section (actually, a lot of comments sections have that effect on me these days).  145 years on, people have not grown tired of arguing about the causes of the Civil War.  I'm not sure if that's a healthy thing or a troubling sign of ignorance or division, but I hate to see the argument being conducted in crude, contemporary "liberal vs. conservative" terms (indeed, there seems to be nothing that cannot be discussed in these terms [via]).  Isn't it possible to be a "conservative" in contemporary political terms while also believing that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War, the election of a President with anti-slavery views was the trigger for secession, and that the preservation of the slave-based system of agricultural production was both the goal of secession and, whether they knew it or liked it, the underlying "cause" that the brave-but-doomed Confederate soldiers were fighting for?  (One example of why the answer to that question is "yes, it is possible")

High school history classes, popular histories, movies, and TV documentaries inevitably focus on the events of the war itself - the sequence of battles, the parade of generals, the charges and retreats - mostly ignoring the crucial years leading up to and following the war.  These are the controversial periods and the ones most people are either ignorant of or harbor strange notions about.  I've seen Ken Burns' Civil War probably twice through, at least, but when I started reading up on the periods before and after the war, I realized I didn't know shit about shit.  The text of the Lincoln-Douglas debates are an education in themselves - and they're all online.  Another must-read primary source document is Confederate VP Alexander Stephens' "Cornerstone Speech" of 1861 (from the brief period between secession and the start of serious fighting), which contains the following choice nuggets:

"The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution -- African slavery as it exists amongst us -- the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution."

"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth" 

(Also check out Stephens backpedaling from these statements in 1865.  At that time, he still maintained that "slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession", but tried to lay the blame on northern states' refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law.  Even today, considerable intellectual effort is spent trying to soften the edges of Stephens' words, to make a case that they're something less than they appear to be.)

The obvious question for a civic-minded person to ask in considering these ongoing Civil War controversies: if we can't agree on this stuff, 145 years later, how can we hope to reach anything close to a consensus on the not insignificant issues of our own time?  [Insert your own thoughts on blue/red polarization, enclaves, self-segregation based on education level and political affiliation HERE]  Some of the reasons people have for continuing to deny (or at least massage/spin) the fact that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War are easy to understand, and even to sympathize with.  I can understand why a Southerner, especially one whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy, would not want to believe or admit that his state and his ancestors were fighting on the side of slavery.  And why they wouldn't want to feel that they were being lectured by Northern "liberals" on what to believe about "their" history, or worse, being called (implicitly or explicitly) racists for the nth time.

While I do believe that there are right and wrong, true and false answers to these historical questions, I admit that many of them are not as clear-cut as those on both sides sometimes make them out to be.  The statement "slavery was and is wrong" is, thank God, generally agreed to be true.  While I believe the statement "slavery was the root cause of the Civil War" to also be true, parsing it requires a degree of nuance that the previous statement does not.  It's one of those statements, like "Lincoln freed the slaves", that lends itself to the following "arc of understanding" (I think I just made that up):

1. School children and people relying on a purely "received", shorthand knowledge of history believe the statement to be unquestionably true.
2. Some people, when they acquire a bit more information or discuss the question with "better informed" friends, begin to question the statement.  They believe they've learned that "a lot of the stuff you learn in school is wrong" and that they have pierced the veil of untruth, a veil woven by those with political or ideological agendas. People in this stage of the "understanding arc" will often exhort those who disagree with their half-informed beliefs to "read some history" when posting internet comments.
3. A further reading of history, especially primary source documents, reveals that the original statement is true, though perhaps not in the way it is commonly understood to be.  For example, it is true that the Emancipation Proclamation did not completely abolish slavery in the United States.  A constitutional amendment was required to finish the job, something Lincoln successfully pushed for in the last year of his life.  So, while emancipation was not the work of one man alone, no man was more responsible for it than Lincoln.

Likewise, slavery was not the only cause of the war.  Other states'-rights-related issues entered in, but the issue of slavery was so pervasive in the politics of the period, so entangled with every other dispute between North and South, as to be unquestionably the issue that caused the "rupture".  It's true that once the first shots were fired, the Union was fighting primarily to hold the nation together and the Confederacy was fighting for its independence, but slavery was, as Stephens said it was (quoting Jefferson's prediction), "the rock upon which the old Union would split".

While I consider the "root cause" issue to be historically settled, I think there are more troubling and difficult questions to be asked about the Civil War: was the cost, in all senses, of preserving the Union worth it?  Should Lincoln have let the Confederacy go, allowed them to split off and form their own nation?  If he could have somehow known in advance how many hundreds of thousands would die, the extent of the suffering that would be inflicted, would he still have fought the war?  It's easy to assume we know the answers to these questions, but I sometimes have my doubts. 

We're living in a time when information is more readily and widely available than ever before, and in spite of (or because of) this, people seem to be just as susceptible to crackpot theories that play to their existing prejudices and fears as they were in the 1860s.  The "Birther" "movement" is just the great-great-grandbaby of the "Abe Lincoln is John C. Calhoun's illegitimate son" meme (which is still alive and kicking!).  We're also living in a time when secession is a semi-serious political issue in Texas, and Oklahoma legislators are trying to start a state-sanctioned private militia to defend the state from the power-usurping, 10th Amendment-violating federal government.  I'm not saying this is the 1850s all over again - far from it - but I think I'd feel more hope for the future if we had a common understanding of what happened in the 19th century to use as a foundation for our civic discussions in the 21st.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Two Things Found In Barthelme's 40 Stories

Not long after reading this 2001 Harper's piece attempting (in a half-serious, half-fanciful way) to link Donald Barthelme with the Dan Rather "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" incident using "clues" from Barthelme's stories (and some biographical overlap between Barthelme and Rather), I came across something that I couldn't believe Paul Limbert Allman, the author of the piece, had missed.  Allman mentions the famous "Courage" signoff that Rather adopted for a brief period in September 1986, a few weeks before the "Frequency" incident, but doesn't cite this passage from Barthelme's "The Catechist":

He reads: "A disappointing experience: the inadequacy of language to express thought. But let the catechist take courage." He closes the book. 
I think: courage.

The inadequacy of language to express thought.  If, in fact, Rather's attackers were attempting to convey a message to him in some kind of Barthelme code, perhaps Rather's "Courage" served as a (unintentional?) "trigger word".  Wheels within wheels...

In the story "110 West Sixty-first Street", there is a black man named Tiger who only sleeps with white women.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Loaded For Deer

Roger Ebert + Russ Meyer + Malcolm McLaren + The Sex Pistols = !?!?!?!?!?!!!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Two Things I Enjoyed From The Final Round Of The Masters

Besides the exciting golf action (really, it was):

1. Anthony Kim's belt buckle

2. Nick Faldo's use (coinage?) of the term "synchro-destiny" to describe a piece of pine detritus falling into the path of Phil Mickelson's putted ball and sending it offline

Friday, April 9, 2010

On Around, or The Selected Ballads' Most Boring Post Yet

I'm on board with the idea that a language needs to evolve.  Usage is fluid.  That doesn't mean there shouldn't be rules or guidelines (see this David Foster Wallace piece for a heroically thorough discussion of this topic), but I'm no fan of language pedantry.

All that being said, I'm a little puzzled by the way the word "around" is being used these days as a weirdly vague substitute for "about", "on", or "concerning", often from guest "experts" on TV news shows.  It's almost as if the new usage was rolled out a few years ago at some kind of academic or corporate-speak seminar.  I'm not sure why this bothers me, but when I hear "around" used in this way, it sounds like a clanging, out-of-tune note in an otherwise innocuous sentence.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I couldn't find anything on the web about this, with the exception of these two posts on a New Zealand-based professional writing/editing site.  The examples they give ("new legislation around", etc) are exactly the kind of thing I'm thinking of, so if you're trying to figure out what in God's name I'm talking about, just follow the links.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Three Quick Things

I know a lot of guys my age are saying this, but I can't believe I'm going to watch someone younger than me coaching in the NCAA Finals tonight.

Since everyone loves statistics, it's my pleasure to point out that Albert Pujols is currently batting .800 and has homered in 40% of his at-bats so far this season.

And finally, this non-sports-related thing (unless you consider punk rock a sport), which may have been influenced by this (both groups were Australian), but far, far surpasses it.  Harder doesn't always mean better, but in this case it does.  I won't go so far as to say that either of them outdoes the majesty of the original, however.  This (unfortunately lo-fi) live document is also pretty darn good, a very rare instance of an "all-star jam" that doesn't suck.  Nilsson's version ain't bad either.  And, if you want to throw up in your mouth, there's also this very sassy version (seriously, don't click on this if you've just eaten).